Tag Archives: Awareness

Finding Hope Amidst Tragedy

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Mark 13:1-26.

How do we make sense out of tragedy? It seems that we have to deal with this with increasing frequency. If not a bombing, then a school shooting, if not a school shooting, then a massive natural disaster, and if not this then a movie theater shooting, if not this, then perhaps a series of attacks throughout Paris which left 128 people dead and at least 180 people injured. In lesser known news, roadside bombs also rocked Baghdad with at least 21 killed and 60 injured. There were also bombings in Beirut that killed at least 43 people and injured at least 200. All of this in the span of a couple of days. In our own nation, racial tensions continue to boil and it seems that, at any time, things could boil over. So how do we seek to make sense out of this?

Despair is the easiest and fastest response.  We can throw our hands up, give up. Stop caring. We can wonder if God is punishing us, or if God has abandoned us. Some will surely proclaim that this is a punishment for sin, that somehow this is God’s wrath being poured out on the world. These are easy responses. They are easy to understand, they are easy to find meaning. These are relatively neat and tidy.  Or, it is easy to blame an entire religion or people group, as we in the United States are so wont to do. But we are the people of God, and we must strive for what is faithful, not for what is easy or simple, or what fits with the cultural narrative which is fed to us.

So, while this is an easy response, I wonder if it is faithful, I wonder if it is hopeful. The answer to both is no. Our text today invites us into another way to seek to make sense of this, to seek to find meaning in this, to find a way to try to process this.

***

Today’s reading is from the so-called little apocalypse in the Gospel According to Mark. Apocalypse is a difficult genre. It is difficult because many of us have encountered gross misiuse of this genre. It is warped and sensationalized in popular works such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, and more recently in the Left Behind series. These are so popular and they are exciting, and we begin to focus much of our faith on these relatively few apocalyptic passages, and then we attempt to do all sorts of spooky, mystical things with the Bible to find out when the end is coming.

And, to be honest, I am always hesitant to preach or teach on these apocalyptic passages, largely because of the broad acceptance of this warped view amongst fundamentalist evangelicalism. But these passages are in scripture and we must allow them to invite us in. And I think that on a day like today, with the shock still fresh, with the blood still warm, with the confusing mixture of emotions still raw, on a day like today, a passage like this is fitting for today, not because it allows us to prognosticate about the future like some cosmic groundhog, but it invites us into hope. And this is what the popular warped interpretation is missing. It is missing the main ingredient in these apocalyptic passages: hope. 

***

Indeed, we cannot forget that the Greek word from which “apocalypse” is derived actually means unveiling or revealing. So while we tend to link apocalypse with death and destruction, this is not actually right.

The literary genre of apocalypse was inherited by Christians from the Jews. We see an example of apocalyptic literature in the Book of Daniel, and we see literature which leans apocalyptic in the prophets. The Dead Sea Scrolls include a fair amount of apocalyptic literature that are not part of the scriptural canon. We see little apocalypses in the Gospels and most famously in the Revelation to John.

In fact, apocalyptic literature is not really about the end of all things. The word that we read as “end” in verse 7 carries with it a sense of completion, of perfection, of accomplishing, it refers to the end goal to which a movement is being directed. It does not at all carry the sense of destruction, which we all tend to assume.

***

And this is the background of apocalyptic literature, why it is written and why it is engaging. This experience is universal to the human condition. Apocalyptic literature is often the result of external chaos, pressure, the sense that the world is falling apart. This is why the apocalyptic genre has continued into the modern world, with film series like The Matrix, or Mad Max, or films like Waterworld, or The Book of Eli. It continues today with books turned into films like Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games, or The Postman. This continues because we see the nature gone astray, we see poverty on the rise, we see insane people running countries, and wars that never seem to end, we see bombings and shootings which appear suddenly and leave wide swaths of devastation in their wake.

The world seems to be caving in on itself and we find it hard to make sense of this. What is the meaning in this? What is the point? And this is likely what Mark’s community was struggling with as well. The first century in Palestine was a tumultuous time, it began to pick up again in the early 20th century, but the first century was a time of great conflict between the Jewish zealots and the Roman Empire. Even beyond the biblical narrative, there were a series of wars between the Jews and the Romans, the Jews striving to gain independence. Both revolts were failures, and the result of the first Jewish-Roman war was the destruction of the temple.

So you take this tumultuous context, mix it with the fact that around this time, Christianity was beginning its split from Judaism, it must have seemed like the world was imploding. Wars and rumors of wars, claims of messiahs to turned out to be failures, famines — it must have seemed like fire was raining down upon them from the heavens as their cities and their homes were burned and destroyed.

The temple was supposed to stand forever, especially this one which was far grander even than the first. This was probably the most amazing thing that they had ever seen. Not long after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the Romans come in and destroy the temple. Did the Romans defeat God? Was this all a hoax? How could this happen?

And so, this is the soil in which apocalyptic literature grows — it seeks to provide a meaning for the sufferings that one is going through, and it places it in the context of a conflict — a struggle — between good and evil. Every modern-day apocalyptic work also follows this. The Matrix, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, and so forth. There is a cosmic struggle between good and evil and that is the reason for the sufferings and struggles which we experience.

And this, I think, is the gift that we can glean from apocalyptic literature. This is not something in which we are abandoned and lost, this does not mean that we have necessarily done something wrong, this is not necessarily signs that God is angry with us. This also does not simply mean that we are on a long march to destruction and oblivion. Because when we become taken away by all the sensational things in passages like the one that we read this morning, we miss two key things.

Lets listen to the first part of verse 7, “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed…” (emphasis added). Do not be alarmed. Do not be disturbed. This may be the cognate of the common biblical line, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be alarmed, Jesus tells us. Secondly, verse 26, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” You see, this does not lead up to a destruction, but to the coming of the Christ who will bring restoration and redemption to all creation, who will set things right, where evil will finally be destroyed and where the good will reign.

So perhaps apocalyptic literature isn’t so much about the future, as it is about the now. This helps us us to try to place our experiences within a meaningful framework, to help us to make sense of it. To help us to see that our experience does not mean that all is lost. This allows us to continue to operate in the world, to continue to follow Christ, to continue to live into the calling that God has placed upon us, while the world seems to crumble around us. It helps us remember that ultimately God is in control, that ultimately God’s purposes will prevail, and that we need not be disturbed or alarmed, or afraid, by what we see around us.

