Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the church year calendar. For this blog, though, it is an anniversary, since it was Ash Wednesday 2013 when I wrote my first post. The liturgical date that year fell even earlier on the calendar: February 13 the archives tell me. I had burning within me to convey the story of the first time I participated in an Ash Wednesday service, including the ritual of imposing ashes. Eight years later, now an Episcopal priest, I find deep joy in reading the story of My First Ashes which poured from me before I had any inklings that I would be discerning a call to ordained life. It is, for me, a reminder that God is always working in us and in the world even (and perhaps especially) when we aren’t aware of it.
This morning, one particular thing that I wrote in that first blog post stands out to me, “I just headed down the dark stairwell to the basement where no one ever went.”
I had to stop right there and ponder that. If you read the whole post, you’ll note that the service I participated in happened to take place in a chapel in the basement of a dorm where I lived. I was even attending a religiously affiliated school, but we never went there. Even now, when I draw my mind to remember the space, it is mysterious. I still see those dimly lit stairs leading to a room which was dark and sparse. I can’t draw up details of what it looked like, except for a few chairs in a circle, and then kneeling at a small altar rail to receive ashes. But in that space, my spirit was stirred. It ignited something that has been burning in my soul ever since.
This year, that is how Lent feels to me. As some of my friends and colleagues have said, it feels like we’ve been living in a year-long lent as we’ve navigated this global pandemic, and struggled for racial justice, and began reckoning with things we have too long ignored. On many levels, that feeling rings absolutely true. There has been such a pattern of giving up, doing without, setting aside, calling ourselves in and wandering through an emotional desert that is has begun to feel familiar. Like living in a dorm, we know it’s not home. It isn’t normal, but we fall into a pattern of normalcy. And if we aren’t careful it all goes back to a pattern that circles around and repeats.
So, shaking ourselves up from the way we’ve accepted things to be right now, we are invited to keep a holy lent. What does that even mean? We are starting in a different place, now. We are invited to go somewhere that is already right here with us, but into which we’ve never gone. We are invited, if we choose, to descend into spaces of our lives we know are there but from which the busy comings and goings of our lives keep us from knowing, or seeing, or experiencing.
Perhaps lent this year is less about what we do outwardly, than where we allow ourselves to go within. We have to do that work so we can do what we are truly called to do.
I am still priesting in pandemic, so I extend an invitation to you as readers of this priest’s blog. From my home alter in my makeshift pandemic office, I invite you to keep a holy lent within your own self and your own space. Where are you being led, in the deep thoughts of your soul? What are the places and spaces of your life where you haven’t gone which perhaps are waiting to be transformed to the holy? Where does prayer carry you when your own steps feel uncertain?
What I learned that first Ash Wednesday, and continue to learn every day since, is that what awaits in the silence is the familiar embrace of God. Not answers. God. God has us, and is working in us and inspiring us to do what is most needed in the world step by step and day by day. We come to God most genuinely not with the belief that we have all the answers, but with open hearts that listen. We find our holy lent not in the actions of the busy, but in the quiet of divine presence. Sometimes we need to be broken open to do that. Or simply invited.
So, I invite you: may this “lent within lent” truly be a holy lent within.
Homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA) Virtual Worship in a Time of Pandemic
Last weekend, I had the delight of spending time with our newly elected and continuing Vestry members for their retreat. I have to tell you…the enthusiasm and dedication of these leaders is so inspiring. Over the course of those two days, I even began to forget that we were in little Zoom boxes as we freely shared our hopes and ideas while coming together for learning and planning and prayer. Our computers and iPads and devices may be our medium for connection, but community is the heart of this parish.
It’s like that these days whenever we worship together at St. Mark’s, too. I mean, I know in my head and can see with my eyes that we are each in our separate spaces, logging in together at the appointed time complete with children, cats and dogs making their serendipitous appearances. I have to toggle between screens to see all of your individual faces the closer it gets to 10:30. But now that we have been praying and talking and loving each other across distances for these many months, the honest truth is that when we enter into worship together, I don’t even notice the confines of my computer screen anymore. I just see you…this parish…the heart and soul of St. Mark’s.
I was pondering this week about this as a transfiguration moment that we’ve been experiencing right here in our virtual worship. We had a long climb up a high mountain when this global pandemic struck last year. Each of us initially approached the idea of virtual worship a bit differently: fear, hesitation, confusion, frustration, longing, curiosity, hope. There’s probably some thoughts and feelings you all have had that I didn’t name out loud, too! I had some familiarity with this thing called Zoom at that time, but nowhere near the fluidity that I’ve learned in the months since. I’ve lived into the call of being your “Minister of Zoom” and like any call, I’ve been bewildered and overwhelmed at times, but I’ve grown into it, too. We are engaging in connections together now in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed of a year ago. What strikes me, though…and this is why I refer to it as a transfiguration moment…is that we have climbed this mountain following Jesus and we are seeing the light of who we really are: the gathered members of St. Mark’s, the Body of Christ.
In our Gospel lesson today, we enter the passage with the disciples making their journey: Peter, James and John being led up the high mountain by Jesus. I can imagine their own feelings of fear, hesitation, confusion, frustration, longing, curiosity and hope all along the way. Then, arriving at the mountaintop, they encounter the dazzling reality of the presence of Christ, in the ethereal company of Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of the law and the prophets. I’m amazed that Peter could speak at all. But when he did manage to speak, his expression was a perfect framing of our human response to being overcome and overwhelmed: we cry out in our need for steadiness and equilibrium. We don’t always understand the depths of what we are saying, but there is often truth even within the seemingly ridiculous. As someone who understands cognitive overload in the midst of stress, what I hear Peter saying is, “if we could just slow down and stay here together a little longer together, then maybe…just maybe…we could have a chance to take it all in, and I’d start to feel at peace.” Peter, like all of us, craves equilibrium.
What happens next, though, is not equilibrium. Peter’s desire for physical and mental reprieve is met with more cognitive disruption: instead of tents of comfort there is a cloud of unknowing. I’ll have us take note that it is within that place where senses are totally overwhelmed and all that remains to do is trust, is when the disciples on the mountain with Jesus hear God’s call clearly. The voice of God speaks to them in the language of relationship, an echo of Jesus’ baptism: This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.
On that mountain, there was nothing else to do at that moment except to listen. And when the narrative of the transfiguration draws to a close, the disciples, we are told, saw only Jesus. The treasure in this story…the truly good news…is that we are given the knowledge of what happens when all our overwhelming transfiguration moments take place: we see only Jesus.
