Blessed Assurance

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

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

 

Mark 9:30-37

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie continued on, “You know, it’s like we were talking about earlier.  There really isn’t a wrong answer to interpreting the bible. It speaks to us in different ways.  You know, I wouldn’t have thought of it the way that you did but I got so much out of that. It’s what you see every day and it made that stand out to me.  That’s the thing about it, the Word always finds its way to speak.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25229814747_59e1127f55_z

Stories we must share

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year B)

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Mark 7:24-37

 

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

 

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: Davis and Harry

Let me be perfectly honest: sometimes I do a lot of behind-the-scenes organizing to prepare for these Faith from the Margins to the Web interviews and sometimes the best I can do is just show up. On the day of this particular interview, Davis was going to meet me at a noontime lunch program where he volunteers, and where I know many people who regularly attend. “Surely,” I thought, “someone I know will be there and want to participate!” But, when I arrived a half hour early there was no one in sight that I had met before. I walked around the building several times, where groups of people lingered in patches of shade in the hot August summertime. Several times, I walked by a bench where an older gentleman was deeply engaged in reading a book. I felt the urge to talk with him, but also hated to disturb him. Finally, I asked if I could sit down beside him and he agreed, moving aside his belongings and introducing himself as Harry. He and I conversed for a few minutes about the weather, our connections with the church we were seated near, and I decided to bring up Faith from the Margins to the Web and see if he was interested. Harry smiled and said, “Well, I love the Bible but honestly you had me when you said we could go in the air conditioning!” We both laughed as we walked inside, where I introduced David and Harry to each other in the coolness of the parish hall library. When they emerged from their conversation nearly an hour later, they were like dear friends who had shared a lifetime of experience.

Like Harry, I became aware that this day was not an aimless moment in time, but the working of the Holy Spirit who intervenes in our lives with sighs too deep for words.

This is a longer-than-usual interview, but worth the read.    –Sarah

Harry and Davis took turns reading the Gospel lesson.

“The part that stands out to me,” said Harry, “is that Jesus wanted to come and enter the house but he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. Now, I’m sure there was a reason for that. I mean, maybe he didn’t want a whole, big crowd of people coming and everyone would want to, you know, have him lay hands on them and heal them. You know, maybe he wanted a little privacy!”

Davis chuckled. “Then and now, word gets around!” added Harry.

“Sometimes things take a while to sink in, too” said Harry. “I was baptized in 1960 when my Momma decided that I needed to go to revival. And I remember pastor P.H. West: Patrick Henry West, you know, he asked me if I believed in Jesus Christ and was willing to go the way of the Lord. Here I was 10 years old, and I saw my Momma looking at me and pastor looking at me so I opened my mouth and said, “Yes, Sir!” And there I was, claimed by God, and baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. I didn’t really know what I was doing, though. But God did.”

Davis asked, “I can imagine you were sincere at least in your wanting to do right by them, but was there also a time when that baptism started to feel real to you?”

Harry said, “You know what, there is a story there. I worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 21 years. I remember this day, when we were all just working and I was standing at this computer, keying in the zip codes on the line. And I felt something. I felt it. And this woman, my co-worker, she looked at me and said, “Harry! You’re crying!” And sure enough, tears were just coming down my face. And she said, “What happened, Harry? Did someone say something bad, did someone hurt you?” And I said, “No, oh no, Barbara…something is happening, something is going through me. I feel like the Holy Spirit is upon me.” And she looked at me and I thought she must think I was crazy but she could tell I was so sincere. It was like: the Holy Spirit is here. I knew it, and she knew it. I mean, they talk about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and I just knew: the Holy Spirit was in me. I experienced so many things that I knew I didn’t know how to do on my own.”

“Let me tell you some more of what happened that day. I mean there I was, sorting mail. And our family’s physician…he was actually German…and now, I didn’t speak any such thing as German…but I saw this post card come through for him and it was from his niece. And I could read every word on that card, even though it was in German. She was letting him know when she was visiting and I could read that. I felt like I was floating. People would look at me, and they would know something was different, and I would let them know it’s the Holy Spirit.”

“Read that second paragraph again” said Davis, “I keep thinking about your story and thinking about how maybe God had put something over your ears to open them, and then you could really hear or over your eyes so you could really see.”

“Yes, right!” said Harry, “At 10, I went through the motions but that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were with me, and stayed with me until I was ready to feel their presence in my life.  Then my eyes and my ears and my heart were opened.”

