You Are What You Eat
August 12, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
John 6:35, 41-51
As you all know, we just got back from a week of study leave at Chautauqua. It’s always a great week: lots of good learning, worship doesn’t begin until 9:15, the classes actually end by five, and there’s no homework. That’s not always true for other study leave experiences. Such a schedule allows for a good dinner out and often evening entertainment for Dave and me. It also allows for a more relaxed pace and time for me to do some people watching. That’s not something I try to do, it just happens, so I couldn’t help noticing two of the housemates who were ten-year-old boys, both brought by grandparents, but very different families. Monday morning, I watched one kid load up on sugar cereal, with marshmallows, his grandparents talking about how picky he was, giving their full approval, just so glad he was eating something, as he talked about how good it was. All the while, boy #2 was looking longingly as his grandmother tried to explain to him, much more politely than I could have, how he had other things, healthy things, to eat. Her words to him sounding ever so much, to me, like Paul’s words to the Ephesians.
Paul’s words to the Ephesians are beautiful, almost poetic. Like a cool drink of water in a barren land, they feed the soul and they are totally countercultural—as countercultural as the grandma, fighting advertisement and peer pressure to keep her grandson well nourished that he might grow into the young man he was created to be. Paul’s words, like her voice, stand in stark contrast with the culture surrounding us. Have you looked at the news lately, read the paper, tried to merge with traffic on a busy highway, or spoken to very many people? Wrangling and wrath prevail. Being away from the news, not doing much driving, and having somewhat limited interaction with many folks beyond Dave, it kinda’ hit me when we got back to the real world that we sit in a broth of contention. Paul starts off the list, “So then, putting away falsehood.” Fat chance. It seems the only sin is getting caught, so we spend how much energy (?) avoiding the questions, instead of just telling the truth, and on his list goes as each admonition seems more unlikely and implausible than the last. We live in a culture and time when the daily offerings of how to behave, how to live in community, are as varied as the cereals in the grocery store’s aisle. There is plenty of choice out there; some of it will grow you up strong and healthy, but an awful lot of what’s out there tastes good for the moment, tempts us with more than the daily allowance of wise cracks and one-upmanship, is made with fillers of rabid individualism, and is formulated to make us crave more. Guess which one gets the advertisement time during all the “commercial breaks.” Maybe it’s no wonder so many people seem to have a loss of purpose, seem unable to find something bigger than themselves, and act like they live in the depths and are God-forsaken. Just as sugar cereal tends to deplete the body, too often our choice of behavior leaves us feeling empty and longing for what might really nourish the soul.
Funny, how Jesus seems to show up when the crowds are hungry. It doesn’t just happen once or twice, but seems to happen on a regular basis. He’s always feeding or eating with someone. “I’m the Bread of Life,” he says. He’s got something to offer, something that nourishes like manna from the heavens, the very stuff God used to cultivate a relationship with the children of Israel and sustain them in the wilderness. Like with the Israelites, it’s a desert out there for us, too. But the bread that is Jesus gives strength to move from simply surviving, filling our bellies one day, only to be hungry the next, to living through a grace that fills the empty spaces and gives us purpose. Look around: the world acts like it’s starving for something, and Jesus offers himself not in some kind of weird cannibalism, but offers himself that we might believe. Of course, that begs the question: Believe what (?) in a time of news and fake news, facts and alternative facts. Just what are we supposed to believe, because when he says it 2,000 years of church history hadn’t happened, 2,000 years of doctrine and dogma didn’t exist, and a lot of what’s been said since he said “Believe” isn’t real believable and certainly muddies the waters. But if we reclaim what “believe” meant when Jesus says it we find at its root the meaning of “giving one’s heart to,” as in moving from a secondhand kind of religion based on hearing about Jesus to a firsthand experience, a firsthand religion of being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ, not the Jesus of the past, of history, but the Christ of the present available to all even now. The reality is we are surrounded by a food desert, and the temptation to take in junk food is high; but Jesus says, “I’m the Bread,” “Take my flesh,” “Eat it,” because life is hard, the journey is long, the path is rocky, and he’s the only thing that truly satisfies. So we get to decide how we want to do this thing called life: famished or fed, strengthened or weak, alone or in relationship1 with the One who nourished Creation into being and who promises we will never be hungry and will never thirst.
If we are what we eat, then all of us who come to the Table are in one way or another called to be bread for the world. Paul’s words warn us that if we can’t tell any difference between the ways of the world and the ways we in the church treat each other, something’s wrong, for we are to be a living sign of God’s promise to the world, both reconciled and reconciling, in imitation of God. The hard part is that God is infinite and, the last I knew, none of us have seen God, but in our relationship with Christ, we have a ringside seat with the only one who has—the One sent to show us how God works—who tells his disciples a little later that whoever has seen him has seen his Father2. So Paul gives the church, then and now, a menu of what living like Christ looks like, a vision of ethical living: offer kindness; speak in sincerity rather than cynicism, building up rather than tearing down; be honest, or at least check things out in Snopes so that we’re not passing lies; speak the truth in love; and work for the good of the whole. Paul’s words aren’t suggesting doormat theology, cute bumper sticker mottos or greeting card sentiments, but radical behaviors that require discipline, prayer, repentance, and a willingness to keep on trying, all of which seems to point us to the God who asks us to live lives less fearful and more merciful, less self-righteous and more aware of God’s grace, less sure of our own abilities and more open to the movement of the Spirit, living out the love God has created us to function in. Living in such a way that almost sounds like heaven on earth, but through the power of Christ working in us is not only possible but inevitable. Living in such a way that will draw others to the love of God as God uses us to offer bread for the world.
We live in a culture and time when the behaviors around us are as varied as the cereals in the grocery store’s aisle, but we are what we eat, and what we choose to take into ourselves impacts everyone around us, even future generations. God feeds the world not with the sugar cereal of life around us, but the love of Christ, the Bread of Heaven, asking us to be part of the feeding, to act with justice, to love tenderly, and to serve one another as we walk in imitation of our God.
1This “trio” comes from an article found in the online blog, Journey with Jesus, written for this week.
