The three scripture readings we heard today seem to ring out justice in their very words, in similar yet different ways. First, Moses, who had led his people for 40 years through the desert, finally brought them to the Promised Land, the land where they would settle and finally be still and at rest, laying down roots for the generations to come. Yet Moses died right as they reached the overlook, never to step foot in it himself. His task was done and he had led God’s people to this place where their life could begin anew, even as his ended. Then, in Thessalonians, it speaks of the suffering of the disciples, and warns against this suffering being passed on to future generations, reminding them that their suffering must not prevent them from sharing the gospel, the good news, in a way that does not spring from deceit, impure motive or trickery. And then we come to the Pharisees, and a lawyer among them asking Jesus which is the greatest commandment, to which Jesus replies, “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself.”
I feel like our world has forgotten this in recent times. There was a minor example that a friend told me about recently where a large department store was promoting a give away they had where, for every winter coat that was purchased, they would donate a new winter coat to someone in need. An angry potential customer said, “You want me to buy a winter coat, paying full price for it plus the taxes. Then you are going to give one away to some loser? I don’t think so.” While this may be something we smile at in our disgust at the response, it feels like a micro example of what is happening in the world at large.
One thing that has broken my heart this week is seeing the report that the parents of 545 children who were removed from their families who had come to our country seeking asylum, have been lost in the system. The children taken, the parents deported, leaving little hope of reuniting the families. When we care for our neighbors, we must care for those who come to us, legally, seeking help. Instead we have torn families apart, causing long lasting trauma for these families who were just trying to get help. And the children, many of whom will likely have no memory of their parents, will have to live with this trauma for the rest of their lives.
So as I prayed with these three passages this week, I kept remembering the Native American philosophy of the seventh generation. It has been found written from the Iroquois people who lived on the land we know as Northeast America, and is thought to have been passed down from as early as the 12th century, a philosophy that is echoed throughout the Native peoples from many tribes. The Constitution of the Iroquois Nation (The Great Binding Law) explains “seventh generation” philosophy as follows: “The thickness of your skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that you shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people. With endless patience you shall carry out your duty and your firmness shall be tempered with tenderness for your people. In all of your deliberations, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.” In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
In all of your deliberations, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Think of others, even those who have yet to be born. Think ahead to your great, great, great, great, great grandchildren! That is what Jesus is preaching as he says Love your God and your neighbor as yourself. Cast self into oblivion, cast thinking only for what is good and right for you as an individual into oblivion and think of your neighbors, think of your family seven generations in the future, think of your neighbors family seven generations into the future. This is what Moses did in his faithful act for forty years leading the people through the wilderness, knowing he would never live in the promised land. An act of selflessness, leading others to the place they will be able to call home. Casting self into oblivion for the sake of others, for the sake of the future. And for the disciples in Thessalonians, even though you, personally, have suffered, do all that you can to prevent that suffering from reaching future generations, instead tell the good news, tell the hope, work with gentleness and caring so greatly for others that they see the Love of God shine through us.
In all of this we are reminded that the justice work we do today is not nearsighted, but it reaches into many future generations, shaping their lives in ways we can’t even imagine.
As this election season continues to stir up name calling, self interest, division, as it uses the tactic of fear to entice people to vote for this person or that, as leaders steer away from speaking words of encouragement and hope in gentle ways and instead rile people up to anger, how different would it be if this were not so. If those campaigning spoke of loving neighbor, of the generations of those not yet born, if they spoke with hope and gentleness in their words, if they showed a willingness to lead us out of this desert time in our nation to a place where all truly were able to settle and find home, able to live free from fear and violence, were able to lead us to the place where all could live in harmony, loving God and one another, casting self interest into oblivion and truly living in a world that reflects God’s kin-dom thriving here on earth.
There is a quote floating around on social media that speaks to this. It says, “You can’t love your neighbor if you vote for people who will pass laws against them.” When I think of this I think of my literal neighbors. I live between a fiercely independent 92 year old widow surviving on a small fixed income who worries about rising medical costs and what she will do when she is no longer able to look after herself, and a young gay couple who both work in health care who are concerned about CoVid and the ways it is impacting the residents in the places they work with, as well as the judgement they face in some places if they are seen holding hands in public. They hope to start a family some days, and this also weighs heavily on their hearts. At the back of me there is a group home for disabled adults who face a high turn over of caregivers struggling to survive on minimum wages. Across the street is a single mom with two young teenagers, one of whom has special needs that means he cannot be left home alone, again working a minimum wage job as she tries to keep food on the table while helping her kids with hybrid distance learning and struggling to find child care for her son. And next to them is a mixed race couple with a young son, juggling work and daycare and studies while dealing with prejudice about the color oof their skin and their relationship. So when I pray about care for my neighbor, all these diverse needs and beauty and issues and dreams come into play, and when I think about the next seven generations, just from these immediate physical neighbors, then how do I act, what words do I choose, how do I vote, how do I work for a more just world for all of us?
And it breaks my heart that even asking this question is seen as a controversial stance. That we are in such a place of deep division in the world, that loving neighbor, near and far, is often viewed as taking sides on a political spectrum. That remembering the words of the Iroquois: “Your heart shall be filled with peace and good will and your mind filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people,” can be heard as a challenge to an other’s core values.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, knew this well. While he was a student at Oxford University, at that time a university with strong ties to the Church of England, and which claimed to be a Christian university, John began to gather daily with a small group of other students to read the Bible and hold one another accountable. As they prayed with scripture this thought of loving God and neighbor really took hold of these young men, and they looked for ways they could love their neighbors. Rather than looking at other students, they looked at the city at large, and they saw the places where people were most in need…. The prisons, the hospitals, the orphanages. They began to visit the prisoners, teach the orphans how to read, took food to those in hospital. All good acts of loving neighbor. But their fellow students, most of whom would claim to be Christian, mocked them for doing this. They jeered at them and made fun, even while reading the Bible for themselves. This small group, called the Holy Club, who fasted, prayed together three or four times a week, and spent Sundays loving neighbor, became controversial in this university setting where students were often self serving, worried about their future standing in the world of business and politics, wanting to party and social network with their peers rather than seeing the needs of their neighbors right outside their dorm rooms.
But even while they heard the mocking and name calling from their fellow students, John, his brother Charles, and the others in their club, carried on following the greatest commandment, to love God and love neighbor. They balanced their studies with prayer and service, and shut their ears to the world that told them they were stupid, that called them fools, that mocked them with the name Methodists.
In this elite institution, these men cared less about their status and more for their neighbor. They spent any spare money they had on care for the other, for the future generations…. For think what a difference they made teaching the orphans, giving them a way to rise from poverty just by knowing how to read and write; and what a change they made in the attitude of the prisoners they visited, helping them break generational violence and lives of crime by having someone care about their souls, by having someone bring them the good news with gentleness and love.
As John Wesley continued his path of becoming a pastor and preacher, he continued to seek out his neighbors that others refused to welcome: the coal miners who would not be allowed through a church door with their filth and stench, the pub goers and drunkards who only heard words telling them about their sins, not that God loved them; the farm workers, the prostitutes, the poor. All those who were his neighbors, so often ignored by people like him. And he not only changed the lives of these people, but the lives of the seven generations that would follow them. For when someone steps aside from all that others think they can do, from the position in society they have been assigned, and learns something new, breaks a pattern of poverty, changes a history of abuse, repents from a life of crime,… then the generations that follow are all blessed by this. All it took was for John Wesley and his followers to recognize their position of power as white, educated men in the 18th century and to set aside self. In the words of the Iroquois, With endless patience they carried out their duty and their firmness was tempered with tenderness for the people. And they not only served the people directly, but used their positions of power to change laws, to better the life of large groups of people by creating policies that made change on national levels that ensured neighbors were loved just a little bit more than before.
