The Trinity Mystery

June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday

Let us pray:

Glory and praise be to the Trinity:

to God the Father, heaven’s mighty Lord,

to God the Son, the Father’s Holy Word;

to God the Spirit, by whose light we see;

thus it was, is, and will be, day and night,

from age to age, into the endless light.

Romans 5:1-5

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?

On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;

beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:

“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.

Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth–

when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,

when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,

when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”

John 16:12-15

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Trinity Mystery

I have a confession to make.  I have a passion.  I love murder mysteries. You may laugh but let me tell you how much I love murder mysteries. I love them so much that when the church calendar rolls around to Lent and we are asked to consider our Lenten discipline, I don’t give up chocolate.  That would be easy.  I don’t give up wine.  Hmmm, not so easy, but do-able.  Red meat?  Again, easy.  No, I give up murder mysteries, year after year, and it never gets any easier.

Let me be clear.  I’m not talking about that oxymoron, the mystery/thriller genre.  It is a mystery, for goodness sake!  There is no violence, no terror; this is not a thriller; it is a cognitive exercise.  Yes, there is a dead body, but we are not privy to the violence.  The only reason a mystery writer starts with a murder is because, according to renown author P.D. James, it is the only subject matter compelling enough to get people to read the book!

P.D. James also explained that the true story in the mystery is in the characterization of the three main players:  The victim, the murderer, and the detective.  The unspoken fourth entity is the reader.  The reader of a mystery is not a passive recipient of entertainment.  The mystery reader is pulled into the detection,  paying attention to the clues and cues, the motives and alibis, studying the character of the victim, the murderer, and the detective who in the midst of the psychological and physiological chaos that precedes and follows the act of murder, he imposes order and resolution.  And, finally every good mystery has the power to change at some level the life of the three main players.  The victim whose life ends, the murderer whose life as they knew it ends with the violence they committed; and the detective along with the readers of the mystery, – you and I – who experience a shift in our understanding of people, good and evil, life and death, hope and despair.

It sounds very much like the mystery we acknowledge and celebrate on this festival day of the Trinity.  Today is Trinity Sunday, a day devoted to a character study of the complex identity of God, i.e. the mysterious Trinity:  One God, Three Persons.  To solve this difficult mystery, we may need to borrow Sherlock’s magnifying glass as we do a little investigating of our own.  I suggest we start with the Nicene Creed as our primary resource for information.

As in my beloved murder mysteries, the Trinity Mystery has three main characters.  They are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And one unspoken entity, we the readers, the followers, the believers.

The first statement in the Nicene Creed is our introduction to the Trinity: “We believe in one God.”  Not three.  Not twenty-three.  One.  The belief in one god is the foundation of Christian belief. 

And then we are introduced to the three persons or three personas, or three aspects of God, identified by their roles in our lives.

First character: “We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  God the Father, the master builder created order and beauty out of chaos, transforming a formless void of darkness into day and night, land and water.  We understand that God is above gender, neither male nor female.  Yet, on this Sunday, Father’s Day, I’d like to put that aside for a moment.  I would rather focus on the template God created for himself and for all fathers.  From Genesis and the Nicene Creed, I put together a list of job descriptors for fathers. These qualifications come straight from God himself.  So this list is for you who are fathers, who hope someday to be fathers, who are uncles, big brothers, teachers, coaches, mentors; and those of you who are father figures in the home, on the field, on the fishing dock, and in the hospital.  Here is your job description, or more correctly, here are God’s expectations of you across the board.  Keep in mind, God led by example; he expects of you only those things that he did.   If you are keeping score, we won’t ask how you did.

God’s Expectations of Earthly Fathers (Job Description for fathers)

  1. Love your Family
  2. Protect your family
  3. Provide your family with a good home, solid, well-built, well-maintained where your family can live safely, securely, and peacefully
  4. Provide your family with what they need for a good life.
  5. Support your family psychologically, with attention, encouragement, guidance, affection, and discipline
  6. Raise your children into adults of character and do that while leading by example, with respect and kindness
  7. Be a role model, a person of character, i.e. be responsible, moral, hard-working, respected and respectful; provide spiritual leadership in your own home.

 Happy Father’s Day, gentlemen!

Second Character:  God the Son.  When humans disobeyed God, they created distance between themselves and God.  In the Father’s love for his creation, he promised to send a leader, a teacher, a savior, the Messiah to bring them back into full relationship.  This Messiah we believe was and is Jesus.  God chose a stellar way of bridging the gap between himself and humans.  He sent Jesus as fully human. A true human being in body.  And then God the Father did something extraordinary.  He moved into Jesus with his own spirit and for the first time ever, God was able to live the Human Experience.  He came to know hunger, thirst, cold, sweat, pain, and sadness.  Jesus bridged the gap. He was the Messiah and the Father was in him. He explained it over and over to his followers, hoping they would grasp the mystery: The father and I are one.   The Father is in me and I am in him.  It wasn’t until he returned to his home in the Father, that they began to understand.

And Jesus, where were you at the time of the crime?   John tells us exactly where Jesus was. “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was God ..  all things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.”  As the one God, Jesus was there before creation, always there.  He and Father are one and together they created all that was created.

Third character:  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.     In my opinion, the Holy Spirit is the most mysterious character in this three-part study of God.  At least with God the Father and God the Son, multiple artistic renderings give us visual images of them:  the father reaching down from a cloud in the sky to give life to Adam, Jesus holding a lamb in his arms, or sitting among the children gathered at his feet, or hanging on a cross.  The Holy Ghost?  Not so clear. First our character has more than one name:  Holy Ghost.  Holy Spirit.  Wisdom. Truth. Understanding.  Sometimes male, other times female, never seen, only felt, therefore less important? Let me be so bold as to correct that last thought. 

There would be no Bible were it not for the Holy Ghost, “Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”  There would be no church were it not for the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel for today, Jesus assured his disciples that the Spirit of Truth would come to them, Truth being the strongest material on earth with which to build a foundation.  When the disciples gathered in the upper room and the Spirit descended upon them with a mighty wind and tongues of fire, he gave them the power to speak the Truth in a way that all who heard them would understand and believe.  He gave them what they needed to jump start the building of the church with a foundation strong enough to hold it for all time.

Holy Spirit, where were you at the time of the crime?  The Spirit of God is god.  Like the Father and the Son, the Spirit was present from before the beginning of creation.  Look at our Proverb for today.  Wisdom speaks, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, . . .  when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

As Jesus ascended to his Father, the Holy Spirit was descending into our hearts.  Jesus gifted us his Spirit, the aspect of the Trinity who delights in the Human Race, who delights in us!  She is deliriously happy to be in our heart!  She is dancing with delight just to be near us!  The joy that only Wisdom brings was Jesus’ gift because he, too loves us!   

          The Mysterious Trinity:  God the Father the master builder who willed the world into being; God the Son who mediated on our behalf to heal our relationship with the Father; who did whatever it took to make that happen; and God the Holy Spirit, the Lord who gave us life, the force who brought it all into being.  A force that continues to change the course of people’s lives even today.  I am sure that every person in here has a story how the presence of the Trinity has made a change in their life.  And I imagine every story follows the outline that Paul gave us in his letter to the Romans.              

Suffering is where it starts.  I’ve heard it said that we learn little from success; and much from our failures, weaknesses, illnesses, and mistakes.  Probably true.  A personal trainer I know once said, “This kind of workout is better to have done than to do.“  Think about it.  The things in life you count as achievements were difficult and demanding, never easily done and certainly not done perfectly.  We don’t seem to value things that come easily. That’s just the way it is with us humans.   

