Author Archives: joallen17

Something Simple


Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” – 2 Kings 5: 1-3

Some of the most important characters in the Bible do not have names.

There is the woman who pours a costly perfume on Christ’s feet in his final days, one of the few people during his life who truly understood what is purpose was in the world. No name.

There is the poor widow who gives her last two coins away to the poor. No name.

There is a Syro-Phonecian woman who advocates for her right to be healed by Christ. No name.

There is Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted the baby Moses saving him from death.

There is Job’s wife, who is mentioned only briefly, despite the fact that all of Job’s suffering is her’s as well. The loss of home, health, and her very children.

This is a convention in ancient writing that I will make no excuses for.

More often than not, female characters are not named. They are treated as supporting characters in some man’s story.

Now there are some female characters in scripture who we know by name. Mary and Elizabeth, Eve, Sarah.

But they are are more the exception than the rule. And, more often than not, their stories are about how they gave birth to important men.

So this week, we encounter another story with an unnamed woman, who is mentioned only briefly. Yet, at the heart of it, this whole story is about her.

The young girl who serves Naaman’s wife.

The story goes, that Naaman, who was a great warrior from Syria, who suffered from a terrible skin disease, had captured a young girl from Israel during one of their raids into the land of Israel.

And she served his wife.

And one day, this young Israelite girl said to Naaman’s wife, “you know, there is a prophet in Israel who could heal your husband.”

Now I just want to pause here for a moment and take stock of just what a brave thing that is to say. Because she is not just suggesting that her captors journey to a foreign. She is suggesting that their enemies could do something for him, that could not happen in his homeland.

She is suggesting that inside this land that Naaman has been attacking. The land from which she was taken as a slave. In that place, there is a prophet who would heal the commander of their arch enemy.

From the mouth a servant. Into the ear of a Queen.

And so they send a letter to the King of Israel, requesting that the leading General of the army that has been attacking them, and taking their daughters away as slaves, asking if that man could come to Israel to be healed of his disease.

And the King of Israel is enraged.

He tears his clothes in rage and will not hear it. No way. No. Way.

But the prophet Elisha hears about it, he says let him come. And so Naaman comes to be healed. With impossible fanfare. With horses. And chariots. And coffers of silver.

It’s bad optics. Just imagine the indignation. The General who had led so many raids. Parading into our town to be healed by our God.

And so Naaman is sent by Elisha to wash in the Jordan.

And he is enraged.

He protests that the rivers in his own country are better. Why couldn’t he have just washed in them rather than some lesser foreign river? He cannot seem to see the gift that is being given to him through the blinders of his own bigotry, until someone pulls him aside, and calms him down, and reminds him that the fact that his healing only requires something simple is actually a good thing. And he should be happy.
So he washes in the Jordan. Seven times. And he is healed.

And it all began with the imagination of a young woman. Whose name we don’t get to know. But whose bravery scripture remembers. And we celebrate.

Because in a story full of powerful men posturing, and parades of chariots, and tantrums of torn clothes, and enemies who could not imagine that they would be in the same room. Let alone help one another. Or heal one another.

She had enough vision to see that God’s love was not constrained by any of those barriers. She was able to imagine that God’s healing would overflow the careful constraints that had been placed on it. That God’s healing was not just for one people, but for the whole world.
And she had the courage to say so.

It’s actually something quite simple. The idea that we ought to love and care for one another. That God’s love is big enough for everyone. That we should pray for even our enemies. The ideas are pretty simple. Pretty straightforward.

What seems impossible is bringing that kind of faith to life when it seems like every wind in the world is blowing in the opposite direction.

The idea of loving everyone is simple enough, until someone attacks your homeland.

The idea that God has enough love for everyone is simple enough, until we see God pouring out love on people who we have come to hate.

The idea of helping anyone in need is simple enough, until we find ourselves needing help from someone who we were taught not to trust.

So the people who wrote this story down for us no doubt intended it, at least in part, to impress us with God’s power to heal.

They no doubt wrote it down so that we would remember how great Elisha was.

