Sabbath: God’s Day Off

Scripture: Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:10-11

A couple years ago I was invited to lead a workshop on self-care for newer pastors in our conference.  It’s a funny thing, realizing that the part of your job you are apparently known for among your colleagues is your ability to not do it sometimes.  I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it, but I do actually care about this topic, so off I went to Richmond to lead this workshop.

Self-care is a pretty big buzzword these days, not just in the ministry world, but also in the secular one, perhaps especially in the world of things targeted at women.  It may conjure up images of bubble baths adorned with candles, getting a pedicure or a massage, or a day spent at a winery with friends.  Nothing wrong with any of those things in moderation, of course, but those things are not what we talked about in this workshop.  Instead, what we talked about was setting boundaries around our time.  Saying no when no needed to be said.  Not checking your email on your day off.  Committing to being at home to eat dinner with your family at least most nights a week.  Leaving the office early to get some exercise when you have to be back in the evening for a meeting.  These are the kinds of things my colleagues were struggling with, and while some of the details may be particular to pastoral ministry, I think the struggles themselves are not.

This sermon series we are beginning today is, likewise, not about whether your nails are done or you’ve had the chance to take a nice bubble bath lately.  But it is about learning to set some boundaries around our time.  And it’s particularly about this one boundary that God seems to explicitly expect of us: this idea that one day a week, we are supposed to just stop our work, say no to all the crucial things that demand our time and energy, and simply rest.  This is the idea we call Sabbath, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to stop.”  The practice of Sabbath is a form of self-care, though it is not the only form, and it may even seem like a strange form, this day that forces us to slow down and get even further behind in our work and lives.

If you were Jewish (depending heavily, of course, on what kind of Jewish you were) you might have a strict set of rules to follow in order to set and keep this boundary in time.  Don’t walk more than a certain distance.  Don’t turn the lights on and off, if you are orthodox.  Set aside your electronic devices, for some Reform Jews.[1]  That’s the funny thing about Sabbath, is that rest can actually end up taking a lot of effort.  It’s not just about doing whatever we want.  It’s fundamentally restrictive, because it rests on this idea that we need to actually be stopped, that we’re not just going to do it on our own.

Often Christians seem to think that when Jesus came he did away with all these silly rules, but that’s not really true.  Jesus certainly pushed back on multiple occasions against a legalistic interpretation of the Sabbath, one that lifted following the rules over and above responding to urgent human need.  “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he said (Mark 2:27), but we do tend to conveniently ignore the first part of that, the fact that Sabbath is still something God has made for us.  I think we ignore it less because of our Christian theology and more because it’s not our natural inclination to want to stop.  We are more inclined, at least in our culture as I experience it, to push the limits, to squeeze thing in, to produce, produce, produce.  Here in America, we’re good capitalists that way, right?  I mean this for myself, too, despite that fact that I was the one teaching that workshop.  Life simply gives us so much to do; people simply expect so much from us, whether they are our boss or our family or our friends; honestly, sometimes we just expect so much from ourselves.

I don’t assume that anything about this series over the next few weeks is going to make it magically easier for you to set this boundary that God expects us to.  But maybe what it will do is give you some idea of why it might be a good idea to try; why the practice of Sabbath might in fact be not just a rule but a gift.

Historically, we don’t know a lot about the origins of this thing called Sabbath, whether it was a uniquely Jewish practice or one they held in common with other surrounding cultures in the Ancient Near East.  What we know is what we read starting in Genesis, that God created the world in six days.  God created the light and the darkness, the water and the dry land, the sun and the moon, the fish and the birds and the animals and human beings.

And on the seventh day, God rested.  Though the Bible doesn’t say, we might imagine this as a time when God got to sit back and simply enjoy what God had created.  It does say in Genesis that because God rested, God “blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”

We read throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, those first five books of the Bible, that it’s precisely because God did this that we are supposed to do likewise.  The verse we heard earlier from Exodus 20 comes from the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy…for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

We can guess that God rested on that seventh day of creation not because God needed a break, but because God knew we would: by resting a consecrating that day, God provides a model for us to imitate.  And in fact the orthodox Jewish understanding of Sabbath, with all its rules about turning lights on and off and transporting an object and threshing and baking, is fundamentally an understanding that forbids acts of creation on the Sabbath.[2]  I’ve found this a useful way to think about what I do or don’t do on the day I call my Sabbath.  My ideal rule of thumb is that I shouldn’t be doing anything productive.  Not checking my work email, not cleaning the house, not checking things off my to-do list, even my personal one.  Now, am I practicing this perfectly?  Far from it, especially now that I have a kid, and I honestly don’t know when else some of this stuff is going to get done.  But thinking about that rule of thumb does at least give me something to check myself against when I feel myself straying too far from it.

But recently I came across another understanding of Sabbath and why it should be part of our lives.  It comes from a story in Exodus, the first place in the Bible that Sabbath is mentioned.  It’s the story of the manna, how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the wilderness with nothing to eat, and in response God rains down bread from heaven.

God tells the Israelites to collect the bread each morning for six days, just enough for the day.  But on the sixth day, God says, what they gather will be double.  On that sixth day Moses tells them that the next day is to be a day of rest, and they will not find manna on the ground, because “the seventh day is a holy sabbath to the Lord” (16:23).

Or, depending on how you translate the Hebrew, “the seventh day is a holy sabbath FOR the Lord.”  In other words, it may not just be that God once upon a time created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  It may in fact be that this is actually God’s ongoing rhythm of life: work, create, provide for six days, and rest for one.  Maybe the Sabbath is actually God’s weekly day off.[3]

Maybe that idea makes you a little bit jittery.  In a way, it makes me nervous too.  The idea that God is on call 24-7 is pretty well ingrained in me from childhood, and who knows what is going to happen to us if God takes a break from working and creating and providing manna?  Maybe it’s even an idea that makes you mad.  After all, there’s plenty going on down here on earth we need God to take care of – maybe even that God needs us to be taking care of.

But this idea of God continually resting on the Sabbath is one that shows up in Jewish tradition, not just one person’s obscure translation.  And even if I don’t necessarily take it literally, there is something appealing about it for me.  The thing is that if we think of the Sabbath this way, it’s not just that we’re being expected to imitate a model laid out for us once.  Instead, we’re being invited to live life according to a divine rhythm, one that provides for work and rest and labor and enjoyment.[4]  It’s a rhythm we were made for, since we were created in the image of God.  It’s a rhythm that invites us to trust in God’s abundance even when we’re not out there frantically gathering our manna.

If even God isn’t too important to take a day off, then who are we?  If God spends God’s seventh days doing nothing but enjoying what God has created, then why not us?  What makes us think that we don’t have the time to do that?  What makes us think that every last space on the calendar exists to be filled?  What makes us think that the world will fall apart without us?

I’ve seen a meme going around recently that says, “I knew a pastor who said he never takes a day off, because Satan doesn’t.’  I said to him, ‘I think you need a better role model.’”  And again, it’s a message that’s not just for pastors.

I said before that Sabbath can feel restrictive, just another set of rules to follow, a burden Jesus supposedly freed us from.  But I think maybe we consider ourselves “free” from this burden at our own peril.  The Sabbath is meant to be received as a gift, a time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our own labor as well as what God has given us.  That’s why our observant Jewish siblings welcome the Sabbath like a bride and queen, by lighting candles and singing songs.  And in fact, it the day is meant to be experienced as a foretaste of the messianic age, the world as it was created to be, what we Christians might call the Kingdom of God.

