Between Poetry & Psalms
"Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul."
PSALM 143:8 (NIV)
Today, this psalm reminded me of the first poem I wrote for my wife. Which said:
There was something about
the first time
that sent the heavens
into a frenzy
Between Pride and Humility
Now, I recently started watching Peaky Blinders on Netflix. It’s a historical crime drama about a ruthless gang making a name for itself in 1920’s England.
The leader, Tommy Sheldon, is a twice decorated war hero whose life is a delicate balance between his pride and humility. He knows the more successful and powerful he becomes, the prouder he gets. And the prouder he gets, the easier it is for people to knock him down a few pegs.
Now, pride is something we all need from time to time. It can be the one thing that gives us the strength to face hardship and adversity. But it can also weaken, or blind us because, more often than not, it puts one’s focus only on one’s self. It makes a person believe they are more important than others. In contrast, humility is a low view of oneself. It sets aside the ego to make room for others.
When we possess a humble heart, we are better able to see others for who they are…be it good or bad – which, in the case of Tommy Sheldon, is a good thing. What’s the old saying? Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
...For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke tells us that Jesus is invited to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. A lot of people are gathered there, perhaps to be close to Jesus, or to simply keep a close eye on him.
You might know that the Pharisees were known for their meticulous knowledge of the law and traditions. And they always loved a good theological debate. Last week, they argued with Jesus about healing on the Sabbath. This week, it’s about who sits where.
In ancient Mediterranean cultures it was common for the most prestigious people to have the positions closest to the host. This was the seat everyone wanted. Because we all seem to have a self-worth that says we should be the one sitting there.
Watching the guest jockey for this position, Jesus tells a parable, a story that everyone could understand. And the moral of this story is simple: Don’t be so quick to grab the best seat in the house. Instead, move to the seat no one wants and wait to be invited to the seat of honor.
This is the equivalent of say mid-level executives fighting for the corner office. Like Thomas Merton once said, “People spend their whole life climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top they discover the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
Our pride tells us to worry about what to wear, what to drive, where to live, who to socialize with. It convinces us that we can buy our way up this ladder.
Like those pushing and conniving to get the best seat at the table, this action sets most of us up to fail. Even Tommy Sheldon knows it’s better to be humble, then to let someone humble and humiliate you.
As faithful people, we should know that first, we are all equal in the eyes of our Lord. And second, if you don’t want to embarrass yourself, then let go of your sense of self-worth. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is not just a lesson about table manners. Nor is it practical advice to avoid embarrassment. Jesus is teaching us about the power of humility.
While self-promotion might be the accepted way to get ahead in the world, humility is the way to be blessed by God.
Like Whitney Rice notes, “it’s not the system that needs fixing. It’s us. It’s our pride, our exalting ourselves that eventually leaves us humbled and humiliated.” To her point, if we can let go of our pride and stop trying to get a leg up on others, then we will have the space in our hearts to lift each other up.
Jack Kornfield tells a story about a man who went searching for the meaning of life. After several long years of searching, he comes to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invites his visitor into his humble home and begins to serve him tea.
He fills the pilgrim’s cup to the brim, and then keeps pouring as the tea overflows onto the floor. The man watched until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop!” he said. “It is full. No more will go in.”
The holy hermit replied, “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions, and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?”
Jesus reminds us that a humble heart is one that is empty of pride and all the junk that goes with it. So, what might that look like?
In his letter to the Philippians churches, Paul tells us to, “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus ever knee should bend...” (Phil. 2:5-10a).
To follow Jesus, is to mirror Jesus in all that we do. Beginning by emptying ourselves like he did…no matter the cost to our egos. And this is where the real challenge is.
We all know how painful it is to let go of the things that give us our strength and self-worth. But the truth is, it only takes a little faith, putting trust in God’s promise. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Turning his attention from the guest, Jesus now speaks directly to the host and tells another parable; making this point: “Next time you throw a fancy dinner party, make sure you invite those who never get invited out – those who can’t return the favor.” In essence he’s saying, “The ones no one puts on the guest list are the ones who deserve the seats of honor.”
Such a humble action not only allow one to be a blessing now, but also allows one experience a greater blessing later. Staying humble does more than keep your pride in check. It keeps us close to God’s heart where we are able to see God in the face of the least of these.
Jesus is teaching us to empty and open our hearts to be filled with God’s blessings now,
so we can be the presence of God’s blessing for those who need to experience it.
A humble heart provides a way for us to share the gospel of grace and mercy to people who may not have ever received it or known about it.
In the space between our pride and humility, our goal should not be focused on attaining a posture or position of power. It should be about opening the doors to the banquet hall and inviting everyone in, so everyone gets a chance to sit with Christ, and be in the presence of God’s glory.