They wrote it down as a witness to that time that even a foreign king could not deny that Israel’s God was great.

But I am glad that they remembered to tell us that it was a servant-girl whose imagination and vision started it all. Even if, in their minds, she was just a minor character. The truth is that what she did has the deepest lesson for us today.

And that is this:

In a world where the politics are loud. And combative. And hurtful.

Where prejudice and bigotry seek to divide humanity into smaller and smaller segments. And where the battle lines are drawn, and seem to become indelible.

There is something simple to be done. That requires extraordinary bravery.

And that is to say simply that God’s love is bigger than it all. That God’s peace, and healing, is for even those who we might think don’t deserve it.

It is to insist that what unites humanity is greater than anything that might divide us.
That differences in race, religion, background, belief, outlook, and income, are not enough to separate us from our shared humanity.

The truth is that every human face shines with the image of God.

And our story today is about a young woman. Who had an extraordinary capacity to see that truth, even in a circumstance when she had every reason not to.

And her simple statement of that fact, that every human life bears witness to God,  was the spark that started this extraordinary story of healing that turned battlements into bridges.

I really wish we knew her name.

But either way, I am glad we know her story.

Grapes and Cucumbers

Dr. Sarah Brosnan is a professor of neuroscience at Georgia State University. Her biography says that she studies “the mechanisms underlying cooperation, reciprocity, inequity, and other economic decisions in nonhuman primates from an evolutionary perspective.”

In short. She studies the social habits of monkeys in order to learn more about why people act the ways we do.

In 2012, she and her team decided to look into economics. More specifically, they wanted to see if there were ways that people related to their money that could be traced evolutionary to some of our ancestors. And so she set up an experiment using Capuchin monkeys.

Two monkeys who knew each other were taken out of the group that lived together and placed in two enclosures side by side. They could see one another, but they could not get into each other’s space.

Then they were trained to perform a simple task. Pick up a small stone and hand it to the researcher, who in turn would reward them with a small slice of cucumber.

The researchers found that the monkeys would both gladly perform this task over and over again for a slice of cucumber. They would do it 10, 20, even 30 times right in a row without skipping a beat.

That is until the researcher gave one money a grape.

The pattern was the same for one. Hand me a pebble, get a slice of cucumber.

But the other who hand over a pebble and receive a whole grape, a much more desirable reward.

As soon as the second money had been paid with a grape, the researcher went back to the first money who enthusiastically handed over the pebble.

But when that second monkey, who had just seen his friend receive a grape, was handed a slice of cucumber, he inspected it for a moment, and then hurled is right back into the poor lab assistants face.

I put a link to the video on the church’s Facebook page so you can watch it when you get home.

The reaction was the same, for monkey after monkey. They would gladly do the task for a cucumber, but once they had seen someone get a grape for it. They would reject the cucumber, throwing it back, shaking the cage, and jumping around. Again and again, until eventually they would simply refuse the task all together.

So if you heard this morning’s parable, and your first thought was “that’s not fair,” take heart, these ideas about fairness and equality are hardwired into us. It is a basic feature of how our minds see the world.

So what happened in this parable?

A vineyard owner went out early in the morning to hire some day-laborers to work in his field. He found a few and agreed with them to pay the usual daily wage for work. And they were perfectly happy with this arrangement. No second thoughts. A days work for a days pay. So far so good.

Then that same vineyard owner goes back into town to find more workers. By now, its 9am, well into the work day, and he finds a few who people who do not have any work. Go to my vineyard he says, and I will pay you whatever is fair.

They agree. After all, they had just been facing the prospect of a day without work, all the jobs were gone and they were left with no work, which meant no pay.

So when the vineyard owner says to them, “I will pay you what is fair” I assume they were imaging something pro-rated. “Anything is better than nothing” they thought. And they went off to the vineyard to work.

He did this again at noon, at 3, and again at 5, when the day was almost over.

Now it is important to pause here and note that, before we even get to the rest of the parable Jesus’ audience would be feeling pretty confused about this. And we might be too.

