Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.
Jesus paints the picture of two people: a judge, a man with authority with no respect for others who won’t be ashamed, and a widow, weak and vulnerable. The widow comes persistently asking for justice such that the judge relents, so as to stop being bothered.
Have you agreed to something like the judge? Given in just to stop someone from bothering you. Have you received something for acting like the widow? Persistently present, continually asking. Have you ever felt that God is like the unjust judge? Distant, unhearing, refusing, without respect or shame. Has prayer felt like repetitive knocking or finger pointing?
Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Have you ever had one of those dreams when you’re trying to scream but you can’t? Or you try to run but your legs won’t move? It’s a real feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. I’m always glad to snap out of those dreams into the world where my voice and my body do the things that I want them to do.
When I read this passage about a mute demoniac, I sympathize. When I hear about people helpless and harassed my compassion is stirred. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few I want to raise my hand. “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”
That’s why this is such a well worn passage for ordinations and calls to evangelism. It reaches into the natural sympathy we have for those who suffer. And immediately after this passage Jesus calls his twelve apostles and gives them power over all these demons and diseases. It’s a stirring recruitment call.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
To my mind, the final line of this morning’s gospel is at once an indescribable consolation and a never-ending source of perplexity. Perhaps even frustration. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. How many of us have been caught off guard or even startled by this phrase? Did he really just say what I think he said?
During the so-called “Farewell Discourses” of John’s gospel (chapters 14—17), we greet a host of similarly enigmatic phrases such as:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” “I do not give to you as the world gives.” “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you; abide in my love.”
These dense discourses clearly deserve much more than a superficial listening. There is an infinity in these words, fertile and receptive to the whole texture of human experience. John’s Jesus therefore speaks to each of us in the voice of that wind as he says If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it. There is an infinity in his words.
Yet this infinity is lost to us if we simply hear what we would like to hear. Because of this, I believe there is wisdom in praying with a sensitivity to what a text is decidedly not saying. Yes, he really did just say something remarkable, but whereas I would like to hear Jesus say to me, “if you ask me for anything, I will do it,” this is not what Jesus says. We have to reckon with those three little words: in my name.
In today’s parable, Jesus paints the picture of two people. A judge, a man with authority who does not fear God nor respect people. He won’t be ashamed. Perhaps accepting a bribe, but otherwise immoveable. A widow comes repeatedly to this judge. As we see often in scripture, widows are most vulnerable and to be cared for. In Middle Eastern culture, men represented women in court. That she is here means she has no male relative to assist her.[i] On one hand, she is weak and vulnerable. Yet she is present and persistent, not accusing, asking for justice.
In Middle Eastern culture, there is also a social code of respect such that women sometime have unusual access that men do not. Kenneth Bailey, who taught seminary for many years in Lebanon, tells of seeing a violent militia take up residence in a neighborhood. An elderly woman came regularly telling the guards to go away. They responded by politely telling her to not be upset. If a man had done so, he would have been shot.[ii]
The widow keeps coming asking for justice. The judge relents, giving her what she asks so that he is no longer bothered.
Romans 8:22-27; Psalm 42:1-7; Matthew 5:13-16
Today in the calendar of the church we remember the sixteenth-century nun, abbess, and mystic Teresa of Avila. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada to a family of partly Jewish ancestry, she lived at a time of incredible persecution of the Jews known as the Inquisition. Educated by Augustinian nuns, she began to feel called to the consecrated life and joined a Carmelite Order. She eventually became distracted by the mollified Rule of the Order and set out to found a reformed Order called the Discalced Carmelites. The word ‘discalced’ is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘without shoes.’ Throughout the course of 25 years, she traveled frequently establishing 17 convents of the reformed Order. She wrote many letters, poems, books on the religious life, as well as an autobiography: The Life of Teresa of Jesus.
While it would be easy to project a certain saintly color of piety on Teresa, her autobiography proves her to have been very unconventional for what we imagine a contemplative nun to be. She is said to have been a very passionate person, describing in her autobiography mystical visions, highly erotic in nature. She writes viscerally of one of these visions in which an angel repeatedly thrusts a golden lance into her heart: ‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’ We can hear overtones of the Song of Solomon that seem to mix the essence of eros and agape, that is erotic love and Godly love. In her vision we experience her desire to be one with God.[i]
I worked very hard on this sermon. I’ve spent a long time thinking about it.
Most of it was a waste.
Because I spent a very long time mulling over this Gospel text, of Jesus and Martha and Mary. I worked very hard to understand the story. But not because it’s some complex thing. No, the trouble is, it’s actually rather simple. It’s a story with, like, one plot point. So my effort to understand was not deciphering some crazy esoteric text, but rather, to think about how I might make this very simple text come alive in some fresh way. How I might use it to point out something new, something exciting, something we haven’t all heard a thousand times before.
Because that’s my job, right? That’s what the preacher is supposed to do. That’s my task, my role this morning. I’m supposed to come up with something good, something true, something real. To preach well is to point to Christ, and Christ is not boring. But the more I thought, the more I plugged away at this problem, the more I realized that I had nothing. Nothing fresh, anyway. Nothing alive.
For the preacher, the antidote to this problem is supposed to be prayer. Prayer, encounter with the eternal, the infinite, the Living God, should yield…well, something. And I have been praying! But it’s been harder than normal lately. Less intuitive. I’ve felt overwhelmed by work. I’ve felt stressed. I’ve felt incompetent, and discouraged by that feeling, I’ve tried even harder to work my way out of it, to push through and do something right, something where I wouldn’t be left with lingering doubts and anxieties over whether I’m good at anything.
