I love to travel. To explore new places. To imagine sites I’d like to visit and what I’ll do there. Like sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking coffee with Melissa and watching people go by. Or climbing a peak and taking in an amazing view. Or finding my way into a hushed and darkened cathedral with candles flickering as I silently pray and allow the silence to flood over me. I want those moments to be transcendent, to touch my soul and bring me peace. To encounter healing from the much too busy frantic pace of my normal life. Just the anticipation of the experience brings tremendous joy and excitement. And it grows exponentially as we get nearer and nearer to our destination.
A week ago I concluded a backpacking retreat in the Paria Canyon with an organization called Renewal in the Wilderness. Ten of us spent six days hiking the Paria River in Utah and Arizona through a slot canyon, sleeping under the stars, and reflecting on deep questions of faith posed by our two leaders. A fellow pilgrim—a Professor in Church History—began our reflection time one morning before we began hiking with a poem from Wendell Berry. She had memorized the poem and recites it at the end of each class she has taught over the years. It’s titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
The parable we just read about prayer that Jesus tells can come down to a single phrase: Nevertheless, she persisted. Jesus sets it up by telling us there was a judge who really didn’t care what anyone thought of him, including God. He adjudicated as he saw fit, recognizing he was the powerful one and he could do as he pleased. And he did this in some complaint by a widow, deciding against her.
It’s been nearly 140 years since Mark Twain wrote the novel, The Prince and the Pauper, about the chance encounter of two young men on the street — one the future king of England and the other the beggar son of a thief. Edward, son of Henry VIII, and Tom Canty, the boy living a life of poverty look identical and even share the same birthday. They become fast friends, and the two decide to switch places for a time to see how the other lives. While they are pretending to be each other, King Henry dies and the court officials come to make Tom king. In the end, it all works out with Edward interrupting the near coronation of Tom, but Edward is changed. He becomes more merciful realizing how the justice system of his day was rigged against the poor after spending a stint in jail. The story that Twain wrote was meant to expose the stark inequality in class that existed in his day. He hoped that people would see those differences through his story, and begin to change in the way Edward did.
The Apostle Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” He goes on to including some people that perhaps young Timothy might choose to exclude from that directive, yet I want to pause for a brief moment. “I urge that prayers be made for everyone.” Everyone. The woman who lives next door, and the kids on the morning bus. The family member battling cancer, and that person who did you wrong. Elected officials, and the person you saw digging through the trash. The librarian and the nice older man who always walks his Golden Retriever by your house. Everyone.
He was mingling with the wrong sorts of people.
Not just mingling, mind you, but welcoming them. Eating with them. Clearly his parents had not brought him up well, teaching him that he would be known by the company he kept. He did not keep good company. Jesus didn’t just welcome these sorts of folks, he sought them out which sets the religious elite to grumbling. Jesus spent a lot of time with the kind of riffraff most of us try to avoid. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” they tut-tut.
Jesus taught his followers saying, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
In response, pastor Melissa Earley asks the question we all are thinking but don’t have the chutzpah to utter, “Did [Jesus] really say that? Is this one of the handful of statements Jesus really said, or one that was merely attributed to him [after the fact]?” She hopes for the latter, of course, and drawing a coveted theological “get out of jail free” card. As do we all. As do I.
In the words we heard today, the prophet Amos has a fourth vision come to him from the Lord. It’s a bowl of summer fruit set before him. The fruit would be ripe at the end of the season just before the coming of Autumn, and it signified the end for the people of Israel whose time was now ripe too. Their time was drawing to a tragic close because they didn’t engage in the work God had set before them.
For most of my years growing up I was the youngest of six in my family. (I say “most of my years” intentionally as my parents were only two years away from an empty next when they adopted two kindergarten-aged sisters deciding to share more of their love with them.) While there are the blessings of being the youngest—older siblings had worn off the rough edges of haphazard parenting long before I arrived—one of the difficulties I faced was longing to do things my brothers and sisters participated in but couldn’t because I wasn’t old enough. After this happened a number of times, I felt like I didn’t belong.
A giant of the faith died last week. Rachel Held Evans grew up in a conservative Southern Christian home as the daughter of a Bible College administrator. As Rachel became an adult, she had questions about faith, about God, and about who decided who was in and who was out when it came to following Jesus. And so this millennial—she was born in 1981—stayed in her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee to write about her quest to faithfully follow Jesus and push against the conventions of conservative Christianity that she had been taught as a girl. Her four books tackle how faith evolves, the problem of biblical literalism, her search for a more authentic faith, and her deep love of the Bible. She died last Saturday after an unexpected and short illness that placed her in a coma on Good Friday, and she leaves behind a husband and two very young children.