So in the next weeks and months, let us strive to love and neighbor just a little bit more, to cast self interest aside and, “In our every deliberation, consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” May we not worry so much about our future, but lead others through the wilderness of this time, knowing we may never see the changes we are working for to make the world a better place, but work for them anyway. May we take our suffering and turn it to good, not looking to enact an eye for an eye philosophy, but rather using our pain and the pain of the world to help others grow in love. May we follow the greatest commandment in each decision we make, running our discernment through those three tests of loving God, loving neighbor, loving self, each in balance without putting self at the number one position. May we work for peace and hope and justice in our nation and in our world by spreading love with abandon. May we remember the great grandchildren of our great grandchildren, to the 7th generations, and work for justice and love for them.
In the Gospel of Luke, the story we heard from Matthew is told in a slightly different way: Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’
“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’
“Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’
“Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.’”
This less violent version still holds the same central theme, and the parable can be looked at in multiple ways… The rich person throwing the banquet believes his wealth and table of plenty should only be there in service of other rich folk perhaps. Or that poor rich man who put all this work in to prepare a feast for his friends was under appreciated and his gift was not received by those he invited. Or the rich man, scorned by those who looked like him and were in his social class, listened to who he was supposed to serve and had a change of heart. But then, in Matthew, we have this mysterious person who was not wearing the wedding garment who gets thrown into the outer darkness. Many aspects of this parable make us uncomfortable, and don’t match my theology where all are welcome, no matter what we are wearing. But it comes as a warning to the people of these times…. Those with wealth and riches are not the ones to fawn over. See those on the margins of life, bring in those from the streets, bring in the crippled and the poor and the lame. But be careful, for not everyone you invite comes with good in their hearts….. and I wonder if he was referring to the Last Supper where those gathered with him were from different walks of life… and Judas was also there among them, welcomed to some extent, but wearing evil in his heart.
For us, today though, I think this parable speaks to each of us individually, playing multiple roles in the story. If we place God in the role of the party giver, we are probably most likely to be the ones who are too busy to come, too uninterested, unwilling to set aside the time to come to God’s feast of abundance…. We turn our backs on the invitation, claiming that we have other, far more important things to tend to, and we miss the chance to come and sit with God multiple times throughout our days and weeks.
Recently my fellow monks and I did a prayerful reading on this passage, and one, Merri Lynn, wrote these words in response:
Come, for everything is now ready.
I can't come. My father-in-law has died.
I can't come. I'm too tired in my bones.
I can't come. I'm too sad.
I can't come. My grandchildren need me.
I can't come. My mom needs support and laundry and groceries.
I can’t come, I’m not worthy.
Come, for everything is now ready.
Come out of the alleyways of your mind, your experience, your loss, your confusion.
Come bewildered, blind, begging.
Come forgiving and forgiven.
Come. Keep coming. Keep bringing all that you are. There is room.
Come again, and again, and again.
Come, for everything is now ready.
I can’t come. I can’t come. We all have many excuses to say no to God’s invitation to come and feast, to come and celebrate, to come and sit, to come and visit, to come and pray. Yet, unlike the parable, this invitation to come never ends, we are invited over and over and over. The table is always ready, and all we have to do is show up. And how hard this is… right!
Earlier this week I went to walk a labyrinth. A labyrinth is a path of prayer that leads to a center, and, unlike a maze, it’s a path that, even with all the twists and turns, does not lead you astray. It leads to the center and then it leads out again. No dead ends, no false trails. Just a simple path. This particular labyrinth is out on a prairie and I was walking it on one of the windy days this week, and as I walked I was praying with this scripture. I got to the middle and listened, the wind at my back blowing hard. It felt like it was compelling me to move, to step forward, to go, go, go. But that didn’t feel like what God was asking of me. So I listened. “Turn,” I heard whispered in my heart, “Turn.” So I turned and faced into the wind. All of sudden, everything slowed down. I leaned into the wind, the fast air blowing in my face, and I felt totally at peace, held by the wind, not compelled to move but just to be, supported as I leaned forward, the wind holding me in place. I could lean far into it and feel secure, knowing it was strong enough to hold all of me, constant enough to keep me safe. As tears came to my eyes I thought that this is what life is like. We are driven by the outer world to keep moving, pushed to go, go go. But if we turn, if we allow ourselves to lean into God’s presence, then we can feel held and supported, and our ‘going’ has a very different feel to it, moving from this place. One that, when we are ready to move we may be going into the wind, is surrounded by the Spirit, it’s a being led rather than being pushed, it’s more stable than running with the wind behind us, pushing us out of control. And so I faced into the wind, and allowed the God to move me, to hold me, to stabilize me, to support me. Lean into me, the invitation I heard, the one I listened to. Lean into me.
Another of my fellow monks, Sue, drew a picture as part of her prayerful response to the passage. In the center, in large red letters, was the word BUT. And surrounding this was a litany of excuses… I’m too busy, tomorrow maybe, later, when I have more time, how about after the kids grow up? And these were just a few. I think we ALL tend to do this: place God down our list of important things to pay attention to, especially when the wind is at our backs. But when turn, when we lean in, when we feel the love and support that comes from the power of God holding us, the excuses soften and fly away.
So, for a few minutes, I invite you to write down some of your excuses on the card you have in your pew. What keeps you from saying Yes to God’s invitation to come and spend time in that Divine presence, what are the things that feel like the wind is pushing you forward in an out of control way, rather than turning to lean into the Spirit? Write them down now.
As you sit with your list of excuses, I invite you to ask God to show you just one way you can change one of these from an excuse into a leaning. One way you can bring one of these things into your awareness and turn it into something different when you feel that old way of being rising within you. Circle it, maybe write some words of encouragement you are hearing next to it, and bring this into your prayers this week.
The good news is that the invitation is always there for us. God, like in the parable from Luke, continues to tell us to come, until the house is full…. Until we are full of God’s love and grace. Until our souls and spirits are full of God’s peace and hope. This is a time to turn, a time for leaning. When the world around us spins out of control… turn and lean into the One who stays constant, who never changes, who is our center and our outer universe. Lean in to God. For the door does not shut on us, rather the invitation is to return again and again, to find time and space to turn in to God, to lean into God’s presence. When we do this, perhaps those parts of us not wearing the right robe, those parts that we think are ugly, mean or unready, those parts that have not taken this invitation seriously, the parts that show the world a false side will be thrown out, will move aside, will be healed, leaving the parts that are eager and ready to receive God’s love more space to do so.
So come, lean into God’s presence. Chose one excuse of busy-ness and allow it to fade away. Take your seat at the table. Say yes to the invitation to be with God. Be fully there and rejoice in the abundance of life you will find there! Lean in.
As we listen to Kitty play Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, begin to practice this leaning, take that one thing you have chosen to focus on and feel God’s presence supporting you, offering you a leaning post, lean in, lean in.
Today, we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day where we remember the millions of Christians around the world who gather in churches and homes and under trees to celebrate Holy Communion. These days the gathering may look different, some in person, some outside, some in their homes, most socially distanced, yet for all of us, the celebration of Holy Communion is a central sacrament in our faith. As United Methodists we believe that all are invited to this feast, that all are welcome to come and partake in this gift from God’s table, this gift of bread and juice symbolizing the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. A table that is big enough for any who wish to come, not a table with limitations and tests of worthiness to pass, but one where anyone who longs to be in relationship with Christ can come and partake and be welcomed fully, no matter what.
This, in itself is a miracle!
When I was a child, I attended church with my grandparents. The rest of my family rarely went, but I liked going, and I liked singing in the children’s choir. Communion Sunday was always a little stressful though. My grandmother would always put the Sunday roast in the oven before they left for church, with the hope that it would be ready when they got home. But on Communion Sunday’s she was always anxious as the service would run 10 or 15 minutes longer, and she sat there, concerned that her roast might be dried out or burnt. And my grandfather was anxious for other reasons, although I didn’t know this until much later. When I was an adult I visited and went to church with them. I hadn’t known as a child that Communion was for members only…. We didn’t get to receive it as kids. But this happened to be a Communion Sunday, and when the bread and juice were passed along the pews, my grandfather leaned over to me and said with a look on his face that was like a kid who had gotten away with something cheeky, “It’s ok if you take it…. They don’t know this, but I’m not a member and I take it every month!” For the last 55 years, since he had been married to my grandmother, he had been receiving Communion when, according to the church, he should have been denied it…. And he was tickled pink that he had managed to get away with it for so long.
