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Monday, June 27, 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

God's Story

Jesus invites us to share our stories with one another because in doing so, we are sharing God's story—stories of courage, hope, and resilience. And God's story is worth hearing, and worth telling, over and over again.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 12 C
   Texts: Luke 8:26-39; Galatians 3:23-29

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This story reads more like the beginning of a Stephen King novel or an episode of the Twilight Zone than it does a Bible story. Demon possession. A herd of pigs. A man bound with chains and shackles. A fearful town. Two forces—good and evil—working against each other. There is suspense, intrigue, colorful language. And by golly, there’s even nudity! Included in all three synoptic gospels, this is a story worth paying attention to.

The Gerasene Demoniac, as we have come to call him, or “the man who had demons” as Luke names him, is to be feared. For a long time, he has worn no clothes. Forced to go naked, his skin and body are unprotected from the elements, and he’s likely covered in sores, pustules, and abrasions. The demons have scarred him, both physically and emotionally. So he lives among the dead, in the tombs, bound by chains and shackles. 

We don’t know how he became an outcast of the community, whether it happened quickly or over time, but it’s clear that the community was involved in his isolation perhaps in order to to keep the man safe, or to protect the community, or maybe both. Each time the demons would drive the man from his chains, someone from town would have to chase after him, restrain him, and return him to his home among the dead. This was his life, day after day.

Scholars disagree on whether he was actually possessed by demons or whether he suffered from mental illness or epilepsy. And perhaps it doesn’t matter for us. Because regardless, this man was powerless—powerless to the forces that entered his body. Powerless to his circumstance. Powerless to speak for himself when asked his name. Completely unable to advocate for himself, he relied upon the community to keep him safe. And, ultimately, an outsider—Jesus—is the one who saves him. 

Like the Gerasene Demoniac, we know this powerlessness. We’ve experienced it personally through addiction, mental illness, disease, and grief. We’ve seen it manifest in our friends and family. It’s a terrible way to be in the world. We can feel helpless and alone. We may live in anger or fear. To be powerless is to be vulnerable. We may not know what we need and we likely cannot act for ourselves. 

Sometimes, like “the man who had demons,” we need Jesus to come to us. We need someone from the other side, who sees more clearly than we do. A person who goes out of their way to seek us out, to meet us where we are, in our deepest fear and vulnerability. When we’re powerless we need someone willing to disrupt our lives, to turn things upside-down in order to bring about change and newness. Someone who will show up with a casserole at just the right time, a friend who can connect us with the right resources in our depression or grief, or a stranger who comes to our rescue when we need help.

But I’ve been noticing a different kind of powerlessness lately, too. A collective powerlessness that we experience together as a community. I notice it when I turn on the radio or scroll through my Facebook feed. We are angry, confused, and deeply saddened by the perpetuation of terror and violence in our world and our nation. 

The systems that are in place that block, isolate, and discriminate are causing great division within our communities, and many of us feel the need to say something, to do something, even though we don’t know what that is. I’m sensing now more than ever that change is on the brink, that we are approaching something new, but like you, I haven’t a clue how or when we’ll get there. But then in the midst of a terrible tragedy, I hear stories that give me hope. Stories like the story that “the man who had demons” must have told to his community.

After Jesus heals this man, he brings him back into the life of the community by sending him out to proclaim what God has done for him. After the healing, Luke refers to him as “the man from whom the demons had gone” because this man’s story still matters. Even though he’s been healed, his identity is wrapped up in this history of what has happened to him—it’s his story. 

And that is why Jesus sends him out! To share his story with the community because they need to hear it and learn from it. They need this so that they, too, can go out and tell his story. So that they, like Jesus, can be advocates for change, for new life, for rebirth.

The man goes to tell his story, but not without protest. Can you imagine having to go back? To face the people who have been afraid of you for years? How brave of him to tell his story, to share what God has done for him, with the very people who watched him suffer year after year.

When I read the stories about those who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting, I am filled with both sadness and hope. Sadness that our sisters and brothers were murdered, that gun violence continues, that we live in a world plagued by hatred, fear, and bigotry. But I am also filled with hope. Hope that dilutes hatred, hope that washes over fear, hope that mitigates bigotry. Because of the courage of these victims’ families and friends to share their loved ones’ stories, we are drawn into community with one another. The differences between us fade, and grace pours forth. 

We don’t know how the Gerasene Demoniac was received when he returned to his community, but his courage to tell his story reminds me of the stories of the Orlando shooting victims that we’ve been hearing this week. Stories of overcoming fears, of courage, hope, solidarity, and resilience. 

Stories of people like Deonka, who had been arrested for several drug infractions, but with the help of new friends and a church community, was working to turn her life around.

Stories of people like Frankie, a charming big brother who taught his little sister how to walk in high heels and wear makeup.

