SERMONS

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
sword or cross?

6/21/2020

Matthew 10:34-39   (NRSV)

On Reconciliation Sunday, the leader and facilitator of a workshop at a local Midwest church introduced a discussion by showing two images of Jesus.

The first was a painting by Stephen Sawyer, titled “Undefeated.” He depicts Jesus as a boxer standing inside a boxing ring. In his corner, we find the word “Savior” printed on the protective padding of the corner post, and hanging from the ropes are his boxing gloves with the word “mercy” written upon them.

When the speaker flashed the image on the screen, he heard a gasp from Jackie, a lady sitting near the front row. She was shaking her head, and exclaiming, “No, no, that’s not my Jesus! That image is just wrong.” Later, she would talk about how the image of Jesus she holds onto is the Jesus who is the Prince of Peace. That image of Jesus dressed as a boxer was the furthest thing from a Prince of Peace.

The image of Jesus as an undefeated boxer was followed by another image — this one by Nathan Greene, titled “The Good Shepherd.” This image shows Jesus holding a black lamb.

When looking at these images side by side, we can’t avoid asking, “How did we go from an image of a loving, compassionate Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep to one of Jesus standing in the corner of a boxing ring, gloves off and ready to fight?”

We all have an image or two of Jesus, and these images we have tell us more about ourselves and our theology than they do about Jesus, for whom no real physical description exists.

Jackie had a point though. What do we do with the image of someone who says, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother”? What do we do with words like, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”? How would Jackie respond to someone who said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”?

When we ponder the image of Jesus Christ that is at the core of our belief and understanding of who Jesus is, do we picture a Jesus who brings division or one who seeks unity? Do we think of Jesus in terms of one who is the Prince of Peace, or a fighter? Is Jesus someone who would encourage taking up the sword or taking up the cross?

Jackie believed in a Jesus who brings peace and seeks unity. She does not believe in a warrior Jesus wearing boxing gloves or a sword.

I wonder if it would make any difference if we understood that the sword Jesus brings to us is not made of steel, but wood — the wood of a cross? Jesus asks us to pick up our cross, and, if we don’t, we cannot be his follower. When we hear Jesus say, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” we naturally think of a long blade of steel that has been forged and hammered into a weapon with a pointed end for thrusting and sharpened edges for slicing and cutting.

There are many types of swords. Some are short; others are long. Some are straight, while others have a curved blade. No matter the shape or size, each of them has one main purpose and that is to cut, slice or divide something. The sword seems to be associated with violence, whether as a weapon held by a soldier marching off to war or kept in the home for self-defense. In the many ways we might describe the sword, it certainly stands as the direct opposite to a peaceful existence.

Throughout the Bible, there are a variety of references to swords. Usually, the sword is referred to as an instrument of a violent death. At the same time, both Micah and Isaiah encourage beating the swords into something they see as more useful to the common good: ploughshares. Nations should not take up the sword against nations, nor teach war anymore. On the one hand, nowhere does Jesus support the use of a sword. On the other hand, sometimes, there are verses that are used to support an image of a Jesus who condones violence toward others and supports the division of families. So what is Jesus really saying here?

Jesus is talking about discipleship.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives a mission to the disciples, sending them out to heal, share the good news and ask for nothing in return. However, Jesus also reminds them of the cost associated with discipleship. The disciples probably expected that their mission would be a successful one, and that by following Jesus, prosperity would follow.

But what Jesus actually says here is this: “Do not assume that because you’re a student and follower of mine that it’s going to be all apple pie and roses. Wrong! What is likely to happen is that father will be set against son, daughter against mother, etc. In other words, a lot of people, including your family members, will not get it. They will probably think you’re nuts.”

That’s Jesus’ warning. Following Jesus may feel more like a sword than a bath towel, more like the thorn than the rose itself. Jesus understands that by sending the disciples out in this way that they may share in the same fate that awaits him in Jerusalem; that as they teach peace, and even heal the outcasts of society, they will likely meet resistance and ridicule. They will be harassed and slandered. Doing the right thing can often produce division, putting you at odds with those who are close to you and do not see things the same way.

When you live the way Jesus taught, with radical hospitality to strangers, amazing love shown to enemies or compassion and mercy shown to the sick and the poor, then you are going to offend people who have a vested interest in keeping the oppressed oppressed and the poor poor.

Jesus does not say “pick up the sword” but rather, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” The power of God is not found in the sword but in the cross.

Amen.

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
who could forget you?

6/28/2020

Psalm 13 (NRSV)

Like most teens, Jill Price had her share of difficulties — the usual highs and lows.

But Price’s world was changing in ways that she didn’t understand. No one else seemed to get it either. Since she was 8 years old, she could remember just about everything that happened to her.

Her grades in school were average. She could not remember lists, names and dates — that sort of thing. But she had total recall about events she’d experienced. For example, she could remember the dates she saw the dentist from five years before. She knew what she was doing on any Christmas Day of years gone by.

She was blessed — or was she cursed? — with a memory that would not allow her to forget anything She couldn’t forget!

Later, in the early 2000s, she would be the first person to be diagnosed with “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory” (HSAM). After spending years working with Dr. James McGaugh, a neuroscientist and memory researcher with the University of California, Irvine, she co-authored a book about her life living with this syndrome: The Woman Who Can’t Forget. 

Fortunately, as McGaugh and others began to work with Price, they learned she had kept a diary, and this allowed researchers to verify her claims.

If you were asked to “name the dates of every single time you’ve visited” a doctor in the past five years, could you do it? Price could.

Researchers believe that as few as 50 people in the world have HSAM. And then there’s God. God doesn’t just have “highly superior” memory. God has the highest form of memory. God has the memory of an elephant. God has the memory of a mother. God has a memory like no one else. God is memory.

But to the psalmist, it seems apparent that God has indeed forgotten something — or someone. The writer — let’s assume it is David, as the heading of the psalm suggests — says that God has forgotten him! “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” To paraphrase the first sentence, we might put it this way: “Really? You’re still ignoring me, God?” “Can you really forget me forever?”

He continues this for the entire psalm. Four times, his complaint begins with “How long …?”

