Preparing the way

Do you remember learning to write a story, when you were a child? Perhaps you remember painstakingly practicing your penmenship until you could write it perfectly. Or perhaps you remember filling out worksheets, sort of mad-libs, fill in the blank style that taught you a bit about what makes a compelling story tick. Or perhaps, like me, you remember the incessant chant that your teacher or your mother would keep saying—”who, what, when, where, why, and how”?

Who. What. When. Where. Why. How. These are the pieces of information that make even the simplest short story make sense. And this is true for not just short stories—novels, series, t.v. shows, any good public relations statement… we need to know who, what, when, where, why, and how. It’s part of what makes us tick.

And this gospel lesson from Luke certainly has all of those pieces.

Who? Jesus, and 72 disciples.

What? Jesus sending 72 disciples in pairs.

When? Now, already. Get a move on it!

Where? To every town and place where he was going.

Why? Because the harvest of the kingdom is plentiful and the laborers are few.

How?  No purse, no bag, no sandals, no idle chitchat, with urgency, with purpose and focus.

And from there, the story feels like it goes into a list of instructions: here’s how you interact with people who want to hear the good news. Here’s how you respond to people who will not hear what you have to say.  

“The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”

What do you hear?

When I read this, I keep coming around to that unmistakable, sinking feeling that this is just one giant to-do list. Yes, it’s a great story, and it tells us who, what, when, where, why and how. But there’s so much detail here that I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

And you know, I think the reason I feel overwhelmed, and perhaps you do to, is because it feels like there’s just so much to accomplish. There’s so much to do. So many people to share the good news with. So many people who are not going to be interested. So many people who might be interested if perhaps we could just muster up enough courage to say something. And so many requirements—no purse, no bag, no extra pairs of shoes, no other distractions.

Part of me just wants to give up right now. Lord, you have the wrong person. I can’t do all of this.

I can’t do all of this.

But I wonder, if that’s not the whole point. I wonder if acknowledging the fact that I can’t do all of this is, perhaps, the right response.

I think it’s really easy in an individualist culture to hear a lesson like this, and feel overwhelmed because I can’t possibly, as one person, manage all of this. If our filter, the lens through which we see the world is set on applying everything as personally as possible, then of COURSE this feels like too much.

Because it is too much for one person. And we might say, yes, of course. That’s why the 72 were sent out in pairs. But it seems like an awful lot, even for seventy-two people divided into pairs.

It’s too much because it wasn’t meant to be done alone. It wasn’t even meant to be done just in pairs. “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”

He sent them on ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go.

I’ve read this passage so many times over the years, and I’ve never noticed that little line. In the midst of telling this important story about telling the good news, and what it means to be a disciple and an evangelist, Luke thinks it’s important for us to know that Jesus only sent the disciples to where he intended to follow later.

He sent them on ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go.

It’s almost as if, in my individualist desire for self-sufficiency, and a checklist of who what when where why, and how to get this evangelism job done, I missed, really, the entire point of why I was going to a town, or city, or neighborhood, or friend’s home in the first place.

What’s important here is that the disciples are not only sent out to do this work, but that reporting back to Jesus and checking the evangelism box is not the end of the story. The seventy two evangelists, as we might call them, go out knowing that the work they do is important, but they do it knowing that Jesus will soon follow them into the same place, the same village, the same city and neighborhood.

I think what’s sometimes intimidating about the idea of evangelism is that we have to do it all ourselves. That we have to grab a friend and put on suits and knock on doors. That we have to go stand on a street corner and figure out what kind of sign to carry. But in reality, evangelism is more than just doing these things. Evangelism can be entering the spaces that you already inhabit, the neighborhoods that you already visit with intentionality.

Intentional evangelism. That’s what Jesus is giving instructions for—to be aware of who is willing to hear, who is curious. To be aware of who isn’t ready, and to respond without anger. To be focused, ready to share. And most importantly, to walk into wherever you’re called to be knowing that it’s not all on you. Because Jesus is following us. And our work, as evangelists–and yes, you are an evangelist—is to intentionally find ways to engage this story—this marvelous insane story of Christ’s love—in the places we find ourselves.

So as you prepare to go out into the world today, consider what spaces you’re called to be an evangelist in. Where are we preparing the way for Jesus to enter?

