What do we see?

Pre-COVID, I was a prolific traveler.  I hit the road whenever possible, usually taking parish groups with me.  I hope to do such travel again before too long, and perhaps we can go together.  I have been blessed to visit the Holy Land, Malta, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Cuba.  Each place I’ve been, I’ve been stopped in my tracks by things special, beautiful, and rare.

Over the course of a decade and a half of such trips, however, I have noticed a subtle but important shift in the way I experience these places.  The change was concurrent with the proliferation of the smartphone.  Here’s the change: As our pilgrim group would approach a site either serene or sublime, I would immediately pull out my phone and rush to take photos, scores of them.  As a result, rather than witnessing God’s creation in a glorious place to which I was very likely never to return, I instead encountered a mere facsimile of that creation through a two-by-five screen.  That borders on the absurd.  What’s even more absurd is that, upon returning home and viewing my photo collection again, in many photos I’d find, right in front of me, some important element (what the kids today call an “Easter egg”)—a person, a treasure, a wondrous gift from God—that in person I’d missed it entirely—not seen it at all—because I was so caught up in the much smaller world of that pixelated phone.  There had been a miracle right before my eyes, and I’d missed it.

Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, and if you were at church last week you may be experiencing déjà vu.  Last week was the feast known as the Baptism of Our Lord, and we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan.  But here, today, we find another version (John’s) of that same story.  Why does the lectionary give us this story twice in a row?  Do scholars think we’re so dense as to need a repeated hearing?  Well, perhaps it’s not our ears that miss things the first time; perhaps it’s our eyes

Jesus’ baptism is one of the very few accounts that appears in all four Gospels.  And yet, each evangelist describes the tale a bit differently.  In Matthew’s account, which we read last week, Jesus is baptized, and the people around Jesus witness the miraculous interrupt the mundane, as the heavens open, a dove descends, and the voice of God speaks.  Yet, in John’s account today, it seems that only John the Baptist sees the heavenly scene that occurs at Jesus’ baptism.  And if we were to read Mark’s and Luke’s versions of the story, only Jesus himself sees the dove and hears God’s voice. 

What are we to take from this?  Well, we know that a crowd is gathered around John, listening to his preaching and themselves being baptized by him, as Jesus approaches and is himself then baptized.  That is, in and of itself, a very earthy, human, mundane thing.  It involves a hot a dusty people, a road weary man who has traveled from Galilee, a muddy riverbank, a splash of water.  Everyone sees all that.  But what happens next—the wonder, the miracle, the thing that renders this day unlike any other—many if not most miss.  Not everyone sees the same thing.  Jesus hears the voice of God; John sees the heavenly dove; but most, though looking at what’s right in front of them, somehow miss it all.

How might this be?  I suspect most of the gathered people are caught up in their own little worlds, with whatever they bring with them in heart and mind to the riverbank.  And I don’t mean to disregard those worlds.  Each person gathered at the River Jordan brings concerns of the day, large and small.  Someone is sick; someone else is hungry; someone else is preoccupied with conflict at home; and many, undoubtedly, are merely daydreaming either grand dreams or mundane thoughts.  Even though they’ve each traveled through the wilderness for the express purpose of being in this most special place, they fail to be fully present, and so they miss it when God does a unique and remarkable thing.  No doubt, many leave the River Jordan disappointed, thinking that they’ve been boondoggled once again by some religious charlatan or else castigating themselves for expecting anything out of the ordinary to have happened.  When, in fact, it did happen.  God did show up; they just didn’t have eyes to see.

I shake my head at the though of myself, privileged as I have been to visit sacred places across God’s good world, yet obsessed in those places with my smartphone’s screen instead of scanning the horizon for the appearance of God’s holy dove.  Then I realize that those lost opportunities don’t just happen on pilgrimage.  They happen every day.  And not just to me.  We, each and every one of us, miss epiphanies of God. 

A great challenge of our modern world is preoccupation, large and small.  One of the biggest preoccupations is, of course, our electronic devices, but beyond these we are preoccupied generally and with all things.  We obsess about the past we cannot affect, and we are distractedly anxious about the future that has not yet arrived.  In ways large and small, our preoccupation prevents us from being present what is right in front of us, and as a result, we, like the crowd gathered at the River Jordan, risk missing the epiphany of God.

Of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, John’s (which we read today) is my favorite, because in John’s version of the story, Jesus departs his baptism along with the other people gathered around the Jordan.  Rather than leaving them to meander away, not ever realizing what they’ve missed and wandering blind through God’s miraculous creation, Jesus goes with them and moves through them.  When this time the one who will become Andrew the Apostles does finally, vaguely notice something different about Jesus and inquires of him, Jesus says to Andrew, “Come and see!” 

Catch that: Jesus does not leave us blind by the riverbank.  If we miss the grand epiphanies—if in our daydreaming and distraction, if in our preoccupation with the unimportant, we miss the disclosure of God in our midst—Jesus will nevertheless stay with us and walk alongside us, coaxing us to open our eyes and follow him step-by-step, until we do see. Eucharistic Prayer C, which we will be praying at 10:30 a.m. for the remainder of this Epiphany season, includes the plea, “Lord God of our Fathers: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.”  That is what this Epiphany season is all about.  In our lives, there will be sublime moments, when God parts the heavens and miraculously appears.  There will be subtle moments, when Jesus brushes lightly past as we go about our daily business.  Will we lose our preoccupations, look up from our smartphones, open our eyes to God at work in the world about us?  Will we come and see?  If we do, we will gasp in wonder that we are surrounded with grace and blessing, as we discover that God reveals Godself to us all the time. 

What’s in a name?

When Jill’s family gathered for Christmas last week, Jill’s brother Johnny Benson gave Jill the best Christmas gift of this or many years.  It is a family bible dating back to the early 1800s and inscribed in it are the names of early Bensons.  The first Benson listed is Didymus Benson, born in 1818.  After Didymus come Amy and Silas.  Then, in 1842, a Benson is born and given the name Thomas Jefferson.  Three years later, Thomas Jefferson Benson’s little brother enters the world, and he is named—wait for it—Marquis de Lafayette Benson. That may be the most interesting name I’ve ever seen.  I wonder how little Marquis de Lafayette was treated on the elementary school playground…

Have you ever thought about your own name, how it was chosen, why it was given to you?  For parents, did you put much thought into the selection of your children’s names? 

There are many motivations behind the choice of name.  Some recycle and recombine family names, as my own family tends to do.  My name is Barkley Stuart Thompson.  Barkley is my mother’s maiden name, and Stuart is my grandmother’s maiden name.  My paternal grandfather, father, brother, and nephew are all Robert Thompson.  My uncle is Robert Barkley, as confusing as that is!  As I am fond of saying, my family tree has many branches but only a very few names.  We do this to hearken to our family origins and keep the stories of our family alive.  “Where did my name come from?” a Thompson child might ask.  “Well, your great-grandmother—for whom you’re named—was a remarkable woman, and during the Great Depression she kept her family fed by…” and so the stories live on. 

Benson Family Bible

Others choose names from history, like Jill’s forbears so clearly did, in order perhaps to reenforce deep family commitments to a cause or a principle.  It’s difficult to imagine a single day in the life of Marquis de Lafayette Benson in which he was not reminded of the great French general’s commitment to freedom and liberty.  Each time Marquis Benson spoke or wrote his name, he would be forced internally to ask and answer, “Do I, too, stand for these things?  Am I a worthy inheritor of my name?”

Yet others choose biblical names, because they hearken to the great cosmic story in which we participate, but that is infinitely bigger than any one of us.  I know a wonderful family in Paragould whose children are Rebecca, John Jacob, Luke, and Rachel.  Each name resonates with a rich chapter of salvation history.