Just as God blesses our hearts, so too must we be a blessing to others through acts of compassion and love.
To quote Henri Nouwen, “Jesus’ words were his action, his words were events. They not only spoke about changes, cures, new life, but they actually created them."
Jesus embodied what he taught, and he taught what he embodied. It’s in this space of Anamesa, Christ moves us closer to God’s heart where we can love, heal, forgive, and bless others.
We can set aside our ego, pride and needs, trusting in God’s promise of a greater blessing that awaits us at a later time. By then it won’t matter who we know or where we sit. Because our self-worth is not determined by location or social status. It’s based solely on the One who loves everyone at the banquet. Including you and me.
And that, my friends, is something I think we can all take pride in.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On The Word, Year C, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Nouwen, Henri. You Are The Beloved. (New York: Convergent, 2017).
Rice, Whitney. What Seat Do You Choose. August 28, 2016. epsicopalchurch.org (Accessed on August 26, 2022).
Between The Law & Life
...When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”... Luke 13:10-17
The central issue of this text is about the application of Sabbath rules – specifically whether it is forbidden to heal on the day of rest. The 24-hour period between sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is marked by one’s ceasing to do anything that the religious authorities might consider work.
To a good Jew, like Jesus, Shabbat is to be upheld at all costs. It’s number 4 on the top 10 commandments, so we can say it’s pretty important.
Long before kids, we used to live in a very Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Hollywood. If you need to know anything about Orthodox Jews it’s that they adhere to a strict rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law and its traditional observances.
One evening, our neighbor Branden was coming in from work when he was approached by a man who frantically asked him if he was Jewish. Although Branden answered, “No” the man kept pressing, “Are you sure you’re not Jewish? Is your mother Jewish? What about your grandmother, is she Jewish?” Each time Branden assured the guy he was nothing more than a lapsed Catholic.
Finally, the man said, his wife was in labor and was about to give birth. But he couldn’t drive her to the hospital, or call an ambulance, for the same reason Jesus gets scolded for. It was Shabbat and he was forbidden to do any work.
Without giving it a second thought, Branden agreed and ran with the man into the building next door. As the man began to walk his wife out the apartment, he asked Branden to turn off the stove, shut off the lights, and to do a few other things that might have violated his religious obligation. All of which Branden did willingly.
Once they got the very pregnant wife into the car, this stranger had one more request. “Can you go back upstairs and get her suitcase? I am forbidden to lift anything.”
After a few choice words, none of which are appropriate to repeat here, the man relinquished his moral obligation and got the suitcase himself.
Now here’s a little secret, ancient Sabbath restrictions didn’t include a ban on all work. Like Jesus pointed out in our reading, taking your cattle out to get some water was allowed. So too was acting to save human life.
Time and time again, Jesus performed acts of healing on this sacred day, drawing a clear distinction between the law and life. What this tells me is that it’s the principle behind the law that gives a law power.
But as Ken Kesselus noted, "This passage reveals the tendency for humans to resort to methods of power and control to achieve what they want or feel they need.” He argued the leader of the synagogue tried to use God’s law to wield power over Jesus regardless of the good he had done.
watch the entire message here
Luke tells us the man indignantly, and rightfully, insisted that Jesus could have waited for another day to cure the woman. The woman was not in mortal danger. She’d been struggling with this infliction for 18 years and probably could’ve waited another day to be healed.
So, let’s not use this story to make the man out to be the bad and Jesus good. I’m sure Jesus knew the leader of the synagogue was not only in charge of making sure the law was upheld, but also that it was properly interpreted.
This is where life gets a little fuzzy. How I see something and how you might see can be vastly different. A perfect example of this would be Rep. Chaney and the rest of the Republican party.
As Luke pointed out, Jesus was teaching that day, people had come to hear his understanding of Torah. We aren’t told if that’s why this woman showed up, but we know it was Sabbath and she was required to be there despite how burdensome it was for her.
When Jesus sees her, he has to make an ethical decision. Use his power to heal this woman and violate Sabbath law. Or uphold the law and withhold the blessing the woman clearly needs. Now, the woman never asked to be healed. Jesus saw her and had compassion for her. He knows he possesses what she needed and doesn’t think twice about using it.
Therein lies the difference. Jesus uses his power to help, while the leader uses his to control. Again, let’s not be too quick to judge this man.Historically speaking, the Christian church has behaved more like him than Jesus.
I have witnessed firsthand how religion uses personal interpretation of scripture to ritually and legalistically condemn and control others. It happened between the Roman Church of the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church. It happened between Protestants and Catholics. And still continues in the political fights between Conservative Evangelicals and Liberal Christians.
