5 You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
Jewish Publication Society. (1985). Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Dt 26:5–7). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
This is part of the Old Testament reading for Thanksgiving is a reminder of who we are and where we come from. This translation calling our father (Abraham) a fugitive Aramean is a slight change from the New Revised Standard Version which translates it rather a "wandering Aramean".
The difference is important though it looks subtle at first glance. Wandering suggests, at least in my mind, a sort of carefree traveling through the world. Fugitive, on the other hand, suggests that our heritage has more of an outlaw characteristic to it.
If we, like Abraham, are fugitive we must not only be fleeing from something but also seeking to find something.
Abraham was a fugitive for the promise of God. Land, descendants and a future that he could not imagine.
We hear that the church is in decline. We hear that the message doesn't strike the chord it once did with folks. The pews are not nearly as full as they used to be, but for those who are fugitives for the freedom of the Gospel and from the tyranny of sin (read here willful separation from God) then the Good news of God in Christ has never been more needed.
One thing the church, at its best, can do better than any other group of folks I know of is form communities of hope, healing and purpose where there was once only a wandering group of hopeless ,helpless and homeless folks.
I for one am glad to be a fugitive for the Gospel
My 6th grade teacher, Miss O’Meara, introduced me to the aphorism “so near and yet so far away”. I was a curious 12 year old and struggled to understand the meaning of this contradictory wisdom. Whatever was she talking about, I wondered. Miss O’Meara was fearful and authoritarian. Asking was not an option. I would have to figure it out for myself.
It took me decades. So near- a friend and soulmate who moved to Ohio-so far away from hugs and conversation. So near- my teenaged son showered with maternal love and spiritual embrace- so far away in rebellion and independence. And now, volunteering at Worcester Fellowship, I am having a current experience of this contradictory wisdom.
In the early weeks of Thursday Café, I went out to the sidewalks of Pleasant Street adjacent to All Saints. My purpose was to do street hospitality. I put out a simple invitation to passersby: “The church is open. Would you like to come in for a hot lunch?” Folks, most generally responded in one of two ways- either accepting the invite or saying “thank you”-what a good service to offer.
I am member of All Saints. I am a Lay Eucharistic Minister. I am on the vestry. I have an assignment on the greeter rotation. I am “known to the treasurer”. In all of these roles, I am in the church building proper. It is a place familiar and safe in ways practical and transcendent. By contrast, the sidewalk felt quite unfamiliar and not necessarily safe. Abandoned buildings, rushing traffic and many pedestrians looking both worn and worn out.
This sidewalk experience was spiritually startling. How could life inside the church feel so safe and predictable when life on the church’s sidewalk felt so rough and complex? Surely a manifestation of near and far away.
My prayer is that, in this case, the near and far away move a lot closer together.
Gail B. 02/18/2016
For many Ash Wednesday is a curiosity. I remember being in school as a young boy that we could tell who was Catholic or Episcopalian by the smudges on foreheads on Ash Wednesday, (and sometimes on the day after depending upon how well folks had washed).
There is something deeply human about Ash Wednesday and the invitation in my tradition to the keeping of a Holy Lent.
Recently through the work of Richard Rohr and Ilia Delio and their connection between the Cosmic Christ and the origins of the universe, I have come to a state of nearly constant awe that we are all made of bits of the matter that burst forth from the womb of creation at the instant of the Big Bang.
We are all made of cosmic dust that has been present through all of time and we will return to the creative heart and imagination of God when we are dead and buried. It may seem to some a rather macabre thing to be in awe of.
For those of us who follow God through the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ongoing life of Jesus of Nazareth it seems to me this has to be the ground of our hope that all of this will end well.
For the next 40 days, excluding Sundays, I hope to rest in my awe and become active and faithful in new ways as I continue in the becoming, the continuing unfolding of what God seeks to do through me.
For me this kind of inner work is not limiting, but rather profoundly freeing. My 'success' as a follower of Jesus does not depend on my ideas, or my imagination, but chiefly in my willingness to watch and see, listen and hear, treasure and love the presence of the Cosmic Christ that dwells in all that is around us. Everything and everyone created bears the thumbprint of God.
That's nothing short of awesome as I've come to understand that word. Come Holy Spirit and guide me through my time in the desert to the place of my resurrection.
In the bleak midwinter
Frost wind made moan
Hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow
Snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
So begins one of my favorite Christmas hymn, 'In the Bleak Midwinter" with words by Christina Rosetti. Unlike most of the Christmas hymns we are so accustomed to, this one is more stark and probably true to life of what the Holy Family may have felt like when Christ came into the world in the person of Jesus.
Snow on snow. There's an apt description of our winter since the Christmas season has ended. We are now squarely in the first days of Lent and yet these words mean a lot to me tonight.
