The Squeaky Wheel Gets…
You know the saying: the squeaky wheel gets…the grease!
Timothy Adkins-Jones, a Baptist pastor, offers a great example of this saying. This is what he says:
“I am writing from a hospital room where I have been holed up for several days, taking care of a family member. Of course, I am only a bit player compared to the vast apparatus of medical personnel who have been caring for her. I refill the water pitcher, find the remote when it has slipped off the bed, fetch items from the overnight bag, and (hopefully) provide good company. Most importantly, I am the advocate who finds and brings the actual professionals when they are needed.
“Each room on our hallway has a light above the door that blinks on when the patient has a need. It summons forth a small army of nurses and assistants who seem to be playing Whack-A-Mole, addressing the need in one room only to have two more lights awaiting when they emerge. Our light almost never goes on. I can get more blankets and water on my own, and when we need medical assistance, I simply walk to the nurses’ station and ask in person. They almost always respond immediately. There may be other call lights on up and down the hallway, but I am standing in front of them. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Yes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Maybe you’ve experienced the truth of this as well, if you’ve been the advocate for a loved one in the hospital.
Bartimaeus is certainly a squeaky wheel. He may be blind, but there is nothing wrong with his ears. He can tell that an unusually large crowd is headed his way, and he hears the name of Jesus from their lips. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries.
Let me remind you of what’s going on here: Jesus and his disciples were passing through Jericho, getting ready to make the 15-mile trek from there up to Jerusalem, where the cross awaited. Jesus had warned his disciples three times that he was going to Jerusalem to die, but each time they failed to understand what he was talking about. Earlier on the road to Jerusalem, James and John had come to Jesus with a request to sit at his right and left when he came into his “glory” (10:37), which they clearly perceived to be the glory of an earthly king sitting on the throne of Israel. Jesus warned them again that his throne would not be the kind they were hoping for and that he had come to “give his life as a ransom for many”. Even though these disciples had been with Jesus a long time, they still didn’t see the truth about who he was and where he was leading them.
Now Bartimaeus enters the scene and, according to Mark’s Gospel, “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” How could they be so callous? Many of these people have seen or at least heard of the miraculous healing power of this prophet from Nazareth. Jesus has even healed a man from blindness at Bethsaida, just two chapters earlier in the gospel. This blind beggar can’t be less worthy of Jesus’ compassion, right?
But Bartimaeus keeps squeaking nonetheless, shouting again and again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus responds. He stops along the side of the road, interrupting his final journey to Jerusalem and to the cross, to perform the last miracle of healing recorded in the Gospel of Mark. I love this…Jesus stopped and stood still, so that blind Bartimaeus could find his way to him.
When he stands before Jesus, Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus’ faith doesn’t lead him to spout words from some doctrinal confession. His faith is merely a persistent belief that Jesus has the ability to make a difference and just might do it.
It takes exactly that kind of faith for wheels to keep on squeaking when other voices seek to drown them out. The voices come not only from around us but also from within. Who are you to think you deserve something from Christ? In a world where children are thrown into cages and cancer remains to be cured, what makes you think your problem is all that significant? Do you really believe that God intervenes in tangible ways?
I bet Bartimaeus heard those voices, too, and Bartimaeus may not be the obvious choice for model disciple, but this is how he’s presented to us in this passage. He is able to see Jesus for who he really is, he makes his way to Jesus with a kind of desperate reckless abandon that can’t be hindered, and his approach includes an expectation of transformation. When he gets word that Jesus has beckoned him to come, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and comes with exuberance to Jesus. Someone in Bartimaeus’s position would ordinarily do well to keep his cloak, one of his few possessions, close at hand for fear of it being stolen—but Bartimaeus expects a change in his status. He must know that receiving the ability to see will restore him to a place of wholeness in society. It’s almost as if his casting off of the cloak is a public answer to a question not yet posed: Yes, I do want to be made well!
Oh, that we would see Jesus the way Blind Bartimaeus does! As the Messiah, as the son of David with all of the religious and political implications embodied in that title. We need to expect transformation, to go into this relationship with God not with one hand in and one hand out but fully committed to throwing off our own cloaks in order to serve. I am confident that Jesus is calling us, just as he called Bartimaeus—and we have to make a decision about how we’re going to respond and whether we really believe that there is something in us that Jesus can heal.
There are so many instances in this world that call out for us to be the advocate, to be the squeaky wheel. Being a squeaky wheel can be very exhausting, and our faith and the intensity of our shouting sometimes waver. But remember the story of Bartimaeus and its reminder that Jesus is not too busy to respond to those who believe that he has the ability and desire to make a difference.
And so we can call out again and again, each of us lifting up our plea, longing for the day when our faith might bring wholeness to ourselves, to those we love, and to our world. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Job 38:1-7, 34-41 (The Message)
The Old Testament book of Job begins this way: “Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.” (1:1) But Job suffered. His name is synonymous with suffering. He asked, “Why?” He asked, “Why me?” And he put questions to God. He asked his questions persistently, passionately, and eloquently. He refused to take silence for an answer. He refused to take cliches for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook.
But first, there’s a lot of talk that goes on in the book of Job. Three of Job’s friends come to sit with Job in his grief and suffering when he lost all his cattle and field hands. When he lost all his sheep and shepherds. When he lost all his camels and camel drivers. When he lost his seven sons and three daughters! And then, when his entire body was struck by terrible sores, and ulcers and scabs. They sit with him in silence, for a week! “Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering.”
After seven days, that’s when the talking begins. Job speaks out loud about his suffering. His three friends give him advice…a lot of advice. His wife encourages him to just “curse God and be done with it.”
Timothy Adkins-Jones, Senior Pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ and professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary in NY, says “By the time we get to the 38th chapter of Job, I’ve nearly lost my patience with all the talking. There has been a whole lot of talk about, well, not much. I know that Job has gone through a lot. I recognize his pain and his anguish, and anyone who has lived any length of time on this earth knows something about suffering, but I don’t personally want to hear from his friends about what they think it all means.
“They are taking shots in the dark about what is going on,” he says. “They assume and assert more about God’s ways and actions than I care to read about as I’m attempting to manage my own suffering. I am especially dyspeptic to this kind of talk amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This global tragedy has given platform to many [like Job’s three friends], theological commentators without much training, disciplined devotion, or humility pontificating about what it all means, who is to blame, and how any particular group’s actions have led to their own suffering or the suffering of others or even this global pandemic. I’m fed up and do not want to hear any more.”
What Timothy Adkins-Jones then says he needs is answers. And that’s what I want, too. That’s what we all want. It’s probably not the suffering that troubles us so much. It is undeserved suffering. Almost all of us in our years of growing up have the experience of disobeying our parents and getting punished for it. When that discipline was connected to wrongdoing, it had a certain sense of justice to it. When we did wrong, we got punished
But “one of the surprises as we get older,” Eugene Peterson, author of The Message version of our scripture, says, “is that we come to see that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. An even larger surprise is that very often there is something quite the opposite. We do right and we get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit from the blind side and sent reeling. This is the suffering that first bewilders and then outrages us.”
And this is the kind of suffering that bewildered and outraged Job, for Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. And it is this kind of suffering to which Job gives voice when he protests to God. And that’s where a reader of Job finds themselves after 37 chapters; waiting for answers.
At first glance, God’s response leaves much to be desired. God does not answer Job’s questions nor those of his friends. God does not even acknowledge Job’s suffering. Instead, we get a crash course in the history of the universe that takes Job back to the very foundations of the world, which God makes sure to remind Job he was not present for. The second part of our passage makes clear the difference in power between God and Job by telling Job of his inability to control the wonders of the world.
Is this God flexing God’s muscle? Is this the loving God that we know, puffing out God’s chest and putting Job in his place? Is this the response we need when managing our own suffering? We aren’t God, we weren’t there, and we can’t make lightning? Not so helpful, is it?
But Rev. Adkins-Jones reminds me, and reminds us, that when we can come to this text with a bias toward love—that is, with a point of view that God does indeed love and care for us—this passage is more comforting. What if instead of reading this primordial history lesson as God’s gloating, we recognize it as God’s assurance that we don’t—and won’t—understand this world in which we live?
Like Job, I want to live in an “if-then” kind of world. If I do good, then I’ll be rewarded; if I do bad, then I’ll face the consequences. But we know—from Job’s story and our own—that this is not the case. There is too much evil that prospers and too much good left unrewarded. Too many people are being made destitute during a pandemic while a few further fortunes even their children’s children won’t be able to spend. This world does not work in a way that I understand or can even wrap my head around.
But by eavesdropping on this conversation Job has with God with our ears tuned to love, we can receive the same hope he receives: that God knows the ways of this world and has a kind of control that we can’t fathom. God speaks of the foundation of the world, its measurements, the joy that shone when it was formed, provision both for the land and for the animals. This is an assurance that though we can’t see or fathom it, God has a system of order and provision in which we can find comfort and even joy.
God paints a picture of a world with deep structure beyond our grasp. It’s comforting—and a bit disconcerting. What do we do with the tension between this underlying order and the fact that tragedy happens to many without cause?
There is no direct answer to this question in today’s passage, but let’s take comfort in God’s conversation. God answers Job’s questions with questions—so let’s be comforted by the fact that a God who has the power to create the world’s foundations takes time to converse with Job. Making sense of this world is an ongoing endeavor, unanswered by any one sermon, devotional, or study. I’m glad to know that we serve a God who refuses to allow the conversation to end. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Go Back to Bed…We Are Not Rich
Mark 10:17-31 (The Message)
Here comes that man again, running up to Jesus with a question about eternal life. We can hear those dreaded words on Jesus’ lips even before the man approaches: “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.” Ugh. Even before Mark tells us so, we know that the rich young man will turn away grieving, for he has many possessions. And some of us grieve with him as we see him leave, knowing his choice could be ours as well.
I love this story Rev. Dr. Stacey Simpson, co-pastor of the First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan told about remembering the first time she read this story. “I was seven years old, reading Mark’s Gospel in bed. When I got to verse 25, I was so alarmed that I slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed, and went running down the hall. I shook my mother out of a sound sleep. “Mom,” I whispered urgently, “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!”
“We are not rich. Go back to bed,” came my mother’s response.
Another pastor—Heidi Haverkamp, an Episcopal priest and now a full-time author—told her story about a time when she was in crisis, and went to a local Christian Spiritual center and was a assigned a spiritual director who was an elderly Catholic sister. “She listened to my story,” Heidi said, “and told me two simple things. First, that God is love. Second, pointing her finger at me with firmness and affection, she said: ‘Remember, you are poor.’
“She explained: you do not have the resources to save yourself, fix your problems, or change the world—only God does. Perhaps she saw my temptation to believe in my own ability and responsibility for my life, in no small part because of my many possessions: great education, successful work life, health insurance, retirement savings, and a house full of stuff. I am tempted to believe that, based on my own efforts and knowledge, I can achieve—am supposed to achieve—a spiritual life, a godly life, eternal life.”
Back to Rev. Simpson. When her mother told her they were not rich and to go back to bed, Stacey said she knew better. “I knew I had all I needed plus plenty more,” she said. “I would later learn of fascinating attempts to soften the text (the use of the word “camel” for “rope,” of “eye of the needle” for “a small gate”), but the little girl inside me knew that these words of Jesus were clear and hard and scary.”
Mark 10:17-31 hangs on the question of eternal life. The rich man wants to know how to get it. The disciples want to know who can have it. And the good news that Jesus offers is this: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
This story is one of the healing stories. The rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels, just as countless other Jesus-pursuers have done throughout the book of Mark. The scene is set for the rich man to request and receive healing, and his running and kneeling show that his request is both urgent and sincere. But he is the one person in the entire book who rejects the healing offered him.
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Matthew and Luke leave this out. But Mark, always spare with words, takes the space to note that Jesus loves this man. He offers him healing. “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All you wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”
What is the healing that this man needs? What he lacks is that he does not lack. This man is possessed—but only by his possessions. Jesus is offering to free him of his possession, to cure him of his excess. But the rich man turns his back.
I grieve too. I have accumulated so much in my life on this earth. Am I also possessed by my possessions? Am I refusing to be healed by Jesus? What can I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. For mortals it’s impossible. But not for God. To say we must give up all our wealth in order to be saved puts the burden on us to save ourselves. Neither wealth nor divestment of wealth saves us. God does.
Even Jesus realized he could not save himself. Those who think they can, will surely lose their lives. But those who recognize the utter futility of self-reliance, who realize that their salvation really is not possible, will be saved by the God who makes all things possible.
Yes, there is still the problem of having too much stuff. Rev. Simpson says our stuff keeps us from realizing our need for God “because we use it as a buffer against vulnerability. We use it to fill the emptiness in our souls. We use it to feel less susceptible to the vagaries of life. It keeps us from seeing how needy we are.”
The rich man’s secure status in life led him to keep asking the wrong question: What can I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus’ response was that there was nothing he or anyone else could do. And Jesus told him to release his wealth and give it to the poor—to grow closer perhaps to the fragility of life, to take his own place among the poor.
The poor, the sick, the demon-possessed and the children of whom Jesus speaks all live close to the fragility of life. They are more likely and more able, maybe, to respond to a vulnerable Christ. The disciples freed themselves of what would stand between them and that fragility and were somehow able to follow the One whose life would soon be a ransom for many. In many ways we have to be like children, or like those who know they are really sick or like disciples who have let go of all the things they once relied on—in order even to see how much we need Jesus.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must let go of all that we have and all that we do that gets in the way of seeing that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Even then, letting go of it all is beyond our capacity. The hardest news Jesus has is the best news we could get—our salvation is impossible except for God. “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Working Together for the Common Good
Genesis 2:18-24 (The Message)
Our scripture in Genesis says it is not good that a person should be alone.
A man named Paul O’Sullivan sensed this message in Genesis was true, so he went on Facebook and searched for his own name. What popped up was a seemingly endless list of Paul O’Sullivan profiles. Clearly, Paul was not alone!
As it turned out, there were tons of Paul O’Sullivans living all around the world. Paul decided to reach out to three of the strangers who shared his name, and they all responded. Although the other Pauls were skeptical at first, a bond was quickly formed.
Then things got interesting. Beyond their shared names, the four had a common love for music. “We should start a band,” said the first Paul. The others agreed, even though they lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland, England and The Netherlands. In 2016, they began to rehearse and make music together virtually. And what did they call themselves? You guessed it: “The Paul O’Sullivan Band.”
When the pandemic hit, band practice became really important to the four Pauls. Together, they recorded an album called Internet Famous, containing six cover songs and one original. The four began to identify themselves by their homes: Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Manchester and Rotterdam.
“We’ve been social distancing since 2016,” said Baltimore Paul to The Washington Post. “We perfected the system of remote collaboration before it was even relevant.” Their music is intended to make you smile and make you dance. “If it does both,” says Pennsylvania Paul, “it’s the Paul O’Sullivan Band.”
These four Pauls have discovered this foundational biblical truth: “It is not good that the Man should be alone”. In the garden of Eden, God realizes that the first man will not be able to thrive on his own, so God decides to “make him a helper, a companion”.
First, God creates animals of the field and birds of the air, but none of these creatures is found to be a suitable helper and companion. Then God causes a deep sleep to fall on the Man, removes one of his ribs, and forms a Woman to be his helper and companion, or as some texts says, “his helper and partner.” The Man wakes up and says, “Finally! Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”.
The two are made equally in the image and likeness of God, and the term “helper” is in no way intended to communicate subservience. When the woman is created to be a helper and a partner to the man, she is not made to be a second-class citizen. Quite the opposite. God seems to be saying in this verse, “Man, here is your savior and your rescuer!”
Clearly, God has created us for community, to help and support each other so that we do not face the challenges of life alone. Each of us is a creation of God, equally made in the image and likeness of God, with more in common than we think
In the Christian community, we are supposed to be strong and bold, not weak and timid, in our support for one another. “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” the apostle Paul says to the Galatians. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:2, 10).
I see this kind of supportive community right here in Buffalo, as churches and schools are beginning to gather resources that can be helpful to the refugees we will soon be welcoming from Afghanistan. I see this kind of supportive community right here at Amherst Community Church, every time we set aside furniture and resources for all kinds of refugees, packing these resources in our sanctuary balcony until we are called upon to set up an apartment for our new neighbors. And we expect to be called upon this Fall to do that.
Each of us is challenged to answer the question posed by James, the brother of Jesus: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Great question. The answer, of course, is, “It’s no good.” James concludes by saying, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:15-17). We are true helpers when we do the work of saving and rescuing, boldly bearing one another’s burdens and supplying the bodily needs of our brothers and sisters.
