I wonder…

Palm Sunday, Year B

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: MaryAnn and Kayu

Conversation came easily to MaryAnn and Kayu, even though they had never met until that afternoon of our Faith from the Margins bible study.  They had chatted together and solved many of the problems of the world before the tape recorder was even turned on.  But after they began taking turns reading this Palm Sunday narrative began to hone in on this idea of “obedience” as it emerged in the Gospel lesson.

Kayu shared what stood out to him. “I have to come back to that word, obedience. It wasn’t easy to be obedient. It look a lot. Coming from Japan, for the first 18 months I was fighting every day because its what I had to do. But once I started becoming obedient, I learned not to fight back. They had seen me fight, but there comes a point in time when you have to let it go; when you have to let that control go to God. Where would it have gotten me in life to stubbornly keep that control? It would have made me a not very nice person. A fighter, street person, always in jail: anything could have happened. Then, at some point, when I stopped fighting that’s when people got curious.”

“So it really took a different kind of strength to stand than it did to fight.” said MaryAnn

Kayu agreed: “Yes, spiritual strength.”

“I’m not a physical fighter” said MaryAnn, “but I fight a lot with the way mentally I want things to be. I can wish that life was different, or that someone else hadn’t done something. I can fight verbally sometimes and that same lesson applies: we can choose to just stand.”

“I had a good teacher!” noted Kayu.

MaryAnn chuckled.  “I was just going to ask how you learned that!”

Kayu share his story. “It was my Grand-father. He was a musician, and the first African-American allowed to walk into the white house to play a private concert. It was for Theodore Roosevelt. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and he was a great man, but his words were always, “No matter how big or how small, you need to make a mark in life. If you can touch one, it makes up for the thousand. I decided that was what I wanted to do. I started fighting for homeless people in 1992. I asked God: what can I do? What kind of mark can I make on this earth? And that is what God told me.”

Mary Ann was genuinely curious: “But, how did you do that? I mean, what was it like to hear God?”

“Well, it was easier than you think.” said Kayu.  “I was praying…I had just come home from the war. And one day, I went walking and I was just struck by seeing so many homeless people in parks, on the streets. I thought, “This is not what I fought for; this is not what I should be coming home to.” I realized that I had to do something about this; I didn’t almost die for a country where people were homeless and dying and other people could look at the window and see it and not do anything. I’m a Marine…we are supposed to do things that help make a path for change. And to do that and come here and think: what are we doing? Why are we, in this country, having people who are homeless and who have skills and degrees. I said to God, “I’m a nobody, what can I do?” and God said, “Just do.” I had to obey and as I did, the ways I could make changes become clear to me. It is about knowing your calling, and also being willing to do it. There are both in today’s story. People need to hear: don’t try to do it on your own. Listen to God. God will tell you what you need to do.”

MaryAnn built on this, “Wonderful answers come through prayer. If I’m praying consistently about something, it isn’t that the situation changes but I change.”

“And that DOES change the situation” said Kayu.

MaryAnn echoed that: “Right, exactly! That is the way that God can be working, changing us which makes us and the situation change.”

The final sharing about this Gospel came through an exercise in which they were asked to share “I wonder” sentences about the reading from perspective of any of the characters in this Gospel lesson.  MayAnn and Kayu both entered deeply into this exercise and took turns in a free flow exchange of questions and thoughts:

“I wonder if Jesus knew that the disciples would obey him?”

“I wonder what the people who were watching were thinking?”

“I wonder what the disciples thought Jesus was going to do with the colt.”

“I wonder why the people who say this guy coming in on a colt decided to shout Hosanna?:

“I wonder why they decided to lay down the palm leaves when they really didn’t know who he was?”

“And, I wonder if the Colt thought, “Why does this man want me? Is it because no one has ever ridden on me? Is it because I’m pure of heart?”

“I wonder what the rest of the Colt’s life was like? After that day, all those palm branches and all of those crowds…what happened after that?”

“I wonder how Jesus knew just where the colt was?”

“I wonder why they allowed the disciples to take the colt?”

“I wonder if they actually knew who Jesus was?”

“I wonder if people had the sense that there was something different about this event, this day, this person.”

Kayu became reflective as they shared this exercise of wondering.  “You know, when I did this, I put myself right back there. What would I have done, if I really didn’t know Jesus as Lord, but the man Jesus came up to me and asked me to do this. I wonder if I would have been so obedient?”

Mary Ann nodded, “Yes, I wonder: what made them obedient?  What compelled them to listen?

“Faith like a mustard seed.” said Kayu. “God moves our hearts, but we have to move our feet and follow.”