In this denomination and in this church, we celebrate an open table. As United Methodists, when we declare this is God’s table and ALL are invited, it truly is a gift, maybe even a miracle!
But, more than this, I believe the real miracle is in the words Jesus used as he broke bread for the last time that night long ago. The night when he knew he was about to be betrayed, to be denied, to be killed. The night when he left this gift from the Seder dinner where he broke the bread in a way that we now know as the Last Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist. For on that night he invited all those at the table with him to eat and drink… listen again to these words from the Gospel of Matthew:
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Do you hear it? Do you hear that miraculous invitation? Drink from it…. ALL OF YOU.
Jesus knew that Judas, the one who would betray him with a kiss was part of this ‘all’. Jesus knew that Peter, the one who would deny he was one of Jesus’ followers was part of this ‘all’. Jesus knew that the other disciples who would huddle and hide, scared for their own lives were part of this ‘all’. Jesus knew that all those gathered in their many vast and deep ways of being broken were part of this ‘all’. And still, he said, ALL OF YOU.
As I sat with these words in prayer again this week, I was reminded of a poem by Warsan Shire, a poet who is a Somali refugee living in England. She wrote:
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Where does it hurt? Jesus might have asked that very same question that last supper. Where does it hurt? For those disciples were hurting as Jesus shared the bread and cup with them. Jesus, himself, was hurting, as we see when he heads to the Garden of Gethsemane later that evening. His mother was hurting as she imagined the next few hours for her son. Where does it hurt? And in response, Jesus looks at those gathered and says, Yes… it hurts. Here is my body broken for you. I’m not going to deny the hurt, the brokenness, the pain. It hurts….. it hurts everywhere. AND, here is my body, broken for you. It hurts everywhere, and here is the cup of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of their sins.
There is a real beauty in this acknowledgement of the hurting of individuals, of the pain of the world. The way that Jesus is able to look at the hurt, the pain, the brokenness with compassion and know it’s not the end of the story. The way he sees the hurt and still offers up himself to all… even the ones who will later hurt him directly. It’s a promise for both the nowness of the pain, the ways he promises to see, to acknowledge and not turn away, to walk with us, to stay with us in the midst of all the horror that is taking place. And it’s a promise for the future. Take this bread, all of you, take this cup, all of you. A new covenant is being worked out, even as we sit in this present time of destruction, abuses of power, fear and hate… something new is being prepared. So eat, drink. I see what is happening. I see what the future holds. Don’t loose hope. All of us are hurting somewhere. Don’t loose hope.
There was another poem that came to mind when I sat with the beauty of this, the beauty that, even in our brokenness, our humanness, our hurt, we are welcome to the table. This one is by Andrew King:
THE TABLE WITH NO EDGES
We will sit down where feet tire from the journey.
We will sit down where grief bends the back.
We will sit down under roofs wrecked by artillery.
We will sit down where cries sound from cracked walls.
We will sit down where heat beats like hammers.
We will sit down where flesh shivers in cold.
We will sit down where bread bakes on thin charcoal.
We will sit down where there is no grain in baked fields.
We will sit down with those who dwell in ashes.
We will sit down in shadow and in light.
We will sit down, making friends out of strangers.
We will sit down, our cup filled with new wine.
We will sit down and let love flow like language.
We will sit down where speech needs no words.
We will sit together at the table with no edges.
We will sit to share one loaf, in Christ’s name, in one world.
We will sit down…. It doesn’t matter where we have come from, what shame fills our lives, what brokenness or grief we carry, what we may have done or left undone, what hurts we have inflicted or absorbed. We will sit down…. However we are dressed, whatever language we speak, whatever color our skin, whatever preferences we have for love, whatever our income is, wherever we live. We will sit down…. It doesn’t matter what we did on the way to get here…. In many ways it doesn’t matter what we do 30 minutes from now, for remember Judas. When we sit down, when we come hungry for a relationship with the Divine, when we show up at the table ready to be seen by God, ready to be welcomed into this place of grace and mercy. When we sit down at this table with no edges it receives all of our rough and broken edges. When we sit down, then Jesus will say to us, Take this bread, all of you, take this cup, all of you. All of you. Each one AND all of you…. The hurting and grieving parts, the shame-filled parts, the parts that you may think are beyond repair, the parts that are shiny and that you want the world the see, the parts that you hide from everyone you meet… and even from yourself. Take this bread, all of you, take this cup, all of you. ALL of you.
For when we show up at the table we are welcome, when we come to God’s table, all of us is rejoiced! The mere act of showing up is all that is required of us, God will take care of everything else. And the beautiful thing is that when we show up, time after time, the grace and mercy and love that drips into us through this bread and cup, through this act of welcome, through our willingness to come and be met by God’s love, through all of this God’s love and healing and grace begins to change us, to smooth out the rough places, to heal the broken places, to comfort the grieving places, to open our hearts to receiving even more of the love and grace that flow so freely. It’s like a gentle mother kissing an owie of a small child… the pain is lessened and the child is reassured that the parent is there for them. Each time we come, we are kissed by God’s love. And reassured once more… no matter what we have done in between the times of sitting at the table. We show back up. We are received each and every time with Love.
So come, ALL of you.
Today we pick up on the story of Moses again. Since we last visited this story, Moses has grown up, asked the Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites, the Pharaoh refused, the plagues came to the Egyptians, the Pharaoh reluctantly freed the Israelite slaves, then changed his mind and sent the armies after them. As they were being chased they came to the Red Sea, trapped between this body of water and those chasing them, the seas parted and the Israelites crossed to the other side while the Egyptian army was caught in the waters. A pillar of cloud leads the Israelites by day and fire by night and food is provided for them to eat. So, by all accounts, you would think the Israelites would be grateful for their freedom and feeling blessed by the food they are receiving. But, no. In todays’ scripture we hear that the Israelites are complaining again. This time they are thirsty. So they go to Moses and say, “Why did you free us from Egypt? Did you just bring us here to die of thirst? We were better off before. Why did you free us?”
Now, remember, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They had been worked hard by their masters, given food and shelter, but not much… just enough to keep them healthy enough to do the manual labor they were forced to do. They had no freedom, and were used to harsh conditions. Now they are on an extended wilderness trip, walking through the desert, their needs being met by God, but still they complain. Why didn’t you leave us there to die? Why did you bring us into freedom? This isn’t what we signed up for!
I do wonder how many years this was into their journey. We are told they are wandering through the wilderness for forty years before reaching the promised land, so if they had been walking around for years already, this complaint may make sense. The new lives that would have been born in the wilderness having known no slavery, the memories of harshness faded to a fairy tale re-telling of their lives in Egypt, the many lives that would have been lost with no place to be laid to rest. All impacting the people. And the fading memory of how bad it had been replaced with the day to day reality of surviving while following this guy who was making promises about a land that was full of milk and honey…. Empty promises of plenty for all that were beginning to sound like lies when all they had to eat was manna in the mornings and quail in the evenings…. And, presumably, they would get meat from the flocks they had with them too. But this would get boring after a while. Where was the sweetness of the honey? Where was the creaminess of the milk? Where was this place where enough turned to plenty and roots could be laid down, crops grown, lives rebuilt with a sense of stability? And who was this Moses who kept talking about this land that felt far away? Who had put him in charge? And who was this God he claimed to keep talking to?
As they complained once more, Moses listened and turned once more to God. What shall I do God? I want to take care of the people, but they are testing you once more. They are ready to stone me. They are thirsty for more. And once more God answered, told Moses where to go and what to do, and in his faithfulness, Moses listened and followed the instructions, hit a rock with his staff, and water flowed, enough water for all the people and all the animals alike.
