It’s an Order
How much time have you spent with young children? Enough to know that they
can turn into little tyrants in the blink of an eye? Yes, without the proper
guidance, they easily come to believe that the entire world revolves around them.
Their wants become their needs, and there is absolutely no distinction between
those two things. Never mind the fact that the children right next to them may
have their sights fixed on the very same thing. It doesn’t matter. In that moment,
that child has become a world of one. Unless we direct them – unless we
command them – they will never grow into the adults whom they need to become.
“Little children.” It’s a way that I have chosen to speak to and about the twelve
who follow me. It isn’t always a term of endearment. Often, it’s a clear-eyed
term of discernment. So many times they have acted like little children –
bickering, backbiting, badmouthing children. There was the time, on the road,
when they got into a heated argument over who among them was the greatest.
And then there was the time when James and John tried to cut a private deal with
me that would assure their prominence in the group as my right and left hand men.
James and John, the Thunder twins are always quick to explode in anger. But
they aren’t the only ones to suffer from that affliction. Nearly all of my Galilean
followers are like that. Three of them have not even tried to hide their passions
for the Zealot insurrectionist cause. Simon has been the clearest on this score, but
Judas the brother of James also has harbored violent Zealot passions. Judas
Iscariot, as well. I sense that Iscariot, in particular, hopes that I will draw the
insurrectionists to me and ignite a nationwide war against the Romans. Zealots
aren’t the only personalities among my 12 followers. There is also a tax collector,
Matthew and a Greek, Philip. Outside of my small circle, these twelve men
would have reason enough to avoid, if not despise, each other. But I have worked
to bind them to me and to one another in love. It hasn’t been an easy thing to
accomplish. Indeed, after two years of constant company – preaching, teaching,
healing, casting out demons – they are still resistant, still blind to who I am and
what I have tried to do among them.
Love one another. Sometimes, with children, you just have to give them an order,
especially when their well-being and that of others depend on it. Love one
another as I have loved you. James and John: did I give them the glory that they
craved at someone else’s expense? No. Love one another as I have loved you.
Peter: did I forsake or turn away from him when he tried to turn me away from the
path that God has set before me? No. Love one another as I have loved you.
Matthew and Philip: have I denied them a place at my table because one has
collected money for the Romans and the other is a Greek? No. Love one another
as I have loved you. Iscariot: have I denied him a place in my heart, even now, as
he goes to betray me? No. Love one another as I have loved you.
There is only one way that the world will know that these twelve are my
followers: if they love one another as I have loved them. It will serve them no
purpose at all to quote scripture or my teachings, not if they can’t stand to be with
and for each other. The world will see only what it has always seen – little
children bickering, backbiting, and badmouthing each other.
Little children, God is doing a new thing in the world. Can you not see it? Can
you not hear it? Can you not feel it? Too much rides on you being able to see,
hear, and feel what God is doing in this world. So I command you as I
commanded the Twelve. Love one another as I have loved you. It’s an order.
Rev. Stephen Hall
Life Out of Death
To be a widow is to know the pain of loss. First, comes the loss of one whom you have loved with the fullness of your heart. That kind of pain is nearly unbearable. You move through your days, fending off an emptiness that is voracious. It’s insatiable, pressing on until it utterly consumes you.
But that isn’t all the loss that you face. Next, comes the loss of standing. You become invisible to those around you. You have no means of support. Some of us are fortunate to own our own dwellings, but they are precious few in number. No, most of us have no means in our lives. We rely totally on the charity of others. And, as you might expect, that charity can be thin and uneven at times.
That’s why Tabitha has been such a blessing to us widows in Joppa. Her name actually comes from an Aramaic word. Aramaic is our native tongue – the language that we speak every day. Tabitha means, “gazelle.” It’s such a fitting name. If you have ever watched a gazelle, you will see right away that this is an animal endowed with great grace. That is Tabitha – a woman endowed with great grace. She literally flowed into our lives with such compassionate care. Without her, we would all be living in rags. But she has sewn us clothing – the kind of clothing that protects us against the elements and makes us presentable. Her gifts make us feel like women again. She always makes them with an excess of love. And she’s constant. Where others offer momentary grace and disappear, Tabitha has been the consistent thread in our lives. She is dependable, committed, solid. Tabitha is the bond of God’s love that keeps us from being devoured by death.
When she died, our world collapsed. Every one of us felt ravaged by her death. She was the embodiment of life to us. In many ways she was life to us. Death had its way with us once when it took our husbands from us. Then, against all hope, this woman, this graceful gazelle, flowed into our hearts and restored us to life. Now, death would rob us of the constancy of her love.
Ah, but God is great. The leader of those who followed Jesus of Nazareth – Peter is his name – derived from another good Aramaic word, Cephas, which means “rock.” Anyway, Peter intervened with the full power of his master – the full power of God. He restored our beloved Tabitha to life and to us. I had heard the stories about God raising Jesus from the dead. We all have. It seemed to me a wonderful, yet, incredible tale. I thought to myself that God probably reserved this miracle for his Son. It was a miracle for him and him alone. How wrong I was! How joyfully and stupendously wrong!
I see God’s life-giving power everywhere. It’s so clear now. I find it in moments large and small. It’s there when bread is broken at table. It’s present in the healing touch of those who work with the sick. I find it entwined in the teachings that are passed to young and old alike. Especially now, wherever I encounter death, I discover God drawing forth life. Everywhere that I turn, I see God’s life, unrestrained, running free with the grace of a gazelle. It all began with the amazing resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and has continued with the restoration of our beloved Tabitha’s life. Life out of death. It will not stop until God has overwhelmed death with life. That’s what God wants. And God always gets what God wants.
Even When We’re Not Sure
John 20:19-29 (NRSV)
I wonder what it was like in that room when Jesus showed up. Can you even imagine? Imagine that you saw him die on the cross. Imagine that you saw his bloodied, mangled body laid in the tomb, and, by the way, this massive boulder rolled in front of the opening to the tomb. Imagine what it must have been like, a couple of days later, to get the news that Jesus’ body isn’t in the tomb anymore…that the boulder had been rolled away, the body was gone, and, by the way, Mary Magdalene says she saw him and talked with him. Risen from the dead! Not mangled. Not bloody. She is positive it was him.
Now try to imagine that you are among the disciples who have gathered in this room. You’ve locked the doors because you are afraid of what’s going to happen when people find out that Jesus’ body isn’t in the tomb. It’s not a big room, so you’re kind of huddled together.
Then, Jesus shows up! John says Jesus “entered” the room. He says Jesus “stood among them.” Are you kidding me?!
John also says that when the disciples saw Jesus, they were “exuberant.” Maybe they were. But I wonder what the lag time was between seeing Jesus among them, hearing his voice as he greeted them, and being “exuberant.”
Most often, I think, when something tragic—or even something exciting—happens, when something happens that is just too overwhelming for the logical part of our brains to absorb, our brains freeze. Your logical self cannot make sense of what you’re seeing and it is as if time stops—or maybe for you time speeds up—perception and memory get thrown out of whack.
For any of you that have been through an experience like this: the death of a loved one, getting fired from a job, being in an accident, seeing a crime committed, maybe you’ve found it hard to recall exactly what happened in those first moments after the incident, after you first heard the news, after you first took in the trauma.
The day after Easter this year, I found myself quite fascinated by the running of the Boston Marathon, after I heard and followed the story, and then contributed to the efforts of Team Beans. Team Beans was running to honor Francesca, daughter of CNN reporter Andrew Kaczynski and Wall Street Journal journalist Rachel Ensign. Francesca died on December 24, 2020 from a rare brain tumor, at nine months old. Team Beans was working very hard to raise $500,000 for infant cancer research.
Whenever the Boston Marathon reaches my consciousness around the middle of April every year, I can’t help but think of the deadly bombing attack at the finish line of the event in 2013. I picked up a book written by one of the many injured in the bombing, Jeff Bauman, and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
You might remember Jeff…there is an iconic photograph of him shortly after the bombing, in a wheel chair, being pushed by a woman, with a big man in a cowboy hat running next to him, and an EMT also running alongside him, pulling his wheelchair. His right leg is gone from just above his knee, and he’s holding onto the thigh of his left leg, though he ends up losing that leg from the knee down as well.
Jeff wasn’t a runner that day. He was at the finish line to cheer on his girlfriend. When he woke up on Tuesday, the day after the bombing, he was in the Boston Medical Center, groggy from a series of life-saving surgeries, and the first thing he did was try to rip out his breathing tube so he could speak. When he realized he couldn’t, he asked for a pad and paper and wrote down seven words: “Saw the guy. Looked right at me,” setting off one of the biggest manhunts in the country’s history.
In the book, Jeff tells about a moment that he recalls with his mother, after the early days of trauma, and when I read it, it reminded me of what it must have been like in that locked hideaway when Jesus entered and joined the disciples.
This is what Jeff wrote: “I knew there were two ways you could go,” Mom tells me now, her hands still shaking. “You could be…” She stops. Mom doesn’t say depressed, because she doesn’t like that word, but that’s what she means. … “I don’t know if you remember…” “I don’t, Mom,” I tell her, knowing what’s coming. “…we were all standing over you.” “I know. It’s creepy.” “And you opened your eyes. This was early, maybe Tuesday, so we weren’t expecting it. We didn’t know what to say. Your eyes went from one person to the next, and nobody was sure whether you recognized them or not. Finally, you tried to speak. But you couldn’t. So it must have been Tuesday, right? Anyway, I bent down so you could whisper in my ear. ‘What is this,’ you whispered, ‘a funeral viewing? Everybody sit down.’”
“I’m not sure about Mom’s story. There are certain parts of it that don’t quite work. I was in the emergency intensive care unit, for one thing, so only two people were allowed in my room at a time…how could the whole family have been there? And when I woke up, I was on a breathing tube. How could I have whispered even those two sentences to her? But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe her. In fact, I know it’s true, that the moment must have happened, because it means so much to her.”
“And besides, my brother Tim tells a similar story. In his version, everyone was there, and he was squeezing my hand, asking if I knew who he was, when I made the joke.” So maybe it happened on Wednesday, after my third surgery. Or maybe it happened on Monday night, before my second surgery. Maybe they had me off the breathing tube for a while, before slicing open my stomach and poking around inside me.
“It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter if it never quite happened like that. Everybody has a story about those days, which they swear is true, even though none of the stories are the same.”
Those moments, hours, days of confusion when something overwhelming has happened…of course it’s hard to remember the details.
So I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s exactly what Thomas experienced when the news of Jesus’ appearance in the room reached him. Remember, he wasn’t there at the time, so the word has to travel to him. And when he hears this part of Jesus’ incredible story, he’s the one who says, “Oh yeah? That’s amazing. But you know what? I’m not going to believe what you say until I see him for myself…until I can actually touch the nail holes in his hands.”
And who can blame him? But we all do at some point…we’ve given Thomas this bad reputation for being a doubter when what I suspect he was doing was what any of us would do….he asked for more information because the logical part of his brain could not catch up to what he was being told. It just didn’t make sense.
And I bet nobody was telling the story the same way! One disciple might have said, “Jesus knocked on the door!” Another would say, “No, he didn’t knock, he just opened the door and came in.” Another would say, “No, he couldn’t have just walked in through the door. Remember how we locked—and double-locked—the doors?”
Like Jeff Bauman letting his family and friends tell him over and over again the story about his first words after losing his legs in the bombing, can’t you understand why Thomas needed that “proof” to help soothe his confusion and calm his racing brain? He simply wanted to touch the wounds on Jesus’ hands and side. Then he would know for sure that what he was being told was true.
Some biblical scholars say that Thomas’ refusal to believe without seeing for himself puts him into a new category. He is not merely a frightened, hiding disciple. He is faithless. Thomas was the first person approached by the Spirit-endowed disciples, and he was the first person to refuse to take the Spirit-empowered authority of their witness to heart. I can see that. I can appreciate that point of view.
I can also see how much like us Thomas was. And I can see that while he wasn’t just going to take the disciples’ word for it, he came on his own…in his own time…to a place of deep, deep faith and action. And for me, that is as significant a part of his story as are his moments of doubt.
God has come to us in Jesus Christ, who continues his mission through doubters and misfits like Thomas and like us. Faith is a willingness to follow him, even when we’re not sure where it will lead us.
Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, God is ready and waiting to use us. My hope is that we will at some point respond by saying that we are ready, as well. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
How Come No One Has Ever Told Me This Before?
Matthew 28:1-15 (NRSV)
A friend of mine readily admits to having a bad memory. She was telling her congregation recently about the time—when she was a seminary student—that she scheduled a meeting with a committee of students, and then forgot to go to her own meeting. The day after the meeting was supposed to take place, when she realized she had missed it altogether, she called to apologize to her co-chair for forgetting to go to the meeting, and then, the day after that, she called the co-chair again to apologize…because she forgot she already called the day before!
I am sure every one of us can tell a story like this. One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I can be the ideal “confidential listener.” I tend to remember the content of what I’m told, but can’t recall who told me. It’s an interesting “gift” I apparently have to ensure everyone’s privacy.
If you are like me, and like many other people, then you can understand why it is that we can be thankful that Holy Week—the week I was crushed to miss out on this year as I was recovering from illness at home—we can be thankful Holy Week comes around every year to remind us what it is this whole faith experience we celebrate on Easter is about.
As a colleague described it, “If I didn’t sit at the Table every year on Maundy Thursday to take the bread and cup, or watch the [Christ candle being extinguished at the end of the service on Good Friday], or get up at the break of dawn every Easter to greet the news of resurrection, I’d be apt to forget why I worship and that there is hope for me even in the darkest of nights.”
If we don’t deliberately walk our way through the events of Holy Week, from the joy of Palm Sunday, into the depths of darkness and death on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and back out to joy again on Easter Sunday, I think we are apt to forget what happened.
“Christianity is described by religion scholars as a ‘linear’ religion. Unlike the eastern religions which see time as cyclical, these scholars say, Christianity views time and the world as moving in a forward progression, starting with a moment of creation and moving toward a final fulfillment of God’s purpose […someday…out there in the future.]
“That may be true theologically, but [in our actual day-to-day experience] Christianity is just as cyclical as Buddhism or Hinduism because Christianity, like all religion, is grounded in real life experience, and our real-life experience never moves in an orderly progression forward.
“Instead, our lives are filled with ups, and downs, and reversals, and discovery, and forgetting, and reminding ourselves again of those lessons we once learned but have to re-learn all over again.”
That’s why the Jewish tradition of Passover begins with the question: “What makes this night different from all other nights?” It’s a way to open up the memories of those at the table, to hear the story again of the deep connection between God and the Hebrew people. It’s like asking someone, “Tell me about when you were a kid…”
“Even those with steel-trap memories [for some things, like, trigonometry formulas] learned in high school, even these people can forget the simplest things like, ‘It’s better to count to ten and wait until I’m calmer than it is to let my tongue loose and then have to pick up the pieces from the damage I
caused.’ Or, ‘If I eat the whole gallon of ice cream in one sitting, I will regret it.’ Or, ‘Helping someone else can [bring joy to my own] downcast heart.’”
“During Holy Week, we rehearse the last week of Jesus’ life, so that we will be reminded again that Christ’s love for us was so great that he was willing to take on for us the worst the world could do to him, and on Easter—and for 50 days after—we re-enact the resurrection to remind one another that even the world’s worst was not powerful enough to overcome that love. With God, life will always triumph; love will always win.
“It’s strange that we need to go through Holy Week every year—you’d think with such an incredible piece of good news [at the end of the story we’d be able to remember it for all time]—but we’re human. And when the darkness presses around us and our hearts are heavy within us, we forget.
“We forget that God promises the bare branches will grow full with lush leaves again.
“We forget that the frozen fields will ring forth with the songs of birds one day.
“We forget that God can lift the burdens that lie so heavily on our hearts.
“We forget that no matter what death we face right now, God will raise us to new life, and one day the tomb will be empty.”
“I wish I didn’t need to be reminded of this every year—I wish that I could just remember it at every moment of my life, good or bad, up or down, but my memory is just not that great and I need reminding…a lot.
I suspect maybe you do, too.” Maybe that’s why you’re here today. Just as we need to remember the events of Holy Week every year, we need to hear the great story of the resurrection…over and over again.
That’s one of the things I am really drawn to in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ resurrection. Over and over again, people are told to “get on your way quickly and tell the disciples” what you saw. Or, “Don’t be frightened…Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee and I’ll meet them there.” Even the guards quickly go to the city and tell the high priests everything that happened, though they clearly don’t hear the account of Jesus’ resurrection as good news. In fact, they come up with a way to make sure that their own version of events at the tomb—an incorrect version of events, by the way—gets told around town so that people will begin to doubt that Jesus is raised from the dead. The Scripture says, “That story, cooked up in the Jewish High Council, is still going around.”
All throughout Matthew’s story, people are told to tell others about this amazing event. It is through the verbal sharing of this story—over thousands of years—that we come here to today to celebrate.
Please…notice that we are not told to simply remember. We are commanded to tell others. We are urged to share the good news. We are compelled to tell the story, not just so we can remember, but so that others can hear it. We have got to find ways to do this.
Diana Butler Bass, whose writings got me thinking about the importance of Holy Week, tells of an experience she had, and I want to leave you with this both as a reminder and as an encouragement to
you who have heard the awful story of Jesus’ death and the good news of his resurrection. She says: “After a long day flying, I went to the hotel lounge for a glass of local red wine. There, I got in a conversation with a woman, who is about my age, who never heard of Holy Week and asked me to explain Palm Sunday and Easter to her. I told her the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, of his betrayal, death and resurrection. About how human it is; how our betrayals turn into our rebirths. She got tears in her eyes. ‘That’s so beautiful,’ she said. ‘How come no one has ever told me this before?’”
Tell someone the story of what we celebrate today.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, April 24, 2022
[Based on essays by Diana Butler Bass]
A Dangerous Thing
Easter Sunday, 4/17/22
I remember a discussion at one of the many bible studies that I led over the years. We were talking about the resurrection and one of the group’s members asked, “Do you have to believe in the resurrection to be a Christian?” I sensed that there was another question behind that one: “Is the resurrection essential to the Christian faith?” So I responded, “The short answer is “yes;” the long answer is “yes.” This woman was steeped in the scientific method. She had an empirical approach to life. For her, believing in the resurrection was a heavy lift. If it couldn’t be observed, quantified, or proven, then it wasn’t real.
All of us approach life in the same way, at least some of the time. We see our lives and the world in which we live as flat, two-dimensional. I know that’s true with my life on most days. I see my life as moving forward, moving backward, or sometimes simply sliding sideways. But is there more to it? Is there a third dimension to life? Let’s try a little show and tell. What do you see; what is this? (hold up a two liter bottle) A two liter Coke bottle? Does anyone see a clown? If not, then I’m right with you. I look at a two liter bottle and that’s all I see. A two liter bottle. But Marion Henning would look at that same two liter bottle and she would see a clown. Marion was a member at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, the congregation that I came to Lockport to serve 40 years ago. She was one of the most gifted crafters whom I have ever known. Her gift was deeply rooted in the third dimension of life. This is the place where creativity exists and thrives. Marion turned Coke bottles, Pepsi bottles, Sprite bottles into clowns of all shapes and colors. Those clowns brought people a sense of joy – a slice of life. One of Marion’s clowns sat for year at the nurses’ station in the intensive care unit of Lockport Memorial Hospital.
More times than I care to admit I, like a lot of people, see the world and my life in it as flat –as two dimensional. And because I see the world as flat, I can offer no clowns, no slice of life, no joy. Death wins every battle and every debate in a flat world. Fortunately, for all of us, God did not create a flat world and hand it over to death. God created a multifaceted world where life reigns supreme. God created a world where the dead are resurrected to new life.
A life lived completely in two dimensions is a dangerous thing. In a flat world, I know just enough to get myself into trouble. For me, that applies to all things medical. I don’t have a degree to practice medicine, but too often I talk like I do. That doesn’t mean that any of you are going to want me to perform brain surgery on you. Knowing just enough to get myself into trouble also applies to electricity and plumbing. Now I have the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Home Repairs, and I’ve even read it. I was shocked (shameless, intended pun!) when it didn’t turn me into a master electrician. And maybe it was just one of my pipe dreams (another shameless, intended pun!), but it also didn’t turn me into a master plumber. Just ask Jerry Schultze; he’s cleaned up several of my self-inflicted messes. Jerry, I only ask that you leave the more entertaining details out of your after-church conversations. I could go on, but I don’t think I need to; you get the point.
When it comes to the resurrection, we tend to know just enough to get ourselves into trouble. Suddenly, we turn into Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Reality gets defined solely by the laws of nature. But that’s only half of the knowledge that’s available to us. The other half is just as powerful, indeed, sometimes more powerful, than the rational half. This is the half that gives our lives depth – that third dimension. It’s the half that’s driven by mystery and passion and love. It’s the reason why we have significant others. For my money, love is the anchor occupant of the deep dimension in our lives. Love cannot be separated from life, nor can life be separated from love. Love is to life as oxygen is to fire. You can’t have one without the other. That’s the reason why my biologist daughter plays violin and piano and my physicist son plays cello. I’m not embarrassed to tell you that my daughter brought me to tears this past Tuesday with her performance of Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, and my son did the same thing when he performed Shastokovitch’s Cello Concerto with the Colgate University Orchestra.
People don’t have difficulty with the resurrection because they know too much. They have difficulty with the resurrection because they know too little. Today’s Gospel lesson covers the complete gamut of responses. Peter doesn’t yet have the framework in his life that can embrace the resurrection, so he reaches the only conclusion that he can – someone must have taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. The beloved disciple, whom church tradition identifies as John, looks at the evidence and believes. I resonate the most, though, with Mary Magdalene in this story. She goes to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’s dead body. She’s confined by the same limiting trap as Peter. Mary discovers an open, empty tomb, and that’s just too much for her to bear. It’s bad enough that her master was arrested, tortured, and crucified. Now this! The enemies of Jesus didn’t even have the common decency to allow his body to rest in peace. But unlike Peter and the other disciple, Mary doesn’t go home; she stays. She grieves but she also seeks. Mary has an encounter with God, a totally unexpected conversation with two angels. Then she sees Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. Thinking that he’s the gardener, she asks him where he has taken the body. Jesus speaks her name, and that’s when the mystery of the resurrection opens itself to Mary and draws her in.
That’s what the resurrection is – mystery. There’s no narrative describing how it happened, just a declaration that it has. The New Testament and the Church exist because of this mystery. We are here today because of this mystery.
So, let’s try this again. What is this? If you still don’t see a clown, don’t despair. Let me show you what a Coke bottle became. This little clown was sitting on my office desk at Lockport United Church of Christ one morning. An anonymous note simply read, “Hi, my name is Stevie.” A slice of life. A splash of joy.
The empty tomb is more than an empty tomb. If you don’t yet see that, don’t despair. God is relentlessly patient and will give you the eyes of faith to see that it is the resurrection. And the resurrection, dear sisters and brothers, is life everlasting for us all.
Rev. Stephen Hall
How Quickly Things Can Change
I want you to know this morning that I am sharing someone else’s story with you. I’m sharing it, not because the details describe anything I’ve actually experienced, but because the point of the story stopped me in my tracks…and made me think about you, and us and how important this fellowship of Christ is to me, especially as we stand together on the threshold of this most holy week in the life of Christians.
The story comes from Lillian Daniel, a pastor in a UCC church. This pastor, like many, loved Palm Sunday and Holy Week, though she knew Easter would end in exhaustion.
But shortly before Palm Sunday one year, her eight-year-old son was under the weather, and she and her husband soon learned that Calvin, had type 1 diabetes. Unlike the more common type 2 diabetes, the much rarer juvenile diabetes, or type 1, cannot be reversed by diet or lifestyle. With type 1 diabetes, the body’s own immune system attacks the pancreas for no apparent reason. The pancreas then shuts down—slowly over a few months—and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it. Suddenly, out of nowhere, her son was dependent on insulin, and would be for the rest of his life.
“It is ironic,” Daniels says, “that all this happened just days before Holy Week—ironic, because Holy Week begins with the cheerful procession of people waving their palms before Jesus, shouting Hosanna. His followers are ecstatic. They are having a party in the street. But in a matter of days, the disciples will be eating their last meal with Jesus. He’ll be betrayed. They’ll be afraid. The cheering and partying will seem like a distant memory from a time when they thought life was easy.
“Those days spent in the hospital, I later realized, were more about us as parents than about our son. His health stabilized quickly once he received the insulin his body had stopped making. But we, his parents, needed a lot more treatment. The doctors would not release Calvin from the hospital and into our care until they were convinced that we could manage his treatment, that we had adjusted to this change. We learned about what he should eat to avoid high blood sugar levels. We learned that he would have to monitor his carbohydrates so the right dosage of insulin could be supplied. This would keep his blood sugar at the right level and allow him to live a “perfectly normal life.”
“Just when we got that straight, we learned that when Calvin’s blood sugar was too low he should eat the very things that otherwise he shouldn’t eat. Treating this disease is frustratingly counterintuitive. “I thought diabetics couldn’t eat sweets,” I said. “Actually,” the doctor said, “in a case of low blood sugar, when he’s had too much insulin, he has to have sweets in order to avoid a diabetic coma.” This was not sounding to me like a “perfectly normal life.”
“What is a perfectly normal life? Have you noticed that the only time that phrase is invoked is at times when life is neither perfect nor normal? But is life ever perfect or normal? We had been at the hospital for days, taking turns there and with our five-year-old daughter at
home. We had friends but no family nearby. My mother had died a year before, and I don’t think I ever grieved for her as much as I did in those days at the hospital.
“By now it was the Saturday before Holy Week. Because I love Palm Sunday, I had planned a lot for that day. There was to be the usual grand procession with the palms, the special music, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. But because I had assumed that this would be a celebratory day, I had decided that it would also be the day that new members would join the church. Early that Sunday morning, I sat at the desk in the church’s front office, not feeling celebratory at all. I wondered if it would be easier to simply lead the congregation through the service and then tell them the news, or whether I should tell them first. It seemed like a different person had planned this festive Palm Sunday worship service.
“One of the new members who was to join the church that day, a young man in the medical field, had arrived bright and early. “How are you this morning?” he asked, not realizing that he was the first person I had seen at church that morning and that he was about to really find out how I was. “You know what, I’m not doing too great. My son is in the hospital, diagnosed with diabetes, out of nowhere, and he may or may not get to come to church today. No, diabetes doesn’t run in my family, unless you count my great uncle, who I am just now remembering. He lost his leg to it in his thirties and his life to it in his forties, leaving behind a widow and a little daughter. They say he never took care of himself, but how do you make someone take care of himself? So how am I doing? To be honest, I’m a little shaky.”
“I realized that I had said more than I had wanted to say, and more than he, a new member, had asked. I think I remember saying, “Sorry,” as we careful people do when we are accidentally honest with one another.
“Juvenile diabetes or type 2?” he asked, evidently knowing a distinction that most people do not. “Type 1?” I nodded. “Well, I have type 1 diabetes too,” he said. “In fact, it’s what drove me to go into medicine. I’m passionate about helping people to live healthy lives with this condition.”
“I looked at this young man who seemed to have it all together—he was the picture of health, a person who had talked about climbing mountains and kayaking and who traveled the world. Suddenly my image of this disease had a new face, and I liked it a lot better than my late great uncle’s. “I think that’s why I am joining the church today,” he said, and we both stopped to take that in. “I’m going to be a friend to your son, and help you deal with this.”
“And that is exactly what happened. That young man’s friendship changed our lives in the years that followed, and none of that would have happened were we not joined together in the body of Christ, not just when our news is good but also when it’s bad.
“On Palm Sunday, things change so quickly. The followers of Jesus move from triumph to tragedy in a matter of days. That’s how quickly life moves too. But as surely as the arc goes down as we begin the solemn services of Holy Week, we know that the arc will go up again at Easter Sunday.
“Some resurrections are enormous and get recorded in scripture to be read about year after year. Other resurrections are smaller. They happen in the midst of ordinary lives. And we witness one another’s resurrections in church all the time. For me that Palm Sunday morning, what was resurrected was hope. And when my son ran into church that morning, finally out of the hospital and being his energetic self, I knew that as quickly as things change, they can change in all directions, as much as they do in Holy Week. The lesson of Holy Week is that pain and sorrow do not have the last word.
