February 21, Again and Again: God Meets Us, with Rev. Kally Elliott
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Rev. Kally Elliott
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February 21, Again and Again God Meets Us, with Kally Elliott
When I was a teenager, my grandmother lived about a mile from me, and every Tuesday afternoon she would drive over to my house holding her seatbelt over her body because she thought it was stupid that we had to wear a seatbelt. But she didn’t want to break the law. So she wore it and she would pick me up and we would head to Nordstrom’s for manor classes. Those master classes were for me after class. Gigi would usually take me shopping and then we would eat at the Nordstrom’s cafe.
This was our ritual, though. I was a surly adolescent who groaned at the mention of quality family time. We treasured our afternoons together. It was one of the many ways Gigi let me know, she delighted in me, but it wasn’t just that she took me to etiquette class and to dinner each week. It was the way her eyes would light up whenever I walked in her door, the way she met me with chocolate or a crazy new idea that she just had to share with me.
It was the way she worked on speeches with me and then had me show them off to her Toastmasters group how she was always up for breakfast out, whether it be at Denny’s or the fancy hotel in town. Gigi delighted in me as she did in all of her grandchildren. We were marked with her love. Who delights in you or maybe who delighted in you when you were a child whose face lit up whenever you walked in the house? Maybe you can’t think of someone.
If not, is there someone in whom you have delighted? Someone who brings you great joy at just the thought of her? Is there someone that can bring a smile to your face or from whom you cannot remove your gaze? In the book, Tattoos on the Heart, a Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle, tells a story about his friend and spiritual director, Bill. Years ago, Bill took a break from his own ministry to care for his father.
And as he died of cancer, his father had become a frail man dependent on Bill to do everything for him. Though he was physically not what he had been and the disease was wasting him away, his mind remained alert and lively in the role reversal common to adult children who care for their dying parents. Bill would put his father to bed and then read him to sleep exactly as his father had done for him in childhood. Bill would read from some novel, and his father would lie there, staring at his son, smiling.
Bill was exhausted from the day’s care and work and would plead with his dad. Look, here’s the idea I read to you and you fall asleep. Bill’s father would impishly apologize and dutifully close his eye, but this wouldn’t last long. And soon enough, Bill’s father would pop one eye open and smile at his son. Bill would catch him and whine. Come on. The father would again oblige until he couldn’t anymore. And then the other eye would open to catch a glimpse of his son.
This went on and on, and after his father’s death, Bill knew that this evening ritual was really a story of a father who just couldn’t take his eyes off his kid. How much more so God, behold the one be holding you and smiling. Today marks the first Sunday in Lent and almost a year from the day we were last able to meet in person to greet one another with a shake up the hand or a hug of the neck, even a visible, warm smile, so many of the ways that we showed each other, our delight in the other have been stripped from us this year.
During Lent, we are invited into a spiritual journey as we meet Jesus in this scripture. He, too, is standing on the threshold of a spiritual journey as a 30 year old man. So far, we know of nothing special Jesus has done with his life. He doesn’t have disciples yet. He hasn’t miraculously healed anyone or cast out any evil spirits. He has argued with the Pharisees or ticked off the politicians. Jesus at this point is just a guy living his normal life.
Until he wades into that water and the same spirit that hovered over the waters of creation in Genesis descends on him like a dove and the creative audible voice of God breaks out for everyone to hear saying, you are my son, the beloved with you. I am well pleased for Christmas. This year, my mom gave me my grandmother. Gigi’s Bible and Gigi’s Bible translates God’s voice, saying, You are my beloved son. You are my delight. Behold the one holding you and smiling.
I heard this this comparison and this person said delight is the difference between dinner at your favorite restaurant with your best friend and dinner at the same restaurant with your boss. One of those meals you over order and you laugh hysterically and you leave without a care in the world. The other one you carefully order, you use your best manners and you leave breathing a sigh of relief. Why is that? Because one of those relationships is built on delight. And the other one, is built on performance.
Jesus has not performed anything yet and God delights in him. Later in his ministry, the disciples will return from their travels and they will rattle off to Jesus, this spiritual highlight reel, they’ll say things like, we gathered crowds, they responded to our teaching, we healed their diseases. Even the demons submitted to us in your name, Jesus and Jesus will say to them, don’t rejoice in any of that. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
In other words, be very careful rejoicing in your performance. You might be grading yourself on a scale that God just does not use. Rejoice that God delights in you because you are you before, during and after. And regardless of anything you do. How would your life be different if you believed this truth? Would you be able to actually take that day off to rest? Would you be able to let others be who they are without loading them down with your expectations, would something settle in you a a knowing that you are enough? Loveable, even likable, just as you are.
Because God doesn’t stop with Jesus. In the scriptures, we are told that we are all children of God, we are all chosen and marked with God’s love. We are God’s delight. Behold the one beholding you and smiling. Maybe this is what we should say when we mark those being baptized with the cross before they even begin their journey. Child of God. God delights in you. Behold the one beholding you and smiling. Remember that story in which the mothers and fathers were bringing their toddlers and their infants and their children to Jesus so he could bless them and the disciples thinking he can’t be bothered with children, told them all to go away.
