[A few excerpts] of today’s story from The Monologue from Ruth written by Griff Martin, published by First Baptist Church of Austin, TX in 2017.
[Plenty of people think my story is a “happily ever after,” a love story for the ages. As if I’ve had time for fairytales. That’s not to say I don’t love my Boaz; I do. My second husband is a good man, but my story is about so much more:] like becoming a widow; the grit and grace that saw me through the shadows of grief; the purpose I found in letting one dream die to make way for something new. I still ponder how all the pieces fit together to make me whole again…
I met my first husband and his whole family when they moved to my country, Moab, from the land of Judah. [Oh, we had visions of green pastures, flocks of sheep], big family dinners, Moab is the place that brought us together- the place we would raise our kids. My husband’s family were Ephrathites, productive and fruitful by namesake. And I held onto this dream... until the nightmare began.
Before either my sister-in-law Orpah or I could watch our promises fulfilled in childbirth, our husbands were gone. [One by one, all of the men in our family died. First my father in law, then my brother in law, then finally my own husband.] Our sense of security and belonging torn at the seams. We had nothing but grief. Three grieving widows, together in our loneliness and pain.
[Naomi, my mother in law, she too is a good woman, a just woman]; when she decided to return to her homeland of Judah once the famine lifted, she insisted I find another husband in Moab. She knew how much I longed for a family- to see my dream of having children fulfilled. [She told Orpah the same thing. Orpah did, she went back to her mother’s home. I couldn’t.
I wasn’t worried about being welcomed back, I think I would have.] But I knew home and I knew the life that was destined for me there. When I met my immigrant husband and the God of his people, my perspectives changed- I saw light in the future, the expansive promise of love fulfilled, a new way of life that was generous and filled with hope. I could no longer be the person my family expected of me. I could not go back in time- only forward.
And Naomi, she softened the sting of loneliness after my husband died, kind soul that she is. I could not leave her; she of all people is the one who taught me loyalty of the heart. She accepted me into her family as a daughter. She lifted my dignity to that of equal. She taught me to rejoice in meeting new people and encountering different cultures. I was concerned about her wellbeing, yes; but it was more than that. She represented a future that I believed in. She led a family that was willing to leave their homeland, embracing every challenge with a steady heart; she embodied a dream that I still wanted, somehow being with her became my source of hope. And I would not leave hope or family behind. So we journeyed on to yet another unknown.
[Without a penny to our names, I promised Naomi and I promised the dream within me that I would not abandon them]: “Do not press me to leave you, or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God! Where you die, I will die- there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”
That’s what I said, and I meant it.
You see, once you’ve had a dream, once you’ve seen a better way, once you’ve felt like you’re a part of something greater than yourself...it’s impossible to go back to the way things had been.
I left the familiar home of Moab on a dream. I left with the gritty feeling of sorrow and hope, trust and belonging guiding each step of the way. Naomi’s God inspired my own faith that more was possible that we might be able to see. And I stepped into the unseen future, trusting that someone would be there waiting for me. I couldn’t yet know how Naomi’s God would become my savior; I suppose that’s why it’s called faith.
Our journey back to Judah was grueling, but we worked out our grief on the way. And when we returned to the land of my husband’s ancestors, I discovered a future filled with new promise and prosperity. And that part of my story, meeting my new husband Boaz, that part is truly a blessing fulfilled. I received a new husband who was willing to see to it that my first husband’s name was honored. And friends, here’s my very favorite part: I finally had a baby, a son! A son. We named him Obed!
Oh I held onto that little bundle of promise, nurturing him with the love of God I had received. Each time I rocked him to sleep, I told him the story of us, how we came to be, despite all the odds against us.
I held onto my dream, because the faith of my husband’s family became a part of my journey too; I know deep in my soul that God creates goodness out of terrible things. They say my great-grandson David became king of God’s people. I was chosen to be a part of God’s unfolding love story because I decided to believe that God could love even someone like me. Now that’s a good story, right? Dreams are not for the faint of heart, but they do come true (mostly in ways we could never imagine). Praise be to the God who loves even me.
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
We don't know much of Bartimaeus' life story, but I can tell you this much: it takes real guts to believe in healing when you’ve been told you’re not worthy of it your whole life. “Quiet, Bartimaeus, Jesus doesn’t have time for you.” I mean, that’s literally what folks are saying, “you’re not worthy of healing.” Have you ever heard that message? Do you still hear a voice saying “you’re so messed up, no one can fix that!” How many times does it take, hearing that message, before we just give up? What am I thinking, I don’t deserve healing. I’m a lost cause.