This lament sounds very much like the breakup of a relationship. The jilted party has phoned and left messages or texted a jillion times.

“Hey! How long are you going to ignore me, you jerk? How long are you going to keep running away from me? Do you think you can forget me forever? Could you please have the decency to tell me how long you are going to keep me hangin’, ʼcause I’m in some pain — as if you cared. But, of course, you’re not likely to care about my pain and the sorrow in my heart, are you? It doesn’t seem to bother you that you’ve publicly humiliated me after I made such a show of declaring my undying and steadfast belief and trust in you! So how long am I supposed to put up with this?”

That’s the tone here. Raw. Bitter. Harsh. This is pretty much Psalm 13. Unfortunately for David, no answer comes from God. David doesn’t get closure or relief. He’s left with doubts and despair.

Honestly now. Have we not had moments like this? Is this not an experience that we share with David?  It’s like God’s away from the phone. God is not picking up. And so, God clearly doesn’t care. It would appear that God has run out on us, abandoned us and left no forwarding address.

And after all we’d gone through together. In fact, you think that God has forgotten you. God is — shockingly — the forgetting God!

But, here’s the thing. There are some things that God cannot forget. And you are one of them. God may be omnipotent—all-powerful--but this is one thing that God cannot do. God cannot forget you.

There’s a remarkable passage in Isaiah — 49:14-16. It begins by noting that “Zion” complains that “the Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” But then, a rhetorical question on the order of “Is the pope Catholic?” is posed: “Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” The text continues by asserting that it is more likely that a mother will forget her child than God will forget us. Not going to happen.

And then, there’s this addendum in verse 16: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands …”

Old Testament scholars don’t agree on some of the specifics, but all agree that this is an allusion to the practice of what we might call religious tattoo work. God says that we are tattooed on his palm!

God is saying that the Divine, Creator and God of the universe has inscribed us in the palm of his hand. God cannot forget us. We’re right there in his palm!

Of course, this is an anthropomorphic representation. Still, it represents in a puny, symbolic way a reality which must be much more fabulous, because a sign always signifies something greater than itself.

Tattooed in the hollow of the hand of God! That’s beyond amazing!

God cannot forget us. 

We don’t have any idea how long it takes, but the psalmist seems to have eventually come to this deep understanding. He writes, “But I trusted in your steadfast love”. Even when he felt ignored and forgotten, his trust in the steadfast love and loyalty of God brought him through whatever crisis he was going through.

Many people would say that Jill Price, the remarkable woman with the remarkable memory now called “Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory,” is blessed. Most of us are not “blessed” with that kind of memory. 

But we do not need to fear that God will forget us.  It’s not going to happen. 

Your name is engraved on the palm of God’s hand.  Amen!

 

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
what does the lord require?

6/7/2020

Micah 6:8  (shared from five different versions)

Friends, I will eventually share with you today’s scripture reading, but first I have to tell you…it took forever for me to write today’s message.  This will happen to me from time to time, but this time, for this message, I was in serious trouble. 

Every time I sat down this week to work on this message, I conveniently found something else to do.  Something important.  Like, finishing that crossword puzzle from yesterday.  Or, checking Facebook or Twitter for the umpteenth time that day.  Or, organizing the stationery in that one drawer. One day when I really needed to be working on this, I almost went to the backyard to clean out the shed instead. I ended up not doing that, either.  What a struggle it was to find the focus I needed to prepare this message for you. 

I think it took so long to settle down to this because in the deepest places in my heart I want desperately to be able to tell you—this morning—that “all is well, all is well, and all will be well,” which I feel like is a quote from somebody, somewhere, but when I Googled it, what I got was an ad for container of Collagen Peptides from LiveWell Labs, for $34.9

I want to be able to tell you “all is well.”

But in the end, way later than I should have been working on this message, I realized that I need to tell you there have been so many times in the past two weeks when my confidence that “all will be well” was simply shoved aside.

I am not a particularly tearful person, so I truly understood when a gentleman said to me after Friday’s candlelight vigil on the front steps of the church that exact thing:  “I am not a tearful person.  I don’t usually cry,” he said.  And yet.  And yet…he wanted to tell me that he found himself crying at the vigil, and that it felt good and right to him.

I get it!  I’ve been moved to tears over and over again, lately.  I have seen some remarkably ugly images on TV, and in the newspaper, and on Facebook and Twitter…ugly images which I trust I do not need to describe to you.  At the same time, I’ve got to say I’ve seen some equally remarkable beautiful images…which I also hope I don’t need to describe to you because, even now, I hope you understand there really is beauty and goodness everywhere. 

Even so, something inside of me remains uneasy, unsettled.  I know some of you are feeling this way, as well.  Some of you have told me of your deep anger, and others of you have talked of your profound weariness with the world as it is. 

As I mentioned, Friday night we held a candlelight vigil at the church, to honor and remember George Floyd, and to commit ourselves to finding ways to break the cycles of unfair violence we witness (not to mention what continues to stay hidden) on so many levels against people of color in our communities.  To open the vigil—where nearly 100 people were in attendance, by the way.  There is no doubt that that was a spirit-led gathering!—Wendy Hamilton shared a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It turned out to be the exact quote that I had come upon again just the day before.  It was the quote that finally made my heart leap just a bit, a reminder that God loves us, and guides us, and urges us toward light and love.

Here’s the Martin Luther King, Jr quote Wendy shared—with absolutely NO prompting from me!—

”Darkness cannot drive out darkness.  Only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”

I desperately want to be on the side of light and love.  Even if it is painful to get there.

So, what is today’s scripture reading?  This is one I have loved for a long time.  It’s just one verse so it is actually short enough to memorize, though I will never claim to be good at that.  It comes from the book of Micah.

