Imagination: A Sermon

A sermon offered in preaching class…


“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

“Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” ~ John 6:1-14

***

Let us hear these song lyrics by singer-songwriter Bethany Dillon as a prayer today:

“I need to be reminded of who I was
When I took my first steps out the door
All I said now follows me around
I’m reminded I’m not like that anymore

I uprooted and miles behind me
Are the faces and the home I love
You’ve brought to my attention
I’m slowly changing and becoming
What I wanted to stop

Isn’t that just like a finite mind
Setting out with such righteous indignation
But now I’m at your feet
Could you look at me with some imagination”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

***

If you’re a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, you’ve likely done a fair bit of reflecting recently. Last week, we submitted our middler reviews. Some of us had a required Field Ed reflection on Friday afternoon.

As for me, I wound up reflecting at one point all the way back to when I visited Duke as a prospective student two years ago. To who I was “when I took my first steps out the door,” as we prayed a moment ago. I already had a couple friends who were current students here, so the night before my actual campus visit I met up with these friends for dinner. They spoke so naturally about their assignments and something they called precepts and used terminology that I’m still not always sure how to pronounce much less use. Before I went to bed that night, I googled the term “impostor syndrome,” read about it, and nodded. “Persistent fear of being ‘not good enough’ or being exposed as a fraud.”

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

Yes, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, our God is a God of imagination. Taking something and seeing something more. A God of “breadth and length and height and depth” exceeding what even my best Vacation Bible School-style hand movements could express. You know, “deep and wide, deep and wide,” a river flowing deep and wide.

In Paul’s language, our God is a God of love “that surpasses knowledge.” A God of power “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” A God of bread and wine that is impossibly the body and blood of Christ. And, in our gospel lesson today, a God of plain old loaves and fish that is a feast for all.

***

Imagine this story for a minute through the eyes of the disciples. It’s the end of the work day. You’re tired. You’re trying to sit by the sea, put your feet up with your co-workers, and take a break.

But your whole community and then some is showing up with questions and curiosities for your boss, Jesus. He says to serve them, to feed them. All of them.

You want to do what your supervisor says of course, but at the same time you’re thinking, well…a) I’m off the clock, Jesus. C’mon, really? b) That’s not possible, Jesus. Really?

It would be much too expensive to care for them all. Six months’ income would still barely do anything, one of the disciples says.

A kid here has five loaves of bread and two fish, another disciple says, just stating the facts, but what difference does that make?

Six months’ income. Five loaves. Two fish. Five thousand people. You’d make a pretty good finance committee, disciples, and there’s a time and place for that for sure. But what can you do with that budget? Moreover, what can Jesus do for the people?

Jesus takes that bread and fish, the most ordinary thing of the earth and most ordinary thing of the sea, and he tells the whole clamoring crowd to sit down. He gives thanks. Thanks for the real substances in his hands, the really large crowd gathered around, and maybe even the realism of the disciples. And it’s as though he too says,

But now I’m at your feet

Would you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

When Paul looked at Jesus with some imagination, his writing style seriously showed it. Good writing teachers usually warn against using too many superlatives. A preceptor might dock points from Paul’s last sentence in our passage today: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”

Abundantly. Far. More.

This is excessive wordiness, the editor in me wants to say.

This is impossible hopefulness, the skeptic in me wants to say.

And at the same time…this is an abundant Jesus, the Spirit in me has to admit.

Because Jesus not only provided for the five thousand – as if that wasn’t miracle enough – but satisfied the five thousand. Such that the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. In this way, Jesus saw what little there was to work with at the outset, saw that it could be enough, and indeed saw that it could be more than enough.

Abundantly far more than enough to work even within, among, and through us today. In our imaginations and, for us as students, our educations and vocations. Seeing realistically what is and seeing hopefully what could be.

See, as I reflected last week, amidst the flurry of portfolios and Field Ed reflections, I remembered myself as a prospective student, yes, but I also imagined myself as prospective…pastor? I could sort of picture it because on a recent Sunday, serving at my Field Ed church, I had wound up serving the Communion bread – a responsibility in my Episcopal tradition that’s revered and reserved quite strictly for the ordained clergy or if absolutely necessary laypeople serving with specific clerical permission. This particular Sunday, my church had fewer clergy there than usual, so at the very last minute a priest with a panicked look on her face handed me a piece of bread and told me, “you’re it.” Like a holy game of tag.

I don’t want to be it, I thought, as I shuffled down the chancel steps toward the congregation, white robes billowing at my sides. I’m not prepared to be ‘it.’ I’m just an intern. Just a student. Just uhh…What do I say now? I thought, as a line of parishioners approached. The bread of…the body…the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Just a kid with five loaves and two fish.

