Restoration

On Homecoming Sunday, we gather to commence a new program year only to find God speaking to us through Jesus’ amazingly poignant and timely words recorded in Luke chapter 14, the gospel appointed for the the 12th Sunday after Pentecost.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying “this fellow began to build and was not able to finish”.

Luke 14

In late January, a significant rainstorm caused significant water damage in the tower, effectively rendering the chapel unusable for the last nine months. The storm highlighted the perilous state of the tower roof and cap stones, together with the deterioration of the leaded windows in the bell chamber, which allowed alarming amounts of water to flood in.

But it wasn’t only the tower. It became alarmingly clear to those of us in leadership that we could no longer ignore the ever-increasing number of leaks, damaging not only the chapel, but appearing throughout the church.

Flashings are the copper interfaces that connect the roof to the stone gables, of which we have three. In addition to the tower roof, it was clear that we had multiple flashing failure points at the west and east ends and the raised stone gable bisecting the church and chancel roofs.

As we began to address this escalating crisis, of course we then discovered other problems – particularly the crumbling state of the Great East Window mullions and other stonework problems. I encourage you all to stop by and view the excellent electronic bulletin board presentation of the issues located in the atrium or visit the website for a fuller PowerPoint presentation of the issues and the scope of the work.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish it, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying “this fellow began to build and was not able to finish”.

Although Jesus’ words indicate the prudent approach to undertaking building work, sometimes life doesn’t fit into the logical and sequential planning process Jesus seems to advocate here. As the full implications of the scope and costs involved began to dawn on us, thank goodness we didn’t read Luke 14 at the time or we might easily have felt indicted as fools. For it was imperative that we acted urgently to begin the work before it was clear how we would pay for it; not the normally prudent way of going about such things.

We began this 1.2-million-dollar restoration project in late spring, and we are on course to complete the work by Autumn’s end. The quality and scope of the work done will secure the Church from water ingress for at least another 100 years.

Over the summer the Church Wardens, John Bracken and David Brookhart, together with Peter Lofgren – who thanks be to God – quickly became our resident architectural supervisor of works, have worked tirelessly to oversee this building restoration project. Without these three crucial leaders, I do not know how we would have been able to respond to the urgency and scale of this project, which also involved exploring a viable way in the short term to fund the work.

As the scale and cost of the project dawned on me, I felt like Prissy, the black maid in Gone with the Wind who protests to her mistress: I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies, Miss Scarlet. I protested to God that surely God didn’t imagine that church roofs and raising money were in my wheelhouse of skills?

So, God did what he normally does when I complain. He ignored me. Or so it seemed at the time.

Soooo, what does all this now mean for us? I want to share some reflections with you as we come home to begin a new program year.

Jesus’ words in Luke 14 occur within a larger passage which is really about the challenges and costs of discipleship. Throughout the restoration of the building project those of us in leadership positions have learned many things. However, it’s about discipleship that we have learned most.  

We found ourselves becoming transformed from a fearful and anxious state of mind to hold an attitude of courageous and energized confidence.

As rector, wardens, and vestry gradually came to terms with the challenge facing us, something quite extraordinary happened to us. We found ourselves becoming transformed from a fearful and anxious state of mind to hold an attitude of courageous and energized confidence.

At one level the challenge can be reduced to being about stone and copper. Yet, at another level the challenge reignites our affection for buildings as the spaces within which our community flourishes. St Martin’s buildings communicate the warm experience of fellowship and shared endeavor. They also invite and communicate an experience of numinous space that stimulates a sense of being present with God.

After the crucial Vestry meeting in May, the Senior Warden reported to me that when he’d gone home, his wife had asked how the meeting had gone? He was about to say his usual understated way “it went well” when he paused and marvelled that the Vestry had just approved the signing off on the construction contract and one million dollar three-year revolving line of credit from Bank RI – in a spirit of unanimous and confident excitement.

We were indeed surprised to have no doubt that we were responding to God’s paradoxical invitation. By this I mean we understood that this restoration project is not primarily about raising 1.2 million dollars to pay for the physical restoration of the church. It’s about an invitation to move into a new and energizing phase of spiritual engagement with spiritual selves.

At first this invitation was an unwanted one, but it quickly transformed into something we actually welcomed and embraced with enthusiasm; an opportunity to think a-fresh the kind of vision for our community we want going forward.

