Gifts We Have Been Given

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study interview for Epiphany, Year B:

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.

 

Contributing Authors: Lynnette and Davis

After opening with a prayer, Davis and Lynnette took turns reading the Gospel lesson for Epiphany

Davis: “We’ve heard the Christmas message many times, haven’t we?” He went on to paraphrase the Gospel, emphasizing that for him there is such wide-spread recognition of the importance of this child. On the world’s terms, is he a threat or a great ruler? To Herod, he’s a threat. But to the Magi, there were something more that they were following: “The whole idea is they came from halfway around the world and left him treasures…what do you think all that means, for us?”

Lynnette was quiet, then laughed a bit and said: “I think maybe I need to start going to church more!”

“Don’t we all!” Davis chuckled in response.

Sometimes it can seem, from the corners of our world and the social margins that we are on that we don’t know enough, or aren’t spiritual enough, or aren’t something enough to be entrusted with how the Holy Scriptures open up to us.  But that isn’t how it is with God, present with us throughout time and in every corner of our lives, revealing truth that is in our midst.  It was Lynnette who seemed to experience that Epiphany unfolding in the thoughtful, deliberate response that she offered up next:

Lynnette thoughtfully reflected; “Well, if Jesus and God…the Lord…are the same person and Jesus was formed through his mother…well it seems to me that none of us would be here if it weren’t for God, as well as our mothers and fathers.”

Lynette continued, “So, that makes me think that I have to give thanks to God; I pray every night to God and then I’m thankful in the morning when I wake up. I didn’t have to wake up…but I did wake up, so that gives the day a whole new possibility.”

Davis nodded, “That’s a really good way to live; a great way to look at it, really. Every day we wake up and we realize that if it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t be here.”

Lynette spoke again, “God is good, all the time.  I pray to God, and I realize God shows me the way, too. Like today, I woke up and saw that it was a beautiful day. I knew I had to get up, to put me on a smile, to get here to this place. I mean, I know that it isn’t something I can take for granted, you know.  There was a time and place when I thought I was going to die, when they said I needed a transplant. But I knew, I knew that I didn’t have to live that way, that if I kept taking medicine and started taking care of myself it would work. I believed that, and I believed that was God telling me that.  And it has worked out, and that is why I thank God and why I come here.”

Lynnette also reflected about the gift of her family.  “I have three boys; I worry about my kids sometimes but they have their own lives and they are on the right track!”

Davis asked their ages, and was surprised when he heard her children were in their 40’s, “You look like you’re younger than that!”

Lynnette laughed, “I do hear that a lot.  But it’s true.  They are good boys; they grew up with me and I tried to be a good Mama. I taught them good manners, and to have a spirit of love. My own parents raised me right and taught me how to walk the right ways of this life, too, and so I pass that on.”

Davis smiled at her and said, “It seems like Spirit has been in your life for a long time.”

Lynnette said, “Well, maybe I don’t know a lot, but I do know that God is with me.”

“Does God ever speak to you?” wondered Davis.

“You know one day, I heard someone say my name, plain as day. I thought ‘is that God?’” But I didn’t have to wonder. I remembered my Momma telling me, when you talk to God, He listens. So I take the time, take that time now to just talk to Him. I tell God my heart.”

Davis asked, “So, is there anything in here that we learned and we want to tell God?   The take home of this Gospel for me is that this ends up being the way that we celebrate Christmas: we give Christmas gifts…”

Lynnette added, “…and we give love…”

“Right!” said Davis. “We end up re-enacting the scene of Jesus being born, and the Three Kings are always there, giving gifts. It’s like we keep it going.  I want to be thankful for that gift of Jesus’ birth and the ways that we keep celebrating it.”

David and Lynnette shared about how each of their churches have celebrated Christmas over the years. A sense of welcome and giving emerged in their sharing, the commonality of love as the expression of Christian faith surrounded them.