In the midst of all that went wrong right before that Holy Week, God was working on the bigger picture, and my Holy Week story now has yet another hero, an eight-year-old boy whose courage I admire every Palm Sunday when I think about how quickly things can change. And I also think of that new member. He probably thought that he was joining the church that day because he needed it. But sometimes the reason you join the church is because somebody there needs you.”
(Story by Lillian Daniel, April 21, 2009, Christian Century)
For the joy we know this day, we give you thanks, O God.
For the sorrow and the darkness to come, we ask for your mercy, O God.
For the hope that is before us, we praise you, O God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Cheering On God’s People
I Peter 2:4-5, 9-10
“Come on, David!” “C’mon, c’mon!” “Come on, Dave, yeah!”
“With shouts of encouragement and steady applause from his teammates, David Gorczynski crossed the finish line at Orchard Park High School late Tuesday afternoon, long after most of the other runners in one more race that he almost was not allowed to run. But David Gorczynski is still running, and because of his fight, all young athletes with disabilities in New York will have one less obstacle to overcome in the seasons ahead.”
I loved reading this story that appeared in the Buffalo News nearly ten year ago, now. The article said, “Gorczynski, 20, has autism and loves to run. This summer, his family’s court case against a state education regulation that banned him from competing because of his age attracted wide attention. Hundreds of people – including his Orchard Park teammates and runners from other schools – signed an online petition objecting to the law, and State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski issued an injunction that would allow David to run.”
Like any long-distance runner, David benefited from The Bislett Effect. I may have talked with you about this interesting phenomenon before, but it seems to me, as we gather for worship and to celebrate new members in this congregation of God’s people, that the Bislett Effect is a perfect reminder of what has been our strength in years gone by and what needs to be our passion going forward. The Bislett Effect is a phenomenon that has implications for us all, whether we are practicing our running or practicing our faith.
The name comes from the Bislett Stadium in Oslo, Norway, a place where 65 track-and-field and speed skating records have been broken since the start of the annual Bislett Games over 50 years ago. We’re not talking about one broken record. Or two. Or 10. Or even 20. But a full 65 records. No other track can boast such a record for record-breaking achievements. According to an article in Runner’s World (November 2003), the British runner Sebastian Coe set several records at Bislett, including a series of stunning miles. Another fine British miler, Steve Cram, who shattered Coe’s record for the mile, said, “If you can’t run well at Bislett, you can’t run well any bloody where.”
But what’s the secret of Bislett?
In a word, it’s the crowd. The original track was narrow, with only six lanes, and the grandstand is so steep that the fans are practically on top of you. “The sound of 21,000 screaming maniacs rakes your reflexes,” writes Kenny Moore, “forcing you to keep your rhythm, the crowd’s rhythm, for one more stretch, one more turn. The frenzied fans keep you going.”
That’s why 65 records have been broken at Bislett. We run faster in front of great crowds because we are inspired by community — we run not only for ourselves but for the team, the family, the congregation, the tribe, the party, the nation. “Our deepest nature,” concludes Moore, “is that we are at our most majestic when we do for others.” Just ask David Gorczynski…he kept running as the crowd cheered him on.
The apostle Peter knew all about The Bislett Effect although, unlike his colleague, Paul, he never used the racetrack, race-running metaphor. Instead, Peter uses a construction metaphor in these words to the Christians who were scattered across five provinces in Asia Minor: “Present yourselves as living stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests offering Christ-approved lives up to God” (1 Peter 2:5). The point is the same. There’s nothing individualistic about the Christian faith, according to Peter — nothing that gives credence to an isolated, one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ.
Peter knows that inspiration comes from the crowd. The Bislett Effect. The Living Stone Syndrome. Whatever. It’s critical to the health of the Christ Body, as well as to our mission in the world, to see ourselves as a community that empowers and enables each other, thereby allowing us to set all sorts of records. Enabling us to do much more than we had ever dreamed possible.
This is not to say, however, that the church is merely a gathering of frenzied fans. Remember that as living stones we are cemented to the cornerstone that is “chosen and precious,” according to Peter (2:6). Without a good cornerstone in Jesus Christ, we cannot remain standing as a solid spiritual house. So, we need to stay connected to Jesus. That’s what this whole church—any church--is about at its very core.
Even so, the crowd is crucial. We’re living stones in the building, or fans in the stands. Sometimes we’re the runners, the contestants, but in the “stands” we’re cheering on, helping, assisting, empowering, those who are on some particular track, some particular course, who are facing some particular challenge, obstacle, trial or test, and having been on the course, having run the track, having flown over those hurdles ourselves, we’re in a position to yell and scream and cheer and urge our sisters and brothers onward.
We know what it’s all about. We have to stay close to one another. If we’re going to have any chance of proclaiming the mighty acts of God to a hurting and hope-starved world, then we’re going to have to hang together as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9). We are at our most majestic when we work for the good of the body, and when we do for others instead of ourselves.
All of which should lead us to reflect on the times in our lives when we have been inspired to greatness by the support of the Christian community, maybe by this Christian community that gathers today.
And, more importantly, we really should be thinking about what we can do today to be a source of encouragement to the people around us, especially those who are running tough races. Who is it out there that needs to hear words of encouragement and hope from us? Who is it out there that needs to feel energy from us…God’s people in this place?
I’ve heard it said that there’s an understanding in the marathon world that you only have to run 20 miles in a practice run in order to run 26.2 miles in the marathon itself. The fact of the matter is that the extra 6.2 miles are given to the runner as a gift of the crowd. The cheers and support of the spectators are enough to push the marathoners beyond any distance they have ever run before.
We have benefitted from the unwavering faith and support of those who came before us. And as we welcome our new members—sisters in Christ—let us commit to sharing our faith and support with someone else, someone we don’t yet know. That’s how we become building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life. That’s what will keep us alive and thriving years to come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Stay. Love. Repeat.
John 15:1-12 (NIV)
Someone told me recently in a text that I have the patience of a saint. I laughed! Then I began to think about it a little bit, and I guess this person is right, to some degree. I can be a patient person. Maybe I learned to be a patient person because my father was NOT a patient person, and he paid the price for his impatience early in his adult life—before I was born—with debilitating ulcers. So, he wasn’t particularly patient, AND he didn’t really know how to deal with his impatience. I know I don’t want to go down that path.
But while I may generally be a patient person, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t relate when I read this in a Lenten devotion written by pastor and author, John Pavlovitz. He said, “I don’t like waiting: for takeout food, online orders, doctor visits—anything. As I move through the world, things almost never function as expediently as I’d like, and a smoldering restlessness is always rumbling just beneath the surface. Traffic tends to amplify this ever-latent frustration, and I can easily lose my religion in a good gaper delay or unexpected construction area. My continual impatience is compounded by a terrible affliction I suffer (one doctors have yet to properly identify), which causes me to always choose the wrong lane in a backup. Always. The very instant I complete my transition to what is clearly the faster option, its as if the lane I’d just vacated suddenly glides briskly along and my new one now ceases to move.
“That is, of course, until I veer back to where I’d been originally seconds ago, upon which that lane once again screeches to a standstill. I soon look ahead into the distance and lament the place farther down the road that I would have occupied had I only stayed put. I watch another driver claim the smooth travel I missed out on, and in a fit of rampant lane envy I pray a pox upon their house—or at least a nice pothole to mess with their alignment.”
I love how down-to-earth Pastor Pavolvitz can be!
In this particular day’s devotion, Pavlovitz reflects on the scripture from John we are thinking about today. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean,” Jesus says, “because of the word I have spoken to you. REMAIN in me, and I also REMAIN in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must REMAIN in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you REMAIN in me.”
Can you hear it? In this extended sermon in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus uses the word REMAIN nearly a dozen times—“…which makes me think,” Pavlovitz muses, “that it’s both important and also probably something that isn’t easy, or else saying it once or twice would have been enough.”
Since I read this devotion this past week, I’ve found myself thinking about “remaining,” or staying, or waiting. I usually think about waiting, in particular, during the season of Advent, where we encounter the images of Mary and Joseph waiting for their baby to be born. When I’m practicing yoga, I hear the teacher talk frequently about “staying”; staying in the pose, paying attention to what it feels like to “stay with it.” Ugh, is usually my unspoken response! It can be so challenging to stay in a pose when I think my legs are going to give out under me and/or my arms are simply going to fall off.
Then, since the lifting of the state of emergency in Erie County, I’ve been reflecting on where we’ve been these last two years. Much to our distress, we have lived through long periods of time when we’ve been forced to “remain,”…indoors, away from each other, out of school, away from work, away from restaurants, away from yoga, away from those we love who were hospitalized. It has been hard to stick with it. Some people managed to “remain” better than others.
Then we encounter these words from Jesus today, this message about how critical it is to remain in constant contact with him. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
But staying put is a profound challenge for many of us, especially if our present is uncomfortable, or confusing, or turbulent. In seasons of struggle—and we all have them—it’s counterintuitive to not want to get some distance from whatever it is that is causing us pain, heartbreak, sadness, grief. But Jesus reminds us that growth is sometimes painful and slow. (Ugh!) It cannot be rushed even when it is both of those things.
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus being driven into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, right after his baptism. It’s the very next thing that happens to him. No baptism parties. No rest. No special meal. He immediately finds himself in the wilderness. I feel confident that Jesus, at some point, during those 40 days and 40 nights felt like time was moving painfully slow. And I started thinking about this: in that story of Jesus in the wilderness, we hear nothing about him trying to find his way out. Could he have prayed for guidance in finding a way out? Could he have started walking, maybe?
Jesus doesn’t do any of that. He REMAINS in the wilderness for the whole 40 days and 40 nights.
Pavolvitz says, “There is something sacred and rare about staying: about enduring the waiting and trying to stay grounded in love while we face the frustration of what we want to be through with right now. The words of Jesus offer the wise path forward for those of us who don’t wait very well:
Stay. Love. Repeat.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
You’re All Alone
Luke 4:1-12 (NIV)
“God hates nothing God has made. Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” These are the words many people heard on Ash Wednesday as we began our Lenten journeys. Church leaders put ashes on our foreheads, said these challenging words, and invited us to face a mind-numbing paradox: we are loved by God. And we will die. The first truth does not prevent the second. The second truth does not negate the first.
After two years of a global pandemic that has taken nearly six million lives worldwide, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness life in all its goodness crumbling to dust and ashes. Just over a week ago, as our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia began to face the terror and losses of war, we were once again asked to consider what it means that we—all of us, regardless of where we live or what political views we hold—are small, mortal, vulnerable and defenseless.
On top of all this, we get some biblical whiplash this Sunday. Last Sunday we observed Jesus on the mountaintop—"a wonderful, Broadway-style production with costume changes, offstage voices, and guest stars brought in from previous productions of God’s glory,” as Jennifer Moland-Kovash describes it. Today we flash back to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, encountering him immediately after his baptism, still dripping wet, and headed into the wilderness.
Thankfully, there’s comfort in familiarity, isn’t there? We know when we start reading it how it will end. We know that Jesus overcomes the temptations that the devil sets before him. It’s great to start Lent with a win, especially because I can almost guarantee that lots of people have already given up on whatever Lenten discipline they set for themselves.
What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word “wilderness?” Some people have a particular landscape they picture. Pastor Moland-Kovash says she grew up about 100 miles from the Canadian border in an area of northern Minnesota dubbed the Edge of the Wilderness. It is known far more for lakes and trees than for high population density. That’s what she pictures. Maybe you associate a similar landscape with the idea of wilderness, or perhaps you envision the Badlands of the Dakotas, the Sand Flats of Utah, or the deserts of Arabia or Africa. Whatever the landscape, the wilderness rarely features a lot of other people.
But even in this early moment for Jesus, he’s remembering—in some of the same ways he does with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. He quotes Deuteronomy to respond to the tempter’s offers; he stands on the faith of his ancestors and finds their words to be rock solid in the face of temptation. Jesus might not have anyone with him in the wilderness, but he is not alone.
One of the biggest temptations we face during times of struggle and wilderness wandering is the temptation to believe that we’re all alone. Part of it is the myth of self-sufficiency, a myth often upheld and perpetuated by our society. We, like the toddlers in our lives, want to proclaim with a foot stomp and a fist clenched, “I do it myself!”
The other side of this temptation is a heartbreaking sense that in this big world we are all alone. In Hebrew, one of the words for wilderness is more literally translated as “the wordless place.” While maybe at times in our lives we might crave for some peace and quiet, this wordless wilderness has a frightening landscape that whispers from the shadows, “You’re all alone.”
Today’s scripture tell us that Jesus is hungry. This isn’t that bored, “I’m hungry but there’s nothing that looks good” hunger. After 40 days, his hunger is a body clamoring for sustenance, a haze-inducing kind of hunger. It’s no wonder that the devil first pulls from the backpack of temptation the offer of a loaf of
bread. But I wonder about this: I wonder if Jesus is also hungering for connection. Hungering for God’s voice that called him the beloved at his baptism to ring out again across the landscape and from the mountaintop. To know that he isn’t alone.
Wilderness time can feel really long, whether it’s 40 days or 40 years or 40 minutes. Most of the time when we encounter the wilderness of the outdoors, we do so intentionally with enough supplies, a plan, and an emergency contact if we don’t come out after a certain amount of time. But when we are in the woods of anxiety or the deserts of despair, the temptation is to believe that we are alone. We’re so close to two years since we learned new, heightened meanings for words like quarantine, pandemic, and pivot. I know I’m not the only one desperately wanting to keep others safe, but there have been moments during these years when I think we have all felt alone and isolated with our thoughts.
Maybe the true comfort of this passage isn’t that Jesus can stand firm against temptation while we help ourselves to the chocolate we swore we were giving up, but rather that we’re not alone in the wilderness. Not only do we have a community of faith, we have the promises of God. We, like Jesus, do not head into the wild without feeling the waters of baptism still dripping down our foreheads. Without hearing that we’re God’s beloved.
We do not embark on this journey to live and trust and have faith without the assurance that the Spirit leads us: we do not go alone. We remember and acknowledge the wilderness of our journey—a wild place of questions and fears and doubts and temptations. This wilderness is part of our story but not the end. We have the voice that speaks in the wilderness, Christ shouting down the tempter and assuring us we are not alone. We have the promises that respond to our wilderness wanderings—the assurance of God’s grace, the gift of worship and living bread from Christ, the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins, the celebration of all the good things God has given us.
We are not alone on this Lenten journey in the wilderness. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
up and down
Luke 9:28-36 (NRSV)
Transfiguration Sunday is an odd church festival. The mountaintop experience of the Transfiguration is the last stop before we begin the journey of Lent, which leads to another mountaintop, Jesus’ face transfigured again—not in glory, like on this mountain—but in suffering and death.
Transfiguration Sunday is the highlight of the liturgical season we call Epiphany. For weeks now, we’ve caught hints and glimpses of the holy in Jesus’s early ministry. A dove descending from the heavens. Water becoming fine wine. A fishing net nearly bursting from a miraculous catch. But today, we see Jesus in his unveiled glory. Today, we see the view from the mountaintop.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration and just as Peter, James and John are coming down the mountain, these three gospels all tell the story of the healing of a “demon-possessed” boy down in the valley. It’s an important story, because it reminds us that what happens in the ordinary trials and tribulations of human life is just as God-infused as the experiences that occur on faith’s mountaintops.
Unfortunately, we don’t always believe this. We fall into the habit of measuring the depth and success of our faith by the number of spectacular epiphanies we can claim. Have we “felt the Spirit” in Sunday worship? Has Jesus “spoken” to us? Have we seen visions? Encountered God’s living presence in our dreams? Has God answered our prayers in the specific and concrete ways we desire?
Most of the time, my answer to these questions is “no.” Or at best, “I'm not sure.” From there, it’s a short distance to feeling like a spiritual failure. Mature Christians, (we assume), probably have lots of experiences like Peter’s on the mountaintop. They see visions and dream dreams. Jesus reveals himself to them in spectacular ways they can’t describe or deny.
It's not true, of course. And yet it lingers in us — this yearning for a particular kind of emotional experience to come along on a regular basis, and validate our faith. After all, if Peter could see Jesus in his unfiltered glory, why can't I? Why can’t we?
The danger of “God on the mountaintop” Christianity is that it prompts us to compartmentalize our lives. As if God is somehow more present during a rousing choral anthem, a stirring sermon, or a silent retreat in a seaside monastery, than God is when we’re doing the laundry, buying groceries, or sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
At its worst, mountaintop Christianity is addictive, leading us to spend our days pursuing a “high” we confuse with spiritual success. Then, when we don’t experience that high, we feel empty, unloved, angry, or bored. Meanwhile, we don't notice the ever-present God in whom we actually live and move and have our being. Desperate for the mountain, we miss the God of the valley, the conference room, the pharmacy, the school yard. “Worshiping the extraordinary,” one pastor said, “doesn’t make for a healthy faith.”
The problem in the Transfiguration story is that as soon as Peter experiences a spiritual high, he tries to hoard it. I suspect we’d do the same thing! What I hear in his plan to “make dwellings” is an understandable but misguided attempt to contain, domesticate, protect, and possess this fleeting thing. To harness the holy. To make the fleeting permanent. To keep Jesus shiny, beautiful, and safe up on a mountain. After all, everything is so good up there. So clear. So bright. So unmistakably spiritual. Why not stay forever?
Well, because God is just as present, active, engaged, and glorious down in the valley as God is in the visions of saints, clouds, and shadows Peter experiences in the high places. In fact, what Peter eventually learns is that the compassionate heart of God is most powerfully revealed amidst the broken, the sinful, the suffering, and the despairing. The kingdom of God shines most brightly against the backdrop of the parent who grieves, the child who cries, the “demons” who oppress, and the disciples who try but fail to manufacture the holy. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. God’s beauty is best contained in broken vessels. We might not like this aspect of faith, but it's an aspect that has a lot to teach us.
It’s interesting, I think, so I want you to notice that the amazing experience with Jesus on the mountain doesn’t give Jesus’s disciples the faith or the strength to heal the suffering boy, or comfort his heartbroken father. What they experience during their spiritual high doesn’t magically translate into vibrant, transformative faith down below. “Which is to say,” another preacher has said, “if we’re sitting around waiting for more mountaintop experiences to mature and deepen our faith before we love and serve God’s children in the valley, then we need to rethink our strategy immediately.” Finding God in the ordinary requires dwelling in the ordinary.
I suspect we all still yearn for mountaintop experiences, and that’s okay. They’ll come and go according to God’s timing. We can’t control them. What’s really hard to do—and what I hope we are committing to do today—is to follow Jesus back down the mountain. Committing ourselves to finding Jesus on the long road. In the deep sorrow. At the heart of the unanswered prayer.
With Transfiguration Sunday, we come to the end of another liturgical season. Having seen the brightness of Epiphany, we prepare now for the holy darkness of Lent. We can’t know ahead of time what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what way Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides.
So, don’t be afraid to come down from the mountain. Keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you in this season of Lent. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him. He is Lord of all. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
How Do You Hide a Scar?
Genesis 45:4-11, 15 (MSG)
The topic would be perfect for a Jerry Springer show: Siblings who sell each other into slavery. Picture the sons of Jacob on stage, a line-up of rough and questionable characters who openly admit to selling their teenage brother Joseph down the river. No doubt they'd bluster about why they did it: "I hated him." "Dad loved him best." "He had the fancy robe, and wouldn't get his hands dirty." "The kid drove me crazy with his dreams" "Thought he was the king of us!" And then they'd explain just how they pulled it off: "We thought about killing him." "Wanted to throw dream-boy into a pit." "Say that the wild animals ate him." "But Reuben said no - said we shouldn't kill him." "So we stripped him and we sold him." "Got 20 pieces of silver for him. Pretty good money." Finally, Jerry Spinger would bring out the surprise guest: Their long-lost brother Joseph, who ended up as chief minister in Egypt. "I am your brother," he'd reveal. "But don’t feel badly, don’t blame yourselves for selling me. God was behind it. God sent me here ahead of you to save lives.” Joseph would promise to feed the brothers in their time of famine, and all would be amazed at his generosity. But what about the scars? You know there would have to be scars. All those years of hatred and jealousy, abuse and violence ... there would HAVE to be scars. Liana Gedz knows all about scars. She went into the hospital for the birth of a child which was delivered C-section. Later, she noticed that the physician who had performed the surgery had carved his initials - "AZ" - into her belly. Bizarre Jerry Springer stuff. But how do you get rid of a scar like that? The answer for Liana was a tummy tuck. Both the AZ and the C-scar disappeared with one additional surgical procedure, while the surgeon was hauled into court and thrown into jail. Unfortunately, there are times when you can't hide your scar with a tummy tuck. If a large area of skin has been lost - as with burn victims - a surgeon will have to remove the entire scar and shift a piece of healthy skin to the injured site. Even better, scientists have come up with recipes for advanced bandages that jump-start the repair of injured skin, but then break down - leaving behind only healed tissue. These bandages are "biodegradable scaffolds" that improve the odds of scarless healing.
But injuries are everywhere, and not every scar can be treated. Think of the deep and numerous scars in the life of Joseph and his brothers. The constant taunting when he was a child. The plot to murder him. The heartless sale into slavery. How do you heal these wounds? A tummy tuck's not going to do it. The text tells us that Joseph and his brothers reconcile, and they kiss and weep and talk. But the scars that this family bear are not easily sanded away through dermabrasion - in fact, their story illustrates well the medical axiom "once scarred, always scarred." As one doctor has observed, "You can't airbrush
out a scar, but you can create great camouflage." Joseph's scar won't go away. He knows it won't, and he doesn't pretend it will. In fact, he points to his scar and reminds his brothers that they sold him into slavery. He makes no attempt to airbrush the fact that something terrible was done to him, but in spite of this history, Joseph is somehow able to heal and move toward reconciliation with his brothers. How does he do it? Joseph discovers that a divine scaffold has been built over his wound - a scaffold that will prove to be much more healing than any modern biodegradable scaffold. Looking back over his life, he sees that God has managed in a truly mysterious way to bring good out of evil, using even the dastardly act of his jealous brothers to put him in an important position in the land of Egypt. "God sent me before you to pave the way," Joseph explains to them all. "God sent me to make sure there was a remnant in the land, to save your lives in an amazing act of deliverance". The spiritual scaffold doesn't remove the scar, but changes its appearance. You might say that it "camouflages" it, and makes it look like something else. But it does more than simply provide cosmetic reassurance. What first looked like a cruel, heartless and hateful act on the part of Joseph's brothers now looks like a graceful, heartfelt and loving act on the part of a God who wanted Joseph to prosper and save his family from famine. God brings healing. "Even though you intended to do harm to me," Joseph tells his brothers, "God intended it for good" (Genesis 50:20). The scar is still there. But now it looks beautiful, instead of ugly. God's spiritual scaffold has changed its appearance forever. Does this mean that every tragedy we experience has a silver lining? That all evil is really good, and that all our suffering is somehow being orchestrated by God? Not at all. The world is full of senseless violence, horrifying hatred and a whole range of actions and attitudes that attempt to block the will of God. It would be absurd to assert that God is orchestrating all this evil.
But one thing that both the Old and the New Testaments teach us is that God has the power to transform human evil into divine good. He used the slavery of Joseph to save a family, and he transformed the death of Jesus into the salvation of the world.
Joseph didn't ask for his scars to be removed. Neither did Jesus. God can create a life in which our wounds are transformed into something good. He does not remove our wounds, but builds a spiritual scaffold over them - one that shows us that healing is always a possibility, even when it comes in surprising ways. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
Blessings Alongside Woes
Luke 6:17-26 (NRSV)
Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable. Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular. This week’s Gospel in a nutshell.
In Luke’s version of the famous Beatitudes story, Jesus has just spent the night on a mountainside, praying before he chooses his twelve apostles. As morning dawns, he and the newly called twelve descend from the mountain to find a crowd waiting. People in need of help have come from everywhere, and Jesus — in his element, with power literally pouring off his garments — heals them all.
Then, standing “on a level place” with the crowd, he tells his would-be followers what life in God’s upside-down kingdom looks like. Those who are destitute, unfed, grieving, and marginalized can “leap for joy,” because they have God’s ear and God’s blessing. But those who are wealthy, full-bellied, carefree, and well-liked should watch out, because their condition is precarious, not enviable. The material “blessings” they cherish most, the very possessions and attributes they consider signs of God’s favor, are in fact liabilities that might do them spiritual harm.
What should we do with this scripture reading? What should we specifically — those of us who are comfortable and privileged — do with this?
What most of us probably want to do is edit Jesus’s words until we can tolerate them. As in, he didn’t really mean we have to be poor, hungry and weeping in order to be blessed by God, right? Obviously, Jesus was exaggerating, wasn’t he? Speaking figuratively? There must be some way we can wiggle out of the “woes” column and sneak into the “blessed” column, right? Right?
Unlike Matthew, who softens the Beatitudes with phrases like “poor in spirit,” instead of “poor,” and “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” instead of plain old “hungry,” Luke keeps Jesus’s “Sermon on the Plain” raw, to the point, and close to the bone. There’s no way around it; as far as Luke’s Jesus is concerned, God’s preference for the poor is crystal clear. God’s blessing rests on those who have absolutely nothing to fall back on in this world. No credit line, no nest egg, no fan base, no immunity. If we want to know where God’s heart is, we must look to the world’s most reviled, wretched, shamed, and desperate people. They are the fortunate ones.
So, again. What should we do with this Gospel? Wallow in guilt? Romanticize poverty? Avoid happiness? I doubt it. Debie Thomas, in her essay on this text, reminded me in my thinking about this that right before Jesus shares this hard teaching, he alleviated suffering in every way possible. That suggests, she says, that Jesus doesn’t in any way validate misery for its own sake. Pain in and of itself is neither holy nor redemptive in the Christian story, and in fact, Jesus’s ministry is all about healing, abundance, liberation, and joy.
And pay attention to this: nowhere in his litany of blessings and woes does Jesus tell his listeners how to behave. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, the sermon “is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work.”
In his sermon, Jesus isn’t sorting out the good folks from the bad folks; he simply says: this is the human pattern. This is where all of us live. We move from blessing to woe over and over again in the course of our lives. We invite blessing every time we find ourselves empty and yearning for God, and we invite woe every time we retreat into smug and thoughtless self-satisfaction. “When I am ‘full’ of anything but God, God ‘empties’ me,” Thomas says. “Not as punishment, but as grace. Not as condemnation, but as loving reorientation. When I am bereft, vulnerable, and empty in the world’s eyes, God blesses me with the fullness of divine mercy and kindness.
“In other words, our God is a God of both comfort and challenge, and in the divine economy, we are, all of us, on one level. Blessed and woeful. Saint and sinner. We occupy ‘the plain’ of this beautiful and broken world together.”
Maybe, then, our calling in this gospel reading is to accept the tensions of living in this place of both-and. Maybe our task is to admit that most of the time, we are not desperate for God. We are not keenly aware of God’s active, daily intervention in our lives. We are not on our knees with need, ache, sorrow, longing, gratitude, or love. After all, why would we be? We have plenty to eat. We live in comfortable homes. Our families are safe. We’re not in dire need of anything. Wow. This is hard stuff to hear and think about.
Maybe what Jesus is saying in this Gospel is that we all have something to learn about discipleship that our life circumstances will not teach us. Something to gain from the humility that says, "Those people I think I'm superior to? They have everything to teach me. Maybe it's time to shut up and pay attention."
Is it comfortable to sit in the “woes” column? No. Might a willingness to do so save our lives? Debie Thomas says yes. I think this is what each of us has to decide.
In a beautiful reflection on Jesus’s upside-down kingdom, Frederick Buechner writes this: “The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’ The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’ The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’ The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’ In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."
May the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing. Amen.
If you say so
Luke 5:1-11 (The Message)
“Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” As Luke describes the scene in this week’s Gospel story, it’s early morning, and Simon Peter is cleaning his fishing nets after a miserable night out on the lake. He and his partners have worn themselves out, casting nets from dusk until dawn into the dark water. As the sun rises, they have nothing to show for their efforts but sore muscles and weary hearts; their nets are empty.
Just then, Jesus shows up, steps into Simon’s boat, and tells his would-be disciple to “put out into the deep water.” In other words, to do the same old same old one more time, with no guarantee that he’ll see better results. Simon protests: “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night...” But then he obeys: “But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” As soon as Simon’s net hits the water, his emptiness gives way to epiphany.