Micah was a prophet centuries and centuries before Christ.  “Prophets use words to remake the world.  The world—heaven and earth, men and women, animals and birds—was made in the first place by God’s Word.  Prophets, arriving on the scene and finding that world in ruins, finding a world of moral rubble and spiritual disorder, take up the work of words again to rebuild what human disobedience and mistrust demolished.  The prophets learn their speech from God.  Their words are God-grounded, God-energized, God-passionate.  And their words are meant to train us—in all of today’s moral rubble and spiritual disorder—to respond to God’s presence and voice.”  (Eugene Peterson, The Message)

So hear these God-grounded, God-energized, God-passionate words of Micah, shared in a couple of versions of the scripture.  They give me hope.  I hope they give you hope, as well.  Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?  (NRSV)

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.  (The Message)

The Lord God has told us what is right
    and what he demands:
“See that justice is done,
let mercy be your first concern,
    and humbly obey your God.”  (Contemporary English Version)

No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.  (Good News Translation)

The Lord has told you what is good.
    He has told you what he wants from you:
Do what is right to other people.
    Love being kind to others.
    And live humbly, trusting your God.  (International Children’s Bible)

Amen.

 

Rev. Lisa Drysdale, June 7, 2020

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
faith and laughter

6/14/2020

Genesis 18:1-15  (NRSV)

There was a time, not long ago, when determining the gender of your child was far from scientific. Old Aunt Hattie, for example, was convinced you could tell whether the happy couple was going to have a boy or a girl by the way the mother carried the baby. If it looked like the baby was resting low in the mother's womb, the child was said to be a boy. If the mother was carrying high, it was supposed to be a girl.

Grandma Marie, on the other hand, was convinced the gender could be determined by the mother's cravings. If the mom-to-be wanted sweets and chocolates, she was having a girl. If she wanted things that were sour, it was said the baby must be a boy.

Then the neighbors would chime in. They believed the key was with the father, not the mother. If he gained sympathy weight during the pregnancy, the baby was thought to be a girl. If he didn't, it was a boy. Maybe this is related to the previous thinking. A mom craving sweets might share them with her husband.

Another means of trying to determine the gender of a child seems a little more "magical." The mother, or a well-meaning friend or relative, would attach the mother's wedding ring or a needle to a piece of string and dangle it over her belly. If the ring started to move in a circle, the believers said the baby was a girl. If it swung back and forth, this meant it was a boy.

In the late 1970s, these methods of trying to ascertain the gender of your child started to fall into disuse. A much more accurate solution to everyone's curiosity had become readily available -- the sonogram or ultrasound. Soon the parents' dilemma changed from how to determine if they were having a boy or a girl, to discussing if they wanted to know the child's gender before the moment of birth.

Of course, Sarah of the Bible didn't have ultrasound technology available to her. Yet as far as we know she was the first woman ever to know categorically the gender of her unborn child. She didn't dangle a needle over her belly or journal her cravings to determine the gender of her child. Her faith in the Lord told her all she needed to know. She was having a son who would fulfill God's promise to her and Abraham.

At first, naturally, Sarah is incredulous. When she overhears the messengers of God telling her husband that she is going to have a baby, she laughs. Who could blame her? The thought of having a baby at her advanced age is absurd. She says herself that her husband is old and that she is well past her childbearing years. But this isn't a story about what is possible through science. It is, ultimately, a story about faith.

When the child was born, Abraham named the baby Isaac, the Hebrew word for laughter. Their faith in God's promise had brought joy and laughter in their lives. But Isaac wasn’t just a little bundle of joy for his unlikely parents. He was also the fulfillment of God's promise to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah's faith in the love and promises of God enabled them to see what appeared impossible. We are called to have this kind of faith as well.

The story of the birth of Isaac is not just the miraculous origin-story of the people of Israel. Beyond etymology, this is a story about the love and faithfulness of God and the lengths to which God is willing to go to bless us.

As human beings we get to choose how we view the world around us. We can choose to view our circumstances through the lens of what we can see, or with faith like Abraham and Sarah, seeing something better. It is pretty easy at times to trust only in what we can see, even when that is incredibly unreliable. Many of us have been there. We have come to the end of our resources, the end of our ability to understand what is happening in our lives and in the world around us.

Some have received a diagnosis they have no idea what to do with. Others have been called into their supervisor's office and been told they no longer have a job. Others have had someone whom they care deeply about hurt or disappoint them. Some have had to learn in very painful ways that an agreed upon system of justice is never going to see them as full human beings. Some have been exactly where Abraham and Sarah were, desperately wanting to be parents and hearing that having a child is not likely to happen -- at least without the help of technology and at great expense.

We have fallen into those times when all we can see in front of us is struggle, hardship, disappointment and denial. The darkness seems thick and we're convinced we do not see the light at the end of the tunnel, and the train that will soon run us over. This can also happen to our communities. In a world where bad news travels fast, we can become convinced that our neighborhood, nation, world or church is doomed. We look at the situation and see no solutions except bad ones.

But faith…faith offers us a view we wouldn't typically be able to discern. Through the eyes of faith, we see God and God's promises of blessing even when they seem impossible or absurd. We firmly believe that God has not left us to figure it out on our own. Instead, this kind of faith allows us to believe -- sometimes against all hope -- that God is working out blessing in our lives and in the world.

This faith gives us the boldness to believe we can minister to our friends who are hungry and homeless, and unfairly treated on a daily basis, in ways that will change our neighborhoods.

This faith sends us out to repair homes, provide healthcare, enact better laws and build better schools.  

This faith brings the people of God together for worship, and learning and prayer and action, believing that God will bless us, so that God might then change the world through us.

Abraham and Sarah laughed at the idea that God might bless them in their advanced age with the gift of a child. Their faith, however, allowed them to believe something better. They believed God's promise, and they could see the blessing that was to come for them and the whole world.

So may we. 

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
thoughts & prayers: what's the
  point?

5/10/2020

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Thoughts and prayers. Some people find them valuable, while others would actually pay to avoid them.

A recent study found that Christians generally value the offer of thoughts and prayers, even from a stranger. Two sociologists studied a group of North Carolina residents in the fall of 2018 after Hurricane Florence struck. They talked with more than 400 residents, asking them to describe the hardships they had suffered. Then they made an offer of a thought or a prayer, and they tied the offer to money.

What did they discover? Christians valued prayer from a stranger, putting its worth at more than $4. The nonreligious participants, however, said that they would pay more than $3.50 to avoid a Christian stranger’s prayer.