Davis began to wrap up their conversation: “So, since we know that God is here right now, what would you tell God…what would you say…can we just talk right here, to God?”

Lynette chimed in immediately. “Of course we can!  I would.  I’d tell Him I love Him!”

Lynnette started their prayer with that: “I love you, God! Thank you for waking me up in the morning. Thank you for letting me be here. I love you God, and I learned more about You today, Lord and mighty God, through my friend Davis here.  Thank you for being with us.”

Then Davis prayed:

“God I thank you for Lynnette. She reminds me that you are always here. Sometimes I don’t pause enough to give you thanks. But, thank you for being here with us today. Thank you for allowing us to share together today. Thank you for reminding me of your loving presence, here with us today.”

Thank you, Lynnette and Davis, for the gift of your sharing and the light it brings to open this season of Epiphany. And than you, most of all, to God for the gift of your presence of love with us today and always.

Love came down at Christmas

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year B

Contributing Authors: Sheryl and Alisha

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:1-18

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

“Well, first thing I will say is that I know there’s God,” said Sheryl, “I’m a witness and I will give testimony to that!”

“I know!” said Alisha, “Me, too.  I’ve been seeing Him work through other people, and that makes you want to seek Him for yourself.”

Alisha and Sheryl spent many hours a week in the same setting but they had never met; one was a student and the other a part-time service worker, nearing retirement, in the same University.  They had both come to Red Door that Friday for bible study and lunch, just to be a part of this project which intrigued them.  Within seconds, it was clear that they had far more in common than anything that divided them.  It was also clear that what stood out the most in this Gospel for both of them was love.  As Alisha described it, “the Love given so freely by God.”

Sheryl added, “another word that stands out for me is peace.  It took me so long to get to a place where I could feel peace, but now I’m beginning to really feel that…it only took 58 years!” she joked.

“But, once you have that peace, you never want to let go of that!” Alisha agreed.

Alisha continued, “I appreciate the part where John acknowledges who he is and who he is not.  He isn’t the light, but he comes to be a witness and testimony to the light.  I think that’s what we are all called to be: lights in a dark world.”

“Amen!” echoed Sheryl, “and I do try to do that.  It’s why people call me ‘Grandma Sheryl” because I try to always have a kind word, a good word for people who need it.  And, it feels good because I show love, and I feel love.  Everyone comes to me for prayer, ‘please pray for me’ they ask, the young and old.  That’s a beautiful thing.”

“That is beautiful!” said Alisha.  “I’ve been trying to read the Bible and pray more, and I’m starting to feel that peace, too.  So many people are going crazy, feeling so lost with all that’s going on with the president, with the world.  They start to feel hopeless.”

That warmed Sheryl’s heart: “I love hearing that from you, the younger ones!  I always tell my children, if you can stay with the positives, you won’t be following the crowd, you’ll be leading with love.  And they are leaders, just like you!”

“It’s hard” said Alisha, “Sometimes I’m the one person out, who isn’t like the rest, but then I remind myself I know who I live for.  What I get from living for God is greater than the criticism I get from others.  It helps me to see Christians who really live into it, though, instead of people who want judge.”

“Only God can judge” said Sheryl, “you tell them even Tupac said that!”  she added as they both laughed.

Alisha added, “I like this part: ‘We all have received grace, grace upon grace.’  God gives us grace every day.  It isn’t because we deserve it, or just for people we like…it’s a message for everyone.”

“The world can feel hopeless, but it isn’t hopeless,”  Sheryl chimed in as well, “People get despondent, like over Trump in the white house, but we have to remember God is over him, too!  And we have to pray for everyone.  We have to pray for him, too.  People forget that but maybe that means he needs prayer most of all!”

As their study together came toward a close, Alisha and Sheryl named the words where they see God:

“I see God through my Children and Grand-children.” said Sheryl.  “I pray and give my thanks to God every day and every night.  I keep a grateful spirit and use my words to pray to God.”

