For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. “Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Luke 21: 5-19
I recently spent a few hours on a Sunday afternoon with 8 young adults–men and women in their late 20s and early 30s–from a congregation in Washington, DC. They wanted to talk with me about spiritual practices, and in particular, what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has commended to all of us in the Episcopal Church: The Way of Love: 7 Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.
We spent most of our time discussing the first of those practices, to turn, which, as a flower turns toward the sun, is the daily invitation given to us to turn our focus toward Jesus and his teachings, to consciously open ourselves to him and allow him to guide us through life. Turning also has the connotation of turning around, or turning from those things that are not loving toward ourselves and others, and thus not of God. The word itself acknowledges the fact that all of us fall short, make mistakes, do things that we regret, and participate in evil in ways that we may not be aware of or believe are wrong. Each day brings a new opportunity to turn away from those things that make us lesser versions of ourselves, hold our lives before the life and love of Jesus, and turn toward him, trusting that he is always turning toward us.
I told the group that one of the ways I try to remember to turn toward Jesus each day is to quietly offer myself before him when I rise in the morning, and to think of him before I check my phone. I remember most days, and when I don’t, I stop whenever I realize that I’ve forgotten, and turn my gaze and my thoughts toward him. Likewise when I’m driving, before turning on the radio, I take a breath and turn my thoughts toward him. Obviously, these aren’t huge gestures, but I pray that the daily practice of them helps prepare me for those other times when Jesus may invite me to turn in a bigger way, or–as the gospel texts soberly reminds us–when life itself turns and I’m faced with real suffering and hardship, so that I have more inside me to draw upon, and that I’ve become practiced in turning towards him for those times when I really need his strength to persevere and endure.
As our session was drawing to a close, I asked the group if they had any questions for me. Normally when I open things up for questions with a group, people want to know about things we’re doing in the diocese or for assistance with something they are struggling with in the church. This time was different. The first person to raise her hand asked me how I knew that God truly loved me. The look in her eyes suggested that she wasn’t so much asking about me, but for herself, how I might help her believe that God loved her. The second person to ask a question wanted to know how I had forgiven someone who had hurt me deeply; again, I felt as if the one asking needed guidance on how he might forgive.
Such deep and important questions. I did my best to answer honestly, first by acknowledging that even for someone ordained in the church, knowing for certain that God loves us isn’t just an intellectual matter, but one of the heart and experience. There are days, I told the group, when I struggle as much as anyone with a sense of distance or unknowing–certainly feelings of unworthiness–in relation to the love of God.
If those were my only experiences, it would be impossible to believe that God loves me, or anyone else. But they aren’t. I have had other, deeply personal, transformative moments when I’ve experienced what I can only describe as love. While they are fleeting, they help keep me going, and allow me to hold onto what I choose to believe–that is, what I choose to trust– even when I don’t feel it. Sometimes the choice to believe in God, and in God’s love, is all I have.
Regarding forgiveness, I began by stating the obvious: that forgiveness of the deeper wounds is hard and that it takes time. In order to forgive, we need to have sufficient capacity inside ourselves; we need to be able to define ourselves as something more than the wound we have suffered. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process takes. Forgiveness also requires a certain amount of distance from the wounding person or situation, so that we are no longer in danger of being wounded again, or in truly dire situations, when we know that God has a hold on us, even as we are in the midst of pain. Forgiveness is an expression of love–first, for ourselves, as we hold ourselves tenderly in that wounded place, and, when we are able, love for the one who has hurt us. Forgiveness, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “is the attribute of the strong.” Think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who put him there. In his suffering, he was the stronger one. We can’t fake that kind of love and capacity to forgive. Often I fail at forgiveness. When it comes to me, I recognize it as the gift that it is.
Inspired by the questions these young adults asked, I asked in my most recent bi-weekly message to the diocese, if others had questions of faith they would like to ask me. I’ve been deeply moved by what has come back to me.
