The Comfortable Need Not Apply
March 17, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
At the Transfiguration Jesus “turns his face to Jerusalem” and doesn’t look back. After spending time going to and fro in the countryside of Galilee and beyond, once he’s been to the mountaintop, his gaze narrows and he moves towards Jerusalem with purpose. It will still take a while to get there; he will continue to care for the sick, teach whoever will listen, restore community to people pushed to the margins, liberate folks held captive to spirits that would rob them of abundant life, and bless children along the way. But his path is focused: he’s going to Jerusalem.
Speaking truth to power isn’t an easy job. It’s not for folks who want a comfortable life. It is the job of prophets and they tend to be denied, ignored, belittled, jailed, or killed. Interestingly, it’s the Pharisees, often maligned by Gospel writers, who try to give Jesus the heads up that his prophetic disposition is about to bring unpleasant consequences. Herod’s reputation for cruelty is legendary: being on his radar is a ready recipe for suffering and he expects everyone in the sandbox to play his way. The human tendency to surround ourselves with folks who think and act like we do means when we’re the leader few will argue that it’s our way or the highway. Peer pressure, being what it is, like water wearing down stone, pushes most of us to fall in line—regardless of age—finding security in the “ethic” of if everybody’s doing it, it must be right. Just look at the halls of Congress, the playgrounds at the school yard, or even the four walls of our homes. It takes a lot less energy and is a lot more peaceful if everyone’s on the same page. Trouble is, few pages are pristine. Few of us are perfect, most of us blot the page, falling into lapses, limiting our values to only our perspectives, deforming truths we know by rationalizing. If we’re lucky, if we’re loved, that’s when prophets arise like mother hens, reminding us of who we really are—beloved children of God made in God’s image—naming the sin, the frailty that deforms us, calling us to turn around, to change our direction. Guiding us back to the truths we learned in kindergarten: to walk together when we face the danger of crossing the street; nap when we’re grumpy; eat when we’re hungry; share what we have with the new kid because there is enough to go around; and that we already know right from wrong, we just need to do it. Funny, though, our response to prophets, as if their reminders aren’t loving guidance but gnarled fingers unfairly pointing at us. And we react as if we couldn’t possibly have made a mistake, as if there’s nothing we could learn, as if any blot on our page is to suggest that we are less than perfect and anything less than perfect might be punished or destroyed rather than redeemed. We know when prophets are right, or we wouldn’t be so threatened, we wouldn’t react with such fear or hatred or violence to Jesus, or the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, or the Martin Luther King, Jrs. who come to us asking us to look at ourselves and do better. Instead, we kill them. When Jesus calls Herod a fox he isn’t saying foxes aren’t dangerous. He knows to continue his ministry means he’s marked with an expiration date, he’s in Herod’s crosshairs. Speaking truth to power might be the right thing to do, but it calls for righteousness and determination, for love and confrontation; it is needed but lonely. A prophet’s call sure isn’t easy.
The reality is, Jesus, like the prophets before him, like the prophets who follow him, looks at the world as it is and sees what it could be. Prophets plant themselves in the present, in the blessing and mire, and remind us all that God is right here in the middle of it with us, in the world God called into being and the world God continues to call into being. When Jesus hears of Herod’s murderous intent, both the world that is and the world that is becoming are held up for our examination. In the world that is, Herod is an icon of the powers that be. He uses ridicule, fear, hate, and death to shape the world to his liking. The Herods throughout the ages have held a mighty sway since the first kingdom captured the second, since the first bully squelched a weaker kid on the playground at the beginning of time, proclaiming “might makes right,” especially if we all acquiesce. But the world that is becoming, the one that we Christians are called, with God, to bring into being, is driven by the power of healing, creativity, compassion, and the ability to give life to whatever is dead and dying. Yet, in the world that is, the power of God is powerless against the person who chooses to oppose it. Jesus will get to Jerusalem, face Herod and Pilate, and he will die, just as dead as any son of any parent on the Friday morning massacre at the New Zealand mosque. The hands that healed the sick will be just as ruined as any dead man’s hands. Jesus’ defiant response will lead him to a cross. But it’s at his resurrection, not his cross, that we see the culmination of God’s saving work. The climax of Jesus’ story isn’t when he breathes his last, but when the linen cloths are left behind. Then Jesus will go back to Jerusalem. The city that kills its prophets will become the city where a new reign comes into being from which a movement goes out into all the world1 as the way of life vanquishes the power of death. As people of faith we live in two worlds, live in our embodied world with a heavenly perspective; we are in the world but we are not of the world.
Just as Jesus will not be deterred, if we follow him, then we can’t be dissuaded either. Jesus is determined to live out his prophecy, fulfilling his call as the Messiah, knowing who he is and what he needs to do because he heard it first in his lullaby as Mary sang her Magnificat. He spoke her words in his first sermon as the folks in Nazareth drove him out of town, and he continued to live them out as he journeyed to Jerusalem, healing, teaching, welcoming, blessing, and turning the world upside down. And the day we came up to the font by our own power or our mothers carrying us forward, we too were named, given our call, and set on our journey. Perhaps, we should have considered more fully what we were signing up for? But if we would truly follow him, then we, too, cannot be deterred. Calvin said it best: it wasn’t the apple or the eating of it, it was listening to another voice that takes us from the path we’re called to follow. But the Apostle Paul counsels us to hold firm, warning us against the many whispers luring us towards our own self-preservation that’s content with the status quo as long as we and our friends benefit, that compromises us to accept violence as how life has to be, and insists that we, not everybody, deserve a break today. But that’s not the voice of God who whispers to us, and it’s not the path Jesus walks. Instead, we have been called as a kind of advanced guard of the Kingdom, to live in its ways now. So when Jesus asks us to follow him, it’s to stand for justice that insists the most deserving, rather than the most wealthy, receive a place at the best schools; to refuse to indulge in the growing fear and hatred that is feeding the home grown terrorism of white nationalism, white supremacy, in so many countries; and to be led by children who have enough chutzpah to rally to protect the earth they will inherit. It’s not an easy road to walk. It takes a kind of character that’s built over a lifetime of facing our fears and accepting responsibilities that we could avoid, but refuse to do so. It takes a kind of character that comes from daring to make our part of the world a better place and then working to extend it further and further out. Only to find that along the way, the path we walk has taught us to care and do for others things that we might not have the courage to do for ourselves. When we do so God draws us into the shelter of God’s wings, that we might see that the love and courage at the core of Jesus is at the core of our being, as well. Just as what Jesus did between the Transfiguration and Easter matters, what we do day in and day out matters and we cannot be deterred.
