[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.
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!
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.