And the Kingdom of God isn’t a rat race.  It’s not a to-do list.  No one is measured by output or billable hours or how well they’re keeping up with the Joneses.  The Kingdom of God is trust, and delight, and manna in abundance, and each person valued simply for being God’s good creation.

And maybe we have to stop – physically stop – to remember that.  In Sabbath, that’s what God invites us into: in this burden that is really a gift.

 

 

[1] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/95907/jewish/The-Shabbat-Laws.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activities_prohibited_on_Shabbat

[3] David Frankel, “The Priestly Conception of Sabbath in Exodus 16.” Biblische Zeitschrift, vol. 59, no. 2, 2015, pp. 225.

[4] Frankel, p. 229.

In God’s Image

Scripture: Genesis 1:24-27

Last week we celebrated Pentecost, which we sometimes call the birthday of the church: Jesus has just ascended back into heaven and the disciples are huddled, waiting and praying, in this upstairs room somewhere in Jerusalem, when all of a sudden the Holy Spirit arrives with the sound of a great wind and the spectacle of tongues of fire.  It’s one of the big holidays of the Christian year, although Hallmark has not quite figured that out yet, and it’s always fun to celebrate the Holy Spirit with bright colors and good music and a chance to talk about how we encounter her in our own lives and how we, like the disciples, are transformed and sent.

But it’s possible that if you’re the kind of person who likes to think a little more deeply about these things, all this Pentecost talk of the Holy Spirit might make you take a step back and say, wait a minute.  Just who, or what, is this Holy Spirit, anyway?

Does the Holy Spirit show up for the first time on Pentecost, or has she always been there, maybe just taking a backseat to Jesus for a while?  Is she in the Old Testament too?  What does she do?  Is she part of God?  Or one way that God shows up?  Or somehow related-to, but separate-from God altogether?

And maybe eventually if you’re that same kind of person who thinks about these things, you might go a step further and say, OK, so then where does Jesus fit in to all this?  How do these three divine entities we talk about in church go together?  What is their relationship to each other?

By this time you’ve gotten into some serious theology and it’s likely that you have decided you need a strong cup of coffee before trying to sort all of this out.

These questions, of course, all lead us to a central Christian belief in what we call the Trinity: a God who is both three and one, for which we sometimes use the word triune; that God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each of whom are fully God in themselves, and yet these three make up one God.

Again, this kind of theology is not for the undercaffeinated.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the Sunday after Pentecost in the Christian liturgical calendar is Trinity Sunday, a day set aside for us all to delve into the mystery of what it means to worship a triune God.  Trinity Sunday isn’t one of those days I tend to observe every year, because honestly I feel like there’s only so much I – or anyone – can say with any authority on the topic, but I do feel like it’s useful to come back to every once in a while.  After all, this idea of a three-in-one God is fundamental to who we are as Christians, something that unites us with other Christians of all denominations around the world and makes us distinct from other religious groups who don’t profess the same, from Jews and Muslims to Unitarians and Mormons.  And so we should probably have a working knowledge of what it means.

When I was in fifth grade, I had a good friend who was Jewish. For Jews, as for Muslims, a belief in one God is fundamental to their belief, and the Christian belief in a three-in-one God tends to not quite do it for them.  I remember that I was talking to my friend one day at recess and she asked me, “How can you say you believe in one God, when you believe in three?” I think we were on the swings at the time.  These are the conversations I had at recess.

What would you have said to that?  How would you answer that question if someone asked you now?

I actually have no recollection of what I said to her at the time.  What I do remember is that after that, I did what I thought I was supposed to do as someone who loved Jesus, and that is I prayed every night for a while that God would help my friend understand.  It’s only looking back that I realize how silly that prayer actually was: well-meaning, of course (and I was only eleven) but still, how could I pray for her to understand a part of my religion that I couldn’t even claim to understand myself?

It’s possible, especially if we’ve grown up in church, that along the way we’ve learned or absorbed certain images and metaphors to help us understand or explain the Trinity.  The Trinity is like an apple: skin, flesh, and seeds.  Or the Trinity is like water, which can be liquid, ice, or vapor.  These metaphors can be helpful, but only if we don’t take them too seriously.  At some point, they all break down into one sort of classical trinitarian heresy or another, because the Father, Son and Holy Spirits are not just three parts of one whole; nor are they simply three different modes in which God might exist at any given time.  (Come to Bible study today to learn more about heresy!)

Anyway, nowhere in the Bible is it spelled out what you are supposed to say to your Jewish friend when she asks how you can possibly believe this.  That’s because the Trinity, as a fully formulated doctrine (or even a word) isn’t in the Bible explicitly at all.  Instead it’s like we have these clues we have to put together.  At the very beginning of Genesis we read about the spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation, and throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn of God’s Spirit entering people and endowing them with certain skills, powers, or prophetic insight.  In the Gospels we read of Jesus, the Son of God, who claimed oneness with the Father, and who promised the presence of a Comforter or Advocate who would remain with his disciples even in his own absence.  In Acts we read of the Holy Spirit resting like a tongue of fire on each believer.  Paul maybe gets the closest to putting it all together when he writes in 2 Corinthians “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (13:14).

But never does anyone write, OK, this is exactly how the Father relates to the Son and the Son relates to the Spirit and the Spirit relates to the Father and they all relate to each other, and this is how they can be both one and three. Instead we are left to read the testimony that is there, of God at work in us and around us known in three entities yet of a God who is still somehow one – and we get to work it all out for ourselves.  Or at least try.

These are the kinds of things the early church fought about, and in fact it is out of that conflict that some of our earliest creeds come from.  Are you familiar with the Nicene Creed?  It’s not one we say a lot here, but if you’ve ever been to a Catholic mass, it’s likely you’ve encountered it there.  It goes like this (excerpted):

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father. …

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The Nicene Creed was the result of a little church meeting called the Council of Nicaea, back in 325 CE, called by Emperor Constantine to resolve an ongoing controversy about how exactly Jesus was related to God the Father, determining that he was begotten, not created, and of the same substance as the Father.   Later the Athanasian Creed delved even deeper into the three-in-one question.  The catholic faith, it said, is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.

Somehow as a church we’ve moved from fighting over things like this to fighting over more mundane matters, like who can get married in the church sanctuary.  It does seem to me that today we’re mostly happy to live and let live as far as all this deep theological stuff is concerned.  What concerns us is how we agree to live our lives together.

I’m certainly not suggesting we revive age-old disputes about trinitarian orthodoxy and heresy.   But I do believe that the theology we profess shapes our lives individually and together.  And I do believe that how we understand this mystery we call the Trinity makes a difference.

So I want to go back to Genesis, where we first encountered the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation.  The pattern of these first verses are undoubtedly familiar to many of us: God creates the earth, sky, and birds and fish all in the course of five days, and then on the sixth day, God says, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26).  And so, the Scripture reads, “God created humankind in [God’s] image, in the image of God [God] created them, male and female God created them” (1:27).

Again, I don’t think the idea of being created in the image of God is new to most of us.  What does that mean to you, to be created in the image of God?

To me it means, the way I usually think about, that God has called each one of us good, in all of our quirks and particularities: not that we are a physical reflection of God such that we imagine God with two arms and two legs and a large and small intestine, but that there is something of God’s own beauty and goodness reflected in each one of us.

But let me ask you this question again.  What does it mean to be created in the image of a triune God?