I had a memory flash into my mind this week, one that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It was at least 10 years ago now, and the parish I attended at that time was planning their summer vacation bible school which served many families both of the congregation and the community. I was up for helping, but I couldn’t make the planning meeting. So, I told our Christian Education Director to count on me to fill any hole she really needed help with. I was counting on something like, “help out with arts and crafts” or “prepare snacks.” She called me after the meeting, excited to tell me that she’d nominated me to be the lead teacher for the preschool classroom. I think at that moment, I might rather have climbed a high mountain all by myself. I mean, I love children but let’s face it, I’m an adult educator for a reason. A large group of preschoolers was definitely outside my comfort zone…and the whole idea of leading such a week-long adventure made me lose my sense of equilibrium. She must have seen my shock and disbelief, but she didn’t offer me an easy off-ramp. She had been very prayerful about this, and I knew her…so I knew that. She kindly and pastorally said something like, “You are giving of your time and talent to create a beautiful, spiritual foundation for these children; and my prayer is that one day…maybe not even right away, but some day…you’ll look back and realize it was a beautiful gift for your own spirit, too.”
Let me say, without pulling any punches, it was a challenging week. A choir friend offered to be the second adult teacher with me, and we became closer than ever as we put ourselves to this task neither of us were sure we were up for. We ended up with 18 preschoolers…let me repeat, 18 four and five-year olds, all in one room… and pulled in some extra helping hands from among our youth. The first day, I counted it a win that it only took us two hours to clean up the classroom after the ruckus was over, given what it looked like when we started. The second day, we used our choir skills and learned a whole bunch of simple songs to sing together to keep everyone engaged, and introduced a quiet time with some soothing music; two of the youth helpers fell asleep, even if the preschoolers didn’t. By day three, I knew everyone’s name and who really needed the extra 1:1 our youth could offer, and there was a bona fide art project on the theme to take home. Then, on day four, we managed to get our hands on a donated play pool on a hot summer day and everyone got to “fish for people” and splash each other… that was the first day without any tears, whatsoever. And, we learned that water outside makes for a much easier clean up. By Friday, I sat down for our last story time and 18 kids piled onto me. The quietest and shyest one among them sat on my lap and helped me turn the pages as we read about Jesus and the disciples.
I can’t say that I felt any less bewildered or exhausted at the end of that week, even when everyone else went home. If I had a tent, I might have just crawled in and slept. It was a few weeks later, I ran into one of the children with her Mom at the neighborhood pool. And all of a sudden, that littlest and shyest one who had sat in my lap and turned pages ran over to me and hugged me and said, “I know you…we fished for people and read Jesus together!”
All of a sudden, I remembered the VBS director’s prayerful prediction and felt so deeply grateful. Because all that I could see in that tiny face was Jesus.
You see, our transfiguration moments are not always picture-perfect. Sometimes, they are uphill climbs putting ourselves to work in the spaces where we are needed, whether or not we think we’re up for the job. And sometimes, we are led on the journey all the while hoping just to make it to the summit…not even knowing what we’ll find when we get there. Our epiphanies don’t always come in the moment when we are awe-struck by the experience. Sometimes transfiguration is happening all the while our human senses are overwhelmed and finally, all we can do is listen. We may not have the right words to express our experience. We may not have our bearings at all, and we may just yearn for shelter and rest.
God hears us in these moments and in the vastness of that cloud of unknowing, sets our sights on the Beloved. And in the end, all that we see is Jesus.
So, my friends, my prayer for each and every one of you today extends from the one that was given to me all those years ago. I extend upon you the blessing of transfiguration moments. As our Wardens and Vestry and ministry teams do their prayerful work, may all you see is Jesus. As we continue our virtual worship until we can be together in person, may all you see is Jesus. As we do the hard work of making decisions about that transition with love, may all you see is Jesus. As we move prayerfully into our Lenten devotions, may all you see is Jesus. And may you know that as you listen to God’s call and respond in love…perhaps one day in which you least expect it…the radiance of Jesus’ love and grace will be made known to you. And all that you will see is Jesus.
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ
I’m convinced that one of the most theologically profound insights on today’s Gospel lesson occurs in the first six minutes of the 1973 movie version of Godspell. Without words…in fact, without anything except the occasional blowing of a shofar horn, the lives of ordinary people are transformed. In the midst of studying, dancing, driving, and working each person is interrupted from their concentrated daily routines by a quick glimpse, a wave hello, a peck on the cheek which interrupts their routine with sudden belonging and familiarity. If we’re paying close attention, we can take in some theatrical context clues interpreting what that experience might have been like. These same people…who we at first think are unsuspecting…see and experience that spark of call and have an epiphany. In their various ways, we can see that their inner light was already shining while they were engaged in the minutiae of life that we observed: enlightening their minds while doing menial work; finding musical joy in a traffic jam; pausing to take in wonder during the daily commute; rejecting forced social identities, embodying inner peace in the midst of impersonal crowds, subtly asserting their right to take up the same spaces as others when socially minimized based on race and gender. They are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. They are not waving their hands and calling attention to their merits or trying to attract Jesus to them.
Ultimately, it is Jesus who sees the extraordinary in their ordinary and who reaches out to connect with them: suddenly, simply, relationally.
In the movie, as in the Gospel lesson, these ordinary people leave what they are doing at that moment of recognition and do one thing: they follow. In that split second, their ready hearts begin to recognize the Prince of Peace and they turn and step in the direction of that light…admittedly, in the movie, first pausing for baptism-by fountain. But you get the point.
I think it’s important to point out here that there is a major distinction being drawn between our leader-focused secular world, and the follower-focused life into which Jesus invites us. In social terms, following seems like a passive activity. I don’t think for one minute that the disciples would tell it that way. I invite us to consider that in the counter-cultural reversal of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus completely elevates the role of follower. So, let’s follow along.
In Mark’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus after two defining events in his early ministry. Jesus first appears in the narrative at his baptism by his cousin John, who has been preaching a baptism of repentance. Jesus emerges from the water after this symbolic submission and at that moment, his divine identity as Son is revealed. Immediately afterwards, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan and waited on by angels. So it is that Mark’s Gospel first reveals Jesus, who we like to think of as a leader, as an active and obedient follower to the urgency of call initiated by Father and Spirit.
In today’s text, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and is immediately confronted by the injustice of the world. His cousin John, who paved the path for him, was now unjustly imprisoned. In the space of this short passage of scripture, Mark situates Jesus’ ministry as one who has followed so that he can now lead. Jesus takes up the forcibly abandoned evangelism of his zealous cousin, proclaiming the good news: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This entire passage is a narrative of divine following: knowing who you are and whose you are and acting in that knowledge.
Jesus begins the leadership of his earthly ministry filled with the knowledge of his identity in God, confronting injustice of the world, and following the divine call on his life.
As Jesus goes along the sea of Galilee, he encounters people fully engaged in the work of their own lives. He encounters Simon and Andrew who have learned to cast their nets upon waters where others see nothing, but they can see the movement of fish beneath. He encounters James and John whose labors were spent repairing, restoring and strengthening the nets essential to their trade. Even in these short fragments of scripture we read today, perhaps we can imagine the fullness of Jesus’ vision to see not only their outward actions, but the preparation of their hearts and minds to see beyond the surface and to mend that which the cares and occupations of this life have broken.
