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
New Life by Fits and Starts
Luke 24:36-48 (NRSV)
Cynthia Lindner, of the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote about this passage from Luke over a decade ago and said, in part, “When read in its entirety, Luke’s 24th chapter tells the story of Christ’s resurrection in much the same way that parents and family members narrate the birth of a child. Though we have prepared for the arrival of the new family member, the onset of labor announces that nothing will be as we’ve imagined. We’ve packed the overnight bag and placed it in the front hall closet, ready for a trip to the hospital. We’ve made provisions for the house, the pets and the children.
“But when the pains begin we are surprised at the complete and utter disruption of life-as-usual. We are at work, taking a walk or running an errand when we feel the first unmistakable, insistent contraction—an ancient and time-honored communication signaling that our plans have been pushed aside, that something larger and stronger is in charge, that while we might be able someday to tell this story, we are hardly in charge of its unfolding. The birth will occur—not neatly, logically or in straightforward fashion, but in messy waves of fear and pain, plateaus of waiting and spikes of recognition and joy that culminate in new life: the child’s, and our own.”
In thinking about the way Lindner compares Jesus’ resurrection to the process of childbirth, I found myself vividly remembering the iconic episode of “I Love Lucy,” when Lucy gives birth to little Ricky. Lucille Ball was 7 months pregnant when this episode was filmed in 1952, and when it first aired in 1953, 72% of households that owned TVs tuned in. That’s 44 million people! I strongly encourage you to look for this episode on the internet. I think you will be amazed and delighted at the level of pure comedy you will witness.
You may remember that in this episode, Ricky, Fred and Ethel, in their determination to be completely calm and under control whenever Lucy declares, in Ricky’s words, “The time has come!”, rehearse exactly what each of them will do next. Ricky will get Lucy’s coat and walk her to the door. Fred will get Lucy’s luggage. Ethel will call the doctor.
Of course, when Lucy finally says not the words Ricky imagined but, “Ricky, this is it,” chaos ensues as Ricky, Fred and Ethel all try to call the doctor, Ricky and Fred tug on the suitcase until it breaks open, and Ricky, Fred and Ethel all leave to get a cab, leaving Lucy behind.
“Though we have prepared for the arrival of the new family member, the onset of labor announces that nothing will be as we’ve imagined,” Lindner says. She goes on to say, “New life never slips in the back door quietly or painlessly. Every birth is only the beginning of a lifetime of these powerfully disorienting moments, as infants become fully persons and make their mark on the world. So it is with this resurrection life, as it unfolds in Luke.
“At the outset, the disciples seem resigned to Jesus’ death. The women prepare their spices to tend the body; the followers of Jesus expect to learn to live with their losses, as sufferers of violence have always done. From the very first breath of the 24th chapter, however, that old, tired script is challenged. Luke’s account of the resurrection begins with a powerful disruption in the form of a single three-letter word: but.
When the women arrive at the tomb, intent on their errand of mourning and closure, the sealing stone has been dislodged. The body’s gone, and shining strangers announce that Jesus is risen, challenging
them to remember that their teacher had tried to prepare them for this day. The women’s sorrow contracts sharply and hope gives a sharp kick: the good news of the Christ—God’s abundant life and love, stronger than any death—is about to thrust its way into the world yet again. The delivery is not without its complications, of course—the first to hear the women’s witness do not receive the gift of new life gladly; dislocation and disbelief alternate with amazement and awe.
Resurrection’s second birthing wave takes place later that afternoon, first along the road to Emmaus and then at a table set with bread and wine—another round of resignation, recognition and surging hope.
Finally, near the conclusion of this “first day of the week,” resurrection makes its third and most forceful push: Jesus himself appears to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, eases their rising fear and doubt with a revealing of hands and feet and a bite of fish, opens their minds to understand what his presence among them means and sets resurrection loose in the world, naming these disciples as “witnesses of these things,” and promising to send them out with news of repentance and forgiveness, as agents of new life.
The first disciples experienced Jesus’ resurrection—and their own rebirth as church—not as some single triumphant accomplishment, but by fits and starts, in hours of doubt and moments of exhilaration, with days of numbness and mourning punctuated by brief moments of holy presence and powerful certainty. Their story is good news for the spaces and places in our own world where evidence of the resurrection seems to be in short supply.
Two thousand years after Christ’s crucifixion, when our violence toward one another has not abated, and our churches doubt their inheritance and their power, we may believe that we are still beyond resurrection’s reach. But—and there are those three letters once again—Luke’s Gospel points out that it’s exactly when we’ve pronounced hope dead and prepared the spices for burial that the birth pangs announcing new life are likely to begin.
Lindner suggests, “We make pilgrimage to the tomb of some long-dead dream or desire, only to be surprised by the contractions of resurrection: hope still stirs. We glance up from our daily commute and our eyes meet the eyes of a stranger who nods in a moment of holy recognition: the birth pangs of resurrection, once again. We clasp the weathered hand of an aging loved one or playfully count the toes of a toddler; our hearts break and our hands open when we hear that oh-so-human and oh-so-divine request, “Do you have anything to eat?” We break bread around cafeteria tables, soup kitchen tables, dining room tables, communion tables—and our minds are opened to understand ourselves and our place in the world yet again. We are, all of us, children and heirs of the resurrection—which is God’s affirmation that creation matters, that love and justice matter, that humanity, in all of its ambiguity and complexity, is still fearfully and wonderfully God-made. We are evidence of Christ’s continuing in-breaking, of the resurrection which was and is and is to come.”
New life happens in fits and starts. Let’s be open to this amazing birth process in all of its glory. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Your life is guarded
John 10:11-18 (The Message)
“Most of what I know about shepherding I learned from Sprocket.” This is what Matt Skinner, a Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, said in his reflection on this passage from the gospel of John.
“[Sprocket] was a German Shepherd Dog and part of my family for about eight years, spanning my time as a doctoral student and then as a new professor learning the ropes. He spent incalculable hours watching me read and write into the night. In return, I got to observe a master at work.
“A consummate shepherd, Sprocket usually wouldn’t eat his food when someone put it in his bowl each evening. Instead, he would wait, sometimes for hours and not before the children were in bed, until he knew he could take his attention off of everything else for a few minutes and be alone with his dinner. (By contrast, the British Labrador Retriever currently living in my home is so ravenous and undisciplined that he tries to eat the kibble before it hits the bottom of his bowl. He has other gifts.)
“There was never any doubt,” Skinner says, “that Sprocket was with us, for us, watching us, protecting us. Every person who stood up and moved to a different room, every squirrel that passed by the glass door, every creak in the building—he investigated. I don’t think there’s a substitute for the feeling of security that comes from knowing you’re the object of someone’s constant care and concern. If he couldn’t protect me from all harm, it wouldn’t have been for lack of trying.”
I’ve had the privilege of being able to love two dogs so far in my adult life. Both English Springer Spaniels. Jaymes Taylor, and then Maggie Mae. Neither one of them would have been, I suspect, considered a guard dog. In fact, I can remember very clearly how when someone would enter my house, Maggie—who was most often fully sprawled out on the couch—would just sort of lift her head to see who had arrived, kind of giving a bit of a nod, as if to say, “Hey. Good to see you.” So I can’t say that I’ve had the experience of being “watched over” or “guarded” by a beloved dog in quite the same way as Matt Skinner describes.
Oh, but I love hearing, reading, seeing stories about those remarkable dogs who display an incredible instinct for protecting their loved ones. Even when hearing, reading or seeing the stories makes me weep. Do you remember these images? This is Sully, President George H.W. Bush’s service dog. Instinctively wanting to be near his beloved George, even in death. To always protect him. To always watch over him.
The rural images used by Jesus—describing himself as the good shepherd—do not always translate into modern life. I suspect most of us have never seen a shepherd, except in photographs and Christmas pageants. And I think the shepherds in Christmas pageants more often inspire the feeling of “fear of getting poked in the eye by the shepherd’s staff” than, “confidence this shepherd is watching over me.” Most people today have never seen a really good-sized flock of sheep, and if they have, a fence was probably managing the sheep rather than a shepherd. Certainly most people have never seen a flock of sheep in a state of panic as wolves move among them, seeking the choice lambs of the flock.
So it may be hard for us to understand, or to feel, what it means when we hear Jesus say that our lives are guarded by a good shepherd. And he’s it. He’s the shepherd.
I also think—right now, in particular—we have some very troublesome images seared into our brains of what it means for so many people to be “guarded”. And we’ve seen what it’s like when, most painfully, our brothers and sisters of color are NOT guarded by a GOOD shepherd. When a ravenous wolf shows up or an opportunistic hired hand runs the other direction. Your whole body experiences the threat. Feelings of terror, worry, and abandonment get embedded in our bones and systems.
There are too many experiences in our communities of the toxic effects of not having a good shepherd.
But Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd with a very clear and emphatic "I am" statement, so prominent in John's gospel. By stressing "I am," Jesus attests to the special relationship he has with his followers, and he pushes away the religious leaders and others who are blind to the peoples' needs. The Good Shepherd is an ideal model, one who is devoted to the flock, unlike the hireling, who will run away when danger is near. The greatness of Jesus' commitment is being stressed in his mention that he will even die for the sheep. The phrase "lay down his life" is used four times in this passage and is unique to John's gospel, emphasizing that Jesus' actions are a result of his own initiative. The gospel writer, John, is responding to those challenging the early church by reminding them that Jesus was not executed after a responsible and impartial judge sentenced him to die. Jesus laid down his own life.
Christians are fond of saying that Jesus’ resurrection declares that death will not have the last word. That’s true. I love declaring this! But this belief is only part of our Easter faith. Jesus’ resurrection means that he reigns, he loves, and he holds each of us in the palm of his hand. As a good shepherd, he has a remarkable stamina for staying on duty. For staying alert. For staying faithful. To you. To me. It’s really quite remarkable to be known and loved like this. To know that God in Christ has this shepherd-like devotion to you. To me.
As we continue to move through this season of Easter, I hope that you know that no matter what you’re going through in your personal life, your health, your work, your family, your discipleship efforts…your life is caught up and guarded. You are the focus of God’s vigilant care and dedicated concern.
We have a Good Shepherd who knows us and loves us. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Luke 24:13-24 (NRSV)
Luke’s account of what happened on that day of resurrection includes the story of two dazed and distraught disciples traveling along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It was Sunday, the third day of the most traumatic weekend of their lives, and they were on a roller coaster of emotion.
On Friday these two disciples--along with many others—had witnessed the painful, humiliating and violent death of their beloved leader, teacher and friend. That night and through the day on Saturday they sat with each other in complete despair. And confusion. And fear. And now, on this day, a glimmer of hope had been introduced into the situation.
Some of the women in their group had visited the tomb in which their leader had been buried and found it empty. There was talk of resurrection, but it was too soon to tell whether it was a miracle or just a hoax of some sort. They had hung around in waiting mode as long as they could, and now it was time to get back to real life.
These disciples had lost so much more than just a friend. Their dream of what the kingdom of God would look like as they had imagined it…the hopes and dreams around which they had oriented the last three years of their lives…the vision that had caused them to give up fishing and tax collecting and sometimes even their own families in order to commit themselves to following Jesus…it was all gone.
Each one who had been a part of the community of Jesus now had to come to terms with life on the other side of the death of their dream. They had to figure out what to live for, now that the vision that had brought order and purpose to their lives was no longer valid, or relevant, or, they thought, possible.
Not knowing what else to do, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple were now wandering home, trying to make sense of it all. They were suspended somewhere between loss and possible gain, grief and possible joy, profound human suffering and perhaps some kind of redemption, dashed hopes and maybe daring to hope again. They were wrung out—emotionally, spiritually and physically. They had been powerless to prevent the events of the last days, and they were powerless now to do anything to change their situation.
The road from Jerusalem to Emmaus was the road between the now and the not-yet. It feels to me like this place where we, as a church, are living right now…between the now and the not-yet. We’ve figured out how to function as a community during this pandemic, but it doesn’t feel like it felt before. We’ve managed being in worship together, but we sure do miss our choir, and the energy we feel between us when we meet face-to-face. We’re getting closer to that new time, but we’re not there, yet, and we’re not sure how it will look.
Although they were probably not aware of it, these disciples were in what Richard Rohr calls “liminal space”—a particular spiritual position where human beings hate to be, but where the biblical God is always leading them. The Latin root limen literally means “threshold,” referring to that needed transition when we are moving from one place or one state of being to another.
Liminal space usually induces some sort of inner crisis: you have left the tried and true (or it has left you, perhaps because of a global pandemic), and you have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.
This is Abraham leaving his home country and his father’s house for a land he did not yet know.
It is Joseph in the pit.
It is the Israelites wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
It is Jonah in the belly of the fish.
It is Mary weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
It is the disciples huddled in the upper room.
It is the disciples on the Emmaus Road, caught between the life they had known and whatever was supposed to come next.
This was a time for intimate emotions and dangerous questions. Maybe something new and wonderful was in the works, but who knew? And just when they had gotten about the business of trying to adjust to their new normal, they were “unnerved by the unexpected, pushed off center by intimations of the unimaginable,” as Ruth Haley Barton writes in a reflection on this scripture. Thank God they had each other!
Barton says the disciples’ choice to walk together and talk about all the things that had happened to them was, in some ways, fairly radical. They could have decided that what they had been through was so personal, so traumatic and so confounding that they didn’t want to talk about it until they had gotten a handle on it. Or they could have chosen to walk together but avoided talking about what was really going on, chatting away about anything else but that. Left to myself, any of these options feel right to me; I will think deeply about it all, but I won’t easily talk about it. What about you? How would you handle all this?
But no. While the experiences of the weekend were still fresh and raw, unvarnished and unresolved, they chose to walk together and talk with each other about all these things that had happened. And there was something about the willingness to walk together and speak honestly about the fundamental issues of their lives that caused Jesus himself to come near.
They weren’t praying in any formal way. They weren’t having a Bible study or worshiping in the synagogue. They were not having a formal quiet time. They were simply discussing the stuff of their lives—the things that had happened that were impacting them so deeply—and something about the nature and quality of their conversation opened up space for Jesus to draw near.
The encounter that took place between Jesus and these two disciples was completely reorienting and life changing. It completely transformed them!
And that is the essence of Christian community. “Before Jesus draws near, a group of people journeying together is really just a human community. Once Jesus joins us on the road, it becomes a Christian community.” (Barton)
As the people of God at Amherst Community Church, I think we’ve got some work to do together in this in between time. I think it is our work to discover ways to open ourselves—as individuals and as a community of believers—to Jesus’ transforming presence on the road between the now and the not-yet. God is up to something. Let’s find out how we can be a part of the new life resurrection brings.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Giving Up Doom and Gloom for Easter
Mark 16:1-8 (The Message)
She checks her social media around 10 times a day. Twitter and Facebook are her main sites, but she also looks at Google for news. Since the start of the pandemic, her habit has increased significantly.
“I’m a doom-scroller,” she admits to the Healthline website. Yes, this 26-year-old speech therapist confesses that she has a problem. Doom-scrolling is the act of endlessly scrolling down news apps, Twitter, and social media, reading all the bad news. “The pandemic has exacerbated these habits in many ways,” says a New York psychologist, “including the fact that there is no shortage of doomsday news.”
If doom-scrolling is part of your daily routine, you are not alone. But the problem with this habit is that it can lead to higher stress. We think that keeping up with the latest news will lessen our anxiety, but it increases it. Doom-scrolling is an “unsatisfying addiction,” says one clinical psychologist. Instead of making us feel safer, it raises our level of fear, anxiety and stress.
Doom-scrolling. According to NPR, this binging on bad news is eroding our mental health. But we are not the first to experience this. Journalists admit that they have been doing it for years, and the three women who visited the tomb on Easter morning were some of the very first doom-scrollers.
Mark tells us that when the Sabbath was over, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus]. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb”.
What were they feeling? Doom and gloom. Their Messiah had been killed in a humiliating death on a cross. His body had been laid in a cave-like tomb, and a large stone had been rolled against the door. They were feeling grief over the death of Jesus, stress about the future, and anxiety about how they would remove the stone. Anxiety is a feeling of fear or apprehension about what is to come, and that’s exactly what the women were experiencing. Minute by minute, their mental health was eroding. But when they arrived, “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back”.
Their doom-scrolling was met by an act of stone-rolling. Finally, some good news!
But as “they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed”. They didn’t expect to see anyone, so they were startled. The man said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised”. Their doom-scrolling had been focusing them on bad news, but the words of the young man gave them reason to hope.
Then the man ordered them to go “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you”. The young man changed their focus from doom and gloom to a new possibility for the future. He promised them that Jesus was going ahead of them, and that they would see him in Galilee.
So the women fled the tomb, filled with terror and amazement. Since negative emotions can be hard to overcome, Mark admits that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”. Yes, the fear that had been gripping them was not easy to throw off. It took time. And what was true for them is also true for us.
You can turn off Twitter with the flip of a switch. But escaping doom and gloom is not that simple.
Experts say that the solution to doom-scrolling is to break out of the “vicious cycle of negativity.” That’s the message for the women and for us, when we see large stones in our path and feel alarmed. The good news of Easter is that God has acted in our lives to break the cycle of negativity. We are invited today to see that the stone has already been rolled back, to believe that Jesus has been raised, and to focus on the future where our risen Lord is ahead of us and waiting for us.
For starters, the stone is gone, the barrier has been broken down. Most of us have fears about the future, and we often focus on worst-case scenarios. This was what the women were doing as they approached the tomb, fixating on the enormous stone that they feared was going to block them from entering the tomb and anointing the body of Jesus.
But guess what? Fear is always worse than reality. “Our brains are crazy,” writes Tyler Tervooren in HuffPost. “Every day they lie to us about how terrible things are or how bad they’re going to be, but when we finally ignore the fear [we] realize everything’s pretty much okay, the world will keep turning, and we’re going to survive.”
Yes, the world will keep turning, and God will keep working. So don’t let your brain convince you that the stone you fear will always stand in your way. Maybe you are anxious about something at school or work or home. Perhaps you are fearful of failure or loneliness or a health issue. Don’t let your brain lie to you. Since God is always at work, fear is worse than reality.
Next, open your eyes and see that Jesus is no longer dead. The young man in the tomb sensed that the women were not going to believe what he was saying, so he invited them to see for themselves. Jesus “is not here,” said the man. “Look, there is the place they laid him”.
Jesus is not here, dead in the tomb. See for yourself. Instead, he is alive in people who are showing his grace, his love, his forgiveness, his healing and his justice. Jesus is alive and well whenever a stranger is welcomed, a child is loved, a friend is forgiven, a patient is healed and an injustice is made right.
The hymn “Christ Is Alive!” was written by a pastor named Brian Wren for Easter Sunday 1968, just 10 days after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. Wren wanted to acknowledge this terrible loss while also proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.
“Christ is alive!” he wrote. “Let Christians sing. The cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die.” Yes, a terrible crime had been committed on the cross. An awful injustice had been done. But now the cross was empty and love would never die.
The hymn makes clear that the resurrection is not stuck in history, but is a reality at every time. The risen Christ, says Brian Wren, is “saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.” Truly, Jesus is not dead in the tomb. Instead, he is found in his followers who act with justice, love and praise. Open your eyes, and see that Jesus is alive and well in you, and in the people around you.
Finally, we are challenged to look to the future, not to the past. Our risen Lord Jesus is not simply with us — he is ahead of us, always ahead of us, calling us into the future that he is preparing for us. Our job is to figure out where Jesus is leading us, and to follow him there.
Doom-scrolling traps us in a vicious cycle of negativity that fuels our anxiety. “Our minds are wired to look out for threats,” says Dr. Amelia Aldao, director of Together CBT, a clinic that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. “The more time we spend scrolling, the more we find those dangers, the more we get sucked into them, the more anxious we get.” But what if we replaced a vicious cycle with a virtuous cycle? What if we turned away from threats and looked for possibilities? This is what Jesus was doing by
moving ahead of his disciples to Galilee, and what he is doing by going ahead of us today. Jesus is rolling away stones and calling us forward.
Let’s move toward new possibilities for deeper connections with family members and friends, new possibilities for vital ministry and mission in the church, and new possibilities for justice and righteousness in our community and nation.
We don’t have to focus on doom and gloom. Not with the stone rolled away and God calling us forward. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
the secret to life
John 12:20-33 (The Message)
Today I am going to tell you the secret to life. You probably already know what I am going to tell you, though you may not have thought of it as the secret to life. It’s something you’ve seen and experienced over and over. It’s one of those secrets hidden in plain sight. It’s also one of those secrets that can trouble the soul, so we often turn away from it or close our eyes to it.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). So there you have it. Now you know. That’s the secret to life.
It’s the pattern of loss and renewal that runs throughout our lives and our world. Even if you’ve never thought of this as the secret to life, you’ve lived and experienced it, sometimes by choice and other times by chance. Either way, it’s there.
Look at the way this pattern is present in your life. Have you ever fallen in love and committed your life to another? If so, you had to let parts of your old life go and something of your single life died so that you could be with that other person. How about parenting? If you are a parent, you know that there are sacrifices of yourself and your life to be made in order for the new life of your child to emerge and grow. Have you ever been the caretaker of another? If so, you could name the parts of your life that died so that another might live with dignity, compassion, and love.
What are the costs, the losses, you paid for an education or a career? You chose certain losses and let go of some things so that other things could arise. For every choice we make, every yes we say, there is at least one no and probably many.
This same pattern is in nature. You can see it in the changing of the seasons, falling leaves and new blooms, and the setting and rising of the sun.
The secret is out. It’s everywhere. It is a pattern of loss and renewal, dying and rising, letting go and getting back, leaving and return.
What in your life do you need to let go of today? What might you need to leave behind? What needs to die so that something new can arise?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today’s gospel is set in the context of the passover feast. Remember what that’s about? The passover is the celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from bondage in Egypt. It’s about freedom and new life. It’s about letting go, leaving behind, and moving into a new life.
