Pure of Heart

15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year B)

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

 

When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

 

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

 

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

 

FFMTW authors: Eugene and Lorenzo, with Dale and John

“I hear a lot of judgemental people in that” said Lorenzo. “It’s like other people are focused on what people clean with their hands, but they forgot that you can have clean hands and a dirty soul…”

“Or dirty hands and a clean soul!” added Eugene.

“Maybe Jesus means, you have to clean up or go home.” said Lorenzo.

“But, it’s really all about the heart” added Eugene. “It’s funny how certain things can be seen certain ways. But, if you believe in your heart, that is all that matters. I mean there are some people that no matter what they look like on the outside, they are clean of heart on the inside.”

This seemed like a good point to ponder further with the group. So, I asked them to describe someone that they consider to be pure of heart.”

Lorenzo went first, “The church where I go every week, there’s this pastor I know. He’s real down to earth and all. He would do anything for anybody.”

Dale said, “Yeah, that reminds me of a guy I know, too, his name is Mr. Brooks. He is quiet and people could just look right over him. But he always has a kind word and some way to offer to help.”

“I try to do that, too” said Lorenzo, “But, I ain’t no saint, though.”

I chuckled, “But, you know, I didn’t hear any of you describe any of those people you think of as pure of heart as being perfect. I heard you describing them as kind. And a lot of what Jesus describes is about the intention of our heart toward others.”

“So, I’ve got a question, or maybe more like a situation” said John. “I have this friend who promised to do something and then didn’t show up and didn’t even care. That happens all the time, and I’ve started to think that they say they’ll do something because that makes them seem like a good friend, a good person and people will like them. But, it’s really not about helping for them, it’s all about what they want to do, not what other people want or need. The heart isn’t in it, so the actions don’t come through. But if the intention isn’t really to help, then it isn’t really helpful.”

Eugene said, “You know, I relate to that. I have to think about not just whether I can help, but what my intention is. If it’s just to get attention that isn’t really helping. But, if I open my heart to helping it isn’t about whether I feel like doing it, it’s that I’ve given my word and I know that I will feel better just because I’ve helped.”

“See like, my two pastors, they have been through it all. They have done drugs and been in prison and paid the price. They know what it’s like and now they are giving back. I think that in order to be pure of heart, maybe you have to know what it’s like to be forgiven” said Lorenzo. “For me, I’ve been to the Pen. I know I haven’t always done what I should do. But, I pray and I am trying to live a new kind of life now. That’s what I want. I help the kids and I try to pattern myself after my pastor, because he’s been out now like 20 years. I know that it can be done, and I need to stick with it.”

Eugene shared about his own experience. “OK, I just want to say that I’m new to this religion thing. You know, at first I came here to eat and you all talked with me and were nice. I learned that people had a good heart, and I started thinking about my heart, about doing things for other people. Then, I had my stroke. And it made me think hard about what I really want, how did I really want to live my life. I came back that Friday after I got out of the hospital and the first thing you said was that you all had been praying for me. And I felt that. I felt it. And now I am back here, and I pray and open my heart, too. It’s a long road to recovery but I’m getting better. I have God to thank for that, and everyone here who was showing me that by how they lived, and prayed, and cared. Six years ago, I was sleeping in an ally. Now, I have my own place and I have community, and I’ve been able to forgive my family. If you believe and trust in God, anything is possible.”

We continued to chat a bit and I asked if anyone would like to close us in prayer. It was Eugene who offered, and the beauty of his prayer was one which embodied this Gospel and has made this my constant prayer for Faith from the Margins:

“Bow y’all heads” he began.

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

and all the people said

AMEN!”

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Seeds of Faith

4th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year B)

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 4:26-34


Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: John, Earl, Angela and Robin

There are times when God’s abundance overwhelms me in unexpected ways. When we gathered for this Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study, I had had such a challenging week that my mind was a blur, and my heart was heavy with personal grief over which I had no answers, and no control. But, as we do sometimes, I showed up. This group of four came together and said, “Sister Sarah, we’ve got this. You just sit back and let the Holy Spirit move.” I sat with my recorder on and listened as the group gathered wrapped me in the inspiration of their words. Come Holy Spirit, fill the smallest mustard seed of our simple showing up with the abundance of your love and grace.

Robin started off the conversation, “So in other words, what he’s saying is that if we have faith as big as that little mustard seed, we’ll grow, and the more we grow, the more faith we receive.”

Angela jumped in: “God, He created everyone…everybody…even the birds. They know what to do when it gets cold, when it gets hot. I mean, you can’t get the seed to grow without the birds to scatter it and the birds just know when to fly, when to nest, what to do. They don’t worry; they just rely on God.”

Earl, the quiet listener, added his thoughts: “They are survivors, so we are all survivors.”

