We Don't Know What We Don't Know
Matthew 24:36-44 (NRSVUE)
What images or symbols do you associate with Advent? Pink and purple candles? Cozy Nativity scenes on soft-hued Hallmark cards? Pull tab calendars with chocolates tucked inside?
What about a thief prowling outside your house, stealthy and silent? Your front door torn off its hinges, shattered glass in your foyer, and a stranger’s footsteps on your stairs? What about your most prized possessions disappearing while you sleep? Do these images seem “Advent-ish” to you?
Probably not. And yet these are the images our Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent gives us. A homeowner caught off-guard. A house that’s been broken into. The Son of Man coming at an unexpected hour, like a thief in the night.
There’s no way around it — these images are disturbing. Maybe even terrifying. They don’t fit with the Jesus we think we know — the Jesus in the manger, the Jesus on the cross, the Jesus who feeds and forgives and heals and saves. The Jesus Matthew describes in this apocalyptic passage is no respecter of boundaries. He’s not invested in the status quo, he doesn’t care about keeping us secure and comfortable, and he’s not thwarted at all by our elaborate defense mechanisms. The Jesus Matthew describes is an invader. An intruder. A disrupter. A criminal.
So here’s a question for our new liturgical season: what should we do with a Son of Man who describes himself as a robber? How should we respond to a Jesus who shows up and takes things away from us? Things we care about? Things we depend on? Things we’re 100% sure we can’t live without?
In her essay in Journey with Jesus on this reading from Matthew, Debie Thomas offers up three things we should do in response:
First, we should recognize that we’re asleep: Jesus likens the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah’s flood. “Before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage,” Jesus says. “They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” It’s so hard — so very, very hard — to accept the fact that we’re not awake, that we’re missing profound spiritual realities because we’re fast asleep in the ordinary and the mundane. We want to believe that the status quo will save us. We want to believe that business-as-usual will be good enough to keep us attuned to God. We want to pretend that Christianity will never require anything hard or costly of us.
And yet the message of Advent is, “Wake up!” The message of Matthew in today’s reading is, “Keep watch!” The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters. To confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep.
Second, we should surrender our certainties: The implication of the thief-in-the-night analogy is that Jesus isn’t going to come in the ways we expect. If we think we have religion pinned down, if we think we know what revelation looks like, if we think we have Jesus all figured out, then we’re in for an unpleasant surprise. If, on the other hand, we approach with our hands wide open; if we confess that we don’t even know what to look for, or where; that we don’t know what we don’t know; if we empty ourselves of all preconceived notions of God and train our hearts to expect the unexpected, then we will be able to receive the real Jesus with joy when he appears.
Third, we should prepare to be robbed: During Advent, we are called to make room for the long-anticipated Christ. To prepare space for the beautiful new life that is coming. But how can we do this if we’re already filled to the rafters? Maybe Jesus comes as a thief because we need to be
“robbed.” Maybe Jesus breaks in because our valuables have become liabilities, and we need an intruder to sweep in and take what we won’t willingly give up.
What are we clinging to that Jesus needs to steal? Our apathy? Our self-righteousness? Our fears? Our unforgiveness? It’s no coincidence that Jesus comes when we’re asleep and vulnerable. When else would we give over the false gods we cling to? How else would we cooperate with the deep work of God in our lives?
Debie Thomas writes that she didn't grow up observing Advent. She says, “My childhood church didn't follow the liturgical calendar, so the holiday lineup I remember went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and "Jingle Bells” — one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next. But as I’ve moved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I have come to love the holy season we’re now entering. I love that the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker. I love that the season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer. And I love that the Gospel gets us started with images that startle me out of my complacency — not swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs, but Jesus as relentless pursuer of my soul. Jesus as thief.”
American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call. He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention. “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look.
These aren’t the soothing, saccharine invitations we like to accept as we shop for gifts, decorate Christmas trees, and sing carols. But as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “Advent begins in the dark. It is not a season for the faint of heart.” Whether we like it or not, the invitations Advent offers us are hard-edged; they don’t look pretty on greeting cards. But they are essential and life-giving, nevertheless. They help us to prepare for the birth that is almost at hand. They help us stay alert. They help us receive Jesus in all the shocking and scandalous ways he chooses to appear. Let’s stay awake!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Running on Idle
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
I have to begin this morning with confession. The Apostle Paul’s exhortation in this scripture – the one that says “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” – gets part of me, the little man inside me that identifies as a personal-responsibility Republican, all riled up.
It’s right there in the Bible! this very little man shouts. An earlier translation is, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” And so when we think about public policy and about our society’s safety net for the poor, it seems to my little man that anybody who thinks they’re going to live on the dole, on my tax dollars, and not even try to work for a living, well, they have another thing coming. No workee, no dinner.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel fair to me, that those who work so hard to make a living should be obligated to share with those who, well, don’t, or won’t. Resentment creeps in. And if there’s anything that colors our political life today, it’s inchoate feelings of resentment.