There are, of course, less weighty reasons to choose a name.  My great-grandmother supposedly read a dime store romance novel in which the dashing protagonist was named Beresford, so my grandfather became Carl Beresford Barkley.  Others choose names for aesthetic reasons, because they like the way a name sounds, the cadence of the syllables as they roll off the tongue. 

Regardless of the rationale for choosing a name, names matter.  If I may get wonky for a moment, names are symbols rather than merely signs or signifiers.[i]  A signifier is simply a word that designates and identifies something: Chair, table, tree, lamppost.  A symbol, on the other hand, is pregnant with meaning.  It evokes not only the thing it signifies, but it also a wealth of associations.  As we’ve been discussing, the mention of a person’s name doesn’t merely draw to mind the person’s image, but also a history and a future, particular values, sorrows, joys, and hopes.  Consider the name Desmond Tutu for a moment.  Let all of its symbolic associations wash over you. Does it give you hope, make you smile?  Now consider the name Hitler.  Do its symbolic associations make you recoil?  Names are symbols.  Thus, they matter, and they ought not be chosen, or invoked, lightly.

Today on our liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Holy Name. It falls eight days after the Feast of the Nativity—eight days after Jesus’ birth—when, in accordance with Jewish tradition, the baby was circumcised and named.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary faithfully named her child Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had instructed her to do.  Luke also tells us that Mary “pondered all these things in her heart,” and among the things she pondered—as we do even to this day—must have been that choice of name.  On this day, we should ask—as we’ve been asking of other name selections—why did Gabriel convey to Mary this particular name?  Why did Mary name her child Jesus?

Jesus is Latin for the Greek Ἰησοῦς, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew Yeshua.  And that is not a new name in Scripture.  Yeshua is the name shared by the great hero of the Old Testament, whose name in that context we translate into English as Joshua.  Catch that: Jesus and Joshua are two translations of the same Hebrew name.  Mary’s son Jesus, in other words, is named for the biblical Joshua.  And just as everyone who ever met the Marquis de Lafayette Benson would have connected his name with the French paragon of liberty, everyone (including Jesus himself) would have connected Jesus’ name with the Hebrew hero Joshua.

So we need to ask, who was Joshua?  Who is this figure for whom Jesus is named?  Joshua is the one who fulfills God’s promise by leading God’s people into the promised land, and who casts down those who would separate the faithful from God.  God’s angel wants all those who meet Jesus to know, immediately and intuitively, that this is also who Jesus is, that Jesus is the new Joshua, who will spiritually and existentially draw us into God’s promise, who proclaims and enacts that, no matter what anyone else may say, nothing in all creation stands or can stand between us and the loving grace of God.  This is why the choice of Jesus’ name matters.  Every single time we hear Jesus’ name, this truth washes over us. 

By itself, that would be immense.  But the association goes further.  In his Letter to the Galatians today, Paul tells us that the promise into which Jesus—this new Joshua—draws us is himself, that we become a part of him, and in him we, too, are adopted as God’s own children.  To put a fine point on it: Today, on this Feast of the Holy Name, we, too, gain a new name.  In the earliest days of Christianity, the newly baptized would take on the additional name “Christian,” as a new symbol of their identity, as a constant and blessed reminder to themselves that at every moment they lived and moved through love. 

Among the year-end articles I read this week was a newspaper story from England in which a woman named Stacey Dennis lamented that, in all of 2022, not a single child born in Great Britain was named Stacey.[ii]  Stacey was once a popular name, but it is now, in Britain at least, in risk of extinction.  A mostly frivolous article, but it got me to thinking about the extinction of names.  Jill’s ancestors were Silas and Didymus.[iii] Those names have gone the way of the dodo.  May we never let the name of Jesus, or the name Christian, face that fate.  May we never allow Jesus to become nothing but an expletive when we stub our toe.  May we never allow those to hijack his name who would use it for any purpose other than that of the angel: to draw people into the unbounded, gracious love of God.    We are Christians, the people of Jesus, the very Body of Christ.  That is who we are.  That is our name.  Like Mary, more often we should pause and ponder that in our hearts, so that we know it, own it, say it.  And when we do, the love of God will wash over us and draw us into God’s promise. 

[i] The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich writes much about the distinction between signs and symbols.

[ii] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/mum-extinct-name-sad-see-28780827

[iii] Didymus is actually Greek for “twin.”  In the Gospels, the Apostle Thomas is known as Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the Twin.

Light in Darkness

Several days ago, our parish administrator Karen Blissit bulldogged Entergy to come out and replace our parking lights, so we’d be able to see the way from our cars to the church tonight.  Last weekend, as I sat enjoying “Guys and Dolls” at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, I turned on my smartphone’s glowing viewscreen in order to see my playbill in the darkened theatre.  Yesterday evening, when I let the dogs out one last time before bed, I appreciated the halogen motion light in our backyard that prevented me from stumbling on icy concrete.  The point is this: Never in my life—not for one moment—must I walk in darkness.  Neither must you.

Consider that.  Our access to light is so consistent and pervasive that we take it for granted above all else.  For us, at midnight just as at noon, the light is never farther away than the flip of a switch.  Not so long ago, it was not so.  As recently the 1600s, a full century after Henry VIII broke with Rome to establish the grand church tradition we call Anglicanism, no city on the planet was illuminated by night.[i]  Forget those movie portrayals of medieval people walking down reliably torch-lit alleyways.  Such images have no basis in fact.  Long after the New World had been discovered and warfare was wrought with gunpowder, when the sun went down, the world was enshrouded in darkness.  Absolute darkness.  Hand-disappearing-in-front-of-your-face darkness.  In cosmopolitan London just as in deepest Africa. 

London finally created a system of nighttime illumination in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until after the birth of this country in the late 1700s that gas lighting was invented, providing consistent and systematic light in the darkness.  And it wasn’t until around 1800 that the average Western European family could afford as a regular staple a stock of candles. 

What I’m saying to you is this: Our experience of the world is incredibly new.  We are able to fend off the night in ways that people as recently as two hundred years ago simply could not.  Our eyes no longer widen in wonder when the candle’s flame casts away shadows.  We do not respond the way a young Robert Louis Stevenson did when his grandmother pulled him away from the window as he watched the lamplighter make his way down his London street lighting the gas lamps at murky dusk.  “What are you doing?” asked the grandmother.  And with bated breath the future poet replied, “I’m watching a man punch holes in the darkness.”

Once Jill and I went on a camping excursion to a friend’s hunting cabin.  To call it that is a stretch.  It was a squat, square, concrete block enclosure with no windows.  Once inside, when the lights were turned out, the darkness was absolute.  Unexpectedly, I was claustrophobic.  It was the rare experience that the darkness could reach out and smother me.  That is what darkness was—regularly—for our ancestors: fearsome and inescapable. 

Even more so during this time of year.  The birth of Christ falls during the week of the winter solstice, when the day is shortest and the night encroaches most completely.  In other words, in the middle of the night, on the longest night of the year, in the time of deepest darkness, Jesus is born.[ii] 

Forget soft and glowing drawings of doe-eyed lambs nuzzling Mary through a gentle labor.  For one lying supine on the dirt about to give birth among caravan animals, the snorts and shuffles of large hoofed feet crowding around in the darkness would’ve added anxiety to an already fearful experience.

Of course, for the Holy Family as for so many others, the darkness was existential just as it was literal.  The Jews of Palestine were an occupied people, kept under the boot of both a distant Roman Emperor and his local puppet Herod.  Don’t forget, Joseph was forced to travel in the middle of winter with a very pregnant wife to satisfy the caprice of Caesar Augustus.  Joseph was not his own man.