Let me say up front that I don’t fish. Never have, and I don’t picture it anywhere in my future. I know nothing about fish. Even so, I can see there is a lot for us to think about, as we figure out how this gospel story intersects with our lives. Let’s look at a couple of things:
First, it’s amazing that the story describes failure so honestly. As I so clearly stated, I’m no fisherperson, but I know what it’s like to work really hard at something that matters, and have nothing to show for my efforts when I'm done. I imagine we all do. I imagine we all know what’s it’s like to pour ourselves into a job, a relationship, a ministry, a dream — and come away exhausted, frustrated, thwarted, and just done. But if Simon's experience is representative, maybe Jesus has a way of showing up at precisely these moments of loss and defeat. Maybe he has good reasons for asking us to return to old places of pain and failure. In any case, when he encounters us, he doesn’t stand at the shore and wave us forward saying, “Try fishing over there!” He steps into the boat and ventures into the deep water with us. Is his timing maddening sometimes? Yes. But maybe his timing is also perfect. Maybe we’re most open to epiphanies when we’ve exhausted our own resources, and know that we’ve got nothing much to lose in saying “yes” to one more attempt -- this time with Jesus at our side.
Second, the story honors the “same old same olds” of our individual lives. Jesus’s call in this story is specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation his hearers know best. Simon and his partners understand the nuances of the “fishing for men and women” metaphor in ways I never will. They know from years of experience what depths of patience, resilience, intuition, and artistry professional fishing requires. Simon knows the tools of the trade, the limitations of his body, and the life-and-death importance of timing, humility, and discretion. Most of all, he knows the water. He knows how to respect it, how to listen to it, and how to bring forth its best. When Jesus shows up and commissions the seasoned fisherman, Simon understands the call not as a command to leave his experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of his knowledge and expertise forward — to become even more fully and freely himself.
Think about that for you, for us. Maybe a point of this story is to remind us that we don’t follow Jesus in the abstract. We don’t heed his call “in general,” as if Christianity comes down to nothing more than attending church or being a nice person. If we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to do it in the particulars of the lives, communities, cultures, families, and vocations we find ourselves in. We’ll have to trust that God prizes our intellects, our backgrounds, our educations, and our skills, and that he will bless and multiply the daily stuff of our lives for his purposes.
Debie Thomas says in her essay on this reading, “This is a promise to cultivate us, not to sever us from what we love. It's a promise rooted in gentleness and respect — not violence and coercion. It's a
promise that when we dare to “go deep,” to do what we know and love with Jesus at our side, God will enliven our efforts in ways we couldn't have imagined on our own.”
Third, think about the abundance at the heart of this story. In Jesus’s day, the fishing industry in Palestine was fully under the control of the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported — leaving local communities impoverished and hungry — and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. To catch even one fish outside of this deeply unfair system was considered illegal.
How amazing then, is an image of boats so laden with fish that even a weathered fisherman like Simon Peter finds the catch overwhelming. This is extravagant, excessive, bountiful generosity. Food for all, food security for all, justice for all, nurture for all. In this extravagant food for everyone, Jesus shows Simon what God’s kingdom will look like when it’s fully established. God’s kingdom will suffer no empty nets, no empty tables, and no economic exploitation of any kind. God’s kingdom will mean good news for all. Meaning that if whatever we profess as Christians is not good news for all — it’s not God.
Lastly, think about how this story tells the truth about our—at least, my--fraught journey with God and with faith: “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.” Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck in the gap between those two sentences. Maybe we all live in the gap between weariness and hope, defeat and faith, resignation and obedience. Though we’re often reluctant to admit it (for fear of sounding ungrateful or irreverent) life can be a grind. A same old same old of monotony and failure. Even the most earnest and hardworking of us can land up on shore some mornings with empty, stinking fishing nets tangled in our fingers, wondering what the heck went wrong.
“The hardest thing for any of us to do at these moments is to make the leap of trust that Simon makes. “If you say so, I will.” If you say so, I will try again. If you say so, I will be faithful to my vocation. If you say so, I will go deep rather than remain in the shallows. If you say so, I will trust that your presence in the boat is more precious than any guarantee of success. If you say so, I will cast my empty net into the water, and look with hope for your kingdom to come.” (Debie Thomas)
May it be so.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Is He With Us, Or Not?
Luke 4:21-30 (NRSV)
Katie Hines-Shah—a Lutheran pastor in Hinsdale, IL—tells about asking her six-year-old daughter what she learned in Sunday school that day. The six-year-old put down her fork, turned to her mother the pastor, and in a very serious tone said, “We learned that Jesus was not a Lutheran!”
So, Katie Hines-Shah did what any modern parent does with this kind of stark theological realization: she posted it on Facebook. And then came the comments: “Of course not, Jesus was a Presbyterian,” typed a Presbyterian friend. “Next they will be telling her he wasn’t even a Christian,” quipped another.
We know that Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew; the joke is that somehow, we imagine that Jesus was like us, and because he was like us, he liked us. That’s how Jesus can become, say, a light-skinned, blue-eyed Christian American, Hines-Shah contends, who votes the way we do, or at least roots for our favorite football team. And we aren’t alone. This idea that Jesus is our guy goes all the way back to the first Christians, to the first disciples, to the people who knew Jesus before anyone did—the people of Nazareth.
Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of last week’s—two diametrically opposed scenes in one narrative. The first one is nothing but good news: Jesus reads the Isaiah scroll at the Nazareth synagogue. He preaches his first sermon, just one short verse: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is good news, at least as far as the people of Nazareth are concerned. They know this Jesus—he’s the son of Joseph, the guy they grew up with. And now they assume salvation is coming their way. The Jews of Nazareth aren’t xenophobes. They don’t wish ill on their neighbors. They simply believe what we all believe: these promises, this good news, these miracles are primarily and maybe even exclusively for us.
And then in today’s gospel reading, Jesus upends everything.
It’s helpful to remember that Jesus doesn’t just go around doing nice things. It’s useful to know that the point of scripture isn’t always to make us feel good. Communities of faith and their leaders aren’t always going to meet our expectations, partially because they are human but also because sometimes we have to hear things that we would rather not. Which may be why Jesus says in Nazareth that day, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” And then he goes on to prove it.
“Remember Elijah?” Jesus says. Of course, they do. Elijah was the greatest of Hebrew prophets. But whom did Elijah feed in a time of great famine? Not anyone from Nazareth or Jerusalem or even Capernaum, but instead a widow in Zarephath—a small town in Lebanon.
And Jesus doesn’t stop. “Remember Elisha?” he continues. Of course, they do. Elisha’s everyone’s favorite wonder-worker. But did Elisha heal anyone in the Northern Kingdom? No. Jesus reminds the congregation that the only leper Elisha heals is Naaman, the Syrian. The people of Nazareth probably haven’t forgotten: Naaman was also an enemy army commander. It hurts. No wonder the people of Nazareth want to throw him off a cliff.
There isn’t really a cliff in Nazareth. When you go to the Holy Land and ask to see the place where this happened, they will take you to a gentle hill. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to get thrown off the gentle hill, but still—doesn’t it kind of seem like Jesus deserves it? If he’s with the other guy, how can he be with us?
Jesus escapes—if not certain death, then at least certain bruising—but how? Luke includes a tantalizing detail: Jesus goes through “the middle.” He refuses to be caught in the binary trap. He is not pro-Jew and anti-Samaritan. He’s not pro-Capernaum and anti-Nazareth. He won’t be pinned down as supporter of any political party or football team. Jesus will not be a Presbyterian or, as much as it pains Katie Hines-Shah to say it, a Lutheran. He won’t be contained.
She goes on to reflect: “Jesus came to be with us, whoever we are. This is so important because at some time or another, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of a dividing line. Our gender, our age, our race or color, who we love, how much money we make, our physical abilities or challenges, our nationality, where we went to school, how we pray—these will make us unworthy in the eyes of some. Someone once said whenever the world draws a line, Jesus steps across to the other side. His love is just that big.”
Another lectionary reading for this Sunday maps out a great promise of faith. It’s the well-known love chapter from the first letter to the people of Corinth. In this 13th chapter, Paul writes that our love should be too big for envy or boasting or rudeness to gain a foothold. Our love should be big enough to bear with one another, to see the good in our neighbor, to rejoice in truth over convenient lies. In an era when so many would pit us against one another, when bearing with one another is not the norm, Jesus calls us to remember: we are beloved siblings, and a beloved sibling cannot be our enemy. Our enemy is sin, death, and the devil—and Jesus has defeated them all.
The world we live in is full of division. Even a six-year-old can see it. And yet, we live with a diametrically opposed sure and certain hope. As the people of Nazareth once rejoiced to hear, we still believe: the scriptures are being fulfilled. The work Jesus began in Jerusalem broke through boundaries to reach people in every space and time. Jesus walks in the midst of all people: widows, lepers, folks who root for the opposing team, and even the unlikeliest: Christians like us. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
God Says Today Is Holy
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 (NRSV)
If someone told you to feast, celebrate, and rejoice right now, because today is a day “holy to the Lord,” how would you respond? If someone insisted that this year — 2022 — is “the year of the Lord’s favor,” what would you say?
I think a lot of us would say, “You’ve got to be kidding. This year? This one? Today? Right now? How can that possibly be?” We’d probably be skeptical.
I don’t have to tell you why we’d be skeptical: Omicron is overwhelming the planet. Hospitals are reaching capacity, physicians and nurses are exhausted, national and local economies are struggling, and Covid’s death toll continues to rise. And this is before we mention any of the other challenges facing us. Wars and threats of wars. Violence of all stripes. The catastrophic effects of climate change. The long shadow of racial injustice. Alarming breakdowns in civility and basic kindness. Rising epidemics of anxiety, depression, addiction, and despair.
Who on earth would reasonably call our current moment holy, or favored of God?
We need to think about this, because our lectionary this week does exactly this. Today we hear a story about people gathering to read, hear, and inwardly digest the word of God, we hear a call to attend to now. The story ends with an invitation to recognize the sacredness of the present moment. The story insists that when we seek the divine, today shimmers with the presence, the blessing, and the favor of God.
This is true regardless of circumstances. Regardless of the trials we face, the sorrows we carry, and the pain we bear. Not because God’s joyous “today” is dismissive of our hardships, but because God’s presence infuses all things. God’s joy — the joy which is our strength — has within it the capacity to hold and honor our tears.
This story from the book of Nehemiah describes a tender and hard-won moment in Israel’s history. Nehemiah is a minor figure in the court of Artaxerxes, the king of Persia. When Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem is a broken, fire-razed wreck, he begs the king to let him return to his homeland and rebuild the city of his ancestors. The obstacles to rebuilding are significant, but Nehemiah persists, and finally succeeds in restoring Jerusalem’s wall and gates. He then invites his people back from exile and asks them to gather in the square before the Water Gate for an assembly.
Our lectionary picks up there, at the moment when the prophet Ezra “opens the book in the sight of all people,” and reads from the law of Moses. He reads until the assembly of men, women, and children gathered in the square open their ears, stand up, raise their hands, worship “with their faces to the ground,” say, “Amen, Amen,” and weep. The story ends with Nehemiah and Ezra telling the people to dry their tears, return to their homes to “eat the fat and drink sweet wine,” and share the feast with those who are poor. Following an intense divine encounter, the people embrace the day and time they live in as “holy to the Lord.”
What a great story for us today! I think it offers us a beautiful reminder of what can happen when we seek the presence of God together, and allow that presence to touch every part of our lives. Remember, the Israelites who gather at the Water Gate to hear the reading of the Torah are not people living in a “happily ever after,” all their trials and travails behind them. They are people newly returned from exile to a homeland that’s still in ruins. Their traumas are fresh, and their future is unclear. Their most recent memories are memories of loss, dislocation, oppression, and chaos.
And yet, something powerful happens among them when Ezra opens the book and reminds them of who they are in the long arc of God’s story. What happens is not magic. And it’s not manipulation. What
happens is transformation. As the people work to listen to God’s word with their whole hearts, to receive what’s read in a spirit of openness and vulnerability, and to express their comprehension as honestly as they can, everything changes.
There’s no doubt, the honesty they express includes sorrow, lament, and repentance. Ezra reads for hours—from early morning until midday—and in that time, the people enter into a period of deep reflection and remembrance. And they weep. We aren’t told why they weep, but I imagine that when the Israelites hear the sacred stories of their tradition—the stories of the Exodus, the stories of God’s provision in the desert, the stories of their ancestors’ failures and rebellions—they feel everything from nostalgia to elation to horror to happiness. They weep in gratitude over God’s goodness. They weep in bewilderment over God’s silence. They weep in regret over their own sins. They weep in mourning for all they’ve surrendered or lost. And they weep in relief that the exile is over, and Jerusalem—a mess though it is—is once again their home.
God’s word—living and active among them—holds all of this. It allows all of this and blesses all of this. When the time is right, God transforms the entire encounter into an experience of joy.
Joy feels hard to come by these today, doesn’t it? For nearly two years now, we’ve been living as if the days we live in right now don’t count as “real life.” “Real life will resume after the pandemic,” we say. Real life will resume when church services go back to being in-person only. When we can celebrate communion without trying to get that plastic cover off the elements. When we put away our masks for good. When we get some sort of handle on climate change, police brutality, teen depression, and violence everywhere.
Are we, like Ezra’s listeners, full of pent-up grief, longing, regret, and lament that has nowhere to go? Do we assume we can’t lean into God’s joy until all our sorrows are spent? Or that worship can only be an articulation of happiness—not grief or anger or confusion or doubt? If that’s what we assume, can we possibly remind ourselves that God’s embrace is wide enough to hold all of human experience? Can we trust that God’s abundance is possible now, even in the midst of uncertainty and pain? Can we say “Amen” to God’s word in the complicated circumstances we live in right now? Today?
Can we accept the possibility of “holy discomfort,” as Rev. Debie Thomas describes it in her Journey with Jesus blog? Perhaps the “now” of God, she says, means we have to stand up, shake the dust off, and move. It’s one thing to scan the horizon of someday for the “year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s quite another to live boldly into that favor now. Today.
“This day is holy to our Lord.” May it be so for us.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
They Have No Wine
John 2:1-11 (NRSV)
This week’s scripture reading celebrates Jesus turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana — one of three traditional focal points for Epiphany through which Jesus’ identity “shows forth”; the other two being the visit of the Magi and Jesus’ baptism, the Gospel readings for Epiphany and last Sunday, if you’ve been following along. Next week, we’ll look at Luke’s story of how Jesus begins his public ministry — and so this week and next make for an intriguing comparison and contrast between two accounts of how Jesus “goes public.”
John organizes his Gospel around seven astounding “signs” that reveal Jesus’ identity and mission. The turning of water into wine is the first of these signs. John’s name for these events — “signs” — is a clue to their purpose: they’re supposed to catch our attention (even catch our breath!), drawing us toward what for John is the whole point: life with and in God. But amazement doesn’t always work that way. It’s only too easy to get caught up in the miraculous and miss the larger purpose, pulling the car over, as one commentary suggested, to ooh and ahh at a road sign pointing us toward our destination, instead of moving on to the destination itself! And as it turns out, this tension is a running theme throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus repeatedly scolds the crowds (and his disciples) for focusing too much on signs, urging them to move on to higher, more important matters.
But let’s look at this sign, in particular. Still a largely unknown rabbi, Jesus is invited to a wedding along with his disciples and his mother. Mary appears exactly twice in John’s Gospel: in this scene at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry, and at the foot of the cross at the end of it. On both occasions, Jesus addresses her as “woman” — an ancient form of address roughly equivalent to “madam,” a relatively formal gesture of respect.
The fact that Mary is concerned about the wine running low may mean the bride or groom is a close relative; in any case, in the ancient world, this kind of shortage was far more than mere inconvenience. Wedding celebrations would often last a week, and running out of wine would be a major embarrassment for the host family. The shortage may also indicate that both the family and the attendees lacked resources, since wedding guests often brought wine as a contribution to the party. In other words, as John tells it, this is a relatively modest, humble gathering of ordinary folk.
Rev. Debie Thomas is a great writer of essays based on the lectionary readings, and this is what she said about the heart of this story in John: “I doubt it’s the line I’m supposed to fixate on in this week’s Gospel reading, but I can’t help it. I can’t help wondering exactly how Mary says it. Quietly, urgently, after pulling her distracted son away from his friends, away from the music and the dancing, away from the servants working hard to hide their growing panic as countless wedding guests swirl obliviously around them. I imagine Mary takes Jesus into an inner room, fixes his attention with a stern stare, and whispers the shameful news into his ear: “They have no wine.”
Debie Thomas says what strikes her—in part—about this story, is the struggle to reconcile a Bible story about abundance with her own contemporary reality—both personal and global—of scorching scarcity. Mary’s line, ‘They have no wine,’ is a line Thomas says she can get behind. “They have no money.” “There is no cure.” “He has no friends.” “I have no strength.” Mary’s line is a line Thomas says she repeats daily, for herself and for others. It’s the line she clings to when she feels helpless, when she has nothing concrete to offer, when Christianity seems futile, when God feels like he’s a million miles away.
Unless one of you is keeping some amazing super power to yourself, none of us knows how to turn gallons—as much as 180 gallons!—of water into gallons of wine. But we do know how to say what Jesus’ mother says. Sometimes, it’s the only thing we know how to say. “There is need here.” “Everything is not okay.” “We’re in trouble.” “They have no wine.”
In an amazing twist in the story, Jesus initially dismisses his mother’s suggestion (How is this our problem?) — but Mary dismisses his dismissal. The moment goes by in an instant, but it’s nonetheless striking (and funny!): Mary sees something Jesus doesn’t, and rather than argue with him, she simply presumes victory and turns to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” What is it that Mary sees? Is she concerned about the host family’s reputation? Or does she see in this dilemma a golden opportunity for Jesus to start his ministry? Jesus says, in effect, The time isn’t right. His mother knows better: The time is perfect — seize the day!
Of course, Jesus is no fool; he knows that his countdown to crucifixion will begin as soon as he makes his true identity known. Maybe he’s reluctant to start that ominous clock ticking. Maybe he thinks wine-making shouldn’t be his first miracle. Maybe he’s having fun with his friends, and doesn’t want to be interrupted. Maybe there’s a mysterious timeline he prefers to follow — a timeline known only to him and to God. Whatever the case, Mary doesn’t cave in the face of his reluctance; she continues to press the urgency of the need into Jesus’s presence. As if to say, “I don’t care about your ‘hour’ — there’s a desperate problem, right here, right now. Change your plans. Hasten the hour. Empathy first. Help!”
So what about us? How can we fit into this story?
Maybe we can be like Mary. Maybe we can notice, name, persist, and trust. No matter how profound the scarcity, no matter how impossible the situation, we can elbow our way in, pull Jesus aside, ask earnestly for help, and ready ourselves for action. We can tell God hard truths, even when we’re supposed to be celebrating. We can keep human need squarely before our eyes, even and especially when denial, apathy, or distraction are easier options. And finally, we can invite others to obey the miraculous wine-maker we have come to know and trust.
"They have no wine." “Do whatever he tells you.” We live in the tension between these two lines. Let's live there well, confident of the one whose help we seek. Because he is good. He is generous. He is Love. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
An Act of Alignment
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (NRSV)
I know a lot of people who are profoundly grateful for their chiropractors. They talk glowingly about what it feels like to have their spine correctly realigned after having it be out of alignment. They talk about the relief they feel—often throughout their entire body—when all things are in the proper position in relation to each other. The correct alignment of our bodies is important to our overall health and well-being.
I thought about these people I know who are grateful for their chiropractors when I started reading some commentaries on today’s scripture from the gospel of Luke, where we hear of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. You may think that chiropractors and baptism cannot be connected in any way, but let’s think about this for a minute. My own thinking was piqued when I read something Rev. Debie Thomas wrote on the blog, Journey with Jesus.
She wrote about how hard it can be to go through the season of Christmas and Epiphany and then, all of a sudden, find ourselves—as we are, today—“standing in a long line of people by the banks of the Jordan River. Ahead of us, waist-deep in the water, John the Baptist bellows a no-nonsense call to repentance. Behind us, at the very end of the long line, stands that once-upon-a-time baby — all grown up. Thirty years have gone by, and the promised child is about to come into his promise.” Thirty years have gone by. That, all by itself, is kind of hard to get our heads wrapped around after just celebrating Jesus’ birth!
Rev. Thomas wrote, “On the other hand, even though the ‘fast forward’ between seasons feels abrupt, I’m grateful that the first glimpse we get of Jesus’s adult life is during his baptism. I’m especially grateful this year, because the baptism story recorded in the Gospels speaks to a question we all need to be asking in these difficult and divisive times: how can we live well together? How can we belong well together? What must we do to embrace a truly common life as human beings coexisting on this struggling planet?” That’s what piqued my interest and stirred my soul; the question about how can we live well together today.
“Whatever else Jesus’s baptism story is,” she wrote, “it is first and foremost a story of the sacred ordinary. That is, it’s a story of profound humility. The holy child conceived of the Holy Spirit, celebrated by angels, worshiped by shepherds, and feared by Herod, stands in the same muddy water we stand in. The Messiah’s first public act is a declaration of solidarity. God is one of us.”
In case we’re tempted to skip over this aspect of the story too quickly, it’s worth noting that the Baptism of the Lord has raised awkward questions ever since it happened thousands of years ago. According to Christian historian John Dominic Crossan, Jesus’s baptism was an "acute embarrassment" for the early Church, because it didn’t fit the triumphalist Messianic image the Church hoped to portray. Why would the Son of God place himself under the guiding influence of someone like John the Baptist? Why would a supposedly sinless Messiah need to be baptized? Did Jesus really want to be lumped in with the people who streamed into the wilderness to listen to John? Weren’t those the same people John the Baptist called “a brood of vipers” just a few verses before our scripture reading today? Weren’t those people desperate, broken, tainted, and sinful? Why would God choose such an odd moment in the Messiah’s life — such a mundane and perhaps even sordid moment — to part the clouds and call Jesus “the Beloved?
“Unbelievable as it seems,” Rev. Thomas wrote, “Jesus’s first public act is an act of alignment. Of radical and humble joining. His first step is a step towards us.”
In other words, in this one moment, in this one act, Jesus steps into the common and, frankly, inescapable experience of living in a broken, sin-soaked world, and hungering for righteousness, redemption, and restoration within that world. “The question at stake is not about Jesus’s personal “sinfulness.” The question is about what it means to declare genuine and costly solidarity with our neighbors in a world that is structurally, wholly, and jointly “living in sin.” We can’t belong well to each other if we’re busy erecting walls between “our” piety and “their” sinfulness. We are in this together. We are in all of this together.”
Our ancestors in the faith couldn’t understand Jesus’s willingness to risk defilement by aligning himself with our messiness, our chaos, and our weakness. They — like us — wanted to keep God separate, safe, and squeaky clean.
But Rev. Thomas reminded me that to embrace Christ’s baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are all united, interdependent, connected, one. Our personal “goodness” notwithstanding, our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are family, responsible for each other in ways we fail so often to honor.
“Baptism is all about stepping in, all about finding the holy in the course of my ordinary, mundane life within the family of God. The challenge is always before me and before all of us, so look again. Look harder. See freshly. Stand in the place that looks utterly ordinary, and regardless of how scared or jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of a surprise that is God. Stand in the dirty water with the people you'd rather not stand next to, skin to skin, fates knitted together — because holiness is in the spaces you'll create together. There is one baptism, one common hope for all of us. You can't dip your toes in. You must take a deep breath and plunge. Yes, baptism promises new life, but it always drowns before it resurrects.”
Where can we find hope, then? “Simply in this: Jesus is the one who stands in line with us at the water's edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that will tell us who we are and whose we are in this sacred season. Listen. We are God's chosen. God's children. God's own. Even in the deepest, darkest water, we are the Beloved.” Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Uh Oh…Where’s the Baby Jesus?
Matthew 2.1-12 (The Message)
Lent is coming! This, I confess, is what runs through the minds of church leaders as we come to a new year. Yep…Ash Wednesday is a mere 8 weeks away from today, on March 2nd. With Lent, Holy Week and Easter beginning to push and shove for space in my brain, it shouldn’t be surprising that I sometimes have a hard time thinking about this story from the gospel of Matthew, the familiar and well-loved story of the Magi traveling from the East to find the baby Jesus.
Years ago, now—and yet, I remember it like it was yesterday—I had an experience of looking for the baby Jesus. It’s not a story as familiar as the one from the gospel of Matthew, but maybe you’ve had something like this happen to you.
I brought my beloved dog, Maggie Mae, to the church I was serving. It was the Wednesday after Christmas. Maggie was a beautiful rescue dog a friend found for me, a black and white English Springer Spaniel with soulful eyes and really big, long ears. Every time she entered the church, she was a ball of energy, running from one end of the building to the other. On that Wednesday, she tore off toward the Christian Education wing, and nearly tumbled head-over-heels as she came upon the children’s Christmas tree, and the nativity scene set so beautifully beneath it. I watched Maggie for a second, and then opened up my office and settled in to get some things done.
A little later, as I walked toward the Christian Education wing to see where Maggie had gone, I glanced at the nativity scene set so beautifully beneath the Christmas tree…and saw the chaos.
There on the floor, about eight inches away from the stable, lay Joseph, face down on the carpet. A few inches from him, lay some sheep, plowed down, I quickly assumed, by the galloping Maggie who liked to get in close to sniff things, forgetting just how long her ears were. A little further away, almost hidden under the tree, was a young shepherd boy carrying a sheep on his shoulders, flat on his back, gasping for air, it seemed. The only survivors in the nativity scene set so beautifully beneath the Christmas tree were Mary, and way off to the East, the wise men. And a cow.
As I surveyed the scene a moment longer, something caught my attention. Something was missing. What was missing? Oh yeah, the baby Jesus! Where’s the baby Jesus? No manger. No Jesus. Just the young mother Mary, kneeling quietly next to empty hay as Joseph struggled to get up off the floor outside the stable.
Oh no, I thought to myself…Maggie ate the baby Jesus! Now, Maggie wasn’t stupid; she didn’t typically eat things that really weren’t edible. Food left on the counter, or on the table, or in a bag on the floor? Yeah, she would eat that. But the baby Jesus? Would Maggie really eat the baby Jesus? If she did, well, I knew what that meant. If she didn’t, where was the baby?
Our Scripture today tells the story of the journey the magi took to find the baby Jesus. I suspect that many times along the way, they asked the same question. Where’s the baby Jesus? In a couple of days, on January 6th, the Church celebrates Epiphany—the day we stop to consider the story of the magi—so I think it’s good for us to remember that these people went on an amazing journey to find Jesus. And the scripture tells us they were full of joy when they found him because, looking at Jesus, they knew they had arrived at their long-awaited destination. Presumably, most of their fellow magi stayed home, took
no journeys toward the east, refused to go off on some wild camel ride to see a baby on the basis of nothing more than a star.
These magi—we don’t know if there were three or 13 of them, Matthew only says they offered the baby three gifts—these magi were the sort of people who were looking for something, willing to risk a journey, brave enough to venture forth on the search. And when they got to the right place, they felt joy.
I know people who would rather get a root canal than take a trip. They love home and its comforts. They love being in control of their surroundings, and the one thing that makes a journey difficult is that it places us at the mercy of the trip. Every trip involves risk. The magi were willing to take the risk.
Matthew introduces us to another character in this Epiphany story—King Herod. We thought about him last week, as well. Having heard about “the one born king of the Jews,” he got very nervous. The star the magi followed struck him with fear. And he wasn’t the only one who was terrified. Matthew says, “Herod was terrified, and all Jerusalem with him.” They were terrified, I imagine because they knew that when Herod was terrified, all hell would break loose. And they were right.
So there is fear in this story, and there is great joy.
At any church on any Sunday morning, in the light of this Epiphany story, you have mainly two kinds of Christians. First, you have those who have arrived. They may have been on a journey, but now, having found what they were looking for, they experience joy at having reached their destination. A second group consists of those who are at the beginning of—or, in the middle of—a journey toward Christ. Often, the most difficult part of a journey can be the middle part. There is anxiety about when and how you will reach the destination. “Are we ever going to get there?” someone asks. Will the final destination be worth all of the perils and difficulties along the way? So, we feel fear.
Joy and fear. These are two conflicting, sometimes complementary emotions to be found in any church on any Sunday morning. They are the emotions of travelers. And according to scripture, all of us who walk with Jesus are travelers. And soon—very soon—we will begin another journey. This time it will be a journey toward a cross.
