Blessed Assurance

18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Mark 9:30-37

 

Jesus and his disciples passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

 

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

 

 

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

Although Willie and Raven have both been interviewers with Faith from the Margins before, this was the first time they sat down together.  Willie read the Gospel lesson, and Raven began their sharing by asking what stood out for Willie.

“Well, um…Jesus seems to be saying something really simple” began Willie, “he’s telling them ‘this is what is going to happen to me’ but that information must have been too powerful because the disciples didn’t even try to make anything out of it.  They just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And then, when the went to Capurnum, they had some sort of dissension among the disciples. And Jesus, he set them all straight with a little child! “Whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.  And there they are, his disciples, arguing among themselves about who is greater and Jesus has to interrupt them to say, “um, you know, there’s someone greater than all of you and that is God!”

“I really love the way Jesus humbles the disciples throughout” said Raven. “It’s really beautiful the way we are shown just how human the disciples were, that they weren’t some saint-like, ordained by God perfect people.  I mean, these were young guys, 20’s and maybe 30’s for the older ones. But like, if you were to picture them it would be like I see walking around campus: those guys are like the disciples ages. And so, it’s always so interesting and beautiful that we can see this play out between them, like they were brothers and just people of that age fighting over who’s the best and “no, Jesus loves ME more.”  The way I grew up, the faith I was taught is that we are all disciples now. We are all supposed to go out and talk, to spread the Good News. So, it’s reassuring to know even the original disciples were human, and had flaws, and that Jesus got mad at them sometimes, too. It’s sobering and real!”

“That’s true, that’s true” said Willie.  “I always wondered about that, you know, even the number twelve.  Well, I hope I’m not getting too far off the rails here, but I think sometimes that according to what we read in the bible it was like they were twelve intentionally different people, like our personality types or something.  I mean, sometimes you hear Thomas and he’s automatically the one that takes the other side, the one first to say, ‘oh no, I’ve got another opinion…’ and of course, you know, I’m still learning. I just have to grab me the patience to stay with it, you know, turn everything else off and then I can read and I start to really get in deep with the stories and the characters.  And you know…this is embarrassing…but that’s why I think my favorite reading room is the bathroom!”

They both laughed, and Raven agreed, “That makes sense to me!”

Willie continued on, “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.”

“You know” explained Raven,  “I think about those disciples more when I’m on campus, trying to work on things and even fewer of us…we can’t agree on anything…and here are Jesus and his disciples: 13 people all trying to move together and get things done.  It makes me appreciate what that must have been like, and I think it’s probably a pretty good description of Christians in all of our different walks, too: Baptists or Catholics or Pentecostals and yet we are all followers of Christ.”

“Well, let me tell you something” said Willie, “I’ve been thinking about that phrase that keeps being used, ‘the Advocate’ which I know came up in the sermon today, that we all need an advocate for us, for all the things we are going through.  I have this health situation, you see, I’m a renal patient and I am going to have to have a real big surgical procedure and I will need an advocate. I really want to have something that I can touch, someone who can speak for me on my behalf. Some people say they will be there, but I definitely need to know that someone IS there.  In the hospital, if they don’t see someone there to advocate with you, people get gruff. Their whole way of talking will change, because they don’t see that you have an advocate. So, when Jesus talks about being an Advocate, I talk about that for real!

“Whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcomes not me, but the one who sent me” said Willie.  “If you are a true Christian, it will be those fruits of the spirit: the love, the joy, the peace that are what we are all supposed to be.  As Jesus says, live into these and you will know me…and you know who can teach you that? A child.”

“I think you hit the nail on the head” said Raven.  “I think that is something other people need to hear.  Life isn’t all ‘what’s in it for me?” or how can I make more money, or how can I advance my reputation.  LIfe shouldn’t be able self-service, life should be about service to others. We get so caught up in thinking about what life is like for us, if we have everything we need that we stop thinking about others.  Humans are social creatures; we are meant to be in community with others. Once we stop doing that…once we take our eyes off of God and stop thinking about loving others and serving others, that’s when we start looking only at ourselves.  And, once we start only looking at our own selves, what we can do, what are our own limitations, that’s when you start to have all the fear and all the anxiety. You’re no longer looking at the solutions; all you’re seeing is the problems. The way I was always taught to get out of a bad day, or a bad mood, was to take my eyes off of me and just do something for someone else.

