Day Clean

I love sleep.  The refreshment of the Sunday post-church clergy nap.  The joy of sliding into clean sheets.  The cocoon of comfort under the covers while the ceiling fan swirls cool air all around.  I love sleep.  So it is that I noticed with some trepidation yesterday this idea that in John’s Revelation of the new heaven and the new earth that there will be no night.  If, in fact, the glories of heaven are beyond even my wildest imagination, then at the very minimum, it will include biscuits and gravy, some sort of non-injurious football, and the opportunity to sleep.

As this somewhat ridiculous mental exercise was bouncing around in my head yesterday, the pilgrimage in which I am journeying took a tour of about three blocks of Savannah, Georgia from the River where slave ships docked to the slave auction block that sat in the shadow and under the protection of Christ Episcopal Church.  Our guide, the operator of Underground Tours of Savannah, Sister Patt, is a descendent of the Gullah Geechee people and those among the 14 different tribes stolen from the Golden Coast and sold into slavery in the United States.  Sister Patt shared with us some of the customs and language of the Gullah Geechee, including this concept of “Day Clean.”

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For the Gullah Geechee, sunrise is Day Clean, it is God wiping the slate clean for a fresh start.  As it says in Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”  Each morning is an opportunity to choose, yet again, to live for the Kingdom of God, to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.  In 21st century America, we almost live without night and the natural cycles of time.  Each day is not its own, but part of a never ending slog toward progress.  The hamster wheel never slows down.  But if we are intentional about marking time, as our ancestors did, I think this concept of Day Clean can be of great value.  It is a way to honor the good and the bad that happened yesterday, to offer it to God, and then to start the day fresh, forgiven, restored, and working toward a more hopeful future.

As I sat on the beach at Isle of Palms, SC this morning, I gave thanks for the opportunity of a new beginning, a fresh start, a Day Clean, as I seek to discern how God is calling me to take what I’ve learned and experienced during this week into my life and my ministry. I wish for you, dear reader, the chance to experience a Day Clean for yourself.

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Fruit of the Month Club

I’ve read Revelation, but if I’m honest, I’ve never really studied it much. We dabbled in it in seminary, but it was really high level stuff. If I spent a little time on it, I could probably remember the key players and symbols that help inform how we read John’s Revelation not with the terrible theology of the Left Behind series ruining it for us.

I’ve been reminded of my lack of deep knowledge on Revelation of late because in Year C, we read portions of the book during Eastertide. It’s way easier to preach John or Acts, so nobody in my congregation has heard anything about John’s great vision, but as I read the lesson appointed for Easter 6C, I couldn’t help be smile at the image of the new Jerusalem that John sees.

Stuck in the midst of this grand vision of a world in which there is no longer night, which can’t be heaven, in my opinion, is this description of the Tree of Life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

This image of the Tree of Life producing its own fruit of the month club has me thinking about the abundance of the Kingdom of God. From my white, middle class, American perspective, I imagine the fruit to be grapes one month, apples another, and strawberries the month after that, but the reality is there is probably lychee, mangos, monk fruit, and maybe even durian.

The fruit that God offers to those who seek after the restoration of the world is going to look a lot like the fruit that challenges our tastes, those things that we give priority to in order to perpetuate our own comfort and sense of normalcy, and invites us to experience what brings joy to those around us, those we don’t know, those whose experiences have been marginalized. It’ll be ever changing, always challenging, and, it is important to remember, always life giving.

Active Love

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When my kids were little and we lived in Alabama, our Target store has those red balls out front.  Presumably, the are meant to keep a car from running into the glass front of the store, but in our world, they presented an opportunity.  Maybe today, we could make one of those big red balls move.  We would push and push and push, but never did we move them, even a millimeter.  In physics, the definition of work is force exerted over a distance.  No matter how much energy we might have put into pushing against those bright red spheres, there is no work done because nothing ever moved.

This is the image that came to mind as I read Jesus’ words to Judas (not Iscariot) this morning.  “Those who love me will keep my word,” Jesus says.  Love is verb.  Love, like work, requires action.  It requires movement.  No matter how many times we may say, “I love you,” it doesn’t really mean anything unless we actually show love in how we live our lives on a daily basis.

This week, I’m at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta, GA.  I’m here with 20 or so other clergy, one from every diocese in Province IV of The Episcopal Church, on a Justice Pilgrimage, seeking together ways to confront the sin of racism in our lives, our church, and our nation. Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word.”  It isn’t enough to say, “I love my neighbor,” but rather, we must find ways to actively show that love.  We must exert the force of that love in a direction.  We must see movement toward healing the deep wounds that slavery, Jim Crow, and the prison industrial complex continue to create.  There is plenty of force working toward division.  Our task, as monumental as it may seem, is to turn that tide and to begin to see progress in the right direction.