But for now, we give thanks for the magi who were willing to risk taking a long journey to follow a star, and to believe that God would lead them to the place where the baby lay.
As for the baby Jesus in the nativity scene set so beautifully beneath the tree? I didn’t find him until after the first of the year. May that be what we find this new year, as well. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
how christmas works
Matthew 2:13-23 (The Message)
You know about the shepherds and the angels and the wise men from the East.
You’re familiar with Joseph and Mary and the “little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”
These characters are known to us all, and our visions of them can leave us with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
But scratch the surface of any Christmas card image, and you’re going to uncover greed and passion, danger and death.
How does Christmas really work?
One place to begin to answer this question is the Internet, which conveniently enough includes a site called “How Christmas Works.” It’s a one-stop shop for all your questions about the holiday.
Questions like, “Why do people give each other presents on Christmas Day?” Or, “Is December 25 really the day Jesus was born?”
Then there’s the mistletoe mystery. What does it have to do with the Christmas story? Absolutely nothing.
And how about the 12 days of Christmas? What’s that about? Aren’t there like about 30 days of Christmas, from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day?
Of course, there are answers to these questions for those who are truly interested. The point is, a cultural and religious tradition like Christmas takes years, even centuries, of formation until it becomes the event it is today, enshrined in the global consciousness in one way or another. Christmas works through all these traditions and legends and customs that have evolved over time.
In reality though, Christmas almost didn’t happen. Dig beneath the peaceful picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, and you are going to find surprises. Take a close look at the gospel of Matthew, and you’ll be stunned by the danger and death that flow through the original Christmas story. You want to talk about catastrophe theory, you can start right here. Christmas should never have happened.
You don’t, for example, take your pregnant wife — nine months pregnant with God— put her on a mule, and pack her off on a 120-mile road trip.
Second, if you do, you arrange for lodging, and don’t just hope there will be a room in the inn.
Third, the child is born in a manger. Think about it. We often wonder how children survive these days? Back then, a lot of them didn’t. Jesus did, but where he was born certainly wasn’t your typical birthing center.
And then there are the wise men who hit a roadblock as they attempt to gain access to Jesus. Sure, the star in the sky is a big help as they make their way to Jerusalem, but once they arrive in the capitol they
run smack into King Herod, who’s already working on an exit strategy in case this new “king” isn’t found — and killed. To make sure, scores of male children are killed in what today is known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.”
So, Christmas almost didn’t come off then — and it often doesn’t come off at all for us now. Of course, we go through the motions. The presents, the Christmas cards, the shopping, the food, the parties, and so on. But that’s not Christmas. That’s the holidays. So how does Christmas work?
It works when we remember that Christmas now, as then, is a dangerous business. Christmas is not easy, and in fact it can be costly, because it demands that we put “the hopes and fears of all the years” to work. It calls on us to give muscle to our aspirations and dreams. And that’s not easy. But if we do it, Christmas works.
Christmas works when we shatter the false gods of materialism, and the idols of ambition, and the demons of self-importance, and set up the Christ child as the promise and priority of our lives. When Christ is the center of our daily living, then the other demons will fade away.
When we honor Christ, and not the culture of Christmas, as it were, then Christmas, ironically, really works. The demons, while there, have no control.
Finally, we honor Christmas when we allow it to take us to a foreign land. The text today tells us about the flight of the holy family into Egypt. Jesus often leads us into unknown territory. We find ourselves in uncharted waters. But that’s what Christmas is about, letting Jesus take our hand and lead us along our journey.
The late Mike Yaconelli, told the story about a deacon in his church who wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do as a deacon. One day he said to the deacon, “I have a group of young people who go to the old folks home and put on a worship service once a month. Would you drive them to the old folk’s home? Could you at least do that?” The deacon agreed.
The first Sunday the deacon was at the old folk’s home, he was in the back with his arms folded as the kids were doing their thing up front. All of a sudden, someone was tugging at his arm. He looked down, and here was this old man in a wheelchair. He took hold of the old man’s hand and the old man held his hand all during the service. The next month that was repeated. The man in the wheelchair came and held the hand of the deacon.
The next month, the next month, and the next month.
Then the old man wasn’t there. The deacon inquired and he was told, “Oh, he’s down the hall, right hand side, third door. He’s dying. He’s unconscious, but if you want to go down and pray over him, that’s all right.”
The deacon went and there were tubes and wires hanging out all over the place. The deacon took the man’s hand and prayed that God would receive the man, that God would bring this man from this life into the next and give him eternal blessings.
As soon as he finished the prayer, the old man squeezed the deacon’s hand, and the deacon knew that he had been heard. He was so moved by this that tears began to run down his cheeks.
He stumbled out of the room and as he did, he bumped into a woman. She said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said that he didn’t want to die until he had the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.”
The deacon was amazed at this. He said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “Well, my father would say that once a month Jesus came to this place. ‘He would take my hand and he would hold my hand for a whole hour. I don’t want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.’”
Christmas works when we let Jesus take us into unfamiliar territory — a nursing home, a neighbor’s home, or into something even more bizarre, like an attitude adjustment, a generous spirit, a helping hand. Whatever.
The point is that whenever and wherever we go, we are the hand of Jesus to others, and when that happens — Christmas happens.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Luke 1:39-45 (The Message)
This morning, I’ve asked Diane to play a couple of lines from a piece of music that may be familiar to you. (Diane plays from The Skater’s Waltz.)
Even those who may not be gifted with an ear for music can probably recognize the signature sounds of a waltz. What gives a waltz its characteristic lilt and lift is the number of musical beats it contains in each measure of music. That easily identifiable waltz beat is called "3/4 time" -- it has three beats to a measure. Listen again to this waltz, and I think you'll hear it. (Diane plays again.)
The first of the three beats is usually the accented beat, the second two beats softer and unaccented: "Dum-de-de, Dum-de-de." The waltz, popularized in the later 19th century by Richard Strauss in the lavish social circles of Vienna, became enormously successful. Everybody who was anybody was dancing the waltz to Strauss' hypnotic 3/4 beat. If you were waltzing, you were with it.
But what makes a waltz a waltz is also, as some have said, what makes a waltz a pretty boring piece of music. Its slavish devotion to that 3/4 beat limits the variety, the drama and the joy that a waltz can communicate to listeners. Like the waltz dance step that accompanied it -- step, two, three; step, two, three -- a piece of waltz music seemed to go on and on as if it were some perpetual motion machine -- always beautiful, always in harmony, always predictable, always dull.
Have you ever noticed that despite our human tendency to blame God for everything bad and hard that happens in our lives, we rarely find a reason to accuse God of being boring? Earthquakes, famine, flood, disease, death -- or more regularly the everyday tragedies that mar our lives -- bounced checks, bad relationships, difficult coworkers, broken promises and brawling kids -- are all somehow blamed on God. When people and problems in our lives get too difficult, too big, too messy, too overwhelming, that is when we feel God has abandoned us to the forces of fate, or evil or despair.
What these frantic few days before Christmas can recall for us, however, is that it is exactly during these most hectic, harried, hardest moments in life that God's presence hovers nearest to us. What appear to us to be our most chaotic, congested, convoluted times are actually our "stable times" (with thanks to Dr. Virginia Hoch for originating this phrase).
For people of faith, "stable" moments aren't those few days when calm briefly descends on our world. Our true "stable times" are when we look around and see that however unpredictable, unmanageable and unimaginable our mess, the message is there even more.
In today's gospel text, both Elizabeth and Mary find they are in the midst of their own "stable times." Elizabeth is far beyond child-bearing age, yet she finds herself pregnant with her first child. Imagine her overwhelming feelings of joy and anxiety. At last, a child to love and care for!
Care for?! That’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? Suddenly, in her old age, Elizabeth was going to be expected to take on all the exhilarating but exhausting duties of motherhood. Could she do it? How would she manage? Was she up to it? Her anxiety must have been running high. But the mental state of her young relative Mary must have been even more disheveled.
Like Elizabeth, she, too, was unexpectedly pregnant. Her betrothed, but not quite yet husband Joseph was understandably confused and upset. Mary was young and poor and had been utterly average in the expectations she had for her life. She had been anticipating setting up a household with Joseph, establishing herself in her new role as wife, and then, hopefully, becoming a mother.
Instead, Mary recently had to cope with the astounding visit of an angelic messenger, the shocking realization that she was indeed pregnant, and the stunning news about the identity of this baby she carried. Has anyone ever been faced with such an outrageously "stable time" in his or her life as Mary?
Yet both Elizabeth and Mary respond to the revelations and situations these "stable times" present in their lives by fully opening themselves to this unexpected divine presence. When these two most unstable-appearing women come together in today's gospel text, the result is an outpouring of joy and praise for God's startling stable presence in their lives. Elizabeth feels the vigorous movement of her baby, the "quickening," and is overwhelmed with an insight into Mary's condition that is revealed to her.
Mary responds to Elizabeth's greeting by delivering one of the most beautiful prayers of praise we have in all of Scripture. The "Magnificat," as Mary's hymn is usually termed, is an astonishing example of what kind of unexpected beauty and inspiration emerges when the unpredictable rhythm of "stable time" washes over us. God takes a simple, humble, young woman and looks "with favor on the lowliness of his servant," transforming and exalting her. Mary becomes "blessed ... among women" -- because she refuses to panic and instead responds to this most "stable" moment in her life with faith and trust.
Jesus was born in a stable -- a small, cramped, congested, messy place. A new-born baby was out-of-place, out-of-sync, amid the dusty animals, the mucky straw, the sneaking vermin, the spilled grain, all the usual smells and sounds and sights found in a stable. But the mess is the message of Christmas: There is no stable, no place in our world or in our lives that is too poor, too remote, too outcast, too "other," too messy, that God cannot be found and formed in us there.
As Christmas fast approaches, we may find ourselves at wits' end, running out of time, out of patience, out of money, out of ideas. The demands of work and the responsibilities we bear refuse to "take a holiday" and keep the pressure on, despite our longing for some simple Christmas cheer.
Don't be fooled into thinking that God cannot draw close to your life, to your heart, just because your schedule seems "too busy" for Christmas. If your circuitry is all hovering near overload, you could be on the very cusp of experiencing genuine "stable time" in your life. Open up to it, exalt in it, and be willing to let the Spirit of God "do great things for you." May it be so!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Don’t Tell Me How to Feel
Philippians 4:4-7 (NRSV)
I have a small group of clergy colleagues I meet with on Zoom roughly once a month. We’ve known each other for a long, long time, and we’ve worked together in group settings for decades—often with a mentor/teacher/spiritual guide of some sort, in an attempt to maximize our effectiveness as church leaders and people of faith. Some in the group are now retired, but when the pandemic hit, we quickly reached out to each other and re-started our commitment to work together and be supportive of each other in these really, really weird times.
We had a Zoom meeting this past week. I’d missed the meetings for the previous two months, I think, so it was good to join the group again. This is a group that loves to laugh, and our meeting started with some very satisfying, robust laughter. It felt so good to laugh like that. By the end of our meeting, usually about an hour or so later, I noticed that our conversation became very dark. Covid issues. Political issues. Challenging church issues. Sadness about the state of the world, in general. It just got dark.
Then I also became aware, as we neared the one hour mark, that the group typically looks to Mike (who couldn’t be with us) for an ending joke (which are usually really, really bad!), or they look to me to offer some word of hope. In the midst of this meeting’s dark ending, someone asked me, “So, Lisa, what’s the word?” I replied, “The word is this: Jesus still comes and there is light in the darkness.” Joy to the world! I don’t know if it helped the group feel better, but I felt it needed to be said!
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with reminders to be joyful, to rejoice, even in the midst of darkness. But, as one pastor said, “Paul sounds so like Pollyanna!”
This pastor, Debie Thomas, who is the Minister of Lifelong Formation at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California, went on to say, “Like most people, I don't like being told what to feel. Nothing brings out the curmudgeon in me like a catchy slogan about positivity: "Don't worry, be happy!" "Start your day with a smile!" "Happiness is a choice!"
“So, this week's epistle reading, chock-full of such cheery imperatives, is tough for me to take in. "Rejoice in the Lord always," Paul tells his friends in Philippi. "Again, I will say, 'Rejoice.'" "Do not worry about anything. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone." I don't know about you, but when I read these verses, my inner teenager rises up in rebellion. Snarky and superior, she frowns, rolls her eyes, and heads for the door.”
She continues, and says something that captured my attention. “On a more serious note, I know from growing up in the church that the exhortation to "rejoice always" can do serious harm when we elevate it over and above the insights of psychology. Telling someone who struggles with clinical depression to rejoice always is cruel. So is telling someone in the throes of a panic attack to just stop feeling anxious. Too often, Christians demand of each other a Pollyanna-ish cheerfulness that refuses to look the complexities of real life in the face. As if our faith—and, by extension, our God—is too fragile to handle life's dark side without a generous side serving of grinning emojis.”
Debie Thomas reflected that what was helping her to contemplate Paul's advice was to remember that he wrote this letter from prison—while awaiting trial and anticipating a likely outcome of death. It also helps, she said, to remember that Paul was a man who was threatened, rejected, beaten, and shipwrecked. A man with a "thorn in the flesh" that God apparently did not heal. A man whose haunted past included contempt, rage, and even violence. A man who knew firsthand the irony of Pax Romana—a peace that existed in the Roman Empire—that left most people cringing under state-sponsored oppression.
“Paul was no Pollyanna;” she said. “He was a tried and tested realist.”
So, maybe these famous verses from Philippians are not about feeling good so much as they are about cultivating the inner life of the soul. In Paul's view, peace and joy are not emotions we can conjure up within ourselves. They come from God, and the only way we can receive them is through consistent spiritual practice: prayer, supplication, gentleness, and contemplation.
In other words, “…joy requires us to sidestep sentimentality and cynicism alike. It requires that we hold onto two realities at once: the reality of the world's brokenness in one hand, and the reality of God's love in the other. Joy is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes. It is a posture, an orientation, a practice. A willingness to sit gently but persistently in the tension of the "not yet," trusting that God's peace will guard our hearts and minds in that in-between place for as long as it takes.”
This is joy at its most robust, its most powerful. There's no emoji in the world that can contain it.
We’re going to sing, now, a hymn that I love to sing, “Joy to the World!” For all the years of my ministry, I have insisted the churches I served wait to sing this until as late on Christmas Eve as possible. But then I read somewhere this week…this week!...that this hymn wasn’t originally meant to be a hymn for the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day, but it is, in fact, an Advent hymn. I never knew this!
This is the day to sing Joy to the World! This third Sunday in Advent, when we realize we still have a couple weeks to go in this darkness before the baby is born. This Third Sunday in Advent, that we celebrate as the Sunday of Joy in our Advent wreath. Let’s sing this together, believing, trusting that joy is coming! Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Luke 1:26-38 (The Message)
I cannot say I’d ever really thought about this, until my friend, Steve, included me in an email he sent out to his church members and friends, asking the question. He asked: What if Mary said no? What if, when the angel Gabriel came to her and told her the good news that she would give birth to the Son of God, she had said, “No. Thank you, though. I appreciate that you were thinking about me. It’s always good to hear from you, Almighty God. But, no. Just no.”
Here are some of the responses Steve received to this interesting question:
· Wait…that would mean we’d never have Peter, Paul, and Mary. Peter, Paul, and Esther? It just doesn’t sound right.
· If not Mary, then it would be someone else. Catholics could be saying “Hail, Thelma” instead of “Hail, Mary.”
· Do women ever say no????
· But Mary wouldn’t get to hang out in bathtubs in people’s yards all across America!
What if Mary said no? It’s interesting to think about, isn’t it? I have—maybe we all have—this image from Scripture that she was pleased as punched to be asked to participate in this enormous thing God was about to do, and there’s no doubt that God’s request of Mary simply could not be any more important.
But the bible doesn’t tell us what would have happened—what God would have done—if Mary said no. Instead, all we know is that God focused on Mary; God chose Mary. God knew she’d say yes. This is what Liz Curtis Higgs writes in her book, The Women of Christmas. “God didn’t have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. Mary was The Plan.”
I want us to think some more about this, but let’s go back for a moment to remember the conversation between Mary and the angel, Gabriel, as imagined in the book, Cloth For the Cradle. This is the story of what happened in the days before Jesus was born, in the town of Nazareth, where there was a young woman whose name was Mary.
Mary: I was washing the dishes at the time. I was bending over the sink, with my back turned away from the kitchen door—not that he necessarily opened it. I just remember hearing my name being called.
Mary: That’s me…but who are you? And what are you doing here in my kitchen?
Gabriel: It’s all right. I’m called Gabriel.
Mary: But I don’t know any men called Gabriel.
Gabriel: I’m not a man. I’m an angel.
Mary: You don’t look much like an angel to me.
Gabriel: Have you seen an angel before?
Mary: No. But they always have wings. Where are your wings?
Gabriel: I don’t need them when I’m not flying.
Mary: So, what are you doing in my kitchen?
Gabriel: I’ve come to bring you a message.
Mary: You’re putting me on!
Gabriel: No. I’m not. I’ve come to tell you that God has chosen you to enable the Incarnation to take place.
Mary: To enable the what?
Gabriel: The Incarnation…the word becoming flesh.
Mary: Gabriel, what are you talking about?
Gabriel: You’re going to become pregnant.
Mary: Not with you, I’m not! And not in here. What do you think I am?
Gabriel: Mary, it’s all right. God has chosen you to become the mother of his son.
Mary: Me? I’m not even married.
Gabriel: (speaking calmly) The Holy Spirit will descend on you, and you will conceive a child, and you will call him Jesus. That means “savior.” Out of all the women in history, God has chosen you. Out of all the minutes in history, this is the one in which God needs a woman, not to give him her body, but to give him her Yes.
Mary: (almost speechless) But what will my parents say?
Gabriel: They’ll be all right.
Mary: What will Joseph say?
Gabriel: Don’t worry. I’ll have a word with him.
Lynn Cowell read the book, The Women of Christmas, and found herself thinking about Mary, as well.
She wrote, “The authors’ words about Mary take me back to my own direction changing story. The season was coming to an end. I was done with school and had no idea what God had for me next. I had tried to open a door, only to have it quickly slammed shut. Now what? Sharing my dilemma with my counselor, she asked me if I had prayed about it. Why, of course I had prayed about it! The problem wasn’t me , God simply wasn’t talking.
“Then she said these wise words, redirecting my focus: ‘When you reach the point, that no matter what God says, the answer is “yes”, you’ll hear Him.’”
That’s what God knew about Mary. God knew her answer would be “yes”.
So, stop and think about how willing you are—and I’ll think about how willing I am—to follow what God asks us to do. Do I always respond like Mary? Do you always respond like Mary? No. Are there things we’ve been aske to do that we haven’t followed through with yet? Oh, yes. Absolutely.
What does God need from us now, if our hearts and minds are open, and willing?
Mary accepted God’s goodness in her life, and God changed the world through her. God chooses to change the world through us only when we are willing to say “Yes!” That’s living life to its fullest in the kingdom of God. That’s why we celebrate Mary.
Today we give thanks that Mary said, “Yes!” to God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Put Your Face in the Sunlight
Isaiah 60:1-3 (The Message)
“Put your face in the sunlight!”
God created our bodies to thrive when they are exposed to a healthy amount of sunlight. The light of day is the very first thing God creates in the book of Genesis, so we know it is critical to all life forms. We need the sun to shine on our faces!
Do you have, or do you know someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder? It’s a type of depression that affects a person during the same season every year. For those of us who live in the Northeast, this is a relatively common ailment during the winter season we are getting ready to fully enter in a few short weeks.
Anyone can get SAD, but it is more common in:
People who live in areas where winter days are very short.
People between the ages of 15 and 55.
People who have a close relative with SAD.
Experts are not sure what causes SAD, but they think it may be caused by a lack of sunlight. Lack of light may upset the sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms, and it may cause problems with a brain chemical called serotonin that affects mood.
If you have SAD, you may:
Feel sad, grumpy, moody, or anxious.
Lose interest in your usual activities.
Eat more and crave carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta.
Sleep more and feel drowsy during the daytime.
The symptoms of SAD come and go at about the same time each year, and for most people with SAD, symptoms start in September or October and end in April or May.
One of the recommendations for people who suffer from SAD is light therapy, of which there are two types:
Bright light treatment, where you sit in front of a "light box" for half an hour or longer, usually in the morning.
Dawn simulation. For this treatment, a dim light goes on in the morning while you sleep, and it gets brighter over time, like a sunrise.
Like some of you, I bet, I find I have a hard time getting up when it is dark in the morning, so I found myself really interested in this idea of a dawn simulator. Turns out, you can get one in an alarm clock! The Sunrise Clock is a slow light alarm clock designed to simulate an actual sunrise. Just like God intended (!), this clock lets you wake gently to a progressive, simulated sunrise. The light will begin to shine slowly either 15, 20, 30, 45, 60 or 90 minutes (you choose) before your scheduled wake time, gradually filling the room with light until your alarm sounds. Doesn’t that sound beautiful?!
The other product I was fascinated by was something called a Feel Bright Full Spectrum Light Visor. This thing is completely portable and works just as well as a 10,000 lux desktop lamp. It connects to a baseball cap and shines some light on your face through a rechargeable LED device. You have the freedom to go anywhere you want and still get the light therapy you desire! Very clever…
We are created to thrive in the light of the sun.
I remember the time during a very gloomy winter in WNY when I came out of the grocery store and felt like I was HIT by sunlight! For a moment, I had to stop walking with my grocery cart, because I couldn’t see where I was going. Other people in the parking lot were laughing and talking to each other…pointing to the sun and saying, “What is that thing in the sky?”
We are created to thrive in the light of the sun.
But so many of us truly know what it feels like to live in darkness.
Years ago on PBS there was a Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Dust Bowl”. I don’t remember watching the whole thing, but the image I was so struck by—the image I can still remember clearly—was the image of a black blizzard approaching from the distance. Approaching fast.
The people in the path of that black blizzard knew what they were about to endure on Palm Sunday in 1935 because they had endured it before. They knew that very soon a complete darkness would envelop their world. "The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face," Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. "People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk... We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real."
There are all kinds of darkness each of us experiences. I don’t have to tell you about the darkness because in one way or another, you have lived in it. Maybe you are living in it right now.
But the prophet Isaiah tells us this is what God says: “Get out of bed, Jerusalem! Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight. God’s bright glory has risen for you.”
This is the message of Advent: the gift of God is coming and the gift will be like light shining in the deepest darkness.
“God rises on you, his sunrise glory breaks over you.”
On you. Over you.
Our challenge today, on this first Sunday in Advent, is to focus on this light we are promised, to trust that Christ is always present—even in, especially in, times of darkness.
When we practice focusing our eyes on light, there is always some light to be found. In fact, none of the shadows we encounter in day-to-day life are totally dark and depressing. They all contain some small amount of light.
Shadow expert David Lynch, co-author of a book called Color and Light in Nature, points out that a shadow is filled with light reflected from the sky—otherwise, it would be completely black. If you want to see a completely black shadow, one that has no brightness at all, you have to go to the moon. Black is the way that shadows on the moon look to astronauts, because the moon has no atmosphere to bounce light into the dark corners of the lunar surface.
Even in our shadow times—our times of disappointment, failure, temptation and tension—God is going to bounce some light into our darkness. I know…I know this is really hard to believe, sometimes, but I believe if we are willing to search for the light of God in times of deep darkness, we will find it. If we look hard for Jesus Christ in situations of chaos and confusion, we will discover him.
If we train our eyes on the small glimmers of light that appear in our shadow times, we will emerge from the blackness that threatens to overwhelm us.
Although “the whole earth is wrapped in darkness, all people sunk in darkness,” promises Isaiah, “God rises on you. God’s sunrise glory breaks over you.”
As I was meditating on this scripture reading for today’s worship, I wrote this prayer in my journal…and I invite you to be in prayer with me as I share it: “I am drawn to your Light, O God, and yet there are days (sometimes more!) when I feel like I am in a dust cloud, living in a profoundly gloomy WNY day, and my heart and my spirit are sad. The darkness is all around…it is all some people see, it is all some people experience.
“But I know the beauty of the Light, O God! I know how the Light makes me feel….how it gives me energy….how it gives me hope!
“Let all your people see the Light of Christ this Advent. And let that same light shine through me, in Christ’s name.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
I am a huge fan of paper. Stationery. Notebooks. Journals. Especially journals. Particularly Moleskine journals. Moleskine is an Italian papermaker and product designer founded in 1997 and based in Milan, Italy. It produces and designs luxury notebooks, as well as planners, sketchbooks, leather journals, and stationery. Be still, my heart.
I was looking at the Moleskine journals that I don’t really need at Barnes and Noble recently, and found an adorable small sized one that would fit nicely in my purse. I could happily have a piece of paper with me pretty much wherever I go. My life would be complete.
As I was looking at the selection of journals and notebooks, my mind flashed back to being given a small notebook to use as a Food Log. I was, out of the blue, remembering attending a nutrition class my trainer at the time was leading, and she was a HUGE proponent of the Food Log. I remember not loving the concept. I did also remember the 10-week class was helpful; I learned how to avoid additives and chemicals in my food, and how to replace them with whole foods, or foods, I’ve been told, “That come from the ground or had a mother.” Can’t really say either of those things for the Wegmans chocolate chip muffins I love to eat…
One thing that used to always be a staple of any reputable weight loss effort—through Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, a doctor, a nutritionist—is the Food Log. At the beginning of that long ago nutrition class, my trainer said, “None of what I share with you is going to make any difference if you don’t have a sense of what you are currently eating. You have to understand what you are currently putting into your body.”
And so, the Food Log. As much as I like making lists—and I DO like to make lists—I was never fond of Food Logs. They seem to demand so much work and attention. “Ok, this morning, I drank a glass of water, ate a piece of whole wheat toast…dry…with a side of Lucky Charms.” Not only do I not particularly want anyone else to know what I’m actually eating, I don’t derive a whole lot of pleasure from looking at the labels on foods I have loved for years and finding that there is not ONE thing in them that is natural, that comes from the ground or had a mother.
But Mary said, “The Food Log is the key to success.”
And you know, I’m not sure I can argue with her. Not only did that Food Log help me see what I was actually eating, it showed me what I was NOT eating. It helped me look back at the end of the day and say, “Wow. I didn’t realize that all I had to eat today was bread. No vegetables. No fruit. No protein. Just bread.” A Food Log helped me see if I was covering all the food groups in a day AND (this is what I really want you to hear this morning!) AND it conditioned me to pay attention!
There is no doubt we are, today, on the cusp of a very busy season. We celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple of days and then we immediately step into (if the stepping into hasn’t already begun!) the season of Advent. This is where I find we (you and me) tend to have a harder time paying attention to God in our lives, as we get caught up in the whirlwind we often create around the Christmas holiday. I find we end up forgetting, or maybe losing track of, what we’re trying to do…receive and give thanks for God’s gift to us of his only Son, Jesus Christ. In the flesh. In the flesh of a baby. Just like us, but connected to God in a way we haven’t seen since.
I assume you’ve heard the “news” that because of the “supply chain problem” many of the things we love to have to help us celebrate the season will be tough to get this year. That’s why, in part, we started hearing anxious reports early in October that we “better get going on our Christmas shopping!” As if we need anything more to make us anxious about that part of the season. You want a Christmas tree this year? You better have it in hand by the end of October! And that “hot” item for children? I don’t even know, yet, what the hot item is this year, but I suspect you can’t get it anywhere.
It all adds to the anxiety we’re already feeling about our lives and our world. And so we forget what the season of Thanksgiving and Christmas we are now entering is all about. With all the noise clamoring for our attention and telling us that we have to have this or that to have a proper holiday, we lose track of what we’re really hungering for.
I believe our faith—when we pay attention—guides us toward what we hunger for: Meaning. Grounded-ness. Hearts of gratitude. The desire to be in service to others. A deep connection to the God who created us. The Psalmist reminds us of a great ritual that connects us with God at the start of every day.
“If you wake me each morning with the sound of your loving voice,” the Psalmist says to God, “I’ll go to sleep each night trusting in you. Point out the road I must travel, I’m all ears, all eyes before you.”
What if we really paid attention to God throughout the day? What if we kept a God Log of sorts—like the Food Logs of weight management programs—and made the effort to record in it each day where we have seen God show up in us, around us, especially in these busy days to come? What if we used this God Log to help us pay attention to the road God may be pointing us to travel. if we daily record what our ears and our eyes, what our hearts and minds experience of God?
