Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Christianity hinges on one significant moment in time. What is it? The resurrection of Christ. Yes? We are Easter people. The story of Easter is so mesmerizing because of the dramatic shift from death into life again. In a word, the Easter story is about transformation. And in this prophetic message from Jesus prior to his own transformation, he tells us the way to experience this change of heart ourselves is to….take up our cross.
Take up our what, Jesus? The cross was supposed to be...your work. You endured that pain on our behalf, right?
Right, Jesus says. I showed the world a new truth: there can be no resurrection without the cross. And if you want to follow me, you follow me, cross and all.
That part of being Easter people is a lot harder to accept.
We are not hardwired to like suffering. The disciples are no different- they want to claim Jesus is Messiah, but they don’t want to see him in pain. That’s why Jesus is having this hard conversation. When his friends use the word Messiah to describe who he is, Jesus silences them. “Nope, Peter, not today. I’m not ready to be called Messiah- at least not publicly. To be Messiah for my people, I will suffer.” Jesus holds fast to this plan of secrecy until the moment comes, when he finds himself deep in the throes of a trial that ultimately leads to his death. That’s when he takes on the identity of Messiah.
There’s no resurrection without the cross. We find him here in Mark explaining once more to his disciples this hard reality AND inviting them to take up their crosses too. Why? Because the resurrection is totally worth it.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? Suffering leads to redemption? That just can’t be true. If this is hard to wrap your head around, I get it. I don’t want a God of love to somehow condone suffering either. Maybe that’s why he says it another way in John 12: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Think of the hardest moment you’ve been through recently. Now think of what type of inner strength formed as a result of your experience? What seeds of goodness were planted in the midst of a terribly difficult season of life?
After Blaire was born, some of you know, I found myself in a season of what I now understand was post-partum depression and anxiety. It was SO hard, and I felt really really alone. I also didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. In the midst of that suffering, I couldn’t have known what seeds God was planting within me, what passions God was developing in my soul. Here’s what I can tell you: my experience of PPD/A has allowed me to connect with SO MANY other families facing the same situation- and really understand what it’s like. It’s also inspired me to look in on women who’ve just had babies much more readily (and often without invitation) than I would have otherwise. See, when you’re in the throes of PPD, your judgment can be clouded, and you don’t know how to ask for help. So now I just show up, and who knows but God just might use my cross to become someone else’s resurrection. That is my prayer, every day. This is what real change looks like- messy, illuminating, and upending.
To be transformed requires something of us- and that “something” often feels a lot like suffering. For Jesus, who assumes the role of Messiah, transforming the world meant giving of himself entirely. Completely gone from earthly existence SO THAT we humans are no longer confined to a mere human reality, but can be “transformed into Christ’s likeness.” (2 Cor. 3)
That’s the good news- we have the potential to be transformed even in the midst of the suffering. This idea flies in the face of so much messaging around us. In every commercial and advertisement we see, we are sold a story that beauty matters most, that social status will give us joy, or maybe the worst of all: that comfort is our ultimate goal. Millions of products exist to give us what we seek most: less pain, an easier cross to bear. My lumbar support pillow promises me a pain-free existence, and I’m glad for that.
But if I sought only comfort all my life, I would have NEVER birthed a child. I would have never experienced PPD; and I would have never been changed by these difficult situations, transformed by taking up my cross and living for someone else. You don’t have to have a child to know what it is to live for someone else. That IS in our DNA- a desire to be connected, to engage lives of purpose, to be the kind of seed that bears fruit. I wonder what you might lift as a cross of your own that began in suffering and resulted in a type of transformation? These are the stories we must share, because this is the stuff of faith, the reason we follow Christ...at our core we need to believe that suffering will NOT have the final say. And we take eternal solace in the truth that we can do only in part what Christ did once and for all: take up his cross for the sake of redeeming you, me, the world.
So don’t be ashamed of your cross. Maybe it’s mental illness, maybe it’s a horrific loss, maybe it’s a moment of deep shame. Whatever your cross might be, bear it in faith that God just might be up to something good after all. Maybe God will even use your cross to become someone else’s resurrection. May it be so. Amen!
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
You've never been tired, right? You’ve never lost your patience, have you? You’ve never said something you immediately regretted as soon as it left your lips? You’ve not reached the depths of your limit for human interaction only to hear the dreaded knock at the door, have you? Nah, those things never happened to Jesus either. He definitely never got tired, told people off, lost his patience, wanted to slink away for a long nap. Nope not God! Unless, well, unless Jesus was actually human...like- needed a nap kind of human. Could Jesus have been God’s son and still done something entirely human, like lose his patience? Good question, right?
There are lots of Christians who aren’t too comfortable with Jesus' humanity. Maybe it even rubs you the wrong way, hearing me say your redeemer needed a nap. I get it, it’s weird to think of Jesus snapping from time to time. But here’s the alternative- Jesus just pretends to be human, right? He could have, going around wowwing everyone with these awesome miracles, looking people in the eyes and saying, “oh I get it, I know what it’s like to be human” when really he never knows pain or frustration or loses his patience at all. But that wouldn’t have worked. You and I know people who pretend to be what they’re not just aren’t believable in the end. I can connect with Jesus if I can trust that he gets how hard it is to be human at times. In fact, I’m not sure I even buy the depths of God’s love for me unless I believe that Jesus was actually the kind of human who occasionally said “NO” to someone in need. Like right here, in this conversation with a Syrophoenician woman. In saying ‘no,’ Jesus reveals something here that's common to all humanity, that connects him with you and me. That thing is called “implicit bias.” Implicit bias is the invisible force that creates “us” vs. “them” thinking. It’s a totally normal human condition, and the gospel tells us it’s a part of humanity that’s in need of total redemption.
