Lilies, Birds and Demons

Legion_DemonSt. Luke narrates a spooky tale, just perfect for the month of October. Jesus and his merry band travel into the hill country of the Gerasenes. This country is a badland of sorts, the roaming ground for a demon-possessed madman who tears through the woods naked and rips shackles and causes general mayhem, all under the power of a legion of foul spirits. This is a character M. Night Shyamalan would love. This is the sort of beast that would keep boys and girls clutching their mother’s hand whenever they roamed beyond the outskirts of the village.

However, this ravaged man was no beast. He was a woman’s son. He once had friends, knew love. Perhaps he had children who still clung to memories of when their father’s mind was right. Perhaps their bedtime prayers asked God to watch over their dad in the woods, alone and bare, afraid and completely lost.

When the Legion saw Jesus, they flung the madman to the ground and screamed for Jesus to let them be. Have mercy on us, they raged. Don’t send us back to the awful abyss. Send us into the heard of swine.

Have mercy, what a surprising request from loathsome creatures who know nothing of kindness or love, nothing of mercy.

If you will allow me a short excurses, it is at this point in the story that my mind leaps to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside and Jesus’ beautiful lines drawing our imagination to the birds soaring through the sky and the lilies gracing the meadow. The lilies and the birds do not fret. They don’t toss and turn through the night. They are carefree in God’s provision. Don’t you believe God will be even more kind to you? Jesus asks. God is quick with abundant compassion, even for birds and flowers.

And, it seems, even for demons.

Alright, Jesus says to the horde, I won’t cast you to the Dark. Off you go, pigs it is.

Why would Jesus grant the Legion their request? Why did he enact force over them, but only so much as was necessary to free the madman from their grip? Did Jesus recall these spirits, in their prior angelic brilliance and glory, when they were free and joyful in God’s service? Jesus’ kindness, it seems, truly has no limits.

God’s care and compassion abound to bluebonnets and ravens and yes, to demons. How much more then to you, God’s fairest creature, God’s child.

Blessing on You {a hillside sermon}

A pastor was born to bless – this I believe. It is only right that we conclude our meditations on Jesus’ blessing by receiving one for ourselves. I offer this blessing to you – just passing along Jesus’ mercy.

To you who are empty,
may Jesus’ love fill you, overflowing
To you who are in misery,
may Jesus’ kindness be your balm
To you who are alone,
may Jesus provide you rich friendship
To  you who are sick,
may Jesus be your healing
To you who are running,
may Jesus catch you
To you who are cynical,
may Jesus surprise you 
To you who are sorrowful,
may Jesus grieve with you
To you who are blue,
may Jesus laugh with you
To you who are joyful,
may you know the One who gives you joy
And to all of us, whatever and wherever we are,
May the One who is life fill us with life
In the name of 
The Father
The Son
and the Spirit.

A Disrespectful God {a hillside sermon}

To pronounce a blessing on something is to see it from the divine perspective. To pronounce a blessing is to participate in God’s own initiative. To pronounce a blessing is to share God’s own audacity. {Barbara Brown Taylor}

Audacious. What a good word, particularly for God.

To be audacious is to take risks, to be bold. Oxford Dictionary tell us audacious means to “show an impudent lack of respect.” Ah, that’s it – a God of disrespect. Disrespect for leaving broken things broken. Disrespect for allowing tears the final word. Disrespect for leaving the lonely alone. Disrespect for the assumed order of things, particularly when that means the powerful gain more power while the weak take another kick. God has a brazen disregard for fitting into the system as it is.

No place reveals this brazenness more boldly than the Beatitudes through which we’ve just traversed, this odd reality where the ones whom everyone knows are not blessed are precisely the ones God does bless. Blessings on those who have nothing, blessings on those buried in sorrow, blessings on the ones under another’s heel and so on… The Beatitudes are not a prescription for how we pull ourselves together (or tear ourselves apart) so we can present to God our noble character and thus receive blessing. Rather, the beatitudes evidence God’s insistence that a new world has begun, a new Kingdom. In God’s world, you’re blessed simply because God says so – and often, at the moment when blessing seems most impossible – most audacious.

