The Smooth Operator?

A sermon preached at McCormick Theological Seminary on 9/18/13.  Based on Luke 16: 1-13…

 Jesus also said to the disciples, “A certain rich man heard that his household manager was wasting his estate. He called the manager in and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give me a report of your administration because you can no longer serve as my manager.’

“The household manager said to himself, What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.

“One by one, the manager sent for each person who owed his master money. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.’[a] The manager said to him, ‘Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.’ Then the manager said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘One thousand bushels of wheat.’[b] He said, ‘Take your contract and write eight hundred.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted cleverly. People who belong to this world are more clever in dealing with their peers than are people who belong to the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone, you will be welcomed into the eternal homes.

10 “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. 11  If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13  No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

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So yeah … I picked this text.

There is the entire bible … filled with stories and faith journeys and encouragement and enlightenment … and I went with the parable of the dishonest manager.

Even the title it’s given is dreary.

This parable, as one commentator put it — is the problem child of parable exegesis.

After reading the passage with me —- I’m betting you are seeing why this might be.  Let’s break down and update the story a bit here.  There’s a big CEO type who has hired an account manager to oversee the daily grind of the office.  This manager has allegations brought against him from an unknown source and the CEO tells him to pack up his desk and leave.  You’re fired! — as Donald Trump might say.  The manager, in desperate panic, needs to come up with a plan.  He names his limits — too weak to dig and too proud to beg —- and so he has to work with what he’s got in time that is running out.

Having been in the finance business, he knows how money and people work.  So his plan is to call all the people on his account list … and lower their debts  … hoping that this will put him in good rankings with them and if/when he is thrown out of the company — he might have somewhere to go.  Now, this is what I might call a smooth operator.

Now, this is the point in the parable where we might expect Jesus to interrupt the story with a twist and tell us that even all the cleverness in the world can’t make up for the manager’s dishonesty.  Jesus might tell us that smooth operators have a price to pay in the end … they’ll get theirs.  But that doesn’t happen.  In our story — the manager is actually commended by the person who fired him in the first place …. and Jesus goes on to say from there that “children of the light” have something to learn from the “children of this age” …. the cleverness of dealing with peers is something for us to learn.

Now, there are sooo many different interpretations of this text.  From Jesus being a snarky sarcastic to Jesus explaining to us that dishonesty is a new form of Christian ethics …and everything in between.

How are we to discern which of the interpretations we are really meant to learn from this parable?

I’m not sure that I have all of the answers to the questions that this passages raises.

One thing I am sure of … is that we do have something to learn here.

Perhaps we have picked apart this parable so much and tried to unpack its meaning … that we have lost the original magic of the parable in the process?

This parable is sandwiched in between the prodigal son and the story of the rich man and Lazarus … stories of unconditional forgiveness and consequences of certain ways of living.  So maybe this parable is the gap between the forgiveness and the consequence.

What’s in that gap between forgiveness and consequence?

What does our smooth operator have to say about that?

There is one thing from this parable that caught my attention …. and its a bit subtle so I want to go back and see if we can look at it for a second.

Our smooth operator has these allegations brought about and his boss informs him that he is to be let go from his position, right?  I think his responses to his boss hold a clue for us.  His first response is to say, “holy *bleep* … what am I going to do?!”  I’ll chalk that up to a shock factor.

The second response is to say, “Well, I’m too weak to dig and I’m too proud to beg.”  He names his limits.  Names his shortcomings.  Evaluates himself and his talents and his situation.

How many of us would have had this response?  In today’s world, we might expect the manager to update his facebook status about how unfairly he’s being treated at work or blog about how his boss is the worst person ever … blaming others for what was happening to him.

Instead, he offers confession.

His third response is to offer debt forgiveness.  He understands that money speaks … he’s a business guy and this is his world.  Monetary forgiveness to others might shed some light on himself … in order to make sure he isn’t left totally alone in the end.

This is interesting.

Regardless of what his intentions are … he offers grace in the form of this forgiven debt.  His creativity and cleverness within the business world and relationship building lead him to offer grace.  And even hope for grace in return.  In the gap between forgiveness and consequences — there is grace.

