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Exodus 17:1-7 

          The Israelites are complaining. Again. It has been less than three months and four times already, the Israelites have complained to Moses and Aaron about something.[1]  The first time they complained, they had hardly gotten out of Egypt. Standing at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, they spied the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. They whined, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”[2] Mind you, they were not yet in the wilderness. They second time they complained—this time, they were thirsty—they were in the wilderness. But when they arrived at the spring at Marah, the water was bitter and undrinkable, until Moses threw a tree in the water to sweeten it. The third time they complained, they had not been out of Egypt two months. Now they whined that they were hungry. They wished they were back in Egypt where at least they had had plenty of meat and bread. (Never mind that they had been slaves, toiling in the hot sun building pyramids for Pharoah!)

            So God provided manna every morning and quail every evening.  Now they are complaining. Again. The Lord has led them “in stages” into the wilderness and now they have reached Rephidim. ImageBut there is not enough water to drink, so the Israelites quarrel with Moses. They demand, “You give us water now!”  Moses has had just about enough. He cries out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” Once again—for the fourth time and not the last—the Lord provides.

            The Lord has provided a way out of slavery and oppression. The Lord has provided sweet water. The Lord has provided daily bread and meat. Now, the Lord—who is in the midst of God’s people—goes ahead of Moses. ImageThere, Moses strikes a rock and out of cracks in the sheer cliffs of the wadi—or dry river bed—wall, out pours water to quench the people’s thirst.

            We read this account in Exodus and shake our heads. Quarrels. Complaints. People moving slowly across life in stages in some God-forsaken wilderness. People set free from an oppressive political system, but still complaining and whining. We wonder “What is the matter with these people?

            Yet unless we choose to take a journey into a desert, we do not really know what this experience is like. I walk into my kitchen or bathroom, turn on the faucet, and immediately get cool, clean water to drink. I open a cupboard or the refrigerator, and get food to eat. I have a soft bed on which to sleep at night. I live in a country where I have many choices—choices that some of my brothers and sisters around the world do not get. So it is hard for me to identify with the Israelites and their situation.

  Image          I have been in the Sinai Desert, however. Such a place forces you to a place of deep humility. The Sinai Desert is vast and deeply silent. It is impenetrable. Enigmatic. Its ravines gape, its mountains loom stark, its cliffs are sheer. By day, the sun beats down without mercy, and as you gaze across the white sand, you see “the luring, deceiving mirage of shimmering water upon dry land.”[3]  Sunrise is exquisitely beautiful. There is no full moon as stunning as one in a deep desert night. Yet a human being struggles to survive in this kind of place.

      Image      While I was in Israel many years ago, I wrote a letter to my sister and it included the following: “I have a new and deep appreciation of the Bedouin people who live their entire lives in a hot desert wasteland on next to nothing. I also have some sense of the sin we First World citizens commit in our love of, and our arrogant assumption of, the ‘rights’ we have to our creature comforts. When one is stripped of all but the basics of survival in the face of the harshest elements of nature, life in general cannot ever be taken for granted again.”[4]

            Thousands of years ago, a small group of the Hebrew people left Egypt. We do not really know their route. We cannot give a precise date for their exodus. We are not even sure what they called themselves—“Habiru” is not a proper name, but a class of people. Yet we do know that this desert experience, this desert journey, was a formative experience for the “Habiru.” Their journey shaped them as a people and it forced them to depend on each other in community. As such journeys often do, it brought out the best in them and the worst. The desert stripped them of everything but their essence,  and they learned—often the hard way—to depend on God and to wait on God’s provision. You may do a lot of whining and complaining and quarreling in a desert. But ultimately, you’d better take of each other or you won’t make it. And it helps if you realize that there is a force greater than you—God. God who will make a way in the desert. God who will provide exactly what you need in exactly the moment you need it.

            The Israelites quarreled with Moses, complained about their thirst, demanded water like spoiled children. Yet God provided for them. God said, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.”  Despite the quarrels, complaints and demands, God provided for God’s people. The Lord was among them. The Lord was in the midst of them. Emmanuel, God with us.

            This should comfort you and me. We church folks are much like the Israelites. We argue about church furniture, fuss over carpet cleaning, mutter under our breaths when too much stuff comes to church and never leaves. We pick fights and quibble about anything and everything when something doesn’t suit us, and we murmur against each other at coffee hour. We complain about the hymns or mentally write our grocery list when the sermon doesn’t suit us, and we—God’s people—are rarely satisfied.

            Yet on some level, we have learned some lessons as a community of faith. We have learned that despite our quarreling and complaining, we really must—and do—depend on each other. When a toddler wanders away from his mother, others head him off at the end of a pew. When another pushes past people to get her “Jesus bread,” we chuckle—but deep inside, we are glad that she feels so much at home in church. When a young couple has a new baby, we all give thanks for the new life in our midst. When someone dies, we gather to hold each other and grieve together. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we send e-mails and prayer shawls and notes and we pray for healing. When someone in the community suffers from old emotional wounds or depression, someone is there to love us back into life, to give us a hug, to say “I love you.”

            In the midst of whatever desert we wander, God is in the midst of us. We may not think so. We may test God by quarreling, complaining and demanding. Yet God is good and  God is here. We do not know what God looks like. But we do know what the person next to us looks like. Somewhere in each one of us is the Imago Dei—the image of God. As we journey through the deserts of our lives, we must hold on to that truth.