Standing in the Need of Prayer
July 29, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
II Samuel 11:1-15
Strange, the Scriptures our Common Lectionary puts together, isn’t it? Nora read both the rape of Bathsheba and the feeding of the 5,000. It’s like we’re almost asked to lay them out side by side, drawing from them some kind of moral tale or some tidbit of worldly wisdom. Take your pick, there are lots of choices, whether it’s might makes right or the reverse, don’t be a schmuck like David, breaking how many commandments? Or maybe David’s story goes to prove that the good guys, the little guys like Uriah, really do finish last, or its opposite, be a good guy like Jesus and the crowd will want to make you a king. One thing’s for sure, just about any thing you’d want to prove about humankind can be done between today’s two Scriptures.
In truth, our readings are as contemporary as tomorrow, coming at us up close and personal as we are daily faced with the temptation to abuse our power on the one hand and being overwhelmed with the great need we see all around us on the other. Our passages encompass the range, the polarities of life, with all its ambiguities. Who among us hasn’t at one time or another thought that the law just wasn’t working for us, thought the rules were for someone else. Convinced, that if the new cop in Kinsman sees us speeding, surely he should make an exception, surely he should know we’ve got a reason, that we’re visiting a shut-in, or going to a meeting that will help further the kingdom. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) But we all do it, don’t we? Granted, most of us would like to think we’d never go to such an extreme as King David with rape and murder on our rap sheet, but if we even glance at the headlines or watch the bylines on the TV we see with regularity folks who abuse their power over the vulnerable, whether it’s someone embroiled in the Me-Too movement where either the accused or the accuser—one of the two—is working the system against someone powerless to stop them; or immigrant children who have been abused by those charged with caring for them; or folks parsing justice between self-defense and “stand your ground” laws. It seems there’s always someone comfortable with lies and manipulation, willing to deceive and set up others, people willing to put their own wellbeing ahead of their neighbors. At the same time, in the same news hour we see folks who are hungry for bread, willing to cross borders in the hope of something better; hungry for justice between the “have and have not” classes; hungry for equality before the law between the races and so hungry to fill a void that it gets filled with opioids or drink. All looking for some kind of abundance, as sure as the crowd that follows Jesus up the mountain. The reality is each day we are surrounded by temptations, surrounded by folks unable or unwilling not to succumb to their temptations and surrounded by the undeniable consequences that such temptations exact from the bystanders around them. Today’s passages surround us and stare us in the face.
Just surviving in such a world is about all we can do, and making the difference Jesus asks of his followers seems like an impossible task. We can’t do it alone. Maybe that’s why Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians and by extension, Paul’s prayer for us, is so vital—that we might be strengthened by Christ himself. Paul recognizes that it will take divine intervention when we are tempted to abuse our power or when we feel ourselves overwhelmed. But while the religious doctrine found on signs along the highway, signs that try to scare us into belief and faith, suggests God will only love us if we change, the Gospels tell us it’s God’s love that changes us, for it’s a love that shifts our attention from our fears and inadequacies towards an openness to the Spirit who will shape us to be more like Christ as we follow his guidance. Maybe Paul’s prayer helps shape the ways we’ll use our power towards the Uriahs and Bathshebas of the world and how we’ll share and even welcome the hungry who find their way to us as we become surprised by the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love and the compassion it bears that might stretch us beyond what we ever thought possible. For Christ’s love can’t be measured, but has an infinite reach in all directions that includes even our enemies; that includes not only the abused, but also the abuser; that includes the hungry, the homeless, the sick; whether of their own making or not. To know such love, to be grounded and rooted by such grace—that’s the fullness of God that will not only feed the many from what looks like little, but have baskets left over. Finding ourselves in Paul’s prayer opens us to the power of the Spirit with the expectation that Christ meets us where we are and will guide us to where we need to be.
Even with the prayers of Paul, even with divine intervention, the wear and tear we experience around us can make us lose hope, make us lose heart. That’s when we need to listen to Jesus’ words, “Sit down and watch,” as he comes to us, gathering the broken fragments of our lives, be they people or ideals or experiences, making sure nothing is lost—God’s own reuse and recycle program. Maybe that’s why we’ve been gathered together in community as a church that we might find ourselves with exponentially more than we started with. Joined by Christ’s feeding, we realize that we have resources far beyond ourselves through a divine multiplication. For gathered together we find new insights when we take the time to listen to one another, hearing the stories of faith beyond our own, having a front row seat to acts of kindness and generosity, and maybe most importantly, feeling and contributing to each other’s prayers, prayers that renew our spirits as through the Body we experience the love and healing of Christ and the One who sent him, through a power at work within us that exceeds our expectations. In community, Jesus feeds us so that we might feed each other and then take his love and grace beyond the four walls around us out into the world to feed others. When we are overwhelmed, Jesus gathers our fractured and fragmented selves into his Body, into his community, and tells us to “Sit down and watch.”
When we are empty, broken and fragmented, overwhelmed by the abuses around us that are great and needs that are even greater, that’s when we find ourselves standing in the need of prayer, as the prayers of the saints who have gone before and the saints who are sitting beside us open the channels for God’s energy and wonder—the power of Jesus—to flow through us and fill us with the fullness of God.
Where’s the Good News?
July 15, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
It’s an event that occurs half-way through Jesus’ public ministry. If we hadn’t read the first couple of verses as an intro, Jesus wouldn’t even be in it. It’s the only story Mark tells where Jesus doesn’t make an appearance. Instead, it’s about his cousin, John, and John’s interaction with Herod, ruler of Galilee and Perea. Granted, that makes the passage easy to just skip over, to think of as just an incidental historical marker in the life of Jesus, a gruesome tale best ignored. But if we simply shove it under the rug we miss the truth of what Jesus has come to challenge.