In this season of Lent it takes courage to face the resistance we’ll find if we walk with Jesus on a path that refuses to abide within the confines of the powers that be but dances with the joy of caring for others, stands up for what’s right, and loves with a strength that is greater than death. It’s a path with costs, and folks looking to be comfortable need not apply.
1SALT, online lectionary Commentary, “Tender Mercy,” March 12, 2019.
In the Wilderness
March 10, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Lent has a history of suggesting that the next five weeks should be about voluntarily examining the things that tempt us. To take forty days to observe what distractions find their way into every life. To clear our gaze of apathy that comes from seeing the mess before us and feeling like we can make no difference. And to open our eyes to the almost unbearable revelations of God around us (as if forty days is long enough to do that!). Lent asks us to do so voluntarily that we might be prepared when we find ourselves in the wilderness.
The wilderness isn’t someplace most of us clamor to go. We’re not talking a camping trip with a pop-up camper or getting out into nature for some time away, a little hiking or catching up on some reading. No we’re talking incredible heat, jagged rocks, chapped lips, and blistered feet. Someplace that dwarfs our very being, overwhelms us, and reminds us how big it is and how small we are, how vulnerable, how perishable. It’s a place that thrusts us into remembering that “we are dust, and to dust we will return,” the very message of last Wednesday’s service, the very message of Lent. We don’t usually volunteer for pain, loss, or terror, but such wilderness happens in our lives, whether it comes in the guise of a hospital waiting room, or when we realize we’re the one who dropped the ball and didn’t follow up on the call received, or when we watch our bright, outgoing kids begin to dissolve into their drugs of choice. Wilderness happens when the doctor tells us the results of our tests and they aren’t good, when our panic attacks don’t let up, or when our relationships turn thorny. Wilderness happens to us just like it happens to Jesus, as he’s led into the wilderness—led, pushed, propelled. Our gospel tells us Jesus didn’t choose to enter the wilderness, but that the Spirit led him there. He’s got to wonder just what kind of God would appear like some kind of superhero at his baptism, declare he was beloved, and then send him out to such a (dare I say it?) God-forsaken place. As the days stretch out, Jesus has to wonder if God couldn’t have picked a better venue, and if it will ever end: the sun and rocks, the hurt and the sorrow, and the endless struggle found in the wilderness that comes to us all, unbidden and unwelcome.
It’s not just the hardships Jesus faces in the wilderness, but the silence. The deafening solitude found in being absolutely alone. The silence that is so quiet, the only sound is the noise made by our own body, the gurgle of our gut, the thump of our pulse. Forty days is a long time not to hear another human voice. While we may all long for silence from the cacophony of noise that surrounds us, how different it is when silence isn’t our choice. But then again, where better to look at ourselves honestly than when we’re far from the madding crowd, away from all that distracts, where the only voices we hear are the inner voices of our own lives that emerge from the practices, habits, commitments, and relationships that are sometimes more instinctual than intentional. Alone, in the silence, where fears and doubts and temptations seem to rise up out of the shifting sand under our feet, calling us to question who we are and who will we chose to be. In the silence, alone, where we grapple with the forces around us who seek to undermine who God has called us to be and how we will live out our calling. Wrestling until we’re willing to sell our souls for some relief. That’s the time to cling to the story we’ve been given: “A wandering Aramean was our ancestor;” “We once were lost, but now we’re found;” “Our hope is built on nothing less;” “The Lord is my shepherd.” That’s when we cling to the prayers we know by heart, the faith that’s behind the stories and songs and the truth imprinted in our bones. When we don’t know what to do, that’s the time to do what we know,1.remembering that as children of God we are part of God’s larger story. God’s story woven through generations upon generations can be the lifeline we need to survive, to keep going when the doubts and temptations assail us. Like Jesus, who in the face of temptation quotes parts of the sacred song of Israel, we, too, can refuse to allow the devil to undermine our identity, confident in God, ourselves, and the relationship that holds us together. In reality, our temptations never cease; there is always a pull to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and buy into the seduction of self-interest, power, and might. Yet, in the silence, as the clamor in our heads quiets and we reorient ourselves towards our Maker, we remember and are re-membered, we reconnect, reprioritize, and find our truest identity. Unexpected insights and new perspectives just might emerge, given to us by the One whose love, grace, and wisdom is greater than anything and anyone of our world, as we listen in the silence.
While there is harshness, there is beauty in the wilderness, as well. Without a doubt, the wilderness may be filled with struggle and silence, but even in the desert there’s room for blessing, hope, in the void. Sometimes our journey with God can lead us through some dark and painful places because we live in a fragile and broken world where evil holds sway, but there is also the flutter of angels’ wings as they care for us, minister to us with ears to listen and arms to hold. (Don’t overlook them.) In the wilderness, we may struggle with what has shaped us and what we shape our lives around, but that also forces us into an honesty that will ultimately reveal new truths and awaken new understandings. In the words of a wise man, “There is something in everyone of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will, all your life, spend your days on the end of strings someone else pulls”2. It is in the desert that we can hear more clearly the sound of what’s genuine and be in a position to follow our own destiny. Jesus must have known that, for while he was led into the desert, he chose to stay there until it ran its course. Yes, there is desolation and bleakness is the wilderness, but there is also deliverance, for we are not abandoned by the God whose love for us is so great as to take on the form of a man willing to die on a tree, for God so loved the world. God’s presence can redeem the barest times of our lives, making even our deserts holy, just as God takes the things of death and wrings from them resurrection3. It is in our places of wilderness that we hold in tension brokenness and beauty, horror and hope, as they intimately dwell together. But we follow the One who’s been in the wilderness before, who knows the terrain. And while he may not always lead us on an easy path, he will never lead us astray, but will bring us to pools of redemption and blessing, even in the wilderness.
