“…So I prophesied as I had been commanded;
and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling,
and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
I looked, and there were sinews on them; and flesh had come upon them,
and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal,
and say to the breath; Thus says the Lord God;
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain
that they may live. I prophesied as he commanded me,
and the breath came into them, and they lived,
and stood on their feet, a vast multitude…”
The complexity of the prophet Ezekiel is one that has always intrigued me. As do many of you, I appreciate the image of the valley of the dry bones. I have often, more than I care to admit, found myself standing in front of what feels like the impossible and wondering, “God you must be kidding.” My mind continues, “Not only is there no way I can do what you ask, but also I don’t even know how to begin.” Somewhere in my head I understand, “with God all things are possible,” but it is challenging for my mortal spirit and body to perceive anything beyond my senses. There is a temptation to skepticism I keep hidden from the world, but that exists none-the-less. I believe this is a “catch 22” for us as a people of faith seeking to be a witness together through our diverse churches and ministries.
I am presently writing from Louisville, Kentucky as I prepare for the board meeting of the Presbyterian Foundation of which I have the privilege to serve. I found myself led to this text, which has once again challenged and reminded me of several critical observations that are both helpful and necessary for compelling inspiration.
First, it is clear God is always the initiator of the possibility of new lives. This is true throughout the Biblical witness. We are the receivers of that message. It is God who initiates the possibilities in the midst of the impossible. It is God who invites us to step up and into the challenge of the unknown.
Second, God “commands us.” God does not make an inquiry or ask a question of Ezekiel, such as, “would you like to stand before a dry and barren people and land?” In this narrative, God does not even direct Ezekiel to where he should go. God takes Ezekiel by the hand and places him where he is called to breathe new life.
Third, the “rattling of the bones,” reminds us before new life can occur, there will often be new and unfamiliar noises. These noises remind us the true prophetic word will cause us to want to put our hands over our ears. It reminds us that if we can trust God, those rattling sounds will give way to new life.
Fourth, the breath Ezekiel is commanded to call upon does not come simply from one place. The breath comes from the four winds – reminding us that God’s life-giving breath comes from every corner of this earth, from every corner of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. God’s powerful spirit is not limited to or by our particular corner of the universe.
Finally, I was reminded yet again, in order for God’s transforming breath to come and work through us, we must stop long enough to call upon God. We must listen for God’s invitational voice to obedient service, service and witness often unclear and unformed. It is in obedience to God’s command that Ezekiel is able to prophesy new life into what had once been but a valley of dry bones – an impossible situation. Ezekiel calls on God’s powerful and Holy Spirit – and it is then that those bones not only live, but also stand as a vast multitude.
I am smiling as I type this, as I can visualize a gift on my desk that I received from my former presbytery in California. On it is a quote from Walt Disney (the great American philosopher) – “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” I love that we as a church are given this opportunity to call upon God’s Holy Breath in an effort to be faithful, relevant, and creative as we seek to be and do church in new ways. Throughout our Presbytery, there are faithful initiatives inviting new life in places where the valleys have been deep and dry. I am grateful for the spirit of possibility in the midst of what often feels impossible. May this word breathe life-giving encouragement into our often weary souls – as we share and embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this world.
“For such a time as this”
These past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind as I navigated my alumni reunion at Princeton Theological Seminary, a trustee meeting, our presbytery meeting, and a hospitalized dog. It felt a bit like a carousel that would not stop – with emotions ranging from fear of loss to profound inspiration. I am sure you recognize these seasons when the complexities of life are just what they are. This is the frame with which I approached my very first alumni reunion.
I must confess, I am not really sure why I have not attended a previous reunion, but this was my 25th year and I agreed to meet up with several friends. I have also developed a renewed appreciation for the breadth of my theological education and its ongoing importance in shaping who I continue to become. Theology matters! Sitting in Miller Chapel and familiar lecture halls for three days, I listened to and absorbed the sermons and stories of colleagues and friends. I found myself reflecting on the journey of our 25 years of experiences, celebrations, hopes, births, and losses. There is no denying that familiar adage – time does fly. The presentations reminded me of a framing question of Raymond Alf, a now-deceased paleontologist in California, who founded the only fully accredited high school paleontology museum in our nation. With the backdrop of fossils dating hundreds of millions of years, he would challenge his young students with a question he hoped would shape their minds and hearts – “What will you do with your moment in time?”
