Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Today we remember the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Brothers who have gone before us. We remember them one by one reading aloud their obituaries at Compline.
They came from various backgrounds with a range of interests. Writers, poets, architects, artists, book-binders, and insect enthusiasts who served in England, Scotland, India, South Africa, Japan, Canada, and across the United States.
They were pastors, preachers, spiritual directors, teachers, retreat leaders and more. Sometimes much at once. I like the story of John Hawkes who during the Great Depression presided at a marriage, baked and iced the wedding cake, and supplied the rings.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
When I was a pastoral intern in Nebraska, we gave a Bible to each third grader on a particular Sunday. The Bible is a good gift; it’s a source of hope, love, encouragement, inspiration, and life. I told the congregation: pay attention. We are giving children a knife. As we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”
Scripture is sharper than a sword. Like a scalpel, it cuts through what is diseased and damaged, cuts through lies and confusion, cuts through the stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. The stories of scripture surprise, disturb, confound and with good intention cut. We and our children need help and practice to listen, to receive powerful, sharp, healing words of life.
St. Michael & All Angels
Today we remember angels, mysteriously other. These outside, beyond, heavenly beings worship before God’s throne, fight evil, and come bearing messages.
When he was afraid, Jacob received a dream. Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder connecting heaven and earth and heard God speaking to him. God who had seemed beyond and absent broke through to be present in voice and with the sight of angels.
Jacob woke from his dream and said: “Surely the Lord is in this place. … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is gate of heaven.” So Jacob made a pillar, poured oil on it and called the place Bethel, the house of God.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
We may expect Jesus to say: Stop. Breathe. Come away by yourselves.[i] Yet in this passage, Jesus says: “I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.”
The yoke is an object of work, keeping two animals together to share strength. Jesus is saying: Work with me. Learn from me. Restoration comes from working my way.[ii] This way, this rhythm of life, will bring you more fully to life.
Jesus’ way, his personal pattern, includes private prayer and ceasing with Sabbath rest. Jesus’ way is also in his teaching.
Much anxiety stems from what we don’t know and can’t know, especially what will happen. Fearing uncertainty, we often focus on what knowledge we have as something to grasp.
Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus sounding confident. “We know who you are. We know what is possible and impossible. No one can do the signs you are doing apart from God, so we know that you are a teacher from God.”
Jesus replies, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “Can one enter the womb again?”
Jesus says, “One must be born of water and spirit, must be born from above.”
“How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. Now he clearly doesn’t understand.
Jesus is neither direct nor clear. There are still many ideas for what “of water and spirit” means. Perhaps the language confuses Nicodemus. Perhaps it’s the radical reversal. Nicodemus was born in the established, assumed way, from a Jewish mother. Part of his trouble may be from being an insider. That others can enter God’s family from outside is bewildering.[i]
Nicodemus comes confident in his knowledge, thinks he knows who Jesus is, what is possible, what makes sense, therefore what must be true. Nicodemus comes at night, a sign that he’s in the dark, that he cannot see, that he does not know.
Such certainty traps. Holding so tight to tradition and reason restricts hearing God. The Spirit moves like wind, blowing where it will. We cannot predict nor contain. When we think we’ve grasped God, we are overly confident in our knowledge. God is always more. As religious people we can be too certain about our religious knowledge and not hear the news, good and often disturbing news of Jesus.
What do we not see or know because of containers we’ve constructed? It’s may not be new yet we have forgotten. As descendants of Abraham, we are blessed so that allpeople may be blessed. Reading the Gospel of John, we hear from chapter one Jesus comes expanding God’s family to all people: “To all who received him, who called on his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”[ii]No matter lineage or background, all can be born of the Spirit. Everyone is invited to be children of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” We also heard it in the Letter to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
To those already inside, this may be disturbing that others will join. To those on the margins, this is especially good news of welcome and belonging. Insiders may not realize their own position, their own need. Everyone is welcome, at home, belonging as God’s children.
As adults, we may be uncomfortable hearing ourselves called children. We still have much to learn. Perhaps “born from above” is Jesus’ invitation to “not knowing,” to taking a childlike perspective.[iii]Countering serious adults who strive for certainty, Jesus invites a childlike playfulness, a way of becoming. Grownups get trapped in reasoning, in quests for certainty, right and wrong, and social acceptance. Like Nicodemus, we think we know. If we’re not sure, we may ask in secret to not be seen by others.
A childlike perspective is playful. Open to questions. Exploring possibilities widely. To play is to gaze in wonder. To do something simply because it delights. Act with freedom and inhibition, unconcerned about what others may think. Get down low and get up close to look. Try it out. Take risks. Be vulnerable.