And for the shepherds, the encroaching darkness was absolute.  Shepherds and their sheep (which were practically blind even in daylight) regularly fell prey to wolves and even lions leaping from the darkness.

It is in this context that the baby enters the world.  It is into this darkness that God takes on our humanity and arrives among us.  It is here and now that the blackened sky parts over the shepherds in the field and the heavenly chorus erupts in song.  That darkness, which every other night in human history had held sway, flees in their presence.  The shepherds look on in utter wonder.  The prowling creatures of the night retreat, the shepherds’ fear melts, and they understand that with the birth of this child everything is made different.  After all, what power can the night hold over the One who said in the beginning, “Let there be light”?  When the angels of the Lord say, “Peace on earth among those whom God favors,” the effect is that of Stevenson’s lamplighter punching holes in the darkness.

In our outward lives, so long as the trusty smartphone is at hand, there is always at least a dim glow available.  We no longer wonder at the presence of light.  But existentially, we know what darkness is.  As Marcus Borg says, “We easily get lost in the dark; we stumble around and cannot see our way.  In the dark, we are often afraid.  We do not know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may roam, evil may be afoot.”[iii]

There are instances when the caprice of others—or of life itself—moves us where we do not want or need to go.  There are times when heavy hooves push us about, knocking us to and fro and keeping us off balance.  There are nights when we’re barely able to keep the prowling creatures at bay.

But to us, too, Christ is born this night!   No matter how thick the darkness, a light has entered the world that scatters all shadows.  We’ve come back round to where we began: Truly, we need never walk in darkness!  As Brennan Manning says with wonder like the shepherds, “The world is [now] charged with grace!  While sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God’s loving presence and power in our midst are even more real.”[iv] 

With the birth of this child, everything is made different.  We are made different, as people visited by the angels with the promise of God’s peace, as people commissioned like the shepherds to proclaim and share that peace.

What does it look like to live by the wonder of this light?  When we travel into the meanest places and meet those who suffer want, do we dismiss them, or do we see in them the Holy Family and in their children the Christ child?  When we see those who wander in their own darkness, do we pass them by, or do we step forward as with a shepherd’s staff to fend of the prowling beasts and shepherd the blind to safety?  When we feel the night falling upon us, do we cower, or do we look to the brightness of the Christ light and gravitate to its warmth?

When we leave this place, let us do so as if we’re seeing the city illuminated by night for the first time.  Let us do so with grins on our faces and light in our eyes, embracing those we meet, who may be stumbling around in murky dusk, and saying, “I have seen the child who punches holes in the darkness.  Christ is born.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!”

[i] This and other details about the development of lighting come from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, chapter seven.

[ii] I owe this turn of phrase to Borg and Crossan, pg. 172.

[iii] Ibid, 173.

[iv] Manning, Brennan.  The Ragamuffin Gospel, 99.

Who are we waiting for?

Today’s Gospel passage begins, “When John the Baptist heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”  Much follows, and we’ll talk about that, but I’m intrigued by this first line.  When the action opens, John the Baptist is floundering and festering in King Herod’s prison.  I’ve seen similar first-century cells in Jerusalem.  They are pits in the ground with high walls and no windows.  It is from captivity in such a dank cell that John calls his own disciples to him and then sends them out with a message for Jesus. 

John the Baptist has known Jesus for years.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that John and Jesus are kin to one another,[i] and all the Gospels recount how, before Jesus began his own ministry, Jesus came to John and was baptized in the River Jordan.[ii]  But since that baptism, the Gospels mention no further contact between John and Jesus.  Much time—months if not years—has passed since their meeting at the Jordan.  Why does John reach out to Jesus now?  What does John want?  What is his hope?

Let’s fast forward a few chapters to Matthew 14.  If we recall that gruesome passage, then perhaps retrospectively we can interpret John’s motivation in chapter 11.  Matthew 14 presents one of the most well-known and oft-depicted scenes in art and opera.  It depicts a lurid dinner party in which King Herod Antipas lusts after his step-daughter Salome.  In order to entice Salome to dance for him, Herod promises her anything her heart desires, and what her heart desires (at the prodding of her mother) is the head of John the Baptist.  Herod complies with Salome’s wish.  And so, by the caprice of a pathological and depraved family, Herod’s lackeys are sent to the dungeon, where they separate John’s head from his body and bring it back to the dinner table on a platter. 

Now rewind to chapter 11, which we read today.  John has already been in Herod’s custody for a long time.  Do you think the mercurial Herod who demands John’s head on a whim in chapter 14 was any less terrorizing during the interim between John’s arrest and that awful dinner party?  Undoubtedly, John has been traumatized while in prison, psychologically if not physically.  From John’s own experience, and from what he almost certainly has witnessed among his fellow prisoners, he knows that he is in mortal peril.  Imagine the constant anxiety of John the Baptist in the clutches of such an unstable tyrant.

All that is to say, I do not believe that the John the Baptist we meet at the beginning of Matthew 11 calmly summons his disciples and sends them to Jesus with a message curious about Jesus’ cosmic purpose.  Rather, John is a desperate man frantically begging to know if Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for.  And who, exactly, is that long-awaited Messiah?  Who is the Savior of common expectation among Jews in John’s day?  It is King David reborn, a champion who will rise up to free the Jewish people, and who more immediately (and to put a fine point on it) John the Baptist hopes will come and free John from Herod’s violent insanity.  Who is John expecting in Jesus?  Someone who will break him the heck out of there.

We can’t blame John.  After all, what kind of Savior do we want and hope for?  Who are we waiting on?  In our desperation, whatever our circumstances may be, we also seek a Jesus who will, in an instant, charge in and right our lives. When we are in peril, we want the hurting, the grief, the anxiety, the anger to stop, and quickly, and so we wait for, or go searching for, a Jesus who will come, riding on a charger, and scatter our foes.  We want a Savior who will protect us from the world’s insanity, break our chains, free us.  It’s the natural, and perhaps unavoidable, human thing to want.

We want a Savior who will charge in and right our lives.

I imagine John the Baptist waiting impatiently in his dank cell, straining his ears to hear the clarion call of the cavalry at the head of which he hopes Jesus will charge.  I wonder how, when John’s disciples return without Jesus, John receives Jesus’ reply.  Is it a disappointment to John?  It is undoubtedly a surprise.

Jesus doesn’t claim to be King David reincarnate.  He straps on no sword.  He musters no physical army.  Jesus doesn’t promise to force the world aright.  Jesus says and shows, rather, that salvation doesn’t work that way.  Jesus says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus’ saving work is wrought through the patient, laborious, committed one-on-one interaction with grace.  And, Jesus reveals to John’s disciples as they undoubtedly see Jesus’ disciples doing that same work, that our own salvation happens when we participate in that labor alongside Jesus.

Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist will not give John hope that Jesus is coming to break him out of his physical cell, but it will transform John’s understanding of who the Messiah is and what his saving work is about.  And it will recall to John the role he—John—has already played in that work—reminding him that he is no reed bending in the wind—a reminder that will gird John’s strength and steel John’s resolve for what he will eventually face at the hands of Herod and Salome.

What does Jesus’ reply to John mean for us?  Like John, we want and hope for a Savior who will free us from our bonds (whatever they may be), but Jesus reminds us that true freedom comes when we participate with Jesus in his saving work to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, feed the hungry, and bring good news to the poor.   When we do this, no matter our physical circumstances, the walls of our own metaphoric prisons melt away.

That’s the great paradox of the Gospel.  Were Jesus King David reborn, the powerful, worldly champion that John the Baptist thought he wanted (and that many Christians consciously or subconsciously still want today), John might have burst out of Herod’s prison and wreaked havoc on his captors, but he’d not have been redeemed.  He’d merely have joined an endless procession of violence and retribution of one over another.  Instead, Jesus reveals to John that his participation in Jesus’ work to usher in the kingdom of God is salvation.

