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Unquenchable Fire

First Sunday after The Epiphany (The Baptism of our Lord), Year C

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

 

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study Group

Epiphany is a season of light and enlightenment. In this spirit, for the first four weeks in Epiphany, the Bible Study group met and considered one question together for each weekly lesson: What does this lesson tell us about who Jesus is?

David read this week’s lesson and was the first to speak: “To me, this is the introduction of Jesus as God’s Son. He should shine in your life like the Messiah. Jesus is the way to God.”

Jamillah added, “I think it’s that Jesus is sent as the Word. John points out that he [John] isn’t the Messiah; the Messiah is still coming. We hear about Jesus, and how we will know he IS the Messiah, because he is the one who roams with the people and speaks the Word.”

The group members were all surprised to hear that Jesus was baptized. Eugene summed up it up well: “If Jesus was the one they were to believe in, if he was like the leader, then why would they baptize him?”

“He used himself as an example” said Dale. “He wasn’t above us. He was one of us.”

“John didn’t want to baptize Jesus” said Paul, “but Jesus told him to, to let the people know that he was an example.”

“There are leaders that think they’re above things, and there are leaders who know they are just like everyone else” I added. “I think we see here what kind of leader Jesus was!”

“So, we can go even further” said David. “Once you are baptized, you are body and spirit. There’s two pathways for me, the way I’m seeing it. So there is Jesus, here, baptized and the Holy Spirit is with him for everyone to see, just like it is for us when we are baptized into water and the Holy Spirit.”

“The thing that hit me is when John says that Jesus is so powerful, he is like an unquenchable fire!” added Beth. “I just love that!”

Others agreed, “And it’s like how Jesus is described, so full of fire, unquenchable. A fully human person, but so powerful” said Jamillah.

“And the Holy Spirit, you know, the coming of the Holy Spirit made our spirits holy, too” added Paul. “When we are baptized, we become a holy people. We’re part of the unquenchable fire!”

Jesus:  Messiah, leader-by-example, unquenchable fire that enlightens our spirits

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Gifts we Give

Faith from the Margins to the Web: The Sunday of the Epiphany, Year C

Opening Prayer:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

FFMTW Participants: De’Nae, Stephen, Mary, and Lynette

“There’s something about this part, right here” said Mary, “the part when they went and sought diligently for the child, but it wasn’t because Herod told them to. It was because they knew who they were searching for.”

“They were frightened” said Stephen, “they knew, then, that Herod was afraid of this child. And I think they knew his intention, but they went anyway.”

“I was drawn to the fact that Jesus, this little tiny infant, was enough to draw these people. They brought all they had. This prophecy that people had heard, they took it and ran with it. What kind of belief and faith must they have had to have followed this, and to see this tiny baby and believe” added De’Nae. “The prophecy was still going to play out; Herod thought he had the power to change that and in doing so, he destroyed lives. He tried to take it into his own hands.”

The group began to talk about the wise people and prophets that they had heard and known about in their lives and how that has shaped how they learn to trust. Thinking about that seemed to make this more real, rather than a story we imagine.

“What is the difference between prophecy and wisdom?” asked Mary.

“I think wisdom is through your life” said De’Nae, “but prophecy comes from God. I think of my Dad as a wise person, and I think maybe he even has a gift of prophecy. He raised us to know that each of us has gifts from God and he is someone who can see the gifts in others. But his wisdom: that is age, and learning and humility.”

The group began to speak about their gifts and treasures, and all the ways in which they had received blessings in their lives.

“In that opening prayer” said Mary, “we prayed, ‘lead us by faith.’ And you know, I think about they way in which I feel led by faith.

“You know, I hadn’t thought about this but it says, ‘lead us who know you know through faith…’ and it makes me wonder if that isn’t also a reminder to us that it is our faith, now, through what we have been given and through what we know to understand as best we can. I guess it doesn’t tell us that God will be just like we think God is. We might each have our own best understanding of God, which we hold onto by faith. But that’s just it…it is by faith, until we see God face to face.”

“That’s interesting” said Stephen. “People think God looks one way or another…or maybe we need to believe God looks like us!”

Mary said, “Coming up, we were taught that God was white but here I am a black woman and I know that God could look like me, or to be asian, or to be middle eastern. We got all hung up on making out God to be in our image, when God says we are made in God’s image, all of us.”

“I’m still rocking with God no matter what!” said De’Nae.

“I think God is the ruler of all, coming to save the world” said Stephen. “So, I don’t think God will be bound to race, or in whose image God was made in. God came to rule over all that’s in this world, to rise above all that. People might need to remake God in our image so that we feel good about ourselves but we are asked…by faith…to open our hearts to know God.”