This finding “raises an interesting point,” said a Denver psychologist. “Some people, maybe, just don’t want your thoughts and prayers.” Perhaps they are atheists or agnostics, who do not believe in the power of prayer. Or maybe they feel that the offer of a prayer is a platitude, one that takes the place of meaningful action.

Even within the Christian community, many faithful people want to see a strong link between words and actions. In his New Testament letter, James writes, “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?” (James 2:15-16). Faith without works, according to James, is dead.

In a similar manner, many Christians today will argue that prayer without action is dead. Loving action is what is needed, with good reason.

So, where does that leave us when our ability to demonstrate our loving kindness toward someone is limited because of a virus raging across the globe, forcing us to separate from one another?  What do we do when someone we love is taken to the hospital, for example, terribly ill, perhaps unable to breathe, and we can’t go with them?  Can’t visit them?  Can’t let them see in our eyes, hear in our voice, feel in our touch how much we love them? 

We offer thoughts and prayers.  Sometimes, in fact, that is all we have to offer.  All of which raises the question, “What is the real value of prayer?” Most of us would argue that it is worth more than $4. But what specifically are our prayer values? What is the true value of prayer?

For starters, it is clear to me that prayer changes us. More than changing the outcome of the situation in front of us — whether it is a natural disaster or a terminal illness — prayer changes our relationship with God. Psalm 31 is a prayer for deliverance, and it includes the appeal to God: “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me” (v. 2).

This prayer is all about the deepening of a relationship. It asks for God to hear us and rescue us, and it requests that God be a rock of refuge, a place of safety and stability, a mighty fortress, a location of salvation. What it does not request is a change to the situation being faced.

A few years ago, a group called American Atheists put up a billboard outside the Super Bowl, which said, “A ‘Hail Mary’ only works in football.” Then the group issued a press release that said, “It’s time to stop believing that prayer works.” The atheists had a point. Prayer does not change the outcome of football games.

But the American Atheists were wrong to say that prayer does not work. Prayer changes the people who pray, making them more peaceful, accepting and connected to Almighty God. “You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,” says Psalm 31 in its appeal to God. (v. 3). Prayer doesn’t change the path of hurricanes or the outcome of sporting events, but it does change us. It draws us into a deeper relationship with the God who saves us, even as it asks for God’s leadership and guidance.

One of the most well-known modern prayers is the Serenity Prayer, said first by Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr during World War II. It is 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.”

Notice that God is not being asked in this prayer to miraculously eliminate a desire for alcohol or narcotics. Instead, God is being asked to give serenity, courage and wisdom to people so that they can become well. As is said in a book called How Al-Anon Works, “We turn to the God of our understanding for the attributes necessary to live life more fully.”

In other words, praying people turn to God and ask for help to live better lives. By praying to God in this way, 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 to change the hearts and minds of people, not the heart and mind of God.

Another value of prayer is that it gives us skills to face the challenges of life, challenges I suspect we all know intimately in one way or another during this time of pandemic.

Eileen Flanagan has written a book on the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference. In it, she 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.”

These are the kinds of challenges we face when we encounter health challenges, relationship troubles and crises of various kinds. “My times are in your hand,” says the writer of Psalm 31. “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love” (vv. 15-16). We are going to experience the greatest serenity when we know that everything we face is in God’s hands. On top of this, we can handle problems most effectively when we believe that God is with us, working to save us, in every time and place and situation.

The value of prayer goes far beyond the $4 that a Christian in North Carolina will pay to have a stranger offer a prayer. Prayer changes us and draws us closer to God. Prayer gives us skills to face the challenges of life. So let’s not hesitate to offer each other our thoughts and prayers. Our prayers will always be worth far more than a scholarly study can possibly reveal.  Amen.

 

Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
being fine with flourishing

5/03/2020

 Psalm 23  (NRSV)

Peter Gomes was an extraordinary preacher who served as minister of Memorial Church at Harvard University for almost 40 years. When someone would ask him how he was doing, his frequent response was a hearty: “I flourish!” Gomes didn’t just answer with the usual “Fine, how are you?” His “I flourish!” probably caught many people unfamiliar with the ultra-lively Gomes off guard.

You will not find the words “I flourish” in Psalm 23. But Rev. Kirk Byron Jones, senior pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Lynn, Massachusetts, reflecting on this beloved Psalm, encourages us to let ourselves feel the full blast of a flourishing, abundant spirit. We may find such spiritually palatable lavishness off-putting in a time when too many have too little and too few have too much. We may not even be able to get our heads wrapped around the idea of abundance when we find ourselves living in a time when some of the grocery store shelves we take for granted are bare. 

Rev. Steve Hall, an Amherst Community Church member, recently wrote an article for our church’s Good News Focus newsletter. In that article, he tells the story of a Japanese girl who lived in Lockport for a year as an exchange student.  The first time her host family took her to the grocery store, Maumi sat down on the floor and began to cry. 

When the mother got her settled down enough to figure out why she was crying, Maumi told her that in Japan she’d never seen the super abundance of choices this store offered her.  She was overwhelmed!

Steve goes on to reflect on how very odd it is for us to be in a position of experiencing the opposite of what we’re accustomed to:  instead of having a super abundance of choices, we are now sometimes faced with a paucity of choices.  And there is no doubt that can be overwhelming, too.

I’ve had a chance from time to time over the last couple of weeks to talk with some of you by phone.  I’m calling to connect and hear how you’re doing in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic.  Without fail, every one I have talked to has said something like, “I’m ok.” Then there’s usually a bit of a pause before I hear people say, “I’m sad about this or that.  I’m worried about the future.  I’m bored to tears.  I’m angry.  I’m exhausted.”  Whatever.  Stuff we’re all feeling at varying levels, if we’re being honest. 

And then, people on these calls say something like, “AND I know how blessed I am.”  I know this could be worse.  I know I am blessed to have a house, and food, and people who love me.

There is no doubt we are blessed. But I don’t want us to ignore David’s cup with its contents spilling out all over the place, with a super abundance of divinity and grace behind it. Psalm 23 bids that we come to terms with feeling awfully blessed without feeling awful about it.