Once we engage in this kind of helping, we become full partners with one another. Together, we are so much stronger than we are as isolated individuals. As Paul says to the Corinthians, “we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This one Spirit-filled body is made up of many members, acting as full partners.
In the novel City of Peace, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden makes a discovery about the power of community after a rock is thrown through the window of a local bakery owned by Muslim immigrants.
“Here is what I challenge us to do today,” he said to his congregation in his Sunday sermon. “After worship, let’s walk as a group to the Riverview Bakery. Let’s walk as one body, as the body of Christ, as the physical presence of our Lord in the world today. Let’s line up and support this business as a manifestation of the Spirit, as an act that shows the reality of our love.”
Looking out over the congregation during the closing hymn, Harley felt strongly that he was being led by the Spirit of God, with the support of a large number of his church members. In fact, when he gathered with the congregation in the parking lot after the service, he was shocked by the number of people who were interested in walking to the Riverview Bakery. There had been close to a hundred people in worship, and Harley guessed that about 75 were ready to march.
The members of Harley’s church were partners — full partners — in showing love and support for their immigrant neighbors. Like members of the Paul O’Sullivan Band, they crossed the barriers of country and culture to establish supportive friendships.
As people devoted to partnership, we can reach beyond the Christian community to work with others for the common good. We do this because God has created all people of the world in God’s image and likeness, and because Jesus challenges us to take such action in the world.
In every situation, we are challenged to join the Paul O’Sullivan Band and work in harmony. This means understanding that we are not meant to live alone, but to create partnerships in which we help one another. The musical Paul O’Sullivans come from different areas, from different cultures, and from different generations. “But with us,” says Baltimore Paul, “it never mattered. Music really does bring people together.”
So does helping others and working for the common good. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Who Gets Changed by Prayer?
James 5:13-20 (NRSV)
Buffalo loves football. I assume there is no argument there. Football ads attract enormous attention, and most of them ask us to do something: buy beer, nuts, candy, cereal or cars. Still no argument, I assume. But what about this: a number of years ago, the American Atheists put up a billboard across from MetLife Stadium before the Super Bowl, asking people to stop doing something: Praying.
"A 'Hail Mary' only works in football," said the billboard. "It's 2014; it's time to stop believing that prayer works," said the American Atheists press release that accompanied the ad campaign. They seemed to want to discourage the fans who would pray for their team to win, as well as the players who might ask God to help them get the ball into the end zone.
But Henry G. Brinton, pastor of the Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and the author of a number of books, says “those atheists fell into a misunderstanding that is shared by many religious people -- namely, that prayer works by changing outcomes. To pray for God to give victory to a particular team is a misuse of prayer, as is praying "Hail Mary" with the hope that the Virgin Mary will intercede and help a long pass to be caught.
“Instead, prayer changes the people who pray, making them more peaceful and accepting and aligned with religious virtues. Prayer doesn't change the heart and mind of God, but it can change our hearts and minds.”
In his letter to a group of Christians outside of Palestine, James calls for prayer when people are suffering, cheerful and sick, promising that "the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective". James is convinced that prayer can have a significant effect on our brain, body, heart and soul -- in bad times and good. And within the past decade or so, medical researchers began finally catching up with him. Dr. Andrew Newberg of Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia has been studying the effect of prayer on the brain for more than 25 years. He injects radioactive dye into people, and then looks for changes in their heads when they pray. He does not claim that prayer is a cure-all, but he believes that it can be every bit as important as science in helping patients to heal. Pointing to a computer screen that showed brain activity, Newberg said to NBC News, "You can see it's all red here when the person is just at rest, but you see it turns into these yellow colors when she's actually doing prayer." Such changes cause Newberg to believe that prayer has the power to heal. He suggests that "by doing these practices, you can cause a lot of different changes all the way throughout the body, which could have a healing effect."
Back in the first century, James had the same belief. "Are any among you sick?" he asked his fellow Christians. "They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven". Prayer is powerful, says James. Powerful and effective. One of the most well-known modern prayers is the Serenity Prayer, said first by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr during World War II and now central to the recovery from addiction being achieved in thousands of 12-step groups: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." God the "Higher Power" is being asked to give serenity, courage and wisdom to people so that they can become well.
Henry Brinton says that while “the American Atheists might scoff at the belief that God is a Higher Power, they cannot deny that millions of people have become sober through 12-step groups across our country and around the world.
“In each of these groups, the Serenity Prayer is said in order to change the hearts and minds of people, not God.
“Atheists who say that "it's time to stop believing that prayer works" might have a hard time convincing the players who will suit up for the Super Bowl. I'm not speaking of those players who pray for God to help an errant kick go through the uprights, or for divine intervention in the catching of a desperate "Hail Mary" pass. Such players will find that prayer rarely -- if ever -- changes the trajectory of a ball that has been poorly kicked or thrown.
“But players who pray for serenity, courage and wisdom,” Brinton contends, “will find their prayers answered, and will be given the attributes they need to be the best players they can possibly be. And in the Super Bowl, as in any contest, the mental and emotional health of participants is always going to have a positive effect.” Eileen Flanagan, who has written a book on the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference, quotes a study which found that wise people "are able to step outside themselves and assess a troubling situation with calm reflection. They recast a crisis as a problem to be addressed, a puzzle to be solved. They take action in situations they can control and accept the inability to do so when matters are outside their control." All of which seems like the kind of challenges any football player faces in this season. Brinton says, “I hope that they prepare by praying for wisdom.”
He goes on to say, “So I join the American Atheists in discouraging people from praying for the success of "Hail Mary" passes. But I criticize them, along with anyone else, who perpetuates the misunderstanding of prayer that is now splashed across their Super Bowl billboard. Prayer does work, but in ways that align us with the will of God for healing and wholeness in human life. I believe that God wants us all to have serenity, courage and wisdom -- regardless of who wins the Super Bowl.”
Prayer changes the people who pray. Let that be us. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
dropping everything to hold a child
Mark 9:30-37 (The Message)
A couple of days ago, I had a breakfast meeting at a nearby restaurant. When it was time to leave the restaurant, there was a group of about 5 or 6 adults waiting to go out the doors. But this fun thing happened: with no words spoken, all of the adults stepped to the right so that these two lovely little girls could enter the restaurant with their mother. We all said hello to the girls, and they walked by us like they were used to this kind of attention. It was like they were walking on a red carpet and those of us leaving the restaurant were their adoring fans.
All of this took just a few moments to transpire, but it caught my attention because I’d already been thinking about our scripture reading for today’s worship.
In Mark’s Gospel the way to break a fixation on power is a little child. In chapter nine, Jesus again shares news of his pending death with his disciples. They don’t understand and they are afraid to ask questions. Instead, they argue among themselves about who among them is the greatest. Jesus takes the teachable moment and turns their ideas of greatness upside down by proclaiming that the first will be last and a servant of all. Then he hugs a child, offering a perfect visual metaphor to go with the words: “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”
What does it mean to welcome the child? Children play a prominent place in the Gospels as metaphors for true kingdom living. In the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus is irate, the scripture says, and he speaks to the disciples who are trying to shoo away children that are being brought to Jesus by their parents: “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” (10:13-15).
There’s just something so amazing, so holy, about the simplicity of children. A friend of mine spends a morning every week taking care of her grandniece, who is just about to turn three years old. On the days when my friend is with her grandniece, I wait as patiently as I can for photos and videos of this little girl to arrive on my phone. The pictures and videos are always amazing, and beautiful, and usually hysterical.
Some of my favorite videos were of this little girl when she was hanging out in the garden in the backyard of her house. Because her legs are still so short, she’s able to stand at the edge of the garden, bend over, and look very closely…for worms. She was simply fascinated by the worms! In the video, you could hear her talking—sometimes to herself, sometimes to her great-aunt—asking where the worms are, or explaining what the worms were doing that particular day in the garden. Total focus on worms. Complete simplicity.
In The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin, there’s a curious twist to the children texts of Jesus. When asked what his students are like, Jesus says that they are like children who live in a field that doesn’t belong to them. The owners appear and demand, “Give us back our field!” but the children have no sense of what ownership means, and nothing to defend. Instead, the children strip themselves and stand before the owners naked, demonstrating that they truly are without possessions.
This isn’t so far off from a story from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who angered his father by “borrowing” his father’s horse, loading it with expensive fabric, then selling the cloth and the horse and giving all the money to the poor. His father collared Francis, dragged him before the bishop in the public square of Assisi and demanded that Francis give him back all he had taken. In a moment of complete divestment Francis took off his clothes, folded them neatly and laid them at his father’s feet. Then he addressed the crowd: “From now on, I can walk naked before the Lord, no longer saying, ‘my father, Pietro Bernardone,’ but ‘our Father who art in heaven!’”
Glenn Mitchell, a spiritual director and trainer in Pennsylvania said that these stories from The Gospel of Thomas and from the life of St. Francis made him wonder if welcoming the child isn’t, in the end, about being naked before the Lord. He says, “All these stories posit a way of being that leaves nothing between the follower and God. In the image of the child there is a dispossession that opens us to what is most present, most real in the moment. There is something in the mere presence of a child that conveys the essential more wondrously than all of our adult words, understanding and efforts to give shape and meaning to life. There is something in welcoming the child that loosens our tight grip on things, on power and even on those treasures of life, love and faith we hold dear.”
To make the image of welcoming a child work in our lives, to give ourselves permission to scoop a little one into our arms as Jesus did, requires letting go of whatever we’re holding on to at the moment. This is what Glenn Mitchell says to us: “Welcoming and releasing are sisters; they work together, nourishing and supporting each other. How does this work in our lives? We must endeavor to pray our way into God’s presence without possessing thoughts or experiences of God, to give from the depths of our lives without expectation and to serve others without attachment to outcomes. We must try to parent our children with love and wisdom and simultaneously prepare to let go of them, thus receiving the gift of relationship without holding on to what comes as treasure.”
We all end this life naked in a field. I think that in inviting the disciples to deal with his approaching death, Jesus was asking them to trust beyond what they could know and grasp, beyond what they could hold in place with human will and effort. The possibility that he extended to them was to do the stripping now, to do the unclenching now, so God’s presence could be lived without being fully revealed and understood.
In the midst of the dark, heavy discussion of the death he was facing, in the midst of the bickering of the disciples over position and power, Jesus dropped everything to hold a child in his lap.
Let’s all commit to finding ways to embrace the children in our lives and in our communities, and to remembering that Jesus says, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.”
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Let's take our stand together
Isaiah 50:4-9a (The Message)
Some anniversaries are joyful occasions, but not this one.
Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners. Two were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third was crashed into the Pentagon. And the fourth was heading toward Washington, D.C., but crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers bravely overwhelmed the terrorists.
Almost 3,000 people died, 25,000 were injured, and many others suffered long-term health problems.
9/11 stands as the deadliest terrorist attack in recent history. Perhaps you’ve been remembering and reflecting on this critical anniversary over the last few days. I know I have. I read Time Magazine’s commemorative issue for the anniversary, and as I absorbed the stories and studied the amazing photographs, it was like it was happening all over again.
You know that in response, the United States launched a War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban. This group had been protecting al-Qaeda terrorists and refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, who took responsibility for the attacks. After 10 long years, bin Laden was located in Pakistan and killed in a U.S. raid.
The act of terrorism was like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in that it drew Americans together in the face of a common enemy. The motto “United We Stand” appeared everywhere 20 years ago. Flags were flown, and churches were packed. Muslim organizations quickly condemned the attacks, and President Bush made an appearance at an Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. He spoke of the valuable contributions that Muslims made to the United States every day, and called for them to be treated with respect. Partisan differences were put aside, and the government restructured itself in a number of ways, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
September 11 was a day of horror, but it did pull Americans together in a way.
The prophet Isaiah has words that are appropriate for this anniversary. They not only take us back to 2001, but they point us to the future and lay a challenge before us. “The Master, God, stays right there and helps me” says Isaiah; “so I’m not disgraced. Therefore I set my face like flint, confident that I’ll never regret this”. These words matched the attitude of our country in the days after 9/11. We turned to God for help, and we found that God upheld us. We showed unity and resolve, setting our faces “like flint” on the challenges of national security and respect for our brothers and sisters.
We were not disgraced, and for that we can be thankful. But the challenges of 2001 are not behind us. If anything, they are bigger than ever.
“Who will contend with me?” asks Isaiah in the New Revised Standard Version. After 9/11, the answer was al-Qaeda. But today, our greatest threat is domestic terrorism. The challenge before us, 20 years after 9/11, is to “take our stand together”. We need to face our challenges alongside people of all faiths in a truly United States of America. But how do we do this? How do we overcome our polarization and stand together again, as we did after September 11, 2001?
A good first step is to truly understand our mission in the world. The prophet Isaiah is talking about a servant when he says, “The Master, God, has given me a well-taught tongue”, or, “the tongue of a teacher.” And exactly who is this servant-teacher? Isaiah thought that Israel itself was God’s servant. Later, members of the Christian church saw Jesus as the servant in these words. In either case, the role of the servant is not to be a master who rules but a servant who teaches.
If we are going to follow Jesus, then we need to be servants as well. As servants of God, we are to be teachers of grace and truth and justice. We are to treat others as we want to be treated, and to see everyone as a child of God, made in the image and likeness of God. We are to lift people up, not knock them down. Help them, not hurt them. Love them, not hate them.
Do you know what Osama bin Laden said soon after the 9/11 attacks? “It has become clear that the West in general and America in particular have an unspeakable hatred for Islam.” That statement was a lie, but it is an ongoing challenge for us to prove that those words remain untrue. In all that we say, we need to use the tongue of a teacher, that we “may know how to encourage tired people”.
That’s our mission, according to Isaiah: To teach God’s ways and to “encourage tired people.” To serve a world in need, to encourage the people around us, and to develop relationships that are respectful and honest and open. Islamic extremists reach out to people who are feeling angry, vulnerable and isolated, so our job is to make connections with the least of our brothers and sisters. Isaiah says that God wakens the servant’s ear “to listen as those who are taught”, meaning that we servants of God have a lot to learn by listening.
Yes, that’s a good thought, for sure. But the translation of this line offered by the great Bible scholar Brevard Childs is even better: “he wakens my ear to listen like disciples”. To “listen like disciples” is the challenge for each of us, isn’t it? Listen to what Jesus is saying to each of us. Listen to what God is saying to us, together. Listen to what Muslims and Jews and people of other faiths are saying to us.
Our job is to teach and listen and learn, as we grow into servants of God who are nothing less than “a light to the nations”. That's our God-given mission in the world.
If we understand our mission and cooperate with God, then we will make an amazing discovery: God will help us. The prophet Isaiah knew this, which is why he said, “And the Master, God, stays right there and helps me, so I’m not disgraced.” In the face of any hardship, Isaiah was able to keep moving forward, because the Lord was offering assistance. “My champion is right here,” said Isaiah. “Let’s take our stand together”.
Such words were inspiring in the aftermath of 9/11, and they can be helpful to us today. We are always stronger as a community than we are as isolated individuals, so the challenge for us is to trust God and stand up together.
We can use this anniversary of 9/11 to grasp our mission in the world, and trust God to help us. Twenty years ago, the motto was “United We Stand.” But now, more than ever, is the time to stand up together.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
i know your name
Psalm 139:1-12 (NRSV)
Have you ever seen someone from a distance—let’s say, in a grocery store—and you know you should know their name, but you cannot for the life of you remember what it is? What do you do? If you’re like most people, you quickly turn in the other direction—duck down another aisle, bury your head in the back of the dairy case, start intently reading an automotive magazine—and hope that the person whose name you cannot remember did NOT see you!
We like to be able to call each other by name, but sometimes we cannot. Some people would rather not be known or remembered. They prefer when people cannot remember their name.
When a man wearing sunglasses approached the cash register of a Midwestern pharmacy and told the employees he was going to rob them, the pharmacist couldn’t believe his ears. Stepping forward, he thwarted the plans of the would-be burglar and prevented the crime before it could ever take place. But he didn’t scare the thief off by threatening him with a weapon. In fact, the pharmacist didn’t even try to persuade the man not to commit the crime.
The man was stopped dead in his tracks because the pharmacist knew his name. Recognizing his voice, the pharmacist called him by name and asked if the robbery was a joke. The man immediately spun around and ran out of the store, boarding a nearby city bus.
It is pretty easy to enter into certain situations with a false sense of anonymity. Believing he was shielded under the veil of his sunglasses, the pharmacy break-in must have seemed easy to carry out. The man walked into the pharmacy thinking he would carry out a faceless robbery, when in fact, the pharmacist knew his name, his address, and enough of his character to suspect the whole thing was a joke. Had someone not recognized him, if no one had called him by name, he might have successfully followed through with the crime.
