A long time since we broke bread together. Since we felt that peace which passeth all understanding as it spreads throughout our entire body as we receive communion alongside our fellow parishioners. Such a very long time since we harmonized a favorite hymn or embraced one another in a hug or handshake at the Peace. For the first time in our lives, we may now have a glimmer of understanding for what it was like for the Israelites wandering or for Jesus wrestling with his identity in the wilderness. Before it was just a story, and now, as a community we understand the quality, the feel in our bones, of what it means when we say a very long time.
When we began the season of Lent last year, we had no idea it would come to be so different from every other Lent in our lives. We entered the wilderness, and we have remained here. Don’t get me wrong, we have observed other liturgical seasons, marking Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Yet the quality of this time has been of a year long Lent. No one needs to tell us about the meaning of fasting this year. We understand in our core what it means to fast from communion. Both the communion we experience when we are in-person worshiping together as well as the communion we experience when we break bread together and receive the Holy Eucharist.
We also know that while this wilderness seems to drag ever onwards, that there really is an end insight. Vaccines are being distributed. Case numbers are lowering. The vestry is working on fixing our sound system so we will be able to offer streaming and in-person worship sooner than later.
As we climb this mountain, we might imagine that soon we will be greeted with a beautiful vista; then we will descend down the mountain to the way things were. Right? We can go back to the way things were, and finally sit back and relax.
That’s what usually happens isn’t it? I mean, when Jesus emerged from the wilderness, it was to go have lunch at his mom’s house, right? And the Israelites, they got to set up camp and relax, right? Unfortunately, the version of these stories where people get to relax after their time in the wilderness, did not seem to make the canonical version of the holy scriptures. Instead, when people reemerge from the wilderness it tends to be when the real work sets in. For Jesus, it is when his public ministry began. For us, it will be a time to reimagine what it means to be the Church.
A wise colleague said to me recently that once all of our churches have reopened to in-person worship, churches will choose one of two paths. Some will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, relax, and in their exhaustion, stop actively being the Church, which will ultimately lead to their decline and closure. Some churches will return to in-person worship, take a deep breath, and double down in their efforts to reimagine who they are and what their mission is NOW, having lived through this experience together. It is these churches who embrace the work before them that will survive, and even thrive, in the ever shifting sands of the changing Church. This will happen across the Episcopal Church and every branch of the Jesus Movement. This will happen across every kind of institution, period.
I realize, this is not what anyone wants to hear. We are tired, and ready to resume what we once thought of as normal. But that’s now how this faith business works. When we emerge from the wilderness, our most vital work will just be beginning.
Some of you have heard the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson hired the team to explore the newly acquired territory of the unexplored west. At the time, there was a working assumption that the geography of the west would be similar to what folks knew of the east. The team carried canoes, presuming they would be a vital tool as they relied on waterways to make their journey. Instead, when they reached Lemhi Pass, the view they beheld was not a river that would take them further west, but rather an endless and terrifying range of mountains (Bolsinger 27). It was here that Lewis & Clark were forced to shift the mental model they had been working with. They abandoned their boats, found horses, and shifted gears (Bolsinger 93).
Tod Bolsinger reflects on the journey of Lewis & Clark in his book, Canoeing the Mountains.
He writes something that I think is pertinent for all of us to sit and pray with:
“And at that moment everything that Meriwether Lewis assumed about his journey had changed. He was planning on exploring the new world by boat. He was a river explorer. They planned on rowing, and they thought the hardest part was behind them. But in truth everything they had accomplished was only a prelude to what was in front of them.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were about to go off the map and into unchartered territory. They would have to change plans, give up expectations, even reframe their entire mission. What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no ‘best practices’ and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully. The true adventure--the real discovery--was just beginning” (Bolsinger 27).***
We know that in the not-so-distant future we will emerge from this wilderness and begin our own true adventure. Which is why these last weeks in the wilderness could be a gift if we shift the mental model we have been working with to see our situation somewhat differently. It is also why this is the Lent to double down in our spiritual practices. This is the Lent to embed scripture into our daily life. This is the Lent to pray every day. This is the Lent to meet regularly with a spiritual companion and share what is happening in our lives and pray together. This is the Lent for us to double down in our efforts to be still, and know that I am God, as the psalmist writes.** This is a season of preparation.