Before I delve into some of those questions, I invite you to consider your own. You received, along with your bulletin, a half-sheet of paper on which I invite you now or sometime this morning to write your question, or questions, about faith. If you’re willing, we can talk about them in our time together after worship, or I can take them home and respond another way. I can’t promise satisfactory answers to your questions–I don’t have answers for many of my own–but I promise to ponder them, in a spirit of mutual wondering. Questions are fertile ground for faith.
In the questions that have come to me thus far, the range of topics is broad. Some have centered on the Bible–how to read and understand it, what authority it has over us. One person asked if we begin to question literal truth in some places (as opposed to its literary, symbolic, and moral truth), where do we stop?
Others questions have been more personal: “How can I know God’s will for my life?” and “Would you like to know the exact day you will die?”
Several questions were about the very existence of God, and the nature of God, which is where I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning. “Are there days when you wake up in the morning,” one person asked, with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?” Another asked, “How can we truly know that God is good?” Still another asked, “Does God intervene? How do we pray for God’s protection over our drive from our home to our work while children are starving? Yet we ask God to watch over us. Is He watching over them? Or are we watched over at all?”
In answer to the first question–if I ever question the existence of God–the answer is yes. For me, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to my life of faith. I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, in part because of all that I see in this world, as do you, I cannot reconcile with the reality of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.
Among Christians, in the Bible, and from the traditions we’ve inherited from our spiritual ancestors, there are “answers” to the hardest questions that human beings have asked for millenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found the answers I’ve heard or read compelling or satisfying.
There’s a book in the Bible, the Book of Job, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man from whom everything of meaning and importance to him had been taken–deliberately so, it seems, by Satan and with God’s consent, in order to test his faith. If you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything that happened to him, including the death of his children, losing all his property and immense physical suffering, Job never lost faith in God and of God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. In them, Job pours out his grief and outrage, and he rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these things had happened to him, which sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times–such as, there must be a reason for this; surely your sins have brought this upon you; just trust in God’s plan.
What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that Job has an experience of God speaking to him at last. The long stretch of God’s silence is at last broken. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience, actually. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to believe in God and keep living.
Such moments when they come (and they come on their own timetable) are what keep me going. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of a God that is good, is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, and equally compelling when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.
I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:
I believe in the sun.
I believe in the sun, even when,
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love.
I believe in love even when,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.1
Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love. Often it’s the memory of God, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith in God that keeps us going when our faith wanes. Once, when my heart was deeply broken as a young person, a wise spiritual mentor in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.”
The question, “Does God intervene when we pray for specific things?” goes to the heart of prayer. How can we give thanks to God for sparing us from suffering when others are not spared? What are we actually praying for when we ask God to open doors for us or those we love, heal our infirmities, make wars to cease–not to mention helping us navigate through the smaller yet real complexities of our lives?
What I believe is this: God does intervene through us; God moves through the lives of human beings, and that as we draw closer to God and strive to follow the example of Jesus, we have greater capacity to be agents of positive change in places where God’s love is needed. I’m not rejecting the possibility of other forms of divine intervention, because there is so much about God that I don’t understand. And I pray for all manner of things that I need help with, that I long for God to do or to make possible. I bring all my desires before God, because that’s what our faith encourages us to do. In the end, however, I recognize that in prayer–even in the prayers that are of raw desire or desperate help–what changes most through my prayers is me.
When we pray for others who are suffering, we put ourselves in God’s hands to move toward some form of response, and in some way we take on the suffering of others as our own, which we see in Jesus on the cross.
“Christ has no physical body here on earth but ours,” Teresa of Avila reminds us, “No hands and feet but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he sees, ours are the feet on which he moves; ours are the lips with which he speaks to this world with kindness.”
In closing, let me simply emphasize the importance of your questions, and to encourage you to hold them in your heart and share them with one another. Offer them to God–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens. Strive to be a community that honors the deeper questions in life and create space wherever you can to explore them together.