Maybe this was true for you: when I was growing up, I knew the names of everyone that lived on our street, Nantucket Road in the Town of Greece. As kids my age started growing up and moving out of the neighborhood, as families started moving on and out and new families came in, it became harder and harder—for whatever reason—to know the names of the neighbors.
But when I was a kid, I knew everyone’s name. I suppose it wasn’t particularly hard for people to know my name, along with the name of my sister and one of my brothers, the three of us pretty close in age. I remember when we were out playing somewhere on the street and my dad wanted us to come home for dinner, he’d stand on the front porch and simply yell! And he always added a kind of musical quality to his yelling: “Gordon!” “Laurie!” “Lisa!” Always in that order. Always oldest to youngest. Everyone that could hear my dad…which was pretty much everyone…knew our names. And that meant there wasn’t a whole lot we could get away with in the neighborhood. (Thus ends today’s story about life before cell phones.)
The Christian story presents the startling thought that God knows your name. How does that make you feel? I was re-reading some stories written by a favorite author of mine, Walter Wangerin, and he tells this great story about being a young boy in church and hearing the preacher talk about the “end of time,” and how God was going to come back to save those who had been faithful and everyone else was going to hell. And young Walter, afraid of what God would discover when he examined him, would quietly slide off the pew during those sermons and roll up into a ball on the floor underneath it. He hoped God would not see him. He prayed that God would not know his name.
Wangerin wonders how living with the suspicion that some flaws, some fears, some thoughts, or some worries can stay hidden might change if we imagine God calling out our names in the midst of it. Would you be startled at the sound of your name, jarred to attention by the only sovereign one in the room? “Walter! I can see you under the pew…”
At time, like with the pharmacy would-be-burglar, we may instinctively feel like running, finding ourselves suddenly exposed where we once thought we were safely hidden. But really, what point is there in running away from someone who knows your name?
Wangerin said there were times in his life when the words from Psalm 139 seemed to be a harsh reminder that his attempts to flee from God where unsuccessful. David’s prayer seemed to leap out, a stubborn confession of Walter’s own inability to hide.
David prays: O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. … Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
But be alert to what else David prays. Speaking personally of God knowing everything about him, David said, “this is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in!” There are many reasons we might instinctively attempt to run from God. Often, the thought of remaining in the presence of a holy God who knows your name—who knows everything about you—really is too much to bear. The thought of it can make us feel scolded. Or trapped. Or shameful. Or afraid.
David, too, seemed familiar with the terror of being caught in sin and called out by name. AND YET, and yet…he also knew the beautiful mystery of being in the presence of one who would never stop calling his name, even if he went underground. Even if he flew on the wings of the morning to the far western horizon.
That God knows your name means that God will not stop looking for you even though you hide. Though you turn away, God will not stop loving you…stop loving me. God will not stop striving to bring you back into arms that long to gather us: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep,” Jesus said, “and my sheep know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
It is too much. It is too wonderful. It is hard to take it all in. AND YET, and yet…it is the promise of God to each and every one of us, every morning and every night. God knows my name. God knows your name. Let’s find ways to be thankful that we cannot hide from God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
It's Good for the soul
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17, 18:1-2, 9-15 (The Message)
A friend of mine reminds me, “Laughter is good for the soul.” Indeed, it is! Because I firmly believe that laughter is good for the soul, I used to keep a file of “funny things” on my computer. If someone sent me something that made me laugh, it might go in the file. If I found something funny on the Internet, it might go in the file. If I read something funny in a magazine or preaching resource that made me laugh, I’d type it into my computer and save it in my “funny things” file. It was a great folder to have. I hadn’t looked at the file in quite some time because, truly, there are so many sources for funny things out there that I could spend all day just filing them. But I did scroll through the forgotten file recently, and laughed all over again. Here’s some of what was there:
· Erma Bombeck wrote, “My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk until I faint.”
· I have found inner peace. Here’s how you can, too. I read an article that said the way to achieve inner peace is to finish everything you start. Today I finished two bags of potato chips, a bottle of wine, and a small box of chocolates. I feel better already.
· Japanese people eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than British or Americans. On the other hand, French people eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than British or Americans. Italian people drink excessive amounts of red wine and also suffer fewer heart attacks than British or Americans. Conclusion: Eat and drink what you like. It’s speaking English that kills you.
· And here’s a Facebook post from just this past week that made me laugh: The National Weather Service has just issued instructions on how to bake a lasagna in your mailbox….
Some time ago I read about a book on aging by a psychiatrist, George Valiant, entitled, “Successful Aging.” (No, this is not another joke!) According to the article, Valiant built on a Harvard University study that had been going on for over 60 years, a study that had periodically interviewed people as they moved through their life cycles, charting the course of their lives.
What does it take to age well? That was Valiant’s concern. He listed all the factors that seemed to characterize successful aging—good relationships with children and grandchildren, good health, or a positive attitude toward health concerns, and so on. There was one characteristic that especially caught my attention: humor. People who age well do so with a sense of humor. They are able to face the trials and tribulations of aging—those aches and pains, those griefs and sorrows—with a smile.
That smile is evidence of someone who has learned not only to take the pain of life with a grain of salt, but also someone who has learned to look at life with the eyes of faith. To believe that God is alive and active, that the good purposes of God will not be defeated, is to be moved from tears to laughter.
It seems odd that laughter is so rarely mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there’s the scripture we’re looking at today, the laughter of Abraham and Sarah when they are told in their old age that they are going to have a baby. In the entire New Testament, laughter is mentioned only twice. In Matthew, Jesus goes to the home of a synagogue’s ruler whose daughter had died, and when Jesus dares to speak of life in the midst of death, the crowd laughs. But the crowd isn’t laughing with him, they’re laughing at him. They’re mocking him. It’s the laughter of disbelief. Easter after Good Friday? The crowd laughed when Jesus spoke of life, where there was so much death.
Then there is a second time we read about laughter in the New Testament. Now it’s the laughter of a surprise reversal, the smile that breaks out on your face when things go better than you thought, the grin that comes from the unexpected grace of God. In Luke, Jesus promises, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”
In today’s scripture, we meet a couple of old people. Sarah was 90 years old—back bent, no teeth, and all sorts of digestive problems—when God promised Sarah and her 99 years old husband, Abraham, that they would be parents of a great family, a family through which all the families on earth would be blessed.
Abraham let out a toothless cackle when he heard God’s promise. When Sarah overheard the Lord talking obstetrics to somebody her age, she laughed. God said, “Did I hear you laugh, Sarah?” She tried to deny it and said, “Why should I laugh at a 90-year-old childless woman being told that she is going to have a baby??” The Lord said, “Oh, but you laughed.”
And then the Lord said, “Is anything too hard for God? Just for that, I’m going to name your baby Isaac, which means, ‘laughter’, just to remind you that the joke’s on you.
Genesis, three chapters later: “The Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.” Nine months later she laughed all the way from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward! Isaac was born.
Sarah laughed again, but this time, her laughter was no longer the laughter of cold, cynical disbelief. Hers was now the laughter of wonder. Sarah proclaimed, “God has blessed me with laughter and all who get the news will laugh with me!” Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Nothing is too hard for God.
May we never get too old, too set in our ways, too fixed in our expectations that God cannot surprise us, or cause us to laugh. Laughter is a natural human response to those moments when we realize that the future is not only in our hands, because God is resourceful, busy, and creative.
Thanks be to God for this great gift!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
who wants a warrior god?
Ephesians 6:10-20 (NRSV)
We are in the midst of an enormous amount of upheaval in our world. In the midst of a lot of good conversation and laughter at this week’s Porch Talk, a group of us talked about this upheaval for a bit. We talked about how stressful the world, both near and far, continues to be as we move through this year. Pandemic. Earthquakes. Floods. Fires. So much violence. So much loss and sadness.
We talked, of course, about the trauma unfolding in Afghanistan, as the Taliban swept in this past week and gained control of the country, leaving a desperate population searching for ways to get out.
The images we’ve seen from this trauma are so disturbing to me. As are the images of violence that we see all the time in our own country, our own neighborhoods. The violence breaks my heart.
On Tuesday, John Pavlovitz, a writer, Unitarian pastor and activist from Wake Forest, NC, wrote on his blog about what was happening in Afghanistan. He wrote, “Watching the Taliban gloating in the Presidential palace in Kabul this week after violently overthrowing the government there, gave me major January 6th déjà vu. The muscle memory of that day kicked in again: the disbelief and shock, the stark helplessness, the repeating question of how this could be happening.
“This week, while the world looked on in horror at Afghanistan, marveling at the seemingly impossible speed and ferocity with which a group of extremists could overtake a foreign nation’s leadership and throw it all into chaos, the familiarity of the moment is something America needs to wrestle with. We cannot look away from the proximity of such a day here. We can’t ignore the repetition of history. We can’t pretend we weren’t on the brink of a nightmare.” So much violence and turmoil hurts my soul.
So I was intrigued when I read this opening sentence of a reflection on today’s scripture, written by Austin Crenshaw Shelley, pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. She wrote, “As a pacifist, I have often winced at the Bible’s images of violence and war.” Amen, sister! So have I. Maybe you have, too.
She wrote, “I struggle with God’s role in defeating Israel’s armies. Weren’t the Egyptians who drowned when the walls of the Sea of Reeds came crashing down God’s children, too? And what of God’s beloved ones who inhabited the promised land before Jericho’s walls fell? Moreover, why did God command that Israel’s enemies be completely destroyed once they were defeated in battle? It is often difficult,” she wrote, “to reconcile these violent histories with a God of love and liberative justice.” Amen, sister.
She goes on to remind her readers that it’s hard to hide from the fact that much of the Bible depicts bloodshed, gore, and abuse, even outside the arena of war. Consider Jael’s driving a tent peg through Sisera’s skull in the book of Judges, the dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine, also in the book of Judges. And just so you don’t begin to think that all the violence in the Bible must take place in Judges, there’s the beheading of John the Baptist that shows up in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Like Austin Crenshaw Shelley, if you lean toward being a pacifist, all of this violence littered through the whole of the biblical narrative can leave you feeling especially uneasy when the Bible employs metaphors that seem to encourage a posture of wartime readiness, like we find in today’s scripture reading.
Rev. Shelley told a story about when she was in seminary, and she expressed her disdain for military references and her preference for the Bible verses that paint a vision of peace. “I tend to prefer the image of beating the swords into plowshares and the vision of the wolf lying down with the lamb to those of waging war,” she told her classmates.
“I was caught off guard by what happened next. Gentle and measured came my classmate’s reply: ‘You prefer verses about peace because you have never needed a warrior God.’
“I was gutted,” she said. “My classmate was a Coptic Christian from Egypt whose home church had been the target of a terrorist bombing. He had needed to pray to a God who would fight on his behalf and protect his family and church from harm. He began to tell the class about the Egyptian Muslims who showed up on Christmas Eve to form a human shield around the sanctuary to defend the church from further acts of terror on a high holy day. The rest of us sat in stunned silence as he talked for the remainder of the class.”
Rev. Shelley’s story of her classmate reminded me of the shootings in the Orlando LGBTQ night club that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others on June 12, 2016. I remember sitting in my office with Deb Cullen as we talked and tried to comprehend the enormity of the violence at the Pulse Nightclub. We talked about what happened after the massacre, as members of an anti-gay hate group picketed the funerals of the victims, carrying signs that read things like, “God hates fags.” The police couldn’t legally prevent the demonstration so a group of volunteers formed an “Angel Action.” They dressed in long, flowing robes with wings held up by wire shoulder straps that spread out to each side in a huge curtain, and on the days of the funerals, they formed lines between the protesters and the grieving families entering the churches.
And as the angels stood, they sang. Those families knew that there were men and women spewing hatred on the streets just beyond but for that moment, all they could see were angels, and all they could hear were voices singing, “Amazing Grace.”
“You prefer verses about peace because you have never needed a warrior God,” the Coptic Christian seminary student said.
I suspect my heart will always break at scenes of violence. At least, I hope it will. I hope I don’t ever become numb and dismissive about the reality of violence. I’ve certainly learned throughout my years of ministry that there are many and varied circumstances in which the people of God seek a warrior who will protect and fight for them as they battle addiction or anxiety, depression or disease, regret or rage.
I like what Rev. Shelley said about this passage in Ephesians full of military images: “I still hope and pray, though, that when God shows up in the midst of these battles, God will look less like a warrior equipped to fight and more like the Egyptian Muslims who put their bodies on the line to protect other children of Abraham. (And, I would add, like the people in the Angel Action in Orlando.) May the armor of God be our love for neighbor and our commitment to peace.” Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
you are what you eat
John 6:51-58 (NRSV)
I’m sure you know what kids of a certain age tend to do. They tend to ask questions! What’s that? What’s for dinner? Why can we only see stars at night? Will Grampa live to be 100? Children don’t know it, but their questions sound a lot like the ones that pop up in our news feeds: Do I need a booster shot? How safe is our food supply? Our water supply? When is our earth going to stop burning? What is going to happen to the economy? Can Medicare cope with the rising number of baby boomers entering the system? Questions surround us, with more added each day in the face of every technological advance, political debate, ecological disaster or family crisis. It takes a special kind of wisdom to sort out which questions are the important ones.
The disciples found plenty of questions to ask both before and during their time with Jesus. When Philip first encountered Jesus and Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” Philip went to find Nathanael to tell him what happened. Nathanael’s response: Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding. Or, as some versions record it, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
Later, when Nicodemus visits Jesus at night, he asks him questions about baptism: “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?” (John 3:4).
Right here in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, as the disciples are listening to Jesus talk about being the Bread of Life, they ask, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60).
Maybe, then, we shouldn’t be too hard on the people who ate their fill of the bread on the mountainside and chased Jesus down on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Like people today they look for answers. “What must we do to perform the works of God? . . . What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe in you?” (John 6:28, 30).
The answers they received, of course, are not the ones they expected or wanted. Such is the way toward wisdom, after all. “Throw your lot in with the One that God has sent” (John 6:29). “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever…I came down from heaven not to follow my own whim but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me” (John 6:35, 38).
In a kind of graphic reflection on this Bread of Life scripture in John, New Testament professor Audrey West told about becoming acquainted with a network of indigenous Pacific Islanders who provide in-home care for the ill and infirm in her community. Samuel, as she called him, liked to bring food whenever he came to her house: cabbages, potatoes, apples, and bread. So much bread! Sometimes, she said, there was no room for all of it, so she put it in the freezer.
And then she said, “As we chatted during a break between caregiving and household chores, Samuel told me that he is descended from a long line of chiefs on his home island. ‘My great-great-grandfather was a cannibal,’ he exclaimed. ‘They say he ate more than 900 men, and it made him a strong and powerful man.’ Audrey West said she tried to mask her horror. ‘He buried some of the bodies under his house,’ Samuel continued. ‘You can read about it at the museum,’ he added, in case she doubted his story”.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (vs. 53)
Do we even hear that correctly? How can we not think of the power ascribed to Samuel’s great-great-grandfather: the power of 900 men. How can we not picture the remains of bodies supporting the pillars of that island house, a distant culture’s model of conspicuous consumption. Two thousand years of
theology and interpretation have buffered us from the horror of this image. Why would Jesus teach with such a shocking metaphor?
Think about this: maybe, just maybe, shock is necessary to drag our appetites and attention away from the cultural drive to conquer and consume, whether the object of consumption is the earth or one another. Audrey West says, “We are driven toward things that do not bring life. A bumper sticker reads, “Born to shop,” as if our highest calling is to spend our resources detecting a good sale instead of discerning a good soul. Maybe it takes a little shock and horror to turn us toward to the kind of consumption that brings life.”
Way back at the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is the one who starts asking questions. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in John 1 took the form of a question: “What are you looking for?” (v. 38). Or, “What are you seeking?” The question invites—even demands—a response. What are you looking for? When your belly is filled, what do you need? Deep inside, in the hungry places of your heart, where 1,000 Facebook friends, a new car or money in the bank cannot touch, what is it that you seek?
The disciples got to the heart of the matter by asking, “Where are you staying, where do you live?” The rest of the Gospel of John is a response to that question: Jesus says, “Come and see” (John 1:39).
Come and see the Word made flesh that dwelt among us. Come and see what it looks like to participate in the incarnated life. Come and see a life that is more about its quality than about its quantity, whether it is a quantity of years or a quantity of what our culture tells us we should all want to consume. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” Jesus says. Find the answers to your questions in this: consume the fullness of God that it may abide within you.
After all, you are what you eat. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
It's Not All About the Bread
John 6:35, 41-51 (NRSV)
Let me just say it: as Americans, we live with a lot of conflicting ideas and feelings about food.