Obviously none of us is three-in-one, not in the way that we profess God to be.  We may very well be multifaceted sorts of people.  We may fulfill different roles in our lives: friend, parent, employee.  But none of those things really get at what it means to be triune.  When we talk about a triune God we’re not talking about qualities of God or roles of God or different kinds of relationships we might have with God, we are talking about God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: who is fundamentally both three and one.

I’ve said before, I think, that what I find most meaningful about this doctrine that otherwise sounds a little made up, is that it gives new meaning to the saying God is love.  It doesn’t just mean that God loves and wants us to love too.  It means that God actually is love, fundamentally, inherently, on the inside, because God consists of the loving relationships between the three persons of the Trinity.

John Wesley preached that to be created in the image of God who is love means to be created to love and be loved, that this is our first and true nature and purpose, the thing that is both broken in us and restored through our sanctification.

It says something to me that even God can’t be God alone, that God is community, and if we are in fact created in the image of this God, then we are created for community too.  None of us can do this alone: not faith, not life.  We are meant to be in this together.

You know, if someone asked me today how I can believe that God is both three and one, I’m honestly not sure I’d have a much better answer than I did at fifth grade during recess.  I would at least probably pray for my own understanding first.  But the fact that I don’t really understand how any of this can be bothers me a lot less now than it did then.  I’m comfortable with the idea that maybe I’m not really supposed to know.

Most good theology, I think, can’t be recited in a creed or summed up in a formula.  Just being able to say the right words – if they are even that – doesn’t really mean much.  Good theology is sometimes more like poetry than the words of a creed, which is why I sometimes prefer the words of St. Patrick to the Nicene Creed.  But even more, I think, good theology is something that needs to be lived into.  And if I’m living my life in a way that professes that God is love, that I am made for love and community, that that is the image of God my journey of salvation is leading me back to, then maybe my trinitarian theology is better than I know.

And as for the details, we can keep figuring all of that out, as long as we do it together.

 

We Are Witnesses

Scripture: Luke 24:46-53; Acts 2:1-21

Sometimes when life is hard we all need some (healthy) escape mechanisms.  One of those for me in the past couple months has been getting into a new show on Netflix, Kim’s Convenience.  (Any of you know it?)  It’s about a Korean family, first and second generations, who own a convenience store in downtown Toronto, and it’s also about family dynamics, sometimes cultural and generational differences, friendships, and everyday life.  I love this show for a few reasons.  First of all, it’s easy to watch.  Sometimes I do like shows that require a lot of emotional investment, but that hasn’t really been what I’m in the market for recently.  It’s hilarious, often subtly so, which makes me appreciate it more.  And I also really like the diversity of the world that is represented in the show.  Its characters are Korean and Chinese and Indian and black and white, and while cultural differences between these characters are often a topic of conversation, they’re mostly not a huge deal, either – this diversity is simply a natural part of their urban life, in a way that seems very true to life to me but that you don’t often see depicted on TV.

I started watching Kim’s Convenience because people in one of my Facebook groups were talking about how much they liked it.  This happened to be a group of young women pastors and they especially liked the character of Pastor Nina, the new young woman pastor of the Kims’ mostly-Korean church, who is not Korean herself.  They were talking about the show, so I decided to try it for myself.  These days whenever anyone I know is looking for recommendations for a new Netflix show, I always tell them Kim’s Convenience.

This sermon isn’t really about a TV show.  You probably have some you could recommend to me too – or if not a show, then a restaurant, or an event, or some sort of discovery that has made your life easier and better.  We discover lots of things by word of mouth and pass them on.  That’s also how things happened in the aftermath of Easter: one person encountered the risen Christ and went to tell more people, who encountered Jesus for themselves and went to tell even more people.

Today is Pentecost, our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit in wind and flame and the beginning of the church’s mission.  Seven weeks ago now we were celebrating Easter with its good news of an empty tomb and risen Christ. In between those two events, as Luke tells the story, the women who first arrive at the tomb go and tell the apostles, and Peter comes to see for himself.  Later that day two disciples are walking on the road to the town of Emmaus, processing everything they’ve heard, and Jesus appears and starts walking along with them, though they don’t recognize him until they stop to break bread together.  Once they do, they also return to Jerusalem to tell the others.  And once the whole group is gathered back together, Jesus appears again, letting them touch him and eating fish to prove he’s not a ghost.  One person encounters Jesus and goes to tell others, and they encounter Jesus for themselves, and they go and tell others.

But we still have to get from resurrection to Pentecost.  We have to move on in the story from Jesus’ physical presence with his followers to the church on its Spirit-powered mission.  And that means Jesus has to leave.  Not completely, of course – because the promised Holy Spirit will be his ongoing presence with all of his followers.  But he can’t be there in the same physical way he has been. He has to return to his Father in heaven, which we call his ascension.

Before Jesus goes he has some final words for his disciples.  First, he tries to sum everything up for them and connect the remaining dots.  “Remember what I told you before,” he says to them, “about how all of this had to happen according to what is written in Scripture: that I had to suffer and die and rise again in three days, and that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed to all nations in my name.”

And then he reminds them: “You are witnesses of these things.”  Just in case they’ve forgotten, they were there!  They’ve actually seen this stuff happen.  They have known Jesus in his life, in his death, and now in his new life again.  But it’s not just a reminder: it’s a commission.  Just like they’ve been doing, spreading the word from one to another, their ongoing job will be to witness – not just as people who have seen the story unfold, but as people who testify to it, people who are going to make sure others get to hear and see it too.  This life of witnessing that begins on Pentecost is the whole basis of the book of Acts, which Luke writes as the sequel to his Gospel.

And in Jesus’ closing words to his disciples I hear a reminder and commission to myself and to all of us as well: We are witnesses.

But then I have to stop there, because the problem is I haven’t actually been a witness to all of those things the disciples were.  I didn’t get to know Jesus during his life on earth – none of us did, which is probably why we have so many disagreements about what Jesus would do today.  I didn’t watch him die on the cross, or meet the risen Christ on the Road to Emmaus, or watch him ascend into heaven.

I haven’t seen those things.  Instead, I have learned about him and his story through the words of others: words written in the Bible, stories told in Sunday School, hymns sung in worship.  And so, I wonder: how am I supposed to be a witness to any of this when I haven’t actually witnessed it in the first place?

I haven’t experienced the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, firsthand.

Or have I?

Maybe I didn’t meet Jesus as he lived 2000 years ago in Palestine.  But I have met him in people today.  I’ve met him in strangers who have welcomed me into their homes and lives in faraway places, in members of our homeless community here who have given their last Metro tokens as an offering to the church, in people who take risks and make sacrifices and give their lives on a day to day to loving others.  I’ve met him in the people who call themselves his body, in the church that raised me to follow him and the church that helped me recognize my call to ministry and the churches that have loved me and taught me since.

And maybe I wasn’t there at the cross on Good Friday to witness Jesus’ suffering.  But I’ve seen the way he still suffers today through the suffering of people he loves: through migrants seeking refuge at our border; children afraid to go to school for threats of lockdowns and active shooters; people weighed down by the weight of grief or physical or mental illness.

And maybe I wasn’t there at the empty tomb, or on that road to Emmaus, but I have known the truth of resurrection: in the lives of addicts who become sober and homeless neighbors who get housing after years on the street, in the possibility of things I never thought were possible, in the way I’ve experienced renewal in my own life in other times of grief and pain.

These are things I have seen, and known, and experienced for myself, and that makes me a witness.

