To Test or not to Test

(From Morning Prayer Service, August 10, 2021)

The First Lesson                                                                          

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 21: 1-14

When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days.

Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

 When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais; and we greeted the believers and stayed with them for one day.

The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” When we heard this, we and the people there urged Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.

 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.”

Second Lesson                                                                                                                                     

A Reading from the Gospel According to Mark. Mark 10: 1-16

Jesus left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.’ For this reason,a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these, that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

To Test or not to Test

In my first exposure to Homiletics (Sermon Writing), the instructor explained how to pick a sermon topic in a Bible-centered church like ours with an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading, and a Gospel reading at every service.  He said, “Find the thread that ties together your readings and build your message around that thread.” I like that.  It is always exciting to discover those threads and come up with something.  The instructor went on to add that if you can’t find a thread or if you find one scripture to be particularly relevant or intriguing, then focus on that one scripture.

Looking at our scriptures for today, I noticed right off the bat that finding a unifying thread between these two would be a true task in creativity.  So, I was left with the decision to pick one on which to focus.  Being a pretty good swimmer, I decided to jump into the deep end of the pool and picked Mark.  Heaven, help me.

Let’s look at this controversial reading, breaking it down into four sections.  First, however, I want you to understand that the words of Jesus in our scripture were as disturbing and counter cultural to its audience back then as they are today.  With that disclosure out of the way, let us proceed.

The Four Sections.

The Setting

The Question

The Response

The Blessing

The Setting:  This conversation is not a private conversation.  It is a conversation with an audience, crowds of people witnessing, listening, waiting to hear the interchange between these religious giants.

The Question:  Or should we call it a Test?  Mark called it a test.  What is the difference then between a true question seeking an answer versus a test?  Our first clue is that the Pharisees ask their question in front of a large audience, drawing attention to themselves, not in a quiet setting seeking knowledge, seeking understanding. The second clue is that the Pharisees ask a question to which they already know the answer.  You and I know that when a question is posed to one of us, and the asker already knows the answer, we are getting set up.  That makes it a test.

Which is what the Pharisees were trying to do to Jesus.  They knew that divorce was lawful.  Divorce, no-fault- uncontested was lawful all the way back to Moses, who even had a legal protocol to follow.  If a man is not satisfied with his wife for any reason, he can write a letter of dismissal and the marriage is over.  Done.   Simple, quick, cheap!  Divorce.

Understand, that no one likes divorce.  Church leaders back then and now are none too happy with the frequency of divorce amongst their flock.  They know that the carnage left over from divorce are deep and far-flung. 

I recall years ago reading a financial essay blaming divorce for poverty amongst the elderly.  The inordinate expense of a divorce decimating the value of their properties and raiding their retirement savings left them unprepared for the years when they could no longer earn a living.  Economic insecurity is a specter amongst the divorced, especially for women with children they support, whose income and benefits are significantly less than that of her male counterparts.

No one likes divorce.

The Response.  Jesus as we know is an astute individual.  He knows this is a test, and he responds as was his habit by ignoring the question, because it is obviously not a question.  It is a test.  So, he starts off by asking the Pharisees a question, . . . or was it a test?  Hmm, maybe so. He asks, What did Moses say?  They answer.  Their answer is correct.  At which point, Jesus relates the inside story, the creation story of love and marriage.  God’s vision of love was a relationship in which two individuals come together to form a bond to which they are dedicated and devoted.  So devoted, that they are bonded as though one flesh.

Think about that visual.  One flesh.  Not one mind.  Not one person.  One flesh.  Imagine a relationship in which you are treated as carefully as you treat your own skin.  Would you on purpose neglect it?  Ridicule it? Abuse it?  Damage it?  Break it?   Destroy it?  Of course not.  NO!  You would treat your flesh tenderly, carefully, paying attention to it, nourishing it.  That is how you treat a loved one, with whom you share one flesh.

Jesus himself saw the difference between God’s vision at Creation – this one flesh concept, – and the human capacity to do harm. Jesus knew that divorce was legal because of a hardness of heart that obstructs the bonding God intended when he created love and marriage.  When hardness of heart happens in a relationship, the bond God envisioned as marriage no longer exists and divorce feels inevitable.

Ask anyone who has gone through a divorce. The only thing worse than the trauma, loss, and cost of a divorce is the heartbreak, misery, neglect, betrayal, stinginess, emotional, verbal, financial and/or physical abuse of a relationship destroyed by hardness of heart.

Jesus described two kinds of marriage.  The one God created and wants for all of us.  A marriage bond where each person is treated and valued as their own flesh.  An intimacy that should never be betrayed, violated, or exchanged for another person. That would be adultery.

And then there is the marriage ruined by hardness of heart, and that is why we have divorce.

Is Jesus happy about that?  Obviously not.  No one is.  Not the grieving spouses who see their hopes and dreams go up in flames.  Not the women who will be cast into a socially desolate and dangerous place, physically and financially.

And not the children whose lives are turned upside down, the silent victims of conflict between the two parents whom they trusted with their lives.  Which brings us to the fourth section of our Lesson for today. 

The Blessing of the Children. 

Children were considered property at the time of our Lesson, an expense.  Which is why Jesus had to speak up for them, indignant and stern.  He referred to them as the role model for what it takes to get into the Kingdom of God:  an open receptive mind, an eagerness to learn, an ability to love without reservation, without hardness of heart.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Which is what Jesus does with us, when we are so blessed to be in a marriage filled with love and mutual regard, where we experience the sense of what “one flesh” is all about, and for which we give thanks every day.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Which is what Jesus does with us, when hardness of heart has created isolation and loneliness in our own home.  He comforts us with his own experiences with hardness of heart:  listening to the crowd chant Crucify him; seeing, hearing Peter’s denial of their relationship as the cock crowed, and in the darkness of Gethsemane watching Judas approach him, to betray him with a kiss.  Jesus knows the pain caused by hardness of heart.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Which is what Jesus does if we feel condemned by today’s scripture.  Whether because we could no longer tolerate a relationship broken by our loved ones’ hardness of heart and we left it.  Or when we were the ones with hardness of heart destroying the relationship and driving away the very person we once loved.  Or when we are honest with ourselves.  