And we know this is far from the end of their complaining. As the story continues to unfold, they complain about the ten commandments, they complain about the idols they are told not to worship, they complain about the leadership, it seems that all they do is complain as they travel for these forty years through the wilderness.
All this leaves me to wonder how much better their lives would have been if they had expressed gratitude instead of complaining. If, when they had arrived at the camp where they were thirsty they simply said, Hi God. Thank you for all you have given us. We are grateful for the food, the freedom you afforded us, the ways you are guiding us and are never far from us during this time. We know there must be water in this place.. can you show us where it is please?… Thank you God!
For when our hearts are filled with gratitude our whole attitude is different and we begin to notice the blessings of life, rather than what is absent. And this is counter cultural, for the world loves to tell us what is missing from our lives. Consumerism tells us all the time that we don’t have enough. That if only we had this or that product, our lives would be better and we would be happy. If we buy this cereal, we will be filled for the whole day. If we buy this make up we will be beautiful. If we buy this car our lives will be filled with adventure and romance and new things. Even the right toilet paper will make your life better! Every time we turn on the radio or tv or open a newspaper, we are told what we are lacking, what we need to buy to be and feel better. And this can make us complain about what we are missing, rather than seeing the abundance of what we have.
I have a friend who began to take this seriously over a decade ago. It was spurred by an unfortunate Thanksgiving, where she had invited some people to come and eat with her family. She had a middle school daughter at the time, and life was chaotic and hard, with the two of them butting heads often. And when their friends cancelled coming for Thanksgiving, she felt let down and angry and upset… Surely it must be her own fault that the friends had cancelled after she had spent time and energy into planning a great feast. And I think there was much complaining in the house that week! She says, “I was a wreck. My daughter was a wreck. And my husband couldn’t ‘fix’ anything that was happening. Clearly, we lost sight of what Thanksgiving and the upcoming Advent season were supposed to mean so I decided, in that moment, that we would not sit down to dinner until we each stated 1 thing we were grateful for.
It wasn’t a moment of glory.
They had no idea where I was coming from. It was a challenge that none of us were really ready to be open to and it came off as more of a punishment than an opportunity for spiritual growth.”
But, it was the start of a conversation between her and God, one that planted seeds over several years, seeds that began to grow as she listened to what God was cultivating in her heart.
She says, After a few years, I realized I needed more. This is the point that I began to understand that: 1. gratitude is different from thankfulness, and 2. it’s personal – it has to grow from within.
I knew I was missing something – that still, small voice whispered, “Why be grateful on “that one day”
And instead of just demanding one thing that her family was thankful for on Thanksgiving Day itself, she began to name things she was thankful for in the week leading up to Thanksgiving Day. Soon she was giving thanks each day of November, journalling what these were so she could look back upon them. And soon the nudge from God was why limit your gratitude to Thanksgiving. What about the other days? Why wait? And so, since then, she has practiced gratitude each day, journalling through the good days and the hard days, the ones where joy is easy to find and the ones where grief and chaos and doubt swirl. What is there to be grateful for in the midst of all of life! And it has been a transformational practice for her.
This practice has led her to some deep lessons, including her saying:
there is a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. Thankfulness is a social act, an outward response, to honor and appreciate the efforts of another.
Gratitude, while expressing appreciation, is more importantly an emotional state of being. Gratitude grows from within and then needs an outward expression.
Gratitude is not the same thing as Joy. Gratitude may be the spark for Joy, but in real life we are asked to find gratitude in order to find balance in the worst of moments where joy is the last feeling that would be reasonable. Grief and gratitude go hand in hand just as naturally as it partners with peace and joy.
Gratitude is understanding that while the world seems so crazy, I have an anchor that holds me in balance.
Gratitude allows us to glimpse the Eternal in the Everyday and we begin to respond to the Divine rather than the tunnel vision that narrows our focus onto the single moment that is causing our distress. The more we rely on gratitude we begin to replace negative responses and begin to feel at peace.”
These deep lessons have continued to be transformative for her life as she moves through the difficult times and the times where peace and joy are more easily seen. It now comes more naturally to her, the gratitude rises from deep within, and sometimes finds an outward expression, but sometimes really is just an inner attitude that brings strength and a different way of looking at and feeling into the world, and brings about more glimpses of God at work in every day life.
These days it may seem like we have a lot to complain about…. Our nation is unsettled, we don’t know what November will bring, we have lost a great advocate for women with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, justice feels far from being served, people are taking to the streets to make their voices heard and some are using the protests as an excuse for violence, many have lost income during CoVid, and some say complain freedoms are being taken away. But what we if can change our attitude and see what we have to be grateful for?
So, right now, I invite you to feel a sense of gratitude. Find that sense of gratitude that resides deep within you. If you are struggling to find it, return to the things that caught your attention as Kitty played Surely The Presence of the Lord is in this place. Find that place of gratitude within you. You need not have a specific thing that you are grateful for, but just the feeling of gratitude. Picture it like a light, a small flicker of candle light. And as you sit with this, picture the light getting stronger, glowing brighter, allowing that sense of gratitude to grow and spread with the light’s brightness. See if you can allow it to fill your whole body, your whole being, allowing the gratitude to flow, to spread, to build, to glow and warm your whole self. Sit with this sense of gratitude, just letting it be. If a feeling of fear or doubt or anxiety tries to come in, set it aside for now and just let the light fill you, the gratitude to become you.
As we go through these tumultuous times, let us turn complaints into gratitude. It may start with naming what you are thankful for, but it may be sitting with that feeling of gratitude and allowing it to build and spread. Watch how it transforms you, gives you strength, allows the grief and pain to be held in a different way. Allow gratitude to become your anchor, and give you glimpses of the Eternal everywhere you are and in all you meet, and pay attention to how it transforms you over time.
This verse from the Gospel of Matthew has been translated in different ways. Are we supposed to forgive 77 times or 70 times 7 times? The difference of 413 instances of forgiveness is huge. But how did we get there?
The common thinking in Jesus' day was that you only had to forgive three times, so Peter obviously thinks he is being very generous by saying he will forgive seven times when someone has hurt him. This is double the teaching plus one and is also the perfect number in Hebrew thought….. think the 7 days of creation! But Jesus refers back to the scriptures he knew well, the Torah, the scriptures he grew up studying, back to the book we know as Genesis, and the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain had killed Abel he was filled with remorse and had a conversation with God, saying,:
“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
Then God said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”
Some seven generations later, Lamech was born, and, after killing a man who had attacked him, said, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then surely Lamech must be avenged seventy seven fold.”
So when Jesus is asked this question about forgiveness, he turns the vengeance to forgiveness and says, “Not seven times, I tell you. But seventy seven fold.” So this could be seen as 77 or seventy times seven. And I think the ones who are keeping count are the only ones really worried about which number it is… for both translations tell us that we have to forgive often…. Probably way more often that we want to!
Jesus then shares a story about forgiveness, which shows us that forgiveness really needs to change both the person that is receiving it and the one offering it… the slave whose debt was forgiven did not allow this to happen. He was forgiven and then refused to forgive a fellow slave. But when the forgiveness does not change the behavior of the one forgiven, does the forgiveness count?
I think this is freeing to us in a lot of ways, and can be different from the ways the world can expect. For so often we hear we should forgive and forget… and this can lead to thinking we have to stay in relationship with someone who hurts us over and over again. But when the offering of forgiveness does not lead to a change of behavior, then I don’t think Jesus is telling us to stay in that relationship 77 times over, let alone seventy times seven. When the act of forgiving keeps allowing trust to be broken, forgiveness is not an act to repeat for the other, but it may be time to repeat it for oneself. For the slave whose debt was forgiven, but who did not allow this act of generosity to change him and refused to forgive another’s debt, was taken and punished, until he could repay his original debt.