Us vs. Them. In Jesus’ day, the Jews and the Gentiles are a prominent example. People who followed traditions centuries in the making, vs. those that didn’t. This was a religious divide, yes, and often an ethnic us vs. them too.
In our day, any number of traits can distinguish us from them.
Our “Jews” and “Gentiles” might be
East River/West River
City Kid/Country Kid
THOSE family members/US
Folks on Medicaid or TANF/ Folks insured through employment
Church Goer/Spiritual but not religious
These distinctions often cause division, but Jesus reveals a new truth in this story: it doesn’t have to be that way.
Implicit bias was once a survival mechanism of our species, still is in some ways. Stick with who looks like you, it’ll serve you well. Even Jesus prefers to engage his Jewish people, not the Gentiles. We find Jesus in the region of Tyre, filled with Gentiles, doing what exactly? “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Has that ever been you?
Hiding! Oh but Spirit is always at work, isn’t she, ushering in moments of redemptive grace. Even for Jesus. That’s the good news that occurs when Jesus’ implicit bias is brought into the light by this brave non-Jewish woman. She says “I know I don’t look like you, but I also believe you’ve come to set my daughter free.” After saying no the first time, Jesus takes a beat, listens to this woman proclaim faith in a God that’s bigger than implicit bias, and Jesus gives this woman the time of day after all. Was it simply a test of some sort for his disciples? We can’t know that, but we can trust all the more that Jesus was fully human in this moment.
He goes on to heal yet again, this time a deaf man. And seeing his miracles, the crowds proclaim, “He has done everything well.” I would contend the best thing Jesus does that day is expose this us vs. them thinking as a myth. It doesn’t have to be this way. Syrophoenician women deserve God’s grace too.
And in that single miracle, Jesus transforms humanity into a community that reaches beyond implicit bias.
Oh but it’s always with us, isn’t it? Here’s my example of implicit bias. Briggs had his first soccer games this week. On Tuesday, his team Orange Crush played the kids in the maroon jerseys, which included our church friends Fox & Tayson. I’m on the sidelines cheering my heart out, because that’s what I do, and I felt this tension inside. I REALLY wanted Briggs’ team to win. I also REALLY wanted to root for Tayson & Fox. Competitive sports is a great example of us vs. them thinking because so often, that’s exactly what happens. If I root for my team, I am obligated to NOT LIKE the other team, right? I’m sure you have your own examples of this competitive nature. But what if it doesn’t have to be like that? What if there’s another way to be truly competitive AND honor the intrinsic value of your opponent?
I was thrilled when orange crush won the game. I was also really proud of Tayson (who took a ball to the face and got back in there) and Fox (who laid it all out on the field, literally), because real community (centered in Christ’s redemptive promise) will always be stronger than competition. I can root for my team without hating the opponents. It’s possible, and we know because Jesus was really human, he said no to his religious and ethnic opponent AND THEN he said yes. And that yes makes all the difference.
The author of Galatians reminds us, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith [...]There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
If you choose to believe this, then Christ has the power to set you free from implicit bias and unhealthy competition.
This week, let’s consider what forces are holding us back from full communion with others (what us vs. them thinking still has power over us)- and be brave to let Christ transform our thinking into us….and them too.
Prayer: Christ came to set us free and we become free when we let go of hatred, fear, and resentment, praise be to God!
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition." Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
It’s not really about washing hands, is it? That’s NOT why the religious leaders in Jesus’ day are all riled up. They say it is, sure. It’s really about who has the power to say what matters. It’s about their sense of control being challenged by someone new on the scene. Someone who claims authority simply by virtue of a closer connection to the divine. I’m the son of God, so I know what’s up. “Oh really, Jesus, you think what you have to say trumps the teachings of our elders, of YOUR elders? What you teach your disciples is better than centuries of lived wisdom and teaching?
Jesus’ answer is great. He says no- it’s not WHAT I teach that’s better, it’s WHY. I teach spiritual freedom from human doctrine. WHY? Because God is bigger than your ways. Sure, wash your hands- but why? If it’s to love your neighbor, then great. But if it’s to hold power over your neighbor, then you are simply not connected to the God you preach.
My fourth grade school pictures are missing something. And the only two people who know it are mom and me. (and well, now you!); My mom sent me to school that day wearing a yellow shirt and a colorful vest that I sewed in 4-H. I didn’t want to wear that vest, and wouldn’t you know- that when I took it off for recess that morning, I just plain forgot to put it back on! They whisked us away for school pictures, we got them back weeks later- and when my mom saw that plain yellow shirt- she was upset. I tried explaining that I’d taken it off for recess and forgot to put it back, but she was having none of it. All these years later- as we’re both able to chuckle about the incident, I think: It wasn’t really about the vest was it? It was about a mom who was watching her daughters grow up, make decisions of their own, sometimes against her will. It was about a daughter carving her own place in the world, sometimes against her mother’s will. It’s really about who has the power to say what matters.
Moments like these (vest or no vest) challenge us to look under the hood- to question WHY it is we feel the need to control others. What’s your “vest” story? Maybe you’re the one who thinks there’s ONE right way to load the dishwasher; Fold the clothes; Spend your money; Seek justice; Prepare for a career; Raise your children; Be in relationship; or like the Pharisees, wash your hands.