As far as I know, I have never met a person who has not, at one time or another, hardened their heart, and said things they could never take back, done things unforgivable.  Jesus’ words do not condemn us.  They never condemn.  They are filled with compassion as he takes us in his arms, forgives us, and blesses us with his love and assurance that he will never leave us.  There is no sin worse than any other sin.  And there is no sin that goes unforgiven by God.  With God, there is no hardness of heart, no abandonment, only love.  Only forgiveness.

“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”


Scared Dogs

Luke 1: 68-79

A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

  Luke 22:14-23

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke.

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.

Scared Dogs                                    

Two men.

Two good men.

Two men facing death, not a peaceful death you would expect for good men, but incarceration, beatings, treacherous executions.

Stephen, chosen by the disciples to take on the task of insuring that widows and orphans were fed, feeding the poor, and waiting on tables.

Jesus who chose the disciples to take on the task of changing the world, washing their feet, and feeding them, preparing them for what was to come.

How does such injustice happen?

We understand when a person is incarcerated and imprisoned for heinous crimes.  But in our scriptures for today, these are not criminals, thieves, robbers, or murderers.  They are holy men.  Men of Peace.  Men living the definition of sacrificial love.   It makes no sense.

Of course, by now, we should be used to it, right?  Senseless murders,  imprisonment, torture, assassination of political, cultural, and religious leaders, saints, who dared to espouse peace, inclusion, and acceptance.   A never-ending litany of injustice that makes no sense.

I admit for years I could not understand the logic of it all.  Until one day, I was sitting with a person of great wisdom and understanding – a dog trainer.  And in one short sentence, everything fell into place.  She explained, “A scared dog is an aggressive dog.”

Yep.  That was it. 

Now if you think it disrespectful to compare humans and dogs, because obviously, humans are more intellectually and morally advanced than dogs, may I kindly refer you to the statistics.  It is true that dogs are known to kill up to 25,000 humans a year around the globe.  Of that number, 30 – 50 take place in the US.  Humans, on the other hand, systematically kill off 475,000 fellow humans – often ones that they loved, an act dogs would abhor.

Dr. Aaron Beck, considered the father of modern cognitive psychotherapy, wrote a monumental book on the same subject. He entitled it Prisoners of Hate, the Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence.  The book could be summarized in one short statement,” A scared dog is an aggressive dog.’ 

In the dog training world, it is important to teach your dog that you are in charge and that he does not need to be hyper vigilant, on edge for any sudden danger, ready to crouch and attack.  He can relax in your presence confident that you are strong and capable.  That you can handle whatever or whoever walks up to you.  And then, as the trainer was quick to add, if someone tries to hurt you, your dog will take him out.

In our human world, it is we who do not need to be hyper vigilant, on edge for any sudden danger, ready to crouch and attack because we walk with God.  He owns us.  We can relax confident that God is with us and can handle whatever adversity we encounter.  We walk our life next to God who knows our heart, our needs, our weaknesses, because God is the light in our darkness.  He is the light of the world.

Which brings us full circle to our original question.  Why kill Stephen?  Why kill Jesus? Because they had to die!

Can you imagine the fear that coursed through the veins of the scared dogs who hurled treacherous lies into the face of Stephen to justify his execution, only to see his face transformed into that of an angel – projecting a purity and strength that belittled them. Suddenly, they were revealed as the powerless entities they had become in the aftermath of a Pentecost that exploded the world as they knew it.  This man must die!

And what about Jesus, the preacher, teacher, healer; the light that raised the dead and the power that calmed the storm.  It was a power that terrified the scared dogs circling for the attack inciting a riot, with chants reverberating through Pilates’ courtyard, Crucify Him! Crucify Him!     This Jesus was a light so strong, so intense that nothing could be hidden from him. His was a light that revealed the darkness in their hearts, the greed, the hypocrisy; and revealed it to the world.  There was only one way to extinguish it. This man must die!

A travesty.  An injustice.  Grievous and heartbreaking.  And in the end, it was all futile.

Fortunately for us, we know the ending of these stories.  Stephen was bludgeoned to death, but he did not die alone.  Peering into heaven, he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.  Echoing His words on the cross, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” as he slipped into unconsciousness.

Unfortunately, for his executioners, Stephen’s mission did not end with his death, rather it introduced Saul to Jesus, who on the road to Damascus assigned the newly named, Paul a mission to spread the church to Gentiles throughout the known world.

And then there was Jesus.  The son of God who died and rose again to change the world with his sacrificial love, unconditional and generous.  Death did not extinguish His light.  It shattered it, erupted it it to miraculous heights! Even today, it guides his people through the storms of loss and chaos. It warms us with his glory. It empowers us in the face of adversity. It teaches us the way of faith, with love, not fear.  And he never leaves us to walk alone through the storms of life.  His presence lifts the darkness of random acts of injustice and death.  In the words of Episcopal Priest, Marcea Paul, “We are reminded that the power of God is mightier than any wind that beats against us, that the love of God is deeper than any wave that threatens to drown us.  Jesus invites us to stay with him in the boat, saying, ‘ Let us go across to the other side, I won’t leave your side, I will journey with you.’” 

I think that it is the time, if I may be so bold as to suggest, that you grab your pole, get your dog and climb into that boat. It is still light and the fishing is good!  Amen

Summer Travels

Mark 7: 24-37

From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syro-Phoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So, she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha’, that is, be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Summer Travels

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .”  Or so go the words of the signature piece in George Gershwin’s blockbuster opera, Porgy and Bess.