Jesus calls them when they are doing exactly what they ordinarily do. They weren’t waving their hands or yelling, “pick me!” and they weren’t even necessarily the brightest, fastest, or most popular people. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer expounds upon in the Cost of Discipleship, it is Jesus who initiates every call, and Jesus who invites and compels us to action of the heart. We participate in a divine purpose beyond our human awareness: fishers of fish will be made to be fishers of people. Bonhoeffer goes a step further to remind us that at the very moment we think we must exert personal influence into that purpose, or when we fall into the trap of thinking how important and essential our individual leadership is, it ceases to be God’s call and simply becomes our own.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks those who will eventually come to be known as his Disciples to do one thing, and one thing only: follow me. Prompted by a call held out to them in relationship…and I would also presume a nudging of Spirit…they took the route of action and followed. Jesus’ leading required their following. Following was the essence of their call.
So, back to ordinary us. Like the characters in Godspell, we are also immersed in a world of traffic jams, identity crises, menial work, and everyday social injustices. In relationship, we have all been invited to take on a new identity as members of the Body of Christ. We are seen, recognized, and called as exactly who we are.
Imagine simply following. Not trying to figure out the right thing, the logical thing, or running the pro/con list of which things will benefit us most on the world’s terms. Imagine just doing our thing with the God-given strengths and skills we have identified and nurtured. Imagine engaging with a full and open heart the work that is given you to do, whether that’s because you’re good at it, or you like it, or because you’ve inherited the job, or because it’s necessary. Imagine that Jesus who loves you sees you doing your thing and envisions you in the realm of grace, justice and truth working to further the kingdom. Imagine the moment that you catch a glimpse of Jesus and you realize Jesus sees you…really sees you. Imagine following. Nothing more. Just following. Imagine the rest unfolds from there, step by step. Imagine this happens not because you have to figure it out on your own but simply because you follow and learn as you go. Simon Peter and Andrew do become fishers of people. James and John each learn to weave the nets of community. Everyone has a role. While the journeys of following can turn out to be quite adventurous, those journeys are made by walking in relationship, step by step.
“Follow me.” That’s our invitation. Not to plan the journey or compare our merits or wonder what the whole narrative will turn out to be. Our invitation is simply to follow. To do our thing, transformed by God’s vision. Following looks like open-hearted listening, which we do in prayer. It means open-minded reading and studying the Word, which we do in our scriptures and the holy writings inspired by them. It means paying attention to Who we are really following…as Bishop Curry is fond of saying, “if it isn’t about Love, it isn’t about Jesus.” It means using our skills and strengths in service to other followers and those we encounter, as we encounter them along the journey. It means that what we think or hope or wish that we were called to do is less important than what God unfolds for us to do in the journey of our followership. It means walking day by day and step by step with Jesus who calls us, and sees us, and continues to lead us through the power of the Holy Spirit into the still unfolding reign of Christ in this world in which we live, and to which we are invited to participate. In this space of our ordinary, extraordinary lives, Jesus calls us to join in this world-changing, life altering mission and ministry.
Jesus invites us, “Follow me.”
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ
For the record, I want to say that I’d like Dorothy White and the good people of St. Mark’s to gather for a womanist bible study on the scripture text every time I’m scheduled to preach! On Wednesday evening, the thoughts and ideas that flowed out from the group that gathered was a balm for my end-of-semester tired and weary soul. If you weren’t able to be there, I commend it to you for a listen. We were focusing in that conversation on the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, who are central to the scripture texts we read on this fourth Sunday of Advent. We came away with a renewed conviction that these two expectant mothers…one in her age, and one in her youth…were necessary for each other. And I was reminded of how necessary we are to each other as well, as the Word of God in Holy Scripture breaks open for us in our lives, in our questions, and in our holy conversations. So, this morning, I invite us into relationship with this Gospel text. I want us to spend some holy time with holy Mary.
I read an article this week in which feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson said, “as a result of the Reformation disputes, Catholics developed a severe case of fixation on Mary, and Protestants developed a severe case of amnesia.” Now, as a faithful Episcopalian of the Anglican “via media” (the “middle way”) I think it’s fitting for us all to journey together into today’s Gospel lesson, no matter on which side of that polarity we may find ourselves. I’d like to offer three reflections about this story that I hope can open our hearts and prepare us to receive the Christ child with wonder and joy.
First Reflection: with apologies to lyricist Mark Lowry and a star-studded host of musical performers who have crooned the question, “Mary did you know?” I have to assert that Yes, Mary did know. Mary as presented to us in Luke’s Gospel may be a young woman, but she is a fully aware, engaged and active participant in this unfolding of God’s plan. For any of you who have…or once had…a young woman in her teens living in your household, let me remind you that what they may lack in life experience, they more than make up for in enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is often based on the giving of one’s word: promises of friendship, of time, of love, of relationship, of trust. In today’s story, the conversation related to us takes place between young Mary and the heavenly visitor Gabriel. But, I want to note that this portion of the narrative we read today immediately follows the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah, John’s father, also receives a visit from Gabriel and is described as “terrified and overwhelmed by fear” and ultimately, responds to the angelic message with skepticism about its validity due to the age of both he, and his wife Elizabeth. Suspicion and skepticism, the hallmarks of adulthood…and as a result, Zechariah’s adult voice is taken away until the birth of his son. But it is a different story with Mary, when she is visited by Gabriel. Mary pays attention, wonders, listens, and takes the risk to act on the information given to her about God’s choice and invitation for her to participate in this unfolding of salvation history. Mary hears God’s promise and takes God at God’s word. This trusting participation comes at a cost to Mary; it may compromise her social standing, her relationships and her own sense of identity. But she has also heard the word of God revealed to her, and she believed what she heard even without certainty. Faced with a heavenly messenger and a mind-blowing message, Mary says with a willing heart that both consents and assents to God’s invitation: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Yes, Mary knew.
Second Reflection: Mary is a preacher of the good news. She may have been young, and she may have been socially on the bottom rung, but this woman preached from the depths of her heart. Having said her holy “yes” and being filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary literally embodies and nurtures the Good News of God’s inbreaking into the world. Like the pregnant young woman she is, she grows more deeply into awareness of herself in relation to the child forming within her day by day. I can close my eyes and imagine Mary, so filled with the Spirit of God, that she cannot contain the glow. The ancient hymn we read today, which we have come to know as the Magnificat, emanates from Mary in response to Elizabeth, who acknowledges her as one filled to overflowing with the grace of God. Mary is filled, pregnant with the holy and now growing in her lived awareness of God’s fortune-reversing, liberating justice that comforts the afflicted, frees the imprisoned, feeds the hungry, and lavishes abundance on those who have nothing. This song that her spirit sings is the song of God’s love and humanity’s liberation through God’s intervention. This proclamation pours forth from Mary, who has herself been marginalized by society and yet is lifted up by God. Her joyous praise is not tied up with earthly prosperity, but is abundant with heavenly promise. And oh, does she preach! You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation; You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Mary, preaching as a prophet of the poor and marginalized of this world represents hope renewed. Mary, who we have come to call theotokos, the God-bearer, bears the Goods News not only in her womb, but through her fully embodied proclamation of the loving, liberating and life-giving God. She even preached that before Bishop Michael Curry preached it, and I don’t think he’d argue with that one bit!