One of my gifts to you, that I’ll leave with members of the vestry, is a collection of faith sharing cards, that are simply questions to prompt meaningful conversations among you and a way to go deeper on the path of faith. As we go deeper, what matters isn’t so much the actual answers that come to us, but the relationship itself–with God, through the presence of Jesus and in the power of God’s mysterious spirit that lives and moves through us all.
1I Believe by Mark Miller | Virtual Choir
Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Good morning, friends of Ascension and St. Agnes church! I’m thrilled to be in worship with you once again, to greet old friends and to meet those of you who have made Ascension and St Agnes your spiritual home in the time since my last visit. A special welcome to anyone who is a guest with us today. We are glad you are here and pray that through this service God speaks to you in a powerful way.
Today Jesus’ words, taken from the Gospel of Luke, cause us to consider our relationship to money–the money we earn, the money we save, the money we spend, and the money we give away.
Jesus spoke a lot about money, quite apart from the rather curious story about the rich man’s manager that we’re just heard. He spoke so often about having a right relationship to money and possessions that we have no choice but to conclude that for Christians, how we relate to whatever wealth we have is of great spiritual concern. For how we earn, save, spend and share our money reveals core values and life priorities. “Where your treasure is,” Jesus said in another place, “there your heart will be also.”
Today’s text leaves us with another of Jesus’ rather famous one liners: “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” My first thought whenever I read these words is that none of us wants to serve wealth. We value money because of how it can serve us, free us from worry or want, and allows us to live in the ways we like.
In important ways money does free us. If you can’t afford health care, or new clothes for school or work; if you have to decide which bills to pay with a limited paycheck, or don’t feel welcome in a certain social setting because you can’t afford what others take for granted; or worse, if you can’t feed your family and or secure adequate shelter, or lose sleep at night wondering how you will pay for retirement, you know some of the ways that poverty can imprison us. We want money to free us from that aching worry or feeling that we don’t measure up.
Jesus understands what we seek in our possessions and in our wealth or the pursuit of it. But he also loves us enough to speak the truth. Be careful with money, he says, for it can also trap you. It can seduce you into believing that it’s the most important thing, and it’s not. The most important things can’t be bought or sold; they can only be given and received.
For all that Jesus spoke of wealth, he didn’t really care about it when he walked this earth, and he doesn’t care about our wealth. He doesn’t care–in the sense of valuing us more or less–if we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Jesus doesn’t judge us according to our balance statements or credit card debt. Unlike practically everyone else, Jesus doesn’t want our money. He wants a relationship with us. All this to say that money is not important to him, except in the ways it affects our experience of life. He cares about that a lot.
There were people in Jesus’ day, as there are in ours, who were trampled on, ruined by economic exploitation. Jesus cares when people are trampled upon. He cares because such cruelty deprives people of life. Likewise he cares when we exploit others, consciously or unconsciously, because it diminishes us as it dehumanizes them. I can’t say that I know Jesus’ opinion of global capitalism, but I do know this: he cares about the people who make our clothes in Malaysia, pick our coffee in Guatemala and lettuce in California, and produce in China the gazillion things we buy at Target. He cares about the people who wash our sheets when we stay at hotels and who pick up our garbage each week and who try to sell us things on the telephone or at our door. He cares about the migrants, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles from their home to reach our southern border, and are now being bussed to cities like Washington, DC, arriving at our doors with nothing. Jesus cares for all who are at the bottom of our economic pyramid as much as he cares about anyone else. He asks that we care, too, and that we do our best to hold those at the top accountable for the decisions they make affecting the lives of millions.
Jesus cares about us when we’re caught in the deadening spiral of anxiety about money, when we max out our credit cards or worry about an impending lay-off and are ashamed to talk about it. Jesus wants us to be free. But the path to freedom, he says, isn’t necessarily by getting more. More money doesn’t always buy more freedom. Because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, poverty is a subjective experience. The richer we become, the poorer we can feel, as our tastes and expectations change, and particularly when our material wealth distances us from true wealth, not defined in possessions but rather depth of being, quality of relationships, and generosity of spirit. If we use our material wealth to serve true wealth, Jesus says, then our money becomes an instrument of grace. But if it distances us from what matters most, money becomes our master and we its slave.