Feeling fine with flourishing positively and powerfully impacts our overall attitude toward life.  How we feel going into anything largely determines how we will feel coming out of it. We make our beliefs, and then our beliefs make us.

Kirk Byron Jones goes so far as to say that “being fine with flourishing also unleashes a creative prowess and boldness that is otherwise unimagined and, therefore, unrealized. He points us to the jazz pianist Herbie Hancock offering an image of how this looks and feels in his book, Possibilities.  Hancock says:

“I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. . . . The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

“. . . The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s [trumpet] solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

“Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, Oh, ****. It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

“Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction.”

Kirk Byron Jones adds this to the end of the story: “In the final analysis, being fine with flourishing has to do less with how much you have and more with a heightened appreciation for the value of whatever you do have—for yourself and for others.”

When we are living in God’s overflow--even when the world around us looks so crazy and unrecognizable--there is an abiding sense of having what you need and always having enough to share. Appreciating what we have, rather than constantly fretting over what we don’t have, allows us to abide freely and fully in ever-flourishing blessing.

God prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies; God anoints our heads with oil; our cups overflow. 

Amen!

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Working with us

4/26/2020

  Luke 24:13-24   (The Message)

Rev. Kirk Byron Jones recently wrote in the Christian Century about today’s scripture.  He said, “Super Bowl champions are known for following up their victories with a television commercial announcing that their next stop is Disney World. Amazing experience deserves amazing experience. This is strikingly different from what Jesus does after his victory over death: he takes a walk. How anticlimactic. How mundane. And yet how so like Jesus.

“In the Gospels, Jesus is as interested in savoring ordinary life as he is in passing out extraordinary life. He is so interested in knowledge that as a boy he lags behind in Jerusalem to learn more, so interested in socializing that he begins his ministry at a wedding feast, so interested in people who are hurting that he becomes a healer. He is so interested in nature that he uses the ordinary lilies of the field to illuminate the extraordinary inside people, so interested in continuing a friendship that he raises Lazarus from the dead, so interested in keeping in touch after he’s gone that he offers a lasting memorial to his body and blood. He is so taken with being alive that he refuses to remain dead.

“On the day of his resurrection, Jesus chooses to take a slow walk with two disciples and simply enjoy the conversation. It seems like Jesus is just happy to be breathing and moving about again. Message giving and miracle making are not at the top of his agenda. The sensational gives way to seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching. Doing gives way to being.”

Many of us have been forced to slow down.  For many of us, the things we would typically “do” to “keep busy” are not currently available to us.  So maybe we’re finding ourselves with time on our hands. If that is the case, I wonder how alert we are to the simple and amazing ways that God is finding to be with us in the present.  Every day. 

When I walk, I feel like I have exactly one pace.  It is the same pace I use when I am walking in my neighborhood for some exercise or maybe walking on a treadmill, when I’m moving through the grocery store, when I’m walking from one side of my house to the other.  It’s like my body only knows one speed of walking.  I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly good at ambling, or sauntering. Oh, but as I age, I’m also aware that that exact pace I’ve kept for most of my life is ever so slightly harder to keep up with!

I truly want to get to the place where I can be comfortable with walking more slowly…where I can take a walk just to notice what’s going on around me, to be alert to what’s happening in that very moment.  It’s hard for me to do.  Jesus did it.  And he clearly took great pleasure in it.    

Deliberately choosing (or, maybe in our current reality, been forced!) to slow down and notice what God is doing around us can be as simple as practicing holding a gaze just a moment longer at points throughout the day. Noticing, one of the gifts of a slow walk, is something precious we give up when we choose to live overloaded and in a hurry. Living overloaded and in a hurry may not be the current challenge of our days, but those days will be back…someday.  And we’ll all be in a position to see what—if anything—we’ve learned about how we want-and then actually do-live our lives. 

So here's an idea for post-Easter-season practice that honors Jesus’ love of taking a walk with the disciples after his resurrection, and our need to slow down and notice: take an "Emmaus walk" through the  neighborhood where you live, or in the neighborhood surrounding our church, or in some other corner of town you'd like to explore with new eyes. As you walk, look for signs of hope and new life, and reflect on how Christ is present or hidden in that place.

How is Christ present, or hidden?

When we gathered for worship last week, I encouraged us to look at the story of what happened on Easter night, in the gospel of John.  We thought about Thomas and how, when he was able to finally see and touch the wounds in the resurrected Jesus’ hands and side, he appears to suddenly remembere everything Jesus had previously told him about what was going to happen….about his death, his resurrection, about life after his resurrection.  For Thomas, his believing came after the fact.  It came when that light bulb finally went off in his head and heart.

Today, I want us to come to a deep appreciation for how God is always choosing to walk with us.  Right now.  Right here.  This story of the walk to Emmaus is a great reminder that seeing, recognizing, believing God can happen in the present, if we take the time to notice. 

This morning, I want you to listen to a song sung by Mandisa, an American gospel and contemporary Christian recording artist. If her name is at all familiar to you, it is likely because her career began as a contestant in the fifth season of American Idol, in which she finished in ninth place, which is surprising to me because her voice is outstanding.

Mandisa sings of what I hope you come to trust—no matter how challenging the time—that life comes after death, and the God who created us is with us through it all. (Mandisa, “He Is with You”)

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
April 26, 2020

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
after the fact

4/19/2020

After the Fact               

John 20:19-31  (NRSV)

Today’s scripture reading is what the Lectionary guides us to focus on from the gospel of John. It’s not an unfamiliar story to many of us.  It is the story we expect to hear the Sunday after Easter; it’s almost like the necessary Part 2 to the resurrection story we heard and celebrated last week.  It’s the sequel to the grand drama of Mary going to the tomb early on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion, only to find that he is not there. 

This sequel in John takes place on Easter night. Remember the day began with Mary weeping at the tomb when she discovered it empty, and someone—she presumed it was a gardener—trying to comfort her, and then revealing himself to be the risen Christ. He told her what she needed to do next; go to the disciples and tell them that she had seen him!

Mary did that, and according to John, it appears that this amazing news about the resurrection of their beloved Jesus left them in fear, and so by the evening of that amazing, life-changing day, they were locked in a house, because they were afraid of the Jews. 