I imagine for some folks, livin’ gets easier in the summer, unless they are planning a family vacation!  For me as a child, family vacations meant hours of boredom riding in the back seat of the car.  For my parents, it meant hours of planning, picking destinations, arranging for pit stops and meals on the road, packing clothes for two adults and four children, and picking the best and most scenic routes to our destinations, with planned activities at each one.

Despite the work, we know that family vacations are important.  As an adult looking back, I can see that.  There were memories to be made, experiences that changed us, connections that never would have happened with or without all that planning. Ironically, it was frequently those unexpected stops, wrong turns, and unplanned interruptions that created adventures never to be forgotten. They made the deepest impressions, transformative, if you will – – much like the travels we read about in our scripture today.

Samuel in his second book, invites us to join King David on his excursion to political destinations, battles, and transformation.  Our trip starts in Hebron, where King David has been ruling the tribe of Judah for seven and a half years, while King Saul ruled Israel.  Hebron is considered even today to be the holiest of cities, second only to Jerusalem. It is built on land that Abraham purchased after Sarah’s death, for her burial place. The land had a rugged beauty with hills and dry riverbeds and valleys and the Cave of Machpelah.  The Cave still contains the graves of Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah, and according to a Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve.

Hebron was the ruling city of King David as he governed the tribes of Judah.  He was perfectly content living there until leaders of the tribes of Israel approached him.  Essentially, they came to tell him that as King Saul and his sons were dead, it was time for David to step up to his full responsibility and take on leadership of all the tribes of Israel.

David made a covenant with them that he would.  In so doing, he decided to take a trip.  He left behind his old home for a new one in another city, symbolizing the transformation of his kingship. With his armies, he marched nineteen miles up the hill to take Jerusalem as his own.  On the way, he had to clean up that little matter with the Jebusites who inhabited the land, which he did in short manner.  He built a new city that he named the City of David.  And to add to the perks, his neighbor King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees and carpenters and masons to build David a house.  Without David’s journey of battle, victory, and transformation, he would never have made this new and unexpected friend.

You see, Tyre did not have the greatest of reputations.  Tyre, along with Sidon, and Sodom had long been cursed by Old Testament prophets for their wickedness, but it didn’t keep David from accepting the generous gift from a Gentile kingdom, which was a miracle in its own right. 

It also did not stop Jesus from complimenting Tyre and Sidon in Matthew, saying they were more receptive to him and the miracles he performed in their midst than the Jewish cities where he had been dismissed and criticized.

Which takes us to our next travelogue.

In our second reading, Jesus is on his way to the Sea of Galilee when he stops to rest at a house in Tyre, hoping to slip in unnoticed.  Not a chance.  You may be familiar with my assertion that Jesus favored uppity women.  Well, here we are again, another uppity woman and a gentile to boot. She interrupts his plans for a quiet entry into town.  She blocks his path, bows at his feet.  He wasn’t going anywhere.  He couldn’t ignore her.  She pleads. She begs.  She calls on him to cast out the demon in her daughter. 

And all this from a Gentile?  Who does she think she is?  It’s no wonder, Jesus lapses into metaphor, and talks about children and dogs and the order in which they should be fed.  Clever as she is, (I can almost see her grin, just a little), she stays in metaphor, and responds, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

I can almost see Jesus looking to the side, sharing her grin when he says, “For saying that, you may go.  The demon has left your daughter.”  Like I said, Jesus likes uppity women.

But he’s not done.  These interruptions seem inevitable as Jesus continues his trip to the Sea of Galilee by way of Sidon, another one of those accursed cities.  It is in Sidon, where a group of people bring a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus.  They asked him to heal the man.  Jesus did, and then ordered them to tell no one.  And in the words of Mark, “The more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, He has done everything well, he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

David and Jesus had travel plans; they had a clear starting place with a destination in mind.   And both experienced transformations in the unexpected interruptions in their plans.   David was transformed from a small-town king to King of all Judea and Israel, ruling from Jerusalem, growing greater and greater.  And Jesus as he traveled through Tyre and Sidon on his way to the Sea of Galilee, was transformed from an itinerant preacher to a healing, transforming Savior while transforming the lives that he touched and healed. 

That was miraculous in itself. Yet, it was Jesus’s impressions as he traveled that give us a powerful itinerary as we travel through life.  Do we travel with vision dimmed, hearing impaired and speech impeded, much like Jesus’ former neighbors in Galilee who dismissed his teachings in the temple, jeering “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter Joseph?”   Or, like the pharisees who criticized from a distance, dismissing and discrediting the miracles of Christ?   We do the same thing when we are in a state far from Tyre and Sidon, where people witnessed in gratitude, awareness, and awe the miracles of Jesus right before their very eyes

In our travels through life, what will be the next state we visit?   Will it be the state of annoyance when there is an interruption in plans?  Or when we take a wrong turn off the highway only to find ourselves in the state of Peace in a valley filled with lush fertile lands and streams giving us quiet contemplative places for spiritual, mental, and physical renewal?   Or will it be when we find ourselves in the valley of dry bones and are too impatient to wait for the miracle?  Will it be astonishment as we are drawn like Moses and the apostles to mountain top experiences, feeling the closeness to God the higher we climb?  Will it be the state of Awe, walking the beach as waves and water reach endlessly beyond us? 

Every day, we are surrounded by miracles in life and nature and people and death.  God gives us miracles, and he wants us never to take them for granted, especially the miracle of our own transformation in Christ.  He wants us to receive these miracles zealously, astounded beyond measure, thrilled, and exhilarated.  He wants us to be transformed into receptive vessels of his love and healing as we travel this life in his love and generosity. 

Let us open our eyes, find our glasses, put in the contacts!  Let us turn down the radio, the television, the stereo, the noise of life, so we can hear in the silence the voice of God.  Let us quiet our own voice when it keeps us from hearing the crying voices of those in pain and the healing words of Jesus.  Be amazed when you read the miracle accounts.  Be awe-struck when you hear the Easter story.  With wonder in your voice, sing a lullaby to the baby Jesus at Christmas.  Sing a new song every day to the sunrise and the sunset.  Let us see this miraculous world in a whole new light of awe, zealously singing, “Splendor and honor and kingly power are yours by right, Oh Lord our God, for you created everything that is.  Amen.   Bon Voyage!