Mark offers us a story of the world according to Herod. Things look pretty good from the view at the top, from the location of the upper 1% where the folks who live there or are invited there have the power to call the shots and have the control to separate the head from the heart, the rationale and excuses from compassion and common decency. No wonder John ends up in prison; nobody likes to have their dirty underwear laundered publicly. But John’s an equal opportunity preacher; wealth, status, and power really don’t matter much to him. When he starts crying in the wilderness, “Repent, change your ways and be baptized,” when he starts proclaiming, “Prepare the way,” he’s not accepting excuses, nor is he handing out exemptions or deferments. Not from the folks at the top any more or less than from the folks at the bottom. John means everybody. And while the folks in power may not agree with him, may not like what he’s saying, at least some of them—King Herod for one—are fascinated by the Word he proclaims, intrigued by the strength of his convictions, in fear and awe of the just and holy nature of the speaker. Of course, there are others like Herodias, not quite so infatuated, who recognize the danger of truth, realize that anytime the powerful are prompted to revaluate an outlook of “might makes right” as negotiable, anytime there’s a reconsideration of such assumptions and values to include justice or compassion, rather than power as the only arbiter, the Herodiases of the world conclude their lifestyle may be in peril, fear they may lose something, be it in the form of money or power or security, never thinking about what they may gain. Such folks, accustomed to getting what they want, are more than willing to kill off any interest in the message John speaks and the people who stand up to them, who advocate for the little guy; who refuse quick fixes or superficial glosses; who dare to imagine life can be different and end up stepped on, end up like John with his stupid, senseless death. And even though Herod is grieved at the thought of killing him. But one rare and revolutionary prophet certainly isn’t worth the cost of his ego or his standing among his peers. Every generation lives in the world according to Herod, with their horrific tales, and wonders just where there’s any good news.
Perhaps that’s the value of John’s story. He leads us into an honest conversation. He makes us look at ourselves and the ways we’ve been compromised and are complicit in the murder of what is holy and just. He makes us ask ourselves whose voices do we want to silence? Whose non-violent acts of protest, on the streets or on football fields, do we want to ignore, and why? John asks us to be honest with ourselves and examine if we speak from the place of the palace or from the dungeon below. Because at times honest conversation will find us sitting in the dark alone with nothing but the hope that God is there, too. Mark places before us the reign of God that Jesus teaches and embodies alongside a world where God is absent, the option of life where the compassion of Jesus heals and exorcises the demons within us, and existence captured by the world’s structures of power, insecurity, and exploitation that rob us of abundant life. And then John invites us to talk to ourselves of what we see before us in a world where the most vulnerable are detained, where children are torn from their parents, where voices are overlooked, and when they protest, comments are devised with the intention of making them look like fools. Just yesterday, CBS showed a white woman berating a young black man, harassing him verbally to leave a pool area where a friend had invited him. Last month it was a woman calling the police about an eight-year old selling water without a permit. As the commentator asked, “When did we get so mean?” If we’re listening to the Gospel writer, we’re hearing that we can’t disconnect Jesus’ life and mission from the social and political affairs that surround us. But he warns before we cast stones that without the intervention of Jesus none of us can help but fall prey to the same illusion of power and scarcity and entitlement that the Herods of the world fall to by a power that is completely, irrefutably antithetical to Jesus and his message. Mark reminds us with John’s story that as sure as he was in conversation with Herod, lest we fall into the same sin, we must be in constant conversation with ourselves and the world around us.
Then God thrusts us into the next Gospel moment—it’s never once and done—as God asks us to be candid about the world we live in, a world we love, repentant of the ways we’ve participated in evil, and to commit to living again and again like a follower of Jesus. Reminding us that just as God chose Jesus as the Christ, God chooses us to be a blessing to the world. We have been adopted so that we can claim our place at God’s Table, rather than at Herod’s, even while entreating the Herods of the world not to do what the girl asks, to have some integrity, to be their better selves, as we point to Jesus and help prepare the way. It’s odd how God seems to strengthen and transform each generation. Clarity of vision and determination, revealed through the faith of John and Jesus, reframes not only our greatest joys, but even our most anguished regrets and our most wounding losses, with hope. We’re given every spiritual blessing necessary to flourish, whether in the midst of the world or in prison cells, with the vulnerable or even as a people condemned, called to be agents of change because we have been marked by Jesus’ cross and through his resurrection become hope for the world. We can face what comes before us with courage and confidence because we trust in God alone, knowing we can make a difference, living out the promise of our baptism as prophets through our actions and words, as we move more deeply into our next Gospel moment.
Can you tell Mark is the kind of preacher who likes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? He tells us a brutal tale of a just man caught in an unjust system of power. If we leave it up to the Herods, then good news seems in short supply, grabbed moments, at best, that are subject to the capriciousness around us. But even with such a sad tale, Mark offers us the possibilities, the hope of what we might offer through the message of Jesus and us, and what God does through us might be the only Good News this tale can offer.
July 8, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
II Corinthians 12:6-10
The Bible is full of miracle stories about Jesus. In the weeks before his return to Nazareth he has been on a wiz-bang tour. He’s proclaimed God’s Kingdom with provocative parables, healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, calmed a storm, and gathered a number of followers willing to give up their family and friends, at least temporarily, to come and learn from him. Jesus is starting to make a name for himself, acquiring a reputation of having wisdom and authority, even as he puzzles folks about just how they should respond to someone like him.
Jesus comes back to the place where he grew up, the hometown boy who does good, but what a reaction. Returning home after a wildly successful debut, Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach. We can just imagine the folks turning out to hear what he has to say, the folks who knew him back when. The old ladies who, when he was little, had reminded him to look both ways before he crossed the street in case a Roman on horseback came flying down the road. The old men who, after Joseph’s death, had given him hints on working the system as a member of an occupied nation—how to keep his eyes down, his nose clean, and survive. All of them coming to hear what he, one of their own, has to say and he wows them, until he doesn’t. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but something causes them to do a U-turn, to move from being astounded to taking offense. And just to make sure he knows they’re offended, they start with a backhanded compliment so that he hears the slur of, “Isn’t this Mary’s kid?” In a place and time when calling him Mary’s son, rather than Joseph’s, is tantamount to the more contemporary quip, “Mama’s baby, Papa’s maybe.” Jesus would be sure to hear the reprimand from folks who are his own people. Maybe he isn’t surprised; surely he realizes there’s a fine line between honor and shame. Could it be he says something outside their expectations, the kid they all think they know so well? Or maybe while he’s talking their minds start wondering why he, a carpenter, is traveling the countryside with followers, while their own kids stay home. Is he getting too big for his britches? Or maybe they fear that his gain is their loss, as if life is a sum-zero game and there are only so many slices of affirmation and acceptance to go around. Who knows what they’re thinking? But whatever it is, Jesus’ sermon sure sets off a reaction.
