Songs in a Season of Discontent

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Luke 12: 49-56

Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard is a poetic warning to Jerusalem and Judah concerning the terrible sickness that belied the appearance of prosperity and the false illusion of national security. Two characteristics defined the nature of the sickness. Firstly, the erosion of justice. Secondly, the willingness of the ordinary people to be distracted from the inner truth of the political sickness eating away from within Judah’s society, by a false narrative of prosperity .

It seemed that Mid 7th-century Judah enjoyed many parallels with contemporary America. As now, so then the rich grew richer at the expense of the ordinary citizenry, supported by an early form of GDP, a false and misleading measures of economic crude activity. As now, so then a false narrative functioned to distract attention away from the reality that ordinary families – the core social units of society – were languishing instead of flourishing in the face of a supposed booming economy.

Today, ordinary Americans are angry. Yet so many of us are distracted from the causes of our anger. We should connect our anger with the erosion of the rule of law – with the law interpreted one way for the privileged rich, and the corporations, and another for workers; the law interpreted one way for middle-class white Americans, and quite another for African Americans and Hispanics – with poverty preventing equal access and uniform application of the law.

We should connect our anger to the oppressions of a global economic system of multinational conglomerates who play fast and loose with national and community interests. We should demand better regulation and protection of privacy from the manipulations of social media platforms, which exploit our data for political gain and economic profit without out recompense. We should be more consciously angry that our government cares so little for our protection as individuals and as citizens from the exploitation by the misuse of power.

In the last lines of the song God abandons the subtlety of metaphor to sing plainly. God expected his people to produce a rich harvest of social justice and righteousness – a righteousness defined not by self-righteousness but by mutual obligation. Righteousness comes about only through doing right by someone else.

The Song of the Vineyard is a timeless love song of God’s lament against all our contemporary isms of oppression. It’s a song of bitter contrasts. It tells of God’s considerable investment of hope for a fruitful harvest of social justice and equity. It tells of God’s disappointment and hopes dashed time and again as human societies prefer to privilege the dynamics of inequality. The metaphor is the hope for a fruitful harvest of sweet grapes, contrasted with the bitterness of wild fruit that rots on the vine. God’s investment of love – cultivating and protecting his vineyard – is frustrated by human neglect.

Luke’s momentous 12th chapter contains the heart of Jesus teaching on social and economic justice. But it ends with a series of verses in which Jesus’ words sit very uncomfortably, with us. 

There is no comfort in Jesus’s words at the end of Luke 12. In a passage in which the overriding message is do not be afraid, Jesus suddenly confronts those who will say peace, peace, when there is no peace, and there, and castigates those who say there, it won’t be as bad as we fear! Maybe there were some just off stage whispering false words of security – another false narrative designed to distract. Jesus rounds on them with a harsh message. It’s not only going to be as bad as you fear – it’s going to be worse.

In a metaphor that strikes at the family as the core building block of society Jesus predicts – where there is five there will be three against two and two against three. In the heart of the family’s protection – wife will rise against husband, husband against wife; child against parent, and parent against child; parent and children against grandparents and grandparents against children and grandchildren. No, these are not words of comfort. Only words that promise the baptism of fire.

We are now harvesting the rotten and bitter fruits of 30 years of distorted and false narratives, of alternative facts – scattered for sectarian political gain producing a bitter harvest of cultural conflict. A large swathe of the electorate has been distracted by distorted political messaging on abortion, guns, immigration and unfettered rights and freedoms without mutual obligations.

We seem oblivious to the roads, bridges, railways, and levies crumbling around us. So distracted are we by the bread and circus of single-issue reality TV politics we are easily distracted for the election cycle from the way we are adversely affected by social justice inequalities of eligibility for decent healthcare for our families, pre-K child care for working families, affordable college and tertiary education for our kids, protections in the workplace, and of course the most pressing issue of all, climate change and its adverse effects for the poorest sections of American society.

This situation is not going to change any time soon but change it must. Jesus’ warnings are timely reminders that there are always consequences not of God’s, but our choosing.

Jesus complains that we know how to predict tomorrow’s weather, yet we are blind to the signs of the times indicating longer-term direction of events. Things are not going to get much better over the short term (short term from God’s perspective not ours), for we have a lot of bitter harvest to consume first. But get better the times eventually will.  Jesus’ over-riding message that despite the present difficulties of our own disobedience, ultimately, we should not fear for it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

In the meantime, what are we do in this season of discontent – over which we have so little control?

  1. Politically, we must wake up to the distraction of single-issue politics, luring those on the right to vote against their larger self-interests, and those on the left to not bother voting at all.
  2. Spiritually, we must be more faithful in the practice of our Christian faith– attending in a disciplined way to the practice of our faith as a matter for every day and in every moment of every day.

As a spiritual leader I have little impact on the political trajectory, other than to exercise my democratic rights. But I can encourage us to go deeper spiritually. As we move towards the beginning of a new church program year, I have a number of ideas about how we can move forward together. A warning however: run for the hills now or stay tuned.

