Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Even If They Devour Us

1 Kings 17:8-16
Mark 12:38-44

In our Scripture readings, we meet two women who have nothing. We don’t know their names, we don’t know many details of their lives. Yet, somehow their brief encounter with the holy makes it into our Bible. We gather together, we hear their stories and we wonder how their stories might inform the stories of our lives today. These women of meager mean offer all they have - one offers bread and the other, her two coins - and somehow, here we are, thousands of years later, remembering their sacrifice.

In the Hebrew Bible lesson from 1 Kings, the widow of Zarephath and her son have suffered much during a time drought - a drought predicted by Elijah - brought on by the wickedness of King Ahab and his worship of Ba’al. When we encounter her, the widow is just about to use the only grain and oil she has left to make a bit of bread for her and her son to eat before they die. And then Elijah approaches. Elijah asks her to give all that she has left for the sake of his life. The Lord the God of Israel promises her jar will not go empty until rain comes down from the sky. Trusting this word, she does as Elijah asks and the jar of meal is not emptied, the jug of oil does not run dry. The woman, her son, and Elijah - they all live. When death was imminent, this woman who had nothing left, trusts in God and finds new life.

In the Gospel reading, we find another widow. This widow comes to the Temple to put her offering into the treasury. She is surrounded by a large crowd of people who are putting in large sums of money into the temple treasury. And yet, she drops in her two small coins. The coins she drops in are the smallest coins circulated. It would take 64 of these coins to equal one denarius, which was one day’s wage. Knowing these coins were all she had to live on, Jesus sees her. He sees her and calls attention to the sacrifice of her offering.

Many times, these stories bring our focus to sacrifice and offering. These women sacrificed all they had, offering it to God. When we think about sacrifice, we think giving up something up, something of value or of great worth, for the sake of someone else. We think of all the people of the world who have sacrificed so much - Brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. We remember their sacrifice, especially today on this Veterans Day. We think about people who have sacrificed so greatly - Faithful men and women who sacrificed their lives for the creation of a better world, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, newly canonized Oscar Romero. We remember them as saints who changed the world. In these terms, their sacrifice is almost like an exchange - lives for freedom, lives for a better world. But at its core, sacrifice means to make sacred. Sacrifice is offering something of value as an act of devotion to God. And our offering is not our money or our possession or materials things - our offering is our very being.

In the ancient world, without a man to care and provide for them, to protect and keep the safe, widows were the most vulnerable of all people. Yet, these two widows in our texts today offer all they have - all that is left of their very lives. Their sacrifice isn’t in what or how much they gave, but that they offer themselves as a sacred act of devotion, trusting that their gift is enough. The most powerful offering that we have to sacrifice is our very selves. There is enormous power in offering all of who we are to the rest of creation, trusting that we are enough, and God will use us for good.

That’s the hard part, though - trusting we are enough. That takes courage and vulnerability. I don’t know about you, but more often than not I get caught up in reminding myself of my own lack. I don’t have enough - enough time, enough space, enough love, enough stuff, and of course, there’s never enough money. I spend my head-space reminding myself of my own inadequacy. I am not enough - good enough, smart enough, talented enough, happy enough, successful enough.

Yet, as Jesus tells his disciples, the widow in her scarcity contributed more than those giving from their abundance. I may think I live in scarcity but even my thoughts of scarcity are worth more than abundance when offer all I am and trust in God to use it for good. Our scarcity doesn’t mean we search for abundance, but rather choose a different mind-set.

In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Dr. Brene Brown says we must choose a mind-set of self sufficiency. She says: “We each have the choice in any setting to step back and let go of the mindset of scarcity. Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency. By sufficiency, I don’t be a quantity of anything. Sufficiency isn’t two step up from poverty or one stop short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.”

My friends, you are enough. And when you give yourself to the world, trusting that you are enough, you can find more passion, and meaning and purpose than you ever thought possible. These widows invite us to trust in sufficiency. All we are, all we have, is sufficient in the hands of the Creator.

Now, I'd like us to consider for a moment to whom these widows give their offering. The first widow gives the last of her bread to Elijah, which might not seem like a big deal at first. After all, he was a prophet of God! But a woman from Zarephath would not know that. You see, the people of Zarephath were Gentiles. Remember that the drought was said to be caused by King Ahab’s worship of Ba’al? The worship of Ba’al began when he married Jezebel, who was also from Zarephath. The widow sacrificed all she had left for an outsider - an “other” - someone she may have deemed unworthy.

And what about the widow in our gospel lesson? She gives her coins to the treasury of the temple. Abstractly, we might imagine her giving her offering to God - but who does she literally give her coins to? She offers her coins, all she has, to the very institution devouring her house. Remember the first part of our reading for today? Jesus points to the scribes who walk around in their long robes, demanding respect and expecting to be seated in places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. These scribes were the legal and financial gurus of the day, working for the religious authorities. One of their jobs was to oversee the affairs of widows, who with no husband, were in a defenseless legal and financial position. And so, these supposedly well-reputed and pious scribes who were to oversee the estates of widows, would instead use the estates for their own financial gain. Jesus warns his disciples about religious hypocrisy - those who profess to be faithful but whose power and elitist attitudes lead to corruption. The scribes were part of the very institution that was feeding on the vulnerabilities of the poor.

And yet, the widow offers the whole of her life to the very institution that exploits her poverty and social position.

Seems crazy, doesn’t it? But it happens all the time, even today. People send their money to televangelists so that they might be blessed by God with promised prosperity. People cast their vote for the very politicians who want to take away their health care and social services. I recently read “Killer of the Flower Moon” and what happens to widows in Jesus' time is very similar to what white men were doing to Osage women in the 1920’s when they would marry them to gain control of the wealth of their estate only to have them murdered.

Even in the face of otherness and corruption, the widows sacrifice everything.

Please do not hear me say that I am advocating for destructive relationships. I’m not justifying unjust systems, or condoning evil masquerading as care and protection. We must continue to stand against corrupt people and systems.

Instead, I would like us to consider that the widows’ stories aren’t too different from the path of Jesus. The story of the widow and her two coins is the last scene of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of Mark. From here, Jesus tells of the temple’s destruction and the Passion narrative begins. But in this final scene of the widow’s mite, we are shown a glimpse into what Jesus himself is all about. Jesus is on his way to give “the whole of his life” for something corrupt and condemned: all of humanity, the whole world. He knows it, and he offers himself as a sacrifice anyway, offering all of who he is in a sacred act of devotion to God. Why? Because Jesus believes the goodness of God’s creation is greater than the darkness, the brokenness, the not-good-enoughness of the world.

When we offer whole selves to the world as a sacred act of devotion to God, we can trust that God believes we are more than enough and God will use all that we offer for the good of the world. Even when we ourselves don’t feel like we are enough - like the brokenness of the world is too big and we are too small - we are reminded that God’s grace is sufficient and our lives are too. Following in the way of Jesus, we are called - both individually and as a church - to sacrifice our lives as an offering to be shared with others. Even if the world will devour us. Even if the world is corrupt. Even if people are awful. Even if evil exists. 