A Story within a Story



A Reading from Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet, and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this and told them to give her something to eat.

A Story within a Story

I recall a comment my husband made shortly after we met.  I’m not sure what prompted it, but I do remember the comment.  He said, “I’ve always been attracted to uppity women.”

As I said, I have no idea what prompted the remark, but it came back to me as I read our lesson for today.   Mark gives us two stories, a story within a story.  The first story is about a twelve-year-old daughter, terribly ill and her desperately brave father, a leader of the Synagogue – so desperate that he was willing to be seen in public pleading with Jesus to come to his home, to heal his daughter, even telling him how to do that, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

Personally, I think that was a bit uppity of Jairus to be calling the shots on Jesus, but he was a leader after all, used to giving orders.   And if his daughter learned anything from him, it was probably a lesson in uppity-ness.  But I should not blame anything on her dear father.  After all, she was twelve.  Most twelve-year-old’s I know are already adept at the Episodic Eyeball Rolling skill set, triggered by something intelligent, relevant, and wise that their parents just said – the first signs of uppity, with more to come. 

Tragically, death intervened.  Before Jesus could get to her, the daughter of Jairus died and you could almost hear the exhaled moan of grief, the gasp of lost hope in the crowd, which Jesus sensed immediately.  He spoke, “Do not fear, but only believe.”  We know the end of the story.  Witnessed by the girl’s parents and Peter, James and John, Jesus took the hand of Jairus’s daughter and said, “Little girl, wake up.”  She woke up and that wasn’t all.  She not only woke up, but she also stood up and started walking around the room, confident and determined to live.  Already uppity.

Interrupting this story, was another story, also about a daughter as Jesus called her, chronically ill with a bleeding disorder that came on about the time Jairus’s daughter was born.  The condition rendered her as unclean, leaving the woman shunned by her community for over a decade.  Like Jairus, she too was desperate after years of seeking help, spending all that she had on doctors with no improvement, only the worsening of symptoms.  She had lost everything but hope. In one desperate uppity move, she reached through the crowd to touch the cloak of Jesus, confident and determined that if she could but touch him, she would be healed.  In that moment as she wound her way through the people closest to him, her fingers reached out until she felt the rough fabric of his cloak and touched him.  At that moment, she felt a power coursing through her body and immediately she knew.  She backed away into the throng, silent, unseen, when Jesus called out, “Who touched me?”

And though she trembled in fear, she spoke, – uppity as could be, and told him the whole truth of her illness, making clear her conviction and hope in his power to heal.   Jesus’s words, forever imprinted in her memory, and also in ours, closed this second story within a story, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” And healed of her isolation, now connected as a daughter to her savior.

Sometimes I find myself imagining the people in these stories.  The two women, both terribly ill, at two different times in life, – Jairus’s daughter just starting adolescence and adulthood; the woman Jesus called daughter, an adult looking forward to a life with friends and family, healed, no longer shunned.  And the desperate father Jairus, demanding, pleading with Jesus to come to his home, to heal his daughter. What would have happened that day had they not held on to hope; had they not reached out to Jesus, confident and determined in their faith.

But they did.  One might think they had read Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talked about hope.  Of course, that would have been impossible.  Paul would have still been Saul, and not one to follow Jesus. It would be much later on the road to Damascus before that would happen. And that is another story.

Like the people in our story today, Paul too suffered much adversity, including a chronic medical condition that was never healed.  And yet Paul wrote, “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). 

Paul knew the power of hope. You see, hope is not contingent on healing, not contingent on getting what you want, not contingent on getting your way, or getting rich, or famous, or fill in the blank.  It is not contingent on anything, or anyone, or any situation.  It is not a function of anything on this earth.  It is within us because the love of God has been poured into our hearts.  God’s love is the main ingredient of Hope.  And it has been freely, generously, poured by him into us!  All we have to do is get a little uppity like Jairus or the woman Jesus called daughter, who pleaded and stood up to him, demanding, yearning.  All we have to do is reach out to others in our need; while reaching within to touch the warmth and the glow of God’s love that sustains us. 

As it would if the daughter of Jairus had not been raised, had remained dead in her bed.  Her father would be left to grieve, then continue life in a new light, having reached into the reservoir of god’s love and hope, giving him new purpose in life and endurance to go on.

Or the chronically ill woman continuing to live with her “thorn in the flesh,” and yet finding purpose within a community of people seeking health, solace and inner peace.  Reaching out to others in love, nourished with love and hope, she would have found a reason to go on.  Who knows?

No one, I guess.  But what we see in these stories of hope and courage is that whatever happens in our life, good or bad,  we have hope. It never disappoints.  It is our gift from God, delivered by the Holy Spirit, and secured within our heart.  And it will sustain us in the best and worst of times.  On that, we can count. Amen


Life Equations

A Lenten Meditation


John 9: 1-17

As he went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.  “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him. “I don’t know,” he said.  

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind.  Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.  Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

Life Equations

It was traditional in early Hebrew faith. God rewards good behavior. God punishes bad behavior. Simple equation. Probably too simple. What about all those in-between equations?

Number One:  Bad behavior that seems to go un-punished?

Number Two: Good behavior that does not protect good people from adversity. Good people who suffer illness, disability, pain. Good people who endure accidents. Good people who lose their jobs, income, homes. Good people who lose loved ones to addiction, disease, death.

Or a good person who for no good reason is born blind.  Why? That’s not fair. There is no good reason.

Except . . . That it brings us to the third in-between equation:

We see our equation in the case of the man in John’s story.  The man just happened to be begging in the spot where Jesus just happened to be passing on that very day.  What are the chances?  This was no accident. 