            You and I are sometimes the only image of God someone sees. We must remind ourselves of what is truly important in life—      and what is not. Let the unimportant—the complaining, the quarreling—die in the wilderness. Take only what is necessary and good with you. Always remember that our God goes before us, behind us, above us, beside us, with us in our journey.

            God’s people journey together, grieve together, love together, support one other. And at exactly the moment we need it, God will provide exactly what we need, because the Lord is among us. Emmanuel: God with us. For that truth, we give God thanks. Amen.

 © The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed through Google images.


[1] Nancy deClasse-Walford, “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7, from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=160,  accessed on March 21, 2014.

[2] Exodus 14:11a.

[3] From study notes taken in Israel, from Daniel Hillel’s Negev: Land, Water and Life in a Desert Environment.

[4] McJilton, from a letter written in May of 1998.

ImageJohn 1:29-42

“Come and see.” Earlier this week, I heard about a series of events at the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral opened the full expanse of its nave by removing all the chairs from the center area—so that people could experience it as they would have when Gothic cathedrals were first built. The Cathedral offered many special events this week in the open space: organ demonstrations, choral evensong, an evening of Tai Chi, labyrinth walks, special choral programs, and an overnight vigil with prayers and meditations for people of all faiths and people of no faith.

On Wednesday, I watched a time-lapse video of the removal of the chairs, then watched a short video as Canon Michael McCarthy introduced the concept behind this special week they called “Seeing Deeper.” He described the music for the thirty-minute Wednesday evening concerts, then for the seventy-five minute concert on Friday evening. As Michael talked, some of the music to be performed played softly—just enough to give me a hint of the musical feast. At the end of this promo, Michael said, “Come and join us.”

 There were the facts of what was going on. There was some sense of the music to be offered. There was an invitation to come and see, to come and listen, to come and experience glorious music in a vast expanse of holy space. So I did. On Friday, I drove to the Cathedral and walked slowly through that great space. People walked slowly and prayerfully on the two labyrinths laid out in the rear nave. Others sat in silence. I made my way up to the Great Choir for the concert. For seventy five minutes, polyphonic music rose and fell, spinning in pure tones throughout that great space. Music almost reflected like diamonds off the gray stone that soared towards heaven.

 About halfway through the concert, I realized how quiet people were. During the music, no one moved. No one fidgeted. No one checked their phones. No one texted. Amazing stillness—almost as if we all held our breaths during the music. I looked across the aisle at the rows of people facing me. Some of them looked back at me peacefully. One older couple sat linked arm and arm, the man with his eyes closed. Some people watched the choir with rapt attention. Others gazed upward, as if to watch the intricate harmonies of the music rise up to the vaulted ceiling. One woman seemed to be asleep between her friends. Some looked pensive and thoughtful. Some brushed tears from their faces with their fingers—tears that had come unbidden as memories were evoked—because Take Him Earth for Cherishing was written when John F. Kennedy died, and Song to Athene was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral.

As I looked around, it occurred to me that we had all come together as strangers, yet for an hour and a half, we were fellow pilgrims. Under the watchful eyes of shadowed saints in the windows, we embarked together on a journey of holiness and mystery. For a little while, our stories joined into one larger than any of us.

I could have found all of the texts by googling them. I could find the music on You Tube.(Yes, I did find the video of Diana’s body being borne out of Westminster Abbey while the choir sang Song of Athene.)  I could have read someone’s account of Friday evening’s concert and looked at pictures of that space without chairs. I could have gotten some sense of what happened, secondhand. But the experience of literally being there in holy space with people who were fellow pilgrims on a journey—that was different than any account I might have read.

 Someone had invited me. “Come and see.” I did, and my soul was fed. Somehow, my daily life was enhanced and enlarged. In that great space, listening to great music, my life regained proper perspective. Sometimes we go about our daily lives, forgetting that there might be another way. A better way. A way that is larger than we are.  In order for us to find that better way, someone has to point out the new way. Someone must invite us into that pilgrimage.

In today’s gospel, John the Baptizer is the one who points the way. John sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “He’s the one. It’s not me. It’s Jesus. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  “Look!”  Two of John’s disciples see John point to Jesus. They have been John’s disciples. John has commanded them to repent. John has likely baptized them in the Jordan River. Yet now, on this particular day, John says “The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit has descended on Jesus as he stands, dripping wet, in the Jordan River. The Spirit has remained on Jesus.Image

The writer of John does not want us to miss this word. Remain. Stay. Abide.  The Greek root for both stay and remain is the same: menos. It has the connotation of permanence. In the Old Testament, God’s Spirit was given to prophets at particular moments or in particular situations, but it was not permanent. John makes it clear that Jesus has the power of God’s Spirit all of the time. Jesus is in permanent relationship with the holiness and power of God. It is obvious that John’s pointing to Jesus and naming who he is intrigues Andrew and the other disciple. They leave John’s side and begin to follow Jesus.