May we too, as people of faith, offer our lives to others as a sacred act of devotion - even though the world may devour us - because our trust in God’s goodness is greater than the darkness of the world.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Justice at Our Gates

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Mark 10:17-31

When I was at Oklahoma State University in the late 90s, there was one person on campus that everyone seemed to know. He would show up intermittently, usually around the library, and draw great crowds of people. His name was Preacher Bob and everyone seemed to know exactly who he was. If you were to ask him - he would probably tell you he was a prophet. Standing on a box and shouting into a megaphone, he would tell us college kids that God had called him to condemn our evil ways and said if we didn’t change our ways, we would go straight to hell. Crowds would gather, to jeer and mock him - and he would banter back and forth - calling girls sluts and people he deemed gay abominations. I always wondered exactly who he thought he was actually going to save. For awhile, this was my view of prophets - crazed men who stood on boxes shouting warnings of hell at the masses.

And yet, during Seminary, I came to a much different understanding. I came to have a deep admiration and love for the prophets. I spent an entire semester studying eighth century prophets and found that yes, most might be crazed men - but it takes a bit of chutzpah to leave one’s home and deliver a challenging message from God to a people that don’t want to hear what you have to say. But unlike Preacher Bob, Biblical prophets did not condemn people to hell. They may have warned of consequences and impending doom, but they always offered a word of hope and redemption, as well. They were watchmen, servants, messengers of God. What I discovered was that prophets revealed God’s love to the world; they revealed God’s heart.

I love the prophets because even though their message was for specific people, in a specific place and time - their words can speak to us, too. Their words are alive and active, even now. And so, I would like for us to spend some time with the Hebrew Bible lesson from Amos in hopes that the heart of God might be revealed to us in a new way and we might hear his message of hope and redemption in the midst of our reality.

Amos lived in the 8th century BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II when the kingdom was divided - Judah to the south and Israel to the north. Amos was a shepherd, a highly respected sheep-breeder from Tekoa, a village southwest of Bethlehem in the Kingdom of Judah. God calls this man from south of Bethlehem and sends him all the way up north into the Kingdom of Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel was experiencing its greatest time of peace and prosperity under the rule of King Jeroboam II. The book of Amos describes the great pride of the Northern Kingdom. It speaks of the splendor of the land, the elegance of the cities, and the might of its palaces. It tells us the rich had summer houses and winter palaces adorned with expensive ivory and gorgeous couches with damask pillows for the people to recline upon. Life was good in the Kingdom - unless it wasn’t. Although there were great riches and wealth for some, it was also a time of great poverty and suffering for others. The poor were afflicted, exploited, and even sold into slavery. And so, a great divide existed between them - the rich and the poor.

In our text, Amos’ audience was the wealthy upper class of Bethel. Bethel was one of the great religious centers of the Northern Kingdom, the place God’s chosen people would gather for cultic worship and ritual. They believed their wealth was given to them by God because of their perfected rituals in their grand sanctuaries. They also believed, as God’s chosen people, that they held special status, which made them exceptional and blessed just because of who they were.

Of equal importance to the grand sanctuaries of Bethel was the city gate. As in all ancient towns and cities, the city gate was the place where all public activity took place. And it was also where legal disputes were decided. The ruling elites controlled the courts. These officials were corrupt in every way, manipulating the system, doling out unfair fines and taking bribes so the rich could get richer at the expense of their neighbors. Anyone who tried to speak truth to power, anyone who tried to act with integrity, was despised and ridiculed by the ruling class. The very court that was established to protect the vulnerable with no power or influence was the very court destroying and subverting justice, pushing them further into poverty. We hear Amos say: “They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks truth.”

It is into this particular moment in human history that Amos is called by God to speak. Amos is called to offer divine understanding to this human reality. Amos confronts the dissonance between what is happening in worship and what is happening at their gates of justice. Amos reveals the heart of God - a heart that longs for justice and righteousness.

Justice and righteousness are paired throughout the writings of the prophets and wisdom literature. For prophets like Amos, justice and righteousness were intimate companions; they were not abstract concepts but were lived out in real ways both individually and as a community. Justice, mispat in Hebrew, refers to behavior and practices that come from moral and ethical living. Justice is ethical action; acting based on one’s morals. And righteousness, sedeqa in Hebrew, refers to a right relationship with others that flows from a right relationship with God. Amos pairs these words in verse 7, and says to the people, “You turn justice to wormwood and bring righteousness to the ground.” Amos calls them out, saying their pursuit of justice has become wormwood, a plant that smells beautiful on the outside, but inside it contains a bitter extract. Justice in the gate may have looked fancy and elite, but the people had turned it bitter and made it useless. And they had thrown righteousness to the ground. Instead of being in right relationship with the poor, they trampled the poor into the dirt of the earth. The needy who sought justice were pushed aside and treated unethically. The people’s sin was their disregard of just practices and right relationships.

It seems the neglect of just practices and right relationships has always plagued humanity. We hear the familiar words of Amos echoed by Dr. Martin Luther King: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Isn’t it amazing that the same cry for justice and righteousness has been proclaimed for thousands and thousands of years? It was the cry of Amos, the cry of MLK - and it is still our cry today.

Yet, we are more like the ancient Israelites of the Northern Kingdom then we’d like to admit. Too often we seek God by going to church and performing our rituals. We try our best to follow the rules, thinking we can earn our way into heaven. As American Christians, we have an air of exceptionalism, thinking of ourselves as God’s chosen people. “God bless the USA,” we say. Even as Oklahomans we sing, “We know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand…”

And yet. And yet Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the country. We have the highest incarceration rate of women in the whole entire world. In Tulsa, black teenagers are more than three times as likely to be arrested as white teenagers and black people are more than twice as likely to experience officer use of force as white people. What is is it about the justice that happens at our city gates that produces so many inmates and so much disparity between peoples?

Through the Criminal Justice work of ACTION, I heard the story of one Tulsa attorney whose client is part of our state’s disparaging statistics. Her client was a woman who was caught shoplifting shoes for her child because her child had no shoes. Maybe it was time for school or maybe winter was coming and she was desperate. When she was arrested, she was not charged with a misdemeanor, but with a felony for child abuse. She was kept in jail for such a long period of time that she lost her housing, her job, and her transportation. Her situation went from bad to tragic. In the end, the felony child abuse charge was dropped, but her time in jail already had terrible consequences for her and her family.

Detained immigrant children are currently being adopted to American families without the consent or knowledge of their own parents. Elderly people are the victims of fraud and exploitation everyday, falling through the cracks of our justice system. Black men die, women are sexually assaulted - and their assailants go free. What is is it about the justice that happens at our city gates that fails to protect the vulnerable? And what are we called to do about it?