My third and final reflection: Mary helps us see and know that when we participate with our whole selves, the main actor in this story, and in our lives, is always God. Mary knows this truth from the first greeting: Greetings, favored one: the Lord is with you. This is the heart of the story, my friends. Mary recognizes the presence of God with her, in her, and through her. She is not irrelevant or passive. Mary is the one God chooses as the first face of the incarnation, who shows us the joy of wholly embodied trust in God’s sustaining providence. As John the Baptist proclaims the unfolding of the ministry of Jesus, Mary proclaims the incarnate reality that God has, and is, and will continue to be the one who enacts love in the world of God’s own creation. This story is all about Mary AND it never ceases to be about God. God is the source, the action, and the Word made flesh. It is through Mary’s willing embrace of this call placed upon her life that we are able to see God’s action on behalf of all of us reflected in her. This doesn’t diminish Mary; this magnifies the visibility of her faithfulness, her trust, and her steadfast witness to God-with-us.
So, you’ve heard my reflections. Now, I offer some questions for us to ponder in these remaining Advent days: How is God inviting us to know the truth of God’s presence in our lives, and in this world? How is God proclaiming the Good News through us, in our words and in our actions? How do our lives reflect God’s action in the world?
The gift within these questions is the mystery and the miracle of Christmas. Jesus comes to this world anew through us, as we live in this world as the hands and feet of Christ. This world still craves and yearns to know and experience that love. We need Christmas. The world needs Christmas. And this gift of the incarnation that is Christmas is lived out in the unfolding of our lives, in response to the call that God has placed on us.
So, in these final Advent days, as you bake the cookies and wrap the gifts, hold these truths and ponder them in your heart. Mary knew. Mary preached. Mary magnified the inbreaking of God for the liberation of God’s people. And we, like Mary, are invited to hear, to trust, and to respond to that transforming and divine love in our own lives, too.
Sometimes Christ the King looks like a short, hunched-over woman with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last bite of cake while mumbling and singing to herself.
Perhaps I should explain a bit more…
In the Fall of 1989, I began the first of many internships that would be a part of my preparation to be a practicing social worker. I had just transferred between schools and so, I was a little late to the registration process. And as sometimes happens, I didn’t get my first pick of placements. I didn’t even get my second or third pick. It seemed to me that the powers that be had gotten things completely mixed up: I planned to be an administrator and community organizer so I was hoping for a high power, influential internship that would land me a great, lucrative…well, as lucrative as social work can be…post-graduation job. Instead, I learned that I would be placed in a community board and care home which offered long-term shelter to deinstitutionalized adults with mental health challenges who had spent most of their lives in the local psychiatric hospital. This shelter, a transitional housing facility operated by the YWCA, sprang into being when deinstutionalization was a political cost-saving measure, not a humanitarian best practice. People were released from inpatient care without community living skills. There were no safe spaces for people with long-term psychiatric disabilities to live and homelessness became visible: a chronic and deadly problem in the harsh, Buffalo winters. The old boarding house-turned-transitional shelter had peeling paint and dirty old carpets and very minimal staffing. My first day on the job I thought: I don’t know if I can do this. But, I heard a voice in my soul saying, “People live here; You can work here.” That became my motto.
After a few weeks of required training and shadowing staff and volunteers through support groups and recreational outings, I was given a choice. I could continue to work scheduled hours with these group activities as part of the staff team, or become an individual support volunteer with some of the more challenging residents and work my own hours. My supervisor hinted that they had plenty of students helping with the groups, but what they really needed were people who were willing to spend that quality 1:1 time with people who weren’t able or willing to be a part of group activities. I had classes, and worked another paid job and really craved the freedom of setting my own hours. I heard my lips saying yes while my brain was shouting “No, what are you doing!” But my yes had been said, and that meant I was now on my own. Very quickly, I was handed a name and room number. “Your job,” said my supervisor, “is to get Ruthie engaged. She used to go out all the time, but she hasn’t left her room in weeks, except when we tell her she has to bathe.” Great, I thought, a very promising first client. As I headed down the hall toward the residential corridor, she added, “Oh, and don’t take it personally if she swears at you!”
My first visit with Ruthie lasted exactly 10 seconds. I knocked on her door. She uttered several non-sermon-appropriate words followed by “Go Away!”
I lingered by her door long enough to tell her my name, that I was a social work intern, and that I could come back to visit her again another day. I heard her shuffling toward the door which gave me hope, and then I heard her promptly lock it. She yelled, “Go away!” then in a quieter voice mumbled what sounded to me like, “come back a different day.” And so, I did. The next visit was largely the same, and the visit after that. After a few more tries and frankly, as I was about to give up and ask for a different client, I knocked on her door and announced myself one more time and heard her shuffling around inside. This time, Ruthie cracked her door open and looked me up and down. “Come back tomorrow” she said, “Bring fifty cents and we’ll have coffee.”
The next day I came back with a few quarters in my pocket. Fifty cents meant I had to dip into my laundry money; my own budget was very stretched in those meager days of student living. When I knocked this time, she shuffled to the door and opened it. A tiny, bent over woman emerged, this time wearing a coat and two hats tied onto her head with a scarf. “We’lll go now” she said, “I’ll show you.”
Against my better judgement, I followed her down the hallway, through the main living area and past the front desk. I looked up at the receptionist with eyes that probably looked like a deer in headlights. She was admittedly surprised to see us but waved us through, asking me to sign the register book with the time we were leaving and where we were going. “Coffee” said Ruthie. “We are going for coffee.” I had no idea how much learning I was in for.
What I was in for was week after week of walking with Ruthie through the back streets of downtown Buffalo, hearing about the people who used to live there: her Russian immigrant family, her neighbors, the unheard history of a city I thought I knew. She knew every place to get a cheap cup of coffee to warm her tired hands. She would mutter and curse and tell me about growing up during the Great Depression, about her best memories and her worst ones, too. I grew fond of her stories, even though she often repeated herself. Her life had been a very, very hard one. She knew first hand about poverty, grief and feeling cast-out. I began to marvel that she trusted me…a stranger she barely knew…with the wealth of her stories. She taught me more about listening and being present than any textbook could ever convey.
A few weeks later, during one of our walks, Ruthie told me the next day was her birthday. “I wish I could have a cake” she said, “a white cake, with white icing.” She paused. “And sweet tea, with lemon. Very sweet. With sugar. But not too much lemon.”