My little man is mad. I don’t let him out much. To tell the truth, I’m a little ashamed that he’s there at all. I’d like to think that I’ve thoroughly incorporated Jesus’ words when he says, “Give to everyone who asks of you.” And so I recognize that this is a growing edge for me.
And what I want to say first about these words from Paul’s second letter to the church at Thessalonica is that they’re not about public policy. They’re not about welfare or workfare, food stamps or soup kitchens, Section 8 housing or Medicaid. It’s dangerous sometimes to lift pronouncements from the Bible and try to build legislation around them, and this is one of those times. It’s important to understand what’s going on with the Thessalonians and what Paul is arguing with them about.
So I want us to do a little Bible study on the situation at hand, so we can know the context for this passage. And then I want to think with you about where Paul’s words can still move our understanding today.
Paul – or possibly another writer using his name, which was a common practice in the ancient Near East – Paul is writing to the church he established in Thessalonica. Thessalonica was a major port city in northern Greece, on the Aegean Sea, and it was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. So there was some money around, and as in every rich society, there were some really rich people and some really poor people. Paul planted this very early Christian church there during his second missionary journey.
Now, it’s important to remember about the epistles, the letters that became part of the New Testament, they don’t come out of nowhere. There’s always a reason – what scholars call an “occasion” – for why the letter is written. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul is writing to set these new Christians straight on both theology and practicality. This church was living in the expectation that the risen Christ would return to them soon – really soon. Like any day now. And in the early part of this letter, Paul says that’s not so. He talks about a period of tribulation and a war between good and evil, but the upshot is that the Second Coming is not imminent.
Which leads to the second reason for his letter, which is how these church people should conduct themselves in the meantime. He has gotten wind that there are people in the church – “idlers,” he calls them – who are not doing their share of the work. Remember that the early Christian churches operated a lot like communes. The members pooled their resources and lived in close community; they were responsible to each other.
So who were these idlers? It’s easy to assume they were poor people who were taking advantage of the generosity of others. But the letter doesn’t say they’re poor, just that they’re idle. Paul might in fact be referring to a group of the idle rich, who had resources for doing good but instead were spending their time meddling, causing trouble, throwing their weight around simply because they could. Or he could be referring to members who used to be rich, but they gave all their resources to the church community and now they’re coasting on that gift, ordering others around because they’re the financial pillars of the church.
Whoever it is Paul is scolding, he says they’re “unwilling to work.” This is causing problems in the church, and that’s why Paul is writing them this scolding letter. He cares about the people, he cares about the church, but mostly he’s worried that they won’t be able to carry out their shared ministry, the work of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if they can’t figure out a way to live peaceably in community.
And Paul isn’t shy about raising himself up as an example of the better way. “You ought to imitate us,” he says (he uses the royal “we”). “We were not irresponsible when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you.” As their spiritual leader, he says, he could have taken it easy, could have sat on the stoop thinking deep thoughts. But he did his work as a tentmaker, for the benefit of the church but also to show them the way to live while they waited for Christ’s return. A way that includes, well, work.
So Paul is warning the idlers and the troublemakers, returning them to a vision of the beloved community in which everyone makes best use of the gifts God has put into their lives. That’s a model of Christian community that not only works economically, it works spiritually as well. We don’t advance God’s work in the world by hiding our light under a bushel, letting our gifts molder within us when the community and the world need what we have to offer. The spiritually responsible thing to do is make the most of those gifts.
And Paul, here toward the end of the letter, makes that point in an exhortation. “Brothers and sisters,” he says to them, “do not be weary in doing what is right.” That is, keep on doing good things. Don’t get sick of doing good. Never stop lifting up those around you if you can. Do whatever good you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, in whatever ways you can – even if you don’t have to. Even, for example, if you’re rich enough to be an idler.
The Thessalonians were living in a constant tension. They truly expected that Christ would return any day and bring about the end of human history. But they were faced with the problem of how to live in the meantime. And it seems to me that you and I have that same problem.
Because we’re always living in the meantime. That’s what it means to live in hope, and the life of a disciple of Christ is a life of hope. We worship a God who promises that our lives can be a continual, an ongoing transformation, that we can keep on getting closer to Jesus – hope. And we worship a God who promises that our world will someday become the realm of the holy – hope.
But hope is always forward-looking, and in the meantime we’re faced with the problem of how to live in the here and now. Paul’s letter reminds us that we do ourselves no favors, and we deprive our church, our community, our world of all we can bring to it, if we don’t get up in the morning, put on a clean shirt and get to work.
May we do God proud with all we do in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Scott Thomas
Near, Far, Wherever You Are
If you have any long-term memory at all, and you’re older than 25, you will recognize the title of today’s sermon from a song that was on the radio in 1997. Anyone? Yup, it’s My Heart Will Go On, the Celine Dion song that was the theme from the movie Titanic. And now that I’ve said that, I bet you can sing it, right? Choir, you can help me.