I remember—decades ago!—when I decided I was going to follow the egg diet. Anyone remember that one? All I can remember from those days long ago was eating eggs for breakfast and bringing hard-boiled eggs with me for lunch. Just hard-boiled eggs. Did I lose weight? Of course I did, for the approximately four days I stuck to the diet. Did I have any energy for the tasks of the day? Of course not.
Remembering this compelled me to go online and see if the egg diet is still a thing. I learned there are now multiple types of egg diets: the 14-day egg diet, the Egg and Grapefruit diet, the Egg-only diet, the Medical Egg diet, and the Keto Egg diet. And way down near the bottom of the article on egg diets, if anyone actually scrolls that far, there is this important piece of information: “The egg diet does not provide well-rounded nutrition and does not meet USDA dietary guidelines. It is not considered a healthy, long-term diet.”
We live with a lot of conflicting ideas and feelings about food.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever...” Live forever? By eating bread?
What if Jesus said, "I am the peach of life"? Not the bread -- the peach. "I am the peach of life, from Xi Wang-mu's garden. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." The communion services in churches around the world would be forever changed. Instead of squares of bread, we'd be eating slices of peaches. It’s peaches that have a connection to eternal life, at least in China. Particularly the peaches grown in the garden of the goddess Xi Wang-mu. According to Chinese mythology, the gods are nourished by a steady diet of special peaches that take thousands of years to ripen. Called "the peaches of immortality," they come from Xi Wang-mu's garden, and give long life to anyone who eats them -- in fact, 3,000 years from a single peach. The goddess was famous for serving these peaches to her guests, who would then become immortal. But Jesus doesn't say, "I am the peach of life." Instead, he asserts, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty". The person who eats this bread is promised endless satisfaction -- freedom from hunger and thirst -- and life everlasting. That’s what Jesus says. But not everyone believes what Jesus says. Some people listening to him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee are very skeptical -- much as we are when we hear the myth of the Chinese peaches of immortality. In particular, the Jews complain about Jesus because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They know that he's the son of Joseph and Mary, a couple of regular Galileans that they know personally. With the two of them as his parents, they wonder how he can say, "I have come down from heaven".
It's a good question. If the 10-year-old daughter of your next-door neighbor claims, "I have come down from heaven," you're going to assume that she has an active imagination. If the 30-year-old daughter of a neighbor says, "I have come down from heaven," you might recommend a visit to a mental health professional. The Jews in this passage aren't necessarily opponents of Jesus. There is no evidence that leads us to believe they're as antagonistic as the religious authorities who plan to kill him and hand him over to the Romans for crucifixion. “These Jews,” says professor Adele Reinhartz of the University of Ottawa, "are not monolithically arrayed against Jesus." They’re just confused and they’re concerned.
As are we. We live with a lot of conflicting ideas and feelings about food.
And so it can be hard for us to hear and make any sense of Jesus’ words to us about his BEING the bread of life. It can be hard for us to hear and make any sense of Jesus’ words to us about gaining eternal life by eating the Bread of Life. Here’s something that began to open up my ears and my understanding to this complicated passage: Belief is the key to receiving the benefits of the bread of life. It’s not about the bread. It’s about the belief. Eternal life comes from putting faith in Jesus Christ. When Jesus says he is the Bread of Life, he is telling us that without him we cannot be healthy and whole. A life of meaning and mission is not possible without recovering Jesus as our spiritual center.
The point is as important today as it was then. We tend to get our emotional and spiritual food from sources that do not make us whole. Sometimes we spend hours and hours every day on the Internet, on social media—not for learning, not for work, but “to pass the time.” We are hounded by hundreds of commercial advertisements a day which shape and inform our perception of reality. We have what James Gleich in his book Faster calls "hurry sickness." Gleich is an American author and historian of science whose work has chronicled the cultural impact of modern technology and 20 years ago he noted that we have so much to do, we have become parallel processors, a twitch-level form of multi-tasking. 20 years ago he figured this out! As a result, we're starving as human beings. The invitation from the lips of Jesus is to believe in him as the Bread of Life. To do so, is to never hunger and thirst again. It all begins with belief. We then discover that living bread is not bread at all. Instead, the bread of life is a flesh-and-blood person. In Jesus we see God at work, offering people the nourishment they need for life. He teaches, preaches, heals, helps, forgives and guides. He's our most fundamental spiritual food group, the one who speaks, according to his disciple Peter, "the words of eternal life". Without this bread, our souls will surely starve.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Feed ME 'Til I Want No More
John 6:24-35 (The Message)
You may remember when we gathered for worship last week, we thought about the message for us in the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Not 4,999 remember…5,000. For this week and the next three weeks to come, the gospel reading in the Lectionary keeps us right here, in this story in the gospel of John. There’s a lot for us to think about and understand in this sixth chapter.
Now, in today’s lectionary gospel reading, it’s the next day. The picnic with 5 loaves of bread and two fish is over and Jesus has taken his disciples to the other side of the lake. But the crowds of people who shared that meal with him yesterday and who then tried to turn him into their king are not about to let him go.
Soon the pursuing crowd catches up with Jesus and his entourage on the other side of the lake in Capernaum. There they greet him with a question: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” It sounds innocent enough, somewhat like saying, “Fancy meeting you here.” But it means much more. They know something about him, but they want and need to know more.
We can understand their need to catch up with him. After all, Jesus is their meal ticket. In their minds he has the potential to do something unheard of, to lighten the fundamental burdens of life that plague their existence. Who knows what he else he can do! If he can provide food, then he just might be able to do the same with shelter and clothing; maybe he can protect them from the never-ending uncertainties of their lives.
“Who among us,” asks Charles Hoffman, pastor of a United Methodist Church in Encinitas, CA, “who among us would not choose that sort of security? After all, in our time so much of our living is dedicated to the illusion that somehow our complete safety can be ensured and that we can be protected against all the ills and evils common to human existence. This delusional pursuit has become an obsession.”
At least until Covid19 showed up and made us rethink that philosophy.
Over and over again, as Jesus speaks and acts in this sixth chapter of John, the people hear him at one level while he works to move them to a deeper level.
So the crowd pursues and finds him on the other side of the sea in Capernaum. And very quickly, Jesus addresses the issue at hand and says, in essence, I know what’s going on here. “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.”
He goes on to say to the crowd, “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides.”
But the crowd, maybe not wanting to have to work for their food but instead wanting the spectacular miracles themselves, asks for more miracles like the feeding of the 5,000, and reminds Jesus about Moses’s manna miracle in the wilderness: “He gave us bread from heaven.”
And there it is. The people remind Jesus that after their ancestors escaped from Egypt and crossed the Red Sea into a long, long trek in the wilderness, God heard their complaints about being hungry and rained down bread from heaven to feed the people every day.
We love reading about this miracle! How cool would it be to have, say, bagels and baguettes and Wonder Bread show up on your front lawn every single morning. We’d never have to go to the store again! We could eat bagels and baguettes and Wonder Bread whenever we want…as much as we want!
I read this story about manna—bread from heaven—in Exodus 16 and I remember so very clearly what it felt like, back again in the early days of the global pandemic. I remember how very anxious I was to go to the grocery store, not because I had to wear a mask and sanitize my hands and sanitize the handle of the grocery cart and stand in a long line waiting for a checkout line to open up, and then to stand six feet away from the cashier until they needed my low-touch credit card. Instead, I was so anxious because for the first time in my life, some of the shelves (many of the shelves at some points) in the grocery store were bare. There was no food. To live in a culture that is typically overflowing with an abundance of food, and be told “one to a customer” was very disorienting to me. “But I eat two of these in a week!” I’d think to myself.
The people kind of whine to Jesus after they’ve tracked him down in Capernaum and say the same thing: “Moses fed our ancestors with bread in the desert. It says so in the Scriptures.” What can you do for us?
Oh, but we forget one pesky detail of the story in Exodus. We “conveniently forget” that, according to Exodus 16:4, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.” We “forget” the “for that day” part of the story.
The spiritual test for God’s people is that they receive only a day’s worth of food at a time. Manna is good for 24 hours, then it spoils. No use gathering more than they need for the day. But of course they try, and the manna, as promised, spoils. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. In fact, we pray this prayer every week when we gather for worship. But we want more.
Back now in the gospel of John, Jesus responds to the people who want him to endlessly supply them with free food to fill their bellies, “The real significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world.”
“They jumped at that: ‘Master, give us this bread, now and forever!’
“Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever.’”
We, my friends, are susceptible to the seductiveness of food and to the false comfort of being full. We follow gods who fill our bellies, but the God of Israel and Jesus promise more—and less: enough bread for our need but not all we want, so that we can help God get to all people with what they need.
May we see and know the power of sharing the true Bread of Life with others. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
John 6:1-14 (NRSV)
As human beings, we love our numbers. Especially round numbers. According to people who think deeply about these things, it is true that for most people, 5,000 is much more appealing than 4,999.
Need some proof? Think of your fitness tracker. You look at it in the evening and see that you have walked 9,874 steps. So what are you going to do? You walk around the house, get 126 more, and feel the satisfaction of 10,000-step perfection.
Or when you are pumping gas, do you find yourself squeezing the pump until you get to a round-number total? $49.75 is not nearly as satisfying as $50. Admit it: You really like to get to $50. On the nose.
Don’t ask me how they figured this out, but according to The Washington Post, round figures are often full of emotion. Research has found that “we love round numbers so much that we often regulate our behavior to achieve them. Like those who wear fitness trackers, professional baseball players and high school SAT takers also exert more effort when their performance falls just short of a round number.”
A baseball player with a batting average of .298 is going to work extra hard so that he can hit .300, just like the high school student who is determined to get a 1200 on the SAT.
Round numbers are appealing to us. They say something about quality. It’s true…it’s about quality, not quantity.
Think of a $15 crab cake appetizer on a restaurant menu. It seems to be more appealing and delicious than one listed for $14.99. In fact, round numbers on a restaurant menu send a message of quality, according to a Management Science study. “That [insight is also] why you don’t see a Chanel hand bag for $4,999.99,” says Olga Shurchkov, a behavioral economist at Wellesley College. Round numbers communicate quality.
All of which brings us to Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. Notice that Jesus did not feed 4,999 people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Instead, according to John, the crowd was “about five thousand in all”.
This is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels, so you know that it is critically important. While the exact number of diners is a little fuzzy, all of the gospels make clear that this miracle is the feeding of the 5,000. This round number signals quality, not a cut-rate discount. The feeding of the 5,000 shows the abundance of God’s care for us, and God’s desire to give us nothing less than the bread of life.
It’s a quality miracle.
And the feeding is a miracle of abundance. When a large crowd comes marching toward Jesus and the disciples, Jesus plays a little game with Philip. He asks the disciple, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip begins to panic and stammers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little”.
Philip is feeling the scarcity of their resources and the enormity of the need. He makes the same mistake that so many churches make today, saying, “We don’t have the budget; we don’t have the staff; we don’t have the equipment or the time or the energy.”
Jesus just shakes his head. He knows very well what he is going to do. But he is testing his disciples, trying to break them out of the scarcity mentality.
Another disciple named Andrew does a little better. “There is a boy here,” he says, “who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Give Andrew some credit: At least he points to a possible solution. But then he falls into the scarcity mentality and sighs, “But what are they among so many people?”.
Okay, Jesus thinks to himself, time to act. “Make the people sit down,” he says to the disciples. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes the bread to the people on the grass. He also distributes the fish and gives them as much as they want, filling them until they are completely satisfied.
Then, to stress that there is much more in this meal than anyone could eat, Jesus has the disciples gather up the leftovers, and they fill 12 baskets to the top. The people are so impressed that they begin to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world”.
The feeding of the 5,000 shows the abundance of God’s care for us. God does not want us to go hungry, or to lack anything that we really need for life. No, we may not have a $15 crab cake appetizer pop up on every dinner table, but God wants our needs to be met. God also wants crowds of hungry people to be fed, often by us and by other people of faith.
Some of the feeding of hungry people will come from generous giving. And some will come from being better stewards of what we have been given. “Our grandparents,” said Pope Francis eight years ago, “used to make a point of not throwing away leftover food. Consumerism has made us accustomed to wasting food daily, and we are unable to see its real value.” Then he told his audience, “Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry.”
He’s right. Forty percent of all food in the United States is wasted at some point. We enjoy an enormous abundance of food in this country, but it is up to us to be good stewards of what we have, so that everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus performed his miracle of abundance so that everyone in the crowd would be fed. And then he had the disciples gather up the leftovers, so that nothing would be wasted.
When it comes to miracles, 5,000 communicates quality. In every time and place and situation, God wants to give us nothing but the best.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Our House is a Very, Very, Very fine House
2 Samuel 7:1-14a (The Message)
A small group gathered at this summer’s first Porch Talk on Tuesday night. We weren’t actually on the front porch of the church because, well, that’s exactly when torrential rain was barreling through Snyder, and the sound of the deluge on this room’s skylights was so loud, there was a significant string of minutes when I couldn’t hear what Stacy and Charlie—sitting no more than six feet away from me—were saying.
Then the rain passed, and a delightful group of people sat in a circle, talking about the simple things that have been going on in our lives—the regular things that have captured our attention—especially as we have spent so, so many days, weeks, and months in our homes. We talked about one person’s lawn mower, another’s garden and wrangling with a neighbor about a poorly placed basketball hoop. I mentioned “the joy” of having a new roof installed, and one person quietly sat in the circle, looked around this space and said, “this room needs to be painted.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang a great song years ago when I was just a young girl that had these lyrics: Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard. Life used to be so hard, but everything is easy ‘cause of you.
Our house is a very, very, very fine house.
A house is a boundaried place. My house sits on a lot that has very specific boundaries to it. And my house has walls and a roof that clearly define the inside and the outside. During the pandemic, the relative safety of home has taken on a new dimension, new meaning. I have been deeply grateful for my home in this time, and very aware of the rest and safety I feel in my home that so many others do not…cannot. As the months passed, for many people that sense of safety has been coupled with a restlessness: a longing for the energy and buzz of public spaces, wanting to get away from the confines of our homes.
Yvette Shock, a Lutheran minister in Spokane, Washington who helped us think about last week’s text from 2 Samuel, says of today’s story, “I wonder if David feels both comfort and restlessness at his home in Jerusalem. Within the first sentence of the reading from 2 Samuel, we hear that he is “settled” at home with “rest from all his enemies around him,” and then David is dreaming up projects to pitch to Nathan. The prophet tells the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind,’ and I imagine David would be off and running if God didn’t speak to Nathan that same night.
“David dreams of bringing the ark of God within a boundaried, “safe” home like his. But God firmly rejects David’s vision and reminds him just what is to be built and by whom. God reminds David of God’s action: moving with the people of Israel, taking him out of the pasture, making him a prince over the people, cutting off his enemies, being with him wherever he goes.
“God’s word is clear: as God has been steadfastly present in an unbounded, itinerant, active way in the past, so God will continue to be in the future. God will act, will build a house. But in God’s promise, the house is not to be the boundaried structure of house or temple but the living, breathing, moving body of a dynasty—a family, called to lead, held by God’s unending promise.” It is clear—for those who are attuned to the message—that it is in people, and not things (maybe especially not in structures with four walls) that God wishes to live. And in what I think is a particularly fascinating part of this passage, God works to make it clear: God never asked for a house. God doesn’t want a house.
The scripture says this is God’s word on the matter: “You’re going to build ‘a house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time
I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you build me a house of cedar?’”
I laughed out loud when I thought about this because I was reminded of a commercial I’ve seen multiple times. I don’t remember what the commercial is advertising (which should be a red flag to the advertising industry), though it could be a Progressive insurance ad. In the commercial, a husband and wife are tidying up what appears to be a newly renovated bedroom in their house. They look proud of their efforts; delighted by their work.
In walks, presumably, one of their mothers. She halts in the doorway of the room, and the couple says with glee in their voices, something like, “Look! This is for you! You can come live with us!” And the mother, clearly trying to figure out how to be gentle in her response says, “Ohhhh…it’s ok. I’m good where I am.”
God makes it clear to David: God never asked for a “house.” God doesn’t want a “house.” And God surely does not need a “house.”
David can be forgiven, I think for his impulse to build a house for God. We see this impulse throughout scripture: think about the mount of Transfiguration, where Peter, with Jesus, is suddenly accompanied by Moses and Elijah, and Peter says, “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here…” So this good impulse is certainly not unusual.
But there’s likely something else going on here for David. In offering to build God a house, David is going to put God somewhere so that he’ll be always know where God is and what God is doing! David wants to manage God.