Naming The Scary Things

References: Pentecost 9, Isaiah 1, Luke 12, & Toni Morrison

Last Tuesday we celebrated the Transfiguration of Jesus which is the turning point at the heart of the gospel story. The truth of Jesus’ inner identity is revealed before he turns his face towards the road to Jerusalem. In the Greek used by the gospel writers metamorphos is the word used for the transfiguration experience. Metamorphoses describes the experience when the inside meaning and truth of Jesus identity, i.e. his divinity is revealed in the outer appearance of his humanity. The inside and the outside become one.

How does the inside match the outside? What is real and what is mere appearance? This is Plato’s central question. It is also ours as well.

The great African-American novelist Toni Morrison died this last week. With her death we witness the passing of a prophet. Again we will find that prophets are more honored after their death than during their lifetime.

We could think of Morrison as a prophet because in her writing she revealed the tensions between inner truth, i.e. the way things really are or at least need to be, and the easy acceptance of the distorted appearance of things.

The first reading for this Sunday opens with Isaiah’s vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Through the mouth of the prophet, God declares:

I have had enough of your ritual sacrifices and solemn assemblies. Instead remove the evil from your actions from before my eyes by learning to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Paraphrase of Is 1:10-20

Stan Mast in his commentary on this Isaiah passage interestingly quotes from James Limburg who noted paradoxically that:

Jerusalem just past mid-eighth century BC was a place where the economy was booming, the elite were basking in the prosperity of the Uzziah years, and ecclesiastical institutions were buzzing with sacrifices and songs.  But beneath it all, something was wrong.  A terrible sickness was eating away at the heart of the nation. Isaiah had seen it and tried to warn his people before it was too late.

The terrible sickness that belied the appearance of prosperity in mid-eight-century Judah included a reckless adventurism in foreign affairs, the greed of the powerful, the corruption of justice, all typical characteristics of a society of haves and have nots. However, the core of the sickness lay in the willingness of the population to be distracted by a glittering but false narrative of prosperity and security. This false narrative distracted the people from immanent national disaster and the erosion of the shared common values ensured by the Mosaic Law, Israel’s ancient constitution. The external narrative creating a false and distorted appearance of things functioned only as a distraction from the inner meaning of the truth of the terrible communal and political sickness eating away from within Isaiah’s society.

However, the core of the sickness lay in the willingness of the population to be distracted by a glittering but false narrative of prosperity and security.

Toni Morrison wrote to expose the terrible sickness at the heart of American society; the inner truth and meaning of the sickness of racism belied by the appearance of things. She noted:

The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.”

(“A Humanist View,” a 1975 speech Morrison gave at Portland State University).

We live in a culture that has become easily and alarmingly distracted by a series of false narratives, perhaps the one with the greatest long-term impact being climate change denial. The economic measurement known as GDP is another false narrative that functions as a distraction from real experience. How can the economy be flourishing when the experience of our well-being languishes? The answer lies in what you choose to measure, and what you exclude from measurement.

We can become familiar with the distorted rhetoric of narratives that distract us from the inner reality with glossy versions of the external appearance of things. God’s message to Judah in the time of the Isaiah is the same as God’s message to 21st century America, delivered as then, so now, through the mouth of modern day prophets such as Morrison:

Come now, let us argue it out that I may bring you to your senses!

PARAPHRASEd from Is 1:10-20

In her 1975 novel Beloved Morrison wrote that freeing yourself was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

Being open to the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us, speaking to us both individually and in community, is for Christians the key to discerning what is authentic and healthy, true and good, from the false and distorted distractions of external appearances. Through the power of the Spirit we claim ownership of our freed selves.

How do we cultivate our listening to the promptings of the Spirit guiding us amidst the cacophony of competing messages? The simple answer is to return and rest in the formative language of the biblical story.

Receiving the Nobel prize for Literature in 1993, Toni Morrison said:

Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation. ….. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

Luke’s chapter 12 forms the heart of Jesus’ teaching on economic justice, culminating in two key statements:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.

Luke 12:32-40

Note he does not say here sell all your possessions. Selling your possessions in order to give alms means in other words behold one another with generosity and concern.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.

Luke 12:32-40

The inner truth is the kingdom is already here and it is already ours by gift. The inner truth is that generosity binds us together. The warning here is – be careful about the priorities you take to heart.

The inner and outer realities metamorphose – come to resemble each other when we hear the inner promptings of the Spirit speaking to us through the biblical narrative; giving us the language for naming what Morrison called the scary things which otherwise continue to have no names.

In the face of distortions and lies couched in sometimes glossy, sometimes fear inducing narratives of distraction – like Toni Morrison, and most of all like Jesus – we speak the inconvenient truth – so that the words we speak, and the priorities of our hearts will become the measure of our lives?

The Shame of Being Loved Unconditionally

Unconditional love is difficult to bear because paradoxically as it conjures up our hope it triggers our shame.

Returning home can be a bitter-sweet experience. Over the course of hours we transitioned last weekend from the traditional stone farmhouse in which we’d spent a month – unplugged and secluded among the vines and plum orchards of Loubes-Bernac on the border between Lot Et Garonne and Périgord-Dordogne. Let me take a short detour down memory lane.