Near … far … wherever you are, I believe that the heart does go on …
Ay. Bad memories for a lot of us, because for a long time that song was on the radio day after day after day. At this point it’s become an earworm – one of those songs that once you hear it again, you can’t get it out of your head for days. I will bet you that you find yourself humming it at home today. I apologize.
That’s an earworm. There are eyeworms, too, and one of them speaks to what I want us to think about today, and that is the question of whether God is near to us or far away. If I ask you to picture God in your mind – this would have been interesting to do with the children, actually – what do you see? Dollars to doughnuts the image you see is the one in today’s worship bulletin, Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, a giant white guy in a white robe with a big white beard, reaching out his magic finger to give life to a naked Adam. In our society, that’s the eyeworm for God – the default way our visual imagination presents the Almighty.
Now, I probably don’t have to convince you that the image of God as an old white man is problematic, to say the least. In progressive Christianity we’re pretty careful about not assigning a gender to God, much less a skin color. For one thing, it’s pretty insulting to God if that’s the best our imaginations can do, to imagine a God who looks like, I don’t know, Ernest Hemingway. That really shows the limits of our understanding of a limitless God.
But I raise up that image because that God is a faraway God. Whether or not Michelangelo intended it that way, when you stand on the floor of the Sistine Chapel and look up at the painting 68 feet above you, you feel really small, and God is way up there. Untouchable. Unreachable. A sovereign God who might just as well have nothing to do with you and me. A God like the president of the United States – you know what he does is important, but you’re probably never going to get to shake his hand.
And I think a lot of us grow up with the impression of that kind of God. It’s even reinforced by some of the traditions of the Christian church. Think for example of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” That’s a God who is somewhere else, way up there in a child’s vision of heaven, fluffy clouds and angels and harps and everything. A God who may very well be all-wise and all-powerful, maybe even a God who hears our prayers and intervenes in our lives in response to prayer. But a God who’s far away, not close at hand.
Now, there are some virtues to perceiving that kind of God. There’s a kind of respectfulness, even awe, that comes when we ponder a majestic, faraway God. We don’t want a God who’s at our beck and call, some kind of divine valet. This is the Creator of the universe we’re talking about – the proper attitude has to be reverence. It’s what Moses felt when he came before the burning bush in the wilderness, knowing that even to see God’s face would destroy him. Awe is the right attitude.
But then we have today’s passage from Psalm 145. The Psalmist is ticking off some of the attributes of God – God is just, God is kind, God watches over the faithful. And! “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.”
That’s not Michelangelo’s God. This God is not only not up in the sky, this God is as near as our minds, our hearts, indeed the very cells of our bodies. When we call on God – when we pray, or more broadly, when we live our lives open to the idea that God is present in everything in us and around us – that God is indeed there with us. There’s no eyeworm image for that, because how can you imagine visually a presence that suffuses your body and your life? That’s something you can’t tease out into a discrete picture, because that God is part of us just as we are part of God.
I’ve talked to people who have had what are sometimes called mountaintop experiences, really life-changing experiences of God’s presence, and they’re all pretty much the same. A pastor I knew in Rochester said it happened to him like this: He was camping out West somewhere, and he literally was on a mountaintop, just taking in the view, when suddenly he felt this overwhelming wave of peace and assurance. But more than that, he suddenly came to a deep understanding that all of it – the mountain, the trail, the sky, the wind, himself – all of it was part of a seamless whole, and all of it was an absolute continuum of a loving and creative Spirit. He knew that Spirit as God, and for him the revelation was that God is near – indeed, that any construct that imagines God as separate from us is just misguided. This was one of the most formative experiences of his life. It changed him.
As I said, mountaintop experiences are pretty much always like that – the sudden realization of the nearness of God and the continuity of all creation. And human cultures have always looked for ways to catalyze that, to invite that experience, from fasting to breathwork, from scourging the body to smoking or ingesting certain plants.
Toward that end, I want to share with you some really interesting research on psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms. Maybe you’ve read about some of this research; I’ve mentioned it from this pulpit before. There are a number of studies ongoing at Johns Hopkins and NYU about this, using psilocybin to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress, or terminally ill people afraid of death, or alcoholics to help them stop drinking. The early studies have been incredibly successful, almost a magic bullet – the subjects are able to leave their trauma in the past, or they make their peace with death, or they stop drinking just like that.
Some of these studies are looking at psilocybin as a way to catalyze spiritual experiences – mountaintop experiences. And people who have done this, have taken the drug, report the same kind of experience that my pastor friend had. They come off that couch knowing – really deep-down knowing – that they are beloved of God, that all of nature and humanity is a unity of beloved creation, and that love is really the only organizing principle of life, including their own lives. These subjects consistently say the experience was one of the very most important experiences of their lives. It changes them.