There is something about this pattern that becomes the lens through which we see Jesus. Some Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” We don’t know why they want to see Jesus, but I have a few guesses. Jesus turned water into wine. He cleansed the temple. He healed the woman crippled by a spirit who couldn’t stand up straight. He healed the paralytic. He fed 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. He walked on water. He gave sight to the man born blind. He raised Lazarus from the dead.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Me too. That’s the Jesus I want to see. Maybe you do, too.
Philip tells Andrew about the Greeks and their request. Philip and Andrew tell Jesus. And Jesus says to them, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.” That’s his response to those who want to see him; to the Greeks, to you, to me.
And you’ve got to know that dying is about more than our physical death. Yes, it is that but it’s also more than that. We die a thousand deaths throughout our lifetime. The loss of a loved one, a relationship, health, opportunities, a dream; all deaths we didn’t want or ask for. Other times we choose our losses and deaths. We give up parts of ourselves for another. We change our beliefs and values so that we can be more authentically ourselves. And sometimes there are things we need to let go of, things we cling to that deny us the fullness of life we want and God offers: fear, anger or resentment, regret and disappointment, guilt, the need to be right, approval.
Seeing Jesus isn’t a spectator sport. It is a way to be followed, a truth to be embodied, a life to be lived. It’s being a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies so that it might bear much fruit. That’s where we see him. It’s the letting go, the emptying, the leaving behind, and the dying that makes space for new life to arise.
You’ve probably had at least one time in your life that when you look back on it you say, “I never want to go through that again. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” What is that time for you? What happened?
As difficult or painful as that experience was it bore much fruit. You were changed and your life was renewed. It was one of those times when you were the grain of wheat that fell into the earth and died. And I’ll bet it was one of those times when you knew you had seen Jesus, when you experienced the holy, when you were absolutely convinced that God was present and working in your life. I’ve had those times too.
So this is the soul-troubling secret to life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” So what is the grain of wheat in your life today that needs to fall into the earth and die? What are the things that if you lost them you are sure you would just die? Maybe those are the very places waiting to bear much fruit in your life. Maybe that’s where you’ll see Jesus.
This secret, this pattern of loss and renewal, will be unveiled everyday throughout Holy Week. I think that’s why we hear this text today, a week before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. It’s our preparation for Holy Week. And you know where Holy Week ends, right? At Easter, the empty tomb, the dawn of a new day, and the renewal of life. The single grain becomes the Bread of Life.
But you also know that you don’t plant a seed and go back in ten minutes or the next day and see a new sprout. Growth can be slow and the fruit of new life takes time, usually longer than we want it to. Yet, even when unseen, unbelieved, or unrecognized, the power and life of God are present and at work in the depths of our life, in the dark and hidden places. That’s the mystery of life.
“Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Are You Kidding, Jesus?
John 2:13-22 (The Message)
Although we’re not focusing on it today, the story right before today’s reading in John is a fun one! It’s the story about Jesus turning water into wine. Who doesn’t love that story?? In fact, let’s hear more stories like that one! But no…the lectionary readings demand we keep moving forward in this season of Lent, to discover more about Jesus, and ultimately, who we are in relationship with him.
So when we come to this story in John, we get a little whiplash when we hear about his actions in the Temple…making a whip, chasing loan sharks and sheep and cattle out of the Temple, and spilling coins right and left. Every year pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem for the festivals — times for “remembering,” to liturgically recall and relive important events as well as for feasting and celebrating. During all the pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles — huge crowds would congregate in Jerusalem. In this second chapter of John, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover, but the events that ensue are not typical of the festival.
Remember how cool that story about changing water into wine was? Now, Jesus is going—as he likes to do—toe to toe with the Jews. As they look around at the destruction he caused in the Temple—during a festival!—they press him and ask, “What credentials can you present to justify this?” In essence, “who do you think you are?” they ask.
And his answer, I imagine, leaves them completely dumbfounded. He tells them to tear down the Temple and—get this—in THREE DAYS he’ll put it back together. Three days! They must have looked at him like he was nuts. The very Temple he was talking about “putting back together”, like it was some sort of Lego project, had taken them FORTY-SIX YEARS to build! Are you kidding, Jesus??
I started thinking about the Jews in this story when I was reading this week about “confirmation bias.” Fr. Richard Rohr says that confirmation bias shows that “we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. We see the things we want to see, the things that confirm our assumptions and our preferred way of looking at the world.
Brian McLaren explained more about this very powerful bias we all have, confirmation bias. He wrote, “We all have filters [such as] What do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed? If so, I can accept it. If not, in all likelihood, I’m simply going to reject it as unreasonable and unbelievable, even though doing so is, well, unreasonable.”
He goes on to say, “I do this, (and by inference, you and I do this) not to be ignorant, but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness, and certainly without my permission) makes incredibly quick decisions as it evaluates incoming information or ideas. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.
“But ideas that don’t fit easily will require me to think, and think twice, and maybe even rethink some of my long-held assumptions. That kind of thinking is hard work. It requires a lot of time and energy. My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets hard work like this as pain…
“Wanting to save me from that extra reframing work, my brain presses a ‘reject’ or ‘delete’ button when a new idea presents itself. ‘I’ll stick with my current frame, thank you very much,’ it says. And it gives me a little jolt of pleasure to reward me for my efficiency.”
What Jesus said about tearing down and rebuilding the Temple was clearly a new piece of information for the Jews. It was an entirely new way of thinking. I suspect it was so far out of the frame of thinking that they’d built and fortified over generations, that their brains, anticipating the work they’d have to do to rethink their long-held assumptions, simply pressed the “reject!” button. Nope, Jesus. What you’re talking about cannot and will not happen. Are you kidding??
And because their brains automatically protected them from the often painful work of rethinking, they missed the point altogether. Maybe they didn’t even hear the deeper meaning Jesus was offering them, saying, in effect, “my body is the Temple.” That, rather than coming to a physical temple, or church building—even one that has been 46 years in the making!—we need, instead, to come to Jesus, worshipping in Spirit and in truth wherever we may be.
So how do we get past the way our brains are wired? How do we get to a place where we can allow the rule-busting, turning-conventional-thinking-upside-down Jesus to fully reach us and teach us? Because I will confess to you that my confirmation bias trips me up all the time. I’m working on training myself to be more alert to my own confirmation bias, especially when it leads me to make quick, easy, racial assumptions. There is no doubt this is hard work. But if we say we’re willing to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, we need to get used to engaging in this work.
Time and time again, in message after message, Jesus makes one thing clear: in following him we are invited to overcome long-held biases, to think again, and to see and live life in a new light.
May it be so for us, as we take this journey through Lent. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
The Vocabulary of Discipleship
Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)
Skedaddle. I don’t hear people use this word very much these days, but you know what the word means: to run away quickly. As in, “When the police showed up at the keg party, the teenagers skedaddled.”
This is nothing new. In the garden of Gethsemane, Judas led an armed posse to Jesus, and they laid hands on him and arrested him. And what did the disciples do? According to the gospel of Mark, they skedaddled. Actually, Mark says that they “deserted him and fled” (14:50). Same thing.
But do you know where the word “skedaddle” comes from? It appeared during the Civil War and was used to describe a flight from the battlefield. It may have come from a Scottish or Northern English word meaning to spill or scatter — in particular to spill milk. The sight of blood being spilled on the battlefield probably caused Civil War soldiers to say “skedaddle” when they made a rapid retreat from the fighting.
In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus predicts his suffering and death, rebukes Peter, and challenges his followers to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel. The vocabulary of discipleship is not always peaceful, since it includes calls for self-sacrifice, predictions of suffering and violent outbursts such as “Get behind me, Satan!” To be a follower of Jesus is a life-and-death battle — challenging, stressful and painful.
Before we fall into formation behind Jesus, we need to count the cost. We don’t want to be like the original disciples … and skedaddle.
Mark tells us that Jesus began to teach the disciples “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). These words set the stage for the drama of the remaining chapters of the gospel of Mark, right through to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The vocabulary of this verse is a violent shock to the disciples — they cannot believe their ears when Jesus says that the Son of Man must suffer.
In their eyes, Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. They know him by the powerful titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” They expect that he will exercise authority and establish the kingdom of God on earth. They see him as their divinely chosen leader, and they are anxious for him to show his power as God’s anointed king — maybe even by overthrowing the hated Romans who rule the land.
But Jesus says that he must undergo great suffering.
This would be like the newly inaugurated president of the United States, in his or her first address to the nation, proclaiming, “I must undergo great suffering and rejection, and be killed by the people of this great country.” It would be completely unexpected. Unbelievable. Unacceptable.
Peter thinks that Jesus is insane, possessed by a demon, in need of exorcism. According to Mark, he took Jesus aside “and began to rebuke him” — the verb for “rebuke,” epitimao, is strong language, often used in reference to silencing demons. So Peter is hitting Jesus with some serious flak.
Jesus responds by rebuking Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv. 32-33). He wastes no time in undermining Peter, because he is convinced that Peter is charging in the completely wrong direction, toward the earthly instead of the heavenly.
These are fighting words — the language of silencing demons and scolding colleagues. As violent as it sounds, it is the vocabulary of discipleship. But what does it mean?
With these words, Jesus is making his position clear. He is not the United States Secretary of Defense making decisions about military matters from a position of safety many miles from the fighting. Instead, he is down in the trenches with his comrades, on the front lines of the spiritual battleground. When he says that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” he is speaking in a very matter-of-fact way about what lies ahead for him. Rejection by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes — that’s inevitable for someone who is willing to buck the religious establishment and show people a new way to God. Even death makes sense when you are determined to march into a hostile city, upset the tables of the money-changers, and predict that the temple will be destroyed.
Jesus is willing to put his life on the line as he moves toward his destiny in Jerusalem. He is determined to devote body, mind and spirit to the work that God has called him to do. He’s not interested in satisfying the expectations of others, not even the dreams of his closest friends. All that concerns him is doing the will of God.
There’s a message for us here, especially as we struggle to find our focus as Christians in this season of Lent. In our multi-tasking world, we’ve always had a hard time sorting out the competing demands of family, work, community, friends and church, and our endless activity can leave us feeling scattered and even shattered. With remarkable clarity, Jesus gives us a new vocabulary for discipleship.
Set your mind on divine things, he says. Not on human things. And be willing to suffer. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” says Jesus. And so must those who follow him. How’s that for a Lenten journey??
Intellectually, I think we know that there are some things worth suffering for. Unfortunately, we live in a society that avoids suffering at almost any cost. We want our military to be successful without any sacrifice from civilians. We want more social services without higher taxes. We want to lose weight without cutting our calories or increasing our exercise. I don’t want to suffer! We don’t want to suffer.
But the vocabulary of discipleship includes suffering, and Jesus illustrates this life of loving sacrifice by lifting up the image of the cross. Calling to both the crowd and his disciples, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (vv. 34-35).
This is not a call to skedaddle; it’s a call to suffer. This is a Christian call to arms, in which followers of Christ are asked to take up a cross instead of a weapon. Our struggle will involve both love and suffering, and it will certainly include self-sacrifice. But if we set our minds on the things of God, we will receive the riches of everlasting life, and we will know how to answer the question of Jesus, “What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself?” (v. 36, CEV). Jesus doesn’t want anything to undermine our life with God.
During the season of Lent, let’s not forget that our deepest convictions come out of an experience of spiritual conflict and struggle, one that includes suffering and death … but also everlasting life. That’s the vocabulary of discipleship.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
don't forget the wild animals
Mark 1:9-15 (The Message)
I haven’t spent much time in deserts. I think the longest I’ve been in a desert is the portion of an afternoon I spent in the Painted Desert, located in the north central/north east central part of Arizona. I was probably 17 years old, and some members of my church’s youth group had traveled by Winnebago to a Hopi Indian reservation, where we spent every morning of the week we lived there leading a Vacation Bible School for the Hopi children. Each afternoon, we’d travel around the area to see God’s amazing creation in all its glory.
I wasn’t there for long, but this 160-mile long, 213 million-year-old desert was breath-taking. The whole region is barren and arid, with only 5-9 inches of precipitation annually, and temperature extremes between -25 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I was there closer to the 105 degree end of the spectrum, as I recall.
In today’s scripture reading, on this first Sunday in Lent, we hear three short, rapid-fire stories of great importance: Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is immediately driven out into the desert by the Spirit of God, and then he goes to Galilee to begin his ministry by saying, “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”
Fresh from his baptism, still waterlogged from the Jordan, Jesus is pushed into the wilderness—or the desert--for a time of preparation and testing. Mark doesn’t give us many details—there are no biblical interchanges or clever retorts between Jesus and Satan here as in Matthew and Luke—but what we do get is vivid. Angels tend to Jesus. And he is with the wild animals.
MaryAnn Dana, a Presbyterian pastor and a ministry coach, talks about today’s scripture as being a disorienting narrative, toggling between two distinctly contrasting moods. Just before the verses we’re looking at, we get a sense of John the Baptist’s bracing manner. His demeanor and words are meant to be challenging, not comforting. So Jesus’ baptism is probably no dainty sprinkling of water but an unceremonious dunking. Jesus is baptized by his prophetic cousin, standing waist deep in the river, John’s camel’s-hair robe hanging heavy on his shoulders, and the ritual is punctuated by the heavens ripping apart, or splitting open. What happens in the sky is a violent image.
But then . . . the Spirit descends like a dove. Through that curtain of sky, an unassuming bird flutters down and there’s a voice, uttering words of comfort: “With you I am well pleased.” Ahhh…so lovely.
Then comes Mark’s signature word, immediately, and the tone shifts again. That same Spirit who just fluttered around Jesus now, as MaryAnn Dana describes it, “beats its wings and nips at Jesus’ head, driving him into the wilderness as if Hitchcock had choreographed the scene. Jesus will remain there for 40 days, tempted by Satan. Brian Blount expresses the dynamic well in Preaching Mark in Two Voices: “Want to know what happens when you get too close to God, when you get touched by the power of God’s Spirit? You don’t sit still and enjoy the view, you don’t lay down and take a nap, you don’t bask in the glory of what great thing has just happened to you. You go immediately to wild work. To work for God is to be thrown directly into the path of those who would oppose God.”
But never fear, my friends! Here comes another contrast. Jesus is not alone in this wild work. He’s being tended--in this case, angels keep the vigil—but not just angels. There are wild animals there, too!
I’m willing to bet you would agree that angels have a soft, comforting image in our culture. But that is not always true in scripture. Dana says, “Sometimes a gentle, well-coiffed angel doesn’t cut it. There are occasions when we need the heavy artillery, spiritually speaking. When we’re in the fight of our lives, we need courage and strength. We need a sidewinder, sent from God, on our side. Or a scorpion. Maybe that dove-like Spirit at the baptism transformed into a turkey vulture for [Jesus’ time in the desert].
What does it mean that the wild animals were with Jesus? Did their wildness inspire him? Did their wildness give him the strength he needed to go toe to toe with the Adversary, who was relentless in his struggle to divert, distract, or seduce Jesus away from his mission? Or maybe the wild animals weren’t really wild in comparison with Jesus, the Son of God who confounds our expectations, who is always surprising us.
MaryAnn Dana says her “father was an intrepid motorcyclist who traveled all over the country and encountered all sorts of weather, mechanical breakdowns, and the occasional unsavory character. He once said he was never so frightened as he was in the middle of the wilderness of Death Valley. While traveling with [MaryAnn’s] teenage brother, they made a wrong turn and found themselves on a deserted road that soon became a gravel road. They gradually realized that they were dreadfully low on gas, with no cell phones, rest stop, or other motorists anywhere in sight—and no idea where they were.”
“My father,” she said,”was reassuring at the time, but afterward, he admitted he was scared. And yet he couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe at the sheer power of the desert landscape. It’s a place both severe and oddly beautiful—a place that cannot be conquered or cultivated, that doesn’t care about us, that can make quick work of us.”
It's been said that “the desert is a dangerous place. . . . No one goes into the desert unless they have to.” That’s the kind of place where Jesus was tested.
Once Jesus returns to begin his public ministry, he proclaims the time fulfilled: “The kingdom of God has come near.” What do you hear in these words? Do you hear the comforting voice of the baptismal Spirit (“You are my [chosen], marked by my love”]? Or do you hear the harsh edginess of John and find yourself thinking about the wild animals?
What you hear very well may define how this journey of Lent will be for you. And maybe, like the complexity of every life of faith, it is both at once.
Remember, God is with us on this journey toward Easter. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
and living to tell about it
Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)
I was the chaplain on duty that night at the Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland, when the call came that a family was ready to take their mother off life support. The mother wasn’t expected to survive the night.
I had met with the family the morning before. They were really struggling with all that had happened; a fractured family of brothers and sisters who hadn’t seen each other—or talked to each other—in years. Now they gathered around their mother’s bed after her massive heart attack and tried to find a way to talk about their pain and the loss, the anger and the regret.
That night they made an important decision—a decision to let their mother go. And they called me, the chaplain, to say a prayer and stand with them when the machines were disconnected.
Here was the problem as I saw it: I didn’t know what in the world I was doing! I was probably 23 years old, a seminary student in Rochester working on my Clinical Pastoral Education requirement at this hospital in Cleveland. What did I know about anything having to do with life and death??
And now I stood in the room with this family—gathered around their mother’s bed—and was deeply moved by their quiet sobbing, and the tender way they reached out to touch their mother. “Please, Reverend, please say a prayer for our mother.”
I will never forget the feeling of anticipation that floated around in that room. I was the pastor, I was the one “connected to God,” and this family fully expected me to call upon all my spiritual energy to pray to God on behalf of their beloved mother.
I will also never forget how it felt to have the air sucked out of my lungs when I realized that this family had no idea that I didn’t know what I was doing, that this family really did think I had a special and personal connection with God, and that this family had suddenly placed a whole lot of faith in me to shepherd them through this moment.
Before I joined them at the bed, I stood with my back against the wall of the room. I guess it provided some sort of support, allowed me a moment to catch my breath. Then I moved to the side of the bed, asked these already-grieving brothers and sisters to hold hands with me, and in a moment of grace I still recall with utter clarity, I asked them what they would miss most about their mother. The tears flowed and the stories came and there was even some laughter. Thank God for laughter! As they talked I had time to keep breathing, to stop worrying about what I was going to say, and somehow, somehow let the spirit of God move through me.
And through me, God’s comfort and mercy spilled forth in a prayer that was not mine. It was theirs. I used their words. I spoke about their feelings. It was an incredibly powerful moment.
When I left the room, I went to the ladies’ room and burst into tears. Not because of the mother’s impending death, not even because of the wonder of a family being slowly reunited. I burst into tears because I knew that I had been transformed in that hospital room. I knew that I had seen a glimpse of God at work, up close and personal. The experience totally sapped my energy, and it changed my understanding of ministry profoundly. All I could think of to say was, “Wow.”
If something like this has never happened to you, I hope that you wish it would. If you have never been in the position to look around and say, “Wow. Isn’t God amazing? Isn’t God powerful? Isn’t God awesome?” I hope that you wish to have your eyes and your spirit and your heart open to such moments of grace and wonder.
If something like this has ever happened to you—if you have felt the presence of God as near to you as your own breath—then you know what I’m talking about here. You know what it means to be able to say, “I just saw God and lived to tell about it!”
Today’s story of the transfiguration represents a special moment, when the members of Jesus’ inner circle are allowed to see the presence of God in the midst of ordinary life. The disciples see Jesus in an entirely new way. It is not so much that Jesus changes before their eyes, but rather that their eyes are suddenly open to the glory that has always been present in Jesus.
All along, the disciples knew Jesus was special. They had never seen anyone teach like Jesus. They had never seen anyone heal like Jesus. But they were clueless. Jesus had told them about the next chapter of his life—the part where he would suffer and die—but it just sailed over their heads.
Then comes this mountain experience. Peter, James, and John join Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and in an unexpected moment of wonder, in the blink of an eye, Jesus’ clothes became whiter than any bleach on earth could make them. Then Moses and Elijah—heroes of the faith from hundreds of years before—were there, talking with Jesus.
Just at that moment when Peter recovers enough to tell Jesus they’ll be happy to make three tents—one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah—a huge cloud passes over the mountain. In the midst of the cloud a voice is heard: “This is my son and I love him. Listen to what he says.”
In another blink of an eye, it was all over. The cloud was gone. The voice was gone. Moses and Elijah were gone. The moment of glory had passed. Jesus walked down the mountain with Peter, James, and John and immediately got back to work. He heals a boy, he teaches the disciples about his impending death, he blesses the little children.
You see, Jesus didn’t become something totally different on the Mount of Transfiguration. He didn’t change. He simply showed the disciples who he really was.
And what Jesus did for those three disciples on the mountain, he also does for us today. He gives us glimpses of his glory, of his power. He helps to prepare us for whatever lies ahead. He strengthens us for the journey.
Too often, though, we don’t expect transfigurations. We (used to!) walk into church on Sunday morning, oblivious to old Mr. Smith’s struggle, who started moving life into his arthritic knees at 7:00 that morning in order to make it to church by 10:00. We’re oblivious to Chloe’s self-loathing, her feeling unworthy of grace. We’re oblivious to the first-time visitor who sits in the parking lot until 9:58, debating whether to come inside.
Yet in these commonplace lives, God’s glory is unfolding. God’s spirit is moving. The transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is something we cannot fully explain. We can only proclaim it, relish it, enjoy it, and wonder at the sheer glory of it all. It was up on the mountain that the spectacular broke into the normal, the extraordinary cracked open the ordinary. And for a shining moment, the disciples see, and the disciples believe. Lord, it is good for us to be here!
Once we begin to look for the glory of God at work in you and in me, once we begin to look for the glory of God in all the world around us, maybe we will learn to treat each other with more respect and appreciation, maybe even treat each other with something like reverence. And maybe we’ll all have an experience where our response will simply be, “Wow. I just saw God and lived to tell about it!”