What you might write in your God Log does not need to be deep. It does not need to be intense. It does not need to be long. It is simply a commitment to recording these things that helps each one of us pay attention to God this season.
I followed this practice for a season years ago, and I remember that I kept my God Log in the drawer of my nightstand. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake on my part. When I get into bed, I am much more conditioned to read than I am to write in a Log. It is the same way, for me, with the Food Log. I found myself to be much more successful in paying attention to the food I ate if I carried the Food Log around with me during the day. If I tried to fill in the Food Log at the end of each day, I found myself “forgetting” that I ate 6 chocolate kisses before dinner…without thinking…because I was “hungry.” You will know what works best for you.
So here’s what I’m inviting you to do, any of you who are interested and feel challenged this morning. I have some actual God Logs available for you to take with you today, or you can use any notebook or notepad you already have handy, or even commit to jotting down some notes on your phone.
When you get up in the morning, read verse 8 from Psalm 143, and then during the day, pay attention to your glimpses of God…some of us call them God flirts…and record them in your log. Do you notice a swell of gratitude for someone or something? Write that down. Have you felt God’s presence in some way during the day? Write THAT down. Has something you seen along the way made you think, “Nice job, God!” If so, write it down.
Above all, my prayer is that we will take this opportunity to re-condition ourselves to really pay attention—morning, noon and night—to God moving in our lives. In addition to the thankfulness that swells up in us this week, let’s practice being mindful of God every day this Advent and Christmas. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdal
The Work of Remembering
It was about ten years ago when I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a funeral director in Lockport. He told me that a young man had called him to make arrangements to bring his father’s ashes from Chicago to Lockport. My friend made those arrangements, and when the ashes arrived, he called the son. He asked him what he wanted him to do with the ashes. Now, my friend expected to hear one of several responses. “Let’s inter my dad’s ashes in the ground.” Or, “Let’s put them in an urn and place them in a vault.” Or, “Give me my dad’s ashes, and I’ll take them home with me.” My friend wasn’t prepared to hear what this young man actually told him. “I don’t care. Put them out at the curb.”
In a world where I have discovered that more and more people don’t even acknowledge the deaths of the people they know – not even the deaths of their own family members – we have come here this morning to do work together. It’s important work. It’s bittersweet work. The work that we do today is the work of remembering. It can be bittersweet work, because it never fails to raise the memory of our loved ones’ deaths. That’s the bitter part of our work. Mostly though, we come here to remember their lives. That’s the sweet part of our work. It’s sweet, because it keeps our hearts connected to the ones whom death cannot take from us.
So we remember, but why? To find an answer to that question, it helps to revisit the question that the elder asks St. John in our text from Revelation. Who are these people dressed in white robes? Our question is similar. Who are these people represented by the names on our memorial list ? When we discover the answer to this question, we will also find the answer to the why question: why do this work of remembering?
So who are these people? They are flesh and blood people who have shared our journey of life, not boxed remains to be put out to the curb with the trash. They’re mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, grandparents and grandchildren and friends – living, breathing people who have laughed with us and cried with us. Most of all, they are the children of God who have not been abandoned or forgotten. Because of God’s love, they will not hunger or thirst or suffer from the scorching heat of the sun; they will be led to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
We remember every single one of these people whose names are being lifted up this morning. We remember them because we know who they are to us. They are our beloved. We remember them because we know who they are to God. They are God’s beloved.
Yes, it’s bittersweet work. Pain mixes with joy. Laughter mixes with sorrow. Yearning mixes with contentment. But it’s work that we embrace with open arms, because we would have it no other way. We could not have it any other way.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us in the twelfth chapter that we are surrounded by a such a great cloud of witnesses, witnesses who include the names printed in today’s bulletin and the names that have been inscribed on our hearts.
Sight and sound. I know the people in my life because I see them and because I hear them. As I read each name, I will light a candle on the communion table and Diane will sound a chime on the organ.
At the beginning of the service I shared a thought from the Jewish physician, philosopher, and poet Judah Halevi, “‘Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch.” I’ll close now by putting that thought into the context of the larger work that Halevi created, a poem that he entitled, ‘Tis a Fearful Thing.
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
Rev. Stephen Hall
Ruth 1:1-18 (NRSV)
In our entertainment-saturated world, we hear a lot of lines from movies. Most are quickly forgotten, but some make us laugh, some make us think and others give us a lump in the throat. But among the countless lines that have been captured on film, a few have actually changed the way we talk.
In The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, Dorothy says to her dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” People quote that line whenever they feel like the world around them has changed.
In 1948, the movie Casablanca gave us one of the most romantic phrases of all time, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It works best if you imitate Humphrey Bogart when you say it.
Cool Hand Luke, released in 1967, gave us the words, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” You’ll hear that one when people suffer a complete breakdown in communication.
In 2001’s Zoolander, Will Ferrell said, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills,” which describes how so many people are feeling today.
The world of movies, of course, is not the only source of lines that shape our lives. The Bible is also full of great phrases that are remembered and quoted in a variety of situations.
Psalm 23 gives us the comforting verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (v. 1).
From Jeremiah we get this assurance, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are promised, “…that all things work together for good for those who love God…” (8:28).
Another classic comes from our text today in the book of Ruth: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God”. So, what’s so special about these lines from the Bible?
For starters, they are true — they capture an important insight about the nature of God and human beings. The Lord is as caring and protective toward us as a shepherd is toward his sheep. God really does watch over us, making plans for our welfare. And all things do tend to work together for good when we love and serve God.
These biblical verses are concise summaries of bigger truths, in the same way that memorable movie lines reveal something essential about their characters.
In the book of Ruth, we hear Ruth saying the line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God”. This line is memorable because it captures the entire story of the book of Ruth, bringing to mind the faithfulness of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi which, in turn, is a picture of God’s faithfulness to us. It reminds us of Christ’s promise to never leave us or forsake us.
But what is the lead-up to this memorable line? Back in the days when judges ruled the people of Judah, there was a famine in the land. A man of Bethlehem fled the famine and went to live in the land of Moab, along with his wife Naomi and two sons. The man died in Moab, and his two sons married a couple of Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. But then the two sons died, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons. She was living at a time in which life was — in the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes — “nasty, brutish and short.”
So what was poor Naomi supposed to do? She decided to return to Judah, where the famine was now over. But she knew that she had nothing to offer her daughters-in-law, so she said, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you”.
All three weep, and then Orpah kisses Naomi and heads back to Moab. She leaves reluctantly, not with the brush-off “Bye, Felicia,” which is a line from the 1995 movie Friday. That’s a good-bye that became a popular Twitter put-down and a quick way to dismiss someone.
So Orpah leaves Naomi, but Ruth clings to her. Naomi encourages Ruth also to return home, in a line that seems to echo the words of Tom Hanks in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own: “There’s no crying in baseball.” Go back home, Ruth: There’s no crying in a life that is nasty, brutish and short.
But Ruth says to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God”. When Naomi sees that Ruth is faithful to her and determined to stay with both her and her God, Naomi allows her to come along.
This memorable verse captures the story of Ruth’s faithfulness. We remember these words because they reveal something essential about Ruth: She was a woman of deep love and faithfulness.
But we also remember these words because they summarize the entire story, and remind us that God used this loving and faithful woman in a powerful way. Ruth went to Bethlehem with Naomi, and there she met a man named Boaz. She married him and had a son who became the grandfather of David. Because Ruth remained faithful to Naomi and to God, she was able to become the ancestor of the greatest of Israel’s kings — and of Jesus.
Of course, we can’t assume that love and faithfulness always lead to a perfect Hollywood ending. When Ruth promises to stay with Naomi, she does not know that she will end up with a husband and child. Jessica Tate, the director of the organization called NEXT Church, reminds us that when the two women arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi is bitter and empty. “At this point in the story,” she says, “we do not know that Ruth will become Naomi’s savior.” We do not know that there will be a new family or plentiful food. All we are left with is Naomi’s emptiness.
“This is where we so often find ourselves,” says Tate, “with a scary diagnosis, a relationship crumbling, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. We find ourselves in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if, our fortunes, our security, our confidence, our hope will be restored.”
So what do we do? In the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind, a brilliant mathematician named John Nash suffers from terrible hallucinations. After a particularly threatening episode, his wife Alicia comes to him and asks, “You want to know what’s real?” Putting his hand on her heart, she says, “This is real.” She remains faithful to him in the face of an uncertain future, and near the end of his life, he wins the Nobel Prize.
“This is real,” says Alicia Nash — you are not alone. “This is real,” says Ruth to Naomi — I will be with you.
“We are left with simply a promise,” writes Tate, “a promise that we are not alone.” This is God’s promise to us, as well — that nothing in all creation will separate us from our Lord.
“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge.” This promise from Ruth to Naomi is also God’s promise to each of us.
“You want to know what’s real?” This is real — the love and faithfulness of the one true God, in every time and place, in the face of any hardship, loss or failure. Remember this line.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
The Squeaky Wheel Gets…
You know the saying: the squeaky wheel gets…the grease!
Timothy Adkins-Jones, a Baptist pastor, offers a great example of this saying. This is what he says:
“I am writing from a hospital room where I have been holed up for several days, taking care of a family member. Of course, I am only a bit player compared to the vast apparatus of medical personnel who have been caring for her. I refill the water pitcher, find the remote when it has slipped off the bed, fetch items from the overnight bag, and (hopefully) provide good company. Most importantly, I am the advocate who finds and brings the actual professionals when they are needed.
“Each room on our hallway has a light above the door that blinks on when the patient has a need. It summons forth a small army of nurses and assistants who seem to be playing Whack-A-Mole, addressing the need in one room only to have two more lights awaiting when they emerge. Our light almost never goes on. I can get more blankets and water on my own, and when we need medical assistance, I simply walk to the nurses’ station and ask in person. They almost always respond immediately. There may be other call lights on up and down the hallway, but I am standing in front of them. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Yes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Maybe you’ve experienced the truth of this as well, if you’ve been the advocate for a loved one in the hospital.
Bartimaeus is certainly a squeaky wheel. He may be blind, but there is nothing wrong with his ears. He can tell that an unusually large crowd is headed his way, and he hears the name of Jesus from their lips. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries.
Let me remind you of what’s going on here: Jesus and his disciples were passing through Jericho, getting ready to make the 15-mile trek from there up to Jerusalem, where the cross awaited. Jesus had warned his disciples three times that he was going to Jerusalem to die, but each time they failed to understand what he was talking about. Earlier on the road to Jerusalem, James and John had come to Jesus with a request to sit at his right and left when he came into his “glory” (10:37), which they clearly perceived to be the glory of an earthly king sitting on the throne of Israel. Jesus warned them again that his throne would not be the kind they were hoping for and that he had come to “give his life as a ransom for many”. Even though these disciples had been with Jesus a long time, they still didn’t see the truth about who he was and where he was leading them.
Now Bartimaeus enters the scene and, according to Mark’s Gospel, “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” How could they be so callous? Many of these people have seen or at least heard of the miraculous healing power of this prophet from Nazareth. Jesus has even healed a man from blindness at Bethsaida, just two chapters earlier in the gospel. This blind beggar can’t be less worthy of Jesus’ compassion, right?
But Bartimaeus keeps squeaking nonetheless, shouting again and again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus responds. He stops along the side of the road, interrupting his final journey to Jerusalem and to the cross, to perform the last miracle of healing recorded in the Gospel of Mark. I love this…Jesus stopped and stood still, so that blind Bartimaeus could find his way to him.
When he stands before Jesus, Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus’ faith doesn’t lead him to spout words from some doctrinal confession. His faith is merely a persistent belief that Jesus has the ability to make a difference and just might do it.
It takes exactly that kind of faith for wheels to keep on squeaking when other voices seek to drown them out. The voices come not only from around us but also from within. Who are you to think you deserve something from Christ? In a world where children are thrown into cages and cancer remains to be cured, what makes you think your problem is all that significant? Do you really believe that God intervenes in tangible ways?
I bet Bartimaeus heard those voices, too, and Bartimaeus may not be the obvious choice for model disciple, but this is how he’s presented to us in this passage. He is able to see Jesus for who he really is, he makes his way to Jesus with a kind of desperate reckless abandon that can’t be hindered, and his approach includes an expectation of transformation. When he gets word that Jesus has beckoned him to come, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and comes with exuberance to Jesus. Someone in Bartimaeus’s position would ordinarily do well to keep his cloak, one of his few possessions, close at hand for fear of it being stolen—but Bartimaeus expects a change in his status. He must know that receiving the ability to see will restore him to a place of wholeness in society. It’s almost as if his casting off of the cloak is a public answer to a question not yet posed: Yes, I do want to be made well!
Oh, that we would see Jesus the way Blind Bartimaeus does! As the Messiah, as the son of David with all of the religious and political implications embodied in that title. We need to expect transformation, to go into this relationship with God not with one hand in and one hand out but fully committed to throwing off our own cloaks in order to serve. I am confident that Jesus is calling us, just as he called Bartimaeus—and we have to make a decision about how we’re going to respond and whether we really believe that there is something in us that Jesus can heal.
There are so many instances in this world that call out for us to be the advocate, to be the squeaky wheel. Being a squeaky wheel can be very exhausting, and our faith and the intensity of our shouting sometimes waver. But remember the story of Bartimaeus and its reminder that Jesus is not too busy to respond to those who believe that he has the ability and desire to make a difference.
And so we can call out again and again, each of us lifting up our plea, longing for the day when our faith might bring wholeness to ourselves, to those we love, and to our world. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
i know your name
Psalm 139:1-12 (NRSV)
Have you ever seen someone from a distance—let’s say, in a grocery store—and you know you should know their name, but you cannot for the life of you remember what it is? What do you do? If you’re like most people, you quickly turn in the other direction—duck down another aisle, bury your head in the back of the dairy case, start intently reading an automotive magazine—and hope that the person whose name you cannot remember did NOT see you!
We like to be able to call each other by name, but sometimes we cannot. Some people would rather not be known or remembered. They prefer when people cannot remember their name.
When a man wearing sunglasses approached the cash register of a Midwestern pharmacy and told the employees he was going to rob them, the pharmacist couldn’t believe his ears. Stepping forward, he thwarted the plans of the would-be burglar and prevented the crime before it could ever take place. But he didn’t scare the thief off by threatening him with a weapon. In fact, the pharmacist didn’t even try to persuade the man not to commit the crime.
The man was stopped dead in his tracks because the pharmacist knew his name. Recognizing his voice, the pharmacist called him by name and asked if the robbery was a joke. The man immediately spun around and ran out of the store, boarding a nearby city bus.
It is pretty easy to enter into certain situations with a false sense of anonymity. Believing he was shielded under the veil of his sunglasses, the pharmacy break-in must have seemed easy to carry out. The man walked into the pharmacy thinking he would carry out a faceless robbery, when in fact, the pharmacist knew his name, his address, and enough of his character to suspect the whole thing was a joke. Had someone not recognized him, if no one had called him by name, he might have successfully followed through with the crime.
Maybe this was true for you: when I was growing up, I knew the names of everyone that lived on our street, Nantucket Road in the Town of Greece. As kids my age started growing up and moving out of the neighborhood, as families started moving on and out and new families came in, it became harder and harder—for whatever reason—to know the names of the neighbors.
But when I was a kid, I knew everyone’s name. I suppose it wasn’t particularly hard for people to know my name, along with the name of my sister and one of my brothers, the three of us pretty close in age. I remember when we were out playing somewhere on the street and my dad wanted us to come home for dinner, he’d stand on the front porch and simply yell! And he always added a kind of musical quality to his yelling: “Gordon!” “Laurie!” “Lisa!” Always in that order. Always oldest to youngest. Everyone that could hear my dad…which was pretty much everyone…knew our names. And that meant there wasn’t a whole lot we could get away with in the neighborhood. (Thus ends today’s story about life before cell phones.)
The Christian story presents the startling thought that God knows your name. How does that make you feel? I was re-reading some stories written by a favorite author of mine, Walter Wangerin, and he tells this great story about being a young boy in church and hearing the preacher talk about the “end of time,” and how God was going to come back to save those who had been faithful and everyone else was going to hell. And young Walter, afraid of what God would discover when he examined him, would quietly slide off the pew during those sermons and roll up into a ball on the floor underneath it. He hoped God would not see him. He prayed that God would not know his name.
Wangerin wonders how living with the suspicion that some flaws, some fears, some thoughts, or some worries can stay hidden might change if we imagine God calling out our names in the midst of it. Would you be startled at the sound of your name, jarred to attention by the only sovereign one in the room? “Walter! I can see you under the pew…”
At time, like with the pharmacy would-be-burglar, we may instinctively feel like running, finding ourselves suddenly exposed where we once thought we were safely hidden. But really, what point is there in running away from someone who knows your name?
Wangerin said there were times in his life when the words from Psalm 139 seemed to be a harsh reminder that his attempts to flee from God where unsuccessful. David’s prayer seemed to leap out, a stubborn confession of Walter’s own inability to hide.
David prays: O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. … Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
But be alert to what else David prays. Speaking personally of God knowing everything about him, David said, “this is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in!” There are many reasons we might instinctively attempt to run from God. Often, the thought of remaining in the presence of a holy God who knows your name—who knows everything about you—really is too much to bear. The thought of it can make us feel scolded. Or trapped. Or shameful. Or afraid.
David, too, seemed familiar with the terror of being caught in sin and called out by name. AND YET, and yet…he also knew the beautiful mystery of being in the presence of one who would never stop calling his name, even if he went underground. Even if he flew on the wings of the morning to the far western horizon.
That God knows your name means that God will not stop looking for you even though you hide. Though you turn away, God will not stop loving you…stop loving me. God will not stop striving to bring you back into arms that long to gather us: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep,” Jesus said, “and my sheep know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
It is too much. It is too wonderful. It is hard to take it all in. AND YET, and yet…it is the promise of God to each and every one of us, every morning and every night. God knows my name. God knows your name. Let’s find ways to be thankful that we cannot hide from God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
It's Good for the soul
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17, 18:1-2, 9-15 (The Message)
A friend of mine reminds me, “Laughter is good for the soul.” Indeed, it is! Because I firmly believe that laughter is good for the soul, I used to keep a file of “funny things” on my computer. If someone sent me something that made me laugh, it might go in the file. If I found something funny on the Internet, it might go in the file. If I read something funny in a magazine or preaching resource that made me laugh, I’d type it into my computer and save it in my “funny things” file. It was a great folder to have. I hadn’t looked at the file in quite some time because, truly, there are so many sources for funny things out there that I could spend all day just filing them. But I did scroll through the forgotten file recently, and laughed all over again. Here’s some of what was there:
· Erma Bombeck wrote, “My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk until I faint.”
· I have found inner peace. Here’s how you can, too. I read an article that said the way to achieve inner peace is to finish everything you start. Today I finished two bags of potato chips, a bottle of wine, and a small box of chocolates. I feel better already.
· Japanese people eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than British or Americans. On the other hand, French people eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than British or Americans. Italian people drink excessive amounts of red wine and also suffer fewer heart attacks than British or Americans. Conclusion: Eat and drink what you like. It’s speaking English that kills you.
· And here’s a Facebook post from just this past week that made me laugh: The National Weather Service has just issued instructions on how to bake a lasagna in your mailbox….
Some time ago I read about a book on aging by a psychiatrist, George Valiant, entitled, “Successful Aging.” (No, this is not another joke!) According to the article, Valiant built on a Harvard University study that had been going on for over 60 years, a study that had periodically interviewed people as they moved through their life cycles, charting the course of their lives.
What does it take to age well? That was Valiant’s concern. He listed all the factors that seemed to characterize successful aging—good relationships with children and grandchildren, good health, or a positive attitude toward health concerns, and so on. There was one characteristic that especially caught my attention: humor. People who age well do so with a sense of humor. They are able to face the trials and tribulations of aging—those aches and pains, those griefs and sorrows—with a smile.
That smile is evidence of someone who has learned not only to take the pain of life with a grain of salt, but also someone who has learned to look at life with the eyes of faith. To believe that God is alive and active, that the good purposes of God will not be defeated, is to be moved from tears to laughter.
It seems odd that laughter is so rarely mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there’s the scripture we’re looking at today, the laughter of Abraham and Sarah when they are told in their old age that they are going to have a baby. In the entire New Testament, laughter is mentioned only twice. In Matthew, Jesus goes to the home of a synagogue’s ruler whose daughter had died, and when Jesus dares to speak of life in the midst of death, the crowd laughs. But the crowd isn’t laughing with him, they’re laughing at him. They’re mocking him. It’s the laughter of disbelief. Easter after Good Friday? The crowd laughed when Jesus spoke of life, where there was so much death.
Then there is a second time we read about laughter in the New Testament. Now it’s the laughter of a surprise reversal, the smile that breaks out on your face when things go better than you thought, the grin that comes from the unexpected grace of God. In Luke, Jesus promises, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”
In today’s scripture, we meet a couple of old people. Sarah was 90 years old—back bent, no teeth, and all sorts of digestive problems—when God promised Sarah and her 99 years old husband, Abraham, that they would be parents of a great family, a family through which all the families on earth would be blessed.
Abraham let out a toothless cackle when he heard God’s promise. When Sarah overheard the Lord talking obstetrics to somebody her age, she laughed. God said, “Did I hear you laugh, Sarah?” She tried to deny it and said, “Why should I laugh at a 90-year-old childless woman being told that she is going to have a baby??” The Lord said, “Oh, but you laughed.”
And then the Lord said, “Is anything too hard for God? Just for that, I’m going to name your baby Isaac, which means, ‘laughter’, just to remind you that the joke’s on you.
Genesis, three chapters later: “The Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.” Nine months later she laughed all the way from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward! Isaac was born.
Sarah laughed again, but this time, her laughter was no longer the laughter of cold, cynical disbelief. Hers was now the laughter of wonder. Sarah proclaimed, “God has blessed me with laughter and all who get the news will laugh with me!” Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Nothing is too hard for God.
May we never get too old, too set in our ways, too fixed in our expectations that God cannot surprise us, or cause us to laugh. Laughter is a natural human response to those moments when we realize that the future is not only in our hands, because God is resourceful, busy, and creative.
Thanks be to God for this great gift!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
who wants a warrior god?
Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)
We are in the midst of an enormous amount of upheaval in our world. In the midst of a lot of good conversation and laughter at this week’s Porch Talk, a group of us talked about this upheaval for a bit. We talked about how stressful the world, both near and far, continues to be as we move through this year. Pandemic. Earthquakes. Floods. Fires. So much violence. So much loss and sadness.
We talked, of course, about the trauma unfolding in Afghanistan, as the Taliban swept in this past week and gained control of the country, leaving a desperate population searching for ways to get out.
The images we’ve seen from this trauma are so disturbing to me. As are the images of violence that we see all the time in our own country, our own neighborhoods. The violence breaks my heart.
On Tuesday, John Pavlovitz, a writer, Unitarian pastor and activist from Wake Forest, NC, wrote on his blog about what was happening in Afghanistan. He wrote, “Watching the Taliban gloating in the Presidential palace in Kabul this week after violently overthrowing the government there, gave me major January 6th déjà vu. The muscle memory of that day kicked in again: the disbelief and shock, the stark helplessness, the repeating question of how this could be happening.
“This week, while the world looked on in horror at Afghanistan, marveling at the seemingly impossible speed and ferocity with which a group of extremists could overtake a foreign nation’s leadership and throw it all into chaos, the familiarity of the moment is something America needs to wrestle with. We cannot look away from the proximity of such a day here. We can’t ignore the repetition of history. We can’t pretend we weren’t on the brink of a nightmare.” So much violence and turmoil hurts my soul.
So I was intrigued when I read this opening sentence of a reflection on today’s scripture, written by Austin Crenshaw Shelley, pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. She wrote, “As a pacifist, I have often winced at the Bible’s images of violence and war.” Amen, sister! So have I. Maybe you have, too.
She wrote, “I struggle with God’s role in defeating Israel’s armies. Weren’t the Egyptians who drowned when the walls of the Sea of Reeds came crashing down God’s children, too? And what of God’s beloved ones who inhabited the promised land before Jericho’s walls fell? Moreover, why did God command that Israel’s enemies be completely destroyed once they were defeated in battle? It is often difficult,” she wrote, “to reconcile these violent histories with a God of love and liberative justice.” Amen, sister.
She goes on to remind her readers that it’s hard to hide from the fact that much of the Bible depicts bloodshed, gore, and abuse, even outside the arena of war. Consider Jael’s driving a tent peg through Sisera’s skull in the book of Judges, the dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine, also in the book of Judges. And just so you don’t begin to think that all the violence in the Bible must take place in Judges, there’s the beheading of John the Baptist that shows up in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Like Austin Crenshaw Shelley, if you lean toward being a pacifist, all of this violence littered through the whole of the biblical narrative can leave you feeling especially uneasy when the Bible employs metaphors that seem to encourage a posture of wartime readiness, like we find in today’s scripture reading.
Rev. Shelley told a story about when she was in seminary, and she expressed her disdain for military references and her preference for the Bible verses that paint a vision of peace. “I tend to prefer the image of beating the swords into plowshares and the vision of the wolf lying down with the lamb to those of waging war,” she told her classmates.
“I was caught off guard by what happened next. Gentle and measured came my classmate’s reply: ‘You prefer verses about peace because you have never needed a warrior God.’
“I was gutted,” she said. “My classmate was a Coptic Christian from Egypt whose home church had been the target of a terrorist bombing. He had needed to pray to a God who would fight on his behalf and protect his family and church from harm. He began to tell the class about the Egyptian Muslims who showed up on Christmas Eve to form a human shield around the sanctuary to defend the church from further acts of terror on a high holy day. The rest of us sat in stunned silence as he talked for the remainder of the class.”
Rev. Shelley’s story of her classmate reminded me of the shootings in the Orlando LGBTQ night club that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others on June 12, 2016. I remember sitting in my office with Deb Cullen as we talked and tried to comprehend the enormity of the violence at the Pulse Nightclub. We talked about what happened after the massacre, as members of an anti-gay hate group picketed the funerals of the victims, carrying signs that read things like, “God hates fags.” The police couldn’t legally prevent the demonstration so a group of volunteers formed an “Angel Action.” They dressed in long, flowing robes with wings held up by wire shoulder straps that spread out to each side in a huge curtain, and on the days of the funerals, they formed lines between the protesters and the grieving families entering the churches.
And as the angels stood, they sang. Those families knew that there were men and women spewing hatred on the streets just beyond but for that moment, all they could see were angels, and all they could hear were voices singing, “Amazing Grace.”
“You prefer verses about peace because you have never needed a warrior God,” the Coptic Christian seminary student said.
I suspect my heart will always break at scenes of violence. At least, I hope it will. I hope I don’t ever become numb and dismissive about the reality of violence. I’ve certainly learned throughout my years of ministry that there are many and varied circumstances in which the people of God seek a warrior who will protect and fight for them as they battle addiction or anxiety, depression or disease, regret or rage.
I like what Rev. Shelley said about this passage in Ephesians full of military images: “I still hope and pray, though, that when God shows up in the midst of these battles, God will look less like a warrior equipped to fight and more like the Egyptian Muslims who put their bodies on the line to protect other children of Abraham. (And, I would add, like the people in the Angel Action in Orlando.) May the armor of God be our love for neighbor and our commitment to peace.” Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
you are what you eat
John 6:51-58 (NRSV)
I’m sure you know what kids of a certain age tend to do. They tend to ask questions! What’s that? What’s for dinner? Why can we only see stars at night? Will Grampa live to be 100? Children don’t know it, but their questions sound a lot like the ones that pop up in our news feeds: Do I need a booster shot? How safe is our food supply? Our water supply? When is our earth going to stop burning? What is going to happen to the economy? Can Medicare cope with the rising number of baby boomers entering the system? Questions surround us, with more added each day in the face of every technological advance, political debate, ecological disaster or family crisis. It takes a special kind of wisdom to sort out which questions are the important ones.
The disciples found plenty of questions to ask both before and during their time with Jesus. When Philip first encountered Jesus and Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” Philip went to find Nathanael to tell him what happened. Nathanael’s response: Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding. Or, as some versions record it, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Later, when Nicodemus visits Jesus at night, he asks him questions about baptism: “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?” (John 3:4).
Right here in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, as the disciples are listening to Jesus talk about being the Bread of Life, they ask, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
Maybe, then, we shouldn’t be too hard on the people who ate their fill of the bread on the mountainside and chased Jesus down on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Like people today they look for answers. “What must we do to perform the works of God? . . . What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe in you?” (John 6:28, 30).
