Sunday, August 11, 2019

Trust the Driver

Hebrews 11:1-3, 7-16

Imagine this:
someone comes to your house – or even meets you on the street – scoops up your car keys, takes the wheel of your car, and says “
Hop in; let’s go!
What do you do?

hop right in (passenger seat or back?) – ask where – grab keys back, etc

What I do when someone else is driving depends a lot on who the person is; on the relationship we have.
But this is the question – well, one question – implied for us in the scripture we hear today, this little poetic history from the Letter to the Hebrews:
By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, and he set out, not knowing where he was going.

By faith, Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, our ancestors, expected the impossible. By faith they lived on their expectations of posterity and future homeland more than on the reality of those things, waited or acted on the promise of God, even when they couldn’t know where they were going, or what God was doing about it.

Faith, the way it’s described today, is really a lot like getting into the passenger seat – or even back seat – of your own car when someone else is driving you to an unknown destination.

There are reasons why any of us might do that. Perhaps the driver promises to take you to somewhere you really want to be and don’t know how to get to: the moon, or true love, or a world without gun massacres, childhood cancer, cruelty, hate, or partisan politics – the “promised land”;  and your longing for those things is enough to take the risk of trusting the driver.
Or perhaps you know the driver well enough to want to go anywhere with them.
Sometimes you’re drawn to the adventure, and sometimes you just don’t see any other choice.

That’s the experience of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob we heard about today. The writer (or perhaps the preacher; this document for “the Hebrews” really reads more like a sermon than a letter) wants us to see ourselves in this same journey, to recognize ourselves in the invitation to live by faith. Wants us, as much as our biblical ancestors, to experience the substance, the reality of things we hope and long for; experience the here-and-nowness of things that are fundamentally intangible, things unseen.

This preacher – the one whose words are recorded in the Bible, and, for that matter the preacher in your pulpit today – wants all of us, you and me, to experience the active, living reality of God in our own lives and in the world around us. Wants us to be able to know in our hearts and bodies and minds the concrete reality of God’s active interest and love that guides and directs us, and know it whether or not we ever literally hear that direction and love in clear words, or see with our eyes the success of our guided actions.

That’s not easy.
Most of the time, on those rare occasions when I give someone else my keys and get into the passenger seat of my car, I…well, I kind of drive anyway. My foot will pump the imaginary brakes. I give unnecessary directions about which lane to be in, or try to speed up the car by silent willpower.
Even when I know I don’t need to – there’s plenty of time and the driver knows what they are doing – I automatically try to exercise control.

Perhaps you do, too.
In your life, if not in the car.
Perhaps you really like to do turn-by-turn route planning – careful management of your time, your money, your efforts and achievements – even when the destination isn’t all that clear: when you don’t know exactly where your career should go, what your kids will be like at 18 or 50, what you want to do in retirement, or what on earth happens after the diagnosis is confirmed or the new job is secured.
Or perhaps you don’t plan, but keep your hands on the wheel, making sure you have control to switch lanes, change the route, make your own decisions in the moment at all times. 

These are natural human tendencies, reinforced every day by the voices of our world that preach self-reliance and independence, and by the voices of the news that proclaim uncertainty and danger.
The tendency and temptation to keep things in our own control are reinforced regularly by the voices of a world that tell us we can’t trust the government, or strangers, or what you read on the internet, or hear from the other news services, or much of anything or anybody but ourselves.
Those voices tell us we can’t do something new, and that we can’t depend on anyone else to help us achieve what we long for.

But faith is all about trust. In fact, faith fundamentally is trust.
And trust is how we rest even when we are restless; how we love even when we are out of liking and goodwill; how we can act for good in the face of despair, how we achieve and discover more together than we ever could alone.
Trust is how we have living, growing relationships with anyone.

That’s why God wants faith for us.
Because God wants a living, growing, relationship with you. With me. Individually and together.
God longs for the kind of trust and delight that allows us to eagerly hand God the keys and the wheel.
God wants our hearts to be free to experience the wonder of the journey without the anxiety of deadlines; to trust whatever speed we’re moving, and to rest in quiet, deep, companionship when God just pulls to the side of the road and waits in silence for a while (you know, those times when nothing seems to be happening or moving or changing tor the better, no matter how much you work or plan or write to Congress or follow the doctor’s prescriptions or pray).