God, maybe you already know, can’t be managed. And God doesn’t need to be sheltered. Today’s text compels us to remember: God likes camping among us, wherever we are. “There is no place we can go from God’s presence,” the psalmist declares. (Psalm 139:7-12) No place.
Home is a boundaried place, safe and comfortable. In the past year, some of us have stayed home more than we could have ever imagined, while others went out to do work people depended on, longing to be safe at home. For some, home became a place of isolation and loneliness. Now that vaccines are widely available many are eager to step out of their homes, and the ability to be with others is a joyous thing.
In all this, God has been holding us in the house of God—not a boundaried house but the unboundaried, living, life-giving presence of God, moving with us wherever we go, holding us through uncertainty and grief, holding us together. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Remember to check the gap
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 (NRSV)
In writing about today’s lectionary passage from 2 Samuel, Yvette Schock, a Lutheran minister in Spokane, Washington, thinks back to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, where José Arcadio Segundo is the only survivor of a massacre. When soldiers open fire on a demonstration, he is hit and loses consciousness. He awakes on a train, packed among thousands of bodies bound for clandestine burial at sea. He jumps off and begins the long walk home, stopping when he reaches a house just outside his town, where a woman tends his wound and washes his bloodied clothes.
When Arcadio Segundo says what he has witnessed, she refuses to believe him: “‘There haven’t been any dead here,’ she said. ‘Since the time of your uncle, the colonel, nothing has happened in Macondo.’” His own brother does not believe him either, and anyone who does speak of the events tells an entirely different story: “There were no dead, the satisfied workers had gone back to their families, and the banana company was suspending all activity until the rains stopped.”
Sometimes, the lectionary, which is a pre-determined list of scripture readings for worship that follow the church year in a three-year cycle, leaves some gaps. Like today: there is a gap in the story of King David moving the Ark of the Covenant into his new capital. It’s possible to glide right over the gap, as I often do when I’m thinking about a lectionary passage. If you don’t pay attention to the verse numbers in the assigned reading, you can miss it altogether. But Pastor Schock from Spokane, Washington brought my attention to this particular gap, and once you know there’s something uncomfortable hiding in the gap, there is a distinct “before” and “after” quality to the reading.
“Before: Uzzah and Ahio walk proudly to their places at the cart carrying the ark, eager to take their role. There is a festive buzz in the air as the band begins to play, the cart moves forward, and “the whole house of Israel” dances with their king in a flash mob of joy and reverence,” as she describes it.
“After: the celebration is muted. The cart drivers gravely take their places, a single trumpet plays, and David dances alone. Why? And where have Uzzah and Ahio gone?”
What happens in the gap is this: as the oxen pull the cart forward, it jolts, and the ark tips or slides. Uzzah reaches “out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of the ark”—to steady it—and God strikes him dead because of that single gesture, meant to protect the ark from harm. In response, David is “afraid of the Lord” and asks, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?”
If you read what’s in the gap, the subdued tone of the second procession of the ark begins to make sense.
The omission of Uzzah’s death and David’s response might make the story more comfortable for worship use. I would certainly prefer to preach about David dancing before the Lord, and people being blessed with food, but this intentional gap effectively creates an official version of the story. There haven’t been any dead here, the official version declares. Nothing has happened in Macondo. Nobody touched the ark to keep it from falling off the cart and then was struck dead by God…
What is lost when we skip over the difficult passages? In this case, a great deal. In Pastor Schock’s thinking, “omitting Uzzah’s death and David’s response flattens and distorts the text: it can be read as a fairly straightforward story about David’s faithfulness and leadership. He is simply moving the ark into Jerusalem in order to place God at the center of the life of Israel.”
But the missing verses in the lectionary hint at something else going on in David. When David expresses fear after Uzzah’s death, we see him in a moment of humility and self-reflection; maybe he’s considering the danger of claiming the presence of holiness for one’s own purposes; maybe he’s lamenting that the cost was a human life. It is a moment of grief and moral struggle for him that’s certainly worth our hearing about and considering.
But the moment passes. After hearing that the ark’s presence was a blessing to the household where he left it after Uzzah died, David decides he would like to have it in his city after all. He seems to give not another thought to Uzzah, not another moment to consider the weight of responsibility that comes with the power God has given him.
I’ve always appreciated the discipline of preaching from the lectionary—taking the assigned texts and listening to them to hear God’s word for this us today. Often, I have just gone along with the text as the lectionary presents it, not worrying much about what’s in the gaps that sometimes pop up. Sometimes, what’s in the gap is just too difficult to deal with in worship, too hard to hear, just a bummer.
But now I wonder: what happens when we gloss over—when we tiptoe around—what seems too hard to deal with? What happens when we do this in relationships? In our jobs? In our church? What happens when we consciously decide not to step into the places and the situations that make us uncomfortable?
Pastor Schock really caught my attention when she said, “This [gap] feels different. Omitting Uzzah’s death and David’s response changes the story. It also echoes a pattern we have seen too often: the erasure or justification of a death because the killer holds a position of authority and trust. George Floyd’s killer was convicted of murder, but if Darnella Frazier had not borne the pain of witnessing Floyd’s death and filming it, there would have been a hole—there would have been a gap--in the story. And many of us would have taken the story as it was given to us.
“People of color and immigrants have long borne the pain of witnessing unacknowledged violence, injustice, and trauma. Those of us with the choice to look or turn away are called to bear witness and to wrestle with the whole story. Because plenty has happened in Macondo, if you read the whole story.”
My prayer is that we will always have the courage to read the whole story. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
All of You?
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV)
A lot of things happened in the world while I was on my semi-sabbatical. Six weeks is a long time in our current-day news cycles. When afforded enough time to truly separate myself from the bombardment of the ever-so-rapid breaking headlines, I found my breathing got deeper and I was able to absorb (or block) news items in a healthier way.
But when, around the middle of June, our nation’s Roman Catholic bishops advanced a conservative push to deny communion to President Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices, that news broke through to me. And I was enormously sad.
Listening to the story further, I learned the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to draft new guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, in a challenge to Mr. Biden for his support of abortion rights, which contradicts church teaching. The new statement will address the sacrament broadly. But ultimately, it could be used as theological justification to deny communion to Mr. Biden and Catholic politicians like him who support abortion rights. This is according to an article in the New York Times, published on June 21, 2021, and written by Giulia Heyward.
For this congregation, and for the United Church of Christ in general, communion, as we call it, is available to everyone. It is an open table. Anyone and everyone is free and welcome to share in this feast, to eat and drink the bread and the cup to be reminded of the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us.
My soul was disturbed at this news. So when I read this story from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who was remembering something life-changing from her early days as the pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints Lutheran congregation in Denver, Colorado, I cried. This is the story she tells:
“House for All Sinners & Saints was only about a year old,” Nadia recalls, “when I took a Sunday morning phone call from a young parishioner who had gone home to Grand Rapids for a weekend visit. I could tell right away that Rachel was crying. When she finally spoke, it was halting and in a whisper.
“Nadia, I’m at my parent’s church and they’re serving communion and …. (her voice cracks) I’m not allowed to take it.”
“Rachel hadn’t thought much about her childhood church’s “closed table” (the term for when a church only allows certain people to take communion) until now. But she had spent a year with House For All Sinners and Saints, a community centered around the grace of an unapologetically open table, and without even noticing it had happened, she had been changed by it. Every Sunday she had seen a woman stand at the altar table (again, she had only ever heard a male voice from the front of the church) and had heard that woman say these words: “We have an open table at House, which means that during communion, everyone without exception is invited to come forward at communion and receive the bread and wine – which for us is the body and blood of Christ. If you choose not to commune, you can come forward with your arms crossed and receive a blessing instead.”
Nadia goes on to note that Jesus ate supper with more types of people than she herself would feel comfortable with. Maybe we would feel uncomfortable, too: Sinners, tax collectors, soldiers, sex workers, fisherfolk, and lawyers. “And his LAST supper was the worst,” she said. “He broke bread with his friends who were just about to abandon, deny and betray him. And yet, he took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to these total screw-ups and said “this is my body, given for you, whenever you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.”
And then what does the church do in remembrance of him? It tries to keep the “wrong people” from receiving the Lord’s Supper.
Nadia Bolz-Weber knows—we all know—that people of good faith disagree on this issue. Some would argue it is reckless to just feed all who hunger. That the Eucharist is too sacred to just hand it over to anyone. Others would say that only the baptized should receive and that there is a specific path that can be taken for those who wish to commune. Baptism first, THEN communion. As if grace only happens in a certain order.
But over the years, Nadia knows there have been dozens and dozens of adult baptisms at her church—people who, having experienced the unmerited and always available grace of an open table, then sought out the grace of the baptismal font. They changed the presumed order of the Lutheran tradition.
As if grace only happens in a certain order.
Now, here’s the part that just moved me to tears: Nadia recalls, before hanging up with Rachel, that she assured Rachel she was loved and wanted in their community and then she said, “Would it be ok if I told some folks at church tonight about what happened?” and she said yes.
“As a small group of us stayed behind that night to stack chairs and put away paraments, I told them about Rachel’s devastation at having been denied communion at home. Without skipping a beat, Stuart said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport.”
“So at 10pm on a Wednesday, eight of us showed up to Denver International airport with a cardboard chauffer’s sign that said “Rachel Pater” on one side, and “Child of God” on the other, and waited for her at the bottom of the escalator. We then made our way up to the interfaith prayer room, I spoke about how on the night Jesus was betrayed he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, and then we handed her what had been withheld days before: the body and blood of Christ.”
Then she ended with this: If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer. Because it’s not our table. It’s God’s.”
So when Paul writes his second letter to the people of Corinth and says to them, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you,” he means, ALL OF YOU. Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
stories of healing
John Lennon is famous, among other things, for saying “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
For the last few days, we’ve been learning about those who are missing in Florida after the catastrophic collapse of the condo building in Surfside. A couple visiting with their young daughter on vacation. The sister of the first lady of Paraguay and her family. So many others whose stories are slowly emerging and whose plans were forever altered. One older couple was awakened by the noise and ran to open their hallway door, only to find a gaping hole several stories deep. We pray for those who are waiting and for those whose hope is ebbing. And maybe we’re reminded once more that our life’s direction can change very quickly. Our days have their high moments and low, their satisfactions and surprises. And often while we are making plans, working steadily toward a goal, life intervenes and we find ourselves veering in a different direction. Even in the course of one day.
In the Gospel reading from Mark 5, we see that happen to Jesus. There is a story embedded within another story. Jesus is focused on the critical need in one family and then finds himself pulled in another direction to deal with another urgent matter. He’s able to multi-task, or at least to divide up his time, and he does it without failing to express empathy or give personal attention. Then he returns to the original need and provides for us a remarkable picture of a Jesus who genuinely cared for those who suffer.
One family in this group of stores had a child whose illness progressed to the point of death. With nowhere else to turn, a grieving father sought out Jesus who was known to work miracles. On the way to the home of Jairus and his daughter, Jesus was interrupted by a woman whose health situation had baffled medical professionals for twelve long years. She, too, had arrived at a point of desperation. Both looked to Jesus for help, and both received mercy and healing.
One thing we cannot get around in the Gospels is the fact that Jesus consistently and even relentlessly advocated for those who were at a disadvantage. The poor, the sick, the socially outcast, and the racially disenfranchised became his first priority. That made people angry. The advantaged and those who considered themselves superior in any way to others could not and would not accept Jesus’ priorities. They were the first to reject Jesus’ ministry and they ultimately called for his death.
Jesus’ miracles scattered throughout the Gospels restored hope and health to those who otherwise would have suffered alone. A man born blind was only of interest to those with sight as a point of discussion about who was to blame for his blindness. A man with a withered hand was not considered worthy of being healed on the Sabbath day by those with working limbs. A group of men with leprosy was required by law to shout the status of their contamination to anyone who came near, assuring that no one but Jesus ever would.
This morning’s stories of healing include two of the most vulnerable groups in any society: women and children. A woman with a gynecological disorder who had consulted doctor after doctor for twelve years and whose illness had only gotten worse. She ran out of money and had no options left, despite her best efforts. Thankfully, Jesus was passing by that day. And a child who suffered from an unknown condition. We are given very few details about the illness or the family that surrounded this little girl and loved her as much as any family would. The girl’s father was a leader in the local synagogue, though, and he put his own reputation with other religious leaders on the line to ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus was the enemy, but when you think your child is going to die, you will do anything to help her.
Jesus was already having a very busy day. He’d crossed the Sea of Galilee twice already, calming a great storm on the first trip. He’d encountered a violent man described as possessed by demons, and he had set the man free from that torture. Jesus was on his way to his hometown where he would be made fun of by his old acquaintances, and he was about to organize and deploy the twelve disciples into teams of two to multiply his ministry throughout the region. Despite the demands on his schedule, Jesus made the illnesses of an unknown woman and an unknown child in an obscure village his highest priority as his plans changed.
One of the great Christian thinkers of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, is credited with saying that we should “preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the others.”
It’s very hard to reflect on the healing stories of Jesus without making reference to our ongoing national conversation about health care. It’s not the place of the preacher to tell people how they should think or vote regarding public policy. It is the responsibility of the preacher to urge the church to think biblically and theologically – and with compassion - on every important issue, including those that affect our collective life as citizens. A few weeks ago we talked here about the realm of God and how we are dual citizens, loyal members of God’s kingdom, with the message of Jesus forming our agenda for living in this world. So there is no political or social or economic matter that is unrelated to our commitment to living according to the principles of Jesus.
In the gospels, we receive a clear message that health and wholeness are a sign of God’s realm in our midst. In other words, when God’s kingdom is breaking out around us in power, one of the evidences of that realm is healing. It is God’s will that God’s human creations be sustained in health and restored to wholeness through whatever means God provides. A bumper stick seen occasionally is almost a direct quote from Mahatma Gandhi as well as Winston Churchill as well as Harry Truman: “A civilization is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Seeking and promoting health and wholeness for all persons created and loved by God is not a partisan matter, it is a top priority in the realm of God. Our job as followers of Jesus is to figure out the best way to make that happen. We are blessed to be part of a church that does not require us to think or vote as determined by someone else, and as we approach Independence Day we are blessed to be part of a nation that grants us freedom of conscience as we search our souls and do what we believe is best for the common good.
To celebrate Father’s Day this past week, my husband Leroy and I took a short road trip with our one year-old puppy and wandered down the New York State Thruway to Auburn. I knew that he most famous former resident of Auburn was Harriet Tubman, but I didn’t know much about the time she had spent there toward the end of her life. We wanted to visit her home, but we discovered that a bridge construction project made her home inaccessible. We did see the church she attended, and we visited her grave in the Fort Hill Cemetery. The stone marking her final resting place is small and somewhat hard to find, but it was covered with bouquets of flowers and personal notes and an original painting done by a child and copies of an altered $20 bill with her face on it (as it should be) and a big, colorful pin with John Lewis’s words “Good trouble.”
Two things I learned about Harriet Tubman and her years in Auburn were these: She was very active in the Suffragette movement that had its base in nearby Seneca Falls. Both she and her friend Fredrick Douglas in Rochester lent their considerable energy and expertise in fighting injustice to the growing effort to secure the vote for women. Also, I learned that Harriet Tubman established what was called the “Home for the Aged” on a property next door to her own home. She worked tirelessly to make sure the disadvantaged elderly in her community had a place to be cared for in their final years. The African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion took over the effort when she ran out of funds, and she herself spent her last days being cared for in that home for the aged in Auburn. I doubt that was in her plan when she selflessly started providing care for others.
“Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” We who are strong and empowered today may very well be among the weak and vulnerable tomorrow. Nevertheless, Jesus stands among us this morning to receive us as we are: healthy, infirm, whole, broken, grieving, joyous, wealthy, poor.
As Jesus healed the woman who had suffered for more than a decade, he spoke these gentle words: “Go in peace; be healed of your disease.” As he stood with the parents of the child whose existence hung precariously between life and death, he held that girl’s hand and simply said, “Get up!” Jesus’ words to us today are “Go in peace,” and “Get up!” Receive wholeness as the sign of God’s realm in our midst.
What are your plans today? How might God disrupt them to bring about a greater good? Listen for the voices calling for your attention and don’t cast anyone aside because you imagine you are too important or busy. Be the one who brings grace and healing to another in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
This is Rev. Rick’s last sermon for us. Rev. Lisa returns from her sabbatical next Sunday.
Thank you Rev. Rick for your time with us.
he says, she says
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7
The story of Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac is a great text for Father’s Day. I remember singing a song in Sunday School as a child: “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham…? Anyone else know that song?! According to the book of Genesis, Abraham had eight sons. The first was Ishmael who was born as the result of a family drama involving a concubine while waiting for God to fulfill the promise to give a child to both Abraham and Sarah. When Isaac finally made his way into the word as the second born, it was a source of great wonder and amazement and laughter for his mother and father. Sarah expressed that beautifully in the passage we hear: “Who would have ever thought?” she mused as she gazed at her child.