In what at first glance appeared to be unrelated presentations, I found a common compelling challenge and reminder as speaker after speaker shared what they have chosen to do with their brief moment in time. As I listened to the story of my friend and colleague’s family experience with the atrocities of Japanese Internment, the story of a African American woman’s journey with racism and doubt, the story of a Nuyorican colleague’s journey with the Puerto Rican diaspora, they all claimed the importance of a love and hope that was carried in their spirits – a love and hope embodied at times against circumstances that could have stripped them of Gospel spirit. Through their witness, they all reminded us that the hope of their faith was embodied in the ministries they have been called to lead. They reminded us that profound love has the final word and serves as the ongoing motivation and inspiration. Let me be clear, their messages were not of the “Pollyanna-type” love. It is the “agape love” that is sacrificial and unconditional – emulating the love God demonstrates for us through Jesus. They did not deny the presence of evil, racism, or injustice. They did not deny the pain along their journeys. They did not deny the real and present dangers and challenges in theirs and our lives. And they did not remain passive with what confronted them. On the contrary, they were each advocates in their own way, denouncing the theology of neutrality as a faithful way forward for the church. By their witness, they answered the question again and again – “What will you do with your moment in time?”
And then there was the Rev. Victor Aloyo, Jr., who preached at our presbytery meeting last Tuesday. In many ways his message capped a week of deep personal theological reflection. His central question was simple – “Can there be freedom without love?” His question was so simple that it caused a reverberating silence – “Can there be freedom without love?” The obvious but difficult answer is “no!” To live without love allows for resentment to grow. And when we allow resentment to grow, we look outside ourselves for answers. We blame others; we become discouraged; we rationalize hateful actions. We turn from whom we are called to be. We turn from a love that can shape and inspire us. We compromise our possibility and our ability in Christ to embrace our given moments in time – this gift of life given us by our creator. And this inability or unwillingness to love as we have been loved is the opposite of freedom.
Like the compelling Old Testament story of Esther, I believe we are called for such a time as this – regardless of the complexities and challenges along the road. I believe we are called to bring hope into a broken world. I believe this is our time to strive and work for a world that is not neutral and to courageously speak for and with the Gospel values that shape our witness. I believe we are called to reflect the great and new commandment—to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In this we will find freedom and purpose. So may we each love boldly and concretely as we consider the answer to the question, “What will you do with your moment in time?”
“Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:18-20)
The image of these friends physically carrying, lifting, and lowering the paralytic has always been compelling to me. I imagine the crowd – the inability to make their way through the throng with a bed. I can almost hear the conversation between these determined men, “how will we get to Jesus? How will we be able to heal our friend?”
I have a distant memory of my parents lined up for hours to bring my sister to Oral Roberts so she might be healed. My late sister was born with trisomy 21, commonly known as Down Syndrome. Oral Roberts was a nationally recognized preacher who was known for healing. I must have been five, which made her three. All I recall was the crowd, the waiting, the endless line, and the disappointment when they turned my parents away after they had waited for hours. Their hope was crushed. My sister would not be healed. I have often considered the kind of emotional desperation that causes one to make their way through a horde of people and makes one stand in line for hours praying for your child to be touched and be cured. My sister defied all odds and lived into her late 50s – hers was a complicated life but her life taught us much about simple things – such as joy, dancing, and music. The one who was not healed on that day brought a kind of healing to those whose life she touched. The one whose parents carried her would be one whose spirit carried her parents and siblings.
This story ends differently from the one in the Bible – there was no miracle of healing. But it demonstrates the importance of recognizing how God faithfully places people in our lives whose hands we may not see at first but who gently help to heal and carry us through the proverbial roofs. It speaks to those moments in our lives when we are unable to carry ourselves; when the weight of what we are experiencing is such that we cannot walk through the pain or the challenge before us and others have helped carry us. Sometimes the carrying has been obvious and known to us- like my sister and parents. Other times, we can only see the hands in the rearview mirror after we have moved forward from the depth of that painful season. They are the hands that embraced us, encouraged us, fed us, and loved us – initially invisible hands that resulted in visible healing.