When Jesus turns and sees them, he asks, “What are you looking for?” Neither of them answer his question. Instead, they ask him a question: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Where are you remaining? Where are you abiding? Teacher, who are you? What is so amazing about you that someone would point and announce “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” What are you all about anyway, Jesus of Nazareth? We want to know. Jesus simply says, “Come and see.” So they do. They remain with Jesus all day. They stay with Jesus. They abide with Jesus. They probably ask questions. They listen. They share their stories with Jesus. Whatever they say—or hear—their lives are transformed beyond what they do every day on a fishing boat. This encounter, then this journey with Jesus changes them. Years later, those whose lives are changed by this journey with Jesus begin to invite others to join them. And so it goes throughout the centuries.

Today, thousands of people have realized that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. Deep in our souls, we know that. Yet too often, we forget it. We fill our time with busy-ness. Our Smartphones constantly vibrate with reminders of what we have to do next. We fill our spaces with clutter, noise and craziness until there is no place or space to think, to reflect, to wonder about something and Someone greater than ourselves. Yet despite our frantic frenzy, our lives are greater than the sum total of our “to do” lists. There is a Story that is larger than our own, thanks be to God. And because we forget that, it is really wonderful when someone looks at us and says “Come and see.”

If we pay attention to the words of John the Baptizer in this passage, we will see, as one writer has pointed out, “the entire shape of [Jesus’s] story: baptism, the beginning of his ministry, the transformation of followers like Peter, and, implied in the descriptive term ‘Lamb of God,’ even his death and resurrection.”[1] You and I have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of that, God changes us too. Our lives have deeper meaning. Our lives mean something to God and our stories mean something to God, because God created us and because our stories are part of God’s story of faith. The hope, the peace, the joy, the love with which God bathes us—it is this good news that formed the first Christian community. It is the good news that forms us now.  

We are all fellow pilgrims on this journey, but I wonder. I wonder if there might not be some people outside these walls who are not yet on this journey with us. We have not heard their stories. They have not heard ours. Their souls are hungry to be in companionship, to learn a larger story than their own. Who are they? You work with them. You play sports with them. You live in the same neighborhood. ImageYou see them at Starbucks or at the diner. What are they looking for?

They may not want to be part of a religious institution, but they do want to know how their lives can have more meaning as spiritual beings on a human journey. And maybe they are looking at you—your life, how you treat people, how you live your life—to see where you stay. Where you remain. Because if you say you live where Jesus lives, but you don’t live like it, they won’t want to come and stay there either.

            What if? Even if they don’t want to admit it, what it they are waiting for you to reach out, to invite them to join us on our journey here? What if the one thing someone is waiting for you to say is this: “Come and see”?

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

               


[1] Troy A. Miller, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 265.

Psalm 65 from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (The Jewish Bible) 

Praise befits You in Zion, O God;

vows are paid to You;

all flesh comes to You,

You who hear prayer.

When all manner of sins overwhelm me,

it is You who forgive our iniquities.

Happy is the [one] You choose and bring near

to dwell in Your courts;

may we be sated with the blessings of Your house,

Your holy temple.

Answer us with victory through awesome deeds,

Ocean Sm 1O God, our deliverer,

in whom all the ends of the earth

and the distant seas

put their trust;

who by His power fixed the mountains firmly,

who is girded with might,

who stills the raging seas,

the raging waves,

and tumultuous peoples.

Those who live at the ends of the earth are awed by Your signs;

You make the lands of sunrise and sunset shout for joy.

You take care of the earth and irrigate it;

You enrich it greatly,

with the channel of God full of water;

harvest-12-2You provide grain for [people];

for so do You prepare it.

Saturating its furrows,

leveling its ridges,

You soften it with showers,

You bless its growth.

You crown the year with Your bounty;

fatness is distilled in Your paths;

the pasturelands distill it;

the hills are girded with joy.

The meadows are clothed with flocks,

the valleys mantled with grain;

they raise a shout, they break into song.

Every Sunday morning, one of the scriptures we read is from the Psalms. We often approach the Psalms in worship as something to mumble our way through or chant our way through—more, I suspect, like something to be endured than to be enjoyed. The psalms were originally the “sacred poetry that was used in ancient Israelite and Judean worship.” They were also “records of human response to God” AND “God’s word to humanity.”[1] Yet too often, we forget that the psalms are not just ancient poetry, but that they express every possible human emotion.

There is the lament of an individual—sometimes referred to as a “complaint or prayer for help.”[2] Most psalms fall into this category. There are the psalms in which the entire community laments, or asks for help from God.  There are hymns of praise, royal psalms—often used on a king’s coronation day, wisdom poetry, entrance liturgies, psalms of trust, prophecies, and psalms that focus on thanksgiving.

Whether a person is crying out to God, asking why something has happened in her life, or venting anger towards one’s enemy when a trusted friend has betrayed him, every one of the 150 psalms focuses on the relationship between God and human beings.

Sometimes a psalm is written from a number of viewpoints. For example, if you imagine several actors on a stage, speaking the words of a psalm, one actor might be an individual addressing the audience. Another actor might turn and address God.  A third actor might speak words from God’s perspective. In other words, when we read the psalms, it sometimes helps to ask ourselves, “Who is speaking right now?” Is it one person, or several? Or is it like a chorus?