The season of Lent asks us to enter into the places of wilderness that beckon us, to enter them with honesty, to deal with the silence, to face what tempts us even as we recognize the oases of grace that can be found. For God can redeem the most barren places in our lives. Jesus is already there, and we can trust he will lead us through and bring us to Easter.
1A great old adage: Presbyterian Outlook, Looking Into the Lectionary, March 10, 2019
3A phrase one of my TA’s, Emily Heath, once wrote.
Sign Us With Ashes
March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Lent can feel as grim as the weather that accompanies it, as grey as the ashes that start the season. A season that begins with a smudge, a smudge that gives witness to what survives, what remains, when everything else is lost or burnt away. It is a vivid reminder that there is 100% guarantee that everyone of us will die and be reduced to, in the words of our faith: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Words that are echoed in tonight’s liturgy as well, ”Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as our foreheads are marked with a smudge that is nothing less than a sign of not only our mortality, but of our stubborn hope, as well.
The reality is, there are times when we all feel like dust, even on this side of the tombstone. Times when life seems to suck us dry of every bit of vitality. Days and weeks when it feels like if we turned our faces to the wind, we would be scattered to the four corners of the earth. Times when we are simply scorched and reduced to our most basic, the most elemental of who and what we really are. It’s a hard place to find ourselves, something most of us try to avoid. And yet, we learn a lot about ourselves when we’re there, about what’s really important and what really matters, which is, maybe, not a bad thing. Actually, it’s good to know who and what we are at our core, which is what Lenten ashes ask us to do on a voluntary basis. We are invited, during the next forty days, to sort through the habits, practices (even religious ones), possessions and ways of being that accumulate layer-by-layer. Tonight’s gospel reading points us to behaviors that are intended to help guide us, but somewhere along life’s path get twisted, the purpose subverted from placing us in communion with God to a piety that’s not piety at all but superfluous distractions. Instead, we’re asked to contemplate the state of our hearts, to open them willingly—the secret chambers and the hidden spaces we rarely visit— and check out what’s taken up residence because, if truth be known, our lives are written on our heart’s walls, beating with rhythms that draw us closer or pull us farther from God. Lent asks us to look carefully, examine what’s treasured, knowing that one day it will not be a choice. As often as we feel like dust, one day, life will pare us down to our absolute authentic, our most honest selves. The stuff that is of no consequence will disappear and we will return to be the stuff from which we have been made. We will be no more than dust.
But God works among the ashes. “Do you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” is both an Ash Wednesday blessing and a challenge. Even in death ashes are a sign that what we know and love may for a time may be reduced to dust, but dust doesn’t ever disappear entirely. It’s what remains when all else is gone. What God creates and graces and blesses may be battered and broken, but not destroyed, and God meets us there, gathering what cries out in the devastation, survives the burning, and abides in the dust. God sees what endures and shimmers in the darkness of the ash and breathes into the rubble, offering healing or growth or salvation amid the death, whether human or animal or plant. Only last fall, leaves that finally broke free of their tree found their way to the ground to join with water, serving to make the tree stronger and nourish new leaves in the spring. And if God will do that to the leaves, just think what God might do with us as our dust becomes a place to dream anew, to create again and again the building blocks of a new season. There is much God can do with ashes, leading us to ponder and work through questions for which we do not anticipate ever having answers, as the divine hands that hold the ashes bear us up and draw us toward the Mystery that will consume, but not destroy, that will blossom from the blazing with hope and scorch us with its joy, as the Holy One does much with dust and brings life from ashes.
So let us be marked with dust—that part of us that remains, that enlivens and nurtures, that creates and animates, that cannot be destroyed, that is most basic to who we are, that is love itself by another name. This is the season of trusting, when we bring who we are, bodies occasionally scorched, and hearts opened and examined, that God will work within the dryness and ruptures to make us whole. Made from the palms of previous Palm Sundays, let the ashes rest on you, marking you not with sorrow or shame, but with the memory of dust and ash that nurtures in the deep darkness of the earth, with the imprint of green and life, of fire and warmth, and an awareness of what has gone before and of what yet may be as life arises and finds its way again. As we cross into the Lenten season there is much we can do with our ashy selves, much we can plant in the dirt and the dust. For while life may be fleeting and fragile, Lent calls us to give up our apathetic notions that we are powerless to do anything but float along blown by the wind, and instead believe with hearts and bodies through everyday actions, that we are given God’s own resurrection healing to share with all we meet, and that out of our communion there will bloom new life. As we are marked with the ashes of death we begin again the journey towards new life.
This is the hour when we are marked by what has made it through the burning. The ashes are the first sign and symbol of Lent, but they aren’t the final word. So let the ashes come as a beginning and not as the end. Let them rest on you as an invitation, and take you into the ways ashes know to go.
Lighting the Way
March 3, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Transfiguration Sunday is probably the peak of Epiphany. For sure, there have been all kinds of hints along the way: the star, the abundance of wine, the overflowing fountain of grace in face of the limits of woe-itudes, and more. Each week, some sign, shedding increasing light on who Jesus is. So now, we now find ourselves at the culmination of all Epiphany stories, standing in the full light of the Chosen One’s glory.