Perhaps it is big things like the wars which never seem to end or the famines which continually plague the earth. We can continue to work for peace and justice and wholeness even in the midst of this turmoil because we can trust that there is more at work that we can see, and that God is not absent from the world. And this is the problem with seeing apocalyptic literature about the future. That we spend so much time looking to the future that we forget that the point of this is to help us to live in the present.

So perhaps our alarm, our disturbance, is large scale. But perhaps it is small scale. Perhaps this can help us in our church as well. Most of you are well aware that our church is but a shell of what it once was. It seems to be crumbling. Many have left, some have felt that we should allow it to crumble. But what are we to do? Are we to fear? to be alarmed? to be disturbed? Or, are we to trust that our church, our lives, our world, is not headed for destruction, is not left to flounder, is not meaningless or pointless, but we are all within the grand narrative of the life of faith. We ought to stay awake, yes, we ought not slip into a hopeless and disillusioned state. But we are to continue to live into our calling, to be transformed in mind and body, in heart and action — indeed, in all of life — because this is not random, this is not pointless, this is not meaningless. Things don’t always make sense, things don’t always seem right, things don’t always happen as they ought, but we can trust that ultimately, all things will lead to the redemption and restoration of all things.

In the year 66-70, when the Romans finally destroyed the temple, did they defeat God? No way. Was that all a hoax? Of course not. And we can know that the difficult life of discipleship does not mean that God has been defeated by the enemy, nor that God is not powerful, but rather, perhaps something else is going on that we cannot see or understand.

And so, Jesus comes to us and counsels us not to be alarmed, not to be disturbed, not to be afraid. Do not be led astray, but continue on the narrow path, through the wicket gate. Because it is in this that all of creation will find its completion, its goal in cosmic restoration and redemption.

And it is this hope, that allows us to continue to live faithfully in the world. To continue to work for justice and peace even when it seems like a lost cause. Hope allows us to grieve, to feel shock and pain and sorrow, and it allows us to remember that “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

***

A couple of days ago, I watched an interview from a few years ago between Bill Moyers and the theologian James Cone.

JAMES CONE: So, you can look anywhere. There’s always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word?

BILL MOYERS: And?

JAMES CONE: It does not. There is always hope. Anybody who loses hope and gives up in despair, they die.

And this is that into which this text invites us. It does not invite us to fear or to despair, or to closing our eyes to avoid the pain of the world. No, our text today, with all of the scary sounding stuff, invites us into hope.

This is the root of such apocalyptic literature. This is the way that we are to make sense of tragedy. We are to look to the light that shines in the darkness and remember that the darkness has not, will not, cannot, overcome it.

One Word for 2015: Wonder

Into the water

Wonder

Few things are more beautiful than to see a person filled with wonder. More often than not it is children that experience this sense of wonder when faced with a world that they are still trying to understand.

The capacity to experience wonder is the capacity to be surprised, to be amazed, to understand that there is something worth noticing in the world. In my own experience, my capacity for wonder has decreased with age, perhaps I am not alone in this. As a child, the moon followed me, but as an adult, it is simply large and ever-present. As a child, a second grade classroom blackboard could be the screen of the starship Enterprise and I was the helmsman, but as an adult it is simply the blackboard of a second grade classroom. As a child, snow was a magical gift, but as an adult it is simply ice crystals which form when the weather is sufficiently cold.

I am glad that I understand more than I did as a child, however, my struggle is that my capacity for wonder has drastically decreased, and more often than not, I function as a workhorse with blinders so as not to be distracted from the corner of my eye.

But it is distraction and wonder which saved God’s people from slavery in Egypt, as Moses noticed a curious sight: a bush that was burning but was not consumed, and decided to take a closer look at this strange and surprising sight. What would have happened had Moses simply kept his head down and focused on his work? What would have happened had he not had the capacity for wonder and allowed that wonder to take the driver’s seat, if only for a few moments? Surely God would have still effected the liberation of God’s people, but the story would certainly read differently.

***

My entries here have been relatively sparse over the past year, partly because of things going on in my life, but also partly because I have been struggling with my own capacity for wonder. It is so easy to operate in life without experiencing life. When I don’t notice, when I don’t wonder, I find it hard to write. But even more, I find it hard to see something which causes me to step aside and experience wonder, to see the presence of God in the periphery.

***

This year, I have chosen a word for this new year, something which has been relatively popular as of late. This will give me a single word, a single concept on which to reflect during the year in my spiritual and personal growth and development. This year I will be growing my capacity for wonder — to be amazed, surprised, to notice and truly see beauty in the myriad of forms which it comes.

I look forward to exploring wonder during this year, and I hope that you will journey with me in this.

After all, it is only when we have a capacity for wonder that we can experience the omnipresence of the divine in the daily (and often mundane) activities of life.

Finding Our Way

A sermon originally delivered at Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI.

Esther 4:1-17

By now the Kingdom of Judah has been conquered and all the people of any social standing whatsoever have been taken to Babylon in a couple of deportations. The Exile was a pivotal point in the history of the people of God.

For the history of God up to this point, they have been a holy people on a pilgrimage to their holy land. They have entered into their land and eventually a temple was built. Their entire identity has been wrapped up in the connection between their identity as a people, the land that God gave to them, and the temple which sits at the highest point of the holy city. But in the exile, the people were dispersed. Not all were taken to Babylon, others stayed, but still others went north, others went south, and this marked the beginning of the Diaspora, or the dispersion. From this point on, God’s people will not be concentrated in a particular geographical location, but will be dispersed throughout the world, something that exists until the present day.

By this time, there has been another major shift in the politics of the region, and the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persian Empire, and their king, Cyrus the Great, had a policy of allowing those in captivity to trickle back to their homelands, after all, they are more willing subjects if they are happier.

But the captivity was not just a couple of years, it was a significant amount of time. Following the commands from God through the prophets, they put down roots, built homes, established businesses. But more than anything, they had to figure out what it meant to be God’s people while they were away from the land and the temple. What did it mean? The Hebrew world would be forever changed. Instead of holding place as the center of their faith and practice, they held the text as a center of their faith and practice. This was when rabbis and synagogues arose, this is when the Old Testament as we understood it began to take form and become committed to writing.

But when they were allowed to go home, not everyone did. People had families and homes and businesses in the places where they had been taken. So while some people did return, many remained in the diaspora, in dispersion.

Our story takes place within the Persian Empire, a few kings after Cyrus.