Sukkoth boothIf we look carefully at Psalm 65 today, we see that it is “a song of praise or a communal song of thanksgiving.”[3] In its original setting, it was likely a seven-day “ritual for harvest thanksgiving.” Later, it was used at “the festival of Tabernacles,” also known as “Sukkot.” In fact, this festival was celebrated a couple of weeks ago by our brothers and sisters at Oseh Shalom. They built outdoor shelters.  They celebrated “the changing of the seasons, fruits of the harvest, time spent with family, friends and neighbors.” As my colleague Rabbi Doug Heifetz noted on his Facebook page, “We call the holiday ‘the time of our joy,’ but it’s more than a window of time to be happy. The festival helps build our vessel of gratitude and contentment.”[4] In this sense, perhaps Psalm 65 is a vessel, or psalm, of gratitude. Its focus is the God who forgives, the God who delivers, the God who provides.

The first section is the God who forgives. It begins just as we do every Sunday morning, with God’s people who gather for worship. Yet the emphasis is a little different than you and I might imagine our gathering at St. Philip’s for worship. Rather than focusing on our choice to come to worship, the psalmist notes that it is God who chooses us to come near to God’s presence in worship. Our worship is made possible only because God forgives our broken, human nature that rebels against our Creator. In other words, the very fact that we are drawn to God has less to do with you and me than it has to do with God’s gracious and abundant love and forgiveness.

Mountain Sm 1In verse five, the psalmist moves to the God who delivers or saves. As Christians, many of us have been taught to see salvation as individual or personal. However, the sense of salvation in the Hebrew scriptures is broader than an individual decision. It is more focused on God’s actions rather than human decision. The God of creation is a God whose “delivering work is . . .never less than, but always more than, personal forgiveness.”[5] In this psalm, God’s deliverance of us is promised in the strength of the mountains, “in the raging seas, the raging waves, and tumultuous peoples,”[6] which is another way of saying in times of “political turmoil, social dislocation, and communal despair.”[7]

So in all situations of our lives, whether they are good or bad, God is a God who is with us, who can deliver us. The God who provides is addressed by the psalmist in verse nine.[8] God “takes care of the earth and irrigates it.” God enriches the earth. God provides grain for humankind. God prepares the earth. The psalmist is effusive and poetic in the last part of this song of praise. In terms of the good earth, it is God who saturates its plowed furrows. God softens the earth, filling the dry, cracked ground with so much rain, the earth is transformed into a green, lush paradise. God crowns the year with God’s bounty, and the only appropriate response by God’s creatures and God’s creation is one of praise, of music, of thanksgiving.

Recently, Pat and I were reminded of the joy of God’s creatures. I had had my yard re-seeded and fertilized in late September. The company left instructions for watering. I  was to water the lawn three times a day the first week, twice a day the second week, once a day the third week, then every two days or so. Last week, after Pat had adjusted the sprinklers and watched to see if the spray was hitting the right areas, she came in and told me I needed to look out of the window. She said, “The birds are going nuts out there!” When I looked out, there were birds flying in and out of the sprays of water—cardinals, robins, wrens, sparrows. Even the rabbit who usually visits late in the afternoon was hopping through the sprinkler, as were the ever-present squirrels. The birds were drinking, hopping up and down, fluffing their feathers. . .all the while chattering like happy children. It was as if God’s creatures were exulting in the unexpected showers provided in their habitat!  They were not singing human songs, but their joy and delight in this cool, clean water was so evident in their behavior. Of course in this case, the owner of the lawn was providing the water.   Yet if we believe Psalm 65, not really. The true provider of water is the Creator of the universe—God. Perhaps the refreshment of water helped our birds, rabbit and squirrels to be more fully what God has created them to be.

So it is with God’s people. If we understand that God forgives us, that God delivers or saves us, and that God provides for us, we may be better able to live more fully into the human beings God  created us to be. We will draw near to God in worship. We will thank God for all of God’s abundance and providence. We will live more fully into people of “justice, generosity and joy.”[9] When we can do this, we will be able to say from our hearts, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures of grain and Sukkoth booth accessed through Google images.

Pictures of ocean and mountain taken by McJilton.


[1][1] From “Introduction to the Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 642.

[2] Ibid., 644.

[3] Ibid., 933.

[4] Rabbi Douglas Heifetz, from a Facebook post on September 19, 2013.

[5] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[6] From The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, (Philadelphia & Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 1180.

[7] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[8] N.B.: In the Tanakh, this is verse ten.

[9] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 204.

[10][10] From “Introduction to the Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 642.

[11] Ibid., 644.

[12] Ibid., 933.

[13] Rabbi Douglas Heifetz, from a Facebook post on September 19, 2013.

[14] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[15] From The Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, (Philadelphia & Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 1180.

[16] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 202.

[17] N.B.: In the Tanakh, this is verse ten.

[18] Idem, Feasting on the Word, 204.

“I am Wonderful!”

The morning had already gotten off to a rocky start. I had misplaced a book I needed. I had not had as much time as I liked with my early morning devotional time. I was close to running late for a diocesan meeting that was a thirty minute drive from home. I had not eaten breakfast, and one cup of hot tea had not given me much of a boost. Further, many of my parishioners had been affected by the government furloughs, and I was worried about their welfare.