Parents always remember the births of their children. On Father’s Day, I love to reflect on those moments, now more than thirty and twenty-eight year later. My son Erik was in no hurry to greet the bright lights of the delivery room. He lingered as long as he could, at least twenty-four hours after checking in to the hospital, and he announced his arrival by calmly eyeing those around him and promptly taking a nap. My daughter Olivia was in a much bigger hurry. A few minutes after I screeched the car to a halt at 2 a.m. at the hospital entrance, she emerged onto the tile floor of a bathroom, surprising everyone and greeting us with a loud holler. No matter how children enter the world, they elicit a deep sense of wonder as we look into their faces and wonder how something so truly amazing can possibly be.
Although the story of the three visitors to Abraham by the oak trees doesn’t say it explicitly, it’s assumed by most readers and commentators that the visitors were angels. For the most part, angels in the Bible don’t have wings or halos or white robes. They are often just ordinary-looking people who aren’t really so ordinary. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, the writer instructs readers to extend hospitality to strangers, because some have entertained angels without even knowing it. Maybe it’s the story of Abraham and the three visitors that prompted that instruction. Even today, many people talk about chance meetings with strangers that end up having profound meaning. Not necessarily angels, but the right person at the right time under circumstances that seem too mysteriously significant to be mere coincidence.
Abraham and Sarah were relaxing in their tent when the strangers arrived. We talked a few weeks ago here about the premium placed on acts of hospitality in the Middle East in ancient times as well as today. Hospitality was everything, and to fail to provide food and drink and shade for passersby would be an unthinkable lapse of protocol. Abraham jumped up from his seated position to get busy, as did Sarah in the tent, with the all-important tasks of attending to their unexpected guests. A calf, described as “tender and good,” meaning quality veal, was prepared, and the best flour was used to make a cake served with fresh milk. My guess is that they didn’t have many visitors. If they did, it would have bankrupted them.
The guests seemed oddly family with Abraham’s little family since they inquired about the whereabouts of Sarah. Abraham didn’t reply protectively, “How do you know my wife’s name?” as we might expect. Maybe he already suspected that these were not ordinary guests. He simply answered, “She’s in the tent.” What he should have said is, “Who do you think prepared all that good food you just wolfed down?!” Sarah was not a young woman, and she certainly deserved their thanks for the hard work done with no prior notice given. Instead, the visitors made an announcement as Sarah remained concealed behind the tent flap. The next time they stopped by, said the guests, Sarah would be a mother. Sarah might have been quite elderly, ninety years old, in fact, according to the prior chapter in Genesis, but her hearing still worked perfectly.
Sarah’s response to the announcement was to laugh out loud. The absurdity presented in light of the biological evidence of her age plus the irony of God’s long-unfulfilled and much-overdue promise of a child was too much for her to contain. She laughed, and I imagine her laughter was long and hearty. The visitors were not amused by her amusement, and one asked Abraham why Sarah laughed. Still inside the tent, Sarah denied that she had. “Uh oh,” she thought. I’ve offended the guests, the biggest hospitality faux pas of all.” Sarah said, “I didn’t laugh.” But the guests got the last word: “Oh yes, you did laugh.” As it turns out, they also got the last laugh when Sarah delivered a healthy baby boy nine months or so later.
When I was reading over the Genesis text, I was struck by the “he says, she says” quality of the interaction between the visitors and Sarah. Sarah said she didn’t laugh, but it was pretty obvious that she had. I’m not sure all that was going through her mind at that moment, but the story says that she was afraid. Afraid of what? Of strangers? Of angels? Of the God who promised a baby in the first place?
We live in a time when words are carefully analyzed. Those in the public eye are especially subject to criticism. Voice recordings and videos, combined with social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook mean that it’s hard to pretend that something that was said wasn’t said. If someone laughs and causes offense to those who take something very seriously, that person is going to be held to account. We see that dynamic play out almost daily in the political world where elected officials are constantly back-tracking and attempting damage control for words that are intended for some of their constituents but inevitably get leaked to the public. Often they deny what they are accused of saying, and if there is the absence of audio or video, we are left with “He says, she says.” Sarah probably wished she could take back that unfortunate chuckle. She was in a bind for laughing at words the visitors considered to be utterly serious. There was no video to play back, but the guests knew the truth: “Yes, you did laugh.”
Not to be too hard on Sarah. I mean, it’s really hard to blame her for laughing. For one thing, it’s hard to stifle a good guffaw when something is very funny. A family that attended a church I served often got the giggles during Sunday worship, usually during silent prayer. Their whole pew would shake when one and then the next started laughing, right down the line. Sometimes that happens to pastors, too. One Sunday I was delivering the pastoral prayer with my eyes partly open when a dog wandered into the sanctuary from the street. It found its way to the front of the church, slipped under a pew, then emerged to lick the leg of a soprano member of the choir seated in the front row. She jumped, but only she and I knew what was happening as I struggled to keep the prayer properly pious.
It’s not like laughter is a bad thing. When the baby finally arrived, Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Her laughter didn’t begin that way, though. At first it was tinged with bitterness, with the resentment she had been stoking each year that God’s promise remained unfulfilled.
God is a little like a politician making campaign promises, I guess. At least if you are Abraham and Sarah. It’s hard not to get your hopes up when someone promises you something really great like more jobs or fewer taxes or a baby you’ve always wanted. Sarah and Abraham probably would have voted God out of office after one term. Maybe God waited until after they were absolutely sure God was an imposter before granting their wish and therefore proving that God isn’t a liar. That sounds pretty cruel, though, so I’m not sure I like that possibility. The truth contained in this story is that while human leaders and even our own bodies may fail us, the One who created and loves us will ultimately express that love in unimaginably good ways. And sometimes we have to wait.
What are you waiting for? And what are we longing for collectively? The church I served in Colorado just prior to retirement is two block away from the site of the supermarket where ten people died in a mass shooting recently. That was our go-to market, so it was especially horrifying to see the live news coverage on TV. The church there has stepped up its own efforts and commitment to reduce gun violence and this past week sponsored a gun buy-back program titled “Guns to Gardens.” As members gathered on an outside terrace next to a community garden, a modern-day blacksmith transformed a gun into a gardening tool. In real time, they were enacting the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a day when swords would be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We long for a world where peace reigns and communities are no longer shattered by senseless violence.
What have you experienced in your own life that has renewed your hope? Who has appeared like an angel to lift your discouragement? Like Sarah and Abraham, we can start to wonder if the dreams we’ve had for the future will ever be fulfilled, if justice will prevail, and if peace will emerge in a world that seems increasingly chaotic. And yet, hope does push us forward. We pray without ceasing, and we keep holding to the belief that humans made in the image of God will ultimately find a way to embrace the common good. When that happens, and even at points along the way, we will be able to laugh with Sarah and say “Who would have ever imagined this would be possible?”
The author Robert Fulghum, who wrote “Everything I ever needed to know I Learned in Kindergarten” wrote a Credo of sorts, a statement that expressed his core beliefs and deepest longings for the future. He included these words, “I believe that hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And that love is stronger than death.”
Whenever it seems as though the news is too bad or the promise is taking too long, remember that the end of the story is still unwritten. And welcome those strangers who God will send to renew your hope.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
how does your garden grow?
In light of Jesus’ words about a small plant that becomes a large tree, I’d like to add these words by Thomas Merton as a second reading for today:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is obeying God. It “consents” so to speak, to God’s creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree. The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like its creator. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give God less glory.”
My first attempt to create a vegetable garden began with much enthusiasm. I identified a spot in the backyard of the old brick church parsonage where I lived. I borrowed a rototiller and prepared the soil and planted little tomato seedlings and watered them tenderly. Then I completely forgot about the garden. Maybe I was just busy. Maybe that corner of the backyard was just too far out of sight. Or maybe I was just lazy. Many week later, I wandered into the yard and discovered a forest of tomato plants that had produced enormous tomatoes, most of which were rotting on the ground.
I have become a more responsible gardener since then, but one of the stories of Jesus actually speaks in my defense: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, but he does not know how.” I don’t know how those seeds managed to grow without any particular effort, and certainly with no careful tending on my part. They just did. That is a testimony to the power of everything that lives, and it is a picture of the realm of God.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockleshells, and pretty maids all in a row.” There is some debate about the historical and political implications of what most of us learned as a simple nursery rhyme while children. Many believe that “Mary, Mary” is Mary Tudor, sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary,” not just my favorite afternoon cocktail but King Henry the 8th’s daughter who re-established Catholicism in England. The silver bells and cockleshells in this scenario were instruments of torture used against Protestants, and the pretty maids in a row were Roman Catholic nuns. Who knew? It doesn’t sound like a very pleasant garden, let alone a suitable poem for small children!
How does your garden grow? Jesus was asked a lot of questions as he wandered around Palestine. Many of the stories that we know as parables were framed to answer questions like “Who is my neighbor?” As Jesus spoke about a new reality that was breaking out all around him, perhaps someone asked a question: “How does that new reality, that kingdom, that garden, that realm grow?” So Jesus spoke of seeds and plants and harvest.
A theme repeated in the parables which is also a central, if not the central message of Jesus is the realm of God which has most often been phrased as the kingdom of God. I most often use the term “Realm” rather than “Kingdom” because of the political associations easily attached to the latter. Kingdoms are generally understood in terms of dominance and control, with subjects dependent on the benevolence of kings and queens and princes, etc. Jesus did not speak of a kingdom where serfs groveled before Lords, but instead he created word pictures of a place – a realm – where all share fully in the abundance of God.
Maybe one definition of God’s realm could be this: The realm of God is the place, the time, or the essence of God’s positive influence in our world.
Two short parables are included in today’s Gospel reading. One is about seeds that grow without any particular effort by the farmer. The other is about tiny mustard seeds that grow into very, very large plants.
These are illustrations of God’s realm and how it develops or grows over time.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” The reading we heard by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and an important contemplative voice, parallels the stories of Jesus in its description of growing things. Roots and branches spread out and receive light and oxygen. Merton’s allusion to plants makes it clear that the inner life of a human person is one place where God’s realm is seen. Appropriately, these words are in his book titled “New Seeds of Contemplation.” The seeds grow within and ultimately bear fruit, just as Jesus described.
One thing we can also say about the realm of God is that it is not a synonym for the church. For much of Christian history, there has been an uncomfortably close association made between the church and God’s kingdom or realm. A familiar hymn begins with the words, “I love thy kingdom, Lord, the house of thine abode, the Church that our redeemer saved with his own precious blood.” The more theologically nuanced and, some would complain, more politically correct UCC New Century hymnal uses these words instead, which I really like: “We love your realm O God, all places where you reign, we recognize with hope and joy the world as your domain.” In other words, the realm of God cannot be constrained within the walls of any church or within the constraints of any religious system. God’s influence for good is shared freely with all.
Some of my friends have been talking lately about efforts to gain dual citizenship with the countries their families emigrated from. New laws in many countries are actually encouraging this. One friend will soon be officially a citizen of Italy. Another will be an Irish citizen. Since all four of my grandparents came here from Norway, I figured I’d be a shoe-in for dual citizenship in a country that is not only beautiful but has one of the highest standards of living in the world. It turns out the requirements are pretty tough, though. I’d have to live there for seven continuous years and prove that I can speak fluent Norwegian, which I definitely cannot. I guess I’ll never be a citizen there.
Generally, God’s realm or kingdom is discussed in terms of those human beings who live as citizens of a realm that is not defined by geography or national boundaries. Although some assume that the realm of God is a synonym for heaven and the afterlife experienced there, most theologians stress the earthly aspects of God’s realm that are obvious in Jesus’ teachings. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s pretty clear that we expect good things to happen in this life and not just in a life to come.
I was wondering this week why so few Christian writers have connected the natural world to the realm of God. Are we so focused on ourselves and our churches and our human systems that we forget God’s deep love for creation itself? How can the earth and the sky and the rivers and the ocean and plants and the animals be anything other than expressions of God’s realm?
The realm of God, as spoken of by Jesus, is close to us and is everywhere. And within that realm, God is doing surprising things that require simple stories in order for us to grasp them. Here are a couple of thoughts that spring from today’s parables:
What we assume is important is not always what is important. We see that in what Jesus describes. The farmer in the first story is doing what farmers do: planting seeds and trusting them to grow. Jesus challenges the assumption that if something good happens, it must be because of us. (God is so lucky to have us, right?!) The farmer has responsibility to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and be ready for harvest. But the farmer does not cause plants to grow.
Isn’t that the same for us? The most important thing we can do to expand God’s realm of justice and peace and abundance is to prepare the soil for growth, starting with ourselves. Having heathy relationships and creating the means to share what is good and right is the starting point. We cannot manipulate the growth of God’s realm, but we can be the best soil that we are capable of.
The second story challenges us to consider what is most important within this realm. Something very small in the parable of the mustard seed becomes something huge and amazing. We don’t know the impact that something small can have on the whole. I think we have all experienced how a simple act of kindness can make all the difference in the world for someone who is disheartened. God’s creation is also dependent on our simple acts of kindness. The meta-trends that affect climate are not going to change if I decide to recycle a cardboard container today rather than throw it out. But the act of being faithful and careful in small things is part of a larger effort that changes me and contributes to a larger movement to preserve God’s creation. Small things make a difference.
Gardening in God’s realm is not for the faint of heart. It has huge implications for those we know and those we will never meet. It is working toward the transformation of society and creation, and the stakes are high. That is why it is important to do all that we are able to do with all the power that we possess, and then let go and let God do what only God is able to accomplish.
We are each part of God’s realm. We are each drawn to different parts of the garden, based on how we have been uniquely shaped. Some of us are drawn to garden for justice, for health, for creation care, for spirituality, and for abundance for those who have little. Where are you in the garden? What plants are you best equipped to tend? And how can you support others in the work that they are called to do?
God’s realm is breaking out all around us. Put on your gardening gloves and pick up your trowel and fill up your watering can. Join the gardening crew that God is using to transform our world for good. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
little is much
Several years ago while visiting Israel, I traveled beyond the Jordan and the Dead Sea to an amazingly beautiful desert area known as Wadi Rum. A “wadi” is a creek bed that is often dry but runs deep with water after a rainstorm. The prophet Elijah, just prior to our Scripture reading, was told to go east of the Jordan during a time of drought to a wadi named “Cherith” so that he would be in the right place when the rain came. In Wadi Rum, my husband Leroy and I engaged the services of a tour guide from the local Bedouin tribe to show us the region that is remarkable for its stone arches and red rocks and red sand. It’s the desert of Lawrence of Arabia fame, and the movie bearing his name and starring Peter O’Toole was filmed right there in 1962. Our guide proudly shared that his father was cast as an extra. We had done our research, so while we were in awe of the spectacular terrain, we were not surprised by it. What did surprise us was an invitation to attend an engagement party for our tour guide’s son. We were given head scarves called “kafiyahs” to wear. and we hoped that we would just blend in with the locals. Ha! We witnessed the blessing of the engagement by the families, and we sat on the floor of a large tent and drank a lot of tea. That is how hospitality works in the deserts of the Middle East. If you are there, for whatever reason, you are an honored guest and nothing is withheld.
Elijah’s providential hiding place in the wadi worked out well for him until the final rain came and the last bits of water dried up. The famine went on for years. The text says that the “word of the Lord” then came to Elijah. He was familiar with that word and had previously delivered a message to the pagan king Ahab whose worship of the god Baal angered YHWH so much that the famine was announced. Now the famine had caught up with even Elijah, God’s mouthpiece. Elijah was hungry, and now the word of the Lord told him to go beyond the boundaries of Israel to the home of a widow. Hospitality rules being what they were, the widow could be expected to provide a meal for her famished guest.
The problem was that the widow was no better off than Elijah. Not only was she hungry but she had a son who was barely alive from lack of nourishment. Their situation was so desperate that the widow did not immediately welcome Elijah, despite the norms of hospitality. The text implies that she was expecting him because God had already spoken to her. Despite that, the guest linens were not spread on the table, and she blurted out that she had nothing to offer. All she had was a little flour and a few drops of oil, certainly not enough to share. She was in fact about to prepare a final, meager meal for her son and herself before they died of starvation. Not a great time to entertain.
What would you do if you were that woman? Would you open up your arms to a stranger and say, “Sure, make yourself at home while I prepare a lovely dinner! Thank you so much for coming!” That’s what Elijah was expecting. I don’t blame the woman for her reluctance even if God had told her to welcome Elijah. The fact that on meeting her he immediately demanded water and bread probably didn’t help the situation or endear himself to her. He doesn’t come across as someone you would want as a guest in your home; but maybe he wasn’t as much of an oaf in person as he seems on paper.