“Sometimes I wonder why it is that we keep ourselves from believing. We want to find the things to disprove, or to move away. It’s hard to want to take something by faith. But here, in this story, the wise men meet this tiny baby and that is enough for them to be sustained in their faith and to go home by another way. They hadn’t even seen his miracles, or see him walk on water. It just took this time of seeing” said De’Nae.

The group closed considering a question together: “what treasure that you have would you give to the baby Jesus?”

Stephen started: “I would give my belief. I don’t have a lot, but I have that. I would give that of my heart.”

De’Nae said: “I would give myself. The treasure chest of gold and all that, it didn’t matter, it isn’t that the baby Jesus desired that and it isn’t that Jesus wants that now. But if I could give myself…just me…just as I am…broken and all…I think that is what Jesus would most want of me.”

Lynette said, “When I go to funerals and stuff, they sing this song, “take the best of me” and I feel that way, too. Not the gold and all of that. Just me.”

Mary agreed, “He doesn’t want the best, or some expensive gift. Material doesn’t mean anything…he wants us!”

The group ended up on the same theme which they summed up together in their closing prayer:

“I’m going to give You what I have, and all that I can give You is me.”

Photo credit:

Sarah Kye Price, Epiphany Window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley California

Joy to the World!

A special edition Faith from the Margins to the Web for Christmas Day

Contributors: Mary and Mary Ann

Collect for Christmas, read by Mary and Mary Ann:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Wrapped up in joy and love, the familiar words of the Christmas story are woven together with a few of the beautiful reflections shared by Mary and MaryAnn in their Christmas Day bible study together:

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“No home does not mean no heart” said Mary.  She recalled a story that had been on the local news: “there was a man who was homeless, and he had only three dollars.  But this woman ran out of gas and was asking for help.  Other people wouldn’t give her anything but he gave her that three dollars…everything he had.  It turns out, she tracked him down and helped him get an apartment and a job.  Sometimes blessings come from unexpected places.”

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and 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.”

“The part that stands out to me,” said Mary Ann, “is where it says the angels say ‘don’t be afraid.’  Sometimes Christmas can be a scary and sad time for people; it’s good to remember the angels saying not to be afraid.  That isn’t just a message to the shepherds; it is a message to us, too.”

Mary agreed, “We all have a guardian angel; even better, we have God with us!”

They both agreed: “That’s really the story of Christmas, right there: to realize that we have God with us.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  

“One of the other things I realized when we were reading this together is that I experience God through music, too” said Mary Ann.  “We always think about the angels singing, and it made me think about how music is one of the ways that I have learned to not feel afraid.  Music helps us know that God is with us, just as here, the angels made it known that Jesus was born.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

“What stands out to me” said Mary “is that part that says, ‘Let’s now go to Bethlehem and see the things that are taking place.’  Those shepherds, they took a step to go and to find the baby Jesus.  They could have stayed in the fields, stuck to their work.  But instead, they decided to go.  They had to take that step, just like we have to take steps and seek out God in our own lives.”

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Mary said, “God comes in all kinds of forms; I want to do a better job, and reach out this year to the people who are here in my life.  I think that is one of the ways that we can make God known.”

Mary Ann added, “I think part of what I need to do more of is what Mary does…to ponder things in my heart.  Sometimes whatever I’m thinking, I say out loud.  So I think that maybe this Gospel is saying to me, ‘ponder it in your heart, think it through.’

“I like the way you put that…it’s true for me too!” said Mary.

To Mary and Mary Ann, the great gift of this Christmas lesson was ringing loud and clear:  “What everyone really needs to hear, again and again, is ‘Don’t be afraid!’  God has us.  God is with us. Don’t be afraid!”

Joy to the world, indeed!

Merry Christmas to everyone, from Faith from the Margins to the Web!

My soul proclaims…

Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study for Advent 4, Year C

Opening Prayer:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 1:39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Faith from the Margins to the Web co-authors: Angela and Thomas, with Sarah

I first met Angela and Thomas on a Friday when they came into the lunch program at the parish where I serve and asked for me and this project by name.  Good news travels!. They had been connected by a friend and mutual participant when they had arrived in Richmond after losing all of their possession and home in inland flooding a few months earlier.  They were now rebuilding their lives one day at a time, in faith. They needed money, no doubt. But theirs was a life of faith and Sandra knew that this project was more than just fair compensation: it was also a place where good news was made known.  I was glad to have the time to welcome them to participate.

The three of us sat together with this Gospel in our midst for well over an hour that afternoon, filled with the sharing of loss, recovery, hope and great rejoicing in the face of adversity.  It was a deeply heartfelt sharing, and I remember it vividly. That is a good thing, because the one thing we completely forgot to do was to turn on the tape recorder!