The trouble is, it’s a reaction that makes the townsfolk the big losers. What’s truly sad is that their suspicion, or resentment, or whatever so shrinks their ability to be healed that only a few of the folks who helped make Jesus who he is are cured that day. Instead, they build a wall of disbelief around him. Look at Mark’s Gospel; until today’s reading, the folks we have met wanted restoration, wanted healing, but when Jesus comes home to Nazareth, they aren’t looking for healing, but seeing if the local kid can do something that’ll impress them. Trapped in their comparisons and complaints, who there was looking for blessings? No wonder, when Jesus does what he can and then turns his light elsewhere. He still has power, energy, healing to share with them, only he can’t do anything with it because they won’t let him. One of my favorite preachers describes it as like pressing a lit match to a pile of wet sticks. It doesn’t matter how strong the flame is, there’s still got to be something that can catch fire if the sticks are going to burn.1 Jesus can stay there as long as he wants, he can stay until the match burns his hand, but as long as folks put him at a distance, as long they refuse to hear, as long as they dismiss any possibility of catching fire, nothing’s really going to happen. And in doing so they miss out on the possibility of what could be. They lose out on becoming healed and drawn into a greater wholeness of life. Whether it’s because of small mindedness, or a lack of trust, or fear, most of the town misses out in experiencing something pretty extraordinary because of their inability to see Jesus as anything but an ordinary carpenter. And in doing so, they stop themselves and each other from the blessings of more abundant lives. They lose out.
Like the townsfolk, we, too have a choice. We make decisions of how we’ll react in Jesus’ presence just like they did. Let’s face it, we, the Church, are their modern day equivalent. We’re the ones who think we have a corner on the Jesus market, who think we know him better than the heathens that live in the secular world all around us. We, too, get jaded by our own ideas of who Jesus is and what he can do. I’m reminded of a lady I knew in a Bible Study who became frustrated with a passage in Luke that reads “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years” because she insisted if Jesus was divine he had to know everything at birth.2 Need I say, there was no changing her mind? Perhaps we, too, build a wall around Jesus when he shows up different from our expectations? It should make us wonder how able are we to impede the will and the work of God while at the same time make us ponder if we have the potential to be part of God’s work in the world to a far greater extent than we’re usually willing to consider. The question has nothing to do with the power of God or Jesus, but our own willingness to be a vessel for God’s love and healing. Like the folks in his home town, Jesus comes among us, offering the best he has to give. He comes with his match lit, and it’s up to us to decide what we’re willing to do with it. We already have stories from our Scriptures and food on the Table to help us decide if we’re willing to be part of healing. Mark shows us we can blow the match out by our unwillingness to trust in Jesus or what he tells us about ourselves, or we can decide to be open to him, choosing new life—restored life, healed life. Believing, as the Apostle Paul tell us, that God’s grace is sufficient for whatever we need to do when we’re willing to rely on Jesus and on each other. Decisions...decisions; interesting, how some folks close their ears to what Jesus has to say while other become willing vessels, accepting his invitation. Our decisions, our actions matter.
Funny, how people will react to us when we decide to open up to the possibilities Jesus offers and follow him. Then we just might find ourselves, one way or another, sent out with similar instructions like he gave his first disciples. Affirmation and acceptance weren’t preconditions for Jesus’ ministry, and it’s not a pre-condition for ours. Like the folks in his hometown, like each of us, the folks we meet will also get to make their own decisions, for God’s not in the business of coercing belief or trust, even when it’s for our own good, which means Jesus sends us out with no promise about how we’ll be received. Remember, there were folks who, even with Jesus right in front of them, refused to believe the Word (with a capital W) or see the work of God. If they didn’t listen to him, really, do you think they’re always going to listen to us? If they turn a deaf ear, Jesus says, “Let it go,” recognizing we’re not in control of anyone else’s responses, and trusting God alone for the harvest. God has a funny way of continuing to work in people’s lives, theirs and ours, long after our encounter. Just keep going, don’t dwell on past failures or the indifference or skepticism we meet on the way, and don’t pick up any baggage of grudges, or cynicism, fear, or disillusionment we may come across. Jesus sends us out not for a day, not for a week, a month, or a year, but for the length of our lives. So remember that the grace of our baptism is sufficient for what we’ve been called to because it’s God’s grace which is as much present in our weaknesses as in our strengths, even in the unfixable situations of our lives. So we shake the dust off our feet when we’re rejected, not in a curse, but in acknowledgment of the limitation of any ministry borne of grace, and give thanks for the hospitality, the mutuality, when it’s shown and we’re made welcome. Content, in God’s world where we have no control over other people’s reactions.
Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and gives us a picture of what our ministry in his name might look like. Decisions...decisions. While there may be times of rich and wonder-filled experiences, there may also be places of pain and rejection. Either way, God equips and commissions us to be agents of grace in a world in desperate need of such grace, but the choice is ours, and our decisions matter.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, “Sapping God’s Strength,” found in Bread of Angels
July 1, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Having crossed the Sea of Galilee earlier, Jesus and his disciples are returning from pagan soil back to the Jewish side of the lake, and once again he is surrounded by the crowd. The presence of the crowd, along with the calming of an angry sea, a series of miracles, and Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom earlier have pressed the issue of faith and his disciples’ response to him. Today’s reading is no different, as disciples then and now wrestle with the question raised by his followers earlier when they asked, “Who is this man, and what are we to believe?”