Deciding to wait until later to find the book, I threw my briefcase in the back seat of the car, glanced at my watch and decided I would dash through the McDonald’s drive-through. Although I rarely eat fast-food, I decided to make an exemption that morning, especially since a cup of hot, black coffee was at the top of my most-wanted list.

I ordered at the speaker, then pulled around and waited impatiently behind another car. When I got to the first window to pay for my meal, a woman appeared at the window. “Hi! How are you?” she asked in a cheerful voice. Suddenly, I found myself looking into the face of a woman with Down’s Syndrome.

Downs SyndromeIn that moment, the morning began to shift. I have always loved people with Down’s Syndrome. My family used to tease me, because if I saw anything about the Special Olympics on television, they knew I would cry at the sight. I don’t know exactly why, but I have always felt like children with Down’s Syndrome were the closest glimpse we get of God in this life. One of my most cherished memories was baptizing a two year old with Down’s before I left a parish in Wilmington, DE. Those moments are etched indelibly in my mind. That child is etched forever in my heart.

In this moment, though, I was caught up short. I had not ever encountered a person with Down’s Syndrome at a fast-food drive-through. “Hi! How are you?” was her question. Almost automatically, my response (hardly heart-felt) was “Fine. How are you?” She beamed. “I am wonderful!” she announced proudly. “I am wonderful!”  She took my money, made change, and I drove to the next window to get my food.

But after such a proclamation, I could not be grouchy anymore. As I moved forward in the line, all I could do was smile. Jolted out of my doldrums by an enthusiastic morning greeting, I was able to wish the young man at the next window a good day and mean it. And as I headed onto the Beltway, I could not stop smiling.

These days, with a variety of worrisome things flooding our hearts and minds (people doing “honey-do” chores while waiting to go back to work, a Congress that would rather focus on partisan agendas rather than the welfare of all Americans, stewardship campaigns, family issues, etc.), believing that our lives are wonderful is a challenge. Yet a beautiful child of God, on a sunny fall morning, reminded me that sometimes the only thing we can change in our lives is our attitude. We can let negativity live “rent-free” in our heads, or we can choose to focus on the blessings God has given us. If I have a warm place to sleep at night with a roof over my head, I can be grateful. If I have eaten today, I can be grateful. If I love someone or they love me, I can be grateful. On and on. I can choose what Oprah Winfrey calls “an attitude of gratitude.” My attitude may not change others, but it can change me.

As I drove away from a fast-food restaurant last week, I realized the smallness of my worries. God is in control. God is wonderful. God’s creation is wonderful. As God’s beloved child, I am wonderful. So are you.

A Mustard Seed of Faith

Luke 17:5-10

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”

Mustard seeds. Mulberry trees. Tiny things. Things planted in places where they are not supposed to be.

This week, your rector has been searching for faith. I just wanted faith, even the size of a mustard seed—something tiny and round. Something specific I could hold and look at and feel in my hand. This past week, I have read and wrestled with scripture about today’s gospel, against the backdrop of the Capitol Hill dome and the White House. This week, I have searched for faith the size of a mustard seed. I know many of you have as well.

On Tuesday, I sat down and scribbled the names of everyone in this parish whom I knew would be affected by a furlough of the federal government. Just off the top of my head, I came up with a dozen names. A dozen parishioners who have now caught up on chores they have been meaning to do. People who have given significant time to a project on this church campus, or run for exercise, or sat down and planned for “what if”. . .As I sat and stared at, then prayed with, the names on the list in front of me, I searched for faith.

I thought about the fact that given third quarter pledge numbers, St. Philip’s still has some financial challenges for 2013. That our Stewardship Lunch was scheduled for today. Then I said to God, “Thanks, God. Perfect timing!”  and I’m sure God did not hear the sarcasm in my voice. . .

As Christians, we wonder about faith. Do we have it? Do we have enough? I suppose if having enough faith means that we can physically uproot a tree by thinking about it, then the answer is no. Yet in today’s Gospel, Jesus uses hyperbole—exaggerated language—to make a particular point. When the disciples ask for more faith, one would think Jesus would be glad they are making this request. As one writer has said, “Instead, his sharp answer implies that they have not really understood the nature of genuine faith.”[1]

What do they understand? The disciples do understand faith as something dynamic, as something that can grow—otherwise, they would not ask Jesus to increase it. Yet what they do not seem to understand is that they already have the faith they need. All they have to do is to exercise that faith. Name it. Claim it. Act on it. Another thing they do not understand is illustrated by the second part of this passage. Jesus uses a conventional image of the first century.

If you were head of a household and had a servant (slave) who worked for you, that servant’s work—whether in the field or in the kitchen—was the work he or she was supposed to do. It was nothing extraordinary. It was what is expected. In that particular culture, in that time in history, this example made sense. We in the twenty-first century are repelled by servant or slave imagery, yet we must not read our own culture and history back into the first. Jesus thus challenges his disciples to see themselves as servants—servants of God. God is in charge. God owes them—and us—nothing. Yet we owe God everything. Whatever we do for God is just what we should do.  Furthermore, God’s abundance, blessing and gift of faith come under the category of grace. Pure grace. There is nothing we can do to earn it. There is nothing we can do to deserve it. Yet, amazingly enough, God provides.