Sometimes in life we don’t have the option of careful and controlled planning before we have to act. What we discover instead is the source of courage that allows us to confidently set out on a challenging path – not simply do what has to be done, but to become changed in the process by discovering spiritual benefits we could not have imagined.

I find Jesus’ words in Luke 14 more than a little puzzling. Careful planning and controlled anticipation are not the characteristics of either Jesus’ own approach to life or the life of discipleship he called his followers to. Faith, courage, and the quiet hope that propels and nurtures both are the marks of discipleship, not confidence in our own power and strength to be in control of everything. Faith, courage and hope, these have been the discovery among our parish leadership team these past months. Like the crowds who went on their way after listening to Jesus, we are all amazed by this experience.

Brits, Aussies and Kiwis have a rather down to earth expression. We often speak of a situation or person being arse about face, (US English translation ass about face) to mean that things seem to be evolving or they are going about things in a back to front kind of way. Here at St Martin’s we are having an arse about face experience which actually alerts us to the nature of authentic discipleship. In fact, maybe the path of discipleship is always to live in an arse about face kind of way.

In fact, maybe the path of discipleship is always to live in an arse about face kind of way.

That being so, we cannot completely escape our conditioning and so we are about to begin a process of discernment for the feasibility of launching a capital campaign in 2020. We last had a capital campaign in 1996. The result was the building of the atrium and the massive enrichment the atrium has brought to our community life. Getting our face back in front of our arse means inviting you to now share your hopes and vision for St Martin’s with us.

We’ve appointed a consultant from the Episcopal Church Foundation to guide us through the discernment and feasibility study phases that precede any possible launching of a capital campaign. In a matter of weeks, we will produce a discernment brochure outlining discussion points designed to excite a parish wide conversation. There will be a number of cottage meetings – small group get-togethers – that will allow all of us who want to participate to have a voice in sharing what St. Martin’s means to us and what we would like to see as the fruit of a possible capital campaign.

As the parish leadership have already discovered, the real challenge is not to raise 1.2 million dollars. The real challenge is to allow ourselves to become transformed into disciples; an experience the leadership has already discovered is actually amazing, and which we now recognize as being beyond price.

Benedictine wisdom on the nature of community observes a common pattern: young monks are fervent but not holy, old monks are holy but not fervent, and middle-aged monks are neither holy nor fervent. In as much as this might be a good description of our community, let’s rise to the challenge for all us monks to be both fervent and holy.

Carefully Taught

                                                                              

A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs

Jeremiah 2:4-13  Luke 14: 1, 7-14

“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

My most vivid memory of my fourth grade Virginia history book was the chapter entitled, “A Red Letter Day.” Of course the first thing we had to learn was what a red letter day was. Mrs. Hosner said that it was a day that was special—pleasantly noteworthy or memorable. The day in question was in late August 1619, when three things arrived in the little English colony at Jamestown: indentured servants, women, and slaves. A red letter day. America’s original sin of chattel slavery was portrayed to us as pleasantly noteworthy.

Thus began my education, or rather, indoctrination. What I didn’t know until much later (last week) was that the book that I was reading from, studying, and dutifully parroting back on tests, was part of a set of three textbooks for elementary, junior high and high school, created in the 1950s (and used until the late 1970s) under the heavy influence of the segregationist political machine of Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., who wanted to make sure that Virginia children learned proper history, not tainted by any of that Communist or Civil Rights malarkey. And so we learned of red letter days, of how slaves (please call them servants,) were well-treated and content, of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War (please call it the War Between the States,) and how handsome and gallant Robert E. Lee was as he rode his proud steed, Traveller, and how the reason for the War Between the States was certainly not slavery, but states rights.

As Rogers and Hammerstein noted in the musical, South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear;

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

And we were.

Those books—that propaganda—affected multiple generations of children, because many of the ones who originally learned it taught it to their children. Look at the faces of the young people who rebelled against the removal of the Lee statue in Richmond two years ago. Hear the people who defend flying the Confederate flag. Heritage, not hate, they say. It’s about tradition and history, they say. Not about slavery.

They have been carefully taught.