Shelter is hard to come by for many. Hope is just as elusive. Last Sunday was probably the coldest in the history of Worcester Fellowship. Yet we gathered by the Civil War Memorial (an oxymoron of the highest order) and fed several, clothed a few more and worshipped with a few less.
Heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain
Heaven and Earth
Shall flee away
When he comes to reign
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The lord God almighty
God felt the need to come into this world just as we all have. Born of a woman and subject to hot, cold, indignity, poverty and need. God took all of that on so that we could see in the midst of those occasions and others too numerous to list, the glimmer of hope. Just as a stable place sufficed for him, in the words of Rosetti's lyrics, we trust to hope that it will for us and for those who struggle with the basic dignity of shelter, food, heat and companionship that the majority of us take for granted.
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air
But his mother only
In her maiden bliss
Worshiped the beloved
With a kiss
We claim Emmanuel, God with Us, as Christians in the person of Jesus. The heavenly chorus may not have heralded your birth or mine, but we existed in the heart of Jesus at his birth. In that case, and in an inexplicable way, we have already been serenaded by the heavenly host. Oddly enough, the times I hear those voices best and most clearly are in the 'ordinary' folks who are struggling to make one day meet another with dignity, sobriety, serenity and a daily reprieve from violence. The voices of the angels are in the desperate hopes of all of us. I pray that we have the courage to let our voices ring in the cold night air and that we may recognize the humanity of those who hold the signs at the intersections and the others that we find it easy to overlook.
What can I give him
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb
If I were a wise man
I would do my part
What I can I give him
Give my heart
What can one do? It's simple really and yet exceedingly costly. We can give a word of greeting and meet the eye of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the addicted and those who cry out for help, not really knowing what it is that they need. Recognizing the common humanity of one of the least of these is sometimes to 'entertain angels unawares' as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says.
Take a chance on entertaining and angel in these cold days of this bleak midwinter and meet the gaze of those on the streets with the look of compassion and not of judgment or fear. We cannot solve all the problems of those who walk our streets, but the very least we can do is to recognize, honor and lift, if only through prayer, the common humanity that Jesus alludes to in Matthew 25:31-46
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We call the park benches that are behind our worship table the "back pews" of Worcester Fellowship. Folk who sit there generally are eating their lunch, visiting with friends, hanging out.
As I was walking around sharing the peace during worship on Sunday one of the guys on the back pew asked me a question. "Did you say that it is ok to worship idols?" he asked. "Because the bible says it is not ok, I can show you where". He picked up his Bible to demonstrate.
I had indeed read fifteen basics of Hinduism as one of the two readings prior to my sermon. One of the fifteen basics was in fact about worshiping idols, and I had preached on the ways that some people think one way, other people think another. I was surprised he had heard so much of what I had said.
"Yes, I said that different people believe different things about idols."
"It is wrong to worship idols. It says here in the bible." He touched the bible again, but he was not getting forceful, in fact he was saying it more as a question.
I thought quickly and decided to take a risk. "Well what I said in the sermon is that it is OK for Hindus to worship idols. And it is not ok for Christians and Jews to worship idols. It is one of the ways our rules are different from each other."
"Oh, is that what you meant. I didn't understand. That is what I say at my church. If you come to my church and you don't believe exactly what they say they will throw you out. But here, people who believe different things are welcome. And I tell them, at my church, you can't be mean to people just because they believe different things. You can't tell people what to believe, they have to figure it out for themselves, you know?"
"Yeah, I know. I'm glad you are here." I shook his hand.
"Oh, I like to come. Peace be with you."
"Peace be wtih
"Wow, great butt" I thought. I wasn't watching people, I was getting out of my car. And there in an Applebee's parking lot was a half an un-smoked cigarette on dry pavement. My second thought followed quickly. "Why am I noticing cigarette butts?"
Lots of Worcester Fellowship folk smoke. Not all of them, and likely not the majority. But lots do. And cigarettes are expensive. So people "borrow" cigarettes, make their own cigarettes, share boxes of cigarettes, and, if necessary, smoke the last bit of butts found unfinished on the ground.
I know, I know, smoking is bad for you. In fact to hear many speak of it, smoking is a sin. But I know many people, housed, relatively healthy, look just like you and I, who smoke so that they will not drink, or smoke so they will not do drugs. I know people who have severe anxiety and find that smoking focuses them.
I know, I know, smoking will take days off your life. The average, I've heard, is three days, but of course for the folk who get cancer of their mouth, lungs, esophagus, etc., it will likely take them in their prime: at forty or fifty or sixty.