Don Skinner says, “If we cannot see God in the commonalities that constitute daily life, we would not recognize Christ if he walked into the room and sat down beside us.” Don’t let this happen to you. Don’t miss the glimpses of God that are yours to experience. Be ready! You won’t know when it’s coming. You can’t predict it or make it happen. But you can be ready. You can be alert. You can be open. And you can give thanks for every glimpse of the glory of God! Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)
How can this scripture reading NOT make you think of the COVID-19 pandemic?? Although, thankfully, we are beginning to see encouraging results from a variety of vaccines slowly making their way through the population, I’m not sure we will ever forget the images and stories of people who have struggled with the virus, and survived. I will never forget. You are some of them.
The stories that really break my heart are the ones where people have been in the hospital for months. We see videos of them in wheelchairs--always looking a little dazed, a little diminished from their former level of energy—being wheeled out of the hospital while tons of hospital workers and care takers line the hallway, clapping and cheering for the patient who finally gets to go home. Many of these people have been on ventilators for weeks, if not months. Many of them tell stories of having been near death.
The images are hard to erase from memory.
So, when we hear the gospel writer Mark tell the story about Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever, is there anyone who doesn’t have “uh oh” flit through their mind, as a feeling of great concern runs through their heart? These days, we are so conditioned to be alert to any changes in our own temperatures that the mere mention of a “fever” scares us. And that’s what Simon’s mother-in-law has…a fever.
Actually, that’s really all we know about her. We know nothing, not even her name, before this encounter with Jesus and that first tiny group of followers, and we know virtually nothing of her life after her healing. Mark just tells us that Jesus lifted her up, or raised her, by holding her hand. The fever left her “and she began to serve them.” The heart of the story in one verse.
As Victoria Lynn Garvey, a biblical scholar, reminds us, “In many of the healing stories across the four…Gospels, Jesus mentions something about someone’s great faith, or about sins being forgiven, in the course of a healing. But this cure is the first that’s “just because.” It appears that “just because” Simon, Andrew, James and John told Jesus about her as soon as they left the synagogue, Jesus went to her.
The woman’s condition is described as in bed/lying down or even “laid aside” because of a fever; apparently she is unable to function normally and is therefore practically outside her community, including her own household. Kind of like being in quarantine, right?
Jesus’ first act, when he is told of her condition, is to go to her, touch her, and not simply heal her but “raise her up”, as some versions of the scripture describe the scene. It’s the same word used in the description of Jesus’ own resurrection. “’Raising up’ is not simply a description of a physical movement from prone to upright…Her ‘raising up’ is an implicit invitation,” according to the biblical scholar, Garvey.
If there’s any of you feeling a bit irritated by the story telling us, according to the NRSV, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them,” you are not alone. Her response is variously translated: “she waited on them,” “cooked for them,” “served them.” For some, it may feel like this unnamed mother-in-law doesn’t even have a minute to catch her breath after being ill for who knows how long!
Not only that, but in the world in which we live and move and have our being, “service” is still pretty much a term for jobs of inferior rank: servers, the service industry, service stations. “When we’ve become successful, says this ideology, others serve us. But the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, who ‘did not come to be served but to serve,’ teaches us that service is the higher, even the highest calling.
That’s why, I think, it has been so important for communities all across our country and even the globe to find ways to honor and celebrate those who “serve us” during this pandemic. Opportunities to celebrate and give thanks have been created for the doctors, nurses, attendants, cleaners, EMTs, grocery store employees, food servers, and more.
“To serve for the sake of others is the mark of true discipleship.”
To be clear, the word “immediately” does not appear in the description of the mother-in-law’s action—we don’t really know that she jumped off the bed and got right to work cooking a meal for the men—but the sense of immediacy is clearly in the air. “Before the gospel writer tells about the ideal of radical service or even models it consistently, she serves”—and does so, it seems, with some vigor.
So it’s frustrating when Mark doesn’t bother to tell us the rest of the story. “Like others who have been touched by Jesus—like John’s woman at the well or Luke’s older brother of the prodigal or Matthew’s Magi—we don’t know anything else about this woman’s further ministry, only this tantalizing hint” about how it all got started.
Simon’s “unnamed mother-in-law is an unlikely icon. Her story is really only recorded in two scant verses, and like a lot of women in the Bible, we don’t even know her name. What we do know is that, having been touched by Jesus, she is raised to the new, high calling of serving others…” She gets up, newly healed, and she serves.
Let us give thanks for all those who follow her example, and let us all find ways we can serve others, as well.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
She has a Fever...
Matthew 2:1-12 (MSG)
We celebrated Epiphany this past Wednesday. The word “epiphany” means “revealing”, and what a revealing day Wednesday was. Because we're talking about Epiphany, we are also thinking about the Magi, also known as the "three kings" from the "orient," according to the well-known Christmas carol.
Although most nativity scenes show the Magi crowded into the stable of Jesus' birth -- along with the shepherds, animals, an angel, Mary, Joseph and the baby -- the Magi were almost certainly later visitors, coming perhaps as long as two years after Jesus' birth. By then, Joseph had no doubt found better lodging for his family, which is probably why Matthew says the wise men entered "the house" to find Jesus. But whatever the time and place, these Gentile visitors from the East "knelt down and paid him homage." In older vocabulary, they "adored" him. They finished what they came to do.
But Leonardo da Vinci didn't. Over the centuries, various painters have portrayed this visit, but one of the most famous -- despite its being unfinished -- is da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi. The artist had been commissioned in 1480 to paint this 8-by-9-foot work for the main altar of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, near Florence. He was 29 at the time, and he worked on it for quite a while, getting the piece to its brown ink and yellow ocher groundwork stage. But then he moved to Milan and left it behind, never to work on it again. Eventually the assignment was given to another artist who provided the requested painting to the monastery in 1496. Da Vinci's unfinished work still exists and is on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Though uncompleted, it is recognized in the art world as one of his most important works.
Wouldn't it be great if our unfinished projects were also considered very important in their uncompleted states? Imagine all the stuff you could let go of, saying, "It's not finished and now it never will be, but it's got high value nonetheless." But we know that’s not likely to happen. To start with, not many of us can rival da Vinci in terms of genius and artistry. But even if we could, do we really want our contributions to the world to be in the form of stuff we started but never got around to finishing?
Da Vinci himself had a reputation as being unreliable at completing commissioned works. While he would devote months to the concept and composition of the work, he had no appetite for the actual labor of carrying out the painting itself. For whatever reasons, da Vinci never finished the portrayal of the Magi adoring Jesus. The Magi finished their work of adoration; da Vinci didn't. What about us?
Usually, it's not that we don't plan to finish, but we have to deal with flagging energy and/or unexpected hurdles. Sometimes it's almost as if some chaotic force is triggered when we're within sight of the finish line -- which delights in sidetracking our plans. I think that is, in part, what we saw happen at our nation’s Capitol this week. Ever so close to the finish line of verifying the lawful election of a new President, chaotic forces were triggered.
Here are a couple of examples of some more common, I would say, reasons we don’t complete things:
- There’s a virus out of control in the community and everything gets shut down…
- You finally start the kitchen remodeling project, but then the sump pump fails and you have to deal with a flooded basement. Somehow, you never get back to the kitchen remake.
- You vow to spend more time helping your son with his homework, but then you're pressed into longer hours at work.
- You've been working in your community to establish a shelter for the abused. Just as it seems you've finally gotten popular support for the idea, your attention to the project starts to wander.
- You resolve to be more intentional about your devotional and prayer life, so you rearrange your schedule to allow yourself a half hour of quiet time at home. But just as you are getting into your prayers, the first of three telemarketing calls interrupts and the kid next door rings your doorbell to ask you to buy candy for her school fundraiser.
I am in no way wanting to heap guilt on anyone about unfinished projects around the house or elsewhere. I’ve got my share of these projects, too. But if we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, that means following through…it means doing the right thing long-term and following Jesus as consistently as we can in the situations of daily living.
In these things, it's not uncommon for us to make a good start and, in some cases, even make a lot of headway toward where we think God is pointing us. Nonetheless, we shouldn't be surprised if that's when a fresh wave of problems and hindrances hits us. We shouldn't be surprised if things that have never gone wrong before go wrong. We also shouldn't be surprised if our passion for the endeavor suddenly evaporates. Life is like that.
So, one prayer for ongoing discipleship might be, "Help me, O God, while my enthusiasm is leaking away and my energy is failing and problems are multiplying, to continue to do your will."
The apostle Paul modeled this kind of perseverance, writing as he drew near death, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). His words, of course, refer to more than simply completing a mission project or seeking more holiness in living; they refer to the completion of a whole life of discipleship. The life of faith is not a 100-yard dash; it's a marathon. It's not a tourist jaunt; it's an ongoing pilgrimage. Nonetheless, there are some shorter races that need to be run along the way -- such as sticking with the not-so-easy task we feel God has called us to do, such as continuing to root out our unrighteous attitudes and behaviors that impede our spiritual growth, such as continuing to work at loving our difficult neighbor as much as we love ourselves.
As we find ourselves at the beginning of a new year, it's a good time to think about the faith-projects before us, and to believe this: When God calls us to a task, God gives us help to finish it.
So as people of God, let’s keep moving. We’ve got God’s work to do. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Psalm 51:1-3, 10-13, 16-17 (Good News Translation)
My head has been swamped and spinning ever since the attack on the United States Capitol on Epiphany, January 6th. I’m assuming I do not have to recount for you the details of that day; that day our nation’s Congress gathered to do their constitutionally required work of accepting the results of the November 2020 Presidential election.
Maybe your head has been spinning, too. Maybe your brain feels swamped, too. Maybe your heart even hurts, or is broken. Maybe you feel angry, or sad. Whatever you’ve been experiencing over the last 11 days, know that you are not alone.
I need to confess that it is not easy to be a pastor these days. It really wasn’t easy for me to see “Jesus Saves” banners being carried by people in the midst of perpetrating violence. Deciding what words to share with you; discerning what message can be shared in such a difficult and chaotic time in the life of our nation is just hard work.
Renowned theologian Karl Barth is quoted (sort of) as saying that pastors should “preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.” If he were saying this today, he might change this to say, “with a Bible in one hand, and a smartphone in the other.” And because you can download the entire Bible to your smartphone, you really only need one hand these days.
It turns out a more accurate version of Karl Barth’s quote is, “Take your Bible and your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” (Time Magazine, May 1, 1966) As people of faith, we don’t just read the newspaper or listen to non-stop news outlets and figure out what to do about it on our own. Nor do we keep our heads in our Bible, shut the door, and prevent the world around us from creeping in. We need to remember to ask, “Where is God in all of this and where is God leading us?” These are not questions the “newspaper” asks, but we can do this work. Our faith and the world we live in are never separated.
My own sorting out/discernment process goes something like this: read, listen, read, think, listen, read, think, read and listen some more. There are so many people who are wiser than I am, who know and understand history and politics better than I do. One of my favorite Proverbs says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and never rely on what you THINK you know.” I take this one to heart.
I could share with you bits and pieces of lots of things I’ve found helpful over the last days. Just one comes from the Editors of The Christian Century, who wrote on January 7th, “The elements of democracy that make it fragile are the same ones that give it its power. Democracy is built upon its participants’ willingness to build a shared commitment to the common good, to tell the truth even when doing so incurs some personal or professional cost, to admit defeat and move on, and to give each citizen’s voice equal weight. Without a basically functional democracy there can be no possibility of racial justice in America, no freedom of the press, no integrity of elections, no guarantee of the people’s safety. At the same time, when these values are threatened, democracy itself cannot flourish.”
Sure, my discernment process is ridiculously slow, and I am very alert to those who say, rightly, I think, that silence makes me complicit. But I know…I do know…that playing nice does not stop evil. I understand that evil can only be eradicated when we—the church—are willing to face it head on. And I know that this work of eradicating evil is both external AND internal.
So I found that some things said by Rev. Anthony B. Robinson, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a well-know church consultant, to be particularly helpful to me. They stuck in my brain and ultimately pointed me toward today’s scripture in Psalm 51, a Psalm, by the way, that is typically read on Ash Wednesday, when we gather to have our foreheads marked with the smudge of ashes to demonstrate to ourselves and others that we understand—on some level—that we are all sinners.
Tony Robinson offered in his blog the idea that there might be another reaction to the January 6 events in the Capitol. He was reflecting on the Senators reconvening in the Capitol that night to continue their speeches and noted how a number of them proclaimed something along the lines of “the United States is the most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” and so on. Robinson wondered if the Senators were trying to reassure us.
But Robinson offered up something different to think about. Namely, being humbled. He said, “Being humbled is different than exhibiting it’s close cousin, humility. Humility is a virtue, not being too full of yourself, being aware that you aren’t all that. It’s something you try to do, like being brave.
“Humbled is different. It’s not something you do. Not something you achieve. It is something that happens to you, something that is done to you. It comes, not from within, but from without. You can get humbled by good things, like the demonstration of genuine goodness and costly love. [Aside: We saw some demonstrations of that at the Capitol, as well.] And you can get humbled by bad stuff, like Wednesday’s insurrection.
“Either way, the effect is to kind of just shut you up. To say, if anything at all, what the prophet Isaiah said when God appeared to him high and lifted up in the temple, ‘I am a sinful man, and I dwell in the midst of a sinful people.’ (Isaiah 6)
“We are hushed up,” Robinson suggested. “Quieted. Repentant. We don’t natter on about our greatness, say that we are exceptional, unusual, not like everybody else, better than everyone else, better than all the other nations of the world or of history. Sort of the opposite. We are just like everyone else. A mess. Sinful. Deeply flawed.”
And so I look to Psalm 51:
Be merciful to me, O God,
because of your constant love.
Because of your great mercy
wipe away my sins!
2 Wash away all my evil
and make me clean from my sin!
3 I recognize my faults;
I am always conscious of my sins.
Create a pure heart in me, O God,
and put a new and loyal spirit in me.
11 Do not banish me from your presence;
do not take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.
13 Then I will teach sinners your commands,
and they will turn back to you.
You do not want sacrifices,
or I would offer them;
you are not pleased with burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice is a humble spirit, O God;
you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.
Another challenge of preaching that I have absorbed along the way is the notion (whether its true or not) that its best to end a sermon on a hopeful note, an encouraging word. It never feels right to me to talk about sin and evil, violence and hate, without trying to find a message of encouragement in it all. It was a little hard to do for today, I have to say, but by the grace of God, I came upon this quote by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t even remember where I saw it. All I remember is what he said:
“We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of Love into the veins of our civilization.”
Thanks be to God. Let’s do it.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Take no bread?
Mark 6:6-13 (New Century Version)
I wondered how far into 2021 I’d make it before using the word “pandemic.” Turns out, not far at all. It seemed like there was a collective sigh of relief when the ball dropped to signal the start of a new year, and yet, even in the midst of this God-blessed newness, we have challenging work stretching before us.
Today we will share in communion, and for that, I am grateful. This deeply meaningful ritual reminds us that while there will always be death, sadness, and loss to contend with, we are always fed by God, who loves us so much, he sent his only son to die for our sins.
And our scripture today reminds us that because God feeds us, we are sent out to feed others. I’m doubtful you and I have authority over evil spirits, as the twelve disciples apparently did. But we are clearly fed. We are nourished. We are reminded whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, God is in it.
We’re nearly a year into learning to cope with the coronavirus. Remember when everything changed on a dime in March, 2020? Remember how—completely stuck in our homes—people began making their own bread? This wasn’t—and never would be—what I would do, but I have two friends (at least!) who have always loved making bread, and who, during the days when it was nearly impossible for people to find flour and yeast on grocery store shelves, were gracious about sharing pictures of their bread-making efforts on Facebook.
One of them posted a photo of fresh baked loaves of bread, with this description: “Today’s bread is a sourdough rye, 50/50 whole wheat and dark rye with some caraway and a touch of honey. The slices promise to be small and intense.” And he’s a pastor, not a chef!
I hadn’t really thought about it until this week, as I was doing some reading in preparation for today’s message to share with you, but a lot of Jesus’ teachings involve bread. “Have you ever counted the bread stories in the Gospels? There are dozens of them, even after you take out the [duplicate] stories that show up in one or more of the Gospels, such as the feeding of the five thousand, the feeding of the four thousand, and the Last Supper. Tucked in between all of these, there is also a…no-bread story.
“’Take no bread, Jesus told his disciples when he sent them away two by two to minister in his name—an odd teaching, on the face of it. Shouldn’t he have blessed some bread and tucked it in their backpacks in case they or anyone else needed it—a super loaf that just kept multiplying in the backpack and never ran out?” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Always a Guest)
The idea of traveling pretty much anywhere without having some kind of food on hand—or at least knowing where I could get my next round of food—makes me really uneasy. Thinking about this, I remembered how much food I would pack in the front seat of the car when I would travel from my family’s home in the Rochester area, back to Westminster College, in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. The trip was probably about 4, maybe 4.5 hours, and I remember I often drove the route on a Sunday afternoon, so I was usually sleepy after my morning at church, and then the big family meal of meat and potatoes before I hit the road. So I’d load the front seat with popcorn, and a sandwich, and cookies, and candy. I never left home without food.
But Jesus didn’t load up the disciples with food for their travels. No popcorn. No candy. No bread.
“Instead, Jesus told his disciples to take no bread. Maybe he did not want them to start thinking of themselves as the ‘haves,’ going to bestow their bounty of the “have nots.’ Maybe he wanted to make sure they had to rely on the kindness of strangers instead of supplying their own needs. When they came to a new town—breadless—they would either find someone with a hospitable heart or they would go to bed hungry. What better training could he have devised for future feeders than to remind them that when God answered their prayer for daily bread, God did it through other people?”
I wonder how God will feed us in 2021. I know we will be fed…physically, spiritually, emotionally. God will certainly be in whatever it is we face in the coming year.
And even more importantly, according to this fascinating story in the Gospel of Mark, how am I going to feed others? How are you going to feed others? How are we, as people of faith in community, going to feed others…physically, spiritually, emotionally?
I don’t know the answer to this, yet. But I know it is what we are called to do. When we share the bread and the cup of Jesus Christ at the communion table, we are fed and we are nourished SO THAT we can do the same for others.
By the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, let us be the feeders in 2021. Let us find those who are hungry, and share with them what has so graciously been shared with us.
May it be so!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
When the Christmas Tree Falls
Isaiah 9:1-2, John 8:12 (NRSV)
No matter how hard we try to make our celebrations of Christmas happy and perfect, it doesn’t always turn out that way. Christmas 2020 may be a year we tried even harder, and maybe failed more spectacularly. I want to share with you this morning a message I shared five years ago now, at a time when the world seemed impossibly painful. In fact, at the beginning of the message five years ago I said:
“The newspaper has been painful to read these last months of 2015. Mass murders here and abroad. “Active shooter” trainings in schools. Airplanes being shot down. Refugees, desperate to find safety, fleeing their homeland, and often dying in their attempts. Racial and religious prejudice. Rapes on campuses. Severe drought in one place, severe flooding in another.” Wow. How times have NOT changed.
I read quite a few blogs on a regular basis, and one of my favorites for a time was written by “Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary.” One year at Christmas she wrote about what a hard time she was having getting into the mood to celebrate Christmas. This is what she wrote:
“So. Our Christmas tree fell over.
“It had been leaning for a while (like, since the second we put it up) and then, finally, after a few days, it succumbed to gravity and crashed to the ground amid the sounds of creaking branches and breaking glass and my giant fur-faced husband shouting, “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING!”
“I knew it was going to fall over—I wasn’t surprised at all when it did. Not even an hour before it made its big dramatic flop to the floor, I took pictures of it tilting off to one side, star drooping like a spent balloon. I kept asking no one in particular, “Do you think that tree is okay? Does that look right?” I knew it was all going to fall apart eventually, but I didn’t know how to fix it and I knew I couldn’t shore it up on my own, so I backed away, fingers crossed that it would last until Christmas. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. So we were all just waiting for it to go down.
“Trees fall over sometimes. They just do. Sometimes it’s unexpected and other times it’s not, sometimes there are good reasons and other times there are not. But it doesn’t really matter, because it always makes a mess. And it always sucks.
“Really, it’s not the Christmas tree falling that hurts, it’s the collateral damage that wants to break your tiny heart.
“After our tree fell, my husband and I got down on our knees to pick out all the memories we could salvage and to sweep the broken pieces into the palm of our hands, like little shards of Christmas past to be carried off to the trash. I learned a long time ago to hold loosely to the things of this world, possessions and people both, to the degree that I honestly worry it’s too easy for me to let go of the things I love. But when the Christmas tree fell, “aloof” is the tool I pulled out of my back pocket. For me, pretending not to be sad is easier than being sad. Old habit, I guess…old…unhealthy…habit.
“It’s funny, isn’t it? How you can know something is going down—you can see it falling—but you can’t always stop it, you can’t fix it, you can only watch. And then maybe pick up the pieces. And pretend to not be sad (if you’re me. Or, actually be sad, if you are a reasonably well-adjusted adult who is not me.)
“Before the tree fell, I was fighting to find joy this year. I was struggling to make a place for the delight of Christmas because I was wrapped up tight in the pain of loss. When it fell, I was like, “Perfect. This is just…perfect.” Because this Christmas was already on its way to Sucksville and an unwilling Christmas tree was just icing on the Birthday Cake For Baby Jesus.
“It’s been a rough one for me and for some of the people I love. Frankly, this is not the most wonderful time of the year for us, at least not this time around.
“I’ve noticed this year (probably because I am having a super lame horrible dumb stupid stupid stupid Christmas) that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space in our lives for hurting people during the Holidays. But, man, there are a lot of hurting people. There are a lot of people for whom this time of year is sad or bitter, hollow or lonely, or just plain painful.
“While some of us are celebrating, others are aching.
“While some of us are toasting long lives, others are mourning life lost.
“While some of us feast on family time, others are starving for love.
“The bustle of activity and togetherness in December only serves to make some houses feel all the more empty. Loneliness is the quiet enemy of Joy.
