March 29, 2009

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Heartfelt Knowledge

Jeremiah 31:31-35

Do you remember a news story from a few years ago about Judge Roy Moore? When he was Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the judge had the Ten Commandments carved on a gigantic granite monument. The thing weighed over 5000 pounds. He then had it installed, under cover of darkness, in the rotunda of the state judicial building.

At the press conference when he unveiled his monument, he had this to say: "May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land."

Now I’m sure that Roy Moore holds to the conviction of his beliefs. I’m sure he was sincere in what he was doing. And I’m sure that, as a judge, he had seen plenty of evidence of the wicked sinfulness of humankind. But I am also sure that he got it wrong because the knowledge of God is not something to be gained from a slab of granite. And, if by some miracle, Judge Moore and the prophet Jeremiah could have a conversation, I think the judge might be quite surprised.

Jeremiah had seen some pretty bad behavior himself. And worse than that, he had witnessed what seemed to be the people’s punishment for their unfaithfulness. They had been taken into exile, the Temple lay in ruins, Jerusalem was on the verge of destruction. The great promise of God to give the people a land of their own seemed to have been abandoned. Like the broken tablets on the mountain, laws written in stone with God’s own finger, God’s covenant with Moses was also irretrievably broken. And maybe God’s heart was broken, too. It began to seem that God might have just given up on the people, finally letting them have their own way and suffer the consequences of a life lived apart from love. Things were so bad that Jeremiah cursed the day that he was born. He accused God of seducing him and then turning him into a laughingstock, making him out to be a fool. He tried to give up his role as prophet, as the one who called the people over and over again to return to God and God’s ways.

But God would not leave Jeremiah alone. And God would not abandon the people either. In the midst of what seemed to be a monumental failure on the part of the people and the prophet, God issued one of the most radical pledges in all of human history:“…I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah,” God said. “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; …I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

No ifs, ands, or buts. No conditions. Nothing for the people to agree to. Just God’s unilateral action, the action of love.

This new covenant, these words on the heart, would mean that each person would have full knowledge of God. There would be no second-hand witness, no hearsay account, no privileged few with insider information. They would all know God, all of them, “from least of them to the greatest,” and they would all be forgiven. Just like that. No call to repentance, no instruction to put on sackcloth and prepare burnt offerings, no rules and regulations for the priests to enforce. Just the first-hand, heartfelt knowledge of God, for everyone.

It was an extraordinary gift. Think about it. This new covenant is the ultimate in inclusively. It embraces the least to greatest and all in between; the rich and the poor; the PhD and the grade school dropout; young and old; male and female; the wise and the foolish. Everyone is included.

And no one has an exclusive claim on the knowledge of God. No one can pretend to be an expert in the law, to know more than anyone else about what the covenant means, or who it applies to. Because the covenant is given equally to all. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” These are words meant for everyone, all of God’s people, even for us.

But how shall we read them, these words that God promises to write on our hearts? What happens when God’s law, God’s way of doing things, gets internalized in us, when it is in our very bodies? There is a church word for this embodiment, you know. It is “incarnation.” The perfect example of God entering human form, of course, is Jesus, but maybe it is not too far-fetched to think that we are all somehow a tiny bit of incarnation.

To have God’s law written on our hearts, to have this heartfelt knowledge, is to see ourselves as holy and to see each other as holy, too. It is to see the face of God when we look in the mirror in the morning, and then act accordingly. It is to see the face of God when we look in each other’s eyes, too, and then love them as we love ourselves and as we say we love God. It is to live as though we really believe the words of Genesis – that we are all made in the image of God. Maybe at the heart of it, that is what the law is all about, understanding that God’s intention for us is godly living – and that the God that gives us life in the first place also gives us the way to live that life.

Godly life is always lived in relationship. To know the heart of God, to know God in our own hearts, is to understand the hearts of each other, too. Faith is not a solitary activity. Love is only understood in community, whether that community is a relationship between friends or spouses or partners, in a family or a church, or embracing the whole wider world.