“Let me share with you a situation that happened to me after that. I was visiting my sister, who lived in the housing projects. I smoked then, and I had run out. It was like, 2:00 in the morning and we were up talking. I wanted to go out to the corner store for cigarettes, and she said, “no Harry, wait…you can’t just walk out there. Once I get in here, I just stay locked in my apartment and don’t go out until it’s time for work.” So, anyhow, this is a long story but I decided that I needed to go to the store. When I got there, there were these two guys there who were younger. I asked them if they would walk back toward my sister’s street with me. When we turned down the street, I heard this car, creeping up. I tried to ignore it. I started to pray, and I felt God had my back. The car slowed down, the window went down. The guy had an automatic rifle, and he just laid in. I felt the first bullet in my back and I turned and pulled down that young boy. That bullet scraped his face but didn’t go through his head. We were both in the hospital, but neither of us died. This was a gang-related, drive-by shooting and the guy who did it, he had us confused with someone else. When I was lying on the ground, I was praying, “please don’t let me die like this” and I prayed for those young boys walking with me, too. But, I always felt God with me. Now, those bullets did damage us. But we didn’t die.”

“In these two stories” asked Davis, “Is there something from these events in your own life that connects that helps other people understand and know more about these lessons we read?”

“Well, it’s what’s happened since then. I’ve talked for a few different churches” said Harry. “I tell them that I have a story to share, and that is the story that I tell. It has become a way that Jesus becomes known, because I have to tell my story. Until that time in my life, I was just that guy, going through the motions of life. But the Holy Spirit began to work on me, to let me know that there was something I needed to do. I had that faith to hold onto even at the darkest times. Jesus said “tell no one” in that lesson but people did anyhow, and I think he knew they would. I have something to tell people through my story. It has helped people change. See, for one thing, that young boy who shot me: he was only 14 years old. Fourteen. And so, it has become my goal to reach out to these kids, to have them see a person who was at the end of that shooting, to work for better laws and to help them know there is another way. But I also tell them my truth: God never left me. And God gives me strength. And God is there for them, too.”

In closing their interview, Harry and Davis prayed together from their hearts:

Harry began: “Thank you for this day. Thank you for waking me up. You woke me up in your strength, with my health and in my mind. That is all that I can ask of you. I want you to touch these young people, and make them understand that you are real. A lot of them aren’t going to church, they don’t hear about you, they think that you aren’t real. But you have all the power, all the love to touch these kids and let them know your presence. Help them to stop shooting, to stop fighting. Help them know that they are the future. You can touch them just as you touch me and make me know that you are God. It’s not for me, it’s for the children of the world. I give my prayers to you, and put them in your hands.”

Davis continued. “Father, I can add no more. Hear his words and continue to walk with him. We ask this in Christ’s name.”

Amen.

Choosing Community

14th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year B)

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 6:56-69

 

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

 

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

 

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web contributors: Christine, John, Mary Ann, Jamillah and Ty

As interest in Faith from the Margins to the Web has grown, we take the opportunity to do an occasional group study so that all who want to participate are able to do so.  This week’s group gathered on a Friday afternoon not only to enjoy each other’s company but to welcome Christine and John’s newborn daughter.  There was great rejoicing before we even started the bible study, and that joy could not help but permeate the room and make God’s presence know.

The group took turns reading the Gospel lesson together and began to talk about what stood out for them:

“That first line from the disciples” said John, “I can give testimony about that!  What we’ve been through in the past few years…2016, 2017, and right up until now it has been hard. Really hard.  I mean bad. Like, toxic charity bad. But we have learned so much about trust, and so much about God. So, when they say, ‘this teaching is hard’, I can relate! Everything started falling apart for me when I stopped going to meetings, and then it would just spiral from there.  I wasn’t thinking about taking care of myself, I was just trying to do it all on my own.  But God was showing me that I had to take care of myself to take care of them.”  He paused to look at his family.  “I know now I have to take care of myself, and to put my trust in God.”

“The prayer we prayed seems perfect” said MaryAnn.  “The spirit gives us life. Looking at that little baby there: I can just see how the spirit gives her life!”

Jamillah brought her own perspective to the table, thinking about the ways that the disciples began to talk among themselves, how there was a tension between the faith of the spirit and the way the body can be useless.  “Sometimes we lose sight of the spirit because we’re too focused on the body.”

“But then it says, the one who eats of this bread will live forever” said Christine. “And it drives me crazy because you always see these commercials for younger this, younger that. Everyone is trying to live forever and do this and do that to make it happen, but we have a deeper truth we have to remember, of living forever in Christ.”

It was all the explanations that Jesus offered that stood out to Ty: “Jesus didn’t say you HAD to believe anything. He didn’t demand it of the disciples.  It was presented calmly, explained fully, and Jesus gives them a choice. It isn’t about what you HAVE to do, it’s what you CAN do.”

“Yes, he invites them to follow or not to” said MaryAnn. “That is such a gift, to hear that.”

John recounted the ways that he sees God in motion in his own life, like an explanation of what he needed to do. “Sometimes God is patting my hand…or maybe kicking my caboose…but always it’s my choice. That freedom is a gift.  It’s like they said: where else would I go?”

In beautiful ways, the group began to share how they were seeing God in each other right in that space, in that moment, in each other’s stories. The explanations of how God is revealed ranged from the emotional release of therapy and counseling, to the calmness offered through medications, to the skilled hands of surgeons, to the beauty of seeing the curiosity and wonder of small children who shared their lives. In just a few minutes, the gift of God’s presence was revealed in those around the table and it was evident that they were choosing community, and in community God was being revealed.