However your need for authority and control manifests, we hear Jesus ask the hardest question of all. Why? What’s hiding in your heart that makes you need to be so RIGHT all the time? To control how others make decisions?
Eugene Petersen interprets Jesus saying, “It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.”
I think about this list, how all of us are prone to at least a few of these evil ways, and I do think it’s because of our need for control. I slander someone else when I feel out of control in my own life. I am arrogant when I’m not confident about my self worth. I make foolish choices when I’m concerned about controlling what others will think. All the while, the truth remains clear: I can only ever make decisions for myself, no one else. If some day my kid WANTS to wear a vest on picture day- I won’t be able to control them any more than my mom could my decisions.
I can, however, control how I respond- what my behaviors say is really going on in my heart. I have officially been on both sides of this “what to wear to school” issue. On the second day of school, Blaire chose to wear mermaid pants with a cheetah-print dress. And I felt this deep urge to make her change. I wanted to control how her teachers thought about my parenting skills. I didn’t want to be perceived as the mom who sent her kids to school in crazy outfits. But I took a deep breath, I accepted the truth that my clothing values are not shared by my dear daughter- and that’s okay. Not just okay, but GOOD; In hindsight I’m glad she proudly wore that outfit all day, because I learned a valuable lesson. I was “this close” to foolishly telling a 5 year-old that what she wore mattered more than who she was...and having to sit with that is hard. I had the impulse to act as if that were true, even though I Of COURSE don’t believe it. This change of the heart stuff, it’s hard work...and it’s totally worth it. Jesus says, It’s not what you wear or how you wash your hands that defiles you, it’s what comes from the heart that matters.
Here’s a question for us- what’s your “vest” story in our church? Or our collective “cheetah print & mermaid pants” story? Where in our rituals of worship have we demanded that others hold the same values we do in aesthetics? Or musical tastes? Or theology? Or use of finances? The term “sacred cow” is used whenever there’s a part of church culture that simply cannot be questioned. Like the Pharisees ritualistic washing of hands.
NIB Commentary: “People come to hold on to merely human traditions as if they were divinely revealed. At the same time, the very basic virtues of love, reconciliation, and the good news that God has come among us as savior get lost. It would, in fact, be much easier to follow any number of ritual practices than to transform our hearts.”
I read that this week, nodding along, until I realized we claim the ritual practice of worship as THE single-most important act of heart transformation.
So which is it? The outward act or the inward change? Or maybe a better question is- do those two things happen simultaneously? Are we open to being changed by the common rituals that bring us together? Are we also open to changing those common rituals to be inclusive of new ideas and people? Jesus’ teaching always ask us to go one step further, to ask the question that lies at the heart of it all:
Why are we doing what we do? Why do we worship? At our best, we usher in God's kingdom, in which Jesus takes the impossibly evil intentions of our hearts and changes us. Gives us a way where there was no way. For only God has the power to illuminate our hearts and bring resolution and peace within each of our “vest” stories. Only then can we release our need for control of others into the arms of our ever-loving Savior.
Jesus, may your kingdom come to us today on earth, in our hearts, as it has always been and always will be in heaven. Amen.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Stand, Paul says. Stand firm in faith. Find your strength in the Lord, Paul tells us. Why? There exist forces around us humans that can overcome our faith if we’re not watchful. Paul should know. Anyone recall what Paul was up to right before getting blinded by the truth on the road to Damascus? Before Paul “saw the light” of Christ’s love, he was making life pretty darn difficult for people who called themselves Christians...so even though Paul now writes in Ephesians as one of Christ’s most loyal followers, he gets it. He knows the “wiles of the devil,” because he’s lived them. He’s taken part in them. And I take a strange comfort in this truth, especially when Paul employs imagery of battle. Because what it tells me is that the armor of God is NOT for battle against other humans. And least, not exactly. Stand firm, Paul says, against spiritual forces of evil, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Sure, sometimes these forces of evil are seen in human behaviors and choices, but evil’s origin is deeper than any one person.
And that matters, because at the core of our humanity is this truth: we can only change our own behaviors, not those of others. Wanna know my favorite piece of God’s armor? “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” It’s so practical. Whatever works, Paul says, to support your journey, to steady your pace, toward Christ’s vision of peace for your life, for your neighbors, and for this world.
How do we put on this armor of God? The answer comes toward the end of this passage: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”
One of the most fundamental shifts in my relationship with myself and God has come through prayer. In the midst of introspective moments of prayer, the kind that “keep me alert,” I’ve learned this: I am not entirely good. And I am not entirely evil. Do you know what I mean? Maybe it’s a prayer of desperation or a vulnerable conversation with a good friend, perhaps it’s a moment reading a scripture or book and it hits you. “I am a person created “very good” in the image of God AND some days, I am in need of serious help to actually live like that.
The world has never been black and white- spiritual forces of good and evil simultaneously exist everywhere- even within us. Paul knows this, so he directs 1st Century & 21st Century Christians alike to put on spiritual armor. Give ourselves the best chance possible to live into the image of God which is our birthright. Paul says that’s when God's word is made clear. Logos- the living word. To be a living testament of God’s good news, it takes:
The breastplate of righteousness, to stand firm against the forces of complacency and gluttony and violence.
The belt of truth, To stand firm against manipulative rhetoric that makes false claims about God and your own belovedness.
Sturdy shoes, to stand firm against the lie that violence ever creates peace or restores relationships.