To be honest, regardless of our faith most of us live with an undercurrent of believing in ourselves, first and foremost, as the determining factor in our universe. We believe the pseudo-Biblical commandments of “pick yourself up by your boot straps,” “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealth, and wise,” and “to succeed (we should) jump as quickly at opportunities as we do at conclusions.”1 Yes, of course, we believe in God, but really, our belief in ourselves makes us think that if we do everything right things will just naturally follow the course and turn out as they should. So we open bank accounts, buy insurance, make five-year plans, and take our vitamins (all good things), and it works, this believing in ourselves and our ability to steer our own destinies. It works until something unpredictable happens. The truth of the matter is we’re all just one situation, one lingering illness, one financial crisis, one fatally ill child away from realizing that believing only in ourselves will find us grasping at loose straws when the crises that happen in every life come. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Just ask Jairus, a guy ever-so-much like us, a leader in the local synagogue, sounding a lot like the moderator of the board of Session or Trustees, someone who by gender, position, and status clearly has experienced some success. Jairus, up against something he can’t control, worse than a threat to himself, but instead, a threat to his child. A desperate man close to hysteria with fear and grief. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Just ask the unnamed woman in the crowd who’s spent over a decade putting her faith in her perseverance and her health care to the point that she is financially drained, as any intimacy with husband, family, community, or even the Temple has been lost, not just for days, weeks, months, but indefinitely, years now, as she spends her time in isolation and disgrace. Interesting, how calamity doesn’t discriminate, but unites us all in vulnerability. We don’t get to choose all the situations and circumstances of our lives, and as much as we want to believe in ourselves and our control, it only works until it doesn’t.
Jesus says, “Believe,” but just what are we supposed to believe? What are we to believe when fear surrounds us so thick that we can’t see what’s before us, so close, so pressing, we can’t breathe, when we’re so boxed in there’s only the past, and any future seems as far away as the stars?2 What’s a Jairus to believe when he’s so desperate, so afraid that it puts him on his knees in a position of begging or worship, in one of those moments when there’s little difference between the two? Jesus doesn’t tell Jairus what to believe when he goes with him, Jesus doesn’t tell him what to believe when his people meet them on the road and tell him his daughter is dead. Jesus only says, “Do not fear, only believe.” And just what’s the unnamed woman supposed to believe, hopeless enough, reckless enough to face the hostility of a crowd that knows she doesn’t belong there as she steals a touch from Jesus in a stunning act of civil and religious disobedience? Jesus gives her no post-healing direction; he only says, “Your faith has made you well; be healed of your disease.” Her faith in what or who? He doesn’t say a word about believing in his ability to heal or believing that he is sent by God. He doesn’t say anything about believing in the virgin birth or believing that he is God the Second Person of the Trinity. He gives Jairus and the woman no dogma, no creed, nothing. All they seem to have, really all any of us seem to have, is the choice between believing and trusting only in ourselves and the fear that goes with it when we’re in over our heads, or believing and trusting in him. Quite frankly, there are few of us for whom it’s an “either or” thing. For most of us, at least here in the sanctuary, I’m guessing there’s a mixture of both, but unlike fear that boxes us in, belief is something altogether different. Granted, it’s not a seat in the Church of Happily Ever After that I mentioned last week, but maybe sometimes belief’s more like a rope bridge over a gorge, sturdy and swinging back and forth.3 Oh, there’s plenty of light and air, but precious little else to hang on to except the stories, like the ones we’ve heard today, that promise we can get to the other side, that the bridge will bear our weight and whatever else we have to carry—maybe even the weight of our fears—until we’re able to lay them down. Sometimes, maybe, just holding on to the bridge and putting one foot in front of the other is as much as we can do as Jesus reaches across to us with the words “only believe.”
“Get up,” Jesus says to the young girl. “Be healed,” he says to the unnamed woman. Belief has a response, an action, just like it has a cerebral assent. A response that is as much communal as it is personal, which is why when Jesus restores the unnamed woman, not only is she healed, but so is her family and her community; and from that point on, through the arc of time until now, her community extends even to us as she stands on the far side of the bridge, when our own belief wears thin, calling to us from the other side. She trusts in the strength of the bridge for us just as Jesus and his disciples trusted in its strength when they called the young girl, along with her parents, into the power of new life and new hope that they might become a reality whether she believed at that moment or not, just as new life and new hope might become a reality for we who believe and for we who only sometimes believe. For we who really, really wish we could believe, but are not always able, and for we who just aren’t there yet. In community God gives us the gift to share that is the power to keep getting up, even when getting up isn’t all that easy anymore. Getting up and helping another, even as they help us to walk along the bridge of belief by the wholeness found through the actions, through the prayers of the whole community.
What does Jesus tell us to believe? According to today’s passage, not a whole lot, only to believe, to hold on, because sometimes holding on is about all we can do. Holding on as the world around us shakes and swings. Holding on to something greater than ourselves. Holding on to knowing that we are loved by a power that we see Jesus living out and channeling. What we believe changes with maturity and the vicissitudes of life, but believe, stay on the bridge that crosses over towards love, towards compassion, towards hope, towards God.
1 Benjamin Franklin quotes.
2 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, “One Step at a Time”.
3 Ibid. Barbara Brown Taylor’s images of fear and belief capture my imagination and I think, even in an abbreviated form, they should be shared.
Courage to Face Our Gifts
June 24, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I Samuel 17:32-49
The stories of David and Goliath and Jesus calming an angry sea are both the stuff of Sunday School classes with flannel boards, favorites of kids and teachers alike. The standoff between the little guy and the huge forces that surround, whether in the form of a giant or huge waves and nothing but water, is something we can relate to as faith and fear come together. Maybe they belong together in some weird way, because it’s when we face the unknown, the challenging, the difficult, or the threatening—that’s when we find ourselves truly afraid, and that’s also when we need to call up the trust to face them.
All of us at some time or another have to face stuff that scares us to death. For most of us, it’s more than a one-time deal as giants of one kind or another loom over us, as storms rise up and seem to swamp the boats of our very souls. Maybe that’s because there’s a lot to be afraid of. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news that’s a constant barrage of chaos, or just listen to our “Concerns” on any given Sunday; the grief of our friends is excruciating, the concerns over the health and states of being of family and friends is wrenching. Who in this sanctuary hasn’t asked me—how many times—what I know about Phyllis and Dick as they spend yet another day and this is the 23rd day in the hospital? Who among us hasn’t found ourselves praying at all different hours of the day for them, or for Peggy, still at St. Paul’s, or for Grace at Lake Vista? Sometimes we can feel like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder only to have it roll back down before we can ever get it up the mountain. All too often we’re afraid and our faith can be shaken, like Israel’s army after forty days of taunts by Goliath have done their job and worn down every Jew in camp. All too often we’re afraid and our faith can be shaken, like the disciples feeling lost at sea, blown hither and yon by the winds of change that move faster than we can possibly handle. Overwhelmed by waves, we find ourselves unsure if Jesus or anyone else even cares about our plight. It’s like we’re going down for the third time. Most of us try to hold on, praying something like the little fisherman’s prayer that goes, “The sea is so wide and my boat is so small” as we feel dwarfed by the challenges that confront us and leave us feeling powerless. All of us find ourselves in over our heads, our faith drowning at one time or another.