Thank God Bartimaeus didn’t believe that. He may not have conventional sight, but what he does have is wisdom, real insight that can only be explained by faith. He believes that Jesus DOES have time for him. Can you imagine the courage it takes to advocate for airtime w/ the man you believe is Messiah? Can you fathom the trust needed to reach out with no conventional ability to see this man you believe in? Your hand batted away by prejudiced bystanders, and still you insist on being heard.
Because Bartimaeus believed that he was worthy of abundant life, this miraculous encounter happens- and continues to provide you and I the courage it takes to reach out for help.
We don’t have to listen to the voices telling us we're not worthy. Because our faith insists that God is big enough, powerful enough, loving enough to hear everyone in their moment of need.
You may know the name Malala. On the morning of October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban, on a bus to school. And what had she done to deserve it? She spoke up about the right for all people to receive an education, even girls. “Have mercy on us!” was her cry; she too was silenced by prejudiced people, she too, did not take no for an answer. After her miraculous recovery from being shot in the head, Malala began to cry even louder, “Have mercy on us girls, we deserve an education too!”
Because Malala believed she was worthy of abundant life, and continues to give us the courage it takes to reach out for help.
Something in Bartimaeus & Malala just won’t let go of hope. Something in us just won’t either. We don’t have to be a character in the Bible or Nobel Peace Prize winner to act in courage for what we truly believe in: abundant life for all.
What situation might Jesus be inviting you to reconsider in your life? What needs healing? Where might you benefit from change? Now here’s the really tough question: do you have the courage to ask for help?
What is Bartimaeus’ motivation to pursue Jesus’ help despite the challenges? We hear the goal clearly at the end of the story: He’s given back his sight. But I think that’s only part of the story. The full picture is this: Bartimaeus, for the first time, is given the gift of pursuing abundant life- on foot- as a traveling disciple of Christ. Freedom to pursue love at last.
Do you have that kind of courage? Do you possess the insight that takes you beyond your present circumstance in faith that life could be different? Maybe your courage is clouded by pain. That’s a real thing, right? We can't see the forest for the trees. We can’t imagine what CAN BE because we’re so darn entrenched in what IS. And often what we can see is challenge after challenge, no way out.
I have a friend who works as a counselor in Aberdeen; she is so real, so in tune with the grittiness of humanity. And she contends that the #1 reason people don’t reach out for help with their problems is not pride or guilt or even stoicism. It’s a real sense that they’re not worth it. That engaging therapy (or any other potentially life-changing help, like joining a support group or faith community) won’t work for them, because they’ll always be a failure.
This is why we don’t walk the road alone. Left to ourselves, none of us may actually believe we’re good enough. But we’ve got a rich history of Bartimaeus’ & Malalas to inspire us with their courage. I believe the first step in pursuing that type of courage is trusting that we’re worth it- and often we become aware of our worth by surrounding ourselves with people who claim this truth for us. You and I are worthy of a Messiah’s attention. You and I are worthy of real change, of redeeming grace. If you haven’t heard it from anyone else in awhile, hear it now: you are worthy of healing. And therapy or counseling may be exactly the tool you need to overcome your challenges to receive a more abundant life.
Bartimaeus' story would never have made our scriptures had he simply waved at Jesus as he passed by, resigning himself to his fate. No, he insisted that Jesus could help him. He pursued a more abundant life. He believed that if he didn’t give up on himself, Jesus wouldn’t either. Friends, faith is what keeps us going- and the really good news is: we share a faith! When your faith isn’t strong, I’ll carry it for you. When mine isn’t strong, I trust you will carry mine. Together, with courage, we’ll pursue abundant life in the name of the one who came to save us from ourselves: “Go, your faith has made you well.”
The story of Job has been in our lectionary (our 3-year overview of the Bible) this past month. I’ve yet to include it in worship, however, because it cannot be easily diced. It’s understood best as one sweeping story. So to catch us up a bit: Job is a man who is right with God. And because of The Satan’s slimy character, a demand is placed on God to put Job's faith to the test. Because God believes in Job, it happens. Job loses family, health, wealth, everything. And during this time, Job's friends sit with him and try to answer that age-old question: why? In the end, none of their answers satisfy the deep question of why bad things happen to good people. So after 37 chapters of Job's suffering and questioning, God breaks the silence with words that give perspective to Job's life- and each of ours:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? ["Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightning, so that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? "Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?"]
