“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Grant Us Peace

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – St. Augustine’s Confessions

There is an unsettledness all around us. I see it in the eyes and hear it in the words of clients edging ever closer to retirement and those just starting out. I sense it in the groups I sing with and often in the people I worship with. The headlines are unsettling at best and it seems there is no escape from them anymore. You might not see it in Facebook status posts showing lives replete with happiness, but I can read it between the lines in the comments and sense it in my own life when it does not reflect that perceived Facebook reality. Every moment of every day there is a crisis unfolding somewhere in the world, somewhere in our nation, in our state, in our communities, and in our own lives. Conflict thrives on this unsettledness. Contributing to our sense of unsettledness, we also have a natural tendency to go negative – a necessary component of our survival instinct that drives us to avoid danger and unpleasant experiences. In this climate of unsettledness this negativity bias spills over into aspects of our lives that aren’t essential for survival and we soon find ourselves regularly judging and seeing the negatives in ourselves, other people, and events.

 

The source of our unsettledness is most likely not the same. It comes to us in the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, an unexpected diagnosis, or in a thousand other ways. It can come from within – busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, the never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  the never-ending need for more, deep disappointment in yourself or another, guilt that will not accept forgiveness, resentment and the refusal to forgive, or cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way. Unsettledness can also come from without – as economic, political, or societal issues upend our day to day being.

Some of us have hearts that are troubled and afraid. Some of us are angry. Some of us are skeptical and cynical about the current state of affairs. Some of us are breaking with compassion and some of us are hardening towards our fellow man.  We have lost our sense of security, of belonging, of relationship. Maybe we don’t have a sense of our own identity anymore – maybe our lives have become possessed by another person or a situation not of our doing. We see differences as a source of danger or contempt – belonging to the “other”. The “other” or “them” become something we avoid. It can stem from comments as innocent as my mother would make when I was a teenager, “It’s not you I worry about, it’s them.”

No matter the source of our unsettledness and the conflict arising therein, we need peace. Desperately. But until we find peace within us, we will not find peace between us.

I often find myself meditating on the words from the gospel of John with this verse, in particular, coming to mind of late: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Which begs the question, “What peace?”

We all want a solution to our challenges and trials – and we want it now! But I think the key phrase here is, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Jesus is not the easy answer nor does he provide the quick fix to everything that troubles us that we have come to expect and demand. He does not promise the absence or cessation of conflict, the resolution of our problems, or a world of oneness – at least not in this world.

The peace Jesus speaks of is more about what is going on within each of us rather than what is happening to us or around us.  Our natural approach to conflict is to seek change from someone else in what they think, do, say or believe. But we have no power over anyone’s heart & mind. Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you wish to see in the world” rings true here.  Our thoughts, words, beliefs, actions, and heart are the only things we have the power to change and Jesus’s peace aims to do just that – change us.

The book “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict” from the Arbinger Institute, shines a light on our behavior towards others.  We justify ourselves for our attitudes and behaviors toward others out of four basic needs: (1) the need to believe that we are better than others; (2) the need to believe we deserve more than others; (3) the need to be well thought of by others; and (4) the need to reduce expectations because of some perceived lack in ourselves. These needs are like boxes in which we are trapped until we recognize their limitations and step outside them to gain a different perspective. A heart at peace sees the other as a human being even in the midst of conflict and disagreement. When our hearts are at peace the hopes, fears, concerns, and needs of others are as real to us as our own. When our hearts are unsettled, however, the other is an object, an issue, an obstacle to our goals, or simply irrelevant to us. When our hearts are unsettled, we cannot clearly see our own way let alone see another person’s perspective.

So how do we go about finding peace from within and without?

First, we must make peace within ourselves. There is nothing we encounter in life or that fills our life – that busyness that leaves us exhausted and isolated, that never-ending pursuit of perfection and need for approval,  that never-ending need for more, that deep disappointment in ourselves or others, that guilt that will not accept forgiveness, that resentment and the refusal to forgive that we cling to, or that cynicism that convinces us that nothing will change and it is not worth the effort to try again or look for yet another new way – there is nothing we have done or left undone, no circumstance of the world around us or the one within us that is not subject to the power of Jesus. He alone has the power to carry us through times that leave us lost, at war with ourselves and our loved ones and in a constant state of unsettledness. He will heal us, forgive us, and restore us to a life at peace.