The shield of faith, to stand firm against the forces that want us to believe God has given up on us.
A helmet of salvation, to stand firm in the belief that salvation is in God's hands, not our own.
Sword of the spirit, to stand firm in the Word of God as made known to us in Jesus our Christ.
What’s your favorite piece of armor? Or maybe a better question: “What piece of God’s armor are you most in need of today?” Good questions for us to ask on this journey of proclaiming the gospel of peace in the name of Christ.
Stand firm, my friends, I need your strength and you need mine to weather the evil forces in our midst, especially the ones that lurk closest to our own hearts. And may we always go about it in a spirit of prayer. Amen!
We enter this story today as King David, flaws and faithfulness alike, passes away leaving God’s people in the hands of son Solomon.
“Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you." And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?" It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life."
Do you remember being 20 years old? Maybe it’s not been that long- or you’re not there yet- or perhaps those days are a bit fuzzy. Where you lived, what interests you pursued, who you spent time with, the values you held, how you spent your days? 20 is such a beautiful age- filled with potential, when a young adult mind often begins contemplating “the meaning of life.” Maybe it’s a book or philosophy class, or an experience- like heartbreak, losing a loved one; perhaps it’s a falling out with friends or family; maybe it’s simply anticipating a job; Young adulthood is filled with possibility, AND the beginning of a real weightiness to decisions made. Solomon, son of David, finds himself at the tender age of 20, occupying Israel’s throne. The guy in charge. 20 years old. Despite his youth, the gravity of his situation is not lost on him. Young King Solomon recognizes there's a lot he doesn't know yet; and rather than puff himself up with feigned confidence, Solomon does something that perhaps not all of us were capable of at 20 years old, and maybe still have a hard time doing: acknowledging his need for guidance, for wisdom.
“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
We often equate older age or “the school of hard knocks” with wisdom, and there’s truth to understanding derived from experience, for sure. But Solomon’s story asks us to think of wisdom in terms of attitude rather than age. Upon hearing Solomon’s request for wisdom, the LORD grants him a wise and discerning mind...but really, he kind of already has it, right? He was wise enough to know what truly matters.
We hear in his response to God the irony in this attitude of wisdom: it’s knowing you’re not yet as wise as you could be. Wisdom starts there. You have made me king, but I am so young. I don’t know what I’m doing. I want to govern your people well. Help me in my decision-making. That's what I want most… “And it pleases the Lord that Solomon asks for wisdom.”
As a teenage Christian, I recall my fascination with all the young people in the bible who God calls into ministry. King Solomon included, my youth pastor emphasized these folks because he believed God works in the lives of those who desire MORE wisdom...and often youth are positioned well for this: listening and obeying God’s call in their lives. Saying YES without reservation. Teen Miriam is a vital instrument of grace in her brother Moses’ path to leading the Israelites to freedom. Solomon’s dad David himself, called from shepherding the flocks to lead God’s people. The young boy in our story a few weeks back who offers his loaves and fish for Jesus’ miraculous moment, he is the one who steps up to a challenge the adults had a hard time wrapping their minds around. Teenage Esther, literally saving the lives of thousands of Jews with her bravery. Jesus’ very mother- Mary, setting the course of human salvation as a pregnant teen. Jesus himself, completing his earthly ministry at the age of 33.
Wisdom is an attitude, not an age. And we know it in our gut- there’s something compelling and refreshing about the keen insights children and youth bring forward out of curiosity and wonder. The same curiosity and reverence that led Solomon to seek first the wisdom of the LORD. “I’m in this position of leadership, and I desire to do it well- for God’s glory!” Now there’s a twist in Solomon’s story. See he’s promised this wisdom (and because he didn’t ask for it- wealth and longevity as well) so long as he maintains relationship with God. Those are the terms for wisdom. “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life." He is called to a life-long pursuit of God in his quest for wisdom, And it’d be so nice to insert “and he lived happily ever after” here, but that’s not exactly true; here’s what really happens: he loses sight of God’s guidance along the way.
Years pass, Solomon's kingdom is great, and maybe his sense of humility is lost as his reign grows stronger? What we know is this: In the end, Solomon let temptations pull his allegiance from the God who granted him wisdom. 1 Kings 11:2 "For when Solomon was old, he turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David."
That life-long path of seeking wisdom? We’re always on it- even King Solomon. And the second we think we’ve got it all figured out, we in a sense turn away from God too, turn away from the source of surprise and wonder, guidance and wisdom that draws us closer to true wisdom.
Solomon forgot that no amount of earthly wisdom is enough to make us righteous. Here’s a confession, sometimes I forget this too; I have a memory from my youth that draws me back into an attitude of wisdom. In my church youth group, graduating HS seniors were asked to give a piece of parting wisdom to the younger kids. I’m not sure what possessed me to say this, but I stood up and simply offered this, “The older I get, the more I realize, the little I know.”
Seventeen year-old Emily possessed an attitude of wisdom, and this current version of Emily,more than twice her age, often needs to be reminded of that moment in time, that precise orientation of the heart. Faith as an attitude of wisdom, and regardless of age, able to say, “I have more to learn. Teach me thy ways, O Lord.”