When we finally emerge from this wilderness, this year long Lent, we will have our most important work together to date. And we are a merged congregation, who already knows and understands a thing or two about change, grief, resilience, leaning into our faith and onto one another. Remember, when we tell our story, we always say we emerged. This idea of ever-evolving into something new, stronger, and more whole. This might be an important time for us to remember we did not only emerge on Emerging Sunday on April 23, 2017. We did not just emerge in our first year together. We are the people of Saints James and Andrew, and we are an ever emerging Church, as we seek to follow God’s ongoing call.
As we begin Lent this week, I invite us to lean fully into our faith and embrace this season in the wilderness. May it prepare us for the vital and important work of mission and ministry that lay before us. Amen.
*The number of days since COVID-19 was identified as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
*** Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory. InterVarsity Press, 2015, Downers Grove, Illinois.
We know Mark’s gospel was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written. It is a brief and fast-paced read.
The author intends for us to take in every detail and moment.
The gospel begins by introducing us to John the Baptist, who by verse nine is baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. In Mark’s version of the baptism, when Jesus comes up and out of the water, he alone witnesses something spectacular. The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, while a voice from heaven said, just to him: ”You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”(1:10).
From there, Jesus retreated into the wilderness. When he reemerges, he does so as a leader of a movement. In this role he proclaims the good news of God’s love in his preaching, teaching, healing, and in the way he models being in relationship with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized. Seemingly everyone who encounters him comes to understand there is something special about Jesus. His disciples know he is a servant of God, a prophet, maybe something more.
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain for some time away from their robust ministry. While together in this sacred space, Jesus takes on a blinding brightness. It is only then the disciples notice Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses.
These three disciples are in a state of shock, even terrified. Peter’s first reaction is to recognize the sacredness, the presence of the holy. He longs to do what we all tend to do when we encounter the holy--build a box or container or in this case dwellings--where the holy could remain forever.
Yet before Jesus could respond, a cloud moved into the space, making it difficult to see much of anything. From within the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (1:7)
This time when God calls Jesus, ‘my Son, the Beloved’...
Elijah and Moses heard.
In the overarching narrative of Mark’s gospel, this is a critical moment where the circle is widened. God has not only spoken directly to Jesus, but now has spoken to his inner circle. This was not just some wild and crazy experience that only Jesus can vouch for at his baptism. Those he loves the most have now heard from their Creator that Jesus is somehow both human and divine.
It did not need to make sense to ring true for the disciples. Nor does it really need to make sense to ring true for us. Like the disciples, we may have more questions than answers, and that's okay.
The aspect of this story that I find most powerful is actually the vulnerability shown by Jesus in the transfiguration. He takes his innermost circle with him for some sacred time apart. With God’s help, Jesus reveals the fullness of who he is. Jesus can let down his guard; be vulnerable; and share with those who understand him the most*.
It’s poignant that God did not transfigure Jesus in the feeding of the 5,000, or while he was teaching in the temple. This was not a public act meant for the people. This was a tender and private moment, for Jesus to name for his own beloved exactly what he has been holding onto all by himself.
Think about your own innermost circle. When one of your beloved has named something tender and private, as part of their ongoing journey of transformation. Maybe your beloved found the courage and the vulnerability to…
...express their gender or sexual identity.
...share a hope and dream they’ve been holding onto.
...reveal abuse or a decaying marriage.
...get brutally honest about the amount of racial reconciliation work they must do.
...admit just how empty their well is as we approach the one year anniversary of living in this pandemic.
The thing about being human is we need one another. Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, needed to share what was really happening with a few trusted friends. We may like to put on stoic faces and march ever onwards, but generally all we are doing is burying tender and sacred parts of who we are that God means for us to share with one another. To hold one another in support and friendship.
Some of you have probably seen the show Grey’s Anatomy, where the lead character routinely refers to another character as “My Person”. They were not childhood best friends. They met as residents in a surgical program and as different as they were from one another, found deep and lasting friendship.
We all need to be able to look at another human being and say, “You’re my person”. We need to ask our inner circle to join us and get real about what’s happening in our lives, just as we see Jesus model in the transfiguration.
Twelves months into this pandemic, it’s easy for us to give surface level answers when friends or family ask us how we are.
“Will be glad when this is over.”
What if this week we got honest with one person about what is happening in our own inner life? To share the burden we are carrying or the dream we are nurturing. Call one friend or zoom your inner circle. It’s easy to think we do not need to be so vulnerable.
Yet if even Jesus in all his full divinity and humanity needed to be vulnerable with a few close and trusted friends, surely we do as well. This kind of vulnerability and rigorous honesty is part of our own ongoing transformation. Without it our faith and growth can remain stagnant. In the coming week, I invite each of us to lean into our own inner circles. Find a time to connect virtually or in person, and share what’s really happening in our lives--the joys, the fears, the challenges, and the hopes. Amen.