Angela had volunteered the read the Gospel lesson.  She got mid-way through and paused, grabbing my arm, “…and the child leaped in her womb.”   She read it again, nodding her head and really feeling it: “only a woman can know what that is like.  I know that feeling, and I only imagine how that must have felt!” She went on to finish the reading, but the poignancy of this setting of mutual recognition framed Mary’s song as a harmonious duet of these earthly cousins encountering the divine in their midst.

Admittedly, this setting of Mary and Elizabeth’s conversation is one of my own favorite pieces of scripture.  I shared with Angela and Thomas that my background as a social worker in maternal and child health settings has convinced me again and again of the sacred space of that time of expectation.  There was something about Angela’s emotional response to this reading which opened up the maternal urgency of this holy moment. We went on to talk about that.

At this time in their lives, Angela and Thomas were raising a family while living in separate spaces and places, doing the best that they could with the shelter options available to them while doing all the daily things it takes to remake their lives: finding work, learning a new community, re-establishing relationships with schools, services, and supports.  It was clearly a time of great worry and great uncertainty. Angela said, “I feel like this Gospel, while it’s so beautiful and filled with Mary’s song…you know, it misses something. I say that because I can tell you, Mary had to have been scared. So scared! Even if she was rejoicing, even if she had a heart filled with faith: she was a human woman and she was scared.  You cannot convince that she wasn’t. I actually love this story more because I think there is so much of that real, human fear.”

“For Joseph, too” said Thomas, “I mean, he had to be able to trust.  I want to think that I could trust but you know, I admire the guy!”

Angela smiled and squeezed his hand, “I know, honey, I mean I can imagine it and that’s why I think about Mary, wondering how she could possibly convey her story any way other than pure faith.  I mean, just think about last week. It felt like we were on the verge of falling apart…we couldn’t figure out the bus system, and we had tried to spend some time, all of us together before having to go back to the shelter.  I needed to get groceries and then I got on the wrong bus, and ended up walking three miles with all those bags all the while you were worrying about me and I couldn’t even get to my phone to tell you. It felt like we were all falling apart and that was just groceries!  I know what it’s like to just have to do the Mom stuff in the middle of a hard life, and there is Mary doing all of that, too, and having no one to turn to except her cousin. I admire her. I admire them both.”

It turned out, when it came to sharing how this story resonated with our personal lives, that Angela and I both related to Elizabeth because we had both been pregnant during times in our life when we were older than the norm.  It became clear to us that Elizabeth’s own fears as an older expectant woman are so rarely focused on or talked about. Even in a modern age, fears of health, of being too old, of not being able to do what the younger mothers can do: these are real and frightening; they are not new phenomena!  Elizabeth was likely just as filled with doubt about her own pregnancy. “I’ve never thought of this before” I said, “but being of ‘advanced maternal age’ even now the doctors get very concerned about our pregnancy health and viabiity, and pay so much attention to fetal movement. I wonder what happened to Elizabeth’s faith when she felt this child-in-becoming in her womb not only move but LEAP.  It must have been a moment of relief, as well as wonder. I’ve felt that relief, too…and I hadn’t considered that might have been Elizabeth’s experience.”

As we continued to talk and share our stories of faith and hope, this deep admiration felt as if it took on a new depth for all of us.  These two women of old, sharing not only a divine encounter but also a maternal one. These two women who didn’t have social power but did have deep faith.  These two women filled with awe and fear, each in their own way coming to a place of profound rejoicing at the divine in their midst, filling them with expectation in spite of all the odds.

My advent hope rests in the anticipation of these two women, whose hearts would continue be expanded and broken so many times, in so many ways.  And yet, the joy of faith unseen and unspoken flowed forth from them in prayer, and Mary’s song continues to speak to us today.

May it be so for you as well in these Advent days of waiting, hoping, longing, praying…


Preparing our Hearts

A Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study for the Third Sunday of Advent

FFMTW Bible Study Group

Luke 3:7-18


John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”


And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”


As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Jonathan read the lesson for the third Sunday of Advent for the group.  

“Mmm…repentance and being humble…those are right at the core aren’t they.”  said David.

“You know, this is pointing out something that is happening below the surface, that was going on for longer than maybe those who were there ever knew. It’s like getting to the undercurrent of what is really going on.  People were working but not getting paid what they deserved. Others were trying to hang onto more than the needed, while other people went without. It’s like they’re getting called out on what is really going on. And it isn’t just, ‘hey people, work hard for your wages.’ Its also, ‘hey, employers, pay your people right for the work that they do!’

Ty said, “You know, when you think about it, all three of these lessons.  First, we’re being told TO prepare ourselves. Then, we’re being told what signs to look for, to remind ourselves to be ready.  And here, we’re being told exactly what we need to do, HOW to prepare yourself so there will be no misunderstandings about what is expected.  The specifics are right here.”