“That’s true, that’s true” said Willie, “You know, well, I’ve been doing that.  You know, I’m a renal patient and I go to the center three days a week. And that is a different battlefield all together.  The newbies, they come in there and some of them try to put this brave face on, but some of them you can just see it on their face, how scared they are.  And I’ve seen them turn around and run away! The environment in these centers not on the hospital grounds, they sometimes look at you like you are a dollar and not a person.  It’s money going in their pockets, and it’s the way that they look at you. Maybe one or two people care, but most of ‘em are just in their to get their paycheck and when you don’t come in, they lose out.  It turns into a business sort of thing. So, I try to be someone who can care. But, I also need an advocate who can stand up for me.”

“It seems like the health care system is getting more and more that way, and you DO need an advocate” said Raven.

Willie’s own need for an advocate was real and palpable; at the same time, his faith in God gave him a sense of God’s advocacy with him.

“You know, I also play music for my Church” said Willie, “And ever since this has been happening, I’ve had a song in my mind: Blessed Assurance.  No matter what we are doing, it is a Blessed Assurance to have people who can advocate and use their skills for the knowledge and skills of someone else.

Raven echoed this “You know, we should have our own TV show!  We could fix the world!!”

They closed by reading the Collect again together, with the words ringing a truth about the Blessed Assurance that comes when, in spite of all the changes and chances of this life, we know that God is near.

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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!

 

 

 

The Time is Now

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

John 12:20-33

 

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

 

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

 

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

Sometimes, unexpected things happen when we’re scheduling interviews for Faith from the Margins to the Web.  On the day we recorded this interview, one of the scheduled participants pulled me aside and said, “I have a friend with me today, and I think he needs to participate.  Do you have room?” Well, as these things go, I made room. Given the short notice, M and I met together for this bible study. It was clear from the first few minutes that God was in the serendipity of our unexpected interview together on this Gospel text.

I prayed to open our conversation, and M read the Gospel lesson.  

M jumped right in.  “First and foremost, I just really heard the prayer itself.  That was just for me, exactly.  I know everything is done through faith…and my faith has been tested.  It’s being tested right now, in fact. I may not be where I need to be in life, but I’m also no longer in a place where I shouldn’t be.  I feel like God has me right where I need to be, right where God can work on me, so I can get where I need to be.

“When you were reading, I heard some loud and clear: ‘The hour has come.’  Jesus wasn’t just talking generally about what might happen, or even what would happen at some point.  He was saying, ‘look, listen…the time is now…it’s happening right now.’  I know that this Gospel is right before Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem; right before his crucifixion.  It isn’t that he is walking away from it or pretend it’s anything other than what it will be: filled with glory, and with pain.  It’s all unfolding, and all happening. I could hear that urgency when you were reading it. When Jesus tells , ‘It’s now!’ that really resonates with me.  We can’t wait…it’s time, right here and right now to live out this call on our lives.

“It’s real, for real” said M.  “I don’t know how to say this but, for some reason, I know somewhere in the Bible there is that story of Job.  He was going through everything, everyone told him to turn around and to curse God. I remember my Grandmother telling me that story, that he had every reason to turn around and to curse God.  But, he didn’t. I kind of see myself like Job right now. I take two steps forward, and I get pulled 20 steps back. But when I think of that in the right now, it is about moving forward and seeing that God has a place for me now.  It’s kind of weird because I came from a religious background. My Grandmother…she was Baptist…a Mother of the Church. And because of that upbringing, she instilled in me that deep love of God, people see that in me. I’d like to say that’s for good but people also take advantage of that because I do live from my heart.  I start to think sometimes, maybe I should have been less like that, maybe if I was harder on the outside then I would have fared better. But I give from my heart, and sometimes I lose. And then God works on me, and I learn.”