Al and I first came to this region of Southwest France, 80 miles inland from Bordeaux some 30 years ago as very poor Church of England curates, grateful for  the offer of a free house for a couple of weeks. Over three decades we were regular visitors to the area. Following moving to the US in 2008, there was a break in our pattern for several years as we worked to reestablish our lives in a new country and culture. It’s a joy to now find we are able once again to return each year for the month of July, just before the explosion of the French holiday month of August.

This is a region not well known to Americans who seem to prefer the Loire with its grand chateaux and the more romantic sounding Provence and the Rhone Valley. However, if you want a feel for this region of Périgord-Dordogne, I recommend Martin Walker’s series featuring Bruno, a former soldier turned policeman, who as its Chief of Police has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life in the idyllic village of St. Denis.

Returning home can be a bitter-sweet experience, for going away enables a moment of fresh perspective on one’s everyday context. Driving into Providence last Sunday evening I was aware of two vying impressions. I felt gratitude for the good fortune of living in such a lovely place. But why did Providence have to be in a United States wracked with the political and social upheavals of 2019-20? I don’t mean to sound down on the US and actually, the thing that makes this slightly more bearable is a thankfulness that Providence is not situated in the United Kingdom at this time.

It seems wherever we live we find ourselves in uncertain times. We will need every ounce of the courage to keep faith and hope alive amidst unparalleled levels of domestic and international political turbulence unfolding against the backdrop of the relentless rise of the earth’s temperature and impending climate changes, that may prove irrevocable.

The Prophet Hosea also lived in challenging times -roughly between 786 and 721 BC. His prophecy ends with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721, an event preceded by 20 years of escalating crisis. Hosea is the first book of the 12 Minor Prophets, minor not because of the insignificance of their message but because of the shortness of the books that bear their names.

Hosea lived in a time of growing recklessness in foreign policy – Israel and her feckless rulers seeking to play off the two global powers of Egypt and Assyria against each other. Domestically, he lived in a time of increasing spiritual corruption and social degradation marked by the Israelite abandonment of the covenant with the Lord to worship at the feet of other gods. Hosea predicted God’s punishment; a punishment that finally came to pass in the crisis of 721-20. In 721 the Assyrians captured Samaria bringing the Northern Kingdom of Israel to a disastrous end.

This event represented the destruction of 10 of Israel’s 12 tribes, leaving only Judah and Benjamin inhabiting the Southern Kingdom as the remnant of the once mighty nation. The Assyrians sent the higher escallons of the 10 tribes into foreign captivity – from which they would never return. Into a largely vacant land they implanted foreign groups. Over time, intermarriage between these foreign populations with the remnants of the Hebrew population left behind created the mixed-race Samaritans much reviled by the Jews of Jesus’s day.

Hosea is unusual among the minor prophets in that it’s not just his words that form the core of his prophetic message. Hosea role plays his prophecies through the unhappy events in his domestic life. Hosea’s domestic life provides a role-play – symbolic of the unhappy dynamics between God and an unfaithful people.

Hosea had been marked out by God to be unhappy in love for God asked Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer with the promise that she would be unfaithful to him. Sure enough, after bearing him three children Gomer left him to become a prostitute. Hosea was reduced to the humiliation of nightly roaming the streets of Samaria in search of his wife only to find himself outside the door of her latest client.

His friends remonstrated with him, asking how could he debase his dignity in this way? Hosea replied that his unconditional love for Gomer was a representation of God’s love for an adulterous people, Israel.

Hosea takes his wife back, pays off her debts, and prophesizes the destruction and ruin of the kingdom as a punishment for foreign misadventures and the people’s infidelity. Through prophecies of doom and gloom Hosea works his way through to a remarkable ending. Because Hosea will not abandon Gomer, neither will God abandon his people. Despite punishment, God resolutely refuses to stop loving Israel, for his love is long suffering and unconditional.

God’s unconditional love holds a promise that we can be better than we are, that we can become liberated from the isolation of self, and so mourn the enormities of our infidelities.

We are a people who like Israel also worship at the feet of other gods. But it’s God’s unconditional love the holds the promise that we can be better than we are. This is not an invitation to a process of self improvement on our part, it’s an invitation that requires submission to the searchlight of God’s love for us. The promise is that we can be loved into becoming better than we currently are. As we face the challenges of the times in which we live, will we agree to the terms of this promise, I wonder?

“Lord, Teach Us to”

Featured image: “Orans” by Randall Stoltzfus

Pentecost 7 Proper 12 Year C    28 July 2019, Luke 11: 1-13                              Linda Mackie Griggs

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

Jesus was praying.

Jesus was a man of prayer. He was a good Jew, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.

But in Luke’s Gospel we see how prayer informed his life. After Jesus’ baptism he prayed, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. As word of his ministry spread and he was in greater and greater demand as teacher and healer, he would withdraw to pray. He spent the night in prayer before choosing his disciples. He prayed as he was transfigured on the mountain. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed as he died, offering his spirit back to God. Prayer was a crucial part of his identity.