 

Thank you, Kayu and Mary Ann, for sharing your stories and your wonder with us.  I wonder, after reading this reflection, where God is moving our heart to see new opportunities to serve, and moving our feet to follow?

 

 

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…

 

 

Losing It

Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors: Tom and Sandy

Tom, a regular attendee at weekly parish feeding ministries and Sandy, a new Faith from the Margins participant invited by her VCU student daughter both bring lives of prayerful insight into this week’s Gospel lesson.  After they prayed together and read the Gospel lesson, Tom opened their conversation thoughtfully:

“I was just thinking, this is an amazingly straightforward passage. Especially for John, because he’s so esoteric, kind of a dreamer. But, this is clear like he was there. It’s a good one, because they didn’t really realize at the time that Jesus was talking about his body, his own temple, when he talked about destroying and rebuilding. Maybe John was taken in by all that foreshadowing!

Sandy found another part of the passage speaking to her.  “The thing about this that I love is that people think Jesus is all nice and sweet and calm and all of that. But here, there is a righteous anger, and I really love that fact, that he threw the tables over and even made himself a whip. It helps me when I’m talking to my son about his anger, because it makes it real and relatable. Feelings are feelings, they just are. They aren’t good or bad. Your actions might be good or bad in responses but your feelings are your feelings. And knowing that Jesus had feelings, just as we do…that’s important!”

Tom related to that as well:  “Oh yeah. Both fully God and fully human. If you’re fully man there are feelings you have to deal with. If you’re fully God, you can tap into that part. But, there are always going to be feelings that we can relate to. I’m kind of laughing because sometimes when people say, ‘What would Jesus do?’ the honest answer might be making a whip and kicking you out of this building! And righteously so!! We can forget this part of the story. But think of it from Jesus’ viewpoint:  there was so much corruption. Whenever there is power, people get corrupted. Here, in this Gospel, it was for making a few extra shekels from the money-changers. But there was a real problem…it got bigger, suddenly like Vegas or something. Even the poorest of people could come to the temple and worship, but then they were being taken advantage of while the rich were flaunting their wealth.”

The two were finding their thoughts coming together as they imagined this image of Jesus responding to injustice.

Sandy spoke next, “Well, that’s just it. I love that he got angry, that there were things that he had to deal with. He wasn’t just sitting back and letting things happen.  He spoke his mind.”   She paused and chuckled a little, a memory coming into focus from her own life: “It reminds of one time, when we had some fundraising thing at school when I was little and I brought my sales form to church and pulled it out Sunday morning and started asking people to buy things. My mother snatched that out of my hands; she was furious! “This isn’t the place for that!” she said. I didn’t really understand it all at the time, but, it was clear to me that I had crossed a line!  But now, I start to see. Church has to be different; we’re here for a different reason.  Sometimes you need to point out the reason and then people begin to see things differently.”

Tom nodded.  “I mean, I know that there are times when churches need to have fund-raisers or they are doing something over and beyond to help others. Any church can have good intentions, but they can also fall into it being all about the money. People are well meaning, but it can easily happen. This story reminds me of that; the money changers and those selling animals for offerings weren’t there with a bad intention originally…people travelled for miles and it made it possible to come and make a sacrifice, no matter how much money one had or didn’t have.  But it slipped away from them about why it was supposed to happen.  It started to become about ways in which people could make money, skim a little off the top, and take advantage. It’s like a wake-up call to pay attention!”

Tom and Sandy exchanged some stories of greed and corruption that they have seen emerge in the church, even recently. Tom related a story of Pope Francis calling out a Bishop building an extravagant residence in order to convert it to homeless shelters. “It seems like he is trying to set a good example, but you see these glaring examples when they come up how easily people can be caught up in greed instead of charity.”

Sandy nodded. “I support a couple kids in the Dominican Republic, and I have for many years.  It isn’t a hands-off kind of thing; I’ve been on trips to help build churches and hold Sunday School for the kids and make relationships that last. That last story you told reminded me of how much we have to check our intentions.  When we go, there is a “free day” and I known I could go anywhere.  Sometimes we are encouraged to take a break, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But I find that I just want to be with the kids, to see things from their eyes.  It changes me, and makes me think differently about how I invest my time, and my money.  When I was over there, I was shocked by the fact that there were two types of people there: the incredibly rich, and the destitute poor. It struck me, that stark difference. I used to get my nails done, I wore an expensive ring my husband gave me.  After I visited I though, ‘Yes, it’s beautiful, but is it necessary?’ I came home, and I was changed. I started to wonder, ‘how can I justifying spending money every week for something as trivial as fingernails!’ It made me aware of what more I could do for people than wasteful things. We just have so much waste, but we could have so much to give.