But I gotta say this: addictions can kill you. Addictions like alcohol and street drugs also control your life before they get to the killing part. They keep you in trouble, in poverty, in pain, unable to think clearly, and unable to change your ways. They are like chains holding you in place. Nicotine is, of course, an addiction, but its chain is much smaller. And nicotine focuses your thoughts, allowing a person to stick with their aim to stay sober, to stay clean, to stay non-violent, to stay employed.
I write this story with my third cup of coffee in my hand.
(I didn't pick up the cigarette butt. No matter my views; I don't think I can hand out cigarettes at church.)
From Oct. 28th, 2011 | 04:36 pm
We have a challenge with our lunch line: one of our rules is no cutting. That seems straightforward, but it is not. People arrive at noon, line up at 12:45, and lunch begins at 1pm. After you have gone once through the line you are permitted through a second time.
So people who arrive at 1:10 or 1:20 must to go to the end of the line. And ahead of you are people who already have lunch; they are holding a bag and it has food in it. And you don't have food, and you want to go to the head of the line, because you didn't get lunch yet. But we don't allow cutting.
There are people who can't wait in line. People who have disabilities for sure, using a cane, or with dizziness or some sort of challenge. And people who can't stand still and can't wait in lines and can't follow rules. They hang out visiting with folk and then we say the prayer and the line starts moving, and they move to the friend "where their friend was holding their place". But we don't allow cutting.
I'd guess that half the people we speak to about cutting the line simply follow the rule and go to the back of the line. The other half leave in frustration that we are totally unfair. And so I found myself Sunday checking out what was happening when a man said “hey, you can't cut”.
I came over and stood, looking up at a very tall Hispanic man who was extremely angry saying very forcefully "you cannot cut the line".
And the man said, "I haven't eaten yet."
And I said, "There is plenty, but you have to go to the end of the line."
"Well then I won't eat" he harumphed and stomped away.
One of the others ahead of him was a regular at our lunch, and was angry that the man would even CONSIDER cutting, so he needed to say that, too, hollering at the guy as he left:
"Why the f** do you always cut the line?" and "Why can't you go to the end of the line?"
And so the man came back to the line and started screaming back "I'll go anywhere I d*&$ well please" and "why don't you mind your own business?"
And so now I am standing between two tall men saying in my most grown up, deep, calm, and forceful voice: "Stop fighting and do not cut the line." Repeat eight times.
And the line continues forward, without my cutting man. And the very tall Hispanic man behind this whole scene, the one who first said "hey, you can't cut", that one, right there, with the white shirt and blue stripes, he takes a lunch bag without a word, and heads back to the end of the line, stopping for just barely a second to hand his entire lunch to the guy who had cut and was now sulking on the benches.
He goes through the line again, and gets a second lunch, this one for himself. Without a word.
Matthew 4:23-25 (from Worcester Fellowship Bible study September 2011)
"Jesus went through out Galilee teaching in synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds form Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him."
I opened with this question: "Today we have many friends with mental illness, people who are deaf or "paralytic" (in that they cannot walk). We know they are people of great faith. But why this says that Jesus was "healing and very disease and sickness among the people".
What does this healing thing meant to us today?"
John was eager to reply. For him healing is about all the bad choices he has made. It is about learning that he is not a bad person, but he has made bad decisions. Healing and forgiveness are very similar. I asked a few questions and he decided that healing can be the very movement from being a person who believes "I am a bad person" and becoming a person who believes "I have made bad choices". Once you move to "I have made bad choices" then you become someone who can make different choices and thus can do better, be better, make a change. You are healed in that change.
Alison described how she has cried and cried and cried, and she has come to see that those tears that pour out of her are healing her, cleansing her, washing away the pain of her life. She sees crying as healing.
"How is that related to Jesus?" I ask.
"I don't know. Jesus is living water?" She looks at me to see if that is the answer I was looking for. I don't know what I was looking for, but her answer blew me away.
"Wow". I paused. "I think the only words I would take out of that answer is the ‘I don't know’ part. It sounds like you really know the healing of Living water".
Max is a big white guy with grey and black hair cut short, almost no neck, and a big bushy eyebrows. When you look at him he looks back with very deep dark eyes. He has told the story two or three times today, about how, this morning, at indoor church, he accepted Jesus. And how it was incredibly painful, he thought that he would have a heart attack or that his heart would explode. He had been thinking about it for several weeks, but this week he just went and did it and he was shaking from head to foot. He had been pretty sick, he tells me, just a few weeks ago, his mind was not right and his addictions were really hurting him. But he went to the hospital, and then to CHL, and his insurance was used up for physical treatment, so he had to get mental treatment instead, but that was better now, and he is working on the addictions.