The answers they received, of course, are not the ones they expected or wanted. Such is the way toward wisdom, after all. “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent” (John 6:29). “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever…I came down from heaven not to follow my own whim but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me” (John 6:35, 38).
In a kind of graphic reflection on this Bread of Life scripture in John, New Testament professor Audrey West told about becoming acquainted with a network of indigenous Pacific Islanders who provide in-home care for the ill and infirm in her community. Samuel, as she called him, liked to bring food whenever he came to her house: cabbages, potatoes, apples, and bread. So much bread! Sometimes, she said, there was no room for all of it, so she put it in the freezer.
And then she said, “As we chatted during a break between caregiving and household chores, Samuel told me that he is descended from a long line of chiefs on his home island. ‘My great-great-grandfather was a cannibal,’ he exclaimed. ‘They say he ate more than 900 men, and it made him a strong and powerful man.’ Audrey West said she tried to mask her horror. ‘He buried some of the bodies under his house,’ Samuel continued. ‘You can read about it at the museum,’ he added, in case she doubted his story”.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (vs. 53)
Do we even hear that correctly? How can we not think of the power ascribed to Samuel’s great-great-grandfather: the power of 900 men. How can we not picture the remains of bodies supporting the pillars of that island house, a distant culture’s model of conspicuous consumption. Two thousand years of
theology and interpretation have buffered us from the horror of this image. Why would Jesus teach with such a shocking metaphor?
Think about this: maybe, just maybe, shock is necessary to drag our appetites and attention away from the cultural drive to conquer and consume, whether the object of consumption is the earth or one another. Audrey West says, “We are driven toward things that do not bring life. A bumper sticker reads, “Born to shop,” as if our highest calling is to spend our resources detecting a good sale instead of discerning a good soul. Maybe it takes a little shock and horror to turn us toward to the kind of consumption that brings life.”
Way back at the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is the one who starts asking questions. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in John 1 took the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” (v. 38). Or, “What are you seeking?” The question invites—even demands—a response. What are you looking for? When your belly is filled, what do you need? Deep inside, in the hungry places of your heart, where 1,000 Facebook friends, a new car or money in the bank cannot touch, what is it that you seek?
The disciples got to the heart of the matter by asking, “Where are you staying, where do you live?” The rest of the Gospel of John is a response to that question: Jesus says, “Come and see” (John 1:39).
Come and see the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. Come and see what it looks like to participate in the incarnated life. Come and see a life that is more about its quality than about its quantity, whether it is a quantity of years or a quantity of what our culture tells us we should all want to consume. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus says. Find the answers to your questions in this: consume the fullness of God that it may abide within you.
After all, you are what you eat. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
It's Not All About the Bread
John 6:35, 41-51 (NRSV)
Let me just say it: as Americans, we live with a lot of conflicting ideas and feelings about food.
I remember—decades ago!—when I decided I was going to follow the egg diet. Anyone remember that one? All I can remember from those days long ago was eating eggs for breakfast and bringing hard-boiled eggs with me for lunch. Just hard-boiled eggs. Did I lose weight? Of course I did, for the approximately four days I stuck to the diet. Did I have any energy for the tasks of the day? Of course not.
Remembering this compelled me to go online and see if the egg diet is still a thing. I learned there are now multiple types of egg diets: the 14-day egg diet, the Egg and Grapefruit diet, the Egg-only diet, the Medical Egg diet, and the Keto Egg diet. And way down near the bottom of the article on egg diets, if anyone actually scrolls that far, there is this important piece of information: “The egg diet does not provide well-rounded nutrition and does not meet USDA dietary guidelines. It is not considered a healthy, long-term diet.”
We live with a lot of conflicting ideas and feelings about food.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever...” Live forever? By eating bread?
What if Jesus said, "I am the peach of life"? Not the bread -- the peach. "I am the peach of life, from Xi Wang-mu's garden. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." The communion services in churches around the world would be forever changed. Instead of squares of bread, we'd be eating slices of peaches. It’s peaches that have a connection to eternal life, at least in China. Particularly the peaches grown in the garden of the goddess Xi Wang-mu. According to Chinese mythology, the gods are nourished by a steady diet of special peaches that take thousands of years to ripen. Called "the peaches of immortality," they come from Xi Wang-mu's garden, and give long life to anyone who eats them -- in fact, 3,000 years from a single peach. The goddess was famous for serving these peaches to her guests, who would then become immortal. But Jesus doesn't say, "I am the peach of life." Instead, he asserts, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty". The person who eats this bread is promised endless satisfaction -- freedom from hunger and thirst -- and life everlasting. That’s what Jesus says. But not everyone believes what Jesus says. Some people listening to him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee are very skeptical -- much as we are when we hear the myth of the Chinese peaches of immortality. In particular, the Jews complain about Jesus because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They know that he's the son of Joseph and Mary, a couple of regular Galileans that they know personally. With the two of them as his parents, they wonder how he can say, "I have come down from heaven".
It's a good question. If the 10-year-old daughter of your next-door neighbor claims, "I have come down from heaven," you're going to assume that she has an active imagination. If the 30-year-old daughter of a neighbor says, "I have come down from heaven," you might recommend a visit to a mental health professional. The Jews in this passage aren't necessarily opponents of Jesus. There is no evidence that leads us to believe they're as antagonistic as the religious authorities who plan to kill him and hand him over to the Romans for crucifixion. “These Jews,” says professor Adele Reinhartz of the University of Ottawa, "are not monolithically arrayed against Jesus." They’re just confused and they’re concerned.
As are we. We live with a lot of conflicting ideas and feelings about food.
And so it can be hard for us to hear and make any sense of Jesus’ words to us about his BEING the bread of life. It can be hard for us to hear and make any sense of Jesus’ words to us about gaining eternal life by eating the Bread of Life. Here’s something that began to open up my ears and my understanding to this complicated passage: Belief is the key to receiving the benefits of the bread of life. It’s not about the bread. It’s about the belief. Eternal life comes from putting faith in Jesus Christ. When Jesus says he is the Bread of Life, he is telling us that without him we cannot be healthy and whole. A life of meaning and mission is not possible without recovering Jesus as our spiritual center.
The point is as important today as it was then. We tend to get our emotional and spiritual food from sources that do not make us whole. Sometimes we spend hours and hours every day on the Internet, on social media—not for learning, not for work, but “to pass the time.” We are hounded by hundreds of commercial advertisements a day which shape and inform our perception of reality. We have what James Gleich in his book Faster calls "hurry sickness." Gleich is an American author and historian of science whose work has chronicled the cultural impact of modern technology and 20 years ago he noted that we have so much to do, we have become parallel processors, a twitch-level form of multi-tasking. 20 years ago he figured this out! As a result, we're starving as human beings. The invitation from the lips of Jesus is to believe in him as the Bread of Life. To do so, is to never hunger and thirst again. It all begins with belief. We then discover that living bread is not bread at all. Instead, the bread of life is a flesh-and-blood person. In Jesus we see God at work, offering people the nourishment they need for life. He teaches, preaches, heals, helps, forgives and guides. He's our most fundamental spiritual food group, the one who speaks, according to his disciple Peter, "the words of eternal life". Without this bread, our souls will surely starve.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Feed ME 'Til I Want No More
John 6:24-35 (The Message)
You may remember when we gathered for worship last week, we thought about the message for us in the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Not 4,999 remember…5,000. For this week and the next three weeks to come, the gospel reading in the Lectionary keeps us right here, in this story in the gospel of John. There’s a lot for us to think about and understand in this sixth chapter.
Now, in today’s lectionary gospel reading, it’s the next day. The picnic with 5 loaves of bread and two fish is over and Jesus has taken his disciples to the other side of the lake. But the crowds of people who shared that meal with him yesterday and who then tried to turn him into their king are not about to let him go.
Soon the pursuing crowd catches up with Jesus and his entourage on the other side of the lake in Capernaum. There they greet him with a question: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” It sounds innocent enough, somewhat like saying, “Fancy meeting you here.” But it means much more. They know something about him, but they want and need to know more.
We can understand their need to catch up with him. After all, Jesus is their meal ticket. In their minds he has the potential to do something unheard of, to lighten the fundamental burdens of life that plague their existence. Who knows what he else he can do! If he can provide food, then he just might be able to do the same with shelter and clothing; maybe he can protect them from the never-ending uncertainties of their lives.
“Who among us,” asks Charles Hoffman, pastor of a United Methodist Church in Encinitas, CA, “who among us would not choose that sort of security? After all, in our time so much of our living is dedicated to the illusion that somehow our complete safety can be ensured and that we can be protected against all the ills and evils common to human existence. This delusional pursuit has become an obsession.”
At least until Covid19 showed up and made us rethink that philosophy.
Over and over again, as Jesus speaks and acts in this sixth chapter of John, the people hear him at one level while he works to move them to a deeper level.
So the crowd pursues and finds him on the other side of the sea in Capernaum. And very quickly, Jesus addresses the issue at hand and says, in essence, I know what’s going on here. “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.”
He goes on to say to the crowd, “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.”
But the crowd, maybe not wanting to have to work for their food but instead wanting the spectacular miracles themselves, asks for more miracles like the feeding of the 5,000, and reminds Jesus about Moses’s manna miracle in the wilderness: “He gave us bread from heaven.”
And there it is. The people remind Jesus that after their ancestors escaped from Egypt and crossed the Red Sea into a long, long trek in the wilderness, God heard their complaints about being hungry and rained down bread from heaven to feed the people every day.
We love reading about this miracle! How cool would it be to have, say, bagels and baguettes and Wonder Bread show up on your front lawn every single morning. We’d never have to go to the store again! We could eat bagels and baguettes and Wonder Bread whenever we want…as much as we want!
I read this story about manna—bread from heaven—in Exodus 16 and I remember so very clearly what it felt like, back again in the early days of the global pandemic. I remember how very anxious I was to go to the grocery store, not because I had to wear a mask and sanitize my hands and sanitize the handle of the grocery cart and stand in a long line waiting for a checkout line to open up, and then to stand six feet away from the cashier until they needed my low-touch credit card. Instead, I was so anxious because for the first time in my life, some of the shelves (many of the shelves at some points) in the grocery store were bare. There was no food. To live in a culture that is typically overflowing with an abundance of food, and be told “one to a customer” was very disorienting to me. “But I eat two of these in a week!” I’d think to myself.
The people kind of whine to Jesus after they’ve tracked him down in Capernaum and say the same thing: “Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures.” What can you do for us?
Oh, but we forget one pesky detail of the story in Exodus. We “conveniently forget” that, according to Exodus 16:4, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” We “forget” the “for that day” part of the story.
The spiritual test for God’s people is that they receive only a day’s worth of food at a time. Manna is good for 24 hours, then it spoils. No use gathering more than they need for the day. But of course they try, and the manna, as promised, spoils. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. In fact, we pray this prayer every week when we gather for worship. But we want more.
Back now in the gospel of John, Jesus responds to the people who want him to endlessly supply them with free food to fill their bellies, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.”
“They jumped at that: ‘Master, give us this bread, now and forever!’
“Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.’”
We, my friends, are susceptible to the seductiveness of food and to the false comfort of being full. We follow gods who fill our bellies, but the God of Israel and Jesus promise more—and less: enough bread for our need but not all we want, so that we can help God get to all people with what they need.
May we see and know the power of sharing the true Bread of Life with others. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
John 6:1-14 (NRSV)
As human beings, we love our numbers. Especially round numbers. According to people who think deeply about these things, it is true that for most people, 5,000 is much more appealing than 4,999.
Need some proof? Think of your fitness tracker. You look at it in the evening and see that you have walked 9,874 steps. So what are you going to do? You walk around the house, get 126 more, and feel the satisfaction of 10,000-step perfection.
Or when you are pumping gas, do you find yourself squeezing the pump until you get to a round-number total? $49.75 is not nearly as satisfying as $50. Admit it: You really like to get to $50. On the nose.
Don’t ask me how they figured this out, but according to The Washington Post, round figures are often full of emotion. Research has found that “we love round numbers so much that we often regulate our behavior to achieve them. Like those who wear fitness trackers, professional baseball players and high school SAT takers also exert more effort when their performance falls just short of a round number.”
A baseball player with a batting average of .298 is going to work extra hard so that he can hit .300, just like the high school student who is determined to get a 1200 on the SAT.
Round numbers are appealing to us. They say something about quality. It’s true…it’s about quality, not quantity.
Think of a $15 crab cake appetizer on a restaurant menu. It seems to be more appealing and delicious than one listed for $14.99. In fact, round numbers on a restaurant menu send a message of quality, according to a Management Science study. “That [insight is also] why you don’t see a Chanel hand bag for $4,999.99,” says Olga Shurchkov, a behavioral economist at Wellesley College. Round numbers communicate quality.
All of which brings us to Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. Notice that Jesus did not feed 4,999 people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Instead, according to John, the crowd was “about five thousand in all”.
This is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels, so you know that it is critically important. While the exact number of diners is a little fuzzy, all of the gospels make clear that this miracle is the feeding of the 5,000. This round number signals quality, not a cut-rate discount. The feeding of the 5,000 shows the abundance of God’s care for us, and God’s desire to give us nothing less than the bread of life.
It’s a quality miracle.
And the feeding is a miracle of abundance. When a large crowd comes marching toward Jesus and the disciples, Jesus plays a little game with Philip. He asks the disciple, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip begins to panic and stammers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”.
Philip is feeling the scarcity of their resources and the enormity of the need. He makes the same mistake that so many churches make today, saying, “We don’t have the budget; we don’t have the staff; we don’t have the equipment or the time or the energy.”
Jesus just shakes his head. He knows very well what he is going to do. But he is testing his disciples, trying to break them out of the scarcity mentality.
Another disciple named Andrew does a little better. “There is a boy here,” he says, “who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Give Andrew some credit: At least he points to a possible solution. But then he falls into the scarcity mentality and sighs, “But what are they among so many people?”.
Okay, Jesus thinks to himself, time to act. “Make the people sit down,” he says to the disciples. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes the bread to the people on the grass. He also distributes the fish and gives them as much as they want, filling them until they are completely satisfied.
Then, to stress that there is much more in this meal than anyone could eat, Jesus has the disciples gather up the leftovers, and they fill 12 baskets to the top. The people are so impressed that they begin to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world”.
The feeding of the 5,000 shows the abundance of God’s care for us. God does not want us to go hungry, or to lack anything that we really need for life. No, we may not have a $15 crab cake appetizer pop up on every dinner table, but God wants our needs to be met. God also wants crowds of hungry people to be fed, often by us and by other people of faith.
Some of the feeding of hungry people will come from generous giving. And some will come from being better stewards of what we have been given. “Our grandparents,” said Pope Francis eight years ago, “used to make a point of not throwing away leftover food. Consumerism has made us accustomed to wasting food daily, and we are unable to see its real value.” Then he told his audience, “Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.”
He’s right. Forty percent of all food in the United States is wasted at some point. We enjoy an enormous abundance of food in this country, but it is up to us to be good stewards of what we have, so that everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus performed his miracle of abundance so that everyone in the crowd would be fed. And then he had the disciples gather up the leftovers, so that nothing would be wasted.
When it comes to miracles, 5,000 communicates quality. In every time and place and situation, God wants to give us nothing but the best.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Our House is a Very, Very, Very fine House
2 Samuel 7:1-14a (The Message)
A small group gathered at this summer’s first Porch Talk on Tuesday night. We weren’t actually on the front porch of the church because, well, that’s exactly when torrential rain was barreling through Snyder, and the sound of the deluge on this room’s skylights was so loud, there was a significant string of minutes when I couldn’t hear what Stacy and Charlie—sitting no more than six feet away from me—were saying.
Then the rain passed, and a delightful group of people sat in a circle, talking about the simple things that have been going on in our lives—the regular things that have captured our attention—especially as we have spent so, so many days, weeks, and months in our homes. We talked about one person’s lawn mower, another’s garden and wrangling with a neighbor about a poorly placed basketball hoop. I mentioned “the joy” of having a new roof installed, and one person quietly sat in the circle, looked around this space and said, “this room needs to be painted.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang a great song years ago when I was just a young girl that had these lyrics: Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard. Life used to be so hard, but everything is easy ‘cause of you.
Our house is a very, very, very fine house.
A house is a boundaried place. My house sits on a lot that has very specific boundaries to it. And my house has walls and a roof that clearly define the inside and the outside. During the pandemic, the relative safety of home has taken on a new dimension, new meaning. I have been deeply grateful for my home in this time, and very aware of the rest and safety I feel in my home that so many others do not…cannot. As the months passed, for many people that sense of safety has been coupled with a restlessness: a longing for the energy and buzz of public spaces, wanting to get away from the confines of our homes.
Yvette Shock, a Lutheran minister in Spokane, Washington who helped us think about last week’s text from 2 Samuel, says of today’s story, “I wonder if David feels both comfort and restlessness at his home in Jerusalem. Within the first sentence of the reading from 2 Samuel, we hear that he is “settled” at home with “rest from all his enemies around him,” and then David is dreaming up projects to pitch to Nathan. The prophet tells the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind,’ and I imagine David would be off and running if God didn’t speak to Nathan that same night.
“David dreams of bringing the ark of God within a boundaried, “safe” home like his. But God firmly rejects David’s vision and reminds him just what is to be built and by whom. God reminds David of God’s action: moving with the people of Israel, taking him out of the pasture, making him a prince over the people, cutting off his enemies, being with him wherever he goes.
“God’s word is clear: as God has been steadfastly present in an unbounded, itinerant, active way in the past, so God will continue to be in the future. God will act, will build a house. But in God’s promise, the house is not to be the boundaried structure of house or temple but the living, breathing, moving body of a dynasty—a family, called to lead, held by God’s unending promise.” It is clear—for those who are attuned to the message—that it is in people, and not things (maybe especially not in structures with four walls) that God wishes to live. And in what I think is a particularly fascinating part of this passage, God works to make it clear: God never asked for a house. God doesn’t want a house.
The scripture says this is God’s word on the matter: “You’re going to build ‘a house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time
I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you build me a house of cedar?’”
I laughed out loud when I thought about this because I was reminded of a commercial I’ve seen multiple times. I don’t remember what the commercial is advertising (which should be a red flag to the advertising industry), though it could be a Progressive insurance ad. In the commercial, a husband and wife are tidying up what appears to be a newly renovated bedroom in their house. They look proud of their efforts; delighted by their work.
In walks, presumably, one of their mothers. She halts in the doorway of the room, and the couple says with glee in their voices, something like, “Look! This is for you! You can come live with us!” And the mother, clearly trying to figure out how to be gentle in her response says, “Ohhhh…it’s ok. I’m good where I am.”
God makes it clear to David: God never asked for a “house.” God doesn’t want a “house.” And God surely does not need a “house.”
David can be forgiven, I think for his impulse to build a house for God. We see this impulse throughout scripture: think about the mount of Transfiguration, where Peter, with Jesus, is suddenly accompanied by Moses and Elijah, and Peter says, “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here…” So this good impulse is certainly not unusual.
But there’s likely something else going on here for David. In offering to build God a house, David is going to put God somewhere so that he’ll be always know where God is and what God is doing! David wants to manage God.
God, maybe you already know, can’t be managed. And God doesn’t need to be sheltered. Today’s text compels us to remember: God likes camping among us, wherever we are. “There is no place we can go from God’s presence,” the psalmist declares. (Psalm 139:7-12) No place.
Home is a boundaried place, safe and comfortable. In the past year, some of us have stayed home more than we could have ever imagined, while others went out to do work people depended on, longing to be safe at home. For some, home became a place of isolation and loneliness. Now that vaccines are widely available many are eager to step out of their homes, and the ability to be with others is a joyous thing.
In all this, God has been holding us in the house of God—not a boundaried house but the unboundaried, living, life-giving presence of God, moving with us wherever we go, holding us through uncertainty and grief, holding us together. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Remember to check the gap
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 (NRSV)
In writing about today’s lectionary passage from 2 Samuel, Yvette Schock, a Lutheran minister in Spokane, Washington, thinks back to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, where José Arcadio Segundo is the only survivor of a massacre. When soldiers open fire on a demonstration, he is hit and loses consciousness. He awakes on a train, packed among thousands of bodies bound for clandestine burial at sea. He jumps off and begins the long walk home, stopping when he reaches a house just outside his town, where a woman tends his wound and washes his bloodied clothes.
When Arcadio Segundo says what he has witnessed, she refuses to believe him: “‘There haven’t been any dead here,’ she said. ‘Since the time of your uncle, the colonel, nothing has happened in Macondo.’” His own brother does not believe him either, and anyone who does speak of the events tells an entirely different story: “There were no dead, the satisfied workers had gone back to their families, and the banana company was suspending all activity until the rains stopped.”
Sometimes, the lectionary, which is a pre-determined list of scripture readings for worship that follow the church year in a three-year cycle, leaves some gaps. Like today: there is a gap in the story of King David moving the Ark of the Covenant into his new capital. It’s possible to glide right over the gap, as I often do when I’m thinking about a lectionary passage. If you don’t pay attention to the verse numbers in the assigned reading, you can miss it altogether. But Pastor Schock from Spokane, Washington brought my attention to this particular gap, and once you know there’s something uncomfortable hiding in the gap, there is a distinct “before” and “after” quality to the reading.
“Before: Uzzah and Ahio walk proudly to their places at the cart carrying the ark, eager to take their role. There is a festive buzz in the air as the band begins to play, the cart moves forward, and “the whole house of Israel” dances with their king in a flash mob of joy and reverence,” as she describes it.
“After: the celebration is muted. The cart drivers gravely take their places, a single trumpet plays, and David dances alone. Why? And where have Uzzah and Ahio gone?”
What happens in the gap is this: as the oxen pull the cart forward, it jolts, and the ark tips or slides. Uzzah reaches “out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of the ark”—to steady it—and God strikes him dead because of that single gesture, meant to protect the ark from harm. In response, David is “afraid of the Lord” and asks, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?”
If you read what’s in the gap, the subdued tone of the second procession of the ark begins to make sense.
The omission of Uzzah’s death and David’s response might make the story more comfortable for worship use. I would certainly prefer to preach about David dancing before the Lord, and people being blessed with food, but this intentional gap effectively creates an official version of the story. There haven’t been any dead here, the official version declares. Nothing has happened in Macondo. Nobody touched the ark to keep it from falling off the cart and then was struck dead by God…
What is lost when we skip over the difficult passages? In this case, a great deal. In Pastor Schock’s thinking, “omitting Uzzah’s death and David’s response flattens and distorts the text: it can be read as a fairly straightforward story about David’s faithfulness and leadership. He is simply moving the ark into Jerusalem in order to place God at the center of the life of Israel.”
But the missing verses in the lectionary hint at something else going on in David. When David expresses fear after Uzzah’s death, we see him in a moment of humility and self-reflection; maybe he’s considering the danger of claiming the presence of holiness for one’s own purposes; maybe he’s lamenting that the cost was a human life. It is a moment of grief and moral struggle for him that’s certainly worth our hearing about and considering.
But the moment passes. After hearing that the ark’s presence was a blessing to the household where he left it after Uzzah died, David decides he would like to have it in his city after all. He seems to give not another thought to Uzzah, not another moment to consider the weight of responsibility that comes with the power God has given him.
I’ve always appreciated the discipline of preaching from the lectionary—taking the assigned texts and listening to them to hear God’s word for this us today. Often, I have just gone along with the text as the lectionary presents it, not worrying much about what’s in the gaps that sometimes pop up. Sometimes, what’s in the gap is just too difficult to deal with in worship, too hard to hear, just a bummer.
But now I wonder: what happens when we gloss over—when we tiptoe around—what seems too hard to deal with? What happens when we do this in relationships? In our jobs? In our church? What happens when we consciously decide not to step into the places and the situations that make us uncomfortable?
Pastor Schock really caught my attention when she said, “This [gap] feels different. Omitting Uzzah’s death and David’s response changes the story. It also echoes a pattern we have seen too often: the erasure or justification of a death because the killer holds a position of authority and trust. George Floyd’s killer was convicted of murder, but if Darnella Frazier had not borne the pain of witnessing Floyd’s death and filming it, there would have been a hole—there would have been a gap--in the story. And many of us would have taken the story as it was given to us.
“People of color and immigrants have long borne the pain of witnessing unacknowledged violence, injustice, and trauma. Those of us with the choice to look or turn away are called to bear witness and to wrestle with the whole story. Because plenty has happened in Macondo, if you read the whole story.”
My prayer is that we will always have the courage to read the whole story. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
All of You?
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV)
A lot of things happened in the world while I was on my semi-sabbatical. Six weeks is a long time in our current-day news cycles. When afforded enough time to truly separate myself from the bombardment of the ever-so-rapid breaking headlines, I found my breathing got deeper and I was able to absorb (or block) news items in a healthier way.
But when, around the middle of June, our nation’s Roman Catholic bishops advanced a conservative push to deny communion to President Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices, that news broke through to me. And I was enormously sad.
Listening to the story further, I learned the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft new guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, in a challenge to Mr. Biden for his support of abortion rights, which contradicts church teaching. The new statement will address the sacrament broadly. But ultimately, it could be used as theological justification to deny communion to Mr. Biden and Catholic politicians like him who support abortion rights. This is according to an article in the New York Times, published on June 21, 2021, and written by Giulia Heyward.
For this congregation, and for the United Church of Christ in general, communion, as we call it, is available to everyone. It is an open table. Anyone and everyone is free and welcome to share in this feast, to eat and drink the bread and the cup to be reminded of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us.
My soul was disturbed at this news. So when I read this story from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who was remembering something life-changing from her early days as the pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints Lutheran congregation in Denver, Colorado, I cried. This is the story she tells:
“House for All Sinners & Saints was only about a year old,” Nadia recalls, “when I took a Sunday morning phone call from a young parishioner who had gone home to Grand Rapids for a weekend visit. I could tell right away that Rachel was crying. When she finally spoke, it was halting and in a whisper.
“Nadia, I’m at my parent’s church and they’re serving communion and …. (her voice cracks) I’m not allowed to take it.”
“Rachel hadn’t thought much about her childhood church’s “closed table” (the term for when a church only allows certain people to take communion) until now. But she had spent a year with House For All Sinners and Saints, a community centered around the grace of an unapologetically open table, and without even noticing it had happened, she had been changed by it. Every Sunday she had seen a woman stand at the altar table (again, she had only ever heard a male voice from the front of the church) and had heard that woman say these words: “We have an open table at House, which means that during communion, everyone without exception is invited to come forward at communion and receive the bread and wine – which for us is the body and blood of Christ. If you choose not to commune, you can come forward with your arms crossed and receive a blessing instead.”
Nadia goes on to note that Jesus ate supper with more types of people than she herself would feel comfortable with. Maybe we would feel uncomfortable, too: Sinners, tax collectors, soldiers, sex workers, fisherfolk, and lawyers. “And his LAST supper was the worst,” she said. “He broke bread with his friends who were just about to abandon, deny and betray him. And yet, he took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to these total screw-ups and said “this is my body, given for you, whenever you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.”
And then what does the church do in remembrance of him? It tries to keep the “wrong people” from receiving the Lord’s Supper.
Nadia Bolz-Weber knows—we all know—that people of good faith disagree on this issue. Some would argue it is reckless to just feed all who hunger. That the Eucharist is too sacred to just hand it over to anyone. Others would say that only the baptized should receive and that there is a specific path that can be taken for those who wish to commune. Baptism first, THEN communion. As if grace only happens in a certain order.
But over the years, Nadia knows there have been dozens and dozens of adult baptisms at her church—people who, having experienced the unmerited and always available grace of an open table, then sought out the grace of the baptismal font. They changed the presumed order of the Lutheran tradition.
As if grace only happens in a certain order.
Now, here’s the part that just moved me to tears: Nadia recalls, before hanging up with Rachel, that she assured Rachel she was loved and wanted in their community and then she said, “Would it be ok if I told some folks at church tonight about what happened?” and she said yes.
“As a small group of us stayed behind that night to stack chairs and put away paraments, I told them about Rachel’s devastation at having been denied communion at home. Without skipping a beat, Stuart said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport.”