And that is exactly where Jesus meets them. In that house. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

Thomas, we know, wasn’t there at the time, so he’s not entirely convinced when the disciples tell him they have “seen the Lord.”  And Jesus does what Jesus is so great at doing…he seeks Thomas out and has a face-to-face conversation with him, showing him the marks the nails of the cross made in his hands, shows him the wound in his side and the lightbulb goes off in Thomas’ head and heart—after the fact—and he confesses, “My Lord and my God!”  It is you! Now I see! Now I get it! Jesus says to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.”

Blessed are those who have NOT seen me, and yet have come to believe. I’ve been thinking about this story this week, especially after I received a reflection written by Father Richard Rohr. Richard Rohr is an American author, spiritual writer, and Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been called "one of the most popular spirituality authors and speakers in the world," and I read carefully what he has to say, especially during this time of global pandemic, because I find him to be deeply thoughtful and comforting. 

In a reflection I received from him the day after Easter, he focused on a completely different story in scripture that totally grabbed my heart and my attention. He told the story of recovering from surgery a few years ago and, in an attempt to do some spiritual reading in his down time, he opened his bible to a passage in the Book of Exodus. In this passage, Moses asks YHWH to “Show me your glory” (33:18), and YHWH shows it in a most unusual way. YHWH says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you…but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”   

We might think that’s the end of the story, but it’s not.  YHWH is clearly going to be present and visible to Moses, but not in the way we might think. YHWH says, “I shall place you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I shall take my hand away, and you will see my backside, but my face will not be seen” (33:22–23). This story from Exodus is a great reminder, Rohr says, “that our knowledge of God is indirect at best, and none of our knowledge is fully face-to-face. God is always and forever Mystery. All we see is the “backside” of God.”

He goes on to say that his best spiritual knowing almost always occurs after the fact, in the remembering—not seen “until God has passed by.” He realized that in the moments of his diagnosis, doctor’s warnings, the waiting, the delays, and the surgery itself, he was as fragile, scared, and insecure as anybody would be. But if he could stay with the full narrative of his experience, all the way into and through, only afterward could he invariably see, trust, and enjoy the wonderful works of God. 

I think this is true for the disciples on that day when they were locked in the house; for Thomas, who insisted on seeing the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side; and probably for most of us. It is largely after the fact that faith is formed. Only after the fact can we see that we were being held and led during the fact.

The morning after Easter in 2020, the Buffalo News had a front-page article—the first in a series on the Oklahoma City Bombing, 25 years later. The title of that first article was: could the Oklahoma City bombing have been prevented? The article looked back 25 years and more to consider what signals did we miss? What signs of distress in Timothy McVeigh did we not read? Not pay attention to? Not believe? 

And you know the whole world is doing a lot of looking back and wondering right now, about how we could have better protected ourselves from the Covid-19 coronavirus. After the fact, we wonder “should we have known this was coming? Could we have quarantined sooner? What signs did we miss? What information did we dismiss? 

I suspect that Fr. Richard Rohr is right about even this…it will be only after the fact that we will be able to see and believe that we were being held and led during the fact. During the times of panic and sorrow and anger and confusion. 

I have loved hearing the stories some of you have told me along the way about a time in your life when you looked back…after the fact…and could clearly see the hand (or maybe the back side?) of God at work in your life, in your situation.  I pray that will be our collective story sometime in the future, when we look back on this time of illness and isolation. 

What our scripture stories tell us about today is the promise that God is always in it—whatever it is—even if we cannot yet see.  As Richard Rohr says, “During the fact, you do not enjoy or trust your own strength at all, in fact, quite the opposite. You just cry out in various ways. Then God, for some wonderful reason, is able to fill the gap.”

May we give thanks to God that God keeps stepping into our lives, even after the resurrection.  Amen.

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
palm sunday and grief 

4/5/2020

Palm Sunday and Grief           

 Matthew 21:1-11  (NRSV)

I have to tell you, my friends, it has been very hard this week to think about preaching on this Palm Sunday.  This morning, as we worship from a wide variety of places and spaces, it is hard to think about preaching of the “Hosanna!” and the “Hallelujah!” that are so much a part of the Palm Sunday story, as we love to experience it.  As we love to tell it.  It just doesn’t feel right, this year.

Normally, those of us who have been intentional about some kind of Lenten practice, or Lenten discipline or, for some of us, giving something up for Lent, Palm Sunday brings us joy because we know that the end of Lent is now only days away.  It officially ends on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, but most people, I suspect, wait just a couple of more days after that before they feast on whatever they gave up, or launch back into whatever habit they promised to set aside for the season.  We wait until Easter, and this day—Palm Sunday!--reminds us that it’s almost here!  But this year, it just doesn’t feel right. 

This year, hearing about the parade in the gospel of Matthew seems way out of whack.  It just doesn’t seem right that we are not in this sanctuary together, watching our children circle around us in another parade, waving palm branches, as we stand and sing the hymn that begins, “’Hosanna, loud hosanna,’ the little children sang; through pillared court and temple the lovely anthem rang; to Jesus, who had blessed them close folded to his breast, the children sang their praises, the simplest and the best.”  Are you standing, right now?  Are you shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  I can’t tell for sure, but I suspect not.  I’m not. 

It just doesn’t seem right, I tell you.  In fact, if Jesus was going to ride into Western New York today, on a donkey, we would not be allowed to run out to the streets to greet him and celebrate.  Not this year.  Not this Palm Sunday. I admit, it makes me sad. 

We’re doing a lot of grieving just now, aren’t we?  As Tony Robinson said in his March 31st “What’s Tony Thinking” blog, “…grief in one form or another is a constant of this overall experience. It is a rolling reality, coming in new forms, spiking and subsiding in response to different experiences and events.” And I actually think, as Robinson suggests, that this may be a good time to remind ourselves of the “five stages of grief” described a generation ago by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.  

In an article in the current issue of Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Weiss does a good job of interpreting those stages for this time of COVID-19. Both Weiss and Kubler-Ross remind us that these stages are fluid. You don’t necessarily go through the five stages sequentially.

