Losing It

Third Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

 

John 2:13-22

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presence in the Wilderness

First Sunday in Lent, Year B

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

Mark 1:9-15

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

 

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

 

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

 

Faith from the Margins Bible Study Authors:  Willie and Davis

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Maybe to test him?” wondered Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willie’s tears began to flow.

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

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

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

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

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

They both laughed with joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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