Money was his means … but it was not his end.  In the end, the smooth operator knew that he needed people.  He needed relationships.  He needed grace.

Perhaps this is what Jesus is commending.  Being clever in relationship with our peers.  Acknowledging our shortcomings and recognizing grace in our lives.

Perhaps part of Jesus’ point in this story was to show that even this manager … who was obviously facing some serious and complicated problems in his life …. even this guy, was in good enough standing to be offered grace.

Now here’s the interruption to our traditional thinking that we might have been expecting earlier.  This regular, messed-up, imperfect guy just going around offering grace to people…. that doesn’t seem right.  Or does it?  What would that look like for us?

There’s a pretty cool story I ran across that I think illustrates some of this …. there’s a guy named Juan Mann in Australia.  He was going through some difficult times time in his life.  One day, he showed up at a party feeling very depressed and lonely.   While at the party, a random person came up to him and just gave him a hug.  A simple hug.  While there was no other contact with that person again that night, he recalls how that random hug from a stranger made him feel like a king.  Running with that feeling, he started the Free Hug Campaign.  Yes, there’s a YouTube video of it … go ahead and search for it this afternoon … and make sure you have some tissues handy.  He has started a movement of going to public places with a simple sign that says, “Free Hugs” and then offering a hug to anyone who would like one.

This regular, messed-up, imperfect guy … just going around offering free hugs to people.

What if we were to go around offering grace as easily as Juan offered hugs?  Forgiving the debts of others as easily as the Smooth Operator?

We church people, we seminary people, we clergy people … we might think this is good in theory — but ah!  it will never work in practice.

We have theologies and rules and ordination processes to go through … I mean, what would happen if we just baptized everyone who walked in the door, or shared with everyone from the communion table, …. or ordained everyone who felt called?

Yes … what would happen?

 People would be welcomed into a family of God…. people would be fed and nourished …. people would share the love of God with others….

Perhaps we are called to be the bearers of crazy and radical and clever grace.  Grace that extends to all .. without conditions to consider or hoops to jump through or judgment to fear.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was offering to the smooth operator in this complicated parable… crazy and radical and clever grace.

I have a perfect example from my own life for this — I found out a few weeks ago, via social media no less, that my sister was becoming ordained online in order to officiate her friend’s wedding.  She was ecstatic.  I was furious.

Here I am … in my third year of seminary …. trying to learn ancient languages, reading books and articles until I can’t see straight, and struggling to pay a grad-school sized tuition, all to get my denomination’s recognition that my call is valid and worth ordination …..while my sister spends about 20 minutes and $19.99 online to be able to call herself ordained.

How dare she cross into “my world” and cheapen my own path towards ordination.  How dare she do this to me.

Then I had to step back … here was my sister being a smooth operator.  Crazy and radical as she is — she was opening herself to be available to her friends in a new way.  Who am I to say that’s not ok?  Perhaps I needed to give her a bit of grace.

Grace isn’t logical or linear …. give it anyway.

Grace isn’t earned or deserved … receive it anyway.

Grace is crazy and counter-cultural and doesn’t make sense …. live it abundantly.  Amen.

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Good Sam Sermon

Sermon preached on 7/21/13 at Friendship Presbyterian Church
based on Luke 10:25-37

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So the Good Samaritan story.  Now here is a story that all of us have figured out … and I don’t just mean the people in this room — looking up some of the things that exist in life outside of the church tell us just what the Good Samaritan story is all about, right?  I mean, we have Good Samaritan laws that protect people who help other people.  There are Good Samaritan hospitals where people can go for healing and even help with paying for their treatments.  Those things sound familiar to the text we just read, right?  Even as I was typing this sermon … microsoft word kept underlining the words “good” and “Samaritan” … even my autocorrect was telling me that this story was so important and that I needed to capitalize both of the words in order to validate it!

We know the Good Samaritan story.

Well, at least I thought I did.  Until these past couple of weeks.