I managed to scrounge up enough money that night to buy a cake mix, white frosting, two lemons, and some birthday candles. With what I had in my apartment, I made a two-tier round cake and frosted it. I brewed tea and added much more sugar than I thought should be in it, and sliced up lemons to float in it for flavor. I also found a sweater in my closet that I didn’t wear all that much but that I thought she would like, and I wrapped it up.
I showed up the next day, and found Ruthie sitting in the lounge. She was wearing all her usual attire, topped by a birthday crown from a local fast-food restaurant. “Free coffee today” she said, with a mischievous smile. Of course. Then she saw the cake, and the tea, and the present. “My Birthday?!” she exclaimed. And I said, “Yes, Ruthie, it’s your day!”
Recluse Ruthie stood up and shuffled around, gathering up all her friends in the lounge and scooting everyone to the sun porch. She was singing, “It’s my party; come to my party!” In the hour that followed, I watched her move from a reclusive outcast to the beloved guest at the center of this birthday feast.
“I myself will search for my sheep” says the Lord God. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered…they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. I will feed them with justice.” Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
It can be so easy for us to assume we know the difference between the sheep and the goats. Of course, we want to think of ourselves as the sheep of the Good Shepherd, so it’s natural to look around and see God in faces of those who are familiar to us. But what about the unfamiliar, reclusive, muttering and swearing, triple-hat wearing people whose stories force us to see the familiar through different eyes? What about the times when seeking and serving Christ in the other brings us into full awareness of all that we would rather ignore about this world in which we live: poverty, mental illness, addiction, confinement. Like me, the skeptical student, we become blinded to joy which lies hidden in unlikely places and hardened by all the faces in this world that make us afraid, or don’t look like we expect them to.
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
But when did we see you, Lord?
“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 family, you did it to me.’ “ Matthew 25:31-46
The Good News we need to hear today isn’t a pat on the back for our good works. No, my friends. The Good News is that this Realm of Christ about which we read is also right here, and right now. Christ the King and our Good Shepherd feeds us, clothes us, nurtures us, sustains us. We recognize our residence in this realm of divine generosity when we reach out to do the same to those in this world who come to us hungry, thirsty, wounded, and vulnerable.
I am reminded that every time there has been a knock on the door to my heart and I have said, “Go Away” our Good Shepherd has returned with patience and persistence, until I have been ready to crack open the door. I am reminded that I am the one who has been fed at the unexpected banquet of mercy and grace, sometimes in ways so ridiculously simple and beautiful that they have transformed the ordinary into a divine banquet. I realize that every time I think I’m helping someone else, it is at that moment that I am able to see all that has been lavished upon me and upon each and every one of us by God who loves us beyond all measure of understanding.
We are all sheep in the pasture of the Good Shepherd, and citizens in the Realm of God. The taste of that heavenly banquet is not just a fabled story or an afterlife dream. It can taste like warm coffee on a cold day, or birthday cake joyfully shared in community. We are invited, constantly, to become God’s hands and feet in the world so that in our openness to serving others with love and without judgement, we can come to see and know and experience a taste of the abundance of God’s realm. We see and experience that in our love and service to our neighbors and each other. It is in those faces…every single one of them…that God is revealed.
Perhaps that’s why each and every time that I close my eyes to pray with this Gospel, it is Ruthie’s face that I see.
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Ephesians 1:15-23
So yes: sometimes Christ the King looks like a short, hunched-over women with wildly cut hair, sipping sweet tea with lemon, savoring the last morsels of birthday cake while mumbling and singing to herself, “It’s my party…come to my party.”
Be known to us, Lord Jesus, as we meet you in each and every face that we see.
It was a sweltering hot July Sunday in Texas when I boarded the bus with other Episcopalians to pray and proclaim our public witness at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center. This caravan of attendees of the 2018 General Convention in Austin was an amalgamation of delegates, bishops, clergy and lay people representing multiple dioceses, provinces and affiliations within The Episcopal Church. Sunday was the only day during the 14 day stretch of General Convention without scheduled business; since I was attending as a member of the press it meant it was the only day off I had. I debated just sleeping in. But this event of public witness had been weighing on my heart.
If you asked me before that day, I would have acknowledged my general concern regarding mass detention of immigrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. Until that point, the experience of immigrant detainees was distant, political and something I heard plenty of opinion about on social media but it was honestly not something that had been front and center in my own life. I remember being stirred when I read about the prayer vigil at Hutto and my heart felt deeply moved by the invitation. I decided, like hundreds of other people, that this would be my Sunday act of worship. We gathered to pray together outside the Austin convention center that morning, then we boarded a string of busses and headed to Hutto.
Our gathering place was a public park next to the massive, concrete edifice that was the detention center. Hutto was the destination for hundreds of immigrant women detained at the US-Mexico border, many of whom were immediately separated from their children. Numerous abuses had been reported and substantiated to have occurred there. As we drew near, the general chatter of the bus shifted to quiet, prayerful silence. That silence continued as we stepped off the bus, into the park where we were allowed by permit to gather for prayer and worship. One of the first things I watched was a priest walk with intention to the wire fence separating park and private prison grounds and drop to her knees in prayer.
Most of the group was gathering around a portable stage where some musicians began playing and singing uplifting music in Spanish, loudly enough to carry the refrain towards the several hundred women under confinement. People carried signs, and held hands, and prayed. Something prompted a smaller group of us to begin walking toward the detention center itself, along a slice of public property. There were plentiful guards watching by the invisible line in the grass separating “park” from “prison” to see if our toes were getting too close. We stopped at a place where we were informed that any further steps would be trespassing. It put us close enough to the facility to be able to see long, thin slits of windows. I paused between two trees, intuitively forming my hands in the shape of a heart, a sign I use to signal love to my own child. It was then that I saw that in that tiny slit of a window that there were women’s faces, and hands holding up signs, “Oren por nosotros” (pray for us) and “Gracias.” We began to chant, “Nosotras te vemos”; “We see you!”
In that space, a tiny place between two trees not even large enough to produce shade from the beating Texas sun, I moved from a state of intellectual awareness about the plight of these women and into a state of deep and profound love, conversing across human barriers of space, language, and freedom with my sisters in Christ. I could see with the eyes of my heart and feel with the depth of God’s own belovedness the yearning and desire of these women to be seen and known and loved. I saw a woman in that window making the same heart that mine was. Whether it was in response to me, or of her own motivation I will never know. But I did know, instantly and intuitively, that she also had made that heart to her children. I prayed with all my strength for their safety and reunification. That moment of drawing near and seeing redefined for me what it means to be siblings in Christ.
I don’t remember if I was in that space for 5 minutes or 15…but guards began to descend upon us and tell us we had to go back to the park with our group. We walked back together in silence, still praying, still loving. Changed.
