On Friday I went to my friend’s house in Darwin for lunch. We were keeping it simple…. Just salad and bread, so I had picked some things from my garden in the morning and stopped at the bakery in St. Joe for a baguette. We began preparing lunch and served ourselves, and Sue looked at me to ask a question. Is the bread terrible? She asked. I looked at her in horror. “No,” I replied, “It’s from Flour and Flower. It’s really good bread.” She looked back at me in confusion. Then we both started cracking up with laughter. She had been asking me if the bread was tearable…. As in would we need a knife or could we rip it with our bear hands. Not if it were horrible, nasty bread!
I thought of this story when I re-read today’s scripture. There, was this crowd that had followed Jesus to Capernaum from the other side of the sea. They sought him out and began to speak to him. In response he asks, are you just looking for tearable bread? Or are you willing to follow me and see how terrible the bread of life can be? For I am the bread of life….. but to follow me is not an easy journey. At times you will be amazed. At times you will have fun. But there will be times that are hard and horrible. Yet, I tell you, if you choose to follow me, you will never again be satisfied with hunger for tearable bread.
It’s a choice we, as Christian, need to make many times over. Do we just want the bread that we recognize and that tastes good, or are we willing to follow into the horrific parts of life? And Jesus’ words don’t make our choice any easier. For he says things like,
"“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.””
Alongside things like, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
So what are we to believe? Is following Jesus easy? Is it hard? Will we ever hunger for material things again? Will we ever fit through that narrow gate? Or even find it?
Of course, the answer to all these things is yes. Following Jesus is easy and hard. We will feel filled and we will hunger for more. The contradictions of the mystery of Christ are many and never leave us knowing, when we try to know with our heads. But if we listen to our hearts, we find a whole different kind of knowing that goes beyond what words can say.
I went to a city council meeting this week in Cold Spring. While I don’t live in the city, I do shop there and eat there… it’s just a few miles form my home. And for a while I have been seeing posts on Facebook about a family that has been targeted by a man. It all began 87 days ago when the mother of this family went to the school board to tell them that her daughter was being bullied over social media. Her daughter is black and has lived in Cold Spring all her life, and is now a beautiful, quiet, composed 15 year old young woman. When she started high school the cyber attacks began, including threats to lynch her and all the other black students in the school. The school board did nothing, the bullying continued, the daughter, Olivia, even contemplated suicide. And this is when her step mom, Andrea, started to speak out. And her advocating for her daughter got her noticed by a man who decided to begin targeting the family. Over the last 87 days he has smashed car windows, ignored restraining orders against him, stalked the family, shot the security cameras they installed to try to keep safe, harassed them, gone on to their property and called the police on them, and last Saturday, he stole an SUV, put a granite block on the accelerator, jumped out of the car and watched as the car smashed into their home causing extensive damage and almost hitting a child asleep inside. He even hung a teddy bear from a noose in the car as his warning. All through this, the only consequences he has received are a couple of nights in jail. And after this latest attack, he is being charged with property damage and not assault or a hate crime.
The family, fearful for their lives and feeling let down by the system, asked to speak at the city council. And word went out for supporters to come and join them. So, on Tuesday evening, I, along with 120 or so others, crowded into the city hall and hallways of the building to stand in support of the family.
Many people stood up to speak, some sharing stories of their own, where they, too, had been harassed in the town, some educators speaking of how they had been told not to speak about the incidents with the students in their classrooms as the school board did not want to upset parents, some spoke of the horror that the main bully at school had been awarded a prize for good behavior at the end of the year. For more than two hours people shared their stories. And everyone, except the council, was moved to tears, especially when the two daughters spoke .. one white, one black, both strong, both in tears and both demanding action from these people in power.
And then the council responded. Not very well, in my opinion, seeing to be concerned for the family but not really willing to commit to doing much different. But then one council member said to the father, “I meet with my friends at 6:30am every day for coffee. Come and join us one day.”
I couldn’t figure out why this statement felt uncomfortable to me, so I sat with it. Then it hit me. The council member had asked the father, Phil, to step out of his safe zone once more to meet with this white man and his white friends. And while I truly believe his intention was good and kind and he wants to help, he doesn’t see what a sacrifice this would be to Phil.
I didn’t tell you this story to shame anyone. But rather because it really made me think about how I can act in the world. I want to eat the easy tearable bread of following Christ, but am I willing to be uncomfortable and eat the terrible bread of Christ? Would I be willing to step out of my comfort zone to enter the world of Phil and his family, would I be willing to stand guard at their house in the night, or is showing up at the council meeting the only bread and risk I am able to take? Would I go to Phil and his friends and enter their world, or am I only willing to sit in the council meeting where I’m expecting others to make a difference?
The contradictions that Jesus spoke so easily felt heavy inside me. I want to examine my behaviors, as Psalm 51 says, so my heart can be made clean, so I can know my transgressions, so I can see the ways I have sinned. For I think what that council member did is something that many of us have done in other situations, thinking we are acting with compassion and kindness. But are we really seeking God, or are we just looking for the bread that makes us feel good about ourselves? Are we doing the very thing that makes us look and feel good for doing something, and not really placing God’s desire in the center of our action.
I think we can all fall into that trap… what can I do that stretches me some but not too much? What would be a kind act, but one that doesn’t really take me too far?
It’s this kind of safe action that Jesus was speaking to in the Gospel reading today. He had seen the crowd coming across the sea to find him, but he challenges them, saying, Why are you looking for me? I don’t believe you want to be my followers, but you only came because you like the bread and fish I gave you on the other side. You don’t want to live a sacrificial life, that might cause you to leave your families, to leave your homes, to risk your lives as you go about healing others. No…. You just want to be fed earthly food.”
Jesus saw the crowd, and knew they were not ready to really do what it took to be a disciple.
That maybe they just wanted to be able to say…. Yes, I followed Jesus across the sea after I saw him perform the miracle of feeding me. I followed him in a boat. I want to know him.
But Jesus wants to make sure they know what they are agreeing to. And while, in this story many say, “Give us the bread of life always,” I wonder how many soon got back in their boats and returned home.