“Plain and simple” said David.  “Right here, there it is. So, it becomes my decision to accept that and live into that.  It’s a simple program, really. I mean, we find all the parts of it that feel hard. And we DO have a choice.  But at the end of the day, it’s not all that complicated. We choose to live in Christ’s way.”

“You know, it strikes me that these same issues that were going on 2,000 years ago are still our struggles today” I added.  “Fair wages, giving up some of what we have so that others can have what they need. We still struggle with it, even when it is laid out that pure and simple.”

“Yeah, that is true” said David, “and it may have even been harder in those days than we have it today and yet we can get caught just thinking about ourselves and our own lives.”

“But even in the midst of this: at the very time that was happening, God was preparing the hearts of all of humanity to become human and enter into this whole, crazy, messed-up world all because God loved us so much” I said.  “God had a choice, too. I can’t help but be overwhelmed by that amount of love.”

“You know, I’m still struggling with pride” said Jonathan.  “I am always happy to help someone else, but when others want to help me I feel that pride welling up.  Accepting help, accepting love: for some of us, that is the challenge. My Mom used to joke that she wouldn’t give me toys because I’d take them outside and give them away to the other kids.  But, I’m trying to turn toward God and even accept that I need to receive. That’s the harder part for me.”

“You know, the Good News for me here is that we can learn so much from each other and from spending even just a little more time in God’s word” said Willie.  “I know, my pastor tells us to read the word but times like this remind me of WHY we read the word. There is so much here to help us, to point us in the way we need to go, and we don’t need to be so busy and preoccupied that we forget to read it AND to share it with each other.  In the sharing God works through us, and through each other. That is how we prepare.”

It was Willie who offered up a closing prayer:

“Dear Lord, I thank you for gathering us all together.  Do you see what you just did here, Lord? You brought us all together, and we learned more about you.  So, as we go out of here, knowing some of these truths that we learned today, may we be men and women enough to live into that Christ-like behavior.  Thank you, and may God grant us serenity and wisdom as we leave here to continue to do God’s work in the world.”

Amen.

Prophet in the Wilderness

Faith From the Margins to the Web: Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Part 2 of the Faith from the Margins to the Web Advent Bible Study Group

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 3:1-6


In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

Willie read the lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent, noting emphatically by his voice how John was calling people in the wilderness to repentance.

“It seems like there was always a need to repent, since the beginning of time. Maybe even since Cain and Abel” said Jonathan.

The group nodded as this sank in. “We’re often told we need to repent, but it seems like it isn’t just people today.”

“What do you think the wilderness looks like today?” I asked.

“I think the wilderness looks like Donald Trump” said Brad. “I mean, he scares me. I think about all the hate that we keep hearing. I feel like we are wandering in the wilderness”

“There’s so much killing” said David, “so much to be afraid of. But, I guess they all felt that way in John’s time, too.”

“You know, wilderness could be defined a whole lot of ways” said Ty. “I mean there’s physical wilderness, and there’s spiritual wilderness. It depends on the way you’re thinking about the word. You know, if you ask everybody here that same question you’re going to get that many answers. So now, you have to think of whether you’re speaking on a spiritual or a physical realm.”

“Can I add to that?” asked Willie, “You know, I was listening to the radio yesterday, and they brought up this idea of loneliness. At a time like this in the world, when we think we have so many ways to connect, they brought up loneliness. And you know, I thought about that. I mean here we are, gathered together and we’ve shared prayer and lunch and now this group. But there are so many people who are caught up in that wilderness of loneliness, who can’t connect or don’t know how to. They feel all alone, and that kind of loneliness is a wilderness.”

“It’s like, you can have a place and still be lost” said Ty. “Or, you can not have a place but have community. You know, some of those people out in the elements, what they need is people who will actually listen to them, hear them as human beings. The loneliness is a much of wilderness than a roof over their heads, maybe more.”

“That’s been me” said Eugene, “and sometimes when it seemed like I had the most I was lonely all the time. It look me losing a lot to find out all that I really had, because when I sit here with this group like this I realize that I have so much more than I ever thought I would back then.”

“I know that kind of lonely, too” said Jonathan. “There are people who worship material things and live just to get those things. But they are empty. And pretty soon, you start looking around at all the things and thinking, ‘what am I even going to do with all these things?’ Money and things never fill the void of loneliness. There are things you can’t put a price tag on.”

“I think of reading the bible” said Charles, “and I always find something in there that keeps me from being lonely. Those words get into my heart, and they stay there.”

The Inside Scoop

A Faith from the Margins to the Web Reflection for Advent 1, Year C

As we enter Year C, we begin a new liturgical season, coming full circle back to where we began last year in Advent.  You’ll notice that we’ve shifted things a bit for Year C, responding to the increasing autonomy and leadership in this community where the saints of the streets, church, campus and community come together to reveal God in our midst. 

