Tag Archive: Beloved


Salvation

Salvation.
The word is so loaded.
Weighed down,
ensnared in a web
of lines drawn between
in and out,
right and wrong,
redeemed and tossed aside.

But the word itself,
is salve.
It is healing, wholeness –
the thing that binds up wounds,
rifts and cavernous divides
between Creator and beloved creation,
between your aching heart and mine,
between your grievous sins and my own.

Salvation.
The word is so loaded.
Saturated with mercy,
Laden with freedom
bursting through the lines
we perpetually draw
to keep God’s grace
contained in our limited boxes.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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With Open Arms

This was yesterday’s sermon on the parable of the prodigal son, delivered at Christ Lutheran Church, Washington, DC.

Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

The story we just heard this morning is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible.  And for good reason!  I mean who hasn’t identified at some point in their life as the younger son who goes out, makes a big mistake and needs forgiveness or redemption?  Or who hasn’t felt like the older son who is rightfully irritated that his father is throwing a party for his irresponsible brother while he’s been working hard?  Who hasn’t felt like the father who waits expectantly for his beloved son to return, and is so overjoyed that he can’t help but throw a party?  Yes, this is a classic story.  And I think the more we read it, ask questions of it and experience similar moments in our lives, the more we appreciate it.

But today, I want to focus specifically on the father.  I would say that of the three main characters we hear about in Jesus’ story, this is the hardest one to relate to.  When the younger son comes to his dad asking for his share of the property, it’s equivalent to wishing his father dead.  And yet the father gives him the inheritance money and allows him to go off to a distant country.  Then, to make matters worse, this kid goes off and wastes all his money, lands on hard times, and is forced to take a job working for a Gentile pig farmer.  All of this has got to reflect poorly on dear old dad.  After all, what will the neighbors say?

After a while of this rough life, the younger son realizes that he’s hungry and his dad’s hired hands have always had enough to eat.  “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”  What’s interesting is that we don’t know if he is actually remorseful, or if he’s just figuring out that being at home is better off than being among the pigs! So he heads home, hoping beyond hope that things will work out.

Then we have this really beautiful line that has jumped out at me in rereading this story: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  The image of this father, running as fast as he can toward his son is so moving to me.  He’s been waiting, heart aching as he hears rumors about what his son has been up to.  He’s been sad knowing that his son has had to hire himself out to a Gentile in order to survive.  He’s been watching the horizon, day after day, praying that his beloved son would come walking back down that dirt road.  And then he sees him!  And all his aches and pains can’t stop him from setting off at a dead run to embrace the son who he thought he might never see again.

He doesn’t even listen to the son’s apology because he’s too busy shouting to the slaves: “’Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’”

This father is quite the character.  What are the neighbors going to say?  Is he going to be laughed at for his extravagant welcome of his wayward son?  They might say, “He’s a fool!  He’s a sucker!  He’s a sap!”  But what if God is, too?

And I think that’s Jesus point in telling this story.  Jesus is sitting there speaking and he’s got quite a crowd.  This isn’t a polite group listening to a theology lecture.  No, this crowd includes all the tax collectors who have been working for the Roman oppressors and squeezing the Jewish people for every dime they have.  There are also sinners in this group – people whose actions disrupt the fabric of society.  It’s a seedy and unpopular bunch, basically the prodigal sons and daughters of the day, and so, it’s no wonder that people are grumbling about how “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus is hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Listening to the song “Painted Red” by one of my favorite artists, JJ Heller, helped to put this into perspective for me.  She sings: “Hope means holding on to you…Grace means you’re holding me too.”  The younger son was ready to go back and beg his father for forgiveness, hoping that all would work out.  He hoped that he would indeed be forgiven or that, at the very least, he’d have food and shelter.

But what he actually receives is far greater.  Instead, there’s this incredible grace.  The father bolts from his waiting place and takes on shame and foolishness to embrace his sinful son, not even knowing the son’s true intentions.

When I think about God, I imagine open arms, like that of the father in the parable.  Arms that welcome and embrace us as we are.  Arms that welcome us to the waters of baptism and invite us to the table.  Arms outstretched in the epitome of love on the cross.  This God of grace and open arms is the opposite of the judgmental and condemnatory God we so often hear spoken about.  Instead of a finger pointing at us in condemnation, we receive the loving embrace of our Heavenly parent.

But in case we forget, there’s still the older son.  I imagine the older brother standing with his arms crossed, closed off to the possibilities, refusing to go to the welcome home party.  What do our arms look like? Are they extravagantly open to others? Or are they firmly crossed, refusing to show grace, compassion and love?