“So at 10pm on a Wednesday, eight of us showed up to Denver International airport with a cardboard chauffer’s sign that said “Rachel Pater” on one side, and “Child of God” on the other, and waited for her at the bottom of the escalator. We then made our way up to the interfaith prayer room, I spoke about how on the night Jesus was betrayed he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, and then we handed her what had been withheld days before: the body and blood of Christ.”
Then she ended with this: If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer. Because it’s not our table. It’s God’s.”
So when Paul writes his second letter to the people of Corinth and says to them, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” he means, ALL OF YOU. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
stories of healing
John Lennon is famous, among other things, for saying “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
For the last few days, we’ve been learning about those who are missing in Florida after the catastrophic collapse of the condo building in Surfside. A couple visiting with their young daughter on vacation. The sister of the first lady of Paraguay and her family. So many others whose stories are slowly emerging and whose plans were forever altered. One older couple was awakened by the noise and ran to open their hallway door, only to find a gaping hole several stories deep. We pray for those who are waiting and for those whose hope is ebbing. And maybe we’re reminded once more that our life’s direction can change very quickly. Our days have their high moments and low, their satisfactions and surprises. And often while we are making plans, working steadily toward a goal, life intervenes and we find ourselves veering in a different direction. Even in the course of one day.
In the Gospel reading from Mark 5, we see that happen to Jesus. There is a story embedded within another story. Jesus is focused on the critical need in one family and then finds himself pulled in another direction to deal with another urgent matter. He’s able to multi-task, or at least to divide up his time, and he does it without failing to express empathy or give personal attention. Then he returns to the original need and provides for us a remarkable picture of a Jesus who genuinely cared for those who suffer.
One family in this group of stores had a child whose illness progressed to the point of death. With nowhere else to turn, a grieving father sought out Jesus who was known to work miracles. On the way to the home of Jairus and his daughter, Jesus was interrupted by a woman whose health situation had baffled medical professionals for twelve long years. She, too, had arrived at a point of desperation. Both looked to Jesus for help, and both received mercy and healing.
One thing we cannot get around in the Gospels is the fact that Jesus consistently and even relentlessly advocated for those who were at a disadvantage. The poor, the sick, the socially outcast, and the racially disenfranchised became his first priority. That made people angry. The advantaged and those who considered themselves superior in any way to others could not and would not accept Jesus’ priorities. They were the first to reject Jesus’ ministry and they ultimately called for his death.
Jesus’ miracles scattered throughout the Gospels restored hope and health to those who otherwise would have suffered alone. A man born blind was only of interest to those with sight as a point of discussion about who was to blame for his blindness. A man with a withered hand was not considered worthy of being healed on the Sabbath day by those with working limbs. A group of men with leprosy was required by law to shout the status of their contamination to anyone who came near, assuring that no one but Jesus ever would.
This morning’s stories of healing include two of the most vulnerable groups in any society: women and children. A woman with a gynecological disorder who had consulted doctor after doctor for twelve years and whose illness had only gotten worse. She ran out of money and had no options left, despite her best efforts. Thankfully, Jesus was passing by that day. And a child who suffered from an unknown condition. We are given very few details about the illness or the family that surrounded this little girl and loved her as much as any family would. The girl’s father was a leader in the local synagogue, though, and he put his own reputation with other religious leaders on the line to ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus was the enemy, but when you think your child is going to die, you will do anything to help her.
Jesus was already having a very busy day. He’d crossed the Sea of Galilee twice already, calming a great storm on the first trip. He’d encountered a violent man described as possessed by demons, and he had set the man free from that torture. Jesus was on his way to his hometown where he would be made fun of by his old acquaintances, and he was about to organize and deploy the twelve disciples into teams of two to multiply his ministry throughout the region. Despite the demands on his schedule, Jesus made the illnesses of an unknown woman and an unknown child in an obscure village his highest priority as his plans changed.
One of the great Christian thinkers of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, is credited with saying that we should “preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the others.”
It’s very hard to reflect on the healing stories of Jesus without making reference to our ongoing national conversation about health care. It’s not the place of the preacher to tell people how they should think or vote regarding public policy. It is the responsibility of the preacher to urge the church to think biblically and theologically – and with compassion - on every important issue, including those that affect our collective life as citizens. A few weeks ago we talked here about the realm of God and how we are dual citizens, loyal members of God’s kingdom, with the message of Jesus forming our agenda for living in this world. So there is no political or social or economic matter that is unrelated to our commitment to living according to the principles of Jesus.
In the gospels, we receive a clear message that health and wholeness are a sign of God’s realm in our midst. In other words, when God’s kingdom is breaking out around us in power, one of the evidences of that realm is healing. It is God’s will that God’s human creations be sustained in health and restored to wholeness through whatever means God provides. A bumper stick seen occasionally is almost a direct quote from Mahatma Gandhi as well as Winston Churchill as well as Harry Truman: “A civilization is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Seeking and promoting health and wholeness for all persons created and loved by God is not a partisan matter, it is a top priority in the realm of God. Our job as followers of Jesus is to figure out the best way to make that happen. We are blessed to be part of a church that does not require us to think or vote as determined by someone else, and as we approach Independence Day we are blessed to be part of a nation that grants us freedom of conscience as we search our souls and do what we believe is best for the common good.
To celebrate Father’s Day this past week, my husband Leroy and I took a short road trip with our one year-old puppy and wandered down the New York State Thruway to Auburn. I knew that he most famous former resident of Auburn was Harriet Tubman, but I didn’t know much about the time she had spent there toward the end of her life. We wanted to visit her home, but we discovered that a bridge construction project made her home inaccessible. We did see the church she attended, and we visited her grave in the Fort Hill Cemetery. The stone marking her final resting place is small and somewhat hard to find, but it was covered with bouquets of flowers and personal notes and an original painting done by a child and copies of an altered $20 bill with her face on it (as it should be) and a big, colorful pin with John Lewis’s words “Good trouble.”
Two things I learned about Harriet Tubman and her years in Auburn were these: She was very active in the Suffragette movement that had its base in nearby Seneca Falls. Both she and her friend Fredrick Douglas in Rochester lent their considerable energy and expertise in fighting injustice to the growing effort to secure the vote for women. Also, I learned that Harriet Tubman established what was called the “Home for the Aged” on a property next door to her own home. She worked tirelessly to make sure the disadvantaged elderly in her community had a place to be cared for in their final years. The African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion took over the effort when she ran out of funds, and she herself spent her last days being cared for in that home for the aged in Auburn. I doubt that was in her plan when she selflessly started providing care for others.
“Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” We who are strong and empowered today may very well be among the weak and vulnerable tomorrow. Nevertheless, Jesus stands among us this morning to receive us as we are: healthy, infirm, whole, broken, grieving, joyous, wealthy, poor.
As Jesus healed the woman who had suffered for more than a decade, he spoke these gentle words: “Go in peace; be healed of your disease.” As he stood with the parents of the child whose existence hung precariously between life and death, he held that girl’s hand and simply said, “Get up!” Jesus’ words to us today are “Go in peace,” and “Get up!” Receive wholeness as the sign of God’s realm in our midst.
What are your plans today? How might God disrupt them to bring about a greater good? Listen for the voices calling for your attention and don’t cast anyone aside because you imagine you are too important or busy. Be the one who brings grace and healing to another in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
This is Rev. Rick’s last sermon for us. Rev. Lisa returns from her sabbatical next Sunday.
Thank you Rev. Rick for your time with us.
he says, she says
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
The story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac is a great text for Father’s Day. I remember singing a song in Sunday School as a child: “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham…? Anyone else know that song?! According to the book of Genesis, Abraham had eight sons. The first was Ishmael who was born as the result of a family drama involving a concubine while waiting for God to fulfill the promise to give a child to both Abraham and Sarah. When Isaac finally made his way into the word as the second born, it was a source of great wonder and amazement and laughter for his mother and father. Sarah expressed that beautifully in the passage we hear: “Who would have ever thought?” she mused as she gazed at her child.
Parents always remember the births of their children. On Father’s Day, I love to reflect on those moments, now more than thirty and twenty-eight year later. My son Erik was in no hurry to greet the bright lights of the delivery room. He lingered as long as he could, at least twenty-four hours after checking in to the hospital, and he announced his arrival by calmly eyeing those around him and promptly taking a nap. My daughter Olivia was in a much bigger hurry. A few minutes after I screeched the car to a halt at 2 a.m. at the hospital entrance, she emerged onto the tile floor of a bathroom, surprising everyone and greeting us with a loud holler. No matter how children enter the world, they elicit a deep sense of wonder as we look into their faces and wonder how something so truly amazing can possibly be.
Although the story of the three visitors to Abraham by the oak trees doesn’t say it explicitly, it’s assumed by most readers and commentators that the visitors were angels. For the most part, angels in the Bible don’t have wings or halos or white robes. They are often just ordinary-looking people who aren’t really so ordinary. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the writer instructs readers to extend hospitality to strangers, because some have entertained angels without even knowing it. Maybe it’s the story of Abraham and the three visitors that prompted that instruction. Even today, many people talk about chance meetings with strangers that end up having profound meaning. Not necessarily angels, but the right person at the right time under circumstances that seem too mysteriously significant to be mere coincidence.
Abraham and Sarah were relaxing in their tent when the strangers arrived. We talked a few weeks ago here about the premium placed on acts of hospitality in the Middle East in ancient times as well as today. Hospitality was everything, and to fail to provide food and drink and shade for passersby would be an unthinkable lapse of protocol. Abraham jumped up from his seated position to get busy, as did Sarah in the tent, with the all-important tasks of attending to their unexpected guests. A calf, described as “tender and good,” meaning quality veal, was prepared, and the best flour was used to make a cake served with fresh milk. My guess is that they didn’t have many visitors. If they did, it would have bankrupted them.
The guests seemed oddly family with Abraham’s little family since they inquired about the whereabouts of Sarah. Abraham didn’t reply protectively, “How do you know my wife’s name?” as we might expect. Maybe he already suspected that these were not ordinary guests. He simply answered, “She’s in the tent.” What he should have said is, “Who do you think prepared all that good food you just wolfed down?!” Sarah was not a young woman, and she certainly deserved their thanks for the hard work done with no prior notice given. Instead, the visitors made an announcement as Sarah remained concealed behind the tent flap. The next time they stopped by, said the guests, Sarah would be a mother. Sarah might have been quite elderly, ninety years old, in fact, according to the prior chapter in Genesis, but her hearing still worked perfectly.
Sarah’s response to the announcement was to laugh out loud. The absurdity presented in light of the biological evidence of her age plus the irony of God’s long-unfulfilled and much-overdue promise of a child was too much for her to contain. She laughed, and I imagine her laughter was long and hearty. The visitors were not amused by her amusement, and one asked Abraham why Sarah laughed. Still inside the tent, Sarah denied that she had. “Uh oh,” she thought. I’ve offended the guests, the biggest hospitality faux pas of all.” Sarah said, “I didn’t laugh.” But the guests got the last word: “Oh yes, you did laugh.” As it turns out, they also got the last laugh when Sarah delivered a healthy baby boy nine months or so later.
When I was reading over the Genesis text, I was struck by the “he says, she says” quality of the interaction between the visitors and Sarah. Sarah said she didn’t laugh, but it was pretty obvious that she had. I’m not sure all that was going through her mind at that moment, but the story says that she was afraid. Afraid of what? Of strangers? Of angels? Of the God who promised a baby in the first place?
We live in a time when words are carefully analyzed. Those in the public eye are especially subject to criticism. Voice recordings and videos, combined with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook mean that it’s hard to pretend that something that was said wasn’t said. If someone laughs and causes offense to those who take something very seriously, that person is going to be held to account. We see that dynamic play out almost daily in the political world where elected officials are constantly back-tracking and attempting damage control for words that are intended for some of their constituents but inevitably get leaked to the public. Often they deny what they are accused of saying, and if there is the absence of audio or video, we are left with “He says, she says.” Sarah probably wished she could take back that unfortunate chuckle. She was in a bind for laughing at words the visitors considered to be utterly serious. There was no video to play back, but the guests knew the truth: “Yes, you did laugh.”
Not to be too hard on Sarah. I mean, it’s really hard to blame her for laughing. For one thing, it’s hard to stifle a good guffaw when something is very funny. A family that attended a church I served often got the giggles during Sunday worship, usually during silent prayer. Their whole pew would shake when one and then the next started laughing, right down the line. Sometimes that happens to pastors, too. One Sunday I was delivering the pastoral prayer with my eyes partly open when a dog wandered into the sanctuary from the street. It found its way to the front of the church, slipped under a pew, then emerged to lick the leg of a soprano member of the choir seated in the front row. She jumped, but only she and I knew what was happening as I struggled to keep the prayer properly pious.
It’s not like laughter is a bad thing. When the baby finally arrived, Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter didn’t begin that way, though. At first it was tinged with bitterness, with the resentment she had been stoking each year that God’s promise remained unfulfilled.
God is a little like a politician making campaign promises, I guess. At least if you are Abraham and Sarah. It’s hard not to get your hopes up when someone promises you something really great like more jobs or fewer taxes or a baby you’ve always wanted. Sarah and Abraham probably would have voted God out of office after one term. Maybe God waited until after they were absolutely sure God was an imposter before granting their wish and therefore proving that God isn’t a liar. That sounds pretty cruel, though, so I’m not sure I like that possibility. The truth contained in this story is that while human leaders and even our own bodies may fail us, the One who created and loves us will ultimately express that love in unimaginably good ways. And sometimes we have to wait.
What are you waiting for? And what are we longing for collectively? The church I served in Colorado just prior to retirement is two block away from the site of the supermarket where ten people died in a mass shooting recently. That was our go-to market, so it was especially horrifying to see the live news coverage on TV. The church there has stepped up its own efforts and commitment to reduce gun violence and this past week sponsored a gun buy-back program titled “Guns to Gardens.” As members gathered on an outside terrace next to a community garden, a modern-day blacksmith transformed a gun into a gardening tool. In real time, they were enacting the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a day when swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We long for a world where peace reigns and communities are no longer shattered by senseless violence.
What have you experienced in your own life that has renewed your hope? Who has appeared like an angel to lift your discouragement? Like Sarah and Abraham, we can start to wonder if the dreams we’ve had for the future will ever be fulfilled, if justice will prevail, and if peace will emerge in a world that seems increasingly chaotic. And yet, hope does push us forward. We pray without ceasing, and we keep holding to the belief that humans made in the image of God will ultimately find a way to embrace the common good. When that happens, and even at points along the way, we will be able to laugh with Sarah and say “Who would have ever imagined this would be possible?”
The author Robert Fulghum, who wrote “Everything I ever needed to know I Learned in Kindergarten” wrote a Credo of sorts, a statement that expressed his core beliefs and deepest longings for the future. He included these words, “I believe that hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And that love is stronger than death.”
Whenever it seems as though the news is too bad or the promise is taking too long, remember that the end of the story is still unwritten. And welcome those strangers who God will send to renew your hope.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
how does your garden grow?
In light of Jesus’ words about a small plant that becomes a large tree, I’d like to add these words by Thomas Merton as a second reading for today:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is obeying God. It “consents” so to speak, to God’s creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree. The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like its creator. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give God less glory.”
My first attempt to create a vegetable garden began with much enthusiasm. I identified a spot in the backyard of the old brick church parsonage where I lived. I borrowed a rototiller and prepared the soil and planted little tomato seedlings and watered them tenderly. Then I completely forgot about the garden. Maybe I was just busy. Maybe that corner of the backyard was just too far out of sight. Or maybe I was just lazy. Many week later, I wandered into the yard and discovered a forest of tomato plants that had produced enormous tomatoes, most of which were rotting on the ground.
I have become a more responsible gardener since then, but one of the stories of Jesus actually speaks in my defense: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, but he does not know how.” I don’t know how those seeds managed to grow without any particular effort, and certainly with no careful tending on my part. They just did. That is a testimony to the power of everything that lives, and it is a picture of the realm of God.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockleshells, and pretty maids all in a row.” There is some debate about the historical and political implications of what most of us learned as a simple nursery rhyme while children. Many believe that “Mary, Mary” is Mary Tudor, sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary,” not just my favorite afternoon cocktail but King Henry the 8th’s daughter who re-established Catholicism in England. The silver bells and cockleshells in this scenario were instruments of torture used against Protestants, and the pretty maids in a row were Roman Catholic nuns. Who knew? It doesn’t sound like a very pleasant garden, let alone a suitable poem for small children!
How does your garden grow? Jesus was asked a lot of questions as he wandered around Palestine. Many of the stories that we know as parables were framed to answer questions like “Who is my neighbor?” As Jesus spoke about a new reality that was breaking out all around him, perhaps someone asked a question: “How does that new reality, that kingdom, that garden, that realm grow?” So Jesus spoke of seeds and plants and harvest.
A theme repeated in the parables which is also a central, if not the central message of Jesus is the realm of God which has most often been phrased as the kingdom of God. I most often use the term “Realm” rather than “Kingdom” because of the political associations easily attached to the latter. Kingdoms are generally understood in terms of dominance and control, with subjects dependent on the benevolence of kings and queens and princes, etc. Jesus did not speak of a kingdom where serfs groveled before Lords, but instead he created word pictures of a place – a realm – where all share fully in the abundance of God.
Maybe one definition of God’s realm could be this: The realm of God is the place, the time, or the essence of God’s positive influence in our world.
Two short parables are included in today’s Gospel reading. One is about seeds that grow without any particular effort by the farmer. The other is about tiny mustard seeds that grow into very, very large plants.
These are illustrations of God’s realm and how it develops or grows over time.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” The reading we heard by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and an important contemplative voice, parallels the stories of Jesus in its description of growing things. Roots and branches spread out and receive light and oxygen. Merton’s allusion to plants makes it clear that the inner life of a human person is one place where God’s realm is seen. Appropriately, these words are in his book titled “New Seeds of Contemplation.” The seeds grow within and ultimately bear fruit, just as Jesus described.
One thing we can also say about the realm of God is that it is not a synonym for the church. For much of Christian history, there has been an uncomfortably close association made between the church and God’s kingdom or realm. A familiar hymn begins with the words, “I love thy kingdom, Lord, the house of thine abode, the Church that our redeemer saved with his own precious blood.” The more theologically nuanced and, some would complain, more politically correct UCC New Century hymnal uses these words instead, which I really like: “We love your realm O God, all places where you reign, we recognize with hope and joy the world as your domain.” In other words, the realm of God cannot be constrained within the walls of any church or within the constraints of any religious system. God’s influence for good is shared freely with all.
Some of my friends have been talking lately about efforts to gain dual citizenship with the countries their families emigrated from. New laws in many countries are actually encouraging this. One friend will soon be officially a citizen of Italy. Another will be an Irish citizen. Since all four of my grandparents came here from Norway, I figured I’d be a shoe-in for dual citizenship in a country that is not only beautiful but has one of the highest standards of living in the world. It turns out the requirements are pretty tough, though. I’d have to live there for seven continuous years and prove that I can speak fluent Norwegian, which I definitely cannot. I guess I’ll never be a citizen there.
Generally, God’s realm or kingdom is discussed in terms of those human beings who live as citizens of a realm that is not defined by geography or national boundaries. Although some assume that the realm of God is a synonym for heaven and the afterlife experienced there, most theologians stress the earthly aspects of God’s realm that are obvious in Jesus’ teachings. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s pretty clear that we expect good things to happen in this life and not just in a life to come.
I was wondering this week why so few Christian writers have connected the natural world to the realm of God. Are we so focused on ourselves and our churches and our human systems that we forget God’s deep love for creation itself? How can the earth and the sky and the rivers and the ocean and plants and the animals be anything other than expressions of God’s realm?
The realm of God, as spoken of by Jesus, is close to us and is everywhere. And within that realm, God is doing surprising things that require simple stories in order for us to grasp them. Here are a couple of thoughts that spring from today’s parables:
What we assume is important is not always what is important. We see that in what Jesus describes. The farmer in the first story is doing what farmers do: planting seeds and trusting them to grow. Jesus challenges the assumption that if something good happens, it must be because of us. (God is so lucky to have us, right?!) The farmer has responsibility to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and be ready for harvest. But the farmer does not cause plants to grow.
Isn’t that the same for us? The most important thing we can do to expand God’s realm of justice and peace and abundance is to prepare the soil for growth, starting with ourselves. Having heathy relationships and creating the means to share what is good and right is the starting point. We cannot manipulate the growth of God’s realm, but we can be the best soil that we are capable of.
The second story challenges us to consider what is most important within this realm. Something very small in the parable of the mustard seed becomes something huge and amazing. We don’t know the impact that something small can have on the whole. I think we have all experienced how a simple act of kindness can make all the difference in the world for someone who is disheartened. God’s creation is also dependent on our simple acts of kindness. The meta-trends that affect climate are not going to change if I decide to recycle a cardboard container today rather than throw it out. But the act of being faithful and careful in small things is part of a larger effort that changes me and contributes to a larger movement to preserve God’s creation. Small things make a difference.
Gardening in God’s realm is not for the faint of heart. It has huge implications for those we know and those we will never meet. It is working toward the transformation of society and creation, and the stakes are high. That is why it is important to do all that we are able to do with all the power that we possess, and then let go and let God do what only God is able to accomplish.
We are each part of God’s realm. We are each drawn to different parts of the garden, based on how we have been uniquely shaped. Some of us are drawn to garden for justice, for health, for creation care, for spirituality, and for abundance for those who have little. Where are you in the garden? What plants are you best equipped to tend? And how can you support others in the work that they are called to do?
God’s realm is breaking out all around us. Put on your gardening gloves and pick up your trowel and fill up your watering can. Join the gardening crew that God is using to transform our world for good. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
little is much
Several years ago while visiting Israel, I traveled beyond the Jordan and the Dead Sea to an amazingly beautiful desert area known as Wadi Rum. A “wadi” is a creek bed that is often dry but runs deep with water after a rainstorm. The prophet Elijah, just prior to our Scripture reading, was told to go east of the Jordan during a time of drought to a wadi named “Cherith” so that he would be in the right place when the rain came. In Wadi Rum, my husband Leroy and I engaged the services of a tour guide from the local Bedouin tribe to show us the region that is remarkable for its stone arches and red rocks and red sand. It’s the desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame, and the movie bearing his name and starring Peter O’Toole was filmed right there in 1962. Our guide proudly shared that his father was cast as an extra. We had done our research, so while we were in awe of the spectacular terrain, we were not surprised by it. What did surprise us was an invitation to attend an engagement party for our tour guide’s son. We were given head scarves called “kafiyahs” to wear. and we hoped that we would just blend in with the locals. Ha! We witnessed the blessing of the engagement by the families, and we sat on the floor of a large tent and drank a lot of tea. That is how hospitality works in the deserts of the Middle East. If you are there, for whatever reason, you are an honored guest and nothing is withheld.
Elijah’s providential hiding place in the wadi worked out well for him until the final rain came and the last bits of water dried up. The famine went on for years. The text says that the “word of the Lord” then came to Elijah. He was familiar with that word and had previously delivered a message to the pagan king Ahab whose worship of the god Baal angered YHWH so much that the famine was announced. Now the famine had caught up with even Elijah, God’s mouthpiece. Elijah was hungry, and now the word of the Lord told him to go beyond the boundaries of Israel to the home of a widow. Hospitality rules being what they were, the widow could be expected to provide a meal for her famished guest.
The problem was that the widow was no better off than Elijah. Not only was she hungry but she had a son who was barely alive from lack of nourishment. Their situation was so desperate that the widow did not immediately welcome Elijah, despite the norms of hospitality. The text implies that she was expecting him because God had already spoken to her. Despite that, the guest linens were not spread on the table, and she blurted out that she had nothing to offer. All she had was a little flour and a few drops of oil, certainly not enough to share. She was in fact about to prepare a final, meager meal for her son and herself before they died of starvation. Not a great time to entertain.
What would you do if you were that woman? Would you open up your arms to a stranger and say, “Sure, make yourself at home while I prepare a lovely dinner! Thank you so much for coming!” That’s what Elijah was expecting. I don’t blame the woman for her reluctance even if God had told her to welcome Elijah. The fact that on meeting her he immediately demanded water and bread probably didn’t help the situation or endear himself to her. He doesn’t come across as someone you would want as a guest in your home; but maybe he wasn’t as much of an oaf in person as he seems on paper.
A few years ago, an environmental justice group called Oxfam produced a film titled “Sisters on the Planet.” It detailed the lives of five women in different parts of the world. One of them was Martina in Uganda. Increasingly unreliable weather has meant that Martina and other women have had to work harder to provide water and food for their families. Floods and droughts are destroying their crops, and they have to walk long distances to collect water and firewood. Martina and her community have successfully campaigned for a well closer to their village, shortening their daily walk from seven hours to thirty minutes. The opening segment of the film shows Martina gathering sticks to make a fire to cook whatever meager food she can find. It is eerily like the encounter between Elijah and the widow as the widow picked up sticks at the gate of her town to build a fire for her last meal.
We know that the impact of climate change has disproportionately affected the poor on our planet. The kind of drought and resulting famine reported in 1 Kings is a daily reality for many people throughout our world. The story of the widow and her son is therefore quite contemporary and will likely become even more common with the passing of time. It makes me wonder if we are prepared to both change our patterns of consumption and assist those who are most vulnerable in the plight we share on this planet?
I think it’s interesting how God is credited with the drought and the resulting famine reported in 1 Kings. YHWH is described as angry, and the way to punish King Ahab was to withhold rain and therefore withhold food and water from the residents of the land, regardless of whether they were bad or good. Some people today are eager to make a connection between natural disasters and what they judge to be the immoral actions of human beings. A popular TV preacher blamed Hurricane Katrina on a Pride parade scheduled for the next week in New Orleans. Several years later, a political candidate said “Everyone knows that God controls the weather, and God is super angry.” After the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm marriage equality for LGBTQ citizens, a self-proclaimed prophet said “We have displeased the Lord, and the earth is going to answer for it.” I don’t think there is any truth to this line of thought in the twenty-first century, so I tend to believe that God’s punishment through famine in Scripture is as much human perception or wishfulness as anything else. There is no doubt, though, that our sins against the earth have a serious impact on the created world. Blaming God for our irresponsibility is unconscionable
The widow had very little left. Elijah persuaded her to look past her scarcity and fear and make a small cake with the flour and oil. It wasn’t the kind of cake we’d enjoy at a birthday party. It certainly wasn’t two layers with a buttercream frosting. It was likely just a little lump of fried dough. She offered it to Elijah. The promise that came with the widow’s action was that she would be able to keep cooking, the flour would never run out, and the remaining drops of oil would keep pouring form the jar as long as there was famine. In other words, little became much.
How can our little become much? How can we move in our thinking from scarcity to abundance? And what might we need to learn from those who seem to have little to offer?
This weekend is the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to serve in a variety of ministry settings. The last church I pastored was in Colorado, and the congregation had a practice of sending out groups of members to work in places of poverty. It was a very affluent congregation, and they often looked for ways to share their resources with others. I made a mistake, though, early on, in calling the groups “Mission Teams.” I guess the church wanted to distance itself from old ways of thinking about Christian mission, especially the forms that were abusive or took advantage of indigenous populations. The correct terminology there was “Service and Learning Opportunity.” And the name did make a good point. They wanted to avoid the impression that they were the white saviors traveling to Guatemala or New Orleans or wherever to rescue and fix and instruct. As it turns out, my first trip with the church was to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Facebook reminded me yesterday that it was exactly five years ago. The Pine Ridge Reservation, which is the size of Connecticut, is the poorest location in our country. 97 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
We actually didn’t end up doing many of the projects we had hoped to work on and complete on the reservation. It was difficult for our hosts to get the needed materials, even though we were prepared to buy them, and it soon became clear that more than anything, they wanted to make a personal connection and share about their lives and their history. They brought us to Wounded Knee, where one hundred and fifty of their ancestors were slaughtered. They showed us the residential school where thousands of children were taken to conform to the ways of white culture after being forceable separated from their parents. We heard about the high rates of alcoholism and suicide and also about what they were doing to develop their economy and to improve the lives of their families. It’s a rough and long road, and much of the struggle springs from the injustice that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of European settlers. We left South Dakota with some new friendships and a deeper level of understanding. Those were valuable gifts shared freely by hosts who had little earthly treasure. Not unlike the gifts of oil and flour shared by a widow.
The widow is an example for us. Frightened, fiercely protective of her son, unsure that anyone, even God, was looking out for her best interests, but ultimately willing to release the little she had in the hope that it would be used for good. Her generosity meant that a hungry man was fed, and she found out that there was more than enough for her son and for herself as well.