I was moved by his authenticity. “You know, there’s a beauty in that.  There’s this phrase that we use in The Episcopal Church, ‘The Communion of Saints’ and we don’t mean just the big saints everyone thinks about, but also the saints of our lives, the Mothers and Fathers of the Church, the people who have shaped us and continue to guide us through their lives with their examples.  These are the people we learn to be Christ-like from. Whether they are here with us, or whether they have gone beyond, they are part of a community that helps to guide our steps. That whole concept of having a community of patriarchs and matriarchs…that helps me. I can’t do it on my own. But those people that have helped raise me…whether its my great Aunt, or my Grandma…”

This idea resonated with him, “Yes, that’s it!  That is how it is with me.  I feel like I made the wrong choices and paid the prices that came with that.  But, I would think about those lessons that I was raised on and know that God was there.  I’ve got my rights back, got my voting rights. I could be tempted to find someone else to blame or see the system as unfair and some of that has some real merit.  But, at the end of the day, I ended up where I was from getting pulled into the choices I made that didn’t listen to how I had been raised, or what I knew in my heart I should do.  But, I was never alone or abandoned. And now I’m here, and I realize that all my climbing and trying to pull myself out alone isn’t going to do it.”

“I think you’re right.” I added. “At some point, we realize that we can’t do it alone.   It’s hard, because we are made to feel in this world like we have to do it on our own.  We’re trying to climb and climb…but there are people to help us.”

M continued his story, “You know, I got sick and tired of falling into the same pattern again and again.  I could get so far on my own, and then I would just fall back. And now, because I’ve stopped doing that process, I can see it differently.  It’s crazy…it was a woman, same first name as you…she came into the City Jail. She looked sweet and kind but then she would just call it as it was.  I needed that honesty.  It helped me see I needed help, support, recovery. I began to realize I was hiding from myself. I remember going back into the church again after being locked up.  I thought the walls might fall down, but they didn’t. I remember going in, and feeling like I couldn’t be worthy enough and then just feeling, like this verse here, ‘Now, my soul is troubled!’ but then I realized it was God who wanted to work on me, that I could just go on my own and do the same things again and again and again.  I needed help, I needed to be able to not be just a birth date and a death date but to live that life in between.”

This reminded me of a more authentic version of a popular meme. “There’s this saying going around, you might have hear it: “Live Your Dash.”  They mean getting perspective and living out those years between our birth and death dates.  But maybe here it’s more like God reminding us that our lives don’t just start and finish with God, but that God is with us all along that journey if we can open ourselves to realizing that God’s call on our lives is not something that was, or that will be…but that it is right now.”

M related to this, “Yeah, that’s right.  Like my kids. I haven’t been able to be there for them for a lot of years now but we have each other now and I want to do right by that.  My son is 15 now, and he’s smart as a whip. But it’s a tough age and he’s starting to see that everyone isn’t up to the same good, that maybe it isn’t always so good to hang with your friends instead of spending time with your family.  Now is the time that he and I can connect; we NEED to connect. Whether he wants to or not!”

I empathized, “Oh, I have a 14 year old…I can relate!”

We both laughed

He continued with his story: “I think about it, you know, I sit him down and tell him my truth.  I don’t want to pretend that I’m something I’m not. My father instilled in me what to avoid but like that Prodigal Son, I went left field my own way.  Now I’m home, and I have a chance to celebrate but that means doing it the right way, not just setting down the law or telling him what to do, but telling him my heart, that God loves him and I love him.  It isn’t that we’re here to suffer, it’s that we’re here to love each other. I had to learn that from other people in order for it to sink in that it’s that lesson that Church is all about. I mean, when I go to church there are times when I haven’t told anyone my business, and no one even knows me.  But something that we read, or in the Word being preached it’s like it’s just to me, right there, just for me. So, I think: God, ok. Yeah, I’m here. I heard that!”

This made me realize how I’m beginning to see this movement of God through an entirely different lens: “I have to tell you, it’s the same way on the other side, too.  Now that I’m the one who is preaching, I never know why it is that something comes to me, and sticks with me, and just won’t leave me alone.  I have no idea who or why, but I have come to believe that there is something in there that someone needs to hear.  It isn’t always for me to know who are why. It is God working through us.  But as you were talking I thought:  this is why we’re community; this is why we’re the Church.  We need each other. I was just thinking from the Gospel lesson again, “The time is now…” and sometimes I think we’re spinning our wheels, getting restless waiting to figure out when the time will be.  But, the time is now.”