Who is it, Job, is it you who created every animal and human and thunderstorm in its infinite variety? Is it you, Emily? Can you satisfy the appetite of the young lions? Is it you, church, who has put wisdom in the inward parts? I didn’t think so.
God, that feels harsh, especially when life is throwing us too many curve balls already. But there’s a reason Job’s story is in the bible. There’s something happening here that speaks to the depths of what it is to be human, to suffer without answers. God speaking out of a whirlwind feels so appropriate, because the challenges we face are a bit like bracing ourselves against a strong SD wind, feeling the sheer magnitude of a force greater than ourselves at work. And Job’s story asks us to consider God not on the outside looking in, but right in the eye of the storm with us, facing the chaos by our side. If this is true, and we believe God is with us in the storm, how might that change the way we pray through challenges and suffering? How might it shape how we see God in this world, in our own lives?
Job’s story is a mirror of our own stories. Maybe your story seems less intense, sure. Occasionally, however, each of us knows deep in our bones that it’s our story too. Think of the last time you asked yourself: Why do bad things happen to good people? Or maybe more to the point: “Why me, God? Why me?” Job’s ancient story is as current as it gets, each of us looking for answers to why we must suffer. And none of us yet able to fathom God’s response.
I'd like to flesh out 3 truths in Job's story:
1. Human suffering is unpredictable and unfair. It is. Job was a man full of integrity- and he lost everything, for no fault of his own. Some people live healthy lifestyles and get cancer anyway. “God, why me?” Car accidents end the lives of teenagers. "God, why her?” Suicide happens in families who least expect it. “God, what could I have done?” Infidelity affects marriages of people from all walks of life. “God, how could he?” Children are lost to miscarriages and stillbirths every single day. “God, how dare you!” Life is not fair, nor is suffering predictable. But here’s truth #2.
2. We can question God's silence without losing faith. I think this is key to Job’s universal appeal. Job is in anguish and cries out to God for understanding. He knows his sin has not caused the suffering (even when his friends mistakenly tried to make him believe this). He does want an answer to “why me?” And when God finally speaks, we learn that after all that questioning, God still considers Job a man of faith. To question God is not to lose faith. I need to hear that again, do you? To question God is NOT to lose faith. “Why me, God?” The questions keep us praying, engaged, keep us hoping for greater understanding one day. Questions keep us connected to God, which brings us to truth #3:
3. God does not abandon us, ever. Oh it might feel an awful lot like God has abandoned you when your mom dies young from cancer. It might feel like God doesn’t even exist when we hear the news of missing and murdered indigenous women right here in our community. But just because we feel God is absent, doesn’t make it so. I love this thought from Jim Wallis. After the earthquake in Haiti, when everyone was looking to point spiritual fingers, Wallis said: "My God does not cause evil. God is not a vengeful being, waiting to strike us down; instead, God is in the very midst of this tragedy, suffering with those who are suffering. When evil strikes, it's easy to ask, where is God? The answer is simple: God is suffering with those who are suffering." God never abandoned Job- and God never abandons you and me.
I believe this, in a God who suffers alongside us; in fact, it's the only way I can make sense of bad things happening to good people. but I can get to feeling sorry for myself sometimes anyway. Why me? Why melanoma? Why do I have to keep carving parts of my skin out to stay alive?
What’s your “why me?” Maybe more importantly, how do you redirect your attention long enough to hear God speak to you out of the whirlwind? Yesterday our family climbed one of these gorgeous buttes by the river. My new excision on my leg was smarting a bit- and at first I paused, the voice inside my head telling me a climb wouldn’t do it any favors….but I kept going and thank God, because I was wrong. When I reached the top of that butte, I heard another voice- the voice of God whistling in the wind, a force much greater than my own self pity. Reminding me to look up, to breathe deeply, to be inspired by a change of perspective. Yes, suffering is unfair. Yes, we question God. Yes, God is still with us.
So the next time you and I question “why me?” let’s listen to the voice of one who says, "Who laid this earth's cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?" It wasn't you, Job. It wasn't you, Emily. It wasn't you, church. It wasn’t any of us, was it?