John spoke up: “OK, I have something I have to share. You know, God does give in ways we don’t expect and I’m going to tell you one. You remember Sister Sarah…I walked in here about a month ago, it was the first time that I met you. I keep my business to myself but I had to get it out of me and off my chest that day. You listened and then you just wrapped me up in prayer. The words you prayed and what you said to me, they were from God. You couldn’t have known that what you said was exactly what I needed to hear. Even the song that you sang…it was the same one going through my mind. God provides that.”

“That’s right” said Angela, “Sometimes we get cast to the wayside, but God provides what we need, when we need it.”

I, admittedly, was stunned. I had come into this group depleted and unprepared. And unfolding before me was the magnification of the mustard seed of faith that happens from the simplest actions of being present. John continued to tell the group what had unfolded in his life since that day: reconciliation, employment, renewed hope, an opening of his life of prayer into the possibility that God’s presence held him throughout both the ups and downs of life.

“There I was, Sister Sarah. It was a few days later and I had gotten myself a cup of coffee, trying to get my mind settled back where it needed to be instead of on all the things I didn’t want to be focusing on anymore. Then wham! Just like that, I found myself standing in a convenience store, talking with God. Into my mind, that same song we were singing, the words of that prayer we prayed. And in that moment, I knew: I’m not alone in this. People might have been looking at me like I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I just stood there and I said, “Thank You!!” God was with me. God IS with me.

At this point, all I could feel was God’s presence, too.

Robin was quick to pick up on this, seizing the moment. “You know, it says so right here, that when that mustard seed finds fertile ground that is when it sprouts and grows. We don’t have to know…sometimes we never know what is growing, because God is tending it. We sow the word, and God knows the fertile ground where it’s sowed.”

“I’m gonna tell you something, too” said Angela. “You know, I grew up in foster care. Back then, I was like the black sheep of the family, the one that didn’t have a place. It was a farm I was raised on. We had to fetch water. We had to scrub floor on our hands and knees. I spent so much time back then thinking: “Why me. O God, why me?!” But, it was there that I began to see not what was happening to me, but what God saw in me. I started studying hard in school. I got all A’s. I started working, I got my GED, and I ended up becoming a nurse in the public health department. It wasn’t ME, I didn’t make that happen. It was all of the potential in me, all of what was already there inside me, a gift from God.”

“That’s right, girl!” encouraged Robin, “It makes you realize that God is there, God is holding up your potential not keeping you in a place. You can give in to that higher power, instead of seeing from the low places. I have been there. I have walked that walk and know how hard it is, to be down so low. And then God makes you see, opens your eyes and you begin to know that you have worth, you have strength, and the source of that strength is God!”

It was a spirit filled prayer meeting in that library room, with all four of these amazing women and men seeing God in each other.

“Sister Sarah, you don’t know what you started!” joked Robin. I could feel my spirit being renewed, being lifted by the grace of God’s presence in this place. “I didn’t start it!” I had to acknowledge. “I just do what we all do: I showed up.”

“Now look at us” said Robin. “We are all brought into our mustard seed. We’ve all been in low places, and we’ve all had that moment where we just reached out with whatever we could and said, “God! Help!” and look at us. God has SHOWED UP in all these mustard seed moments of our lives.”

I reflected to the group. “You know this study today…and every time we do one of these…it teaches me something. It teaches me that the Gospel…the Good News…is not something that just happened way back when. It is something that is lived out in our lives, that keeps unfolding. I can take one piece of scripture, and we can sit with it…like we are today…I can feel God moving in it. That is my mustard seed…thinking about this Good News as the mustard seed that holds our identity in Christ and flourishes in each one of us in different ways. It makes us a beautiful family.”

“Your version of the scripture and mine, or his, or hers…they might be different” said Angela, “But at the end we say, ‘that’s right, AMEN!” because that person is experiencing God.”

She clapped and laughed out loud, “Come on, y’all, feel it with me!  It’s Sunday morning on Friday afternoon, because Church is happening here!”

Amen, Sister Angela!

We laughed with the joy of beloved family in Christ that afternoon. I had come into that group with the smallest of faith in what was going to unfold. I left with a heart overflowing with love and grace.

Thank you Angela, John, Robin and Earl for being the Church that proclaims truth in boldness, so that grace and mercy and justice could flourish, this day and in all the days to come.

Still in the room

Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Faith from the Margins to the Web authors:  Ruth and Jamillah

As they sat in the chapel reading scripture and talking together, Ruth and Jamillah suddenly found themselves in the midst of an unexpected serenade of organ music.  At first, their voices sounded quiet and small, almost overpowered by a large, majestic pipe organ. But, over the course of the interview these two gentle souls having heartfelt conversation filled the room with hopefulness and love.  Here is a brief but beautiful glimpse at how Christ’s presence was made known to them and by their witness, to us:

Ruth started off the conversation: “What really struck me were the words, where Jesus says, ‘Peace’ and the disciples were ‘startled’ and ‘terrified.’  Then, Jesus’ solution is to say, ‘here I am, touch me. If you want to know its me, just reach out. For me, I heard once that the phrase used the most is “Be Not Afraid” so like, when angels would come, they would first say, “Do Not Be Afraid.”  Because, you know, having something happen be so out of the norm, it scares us! And, having somebody bear the message of God, it scares us, too. And so, here, Jesus even scared his disciples! That makes me want to open a little more to fear, to not be so afraid of fear.  Because if I’m going to feel fear when something unexpected happens, when Jesus walks into the room or I notice Him here, well then maybe fear isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it’s just a sign in my own body that says, ‘pay attention!’”