And, indeed, at the end of this chapter in John it says,
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” …
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
This is something many of us are tempted with. We long for the bread of life, yet not if it stretches us. We long to drink from the cup, but only if it doesn’t spill all over us leaving a mark on our clothing that others can see.
I wonder how long the council member from the other night would sit around if Phil showed up with 20 of his friends each morning at 6:30am.
I wonder how many more meetings I might show up at if they begin to get uncomfortable or I’m asked to do something that challenges me.
I wonder how many of us would hop back on a boat and return to the other side where things are easier and less demanding?
Thankfully John Wesley described this pull of our journey of faith by calling it sanctifying grace… the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that changes us so that our lives are increasingly conformed to the mind of Christ. He called this lifelong process sanctification or becoming "perfected in love.” And he said that if anyone thought they had reached this place, that was a sure sign they still had a ways to go! It is not a state we can reach in this lifetime, for there is always more room to move toward greater love. Our task is simply to be going on to perfection in love. For none of us is Christ. None of us ever will be. But if we choose to follow him, then we will, step by step, little by little, move closer to what Wesley described as having a heart "habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor" and as "having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
So while the council member reached out in love…. What could he have done that was even more loving? I went to the meeting on Tuesday, but what more can I do to examine the ways I hurt others and what new ways is God encouraging me to stretch closer? For I know that following Christ is easy and hard, it’s getting the tearable bread of life along with the terrible. It’s that the yoke will be easy and that the way is narrow. And I know it will lead us all closer to perfection in love!
So God, create in us a pure heart, renew a steadfast spirit within us, grant us a willing spirit, sustain us and stretch us and feed us. And then we can follow you toward perfection in love.
I don’t remember a lot of details about classes at school, but I do remember two things from my religious education class. I was probably 12, and had a nun teaching the class. One day the Hare Krishnas came in to do a presentation and taught us a chant and gave us some strange home made candy. The other class I remember was when the teacher was talking about the feeding of the five thousand. She said, “I don’t believe that Jesus increased those boys loaves and fish into enough to feed everyone. The real miracle was that he was willing to share, and when others saw this, they were moved and decided they had enough so that they could share too. Then they found there was more than enough for everyone with many baskets left over. That was the true miracle.”
While I didn’t know what to do with this information, it has stuck with me since. I think both because it opened up my thinking about the Bible in a whole new way, but also because it struck me that if this were true…. If this boy could open up others to be generous and share what they had, then we all had that possibility of encouraging the awareness of abundance. And this abundance is not abundance for one, but for many…. Not only those gathered but the poor who were not there also who were fed with the 12 baskets of left overs.
So often when churches talk about abundance, they do so with a very narrow view of who is to be helped with this. I was in Angola for 7 weeks, and one day we attended a church service in a pentecostal church. The methodist churches we had visited were basic…..They took place under trees or in half built churches, plastic chairs for pews and dirt floors. Those without chairs threw a piece of fabric on the ground to sit on, and each person was dressed in their best clothes, often mended many times over. And these services were filled with a sense of community, drums and singing filled the air and a feast was celebrated after the service. Each person brought something to add to the feast… a fish they had caught in the river, a few tomatoes from their garden, a small bag of rice. And everyone had more than enough to eat. The feast was followed by more singing and drumming and dancing and laughter, and was a real joy to be a part of.
But at the pentecostal church the preaching was very different. This church was in the capital city…. A far cry from the village we had been working in. The pastor spoke about abundance. The offerings were collected several times throughout the service, with people going up four or five times to put a coin in the basket, dancing and trying to look happy as they went. The people still poor, but trying to look their best and all dressed in white.. a totally unpractical color for those red dust covered streets… The service was long and the sermon filled with images of Gods wrath. The basic message was if you give to God, you will be blessed with more. If you don’t give enough, you will suffer in poverty for the rest of your life. These people had almost nothing. And they were being told to give what they did have and threatened that if they did not give more than they could really afford, God would punish them with a life of poverty.. when the reality was that very few had a chance to get out of poverty with no education, scare jobs and no way up… Yet the pastors lived in nice homes, were driving around in fancy cars and dressed in clean, new looking suits.
As we listened, I felt sick to my stomach. These pastors were getting rich off the people they were supposed to be caring for. They were using shame and guilt and fear to trick the people out of their money, creating even deeper levels of poverty for these folk who had been brain washed to believe that if only they stretched their giving a little more they too, could become rich just like the pastor preaching to them who must surely have been blessed by God.
After the service the pastors climbed into their cars, surrounded by their cheering congregation, and were driven by their chauffeurs home to their mansions far from the mud huts and slums their congregation returned to. And their congregation members returned to picking through the garbage piles for something to eat or sell, carrying fruit from the market on their heads between the lanes of traffic jams, hoping to sell enough to buy a piece of bread or small bag of rice for dinner that night, their stomachs growling and their shame of not having enough to give to God so that God would bless them growing in their hearts.
This way of doing church is based on the prosperity gospel and is predatory in nature. It most often moves into places where the poverty levels are high and people are desperate for change to take place in their lives. Charismatic people come in, all dressed up in riches, and preach that this is available to everyone if only they both give and believe in the right ways.
Yet this is a far cry from anything Jesus ever taught. Instead, he found a young boy and asked him to share, and his sharing multiplied so all all may be fed. Not just Jesus and his disciples, not just the 5,000 men in the crowd, not even just the probably additional 20,000 in the crowd made up of women and children who were not counted, but even those who were marginalized, unable to be there for whatever reason…. Whether they were working or too weak or had been cast out or were in prison. These, too, were taken care of by the extra 12 baskets of food.
The Psalm we heard today speaks to the evil of the ways of these prosperity gospel pastors when it says, “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
For it seems to me that the pastors I heard that day had forgotten to call upon God. Instead they chose to prey upon the people as they ate bread…. Bread which the people did not have.