We need each other in order to understand God’s new covenant with us. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it like this: “A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself. . . .. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s heart is sure” (Life Together).

We need each other, no question, and we need God. But maybe God also needs us. God’s new covenant is unilateral in that God does not depend on us to keep the covenant with faithfulness or to ensure its endurance. But neither does God compel us to participate in it. God’s finger does not touch our hearts until – unless – we say yes. When God speaks of the days that are surely coming, the days of this new covenant, maybe that means the time when we finally allow God in.

I wonder if we have really been able to do that. I mean, look at the world, even at the church, and it seems pretty clear that God’s radical promise of love and inclusivity, of relationship and forgiveness, is still to be realized.

And yet, we who claim the name of Christian know that in Christ this is also a present reality. And it is in this place of tension between the “already” and the “not yet” where we are called to say yes to God. It sounds so easy. Why then is it so hard? It takes a lot of heavy equipment to move a 2 1/2 ton rock into an Alabama courthouse in the middle of the night, but sometimes it seems no less a project to get God on our hearts – and maybe no less controversial an action.

We close ourselves off from the indwelling presence of the holy one – usually not by evil intent or even willfulness, or anything like that, but we are busy, you know, and worried and distracted, and maybe a little (more than a little) afraid of what would happen if we really were to give our hearts to God. Because after all, if God’s word was at the heart of everything we are and everything we do, we would be changed completely, wouldn’t we? That can be a scary thought.

To say a whole-hearted yes to God is to see the world as God does, to see it and respond in godly love. To say yes to God is to let our hearts be broken by the woundedness of the world, just as surely as God’s heart must be broken by what we have done to each other and God’s good creation. It is to see the pain of the other and feel it so deeply within that it becomes our own.
It is to be able to take what one holy man has called a “long loving look at the real.” And when we see the world that way, with the eyes of our heart, through the eyes of God, then we are compelled to act to bring peace, healing, hope, comfort, love. And those actions can take as many forms as there are human hearts: praying, engaging in acts of service, promoting justice, working toward inclusivity and acceptance, giving of our time and treasure, building houses and serving soup and tutoring ten-year-olds.

And these labors of love, like God’s new covenant, must be unilateral and unconditional. They do not depend on reciprocity. They do not even have to be successful, at least not in the world’s terms – they only have to be faithful.

This is what means to know God. Having this heartfelt knowledge of God is to live a godly life, to live from the heart where God dwells. And when we let our own hears break, as maybe God’s heart also breaks, as Jesus’ heart broke, then we come to know God fully.

The rabbis note that God writes the word, the law, on our heart, not in it. Then, they say, when our heart breaks, the word falls in. Absent the heartbreak, the word is never internalized as completely. But no matter what, we are always loved, we are always held in God’s heart. And we come to the heartfelt knowledge of God, when we allow God to enter our hearts as fully as we have entered God’s.

This is the new covenant – not a contract, not the result of our negotiation with God, not even our decision to participate – but rather God’s unilateral unconditional action to love us, no matter what. You can know this for yourself. You can know God, in your own heart. Just say yes. And God will be our God and we will be God’s people.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

March 14, 2009

March 10, 2009


Manny has lived here for just over a year, and he has claimed his place in this house. He gallops up and down the stairs, getting to third or fourth step from the bottom and tumbling the rest of the way. He snuggles when it is cold in the night and runs when he hears the back porch door open. He loves to play with his "bird" and also finds new toys in lots of places -- the latest is Q-tips. He loves what I call cat TV, which is the bird feeder outside the dining room window. I was too long without a kitty and it is good to have this little guy with me. Even when he breaks my grandmother's bowl, knocks my hand-painted Easter eggs to the floor, chews up the flower arrangement, sheds on the antique quilts, lounges on my computer keyboard, sprawls all over the Sunday paper while I am trying to read it, unrolls the toilet paper, et cetera!!!!

March 8, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent

Who's Whose?