And then Jesus rebukes the disciples using the same word that Jesus uses. When he rebukes demons, Jesus says to them, Let the little children come to me and don’t stop them. For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. He’s saying that these babies at the very beginning of their spiritual journey, these babies who can do nothing, who have done nothing, who have nothing to offer, who are totally dependent on the love and grace of God, and all they can do is receive it is to them, Jesus says, the kingdom belongs.
This is gospel, the very first words in the book of Mark, just a few verses before the baptism of Jesus state, this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. The beginning. It’s the truth that when it works its way into the crevices of your heart, into every judgment and idea and thought you have about yourself and others when it echoes in your ears, then begins your journey of transformation. To know that God delights in you just because it’s is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.
The scriptures say John was preaching a baptism of repentance when Jesus came to him to be baptized. Now, repentance simply means I’m acknowledging something in myself that I cannot transform by myself. And so God meets Jesus at the water because apparently even he, the son of God, couldn’t be transformed without some help. And it’s the same place that God meets us at the beginning of our spiritual journey, but then with his hair still dripping, the spirit of God drives Jesus into the wilderness.
And now Mark doesn’t say much about Jesus’s wilderness experience, but he does make sure that we know there were wild beasts present and Satan made an appearance. So according to Mark, it was certainly no relaxing vacation. But then biblical wildernesses rarely are. And we’ve all been there in a wilderness of sorts. Maybe your wilderness looked like the bedroom wall that you stared at after hanging up on the diagnosis from your doctor. Or maybe it was the months you spent couch surfing after separating from your partner or the endless ego crushing year you spent looking for and getting rejected from jobs.
Or that night you paced the floor waiting for a word from your teenager, imagining the worst. Perhaps it was that time you found yourself searching scriptures for some reassuring words, some sign that it will all be OK. And coming up with nothing, just the defeated resignation, that God may not be able to fix it for you this time. This last year has been a wilderness for most of us. I know it has been for me. Heck, the last two years have been a wilderness time for me and my family.
A move across the country, new schools, new job, new people. We were just starting to find our way, our friends, where we fit in in this new town and then a pandemic. We’ve all spent the last year worrying about our health, grieving over the lives lost, protesting racial injustice, stripped of our sense of safety and democracy as our capital capital was stormed, finding ourselves on opposite sides of a political divide, severing relationships with beloved family members and friends. Not to mention all of the worries and pain and hardship that went on behind our own closed doors as the pandemic kept us at home.
As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty. And yet Jesus is not alone in the wilderness, Angels kept vigil with him, which is another way of saying God never left his side, even as the wild beasts and Satan pursued him. It is in the wilderness when all Jesus might normally count on to save his life is stripped away that he learns he can do nothing but receive the love and the delight of God.
40 days later, Jesus emerges, trusting the spirit of God who had led him there to lead him into life after the wilderness. He emerges with clarity and grit that he could not have found anywhere else. The truth of the good news has sunk so deeply into him that he begins to proclaim it and even more to live it. I wonder how we as a church will emerge from the wilderness. We’ve been through this last year. Will we have clarity and grit?
Will we know who we are and what we are about better than we ever did before? Will we be transformed? Will the good news of God, how we are a delight to God have sunk so deeply into our souls that we can’t help but to proclaim and to live it? In his recent book, All Things New, Pete Hughes tells the story of Robert Cornwall, the pastor of a small church in Salem, just over the mountains from us in the 1960s, Cornwall decided to volunteer some of his time to offer counseling at the Oregon State Hospital, originally called the Oregon State Insane Asylum.
His first assignment was building 37, a room that housed thirty seven of the most severely mentally disturbed patients. The guard escorted Robert to the building and unlocked the door to a padded cell containing half clothed patients incapacitated by their drugs with excrement all over the room. Remember, this was the 1960s, and thankfully, we have much better ways of helping those experiencing a mental health crisis. Now, though, we still have a long way to go. When Cornwall tried to talk with these patients, all he got was groans and grunts, not knowing what else to do.
Cornwall sat down on the floor and began singing that song. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me. So he sang that song for over an hour until the guard let him out. And then he returned the following week and the week after next. And on the third week, while he sat on the floor singing the same refrain, a large lady approached him and began circling him like she might attack wearily.
Robert carried on, singing quietly and with hesitation. The lady joined him in song as she walked in circles, and before too long she sat down next to him, continuing in the chorus. Weeks after weeks, more patients joined in the singing, and by the end of the month, thirty six of the patients had been transferred from building thirty seven to a self help ward. And by the end of the year, all but two had been released from the mental institution and declared mentally stable.
Now, I wouldn’t venture to say that all the patients needed was to be reminded that God loves them. I am a huge advocate for psychological counseling, for medical treatment and medications as needed for those experiencing mental health challenges. But I do believe the singing, the way the message and the music worked its way into the patient’s soul. Yes, Jesus loves me. The retraining of their neural pathways as they repeated it over and over, the way God met and delighted in the patients of room thirty seven in their time of wilderness was a beginning.
Again and again, God meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us there, who will we be when we emerge from the wilderness? Friends? Behold the one be holding you and smiling.