Unfortunately, there’s a type of lousy theology out there that comes out of the Church of Happily Ever After that leaves no room for fear. Its preachers sound like carnival barkers, ”Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up and get yourself a dose of Jee-zus. He’ll make all your fears and all your troubles go away.” Too often, fear is looked down on, equated with a lack of faith, as if fear is sin, as if when folks in the Bible are told to “fear not” they’re being given a commandment rather than an invitation to lay their burdens down (which I think is more correct). If we’re honest, fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing; God created human beings with a necessary capacity to feel fear. It kicks off our fight or flight response that makes us do something when faced with stuff that logically we should fear. It moves us to lean in a little harder on Jesus, trusting him. But did you notice in the Gospel reading that the whole “trusting Jesus” part is missing as the disciples wake him up. There’s no “save us,” there’s no memory flash of Jesus rescuing other folks from demons, from illness, from hunger, there’s no thought of what gifts they might already possess that caused him to call them. Let’s face it, how many of the guys on board are fishermen and have likely struggled with other storms on the lake? There’s only paralysis on their part and an accusation, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” When Jesus returns with a question of his own, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Jesus isn’t talking about their fear of the waves or the wind or a watery death, but a fear that leads them to a distrust and indictment of him; a fear that assumes he must not care or he wouldn’t be sleeping; he must not care or he would have made sure the weather would be copasetic before he ever laid down; he must not care or they’d be safe. A fear that breeds a faith not built on relationship but on transaction: I’ll trust you if you prove you care for me, Mr. Jesus, by fixing my situation. A faith that says, “let’s make a deal, I’ll have faith in you if you protect me.” When storm clouds are just over the horizon it’s not fear, but distrust that works to sink our faith.
Faith, fear, and trust often come bottled together as God gives us gifts that help us survive what threatens to undo us. God gives to each of us weapons of righteousness, like David’s five small stones, to do the worship and the work of God, and whatever our gifts, God uses them. Kindness, persistence, knowledge, genuine compassion, tools that help us live in faith. Weapons employed when we give voice to our deepest joys and concerns as the presence of God, revealed through the small stones carried in our pouch, enable us to face the storms and giants that loom before us. Gifts strong enough to fell the evil around and within us. David, just a boy, but a boy with the confidence of a self-awareness honed by time spent alone with God. Just a boy, but a boy already skilled in combat with wild animals, well practiced in protecting his responsibilities. It’s a story told from the perspective of the winner, with all the brashness of a 17-year-old kid, but if reality can color the picture just a little, David might be about 5 feet tall, a shepherd, as he faces Goliath whose height is estimated somewhere between 6’9” and 10 feet, a warrior imposing enough that even Saul offers his armor. Truth be told, likely some fear bubbles up somewhere in David, but refusing to be paralyzed by it he has the courage to acknowledge his gifts, his stones, as he declines Saul’s armor and weapons. Like David, God doesn’t ask us to be like someone else. Saul’s stones aren’t David’s anymore than your gifts aren’t mine, but to use whatever gifts we have for God’s purposes, gifts and skills learned while in the fields of our lives, and through our gifts and skills, not because of them, we can face the giants and storms that come our way. Our faith is not in vain, our bravery is not foolhardy as we say with David, “The LORD saved me from the hand of this Philistine,” when we have the courage to face our gifts and use them for God’s glory.
The reality is, in dark and fear-filled times, it is our trust in the God who gives us our gifts, our weapons of righteous, that gets us through. God does not abandon us who claim to be God’s children. Yet, to be honest, sometimes in the isolation of the sea around us it isn’t until we call out for help that we realize that there in the midst of the storm, facing impossible odds, is Jesus, offering divine guidance, energy and peace, opening our minds to new possibilities, setting us free to a new future in wholeness and hope, as he points us to the God who’s revealed by his words and actions. Power belongs to God, and our alignment with God’s vision—not with bullies, or the chaos threatening to sink the boat, or evil, but the God who makes a way when there is no way—allows us to respond to what’s before us with courage and strength. Sometimes we need to be reminded of an alternative version of the fisherman’s prayer I mentioned earlier that goes, O God, Your sea is so large, and my boat is so small.” The sea is God’s sea, and God will not rest until we are able to trust with a trust that allies our fears that God will bring us home.
There are always storms that rage around us and giants whose shadows dwarf us that stand against God’s will, against God’s vision, and against God’s love. They are present and real, so it takes a certain courage to face our gifts, and trusting in the God who gives them, use them to live abundant lives, lives lived in ways of the Kingdom.
June 17, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
II Corinthians 5:6-21
Coming home after a week away from the news, I caught CBS This Morning’s interview with author and entrepreneur Jesse Itzler as he promoted his new book, titled “Living with the Monks: What Turning Off My Phone Taught Me about Gratitude, Happiness, and Focus.” You may know him better as the co-founder of Marquis Jet, or as owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, or as husband of Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. He describes himself as a “ready-fire-aim” kind of guy who found himself wanting a better routine, a different mindset, in a world full of distractions, so he goes to upstate New York to spend some time with the experts: monks. In his interview, he talks about what the experience did for him, and then John Dickerson made a most interesting observation, that the reason monks do what they do, devote themselves to these habits Itzler was promoting, is to strip themselves of everything for the glory of God. So…where was God in the picture? Itzler’s response was that God wasn’t a big deal for him; he just wanted to be alone and learn from people completely different than himself how their feet are always on the ground, then apply it to his life. Again, Dickerson countered with the reason their feet are on the ground is that God’s at the center of their lives, leaving Itzler to respond with “yeah, but’s.” He missed Dickerson’s point, he missed the point of the monastery, he missed the point of his whole experience. If you want to do more than just survive in a chaotic world it begins with a focus on God.