What wondrous love is this? (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

Portion of reading from John 13:1-17, 31b-35

When I read this story, I know who to root for. I know in the back of my mind that Peter is just being ridiculous, that he should let Jesus wash his feet. Peter doesn’t know what he’s saying when he’s saying no, this is part of how the story goes, Jesus is supposed to wash the feet of his disciples. You and I know what’s coming—the crucifixion, the resurrection, the rest of the story. This is just part of the story.

But Peter, after all, knows that Jesus is Lord, even if he doesn’t know quite what that means, so what are we to make of the fact that he says no to this simple, servant-like gesture? What would we say if we were faced with Jesus kneeling at our feet, insisting upon washing them? Jesus, this isn’t where you’re supposed to be.

When Jesus kneels at my feet, I don’t know what… to do. It is uncomfortable, Jesus you’re not supposed to be here. It’s too close, it’s too intimate, it’s all too much for me. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

The Christ, who kneels at my feet and at yours too, begs to move beyond the boundaries that we have for where he is allowed. Outside of the box that we have so neatly put him in, outside of Sunday mornings, beyond the grace at meals. And if, like me, you find this terrifying… you are right. The radical, wondrous love offered to us, or even foisted upon us can be completely overwhelming. It can be a little too much, a little too close, a little too intimate. Maybe we too want to say, Lord, you will never wash my feet. I’m not ready. It’s all too much.

As we walk through Holy Week, through the Triduum, perhaps you may find that it at some point becomes too much. Perhaps it will be the footwashing, the Christ in your neighbor washing your feet. Perhaps it will be the Eucharist, the story of how he, who “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”. Perhaps it will be the stripping of the altar, or the silence of Good Friday. Perhaps it’s been a long week and church is just another thing to check off the list.

Be gentle with yourself. With others around you. And when, if that moment comes, allow yourself to be caught up in the overwhelm and mystery. We’re not always ready, but sometimes, the Lord will wash our feet anyways, and in response, the only thing we can ask is the question–what sort of love is this?

What wondrous love is this, that says “this is my body, my blood, given for you”? What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord to lay aside his crown for my soul?

What wondrous love is this, who washes the feet of the disciples, a servant, not in power, but in humility?

What wondrous love is this, who took up his cross, to give his life as a ransom for many?

What wondrous love is this, that brought us here tonight, to share this meal with one another?

And if we find ourselves caught in this moment like Peter, seeing the Christ who asks to love us, to be let out of the words on the page and into the deepest parts of our lives… If we find ourselves in this place, consider lingering there. For it is Christ who knocks at the doors of our hearts and homes. And sometimes, the only response we can sing is a question: what wondrous love is this?

Those who dream (Sermon)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations,

“The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

—–

The people who wrote this psalm were a people in pain. The Israelites had endured captivity in Babylon for decades after being forcibly removed from Israel, the land that God had promised them, the promise that was supposed to endure forever. The Davidic line, the line of kings had run out, the kingdoms had divided, and now everything, every wish, every dream, every conception of their identity was taken away.

The people of God had reached the end of their rope. There were no more options left. Where was God, in this mess? Was there going to be death and judgement forever? Was there any way to come back after disobeying God so completely that the result was exile in Babylon?

This sentiment is captured in another Psalm, Ps. 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.” They told us “‘sing us one of the songs of Zion’… how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

These are people with no hope, no idea of a future, no sense that things could ever be right again.

Then, as these things happen, a new political regime took over. The Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and suddenly things changed. In a moment of political goodwill, the people of Israel were now allowed to go home, to return to Zion.

And we don’t know exactly when today’s psalm was written, but we know that it was probably during the exile or the time of return, when suddenly the people of Israel could begin to think about the possibility that the Lord might restore their fortunes like the waters of the Negev, that maybe one day, they could be like those who dream.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

I love this psalm. And what I love about it is the vivid way that it captures this tension between what we hope things will be like, and what they’re actually like. It’s a prayer that says God, this is what we dream about, this is the future we see in our minds eye—please, make it happen.

But more than a simple hope, what matters about this psalm is how it engages with our ability to imagine something else. What matters here is that the people writing and singing this song are able to say to God—this, this is what we imagine our future to be. We imagine our mouths filled with laughter. We imagine being able to shout in joy. We imagine what it will be like when we have once again found your favor, and all the other nations can see it.