More wondrous still, Jesus says today that each one of us, even the least of us, is even greater than John the Baptist!  No matter what our circumstances in this world may suggest to us or to others; no matter what prisons—literal or metaphoric—may hem us in; no matter who may threaten or assault us; we will find salvation whenever we join our heart, souls, and lives to Jesus’ saving work.  When we give sight to the blind, we find our eyes opened.  When we feed the hungry, our souls are satisfied; when offer words of grace to others in need, the gates locked around our hearts are thrown open, and we are free.  When we join our labor of love to Jesus’ own, we discover with wonder that the prison walls that have surrounded us crumble to the ground, and the bright light of God shines down upon us.

On this Third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete Sunday, in which we are to rejoice—we also see that this is the way to wait expectantly on Jesus: Not to dwell on our own yawning needs, as real as they are, but to turn outward, to the needs of the world round about us, to do the work of Jesus as we await Jesus’ return.  This is how we prepare for Jesus’ coming.  This is how we break free from our prisons.  This is how we wait.

[i] Luke 1:36. The precise relationship is not specified, though Christian tradition says John and Jesus were cousins through their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary.

[ii] Matthew 3:13-17 and parallels.

Faithful Waiting

         A young couple learns that they are pregnant.  The first days upon making this discovery are filled with alternating sensations of excitement, fear, and utter disbelief.  As those first days pass and the weeks and months drag on, the couple settles into a more stable oscillation of excitement, fear, and disbelief.  But whatever else their nine months entails, it most assuredly does not include passivity or lack of attention.  Theirs is an active and faithful waiting.  They do the things that give life.  She reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  He puts together the crib.  They both gaze with wide-eyed amazement at the changes in her abdomen as God’s blessing grows within her, until they can feel and even see the child move, rolling and pitching like a ship at sea.  Their waiting is marked by prenatal visits to the doctor, sonograms and blood tests.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is an attentive and faithful waiting.  The birth will come, and it will be glorious.  The couple can prepare.  They can tend to this blessing they have been given.  But the moment that this child will arrive no one can say.  And so, they wait.

         A 102-year-old woman has outlived her friends.  She enjoys a clear mind, but her body will not respond to her will the way it once did.  She is not depressed, at least not often, but she does wonder why she remains when so many have gone.  She does not fear death, knowing in faith that death is a transition rather than an end.  And so, she waits.  But hers, too, is an active and faithful waiting.  She does the things that give life.  She writes letters, and when she is unable to hold a pen, she asks the woman who cooks her meals to write the words for her.  She talks to her family, passing on the stories that have informed her life and formed her wisdom.  She mends the tears that unavoidably have occurred in some relationships over so long a life.  She talks to God regularly and listens for God even more.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is attentive and faithful waiting.  The woman’s reunion with loved ones gone before and with God will come, and it will be glorious.  The woman can prepare.  She can tend to the blessings she has been given.  But the moment that she will enter larger life no one can say.  And so, she waits.

         The Creator reaches down from the heights of the cosmos and dips a hand into the chaos and void.  God moves back the darkness and ushers in the light.  God breathes over the waters and brings forth life.  God bestows upon the creation every blessing, most especially the gift of free will, to determine for itself the kind of world it will be.  God looks on with pain and sorrow as the creation makes choices that lead to destruction and death.  People kill one another.  Nations wage war.  Those charged to be stewards of creation use the green earth in ways that cannot be sustained.  Knit into the Creator’s tapestry of creation is a Savior, who will come and offer redemption to those who have fallen so very far, but the time has not yet come.  And so, God waits.  It is an active and faithful waiting.  God does the things that give life, coming to those in need, crying with those who sorrow.  God labors to melt stony hearts.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is attentive and faithful waiting.  The time will come for the Savior’s birth.  The time will come for his Second Coming, when the creation will be mended and made whole, and it will be glorious.  But the time is not yet.  And so, God waits.

         No one likes to wait.  When given a choice, we are all people of instant gratification.  But blessedly, in those instances in which we have no choice we at times experience waiting as a profound gift.  Just as the pregnant couple, just as the 102-year-old woman, can experience the time of waiting—when the child is formed in the womb, when wisdom is passed on to younger generations—as a gift.

         Today’s Gospel passage in Matthew is one that has been hijacked by those who espouse the very shaky Rapture theology.  But this passage is not about the Rapture (which, by the way, is itself not an authentically scriptural concept).  This passage is about faithful waiting.  It is about doing the things that give life, so that when the Creator’s time has reached fruition, and Jesus our redeemer and friend comes to make all things new, we will recognize him.  It is about, in our anxious moments and our wondrous moments, waiting.

         This has everything to do with Advent, which begins today.  Advent is not primarily that period in which to do our Christmas shopping.  It is a holy season of anticipation and waiting.  I have asked myself why, for some, the Christmas season is such an unhappy time, why it rings so hollow for so many.  I have come to the conclusion that, for some, it is because Christmas in our culture strikes some as so very false.  As if in an eggnog-laden daze, we commercialize and consume our way through late November and December, dragging Christmas ever towards us with flash and tinsel.  There is no faithful waiting.  Instead, there is a breakneck attempt to usher in the holiday earlier and earlier.  And so, for most of us the significance of the Nativity is lost altogether.  For others—those for whom the holiday is so difficult—the good cheer of the holiday season has rung so false that when Christmas Day arrives it is experienced like that drugstore candy that looks so tantalizing as we grab for it but once in our mouths tastes like cardboard.

         Advent is a holy season of anticipation and waiting, both for the Nativity and for the Second Coming.  What would it look like to observe Advent?  What would it look like to hope for the Nativity rather than grabbing it and dragging it backward?  What would it look like to hope for Christ’s return, not knowing the moment it might occur? 

How do we faithfully wait?  Matthew encourages us to be about the things that give life.  He mentions Noah, who labors to build a vessel of life while the world around him continues in its normal, destructive ways.  What, in our lives, might it be to do the same?

         Can you imagine observing Advent by taking half of the money we’d normally spend on Amazon this month and instead purchasing items from our Alternative Giving Market or feeding those who are hungry through a donation to our Food Pantry or St. Francis House?  Can you imagine turning off the television in the evening and instead reading to your family from the second chapter of Luke?  Can you imagine beginning to live today as if Christ might come tomorrow and look you—or me—straight in the eye and ask, “Did you wait faithfully?  Did you make peace?  Did you love?”

         Not all candy tastes like cardboard.  On special nights at my grandmother Boo’s house, she would heat up the oven and mix together a bowl of mushy white meringue.  The entire time she would talk to us about how important it is to wait for the best, most blessed things in life.  She would add chocolate chips to the concoction and then spoon out little blobs onto a cookie sheet.  Once the oven was hot, she’d turn it off, place the cookie sheet inside, and leave the oven door cracked.

         “Now we must wait,” she’d say.  And we would do so actively, never knowing when the treat would be ready.  She would tell us stories of faith, teach us in ways of virtue, and tuck us safely into our beds.  Only the next morning would my grandmother open the oven and let us see what was inside.  Where those mushy blobs had been were now light and airy morsels of such delicate sweetness that they melted in our mouths.  Had we bought them at the store, or had she prepared them with us watching television, zombie-like, in the other room, or had she even told us in advance when they’d be ready, the experience would not have been the same.          So it is for us this Advent.  Christmas will come, and it will be glorious.  Christ’s return will surely come, but we know not when.  We risk missing the significance and the sweetness altogether if we fail to prepare for his coming.  There will be anxious moments, and there will be wondrous moments, as we live in faith.  As we wait. 