The challenge is that we cannot always see God’s provision and grace. We want faith we can see, touch, and hear. We want to see good things happen because of our faith. Yet as evidenced this week, good does not always happen—at least not what we would classify as good.

Sometimes, as I have said to you before, having faith in God may be like walking around the furniture in a dark living room. We may have some general idea of where the obstacles are, yet we probably don’t know for sure, so we have to move slowly—and often help each other negotiate the dark so that we don’t fall. In other words, faith is something that is God’s gift to each of us. At the same time, you and I have our own part to play in this life of faith. God gives us faith. It is up to us to use it.

To use another analogy, it is as if God has given us a very large bank account. When we get the statement, we are in awe of all the money in our account. At the same time, we are scared to spend any of it. We are afraid it will disappear or be stolen. Or perhaps we fear that this is a mistake. This account is not really ours. God meant to give it to someone else. No. This account—full of unimaginable riches of faith—belongs to you and to me. Yet if it sits un-used, it does no one any good.

How do we spend our faith? How do we appropriate all that the grace and faith God has given us? The first thing we must do is to acknowledge that we already have all the faith we need. Whatever we need, we already have. We may not already have what we want, but we already have what we need.

Several years ago, during the economic downturn, this parish was in a challenging place. Some folks had been laid off. Some had lost jobs they thought were secure. Others were depressed because they had jobs they hated. Yet St. Philip’s needed a new roof. Now that was pretty evident, because some of us were getting “rained on” at the altar or in the pew! Our need for a new roof was clear, but the economic recovery was not. At that time, I stood here and talked about the fear generated by nay-sayers and media about the economic situation, especially as it pertained to this parish. I must admit to you that at some point, I got angry. Then I realized that I was giving negativity rent-free space in my head and heart. I was also not living into my faith.

So I made a decision, which I shared with you at that time. Today, I want to repeat what I said then. I will not live in fear. Jesus said “perfect love casts out fear.”  Today, I re-claim that truth. I will not live in fear. I will not live in fear of politicians who hold the people of this country hostage with their partisan games. I will not live in fear of scarcity. I will not live in fear for the people of this parish for whom I care deeply. I will not live in fear that this parish will not grow and prosper and do what God calls us to do and to be in this world. I encourage you to decide not to live in fear as well. I challenge you to claim love out of your mustard seed of faith and to cast out fear.

Three years ago, I said that we are going to take care of each other. That is still true. If fulfilling your pledge for 2013 or making a new one for 2014 means that you cannot pay your electricity or buy food for your family, do not make it. And do not worry or feel guilty about it. Furthermore, if you need help, come to see me privately. If your finances or job have not been affected, I ask you to open your hand and see the mustard seed of faith there. You have all you need. You may not have all you want, but you have what you need in God’s economy. You may consider giving on behalf of those who cannot. Go out to dinner one less time a week than you would have, and give that money out of your faith that God will multiply it. Buy one less Starbucks Frappuccino and put that in the offering plate on Sunday. Buy a grocery card today and give it to me so that I can give it to a parishioner who needs it. Come to the Stewardship Luncheon today and give of yourself—your time and your listening heart—to your brothers and sisters.

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” It was the wrong request. Today, Jesus stands in front of you and me. He says, “Use your faith. Cast fear as far as you can throw it. Live in the fullness of love and faith that I have given you already.” Name it. Claim it. Act on it. Faith is yours. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton


[1] R. Alan Culpepper “The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX: Luke and John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 322.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Luke 10:25-37

SONY DSC“He asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”

Many of us are familiar with the story we refer to as “The Good Samaritan.” In fact, maybe we are so familiar with it, we may struggle to glean new insights. Yet I invite you to look at this story with new eyes.

A lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a simple story. A man is on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho on a winding, desert road. Robbers jump on him, strip him, beat him savagely and run off, leaving him to die in a roadside ditch. We don’t know the man’s name, race or socio-economic status. However, we are told a little about those who come down the same road. Jesus has already set the scene by using the word “neighbor.” The word neighbor has a basic meaning of “to be near.” In other words, your neighbor is the one who is nearest you.[1]

A Jewish priest comes down the road. He sees a man’s body in the ditch. He has no idea who the man is. He is not neighbor enough, or close enough, to know any of these things. He just sees someone in the ditch. He crosses the road to avoid him. He keeps going. A Levite comes down the road. He sees the man’s body in the ditch. He, too, has no idea about the man, but like the first man, he does not get close enough to know anything. He crosses the road to avoid coming in contact with him and keeps going. A Samaritan man comes down the road. He sees the man in the ditch. Stops. Tends to the injured man’s wounds. Takes him to a nearby inn. Pays for his care.

Jesus’s use of a Samaritan as an example of the third man to come down the road is startling. Had he followed the usual convention, he would have used a priest, a Levite, then a lay person.  No. Jesus uses a priest, a Levite, then a hated enemy as example. Jesus could not have stretched the boundaries of acceptability any further than by using a hated Samaritan as a hero in this story. Why? The Samaritans had originally been part of a Jewish tribe. However, in one conflict, the rest of the tribe had been taken into exile, but the Samaritans were left behind because they were poor and unwanted.  So they remained in the northern part of Israel and intermarried with other tribes. They worshipped God on Mt. Gerazim rather than in Jerusalem. They only believed in the first five books of the Torah and they interpreted it differently than did the Jews. In Jesus’ time, if you said the word “Samaritan” to a Jewish person, the best they would call them was half-breeds. In fact, they despised them so much, Jews would go out of their way to avoid traveling through any part of Samaria.

