Divine Things

It has been said that Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Today is just such a day. It is a day that I stand feeling woefully unworthy of the gospel message. It is a day that I feel torn between a culture that returns violence for violence in an ever escalating and self-perpetuating cycle of death and a message of hope through love and forgiveness that brings life in abundance.

So often we seem to be held captive between the choice of honoring life or defending the innocent, as though we cannot do both at the same time. Perhaps that is the cross that stands before us today. Perhaps that tenuous balance between fear and hope is the nexus of faith and action that is staring right at us. Yet this cross – the intersection of human pathos and divine logos ­– is not silent.

It shouts at us in the anger of a father whose daughter was planted in the ground as a flower never blooming. It shouts to us from the fear and anger of those who feel called to defend our rights in the hope that no more mothers or fathers will regret the decision to send their child to school. Sadly, I could go on listing other examples of the paranoia gripping our public spaces, but the issue is that we no longer feel safe in many of them, and some groups of people feel less safe than others.

It is times like these when I feel the darkness of this present age, and yet I am not overwhelmed. It is times like these that I am thankful that we have one another to cling to in the dark, and to seek opportunities for joy and celebration and even the means to resist the darkness all around.

As I think about our beloved community in these terms, I am also reminded of my daughter’s birthday party this weekend. She and some of her friends met up at a local trampoline park for their Friday night glow in the dark event. The place was lit only with black lights, and everyone there was required to wear orange and yellow and pink shirts that glowed like light bulbs.

In a strange way, these t-shirts formed them into this odd sort of gathering of tribes as groups of children ran and bounced and climbed like Tiggers, or Ninjas, or just – you know – children. All except one. Well, really, she was a parent so, she didn’t count. But her shirt, which was white with big black letters on it – stood out as much as the rest. It simply said, “Y’all Need Jesus”.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether to hi-five her or ask her how she got the log out of her eye well enough to see the one in mine (Matthew 7:3)! I did neither, because the log in my eye was too big to do anything at the time.

The thing is, there is no denying that truth. Everyone in there needed Jesus – even her. In fact I think I would even wear a shirt like that if I could add, “and so do I” on it. But even without that stark reminder in the midst of the darkness, I still would have found points of light wrapping all around us in the phosphorescent t-shirt light.

The thing that I think is really cool about that is that it all comes down to waves of light. The ultraviolet lights hit the phosphors in the shirts and became radiated, excited, and redirected in new wave lengths that brought out light where there was darkness.

Somewhere in there is a beautiful metaphor for what it means to follow Jesus. Are we the material made to reflect the image of the Creator? Are we the wave of light that longs to be transformed so that we can delight the eyes of the One who sent us? Are we beacons of hope and redemption and love in the ever-present darkness of this world?

I guess that all depends on our faith, and what we believe is possible. Of course, it’s not just up to us and what we believe. God will do what God will do, and we don’t determine the course of God’s actions. We can, however, become more attuned to what God is doing. We can be swept up into things we never thought possible, if we are willing to be. For God is able to do far more than we expect or think possible.

In our reading from Genesis, God is called “El-Shadai” – which means Almighty. Yet this is not a God who forces or manipulates. This is a God who makes covenants in order to call us from complacency into belief, and from there into action. This is the God of all creation who is yet involved and active and present in our lives.

And so, this God – who has already told Abram that he will be the father of many – makes a point here to include Sarai in the covenant. As the story goes, Abraham (whose name now means father of nations) pleads for Ishmael (child of Hagar) to be the one that begins the long line of promised descendants. There’s no way Sarah could conceive, yet that is exactly why God chose her – to make it abundantly clear that this was God’s desire for them.

And so Paul claims this covenant as the transformative wave of light that reflects throughout all of space and time to remind us that God is in the mix. And he claims the faith of Abraham and Sarah as the t-shirt that let them in the room. It’s not that their belief moved the heart of God. It’s more that their expectation that God would do something beyond their understanding is what included them in what God was doing, because after all – God is God.

But what does all of this mean to us? Well, the way I see it, Abraham and Sarah left the security of family and tribe and connectedness because God was calling them to set up a new way of relating to the world. Sure, they began forming community in the same way in a new place, but they did it at great personal risk.

Likewise, we are called to move beyond the tribes of family and economics and race and gender and other biases and isms in order to recognize the light in one another – indeed in all of creation. And in this present age I would add that we have a certain duty to reach out to those that feel pushed out or singled out or neglected in order to at least recognize them as human beings.