More than anything, Jesus cares about the quality of our lives. The only way I can make sense of the comical scenario in the story of the rich man’s manager is to conclude that it’s not a story about money. It’s about life and what we do with what we’re given. Use what you have for good, Jesus says. Use what happens to you, your life circumstances, and your resources, he tells us, no matter how much or little you’ve got and how you feel about it. Use everything about your life, for good. Be creative. Be persistent. Be crafty if you must. You’ve been entrusted with one messy, imperfect, glorious life. Stop being squeamish and jump in, headfirst.
A friend of mine married into a very wealthy family. While she seemed to enjoy the luxury of her husband’s wealth, she found herself resenting it for how it defined her and for many years she kept it all at arm’s length. She complained about it quite a lot, having no idea how ridiculous she sounded to those of us not burdened with multi-million dollar trust funds. To be fair, her pain was real. Who among us would want to be defined by someone else’s money? It’s not my money, she would say, it’s not my family. Finally, when she was in her fifties, she realized that she had imprisoned herself in a veneer of passivity and learned helplessness. She decided it was time to take the reins of her life. One way she did that was join the leadership circle of the family’s foundation and there she helped set the course for its future. It is now one of the important sources of funding for organizations committed to social justice in the nation, and her mark on it is everywhere.
I realize that most of us can’t even imagine what living with that kind of wealth would be like. But no matter where we are on the spectrum of riches, we are surely more blessed than we realize, and at the same time, there may be a lot about our lives that we wish we could change. We may find ourselves in situations that frustrate or hurt us; or disappointed by the attributes we wished we had but don’t. We see others who seem to walk through life with more grace and joy and we wonder, why can’t it be like that for us?
But that, in the end, is a false question, in that it leads nowhere. The real question is, what are we going to do with what we have? What we have may not be what we want and it may seem paltry compared to what we see others enjoy, but so what? As Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.”
Our Jewish friends are about to celebrate the holiest days of their faith, beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year on September 25-27 and followed by Yom Kippur, a solemn day of self-reflection and atonement for sin on October 4. Years ago I read a newspaper article by a journalist named Gail Rosenblum entitled “A Question for the Jewish New Year” with the byline: “How do we know, finally, whether we’re living the good life?”1
“I once knew a man,” the article began, “who confessed that he read the obituaries every day to make sure he wasn’t in them.” “I confess that I also find my way to the obituaries every day,” Rosenblum continued, “but not for the same reason. I go because Entertainment Weekly only gets me halfway to the answer I seek. I’m pretty clear on how the rich and famous choose to spend their time and trust funds, but the obituary pages are even richer. There, in black and white, is our society succinctly summarized: the workaholics and tireless volunteers, the billionaires and custodians, the blue-ribbon bakers and golf fanatics. Read the sweet tributes–‘she loved her library card and a good game of Scrabble’–and the tragedies that some did not escape: ‘She was 24…she died after a long and courageous battle with cancer, ALS, or depression.’ Or, ‘he died suddenly.’”
“Who among them had lived the better life?” Rosenblum wondered, “The right life? Who was happier?” It was an impossible question to answer, she realized. Yet it haunted her, particularly when it was her task to pick eight outstanding members of the community who would be elevated from paid obituary to recipient of a more fully reported story. “How could I choose?” she asked. “It felt like playing God.” In the end, she was spared the task. But a question lingered for her: “What about me? Would my life make the cut? And if so, what would I want written?”
What, indeed. One thing is for certain: when assessing the quality of our lives–how well we live and how happy we are–what matters is how we have embraced our life and given of ourselves for others. How we use our money figures into the equation, but only as it relates to the most important question of all: how well are we living the one life we have to live? Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.
So let me leave you with a few questions to ponder, and with an offer, should you be interested.
- How would you describe your relationship to money?
- Do you have a financial plan–a way of managing your money? If so, how is it working for you? If not, would you like to explore the possibility of establishing one?