“There are so many ways that we’re told the world will test us, but there are also gifts that God gives us. The spirit of God that is in us is working for us, right here and right now.” said Jamillah.

“There are always so many things we could worry about if we let ourselves” said Christine. “Will we have enough diapers, will there be enough food, will all the bills gets paid. But when I stop worrying and start paying attention to where God is now, we always end up with enough. Even today: I work up this morning and started to worry. But instead, I prayed and lived into today. Now, we have enough: enough food, enough diapers and even enough work and money that we didn’t know would come through.”

“Right” said John, “It’s like the Red Sea…God parts it, but we walk it. I stay constantly try to be sure that things are lined up but I also have trust.”

“Most of us, being human, look at the coin from both sides” said John. “But, a coin actually has three sides: it also has the edge, and that edge is spirituality. It’s what keeps the heads and tails together, keeps it rolling. Someone told me that once, and I think about it all the time. We need our spirituality; there is no this side or that…we need the spirit to hold it all together.”

“I think this Gospel is telling us how important it is to keep the faith” said Jamillah. “It’s up to you to want to listen to the word, to take those steps forward. But we live because we see the life of Christ.”

“It’s why communion is so important to me” said MaryAnn, “It brings us closer to God by experiencing Christ in each other.”

“The church isn’t the building” said Ty, “but the fact that we see Jesus here…that we have fellowship, that we have communion…that is what makes this a holy place.”

In this holy place that emerged among them, the group read the Collect for the Day again together, bringing them into community and sharing with us the gift that is unity across boundaries of this world through Christ who is with us in all things.

38029888444_3c8a1c012a_z

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!

Holy Waiting

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study for Advent 3:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:6-8,19-28

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.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Authors: Willie and Sarah

In full disclosure, this isn’t an interview between two strangers.  This week, Faith from the Margins to the Web features Willie, who is an inspiration on my journey.  Willie is a regular at the Friday Red Door Healing Service at the parish I serve, and has been part of the circle of people who have been formative for me as a seminarian.  He listens intently to the way the Gospel lesson breaks open for me when I preach and teach; he gives me regular feedback about my sermons; he asks me questions about holy scripture as astute as any seminary professor; he writes his questions down during the service and studies them at the public library.  Last year, Willie was homeless and squatting in a garage.  He finally was able to find housing and attend to his health which had been deteriorating.  Now he spends hours each week, sitting in dialysis, reflecting, writing and inwardly digesting those scriptures while praying for the dialysis staff, his family, his friends, this world in which we live.  Willie redefines for me what it means to live into holy waiting.

This week, I sought out Willie’s expertise so we could examine the Gospel for Advent 3 together.  In our bible study, this wise and learned man of city streets and dialysis clinics shared his Advent wisdom of holy waiting with me, and we likewise share it with you.

Willie reads the Gospel Lesson: John 1:6-8,19-28

“You know, Sarah, basically, when it comes down to it this is a Gospel that tells us that the Lord Jesus is there waiting for us. And that’s it. He is always really going to be there for you and that’s a comfort right there. But, in this Gospel, he’s getting ready to make his first appearance to these people and I can’t help but think…they have no idea what they are going to be in for!  I don’t even know how I would behave if I was there.  Imagine it…with my little sandals, garb, and everything, hearing about a messiah and getting ready to see Jesus for the first time, seeing him do the things that he’s going to do.  I would have no idea what we were in for!”

As always, Willie found a doorway right into the scripture.  I responded: “I love that, and I think that’s so true for us now too. Maybe when we study this scripture, we look for predictability or familiarity, because we think we already know the story about to unfold. But then, the reality hits you just like that.  We never know the story before hand!  When you follow Jesus, you have no idea what you’re in for. But when you follow, you can be assured that it’s going to be an adventure.”

Willie was nodding, “That’s right! When I read in the bible how people saw what he did, they were hooked. They followed him everywhere. And I think that alone caused these people to be like, “what is going on here? Who is this guy?”

“Yeah, I like that.” I said. “That’s really a good model for us to think about. What I was also thinking was that this gospel gives us a description of John’s identity and identity is an interesting thing, because we have the “us” we know and then the “us” that we show the world.  I think we get to see a bit of both in what John says and does!  So, I have a question for you…how would people, who know you, describe your identity? Like John, what ways do you try to live into your identity or your sense of what you’re called to do?

“Oh, this is getting deep here now!” Willie chuckled. “I think that for me…well, I just came back from dialysis…and I think most of the time, people look at me like ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he so quiet? He doesn’t talk to people much.’  But, here I am, talking my tail off here with you!  But, the thing is that I know something they don’t, and that is that I know what’s making me quiet.  I never forget this…I’ve read it in scriptures, and in religious books. They talk about the stillness and that when we are still, that’s when God can talk to us. And if we are quiet, people notice…in that that kind of scenario like the clinic…a lot of people just talk and talk but aren’t really saying anything. When they see someone like me that’s not you know, falling into that same pattern…well, that quickly in itself draws them to say ‘what is he doing? Why is he so quiet? He hasn’t said a thing.’ But see, I’m listening. More importantly, I am trying to really get into the Word. So, when everyone is finally quiet, it’s like…yeah, that’s what I want.”