When we rejoined the vigil, our presiding bishop Michael Curry was offering a message, from the same passage from Matthew that we read today. In that message, he said these words:
“We come in love. I would submit that the teaching of Jesus to love God and love our neighbor is at the core and heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And we must be people who reclaim Christianity that looks something like Jesus. And Jesus said, Love God and love your neighbor, so we come in love.”
Yes, we come in love. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus not only silences those who test him, but he aligns the great laws of his Jewish faith and life: the shema which is the first and greatest commandment: you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is coupled with another great law: love your neighbor as yourself. What Jesus does in liken these two great commandments to each other is to bring these laws into relationship: parallel showings of divine love. When we love God with our whole selves, we experience the love of God transforming us. We come to know that we are beloved, and we radiate that love. Likewise, when we draw near to our neighbors…when we truly see them…we see God’s belovedness in them and our neighbors see and recognize that belovedness in us, too. It becomes inseparable. As Bishop Curry often says: love God; love your neighbor; love yourself.
When we begin to love God wholly, we will be moved into places where love is the most needed. I’m not convinced that in this passage Jesus is asking us to engage in some sort of intellectual exercise where we try to force ourselves to imagine loving the seemingly unlovable people in this world. Sometimes, we hold this statement of Jesus up as a sort of challenge, a sort of “who do you love on a scale of Mister Rogers to Hitler” kind of game. But, I don’t believe that is what Jesus is really saying in his choice to unite these two great laws. Jesus is saying that if we love God with our whole heart, and allow ourselves to experience that transforming love in return, then it will be just like that in our own lives: the profundity of that love will draw us into relationships of love with our neighbors. Those God-inspired relationships will also transform us to feel more deeply, to step out of our zones of comfort, to find ourselves compelled to the kind of deep, merciful caring that means we will begin to truly transform the world through love. It is God who loves us and invites us into a relationship of deep and profound love in return. Love God with all your heart and you will never be the same.
Loving God and feeling that love in return will mean that we are compelled to draw near, not to avoid. We will want to know our neighbors and siblings in Christ, not to write people off or intellectualize who is worthy or do what my social work training calls, “othering” where we put up a false wall thinking we are somehow different or better than others who differ from us. We may be compelled to stand out in the hot sun to meet strangers distantly imprisoned in a concrete slab because there will be a transformative moment when love will pierce time and space and language and find us. We may be compelled to have conversations we didn’t imagine ourselves having, with people we didn’t imagine ourselves speaking with. We may recognize that the seemingly random people we encounter in our lives, in our community, at our food pantry, or in other serendipitous encounters might not be by chance after all. People become opportunities to see and know God. Our hearts soften, and we open ourselves to see humanness and belovedness. It is in that humanizing that we will be neighbors in the realm of God. These neighbors of ours at the margins of this world are loved and beloved by God just as we are loved and beloved by God. Whether people are ravaged by the changes and chances of this world: poverty, illness, greed, hatred, indifference, malice…they are still at their core capable and worthy of love. God is the one who loves. God is the one who loves even those who are the hardest for us to love. It isn’t a contest; it is an invitation. We are invited and compelled to participate in this sharing of God’s love for us, and for others. That is what likens loving our neighbor to loving our God: both reveal to us the profound imprint of divine love.
That moment of heart-shaped love experienced beneath the sweltering Texas sun made a permanent imprint on my soul. I believe with all my heart that is how God intends for it to be. That love continues to compel me to act, to proclaim, to stand up for justice, to write, to share this story, to love more deeply and courageously.
I can’t tell you exactly how God will compel you when you open yourself to love, but I can tell you one thing: it will happen. And I can promise you: love will transform you.
Thanks be to God!
Note: to read my reflections from General Convention’s Center Aisle Blog at the time of my participation in this prayer vigil and public witness, refer to We See You.
I went through a phase in my childhood, like a lot of children do, where I was fascinated with magic tricks. You know the kind I mean…the secret slight-of-hand things that you can do with coins disappearing in glasses of water by knowing the right way to hold things just out of audience sight, or the “pull the scarf out of your sleeve” trick with some hidden knowledge of what was hiding behind seemingly nothing. I’m sure that loving family audiences feigned their amazement after watching me sneaking around practicing these tricks for hours, reveling in my secret knowledge.
There is a sense of delight that comes along with the surprise of seeing something appear out of nothing. Pulling a rabbit from a hat delights us, but I’m not sure it changes us. We’re often still skeptics at heart, and when our surprise subsides, we just work a little harder to figure out what the trick might be that the magician knows that we do not.
If we read it superficially, our first lesson today might seem like magic. The story involves Moses wielding some sort of a magic wand, appeasing an angry, thirsty crowd who have spent far more time in the wilderness than makes them comfortable. This story has all the set up components of a great magic trick as the people look to Moses to do the impossible: make water appear out of nothing. Our skeptical minds might even wonder if Moses knew some trick or some secret source where water was plentiful. But Moses isn’t a trickster or a magician. What we know from these Exodus stories is one constant: Moses is a person of God.
If we understand that fundamental fact about who Moses is, it shifts the pivotal point of the whole story. Like the fire of the burning bush, we are drawn to the sight of water pouring forth from nowhere. But Moses recognized God in the fire and Moses recognizes God in the wilderness. So the real pivot point of this story is when Moses turns to God as his friend and confidant and asks “what should I do with this people?”
That question is everything. Think about it. Moses is in this with the people. He had been wandering through the wilderness with the people he was leading, all of them exhausted and thirsty. People were looking to him for leadership, “to do something” and alleviate the suffering of their present condition…a condition which he was also experiencing. Whether compassionate or dismissive, his response to the people could have been “Yep, times are hard and in case you didn’t notice, I’m rather thirsty myself!.” Alternatively, Moses could have gotten pulled into the existential angst against God right along with them. We could imagine a perfectly justifiable anger in this story if Moses raised his fist heavenward and said, “why are you trying to kill us?”
Instead, Moses turns to God as a trusted friend and confidante, seeking advice. Moses had followed where God had led him, and Moses turned toward God who had been guiding him and caring for him his entire life. So in this dry spell, Moses moves, again, to the holy ground of God’s presence. Just as Moses drew near to God in a burning bush, he again draws near to God in the thirsty desert. Moses chooses to recognize holy ground in the gap between faith and fear, which is where God is. Moses asks God what he can do to participate in God’s plan of salvation for God’s people.
God always hears the cries of God’s people. What God provided wasn’t only water needed for bodily hydration, but providential sustenance for the people’s spiritual thirst. God’s instruction to Moses invited Moses’ participation: he walked the people through an embodied remembering of God’s constant, divine providence on this journey with them…from the parting of the Nile to the calling together of the tribal elders to the visible presence of God to mark the way forward. God instructed Moses to engage in a public action, made possible by a God of love reaching to beloved people to provide what they need and, through engaging their collective memory, to be made known to them again. The beauty and depth of this story is found in a loving God who recognizes physical and spiritual thirst, and responds abundantly.