Endurance is the byproduct of suffering.  When we persist, when we take on the tasks that are difficult, when we endure adversity, we build stamina and strength, or as in Paul’s words, endurance.   

Character is a summary statement of who we are, how we cope with suffering, and how we live our lives in a world where suffering is all around us. To be a person of character is to be a person of moral strength and firmness.  A man once said of his mother, “On her tombstone was written, ‘She had no secrets.  She had nothing to hide.’” His mother was a woman of character.

Hope is God’s gift to us for having endured suffering and walked away from it a better person, a person of character.  When that happens, hope travels the path of faith, to peace, to grace, into our hearts.  Hope is the only element in our lives that will never disappoint.  Like the Trinity, it is the ever present, ever powerful wisdom that brings us to an understanding of God’s presence.  Hope is the reassurance that no matter what we encounter, in the end, all will be well.

It is this shift in our lives that we as the readers of the Trinity Mystery experience, that is the shift from hopelessness to hope.  So, do not be intimidated by the mystery; do not reject it in favor of the rational.  Embrace it.  Hold it close to your heart!  Feel the warmth of its light, and the grace showered on us.  Live the Mystery.  Dance with it to the songs and melodies of faith and peace.  And live it gloriously.  You will never regret it. 

And one more thing, this is one mystery you will never have to give up for Lent.  I guarantee it!

Amen

Come on-a my House

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

 Come on-a My House

Lydia

Lydia is mentioned only twice in the Bible, both times in the 16th chapter of the book of Acts. Yet, she has grabbed the attention of generations.  She is venerated as a saint with her own feast days.  The Eastern Orthodox Church calls her “Equal to the Apostles.”   In Philippi an outdoor baptistry was built on the site where she was baptized by Paul.  The Catholic Church has deemed her the patron saint of dyers.  She is recognized as the first European to be converted.  Modern authors continue to be intrigued with her, writing autobiographical religious fiction of her life as they would imagine it. 

The baptistry in Philippi in honor of Lydia

For me personally, I’ve been fascinated with her since childhood.  Perhaps it was her beauty and success and the deep purple veil and shawl she wore; or that she lived the life considered to be the Way:  Worship the Lord. Work hard. Take care of your family.  Give back by giving to those in need.

Of course, I was only ten back then, so it was probably her clothes and jewelry.  I do like those things. 

I can see however how others have been equally taken with Lydia.  You don’t hear frequently about women in Biblical times being well-to-do entrepreneurs and here we have one.  She was a seller of purple, a cloth dyed with expensive Tyrian purple dye derived from shellfish.  It was a dye reserved for the robes of rulers.  The higher Roman officials in Philippi may well have been her customers.  She wasn’t selling gingham, folks.  And she wasn’t selling fabric out of Wal-Mart.  Her customers were among the wealthiest and most powerful, willing to pay top dollar for her product. With it, she supported a household that likely included servants and slaves, all dependent on her.   She was the head of the household.  When she converted, they did as well and were baptized with her.

Now that we’ve met Lydia, let’s return to today’s scripture.  Paul, Timothy, and Silas had embarked on their Second Missionary trip.  It is thought they were later joined by Luke, author of Acts, considering the first-person singular that falls into use at this point.  Paul had a vision in which he is told that they were needed in Macedonia in northern Greece.  They changed course and made their way to Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia. Once there, they found lodging and stayed awhile.  When it was Sabbath they walked to a place where they heard that people gathered for prayer.  There they met Lydia. She was a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel but was never formally converted.   Paul spoke to her. God was with her; she listened and believed. 

Here is where Lydia speaks to us today.

She didn’t just say, “I believe,” and went back home to do laundry.  She took action!  And in a heartbeat, she and her household are baptized.  Then comes the punchline, “’If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”

Think about it.  Here she is in the presence of the great Paul, accompanied by Silas, Timothy, and Luke, all learned miracle masters, powerful, saints and martyrs in the making, and she challenges them.  She challenges them even to consider not accepting an invitation to her house.  

 Implied in this challenge come the questions.  If you think I’m faithful enough to baptize, why would you not accept my hospitality?  Am I not faithful enough? Or am I unacceptable because I’m not a Jew?  Or because I am a single woman?   Anticipating any one of those arguments, she does not slip away quietly.  She does not back off.  She does not plead.  She does not whimper.  She does not cry.  She does not beg.  She does not offer a weak, “Well, if not, maybe drop by sometime?”  No. “She prevailed upon us.”

To my way of thinking, that one sentence tells us more about Lydia than any commentary or Biblical fiction author ever could.  Intriguing how a single word can be so revealing.  Prevail.  To prove more powerful than opposing forces. To be victorious.  To prove to be superior in strength, power or influence.  To predominate.  To persuade successfully.  That was Lydia.

She was an independent successful woman of means.  She did not get that way by not getting her way!  She was not to be deterred when she insisted that the men were to come to her home.  She was more powerful than any doubts or prejudices they may have. She knew they were angels of the Lord and she would be the one in charge of their care and keeping.  Come on a-my house!  Come on, come on!  She understood the ritual importance of hospitality, and whatever dis-inclinations Paul and his friends might have had, they would not prevail.  She would prevail.  And she did.  They stayed with her.  And later, when Paul and Silas were released from jail where they were beaten and chained, they returned to her home to find it the gathering place for the followers of Jesus.  And again, they stayed with her and she gave them a place to rest while their wounds healed; she gave them food and drink and safety.

To my way of thinking, she shows us how to do it.  No more weak, half-hearted invitations to a new neighbor like “We should get together sometime?”  Rather, “Come on-a my house!  I just bought a bunch of ribs. I’ll cook them up for you.  You have to come.”  Prevail upon them. 

Or prevail upon yourself.  Let’s say that God has extended to you an invitation to his house, promising music, prayers, acceptance, coffee and doughnuts, even something good to think about.  Rather than saying, “I should go back to church sometime, maybe one of these Sundays?” try this. “Hey Lydia!  I want to go to church with you this Sunday.  Can you pick me up?”

Have you ever considered extending an invitation to God to visit your house? Is it a weak, “Drop by sometime God, when you’re in the neighborhood?  I’ll try to be here.”   Or do you start your morning, thanking him for a new day  and insisting that he strengthen you for whatever temptation or adversity you encounter?   Do you stand up to God and insist that he pick you up when you are weak, insist that he strengthen you when you struggle?  At the end of your day, do you pray with determination, “Visit this place, Oh Lord and drive far from it all snares of the enemy!” Do you fall asleep with a song in your heart, “Come on-a my house!  Come on, come on.”

Lydia did not back off in her demands on the men of God.  I’m sure she didn’t back off on God any less as she spearheaded the growth of the new church in Philippi.  She set the bar for us in communicating with a God who will listen, a God who loves us, a God who never leaves us even in sickness and death.  Trust her.  Sing out, “Come on-a my house, come on, come on and I will give you figs and dates and grapes and cakes.  And I’m gonna give you marriage and ring and Easter-egg too.  Just come on-a my house.  Just come on!”

 Your song will prevail.  You will prevail, and God will come to your house.  He will come and eagerly listen to your words and accept your gifts.  And he will give you apple and plum and apricot and Christmas tree too.  He will give you life and a reason to live it.