I breathed deeply and held that holy silence with him for a minute.  Then, I breathed the words: “Be still and know that I am God.”

“You know, Willie, sometimes, I think…well, I don’t really believe God gets bored with our prayers but sometimes I realize how I can rant on to God with like 10,000 things I’m praying about. But I think what I am really craving and what God craves of us is to just be present and to be still. Sometimes, that knowledge transcends words or transcends all those requests.  Stillness is very powerful.”

“Yes, that’s true!” agreed Willie. “I believe there is a blessing just for doing that. I think that in the bible there are probably other prophets that found that out, too. They just were quiet and things would be revealed to them from God.”

I decided to share a little of my own inner life, too. “That question about how people may describe my identity is interesting to me. I think people know me in a lot of different, specific ways. But, when it comes right down to it, I’m really still myself in all these different ways. You know, when I’m Sarah the professor or when I’m Sarah the preacher/pastor or Sarah the friend.  I show different parts of myself at different times, to different people, but there is a core of who I am that belongs to God and that always finds a way to come through. People tend to describe me as cheerful; they seem to notice a smiling or lightness about me. It’s interesting because, to be honest, sometimes I’m not feeling that at all.  I’m prone to feeling stressed or anxious, actually. But I try to start my day and pray to be present for whatever emerges. You never know who you are going to encounter or what’s going to come your way. So, I think being present lets God work through us. In other words, I hope that what people are seeing is that I’m not just some nice, smiley person; I hope that what people see is an identity that is reflecting the presence of Christ. That’s what I strive to be, sometimes by getting out of my own way. Not letting a bad day or a bad attitude get in the way of letting God shine through.”

Willie smiled, “Well, I figured I’ve come back to you many times. The way how you deliver the sermon and stuff on Fridays is with self-control and everything. I don’t sense any nervousness or anything. Even just reading out the program, you have a tendency to keep us all calm….if we are in a rush, just listening to your voice helps us slow down.”

It made me happy to hear that. “I have to say Red Door is probably my favorite half-hour of my week. Not that I don’t have other times that are important, of course, but it is very…well, it feeds me spiritually.  Sometimes, I get really busy when I’m preaching or leading or listening, but that time and space always feeds me. That’s one of those times when I hear, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Willie continued, “I think that’s like what I was saying. That little dialysis area, where I am at to do what I need to do…because I’m in the Word when I’m there, I hear different things. Also, you’re aware of how people may be mocking you or saying foul things and all you’re doing is focusing on the Word. But you’re hearing all these other things with your ears and I’m saying: ‘Go on Willie, go on, don’t let this effect you. Have the self-control to get something out of this. You opened up the book, continue reading it.’ And there’s a little battle going on right there. Because when people can’t help it anymore, some of them come up right up to me there and say ‘What is that you are reading? What are you doing?’ Because your behavior has been so quiet and somewhat withdrawn. That alone is causing them to peer in and figure out ‘What is he doing?’ And sometimes, I’ll just stop, smile, and know, to some extent, it may be driving them crazy for a good reason. All of this I’m doing just to read the Word. And, don’t let me get started about writing. Because sometimes when I do that, I’m now going to take it a step further and actually communicate with God right there on the paper.”

I could imagine this scene playing out, just like Willie could picture John the Baptist. “I  think of you in that space, making something that could be an arduous, awful health task, something that no one looks forward to, and making it into a holy space. How has the dialysis bed become a holy space? It’s because you invite God to come in.”

“That’s right” said Willie.  “By the time I get ready to finish treatment, whatever people are thinking, that’s when I fool them all because now I’ll probably show some of God’s love right then and there as I get ready to leave or find some way to be a service to them. You know, just do little things and not be in a hurry to just run off. But, to be a service in any way I could. And, say a little something as I get ready to go. You see, I believe that is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, I feel cornered or anxious or inside I’m saying ‘let me just get out of here.’  But, I think that’s when He just says ‘no, no there’s some other people you can help out and say a kind word to before you go.’ Because everyone usually has some degree of excitement when they are free from the machine. No more needles or needles coming out. You’re free to do whatever you want.”

I realized when Willie said that just how much we take that freedom for granted, “And you’re experiencing that freedom. We don’t realize the feeling of freedom or appreciate it until we lose that.”

Willie responded very affirmatively, “Yes! And sometimes I actually come out and say that to whoever is listening to me. “It feels so good to be free now.” They have been telling you for hours, don’t move your hand, stay still, and sometimes I have gotten a little upset. When I see myself going there, I look for the book. It’s stuff that I have written down that comes from the Lord that I feel is important to me to write down in there. It can be a comfort, a rescue, for me to just open it up and that’s the right place for me to do it. I hope and pray that it is making God’s day because I’m taking the time to read His word and understand it. Just like he said, at least try.  It’s what we can do.”