God doesn’t want us to give up planning and responsibility for our own lives, but God does want us to long for those destinations we can’t possibly get to alone – destinations like profound peace of heart, unconditional love, unshakable connection to God, the transformation of our world into a generous land of universal peace and prosperity, safety and welcome and shared joy.
God wants this longing in us, with a readiness to try routes we can’t plan for ourselves, because living only in what we ourselves can manage and plan and achieve is idolatry and
isolation, and ultimately despair.

Now, you can’t will yourself to that deep trust and faith. Trust takes time, and practice – lots of time and practice – in any relationship. Trust and faith are mutual, not singular. That’s why faith isn’t willpower. It’s a gift of God, who plants seeds of love and faith within us, faith and love that grow into trust, sometimes in ways we don’t recognize. And God asks us to nurture those seeds with prayer and sacraments and scripture and community.

Because God knows that without that faith and trust, we won’t get to experience the reality of what we long for, the proof of unprovable love, the concreteness of intangible possibility and joy, and God wants that for us with all God’s heart.

That’s why God keeps reaching out for our car keys and inviting us to hop in,
so that God can take us, in unexpected and unpredictable ways, to the healing of the world and our own healing, to the substance of all that we long for, the conviction of wonder and grace and joy.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

What Can Never Be Taken Away

Luke 10:38-42

Every time I read this story, I leap instinctively to Martha’s defense:
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with practicing hospitality by taking care of your guests.
She’s just getting the work out of the way so she can listen too, right?
It’s just not fair to praise Mary when Martha is trying so hard – is it?

I do this so automatically that I get defensive for Martha even when nobody’s actively criticizing her.

On some level, I’m arguing against generations of interpretation that have made this story about opposites, about what’s appropriate women’s work, or about the one right way to be in relationship with Jesus.
I’m arguing against a history of interpretation that makes this story about limits, or about choosing sides. (“Are you a Mary or a Martha?”)

But I realized recently that I’m also so automatically defensive on Martha’s behalf because, well, I’m personally jealous of Mary.

I love bible study, reading and exploring and getting deep into the Word of God. I’m uncomfortable in the kitchen, and would secretly love to be praised for staying out of it (not so secretly any more). I wish I knew when to just stop and bask in the presence of God.

But wanting to be Mary often makes me act a bit more like Martha. I’ll spend hours trying to perfect a bible study question or plan an education program, and have been known to complain about people not carrying their fair share of the planning. I ask someone else to plan the meal, then agonize over whether it will turn out right after I’ve given up control – or spend the whole party in the kitchen trying to prove to myself that I’m willing to do the work.

So I’m jealous of Mary’s confidence in her relationship with God that lets her sit right down and listen with attention and openness, instead of working and working to make things right.

And I’m jealous that Jesus says that the good Mary has chosen will not be taken away from her, because it’s obvious to me that the things I work hard for can so easily slip away.

I could plan a brilliant class on the meaning of the Eucharist, and you could all hate it. My competence is fragile – every time I lose my voice or sprain a wrist I notice this. Age and youth, time constraints, illness and accidents take things away from all of us, any day.

It’s because things like exciting work, household competence, success and independence, can be taken away that I work so hard to keep up with them. It’s because they can be taken away that I worry about doing them well enough or fast enough not to lose them.

In his recent book Seculosity David Zahl writes about this drive to keep up, to chase what can be taken away, as a quest for “enoughness.” A quest for proof of our value; that we matter or make a difference; that we’re good enough, capable enough, anything enough.

Zahl describes the religious behavior that has emerged around the pursuit of enough in secular ways: the rituals, and rites of dating, marriage, and romantic love; the sin, confession, and penance of parenting “right”; the devotional acts of paying attention to our phones or TVs or computers, and being connected; the righteousness many of us struggle with around healthy foods, or political alignments.

I suspect that in many cases, we strive for these things because we want these tasks to make us right with God, as well as prove our worth to ourselves or our community, just as Martha tries to do right by Jesus through food service and clean towels.

With deep empathy, Zahl describes how our culture encourages all of us to pursue these things in a quest for wholeness, and how we will never catch up to that wholeness in pursuing the things that can and will be taken away.
He shares his hope that we can reconnect to the truth that Jesus lived for us: that we don’t have to be enough, to keep up, or to hold on to the things that are taken away, because God is more than enough for all our efforts and our inadequacies.

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things.”
It’s not Martha’s actions of cooking and care that Jesus is challenging. It’s her worry. Her distraction. That in her attempt to welcome Jesus, her tasks of service have become her focus, dragging her attention away from the wonder and joy of God sitting down right here in her house toward the anxiety of making her house good enough, her need to get it all done, the sense that she isn’t enough for the task.