***

Ahasuerus is king and at the beginning he is hosting a banquet. The King calls for the queen Vashti to come and parade her beauty. Now, it is important for us to remember that in this context, queens had prestige, but no power. They were to be seen when the king desired, but absent every other time. They were not to speak, just be pretty. This is not okay, but this is the context in which this story arises. So the king calls for Vashti, and she says, “No.”

Well, the king is very displeased by this disobedience and he deposed Vashti as queen.

So, now the king needs another queen. The king, then, calls for beautiful women be gathered from around the empire to brought to him so that he could choose another queen. Among them is Esther, who was being raised by Mordecai, her uncle, because she was an orphan. Mordecai and his family were Jews who lived in Susa, a principal Persian city. So to make a long story short, Esther is eventually the one who wins the heart of Ahasuerus and she is made queen.

Mordecai sat at the king’s gate, which denotes that Mordecai was in a relatively close position to the king. After Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king, Haman was made a very high official in the empire, above all other officials. Everyone else at the king’s gate bowed down and paid homage to Haman, but Mordecai refused to do so, after all, God’s people cannot pay homage to anyone other than God.

Haman, of course, didn’t like this one bit. scripture tells us that Haman was “infuriated”. Haman was then told that Mordecai was a Jew and so Haman didn’t want to deal with Mordecai himself, and instead, he went to the king, and brought up a bunch of fear within him.

“There are people in your kingdom, throughout your kingdom, and their laws are different, they are different, their language is different, and they do not obey the laws.” Haman also promised to pay a great deal of money to the king’s treasury if he signed this law. So Haman convinced the king to let him kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom, to purge the kingdom of these foreigners, of these immigrants, those people who speak a different language and have different customs.

So the king signs this order with his signet ring and it became a law, a law which may have been popular amongst the native Persians, but a law which was wrong and unjust nonetheless, and it was done through a process with which we are very familiar to this day.

This is what brings us to our text, Mordecai learns of this plot, tears his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes and let out a loud cry in the midst of the city, all signs of grief and mourning.

Now, Mordecai cannot go in and talk to Esther as she is the queen and he is in sackcloth, and no one in sackcloth is allowed to enter the king’s gate, so Mordecai and Esther send messages back and forth through one of the servants pledged to her services.

Mordecai wants Esther to do something to stop this, but Esther reminds Mordecai that if anyone, the queen included, approaches the king in his inner courts without being summoned, they will be killed. Mordecai responds that if this is carried out, it will come to light that she, too, is a Jew and that she will not be safe. And then Mordecai’s message ends with the very well known line, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

I can imagine that Esther had great fear and doubts within her, and likely let out a great sigh. She tells Mordecai to ask people to fast for her, as she will do for three days.

The story continues, “After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

***

The Book of Esther is a unique book, in that it does not mention God by name — in any of the Hebrew words used for God. It does not speak of the burning bush or Jerusalem or the temple or deliverance from Egypt, or the law or Abraham or anything. We do not have any of the typical religious language that we associate with religiosity. Instead, we have the story about a family and a people and a king and injustice.

Esther’s people were still trying to figure out what it means to be God’s covenant people away from home, how to live out their faith in a foreign land. In the language of that great Psalm of lament, Psalm 137, they are still learning how to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. All the while they are longing for a promised Messiah, who will bring redemption to their peoples, trying to live faithfully in the time of waiting.

While the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God explicitly, God is still present. God is present in the background, God is present through Mordecai and the king choosing Esther and Esther. There are a number of coincidences in Esther, but in reality, they are the movements of God.

I think that in many ways, the book of Esther reflects our experiences. We all want to hear God’s voice in a burning bush, but very few of us will experience this. We all want to have messages from God chiseled into stone by God’s hand atop the mountain, but rarely, if ever, will we experience this. We want to hear God’s voice as clearly as it seems that Abram hears it, but very few of us will have this experience. We want to be able to do something big, like stand in front of Pharaoh, call “Let my people go” and lead them through two walls of water into freedom, but very few of us will have this role.  Instead, we have our ordinary lives filled with ordinary people trying to figure out what it means to be a the people of God, trying to live out our faith in a land where the overarching culture doesn’t hold the same religious convictions. We try to live out our faith remembering that the messiah has come, but looking forward to the time in which the messiah’s work will be complete, when justice and peace and wholeness and true harmony will reign. When sickness and death and crying and pain will be no more. When there will be no more hunger, when there will be no more gap between the rich and the poor, when there will be no one on the margins, when we will not have to talk about another unarmed black man getting killed by white police officers, because we will neither be prejudiced or colorblind, but we will appreciate the diversity of the palette with which God created us.

***

As we think about living out our faith, as we think about God’s command to feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant, clothe the naked, release the prisoners, and so on, we so often ask ourselves, “what can I do? the problem is so big?”

In Esther, we see people just doing what they can. Mordecai speaks to Esther, and Esther, although reluctant at first, sets aside her fear, and even though she is breaking the law and may perish, she stands before power to work for justice. Everyone does their part, and with God’s assistance in the process, their efforts become more than the sum of their parts. While it is likely that none of our efforts will bring forth radical and massive change, God doesn’t demand for us to do things on a grand scale. God calls for us to live out our faith, to be Christ’s hands and feet, to work for peace and justice in our lives because this is what God desires of us. And trusting that God is working in the background, we have the faith that the fruit of our labors will be more than the visible sum of its parts.

Esther’s people were strangers in a foreign land, as are we. Esther’s people were trying to figure out how to live out their faith without controlling the social structure, as do we. There was no burning bush or voice from smoke and fire. There is Esther who becomes the queen, Mordecai who is in the right place at the right time, there are a lot of coincidences in this book. Or maybe they are not coincidences, maybe they are the fingerprints of God’s action behind the scenes. So as we move through Advent, let us take a lesson from Esther, that even as we wait for the redemption that the coming of God will complete, we too cannot just throw our hands up at such a time as this, for maybe, just maybe, we are in the situation we are in for such a time as this. Perhaps this is all a part of us finding out way as we wait for redemption and restoration.

Blessed are the Autumn Daisies

Long after the trees have dropped their leaves, and the canopy of green becomes a jagged collection of branches reaching upward toward the disappearing sun, long after the geese have ceased honking and the birds have stopped their morning songs, long after the bushes begin to blaze but are not yet consumed, long after the patch becomes nothing but green stems without any sort of beauty, the autumn daisy blooms.