Alisha said, “My word would be ‘service’ because when I see people who live into their faith, who prepare meals and help others, and do work to make their communities a better place, that is how I see and know God.”

The wisdom of the ages flowed between this pairing of a college student and Grandma to the community as they shared their stories of church-going, struggles, favorite foods and family stories.  Love comes to unite us, to bring peace, to dispel the dimness of our vision with the hope of eternal light and life: “I love our conversation!” Alisha said at the close, “I told you, everyone comes to Grandma!” added Sheryl.

And with that, they prayed.

 

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!

The Word became flesh and lived among us…

On the Friday before Christmas last year, I stood in front of the Red Door congregation gathered for the weekly service of Healing Prayer which we hold before serving a hot lunch to anyone who is hungry and in need of a good, home-cooked meal along with conversation, music, and safe space from what can often be a harsh world.

No one has to come to the service before they eat, but every week there are around 30 people who do choose to gather in the name of God in the sanctuary space of the urban parish who offer up this ministry of hospitality.  Every week, we pray: silently and out loud, individually and as a community.  We recite the psalms together, and we read the text from the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel, offering a short reflection.

On this particular Friday, it so happened that Sunday’s Gospel was for the upcoming Christmas Day.  As a seminarian, I don’t often get to practice preaching for such a major feast day.  As I had read and studied the text of John 1:1-14 in preparation for that reflection, I kept thinking about the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells with us, the Word who became incarnate in this world in the most humble and unhoused of ways, the Word who was and is and is always becoming known in the midst of those who gather from street corners, parks, parking lots and parishes alike.

There are more times than I can recall when I have experienced the Word made flesh in this space, with these faithful ministers of the streets.  Some people are there ever week, offering me their reflections.  Others straggle in for a break from the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat.  We are people who are yearning, seeking solace, recovering, struggling, doubting, believing, praying.  That day was no exception.  When I stood to speak, the first thing I said was: “Merry Christmas!  This is the first time this season, in this space, that anyone gets to say that and you are the first people who hear those words.”  I noticed, at that moment, that John had tears in his eyes.  I felt what he was feeling.  The Word made flesh was, indeed, with us.

After the service, still teary, he came up to me: “Pastor Sarah [as he liked to call me], I just started crying.  I couldn’t help it.  It’s just that we are never first…we never are.  And then, today, there we were and it was us…we were the first!  We had the first Christmas!”

I had no words, so I just nodded, and hugged him.  I had tears in my eyes, too.  Something stirred in me, and stirred in us.  There is a presence of Christ in the lives of those on the margins which is palpable and present and transformative.  That was the gift of that moment.

John didn’t know then…nor did any of us…that it would also be his last Christmas here on this earth.  A few short weeks later, the Friday healing service would be a memorial for John’s life.  He lived unhoused, under a bridge but worked washing dishes or volunteered somewhere every day.  He saved the lives of several people from near drug overdose, but he died from an overdose himself.  He was and is one of many people whose complex and faithful lives on the margins touched and changed my own life.   But, in between that Red Door Christmas and his untimely death, the idea for this project had already been birthed.  That idea was floated during my January seminary intersession, put to paper and submitted as a grant on which I had sought John’s input, and even in grieving his loss, the restless spirit of something new coming to life was taking shape.

Although it has been several months in the making, Faith from the Margins to the Web is now a reality that will begin with regularity on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B and will grow week by week over this next liturgical year and (hopefully) beyond.  Behind the scenes, people are being trained and interviews are being scheduled.  Evangelism is happening and will soon be brought into being as words to the web.  These stories and weekly blog commentaries are indeed life giving, because they come from the spaces where God meets us, and we are changed.

I hope you will join in this project to help nurture its growth week by week.  Let us know how the stories are shaping your faith, too.  We welcome your comments, your prayers, and your reflections.

Peace,

Sarah