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.

Joy to the World!

A special edition Faith from the Margins to the Web for Christmas Day

Contributors: Mary and Mary Ann

Collect for Christmas, read by Mary and Mary Ann:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Wrapped up in joy and love, the familiar words of the Christmas story are woven together with a few of the beautiful reflections shared by Mary and MaryAnn in their Christmas Day bible study together:

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“No home does not mean no heart” said Mary.  She recalled a story that had been on the local news: “there was a man who was homeless, and he had only three dollars.  But this woman ran out of gas and was asking for help.  Other people wouldn’t give her anything but he gave her that three dollars…everything he had.  It turns out, she tracked him down and helped him get an apartment and a job.  Sometimes blessings come from unexpected places.”

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

“The part that stands out to me,” said Mary Ann, “is where it says the angels say ‘don’t be afraid.’  Sometimes Christmas can be a scary and sad time for people; it’s good to remember the angels saying not to be afraid.  That isn’t just a message to the shepherds; it is a message to us, too.”

Mary agreed, “We all have a guardian angel; even better, we have God with us!”

They both agreed: “That’s really the story of Christmas, right there: to realize that we have God with us.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  

“One of the other things I realized when we were reading this together is that I experience God through music, too” said Mary Ann.  “We always think about the angels singing, and it made me think about how music is one of the ways that I have learned to not feel afraid.  Music helps us know that God is with us, just as here, the angels made it known that Jesus was born.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

“What stands out to me” said Mary “is that part that says, ‘Let’s now go to Bethlehem and see the things that are taking place.’  Those shepherds, they took a step to go and to find the baby Jesus.  They could have stayed in the fields, stuck to their work.  But instead, they decided to go.  They had to take that step, just like we have to take steps and seek out God in our own lives.”

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Mary said, “God comes in all kinds of forms; I want to do a better job, and reach out this year to the people who are here in my life.  I think that is one of the ways that we can make God known.”

Mary Ann added, “I think part of what I need to do more of is what Mary does…to ponder things in my heart.  Sometimes whatever I’m thinking, I say out loud.  So I think that maybe this Gospel is saying to me, ‘ponder it in your heart, think it through.’

“I like the way you put that…it’s true for me too!” said Mary.

To Mary and Mary Ann, the great gift of this Christmas lesson was ringing loud and clear:  “What everyone really needs to hear, again and again, is ‘Don’t be afraid!’  God has us.  God is with us. Don’t be afraid!”

Joy to the world, indeed!

Merry Christmas to everyone, from Faith from the Margins to the Web!

The Big Unknown

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said,
“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

The Big Unknown

A Gospel Reflection for Advent 1, Year B
Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors:  Steven and Davis

“This says a lot to me,”  began Steven after reading through the Gospel lesson,  “there’s a lot in here especially about God’s grace and being aware that he is coming back to earth. And, that he will be with those who are suffering. And, that we should be aware of this coming because a lot of people don’t believe that God is coming back to this earth but he is coming back, by this reading from Mark. I know it speaks a lot in here about grace. And, I don’t think a lot of people know the true meaning of what grace really means.”

Davis was intrigued, “What does it mean to you? What does grace mean to you?”

Steven responded thoughtfully: “God’s unforgiving love for the faults and things we have done in our life that is not right.  He grants us this grace, His grace.”

Davis pushed these thoughts a little further, “It’s interesting you use the word grants.”

“Well,” said Steven, “I shouldn’t say grant…we don’t earn it. We’re really not worthy of God’s grace, not ourselves. But God, you know, willingly gives it to us because of His love for us. It also speaks about humility.”

Davis was being drawn in by these words flowing from his bible study companion.  Steven, a very humble and quiet man, finds shelter and community at church-sponsored lunches where he sits with a quiet smile for all who pass by, knitting sweaters and scarves from the big bag of yarn he carries wherever he goes.  Davis asked, “What is humility? How does that speak to you?”

Steven answered, “It’s showing love and kindness for those who are around you and those that are suffering, and giving a helping hand to those when you see they are in need.”

Davis echoed this, “Yes, that’s a good way to put it. And then, there’s that strong message about being alert, you never know when the father is coming. Keep alert, do not know the name or the time. Is that frightening, that we don’t know?”

Steven nodded vigorously, “To me, it’s very frightening that we don’t know the day or the hour that he is coming back. That’s something that tells me we should stay firm in faith and pray every day. You know so, that we will be prepared when he comes back, our souls will be right.”

Davis agreed, “If you know something, you can kind of prepare. If you don’t know it, like this, then you have to be prepared all the time.”

Steven noticed, “It says here, neither the angels in heaven or the Son will know. That’s something because the angels are in Heaven with God.”  Davis jumped on that, “…and even they don’t know!”

Steven continued, “Yeah, they’re up there with the Lord and they don’t even know…it’s the big unknown.  And then it says the generation will not pass away until these things take place. So, that’s talking about us.   It says heaven and earth will pass away but his word will not pass away. But, I’m a little confused because why would heaven pass away?

Davis was equally puzzled, wrestling with this, “I know, I know.”

Steven continued to dig deeper and wrestle with the lesson, “I could see earth…earth could pass away…but, it says heaven and earth.”