Perhaps our calling is found in Amos’ message of hope and redemption. Standing on his box, holding his megaphone, Amos does not condemn the people to hell but offers them life. Four times in Chapter 5, Amos calls the people to seek the Lord, and the result of their search is life. In Hebrew, the word life is a word that means much more than mere existence. Life isn’t just having a pulse but it is living abundantly. Life is vitality, health, honor and prosperity. All of these things are yours, Amos says, if you seek God. Amos says, “Seek good and not evil...hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” There may be many ways to seek God, but for Amos, seeking God is to seek and love good and establish justice. Seeking God looks like actively working for a just society. When the privileged of a society manipulates the system for their own selfish gain at the expense of the poor and marginalized, “seeking God” involves publically rejecting these forms of evil and working towards the establishment of justice and righteousness.

In our Gospel lesson, a young ruler with many possessions comes to Jesus seeking life. He knows the commandments and has obeyed them all. The proof was in his great blessings! And yet something was missing. He asks Jesus what more he needs to do. Jesus reveals the heart of God - sell all of your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me. It seems the man had things backwards, too. He had been seeking life through rule following and the accumulation of wealth and power, instead of seeking God through active love of neighbor. It is seeking God that leads to life. Both Amos and Jesus invite us who seek the way to life - to seek the heart of God first. For it is in seeking the heart of God - actively pursuing God’s goodness, God’s justice, and God’s righteousness - that we find abundant life has been ours the whole time.

Monday, September 10, 2018

God's Work Our Hands

Mark 7:24-37

When I was a little girl, I loved to play with frogs. It didn't matter that I heard they gave you warts...I found them fascinating. I would look a frog square in the eye and wonder, "What do you think about this world, Mr. Frog?" Now, I don't think a frog thinks much of this world. Because, did you know, when a frog looks at the world, its eyes can only perceive four differents types of phenomena? Frogs can see clear lines of contrast, sudden changes in light, outlines in motion and the outlines of small, dark objects. That’s it. A frog doesn’t see the sweet face of a little girl as she peers at it inquisitively. A frog can’t see the bright colors of an Oklahoma sunset. It only sees what needs to be seen for survival: tasty bugs or the quick movement of a bird looking for dinner. Poor frog - he’s sure missing out. Thank goodness that WE can see all of the beauty of the world! Well, we THINK we can see everything - until we learn that bees can see patterns written in ultraviolet light on flowers and owls can see with precision in the dark. Actually, as human beings, our perception is limited. We only perceive the sensations our brains are programmed to comprehend; we only recognize the things for which we have mental maps or categories. Our mental maps help us make sense of the world.

I know this all sounds rather weird, and it’s about to get even weirder. But, hopefully, you’ll hang with me and we can tie it all together in the end. I'd like for you to take a look at the nine dot puzzle below because we are going to use this puzzle to help us understand how our brains use mental maps to make sense of the world. Here are your instructions: Join all nine dots with four straight lines, without taking pencil from paper. 


Can you do it? How about a hint? First, let me ask you: what shape do you see when you look at the dots? A square. The human mind automatically creates a mental map and sorts data into a category to help us perceive the information - and your brain classifies those dots as a square. A box. Now, what if I told you that the square does not actually exist? Your mind constructed it and I never said you had to stay within it. You actually are free to use the whole sheet of paper to solve the puzzle. Now can can you solve it? What if you added a dot to the top of the left column and a dot to the bottom right of the last column? If you can't figure it out, take a look at the image here:


When we give ourselves permission to think beyond the box, we open our minds to new possibilities. When we create a different frame for the data, new possibilities appear!

If you think about it - all of our perceptions about the world are invented in one way or another. Our stereotypes and bias about other people, our institutional structures, our politics, and even our religions are constructs. They act as maps that help us make sense of the world. But what might happen if we began to notice what could be outside of the box? What might happen if we were to break through the barriers that constructs create for us and for others? When we can imagine and dream about what could happen in the space outside of the nine dots, new ideas and actions can come alive. With a different frame, new possibilities appear.

Could it be that this is what is happening in our gospel lesson for today? Could Jesus be having a change of heart, an ah-ha moment? Could it be that Jesus is being opened up to new possibilities and discoveries about his own mission in the world? You might be asking yourself - “What does Jesus have to ah-ha about? Didn’t Jesus already know everything?” Honestly, it depends on whose Jesus we are talking about - Matthew’s, Mark’s, Luke’s or John’s. A careful reading of the texts tell us - yes, John’s Jesus clearly knows everything. But Mark’s Jesus - well, he is still figuring things out. And with the help of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus is opened to the possibility that his mission is even bigger than he thought.

In each of these stories, Jesus is in Gentile territory. The region of Tyre and the region of the Decapolis are both places of Gentiles. The text tells us Jesus goes there to get away. But that doesn’t happen does it? He enters a house, not wanting anyone to know he is there, and a Gentile woman who has a daughter with an unclean spirit, wants his help. And he says: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This statement takes us a back a little, doesn’t it? We’re not often offended by Jesus, but this seems pretty harsh. We can take the discomfort of Jesus’ words and do several things with them. We could say that Jesus was just testing the woman. Or We could say that these words weren’t as offensive during the time of Jesus and that this was more of a familiar proverb like “charity begins at home.” Or we could say that this little bit about the dogs is a redaction, added in later for affect, and Jesus didn’t really say it. Okay...those are all possible interpretations.

But what if Jesus means the words exactly as we hear them? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” What if Jesus was responding to the woman out of the social constructs of his day? After all, she was a Syrophoenician, meaning she was from Syria and a Gentile. These are as much religious labels as they are racial labels. She was a foreigner and an outsider. She was also a woman, with no status, and she should never be talking to this man, let alone this rabbi, in the first place. And her daughter had a demon - perhaps a mental illness - either way, it was thought to be caused by sin. This woman is the worst of the worst. And Jesus is tired. He wants to rest. He’s been feeding and healing and teaching. If you remember from last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus had just laid into the Pharisees for being hypocritical in abandoning the commandments of God and clinging to religious customs instead. Wait...isn’t that exactly what Jesus is doing? Except here, social conventions are dictating who is worthy of God’s healing love and mercy. Is it possible that Mark is describing a conversion moment for Jesus, a moment where Jesus faces his own hypocrisy and struggles with his own mental maps of humanity? If so, the Syrophoenician woman prophetically calls Jesus to a mission of infinite compassion and mercy. Jesus immediately acknowledges and affirms his mission by healing her daughter because of her boldness.

The eyes of Jesus are opened just like the ears of the deaf man unable to speak in the very next story. Ephphatha - Jesus speaks this one word to the man and his ears are opened and is tongue is released.

You and I, we construct boxes and barriers around people each and every day. We decide who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving of dignity and respect and who is not. We may not go around calling people dogs, but our words and our actions illuminate our boxes more than we’d like to admit. Our church has been helping a woman who is recently situationally homeless. When Jayme first began to tell me pieces of her story she said that out on the streets she felt like nothing more than a dog. No one cared whether she lived or died and no one treated her with any dignity or respect. “I used to be a human,” she said, “but out there you’re just a dog.” And the words of today’s gospel rang in my ears.