For all of us living in a capitalist, consumer-driven society, intentionally thinking ahead and making informed and generous choices is the wise thing to do. Having a plan ensures that our money serves us and not the other way around. If you don’t have a plan–or a satisfying one–or if money is a real source of anxiety for you, I invite you to talk about it with someone who could help. There are many such people. Speak or write to Fr. Dominique or to me and we’ll create such a space for conversation and support, without judgment. Trust me, you are not alone. And you’ll be glad you did.
- And the final question: when it’s time for your obituary to be written, what do you hope that people will say about you?
I’d love to pray for us.
Gracious God, I have attempted to interpret Jesus’ words about the distinction between serving wealth and serving you; of what it means to be faithful with what has been entrusted to us, and how to live with the kind of freedom you long for us all.
I pray now for all of us, asking that you speak to our hearts with the word that we each need to hear, to be assured of your love and your desire that we can truly live the best possible version of our lives.
Thank you for all that you have entrusted to us–materially, relationally, and spiritually. Help us all to use the many gifts entrusted to us wisely and generously, and to live well. In your name, I pray. Amen.
1Gail Rosenblum, “A Question for the Jewish New Year,” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week there was an article by Gail Rosenblum entitled, “A Question for the Jewish New Year” September 15, 2004, p. E-1.
All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. . .'”
Luke 15: 1-3: 11b-32
Let me begin by saying how glad I am to be back with the community of faithful at St. Mary’s Foggy Bottom, and to add my voice of welcome to our friends and guests who join us in worship. Among our honored guests–too many to call out by name–is our mayor, the Honorable Muriel Bowser. Welcome, Mayor; welcome all.
And a special word of thanks to St. Mary’s leadership: The Rev. Dr. Wes Williams; Mr. Brandon Todd, Senior Warden, Mr. Windon Ringer, Acting Administrator, and members of the vestry. Thank you for guiding St. Mary’s Church life and ministry. It has been a long and challenging season since the COVID pandemic entered our lives and forever changed them, in addition to the other events in our city and the nation’s capital seared in our memory and whose effects are with us still. You’ve also had your trials and transitions as a congregation, not all of them easy. But you are still here, St. Mary’s Church. Our city is still here. And so am I, ready to support you in any way I can.
There is no other church I would rather worship in today than the first Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as we anticipate the confirmation of the first Black woman judge to sit on the highest court in the land. During the nomination hearings this past week, when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was given the opportunity to speak and answer questions of actual relevance to her work, we heard her intelligence and wisdom, grace and grit. Her judicial and life experience make her an exemplary Supreme Court nominee–of that there is no doubt.
We saw many other things on display this week, far less noble, and worrisome indicators of what certain members of the United States Senate believe they can, and perhaps must, say to secure a presidential nomination for 2024. Many commentators have reflected the juxtaposition of Judge Jackson’s behavior with that of some of her interrogators, and how normative it is for people of color to be treated as she was this week.
Fully prepared for what was coming, Judge Jackson never once lost her composure. But there was, as Elie Mystal among others have noted, the moment she took a very long pause.
“Senator,” she began to answer a question that had no place in the hearing room. Then she sighed and paused, for quite some time. “As the silence filled the room,” Mystal writes, “I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World.”1
There is power in such a pause. We all felt it.
Well, today is Sunday, thank God, and we’re in church. So let me turn our attention to another person known for pausing and taking his time before answering questions put to him, questions asked by those who were threatened by all that he said and did, as well as the questions that his followers asked, giving him the opportunity to help them grow in wisdom and love.
We’ve dropped ourselves into this man’s story as he’s taking the longest walk of his life–the 60-plus mile journey from the region where he began his ministry in the northern part of Israel Palestine to Jersusalm, the seat of religious authority for his people and the political power of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus was walking to Jerusalem fully aware of the fate that awaited him there. For those of us who walked this road with him before, we also know how the story ends.
