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.”

Bread of Life (Part I)

11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13, Year B)

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 6:24-35

 

The next day, when the people who remained after the feeding of the five thousand saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

 

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

 

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors: Mary, Willie and Charles
Mary, Willie, and Charles are regular attenders of the weekly healing prayer service and feeding program of a local Episcopal church. All three are now older adults who live a short walk from the church; all three have experienced homelessness in their own lives, families, and communities.

We gathered as a small group to discuss the lectionary readings for the 11th, 12th, and 13th Sundays after Pentecost, which pivot around this central point: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We’ll hear from the authors of this group for the next few weeks.

Mary started, “I look at this as saying, the ‘bread of life’ as the way that Jesus comes to us, the way that Jesus helps us know how to know him. Way back when, Adam and Eve, they had been the ones to eat and disobey God. And now Jesus says, “I am the bread” and wants us to eat, wants us to know him, wants us to follow in the way that he sets out for us. The bread of heaven helps us know heaven. It doesn’t take much for us to get to where we need to, to do what we need to do. Jesus says, “I am the bread” so we know it doesn’t have to be hard to follow Him. It’s something we just have to do, we have to eat.”

Willie added to Mary’s comments: “I think about how important it is what we do here on Fridays. We hear the Word, we’re fed on the Word and then we break bread together over lunch. And in that sense, good feelings and joy and contentment abide through it all, body and spirit. It fills us. I was just thinking, there have been many times I come by here and hear the word and I am filled. I’ve left sometimes without eating lunch, because I’m already filled!”

“Of course, we come back then, because the food is good, too!” joked Mary, “but it is true; it nourishes the soul to hear the Word and people don’t realize how important that is.”

Charles quietly said, “I think Jesus says, ‘I am the bread’ because we know how important it is, how much Jesus is part of our every, single day. Like he prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“I like that Charles” I said, “We can focus on behaviors…doing right, following perfectly. But Jesus says ‘here I am, let me feed you’ and this is part of the way Jesus is teaching his disciples, and all of us, to pray.”

“Exactly” said Mary, “Give us this day our daily bread” which is Jesus.  It’s like Jesus gives us that instruction; Jesus says ‘walk with me.’”

“That’s what I pray every day” said Charles, “Help me walk with you, Jesus.”

“You know what this makes me think of” says Mary, “it makes me think about those boys in the cave, you know, in Thailand. How many days did they go without food? There were all those people following Jesus on the mountain and they didn’t have food either. Sometimes we end up in places where we truly need to be fed, and Jesus saw how those people needed that…needed to be fed…so that they could hear what he had to say.”

Willie chimed in, “You know, I heard a story about how they learned how to meditate, how the coach both gave them the food that he had and helped them meditate. It reminds me of that, and how that focus…the prayer, the meditation…might have been one of the things that helped them survive.”

The group talked for awhile about the specifics of what we’ve come to know about that miraculous cave rescue, the survival of those trapped as well as their return and re-entry into society.

“And even when they were rescued, it isn’t as easy as just, ‘here you are, go free!’” said Willie, “there was a lot more to it than that. Situations change you.”

This made the group consider how that gathered group…the 5,000 gathered to hear Jesus and in the process had been fed and nourished in both body and spirit…may have been changed more deeply than they realized.  That following and looking for Jesus was about the practical and the spiritual.

“It’s hard to know what they were feeling.  I can’t quite imagine it” said Willie.  “Well, maybe I can because I feel that, I get all emotional sometimes just been fed on the Word.  It may be that Jesus needed to give them that grounding, to remind them that they weren’t just given something to eat; they had been fed with the bread of life.  That changed them, and it changes us, too.”

Shake it off…

7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9, Year B)

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 6:1-13

 

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors:  Ty, Mary, and John

“Why does Jesus say to shake the dust off his feat?” asked Ty.  “I always wanted to know that!”

“Well, he was in his home town…and you know how that goes.” said John.

I posed a question to the group members: “What do you all think it means?  What tends to happen with you in your home town?  Are you always welcome there?”

There were a few head nods, but more knowing glances and at least one, “well, sometimes…but…”

“It’s a little more ‘sometimes’ for me, too” I added.  “In fact, I think this whole story makes us realize that Jesus may have felt that same thing we do.”

“That’s right, for me too” said John.  “You know, it’s hard when you decide to do things on your own terms, to not fall back into a crowd where you’ve been pulled down before.  I started making decisions that were right for me, to focus on my family, to put my faith in God.  And, it was like I wasn’t welcome anymore.  And that’s OK, you know, because everyone has their own path.  I still pray for them and I believe in their time they will come around.  But, I just can’t let them pull me down in the process.”

“Sounds like shaking the dust off to me!” said Ty.  “Maybe I just got the answer to my question!  I can relate to that, too.  And even when the people I once knew seem like they’re listening to me, I can tell by the look on their faces that they have already moved on and left me standing there in the dust.   But, a verse like this, it reminds me that we’re not alone in that.  Jesus knew that.”

Mary, who had been quiet, bravely joined in to share her own story: “You know, I’ve been kind of quiet but I need to say something.  I admit, I used to use drugs. And it was so hard to quit.  I went to rehab, and when I came back my old “friends” wanted nothing to do with me.  I had to wonder, in the end, were they really friends with me, or were they friends with the drugs?  So, finally I had to shake that dust off and move on.  I went to church; I found new friends where we had God in common.  I’m not ashamed of that; I learned from that.”

“But we still love people” said John. “I still love my family, and I think Jesus still loved people even if they weren’t accepting of him or the message he was sharing.  Shaking the dust off the feet doesn’t mean shaking people off.  It means loving them in God.”

Ty agreed, “I think that’s right.  Our human side is hurt, so we can do one of two things: go back to what we were doing with the people we were doing it with, or find a way to live into who we are called to be.  That’s where our spirituality comes in, the spiritual nature of our beings.  We can shake off the problems while we pray for the people.  Caring about what they think, we can let that go.  Caring about them: now that, we can pray about.   Hmmm…I guess I answered my own question!  Or maybe, we all did.”

Yes, we all did hear the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst in this holy conversation.  I’m grateful, as always, for the gift of stories and the depth of sharing that this project brings to our weekly scriptures!