When Shawna asked me to preach this morning, she gave me free range as far as biblical passages were concerned.  Then when she mentioned that she had switched last week’s lectionary … I took the opportunity to preach on Luke’s version of the Good Samaritan story.  From the very beginning of looking at this text in preparation for this morning … I thought I had a pretty good handle about what my points would be and how I might go about getting to them and sharing them with you all.  I had it pretty figured out.

I thought I would come here and share with you that the Good Samaritan story was about how Luke wanted us to ponder the question, “Who is our neighbor?”  I would share with you that in this parable, Jesus challenged the social norms of the day by changing the question from “Who is our neighbor?” to “Who proved to be a neighbor?”  I would share with you how we could minister *to* people we see in need.  I would share with you the inclusiveness that Jesus shared with the lawyer in this story.  I would share that when the lawyer asked Jesus all of these questions — the lawyer was really asking Jesus to tell him a story that included him … and when Jesus complied with this request — he didn’t tell a story where the lawyer was a hero, but rather the hero was the very person he previously considered the enemy.

I would have unpacked all of that with you this morning and shared with you how we could prove to be neighbors to our communities.

I would have told you a story that I thought you wanted to hear.

But then something changed.

I imagine God had something to do with it.

This week while I was researching all kinds of background information about the Good Samaritan, I was presented with an article from More Light Presbyterians’ website.  One of my collegues, Alex Wirth, was interiewed by the More Light Presbyterians group about his current ministry at Lakeview Presbyterian Church called Cafe Pride.  Cafe Pride is held every Friday night at Lakeview Pres and provides a hot meal and a safe space for LGBTQ youth. 

Now, I was familiar with Alex’s ministry  with Cafe Pride, as Logan and I have helped to serve meals there … and I was reading the article more for the excitement that a colleague I knew was being interviewed than for any new informational purposes.

Then I got to the last paragraph of the interview … and something hit me.  In retrospect, I would call this the Holy Spirit …  but at the time, it seemed more accurately described as a ton of bricks.

I want to quote from this last paragraph of the article… Alex says,

“The good Samaritan story is in the lectionary this week. I see the story a little bit differently. We as a church are the ones beaten up at the side of the road because we’ve denied the fullness of community to these LGBTQ youth and ourselves. When they come into our space, they show us the fullness of community and the fullness of God.

They bind our wounds.”[1]

Whoa.

Just whoa.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

Is this possible?

Traditionally, and in line with what I thought I was going to originally share with you this morning, we have interpreted this Good Samaritan story with ourselves as the Good Samaritan.  We have told ourselves that if we act well and kind to those around us … then surely we are acting the part of the Good Samaritan.

We are like the lawyer in this passage.  We have asked God to tell us a story about ourselves.  Except when we have asked for the story … we have expected that we will be the heroes in the story.  We have expected to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan.

Is it possible that we might be someone else in this story?

Alex indentified the church as the man who was beaten up on the road.  Could this be true?

I invite you to sit with this story for a moment.  Take a second and think about where you fall in this story. 

Are you the priest or the Levite who crossed to the other side of the road upon seeing the beaten man … knowing that stopping to help could be a deadly trap for yourself?  Knowing that by touching the man’s body in order to help him would have meant you would have been considered unclean by your own community?  Feeling the tension of what you have been taught is right and what is practical?  While none of these things excuse the fact that the priest and the Levite didn’t stop to help … it does help to explain it. 

Are you the beaten man lying on the road … waiting for someone to help guide you out of your pain?  Not knowing if you are going to spend your last days along a deserted path …. longing for some of the footsteps that you think you hear nearby to stop and help heal your wounds?  Are you crying out about your struggles only to find that no one can hear your plea?  Are you feeling the brunt of the inconsistency you have experienced between the brutal hatred of your attackers and the overwhelming mercy and grace shown by the Samaritan?

Or are you the Good Samaritan in this story?  Have you been outcast because of who you are?  Have you been judged by others based on your race or ethnicity?  Have you been considered unclean by the rest of society because of who you love or by what causes you support?  Have your religious beliefs been deemed heretical by the religious leaders?  and with all of this … have you still found the strength to show love and compassion to someone in need?

Who are you in this story?