“Who is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer.

Perhaps there is an underlying issue in his question. One writer has proposed that it may be this: “’I am willing to love my neighbor as myself, but don’t get me involved with the wrong neighbor.’ What are the right rules so that I can justify myself?  (Who do I have to help (and who can I ignore?)” [2] Jesus’ response is clear. Compassion and love have no boundaries. None. Just like God’s love. We love God as God loves us. Out of that love, we love the neighbor we like and we love the neighbor we hate or who makes us nervous or fearful. The other—whomever the other may be.  

Who is my neighbor? Who can I ignore? 

LunchBus011372865711Above the fold on the front page of last Sunday’s Washington Post was a picture that has haunted me all week long. It is a picture of a two-year old boy with a buzz haircut. He is eating a piece of bread. There is dirt under his fingernails. As he chews his piece of bread, he looks up at the photographer.  Deep sadness and wisdom look out of a two year old’s eyes. This child is one of thousands like him. In the hills of East Tennessee, it is summer. That means no school breakfast or lunch. It is a part of the country plagued by high unemployment and deep poverty. In fact, “poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.”[3] According to the Washington Post article, there is “a rise in childhood hunger that [has] been worsening for seven consecutive years. Congress had tried to address it mostly by spending a record $15 billion each year to feed 21 million low-income children in their schools, but that left out the summer, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to spend $400 million more on that. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.”[4]

This year, a Tennessee food bank decided to bring food to children, rather than the other way around, so a bus driver and his helper hit the road every day with sack lunches. On this particular day, here is what was in the sack lunch—which, by the way, was 750 calories each: “2 ounces of celery sticks, 4 ounces of canned oranges, chocolate milk and a bologna sandwich, each meal bought with $3.47 in taxpayer money.”[5] By federal law, no one is to have seconds. After the month’s supply of food stamps is gone for a family, this is often the only meal that the children and teenagers have in a 24-hour period of time. One mother has begun to ask her children to rate their hunger on a scale of 1 to 10, because they are in such a dire situation.

My father’s family came from the hills of East Tennessee. Eight children. A father who wasn’t home much. I suspect they hunted, fished, had a small garden and some chickens, maybe a goat. I suspect they were often hungry. When the boys were old enough, several of them became coal miners. At least one died of Black Lung disease. My own people came from a neighborhood like Greenville, Tennessee, and I must confess to you that I don’t want to call them neighbors. I want to ignore them—for a number of reasons. For a variety of reasons, they live in poverty, some with large families. Many smoke cigarettes when their children are hungry. Their purchases at the store include doughnuts, corn chips, Airheads candy, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew—the last sometimes given to a baby sister when there is no more milk.  So it is easy for me to justify why I don’t have to be a neighbor to these folks. Why I want to ignore them and cross the road.

Yet Jesus Christ stands in front of me this morning. He looks at me from the deep, sad, wise eyes of a two year old who sits on a bus eating a bologna sandwich.  This is his ditch.

Too many of our brothers and sisters struggle to get out of a ditch called poverty. In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan in a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City. Although Dr. King was speaking in particular about the Vietnam War, he was also speaking about poverty—especially poverty generated by what he referred to as “the giant triplets of racism,   extreme materialism and militarism.”[6]Dr. King said this: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[7]

How we might restructure the political and socio-economic frameworks in our cities, counties and states so that no one goes hungry or is without shelter is open for discussion and disagreement. Yet we do not have to drive to East Tennessee to see the face of hunger. Many families in Laurel live at the poverty line. Many children are hungry during the summer when there is no school breakfast or lunch. Hungry children live in this neighborhood. They live in Washington. Baltimore. West Virginia. Idaho. Montana. Ohio.  East Tennessee. There are hungry children all over this country. The problem is larger than anything you or I can do.

Yet we can do something. One thing we can do is not to cross the road and ignore them or judge them according to our standards. The other thing we can do is to do whatever we can do, out of the abundant resources God has given us. At the very least, we could promise God that every week this summer, we will buy some extra, nutritious food to bring for our LARS basket. Something that costs us $3.47 more at the grocery store can make a difference in someone’s life. We may never see that difference, but God will see it. The person in the ditch may be grateful for a little bit of mercy.

Jesus asked, “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.” Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.”

Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. Amen.

\

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton


[1] Brian P. Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources, Luke 10:25-37. Accessed through www.textweek.com on July 11, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eli Saslow, “Driving Away Hunger,” in the Washington Post, Sunday, July 7, 2013, Section A, p. 8.

[4] Ibid, p. A-8.

[5] Ibid, A-1.

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence.” A sermon delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. Accessed at http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm.  July 12, 2013.

[7] Ibid.

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

harvest-12-2Earlier this week, five St. Philip’s parishioners and I attended a diocesan workshop entitled “Overcoming Obstacles to Church Growth.” Of course, the word “growth” does not necessarily mean growth in numbers. It can easily mean spiritual growth. Bishop Mariann asked the group a question to consider: “What one thing (an obstacle to growth) would you get rid of it you could?” The answers were interesting. “It’s the way we’ve always done it.”  Lack of money. Lack of transparency. Wrong perceptions about the Church. Resistance to change.