You know, in the midst of all the conversations about physical violence through firearms we sometimes forget about the very physical violence of poverty and homelessness. Earlier this week I talked with a woman who advocates for the poor. She told me a story of a man who had some mental health issues and who had become so physically ill that he could not clean himself. Knowing that he would have turned away the paramedics that had been called for him due to his embarrassment over his own filth, she bathed him. Later, after receiving care and eventually reconnecting with an estranged sister, he told her, “I simply forgot what it was like to be human, because nobody treated me like I was one.”

That’s the opportunity of the cross – seeing the full humanity of one another. In doing that we are more able to set our minds on divine things. Taking up your cross means so much more than being inconvenienced by the needs of others. Taking up your cross means that putting up security lights and cameras and calling the cops on those that relieve themselves in public places should, perhaps, be an afterthought to actually providing, or advocating for, public bathrooms. Regardless of how it works out, setting our minds on divine things means putting our hope and trust and faith in the One who can do more than we imagine, but it also means recognizing the opportunities to reflect light and love and forgiveness and mercy.

What will that look like for you? Maybe it means going down to St. Josephs not to serve a meal but to actually eat one with someone else. Maybe it means making gumbo for our PDA group. Maybe it means getting a group of members and friends and co-workers together to work on one of the homes that Rebuilding Together Acadiana is serving. Maybe it means helping us get organized to go back to Cuba and put in a clean water system. Maybe it means signing up to bring food for meet and greet, or teaching Sunday School, or delivering food for meals on wheels, or volunteering with CUPS.

Maybe it just means reaching out to someone that you know is struggling and letting them know that you see them – to remind them that they are human, too.

I don’t know what your cross will be, but I know that this request was no small thing from Jesus. And while we have to remember that he also said, “my burden is easy and my yoke is light,” the cross was nothing less than a demonstration of power over the entire person. According to Cicero (Against Verres), “There is no fitting word that can possibly describe a deed so horrible.” And for the Jews it was a demonstration of the power to condemn, for it is written “Cursed is anyone who hangs from a tree.”

Now, you may have noticed that in all of this I have danced around the fact that Jesus calls Peter – the one who just named him as the Messiah – Satan, because Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that he was going to die and rise again. As much as I might want to, I can’t really blame Peter. This is, apparently,the first the disciples have heard of this. It’s at least the first time that he’s said it so publicly.

They were having such a great time, you know. They’d just fed 4,000. Cleanup was a bit of a chore, but whatever. Jesus healed a blind guy. Peter just passed the biggest pop quiz ever, and they were headed into an area where their faith was one of many – presumably to drop a big J Bomb of healing and love to blow away the competition, right?

Then Jesus drops this one instead. This was one of those, “Whoa there, Jesus. Didn’t you mean to say, ‘They’ll all bow down’? I’m pretty sure that’s what you meant. Maybe you’re hangry. Anyone have a Snickers for Jesus?”

Turns out that’s not the issue. The issue was that in denying the true purpose of Jesus – to demonstrate love beyond measure – was to be an adversary of God. Some even translate this word as “tempter.” Either way, Peter's response was so very human that it made Jesus feel the need to tell his followers that they had to let go of their own limited human perspectives, and even follow him to the cross.

Now, this is the first of three times that Jesus will make this claim, and each time the disciples get it wrong. I mean really wrong. In fact, it seems to get worse each time. First, we just have Peter trying to redirect, then they begin to embrace it – a little too much. The next time we see this in Mark’s gospel the disciples respond by arguing over who will be the most important in the Kingdom of Heaven, and then James and John outright ask to be seated in places of power!

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh? Well, here’s the thing to consider on that. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples never fully understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. They never really understand that he has come to bring salvation to everyone. Spoiler alert – they all scatter at the end, and it’s the criminal on the cross and the centurion charged with finishing him off, realized who he was.

The beautiful thing is that we know. But this knowledge is worthless unless we put it into play, for even though we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), faith without works is dead (James 2:20). The hymn we are about to sing (If We Just Talk of Thoughts and Prayers) celebrates the opportunity of responding in faith, and it was written by a Presbyterian Minister last year after the Las Vegas shooting. Some of these words may have political triggers, but I want to be clear that the intent is not to push a political agenda. The intent is to acknowledge the strength of the faith of this congregation, where prayers are put into action on a daily basis. So, let us continue to reflect light and love and grace and mercy. Even here, even now, as we move toward the cross, and the salvation that it brings. Amen.
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