Thursday, July 22, 2021

9th Pentecost, 2021-B: Divine provision

Lectionary: 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21 

En el nombre del Dios quĂ© es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

 In my work facilitating with churches, there are two realities my partner, Martin, and I remind churches of: 1) Baptism: God is always with us; and 2) Communion: the abundance of grace, wisdom, insight, and joy that results from intentionally connecting ourselves to God. 

While providing a means for discerning and clarifying a church’s divine purpose and listening for the ways God is guiding them to live that out, I spend a lot of time reminding the faithful to get out of their heads and into their hearts. 

If we could think our way through life, we wouldn’t need faith or God. But we can’t. With all of our gifts of intellect and experience, we must, in all humility, remember that “our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, nor our ways God’s ways” to paraphrase the prophet, Isaiah. (55:8)

Our goal, then, as people of God, is always to have our heads, that is, our thoughts, connected to our hearts, where God is continually speaking to us, individually and as a church community. This is the gift of our Baptism, and what the epistle writer refers to as being “rooted and grounded in love.” It is in this state we can “know the love of Christ that surpasses [mere human] knowledge.”

I have the privilege of witnessing how often churches are surprised by how much grace, mercy, and faithfulness God is always offering, even in what seems like the worst of earthly circumstances. When we make space for God in all of our planning and doing as individuals and as a church, God works in us, and we “accomplish abundantly far more” than we could ever have asked or imagined.

God loves us so much more than we can fathom – all of us, all of humanity – and is ready to provide all we need to establish peace, harmony, and unity on the earth, as it is in heaven. This is affirmed for us in today’s gospel story of the lavishness of divine provision: the feeding of the five thousand.

This story harkens back to the story of Elisha who fed 100 people with 10 barley loaves and some grain. Elisha’s men doubted how such a small amount of food could feed so many people, but Elisha told them that Yahweh had promised there would be enough and even some leftover – and there was.

In the gospel story, there were even more people to feed and less food to give them. Jesus used the opportunity to test his disciples, who would have known the story of Elisha. Rather than trusting God, however, the disciples tried to figure out how they could feed the crowds, only to realize that they couldn’t.

Jesus wasn’t disappointed with them for resorting to their default – their own thoughts. This test was his gift to them to free them from the limits their thinking put on their faith. If we allow it, this story frees us too.

Taking the offering of insufficient earthly food, Jesus blessed it and gave it to his disciples to give to the people. Do you hear the Eucharistic language in this?

John tells us that everyone who ate was satisfied. Clearly, they weren’t using those little wafers we use for Holy Eucharist. :)  In fact, the bread in this Communion was barley loaf – the food of the poor.

When the people had eaten and were satisfied, the disciples gathered up what was leftover, and it filled 12 baskets. As you know, the number 12 is symbolic and refers to the 12 tribes of Israel – the people of God.
The image is of containers (baskets) holding new people - people whom God brought to be fed – and it included women and children, sinners, and maybe even some Gentiles.

I imagine some present would have been unhappy about including everyone gathered on the grass. Some of them probably wouldn’t have been deemed worthy of the resources they were using up, yet Jesus fed them all - an important lesson for our time.

After feeding the crowds, Jesus withdrew by himself to the mountain. “Mountain” is Bible-talk for the prayerful place where God’s will is revealed.

Jesus must have stayed in prayer for a very long time because the disciples finally decided to leave for home without him. They got about halfway across the lake and the wind picked up, making their journey difficult and dangerous. Do you hear the symbolism? 

The community of disciples are on a vessel in the Sea of Galilee. John says it was dark, and he’s speaking of spiritual darkness not just the absence of daylight. John describes a wild wind, which is symbolic for the Holy Spirit of God, blowing where it wills, stirring up the water, making it rough.

Like the creation story in Genesis, where God calmed the chaos waters of the earth, in John’s gospel story, Jesus, the Incarnate God, calms the chaos waters in hearts of his followers; and he does it by speaking a powerful phrase: “It is I” he says, (in Greek, ego eimi – which means I AM). 

I AM is how God self-identifies in Scripture: to Abraham saying, “I AM the Lord (Gen 15:7), to Jacob saying, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father;” (Gen 28:13); and to Moses saying, “I AM who I AM. Tell them I AM sent you." (Ex 3:14) In this gospel, Jesus is claiming his divine identity saying, I AM here – don’t be afraid.

Yet, it’s true that when we draw near to the presence of God and our hubris gives way to true humility the experience is, at first, terrifying, just as it was for the disciples. It’s terrifying because the illusion that we have control of and power over our lives, crumbles. It’s terrifying because we realize that we have been standing in the place of God in our lives and ministries and how very foolish and dangerous that is. It’s terrifying because what we were so sure we knew about God, ourselves, our church, our future, is washed away in the power of the presence of the living God.