***

Autumn has always been a significant time for me. It is a time of transition. The leaves die and fall off, and the trees, which not long ago were thriving, look dead. Once the leaves have fallen it is nearly impossible to look and tell the dead trees from the live trees.

Flowers which brought forth color into the world have all wilted and died, leaving nothing behind but stems and a corpse.

Autumn is a time in which it is evident that we are in the midst of a broken world. The colors are beautiful, to be sure, but the beauty is fleeting, as each leaf which turns into brilliant reds and yellows and oranges are in throes of death. It is a transition that happens every year, and while I know that spring will be coming, and these very trees will bud and the flowers will once again bloom, there is a long and cold winter filled with ice and snow which covers all with which to contend.

Yet in the midst of the cooling temperatures and the ever decreasing sunshine and the clouds which cast a gray haze over all, something unexpected occurs, in the midst of the daisy patch when all of the flowers have given up their energy, one more blooms.

***

I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the natural order. Trees which have cracked and have fallen down continue to grow and bloom, small and comparably weak blades of grass can burst forth through the concrete of a parking lot which has been vacant for only a short time, and dandelions, although they are mowed over again and again, are determined to finish their mission and go to seed.

And when all the other daisies have bloomed, when the bees are gone, when the temperatures turn cold, and there has already been a layer of frost, when the sunshine can no longer be reflected in its golden centers and white petals, a daisy shines like the sun in the midst of a gray autumn day.

***

There are days when I find it hard to face the world, days when I can relate to the trees which have let their leaves die and have dropped them, and they hunker down, and prepare for the lang haul. When the light lessens and the darkness grows, I, too, have the instinct that the rest of nature has as it begins to den and hibernate for the duration.

But I cannot do this, even when the days are difficult, even when the darkness is difficult, even when the world which I must face is harsh, I catch a glimpse of the daisy beaming in all of its glory, amid the dead leaves.

Blessed are the autumn daisies, for they point to life when it is difficult to find.

When you can’t find the words

My calling is centered around language, as language is the way to communicate, to express. In my pastoral role, it is my charge to speak to the community and for the community — to express the experiences and life of the community and to help us all find meaning in our individual and shared experiences. But yet, for myself, I often lack words, I lack the ability to sufficiently translate my experiences into the limits of language. This is especially so in my attempts to speak with God.

Much of this Lent has been spent in the hospital, periodically standing on the boundary between this life and eternity. As I have recently written, nighttime was particularly isolating. When the doctors go away, when the tests and scans and procedures are done for the night, and all that surrounds me is the sound of monitoring machines and the hiss of the oxygen tube, I am left without anyone to which to speak or for which to speak. There is no communal life or experience to articulate. It is just me, overflowing with fears and worries and pain, none of which will abate, and I lack words to offer to God.

***

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
   my eye wastes away from grief,
   my soul and body also. 
For my life is spent with sorrow,
   and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
   and my bones waste away.  
(Psalm 31:9-10, NRSV)…

 

I’m over at That Reformed Blog today, come on over to read the rest…

When God sits at your bedside

I am a pastor. I spend time with people, not only preaching and teaching, but also checking in on them, visiting them in the hospital, praying with them and talking with them before operations about which anxieties are high. But in March, the day after Ash Wednesday, the tables were turned.

I spent almost three weeks in the hospital, one week of which was in intensive care. I was extremely sick, but for a while, none of the seven physicians could ascertain a root cause. I went through a significant regimen of scans and tests and exams and lab work and biopsies as I continued my downward decline. I was having difficulty breathing, was being pumped full of fluids continuously and in incredible constant pain. It was a scary time for my family, and it was a scary time for me.

It was a time in which, instead of caring for others, it was I who was being cared for by other pastors, and members of my congregation. I was cared for by members of my family. I was cared for by my beloved.

Night time was particularly scary. While I was hooked up to all different types of machines and nurses checking on me every couple hours, I was afraid of what might happen when I go to sleep. Would I stop breathing? Would my lungs continue to decline in their ability to absorb oxygen? Would my heart finally give out under the tremendous strain to which it was being subjected?

***

My beloved sat with me many days and every night. We tried to carry on some of our routines and watched Jeopardy every evening. But we could not follow our routine, and we both knew it, and we worried that we would not be able to return to our routine.

One night it was getting late and my eyelids were getting heavy. My beloved saw this and she took my hand and held it and patted it. “Go ahead and close your eyes,” she said to me, “and I’ll stay here and sit with you for a while.”

***

So often we wonder why, when sickness or tragedy befalls us, why didn’t God do anything to prevent this? Why doesn’t God fix this?

It’s a valid question. It is a question that I have asked many times.

But I also wonder if we tend to place our focus on the wrong thing. Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. What if the amazing thing about God’s presence in tragedy is not that God will prevent it or fix it, but rather that God simply sits at our bedside?

While I am careful not to deify my beloved, I do strongly believe that God works through people in the world. While the face and the voice was that of my beloved, I have no doubt that the words were God’s, “close your eyes, my child, and I will sit with you, and keep watch over you.”

I fell asleep and I know that my beloved did leave that night, but even though she left, it later became apparent that God never did. Sometimes God manifested Godself in tangible form: my beloved, a visitor, a chaplain, or a nurse who was concerned not only with my physical well-being, but also my emotional and spiritual well being.

This, I think, is the wonderful thing about God’s presence in our lives and care for us. It is not so much that God waves a wand and makes it all better, but rather, that God spends countless hours, and sleepless nights sitting in the chair next to the bed, allowing us to sleep because of the assurance that God will watch over us when we cannot watch over ourselves.

***

While my sickness was serious, I am thankful that it was not what they initially thought. It was treatable and the treatment should completely resolve it. I’m doing much better now, and at the same time that I am filled with gratitude, I grieve for those who are not as fortunate, and are diagnosed with something without a cure, or something for which the treatment is difficult and the outcome uncertain.

But I never cease to be amazed that in these dark hours, when things look bleak and the shadows seem to come ever closer, God remains in these hours. Sometimes working something more clearly miraculous, other times simply sitting at one’s bedside keeping watch.

 

Choosing the Better Part

Christ at the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez (1618)

My sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 10:38-42

Having people over is very enjoyable, but it can also be a lot of work. The apartment has to be cleaned, and depending how long people are staying, a guest room may have to be prepared, even if it is a make-shift room. food has to be planned and prepared, often more than one typically is used to preparing. Additionally, if you are anything like me, I much like to prepare better fare than I typically have. While I’m fine with rice and beans, I like my guests to have something a bit more exciting, tasty, a bit more intensive. While I am satisfied with spending an evening reading, having guests often means making plans. A lot of work, for sure, but important work, worthwhile work, hospitable work.