Davis stepped deeper into this wrestling, too, “Maybe…I don’t know, I’m just thinking Steven…but maybe it means that this earth as we know it will be different in some way. Maybe it will be something different. Maybe it will be something new. To me, God’s grace is infinite and what he has created seems to me will somehow continue on at some point.”

Davis continued to ponder this, “I guess I have to believe is that our souls, our lives go on in some form…in some way, that maybe we can’t understand.”

Steven responded, “In some form, maybe a heavenly form.”

Davis kept reading and paraphrasing the lesson, “If we pass this earth, which we will, we go to some other place which we don’t know. Heaven and earth will pass away…but my words will not pass away.”

Steven found the emphasis for him: “Will not pass away.  His Word will not pass away.  To me, it’s spiritual and enlightening because it’s telling me, you know, all this is coming so you need to pray every day, and just be aware of what’s going on in the world. Trying to read the newspaper, your bible, and being aware of what’s going on in the world.  The Word of God will not pass away.”

“Do you pray regularly?” asked Davis.

Steven replied, “Yeah, every morning.  I read the bible also but I usually pray every morning when I get up. Sometimes, even before I go to sleep at night.  I think this whole verse means that we should pray. We should watch as well as pray. I think that’s what it means. That we should watch as well as pray. And stay spiritually within his Word and his teachings.”

Davis paused, pondering another question he wanted to ask: “Earlier, Steven, you used the word humility. You used it as looking out for others. I thought that was interesting that you used the word humility. To show humility and look out for others. It seems like it gives our life direction, an action…looking out for others, showing humility, showing concerns for others.”

Steven nodded, “I think a lot of that humility is when you pray, you see there is a need and you know you can help.”

“Right” said Davis, clearly turning this over in his mind. “It’s interesting when you see it that way…seeing that there is a need is another way of being alert, and that is what we’ve been reading. Looking out, being alert, being aware, keeping watch. Keeping watch seems like it allows you to see things. Needs, opportunities…God works through us in these things, when we keep awake.”

Steven echoed that, “I hear people use the expression all the time, that God works in mysterious ways.  And even if we don’t understand it all, God can keep working through us.”

Davis smiled, “Yeah, even in ways that we don’t understand often.  Thank you for this conversation, Steven.”

Steven echoed this: “I’ve enjoyed this, it’s been wonderful today.”

As Stephen and Davis prayed with each other again to close their time together, the mystery of Advent seemed to enfold them.  Being awake, living in humility, opening our hearts through prayer are ways in which we move from this temporal and finite world toward the infinite, immortal, unknowable coming of the Word made flesh. At moments such as this, we catch a glimpse of the Big Unknown into which we are invited to participate.

For All the Saints…

 

A Faith from the Margins to the Web Special Edition, in honor of All Saints Day (November 1)

O Almighty God, who have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those indescribable joys which you have prepared for those who truly love you: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This time of year, our faith communities often pause to reflect on those whose lives have gone before us: the souls that are the stories of legend with their kind deeds, compassionate hearts and selfless giving nature, grounded in a love for God and humanity.  It can be daunting to compare ourselves with saints who seem super-human in our imagination.

If that is our only understanding of “saint” we’ve significantly limited our vision.  Jesus, in fact, begins his Sermon on the Mount by pronouncing blessing on the least likely, the most often overlooked.  Jesus speaks to our human hearts across all the boundaries of life which we have allowed to divide us.

Last week, I had the opportunity to be present with some of the saints walking this world, as we remembered those whose lives had touched our own.  We gathered before Red Door lunch on Friday for a Service of Remembrance, Hope and Healing in honor of the feast of All Saints and All Souls.  We prayed together, lit candles, and shared tears as well as memories of those whose lives have touched our own.

I have held these remembrances in my hand and in my heart, lighting candles that wafted memories, hopes, and inspirations into eternity:

–the martyr of those living unhoused, whose protest outside the emergency cold weather shelter for dignified and improved conditions led to his death from exposure.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

–the saint of our Red Door ministry who gave us his service, his heart, and his knowledge of life on the streets so that we could respond in ways that kept dignity and love in the center.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

–the cherished daughter, gone too soon but leaving a legacy of caring for those whose lives she noticed as she walked through the streets of campus, leaving items and notes of caring.  This saint inspired her mother to begin a non-profit to do the same.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

–the mother, who taught her son to pray.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

–the child he never was able to know, but mourns every day.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

–the friend no longer on this earth that turned an empty tent camp into a community of caring.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Sometimes, I had to hold shaky hands to light the candles.  Sometimes, my eyes were filled with tears.  Sometimes, we just paused to cry or to feel God moving in our midst.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

We’re just a few weeks away from the turning of the liturgical calendar which will inaugurate this Faith from the Margins to the Web project on a weekly basis.  This week, those of us coming together to be a part of this project will celebrate All Saints Day by gathering to begin the bible studies that will give life to these Gospel lessons and bring us into relationship with each other, through Christ who is always in our midst.  So, as you are celebrating the saints, remember us in your prayers.  Remember the saints who have gone before, those who are here now, those who will walk this earth when we no longer can.  We are one community, surrounded by this Great Cloud of Witnesses.

Who are the saints in your life?  Spread the good news, and share your own story of the saints in your life in the comments below:

RedDoorRemembrance2

 

 

The Word became flesh and lived among us…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

Sarah