Little can become much when we think beyond scarcity to the abundance of the universe. Also, when we realize that we most often already have more than we need. What limits us right now in our response to those who are hungry and who long to simply have enough? May God give us soft and faithful hearts in response to all who share our planet. And may we be enriched by the gifts of those who may appear to have little, but instead have much to share. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
This is a story from the spiritual tradition of the Sufis:
A group of frogs were traveling through the woods, and two of them fell into a deep pit. All the other frogs gathered around the pit. When they saw how deep the pit was, they told the unfortunate frogs they would never get out. The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit.
The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to what the other frogs were saying and simply gave up. He fell down and died.
The other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again, the crowd of frogs yelled at him to stop the pain and suffering and just die. He jumped even harder and finally made it out. When he got out, the other frogs asked him, “Why did you continue jumping. Didn’t you hear us?”
The frog explained to them that he was deaf. He thought they were encouraging him the entire time.
The tradition of story-telling among the Sufis is probably not too different from story-telling among the Jewish people which finds expression in the parables of Jesus. Many Sufi stories are quite humorous. Being more than a little deaf myself, I can relate to the frog who thought he heard something he wanted to hear but did not. Who wouldn’t want to hear a message of encouragement rather than a message that condemned you to a miserable death.
The Gospel reading from John contains what is undoubtedly the best-known and most-memorized verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son,” etc., followed by a lesser-known corollary: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
The community that created the Gospel of John was deeply committed to the understanding that Jesus is God in human form and that the act of believing in Jesus is the path to a rich and abundant life. The entirety of John, chapter three is the account of Jesus’ conversation with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus and the theological reflection that followed. Nicodemus appears sincere here in his desire to do whatever is needed to please God, and Jesus tells him that a life of faith is like a child emerging into the world for the first time who takes a breath and is filled with a new and life-giving spirit.
The Gospel of John has never been my favorite. That’s sort of a weird acknowledgment for a preacher. The Gospel of Mark is my favorite. That’s because it was written first and is the shortest and gets right to the point. I guess I’ve always figured that the closer you are to the source, the better. Among the four Gospels, John is the furthest from the source, having been written last. A great deal of theological discussion and reflection goes into John and one result is a very high Christology that can seem quite different from Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke. In other words, John tends to emphasize the divine aspect of Jesus over his humanity. Many people love John the most, perhaps for that reason. I respect that and think it is great how the Scriptures speak to each of us differently. A while back, a friend gave me a commentary on the Gospel of John written by a scholar who was speaking at a conference we were attending. Not exactly my first choice, but a gift is a gift. Apparently, my friend told the author about my reservations about John, and the author wrote inside the cover: “May you hear John in a new way, and may you experience God’s abundant grace anew in John’s witness to Jesus.” So, I softened a bit and since then have come to appreciate the author’s perspective that the Gospel was not written that much later than the others and is simply another voice among several reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ life.
The writer of John inserts an odd, unexpected reference from the Hebrew Scripture into Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. He writes, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
An offbeat and somewhat obscure story in the Hebrew book of Numbers tells of Moses creating a snake out of bronze and putting it at the end of a long pole and holding it in up in the air. There had been a problem of poisonous snakes biting the Israelites and causing them to die. Those who looked up at the bronze snake in the desert were healed of their snake bites and lived
Years ago, part of the curriculum during my theological education required me to find and visit and write about a church that was completely unlike any church I had ever experienced. Since I was studying near the Appalachian Mountains, I naturally chose to visit a snake-handling church. The members of the Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following, located in Jolo, West Virginia were very hospitable. My study partner Brian and I were invited to share meals and visit in their homes during the annual Homecoming Weekend. On Saturday night, we attended a revival service and, wanting to experience it fully, I went up to the font with my tambourine and danced along with twenty or so men and women holding rattlesnakes and copperheads high in the air as they sang and prayed. I have video if you don’t believe me! Also, I did not touch the snakes! I did watch, though, as one man was bitten on the arm by a rattlesnake. The next morning, at the Sunday service, the man’s young son came to church to report that his Dad wasn’t feeling well. (No kidding, right?). A handkerchief was blessed by the congregation and sent home to the father who we later learned recovered and returned to work the next day. Also during the service, I pulled a rubber snake out of my pocket and placed it on my friend Brian’s lap while he was praying. When he opened his eyes, he jumped up and shouted and looked like he fit right in!
I heard a sermon there in Jolo, West Virginia based on John 3:15 and the snake lifted up in the wilderness; that short verse is one of two primary Scriptures you will hear over and over again in such churches. People asked me many times afterward if I thought the snake handlers were out of their minds. I responded, “no”, though perhaps they need to consider if they are overly focused on one or two Bible verses. Also, the fact that so many of their church members have died unnecessarily. They believe that lifting up snake in worship is an act of faithfulness. Just as the bronze serpent was held up in the desert by Moses, they are certain that as Jesus is lifted up by them through their belief that God will save them from danger.
John’s Gospel says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.” Regardless of how we understand God, and regardless of who we believe Jesus to be – human – divine – both human and divine – there is good news in this affirmation. The Gospel is not about condemnation; it is about life.
Ricky Jackson was eighteen years old when he was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. The only witness in the trial, twelve year-old Eddie Vernon, identified Jackson as the killer under pressure from local law enforcement. Despite the fact that Jackson had a solid alibi and had not been seen near the site of the crime by anyone else, he was sent to death row and remained there for thirty-nine years. When the witness reached fifty years old, he finally got the courage to stand before a judge and admit that he had lied about Ricky Jackson’s involvement in a crime. Jackson walked out of the courtroom that day as a free man.
What would the words “There is no longer any condemnation” mean to a man condemned to death? Because Ricky Jackson was no longer condemned, he was free. He was saved from an unjust conviction and incarceration that lasted more than two-thirds of his life. Eventually he spoke publicly of his forgiveness of the twelve year-old boy who waited decades to take responsibility as an adult. And Vernon has spoken of the difficulty he has in forgiving himself.
Condemning others is easy. Speaking and living and loving in ways that offer life to others is what can be challenging.
Karoline Lewis, the author of my signed commentary on the Gospel of John, reminds readers that when Jesus speaks of the act of saving or the experience of being saved in this passage, the words should be applied to the specific circumstances of the individual. We don’t know a whole lot about Nicodemus apart from a couple of brief references in the gospels. We do know that he was a Pharisee and a leader among the Jews. And we know that he came to Jesus under the cover of night and engaged in conversation that revealed his longing for something beyond what he had already experienced of God. Jesus’ response was to speak of a new start, a new birth.
What would Jesus say to you? Salvation is a big Bible word that in our era is packed with all kinds of meanings and associations that are not always very helpful. Maybe one way to keep it in perspective is to remember that Jesus in the Gospel of John is all about abundant life. If we can imagine a life where we experience goodness and freedom and hope and wholeness, then we have a picture of what it means to be released from condemnation and to experience God’s salvation.
“God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
Who is God in the Sufi tale of the frogs? I suspect that too many people see God among those who shouted words of discouragement: “Give up! You’ll never jump high enough or be smart enough or strong enough”: words that condemn and don’t affirm the worth of the one who already feels trapped and is fearful. Jesus taught us that in fact God is cheering us on and want us to experience life that is beautiful and full: abundant life.
May we experience God today and always as the one who encourages and empowers us to live fully despite what we encounter on any day. And may we offer words of encouragement and affirmation to those who would otherwise believe they are without hope. Amen!
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
when the spirit comes
I’m not a sailor, but my parents owned a sailboat many years ago. They had a cottage up at Lake Ontario, and my Dad envisioned long, happy days of sailing during his retirement. He purchased a small boat from a friend and we launched it one day without the benefit of sailing lessons. We had no idea what we were doing, but how hard could it be, really? Hoist the sail, and off you go! And that’s exactly how it went. We skimmed across the surface of the smooth lake and enjoyed the warm sunshine. But then the sky changed. Dark storm clouds appeared, and the gentle breeze became a stiff wind. Waves began to lap over the side of the boat. My mother stood on the distant shore waving her arms in alarm while we discovered we didn’t have the first clue how to turn around and return home. The rest is a bit of a blur now, but it involved some frantic paddling and choice words and maybe even a bit of swimming. My Dad had that boat for ten more years, but it never went in the water again.
I gained a new respect that day on the lake for the wind and its power.
Today is a day in the life of the church that we know as Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates the event we just read about from the Book of Acts. After Jesus’ time on earth was over, his friends gathered in a large room and waited for something amazing that Jesus had promised. No one knew exactly what it would be, but, as it turned out, God’s Spirit was unleashed on Pentecost in a remarkable way. A strong wind blew through the room. Flames of fire were seen on the heads of those who gathered. People spoke languages that they had never learned. It was a multi-sensory surprise, and it was really pretty bizarre when you think about it, but everyone in the room knew without question that God was doing something new.
I’ve always admired this beautiful building. Years ago, before I really knew anything about the United Church of Christ or the Disciples of Christ, I would drive down Main Street in Snyder and see a sign on the corner of Washington Highway that pointed to Amherst Community Church. When I looked down the street, I could see the immense steeple poking out from the tops of the trees. I never ventured down the street back then, but a sign pointed the way. This week I noticed that when a guest walks in the main entrance from the parking area there is a sign pointing up the stairway to the worship space and offices. Signs like that are super helpful to those who are new.
Often we need a sign to point us in a new direction. One of the unique aspects of the Gospel of John is its self-described emphasis on signs. In John’s Gospel, people needed signs to understand Jesus as someone though whom God was working in a powerful way. Turning water into wine was a sign. Feeding the five thousand, was a sign. So were walking on water and healing a blind man. These supernatural signs pointed the way to a new understanding of God in their midst.
And now that Jesus was no longer physically present, the signs and wonders continued at Pentecost. God had not abandoned them.
The first sign was wind. Imagine that you are standing outdoors in a favorite spot by a lake or mountain and a strong wind blows from the west. You feel it on your face, and you remember how you were told, perhaps as a child, that though you can’t see God, just like you can’t see the wind, God is always right there. We know that wind is a powerful force that turns energy turbines and knocks over tall trees. Wind blows explorers in sailing ships to distant places and new discoveries.
The second sign was fire. As the friends of Jesus looked around the room, they were surprised to see flames of fire dancing on the heads of those around them. There were one hundred and twenty gathered there. The fire marshal was nowhere to be seen, so they just took in the wonder of this very unusual moment. Think of sitting by a campfire and staring into the embers as the flames burn down and glow with intensity. Fire is mesmerizing. Left on its own, it can destroy great forests, but even in doing so it continues the cycle of life.
And then there are strange languages. The back story is that Pentecost was a Jewish festival before it was a day on the church calendar. The Jewish people were scattered far and wide throughout Asia and Europe and spoke different languages even though they shared a common faith. People came to Jerusalem from all over for the festival. When the Spirit arrived on Pentecost, the followers of Jesus suddenly started talking with words that sounded like jibberish, even to them, but which conveyed the story of Jesus’ life and message to others. Even though the world as they knew it was divided by language and geography, they were united that day in the experience of the Holy Spirit who broke down all barriers.
The signs on that Day of Pentecost were startling. And they probably reminded those present of their own auspicious and many-storied spiritual history:
Moses encountered a bush engulfed by fire in the Sinai desert which continued to burn but was never consumed.
Ezekiel was instructed by God to speak forcefully to the wind which listened to him and breathed life into dry bones in the desert sand.
And maybe you remember the story of a prideful people who tried to build a tower to reach God and who were scattered to many lands and given new languages to speak which sounded like babble.
Those who encountered fire and wind and diverse tongues in the Hebrew Scriptures continued to look and wait for God’s further acts of deliverance. And those waiting in that home on the day of Pentecost did so with sincere hope for a future that seemed pretty grim without their leader, Jesus, who had been raised from the dead but now had left them again.
We saw the destructive power of fire last summer in record number of forest fires consuming wide portions of the West, and it looks like this year will be more of the same as our planet keeps heating up. Forests and homes are routinely destroyed by fire, and air qualitied is harmed by flames that roar out of control. Ten years ago this weekend, an F-5 tornado killed 158 residents of Joplin Missouri, and the power of wind was evident to all in its wake who survived. We can see the destructive power of language as well. Words can hurt. It shocks us but somehow no longer surprises to hear people in power use words to lie and insult and bully.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that when God chose to break into human history to establish a community of transformation, the instruments of hurt and devastation – fire, wind, and language, were fashioned into signs of healing and hope.
What if we weren’t so afraid of fire? What if being fired up – ignited with a passion for the message of Jesus was a good thing rather than a sign of being too enthusiastic or somehow out of touch with reality? A little fire is a good thing sometimes, as Pentecost showed us. God’s fire burns bright when it’s stoked. It burns within, but doesn’t consume.
God’s wind doesn’t destroy us, either. The wind of the Spirit will blow us forward if we stop trying so hard to figure out what we can’t control and just put up our sails, allowing the Spirit to move us where we need to go. We have a lot of sailcloth available, but it’s the Spirit that matters.
Language can separate us or unite us. Do we use words to lift up or to hurt one another? Words are powerful in their ability to encourage, support, and inspire. And words proclaim to those within these walls and those at home on Zoom and those surrounding us, just like those who surrounded that house on the day of Pentecost, that a great God cares about them and wants everyone to be part of a community of Grace.
Wind and fire are some of the most basic elements of the earth. Pentecost roots us in God’s ancient creation, even as it creates something new. We often refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church. When the Spirit came, those gathered were topped with flames, looking like a hundred and twenty birthday candles that the wind rushing through the room couldn’t blow out. Because of that day, this church is here and continues to share Jesus’ message of God’s radically inclusive love for all people.
I really love Pentecost Sunday. One reason is that it is the traditional day for Confirmation students to profess their faith and take membership vows. One Pentecost morning at a church I served many years ago, the confirmands were all seated in a row as I read from Acts chapter two. It was a hot day in early June that year and the sanctuary windows were open. Just as I read about the rushing mighty wind, a strong breeze started to blow through the windows. Paper bulletins flew around the room, and people looked around startled, wondering if a storm had come on us suddenly. But it was just an unusual blast of wind. I paused to said something like, “The Spirit is here! Feel the wind! Open your hearts to God’s amazing presence” and simultaneously the ushers all came forward and closed all windows!
What will you do when the Spirit comes? Will you open the window wider? Will you feel the breeze and welcome new life?
Is the wind blowing for you today? Is the fire burning? Are barriers being broken down so that you can be part of God’s great work in uniting this world? When the Spirit comes, anything is possible! Amen.
Rev. Rick Danielson
there was easter
Luke 24:1-12 (The Message)
You may have noticed the themes of Easter popping into our worship service this morning: the mention of our Easter God in our Call to Worship, a reminder of the possibilities of Easter touching us with new hope, and now the beginning of the Easter story in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke. Next, we’ll be gently singing/humming, or just listening to one of my all-time favorite hymns, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”
For those of you who may be concerned that I’ve totally lost track of time, don’t be. I know it’s the middle of May in the year 2021, and I know that next Sunday is Pentecost, a special day in the life of the Church, celebrated fifty days after Easter.
I was looking back through my sermons recently (I know, I know…don’t I have anything better to do?), particularly focusing on the messages I’ve shared since we first “shut down” in March 2020, due to the COVID19 pandemic. Almost exactly 14 months ago. I remember we cancelled worship altogether on Sunday, March 15, 2020, scrambling to get word of that late change of plans out to as many of you as possible. And then we began our baby steps into ZOOM-only worship on March 22, 2020.
Easter was on April 12 in 2020, and I thought I might just curl up in a ball on the floor and cry when it became very clear to me—to all of us, really—that we were not going to be physically together to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. How could we NOT be together on Easter?!
Yet, when I was looking back through my sermons, I noticed how many of them were grounded in a message of hope. I preached what I thought—what I hoped!—was a message of hope.
Just a couple of weeks ago, after we celebrated Easter on ZOOM-only on April 4, 2021, I came upon a thoughtful reflection by Allan Bevere, in which he asked the question, “What about the 50 days of Easter?”
Many religious traditions—including ours—observe the forty days of Lent. But we don’t seem to be very good at observing the fifty days of the Easter season. Yes, we pull out all the stops in worship on Easter Sunday—in a typical year—but then we seem to immediately go back to business as usual. While we have special times and services during Lent, we don’t tend to place that kind of emphasis on the season of resurrection between Easter Sunday and Pentecost.
And yet, Easter is the most significant holiday of the Christian year. Though we celebrate Christmas as the central holiday to our faith as far as emphasis, it is not. Without Christ’s resurrection, there is no Christian faith. If Jesus had not be raised, there are no Christmas celebrations to be had.
So, the question Allan Bevere raised in his reflection is this: why is it that so many Protestants who observe Lent, do not observe, in similar fashion and emphasis, the full fifty days of the Easter season? Why is the greeting, “He is risen!” reserved only for Easter Sunday? On Ash Wednesday, we are invited to observe a holy season of Lent for forty days. Why are we not similarly invited to observe a joyful Easter for fifty days following the morning the empty tomb is discovered?
Today, we are invited to celebrate. Because now, maybe more than ever, we need to be reminded of hope. Because now, even as “things” seem to be “better” than maybe they were fourteen months ago,
the trauma we have endured lingers. And our nation and our world seem to be so deeply embedded in conflict and violence and hate and pain and death.
In the midst of this lingering trauma and upheaval in our world, I long to go back to Easter. It is good to remember the drama we know so well. It is good to be reminded that because of the beyond-horrible death of Jesus, peaceful kindness and gracious compassion will again confront the world of power and violent authority. It is good to remember that Jesus confronted the political, economic, and social authorities and then was arrested and executed.
And yet Easter comes. We believe, as John Buchanan, a retired Presbyterian minister and a former editor of the Christian Century said, “that although bullies, thugs, and murderers seem to be winning, peace and justice will prevail at the end of the day. We dare to believe that the long arc of history, as Martin Luther King, Jr, reminded us, bends toward freedom, equality, kindness, justice and love.”
“We become fools for Christ because Jesus was still loving and forgiving even as men were driving nails through his wrists and ankles. Because of Easter we dare to believe that the resurrection drama points to God’s ultimate authority and power. Death did not defeat Jesus. The power of the empire, human hatred, cruelty, and bigotry did not prevail on that dark Friday because three days later…three days later!...there was Easter.
This is, indeed, the last Sunday of the liturgical Easter season. In many churches, this is the last Sunday for Easter banners to be displayed, for Easter hymns to be sung. We are now on our way to being powerfully blessed by the Holy Spirit to go and spread this good news in all the places where trauma reigns, and hope seems lost.
But do not despair, my friends, because Easter in never over!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
the spirit disrupts
Acts 10:44-48 (The Message)
It looks like a burger. Cooks like a burger. Tastes like a burger. And even "bleeds" like a burger. But there's no beef in it. Instead, the burger is made out of a plant-based beef alternative, with "bleeding" that comes from beet juice. The burger is produced by a company called Beyond Meat. If you're looking for a meat alternative to throw on your grill, you can now buy the ready-to-cook Beyond Burger at Whole Foods. It's located right next to the real meat, so you can make your own decision about plant versus animal protein. Beyond Meat is a health-driven disruption in the food business. This is the phrase the business magazine Fast Company uses -- health-driven disruption. More often than not, change requires disruption. And in case you think Beyond Meat won’t make it as a company, in 2020 it amassed $406.8 million in revenue.
Or, think about electric cars, and how the industry appears to be reaching a tipping point. Perhaps Tesla and its founder Elon Musk were the disruption in this industry. It used to be that electric cars were rare. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius had some degree of popularity. But now, everyone, including Ford, General Motors, Daimler and others, is rushing for market share. The gas-powered automobile will likely become a thing of the past in the coming decades.
Throughout history, positive changes have relied on disruptions. The early Christians in Jerusalem, according to the book of Acts, were people who had grown up Jewish. They had been taught never to associate with uncircumcised, unclean people like the Gentiles of the Greek and Roman world.
Enter the disruption. Here it is in Acts 10:15: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Or as The Message translates it: “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” This is an earth-shattering verse upending centuries of Jewish dietary customs and cultural traditions! Talk about disruptive!" Here's how it happened:
One day in Caesarea, Cornelius, a Gentile, had a vision from God in which he was told to send for the apostle Peter. Meanwhile, the apostle Peter had a dream in which foods deemed "unclean" in Judaism came floating down from heaven, and a voice told Peter to eat. But Peter, being the good Jewish lad that he was, could not eat unclean food, even in a dream. Then a voice said to him in the dream, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Or, “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”
After arriving, Peter acknowledged that it was unlawful for Jews to visit with Gentiles, but then he reported that God had shown him that he "should not call anyone profane or unclean". No one should be excluded, even those who eat burgers that bleed beet juice. Peter preached the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and his friends and relatives, and Acts tells us that while Peter was speaking, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word".
Yes, the Spirit fell on all who heard the word. Gentiles and Jews. It was a Spirit-driven disruption, one that actually interrupted the preaching of Peter. The Jewish believers were "astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles". Utterly astonished. Gobsmacked. Blown away. They were like meat-eaters tasting their first Beyond Burger. They had a hard time grasping that non-Jews were speaking in tongues and extolling God.
Peter knew that he was in the middle of a spiritual disruption and radical change, and that a new reality was being born. He asked his fellow believers: "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?". You could hear a pin drop. No one said a word, so Peter ordered Cornelius and his family and friends to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Normal operations had been disrupted, and they would never go back to the way they were before.
The falling of the Spirit on the Gentiles began a new era in the life of the church. By making this change, God was enabling the Gentiles to hear the gospel and be part of the community of faith -- something that Jewish purity laws had previously prohibited. "One of the first lessons the early Church had to learn was how to accept the Samaritan, the Gentile and even the eunuch who believed in Jesus Christ as Savior," wrote Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary. But disruption is always difficult, and our church today is still "learning how to accept the stranger God has chosen to include in the community of Christian faith."
When Peter reported this experience to the church back in Jerusalem, he encountered resistance and criticism. But he concluded his report by asking a question (in Acts 11:17) that silenced his critics: "If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?" What a great question. "Who was I that I could hinder God?" Who are we to resist a Spirit-driven disruption? If God wants us to change and do a new thing, who are we to say no?
Of course, disagreements are bound to arise in a time of disruption. We won't all agree about all the issues a church faces. I think in inevitable times of tension, the church can do no better than to follow the example of Jesus, who always showed a willingness to minister to outcasts. Remember that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, touched menstruating women, welcomed little children and preferred the company of sinners over saints. In all these ways, Jesus was never afraid to push for change, even in the face of opposition. He was a Spirit-driven disrupter.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus came up with a new and better religious system, and today he asks us to move in this new direction with him. He challenges us to get to know the immigrant from Africa who works down the hall, to reach out to the neighborhood teen who is isolated and alone, to adopt the child with a disability who needs specialized care, to support the young woman with the problem pregnancy, to invite young singles to church and to make an effort to visit the elderly members trapped in their homes.
Jesus wants us to be part of the movement of inclusion that was seen so clearly when the Spirit fell on the Gentiles and welcomed them into the community of believers. That's what Jesus was all about, and it is a movement that he advanced through the power of the Holy Spirit. It was disruptive then, and it is disruptive today. But it is precisely what a Spirit-filled church should be doing. Our challenge as Christians will always be to reach new people as well, following the example of Jesus and the inspiration of the Spirit. Our Spirit-driven acceptance of diversity coupled with the unconditional love of God is something that the world needs now, more than ever.
By the grace of God, may we be a part of this movement. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Don’t Forget to Plug In!
John 15:1-8 (NRSV)
Last Sunday morning, our tech guru, Lisa Zimmerman, entered the sanctuary before worship, determined to find an extension cord. At home, she had dutifully plugged in her iPad to charge it for worship, but didn’t notice that the other end of the power cord was not connected to the electrical outlet. The iPad was drained of power.
I thought about Lisa when I was thinking about today’s scripture reading from the gospel of John. And I also thought about a Samsung cell phone commercial from years ago, known as the “Wall Hugger” commercial. The commercial depicted people in airports desperately trying to charge cell phones. People were in bathrooms, sitting on floors, and squeezed into uncomfortable corners just to gain access to a plug because their cell phone batteries had, apparently, died.
Debora Jackson, an American Baptist pastor, once said she could totally relate to that commercial. As she traveled around the country meeting with groups of pastors, she said, “I've sat on floors; I've crammed into corners; and I've waited out in smelly bathrooms, just to access an outlet to get that much needed battery recharge.” Some would say there is nothing more annoying than to need your cell phone battery in one of those places where there is no access to an electrical outlet.
Debora Jackson went on to say, “I could not help but remember that things were different when my cell phone was new. Oh, it seemed that I could go for days without a charge. I felt as though I could have responded to email, surfed the web, watched several YouTube videos and still have juice to make phone calls. But over time, it seemed that the [average] time between recharging was greatly reduced. Now all I have to do is use my phone as a hot spot for a few minutes and the battery is drained, thus requiring me to more frequently find new places for a charge.”
If you’ve ever had this kind of “wall hugger” experience—if you’ve ever found yourself desperately looking for a place to recharge your cell phone or some other device—then you know exactly what she’s talking about.
This phenomenon is not only true with our various electronic devices, but it is also true of our spiritual lives. I don't know about you, but when I was a teenager, new to the Christian faith, I felt like I would never lose energy for the church. I was a member of a very active American Baptist Church and there was always something going on for the youth of the church. We were learning new things in Bible Studies, we were gathering to simply play together, we went on retreats together, went on mission trips together, I served as the youth representative on Boards. Eventually, as I got closer to the end of my High School career, I was sensing that I was called by God to be a pastor, and I felt certain of God's path and plan for me. Life was good, and I was raring to go!
But I bet you can figure out where this story is going! Over time, things got harder. The problems facing the churches I served were more difficult, more complicated. The counseling was more heart wrenching. Debora Jackson talked about this same thing, remembering a time she was serving a local church. She said, “I remember having to practice a funeral sermon for a dearly loved member because even I couldn't get through my eulogy without crying. I remember the first time I met resistance to a plan that I had for the church, having to actually debate and sell the plan to gain support. I remember a sermon that drew complaints because it made some people feel uncomfortable. I remember having only 20
children signed up for Vacation Bible School when we had planned for 60. Ministry was starting to weigh heavily and my battery drained more quickly.”
I had a very vivid experience of my physical battery being drained during the Ride for Roswell in 2014. It was the half-way mark of a 30 mile ride, and it was hot out!
I said to my riding companion, “I just need to stop pedaling for a few minutes.” But when we stopped and I got off my bike under the shade of a tree, I began to feel just a wee bit light-headed, so I gently sat down in the cool breeze of the shade tree. Then I began to feel a wee bit nauseous, so I laid down in the cool breeze of the shade tree. I knew nothing serious was going on…I just needed a break to recharge my “battery” for the second half of the ride.
I think that this “draining of energy” happens to all of us in one form or another…sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually. Have you ever felt like it was just harder to get up in the morning and get yourself together to go to work? Have you ever found yourself less-than-thrilled to spend time with some family or friends you used to love being with? Have you noticed that it gets harder and harder to get to church after you’ve “broken the habit?” The things we used to love doing just don’t bring the same joy, or the same satisfaction, or the same challenge as they used to.
But think about this…maybe this is exactly the way God intends for it to be.
God wants us to recognize that we have all been called to be followers in faith, and that we have all been equipped to do the work that God has for us. But lest we start to believe that we are so gifted and capable in and of ourselves—as individuals and as congregations—that we can do things by ourselves, God has ways of letting us know that "all of our help comes from the Lord." We have to plug into the source. We have to be connected to the vine. Without the sustaining grace of God, we wither and fall away. We cannot bear up under the challenges of faithful living on our own. If we try to go it alone—even in the name of God—we will be emptied and depleted.
So the question is when was the last time that you connected to the divine power source so that you could be revitalized and recharged? Like finding that lone outlet in a dusty corner of an airport, you might need to find your own spot to get quiet and reconnect. You may need to sit on the floor in your business suit or your skirt like in the “wall hugger” commercial. In other words, we all just might have to humble ourselves so that we know without a doubt that God is the one who restores us. I suspect we can all remember times when we felt like we just could not go on, but neither are we meant to. Like Jesus taking his disciples away to a deserted place where they could rest, we need to do the same.
Connecting to the vine is a precious and life-giving gift of God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa L. Drysdale