That’s when Jesus comes to us and calms the fearful storms in our hearts saying “I Am here” (ego eimi). Don’t be afraid.”

Like the disciples, the minute we invite Jesus into our vessel, whether that vessel is ourselves or our church, we find that we’ve arrived at the place we were trying to go. We’re standing on dry land, in the presence of our Savior, who grounds us and roots us in love.

It’s comforting that the apostles, who actually saw Jesus perform his many miracles, were still prone to moments of spiritual darkness. Those moments are to be embraced, not avoided or feared because it is in the dark spaces that God seeds and roots new life in us.

Like the disciples, we’re a faithful group, beloved of God, but we aren’t immune from moments of spiritual darkness and trouble – and thanks be to God for that – because those moments are a gift. They remind us that we believe that God is always with us and that God can take our insufficiencies and work miracles with them.

Let us pray… God of love and mercy, we seek your presence; not because you are ever absent from us but because we are often absent from you. Open our eyes to the reality of your presence in and among us, that we may enjoy the abundance of grace, wisdom, insight, and joy you continually offer us. In true humility, we offer our hearts and minds to be connected in you, so that in every moment we may know you, feel you, hear you, and heed you. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

7th Pentecost, 21-B: In small and big ways

 Lectionary: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

In today’s gospel, Mark inserts a flashback on the death of John the Baptizer between the stories of the sending of the twelve disciples on their first mission journey and the story of their return and report from their time out there. It’s a strange insertion in that it is very detailed, right down to the conversation between Herodias and her daughter, whom some believe was Salome.

What was Mark’s purpose? I wasn’t able to find any satisfactory answers from the commentaries, except for the accepted idea that it was to elucidate the cost of being a follower of Jesus. But John wasn’t a follower of Jesus. He preceded Jesus to prepare the way for him.

If I were to posit why Mark inserted this right here, I’d say this flashback also was a foreshadowing of what we who are sent by Jesus will find in the world.

In his time, Jesus’ ministry was growing, and that was making Herod nervous. Jesus was becoming even bigger than John was and John’s success had scared Herod into protecting John. Now Jesus, who was also a righteous and holy man, had a following that was even bigger than John’s and the tetrarch was scared of what that would mean for him.

Mark is also foreshadowing the way the kingdoms of earth and heaven would interface. There are three things we can notice here. First, Mark shows how pride, revenge, power, and politics act when confronting the kingdom of God - and it isn’t pretty.

In this story, Herod gets caught up in a party, responding to a child’s dance. It’s important to note that the word used for this child is the same word used for the little girl Jesus raised from the dead saying “Talitha cum” which means she was very young.

This also had incestuous implications since the little girl was Herod’s niece, cousin, and step-daughter. Her father was Herod’s half-brother and her mother was his wife and his cousin. It’s no wonder John had been openly critical.

Then the morally corrupt Herod made an outlandish promise: Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it… even half of my kingdom.” When Herodias’ daughter said she wanted John the Baptist’s head, Herod was “deeply grieved.” Revenge is ugly and even the unholy Herod knew it was going to destroy a righteous and holy man, and it wounded whatever soul was in him.

Mark tells us that “out of regard for his oaths” Herod did as Herodias’ daughter asked. I don’t think Herod was as much motivated by honor as by his impotence to respond to circumstances he created while also saving face and whatever life he had left. His wife wanted this, and his people would see him as weak if he backed off, so he ordered John’s execution.

Mark also demonstrates that sometimes it will seem like corrupt leaders are having their way destroying all that is good and fair and righteous. When that happens, Mark shows how we are to respond. When they learned of his beheading, John’s followers “came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” They did what was right by the one unjustly murdered, but they did not act violently in response to the violence of the world.

That’s a hard lesson for the followers of Jesus to learn and practice. Innocent people still die at the hands of corrupt and unholy earthly systems. We believe, however, that despite what it looks like at any moment, the plan of God is in place, and God is already acting to redeem all that has gone awry.

That doesn’t mean we sit idly by while God fixes things. On the contrary, we are called to be co-creators with God, partners in God’s continuing work of redemption and reconciliation. Together we can make heaven present on earth in small and big ways.

As the author of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, we have been lavished with grace, wisdom, and insight by God who, “according to his good pleasure… set forth in Christ a plan.” That plan will happen in God’s time but the goal is plain: “to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” In other words, the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

He goes on to say that “we, who… set our hope on Christ” are to “live for the praise of his glory” a phrase he repeats twice. As I read this portion of the letter, I have a picture in my mind of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, stepping out of his pulpit, arms waving, as he pivots first this way then that, dancing and singing, like David did, this hymn of praise, bringing honor to God and to the church.