A few years ago over Thanksgiving weekend, Jill, our daughter, a nephew, and I drove the half hour from Paragould to Jonesboro to pay homage to my grandparents’ graves.  After we visited the cemetery, on a whim I decided to swing by my grandparents’ house, which I’d not seen for twenty years.  We made a slow drive-by 1244 Walnut Street.  The outside of the house was unchanged; the yard was well-tended; and there was a man in the carport unloading his pickup truck.  Because of the kind of person I am, we pulled up to the curb, stopped the car, and to Jill’s and the kids’ mild protest I got out to talk to the homeowner.  It turned out that he’d been the sole resident of the house since my grandmother’s death; he’d bought it from my mother and uncle and lived there for two decades.  And, he was happy to see us.  We talked for several minutes, and then, to my surprise, he asked, “Do you want to come inside and see the house?”

I should have declined, but my curiosity got the better of me.  We walked through the back door, and the experience was surreal.  The floorplan remained vaguely as I recalled, but beyond that my memory of my grandparents’ house dissolved.  Everything had been deconstructed.  The Formica countertops were gone.  The vinyl flooring was gone.  The mid-century modern furniture was gone.  The house was transformed.  The homeowner was excited to show me the house anew, and it was very nice, but I rebelled against the transformation.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

1244 Walnut Street in Jonesboro

We are not fans of the deconstruction of the familiar.  Whether it’s our old haunts, our old habits, or our understanding of the world around us, there is a human tendency to cling to the familiar as an unchanging comfort.  We want things to stay the same, when things are good but also, perversely, sometimes when things are bad.  Even when it harms us, we would rather remain in the construction of the familiar than risk its deconstruction toward who-knows-what.

This is equally true of our faith.  In seminary, I had a classmate who dropped out after one semester.  He was almost frantic to escape the seminary, because the first-year curriculum is so much about deconstructing what we’ve understood about our faith: its origins, its presumptions, it’s unexamined conclusions.  My classmate couldn’t bear to face deconstructing questions of his faith.  He saw them as a threat to his belief system, as if God might dissolve in the questions, and so he bailed as quickly as he could.

Today’s Gospel passage is all about the deconstruction of the most familiar and, indeed, most vitally important.  Those around Jesus are gazing at Herod’s temple, a massive architectural wonder of the world and the centerpiece of Jewish faith.  Jesus declares that the temple will, soon and very soon, be deconstructed down to the last stone.  His claim confuses and discomfits those around him.  The temple is the most permanent thing they can imagine, and it is at the core of their identity.  The notion of its deconstruction sends Jesus’ hearers into a frenzy of anxiety.  They can’t imagine life without it.

A model reconstruction of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem

About the temple, Jesus speaks literally.  Within a few decades, Herod’s temple will be, in fact, razed to the ground.  But Jesus also speaks metaphorically.  In his own coming passion and death, every presupposition, expectation, and hope within the hearts and souls of his followers will crumble.  At the foot of the cross, faith will itself collapse.  All the hope that the disciples had placed in Jesus will be deconstructed, piece by piece, until they are left in the rubble.

The lectionary wisely pairs this passage from Luke with God’s closing speech in the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah lives five hundred years before Jesus, during the era in which the first Jewish temple—Solomon’s temple—was destroyed.  During Isaiah’s life, too, the Jewish world and faith was deconstructed, and Jews lived in a decades-long literal and spiritual exile.  As Isaiah’s book nears its end, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem, but it is not how they remember it.  None of the familiar markers remain.  The world they knew is gone, crumbled to the ground like Solomon’s temple.  The people are bereft.  They begin to wish they’d never returned home. 

But notice: It is in that moment that God speaks a wondrous word.  It is then that the very deconstruction that led to despair becomes, instead, a foundation for hope.  Through Isaiah, God says to God’s shell-shocked people standing in the rubble, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

In other words, where the returning Jews see disaster, God sees building material.  Where the Israelites see a life deconstructed, God sees a foundation on which to build something new.  And note that God does not build from scratch.  Whatever new heaven and new earth God will create—whatever new life God will birth—is made of the remnant of the old.  God does not discard what was; God redeems it.


As I was racing out the back door of my grandparents’ old house, the new owner said, “Before you go, I want to show you your granddad’s woodshop.”  Reluctantly, I crossed the carport and entered the shop, expecting it to be as different as the house.  But with wonder in his eyes, the homeowner showed me the unique shelves my granddad Pop had made a half century ago using bicycle chains, the smooth worktable Pop had built that now held the woodwork of a different hand, the jars of nails, screws, and rivets that Pop had spent a lifetime collecting.  “Your grandfather must have been something else,” the homeowner said to me, “Some of these things I couldn’t bear to change, so I’ve incorporated them, and I’m glad to have them.”

I left Pop’s woodshop with my perspective on the house as transformed as the house itself.  It was new, but the new was built on the foundation of the old.  And though what had been familiar to me was deconstructed and transformed, it was good.


The thing is, we don’t get the Gospel without the destruction of the temple.  We don’t get to Easter resurrection without first spending time at the foot of the cross and in the tomb.  We don’t walk long or far in this world without the comfortable, familiar, and expected ultimately being deconstructed, leaving us confused, anxious, and bereft.  Whether it’s our haunts, our habits, our worldview, or our faith, sooner or later the world cracks and crumbles around us.  What do we do then?

It is then that we most need to hear voice of God, who promises that deconstruction is never for its own sake.  Whether God causes the deconstruction (as God sometimes does) or the world simply has its way with us (as the world often does), God will always seek to work redemption from the rubble.  Where we may see only devastation, God says, “I am about to do a new thing!  See, I make all things new.”

We look across the globe and our own community, and we see so much turmoil, so much centripetal force seeming to tear at the very fabric of all we know.  In your own life, inside or out, you may be experiencing the same thing.  The temples may be falling down.  Hope may seem to hang by a thread.  But God will never abandon or discard you.  Beyond the deconstruction, Jesus promises not a hair of your head will perish.  Beyond any exile, God promises to create you anew and give you joy and delight.  And God will use the you-that-is and incorporate it, build upon it, redeem and transform it, into God’s new creation.  And far beyond our individual lives, today both Isaiah and Jesus allude that what God does in each of us, God promises ultimately to do for the whole world.  Eventually, even the broken fabric of our creation will all be made new: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  The time will come when all things are made new—you, me, the good world round about us—and the love of God in Christ will be all in all.[i]

[i] Ephesians 1:23

Hope and Dreams

Except during college football season, I never used to watch much television.  And then the pandemic hit.  I don’t know about you, but in the past two and half years I’ve become a television junkie.  I’m afraid to look at my credit card statement to see how many streaming services I’m paying for.  Sometimes it’s seemed as if I’ve watched every single series on Netflix. 

         Streaming shows are hit and miss, but sometimes you stumble upon one that surprises you.  A month or so ago I watched the The Sandman, a fantasy series adapted from a comic book.  But this is neither Superman or Scrooge McDuck.  The series eerie and noir, based upon the premise that the various components of our human experience, like dreams, desire, and despair, are anthropomorphized into godlike characters.  Following me so far?  The title character—the Sandman, called “Dream” as if that’s his proper name—walks around as a person and is the embodiment of all human dreams.  But at the series outset, Dream finds himself cast into hell, where he must face Lucifer.  Catch that: The human embodiment—the incarnation—of our dreams must battle the Devil.  (Now see why the priest was hooked by this series?)