God has moved toward us. God’s kindness is bolder than we’ve thought. Blessing.

p.s. I have one concluding hillside sermon installment on Wednesday, the one I’m most eager of all to share. Do drop back by.

Staring Down Lions {a hillside sermon}

Blessings on the persecuted ones. {Jesus}

This is a place in the beatitudes where I sit here, staring at the text. I stare and scratch my head, stare a little more, lean back in the chair for a good look at the ceiling, get up for a stretch and to grab a cup or three of coffee. Back to the desk. It’s still here, and I don’t know what to do with it.

Blessings on you who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. It’s a hopeful word for first century Christians, facing down lions when they refused to name Caesar Lord. It’s a good word for the far too many places where those who have followed the Jesus Way have had to make the dire choice between God and an ideal, God and a friend, God and the fast track. We’ve talked about how righteousness means “what’s right.” And we know that doing the right thing isn’t the same as doing the easy thing. That’s why we respect the boy who stands up to the bully even though he takes a bloody beating.

But truthfully, I don’t see much persecution around me. Perhaps I’m too plagued by childhood stories of the persecuted church behind the Iron Curtain to put myself and those I know in that category. I’m suspicious of my attempts to work this truth so it fits into my world. I’m equally as suspicious of any attempt (and I’ve heard a few) to use Jesus’ words to guilt someone into somehow angling to suffer more for the gospel. It’s easy to forget: in the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t laying down ethical commands but passing out blessings.

Perhaps this is just the place for us to be. It’s not for us to define persecution (and, surely, if we have to ask, we have our answer). And it’s certainly not for us to rush out in religious zeal and manufacture a little oppression. It’s not for us to do anything at all. Our work is to join in solidarity with our sisters and brothers who do face dark hours. Our work is to pray for their strength, knowing that in the most surprising of ways, God is with them, blessing them in the place they are most desperate for blessing.

And the word for us is this: Fear not. Whenever we follow God, blessing will meet us there. Even if we’re staring down lions.

Shalom-maker {a hillside sermon}


Blessings on the shalom-makers. {Jesus}

Over and again, Jesus passed this blessing: Peace to you. In our church, like most round the world, we pass these same words one to another each Sunday. It’s good to spy out a lonely soul or someone who’s heavy with care – grab their hand, look them in the eye and remind them that peace is theirs, right then, right there.

Of course, peace is a word with heritage. Shalom was the older Jewish greeting; but the two words mean the same thing: Wholeness. Well-being. Renewal. To speak shalom is to announce grace everywhere, on everyone. A shalom-maker is one who insists on goodness. They insist. Shalom-makers aren’t pining for a utopian dream. They see the world as it is, all shot to hell. No delusion. They see the ruin, but they insist on goodness all the same.

And Jesus says a blessing on the shalom-maker. God knows they need it. Shalom-makers need this word of joy, spending so much time as they do soaking in grim places. Left alone, that darkness will crush a soul. Sadly, shalom-makers are no strangers to aloneness. Shalom-makers eventually tick everybody off because they don’t stick to one side. They aren’t beholden to a party line. They’re committed to shalom, not ideology. They refuse the temptation to create scapegoats and release the vitriol that feels so righteous in the moment but always de-humanizes the one in its crosshairs. They’re about goodness, and if you want goodness only for yourself … well, then a shalom-maker is going to be a royal pain in your tush.

There’s another reason (among hundreds) these weary but hopeful souls need a blessing. Notice they’re shalom-makers, not shalom-guilters. A true person of shalom rolls up their sleeves and digs into the hard work of love. They invite others to their work, but they don’t bludgeon others to their cause. That’s not shalom; that’s manipulation. And it’s a difficult thing to be gentle among wolves. Blessings on them.

A Courageous Heart {a hillside sermon}

Blessings on the pure in heart. {Jesus}

As any person who’s ever known the wrenching pain of love-gone-bad will tell you, it’s a dangerous thing to give your heart away. Perhaps this is why many of us never actually do. We have crushes. We play the field. We even say I do and set up house. But do we truly give our heart away? Do we even know our heart well enough to have the first clue about handing it to another?