I’m no ++Michael Curry, but I, too, have a song of praise to share. We all do! Here’s some of the Good News we have to share: 

We who set our hope on Christ have been marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit! The blood of Jesus runs through our veins infusing our earthly bodies with divine life. We have been lavished with grace, wisdom, and insight so that we can be co-creators with God, vessels who carry God’s healing love into the world. Our God is a God of mercy who hears the cries of those who suffer, including our animal kin and even the earth itself, and Jesus sends us out now just as he sent those first disciples– with power over unclean spirits.

How do we understand and relate to unclean spirits today? “Unclean” refers to that which is immoral, dishonest, corrupt, or unfair. According to my Greek Bible, “spirit” refers to “That which is recognized by its operations or manifestations, as it is seen in life.” (E.W. Bullinger)

So, where are these unclean spirits in our time? 
Here are just a few: 

In Columbia and cities across the U.S., we can’t miss the reality of homelessness and the overall neglect of persons suffering from mental illness and PTSD who live on the streets. I regularly see plastic drink bottles filled with urine discarded on our city streets and I wonder… while we seek ways to deal with the larger issue of homelessness, why don’t we at least provide public bathrooms and showers for their basic human needs? 

Last week as we celebrated our Independence Day, my Facebook page was covered with pictures of people trying to keep calm their pets who were terrified by the fireworks. My email had been receiving notices for weeks about the damaging effects of fireworks on animal life, especially birds (and y’all know how I love my birds!). I continue to wonder why, if we have silent fireworks, we keep using the ones that sound like bombs going off? We all know the havoc they wreak on our animal kin.

Finally, the U.N. is warning that the number of people worldwide who starve to death each year, about 9 million people, may double due to the pandemic and they’re asking wealthier countries to help. This, while a couple of billionaires vie for the personal victory of being the first to go into space.

Every age has its unclean spirits. Thankfully, we make vows to step in and address those in our time and place. In our sacrament of Baptism, we renounce “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” (BCP, 302) An evil power is anything that causes suffering, division, or increased labor on those less powerful than they. The institution of slavery in the US comes to mind, the vestiges of which continue to impact our African American sisters and brothers today.

We also vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. That gives us so much latitude to be who God made us to be, individually and collectively, and to lavish on those around us: people, animal kin, and even the earth itself, the graces God has already lavished on us.

We can make an impact on how the kingdoms of heaven and earth interface today in small and big ways. As individuals and as a church, all we need to do is continually call upon God that we “may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and… have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

I close with this prayer from our Confirmation Rite: 

 “Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service… Send us forth in the power of the Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” (BCP, 309, adapted)

Sunday, July 4, 2021

6th Pentecost, 21-B: We believe...

Lectionary: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad an unidad. Amen.

As Christians, we call ourselves believers, but what do we mean by that? The simple answer is that we believe that God is Trinity in Unity and that Jesus, who is the second person of the Trinity, is the Savior. But again, what does that mean?

Jesus is God Incarnate, the one through whom all things were made. Taking on flesh and living in a body like ours, Jesus was born, ate, slept, walked, laughed, loved, suffered, and died just like we do.

After the death of his body, Jesus was resurrected, enabling us to see what resurrection looks like. Then he breathed his divine Spirit on us. Now the Spirit of God occupies our bodies. The Spirit of God occupies our bodies…

Do we truly believe and experience that as we live our daily lives? Do we talk about those experiences? Mostly not, at least not the experiences that fall outside acceptable parameters.

My first experience of God was as a mother holding me in her lap, whispering love and comfort to me as terrible things were happening to my body by a gang of neighborhood boys. God held me in a warm embrace outside of my body and told me she was my Mother, and promised me I would be OK.

When I shared this experience, I was scolded for calling God “Mother.” It was made abundantly clear to me that calling God “Mother” fell outside of acceptable parameters. If I had experienced a mother, they said, it must have been Mary, Jesus’ mother. I was informed that I misunderstood my experience, which was understandable for a 4-year-old, they said.

But God continued to come to me as Mother and I learned not to talk about it. Even as a little child, I knew “they” were wrong, that God is my Mother, and that she was choosing to stay in continual relationship with me. I believed it then and I believe it now.

God, my Mother, is alive and active, gentle, loving, fiercely protective, and powerful. God, my Mother, connects me to people, to creation, and to the company of heaven in real, actual, and healing ways. I have grown in this manifest love all my life because I believe God is with me. I know it in the very cells of my body, the core of my heart, and the depth of my mind.