Next, we can begin looking at the world with a positive bias. Intentionally countering the tendency to “go negative” by turning our attention to what was positive about our experience. Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”

Then, we can put a pause on our arguing with one another about who is right or wrong and what is the right or wrong thing to do and change our way of being to “the other.” We can recognize that before the others were “them” (you fill in the “them”) they were and always will be human beings created by and in the image of the same God that created us.  We can bring the peace that Jesus has given to the conflicts around us by the way we live and be toward each other.  Giving to others, not as the world would have us give, but as Jesus would.

St. Augustine asked, “Who will grant it to me to find peace in you? Who will grant me this grace, that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good?”

I think you know the answer. You.

Let your light so shine!

Hungry for Life

A sermon based on the Gospel of John  6:51-58

I love bread. I love Wonder bread slathered with Strawberry jam and peanut butter. I love wheat toast dusted with cinnamon sugar then cut into logs, so I can build cinnamon toast cabins like Mom always did for me when I was home sick.  I love artisan breads in all their handmade loveliness. Whole grain, nutty wheat, sourdough, Rye, Pumpernickel, and then there are those wonderful riffs on bread…  French toast, cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, bagels, popovers, and of course – lefse!  I could go on and on with my carb-fueled mesmerizing. Yes, bread makes life worth living and without its doughy goodness, my life would be devoid of joy.

I also love the Gospel of John and for three weeks now I have been sitting in rapt attention as visiting Pastors Mark Gravrock and David Rommereim expounded on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the source of life to the hungry masses – although the masses just came for the bread and fish; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; and though my fellow classmate Dick Sine didn’t preach on it last week,  in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven – but those in the crowd could not accept that a mere man born of their friends Joseph and Mary, could be the divine.

So, imagine my anticipation and excitement as I looked forward to my turn to preach on not just bread, but the Bread of Life! And then I cracked open my Bible….

Jesus changed the menu on me!!! We went from this heavenly and earthy nutrition for life bread to flesh and blood! I just about spewed my coffee all over my wheat and quinoa toast!

I was really liking the “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” stuff.  But the bread that Jesus is serving up is his flesh, and folks, there is no coffee on this table today – nope, we are drinking his blood!! And this isn’t just your lyrical taste and see that the Lord is good luncheon affair. No, Jesus goes from telling us to merely eat or consume him to the slow but intensely urgent process of gnawing and chewing, crunching and munching.

The Greek language uses nine different words that are translated “to eat” in the New Testament. In John 6:49-58, two of these words have a very distinct difference in translation. And it is no wonder that the Jews upon hearing Jesus speak were repulsed by his choice of words – as I suspect you may have been too. The carnality of what Jesus was saying flew in the face of Jewish law and frankly, what we hold to as common civilized decency today.

According to Strong’s Bible concordance (which combines the King James Bible version with Greek and Hebrew lexicons to help us discern biblical meaning using the original words not the translation) and accompanying commentaries, one very common Greek word is phago, which is used in John 6:49-53, and 58 and means “to eat, devour, consume.” The word trogo means “to gnaw, to chew,” a much slower process. Trogo is used nowhere else in the New Testament, except in John 6:54 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” and John 56-58 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogo) me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate (phago) and they died. But the one who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever.”

When the Jews ate (phago) manna, it was to satisfy a carnal appetite, whereas the verb trogo means “to feed upon.” In these verses, phago indicates a one-time action, usually in the past. Trogo is always in the present tense, indicating a continual ongoing action. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever,” he means a continual feeding, something that is to be done on a constant basis to satisfy one’s spiritual appetite.

Jesus uses this language in a spiritual manner as He reveals Himself as the True Bread. In the context of these verses, since the Lord’s Supper was not yet instituted, this “feeding upon” He is referring to a spiritual eating, not necessarily a sacramental one – though it is right that we hear it as such. (Catholics and Protestants have been at war over this understanding of the Bread and Wine for centuries). Jesus proclaims that he is the “food” that endures to eternal life. Food that is eaten and then digested so that it becomes a part of our body for our life in the present.