And these scientists are saying that it seems that psilocybin somehow temporarily switches off an area of the brain called the Default Mode Network, a web of brain areas that coordinates how you process information. It’s sometimes called the “orchestrator of the self,” because it’s how your brain understands what is you and what is not-you. And when this network is deactivated, suddenly you’re unable to draw that line between you and not-you. That sense of ego, of self, dissolves – and what replaces it is this amazing sense of interconnectedness and love.
As I said, human cultures have used all sorts of substances and techniques to induce this kind of spiritual experience. And sometimes it arises spontaneously. You may be tempted to dismiss it as a hallucination. But the very consistency of the experience, across cultures, says to me that the reality of God is right there for the taking. A God who, as the Psalmist says, is “near to all who call on him.” A God who loves us down to our very cells. And a God who, near or far, can’t be explained away in some pretty picture. Amen.
Rev. Scott Thomas
Luke 19:1-10 (The Message)
Do you remember Zacchaeus? The little guy who climbed up a tree? Raise your hand if “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he,” is already playing in your head. This song about Zacchaeus is a long-time favorite of Sunday School children, and so, like a lot of children’s songs, if you don’t want this little tune stuck in your head (as it is in mine!) do NOT look on the internet for a video of children singing it. Just my word of caution to you.
Let’s face it: this week’s gospel story may be so familiar it can be difficult to read it and hear it with fresh eyes and ears. Like a lot of people, I’ve kind of considered this a cute and funny children’s story, and maybe irrelevant to my adult life. But while the Sunday School song has reduced the story of Zacchaeus to about two verses, and this “wee little man” ends up being a very happy man because “he had seen the Lord that day,” there’s a lot for us to consider in this story.
And where we land on the story’s meaning, depends a lot on the perspective we bring to it.
Some years ago, a newspaper carried a story about a young couple traveling to visit relatives in a neighboring state. Having parked along the side of the road so the woman could nurse their baby, the man stretched his legs and admired the view of the river and a nearby bridge. Within minutes a state patrol car stopped to check out the scene. Running the man’s name through the police database, the officer discovered a match with someone on a terrorist watch list; within minutes the man was in cuffs and his family detained. They were released more than four hours later after the list was found to be in error. “I knew what was going to happen,” the man later told reporters. “It’s not the first time I’ve been stopped because of the color of my skin.” He had been a U.S. citizen for more than 20 years.
Audrey West, who teaches New Testament at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, PA, thinks about this story about the young, Black couple and their baby, and says, “When fear locks us in a stranglehold, it is tempting to believe that all would be well if only we could organize the world into good people and bad ones. Like clutter-busters tackling a houseful of stuff, hoping to discard the things we no longer want, we tend to label individuals according to our stereotypes and place them into their proper categories: welfare moms, soccer moms, suburbanites, hunters, tree huggers, addicts, vegetarians, CEOs, teenagers, artists, foreigners, single parents, motorcyclists, gun owners, RV owners and so on. Depending on our particular contexts—and perhaps on the labels we choose for ourselves—each of the categories carries with it either a positive or negative assessment.”
Society’s labels place Zacchaeus into the latter group, at least from the perspective of the crowds that gathered that one day. While the name Zacchaeus means “righteous,” Luke describes him as the sort of person we love to hate. He says that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector.” That means, he was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. So, he was a traitor to the political cause. To some, he was akin to a robber.
Luke also says that Zacchaeus was wealthy. And, big surprise, how did a tax collector for Rome get to be wealthy? By extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, but exploiting the working poor, and by taking care of his cronies. There’s an unspoken assumption of corruption here. From the crowd’s perspective, and maybe from ours, Zacchaeus is a man who deserves our disdain.
Even the crowds recognize Zacchaeus as a sinner, no doubt with a capital S. They do not even give him a chance to tell how he is giving half of what he owns to the poor and using the rest to pay back four times what he has gained by cheating.
Along comes Jesus. He halts the parade that is passing by the sycamore tree, looks up at Zacchaeus, and by announcing a visit to Zacchaeus’s house, Jesus forces the crowd to see this tax collector with new eyes. It is not a pretty sight, apparently, for they cannot stop grumbling about it, and about the fact that Jesus would stoop to sharing hospitality with such a person. Nonetheless, Jesus refuses to be bound by labels. Where they see a selfishness, Jesus sees welcome. Where they see an outsider, Jesus sees a member of the family. Where they see lost, Jesus sees found. Jesus knows the good and the bad truth about Zacchaeus; when the labels are stripped away, there is nowhere to hide. And still Jesus invites himself over for dinner. Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.