“When my Christmas tree fell, it was like Christmas fell with it. The surviving ornaments stayed in a pile on the floor and the tree, now wrenched upright and properly secured, sat untouched with bare spots and bushy places and branches all tweaked out of order. Ugly. It was ugly and sad, and it felt just like Christmas to me…it felt right.
“So I left it like that until yesterday, when I decided it was too depressing to look at anymore and I set about fluffing and fixing it, rearranging it, and putting it back together. It will never return to its former glory, that is certain. This poor tree is just gonna have to be a little shabby and a little wonky and a little bit lonely looking with so few ornaments left on it this year. But, to be honest, it warmed my own shabby, crooked soul to see it there, waiting for me this morning. That dinged and droopy star calling my name, whispering a truth that I needed badly to remember…
“Jesus didn’t come to fix it all. He came to be with us in it all. Immanuel. God with us.
“Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry…for the Lord is with us.”
I’m sorry if this comes across to you tonight as the gloomiest message you’ve ever heard about Christmas, but I am telling you, my friends, it is a message that is completely true, and it is a message filled with hope and comfort. And ultimately…joy!
When you think about all that challenges us in our world, in our communities, in our homes, in our hearts these days…you may find it hard to sense the hope, the comfort, the joy.
And I suspect there has been…or there will be…a time in your life when Christmas—when life!—comes crashing down around you like Jamie’s Christmas tree. And when it does, I beg you to remember this:
“Jesus didn’t come to fix it all. He came to be with us in it all. Immanuel. God with us.
“Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry, for the Lord is with us.” Joy to the world!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
the dark night of the soul
Luke 1:26-35 (NRSV)
Steve Hall (retired UCC pastor and ACC member) and I were having a bit of an email conversation this week about my Advent preaching theme of the value of darkness. He said that the Advent sermon series had prompted him to think about darkness in his own life. He said he remembered during a difficult time in his ministry, coming across a theme from the Middle Ages. “The Dark Woods referred, on the surface, to the scary part of the deep woods, where you could encounter unknown threats,” he wrote. “On a deeper level, though, it referred to the dark night of the soul, and that could be a time of molding and growth, if one had the courage to be open to the darkness.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, my spiritual guide through this Advent season, writes in her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” “Like darkness itself, the dark night of the soul means different things to different people. Some use the phrase to describe the time following a great loss, while others remember it as the time leading up to a difficult decision. Whatever the circumstances, what the stories have in common is their description of a time when the soul was severely tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control. No one,” she says, “chooses this dark night; the dark night descends.”
“For good or for ill,” she continues, “no one can do your work for you while you are in this dark place. It has your name all over it, and the only way out is through.” And, “One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief.”
I think Mary had to wrestle with belief when that angel appeared—at night, as I picture how this went down—totally invading her space and her privacy. Mary is in Nazareth at the time, and she’s engaged to be married to a man, named Joseph. We know from the gospel of Luke that Joseph is descended from David, but that’s about it. What we don’t know about them is significant: how did they meet? How did they decide to get married? Had they ever met each other’s families? Had they ever talked about what their life together would be like? Had they ever talked about starting a family of their own? We just don’t know.
Nonetheless, we know that she is presented with this unfathomable news. As the angel says to her in the Message version of the scripture, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.” God has a surprise for you? Are you kidding me? Can you imagine hearing something like this?
Though completely shaken, Mary is pretty quick in her thinking and in her reasoning, and she replies to the angel by saying, in essence, “Wait just a minute. This can’t be right. I’ve never slept with a man.”
“Oh, well, don’t worry,” the angel tries to reassure her. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest will hover over you; therefore, the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God.” As if all of this information was supposed to ease her body, mind and spirit.
I imagine—even after dutifully replying to the angel, “Ohhhh. NOW I get it. Sure. I’m ready to serve,”—I imagine young Mary began to descend into a dark night of the soul, a time of wrestling with God.
In contemplating the dark night of the soul, Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of the widely acknowledged “master of this night,” John of the Cross, a sixteenth century monk whose best-known work is, The Dark Night of the Soul. His work on this began during the eleven months he spent in a monastery prison. I encourage you to do a little research if you want to understand the whole story of how John of the Cross was put in the monastery prison because of his work with Teresa of Avila. It’s fascinating…
When John was placed in solitary confinement, where the only light he saw came through a slit in his prison wall, he began to compose his greatest work, first by memorizing the words in the dark and later, thanks to a kind jailer, by writing them down. When he escaped after nine months, he escaped to the south of Spain, where he continued to write down what he had learned in the dark.
Taylor says that “most people who hear the name of John’s best-known work assume that it is the memoir of a survivor describing the worst period of his life. Because so many of them have been programmed to think of “dark” as a synonym for “sinister,” they open The Dark Night of the Soul expecting John to tell them how awful it was and how he got through it by hanging onto his faith in God no matter what happened to him.
“But it turns out that he is no help to anyone seeking a better grip on God. One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”
Well, that’s a lot to absorb, isn’t it? What does John of the Cross even mean?
“John’s answer is not simple,” Taylor says, “but in the simplest possible terms, he says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachments to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God. All of these are substitutes of God, John says. They all get in God’s way.”
And now we’re back to that place in every dark night when we have to decide whether we will surrender or resist. Mary surrendered to God. In the Middle Ages, Steve Hall tells me he learned, the dark night of the soul could be understood as a time of molding and growth, if one had the courage to be open to the darkness. Surrender or resist.
John of the Cross says that “God puts out our lights to keep us safe, because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection.”
Silent night…holy night. The longest night comes to us all, and our work as people of faith is to decide whether to resist it or to surrender to it, trusting that God is in the darkness as well as in the light. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
good things happen in the dark.
Luke 2:8-12 (NRSV)
Here’s a short quote from American poet, Theodore Roethke that I think can guide us in our thinking about the dark, this third Sunday in Advent. Roethke said, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
In her study of the dark for her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor offers this quote, and then talks about a friend offering to take her into a cave.
When I was a kid, I don’t remember my family taking a lot of vacations, but I do remember (sort of) a trip to the Luray Caverns in Virginia. The Luray Caverns, originally known as the Luray Cave, was discovered in 1878, and has long been open to the public and electrically lighted. In 2018, over 500,000 people visited the caverns. While I do remember being awed by the stalagmites and the stalactites, I don’t remember if I felt any fear. I do, however, remember feeling great fear in June of 2018 when we all watched in horror the attempted rescue of 12 eleven to sixteen-year-old soccer players and their 25 year old coach, after they were stuck in a water-filled cave for more than TWO WEEKS in Thailand.
Of course, this hadn’t happened yet, when Barbara Brown Taylor was doing research for her book, published in 2014. So she took her friend up on the invitation to enter a cave. Not a “show cave,” as she would probably classify the Luray Caverns, but a “wild” cave, where she could experience total darkness. She said the idea scared her, but that made it a good opportunity for her to practice courage. “Plus,” she said, “I knew that the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad had all spent significant time in caves, along with Saint Patrick and Saint Francis. What drew them to those dark places, which others worked so hard to stay out of, and what did they find there that made them go back? Yes, I said, I would like to go into a wild cave.”
The cave her new friends, Rockwell and Marrion, were taking her to was in West Virginia. The cave is part of the Organ Cave complex. Although people have been exploring Organ since 1704, there are still more than two hundred passages in it that no one has ever entered. Soldiers used it for shelter and the manufacture of ammunition during the Civil War. Today, it is the eighth longest cave in the country.
Taylor relates how she prepared for this venture into the cave, how she learned that there would be no other people in this cave, and then what it was like when she and Rockwell and Marrion got to the first spot inside the cave, where they would practice sitting in the dark for the first time.
“After we have all chosen our spots, we turn out our head lamps and let the dark have us,” she said. “The eclipse is total. There is no light coming from [another room]. There are no dimly glowing numbers on a watch. There is no moon. This is what people mean when they say, ‘It was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.’ There is nothing to listen to or touch to compensate for the loss of sight. Rockwell and Marrion are so good at this that I cannot even hear them breathing. There is no sound to be heard in this cave. My ears are as blind as my eyes.”
“In a dark time,” Roethke said, “the eye begins to see.”
The three of them travel further into the cave and then Barbara asks Rockwell and Marrion if it is ok for her to go ahead on her own. They encourage her to go find a place she likes, sit down, and turn off her lamp again.
She says, “I go on until I cannot hear their voices anymore, feeling like a child testing her boundaries. The walls draw in closer the farther I go. The ceiling drops lower until the whole room ends at the opening of a low tunnel ringed with rocks. It looks like a good stopping place. When I reach up to turn off my lamp, I see something impossibly sparkly just above my head and I stand to get a better look. It is a long fissure in the rock that is full of tiny crystals, every one of them catching the light and tossing it back and forth. What better souvenir of my day in the cave? I aim my headlamp at some pieces that have broken off, choose the one with the most glitter in it, and put it in my backpack before turning off the lamp and sitting down in the dark.
“This time I think about all the great spiritual leaders whose lives changed in caves. Buddha meditated regularly in them, setting such an example for his followers that if you go to India, China, or Tibet, your tour guide can almost always take you to a meditation cave.
“Muhammad spent a lot of time in a small cave two miles outside of Mecca, where he meditated and prayed for days at a time.
“Jesus was born in a cave and rose from the dead in a cave. Like most Westerners, I always thought of the stable in Bethlehem as a wooden lean-to filled with straw, at least until I went to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank. There I learned that caves made the best stables in Jesus’ day… The traditional place of Jesus’ birth is not in the Church of the Nativity but under it, in a small cave under the altar.
“The cave in which he rose from the dead is long gone, covered over by the huge Church of the Holy Seplchre in Jerusalem. Today visitors stand in line to enter a mausoleum that looks nothing like a hole in the ground. This may be just as well, since no one knows for sure what happened there. By all accounts, a stone blocked the entrance to the cave so that there were no witnesses to the resurrection. Everyone who saw the risen Jesus saw him after. Whatever happened in the cave happened in the dark.
“New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
When Barbara gets home from the cave and unpacks, she finds the stone that had glittered in the deepest part of the cave. But now, she wonders what was so special about it because, under the light of her reading lamp, it looks like a piece of road gravel. What in the world made it a precious stone?
She says, “The stone is not the problem. The light is the problem. Even the reading light is too much. Rummaging in my pack for a penlight, I click it on and aim the beam at my hand. The stone turns into a diamond factory before my eyes, fully as dazzling as I remember. The stone is alive with light, but only in the dark. When I turn on the lamp again, it goes back to being a small piece of gravel in my hand.”
She ends her story by saying, “When I entered the cave hoping for a glimpse of celestial brightness, it never occurred to me that it might be so small. But here it is, not much bigger than a mustard seed…While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards?”
In the gospel of Luke, the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds, who are out in the fields at night, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
May we have eyes to see this treasure from God this Christmas. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
The eyes of the blind
John 9:35-41 (NLT)
Wendell Berry said, “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.”
What an interesting thing to think about as we continue our journey into the dark days of winter and the church season of Advent. “Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” says that there are so many darknesses she will never know. That’s true for you and me, too. “Someone with dark skin,” she says, “tells me what it is like to live among people who do not think twice about using ‘dark’ as shorthand for sinister, sinful, tragic, or foul. Someone from northern Canada tells me how precious darkness is in midsummer, when the sun does not go down until midnight and is back in the sky by five. Most arrestingly of all, someone holding the harness of a seeing-eye dog asks me if I know what ‘darkness’ means to someone who is blind. No,” she replies, “I do not.”
For reasons I do not know, we mostly been taught to fear the dark. But as Taylor launched into thinking more deeply about darkness in writing her book, she said she began to understand that “light” has as many meanings as “dark.” There is an old prayer in the “Book of Common Prayer” that goes like this: “Look down, O Lord, from your heavenly throne, and illumine this night with your celestial brightness; that by night as by day your people may glorify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
We’re certainly not used to the idea, but we can learn, I think, to value the dark as well as the light, for God created them both. But living as we do, we simply are not often plunged into literal darkness. Late at night, the interior of my house is never fully dark, due to all of the gadgets that have illuminated clocks and buttons on them. And then there’s the rather large, inflatable, fully lit snowman that sits across the street from my house. This snowman nearly throws enough light into my office at the front of my house for me to read by without turning on a light in the room.
But I don’t know—don’t regularly experience—total darkness. Perhaps this is why I was fascinated by Barbara Brown Taylor’s telling of the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who wrote about his experience in a memoir called “And There Was Light.” Lusseyran wasn’t born blind, but wore glasses when he was quite young. Then he got into a fight at school, he fell, and the glasses got poked into his eyes and at the age of seven, he was completely and permanently blind.
The young Lusseyran soon “learned from the reactions of those around him what a total disaster this was. In those days, blind people were swept to the margins of society, and his doctors suggested sending him to a residential school for the blind in Paris.” His parents refused, and “the best thing they did for him was never to pity him. They never described him as ‘unfortunate.’ They were not among those who spoke of the ‘night’ into which his blindness had pushed him. Soon after his accident, his father, who deeply understood the spiritual life, said, ‘Always tell us when you discover something.’
“In this way, Lusseyran learned that he was not a poor blind boy but the discoverer of a new world, in which the light outside of him moved inside to show him things he might never have found any other way. Barely ten days after his accident he made a discovery that entranced him for the rest of his life. ‘The only way I can describe that experience is in clear and direct words,’ he wrote. ‘I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.’
‘It was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.’
“Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote. One of his greatest discoveries was how the light he saw changed with his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid, the light decreased at once. Sometimes it went out altogether, leaving him deeply and truly blind. When he was joyful and attentive, it returned as strong as ever. He learned very quickly that the best way to see the inner light and remain in its presence was to love.
In January 1944, the Nazis captured Lusseyran and shipped him to Buchenwald along with two thousand of his countrymen. Yet even there he learned how hate worked against him, not only darkening his world but making it smaller as well. When he let himself become consumed with anger, he started running into things, slamming into walls, and tripping over furniture. When he called himself back to attention, the space both inside and outside of him opened up so that he found the way and moved with ease again. The most valuable thing he learned was that no one could turn out the light inside him without his consent. Even when he lost track of it for a while, he knew where he could find it again.
Lusseyran said that if we could learn to be attentive every moment of our lives, we would discover the world anew. “We would discover that the world is completely different from what we had believed it to be. Because blindness taught him that, he listened with disbelief as the most earnest people he knew spoke about the terrible ‘night’ into which his blindness had pushed him. “The seeing do not believe in the blind,” he concluded, which may help explain why there are so many stories in the Bible about blind people begging to be healed. Whoever wrote down those stories, Taylor insists, could see.
There is this strange thing that Jesus says at the end of a long healing story in John’s Gospel. “I came into this world for judgment,” he says after healing a man who has been born blind from birth, “so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Taylor says that she always heard that as a threatening judgment, but now, after slowing learning to walk in the dark, she says it sounds more promising.
“At the very least, it makes me wonder how seeing has made me blind—by giving me cheap confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are, by distracting me from learning how the light inside me works, by fooling me into thinking I have a clear view of how things really are, of where the road leads, of who can see rightly and who cannot. I am not asking to become blind, but I have become a believer. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is ONLY visible there.”
Back to what Wendell Berry said: “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.” Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
The Treasure of Darkness
Isaiah 45:1-7 (NRSV)
We’ve been warned, my friends. Regarding the pandemic, we’ve been warned that we are heading into a dark winter. This is an unnerving prospect for many of us. This is on top of the fact that for us, living in the north east, winter is always dark.
I recently pulled out a book I have loved, by Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my all-time favorite writers, to re-read and help me think some more about this darkness we’re heading into. Her book is titled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. On the jacket of her book, she writes this about darkness: “Darkness is shorthand for anything that scares me—either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out. If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love. At least I think I would.
“The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life, plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair.
“Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
I am coming to believe that we all need darkness as much as we need light. I am coming to understand that God created darkness AND light…actually creating the darkness first! Our lives do not work only when everything is fully lit…the light in our lives waxes and wanes, or can go out altogether. How did we come to fear the dark in the first place?
Over these next couple of Sundays, as we step closer to the shortest, darkest day of the year on December 21, and as we creep ever closer in the darkness of night to the manger on Christmas Eve, I want to share stories with you about how God shows up at night.
This is where I want to start, by sharing this reflection from Barbara Brown Taylor:
“As I write this, the end of daylight-saving time is right around the corner. A week from now the sun will come up at 7 a.m. and set before 6 p.m., so that the day is more dark than light. Darkness is complete where I live, way out in the country at the end of a dirt road. When city people come to visit, they get jumpy after dark. Christian people do too, leading me to wonder where we got the idea that darkness exists chiefly to be vanquished.
Biblically speaking, darkness is the pits. In the [old] testament, light stands for life and darkness for death. Sheol is dark as hell. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. Locusts darken the land. People grope in the dark without light, for the day of the Lord is darkness and not light.
In the [new] testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. He has come so that everyone who believes in him should not remain in the darkness, but they love darkness more than light. On the day he dies, darkness descends on the land from noon until three. First John sums it up: "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all."
Or, in the vernacular of the Chattahoochee Baptist Church sign near my house, "If you cut God's light off, you'll be sitting in the dark with the devil."
This strikes me as a problematic teaching on the verge of Advent, the church season of deepening darkness, when Christians are asked to remember that we measure time differently from the dominant culture in which we live. We begin our year when the days are getting darker, not lighter. We count sunset as the beginning of a new day. However things appear to our naked eyes, we trust that the seeds of light are planted in darkness, where they sprout and grow we know not how. This darkness is necessary to new life, even when it is uncomfortable and goes on too long.
Ask any expectant mother if she wants her baby to come early and she will say no, she does not. As badly as her back hurts, as long as it has been since she has seen her toes, she is willing to wait because the baby is not ready yet. The eyelashes are ready, but not the fingernails. The kidneys are ready, but not the lungs. Those wing-shaped sacks are still preparing to make the leap from fluid to air. There is still more time to do in the dusky womb, where the baby is growing like a seed in the dark.
The child's parents may never be ready, especially if this is their first. They want this; they are terrified of this. They planned for this; they cannot imagine how this happened. Meanwhile, they have a few baby-less weeks to go, which they can put to good use. They can make sure the nursery is ready. They can learn to sing some lullabies. They can think about what it means to bring a human being into the world, and what it will take to raise this child up into his or her full humanity. All they cannot do is hold a baby in the light, because the baby is still in the dark.
The church waits like this during Advent—mulishly refusing to sing the songs pouring from loudspeakers at every shopping mall, stubbornly counting the days, puritanically declining to open any presents—because the baby is not ready yet, which means that we are not ready either. We have some time in the dark left to go.
There is one word for darkness in the Bible that stands out from the rest. It shows up in the book of Exodus, at the foot of Mount Sinai, right after God has delivered Torah to the people: "Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (20:21).
This is araphel, my concordance says, the thick darkness that indicates God's presence as surely as the brightness of God's glory—something God later clarifies through the prophet Isaiah, in case anyone missed it earlier. "I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things" (Isa. 45:6–7).
Here is a helpful reminder to all who fear the dark. Darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God. The long nights of Advent and the early mornings of Easter both point us toward the God for whom darkness and light are alike. Both are fertile seasons for those who walk by faith and not by sight.
Even in the dark, the seed sprouts and grows—we know not how—while God goes on giving birth to the truly human in Christ and in us.”
People of God, this Advent season, may we all learn how to walk in the dark…faithfully and without fear.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
It Isn’t About the Money
Matthew 25:14-30 (The Message)
I met with my financial advisor on Thursday morning. I usually sit down with him about once every year, but because of the pandemic, I hadn’t worked with him for eighteen months, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, I was anxious about his coming to my house to talk with me about my financial well-being.
I’ve been working with him for about six or seven years, and with another gentleman within the company for ten to thirteen years before that, so you would think I would be used to having someone ask me personal financial questions. Even so, there is something about revealing to another person how I have used/saved/invested the gifts I have been given by God—and that have been paid to me through the faithful giving of the churches I have served—that makes me sweat.
Today’s parable in Matthew is another tough one to handle. Last week, we thought about the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom, some with extra oil for their lamps, some without. Now we’re thinking about three servants who are given differing amounts of money to care for while their master goes away for a while. It’s hard to think of it this way because the ending of the parable seems so brutal, but the gifts they are given are amazingly abundant! A talent, as some versions of the scripture refer to the gifts the servants receive, is a vast sum of money.
And notice that the master entrusts his wealth to his servants over a long period of time. I know this from my financial advisor…the longer I focus on my financial goals, the better off I will be in the long run. The gift of a “long time” allows the servants to live faithfully in this superabundance. So, focusing on the abundance in this parable instead of just on the judgment we see at the end, allows us to understand a deeper reality of the Kingdom of heaven: the interest on the abundance comes when the gift is given away. It’s a totally upside-down way to look at finances—and my financial advisor would probably look at me like I was crazy if I suggested it—but being faithful disciples means it isn’t about the money…its about taking the risk to create more abundance for more people.
Amy Frykholm tells the story about a church, the LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, and how—years ago—the congregation was seeking to be faithful with an abundance.
Frykholm said, “You might think,” I told a group of high school students gathered for “Service Day” at our church’s community meal, “that we have to deal a lot with scarcity here. We are trying to feed 250 people a week entirely from donations. But the truth is that our bigger problem is often how to deal with abundance.”
“I pointed at the table where we had put donations that came in from a nearby Whole Foods: strawberries just about to rot, packages of guacamole, gallons of milk, cartons of organic yogurt, and dozens of loaves of bread. “How can we be good stewards of all that has been given to us? Abundance often causes as many problems as scarcity.”
She went on to say, “This reality made a story I heard recently about LaSalle Street Church in Chicago particularly fascinating to me. In the 1970s, the church, along with three other churches in the area, invested a small amount of money and sweat equity to help build a housing complex for people of varying incomes. They retained a 2 percent investment in this housing project over the decades. Last month (in 2014) after many negotiations, the building was sold—and the church received a check for $1.6 million dollars, the largest amount of money the church has ever received at one time.