Tom summarized up their reflections, “Well, this passage reminds us what really does count, not just what doesn’t. If it comes to matters of faith and knowing God, stick to that. Don’t get caught up in people’s ideas of how to get ahead. The world has one way of doing things, but God has another plan.  It also reminds me that sometimes, it’s OK to lose it! Sometimes we have to act.”

This image of Jesus’ anger can be shocking and put us off.  But, both Tom and Sandy were able to find in it essential qualities of our own human lives, as well as the immanent hopefulness of change.  How many times do we need to be jarred into seeing something for what it has become, instead of just going along with the status quo?  How often might something that starts out as a good intention drift off to serve selfish needs?  We might need this image of Jesus to startle us, to take a deeper look at what motivates the actions of our daily lives.  We are given the gift of transformative potential, in the form of God made human.  God is not the destroyer; God is the re-builder and re-maker of our lives, of this world in which we live.  Thank you to Sandy and to Tom for sharing the Good News of this transformation potential of awareness with us this week.

Presence in the Wilderness

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 

Faith from the Margins Bible Study Authors:  Willie and Davis

 

A note about the authors:  Both of these remarkable men have been a part of Faith from the Margins for a while but they hadn’t met together before.  Today, it took a half hour of the three of us crossing paths with each other to get into the same place, but it was worth every minute.  I was grateful to introduce Davis, a parishioner at a downtown Episcopal parish and Willie, who attends daily lunches hosted by churches in the city after his several-times-per-week dialysis sessions.  Willie blesses the staff and volunteers with his years of wisdom lived through deep faith and complex human experiences.  Davis gives of his heart and soul with every interview and interaction.  I’m grateful to know both of today’s bible study authors, and each has richly blessed my journey.  I hope their conversation will sustain each of you as we set forth together into the wilderness of the holy season of Lent as well.

 

Willie and Davis each took a turn at reading the Gospel lesson and listening to each other. Davis wondered what stood out for Willie:

“One of the things that stood out for me is that the more closer Jesus was coming to God, the more the devil was trying to now confront him, to say ‘who is this Jesus and what is he about?’”  Willie chuckled.  “It makes me laugh, you know, it’s the deliberateness of it all…just as soon as Jesus was baptized, as soon as the world started to know who He was, the devil started messing with him for those 40 days.  That’s what really gets me!”

Davis agreed, “yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it, because Jesus was baptized and you think that’s the high point of the story but then it says the spirit drove him into the wilderness.  It made me think: was that the good Spirit, or a bad spirit?”

On that point, Willie was certain: “Oh, I’m sure it was the good Spirit.”

“Maybe to test him?” wondered Davis

“Yes, Yes!” said Willie, “and well, that’s the thing.  It’s just that obviously, the devil really knew there was something special about this guy.  He found him out there all alone, by himself.  I can just imagine the wilderness…here it is what it is…wild animals and all…and then the devil shows up to test him in the midst of it all.”

Something else stood out to Davis, too: “That last part, after the 40 days, where John the Baptist shows up.  Jesus came to Galilee, and John has been arrested.  It sounds like then Jesus says and does exactly what John was saying, ‘repent, the kingdom of God has come near.’  It’s like Jesus picks right up for him in the work he was doing.  Remember, John says, “I will baptize you with water, he will baptize you with the holy spirit.”

Willie reflected on the whole passage, “I think, in a way, God is tell me the same thing is happening with me in my own life at this time.  The temptations are out here, testing my faith and trying to see what is inside my heart.  Do I love him enough to follow and obey, with all that is out here in society and stuff.  It’s only fitting that this would be the passage for today (chuckles).  It’s like that whenever I come here and do these bible studies!  It’s like whatever we read just speaks to me, it’s like God is saying, ‘here’s a little lesson I want you to take in right now!”

“Do you think he’s testing you, Willie?”

“Well, yes!  I mean,  I’m a human being, I can waver.  But through it all, I’ve been trained up since I was a little kid to know how not to just lean on my own understanding, but to always come right back home to Dad, so to speak!  I play music and stuff, religious music for my church, and I know my folks would be proud of me doing that.  But, to walk every day and to hear and see all that is out here in society, well, that’s like a wilderness sometimes.  And my disease, you know, that’s my biggest test.”

Davis was thinking, “Maybe…the Gospel talks about being tested…but in some of those parables, Jesus heals and then says ‘go away, and sin no more!’  He always reminds them, their sins are forgiven.  It’s like something happens through the adversity.”