The same with friendship. We share parts of ourselves, but do we share our true selves? Do any of our friendships cross that deep water, wading past the shallow water we know – the water we’re comfortable with – and on into the swift currents where we’re at risk. At risk of being hurt, for sure. But also at risk of being loved.

To the Jewish mind, the heart is the core of a person. It is where we feel things, where we will things, where we know things. It’s our gut. It’s all the me that makes me me. The real me, past the facade. And Jesus peers into that place, the place where our sorrow can not hide, the place where our longings are most acute, the place where (if we have the courage to peer) we discover what we most want and what we most fear.

And when we give this true heart over to God, without reservation (purely), we find ourselves in a most vulnerable place. We are exposed. We’ve ceded control. What will come of us now?

What will come of us is blessing. Jesus, the one always ready to bless, tells us that we can rest in the promise that we will not be left to flap in the wind. Our heart will be cared for, more than we can imagine.  “In the Beatitudes,” says Frederick Bruner, “Jesus seems to bless people at their center, where they are most themselves.” It requires courage to give our heart to God (and to others, which is often the same thing as giving your heart to God), but we can have courage because Jesus sees our heart. And smiles, blessing us as quickly as we can receive.

image: kevinzim

Lord Have (More) Mercy {a hillside sermon}

Always in need of mercy, I wanted to ponder a little more.

A person of mercy is one who’s had courage poured into all their cracked places. Mercy comes and goes as gift, but mercy is not cheap. It certainly isn’t easy. Mercy flows from a cross, from a sky turned black, from a Son who cried out My God, why have you abandoned me? Why? Why? Because of mercy. Some believe that mercy is for the weak. You could never look at the cross and believe such a thing.

Yet, mercy is for the weak. For the weak of will and weak of heart, weak of mind and weak of hope. For those weakened by sorrow and addiction and despair – mercy is for us. Thank God, mercy is for us.

And when we weak-ones are smothered in mercy, when it seeps into all the places where we are oh-so weak, we find a new strength given, a strength that is another mercy all its own. We discover we’ve been gifted the strength to love, to bear other’s sorrows, to enter the places where mercy most desperately wants to go. The merciful is he who has a sad heart, said St. Remiglius, because he counts other’s misery as his own. 

To be a person of mercy is to welcome others into the healing power of friendship, to say to one just discovering all their cracks, you belong here, you are safe here, lay your burden down, and I’ll carry it for a stretch. Mercy.

Lord Have Mercy {a hillside sermon}

Blessings on the merciful. {Jesus}

There’s nothing more at odds with the ways of this world than mercy — at least, mercy of the wildest sort. We’re a generous people and are usually quick to help those who’ve hit it hard, those wiped clear by disaster or sickness or a long run of bad luck. But when someone has squandered their every dollar or thrown away their life with booze or needles, when someone has walked out on their kids or jilted thousands out of their retirement or simply screwed up a hundred ways to Sunday — well mercy doesn’t sit right then.

But of course, the scandal of mercy is that it flows freely, everywhere and to everyone. Those of us who’ve been broken down and who’ve been forced to abandon any notion that we’ve got the world by the tail whisper the word mercy with a quiet gravity, air for a drowning soul. Once you’ve been lost amid the dark spaces of your own heart, you recognize that there really is no us and them. We’re all drowning, only not all of us know it yet.

But we’ll know it soon enough. And when we do, mercy will be there to catch us.

To be named among the merciful, however, is terrifying. We fear that if we live with wide-open, generous mercy (and don’t count how much mercy we’ve given in return), we won’t get what’s ours, we won’t receive what we need. Someone will surely take advantage (and surely, someone will). However, if God gives us all the mercy we need, we’ll always have enough to give to others. In my kingdom, Jesus says, you don’t have to claw for what you need. Blessed. And you don’t have to maneuver for what you deserve, there’s kindness aplenty. Mercy.

The constant refrain of our Prayers of the People each Sunday is this one line that has come to be the prayer of my soul: Lord, have mercy. Yes, Lord, please. On all of us.

image: spaceshoe

The Way of Fools {a hillside sermon}

Jesus blesses the deprived. Jesus blesses the ones hanging on for dear life and scrapping to get by, the ones who can’t stop the tears, the ones who’ve been tamed (by either life or love), the ones who ache for the good and (world as it is) have the courage to ache on and on. This is good news. Sooner or later, we’ll all find ourselves hopeless or helpless, washed out or broken down. And right in that place (not after we emerge chipper on the other side), the Kingdom of God meet us. And blesses us.