A playful perspective faces the unknown with courage to discover, with risk to behold. In play, we let down our guard. We need play in our relationships to show up as we are. There is more to relating than behaviors in which we feel familiar and confident. Risking the new takes us further. A childlike playfulness ushers in becoming more.
A childlike prayerfulness opens us to more. Pray as you can, as you already do. And take a risk, try something new. There are endless ways to pray. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, play with your prayer, going beyond seeming proficiency. Try a medium with which you’re not familiar and discover what unfolds.
I find it helpful returning to crayons or trying pastels or paints or clay—something hands on. Coloring in a way we long haven’t, even doing so down on the floor, helps prompt a childlike perspective. Put color on the page and play. Be simple and gentle with yourself. Rather than seeking to know, just be. Surprisingly, it’s then that we see.
Playfulness goes beyond knowledge, beyond definitions or grasping. A playful perspective is open to mystery. Today we celebrate the Trinity, one God in three persons. The divine nature as a community of persons is not logical, not to be grasped. Rather than knowing, join our brothers and sisters, all the children of the world, playfully praying with God who is mystery.
[i]Frances Taylor Gench (2007) Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p21.
[iii]Jean Vanier (2004) Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. New York: Paulist Press, p75.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of radical change, divinely inspired and enabled. Sent by the Spirit, Philip goes to the excluded Ethiopian eunuch, explains the scripture and baptizes him.[i] Saul, notorious persecutor of the church, meets Jesus and radically changes into Paul, famous evangelist.[ii] The Spirit sends Peter to the centurion Cornelius. Though unlawful to visit let alone eat with Gentiles, Peter does both, proclaims the gospel and the household follows Jesus.[iii]
The Spirit reaches further and further. Gentiles receive the Spirit in the same way as the Jews. It is an unsettling time for the Jewish followers of Jesus. They hotly debate inclusion of outsiders. Leaders gather in Jerusalem to respond to this crisis. James, Jesus’ brother, leads the gathering to affirm huge change, to welcome Gentiles, all people, as equal followers of Jesus. James discerns that the present crisis fits the grand narrative promise: all people may seek God.
Doing so fits with Jesus welcoming all kinds people outcast: women, foreigners, the sick, and children. Many people cling to labels like Gentile and sinner, but not Jesus. Jesus loves everyone no matter what. Jesus invites everyone into more. Jesus changes and keeps becoming more.
People often remark on the homemade bread we serve at both altar and supper table. One guest told me: “Your bread is substantial and satisfying. Through this retreat I’ve experienced Jesus as substantial and satisfying.”
Bread is ordinary, daily, necessary nourishment, and a key symbol in our salvation story. God provided ancient Israel with bread from heaven in the wilderness for forty years. Wandering in the desert, our parents asked: “What is it?” God said take a measure of this bread from heaven every morning. More will come tomorrow. Don’t hoard it. I will give you enough.[i]
A bit earlier in John, Jesus turned a few loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. Followed by a crowd, Jesus raised the question of how to feed them. The disciples said: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread.” Jesus said: “Make the people sit down. … Jesus gave thanks and distributed the food, … as much as they wanted.”[ii]
Here we kneel at the tomb once more, watching, waiting, numb, and grieving. We stare at love embodied and remember love received. Our song is love unknown, our Savior’s love—to you, to me—love to the loveless shown that we might lovely be.[i]
Love shown to children. “Let the little ones come to me. Do not stop them.”[ii] Listen to the kids and follow them that we might lovely be.
Love shown to blind Bartimaeus who cried out for mercy. Jesus turned, invited, and healed that we might lovely be.[iii]
Love shown to the palm-waving crowd who sang “hosanna.” Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey not a stallion, leading with humility that we might lovely be.[iv]
Love shown to the woman who returned to anoint Jesus with costly ointment. Jesus welcomed and honored her that we might lovely be.
Love shown resisting violence. Jesus said: “No more of this” and healed the one his followers struck that we might lovely be.[v]
Today is both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. Fasting and ashes seem opposite of feasting and chocolate. Some celebrated yesterday, love with Mardi Gras.
Recently I visited two of my best friends. The past couple months had been very intense and hard for them. Amid a more chaotic house, we sat sharing stories of disaster and trouble. Each time I visit we go deep quickly being vulnerable about our lives. We bear witness to each other’s wounds and wonders. Our love is palpable. We are humble and truthful in sharing our questions, limits, losses, and desires.
Lent is about love, a clearing season to be deeply honest with God. We kneel to confess first hearing: “Dear friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy.”[i] We acknowledge our mortality, our frailty, failure, and limitation. Love humbly speaks raw, unvarnished truth, and love listens: love with ashes.