“I’ve been on dialysis ten years now.” explained Willie, “But the people, places and things that I’ve been running in to from the beginning, it’s been an extraordinary walk!  Now, I’ve come into the veil of service…that’s been the last thing that I believe the Lord has been emphasizing on me through the Holy Spirit.  I put all these things down here, in my journal.  So, it ends up that when I’m there, I end up talking to God through my journals, through pouring out my heart and my thoughts.  I feel God near me when I do that.  Plus, I sometimes feel prompted to play the piano at church but to say something before.  Last time, it was a verse…Galatians 6:10…that spoke to me about service, “be generous and do good.”  Even the kids…at church, it just made me cry because these young kids had a chance to serve others and they did it with such joy!  There is always a way to serve and I felt like I wanted to stand up and let them know, to read what I’d been writing in my journal!  I didn’t, but sometimes when I feel like my faith is low and I’m one of those wayward sheep, that’s always when something I’ve written or someone I encounter comes back to me, and works through me, and reminds me ‘you been wandering out there…come on back to the fold!”

Davis was moved.  ‘I definitely get the feeling, talking here with you, that God is here with us, allowing us and opening us up to talk about things. You have a faith that goes way, way back.  I can feel that!”

Willie was thoughtful: ‘Well, right now, I’m trying to get a clearer idea, a better idea of just what it is that I am supposed to be doing. When I go to Church, I sometimes think I hear, keep doing what you’re doing.  But, the temptation starts when that service ends. We get ready to walk out and we realize we’re on our own.  That’s when it gets tough, or it could if we were tempted to go it alone. But, the Holy Spirit has gotten me really wrapped around this idea of service, service to God and service to others.  When I see people serve, it just….

Willie’s tears began to flow.

“You feel that Spirit, even now” reassured Davis.

Willie said, “Yes!  You know I sometimes feel it, or I see it…like with those children who were learning to help serve others…and I think ‘yes, that is right!  That is where God is! Recently, you know, there was this other guy, another patient at dialysis.  You know, I’m not a racial person and I’ve gotten to be friends with this guy, he’s like from the back woods of America.  And there we are at dialysis and I’m probably the least like him of anyone there and yet, here we are and we’ve become friends.  That isn’t because of me, it’s because of God.  I keep thinking of that hymn, that song “The Ties that Bind Us” and I start to know that even there in dialysis, God is moving.”

“Very moving” said Davis, ” Your story is very moving.”

Willie continued, “I see what is happening, what God is doing.  He’s allowing me to see just a little bit about people, seeing that we are not that different from one another.  Once we started talking, we found out about birthdays we had in common and everything since then, it’s gotten easier.  We could have not trusted each other, but we hit it right off.  I met his Mom, too, and we found out we all have May birthdays.  It stopped feeling like strangers and started feeling like family.”

“Me, too!” said Davis, “Another May birthday to add to the family!”  

They both laughed with joy.

Willie paused and thought about the lesson in the story, “Instead of it being silent and distant, we realized we have to help each other.  Instead of just reading it or thinking about it, it’s just time to do what it says in the Good Book, to see Christ in each other!  I know that he has it even harder than I do.  I can do some things that he isn’t able to do.  So, I try to help when I can.”

Davis was grateful for this new friend in Christ, “You have a good heart, Willie”

Willie said, “We should all be in good pursuit of God.  The closer we come to God, the closer God comes to us.  I think that is what this desert is all about.”

Davis added, “Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days must have felt alone as it was, but maybe it was about being closer to God, too?”

“Yes!  that’s it” said Willie.  “I think Jesus knew who his Father was, but it is still about having the presence of mind to communicate with him.”

Davis was thinking about the deserts in our own lives, “I think adversity draws us closer to God.  Like in your story, this illness and adversity might have made you and your friend more receptive to the Spirit.  You could write about that.”

Willie held up his well-used notebook. “You know, this notebook has gotten full!  It’s one that I have used so much, through all those treatments.  Sometimes I can’t find space to write, so I just read it and learn from what I have written, to see where God has spoken to me. I love that silence.”

Davis wondered, “Maybe in that wilderness…in that silence…you’re feeling God’s presence?”

“Yes!  I do think that’s the case.” said Willie. “I can think.  I can be still.”

Davis was hearing a clear lesson from the week’s Gospel: “Maybe God is closer in those moments when we are quiet and still.”

Willie held up his notebook again, “Yes!  I wrote that very thing several times in my notebook, here, that I felt God near me in the silence, in the quiet, when I opened myself up to listening.”

Davis, his heart full, suggested that they close their time together with a prayer of gratitude and thanksgiving. “Honestly, Willie, I feel God talking through you to me right now.  I will leave this day feeling closer to God in my spirit, just through you.”

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