We see something similar in our reading today, but first, where are we in the story?

Jesus is traveling again. This passage comes right on the heels of the story that we read last week, when the lawyer asked Jesus exactly who is my neighbor, the one that he needed to love, and when Jesus told him, love even the person you grew up to hate, the person of a different ethnicity and religion, love the foreigner. Immediately after this, we have our story of Jesus visiting these two sisters, Martha and Mary.

We’re not sure if Jesus just showed up at their doorstep or if he told them in advance that he was coming. So Jesus came, and the Middle Eastern codes of hospitality required them to care for Jesus. We typically think that hospitality is offering coffee or tea and cookies or something. We see it as just being nice, but in first century Palestine it was a serious matter, life or death. Remember, this is largely a desert and if you don’t care for people who come to you, chances are they will die. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all put a large emphasis on the importance of hospitality, and this continues today.

So, Martha is busy making preparations for Jesus’ stay. We aren’t told exactly what she was preparing, but we can probably safely assume that it was a meal.

But Martha can’t just prepare any meal. Jesus is a well known and well respected (by some, greatly hated by others, of course) religious leader. In fact, here, Martha calls Jesus “Lord”, so the chance is great that she had an inkling at least that he was more than just that. So she can’t just make any meal. She likely wants to prepare the best meal. So she is working really hard to show the best hospitality to Jesus, but what is going on?  Her sister Mary is just sitting, listening to Jesus. Martha, overworked and underpaid, as the colloquialism goes, gets fed up with having to prepare the food, set the table, and make a nice and welcoming environment and in all her running around, she sees her sister, not helping. One thing leads to another, every time Martha passes the entrance to the room, she sees her sister sitting there while she continues to run around. Finally, she can’t take it anymore.

She slams down her utensils on the counter-top removes her apron and stomps out into the main room where Jesus and Mary sit.

“Lord,” she addresses Jesus respectfully, but we can sense a bit of impatience and frustration under her voice. “Don’t you care that my sister has abandoned all of this work to me alone? Tell her to come and help me!”

With Jesus’ reply, we can put two different inflections to it which give two different nuances to the words. We can see it as a chastisement, a reprimand, a rebuke. Or we can see it as an invitation. The best reading, I think, is to see it as an invitation.

Notice, what we have here with with Martha and Mary is not a contrast between good and bad. Martha didn’t really do anything wrong. She was being hospitable, something that Jesus certainly appreciated, after all, the importance of hospitality is plastered all over the pages of scripture from the very first book to the last.  No, Martha wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong, which is one of the reasons that I don’t think that this was a rebuke. No, she wasn’t doing anything particularly bad, she was doing most things right, she was just missing one piece.

Hospitality is not just about providing things for guests, which is important, but the foundation of hospitality is to care for those whom God brings to you. Therefore, an important piece that Martha was missing was not in her work, but rather in her neglect of paying attention to their guest, to Jesus.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t say anything about her being busy, he said that she was worried and distracted by many things. She was worried and distracted by many things. Jesus was not yelling at Martha, but rather offering an invitation and showing concern for Martha.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus said, “You are worried and distracted by many things.”

The issue here is not at all that Martha was doing anything wrong by making preparations for Jesus’ visit, it was that in her preparations, she seems to have forgotten what she was actually doing. She became so engrossed in what she was preparing, that she seemed to have forgotten who was sitting right there in her living room.

Some have used this to argue that a contemplative spirituality is superior to a working spirituality, that somehow sitting still at the feet of Jesus is superior to work, to being busy to getting things done. But this is not at all.  Nowhere does scripture ever downplay the importance of doing things. I mean, where would the church be without people who do things…without people who connect with God through service?

No, this is not at all, but it says something important. It says that while we work, regardless of what we are doing we need to do two things, first, we must listen to the voice of God, and second, we cannot lose focus of the fact that God is always here with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. Martha lost track of the fact that God was sitting in her living room while she frantically ran to and fro to get things ready, but in the process, she lost sight of who she was with, of the whole point of hospitality.

I wonder if any of you can resonate with this. Do you ever feel like you get so busy with things, that you forget about God? Do you ever get so worried and distracted by many things that you find that you didn’t pray, that you didn’t have a chance to read scripture, that you didn’t have the opportunity to, even for fifteen minutes, listen to what God might be saying to you?  Now, I don’t say this to make you feel bad. People who are busy don’t need lectures about how they need to pray more, or how they need to read the Bible more. While this is often accurate, guilting ourselves or each other into this is not the point.

Rather, see this as an invitation.

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite brother in France in who lived in in the middle of the 17th century. Brother Lawrence worked in the kitchen. He prepared food for the other brothers and he cleaned up afterwards. Day in and day out. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. Day in and day out. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Preparing meals and scrubbing pots. What helps us remember Brother Lawrence, however, was not the food that he cooked or his ability to scrub pots until they shined. No, the reason that we remember Brother Lawrence, but throughout all of his mundane work, he developed the discipline to experience the deep and abiding presence of God even in the four walls of his kitchen with stoves burning, pots clanging, and dishwater smelling.

You see, Brother Lawrence grew in the ability to be both Martha and Mary at the same time. He kept his hands busy with important, albeit mundane, repetitive, and tedious work.

Brother Lawrence writes, “We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him… It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

His work, his unspiritual and tedious work of preparing meals and scrubbing pots, but he always worked to always have a sense of God’s presence. He chose the better part.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence. It took him years to develop this. It didn’t bring him notoriety within his lifetime, it was his writings that brought him fame long after his death. But fame wasn’t what we was seeking, he simply wanted to be able to pay attention to God while he prepared things for God’s people, while he did his work, he simply wanted to be able to choose the better part in his work.

It wasn’t easy for Brother Lawrence, and it likely won’t be easy for us either. It is not easy, but it is important, it is worthwhile, it is the better part.

Be aware of God’s presence where you are. Listen for God’s voice among the clamour of your daily life. Work is good, and there is nothing wrong with being busy, but remember that God is right with you, and we cannot ignore this fact. Perhaps the story here of Martha and Mary isn’t to present us with an either/or, perhaps it is a both/and.