We all are still growing in our faith, and despite the fact that each of us has a unique relationship to God, we need others to be a part of our journey too. So let’s devote ourselves to graciously reminding one another that wisdom is an attitude, not an age, and it’s accessible to all of us who desire the path young Solomon directs us toward:
“If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.” When I need a reminder that I don’t have it all figured out yet- I look to the young people around me, and I trust that God is already hard at work, forming an attitude of wisdom that I can learn from. I came across a wonderful thought just last night that speaks to God’s insistence on using young people to move us:
“The great events of this world are not battles and elections and earthquakes and thunderbolts. The great events are babies, for each child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged with humanity, but is still expecting goodwill to become incarnate in each human life.” - Marian Wright Edelman
Young and old alike, wisdom prevails when we are able to joyfully acknowledge all we do not yet know about God’s love, the greatest mystery of all. May it be so, for you and for me, Amen!
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,
the world and its inhabitants too.
Because God is the one who established it on the seas;
God set it firmly on the waters.
Who can ascend the Lord’s mountain?
Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?
Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart;
the one who hasn’t made false promises,
the one who hasn’t sworn dishonestly.
That kind of person receives blessings from the Lord
and righteousness from the God who saves.
And that’s how things are with the generation that seeks him—that seeks the face of Jacob’s God.
Mighty gates: lift up your heads!
Ancient doors: rise up high!
So the glorious king can enter!
Who is this glorious king?
The Lord—strong and powerful!
The Lord—powerful in battle!
Mighty gates: lift up your heads!
Ancient doors: rise up high! So the glorious king can enter!
Who is this glorious king? The Lord of heavenly forces--
he is the glorious king!
“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” This Psalm evokes sheer reverence for the Creator of our lands and rivers, wildlife and neighbors. It’s a theme that’s present in many faith traditions, and it’s one we celebrate together today as followers of Christ.
I hear a lot of bitter arguments ensue when the term “climate change” is raised. Maybe you do too. Maybe in this very moment, as you hear me talk about climate change, you’re….a little uncomfortable. Maybe you hold strong convictions about this. Maybe you don’t. Either way, what I can tell you is that I have rarely seen two people with opposing views on climate change sway one another with impassioned arguments about the data and historical trends. Is scientific research important? Yes! It’s saved my life numerous times in 35 years, and I believe it can continue to save ours as a species. I am indebted to those who crunch the numbers. But do I think the science of climate change is the most persuasive conversation to have as a faith community?
No, actually I don’t. Now before my good friends in the scientific community get too nervous, here’s what I mean from a faith perspective. What if we Christians reframed the narrative “climate change” to “creation care?” What if we redefined the consequences of inaction based on relational values, rather than numbers? What if people of faith decided to take seriously this truth that has been around long before climate change: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” What if we chose to believe that we belonged to one another because we all belong to God? What if making shifts in our use of resources was about relationships- with our creator, yes; with our siblings across this great globe who are more vulnerable than us, yes; with our offspring who feel the impact of our inaction greater than we will? Would that change how we interact with our earthly resources?
You and I don’t have to agree exactly on the scientific numbers of climate change to share this common goal: we desire to leave this earth better than we found it. It’s such a basic value- but it has a long standing impact- to the scientific numbers, sure; but more importantly, to our neighbors we are called to love.
Last month our representatives Larry, Gail, Cherlyn and I attended the SD-NE-IA UCC Conference Joint Annual Mtg. During opening worship we lifted “creation care'' as a value of the church based on our common goals of caring for God AND caring for one another. I admit the whole idea of “creation care” feels overwhelming at times. I live a fast-paced life of convenience, and I know that I make daily choices that hurt this earth. Even while I acknowledge this reality, I find it hard to know what change is really going to make the most difference (what effort will pay out) in restoring God’s creation. And this internal conversation I have with myself often leads to inaction. Which is why this work cannot happen in isolation. If it’s just about me and what I can change, climate change lacks the thrust of urgency. But if I’m inspired by what someone else is doing, yeah- then I’m encouraged to see what I too might contribute. This is the beauty of community- we can help one another set aside the need to do everything (and the inevitable inaction that occurs when I CAN’T change everything)- in order to do something.
Or as Mother Teresa is quoted saying, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”
The first small thing that works for me is a shift in thinking from the impersonal data we hear about the environment to the personal, the people. It helps me connect the health of the environment to the people who live here. This is what makes creation care spiritual work: at the core of how we choose to use our resources are our neighbors who will be affected by our decisions. THAT is compelling work, especially for Christians called to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the good news about pursuing creation care as a community looking out for one another is that we ARE able to tend together what no one can alone.
Loving our neighbor is ultimately shared work, and it will always be. Creation care even expands my understanding of who my neighbor is: my neighbor might be a young mother in Sudan who walks several miles a day for fresh water, my neighbor might be my own great-great grandchild who deserves the hope of a future breathing clean air. My neighbor might be the people removing asbestos from our basement this very week.
Advances in science and research are absolutely a part of our quest for sustainable communities. But it’s my faith that draws me to creation care. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” A gift for us to tenderly cherish, with reverence for those who share it alongside us.
For a brief time during our annual meeting, we participated in a break-out session about practical ways to care for creation. Now- I generally get a little uncomfortable in these situations, because I’m just sure someone is going to call me out on all the disposable plastic in my life. Or the way I sometimes choose to use paper plates when I’m tired of dishes. I mean, probably not a bad thing for someone to call me out on those things, right? but if I take it seriously, I’m asked to change the convenience of it all. I’m asked to re-prioritize my time & resources. You know, this discomfort with changing our lifestyles is PROBABLY at the core of all heated debates on climate change. Less so the science itself.