It is 6:45 on Tuesday morning.  This pilgrimage runs until 3pm on Friday.  My brain is already exhausted, but as a follower of Jesus, who, when push came to shove summed up the requirements of discipleship as “love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” I don’t have the option of giving up.  None of us who truly wish to follow Jesus and who pray “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” have that option of just going through the motions, pretending to push that stone up hill.  Like my children out front of Target, we must continue to push, with every ounce of being, against what might feel like an immovable object, knowing that with God’s help, nothing is impossible.

The sin of racism won’t be healed quickly.  As we learned yesterday, it’ll be 2111 before Americans of African decent will have been free in this country as long as they were enslaved, but our call is not to finish the work necessarily.  Our call is simply to come alongside God and to use the power of love to move the needle, if only an imperceptibly small amount, toward reconciliation.

Pick up your excuses

My life has changed a lot in the last 9 months.  Ever since Mr. D. showed up on our porch at Christ Church, I’ve had to learn and relearn many many things.  I’ve learned that homelessness is wildly complicated.  I’ve learned that addiction is more powerful than just about everything else.  I’ve learned that the system is designed to make it nearly impossible to get a grip on the first rung of society’s ladder.  Most recently, as in, as I read the lesson from John 5 appointed for Easter 6C, I’ve learned that I am really good at making and accepting excuses for not helping people.

Like Paul after his conversion, something like scales fell from my eyes as I read, once again, of the exchange between Jesus and the invalid at the pool of Beth-zatha.  I noted with familiarity how Jesus asks the man, “do you want to be healed?”  Something changed, however, as I read the man’s response to Jesus’ question, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  I thought of all the ways my friends J, M, R, R, M, T, M, A, L, and others have been told they are completely responsible for their own situations.  How if they weren’t just so damn lazy, they wouldn’t be where they are.

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The man’s response to Jesus sounds like an excuse – but not in the way I used to think of it.  Rather than being an excuse for the man not making his way into the pool after nearly 40 decades of trying, but the excuse hundreds of thousands of passers-by had used to not be the one who helped him.  “Oh, he just doesn’t want to get better.”  “If only he hadn’t burned bridges with his family.”  “He probably likes the attention.”  “Another opioid addict.”  “The government should step in.”  “The Church should help him.”  On and on and on.

The truth of the matter is that like the pool of Beth-zatha, the system is, by and large, completely arbitrary.  This was highlighted during the long government shutdown in late 2018-early 2019, when reports began to show just how many Americans live paycheck to paycheck.  According to Forbes, the number is 78%.  That means that nearly 4 out of every 5 Americans don’t have the reserves to pay their bills after missing only one paycheck.  And once you fall behind, it is nearly impossible to get back on track.  With late fees and exorbitant reconnect fees, where the price of a gallon of milk at a food desert C-Store is three times what it costs at my local Kroger and a load of laundry at the laundromat costing about the same, where getting “a deal” at a no-deposit weekly hotel still puts your monthly rent at $1,100 a month, with no kitchen, it is easy for me to hear the voice of my friends experiencing homelessness in the words of the man beside the pool of Beth-zatha.

These aren’t excuses they are making to not want help, but the realities of the situation, and, quite frankly, excuses those of us in positions to make a difference often use to not do anything.  Jesus picked up all those excuses and changed the rules.  No longer would the man have to wait by the pool, but rather, he could be healed right now.  Now, I’m not a miracle worker nor a billionaire, able to simply wave my hand and fix a system full of excuses, but I serve a God who can.  What excuses is God inviting you to pick up and toss away?  How is God inviting you to see the world in a different way?  How is God inviting you to change your community?

The Tree of Life

Most every morning, I read three things: Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, Brother Give us a Word from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and God Pause from Luther Seminary and WorkingPreacher.org.  Some mornings are more hurried than others.  Sometimes, I able to just sit and soak in some meditative time, while other days, I’m reading from my iPhone screen in the parking lot at my daughter’s school.  This morning was one of those hurried times, but thankfully God spoke to me in the midst of my harried existence.

Today’s God Pause reflection was written by Tim Kellgren, a retired Lutheran Pastor, who richly opened up Sunday’s Revelation text.  It reads, in part, as follows:

In this reading from Revelation, the early church creates a grand visual aid for embracing God: God is the source of light in a time when darkness was a source of fear and unknowing; God is a flowing river in a dry land where water means life; God is an abundant tree of life producing a new crop every month in a land of uncertain food resources.