It was an in-between Equation. Jesus explained it to his disciples.  That man was born blind not as some punishment for sins committed by his parents, or sins that the blind man might commit if he were sighted. Rather, the man was born blind so that at that moment God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Do not misunderstand.  God does not cause adversity.  He did not create it.  Sin did, making adversity part of life on this planet.  It was Christ’s intervention at that moment in history that transformed a tragedy into opportunity to reveal God’s work.

Here are the components of the equation:

The moment.  The man.  The blindness.  And Jesus.

Let’s apply it to our own life.

The moment is now.

The man is any one of us.

His blindness is a tragedy that anyone of us has suffered.  All have carried a cross.

And Jesus. The light in a dark world where adversity knows no stranger, even the best of people.  There is Jesus, looking for the triumph in tragedy, transforming adversity into an opportunity to reveal God’s work in us.

How do we live this equation?  How do we access an opportunity to transform the tragedy in our life into triumph? How can we transform our adversity into an opportunity to reveal God’s presence?

Maybe we can do what the man on the road did.  Live our life as close to the path where Jesus walks so he will see us, maybe even stumble over us.  Put ourselves in his presence, in worship, prayer, and study.  Put ourselves in connection with each other to grow in faith and mutual healing, so that whatever cross we carry, the load will be lighter and Jesus will notice us.  He will look upon us as an opportunity to show God’s work in the world.  Maybe he will make a mud paste with his own saliva to soothe the inflammation and pain we hold.  Maybe he will heal the disease, disability, loss.   Maybe not.  Maybe when we wash our face of the mud that clouds our vision, the blindness of depression, grief, resentment, and anger at the injustice of adversity, – that blindness will be lifted, and we will be like the man on the road, stronger than he was before his encounter with Christ, and capable of seeing what others could not see.   Who, when confronted and questioned, “Who gave you your sight?  What do you say about him?”

 With the man on the road, we, too will say, “It is Jesus.  The revealer of God’s work.  He is the light of the world.  He is a prophet.  “


Who is this who Forgives?

Monday after the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Wisdom 9:1, 7-18 (NRSV)

A Reading from the Wisdom of Solomon.

‘O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,
who have made all things by your word,
You have chosen me to be king of your people
and to be judge over your sons and daughters.
You have given command to build a temple on your holy mountain,
and an altar in the city of your habitation,
a copy of the holy tent that you prepared from the beginning.
With you is wisdom, she who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
she understands what is pleasing in your sight
and what is right according to your commandments.
Send her forth from the holy heavens,
and from the throne of your glory send her,
that she may labour at my side,
and that I may learn what is pleasing to you.
For she knows and understands all things,
and she will guide me wisely in my actions
and guard me with her glory.
Then my works will be acceptable,
and I shall judge your people justly,
and shall be worthy of the throne of my father.
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For the reasoning of mortals is worthless,
and our designs are likely to fail;
for a perishable body weighs down the soul,
and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
We can hardly guess at what is on earth,
and what is at hand we find with labour;
but who has traced out what is in the heavens?
Who has learned your counsel,
unless you have given wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from on high?
And thus, the paths of those on earth were set right,
and people were taught what pleases you,
and were saved by wisdom.’

Luke 7:36-50 (NRSV)

A Reading from the Gospel According to Luke.

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.

She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

“Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Two men

Two sons

Both born of powerful fathers, powerful mothers

Solomon whose mother Bathsheba loved him and moved to ensure his place as King, bargaining with King David on his death bed to appoint their son as heir to the throne.

Jesus whose mother was courageous enough to accept an angel’s assignment that could have led to life as an outcast, shunned for adultery, or worse yet, stoned to death.  She was the mother who never left her son’s side, who loved him to the end, and remains hallowed to this day.

Their sons . . .

Solomon with Wisdom at his side, empowered to make wise, life and death decisions, and to build the holy Temple

Jesus with the Holy Spirit at his side, empowered to speak, to reinstate life from death, to forgive.

Both with a secure place in history.

I am not suggesting at this point to set up a competition between these two giants, rather to draw from scriptures the blueprint, the path for life they have given us.

Looking at Solomon, the builder of the Temple.  He gave us a blueprint for a Temple built to the glory of God.  Churches continue to build temples to the glory of God for worship; and for God’s work in the community at large, providing education, food, comfort, refuge, and support to those in need.

Then there is Jesus, an itinerant preacher with no resources to build anything, rather possessing resources to raise the dead, to provide generously education, food, comfort, and support to those in need.

And to forgive.

Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee.  He is sitting at the table when quietly a woman enters and stands behind him.  She kneels at his feet and overcome by the dark chasm of her life in the presence of the holiness of god, she cries.  Her tears are so great that they give her what she needs to bathe his feet.  She releases her hair from its covering and dries them.  Then with perfume from the alabaster jar she has carried with her, she generously anoints and soothes his dry tired feet with the rich oil.

Silence falls over the room.  Only Simon’s inner voice criticizing the woman and Jesus breaks the reverie.  Jesus hears.

And in the tradition of Solomon, Jesus tells a story of wisdom that traps Simon in his own error.  Jesus then turns to the woman at his feet, and speaks, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  That’s it.  No caveats.  No pre-existing conditions.  No “only ifs.”  No “yes, buts.” Just forgiveness.

“But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

The pharisees do not ask, how is it that he can forgive?  Who gave him the right, the power to forgive?

No.  They ask who is this who forgives?  Obviously and profoundly, it is Jesus who forgives.

And in the prayer he taught us, he made it obviously and profoundly clear that we are to forgive as well. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray not for the ability to forgive, but the willingness to forgive.  And not just once. Not just seven times, but seven times seventy times, generously!

Jesus knew the results of a stinginess to forgive, — a seething burning wound gnawing away at the core of one’s being, eroding slowly but surely all quality of life.

He knew the results of being held in the grip of going unforgiven, –isolation, shunned, an outcast with never a chance at life, never a new day with hope.