So I sit there in a bit of discomfort, alongside my fine companions; after a little while, however, my tension eased because of the tone of conversation. What surprised me about this gathering was how hopeful and encouraging and spirit-focused our presenters and fellow attendees were, offering basic shifts toward more sustainable choices. And I left that space feeling inspired to consider what little changes I could make. One example offered that night was this: if everyone cut one minute from their shower time, we could individually save hundreds of gallons of water a year & collectively save billions of gallons of our precious earth’s fresh water- that same water my neighbor in Sudan walks several miles to gather each day. Could my shortened shower (or heck, skipping a shower every so often) help my Sudanese neighbor? Even if I can’t know it for sure, isn’t that a good way to live? Caring for others by conserving resources?
I left the annual meeting filled with hope in a shared vision of a world where all life is valued equally, and the earth’s sustainability is essential for this to happen. Creation care is spiritual work, because we CAN accomplish together what none can do alone.“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.”
All week, I was pondering what ONE change I could do that would help tend this blessed earth we’ve been gifted. I thought- shorter showers, okay. I used to compost, maybe I can start that again. Maybe I just rock our entire backyard (I’d really like that one). Well, late last night I got my answer. I was out picking up the yard to mow, when I stepped into sopping grass. I mean, my tennis shoe splashed, in the grass, during a drought. I was so confused until I saw it: the hose on full blast. And we weren’t even home most of the afternoon- so that hose was running a LONG time. Which means yes, my water bill will be crazy- but more importantly it means I haven’t done a good enough job educating my kiddos about tending God’s precious resources, like fresh water. So that’s where I’m going to start- talking more about waste with my kids. That’s it- that’s my goal for now, and I’m hopeful that it could lead to all sorts of new ideas around our house, made even stronger by the shared vision within our family. I’m curious what ONE thing you might do? What ONE thing might we as a church do? What ONE thing will you choose to pursue with great love for God’s creation and your neighbors? Let’s talk about creation care- and let’s be courageous in doing small things with great love.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too. We celebrate this truth with the Psalmist by creatively caring for the marvelous gifts God has given us.
This tiny plaque I have displayed in my home holds the story of an extraordinarily grateful woman, my grandmother Yvonne Fischer. I have long admired the way my grandma carried herself in this world. Humble, joyful, interested in every single human she met, and exceedingly non-materialistic. She held onto everything lightly, everything but her faith. When she passed away this Fall, we sorted the few sparse items she hadn’t yet given away, and I found the plaque that read, “gratitude turns what we have into enough.” I quickly recalled giving my grandmother this as a gift years ago, because this phrase IS my grandmother. She always had enough, and her spirit showed it.
The writer of Psalm 138 believes this too. It’s common for us to think that those who can easily praise God must possess all the blessings this world has to offer. It’s common to think this, but it’s simply not true; This Psalmist gives thanks for the Lord’s steadfast love and faithfulness even after being displaced from Israel’s homeland and place of worship; After years of oppression, the Psalmist affirms that God “gives me life” in the midst of the struggle, not beyond it.
Spiritual blessing comes only when we recognize that what we have is enough. And sometimes all we have is God’s love, God’s assurance, God’s deliverance. When that can be enough, we live in gratitude for all the rest, icing on the cake.
Friends, if we wait for life to be perfect before giving thanks, we’ll be miserable. Deliverance from our pain is both a present reality and yet something that awaits fulfillment. And it always will be, this side of eternity! So I ask you this: what is discouraging you today? Are you willing to give God thanks in the midst of it, rather than waiting for it to resolve?
Over the years, I learned that my grandmother’s life was hard. She lost pregnancies before birthing my father, an only child. They lost their hog farm to disease and endured bankruptcy. My grandfather struggled with addiction his whole life, before dying in his sixties. And my grandma is no stranger to cancer, among other health challenges. Even so, here’s the truth: I have never known a more content and grateful woman than my grandma. She could laugh at herself all day; she would give and pray and spend her energy for the sake of others. Above all, she was SO thankful for every darn breath she took. Even in her final moments, she spread cheer at the nursing home, playing piano and dancing until the week she died. She left this world and each person she encountered with joy, simply because she believed, “gratitude turns what you have into enough.” And that attitude is contagious.
If you’re the scientific type, here’s something to consider. The act of gratitude (say, writing letters of thanks) actually changes us. Look it up, there’s plenty of studies on it. Our brain chemistry alters based on what we choose to think about. One study by Joshua Brown & Joel Wong suggests that “gratitude letter-writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy. When you write about how grateful you are to others and how much other people have blessed your life, it might become considerably harder for you to ruminate on your negative experiences.”
Yes, thank you modern science and ancient Psalmists alike for this good news: Gratitude is a pathway to God’s grace, because gratitude makes what we have, enough.
Here’s your homework for this week: Choose two people in your life that you’d like to thank. Write them a note saying what it is that you’re grateful for. It’s one of the simplest and most effective practices for spiritual and mental well-being, and it’s way less expensive than therapy! (but feel free to see your therapist too).
I am confident that EVEN in the small chance the practice of gratitude doesn’t change you, it WILL change those who witness it. Trust me, my grandma’s example of grateful living will forever influence my perspectives on faith and life. Gratitude makes what we have enough, when we believe as the Psalmist, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” Thanks be to God for the gift of love that offers us all a chance for grateful living!