I don’t want to suggest that this is a situation where the key is to imagine it, then God will make it happen. God isn’t a genie-in-the-bottle. And as the people of Israel found out when they returned home, even the good things that happen to us aren’t always how we’d imagined they would be.  

AND YET dreaming matters. The imagination matters.

What we see going on in the Psalm is a people who are finally able to dream of going home. A people who are able to imagine a future, and ask God for it.

Restore our fortunes O Lord, like the waters of the Negev.

In a lecture this week on Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams said to a crowd of seminarians and visitors at VTS that “the only grace you can have is the grace that you can imagine”.

The only grace you can have is the grace that you can imagine.

Perhaps this imagining of grace is clearest in today’s gospel lesson, where Mary pulls out all the stops to welcome Jesus. She anoints his feet with perfume, and wipes them with her hair. Not only, as Judas points out, is this wasting money, but it’s also an incredibly intimate gesture. To wipe someone’s feet with your hair, as a woman, means that your hair has to be showing, in a culture where that is a taboo, where women must cover their heads. If you do that kind of thing to the wrong person, you’ll never hear the end of it and your reputation will go down the drain. To do this, Mary had to have imagined a world where she imagined Jesus saying yes. Saying, thank you, saying “leave her alone” saying “let her do this”. Without the imagination, without the hope that this gesture would be taken well, Mary would not have been able to do this.

The only grace you can have is the grace that you can imagine.

In a world where we want so much better for our children, for our friends and family, for our country, for our planet… or wherever you know that someday, things might be different… we need to be able to imagine what that could even be like.  

We were like those who dream

Imagination is not passivity. When we imagine, we imagine a world that is better so that we can begin to really pray, to really see other people as Christ saw them. To see our imagination continuing what God began in creation, and what Christ saved on the cross.

So what would it be like if we took a leap and began to imagine more?

We imagine a world that is better, and get to work. Perhaps we imagine a world where there is no homelessness, and we must then confront the fact that we pass the homeless every day on our way to work. Perhaps we imagine a world where there is no hunger, and the answer to that prayer is that extra time to volunteer in a food pantry or to help a hungry neighbor.

Where are you dreaming?

What are you imagining that could change the world to bring about God’s kingdom?

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

We are those who dream.

(Sermon recording, with some substantial variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under Lent V, 2018, or may be found below.)

Sermon Recording

Waiting and Promise | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 5/5)

Part 5/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 10:20-27a 

20 On that day, what’s left of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no longer depend on the one who beat them. Instead, they will faithfully depend on the Lord, the holy one of Israel. 21 A few will return, what’s left of Jacob, to the mighty God. 22 Although your people, Israel, were like the sand of the sea, only a few survivors will return. The end is announced, overflowing with justice. 23 Yes, destruction has been announced; the Lord God of heavenly forces will carry it out against the entire land.

24 Therefore, the Lord God of heavenly forces says: My people who live in Zion, don’t fear Assyria, which strikes you with the rod and raises its staff against you as Egypt did. 25 In a very short time my fury will end, and my anger at the world will be finished.[a

26 Therefore, the Lord of heavenly forces will crack a whip against Assyria,
    as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb.
    He will raise a rod over the sea,
        as he did in Egypt.
27 On that day, God will remove the burden from your shoulder
    and destroy the yoke on your neck.[b


Reflection

Today’s text encompasses why we read Isaiah during Advent in the first place. This season acknowledges that there is pain and heartache in the world. There are breaking points where we break, and where even God breaks. There are idols to be examined and priorities to set. But ultimately, Advent is a season where we acknowledge and repent of all these things, and again turn our faces towards the promise that there will be peace.

There will be destruction and judgement, but there is also promise and renewal. Isaiah talks about this is 6:13, where God promises that those destroyed will leave a “stump” which will be holy. As Christians, we connect much of our story to that of the Ancient Israelites through Isaiah. Christ is the one who came to fulfill this promise of a child being born, and salvation being obtained.

Yet, we’re still waiting for that second coming, when there will be no more pain and grief. We’re still waiting in a world that often doesn’t feel saved, or even redeemable. Christ has come, but Christ is coming again—each year, we wait for the promise of peace to be fulfilled in this in-between time. I’m not sure I have much more to end with other than what God’s word through Isaiah tells us. Keep watching. Keep waiting. Keep your eyes fixed on the one who saves, and “on that day, God will remove the burden from your shoulder and destroy the yoke on your neck”.