What this tells me is that in our desire to possess power we’ve reduced God to a size that’s small enough for us to control. But here’s the thing - our God is bigger than that. Bigger than us, our needs, our laws, and our actions.
We cannot continue to shrink God, because in doing so we make ourselves and our presence in the world, smaller and smaller.
When I read this story, I don’t believe Jesus heal the woman to exercise his power any more than he did it to break God’s law. On the contrary, he’s upholds the law, the way it was intended to be used - to show the real universal power of God’s love. Period. Isn’t that exactly what we’re called to do?
Sadly, we’ve lost sight of Jesus’ power in our personal quests to obtain and keep our own. What we need to remember is that the only way we will get it right, is by seeing and doing what Jesus did.
He used his power to heal and help; not hurt and harm. He used his power to redeem and unite all people together, not to reject and divide us. He used his power to forgive and absolve our sins, not use them against us to manipulate and control us.
When Jesus used his power to love others, he leveled the playing field so that everyone had a chance to experience God’s power within them.
The power of God is love. And the power of love is universal. If it is not for all, then what good is it? It’s powerless, and so are we. But here’s the good news – There’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less.
If love has conditions, it’s not God’s love. If love is not liberating and freeing, then it is not God’s love. If love is not life giving, then it’s not God’s love. Jesus knew this love intimately. He shared it liberally. By acting out of compassion for this woman, Jesus revealed the ultimate power of God’s love that helps, heals, and gives life.
This is what the kingdom of God is all about – restoring, redeeming, and returning us to where we rightfully belong. In this space between the law and life, Jesus meets us where we are; touching our hearts and making things right.
For our Lord, true Sabbath is God giving true freedom to people like this unnamed woman, who was released from her burdens by the power of Jesus’ compassion. Through his power, Jesus unlocks the Divine love within us all. A power by which we must use to love God, love others, and serve both.
Yes, in this sacred space of Anamesa, God not only requires us to keep the Sabbath but to make it holy. This happens whenever we welcome the stranger, love our enemies, encourage our friends, and help and heal each other.
As followers of Jesus, we are to partake in a divine kingdom that is not based solely on obedience to a set of rules, but also on sharing the power of God’s great love.
Jesus has entrusted us with the Holy Spirit, to bear its fruit until there are no more broken or disfigured, captive or slave, or us and them. Through Christ, God’s power is given to all, so there will be no more wars or conflicts over religious ideology or political beliefs. What God gave to Jesus; Jesus has given to all.
May no law, ritual, or religious belief stop you from receiving the full power of God’s love right now. And may nothing ever stand in your way from giving it away, every day, until everyone rejoices in the wonderful things God has done.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Kesselus, Ken. Power and Control. www.episcopalchurch.org. August 25, 2019 (accessed on August 18, 2022).
Womack, Lawrence. It’s A Wonder. www.episcopalchurch.org. August 22, 2010 (accessed on August 18, 2022).
Between Noise and Silence
I know that place of discontent but in a different way. There have been so many times that I wanted to hear God’s voice speaking directly to me; to receive some kind of auditable nudge like you read about in scripture.
I chose today’s passage because it comes from a time in Israel’s history when God seemed to be mute. No more speaking out loud like it was with their ancestors. It seemed like God didn’t want to show up anymore, muchless speak up.
But was God quiet? Or had the people gone deaf? Sometimes we get so comfortable in doing things our own way, that we forget to listen to what God is calling us to do.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again,....a third time....Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”....Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
It says Samuel was still a boy when God called him to be a prophet. It seems it takes a child’s mind, one that isn’t filled with the noises of the world, to truly hear. But of course, before Samuel could be one who speaks God’s words to those in power, he had to first understand who was speaking to him.
At first, he thinks it’s Eli, the chief priest and his teacher. So he immediately answers, “hineni” a Hebrew word which translates as “here I am.” It’s a term that usually reflects a willingness to respond with action to one’s master.
After Abraham said “hineni” God called him to sacrifice his son Isaac. With Moses, God called him back to Egypt. When Isaiah said it, God called him to pronounce judgement upon those in seats of power.
Take it from me, when one says “Here I am” to God one can expect a difficult task will need to be fulfilled. Even when Samuel thought it was Eli calling him, he was ready and willing to serve. And here’s the first thing we learn from this story. God is calling each of us by name. And we must be ready and willing to say “Here I am.”
watch the message here
Now, you might be asking yourself, how do I really know when it’s God calling and not the cacophony of voices in my life screaming for attention? How do I know it’s not my mind playing tricks? Or my ego deceiving me?