I think this might be exactly the story that we need for this present moment of our collective lives. We’ve been in our present pandemic wilderness for a long time. We may find ourselves spiritually thirsty and psychologically exhausted, too. What we thought was going to be a few weeks has become six months, and we’re realizing that the vision of a promised land might still be too far off for us to see. We wrestle with the reality that it might not look like we imagined that it would. Add to that the personal precarity of the journey, the burning fires of injustice, the heat and exhaustion of doing all the things. All the things. We are exhausted. We are wandering. We are thirsty.
We may find ourselves in this story relating to the crowds, looking for a leader who can be a source of inspiration and hope, listening to us and responding to our demands of what we need to survive. Or, we may relate to Moses, where people are turning to us for guidance and asking us to be the face of faith for them, even when we also are in the wilderness..
Either way, our spiritual thirst is showing. And either way, God sees us.
It is fitting today that we who gather…who are walking through the wilderness of this world in which we live…should be reminded of the great gift of our salvation, lavished upon us by a loving God throughout history. Today’s Epistle beautifully recalls our salvation history, providing us a hymn of encouragement that Paul was employing to help those whose spiritual thirst was creating division among their community. By focusing our attention on our common life in Christ, we can return to the center of who we are as the Body of Christ, the church now in the world. Like Moses, Paul was also standing in the gap between fear and faith, recounting a history of salvation grounded in kenosis, the great emptying of God’s own self, all for the love of God’s own people. Christ, incarnate, who was born into this world through this great emptying came to God’s people to live and serve not as a mighty ruler but in poverty and at the margins of this world, serving with those who were outcast, like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus spoke of in today’s Gospel lesson.
These lessons are a cold, cool sip of water responding to our spiritual thirst. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we begin to see again the ways in which God’s greatness and providence transform us, and the world. We remember that we have been lovingly embraced by God whose answer to our prayers isn’t a slight of hand or a magic trick to keep us placated and amused, but a God whose answer to prayer is to lavish upon us powerful and persistent reminders of divine love and grace even when we are thirsty, lost and afraid.
Six months into this pandemic journey, it occurs to me that it is especially when we are thirsty and lost and afraid that God’s presence is revealed to us in new ways. We are reminded of God’s care for us when we see those who are leading vulnerably and with courage to respond to the needs of the world, standing in the gap between faith and fear. Or, we may find ourselves asking God, “how do I help these people?” and discover that we ourselves are being asked to be the face of faith for another. God loves us, and God entrusts us with the ability to be the face of faith for each other. That’s what it means to share the journey, and to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, especially when we are lost and thirsty and crave the reminder that God is in our midst.
I want to tell you all a story about my own reviving spring of water. Some of you may have seen the St. Phoebe School liturgy that I shared on our facebook page with you all, Holding Space for Hope. That project has been a labor of love since June, when the deacons-in-formation and I met and I asked them to think together about what the needs of the world were that they were hearing…which is something that Deacons learn to do…and to work together with me to create a liturgy for the church that would help those needs be heard. Over the summer, they reached out to people and deliberately spoke with those whose views and perspectives were often marginalized or silenced. They asked one question: what does hope look like for you?
At first, they were dismayed and lost because so many people initially said, “I don’t have any hope.” But, they went on asking. And some people began to form words, or send pictures. Some people sang songs, and sent in their stories. One of the St. Phoebe School class said to me, about a month into the wandering wilderness of this project, “I’m pretty sure its not even about the video we’re making anymore. I’ve changed so much from hearing and holding the stories…and I realize that is what God needed me to do.”
They learned, and they did go on and make the video. Actually, God’s Providence intervened in the midst of a time of my own thirsty moment because I had encouraged them to do all these things not knowing how we were going to pull them together and knowing that I had no digital video experience. An opportunity came along, though, in the form of a reminder from a church foundation that had sponsored me in the past. I reached out to them and received a small grant to support our work and hire a professional digital editor. So, bolstered and affirmed by that cool drink of water we moved forward. We all filmed our individual pieces of the liturgy, and handed over our images and stories and quotes in trust to someone who saw hope in what we were doing. Along the way, we brought in a musically gifted collaborator who was so moved by the project that she reached out to several others who joined in with their musical gifts. Like streams of water, our ideas and words and hopes began to flow together. That’s how God works, in the power and presence of community and relationship. The gifts of each person came together in a final liturgy that made hope overflow in me when I saw it. Each time I watch it, I am reminded over and over again of God’s abundant hope, love and grace..
I’ll share the Holding Space for Hope liturgy link with you all again along with my sermon. Set aside 40 minutes to watch it during a moment when you feel thirsty and tired in spirit. There’s an outpouring of love and grace in words, images, music and stories which will revive and restore your spirit, of that I am certain. That’s how God works through us, again and again. It isn’t magic. It is love. God’s divine, transforming Love in which we are invited to participate fully and completely..
At points in this story of “Holding Space for Hope”…just like in our lives…I have felt myself among the tired and thirsty crowd, and I have been like Moses standing in the gap of faith and fear and asking God, “what do I do with these people?” Like the flowing waters of a babbling brook, I have heard the response echoing back to me in the language of serendipity, abundance and grace. What I can tell you is this: God hears us. God loves us. God provides for us as has been the story from ages and ages past and will be in ages yet to come. If you take away nothing else today, take away that message for your tired and thirsty souls. God hears you, God loves you, and God will meet you exactly where you, inviting you to participate in God’s vision for this world.
May the rushing waters of hope pour out upon you today, and bring rivers of peace to your tired and thirsty souls.
Welcome to Holding Space for Hope, a liturgy of hope and healing offered to the people of our Dioceses and the world by the St. Phoebe School for Deacons. All summer, we have been reaching out to deeply listen to the reflections, stories, and hopes of a diverse array of God’s people in this world. Woven into this liturgy are the voices and prayers offered up by God’s people through videos, images and quotes from those who have graciously offered their visions of hope in a world where it is so desperately needed. In this liturgy, we center our visions of Hope in the words and experiences of people whose voices we don’t always hear at the forefront of our Episcopal worship…
There have been so many fires this week. My friends in California have been struggling to breathe in air heavy-laden with smoke and ash. This is fire season, and they are making the best of it from a lifetime of learning. But in a pandemic, evacuation is exceedingly more difficult. A friend wondered on social media which mask, one to keep the smoke out, or one to keep the coronavirus at bay, would be the safer way to move through the day.
There are fires of risk and fear. My week has been wrapped in the emotional baggage wrought by this viral pandemic on the lives of students and faculty on a college campus. Plans made on paper suddenly ignite when exposed to real world flames. Whether higher education or K-12, it feels like every decision…even ones we agonize over and spend months preparing for…are quickly engulfed by flames of personal choice and public health.