It is very strange that a vineyard owner would not have know how many workers he needed to begin with, and it doesn’t seem like conditions would change so rapidly that he should have to go back into town every few hours to find help.

The followers who first heart this parable would wonder, as we might be too, why he has planned so poorly and ended up wasting his day tracking down labor instead of attending to running his vineyard.

And they would be totally perplexed as to why he would be hiring workers at 5pm. By the time they make it to the field and get their instructions, they day will be over.

And then it really get’s strange.

The vineyard owner lines up the laborers in order, beginning with the ones who arrived latest, and ending with the ones who arrived earliest.

And to those workers who arrived just as the day was ending, who probably did very little work at all. He handed a drachma, the usual day’s wage. The amount that he had first agreed to pay the early morning workers.

As each walked through the line he paid each one exactly the same. No matter how long they worked, each received an ordinary day’s pay.

The workers from the early morning are incensed. “These people only worked an hour, and you have made them equal to us who worked all day in the heat?!”

Calmly the vineyard owner replied. “I paid you what we agreed on. What difference does it make to you what I paid the others?”

And of course the vineyard owner is technically correct. The workers from the morning did agree to work all day for the normal wage. And that is precisely what happened. Why should the presence of others change that agreement in any way?

Yet even though the vineyard owner is technically right, this parable seems to grate up against our sense of what is right, our sense of what it fair.

Something deep in our bones says this isn’t right. Throw the cucumber in his face.

And this is precisely the reaction that Jesus wanted to provoke.

This parable is constructed in a beautiful way to knock us off balance a little bit. To offend our sense of what is right and what is fair. To force us to try to see things a new way. To turn the world a bit on its side, so that we can counter some amazing truth about who God is.

You and I, in addition to being joined as members of the body of Christ, are also a part of an economic system. And living both as a part of the Body of Christ, and an economic system can pose some uncomfortable tensions.

Let me name two examples that I struggle with

I wonder sometimes if the money in my retirement account is being invested in companies whose business is hurting the world. And I wonder if it actually make any difference if I took it out.

I also know that there are a lot of things that I want to buy for myself, and yet I cannot ever quite shake the sense that each dollar I spend on my own comfort is a choice to not give that dollar to someone else’s survival. But how would I begin to know where to give that money instead.

Now this is not to say that these things are so easily resolved. In fact I think that the parable is trying to walk us right up that precise point.

The kingdom of God and the economic ordering our our lives do not fit so neatly together all the time. The ethical imagination of Christ leads to some pretty odd payroll practices. And we are left mostly just with this odd feeling that things are not quite so neatly resolved…

This is not to say that Jesus does not care about economics. He is a tireless advocate for the poor, but in this parable it seems he is mostly just calling the question and pointing out that our economic imagination may not be vast enough to encompass God’s greatest hopes for our world.

And so with that uneasy feeling front and center. Jesus makes this point:

However you are engaged with economics. It cannot define your worth.

Do not confuse your wage with your value as a child of God.

To God, your value has nothing to do with your contributions to the work force. It has nothing to do with how well, or how efficiently your labor.

It has nothing to do with whether you feel like you are doing all the right things as a parent or not.

It has nothing to do with what time in your life you discovered the right direction.
It has nothing to do with whether you own 2 houses or none.

It has nothing to do with whether you have been a good friend or let people down.
It has nothing to do with how your marriage is going, or how your 4011k is performing.

To God, your value is just a part of who you are.

No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter if you oversleep, or overwork. God’s love for you will get doled out just the same.

Now there are plenty of things in this world and in your life that will tell you otherwise. There are plenty of people and institutions that will try to measure your worth and measure your value a thousand different ways.

There are people and institutions that are always trying to persuade us that some lives just matter more than others. That some people are worth more, and some less.

It’s no small thing. It is deep in our bones. No matter how hard we try to fight it, when we watch some people get grapes and we keep getting cucumbers, it drives us crazy.

Not because grapes are that much better. Its mostly just water…

But because somewhere deep down, we start to believe that it reflects our value. That we are somehow not worth as much. Not as important. Not as deserving.