On Friday, I watched a Ted Talk video about a man named Jeremy Courtney.  Sitting in a café in Iraq in 2007, talking to his waiter, Jeremy became aware of a terrible problem: tons of kids were being born with fatal heart defects and there were no hospitals in the country to give the children the crucial heart surgeries they needed.  Hearing, this, Jeremy decided that he needed to do something and so he jumped in, trying to find out why so many kids had heart defects.

He found out that there were three reasons for the soaring rates of birth defects.  First, Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard gas against his own people.  Second, the US led sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s that led to the healthcare services falling apart and, as a result, the malnourishment of many pregnant women.  Third, American soldiers also noted that they had children with birth defects and the cause was found to be due to the US and British forces’ use of depleted uranium munitions which vaporized upon contact with the ground.

Jeremy was beginning to come to a new understanding of violence – the understanding that “violence unmakes the world.”  But he also believed that there was something able to stand against this destructive violence.  He called this “preemptive love.”  As Jeremy explains,  “Now, unlike a preemptive strike where I seek to get you before you get me, preemptive love is where I jump forward to love you, before you love me.  I jump forward to trust you before perhaps you’ve trusted me, because we all know that violence unmakes the world.  But preemptive love unmakes violence.  Preemptive love remakes the world through healing.”

With this hope in his heart, he created the Preemptive Love Coalition with his wife and others in order to get kids the lifesaving heart surgeries they needed.  And one of the stories that Jeremy tells in his Ted Talk is about a young boy named Shad and his father.  Shad’s father was a Kurdish taxi driver from one of the northern cities of Iraq who was willing to do anything to help his son get the help he needed.  But when Jeremy suggested that they go to neighboring Turkey to get help from the doctors there, he was a little leery.  You see, there’s a long-standing conflict between the Kurds and the Turks and so the very idea was terrifying to Shad’s father – that he should take his dear son to the enemy to seek healing.  What would his family think? And what would the neighbors say? But this was the last resort and a Turkish doctor was the only one willing to put his reputation on the line to try to save this boy’s life.

And so they took Shad and his father to Istanbul, and after a lot of diagnostic tests to see if they could or should operate, late at night they received the news that they would get the surgery.  Shad’s father and Jeremy were ecstatic! Shad went through surgery and then, after a few days he was released back to his room.  But then, a blood clot went through his artery and after a third and fourth surgery, Shad died.  Jeremy got dressed and went into the hospital to be with Shad’s father who was mourning and wondering what to do – what to say to the family back home.

And then Jeremy started to think, “oh no, the inevitable blame game will set in because a Kurdish boy has died in the hands of the Turkish enemy.  Shad’s father is going to blame the Turks and this circle of violence will again unmake everything we’ve tried to do here.”  But instead, something amazing happened.  Instead of pointing a finger in blame, Shad’s father walked around to every doctor and nurse and looked them in the eye and said “thank you.  Thank you.  I know you’re sad.  I know you didn’t want my son to die.  You gave us a chance.  Thank you.”  Jeremy spoke about how incredibly healing it was for everyone.  He realized that little by little, they were all remaking the world through preemptive love and through healing.  And after that, 35 children were able to go to Istanbul to get the life-saving surgeries they needed.

In the stories of the prodigal son and Shad’s father, we hear about two fathers who would do anything for their sons – who would bear shame, become fools, and cross boundaries to help their children.  Two fathers, choose love and grace, forgiveness and compassion, and transform the world and set forth a different way of living.

That’s the kind of God we have.  A God who foolishly chooses to welcome people who continue to fall short.  A God, who would do anything, even become human and die on a cross, for the sake of God’s beloved children.  A God with arms flung wide open, who runs to meet us, embraces us and celebrates our return lavishly.  A God who is transforming and remaking the world, showing us that there is a different way of living in the world – a way that involves embracing others, lavishing love on those we encounter, and forgiving, even if it seems foolish.  A God who calls us open our arms and our hearts in order to transform the world by sharing the outrageous love and forgiveness we’ve received.  Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
For those interested, here is the original TEDx Talk by Jeremy Courtney.

You Are My Beloved Child

This was the homily I preached yesterday at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC for the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord.

Two years ago, Jeff and I went on a trip with Gettysburg seminary and some local pastors to Turkey and Greece.  It was a fabulous trip and we had the opportunity to see many sites written about in Revelation, as well as to explore some of the places Paul visited and wrote about.  And two years ago, to the day, we visited Sardis in Turkey.  There we saw the ruins of the massive temple of Artemis with its towering columns that were made up of 22 rounds of marble a piece!