“Yeah, that’s true” said Jamillah, “I used to think backwards.  Well, maybe not backwards, but l think sometimes I get scared when a message comes to me.  Even though God is God, even though God is Creator of all things, God came up with all these words for us.  Sometimes we follow the scriptures and they are so real. God is so….well… God! But the words are so real, so right now that sometimes they scare me because I think: how could God’s word be speaking so much to me.”

“I like what you’re saying” said Ruth.  “it’s like when he says, ‘look at my hands, touch me!’  I mean, if we are human and we are spiritual creatures then our job is to know who God is to us.  Like, when I hear you talking, you are telling me who God is to you, who God has been to you. And because you reached out, you looked at Him, you touched Him…and that is what Jesus asked us to do!  At different points in my life, when I see something or when I touch something I learn something different each time because I’m always seeing with different eyes, or feeling with different hands. I’ve been through different things now so I see things differently, or I feel things differently.  It isn’t like God is one big thing that we can know, because we are changing all the time, so the way we understand God changes all the time, too.”

“I also learned that Easter means not just the rising again, but about being seen” said Jamillah.  

Ruth offered a thoughtful example.  “I think about my own parents. As I grew up, I learned more about them: what happened to them as kids, what their lives have been as adults.  I’m still learning about my own parents, still finding out new aspects of who they are. They’re still with us, thank God, so I get to keep knowing them more.  So, if I can’t even know everything about my own parents, how on earth would I expect to know everything about God! I think God is always that open to us, but we have to be that open to God.  I mean, my Mom has all this information I could know, but if I don’t call her up, or ask her questions then how would I come to know all that about her? It’s the same way with God, I think. I have to bring myself back to be open to God.”

Jamillah was thoughtful: “I’ve seen God in my life because there have been times when I couldn’t get out of where I was without God finding me.  I’ve been homeless, I’ve been needing money just to be able to see the doctor or pay my medical bills. I’ve been in situations where I didn’t have the resources to get out on my own.  But, then I have realized I was connected to Him, I realize the bond that I have with God. Like I said, I can’t always speak elegantly with the verses like some people. But, I do know how to read the scriptures, to feel the bond with God, to realize that He is active in my life and that He sees me as a believer.”

“Nice!” said Ruth.  “You said that you don’t have elegant words, but you have your story!  I mean here, in this story, it’s that point where Jesus says, ‘I’m hungry, do you have something to eat?’ and all that fear, terror it all goes away because they sit down together.  I mean, that’s your story. It’s one of the most powerful ways to see the presence of God. The truth is in the living.”

“Some people can preach the word, but don’t live it” said Jamillah.  

“You know, sometimes I think that my biggest fears are scripture and prayer, like you said earlier” added Ruth.  “What’s frightening isn’t that I won’t find God there but that I will have that encounter, that I will hear and see God and have to confront what I know I’m supposed to do but that I don’t feel ready for.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re thinking you’re afraid of the scriptures or God” said Jamillah, “but sometimes when you’re trying to do your own thing, that’s when God makes you realize you are really doing God’s thing.  It says here, that so many people back then and now were disbelievers, but God is a truth teller. Other people need to hear that, so they believe. They need to know that they can hear the scripture for themselves, that God is real and present.”

Ruth added, “…and Jesus says, ‘why are you afraid?’ so when I feel fear, I have to wonder, am I actually taking  time to see Jesus in the room with me? Or am I just feeling my fear? I guess it means to me that I have to look for God, to recognize God’s presence in my fear, to know that I have a chance to open up and listen and let go of my fears when I pay attention that God is there.  Even when I feel my fear, He’s still in the room with me just like Jesus is still right there with the disciples, doubting and fearful. They can just reach out and touch, to allow their minds to be opened.”

“You know, that’s true” said Jamillah, “I was thinking about that part where he opened their minds.  I mean, usually, when there is a bible study you are told what it means, what you should believe. But today, here, we had a chance to open our minds.  I felt that today: my mind opened, I was able to see what Jesus did, that he gave the words to the disciples that were the evidence of God. There are so many different meanings that have come to me today.  I feel like, you know, this is the first time I ever really read a scripture and understood it like this, the way that we shared it together.”

“I agree.  These stories are about real people, and we are real people.  I think it takes the realness of life to understand it.” said Ruth.

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.  

 

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.

Glory2God.jpg