Ubuntu, the Rich Man and Lazarus

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What is the magic of seeing someone? What is the function of empathy? Recently I heard a TED talk by a psychologist named Dr. Goleman who wrote a pretty popular book on Emotional Intelligence. He reflected on our increasingly self-absorbed society and the lack of empathy. Over the course of his studies he came to learn that our rush, our busy-ness, keeps us from seeing those who are most in need. This surprised him because, as he put it, we are hardwired for empathy. Our brains are geared for empathy and compassion. It’s one of the reasons people slow down at traffic accidents. It’s why we feel so heartbroken over the news sometimes, powerless, hurt, and angry. We are hardwired to feel for each other.

 

The African philosophy of Ubuntu states that “I will not be well, if my brother, if my sister, is not well.” It reminds us that we belong to each other and while we might rush right by those who are hurting and hope that it won’t impact us, eventually, it always does. In our scripture today the rich man, who interestingly enough and counter-culturally enough, doesn’t have a name, he’s the one who rushes right by Lazarus who has been knocked down by life and left at his gates. We know that, on some level, the rich guy knew who Lazarus was, his plight did register at some level, after all he knew Lazarus’ name, but mostly he was busy with his schedule and his fancy parties and social climbing and there was always business to attend to, actually seeing Lazarus as a fellow human being who suffered, wasn’t on the agenda.

 

It’s as if he simply had no clue how Lazarus lived. Perhaps he was just too busy or preoccupied, but he missed seeing Lazarus, missed connecting with him. And this isn’t to say that he was an evil man. At least I hope not, because Princeton Seminary, a good Presbyterian seminary if ever there was one! Did a study where they challenged their seminary students to study a text, and then go to another building to preach on it. On the way from one building to another each student would encounter a man seemingly bent double in pain, moaning and clearly in need of help. Now half of these students had been given the text of the Good Samaritan and half had been given other texts. You might think, you might hope, that these good and kind students who are devoting themselves to scripture and hope to be of service to the world and who have just been studying the example of the Good Samaritan would stop and help this man, but many didn’t. What they discovered was that if the students felt rushed or anxious, they barely even noticed the man, even if they had just been reading the text of the Good Samaritan.

 

Isn’t that something? We can contemplate the good and righteous thing we most want to become and see in the world and still miss the opportunity to realize that-literally make it real- when it shows up. I gotta tell you that is not good news for a preacher! Because it suggests, or states, that no matter how good this sermon, or the text we share, no matter how deep our understanding of the scripture, it will not change our behavior. We can do all the intellectual processing and it will not necessarily change us.

 

So what will? Where is the good news?

 

Dr. Goleman didn’t just leave us at this low point, like a good lecturer or preacher even, he found the good news and he didn’t give up until he did so. He said that, as a psychologist he was brought into close contact with lots of people who suffered from mental illness and he began to notice as he walked the streets that many of the homeless people had a particular look on their face, in their features, that resembled the more fortunate patients he had worked with. Now the thing is, he knew his patients. He knew their stories and their pain, he had great empathy and compassion for them, so when he saw strangers who he did not know, who nonetheless resembled people he did know, some of that veil of indifference, of preoccupation, was pierced. He began to feel compassion for those he was passing on the street. It shifted his focus. His compassion for his patients drew him into compassion for those who now took on a familiar look.

 

One day, when he was headed home and went down to the subway. It was a Friday and there were lots of people headed home and headed into the city and he noticed that there was a man collapsed on the steps. People were stepping over him and around him and didn’t even seem to notice, but Dr. Goleman stopped and when he did, a small but kind and loving crowd stopped with him. He discovered that the man was Hispanic and didn’t speak English, that he was lost and alone and hadn’t eaten in days. He discovered that the man had actually fainted from hunger and as he learned these things, people began to move, one came back with orange juice, another had a hot dog, one had a clean shirt for the gentleman. All it took was for one person to see this man, to step forward and hold out a hand, and the humanity, the compassion, the empathy in everyone else was drawn out.

 

Amazing isn’t it?

 

But let’s look at another example. Two years ago the middle school football team of Olivet Michigan did something unusual. For weeks they planned an unusual play, well two plays if you listen to them talk about it. One member of their team was a young developmentally delayed boy with some boundary issues. He was always too quick to hug, too sensitive, too easily overwhelmed, but always loving, always had his heart on his sleeve. Now you might expect with the culture of middle school that he would be a target for teasing and ridicule. We’ve sort of come to expect that. He was one of the “least of these” but at that particular time the team decided to do something different. The quarterback took the ball, made the run, all the way to within a yard of touchdown…and then he took a knee, stopped, halted, planted that ball one yard from the finish line. The crowd was a little crazy over this! They must have wondered why he was throwing the game, or at least the touchdown, but the next move, the next move stunned everyone. The team gathered around the receiver, who was not the quarterback, but this developmentally challenged boy, and they surrounded him, and they escorted him in true mid-game, football fashion, right over the finish line.

 

But that’s not the end of the story. It might seem easy to focus on this boy and his parents and their shock and surprise at how this team cared for and loved on their most vulnerable member, but there’s more. In the telling of this story one of the young men was asked, “Was this your idea?”and he responded with genuine humility as he said “No sir. I was too self absorbed. I never would have thought of it. I didn’t even notice him.” And the tears began to trace their way down his face as he admitted this, an on-air, live confession. “But it changed you,” the reported said, and the boy smiled, “Yes, I never thought I could make such a difference to anyone.” His life was changed by the invitation to be a source of grace. Let that sink in, the invitation to BE a source of grace to another, is grace. We are blessed that we might be a blessing.