As a survivor of abuse, and someone who works a lot with people who have experienced abuse, this is a really important lesson to remember, especially when the abuse happens within a family system. Many times the abuser or abusers keep on violating trust, and the abused one forgives, often because they need the family structure in order to survive. This can be especially true when they are children, where the adults in their life are the ones who are vital for their daily needs, even when they are also abusing the child. There is no other option than for the child to keep turning to the adults for food, shelter, scraps of love and kindness. And the forgiveness the child offers each time that a crumb of hope is thrown their way is purely a survival tactic. Eventually, the child will come to believe that they are the one at fault, and self hatred begins to build, for these adults who feed them must be ok, and that these adults do not change their behaviors, even after the child forgives them, means the hurt must be their own fault, and that is unforgiveable: self esteem drops and self loathing builds.
All this begs the question about what forgiveness actually is then. If forgiveness is not meant to be returning to the same patterns for forgivee and forgiver, if it means that a cycle should be broken, what does forgiveness look like? And who is forgiveness for?
Sometimes, absolutely, the forgiveness is for the one who has wronged. There is a great story that was going around that is probably not true, but was a beautiful illustration of forgiveness, healing and transformation. It said that there is a tribe in Africa where, when someone does something wrong, they are brought to the center of the tribe. The tribe circles up around them and begins to speak, not of the wrongdoing of the individual in the center, but of all the gifts and love they have to share. Thus the wrongdoer is surrounded by words of Love and reminded of who they are at the very core of their being. It reminds me of how we forgive our children, over and over, for the things they do as they are learning what it means to be a kind and loving human being in this world. We forgive them for their wrongdoings while reminding them of the good person they are.
But most often the forgiveness is for the one who has been wronged, for the very one who is offering the forgiveness. It serves to free them from the pain, to change them, to bring them healing. And it does not even have to include the person being forgiven. Someone once wrote, “I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who wasn't sorry & accept an apology I knew I'd never receive...” and this is true. We can forgive without the other person even being aware we have forgiven them, and, most importantly, this leads to self forgiveness too. In these cases, forgiveness can look like cutting ties to the relationship, but, more that this, a sense of freedom in the one forgiving. When they think of the incident, or incidents, that need forgiving, a sense of peace will be there, replacing the shame or anger or frustration or pain. It’s an inner change that the other may never know, and it only requires the self to do the forgiving.
A friend and colleague of mine, Liza, did a lot of work with prisoners in a process called reconciliation circles. She would go into the state prison once a week, and meet with a dozen or so men, all sitting in a circle. And the aim was to have these men come to terms with the crimes they had committed and discover the deep, inner reasons they had done them. It was found that the men, after doing this work, were far less likely to commit new crimes after their release, with less than a 10% recidivism rate. Most of the work these prisoners do is to come to terms with their own demons and pain, the ways they have been hurt, often from a very young age. Liza said, “Because the groups are at least 12 months long meeting weekly, the formation of trust within the group and the learning of speaking about personal things, even taboo things was critical. More than focusing on the crimes, the groups focused on the psychological and sociological reality that children must adapt anyway they can in families that are abusive and neglectful, and those adaptations, usually unconscious, taken into adulthood can lead to emotionally dysfunctional interactions. The men could only think about forgiving themselves after they had processed what happened to them before they committed their crime, and how their crime impacted others. Self-forgiveness was accompanied by the gradual development of a new identity as a person who could and would make different choices, and a recognition that forgiving their young emotionally volatile self was a part of moving on.”
Once these men had learned to forgive themselves, once they had found the healing that comes from telling their stories and exploring the deep hurts, Once that transformation was complete, then they could work on receiving the forgiveness offered to them by the victims of their crimes. And in hearing their stories and their process of transformation, the victims, in turn, were transformed and were able to offer forgiveness to the men, allowing them, too, to find healing, seeing the perpetrators as a broken human being rather than a monster.
This self forgiveness is, perhaps, the most important factor in living a forgiving life. Desmond Tutu said, “Learning from the past is not the same as being held hostage by what we have done. At some stage we must let go of the past and begin again. We have said repeatedly that no one is undeserving of forgiveness. When we forgive ourselves, we also free ourselves from a cycle of punishment and retribution directed at ourselves.”
I believe this is what the Romans passage we heard is pointing to.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
For us to truly stand before God, we must practice self awareness, and self forgiveness. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by this. We must become so aware and so humble that we fall to our knees before God in thanksgiving for the million ways God forgives us, heals us, welcomes us and loves us. For once we are forgiven by God, which we are daily, then how can we fail to fall to our knees in awe!
As we daily pray those words Jesus taught us, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others…. Let us always be aware of our trespasses, begging forgiveness form God, from the other, and from ourselves. Let us have the courage to stand in circles of reconciliation, to seek the deep, inner healing that each of us needs, to listen to our confessions, to hear our gifts and the love others have for us pouring back into our hearts. Let us allow forgiveness to transform us at our very cores. And then let us fall to our knees in gratitude and praise!
There is a story that goes:
A stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what this place is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasurdin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a wonderful place! Neighbors were kind to one another, we looked out for the children, people shared and were generous and happy!" "Ah! said Nasrudin. "You will love it here. Don't worry at all, and welcome!"
Later on, another stranger stops Nasrudin at the city gates. "Will you tell me," says the stranger, "what this place is like? I have to move to a city and I'm worried." Nasurdin replies, "Tell me about the place you came from." "Oh, it was a terrible place! Thieving and fornication and children noisy and running wild. People are selfish and distrustful." "Ah!" said Nasrudin. "You will dislike it here. You'd better move on to another city!"
The stories we tell ourselves about the communities we live and worship in are important. Our past can inform what we think of the present, our attitude can determine all we know and all we can imagine that is possible.
As a newbie, I have not heard a whole lot of stories yet about this church community… I know it was started in 1857, that this building was built in 1881, that you, all, built the fellowship hall, that the first woman pastor ordained in this conference was appointed here for a time….. But I know there are many, many more stories to be heard! And I know that each of you loves this community, and in turn, feels loved by it. And, I have heard some fears about the future of this congregation, sadness over the people who left, a tiredness when you think about what needs to be done, a desire for growth.
One story I have heard is both a lamentation and a joy that we are a small congregation, for this brings great gifts of welcome, of feeling the spirit of being a family, of allowing close friendships between people. But it can also bring a story of lack… not enough people to do things, not enough money or fellow worshippers or singers or…. That list can get long if we allow it to.
Yet today’s scripture tells us where two or three are gathered Christ is among us. This is something we have heard many a time, where two or three are gathered…. And I’m sure all of us have felt this at some point in our lives. Where just a small group of people are together, the Spirit is moving among them and something extraordinary is happening.
If we tell ourselves this story, this can become the reality, but if we tell ourselves that our small church is too small, not what it used to be, a place where we feel the lack of a Sunday school, of families, of missions, of energy and people, then this can be the story we begin to believe.
So, for a moment, I want you each to name something you love about this congregation, right as it is now. Not comparing to the past or worrying about the future, but what do you love about Clearwater United Methodist Church today?
ASK PEOPLE TO SHARE>>>>>
When two or three….. or 25 are gathered, Christ is present!
The scriptures today challenge us to believe this by talking to us about behavior, especially behavior in community. The Roman’s scripture reminds us of the commandments, and then that we are close to the day of judgment, compelling us to put on the armor of light, and then the Matthew scripture tells us what to do when others are not doing this! Speak to your friends, compel one another to do what is right, to have hope and to work for what we long to bind here on earth, a binding of goodness and love and hope.
There is a story I heard recently, that fits in with this:
A monastery had fallen on hard times. It was once part of a great order which, as a result of religious persecution lost all its branches. It was decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the mother house: the Abbot and four others, all of whom were elderly.
Deep in the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut that the Rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. One day, it occurred to the Abbot to visit the hermitage to see if the Rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot and commiserated. “I know how it is” he said, “the spirit has gone out of people. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore either.” So the old Rabbi and the old Abbot wept together, and spoke quietly of deep things.