To forgive or not to forgive.  That is the question, a life or death question.  It is a life or death decision, to build or destroy, to give life or to withhold it.

This temple we call life is not built of bricks and stones.  It is a life built or destroyed by our willingness or unwillingness to forgive others or ourselves.  It is why we pray in the same breath for food to survive, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Jesus knew the powerful act of forgiveness.  He knew what he was giving to the woman at his feet and to all sinners:  the opportunity to go in peace, fully forgiven, to awaken to a new day filled with hope and to live fully in his light.

May we steadfastly follow his steps in wisdom, generosity, and forgiveness to guide us and direct us in all that we do as well.


The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.


Wishing you a Blessed Easter Monday and all Seven Easter Sundays

John 4:2-3 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

One of the things I love about being an Episcopalian is, as a group, we enjoy a good time. Any excuse is good for a party. If you don’t believe me, look at the church calendar aka Our Social Agenda.

Take Christmas. Most people celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve and Christ-mas Day. Then it’s done. Take down the tree and decorations. Put them away for another year. Not us. We start four weeks in advance of Christmas, celebrating the preparation for Christmas. We call it Advent. And then, we celebrate all 12 days of Christmas. No one-day wonder for us!

And then there’s Easter. Today is Easter Monday. Notice it’s not the Monday after Easter. It is Easter Monday. When it comes to Easter, we start preparing six weeks in advance. And, as if that’s not enough, we even have a party to celebrate the beginning of the preparation for Easter. We call it Fat Tuesday, followed by Lent, then Holy Week when we walk through the dark days of Christ’s trial, torture, and crucifixion to reach the glorious light of Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, and six more Sundays of Easter! Seven in all! If you don’t believe me, check out the Church Calendar!

Now, some might think this is a bit much, but I don’t. Think of it as extended intensive training. You see, Jesus didn’t resurrect only once. He has never stopped. He promises that every time one of us comes to the end of our life, He will come back for us. And that’s not the only time he comes back., so we need to be ready, spiritually fit.

I believe He resurrects every time we walk into a church to worship; every time we sing Amazing Grace, and every time we bow our head in prayer. Every time we share the Eucharist, we call upon him to send His Holy Spirit into the bread and wine that, as we take in this precious meal, He is resurrected within us.
I believe he comes to us in our everyday life. I believe He is resurrected in the early morning hours when I sit in the rocking chair in the kitchen with the dog in my lap, and my thoughts drift to prayer and meditation.

I believe He is resurrected every time we touch a baby’s cheek to our own. Every time we welcome the smile of a friend. Every time we embrace a loved one. I believe that Christ is resurrected in those moments. And I believe that when our life comes to an end, He will resurrect in our death to take us to His home in heaven. I believe it. He promised and Jesus keeps His promises.

So here we are. Time to put on our dancing shoes. The party is just beginning! It’s Easter and He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Amen!

Who Shall We Be?

A Lenten Meditation

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take hm by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.  John 6:15

In a recent sermon, Bishop Curry cited Abraham Lincoln’s closing words of his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln addressed a country in crisis, in great danger.  A country torn apart by a war within itself, brothers killing brothers, flailing in the bloody chaos of discrimination, violence, and hatred. 

It was a time for decision. Who shall we be?  What kind of people, what kind of country shall we be?  Do we persist in the chaos?  Or do we become the compassionate community Lincoln envisioned?  More than a hundred years later, we still struggle to find answers to these questions.

Two thousand years earlier, Jesus faced the same politics of chaos, lies, and brutality.   And he lived the answers.  The reality was and is that there is no choice.  Chaos is not a choice.  Lincoln knew it.  Jesus knew it.  They knew that the only viable option for individuals and for society was to take the path of compassionate community.  In our scripture today, Jesus took compassion on the multitude who came to see him and to hear what he had to say.  As dinner hour approached, Jesus did what any good host would do.  His company was hungry, and he fed them.  That’s community.

Jesus lived the path of love, unselfish, sacrificial love. He took the way of the cross seeking good in and for others.  And “When he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  He turned his back on the temptation of earthly power and prestige, and what most certainly would have ended in chaos, in a bloody civil war. 

Instead, he stayed true to his path of sacrifice.  That is the way of love that can heal our hurts, our losses, and our land.  That is the way we become a compassionate community, filled with instruments of God’s peace, agents of God’s love, blessing others along the way, and praying, God of grace and God of glory, Grant us wisdom, and grant us courage for the facing of this hour.  Amen

This meditation is a combined effort, inspired by Bishop Curry’s Lenten sermon and my own thoughts.  Thank you, Bishop

Epiphany Moments in a Pandemic Time

Epiphany 2021

1 Samuel: 3-20

The Lord Calls Samuel

3 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”  Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God,[a] and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”  Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

17 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

                                                          * * * * * * *

Epiphany Moments in a Pandemic Time

For those who know me, you know that Epiphany is my favorite season of the year.  The reason I love it is because, as much as people consider me the master of efficiency, there is a subtle lazy streak in me.  That lazy streak is why I love this church season!

 Unlike Epiphany, the two seasons preceding it, Advent and Christmas come with extensive to-do lists.  Epiphany on the other hand has none.  I don’t have to cook.  I don’t have to clean. I don’t have to move furniture, find extra beds for company, or take on mountains of laundry.  There is no planning, no shopping, no cooking and baking, no decorating, no putting up a tree, and no dragging out gifts in the middle of the night.  No heavy lifting for me, because you see, God does all the work.

He picks the time and the setting; he provides the content.  He sets up the scene, supplies the decorations and the props.  He auditions and picks the players; he writes the script. God is fully in charge, you see.  We cannot make one.  It is what we experience.  Which is why I love this reading.  Samuel did not have to do anything to experience an epiphany moment of message in the dark quiet of night.  All he had to do was go back to bed.