But rather than questioning whether Jesus is actually present in the Bread and Wine or wondering what kind of diet this is that encourages the eating of flesh and blood, perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of life is this that he is promising compared to the life without this true bread?  I think this is the kind of deep questioning Jesus would want us to engage in.

What kind of life are you living?

When someone says, “Good Morning,” to you and asks, “How are you today?” Is your automatic reply, “Just fine thank you! Been really busy with you know, life, but all is good.” An earnest attempt to convince someone, anyone, yourself – that all is good.

And then you walk away as life enters your thoughts. You know – the fine and busy, getting our work done, meeting deadlines and commitments, fulfilling obligations, volunteering our time, and loving and caring for our families – life. Yes, we are doing just fine at doing that life.

But what kind of life are you living? After all that doing life, is there any life left in you? Or, are you left hungry. Hungry for something… something more?

Most of us have asked the question at some point, “What am I doing with my life?” I know I sure have!

We spend a fair amount of our time, energy, and money trying to create and possess the life we want. And yet, despite our best efforts nothing seems to satisfy. We want more, and we want to be more, but more doesn’t fill us.  And, when nothing seems to satisfy, when we despair at what is and what we think will be, when despite being surrounded by family and friends we find no place in which we really belong – we wonder if this is all there will ever be. We feels as if we are dying from the inside out. Is this as good as it gets?

Today, Jesus tells us no, it gets better.

The pastor of the church I went to in Billings when celebrating communion, would always call us forward with the words, “Come the table is ready.” And as Jesus fed us Pastor Steve would say “The Bread of Life, food for your Journey. “

I always liked those words – they had a nice flow – compared to the “body of Christ, broken for you.”  but it didn’t really hit home with me what he meant until I began working on this sermon. I always associated communion with the end of Jesus’ life. A remembrance of his death on the cross and the forgiveness of my sins.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving himself to us- body and blood – in his active life. He urges us to eat of him in an urgent, almost desperate manner – as if our life depended on it. Because it does.

He is concerned with far more than just our physical or biological life. The life Jesus talks about is beyond words, indescribable, and yet we know it when we taste it. We taste it when we love so deeply and profoundly that everything we once clung to passes away from our lives yet somehow, we are more fully alive than ever before. We taste it when everything just seems to fit together perfectly, and all is right with the world; not because of something we have done but because we knew we were a part of something greater, more beautiful, and more holy than anything we could have imagined. We taste it when for just a moment time stands still and we wish it would never end. Like at the end of a piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo where our body and breath seem suspended in an ethereal aura or when the sun sets over Flathead Lake and you are standing on its rocky eastern shore – caught in the warmth of fleeting golden light reflecting and sparkling on the water before the sky turns from fiery shades of orange and purple to a placid periwinkle as night takes over and your breath is deep and your body is calm but your heart beats strong and you just can’t put a word to the feeling inside.

In that moment we are in the flow, the wonder, and the unity of life, and it tastes good. We are tasting life – the satisfied, hungry no more, peaceful life in Jesus.

Today, Jesus says, “Eat me. Drink me. Come and have that life beyond words inside of you always.”  This is the only way we will ever have true life within us. Sure, there are lots of other plans we can try – from fancy diets to fancy cars to fancy houses with fancy décor. But, Jesus is very clear and blunt about where true life comes from. He comes to us in the most basic and universal source of life – bread and blood.  His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Any other diet will leave us empty and hollow, hungry and deprived of life.

Jesus not only wants us to abide in him – he wants to abide in us – to be with us and fill us with his spirit – his life.

Jesus is our life and the way to the life that we most deeply hunger for. As one Episcopal priest put it: “We don’t work for the life we want. We eat the life we want.”

The saying, “you are what you eat” has never been truer or more profound.

As we partake in the flesh and blood of Jesus, He lives in us and we live in him. We consume his life so that He might consume and change ours. Let it be so that his life, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence, and his relationship with the Father become our way of life.

When you come to the table today, come hungry – hungry for forgiveness, hungry for relationship, hungry for life in and with Christ for now and forever.

Amen

Of Walls and Wilderness

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sister in Christ, from God our Father.