Each liturgical season begins with an open group exploring a few central lectionary readings and sharing our reflections on those excerpts from the holy scriptures.  We’ll hear from this group for a few weeks, interspersed with some 1:1 conversations that reveal the transformative depth of this season of preparation.  I hope you will share and enjoy.

Advent Bible Study Group (Willie, Ty, David, Jonathan, Charles, Brad, and Eugene)

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”


Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.


“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

David opened the group in prayer:  

“Let’s bow our heads.  Dear heavenly father, we come to you with humble hearts and we ask you to open us more, to figure out how it is that we make room for Christ.  Nobody’s perfect, and we don’t always do what we should do. But, help us know and do the best we can. Amen.”

Brad read the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent, and the group began their conversation.  

“There are a whole lot of signs that God is showing us” said Jonathan, “It seems like all of these signs are things that were there then and we see today, too.” That brought Willie right back to his own childhood memories, “My Mama, she used to tell us about the signs of the end” said Willie, “but I was just a little kid so I would hide behind her, and beg her to know, “what happens next??” and that was mostly because I was so scared. I figured that if I knew, I could be safe and I felt safe there with her!”

“I love that in that story, I can see you with your Mom the same way that I see us with God” I remarked to Willie, “we want to know the rest of the story but what we really want is to feel safe and protected.”

“Yes!” said Willie, “That’s just it. She was a good storyteller and I knew that when she told me a story, there was usually a reason and a lesson that I needed to listen to. I think that is what Jesus is doing here, unfolding the story that his followers need to listen to.”

“Well, the other thing to keep in mind” said Brad, “is that here were are being told what is going to happen but it’s for a reason: so that we can have our hearts and minds ready.”

“So, aren’t you excited?” asked David. “I mean, it’s kind of like we have the inside scoop about what is going to happen. Jesus makes us high jump, you know, there’s a joy in knowing it.”

“God isn’t just saying to prepare yourself, but also the signs to look for” added Ty. “It’s almost like having a spiritual cheat sheet. I’m telling you to prepare yourself, I’m telling you what to look for. I’m warning you, pleading with you, and asking you all in the same conversation to prepare yourself. Don’t waste time and don’t wait until the last minute: things are happening right now.”

Willie said, “That’s the thing: things are happening but we are hold in the Bible what we need to do. We are supposed to love one another. It shouldn’t be hard, or at least not so hard as we make it out to be. It’s what we are told to do.”

“But we are human” said Ty “and we just can’t always do that on our own. It makes it a whole lot easier to turn the other cheek when we have our hearts open to God, if we have the love of Christ in us. That is what makes it easier for us to live Christ-like, to forgive and to allow ourselves to be human but open to Christ living through us.”

“That brings us to another simple one that we don’t always do: serving one another” added Willie. It’s so easy to feel like we hear someone asking us for help and we want to say, “why ask me, go do it yourself! But God asks us to do something more, to pray without ceasing so that we are holding the needs of each other and not just doing what it occurs to us to do for ourselves.”

Belonging to Truth

Faith from the Margins to the Web:  Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 18:33-37

 

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

One year ago, Faith from the Margins to the Web was a vision with a plan and the backing of my supporters at the Episcopal Evangelism Society.  As we come full circle into this last Sunday of Year B which we commonly refer to as Christ the King (or “Reign of Christ”), my heart echoes this Gospel.  And so, I offer my own reflection on the year, through the voices and images of Faith from the Margins to the Web.

“My Kingdom is not from this world.”27872794167_64126866ea_z

This year has reminded me time and time again that it is not the nature of this temporal world and our focus on needs and security which matters.  It is the depth of our relationships with God and each other that open our eyes and hearts to the knowledge and love of God.  I heard this from David, back in the summertime on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, when a Gospel passage reminded him of the way in which Christ is made known in those we love, whether they are here on this earth or have gone on before:

 

It’s like we have spiritual caretakers who are more than family. Let me tell you a little something. My mother left me, left this earth three years ago. She was a deep Christian, she served God. She made sure we were baptized, that we went to church and has our faith. It wasn’t just about the baptism or the going through the motions, though. She was Christ for me. And even though she isn’t here anymore, I think that in God that people are still with us…even if they aren’t here…someone who lives that deeply in Christ they still influence you. You still hear them when you stray. In Christ we keep those connections.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

30396560518_c647566936_zEvery week, I am richly blessed to hear the stories that testify to the truth of lives lived in some of the most challenging circumstances that I can imagine.  What pulls me back to this project again and again, though, is the raw truth telling that people share whether they participate in the project one time or as often as possible.  Sometimes, a glimpse of some pure truth comes through for me, either in our conversations or when we pray.  I remember being knocked off guard to the point of tears when I invited someone in the group I was facilitating this summer to pray and it was Eugene, recovering from a recent stroke and still learning to form words again, who testified to the truth in our midst:

 

“Bow y’all heads” he began.