As Jesus continues his runaway blessings, he moves to another crowd of people. If, up to now, we can say that Jesus has blessed the deprived, perhaps we could say that next Jesus turns to bless the attuned, the ones acutely aware of others, aware of God, aware of the truth about themselves. They live with eyes wide-open, no illusions, no denial, no too-easy faith. They see what is, but they see God more.

Seeing what God sees will always exact a price. There’s a reason why Jesus said we should count up the costs before we follow. If we follow Jesus, it means we’ll be walking into the places where pain lives, taking on the pain, inviting another’s sorrow into our own bosom. This is not the for the faint of heart. There’s good reason to say, thanks, but no thanks. This is the Jesus-path — and Jesus was crucified on a cross.

These attuned ones are those who have the nerve to give themselves away, even if it will cost them dearly (and it will). And while we think such people are noble, we rarely consider them worldly-wise. They’re the bleeding hearts, the idyllists, the ones we’ll give a wink and a pat on the back – but we all know won’t really get anywhere. We wouldn’t call them blessed, at least not in any real way that matters. They’ll get trampled on — but at least they’ll smile while it’s happening, probably saying a prayer. What a shame. Such potential gone to waste.

It’s a foolish thing to commit to love and follow Jesus into the treacherous places Jesus goes. But then, the Kingdom of God has always been, by the reckoning of this world, the way of fools.

image: spaceshoe

Hollow Hunger {a hillside sermon}

Blessings on the hungry {Jesus}

On Mondays, All Souls serves breakfast at The Haven, our local day shelter. Today, we had scrambled eggs, cinnamon oatmeal and assorted breads, along with the usual homemade granola and yogurt. Some enter hungry for a meal, and hopefully they leave filled. What I’ve discovered, however, is that we all enter hungry for something. Hungry for a job. Hungry for a friend. Hungry for even an inch of space from the noise. Hungry for the pain to stop. Hungry to be told we matter. Hungry for the husband to stop hitting. All this has made me wonder what hunger I carried with me as I entered those doors this morning. I’m still considering it.

And Jesus said, “blessings on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

Righteousness is one of those big words we throw around, so big and (for a few) so common that we don’t really hear it anymore. To be righteous means to be right. And some of us, worn weary by all that is wrong, are starved for things to be right. We won’t deny what we know: our world is not well. Things are not right. And we live each day with this hollowness, the hollowness of hope unfulfilled.

Righteousness can also be translated justice. We long for God to step in and make justice in our world, to plead the cause of those who are trampled, marginalized and wronged. No child should ever be abandoned. No village should ever be ripped apart by civil war. No young girl should ever have her dad send her out into the night for a twenty dollar bill. We want God to do something. We live with a gnawing ache, the injustice everywhere.

We are the poor, and we long for our poverty to be finished. We mourn for others or for ourselves — and we long for our tears to be dried. We are humbled or powerless, and we hope for the day when we aren’t dismissed or when we actually have something to show for all our effort. We are hungry. We are thirsty.

And to all of us with empty bellies or hollow hearts, Jesus says, “blessings on you – you will inherit God’s kingdom.” God has no intentions of leaving us empty, of leaving us abandoned, of leaving us at all. Jesus’ audacious promise is that the Kingdom of God is the place where the wrong is righted, where the hungry have plenty, where justice and goodness own the day.

I know what I’m hungry for. I’m hungry to believe that promise. I’m hungry to hope in something other than myself.

Those who follow Jesus grow hungry and thirsty on the way. They are longing for the forgiveness of all sin, for complete renewal, for the renewal too of the earth and the full establishment of God’s law. They are still involved in the world’s curse, and affected by its sin. He whom they follow must die accursed and on the cross, with a desperate cry for righteousness on his lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the disciple is not above the master, he follows in his steps. Happy are they who have the promise that they shall be filled, for the righteousness they receive will be no empty promise, but real satisfaction. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}