When history is written, or rewritten, by those in power, the narrative is theirs to dictate.  Fortunately that is changing, and we have the opportunity to hear the voices of the oppressed more broadly and deeply than before; to hear the stories

of slavery and its repercussions from the perspectives of the enslaved, the sharecroppers; the victims of the Black Codes, the lynchings, Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration. We have the opportunity to ponder the true legacy of that August day in 1619 and to begin to understand that the white European-descended power structure that we have today was built on a foundation of the labor and suffering of fellow children of God who were bought and sold as property.  We are beginning to understand the idea of white privilege; the idea that the benefits in education, healthcare, home ownership, employment, voting and legal rights that the white community takes for granted are generally not benefits accruing to our black sisters and brothers. And the reason for that dates back to August 1619. We have been carefully taught that our rightful place is at the head of the table, and the fact that others are seated lower is their responsibility, not ours.

Jesus told his parables of the wedding banquet to an audience who was aware of the proper etiquette of table seating at dinner parties; that the people with greater power and influence would be granted the privilege of reclining closest to the host, in the places of honor. In offering up the rather ridiculous image, of guests racing and climbing over one another to be the first to the bottom of the table so that they may be asked to move higher, Jesus is encouraging his hearers to think more deeply about entitlement; about the economy of standards that they use to measure themselves against one another. Why does somebody deserve a place of honor? Wealth? Education? Gender? Hometown? Looks? Jesus prompts us to ponder; are these the standards that apply in the Dream of God? He prompts his audience to consider that they might be confusing privilege—the special rights or advantages available to a certain group—with blessing—the favor, protection and care of God. Jesus calls God’s people not to rush to claim the fruits of privilege, but rather to hold their privilege lightly—so lightly that that they can share it with others, thus embodying God’s blessing as members of a beloved community.

Today, 400 years after that dubiously named August day in 1619, might it be that Jesus is asking those who have heretofore controlled the narrative of racial history in this country to take the challenging and humbling step of questioning our place at the table?

The message hasn’t always been so gentle as Jesus framed it in Luke’s Gospel. Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass didn’t go to the Gospels as the Biblical source for his writings and speeches. He made a beeline for the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jeremiah wrote about thirty years before the fall of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and he could see the signs of the looming consequences of Judah’s worship of idols and refusal to turn back to the God who created and delivered them. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” Jeremiah’s accusations against the powerful and the privileged—the rulers, the priests and the prophets—were the heart of Douglass’s passionate tirades—his biographer calls them jeremiads—his tirades against the slave owners, the church, and the politicians who ignored his cries for justice for his people. The abuse that he suffered, the scars on his back and the discrimination that dogged him even as a freedman—this was his first-hand knowledge of how the white power structure exploited black human beings—sacrificing them to the idols of cotton and tobacco, financial gain and political power. Douglass, like Jeremiah, wrote on the eve of disaster for the country—a civil war/War Between the States that would bring emancipation of our enslaved brothers and sisters, but at the cost of 620,000 lives.

And the costs have continued to mount over the past 150 years as the wounds of racism have festered. Because the power structure that has written the narrative of race until recently would like us all to forget what the marginalized and powerless can’t help but remember. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In a New York Times Magazine piece a couple of weeks ago journalist Bryan Stevenson summed up where we are now: “…[W]e are at one of those critical moments in American history when we will either double down on romanticizing our past or accept that there is something better waiting for us.” He continued, “I realized how important it is to stay hopeful: Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

And justice is all of our business. We can’t opt out because we aren’t Virginians. Rhode Islanders—including Episcopal Rhode Islanders, played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade whose consequences continue to transcend generations. Justice, and hope, are the business of all of us.

Last Sunday afternoon churches in Virginia and Rhode Island, at the encouragement of the Presiding Bishop and in cooperation with the Center for Reconciliation, rang their bells, to remember. To remember 20 African men who were brought to Virginia in a Portuguese ship named for John the Baptist. To remember them and the millions more who were brought later and those who died on the Middle Passage. The bells rang as a wake-up call and a prayer of hope, that we can hear our story anew; listening with open and humble hearts, ready to offer our places at God’s Banquet table to all, so that we may share God’s blessings of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

You’ve got to be taught

to be afraid

of people whose eyes are oddly made

and people whose skin is a different shade.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught

before it’s too late

to hate all the people your relatives hate.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Hardness of Hearts: Luke 13:10-17

He was teaching in one of the synagogues – every  Sabbath. Look, a woman – a breath she has –  a breath of weakness for eighteen years.  She was bent together.  She was not able to stand erect at all.