His disciples understood this when they made their request. Perhaps more important, they also understood that a community’s identity is tied to its prayer life; “…teach us to pray as John taught his disciples…” In the Acts of the Apostles Luke tells us of the identifying marks of the new community of the Way of Jesus: “They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Sound familiar? Like our Baptismal Covenant? “Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?”

“I will, with God’s help.”

Praying identifies the people of the Way of Jesus.

Jesus, teach us to pray.

Who taught you to pray? Who has taught you about praying for others or for yourself? Did your parents teach you grace before meals or bedtime prayers? Or did you simply observe people in church as they lit a candle, or knelt quietly before services? Have you explored contemplative prayer, fighting off the thousand monkeys in your brain as you tried to breathe into a state of calm presence? Or have you been a student of spontaneous prayer as the moment demands—the school of what Anne Lamott calls, “Help, Thanks, Wow, Oops”?

Prayer is a way of petitioning, interceding, praising, confessing, even whining (yes, just check out the psalms) to God. It is also how we listen to God. We can learn to pray in many ways, varying according to our circumstances and our time of life. And how we learn prayer, much like how we learn anything, connects back to who we learned from.

Which is why today’s passage is especially significant. Both Luke and Matthew include a version of the Lord’s Prayer in their Gospels. Luke portrays Jesus in a somewhat private conversation with his disciples, while Matthew sets Jesus’ teaching  in the context of the Sermon on the Mount before a large crowd of people. But the most important thing to understand in either episode is the fact that, here, Jesus is the teacher. So what we learn about prayer in this particular passage is in a specific context: the life, ministry and identity of Jesus.

Jesus, teach us to pray.

The Latin phrase, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” is roughly translated, “praying shapes believing.” The way in which we pray informs our faith and how we live it out in the world. But the reverse is also true: that what we believe tells us a lot about how and what we pray. So when Jesus teaches us this particular prayer, he is showing us what we believe in: A God who is above every earthly power, yet relational and tender. Whose transcendent name is above every name.  A God whose Dream of justice and righteousness for Creation extends deeply into it, promising ultimately to become fully joined with it. A God who feeds, provides and nurtures. Who forgives. Who watches over us in times of trial and testing.

This prayer isn’t just a list of requests. It’s a portrait of the Holy One. Jesus offers us a prayer that reflects and shapes what we believe about God.

The Lord’s Prayer is a window into the God to whom we pray. It is also a window on who we are as pray-ers. We are people who seek a God who knows us intimately. We seek a God who calls us to righteousness and healing of relationships, and who challenges us to be part of the inbreaking Kingdom–God’s Dream. We are hungry, vulnerable, seeking, yearning and anxious. We need the God who knows these things about us.

Thus Jesus offers us, in these few lines–this simple prayer, an entwining image of the loving gaze between parent and child; Creator and created in mutual love, each as giver and receiver.

It is with this vision in mind that we need to view the parables that follow it. But first, let’s return to the beginning and remember our context. Jesus is approached by a group of disciples who ask him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. So this is not about individual prayer, though entering into prayer on a personal level is absolutely a vital part of the spiritual life. That’s another sermon, or two… But this is different—Jesus is teaching about the prayer of the community of the faithful.

Jesus, teach us to pray. Teach God’s people to pray.

There are often two temptations with the parables that follow the verses concerning the Lord’s Prayer. One is to ignore them entirely and focus on just the first part of the passage. But that robs it as a whole of much of its power. The other temptation is to interpret the parables about seeking, asking, knocking and persistence (also translated as shamelessness)–to interpret them as transactional –to see it as meaning that as long as we ask, seek, or knock, and keep doing it until we’re blue in the face, that God will give us whatever it is we seek, ask, or knock for. Down that very slippery slope, friends, lies the prosperity gospel—the myth that as long as we do everything right God will shower us with material bounty. That path is strewn with a whole load of cynicism and disillusionment. Because life tells us that the efficacy of prayer—how it actually ‘works’, for us and within us—is often mysterious and unpredictable. Simply put, God doesn’t follow instructions, and this teaching of Jesus is not telling us any different from that. But even in the face of the great mystery of prayer we are called to do it, and not to give up.

But to what end then?

Jesus, teach us to pray.

Everything in this passage about seeking, asking, and knocking can be seen in the context of three things, two of which I’ve already mentioned. First, the prayer that Jesus is teaching is the prayer of the people of God, not individuals. Second, the God to whom we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is the God whose Kingdom we invoke—the Reign of God, to ultimately come to earth, making a new reconciled Creation: In Matthew it says, “Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven.” Third, the most specifically stated gift mentioned in this entire passage is that of the Holy Spirit.

“If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The people of God are challenged and called to be a community who seeks, asks, and knocks shamelessly for the inbreaking Dream of God. We are called to feed as we are fed, to forgive as we are forgiven, to protect the tried and tested as we have been protected. We are called to the healing of the world by a loving God who knows that we can’t do it by ourselves.

Enter the Holy Spirit.