But I also think it is a trap that we can fall into as well. We look at our life and see how hard we have to work to make ends meet, to be successful to have enough, or even an abundance. And we look at those who don’t have enough and find it easy to blame them for their lack. We may find ourselves saying things like, “If only they worked harder….. if only they stopped drinking so much….. if only they had gotten a better education.” Our blame can go on with a long list of what we think they could or should do to help themselves. But what we often don’t see is the mom working two or three part time jobs because no one employer wants to pay benefits or help with day care costs. We don’t see the dad who had to leave school early to take care of a sick parent and several siblings. And even if there are choices people have made to put them in a position where there truly is not enough, it is not ours to either judge or prey upon them by telling them to do something that will cause us to gain, like those pentecostal pastors.
Rather, our job is to do what Jesus did that day. To say, “what do we have.” And yes… what do WE have. Not what do you have or what do I have, but what do we, collectively have. And to take that, meager as it may be, and turn it in to plenty, remembering even to make it in to plenty to share with those on the margins who don’t or can’t show up for the actual feast because they feel unworthy or unwelcome or just don’t know it’s there for all.
One of the sisters from St. Ben’s sent me a video yesterday about a non profit in Spokane, Washington called Feast. It began with a man, Ross, with a food truck called Compass Breakfast Wagon. He would go to farmers markets and parks and serve breakfast to people. One day a woman came to his food truck and asked if he did other meals, but he was always done by noon. She was a refugee from Jordon, and had begun cooking for friends and neighbor who really liked her food. She began a catering business but was looking to expand and she asked if he might be willing to let her use the food truck to serve dinner a couple of times a week. Ross had been praying to see why he was here, what he was being called to do with his business, and Maisa, the woman from Jordan, seemed like an answer to his prayers. They sat down and worked out the details, and soon the Compass Breakfast Wagon had changed its name to just The Compass. Ross served breakfast, Maisa served dinner, the two sharing the one food truck. Word got out, and other refugees from different countries began to ask if they could use the Compass on other nights, and soon Ross realized they needed a bigger space. They came together and bought an abandoned restaurant space, and now there are about a dozen chefs who use the space for their own catering businesses but also to serve take out to people, and each cooks food from their homeland! As CoVid restrictions are easing, Feast is turning into a full service restaurant where, for example this week, you can get food from Kenya on Wednesday, India on Thursday, Jordan on Friday, Syria on Saturday and Vietnam on Sunday. Each evening a different cuisine from a homeland that had become unsafe to live in. This has brought the neighborhood closer together….. where before the refugee population was viewed with suspicion, now they are becoming more visible and integrated into the neighborhood, all through food and conversation!
So, in the end, I don’t think it really matters if the boy’s five loaves and two fish inspired others to give, or if Jesus literally multiplied them…. The important thing was that this boy was willing to share what he had. Whether he thought it was a lot or a little, he was able to share, without hesitation, for the good of all. Not just for a select few, but so everyone could have enough, even those who were not there. His meager offering stretched way beyond the boundaries of feeding the five thousand men, the twenty something thousand women and children. It stretched beyond the ones who were present, and fed the ones who were not even there. And what a miracles that is!
So, I challenge us to think about what we have, that may not seem like it is a lot, that we can share. Both personally and as a congregation. Is it space? Food? Money? Time? Love? An invitation to join to one who is seeking? Or an invitation to the great Feast to one who is hungry? What do you and what do we have to share?
We are going to take a couple of minutes to pray with this questions, and then on the card you have, I invite you to start writing ideas, and leave them in the offering plate as you leave. This is just the beginning of listening to how God is inviting us to share, so I encourage you to continue to pray and share your idea.
We have something. We may not have a food truck or restaurant space. We may not have bread and fish. But we have something! The world needs it! How can we share? How can we be part of the miracle that Jesus is doing?
During our Annual Conference this year, Bishop Bard gave a sermon that focused on road maps…. The ones he would get every week from the gas station, until the manager told him firmly they were only for paying customers, the ones we believe we are following as we move through life, the ones we want to ignore and the signs and detours and roadblocks that get in our ways.
As a child I grew up with Ordinance Survey Maps. I loved the feel of them beneath my fingers, the symbols they showed, the way you could tell exactly where you were by looking around you. We did a lot of hiking, and it was these maps that mainly kept us on track. They would show where phone boxes were, where a church with a steeple and a church with a tower were, each uniquely marked, where the post office and the pub were as well as the foot paths through the farmers fields. They didn’t tell you which fields had bulls in, or which foot paths were through corn taller than your head. But they did lead us from one youth hostel to the next as we walked for the whole day, and, when you paid proper attention, you rarely got lost.
In our scripture this morning, Herod thought he had a map…. He arrested John the Baptist. He arrested John as he didn’t like the thought that he would dare to tell him he should not be married to his brother’s wife. And John, true to his calling, continued to preach and tell Herod about God…. And, surprisingly, Herod enjoyed listening to this wild man who liked to wear camel cloths and live out in the wilds. So Herod’s road map included keeping John around so he could learn from him. Yet Herodias, Herod’s new wife, had a different route she wanted to take. She was unhappy with this man who, in her eyes, was turning her husband against her by telling him they should not be married. Her map included getting rid of John, and she saw her chance when Herod promised their daughter anything she wanted after she performed for his birthday. She ran to her mom and her mom, Herod’s wife, told their daughter, also called Herodias, to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod, a weak man who wanted to prove his worth to his guests, his wife, and his daughter, agreed and had John the Baptist beheaded, giving his daughter the head on a platter.
Herod’s map was re-routed and so was John the Baptist’s as they both got caught in Herodias’ detour and road block.
Our Psalm today said,
Who shall ascend the hill of God?
And who shall stand in this holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
This would certainly not be Herodias or Herod himself, the one who is so easily swayed to do something horrendous…. But is it any wonder when his father, Herod the Great, was the one to order the slaying of all the boy children born at the time Jesus was born. A vile man from a vile family. And now, there was more blood on the hands of this family. Maps redrawn, paths changed, contours re-focused.
