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