“You know, I thought of that this week” said M, “with those kids in Florida.  They didn’t wait to ask, “when will things change?” They marched to the capital and said, “The time is now!”  And maybe, that’s a bit of what God does with us, and God is doing with me: ‘OK, M….the time is now!” and then he sends people my way, like my friend T who invited me here today.  I hadn’t seen him for a long time, then we ran into each other this morning. We sat and talked, and he said, “what are you doing today?” and I said, “nothin…’ and he said, ‘no, that’s not right…you’re coming with me!’  And then, we were here and having lunch and he said, “What are you doing after lunch?” and I said, “nothin…” and he said, “no, that’s not right…there’s something else for you…” and he went and talked to you, and here I am.  And this is exactly where I needed to be, and what I needed to talk through with you today. The time is now. We do need each other. God knows that.”

So Much Love

Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B 

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 3:14-21

 

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors:  Alisha and Lynette

In these recent days and weeks, I’ve heard more than a few (good, kind, caring) people say that they fail to understand how God could love this world. We are human beings who get lost sometimes, wandering in the darkness of violence, death, and destruction where we can’t quite find our own way out.  We can feel helpless and even hopeless. But, here in the midst of our Lenten wilderness, we are reminded of a deep and resonant truth: God loves us. God profoundly loves all of us, and the collective “us” that we can even have trouble loving ourselves.  Let me say that again: God loves each of us as individuals, but God also loves US, the world, even when we are fed up and even with all the times we fall and are drawn in to the structures and power of evil. God loved the world so much, that God’s very self entered into this world to experience life with us.  It’s probably the first bible verse you memorized as a child.  Maybe it’s the one we most need to hear…really hear…as adults.

This week, two of God’s beloved children, Alisha and Lynette, share for us something about this message of lavish, divine love:

Lynette, a regular visitor at feeding programs throughout the city, began the conversation by reading the Gospel lesson.

Alisha, a student just getting ready to embark on a spring break mission trip, chose to spend the afternoon with our Faith from the Margins bible study.  She began by asking Lynette what stood out to her. Lynette said was familiar with the verse, but what stood out to her right now was amount of evil she had been feeling in the world. “These killings, and these kids. It’s just too much to hear about, too much evil every time I turn on the news.”

Alisha nodded, realizing that Lynette spoke for the way so many of us feel rocked by the nature of violence.

Lynette went on to tell the story of someone she knew who was killed, leaving behind young children. “I’m sorry that I feel like I don’t have much to say these days. It seems like the world isn’t going to last long.”  The sadness hung on Lynette’s voice of age and experience.

Alisha paused and seemed to reach into a place in her heart where God was speaking.  “I hear you” she said, “but what stood out to me is love, ‘For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son.’ Those words are about so much love. Not everyone believes that, not everyone believes in Jesus or God. But God doesn’t just love the people who believe or who read the scriptures or who go to church or who know how to pray. God loves the world, the whole world. Jesus came for everybody, no matter what. I think people don’t see how great that is, how amazing it is to be loved that much. He didn’t make the world a bad place, or to hurt people or set them against each other. He did it because of love.”

Alisha continued, as Lynette listened thoughtfully.  “You were talking about the darkness of the world, Lynette, and I think that it does say in here that people are drawn to the darkness. God knows people will still choose darkness, but Jesus, in a way, is the Light because God knows there will be darkness. So no matter how dark the world seems, the Light of Christ cannot be taken away. His light will continue to shine no matter what. I think that’s a hope to hang onto, especially when we see so many shootings and so many problems going on. The President, the United States acting like we don’t know how to run a country, and then our regular struggles of everyday life on top of that. It’s a lot. And Jesus the Light is still here.”

Lynette smiled a little, feeling some of that light.  Finally, she said, “You know, I see God everywhere I go. You know, when you have good days, you think, “God is on my side.’ If you are happy, having a good day, you see God everywhere. Then if anything happens, you have to remember that God is still on your side.”