Bishop Bard said, in his sermon, “Maps are both helpful and limited. Maps provide some sense of where we are and where we want to go, but they are simplified and we ought never confuse the map for the fullness of reality. “Moving into the future, strategies will need to be devised and decisions made, We need to offer our best thinking and deepest imagining, and we also need to be open to the possibility the map with which we began the journey may need to be re-imagined and re-drawn.”
As Jesus and his disciples heard of the beheading of John, they needed to do just this. They had imagined a future with this wild man, John, journeying with them…. The one who had baptized Jesus and declared his importance to the world. They had a place for him at the table. And now, they needed to change course and bury his body instead… a fore taste of the killing of Jesus. With this, the map suddenly turns toward Jerusalem and Jesus’ crucifixion in Mark’s gospel with this story. What was once a clear direction of healing and teaching and miracles, now has a shadow cast. And all because Herod followed in his father’s footsteps and followed the route marked fear… for King Herod, fear that he may loose power as this new baby king, in the form of Jesus, may take over from him. Fear for this Herod that he would lose his wife and daughter, who he had an unhealthy obsession with. Fear of loss is a huge highway on the maps of our lives, and is destructive when it causes us to turn to anger and violence and hate.
James Baldwin said, “it is certain, in any case, that ignorance and fear, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” And this was true in the case of the Herods!
But what if, instead of traveling on this highway of fear, we choose the highway of love? What if we find the exit ramp that leads us off this destructive path and travel through the roads of grief and heartbreak and facing trauma and loss and healing until this path of love can be trusted and travelled with ease.
I recently watched a documentary series out of England that was called Bad Habits, Holy Orders. In it five young women, between the ages of 19 and 22, were invited to go on a month long spiritual journey to try to change their lives. Others had nominated them, but they had each accepted to do this. Most were heavy drinkers, many would go to night clubs every night and often leave with a different man every night, one was addicted to posting pictures of herself in underwear trying to get a job as a underwear model, often spending hours posing and taking selfies and only feeling like she was worth anything if she got a certain number of likes. One was addicted to shopping, often spending 500 pounds on a handbag or 1,000 pounds on a pair of shoes. Each of the five was lost, felt unworthy and thought the only love they could receive was from men paying them some kind of attention or from material possessions. The women were not told what their spiritual month was going to be as they are dropped off in a small village in the middle of the countryside. They are shown dressed up as if they were going out for a night of partying, dragging three or four suitcases behind them. To their surprise they are being sent to live with a group of nuns. There are a dozen sisters living in this convent, ranging in age from 25 to 95, and their order still wears habits. The sisters peer out the window as the women begin to arrive, laughing at their suitcases and shocked by their outfits, yet each woman is greeted with a warm hug by the sister opening the door.
They are shown to their small rooms and soon participating in the life of the convent… expected to go to prayers, to help with the work of the convent, to dress in regular clothes, to not be drinking or partying, to give up their phones, to be in bed by 10pm,…. About the time that they would just be getting ready to go out in their normal lives. And the sisters show them nothing but kindness and love, talk to them openly about whatever they want to know or talk about, and set loving boundaries that these women seem desperate for. The second day they are taken to a thrift store to buy clothes more suitable for their time at the convent, and a couple sneak away to buy a bottle of vodka. The sisters see them doing this and call a meeting, and the women easily hand it over to the sisters and this leads to a conversation about their need for alcohol and what masks it helps them wear. Another time one woman decided she want to not wear makeup that day, and the struggle with her insecurity over this was painful for she had worn heavy makeup every day for a decade. She is scared by what the others will think, what the world will think. The others all decide to go make up free with her, and the sisters encourage them to go for a walk around town…. And no one in town calls them ugly! By the third week, the women are sent to three other convents to live and work with different groups…. They volunteer at a homeless shelter and a nursing home, spend some time in a youth center and a convent where no speaking is allowed. And their original sisters pop in to check up on them, giving huge hugs to each and every women, their love for these young women evident. And their encouragement for these young women to be themselves, really themselves, rather than trying to hide the beauty of who God had made them to be, begins to take hold… with no subject off limits the women open up about what led them to their behaviors and the sisters relate from their own experiences.
At the end of their time, the documentary follows them back into the first days of being home. One begins to work for a charity, one goes to school to become a care giver, and all of them settle down into a more stable and less outrageous lifestyles.
James Baldwin says, “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
These women had been trapped in behind their masks, wearing drinking or partying or selfies as their true selves. The sisters saw the beauty of each one beneath this and helped the women find and believe in it themselves. They helped them discover what happiness was to them. They held their hands as they followed the exit ramp from the highway of fear though the roads of self discovery, of pain, of grief and heartbreak until they came to that great highway of love.
As humans we each long for this kind of love…. One that is not based on what we do or the superficial masks we wear, but sees and accepts and loves us for who we are at the core of our being, someone who is able to truly bring out that inner truth of who we are. It can be rare to find this, but when we do we recognize and respond to it by allowing our masks to slip just a little, to allow more of our true selves to come forth, to allow that love to penetrate through the layers of protection we have built up over the years.
I wonder what highways King Herod and Herod from todays story would have taken if they had been on the receiving end of this kind of love. What protective layers he had built around himself and what masks he wore to appear a certain way to his wife and the world he moved in.
I wonder what highway you will take as you allow this kind of love to remove the layers of pain from your life? To choose to move to that great highway of Love, even when it means following the roads of grief or pain or heartbreak or self reflection.
For this is a love highway freely available to each and every one of us who follow Christ. His love is never ending, has reached out to touch our lives from beyond the cross, the tomb, the resurrection. The map of our faith offers us symbols and markers along the way, orienting us, showing us the trails that lead us in the right direction…. Sometimes wide, sometimes footpaths winding their way through the corn that stretches over our heads. It reaches out to us through prayer, and people and hope coming from nowhere and comfort in pain and grief and surprising delights in nature.
Will you accept the invitation that asks you to exit the highways that keep you in fear and take all the roads and trails and footpaths that lead you to the great highway of Love. Your masks will fall away and your true beauty will shine forth so that other will see your true humanity breaking forth. SO reach out your hand, let Jesus take it and lead you to the paths of love!
Have you ever experienced a storm?