All that outward stuff just keeps reinforcing this fear the gnaws at us. Maybe I am just not worth as much.

Jesus told them this parable, so that we could realize that that is a lie.

Jesus wanted an economic system with justice at its foundation. He wanted a better world for the poor. Buy more than that, he wanted to make sure that we do not look to the market to tell us who we are or what we are worth.

Our worth has nothing to do all that.

It has to do with God’s love for you. Yes you. Just the way you are. With everything you did and forgot to do.

With all your stumbles and falls.

When God created you, God looked at you and said: “this is good.”

At your baptism, God smiled from heaven and said “this one. my beloved.”

That is what you are worth.

The rest, in the end, is just grapes and cucumbers.

Something Beautiful

 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done something beautiful for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Every year, when I was a seminary student, I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving packed in a rental car driving from New York City to Columbus, Georgia.

Just outside of Columbus Georgia is the US Military Installation, Fort Benning. And somewhere tucked in the middle of Fort Benning is a small institute called the School of the Americas.

The School of the Americas, which in 2001 was renamed “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”, is a training center for foreign military leaders who have been selected to undergo training in the United States to help advance US interests oversees.

In the late 80’s, graduates of the School returned home to El Salvador after their training by the United States and led a brutal repression against the people of their home country. Death squads, led by graduates of the school, killed thousands of villagers in the country’s poor, rural North. And among the regime’s more brazen acts was their murder of 4 American nuns, 6 Roman Catholic Priests, and the Arch-Bishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero.

Ever since then, every year, people of faith from all over the United States travel to the gates of the school each year to demand that it be closed.

The School of the Americas Protest has been going on for 25 years. And like any event that has run that long. There is some pretty expected infrastructure that has grown up around the whole thing.

Now there are food trucks parked around the area of the protest, a large stage and bandstand set up, vendors selling t-shirts and buttons.

It is like part protest, part block party.

There are artists who make these massive marionette puppets. There is music. There is poetry. There is dancing.

It is actually quite beautiful.

And I confess, I sometimes found myself sitting in the midst of all that, aware both of the awful violence that had brought this group to that place, and the rather festive and beautiful atmosphere of our protest and our witness.

And it felt a bit odd.

I confess that I sometimes wonder if the fuel we had burned, and the fast-food we had consumed, making the drive from New York to Georgia was worth having 4 more people standing there on the street outside the gates.

I wondered if it sometimes wasn’t all a bit more lavish than was appropriate. Given the gravity of everything.

I wondered if all the resources that went into organizing an event like this might have been better spent somewhere else…

It was shaping up to be the worst week of the disciples lives.

Judas was planning his betrayal.

And the shadow of the cross was growing longer by each passing moment.

Jesus and his friends were in Jerusalem. And Jesus was beginning to talk more and more about the end. He told them that he would suffer. And die. But their hearts wouldn’t let them believe it. Not really.

Still it was coming to an end.

And in that moment. Sitting around a meal, a woman came into the room with an alabaster jar of expensive perfumed oil. And she broke it. And poured the whole thing over Jesus head.

The disciples were incredulous.

This was Jesus. The man who had given his life to proclaiming liberty for the captive and justice for the oppressed.

He had spent his days telling the rich to sell everything and give the money to the poor.

He was practically an aesthetic, urging his followers to take nothing for their journey, to rely on the hospitality of others, to give even their shirt to who ever asked only for their coat.

She clearly didn’t know. And so they tried to explain it to her.

“Don’t you realize! We could have sold that jar, and given the money away to the poor. Right Jesus?”

The looked to him, this time certain of his approval. But once again, as he has done all along, Jesus surprises them with an unexpected answer.

“Leave her alone.”

“She has done something beautiful for me.”

“And wherever the gospel is proclaimed, people will remember it.”

Still, to the disciples, it felt a bit odd.

They wondered if great cost, and the lost opportunity to help the poor, was really worth it.

They wondered if it wasn’t all a bit more lavish than was appropriate. Given the gravity of everything.