Amen

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e8/BaptistryAtPhilippi.JPG/240px-BaptistryAtPhilippi.JPG

The Dusty Road to Damascus

We pray:  This is another day, oh Lord.  I don’t know what it will bring but make me ready for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me do it bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me do it patiently.   And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen

(This prayer is adapted from The Book of Common Prayer, Ministration to the Sick)

Acts 9:1-6

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The Dusty Road to Damascus

The first thing that occurred to me when reading the scripture assigned to the third Sunday of Easter was, “What happened to the rest of the story?”  You know it.  After the conversation between Saul and Jesus, Saul was able to stand up, but was blind.  His friends took him to the home of Judas in Damascus.  After three days, not eating or drinking and still blind, he was visited by Ananias.  Now Ananias was not thrilled to drop in on Saul.  Saul’s reputation preceded him.  But in a vision, Ananias was told to go anyway.  He did, and once there, laid hands on Saul, prayed over him and Saul’s sight was restored.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit, baptized, and took off to the Synagogue to proclaim Jesus as the son of God.

It’s a great conversion story, so why stop before getting to the good part? 

Rather than stew over it, I read the truncated version again, this time out loud.  Then like Saul, the scales fell from my eyes.  It was so clear. The first six verses were all that was needed to drive home a point that anyone in the second half of life would understand.  If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had that moment, perhaps on your way to work, or to the grocery store, or to wherever was your destination, your Damascus.  In that moment, something happened that changed everything, and forever altered your life.  Just like that moment in Saul’s life.

Here we see him, most assuredly the captain of his ship, a man in control, a man of action, a take charge kind of guy.    He was a Pharisee, at the top of his game.  He had a deep commitment to his church and to protecting it at all costs.  When he saw a threat, he took action.  He had Stephen, a follower of Jesus arrested and stoned to death.  When he heard that Damascus was a hotbed of religious fervor and a gathering place of men and women of the Way, he set out to take control of the situation.  He had his paperwork in order and was authorized to arrest anyone spreading and perpetuating rumors that Jesus was raised from the dead and was the resurrected Lord.  When he finds these people, he will bind them, and march them to Jerusalem where they will be incarcerated.  He is in charge.

Until . . .

He is struck down, helpless, blind, lying in the dusty road to Damascus.

And then, he hears the voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Let me step in here.  I must admit that this question makes me cringe.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be Saul at that moment, and I certainly would not want to be on the receiving end of questions Jesus might have for me, lying flat on my back in the middle of the road.  “Why do you spend so little time in prayer and meditation in your day?  Why do you put me at the bottom of your list of priorities when it comes to important decisions in your life?  Why do you let your mind wander during worship?”  It is an interesting if unsettling exploration, putting oneself into these situations.  You might try it.  Take a moment to consider what questions Jesus would have for you.  Now, try it.  Hmmm . . . . See what I mean?  Makes you cringe, too?  

 Oh well, back to our scripture.

To Paul, Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?”

We know that a Why question is not a true question.  It is typically asked to make a statement,  to express criticism, or disapproval; therefore no answer will be adequate.  It is no surprise then that Saul does not attempt to answer.  That would have been foolish and Paul was not a foolish man.  Instead, he asked a foolish question, to which he already knew the answer, “Who are you, Lord?”

Jesus identified himself to eliminate any doubt as to his living presence.  He was not dead; he was alive; and he gives the orders.  Which is what he does next. The tables have turned and Saul is no longer in charge.  Now, he will be told what to do.

I imagine most of us are familiar with this turning of tables.  As I said earlier, it has probably happened to every one of us.  Here we are, walking our own dusty road to Damascus, thinking we are in control of our destiny, the captain of our ship, when suddenly, our world is turned upside down.  The rug is pulled out from under us.  Our life is profoundly altered and forever changed.  It may come with a phone call in the middle of the night.  An accident.  A deadly diagnosis. The violent or unexpected death of a friend, a child, a sibling, a parent, a spouse.  A sudden loss of function like Saul’s blindness.  The loss of health, or mobility or fertility.  Maybe a devastating financial downturn and its resulting loss of means, security, and safety.  A devastating fire, flood, hurricane, tornado.  Or the words seemingly out of nowhere, saying, “I don’t love you anymore.” 

Prior to that moment, we may have thought, as did Saul that we were in control, but in Damascus others will tell us what to do.  For Paul, it was Ananias. Our Damascus may be Hospice, a hospital, rehab, a shelter, or a court, where suddenly someone else is in charge, and we are being told what to do.

Because we are a society that believes we should be in control at all times, we will either blame others for our adversity; or we will search for a way that makes ourselves responsible. Paradoxically, we understand that if we caused the problem then we can fix it.   We will assume guilt gladly if it means that it allows us the control to make the problem vanish. There may be folks ready to agree with you.  Check out Job!  He was surrounded by friends and family who urged him to confess sins that caused God to pour down punishment on him

 Even more discouraging words come from those who tell you that you can change the outcome of your problems if your faith is strong enough.  The implication is loud and clear that it is your fault you are dying.  Add insult to injury, there are others who insist we can control the course of life simply by focusing on a goal to make it a reality.  Really? Focus, and your child will magically recover from leukemia?  Focus, and your son killed in Afghanistan will return unharmed?  Focus, and your home that burned to the ground with all your possessions will be restored? Focus, and a million dollars will show up in your checking account?” I don’t think so.  

Don’t misunderstand, the ability to focus on the content of a goal is necessary to make some goals a possibility.  Only, some goals.  For example, you need to focus to finish studies and graduate with a diploma.  You need to focus to run daily to prepare for a 10K. There is a place for those concepts in life, – understanding that they still do not guarantee outcomes.  They are a way of planning and preparing and hoping for the best.  That is what we do because we are not in control of our trip to Damascus. We can pack wisely.  We can eat healthy and exercise daily.  We can attend church every time the doors open.  We can strive to be good parents, good employees, good bosses, good neighbors, good children, good citizens and that is all good.  It doesn’t take away the reality that in a heartbeat, there may come a flash of light that changes everything.

At that moment, we like Saul find ourselves flat on our back on the dusty road to Damascus, blind as to what happened and helpless to see what will happen next.   All we can do is speak and we hear ourselves ask, “Lord, who are you?”   It is Jesus, he reassures us and speaks gently, “I know that accidents happen.  That circumstances beyond your control interrupt lives every day.  I know that it is God’s will that his children would never suffer, but that is not the way of the world in which you live.  It is why I offer you strength that you like Saul, can get back up on your feet and somehow move again, and with time come to see what you need to do to go on. I offer you wisdom and perseverance to discern anew your purpose in life, and the courage to love once again.  I offer you my Spirit.”  

This is how Jesus operates and this is what we need, because “Oh Lord, it is a new day, and we don’t know what it will bring.”  Amen

Touch Heals

A word of explanation.  Yes, I’m posting a Lenten (pre-Easter) meditation long after Easter has come and gone.  However, some of us never want the party to end, so we celebrate not just Easter day, but Easter Season, all seven weeks of it!  So, despite what it might appear, I’m not really late getting these Lenten and Easter meditations posted.   I’m still celebrating!                                                                He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!
The 4th Sunday of Lent

John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

(John tells us:  Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.)

Matthew 26: 6-13

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.  “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.  When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.

Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Luke 7:36-50

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume.  As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

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

44 Then Jesus turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?

I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven, as her great love has shown.”

Touch heals

One might think with the number of stories in the Bible involving this ritual of water and washing and oil and anointing and touching that it was commonplace back then. And if you thought that you’d be right. Indeed, it was practiced at every level of society and event from the loftiest to the everyday ordinary. It was the anointing ritual that transformed a young shepherd boy in the field into the powerful King David. It was the same ritual that transformed a grieving young prince into the wealthy, wise and most honorable King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba. It was the treatment of choice to move illness back into health.  It was the service of Last Rites to prepare a person for death, and the ancient ritual of preparing the body of the dead for burial and life in the hereafter.