I want to close with a prayer generally attributed to Brother Lawrence. Whether it was actually written by him, I do not know, and it does not matter, because I think that it describes well what we all strive for:

O Lord of pots and pans and things,
Since I have no time to be
a great saint by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming Heaven’s gates,
Make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
Forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food
in room, or by the sea,
Accept the service that I do-
I do it unto Thee.

Reaching Into the Dark

Sermon from this past Sunday. The text was Luke 7:11-17

This is a short story, only six verses to be accurate, but it is a wonderfully beautiful story. This story is another example of how, sometimes, silence can be more powerful and more significant than words. After all, there are only a couple of spoken phrases in this whole story. The rest is narration and silence.

So let’s look at the scene for a couple moments. Jesus was coming from Capernaum where he just finished healing a centurion’s servant. There, Jesus never even saw the centurion or his servant. What Jesus did see was the love of the community and the faith of a foreigner — neither of which would be expected for a Roman centurion. So Jesus was traveling again — Remember, Jesus traveled literally all the time. Perhaps Jesus was going to this town on purpose, perhaps he was passing through but decided to stop there.

Before Jesus even gets to the gates of the town he sees something out of the ordinary. There is a crowd coming out of the city. Jesus is trying to come in, and seemingly everyone is trying to get out. He hears the flautists and he hears weeping and wailing. As he looks closer he sees that in front of the group is a bier, which is not exactly a casket but does hold the body of a deceased person. At this point Jesus and his disciples, who were with him, realize that this is a funeral procession.

It was not only the disciples that were with him, but a crowd also came with them, and they were really wanting to know what is going on. One of the disciples approaches one of the bystanders and asks what is going on, and after finding out, he goes up to Jesus and tells him that the funeral is for a young man who was the son of that widow, and the disciple points out to Jesus his mother.

So now we have the crowd from the funeral procession and we have the crowd that Jesus brought with him, and there, in the midst of this now massive group of people is this one woman who has first lost her husband, and now her only son. Widows were particularly vulnerable because at the time, women depended on men for shelter, food, and pretty much everything else needed for life. So this woman lost her husband, and it would have been her son that was taking care of her, and now he died. All of this on top of the fact that a parent lost her child.

So there are a mashup of people with a crowd coming out and a crowd going in, and Jesus looked and he saw the widow, and he felt compassion for her.

It is this moment, I think, that really speaks volumes here. We see not only Jesus’ actions, we also have the opportunity to glimpse into what Jesus was feeling. His heart broke.

Jesus then walks up to the widow and says, “Do not weep,” which would be rather insensitive and offensive if it was not for what he does after that. Jesus then touches the bier, which is enough to make him unclean, and the pallbearers get the hint, so they stop for a moment.

Jesus looks at the pale, cold, lifeless corpse. As he looked at the corpse, he pointed his finger at it and said, “young man, I tell you, get up!” And suddenly with that, they boy sat up, and started talking. Why did he start talking? So that everyone there knew and we can know that he was actually alive. This was no muscle spasm that made it look like he sat up, he started talking.

This story is beautiful, if not in its words, in its silences.

This story is also somewhat unique. It is one of only three stories recorded in the gospels where Jesus actually brought someone back to life. Many people he healed, but only three he brought back to life. It is also somewhat unique because no one asked him to heal the boy. No one asked him to do anything. We read that Jesus saw the widow and he had compassion.

It reminds me of the raising of Lazarus. No one asked him to bring Lazarus back to life, but his heart broke.

Similarly, here we simply have Jesus who sees a mourning and grieving mother, but not only that it is a woman who has lost her only remaining support, and he has compassion, his heart breaks, he feels sympathy for this widow. It is this that drives him to action.

When I was young, I would sometimes see Jesus as somewhat aloof. He taught a lot, always knowing what others didn’t know, always understanding what others didn’t understand, always seeing things in a way that no one else saw. People would ask him to heal this person or that and he would, and then teach them something. Now, none of this is particularly incorrect, but it is incomplete. Our understanding of Jesus is incomplete if we forget about this story of Jesus raising this widow’s son. No doubt the redemption of the whole creation was in view but this story, in part, teaches us that Jesus was not just interested in the redemption of creation but also about the care of particular lives in particular situations.

It is important that we pay attention to what Jesus does here. First, he sees her, then he has compassion for her, then he reaches out.

Amidst all of the people in the crowd, all of the people who were mourning — no doubt he had friends and neighbors — amidst all of these people he saw the widow. It is important to understand that this was not just a “look at” or a “notice” but he saw, he perceived, the tried to understand. So he sees, truly sees, this widow who has just lost her only son and he has compassion.

The word here refers not to something of the intellect, but to a gut-wrench. Jesus didn’t just have pity on her, he deeply felt compassion and sympathy in his gut. Jesus allowed himself to be moved by what he saw. He knew that what he saw was not right, he knew what was happening was not part of God’s original order and design, he knew that parents were not supposed to bury their children, and he knew that this woman’s livelihood was in the balance.

So Jesus doesn’t just say, “oh that is just too bad.” No, this compassion drives Jesus to do something, so without being asked he first comforts the mother, and then reaches down to death, reaches into the unclean, into the impure, into the dark to bring life out of it.

Jesus reached down into that seemingly bottomless abyss out of which no one comes, and brought back a life, which no one would have ever thought possible.  I find it interesting that Jesus could have just spoken the young man back to life without getting his hands dirty, but he didn’t, he touched the stretcher on which the dead body was carried. In doing so, Jesus, in a way, reached down into the dark.

Now, I would guess that none of us have seen a dead person come back to life in quite this way. I have talked with medical professionals who have witnessed or been involved in resuscitations  but this is something different, this is a dead person who comes back to life, sits up, and starts talking.

So, this is all well and right, but how can we relate to this story?  I find that many Christians that I spend time with typically follow one of these two methods of dealing with these miracle stories. Either, one, we expect that miracles like this don’t happen anymore, and they only happened to teach something about Jesus, and since they are accomplished, there is no need for them any longer. The second method is to expect miracles like this, and then when they don’t happen, we assume that something went awry…there was lack of faith, insincere prayer, a besetting sin.

Many of us tend to fall into one of these broad camps, and neither of these are particularly better or worse than the other. We do this because we have a difficult time reconciling what we read in scripture and what we witness in our lives. I’ve seen parents bury their children. I’ve seen a mother bury her 9 year old son — and I was 8 and he was my best friend. I’ve been with a mother and father bury their newborn daughter who never made it home from the hospital. All of these were great people who did not deserve what happened, and if being faithful was the prerequisite for a miracle all of these people would still be living and breathing.