David believed too. He knew God would protect him from Goliath and prepare him to be King of Israel. And as king, “David became greater and greater for the Lord, God of hosts, was with him.”

Paul believed and spoke of his encounter with God as if it happened to someone else. Whether that was out of a newfound humility or because he knew it fell outside of acceptable parameters, I don’t know.

Paul spoke of being snatched away - in his body or out of it, he didn’t know, but God knew – to a place where God and the heavenly beings were – paradise. The third heaven he called it - three being a symbolic number signifying perfection, completion, and the action of God.

In that place, he heard things that cannot be spoken about in human terms. There are simply no words that can convey the fullness, power, and truth of what he experienced.

Paul couldn’t boast of this experience. Having been in the presence of God and the heavenly host, he realized the truth of his smallness and dependence on God’s love and care. He also recognized the truth that God can and will fill our weakness with divine power for the healing and reconciliation of the world.

The power of God’s spirit flowing through us can lead us to the temptation of thinking we’re just that great. We’re such a good and faithful believer that powerful happen because of us. Thinking like that will lead us to sin – to relying on ourselves (in all our success) rather than on God, trusting our own judgment rather than continually discerning and responding to God’s will.

So, Paul also shares that he has a thorn in his side, something that pricks his ego - or maybe his body, or his spirit – we don’t know since he never said. This thorn, whatever it is, reminds Paul that it is God’s power, God’s love, God’s success happening, not his own.

On the plus side, the thorn also reminds Paul that God is always with him, so whatever insults or hardships, persecutions or calamities he experiences, he knows God in Christ is there; and having experienced the power of God’s eternal, loving presence in paradise (whether in his body or out of it - he doesn’t know, but God does), Paul knows with a deep knowing that his weakness is where Christ dwells, therefore, he is strong. Paul believed and became greater and greater because God was with him.

Believing isn’t just about accepting the veracity of certain information or events. It isn’t even hoping that what we’ve heard is true. Belief is deeply knowing and experiencing the presence of God in Christ in the very cells of our bodies, the core of our hearts, and the depths of our minds.

Our gospel story today demonstrates the contrast between belief and unbelief. When Jesus went to his hometown, he met unbelief. Even though the people had seen his miraculous works of healing and heard his astounding teachings, they couldn’t get past what they thought they knew about him – he was Mary’s son. We know his brothers and sisters. Who does he think he is? “And they took offense at him.”

Recognizing their unbelief, Jesus named it and walked on. Mark says he could do no deed of power there except a few healings.

What do you think of that statement? Is God hampered by our unbelief?

Yes and no. God can do anything God wants, obviously, but God always acts out of love for us. That love gives us free will, the freedom to accept or reject God’s love and grace.

That statement is about moral power. Out of love for us, God won’t force anything on us – not even healing and wholeness, so Jesus had to just walk on, amazed that they would make such a choice.

The next story is a story of belief. Jesus sends his disciples out two by two - two being a number that symbolizes divine/human complementarity. It is also symbolic of witness. God acting through them would be witnessed by them.

Jesus orders the disciples to take nothing with them: no money, no food, and no extra clothes. They must wear sandals, a symbol of poverty, and carry a staff – harkening to Moses who healed the people from snake bites by holding up his staff.

Well, to be accurate, God healed them. Moses simply did as God asked and witnessed the power of divine love in action. And that’s the point Jesus is making.

Their purpose is to preach, teach, and be the vessel of God’s divine love in action. If they meet belief, Jesus says, they are to stay where they find it. If they meet unbelief as Jesus did in Galilee, they are to walk on.

Mark tells us that the teams of two went out and healed those suffering from diseases of all kinds: mental, physical, and spiritual. To be accurate, the disciples didn’t heal anyone. God was with them and because they believed, the power of divine love healed through them.

God always works beyond the acceptable parameters of any age. Why does that surprise us? It’s God, after all.

If we believe, if we know and experience the presence of God in Christ in the very cells of our bodies, the core our hearts, and the depths of our minds, God will work through us too. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we will be united to one another with pure affection and those who are suffering from diseases of all kinds - personal, societal, and global - will be healed.

Let us pray… Holy God, we believe that your Spirit dwells in us. That scares us a little because you are too much for us to understand. Make us, we pray, vessels of your divine love. Help us to own the gifts you have given us and guide us on how to use them for your glory, the welfare of your people, and the healing of the world. We believe and we commit to sharing our belief, our Good News, as you lead us to do, in the name of Jesus, who is the Christ. Amen.