Forgive me!  I’m jumping into the middle of our story.  Let me give you the context and history.  Samuel is the son of Hannah and her husband, Elkanah.  For years, Hannah struggled with infertility. Her in-laws were no help.  They taunted her as barren and convinced Elkanah to marry another woman who could bear him many children, which she did.  She also taunted Hannah, reducing her to tears repeatedly with her cruelty.  Even her husband failed her with his clumsy attempt at comfort, “Am I not better for you than ten children?”

On a yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah went into the Temple to pray.  Grieving, moaning, sobbing, she begged God to give her a child.  And in a desperate attempt to up the ante, she promised that when the child was weaned, she would give him to God to serve in the temple.  While she prayed, Eli observed her behavior and misinterpreted it, “Ma’am, you can’t be in here drunk.  Leave!” She explained through her tears that she was not drunk, rather praying for God to lift her infertility and bring her a child that she would consecrate to his service.  Upon hearing her story, Eli sent her on her way with his blessing.   

God kept his promise. He gave her a child she named Samuel, “asked from God.”  She kept her promise.  Once Samuel was weaned, she took him to Eli.  Every year after that at pilgrimage, she visited and gave him a new coat.  She later bore three more sons and two daughters to Elkanah.

  Our supporting actor, Eli, head priest at the Temple in Shiloh was a good man, honest, caring, and kind.  For Samuel, he was an intuitive, clear spoken loving father figure and a spiritual guide.  In our story, he never fusses at Samuel for waking him three times in the night.  If it had been my kid waking me with some cock and bull story that I’d been calling him to my room, I am sure I’d have been less than kind.  Eli on the other hand was gentle the first time Samuel woke him.  The second time, lovingly he calls him, Son and urges him to get some sleep.  The third time, instead of exasperation clouding his epiphany, he says to Samuel, “The Lord wants to speak to you: go, wait, listen.” 

Once, twice, three times, Samuel hears a voice calling to him.  The third time, he listened, and in the silence, God spoke, giving him powerful words of strength and painful words of tragedy.  Following this epiphany, Samuel was still.  He let it sink in.  He didn’t distract himself.  He did not start playing with his phone.  He didn’t go out to take a walk or to shoot baskets.   He waited.

By morning, he was ready for his first lesson in leadership.  Eli asked him to reveal what God had spoken.  Even though he was afraid, Samuel in his new-found strength, spoke the hard truth, a characteristic for which he would be honored as he grew into the strongest prophet and judge of the Hebrew nation.

In the season of Epiphany, we are called to be like Samuel, in quiet communication with God.  For some, the pandemic has given us more time on our hands than ever before to do just that.  Finding time for a daily ritual of meditation and silence has been easy.  Others have no spare time at all, consumed by the responsibilities of a full-time job, working from home, supervising children’s virtual education, and keeping the family afloat.  Add shelter in place guidelines keeping all of us from our friends, co-workers, church and extended family, we found ourselves searching for new ways and sources of companionship.

That search spurred a run on animal shelters and breeders all over the country.  Everyone wanted a kitten or puppy to keep them company at home, including me.  To secure a puppy, I had to pay a deposit before my little bundle of joy was even conceived.  July 9, 2020, he was born, one of ten siblings.  Labor Day, he came to our home.  He is now seven months old, weighing in at forty pounds, and still able to curl up in my lap which he does every morning.  He greets me bedside as I awaken.  He follows me to the kitchen and waits patiently by the rocking chair while I empty the dishwasher and make a cup of coffee. 

Before puppy, I would have gone on to fold a load of clothes and wipe down the counters.  Now I sit down.  The puppy climbs into my lap and nuzzles his head on my shoulder.  And we rock. That’s it.

It might appear to observers that nothing is happening in that silence.  They would be wrong.  I am convinced that the cozy scene in my kitchen was orchestrated by God setting the time, the players, and the content for an epiphany. God gave me the silence, the place, the puppy, the light, and the moments with no words.  In that silence, I felt God’s assurance that His presence, warmth, and love are filling my home.  And here, all will be well.

Out there, we are challenged with the incessant noise of information coming at us from all directions. While we are helpless to stop it, we are not helpless to do something.  Samuel was helpless to save Eli and his ne’er do well sons from the consequences of their sins, but he was not helpless to do something.  He went back to bed.   He waited in silence.  He received an epiphany challenging him to grow into a man of God, always speaking the truth with strength and power.

God sent Jesus into a world filled with sin, violence, and conflict, much like Samuel’s and our own.  God revealed Him as His Son when Simeon recognized him in the temple. He empowered Him in his baptismal epiphany, affirming his identity.  God strengthened Him in the isolation of wilderness as he stood up against the evils of temptation.  God provided Jesus with one epiphany after another confirming his destiny and preparing Him for his long and treacherous road to the cross.

 God continues to orchestrate epiphany moments preparing us for our own Lenten path, leading us on a spiritual journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He provides us with one epiphany after another because we need them.  Make space for them.  Make time for them.  And, when they come, be still.  Don’t think.  Don’t dismiss them.  Just be in that moment of light.   It will come.  God knows how to do this.  He is fully in charge, remember? Besides, He is used to the heavy lifting and his strength is limitless! 

We pray.  O Lord, allow your epiphany to identify us as your own, to prepare us for whatever lies ahead, and to equip us to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, as he would have us do. Amen

Poetry of Power

150 Days into the Pandemic

July 26, 2020

Psalm: 119: 129 ff

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.

Poetry of Power

In my last blog entry, I introduced you to poet, Lynn Ungar and the new, powerful, and relevant words in her poem, Pandemic.  Today I introduce you to another poet whose collection of poetry, while ancient, is equally powerful and relevant.

We know that collection of poems as The Psalms.  The acknowledged author is David, musician, poet, and king along with other musicians and poets, and generations of scribes who preserved an incredible collection of verse for us today.

To experience fully the power of poetry, the rule of thumb is to read the poem out loud. To read this one, we may first need to familiarize ourselves with the some of the words David used. So, let’s take it one line at a time, study those words, and apply them to the context of today.

“Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

So, what are decrees?  A decree is a law, a proclamation, a commandment.  It is an order, that creates order when obeyed.  For example, “Treat everyone as you would have them treat you.”  That is a decree from God that inspires virtually all laws governing human behavior.  All people are to be treated as equally deserving of a good life.  It is the core of our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we live in a world darkened by racism.  It is a world where the decree to treat all people as you would wish to be treated counts only for certain people, not all.  There is no sense of order in its application; rather, groups are randomly picked by race, age, place of birth, gender, or mother tongue to be treated as unequal and not deserving of the pursuit of happiness.

David knew that God’s decrees overlook no one; they are equally applied.  Because of this, David is not only willing to obey God’s rules, he obeys them with all his heart!  With enthusiasm and wonder!  There is no dictator or despot in charge in David’s world.   God is!  God is the one who created the world and loved his creation and everything and everyone in it equally.  His rules are a clear reflection of love and responsibility.  David relied on the Ten Commandments as the written decrees.  A thousand years later, Jesus summarized those commandments into a single statement, “Love God above all else, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Imagine with David for a moment what the world would look like if everyone embraced and obeyed the decrees of God; the decrees to lift and honor all people to live in harmony, mutual respect, and community.  What a glorious world it would be!  It is no wonder that when David led the procession into Jerusalem carrying the Ark and the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved, that he “danced before the Lord with all his heart.”  This would not be some grudging obedience; it would be a heartfelt opportunity to participate in a grand social experiment.  Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.”

“When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

God’s decrees provide light in a darkened world.   We need that light from the Word if we are to find peace and understanding.  Without it and clear rules, we can lose our way.  We can do all the wrong things, or worse yet, do nothing, feel nothing, pray nothing, worship nothing.  We can live in a void with no conscience, empathy, or sense of justice.  Light is vital to our understanding of God’s plan for us.  It strips us of any excuses for ignorance, it is so simple.

“I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.”

In these Texas summer days, by the time my dog and I finish our walk, he is dehydrated, hot and tired, panting for his water bowl. I understand fully.  By the end of my everyday, I too feel psychologically hot and tired.  I am emotionally dehydrated, panting for a cool soothing cup of water for myself, for my friends and family, and for the demands we endure in this pandemic time.  We struggle with depression, isolation, and anxiety brought on by newscasts filled with the latest COVID-19 body count and stories of random violence against innocents.  These stories cry out for the orderliness of God’s decrees, where life makes sense and sudden death does not.

”Steady my footsteps in your Word:”

Today’s decrees are made and changed, remade and changed again.  Information is updated daily with new acts of violence that perpetuate division, new assaults by an invisible enemy that ruthlessly and randomly kills; and new proclamations based on ignorance and political deception.  This simple statement tells us that nothing is trustworthy except God’s decrees, “Steady my footsteps in your Word.”  God’s Word gives us a firm place to stand.  You can trust that your feet will be on solid ground when you live in synchrony with God’s Word.

 “Let not iniquity have dominion over me.”

 So what keeps us from stepping out in confidence?   And what can keep us from that firm place? David suggests it might be the presence of Iniquity.   He prays that God keeps iniquity from having dominion over us.  What does that mean?   

Iniquity is sin, yes; but much more.  It implies evil, gross immorality, and wickedness.  Iniquity occurs not only when we sin, but when we willfully sin and even find delight in it. When iniquity becomes a way of life, it sears our conscience.  Our conscience loses it voice and we are left without the quiet troubling reminder when we have done wrong.  It dulls our yearning to return to God’s way of justice.  Iniquity blocks our access to his light, and we are abandoned, drifting in the dark, searching for someone to follow.  If we follow in the unsteady steps of leaders who do not lead with compassion, intelligence, and ethical principles, we may find ourselves drifting into the dominion of Iniquity.  Beware.   Plead with God for protection.

“My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.”

Finally, our poet takes us to a place with which we are all too familiar.  While we can call upon God to keep us focused on the Word, we cannot command him to give us the power to eliminate COVID-19, systemic racism, educational dilemmas facing working parents of school age children, or the financial carnage afflicting so many families who have lost their jobs. 

Instead, we are left helpless.   Unfortunately, the typical human response to helplessness is anger, a weak and convenient emotion that for a moment makes us feel big and strong, until it erupts into aggression and violence.

Our psalmist shows the courage it takes to feel a pure and powerful grief. “My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.” This is not a matter of sadness for one person or another.  It is grief for a society’s failure to see the goodness in God’s decrees and follow them.   It is a grievous rejection of the gifts God gave us in his love and generosity. As a culture, we have failed to trust the Word as our path to a life well lived; a life lived in love, equity, and peace.  Instead we have chosen hatred, betrayal, and chaos.

And for that, David’s eyes shed streams of tears, not some tears, not buckets of tears, but streams of tears; streams that flow into rivers and fill the lakes that nourish the land.  We cannot let our tears fall on hard ground.  They are needed to fill the dried souls of families whose sons and daughters lie dead in pools of blood on the streets of our cities, and whose families suffer as their loved ones die alone in hospitals of a virus that shows no mercy. 

Poem 119, with its power and relevance, does not leave us with easy platitudes.  Instead we are called to grieve the dead and the dying, that their lives and sacrifices will remain alive in the soul of our society.  And forever, we will shed streams of tears to soothe the suffering world as it yearns to live once again, governed by wonderful decrees and strong leaders who will obey them with all their hearts,  and with enthusiasm and wonder!

We pray.  Oh sweet Jesus, turn to us in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.  Amen

Now, read the poem out loud, and let the relevance and power of Poem 119 move your soul.

Your decrees are wonderful; therefore, I obey them with all my heart.

When your Word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.

I open my mouth and pant; I long for your commandments.

Turn to me in mercy, as you always do to those who love you.

Steady my footsteps in your Word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.

My eyes shed streams of tears because people do not keep your law.