He saw her,  Joshua [Jesus] did.  He called to her – he said to her: Woman: You stand released from your weakness. He placed on her his hand suddenly she was straightened. She glorified Elohim [the God of justice].

He answered – the leader of the synagogue did  – he was angry  because  in the Sabbath  Joshua cured.          

He [the leader] kept saying to the crowd:  Six days there are  in which it is binding to work.  In these  therefore  you come and be cured and not in the day of the Sabbath.

He answered him – haShem [the Lord] did, he said:  Poser!                   
Each of you,  in the Sabbath, don’t you untie your ox,  or your donkey, from the stall  and lead it out  and water it? This is a daughter of Abraham whom the satan bound;  look, eighteen years. Is it not binding that she be untied from this bondage in the day of the Sabbath?

Luke 13 translation by Richard Swanson

Swanson’s translation of Luke’s Greek conveys an idiomatic immediacy which the NRSV smoothes out into a more flowing, less choppy, English, at the expense of losing the breathy tension in this scene of confrontation between Jesus and the Synagogue leader.

I blogged on this text in August 2013:

The weightier part of this woman’s burden is not her physical deformity, but the burden of being morally and ritually unclean. …. It is from this moral burden that Jesus releases her and claims in doing so he is fulfilling God’s Sabbath command to keep this day holy. In his question Jesus couches the woman’s condition in terms of satanic binding.

Looking back it appears to me that my statement above underestimated the importance of the woman’s physical predicament in favor of emphasizing the spiritual element. Both are inextricably connected and the connections flow like this: disease is a punishment for moral sin – moral impurity is a spiritual problem – enter the Satan – in Hebrew meaning the judicial accuser, as an explanatory cause of the problem.

These days many of us regard the Satan not as a celestial rival roaming the universe in opposition to God, but as the symbol for the presence of evil rooted in the human heart. Satan exists, because we exist!

Satan is a projection of the evil opposing God that lurks in the human heart. Evil as hardness of the human heart becomes magnified by social and political forces – so as to take on an almost universal or cosmic dimension.

Time and again in the Gospels Jesus stands in powerful opposition to the way that religious traditions easily fall captive to the hardness of the human heart. History shows that if unchecked even the best religious traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into legalism becoming instruments of oppression and discrimination.

History shows that if unchecked even the best religious traditions and social systems inevitably degrade into instruments of oppression and discrimination.

Jesus is not simply performing a good work of healing with disregard for the Sabbath, he is deliberately choosing the Sabbath as the opportunity to declare God’s opposition to the way human traditions straight jacket our spirits and force our bodies to double over under the weight of such traditions. Doubling over is as much a powerful metaphor for the spiritual condition as a description of the woman’s physical condition.

In the NRSV, the woman is described as having a spirit that crippled her – bending her over so that she was unable to stand up straight. Swanson translates her as having a breath of weakness – the result of being bent double.

Stand up and bend over as far as you can go and see what happens to your breath and more importantly to your ability to speak out. Weak breath, weak voice. When religious and social traditions become degraded instruments of oppression, bending us double under their weight, the first consequence is that our voice is silenced.

Evil is embodied when institutions and traditions privilege hardness; the hardness of fear, and the greed that lurks in the depths of the human heart. As instruments of oppression, they silence not only victims but also all who become caught up by fear or greed in distracted allegiances. So numerous are the examples of this in our current social, political, and religious life that I refer simply to all the ‘isms’ that double us over, weakening our breath, and silencing our voices – from racism (1619). through sexism (#me too) to global capitalism (G-Seven and Jackson Hole).

Go: Cross borders, listen deeply, and live like Jesus is a phrase taken from the Presiding Bishop’s program Way of Love . I offer it as the sound bite to guide us into a new program year. I am particularly moved by the words live like Jesus because I am curious about how we will discover together what these word might come to mean for us individually and as a community.

What I do know at the outset is that we can do no better than to follow the example Jesus gives us in Luke 13; to live courageously in the place of tension between the traditions we receive and the challenges and opportunities through which God invites us to confront oppression and injustice and grasp:

the lives we came here for and waste out time on fear no more.

John O’Donoghue

In our hands, the Tradition we receive becomes an instrument for liberation from hardness of heart on the long march of the Children of God.

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.

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