Healing for him is accepting Jesus and how that hurt so much, but is going to help him to fight these addictions. How last week he stayed sober for almost a whole week, but then he drank on the weekend, but now he is sober again and he is going to keep trying, although he doesn't understand what makes it like it is just fine, he can keep it up and then all of the sudden his body wants to drink again and he can't stop and he does. But right now he is sober and working on staying sober and that his healing.
"So healing might hurt sometimes?"
"It felt like I was going to burst, that my heart would fall right out of my chest"
Sam talked about how lonely he feels when he is by himself and how he begins to think that he doesn’t have any friends and the world is against him and then he found a group of people and they don't talk to him so he doesn't feel better, in fact he feels even more like he doesn't know anyone. So he started saying "hello" to people under his breath, so it wouldn't hurt so much when they don't reply, because, you know they aren't ignoring him, it is just because they didn't hear him. And so he says hello here and there, very quietly, under his breath.
And this guy turns and says back to him "hello"
And Sam says how did you hear me?
And the guy says "you feel like no on in the world can hear you, don't you?"
And that was a miracle because Steve did feel that way, and this guy heard him and he got to know this guy.
And healing is when your friends say hello, and when you see your friends, and healing is when you make a new friend just by saying hello, really quietly, under your breath.
And the ideas continued. Sometimes you don't really get healed. Or maybe you get healed a little bit, but the hurt doesn't go away. Maybe it is because God wants you to keep working on that issue. Or maybe it is that you need to go deeper, that you haven't really found out what is wrong, or what is the underlying problem. So you are a little healed, but not completely. And then you figure out the next part and you work on that and you are a little more healed. Like it is little tiny steps to be healed, not just one big thing.
(From September 2009)
Andrew has died. I don't know him, except to say hi, and to ask how he is. I met him most clearly after he was pushed at the shelter a few months ago. He broke his wrist, and had a broken nose, and some internal bleeding that kept him in intensive care for a about a week. Georgeanne pointed him out to me: "that's Andrew" when he arrived at church, and I went over to meet him.
He remembered me, so clearly he had been to church before. He was cheery and friendly; he easily to let the fact that I didn't remember his name slide. An altogether pleasant man; he joked about the wrist, and about the bandage, and expressed how pleased he was to be alive.
This is one of those hard things about getting to know folk at Worcester Fellowship. What we see on Sunday, in the crowd of lunch and worship, and even in bible study; what we meet the first two or three or eight times we talk to someone, is, just like for you and me, a very superficial part of their person. It is a real part of them, for sure, this cheery, confident, hopeful self, but it is not their full story.
And indeed, I know from Georgeanne that Andrew was not fully pleased to be alive, and, while he was rather amazed by the way people had come to take care of him, to check on him, and the many more who asked about him, he didn't really get that this was honest caring. In intensive care, his body was right on that line between life and death. And then he had turned the corner and was back with us, with a cast and bandages and bruises and an outwardly cheery demeanor. He expressed thanks, and did well for a few weeks, but that other part of him, that shadowed, deep, lonely, and fearful part of him quickly took over.
Anyone who met him, on the street, or at lunch, or just hanging out in the park, met the cheery, obviously well-adjusted guy. He shared that he was alcoholic, and that he was depressed, but all in a "don't worry, I'm going to beat this" way.
One of the challenges of our ministry is that the visitors mostly meet the cheery exterior of our parishioners, mostly hear about the successful days sober, and the alleluia about a new apartment, and the thanks for a great relationship. Or maybe that is a strength of our ministry, that visitors see that there is hope, and that they can be part of that hope.
There is hope. Struggling people find pleasure, and calm, and serenity in the fact that they can share their shadow side with us, and still be loved. I don't know if they all believe that God loves them, but many do believe that WE believe that God loves them. And they have a better hour, and sometimes a better day, or a better few days, when they have had the opportunity to be their well-adjusted, cheery selves with someone who cares about them. And they have a better hour, and sometimes a better day, or a better few days, when they have an opportunity to share their at-the-end-of-their-rope part of themselves, and have us sit with that, acknowledge it.
It helps that we believe that what they share is true, that we don't downplay it, or ask that they return to the cheery outward part of themselves. We let the whole person exist, and suggest that the whole person, the up-one and the down-one, too, is loved by God.
Andrew gave up and died about a month later. I didn't know the depth of longing and shadow within Andrew, but Georgeanne did, and I know she sat with him in those down places. I know Worcester Fellowship made a difference in Andrew's life. I know that Georgeanne made a difference by accepting Andrew's down side as a real part of him. I know that I made a difference by accepting his cheery upside as a real part of him.
As is the case with every one of our parishioners that have died, I wish, more than anything, that we could have done more. But I know, too, that we did something, and that doing something, in love, matters.