After some reflection, I’m not sure who I am in this story.  I see myself as different people in different stages in my life.  Sometimes I have indentified more with the priest and Levite while at other times I have felt a strong connection with the Samaritan or the beaten man.

So what does all of this mean?

These categories don’t seem so clear cut to me anymore.

It seems that characters, and especially heroes, are more complicated than we expect them to be.  People are more complicated than we expect them to be.

The lawyer asked a tough question in this story — “Who is my neighbor?” 

Jesus saw his question and raised him another — “Who proved to be a neighbor?”

Our job, then, is to live into this question asking ourselves not only “Who are our neighbors …. but who is showing us neighborly love?  Who are the people who are showing us God’s mercy and grace when we don’t deserve it?  Who are the people reflecting love back to us through their actions?  Who are the people telling us the story of love?

When I think of examples of such neighborly love … I think of Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  When asked about how to deal with all of the violence in the world … Mr. Rogers said that when bad things happened, he always looked for the helpers.  This allowed him to see that even in the midst of pain and sadness — there is love.  When the Boston marathon bombs exploded — there were people running into the chaos in order to help people.  When there are senseless murders and violence in this city we live in — there are also people who are advocating against violence and reaching out to the violent communities.  When LGBTQ youth are kicked out of their homes because of who they are — there are people like Alex Wirth and those from Friendship who volunteer at The Crib striving to make safe spaces for young people to express themselves freely.  Where there are helpers — there is grace and love.

The Good Samaritan showed love and mercy to the stranger, and thus reflected the love of God.   The beaten man showed openness to this love of God.  Whether we are the Samaritan, the priest, or the beaten person in this story …. we have opportunities to share God’s love with those around us.  We can not only look for the helpers among us …. but we can be the helpers in order to facilitate change.  Let us not only strive to prove to be a neighbor …. let us also allow others to show us what it means to be a neighbor.  When we learn from one another and reflect love to one another— we become closer to being a more whole people.  Let us be open to all instruments of peace and love in this world.  Amen.

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philemon’s poem

Forgiveness

Reconciliation

Love

From Paul to Philemon

From God’s servant to a human master

From a concerned heart to a hesitant brother

From Paul to Philemon

A letter

An offering

Of Self, Sacrifice, Sacredness

Friend

Advocate

Partner

Offering of money?

Not good enough.

Offering of exchanged goods?

Not good enough.

Offering of self?

Now we’re talkin’.

From Paul to Philemon

From God’s servant to a human master

From concerned heart to hesitant brother

From Paul to Philemon

A letter

Tearing down the shackles

Of slavery that once

Held him.

The slave.

Onesimus.

Transformation

Stolen Goods to Redeemed Spirit

Slave to Brother

Harm to Healing

From Paul to Philemon

From God’s servant to a human master

From a concerned heart to a hesitant brother

From Paul to Philemon

A letter

Our own sacred hearts

Wrapped up in love

For another

Justice

For another

Reconciliation

For another

From Paul to Philemon, Who are we?

From God’s servant to a human master, from Us to Oppressors

From a concerned heart to a hesitant brother, from passionate hearts to hesitant ears

From Paul to Philemon,

A letter.

Of our hope.

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a halloween post: fear of spirituality

On Halloween, I find it appropriate to lay out one of my fears — get it out there so I can just deal with it already.

Spirituality scares me.

Of course, I’m not supposed to be saying this.  I’ve considered myself a Christian for my entire life, I’m baptized in the Christian faith … I’m even in seminary and currently serving a church.

Still.  It scares me.

After attending a spiritual retreat last weekend — I have found myself learning towards more spiritual thoughts in class, bible study, church, and in everyday conversation.  And sometimes I don’t even know who I am when I hear myself saying it.  It seems that there is an intellectual and spiritual battle happening within me that I don’t seem to have much control over.

Why is this?

Why is it that I associate spirituality with feeling queasy?  Why does my internal radar sound off when I hear myself telling people that they might need to pray about something?  Why do I feel like justifying myself and rationalizing things away when I approach the Scripture with a spiritual question that sparks an unprecedented conversation in our bible study?

All these questions are ones that I’ve been wrestling with lately … and I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same?  