Mark 8: 27-38

Have you ever wondered how you got to be the person you are? Perhaps it is the result of experience anchored in your family, your genetic background, the places you have lived, the opportunities you have had, your friends, your physical ability. If we are blank slates when we are born,that doesn’t seem to last very long. Each passing day etches into our lives some piece of our identity. Gradually but inevitably we become who we are and after awhile it seems all but impossible to imagine ourselves other than what we have become.

But there are some milestones along the way where it seems we can reinvent ourselves; for example, moving to a city where you don’t know anyone, changing careers, entering retirement, going off to college, getting married, getting divorced. In situations like these that are totally strange and new, the markers of the past that told us who we were are missing. It is not so easy to take for granted our own sense of identity. Essential assumptions become questioned: Do I believe what I believe because it is true or do I believe what I believe because my parents believed it? If I don’t have a job, how do I define myself? Will I pursue those activities where I have already succeeded so I can be a star or will I risk failure on something more interesting and challenging? Am I interested in particular work because it will pay the bills or because it will fully engage my intellect and ability?

Now it is true I suppose that most mornings we don’t wake up asking deeply existential questions like “who am I?” But in the midst of radical transition, whether we are aware of it or not, the questions are there.

Jesus himself faced these questions. When he asked the disciples “who do people say that I am” maybe he was quizzing them for a right answer but maybe he was also seeking reassurance for himself. I guess I don’t think it is much of a stretch to consider that he was looking for a confirmation of his calling. It was becoming increasingly clear to him where his path would eventually lead. His own sense of identity, even at this point in his ministry, was bound up with the cross. He would explain this again and again to his disciples but they would not understand until it was too late.

And even though Peter gave the right answer to Jesus’ question, he had no understanding of what it meant. But Jesus knew. At the very beginning of his ministry, he had confronted the issue in the desert place with only the voice of the tempter to keep him company. In the wilderness, the temptation that Jesus faced was whether to subvert his own identity in the service of power, whether to take the shortcut, the easy way out.

As Matthew and Luke tell it, three different times he faced a choice – turn stones into bread for his own well-being, fling himself off the temple to prove God’s care and rescue, bow down and worship Satan in order to have power over the world. Henri Nouwen has described these choices as the temptation to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful.

And let me tell you -- if you don’t already know it -- it is not only Jesus who faces these temptations. Each one of us will encounter at some point along the way that same voice that Jesus heard in the wilderness, a voice that urges us to do whatever it takes to fit in, to be a big success, to be important.

So look at how Jesus responded. In each situation, he refused to act in ways not wholly consistent with his own calling. Later on, of course, he would multiply the loaves, not to satisfy his own hunger, but rather to feed the multitudes. And he would willingly go into mortal danger, not from the pinnacle of the temple but the pinnacle of a hill with a cross. And in the end he would have power over all the earth, but it would not be earthly power; it would be spiritual power. And it would be a gift from God not the result of a corruption of worship.

In the course of his ministry, he would say yes to some version of all the things the Satan presented to him in the wilderness. But he would not take the easy way out. Instead he would take the faithful way. So when Jesus asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”, it was not an unfamiliar question to him. He had wrestled with it before. And it seems that he was wrestling with it again.

He told the disciples about the path of sorrow and suffering that he would walk,
and when Peter said, “no, no, no don’t do this” it must have sounded just like that other voice in the wilderness, urging Jesus to take the easy way rather than the true way. He was again confronted by temptation. Once again he was being tested on the question of who he was and whose he was.

It was another test of what it meant to be true to his identity, faithful to his calling, obedient to his Creator. It was for him another wilderness, another transition that empowered him to claim publicly for the first time where God’s path for him would lead, and who he was meant to be.

And then he told his disciples that if they would follow him, they must also take God’s way. The words are difficult: “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.”

What did he meant by this? Did he mean to say to them that they should forget whom they were, that they should seek out a life of suffering? And does he mean to say that to us?

I don’t think so. I think what Jesus means when he tells his disciples, then and now, to deny themselves, is to set aside their own ideas of who they will be, to let go of the kind of ambitions that can consume, to turn away from that which is other than what God intends. He is telling us to resist the easy way, if it is not God’s way. He is telling us to put behind us the temptation to be other than who God calls us to be, to deny our own view of ourselves when it interferes with our belonging to God.