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

God, could you look at this classroom as a room of preachers? Could you look at this school as a bustling kitchen preparing loaves and fish, even if they sometimes look like papers and projects? Could you take what very little gifts we have to offer, give thanks, and distribute them to others so that people could say as the gospel writer did that “this [this Jesus Christ] is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

God can. And has. Will you?

Advertisements

An Update and a Sermon

Confession: I haven’t written on the blog in over 2 months. Sorry, friends.

In those months, I’ve been dedicating mental energy to transitions like moving to a new apartment and starting my second year of seminary, including an internship at a church and classes on Theology, American Christianity, Preaching, and Theology & Trauma (that last one’s my favorite!). Writing-wise, I’ve published a little on The Mighty and The Mudroom. It’s funny seeing those two websites stuck together in one sentence like that — mighty and messy. Sounds about right.

But, mostly, it feels like I’ve been writing sermons for my preaching class (among other assignments for other classes). Some shorter, some longer. Some I really love, some less so.

Since that’s what I’m writing these days, sermons are mostly what I’ll be offering on the blog in the coming months — reflections on Bible passages, probably infused with my own interests in intersections of faith, mental health, and social justice.

To start off: a short homily on John 21:15-17

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Rejection. Dejection. That’s what Peter’s experiencing when we see him in this encounter with Jesus. He has seen Jesus crucified; he has denied Jesus three times; he has lost his hope and lost his way.

And dejection is what I was experiencing some months ago after some particularly difficult meetings at church – meetings that made me profoundly doubt my call to serve God. Like Peter, I felt that I had lost my hope and lost my way.

Maybe on occasion you have too.

But the thing is, in that very same state of despair I met Jesus. After those difficult, doubt-filled meetings, I went down the hall to the church’s empty, echoing sanctuary, looked up at a stained glass portrait of Jesus surrounded by a flock of sheep around his feet, and told that shepherd to lead me. Actually, I think I told Jesus something like “What the hell? I can’t. Just can’t. I’m done.” (Apparently sentences longer than two words weren’t working so well!)

c06706bd0890caf9891c0bc1843ef462To which stained-glass shepherd Jesus replied in my mind: “Do you love me, Julia?”

“Yes, Jesus, you know I love you,” I replied.

“Then feed my sheep,” Jesus said.

I let this mental exchange play out three times just as it had with Peter, growing more annoyed and more amused each time just as I imagine Peter might have felt.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus kept saying, “whatever that looks like, whether or not there will ever be a collar around your neck or a title attached to your name. Feed them the Word of God, words of hope, acts of mercy, the body of Christ, the cup of salvation. Just feed them.”

Interestingly, in the months to come, as I wondered how to live out this command – particularly in my Divinity School context – my spiritual director would ask me month after month after month, sounding rather like Jesus questioning Peter time after time after time: “Are you still committed to this?”

With a sigh, I would say each time: “Yes, Liz, I’m still committed to this.”

“Then feed his sheep.”

It’s a frustrating redundancy. But it’s also a necessary one. God knows we need reminders of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Reminders to feed his sheep. Feed his sheep. And feed his sheep.

 

In Memoriam: A Reflection on the Life of My Grandma

The reflection I delivered today at my grandmother’s memorial service:

I have been blessed beyond measure to have Ellen Rust as my grandma. From a very young age, I always knew that Grandma loved me and my family with an unwavering, godly kind of love. She would call me her “little angel” and leave lipstick kisses on my cheeks. She would come to grandparent’s days and piano recitals. By the time I was in college, she would offer me clothes straight from her closet – like the outfit that I’m actually wearing today.

18157285_10208422989961929_125282986505709987_n

The last time I saw my grandma, January 2017

Now, I’m 26 and completing my first year of seminary at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. And I assure you: Ellen Rust has helped to make that possible.

Last week, when I learned of her passing, a chaplain at the seminary asked me: “Do you think there are ways that you’re similar to your grandmother?”

I thought for a long second and finally said, “You know. She would sometimes tell me that when she was young she wanted to go into the ministry. But she wasn’t sure she could because she was a woman and she didn’t have the money for seminary and probably some other reasons.”

Well, Grandma, I think you did go into the ministry. The ministry of encouragement. Support. Responsibility.

Like last fall when she called me up on the phone just to check on me and the conversation went something like this:

“Are you learning things up there at school?” she asked.

“Yes, lots of things,” I said.

“Well, that’s good. Are you going to church?”

“Yes, ma’am.” (Little did she know I would be an intern at that church some months later!)

“Are you gonna go vote for the president?”

“Yes, definitely.”

“Well, sounds like you’re doing real good.”

Simple as that. In the midst of an often complicated world, she knew her values: Education. Faith. Civic responsibility.

And maybe the value I remember most? Prayer.