This may be a silly question seeing as you are Minnesotans!
But one of my most memorable was when I was visiting Minnesota before I moved here. My foster child was with me, and he had grown up in California where thunder storms were rare. We were staying at my friends lake cabin, and the two of us were sleeping in the bunk house…. An old building with shutters and screens for windows divided into two rooms by a three quarter wall partition. We had gone to bed and Riley was fast asleep when the rain began falling on my head. It was about 2 am, dark and humid with that feel in the air you get right before a thunderstorm. I got up and went outside to close the heavy wooden shutters to stop the rain coming in, and soon a huge thunderstorm was overhead, thunder shaking the bunkhouse. Riley woke up scared and came into my side of the wall, crying and feeling unsafe. So we ran through the rain to the main cabin and went and sat on the screened porch. He snuggled on my lap, wrapped in a blanket, and we watched and listened; the thunder rolling around the clouds, the lightening illuminating the sky. It was one of those storms where the lightening was just hanging out in the clouds, almost non stop, the rumble of the thunder nearly continuous with several loud claps that shook us to our cores. And soon Riley had moved from fear into wonder at the sight, now safely wrapped and held and in awe at the immensity of the storm.
I think this is an image for us for life. The storms rage around us, but if we are held in safety, we can face them, see them for what they truly are, wait them out, and even see the wonder they bring.
Those on the boat with Jesus that night forgot this. They just wanted the storm to be gone. They were not able to see Jesus, asleep on the boat with them and know they were safe. Instead they woke him up and demanded he make the storm stop. And Jesus, being Jesus, did. He saw their heightened, agitated state, and knew he would not be able to teach them anything until they had calmed down, and so he said, to the people as much as the waves, Peace. Be still.” And it always amuses me when I read this that the disciples with him immediately see the way he has calmed the outer conditions, but miss how he calms them too!
But this is so often reflective of us too. We enter into a storm, bidden or unbidden, and we want it to stop. We want someone to wave the magic wand of calmness over the waves that are swamping us. We look to the outside for the solution instead of looking within us for the strength we have to make it through, the solutions we know deep inside, the wisdom we have, if only we can make it past the fear of the storm to listen. We want to wake up Jesus and have him speak the words to the powers that are engulfing us. And yet, God doesn’t take away the storm.
God, though, also does not make the storms in my theology. God doesn’t send bad thing to us to test us or to teach us a lesson. God doesn’t send down punishment upon us or even allow bad things to happen so we will grow. God does not make the storms in our lives….And God does not take the storms away.
But what I know for sure is that God is with us in the midst of each and every storm. Standing by us. Suffering with us. Tossed about in the waves with us until the storm passes and beyond.
Sometimes I wish this story in the Bible were different. That Jesus did not just make the storm stop, but, instead, taught his disciples how to live through the storm, how to navigate it with strength and stamina and accompany them each step of the way. Instead of chastising them and saying, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I would have liked him to say, “I see you are afraid. But here, let’s ride it out together.” Instead of shaming them for their fear, to recognize it and walk them to a place of calmness and awe.
For it is stories like this that can cause us to hurt one another when someone is going through a storm in their life, or has emerged from one and is healing. If Jesus can make statements that shame, then we can too. When we say to someone who is struggling, “Why do you feel this way?”, then we are not really honoring their feelings. We shut down their responses and can cause them to retreat with their fears rather than helping them see they are being supported through whatever they are facing. When we tell them that God is teaching them a lesson through their own, personal storm we are implying that God sent it to them to teach them something rather than listening to how the storm is affecting them and staying with them in their pain, walking with them until they are calm once more.
After Hurricane Katrina, I went to New Orleans for a semester as part of my internship during seminary. I stayed at a community center in a United Methodist Church right in the French Quarter. The community center had been serving kids from the neighborhood before the storm, but now only had one program up and running… a huge difference from the 200 kids they had served each day before. They could not get the staff and volunteers and many of the children and youth had been forced to relocate. But Coach Parker was in town, and about a dozen teen girls showed up three times a week for homework help, fun, dancing, food and mentoring. I joined them most days I was there and not working with a rebuilding team, and got to know some of their stories. Most of these young women had been in Coach Parkers' program before the storm, but one had been too young, and really was still too young officially, but she was the sister of another young woman, and so came. She was 11 years old, a quiet and shy girl, but when you coaxed a rare smile from her it lit up the room.
The young women were learning a dance routine to offer their parents at the end of year dinner they were going to give. They had chosen the song, I Need You To Survive, which has the lyrics:
I need you, you need me.
We're all a part of one body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We're all a part of God's body.
I pray for you , you pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won't harm you with words from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive.
and the dance told the story of their journey through the storm of coming together and needing one another to heal. But this young woman, whom we will call Tanisha, was not joining them. She watched intently, but refused to get up and dance, even when the others were encouraging her to. One day I sat down with her as the others were dancing and asked what she needed to feel ok to dance. “A different body,” she answered quietly. We chatted some more and I asked some gentle questions to try to figure out why she thought a different body would be the answer, and eventually said something like, “What’s wrong with this body?” It was as though the floodgates opened as she shared her story…. The other girls had moved on to something else and she was free to speak privately.
She told me that after the storm they had lost their home and had gone to stay with some relatives she had never met before in Texas. While they were there, having lost everything including some pets, she was scared and sad, but trying to not let her mom know because her mom was so stressed out. An older cousin, a twenty something year old man, had begun to pay attention to her, starting off by buying her stuffed animals and chocolate and and giving her hugs, but soon he had moved on to commenting in her body and then to molesting her. She told her sister who told her mom who moved them back to New Orleans as soon as she could…. But not before the damage had been done. Now Tanisha just wanted a new body that had not been molested, she wanted a new body that had not been called beautiful and then abused, she wanted a new body that had not been shamed, she wanted a body that was not scared and scarred.
As I sat with her, I knew there was no taking away the storms she had lived through, the hurricane, the losses, the move, the molesting… those storms had come and gone. And God had not taken them away (although, thankfully Tanisha had been heard and believed and moved home from Texas). Now Tanisha needed to have those inner strengths and power drawn out again so she could stay in this body and heal and grow. She needed a community to stand with her and walk her back to health.