They wondered if the resources might have been better spent somewhere else…

I confess that I have the same questions as the disciples. It all seems out of line with what Jesus was all about.
But two words of Jesus hang on my soul.

“Something beautiful.” She did something beautiful.

Back at Fort Benning, on Sunday morning, the whole crowd got into a long line. Each of one us carried a simple, white, wooden cross, with the name of someone who had been killed by a graduate of the School of the Americas. We walked as a leader sang the names.

Domingo Claros

and the crowd lifted their crosses and sang Presente, which means “they are here.”

Lucio Marquez, Presente.

Sometimes the chanter would add a chilling detail:

Christino Amaya Carlos, 9 years old. Presente.

Domingo Diaz, Presente.

They have been singing those names for 25 years.

And when we left that afternoon, not much had changed, but suddenly all the gasoline, and the fast food, the stage and the speakers, and the puppeteers and the blocked off streets, and the food trucks, didn’t seem like such a waste.

Because something beautiful had happened.

Suddenly having us all there, hugging old friends, dancing, staying up late in the hotel. It didn’t feel inappropriately lavish.

Even with the gravity of it all. It didn’t feel wrong to do something beautiful.

That is what I think Jesus was trying to say to them that night. That every so often, the right response to something awful, is something beautiful.

And that night, gathered together, when she broke the jar and poured it over her head. Covering him with fragrance as if she were preparing a body for burial, she did something beautiful.

She showed him the tender care that one would offer a body, while he was still breathing, as if to say, my love for you will not end, even if they kill you.

She poured abundantly, letting the oil crash over his head, and spill onto the floor, as if to say. My love for you is too great for any sort of measured restraint.

She did something beautiful. Something that they remembered. Something that we remember still.

Sometimes the only response to something awful. Is something beautiful.

I think of how many times I have wished that God would fix something.

How many times I have prayed that God would scrub away some guilt or take away some grief.
How many time I have begged God to heal someone who didn’t deserve to be sick

Or demanded God stop some awful thing that had no business happening in a world that God loved.

And I wonder. I wonder. How many of those times was the real answer to my prayer not God offering some solution, but rather surrounding me with the beauty of God’s presence and love.

I remember at a particularly hard moment in my life, a good friend cracked a bad joke. It seemed utterly inappropriate to the situation, but we laughed, probably harder than the joke deserved.

It was the kind of intuition only a close friend has.  And it was the kind of laughter that feels like a healing balm. And I found myself saying, that familiar remark, “it feels good to laugh.”

Why did it feel good to laugh? It didn’t bring anyone back and It didn’t take the pain away.

I was just relieved to be reminded that beauty lived on. That laughter still lived in the world beyond my loss.

I wonder if that was the answer to my prayer. God didn’t fix anything. But God, through my friend’s often clunky sense of humor, did something beautiful.

And with that small, simple, bit of beauty before us, it suddenly seemed possible to go on.

Whenever the School of the Americas finally closes, it will be in no small part because of the power of beauty, that has given that weary movement hope for the better part of 30 years.

And we just might be sitting here today because a week before Jesus died, a woman poured expensive perfume over his head. And it was so beautiful, that wherever the Good News was proclaimed people remembered her.

And they remembered that beautiful thing that she did for him.
And it suddenly seemed like not even death could end of God’s love.


Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 4: 1-13


The story begins with Jesus high on life. Full of the Spirit, the gospel says.

Filled up with the Holy Spirit, still dripping wet from the waters of the Jordan River.

Just before the story we just heard Jesus has been baptized by John. And as John lowered him beneath the murky waves, then lifted him back, the heavens opened and a voice from heaven proclaimed: “You are my beloved, in you I am well pleased”

The Spirit even descended like a dove.

And so Jesus. The carpenters Son from Nazareth has been anointed by river water to bring the good news of God’s love to the world.

And Jesus, whose very spirit hums with divine presence, has just heard the voice of God blessing him, naming him, and sending him on his way.

It must have been amazing.

And so, the story goes, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the Wilderness.