         The battle sequence is more like a chess match than an actual fight.  Both Lucifer and Dream simply take turns transforming themselves into ever more powerful creatures facing off against one another.  Lucifer, says, “I am a dire wolf” and becomes one.  Dream counters by becoming a wolf hunter.  Lucifer then morphs into a deadly viper, and Dream responds by saying, “I am a bird of prey,” transforming himself into a falcon that can swoop down to kill the snake in its talons.  This escalates exponentially, until Dream becomes a bright cosmos, full of stars and galaxies and life, and Lucifer counters by transforming herself into what she calls the “the anti-life, the darkness that is the end of everything.”  With that, the light of Dream’s cosmos is snuffed.  Dream collapses to the floor, completely spent and apparently beaten.  It appears that the Devil has won, and that Dream—and thus all human dreams—have been dashed.  Lucifer begins to taunt Dream.  She leans over him and asks, “Still with us, Dream?  What can survive the anti-life?”

         Dream quivers on the floor, as if doing battle within himself for an answer, but finally he raises himself up to standing and looks Lucifer directly in the eye.  What survives the anti-life, the darkness that is the end of everything, Lucifer wants to know?  Dream says to her, “I…am…Hope.”  And with that, the Sandman is made whole, and even Hell is illuminated by light.  Lucifer recoils, knowing she is the one who is beaten.  Hope heals dreams.  Hope restores dreams’ power.  Hope recovers dreams even from Hell. 

My goodness, sometimes we can learn a lot from a comic book or a Netflix series!

         Today is the kick-off Sunday for our annual stewardship campaign.  Later this morning we will celebrate with barbeque and fellowship and encourage one another to support the ministry of Saint Mark’s for 2023.  But the most important thing for us to remember today and throughout the next several weeks of this year’s campaign is the theme chosen by our Stewardship Committee, which appears in the Book of Jeremiah just a couple of chapters prior to today’s Old Testament reading.  There, Jeremiah promises us, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, for a future filled with hope.”

         There may be no more profound claim in all of Holy Scripture.  God has plans—dreams!—for us, and those dreams are marked by hope.  And when God instills hope in us, no power, no discouragement, not even the mustered forces of Hell, can snuff God’s light. 

         Fast forward to today’s passage from Jeremiah, and the Prophet explains how this is so.  Hope, it turns out, is not something God gives us as an external tool or a shield to fend off the things that would dash our dreams.  Nor is hope is a philosophy we must learn, like a schoolbook lesson. Listen again to what God says:

         “I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts; I will be your God, and you will be my people. No longer will you teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for you will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” 

         You see, hope springs from the reality that God has entered into our very souls, has written a new covenant on our hearts.  We don’t just know about the God of hope, we know that God as closely and intimately as we know ourselves.  And we trust the promise that because God is within us, God is with us always.

         Jeremiah’s promise of hope reverberates throughout the rest of scripture.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “I am in them—meaning us!—as you, God, are in me.”[i]  In Galatians, Saint Paul says, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[ii]  And the whole sweep of salvation history ends in that hope-filled and misunderstood Book of Revelation, when Saint John the Divine says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God dwells with them; they are God’s people, and God himself is with them.”[iii]

         Friends, God is not distant and apart from us.  God is right here, among and within us, etching the law of love on our hearts, making plans for us, dreaming dreams for us, preparing a hope-filled future for us.  I hope that gives you chills.  I know it does me.

         Even as that makes our hearts soar, plans require, well, planning, and that requires a most earth-bound and decidedly practical closing message.  God’s dream for Saint Mark’s is that we be a lifeline through outreach for those who live on the margins of society, that we form our children and youth into the stature of Christ, that we provide pastoral care for parishioners in need, that we offer glorious worship and music to draw hearts to God, that we provide community in a world where community is sorely lacking.

         And, so we never forget, part of God’s dream for Saint Mark’s is also that we always ensure that the blessing that is this campus be kept in good repair as the launching point for all of our Gospel work.

          To do all of this—to realize God’s dream for us, to embody God’s hope, to live in the world acknowledging that God has written on our very hearts—we are each called to commit ourselves to the ministry of this place with our time and our talent, and also with our treasure.  Our aspirational ministry budget for next year requires that we increase pledge giving by $218,000, in order to keep pace with our current ministries, offer a modest cost of living increase to our staff, add a Lay Minister for Parish Life to work with newcomers and continuing members so we can continue to thrive and grow, and keep our campus in good repair.  If all who are able will stretch to increase our pledges, and if an additional 10% of our parish families will pledge for the first time, we will meet this goal.

         I believe in God’s dream for us!  So much so that Jill and I have already pledged, and we have increased our pledge over what we’d originally planned to give.  This week you’ll receive a pledge card in the mail.  But you don’t have to wait until then!  There are pledge cards in the pew racks, and there will be pledge cards at lunch.  The world is not easy right now.  Returning to that intriguing Netflix show, The Sandman, metaphorically speaking, there are so many ways in which Lucifer seems to be leaning over us and taunting, “Well, people of God?  What can survive the darkness that is the end of everything?”  But we are the people upon whose hearts God has written God’s covenant.  We are the people for whom God has dreamed a dream.  We stand tall, and scatter the darkness, and say, “God has plans for us, and we have hope!” 

[i] John 17:23

[ii] Galatians 2:20

[iii] Revelation 21:3

Increase our faith!

 “Increase our faith!”  Who among us can’t relate to the disciples’ cry at the beginning of the Gospel reading today?  Up to this point, Jesus has talked about the necessity of taking up one’s cross; he’s told the crowds to care for the little ones among them and forgive those who sin against them.  Jesus has told the Parable of the Good Samaritan along with the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a really tricky parable that seems to be about heaven and hell.  The disciples have listened as long and as they quietly can, squirming if not chafing under how challenging it all seems.  It’s finally more than they can muster, and they now cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

It’s the disciples’ way of saying, “We just can’t do it.  We can’t succeed at all these things.  It’s too hard.  Either you’re going to have to give us a dose of Gospel steroids, or you’re going to have to get someone else.”

I know how they feel.  I suspect you do, too.  The needs of our community, not to mention the world, are so big.  Relationships with people who are different are harder and harder to maintain.  Bridges more difficult to build.  Balance is a bigger challenge to achieve.  Our collective store of grace is sapped. 

And now to top it all off, you have this new rector who will encourage you to make a renewed commitment to the life of the church, to make new efforts to attend both Sunday school and Holy Eucharist, plus involvement in the weekly community life of this place, plus reengaging the programs and ministries of our parish.

Under the weight of all this, we may also cry to God, like the disciples, “Hold on!  First increase our faith!”  And this makes Jesus’ response to the disciples in the Gospel this morning seem, well, not very pastoral.  I actually like Matthew’s version over Luke’s, in which Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.”[i]

Jesus then tells the disciples an odd parable about good servants who plow the ground, tend the sheep in the field, and serve at their master’s table all without complaint.  It is almost as if Jesus is telling the disciples to quit their whining and get to work.

Now, we know that Jesus loves the disciples, and we know it’s not Jesus’ style to respond to a cry for help with a lack of empathy, so what might he mean by his response to the disciples today?  To understand, we could use a bit of help from Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer’s 1939 Technicolor triumph.

When I was a child, The Wizard of Oz aired annually on CBS television.  It was, some will recall, an event!  My siblings and I would watch the movie with pie tins of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, sitting in front of my grandparents’ enormous cabinet television (but always six feet back because of, you know, the radiation). 

The primary conundrum for the characters in The Wizard of Oz, as for the disciples, is that they all have in mind that that they need things they do not yet have in order to accomplish the tasks set before them.  The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion are anxious and afraid, and they believe that before they can begin truly living they need greater virtue.  “Increase my mind, my heart, my courage!” they cry in turn to the Wizard.  But instead, the Wizard sends them out to accomplish great and challenging things as they are.