*St. Stephen's introduced this idea in their weekly bible study reflection February 14, 2021, Last Sunday of Epiphany, Year B. This is a great weekly resource which I encourage folks to check out as part of ongoing scripture study.
Let’s begin by looking at the story of Eli and his household, which begins a couple of chapters earlier. Eli is the established leader in the temple, and he is anything but ideal. Hannah, Samuel’s mother, comes into the temple to pray at the beginning of 1 Samuel, and Eli confuses her prayer for drunkenness (1:12-18). An indication of his dimming senses and grossly off balance intuition. (We likely have all experienced getting away from our self-care and relationship routines--with God or loved ones. When we do, things easily can get off balance and we begin missing things that might seem obvious to onlookers).
Possibly of far greater concern is Eli’s complete and utter failure at managing the behavior of his sons, who serve as priests in the temple. His sons have completely misunderstood the responsibilities of priestly ministry. They are actually described as ‘scoundrels’ (2:12). It was routine for people to bring sacrifices for the temple, and the very best cut was always meant for God. Eli’s sons kept that portion for themselves (2:12-17). They also have a history of sexually assaulting and raping women who serve at the entrance of the tent of meeting (2:22).
As appalling as the behaviors of Eli’s sons are, what is far more disturbing is Eli’s gross neglect. He simply sits on his throne, negligent, letting abuse after abuse take place. God warns Eli to stop his sons, yet Eli’s love of power and privilege prevents him from taking God’s voice seriously (2:27-36). A bit like a child who thinks they could probably get away with a bit more.
Turning to Samuel...His mother had been unable to have children, though following her trip to the temple (the one where Eli thought her prayers were the behavior of a drunk woman) she became pregnant. Hannah was overjoyed and promised to give her child as a servant to God. After Samuel was weaned, she brought him to Eli, to minister in the temple, while she went on to give birth to five more children (1:28; 2:21).
When we meet Samuel in today’s lesson, he is asleep on the temple floor near dawn.
A voice cries out: “Samuel! Samuel!” (3:4).
Samuel assumes it must be Eli calling after him, so he runs off to find Eli.
“Here I am, for you called me” (3:4)
Eli, who had been asleep, says, I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.
Samuel returns to the temple floor, only to hear his name again. He goes back to Eli who says the same thing--go back to sleep. Then it happens a third time. Eli begins to realize this may be God calling Samuel. While it might seem they are both slow on the uptake, in reality, Eli has been the one in a leadership position and should be well versed at recognizing the voice of God (in spite of his choice to disregard God), while Samuel is a newbie and needs a bit of help deciphering what is going on.
Eli instructs Samuel to go lie down, and this time should he hear his name called, he was to respond,
“Speak God, for your servant is listening” (3:9).
Samuel returns to the temple floor and when he hears his name being called, he lets God know he is listening.
“Speak God, for your servant is listening” (3:9).
In response, God says to Samuel:
“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle” (3:12).
God then goes on to explain all that will befall Eli’s family, since Eli did not heed God’s warning.
Samuel laid back down, and in the morning, Eli insisted Samuel tell him everything God had said. While a bit reluctant, Samuel spoke the truth in love to Eli that his family would soon lose everything. Eli essentially said, May it be so.
This lesson contrasts two different responses to the voice of God. On the one hand is Eli whose senses have grown dim--both literally and metaphorically. God has asked Eli to put an end to the abuses of power taken by his family. And yet….nothing. Eli does absolutely nothing. His household’s love of power has become their primary driving force and they will not stop until God forces them out.
On the other hand is Samuel. Who answered God each and every time. Samuel has a servant’s heart and he holds a posture of listening. Samuel was informed by his mother’s powerful love, which helped shape his calling to prophetic ministry from within her womb. Eli learned at a young age how to speak the truth in love to those who did not want to hear it---something that can only be done with the power of love driving us. Samuel goes on to become a trustworthy prophet of God whose ministry is focused on putting an end to corruption.
It seems pertinent that this particular story shows up in the lectionary on the weekend we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and in the days before our nation seeks a peaceful transition of power. A little over sixty-three years ago, a dynamic Black preacher offered a sermon on “Loving Your Enemies” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about the redemptive power of love in that sermon, and the words are still ringing out to us, crying out for our attention, maybe more urgently than ever before.