Olivet Michigan Eagles football team, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ejh_hb15Fc

 

So I titled this sermon Ubuntu, because it is one of my favorite philosophies and it comes from Africa and it was popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It speaks to what it means to be fully human and it is often summed up by the phrase, “I cannot be well if my brother, if my sister, is not well.” It points to our interconnected nature. That no matter how hard I might try to be an island and need no one, I am still connected to you, and you, and you. When I think of ubuntu I am reminded of a hermetic monk who resided at remote hermitage that Henri Nouwen visited. I am reminded of this nameless man because he ran up to Mr. Nouwen and said so very earnestly to him, “please, let them know we are out here, and that we are praying for them.” Even the hermit monk, who spends days and days in prayer, feels and responds to our interconnected nature.

 

In our scripture today the nameless rich man violates the spirit of ubuntu and goes about his daily life as if his actions and his being did not in fact impact others, others such as Lazarus sitting at his gate. You see, I believe that Lazarus was a blessing that this man needed very badly in his life, and he missed it. And our parable goes on to say that sometimes, sometimes these lost opportunities are just lost and we must mourn their loss and we can’t make it right. We have a tendency to go about our daily lives focused on the bright and beautiful, because that is where we are taught blessings come from, but that may not be where we will find the blessing we most desperately need.

 

If we are suffering, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. The CEO of Energy Transfer, Kelcy Warren, lives in his 27,000 square foot mansion in Houston Texas, and like the unnamed rich man, he doesn’t seem to recognize the native people of North Dakota, even as they sit outside his pipeline project and beg for clean water. He has insulated himself from their demands, from their humanity, and he acts as if he is unaware that we all belong to one another, and when he acts as if he could possibly do well at the expense of others, he damages his own humanity.

 

This is what the philosophy of ubuntu recognizes. If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten, we belong to each other. We are all a part of the body of Christ and the hand cannot despise the foot, the head cannot despise the heart. If our country is in turmoil of late, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other. White folk and black folk-we belong to each other, police and the communities they serve-we belong to each other, those whose ground water and soil have been contaminated by chemicals and the manufacturers who spilled out those chemicals- we belong to each other, we will have no peace while we pretend we can do well or be well, at the expense of our brothers and sisters.

 

We have been blessed that we might be a blessing…and the astonishing thing about that is how very deeply we are blessed by the act of blessing others. Those who seek to do well at the expense of others, or even in defiance or ignorance of our interconnected nature, injure themselves. They deny themselves the incredible opportunity to bless others, and in so doing they diminish their own humanity.

 

For generations this parable has been seen as a warning. It has been read and reread to see if we can understand the afterlife and what hell might await us, but I am hopeful that we can read it as a signpost pointing us to a heaven on earth, that we might see how incredible and wonderful it might be if we loved each other as if we belonged to each other, because I believe this to be true.

Rock Bottom

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There can be beauty in getting lost—being lost strips us, pares us down to the bone, shows us what is and isn’t relevant. So often we get distracted by our day to day routine, being lost breaks that routine, wakes us up and reminds us of what is and isn’t important.

 

When I am lost, I know I can trust that I am not on my path, not on my own agenda, and I am invited to wonder if God is showing me something I would never find on my own. Getting lost is the interruption of habitual not seeing. Discovering that you are lost, is the art of noticing things are not quite what they ought to be. It is the beginning of searching, of seeking. It is to be so involved in the moment that everything comes alive, everything seems to speak to you, to draw you into conversation and has some special, particular meaning for you. It is to look closer at each thing, seeking recognition and being aware of the unknown. Every bent twig or clump of grass has a suggestion, the right way, the wrong way, you’ve been here before; just as every repeated argument or turn of phrase suggests a habitual way of being, and the startling words you never expected to hear come out of your mouth suggests something new is being born in you. We so habitually repeat the same patterns, if it doesn’t work the first time we generally try harder, shout louder as if we could make it work if we just put more force into it, but what if we were to try something new?

 

I am a great advocate of getting lost, of losing oneself and forgoing familiarity. I love to drive through strange and new areas, and see what might lie out there just waiting to be discovered. I love to wander through the woods, off the trail, across streams, and find quiet, untouched places to sit and watch the wind blow through the trees. Each place is so common to those who live there, those who habitually inhabit it, but always new to the stranger, the wanderer, the lost. If we can trust that we never wander alone, that we will make it home eventually, then we can bravely get lost and in getting lost we discover so much more about ourselves, and we find a quiet spaciousness in which we can rest. We discover strength to lean on, patience to wait for the next thing, and we develop a watchful eye.

 

The freedom to be lost is the freedom to make mistakes, to dare great and amazing things knowing that even if we fail God will be there for us. God has our back, like any loving parent. This is our sustaining faith that allows us to explore, to learn, to embrace doubt and big questions, knowing that we don’t have to hold everything together. We don’t have to be self-sufficient. We can embrace our path, our journey, without hesitation. Being lost, making mistakes, does not have to be a fearful thing anymore. Doubt becomes a friend. Questions become friends.

 

Better to be lost and seeking

Here in this big bright world

Than confirmed and closeted in certainty

 

Better to be wondering

And filled with awe

That marvelous beginning of wisdom

Than confined to prescribed answers

And an anxious attempt to ace the next test

 

Better to be broken and disturbed

With a heart that aches to reach out

To connect, to share, to laugh and love again,

Than whole and complete,

Sufficient unto one’s self

Needing no one,

 

Better to be lost and broken than that.