Jesus tells us to follow him, not to copy his life. We have our own identity to live out. I think that is what he means when he says that we should take up our cross. For Jesus, the cross is the sign of ultimate faithfulness to his own calling, his own identity. To take up our cross, then, is to bear our own calling, and to carry that blessed burden wherever God leads.

But how do we know what that means? How do we sort out our God-given identity? It isn’t a matter of reinventing ourselves. Rather, what Jesus is calling us to do is engage in the life-long task of listening for the voice of God. That is how our true identity is revealed. Yes, certainly we are influenced and affected and shaped by our own personal experiences. But there is a deeper kind of creating that makes us who we are.

This has been described as the idea of “sealed orders” given by God. The term comes from the orders given the commanding officer of a ship that are sealed up, which he is not allowed to open until he has proceeded a certain distance into the high seas. So it is with God’s orders to us. We all have our own sealed envelope, whether we know it or not. We carry it with us as we travel into the depths of our own lives. It contains God’s instructions to us about how to live; it directs our journey; it explains our own identity.

The task of finding out whom we are, then, is not a matter of reinvention, but rather a matter of discernment. Every person is made in the image of God, every one of us belongs to God, and so we all have a holy purpose for our lives. Some of us listen for the ways God calls us to that purpose, and gradually become the person God intends us to be. And some of us miss the mark, and never understand or accept our God-given identity.

Where are you in this process? Can you do what Jesus commands – deny yourself, take up your cross, follow him? That is how you find out who you truly are – and whose you truly are.

But if you are expecting easy answers to those questions, I am afraid you will be disappointed. You won’t find them – not from the church, not from other people, certainly not from the Bible. But if you are willing to set your face, to go where God guides, to join your own journey with that of Jesus, then maybe the choice will become clear, and you will find – if not an easy answer – then at least your own response to the overwhelming love of God. You will find your life.

And in the end, there are only two questions you have to answer: Who do you say that he is? And whose does he say that you are?

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

March 7, 2009

An Unintentional Virtue

I did not mean to reduce my energy use during Lent as much as has turned out to be the case. But my dryer finally quit working, and the cost to have it repaired is too much to spend on an old appliance. So I brought in my summer clothesline and set it up in the basement, and I have been hanging up the wash. It doesn't come out quite as nice as if it were dried outside, but the sheets especially have a nice smooth crispness that they don't get from the dryer. I will buy a new one soon, but for now, I am doing just fine with this.

March 5, 2009

Reading Leviticus

This year, I am reading the Bible all the way through in version that provides a lectio continua reading from Hebrew scripture and Gospel, a psalm, and a verse or two from Proverbs each day. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Leviticus, and it is fascinating. It is such a carefully ordered approach to life in community, exactly the kind of guide an ancient people needed in order to maintain their God-chosen identity in the midst of pagan society.

It is also fascinating to consider how modern people have interpreted this guide in a time, place, and culture so different from its original genesis. It strikes me that we have done a lot of picking and choosing. For example, many modern folks want to enforce the guidelines about sex (Lev. 18), but would not dream of obeying some of the other parts. For example, I personally have never been in a church that offered burnt animals as a pleasing gift to God (Lev. 1; 4; 5; and many other chapters). There are lots of church people who say they take the Bible’s commands literally and yet wear polyester-cotton clothing (Lev. 19:19), even into worship, or associate with others when they have a skin problem like eczema or acne (Lev 13). You get the point.

And then there is this:

If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (Lev. 25:35-38, NIV)


The news is full of stories about our fellow men and women who have become poor. I know many churches that have long been concerned about the poor. There are soup kitchens, food drives, clothing closets, and building projects, all intended to help others. But I don’t hear much, if anything, about us promoting (or creating) programs to make no-interest loans, or opening stores that sell at wholesale. I do hear a lot of church people who are worried about how they will keep their lights on, their sanctuaries heated, and the preacher and musicians paid.