In thinking about Zacchaeus, Audrey West goes on to say that she lives in a 120-year-old house not far from the historic center of her town. She says it’s a pleasant neighborhood, with terrific neighbors: an artist, a social worker, a school principal, a lawyer, a nurse, an electrical engineer and two graduate students. “If that were all anybody knew about the place,” she says, “they might imagine a stately old home with oak paneling, crown moldings, lovely patina and nooks and crannies in the attic that might hold a hidden trunk of amazing old letters. The reality is that nothing in the place is level or square. The electrical wiring includes a significant amount of knob and tube elements, meaning that we have to be careful about overloading the circuits. There is no oak paneling or crown molding. There are cracks in the ceiling; the front steps are crooked; the door needs painting. Spiders are more at home on the porch than we are, and they prove it almost every night by weaving intricate webs at face level. If Jesus were coming over for dinner,” she says—and I totally agree with her—"I would want time to clean the place, to make it look more tidy than it really is: if nothing else, to vacuum the dog hair, shoo the cats off the bookcase and sweep the spider webs away from the front door. I would want it to look like we keep a nice house, even if the reality is considerably different.”
Zacchaeus, though, has no time to beautify his place, no time to fix a special meal, no opportunity to make his home look like anything other than what it is. Jesus is coming for dinner. Today. Right now. The rejected tax collector is playing host to the redeeming Son of Humanity.
And this is how salvation works. We do not have to put things in order first, because salvation is not about being neat and orderly. It is not about making things look good, not about what we do, not about fitting into the world’s stereotypes; it’s not about the good or bad labels by which we are known to ourselves or others. Before even announcing his newfound spirit of generosity and restitution, Zacchaeus learns that Jesus is coming to see him. Today salvation has come to his house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
At some point or other, that’s you, and that’s me. God seeks us, to save us…no matter what the crowd thinks of us.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Now What Can you See?
Mark 8:22-26 (NRSVUE)
I was looking through some old files recently and came upon a whole file from 2016 about the Fair Labor Standards Act. I had a vague memory of having to learn about this six years ago, but I couldn’t remember why. I certainly didn’t remember that the act was passed in 1938 and is a federal statute of the United States. The FLSA introduced the forty-hour work week, established a national minimum wage, guaranteed "time-and-a-half" for overtime in certain jobs, and prohibited most employment of minors in "oppressive child labor", a term that is defined in the statute.
It was all here in the file…all the documents from our payroll company, Paychex, when they had reached out to the church and said, “There will be changes to the FLSA beginning December 1, 2016. Are you prepared to abide by the changes?” What?
Over several months in the fall of 2016, I learned a fair amount about this law and how the upcoming changes would affect the church’s six employees. I participated in a 90-minute phone conference with an attorney from Paychex. I followed that up by listening in on a 90-minute webinar on how the changes particularly affect church employees, led by two attorneys, and sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Through it all, one comment about all this that caught my attention and stuck in my brain and then was tucked away in this folder came from the Buffalo-born Secretary of Labor at the time, Thomas Perez. He said, “Employers have a variety of ways they can comply with the new rule when it takes effect Dec. 1. People are going to get at least one of three benefits," Perez said. "They're either going to get more money ... more time with their family, or everybody is going to get clarity."
Everybody is going to get clarity. What an amazing thing that would be, right?! If we all had clarity about anything. Clarity, in my experience, is just not all that easy to achieve. Maybe this is true for you, too. Thinking about the benefit of clarity led me back to the scripture passage we are looking at today, the story in Mark’s gospel where Jesus heals a blind man…a man with a total lack of vision and clarity.
Blindness was one of the great medical curses of the Middle East. We find Jesus taking this particular blind man by the hand and leading him out of town so he could deal with him privately. The healing of this person is recorded only in the gospel of Mark and it is the only miracle that Jesus performed which happened gradually. In this miracle the blind man’s sight came back in two stages.
In the scripture passage, Jesus has come to a town called Bethsaida. And while he’s there, some people bring their friend to Jesus to be healed of his blindness. By itself, that’s not unusual, because Jesus healed all kinds of people during his ministry. He healed lepers, and cripples, and demoniacs, and raised the dead. Of course, he also healed a bunch of people who’d been blind… just like this man. There doesn't seem to be anything Jesus can't do! But not this time. This time it almost seems like Jesus can’t heal this man. All through his ministry Jesus healed people… miraculously. He would heal them by merely saying they were healed, or he healed people by letting them touch him, or he healed people by him touching them: the lame walked…the deaf heard…mute people spoke.
But this guy didn’t see perfectly…not immediately. Maybe the man didn’t want to hurt Jesus’ feelings so when Jesus asked him if he could see anything, he said, “Well, yeah. Sort of. I can see people. But I have to tell you, Jesus, they look like trees, walking.” So once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. This time, when the man opened his eyes, he looked around intently and discovered that he saw everything clearly.
It took Jesus TWO times to heal this guy! Jesus never has to do that! Nobody has ever had to be touched twice by Jesus to be healed. So why this man, why does this man need to be touched twice? Was Jesus off his game that day? Did He get up on the wrong side of the bed? Had he not had his morning coffee? Or was there something else going on here?