Stories of people like Juan and Luis, partners who ran a salon together and would offer free services to women who had been victims of domestic violence. 

Stories of beautiful human beings—our sisters and our brothers—stories of grace embodied and love incarnate. Stories of power in weakness, of reconciliation, stories of love.

Jesus invites us to share our stories with one another because in doing so, we can see more clearly the joys and challenges that we all face in this world. The stories we share bless both those who tell them and those who hear. They bridge lives, make connections, and bring us closer in understanding. In our listening, we discover that we too can be a part of the change. We do not need to remain silent. We are not powerless. Instead we are invited to be witnesses, to speak up, and to work towards unity in our own lives, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.

Paul says that we are clothed with Christ and this clothing is our protection, our security, our courage. Christ binds us to one another and gives us the freedom to listen, the freedom to speak, the freedom to understand, the freedom to be one. “For in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.” Christ gives us the freedom to love, just as God loves us.

It is a tragedy that these young men and women died. But their death is not the end of the story. Their lives give witness to God’s story. And God’s story—the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—this story has the power to save, the power to heal, the power to transform. 

So listen. Share. Speak up for others. Like “the man from whom the demons had gone” go proclaim what God has done for you. Because God’s story is worth hearing, and worth telling, over and over again. 


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tell Me the Truth

Only when we know the truth about ourselves, our sinfulness, and why it’s a problem, are we able to hear the truth that we are loved and forgiven by God, and in that truth find abundant life.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 11 C
   Texts: Luke 7:36 – 8:3; 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”

Now there’s some irony. Who knows what about whom couldn’t be more different than Simon imagines. Simon is the only one who doesn’t know the truth at this party.

This amazing woman knows the truth about herself and the truth about Jesus. Even though Luke rudely only calls her by the name “sinner,” implying a publicly known sin like prostitution, she had a name. And she knew full well who she was before, she knew who she was now, and she knew who made her a new person.

Jesus knows the truth about himself and the truth about her, too. This clearly isn’t the first time they’ve met. She interrupts this dinner party filled with tears of joy and gladness, prepared to anoint Jesus in thanksgiving, ointment purchased and in hand. Jesus says her generosity comes from having been forgiven a great deal. That is, she already experienced it, some time before. When he says, “your sins are forgiven,” he’s reminding her of what already happened.

Simon’s problem is that Jesus is a prophet and does know everything about this woman. So he also knows everything about Simon. Simon’s ignorance is impressively vast. It would be hard to know less about this woman, about Jesus, and about himself, than Simon does.

In today’s two powerful accounts, Nathan and the king, and Jesus at the dinner party, the ignorance of David and Simon to their own truths is deeply compelling. There’s something about them echoes in our lives.

It’s interesting: both want to please God, and they mostly do.

Simon is a Pharisee, so he cares about God’s law and tries to keep it. He likes Jesus enough to invite him to dinner, so he might not be an opponent. David’s love for God is well-known, and his desire to be faithful to God is one we repeatedly sing ourselves through his Psalms.

But David has done a great evil, and is acting as if it doesn’t matter. We can’t sugarcoat the rape of Bathsheba – how else do you describe a king commanding a subject to come to his palace and getting her pregnant – and we can’t deny the murder of Uriah to cover up that rape. As marvelous and heroic as David can be, this is utterly horrific and vile.

Simon seems less evil than just normal. Jesus’ story shows he knows Simon’s sinned, like all people. Simon just has a grading system. Whatever sins he may or may not have done, to him nothing compares to this wretched woman who’s spoiling his carefully planned party with this embarrassing display.

How do people who want to do good and serve God become so blind to their own flaws, yet able to see others’ flaws in seconds?

More important, who do we have who can open our eyes when we’re blind?

Who is Nathan and Jesus to us, and tells us the truth so we can actually hear it, and be changed?

Because we do need to hear the truth.

Who do we permit to tell those of us who are white and privileged that we are racist?

That we do things without even knowing that perpetuate systems rigged against people of color? That, even though right now many of us are thinking, “That’s not really true of me,” we all operate within a system of privilege that we don’t want to give up, but that is not the experience of anyone whose genes color their skin darker?

We know there are problems with racism in our country. But Simon and David lurk in our hearts, and we don’t like to see our part in those problems. We want to do good, we do. But there are truths each of us struggles to see and believe about how racism infects all our lives. Who do we let into our lives who can speak that truth to us, help us see our own sin?

Who do we permit to tell those of us who are men that we are sexist?

Who will we trust to tell us that we men are so embedded in a culture that favors us we likely could read today’s Scripture readings and nine times out of ten not even notice that neither Bathsheba nor this woman were named? Or notice that the sinfulness of the men involved wasn’t remotely punished by society, while both women were scorned and reviled?