A few years ago, an environmental justice group called Oxfam produced a film titled “Sisters on the Planet.” It detailed the lives of five women in different parts of the world. One of them was Martina in Uganda. Increasingly unreliable weather has meant that Martina and other women have had to work harder to provide water and food for their families. Floods and droughts are destroying their crops, and they have to walk long distances to collect water and firewood. Martina and her community have successfully campaigned for a well closer to their village, shortening their daily walk from seven hours to thirty minutes. The opening segment of the film shows Martina gathering sticks to make a fire to cook whatever meager food she can find. It is eerily like the encounter between Elijah and the widow as the widow picked up sticks at the gate of her town to build a fire for her last meal.
We know that the impact of climate change has disproportionately affected the poor on our planet. The kind of drought and resulting famine reported in 1 Kings is a daily reality for many people throughout our world. The story of the widow and her son is therefore quite contemporary and will likely become even more common with the passing of time. It makes me wonder if we are prepared to both change our patterns of consumption and assist those who are most vulnerable in the plight we share on this planet?
I think it’s interesting how God is credited with the drought and the resulting famine reported in 1 Kings. YHWH is described as angry, and the way to punish King Ahab was to withhold rain and therefore withhold food and water from the residents of the land, regardless of whether they were bad or good. Some people today are eager to make a connection between natural disasters and what they judge to be the immoral actions of human beings. A popular TV preacher blamed Hurricane Katrina on a Pride parade scheduled for the next week in New Orleans. Several years later, a political candidate said “Everyone knows that God controls the weather, and God is super angry.” After the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm marriage equality for LGBTQ citizens, a self-proclaimed prophet said “We have displeased the Lord, and the earth is going to answer for it.” I don’t think there is any truth to this line of thought in the twenty-first century, so I tend to believe that God’s punishment through famine in Scripture is as much human perception or wishfulness as anything else. There is no doubt, though, that our sins against the earth have a serious impact on the created world. Blaming God for our irresponsibility is unconscionable
The widow had very little left. Elijah persuaded her to look past her scarcity and fear and make a small cake with the flour and oil. It wasn’t the kind of cake we’d enjoy at a birthday party. It certainly wasn’t two layers with a buttercream frosting. It was likely just a little lump of fried dough. She offered it to Elijah. The promise that came with the widow’s action was that she would be able to keep cooking, the flour would never run out, and the remaining drops of oil would keep pouring form the jar as long as there was famine. In other words, little became much.
How can our little become much? How can we move in our thinking from scarcity to abundance? And what might we need to learn from those who seem to have little to offer?
This weekend is the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to serve in a variety of ministry settings. The last church I pastored was in Colorado, and the congregation had a practice of sending out groups of members to work in places of poverty. It was a very affluent congregation, and they often looked for ways to share their resources with others. I made a mistake, though, early on, in calling the groups “Mission Teams.” I guess the church wanted to distance itself from old ways of thinking about Christian mission, especially the forms that were abusive or took advantage of indigenous populations. The correct terminology there was “Service and Learning Opportunity.” And the name did make a good point. They wanted to avoid the impression that they were the white saviors traveling to Guatemala or New Orleans or wherever to rescue and fix and instruct. As it turns out, my first trip with the church was to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Facebook reminded me yesterday that it was exactly five years ago. The Pine Ridge Reservation, which is the size of Connecticut, is the poorest location in our country. 97 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
We actually didn’t end up doing many of the projects we had hoped to work on and complete on the reservation. It was difficult for our hosts to get the needed materials, even though we were prepared to buy them, and it soon became clear that more than anything, they wanted to make a personal connection and share about their lives and their history. They brought us to Wounded Knee, where one hundred and fifty of their ancestors were slaughtered. They showed us the residential school where thousands of children were taken to conform to the ways of white culture after being forceable separated from their parents. We heard about the high rates of alcoholism and suicide and also about what they were doing to develop their economy and to improve the lives of their families. It’s a rough and long road, and much of the struggle springs from the injustice that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of European settlers. We left South Dakota with some new friendships and a deeper level of understanding. Those were valuable gifts shared freely by hosts who had little earthly treasure. Not unlike the gifts of oil and flour shared by a widow.
The widow is an example for us. Frightened, fiercely protective of her son, unsure that anyone, even God, was looking out for her best interests, but ultimately willing to release the little she had in the hope that it would be used for good. Her generosity meant that a hungry man was fed, and she found out that there was more than enough for her son and for herself as well.
Little can become much when we think beyond scarcity to the abundance of the universe. Also, when we realize that we most often already have more than we need. What limits us right now in our response to those who are hungry and who long to simply have enough? May God give us soft and faithful hearts in response to all who share our planet. And may we be enriched by the gifts of those who may appear to have little, but instead have much to share. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
This is a story from the spiritual tradition of the Sufis:
A group of frogs were traveling through the woods, and two of them fell into a deep pit. All the other frogs gathered around the pit. When they saw how deep the pit was, they told the unfortunate frogs they would never get out. The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit.
The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to what the other frogs were saying and simply gave up. He fell down and died.
The other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again, the crowd of frogs yelled at him to stop the pain and suffering and just die. He jumped even harder and finally made it out. When he got out, the other frogs asked him, “Why did you continue jumping. Didn’t you hear us?”
The frog explained to them that he was deaf. He thought they were encouraging him the entire time.
The tradition of story-telling among the Sufis is probably not too different from story-telling among the Jewish people which finds expression in the parables of Jesus. Many Sufi stories are quite humorous. Being more than a little deaf myself, I can relate to the frog who thought he heard something he wanted to hear but did not. Who wouldn’t want to hear a message of encouragement rather than a message that condemned you to a miserable death.
The Gospel reading from John contains what is undoubtedly the best-known and most-memorized verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son,” etc., followed by a lesser-known corollary: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
The community that created the Gospel of John was deeply committed to the understanding that Jesus is God in human form and that the act of believing in Jesus is the path to a rich and abundant life. The entirety of John, chapter three is the account of Jesus’ conversation with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus and the theological reflection that followed. Nicodemus appears sincere here in his desire to do whatever is needed to please God, and Jesus tells him that a life of faith is like a child emerging into the world for the first time who takes a breath and is filled with a new and life-giving spirit.
The Gospel of John has never been my favorite. That’s sort of a weird acknowledgment for a preacher. The Gospel of Mark is my favorite. That’s because it was written first and is the shortest and gets right to the point. I guess I’ve always figured that the closer you are to the source, the better. Among the four Gospels, John is the furthest from the source, having been written last. A great deal of theological discussion and reflection goes into John and one result is a very high Christology that can seem quite different from Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke. In other words, John tends to emphasize the divine aspect of Jesus over his humanity. Many people love John the most, perhaps for that reason. I respect that and think it is great how the Scriptures speak to each of us differently. A while back, a friend gave me a commentary on the Gospel of John written by a scholar who was speaking at a conference we were attending. Not exactly my first choice, but a gift is a gift. Apparently, my friend told the author about my reservations about John, and the author wrote inside the cover: “May you hear John in a new way, and may you experience God’s abundant grace anew in John’s witness to Jesus.” So, I softened a bit and since then have come to appreciate the author’s perspective that the Gospel was not written that much later than the others and is simply another voice among several reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ life.
The writer of John inserts an odd, unexpected reference from the Hebrew Scripture into Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. He writes, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
An offbeat and somewhat obscure story in the Hebrew book of Numbers tells of Moses creating a snake out of bronze and putting it at the end of a long pole and holding it in up in the air. There had been a problem of poisonous snakes biting the Israelites and causing them to die. Those who looked up at the bronze snake in the desert were healed of their snake bites and lived
Years ago, part of the curriculum during my theological education required me to find and visit and write about a church that was completely unlike any church I had ever experienced. Since I was studying near the Appalachian Mountains, I naturally chose to visit a snake-handling church. The members of the Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following, located in Jolo, West Virginia were very hospitable. My study partner Brian and I were invited to share meals and visit in their homes during the annual Homecoming Weekend. On Saturday night, we attended a revival service and, wanting to experience it fully, I went up to the font with my tambourine and danced along with twenty or so men and women holding rattlesnakes and copperheads high in the air as they sang and prayed. I have video if you don’t believe me! Also, I did not touch the snakes! I did watch, though, as one man was bitten on the arm by a rattlesnake. The next morning, at the Sunday service, the man’s young son came to church to report that his Dad wasn’t feeling well. (No kidding, right?). A handkerchief was blessed by the congregation and sent home to the father who we later learned recovered and returned to work the next day. Also during the service, I pulled a rubber snake out of my pocket and placed it on my friend Brian’s lap while he was praying. When he opened his eyes, he jumped up and shouted and looked like he fit right in!
I heard a sermon there in Jolo, West Virginia based on John 3:15 and the snake lifted up in the wilderness; that short verse is one of two primary Scriptures you will hear over and over again in such churches. People asked me many times afterward if I thought the snake handlers were out of their minds. I responded, “no”, though perhaps they need to consider if they are overly focused on one or two Bible verses. Also, the fact that so many of their church members have died unnecessarily. They believe that lifting up snake in worship is an act of faithfulness. Just as the bronze serpent was held up in the desert by Moses, they are certain that as Jesus is lifted up by them through their belief that God will save them from danger.
John’s Gospel says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.” Regardless of how we understand God, and regardless of who we believe Jesus to be – human – divine – both human and divine – there is good news in this affirmation. The Gospel is not about condemnation; it is about life.
Ricky Jackson was eighteen years old when he was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit. The only witness in the trial, twelve year-old Eddie Vernon, identified Jackson as the killer under pressure from local law enforcement. Despite the fact that Jackson had a solid alibi and had not been seen near the site of the crime by anyone else, he was sent to death row and remained there for thirty-nine years. When the witness reached fifty years old, he finally got the courage to stand before a judge and admit that he had lied about Ricky Jackson’s involvement in a crime. Jackson walked out of the courtroom that day as a free man.
What would the words “There is no longer any condemnation” mean to a man condemned to death? Because Ricky Jackson was no longer condemned, he was free. He was saved from an unjust conviction and incarceration that lasted more than two-thirds of his life. Eventually he spoke publicly of his forgiveness of the twelve year-old boy who waited decades to take responsibility as an adult. And Vernon has spoken of the difficulty he has in forgiving himself.
Condemning others is easy. Speaking and living and loving in ways that offer life to others is what can be challenging.
Karoline Lewis, the author of my signed commentary on the Gospel of John, reminds readers that when Jesus speaks of the act of saving or the experience of being saved in this passage, the words should be applied to the specific circumstances of the individual. We don’t know a whole lot about Nicodemus apart from a couple of brief references in the gospels. We do know that he was a Pharisee and a leader among the Jews. And we know that he came to Jesus under the cover of night and engaged in conversation that revealed his longing for something beyond what he had already experienced of God. Jesus’ response was to speak of a new start, a new birth.
What would Jesus say to you? Salvation is a big Bible word that in our era is packed with all kinds of meanings and associations that are not always very helpful. Maybe one way to keep it in perspective is to remember that Jesus in the Gospel of John is all about abundant life. If we can imagine a life where we experience goodness and freedom and hope and wholeness, then we have a picture of what it means to be released from condemnation and to experience God’s salvation.
“God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
Who is God in the Sufi tale of the frogs? I suspect that too many people see God among those who shouted words of discouragement: “Give up! You’ll never jump high enough or be smart enough or strong enough”: words that condemn and don’t affirm the worth of the one who already feels trapped and is fearful. Jesus taught us that in fact God is cheering us on and want us to experience life that is beautiful and full: abundant life.
May we experience God today and always as the one who encourages and empowers us to live fully despite what we encounter on any day. And may we offer words of encouragement and affirmation to those who would otherwise believe they are without hope. Amen!
Rev. Dr. Rick Danielson
when the spirit comes
I’m not a sailor, but my parents owned a sailboat many years ago. They had a cottage up at Lake Ontario, and my Dad envisioned long, happy days of sailing during his retirement. He purchased a small boat from a friend and we launched it one day without the benefit of sailing lessons. We had no idea what we were doing, but how hard could it be, really? Hoist the sail, and off you go! And that’s exactly how it went. We skimmed across the surface of the smooth lake and enjoyed the warm sunshine. But then the sky changed. Dark storm clouds appeared, and the gentle breeze became a stiff wind. Waves began to lap over the side of the boat. My mother stood on the distant shore waving her arms in alarm while we discovered we didn’t have the first clue how to turn around and return home. The rest is a bit of a blur now, but it involved some frantic paddling and choice words and maybe even a bit of swimming. My Dad had that boat for ten more years, but it never went in the water again.
I gained a new respect that day on the lake for the wind and its power.
Today is a day in the life of the church that we know as Pentecost Sunday. It commemorates the event we just read about from the Book of Acts. After Jesus’ time on earth was over, his friends gathered in a large room and waited for something amazing that Jesus had promised. No one knew exactly what it would be, but, as it turned out, God’s Spirit was unleashed on Pentecost in a remarkable way. A strong wind blew through the room. Flames of fire were seen on the heads of those who gathered. People spoke languages that they had never learned. It was a multi-sensory surprise, and it was really pretty bizarre when you think about it, but everyone in the room knew without question that God was doing something new.
I’ve always admired this beautiful building. Years ago, before I really knew anything about the United Church of Christ or the Disciples of Christ, I would drive down Main Street in Snyder and see a sign on the corner of Washington Highway that pointed to Amherst Community Church. When I looked down the street, I could see the immense steeple poking out from the tops of the trees. I never ventured down the street back then, but a sign pointed the way. This week I noticed that when a guest walks in the main entrance from the parking area there is a sign pointing up the stairway to the worship space and offices. Signs like that are super helpful to those who are new.
Often we need a sign to point us in a new direction. One of the unique aspects of the Gospel of John is its self-described emphasis on signs. In John’s Gospel, people needed signs to understand Jesus as someone though whom God was working in a powerful way. Turning water into wine was a sign. Feeding the five thousand, was a sign. So were walking on water and healing a blind man. These supernatural signs pointed the way to a new understanding of God in their midst.
And now that Jesus was no longer physically present, the signs and wonders continued at Pentecost. God had not abandoned them.
The first sign was wind. Imagine that you are standing outdoors in a favorite spot by a lake or mountain and a strong wind blows from the west. You feel it on your face, and you remember how you were told, perhaps as a child, that though you can’t see God, just like you can’t see the wind, God is always right there. We know that wind is a powerful force that turns energy turbines and knocks over tall trees. Wind blows explorers in sailing ships to distant places and new discoveries.
The second sign was fire. As the friends of Jesus looked around the room, they were surprised to see flames of fire dancing on the heads of those around them. There were one hundred and twenty gathered there. The fire marshal was nowhere to be seen, so they just took in the wonder of this very unusual moment. Think of sitting by a campfire and staring into the embers as the flames burn down and glow with intensity. Fire is mesmerizing. Left on its own, it can destroy great forests, but even in doing so it continues the cycle of life.
And then there are strange languages. The back story is that Pentecost was a Jewish festival before it was a day on the church calendar. The Jewish people were scattered far and wide throughout Asia and Europe and spoke different languages even though they shared a common faith. People came to Jerusalem from all over for the festival. When the Spirit arrived on Pentecost, the followers of Jesus suddenly started talking with words that sounded like jibberish, even to them, but which conveyed the story of Jesus’ life and message to others. Even though the world as they knew it was divided by language and geography, they were united that day in the experience of the Holy Spirit who broke down all barriers.
The signs on that Day of Pentecost were startling. And they probably reminded those present of their own auspicious and many-storied spiritual history:
Moses encountered a bush engulfed by fire in the Sinai desert which continued to burn but was never consumed.
Ezekiel was instructed by God to speak forcefully to the wind which listened to him and breathed life into dry bones in the desert sand.
And maybe you remember the story of a prideful people who tried to build a tower to reach God and who were scattered to many lands and given new languages to speak which sounded like babble.
Those who encountered fire and wind and diverse tongues in the Hebrew Scriptures continued to look and wait for God’s further acts of deliverance. And those waiting in that home on the day of Pentecost did so with sincere hope for a future that seemed pretty grim without their leader, Jesus, who had been raised from the dead but now had left them again.