Biblical storyteller Richard Swanson observes that the Spirit, or what he calls Holy Breath, is part of both Creation and Resurrection. Holy Breath brooded over chaos in the beginning and breathed life into the first human. Holy Breath came to Jesus in the tomb, breathing rebirthed hope into Creation. Our every inhalation is a gift from God, and our every exhalation is a sharing of that gift. And with that gift, Swanson says, we have “…the responsibility to breathe hope back into people and communities and systems, even after they have given up.”

It is gift of the Holy Spirit, that intercedes with sighs too deep for words, whose wisdom guides us, and that spurs us as the people of God to see in every face the face of the One who calls us to ask, seek, knock, and never give up on the work of the Kingdom. It is the Holy Spirit that equips us—us– to be the answer to God’s prayer. Amen.

“One Thing is Needful”

Featured image by Mickey McGrath

Pentecost 6 Proper 11 Year C    21 July 2019 .

Luke 10: 38- 42,   Linda Mackie Griggs

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Oh, Martha.

Martha of Bethany has haunted me since childhood—since Mrs. Lucas,

my well-intentioned Sunday School teacher (may she rest in peace) read us this story and then said, “Now, boys and girls, what was Martha doing wrong?” And we dutifully replied, “Martha was too busy with her housework.” Of course the implication in our young minds was that the work of hospitality—the work that girls (particularly) of my generation were brought up to do well—setting the table, cooking the meal, doing the dishes—these things were not good enough for Jesus. The Marthas of this world always perceive the sting of Jesus’ admonition, i.e. that real disciples don’t do housework.

To put it more briefly and more bluntly: We were taught that Mary’s offering was praised, while Martha’s was rejected.

Frankly, Martha is my spirit animal. I have come to love her defiantly. Her story resounds in my life—the perfectionist, the planner, the list-checker, the one with control needs. I am capable of turning into a raging Martha at home when preparing for company — I would swear that Martha had knocked Mary in the head with a broomstick and locked her in the closet. There is a little bit of Martha in many of us when we feel the need to be needed, appreciated and seen for the good we do. Which is why this story generates so much energy and discussion—usually around the issue of who should, or should not, be doing the work in this story. After all, say the Marthas, somebody needed to cook and serve if they weren’t to starve, right.? And where the heck was Lazarus in all this—didn’t he live there with his sisters? And what about Abram, in Genesis, when he hustled to greet and feed messengers of God under the oaks of Mamre? Hospitality was important! But, respond the Marys, we should be quiet and listen to Jesus, shouldn’t we? And on, and on, and on.

But these questions have us circling the drain like dirty dishwater—this is a red-herring issue.

As is always the case with scripture, this passage merits a closer look. First, look at the context within Luke’s Gospel. This story rests between the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan on one side, which invites and challenges us into acts of radical hospitality to the suffering, and on the other side (next week’s Gospel) Jesus’ teaching on prayer to his disciples. So, hospitality on one side, prayer on the other, and what do we have in the middle? A discussion of who should or should not be doing dishes? I don’t think so. This isn’t an either/or between spirituality and hospitality. It’s a both/and; it’s Luke’s examination of the tension between action and contemplation, and how the two can be woven into incarnational faith.

Take that, Mrs. Lucas.

Another misconception is that Mary’s choice and posture of sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet was particularly subservient and obedient. The childhood image we had was of Martha sweating and fretting to one side while Mary was the picture of the perfect schoolchild—sort of a Goofus and Gallant scenario, for those of us who remember Highlights magazine. But actually Mary may have been challenging a convention that only the male disciples were permitted to sit at a rabbi’s feet while he taught. If so, Jesus himself is engaging in radical hospitality through his willingness to transcend traditional boundaries and cultural norms.

This is about a lot more than doing dishes and sibling rivalry.

So why does Jesus chastise his friend Martha?

It has nothing to do with her hands, and everything to do with her heart.

We need to shift our attention from Martha’s work to her state of mind. She wants everything to be just right. She is overworked and overwhelmed. Wanting everything to be perfect. So when she finally explodes in frustration she has so lost perspective that she lets it all out, not at Mary, and not at Lazarus (wherever he is.) She lets fly at Jesus. 

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left meto do all the work by myself?”

She uses a form of “me” three times. It’s the inner voice of overwork, frustration, need for perfection, and resentment circulating in the brain like a caffeinated hamster on an exercise wheel. She has lost perspective. Perhaps this is a familiar place for a few of us.

Jesus hears between the lines.  He knows that Martha has a lot to do, but he isn’t focused on her actions. He doesn’t say, “Martha you’re doing too much.” He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” He wants her to be, as Mary is, fully listening—utterly present. Being present to Jesus is something that can’t be taken away.

But it can be given away. That’s what Martha has done. She has discarded her presence to God, and that is what worries her friend Jesus.

Our hospitality-our work for the kingdom—is welcome; our distraction and our worry are not. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Christian tradition is filled with examples of the interweaving of spirituality and work. The Benedictines call it ora et labora—prayer and work–as part of a daily practice and rule of life. The ancient Celts had a prayer that accompanied every activity throughout the day, from preparation of meals to kindling a fire to milking a cow:

Bless, O God, my little cow,
Bless, O God, my desire;
Bless Thou my partnership
And the milking of my hands, O God.