When she had a short hospital stay in 2015, I went to visit and found her in good spirits. We talked, I prayed for her, and then from right there in the hospital bed she insisted on praying for me. I’ll never forget that, as I was getting ready to leave, Grandma told me this: “Every night, I lay down and talk to Jesus. Sometimes it’s real short, because I fall asleep and all. And sometimes it’s real long, because I tell him all about my day. And he listens real good and says, honey, you’ve had a pretty good day. And I say thanks, Jesus, I guess I have.”

So, even today, when I think about the life and legacy of Ellen Rust, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is listening real good and saying, “Honey, you’ve had a pretty good life.” And I imagine Ellen in glory laughing, “Thanks, Jesus. I guess I have.” 

Good Grief, Friday

il_340x270-897371198_rvyaYesterday, along with another young woman interning at my church, I carried a seven-foot-tall, thick wooden cross (literally an “old rugged cross”) down the aisle of the sanctuary.

Today, I have a scrape on the palm of my right hand to show for it. I wash my hands, and the scrape stings just a little. I see it standing out from the smoothness of the rest of my hand, and I remember that I’ve carried a cross.

“Take up your cross and follow me” is an awfully painful command, friends.

It’s a painful command in our religiously and politically charged culture, in which a great many people think we’re taking up our crosses and following Jesus — and we all mean something different by it. When crosses hang around our necks as we reject, insult, gossip, curse, betray, threaten, or abuse.

I wonder if many of us who have come in close contact with religion have a scrape or two to show for it. If we, too, try to wash our hands of it, and the scrape still stings just a little — or more than a little.

I wonder these things especially after reading Jen Hatmaker’s vulnerable blog post yesterday, entitled “My Saddest Good Friday In Memory: When Treasured Things Are Dead.” Hatmaker writes:

“Good Friday is about death – even a necessary death – and that makes more sense to me now than maybe ever. It speaks of a dark day and broken hearts, unmet expectations, mob mentality turned brutal. When I consider that day now, in 2017, it all feels insane, blood-thirsty, the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.”

Jesus knows about those dark days and broken hearts. Jesus knows about unmet expectations. Jesus knows about the punitive result of being on the wrong side of religion.

So, maybe Good Friday is about good grief. Because good grief is exactly what Jesus knows. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:5). Grief over the loss of a loved one, a home, a job, a way of life, a way of thinking. Grief over whatever it is that once brought comfort — and now brings only a cross.

I think of the 5 stages of grief famously identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and as I go through the sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, I hear signs that Jesus understands this grieving process:

DenialJesus might not have denied his fate. But everyone else, notably Peter, sure did (Matthew 26:31-35).

Anger. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Bargaining. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

Depression. “I am deeply grieved, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38) and “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

Acceptance. “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Did Jesus check off each of these stages as he moved through them, neatly and in order? No. Do we? Not at all. The point is that Jesus knows about grief.

Truly, blessedly, Jesus knows about hope too. But, honestly, in the death of Good Friday, in the silence of Holy Saturday, and for some of us lasting onward into the foreseeable future, grief is where we’re at.

Grief that is fully understood by Jesus, fully carried by Jesus all the way to the cross and tomb and through to the impossible dawn of resurrection.

 

Jesus, Tired Out

If you’re a lectionary user, you know this morning’s gospel lesson (about Jesus and the woman at the well) was a particularly long, rich passage. There’s much that could be said about this story as it unfolds — but my spirit barely made it past the second verse.

“Jesus came to a Samaritan city called womanatwellSychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.” – John 4:5-6 (emphasis mine)

Jesus? Tired out by his journey?

It would seem so. 

As if that’s not enough, verse 6 observes: It was about noon. Mid-day. As though Jesus took a lunch break in the middle of his work day. A spring break in the middle of his semester, so to speak, as I’m currently wrapping up doing.

Jesus, tired out by his journey.

As I heard this Scripture read aloud, a little girl in the pew behind me brandished her sippy cup in the air and asked quietly-ish: “Does Jesus want some water?”

I’m not sure what her parents said. But, I hope they said yes.

Fully God and fully man, Jesus wants water and is water (John 4:10). Especially as we journey in the coming weeks to Holy Week, recalling Christ’s sacrifice of death on the cross, we will recall that Christ said so powerfully: “I thirst” (John 19:38). Our Savior gets thirsty. Our Jesus gets tired.

And, when this happens, he takes a lunch break not just to watch Netflix and eat pizza as I would probably do. He takes a life-giving break, not a mind-numbing break (a distinction which, when I realized it existed, revolutionized my life and my use of time off). Jesus takes a break to be fed, to feed another (the woman at the well), and to be fed by feeding — a spiritual dynamic that’s remarkably replicable as we share life with others and find ourselves blessed by that sharing.

So, today, I’m encouraged by the empathy of a Jesus who got tired out by his journey (just like we do by ours). And I’m inspired by the compassion of a Jesus who got rejuvenated by serving others on his journey (just like we can on ours). Self-care is important, Jesus says to me here, and so is caring for others. You can’t have one without the other.