You may recall that prior to taking this journey, Jesus had a mystical encounter with his spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah. He had gone up a mountain to pray, taking three of his closest disciples with him. This was a pivotal moment for him, when he realized that he was not long for this world. That’s when he decided that in the time he had left, he would take his message of God’s all-inclusive love and his teachings of a way of life defined by mercy, compassion and justice for the oppressed to Jerusalem and let the chips fall where they may.
So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, when Jesus came down from that mountain, he gathered up his disciples, “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” and started walking. As he walked, he healed, he taught, and he preached as if these were the last words the world would hear from him, which, in fact, they were.
As it turns out, Jesus had a lot to say, worthy of our spending a lifetime pondering and applying his teachings to our lives. Which is why, in church, we hear his words over and over again. They never grow old for us; they always have something to say, and something different depending on where we are in our lives and whatever it is we’re struggling with, or what God is up to within and among us.
Most of Jesus’ teaching and sermons on the road were in response to questions, and many of those questions were from people less interested in his answers than in hearing themselves talk. (Not that any of us would do that). Like the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus, and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Figuring that a lawyer would already know the answer, Jesus asked him back, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responded with what we know as the Great Commandments of Jewish Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered rightly.” But the lawyer pressed further, because that’s what lawyers are trained to do, and because he wanted to justify himself, “And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
That’s when Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And do you remember how he responded? He told a story of a man who fell into the hands of robbers, and of the two religious leaders who crossed over to the other side of the road and passed him by, and of another man, of a despised race, who stopped to help. “Who was the neighbor of the man beaten by robbers?” Jesus asked. “Go and do likewise.”
Further down the road, Jesus stopped to visit his good friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. Do you remember what happened there? Martha busied herself in the kitchen, while Mary did what was unthinkable for a woman of that time. She sat herself down among the men and listened to what Jesus had to say. When Martha complained to Jesus and told him to put Mary in her place with Martha in the kitchen, Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing now is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was in her place. Now the text doesn’t tell us what happened next, how Martha responded. Being Martha-like myself, I hope that she heeded his words, took off her apron and joined her sister where they both belonged, alongside the men, listening to Jesus.
So Jesus went from village to village as he walked toward his death, preaching at every opportunity, pointing people toward God, toward their neighbors in love, and toward their best selves. One man came up to Jesus and demanded that Jesus arbitrate in a family dispute about inheritance. Taken aback, Jesus asked the man, “Who set me to be a judge over you?” But then he paused. No doubt he sighed, and he told a story about a rich man with so many crops that he decided to build an even bigger barn so that he could store them and keep them for himself. But the very night his new, enormous barn was finished the man died, before he could enjoy any of his stored riches. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves,” Jesus warned, “and are not rich toward God.”
There was another time when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and a woman approached him who was so crippled that she couldn’t stand up straight. Jesus had compassion on her and healed her, on the Sabbath. The leaders of the synagogue were indignant and they came at the woman with all they had. “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days if you want to be healed.” Now Jesus was angry. But he paused, and took a breath, composed himself and said, “You hypocrites. Do you not give your animals food and drink on the sabbath? And ought not his daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for 18 years be healed on the Sabbath?” The crowd rejoiced and his opponents were put to shame.
Jesus kept walking. The crowds kept coming toward him, and Jesus’ tone became at once more compassionate and urgent. He didn’t have one point to make; he had many, all touching us differently depending on what’s happening in our lives when we hear them, for the first or the hundredth time. It’s why we’re meant to dwell in his teachings, and meditate on them regularly.
Turn with me now to the story we heard this morning and that’s printed in your bulletin. It’s one of three stories Jesus told in direct response to the grumbling of some Pharisees. Pharisees get a bad rap in the Bible, because they came at Jesus the most. They weren’t all bad people, but they were intense rule followers, and they held themselves apart from people that weren’t. These particular Pharisees took issue with the fact that Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of tax collectors and sinners–the very ones the Pharisees avoided so that they might maintain their spiritual purity and sense of moral superiority.
Jesus paused, sighed, and told not one, but three parables about being lost and found: first that of a shepherd with a flock of a hundred sheep, who, when one of his sheep gets lost, leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one. Second, of a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them, and who searches the house incessantly until she finds it.