The time came when the Abbot had to leave. They embraced. “It has been wonderful being with you,” said the Abbot, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming. Have you no piece of advice that might save the monastery?” “No, I am sorry,” the Rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.”
When the other monks heard the Rabbi’s words, they wondered what possible significance they might have. “The Messiah is among us? One of us, here, at the monastery? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Of course – it must be the Abbot, who has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is undoubtably a holy man. Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod – he’s so crotchety. But then Elrod is very wise. Surely, he could not have meant Brother Phillip – he’s too passive. But then, magically, he’s always there when you need him. Of course he didn’t mean me – yet supposing he did? Oh Lord, not me! Please, not me!
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
The forest in which the monastery was situated was beautiful, and people occasionally came to visit the monastery, to picnic or to wander along the old paths, most of which led to the dilapidated chapel. They sensed the aura of extraordinary respect and love that surrounded the five old monks, permeating the atmosphere. They began to come more frequently, bringing their friends, and their friends brought friends. Some of the younger men who came to visit began to engage in conversation with the monks. After a while, one asked if he might join. Then another, and another. Within a few years, the monastery became once again a thriving order, and – thanks to the Rabbi’s gift – a vibrant community of light and love.
In addition to the respect, I believe these monks had put on the armor of light, they had managed to re-narrate their story from a story of sorrow and loss to one of love and respect and hope. They changed their beliefs from worrying about the future to looking for glimpses of the Divine among them at that very moment, and they began to see these glimpses, see this binding on earth in the ways they knew it would be in Heaven.
And this is what God calls us to do…. in a world so filled with fear and worry, we are called to put on an armor of light and become people of hope, to tell the story from the point of the resurrection rather than the crucifixion, to share the good news! This does not mean bypassing the hard part of following Christ, it doesn’t mean we don’t recognize Good Friday, it certainly doesn’t mean we turn our backs onto the brokenness of the world, and it doesn’t mean we don’t, at times, fall into the pit of despair and grief. Rather it challenges us to face these things knowing there is more, that this is not the end of a story, but just a chapter in it. It challenges us to shine a light, or bring a light, into the hard parts of life. It means we always search for that kernel of hope in the midst of the darkness, that we seek the Divine in each person and challenge we encounter.
And part of this means changing the common narrative we tell about ourselves as a congregation. To celebrate what we have that is good. To tell the world about what we love about this church, this congregation, one another. One example of this might be sharing a story about church when you are with non church people… talk about what inspired you from a sermon, what touched you from a conversation, and invite someone to come to church with you check it out, share a copy of the sermon (they are on our webpage). Another example may be if someone asks, “Do you have a kids program?” Instead of lamenting that we don’t, or saying, “well, we used to have one, but…..” and tapering off, say, “Right now, everyone is welcome to stay in the service during church and we are thinking of preparing an area in the sanctuary where children can play during the service. We have a dedicated time for children during the service, and encourage them to be in leadership roles in the church.” You are still telling them that we don’t have anything for kids yet, but it’s telling them in a welcoming and hopeful way.
Another example is if someone asks how big the congregation is, you could reply, “we are small,” in a sad voice, or, “we are a small, dedicated group of people who are always ready to welcome new people into our family community.”
The changes in how we tell our story can be subtle, but life altering. Like the first two people who inquired about what it was like to live in in the new city, the first was expecting something friendly, the second, not so. The beliefs we have over who we are change how we see the world, and change how we move through the world. When we can stay in the present feeling the hope for the future, but present in what is right now, when we can seek the divine among us, recognizing it in each one, when we can speak from a place of reality clothed in an armor of light, then the world will see are something they want to be a part of.
So as you go about your week, catch yourself if you find a narrative coming forth that is not bathed in light, try to speak to people the good word about who we are, see the divine in each one, and bring hope to all you meet!
There is a short story by Arthur C. Clarke about a group of Tibetan monks who hire an inventor to create a machine that will be able to list and print all the nine billion names of God in a special alphabet they have devised over the last 3 centuries. They believe that when they have managed to name all the names of God, then God’s purpose will be complete, the human race will have fulfilled all it was created to do, and the world can come to an end, although the engineers don’t find this out until the computer has almost finished listing the 9 billion names of God. As the computer has nears the end of cranking out the names, the two engineers, who have been staying at the monastery for three months to watch over their invention, decide to plan their escape in case the monks are mad at them for the world not ending, and, in the middle of the night, take two ponies and begin the long, arduous journey down the steep mountain path to where their plane is sitting in the valley. They breathe a sigh of relief as they catch a glimpse of their plane in the distance, excited to head for home, safe from the wrath of the monks, and laughing to themselves about the foolish men who think the world is about to end. The last lines of the story are, “Wonder if the computer’s finished its run. It was due about now.” Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky.
“Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven.
Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
While this is a story of fiction, I do love the idea that there are about 9 billion names of God…. Although in the Bible itself it’s closer to 900 names and attributes given to God. I think, though, that the more names we have for God, the more chances we have of encountering God in every day life, the more likely we are to see God’s hand in our lives.
Moses struggles with this in todays scripture …. Who is God? How do I address God? Who do I call God? He has just encountered God as a burning bush, and God tells him, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, he has received the command from God to bring the Israelites out of Egypt to a land of milk and honey. Moses tries to resist, but God continues to ask him until Moses agrees. But then his main concern is what to call God when the people ask him who has sent him. God replies in this beautiful riddle, “I am who I am.” Say to the Israelites, I AM sent me.” This is my name forever.”
Since this time, people have been trying to name who, exactly, God is. For if we can name something, it gives us power over it and helps us to understand it….
For a moment I want you to think back to the first image or memory you have of God. Was it something you were told, someone who embodied God, a feeling you had, an experience. Who was the God you first met in you life?
From this, what names do you give God? What images of God do you hold dear?
HAVE PEOPLE RESPOND>>>>>>>>>>>
Many of us have been taught that God is like a father figure, an old white haired, long bearded man who hangs out in the clouds. Or a stern God who punishes those he is upset with.
But God is always bigger than any box we try to fit God into! Maybe even bigger than the 9 billion names those Tibetan monks were printing out on their new computer! God is Father, Mother, Creator, The All Sufficient One, The Beginning and The End, The Buckler and Shield, the Eagle’s Wings, A Consuming Fire, The Fountain of the Living Waters…. The list goes on an on. And the very name “I am who I am” in Hebrew is Yahweh, a remarkable combination of both female and male grammatical endings. The first part of God’s name in Hebrew, “Yah,” is feminine, and the last part, “weh,” is masculine. So even in this simple I am who I am statement, God embodies more then we realize.
My earliest memory is a memory of God. When I was a baby, less than nine months old as we were still in the apartments where we lived when I was born, I was left outside in my pram to take a nap. We lived up on the second or third floor, and it was common for me to be put outside to nap, strapped in the pram and placed under a tree, the traffic going by on the road as a lullaby. When I woke up, I began to cry, but no one was there to hear me. My nappy was wet, I was hungry and I was asking for help, crying and crying, for I don’t know how long. Then I saw, up in the tree, the light filtering through and angels dancing in the light, and heard a voice saying to me, “it’s ok. I’ve got you.” And this voice began to sing to me, soothing me until I just lay there looking up at the angels dancing in the leaves until my mum finally came to get me.
So, if you ask me who God is I am likely to give a different answer to many of you. I am more likely to say God is Soother, Protector, Loving Mother, Light Dancer.
And I’m not alone in my ways of thinking of God. Many mystics throughout the ages have felt and seen God, and, in trying to describe these knowings of who God is through poetry and writing and art. And each manages to, at most, get just a few of those names of God, those ways of describing the Great I Am. And this goes for each of the three religions that are born from the Abrahamic tradition: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The poet Hafiz, who is a Sufi… the mystical branch of Islam, wrote,
Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don'ts,
Not the God who ever does
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
"Come dance with Me."