Felt like intellect has taken over.
Like logic and reason dominant your thoughts.  
Like feelings are out of reach and abstract.

It has been suggested to me that I replace the word ‘scary’ when associating it with spirituality with the word ‘awe’.  Does this make a difference?

What might it look like if instead of scared … I felt in awe?

Awe that I might not have to make all the rationales for the way the world is …

Awe that I’m not in charge…

Awe that I’m able to surrender…

so, which is it?  Awe-struck wonder …. or scary spirituality?

happy halloween.

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Life, Interrupted.

Sermon preached on 10/28/12 at Edgewater Presbyterian Church

1 Kings 17:8-16

Common English Bible (CEB)

Elijah and the widow from Zarephath

The Lord’s word came to Elijah: Get up and go to Zarephath near Sidon and stay there. I have ordered a widow there to take care of you. 10 Elijah left and went to Zarephath. As he came to the town gate, he saw a widow collecting sticks. He called out to her, “Please get a little water for me in this cup so I can drink.” 11 She went to get some water. He then said to her, “Please get me a piece of bread.”

12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any food; only a handful of flour in a jar and a bit of oil in a bottle. Look at me. I’m collecting two sticks so that I can make some food for myself and my son. We’ll eat the last of the food and then die.”

13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that. 14 This is what Israel’s God, the Lord, says: The jar of flour won’t decrease and the bottle of oil won’t run out until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 The widow went and did what Elijah said. So the widow, Elijah, and the widow’s household ate for many days. 16 The jar of flour didn’t decrease nor did the bottle of oil run out, just as the Lord spoke through Elijah.

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A miracle story.

A story of abundant and steadfast trust in God.

God of the plenty.

A happy tale of being cared for … one with a happy ending.

I suspect that one of these descriptors might have run through your mind as the Scripture was read this morning.  “What a great story,” one might say.  “Oh, how God provided,” you might think.  Often this Scripture is interpreted as a story of Elijah’s trust in God and God’s ability and compassion to provide for the widow and Elijah —- and we get the warm fuzzy feelings and go home happy.

But that’s not necessarily the whole story.

See, at the beginning of Elijah’s story — Elijah confronts King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (who, by the way, do not have great reputations of being hospitable and welcoming) and tells them there is to be a drought — “As surely as the Lord God says….there will not be rain until God says so.”  Elijah is then led by God to a river where he will be provided for via ravens.  While at first, this might sound magical — like God is providing nourishment for Elijah through cute little birds who are singing and carrying on like the forest creatures in Disney’s Snow White movie — but I would beg to differ.  Have you ever seen a raven?  They are big, awkward scavengers — and Moses, through God’s law, deemed them unclean for the Israelites.  Elijah and the rest of the Israelite people would have strong avoidance for these birds.

Hmmm….God providing through the unexpectedThat sounds familiar.

Then we get to our passage.  No, no I haven’t forgotten about the widow.  Back in Elijah’s day — widows were at the bottom rung of the social ladder.  Without a husband or father to provide for her, she had no ability to earn an income for her and her family.  Widows were often driven to begging on the streets and gathering what they could from the land around them.  Scavengers — quite like the ravens.  Unclean.

Nevertheless, God tells Elijah to go to this land — a land that already doesn’t sit well with him because that evil Queen Jezebel is from that land — and a widow will provide for him.  I think we can imagine Elijah’s apprehension with this task…. Asking a lowly widow in a foreign land who presumably worshipped a different god … to provide.  Doesn’t sound like a task I would like to take on myself…

I’d like to hit the pause button on Elijah’s story for a moment — and focus in on our leading lady, the widow.  Like I mentioned earlier, this is a woman who was socially outcast and broke as broke can be.  When she runs into Elijah — she is busy gathering sticks in order to build a fire for her and her son’s last meal.  This drought that Elijah told King Ahab about earlier — has been affecting her food supply and her cupboard was nearly bare.  The only food she has in her cupboards at home are a nearly empty jar of flour  …and a few drops of oil.  She claims this is enough to make a final meal for her family — and then they are surely to perish.

But she’s interrupted.