Alisha said, “Right now, I’m trying to seek God more. I’m realizing that God is putting people in my life to help remind me, to know God is there. Like you said, on good days its easy to feel that God is there. But then there are other days when you think, ‘why does this stuff keeping happening? Where is God in this?” and its usually through those other people, the people who help me see God again.”

“Do you believe in God?” Lynette asked.

“I do, I really do!” said Alisha.

“That’s good” said Lynette, “Not a lot of people do. But I do, too. I go to bed at night and I pray. I say that God wakes me up in the morning and when there is a new day, I am grateful for that, and I pray again.”

“There’s something about praying by yourself” said Alisha. “It’s like it’s just you and God, and you feel like you can be more open. It’s like I get my faith and reassurance about who I put my trust in most. It isn’t just the words, its the meaning in my heart. I try to see God.”

“He’s around!” said Lynette.

They both laughed.

“People need to read this scripture” said Lynette, “they need to be reminded of what is going on, not just to get stuck in the darkness.”

“It’s nice for us to read it,” said Alisha, “but we’re also supposed to live it and spread it, too. I think just sharing a word sometimes…especially the love, that fact that God loves us no matter what, no matter if we don’t even believe it or don’t even believe in God…that message is something we need to share.”

“Do you have family around here?” asked Alisha. They started to talk about their families, the sisters and brothers and for Lynette, her children.

“Did you grow up in the Church?” asked Alisha.

“Yes, well, almost every Sunday my Momma made sure that we were in Church.” answered Lynette. “How about you?”

“It was the same for me” answered Alisha.  “Now, I try to go to church every Sunday.”  This was a commonality they both valued; the way in which attending to God had been made a priority in their lives, even when there was a lot of other things and many other challenges happening.

Alisha and Sheryl each shared a time when they knew unconditionally that they were loved by God.

Lynette shared about her good days. “Things are going my way, and I think, I’m loved by God. I know it doesn’t sound exciting, but when I go to the doctor, I get out, I realize God is good and I feel really loved by God.”

“For me,” said Alisha, “there was a time when I was really lonely. I mean, I had friends and people around but there wasn’t really anyone that I could talk to, that I could connect with deeply. And then I went to church one Sunday and they were singing this gospel song, it was “Halleluia, you have won the victory, death cannot hold you down, you are the risen King…” I remember that vividly.  It was a just a time, a moment for me when I realized it wasn’t even about me feeling good all the time. If I felt lonely, or if I felt down that God was still with me. God loved me for me. So, remember that God loves you, no matter what has happened to you, good day and bad days.”

May these grace-filled words from Alisha and Lynette fill you with love, this day and in the days to come…

 

 

Healing Welcome

Epiphany 5, Year B

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:29-39

 

After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

 

Co-authors:  Dale and Sarah

Dale and I sat together in the chapel as we opened up this Gospel lesson together.  I hadn’t spent a lot of time talking with Dale  until today; he is the friend of several others who attend Red Door lunch and healing service regularly.  We’ve exchanged pleasant hellos but we hadn’t really talked.   Today, our bible study numbers were a bit uneven, so I filled in at the last minute.  What a blessing that serendipitous decision turned out to be!

As we began, Dale asked if I would do the reading since his eyesight kept him from being able to read out loud.  I noticed, even from the intent way that he listened to the Gospel, that he was hearing every word with a clarity most of us miss.

“I like that reading, I do” said Dale.  “I didn’t get that part before but this time I heard that James and John were there too.  Jesus was there, but the others, they had God’s word there with them.  I wonder, did they have power or something, like Jesus, to heal?

“That’s a great question, Dale!  I hadn’t even picked up on that.  Jesus does say at other times to his disciples that they have the power to heal, that Jesus gives others the power to heal in His name.  You know, I think about that a lot.  On Fridays here, when we have the healing prayer service, that’s something that is powerful to me when I say it each week before we offer prayers together in Jesus’ name.  I don’t have the power to heal.  It’s not like that, like a magic power or something, but when we hold a healing prayer service we pray together because we have been told that there is healing in God.  I’m not in charge of that healing: giving, or receiving healing.  But healing is there with us when we are gathered together because God is with us.  So, when we stand together, when I pray with people, it’s in the presence of that healing that God is made known to us.”