I think there is profound theological truth here. Not all people see all of God’s truth all at one time. It is true for some people that clarity comes in a single “aha” moment. We’ve all heard these kinds of stories…the “come to Jesus moments” some people experience. For others, like me, the ability to see, the gift of clarity, the epiphany, often comes in a much slower process, starting first with “Well, I think I see some trees…”
Circling back to the Fair Labor Standards Act, it was not until I’d heard the same thing being said four or five times before I was able to say, “Ok. Now I think I’m starting to get it.” Now the “trees” look like “people.” Clarity was slowing coming my way.
The exact same thing happens to me in my spiritual life. God can be tapping on my forehead trying to get my attention, (like my brother used to do to drive me crazy when we were kids!) and sometimes I’ll think to myself, “Huh. I don’t get it. I wonder what God is trying to do. I wonder what God is trying to say. I wonder what all of this means.” I can be a very slow learner, spiritually. But that’s how I’m wired. I am less likely to experience the “aha!” moment than I am to experience the slow, methodical, sometimes tortuous path to clarity. It’s amazing to me how patient God is with me!
The “aha!” moment and the “slow dawning.” Neither one is better than the other. They both happen.
There is, though, a danger in a certain type of evangelism that encourages the idea that when someone makes a decision to follow Christ, he or she is automatically a full-grown Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth. Discipleship is always a process. It is always a journey. There will always be days when we are good at it, and days when we completely miss the mark. And, by the grace of God, Jesus and the holy spirit stick with us all along the way.
After the first touch, the blind man had only limited vision, but after the second touch his eyesight was restored completely. That’s what we can all be striving for…clearer vision, as individuals and as a congregation…no matter how long it takes us to get there.
Can we see clearly, now? May it be so!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Where Help Comes from
Psalm 121 (NRSVUE)
On Tuesday, I went to the infusion center at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital to get a healthy dose of iron. Over the last several weeks, I’d been noticing that I was feeling unusually fatigued, and that I was getting out of breath doing some things around my house that had never before been taxing on my body. When I asked my doctor about it, he ordered some blood work, and lo and behold, my iron levels were lower than they had been; lower than they should be. It’s called iron anemia, and an iron infusion was in order.
The time it takes to receive the infusion is only fifteen minutes, but I had to wait for the iron to arrive from the pharmacy, and then, after the infusion, I had to wait for half an hour to make sure I didn’t have any weird reaction to the infusion. I didn’t.
While I was sitting in my chair, waiting for time to pass, a 28-year-old man and his mother arrived and occupied the chair near mine. I’m not sure what he was there for, but I could tell this was not his first visit to the infusion center, and I could tell he and his mother were extremely frustrated with everything he had been going through—for years!—trying to get help from doctors for whatever his particular condition was. Yes, HIPPA laws suggest I should not have been hearing any of what they were saying, but there was nowhere for me to go, and they clearly had a lot of anxiety to get off their chests.
One of the nurses in the center rolled up a chair, sat with them, listened to them, and then gave an enormous amount of time and energy encouraging them in how to navigate a very complicated health care system.
I think she was helpful to this young man and his mother. I pray she was.
Wednesday morning, this Daily Devotion from the United Church of Christ “God is Still Speaking” writing group arrived in my inbox. It was written by Vicki Kemper, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Amherst, Massachusetts. Some of you may have seen it and read it. She focused on this Psalm we’re looking at, Psalm 121, and I don’t know if it was because I now had a more normal level of iron in my body from the infusion the day before, but what she had to say hit me in a profound and totally unexpected way.
Psalm 121 is not new to me. For years and years I have used the words of this powerfully encouraging and hopeful Psalm to comfort families who have lost a loved one. I read it at memorial services. I pray that those who are mourning will find some measure of comfort in its images of a God who will never leave us and who will always help us.
The beginning verses of this beloved Psalm say it all: “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” I look to the hills—the hills that in our area of this country are filled with amazing bursts of color and majesty. It makes sense to me that help could come from the creator of all that beauty and glory.
What I hadn’t thought about was what Vicki Kemper wrote about in her Daily Devotion. Listen to what she writes:
“I lift up my eyes to my car, broken down in Middle-of-Nowhere, Nebraska. From where will my help come?
“My help comes from God, who arrives as a husband and wife in matching Harley-Davidson t-shirts. God takes me and my dog out of the life-threatening heat and into their home.
“My help comes from God, looking like a young tow-truck driver who changed his surname to his wife’s so she wouldn’t be re-traumatized by having his family name remind her of the man who sexually assaulted her.
“My help comes from God, who is clearly just showing off when the manager of an auto parts store announces he will do whatever it takes to get us back on the road—because he works for Jesus.
“Psalm 121,” she says, “is not about beautiful hills. It is about taking an honest look at whatever stands between us and well-being—and trusting that God will make a way through. It is an invitation to ask the Holy One for help, and to recognize God when help comes.
“Look around: at our dwindling bank balances, our strained relationships, our aging bodies, our dysfunctional families, a nation divided by fear and hatred, a democracy in peril, a world on fire. From where will our help come?