There is no question that we do not get to live this life without finding ourselves in one of those places – where life’s tragedies and disappointments have emotionally, psychologically, and even physically paralyzed us. This kind of paralysis causes us to lose hope; and hope is central to us as followers of Jesus, especially in this season of resurrection as we continue our journey through Eastertide, wrestling with the impact of that resurrection morning on our identity today.
And our identity as a people of hope is complex. There are times we will be like the man on the bed lowered through the roof – carried by determined friends. But there will also be times when we are called to be the men and women who carry others when they are unable to carry themselves. We will be called to be the determined friends making our way creatively through the “rooftops” – working together to lift the burdens that keep others immobile with hopelessness. We will be called upon to be the prayer warriors, the feeders, the “shelter builders,” the visitors. And in that call – as we allow ourselves to be hands that help heal others – we may be surprised by the healing that happens within ourselves, that comes when we walk with another. This sounds like “church” to me – that sacred place – that imperfect covenant community where we are called to gather to reclaim our identity as a people of resurrection hope; that place from which we go out bearing the hope of Christ in a world that too-often wounds.
Denver, San Diego, Sri Lanka are recent reminders of this wounded world – a world where children continue to be stripped of their lives with senseless gun violence in places we once thought of as safe; a world where people worshipping get massacred. It is to this wounded world that we have been called to be the healing hope initiated by the risen Christ. It is to this that we have been called to be hands of healing in a world that wounds.
But Thomas said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,
and put my finger in the mark of the nails
and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(from John 20:25)
‘Unless I see the mark…” These words of Thomas have haunted believers throughout the centuries as we wrestle with what it means to be a people who believe in the resurrection. Thomas is bold in his doubting. He is clear about what he needs to believe. Thomas needs to see the mark of the nails. He needs to see the wound in Jesus’ side. Not even the witness and words of his closest friends were enough for Thomas to believe that Jesus had in fact been resurrected. He knows their hearts; he hears their words; he feels their energy – and yet he is unable to believe. In many ways, Thomas’ words foreshadow a challenge for believers today. What do we need to see to believe? What mark is enough for us to affirm our faith in the resurrected Christ 2,000 years later?
As I consider the violence and fear surrounding the days of those first gathered followers of Jesus, I can relate to Thomas’ doubts. After all, a “mark” of his time was framed by an unsettling reality. The leaders of the religious institution of their time were concerned and not happy with these “Jesus followers” – as they were viewed as a threat to the way they understood their faith and their God. Their concerns were so real that they colluded with the secular government of their time and executed Jesus.
The truth is, the “marks” of our time are not so different. The violence around us can be overwhelming – from the shootings in the streets of our city to the senseless acts of terrorism around the world. The bombings that left hundreds dead in Sri Lanka is a recent reminder of this reality. Like many of you, I am deeply disturbed by how religious beliefs are often used as weapons of hate – disregarding the common dignity all humanity shares. These are some “marks” of our times – “marks” colored with despair and death, fear and desperation. I imagine Thomas, struggling with the “marks” of his time as he gathered with his brothers and sisters, concerned for what would happen to them now that their leader was crucified.
But if we can see beyond these “marks” that threaten our very lives, there are other marks that indeed point us to the hope of the resurrected Jesus. The presence of the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered continues to be the same breath of heaven that allows us to see with hope what is physically not before us. It allows us to see with the eyes of faith – to recognize God in places and spaces that can be unexpected.
As we engage this season of Eastertide for the next 40 days leading us to Pentecost, I invite us to consider the “marks” of the resurrected Christ around us. I invite us to consider the words of Thomas, “unless I see the mark,” and reflect on what “marks” we need to see in order to believe. Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in the embrace of another? In the celebration of a life well-lived? In the birth of a new life? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in the sounds of music? In the bursting forth of new life of Spring colors? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in those standing with the oppressed? In the feeding of the hungry? The clothing of the naked? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ in the whispers of prayer? Friends, these are the “marks” of a God who continues to break through the brokenness and darkness compelling us toward new life. These are the “marks” of a people who more than 2,000 years later are able to see the risen Christ in the ordinary comings and goings of life.