“LaSalle Street Church is an urban church with 200 members and dozens of ministries in the neighborhood and beyond. The finance committee could definitely come up with ways to spend the money. There are plenty of needs. But the elder board took $160,000 from the windfall, and a few Sundays ago Pastor Laura Truax used this to give everyone in the congregation a check for $500 to use, in whatever way they choose, for God’s work in the world. Every active attender in the church received this check.
“The church has initiated a nine-month program in the teaching and practicing of discernment, especially in reading Elizabeth Liebert’s The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making in small groups. Before Truax handed out the checks, she preached a sermon on the parable of the servants and the talents. “The master wasn’t worried about the money,” she said. “He was worried about whether the servants were going to take a risk, whether they are going to do business.
“Do you think we didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and think that we might waste $160,000? Are we sure this is what God is calling us to do?” Truax asked.
“There is no fine print here. None of you need to do anything but walk over to Leslie Hall and get the check. Is this unbelievably risky? Yes it is. Right now we are a church that is $50,000 behind its budget... We are doing this because this is what it feels like to do business with God: risky and crazy and vulnerable and incredibly threatening and exciting at the same time.
“How the people of LaSalle Street Church are going to live their own real-life parables remains to be seen. It is a question of discernment, and the willingness to take a risk with what has been given.”
Frykholm ends her reflection by saying, “I don’t know yet how this applies to my one-more-day-left strawberries, but I am wondering about it.”
I hope that we will be moved to wonder about it, too. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
today and tomorrow
Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)
“This is a tough parable to read,” Layton Williams suggests. I think he’s right. “As the world continues to be upended and uncertain, we are left to muddle along as best we can, cycling through brief and bright moments of resilience and hope in between longer slogs of impatience and frustration. We are in a season of waiting, and we don’t know exactly how long it will last or what the ending will even look like.
“And here, in the midst of such a season, comes this confusing and rather dark parable. Jesus offers an ominous story of a belated wedding feast and the exclusion of the unprepared as a metaphor for our call to expectant waiting on God and the coming kingdom.”
Really? Now? This is the parable the lectionary readings direct us to look at on this Sunday?? There aren’t many things these days about which we DO know the day and the hour, and yet this parable reminds us that we need persistence, patience, and faithfulness for the long haul. The lectionary drives me crazy when it works out like this…
As I was contemplating this call to persistence, patience, and faithfulness in our waiting, a crystal clear image of my dad came to mind. I can picture him in the house he lived in until just a month or so before he died, sitting in his small recliner, facing the television. He was pretty small in stature, so I remember a big chair never worked for him because his feet wouldn’t touch the floor. Forever, on the left side of his chair, sat a small, square table, where his glass jar of butterscotch candies would be stationed in easy reach.
And that’s where he always sat, just waiting, it seemed. Never anxious. Never pacing. Never edgy. Just calm. And waiting. Arms crossed. Sucking on a butterscotch candy. I don’t really know for sure what he was waiting for…I suspect he was waiting for one of his children to arrive, or the mail or the newspaper to arrive, or time for the next meal to arrive. He just seemed so patient.
Tony Robinson says its important for us to look carefully at this parable now because it deals with waiting, and more specifically, HOW we wait. As you may be aware, waiting is something we’ve had a great deal of practice with in these days since the Presidential election on Tuesday, whether we wanted the chance to practice or not. And this parable urges us to consider: how do we live and act during the waiting time?
“It would be too easy,” Dirk Lange says in his commentary on this passage, to simply see the characters we find here in terms of “good” and “bad”, or as “wise” and “foolish.” He says that the meaning we give to descriptions like these have always reflected our own prejudice more than they have represented Gospel truth. What’s more helpful, he says, is to remember that this community in Matthew’s gospel is dealing with a lot of issues in their day; a break from the synagogue, a delayed second-coming of Jesus, and a whole bunch of “flagging vigilance.”
But all of these women were waiting for the “bridegroom.” They all belonged to the same community, the same group of friends. They all fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to come. “Within the community, it is impossible to tell who has enough oil in their lamps [for the long haul], who has been more faithful. This is not for us to see or to judge. The church always remains a mixed community. Making the center of interpretation the issue of foolish or wise would miss the point of the parable.”
The role of the bridesmaids in welcoming the bridegroom is one that doesn’t quite resonate with modern weddings, so that part of the parable is pretty much lost on us. And while the five apparently foolish bridesmaids take the blame in this story, missing out on the banquet as a result, it’s interesting that the bridegroom faces no consequences for leaving ten women alone in the night far past his expected arrival time. (In talking about our reality of having to wait—not for the bridegroom, but for the results of our voting for President—Jimmy Fallon said in a monologue this week that this waiting is excruciating for us. We’re the ones, he says, who give a Tik Tok video 3 seconds to amuse us, and if it doesn’t, we move on. Fallon is spot on!) Not to mention that after making everyone wait for so long, the bridegroom doesn’t even wait long enough for the five oil-deprived bridesmaids to return. Nor do the five wise bridesmaids catch any flack for their lack of generosity toward the others.
So are we to conclude that our invitation to the kingdom of God hinges on our hoarding supplies and prioritizing our own well-being over the collective good? Or that God will be careless about God’s own showing up but be demanding about the way we show up? I don’t have answers to these questions, and the questions are particularly irritating right now.
What, in the end, can we learn from this parable that will be helpful to us today?
Maybe this: these bridesmaids are patient and willing, despite being labeled foolish. What leads to their condemnation is that they do not store up for themselves the reserves they need to show up to serve as God calls them to when the time eventually comes. So maybe the question for us to consider is this: How are we focusing our time, energy, and resources in ways that, despite our present circumstances, will help us to serve God and others when we are called to do so?
Are we giving ourselves rest and care so that we have the energy to care for others? Are we continuing to develop and grow spiritually so that we are ready to do the work when opportunities arise? And how are we helping others store up and prepare as they need to? How can we wait together well?
Even the wise bridesmaids fall asleep. And we all lose focus and wander at times or grow complacent or simply too weary. These things do not make us faithless—so long as we remember what is most important and we are prepared to offer it when the time comes.
May we be God’s people together in the waiting. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
it's all upside down
Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)
Today is the first day of November—All Saints Day, in the tradition of the church—and I don’t know about you, but I feel like so much of the world as we currently know it is pretty unhinged. It’s all, I admit, making me more anxious than I ever remember feeling before.
So I’m reading a lot of sermons and essays, hoping to gain an insight, a message of comfort, a kick in the pants…something that will help give me a new perspective on where we are right now. Today, I shamelessly share with you this wonderful, brief, message on the scripture we are focusing on in Matthew. It’s written by Layton E. Williams, a Presbyterian minister.
“I’m not sure the world has ever felt as upside down in my lifetime as it has in 2020. A global pandemic and accompanying economic crisis, political division and discord, protests for justice and a better world for all people, and every week, it seems, a new catastrophe—a news story (or several) that causes us to roll our eyes and think, Now this!
A year ago, life included parties, happy hours, and travel. Its more mundane activities included public transit, workdays in the office, going to church, shopping for groceries, picking the kids up from school, and hugging people. That world is gone now. Every single one of these elements of “normal life” has been disrupted, destroyed, turned on its head. The world we inhabit now is strange, unfamiliar, and scary. We don’t know what the future will hold or how long this season of upheaval and uncertainty will last.
Many times in recent months I have thought that the world is broken. Ending, even. That everything has become messed up. I have longed for the world I knew before. Despite its imperfections and injustices, it was a world that was largely comfortable for me.
The Beatitudes, however, are a reminder that the world as we have generally encountered it is not at all the world that God intends or desires for us. Indeed, in many ways God’s desired world is an inversion of the world we expect and feel comfortable with and entitled to—particularly those of us who benefit from privilege.
With these eight strange and unexpected blessings, Jesus of Nazareth begins his epic Sermon on the Mount, throughout which he offers instruction, parable, promise, and command to his followers about the ways that God intends for us to live and the world God calls us to work toward. It’s significant that Jesus begins here, with these inverted blessings.
He begins by centering those who suffer, those who remain faithful in the face of hardship, those who focus themselves on compassion and care for others, on justice and righteousness, on making true peace for a better world for all. These are not the groups of people that our world tends to favor or exalt. In our dog-eat-dog world, the spoils go to the victor, the glory to the powerful. We celebrate those who are dominant, aggressive, and competitive. We reward those who prioritize themselves. Meanwhile, we avoid those who are suffering, we reject calls for justice and peace, and we see self-emptying concern for others as weakness.
Our misaligned and unholy priorities have been painfully and devastatingly evident over the course of this pandemic. As a result, we have a great many more names and lives to remember on this All Saints Day than we should.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus makes a promise: that regardless of how this world fails them, God’s commonwealth or kin-dom will ultimately comfort and lift up those who are faithful and good. At the end, he speaks directly to his hearers, not only naming abstract groups but also reassuring those listening that if they also seek to be faithful and good, then no matter how the world mistreats them, God will ultimately be faithful to them.
I wonder about the inclusion of a direct appeal from Jesus in this passage. It turns the Beatitudes from a lecture into an invitation. What sort of person is being described by these blessings?
Those who mourn do so because they love someone who has been lost. Do we care enough about those who have died in this pandemic to mourn them? Will we care mercifully for those who are being hurt by this situation, whether in terms of health or finances or safety? Will we let ourselves feel the pangs of hunger at the persistence of unrighteousness? Will we do the hard work of making real and holy peace—instead of settling for the comfort of keeping a false peace that allows injustices in this world to continue?
In times of crisis, our impulse as mortal creatures is to shore up our defenses and do whatever it takes to keep ourselves alive. But God has created us not simply to be mortal but to be moral. Our call from God is to have a broader vision of care for all people. Those who do this, Jesus says, are blessed. Perhaps not in the world that we know—the one that props up powers and principalities, that celebrates individual freedom over collective flourishing—but certainly in the kin-dom of God.
Our world has been turned upside down, and that upending has meant immense suffering and struggle. I don’t imagine any of us would identify a global pandemic as good, nor do I believe God would call it so. But while we have been shaken up, while we are in this space of upheaval, perhaps we can see our reality from a different vantage point. Perhaps we might lean into the discomfort of asking ourselves why we were so comfortable with the world as it was before. Why was that world in so many ways the inverse of the world Jesus illustrates in the Beatitudes, and was it ever right side up in God’s eyes?
If this is the end of that world, what new and better world might we allow to begin?”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
GOD FROM BEHIND
Exodus 33:12-23 (MSG)
For those of you who’ve been able to participate pretty regularly in our worship services since around the end of August, you know that we’ve been following along with Moses and the people of Israel as their story unfolds in the book of Exodus. On that last Sunday in August, we thought about the birth of Moses. And now, guided by the lectionary readings that often help us move through scripture in a somewhat orderly fashion, we will be done with the story in Exodus for a while. Beginning next week, the Old Testament readings in the lectionary (which I don’t always follow) guide us into Deuteronomy, and then onto Joshua, Judges, Ezekiel and Isaiah in November. Sometimes, it’s just hard to keep up!
But today we’re back to Exodus. If I had focused on the lectionary reading from Exodus last week, we would have heard the story—and it may be familiar to you—of the golden calf, which the people of Israel get Aaron to make out of their gold jewelry when Moses is away on the mountain, receiving from God what we know as the 10 commandments.
Now, following the disastrous episode with the golden calf, when our ancestors in the faith let their anxiety over Moses’ delay on Mount Sinai get the best of them, Moses and the Israelites teeter on the edge of promise—that space between wilderness and home, between despair and hope—with the sands of Sinai shifting beneath their feet. Because of their disobedience, God has determined not to continue among them when they resume their journey to Canaan.
It has been a devastating turn of events, not at all what Moses expected.
“But Moses has never been one to keep his mouth shut in his encounters with the great I AM,” as Audrey West, who teaches New Testament at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA puts it. Moses has never been one to keep his mouth shut in his personal dealings with God. Even in the midst of his own uncertainty, Moses speaks his mind to God. He would be the sort of employee who causes the HR department to cringe whenever they see him coming—even if his complaints are reasonable—because you know he’s not going to keep quiet until he gets what he needs.
In their first encounter, at the burning bush, Moses hid his face from God, afraid to look. But he soon opened up and admitted how inadequate he felt about God’s call, wondering aloud whether he would know the right answers, worrying that nobody would believe him about his encounter with God, and admitting his lack of skill at public speaking. Even after God’s assures him that all those concerns will be taken care of, Moses blurted his most fervent plea: Just send somebody else! I get it, Moses. I totally get it.
There is no doubt God and Moses have come a long way together since then, talking together for days and weeks at a time. Their encounters involve close proximity and mutual sharing, as they build a less guarded and more honest relationship. Face-to-face conversations are the stuff of intimacy—something many of us are missing nowadays—and the intimacy encourages Moses to open his heart to God and for God to reveal more of Godself to Moses.
But close, intimate connection is also inherently dangerous. The more we learn about others, the greater our knowledge of their potential vulnerabilities—and their knowledge of ours. The closer we get, the more likely we are to hurt one another—one reason, according to Audrey West, “that civil wars are anything but civil and family feuds can persist for generations.” The practice of wearing masks during a global pandemic is a very concrete and current sign of this truth. If we aren’t careful, people close to us can get hurt.
In today’s story of the journey, Moses is not happy about God’s earlier refusal to journey with the Israelites, and he presses the Lord for a different outcome. He appeals to the special relationship they share, beginning from God’s original command to “bring up this people.” Besides, Moses adds, God knows him by name and thinks well of him—that should make a difference, right?
When talking to God, more than once Moses expands the circle of concern beyond himself to include the wider community. “Consider, too, that this is your people,” Moses stresses, as if reminding the Lord that their predicament after the golden calf fiasco ought to be no surprise. God knew who they were when God chose them. Despite their fear and grumbling and their inability to trust God through times of uncertainty, the people belong to God by God’s own choice. God knows them and has called them, in spite of their flaws. But if they are separated from God’s presence, Moses argues, they might as well stay in the wilderness, bound by their captivity to idols of their own making.
And then, even after getting God to promise to stay in the journey with the people, Moses takes advantage of their shared intimacy and pushes for still more. “Show me your glory, I pray.” Moses seeks not only to speak face to face but also to see face to face. In short, Moses wants a sign.
Given his yearning to know the fullness of God, it is not difficult to imagine Moses’ desire. How great it would be to carry some tangible sign through a wilderness of uncertainty as he grows in his knowledge of the one who calls him (and these people) into deeper relationship. Perhaps we share that longing for a concrete experience or material object that could remind us of our belonging to God. Audrey West suggests we “imagine a rod that morphs into a snake, or water that rushes from a rock, or a bush that burns without being consumed—or even an antidote to every physical or systemic sickness that infects our world and seeks to injure and kill.”
Moses does not get exactly what he asks for, though. It turns out if he had an unobscured view of the fullness of God’s glory, he would die. Instead God provides a touchstone before Moses steps forward on the bumpy terrain that will comprise the Israelites’ journey toward God’s promised end. “For the present moment, God gives to Moses a safe space in which to shelter, a solid rock on which to stand, and the assurance of protection by God’s own merciful and compassionate hand. In the future, the memory of this moment will become its own sign that God promises to remain nearby,” West says.
Secure on this footing, Moses will glimpse the trailing evidence of God’s glory as it passes just ahead of him. No doubt there will be more signs during the journey ahead, even if they are recognized only in retrospect. For today, however, this is enough: God’s promise to reveal God from behind as proof that God does not back out of the promise.
May that promise carry us through the journey forward, as well. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
I'M FOR LOVE
Matthew 22:34-46 (The Message)
Today’s Scripture reading reminds me of a political debate. In today’s Gospel reading from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, Jesus is attacked by his critics, who attempt to publicly embarrass Jesus by getting him into a theological discussion over which of all the laws in the Torah, the sacred way of Israel, is the greatest.
And unlike many politicians, Jesus responds simply, saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest, first commandment. Then Jesus follows with a second commandment. “You should love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says that upon these two commands hang all of the things said by all of the prophets. On these two commands hang all the laws of Israel.
I knew a man in seminary who always said that Christians make a big mistake when we attempt to complicate Christianity, adding a whole bunch of rules and regulations and speculation about the identity of Jesus. He said that we would be much better off to focus almost exclusively on this text. We should love God with everything we’ve got—with all our passion, prayer and intelligence—and we should love our neighbors as ourselves.
Not only that, this man from seminary had been engaged in a study of many of the world’s religions, and he believed, from his study of other faiths, that this statement by Jesus is one thing that all religions hold in common. Muslims may disagree with us on just who Jesus is, but they agree with us that we should love God with everything we’ve got—with all our passion, prayer and intelligence—and love our neighbors as ourselves. He said that Buddhists think much the same way.
A group of us always walked away from these discussions wondering…can Christianity be reduced to a two-sentence summary? Is this all that Christians believe? Is this an adequate summary of the entire, rich, full Christian faith?
And yet…and yet…when Jesus is asked to summarize what he thinks are the greatest principles, commands and regulations of Israel, he gives this two-sentence summary himself. So there you have it. The whole sweep of the Christian faith boiled down to love of God and love of neighbor.
Love God. Love your neighbor. How can anyone argue with that?
You know, I think we do a pretty good job of loving God…at least when things are going well. During those times of our lives when we are healthy, wealthy and wise—it’s easy to love God, isn’t it? Thank you, God, for my good life! Thank you, God, for my family, my health, my job! Thank you, God, for all my stuff!
I also think some of us love God best when things are going really badly—when life brings us to our knees. Then we find time to pray. Cancer? Pray! Child in trouble? Pray! Need a job? Pray! When things are going badly, some of us find it easy to love God, because we genuinely understand that we need God’s help, and we want God near us.
So loving God—that sort of makes sense.
And loving our neighbor…we’re open to doing that…as long as the neighbor is cheerful and helpful, and looks like us and thinks like us. It’s easy enough to love a neighbor who is doing the right things (according to you, according to me), but what about the neighbor who is not? How do we love such a person?
Then we meet Jesus. Jesus not only said that God is love, which everybody already believed, but he demonstrated, enacted, and embodied a very different definition of love than what everybody already believed about love.
And that’s when love got complicated. Jesus loved not simply as a strategy to bring out the best in everybody, but he loved by commanding us to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, to forgive our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to give without expecting anything in return.
And here’s the thing: if Jesus had just been this great, moral teacher who came and told us, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then maybe love could be reduced to some simple actions and attitudes.
But Jesus didn’t leave it at that. He not only said that he loved us, but he showed us he loved us. Christians don’t simply believe in “love,” we believe that love is defined as suffering, sacrificial, nonviolent actions like we witnessed on the cross.
In a story that we can find in another gospel, Jesus is encountered by a rich young man who asked him how much he has to do to win eternal life. The story says that Jesus “looked at him and loved him,” and then commanded this young man to give away everything that he had to the poor and then follow Jesus. Does that sort of radical divestment sound like “love” to you?
It is love. It is love peculiarly defined by Jesus. And that’s what was wrong with my seminary colleague’s explanation. Christians don’t really know what “love” is until Jesus shows us what love is. And because of this, a Christian definition of “love” may be very different from another religion’s definition of the same word.
Jesus’ critics ask him what are the most important things for a loyal son or daughter of Israel to do. And Jesus responds using Scripture that everybody there knew by heart since they were children, quoting the same scripture that is prayed by faithful Torah-observing Jews every morning and every evening. There was nothing new here.
What was new was that Jesus continued the conversation, leading his interrogators into a question about the Messiah. “What do you think about the Christ?” he asked. “Whose son is he?” He went on to ask, if the Christ is David’s son, why does David call him master?”
And the scripture says, “That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of these public verbal exchanges, they quit asking questions for good.”
No wonder that after this exchange, Jesus’ critics got organized and conspired to silence him for good.
As people of faith, we believe that Jesus was not only a wonderful teacher; he is a savior. We believe that he was not only a child of Abraham, but he is the very son of God. We believe that the way he walked, and what he taught not only made good sense for daily living, but was the way of truth, the way of life.
Those of you who have been walking that way for some time, those of you who have heard the teaching of Jesus over the course of a lifetime, who have sat through lots of sermons, and read lots of scripture, could tell us all that there is very little that is simple about Jesus. His way is demanding, and it is a way that sometimes lands us in the middle of all sorts of complexities.
During a fierce debate at a church meeting, some poor soul rose to the microphone, asked to be recognized, and said, “I just think we ought to try to do the loving thing. I’m not for or against the amendment that is before us. I’m for love.”
“Well that’s a profound thought,” grumbled a fellow delegate. “I’ll have to write that one down. ‘I’m for love,’” he said sarcastically.
Think about it. It does seem a little simplistic when you first think about it. But then think about it in the context of the life and death and the resurrection of Christ. “I’m for love,” is a risky, demanding, difficult, complicated stance to take.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
Will you dare—will we dare—to walk that way and talk that way, loving God in all that we do and say, not as we define it, but as Jesus shows it to be?
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
What really matters?
Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
Imagine that it’s the year 2520 — 500 years from today — and you are browsing about in a library (if such places even exist in 2520) and you come to the ancient history section. As you scroll through the titles, you come across “The Most Important Events of the 20th and 21st Centuries,” which is not too catchy but, remember, we’re being hypothetical here. You open the book and there’s a list of the top 10 events that shaped the world way back then and still matter in 2520.
Here’s the question to ponder: What are the top two events listed in the book? What events that have occurred in your lifetime will be remembered for 500 years from now? In order for us to understand the question more fully, it might be helpful for us to go in reverse. What do you think were the two most important events that occurred within the last 500 years — all the way back to 1520 or so?
Chances are that list was a lot harder to generate! Perhaps that’s because very little of what was important to the people of that day seems important to us today. We’re a lot more focused on the present, seeing the big events in our time as “earth-shattering” while not realizing that 500 years hence they’ve been swept into the dustbin of history or consigned to an obscure Ph.D. dissertation.