These stories of Jesus reveal that a worthless Gentile girl with mental illness, a good for nothing deaf man who cannot clearly speak, and a woman without the security of a home are indeed children of God. They are to be embraced and valued - they are worthy of dignity and respect and healing. For every box and barrier we create, God insists over and over again that they do not exist: not race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation or physical condition. When we imagine the possibilities of the world as God would have it be, we see there would be no such barriers between human beings. Political leaders wouldn’t mock journalists with disabilities, women wouldn’t be groped by bishops at funerals, and we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not to burn our Nikes. Instead, we would be listening to the life experiences of others. We would respect their dignity as fellow human beings and listen, not to respond, but to understand their pain and situation in the world. We would recognize injustice for what it is and we would call it out. We would work together until our nation was an equitable and safe place for all people.

When we begin to notice the space outside our boxes and imagine new possibilities, I believe we can begin to solve what puzzles us and transformation can truly happen. This is true for us as individuals and it is true for us as a church. We cling to our traditions and our constructs of the way it has always been and we forget that in all actuality it is really all invented. The church is bigger than these walls. Worship is bigger than our liturgy. The Divine Source is bigger than our denominations and our religions. The mission given to us by Jesus - to love God and love others - is so wide and expansive that the possibilities for living it out are endless. Yet, our boxes often confine us because outside of them, the world can seem scary and unknown. Yet, that’s exactly where the transformative power of God’s work through the Holy Spirit happens.

Jesus shows us that God’s work is bigger than our boxes because our boxes are invisible to God. God does not need mental maps or constructs to make sense of the world. God’s perception is better than frogs, better than owls, and better than that of mere humans. God sees the whole picture, all the space, and reminds us again and again that the possibilities are endless. God says to us: Ephphatha - be opened - as individual people, to see the worth of all of creation. Ephphatha - be opened - as a church to see our mission in a new way. Ephphatha - be opened to change and new possibilities. Ephphatha - be opened to God working in the world in ways we never thought possible and open our hands to participate. It’s God’s work - we just have to open our hands to the endless possibilities.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Bread and Life

Scripture Readings:
1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesian 4:25-5:2; John 6:35,41-51

The people had been wandering for a long time. On a road that seemed to go absolutely no where, the sun beat down on them, the heat weighing down their bodies with exhaustion. The children cried to go home. But they had no home. They had been freed from enslavement and fled the only home they had ever known.

They were hungry. And thirsty. And close to death.

They cried out and God showed up, sending manna by day and quail by night. The people ate and were filled. Water poured from desert rocks and their thirst was quenched.

God provided food. God provided life.

The young widow slowly watched her grieving mother-in-law grow weaker and weaker. In those days, a woman was nothing without a husband - a man to provide security and worth. Yet, death had stolen the sons and husband of these two women. They had no men and no hope.

They were hungry. And thirsty. And close to death.

Until a stranger was endeared to the widow’s loyalty and looked upon her with kindness. The land-owner told her to glean the wheat from his fields, as much as she wanted, to feed her mother-in-law and herself. Through this kinsman redeemer,

God provided food. God provided life.

The prophet was on the run. He had filled his days serving the one true God and speaking God’s word to the people. In a final test, he showed the king, the queen and all the prophets of Ba-al that their so-called god was no match for Adonai. When Baal brought nothing - God brought a blazing fire. Victorious, the prophet ordered all of Ba-al’s prophets to be slaughtered! But now it was God’s prophet who was on the run. The queen wanted revenge; she wanted him slaughtered. So, he hid in the desert - alone, worn-down, defeated.

He was hungry. He was thirsty. And he wanted to die.

But God sent a messenger to touch the prophet, to give him food and drink. Twice, he ate and he drank. He was given strength for his journey.

God provided food. God provided life.

The Scriptures are filled with stories like these. Both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, there are stories of men and women who were given a second chance at life because God provided bread. Throughout the Scriptures, and in the everyday reality of our lives, bread and life and intricately entwined. Maybe this connection is why our lectionary focuses on bread for five weeks: every single person on the earth can relate to the innate need to be fed. Stories about food and life are something we all can relate to.

Yet, we also know human beings need more than physical nourishment. The hunger and thirst of the human condition is much deeper than aching bellies and dry throats.
Exhaustion and fear - like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness; Destitution and hopelessness - like Ruth and Naomi; Despair and defeat - like the prophet Elijah.

In modern times, psycho- therapists have found that anxiety is the emotional byproduct of the fear of not having enough. Enough what? Well, it depends on who you are. Anxiety producing fear cuts across economic divides. Some people are anxious about not having enough money to put food on the table for their families - an everyday reality for one in six Oklahomans. While other people experience anxiety about earning a salary that compares with others in their social circle, that will afford them lavish homes, top notch cars and luxurious vacations. Whether it’s having enough food or enough stuff - no matter who you are - the fear of not having enough creates fear, and anxiety, and despair.

Chrystia Freeland writes in her book “Plutocrats: The rise of the New Global Super Rich and Fall of Everyone Else,” that this anxiety reveals there is something deeper driving our angst than mere economic security. Our longing for more comes from a spiritual hunger that cannot be satisfied by earthly things. Our hunger might be pacified by bread. But our deepest hunger requires something more - than just having more.

And so God came to us - incarnate in Jesus - to be our bread, to be our more. In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear Jesus say once again: I am the bread of life. Not only will I provide nourishment for your bodies - but I will provide nourishment for your souls. I will provide comfort in your grief, hope in your despair, and peace in your anxiety. I am the bread that gives you life. Eternal life. Not just life in the world to come, but an abundant life now. A whole life now. A life of meaning and purpose, now. God steps into the muck of life to remind us that we are beloved. We are more than enough.

And so, when we gather for communion, we gather to be fed. The bread and wine of the Eucharist serves as a reminder that Christ is present - with us, in us and through us. Yet even on days like today, when we won’t share in communion, we still gather together to be fed by one another. As Christ is the tangible revelation of God’s love - so are we to be as well. As Christ reveals God, so we reveal Christ. We become the living bread - Christ’s own flesh - for the sake of the world - and for the feeding of one another. We are fed not only by Jesus, but through community.

And yet we gather on Sundays, in churches all over this city - and we don’t really know one another. And even when we do know the people gathered around us we grouse about that one and hang on to old hurts because of what that one did years ago. We live in communities but don’t even know our neighbors, and rarely interact with people who look, think and believe differently than we do. And yet, we are called to be the bread of life for one another. We are called to share in one another’s joys and pain, to build one another up and care for all among us.