And then there was the everyday ordinary. This ritual was central to the code of good manners for a host. Think about it.  Back then you didn’t know if those strangers walking down the road towards your tent might not be angels. So you better do something that would transform them from strangers into honored guests, right?  You provided oil for their their dry cracked feet and dusty, windblown hair.  You put out basins of water with a few drops of perfumed oil to wash their feet.  Just a few drops to freshen the air; one never wanted to be wasteful. The Torah was clear about that; just as it was clear what was the expected of the good host.

In our three stories today, we have a host, a guest, and the ritual. Three stories, three women, three different locations and times, and one opening scene. Jesus has been invited to dinner.

In the first two that take place the week before Passover and Jesus’ arrest, Jesus is in the homes of good friends: Lazarus, Mary and Martha; and Simon the Leper, forever identified by his disease that Jesus healed.  These were homes of friends and undoubtedly good hosts.  Even before our heroines enter the room with their alabaster jars of expensive perfumed oil, I’m confident that our guests have already washed their feet in basins of water.  Up to this point, everything appears kosher. It was when Mary and the unnamed woman at Simon’s house made the scene that the plot thickens.  Both women ignore the Torah’s admonishment to avoid extravagance.  Mary opens her jar holding an entire pound of nard, pure essential oil, estimated at the cost of a full years pay and pours all of it on to the feet of Jesus!  Then she rubs it into his feet and toenails and ankles.  The woman at Simon’s home pours a lavish helping of extravagant oil onto the head of Jesus and rubs it into his hair until it glistens in the candlelight of the darkening room.

It was for that over-the-top extravagance that both women were criticized soundly by the men in the house. And for good reason.  It did violate the Torah. Funny how Jesus paid no attention to that.  The first thing he told the men was, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? ” He stopped the criticism on the spot and then addressed the true nature of what the women had done.

This was not a light-hearted welcome ceremony.  It was a transformational blessing on many levels. It was the ritual preparation for his death and burial.  It marked the end of his ministry on earth and his transition into rulership from a heavenly throne.  It sadly and profoundly marked the end of his physical presence among them.  Never again would they feel the warmth of his embrace.  Their relationship would be with a purely spiritual being.  I am also convinced that as a ritual of healing, Jesus was comforted in his own anxiety knowing what was to come.

And then we have a story from Luke.  This dinner party took place in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized, he’s enlisted his disciples, headed out to the countryside.  Before long, he is the newest superstar on the horizon.  Wherever he goes, there is a crowd of followers clamoring to hear what he has to say.  And standing on the edge of the crowds are the pharisees. They have come to watch and see.

One of them invites Jesus to his home to get a closer look. Jesus arrives and is seated.  Quietly, a woman with a rather sketchy reputation downtown, slips into the room. She stands behind him and begins to cry.

I’ve wondered over the years of reading this story, what triggered her tears.  Was it that the mere presence of Jesus was simply overwhelming?  Or if she could feel the chasm between her life and the darkness it had become in sharp contrast to the light and holiness of this man.  Maybe they were tears of remorse and shame, alienation and estrangement from her family and community.  Maybe it was helplessness rooted in a never ending despair.   What it was, in that moment, she realized she was not helpless!  She knew what she could do.  Remorse, guilt, and grief had given her the tears to wash the feet of this holy man.  She fell to her knees in front of him.  Filled her hands with her own tears and washed his feet, drying them with her hair, and kissing them and pouring perfume on them.

And then there was silence.

We know Jesus can read our thoughts, and he read the thoughts of the pharisee, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

In the ensuing heavy silence, Jesus turns and looks at the woman at his feet. When he speaks to the Pharisee, he doesn’t look at him.   Looking at the woman, he asks, “Do you see this woman?”

Now, that’s an interesting question. Do you see this woman? We all have our little private prejudices, don’t we? Those things that keep us from really seeing somebody. Maybe your prejudice is driven by status or the lack of it, by wealth or the lack of it, or the kind of job a person has or the lack of it.  Maybe yours is driven by lifestyle or attire, gender or race. I don’t know what yours is, but I do know this.  Prejudice forms a cloud over our eyes and it prevents us from seeing God’s holy creation standing right in front of us.  Instead, we see an object that we use to identify an entire group of people.  If a member of that group stands before us and we have labeled them, we have stripped them of their humanity.   Once a person is dehumanized, it justifies anything that we want to say or do or think about that person, without ever truly seeing them.

Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” And then he turns to the Pharisee and says “I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she cleaned my feet with her tears. You didn’t give me a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing me since the moment I walked in here. You didn’t give me any oil for my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”
Jesus made it clear to the Pharisee that it had not escaped his attention, that the Pharisee had done nothing to welcome him into the home.  He made no attempt to transform this visitor into a valued guest or friend.  Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He was not there to be a guest. He was there to be observed and evaluated for his usefulness or his danger to the established church.  After his blistering critique, Jesus delivered the coup d’etat “Therefore, I tell you, this woman’s many sins have been forgiven as her great love has shown.”   Unspoken, we hear the implication, “And yours have not.”

Through this ritual, the woman was transformed from a sinner to the forgiven, from the shunned to the loved.  Jesus gave us a clear statement of the relationship between love and forgiveness. Where there is love, we are capable of forgiving, and where there is forgiveness, love will thrive.

Now, these stories of transformation in the Bible don’t stop there.  With every baptism, babies, children, adults of all ages are transformed with the washing of water, the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil on the head, and the words, “You are anointed by the Holy Spirit and sealed as Christ’s own forever.” That’s transformation.

In many churches even today, we have healing services where people gather to pray for their own healing and the healing of loved ones.   In this quiet, prayerful service, the priest puts his hands on your shoulder, and says,” I lay my hands upon you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that you may know the healing power of His Love.”

The laying on of hands transforms children into Christ’s own forever, confirmands into full members of the church, seminarians into priests, empty buildings into churches, and people like you and me into agents of transformation.  Isn’t that what we have all been called to become?  Here’s how we do it.  Start with the current accepted and practiced ritual of hospitality and transformation.  Introduce yourself and shake hands.

When you do, be aware of the powerful ritual of touch.  When you take that person’s hand, look at him.  Look at her.  Don’t look away.  Stay locked for a moment to make sure you see the person.  I don’t want you waking up in the middle of night hearing Jesus ask you, “Did you see that woman?  Did you see that man?”  Don’t let anything block your vision of God’s creation standing right in front of you.  Then speak words of welcome, whatever ones come to mind.  You can do it.  It’s that simple.

With this ritual of simple kindness and hospitality, with or without a basin of water and a little perfumed oil, we can transform strangers into friends, and friends into family and family into community, a Christ community where love and forgiveness, healing and acceptance live.  It may sound a bit daunting.  However, if those three women could do it back then, we can do it now!   And who knows? Maybe like the guests in the house of Simon the Leper, we too may hear Jesus say these words about us,  “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what they have done will also be told, in memory of them.”  Now wouldn’t that be something!!  Amen

The Pursuit of Happiness


THURSDAY AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY
Psalm 1
Psalm 1: 1-6
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the
wicked nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats
of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and
they meditate on his law day and night.

 
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in
due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do
shall prosper.  


It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind
blows away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when
judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

     
The Pursuit of Happiness  

As a rule, we are a generally unhappy lot, are we not? 
If you don’t think so read on.

Today, the self-help industry promises untold numbers of
quick, cheap easy paths to happiness, while it nets around
$10 billion dollars a year.  And that is in the United States
alone! 

Add to that, most people buying a self-help book will buy
another one within eighteen months, followed by workbooks,
classes, and videos.  And another self-help book!

We may be tempted to see this desperate search as the collateral
damage of a loss of purpose or meaning in life, caused by materialism,
 toxic political unrest, environmental toxins, global warming, or
whatever.

Lest we do so, we must remember that brilliant thinkers including
 our Psalmist have been addressing this very topic throughout the
ages. Generously, they have provided us a wealth of happiness
theories, all having in common four basic tenets.

The first tenet in the search for happiness is to Know Yourself,
which is exactly where David starts in the first verse of the first
chapter of his extraordinary collection of wisdom, “Happy are
they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor
lingered in the way of sinners nor sat in the seats of the scornful!”

Take your pick!  Which are you? One of the wicked? Or are you
one of those who take delight in the law of the Lord?  David makes
it clear that we are what we do and with whom we do it.  If we
linger in the halls with sinners, take advice from the wicked, and
place ourselves scornfully above others, we become what we do. 
We become one of those who are ultimately crushed by guilt,
unable to stand before God when the judgement comes; who are
as meaningless as chaff blowing in the wind.

So why would anyone consider wickedness as their path to
happiness? Because at first glance, the ways of the wicked
are seductive! They promise a short cut to happiness
with quick access to the desires of the heart.  Unfortunately,
not all desires of the heart are good.  Some are evil and
ultimately destructive!

Which brings us to the second tenet, Manage your Desires.  
We are encouraged in Ecclesiastes to pursue happiness, even
given directives! Here they are: Seize Life!    Eat Bread with
gusto! Drink wine with a robust heart! Relish life with the
spouse you love!  

The often-blunt writer of this controversial book explained,
“Each and every day of your precarious life is God’s gift.  It’s
all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive.
For there’s neither work to do nor thoughts to think in the
company of the dead where you’re most certainly headed.” 

He wanted the people of God to know that God takes pleasure
in the pleasures they enjoy from their hard work, not from
extortion. God also takes pleasure in the good sense his
people exercise when it comes to desires.  When desires are
evaluated far away from the dark halls of the wicked, and in the
light of moderation, they become our joys, not our addictions. 
Manage your joys well and you are on your way to happiness.

Tenet three: Take What is Yours.   Whatever is yours, own it.  
Take care of it, whether profession, home, relationships,
spouse, or children. Treat each precious possession responsibly,
always conscientious, faithful, and consistent.  When you do,
David promises you will be like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. 
Everything you do shall prosper and you will have a good shot
at happiness on earth.

And finally, tenet four:  Remember in the end, you will die.  
When we keep that in mind, we keep the world in perspective. 
We don’t let possessions become obsessions; we don’t put
objects above relationships.  Rather, we make the law of
the Lord our delight.  With that, we are assured that when
we face judgment, we will stand before our Maker upright, in
confidence and great happiness.

It may appear that the pursuit of happiness is an odd topic to
ponder during the time of Lent.  Is this not a somber,
contemplative time as we walk the road to Golgotha with
Jesus?  Yes, it is.  So why pick Psalm One as a Lenten
scripture?  Perhaps, because its four-step path to happiness
is strikingly similar to how we do Lent.    

A sound Lenten discipline calls us to remember who we are!
Followers of Jesus, who gather in prayer and meditation to
focus on the word of God, who manage our desires in a way
that is unique to Lent, who take our journey seriously, and who
remember on Good Friday that we too will die in the end:  We are but dust and to dust we shall return.

Only of course, that is not where our story ends. For us as
followers of Jesus, we get Easter!  That day when we burst into
a resurrection of Happiness, when we join with a multitude of
believers, standing upright before God and singing joyfully,

“Jesus Christ is risen today!  Alleluia!  Alleluia! Amen and Amen!
 

Wash your hands, please!

We pray . . .

Open our lips, O Lord and our mouth will proclaim your praise.  Amen

The Readings:

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,

leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.

My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.

Look, there he stands
behind our wall,

gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.

My beloved speaks and says to me:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;

for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,

and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.

The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”

Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10

1 My heart is stirring with a noble song;
let me recite what I have fashioned for the king; *
my tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer.

2 You are the fairest of men; *
grace flows from your lips,
because God has blessed you for ever.

7 Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, *
a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom;
you love righteousness and hate iniquity.

8 Therefore God, your God, has anointed you *
with the oil of gladness above your fellows.

9 All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, aloes, and cassia, *
and the music of strings from ivory palaces makes you glad.

10 Kings’ daughters stand among the ladies of the court; *
on your right hand is the queen,
adorned with the gold of Ophir.

James 1:19-21, 26

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Wash your hands, please!

Use your imagination for just a moment.

See two young girls sitting side by side, whispering so the parents don’t hear.  The older sister speaks, “Listen!  My Beloved is coming!  He’s like a young stag leaping over mountains and bounding over hills!  Look!  Over there by the wall, gazing through the lattice, he sees us!  Listen!”

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me. The winter is over. The rains have gone. The flowers cover the fields. It’s time. Come away my love, my fair one. Come away.”

Whew!  Solomon definitely had a way with words!  He could lift love to the sublime in a moment.  His daddy was no slouch either.  Look at the Psalm for today, Psalm 45 where he speaks of his King.

“My heart is stirring with a noble song.                                                                                                                                                 Let me recite what I have fashioned for the king.                                                                                                                                                   My tongue shall be the pen of a skilled writer.                                                                                                                                           You, my king, are the fairest of men.                                                                                                                                                   Grace flows from your lips because God has blessed you forever.”

David, Solomon and other Old Testament writers were incredibly eloquent, to say the least!   I truly believe they were so close to God that they understood language, that is, words were a gift from God, intended for love, adoration and loyalty, and they did it beautifully.

Move forward to the New Testament where words are still important. They are still the language  God gave the Gospel writers to use for righteousness.  Only things have gotten a little less elegant and more concise. Take James, for example. If I say his name, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?  ”Faith without works is dead.”

Pow.

Done.

He’s got it.

He sums up faith and religion in five short words and packs it with tremendous power and clarity. It was clear that he so respected the impact of words, he gave us  rules for effective communication:

Number one, be quick to listen.   (Ooh?  So, it starts before we speak?  What a concept!)

Number 2: Be slow to speak.

And number 3:  Be particularly slow to speak when angry.  Angry words contradict the righteousness that God intended for our words to work.

These are very important precepts to consider as we move into our gospel reading for today.  Let’s look at the setting Mark has staged for us.

We see Jesus and his disciples, who by this time have pretty much reached celebrity status.  And like today where celebrities always travel with an entourage, so did Jesus.   We see him with his tightly-knit circle of 12 disciples and the women who traveled with them.  They were surrounded by a larger group, his followers, people truly interested in what Jesus was saying and doing.  In all likelihood, there was an even larger group of people whom we could call curiosity seekers.  These would be the ones out for a Sunday afternoon excursion.  When they heard that Jesus was nearby, they decided to check him out; maybe see a miracle or two.  Maybe get some photographs and an autograph.

And finally, where ever celebrities go, there are the critics.  This time it was the Pharisees, standing to the side looking for something to critique.  And it did not take long.  There it was:  tired, hot, hungry disciples eating food brought to them, without first washing their hands.

We know to wash our hands before eating, right?  But for the Jews, it was more than that.  It was part of a ritual dictated by God to His people during their time in the wilderness.   There are several hypotheses about the reasoning behind these laws.  I go along with the Health and Hygiene explanation.  These were God’s people, after all; and God had big plans for them.  The best way to guarantee their longevity as a nation was to make sure they did not kill themselves off with food-related disease.  They didn’t know about germs, bacteria, or parasites, but God did.  So he gave them rules for preparing, cooking, and eating food deemed safe.

I hypothesize that God had a conversation with himself that went something like this, “I’ve invested a lot in these people and I need to keep them alive. So I’m going to give them rules.  First!  Wash your hands.  Then wash your pots and pans.  Wash your plates and cups.  Prepare fruits and vegetables in one part of the kitchen; raw meat in another.  And about pigs? I know bacon makes everything taste better, but stay away from pigs!   They’ve got parasites!”

So these were important rules, God-given and mandated.  Now understand, if the Pharisees were truly concerned for the disciples’ spiritual and physical  well-being, they would have gone to Jesus quietly and offered to get water for washing, but they did not.  They were there to critique, and in a loud, clear voice did exactly that, “Jesus, why do you allow your disciples not to live by the traditions of the elders?  They are eating with defiled hands.”

I imagine a tense moment of silence fell over the crowd, but only a quick one, because Jesus knew exactly their motivation.   He knew it the second they said, “Jesus, why . . .?

It was the Dreaded Why Question!   We know it, don’t we?  We have all been the recipient of this grammatical anomaly at one time or another:  a statement that masquerades as a question but is not a question at all.  “ Why did you decide to wear those shoes with that outfit?”   Is the critic really interested in knowing why?  Of course not.  He is criticizing my choice of shoes and has no interest whatsoever in why I picked what I did.

So, the next time you are the recipient of a Dreaded Why Question, do not bother trying to  answer the question, because it is not a question at all.  It is a veiled critical attack.  Instead, do what Jesus did.

Change the subject.

Jesus did not venture to answer the “question.”  He changed the subject and started talking about Isaiah. Try that some time. That should work.  It did for Jesus!

He spoke up, “Isaiah’s got your number and had it way back then. He predicted you would do this. You are hypocrites!”   Jesus identified the hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ use of words, not to embrace Jesus and his disciples in love and unity, but to criticize, to demean, to create        separation; and Jesus called them on it.

The next thing Jesus did was make sure that the crowds understood the dynamics of the word defile. To defile means to corrupt, to desecrate, and to destroy the purity and the holiness of God’s creation in us. Jesus made clear that nothing you put into your mouth is going to defile you, only what comes out from inside a person can defile.   He then gave the crowd a list of behaviors arising from evil intentions in the heart that have the power to defile us and everyone and everything around us.

Let’s look at this list.  I call it the   . . .         Jesus List

Fornication

Theft

Murder

Adultery

Avarice

Wickedness

Deceit

Licentiousness

Envy

Slander

Pride

Folly

 

Fascinated with lists, I wondered about this list of twelve behaviors.  Were there only twelve evils out there?  I’d  have thought there would be more. Maybe, Jesus just liked the number twelve and stopped there.  After all, he could have had dozens of disciples and stopped at twelve.

Then I tried to find a pattern in the order in which he listed them.  Was he starting with the least and going to the worst evil?  Or was it the other way around?  He certainly didn’t alphabetize them!    At least that would have been a bit more orderly.  Maybe if I alphabetize the list, I could find a pattern.  So, I tried that.  Nothing. That is when  I called a halt to the fretting, and decided it would be more productive to look at the underlying, pre-evil patterns that exist in our heart long before they sour and rot into evil intentions and the destructive behaviors we see in the Jesus List.

You see, I doubt that we are created with evil intentions.   It is as we grow that we develop a perspective of the world and what we need to do to be safe and functional, or pain-free within it.   In  response to this world of our creation, we create mindsets by which we identify the players, the               problems, and how to respond emotionally, physiologically, and behaviorally.   At any point, these suppositions may break down, but none the less it is what we create and live in. So I decided I’d make a list of  patterns that, while not necessarily evil, they have the potential to become evil. I started off with two or three things, then got up to twenty or thirty.  Finally I remembered that Jesus kept his list to twelve, and I will do the same.   However, I will alphabetize them!

So here’s my list. I’m sure any of you could add more. I’m also sure that not a single one of us is free of having at least some element of one or more of these at any given time in our own heart.  Remember, none of these are innately evil; they only have the potential to become that way.

Addiction  (from alcohol to chocolate to money to shoes)

Angry Victim Identity/Martyr (perhaps the deadliest of all patterns; think terrorism)

Avoidance   (avoidance of a challenge, a new thing, a difficult conversation)

Blaming  (finding fault, blaming others for what happens in life)

Control Needs    (Any control freaks out there?)

Comparing (always a bad move; you never come out well)

Criticality  (Think Pharisees.  Do we really want to hang in that crowd?)

Fear  (“a scared dog is an aggressive dog”)

Grudges  (sours the present time; related to Resentments)

Laziness  (aka Procrastination)

Resentments  (toxic to relationships)

Worries  (see control needs)

Looking at this list, we are faced with a dilemma.  Not one of us, if we are honest, gets out of this one scot free.  We are intimately familiar with one or more of these flaws.  So what do we do?

This is what we do.  Go back to our readings.  The directions are there.

Number one, use the language God gave us for the purpose he intended.  Use it to embrace  others, fearlessly with love.  When a heart with its flaws and evil intentions hears loving and respectful words, the dissonance will shake the foundations of pre-evil origins to their very core.

Number two, in all of your communications, be quick to listen and slow to speak.  Be so slow, you may discover all you really need to say is, “Okay. I got it. I understand.”   If speaking is necessary, be slow.  Choose your words carefully, with respect, honesty and diplomacy.  And if you are angry, be incredibly slow.   Angry, aggressive, violent, hostile words destroy us from the inside out, and exert power to destroy relationships, communities, even countries.

And finally, look into your heart.   Identify the mindsets that have the potential to create evil  within us.  Embrace the flaws with love and take them to God.   That is how Jesus did it.

Recall the first Maundy Thursday in the upper room.   With dread, Jesus anticipates the cross, the tortured road to Golgotha. What does he do? He gathers with friends and family and they share a meal.   At the end of the evening, he takes it to God in the Garden.   He confesses the fear and avoidance in his heart, “If there’s any way I can avoid this night, let me walk away.   If not, I will do what I need to do, knowing it is your will.”

This is what we do every Sunday.  It is why we go to church!  We gather with friends and family in our Father’s house.  We bring to God our heart filled with fears, weaknesses, and flawed mindsets from which evil intentions grow.  We get down on our knees and confess them, and receive God’s blessing and strength to do the right thing.   And then we come to the table where we share a glorious and holy meal, a gift directly from Jesus, meant to strengthen us to face the evils within and to transform them into love.

Today, tomorrow,  we will walk out of the Garden and into the world.   We, like Jesus will face whatever demands and  difficulties lay before us, knowing it is God’s intention to be with us through whatever they may be. I don’t know your plans for the day, but at some point, you’re going to share a meal. The first thing you do is wash your hands.  Yes, go wash your hands, please!   We don’t want any uninvited guests like germs joining us for dinner.

Finally, say grace.  Pray something like this.  “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.   Create in us a clean heart oh God and renew a right spirit within us so that when we open our lips, our mouth shall and can and will and must proclaim your love and your praise. Amen.”

And let it be so.  Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taste and See

Taste and see that the Lord is good . . . Psalm 34:8

I have no doubt that when David introduced himself to a new guy in town, he would say something like, “Hi, I’m David the King! Nice to meet you!”

I am equally sure that he did not say, “I am David, the Foodie,” even though he talked like a foodie. You know the type. He’s the one who studies carefully each and every piece of produce at the farmers market, picking through piles of organic beets, Brussel sprouts, and golden potatoes for just the right color, texture and crispness. He pairs foods with wines, studies craft beers, and salivates when analyzing flavors to create recipes from restaurant entrees. His relationship with food plays a central role in time with friends and family; it is his love language.

When David talked about his God and Lord, food was the only allegory that was sensual and powerful enough to capture the intimacy of their relationship, “How sweet are your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” See what I mean? Here’s another example.
Knowing that God’s words would sustain him, he trusted God’s promise, “I will feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” When David needed comfort, he banked on God’s catering team working in a green pasture beside still waters, preparing a table before him in the presence of his enemies.

I can’t help but wonder how David would compare the Ten Commandments to his evening meal. Here indeed would be a meal fit for a King, even a king as great as David. What ingredients would capture the burning secret to happiness found on those stone tablets: Focus on the goodness of god, honor your family, respect those around you, and never want what is not yours. That has to be hotter news than the Serrano peppers on the enchiladas at my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant down the street.

But in all this talk about food, I get distracted. In today’s simple verse, David is not talking about eating. He is talking about tasting.

It is important to know that tasting is not eating. Tasting is a very different activity from consuming food. It is a beginning in and of itself. If you attend a wine-tasting event, it is not about drinking wine. It is about tasting. Your host places before you a very small glass and carefully pours in a tiny amount, maybe a tablespoon. You look at the wine, its color and how it moves in the glass. Then you breathe in its scent. Is it the scent of a creamy sweet oak you would want in a Chardonnay? Or a crisp fruit scent of grapefruit in a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; or dark grapes and cherries in a mixed red or Cab? After you consider the scent, then and only then do you slowly take a sip. You taste it.

From that taste, you determine the nature of the wine that becomes the basis for drinking a glass of it later, or not. That is what David is describing in his allegory of tasting the goodness of God. We don’t get a case of wine called God Juice. We don’t get a bottle or even a glass. We get a taste. God knows we could not take in the enormity of his goodness in any other amount. He gives us what we can sense, just a taste. After that, it is up to us what we do with it.

From there David moves to step two, seeing. David is not talking about a quick glance or glimpse here. He is talking about seeing something in a depth and intensity that can open doors to flavors and scents never before experienced. Only when we see, can we take it in. We can be enlightened, inspired, lifted, and transformed. Not until we taste and see the goodness of God in his commandments and wisdom can we fully experience His heavenly food.

Consider your Sunday morning visit to the Eucharist table for Holy Communion. Here you receive a taste of bread and wine, just a taste to savor the flavors of love, hope, grace, strength, and compassion. How generously God fills our soul with these heavenly delicacies, sweeter than honey to the mouth. And in that sweetness, you will see that no matter what life has brought to the table or put on your plate, you will never be hungry again.

On that you can count, and how sweet it is!

The Death of a Friend

Romans 8:37-39 was the Sunday Scripture read from the pulpit the day before my friend was killed. She was walking to church to cook dinner for the parents and children who had participated in Vacation Bible School when she was struck down by a truck and pronounced dead on the scene.


For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thoughts on the death of a friend

I met Elsa two years ago through mutual friends. We hit it off and over the course of our friendship we had many deep and heartfelt conversations. On the day of her funeral, I drove in silence purposely taking a country route through the hill country to Georgetown from Austin. Elsa would have preferred that route with her deep love and appreciation for nature. So on my way to her funeral, I wanted time with her. No distractions.

When I arrived at the church she loved and served, I sat off to the side and quietly recalled one of those conversations. The topic had drifted to things spiritual as it frequently did, religion, faith, love, fidelity and trust. At some point, I shared with her an epiphany – that insight or idea that drops on us from out of nowhere. This particular epiphany had come to me long ago when I’d suffered a painful betrayal that left me angry, devastated, and abandoned, feelings much like Elsa was describing that day. I sighed and said, “Ah Elsa, . . . know that Jesus is the only lover who will never leave you.” Silence settled over the room. I could tell she was giving this idea consideration. She was like that. Then she looked up, smiled, and nodded. She got it.

As aggrieved as I am at the horrific accident that killed her on that street; as aggrieved as I was on the day of her funeral, . . . I have a sense somewhere in the sad darkness that settled over us at the moment of her death, there is a smile. Finally, my friend Elsa is in the loving arms of her faithful lover. Just as she was a true and faithful servant in all things, so is Jesus.

And God looked upon his creation and said, “It is good.”

Epiphany Knees


Psalm 40:1-3

Expectans, expectavi

1 I waited patiently upon the LORD; he stooped to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God;
many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the LORD.

Several years ago, my husband and I along with our dog Ace and some friends planned a trip to Fredericksburg, Texas. If you are from central Texas, you are familiar with the popular German community known for its quaint bed and breakfasts, herb gardens, pastries, fine dining, wine tastings, and a multitude of diverse shops selling everything from peaches to designer hats and custom furniture. But none of those were on our agenda for that weekend. We were going to Fredericksburg to climb Enchanted Rock.

Enchanted Rock is a unique geological structure; a massive pink granite dome rising more than 1800 feet above sea level, looking more like it came from Mars than from central Texas. It has a history of magic and mysticism going back to the Tonkawa Indians who originally populated the area and considered the monolith a groaning god with fiery eyes in the night. Today, it remains a spiritual place, with an athletic challenge. People of faith make pilgrimage to the Rock for prayer and meditation. Others come to exercise their athleticism, climbing the mountain to be rewarded with its magnificent views.

Our small group looked forward to the challenge of the Rock and the opportunity for prayer and meditation atop the bald giant. We arrived in Fredericksburg the evening before our climb, ate a good meal, and went to bed early to be well rested for the next day’s adventure. We awoke early to discover the weather had a surprise for us. Instead of the usual central Texas crisp autumn mornings, sunny, clear, and cool, the weather had turned dreary gray, with rain, fog, drizzle and mist. We were not to be deterred. We left our B and B, and drove the slick roads to the Park. Once there, we walked to the base of the Rock where we realized just how challenging the bald giant would prove. Again, we were not deterred. Earlier pilgrims had already arrived before us and we could see them quietly ascending the rock into the fog above. If they could do it, so could we, right? We started up the gentle slope. After a while, we stopped for a brief rest at a relatively level space before the next steeper incline. Then, it happened!

I had an epiphany! I knew in that split second with no real thought or study or preparation, that my knees were not going to manage the Rock safely! I’d already had one knee surgery from a running fall on asphalt; I wasn’t willing to find out what a fall on granite would do to the other one! So, I told my husband to go on without me; and Ace and I hiked back down to the safe flat foothills below. We explored the autumn landscape of grasses and streams. We enjoyed the warm sun as the day turned beautiful. We listened to the sounds of laughter of young families and children playing in the distance and the silence of the spaces around us. It was a mellow special time.

That happened years ago, but when I read David’s words in the scripture today, the memories flooded back. “He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.” Fortunately, I did not fall into the desolate pit in which David found himself, perplexed and clueless in the dark. If I were to make a guess, I would guess David’s pit was one of grief and guilt. David was a powerful man of God with many victories. For every victory though, David suffered defeat: watching the decline of his king’s mental health and ultimately, Saul’s death on the battlefield, David’s own murderous sins, his failures as a father, and the deaths of loved ones, betrayals, mutinous children, on and on.

Maybe David’s epiphany in that pit was his own helplessness to undo the painful carnage of his mistakes. When he figured out that all the scratching, crawling, and clawing attempts to climb out of his guilt were ineffectual, he turned to the Lord who would know where he was, who would stoop down to hear his distress. And, God did exactly that. He found the pit in which David languished; He picked him up and set his feet on a high cliff where his footing was sure, where he would not fall again. He would give David a new song, an epiphany song that would lift the hearts of all who would hear, a song that would fill them with awe.

It is easy to identify with David, he was so human! Like David, we find ourselves at different times in life mired in a dark pit. Maybe it’s a pit of grief and guilt like David’s; or pain; or despair; or the losses that come in the second half of life as careers end, loved ones die, and children move away; as illness, injuries, wear and tear weaken our knees and dim our vision. And after we do all that we can to cope with these changes, we find ourselves like David waiting patiently for God to do his work of epiphany. We wait for his message that will lift us out of the pit of our own making and place us solidly on high ground to see life in a different way, to sing a new song of awe. Our epiphany task is waiting with expectation, patience, and an open mind so as not to miss what God may be saying to us.

I never made it to the top of Enchanted Rock that week so I have yet to experience sure footing on a high cliff or a magnificent view. I heard God’s message though: those knees of mine that once did anything I demanded, are now made for walking, that’s it. With that insight, I likely avoided a painful fall; and that may have been all that God wanted to say. But, if I treat that moment as an epiphany moment with expectation, patience, and an open mind, there may be more to the message.

Maybe God was telling me that high heady spaces are not for me. Maybe he wants me in low lands surrounded by life, people, animals, tall grasses and low hanging mesquite. Maybe he wants me to explore the back spaces, wading across streams of tears, crawling over downed trees and dreams, listening to the songs of birds and children and old people. Maybe he wants me to take his message into those places and speak the language of rustling streams and brush, birds and breezes. Maybe he wants me to take time to rest, to take in the scents of his creation, and feel the air on my skin. I just don’t know yet. So I will do my part in this Epiphany time. I will trust that God is near, willing to stoop low to hear my cry. And I will remain patient, expectant, and wait . .
Amen

The Mystery of Division

The Season of Advent

Jeremiah 23:23-29

“Am I a God nearby, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the LORD.” Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the LORD.

“I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back– those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.

Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Luke 12:49-56
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The Mystery of Division

Can you believe he does it to us again? He gives us a lesson that leaves us scratching our head and then asks the dreaded unanswerable Why Question, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

We all know it is impossible to answer a Why Question in any way that will satisfy the asker. It’s not usually a question at all, is it? It’s a criticism, a challenge, or a statement of frustration. In this case, Jesus presents us with a contradiction and then challenges us to figure it out. He tells us he has come to bring division and fire, which flies in the face of his Advent identity, Prince of Peace; then in his frustration, asks why we cannot figure it out!

Personally, I think Jesus does it to make us think! It’s much easier to throw up our hands and go on to something simple and clear. But no, our beloved church fathers will not tolerate avoidance or an oppositional “I don’t know!” excuse. Instead they give us two readings to help us along in our quest to understand what Jesus wants us to take away from this lesson. So, let’s do what our church fathers intended and start with Jeremiah.

Jeremiah addresses the children of Israel on behalf of God’s question, “What kind of a God is God? Is he a god that’s nearby or far away?” God answers his own question with another question. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?”

Obviously, the God of Abraham is the God nearby. He is close. He is so close that he sees into the secret places of our life. From the contents of those secret places he makes judgment on whether we are a person of faith or not. He doesn’t go with lineage, Abraham notwithstanding. When he sees wheat stacked in there, he takes that to mean that we are a person of faith and will speak his word faithfully. On the other hand, when the secret places in our life contain straw and rocks, lies and false dreams, God will make the judgement call. He will see to it that the straw is burned by the fire of truth and the rock is broken into pieces by the hammer of his word. The division between prophets faithful to the word and prophets not faithful is clear to the eyes of God who fills the heaven and earth.

Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, continues this discussion of division: people of faith as divided from people who are not. For example, by faith the fleeing Israelites passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to do the same, they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. By faith, warriors like the prophets, Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, Samuel and David conquered kingdoms. By faith, they administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war and put foreign armies to flight.

Also, by faith, others were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging; even chains and imprisonment. Others of faith were stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, went about in skins of sheep and goats destitute, persecuted, tormented, wandering in deserts and mountains and living in caves and holes in the ground. These too were people of faith who like Christ, suffered.

Then we come to the gospel reading for today and hear the words of Jesus that echo the sentiments of Jeremiah and Paul. He says, I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Immediately we get a picture of events to come. Jesus, the Word, is the bearer of God’s fire, and He will be the hand of fiery division between those who would believe and who would not. How Jesus wished that fire was already kindled and the job of burning straw was done. He knew the pain that would come to people of faith. He knew that he himself would not escape the bloodshed of a baptism by fire on the cross.

We are harshly confronted with the dichotomy of who Christ is and what Christ does in our lives. In the season of Advent, we hear the triumphant voice of Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Every Sunday, we sing the beloved hymn , O Come, O Come Emmanuel, “O come Desire of Nations, bind in one, the hearts of all man-kind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.” How does that work with a quiet Jesus who asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

I think there are two kinds of division in the world: the kind Jesus brings and the kind bred by humans with too much straw and rocks in the secret places of their heart. These are the sad and proud divisions: political and ideological, racial and socioeconomic, and gender and age just to name a few. Proud divisions give rise to estrangement, rejection, prejudice, tyranny, genocide, torture, warfare and bloodshed, existing long before Jesus arrived and continuing despite his coming.

I’m of the opinion that the division Jesus brings is the kind that is innate and inevitable, but not proud and sad. He knew that not everyone in the immediate family or circle of friends was going to follow him. Some would; some would not; and that would create division, especially when God is present and active in both our public and secret places.

Let me give you an example. When I leave my home on Sunday mornings to drive to Church, let me tell you what I do not encounter. I do not encounter traffic. There are no traffic jams slowing my drive to church. The majority of people are sleeping in, or enjoying a quiet morning, or catching up on chores.

Then there are those cars on the highway with me, with only one person in the car, the driver, driving to church alone, and not in the company of the rest of the family. In our own homes, we are divided: Christian against doubters and disbelievers, denomination against denomination, style of worship against style of worship. These are sad divisions.

Or are they? C. Andrew Doyle, an Episcopalian Bishop authored his take on division in his book, Unabashedly Episcopalian. On the cover is pictured a hairy forearm with a brash tattoo stating the title. Inside is a brash unashamed confession of the excitement and thrill at being different, divided from the world at large. That is what God expects of us in a world full of divisions. He wants us unabashedly to be children of love. That is a different division from the proud divisions that block others from Christ’s love and joy.

Proud divisions do not have a place in our home, neighborhood, country, or world. While we remain unabashedly Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, nondenominational, or whatever, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are unabashedly people of faith. We are called to live this division of love gloriously; no proud divisions, no walls between us and others. You have children who have strayed to a different denomination or completely away from the church? You remain in love with them. You have a neighbor from different cultural and religious paths? You live in love and peace with them.

This is the challenge that taunts us because a world divided by hate, misunderstanding, intolerance, and fear has become the norm, the practice of the majority. That does not keep Jesus from challenging us. He wants us to figure it out. He wants us to interpret his words in the context of who he is and what he has done for the world then and now.

Interpreting the words of Jesus in the present time is a challenge only the foolhardy would attempt. Because I am unabashedly foolhardy, here is my take on it. We are children of God, followers of the Prince of Peace and the King of Division. Therefore, we must live our lives in love and acceptance, our hearts bound in one with the hearts of all mankind. We are to be a reflection of the very light that Jesus shines into a world darkened by the tragedy of proud divisions.

Too hard to understand? No worries. No Why Questions. Jesus may have been frustrated with our cognitive shortcomings, but it didn’t keep him from loving us, and from suffering, dying, and gloriously rising again. Jesus gave us the model for living the mystery of division unabashedly. All we have to do is follow his model, whether we understand it or not.

Thankfully, understanding is not a deal breaker.
Amen

Dear God, you sent your messengers to help prepare the way for your entry into our world.
Give us grace to listen to their words with faith and acceptance so that even when we do not understand, we are never divided from your love and power. Amen.