Along the way, though, circumstances require the friends to think clearly, to show empathy, to be brave.  In other words, in the very acts of living and making the journey together, they discover to their surprise that all along they have already had in abundance the things they seek.  They are already ingenious, courageous, and big-hearted.  And they accomplish amazing things, freeing the land from the power of evil.

This, I believe, is what Jesus, in his wisdom, is telling the disciples today: that faith is not something we receive before we live for God and do God’s work.  God doesn’t give us faith to then go do God’s work.  Rather, it is through God’s work that we come to discover the faith that already lives within us, yearning for expression.  It is like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who learn as they travel and grow in friendship that they have had within them all along the heart, mind, and courage they seek.

When the disciples cry out to Jesus today, they are unable to see that, with Jesus, they have already taught, fed, healed, and followed.  They have already moved mountains!  But because they are focused on all the things they fear they cannot do, they do not realize the faith that is already within them.

The disciples, even with all their anxiety, have faith.  And everyone in this room, simply by virtue of being here, has faith.  That impulse to seek and know God, however dim, however vague, that brings you to this place is the mustard seed of which Jesus speaks.  It is the grain that caused the disciples first to follow.  It is the same grain that lives in me and lives in you.

In his response today, Jesus uses images of plowing and herding and serving at table, because these were the all-consuming ways of life that would have resonated with the disciples.  “Live your whole lives for God,” Jesus says in essence, “and you will discover that the faith you need is already within you.”

For us, sheepherding doesn’t resonate.  But Jesus’ wisdom still does.  “Go into your law office…or classroom…or ER…or business…or garden…or home,” Jesus might say.  “There, live for God.  At St. Mark’s, roll up your sleeves and teach your children, or engage in community, or join in ministries of care for those on the margins of life.  Love with a love that knows no bounds.  In living for God and in doing God’s work, there you will discover your faith.  And though at first it may seem as small as a mustard seed, it will be all the faith you need.” Sisters and brothers, you are here, and that means the mustard seed is already within you.  God’s grace is there, ready to be watered and grow.  It is never too early and never too late.  And you may someday look back on your journey and realize to your surprise that you, too, moved mountains.

[i] Matthew 17:20

The “Dishonest” Manager?

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus will say things like, “Come to me all you who travail and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you;”[i] “I will not leave you orphaned;”[ii] and “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”[iii]  The counsel, comfort, and truth of each of these sayings is self-evident and immediate.  Beyond that, they reflect the Jesus we know, who is the incarnate love of God and always speaks the truth.  Preachers love to preach on such passages.

And then today’s Gospel passage crops up in the lectionary.  This is a passage no preacher has ever wanted to preach on: “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

So what happens in this story?  A wealthy man has an account manager who has not been doing his job to collect on his boss’s debts.  (Probably because he’s lazy.  He’s a dishonest manager, after all.)  The wealthy employer gets fed up and in frustration fires the manager.  But the conniving manager concocts a plan as he heads out the door.  He goes to each of his employer’s debtors and offers to collect only dimes on the dollar.  Dishonest as he is, the manager doesn’t intend to help those in debt.  Rather, he hopes that by cutting advantageous deals with the debtors he’ll buy their friendship, which may help him when he is soon out of a job.  The manager brings his collection back to his boss, and to the manager’s surprise, rather than fire him, the boss praises him.  He is restored.  The dishonest manager’s shenanigans have saved him. 

It’s a story worthy of a Hollywood film like The Wolf of Wall Street, but it’s strange coming from the mouth of Jesus.  And what’s even more shocking to Christian ears is what Jesus says after telling the story.  Jesus offers his listeners this motto, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal home.”

This is not “Love one another as I’ve loved you.”  It is bizarre and troubling counsel from Jesus.  We scarcely recognize this Jesus.  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?  What is he talking about? Even Luke the Evangelist isn’t sure. That’s why Luke tacks half a dozen random aphorisms to the end of this parable. Like spaghetti against a wall, Luke hopes one will stick!

The one thing we can be sure of always is that Jesus Christ will not encourage us to be dishonest or unjust, and any biblical interpretation that suggests otherwise must be flawed.  It turns out here that Christian people may have long been disserved by a poor choice of translation.  (Stick with me here!)  One time in this story the manager is referred to as “dishonest,” and this one mention leads us to imagine all of his actions to have self-serving, ulterior motives.  This one mention even leads us to title the story “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”  But the Greek word translated here as “dishonest”—ἀδικία (adikia)—actually more exactly means “unrighteous.”  And in the bible, “unrighteous” can be defined as “opposed to God.”[iv]  It can also be interpreted “devoid of God.”  And that, I think, is the key to understanding this story. 

You see, I don’t believe the manager in today’s parable is dishonest at all.  I don’t think that’s what the original Greek means here.  I believe, instead, that Jesus is telling us a story about a manager who is devoid of God.  Or said a bit differently, this is a story about a man who has lost his faith.  That’s worth saying and hearing again: There is good evidence that is not a parable about a dishonest manager; it’s about a manager who has lost his faith.

So, how does this parable read differently if we give ourselves permission to reinterpret it this way?  It reads something like this:

There is a manager—mid-level guy, building a career—who lately can’t get his job done.  Maybe he’s young or inexperienced and afraid he’s in over his head.  Maybe he’s having a mid-life crisis.  Maybe he’s hit the age where life moves faster than he does.  Maybe he’s depressed.  Maybe he’s struggling with addiction.  Whatever his backstory, Jesus tells us that the manager is adikia, “devoid of God.”  He has lost his faith.  In God.  In himself.  In goodness.  In life’s happy ending.  Perhaps all of these.  And it has paralyzed him. 

The threat of losing his job and becoming destitute jars the manager and makes him realize he must do something.  So he gets up and goes—not in dishonesty, but in the midst of a deep crisis of faith—to engage those indebted to his firm.  He doesn’t treat them the way he feels: empty and devoid of God.  He doesn’t threaten them or demand the impossible.  Instead, the manager extends some grace to them that he himself does not feel.  He offers them what he can.  He meets them where they are.  And when he does these things, a miraculous thing happens.  With these interactions, somehow, bit-by-bit, his own faith is restored.  In the old and tired translation, the parable ends, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  But a perhaps better and more faithful interpretation is, “The master rejoiced at the manager-who’d-lost-his-faith, because, even when he was faithless, he acted faithfully.”  And through his actions, his faith was restored!

Jesus’ parable suddenly makes more sense, and it is in complete keeping with the Jesus we know throughout the Gospels.  And Jesus’ counsel here is the same for us just as it was in Jesus’ own day:

Sometimes—oftentimes—we, like the manager, lose our faith.  Maybe we’ve suffered disappointment; maybe we’ve made grievous mistakes; maybe we battle addiction; maybe life has simply ground us down.  Whatever our backstory, some days when we pause to take stock, we may realize that our faith has slipped away.  And that can be paralyzing. 

What is the remedy?  Jesus tell us: Even when faith falters, act faithfully.  Even when your soul is empty, act faithfully.  Not perfectly or with complete success.  That’s never the bar.  We need only meet those in need where they are and give of ourselves what we can.  Those for whom we act—to whom we extend grace—may be pulled from their own wreckage.  And by acting faithfully, we will find our way back to faith, and meaning, and joy.