We don’t have to know why things happen to trust that God hears our hardship, loves us regardless, and wants to enter into the mess alongside us. This trust doesn't change our circumstances so much as it offers a new way of being in the midst of struggle. A way of faith that we are never, ever alone. I often find the people who have the greatest spiritual peace are those who've been through tremendous suffering and have believed that God was with them the entire time. That's powerful, because it's true, and it's also the answer we've all been waiting for. Amen.
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Do you know how often I hear someone offer personal remarks at a funeral about someone’s wealth? Never, it doesn’t happen. Even while the family is gathered beforehand, making preparations for the service, money is NOT what’s forefront on their minds. Even amongst friends who knew the deceased well, it doesn’t come up. How rich someone was doesn’t really matter much in the end- most often I have NO clue what anyone’s income is or was, because friends, it doesn’t matter. Not to me, not to God. But what I do hear of is someone’s generous spirit. Is this what Jesus is telling the rich young man in the story?
Rev. Molly Baskette, in her theologically-accessible work entitled Bless this Mess, says “When we make the radical decision to give away what we have--even when we’re not certain our own needs will be met--it shifts our thinking (and feeling!) from a scarcity mindset and the instinct to hoard, toward an abundance mindset that changes our whole worldview. Wherever we put our treasure, our hearts catch up. And social science research backs this up: the “paradox of generosity” proves that people who are generous are healthier, happier, and more grateful.”
That’s the kind of attitude that people DO remember of folks at their funerals. Maya Angelou says it this way: 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.' Deep down every single one of us knows it: relationships matter WAY more than riches or prestige. So why is it really hard to practice? I suspect it's because we have more voices telling us to grab that instant gratification (or dopamine hit) of buying something, than voices that affirm the truth: investing in people over possessions is more satisfying in the end.
My grandmother passed away just over a year ago. She had no wealth to speak of; in fact, my dad told me at the end of her life she had less than $2,000 in a checking account, which more or less covered the final expenses. Her last financial transaction was giving $20,000 to a Chinese missionary she held a long-time connection with. I chuckled to learn this, and for a second I felt a little conflicted- like maybe her grandkids ought to have received that money. But then it dawned on me, she actually gave each of us grandkids that same amount: $20,000 when it mattered most- all of us were pursuing higher education at the time. She did not neglect her family, she simply allowed her generosity to extend even further- and that’s what we talked about at her funeral. Every bit of my being knows this: I want to be like that someday. Friends, she was one of the richest people I’ve ever known, because she invested in what matters most: relationships.
That’s the message Jesus is conveying. The kingdom of God is NOT about earthly wealth, and to enter God’s embrace, we must be willing to give up whatever earthly thing stands between us and God- even if that’s our wealth. This lawyer in the story isn’t quite ready to do that. And even the disciples who have given up everything question him. “We all have some possessions, Jesus, how are we to enter God’s kingdom?”
Do you find yourself asking that question when you hear this story? I do. My home? Am I supposed to downsize, Jesus? My vehicle? My smartphone? What?” And Jesus' response is profound. He says, “It’s hard, I know. In fact it’s SO hard, it’s impossible.”
I’m sorry. So you just gave that guy an impossible way to get into heaven? Sell everything and it still won’t be enough? Jesus can be tricky, right? If we keep listening, keep curiosity in our hearts, we hear Jesus come to the point of it all: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so prepare yourselves.”
Molly Baskette asks, “What if the reason Jesus was so severe with the rich young entrepreneur was not that there were so many poor people who needed a handout, but that Jesus knew that too much of the man’s security and fulfillment was linked to his stuff? What if Jesus knew that, counterintuitively, the way to “come into eternal life” or what we might call the juiciest kind of life, was to have less, not more?”
What is it that you strive for? What is it that your time and energy and yes, even your finances are investing in? If it’s possessions, power, or prestige, know this: those will be your only (and short-lived) reward. In fact, I can guarantee how much stuff you’ve accumulated in life won’t even come up at your funeral. But if we strive for the kind of relationships Jesus is all about “love God, love your neighbor, too” then we may be set free from the endless cycle of accumulating things to receive the true reward of relationships. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Jesus says to his disciples, who’ve literally left everything behind, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age [...] and in the age to come eternal life.”