Advent is a season of holy waiting; for the Messiah to appear, for the Word to be made Flesh and dwell with us.  Whether our daily routine is an office, a street corner or a dialysis clinic we are easily caught up in the chatter that can distract us from our true identity in God.  Willie’s wisdom is revealed in the simple power of holy waiting, of focusing on the Word with us, residing in our lives, and opening us to God who meets us in stillness with the words, wisdom and knowledge we need to live into our true identity in Christ.  Wherever you are, whoever you are: may stillness find you during this season of holy waiting.

Camel Haired Messengers of God

A Bible Study Reflection for Advent 2, Year B

Authors: Tom and LT

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

Tom had just finished reading the Gospel lesson when he jumped right in:  “This is one of my favorites…have you ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar, or Godspell?”

LT hadn’t.  He was quick to apologize, “No, I have not.  Honestly I did not grow up reading scripture so this is all very new to me.”

Tom continued, gently explaining to this younger college student some less than familiar detail about the story of John the Baptist.  Most people know Tom as a quiet, hard-working man of the street who works manual labor jobs whenever he can.  They are unlikely to realize his profound knowledge of scripture, although his quiet devotion to weekly church services and his interior calmness clearly source from somewhere.  As he confessed to LT, “I even spent a couple years considering the Catholic priesthood.”  It had been a while since his seminary classes, but he was happy to share more about some of his favorite details from the story of John the Baptist:

“The part I always liked about John the Baptist was, well, ‘living on locust and wild honey.’ It’s just one of those things you can’t ignore. Wild honey is easy enough to do, but I don’t know – I’m not supposing that they were chocolate-covered locust. No, believe me, those things are like really really ugly…they multiply like flies, and they eat everything. So him eating locust when usually what they’ll do is eat all the food in a particular area and drive the area into famine because they’ll take food plants as tall as corn in a matter of minutes…it’s eaten down to the bare ground.”

“Being clothed in camel’s hair had to be pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes the medieval monks would deliberately wear a hair shirt; it’s incredibly itchy and it would help them to remember one of their vows is poverty, and at the time they had this whole thing about ignoring the body and moving towards the spiritual. So the hair shirt, which was very uncomfortable; it helped them mortify themselves; a denial of flesh kind of thing.”

“They were related, you know…John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus.  John was born first, but both Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth heard that they were expecting around the same time. And she…Elizabeth…was considered too old to be bearing children anymore. And Mary, obviously with a virgin birth, well that’s a real eye-opener, but in the same family one comes first and the second one follows – just to prepare the way. To get into people’s head that someone greater than John the Baptist is coming, ‘I’m just his messenger,’ but a messenger helping Judea and Jerusalem prepare for the coming of the rightful king. Which is pretty cool.”

“Unfortunately, though, John was beheaded…he became very politically unpopular. King Herod was quite corrupt, but he was excellent at getting along with the Romans, who allowed him to be the king of Judea. The last thing he wanted in the world was anybody talking about a new king coming; that a messiah was coming. Half the people thought he was going to be a political messiah…this savior to come save the people here and now. But all Jesus was focused on was being a spiritual messiah that would enable his people to deal with jerks like Herod and the Romans, who were conquerors and anybody that fought that would usually get crucified.  Well, we know that story.”

LT was listening intently; you could hear his building interest in this story winding piece-by-piece out of Tom, telling it as though narrating his own block-buster movie.  It was LT who posed the next question: “Where is God in this story, in your own life?”

Tom grew thoughtful.  “God in my own life is a quiet presence that’s kind of a background hum. Not all the time, because I get distracted like anybody else could. I get a little bit too concerned about things that I really shouldn’t worry about too much. You know, like am I going to have enough income? I’m approaching retirement, it’s like (jokingly) ‘oh can I retire in style?’ You know, that kind of thing. Well, the big answer for that one is ‘no’ for me, but I’m not going to be concerned about it, you know. But I always felt that God was a good, strong part of the background hum.  The bible is helpful to me because it helps me understand what exactly that hum means. If you’re standing near a raging river…well, the sound of water will always be a background hum in your life, but it has nothing to really tell you about how much just the raw power for change that river can contain in itself.”

This resonated with LT: “I definitely would agree, I feel the same way. Just from my own experiences, I feel like God wouldn’t constantly be there trying to control you. He’d kind of nudge you towards the right direction whenever you got too far off what you should be doing.”

Tom continued, “I always hear some people saying “if God cares so much about us, why does he allow people to die and little children starve to death and people getting murdered or overdosing or whatever.” Well it’s no question that God could do that, but then we’d never have free will if that were the case. We’d never be self-governing. We’d just be little wind up toys.”

LT agreed, “Free will, in my opinion, is what makes life worth living.”