So, more pushing. More striving. More petition to God to accomplish what I’d set out to do.
The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its surprising and violent storms. The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a fresh-water lake, lies 700 feet below sea level. Immediately to the northeast are the hills of the Golan Heights, reaching 2000 feet. The large difference in height and temperature between these cool, sometimes snow-covered hills and the semi-tropical sea causes large air pressure changes. Strong winds funnel down from the Golan Heights, sometimes creating the perfect storm over the water. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been calm and the sky perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus who are in a boat on the sea. Aside from the wind and waves coming at them, there was something else that surfaces: fear. They are terrified. You will probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, where all is calm, all is bright… and then a storm hits.
In the Scriptures, nothing is talked about more often than fear. Fear is a dis-ease of the soul. The psalmist writes, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.”[i]The prophet Isaiah says: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Do not fear.”[ii] In the scriptures, we hear about fear from the very beginning: in the Book of Genesis, the story from the Garden of Eden. The angel of God comes to Adam and Eve, and they are terrified.[iii] We hear again about fear much later in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. Once more the angel of the Lord appears, and the women are terrified. Fear is a very costly, distressing emotion when we’re in touch with impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to overwhelm us. I imagine that all of us here know about fear, either in a particular situation or perhaps recurringly. What are you afraid of? What causes your heart to tremble?
Are you afraid that you might be wrong, or afraid that you might be right? Are you afraid that you might be excluded, or afraid that you might be included? Are you afraid that you might fail, or afraid that you might succeed? Are you afraid that you might never finish, or afraid because you’ve come to the finish? Are you afraid of making a commitment, or of not making of commitment? Are you afraid of being sick, of dying? Are you afraid that you’re going to have to face being well again? Are you afraid of someone? Are you afraid of yourself? Are you afraid that you might be sent, or might not be sent? Afraid that you won’t get the attention, or maybe that the attention will be on you? Are you afraid of being discovered, or of never being discovered? Afraid of heights, or depths, or something else between? Most of us will know something about fear, maybe even right now. If so, why? Why are you afraid? That’s Jesus’ question for his disciples, and it’s his question for all of us. If you are afraid, why?
To be sure, there are therapeutic protocols to address our fears, and phobias, and anxieties. And there are medicinal ways to address fear, to chemically lower fear’s looming capacity to inundate us. And there is physical training and stress-reduction techniques that may enable us cope with or conquer fear… These may be helpful, even necessary. But what is it about fear that is a “spiritual issue” for you?
Rather than presuming that fear, our own fear, is a sign of the absence of God, our fear actually gives witness to the presence of God. Our fear often arises out of something that is bigger than we are – perhaps concerning our health, or family, or vocation, or endurance. And we find that in-and-of ourselves, there isn’t enough: not enough strength, or patience, or hope, or encouragement, or provision. Our life is unmanageable. We come up short. And we’re afraid that our boat is going to sink, that we’re dead in the water. Fear raises issues that may well need to be dealt with on many levels; one of those levels being spiritual. Where is God in your fear? What is the invitation from God in your fear? Fear is like a beam of light pointing to that deepest place of need within your heart. Fear is very illuminating. What is the your fear exposing, where you are too small, too powerless, too needy to go on? What is it? Why are youafraid? Because in the fear is an invitation from God that God wants to be God in your life, to claim the ultimate authority and highest power in your life. We cannot live our life and be our own God at the same time.
We don’t need to be afraid, not because fear is “wrong.” We’re supposed to be strong and resilient. No, it’s not that. It’s not that we don’t need to be afraid because we shouldn’t be. This is not a de jure statement: “Don’t be afraid because strong people are not afraid.” No, it’s not that. This is a de facto statement: “Don’t be afraid because you don’t have to be afraid.” It’s Jesus’ promise that he will meet us in the experience of fear. He tells us, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[iv]
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks us all. Jesus longs to hear why. Jesus longs to be invited into your fear. And if you’re afraid that you are going to lose your life, or lose some part life, you don’t need to be afraid even of that. Why is that so? Because it’s going to happen. We all are going to lose our lives; we’re all going to lose the life that we now recognize. But Jesus assures us that in losing our lives we find life. Not to fear.[v] The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray writes of an old adage about fear, an adage which some of us were probably taught… The old adage is: “Fear not; trust in God, and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” That’s not true, in Macmurray’s view. On the contrary. Macmurray rephrases the old adage to say, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”[vi]Why not? Because Jesus tells us, “I am with you in this… This is the way into life. Trust me.”
Tell Jesus about your fear. This may be your most honest prayer. Tell Jesus about your fear. And if you’re afraid even to talk with Jesus about your fear, then start there: why it is that you are afraid to talk to Jesus about your fear. Tell him! Go ahead. Try it. Jesus is all ears. Jesus has an open heart. And he is waiting.
Here, an ancient Celtic prayer:
Jesus, from this world’s stormy seas
Give your hand for lifting me.
Jesus, lift me from the darkest night.
Jesus, lift me into the realm of light.
Jesus, lift me from my body’s pain,
Jesus lift me up and keep me sane.
Jesus, lift me from the things I dread,
Jesus, lift me from the living dead.
Jesus, lift me from the place I lie,
Jesus, lift me that I never die. Amen.
[v]Matthew 10:39; 16:25.
[vi]John Macmurray (1891-1976), a Scottish moral philosopher, writing in Persons in Relation (Humanity Press, 1998), p. 171.