The light of the Transfiguration, the light of heaven, has a bit of a dream-like quality about it. It seems surreal. A white robed Jesus kneeling in prayer is a powerful image, one we like to hold in our mind’s eye. It reminds us how often prayer is the setting for revelation, how the familiar can be transformed into the holy as mentally we watch the light of heaven play across and transform Jesus’ face. And then to be joined by Elijah, the prophet extraordinaire, whose return was to signal the imminent end of the present age, and Moses, thought to be the author of the Torah, the Law, whose communion with God also marked his face with the glow of God’s glory, makes it easy to understand Peter’s impulse to want to save the moment, to stop everything and build three tents. If it had happened today we’d all be whipping out our cell phones. Who wouldn’t want to catch the moment and celebrate the greatest event in the history of human kind? Three great heroes of religion: Elijah, Moses, and the Son of God. The very thought of the three greatest religious giants of all time sharing in conversation makes time and space collapse in a disorienting, other-worldly fashion that glows with an incandescent light. Luke gives us a picture that should have been on the front of today’s bulletin. A picture worthy of framing.
The trouble is, our glimpses of heaven don’t last very long. They are fleeting at best. The glory of the mountaintop lies side by side with the agony in the valley, just as plenty and want; bliss and misery; light and shadow share a stage. That’s the reality of the world we live in, that’s how life works. Jesus can’t even get off the mountain before it starts, before such truth takes form, as Moses and Elijah speak of his departure, what in the Greek is his “exodus.” A departure that will be accomplished in Jerusalem with his death, resurrection, and ascension. They know on the cross he will venture into the shadows of death so that he might scatter them once and for all. Jesus will go down into the depths to lift the world into deliverance, that we might find release from what holds us captive. He’s willing to do anything, including dying on a cross, to accomplish that freedom, that healing, and show us that God is with us and for us. There wasn’t going to be much glory in his death. Perhaps, that’s something we, particularly Protestants, have trouble with. We like to claim theologically that things don’t stop with his death, but do we fully acknowledge it when we focus on the resurrection? At the Table we don’t celebrate a reenactment of his sacrifice, but the meal he shares. And nowhere in the sanctuary do we see a cross on which he hangs, draped in the empty lifelessness, but the empty cross of our Risen Lord. We, all to easily, avert our eyes at his death, the picture of human sin rejecting God-love in the flesh; it’s ugly and we want to look away. The trouble is, it’s unavoidable. No wonder that’s what Moses and Elijah talk about. They both know what exodus feels like, looks like. They recognize it when they see it, and they see it in Jesus as sure as Moses talked with God face-to-face, as sure as Elijah heard God’s voice in the “sound of silence”1 on his own mountain experience. And if confronted with the reality of the cross on the mountain isn’t enough, Jesus will no more set foot off the mountain than he is met with brokenness and disease, “Teacher, heal my son,” “Jesus, you’re not welcome in our town,” while he holds in tension the agony and the glory, denying neither as he continues on his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus calls us who would follow to do the same, to see the glory, all the while facing the gruesome ugliness, as well. One thing is for sure: Jesus’ glory on the mountain sure didn’t last long.
No wonder, the voice spoke from the cloud, “This is My Son, My Chosen, listen to him!” Maybe disciples, then and now, need to hear God’s voice so there is no doubt. There may be many leaders and healers, gurus and mystics, saints and speakers, and all kinds of Moseses and Elijahs, but for us, we who are the church the Body Jesus brings into being, we must listen to him. God has visited the world in Christ, and to him alone do we listen, acknowledging him as the One who, though dead, is raised, God’s self-revelation. God’s words at the Transfiguration seem to echo the words at Jesus’ baptism. There, they were spoken directly to Jesus to make sure he knew whose he was and to give him the courage and strength to face the wilderness, the temptations, and his three years of ministry. But this time, the words on the mountain, from the cloud that connects heaven and earth, are directed to us, who may need the light of the Transfiguration to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. It’s a light that can seep through the dense fog that we so often find ourselves in, and while we may be confused, may not quite know where we are and what we’re doing, we have enough light, enough hope, to follow Jesus’ footsteps. And as we follow his lead we might find ourselves transfigured, somehow lifted up and changed by God’s glory as it becomes ours, as well, when we hear the words from the cloud and listen to Jesus, God’s Chosen One.
Having lived in the light of Epiphany, we are about to turn towards Golgotha, coming down from the mountain and descending into a valley that will be scattered with the dry dust of Ash Wednesday and the tears of Holy Week. But we go, using the light of Jesus’ Transfiguration as a torch to shine into the shadows of Lent as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and beyond.
Much gratitude to David Buttrick and his thoughts on the Transfiguration, found in Proclamation, Epiphany.
1 I Kings 19:12
Loving the Chains that Bind Us
February 24, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
I can’t help but think of the priest in the play Les Mis, Monseigneur Bienvenu, with the candlesticks and Jean Valjean, when I read Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Plain. They give us pause. Someone once offered a brass plaque with the Golden Rule inscribed for anyone who could actually live out Jesus’ words for one hour. There were no takers, although perhaps the Monseigneur might be a contender. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, be merciful, don’t judge, and forgive”—the words of Christ that we’ve been dodging ever since. Yet, they may be the word of God we most need to hear.
It sounds like an impossible task Jesus gives us, like he’s is channeling some CEO laying out unattainable annual goals, the way he asks followers to adhere to a standard of love and forgiveness, to do good even to folks who do us harm. It sounds lovely until we try to live by it. Just think about the last time someone cut you off in traffic, or the cathartic words you spewed at the TV when they interviewed a politician you were certain was bold-face lying. Just guessing, the words used weren’t prayers for their well-being? We live at a time when our trust is repeatedly thrown to the ground and stepped on both by the institutions in which we place our faith and by the people we love. A time when a Coast Guard lieutenant, given the responsibility of protecting our shores, is accused of being a terrorist; when the rich, famous, and religious are comfortable using children to fulfill their predatory needs; and in most families, the offenses and betrayals are too numerous to count. Our human relationships are riddled with unhealed hurts. Yet, Jesus meets us on the plain and tells us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give them our coats while they’re carting off everything else. Just where’s the fairness in that? What about justice? It’s not like we want to cut off the hand of the thief and render him unable to work, but a little more eye-for-an-eye morality seems in order. If we’re honest, we can’t imagine justice without revenge, retribution, and punishment. Yet, here Jesus is telling us to live by a different standard, the only one making much sense being turn the cheek because, frankly, it hurts more to have the same cheek hit twice. And he doesn’t change his mind as his ministry continues. Jesus is consistent when later he will teach us to pray, elevating forgiveness to receiving our daily bread, as if they are both equally necessary for our survival, as if both are to be prayed for each and every day. Jesus seems to forget, or doesn’t care, when every instinct in us is calling for revenge and he asks us to forgive, just how unnatural it feels.