“You know, I believe that” said Dale.  He continued, “…because back in 2012, when I lost my eyesight from glaucoma, I was blind totally for about 18 months.  I went to the eye doctor and he said there wasn’t much hope.  I was imagining never seeing again, learning to read braille and stuff.  Then the doctor said, ‘there is this surgery, but its really 50/50 whether it will work or not.’  But, I thought, ‘I’m already blind, what do I have to lose?”  So, I had the surgery, but then there was nothing.  Six months went by, nothing.  Then one day I thought I saw light starting to come in.  So I started to pray, not begging but just feeling thankful to see light again.  And other people, they started to pray for me.  And always, those prayers were in the name of Jesus Christ.”

“That’s wonderful!” I said, “I think about that whenever we pray.  I may pray, I may ask, but we are asking in the name of Jesus Christ who is with us all.”

“Praying, you know, it’s like blessing.  We get blessed, we feel blessed.  But it isn’t about that.  It’s about passing along that blessing, that is also in Jesus’ name.”

Something else stood out for me, too.  “I keep going back to this part…about Simon’s mother…who is healed and then gets up and starts serving everyone.  At first I want to say, “hey, let the poor woman rest!” and then I thought about it.  She chooses to serve.  That is a show of love, a gift of family and community.  That is an action of thanksgiving and grace.  We can never say ‘thank you’ enough for our healing so we do what we do best: we serve as healed people, showing our thanks to God.”

Dale nodded.  “You’re right, because her way of serving, her way of saying thank you was to keep serving.  I’m just like her.  I wake up and keep seeing God.  My eyesight isn’t all back, but it is clear enough now that I can see light.  When I wake up, I say thank you God, because that light makes me know that God is there in that healing. And then I want to get out, and to serve others.”

“It’s like our thanks, our blessing, our healing are all together” continued Dale.  “I don’t know which is the right word to use.  But maybe they are all part of the same thing.”

I thought about this. 

Dale went on, “Maybe this blessing falls to us, because it is so present with us.  I ask myself, ‘how do I live into this blessing, this healing’ and I see that here in this place.  Here, there are a whole lot of people who feel shame and hunger and think they will be looked down on.  But they come here, and there is healing, and there is food, but there is also spiritual healing where we are fed. I’m surprised sometimes by who I see come into that service.  But you are never surprised…you just show love to everyone. I see that in you.”

I felt myself smiling; I was blessed by hearing this, but I knew the story was deeper than Dale probably realized.  So, it was my turn to share.  “You know, Dale, there was a time that I was one of those people who was least likely to come into a church.  You see, I was mad, angry.  Really angry.  Then, one day I decided to just go to a church not because I had to but because I wanted to…actually because I wanted to sing.  And that day, the clergy person seemed to just look right at me.  Instead of feeling judged, I heard him say, “All are welcome…you are welcome.”  I felt that in my entire soul.  I knew that welcome came from more than just that person; that welcome was from God.  That welcome was God.  And in that welcome is where I found healing from all that anger.  Slow, just like your eyesight!  But gradually, the light comes back in and we are filled with thankfulness and gratitude.  So, I want to live into that now.  I know there are people every week who come here feeling broken, angry, and not welcome.  I know exactly how that feels.  So, I stand in that place of healing I have known, and I pray.  My prayer is always that I can offer up that healing and welcome to others, too.”

“I notice that too” said Dale, “when you all say the prayers, you always say that at the beginning.  You know you are welcome, you can be here just as you are.  Welcome is a gift, and a blessing.  Welcome is healing.  You know, I’m glad this was our lesson today”

I’m glad too, Dale.  

 

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!

Nothing is impossible…

When I was preparing these Advent bible studies, I accidentally assigned two pairs of participants to discuss Advent 4.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do about this at first, until I listened to these beautiful, distinctly different interviews.  The stories and styles were unique, but they had one thing in common: the realization that while sometimes things do not turn out as we expect, God is always working through even the seemingly impossible places in our lives to open doors of hope and possibility.  Perhaps this is true even in my own accidental over-pairing this week, too.  So, I have decided to share a bit of both interviews on this week’s blog.  Thank you to Charles, Candy, Dem and Elaine for sharing your stories and illuminating how, like Mary and Elizabeth, we come to realize through the stories of our lives that nothing is impossible with God.