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I’ve never done much work in the Book of Revelation.  As such, I’ve never dealt with the vast array of images that John used to describe the things he saw in his vision.  For some reason  this morning, the image of the “abundant tree of life producing a new crop every month in a land of uncertain food resources” really struck me.  Maybe it is because my eldest child attends an elementary school with a nearly 80% free and reduced lunch rate.  Maybe it is because the Episcopal Church is statistically much older than the general population in which roughly 10% of senior citizens faces food insecurity.  Maybe it is because of the increasingly loud political rhetoric around “hand outs” and “entitlement programs” which ensure that American citizens, especially the young and the elderly, those most vulnerable, don’t go to bed hungry on a regular basis.  Whatever it is, I’ve come to realize just how radical a vision John is having when he sees the tree of life which offers fresh fruit each month, giving a world that was vastly more food insecure than 21st century America, the promise that God will provide: especially for those who can’t help themselves who don’t fit into the power system.

If John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is compelling today, imagine how much more it would have spoken to an oppressed church in a starving backwater place like the Sinai Peninsula in the sprawling Roman Empire.  Thanks be to God for a vision of a world where there is enough for everyone, but next comes the hard part.  How do we follow the words of our Lord’s Prayer and make this heavenly vision happen on earth, right now?

The Abiding Place of God

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“In my Father’s house there are many mansions” color woodcut by Irving Amen

John’s Gospel message can be summed up in several different ways.  For many, the heart of the Johannine message is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that any who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”  That’s a good one, and so is the very next one, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”  There are also the seven “I am” statements in which Jesus not-so-subtly declares himself by the unspeakable name of God.  Those are a pretty powerful witness to Jesus as well.  Others might look to Jesus’ statement mission in 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  All good, I tell you, all good.

However, as I read the first Gospel lesson choice for Sunday, I was struck by another thematic highlight in John’s Gospel, the abiding place of God.  It begins in the Prologue with John’s famous verse, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson says it, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  That verb, to dwell/abide/move in, reappears in noun form twice in the fourteenth chapter.  The first time is in the famous funeral lesson line that is represented in the Irving Amen woodcut above: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”  Other translations say “dwelling places.”

It occurs again in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, as Jesus promised Judas (not Iscariot) and the rest of the disciples that God: Father, Son and (maybe) Holy Spirit will make make God’s abiding place alongside those who love Jesus and follow his commandment to love one another.  So it is that as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and be enthroned on the cross as the King of kings, he assures them that his death won’t be the end of God’s plan to live in our neighborhood.  In fact, in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God will make room for more than just the Son to abide among us, but for the fullness of the Triune God to abide with those who strive to be disciples of the Gospel of love.

The Beginning of a Controversy

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“Now that day was the sabbath.”

The end of Sunday’s gospel lesson tells you that there is much more to come, even if the Revised Common Lectionary won’t give it to us.  If you’ve decided to go with the second Gospel lesson (John 5:1-6), please note that the other lessons are fairly short, and you could exercise the rubric found on page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  I would encourage you to do so because it isn’t just that last line that is so juicy, but the whole story of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha opens up the beginning of what will be a fairly drawn out controversy over Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

Typical healing stories use one of two words to describe what Jesus does for those in need of help.  He either iaomai  heals them or he sozo heals them.  Iaomi seems to be a fairly generic word for healing or restoration, while sozo carries with it a double meaning of physical and spiritual healing, salvation, and wholeness.  However, in this story’s full incarnation (John 5:1-18), the word that is five times translated as “made well” is hugies, which occurs only one other time in John’s Gospel, at 7:23.  The reprise of hugies at 7:23 comes in the midst of an ongoing argument between Jesus and the religious leaders that seems to stem from Jesus healing this particular lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha on the sabbath.

Given that we are coming to the end of Eastertide, it might seem odd to take the time to rehash the controversy that, in John’s Gospel, at least, would lead the Jewish leaders to seek a way to have Jesus killed, but perhaps that is some merit in telling the full story of the lame man’s healing.  We see in John’s use of the word hugies, another double meaning.  To be hugies is to be sound physically and sound in teaching. As Jesus heals on the sabbath, an act which according to the law was not hugies, John makes the bold claim that the proper thing, the sound teaching, is the compassionate response of Jesus to the man who had been lame for 38 years.  Perhaps this story is an opportunity to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves and our congregations whether or not we are focused on the hugies of the world.  Or, have we, like the Jewish leadership, become so bogged down in the rule or, more likely these days, the platform of one of the political parties, that we’ve forgotten that the sound response to need in the world – need for healing and need for the desire to be healed – is compassion?