We saw the destructive power of fire last summer in record number of forest fires consuming wide portions of the West, and it looks like this year will be more of the same as our planet keeps heating up. Forests and homes are routinely destroyed by fire, and air qualitied is harmed by flames that roar out of control. Ten years ago this weekend, an F-5 tornado killed 158 residents of Joplin Missouri, and the power of wind was evident to all in its wake who survived. We can see the destructive power of language as well. Words can hurt. It shocks us but somehow no longer surprises to hear people in power use words to lie and insult and bully.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that when God chose to break into human history to establish a community of transformation, the instruments of hurt and devastation – fire, wind, and language, were fashioned into signs of healing and hope.
What if we weren’t so afraid of fire? What if being fired up – ignited with a passion for the message of Jesus was a good thing rather than a sign of being too enthusiastic or somehow out of touch with reality? A little fire is a good thing sometimes, as Pentecost showed us. God’s fire burns bright when it’s stoked. It burns within, but doesn’t consume.
God’s wind doesn’t destroy us, either. The wind of the Spirit will blow us forward if we stop trying so hard to figure out what we can’t control and just put up our sails, allowing the Spirit to move us where we need to go. We have a lot of sailcloth available, but it’s the Spirit that matters.
Language can separate us or unite us. Do we use words to lift up or to hurt one another? Words are powerful in their ability to encourage, support, and inspire. And words proclaim to those within these walls and those at home on Zoom and those surrounding us, just like those who surrounded that house on the day of Pentecost, that a great God cares about them and wants everyone to be part of a community of Grace.
Wind and fire are some of the most basic elements of the earth. Pentecost roots us in God’s ancient creation, even as it creates something new. We often refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the church. When the Spirit came, those gathered were topped with flames, looking like a hundred and twenty birthday candles that the wind rushing through the room couldn’t blow out. Because of that day, this church is here and continues to share Jesus’ message of God’s radically inclusive love for all people.
I really love Pentecost Sunday. One reason is that it is the traditional day for Confirmation students to profess their faith and take membership vows. One Pentecost morning at a church I served many years ago, the confirmands were all seated in a row as I read from Acts chapter two. It was a hot day in early June that year and the sanctuary windows were open. Just as I read about the rushing mighty wind, a strong breeze started to blow through the windows. Paper bulletins flew around the room, and people looked around startled, wondering if a storm had come on us suddenly. But it was just an unusual blast of wind. I paused to said something like, “The Spirit is here! Feel the wind! Open your hearts to God’s amazing presence” and simultaneously the ushers all came forward and closed all windows!
What will you do when the Spirit comes? Will you open the window wider? Will you feel the breeze and welcome new life?
Is the wind blowing for you today? Is the fire burning? Are barriers being broken down so that you can be part of God’s great work in uniting this world? When the Spirit comes, anything is possible! Amen.
Rev. Rick Danielson
there was easter
Luke 24:1-12 (The Message)
You may have noticed the themes of Easter popping into our worship service this morning: the mention of our Easter God in our Call to Worship, a reminder of the possibilities of Easter touching us with new hope, and now the beginning of the Easter story in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke. Next, we’ll be gently singing/humming, or just listening to one of my all-time favorite hymns, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!”
For those of you who may be concerned that I’ve totally lost track of time, don’t be. I know it’s the middle of May in the year 2021, and I know that next Sunday is Pentecost, a special day in the life of the Church, celebrated fifty days after Easter.
I was looking back through my sermons recently (I know, I know…don’t I have anything better to do?), particularly focusing on the messages I’ve shared since we first “shut down” in March 2020, due to the COVID19 pandemic. Almost exactly 14 months ago. I remember we cancelled worship altogether on Sunday, March 15, 2020, scrambling to get word of that late change of plans out to as many of you as possible. And then we began our baby steps into ZOOM-only worship on March 22, 2020.
Easter was on April 12 in 2020, and I thought I might just curl up in a ball on the floor and cry when it became very clear to me—to all of us, really—that we were not going to be physically together to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. How could we NOT be together on Easter?!
Yet, when I was looking back through my sermons, I noticed how many of them were grounded in a message of hope. I preached what I thought—what I hoped!—was a message of hope.
Just a couple of weeks ago, after we celebrated Easter on ZOOM-only on April 4, 2021, I came upon a thoughtful reflection by Allan Bevere, in which he asked the question, “What about the 50 days of Easter?”
Many religious traditions—including ours—observe the forty days of Lent. But we don’t seem to be very good at observing the fifty days of the Easter season. Yes, we pull out all the stops in worship on Easter Sunday—in a typical year—but then we seem to immediately go back to business as usual. While we have special times and services during Lent, we don’t tend to place that kind of emphasis on the season of resurrection between Easter Sunday and Pentecost.
And yet, Easter is the most significant holiday of the Christian year. Though we celebrate Christmas as the central holiday to our faith as far as emphasis, it is not. Without Christ’s resurrection, there is no Christian faith. If Jesus had not be raised, there are no Christmas celebrations to be had.
So, the question Allan Bevere raised in his reflection is this: why is it that so many Protestants who observe Lent, do not observe, in similar fashion and emphasis, the full fifty days of the Easter season? Why is the greeting, “He is risen!” reserved only for Easter Sunday? On Ash Wednesday, we are invited to observe a holy season of Lent for forty days. Why are we not similarly invited to observe a joyful Easter for fifty days following the morning the empty tomb is discovered?
Today, we are invited to celebrate. Because now, maybe more than ever, we need to be reminded of hope. Because now, even as “things” seem to be “better” than maybe they were fourteen months ago,
the trauma we have endured lingers. And our nation and our world seem to be so deeply embedded in conflict and violence and hate and pain and death.
In the midst of this lingering trauma and upheaval in our world, I long to go back to Easter. It is good to remember the drama we know so well. It is good to be reminded that because of the beyond-horrible death of Jesus, peaceful kindness and gracious compassion will again confront the world of power and violent authority. It is good to remember that Jesus confronted the political, economic, and social authorities and then was arrested and executed.
And yet Easter comes. We believe, as John Buchanan, a retired Presbyterian minister and a former editor of the Christian Century said, “that although bullies, thugs, and murderers seem to be winning, peace and justice will prevail at the end of the day. We dare to believe that the long arc of history, as Martin Luther King, Jr, reminded us, bends toward freedom, equality, kindness, justice and love.”
“We become fools for Christ because Jesus was still loving and forgiving even as men were driving nails through his wrists and ankles. Because of Easter we dare to believe that the resurrection drama points to God’s ultimate authority and power. Death did not defeat Jesus. The power of the empire, human hatred, cruelty, and bigotry did not prevail on that dark Friday because three days later…three days later!...there was Easter.
This is, indeed, the last Sunday of the liturgical Easter season. In many churches, this is the last Sunday for Easter banners to be displayed, for Easter hymns to be sung. We are now on our way to being powerfully blessed by the Holy Spirit to go and spread this good news in all the places where trauma reigns, and hope seems lost.
But do not despair, my friends, because Easter in never over!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
the spirit disrupts
Acts 10:44-48 (The Message)
It looks like a burger. Cooks like a burger. Tastes like a burger. And even "bleeds" like a burger. But there's no beef in it. Instead, the burger is made out of a plant-based beef alternative, with "bleeding" that comes from beet juice. The burger is produced by a company called Beyond Meat. If you're looking for a meat alternative to throw on your grill, you can now buy the ready-to-cook Beyond Burger at Whole Foods. It's located right next to the real meat, so you can make your own decision about plant versus animal protein. Beyond Meat is a health-driven disruption in the food business. This is the phrase the business magazine Fast Company uses -- health-driven disruption. More often than not, change requires disruption. And in case you think Beyond Meat won’t make it as a company, in 2020 it amassed $406.8 million in revenue.
Or, think about electric cars, and how the industry appears to be reaching a tipping point. Perhaps Tesla and its founder Elon Musk were the disruption in this industry. It used to be that electric cars were rare. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius had some degree of popularity. But now, everyone, including Ford, General Motors, Daimler and others, is rushing for market share. The gas-powered automobile will likely become a thing of the past in the coming decades.
Throughout history, positive changes have relied on disruptions. The early Christians in Jerusalem, according to the book of Acts, were people who had grown up Jewish. They had been taught never to associate with uncircumcised, unclean people like the Gentiles of the Greek and Roman world.
Enter the disruption. Here it is in Acts 10:15: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Or as The Message translates it: “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.” This is an earth-shattering verse upending centuries of Jewish dietary customs and cultural traditions! Talk about disruptive!" Here's how it happened:
One day in Caesarea, Cornelius, a Gentile, had a vision from God in which he was told to send for the apostle Peter. Meanwhile, the apostle Peter had a dream in which foods deemed "unclean" in Judaism came floating down from heaven, and a voice told Peter to eat. But Peter, being the good Jewish lad that he was, could not eat unclean food, even in a dream. Then a voice said to him in the dream, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Or, “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”
After arriving, Peter acknowledged that it was unlawful for Jews to visit with Gentiles, but then he reported that God had shown him that he "should not call anyone profane or unclean". No one should be excluded, even those who eat burgers that bleed beet juice. Peter preached the good news about Jesus to Cornelius and his friends and relatives, and Acts tells us that while Peter was speaking, "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word".
Yes, the Spirit fell on all who heard the word. Gentiles and Jews. It was a Spirit-driven disruption, one that actually interrupted the preaching of Peter. The Jewish believers were "astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles". Utterly astonished. Gobsmacked. Blown away. They were like meat-eaters tasting their first Beyond Burger. They had a hard time grasping that non-Jews were speaking in tongues and extolling God.
Peter knew that he was in the middle of a spiritual disruption and radical change, and that a new reality was being born. He asked his fellow believers: "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?". You could hear a pin drop. No one said a word, so Peter ordered Cornelius and his family and friends to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Normal operations had been disrupted, and they would never go back to the way they were before.
The falling of the Spirit on the Gentiles began a new era in the life of the church. By making this change, God was enabling the Gentiles to hear the gospel and be part of the community of faith -- something that Jewish purity laws had previously prohibited. "One of the first lessons the early Church had to learn was how to accept the Samaritan, the Gentile and even the eunuch who believed in Jesus Christ as Savior," wrote Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary. But disruption is always difficult, and our church today is still "learning how to accept the stranger God has chosen to include in the community of Christian faith."
When Peter reported this experience to the church back in Jerusalem, he encountered resistance and criticism. But he concluded his report by asking a question (in Acts 11:17) that silenced his critics: "If God gave the same exact gift to them as to us when we believed in the Master Jesus Christ, how could I object to God?" What a great question. "Who was I that I could hinder God?" Who are we to resist a Spirit-driven disruption? If God wants us to change and do a new thing, who are we to say no?
Of course, disagreements are bound to arise in a time of disruption. We won't all agree about all the issues a church faces. I think in inevitable times of tension, the church can do no better than to follow the example of Jesus, who always showed a willingness to minister to outcasts. Remember that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, touched menstruating women, welcomed little children and preferred the company of sinners over saints. In all these ways, Jesus was never afraid to push for change, even in the face of opposition. He was a Spirit-driven disrupter.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus came up with a new and better religious system, and today he asks us to move in this new direction with him. He challenges us to get to know the immigrant from Africa who works down the hall, to reach out to the neighborhood teen who is isolated and alone, to adopt the child with a disability who needs specialized care, to support the young woman with the problem pregnancy, to invite young singles to church and to make an effort to visit the elderly members trapped in their homes.
Jesus wants us to be part of the movement of inclusion that was seen so clearly when the Spirit fell on the Gentiles and welcomed them into the community of believers. That's what Jesus was all about, and it is a movement that he advanced through the power of the Holy Spirit. It was disruptive then, and it is disruptive today. But it is precisely what a Spirit-filled church should be doing. Our challenge as Christians will always be to reach new people as well, following the example of Jesus and the inspiration of the Spirit. Our Spirit-driven acceptance of diversity coupled with the unconditional love of God is something that the world needs now, more than ever.
By the grace of God, may we be a part of this movement. Amen.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale
Don’t Forget to Plug In!
John 15:1-8 (NRSV)
Last Sunday morning, our tech guru, Lisa Zimmerman, entered the sanctuary before worship, determined to find an extension cord. At home, she had dutifully plugged in her iPad to charge it for worship, but didn’t notice that the other end of the power cord was not connected to the electrical outlet. The iPad was drained of power.
I thought about Lisa when I was thinking about today’s scripture reading from the gospel of John. And I also thought about a Samsung cell phone commercial from years ago, known as the “Wall Hugger” commercial. The commercial depicted people in airports desperately trying to charge cell phones. People were in bathrooms, sitting on floors, and squeezed into uncomfortable corners just to gain access to a plug because their cell phone batteries had, apparently, died.
Debora Jackson, an American Baptist pastor, once said she could totally relate to that commercial. As she traveled around the country meeting with groups of pastors, she said, “I've sat on floors; I've crammed into corners; and I've waited out in smelly bathrooms, just to access an outlet to get that much needed battery recharge.” Some would say there is nothing more annoying than to need your cell phone battery in one of those places where there is no access to an electrical outlet.
Debora Jackson went on to say, “I could not help but remember that things were different when my cell phone was new. Oh, it seemed that I could go for days without a charge. I felt as though I could have responded to email, surfed the web, watched several YouTube videos and still have juice to make phone calls. But over time, it seemed that the [average] time between recharging was greatly reduced. Now all I have to do is use my phone as a hot spot for a few minutes and the battery is drained, thus requiring me to more frequently find new places for a charge.”
If you’ve ever had this kind of “wall hugger” experience—if you’ve ever found yourself desperately looking for a place to recharge your cell phone or some other device—then you know exactly what she’s talking about.
This phenomenon is not only true with our various electronic devices, but it is also true of our spiritual lives. I don't know about you, but when I was a teenager, new to the Christian faith, I felt like I would never lose energy for the church. I was a member of a very active American Baptist Church and there was always something going on for the youth of the church. We were learning new things in Bible Studies, we were gathering to simply play together, we went on retreats together, went on mission trips together, I served as the youth representative on Boards. Eventually, as I got closer to the end of my High School career, I was sensing that I was called by God to be a pastor, and I felt certain of God's path and plan for me. Life was good, and I was raring to go!
But I bet you can figure out where this story is going! Over time, things got harder. The problems facing the churches I served were more difficult, more complicated. The counseling was more heart wrenching. Debora Jackson talked about this same thing, remembering a time she was serving a local church. She said, “I remember having to practice a funeral sermon for a dearly loved member because even I couldn't get through my eulogy without crying. I remember the first time I met resistance to a plan that I had for the church, having to actually debate and sell the plan to gain support. I remember a sermon that drew complaints because it made some people feel uncomfortable. I remember having only 20
children signed up for Vacation Bible School when we had planned for 60. Ministry was starting to weigh heavily and my battery drained more quickly.”
I had a very vivid experience of my physical battery being drained during the Ride for Roswell in 2014. It was the half-way mark of a 30 mile ride, and it was hot out!
I said to my riding companion, “I just need to stop pedaling for a few minutes.” But when we stopped and I got off my bike under the shade of a tree, I began to feel just a wee bit light-headed, so I gently sat down in the cool breeze of the shade tree. Then I began to feel a wee bit nauseous, so I laid down in the cool breeze of the shade tree. I knew nothing serious was going on…I just needed a break to recharge my “battery” for the second half of the ride.
I think that this “draining of energy” happens to all of us in one form or another…sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually. Have you ever felt like it was just harder to get up in the morning and get yourself together to go to work? Have you ever found yourself less-than-thrilled to spend time with some family or friends you used to love being with? Have you noticed that it gets harder and harder to get to church after you’ve “broken the habit?” The things we used to love doing just don’t bring the same joy, or the same satisfaction, or the same challenge as they used to.
But think about this…maybe this is exactly the way God intends for it to be.
God wants us to recognize that we have all been called to be followers in faith, and that we have all been equipped to do the work that God has for us. But lest we start to believe that we are so gifted and capable in and of ourselves—as individuals and as congregations—that we can do things by ourselves, God has ways of letting us know that "all of our help comes from the Lord." We have to plug into the source. We have to be connected to the vine. Without the sustaining grace of God, we wither and fall away. We cannot bear up under the challenges of faithful living on our own. If we try to go it alone—even in the name of God—we will be emptied and depleted.
So the question is when was the last time that you connected to the divine power source so that you could be revitalized and recharged? Like finding that lone outlet in a dusty corner of an airport, you might need to find your own spot to get quiet and reconnect. You may need to sit on the floor in your business suit or your skirt like in the “wall hugger” commercial. In other words, we all just might have to humble ourselves so that we know without a doubt that God is the one who restores us. I suspect we can all remember times when we felt like we just could not go on, but neither are we meant to. Like Jesus taking his disciples away to a deserted place where they could rest, we need to do the same.
Connecting to the vine is a precious and life-giving gift of God. Amen!
Rev. Lisa L. Drysdale
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 sever