We have actually seen the icon of this within our lifetimes.  It was a shock to many when, upon her death, it was revealed that through much of her life and ministry, Mother Teresa of Calcutta felt devoid of faith.  Mother Teresa lost her faith.  And yet, each day for decades upon decades, Mother Teresa acted faithfully.  She got up and lived her life by giving of herself and extending grace where she could.  When her faith faltered, Mother Teresa acted faithfully.  And in doing so, she found her way back to faith and joy.  One who worked alongside her said of Mother Teresa that in her presence, “There was laughing and giggling and it was all very joyful.”[v]

As for Mother Teresa, as for the manager, so for us.  Whether saint or sinner, we all lose our faith sometimes.  It can be numbing, terrifying…paralyzing.  In exactly those moments, God urges us nevertheless to act faithfully, with grace and kindness: To give what we can of ourselves and meet others where they are.  God does not ask for perfection.  He will not be checking the accounts.  God only asks that when we falter in faith, we still act in faith.  And when we do, we will discover that when we extend grace, we receive grace.  We and find our way back to faith again.   

But then, you, the parish family of St. Mark’s, know this.  No matter what you may be going through, whether in a season your faith is waxing or waning, you act faithfully.  Each week, you feed hundreds through the Food Pantry.  In just a few weeks, you will support St. Francis House through the Shrimp Boil.  Every day, you open this house of God to all who wish to meet and know God.  You offer words of grace; you act faithfully.  And grace returns to you as the master rejoices. 

[i] Matthew 11:28

[ii] John 14:18

[iii] John 13:34

[iv] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g93/kjv/tr/0-1/

[v] http://actualidadereligiosa.blogspot.com/2016/05/mother-teresa-had-very-good-sense-of.html#.YyTaX3bMLSI

Sometimes shepherd, sometimes lost sheep

It is a blessing and privilege to be with you this day!  For the past several months, meeting first with the search committee and then with the vestry, finally arriving in Little Rock and knowing more deeply your wardens and parish staff, Jill and I have readied ourselves for this very day.  As many will know, the return to Arkansas is a homecoming for us.  I am from Paragould.  My mother is from Jonesboro, my dad is from McGehee, and all of my siblings still live in the Natural State.  Jill was raised at Trinity here in Little Rock, and we met and fell in love up the road at Hendrix College in Conway.  I became an Episcopalian in this Diocese more than a quarter century ago.  Beyond all that, St. Mark’s has long been a parish that I have observed from afar and admired, as you have lived your faith so vividly and in so many ways.  The first time I walked onto this campus was in 1994, when Jill and I were newly engaged.  Jill brought me here because her father, John Benson, is interred in St. Mark’s columbarium.  If I was going to marry her, she wanted me to meet her dad.  Then and several other times in the intervening twenty-eight years I have sat in that holy garden and talked to my father-in-law.  Each time, I have imagined what it would be like to serve in this inspiring place.  My heart is glad to be your rector.

Today we read the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we’ve heard this one so many times, and it has become so familiar, that as soon as we hear its first words, we superimpose assumptions on the story.  It’s like visiting your grandmother’s house:  Turning into her driveway, you already feel the warmth of the quilt on the bed, the smell of the cookies baking in the oven.  You know the experience even before it happens.  Similarly, we think we know what these parables will tell us even before the reading is complete. 

But Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not so straightforward.  We usually imagine that the shepherd is God, and we are the sinful lost sheep.  Our sin has led us astray, and God loves us so much that God will leave all else behind to find us and bring us home.  The words with which Luke concludes this parable support that interpretation: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 

And yet, Luke’ introduction to the parable suggests not that we are the lost sheep, but that we are the shepherd.  Jesus begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Jesus asks his audience to imagine themselves as the one tending the flock.

So which is it? Are we the sheep, or are we the shepherd?  Are we the lost, or are we the seeker?

In 2003, I was ordained and assigned by my bishop to be the vicar of a restart congregation of forty parishioners in Memphis.  Holy Apostles had declined in membership and sold its church building several years before; had been worshiping for some months in a Presbyterian Church fellowship hall; and was searching for yet a new temporary home.  In all that moving of church records and materiel, everything had become topsy-turvy at best.  I spent those early days trying to sort things out and make sense of it all, when one afternoon Holy Apostles’ Cricket pay-by-the-minute cell phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Is this Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles?  We’ve been trying to find you for days.  Marie Daniels is here.  She listed Holy Apostles on her intake history.  We’ve been trying to find you.”

Startled, and furtively rifling through what church records I could find, I responded, “Yes, yes, Holy Apostles…Marie Daniels, you say?”

The nurse exhaled.  “Yes.  Ms. Daniels is unconscious now, but she wanted someone from her church to visit her.”

I could find no written record of Marie Daniels, but within an hour I was in an ICU room at St. Francis Hospital.  Marie was tiny in her hospital bed.  She was clearly in the final hours of her mortal life.  Though she was unconscious, I leaned over and spoke into her ear, “Ms. Daniels, I am so sorry you were lost, but your church has found you.  You are not alone.” 

It was my first pastoral visit as a cleric, and I found myself cast in the role of the shepherd, seeking out one lost sheep in the darkness.

A week later, Marie Daniels’ became my very first funeral.  Graveside on a windy day, as I walked over the berm to the gravesite—with its blue tent and three rows of velvet-covered chairs—I saw that the only attendees were Marie’s out-of-town nephew, who was also her executor, and his wife.  As if to telegraph that they were present only by duty, they—the lone worshipers—sat stony-faced in the back row corner seats.  They looked at me, and the funeral home attendant looked at me.  I couldn’t hold my place in the Prayer Book due to the wind.  I felt entirely lost.  I feared I was not up to the task, and I couldn’t see the way forward.  As I barely suppressed the urge to cut and run like a dullard sheep, my senior warden, Diane Reddoch, walked over the berm and took a seat in the front row.  She smiled up at me in encouragement.  Diane knew that I would be lost, and she would not allow me to wander alone.  I found myself in the role of the sheep, and Diane rescued me from the darkness.

Sometimes we are the shepherd.  Sometimes we are the lost sheep.  Sometimes we know the way, but other times we wander to the very precipice and find ourselves teetering on the edge.  Sometimes we shine the light, and sometimes we look in desperation for a beacon.  And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells his parable in this way.  That is why the Church—the Beloved Community—is so vitally, essentially important.  It is here that in our strength we rescue one another.  It is here that in our weakness we can trust to be found. 

It’s been a strange few years.  In our splintered society and through the long coronavirus pandemic, we have each surely found ourselves sometimes lost.  Our patterns of practice, relationship, gathering, and engagement—all those things that make us whole and bring us joy—have been upended.  So many of the old and trusted roadmaps and guideposts are obscured or gone.  We sometimes feel like the lost sheep, trying to find our way back to what is known. Do you know that feeling?

Beyond our own lives, there are so many, within our orbits and throughout our broader community, who are lost and whose needs are both spiritual and tangible.  There are the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  There are those just beyond our sight who find themselves teetering on the precipice, who need someone to reach out with the shepherd’s crook and pull them to safety.

This is, then, the perfect Gospel reading for today.  Here we are, gathered in this sacred space.  So much of what we have collectively lost can be found right here, anew and renewed, at St. Mark’s: Our relationships with people we have not seen in a long while, our community of caring—of shouldering one another’s burdens and doubling one another’s blessing—our joy in singing, and praying, and eating potluck dishes, and seeing the Christ in one another’s eyes…Here we can find and be found!  Today is the invitation for us to restore our patterns of engagement, our embrace of the Gospel, and our care of our neighbors on the precipice.  So many of our programs and ministries are rebuilding post-pandemic, and each needs shepherds to tend the flock.  It is a new year at St. Mark’s.  Whatever we may have lost, here, together in the heart of God’s love, we will find.  I’m so excited to be here with you, in this place, at this moment.  Like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, I am glad to be found here.  Like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable, I call you my new friends and neighbors, and I say on this Kick-off Sunday, “Rejoice with me!”