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.”

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