Focusing on God and God’s vision for the world seems to be the message as Jesus comes preaching that the time is fulfilled and we should have no doubt that come hell or high water (ponder that one) the Kingdom is coming. God’s reign is happening, Jesus says, as he spins out images, pictures of just what God’s Kingdom looks like. The Kingdom of God is as if someone scatters seed on the ground, then goes to bed. Does it strike anybody else that the farmer is either a dunce or lazy, or maybe he’s a townie who wants to be a gentleman farmer and just doesn’t know any better; who knows? He doesn’t water or fertilize, weed or prune. He’s, at best, incompetent as he plants a field and then quits, but in God’s mercy, in agricultural grace, the crop grows—the Kingdom comes with our participation or without it, but it’s here even as it’s coming. Then, as if to push his point, Jesus goes on: the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the most invasive and pervasive of plants. Blown by the wind, it brings color and life into desolated places, but it can’t be controlled by borders or walls. It peeks under the skirt at the pride and pretension of a good gardener like a burlesque show. The mustard seed’s about as welcome as skunk cabbage and about as durable as a milkweed—ask any gardener. But in the parable its whole purpose seems to be to shelter the birds of the air, not just so they can rest for a minute and catch their breath, but so they can build their nests and stay. Now, tell me something. Who here wants birds in their garden? Isn’t that why we have scarecrows? Birds peck at what’s growing, always taking the best for themselves, as if in some kind of mockery that insists that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, as if to say regardless of how it all shifts out, everybody should have something to eat, just like everybody gets a seat at the Table. If today’s parables are any indication of the Kingdom of God, then the Kingdom subverts everything we see around us. Yet, Jesus tells us in them are seeds of good news that need to be scattered if we’re to focus on God.
But self-focus, not God-focus, seems to be the way of the world. At least that’s my takeaway from Dickerson’s interview and most of the real news I’ve heard since coming home. I’ve spent a lot of time this week at St. Joe’s and St. Paul’s hearing TVs buzz with news of families being torn apart under the security blanket of protecting what’s ours that seems to be taking over the minds and morals of many in our country. Families whose greatest crime is crossing the border illegally. But I wonder what any of us would do differently if the shoe were on the other foot, if we were the ones so desperate to protect our kids that we would leave family and all we know to walk miles through jungles, over hills, and across valleys, facing hardships most of us can hardly imagine: like how to feed our kids on the journey, how to keep them safe while we sleep, where to wash out a diaper, or get clean water, when we maybe don’t speak the language or experience much hospitality as we travel. Wouldn’t we say that protecting our children is the job of a parent? On a day like Father’s Day when we celebrate the men in our lives who make sacrifices for kids, as I look around this sanctuary I’m not seeing many of you who wouldn’t walk through heaven or hell for your kids, taking the only chance there might be to save one of them. We all know there’s an immigration problem in this country and that something has to be done. Back in 2014, President Obama tried dealing with the problem by using family detention centers to house families, often fleeing the violence in their home countries, until they could be sent back, an action that met with some criticism.1 But rather than coming up with a better solution, we’ve now chosen to purposefully and intentionally tear families apart by criminally prosecuting parents, separating parents from their children and children from parents with no knowledge of how to be reunited in a foreign legal system, with no language skills. Happy Father’s Day, huh? So after the trauma of what these families have escaped we choose to add to the trauma of, at the very least, 2000 children. So I ask, what kind of people have we become? Is our focus on God’s vision for the world and our place in it, or is it based totally on our self-interest and God is neatly exorcised? I have to wonder because when challenged, the response is anointed in Biblical sanctity, citing Paul’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”2 Trouble is, there’s no such law. “Zero tolerance” is a policy, and how we carry it out is a choice. Actually, if we’re going to dress up policy with God, Paul’s words a couple of verses later about loving one another, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” seem to trump (no pun intended) his words about being subject to authorities.3 My grandmother used to say that even the devil can quote Scripture. That’s what conquering nations did as they annihilated native peoples. It’s what slave holders did as they also broke up families. It’s what Nazi Germany did with the Jews. And it’s what many white, southern preachers did during the civil rights movement, and it’s wrong. This issue isn’t about political sides, it’s not about Republicans or Democrats or Independents. It’s about right and wrong and soothing our conscience when our objective is self-focus, rather than God-focus.
It seems that every time and culture comes to such moments of crisis, and that’s when people of faith must stand for what is right. Unlike Jesse Itzler, we can’t leave God out of the equation. When we walk by faith we make it our aim to please God, the God before whom we will all someday stand, the God who invites us to live out God’s reign in the here and now, wherever we are. When we walk by faith, we try to see with the eyes of God and not by the sights placed before us, by humanity when it’s bent on creating fear, hate, and mistrust. Certainly, the Apostle Paul learned in a dramatic way how wrong that kind of human judgment can be when he persecuted followers of Jesus as heretics following a false Messiah. He believed them to be people deserving imprisonment or death (sound familiar?) but that changed when he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and God used Paul’s experience to transform not only his view of Jesus but folks who followed him, as well. We are ambassadors of Christ living out our lives in his name; his issues are our issues, including that one about protecting the vulnerable. We are a new creation, meaning that if we love God we need to love others—our neighbors, immigrants, even folks whose politics we disagree with, taking on their plight as our plight and their children as our children, working for the same fair treatment and justice for them that we want for ourselves. My guess is that what God really wants for Father’s Day is for us to realize that God loves them as much as God loves us, so that we might subvert the powers and principalities that harm, and scatter seeds of reconciliation and justice just like Jesus did, vigilant that God’s vision of sanctuary, hospitality, and renewal doesn’t end up in the periphery of our vision but remains our focus.
What kind of people are we? How shall we live? Faith is a matter of vision. Will we turn our eyes to see only from our own perspective and what benefits us, or try seeing the world from God’s perspective? It takes courage to subvert evil rather than rationalizing it, even in the institutions we love, making sure that all the birds in God’s garden have a bush to nest in and all God’s children have an opportunity to raise their children in peace as we think about how to live out the Kingdom, here and now.