I’ve felt that myself. Perhaps you have too.
And Jesus doesn’t want us to.
“There is need of only one thing,” he says. The same good that Mary has chosen which will never be taken away.
Mary – on this day, in this story – is a model of how to rest in the wholeness of God. To focus her self and her actions on her confidence that nothing can take that wholeness away.

I don’t think Jesus wants Martha to stop serving, necessarily. He knows she took on this work because she wanted to serve him, to honor his presence in her home. But any of us can become distracted, anxious, or worried, drawn away from God’s enoughness, even by tasks we take on in God’s service.
So Jesus wants Martha, and you and me, to serve in a different way, one that takes even more attention and care. He wants us to serve the way Mary listens.
To experience whatever work and rest, service and prayer we take on for God as the unquenchable joy of the presence of God, not as anxiety and distraction. Jesus wants Martha, wants us, to experience that confidence in her relationship with God that nothing can take away.

Some of us – especially those of us who are busy day after day, week after week – may need explicitly to sit still, to do nothing else but listen for a time, in order to recognize that wholeness of God that Jesus fills us with and wraps around us. We need to know what that confidence feels like so we can live it in our action and work as well as stillness.

Others of us – especially but not exclusively those of us who feel helpless, who sit still because we fear we can’t do anything, or can’t make a difference – may need to act. We may need to serve others or serve God deliberately and directly, in order to experience the wholeness that comes from knowing that what we do is inadequate, but what God does with us is enough, and more than enough, so that we can keep that confidence when we are still.

And whether we are acting or resting, still or busy, Jesus calls all of us to choose what can’t be taken away: the presence of Jesus.
Calls me to open my whole self to the presence and wonder and love of God, whether I do it in the kitchen or in bible study; to keep my focus on what God is up to in the world at the altar or at Iron Hill. Calls you to open your whole self to God’s presence and love in the church or in your car; to focus on what God is doing here and now whether you are praying or in a meeting or in the grocery store.
All of us are like both Mary and Martha, craving enough-ness, unable to win it for ourselves. All of us, like both Martha and Mary, beloved of God, have already been given the gift of God’s wholeness that can never be taken away. And when we forget, Jesus calls us by name and reminds us to rest in that gift.

So what stillness will you find, how will you be set free to act, when Jesus calls your name and you know – know – that the wholeness of God has found you, and can never be taken away?

Sunday, July 7, 2019

It's God's Work

2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Naaman’s story is one that might be told with great effect by a late-night talk show host, if they’d had those 2800 or 2900 years ago. It’s full of great opportunities for caricature and funny impressions, and it’s rich in obvious irony. It makes all kinds of social, political, and religious points, without being heavy-handed.

Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert could tell it today, enjoying and making much of the irony of this big important Aramean general, stuck with an embarrassing disease no one can cure. Of the “little people” who know the answer the Big Man needs; the “big” people – kings of Aram and Israel – who grasp at straws and mistake themselves for God.

When the late-night host tells it, we’d all enjoy laughing at the spluttering shock of Naaman, who’s never in his life had his own importance questioned, standing on the doorstep of the prophet, griping about being deprived of a great, dramatic, miracle show and told to wash in the river of a one-horse Judean town instead of in his own much better native rivers.

And when Naaman is finally talked down by his driver to a final chuckle from all of us, and cooperates, and is cured….
Well, the obvious moral to this story is that God is not nearly so impressed with our wealth and power and self-image as we ourselves are.

But there’s a whole other point or five lurking in this story.
The one I noticed this week starts with the very first sentence of the story the way it’s printed in your lectionary inserts today. Naaman is successful and famous and great because…. what’s the reason you see?
“Because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram.”

Before Naaman ever hears of the prophet Elisha, ever even considers coming to Israel for a cure, God is already using Naaman for God’s purposes. God is already at work in his life. 
Naaman’s relationship to God, and more importantly, God’s relationship to Naaman, doesn’t start with Naaman looking for a cure. God is at work in Naaman’s life, using him to defeat God’s chosen nation, for God’s own purposes, long before Naaman starts looking for God’s power.