 

“Dear God, thank you for this assembly today, where we learned important lessons from each other. Each and every day, each and every hour God, teach us something. We may not want to hear it. But, teach us something anyhow. Keep us focused on your word in our hearts and our minds, and let us marinate on all this so that everything we’ve talked about may come to fruition. In our Lord’s name…

 

and all the people said…

AMEN!”

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I hear God’s voice so often in the words of those who participate in Faith from the Margins to the Web, and is their images in which I see the face of Christ.  The week that Willie and Raven met together and spoke of Blessed Assurance, I was fairly sure that God’s reign had come on this earth with the holiness of their shared conversation about the ministry they find unfolding in their lives.  They realized that the Word always finds a way to speak:

 

“You know, it’s like we were talking about earlier.  There really isn’t a wrong answer to interpreting the bible. It speaks to us in different ways.  You know, I wouldn’t have thought of it the way that you did but I got so much out of that. It’s what you see every day and it made that stand out to me.  That’s the thing about it, the Word always finds its way to speak.”

So, on this Sunday of the Reign of Christ, I give thanks for this year: the voices, the faces, the honest truth-telling and heartfelt sharing of the people of God.  We have become a community, this Faith from the Margins to the Web group of ever-changing people who set aside the social margins of this world in favor of deep and abiding connection through discovering God in our midst.

The “Year B” pilot has rounded to its close, but we are not finished yet.  Keep looking for those of us who have been a part of Faith from the Margins to keep allowing the Gospel to unfold in our midst, and look for weekly posts and new emergence of the Holy Spirit as this project unfolds and takes on new life in the parks, streets, and food pantries of the community where I live and serve.  Year C brings us an emphasis on the Gospel according to Luke and undoubtedly many new moments of discovering Christ in each other through those words and stories.  Keep reading, support us with a few dollars or a continuing gift if you feel led to do so.  The movement of the Spirit can surely be felt in our midst, as God continues to be revealed from the margins, to the web.

Grace and Peace surround you, as we go forth into the world in love!

Sarah

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Photo from my recent ordination to the Sacred Order of Deacons (transitional)
November 10, 2018

*All photos reflect the heart and soul of Faith from the Margins to the Web photographer, Patience Salgado

Birthpangs of the here and now

25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: Willie and Sarah

 
I was honored, in this interview, to sit with my friend and FFMTW contributor Willie as we discussed this scripture together. We are drawing toward Advent, and coming full circle through this first year of Faith from the Margins to the Web.

“This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” said Willie. “Some definite changes are coming, I guess for mankind and everything. Well, I guess that we’ve got to get ourselves ready for our Lord and Savior, to get things in order.”

“It’s interesting that you said that” I said, “because it was that word, ‘birthpangs’ that stood out to me, too. In the midst of all those images of death and destruction, Jesus chooses that image of giving birth. Now, I don’t mean to be overly self-disclosing here, but I want to say for a fact: giving birth is painful! Worth it, of course but without a doubt, painful. But it isn’t pain for no reason…it is for a wonderful reason. It is leading to something new, something wonderful at the end of this process. There is this birth outcome that is so beautiful because of what you know is coming. It changes this whole passage for me to hear that word.”

“You know, that makes me think of my own mother. She was always reminding me of how things were, and I would come up running behind her wanting to know more. When I think about it, it was really my Mom who got me interested in the Bible, because she would tell me the beginning of the stories and I would be wanting to hear her tell me more and of course, then I’d have to be quiet and listen. It would be lessons like this, where I was small and I wanted to know what was coming ahead and she would tell me…and keep me guessing, too.”

“We always want to know what’s to come, don’t we?” I said. “I mean, think about it: this was 2,000 years ago and people wanted to know then what was happening. They were feeling like the end was near and Jesus was reminding them: this is still a birthing process. We’re not done yet!”

“You know, that’s true!” said Willie. “When Jesus was on the cross, and it was like this moment when there was the thunder and the lightning and heaven was starting to shake…you know, it was at that moment people were looking around and thinking ‘oh wow…this man really WAS the son of God!’ It’s like we are just waiting and waiting for that moment when it comes clear, when we can’t ignore it, so we can really see and believe. But you know, it’s really been right there in front of our eyes the whole time. The other story my Mom used to tell me is how you’d be walking with a friend, and maybe that would be when the Lord would come and if you weren’t ready, that friend might be whisked away with God and you’d be left standing there. That always got my attention!”

