Perhaps it goes without saying, however we are living in a time when our word is increasingly divided, our nation is fragmented and our communities falling apart. All the technology that connects us makes it easier and easier for us to choose the programing, the kind of new and the information with which we already agree. Too often it feels like every issue has two irreconcilable perspectives, with little room in the middle and no one willing to see, hear and share with “the other side.”
And yet, I have hope. This is why Jesus came; what it means to follow; and why I believe God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit gathers us in and calls us to be so much more together: light of the world, salt of the earth, body of Christ and children of the Living God in very urgent, real and meaningful ways.
Several years ago I find myself in room with about a dozen people, most of whom are total strangers. We are there for a month-long, hands-on intensive to learn how to provide pastoral care to people in a hospital setting. As the orientation begins, the head chaplain at South Austin St. David’s hospital turns to us and asks one of those “ice breaker” questions meant to open us up and become more familiar and perhaps less strange to one another. A good “ice breaker” is fun, easy and safe. And there in the heart of Texas, deep in the bible belt, I believe for this episcopal priest that was probably what she intended. “What is your favorite scripture and why?” she asks.
Now for many, this was a no brainer and they were quickly able to recite all kinds of scriptures, citing chapter and verse. For me, however, I did not grow up in such a tradition and I had at best what could be described as a challenging, strange and often estranged relationship for most of my adult life with all things God, faith and the bible. My peers quickly jumped in, “John 3:16” someone said, “For God so loved the world…” another responded, followed by a brief story from the person. “Beautiful! O.k., who’s next?” says the chaplain. Another shares “Matthew 28.” “Go and make disciples” someone explains and the chaplain responds “Powerful…” And on it goes, “Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shepherd, Comforting; John 13, Love One Another, yes, yes, yes!” On and on the conversation goes, until all have shared except me.
Call it inspiration or desperation, however as the eyes of colleagues, strangers and potential friends turn on me, I respond, “the beginning of Mark 5.” No one chimes in. Even the chaplain has a furrowed brow. Finally she says, “Mark 5?! Well for the life of me, I cannot remember what that might be!”
Feeling awkward and a little embarrassed, I begin to explain. “For me this story is the essence of the Gospel. It is what love of God, neighbor, enemy and self looks like and it gives me hope especially in times like this.”
To understand the depth and power of this story we need to step back a little. Jesus is there teaching in parable and story. Whether affirmed or uplifted, confirmed or curious - or simply looking for entertainment because Netflix was invented yet - more and more people come to hear what he has to say. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…” Many will sprout up, not all take root or bear fruit. Many wither away when the winds blow and the sun rises.
Why? Well as Isaiah suggests, “Our ways are not God’s way and our thoughts are not God’s thoughts either!” Faith and life are not what we think!
You see? God says through the prophet Isaiah. “Come, ALL who are thirsty. No matter who you are or where you are on your life or spiritual journey, Spirit calls, Christ invites and God is there always with us and always ready to welcome us home.
Simply come. Those who thirst for clean water or lack the means for nourishment and sustenance; come. Those who thirst for justice and hope, Come! Those who are tired and thirst for meaning and purpose; Listen, Come, Renew yourself in the stream of living water and take root in something more than shallow, shifting sands; the stones we’ve thrown; rock hewn closets, dead ends and lifeless tombs.
“Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant,” a promise, the promise to be with us and for us on this journey.
Let me translate: God’s love is bigger, more inclusive, hopeful, life affirming and life giving than we could ever hope or imagine! All are loved for who we are, not what we think. And God in Christ remains in relationship with us and is there working through our live scattering seeds of hope that sprout up in surprising places to remind us of love, reroot us to the ground of our being, nourish us in the stream of living water and welcome us home when we are thirsty. “Come!”
Which for me is precisely Jesus’ point and the point of Jesus. And so, all is going swimmingly! The crowds grow and grow, and rather than bask in the glory, remain in this place of safety, continue to speak with those who already seem to be in agreement, Jesus calls out to his followers, saying: “Come! Let us cross to the other side!”
They set out. Clouds close in, Winds rise up. Rain pours down and waves threaten. Worry, anxiety and fear abound. It appears Jesus is nowhere around. And the disciples have a total melt down. “Do you not care that we are perishing?!” they cry out. Grounded in something deeper than the prevailing winds or waves of anxiety, fear and worry; without shame, blame, scape goating or tossing an “other” overboard, Jesus rises above it all and calms the stormy seas. Why? “God’s ways are not our ways.”
And so they arrive on the other side; strangers in a strange land and immediately they are confronted by an “other.” One who has been stripped of their humanity; demonized by family and friends; misunderstood; contained and controlled; forgotten and left for dead.
He approaches. And Jesus approaches. “What do have to do with us?! Don’t hurt us!” he asks and pleads. This one is anyone and everyone who has ever felt demonized, marginalized, ridiculed, scape goated, shamed and blamed by people, society, families and faith communities.
And Jesus responds, simply by asking, “WHAT IS YOUR NAME!?” No declaration, condemnation, proclamation or pronouncement. No confession, conclusion or forced conversion. Simply, “what is your name?” Why? Well as Isaiah says “God’s ways are not our ways.” And I believe to ask someone their name, especially one who feels demonized, despised, powerless, and hopeless, is to invite this other into new life. “What is your name,” says I see you as a person, I acknowledge you as a child of the living God, I see that you are worthy and worth getting to know. Demons are cast aside, shame and blame loose their power and seeds of love and hope begin to take root.
As I make my rounds a few days later, there is a daughter distressed as she cries over her non-responsive mother. Artificially black hair, lips and nails to boot, a spider web tattoo peeks out from under her collar greet me as I knock on the door, introduce myself, ask her name. And she begins to share her story. She came home for the holiday and found her mom like this she explains. Then she turns to me, well turns all her anger, grief, and a life time of feeling rejected on me. “Where was your God when my mom needed her? How could this happen? Mom didn’t do anything to deserve this! Get out, I don’t need you or God.” And with that I assure her that I respect her wishes, am sorry for her pain and quietly leave.
At the end of the story, after Jesus renews and liberates the one once oppressed person, the villagers and herdsmen see the healed person at the foot of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. Rather than celebrating what God has done, they are angry and distressed and send Jesus away.
As Jesus and the disciples prepare to cross the storm ridden sea once more, this hope filled, joy filled person who Jesus set free comes bounding down the hill chasing after Jesus and yells something like, “Wait Teacher, Wait for Me! Please I beg you I want to be with you and You with me!” Jesus smiles and instructs him, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."
Each day as I make my rounds, I pass by the room where her mother still lays and her daughter stays keeping vigil. She’d turn her head indignantly away each time I pass. Then one day a week or so after our first encounter, I catch her eye, I smile and simply nod. The next few days I notice she no longer turns away. And then, one day as I smile and nod and prepare to move on, she waves - not the kind of hi or hello, but waves to me, welcomes me in, and asks me to pray.
In this time when our communities, city, nation and world are so fragmented and divided, here is a radical thought: What if our faith and life were rooted in something more than the fleeting rhetoric, passing politics, sands that shift in reaction to the fear filled winds that blow? What if loving God, neighbor, stranger and self meant being open, affirming and available with all who are thirsty for hope, relationship and meaning? What if we became the center of a movement that risked our best and deepest selves to heal our fragmented community, city and world. And what if it all happened because we let go of fragmented thoughts, fear filled assumptions and going our own way and - I don’t know – actually let God’s love, Christ’s compassion and Spirit’s call guide us as we lovingly take the initiative to see others for who they are wherever they are, especially when them appear to be on the other side?
May God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirt Guide us on this journey!