Strange as it seems, though, we see in (the Genesis story of) Joseph the ability to embody what Jesus asks of us. He’s able to forgive and love the folks who treated him like an enemy. You know the story. Joseph, after surviving abandonment, false accusations, and a term of imprisonment, forgives his brothers for the years of struggle and hardship. It’s no wonder, when he identifies himself, his brothers are dismayed (read: scared speechless). Remembering the way they treated him, and his present position just under the Pharaoh, they expect vengeance, some sort of punishment, some sort of justice for their past sins. The story could have gone, should have gone very differently, but Joe refuses to follow the typical plotline, doing to others not what was done to him, but what he would have liked done to him. When they come together he doesn’t waste their time “letting bygones be bygones” with easy forgiveness. He doesn’t pretend the past doesn’t matter or his wounds didn’t hurt, offering cheap grace. Instead, Joe is able to begin the process of forgiveness by starting with the truth, with, “I am your brother whom you sold into Egypt.” Of course, the conversation’s painful, but I’m guessing it’s painful for all of them. They’ve all experienced suffering at each other’s hands. Yes, his brothers had done him rotten, but if we’re honest, Joe was no saint, but a little creep who was daddy’s favorite and capitalized on it. He dreamed big dreams and passed around his own plate of hurt. The reality is, all people love poorly; we all act in ways that require some repentance, meaning we all need to forgive and be forgiven regularly. There’s nothing passive about forgiveness, and unexamined complicity makes us part of the problem; but true forgiveness begins with honesty, and honesty leads to repentance, because only when we truthfully confront the past can we move into a future filled with hope, as Joseph begins the process towards healing the wounds of his family.
Joseph is able to embody the forgiveness and healing Jesus asks of us because he begins with remembering, but he doesn’t end there. Remembering is dangerous, and the only way memories don’t injure is when we make the choice to change the narrative. Refusing to remain a victim, Joseph is able to forgive his brothers when he moves from “they hurt me” to “I’m going to change things.” From victim to survivor, joseph takes back control from the past as he recognizes God’s hand, God’s role, in his story, which allows him to reframe their history. Three times Joe says “God sent me.” He’s not saying that God wills the abuse or abandonment that got him to Egypt, but that God is always present, working to turn the manure of life into fertilizer. Joe gets that his story is part of God’s larger story, but because God is part of the story his will not end in loss or trauma, but he finds hope of another chapter, another grace. Joseph shows a profound trust in God’s ability to reach through human treachery, even as God, not merely Joseph’s warm feelings, guides the family towards reconciliation. To be honest, a ceasefire between human beings isn’t very likely if we’re only counting on our own warm and fuzzy feelings. Apart from the grace of God moving through our broken and sin-filled situations, the evils we do to each other are most usually tombstone-fixed in time. They remain forever an irreparable injury, an unrelieved resentment1. But in his trust, Joseph is able to break the chains of family tradition, a long history of jealousy and hatred seen between his father and uncle, Jacob and Esau; his grandfather and his brother, Isaac and Ishmael; and his great-grandfather’s wives, Sarah and Hagar. Instead, Joseph assures his brothers he will save them and their families—no payback, only forgiveness, no humiliation, only mercy, no punishment, only provision2, as he begins the healing process that embodies the words that will, centuries later, come from a preacher on a plain, named Jesus.
While we may see forgiveness and reconciliation in the story, not all of us have Joe’s happy ending. In the wrong hands, reconciliation can be a form of tyranny, and there are situations so deep, so dangerous, so unhealthy that reconciliation is not possible. The reality is there is a difference between forgiveness, with all its complexities, and reconciliation. But in a climate where there’s a rush to judge and punish, Jesus asks people of faith to demonstrate mercy and forgiveness. For withholding forgiveness, as a wise woman once said, “is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die”3. Instead, Jesus call us to refuse to weaponize well-deserved anger, embracing forgiveness rather than resentment, which may be the most defiant thing we can do in a world threatening to implode with hatred. To forgive doesn’t mean to trust an enemy with our lives—an enemy is still an enemy, Jesus never pretended they weren’t—but neither does it mean we seek their destruction. Fifty-eight years have passed since six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked into the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was black and all the other students were white. Her walk into school, surrounded by federal marshals, had to be lonely, what with angry whites waving Confederate flags and even pushing a child’s casket with a black baby doll inside towards her. She spent the year the only student in her classroom as the white parents boycotted, but someone noticed her lips moving as she went in and out of school. When asked who she was speaking to, her reply was that she was talking to God and praying for the people in the street. “Why were you doing that, Ruby?” “Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?” “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them?” “No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing’”5. Unlike Ruby, for most of us forgiveness takes a long time, is a long process with plenty of fits and starts, but if we can align our ethics and behavior with God’s way rather than a path of self-interest or vindictiveness, perhaps our heads and hearts might stretch until over time we find forgiveness, and over time forgiveness finds us.
We are all bound by some kind of chain. There are chains of resentment, chains of revenge, or chains of God’s good grace that hold us together in the midst of our human frailty. Each day we choose which chain we will love enough to bind us.
1Thought “stolen” from David Buttrick in Proclamation 3, Epiphany, with his great imagery of “tombstone-fixed in time.”
2Jill Duffield, Presbyterian Outlook, February 24, 2019.
4Immortalized by Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With.”
5Peter W. Marty, Christian Century, March 29, 2017.
It Takes Intention
February 17, 2014
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Jesus comes down to the plain after a full night of praying on a mountain, having called disciples and named apostles. Once they get down the mountain they find a crowd waiting. All kinds of people, some with great need, folks with physical, spiritual, and emotional ailments, others possessed. Likely more than a few curious, others greedy, as Jesus, just oozing with power, faces the crowd and begins to teach about discipleship.