A man from a distant place asks for a drink.

Then this man has the nerve to ask her for some bread to eat as well.

Excuse me?

Does he not know who I am?

I have nothing.  I am nothing.  I can literally see the end of my days in sight — and this man is asking ME to help HIM?  Where’s the punked camera — surely that is what’s happening here.

This woman’s life has just been interrupted.

Just like Elijah’s.

The crossroads where these 2 people meet each other is a dramatic interruption for both of them.  Both unsure of who is to provide for them.  Both starving.  Both are empty.  Not just empty concerning their digestive system — but emptied of hope.  Of grace.  Of being able to see past their own situations.

And yet here they are — smack dab in the middle of God’s story.

I wonder if we have ever felt like this?  Have we ever felt like an Elijah — wandering in an unfamiliar land, among unfamiliar people — waiting for that sign that we desperately want God to provide.  If God has sent us to this land — then when is God going to show up and provide for me?  And if God is going to provide like was promised — then why didn’t God send me to someone who actually had the means to provide?

Or maybe we identify with the widow in this story.  Minding our own business … scrounging around in order to provide for ourselves when an unexpected drought comes along.  Feeling kicked while we’re already down.  Being looked upon with distaste and outcast from society — from our friends, our families and even our god.  Feeling unworthy.  I’m already hurting — accepted my fate — and here is a man who obviously doesn’t understand me or my situation — and has the audacity to ask me for help.  I have nothing left to offer.  Ask someone else.

Where do you fall in this story?

Where is your crossroad?

At this crossroad … Elijah recalls God’s promise.  God told Elijah there would be a widow who would provide for him.

So Elijah asks the widow, who doesn’t seem to have anything, for some bread.

After some banter back and forth — and I can imagine the conversation becoming a bit heated as both of them realizing the other doesn’t understand their own situation in life — the widow finally agrees to make some bread for Elijah first — Perhaps, trusting that this man, claiming to be of the God of Israel … might have a prize up his sleeve for her.  Perhaps accepting that her death was going to come anyway — so what was a day earlier?  Perhaps out of sheer curiosity … but regardless of her intentions and motives — she trusts anyway.

She made the bread.  She gave away what she had.  All she had — for a stranger who asked.

This is our calling in life: to give what we have so others might be provided for.

Do we do this?

If we ask ourselves honestly — are we giving what we have?  All we have?

I would challenge us to think deeper than the surface of this story when asking ourselves this question.  This isn’t just about providing a loaf of bread for another person.

This isn’t about donating a jar of peanut butter to a food pantry.

This story is about a giving of self.

This woman gave herself to Elijah’s request.  Quite literally in her case.  She wasn’t just offering him a loaf of bread.  She was offering him her life.  Her very being.  There was something in the pit of her stomach — stirring — I would call this God — telling her that she would be able to trust this man.

With this offering of bread — this woman was putting this stranger in front of herself and her own needs.  With this last bit of flour and oil — she would be able to provide this stranger with a meager meal and then accept her fate of impending death that much sooner.

Now that’s risky.

Do we do that?

When we are asked to provide for another — a stranger, a neighbor … even the church: how much are we willing to offer?  Are we willing to offer what we have … whether it time, prayer, our abilities … even when we feel like we don’t have anything to offer?  In a world where everywhere we turn — people want pieces of us, our time and our money, what do we have left to give our family of faith?

This sermon is that things that I didn’t think I had this week.

This semester has been a whirlwind.  4 classes, a field site, EAing for a class, co-editor of the Herald, student session … and the list continues.  It takes a toll on one’s spiritual and emotional health.  People often think that because I’m in seminary and serving a church that I have a direct line with God and can feel spiritually full and on high whenever I need to.

This isn’t the case.

This past weekend, I went on a 72-hour spiritual retreat.  No phone.  No internet.  No outside contact.

An interruption to the daily grind.

An interruption where I realized, much like Elijah and this widow, that I was and am smack dab in the middle of God’s story.