Temple of Artemis and Church Ruins in Sardis, Turkey

Temple of Artemis and Church Ruins in Sardis, Turkey (church ruins bottom left)

But in the back right corner of these ruins, there was a tiny 4th century church, made of simple brick.  There, we gathered together and heard the letter to the church in Sardis from Revelation, and one of the retired pastors offered anointing.  My journal entry from the day reads as follows: “It was amazing to stand in a 4th century church on the Baptism of Our Lord and be anointed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What a special experience.  The sweet smell of the oil, the gathered community and the simplicity of the ruins were so moving.  Thank you, Lord.  To stand gathered with all the saints in worship is a gift – remarkable and holy.”

In the ruins of a tiny church, nearly completely hidden by the enormity of the surrounding temple ruins, I was reminded that in baptism, I had been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  I was reminded that I was a part of a larger community of saints – saints who worshiped thousands of years ago in countries far away, and saints who worship together today from differing backgrounds.  And I was reminded that in my baptism, I was called to follow Christ throughout my life.

4th Century Christian Church in Sardis, Turkey

4th Century Christian Church in Sardis, Turkey

In baptism, God claims and affirms us.  God says to each of us “you are my beloved son” or “you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well-pleased.”  Baptism is God showing us who we are through water and words.  It’s God saying, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”  It’s God showing us whose we are – people freed from our sins and dead to our old selves, raised to live new lives in Christ.  Baptism shapes our identities – we are God’s beloved children, forgiven through God’s grace, and made a part of the beautiful community of believers that stretches across time and space.

In baptism we are also gifted and blessed with the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit calls us to seek God, stirs up fire for justice and transformation in our hearts, and empowers us to serve in the world.  It is with this Spirit that both John and Jesus were filled – and we receive it, too! Folks, that’s powerful.  And as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

When I hear this Gospel reading for today, I think about John in all of his wildness – all of his unconventionality and how he served God as a prophet.  Here was a man yelling “you brood of vipers!” at the curious people who came to see him and listen to him.  He wasn’t one to hold punches or to withhold the truth from anyone.  And oddly enough, they ate it up!  They couldn’t get enough of it – they wanted him to baptize them with the baptism of repentance.  John’s fiery words convicted them of their wrongdoing and they wanted to straighten up and fly right.  But when they started to wonder if John was the long-awaited Messiah, this confident and feisty leader pointed away from himself.  That’s the image I have in my mind – John standing on the banks of the Jordan River, fired-up about calling people to repent, all the while pointing to God, trying to put the attention where he knows it should be.

We may not serve like John the Baptist – I mean, seriously, how many people can pull off calling others a “brood of vipers” and get away with it?  But all of us are called to serve and, in doing so, to point to Christ.  And it’s crucial to recognize that each of us has different skills and passions – tools we can use to serve God and to build up the kingdom.  Our ministries are not going to be identical, because we, as beloved children of God, are not identical.

This doesn’t make it easy to figure out how to serve because our service might look very different than that of our neighbors.  But I think the key is appreciating that we were baptized into a community – into a group of people who may be very different but who are all united through Christ.  We can respect and support the ministries of our fellow believers as they respect and support ours.  Remember, God says “with you I am well-pleased” not “with you I would be well-pleased if you were only a bit more like so-and-so!”

Continuing to come back to baptism each day helps ground us.  We are God’s beloved children and God is well-pleased with us simply because God loves us, not because of anything we’ve done to earn God’s favor.  In baptism, we are forgiven and set free, gifted with the Holy Spirit to make a difference in this world for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Yes, we have been gifted with the Spirit to make a real difference, if only we could believe it!

And we’re not just called to serve within these four walls.  Throughout the week, the words we say and even the smallest things we do can all bear witness to Christ and how God is at work in our lives.  It may be as simple as letting someone merge in front of you on your commute home or by being a gracious host or hostess.  It may mean taking a stand against something you know is wrong at work or in school.  It may mean following that little nudge that you feel pushing you to do something that is out of your comfort zone.  Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, our lives, just like John the Baptist’s, are to point to Jesus, the one who has redeemed us through love.

Today we are installing the council members, both experienced and new.  Each of them has responded to the call and challenge to serve with a “yes.”  Throughout the coming year, they will be tasked with prayerfully beginning new discussions, considering requests, and making decisions.  And in all of these situations, they are being asked to serve in ways that mean they, and by extension our congregation, will point to Christ.  As they begin or continue their terms, let us pray for them that they might be filled with the Holy Spirit and be faithful in following Christ as they serve on council.  And as we all continue on our journeys, may we pray for one another and help each other figure out the ways in which God may be calling us to serve using our unique skills.  As we go out to serve this week, may you remember, you are God’s beloved child and with you God is well-pleased.  Thanks be to God for this incredible gift and the opportunity to make a difference! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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