So we talked, over time, about what it meant that this was still the body she had…. One that something bad had happened to. That this body would always be the body she had. That many of us had bodies that had been hurt by others, that had lived through storms… both natural disaster storms and human made ones. But that these bodies were our bodies, the only ones we got for our lifetime! And how they are powerful and strong bodies. And how we are all a part of God’s body and need one another to survive. Coach Parker worked with her too, and the girls, who all knew her story, were encouraging and kind and gentle with her, for many of them had experienced similar things.
The last couple of weeks before the dinner I had teams there that I was working with and did not get to spend time with the mentoring program. I would stick my head in to say hi, but that was about it. On the night of the dinner the girls were excited. We had ordered shrimp po boys and pizza and the girls had made a salad and cookies, and we gathered and ate together with their families. Then the girls asked their parents to join them in the sanctuary for a performance. The adults all wandered over and the girls began to share their stories of gratitude and what program had meant to them as they were back in New Orleans. Stories of being cramped in one bedroom trailers with 5 or 6 siblings, or schools being different and hard, of having no where else they could study in peace, or these friends being their lifelines when the rest of their lives were so disrupted. Then they danced. To my surprise and joy, Tanisha was right there in the middle dancing with the rest of them. She looked radiant, and as though she were proud that this body were her body! And after the performance she ran over and gave me a big hug before heading off with the others to party some more.
God doesn’t take away the storms. And neither can we. But we can stand with one another through them. We can be community together until the one who has been hurt can stand and dance once more. We can be lifelines for one another.
As we continue to find our way out of the storm of the last year, I invite you to look back over it…. From March 2019 or so to now. Where did you experience God? How did someone show up for you? Who stood by you and with you to walk with you to now, to give you the strength to dance, to hold you, to wraping a blanket until your fears subsided and you could look and see what was true? Who did you do this for? What or who else do you need as things calm down from the height of the storm?
Share with someone close to you one or two words that come to you about the storm that was CoVid.
I need you, you need me.
We're all a part of God's body.
Stand with me, agree with me.
We're all a part of God's body.
I pray for you, you pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
I won't harm you with words from my mouth.
I love you, I need you to survive.
God does not take away the storms. But God is there, in God’s full self, sensed by us in nature, in other people showing up, in perseverance and hope and small acts of love and kindness, in songs and dance and art, in laughter and tears and someone to listen. God does not take away the storms, but God is with us each and every step of the way. A lifeline to hope and healing.
Thanks be to God!
This passage we heard from Ephesians can be a difficult one for us to unpack. It talks about things we don’t like to think about, or that we have strong feelings about and that have often been used to shame or silence us: namely anger and forgiveness. In Christianity as well as in life, I think these two things have been vastly misused and turned into weapons at times. How often have you been told to forgive someone? And how often do you push your anger down because you have labeled it as a bad emotion? Let alone your bitterness, wrath, wrangling and slander!
As I read the passage this week a poem by the Sufi poet Rumi, kept coming into my mind. It’s called The Guest House.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
For I think often we, as Christians, maybe especially as Minnesotan Christians, have a strange relationship with our emotions, especially ones we label as wrong. Yet emotions are just that. Emotions. They are neither good or bad. They just are. The thing we need to watch for is what we do with them, like the passage says, be angry but do not sin.
And I think this may be part of what makes it hard.
As a child I was often the recipient of others anger….. mostly not in relation to anything I had done but just because I was there. If my mum was having a hard day, I was there to beat. If my brother had struggled at school, I was there to punch. If nothing had happened, but I was there, I was there to punish. Sometimes there would be words about what I had done, sometimes not. But it could be as twisted as the time I remember my mum saying to me, “Stop turning the pages of your book so loudly.” There I was, just trying to read a book and get lost in someone else’s story and I was hit. It made me believe that pretty much anything I did was wrong. Or maybe my mere existence was wrong. And it led me to suppress my anger and pretend everything was ok, for anger was explosive and unhealthy and painful.
For the longest time I denied any feelings of anger that might arise. I would push them deep down so no one would get hurt. I got scared around other people’s anger and could feel myself retreating into those deep recesses of my being just waiting for the punches that came with it.
Eventually, after a lot of work, I decided that enough was enough. For the next month I was going to allow myself to feel and express my anger. So I got 30 canvases and a bunch of paint and set aside 15 minutes in my schedule each day. I would sit, inviting my anger to come forth and then paint…. Mostly just splashing paint on the canvas rather than actual painting. Some days I would write. Some days I would paint and then destroy the canvas, slashing it or punching a hole in it. Some days I would sit and look and see the beauty in the painting that had emerged. For thirty days I did this. And it changed my relationship to anger. It made me realize that anger did not have to be destructive. That If I expressed it in a creative way rather than bottling it up then it would pass quickly and without harming anything. And, eventually, it freed my voice so I could speak my anger too…. Again, in loving and creative ways rather than ways that would tear someone else up.
This for me is the difference. Be angry but do not sin. Do not allow your anger to be an explosive mess in the world, affecting others who may have done no wrong. Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on it. Don’t bottle it up, don’t hold on to it. Express is well and with love, and then it will dissipate. And then new and delightful things can come in its place.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
And then we have forgiveness. Forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive 7 times 70 times. Forgive. How often has this been twisted and used against you as a ‘should' or expected of you before you were ready.
I work with a number of directees who struggle with this thought of forgiveness. Some have forgiven unacceptable behavior just to have it repeated. Others have been told to forgive and forget. Some long for forgiveness from others. And to all, it is a painful thing to contemplate, especially with the outside pressure that comes with it.
I read an article recently called Nine Big Myths about Forgiveness. It was written by Pastor Scott Savage. He lists some myths that most of us hold as truth, including
Forgiveness is about the other person.
If you forgive someone you should forget.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are the same thing.
And, I need to tell the person I forgave them.
These, for me, are the most sticky points my directees talk about.