Friends, may we receive the same breath Jesus breathed on to those first disciples, allowing it to shape our witness with conviction and encouragement. May we boldly claim the “marks” of resurrection life around us; for they are there – pointing to the One whose initial marks are the reason for the possibility of new life for each of us today.
Jesus got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long
but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught so many fish that
their nets were beginning to break.
It is no secret that I am an ocean “appassionata.” My soul is renewed as I walk along the shorelines on both the east and west coasts. So as I read this familiar story, I was struck by the contrasting images of the shore and the deep water that frames this narrative. I found myself asking the question – How often do we do our ministry from the shore? How often do we find comfort in that place? There is safety in being able to stand on our own two feet as we proclaim the radical gospel of Jesus. The shore allows us to share the gospel without much risk. We can wet our feet; we can even get our bodies wet, but we are still in control.
When Jesus tells Simon to “put out into the deep water,” he is challenging Simon to go beyond his comfort zone, beyond that which he can control. Jesus is also challenging Simon to go to where he has already been before, with the possibility of something new happening. How often do we resist taking this step in our discipleship journey? Frankly, how often do we apply this ‘limiting’ reasoning to our church ministries – from evangelism to the continued growth of our faith?
How often do we say, “I’m done – I already tried that?” Not only do we do this with ministry, but we also do this with our human relationships. We close doors to new possibilities, forgetting God is much bigger than our human agendas. This text reminds us to take our faith a little farther; to venture deeper into our relationship with Jesus. In John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get out of the Boat, he reminds us that in order to experience the greatness of God, we must trust that God can do extraordinary things with us ordinary beings. This is a challenge for all disciples. We can talk about all the possibilities of our faith, but if we do not actually take steps in faith to make those possibilities a reality – if we do not go out into deeper water, our faith will be in danger of remaining along the shore line – comfortable and frankly, a bit shallow.
As I think about the church in contemporary society, I believe this is one of the most significant discipleship challenges today. We must ask ourselves – Do we really believe what we preach – or even preach what we believe? How often do we make decisions for fear of rocking the boat? How often do we prefer to maintain a stationery state that will yield nothing new in terms of community presence or spiritual growth – while focusing on our buildings? We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are God’s vessels, empowered by God to make a difference in this world. We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are empowered by God to bring justice and mercy into our midst. We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are called to be a missional presence in the here and now. If we can’t be part of this witness in this broken world, who can? We too often believe in our own powers, opinions, visioning and planning – forgetting by whose power we serve.
As we prepare to gather as a presbytery tomorrow, I am deeply convicted by the voice of Jesus compelling me – compelling us – to go out into deeper water. I am grateful for the courage of many in our midst who have demonstrated their willingness to step out beyond the shore in faith. I am grateful for a presbytery leadership – Elder Linda Rutkosky, Rev. Randy Barge, and Elder Vijay AggarwaI – who recognize the “God possibilities” in our midst, serving as our moderators and vice moderators. I am grateful for a new denominational leader in the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, whose spirit clearly believes God’s plans for us are far greater than what we can see with our eyes.
I would be remiss, as we embark on Black History Month, not to mention my gratitude for the spirit of our historic African American congregations and leadership who continue faithfully to be open to stepping out beyond the shore into waters that are indeed deep and unsettling – but rich with resurrection possibilities.
May we continue to grow in our awareness of the power of the resurrection within and among us. May we, like Simon, obediently (albeit, at times, reluctantly) cast our nets and our trust into deeper water. Perhaps our “catch” will not be such a surprise.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to
bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..,“
I am a lover of film and theater. I greatly appreciate the interpretation of the human story on the big screen and on the stage. There is something powerful about confronting dimensions of ourselves through the story of others as they journey throughout history. The art of entering into the human experience through the life of another can remind us of our common hopes and aspirations. They can remind us of our commonality, our mortality, our temptations and our redemption. Like an effective sermon, these artistic portrayals can invite us to believe and reach beyond “what is” to “what can be.” Last week my husband and I went to see Black Klansman, a “truish” interpretation of the first African American police officer hired in Colorado Springs in mid-80s and his story of infiltrating the Klu Klux Klan. That is all I am going to say about the plot – as I would encourage you to see it. But what was particularly effective in the development of this film was the use of clips from the civil rights movement more than 20 years earlier to prepare and direct the viewers’ minds.