“I have to be honest” I said, “it is the stories of destruction or these ‘left behind’ stories that are the hardest for me. When I was growing up, I was often told stories about all that end-time, apocalypse destruction or told about how I might be left behind if I didn’t get right with God and it would terrify me. Truly…for me it was terror, and I became so afraid, even afraid of God. It look me a lot of years to reconcile these images that I’d be given of a destructive God, and the images I held and cherished of a loving God. But it helped me…and still helps me…when I think about the way that things torn down make room for new growth. It’s like pruning away trees, or here, like birthpangs. It also helps me to think about it a different way, too. I know you’re grieving your friend, and I’m grieving some friends, too. So the lesson I’m reminded of is that when we are walking with our friends here on earth, we really never know how long we have to cherish that relationship. And so, it becomes important to be present, to see God in the face of the other person right here and right now. I think there isn’t just a ‘here’s what might happen…” message, but a ‘pay attention right now so you don’t miss seeing God!’ message, too.”

“You know, that reminds me of something really important” said Willie, “I mean, I’ve been battling on with dialysis and believe me, that too is painful. And I could so easily just be stuck in the pain of it or wish to be taken way. But then, I remember that I have my own place, my own battlefield right then and there. And why not there? You know, because that is where people are aching and hurting. I have a role to play and thing that need to happen right then and there!”

“It’s your mission field” I said, “You were wondering to me before we started what mission field you were called to. But maybe, where you are right now really is your mission field.”

“That’s true, that’s true” said Willie, “I mean, just think about my friend Dave. I had to work hard at first because even though we were walking together through our treatment, we did not see eye to eye. He saw my skin color, and I saw his distrust. But it didn’t stop, and we persisted and God prevailed. It was like birthpangs! I mean, he would actually whine and complain and I would think, “you are acting like a baby!” and now I realize: it was truly like a baby because those were true cries of pain, that he didn’t have words for. So, we kept walking together, I would be beside him and pray, and try to be a comfort to him. We took the time, and we both learned to see Christ in each other, no matter our differences.”

“I think you just hit right on what Jesus was talking about here” I said. “We have so many opportunities not just to wonder what will happen in the future, but to see God here and now.  Those birthpangs are a message that there is something new, something happening right here and now.  We just have to keep our eyes open to see God at work.”

What I have is yours

25th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

 

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Mark 12:38-44

 

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study Group (De’Nae, Paul, Eugene, Taj, John, William, George, Jonathan and Theresa)

 

The small group bible studies that we hold each month as part of Faith from the Margins to the Web have become very popular events. This particular week, the parlor where we regularly meet was filled to capacity with people.  De’Nae, a student at the local university and I conferred quickly and decided to amend the usual format in order to try to allow for as much participation among group members as possible. After reading the Gospel, we asked everyone to think about and begin the study by sharing their response to one question: “Do you think the widow that Jesus points out is a victim, or a hero?”  

We begin this week’s study right there; the answers came fast and furious:

“I’d say hero” said William.

“She gave from her heart” added Taj.

Jonathan was thoughtful: “All the rest, they gave because they have a lot.  I mean, you can give like a thousand dollars or something.  But if you ain’t giving from your heart, then you’re just giving it selfishly so you think you’ll get something back.”

Eugene chimed in, “She didn’t have that much, but she gave in a different place than those that had more to give.”

“She gave ALL that she had” said Paul.  “Listen, a guy with a million dollars might have given more, even if it was 10%.  But she gave 100% even though she was poor.”

“Especially, think about it, that’s what you’re supposed to do” said John.  “Jesus says what we are supposed to do: to give from our HEARTS.  The amount isn’t what is important; the heart and the trust, that is what is important.”

“So, everyone says hero?” asked De’Nae

“Let me say something about that,” said George “because I think some people will give what they can, and that kind of giving is from that heart.  But some people might be told to give all that they have, because they are threatened. Somewhere in there is a place where we give all of what we have, because we realize it belongs to God.”

“People may hesitate to give, or might become concerned about what resources they have tomorrow” said Theresa.  “This lady, imagine it was someone today, she would get her paycheck and have to cash it and put all of that into the temple.  Let’s be real: we would not do that. I wouldn’t do that. Who can do that?  But she did that!”

The group began to open into seeing something deeper in the story.  Nods and interjections of agreement began to resonate around the room.  De’Nae, an undergraduate student who was the newest and youngest member of the group decided to share from her heart:

“I was pretty much raised on giving” said De’Nae.  “You see, I was adopted. I had been through a lot, through foster care and all of that.  But, when I got adopted, I got adopted to a Christian family. My adopted father is a pastor, and one thing that my parents have always done is give.  Because my parents have a bigger house, people always think, “oh they got it” but that’s not the whole story. My Mama, she has always put giving first.  She has like 10 Godchildren that she supports, and they have five children of their own. They adopted three of us, and they birthed two of their own. They are still putting us through college and loving us, and giving us a chance.  I mean, I’m in school right now and there’s one of my brothers still in high school. They wanted to give, they made a choice and they always have what they need. But there were times we didn’t know if we were going to make it. I know that one of the babies got sick one time; my Mom had to quit her job and take care of her, and there were all these medical bills.  My Mom was tired and stressed and thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” But she prayed, and what came to her is “You have love you can give.” And so she thought: ‘yeah, maybe I do have something I can give.’ Even when she didn’t know if she could give, she gave. And now, that is what they have always taught me: give back. It isn’t about earning it back or making up for something, or being told that you have to give.  You give, because when you empty yourself you can receive love. That’s why I’m in the service learning program in college. I was nine when they adopted me. I was a foster kid, just with them temporarily. They could have said, “you’re too old” but they didn’t. They didn’t hardly know me but they loved me and they trusted God, and because of that I got a family. We might not get along all the time; there might be stress; there might be tight times we can’t even stand each other.  But there was ALWAYS love. My Mama always had that to give and I got that gift from her. So, I can’t imagine what else I would do but give.”

The room was filled with loving responses back to De’Nae: “A room, love, food, conversation: it’s amazing how much we need that.  It’s so simple, but people don’t always feel they can even give that. They can” said Theresa, “Your Mama, she proved that.”

“It’s like a little kid” said Paul. “Sometimes, what they recognize is love.  Kids need that from their parents, from the grown-ups in their lives. Love means they are looked out for, they are safe, they are cared for.  It isn’t because you feel sorry for someone; it’s that you LOVE them and you want what is best for them when you have love in your heart. Love isn’t about the color of the skin, or the age of person, or even whether you like someone all the time.  Love is LOVE.”

“Love will get you so far in life.  It will get you so much farther than money or finances or all that.  My foster parents showed me so much love, that recently I was able to reconnect with my birth parents with their help.  I didn’t do that because I needed something from them. I did that because I had a chance to love them, too. I learned that they had made mistakes, but they still had love.  And now, we all have more love, all of us.” said De’Nae.

“You know, there is a lot of trickery that has been going on in this world” said John.  “I mean those of us, a lot of us here who are black people, we built this world off the sweat of our labor after we were brought here against our wills.  That’s the story of our people. There could be so much darkness…so much darkness. What the white people did to the slaves was not love: it was separating families, mothers and fathers from children.  And I just can’t believe that under Trump, this country is doing the same thing now…maybe with a different nationality…but it’s the same thing. Separating parents and children from each other, it’s just wrong.  But even with all that darkness, you can’t stop love. You feel what I’m saying?? God is saying, if you walk this path, everything isn’t going to be peaches and cream. To get where we are going, you got to go through a lot.  A WHOLE LOT. You might be told to give everything you have. It’s like you have to trust that God knows where you are going. If God loves us, God knows that place.”

Eugene spoke quietly and deliberately: “The thing is that, God does love us.  And by God doing what God did, by Jesus being who he was, we receive that love.  And if that love holds us, there is nothing in this world that we need to fear. If we see ourselves as part of that Godly purpose, it changes how we see ourselves and what we think about what our possessions are on this earth.”

“You know, at the end of the day, I think maybe she isn’t a hero or a victim” said Theresa.  “I think she looked at those two coins and she looked up at God and she thought, ‘if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have this.  You made me, and what I have is yours. So go ahead, have this: here it is. I want you to accept this, just like I accept what you give me.”

“I want to say something before we close” said John.  “I’m learning from this, I’m learning. When I come here, to this bible study it is like I am letting everything out.  This is better than therapy and when I do this, my life has been filled. When I go what I go through and I come and I talk: nothing else bothers me.  It’s like God has set his hand on me. I used to worry that God would ever forgive me. And here, I come here and it is like God fills me and I know that I have a place.  I came here when I had nothing and God met me, and I continue to be filled.”

This, my friends, is what the gift of love truly is.

 

*On a personal note, I am preparing for my ordination to the Sacred Order of Deacons this Saturday, November 10. In The Episcopal Church all who are to be ordained as priests first (and always) serve as deacons.  I will be spending the next chapter of my journey serving as deacon and Missioner to Monroe Park, walking beside those we serve at feeding programs and food pantries and on the streets and parks around Richmond.  I live in deep anticipation of the way this ministry will change me.  When we recorded this interview, I helped the group get started but was called away several times as the group conversed about this scripture together.  I didn’t get to hear the whole recording until tonight.  As I transcribed this group recording, it was as if I was given a profound gift.  I can not imagine a more appropriate message to have received this week than that which I have been given here in this interview, and which I hold as my own prayer this ordination week:

She looked up at God and she thought, ‘if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t even have this. You made me, and what I have is yours. So go ahead, have this: here it is. I want you to accept this, just like I accept what you give me.’

Amen.