It’s so hard for us to imagine, but things like 9/11 and even the coronavirus pandemic may only be a blip in the grand scheme of things.
What do we honor or revile from 500 or even 100 years ago? Wars? They seem so all-encompassing at the time, but once the veterans and contemporaries are gone, they seem less pivotal and fall into the long line of human conflicts that seem to happen in every age. As memories get fuzzy, the reasons for the wars themselves become less apparent. What makes a particular war or battle stick in the mind of history is really more about the literature surrounding it.
Take, for example, the Battle of Gettysburg. Thousands of tourists flock to this little Pennsylvania town every year, despite the fact that, while this 1863 battle was pivotal in the Civil War, it was not decisive. The war would drag on for nearly two more years. We remember Gettysburg mostly because of what Abraham Lincoln said there in his address some four months later.
The same could be said for The War of the Roses, which would have completely faded from memory had not William Shakespeare written a series of plays around it.
Even world wars tend to lose their impact in time. World War I, the “war to end all wars,” quickly faded in the face of World War II which is, itself, being replaced in the collective consciousness by whatever war we happen to be presently fighting.
If even war doesn’t stand the test of time, what does? Scandal? Can you name the players and the problem in the Teapot Dome scandal? Can your kids tell you what Watergate was about? Does anyone remember Enron now, let alone 500 years from now?
How about art and architecture? You could make a case for both being more lasting. The Pyramids stand as a monument to Egyptian culture and the Sistine Chapel is a beautiful work, but are they the first things that leap to mind when you consider the time in which they were created? There are probably only a handful of such architectural and artistic works that could evoke long-term memory, while there are so many more that lie forgotten.
Perhaps the more enduring markers for any age are the ideas and explorations that advance human understanding. Physicist James Trefil proposes that new discoveries are what really stand the test of time. He says that two events — landing a man on the moon and cracking the genetic code — will be the most important. “Future humans,” he says, “will look back on the Apollo program the same way we look back at the early European explorers.” Understanding the human genome will enable us to understand how life works and help us learn how to “get under the hood and change the system, to alter life.”
So says the scientist about the timelessness of ideas. What about the theologian?
The apostle Paul lived far more than 500 years ago, but he had his focus squarely on ideas that would last. Writing to the Philippians, Paul’s worldview of what really lasts was bound up in his understanding of the cross and resurrection. The death and resurrection of Christ was the linchpin of history, ushering in a new age and anticipating an age to come. He understood that human history has an end point, but God’s kingdom does not. Rather than promoting great deeds or monuments to mark his place in history, Paul sees his own history as culminating in his desire to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (3:10). Everything else — accomplishments, reputation, legacy, fame, knowledge — was “rubbish” (3:8).
What really lasts, says Paul, are the ideas and actions that mirror Christ. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).
Paul had a strong sense of the timeless as opposed to the temporal. He understood that everything — everything — we see when we look around is some day going to pass away. Nothing will be left standing. Something may be built in its place, but it too will come down either because we tear it down, or because it falls under its own weight, a victim of natural processes.
But Beauty — well, that’s a concept that is absolutely eternal. As is Love. As is Truth. Justice. Honor. Pleasure. These things cannot, repeat, cannot, be destroyed. There is no power or force of any magnitude, dimension, range or design that can destroy these things.
That’s why Paul suggests that in anxious times, in our worrying moments, we should return to the timeless, to the things that count.
Few of us will be remembered individually 500 years from now, or even 50 or 100 years from now. Our lives on this earth are, by and large, pretty brief and not historically noteworthy. If we really want to increase the store of human happiness and well-being and leave our mark on the world, then, the best way to do it is to follow the way of Christ — to think on and do the things that really matter in the long view of the kingdom. Truth is that humans have short memories, but God doesn’t. What we do for God is what will really last. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 (NRSV)
“When I was a kid I got into a fair amount of trouble.” This is what Pennsylvania Presbyterian pastor Kathryn Johnston says about her childhood. “I’ve spent time in the corner (time-out’s ancestor), I’ve been grounded from playing outside, and like many in my generation, I have even heard the words ‘Go get the paddle.’ But nothing ever filled me with more dread than ‘Wait until your father gets home.’”
Johnston is remembering the rules she grew up with, and broke. This led me, of course, to think about the rules I grew up with…and maybe broke. Or maybe not. You have to remember that I am the last of four children (two boys, two girls) so I think when my parents got to me they were tired and maybe distracted and simply said “whatever” more often than they might have with my siblings. Of course, I really was a sterling child (!), so I don’t really remember asking for permission to do things or go places, especially when I got into my high school years. Instead, I remember saying to my parents, “Here’s what I’m doing,” or, “here’s where I’m going.” “I thought you should know.” So if there were rules—and there had to have been, right?—they were not particularly scary for me. Oh wait! I remember a rule! When I was growing up, we didn’t have to eat everything on our plate, but we did have to TRY everything on our plate.
Johnston speculates that this dread of a looming, punishing father is why some Christians don’t like to spend a lot of time in the Old Testament. And to hang out at the foundation of all of the rules, the Ten Commandments, can seem downright oppressive.
But time spent in the Old Testament reveals the God of grace and love also found in the New Testament. The commandments are law; they are laws of love that help us to be in community.
I totally agree with Johnston when she writes that in order to be community, we need rules. Without rules there is chaos, and people get hurt. To be sure, people get hurt even with rules, but usually that’s because we ignore the rules or we disagree about them or we don’t like someone else’s interpretation of them. For example…wear a face mask.
God’s beloved children keep making a mess out of ten very simple rules. These rules are so simple that Jesus summarizes them by citing just two Old Testament commandments. On the first of two tablets we find the commandment: Love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. How? By loving God above all gods, by not worshiping idols, by not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and by honoring the Sabbath. On the second tablet we find this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. How? Honor your elders. Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. The Ten Commandments, with their intimidating weight, are just these two commandments in more detail.
Moses brings down from Mount Sinai two tablets. (Unless you are a fan of Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part 1,” where Moses, comes down from Mount Sinai carrying three tablets containing 15 commandments, only to drop one of the tablets, losing the last five commandments as that tablet shatters into bits.) On the two tablets the Old Testament speaks of appear the to do’s and, in a slight twist, the to don’ts. And those funnel down to the most necessary things: Love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
The foundation of who we are is our obedience to and love of God. Once that relationship is in place, it is time to turn to our relationship with those around us. How do we sustain life in community?
Every community has rules. What are the rules in your family? How many of them are written down? Thou shalt eat what’s put in front of you? Thou shalt not interrupt Grandpa, no matter how many times you’ve heard the story? Aunt Miriam always brings the apple pies, so never bring an apple pie?
What are the unwritten rules for our children’s sports teams? Don’t coach from the sidelines? Don’t mess with the team Mom? Don’t bring deviled eggs to an all-day tournament in the summer?
How about in our faith communities? Thou shalt clap your hands to music only if it’s Pentecost or the children’s choir is singing? Thou shalt not sit in the very front pew unless it’s Easter and you couldn’t find a parking spot?
The Israelites had far more rules than the Ten Commandments. They needed them to keep a tight, healthy, long-lasting community. But many of those rules make less sense to us in our contemporary context. A faith community’s rules are based on context, and sometimes they need to shift when the context changes.
We are all living in a time of contextual change right now. So many of the unwritten rules for our community of faith will look totally different when we can all safely gather in one place again. The unwritten rule that the offering plates don’t cross the center aisle? Gone—no more offering plates passed. The unwritten rule that real ministry can’t be done online? Gone. The unwritten rule that only certain people sit in specific spots? Gone—hello, social distancing.
It feels like everything has changed—and yet the most important things have not. Stick with the top ten, and then go from there.
We worship together as communities of faith not because we are perfect at the rules but because we hold onto the faithful knowledge that God’s grace and love are what unite us—not the rules. We are going to disagree. We are going to disappoint. We are going to break the rules.
As pastor Johnston encourages us: “And so we hold one another up, we unite in our love for God and in God’s returned love for us, and we remain community in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Love God—no other gods, no idols. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, and remember the sabbath. Love your neighbor—honor your elders. Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. It’s that simple.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
the threat becomes a promise
Exodus 17:1-7 (NRSV)
For a couple of weeks now, we’ve been paying attention to the story of the Exodus, where, by the constant guidance of God and the leader he called to step up—Moses—the people of Israel flee slavery in Egypt. We’ve thought about how we, like the ancient Israelites, can count on God’s power and God’s presence and God’s steadfast love when we have to face our own sea crossings, as the Israelites did when they crossed the Red Sea. We’ve pondered what it means that God promises to provide what we need, even if it isn’t always exactly what we want. (Spam? Again?)
Today we keep moving forward with the Israelites, who have moved on from the Wilderness of Sin—according to God’s command—and are now camping at Rephidim, where, they discover, there is no water for the people to drink. Given how much energy the Israelites have already spent complaining to Moses and Aaron about this whole plan to escape slavery, you can bet that the discovery that there is no water to drink is not going to go well.
But the amazing part of this story is that, once again, God is ready to transform a dire situation into an amazing promise. And transformation is at the core of our faith. Liz Goodman, a pastor in Massachusetts, wrote about a transformation she witnessed as a volunteer at a men’s prison, where she was teaching a class that was generally about reading (poetry, short stories) and writing (whatever the inmates wanted), though the focus changed as the students changed and brought new interests to the table.
Goodman says, “We get all types there, from first-time offenders to those committed to the life of crime, from young men embarrassed to “have been so stupid” to less young men who’ve been through this before to older men who aren’t surprised by much, less still by what they get themselves into. Really, the more you get to know them the more you realize there are no types, just people—this one dealing with this, that one dealing with that.
“One inmate in my class developed a pattern of always being the last one to leave. He’d be slow about gathering his papers and returning his pen. (No hard pens are allowed, as they can be made into weapons—literal weapons, not in the “pen is mightier than the sword” sense.) He’d make it so he was last to shuffle out into the hallway, where he’d be patted down by a corrections officer. “Thanks,” he’d always say to me, and then maybe offer a follow-up question, Columbo-style: “Oh, one more thing…” He was in rough shape—bad teeth, bad tattoos. But over these few weeks he seemed to be softening.
“One week, though, he came into the classroom hard and sharp as I’d ever seen him,” Goodman says. “He had a litany at the ready, about how this whole thing was messed up. The cops who got him were crooked. The lawyer who represented him was a jerk. The sentence he got was unfair. For what it’s worth, there’s perhaps some truth to what he was saying, but I felt compelled to ask, “What are you gonna do about it?”
“What can I do?” he asked.
“You’re smart, curious. Get your GED while you’re here, if you need it. Take the college classes that are offered as soon as you can. Be ready when you get out for community college. Go to law school. You’re still young.”
He dismissed all this with a scoff.
“People do it, you know,” I said. “And what else are you gonna do with your time? Watch Dr. Phil?”
People do do this. (People also watch a lot of daytime TV.) One step at a time—one math problem, one short story, one course—people can participate in a transformation that, slowly, daily, can amount to something miraculous.
In her reflecting on transformation, Liz Goodman drew my attention to one detail in today’s story of the time of the people in the wilderness, one detail I’m not sure I ever fully noticed. It’s the transformation of the stone from being the thing of greatest threat to being a thing of surprising promise.
Moses, having led the people out of Egypt, now finds they feel not much better off. They fear for their lives—hungry, thirsty. They are giving Moses cause to fear for his life. Surrounded by loose stones in the wilderness, Moses begins to see these stones as something that could be weaponized. “They are almost ready to stone me!” he cries out to the Lord. An ancient recourse, a reliable mode for offing the perceived source of the problem and releasing all your frustration and fear and rage, stoning was always a lethal option for dealing with someone who is willing to take a risk. Someone like Moses.
How astonishing, then, that the Lord chooses a stone as the source for a surprising wellspring—the rock of Horeb. “Strike the rock,” the Lord says to Moses, “and water will come out of it.” The worst threat becomes a wellspring of promise.
But isn’t this always the way God works? We see this transformation every year in the cross on Easter morning. The cross stands as a reminder of the worst the world can do and yet also of what the Lord can use, transformed, to save. What we can use as a weapon, God uses to make a life-giving promise.
This is no excuse for resting easy amid a world littered with stones for stoning, crosses for crucifying, or prisons for filling up with people whom we otherwise don’t know what to do with or about. But it can be cause for joining in this ongoing work of God in the world, which is to transform threats to hope and menaces to new possibilities.
Because what else are you going to do with your time? Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
what we want vs what we need
Exodus 16:2-15 (MSG)
I am not a particularly adventurous eater. I do have a brother who is a professional chef, so I have eaten my share of…unusual…food. But on a regular, day-to-day basis, I just really can’t be bothered with too much cooking. I deal with this by cooking something on Sunday (soup, pasta, chicken…did I mention soup?) that I can then eat a portion of for dinner every night that week.
The same meal for a week.
I am much happier when I know on Sunday what I’m going to be eating for dinner on say, Wednesday, than I am if I have to think creatively about food every night of the week. I’m pretty sure I learned this from my parents: Sunday we ate a big meal, like a roasted something or other, we ate leftovers on Monday, hot dogs on Tuesday, Wednesday was usually a surprise, spaghetti or meatloaf on Thursday, I don’t remember what happened on Fridays, and hamburgers on Saturday. Every week of my growing up years.
This past week I miscalculated my dinner rations. I ran out of meals on Wednesday and didn’t plan to go grocery shopping until Friday. You can bet Thursday was all messed up for me.
Some people don’t even get to choose to eat like I do…their meals are simply prepared for them and they have to eat them. About 150 years ago, at the mid-point of the American Civil War, an aspiring poet from a Union regiment sent a little piece to a newspaper as a humorous way of describing life in the army. Among the verses was this one about his daily field rations:
The soldier's fare is very rough, The bread is hard, the beef is tough;
If they can stand it, it will be, Through love of God, a mystery.
At that time, the army marched rather uneasily on its stomach with rations consisting of thick hard crackers called hardtack (which troops only half-jokingly considered to be hard enough to stop a bullet), some salt beef or pork, beans, sugar, salt and coffee.
Fast forward in United States military history and you'll hear veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam talking about their K or C-rations -- meals contained in tin cans that were legendary for their blandness and need of a can opener.
In the 1980s, the Army began to experiment with vacuum sealing its rations to make them lighter to carry and more nutritious for soldiers on the march. The result was the MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that is still used by American troops. Although they are a vast improvement over the iron-sheeted crackers and leather-tough meat rations of their 19th-century forebears, they're still the bane of the soldier's existence. These nutritious but often bland and boring rations are the reason that most soldiers believe the acronym MRE should stand for "Meals Rejected by Everybody."
What soldiers always have to keep in mind, however, is that these meals weren't designed so much with taste in mind as utility: things that can be eaten while on the move while, at the same time, sustaining the necessary energy to keep moving. In other words, it's less about the meal than it is about the mission.
Now let’s think about the Israelites: they were like an army on the march, having reached the Sinai desert after God's stunning victory over the Egyptians in the Red Sea, and, like most armies, the first thing they did once the danger passed, was to start grousing about their food.
Just like your average American infantryman in Afghanistan is dreaming about home and Chipotle burritos, the Israelites remembered the fleshpots and corn bread they enjoyed while living in Egypt. Sure, they were slaves back there, but now, even slavery sounded good compared to an empty stomach. "You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger," they railed.
What they forgot, though, was that the meal was less important than the mission. God was leading them to a promised land, to a new home and freedom. The menu was going to be practical and sometimes sparse, as it often is for armies moving toward an objective, but God promised to provide a steady supply chain for the march. "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you," God said to Moses, "and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day". By providing daily food, God was going to test whether the Israelites were going to be good soldiers and trust God, doing what God instructed them to do, or if they were going to simply keep whining, and wishing for their Egyptian stockade.
The food that God provided was bread and meat -- manna and quail. The bread would be softer than hardtack and the meat fresher than salt pork, but it would only last a day. That meant that there was no storing up for the future, no stuffing one's cargo pockets with more than anyone else in the unit had. All of this was to be a reminder of the glory of the God who had the power to bring them out of Egypt.
And so it began: quail in the evening and manna in the morning. At first, the people didn't know what the manna was, kind of like no one really knows what's in Spam or what holds ham and chicken loaf together. Moses had to tell them that it was "the bread that the LORD has given you to eat". From that day forward, for 40-plus years, the Israelites had manna day after day, year after year.
Their meals might have been boring and tasteless, but the point of the story is that God provides for our needs. We might want something spicier, something richer, something that doesn't come in a "loaf," but God's more concerned about giving us what we need so that we might keep moving toward the larger objective that God has for us.
So the question is—as it almost always is—are we willing to follow God's lead in our lives? The Israelites found that after all that hardship and manna munching, they were right where God wanted them to be. The same will be true for us if we stay faithful and keep following him no matter what. How does that work? Well, to repurpose the words of our battlefield poet, "Through love of God, a mystery."
When we live in the love of God, there will always be enough. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Exodus 14:19-31 (NRSV)
The senior editor of Homiletics, Timothy Merrill, isn’t much of a seafarer, apparently. He tells this story about his first—and probably only—deep sea fishing experience:
“I had been the pastor of a church in Oregon. It was situated in the Willamette Valley, only 45 minutes from the coast. We had been there for eight years, and were about to move to Colorado, and I realized that I had never gone deep sea fishing, something that most of the people in my congregation, especially the men, had done many times.
I thought that before leaving the area I should at least have this experience once. I was nervous, because I get nauseous on a swing. But on the day I signed up to go out on a little fishing boat off Depoe Bay, Oregon, the weather was clear, the ocean was calm. Our little group of a dozen was excited. There were some husbands and wives there for an outing, as well as a couple of grandmothers in rubber boots, sturdy coats and hats. And myself.
We set out. The charter company provided the gear and the bait. The two grandmas were out near the prow of the boat fixing their poles and lines. And I was getting a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The ocean swells could not have been more than 2-3 feet in height, but soon I was on my knees at the port side of the boat heaving until I could heave no more. Dreadfully sick. I despaired of life. I wanted nothing more in the world than that the skipper of the boat would turn about and head for harbor. I didn't care about the future. I didn't care if I saw the face of my dear wife ever again. I didn't care if I ever saw my children again at play, or school, or banging through a piece at the piano recital. I only wanted and fervently prayed that the good Lord would take me home to glory and remove me from my misery.
Of course, I made it back, weak and weary - and utterly ashamed. I've never set foot on a boat again.”
Others, of course, love being far out on the open water. Maria Coffey and her husband Dag paddled their folding kayak around the Solomon Islands, along the Ganges, across Lake Malawi, and down the Danube, a story she tells in her book A Boat in Our Baggage: Around the World With a Kayak. They journeyed all around the earth in a collapsible double kayak.
Would you really want to be traveling on the ocean in anything that was "collapsible"?
Imagine now, what the Israelites were feeling when they stood at the shore of the Red Sea. They were feeling trapped, with the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army at their backs. The Israelites were like cats - not a water-loving species - and when they looked to the sea they saw nothing but the waters of chaos, the place where danger lurks, where good things do not happen.
"Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" they cried to Moses, their voices dripping with sarcasm (Exodus 14:11). How they wished at that moment that they were like the neighboring Phoenicians, accomplished navigators and sailors who made voyages throughout the Mediterranean for the establishment of colonies and commerce. If only the Israelites could have picked up some tricks from these successful seafarers who voyaged across the Mediterranean, outside the Straits of Gibraltar, into the Atlantic, and down the coast of Africa.
But at that moment, at the edge of the Red Sea, the Israelites had nothing. No vessel, ship, boat, canoe or raft. Not even a collapsible, double kayak.
Then God said, "There's no way but Yahweh." All they had was the power and presence of the one Lord God. And that, of course, was more than enough. Exodus tells us that "The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left" (14:21-22).
Then the pursuing armies went after them with horses, chariots and chariot drivers. But the Lord threw them into panic, clogged their chariot wheels, and then, as a final death blow, flooded the entire army of Pharaoh with the waters of the Red Sea. "Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians," concludes Exodus; "and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore" (v. 30).
We know the famous story of this crossing. And we give thanks that God worked so powerfully in this event to save the lives of his chosen people. But we also know that in our own lives, we can't always count on a miracle to come along and get us out of a jam. When we find ourselves with a sea in front of us and an army at our backs, there is no promise that the sea will open up for us, that dry ground will appear, and that our enemies and opponents and pains and problems will be swallowed up in defeat behind us.
More often than not, we have to get in a boat and start rowing. And when we do, God makes a way when there seems to be no way.
When we face sea crossings in our personal lives, it is so important to put our trust in the same thing that the Israelites did: the power and presence of the one Lord God. We make a fatal error when we try to row across the sea ourselves, or put too much faith in our own cleverness and ingenuity. It's best to be honest about our human limitations, and to make a crossing in the style of Hannes Lindemann, who, in 1956, sailed solo across the Atlantic, putting up handmade sails to catch a power beyond himself, and who pulled raw fish like daily manna from the sea.
The promise of God to us is clear: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you" (Isaiah 43:2). The Lord gives us the assurance that he will be with us in all of our perilous passages, working to protect us and guide us and preserve us. The love of God for us is undeniable, and Scripture promises us that many waters cannot quench this love, neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8:7). There is nothing in all creation, nothing on land or sea or air, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
So we, like the ancient Israelites, can count on God's power and God's presence and God's steadfast love when we face our own sea crossings. The Lord promises to bring us through the water - through the water of chaos, and danger, and even great beasts - and to see us safely to the other side. God promises to be with us when we face:
• The sea crossing of a fresh school year, with unfamiliar teachers, classmates and subjects…even in the midst of a pandemic.
• The sea crossing of a new job, with unexpected challenges and responsibilities.
• The sea crossing of a lost relationship, with feelings of regret and uncertainty and self-doubt.
• The sea crossing of a serious illness, with sadness and fear and exhaustion and pain.