What about you?  What are you witnesses to?  How have you seen God at work, or how have you met Jesus in our world today?

Jesus final words to his disciples are also a reminder and commission to us: because we’ve been witnesses of these things, our job is to become witnesses to these things.  Not because we’re supposed to tell other people about Jesus as part of being a good Christian – but because, just like when we find a great new show or book or restaurant or activity – just like those first disciples who met Jesus for themselves and ran to tell the others – we’ve seen and experienced something we think other people should know.  We don’t have to recite a script we’ve been given.  No one is asking us to tell people things we haven’t seen for ourselves.  Let’s tell them what we have seen; let’s tell them what we’ve discovered and want them to discover too.

What I really like about Jesus’ last words to his disciples here is that he doesn’t just talk what they’ve already seen.  He reminds them that the Scriptures tell of the Messiah’s death and rising again, and “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” In other words, they not just witnesses to what has already happened, but also to what is still happening, to what is about to happen, to what God is yet calling them to.  Because that is part of the resurrection story too, a story that God isn’t done with yet.

And our witness isn’t just about words.  The Greek word for witness is martys – what does that sound like to you?  As one commentary I read pointed out, that same word in the New Testament goes from meaning someone who sees something, to someone who testifies, to a martyr, someone who risks and sacrifices all for that truth they’ve discovered.  Our witness is how we live our whole lives as a sharing of what we have heard and seen and experienced for ourselves.  It’s how we take risks and make sacrifices in love and service to others.  It’s how we help break down the barriers between people that God is trying to remove, and how we let God break down those barriers in us.  It’s how we cling to our faith in God’s resurrection work even in the face of suffering and death.

We are witnesses.  We have seen and known God at work in our lives and our world.  And our job is to witness to love and mercy and resurrection – in our words, in our deeds, in our whole lives – so that others can know.  And maybe they will experience them for themselves, and go and tell others.  And maybe, then, the world will never be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

Blessed Assurance

This past Friday was the anniversary of an important day in the Methodist world, and so in honor of that, we’re going to begin today with a little bit of Methodist trivia.  You might find the answers to some of these questions in your bulletins, or you may have already heard me say them earlier in the service.  Some of them might require a little bit of outside knowledge.  Here we go:

  1. The name of the founder of the Methodist movement. (A: John Wesley)
  2. The name of John’s brother, who wrote many of the hymns in our Methodist hymnal. (A: Charles) Can you name some of his hymns?
  3. The name of John and Charles’s mother, who was their primary religious instructor growing up. (A: Susanna)
  4. John Wesley’s life spanned almost one complete century. What century was it? (A: 18th – he lived from1703-1791.)
  5. What country did the Wesleys live in? (A: England)
  6. In what church, or denomination, was John Wesley ordained? (A: Church of England – the Methodist movement he started was a renewal movement within the CoE, never meant to be a separate church.)
  7. During his time in university, Wesley led a group known by some as the Holy Club, which met frequently for prayer, Bible study, hymn singing, communion, and visiting and serving others. What university did he attend? (A: Oxford)
  8. After his Oxford days, Wesley traveled to the American colonies as a missionary. Which colony did he go to? (A: Georgia – statue of him in Savannah)
  9. The name of John Wesley’s girlfriend, who he finally refused to marry and ended up getting chased out of Georgia by her powerful uncle. (A: Sophie Hopkey) (Even religious leaders have their relationship drama.)
  10. A hard one: the name of the non-Anglican religious group that influenced Wesley in his early days back in England with their strong faith? (A: Moravians)
  11. The street name in London where Wesley had the conversion experience we are commemorating today. (A: Aldersgate)
  12. Switching from history to theology: Methodists believe that we encounter God’s grace in three ways. Name one of them. (A: Prevenient, justifying, sanctifying)
  13. And just for fun: what is the one thing, so far, the Methodist church in the US has split over? (A: slavery)

OK, so, let’s put all of this together.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was born in England in 1703, to a father who was an Anglican clergyman and a mother, Susanna, who taught him everything he knew on a very strict schedule.  He went to Oxford, along with his brother Charles, who wrote many of the hymns in our hymnal; there they got together a group of friends to meet regularly for the purpose of living and growing faithfully: they read Scripture, sang hymns, shared communion, visited people who were sick, and gave money to the poor.  This earned them several fun nicknames including the Holy Club, the Bible Moths, and Methodists (because they were so methodical in their approach to faith.)  John Wesley was ordained in the Church of England, went to Georgia as a missionary to convert the natives, had little success in doing so, compound that with some romantic drama, and came back to England generally feeling like a failure.  On his way back to England he fell in with the Moravians who helped him to look at faith in a new way, one that was less about trying to do all the right things and more about trusting and waiting for God to be at work in your life.

Here’s the thing.  Up until this point, Wesley had spent his whole life trying to do the good and faithful thing.  He got ordained, met with friends every week to make sure they were doing the things God expected of them, went off to be a missionary.  And all of those things would go on to be important in the movement he founded.  But they also weren’t enough.

On May 24, 1738, Wesley went to a Bible study in a Moravian chapel on Aldersgate Street in London.  He wrote in his journal:

In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

This has come to be referred to as Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, or sometimes just Aldersgate, and that’s what we’re celebrating the anniversary of today.

Today I want to talk a little bit about what Wesley experienced at Aldersgate that day: this experience of assurance of his salvation.

Wesley doesn’t tell us exactly what he heard from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans he heard that night.  (I thought maybe I would read it and try to figure it out, but it turns out it was like 270 pages long.)  I also don’t know what passage of Romans they were talking about that night.  I do know that he preached on and referred back to one particular passage from Romans many times as he later talked about assurance and what it looks and feels like to be saved.  So we’re going to hear that passage now.

 

[Scripture reading: Romans 8:12-17]

 

Question for you to answer quietly or out loud: How do you know you are saved?

Maybe we even could stand to back up here and define saved.  For many of us we might define it as something like “we’re going to go to heaven when we die.”  And actually, Wesley saw salvation as more of a lifelong process of being remade in the image of God, the process of sanctification.  But I think the salvation he referred to that night on Aldersgate Street was more about justification, being made right with God.

So how do you know you have been made right with God?  For Wesley, one of the answers to this question was assurance.  That’s what he felt like he was missing during his time at Oxford and in Georgia.  He was doing all these things he knew he was supposed to do as a good Christian: praying, reading the Bible, giving money, serving others.  But the thing is when you’re just trying all the time to do the things you’re supposed to do, you’ve always left something out, and it’s never really enough.  Wesley was doing all these things and he never really felt like he could be sure he was saved, like Christ had really died for him.

That was what he finally felt on Aldersgate Street that day – assurance.  That’s what he felt when he wrote that his heart was “strangely warmed.

Do you know that feeling?

I do – at least I think I do.  I’ve had some heartwarming experiences of my own.  I felt it maybe first on a retreat I went on my senior year of high school.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Walk to Emmaus program, but this was the youth version of that, called Chrysalis.  I know that there were talks throughout the weekend on different faith-related topics, but the one thing I really remember about this retreat is that they took all our watches and all the clocks away, and how all of a sudden this felt like I wasn’t responsible for everything anymore, all the important stuff in my life at the time like getting good grades and getting into college, and that I could finally relax and actually trust and depend on God.  And I remember at one point during that weekend hearing a song called When God Ran.  It was based on the Prodigal Son story, and it helped me imagine God running to me and embracing me in all of my brokenness and not-enoughness, too.