When we pick and choose which commands to obey, we need to be careful not to pick those that fit in with our own thinking and seem to advance our personal ideas of the realm of God, while rejecting the ones that are hard to accept. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus had quite a bit to say about money, and almost nothing about sex? Somehow, I think we have gotten our priorities wrong. Maybe one outcome of this recession/depression is that it will force us to reflect on matters of money in a way that prosperous times do not.

And it seems to me that the holy intent of the ancient commandments – all of them – was forming community. We’ve lost sight of that. In fact, all too often, the way we apply the rules accomplishes just the opposite: it shuts people out and breaks up community. Maybe as we get back to basics, we can learn the preciousness of relationships, the unconditional love of God, and the blessing of the community of faith, a community so vast it embraces everyone whom God loves. Which, after all, is ….everyone.

March 3, 2009

Children, Church, and Joy

Last week, in chapel, a little boy I know was sitting across the aisle with his mother. He is about three years old and has been in worship his whole life. From his infancy, his mother has carried him in her arms to communion, held him while she sang, and encouraged him to greet people in surrounding pews. Church is a comfortable place for him.

At the worship service last week, he stood on a chair so he could see his friend preaching; he looked at the bulletin; he snuggled with his mother; and he went with her to the Table. At the end of the service, the choir sang a beautiful spiritual, music that was lively, joyful, and hopeful. And my young friend smiled and began clapping his little hand against his mother’s. Then he hopped down from his chair so he could stamp his feet with the music and dance around. It was a holy moment, filled with love and joy and a full response to the Word sung out in the chapel. Those of us who saw smiled. But we did not dance around and stamp our feet – and that was our loss.

J. Barrie Shepherd writes, in one of his Lenten reflections:

Rejoicing has long been problem for Christians of the mainstream variety. Ask us to educate, legislate, officiate, even to ameliorate, and we respond quite well; but rejoicing doesn’t seem to be our thing. Add to all this the reality of Lent – and the call [to rejoice in one of the lectionary texts] seems out of place. … Jesus was accused because he refused to suppress his clear delight in the people and things of creation. He set his life against all who turned religion into a list of crushing duties, obligations, rules that squeezed the juice from life like a steamroller crushing an orange. Why has Christ’s church since then deserted the poor orange and hopped aboard the steamroller? (A Pilgrim’s Way: Meditations for Lent and Easter, page 26-27)

Maybe it is how we think of joy – as the same as happiness. And in these troubled times, there is not a lot to be happy about, and therefore, joy must also be in short supply. But joy and happiness are not the same. Happiness floats on the surface of our lives. It is easily disturbed, even destroyed, by the storms of life, the rough seas that threaten to overwhelm us. But joy lies deep down, far beneath the surface. No matter what is happening, joy remains constant. The challenge is not to create the joy or even to “feel” it. It is only to remember that it is always there, and then to live out of that place where joy – and God – dwell.

If you were able to ask churches for a one-word description of their worship service, I wonder how many would respond with joy? And I also wonder how many of those serious steamroller churches intentionally welcome little children, teach them about worship by letting them experience it, and learn joy and spontaneity from them? Not very many, I’m afraid.

March 1, 2009

Fasting for Lent

The psalmist says that “the earth is the Lord’s” but we have surely lost sight of that. We live as though the planet is ours to dispose of – and that is all too often just what we are doing. What if we came to see our home in the universe as the gift God meant it to be? Would we live differently?

The theologian Sally McFague thinks we would. She has offered a new way of thinking about the world and about God, in her work on the universe as the body of God. This incarnational metaphor calls us to a new kind of relationship – with God, incarnate in Jesus, and with our world.

In some Christian traditions, Lent is a time to give up something, a time to fast. One group of Christians has created a carbon fast, an intentional approach to the care of the world during the days of Lent. Each day’s fast is a small discipline; nothing is so great that I cannot do it. And it calls me to consider the preciousness of life; it reminds me that everything is a gift from God; and it creates in me an awareness of the duty of love I owe to my brothers and sisters who call this planet home.

It makes so much more sense to my spirit than giving up chocolate for forty days….