Finally, as the capstone, Jesus tells of a man who had two sons. It’s the classic emotional triangle between parents and siblings and the perfect vehicle for Jesus to explain to the Pharisees why he was happy to keep company with sinners. The father–the obvious God figure–loved both his sons, enough to let the one determined to leave go and then to welcome him back when he was chastened by the world. He loved the more responsible and dutiful son enough to gently chastise him for his unwillingness to forgive his brother and celebrate his return or his father for being so forgiving to one who had squandered so much.
Jesus’ point is clear: true love is not dependent on the worthiness of another, but rather on our capacity to love. The wayward son was no less worthy of the father’s love; nor did the stay-at-home son earn his father’s love with good behavior. Both were loved for who they were, not what they did or failed to do. Equally significant, for both, the father went out to meet them where they were–the returning son while he was still far off; the sulking son out in the field of his self-imposed misery.
With Jesus’ words and example foremost in our minds, and inspired by the dignity of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, never forget the power of a good pause. Pause long enough when you feel under pressure, or under attack, or filled with anger, or hurt, and fear to breathe, to let Jesus in.
Pause long enough to regain your internal bearings, and allow the great wisdom of the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. LIke the loving father, God meets us in that moment, where we are, as we are. God also gives us a strength and wisdom greater than our own with which to respond. God helps us grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and loves us, our capacity to heal and forgive, our ability to withstand and maintain our God-given dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice, and to overcome evil with good.
Let me leave you with a practical suggestion on how you can access the grace and power of Jesus in the course of your daily lives, and especially in those moments when something, or someone, is attempting to throw you off course, or has managed to unnerve you; or when you feel overwhelmed or tired or scared.
Think of it as the power in a pause. Wherever you feel yourself tightening up inside, wanting to react, or to hold on, or whenever you aren’t sure what to do or say next.
Stop. Take a breath. Pause. Pray for Jesus’ to be with you, in that moment. And surrender yourself to Him. I promise you that whatever occurs to you to say or do next will have a greater intentionality and impact than if you rushed in, or if you shut down.
I’m not ruling spontaneity out of hand. There’s a time and place for that. And there’s a time and place for genuine expressions of anger. But if you take the time to pause, collect yourself, and allow Jesus in, even in spontaneous moments and in anger, you will speak and act with impactful grace and power.
In the end, it comes down to the kind of person we want to be in this world. We saw two stark examples this week. Which kind of person would you trust and choose to follow?
And what example do you want to be for those coming up behind you?
Remember, then, the power of the pause and the grace available that is always there for you. Amen.
1 Elie Mystal, Ketanji Brown Jackson Long Paused Explained Racism and Sexism in America, The Nation
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
I’m so glad to be here again at last, dear friends of St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. Praise God for the technology that allows those at home to gather in worship with us, and it’s wonderful to see in the flesh those physically present in the sanctuary. What can we say to one another, when so much has happened to change nearly everything about our lives and our world in the last two years?
The first questions we typically ask one another are the most fundamental: How are you? What’s life been like for you? How is your family, both near and far?
On Friday someone asked me how I was doing–and this person truly wanted to know. I wasn’t sure how to answer or where to begin. I notice the same thing when I speak to my 90-year old mother nearly each day. Each time she pauses, in part, to decide how much to reveal, before typically saying, “I’m all right.” There’s so much more that she could say.
My predicatble answer when someone asks how I’m doing is “I’m fine,” and on so many levels, it’s true. In fact, I’m more than fine. I am blessed, because I live here and not in a war zone; I’m fine, because while I contracted COVID, mine was a very mild case and all in my family have also had mild cases; I’m fine, that I still have a job and roof over my head and food to eat. Compared to many, many people in the world right now, for whom God must surely be weeping, I am fine. Yet saying that I’m fine, or blessed, or doing well skims the surface of what life is like.
I wonder if the same is true for you.