But my favorite image is an icon of Carmelite nun, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doing the dishes. We see her from behind as she stands at a sink, bubbles and steam all around her as she raises a plate above her head, like a Host. This is incarnational faith.

Incarnational faith understands that the work of the Dream of God, as manifest perfectly in the human form of Jesus, is a faith expressed through the whole of our humanity—our full presence, body, mind, heart and soul. Spiritual practice and prayer should lead us into acts of hospitality and caring, and acts of hospitality and caring, when done from a place of presence to the inbreaking Kingdom, are a form of prayer.

And we have evidence that Martha will get the message. She will hear Jesus’ words and be formed by them. Because when Jesus returns to Bethany not long before his death she will greet him with tears and a declaration of her faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

Martha is my spirit animal. She is also my spiritual director. Because whenever I feel that inner hamster wheel starting to warm up she reminds me of the importance of a deep breath, and Presence to God. It doesn’t matter whether we are baking bread or breaking it at the altar; whether we are on our knees in the garden or in a chapel.

Only one thing is needful.

The Call to Mercy

Featured image, The Good Samaritan, Vincent Van Gogh

Proper 10 Year C   14 July 2019 . Amos 7:7-17                                                          Linda Mackie Griggs

Prophets are not always what we expect. Amos was “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees”—a shepherd and farmer from the village of Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah, who did his prophesying in the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC. He declares that he is “…neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son”—in other words he is a bi-vocational prophet: not one who had been trained as such (as some prophets were), but one who had been called through vision (and probably unwillingly), away from his home and farm to speak the truth in the centers of power. His message, like those of all prophets, is an urgent one; to wake people up to the Dream of God.

Amos was an enemy of the people. Or so said Amaziah the priest as he tried to shoo Amos out of Bethel, saying that he had offended the king, and that people could not bear his words—words that declared the consequences of their callous disregard for God’s call to justice and compassion for the suffering.

Prophets speak from a place of love and grief. They see a system—an institution, a community– broken, that has lost its way–and they seek to bring it back to its senses—to remember, to repent, and to reconcile. As counterintuitive as it may seem, prophets are not completely outsiders. As Richard Rohr says, prophets speak from the edges of the inside. They know the community to which they preach well enough to see and critique where it has gone astray, and to call it back to itself. To reawaken.

Prophets are not always who we expect. Today on the southern border of the United States the prophets have been as bi-vocational as Amos: Lawyers and doctors and journalists and photographers who have sounded the alarm about the conditions in the detention camps, especially for the children. We know what we know because they speak, and, like Amos, they refuse to shut up. They call us to remember who we are and who our neighbors are.

“Who is my neighbor?”

Our questioner in Luke’s Gospel seeks to test Jesus, and learns, among other things, that one should never ask Jesus a rhetorical question unless one is prepared to come away humbled. Actually, it’s an excellent follow-up: the lawyer has shown himself to be well versed in his Torah and knows the two greatest commandments; that you should love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. His second question gets to the heart of the matter, which is how do love of God and love of neighbor weave together in terms of how we treat people, particularly the suffering and the most vulnerable? How we perceive them—as neighbor or as not-neighbor– is going to be a crucial factor in how we live out the interwoven commandments of love of God and love of neighbor.

The thing is, the lawyer in the story has asked, “Who is MY neighbor?” He asks a question about his own personal ethical responsibility. And that is the way most of us have heard this parable from the time we were children. We learned that the story of the Good Samaritan is about how we as individuals should be kind and caring to people, especially people in need. And this is a good lesson. But Jesus’ response, if we take a deeper look, is arguably more prophetic than it is personal.

But Jesus, like Amos, is neither just a prophet, and certainly he is not just a prophet’s son. The way in which he calls and recalls people into the Dream of God through parable is to prompt us to ask two questions: “Where is God in this story?” And “Where am I (or where are we) in this story? “ It is in how we perceive the answers to these questions that we discover how God convicts us and seeks to awaken us today.

So let’s think first of the road.

Making a journey along that road is treacherous. Desolate, arid, rocky, no more than scrub for shelter, and hot. The sun beats down mercilessly. A traveler along this road is at risk both from the elements and from those who prey upon the vulnerable.

The priest and the Levite are good people—devoted to God, diligent in their work in the Temple, and well versed in Torah. They live responsible lives and take good care of their families—they tithe and give to charity—they are well respected in the community. When they see the wounded man in the ditch—bleeding and broken—left for dead—they both pass by. Perhaps they are worried that they are at risk of violating Torah’s purity codes—after all, they are good responsible people. They have a job to do, and members of their own community to care for who depend on them. They follow the rules—of the Temple and Torah. So they avert their eyes. They move on.