“We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.”
In the calling of Samuel, God reminds Eli and any corrupt leader who will ever hold power, that the power of love is more powerful than the love of power.
The power of love is redemptive and can transform us into better people, a better society, a better world.
This is the message that Jesus proclaimed again and again.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that grounds us.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that must light the fire within each of us, within every local church, and within the universal Church.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that must ground our nation as it seeks a peaceful transition of power.
Love is the only way.
This is the message that we must hold tightly to as we move forward in uncertain times.
Love is the only way.
However, this year is unlike any in our collective memory. This year we have been reminded again and again that the best way we can express our love for our family, neighbors, and community is by staying home. By calling our loved ones and sending notes instead of dropping in for a visit. By sharing in holiday meals over zoom, google meet, or facetime instead of in one festively decorated dining room. We have attended church online, even as a piece of us aches to sit in a crowded church, taking in the fragrant smell of poinsettias and incense, the lilt of children’s laughter, the beauty and majesty of the flickering candles as the gathered people sing Silent Night.
The joy of this Christmas is laced with grief, loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Over one point seven million families around the world will spend today longing for loved ones who died from COVID-19. Even as we hold onto the hope we see on the horizon with the first round of vaccine distribution, an eventual return to the gatherings we love, and discovering new normals, we cannot forget the pain that this year has held for so many.
In some ways, the pain of this year helps us to better understand the mixture of emotions that Mary and Joseph would have been grappling with as they awaited the birth of their child. Their love was not a Hallmark special, even if we want to pretend otherwise. Mary really was an unwed, teenage mother who embraced a vision proclaimed by an angel. Joseph really was committing his life to a woman that society would encourage him to leave. The birth of their child was not attended by doting grandmothers and aunts. It was in a manger, as they travelled home to be counted for a government census.
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was anything but perfect.
It was in equal parts messy, mystical, strange, and wonderful.
Most of all, the birth of Jesus was a proclamation of God’s love for creation.
Christina Rossetti captured the meaning of this moment in her Christmas hymn:
Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
worship we our Jesus,
but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.
It is no mistake that we witness this story of extraordinary love through the lens of a handful of shepherds and their faithful sheep. On the night Jesus was born, shepherds were guarding their flock, when suddenly an angel, a creature of light, stood before them in the night sky. They were terrified. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
For a few brief moments after, the night sky lit up, and it was as if all the heavens were singing God’s praises, while the shepherds stood awestruck in the fields. When it was over, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to go and see this child, God’s love in human form.
I have often wondered what the shepherds did with their sheep as they made their way to see Jesus. Did the shepherds leave their flock behind? While a shepherd might circle a route, leaving a flock untended for a short while, this trip to the village would have taken them away for an extended period. It would mean a predator could attack the flock, risking the shepherd’s very livelihood.
Or maybe, the shepherds brought their flock with them, and overwhelmed the narrow streets of the small village. If the shepherds and their flock all knelt down before Jesus, in and surrounding the manger, then maybe the story is reminding us that God did not just come for all of humanity, but rather for all of creation? Showing us that not only did the angel proclaim good news to the most ordinary of people, but the animals they tended as well.
With or without their sheep, the shepherds were not coming from the next field over. They traversed rocky terrain, from the mountainside and down into the village. The journey, whether short or long, would have tired out their flock. Yet any weary feet or hooves were forgotten by the mere presence of the child lying in the manger. As the shepherds and their flock returned back into the fields, they were “...glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…”(Luke 2:20).
The shepherds and their flocks were changed by God becoming flesh, by experiencing a radical and unconditional love in human form. And every time we pause to remember that God has come to journey among us, we too, are changed. Because the greatest gift of all is the gift of our God, the God of all creation, choosing to become incarnate; choosing to become flesh; choosing to become “emmanuel” or rather, God with us.
Emmanuel was born to show all of creation just how much God loves us, to show us that even in the harshest moments of our lives, the Love of Christ is always with us.
Even in this most impossible and challenging of years, we know that the Love of Christ is with us. Carrying us, encouraging us, inspiring us to keep moving forward towards the dream God has for all of creation.
God is with us. This is the greatest, most unimaginable of gifts. Our faith calls us to join the work of transforming creation through our acts of love. Love of God, love of neighbor.
As we take in the mixture of emotions this day holds for us in 2020, I invite each of us to spend some time this Christmas season reflecting on what ways we have experienced God’s love this year, and how we hope to engage in acts of love in the coming year. Amen.
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