And then there are the fires of injustice, flames of which are ripping through communities and this nation after yet another young, black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back while walking away from police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Every act of state sanctioned violence and the continued blatant disregard for black lives fan the flames of this fire and further exposes how widespread and devastating it has become. To quote Michael Paul Williams in the Richmond Times-Dispatch yesterday, “To be Black in America today is to be traumatized by a steady stream of videos showing Black people being killed or otherwise abused by law enforcement on camera.” There are protests in the streets and walkouts from the NBA. Each time yet another manifestation of this injustice flares up, the outcry is like a fist raised to the heavens crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
There are so many fires burning in this world in which we live. So today I wonder if we, like Moses, can allow ourselves not to flee these fires, but to see them, and draw near.
As our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures opens today, we encounter Moses in his early adulthood. Quick recap: Moses was born of an enslaved Israelite family and saved from forced male infanticide by being put into a basket in the river; with the intervention of a few wise family members and midwives he was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh with close ties to his birth family. Moses, as a hot-headed youth, went to observe his own people toiling in the fields and killed an Egyptian who was beating enslaved Hebrew people, just like him. Knowing his own life was now in danger, Moses fled Egypt. He was still a fugitive in Midian when he encountered the daughters of the priestly family who were attacked by shepherds while drawing water from the well. He fought them off, was spoken highly of by the daughters and was subsequently welcomed into the family through marriage. Meanwhile, Moses’ own people were still enslaved in Egypt and their ruling captor, Pharaoh, had just died. Immediately before the lesson we read today, God’s enslaved people were crying out. Holy Scriptures tell us: God heard their groaning, remembered the covenant of belovedness, looked upon them and took notice.
All that is the context in which we enter today’s lesson. Moses…former captive, vigilante and fugitive…was going about a much calmer and stable livelihood now: herding cattle for his new father-in-law the Priest of Midian. Moses moved with the flock beyond their usual grazing wilderness, toward the Mountain of God. While on this journey, he noticed a bush caught on fire. Moses…with his eyes still set toward the holy…saw this clearly for what it was: Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When God saw that Moses had taken notice, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”
This is a really remarkable story. So often we hear this story referred to as Moses encountering the burning bush. But I think it’s fairer to say: Moses approaches the burning bush and encounters God. I mean, it isn’t as if Moses is distracted by the fire. Moses has seen fires. He is drawn to this fire while nearing the Mountain of God and he is aware of God’s presence from the first glimpse. Moses is prepared to stand on this holy ground and say: Here I am.
As the story unfolds, we are reminded that these divine actions of seeing, drawing near and responding to the holy are revealed to Moses who is uniquely prepared to experience them. God speaks to Moses from the heart of the flames, conveying love for the people of Israel: I have observed their misery…I have heard their cries…I have known their suffering and I have come to deliver them. God reminds Moses that he isn’t being sent to free his people from bondage alone; Moses is going with God, who was, and is, and will always be the great I AM.
God’s presence in a bush wasn’t a ploy to get Moses’ attention: Moses had already been paying attention. In that holy moment, on that holy ground: God made God’s self known, even in the midst of what typically consumes and destroys.
Likewise, God is made manifest in the fires of our lives, making the very ground on which we live and work and serve and promote justice with God’s help holy ground.
This is what Jesus is trying so hard to teach his disciples. The portion of Matthew’s Gospel which we’ve been reading across these recent Sundays is all about people recognizing God in the person of Jesus. In last week’s lesson, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The revelation from the mouth of Simon Peter was definitive: You are the Messiah, the Son of God! Jesus proclaims his name as Peter from that moment onward, the rock on whom the church will be built. Peter, Petros, the rock.
But in this week’s portion of the Gospel lesson, Jesus further reveals himself to his disciples by describing the injustice that will indeed surround him, like a fire: there will be the flames of suffering and death but he will not be destroyed, or consumed. It is too much for Peter to hear about the pain and death of Jesus, who is both friend and Messiah. He pulls Jesus aside and says “Forbid it Lord, that it should ever happen to you!”
What Peter sees as destructive fire, Jesus presents as a holy necessity; the fire that burns, but does not consume. Jesus speaks to Peter from the flames of Peter’s own human fear: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
I can viscerally feel how Peter must have felt in that moment, engulfed by the flames of his emotion: first in imagining the suffering of his friend, and then in this stern rebuke. Here he was, named as the Rock. He was trying to support Jesus…isn’t that what rocks do?
When Peter saw the harsh flames of injustice, he became afraid. Like the tentative steps on the water, the human fear of drowning or dying was too distracting for Peter to see the unwavering presence of God. So behind the seemingly reassuring words he uttered to Jesus, there was a dismissiveness of the divine, a rejection of suffering and mortality, a futile attempt to douse the fire. We do this, too: we personalize issues which are larger than we are, we try to smooth things over and tamp down the flames so we can prevent damage to those we love. But we can be so caught up in the flames that we fail to notice that God is present.
Jesus…fully God and yet still fully human is present for Peter and for his disciples and for all of us, too. Jesus sees our misery, hears our cries, knows our sufferings, and comes to deliver us. In biblical narratives, that delivery isn’t always on our terms, but is always in the loving hands of a loving God who remains with us and shows us what to do.
God was present with Moses and on the whole journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and into the promised land. Jesus reminds his disciples that God will be with them, all along the journey of their discipleship, too: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?
And God is present with us, too. Even and perhaps especially now when the fires of this world are ravaging us. We’re given some powerful images, words and stories this week for navigating these times in which we find ourselves. Setting our minds on human things is destroying us…the fires of hatred, injustice, and fear have plenty of fuel on which to be fed. But God is present with us in these flames. God sees us, and hears us and responds.
God has said I AM through the life, death and resurrection of God’s own self, through Jesus Christ. We don’t have to be afraid. We don’t need to rely on our own merits, throwing thimbles full of water at giant flames and inevitably becoming overwhelmed. We have the opportunity to align with the One who is not consumed, to take off our shoes and bare our souls in recognition that we are on the holy ground to which God calls us.
Our Baptism into Christ aligns us with God’s eternal self. God says, I AM. Our response, “here I am” is an act of faith, and a radical act of commitment to that which is eternal. And, like a gift, God helps us imagine the eternal actions of solidarity to which we are called, nestled among our readings today in the Epistle:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Live peaceably with all; do not avenge yourself; give food and water to your enemies; do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Yes, the fires are burning, but God…I AM…is with us and will show us what to do.
This is holy ground, my friends.
How will we respond?
We know how:
Here, I am.
David Holleman, Revelation: The Burning Bush, stained glass with epoxy edge gluing mounted on plate glass. Dedicated in the 1960s in memory of Sarah Rosen, Harry Fishman, and Anna and Louis Kurtzman, Temple Beth El, Quincy, MA. Now in the collection of the Cincinnati Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.