When we grow up, we seem to forget this dance, these names of God that go beyond words and incorporate feelings and experiences, and fall back into our heads, using names like Father, Lord, God, Creator to name the unnamable. And this is fine. For we feel we must be able to call God something, either as a sign of reverence or as a claiming to know who God is. Moses, who was told “I am who I am,” maybe got the closest answer to the truth. I am who I am feels like it is a continuous, growth allowing name, one that can change with the circumstances, one that can adapt to the situation. If someone asks who you are, it probably depends on what you are doing and who you are with on what your answer is. If someone I meet casually asks me who I am, I will most likely say, “Alison,” but I have also been known as mom, aunty, pastor, daughter, child, teacher, Miss Hendley, Mother Earth, an Elder, a feeder, a nature lover…. The list does not have 9 billion names, but still, quite a few! And they change, depending on the circumstances. I am what I am in that moment. So this name God gives, I am who I am, is an on going, ever changing, never changing, adaptive, growth permitting, soul feeding name. One that can be used in any circumstance with any person. One that can include all of creation, all of the emotions that may be felt, all of the roles that ‘I am’ needs to play to us where we are, all of the love that can ever be imagined. It is like a continual dance that we are invited to join in with.
So this week I want to challenge you to think of a new way of naming God, of being with God. If you always call God Father, try Mother instead. If you see God as a distance deity in the sky, imagine God holding you or walking with you or doing dishes with you. If you think of God as a person, imagine seeing God in the flowers and trees, in the birds and foxes. Whatever you choose, try to expand on the image of God you hold most closely, for the great I Am longs to be with us in 9 billion different ways, each of them based in love, and this So come! Put on your dancing shoes. Remember that call from eons ago. Come, dance with God!
As I read through this story of the Pharaoh’s daughter finding a baby in a basket, I am struck by the strong females in this story. It’s not often in the Old Testament that we meet such women, as usually the stories revolve around the men and their roles in the lives of the Israelites, but here we have five women who are going against those in power and the unconscionable acts of their time. The most powerful man at this time in the region was the Pharaoh, or the king…. Two titles for the same man. He had seen the Israelite people growing in number and was scared, so he tried to destroy the most vulnerable, the lifeline of this group of peoples, by ordering the death of the boy babies. Some strong females, however, had other plans.
First, the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who are told to kill all the male babies born to Jewish women at birth. But putting their lives at risk they decide not to do this, and when the pharaoh demands to know why they have failed to carry out his orders, they use their wits and tell him that the Jewish women are not like the Egyptian women, and they give birth before they, the midwives, arrive. The pharaoh does not question this further, probably embarrassed to find out why this might be, or if there is truth to this as it would mean asking questions about the functions of a woman’s body during birth, and the midwives are free from his command to kill the babies. I appreciate both their strength to go against the pharaoh’s command in the first place, and their wisdom in spinning a story that he won’t question. As he already thought the Jewish and Egyptian women to be different, he just took Shiphrah and Puah’s word for it that their women were quicker at giving birth, like the animals he believed them to be!
And then we meet the mother of the baby who would later be named Moses. We don’t know much about her, but she had at least one other child at this time, a girl Miriam, who was at least old enough to negotiate with the Pharaoh’s daughter. At some point she also had another son, Aaron, who comes into the story later. Scholars say Miriam was at least seven years older than Moses, maybe more. Their mother, Jochebed, gives birth to a boy and hides him from Pharaoh’s men for three months. I imagine her trying to hush this baby as he cried, fearful for his life as the men tried to find all the baby boys to drown them. When the child was three months, already bonded with Jochebed, she realizes she can no longer keep him safe, and so she weaves a basket for him, takes him to where she knows he will be found, and hides him in the reeds.
The next woman we meet is Pharaoh’s daughter. I cannot decide if she has her dad wrapped around her little finger so tightly that she knows he won’t turn away a baby she brings from the river, or if the palace is so large and her father so distant, emotionally as well as physically, that she knows she won’t be found out. Whatever the situation, when Pharaoh’s daughter comes across this Hebrew baby she does not hesitate. She knows the danger, she knows her father has ordered all these babies to be killed, she knows exactly what she is doing,…. and she has empathy and does it anyway. She stands up to power, to what she knows is wrong, and takes the baby in. And I think she must have known when Miriam pops up out of her hiding place and offers to find a wet nurse for the baby, that it would be the baby’s own mother who would get to stay with him until he was weaned, so for at least the next three years!
While none of these women (and I’m including Miriam in this) held any power in the big structure of things, each was able to use the power they did have to make a difference against injustice. None could change Pharaoh’s mind to kill the baby boys born to the Jewish women, but each could save the lives they could by doing what was right in the moment that was before them. Each one saw the impossibility and insanity of the situation, and each one did something to bring about one little spark of hope, even as they grieved the losses they were surrounded by, the grief of the other mothers, the senseless killing of so many babies. Each one drew on some inner strength to take a stand for what they knew to be a step towards justice and hope.
I heard another strong woman speak these words this week:
Over the past years, a lot of people have asked me, “does going high still really work?” My answer: going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, ……. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.
But let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one …. under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
I think this is what these women from today’s scripture did. The found a way to live together, even under the oppressive rule of the Pharaoh. They found a way to go high and work across their differences, with Moses’ mother keeping the baby fed and healthy even when she had given him up to the Pharaoh’s daughter. And the Pharaoh’s daughter trusted this, knowing that his birth mom was going to teach him the ways of his people, the ways of God, trusting that difference would be ok. Then, when Moses was old enough, he was taught in the ways of the Egyptians, and his birth mom had to trust that that, too, was going to be ok. Even the name, Moses, given to him by the Pharaoh’s daughter, was one that translated into both Egyptian (as rescued from the water) and Hebrew (as brought forth). Again, a coming together of the differences to allow a people to survive.
If, however, you had asked any of these women who they were, I doubt they would have said they were powerful, brave, or even change makers. I imagine they were humble and wanted to not even answer such a question. I wonder, if others had been asked, what they would have said. For all these 5 women were trying to do was to go high and save a life, to follow their compassion and passion and save one life at a time. They were not going up against the Pharaoh and forcing him to change, they were doing what they could do and change one life’s trajectory…. Not knowing that this would, indeed, change the whole nation.
Last week we met another strong woman who changed who we are today…. The Canaanite woman who asked Jesus for healing for her daughter. If she had not challenged Jesus, I wonder who we would be today, would be have a separate religion called Christianity? Would we be a group still only looking out for our own? Who would we be?
Jesus asked such a question in the Gospel reading this week. After this meeting with the Canaanite women things shift for Jesus, as he begins to turn to Jerusalem and his ultimate death by people in power who were afraid of him….. notice the returning theme! People in power wanting to destroy the life that might bring about their downfall, the voices that speak the truth, the ones who God has placed in a time and place to change nations. Jesus, in his turning to the acceptance of his looming death, asks, “Who do people say I am? Have people begun to notice who I am and what I am doing yet? Have those in power begun to recognize that I may be someone to fear? Have you grasped the enormity of what it means to follow me yet? Will you go to the cross with me, defeating the human made powers once and for all?”
The disciples try to worm away from the answer, except Simon Peter, now to be known as Peter, the Rock, the one on whom the future church will be built. He can see and name Jesus, saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
As Christians we are not taught to shy away from speaking the truth, even speaking the truth to power. And we have many examples of how to do this in ways that are subtle, ways that changes nations, ways that go high, even when going “high means taking the harder path, means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top, means standing fierce against hatred.
Jesus went high, and it cost him his life. It’s a hard path to follow, but one that we must choose in order to bring life to things that need to change, to save lives no matter how inconsequential that act of one life may seem, to bridge differences and find ways to work together to enact courage and love. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And we see this, over and over, in today’s story of Moses’ early years. For if Shiphrah and Puah had carried out the orders to kill all Israelite boys at birth, if Moses’ mother had not decided to risk everything she could to save him, if Miriam had not stood by the river bank to make sure all was well, if Pharaoh’s daughter had not taken him in, if Mary, mother of Jesus had not said Yes, if Jesus, himself had turned away, then our world would have been very different.