It’s a promise that playing the long game, living sacrificially in the moment, will inevitably be more fulfilling. This radical hospitality characterizes the Jesus movement from its early beginnings- to such a degree that we 21st Century Christians cringe a bit to hear about how all possessions were shared in common, distributed according to need. And while we each have a different level of need, to be sure, a common thread emerges for us all: when we care more about possessions than people, we’ve lost our way.
Jesus says, “It’s hard, I know. In fact it’s SO hard, it’s impossible for you to do. So you and I are going to do it together.” Friends, together in the name of Jesus, we can learn how to give until it hurts, and keep on giving until it feels good again. That is true generosity at work.
The Wosepka family decided early this year to invest in what matters: a church infrastructure project that will revitalize our space for making connections, for creating relationships that last. And they do so in memory of Jim’s parents Verly & Louise, who I’m told invested their hearts into this faith family for decades. It’s a true joy to hear these stories emerge of Lousie’s steady hand in organizing the Christmas Tea, of their commitment to raising their children in faith. Stories like this remind us of the possibility that our legacies live long after we’ve left this earth. And what’s remembered most is not a dollar amount, but a commitment of the heart.
This Tuesday Jim stopped by to see the finished project, expressed gratitude for every single person who had a hand in making it possible. I was also setting up for Messy Church when he stopped by, so I explained the premise, an all-age creative worship space centered in Christ’s love, and he smiled and said, “It really has to be about the youth, doesn’t it?” I looked at the easily cleaned floors and chuckled as I envisioned using all that paint in Messy Church. And we left that space on Jim’ remark, “well, I better let you get on with that messy party.”
That’s the stuff of a Christ-centered community. One big messy party where we share and care for each other, reaping spiritual benefit a hundredfold. Rich in relationships created. May each of us experience the true joy of generosity this week- and may we share that transforming love of Christ with another. Thanks be to God for this good news today!
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
What keeps humans divided from each other? This is the question the author of 1 John is tackling. I’d even say it's THE question we must answer as Christians who believe we are all one in Christ Jesus. So what divides us? Ideological differences? Cultural misunderstandings? Skin color? Favorite NFL team? Level of education? Political party? Geographical accent? Income level? Where we get our news? Who we love? The size of our bodies? What we spend our time and resources pursuing?
Yes! In a real way, each of these distinctions has the potential to divide us… (you can add to this list, I’m sure). But you and I also know that what distinguishes us doesn’t always divide us, it doesn’t. So what’s really going on- what keeps us from taking seriously this command: vs. 7 “Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.”
Everything that has the potential to divide does so because of one common element. Fear. We fear what is different. We fear what we don’t know. We fear, in part, because that’s a real survival mechanism for humanity. It’s gotten us this far: Reject the unfamiliar, it may cause us harm. But you know what else causes real harm? Fear itself.
Even all these years after Christ emerges on earth, we are still battling the one thing that keeps us from true love, that causes deep pain and oppression. And the author of this text says it directly: “In this world we are [to be] like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
An Harvard research project called “The chill of fear,” outlines what happens within our brains when we sense something unusual. Our brain’s amygdala (that triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response) is immediately activated. In less than a second, our bodies and minds tell us to fear someone different than us, even before we have a chance to encounter that person. In fact, an averted eye gaze actually signals MORE fear. You know what calms our brains down? Turning toward the thing that frightens us: “A direct gaze signals an interaction between participants who know themselves to be non-threatening.”
Could something as simple as eye contact or a shared smile be the answer to reducing fear? I hope for that today, in the name of Christ who unites us. We all have innate fear, AND we all have what it takes to rise above it in the name of love. Just as we have an instant fight, flight, or freeze response, we also have an innate spirit of generosity and goodness. Vs. 13 “This is how we know that we live in Christ and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.”
So then let’s just love everyone, right? Okay! Until the next time my amygdala immediately flags a potential fear. Here’s the truth, It’s the work of a lifetime, to recognize the fear within us and overcome it with faith.
I have developed a rather strange practice in recent years. It’s something I notice when I’m out for a run, at the park, in someone’s home, really anywhere. And it’s a weird thing to say out loud, but here it is: I smile at dogs. That’s right, those four-footed tail-wagging creatures that make countless human beings happy. So why would I have to practice smiling? Well, here’s the thing that’s even weirder to say out loud: I have a dog phobia- I’m terrified of all dogs. I don’t consciously hate them, but something in my amygdala tells me I do.