Our Ephesians text focuses on this idea of community care. Instead of being a letter written by Paul, some scholars think that the text might in fact be a sermon preached to a Christian community - a small group of people meeting in homes to worship, following in the way of Jesus, and trying to figure out what it means to be church together. I love the way the Message communicates what community looks like:

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:25-5:2, MSG)

If we want to imitate God, we look to Jesus - and and love like that. In Christ we are given the gift of community; we are all connected to one another and are meant to be living bread for one another. Living in community, we are truthful with others and ourselves, we let go of anger and help those who are unable to work. We use our words for good - for building each other up. We forgive one another quickly and fully. We love like Jesus.

Jesus loves fully and extravagantly - never anxious about not having enough or not being enough. He loves with abundance and plenty. Jesus is constantly pushing back on the notion of “what’s in it for me” and instead reminds us, “there’s enough for all.” This is how we are called to love one another in community. We look at Jesus and we love like that.

Last year I went to Nicaragua. The people lived in plastic houses with dirt floors. Sometimes there was enough money for corn for tortillas, but during times of drought, there was only enough for gallo pinto - beans and rice.

The people were hungry. And thirsty. But the sense of community among the village was astonishing.

They cared for one another and shared with one another all that they had. It didn’t matter if they didn’t have food tomorrow, because someone needed food today. Even in in their extreme poverty, they fed the orphans living in the trash dump and sent overflowing baskets of fruit into the overcrowded prisons.

God provides food. God provides life.

Last week I heard a story of a young boy who was always in trouble. He was labeled bad news at school and teachers dreaded having him in their class. He was assigned to a new teacher because of her kindness and gentle nature. His desk was placed next to hers and soon she realized:

He was hungry. And thirsty. And had come close to death.

And so she fed him. Day after day, year after year. She fed him when he was hungry and gave him a home when he had no other choices. She gave him love, a place to belong, and a way out of a life-situation that was set up for his failure from the beginning.

God provides food. God provides life.

Eight teenagers applied for an internship with Tulsa’s Table this summer. They filled out applications, interviewed with the director, and were hired as apprentices to a Tulsa chef.

They came hungry, and thirsty, and with painful stories but hopeful hearts.

Now, they are learning where their food comes from, and how to prepare and cook food that nourishes their bodies. They enjoy feasting on their creations and are learning other skills important to life. They earn a paycheck and have a job to put on a resume. And their experience is centered around food and community.

God provides food. God provides life.

It’s a story as old as time - yet it is a story that is still being told each and every day. If you listen closely, if you watch carefully, the story of food and life is all around you. Called to be imitators of God, you are the bread of life. May you provide strength and life for others, may you build community, and be vessels of hope for those who hunger and thirst for more than this world can give. Amen.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Transitions

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

As any newbie preacher would - when Pastor Rob and I decided that today would be my first Sunday to preach, I immediately went and looked up the lectionary readings for today. As I read through the Gospel lesson, I thought to myself - “Oh great, my first Sunday to preach and I get the bookends of two really exciting and important stories.” Because, if you look closely, that’s exactly what we have this morning. Did you notice the comma that skips over several verses in our appointed reading? We have four verses - skip 19 verses - and then we have four more verses. In the 19 verses we skip today - we find the stories of Jesus feeding the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. Pretty important stories, right? They are some of my favorites! But, our Gospel reading for today, seems to serve only as the bookends of these stories - transitional narratives - linking together one section to another. These transitions are the threads that tie the stories together.

And so I thought: “My first Sunday preaching for a congregation of people, who have taken a leap of faith and called me to be their intern, people who are expecting greatness (or maybe I just expect myself to be great for them) - and I get - transitions.” And then it hit me all too plainly in the face. Transitions are something I know something about. I’m currently living one of the biggest transitions of my entire life. I’ve been in ministry for fifteen years, seminary for four years, and this new adventure - this internship at First Lutheran and Prince of Peace - is my transition between being a minister and becoming a pastor. I feel blessed, and nervous, and excited, and anxious, and sad, and welcomed, and overwhelmed - and like I’m living right in the middle of my own transitional narrative.

What about you? Maybe you are living in a time of transition, too - a time between this part of life and that part of life. And even if you aren’t in the middle of a transition right now, there is a good possibility that you just came out of a transition - or you are just getting ready to enter into one. All of us are all too familiar with the feelings and emotions that transitions bring. They are an unavoidable part of living as human beings on this earth.

Transitions are also an unavoidable part of community - living collectively together in this world. Culture goes through times of transition, societies go through transitions; Christendom has gone through many transitions. Towns, schools, families and even churches go through times of transition. In some ways, First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma - you as the body of Christ in this place - are in a collective time of transition. We can’t escape them - and so, this morning, I would like for us to see what we can glean from today’s Gospel lesson regarding these times we know all too well.

When we zoom out from this morning’s Gospel text, we see in verses 7-13 that Jesus sends the disciples out two by two on a mission. They go throughout the countryside casting out demons, healing the sick, and calling people to repentance. Then, the writer of Mark gives us the tasty little bit about John the Baptist’s head on a platter which we talked about last week, and finally, in verse 30 (where we pick up today) we find that all of the disciples have come back together again, after their time spent apart. They are catching up - shooting the breeze, as my dad might say. The disciples gather around Jesus to tell stories about where they have been, what they have taught, what they have seen. This happens all the time, right? A friend or family member goes on vacation and they come back home with stories to tell - some stories crazier than others - but we all gather around to hear of their adventures. So, after their mission, the disciples come together to reconnect and to tell their stories. It is a time of transition from one mission experience to the next. And it is then that Jesus tells them to come away him to a deserted place to rest.

In the time between this and that - comes rest. In the time between this big life even and that big life event - comes rest. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But has that been your experience? It hasn’t been mine. When you transition from a child living at home to an empty nest - is the transition a time of rest? Is the transition between being single and married, a time of rest? When you transition from caring for an aging parent who needs constant care to coping with the loss of that parent, is it a time of rest? Going to college, starting a new job, retirement - are these ever times of rest? I’m not sure they ever are.

We can’t overlook, in today’s text, the words: “deserted place.” Jesus says: “Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves, and rest a while.” However, this time of rest doesn’t mean that they get to crawl into bed and turn on Netflix - because Jesus leads them to a deserted place. And in the Scriptures...the “wilderness” or “deserted places” are always places of struggle and testing. God led Moses and the Israelites into the wilderness where they wandered for years. David and Elijah both hid in deserted places from the people who wanted to kill them. And even Jesus himself spent for forty days in the wilderness wrestling with evil. When Jesus says, “Come to a deserted place” - that should have been a red flag for the disciples! Not the wilderness!

Times of transition often feel like the wilderness, don’t they, like deserted places of the soul? Transitions - no matter how good they are - can feel lonely, unsettling, and unfamiliar. After all, they create change and change is never comfortable. And yet, throughout the Scriptures, we find that it is in the wilderness that people encounter the living God. In the wilderness, God provides sustenance, protection, direction - and even renewal. In the wilderness we learn to trust God. In the wilderness - in times of transition, God is always working to bring about new life. God is working to create something new.