Listen, we’re David and Simon. We want to be good, we do. But this is a reality many of us men can’t see. Who do we let tell us that we men are blind to the reality that because of a Y chromosome we get paid far better than our sisters? Who will we listen to who can challenge us men who are Christian with the inequities in the Church of Christ, including our use of language, that consistently diminish our sisters’ gifts and calls?

We too often are blind to how we each are part of the problem. Who will tell us the truth?

Who do we permit to tell us that our everyday activities we so blithely do without thinking are destroying our planet?

Who gets to break through each of our stubborn habits, our laziness, our inability to even want to try, and say a truth we can hear, that we cannot keep at our lifestyle and hope to survive as a human race?

Listen, we’re Simon and David. We want to do good. We do. But each of us does things every day that waste water, pollute the air, deplete resources, and because we can afford to do it, we keep doing it. Who do we allow into our lives enough to call us to account for this? Who will we listen to when they ask us to stop letting the water run the whole time we brush our teeth, or consider whether we need to drive everywhere, or ask where our food comes from and whether people are fairly paid for it and animals well treated?

Who do we permit to tell us that our lifestyles and choices are oppressing the poor and making people suffer unbearably?

Who gets to tell us that we can’t demand low prices on goods we buy and expect the people who work to sell us those goods to be paid fairly? That we will all have to pay more in taxes and other costs to build a society where the minimum wage is actually one people can begin on and start to feed their families? To build a society where people can find safe, affordable housing, and the dignity of being neighbors and contributors to the well being of all? Who gets to point out that our choices deeply affect those who have few choices?

Listen, we’re Simon and David. We want to do good. We do. But we cannot keep living above a level that cannot be sustained for all on this planet. Who do we let into our lives that can tell us this truth so we will hear it?

Who do we permit to tell us when we are not being loving, not being Christ?

Daily we hurt others, we do things we probably think of more often when we confess our sins than those other, deeper, sins. Things that we know are not of Christ. But we can be as blind to them as anything.

So if we truly want to be good, like Simon and David, who gets to tell us when we’re being a jerk? Who gets to say, “Be quiet, that was unkind?” Who gets to challenge us for not being loving to another person? Who do we let into our lives who we trust to tell us the truth?

That’s the deeper question. Who speaks to us truth we can actually hear, and are convicted to seek forgiveness and a new way of life?

The truth-tellers we hear best are the ones who love us.

Nathan loves David, and David knows it. Nathan knows his king wants to do justice and be good, and serve God. He makes up a story he knows will incite David’s innate justice and goodness because he knows how David will react. And he breaks through David’s blindness.

Jesus loves Simon, and Simon can tell it. He doesn’t rebuke him or rail at him. He, too, makes up a story Simon can hear, using Simon’s world, a world of debts and repayments.

We deeply need such people in our lives, and we’ll hear them because they love us. They’re not seeking to destroy us, or cut us down. They may be deeply sad about what we’re doing, but they love us.

And when we listen to them, we open ourselves to hear the words of Scripture when we couldn’t hear them before. When we listen to them, we find the desire to seek forgiveness and healing from God. When we listen to them, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s leading and power to make us new.

Jesus said, “If you continue in my Word you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [1]

That’s what we long for. That we know the truth so we can ask forgiveness from our crucified and risen Christ and receive love and grace and freedom. So we find the joy of our sister who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet in gratitude and happiness at her new reality. That generosity only comes from first receiving the generosity of the love of God that has no limits.

In our tradition, when we confess our sins together we do it at the start of the liturgy. That can be a hard place to begin, having just scurried to our seats, dealt with the stress of getting out of the house, and just as we settle in we’ve got to face difficult truth. The Book of Common Prayer gives our Anglican and Episcopal sisters and brothers the option to confess after the Prayers.

We’re going to do it there today. We’ll come to confession having heard the truth first. We’ll have heard God’s Word and heard a sermon. We’ll have sung our response to God’s Word, and prayed our concerns for each other and for the world. Then we can consider what truth we need to speak to God for our forgiveness and life. We’ll rise, forgiven, and offer each other the same peace of Christ.

This order could be very helpful to us, like Nathan and Jesus, opening our hearts both to the truth about our lives and the truth about God’s love. So we can see. And, forgiven, live.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] John 8:31-32

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Between Dusk and Dawn

The widows of Nain and Zarephath teach us how God sees us, how God listens for us, and how God reaches out to us in our unique experiences of loss and grief.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 10 C
   Texts: Luke 7:11-17; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we meet two unnamed women—two widows, in fact—one of Nain and one of Zarephath. We hear two stories of death and pain, as these widows mourn the unexpected loss of their sons. We witness how two different communities support and care for these women amidst their grief. And we see how God enters their experiences, how God reaches out and offers healing and wholeness.