If you happen to have a phobia of snakes, or spiders, or mice, or I don't know, your... next door neighbor, you understand the physiological effects of a phobia. Your heart begins to race, maybe you tense up, and you can tell yourself “it’s fine, it’s fine,” but when that spider or snake or person heads in your direction, you freak out! That’s how it works for me. I see a dog coming: “They’re nice, they’re nice, everybody loves dogs, Emily,” but as soon as that dog moves in my direction, even with a fence between us, “Ahh!!!” That's what happens inside my otherwise quite rational mind. Sometimes the “ahhhh!” happens out loud, in a really embarrassing way. The most common thing I hear from these well-intentioned dog owners (who clearly don’t have a phobia) is “they’re friendly, I promise!” Okay, thanks, I’d love to believe it.
So I smile at dogs, now, any chance I get. Because I refuse to give into the irrational patterns of thought that tell me all dogs are bad. Nearly two years ago, I even said yes to adding a dog into our household. And I have grown a distant affection for Rocket, but to this day, when that weirdly erratic border collie sniffs me, I tense us. Gah, get away! It’s a work of a lifetime, to recognize the fear within us and overcome it with faith.
The very best therapy for any fear is EXPOSURE. I joked a bit about having a phobia of our neighbors, but social anxiety or agoraphobia/fear of strangers is pretty darn common. And it doesn’t have to be someone from another country or race; often we live in fear of those within our own communities, even our own circles. Maybe it’s a heated conversation we once had; maybe we hold a real difference in values, as evidenced by the political sign in their front lawn; it could be they’ve been passive-aggressively speaking about you to an acquaintance- and just knowing that makes you grit your teeth. I’d venture to say that people phobias are a lot more common than dog phobias, and fear of other people affects our ability to live peaceably on this one shared earth that God has given us.
Our sacred texts remind us: “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” Period. We’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure. In fact- this work is a big part of today’s World Communion Sunday. To sit at the table with SO MANY others that practice Christ’s love differently than we do, is to say our fears of diverse expressions of humanity will NOT win the day. We even sit at this table and acknowledge God’s love for those who choose NOT to sit at table with us. That’s how much more powerful Christ’s love is than our own fears. And what’s the very best therapy for overcoming the fear of something? Expose ourselves to it!
In this sacred space, on World Communion Sunday, we open our hearts to appreciate just how diverse God’s creation truly is. And we are changed by it- made stronger in the presence of one another. Here’s the truth- we MUST derive our love from God if we expect it to hold up against our human propensity to fear. New Interpreters Commentary: “God’s persistent, encouraging presence--not fear of judgment to come-- is experienced in the lives of those who entrust themselves to Christ and who activate that trust in love for one another.”
Faith overcomes fear, every time. In the end, the ability to love deeper than our innate fears will always be a gift. New Interpreters: “God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no reason other than that love is the very nature of God that is knowable by human beings.”
May you and I know perfect love this week, if only for a moment, when we release our fear in faith that God’s love can mend every human divide. Even with that person who makes us go “ahhhhhh!!!!!” inside. Amen to that!
In the previous chapter of Mark we engaged last week, Jesus reveals his Messiah calling will require suffering- and he explains why there is no resurrection promise without first the cross. Then he says you and I are to take up our crosses too- because even in our suffering, God is at work crafting stories of redemption. Powerful, right? Well Jesus is at it again this week- offering a new take on an age-old human problem. This time, it’s a pesky little thing called ego.
Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Jesus is pouring his heart out on their long walk to Capernaum, teaching yet again of the way his body will be tortured, his emotions betrayed, his very existence threatened, and what is on the minds of his disciples?
"Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you” They’re arguing over who’s the best.
This, AFTER they hear Jesus speak about suffering leading to redemption. The disciples don’t quite get it yet, do they? I wanna say, “Cmon James and John, why aren’t you seeing it by now? Hasn’t Jesus’ miraculous presence been enough for you to understand that Jesus cares for society’s least as much as the greatest? That social status has no bearing on who is great in God’s eyes? But then I pause and ask another even deeper question- the thing that ACTUALLY matters when we study the bible.