The transition narratives in our text for today are also marked with evidence of Jesus’ deep compassion for people. When Jesus and the disciples reach the deserted place, they are met with a swarm of people in need. The people are hungry, but not for food. They have heard what this Jesus can do, and they are so hungry for what he has to offer, that they don’t just follow him around - they proactively anticipate where Jesus is headed and go to meet him. Actually, the text uses these words - hurried and rushed. They hurry and rush to meet him because they are so hungry to be known, to be seen, to be fed and to be healed by this man. And Jesus does see them - he sees their deep hunger - and he has compassion for them. But compassion isn’t just something Jesus has, because compassion isn’t just a personality characteristic - oh, he’s a compassionate person - but an uncontrollable gut emotion. It doesn’t quite come through in the English language - but the Greek word that is translated to compassion actually means - to be moved in the inward parts; or to have the bowels yearn. To have the bowels yearn. That is uncontrollable compassion. German gets it close - the word MITLEID (mit-lide) - means “with suffering.” Compassion means that our inner parts are so deeply moved that our bowels yearn with suffering. True compassion suffers alongside those who are the focus of our compassion. This compassion stops Jesus dead in his tracks, changes his plans, and compels him to take action.

In our own deserted places, we encounter people and situations that need us to be compassionate. Our text for today reminds us that times of transition are not always only about us. Although there are times when we must have compassion with ourselves, we can’t focus on only ourselves - our own struggles. Sometimes we must also look beyond ourselves. We are called to see the hunger of others as Jesus would and from a place of compassion, deeply moved to suffer with them, we are called to care for others and stand in solidarity with them in their suffering. And when we do … well, sometimes we open ourselves up to be hurt. Compassion means to suffer with - and sometimes it feels like getting punched in the stomach. But sometimes - miracles happen. People are fed, people see Jesus walking in their lives in a new way, their fears are calmed, and people are healed and restored to wholeness.

Our text for today ends with these words: “And wherever [Jesus] went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” The people who encountered Jesus were in such need, they begged only to touch the fringe of his cloak. And when they did - they were healed, they were made whole. Their brokenness no longer defined them, but they were freed by the grace of Christ and made new - and sent back into the world to proclaim the good news.

Transitions can bring healing and healing can bring about a new mission. Within my first seven days at First Lutheran Church, I heard more than one person speak these words to me: “This church saved my life.” It wasn’t a trite cliche - I could tell that they truly meant their words: “This church saved my life.” That’s a powerful statement, my friends. The mission of Jesus was one of reconciliation, healing and wholeness - he invites the church to participate in this mission - and you are! - whether you realize it or not. This church is providing healing and wholeness to people hungry for the grace Jesus offers. Which makes me wonder ... What would it look like if you fully and daringly embraced your role as the fringe of Jesus’ cloak? How might God be calling us to embrace a new mission during our time of transition? There is a big city out there - people in need of healing and wholeness and grace - how might we actively and intentionally be the good news of God’s healing grace to our neighbors in this time and in this place?

I have come to realize that really important stuff happens in the transitions. Transitions are the threads that tie our lives together. They lead us from mission to mission. Even though they are hard and messy, the good news for today is that God works in them and through them to bring about something new, something good, something powerful that can change the world. Thank you for being the thread that ties my life of ministry together. May this be a time of hope, healing, and rebirth for us all. Amen.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Maundy Thursday Meditations

Meditation | One

I tend to look at Maundy Thursday through rose-colored glasses. We come together to hear a feel-good story and remember the night Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment - a commandment about love and serving others. There the intimacy of washing feet and the camaraderie of sharing a final meal together as friends. And while all these things are true - I would like for you to imagine with me that night long ago and feel the tension that is hanging in the air. Tension that is so thick that you could cut it with a knife - heavy with expectation and uncertainty. Jesus and his closest friends were gathered together in the upper room. They had been together for three years, traveling and learning with each other - I’m sure a lot of bonding had taken place -  and yet they still weren’t all on the same page.

Peter had entered Jerusalem with Jesus only days before to shouts of Hosanna – Save us! He heard the cries of the people calling for Jesus to be a military leader, the politically powerful Messiah who had come to free the people from the oppression of the Roman empire. Perhaps, that night, as they gathered for dinner, Peter was still hanging onto that hope. The hope that Jesus would crush the Romans and he and his people would be free.

Judas was reclining around the table with the others as well, pretending as if everything were okay. Judas had already met with the chief priests of the Sanhedrin who were out to bring Jesus down. His pockets were heavy with the 30 pieces of silver the priests had given him to betray Jesus. The decision had been made and now he had only to pick the perfect time to turn Jesus over. Maybe Judas was especially quiet that night, avoiding eye contact with the others, trying his best to not act suspicious while keeping his dark secret.

Can you feel the tension in the air?

I bet Jesus could. He knew there were expectations that he would be a conquering king and he knew one of his closest friends would soon betray him. The room was full of conflicting loyalties. Peter wanted Jesus to be someone he was not and Judas had become someone other than who Jesus thought him to be. And there they sat, together in that room. Would anyone be loyal to Jesus in the end?

Although he knew the answer, Jesus the Christ, stood up and took off his outer garment. Kneeling down, he took the position of a slave, a servant, a woman – and began washing the feet of all who had gathered together. The actual, literal, physical body of Christ, showing us what it means to be the body of Christ.

He washed the feet of stubborn fishermen. He washed the feet of despised tax collectors. He washed the feet of prideful Peter and he washed the feet of disloyal Judas. He could have refused. Who would want to wash the feet of someone who wants you to be someone you are not? Who would want to wash the feet of someone who is going to stab you in the back? Not me. But Jesus did. He washed the feet of all gathered and then he said, “I have set an example for you and you should do as I have done.” He continued, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples when you have love for one another.”

Jesus talked a lot about the people on the outside, loving our neighbors and even our enemies- but this commandment was directed toward the insiders, the believers. This - he said - This is how you are to be the body of Christ - this is how the world will know that you are the body of Christ. Everyone will know that you are my church when you love one another like I have loved you.

The body of Christ still can fill a room with tension. The body of Christ, still, has conflicting loyalties. There are some days when I think that the church would be great if it weren’t for all the people - because let’s face it - church people are messy. We want to be servant leaders and we want to love like Jesus, and yet, so often, the body of Christ chooses to put God in a box; to separate ourselves into us and them; to be self-righteous and judgemental. There is a constant conflict between the way of Jesus - and our way - and the body of Christ is divided and broken again and again.

Yet, in spite of our failures and our conflicting loyalties, despite our betrayals and weaknesses, Jesus kneels down and washes our feet. Jesus invites us to his table and tells us there is room for each one of us at his table.

The past two weeks, during the Sunday morning education hour, the children of our congregation have gathered together to learn about Holy Communion, some in preparation for their first communion and others as ongoing learning about this Sacrament of grace. The first week I asked all of the children to make a paper doll of themselves. They used crayons and markers, scraps of paper and yarn. Some made more than one - “A spring me and a fall me,” one girl said. And then we glued them all around the table fashioned out of a cardboard box.