I’ve felt it, sometimes, this feeling of assurance, in the lines of certain hymns that come back to me again and again.  Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.  Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside – great is thy faithfulness.  Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?  And I’ve felt it, too, in service to and community with others – not because I am doing the things I am supposed to do, but in the experience of God drawing me into a family and the way God breaks down barriers to do that.

Do you know that feeling?  What are your heartwarming experiences?  When have you felt assurance of your own salvation?

But then, I find, there are the other times: the times when God seems far away, and it all seems like just a story in a book.  The times when the times when I fall back into believing that being saved means I have to do more and more to please God, that I am never really enough.  The times when I don’t feel very well assured that anything is going to be OK, and if being saved means knowing you are saved, then I’m not really sure I am.

In those times, it is helpful for me to remember the rest of Wesley’s story.

Aldersgate is one of those days that gets celebrated as this watershed moment in Methodist history.  And yet it wasn’t really that.  It was one moment in Wesley’s life – an important moment, but not necessarily an all-defining one.  He had been a Christian all his life before, and surely had had some moments in which it all felt particularly real to him.  And then, even shortly after that evening on Aldersgate Street, Wesley was writing in his journal that he wasn’t sure he had ever really been a Christian.  This life of faith is rarely ever a straight uphill line to heaven.

Assurance was a concept that Wesley would continue to wrestle with for the rest of his life.  He would write multiple sermons on it and argue with people about it through letters.  He believed that it was and should be a thing that accompanies our justification – that point at which we say yes to God’s invitation and our sins are forgiven.  And he believed that on some level we would know it when we had it – that, as the passage from Romans says, our spirit would join the witness of God’s Spirit telling us that we are children of God.

But it also wasn’t as easy as that.  Wesley knew that our salvation could never really hinge just on how we feel, because that’s putting too much back on us again.  He knew that there were people who had “mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God.”  He called such people “enthusiasts…in the worst sense of the word.”[1] In a later sermon he put it this way: “Madmen, French prophets, and enthusiasts of every kind have imagined they experienced this witness.”[2]  And on the other side of things, Wesley came to admit, over time, that because someone didn’t feel saved didn’t mean they weren’t.  In 1789, two years before his death, he would write this in a letter to a man named Melville Horne: “When fifty years ago my brother Charles and I, in the simplicity of our hearts, told the good people of England that unless they knew their sins were forgiven, they were under the wrath and curse of God, I marvel, Melville, that they did not stone us!  The Methodists, I hope, know better now; we preach assurance as we always did, as a common privilege of real Christians; but we do not enforce it, under pain of damnation, denounced on all who enjoy it not.”[3]

Furthermore – even in those early days, Wesley never believed that being assured of our own status as children of God meant that we could just lean back and not worry about how we were actually living our lives.  The Methodist movement he would begin was all about growing in holiness over the course of our lives, the process of sanctification, as God gives us the grace to become more holy and loving and we respond to that grace by putting it to use and God gives us more.  As Wesley preached to crowds and delivered the message of salvation, they wanted to know what to do, how to respond, and Wesley drew on his Holy Club days: we respond by growing in holiness through prayer, Scripture reading, communion, visiting the sick, serving the poor, and other things Wesley called means of grace.

But the thing is even then it’s about grace, and not just about us, not just about trying a little bit harder, not just about doing enough, but about God’s grace on which it all depends.

The idea Wesley never gave up on is that assurance is something God wants us to have.  Not that anything rests on it, but that it is a gift.  That God wants us to know that we are God’s children.  That God wants us to know that we are forgiven.  That God wants us to know that we are accepted, that God runs to us and embraces us in all our brokenness and not-enoughness.  God wants us to be assured of our salvation, so that everything that comes next – our prayer, our Bible study, our giving, our service, our growth in holiness and love – is born out of that.

The gift of Aldersgate, which we celebrate today, is the gift of both-and: a faith that demands our hearts and our hands, assurance of what is and at the same time yearning for more.

May our spirits whisper or shout along with God’s Spirit: we are God’s children – loved, forgiven, embraced.

And may our lives of love and holiness begin and grow from there.

 

[1] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit I” in John Wesley’s Sermons, ed. Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, p. 146.

[2] John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit II” in John Wesley’s Sermons, p. 399.

[3] Quoted in John Wesley’s Theology Today by Colin W. Williams, p. 106, via a handout from my Methodist Doctrine class

The New Creation

Preacher: James Armstrong

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-8

As a young teenager I was fascinated by the book of Revelation.  It was very mysterious, and I wanted to decipher and understand it.  The pastor of my church tried to do exactly that.  In a series of Wednesday-night Bible studies, he explained what Revelation meant for the 1960’s.  In its cryptic images he found the European Common Market, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.  As a result, he concluded that the end times were coming very soon.  How exciting it was to see the modern world depicted in a book nearly 2000 years old!

My former pastor’s interpretative stance is shared by many who want to link the events described in Revelation to contemporary times.  That effort has been remarkably popular.  After all, who doesn’t want a roadmap for the near future?  Have you heard of Hal Lindsey’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth?  How about the more recent Left Behind series of no fewer than sixteen novels about the end-times by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins?

Not all Christians are convinced by Lindsey, LaHaye and others, and they don’t find Revelation especially relevant for today’s world.  Let’s face it, it is a very difficult book.  It is filled with arcane language, images and visions, and coherent interpretation seems impossible.  There are angels, horsemen, dragons, beasts, seals, trumpets and bowls (yes, bowls), all of which appear in crucial but hard-to-understand contexts.

Many Christians are simply turned off by Revelation.  It is harsh and violent, and doesn’t have much to say about love, that most essential of Christian virtues.  Women don’t come off very well in the book either, symbolizing evil.  For example, there’s the Whore of Babylon, who is one of Christ’s bitter enemies.

Some accuse Revelation of encouraging “pie in the sky” thinking, that is, focusing on heaven and the hereafter so much that we become passive in the face of the urgent needs of today.  In other words, if God is going to take care of everything at the end of time anyway, where is the need for decisive Christian action now?

Yet, for all its problems­ – or, rather, our problems with it – we must pay attention to Revelation.  After all, it is part of the Christian canon.  As Christopher C. Rowland insists in his Introduction to the book in the New Interpreter’s Bible, “What we have in Revelation is the opening of a . . . space for readers . . . to be provoked, to have their imaginations broadened, and to be challenged to think and behave differently.”

In spite of all its harshness and difficulty, Revelation is a very hopeful book, as we heard in today’s reading, a fitting scripture lesson for the season of Easter.  In Eastertide we should certainly be in a hopeful frame of mind, because Christ, our salvation, has risen from the dead.

In Revelation 21 we are near the end of the book: the great battles are over, Satan and Death have been cast in the lake of fire, and the last judgement has taken place.  What happens next?

John, the visionary on the island of Patmos, sees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth have passed away.  We can readily understand the need for a new earth – our old earth is in pretty bad shape, beset by sin and destruction.  But why a new heaven?  Is John talking only about the sky above us or about the homeplace of God, or about both at the same time?  We don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that we have a new creation, with an interesting twist:  there isn’t any more sea.  Why should this be?  In the Bible and in ancient Jewish thinking, the sea was a source of chaos, evil and death, things that will not be a part of the new creation, so on the new earth there is no more sea.

John’s vision continues with the descent of the holy city, the New Jerusalem.  It is coming down out of heaven from God, dressed as a bride adorned for her husband.  The New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ, the church, prepared to meet her husband.  A detailed description of the New Jerusalem follows this morning’s scripture, but we won’t have time to go into that today.