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
Complete joy. What comes to mind for you when you hear this phrase? Is it a person? An activity? A place? A moment? A surprise? A long-awaited arrival? Jesus’ life and ministry is compelling on many levels, but the essence of Christ that speaks so clearly to me is that of pure joy. Here he says it’s because of JOY that we engage the hard, gritty work of love like we spoke of last week. It’s all about sharing my joy, Jesus says.
It’s about envisioning the world the way Christ does- a world where all creation co-exists in deep and lasting friendship. “You are my friends,” he says, because I hold nothing of my goodness back. It’s yours for the taking. And it’s free- because I want to give it to you.
That’s real friendship, right? When we completely trust that our friend offers us goodness simply because of love, not in expectation of anything from us. Do you have a friend like this? Someone you trust to share your deepest self w/out fear of judgment, rejection, or needing to repay them? We each have seasons of friendship, and my prayer is that you do- have a friend like this. And if not, my prayer becomes one for our church- that we might offer friendship in this spirit to one another.
Friendships are created because of shared joy and love. Some people get lucky and have that deep friendship last from a young age on...but many of us continue to search it out. And for good reason- we were crafted by a God who values friendship SO MUCH, that he offers to be our friend. That’s how valuable joy is to Jesus.
I have a friend like this, who expects nothing from me, is always there for me, and I delight in being there for her. I’m lucky to call her my sister. She was in worship with us 2 weeks ago. Alison and I shared a room growing up, engaged in all sorts of antics, including our fair share of fighting. But by the time we were in high school, something clicked- and we became a source of solidarity and joy for one another.
One of the joys we share into adulthood that neither of us could have imagined in our early years is the opportunity to love one another’s children. When I reflect on Jesus’ words “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” I hear this truth: we need one another to complete joy. I love my kids, but that joy becomes bigger, deeper, more resolute when I make space to love my sister’s kids too.
And that circle of love keeps expanding the more we receive it- joy begets joy, and joy is at the heart of friendship the way Christ describes. In fact, this is what I cherish about our faith family- we get to share the joy of Taylor graduating high school, because she’s invested in this church and we’ve invested in her, creating the type of friendship that draws us closer to one another, and closer to God.
It occurred to me this week that friendships, built on trust by sharing a million small moments together, includes being there for each other in both joy and sorrow. And at first, I thought, well it’s the sorrow that’s harder, right? But I think I’m wrong. The more I consider where our energy gravitates, we pray MUCH more often for one another’s sorrows, don’t we. that comes easily to us. It’s harder to share unencumbered joy.
Why? Because we’re taught not to brag. Because we get jealous, because sometimes someone else’s joy reflects our lack of it. Because society has conditioned us to be quiet about our joyful moments. Because we’re human- and competition got us to where we are today, all tangled up in plenty of guilt and anxiety.
Jesus lived the human experience, he gets it. He’s as humble as we come, so it stands it stark contrast the world’s messages when we hear Jesus extol joy: his joy, our joy, shared joy! What would it look like for us to simply share joy with one another? To pursue those deep friendships Christ envisions for our lives: where joy is made complete.
“I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” This is freedom, allowing ourselves to experience joy in friendship. If you have that kind of close friend that emulates Jesus’ free-flowing goodness in your life, thank them today. If you’re still searching for that deep bond, my invitation is this: draw closer to Christ, because he truly, deeply, without reservation wants to be your friend. And draw closer to this faith community- as we boldly pursue joy, made complete in the love Christ has for each of us.
Joy begets joy, may we be people who embody Christ’s joy for one another. Amen!
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Brene Brown is a world-renowned sociologist and Christian who left the church only to find herself drawn back for the community dynamics unique to a faith home. In 2018, she offered a sermon in the National Cathedral that speaks to me of the distinctive character of a Christian community, and why the concept of Holy Communion matters. Brene says it like this. “I’ve learned there are three things I love about church:
1. I want to sing with strangers
2. I want to pass the peace with people who 6 days a week, I might like to punch in the face. I do, she says. I want to go to church with people that I don’t vote like, believe like, agree with; and on that day, I want to look at them and send them a prayer of God’s blessing; I want to look at them, shake their hand, look in their eye and say, the Lord’s peace to you. And I want to hear that back.
3. I want to share the rail and break bread in communion with people I don’t know. That’s why I go to church.”
One of the most significant metaphors for the church community is that of family. I hear it often, I feel it myself. Church is my chosen faith family, does that idea resonate with you?- And we in the UCC know that we aren't choosing our faith family because of a common creed. Just two days ago, I celebrated this truth with our new members. We have no creed- in fact, you and I might hold different understandings of God’s love at work in us. Heck, we just might be worshipping next to the person who 6 days a week, we might like to punch in the face. (or maybe a more Midwest passive-aggressive move) All the while, we are drawn together because of a common person, a common God: Jesus the Christ. What makes us family is our willingness to break bread together in the name of Christ, not ourselves nor our own ideologies. What makes us family is our willingness to do the hard work of love.
Jesus has a lot to say about sharing faith by engaging in acts of love. Like passing words of peace to our neighbors who can make our blood boil. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Ouch! That is tough stuff to hear, even harder to do.
You want some good news? You don’t have to like someone to love them. I know that’s a bit cliché, but it’s true, especially in church! We will disagree on plenty, and we need healthy community practices that acknowledge this AND create ways for us to engage differences in love...because when we assume we ought to agree on all things, wars are waged and families split and love is nowhere to be found.
“If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.” We exist as a faith family because love exists, and we are drawn into the work of embodying that love. Wow! That’s a lot of agency God places in our hands. That is what’s at stake as we practice Holy Communion: Abiding in love across real difference.