Advent 4, Year B:

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 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Contributing Authors: Charles, Candy, Dem and Elaine

 

Dem and Elaine: Watch out for Gabriel, and watch out for God!

By the end of their interview, Dem and Elaine were laughing so hard together that neither of them wanted the conversation to end.  These two women had never met before, but by the time the interview wrapped up, they realized they shared so much in common with each other that it was uncanny, and their very different yet serendipitously similar perspectives on life brought joy which bubbled over from them.  Listening to their interview, I could practically hear them finish each other sentences as they allowed the Gospel lesson to unfold in their conversation.

Elaine began the conversation after the reading by telling the story in her own words: “So, what we’ve heard then is this: Elizabeth is pregnant, she’s six months along.  Her cousin Mary is sitting down there in Nazareth, engaged to a man but she’s still a virgin.  And along comes this angel, Gabriel, and says, “I know Mary, it doesn’t make any sense but the Holy Spirit is going to visit and poof, you’re pregnant.”

Both women said, at the same time, “Watch out for Gabriel!”

In the midst of their laughter, Elaine picked back up and said, “But then Mary says “how can this be?” and then the angel comforts her and tells her something…the same thing that her cousin, Elizabeth, had also been told by the angel: nothing is impossible with God.  Now, we didn’t read this part today but there is also this other part of the story where Mary goes to stay with with Elizabeth, and when she arrives,  Elizabeth sees her and she just knows by looking at her, “You’re pregnant!” but at the same time, she also knows immediately that this is no ordinary pregnancy; this is God’s child she is carrying.”

Dem had a light bulb of awareness go off:  “OK!  That’s the part that I didn’t get before.  I mean, I know the story because it’s the Christmas story and all of that.  But the part I didn’t get before was the preparedness.  How Mary really thought about this, how Elizabeth also knew this.  I really, really like that.”

Elaine said, “I’m always amazed at how Mary was able to say yes to this, to give herself over to it, especially at that time and in those circumstances.  That giving it over to God is always hard for me.”

“Oh yeah” said Dem, “I can’t do that.  It’s that ‘let go, let God’ thing and I’m not good at that.  I know there’s something bigger than me out there but sometimes I’m not so sure that I can really pray, or find the words.”

Elaine said, “It’s hard, I know.  But I think not all prayer is talk, talk, talk though.  Sometimes prayer is just being there, opening yourself up, being prepared to hear what you need to do, which isn’t always what you want.  It’s scary to do that. Have you ever tried that?”

“I’m uncomfortable just thinking about it,” admitted Dem.  “There’s so very little that I’m in charge of in my life right now that I try to grasp onto whatever I can.”

Dem went on to tell her story.  She had been to several schools with degrees in Education, Theatre in work experience in Horticultural design.  Her path has been very circuitous, though, and not everyone was supportive of her as a woman returning to school in mid-life.  Finally, she found herself in a position where she fell to her backup experience in landscaping, but even in that manual work she hadn’t been able to find work other than something seasonal.  But, as she was telling to to Elaine, Dem added:  ‘actually I think something else is opening up for me.’

“Not everyone knows I live in a shelter” she said, “but I tell my story because I’m grateful to have support and to have places like this and case managers to help me regroup.  I had to think: is this really what I want to do?  And then, the flooding in Texas happened and I thought, I could help there.  So, my shelter case manager got me signed up to volunteer with the Red Cross for hurricane relief.  I went and did all the training but at the end, they said to me, ‘we aren’t going to send you.’ I was so disappointed.  Then, my supervisor said, “But, it’s because we think you would be a great case manager because we see how well you work with people, how you can relate to them and how your own story of needing shelter lets you be open to others and so resourceful.  Let us train you while you’re being supported by the shelter, then we’ll hire you and you can be a part of our travel team, if you’re willing to relocate.’  So, here I am, I’m just finishing up my training.  In a few weeks, I’ll be going wherever they need me, working for them.  And, I’m really excited to be doing something that feels like its so needed for others, and to help others like I have received the help I need.”

Elaine’s voice was soft, rather like Elizabeth’s moment of recognizing the greatness of God at work. “You know, Dem, I think that the cream rises to the top!”  they both chucked. Then, Elaine spoke the truth that was becoming clear between them: “Do you know what you’re doing?  You’re asking for God’s guidance.  You’re opening yourself to God’s will.  You may not know it…but you’re doing it.  You just showed me that.”

cropped-red-heart-in-hands

 

Charles and Candy: Holy Spirit, Healing and Hope

Meanwhile, in another room, Candy and Charles were talking about hope and healing.

“What stands out to me is the Holy Spirit.” Candy said immediately.  She recalled how there were times in her life when it seemed like it would be impossible to do something, but that in praying, she found comfort in the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Charles agreed, “In my own life, I see God as being in my heart and in my mind.  It’s like God puts something inside of me, like love, and it’s there for people I’ve met and even people that I haven’t met.”

As they shared their thoughts on this Gospel lesson, although it wasn’t just the general, mysterious ways of God that stood out to them: it was their direct encounters with the impossibility of profound healing that stood out in this Gospel of hope and reassurance.

Charles related his story first: “Well, one day, you know…I don’t really go to see my Mom as much as I should.  So, maybe it was that my Mom didn’t want to tell me, but I saw a friend and he said, “Look, hey, you need to call your Mom…she’s sick.”  And so I did, I called her right away.  She said, “I didn’t know how to tell you, but I found out that I have breast cancer.”  I felt bad for not calling, and I felt terrible for her.  So, I got off the the phone and I prayed to God.  I prayed, “Please God, heal my Mom.”  And I don’t know what I expected because, you know, well…it just doesn’t always happen that way.  But God did heal my Mom.  She doesn’t have cancer anymore.  And that was a changing point for me, you know, in our relationship, too.  So, I know God was there.”

Candy related a story of unexpected healing in her own life.  She shared about her now late husband, who was having very painful struggles with his health at the time: “It just kept going on, week in and week out.  We’d been to the emergency room and I was just so tired.  But, I knew that I had to come to church.  I felt prompted and pushed by the Holy Spirit to come.  So, I came here and there was this visitor, who was someone that I knew who was an Episcopal priest from another part of town.  I didn’t expect to see him, and of course we knew one another and I knew that he was someone who I thought of as having a real gift of healing.  So, after the service he said to me, ‘is everything alright?’ and so I told him about all the pain and troubles my husband was having.  He said, “can we pray together?” and of course, I said yes.  So he held my hands and we prayed; I was actually holding onto his sleeve, the sleeve of his jacket and I thought about that woman, in another Gospel lesson, who had the terrible issue with bleeding and who touched Jesus’ robe.  So, when I got home, my husband was healed from all of that pain and bleeding.”

“Wow!” said Charles.

“Wow is what I said about your mother, too!” said Candy.

There was a moment of quiet between the two of them, the holy space of realizing that it wasn’t just a long-ago story of the impossible, but of the Holy Spirit making the impossible happen even within the comings and goings of their everyday lives.  As they closed the interview and turned off the tape recorder, they decided to pray for each other, too, before going their separate ways.

Nothing, indeed, is impossible with God.

These stories and struggles of life’s impossibilities: struggling with health, hoping for healing, being older in a youth-seeking workforce, humbly trying to find a place to lie one’s head, the power of realizing one’s potential but not knowing how it will happen.  This week’s story sharing seemed to break open the disbelief that keeps us from seeing and knowing God in our midst, opening up to the possibilities that even when we think we are incapable of allowing God’s movement in our lives, we are often living into divine possibility in those very ordinary moments of our extraordinary lives.  No one in these interviews would say that their lives were perfect, and they are certainly not without struggle or loss.  But God was and is clearly present and moving.  In this sharing as we round out the Sundays of Advent in anticipation of all that is to come, we are filled with the hope and expectation of all that is possible with God.

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