Do I really get it? Do I ever judge my pastoral greatness by comparing myself with other preachers? You bet I do. Do I take a look at ministries happening in other churches and get a little envious? Sure. Do I look at other folks’ prayer lives and wonder why I don’t always carry that same level of faith? Of course. So then do I actually get what Jesus is saying? Well, maybe not quite yet, not fully. Do you? I wonder what area of life you find yourself comparing to others? In your workplace? Among your family members? Maybe in a social club? Or even in front of your own mirror? That subtle gnawing thought: I could be better, do better, look better, perform better, love better. God, I wish I was the greatest.
Yeah, James and John aren’t the only ones a little embarrassed by Jesus’ question: What are you arguing about? Jesus knows that none of us quite get it, and maybe that’s okay. That’s why we keep coming back to these sacred texts for direction. To be reminded that God doesn’t value what our egos seem to care a whole lot about. Who is the greatest? Nah, that’s not the point of it all. Who’s willing to see greatness in everyone? Now we’re getting somewhere, Jesus says.
Jesus sits down. He gathers those curious and wayward hearts of his disciples, and says it again: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." That's it. I'm not playing favorites, Jesus says, because you are ALL beloved. Don’t believe me? (I take Theodore into my arms)
"Then he took a little child and put her among them; and taking her in his arms, he said to the disciples: 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.'"
A child, with no social status at all. Regularly hushed, placed on the periphery of the community, assumed less worthy of attention than adults. And Jesus places her front and center.
"Do you see now?" I hear Jesus whisper, as he rocks the little girl back and forth, "It’s not about status at all, or what you’ve earned. I value the least among you as much as I value those of highest social esteem. Isn’t that the type of belovedness worth giving everything for?"
It is, of course it is, because I believe James and John and you and I arguing over greatness simply want to know deep down that we are worthy of being loved. And because unlike little children, we've been hardened by the world’s unrealistic expectations of greatness.
What are our egos taught? That winning the game matters most. That being the bravest or most charming gains us higher social status. That being the greatest is something we MUST strive for, no matter how eccentric or obscure our giftings may be. The era of Youtube stars and American Idol reaffirm what the world cares about most: exceptionalism. That being a forklift driver isn’t enough. We must be a star!
Unless, that is, we listen to Jesus set the record straight.
Jesus takes a little child into his arms and says, “it’s all smoke and mirrors.” Being greatest in the eyes of the world isn’t fulfilling after all. See this child? She’ll lead you to a kingdom way of life.
Now for Jesus’ object lesson to be fully effective, it’s important to realize that children in Jesus’ day were valued even less than women, who were valued only marginally above livestock. Lovely, I know. So to scoop up a nearby child and place her in the middle of a group of important men was as effective a visual aid as Jesus could offer. (He’s so clever.)
"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
So what if we took Jesus seriously? What if we redirected our gaze away from talent contests and pageantry of all sorts, toward the natural exuberance of children? What might we learn, how might we grow into Christ’s kingdom way of living?
You’ve heard me say, it’s soccer season. Briggs and his orange crush team have won every game this year. Greatness. :) But I wanna focus on the blueberries. The 4-5 year-old girls (including our own Blaire & Veronica Bremser) who have yet to win a single game. That’s who Jesus is calling me to learn from, especially since I’m helping coach that team. You wanna see competitive Emily emerge? 10am Saturday mornings. :) And oh how I grit my teeth as I watch those darling girls cheerfully lose every time. Here’s a mental image for you: At one point last weekend, three of our four blueberry players on the field formed a “ring around the rosy” as the other team scored a goal.
Too young to know what the world values, too wise to let something pithy like winning get in the way of truly enjoying the gift of one another on a beautiful day. The question “who is the greatest” is completely absent from those little girls’ minds, and we ought to take notice. In fact just yesterday, after losing by a LOT of goals, we gathered those girls together, and I asked: How do you feel about the game today? And each one looked at me with an earnest smile and said, “Great! Awesome! I had fun!” They’re the greatest, friends, the absolute best.
In Jesus' new world, the one he invites us to co-create, that question "Who is the greatest?" is totally obsolete. Hear this as good news today: we will NEVER find our spiritual center in trying to be better than others. We will never be great if we buy into the lie of comparison culture. Never. So you can stop trying, the contests of ego can quit. Not one of us will find union with God apart from following the example of Jesus: The first made last, all for the glory of God who calls each human beloved, every darn one of us. You’re great, because God chooses to love you just the way you are.
If you need a reminder of how broad Christ’s welcome truly is, take in the pure greatness of a child this week. For whoever welcomes a child welcomes Christ. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.