Weiss provides illustrations for what each stage of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance) “sounds like” in this time. For example, here’s what “denial” sounds like now:

  • This whole thing is so overblown. What a media circus.

  • It’s the same as the flu. People get the flu every year and hardly anyone dies.

  • I’m not “fill in the blank,” (old, immune-compromised, susceptible to lung ailments), so I’ll be fine

We’ve mostly moved beyond denial, even most of the country has, in recent weeks. Here are Weiss’ examples for “bargaining.”

  • It’s OK to spend time with others as long as they wash their hands before they see me.

  • This will all be over by Easter. I’ll be safe until then, and then we can go back to normal.

  • I know when people look sick. I will be fine as long as I stay around people who are healthy.

The “grief” stage of despair might sound like this right now:

  • I can’t go to work, I can’t earn money. Pretty soon, I’ll be broke and homeless.

  • This epidemic is the new normal. I can say goodbye to my hopes and dreams.

Reminding ourselves of these common patterns may be helpful. You’re not weird or wrong if you’re feeling these emotions.

Although we typically tend to look for the elements of the parade in this scripture reading—the people running to the street, the shouting, the waving of palm branches, the throwing of coats onto the road for the donkey—this story and the following stories of Holy Week also remind us that God goes through the grief, loss and death. There are no “by-passes” here.

The Palm Sunday parade is Jesus’/ God’s decision to go through the heart of the city, not taking any freeway bypass around the complicated, the unsightly, the slow-downs and stop lights. He will descend into the depths. We, like his own disciples, insist there must be another and easier way, that “this shall not happen to you, Lord” (or to us!).

There is, however, some good news in this. When we are in the depths, we are not finally alone. Jesus has been there. God is there.

So Palm Sunday and Holy Week come to say to us that there is no way around, only through, which includes the grief we now experience.

The grief is great and it is complex. Unlike some instances of loss, a sudden death or even the 9/11 attacks, there isn’t just one event, which breaks in upon us but can be located in space and time. As Tony Robinson writes, “This pandemic is continually unfolding over a long time in many different places. It is distant, then very near. It is, in many ways, invisible, then suddenly all too visible.”

This grief we feel on Palm Sunday won’t end with Holy Week. But maybe this year Holy Week will remind us that grief itself is holy, made so by a God who does not exempt God’s own self from suffering and death, but who hallows it.  Who blesses it.  And who promises that joy comes in the morning.  Amen!

Rev. Lisa Drysdale


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
pay attention to your breathing. 

3/26/2020

 Ezekiel 37:1-4  (The Message)

One of the things I’m trying to do during this time of isolation due to the Covid-19 virus is to create and maintain some kind of a schedule for myself.  I am a person that thrives on routine, so I’m trying to get out of bed at a reasonable time.  I’m trying to go to bed at a reasonable time.  I’m trying to eat meals around the same time every day.  I’m trying to do my laundry every now and then, but really, how many different outfits do I need to be wearing each week when NO ONE sees me, except for an occasional meeting or our weekly worship online?  Someone posted a reminder on Facebook that we should all remember to try our jeans on once a week, because our sweat pants are going to make us think everything is ok…!  I’m maintaining a work schedule from my home office.  And I’m trying to keep up with my yoga classes. 

The classes are now streamed live, so I am grateful for that.  I try to be mindful during the yoga practice, listening carefully to the teacher although I know he or she cannot see me because I block my camera.  I try to keep up the pace.  I try not to just sit on the floor, eating chocolate. 

So this reflection from Christian Century’s Katie Hines-Shah caught my attention this week when I was beginning to think about our scripture reading today from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.  She wrote:

“Ever since my first call in Berkeley, California, I’ve practiced yoga. I’m no aficionado, but I can complete a whole sun-salutation without direction and can recognize some Sanskrit shorthand. And, of course, I know about the importance of breathing.

“Or rather, to be quite honest, I know the importance of giving lip service to breathing. Every yoga teacher I have ever had has said something about how breathing is the most important part of yoga. Some suggested they could offer a whole class on the breath, just sitting on a mat. But I never met a teacher who dared to actually do it—until I went to India.

“Last fall my family traveled to India, where my husband’s cousin invited me to her yoga class. I was interested to see how yoga is taught in the land of its origins. Would I finally learn the secrets of the handstand? Perfect my mountain pose? Be shamed by my insufficient cat/cow? We would have a full 90 minutes of instruction, so anything seemed possible.

“In the crowded, un-air-conditioned room—in India, hot yoga is just yoga—we prepared our mats and bolsters. Our teacher explained we would do just three poses that day, all lying on the floor, because we were going to focus on the breath. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.”

Ezekiel must have had similar reservations. When the Book of Ezekiel opens, the prophet is in exile in Babylon and the city of Jerusalem is under siege. Though Ezekiel spoke about God’s judgment against the Hebrew people, it still must have come as a shock when Jerusalem actually fell and the temple was destroyed. It’s one thing to prophesy destruction and another to see it accomplished. Ezekiel must have wondered what God would do now.

And then he has a vision of a valley filled with dry bones. Years of exile and war have taken their toll. The people have been killed, their city ruined. A valley filled with bones is not an exaggeration.

But equally relevant is their spiritual wasting. Centuries of idolatry and sin have left the people with lifeless, hardened hearts. They have worshiped foreign gods and perpetuated acts of injustice against their neighbors. When God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live, the answer seems to be a clear no. But Ezekiel holds out a sliver of hope. God may know a way.

God, who created human beings from the dust of the earth, pledges to recreate the Hebrew people, and Ezekiel’s prophecy starts the process. The bodies come together, hip bones connected to thigh bones and so forth, but there’s a hitch. Despite Ezekiel’s words, there is no life in these newly restored bodies.

They need to breathe.

In yoga, I have learned there are different kinds of breathing.  Sometimes we are led to breathe in through our noses and out through our noses.  Sometimes we are led to breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths, and we make a fair amount of noise. No matter the type of breathing, I find it strange—and usually challenging—to focus so completely on a normally automatic process.  When I can do it, I find it oddly meditative. Concentrating on the breath really does make it easier to clear the mind and just be.

Katie Hines-Shah continued to reflect about her yoga class in India.  She wrote: “At the class’s conclusion, the teacher had us gather around. She reminded us that while someone can breathe for you for a short time, (and we are learning, of course, the amazing gift of ventilators that can breathe for us) ultimately each of us has to breathe for ourselves. We had practiced our breath in easy postures so that we would remember what to do when poses were harder. The feeling of the breath was important. If we could remember what breathing meditatively felt like, we might be able to do it again, even outside of class. This class was just a beginning, she reminded us. It would be up to us to take its benefits further.”

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. The dry bones, reconstituted as bodies, get a kick-start—divine CPR from the four winds, filling them up and making them live. But they don’t seem to do much else, at least not yet. Ezekiel’s vision ends with a vast multitude of living bodies, standing in that valley, waiting. God promises to put God’s spirit within them, to set the people on their own soil, to make them know that God is their God. But how will they respond?

Christians have long used the season of Lent to engage in devotional practices. We fast, pray, worship, study, and do acts of service throughout the 40 days. Ideally these are automatic habits for people of faith, but we sometimes forget. As I learned in yoga class, intentionally engaging in even basic practices like breathing can restore us. We practice our faith in the season of Lent so that we know what to do when things get harder. The discipline of the season prepares us for experiencing suffering, loss, and even death. Hines-Shah says, “Activities conducted in the sheltered context of our homes, small groups, and churches ready us to work in a sometimes hostile and ruined world. Our faith practices become a bolster, lifting us up, helping us hold our posture and even stand in the face of that which could destroy us.”  Such important words of encouragement for us to hear, today.

But, of course, the next steps are up to us. As Lent comes to an end next Sunday and Holy Week begins, we must choose to apply what we have learned. Will we just give our faith lip service, or will we live it? Will we turn away from idolatry, worshiping God alone? Will we engage in acts of justice, coming to our neighbor’s aid? Or will we fall back into old habits and unhealthy postures? Will we waste away, losing our sense of connection and continuity?

When it all seems like too much, we must remember: God will not abandon us. Life can come even in the dry places. We don’t need to be experts. We already know what to do.

It starts with simply breathing.

 

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Remember When? And, What’s Next? 

3/22/2020

John 9:1-41  (The Message)

I saw a post on Facebook this week that simply said, “What a year this week has been!”  I think that’s right! What a year this week has been.  In the space of about a week to ten days now, the world as we’ve known it has changed dramatically.  I don’t have to tell you that.  You are experiencing it.  You see it all around you.  I suspect you feel the change deep in your soul.  The Covid19 virus has changed the world as we’ve known it.

I’ve also seen some posts on Facebook that have made me laugh—or at least, smile. Usually they are pictures of fully-stocked toilet paper shelves or something similar to that with the caption, “Remember when?”  That was just a matter of days ago!  It doesn’t take much to stop and think back to a time--not long ago at all--when such a deluge of fear, uneasiness, confusion and separation didn’t rule our lives.  When those kinds of feelings didn’t even cross our radar screens.  They didn’t cross our computer, television, and cell phone screens.  So, there’s a natural part of us that wants to be pulled back to a “time before this all began.”

In a recent Christian Century reflection on today’s scripture, written by Liz Goodman (pastor of the Church on the Hill in Lenox, MA and the Monterey UCC in Monterey, MA), Liz tells of a time not long ago when she was involved in a spirituality discussion group made up mostly of people who settled in the rural region where she lives in the 1970s and ’80s as part of a “back to the land” movement.

One participant gestured to her, knowing she’s a pastor, and said, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Get back to the garden?” Using the language of Joni Mitchell, this man had adopted the common assumption that the project of the faithful—given our sinful, “broken,” “fallen” state—is to return to where once we were perfect.

“’Not me,’ Liz said, maybe too quickly. ‘I’m not trying to get back anywhere. My tone was sharp,’ she said, ‘because I feel strongly about this: the Gospel of John has long had me looking ahead rather than behind, and this story of the man born blind has long had me concerned not with return but with continuing on.”

The gospel of John begins in the beginning, recalling Genesis 1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) But it lets off there, inviting a comparison, Liz Goodman suggests. Whereas the Genesis creation story counts down to completion, days one through seven, until we have this beautiful earth and the beauty of each other (“And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done…” Genesis 2:2), John doesn’t get much past the beginning, certainly doesn’t imagine finishing, and therefore never imagines God at rest. Instead, “God as Word-become-flesh and now living among us speaks often of continuing in the Father’s work. It’s as if this is why he has come. This explains why Jesus, according to John, has little regard for the sabbath, something not yet warranted.” God doesn’t rest when the work isn’t done.

Jesus uses mud—adamah, the stuff of God’s earliest creative acts—to bring the man born blind into a fullness of being. This now-seeing man demonstrates God’s will for Christ in the world. Christ’s work isn’t to restore the creation to some prior state but to complete the creation, to labor toward its perfected end.

Nor is our work to lurch backward to some mythic state of perfection—even if that mythic state was, in our minds, only a matter of days or weeks ago.  It is not our work to long for some otherwise pre-corrupted, pre-complicated, pre-fallen time, like those days in the garden of Eden, or those days when there were packages of meat on the grocery store shelves. Our work is to continue on in the faith that God is yet with us, at work in all things for good.

It is true that God is yet at work amidst the creation and will bring all that is and was and ever shall be to God’s good and glorious end. This is an assurance of our faith. And I think it is the assurance people need to hear.

So maybe that’s where we come in, we people of faith. Lent is the perfect season to be assured that God’s word to us is “keep going. Keep going.” And John offers the perfect narrative to invite us once again to do the works of Jesus and even greater works than these. Liz Goodman writes, “This story of the now-seeing man is ripe with cause to hope that our most joyful days are not behind us but are ahead, hard-won though they shall surely be—and that the grace we rely on doesn’t call us to return to some distant past. It beckons to us from a glorious already-completed end—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—drawing us to it.”

This man was born blind not as punishment for sin but so that God’s works might be revealed in him—the working of God that persists among us and insists upon us joining the work.  So let’s keep going.

Amen!

Rev. Lisa Drysdale

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