Luke’s version is nice. In the Gospel of Mark, it goes a little faster. Here is how this story sounds in that Gospel:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Suddenly he is not led, but driven. And he doesn’t even have a chance to go home first and change into dry clothes.

It is one of the biggest smash-cuts in the Bible. One minute, he is in the river being proclaimed God’s beloved. The next, he is in the wilderness with the Devil.

It seems strangely abrupt. That is unless you’ve lived enough to know how much life is like that…

I was a firefighter for 4 years before I became a pastor. And when I was just starting out as a rookie, going through my first few classes, a sage fire chief sat down our little group of 18-year-old recruits to lay some knowledge on us.

“Every day.” He said. “Every day, you are going to meet someone who is having the worst day of their life.”

I think the class was called “hose streams and water appliances,” But I don’t remember much of that. I don’t remember the correct pressure for a 2.5 in. fog nozzle, or how to tie the knot that holds a ground-monitor in place…
I remember two things. I remember getting knocked over backwards the first time I tried to hold the hose by myself.

And I remember that one line he said, “Every day, you are going to meet someone who is having the worst day of their life.”

Thankfully it wasn’t every day.

But the thing I remember most from those four years of work, the things that I know I will remember long after I have forgotten the rest, are the faces of people who had just seen their world fall apart. A sudden loss. Or a life’s worth of things up in smoke.

Life can be abrupt like that.

And chances are, you don’t need me to tell you.

Chances are your life has had some smash-cuts too. Things are going along beautifully according to plan, and then just like that, they are not.

Suddenly Christ is famished. Out in the wilderness. Alone. Weary. Hungry. Maybe even delirious.

Suddenly, the glory of that amazing moment in the Jordan River seems so distant he can barely grasp it. The presence of God which felt so profound. The joy that wrapped around him like a blanket. Suddenly is impossible to feel.

And so these temptations are not generic. They are concocted out of thin air. They are challenges to the very identity that God has proclaimed for him.

“Perhaps, you are just meant to survive.” The tempter whispers. “Not truly live.” “Here, these stones could make good bread.”

“Perhaps, you are meant to take control.” The tempter whispers. “Be self reliant and stop getting buffeted about by the Spirit’s whims.”

And that might all sound strange, unless of course those same demons have kept you up at night. Whispering that you are not worth as much as you thought. Or that you have no more reason for hope. Or that you need to buckle down and take control, and that you totally can, if you just try.

Or perhaps, your tempter whispers that just one drink, just this once, won’t do anyone any harm.

Or perhaps, your tempter whispers that it would be easier to just give up.

Or perhaps, your tempter whispers that you should just endure abuse.

Perhaps, your tempter whispers that it is all your fault.

The truth is that this story from the Bible can sound a little bit like a folk-tale from a bygone time. It might seem like some old medieval painting with cloven-hooved devils wandering around with pitchforks poking farmers and enticing unwitting folk toward sins.

It might all seem a bit old fashioned and out of date. Or at least in need of some revision.

That is unless your life has ever come crashing down, and these bad ideas start creeping into your head.

So the question for us is, how to we survive these moments, with our souls intact? How to we endure the big and little lies and temptations that claw at us? How do we come out the other side.
Here is what Jesus did. He stood in the truth of his identity, when the temper started to whisper to him.

He remembered what God had said about him the the Jordan River. He remembered what he believed deep down his mission in the world was. He remembered who he was and whose he was.

He stood in the truth of his identity, so that when temptation whispered “You could have unlimited power…” He said: “I could, but that is not who I am. That is not what I was made to do.”

He stood in the truth of his identity. He remembered who  he was. So that when temptation whispered, “why not be reckless, take a leap, just to see…” He said: “I could, but I have much to live for.”

These 40 days that Jesus spent out in the wilderness, alone with his temptations, is where Christians got the idea for the 40 day stretch we call Lent.

Lent is the season leading up to Easter, and it is a stretch of time where we are called to heightened spiritual devotion, to prayer. It is a time to take stock of our lives, our whole lives, the good and the bad. And to seek God’s help with all the broken parts of who we are.