“From God, who may show up how and when we least expect it. From God, who is our keeper and our deliverer, our strength and our hope.”
This is what Vicki Kemper says—that God will show up how and when we least expect it. Like that nurse in the infusion center showed up for a mother and her son.
She made me stop to think: where is God helping me? Where is God helping you?
And I think about sweet, Nate Lambert’s family, gathered here to give thanks to God for his life and to promise to love him and tell him about this God that both creates the hills and shows up for each of us in ways we may never expect. Think about where your help has come from these past months. I believe your help has, and will continue, to come from all sorts of places. I think this is true for all parents and families!
Hear these words from the Psalmist again:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Be alert, my friends, for all the ways God finds to help you…to help us. Then, give thanks to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
How Did Jesus Sound?
Here we are, my friends, still in the gospel of Luke. Some of you may like how we’ve been methodically moving through the gospel pretty much every Sunday for some weeks now. And if this method of moving through one gospel—following the lectionary readings—really drives you crazy, hang in there. On the first Sunday of Advent—November 27th—the lectionary gospel readings move on to the gospel of Matthew until the first Sunday of Advent in 2023, when the lectionary gospel readings move on to Mark.
I feel confident there is just someone—just one person—here today who needed to know this!
Perhaps because we’ve been spending a fair amount of time in Luke, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud this week when our Administrative Assistant, Debbie Sauer, handed me a pew bible that one of you, perhaps, left for her. On the pew bible was a note that said, “Luke is missing.” What could that possibly mean? Where could Luke be? Sure enough, the binding on this particular pew bible was broken, and a bunch of pages were just gone, including the entire gospel of Luke.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the only bible we have access to, or we’d miss this story about Jesus cleansing ten lepers. No other gospel carries this story. It would be a shame for us to miss out on this, because I think we can learn a lot about Jesus from this story.
Mark Harris, an Episcopal priest from Delaware, said that when he read this passage, he would have liked to hear for himself the inflection that Jesus gave to these words. “There were ten of you healed, weren’t there? Where are the nine?” The inflection of the words makes a considerable impact on the meaning of the reading as we hear it read, and would tell us much about Jesus’ reaction to the healing of the lepers.
Just as there is a great difference in reading a play and seeing and listening to it being performed, so there is a difference in reading scripture silently and hearing it read aloud in church. Every person who has ever stood here before you and read something from scripture, has had to figure out how to read it aloud. What words to emphasize. What tone to use. Think about the very best story tellers you’ve ever heard. Think about how they’ve used inflection and intonation to make their story even better. Using a monotone is probably not the most effective way to convey a story, is it?
So, if inflection and intonation are a natural part of speaking, what are we to do with them when sacred texts are read? And, more specifically, what are we to do with the Gospel text today?
How is the one speaking Jesus’ words aloud to say, “Where are the nine?” Do we say it harshly? With paternal interest? Should the reader sound scolding? And how should the reader give inflection and tone to “Is it really the case that the only one who had the decency to give God the glory was this ‘foreigner’”? Scorn? Affection? Amazement? Disappointment?
Maybe there’s another way to come at this. Rather than wonder about specific inflections for these words and how each inflection influences the next, what if we go back a step and ask a more general question. What if we asked, “Was Jesus smiling when he spoke to the one (now former) leper who turned back to give thanks?”
To answer this question, we need to go back a bit. At the beginning of Luke’s long section of Jesus sayings and actions, Jesus sent out 70 of his followers to the towns and villages he would visit on his way to Jerusalem. Their commission was to heal the sick and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). These 70 followers were clear that, whatever else this advance-party business was about, they were about healing, and they did so in Jesus’ name, having made the connection between Jesus and the kingdom of God coming near.
Luke records that when they reported back joyfully, Jesus rejoiced as well and prayed “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (10:21). Now whatever else one might say, we would probably be right to assume that there were smiles enough to go around. After all, it worked!
Mark Harris said he likes to think Jesus was laughing with delight when he prayed, “I thank you, Father…” Stage directions for reading this would maybe indicate that the laughter here is the laughter of relief, not laughter at a person, but laughter with a person—in this case, laughter among the members of the Trinity. The healing was entrusted to people, and they did it!
So here Jesus is, on his way to Jerusalem to meet his end at the cross, and ten lepers call out to him, using his name and asking for mercy. Jesus seems preoccupied, and tells them to show themselves to the priests. “Right,” say the ten, and they shuffle offstage and are cured. When the Samaritan—now an ex-leper—turns back, surely Jesus realizes what has happened. The whole bunch has been cured of leprosy, and that’s no mean feat. The strange power of this peculiar sickness was so strong that all people could do was recommend that they be warned when it was near.
And this power of leprosy had been put down and a new power was near. It was enough to make Jesus smile, maybe even laugh. Not only can the 70 do it; these poor lepers can do it! It seems to me Jesus’ comments to the one who turned back are not a condemnation of the other nine, or some sort of commentary on ungrateful Jews and the humility of the foreigner, but an amused, delighted, smiling and soon-to-be-laughing reaction to wonderful news. The whole of this little snippet of conversation should be read as an explosive delighted laugh, the laugh of triumph over a great evil!