Because so many of us are stretched thin–doing all we can for as many people as we can–there is a collective sense of weariness. We’re holding things together as best we can, but it’s a lot to hold.
Grief also hangs in the air, even in our happy moments, even if we have been largely spared, because there is so much pain everywhere. Wherever we turn, someone is suffering. We may be that someone, or we are witnesses to another’s pain. And we hold that too.
To be sure, good things have happened to us in the last two years. We may have stories to tell of adventure, new learning, and surprising resilience. Examples of incredible generosity, sacrificial love, and courage inspire us each day. Blessings abound, even in the messy places. God’s grace is real.
All these things–the good, the hard; the blessing, the gratitude; the adventure, the grief–we hold it all in our own heart. But how much can one heart hold? When was the last time you stopped long enough to consider your heart and all that it’s holding?
We’ve just heard a brief passage from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus takes a break on his long walk, near the end of his life, from his home of Nazareth to Jerusalem, the center of religious power and authority for his people and of the occupying force of the Roman Empire. Those of us familiar with Jesus’ story know what’s waiting for him in Jerusalem. He’s headed toward the cross. He knew it, too, that his time had come, and so as the Scripture says, “He set his face toward Jerusalem” and started walking.
It takes ten chapters of the Gospel of Luke to describe all that happens on that Jerusalem road. If you were to sit down and read those ten chapters in one sitting, you’d be amazed. Jesus is really busy–teaching, healing, equipping his small band of disciples for what’s to come. In fact, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to remember that Jesus is walking toward all that awaits him in the last week of his life.
But then, when at last he sees Jerusalem in the distance, Jesus stops and rests. As he’s sitting there, some of the Pharisees, the religious group always at odds with Jesus, approach to warn him. “Go no further,” they tell him, “for Herod wants to kill you. Turn around, Jesus. Go back to Nazareth.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox that I am coming.”
Then something happens that gives us a glimpse into what Jesus has been holding in his heart: He cries out in raw grief, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
This was Jesus’ lament, for the city and for himself. It didn’t surprise, or even seem to bother him very much that religious and political authorities were hostile to him. But imagine the pain of rejection and indifference from those he had hoped to heal and to save.
Jesus’ heart aches to the breaking point. What’s striking, and instructive, is that he allowed himself to feel it, to acknowledge the pain in his heart. He stopped long enough to let his emotions rise to the surface, and to cry out and let his tears flow. Then, when his tears are spent, Jesus gets up and keeps going. He knows what will happen if he continues to Jerusalem, but he goes anyway. He knows that while Herod would be the one ultimately to sentence him to death, the people he loves will also play a part in his demise. But he loves them anyway.
There’s a song by the acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, that tells the story of a strong Black woman, the spiritual center of her family, the one everyone else goes to for strength. She’s the one who washes floors to send her kids to college, who always makes sure that there’s food on the table, and who stays up late listening to her children’s hurt and rage. Everyone turns to her.
The father, the children, the brothers turn to her. And everybody white turns to her.
But where does she turn? Sweet Honey sings:
There oughta be a woman can break down, sit down, break down, sit down.1
Hold that image of a strong black woman breaking down, crying her eyes out, alone. Then when the tears are done, watch her as she takes a breath, gets up and carries on.
She was like Jesus in his lament, and like him in her rising to carry on.
What I hope for each one of you, and for myself, is the grace and permission to allow ourselves to stop every once in a while and acknowledge all we’re holding in our hearts. It’s okay to collapse in exhaustion or grief every now and then. It’s okay to cry. Or to laugh, in those moments of happiness or joy. It’s more than okay.
We can create spaces for one another here in Christian community for that kind of safe release. We can sit in silence by ourselves and allow the mercy of Jesus to wash over us.Then when our tears are spent, our weariness acknowledged, our emotions held in the almighty hands of love, by that same mercy and grace, we will rise again and keep going. We can’t make this journey on our own, but thankfully, we don’t have to. We walk with Jesus, and we walk with one another.
1There Oughta be a Woman by Bernice Sanders.