As widows, these women already live on the fringes of society. With no male relative to support them, they likely have worked hard to put food on the table and to survive. And now they are faced with the devastating reality of the death of a child. On top of an already challenging existence as widows, they now carry with them a particularly difficult form of grief, grief of a parent who loses and buries a child. This is deep grief. Grief that can be steeped in anger, guilt, and depression. It is grief that isolates.

Perhaps you or someone you know has experienced this kind of loss before and know what it’s like to feel this pain. Or maybe not. But loss and grief are universal experiences of our life together—as universal as stubbing your toe or getting a paper cut. Together we can learn something from these stories, how these women respond to their unique experience of loss, and how God enters their pain.

Let’s start with the widow of Nain. It’s the day of her son’s funeral and she is crying, as is to be expected. Her son is dead and there is nothing that can be done about it, or so she thinks. A large crowd from the community is with her, and I imagine that they surround her with their presence. Perhaps they don’t say much—what could you say anyway?—but their presence speaks more than words.

Lo and behold, Jesus and his disciples show up, and upon seeing this woman, Jesus has compassion for her. He sees her and instantly knows the pain she feels. He acknowledges her despair and says, “Do not weep.” In a miraculous effort, Jesus commands the dead man to rise up, and he does. And then Jesus returns him to his mother. The crowd cheers, the mother and son are reunited, and news about Jesus begins to travel all throughout the country.

And then we have one of my favorite Bible characters, the widow of Zarephath. Poverty-stricken and with death right around the corner, she meets Elijah, a man of God, who provides food for her. And now, with one crisis behind her, she confronts another: the illness and death of her son. And she is angry! Angry at God. Angry at Elijah. She blames Elijah and wonders what he must have against her to cause the death of her son.

The widow’s lament is mirrored by Elijah, who takes the son upstairs to be alone so he can vent his anger and frustration to God. It’s not often that we get to witness such an honest response to death. Elijah pleads with God on behalf of the widow, and God listens to him. God doesn’t just hear, but God listens. God actively participates in this prayer. And through another miraculous act, the life of the boy returns, and Elijah returns him to his mother.

We know what it’s like to be these widows. To be filled to the brim with grief, to stand silently in our tears, to shout at God in anger. Taken together, these stories explore the full spectrum of our human response to grief. Loss triggers a complex set of emotions that can leave us feeling like a wrung-out washcloth or like an elephant is pressing up against our chest. It can be hard to trust ourselves as we grieve, because one day we might be feeling just fine, and the next day we’re in a puddle of tears as something triggers the memory of a loved one who died years ago.

The challenge of these stories is that we don’t often get the kind of miraculous healing that these women and their sons receive. It’s not everyday that a dead person is brought back to life. But these specific stories are included in our Bible because they show us how far God is willing to go to meet us in our painful experience. The grief of a parent who loses a child is deep, and even there, God is with us, bringing healing, hope, and new life.

And that leads us to the gift of these stories. They remind us that through it all, God is with us. God sees us, listens for us, and reaches out to touch us in our deepest pain. God is not afraid of our mess—not our tears, not our rage, not our depression, not our silence, not our guilt or shame, not any of it. God has seen it all and knows it all. And God is ready to embrace us, to stand with us, to listen for our cries. God is intentional about relationships and will continue to search us out even when we have given up, even when we have lost hope.

God doesn’t act alone, however, because the community plays an important role in this healing process, too. The crowd surrounds the widow of Nain as she grieves, and their unwavering presence is a sign of God’s presence, of God’s constant and unconditional love. Like God, this community is not afraid to show their emotions. Their willingness to stand with this widow in her grief and mourn together as a community teaches us what God’s love looks like in the world.

And then there is Elijah, a much smaller community than this crowd, but a community nonetheless. Loss can be so isolating, and it can make us feel alone, like no one understands us. But Elijah gets this, and he echoes the lament and anger of the widow of Zarephath. He validates her feelings by naming her truth. Like God, he willingly shares her anger so she knows she’s not alone.

I often wonder what life was like for these widows after their sons were returned to them. Certainly there was much rejoicing! But I imagine that the experience changed them. Because loss always changes us and we are never the same. But through whatever we face in this life, God’s promise for us is true: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning!”  
We live in that time between dusk and dawn, in that “space between sorrow that feels [like] it will last a lifetime and God’s promise of joy in the morning.”[i] And, in time, we too, like the widows, will find new life. It might not look like we’d expect and it might take longer than we’d prefer, but God will take us somewhere new. The sun will rise. The morning will come.

May you find hope in God’s promise of healing, joy, and peace. When the sorrow is too much to bear, may you trust that this community will stand by your side. And through it all, may you know deeply that God sees you, that God listens for you, and that God reaches out for you.


[i] Verlee A. Copeland, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 97.


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