Those clips portrayed real-time images of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he prophetically challenged a world where the assumptions of race and hate found themselves challenged by the demand for equality and justice. As we know Rev. Dr. King was a Christian whose understanding of the Gospel was woven into the centrality of his ministry as he confronted the evil of his time.
This past week our nation celebrated the witness of Dr. King. Many of our churches participated in service projects in their communities, pausing to remember one who sacrificed much so that others might be able to take one step further and lift their heads a little higher. This year some of our churches provided support to those affected by the government shutdown. Through these efforts, the spirit of Dr. King continues to remind us that we still have work to do if we are truly honoring his legacy.
Recently, however, there has been some conversation about the danger of how Dr. King is being remembered. Harvard professor and friend, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Walton, speaks to how we as a people have romanticized and sanitized the memory of Dr. King. Whether we agree with Rev. Walton or not, his words are important to consider. Walton says, “In so many ways, Dr. King has become America’s racial Easter Bunny… He is the poster boy of American diversity that is brought out to lay the feel-good eggs at the feet of an otherwise sinful society. As long we focus on the Easter Bunny, we don’t have to deal with the cross and suffering.”
These words compelled me to consider whether we have done this to the very one we claim to follow – Jesus of Nazareth. Has his witness become sanitized? Have we distanced ourselves from the sacrifices, the pain and reality of his journey? Have we moved quickly to Easter Sunday minimizing the reality of the cross? Are we not guilty of often engaging the “love” part of his teachings without fully engaging the “centrality of his life’s call?” And in this Lukan text, as Jesus begins his public ministry, his “life’s call” is clear. It is to “bring good news to the poor…release the captives…recover sight to the blind… and let the oppressed go free…” Everything Jesus does and says in the subsequent three years is clearly framed by this mission – a mission given to him by his Father, God, in an act of relentless love for all humanity. And as we know, embracing this mission can collide with existing values. Confronting the systems and powers in place within our society (including the church) will more often than not be met with resistance. That very resistance and collision of values escorted Jesus to his execution on the cross – an execution blessed by both political and religious powers in their effort to sustain the status quo or social order as they believed necessary.
The clarity and centrality of our call – perhaps this is the challenge to each of us as individual disciples and our communities of faith. This is our 2,000 year old mission statement. It is one that understands and embodies the love of God in the expressed commitment of concretely transforming the lives of those within our walls and those outside the walls of our churches. As we continue through this season of Epiphany – as we continue to consider how God reveals self in the person of Jesus, perhaps it is a time to reaffirm what this means for us as a people in the greater Philadelphia area at this time in place. Have we sanitized our understanding of the Gospel in an effort not to deal with the pain? How are we reflecting our commitment to this Jesus call? In what ways are we serving as agents of bringing “good news to the poor…releasing the captives…recovering sight to the blind… and letting the oppressed go free?” And friends, while poverty, imprisonment, blindness and oppression are visible around us, they also take on forms beyond the economic and physical realities around us. They also find themselves among and within us – in our spirits and assumptions – compromising the very hope we proclaim to a hurting world.
I find myself in a deeply reflective place as together we faithfully seek to be a people of hope at a time when hate and fear are again the rhetoric of our culture. I am profoundly grateful for the witness of which we are a part – I am deeply moved by the commitment we embody in our congregations and other ministries serving our communities and neighborhoods. That being said, in a culture of quick phrases, twitter feeds, and social media memes, I invite us to again boldly consider and embrace the words of Jesus as he self-reveals the centrality of his call – the centrality of our call: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight to the blind and freeing the oppressed. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. May it be so!
Now when all the people were baptized,
and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended
upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.”