What Brings Life
June 3, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
II Corinthians 4:5-12
If you grew up at my house when I was a kid, you’d find my folks napping if they had the chance after church. With a dad that worked three jobs and a stay-at- home mom with three kids within four years, it only strikes me now that I’ve been there and done that, that they were, maybe, exhausted. Not that there wasn’t a lot of controversy about letting them rest and some unhappy kids at our house. Clearly, we all have different ideas about what rest and a day of rest should look like. True now and true 2,000 years ago.
There’s nothing like somebody who thinks outside the box to make us consider what we believe and why. It’s the ones who don’t quite fit in that shed light. Reality is, most of us don’t get much practice thinking outside the box. We live at a time and most of us have the means to surround ourselves with people and thoughts pretty much like our own; often our neighbors, the news shows we watch, and sometimes even our church are pretty much in line with our lifestyle and beliefs. But every once in a while the Holy Spirit sends someone who disrupts our norm, whose very presence provokes a re-thinking. That’s what happens in Capernaum. From the grain field to a withered hand, Jesus comes disrupting the good folks’ Sabbath. The first week, his disciples literally “make a way” (according to the Greek) through the grain fields, not stealing but traveling and gleaning on the Sabbath, a day when most folks would have stayed put, with the religious prohibitions about distance walked observed and with lunches prepared the night before so no work needed to be done. To the Pharisees it looks like a deliberate flaunting of the Sabbath laws, a lack of any attempt to keep it holy. But Jesus takes another view, not that he disregards the Sabbath, he just sees it in another light, sees Sabbath rest differently, as an opportunity—the genesis of what gives life—as he uses scriptures to explain that King David’s need displaces the strict letter of the law, that with David ‘s hunger filled, God’s will for David can be achieved and the future of Israel secured. The following Sabbath, once again, Jesus creates a stir. Granted, it’s hardly scandalous, what Jesus does, and quite frankly, Jesus and the Pharisees probably don’t disagree about the protocols of the Sabbath. No one would have argued that saving a life and doing good was lawful and supersedes all other laws. Yes, they might have quibbled whether the man’s life was actually in danger, some saying no, he had lived with a withered hand for years and it need not be healed on the Sabbath. But Jesus takes another view, that by healing the man’s hand he’s honoring the purpose of the Sabbath commandment, that with the restoration of the hand comes the ability to work with it, the ability to provide for his family. Jesus isn’t just “fixing” a “problem,” he’s restoring the man’s wholeness and dignity, which is the purpose of the Sabbath—that folks who were once slaves should learn to take the time to rest for their own well-being, that they might live abundantly. Jesus comes to Capernaum, calls their interpretations into question, and makes everybody think.
No wonder they didn’t much like Jesus and are ready to off him. He makes them look at themselves honestly. He challenges the accuracy of their interpretations, confronts their righteousness, and exposes their hypocrisy. To be fair, it’s not that the Pharisees are bad guys. Actually, they are good guys, willing to make sacrifices and put a lot of time, money, and effort into being righteous people. Their convictions, traditions, commitments, their laws are noble and well-intentioned, living in such a way that gives order to life and creates an environment to encounter God. But in doing so they, like the rest of us, forget that such things are only a means to an end, not the end itself. They are tools in service of a greater purpose, which is to love God and each other, even the most vulnerable. So Jesus reminds them that, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” that the Sabbath is a tool to bring about the kingdom reality of the abundance of life for all. The Sabbath is for the sake of life. For any to flourish, all must flourish. The Pharisees’ response, choosing righteousness over what is good, following the law instead of doing what the law intends, demonstrates how even the most noble can fail to notice, to overlook folks whose lives need restoration. The man’s hand, his suffering, his plight seem incidental. If they really cared, they might have checked out the new rabbi in town with the power to heal and sent the man to Jesus for healing. But instead, they plot against the new guy who forces them to look in the mirror and think about what they see.
Perhaps, times really don’t change much. We, too, live in a complicated world and Jesus challenges us with the same conundrum with which he challenged the Pharisees. Do we bring life or death? Do our decisions and actions bring healing and wholeness or fear and hopelessness? Do we help or leave behind the most vulnerable? Jesus expects us to look honestly at our criteria for our political stances, our religious choices and our everyday decisions because we’re supposed to be, as Paul says, slaves for each other, carrying out Jesus’ priorities in very human vessels. None of us wants to cast ourselves as a Pharisee. We want to be on Jesus’ side. We can’t imagine choosing temple adherence over the relief of someone’s suffering. But do we allow a brother or sister to go without if it lets us keep our advantage? Do we prefer estrangement over engagement with folks with whom we disagree? Do we work to keep privilege within our own tribe, or realize Jesus has redefined who’s in our tribe? Not hypothetical questions when we look at the shape of Puerto Rico almost a year after hurricane Maria; when we think about children being separated and lost when their family’s great sin was wanting a different life and they tried to cross the border; when we sit on our hands and do nothing as Congress tolerates mass shootings with no sincere discussion on prevention even in sight. Too often, at the expense of healing and wholeness we fail to acknowledge how our actions handicap others, or maybe we see it and prefer we keep the upper hand, or maybe we just don’t know how to get past our own inertia and inactions as our choices and actions, our words and relationships, fail to align with Jesus’ vision for our world. On the other hand, we see glimpses of the Kingdom when a good person like a young woman named Rebecca donates part of her liver to someone who needs it,1 or when a large company like Starbucks loses a day of income to teach people what their families should have taught about how to treat others who may look differently than they do. Our choices between life and death are seldom easy and we need self-awareness, honesty, and courage because when we follow Jesus’ vision there will be times when folks around us won’t be happy with our decisions. Then, like Paul, we may find ourselves afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. Jesus was killed because he did God’s will, which was contrary to the will of the people in the power positions, but he was also raised because the God he served, the God we serve, is life oriented and life giving, even in the world where we must decide if our actions bring life or death.
Jesus challenges us (just like he challenged the Pharisees) in our fields of choice to examine our decisions and actions and ask ourselves honestly if our choices will bear the fruit of goodness, joy, and life.
1CBS This Morning, May 31, 2018, Rebecca donated her liver “to make the world a better place.”