Not only does the New Jerusalem descend from heaven, God does too.  In verse 3, John hears a loud voice from the throne of God saying,

“See the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

They will be his peoples,

And God himself will be with them.”

God is going to dwell with God’s peoples.  Peoples, plural, because they will come from every one of the racial, ethnic, social and political groups that divide us from one another here on the old earth.  God is no longer going to be transcendent in heaven, but immanent.  That means that God is going to be alongside God’s peoples forever in the New Jerusalem.

In verse 4 it says that God, like a tender mother, will “wipe every tear from their eyes.”  These must be lingering tears from the life of travail on the old earth, because it is made clear that in the New Jerusalem “death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.”  All these belong to the former age with its attendant evils.  Former things, our age and everything that is a part of it, have passed away, because, as God says at the beginning of verse 5, “I am making all things new.”

God continues in verse 6, “It is done!”  All things are accomplished.  The old age is finished and the new age has begun.  And God goes on to say, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so God was there at the beginning of time and is here now at its end.  However, at the end of time, not everything ends.  As we have already seen, there is a new and perfect creation, lacking chaos, sickness, mourning, pain and death.

God promises that “to the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”  Who are the thirsty?  Everyone – all people.  God has created in all of us a thirst for God, and the spring of the water of life is available to anyone who seeks it.  Life with God is a gift for everyone.

In verse 7, God says that “those who conquer,” that is, those who trust in God, follow Jesus and avoid entanglement with the evils of the world, “will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”  Being children of God – part of the family of God – is a privilege that is available to all people.

What wonderful promises these are, and what a glorious future awaits us!

However, God’s next words, in verse 8, are troubling to me and perhaps to you as well:

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Who among us isn’t guilty at one time or another of at least some of these sins?  I have been a coward, I have acted as though I had no faith, and I have lied, even in my life as a Christian.  If these words are the judgment of God on me, where is my hope?  My hope, and your hope, too, is in Jesus and in the promise reiterated in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

In his letter to the Romans Paul helps us understand the condemnation in verse 8.  In chapter 1:28-32, he draws up a list of sins and sinners similar to the one in Revelation.  But he adds a critical piece of information to his description of these lost souls:  they are people who “did not see fit to acknowledge God.”  And that’s the crucial point, they did not acknowledge God, and thus they lived a God-free or godless life.

Here I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in his book The Great Divorce, where the locks on the gates of hell are on the inside, so that the gates are actually barred by hell’s inhabitants to keep heaven out.

This brings us to the end of this morning’s scripture reading, but not to the end of the sermon.  What follows is the “so what?” portion of the message.  And I think it is very fair for you to ask “so what?” at the end of my exposition.  What I have described today, the new heaven, the new earth and the New Jerusalem descending out of heaven, is God’s doing.  The new creation is coming no matter what we say or do.  So, there seems to be a risk here of “pie in the sky” thinking, which I mentioned earlier:  focusing on our heavenly future to the exclusion of meeting the needs of today.

Given that God seems to be doing everything at the end of time, what is there for us to do now?  Actually, quite a lot.

Do you know that the new creation is not only to be found at the end of time?  The new creation has already broken into the present age.  It is here now.  Hear Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 and 20:

“So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation . . . So, we are ambassadors for Christ . . .”

If you are in Christ, you are a new creation, made new by God.  We are forerunners of the new heaven and the new earth.  We are part of God’s plan both for today and for the future.  We have been re-created by God for a reason; God has given us a job to do.  Paul describes us as being ambassadors for Christ.  What do ambassadors do?  They represent others, speak in their name and work on their behalf.  And that’s what God wants us to be for Jesus.

Wherever we find someone who is hungry, thirsty or cold, we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, to do Christ’s work for them.  Whenever we meet someone who has fallen through life’s cracks, we are Christ’s ambassadors to them, as well.  Whenever we encounter someone who is struggling with sin and lostness, we are Christ’s ambassadors with the words of Jesus and the invitation of Jesus to share.  Wherever we meet with systemic injustice and unfairness, here too, we are ambassadors for Christ, doing all we can on behalf of Jesus to stop the wrong from prevailing.  We are ambassadors: we carry Jesus’s message, a message of love and hope, to a world that sorely needs it.

Does that sound like we, the church, have enough to do?  I certainly think so.  There’s no recipe for passivity here.

Nor, finally, is there one in Revelation, where among the last verses in the book, we hear this invitation, an invitation that is extended to everyone by God.  And since it is God’s invitation, it is our invitation, too, because we are Christ’s ambassadors.  Revelation 22:17 reads:

“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

There are so many thirsty people around us.  To every one of them God wants to extend God’s invitation.  As Christ’s ambassador, are you offering the water of life to them?  Are you offering Jesus’s free gift?  Keep in mind, this is your most important job.

We, myself included, need to work on this.  We need to take seriously our call as ambassadors for Christ.  We are Jesus’s representatives to the world, his voice and his hands.  We know about the new creation – we have experienced it; we know about the New Jerusalem – we are the New Jerusalem; we know about the water of life, which is available to everyone as a free gift from God.  Let us share our good news.  And, remember, we’re never alone; Jesus is always beside us.  May Christ give us the courage to do what he asks of us, so that in everything we do God may be glorified.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Faith and Mental Health: Beginning the Conversation

Scripture: Psalm 31:9-20

You may remember that back in January, we were supposed to have a guest preacher in worship, David Finnegan-Hosey, the author of a book called Christ on the Psych Ward.  The book is about his reflections on faith and mental illness, in particular as someone who has been hospitalized multiple times with bipolar disorder.  I was excited for David to come because I know mental illness is a subject that is near and dear to many of our hearts here at Arlington Temple, some of us because it is part of our own story, some of us because we’ve been affected by the struggle of a loved one.  It seemed like an important subject to address, and he seemed like the right person for the job.

We ended up getting snowed out that Sunday, so we never had a chance to hear from David, and so far rescheduling has not seemed to be a thing that has worked out.  But two good things that came out of it all were both seeing the interest in the subject, and even getting to hear more of your stories that I hadn’t before.  So I decided it was still time to talk about mental illness, whether or not we had a published author to get the conversation started.

I’ve thought a little bit about why I’ve never preached on the subject or tried to get this conversation going before.  It’s not because I didn’t think it was important, or something we should talk about in church.  I think, honestly, it’s because I didn’t feel like I was the right person to preach on something like this.  I’ve never been diagnosed with mental illness; neither have any of my close family members, and I don’t claim to be an expert in the subject.  I thought it would be much more powerful, and, perhaps, informative, to hear from someone like David Finnegan-Hosey.

But let me tell you what has been true for me.  I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but there have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if I should be.  I have sat in my doctor’s office during a season of depression that seemed to be going on longer than just a slump, and asking whether it was time to start thinking about medication.  This was about a year ago, so not that long; in the end, vitamin D supplements seemed to work for me, though of course that is not the answer for everyone, and though of course they are not magic and I’ve continued to struggle from time to time.  I’ve sat in my OB’s office, six weeks after giving birth, trying to figure out whether what I was feeling was just normal new parent anxiety or actual clinical postpartum anxiety.  I was helped by counseling during a particularly hard semester in seminary, and have looked into it since.