This is one of those biblical images that has often captured my heart and mind. Not only have I visually imagined Jesus standing by the Jordan River, but I have also found myself repeating the words spoken by God on many occasions as I have celebrated the life of a saint whose witness in this world was shaped by their faith. It is a bold Gospel proclamation – Jesus is humbly baptized by his cousin and the skies are opened; and God speaks words that I believe we long for throughout our lifetimes – “This is my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased.”
This seemingly ordinary first century practice of baptism is transformed into an extraordinary affirmation by God. Not only does God the ‘creator’ and ‘father’ speak a word, but Jesus the living Word is also revealed to the world while the Holy Spirit descends upon him. This is the consummate trinitarian moment – all three Godheads making an interactive appearance at this pivotal moment as Jesus prepares to begin his three-year public ministry. Understood as an epiphany or a manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, this is the second of three epiphanies in the gospels, the first being the revelation to and the journey with the magi (celebrated last Sunday) and the third at the Wedding in Cana. Epiphany is a season when the Christian church celebrates and affirms the many ways [deleted that] God in Jesus is revealed. This season of discovery and revelation continues until Ash Wednesday when we pivot and begin our journey to the cross.
I have learned that many of us do not think much about this season. It is simply the season after Christmas and before Lent. But the season of Epiphany matters, as during this time we are invited – like the magi – to continue seeking out and looking for God in the midst of all the noise and sounds around and within us. Celtic Christianity refers to moments like the baptism of Jesus as a ‘thin place’ – that place where heaven and earth meet. It is that place and space where we experience God in an unexpected way, where we are made aware of the presence of the divine, or as Celtic tradition says, “a veil is lifted,” giving us a glimpse of a profound presence. For the Christian church, that manifestation is understood to be in the sacraments. But as we know, we experience God is other ways as well.
For some of us, ‘heaven meets earth’ in nature – on the oceans or in the mountains. It is no secret that I love the ocean. I easily relate to the song from Disney’s Moana – “See the line where the sky meets the sea – it calls me” – and I can assure you, it does call me. East coast or west coast, something profound happens to me when I quietly walk along the seaside. For others, ‘heaven meets the earth’ through music, relationships, worshipand spiritual disciplines, art, and life moments. Any of these spaces can create the conditions for those ‘thin places’ or epiphanies, which allow us to be touched and transformed in profound ways by God.
Given the world we live in, it is critical for us to be active seekers of God’s presence. After all we often live much of our lives in what can be referred to as ‘thick places’ – places driven by the noise of social media and newsfeeds thrust upon us from outside, not allowing us to see God’s light breaking into the darkness. We often live in thick places where fears and assumptions make us deaf to God’s voice breaking in through the heavens. It is not enough for us to skip from Christmas to Lent as if there was nothing in between. This season of Epiphany invites us to continue seeking out those ‘thin places’ where God’s light and voice breaks into the unexpected and ordinary dimensions of our beings. As we begin a new year, may we continue on this holy journey with open hearts and minds – yearning for those “thin places” where heaven and the earth meet – touching us in ways that transform our witness in this world.
As we gathered last week as the Presbytery of Philadelphia at Wallingford, I was struck by the spirit of the gathering. There was a ‘vibe’ in the air that accompanied the mood throughout our pre-presbytery conversations, business meeting, worship and celebration dinner. I could not help but consider how blessed we are to be part of this diverse expression of the body of Christ – a body of Christ that, as I said Tuesday, has demonstrated itself to be courageous, creative, counter-cynical and covenantal. How blessed am I to have been invited to join you five years ago; to come alongside you, to shepherd this presbytery; to partner with gifted men and women who believe God is making straight a way before us – so that together we might courageously and creatively consider ways to reflect the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ for a time such as this. It is a time when it is easy to be overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness. As such, it is also a time that makes it imperative to practice the discipline of gratitude – of pausing to name God’s blessings in our midst. It is these blessings that will serve to fuel our hearts, that will serve to lift us up from our knees when we pray, that will inspire us with the Holy Spirit – so together we might be lights in the darkness.
As we approach Thanksgiving and this season of gratitude and hopes, I pause to say how thankful I am for the privilege of being a part of “The Story of Us.” Thank you for the kind words spoken last week; for the vote of confidence as we embark on another five years; for the spirit of grace that allows me to be imperfect without fear; for the covenantal embrace that sustains my heart during the valleys and the mountains. Above all, thank you for being faithful ambassadors of Jesus Christ. My heart is filled with gratitude – for you!