These miracle stories are not just about the individual person who is on the receiving end of the miracle. These miracle stories are to give a foretaste of the Kingdom of God when things are set right. These stories are to give a glimpse into our hope that God will restore the world into what it ought to be, a world in which blind will see, lame will walk, the sick are healthy, and parents do not bury children. They are to give the people in first century Palestine, and us today, a taste of who Jesus is, and what he is all about. They are to give a glimpse into who God is and what God is all about — after all, Jesus is God-with-us.

Perhaps we don’t see someone raised from the dead like this, but can we imagine Jesus reaching into the dark for us? I think that we’ve all seen it in one way or another. Someone with a terminal disease who has long outlived the projections of even the best doctors. The mother who has serious complications in childbirth, yet the child somehow survives. The four-year old boy who gets stuck by errant bullets and yet survives just fine.

But we also know about the sixteen year old girl who gets struck by a drunk driver yet dies even before they can get her to the hospital.

We live in a world full of contradictions. We live in a world when some people seem to get miracles and others do not. We live in a world where there seem to be far more people in need of miracles than there are miracles to go around. But one of the practices that we must continue to hone throughout our faith journey is our imagination. Our capacity to imagine where God might be working, and what God might be doing even if we cannot see it plainly. Our ability to imagine that miracles come in forms which are less glitzy, perhaps even less dramatic. Maybe, then, the challenge we face is not a world with too few miracles, but rather too few of the ones that we want, or the ones that we recognize as miraculous.

When we focus on only one view of what is possible, only one way to think of miracles, only one way that God works, we miss the fact that God works around us, all the time.

Elijah stood in a cave while God promised to pass by. First there was a great wind, and God has appeared as a great wind before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God. There was an earthquake, and God has appeared in an earthquake before, but scripture tells us that wasn’t God either. And then there was a fire, and God loves to use fire, but scripture tells us that still wasn’t God. Rather, God appeared in the sound of sheer silence. Had Elijah just assumed that God would be show up in the same majestic ways that God has before, Elijah would have missed that encounter with God.

If we only accept that God shows up in this way or that, we will miss the ways that Jesus sees us, has compassion for us, and reaches into the dark chaos of our lives. Just as Jesus touched that stretcher of that young man, Jesus reaches into the dark of our lives, and can many times, work a miracle, even small, even if we can’t see it, even if we can’t recognize it for quite some time.

It is not our job to make miracles happen, and it is not our job to determine how God shows up. It is our job to try not to fear, to believe, and to pray. I hope that we will never stop praying for miracles, but we have to understand that when we pray, we are engaging God in relationship rather than pushing buttons on a vending machine. When we pray, we share in God’s purposes, regardless of whether things happen the way that we want, when we want.

So I want you to imagine, just for a few moments, where God might be present in your life, how God might be present in your life. Where might you see Jesus reaching into the dark? We don’t have to pray for God to show up, God’s already here. Our prayer is for God to make Godself evident, and for God to show Godself so that we can understand and experience God’s presence, God’s action, God’s long reach out to us even if we are, like the young man in this story, dead to touch.

Amen.

Faithful Foreigners

Sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Luke 7:1-10

“Not even in Israel have I found such faith”

An unexpected statement, to be sure. After all, Israel is where the faithful were supposed to live. Ancient Israel was supposed to be the home of God’s people. Ancient Israel were thought to be God’s people to the exclusion of all others. But there is an interesting trend that we see throughout all of Scripture — the idea of the faithful foreigner.

A faithful foreigner is someone who was not a Jew, someone who was not expected to be faithful, someone who was not expected to be good.

For instance, there was Rahab, a woman in the city of Jericho who hid the Israelite spies and refused to turn them over to the King of Jericho and helped them escape from the city. We also have Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israelite, and when her husband, his brothers, and his father all died, she went to her mother-in-law, Naomi who was left destitute by losing all of her male family members. Several times she instructed Ruth to return to her home so that he could have a life ahead of her. But Ruth committed to sharing her life with Naomi so that she would not be alone, and she settled amongst the ancient Israelites who hated the Moabites. These are but a couple examples among many of faithful foreigners.

Scripture is filled with these stories of foreigners who are faithful, we see good sprouting up in the midst of bad, belief showing up in unexpected places. Faithful people were supposed to be found in ancient Israel and there alone, but at times we see unfaithfulness in ancient Israel and faithfulness outside of it.

Here we have the story of yet another faithful foreigner, and a surprising one at that. The person in the story is a Roman centurion — a mid-level military officer. Now, in order to understand the scene here, we must remember that at the time of Jesus, the land of Israel, or Palestine, was under Roman occupation and rule. For many of us, it is difficult to actually understand what it is like to live in an occupied country, and understand what it is like to on a regular basis see soldiers from this foreign occupier walking down the street and through town, always with the threat of force, and always reminding you of the fact that you are not free, that you are beholden to a foreign power.

While many of us cannot fully understand this, we probably could imagine that the Romans, particularly the soldiers, were hated. Not just disliked, but actually hated. The Jews in first century Israel/Palestine wanted to be a free and independent nation again without the heavy weight of Roman rule.

So here, we have a Roman military officer, and this particular person turns out to be a faithful foreigner, of course, no one knows it yet, but we know it. This centurion had a slave — which is not unexpected — but what was unique is that he valued his slave highly, in fact, he valued him enough that when the slave became ill, he sought out a way to have him healed He goes to great lengths, in fact, for something which simply would not have been done. Slaves, to them, were just like any other property or tool, something to be used, and when it becomes worn out or broken, simply discarded and replaced.

But as we have seen, this centurion does not regard this particular slave at least, in the same way, but regarded him higher.

Now, this alone is not what makes him unique, we also see that this centurion keeps an interesting group of friends. We are told that when the centurion heard that Jesus was coming near the town, he sent some of his friends to go out and find Jesus. The friends that the centurion sent out were not only Jews, but they were Jewish leaders, significant people in the Jewish community.

He was well aware of the dynamics at play here. The centurion knew that he was a Gentile, an outsider, and that Jesus was a Jew. Perhaps he worried that Jesus would not pay attention to him, perhaps he was worried that Jesus would recognize him for being a Roman centurion, and ignore him. Perhaps he was worried that Jesus would not think him worthy of attending to his beloved servant.  So he sends these insiders to find Jesus and make his case for him.