Blessings and woes, talk about a kill joy! It’s pretty stark, the Sermon on the Plain, stinging really, with its beatitudes and woe-itudes. Blessed, happy, favored even, are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, reviled, and woe to you who are rich, supported, laughing, or of good reputation. This is what discipleship looks like?? What in the name of heaven or earth is going on? Granted, the form is familiar, it’s throughout the Hebrew Bible. We hear a bit of it in Jeremiah with the compare and contrast, but the content is a real shocker! Whatever happened to the “live a good life and rewards will flow” the “Honor the Lord with your substance, with your first fruits, then your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will be bursting with wine?”1 It’s like Jesus is pulling some kind of sleight of hand, exchanging bad things with good things, in which blessings are equated with the very things we work hard to avoid, and the things we do our best to achieve—food, security, laughter, esteem—receive a negative spin. It’s like “blessed are you when you come down with cancer, for you shall be made whole,” or “woe to you who work every day of your life, for you shall lose your pension.” What is he saying? If we’re honest, most of us have no intention of living in such a way as to “earn” hunger. If there’s going to be any stomach growling, it’s not going to be because Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is bare. Few of us are going looking for misery or grief; there’s more than enough around, thank you very much. And really, what is to be accomplished by becoming poor or making folks hate us? Granted, while few of us are hugely wealthy, the reality is most of us are comfortable and we’ve worked hard to get there. There aren’t many of us born with silver spoons, and becoming relatively secure was neither fast nor easy. Jesus’ words are troubling, and we can’t help but react. Maybe that’s why he says what he does? Let’s face it, if we’re hungry we’re going to respond differently than if we’re well fed when we hear his words. Maybe he’s counting on us to be smart enough to recognize who we are in the litany, especially we who are a little better off, and open ourselves to a little more honesty than we’re usually confronted with as Jesus stands beside us, going off with his beatitudes and woe-itudes.
The reality is for most of us there are consequences to having more than enough. Consequences we seldom have to face or acknowledge, but they’re there. Let’s be honest, it’s easy for us to say “we trust God” when there’s little need to do so—when there’s plenty to pay the electric bill, food in the fridge, a warm house— and when we aren’t in dire need of anything the rubber seldom hits the road. It’s embarrassingly easy to forget all about God when there’s little in our lives that creates a sense of urgency. It’s not that we don’t believe, don’t love God, it’s just that we’re already full, already laughing. We don’t need to rely on God because mortals that we are, we can trust ourselves to get out there and make our own way, take care of what needs to be done. Most of the time we’re hardly aware of God’s daily intervention in our lives; it just doesn’t occur to us that we would be lost, wholly and completely, without the grace of God. No wonder, Jesus insinuates God’s favor doesn’t rest on the well-fed, well-off, and well-liked,2 but on folks who, out of necessity, spend a lot more time in conversation with God. Folks who have no one and nothing to fall back on but God—no line of credit, no help from daddy, no groupie followings, no immunity, no nothing. The ones without the privilege of flying over the valleys in their lives, but who must walk through them with God because they’ve got no one else to rely on. If they’re God’s favorites, maybe it’s because they and God spend so much time together. Perhaps it’s only when we, who are comfortable, realize that there are some parts of Christian life that we simply can’t grasp because of our situation, that we become aware of limits found in the “power of plenty.” Only when we realize that there is something to be learned from folks for whom the promise of “more and better” actually means something, only when we figure out that we don’t even know what it is that we don’t know, and become intentional to learn what we have missed, that we move from woe-itudes to beatitudes. It’s not that poverty, or hunger, or grief are holy or redemptive in and of themselves, it’s just that when we’re forced to sit with them we become more opened to the meaning of blessing, something we can’t learn when we have too much.
It makes us wonder if, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus is declaring who’s blessed and cursed, or simply pointing out how things are? See, all too often when we hear words like “blessings” and “woe,” we think of reward and punishment, as if they’re a judgment and something we’ll get in the future, rather than what’s happening with us, our state of being, right now. Maybe he should have said, “Fortunate are you who are poor, and tough luck, you who have plenty, there are just some things you can’t know without experiencing them.” Let’s face it, when Jesus describes discipleship, he’s just spent a considerable amount of time and energy healing and exorcising, being the conduit of God’s power to the crowd, the multitude gathered around him, so that they might be healthy and able to provide for themselves and their families, and not be poor, or hungry, or miserable. Nowhere in the Gospel of Luke does he tell us we should divest and make ourselves poor3. As a matter of fact, Luke dedicates his two-book series (Luke and Acts) to a man he calls “the most excellent Theophilus,” who may well have been his patron, (read: a man with big pockets)4. Jesus isn’t suggesting in some masochistic fashion that destitution or starvation are desirable. Where’s the good news with that? What he does seem to be doing is gathering folks, the wealthy and the poor, the hungry and the full, the folks filled with joy and folks filled with sorrow, people with friends and people with none, onto a level playing field where folks who are deemed less than, and folks who stand above, are gathered into community, into a relationship that’s more than money-in-the-collection-plate charity, but instead where thoughts and perspectives might be exchanged and shared and we can begin to hear and care for one another, experiencing, at least in a second-hand way, what each other faces and goes through as he draws us into a strategy of love. We are called into community where different people with different circumstances can share perspectives that all of us may be more aware and intentional in how we live and the decisions we make. Only then can we realize the truth told by the One who loves each of us, when it comes to blessings and woes, that things aren’t necessarily the way things have to be.
Jesus’ beatitudes and woe-itudes are harsh to we who are well-fed, well-off, and well-liked, but he is making it clear that we who have much must be intentional, because it doesn’t come easy, if we are to learn what we do not know as we seek to be true disciples and live into the Kingdom of God.
1 Proverbs 3:9-10
2 A delightful little trinity I saw in the online blog Journey with Jesus, “Blessing and Woes,” by Debi Thomas, for 17 February 2019.