Sometimes life is hard.  Busy.  Our to-do lists are so long that we can’t find the motivation to even get started.  We are exhausted.  And the one thing that I don’t want to do — is have another person or committee ask me to do something for them.  If I’m honest — this is where my heart has been lately.  Caught up in the busy exhaustion of life.  I’m the widow.

This retreat brought me back to the reality of God’s story.

God doesn’t ask us to attend session meetings.  Or lead bible studies.  Or create holy to-do lists.

God asks for ourselves.  Our very beings.

When we are able to surrender to this radical idea, that God asks for ourselves — our story turns out like the widow’s jars.  When the widow finally gave herself to God’s story … the unexpected happened.  The jars weren’t empty.  She fed the stranger.  She fed herself.  She fed her family.  And still the jars remained filled.

In the giving over of herself — she not only was able to provide for Elijah in his time of need …. But she ended up providing for herself.  God was able to use her faithfulness and her trusting actions to provide for all of God’s people.  This nourishment that she provided for others and herself was not only physical nourishment — but the restoration and rejuvenation of spirit that only God can give.

Just when we feel like there’s nothing left for us to give — God provides.

Amen.

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ordinary transformation

Every Tuesday night,  I have the privilege of being the educational assistant for the Pilgrimage into Faithfulness (PIF) class at the seminary I attend.  This class is required of all first year students and touches on key issues of faith as they are assimilating into the life of a seminarian.  The class is structured a bit differently than normal classrooms:  there is a lecture, common dinner, small groups, and then worship at the end of the evening.

While the class and professors are in their small groups, my job is to make sure the classroom that we have our lecture in is transformed into a worship space.  Even with all of the wonderful lectures and meals that we have together as a large group … I must admit that this …. this transformation … is my favorite part of my night.

Now, one might think that I’m just super introverted and this is my time alone …. but no.  It’s really not that.

At 7:00 each Tuesday evening, I enter the common room after dinner, turn my Ipod to a inspiring Pandora station, and get to work.  As I begin to move around the tables and chairs that were — just minutes ago — filled with students eager for knowledge and academic growth … I think about how flexible and intertwined our world is.  This space that was meant for knowledge and learning at this higher education institution is the same space that we occupy for worship.

The call to learn becomes the call to worship.

The note-taking becomes internal prayer and reflection.

The questions we ask professors in order to gain knowledge and clarify become an invitation to question our faith and gain clarity from our creator.

Our discussion of texts become our baptismal promise.

Our meal becomes our holy communion.

Of course, in this space, I am only moving around ordinary tables and chairs — objects of little importance in the grand scheme of things.  The transformation comes when we all agree to gather together for a common purpose.  The transformation comes when the spirit leads.

The ordinary into extraordinary.

Thanks be to God.

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seminarian vs. seminary

Seminary doesn’t always play nice.

When I see people that I haven’t seen in awhile (which is most people at this point because free time seems to no longer exist in my world) … they always ask how school is going.

“How is Jesus-school?” they ask.  

“How is life in the monastery?” they joke.  

“How is prayer and bible study?” they prod.

and usually I nod my head … and give the anticipated answer, “oh it’s fine…”

No one wants to hear that seminary hits my faith where it hurts sometimes.

Lately, I’ve been starting to work through some faith-things  — as has become the practice at the beginning of each new semester.  I start reading new books, writing new papers, and having new discussions and with all of that … I find myself with more questions than answers.

This time around, I find myself struggling to name God.  To point to things in life and situations and people … and call out God’s fingerprints.  Somewhere along the line, this has become difficult in my world.

and this might sound weird coming from someone in seminary to the outside world.  I get that.

The more I open up about all of this … the more I’m realizing that at some point or another — if we’re “doing” seminary right … we (seminarians) question.

            We struggle.  

                         We break-up with God.  

                                                          We fight.  

                                                                          We cry out.  

but somewhere along the way … we’re reminded why we’re here in the first place.  We go back to those ‘thin places’ in life and recall the feelings of God’s presence.  We hear encouragement from others.  We hear sermons that inspire.  We are affirmed in our field sites.

and while God and faith and church and grace might not ever make complete sense to our finite minds — we embrace the mystery of faith.

Great is the mystery of faith.

Amen. 

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