If I were to summarize what Holy Communion means to me it’s this: A sacred recalling of who we are, by embodying together whose we are: the body of Christ. We are pivotal members of Christ’s body, you and I, but it’s not really about us either, is it? Without this identity as the body of Christ, without this cornerstone act of coming together, we would simply exist for our own selves, our own way of understanding God. The church of Emily, the church of Cherlyn, the church of Larry.
Holy Communion reminds us to be who we were created to be: members of one body, Christ’s body. I want us to celebrate three ways we as a faith family got it right just this weekend, abiding in love as the body of Christ.
On Friday, our newly formed deacons connect team shared stories and laughter with our prospective new members. And our faith family grows stronger for the new voices we invite to the table.
Today, a crew of young people and a few parents are offering our strength to clean up yards for Dorinda and Glenn, a poignant reminder that we all cycle through moments of giving and receiving, AND when one (or two) are lifted, we all rise.
Finally, we abide in love as we lift in prayer our beloved sister Bev Huckins. She has devoted more years of service to this church than I’ve been alive- and in a very real way, she is family. She has embodied Christ’s love for us, and now we embody Christ’s love for her and her family in a moment of deep sorrow.
Abiding in love causes this poignant moment to occur, when we realize it’s not about any one of us, it’s about what we can create together in the name of Christ.That is why our Holy Communion matters as much today as ever. Thank you for being that faith family, for adding your testimony of faith, for helping us all see Holy love at work. Thank you for choosing us as your faith home, abiding together for the sake of love.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Last week we encountered the risen Christ with palms of his hands and soles of his feet marred by the world’s sin. Jesus was willing to experience the heartache of being dis-abled by the world for the sake of transforming that same world, our world. And we were sent out with this news: Christ calls us to be witnesses to this truth. God submitted to disability so that we might overcome ours.
This same truth made evident in the story of Christ, our Good Shepherd. On his own accord, caring for his flock deeply enough to lay down his life, Christ acts as our advocate, the one powerful enough to insist on fuller inclusion into God’s kingdom, you and me, and those we cannot yet see.
We are a post-Easter people, which means we know that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection fulfills this Good Shepherd analogy; Christ our redeemer, bringing us into the fold. But lest we become complacent in our communities of belonging, hear Jesus again, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. Christ’s power is made evident in his willingness to advocate for forgotten sheep.
The role of shepherd is not a glamorous one, it’s filled with risk, discomfort, and constant vigilance. And the work is worth it for Christ, “for they will hear my voice,” he says. As Christ’s followers, we walk in the ways of the Good Shepherd, caring for and seeking out all who desire to be brought into the fold.The question is- are we prepared for this work?- Are we willing to lay down our own comfort for the sake of fuller inclusion of sheep within our fold? And if we’re willing, what could that mean for our faith communities today?
Last week we learned of fuller inclusion of the deaf community within God’s growing fold, and this week we are inspired by the story of another physically-unique human whom we’ll call Brooks. Brooks is my friend from NJ. He taught me many things, but what sticks with me the most is how much our communities benefit from truly listening to the voices of those often sidelined by physical impairments.
Brooks is unlike anyone I’ve met, truly. He was only 18 years old when we were introduced; having just graduated HS, he was off to college. But unlike most of his college-bound peers, Brooks lived with two major impairments every day. Cerebral palsy and blindness. He’d also bravely faced tough childhood experiences. When Brooks was just a young boy, his father abandoned the family, blaming his son. Brooks carries that weight, in addition to constantly having to explain to people that neither blindness nor CP affect his intelligence. He’s picked on, shunned, ignored, laughed at, and not taken seriously most of the time. Even his HS teachers said he shouldn’t go to college. Despite it all, he continues to shine.
Over the next few years, it became my true joy to witness Brooks shifting the culture around him, simply by refusing to be anyone other than who God created him to be. He’s brilliant and has an incredibly developed sense of self, which is why he successfully self-advocated for his own education on the local college campus. When everyone around him said, “It’s not possible for an 18 year-old with CP and blindness to succeed in college” he persisted and insisted, “not only will I attend college, I’ll live in the dorms, too.”
And friends, he did. He earned himself a spot on the college’s diversity team, he earned his degree in teaching and coaching, and he earned my unending respect and admiration.
But here’s the hard news. For every Brooks in this world, able and willing to advocate for a spot in the fold, so many others remain sidelined by our lack of institutional creativity and support. Most importantly, sometimes within our own church practices. And we ought not rely on the incredible gifts of advocates like Brooks alone, because we can become advocates too! When we hear a story of someone sidelined from full inclusion- we can lift their voice with our own. We can claim a spot at the table for everyone, inspired by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, our noble and ideal advocate:
“And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
I thank God for people like Brooks, a prophet among us who challenges me to be more creative in practicing community across physical difference. I thank God for the ways many of you voice prophetic inclusion in our midst. I thank God that Jesus is not complacent about who’s in the fold of redemptive love. We need everyone to be who they are created to be, in hope this world might be transformed (bit by bit), together in community, into a place that further reflects the goodness of its Creator and Good Shepherd.
Jesus sees every person created in God’s image, worthy of the Good Shepherd’s fold. This is such good news: you and I are witnesses to the risen Christ, no longer beholden to the world’s disabling sin...but made free in the creative Spirit of God. So let’s get to work, expanding our imaginations with fuller inclusion of God’s kingdom come on earth. Amen!