I tell you these things in an effort to be as honest as possible, and not to either claim a certain experience for the purpose of being able to tell a more powerful story, or to set myself too far apart from that experience.  One writer I like, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says that it’s the job of the preacher to say “I’ll go first,” and so I share my own real, if somewhat mundane, experience as a way of trying to make space to talk about these things.

Next week we’ll hear from one of our church members about his own struggle with mental illness, but what I want to do today is just to bring up some things that I think it’s helpful to keep in mind when talking about mental health and mental illness in church.  I may not say all the right things, here, or use all the right language, and that’s always something that makes me nervous when I’m talking about something that is both intensely personal to many people and also potentially fraught, but again, I hope this can be an imperfect opening to a bigger and ongoing conversation.

The first thing I want to do is to define our terms, namely mental health and mental illness, which I don’t mean as simple opposites.  Our state of mental health might be better or worse, and certainly change with time and circumstances – whether or not there is diagnosable mental illness involved.  Just like with physical health, it is possible that I might not be sick, but I also might not be healthy – I might have high blood pressure, for example, or be lacking in cardiovascular endurance. As I’ve already shared, I really don’t know where that line is where we start to call things mental illness.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells me that approximately 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year, which says to me that mental illness is not always permanent or chronic.[1]  Just like there are things I can do to help my physical health, like eat vegetables and get my steps in, there are things I can do to help my mental health, like get enough sleep and be intentional about taking my days off – but sometimes we just get sick, and it doesn’t have to do with anything we did or didn’t do, it just is.  And at that point no dietary change or yoga practice is going to change anything, and we need to call in doctors and sometimes drugs.

I also want to stress that mental illness, like physical illness, can mean a lot of different things.  We may hear a phrase like “mentally ill” and a certain image comes to mind – someone on the street talking to themselves, for example, or the latest perpetrator of some violent act in the news – though there are likely some misconceptions at work there, because not only are the vast majority of people with mental illness not violent, but most perpetrators of these high-profile acts are not diagnosed with mental illness.[2]  When we talk about mental illness that can include everything from depression and anxiety, both of which are extremely common in our country today, to things like bipolar, and PTSD, and schizophrenia, and plenty of other things.  The experience of any one of these diseases is not the same, and of course people with the same diagnosis may have very different experiences with that illness too.  When we get into the world of faith, people may also have very different experiences in that arena – whether it’s a strong sense of Jesus having pulled you through and saved you, or a time in your life when God seemed especially absent.

The truth is that these things are often hard to talk about, and not just in church.  I was thinking about this just the other day.  I’ve been thinking about resuming my search for a counselor, especially as I’m preparing for a new baby and the life transition that comes with that at the same time my dad’s health is declining.  I thought maybe I would ask for a recommendation in my neighborhood Facebook group.  I’m an enlightened person who doesn’t think there should be any stigma around these things, so why not?  Yet I found myself typing the question and then deleting it before I posted.  It just seemed like maybe TMI for this group of people, most of whom I don’t really know.  And yet I wouldn’t have hesitated to ask for a recommendation for a dermatologist.  We often don’t feel like we can talk openly about our mental health struggles – maybe simply because they are so personal, but also perhaps because we are afraid on some level of what people might think.

And if these things are hard to talk about outside of church, the unfortunate thing is that they are often even harder to talk about in church.  We may talk a good game about how church should be a place where we can come and bring our brokenness but often it’s a place where we feel some pressure to present a certain image of ourselves.  Some of us may come from faith backgrounds where mental illness is talked about in terms of sin and faith: if we just pray hard enough or have enough faith, it will go away.  And, you know, I don’t come from that kind of theological background, and I don’t believe that mental health is just a matter of faith, and I didn’t grow up believing that, and have never believed that – and yet still, last year, when I was wondering whether I was clinically depressed, I still found myself falling in to that trap sometimes, of feeling like I had plenty in my life to be thankful for, and so it was some sort of spiritual failure on my part that I couldn’t just count my blessings and be joyful.  Still, this is an important ground rule for any conversation around faith and mental health: mental illness is not a sin or a punishment or a matter of weak faith, in the same way that cancer is not.  It is a thing that sometimes happens to us.

So what does the Bible say about mental illness?  I think that’s actually a tricky question.  The short answer is nothing, explicitly, because like a lot of other things that might be pressing questions for us today, the people who wrote the Bible had no real concept of it.  That’s not to say mental illness didn’t exist, just that people in the Ancient Near East weren’t talking about it in those terms.  The Bible does describe people who might have been suffering from mental illness.  For example, in the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel, we read about King Saul, who seems to grow more and more paranoid as a young musician in his court named David rises in power.  We can imagine plenty of the psalms – including the one we read today – being written by someone with depression, who sees nothing but his enemies surrounding him and feels like God is far away.  But it’s probably not useful to try to go back into the story and diagnose anyone too specifically.

In the New Testament, one of the things Jesus often does is cast demons out of people.  One of the best-known stories of this variety is the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, told by Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Mark (5:1-20) describes a man who lives on the outskirts of society among the tombs, who had been bound with shackles and chains, but managed to break out of all of them.  “Night and day,” Mark writes, “he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.”  In the Bible, demons always recognize Jesus.  These demons beg Jesus to cast them into a herd of pigs nearby, which Jesus does, the pigs all run off a cliff, and when the townspeople gather, they see this formerly demon-possessed man “clothed and in his right mind.”

I’ve heard it said more than once, especially by people who don’t believe literally in demons today, that what people in Jesus’ time understood to be demon possession we would now understand as mental illness, and I’m sure if I encountered someone like this man today, that’s how I would categorize what was going on with him, too.  But I do think we need to be careful, because again, we can’t go back in the story to know what exactly was going on with this man, whether it was a matter of literal demons, or something we would now call mental illness, or something else.  I can imagine that for some people, the idea of one’s life being taken over by a negative force outside of oneself might be a helpful connection to draw – and other people might not love that connection between being suffering from mental illness and being demon-possessed, as if all that’s needed is a good exorcism.  So that’s probably one of those areas where we should listen first to people who have been there and how the text does or doesn’t help them understand their own experience, rather than trying to come to any hard and fast answers.

So what then can we say as people of faith, as the church, about mental illness?

For that I turn to some of the insights of an author named Sarah Griffith Lund, who wrote a book called Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church.  Sarah Griffith Lund is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and she grew up with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, and then later, an older brother who did as well.  She talks about asking questions, throughout her life, of where God was and is in it all.  Finally, she says, “Faith is not an anti-depressant.  It cannot be swallowed in order to rewire our brains for happiness.  Rather, faith allows us to accept the coexistence of God and suffering.  We do not have to choose between two realities, because if we did, God would have to go.  There is no way we could deny the existence of suffering.  I believe God exists in this messed-up world, and, in the moments of greatest pain, God is there to wipe away our tears.”[3]

David Finnegan-Hosey, likewise, talks about how the one Bible verse that kept coming to mind for him during his own stay in a psychiatric hospital was 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Can Jesus heal us?  Yes.  But often not in the way we think.  As Sarah Griffith Lund puts it, “No, God will not give my brother Scott a new, disease-free brain.  But Jesus watches over my brother and creates in him a clean heart.  The burden of suffering can be shared so that it’s not soul-crushing.”[4]

Our Christian faith tells us that none of us is defined or condemned by a diagnosis.  Jesus looks at people others don’t know what to do with and sees people who are beloved children of God, worthy of love, worthy of healing, worthy of community.  And I believe that as the church, as the Body of Christ, that’s how we are called to see each other as well – to help share each other’s pain, see each other’s gifts, and acknowledge the image of God that each one of us bears.