Lent is a time for turning away from the habits that distract us from God, and from the call of our faith journey.

That is what temptation is. It is some enticing habit that takes us away from the truth of who we are and whose we are.

We are God’s people made in God’s image. Wholy good. Undeniably beloved.

And whatever whispers something else to you a tempter. Whatever distracts you from that beautiful truth is temptation.

Now Lent is a popular time to give up chocolate, or to try to cut back on TV, or get to the gym a bit more. Sort a a New Years Resolution, round 2.

And that is great, if that is what your temptations are. But if you are anything like me, there are bigger things you need to turn away from.

So what if this Lent, you gave up indifference. And avoided the temptation to shield yourself from the pain of the world.

Or what if you gave up self-loathing, and vowed to look in the mirror and notice beauty.

Or what if you gave up self-deprication, and started believing that what you have to say matters.

What if you gave up prejudice, and committed to really knowing people for who they are, before you make up your mind about them for some superficial reason.

Its a little harder than hiding the cookie jar. But it is much more likely to send the devil away with his tail tucked between his legs.

And so how might we do something so dramatic. Even just for a few weeks?

Remember who you are. You are a creature made of dust, the same stuff as the soil and the stars. You were formed by a God who loves you madly, cares for you ceaseless, and cherishes you dearly.

Remember whose you are. All our lives belong to God. We live to make God’s love come alive.

Imagine yourself, if it helps, still dripping with the waters of baptism. Claimed and named by God who made you who you are.

That is who you are. That is whose you are.

The temptations are lies. Very crafty. Very seductive. Brilliantly scathing lies. That cut to the core of our deepest insecurities. That prey on our worst fears.

But they are not true.

You are beautiful. You are beloved. Every life is sacred. There is always hope. Death will not speak last. God’s love will never end.

That is what is true. Remember it.

If someone tries to tell you something else, you can just answer like Jesus did: “I am beloved. I am God’s.”

I Told Myself (A Sermon on Testimony)

“Always be ready to give reasons for your faith” – 1 Peter 3:15

A friend of mine has a four year old nephew who I am going to call Matthew. Matthew has leukemia and spends most of his time in a hospital. And when he is not undergoing treatment, or sleeping, Matthew is painting and drawing and sculpting with clay. There isn’t a medium that he has not taken to with enthusiasm.

And so the walls of Matthew’s hospital room are covered with his creations. With watercolors and scribbles with crayons, with coloring book pages colored outside the lines, and blank sheets filled with the images and hues of his imagination.

On the table next to the bed are a few things he made out of clay, and every once and a while, he takes what he has made and smush-es it back into a balls so he can start again and create something new. It gave the room this sort of magical feel, despite everything else.

So when my friend went to visit him a few months ago and commented on the creations that adorn his room, he said, matter-of-factly: “I am an artist.”

She must have looked puzzled, because he repeated himself. “I am an artist, and do you know how I know?” he asked.

“How?” She asked.

“I know because my art teacher told me, and because I told myself.”

I am an artist, because someone told me, because I told myself, and because now I am telling you. From the mouth of a little boy who knows better than many of us just how scary the world can be, how out of control life can feel.

Do you know / how I know / that I am / who I am?

I told myself, and now I am telling you.

What I admire so much about that young boy, is that in the midst of long hospitalization, and scary treatments, is that he did not lose the ability to tell the truth about himself. Even in the most shadowy valley, he could bear witness to something simple, and something beautiful about himself. I am an artist.

We get this glimpse into the early church in the letter I just read. No one is quite sure who wrote it, probably a later follower of Peter… Its kind of an internal memo of the early church, and here is what they were saying to each other.

“Always be ready to give reasons for the hope that is in you” In other words:

“Be ready to tell people the truth about who you are, and be ready to tell them how you know.”

Be ready to tell the truth about who you are so that you can stand firmly in a world that will otherwise spin you around.

In church we call that testimony.

At the last congregation I served, I offered a class on the Christian practice of testimony. And I was really excited about it. I planned to have us practice writing and sharing testimony with one another. I outlined a course over a few months where we would read the testimonies of others, and then set about crafting and sharing our own.