I had a slightly different sermon prepared for you today. For those of you who read my midweek prologue you probably came to church expecting to hear politics from the pulpit or at least the inference of such. Alas, I woke up yesterday morning knowing that the divisions of which I was going to speak wasn’t what I needed to hear right now. Trusting in Pastor Mark Gravrock’s wisdom from 2 weeks ago – I am going to guess that what I need to hear today may just be what you need to hear too.

And so there I lay at 6:30 a.m. Saturday after a night of writing the sermon on walls I had planned for you, restless and a tad weary, I was in need of good news. Frankly the level of angst and division that is polarizing our nation and world has been taking a toll on me. Maybe it is because my job in a financial advisor’s office exposes me to our client’s rollercoasters of emotion as the political and economic frenzy of empire impacts the very thing we manage – their money – on a daily basis. Let’s just say the last couple of weeks of have been especially trying.

Needless to say, the last thing I wanted to hear about at 10:15am on a beautiful Sunday morning is more about the things that divide us -the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and “them,” whether based on ethnicity, religious, political, or economic views, class, citizenship status, gender, culture, job position, or whatever else of this world that we choose to hang our identities on or take offense at. No, this what I really want to hear is someone saying ‘Erika, on October 1st, your sabbatical starts!” But I digress…

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Jesus tells his disciples upon their return from their first missions without Him -they had preached, they had cast out demons, they had anointed with oil those who were sick, they had called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives. In other words, they had been really busy doing some pretty heavy stuff.

Other translations of the bible use the word “wilderness” – come away to the wilderness and rest awhile. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? We are lucky to live in a playground of wilderness. Lately, our slice of wilderness is looking very much like the one Jesus and his disciples experienced in today’s Gospel – “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;” Sound familiar? What wilderness?  No matter where they went the masses found them. Bringing with them the immensity of human need and despair.

Mark refers to a wilderness often throughout his Gospel. In fact, he opens his Gospel with John the Baptist appearing as a voice in the wilderness telling of the one who is to come. Jesus spends 40 days in a wilderness. While the wilderness can be a place of rest and solace and recreation like that to which Jesus invited his disciples today, it can also be a very hostile place – a place to escape from.

When I woke up yesterday morning, it dawned on me that the sermon I was going to preach sounded an awful lot like that kind of wilderness – the hostile one. The wilderness that is played out on the opinion pages of our newspapers and broadcast across the airwaves and social media. The wilderness of empire where politics and power separate us from humanity and hope. The wilderness of “Us vs. Them” and Right vs. Left power plays. The wilderness of broken relationships and broken trust. The wilderness of lives and families torn apart by addiction and violence, of communities divided by hate. The wilderness of loneliness. The wilderness where we are consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead” to the detriment of our spirits, our relationships, and rest.

Oh, my goodness, are we ever living in a wilderness of walls and human despair!  We are just like the masses of lost sheep rushing to Jesus in need of a Shepherd. Living behind walls that separate us from God and one another, longing for the healing of our hurts, wanting to belong, searching for peace.

The scriptures I had read over and over again in preparation for today took on a whole new meaning for me. So perfect for our time and our place in this wilderness – they are full of Good News!  In Jeremiah, we hear of a promised shepherd for the world (the Shepherd in those days -as we learned from pastor Mark last week – was symbolic of a King.) While corrupt leadership had “scattered” the sheep, lead them astray and dashed their hopes, God gathered the remnants of his flock back to him and promised the coming of a righteous shepherd. When we place our hopes and trust in leaders of this world we will no doubt be lead astray and have our hopes disappointed at some point. But God is the good shepherd, and when we place our hope and trust in Him we will always know justice and good care.

We see in today’s Gospel, the stark contrast of Jesus to that of the corrupt King Herod we witnessed last week, as Jesus takes on the role of the good shepherd. Despite having been rejected in his hometown, despite having received news that his comrade John the Baptist has been killed, despite crossing over the sea and the barriers it represents many, many times, despite being tired and hungry and in need of rest, Jesus sees the crowds of people who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion for them and he begins to teach them. They are brought out of their wilderness and healed.