And that means making room for the different stories that each one of us brings – including the stories that are sometimes hard to talk about, including the stories where mental illness is a part.  We don’t need to pretend, here, not to be broken.  We don’t need to pretend to be satisfied with easy answers that don’t really seem to bear out.  We do need to listen, and pray for one another, and remind one another that we don’t need to be whole to be loved.

There is much more that could be said, and I hope it will.  I do hope it helps get things out in the open when it comes to faith and mental health and mental illness, and I hope the conversation can be ongoing.  I’ve had the opportunity to say this in a number of contexts recently, but I think it can’t be said enough: no matter your story, no matter your struggle, you are a beloved child of God, and no struggle, no diagnosis, no experience, no stigma has the last word on that.

 

[1] https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5154170/

[3] Blessed Are the Crazy, p. 75.

[4] Blessed Are the Crazy, p. 98.

Easter Sunday: The Other Mary

Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10 (with reference to Matthew 27:55-56, 61)

My name is Mary.  No, probably not the Mary you’re thinking of.  I’m not the Mary who gave birth to Jesus, and I’m not Mary Magdalene, either.  You might know me – if you know me at all – as “the other Mary.”  That’s what Matthew mostly calls me.  Once, he identifies me by my sons – “the mother of James and Joseph.”  Other than that, I am defined only by who I am not.

I’m named after Miriam: Mary in its Hebrew form.  In our Scriptures Miriam is a prophet, the sister of Moses.  Unlike her, though, there is nothing special or distinctive about me.  My name is the most common woman’s name in my world.  I am not famous.  I’m not even infamous, like my Magdalene counterpart, who is still sometimes called a temptress and a lady of the night and accused of bearing our Lord’s secret children, though those are mostly unfounded rumors.  According to Luke she had seven demons cast out of her, but she doesn’t talk much about that.  She will only tell you that she was lost, and then was found.  No one would ever think to accuse me of the things they say about her.  No one would make a movie about my life.  I’m a bit part in the resurrection story, out of the picture as quickly as I move in.  I am known – if I’m known at all – only for being in the right place at the right time.

My story didn’t begin at the empty tomb, though, or even at the cross – the first place Matthew ever mentions me.  It began on the shores of the sea of Galilee, where I grew up, selling the fish my father and brothers caught at the market.  I married, had children, they grew up; my husband died.  But I was always resourceful.  I cooked fish and sold them, and I did OK for myself.  And when my sons left their nets on the shore one day to follow this wandering preacher who said something about fishing for people, I followed too.  What did I have to lose?

You won’t read much about me in the pages of the Bible today, but I was there.  I sat at his feet and listened to his stories and wore out my sandals walking back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee.  I cooked meals for Jesus and the Twelve.  That’s what he called his closest friends, the Twelve.  I gave all my fish money to support him.  I never minded being behind the scenes – in fact, I never expected anything more.  I did it all because I believed in him.  I did it because he made me feel important and unique, like even I had something to give. I did it because when he talked about the Kingdom of God, I could almost see it taking shape in front of me.

I did it because I saw God embodied in him.

I went with him everywhere he went, usually at the back of the crowd.  I was there when he healed people and cast out their demons.  I was there when he fed the masses that gathered for his stories.  I was there when he stole a donkey and rode into Jerusalem and the crowds shouted Hosanna, and I shouted Hosanna, too.  I was there at the cross, me and Mary Magdalene, when everyone else had run away – even my own sons.  We knew we couldn’t change anything.  We had never had that kind of power – a woman of ill repute, and a nobody.  But we had given our lives to this man who had given us life in return, and we couldn’t leave him, not then.

My name is Mary, and I was there.

My sons always believed that he was going to save us.  They said that all of these little things he said and did added up to revolution, and that one day he would free us from the Romans and our own oppressive leaders alike.  I guess I believed that, too.  But honestly, the way I saw it, he had saved me already.  All I know is that in his presence I felt whole for the first time, like I was more than just another Mary.  The day he died, I know a piece of my sons died as well – the piece that hoped he was going to change the world.  But a piece of me died too, like I was nobody once again.

When his body was taken down from the cross and brought to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and I followed.  Where else did we have to go when the world was ending?  And we sat there, in front of the stone.  We sat there for a long time, keeping vigil.  We sat until soldiers came to make sure the tomb was secure.  They were afraid someone might steal his body and claim he had risen from the dead.  We scoffed at them, but not out loud.  The soldiers made us leave.

The next day was the Sabbath.  We cooked dinner for the Twelve – the Eleven, now – and others who had gathered.  Somehow a group of Jesus’ scattered followers had found their way back together.  Nobody talked much.  There wasn’t really anything to say.  We went through the motions of washing and cooking and serving.  We were still in shock that it was real.

When the Sabbath was over, at dawn the next morning, Mary Magdalene and I walked back to the tomb.  There was something that drew us back to that place of death.  We would keep our vigil, one more day.  It was still too soon for life to move on.

I still find it hard to talk about what happened that morning.  I hardly know what’s real, in my memory, and what’s my mind trying to put it all together.  I remember feeling like the earth was suddenly shifting under me, and looking back it’s hard to say whether that was literal, or metaphor.  I remember a bright, blinding light, and the soldiers who were keeping guard falling to the ground.  I know that when I dared to look up, the stone in front of the tomb was gone.  Mary and I just stood there, frozen.  At least that’s how it plays back in my mind now, but it’s fragmented, one image after another in no particular order.

What I know is that he was dead, but then he was alive.

It’s hard to put together exactly what happened, but I can still hear the words in my mind: “He isn’t here.  He’s been raised from the dead.”  I can still feel my feet on the rocky ground, running back to the others, my head pounding with excitement and confusion and fear.  But most of all I can see him there, in front of us, on the road.  Telling us not to be afraid.  Giving us a job to do – to tell the others, to spread the word.  Only on the way did it start to sink in.  Only then did we begin to give this thing a name: resurrection.  Only then did we start to realize: we were the first to bear this news.

I can understand, I think, why he picked Mary Magdalene for the job.  She had a dramatic life story, even if the details varied depending on who was telling it.  She was the repentant sinner, the prodigal daughter, the one possessed by seven demons.  It was the kind of story that inspired people and brought them to faith and made them believe that anything was possible.

But me?  I wasn’t anyone important.  I’m the daughter of a fisherman, and the mother of fishermen.  I traveled at the back of the crowd.  I cooked meals.  I never had a good backstory.  I was the “other” Mary, just one of a thousand Marys.

But I was there, and this is my story now.  I know people may doubt it.  Sometimes I even do.  People may ask me questions that I’ll never be able to answer.  But I’m going to tell them what I know – and that is that he died, but then he was alive.

I used to think, even after it all, that what happened that day was good news for somebody else.  For Mary Magdalene, or for my sons, or for the Twelve: the ones who would become leaders, and go on grand adventures, and risk their lives in the face of the empire, and change the world.  I thought it was for people with dramatic conversion experiences, for all those people who could speak and see and walk for the first time.  I thought it was for people with great faith.

But somewhere along the way I realized: resurrection wasn’t just good news for them.

It was also for the nobodies, the skeptics and the doubters and the hopeless, and all of us at the back of the crowd.  It was for the fishermen who never followed, the boring and the overlooked, and everyone who never had a good story, and everyone still waiting for their bodies and spirits to be healed.

It was for me.

My name is Mary, and when Jesus rose to new life that morning, so did I.