I remember Jesus on the cross as he was being crucified, saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” In this he was not forgiving them. He needed God to do that. He did not turn to those who were killing him and say “I forgive you.” He did not say, “I forgive you and I’ll forget what you are doing to me.” No. He simply said, “Father, forgive them.”
When we are told to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us, we would do well to remember this. We can cry out to God and ask for God to forgive someone…. We don’t have to be alone in this. As our psalmist said Out of the depths I cry to you, O God, hear my voice.
And forgiveness is an act for ourselves more than for the other person. I see forgiveness as a way to loosen the chain of the hurt that was done, until that chain can fall away. To think of the other person without the memory of the pain overtaking us again. To not wish harm upon the other for what they did. To be able to remind ourselves that we are worthy of safety and kindness and love, and to not let what happened to us diminish that. Scott Savage says, ““We believe that forgiveness is about what they did and whether they’ve done anything to rectify their actions. Truthfully, forgiveness is about you (the wounded person) moving on from the offense and living in freedom. Forgiveness is about your freedom, not theirs.” And this is what forgiveness truly is…. A gift to yourself. And it can take time and working through the hurt before we are ready to forgive, it is not a thing to be rushed. Again, from our psalm: I wait for my God, my soul waits,
and in God’s word I hope;
my soul waits for my God
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Of course, in relationships the perfect forgiveness would include everyone involved. There would be a conversation about the harm that was experienced by each person and a way to move forward without that harm repeating itself. And in healthy relationships this can happen. But so often, especially with people who have been harmed by those in power, when power structures are uneven, this does not happen. The person with more power is scared of loosing their power and so may apologize, but the behavior does not change. Or they may continue to justify their behavior or blame the one with less power. The harm continues. I think of people in abusive relationships where there is sometimes a true, heart felt apology of a harm done, although often it’s accompanied by blame of the one hurt, a promise to never hit or hurt again, only to be followed up with increased violence, another apology, another repeat of the cycle. So forgiveness does not need to include reconciliation to be real. And sometimes it is best to cut the ties of the relationship so forgiveness can be found.
So often my directees are told, ‘forgive and forget. Just move on with your life.’ And sure, this can sound really nice, for who among us wouldn’t want to forget some great hurt that was done to us. But even if we forgive, the memory will still be there…. Fading like a scar fades, but permanently leaving a mark. So forgiveness does not mean you have forgotten…. And, again, may not include reconciliation. Again, this is a gift for you, not the other person.
Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote,
“I am going to need to know how to forgive all the people I blame for s*** [stuff] – not because they aren’t as bad as all that, but because I want my heart to busy itself with work other than having to oxygenate toxicity I won’t let go of, and because there are no mornings in which it is not possible to wake up to the news of love and new babies.
Life is hard and beautiful and too uncertain to not love ourselves.”
Life is hard and beautiful and too uncertain to not love ourselves.
How true is that! And how freeing is it when we allow some hurt or toxicity to move further away from our consciousness because we have been able to do the work of forgiveness to free ourselves. Not to let the other off the hook. Not to put ourselves in harms way again. But because we have said, “Father…. Forgive them.” And God has freed us from holding so tightly to the chain of harm so we have more room for the beauty of life to pour in. Because we have done the hard work of looking at the harm done and found our healing in that. Because we have learnt to value ourselves and know forgiveness is what we need to move forward.
Which leads me to one more point about forgiveness that Savage did not address…. It’s not quick or easy to forgive! Sometimes it can take years. Sometimes it does not happen until the other is dead. Sometimes it needs to be repeated, over and over until it takes hold in us. And all this is normal and true and ok. Forgiveness is a journey. It’s sometimes like we are carrying a backpack full of rocks and we take a rock out with each act of forgiving until, finally, our backpack is empty…. Or until we realize we can simply set it down as we don’t need to carry it any longer.
Our psalm reminds us that with God there is steadfast love. So be angry, but do not sin. Forgive as Christ in God has forgiven. Be a guest house where all emotions are welcomed.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
God’s love is steadfast. And our anger and forgiveness done right, welcome and processed in love, moved through in a way that causes no harm, is a guide God has sent so we may become better imitators of Christ.
As a child we did not celebrate Thanksgiving. Instead, we had harvest festivals, times where we would share from the bounty we had, gathering food to give away. I loved getting the old shoe box each year and covering it with brown paper, decorating the box, one year ever writing a little poem on that brown paper, a tricky task as I had already covered the box and was writing at a strange angle! The then careful choosing apples from our trees that looked least likely to contain a maggot or two, digging up potatoes from my grandfathers patch and brushing the dirt from them, and setting everything with great care in the shoebox. I would get a green sprig from the bush, heavy with red berries, and use it as decoration. The tricky part was carrying it on the bus to church, trying to keep everything safe, and then each child would parade up the aisle carrying their offering, all the shoe boxes creating a great display of abundance! As a child, I never knew what happened to these baskets, but when I was a teen I was invited to help deliver them, and we set off to the homebound members of the congregation, tea and biscuits served at each stop as we delivered a little piece of love. While there were no gathering or meals involved, it felt like a fine way to give thanks for what we had grown, and I remember the gratitude I felt as I hand picked those apples and polished them with a cloth before placing them in the basket, that was felt even more abundantly when I visited those people who I did not know, bringing them joy and love. It was an easy, generous gratitude that flowed forward.
This story of the ten lepers is one that is familiar to us, and reminds us how easy it can be to miss this feeling of generous gratitude! . As I read it this time, I noticed things that I had not before. First, the lepers called out from a distance and yelled at Jesus to heal them. They asked for his help. They knew who he was. They believed he could help them. And so, keeping their distance, they called out to Jesus to heal them. As their belief led them to ask, it was perhaps this same belief that kept them from expressing gratitude. They knew Jesus had the capacity to heal them, so it can’t have been a big deal to him, right? it can’t have really taken any effort on his part. So why turn around in surprise that he did what they asked and thank him. The one person who did offer thanks was the Samaritan, the outsider, the probable non believer in the group. His surprise and awe at the healing he saw and felt happening in him was so great that he fell at Jesus’ feet to thank him. A full bodied expression of gratitude…. A body now free from the excruciating pain that leprosy brings with it, a body now free to express fully the relief. While the nine others who had been healed used this freedom from pain to get the next thing done… the priestly blessing that would declare them members of society again…., the outsider used it to bless the one who had healed him, the source of the miracle he was experiencing.