• The sea crossing of a death in the family, with shock and anger and confusion and grief.
• The sea crossing of a new relationship, with feelings of excitement and hope and ever-present anxiety.
Through all these crossings, the Lord promises to be with us, giving us proper wind for our sails and nourishment for our spirits. All God asks is that we stay as close to God as God is to us, and that we trust God to be always at work for good in our lives. We should recall that in another famous sea crossing, Jesus and his disciples were in a boat being threatened by a terrible storm. Waves were swamping the boat and the disciples were panicking, and then Jesus woke up and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!"
When the wind ceased, Jesus asked the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:35-41).
These are good questions for us, as we face our own sea crossings. Do we have faith that God will preserve us from destruction? Do we trust that the Lord will give us courage and victory in the middle of our struggles? Do we believe that God will see us through the storm, and deliver us safely to the other side?
The sea is large and our boat is small. But with God we never sail alone. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
WORK IT OUT
Matthew 18:15-20 (The Message)
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The woman in front of me was a woman of integrity, deep faith and sincere commitment to the church. She had been hired to be a pastoral assistant, and in that role she had contributed substantial time and amazing gifts to the congregation. She had asked for a meeting with me only after trying to speak with her supervisor, the administrative pastor.”
This is how Deanna Langle starts her story about this very difficult passage of scripture in the gospel of Matthew. Deanna is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and is a student in the Ph.D. program in pastoral theology and pastoral counseling at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, TX. She tells the story of this pastoral assistant who clearly has a deep dispute with the administrative--or senior—pastor, who was also her supervisor. Uh oh.
When I first read this story, I could already feel the knot forming in my stomach, as I anticipated some kind of conflict coming.
Deanna Langle goes on to say, “As [the pastoral assistant] worked with the congregation, her roots in the faith grew, as well as her knowledge and experience. Her voice gained clarity and authority. So when she noticed a problem, in this case the pastor’s misuse of power, she confronted the situation and challenged him. The senior pastor tried to silence her and ignore her. Reluctantly, she asked the executive council to hear her concern, but council members refused. The senior pastor had told them that the discussion must remain between the two of them. He quoted Matthew 18 in support of this decision: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” By complying with the pastor and his use of a biblical directive, the council members allowed him to protect himself and them from the truth.”
Matthew 18:15-20 is one of many scripture texts that have been used to harm others. These six verses are not meant to be a declaration of power, and these verses don’t mean that if two or three people agree on something, then they can ignore others and do whatever they want. These six verses are about listening and accountability and about a larger vision of God’s kingdom.
If we look at these verses in the context of all of chapter 18, we can see the hyperbole Jesus uses in a series of brief teachings. Some of these teachings we choose to take literally, and some we don’t. For example, we don’t drown others for being “stumbling blocks.” And we don’t encourage people to pluck out their eyes or cut off body parts because they’ve sinned. And most shepherds would not abandon 99 sheep to go looking for one sheep. Jesus’ exaggerated response to Peter’s question about forgiveness in verse 21 shows that he knows we want forgiveness to be a quick and simple answer although it’s not.
So what is the kernel of truth that is embedded in each of these teachings, especially in verses 15-20? What is Jesus trying to teach the disciples by using such exaggeration?
Chapter 18 begins with the disciples coming to Jesus with the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” I imagine Jesus being wide-eyed at what he was hearing. Were they seriously asking this of Jesus, whose ministry had always focused on the least?
Even so, Jesus doesn’t dismiss their self-centered and self-righteous question. He takes them seriously, he listens carefully and then responds, not with a direct or literal answer, but with several teachings and with exaggeration. Jesus pushes the disciples to think, to listen and to be accountable to others for the power they hold. The exaggeration allows the disciples the opportunity to learn without being embarrassed and to listen without becoming defensive. Jesus points them back to the “children,” the “little ones,” “the one that went astray,” “the one not listened to” and “the fellow slave.” The kingdom of God is not concerned with “who’s the greatest,” Jesus teaches; the kingdom of God is about using power to care for the least and most vulnerable.
Matthew 18:15-20 can be used to set up a vulnerable person to be even more vulnerable, as in the story Deanna Langle tells. By the power of his role and by his misuse of scripture, the senior pastor disempowered the pastoral assistant, denied her the process of being heard, protected himself and silenced the truth. Hiding behind their reading of this text, the pastor and the whole executive council avoided listening, stopped conversation and the possibility of healing, and joined their voices with the disciples in asking, “Who’s the greatest?” Is that what Jesus is pointing us to in this text? Or is that what we point to when we think we’re the greatest?
We must listen to and read texts like these carefully and honor the questions and tensions they raise for us. If we listen with “new ears” we will always hear something different from what we expect. That’s why Jesus uses hyperbole: to help the disciples hear the gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, with different language and images. Langle says, “If the Bible is a closed word and merely an answer book, then we’re in trouble. We’ll continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify such harm in God’s name. In this, we will limit God. That’s not an exaggeration.”
Jesus could have used his power to tell the disciples exactly what he thought of their question, but he chose to listen, to open up conversation and to teach. The Bible invites us to enter into an ongoing conversation as people of faith who struggle with what it means to live faithfully in relationship, and to look beyond ourselves.
That’s what we all need to be reminded of today; God’s call to a radical inclusivity where we take the other seriously, listen to the other, and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do.
It’s not easy, but with God’s help, we can do it. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
BE LIKE CLIFF
Be Like Cliff!
John 1:1-9 (NRSV)
I received an email this week from a woman who told me she was starting to feel hopeful last week after what she called a very long four years. But this week, she said, she started to feel the darkness creeping back in as she read and listened to the top news stories of the week. It has clearly been another tough week in our country. She ended her message by saying, “I live in hope, so all we can do is persevere and keep moving forward. Let us all be Cliff.”
Cliff? Who’s Cliff? I scrolled down in her email and found this supposedly true story written by Ann Voskamp in her Daily (Good) News Letter. Turns out the story is true…takes place in 1983 in Australia. It’s a story about Cliff Young, and it’s a deeper story about darkness and light. That’s what caught my attention. That’s what I want you to hear in this story. It’s what we all need to hear. Darkness cannot overcome light.
“The old cahoot ran in his boots.
Weren’t too many of anybody all who believed the old guy could.
The kids and I read about the old guy one night after supper and the dishwasher’s moaning away, crumbs still across the counter.
How the old guy ran for 544 miles. His name was Cliff Young and he wasn’t so much. He was 61 years old. He was a farmer. Levi grins big.
Mr. Young showed up for the race in his Osh Kosh overalls and with his workboots on, with galoshes over top. In case it rained.
He had no Nike sponsorship. He had no wife – hadn’t had one ever. Lived with his mother. Never ran in any kind of race before. Never ran a 5 mile race, or a half-marathon, not even a marathon.
But there he was standing in his workboots at the starting line of an ultra-marathon, the most gruelling marathon in the world, a 544 mile marathon.
Try wrapping your head around pounding the concrete with one foot after another for 544 endless, stretching miles. They don’t measure races like that in yards – but in zip codes.
First thing Cliff did was take out his teeth. Said his false teeth rattled when he ran.
Said he grew up on a farm with sheep and no four wheelers, no horses, so the only way to round up sheep was on the run. Sometimes the best training for the really big things is just the everyday things.
That’s what Cliff said: “Whenever the storms would roll in, I’d have to go run and round up the sheep.” 2,000 head of sheep. 2,000 acres of land.
“Sometimes I’d have to run those sheep for two or three days. I can run this race; it’s only two more days. Five days. I’ve run sheep for three.”
“Got any backers?” Reporters shoved their microphones around old Cliff like a spike belt.
“No….” Cliff slipped his hands into his overall pockets.
“Then you can’t run.”
Cliff looked down at his boots. Does man need backers or does a man need to believe? What you believe is what is backing you.
The other runners, all under a buffed 30 years of age, they take off like pumped shots from that starting line. And scruffy old Cliff staggers forward. He doesn’t run. Shuffles, more like it. Straight back. Arms dangling. Feet awkwardly shuffling along.
Cliff eats dust.
For 18 hours, the racers blow down the road, far down the road, and old Cliff shuffles on behind.
Come the pitch black of night, the runners in their $400 ergonomic Nikes and Adidas, lay down by the roadside, because that’s the plan to win an ultra-marathon, to run 544 straight miles: 18 hours of running, 6 hours of sleeping, rinse and repeat for 5 days, 6 days, 7 days.
The dark falls in. Runners sleep. Cameras get turned off. Reporters go to bed.
And through the black night, one 61-year-old man far behind keeps shuffling on.
And all I can think is:
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Cliff Young runs on through the night and there is a Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not master it.
The darkness doesn’t understand the light, doesn’t comprehend the light, doesn’t get the light, doesn’t overcome the light, doesn’t master the light.
Darkness doesn’t have anything on light, on hope, on faith.
The pitch black road of a pandemic and economic hardships and all the things that seem to go on and on right now, it’s all no master over the light of Master who is rising within us.
The darkness that sucks at the prodigal kid doesn’t have anything on the light of his mother’s prayers.
The night of discouragement that threatens at the edges doesn’t master the blazing light of Jesus at the center.
The pit of depression that plunges deep doesn’t go deeper than the love of your Jesus and there is no place His light won’t go to find you, to save you, to hold you.
That low lying storm cloud that hangs over you can’t master the light of Christ that raises you.
“Darkness can’t drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” Martin Luther King had said it, had lived it.
Only words of Light can drive out worlds of dark.
Only deeds of Light can drive out depths of dark.
Only lives of Light can drive out lies of dark.
Darkness can never travel as fast as Light. No matter how bad things get, no matter how black the dark seeps in, no matter the depths of the night — the dark can never travel as fast as Light. The Light is always there first, waiting to shatter the dark.
Cliff Young runs on through the dark — because he didn’t know you were supposed to stop.
He had no idea that the accepted way professional runners approached an ultra-marathon race was to run 18 hours, sleep 6, for 7 days straight. But Cliff Young didn’t know that. He didn’t know the accepted way. He only knew what he did regularly back home, the way he had always done it: You run through the dark.
Turns out when Cliff Young said he gathered sheep around his farm for three days, he meant he’d run across 2,000 acres of farmland for three days straight without stopping or sleeping, without the dark ever stopping him. You gathered sheep by running through the dark.
So along the endless stretches of highway, a tiny shadow of an old man shuffled along, one foot after another, right through the heat, right through the night. Cliff gained ground.
Cliff gained ground because he didn’t lose ground to the dark. Cliff gained ground because he ran through the dark.
And somewhere at the outset of the night, Cliff Young in his overalls, he shuffled past the toned runners half his age. And by the morning light, teethless Cliff Young who wasn’t young at all, he was a tiny shadow — far, far ahead of the professional athletes.
For five days and fifteen hours, and four minutes straight, Cliff Young ran, never once stopping for the dark – never stopping until the old sheep farmer crossed the finish line – First. He crossed the finish line first.
Beating a world record.
By two. whole. days.
The second place runner crossed the finish line 9 hours after old Cliff.
And when they handed old Cliff Young his $10,000 prize , he said he hadn’t known there was a prize. Said he’d run for the wonder of it. Said that all the other runners had worked hard too. So Cliff Young waited at the finish line and handed each of the runners an equal share of the 10K.
And then the old cahoot in boots walked away without a penny for the race but with all the hearts of the whole world.
While others run fast, you can just shuffle with perseverance.
While others impress, you can simply press on.
While others stop for the dark, you can run through the dark.
The race is won by those who keep running through the dark.
(This) could be the season to pull a Cliff Young.
When those reporters asked Old Cliff that afterward, what had kept him running through the nights, Cliff had said, “I imagined I was outrunning a storm to gather up my sheep.”
And I sit there in the thickening dark.
With the One who mastered the dark and overcame the storm to gather His sheep and now there is a Light Who shines in the darkness and the darkness can never overcome it.
And you can see them out the front window, far away to the west, out there on the highway —
the lights all going on through the dark, chasing the sunrise that they know beyond all the shadows is surely coming.
one tangled family
Exodus 1:8-2:10 (The Message)
At first, Jochebed hid him. When Shiphrah and Puah, the canny midwives, put the baby boy in her weary arms, what other choice did she have? His very strength was a liability, his very existence a reason for fear. And so his mama held him close. Sheltered him. Whispered his name in his ear, his hidden first Hebrew name that no one else would ever know. Repeated to him, over and over again: you are strong. You are loved. Your life matters.
But in the end, she had no choice but to send him out. All mamas have to give their boys to the wider world someday; they can’t hold on forever. They offer whatever they can to protect them. A basket of papyrus with the cracks sealed tight. A long talk about what to do when stopped by police. The address of an uncle on the other side of the border. The watchful eye of an older sister, thrust into a role of responsibility when she should still be home playing dolls. Mamas try to wrap their love around their sons like a bulletproof vest, and yet the world comes anyway, like a river current, carrying them off into danger.
As the fragile little boat bobbed among the reeds, the Egyptian princess Bithiah took notice. She was a person whose existence had never been hidden, whose voice had never been silenced. She’d always had everything she needed. She carried her power as easily as her servants carried her towels and soap. Jochebed’s beloved baby boy was at the mercy of a person of privilege.
Worse, a woman of privilege. Privileged women are dangerous. Our good intentions stymie meaningful action. Our tears stop dialogue and draw attention back to our hurt feelings, distracting from the matter at hand. Our toxic charity keeps poor people poor. Our emergency calls summon agents of disaster. Our accusations lead to lynching. Our privilege kills.
As a woman of privilege, Bithiah had a choice when she heard the baby’s cries. She could have easily responded out of loyalty to the system that gave her every advantage. She could have called Egyptian 911 to come eliminate this infant threat. Alternatively, she could have responded with paternalistic benevolence, sending the boy to an Egyptian nursery where he’d never know his own people.
But she did neither of those things. Instead, something pushed Bithiah beyond her privilege. The Bible calls it “pity,” but it seems deeper than a surface sympathy. It sounds more like the pity Jesus feels for the leper in Mark 1:41: a gut-wrenching reorientation toward the other. It sounds more like the relentless call of justice: the sense that something about this was just not right and the certainty that she was equipped to change it.
Bithiah could have wielded her privilege like a weapon, as so many women have done before and since. But instead, she applied it as a tool enabling her to serve. With the help of her maids, she lifted the boy out of the water, giving him a new life and a new name: Moses. Then she re-enmeshed him in his own culture and reconnected him with his own family: Miriam as his companion, Jochebed as his nurse. Even more radically, Bithiah found a way to compensate Jochebed for the usually unpaid work of mothering, offering wages for her labor. No one other than a princess could have flaunted Pharaoh’s murderous laws so completely.
The Bible offers only the faintest hint of what happened to Bithiah next. Our scriptures are understandably unconcerned with the stories of powerful people, preferring the scrappy underdogs God favors. We don’t find Bithiah again in Exodus. We don’t know how she reacted when the baby she saved grew up to be an exiled murderer and then a stammering prophet. We have no idea if she ever spoke to her father in the midst of the plagues, leveraging her power on behalf of her adopted son and his family. We don’t know how she felt that night when Moses led the people far away from her river, across the Red Sea.
And yet, deep in the dusty parts of First Chronicles, where they list the long genealogies of the people of Israel, we find this note under the descendants of Judah: “One of Mered’s wives gave birth to Miriam, Shammai, and Ishbah the father of Eshtemoa. . . . These were the children of Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah, whom Mered had married.”
In the end, it seems, the princess became part of the family, linked not just by adoption but also by marriage. The noblewoman attended by servants became a wilderness refugee, wandering with her new clan for 40 years in the shadow of Sinai. She gave birth to her own vulnerable children and named her daughter after that brave girl at the riverside. Bithiah became Jesus’ great-great-auntie, an unlikely ancestor winking from his family tree.
Jochebed’s children still make their perilous journeys today, armed with little but their mama’s fierce love. And Bithiahs aplenty sunbathe by the riverside, capable of casual cruelty but also—at our best—able to subvert the very systems that sustain us. God calls us into holy conspiracy and invites us into one tangled family, for the sake of the most vulnerable. For God’s own sake.
(Liddy Barlow, Executive Minister of Christian Association of Southwest PA, in the August 12, 2020 edition of The Christian Century.)
so many scars
Genesis 45:1-15 (NRSV)
If you are a person of a certain age, there’s a pretty good chance that you have a series of scars on your body that reflect a childhood lived without bicycle helmets, elbow and knee pads, and a host of other safety devices designed to keep today’s kids safe. That banana-seated Schwinn bike with the sissy bar on the back and chopper wheel on the front no doubt led to a couple trips to the emergency room, a few stitches, and a good story.
Every scar is a memory, revealing an unfortunate accident, a random act of stupidity, or some kind of injustice. Maybe you were trying to imitate Evel Knievel on that rickety plywood ramp, or maybe the neighborhood bully hit you with a rock thrown in contempt. Or maybe the scars are less visible and yet run much deeper, the result of a deep woundedness of the soul. However we got them, scars remind us that life isn’t fair and can be painful. Every time we look at a scar, we remember the story.
The Joseph story is a scar story about a young man’s woundedness and recovery. He has a lot of scars, and yet Joseph is able to interpret them in light of the larger story that God has in mind for him and his people. They are scars that are less badges of honor and more signposts pointing to the kind of suffering love that God has for us and for the world.
To recap the story in Genesis up to chapter 45, Joseph has been in Egypt for quite a while. As a boy, Joseph was a dreamer and the favorite of his father, Jacob, which led to no small amount of jealousy among his older brothers. His father made him “a long robe with sleeves,” which implies that his dad thought him to be a little more special than the others and expected him to do less work (Genesis 37:3). Joseph’s dreams had his brothers bowing down to him, and Joseph was young enough (and naive enough?) to tell them about it, and so the sibling rivalry boiled over. When Joseph goes out one day to check on his brothers at his father’s request, they finally decide to get rid of him by tossing him into a well, stripping off his fancy coat, and then selling him into slavery. The brothers told their father he was eaten by a wild animal and presented their dad with the coat smeared in goat’s blood as fake proof — easy to do in the days before DNA testing!
Joseph is brought as a slave to Egypt and sold to an official named Potiphar, who saw Joseph’s potential and put him in charge of the household. Potiphar’s wife saw Joseph’s potential, too, but not as a worker. When Joseph refused to have an affair with her on moral grounds, she falsely accuses him of rape and has him thrown into prison.
If you’re keeping score, that’s at least two major scars: being sold unjustly as a slave and being unjustly accused of a crime. But Joseph doesn’t pick at those wounds. Instead, he makes a favorable impression on the prison warden, who puts him in charge of the other prisoners. He becomes the interpreter of their dreams as well, and eventually rises again from the dungeon to interpret the dreams of the Egyptian Pharaoh himself. When Joseph predicts a great famine to come, Pharaoh appoints him as the equivalent of the prime minister in charge of the social and economic affairs of the empire. Once again, he is wearing a coat with long sleeves!
The famine strikes hard in Joseph’s homeland of Canaan, where his still-in-the-dark father and scheming brothers still reside. They hear that there is grain stored up in Egypt, so they decide to take a shopping trip there, not knowing from whom they would be buying!
That’s the recap of the story between Genesis 37 and 45. Joseph’s life has been a bit of a rollercoaster to this point, with very high highs and low lows. There was plenty to celebrate but also plenty about which he could be bitter, especially toward the ones who put him in this situation. Joseph no doubt had scars from being tossed in the well, scars from being tossed in the dungeon, scars of rejection, scars of false accusation, and scars from longing to be in his father’s presence once again.
And now, here in Genesis 45, Joseph stands over his begging brothers who don’t yet recognize him, scarred for life by what they had done to him. He has every right to see himself as a victim, and we wouldn’t blame him if he wanted some payback.
But Joseph refuses to give in to victimhood. He does not view his physical and emotional scars as reasons for despair or revenge. Incredibly, Joseph instead sees his scars as signs of God’s providential grace.
Joseph “could no longer control himself” in that moment (45:1). He sent everyone out of the room except his brothers and, through his loud, wailing tears, he reveals the truth to them: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (v. 3). His brothers couldn’t answer him. They were terrified, speechless, almost not believing what they were hearing and seeing. They had to believe that payback was coming swiftly.
But Joseph isn’t there to inflict more scars on them. “I am your brother, Joseph,” he said to them, “whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (vv. 4-5). Indeed, Joseph says, it was not you, my brothers, who sent me here, but it was God (v. 8). And because of God’s provision, Joseph’s family now had a place to go to survive the famine and, in effect, preserve the covenant God had made with Abraham earlier in Genesis.
Joseph looks back at the events of his life with a new vision where the scars of pain, injustice, rejection, and separation were only part of the story. Fast forward to Genesis 50:20, where he sums up all that he has learned from his scars. “Even though you intended to do harm to me,” Joseph says to his brothers, “God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” It takes a lot of work to get to this point, but Joseph now understands that what the world and the human scheme planned as an evil, self-serving act, God took and used for good, preserving life!
One of the persistent puzzles of our human experience is how we deal with evil in the world. As humans in a fallen world, we seem to live lives of constant jeopardy. We are vulnerable to a wide range of evil, from sickness, to crime, to family dysfunction, to oppression, to all sorts of uncontrollable, wound-inflicting mayhem. In the midst of all of that, it’s a legitimate question to ask, “Where is God in all of this?”
Joseph’s story reminds us that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is still at work. God is making things good despite appearances. We suffer the scars, but the wounds of this life are not ultimately fatal for those who put their trust in him.
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. We don’t ask for these scars we carry, nor did God inflict them on us; and yet, those scars can make known to the world how God can make good out of the worst situations.
What scars do you carry? What are the physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual scars that mark your life? How might they become signs of healing and opportunities for a new vision of life for you and others you meet? Joseph looked at the scars of slavery and saw that God had a saving plan for his life and the lives of his people. Perhaps the scars you carry can enable you to speak into the pain of someone else’s life. Showing that scar of past abuse may help others have the courage to seek healing. Revealing that pain of loss may put you in a powerful position to help others who are grieving.