3However, there is the passage in Mark 10:17-31 with the rich young man, but that incident belongs to Mark alone and many of us wonder if it isn’t biographical to the writer.
4Luke 1:1-4 whose name can be translated to “lover of God.”
You Want What??
February 10, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Luke’s tale of a miraculous catch sounds like some kind of fish story. Still, it may truly have something to say to us who find ourselves in the church, believing we have been called to share the good news that Jesus himself shared. The reality is, when we look around it can feel pretty overwhelming, but we keep fishing, leaving it up to God whether we just get a few nibbles or net a big catch.
God shows up sometimes when we least expect it. Maybe that’s what Peter thought when Jesus showed up at his boat. Somewhere along the line, between growing up in Nazareth as a kid and becoming an itinerate preacher, Jesus seems to have to spent time, begun his public life in Capernaum, a town along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Gennesaret. It has many names and was home to many people, lots of poor farmers, but, as we would guess, lots of fishermen, too, and all the accompanying tradesmen whose services would be necessary for the fishing industry, including good carpenters, like Jesus. Early on, in Capernaum, Jesus had cast out a demon in the synagogue and then went straight to the home of one Simon, as in Peter, curing his mother-in-law of a high fever, only to start a parade of folks sick or possessed. So maybe it’s no wonder when Jesus happens to be hanging by the lake, a crowd gathers, folks who could probably use a Word of God, and Jesus seems ready to speak. Perhaps it’s a bit bold, a little presumptuous, how he kinda’ commandeers Peter’s boat, but even more surprising is that Peter just lets him. Maybe Peter knows him and is used to him doing that kind of thing, or maybe Peter’s so grateful for Jesus’ earlier help with his mother-in-law that there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for him. Maybe Peter’s just that kind of guy, or maybe Peter’s just too tired to care. Let’s face it, he probably has lots of things on his mind other than Jesus teaching from his boat. It’s been a miserable night fishing, with nothing to show for all the effort of, at least, four men—Peter and his brother Andrew, and their partners, James and John. No fish for their families’ breakfast, and no fish to be sold, but big haul or small catch, there’s still all the clean-up, like nets to be washed. It’s nice how they humor Jesus while they’re cleaning up, even getting back in the water to push the boat out while he teaches, all the while just wanting to finish up, get home, and go to bed. There’s no such thing as “you deserve a break today” for Peter, Andrew, James and John. If anyone should ever be sympathetic to the guys, it should be the Church, who, throughout the ages, also seems to spend plenty of time doing what we think we’re supposed to do, only to have little to show for the effort. Folks wear themselves out working for justice (as in for 2,000 years), but there’s still plenty of injustice, or closer to home, supporting NESFACE, but there’s still hungry people; or look around, there are more than a few empty pews. We know what it’s like to pour ourselves into our ministry and come away exhausted, frustrated, and done. Neither “Peter and Company” nor “the Church” have smashing success stories. “Lord, we’ve worked all night long, but have nothing.” Still, Jesus shows up, sometimes when we least expect it.
Funny though, in God’s presence, things do happen. Probably the last thing Peter wanted to do was to take his clean nets and go back out. We can hear it in the “you want what?” of his “Lord, we have worked all night.” He’s got to be wondering just what a carpenter, even a miracle working one, knows about fishing. Yet, Peter shows some dogged determination, letting the Lord direct him, doing what he really didn’t want to do, what really didn’t fit into the schedule, as he goes back out to do the same old thing one more time with no guarantee of different results—the very definition of insanity. Jesus brings no magical net nor new techniques or gimmicks. Nothing is different from what they’ve been doing all night long, except Jesus is in the boat and they’re following his directions. But when the nets hit the water, frustration gives way to epiphany as the crew almost drowns in abundance. No wonder Peter drops to his knees, Isaiah does pretty much the same thing, when they both finally realize that they are in the presence of God. That’s what happens when folks remember that there’s a difference between the Creator and the creature, and just who’s who, as they acknowledge they are finite and imperfect. Peter and Isaiah use the word “sin,” even though that’s a word we 21st century Christians pull away from. But call it what you may, our self-reliance, our lack of trust, unreliable wisdom, and insecure egos all get in the way of the gospel message. Too often, the Church, that is, we, people of faith, have shown ourselves to be intolerant and trivial, and when Jesus tells us to get into the boat and put out for the deep water, our only response is “You want what?” We seem to forget that if Peter would have given in to the sin of skepticism, or logic, or done what he likely wanted, he would have missed a miracle, missed witnessing the power of God, missed the call to fish for people. But by following Jesus’ direction, obedient to the Word made flesh, Peter rides in a boat full of fish with the Son of God, in whose presence things happen.
Funny, how God’s always up to more than we can imagine. Jesus calls Peter to go deeper, and despite his doubts, Peter listens and obeys and receives more than his wildest dreams as he follows Jesus, gathering people up in the life changing grace of God. When God asks, “Who shall I send,” when Jesus says, “Rather than stay in the shallows, go with me into the deep water,” we are offered the chance for him to widen our view and broaden our perspective, to look beyond what we see and what we think is true. Maybe that’s when we realize the world is teeming with folks we may have never seen, liked, or loved, swimming right beside us. We only need to reach out, not as people fully in the know or the only repositories of divine inspiration, but as people who know that in God there are infinite possibilities beyond our expectations. When Jesus asks us to follow him, he’s not asking us to leave our brains at the door, to forsake our gifts, our intellect, our experience, or our creativity. Just as Peter knows the tools of his trade, the limitation of his men, the value of timing, and most importantly, the nature of water, bringing it all to Jesus for his use, so, too, we are to bring all that we are, that in the freedom of his presence we might become more fully who Jesus calls us to be. That doesn’t mean our journey will always be filled with affirmation and success. Had Hunter read just a bit further, we would have heard Isaiah’s call leading him to deliver a grim message that would be inevitably rejected—which is not the way to win friends—and Peter’s ministry will eventually lead him to his own cross. But lest we get discouraged, do you hear the promise? Peter stands drowning in fish and sees the hope of the gospel—a new humanity netted in the name of Jesus the Christ. A vision far greater than he had ever imagined.