This leads me to ponder about showing gratitude, or giving thanks. Do I only give gratitude for those things that are unexpected? Or do I swing the other way and give gratitude for only the expected things? And how can I become more generous with my gratitude like that young girl polishing the maggot free apples to give away?
A friend of mine was the church organist at a church in Texas before she retired. She became friends with the maintenance man there, and describes him as one of those all around great people… and a man of generous gratitude…. Roger not only kept the church clean, but fixed things before others knew they needed fixing. He would set up the sound system and take care of the church and congregation in many ways that others did not see. And he was always smiling, generous, kindhearted. Bev, my friend, also offered private piano lessons to children, and every six months or so, she would hold a piano recital at the church for her students to perform. Roger would set up for the recital, make sure the sound was good, and even asked if he could record the recital, making cd’s for all her students in his own time and at his own cost. Yet Roger’s life wasn’t an easy one. He has a wife with a degenerative illness who is close to being confined to a wheelchair, a son with cerebral palsy, and two other young teenagers, one of who is on the autism spectrum. But he always appeared to be happy and kind, that smile never far from his eyes.
Roger and his family were struck by CoVid recently, and he was soon hospitalized. He was on a ventilator, and seemed to be doing a little better. But then, like Covid often does, he took a turn for the worse, and his life last week. All through this, the church and other friends have been reaching out to offer help…. Meals, gifts for the kids at Christmas, even offers of cash to help them out. And his wife, also recovering from CoVid, has been blown away by the offers. But this week she made a statement. Roger was a veteran, and his family knew how hard it is for families to be apart during the holidays, so she asked for people to donate to a local charity that gets gifts for the families of someone serving in the military. She wrote, “thank you all for your kind words and generous spirits. At this time we have all we need, we know God is blessing us and walking with us through our pain. I know that this is where Roger’s heart would be… to take care of those families and children separated from their loved ones who are serving our country. We have one another, and we know God is with us… but some of these families don’t and are really struggling. So thank you for helping them know God’s love for them through your gifts.”
That in the midst of her grief, in the midst of her new life, Debbie was able to turn around to thank Jesus for his presence and ask for his love to be made visible to the world, is a miracle and a testament to Roger. It’s also a testament to the generous gratitude Roger practiced in every day life, and a value that his family continues to live out in the world, even after he is no longer in it, and even with all the struggles they continue to live with on top of their grief.
I think this is a question pertinent to us all…. How do we practice generous gratitude in these times that are not what we thought they would be. In the weeks ahead when the family we maybe thought we were going to spend holidays with are not sitting at our table, when ones we love are sick, when our favorite restaurants have shut their dining rooms, when even this church building is shut. In these days when the number off folks we know personally who have CoVid are rising, when we are wisely reluctant to enter stores to do our Christmas shopping, when masks cover smiles and singing in public is frowned upon. In the midst of this, how can we be like Debbie and practice generous gratitude?
I think the answer to this is to become more and more aware of the Divine showing up in our lives. To notice the small things that show God’s presence in the midst of our days…. Even when that day is a struggle. To be like David, the Psalmist, who wrote, in the midst of struggling with the injustices of the world,
I will thank God with all my heart
In the meeting of the just and their assembly
Great are the works of God
To be pondered by all who love them.
Majestic and glorious God’s works
God’s justice stands firm forever
God makes us remember the wonders
And is full of compassion and love.
Indeed, God stands firm forever. In these times that are shaky, when our foundations seem to quiver beneath us, when the things we have taken for granted, like gathering with family or friends for holidays, or that church doors will be open on a Sunday morning, are no longer givens… we need to remember that God’s justice stands firm forever. That God is full of compassion and love, even when things look different. That wonders are all around us when we open our hearts to ponder them.
One of the things that Christ left for us to experience these words, this reality in the midst of the reality we are surrounded by, is this feast. For at the time he most needed to remember God’s compassion and love, at the time when he and his disciples were gathered together celebrating the Seder meal, a large meal with elaborate preparation and a long liturgy to remember how the people had been freed from slavery, in the midst of a gathering that was tinged with forbearing of what was about to take place, Jesus knew that he had to be generous with his gratitude. To be generous with this gift that he could leave behind. Be generous with the most simple of the things on the table, the ones people would have easy assess to, the things that would most likely be something that would stand firm as a symbol of God’s great works through the ages. And so, in the midst of a table covered with elaborate dishes that symbolized tears and sweat and sweetness and bitterness…. In the midst of the table where people were together with him for the last time, in the midst of all the feelings that were swirling around… his own included, Jesus took the most simple, basic, everyday elements and gave thanks. For for the bread, and then for the cup. With all there was on that table to choose from, he chose the two most common. A loaf of bread. A cup of wine.
He was making the statement that these simple things are generous. These everyday things are how we can share gratitude. These things we take for example are the foundation of sharing love and hope and gratitude and thanksgiving with the world. It doesn’t take much. It takes the least. It takes the simple. It takes what’s available. And it turns it into a great feast of thanksgiving, filled with generous inclusive expansive welcome, filled with deep, heart centered love, filled with thanksgiving that surpasses our understanding.
So, if you find yourself struggling to be thankful, struggling to feel gratitude, struggling to find hope, turn back to God, rest in God’s presence, seek out God’s wonders and the majestic and glorious works of God… both in creation, in the small things you notice, in ways of healing and connection that may surprise you. Try to be generous with your gratitude, looking beyond just your needs and seeing how you can bless others with simple, everyday things. And know that we are in this together, even if we cannot be physically together with one another. That God’s love continues to bind us and connect us.
And, as we prepare to be apart for a season, we connect with God and one another through this feast, this this simple meal where we remember God in our midst and give thanks from the depths of our hearts!