 

We get to live from a place of ruthless, outrageous trust, because God has promised us that if we ever get lost, he will hunt for us with single-minded devotion, until he finds us. It means we get to acknowledge our flaws. We get to say I am both sinner and saint, broken, messed up, and still a beloved child of God. It means we get to face our flaws and our mistakes with gentleness and compassion and that we don’t pretend they aren’t there. We don’t have to be afraid that if we were really known, known through and through, that we would not be loved. You know that phrase right, “if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me,” that fearful doubt that causes us to pull away from love, from relationship, from any attempt to connect. We get to say that we are fully known, all our mistakes, all our flaws, and we are deeply, truly loved and we get to be utterly shattered by this discovery, broken open, everything made new.

 

We get to say with raw humility that I mess up sometimes, I get angry, I get scared and I say things I don’t mean, or even sometimes I say and do things that are just straight up hurtful, but we get to walk into this darkness, this painful place with our eyes wide open and really see what is there, because however bad it is, and sometimes it is bad. Consider King David as he faces up to his act of coercing sex from a strange woman, sending her husband off to be killed, his desperate attempts to cover up what he has just done. Sometimes it is really bad, but it is never so bad, so dark, so lost, so painful, that God will not come looking for us with relentless devotion and love.

 

Let me say that again, we can hold all our flaws and mistakes under the bright light of scrutiny and never have to be afraid that it is so bad, so dark, so painful, so lost, that God will not come looking for us right in the midst of our lostness. This is the ruthless trust, the bold faith, that we claim.

 

It is not that we must dig out every wretched thing we have ever done and dwell on them, like picking at old wounds or striving to feel the pang of shame as some sort of dues we must pay before we can be loved. It is not that. Long before we even realize we are lost, God is looking for us. Long before we acknowledge our wrongdoing, our mistakes and slips, God is working to restore us to right relationship. We begin our worship service with confession not so that God can know we are sorry. God knows we are sorry and we suffer when we act hurtfully. It is that we can experience again and again that God’s love shines in every corner of our soul, even those places where we don’t really want to be seen, where it is hard to trust that anyone can look on us and still love us. We need to be reminded of that! Because it is not the way of the world, it is not our way. We draw lines and say this far and no further. We say he or she crossed a line and I’m just done. We say I just can’t bear it anymore. But God doesn’t.

 

We cannot heal what we will not acknowledge; old wounds denied and left to fester do not sit idle but spread their infection. They grow inside us and it’s painful. Pain that is not transformed, is transmitted. So much of the pain of this election season comes from the fragility we feel around our mistakes. We deny, deny, deny that we could have ever done anything wrong, because mistakes are deadly and the electorate does not forgive! So we have all these sound bites of people insisting they’ve never made any mistakes, but let me tell you about the other person. And the pain of their mistakes spreads,

 

The crowd to whom Jesus spoke was no different. They had to be perfect. They were the Pharisees and the scribes, those who had made it, who rested in certainties and who could not bear the thought of losing their security. Like a child learning to swim, they clung to what seemed firm and solid, clinging to each other, staying out of the deep water, but we were never meant to live that way. We were meant to swim into the deep waters, into the depths, into the wide open rivers, lakes and streams. We were meant to live not for security’s sake or certainty’s sake but for love, for connection with each other and with God, and that requires vulnerability and courage. So we can let go of the edge of the pool, or whatever image of security and certainty feels right to you, and risk being swept away.

 

I suspect that God loves us most dearly when we allow ourselves to fall back into God’s loving arms, trusting we will be caught. We tend to resist this. We hate our rock bottom places, those places which force us to acknowledge we don’t have it all together and we can’t control everything, as much as we would like to. Rock bottom is when we must accept that on our own, we can’t make it better and we have exhausted our resources and made our family crazy trying to do so.

We so habitually armor ourselves with projects, busyness, concrete certainties and I suspect that God loves us most dearly when all of these artificial constructs fall away, leaving our tender, vulnerable heart exposed, frightened, but exposed.

 

The Pharisees and scribes, those who had made it, had armored themselves against any potential loss or deficit, who had large bank accounts and silos full of grain, rock solid reputations and who appeared so invulnerable, find themselves outside the party, and there is always a party! How wonderful is that? When God finds us, there is a party! But like the prodigal’s brother in the pericope that follows on the heels of this one. In the courtyard, still armored and defended, because it’s just not right that the broken one, the rock bottom one, is met with such joyous, tender love, when it should be us! We should be the ones who are lauded and celebrated! We did everything right! How can you possibly wrap your arms around that loser? But God loves a loser and God loves the lost, the broken, those who are enduring the sifting and winnowing of the rock bottom places. God loves us and seeks us and will never let us go.

 

We can take courage and face our rock bottom places, our lost places, our inadequacies, letting our useless armor fall, rattling down in a heap, knowing that God is always seeking us. We can enter our rock bottom places, tears, frustration, despair, all of it, knowing that we are not alone.

 

No matter how hard we try, and generally we do, we can’t handle it all on our own and we aren’t above being lost, but knowing that God is seeking us the whole time, perhaps we can endure looking at our shadow, acknowledging that we aren’t without flaw, that we have said and done things that are hurtful, and let the Holy Wind of God, that Spirit which blows where it will, sift our being, winnow out the chaff and trust that what remains at the end of the day, is both holy and good, is dearly, dearly loved, and is so very precious in God’s sight.

 

We cannot heal what we will not acknowledge, pain that isn’t transformed is transmitted, and looking into the depths, letting go of our certainties can be terrifying, but Jesus tells us it’s okay. We can dare to be lost and we can be compassionate with ourselves and with others in the midst of that lostness and brokenness, because God is always seeking us.

 

 

 

 

 

Totally Convicted

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So a few years ago a young man, completely unchurched, asked me if he would have to confess all his sins to the pastor, who clearly would be an old man in robes seated in a wooden box behind a screen, if he went to church. Apparently in our tradition it’s the pastor who must confess though, because here I am confessing again.

 

You see I wrestled with this scripture and wrestled in the good exegetical fashion I’d been taught. Like Jacob in the dark of night, don’t let go of that scripture until it blesses you! I read the commentaries and I listened to the podcasts of great preachers talking about how they understand this scripture and I knew, I really knew, that they were struggling too because a lot of them were saying, “well look at the scripture around this one, look at what else was said,” but they didn’t say, “here’s the blessing I found in this scripture.”

 

So I got to thinking about how this text calls me out, convicts me. There are lots of questions to be asked of this text, such as, “How did this group of people hear Jesus when he said, “take up your cross” because, while we might hear something about Jesus’ death, they didn’t know! They had no idea, at that time, that Jesus was headed toward a crucifixion. It would have been the weirdest thing to hear a preacher say! If you would follow me, be willing to take on a death curse! Be willing to take on a death that will shame your entire family! We hear it in the context of Jesus’ self sacrifice but that hadn’t happened yet and we can wonder just how they might have heard it and how many shook their heads and walked off. And this points us to an understanding of scripture as well, because we notice that this story, this text was written after Jesus death and how could the author not have been thinking of Jesus’ death and resurrection even as he wrote these words?

 

And the scandal of being told to hate your mother and father? Outrageous! What ever happened to “honor your father and mother”? Sell off all of your possessions? What happened to the idea that if God loved you, he would bless you with abundance?

 

We are pretty used to Jesus being countercultural, shaking us up, asking us to flip our thinking inside out and upside down. As I wrestled with this scripture it was just really hard to find the blessing and I began to feel more and more convicted.

 

So let me begin by confessing that a whole lot of times I say I want things I don’t really want. I mean, if there were a fairy godmother who could wave her wand and just grant me things, I’d be happy to have them, but if really wanting these things means digging deep and doing the work necessary to get them, well then I really don’t want them and I know I’m supposed to. I know I’m supposed to want to be a physical dynamo of good health. But…a few weeks ago after a church service, I ate all the cream puffs. If you went back to the table to get one and found them all gone, well that was me. I ate them all. It’s pretty easy to imagine a physical trainer telling me, “If you want to achieve your goals you must hate cream puffs!” but I don’t hate them. I think they’re awesome! And truth be told, I really don’t like doing cardio! I know I should be all pumped up and rawr! I’m going to get fit! But I don’t like cardio!

 

Can I get an amen there? Because I know I’m not alone. But it’s not just physical fitness and it’s not just that I really do believe I have a mandate to care for my body, to practice good stewardship for all the gifts I’ve been given, one of which is really great health. I’ve tried and tried to learn to play guitar and I just can’t. I can’t because when the pain in my fingers gets too strong I give up. I want to learn a second language, have spent some time playing on duolingo a free, internet based application, but I get bored and move on to other things. So, yes, I can be pretty faithless in my attempts to achieve goals that I loudly proclaim I want.

 

I can hear myself shouting out, with all of Jesus’ followers, “I’ll follow you anywhere, even into the gates of death!” but would I really mean it? After all I’ve given up on so many other things that are simpler, easier, that don’t challenge me nearly so much. So it’s easy for me to imagine Jesus getting frustrated with these half-hearted, uncommitted responses and challenging the crowd, “Oh, you think you want what I have to offer? Really? Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” and I cringe a little inside because I know that I can be a little lazy in following through on my commitments.

 

I even wondered, as I drove over here one morning, what if the initial interviews for olympic hopefuls sounded like this, “are you willing to hate your mother and father, to leave your best friends, to despise proms and parties, are you willing to give up all your free time and spend everything you have in pursuit of this dream?” When I think of these stunning athletes and what they accomplish, it’s easier to accept this sort of demand for their loyalty, because, without their commitment, their incredible dedication, they would be just ordinary people, unexceptional, and maybe that’s the thing I needed to look for in this text, not a blessing exactly, but a challenge.

 

Nadia Comaneci was famously asked as a very young girl if she believe little girls could fly and she responded yes! And this convinced them she could be ‘the one’. She believed in her heart of hearts that she could fly! She could do great, wonderful and amazing things! Her path is so different from my path that I can only imagine how her heart must have been singing inside of her, just overflowing with joy when she really did fly.

 

Jesus tells us to count the cost of our decision to follow him. He asks us what we are willing to lose and if we can really, truly drink the cup, but perhaps he is also asking us if we can fly. Can we dare to believe that we can fly? That we can live lives so rich in faith and love and grace that our very being is transformed?

 

Our Deuteronomy text is a little clearer on the blessing. We have choice. We do not follow a god who forces himself upon us. This is no Greek god who chases you through the woods and fields and forces us, demands our allegiance at the pain of death, from whom we would escape if we only could. This particular heresy is known as nominalism and it is still preached in many places. God will have you, you have no choice, so just get used to it. But this is not the Christian God. Yes, we have a powerful and almighty God, but we also understand that God, very God, loves us so much that we will never be forced into relationship, never forced to be or do something that we do not choose, so Jesus challenges us, calls us out, asks us to commit ourselves wholly and completely, to choose God before family, nation, prosperity, even before ourselves, and the blessing is this, that in choosing God first and foremost we are choosing life, a life so rich and abundant that our hearts will sing, we will really, really fly!

 

We have been called into relationship with God, and yet choice still remains with us. We are called to choose life, not death; and this is the blessing. Today we are challenged to choose life. To wrestle with God, with our community, with ourselves, until we find the blessing and not give up until we do. We are called to choose life. To life vibrant full and rich lives that reflect the gospel truth, we are God’s beloved children and we have this privilege, this freedom, to choose, and it can feel like a whole lot of weight, of responsibility. How will we commit ourselves anew today? How will we choose life today? This text is asking us to consider how we are committing ourselves to God and how we are living into this commitment.

 

And the promise is this; that if we choose to follow God, and struggle to keep that commitment, we will have life and have it abundantly. It is not that God will punish us for failing, only that God, like a loving parent, wants us to be as happy and fulfilled as we can be, that we might be filled with light and love and know we can really fly!

 

 

To Feel the Bones Curled In

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To feel the bones curled in, muscles drawn tight, until you struggle to breathe, to open up for even one little breath. The long days and painful nights when each turn and toss refuses to yield one comfortable position and lying awake at night while the household slept you might be given to pray over and over that God would release you from this tight, bound grasp, because what else would one do in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep but peace won’t come to you?

 

The painful draw of breath, barely sipping the air, into crushed, curved lungs, the eyes watching only the dust in which you walk, neck too sore to look up-which would be a strain anyway, bent over as you are. No glorious sunsets, no mountain vistas, no casual joy of watching children run and play for you! Only the dust and the stirring of small creatures in it.

 

Pain has this function, that it narrows one’s focus down, like the shadow of blinders narrowing that focus until all you can see is the pain. It takes over your life until that is all you can talk about, all you think about, all you can see, and this obsession with it sends others scurrying for cover, running the other direction because it is just too overwhelming, too much, too hard, and there are no answers, and how we long to give an answer and be done with painful thoughts.

 

So yes, she a child of the covenant, was alone, was unseen, was unheard, had long, long since worn out the compassion of others, now they averted their eyes and did not see her at all, better not to be involved, after all, what could you do?  So she, born an insider, one to whom God had made promises, passed her days and her nights, silent and alone.

 

The expansiveness of Sabbath, that incredible, glorious celebration of the end of slavery, was denied her. Even when others  put down their burdens, rested easy with their families and breathed in the cool, free air of “I’m not a slave anymore and pharaoh can take a swim in the red sea for all I care” was denied her. Her breath was still sipped through tight lips and her pain was unceasing.

 

She was not one to give up though. She moved, she walked, she shuffled her feet through the dust and the landmarks she made her way by went unseen by most as she made her way through the city streets and into the synagogue. She knew pain, but pain, for her, was just a way of being, it was the unrelenting pinch of nerves that furrowed her brow and denied her a future, but it was just her way of being. It had been with her for so long, she could not remember any other way.  So that day, as she had on so many others, she shuffled her way through the dusty streets and into the synagogue where she would listen and learn, and let her imagination take her places she would never know.

 

The first thing he did, which was unusual and unexpected, was to see her.  Her pain, her struggle had exhausted caregivers and healers and, well everyone it seemed, so she had forgotten what it felt like to be seen so fully and for a few moments she felt exposed and vulnerable, as the crowd, the same crowd she had grown up with, saw her as if they had never seen her before, saw her through his eyes.  So unsettling to feel so many eyes turned upon her, seeking out her flaws. Within the cage of her bent ribs her heart began to pound and while no one could really see, her face began to flush.  And then he called her over, touched her with gentleness and in words both simple and utterly incredible told her God had healed her, said, God has straightened you and she felt her bones and the contractions of her muscles release and let go their fierce grip, so sudden it was she laughed and feeling the breath draw fully into her cramped lungs, she laughed and coughed and gasped.

 

If all her life she had lived a tight, pinched life, this was the breath she had been waiting for and it took her completely by surprise. God had straightened her, made her right, opened her up and the newness was startling. It both filled her and took her breath away.

 

Release to those held captive. It’s a timeless story, one we all relate to on one level or another. But to really understand this story we must go back to the story of the exodus. We must talk about the Sabbath and how it came to be. It’s easy for us to relate the Sabbath to God’s resting on the 7th day of creation,  but it was instituted  after the release from slavery. Most scholars agree that this slavery lasted 230 years, but some suggest it was as much as 400. We can agree that it changed the very nature of the Hebrew people. For hundreds of years they labored without rest, without relief; they labored from dawn to dusk and lived in fear.  They scraped together whatever they could, they hustled, they depended upon their cunning, their wit, their strength, to make it from one day to the next. In the desert, this came to an abrupt halt. Imagine the dissonance. All your life, and all your parents and your grandparents lives, one thing had been certain, that you must scrape, fight, hustle just to stay alive and suddenly this stops. Suddenly you are told you are enough, you have enough, God is with you, God will do all the hustling, all the providing, so don’t even keep a stash and yes, for one day every week, do nothing but be. Be with each other, be with yourself, be with God, just be still and be.

 

The tightness that bound their lives was not physical, but emotional and spiritual.

 

We harden around our wounds, splinting and armoring in an attempt not to be hurt anymore. Where are we contracted today? Where have we curled inward, made our lives smaller? And can we acknowledge that changing that is really hard.  In the nursing homes I used to work in, there were always people who had grown stiff and rigid, their muscles shortening over time, contracting, pulling them in, just as we get used to certain groups of people, refusing to stretch ourselves into difficult and uncomfortable situations. When we enter a new group, or a new classroom, we scope it out, looking for our people, the ones that make us feel good. In today’s world we have even more options for limiting our exposure to those who would confront us. We can block them, unfriend them, sit behind our computer screens thinking ill of them while never having to actually speak to them.

 

I’ll tell you a secret, though I suppose it’s not much of a secret. I believe that if you can’t have a conflict with someone, you’re not really in a genuine, authentic relationship with them. If the relationship depends on my agreeing with you, patting you on the back you agree with me, pat me on the back, then it’s business, not a relationship. A genuine, authentic relationship is one that can hold conflict, that can withstand it, even grow from it. We learn to be curious about one another’s passions, about each other’s hearts. We learn to be with each other with all our vulnerabilities and wounds and when we can do this, we grow closer, our relationship deepens. Conflict isn’t a deal breaker, the inability to tolerate conflict is. Stay with me through our disagreements and conflicts and I will stay with you, and in this way, our relationship deepens and grows.

 

The more we isolate and contract our lives the smaller our lives become, the more we live in fear, the more painful our lives become and the more we pull away, it becomes a cycle which feeds on itself. Into this cycle Jesus steps with grace, with love, with forgiveness. First, he sees. He sees us in our contracted, limited state, our vision directed not toward others but narrowed by pain as pain tends to do, because pain takes so much energy to manage, to simply get by, other interests simply fade away. He sees us with our heads down, shuffling through the streets and into the church, still hoping, still having faith, still looking for and asking for healing, still willing to believe that life can be more than this. He sees us and calls us into a better life.

 

But oh it’s hard to receive isn’t it? It’s hard to believe one more time that this time it could work! 18 years this woman suffered. I can’t even begin to imagine the healers she must have been brought to even as a child, the teachers who were sought out, the priests, the shamans. How exhausting it must have been to get your hopes raised up one more time and then, bam, it’s right back to where you were.

 

So Jesus sees her in her pain and her loss, her small contracted life and asks her for one thing, to be vulnerable, to trust him, to dare to have hope one more time, and she does. She shuffles her way up to the front of the crowd and she dares to hope one more time, wearing her heart on her sleeve being vulnerable, daring to hope.

 

Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection, of creativity. It’s honest and she gives this honesty to Jesus. If he sees her so fully she also allows him to see her in all her brokenness and vulnerability, in all her need and it is in this moment that God straightens her up. It is in this moment that she is restored, made whole. This is faith as an active trust, not a passive belief but the active movement of one soul toward another, with faith, hope, and love. And it draws her into community, into wholeness, it heals her.

 

Jesus invites her into a Sabbath rest, to put down her burden, to accept release from all that contracts and limits her life, to breath deep into the release from pain and to find herself in God. This is an invitation we all receive, not once, but continually. We too are invited to release our burdens, let go our tight grip around all that hurts and breathe deeply, letting go of all that would limit our lives, make them small. As we release our tight grip, our splinting and armoring we discover an openness, a spaciousness in our lives where beauty and grace can breathe new life.

 

I want to end with a poem by Denise Levertov called The Avowal,

 

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace

When the Heart Trembles

coin purse

 

 

And so we wait,

 

We wait for the kingdom of God and we wait knowing that it is God’s good pleasure to give it to us. We wait like bridesmaids at a wedding, our lamps lit and well fortified with a firm faith that the groom will come and we do not need to be afraid.

 

We wait together in community, stitching together our life of faith one blessing at a time, one act of kindness, one act of redemption and forgiveness, one act of reconciliation at a time. We wait and we stitch together a purse unlike that seen on earth before. One which holds true treasures, and we place our time, our effort, our very best gifts in that purse knowing that placing our treasure there will change us, will draw our heart, our time and our attention right there, where it belongs. We do not place our gifts in that purse believing that it will somehow prove we are good people and we are on the right track.

 

All of our efforts to prove our own worth and righteousness are as feeble as a general without his army. He may stomp his feet and demand justice but alone he lacks efficacy, he cannot create the change he wishes for. Without God all of our efforts to create change, to be made whole and righteous are likewise feeble, but we do not need to be afraid. We rest wholly in the peace and love of God knowing we are cared for, supported, nurtured, and loved more deeply than we can begin to imagine and that this treasure is beyond measure.

 

So we wait, not anxiously or in trepidation, but with anticipation of the master’s return, knowing that hope and glory and celebration are imminent. We wait in this liminal space, this threshhold of the already, but not yet. For already we are saved and sanctified, made holy through the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ but yet we long for and cry out for the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. Already, but not yet. Already loved, named and claimed, but there is more coming and knowing this how can we not stay awake, stay woke, filled with the anticipation of the master’s homecoming, filled with the anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of God?

 

For we are kingdom people. We are the beloved of the king, called and chosen to be God’s people, encouraged and given a heart to be witnesses, to be ambassadors of the king. We are called to dwell in the heart of the Beloved, guided by Love’s holy wisdom and to make of our lives a purse to contain our greatest treasure, the love of God.

 

“May you abide in me as I abide in the father,” Jesus tells us. We are at once purse and treasure, for God abides in us and there is no greater treasure, no greater gift, and with astonishing humility we must acknowledge that, without justification, God treasures us, loves us, tucks us deep inside God’s very self, “abide in me.” For we long to dwell in the tent of the Lord, to tuck ourselves into some corner, out of the way, where we might watch the comings and goings of the Lord our God, knowing we are sheltered there forever. “Abide in me, as I abide in the father,” “abide in me and I shall abide in you.” We are at once the purse and the treasure.

 

Sell off the false treasure whenever it conflicts or distracts from the treasure that is the Lord your God. Do not be distracted by glamour, resting your attention on material things which are important today and passe tomorrow. Cleanse yourself of anything that distracts you from taking a simple moment each day to rest in God, to let God dwell in you, replenishing your heart and soul. Live in the world, but do not be of it; do not let it take your attention and your time and consume you. For you were never meant to live that way. You were never meant to be consumed by a desire for all that is false or trivial. You were meant for so much more.

 

You were meant to live with a heart bursting at the seams, heart strings pulled and tugged by deep loves, the loss of which will leave tender, vulnerable spots, ripe for the growth of new love, new life, and the impossible gestation of the Spirit, if we are brave enough. We may end up crying out with Jeremiah, that we have been seduced! That we cannot hold in this thing which is happening to us and we feel foolish and ridiculous, but if we try to hold it in it burns in our very bones and we just cannot keep it quiet, this thing which is happening to us. We were meant to live with the purse strings of our heart bursting at the seams, love spilling out, gospel goodness spilling out, like coins from a split purse, rolling into gutters and down dark alleys, and into the hands of strangers.

 

So sell off anything that would distract you. Empty your heart of worthless encumbrances. Clean out the spare room for that unknown guest which just might show up, prepare a space, and wait.

 

Wait with anticipation and excitement, trusting in the Lord your God. Open your hands and stretch them out, palms up, knowing that God longs to give you every good thing. Desire only the goodness that God desires for you and let go of all other promises. Life will not be better when you attain your ideal weight. It will not be better when you have that new car, big screen TV, or finally get every little thing in it’s just right place.

 

With Paul we might pray that the eyes of our heart would be enlightened, that we might perceive the hope to which God calls us and the riches of God’s inheritance which God longs to bequeath to us, the immeasurable greatness of his love. This love which will burn in your bones, an unendurable longing which we would never choose to part with, just as the whole of creation groans with longing and we will know this is good and right and just as it should be.

 

And we will wait, with our hearts on fire, burning with a holy passion that will not let us sleep nor rest, for our treasure fills us, changes us, and longs for expression. And we will know in our heart of hearts that God abides in us, just as we abide in God, and our purse strings are stretched beyond measure with the fullness of God’s glory,

One thing have I asked of Love

That I shall ever seek:

That I might dwell in the Heart of Love

All the days of my life,

To behold the beauty of my Beloved

   and to know Love’s plan.

For I shall hide in Love’s heart

in the day of trouble,

As in a tent in the desert,

Away from the noise of my fears.

and I shall rise above

my struggles, my pain,

Shouting blessings of gratitude

in Love’s heart

And singing melodies of praise

To my Beloved.

Psalm 27 from Psalms for Praying

 

Dwell in the heart of love my friends. Let God become your purse into which you tuck all your treasure, which you crawl into when the world becomes just too much. Let God become your treasure and stockpile that treasure every chance you get, letting God draw your time, your attention, your devotion, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, to fill your heart and your days with good things.

 

No king, no army, no desolation nor time of terror or loss, will ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, for our hearts are filled with this immeasurable treasure, that we abide in God, and God abides in us.

 

 

Teach Me to Pray

Praying-to-Heaven

 

 

Today we are speaking about prayer, and as we look at prayer I want to hear this text from the perspective of the disciples who knew the Hebrew text and who were witness to Jesus’ prayer life. Who watched him wander off alone into the hills, like Moses before him. Who watched him sink to his knees in the garden of Gethsemane. Who watched him pray over the sick and injured. Who wanted some of that for themselves. Hungry for the presence of God, willing to walk away from everything they knew if only, if only God would draw near, would touch them too, would be present to them too. Or who had had their lives changed forever by being the subject of one of Jesus’ prayers. I don’t think we can really hear this text apart from the whole of Jesus’ prayer life, one which his disciples witnessed every day.

 

I know that I pray best when I’m on my knees. When desperation has driven me there, when my heart is breaking, and I can no longer deny my need. It’s then that my reliance on God is most evident, most visceral and real to me. When everything is great, the sun is shining, the children are playing and all are well, it’s so easy to get distracted. It’s easy to take credit and say I earned this or I did this, I cooked this meal, threw this party, curated this art, etc, and as I congratulate myself on things going well gratitude takes a back seat. It becomes harder to notice the depth of God’s love and providence when I am taking credit for it. In fact, when I take credit I get anxious because if I’m responsible then I had better keep it up.

 

The conversation between Jesus and his disciples about prayer was driven by the way they saw Jesus being impacted and changed by his prayer. I imagine that the disciples could see that something was different, was powerful about his relationship with God and that they might have said something like:

 

Teach me to pray, Rabbi, because I see you speaking to God and God always seems to hear you. Teach me, because so often when I pray it feels like no one is listening and I don’t know what to ask for and, well, I’m afraid to ask about that stuff that scares me, that leaves me feeling like, if God doesn’t answer now, then I must be forsaken, I must be forgotten, I must be outside of God’s grace, of God’s love, and if that were true, if it were true, I couldn’t bear it.

 

So teach me to pray so some of that love will rub off on me and then I can believe. Just give me the right words, the right motions, do I put my hands like this, or like this? Do I have to kneel? Is it okay to ask for anything? Even that stuff which breaks my heart?

 

I imagine Jesus being a little tired and frustrated with having to explain again that you might just have to be vulnerable, that you might just have to acknowledge how deeply you need God and how dependent one is on God’s grace. So Jesus’ response begins with relationship. Do you know who God is to you? That God is like a father to you, loves you more than any earthly father could? And that it was important that God be a father and not a mother because inheritance came through fathers in that time, so to have an important wealthy father was to have a blessing coming in the future. This is not an abstract question, not rhetorical. This is not an abstract idea but one we can take refuge in and one that is repeated frequently throughout scripture.

 

Still, it’s just too amazing isn’t it? That God, very God, holy and mighty, looks upon us with the tenderness of a loving parent and that because of this we can ask for anything, lay any problem on God’s broad shoulders, and be fully who we are as we ask because God loves us just as we are. No improvement project needed.

 

But still, Jesus’ disciples, having already heard this repeatedly as they grew up, ask again. Jesus, how should we speak to God so God will hear us like God hears you?

 

And Jesus gives them a threefold prayer, pray for the present-give me enough to make it through today, pray for the past-forgive me what has been, just as I forgive those who have hurt me, and pray for the future, Thy kingdom come, not my idea of what should be or could be but yours. Jesus tells them they can pray for any time, any need. Ask for what you want, he says, God, very God, who knows you are made of dust and who loves you beyond anything you can understand, will answer you. Trust in that. And don’t stop asking for what you need! Ask and ask and ask, some would call that nagging but go ahead and nag, ask and ask and ask. Bang on that door when you have need and ask again. But know that God doesn’t just give stuff or cures or answers, God gives God’s very own self.

 

Because this wouldn’t be a very honest sermon if we didn’t talk about those prayers that go unanswered even when we’ve banging on God’s door with a great deal of fervor. There are too many prayers that go unanswered. Prayers in the midst of genocide and murder, prayers in the halls of the hospital, prayers whispered in the dark.

 

As a child I used to pray every night for a golden dress like Cinderella’s and with all the childlike trust of a five year old I would go to the closet every morning looking for it and undeterred would do it again the next day. I had this magical thinking going on, that if I prayed the right words at the right time in the right way, God would give me this dress and make me a beautiful princess. And I wanted to be that beautiful princess so badly. It wasn’t as frivolous as it sounds, not to a child. I was a true believer, like all of those who pray for lottery tickets and parking spaces. If I asked just right, maybe, just maybe I would get my wish.

 

But then I have to go back to the Garden of Gethsemane. Maybe prayer isn’t about wish fulfillment but something else. Something deeper. Maybe God doesn’t give stuff because stuff isn’t what it’s about. God gives God’s very own self to us.

 

And the hospital prayers? The ones raised in the midst of genocide, war and horror? The ones that are about so much more than stuff? For that we have to go to Jesus’ crying out on the cross. A prayer of anguish and loss, a prayer of recrimination, where are you God? Why have you abandoned me? We love it when God gives answers. When we can look back and say, I see where God saved me, but this isn’t how it always is.

 

We must sit with Job in the ashes and stubbornly persist in our faithfulness when everything around us is falling apart. When the evidence of God’s love seems sparse and we don’t have our mountain top experiences. And when God says to us, “well, where you when I created the earth, we have to join Job in trembling before a mystery we will never quite understand, a mystery we are in awe of. The bravest words in our text today are, “Let thy will be done and not mine,” because we are always so full of ideas and expectations. Trusting in God’s providence when our best ideas fail and our expectations are not met is an act of courage and faith. God gives God’s very self to us, but not in the way we always hope.

 

Prayer is transformative in nature, it breaks down our fear, fills our loss, drains our grief and anger, leaves us emptied out. It confronts us with God’s claim on our lives, calls us into action even if that action is only further prayer and contemplation.

 

Prayer comforts us and remind us that we are to be Kingdom people in a world where the kingdom of God seems very distant. We are to hold onto the hope and the promise even when things seem to be falling apart and know that God is with us in even the darkest moments. We must be willing to bring our whole selves before God, frightened or joyful, angry or rejoicing, broken or celebrating, just bring it all, because God can take it and God is with us. Enter into prayer knowing that it may not take away the cup that is before us, and it may not bring us the stuff we have prayed for, but it will change us, it will remake and transform us and our relationship to God, and trust that this is enough.

 

We are kingdom people. We are not alone, we are the sons and daughters of the King and as such we may have great heroes journeys ahead of us, but we will enter them bravely as children of the King,

Maren Tirabassi writes:

 

And the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. And he replied, “keep it light…”

 

Our Feather,
one small brush of the grand and lifting wing,
holy are all the names of God.

Your kindness come
and your kiss be felt warm
on every lump of soil,
gust of wind,
lapping of salt sea and fresh water.

Give us today
and let us recognize it
as a gift —
the bread and beauty of it —
and that it is like no other.

Forgive us all the love
we owed but hoarded,
and our careless or angry trespassing
on the lives of your children,
even as, with unbearable effort,
we forgive
the taking and the trampling
of what is precious to us.

Draw your hush across our lips,
and pull us back
from what we would regret.
Find us an escape or stay with us
when there is none,

for yours is the place our hands are held,
yours is the courage of the sequoia
and the broken atom,
yours are galaxies of starlight,
and the hum of bees —

Now … and when we come to sing
all our todays
into your tomorrow.

 

Lean in to God’s love, you will find that Love has been there all along, leaning toward you. Prayer brings us into God’s presence in a particular way, one which changes us and changes the world. It reminds us that we have enough, and we are enough, and that even when things fall apart, God is with us, and we will never walk alone. amen