We are reminded by the 23rd Psalm that our Lord will give us all that we need. That in Him we will find a place to rest and restore our broken hearts and burdened minds. We are assured that He will lead us in the right ways – not for fulfillment of our worldly desires but for those of a higher calling. He will comfort us when fear and evil try to separate us from Him. He will stand with us in the face of our enemies and feed us together at His table – no need for a wall here. We are promised goodness and mercy in all our days.  This Lord who is our shepherd is with us always. He goes from being a God above us to one with us, accompanying us in our place of wilderness

And then, we hear of God’s ultimate promise to us from Paul in his letter to the divided people of Ephesus – Christ is our peace. In the ultimate act of shepherding, Jesus went out into the hostile wilderness and gave his life for us – declaring peace and freedom from the shackles of sin on new terms, a peace and freedom forged not by the powers of Empire in its various forms, but in the blood of the Shepherd on the cross. Through the cross, the wall dividing Jew and Gentile, citizen and stranger, those who are us and those who are them, was broken. And that is only the beginning. God in Christ made one humanity of the two.  Not making us uniform but rather uniting us with all our complexities in Christ as Jew and Gentile; citizen and stranger, us and them. This unity is not of our doing. It is out of the grace of God. This is the church and Christ is the cornerstone.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul tells the people of Ephesus – and the words should ring just as true to us today – remember who you were, see who you are now.  Remember when you were dead through your trespasses, God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us – made us alive together with Christ—by grace we have been saved! Through his great love for us, Christ calls us, his lost sheep, out the wilderness – the wilderness of exclusion and hostility and divisiveness. He alone tears down the walls that we build up around ourselves, walls that separate us from Him and “them.”  Christ calls us to a place where we are united together in Him. This togetherness in Christ – our good and compassionate Shepherd – empowers us to welcome the stranger, to teach and share the Good News, to have compassion and suffer with those who are wandering in a wilderness of their own – not just on Sunday but every day as well as on the opinion pages and our social media posts. Doesn’t that sound like a nice respite from this wilderness of walls we have been wandering in?

We will never know perfect peace or unity in this world. Our defenses and offenses will always be aroused by the sins inherent to humanity. But through Christ we have a place to go where walls are invisible. This place is a daring place where a different kind of power – the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross – is at work.  We can trust this power to undermine every wall that divides us, to heal our hurts, to unmask our defenses, and bring us peace until we are as Paul wrote, “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

There is hope. Saturday morning, I heard a voice in the wilderness- it was good news – as I relished the extra minutes of pillow-time with the cool breeze wafting in through my window contemplating where in the world my sermon on walls was going to take me. Ye, I heard good news on the news! The Mayor of Branson, MO was being interviewed in the aftermath of the duck boat sinking tragedy where 17 sightseers lost their lives and many more were injured. Her comments are just what I needed to hear this morning and echoed what I hope you will take away from my sermon today: “We are all about taking care of our citizens,” she said, “but what makes us unique is we are all about taking care of strangers too. When you come here we love on you no matter whether you are here as a citizen or as someone we have never met before.”

Yeah, I think she was at a bible study this week. I think she got the message.

There are no walls of division or exclusion with Christ. We will never be alone in the wilderness. We can come to Him and rest awhile. And Erika needs a sabbatical.

Amen.

My Shepherd

A week of reflection, remembrance, and heart ache begins.  A year ago tonight I did not yet know the depth of sorrow that awaited me.

Oh Lord, You are my shepherd, there is nothing more I need.
You call me to rest in your garden and breathe in your sky;
You lead me to still waters amidst storm and fury;
You restore my soul.
You showed me the right path and I gladly follow.
For I have been through the darkest of valleys, and though I fear I do not worry;
For you are with me always;
You protect and guide and comfort me.
In times of despair you bring light and hope;
You remind me of your lovingkindness and my heart overflows.
And yes, as you promised, goodness and mercy are following me;
As I live out my life for you, oh Lord,
Forever.

A year ago I was in a much different place. I didn’t think I could ever feel at peace or find joy in my heart again. But I was wrong. It truly is well with my soul. Surely my entire life attests to the veracity of God. I do not know where I would be right now were it not for His presence.

Let your light so shine.