Scars never go away, and yet the scars tell a story, and that story can lead us and others around us to healing when we realize that God is still at work making all things good.
May it be so for each of us, for those we love, and for those we will never come to know. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
is there an easier way?
Matthew 14:22-33 (The Message)
I laughed out loud when I read Teri Ott’s comment about our scripture passage this morning, the passage where Jesus invites Peter to get out of the boat and walk on the water with him…in the midst of a storm. Teri Ott said, “Peter has always seemed to me to be the naïve, overeager, overachiever type. He’s like the kid who sits in the front of the classroom and raises his hand, hops up and down in his seat, and shouts, “Me! Me! Pick me!” to every question the teacher asks. Peter is far from perfect, but he wants so badly to be perfect, he wants so badly to please Jesus and to prove his faith. So when Jesus approaches the disciples’ boat, walking on the water, overeager Peter thinks he should walk on the water too. So he asks Jesus to command him to come to him.”
Even if you didn’t just hear the story I bet you could see where it is headed. Jesus invites Peter to step out of the boat. Peter gets out, takes a few shaky steps on the water, then panics because the wind, and the storm, and the waves are still raging around him. Peter sinks. Jesus has to save him. Then they both get in the boat and the storm, miraculously, ceases to rage. This is the point where I imagine Peter, wet and water-logged, traumatized by his near drowning, and humiliated for being told he had so “little faith,” is thinking to himself, “Okay, Jesus. Couldn’t you have made this a little easier? Couldn’t you have made the storm cease before I stepped out of the boat?”
Have you ever found yourself asking this question? Why is faith so difficult? Why does Jesus call his followers out of the safety and security of the boat into the middle of a storm? Why does faith require so much courage, and effort, and strength of will? Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus?
But faith isn’t easy. By its very nature, faith isn’t easy. Faith is not something that we can rationalize, or explain, or even obtain with any measure of success. If we were to attempt to explain it we might talk about reaching for the unreachable, or finite hands grasping for that which is infinite. Faith is hope in the face of despair; it is love in the face of hatred; it is peace in the face of violence; it is beauty in the face of ugliness; it is justice in the face of injustice; it is courage in the face of fear. Faith is a dynamic, spirited force that moves us from the place where we are to the place where we ought to be.
Which is why it is so difficult. Faith is supposed to move us. Faith is supposed to change us. Faith is supposed to better us and open us, deepen us and mature us. And that journey isn’t easy. In fact, it’s the most difficult, most intimidating, most risk-filled journey we will ever take because it means consistently stepping out of the safety of the boat into the wind and the waves and the storm.
Jeff Dunn tells the story of his friends, Seth and Emily, who clearly heard God call them to give up all they had and move to another country for a specific task. They sold or gave away most everything they had accumulated over the years, packed up what was left, and went with their four young children to a country half-way around the world.
At first, they hated everything about where they lived. They put on a brave face and tried to find the good, but it was so different from what they were used to, so strange and hostile that it took all of their emotional strength to make it through each day. After a few months they had made some friends. Then they became connected to a group of believers who helped them in the transition. Several months later, they were starting to feel settled–a bit–in their new home.
Then the roof caved in. The task they went to accomplish completely collapsed. It was devastating. Why would God call them to such a place when it was doomed from the beginning? Seth and Emily went about the task of giving away all they had accumulated in this land and returned to the States. Their lives were shattered. They went in faith, faith in the God who called them, and felt God let them down. This couple now limps through their days, wondering how they will make it.
If you wanted to hear a cheery story of someone who trusted God and everything turned out to be sunshine and roses, I’m sorry. Most of life is not like that, is it? And yet we are told to believe God, to live by faith. We have all seen the “Miracle Rally” on TV where people line up to testify how God has healed them of blindness, deafness, shortened legs, halitosis, and other ailments. And yet just down the street we know of the wife and mother of three young children who lies in bed, withered up from the cancer that is killing her. And no matter how many people pray and fast and claim her healing, she will die. It gets to the point where we ask, “Why bother believing at all? Why does it have to be so hard?”
The only answer I can give you is this: Because it is the way God has commanded us to live.
I believe God wired me to be an encourager of people, to uplift people who are discouraged or beaten down, or who are trying to slog their way through years of guilt or shame or sadness or disappointment. My deepest desire is to help people have hope. And, (more times than I care to remember) I simply cannot see what in the world God is up to. I cannot understand – with my limited brain capacity – what God could possibly be trying to accomplish. And, to make it even more complicated, I cannot imagine stepping out of the boat – that place where I am comfortable and content – into the storm – that place where I know I am going to be challenged and changed.
Theologian Paul Tillich describes faith as “dynamic.” If faith becomes static, if it fails to move us, open us, deepen us, better us, then it is no longer faith. Instead it is an idol; it is simply another idol that we put up on the mantle to worship but with which we don’t actually do anything.
Couldn’t you make this a little easier, Jesus? Thanks be to God the answer is “No.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
you do it
Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)
Sue Clemmer-Steiner tells the story about how, a couple of times a summer, a thin man dressed in black would politely knock on her family’s back door about an hour before suppertime. She tells how his face looked old and weather-beaten, and how, despite the heat, he always wore layers of clothing. She tells about how the little cart with his belongings sat by the front gate.
She says, “He would ask my mom if there was any food he could have that night. So she made extra of whatever she was preparing for dinner, keeping me inside the house while the man waited on the back steps. She filled a plate for him, and he sat on the steps and ate. After finishing his dinner he knocked on the door, said thank you, and continued on his way.
“Afterward my dad would launch into stories of the many hobos who passed through our small Pennsylvania town on freight trains during the Depression, looking for a meal and sometimes sleeping in the sheds at the family feed mill. “They’re homeless,” said my dad, “down on their luck, and it’s good for us to feed them.”
Sue Clemmer-Steiner ends the story by saying, “My mom’s action, supported by my dad, left a deep impression on me. If she could feed someone so strange and different in our own yard, right outside our back door, I had some thinking to do about who belongs in our circle of interest and concern.”
As she reflected on that memory from sixty years earlier, she said she realized that what really jumped out at her in this story in Matthew of the feeding of the 5,000 were the words “You give them something to eat”. Reading her reflection made me pay attention to those words, as well.
As Matthew tells the story, the disciples recognize they have a problem. The people listening to Jesus by the lakeside are surely hungry, and the disciples have done their homework. As they see it, there’s precious little available here to eat. So they imagine a practical, albeit improbable, solution: send hordes of people off to neighboring villages to buy food.
Jesus’ startling response—“You give them something to eat!”—seems even more improbable. But as usual, Jesus is operating out of a different paradigm; he’s embodying a different script.
The disciples react the way we tend to react. Jesus made it clear that he regarded the feeding task to be their responsibility as it is ours today. He assumed that they could do what he had asked them to do. God doesn't lay a responsibility on us that we're not capable of fulfilling.
But, they came back at him: "We have nothing ..." Of course this statement was qualified—perhaps in a dismissive way—by the "five loaves and two fish" that they did have. So I was left to wonder…how many times, when God has called us, have we either not answered, or have we begged off?
· "I have nothing."
· "I'm too old for this sort of thing."
· "I'm sorry, but I have issues."
· "I'm too busy."
· "I've already given and done my bit."
· "We should let the younger folk do it."
· "I'm not ordained."
· "I don't know too much about the Bible."
· "This is not my gift."
· "I've got too much on my own plate right now."
The disciples, when told "you give them something to eat," were unaware that they had the resources to fulfill Jesus' command. They didn't understand it, but they did have something!
When we pay attention to the rest of the story, Jesus' point is clear: “You give what you have and I will take care of the distribution issues.” The miracle, then, was not only one of feeding, but of opening the imagination and faith of those doing the feeding.
Our God is a lavish God. God deals generously, giving much out of little. Our God is a generous God, a God of great abundance. The measure we get back is far greater than the measure we give. But we've got to stop thinking, "We have nothing."
The disciples didn't make the miracle happen, but without them the Miracle of the Multiplication, the Miracle of the Abundant Sharing, this miracle of community building, would never have happened.
What God provided that day was more than enough. What God provides for us today is more than enough. Our faith, which can grow to abundant proportions, can be strong enough to get us through any hard times. Jesus knew this and he taught this.
Let us have ears to truly hear. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Then the leaven does its work
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 (NRSV)
When Jesus tells a story, he compels us to look at holy things with new eyes, and he illustrates his stories with references to ordinary things. Jesus told stories about ordinary things to explain the extraordinary, the inexplicable.
His gift of imagery is one of the great gifts available to us as humans. Because most of us never outgrow our childhood love of pictures, we respond well to teaching that invites us to create pictures in our minds. Imagery helps us to grasp that which cannot be quantified, measured or neatly captured in words, charts or formulas. With images, we manage to approach the intellectually and spiritually unfathomable because we are led gently, told that a God who ultimately is beyond our comprehension is like a shepherd, a king, a loving parent, a mighty fortress or a maternal figure with great sheltering wings.
In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching his friends about the kingdom of heaven, which is the same as the kingdom of God. Although kings are now pretty much out of fashion, and the mystique of royalty has declined, they were real figures of absolute power and grandeur in Jesus’ time. I doubt that his hearers had had any more direct contact with kings than any of us has had. But they understood the vocabulary of kings and kingdoms even though they did not always understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.
We have enough residual memory to catch a glimpse what Jesus is telling us about God and God’s reign. When he speaks of the “Kingdom of heaven,” we are reminded that God is absolute, that God’s reign is not a democracy or even a republic. At the same time, we’re reminded of our own smallness and limitations in God’s great economy.
And when we pray regularly, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we realize that we aren’t praying for the establishment of some grandiose political entity in the fashion of extravagant King Herod or the British Empire in its glory days.
So what are we praying for when we pray, “Thy kingdom come”? What are we asking for?
This week I watched as a church pastor cast out the question to her congregation, “What is the kingdom of heaven like?” She got a lot of responses! Some of them were describing a place that I would expect people to imagine: a peaceful place, a wonderful place where we reunite, a place like Narnia during the good years, a place with no walls, a place of fresh air and the constant presence of Christ. A couple of the responses particularly caught my attention: heaven is a place with no Covid, no masks, no social distancing, no hand sanitizer, no politics. Another one said: At the heavenly supermarket, there will be a cooler of half gallon jugs of milk—whole milk. Fat content not important. And one response was simply this: It’s gonna blow your mind.
So what are we praying for when we pray, “Thy kingdom come?” What are we asking for?
Jesus gives us some hints. It’s like this, this and this, he says—offering intriguing bits of imagery for all sorts of people: the farmer who finds a treasure in the field, the shrewd financier who recognizes the ultimate good investment, the plant enthusiast who marvels at the growth produced by one tiny seed, the angler who finds a shallow place full of fish, and—an image appealing to a lot of people, apparently, particularly during the early days of confinement during the Covid-19 shut down—the homemaker preparing to bake bread.
There are common qualities in these images. The kingdom of heaven is hidden, buried in a field or in the depths of sea. It’s of great value, a treasure or a pearl. Moreover, despite an unremarkable outward appearance, it possesses surprising power. The unremarkable mustard seed contains an astonishing potential for growth, while leaven—ordinary old leaven that doesn’t look like much—has the power to transform all that surrounds it.
Margaret Guenther once wrote about being a bit of a baker in the Christian Century. She said, “At one time I was a fairly competent bread maker. I baked all our family’s bread and came to know and respect the mysterious power of leaven. The yeast I used was a grainy, grayish substance without much taste or smell. In Jesus’ time, the yeast was a little lump of active dough that was carefully saved from a previous baking. Like my little packets of yeast, it carried within it the secret of growth and fermentation, the power to change something that vastly exceeded it in volume. A couple of spoonfuls could work amazing changes in a bowl of flour.
“But leaven sitting all by itself can’t do anything. It needs the right conditions: it must be mixed with flour; the temperature must be warm enough but not too warm; there must be liquid and a bit of salt.
“Then the leaven does its work, quietly, taking its own time, but ultimately transforming a sodden, useless lump of dough into bread.”
She goes on to talk about how she loves this picture of the subversiveness of God, even if it makes her uneasy to contemplate the hiddenness of God’s kingdom. This kingdom is right here, right now, as invisible and as unobtrusive as a lively, enlivening bit of leaven stirred into the inertness of the flour.
Jesus reminds us that the kingdom is both coming and already here. He reminds us that the power of God can be and is working in us if we let ourselves be open to it and take it into ourselves. After all, like the leaven that works only when it is combined with flour, the kingdom of God, the power of God, is among us, permeating every aspect of our lives, changing, enlightening and transforming us.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…in us and through us, O God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
so many seeds
Matthew 13:2-9 (The Message)
Today’s scripture reading from Matthew obviously points us to the garden, which can be challenging for me because—I am telling you this very directly—I am not a gardener. You may be thinking to yourself that I am just being modest about this. I am not. Trust me. Gardening is not a gift I possess.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. In my backyard, all along the length of my house, I once had a landscaper come and create a lovely “garden” for me. He planted 2 arbor vitae, some azaleas (a favorite of mine since I was a young girl), a lily or two, some hostas, and in the middle of it all he positioned this wrought iron love seat that I inherited with the house. So lovely! My heart overflowed at the beauty and the neatness and the symmetry of it all.
And the best part of it all was this: all that was required of me, over time, was a little trimming, pulling some weeds, and maybe replacing some mulch here and there. Nothing in this garden needed—I thought—anything from me to actually thrive.
This Spring, I didn’t even step into my backyard until late May. Looking back, that was probably a mistake. By the time I went out to look around, there was this “plant”—bright green, leafy, clearly thriving all on its own—and it was covering almost every inch of my “garden.” I was stunned. It seemed my azaleas were no where to be seen. My hostas could barely breathe. The arbor vitae were having trouble standing their ground.
Weeks later, when I finally went out to start reclaiming the garden, I discovered this “plant,” (whatever it was) was so easy to pull out of the soil. So I sat down on my little rolling garden cart (also inherited with the house) and went to work. The “plants”, by this time, were up to my knees but I just waded into the thick of them and sat down and started methodically pulling, filling bags and bags of whatever this plant was.
I was a full hour into this process, feeling pretty good about my progress (I had completely cleared ½ of the garden) when a thought popped into my head. “I wonder what poison ivy looks like.”
I am not a gardener, I tell you. But I know enough from listening to those of you who ARE gardeners, that seeds can come from anywhere. They can fly in on the wind. They can get dropped into my backyard by birds. New things can come from seeds that were long ago planted in the soil in my backyard, long before I ever came along. Or a sower can plant new seeds.
One Sunday morning, Diane Schroeder and I were talking about the flowering gardens at her house. She asked if I had flowers and I told her I didn’t have many. I wasn’t a gardener and I didn’t want anything that required a lot of time and energy from me to stay beautiful. She was perplexed, I think, and offered to come to my house and scatter some seeds….No! I gently yelled. The very thought of seeds being scattered willy-nilly around the garden made my heart skip a beat. And not in a good way.
And now there’s the story in the gospel of Matthew about a sower, and a bunch of seeds! And when I read Nadia Bolz Weber’s reflection on the scripture, I have to say I was surprised, because she encouraged me to see in the story joy, not distress about seeds being thrown willy-nilly, and not judgment of the different kinds of soil on which it lands. She writes, “Maybe the point of this parable isn’t judgment at all, maybe it’s joy. Since again and again in the midst of this thorny and rocky good world, God is still sowing a life-giving Word. Just wantonly and indiscriminately scattering it everywhere like God doesn’t understand our rules.” Or, at least, not “my rules” about how “my gardens” should be.
She goes on to say that if this is true, if God is throwing God’s Word around without any anxiety about where it lands, then “the thing we call the Word is not something relegated to religious institutions and ordained clergy and the piety police. The thing we call the Word isn’t locked up in some spiritual ivory tower. I am persuaded,” she says, “that the Word of the Lord is anything that brings good news to the poor, and comfort to those who mourn. Whatever heals the brokenhearted. Whatever opens prisons.
“The Word is whatever brings freedom to slaves. Whatever brings freedom to former slaves. Whatever brings freedom to the descendants of former slaves. The Word is whatever liberates a nation from the spiritual bondage of human bondage.”
What Nadia Bolz Weber planted in my mind is this image that God’s Word is scattered all around us…”joyfully scrawled on protest signs and heard in newborns’ cries, and seen in city streets and county fairs and shopping malls. The Word of the Lord is written on the broken tablets of our hearts, it is falling like rain in the tears of the forgiven, it is harnessed in the laughter of our children.” (By the way, if you haven’t heard the laughter of children lately, just Google “videos of laughing children” and your day will be sweet!)
Maybe, just maybe, we can focus on the lush and ludicrous image of God extravagantly sowing the Word of the Kingdom, and see in this parable great joy, instead of judgment. And, as Nadia left me thinking, “Isn’t life just too short, too sacred and too important to skimp on joy? Isn’t the world too precarious right now to forgo joy?”
The world is, indeed, precarious right now. Let’s commit to looking for the joy of God in the midst of it all! Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Light for the path
Erik Weihenmayer is an amazing athlete and adventurer. He’s kayaked all 277 miles of the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon, which, according to one source, is “considered one of the most formidable whitewater venues in the world.” He has climbed the “seven summits” of the world, that is, the highest mountain peak on all seven continents.
He has climbed the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
He has biked from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
He has climbed Mount Everest. And after accomplishing this feat, he was featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
Erik Weihenmayer is blind. Unsighted. Can’t see.
He’s been this way since he was a kid. When he was only 15 months old, he was diagnosed with juvenile retinoschisis. Doctors said he would be totally blind by age 13. And he was.
When giving interviews, he tells the story of a descent off the face of El Capitan. He was with several other climbers. They had already spent at least one night in a sling-enhanced encampment on the face, and were now trying to get off the mountain before nightfall.
They failed. Night descended on them before they were able to finish their descent. They were all in the dark. So they turned to the one man who had the most experience climbing in the dark: Erik. He led them down and out on the last pitch.
The blind leading the sighted.
Think of the psalmist as a less-talented Erik Weihenmayer.
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” he writes in verse 105.
Sometimes it happens — we’re in the dark. We’re clueless. In uncharted territory without lights, signal markers, hints, landmarks, white roadside stripes, a flashlight, a smartphone or infrared night-vision googles.
These times in our lives can be terrifying. They often immobilize a person. Life comes to a standstill.
Yet, the psalmist does not feel this way. This text suggests that the traveler is both in the dark and walking an unknown path, and that is why the traveler is so glad to have a lamp or a light. It illuminates where the feet are stepping, and it shows the path ahead. These are two important considerations. You don’t want to put your foot on a rock or root that might sprain your ankle or might make you trip and fall. And, second, we want to have some advance notice of what’s ahead, perhaps to avoid stepping headlong into a ditch, or worse, an abyss. We want to have some sense of where we’re going.
So, imagine if you will, you’re traveling in the family SUV at night on a narrow, two-lane road. You’re returning from a long day away in a nearby city, where one of the kids was in a swim meet. You’re tired, the road is unfamiliar, and it’s raining lightly. You are driving and you frequently choose to use your low beams rather than the high beams. You want to have a clear view of the immediate road ahead. You don’t like surprises. You want clarity. You want a nice, wide view.
Sometimes we need this kind of light in our own lives. We need the flashlight, the torch, the low beams to illuminate the real estate immediately before us. We want to know if dangers, hazards or problems lie right in our path.
The psalmist reminds us that to walk in God’s path of right living means that we need to “see” or be aware of these hazards right in front of us. If you don’t think you know what these hazards are, take a moment to think about all the things we think and do and feel that are contrary to God’s will for our lives.
The psalmist says that the word of God casts light on these obstacles to whole living. Like navigating any highway, some things you’ve just got to go around and avoid. Other problems are like potholes that need to be filled with solid material and paved over. Some issues, like a tree across a road, need to be sawed up and completely removed.
At the same time, when we’re walking in the dark or driving down a dark road, we want to have some idea of what’s farther ahead.
Go back to the same road on which you’re traveling after the kid’s swim meet. Sometimes (especially after using low beams), you are satisfied that you’re aware of the nature of the immediate road before you. Your view of the immediate stretch of highway tells you that nothing presents a danger to you and the occupants traveling with you.
So you switch to high beams. Now, the road far ahead of you is in the light. You can see the curve to the left that’s coming. Instantly, you can determine whether a long stretch of straight road is before you, or whether the road twists and turns. You now know what you need to prepare for. Is the road predictable, or is it wild and uncertain?
God’s word certainly is not a crystal ball that gives us a glimpse into our future. But it does cast light on best practices that are most likely to result in a life well-lived, a life without the extreme curves, dips and valleys. The high beams of God’s word show us that a well-lived life is one
that is given in service to others;
in which words are used to encourage;
in which we are outrageously kind and generous;
in which we try to make life less difficult for others; and
in which we are grateful for the smallest of blessings.
These benefits of the light and lamp accrue to the traveler on one and only one condition: The light must be focused on the path. If you shine your light on the bushes, hedges and trees to the right or the left to see if there might be dangers lurking there, you very well may stumble and hurt yourself. If you’re walking in the dark, keep the light trained on the path!
Preachers will know what I’m talking about when I say that things can come to mind in the process of preparing a sermon. I’d been thinking about the images of dark and light, about the path right in front of us and the path up ahead, and all of a sudden the words of a song by Amy Grant I’d learned when I was in my church’s youth group popped into my head. Maybe it’s already rattling around in yours…
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. When I feel afraid, think I’ve lost my way, still you’re there right beside me.” And then I couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics, so I Googled it!
“And nothing will I fear as long as you are near, please be near me to the end.” Another verse says,
“I will not forget your love for me and yet my heart forever is wandering. Jesus be my guide and hold me to your side; I will love you to the end.”
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. Nothing will I fear as long as you are near.
Please be near me to the end. Please be near us to the end.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale