Tuesday, July 2, 2024

A Prayer for the 4th of July

A Prayer for the 

4th of July  


We belong
first and foremost
to you, Lord.
God of heaven and earth,
eternity and the moment,
ever and always.


Then we belong to the whole of creation.
the living, the dead,
the yet to become, and the reborn,
the whole ongoing cycle of earth and life
with all its glorious array of ever-expanding participants:
mountains and trees and oceans and valleys,
gazelles and robins and rivers and earthworms,
all.


Next we belong to the human family,
all humanity in every corner of the vast globe
all languages, creeds, cultures, skin tones, religions, beliefs, experiences, hopes, celebrations, losses, goals, vocations, technologies and connections,

in grief and wonder and anger and happiness and confusion and sadness and joy
whatever happens and no matter what, 
we belong to them all, all, all.
And they all
belong to us.


After this, we are grouped - 
some arbitrarily and some by choice - 
into land masses and geographic regions. 
We develop identifying accents, clothing preferences, and regional tastebuds, 
which is to say,
we gather our experiences into ourselves
alongside others
who are gathering into themselves experiences
alongside us.


We call our places of belonging towns, counties, villages and cities, tribes, nations, countries, continents and coalitions; 
these countless designations simply mean that
we live nearby and agree to certain codes
of living with one another
that in one way or another uphold our greater belonging -
to the whole human family, the living and the dead of all creation,
and the Lord of all.


Next we have the smaller groups in which we learn
and the people there who teach us,
the neighbors, musicians, coaches and collaborators,
the members of our faith, our teams, our clans.
We have hobbies we cultivate with the people who practice them alongside us,
passions we pursue and those whom they impact,
jobs we end up in and those who end up there too,
whose lives intertwine with our own.


And then there are those specific people from whom we come,
the ones whose being and belonging
shape our own being and belonging most directly,
I mean, of course,
our ancestors and grandparents,
aunts and uncles, cousins and kin,
parents and siblings.

We may have the partner with whom we share our life, 
and the children whom we shape and watch become,
and the pets we assemble into our homes,
and the gardens we tend,
and the friendships we cultivate,
and the places we grow our roots,
deep, strong, and sure,
with and for those to whom we give our hearts, 
who will one day be buried in the ground alongside everyone and everything else
to which we already and always belong.


So, on this day that celebrates our nation,
we give thanks for all the belongings that hold and shape us,
both created and innate.
We give thanks for the communities into which we pour our lives,
and for all those in our communities that pour their lives into us.
We give thanks for the earth that nurtures all life,
and for all those who nurture the earth.

On this day that celebrates our nation,
 in our collective belonging called The United States of America
we give thanks for all that is good and wise and kind,
all that upholds our humanity,
both individual and shared.


And in our collective belonging called The United States of America
we confess all that is evil, foolish, and divisive, 
all that damages our soul,
both individual and shared.


And when this day that celebrates our nation,
has come to an end,
in fireworks and fanfare,
it remains
that beyond country, beyond kin,
beyond borders and beliefs,
beyond any and all boundaries,
whether natural or unnatural,
is the Great Belonging,
that is,
to one another, all,
and to you, Lord of all.

For this, today,
we give thanks.

Amen.


- prayer by Kara K Root, from Receiving This Life

Sunday, June 16, 2024

As simple and alarming as that


 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

When we moved into our house 19 years ago, we found a stash of letters from the 1940s tucked into the eaves of the garage. They were short, unsigned and cryptic, mostly asking for money and promising not to write again, and in our minds we made up a sordid story a secret affair followed by years long blackmail. The truth turned out to be far more tragic. The man who had lived in our house his entire life had a photographic memory – according to our neighbor who knew him later in life who would ask the man directions to obscure places and he could tell her off the top of his head from having seen a map. During World War II he served as a CIA agent, and when he left the service, they did experimental electroshock therapy on him so he wouldn’t remember the secrets he knew. It worked so well he forgot his family, and his wife and twin daughters left him. He lived alone and reclusive for the rest of his life, every few years a letter arriving, asking for money, and promising it would be the last time. This isolated man hid these letters away in an unfulfilled yearning for reconciliation that never materialized.

I tell this story for two reasons. The first is that reconciliation is the longing within us all. To be in right relationship with God, one another, and with our own selves and the world we live in is what we’re made for. And when we are alienated from this connection, we cry out to be reconciled, whether or not we know that’s what we’re doing.

The second reason I tell this is that having one-sided letters, with gaps between them at that, invites imagining stories. But when the person writing is very long-winded and detailed, like the Apostle Paul, it’s much easier figure out what the story is. Today we read from 2 Corinthians, which is Paul’s fourth letter to the church in Corinth. The first and third are lost; the second we call 1 Corinthians. 

I find it a tiny bit delightful to imagine the other two letters  one day discovered hidden in the cranny of some ancient cave.  Because Paul, who is human, got pretty peeved with the Corinthian church. They’re this savvy, diverse and cosmopolitan group of folks who tended toward arrogance, petty squabbles and blatant misbehavior, after many of them met Paul in person at his first visit after planting the church some years before, their high opinion of Paul evidently plummeted. They insulted him and questioned his authority. Paul was the kids say, “butthurt,” (translation: dramatic, over-the-top, offended), and vowed in anger not to visit Corinth again. 

His missing third letter Paul called his ‘painful letter.’  So, maybe it’s good it got lost. Nobody wants screenshots going around of their text fight with their spouse, or to be caught on film throwing a tantrum at their kid in public.  Let’s just say, only two Corinthian letters ended up in the bible as the trustworthy and authoritative word of God. And we know that at some point – some think in the middle of writing this letter - the Corinthians apologized to Paul, ejected the troublemakers, and they were reconciled. 

 God’s love is what’s real, it’s where our hunger points, our longing originates, and our purpose finds its fulfillment.  But we’re so easily knocked off course from being connected, or reconciled, to God, our deep selves and each other. The desert mothers and fathers from the 3rd and 4th centuries were the first to unpack how everything we’d call sin can be grouped into two piles: either aggression or greed, that is, either “a reactive and excluding fear” or “the urge to consume and absorb.”   

If we view the world through resentment and rage, shaped around narratives of victimhood and blame, we will live guarded and hostile, alienated.  If we view the world through competition and self-advancement, striving for bigger and better, or more unique and singular, always trying to be somewhere—or someone—that we’re not, we will live hollow and famished, alienated.  There is no end to ways we can turn the ditches of aggression into yawning chasms, and the potholes of greed into slippery caverns of alienation. 

But, as Rowan Williams says, 

Love is what happens when you stop being aggressive and greedy, and stop to look with your whole self, from the centre of who you are. It’s as simple and alarming as that.

Love has room to flower when you stop either pushing reality away or making reality serve your purpose. In that space, love grows. God…whose life is the ultimate definition of love, has neither aggression nor craving in the divine nature. God is not afraid and God is not greedy. It sounds blindingly obvious, perhaps, put like that; but if we say that the love of God is, in the divine life, the same thing as the absence of aggression and greed, this ought to make us think that perhaps it tells us something of how love works and fails to work in us too. (Passions of the Soul, xxxiii).

God, in love, already claims us and is reconciling the whole world to Godself and each other.  But we humans are wobbly, weak, and easily distracted. And to complicate things, we live in what Williams calls, ‘an entire human environment where, bizarrely, mysteriously, saying no to God feels easier than saying yes.’

So we are to both take sin very seriously, and also have compassion for ourselves and each other around it. Walking this human path, we can’t not tumble into the ditch of aggression and faceplant in the pothole of greed, and striving to avoid them becomes just another way of stumbling into one or the other. What saves us is only God’s grace.  

This is what I kind of love about 2 Corinthians.  Whatever aggression or greed filled Paul's painful third letter, there’s plenty of both left over for this one. But even though he uses parts of this letter to prop himself up, he also admits to it. He keeps throwing himself back on the grace of God and letting himself be reoriented to the real, and then reorienting us there too.  We see him living in real time what he is also teaching: that we have died in Christ and been raised to Jesus’ complete connection to God and all others, and so even though we keep succumbing to these temptations, they are not ultimately what define us or direct our lives. 

It reminds me of the story told by desert fathers and mothers of frustrated demons shuffling dejectedly through the desert, complaining that they can’t draw the monks into sin, but neither can they force them to anguish over their sin. When they try, the “‘great, old men and women’” just say, “‘Of course I’m a sinner! So what! I rely on the mercy of God!’” (Williams, 16) and go back to seeking a reconciled kind of life, that is, praying, serving others, practicing living from and for love in ordinary, unimpressive ways.

So what are we to do? Paul demonstrates in his fourth letter the simple but profound prescription of the desert monks that left the demons shuffling dismally in the wilderness, once we recognize we’ve stumbled into sin we’re to be honest about it, hand it over to God, and get on with our lives. Literally, that’s it. 

We don’t wallow in it. We don’t dwell deeply on our division, examine extensively our fears of one another, ponder relentlessly our selfishness, or probe exhaustively how appalling we’re convinced we are. We have died to sin and been raised to new life. To act as though, by the might of our own understanding, the strength of our own efforts, or the force of our own egos, we could pull ourselves out of sin and alienation, is just to fall back into it.

Whatever exciting or bland ways ‘our reactive and excluding fear’ or ‘the urge to consume and absorb’ is being expressed in us in the moment, we’re to look honestly at it, give it over to God, then we simply get on with it, whatever it is that God would have us get on with. We pick up where we left off, practicing living from and for love in ordinary, unimpressive ways.

God reconciled the world to Godself in Christ, and does not hold our trespasses against us, Paul says. Which is to say, God does not look at us with disgust or condemnation and neither is God convinced to love us because we are so impressive or interesting. God’s view is that we are inherently loveable. Like a new grandma stunned by her tiny grandson who does nothing yet but eat, sleep and poop, utterly loved for simply being and nothing more.  God holds us in love, and transforms us by grace to do the same for one another. 

So from now on we regard no one from a human point of view. When we’re resting in God's affection for us, it’s impossible to view others with hostility or fear. Instead, we find ourselves participating in the reconciliation of Christ, becoming instruments of God’s love, ambassadors of reconciliation. When we know ourselves to be held in love, we will love others. 

 So, we live our lives, in the moments we’re in and the people we’re with. We sin, we confess, we give it to God, and we go back to seeking a reconciled kind of life. Because to be in right relationship with God and one another is what we’re made for. It’s the longing within everyone, and the boundless gift of God in Christ, for us all.

Amen.

(I'm grateful for Rowan Williams' Passions of the Soul for the  direction of this message and insights about the desert fathers and mothers!).

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Moments of Redemption


  1 Samuel 3:1-20

I wish someone would make a mini-series about Samuel’s life. It would open with this scene of the voice calling to the boy Samuel, and flow forward to all world-shifting drama Samuel will be in the dead center of: war, oppression, sweeping tragedy and great triumph, battles and brutality, victories and defeat, the Philistines’ capture of the Ark of the Covenant – the most sacred object of God, containing the ten commandments, Aaron’s staff and a bowl of manna—and after enduring horrific curses, their hasty return of it.  The little boy Samuel will grow up to become to the people of Israel judge, prophet and priest -converging these distinct roles in a single person as Israel becomes a monarchy. He’ll appoint Israel’s first king, the mighty, handsome warrior Saul, who ends up egotistical, self-serving and eventually going mad, and then sneakily anointing the youngest, backwoods, nobody, poet, shepherd kid to take his place who turns out to be King David. For the rest of his days, no matter who is in charge, Samuel will remain God’s spokesperson in Israel.


This child here in the temple, on the cusp of his first, unfortunate prophesy, will become the key figure that holds Israel to its identity. It would be something to watch, really gripping TV.

 

But the story would be punctuated with flashbacks too. Why is this child sleeping by himself in the temple near the Ark of the Covenant? Why is he being cared for by an elderly priest and not at home with his family? In one scene, we’ll see his mother arrive in the temple from afar, an annual pilgrimage, She’ll hug him close, give him a beautiful new robe she’s made him—she seems to love him fiercely. But then she’ll leave again. The next year she’ll return with another handmade robe and a passel of younger siblings he hardly knows. But here he sleeps, alone. 

 

And then we’ll understand, a few episodes in, when we see this same spot where he is lying now, curled up on a mat with a blanket, years earlier. There his own mother lay in a distraught heap, sobbing, begging God for a miracle, promising that if God finally gave her a child, she would dedicate him to serve God his whole life. Eli the priest found her there, and told her God had heard her cries.  

 

Three or four years later, she returned to the temple, to this priest that had seen her in her distress. This time she brought her young son and handed him over to Eli for care and instruction.  And then Hannah sang one of scripture’s handful of epic, prophetic songs of praise for God’s faithfulness, a song that harkens back to Miriam on the banks of the Red Sea when the Egyptians were defeated and God delivered the Israelites from slavery, and forward to Mary when Elizabeth recognizes she is carrying the Messiah who will deliver us all from death. 

 

We’d need to do justice to Hannah’s song, so our mini-series would probably need to be a musical - or an opera! – and here would build a swelling orchestral, triumphant and poignant emphasis on the surprising coexistence of her great sacrifice and her overwhelming gratitude, as she released what she most wanted in all the world and recognized God’s unshakeable hand at work in the world, the way her son will too one day. 

 

At the end of the song, of course we’d have to zoom in on little Sam, who would probably be sitting on the floor in this same spot he sleeps now, perhaps balancing a carved, wooden sheep on his knee and softly baaing, oblivious to all that’s about to happen to him or through him. He’d look so cute, and ordinary, that we’d scarcely believe this kid will become one greatest prophets in all Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 

But the really, juicy interesting parts of the show, I suspect, would be around the priest Eli. Eli, who didn’t plan to raise this boy but ended up doing so. Eli, who had already raised two, extremely disappointing sons.  He’s a good priest but a lax father, and his sons have become thugs, mafioso types, blustering bullies. The bible actually calls them “scoundrels who had no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests to the people.” Instead of serving God and caring for the people, they take what they want from whomever they want and make a mockery of God, stealing, abusing women, and demanding people’s meat sacrifices in the temple be served to them instead of offered to God. Eli begs them to repent, but they don’t listen to him. 

These sons are the great sorrow of his pained and troubled heart, and he has been warned by an unnamed prophet that God is not happy, and his sons will die on the same day as each other, and instead of Eli’s household, a different great priest will arise to lead the people.

 

And so, we return to the evening in question. 

Little Samuel is sound asleep near the sacred vessel of God’s power and presence, and then God calls him by name. Samuel? Samuel? 

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days, and visions were not widespread,” we’re told. And yet, YHWH speaks. And not to a great leader, but to a child, an adoring mother’s grateful sacrifice, a regretful priest’s young “padawan.”   

 

Three times the voice awakens him, three times Samuel runs into Eli’s room and shakes the priest awake, “Here I am, did you call me, Eli?” And twice Eli sends him back to bed. 

But the third time – (“though his eyesight had gone dim”, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out”) - Eli perceives what is happening.  “Samuel,” it says, “did not yet know the Lord,” but Eli did, and he sensed that the God of Adam, Abraham, Miriam and Moses, and the boy’s faithful mother, Hannah, was summoning the child. So, he tells little Sammy, “If it happens again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’

 

God calls again and Samuel answers, ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.’ And God launches Samuel’s prophesy career then and there, with a real corker, one that, we’re told, will make BOTH ears of whoever hears of it tingle!  Samuel is to tell his dear teacher and guide that God plans to punish his household and wipe out his line because his sons are evil and he’s done nothing to stop them.

The poor child doesn’t sleep a wink. 

 

When Eli greets him in the morning and asks what God said last night, Sam’s afraid to tell him. But here is Eli’s great, redemptive moment. Here he steps into his own obedience as priest, surrogate father, and shaper of a prophet.  From humility and his awareness both of who God is and who this young child might turn out to be, Eli says two things. First, he says, “No matter what, however bad it is, you must tell me, Samuel, or may whatever it is happen to you.”  And, then, after Samuel shares the terrible vision, Eli answers, “God is God. Let God do as he sees fit.” 

 

 The very next words are, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel…knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.”

 

For the remainder of his life and beyond, Samuel will continue to listen for the voice of God and obey – even if he feels annoyed about it, or if doing so puts him at risk, he will guide the people of God through turbulent times. And he will raise two untrustworthy sons of his own and suffer a similar disappointment to Eli. He’ll have a great retirement party and then get reluctantly yanked back on duty. And even after he’s dead, he’ll be conjured back to predict the outcome of a battle and make the on-his-way-out King Saul dearly regret having summoned his cranky ghost.

 

But on this evening, when God calls to Samuel and he awakens to the call of God on his life, the boy can know none of these things, and neither can those whose lives and futures he will have a hand in shaping. 

 

But one person does sense what is coming, and chooses to accept and join in, even if it’s not the way he would have wanted it to be. One person does recognize the hand of God at work, even if God’s voice doesn’t come to him. 

 

So here’s where our mini-series would have a little twist.  

While our show will be ostensibly, and truly, about Samuel, it’s really about God working through it all, the lives of every one of them, and we would probably be surprised to see it most in Eli. 

 

We’ve been talking about receiving our lives, what is, what’s difficult, what God is doing, what will be, and today we’re talking about receiving what God has already done.  That is to say, God is redeeming this world because God has already determined that this life and everyone in it exists for the love and belonging God embodied in Christ Jesus. God has already reconciled the world to Godself in Christ. God has called good God’s wildly diverse and harmonious creation, and God has condemned what defiles and dehumanizes, what divides and destroys.

 

 Redemption begins in judgment; resurrection starts in death. God’s word speaks this judgement into the world. The judgment of God is just and can be trusted. Because God's judgment is rooted in the love that breathed this world into being and summons all in love back to the Creator. So, God will always judge good and evil, and condemn that which violates the belonging of people to God or one another. And God took it all into the heart of God when Jesus breathed his last and death seemed to have won. And then, in resurrection, the power of death to destroy and divide was broken, and love will be the final word over it all. God’s judgment is God’s grace. God’s judgment puts death to death and raises all to life.

 

Eli receives God’s judgment spoken through the child Samuel. Even while Samuel is afraid to speak it, Eli recognizes God’s judgment is coming, and knows it is true and right. Heartbreaking, no doubt, but just and good, necessary even. He recognizes in this moment, watching what is happening with this boy, that his own leadership is ending, and God is doing a new thing, through this child. And he sees that God is giving him the chance to participate, still. Always. God is inviting Eli to share in redemption, his own redemption, the ongoing redemption of Israel, by raising this boy to listen for the word of God, and by encouraging him to speak it, as frightening as it may be, to stand up and speak out God’s word of judgment and God’s word of hope.

 

Later on, little Samuel’s first prophesy will come true. In the terrible battle when Israel is brutally defeated, and the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant, both Eli’s sons will be among the dead that day.  And Eli, then 98 years old, waiting at the gate of the city for news of the battle, will accept word of his sons with resignation, but when he hears about the Ark, he will cry out and fall backwards, break his neck, and die.  

 

And on the surface his story will have ended tragically. But the story is more than the surface glance, and Eli participated in God’s redemption all along. After the death of what his life was to be, he was resurrected into his purpose. He taught the great prophet Samuel to say, Speak Lord, your Servant is Listening. He recognized the voice of God calling to the boy, and accepted the judgment of God speaking through him.  Eli encouraged Samuel to speak what is true, to love God above all else and to care for God’s people.  

And it began this evening, this moment.

 

What God is doing is far beyond what we can see or know in any one moment. It includes the faith and the failings of all those gone before, and weaves us into a narrative that reaches beyond time.  While kings and nations rise and fall, mothers sacrifice and fathers sorrow, courage and trust weave through ordinary lives, God’s judgment and grace hold us all. And God does not waver in redeeming this beloved world, and drawing us all into the project.

 

God meets us in death and brings life. There is nothing that qualifies us to join in this redemption except our humility and our willingness to learn to say, Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.


Amen.

 

 Read previous sermons about Hannah and Samuel

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Thoughts on Mothering and Mother's Day: A Blessing

 


As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you..." Isaiah 66:13


Mothering is a messy, complicated business-
just like humaning,
with impossible expectations,
deep longings,
piercing pain
and incomprehensible joy. 

On Mother's Day 
gratitude and sadness
intermingle-
as they do whenever we are really
paying attention. 

The mothers
we wish we'd been...
the mothers
we wish we'd had...
the mothers
we wish were still with us...
the mothers
we never knew...
the "mothers"
we've had along the way
who made us who we are today...
the mothers
we've watched our daughters become...
or not...
All of their faces rise before us.

So we pause and
welcome them in,
 whatever emotions they bring.

This I know:
pain does not disqualify
gladness.
And love and gratitude
do not dishonor grief and sorrow. 

We are all in this together-
mothers, mothered, motherless -
siblings in the human family. 

Life is hard.
It's good to have days
when we on purpose say
Thank You.

So,
to all mothers, thank you.
for all mothers, Lord, thank you. 
And most of all, God, for mothering us,
Thank you.

- Kara K. Root, in Receiving This Life.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Receiving What God is Doing


John 15:9-17

I visited my grandma on Monday. She’s 94 ½, and for most of my life she was one of the most joyful people I knew. Recently, though, she’s tired. She’s finished. And the things that opened her to joy and connected her with the world are diminished. Her daily four-mile walk is a distant memory. Her children and grandchildren no longer live right next door. Her parents, siblings, spouses, and friends are all gone, and her faithful dog died the year before her son did. Her hands are too unsteady for crossword puzzles and her eyes can no longer tolerate her voracious reading habit. What she has these days is daytime tv. 

Until recently, what mattered were her sons, her neighbors, her dog, grandchildren and greats, the birds she fed, the plants she grew, and the big garden she tended beside her small house. She knew the trees in the nearby woods, each one. She knew birdcalls and animal tracks and flower buds, and paid attention to sunsets, snowfalls, and owl nests, and debriefed it all every night on the phone with her sister. She lived attuned to life. 

 

But lately she stays inside her apartment. And even though she has steadfastly avoided all forms of smartphone, tablet, computer, or internet of any kind, she now takes in the world like many of us do – through a screen.

 

All this to say, on Monday morning, when I come into her apartment and she turns off the blaring true crime show and hugs me, it takes all of 30 seconds before she is oozing anxiety, near terror, about the state of the world. Is Owen at one of these terrible schools where the protests are happening?  Have you heard about all the immigrants overrunning our cities? Worry pours out of her. I tell her we’ve just been to New York City to visit with Owen for a quick day and a half, and she asks if we were mugged. 

 

I tell her instead about how 50 strangers on a street corner shared a silly moment between a skateboarder and someone else’s dog. About how the deli man treated me like I lived next door. And how, when the Staten Island Ferry was pulling into dock, a stranger behind me said, “Excuse me!” when I had nowhere to move to, and another stranger told him that he wasn’t being patient. “I’m being patient!” “No, man, you’re not.” and how it felt like we were buckled into the back seat of the family minivan and big brother was keeping little brother in line. 

 

She brings up a dire national threat, and I refute it, and she digs in hard and says it’s true. I realize with a slight stab of panic we are talking past each other, at each other. Instead of Grandma and granddaughter, we are Fear and Frustration, arming up to face off. And I haven’t even been here five minutes.

 

Finally, I look into her frightened eyes, my beloved, wise, and longsuffering grandma, and I say, “Grandma, the world is no more dangerous than it has ever been. This is a big, complicated, full world, and when you look for scary things, you will certainly find them. But when you look for connection and joy, for people caring for each other, for hope, that’s what you’ll see.” 

 

She pauses for a moment and then responds, “So you think I am looking for the wrong things?”

Yes, Grandma, I do.

 

And what I wish I’d said then is that she helped teach me this. She showed me how to look for beauty. She was an expert at seeing humor. She was dogged about connection and made people feel adored. She lived present, in the world, which is to say, perhaps without realizing it, she prayed. She loved boisterously: people, animals, the earth and sky. She showed me how to live into the seasons, and how to keep adjusting to the body you’re in as it changes. When I was small, she’d rock me and sing to me, and rub my back when she tucked me in at night. She didn’t let any nightmare set the terms for me, she let love show me what is real.  

 

But I don’t say that. I don’t say enough, don’t do enough, don’t stay long enough, what is ever enough? How would I even know? I’m limited and rushed, easily distracted and quick to argue. Too often, I let my fear of her fear lead me. I cannot love like I should, love like she deserves.

 

But love isn’t measured and earned.  It’s only received and shared. We can only be with and for each other and trust that God’s love is claiming us, reaching us each in the moment.  In our inability to say all that needs saying or to keep quiet when we can’t help reacting, nevertheless, God loves us and loves through us.

 

With coffee I picked up on the way and fruit cake she orders from the monks—which she swears they’re skimping on the bourbon lately, (and I don’t disagree)—we give to each other what we can, which is simply our presence.  We’re loved back to our true selves when we are with and for each other. Love shows us again what is real.

 

In our scripture today, Jesus invites us to make ourselves at home in love, the way he is at home in the love of his Father. In fact, to be at home in him is to be at home in God. He says if we keep his command (which is to say, Jesus' answer to what is a good life and how do we live it?), which is love one another, we will be at home in love, and Jesus’ own joy will become our joy.

Joy does not mean bad things not happening. Bad things will happen, that’s just life.  Joy is being at home in love no matter what happens. Sometimes joy feels euphoric and alive. But not always. Sometimes it’s groundedness in the midst of sorrow, or feeling quietly settled and secure, shoes off, eyes closed, guard down, tucked into love. 


This can’t be earned or lost; it’s not ours, it’s God’s love that never ends. And when we can receive being received in this way – known completely, loved utterly, belonging entirely - we can receive others as well. Not because they deserve it or we’re so good at it, but because God, who loves us, loves others through us. So, like the branches of a vine, the lifeblood of love simply moves through us.  And we taste what is coming, when all that degrades us in this life, all the is taken from us, all the ways the world says NO are swallowed up forever in the never-ending YES of God and redeemed. In joy, we sample now what will be all in all.

 

Everywhere these days, we’re invited to make our home in fear. To burrow into it and let it feed suspicion and division, let the fumes of it fill our lungs and cloud our eyes. We’re told what to fear and we fear it. We fear each other, we fear the future, we fear the looming threats of death and destruction and those who we’re certain could bring those things. We make enemies of each other, and we get trapped in anxiety and stuck in self-judgment. And soon enemies, anxiety, and self-judgment become what we’re looking for, and so they are what we see.


The truth is we all belong to God. We all belong each other. We forget this, or stop paying attention or noticing it, but we can’t stop it from being true. Jesus has done this. God keeps doing this.

 

There is no fear in love, we’re told in scripture, perfect love drives out fear. When we’re with and for each other we are loved back to our true selves, and love shows us again what’s real.  And we taste the fullness of the joy of God’s eternal yes.

 

Around here we wonder together who God is and what God is up to? God is love, loving us, always, and loving through us. When we look at the world through the lens of love and belonging, when we go into the places of suffering and pain with each other instead of fleeing them, Jesus will meet us right there; we will see God, and we will be part of what God is up to.

 

This starts not in our ability but our impossibility. We begin in our need, like the places where we are unable to live like we should or love like we wish. It starts in our loss, like the loss of who we once were and the bewilderment of things ending differently than we thought they would. There, in our impossibility, need and loss, God, who give us today our daily bread, who feeds us in the wilderness the manna we cannot provide for ourselves, who gifts us the faith of Christ that shepherds us through the darkest valley, who prepares a place for us in fullness of joy, God will love us and love other people through us.  

 

Until this limited part of the story is past, we won’t know most of how our how God has loved the world and touched other people’s lives through us, but we can trust that God is doing this. And we can try to pay attention. To receive it when it happens. To give thanks. To bless. To celebrate. To grieve with one another and come alongside others, knowing that is where Jesus is and will be. 

 

Perhaps what we’re really talking about today is prayer. Simply being available to God to meet us right now, right here. Paying attention. Turning our hearts toward God who turns us toward one another and makes us at home in love. And, with the help of the Holy Spirit, looking at the world through love’s lens to let love show us what’s real.

 

 “No one has ever seen God; 1 John says, “but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.” 

 

Sometimes we don’t receive what God is doing until after the fact. And so, now I receive it:


Sitting across the table from my grandma, taking in her frailty and loveliness, her long full life in all its previous chapters and now the atrophy and smallness of this final chapter that she’s not super thrilled about, there’s not much left we can do together. But I can drink coffee and eat bourbon fruit cake and sit with her in the aftermath of her fear when I’d stopped letting it scare me or goad me into an argument. I asked her about her life and listened to her. I received her. And I let her ask me about my life and listen to me. She received me. Through waves of awkwardness and ease, contentment and grief, we were together in this moment with this person. She was present, and I was present, and God was present; and the love that holds us all and will one day welcome us fully home, was holding us and welcoming us then.  For this gift, I give thanks.


Amen.

 

 This is Part 3, receiving what God is doing, in a series on Receiving This Life. Read Part 1: Receiving what is, by Lisa Larges, and Part 2: Receiving what is difficult, by Kara K Root.  Coming up: receiving what God has already done, and receiving what will be.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Receiving What's Difficult

  

 The first funeral I ever did was for a man I did not know.  I was a 24-year-old chaplain at a large, urban, trauma 1 hospital in New Jersey, paged awake in my bunk in the hospital basement for a man who had been on a meal and smoke break from his night shift factory job, who died from a heart attack sitting in his car.

When his two adult daughters arrived at the hospital, I was the one to bring them into the ER room to see their dad’s body.  When they saw me the first thing they did was assert emphatically that their dad was not religious, and neither were they.  I told them that didn’t matter; I was just there so they were not alone, and we could stay together in the room with him as long as they wanted.  

For the next two and a half hours, I listened as they told me stories about their father. They held each other and wept, slapped their knees laughing over some irreverent thing he’d said or done, saying he died exactly as he would’ve wanted with his fast food and cigarette in his hand. They stood and gazed at his face, wept again and told more stories.  

Time stood still for a while in that windowless room.  When they were ready to leave, the sun was just peeking over the rooftops of the awakening city. They hugged me goodbye and thanked me for the time we’d spent together. Then they left the hospital and went into their world to face their first day living without their dad. 

The following day, the hospital chaplain office received a call: the daughters wanted me to do their father’s funeral, and their only request was that it include the 23rd Psalm.  I puzzled over this, remembering how insistent they had been about not being religious.  

When I arrived to do the funeral, he was lying in the casket dressed in his college sports sweatshirt, his hands grasping a pack of Marlboros resting on his chest.  The eulogies were filled with swearing and irreverence, but when I read Psalm 23 the room was suspended in hushed reverence.  

I left the graveside having pronounced the hope of Christ’s resurrection with my first “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” ringing in my ears, feeling overwhelmed by the sacredness of it all. I was struck by the astonishing gratitude people feel when we hold space for God’s presence – even people who think they don't believe in God. And it was a glimpse into the solace offered by these words people all over the world have prayed since King David wrote them 3000 years ago, words Jesus himself took comfort in a thousand years later, reciting with his own siblings, parents and community.

Most of us don’t have much scripture memorized, but I would wager many of us here could recite at least some of the 23rd Psalm.  And chances are, we each have a handful of memorable, resonant moments that involve this Psalm. 

Between Easter and summer, we are spending time exploring the human work of simply receiving life—something increasingly challenging in our fast-paced, digital age where we think it’s our job to make things happen, and to control everything. In reality, this life is a gift from God--this one life we have been given, the one we are in right now, the life we share with those we are here alongside--and our job is to receive it.  

Lisa helped us think about receiving what is by sharing the story of the risen Jesus meeting the disciples on the beach, amidst the smells of the salty sea and fish cooking over smoky wood, calling the tired, wet, discouraged disciples to come and be fed in the warmth of the sun and the sand where God was waiting to meet them.  She reminded us that resurrection transforms not just the whole world and the trajectory of the future—resurrection claims our ordinary lives for the holy, these lives lived inside these limited, wondrous bodies, from which we experience everything.

This week we are turning our attention to receiving what’s difficult. The things in life we don’t choose and would desperately prefer to avoid. This ranges from the merely uncomfortable to the downright terrible.  And Psalm 23 is a great doorway into this conversation, because Psalm 23 has been holding space for God’s presence in what's difficult for 3000 years.

Psalm 23 falls into what biblical scholars call “psalms of trust.” These Psalms come to be in the midst of some kind of tragedy or crisis that psalmist responds to not with hopelessness or defeat, but, paradoxically, with a cry of trust.  
By using the same verb that is used in twice in scripture for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, the phrase we often say as, “I shall not want” actually means, “I lack nothing.”  For King David, and for Jesus too, this phrase would have brought to mind that defining period in the Hebrew’s relationship with God where they were formed for trust, to embrace their belonging to God. 

One commentator (Kelly Murphy) explains of the Israelites time in the desert, 

“To be sure, life wasn’t always easy—but it was life. Those forty years might have seen a lot of grumbling and complaining, but they also saw manna free from heaven, the birth of a new generation, and eventual progress to the Promised Land. God cared for the wandering people—and they lacked nothing. 

…The psalm reminds readers about the beauties of living life in the here and now even amid the usual darkness that accompanies day-to-day life.”

For thousands of years, to recite this psalm, to pray this prayer, is to share in the promise that no matter what we are going through, God is accompanying us, protecting us, caring for us, and that God’s goodness and mercy will pursue us (the verb here is this aggressive!), without end, and death is not the great ender of everything - love's grip on us is eternal. 

When Psalm 23 was read today, we heard interspersed within it the lectio divina reflections from this congregation this week three years ago, April 2021, when we were in our own wilderness. Sixteen months into the pandemic, we were meeting for church on screens, sharing show-and-tell videos, and gathering six feet apart on the patio for bonfires. Suspended in a strange unknown, the whole world was wandering in wilderness, in the valley of the shadow of death, with the future uncertain. Yet every day, we were still living life’s beauties. With grumbling and complaining, provision and connection, we were existing in the here and now amid the day-to-day joys and the usual darknesses. And we lacked nothing. 

With various, surprising metaphorical green pastures and quiet waters, with protection and accompaniment, God sustained us, restoring our souls, preparing our tables, overflowing our cups, and through it all, pursuing us relentlessly with goodness and mercy. 

It was right around this time that Jen Rainey wrote a prayer, which is now in my book as a prayer for receiving what’s difficult. Jen had intended to use this prayer at a gathering to mark the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis, but that event wasn’t able to happen.  Instead, the prayer was read six months later at her funeral.
Her prayer is a psalm of trust.  Here is part of it: 

Dear God,
One year ago, this day taught me the lived definition of horror.
It brought me to my knees.
There was begging and pleading.
Fear, sadness, confusion, and anger
flooded in and enveloped our visions of the future. 

It felt like there was no escape. 

Why, God, does this type of pain exist in the world?
 Why do beautiful things get ripped away or slowly, painfully destroyed?
Why can’t I go back to what was? 


Breathe in the breath of the life you have now. 
Let the tears of mourning cleanse your spirit
so your inner world may be gentle and blessed. 
Feel the ground beneath your feet, 
that same ground that you fell to on your knees and face, 
holding you today.
Let the fears and grief arise, 

and see that you are not alone—
we share this human suffering. …

 
She goes on to quote Psalm 139, and ends with these words: 
 
On this day, we remember.
We wonder what is coming.
We let go of the past.
We gather to better feel you in this moment,
to experience the ways that you
were, and are, and will be 

with us and for us 
when our worst fears come true. 
 
In their darkest valley, each morning and night Jen and Brian logged onto zoom with Pastor Lisa and me, and every Sunday with a whole group of us, to simply be together and bear together what alone is unbearable. Praying together each morning and night, we lived the trust of Psalm 23, as real trust acknowledges honestly what is: our suffering, our quiet ordinary living, the small joys, the hovering dread, the tiny reprieves of rest, the unquenchable terrors, and in and through it all, the unceasing presence of God. 

Likewise, 24 years ago, in the deep night of a windowless ER room in New Jersey, those two daughters and I walked into the valley of the shadow of death, and it became holy ground. Before dawn, Christ, the good shepherd, who meets us when we are with and for each other, met us there. We did not say his name, nor did we address him directly. But the presence of the risen Jesus was palpable.  By being together in what was difficult, impossible, suspended in the kind of space where tears, stories, anger, laughter and anything else that might arise is welcome, and so fear is driven out, these daughters found themselves doing what we never think we will be able to do—they were receiving life just as it was, the horror and truth of it, while love held them up. 

The Lord is our shepherd – we lack nothing.
The Lord is our shepherd. We lack nothing.
And, no matter what and always, and beyond time’s conclusion, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

Amen. 

This is Part 2 in a series on Receiving This Life. Read Part 1: Receiving what is, by Lisa Larges.  
Coming up: Receiving what God is doing, receiving what God has already done, and receiving what will be.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Resurrection Unresolved

Mark 16:1-8

Happy Easter!

Once a year we like to make a super big deal out of resurrection, even though none of our gospel accounts show us anything about it. What they do show is an empty tomb, mostly, and a bunch of disciples who do a pretty terrible job of getting even close to as excited as we are on Easter Sunday. 

The words Matthew, Mark, Luke and John use for the initial reactions of those first told of the resurrection are: “alarmed,” “trembling and bewildered,” “afraid,” “disbelieving”, “terrified,” “doubting,” “startled and frightened,” “wondering,” and “it sounded to them like nonsense.”  Not a single “Hallelujah!” among them!

 

So, I submit that maybe we’re a little removed from the whole story and invite us back to the whole resurrection thing today with fresh eyes.

 

First off, I’d like to point out that, knowing he’s going to rise from the dead, we don’t even pause to wonder why it took so long.  We just fill the Saturday of a Dead Savior with last minute Target runs for Easter tights, vacuuming the house, and preparing the ham for tomorrow, and don’t really give a single thought to the unsettlingly long delay between the death of Jesus and his resurrection. At the precipice of despair, when the worst thing ever has happened, it all just stops and stays for a while. 

 

In any world-altering project we competent humans undertake, this is the moment we would be all hands-on deck, nobody stopping, nobody sleeping, a beating heart of adrenaline-hyped project managers and bleary-eyed, caffeinated engineers making sure it all comes off as it’s meant to.  

But instead, God – and every single human in this story, made in the image of God - leaves the building and turns out the lights. They go home and crawl into bed and spend an entire day on purpose not doing it. Luther says Jesus sabbathed in the grave. Dead guy not in any hurry to get this show on the road.

 

We race to resurrection. We’d actually prefer to skip the death part completely, if possible. And if it must happen, let’s just dip our toe in and move on quickly. 

 

How strange it is, that in the wake of Jesus’s violent death, when all is utterly lost and darkness has triumphed unequivocally, the greatest drama of the cosmos grinds to a quiet halt. And another story takes center stage and demands precedence. Candles are lit, stories are told, prayers and naps and holding one another and reading alone and recalling the faithfulness of God and practicing the gratitude of belovedness are what happens.

 

Centuries later we know where this story is going, so we skip the pause and just boogie ourselves on to the celebrating. But while it’s easy for us non-stop, state of the art, capable modern creatures to miss that that the whole salvation story stopped at the most disastrous moment to remember God is God and we are not, uncooperative Mark makes jumping to victorious, joyful resurrection celebration super awkward.  

 

Because, after Jesus’ most faithful followers are told to spread the news of his resurrection, and then go meet the risen Jesus back where they began--in the ordinary places of life--Mark actually ends his whole gospel account with them backing slowly away from the weird stranger in the corpseless tomb, stumbling into the daylight, hiking up their skirts, and high tailing it out of there as fast as their legs can carry them, keeping mum about the whole crazy situation. 

 

This is such an uncomfortable ending that by the 3rd century a short new ending was tacked on, and by the 5thcentury an even longer one, where everyone did what they were supposed to and believed in the risen Lord, because people couldn’t bear the story stopping with the dissonant note left hanging in the air, just begging for someone to walk across the room and play the chord that resolves it.

So not only does the salvation story stop and stay a while at the worst part, like it’s not at all concerned about getting things sorted for us, but then Mark leaves the whole narrative of Jesus unresolved and unsettling. 

 

Let’s just say a fair-minded teacher would hesitate to give a passing grade to this project. The comments might say, “lacks clarity of purpose and audience, central idea not well presented, participants could show more effort, completely missing a conclusion, C-”. 

 

The truth is, in no universe, does what God is doing here make sense to our cause and effect, good guys/bad guys, earning and proving, comparing and competing, winning and losing sensibilities. In fact, we might say that God’s project upends all of that entirely.  

 

Here’s how we do Easter: a few typical options

Option 1: Easter is for later. It means we’re given an individual get-out-of-hell-free card, an eternal win on the uncompromising board game of life. So, if we play our cards correctly, we reap some well-earned rewards! (And we can help others get their cards too).  


Option 2: Easter makes us feel better. Jesus died and rose to calm the existential dread that meets us in the night, the voice that whispers we are not enough, that somehow, we’re failing at life. We’re honest enough to know we actually can’t do it on our own. And we hear Easter saying, You are enough.


Option 3: We’ve had it with all the gobbly-gook of religion and have washed our hands of it, except when we’re dragged to church by our smiling in-laws who are crossing their fingers that this time, we’ll change our mind and come back to faith.

 

Here’s how God does Easter: 

Instead of rescuing some people out of it, God plunges right into it all, right alongside us all. Instead of backing our self-improvement projects, Jesus goes right for our sin – which is just a shorthand way of saying, whatever blocks us off from God and each other, whatever tells us we are not worthy of God’s love, or that we are but someone else is not, whatever breeds fear, isolation, self-centeredness and destruction – this is what Jesus takes on for us and brings to the cross.  There is nothing - no suffering, sorrow, or loss, no horror done to us, or by us, that Jesus does not carry us directly into the heart of God, even the final terrible divider, death itself. Jesus was defeated and broken by all that defeats and breaks us. He was dead and buried. It was all over. For a while. Except it wasn’t. Jesus rose from the dead, and the end of the story has been written: there is no death so great that life is not greater, no evil so powerful that love will not prevail. 

 

And perhaps this is a message not yet felt on Easter morning, but maybe tasted earlier, in the moment the sabbath began and they all turned back to the truth that God is God and we are not, and practiced trusting God even if they weren’t feeling it, because it’s what we do. And they waited. With God, and with one another, they waited to see what God would do next. Maybe in their waiting, they remembered whose story this all is. And then the next morning, a few of them reached empty tomb to put spices on Jesus’ body. And they forgot again. Because


here’s how the first followers of Jesus did Easter: 

alarm, terror, confusion, skepticism, trembling and bewilderment. The idea of Resurrection did nothing for them whatsoever. Being told about it just freaked them out.

 

Because resurrection is not an idea or belief. It’s what comes after death. It’s the new life that comes after what was, has died. It’s the hope that is born from a place of loss and despair. It’s when tragedy is shot through with overwhelming love and inexplicable peace, when patient grieving abates and washes away and something new and unexpected wakes up and yearns to be born in us. It’s when you find that fear’s hold on you has been broken and you are free.  It’s when you find yourself able to love, able to reach out and be with and for another despite all the risks of heartbreak or failure.  It’s life, life, life. 


He was dead. The tomb was empty.  Resurrection didn’t mean anything until Jesus met them later, alive. Then they too were resurrected. Back in the ordinary places of life he told them to follow him into, they found God bringing resurrection all over the place, and began their new life of trusting in what they could not make happen, waiting and watching for what God would do next, in them and through them.

 

Except Mark doesn’t show us that part. 

 

What God is doing is beyond our capacity to grasp. So maybe it’s helpful to us that Mark stops while it’s unresolved and people are freaking out and confused and keeping it real, because the story keeps going, and pretending to resolve what isn’t resolved doesn’t make the truth any less true: that God is relentlessly bringing life, life that death itself cannot stop. 

 

The story of the Living Christ is still going. God’s still writing it with the ink of our lives. Our job is not to jump to resolution and hide from the discomfort and dissonance, but to wait and watch. God is always here, always at work, always turning death, impossibility and nothingness toward life and love, always bringing resurrection, always inviting us to join in.

But there can be no resurrection without death. So we go to the places of death, and we wait.  Jesus came in to this life to be with and for us. When we are with and for each other, that is where we find the risen Lord.

 

If this Easter finds you in the darkness of despair, I invite you into the great surrendering pause of practicing trust even if you don’t feel it, that is, to wait and watch for what God will do next. Please allow some of us wait there with you.

 

If you come to this Easter ready to heed the call of the messenger in the tomb and join in resurrection, I invite you to back into your ordinary life. Jesus said to follow him there. That’s where he will be. Go into your week and wait and watch for what God will do next and be ready to respond.  

 

If you’re here today to make someone else happy and you think none of this applies to you, I’m sorry, it actually does. You are already loved and claimed by God, and your life is just as much a conduit of God’s love and justice, hope and healing, as the person sitting next to you. I invite you too, to wait and watch for what God will do next.

 

Resurrection happens!  

We’re invited to surrender into the story. To trust that Jesus is out there ahead of us in the completely ordinary places of our lives, and the utterly ordinary lives of everyone on this planet. And when we’re over our shock at the whole thing not going at all how we think it should, and ready to find him, that’s where we should look. That’s where we’ll find God bringing resurrection all over the place. So we will practice trusting in what we cannot make happen, remembering together whose story this really is, and waiting and watching for what God will do next, in us and through us. 


Christ has risen, Hallelujah!  

Amen.

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