The Immense Grace of Listening

“Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”  – Pope Francis

As I was out running a few mornings ago, I found myself listening. Not to the latest news or my favorite podcast or even Vivaldi (truly some of the best music to run to – try it!). No, I found myself listening to the chorus of chickadees and sparrows breaking the silence of a snow blanketed earth with their morning songs. In that moment, I felt the icy grip of this long, dark winter loosen its bonds on my soul. I wondered if they knew I was listening to their melodies. I wondered if they were responding to my conversation with God. I wondered if they could ever know what a gift they had given me in the act of listening and being listened to. It reminded me of the deep conversation I had with a good friend the night before, one filled with honesty and pain, hope and laughter. As the sun peaked over the mountain top and warmed the frosted valley and my frostbit face, I had a spiritual awakening. I realized that I had been heard.

I know that God always hears my prayers, but at times I don’t always feel like He is listening to me. This time I did, and the feeling of being listened to, of being heard, of being accepted and not judged for my thoughts and insecurities did more for me than any vain attempt to fill the silence with bluster and avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of deep conversation. God’s voice is not always something we can hear or want to hear. His voice reveals to us our deepest truths about who we are – and though that may be painful we also hear that we are His.

At the heart of all relationships is the act of listening.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. To listen to someone is to tap into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. For in that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of who they are, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Indeed, the act of listening has incredible power. Anyone who feels they haven’t been listened to can give testimony to this. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them –  feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking. Indeed, listening can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil to take hold in someone’s life when done poorly or not at all.

I must admit, I am not the best listener. To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one who needs to be heard know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what one has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear her own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

The late Roman Catholic priest Henry Nouwen describes the act of listening as spiritual hospitality. “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

Having experienced the healing power of being heard, I am intent on becoming a better listening presence in the lives of others. I think the world needs more listeners – those willing to engage in an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity. Perhaps if we really listened we might all feel more at home with others and ourselves, comforted and encouraged by the grace and peace of authentic relationship.

Listen and let your light so shine.

Down Snowy Roads I Roam

In the bleak midwinter, down snowy roads I roam.
The frosty wind against my face inspires me to moan,
The Earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone;
Lost in stormy air awhirl, I am very much alone.
Snow has fallen, snow on snow, erasing my present and my before
I pause a moment and listen to winter’s wonder and her lore
Encompassed by her beauty, to her peace I do succumb
In the bleak midwinter, down snowy roads I roam. 

Strength in the Silence

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.”  ~Isaiah 30:15

Silence. I used to crave it. I could walk for hours enrapt in its immensity; comforted by its softness as the chaos of the world swirled around me. Sometimes my thoughts would speak to me and sometimes I thought of nothing. It was my time to ponder and wonder with God. It was my escape – until Mom and Dad died.

I used to have wonderful conversations with my father on the other side of the state during my evening walks. My dad was not always the best conversationalist as he always had something to say and wouldn’t let me finish my portion of the conversation before moving on (a trait, I hate to admit, I have inherited), but for the most part, after an evening walk and talk with Dad, I usually felt like most things in this chaotic world were going to be alright and I felt infinitely wiser.

In the months following my parent’s deaths, silence became unbearable for me. It reflected far too intensely the emptiness that welled in my heart. And so, I did everything I could to avoid it. On my walks I became the annoying little sister who called her brother every night – and when I realized that wasn’t going to do much for our relationship, I searched, sometimes in vain, for anyone to talk to – to keep the silence at bay. Then I turned to listening to newscasts and podcasts – anything to break the silence and make me feel like someone was talking to me – because I couldn’t bear the depths my own thoughts would drive me.

I am a little late to the technology game. For the longest time, my cellphone was just that – a phone the size of an extremely large cell, used to communicate when I wanted to communicate. I live my life through a camera lens so when I discovered cameras that also functioned as phones I made the huge leap and upgraded to a 32-gigabyte photographic phenom that also made phone calls and sent text messages – as many as I wanted!! It also came with all these nifty things called apps. For years I never paid much attention to these revolutionary gizmos, even as apps began taking over the world, doing things instantly for us mere humans who used to be able to do things like: add and subtract in our heads or at least on our fingers, read books that we held in our hands and actually turned pages, find places on a map, feel for a pulse, and order pizza. I even have an app now that tells me how many miles I ran at what pace and how many of those pizza calories I burned. If I want, I can send my numbers into the app unified world and race and pace against the best, but I haven’t quite gone there yet. I know there are a bazillion more functions of life that apps now perform – I just saw an ad for whole house monitoring and I seriously considered getting the new door lock app so I don’t have to remember my house key, but hey, like I said I am new to this game.