Jesus still comes to us today, inviting us to do things that make us shake our heads and ask, “You want what?” Yet, following his direction, even with our limitations, our doubts, and our inadequacies, the very thing he calls us to can be accomplished through the grace of God at work in us in ways we can’t imagine.
Good News—Not Always Appreciated
February 3, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Sermons are funny things. The Holy Spirit breathes on them and they can take on a life of their own. Sometimes, the preacher walks in with a sermon convinced it is mediocre at best, sure folks will fall asleep, but it really speaks to the congregation. Other times a preacher can think the sermon’s a winner, and not so much. Occasionally, I come in sure that God has handed me a loaded gun, ready to go off, but you have thoughtfully listened. And every once in a while, I’ll say something only to have one of you tell me, weeks later, how much it meant to you as I scrape my brain wondering what it was that was so profound. I do appreciate that none of you has offered to throw me off a cliff, at least so far, but a preacher never knows just how folks might respond to a sermon.
Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth starts out great. Let’s face it, he’s the hometown boy. The folks who “knew him when” have heard great things, that he’s an excellent teacher, that in his presence disease disappears and demons scatter, that he can even turn water into wine if the party needs a little help. The kid with the iffy birth story is their own rising star. Not only do they want to hear what he has to say, the coffee now is already on for the Fellowship Hour afterwards. And he doesn’t disappoint. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he stands up to read (as was the custom) a familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah, words of good news, freedom, sight, and justice, as every eye is upon him. “Today,” he says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” How can they help but be delighted? Today, God’s reign of Shalom, the day of salvation and transformation, is fulfilled. What anticipation, as they, who live in an occupied territory, who have become destitute under the taxes of foreigners, who are so vulnerable, hear God’s words of liberty; God’s promise to rescue and redeem is about to take on flesh. When they hear a new world is on the horizon, the world dreamed of by the prophets, they can’t help but think their hopes, their prayers, that the Romans will be ousted, the Temple will return to its former grandeur, and the unclean foreigners and pagans will be put into their rightful place, are coming into being. As Jesus situates himself in the words of the prophet Isaiah, as he speaks of good news, they are sure he means it is just for people like them. For a moment every eye is riveted on him; Jesus’ sermon starts out great.
But it takes a U-turn, and the crowd wants to throw him off the cliff. Why? What’s he said to infuriate them all? Maybe it’s that sight to the blind, justice, freedom, and any other blessing, is all good news as long as they come to folks who in some way can claim him. Surely, if Jesus is willing to pass out miracles for strangers, just think what he should be willing to do for hometown folks and family. But that’s not what he’s saying; he’s talking good news to folks best forgotten about, who might do harm, might take resources, might use gifts meant for folks who know him. And that’s a whole other thing. No wonder they get upset when Jesus reminds them there were plenty of widows in Israel, but God sent Elijah to Sidon, and plenty of Israeli lepers, but God sent Elisha to Naaman the Syrian. Sidon, Syria, Honduras, Ecuador, Afghanistan, it really doesn’t matter. It’s maddening to realize that God loves others, outsiders, foreigners, as much as God loves us, but it’s just as irritating when we recognize that God offers good news to people who may not be outsiders, but are still people we’d rather not sit next to, folks who smell because they’re homeless, MAGA hat bearers, uncompromising Democrats, the person who recently embarrassed us publically, or anyone else who might offend and disturb us. It’s infuriating that God doesn’t belong to us, refusing to be limited to location or tribe, always crossing every artificial border we set up, whether geographical, political, or personal. Do we fear that God has only so much love and so many blessings, as if there isn’t enough to go around? Do we fear that we might come up short, that we aren’t specially entitled, that there’s no real reward for being chosen, that God loves them as much as God loves us? Jesus’ promise of good news isn’t good news if deep down underneath we really expect God to play favorites and we’ve got to be the favorite. That’s when enthusiasm turns into antagonism, joy into contempt, and delight into violence, and we’re ready to throw Jesus off the mountain.
Still, Jesus says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing.” Today? As day after day, generation after generation, humankind crowds together ready to throw him off the cliff and make clear we don’t think it’s very good news? But Jesus isn’t making this stuff up as he places his ministry in the ongoing promise and commitment of God, who loves us and asks us to love others. Is he naive or what? But just as astounding may be that we, people of faith, know that the fast shift between love and hate that starts Jesus’ ministry will end it as well during Holy Week on a cross, yet we follow him, having been drawn into community not by our own selves but by God. In the church, we dare to believe that something transformative can happen when we consent to listening to God’s word with our whole hearts as Jesus pushes hard against the illusions of our cherished assumptions that we deserve more, more liberty, more sight, more good news than the next guy. Disillusionment, even though it stings, seems to be essential for the Christian life. In the words of a wise woman, "Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth”1 as God opens us up, transforms us, to what is really good news. The reality is we all see through a mirror dimly, and the very people we are tempted to ignore, avoid, wall out, may be the very people who hold a piece of the truth we need to see more clearly. For God speaks to people we don’t recognize as sacred and privileges voices we aren’t interested in hearing with revelations we need to know if we are to be released from what holds us captive, that we might be part of God’s vision of good news. Like someone once said, “We cannot be what we are intended to be, unless our brothers and sisters, locally and globally, are who they are intended to be, living out their gifts as God’s beloved children”2 In truth, we all have hurts, biases, and misunderstandings that cause us to fail to live up to God’s dream. But together in a symbiotic relationship, through love or respect or value, call it what you may, we can each bring healing to the other as together we take on our commission to go out and proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favor. Today, today, scripture is being fulfilled.
Jesus’ words aren’t easy; his good news is not always appreciated when we realize that it is not good news for us alone and each of us must wrestle. There’s no shortage of situations that confront us: the division over the wall, the sense of injustice between the races, concerns over incarceration, take your pick. But Jesus’ sermon gives us a vision we must reflect on, lest he passes through the midst of us and goes on his way.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life
2Martin Luther King, Jr.