Because when it comes to washing feet and when it comes to the table of Holy Communion, Christ welcomes all. Those with conflicting loyalties, those who deny Jesus, those who stab him in the back; those who think they know everything about the mysteries of our faith and those with so much yet to learn; people who are broken and hurting and people holding it all together - people that look an awful lot like you and me.

The tension of Maundy Thursday is a beautiful reminder of where our loyalties should lie.

May the world see Jesus when they see us - and until they do - may we return to the table of Christ, to be forgiven and nourished and reminded of the body we are to become.


Meditation | Two

I have a secret to tell you. I have never ever seen a Star Wars movie. Any of them. At least, not all the way through. It's not something I like to tell people, because there are those who get very offended by my lack of Star Wars knowledge. Last year a friend of mine found out about my secret and was horrified. He demanded that I immediately come over and watch Star Wars (the first one which I learned is actually the fourth one) with him and his family. I sheepishly accepted the invitation and made my way over to their house.

Star Wars is serious business to this family - and so in my honor and in celebration of my first Star Wars experience, they went all out. They set up a projector and projected the movie great big on the wall and hooked up the surround sound, so I felt like I was in a movie theater. There was food and drinks. They made sure I was nice and comfy and handed me a blanket to keep warm.  Then, they turned down the lights, and the opening credits began.

Now, there was something I had failed to mention to them. I have this terrible habit of falling asleep during movies. I just can’t seem to help it.  And although my friends showed the utmost hospitality by making sure I was nice and comfortable, it was probably the wrong call. Because, it wasn’t ten minutes into the movie and my eyes started getting heavy. But, I knew how excited my friend was for me to see this movie so I took a big drink of my soda and sat up straight. But, soon my drink began to slip out of my hand and my head started to fall back. I didn’t want my friends to see my head jerk, so I decided that maybe if I sunk way down into the couch, they wouldn’t know.  I tried to force my eyes to stay open, but all I wanted to do was close them and go to sleep. I tried my best to fight it - I tried to stay awake - but I just couldn’t do it. Sleep won and to my dismay, my friend knew it. My spirit was willing - but my flesh was weak.

Jesus’ disciples found themselves in a similar predicament. They may not have been trying to stay awake to watch Luke Skywalker and the Jedi defeat Darth Vader and the dark side, but their friend Jesus had asked them to stay with him while he faced a different kind of darkness. And I really think that they wanted to be there for Jesus. It’s not that they didn’t care - it’s just that it had been a long, hard day and the disciples were exhausted.  Peter, James, John - they may have wanted to keep awake, but they just couldn’t seem to keep their eyes open.

You see, there is conflicting loyalties, an inner struggle, within all of us - a struggle between the spirit and the flesh. The spirit is willing - we want to do what is right and good and pleasing, we want to be loyal to our friends and to our God - but our flesh is often weak. It is true for me and you, it was true for the disciples, and it was even true for Jesus.

It’s not often that we see Jesus weak and vulnerable, but in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus battling his own inner struggle between spirit and flesh. We see Jesus confronting death, fear, grief and a sense of abandonment, both by his friends and, seemingly by God. He is alone, and he begs God to “let this cup pass” from him. And in the same breath, Jesus’ spirit is willing - he utters profound words submitting to God’s will: “not what I want but what you want.” Back and forth, he prays, get me out of this - your will be done.

We know where Jesus ends up. We know which side wins. Although in the moment, Jesus’ flesh was weak, his willing spirit was stronger.

What was it that made his spirit stronger than his weakness?

Some might say - well, he was divine - but that’s the quick and easy answer. We actually find Jesus wrapped in the frailty of his humanity in the Garden of Gethsemane. I think the reason could be this: Jesus had a close and intimate relationship with God and and he knew that he had a divine purpose. His connection and his calling were stronger than the weakness of his flesh.

Throughout the Scriptures we see that Jesus takes intentional time to be alone with God in contemplation. The relationship between Jesus and his God is so tightly woven that even when his flesh is weak, he can say with all certainty, I trust you. I trust you. And because of this connection, Jesus trusts in his divine purpose. He had come to show the world the unconditional, sacrificial love of God.

A relationship, a connection with God isn't something that we just have, or a place that we arrive at. It's a continual act of putting in the time. Just as with any relationship, we have to continually nurture it, day by day, and over time, our connection continues to grow and mature. And, we haven’t all been given a divine calling to sacrifice our life for others - but we all have been given a divine purpose. The body of Christ has been gifted and called to be good news in the world. We are called to love and serve. We are called to bring Shalom, wholeness, to the world.  Shalom between God and people, people and people; and people and all of creation.

Our flesh often fails us - but our spirits gain strength when we being to no longer think we have to have all the answers and when we stop trying to be in control of everything. Our spirits grow stronger when we lean into God and trust God to do God’s work through our lives. Isn’t that what faith is all about? We trust God to do God’s best work in us and through us.

May your spirits be strong so that you can stay awake….awake to the world around you that is in need of Shalom; and may you trust God to work in you and through you to make it so.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Love Wins...

In each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), there is a story of a demon-possessed Gerasene man and his encounter with Jesus.  Each time I engage with this text, it stirs up within me memories of my favorite place on earth.  Twice I have had the privilege of traveling to Israel, and both times, I have felt completely at peace and at home along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Many things in Holy Land have changed since the time of Jesus – paths have become roads, stone structures have been replaced by modern buildings, and churches have been built on top of ancient sites.  But the Sea of Galilee – I know that is the body of water that my Jesus walked on.  The first time I went to Israel, as I was standing on the northern-side near the place of the Sermon on the Mount, I looked out across the beautiful water and tried to recall all of the stories I possibly could that took place on that lake.  Our tour guide came up beside me and pointed off to our left.  “See that cliff,” he said, “where it looks like there are jagged edges that go down into the water?  That is where Jesus commanded that demons be sent into pigs and then they ran into the lake.”  That was one story I hadn’t recalled.  When we were back on the bus, I pulled out my Bible and found this very story in Mark, Chapter 5.  The geography of the land and stories of Scripture came together and made sense in an all new way.

What fascinates me about Scripture is how geography and historical and social context can often uncover an a motley collection of layers within the text.  I have heard the Scriptures compared to the many facets of a diamond.  With each turn, you get a new and different look.  You can be looking at the same text, and turn it just a bit and see a completely different side.  Our story today is like that.  On the surface, this story looks to be a miraculous healing story, but if we turn it and look at it in a different light, it can be seen as a text of resistance against a violent Empires.  Let me explain what I mean.
 

The story begins ... “One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.”  Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as I looked out across the water, I could see that other side of the lake was literally the other side of the lake.  You could see it in the distance from Capernaum – the other side was right there.  Yet, the other side was another country, ruled by Rome.  It was Gentile territory, called the Decapolis.  The other side was full of “others.”  They worshiped wrong gods and practiced the wrong religion.  Being a part of the wrong culture, they ate the wrong things.  Being of the wrong ethnicity, they spoke the wrong language.
     