The Samaritan is a good person too—devoted to God and dedicated to his community. But to the Jews he is an outcast—the enmity between Samaritans and Jews was deep and longstanding. Regardless of reason, the important point here is to see him as a despised outsider—go ahead and see him as anyone you find to be questionable, abhorrent, even, and you will see where Jesus is going here. The outcast sees the man in the ditch. He knows the rules, and he knows the risks. Still, he can’t avert his eyes. So he stops.

In this parable Jesus wasn’t just talking about individual behaviors. He was talking about an institution that had lost its way. An institution that had become so enamored of its own purity that it had forgotten God’s repeated call in Scripture to care for the vulnerable and the stranger. Jesus was saying, as he often did in his preaching, that it was the outsider, the outcast, the enemy of the people, who “got it right.”

Who are we in this story? Samaritan? Priest? Levite? If we’re honest? Or have we ever been the one in the ditch, watching through our bruises as people pass by, ignoring our pain and desolation? Grateful for even a small measure of mercy and care, even from the most unlikely source?

And where is God in this story? Is God standing a little to one side with a clipboard, checking off who gets it and who doesn’t? Is God the healing presence of the innkeeper who offers a safe place to nurse the wounded traveler back to health?

Or is God in the ditch? Is God found there with the broken, the bleeding, the fearful and the forsaken?

The prophetic perspective takes us into new territory, inviting us to inhabit multiple roles in this parable, even (especially) if they don’t fit comfortably. It calls us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our institutions. Who are our neighbors and what is our responsibility to them? How do we balance competing needs of different groups of neighbors? How do we as baptized Christians, as a church, and as citizens, live faithfully into our promise to respect the dignity of every human being?

Writer Amanda Brobst-Renaud calls this story the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, and I think it’s a better, more nuanced title than the Good Samaritan. The word ‘compassionate’ invites us into ‘feeling with’, which is essentially the meaning of the term.  And we’re not just invited to inhabit the compassion of the Samaritan, but also the kindness of the innkeeper, the desolation of the stranger in the ditch, even (and perhaps most important) to enter the shadows of Levite and Priest as they wrestle, as good people do, with the competing priorities that pull them to one side of the road, or the other.

God is not found at the edges of this story, nor is God in just one place. God inhabits spaces within and beside each character in the parable: in the mercy of the Samaritan, certainly; the healing kindness of the innkeeper, absolutely; and the wounded stranger in whose eyes we see reflected the gaze of Jesus. But perhaps most unexpectedly we find God walking beside Priest and Levite—the good churchmen, the responsible citizens, just doing their job—God walking with them along the road, loving them and grieving for them—calling them to see the one in fear and pain, and to stop. To wake up—to remember who and whose they are, and to turn back. God is there, calling and waiting.

Jesus said, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

That is the heart of the matter.

Confounding Expectation

Proper 9 Year C, 7 July 2019 2 Kings 5: 1-14, &  Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20   

Linda Mackie Griggs

Six years ago, in the summer of 2013, I stood on the bank of the Jordan River. And wondered what in the heck I had been thinking.

Backing up a little bit: I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between the second and third years of seminary, and our itinerary for that day was to renew our Baptismal vows at the Jordan. How cool is that?

I was so excited, picturing it in my mind: Walking in the footsteps of Jesus and John the Baptist–the beautiful expanse of cool clear water sparkling in the morning sun. The gentle breeze proclaiming the presence of the Holy Spirit. Maybe even a dove would perch on a nearby branch—what a story that would make for my journal—right?  I was ready. Bring on the transcendence.

The bus pulled up next to a beat-up old car in a dirt parking area next to what looked more like a big creek than “Jordan river, deep and wide.” Pieces of trash and an old tire littered the ground. Music issued from a boom box near where a few young Palestinian fishermen smoked cigarettes, talked, and laughed. We swatted at bugs as we walked toward the muddy water, suspiciously eyeing a couple of red 55-gallon drums floating offshore.  I kid you not, we sang, “Shall we gather at the river; the beautiful, the beautiful, river…” I wasn’t the only one feeling the irony.

Where was the holy? Where was the transcendence? How did it get so cluttered with—reality? Faced with the prospect of being sprinkled with that muddied water, we all wanted to duck and cover.

This was a prime example of my latest favorite aphorism: expectations are resentments under construction.

I remembered all of this when I read about Naaman, a general from Aram, the country right across the Jordan from Israel, in modern-day Syria. In his latest military victory Naaman was probably responsible for the death of the father of the king of Israel. So when a captive slave girl suggests that Naaman go to that same king of Israel to see if his prophet might heal Naaman’s leprosy, you can imagine that it didn’t go over well.

“Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But the prophet Elisha overrides the king’s suspicions because, rather than smelling a plot, he smells an opportunity—to show the power of his God to an unbeliever. So Elisha sends for Naaman.

But when Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, suffering with lesions and sores and bearing a massive co-pay of silver, gold and garments, the famous prophet doesn’t even come to the door—he merely sends a messenger with instructions to bathe, not in one of the gleaming rivers of home, but the puny Jordan–the dividing line between Israel and Aram. The border between Chosen People and Not Chosen people.