Everyone there on Tuesday evening had today’s gospel in front of them. . .“therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” HIS harvest. In other words, the harvest of the good news of God’s kingdom is not about you or me or the Church. It is about God. It is GOD’s harvest.

Bishop Mariann shared with the group a quote from Patrick Keifert’s book We Are Here Now. It is as follows:  “Indeed the most frightening discovery we made in our early research in local church renewal was how seldom members of local churches describe their lives in sentences that include God as the subject of action verbs. They almost always describe worship, for example, as something “we do” or “I do.” I worship God. I participate in fellowship. We sing hymns and pray. God, in the vast majority of these descriptions by churches’ own members and in their own words, is at best the object of human action. Rarely did we hear of God doing something in worship, much less in the community or neighborhood around them. We discovered that many of the imaginations and descriptions of local church leaders reflect a practical atheism and secularity. It isn’t that they don’t believe in God, but they don’t speak of God as being a part of their lives; they don’t think in categories that include God.”[1]

It is, of course, challenging to think of our lives in a way that has God as the subject of an action verb. Perhaps this is because our culture is so individualistic and self-driven in terms of the goals we set. The culture in which Jesus lived was much different. Community trumped individual needs or wants. Yet the kind of community which Jesus embodied was different than the prevailing tradition. Jesus had come to show people that the kind of kingdom of God they had understood was deeper, broader and richer than something one achieved by keeping the law and commandments. Jesus was messiah. Son of God. Savior of the world. Everything he did—preach, teach, heal, cast out demons, break bread with all kinds of people—all pointed to a larger conception of life.

Life in God was more than keeping a set of legal requirements. Life in God was more than some technical means to a happy ending. Life in God was about God and what God might be doing in the world God had created. This new concept of the realm or kingdom of God included more than just Jewish men. Luke’s gospel showed this. He included women, Samaritans, people who lived on the edges of society, Gentiles—literally meaning “non-Israelite people”—into Jesus’ expanded mission. The good news of God’s kingdom needed to go beyond the people of Israel. It needed to go into all the world, for and to all people.

Luke wanted the early Christians to understand that if they were focused on God, what God was doing, and what they must do as Jesus’ disciples, their vision would match God’s vision of what the world could be like. They could not do things the way they had always done things. They had to let go of their myopic view of God’s kingdom. They could not be resistant to learning new things or changing the way they lived their lives. As Jesus’ disciples lived out their lives of faith, they had to be courageous, prepared for those who would oppose them, open to all kinds of hospitality, willing to accept all kinds of circumstances.

In addition, the twelve disciples had to accept growth in their ranks. Now there were not only twelve men and a group of women who followed Jesus, there were many others. [Keep in mind that the gospel writer used the number seventy—or seventy-two in some translations—as a symbolic number. “The number seventy implies all of humanity, as Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering seventy.”[2]]

That did not mean that Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign was always popular. In fact, it was most often not popular, because God’s kind of world did not fit into oppressive political and religious systems. Yet just as Jesus’ ministry “[subverted] the systems of power and privilege in the world,”[3] so was to be the ministry of those who followed Jesus. This implied the excitement of abundant living and new possibilities in life. It also implied the need to be vulnerable, to be open to change and a willingness to be flexible—to change plans at any moment.

This must have been a challenging place to live for the disciples. Yet they knew Jesus personally. Jesus’ words and deeds had completely transformed their lives. They knew what it felt like to live in relationship with him, in an expanded sense of God’s kingdom, in the shalom of God—safe and complete peace—no matter what the situation.

By contrast, you and I have not had the opportunity to know the historical Jesus. What we know about Jesus has come through our church traditions, filtered to some degree, sometimes even obscured by people or documents. In the past hundred years, scholars have argued about exactly what, in the gospels, Jesus actually said and what others say he said. We in the Church have often gotten caught up in the rituals and politics of the institution. We have gotten to the point of asking “What would Jesus do?”  However, this is not enough. Perhaps we need to stop asking rhetorical questions, start reading the Bible, then to go and DO what Jesus did. I wonder where God’s people might go and do if we focused on God rather than ourselves. Rather than asking what we can do and then find God there, what would happen if we asked ourselves different questions. For example: “What is God doing and how can we join God in that adventure?” “What is God saying to this community of faith in this moment of time?” “How would I live today or tomorrow or Friday this week if God were the subject of every action verb in my life?” “What if the reign of God came near to me this week. Would I miss it, or would I recognize it?”

Maybe the kingdom or reign of God has already come near to you. So if we are not to miss seeing it, or living into its fullness, perhaps we should put our lives in perspective. We must put God as the subject rather than ourselves: God speaks and sings in Sunday morning liturgy. God hugs those who grieve. God sits next to me in the pew. God will share a cup of coffee with me this morning. God schedules my day. God writes my checks. God decides what the vision is for this community. God provides the way forward so that vision will come to reality.

If the kingdom of God comes near us today, will we know it when we see it?

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton


[1] Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now,  (Idaho: Allelon Publishing, 2006), 62-62.

[2] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 214.

[3] Ibid., 216.

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