I wanted the members of my church to get a chance to do what the scripture text for this morning recommends. Always be ready to give reasons for your faith. Be ready to tell people the truth about who you are, and be ready to tell them how you know. Learn how to claim your identity boldly and publicly, otherwise you might just conform to the culture, and make yourself into what everyone else expects.

I was excited. But it was a tough sell.

Testify is one of those words that has had its meaning perverted. And I learned that quickly talking with my congregation. People suggested changing the name of the class to “telling our stories” or “sharing our faith” anything but the name I had chosen: “Testify.”

There were quite a few people who avoided me while I was walking around at coffee hour because they did not want to get roped into this ‘testimony’ business.

I think that when we imagine testimony, we imagine something manipulative. Maybe even something a little bombastic. Often we associate testimony with someone’s attempt to convert people; to change “non-believers” into Christians. And there are few things that send Congregationalists running quite as quickly as that sort of fervent evangelical zeal.

But here is what the author of 1 Peter says about testimony.

“be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience”

I think that is a great image. Speak with respect, but don’t apologize for your truth. Be humble enough to speak only for yourself. Love one another enough to listen to each other’s stories.

That is the kind of testimony I love. And, in our class,  that is exactly what we got.

Some people told hard stories about difficult childhoods and the scars that linger even still.

Some people shared the joy that they felt when they first found a home at church.

Some people told us about experiences with God that took our breath away.

And at the end we were all transformed. Not because the testimony was aimed at converting anyone, or changing anything about any of us.

We were transformed because receiving such raw and true stories, and having a space to share them, deepened our trust in one another and it widened our experience of God. That is the beauty of true testimony. It does not shift our gaze so much as it widens our field of view. It does not make us feel bad about who we are, but gives us the courage to share our story too.

Charles Wright is the Poet Laureate of the United States. So you can imagine my surprise when I heard him say one day on the radio “I do not really think of myself as a poet.”

Wright said “it’s kind of a sacred trade, I don’t think I have passed all the barriers yet to call myself that.”

Compare that to Matthew. The 4-year-old hospital patient who said: I am an artist. I think Matthew knows what testimony is.

He knows intuitively that he does not need credentials to call himself an artist. And he knows that calling himself an artist does not mean he has perfected his craft. Its who he is, he knows it, and he is telling us.

But I think most of us live more like Charles Wright than like Matthew. We expect that some day we might have the credibility or the authority necessary for what we say to matter. The danger though is that one day he woke up as the poet laureate of the United States, and still did not feel like a poet.

Do you have a truth that you have a hard time claiming with Matthew’s boldness?

What part of your story has been left untold?

What is your testimony?

In your very core, what is true to you?

What is the foundation of your faith?

Won’t you tell us?

At coffee hour, in the parking lot, after the PTA meetings, on the sideline of the soccer fields,

Scriptures word to the church is my word to you: “be ready to tell someone the truth, about who you are.” Be ready to account for the faith and the hope that lives in your heart. Testify!

Here’s my testimony:

Often I have a hard time saying that I am a Christian. Or at least, I have a hard time saying it without the next word being ‘but…’

I am a Christian, but my church celebrates the love between same gender couples.

I am a Christian, but I do not assume that people of other religions need to be converted.

I am a Christian, but I still have questions and doubts

I am a Christian, but we can still be friends, I can talk about other things too…

Then I realize that I am missing the chance to proclaim the reasons for my faith, filling that space instead with my apologies and corrections…

So let me try it a new way, here, with you:

I am a Christian because In the life of Jesus I see the way I strive to live.

I am a Christian because I have witnessed God’s spirit work in people’s hearts

I am a Christian because I will never stop needing forgiveness and love.

So I am learning how to say these words. It is easier to say them here, harder out there.

Still, I am learning that I can state my truth without having it all figured out. I have doubts. I wrestle with the big questions about God. I walk around with an unsettled heart in uncertain times.

I just know I’m a Christian because deep down something about that word names me.

So I told myself

and now I’m telling you.