Let us follow their examples and go high. Find ways to unite, to preserve life, to turn away from power that is undeserving of following. Go high, saying yes to the small steps that make a difference. Go high, even when it is hard. Go high, and proclaim that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah, the son of the Living God, the God who calls us always to love and justice and life. Go high and find empathy and compassion for even just one other life, and God will use this to change the world!
 Michelle Obama
Behold, how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity! It is like the precious oil running down upon Aaron’s beard.
This is one of my favorite lines from the Psalms, this promise that it is very good and pleasant to live together in unity. For, as human beings, we are built for community, to be communal beings, to live together in harmony, no matter how hard that may be.
Today we cannot appreciate fully the significance of the anointing of the priests and kings of the Old Testament, or of the unity that came as God’s people gathered together from their scattered regions to observe the feasts. We tend to see something unpleasant about the idea of oil running down us, but in reality, the occasion spoke of something fantastically beautiful in the sight of God and of something that spoke volumes of truth to the people.
The oil used in anointing not only provided a sight to behold, but it also had many wonderful, fragrant ingredients. Exodus 30 tells us the oil included myrrh, cinnamon, sweet calamus, and cassia, in an olive oil base. These ingredients were considered extremely precious. Exodus continues to reveal that Aaron and all the high priests were anointed with this oil. At his consecration the high priest symbolized unity—he bore on his breastplate the names of all twelve tribes, so when the oil depicting the grace of God was poured on him, it “flowed on” all the tribes. The time for unity had come.
When David wrote this Psalm, it was not a time when unity was taken for granted. Wars and killings were taking place and there was great division over the land. People were trying to dethrone David, and unease was in every breath taken. So he may have been writing it as a wish, a plea to the people about how good things could be, if only they would live in unity, or a prayer to God… oh God, help us, let your Kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, co-existing in unity with each one, Your grace flowing down upon us all.
But those of us who have ever lived with someone else know how very challenging it can be. How many of you have struggled in the last months living with someone, spending more with them than you thought you would have to as we have been staying close to home (please don’t raise your hands though, as they may be sitting next to you!). I know, in my life, times when I have had housemates or lived with others, there have always been times that are really hard. Someone else’s habits begin to get on my nerves, their insensitivity to my needs wear me down, their messiness is left for me to clean……. And all these things as my habits and messes and insensitivity do the same to them!
When I was in seminary I lived in the intentional community on campus, a beautiful old eight bedroom house. We covenanted to live together, to take turns with the chores, to come together for worship twice a week, to eat together when time allowed, and to be a support of one another and to pray for each other. And mostly, it worked well! There were times though that someone would push one too many buttons…. Chores undone for days, too much noise late at night, inviting friends over several evenings in a row, money not paid into the grocery kitty on time, the heat turned up too high for too long while windows were left open. As these things happened you could feel the energy in the house shift, the tensions begin to run high, the passive aggressive notes left or snide comments made. With our schedules, we often passed by one another quickly, maybe bumping into someone to eat breakfast at the dining room table before heading off to class, or crossing on the steep steps up the hill to get to class, but not really to check in. But when we gathered together to worship, we always caught up with one another, a how is it with your soul type question, and 9 times out of 10, the ‘culprit’ would apologize for what they had done or left undone, and, often, explain what their struggle had been…. A sister feeling suicidal so spending time and energy on the phone with them, a paper due that was causing a lot of stress, a work schedule that had changed last minute to include more shifts to cover for a sick colleague, an unexpected car expense. And with this vulnerability and apology and a time to pray with and for one another, the balance was nearly always restored and the tensions evaporated.
I am a monk with a Benedictine Methodist monastery. We live dispersed, scattered across the country with people from coast to coast, and have opportunities to gather by phone to pray 4 or 5 times a day. Once a year we come together physically for a retreat, and each time we do this there a conversation about how beautiful and good it would be to have a physical home where some of us could actually live together… and this may be a possibility in the future. We are mentored by a sister from Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joe, and often have speakers from there at our retreat. And one thing we hear over and over when we ask about the joys and challenges of monastic life is how beautiful and how hard it is to live together! It is always lifted up as a highlight of their life and the hardest thing they ever have to do. Just to live under the same roof in community. And this is so true. For how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity!
I think what can make community harder, whether we live together or just come together on a Sunday morning, is the fact that we don’t always get to choose who belongs and who doesn’t. As Christians we are told to love our neighbors, love our enemies, pray for those who have done us wrong, to welcome the least of these. What a challenge! One that even Jesus needed to learn and practice. For in the Gospel reading today we are told of an outsider who came to him asking for help. Both a woman…. And therefore considered less than, and a Canaanite woman at that, who dared to come before Jesus asking for help for her daughter. Up until this point in his ministry, Jesus had been almost exclusively with the Jewish community, at least as far as we know. There may have been others in the crowd as he fed the five thousand, but the only individual story dealing with an outsider was this passage from Matthew 8 when a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” In this instance Jesus did not hesitate to offer healing, but now he is faced again with a similar situation.
The Canaanite’s daughter is at home as the woman comes before Jesus, begging for help. The Canaanites have long been seen as idol worshipers, enemies of the Jews, a peoples to be fearful of as they set snares to trap the good Israelites. And she has the audacity to approach Jesus and ask him to heal her daughter. His disciples tell him to send her away, and, after Jesus tries to ignore her, in her persistence she keeps asking. Then Jesus tries to dismiss her, saying, I am only here for the House of Israel. But she stays and answers him. Even the dogs beneath the table get the crumbs, she says. I know I am not worthy, but give me the smallest part of your ministry, a tiny crumb of your healing.
Something shifts in Jesus in that moment as he begins to see his calling crack wide open. He is, indeed, there for the House of Israel. But that’s not all. He has been sent to help all. No exceptions. Each human is worthy of his attention, love, teachings, healings. Jews and Gentiles alike. Even the Canaanites. For how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity! Not easy, as we are always changed by community, but good and pleasant as we allow that change and growth to shape us!
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, this is reinforced with these words, Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my the human race you did it to me.’
When we see all others, but especially those that the world see as the least of these, as worthy of our friendship is when we are called most to radically hospitality and inclusivity. The least of these in our world may speak with a different accent, come from a lower social economic class, arrive from another country, have a history of drug use or violence, be from a different generation, have a different sexual orientation. However we define the other. When we see the these others and welcome them into our midst, when we can truly live together in unity, when we allow ourselves to be changed by encounters with the other, then it will truly be good and pleasant, then we will feel God’s grace flowing over us like the oil on Aaron’s head, then the hard work of living together will come to fruition. And it’s work that is ongoing, allowing the differences and annoyances to be brought before God to transform them, to pray with one another, to serve with one another, to share with vulnerability and to build trust. It is both the best thing about coming together and the most challenging!
So as we look around this sanctuary and see others who are kind of like us, let us not fall into the trap of thinking this is enough. Let us open our hearts to practice real community, welcome all, to reach out to others, to seek out the least of these and find ways to see them, to hear them, to stop calling them ‘them’ and, instead, be in unity, calling us ‘us’. This might look like the Somali woman in the store, the Black kid playing basketball, the Latinos hanging out in the park, the Trump or Biden neighbor, the homeless superman in St. Cloud or the deaf neighbor. Offer a kind word to them, a smile in your eyes, a quarter for their parking meter or a pair of clean, dry socks for their feet. See if you can begin to be in relationship with our neighbors who may be different from you, remembering that everyone is our neighbor and all we share this planet with are those we live with. And watch how it changes you! It is the greatest blessing and the hardest thing we are called to do… but how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity! And we know that the grace of God’s blessing will flow over us all as we learn to do this.