As soon as Jesus gets out of the boat, he is met by this man possessed by demons.  The demon immediately speaks Jesus’ name: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  And Jesus responds by asking for the name of the demon.    The demons answer that their name is Legion.  This back and forth naming of Jesus and of the Gerasene man is significant.  In the ancient world, Emperors were thought to be divine, or they wanted their subjects to think that they were given their power by the gods.  In many ancient writings, Emperor Caesar Augustus was referred by these names: divine, Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the World.  Sound familiar?  The demon calls Jesus by a name reserved for Caesar.  And Legion?  Legion was a Roman military term.  A Legion consisted of up to 5,000 men - the infantry, cavalries and squadrons.  A Legion was the leading source of Jewish social, political and economic oppression.  And the Gospel writers take these names, and turn the story into a text of resistance.  Who has the power – Jesus or Rome?  Who will win?
 

But this is also a healing story.  So we turn the text and we see that when Jesus begins his interactions with the Gerasene man by asking for his name, what seems to be a basic and simple question, has many implications.  The man had been living among the tombs, an outcast from society, and banished from human connection.  When shacked with chains, he broke them. He was scabbed and scarred, bruised and broken.  The demons within him were strong and erratic - they sought to separate him from his community, to restrict, confine and render him unworthy of human dignity.  The man’s demons forced him to the fringes of society and made him an “other” in the land of “others.”  “What is your name?” Jesus asks.  With this question, Jesus humanizes the “other,” gives him an identity, and gives him a voice.
    

A couple of years ago I met Mike Simons, a photojournalist for the Tulsa World.  Since our meeting, I have kept up with his work by following him on Facebook.  A couple weeks ago, he posted pictures that he took of a homeless man in Tulsa.  He told the story of seeing the man on the off ramp of 244 near Lewis and thinking, “This guy has the most amazing face.  I have to photograph him.”  Mike begins by asking his name.  His name is Greg.  And then Mike asks him, “Anybody ever told you that you have a wonderful face?” to which the man replies, “Most people tell me I’m ugly.”  He is an “other,” an outcast on the fringes of society, invisible, his humanity often ignored.  A couple weeks later, as I was walking out of Quik Trip, I see a homeless man walking up the sidewalk.  And I recognize him.  He does have a wonderful face.  The crevices of his face are deep and tell the story of a hard life.  His dark hair, sprinkled with salty strands, is long, unkempt and rather wild, but beneath it his dark eyes peer out.  His name is Greg.  On any other day, I most likely would have just passed right by this homeless man, this outcast and other, without a second thought, but that day, I paused.  His name was Greg and he was not invisible.  He was a human.  Names have a way of doing that.  Reminding us who we are and reminding us of the humanity of others.
    

The Gerasene man’s demons are named Legion.  And Legion begs Jesus not send them into the abyss.  Legion begs Jesus to send them instead into a herd of pigs.  And Jesus agrees, sending the demons into pigs that then rush into the water and drown.  Jesus asks the demons their name and then Jesus extends mercy.  He has mercy on even the demons. 
    

When the townspeople hear that all of their pigs have gone off into the sea, they come rushing out to see what has happened, and they find this man, whose relationship with his community had been broken, clothed and in his right mind.  He had been healed.  He had been freed from the oppression of the demons, just as Israel hoped to be freed from the oppression of Rome.  The man is grateful and wants to remain with Jesus.  Wouldn’t you?  His family, his friends, his community had banished him, treated him like an outcast, bound him in chains.  They sent him to live among the tombs.  And Jesus had set him free.  But Jesus insists that he return to his community.  Not only did Jesus bring healing and restoration to the man’s body, but Jesus wanted to restore community and reestablish human relationships.
    

The man is healed and made whole and then told to spread the good news of what God had done for him.  In the story, Jesus wins.  Not Legion – not demons, not Rome.  Jesus wins through his love and mercy.  Love wins.
    

Love wins.  I love that expression.  It’s an expression that I have incorporated into in my life, a ritual of sorts, reminding me of a foundational truth that I am deeply grounded in.  Love wins.  I type it into computers several times every day.  Love wins.  I believe it to be true.  I believe when the end draws near, God will win, which means love will win.  I believe that love is louder than hate and that love wins against hate.  Love wins, period.  I believe it deep in my bones.  So, when I saw a statement the other day the countered this belief, it caught me off guard.  Of this dictum, a friend wrote, “It’s a mistake to simply put a period at the end of the two words and walk away smiling.”  He insisted: Love wins is not a foregone conclusion, manifest destiny, or inevitable.  It doesn’t happen beyond any question of doubt; it is not absolute, inescapable or certain.  You see, Love wins ... (dot, dot, dot).  The ellipses are everything.  I had missed it before.  The ellipses are you and the ellipses are me.  The ellipses are the work of the church.
    

The man is sent back into his community and told to share with others the goodness of God.  He became and partner, an active participant, in the work of the Divine.  Love wins ... IF.  Love wins...if we choose share God’s goodness with the world.  Love wins...if we are willing to show grace to all people, not just the ones we like and with whom we agree.  Love wins...if we are willing to show mercy and love to our demons. 
    

Who are your demons?  Do you know their name?  Sometimes our demons are within and sometimes they are all around us.  Inner demons can be those painful parts of our past that we can’t let go of; they can be addictions, secrets, greed, bitterness.  Our demons cause us to judge ourselves so harshly that we often isolate ourselves from others - even God.  Other demons are all around us.  They are the people whose posts on Facebook make our blood boil.  They think differently, act differently, live differently, believe differently.  Our demons are often the “other.”  Republicans and Democrats.  Conservatives and Liberals.  Evangelicals and Progressives.  Whoever we have “othered” and consider to be wrong.  We humans are pretty good at dividing ourselves to separate ourselves from those we have demonized.  
    

Although demons may appear to be strong, they are actually quite weak.  Their strength only comes through separation and segregation.  Disconnection and division gives demons their power.  It was true for the Gerasene man and it is true for you and I every time we choose to let ourselves be divided and isolated.  Division leads to fear and fear leads to violence.   
    

Our world today is riddled with fear and violence.  Our world and the people who walk upon it are in desperate need of healing and peace.  Long before Greek word Ecclesia was used in the New Testament, the Hebrew word Edah was used to described the ancient Jewish understanding of church.  Far different from our definition of church today, Edah described the whole body of humanity acting as a living witness to the liberating work of the divine in the world.  Not divided, not isolated, but together in unity, humanity is called to bear witness to God’s work of liberation and healing.  Love wins... (dot, dot, dot).  Church, our name is Edah, we are the ellipses, and we are called to be active participants of Divine love.
    

May you hear God call you name and may this calling give you a sure and certain identity as a child of God.  May this calling give you a voice to speak on behalf of those without a voice.  And when you hear God call your name, may you be reminded that love wins…