So as you gather around table this week and in the weeks to come, I invite you to name those people and things that fill your heart with gratitude. Boldly give thanks for them!
On behalf of the entire staff of the Presbytery of Philadelphia – Kevin, Greg, Steve, Deb, Betsi, Cassie, Andrea, Luis, Ann, Dolores and Marilyn – we wish for you a Blessed Thanksgiving.
“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village,
where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and
listened to what he was saying.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;
so she came to him and asked,
‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?
Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her,
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
there is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.'”
We Presbyterians are a “doing” people. That “doing” is framed by the Protestant work ethic embedded into our denominational DNA. Associated with John Calvin and the Puritans, this Protestant work ethic emphasizes hard work, discipline and being thrifty as a way to live because of one’s faith. Many would say that this way of life impacted the industrial revolution and modern-day capitalism. Historically during the Reformation it was used as a contrast with the Roman Catholic focus on worship attendance, sacraments and confession. The implication being that kind of spirituality could lead to inaction and passivity. Ironically, we need both for a healthy spiritual life and witness in this world.
One could say that as Protestants and Americans, this work ethic has had its own idolatrous temptations. In our effort to “get things done,” to not waste time, to do things “in order” for ourselves and those around us, we could easily miss out on some deeper needs, causing a spiritual void of sorts. We fill that void within with the noise of movement and the checking off of lists. This noise can easily distract us from doing the hard spiritual work required of each of us. For years I wrestled with this struggle from within.
But our Biblical sister Martha might “have me beat.” Martha lives with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus about 2 miles from Jerusalem in the town of Bethany and they are friends of Jesus. I imagine their home as one of those rare places where Jesus could go without feeling like he had to be on. Some of us have those places – where upon our entrance into that home, our spirits are renewed and refreshed. The people in those places and spaces become critical to our journeys in this life. For more than 40 years, my “people place” is on the Upper West Side in NYC. No matter how I am feeling, how lost, how pained, how exhausted – an embrace from the saints within that home releases the degenerative energy within and encourages me forward. It does not require any words or conversation. I can’t help but smile when I consider Martha and Mary’s home as one of those places for Jesus.
In this familiar story Martha is clearly doing what Martha does – she is making it “all right”’ for her friend – feeding, comfort, warmth, etc… Every time we have a gathering at home, I can relate. But her sister Mary has apparently found another way to receive Jesus in their home. While Martha is doing – Mary is listening. And when Martha complains to her friend Jesus – he does not support her concerns. On the contrary, he lifts up Mary’s model as something important for the long term. Listening is one of the most important spiritual disciplines we can develop. But listening requires us to stop, sit and allow for the silence or voices of others to penetrate the noise in our lives. It requires that we be open to the voices of others. And Jesus reminds us that this kind of engagement can never be taken away from us.
Over the years I have found this to be true – creating the space to allow others to shape my heart has proven invaluable. Creating the space to allow God’s voice to interrupt my schedule has compelled me to grow in ways I might have otherwise never experienced. That is how I found my way to silent retreats at the monastery in Cambridge, MA. It has provided me with the discipline and strength required to embrace both the Martha and Mary within me with joy.
In many ways our churches struggle with this identity – I have seen many churches wrestle with being in that spiritual space, mistaking the spiritual practices of prayer, ceremonial traditions, study of scripture and worship with passivity and inward focus. We forget that the reason we gather regularly is to worship God while renewing our identity so as to go out into the world and lead transformation – working to make right what is broken. Conversely, I have seen churches working to make right what is broken in the world – but forgetting the “why” of what they are doing what they do. We forget that we are not simply the YMCA (which I love). The reason we faithfully work hard at being a voice for change in the world is because that is the inner call of our faith – that is what the gospel requires of us.
My prayers for us as we continue into this fall, is that we will be a people who intentionally strengthen the spiritual disciplines that serve as our foundation as we take that strength and witness into the world. May we embrace the importance and presence of the Martha and Mary within each of us.