With all that is happening in the world these days, it’s hard to believe God is still here muchless is willing to speak. But if Samuel’s story teaches us anything, it’s that God is not silent or absent. God is always present, constantly reaching out to us in every space we’re in.
Often God’s voice is quiet and can be heard only in prayer. But there are times when it’s so loud and clear, even the noisiest of family reunions couldn’t render it mute.
Last night, for example, I had just fallen into a deep sleep when my brother-in-law decided to play our piano at full volume. I was shocked awake, and not very happy about it.
As I stewed in bed, something in my soul reminded me of the theme of today’s message: between the noise and silence. I meditated on that, finding the presence of God in that space. And before I knew it, my anger had lifted and I drifted off to sleep again.
I would argue that the closer one is to God, the better one will be at holding space between noise and silence. And the better one will be to recognize that every space is sacred because this is where God breaks through with miraculous encounters, timely remedies, and words of encouragement and hope. We have to be intentional with our hearing; always ready and willing to respond.
In early 2021, a strange word popped into my head while I was out walking the dog. I had no idea what the word meant, but it had a poetic and lyrical sound to it. Something in me began to say the word quietly in my head. Unfortunately, I get distracted easily…and like so many great thoughts, this strange word disappeared like a puff of air.
A few weeks later, I was distracted by another thought; thinking about the in between spaces that separate us. I wanted to know if there was a Greek word that described this place. So, I did what most great scholars do these days I Googled it. Can you guess what that word was? Anamesa. The same word that had popped into my head in the park.
Had I not spent the time to build a close relationship with God, would I have heard or known what God was revealing to me? Would this church take the direction it has if we did not listen and respond to God’s voice calling out to us?
In Scripture we learn God speaks to us in many different ways. We get natural revelations through creation. And special revelations, like when God speaks to us through Christ Jesus. But there are also endless personal revelations we receive when God communicates to us through books, movies, sermons, poetry, or good conversations with others.
Thus, Jesus teaches us to always be ready, “for the servant never knows when the master of the house will return.” Practicing mindfulness and intentional listening, will help us be prepared to hear God call. Trust me when I say, God is going to call.
As we learn from the text, Samuel is sleeping near the ark of God — the icon that symbolizes God’s presence. One could say, he was in a good spiritual space to hear God even if he didn’t know at first that it was God speaking.
It’s also worth pointing out that even though God’s word “had been rare at that time,” Eli knew how to instruct Samuel to respond – “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Here’s another stumbling point for many of us. Perhaps we aren’t listening or hearing, not because of the noise or the silence, but because we don’t want to hear what God has to say. We don’t want to do what God wants us to do.
Eli knows when God speaks it’s always with a purpose. For Samuel, it’s to deliver judgment upon his beloved teacher. And as tough as it was to do that, Samuel obeyed God.
Has God ever called you to do something so difficult that you’d rather bury your head in the sand than comply? I suspect that’s true for most of us. Although Samuel doesn’t recognize this divine summons, his first instinct is to respond immediately.
If we say we follow Jesus, then we too ought to respond like he did when God’s call us – “To pluck up the lowly, and to pull down lofty; to destroy and to overthrow injustice; to build and plant the peace of God in the heart of every person.”
To accept the name Christian is to stand with Christ between the noise and silence, listening to all the different ways God speaks to others through our acts of mercy, grace, and love. This is our calling. The task of the church and everyone in it.
Samuel had no idea what God was doing through him. But that didn’t stop him from doing what was being asked of him.
Despite what you might think, God doesn’t need you to be a prophet. You only need to be willing and faithful to your call… no matter how hard or difficult it might seem. I mean, isn’t this what Jesus did?
In the sacred space of Anamesa, we must strive to be more like the one John calls the Word of God. Like him, our actions need to speak in ways that get people’s attention and causes them to respond.
Just as God spoke to our hearts through Christ, we too must allow Christ to speak through us so other hearts can be helped and healed.
Through him, we’ve been given a divine vocabulary. One that gives voice to the poor and downtrodden. A voice that can right the wrongs that plague our communities. And name injustice for what it is.
So, as you leave here today, I challenge you to attune your ears to hear the voice of God in your home, …your neighborhood and social community. Listen to what’s being said between the business and stillness. Because you never know if God is using someone or something to reveal or impart some divine truth to you.
If you make this your starting point, then you can easily be the heavenly voice that God sends out into the world to proclaim the good news in the same way St. Francis taught, “using words only when necessary.”
God is calling you. How will you answer? How will you respond?
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Marla Alupoaicei. How to Hear God's Voice Above the Noise. https://faithgateway.com/apps/fireamp/blogs/christian-books/how-to-hear-gods-voice-above-the-noise
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”