And that insight helps me make sense of some of the other ironies and curiosities in the story. Like the way that Naaman actually seems to listen attentively and openly and regularly to the lowest and least important people in his household. He takes the second-hand advice of a captive from his recent conquest seriously. He yields naturally and quickly when other staff tell him to put aside his defensiveness and pride about the cure the prophet recommends to him, and obeys.
He takes advice, he does what the man of God says, and then – in the sequel to this story – is converted to deep trust in and worship of the God of Israel; making clear plans for how he’s going to commit to that worship and balance his professional life with his spiritual life when he gets home.

He’s not cured by and converted to a God he’s just met.
Naaman is cured by and drawn closer to a God who has been working in his life all along.

And Naaman’s community – his employees, his captives, his wife, his boss, along with Elisha the prophet of God – they’re simply helping God’s work along. It doesn’t depend on any of them to cure him, or save him, or fix what’s wrong in his world or their own. All they – all we – have to do is cooperate with what God is already doing, mention out loud how they see God at work, or sometimes just get out of the way.

That’s the mistake the king of Israel makes, by the way, in this story. He sees this message expecting a cure for Naaman, and gives up in despair because he knows he can’t do it by himself. He mistakes his own limits for actual impossibility. He gets in his own way, in Naaman’s way and God’s way. He even asks the right question – “Who does he think I am, God?!” but can’t hear that this question is the answer.

It’s God’s work.
God’s work to convert, or heal, or make peace, or transform lives. It’s God’s work, and we – you and I, Elisha the prophet and the king of Israel, the slave girls and the chariot drivers, the hyper-capable leaders and the least-competent followers – we are all along for the ride. It’s God’s work, and we are invited to cooperate with it, but it gets done whether we help or hinder; proclaim it or ignore it.

Saving souls or lives isn’t actually up to us. Neither is providing success for our kids or professional proteges, or providing perfect safety for our fragile loved ones. Perfecting our own spiritual lives, healing our own emotional or spiritual wounds, isn’t actually up to us either.
We can help or get in the way, but God is already at work, and inviting us to cooperate with God, not expecting us to do it for ourselves.

This is what Jesus is teaching his early apostles today, too, sending them out without money or supplies to spread peace, cure the sick, and preach good news – a job that the whole story up to this point has shown that they are woefully unready for. He sends them out to every place where he himself intends to go.  That’s an important thing to notice. They aren’t responsible for bringing God to those places. That’s Jesus’ job. The disciples are just helping out.

He tells them he’s sending them like lambs into the midst of wolves. Which is frankly terrifying – until you remember that lambs in wolf territory are generally there under the protection and direction of a shepherd. The disciples out in pairs in the countryside, just like you and me making our daily way through the pastures and wilderness of our lives, are actively being guided and guarded by Jesus, whether any of us notice or not.

And he tells them to let God do the work. Offer your peace when you enter a house. If God has already prepared people for shalom, your peace will rest there. If not, your peace is undisturbed, and returns to you.

Don’t burn yourself out on rejection, on healing those who don’t want healing. Instead, go where the energy is (as our Bishop is fond of saying); respond to the spiritual hunger where it already is – answer the questions of those who are asking, respond to the transformation God has already begun.
The kingdom of God comes near to everyone, whether you succeed with them or not.

Essentially, Jesus is sending the disciples out, sending us out, to look for and notice what God is already doing in the lives of the people we encounter. To share whatever peace and health, hope and meaning, God has already given you, yes, but to share it as if it depends on God for success in anyone else’s life, not as if it depends on your skill with words or actions or leadership.
To pray for healing as though it depends on the work God is already doing, not on how good you are at prayer. To receive food for your own soul and body from those in whose lives God is already working, because you’ve been sent to simply notice and celebrate God’s activity among and within them.

This may sound like “taking it easy”, and in a way, it is. But it’s not letting us off the hook. This is a profound exercise in trust, an active commitment of our hearts and selves to let go of working for ourselves and instead be steered by and used by God.

It can be hard to do that in a culture that rewards visible independence more than obvious dependence on God. It’s hard, sometimes, to depend on God rather than ourselves, when we or someone we love is in deep, essential need of direction or protection or help.
It can feel unnatural to many of us, conditioned to succeed by our own efforts, to let ourselves succeed dramatically or appear to fail completely based on what God is doing, instead of on what we’ve added to the process.
It’s a shift, and it’s also a gift.

The seventy, after all, returned with joy, discovering that Jesus had succeeded in healing and saving beyond their own wildest hopes, in all these places where he had sent them. It’s a delight we are invited to share with the apostles, with Naaman and his community, as we notice and respond to what God is already up to, and cooperate as best we can, as God fills the world with healing and our hearts with joy.