But back to the point of this story… see apps have a way of distracting – even me!

These handy apps open up the wonderful world of podcasts and books that can be read to you. With apps, your smarter-than-you phone also accesses the world wide web so you basically have the whole world in your hand – beckoning you to learn more, search for more, buy more, listen more, and with social media you can always know more about every piece of minutiae happening in everyone’s life 24 -7 – all in the palm of your hand.

For those of us living insanely busy lives these apps with their lure of instant connectivity are wonderful conveniences. In the last month alone, I was able to listen to 19 theology lectures and 8 round-table discussions on the New Testament, countless newscasts and political commentaries, and a few symphony concerts for good measure – all while I walked or ran. This was on top of the 4 hours of actual textbook reading I was doing on an almost nightly basis, my 8-hour work day 5 days a week, and weekly after work meetings with their various assignments. For a while I was feeling pretty high on my intelligent horse named Audie (as in audio – get it?). Not only was I getting my exercise but I was filling my brain with everything I wanted to know and more and getting so much done!

But there was a problem.

I started to notice how anxious and irritable I was becoming. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t find words anymore. I couldn’t remember what I had read. I was re-reading chapters and irking myself at the time wasted.  Frightening thoughts started to come to mind –  I had just watched my dad succumb to dementia (horrid thoughts are always the first to come, you know) – what was wrong with me?

The answer was actually pretty straight forward –  I had become too connected – to everything but me and my God. My rhythm of life had been invaded by apps that quenched my need to accomplish far more than truly possible – for me at least. Before I invited technology to come along, I used to feel a bit selfish and underachievement oriented allowing a few hours each day for my meditative morning runs and evening walks. I thought I should be studying and filling my head with lectures and learning new things. Ironically the more time that I ceded to those active-mind activities –  the duller I became spiritually and intellectually.

This constant activity of the mind has a name most of us in the modern working world have grown accustomed to claiming as an asset. Multi-tasking may be a key skill to highlight on your resume, but it is not, according to scientific studies, beneficial to productivity. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

Multitasking also increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. Basically, you are overstimulating your brain and the result is not what you are aiming for by trying to focus on too many things at once: mental fog or scrambled thinking. THAT would explain my list of distressing symptoms.

The mind needs space to process all the information we are putting into it and the spirit needs rest to prevent us from burning out, going into overload, and losing touch with ourselves and the matters that God intends us to focus on.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”   ~Mark 1:35

Even Jesus knew this. In Mark, the shortest Gospel in the Bible, I counted 9 instances of Jesus intentionally seeking out solitude and quiet to pray. I would have to say that Jesus had a lot more on his plate than I do right now and if he saw fit to make solitude and quiet a part of his daily regiment, then I certainly can to.

I must confess, the addiction to connectivity and constant “learning” has been a hard one to break. I have found a bridge though, that may lead me to a higher plain of thinking. Not every walk or run is accompanied by sounds other than the rustle of the trees, my footsteps, or bird song, but nothing can compare to a run in the countryside with Vivaldi as the soundtrack. No words to listen to or think about, just soaring movements of music that lift me out of the here and now, take my mind to a place of rest and refreshment, and lighten my step. I know Jesus didn’t have background music for his times with God, but I am pretty sure God gave us this wonderful gift of music for a reason and I intend to relish in it. I can back the benefits of studying and working to classical music up with scientific studies as well, but who needs to when all you have to do is download a music app and select classical for your listening pleasure. Trust me on this.  Respighi’s The Pines of Rome will keep your eyes open and the words on the page flowing.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”   ~Psalm 23:1-3

I encourage everyone to tune out the world and tune into you for a few minutes or a few hours a day – whatever it takes. A set time with silence and solitude makes the chaos of the world more bearable.

In the past few weeks I have felt brave enough to seek silence again. I have listened to the rain fall on the leaves and the wind rush through the trees. I have listened to birds serenade and screech.  I have let my thoughts go where they would – I got lost in them – I cried- I breathed – and I began to make peace with the emptiness inside me. Silence brought me to that peace. Silence has made me stronger.

Hello Silence, my old friend.