Naaman is insulted, and furious. He had expectations for this healing. He wanted something else in return for his journey, for his silver and gold and ten suits of clothes. He wanted something powerful—flashy–magical. And instead he’s told to take a muddy bath—not once, but seven times.

He’s so angry his servants have to calm him down enough to follow Elisha’s instructions. And when he does—when he surrenders to the water– the healing grace of God flows over this leper of Aram—this doubly Not Chosen person—and his wounded skin is restored “like the flesh of a young boy.”

Aram and Israel. Kings, and prophets. Chosen and Not Chosen. Power and vulnerability. Mud and mercy. And all unexpectedly saturated with grace and healing; the blessing and presence of God. The Holy foundamong the complications and contradictions that clutter reality.

Centuries after Naaman’s story Luke wrote of an Israel that had not lost its capacity for complication, contradiction and conflict. Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Judeans,

Samaritans, Pharisees, and Sadducees, Pure and impure, Powerful and vulnerable,

Chosen and Not Chosen. Things really hadn’t changed much.  And into all of it Jesus sends the Seventy ahead of him, not in style but as lambs among wolves. He sends them to wade into a muddy conflicted world without bag, purse, or sandals. They are figuratively as naked and as vulnerable as Naaman—forced to rely on the grace of God and hospitality of others in a world that may—or may not—welcome them. The only thing they carry is the Good News of the inbreaking Kingdom of God. They are instructed to heal the sick—to restore people to shalem—the Hebrew word for wholeness. Jesus warned them that they would not always be successful—they would sometimes need to shake the dust off of their feet  when they left a place that did not accept the peace that they offered.

They were metaphorically being thrown into the deep end and told to swim. What would they encounter? What dangers might they face? The odds of success in these circumstances seemed pretty slim—more likely that they would return at length, dispirited and disillusioned. But no: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” With joy. They were sent out to do God’s work and they did it. They didn’t necessarily find it to be easy—but they did find it in the long run to be energizing and fulfilling in spite of the challenges—or perhaps because of them. They found blessing—they encountered the Holy–through God’s sustaining presence as they were sent into a hostile world.

Encountering the Holy doesn’t depend on our expectations. It confounds them. And these stories articulate a narrative of hope that is crucial in our own day—in our own world of complication, contradiction and conflict. We need to train our eyes to see where God is nudging God’s way into the mess, and drawing our attention to something new amidst the chaos.

During the pilgrimage I mentioned earlier I met Fr. Fuad Dagher, the parish priest of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shefa ‘amr in the West Bank. His little church had recently opened a cultural center and school serving those in need regardless of faith tradition—Christian, Muslim, Jew. The mission of the church is to serve joyfully as the hands and feet of Christ—to bring shalem to the broader community.

I was really impressed with Fr. Fuad and his clear-eyed view of the complexity of his world—a part of Israel no longer occupied by the Roman Empire, but occupied nevertheless. The situation in Israel/Palestine grieved him. But he knew the difference between grief and despair, and he had no time for the latter. He embodied the complication of the world in which his community pursues its ministry, describing himself as: An Anglican, but not English. An Israeli but not a Jew. An Arab but not a Muslim. A Palestinian but not a terrorist. In short, what I encountered in him was a source of God’s grace and healing in an unexpected package. He was a conduit for the Holy, sent out seemingly as a lamb among a political wolfpack.

That was six years ago. Six years on, and the world has just gotten more complicated, more conflicted, more dangerous. I thought again about Fr. Fuad. Is it possible that he is still there? Surely things have gotten too complicated. Surely reality has muddied, if not destroyed his dream. Surely he has given up—disillusioned, disappointed.

But I thought, what can it hurt? So I emailed him. He is now Canon Fuad. Canon for Reconciliation for the Diocese of Jerusalem.  Serving, with joy. Still involved with the flourishing ministry of St. Paul’s in Shefa ‘amr, but also working with the wider community to spread the Good News of peace, justice and reconciliation. This somewhat sums up his mission: “We as a Church in a wounded Land, [have] a role to play, a role of Love and Acceptance, which does not mean relinquishing One`s own right and accepting defeat, but [instead] saying the truth in great courage and working for the truth in order to Reconcile [within] it.”

Canon Fuad and his ministry are thriving. With joy.  Against the odds.

The narrative of hope calls us to expect to be surprised and confounded, even bemused and discomfited by the fact that the Holy thrives in places where we could not have imagined. The narrative of hope calls us not only to see it, but to embrace it.

I know I left you hanging back there on the banks of the Jordan—so what did happen there? Well, to be honest, in the end we felt pretty much as awkward when we got back on the bus as when we got off. But here’s the crucial point: when the muddy river water had been sprinkled and splashed in our direction, as much as we may have been tempted, we didn’t duck. As those drops landed on our heads –and hands—and feet–we became part of the narrative of hope–part of Naaman’s story, the story of Jesus and the Seventy, and of Canon Fuad’s story as well.  We are all part of the often complex and disturbing Holy story—of human nature’s need for healing, of yearning for the Kingdom that is already and not yet, and of God’s ever-flowing grace and invitation to shalem,–however and wherever it may lead us. Amen.

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