“Sure,” said Tom, “risks and all. It’s funny because when my friend overdosed, I had warned him like five times “You don’t know what’s coming in from Mexico. You got fentanyl, ketamine, and heroin all mixed together and it’s going to kill you if you keep going with it.” And one day, he disappeared for a second…came back two minutes later he was carrying his stuff premixed. He went around the corner, it was at night, came back, and just fell out right in front of us. He had the antidote for opiates, naloxone, he even carried that with him. But it wouldn’t have done a thing about the ketamine. And the fentanyl was highly questionable if it was even strong enough to do anything like that. Oh, and he was drinking on top of it that night. It was just tragic how and why it ended. It’s an unreal number of people that die from overdoses. It’s been something like 36,000 deaths this year so far.”

This message felt very real to LT, too:  “Yea, it’s a real epidemic. I obviously can’t comment on why other people do it, but my friend did it because we both grew up in such a way that our parents were always busy. We were young, we were stupid. We didn’t have much else to do, and we figured that the best thing to help our families was to just try to make our own money. For a while we both got into dealing, but the difference was that he started using. For him, it was just an escape from life, and it didn’t end too pretty…ketamine, that’s something that seems to come up too much.”

Tom knew this, too: “Yea, really. And the opiate antidote is just totally ineffective on that.”

LT began to see the message, “I guess the best you can do is just learn from others and hope to carry on.”

Tom became nostalgic, “Yea, and try not to ever get into the same mindset that leads to that. Our friend had any number of issues going on, but there was no one of them that would lead to a deliberate suicide…but he was doing hardcore drugs since he was like 14 years old so he was already used to them. And the “not me” syndrome was really clear in his behavior, “oh it’ll never happen to me”, but, well it did.

LT could empathize.  “I am almost positive that is a magical side effect of doing drugs. Everybody has that “not me” syndrome.”

“Exactly,” Tom said, “it’s magical thinking.  I’m glad that I was able to avoid it, and still will. You know, I’ve had broken bones and I’ve had oxy and things like that. They alone are too good. As soon as I was feeling like I could deal with the pain, it’s like “no, I don’t want another prescription, no thank you.” But you hear about these kids whose moms and dads are on some hardcore high-strength oxys, and they leave it in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Kid hits eleven, twelve, thirteen…”Gee, well, mom and dad take these all the time and it seems to work for them.” You know, they’re in the adolescent struggle: “let me try a couple.” Which might be fine and dandy, but when that becomes ineffective, then they’re on the streets looking for the real hard stuff.”

The message was becoming clear to both of them at this point.

For LT, it all related back to the ice-breaker we had done earlier, naming the saints in our lives:

“In the ice-breaker, I mentioned my friend Brian. Brian was a close friend of mine who I grew up with and basically viewed as my brother. I consider him my angel because I accredit him with why my life has turned around. When we were in our early teens, we used to sell drugs as a means to cover our own expenses and wants without adding financial burden to our respective families who were already working very hard to make ends meet. Eventually, the financial burdens that our families bore became very prevalent which added onto other struggles that we were both going through related to school. Looking back now, it wasn’t anything unbearable, but in the moment as a teen, it feels like the world is falling apart. As a coping mechanism, Brian started getting into hard drugs. This went on for several years, and although I never joined him, I still held the same depressing mind set as him. This all changed when he overdosed. His death made me rethink my life and realize that everything I had been doing was wrong. I did everything in my power to turn my life around from that point on. I stopped selling drugs and distanced myself with what I viewed as the wrong kind of people, I started to talk and connect to my family more, I began to value school and the idea of aiming for a better future instead of feeling sorry for myself and giving up. As the years went by, everything seem to fall into place. I made new friends that were better influences on me, I became less bitter and violent, I finally had a good relationship with my family, and I went from someone who was constantly flunking tests and mouthing off to teachers to someone who excelled in school and was no longer seen as a troublemaker.”

Tom nodded, “Oh yea, I could see how it could be a life changer if you were paying attention. So it was the actual act that delivered the message to you?

LT continued, “Yea, before I didn’t really care about school, or anything. It was just a lot. Thinking back now, I was just being really unreasonable or just stupid. And now what, 3-4 years later, I’m the first in my family to graduate from high school and the first to go to college and hopefully graduate.”

Tom and LT, strangers before that day, continued to exchange stories with each other, delivering messages of hope and peace amid lives of complexity, loss, temptation, challenge, repentance, and reconciliation.  The sound track to their lives continues on, the continual hum of God’s presence making God known through messengers of all forms: the rough-haired wake up calls of addiction and death, the belovedness of friends and family, the support of people who once were strangers but who find common ground, as we all do, in the Good News.

God has a way of bringing us together on this journey, reminding us that even in the darkest chapters of our human lives, we are never alone. Pairing Tom and LT together for this bible study was, by all human accounts, purely random. But not so much with God, who knows our stories and knits us together through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Good News sometimes breaks through in those people and situations we least expect, even those whose camel-haired appearance and locust eating ways might otherwise cause us to turn away.  As Tom said, it’s all about paying attention.

Who or what are the camel-haired messengers in your own life?

 

The Least of These…

 

Beginning the first Sunday of Advent, Faith from the Margins to the Web reflections will be posted weekly on Tuesdays, in preparation for preaching, bible study and other reflection on the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Be sure to follow and share Faith from the Margins to the Web so you can receive a new reflection each week of the liturgical year.

This week, participants Lisa and Mary Ann met to reflect together on the Gospel lesson from Matthew for the Last Sunday of Pentecost, Christ the King.  As you will hear from their words and their lives, Christ sets our example for beloved and compassionate presence even with “the least of these…”

A Faith from the Margins to the Web Reflection
Last Sunday of Pentecost, Year A (Christ the King)

The Least of These

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors: Lisa Myers and Mary Ann Blankenship

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

As soon as Lisa finished reading the Gospel lesson, Mary Ann voiced an immediate and personal resonance: “For me this always makes me feel guilty; like I haven’t done more for other people.”

Lisa chimed in, feeling a similar response: “MmHmmm…yeah. I think that’s why I want to get into this new profession, so that I can give back. And I want to be able to do more volunteer work, to give back to the community where I have received since I have been down and have nothing. All these people out here who do what they do, all the churches and everybody, I just want to give back to that.”

“Right.,” responded Mary Ann,  “when I was working, I worked for the teacher’s union and I felt like in that work, I was helping other people, you know, helping teachers who have a hard time a lot of times and people don’t give them much respect. But, since I’ve been retired, this really gets to me because when you have a job that you feel like gives you a lot of meaning and you give back doing it, then when you retire, it’s hard. So, in retirement, I’ve been trying to find things in my life that I feel like I can still give back. I volunteer with CASA, which is a program that helps kids and families when they end up in the juvenile court system and then through the church, we’re also doing some things.”

Lisa nodded in agreement, and it pushed her own thinking forward, “You know, that’s another thing I want to get back into, is finding…like I told you earlier, I haven’t gotten much religion in my life…and I would love to get back into going to church and learning more and then being able to tell somebody else.  Like they say, spread the word and let people know how good God is, and then to share that with others. Like we were talking about earlier today at Red Door, I need to be a learner…I need to be the student and then I can learn how to help others.”

Mary Ann agreed, “it’s like that for me, too…I was talking about that when I mentioned my friend’s mother…really, God boils down to love and that’s what this scripture says to me.”

“Well, I see God right now as my Father, the one and only,” Lisa said.  “Yes, I know I have one here on earth and maybe he hasn’t done a lot for me here, but God has done more for me than anybody. So, like in this Gospel here, I feel like there is no one else that can do that for me. I mean, He is the only One.”

This brought something more to mind for Mary Ann: “Right now, I see God in two of my friends, one named Joy and the other Judy.  I see God through them because they do a lot in the world but they are also the kind of friends who are there for me and they always love me. It doesn’t matter how badly I screw up, they are still there for me.”

“Yes!” Lisa agreed, “that’s what I was talking about earlier, with my son. That boy has been through a lot with me, and he has never, ever shunned me. Even though he knows I’m out here homeless, he never stops coming to see me. He always helps me when he can. He has a busy life but he doesn’t forget about me.”

Mary Ann was encouraging, “You must have done a good job raising him.”

Lisa sounded thoughtful about that, “Well, I think I did. I know I had my issues, but I could always say I was there for both of my children. But I just didn’t do everything I could have for them as a parent.”

“But they knew you loved them.” Mary Ann added.

“Yes…right…you know I tried to do that.  I really do try.” said Lisa.

This seemed to strike a chord with Mary Ann’s own family memories: “My own mother…she was there for me…but I wasn’t always sure that she loved me. She was more the disciplinarian: you’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to do whatever. My father was the one who always loved me. My mother loved me, but she just didn’t show it. She wasn’t always expressive and there was that mother-daughter thing going on, too.”

Lisa responded with empathy to Mary Ann’s story, “It’s like they say, you are never alone. I sometimes say, ‘I don’t have anyone’ but it isn’t like that. I’ll be honest with you. I was incarcerated for a while but I had this lady who came in, twice a week. She came in and did a bible study for whoever wanted it. And she would say to me, when I said I was alone, “Lisa, you are never alone. God is always with you. In your heart.”  You know, I thought about that. I could talk to Him. I could say whatever I wanted and not hold anything back because, you know, he already KNOWS. So I had conversation, just Him and I, knowing that it was true, He was always there.”

Mary Ann’s voice brightened with the honesty of Lisa’s story, “that’s really remarkable, that even when you were incarcerated you could feel that, and know that. And good for her for telling you that! Because it’s true…I’ve felt the same thing. With everyone else in the world, I try to hide things or cover up things but with God it really doesn’t matter because He already knows, so why put any of that other stuff on??”

At this point, both women were laughing at the sheer absurdity and brilliance of being able to be oneself wholly, with a God who wholly loves us for who we are.  The shared feeling of being known and loved no matter what was palpable in their conversation.

Lisa summed it up, “At least I can talk with someone, and be completely open and honest. And, I don’t have to worry about hiding,”

Mary Ann began to talk about how this Gospel speaks to what other people need to hear: “What it says to me is that it matters how you treat people, especially people worse off than you are. You know, because anyone is going to suck up to people above them and be nice to people who have power over them. But, I know when I used to work, there were people who treated the custodian in our building like crap and then they’d turn around and be real nice to me, and I thought, “I know how you really are!”

Lisa could absolutely relate: “I know! I’ve met quite a few people like that. And I was telling my family, I’m not proud of the position that I’m in right now but I will say this: I am not ever going to be ashamed anymore because I have learned so much from this way of life from the way I used to live. I had wonderful jobs, I was married, I had a home, a car, a truck, a business…you would think I had everything.  But now I have nothing, but I have grown to appreciate what little I have so very much.”

“I really appreciate your honesty,” added Mary Ann,  “and you know, you’re right. One of my friends told me one time, ‘All the time gets wasted trying to change the past’ and you know, that has been a hard lesson for me to learn. The past is past; there’s nothing I’m going to do today that can change what happened 5 months ago or two years ago, but I can change what I do now and in the future, and that’s exactly what you’re doing with your life.”

Lisa said,  “That reminds me of something one of my counselors told me. He said, ‘look at your life like you’re driving a car. You have a windshield and a rear-view mirror. You check the rear-view mirror every now and again, to see what’s going on behind. But your main view is in front of you. So, treat your life that way, so you can see what’s in front of you.’ ”

“Oh, that’s great, I like that” said Mary Ann, “and I would also say one reason why you’d look in your rear-view mirror sometimes is so that you don’t get run into!”

Lisa laughed. “Right, exactly!”

“I have occasionally been run into by something in my past!” Mary Ann admitted, “but what a wise thing for your counselor to say.”

Lisa agreed, “I did learn a lot from that counselor!”

Mary Ann continued, “Well, as I was saying, a story that I’m reminded of from this Gospel is my one co-worker who was always hateful to someone that he thought was under him, but then he would always suck up to people who were above him. I completely lost it a couple times, and eventually I lost all respect for him.”

This was all too familiar to Lisa, “Yes, like I said, there’s some people out there…the people that have things…money, good jobs, whatever.  There was one time…and I felt so sorry for this homeless man…who was sitting out there on the wall, eating his little lunch, minding his own business and this man in a suit was coming down the sidewalk, so important. We were watching him walk in a straight line down the middle of the sidewalk, then he saw that homeless man sitting there and he walked all the way around, making this great big curve…all the way around just like that, just to avoid him.”

“Like it was contagious,” noticed Mary Ann.

“Yes!” said Lisa, “and I felt so sorry for that man, that poor man minding his own business , eating his lunch and thinking, ‘What did I do to deserve that…’ ”

Mary Ann summed it up, “It’s bad enough, you know, here he is in a suit already, appearing more successful and then he has to do something like this, making him feel even less than…

“Oh, it did!” exclaimed Lisa, “It broke my heart!  You know whenever I get my life straightened out, that’s why I want to give back and help. That’s why I’m going back to school.  It’s terrible what you see, how people are treated.  All people should be treated with dignity and respect.”

As their conversation wrapped up, these two once-strangers had a new appreciation for each other.  Mary Ann closed by saying, “I really admire you for going back to school and doing something you know will help others” and Lisa reflected this same sense of appreciation, “Well, I really admire you for deciding to do something even after you retire, to show you care!”

There was no “least” between these two women…both had clearly seen the glory of Christ reflected in each other.

The Reign of Christ is made known in the lives of those who are poor, who are homeless, who work menial jobs, who are the invisible of this world in which we live.  If we pay attention, we realize that Christ is made visible in each one of us.  No one is alone with a loving God who chooses to be present both in the lives of the mighty, and with those whom we may think of as the least of these.  We feel God’s nearness yearning to heal the broken spaces and lacking places in our lives.  The emptiness is filled, and our hunger and thirst is quenched.  God sees us as we are, meets us where we are, loves us for who we are.

This Gospel poses us questions for thought:  How are we seeing God in all of those whom we encounter?  How do our interactions with people living at a different social margins reflect God’s presence in the lives of all of God’s people?  What do we miss when separate ourselves from those different than we are, or when we fail to see Christ in each other?  What do we gain when we are willing to draw near and recognize the reflection of God in the lives of those we think of as “the least of these” instead of crossing by the other way?

Perhaps experiencing the fullness of the Reign of Christ means focusing the eyes of our heart to see the brilliant vision of Christ who is magnificently present with the least powerful of this world, loving us all radically across the social margins of our human lives, calling us together into this Realm of God where at last, we all can be home.

 

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