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.

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.