The Jewish leaders go to Jesus and bring up the situation. They serve as a character reference for him. They tell him that he is not your typical Roman centurion, that he loves the Jewish people of the town, and that he even built their synagogue for them. This is quite a character reference. Someone who followed a different religion built for them a place of worship. What is important here is that he loves these people who are so different, he loves these people who speak a different language, people of different race and ethnicity, people of a different culture, people of a different religion.  It is because of this that they argue that the centurion is worthy of Jesus coming to attend to him and his servant.

So, Jesus decides to go and visit the centurion. When he heard that Jesus was coming, he sent out more friends to meet Jesus before Jesus got to his house. This is now the second time that the centurion has never appeared in person in the story, but always through friends. The centurion argues that he is not worthy of Jesus to come under his roof — remember historically, Jews and Gentiles didn’t mix well — and that Jesus should not trouble himself in coming to his house.

But then he says something particularly interesting. “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” This is what is interesting, the centurion does not ask for Jesus to come and touch him, he does not need to do any ritual surrounding the sick servant, he does not need to do any of that. In fact, Jesus does not even need to be standing by the sick servant to heal him, all Jesus needs to do is “say the word.”

After this, the centurion goes into this explanation of his life. He explains that he is someone with authority and that he commands soldiers. If he tells soldiers to “go” they go, and if he tells them to “come” they come. If he tells his servant to do something, the servant does it. The centurion is used to making things happen, he is used to giving orders which are followed out, he is used to speaking words and things being done. However, with his sick servant, he cannot do this. He cannot tell his servant to get better, he cannot order a soldier to make him all better. He is a man that is used to results and making these results happen, but now he cannot.

So why does he tell Jesus all of this? Why does he tell Jesus all about his ability to give orders and the fact that they will happen? Well, sometimes a well placed pause is more effective than speaking, and what the centurion is getting at is that he is used to giving orders, which are followed, and Jesus can do the same. Jesus can command that his servant be healed, and he will be. There is no, “do you think that you can do something?” There is no, “If you are able”.  There is only, “Jesus, I know what giving orders is like, and I am used to seeing my orders carried out. This is something that I cannot order, but you can order, and it will be carried out.”

This is the root of Jesus’ declaration that not even in Israel has he seen such faith.

Now, while the healing of the servant was great, and these healing stories are great, the story isn’t about the servant. In fact, I think that the main character of focus in this story is the centurion, and interestingly enough, he never himself appears, he only appears through friends and neighbors. The main event, I think, in this story, is not the healing of the servant, but rather the expression of faith from this outsider, this foreigner.

The thing that is so great about this story is not that the slave was healed, although that is good too, it is the fact that faith can show up in unexpected places, and that God can show up in unexpected places.

Throughout his life, Jesus spends a lot of time with outsiders. He spends time with the hated tax collectors, he touches the unclean lepers, he eats in the homes of Gentiles. There is something about outsiders that Jesus is drawn to them. Perhaps this was the first step in the change that the message of God isn’t just for this one ethnicity, but rather, for all kinds of people, perhaps Jesus is expanding the peoples’ ideas of who God is and where God works.

Perhaps Jesus is trying to show us that God can work even in the most unexpected places. I think that this story tells us that sometimes insiders lack faith, and sometimes outsiders show tremendous faith. Sometimes we also suffer from this insider/outsider mentality. We look at people who don’t go to church, and we label them outsiders, and sort of write them off. We look at people from other traditions, perhaps Pentecostals, perhaps Roman Catholics, and we write them off and do not expect to see any faith there. Perhaps we think that because we show up at a church, we have a special significance that others do not. But perhaps we forget that there is more to just showing up at church, or there is more than going to this particular church or that particular church.

There is a faith component, and that faith component comes through not only in our interactions with God but also our interactions with one another. This faith component opens us up to seeing faithful foreigners, seeing God in unexpected places. It is a trust, not in ourselves, but in God. I also want to add that faith is a process, and coming to faith is a process. Don’t listen to me and think, “if I don’t have it I may as well give up.” A tree does not appear from nothing, it begins as a seed, and there is water, and the sun, and other elements which helps that seed to mature and eventually sprout, and it takes a long time for the tree to grow into a big mature tree.  So I want to be sure that if you feel like you’re faith isn’t strong, or it waivers, or you have doubts, or you’re unsure if you have faith, that is okay. Remember, faith is a gift from God, not something that we muster up on our own.

The one thing that is important here is that we do not lose our capacity for being surprised by God. Perhaps you have experienced this in your own life. Someone who you thought was incapable of faith, expresses the seeds of faith. Someone you thought would never come to church has snuck in the back door and sat in the back. Faith can show up in surprising places, and God can show up in surprising places, but we typically see it only if we do not lose our capacity for being surprised by God.

Our passage says that even Jesus was amazed at the faith of the centurion. It is important that we retain the possibility of being amazed. When we lose the ability to be surprised, when we lose our ability to be amazed by where God shows up and works and is present in the unexpected, then we will miss most of God’s action and involvement in us, in others, and in the world around us. You see, you never know where God is going to act, where God is going to plant seeds of faith, who God is using for God’s purposes. Part of faith is being aware of where God is, and what God is doing, even in the ordinary and unexpected.

Curiosity on a Sunny Saturday Morning

The sun is warm and the birds are chirping. It is finally a spring-like day during this unseasonably cold spring.

The front window is open and I hear a group of boys talking.

The city is doing utility work on our street and there is a square of concrete which is removed surrounded by sawhorse barricades so that unsuspecting motorists do not drive into the section of missing street.

This is all I see, a square of missing street.

What the boys see, however, seems to be something more than that.

The three of them stand around the missing segment and look down into it and they talk to one another. I cannot not hear what they are saying, but they appear to be interested in what lies before them.

One of them puts his foot out, as if to step into the void (although only about six inches deep), but backs away from doing so. Again and again they circle the void, looking into it and talking.

Finally, that same boy, again puts his foot out, and after pausing, takes a step into the hole. The other boys, seeing that this one was okay, also step into the hole as well. Shortly after this, they move to the porch on a house across the street. The whole experience was about twenty minutes.

I could not help but watch the event. Not because it was particularly exciting, but because I was enamored with how interested these boys were in a square of missing concrete. Something which I overlook, or if I do notice, it is seen as a nuisance — this is a source of investigation and curiosity for these boys.

Perhaps they were bored and this was the most interesting thing. Or, perhaps they were curious.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, as the adage goes, but it is the very thing that is life-giving for humans.