And maybe the last sentence should be read as a triumphal proclamation of what has happened: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” And it should be said with a smile, for after all, being made well is something to make us smile, laugh and dance. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Mustard seeds & the spirit: They are Enough
Luke 17: 5-10 (MSG)
This week's Gospel reading begins with a request we know well: "Increase our faith!" Maybe you've made this request many times, and you’ve used language just as insistent and desperate as the disciples’ language in Luke’s Gospel.
To be fair, in the verses just before our lectionary reading, Jesus delivers some heavy-duty teaching to his would-be followers: "Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on!” And, "Even if your brother or sister sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them."
Hardly easy stuff; no wonder the disciples cry, "More!" Their request is so earnest, so well-intentioned. They're not asking for wealth, comfort, prestige, or safety. They're asking for faith. Isn’t that a good thing?
Apparently not, because Jesus responds to the request with bewildering impatience: "If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a [mustard seed]," he tells them, "you could say to this sycamore tree, 'Go jump in the lake,' and it would do it."
Maybe even more difficult to deal with, Jesus then launches into a slave-and-master analogy that grates on our 21st century ears: "Suppose one of you has a servant who comes in from plowing the field or tending the sheep. Would you take his coat, set the table, and say, ‘Sit down and eat’? Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Prepare dinner; change your clothes and wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee; then go to the kitchen and have your supper’? Does the servant get special thanks for doing what’s expected of him? It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.’”
“Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I like Jesus in this passage.” This is what Debie Thomas says when thinking about this scripture. “He sounds so irritated. He seems to promise the impossible — a sycamore tree that bears fruit in the sea? — while simultaneously expecting his disciples to regard themselves as worthless slaves? What is happening in this passage?”
"Increase our faith!" the disciples ask. "Increase my faith!" maybe we ask in some guise or another nearly every day. What does Jesus say in response? No. He says no. Why?
Maybe the only way to answer the question is to unpack what we mean by "faith." What exactly are we asking for when we beg God to give us more faith? Sometimes, we’re asking for "the faith that moves mountains"—a supernatural ability to manipulate God into doing what we want. Sometimes, we’re asking for an intellectual booster shot—an increased mental capacity to affirm the more challenging tenets of traditional Christianity—the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Second Coming. And sometimes—maybe most of the time—we’re asking for an antidote to anxiety. “God, please take away the fear I feel as I face your invisibility and your silence. Grant me certainty so I'll feel happier, holier, stronger, braver. Rewire my brain and my heart so that it becomes impossible to doubt you.”
But what if faith isn't quantifiable? What if “more” faith isn’t “better” faith? What if, instead, faith is engagement, orientation, action? What if faith is something we do? Not something we have? Think about how often in the gospels Jesus commends the faith of those who seek him out. "Your faith has saved you," he tells a woman who anoints his feet, a Samaritan leper who returns to thank him, and a hemorrhaging woman who grasps his cloak. "Your faith has made you well," he tells a blind beggar. "Such faith I have not seen in all of Israel!" he exclaims about a Roman centurion.
What is it that Jesus admires in these people? As far as I can tell, the only thing they do is turn to him. They orient themselves in his direction. They trust him. What earns his admiration is their willingness — even in difficult, painful, and potentially risky circumstances — to lean into his goodness, healing, justice, and mercy.
"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed," Jesus says to his disciples. As if to say, “You do. You have faith—because you have me. You've seen me and known me. You don’t need more faith."
So, the invitation here is to do faith. To do the loving, forgiving thing we consider so trite we ignore it. Why? Debie Thomas says it’s “because the life of faith is as straightforward as a slave serving his master dinner. As ordinary as a hired worker fulfilling the terms of his contract. Faith isn't fireworks; it's not meant to dazzle. Faith is simply recognizing our tiny place in relation to God's enormous, creative love, and then filling that place with our whole lives. In this sense — and I know how unpopular this sounds — faith is simply showing up when we’re expected to show up. Faith is duty motivated and sustained by love.”
“One of the most damaging messages the Church communicates to people struggling in their spiritual lives is that faith is somehow the opposite of doubt, fear, ambivalence, or confusion. That when it comes to faith, our problem is scarcity—we don’t have enough. This is a cruel and deeply damaging lie. Having faith — even having enough faith — does not mean that we will never struggle with unbelief, distrust, or anxiety. Having faith means leaning hard into God’s abundance. Having faith means pursuing God and the things of God even when the pursuit feels painful or pointless. Faith is not deciding once and for all to follow Jesus. Faith is living within God’s extravagant decision to love and pursue us. Faith is trusting Jesus one step at a time, day after day after day. For the long haul.”
Faith the size of a mustard seed? It’s enough. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale