By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
1 Peter 4:1-8
Reflection—v. 8 ‘the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.’
Every now and again, my former seminary friends and I will work ourselves into a self-righteous frenzy about our beloved church. Like scorned lovers, we’ll recite the same diatribe: ‘Why can’t we just get it right?!’ Each of us has committed our lives to the God that this beautiful and broken institution confesses—and yet we cannot help but feel the sting of disappointment each time it seems that the church fails at its great mission. ‘Let it die!’ my friend used to chime in—a provocative thing for a pastor to say, I know. But are we really so afraid of letting things die? Don’t we follow a Lord who was led to his own death—carried to and buried within the tomb, quickly sealed up tight, as if to proclaim the heavy permanence of his end? Do we trust that this end is not, in fact, what it seemed? One way of thinking about baptism is that when we enter the water, we follow Jesus through death—and then we are pulled out to new life in him. In order to come out on the other side, we have to wade in—holding our breath, and clenching our eyes tight with the blind hope of surfacing and filling our lungs again. It is not too late to come up: it is not too late to listen, to change, to open our doors, and to love one another better. As we sit in our silent and drafty tombs—stone monuments to the church that once was, listening for the ghostly footsteps of all the people who will never come inside—the church may in fact be dead. But let it be so. Yet fear not, oh entombed ones: the gospel is proclaimed even to the dead. Arise—and blink the water out of your eyes as you gasp for air. Stand up and wait, for God is already moving the stone aside.
Prayer: O Holy One, give us the courage to follow you out of the tomb.
By: Chad Hyatt
Let us contemplate Jesus nailed to, and dying upon, the cross. Here our journey, following in his steps, stops—seemingly for good. Here, we who have taken up the cross, stand, gazing upon our Lord, crucified. If it isn’t shocking, if it does not strike us as wrong, perhaps we have not allowed our hearts to truly enter into the meaning of where we stand. For of all the things that the cross means for us—and it means everything—I am struck that what we are called to look upon is, in fact, an icon. What happened that day is itself an image, a sign—the contemplation of which can lead us truly to what it is: an encounter with the love of God. See there, his mother, grief-stricken and heart-pierced, along with the other women who have refused to abandon Jesus, even here in this place. And there, beside her, see also the beloved disciple. See the two thieves, dying beside him upon this desolate hill used for public execution. Feel the presence of the thronged soldiers, going through the mindless motions of a duty they have performed too many times to count. See the ones who have made it a sport, casting lots for his clothing. And, yes, you are right: our Lord is naked, stripped of every last shred of dignity as he dies. Feel the unease in the crowds and the curiosity of the onlookers—such macabre death is a spectacle, after all, from which we can scarce avert our eyes. And now, behold him, his tortured body, bruised and bloodied, stretched out upon the rough wood—lifted up, as he said he would be—savagely hoisted from the earth, the dark outline of the cross seeming to rend the darkening heavens. See his eyes, even now—even after all of this—full of anguish, yes, but also full of love. This is the shocking icon, the truth that somehow saves us all. Here the words that begin John’s Gospel are finished: here, now, in this awful place, the Word of God has truly become flesh and dwells among us. This Word of love is the Word of life.
Prayer: Jesus, we are here with you at the cross—and here your love will save us.
By: Dwayne Brooks
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
Reflection—v. 5 ‘Then he…began to wash the disciples’ feet’
In this story from the Gospel, Jesus does the work of a servant—he washes his disciples’ feet. I feel like we are all called to be servants in this way. The reason why I say that I’m a servant of God is because of the things that I do. I try to serve by helping out at the Food Pantry or at Mercy, by encouraging the people I meet who are in similar situations that I’ve been in. I don’t have to do these things, but I choose to do them anyway. Sometimes it feels like God guides me to do these acts of caring, even when I don’t want to do them in the moment. Even when it feels difficult, I know in my heart that I have to let other people know, through both my words and actions, that there’s somebody that cares about them. I tell people, ‘It’s not just me that cares for you; that man upstairs cares for you.’ Because if God didn’t care, I wouldn’t be here. There is no promise that everyone will like you. But God likes us more than anybody else, and no matter what somebody says about you, you can like yourself, and know that God likes you. Take me, for instance: some of the things I used to do—the attitude, the quick reaction to things, the way I used to blow up—I don’t like. But I feel like I’ve come a long way. To make a long story short, I just want to serve my God and represent the kind of life that Jesus lived.
Prayer: Servant Lord, guide us to do your work of loving and serving one another, even—and especially—when it is most difficult.
By: Micah Casnave
Reflection—v. 8 ‘let us stand up together’
What I think the prophet Isaiah is telling us is to stay firm, hold on, and keep using the tools that God has given us to spread God’s word. What are these tools? They are things that build up the community: loving one another, being encouraging, praying together and for one another, keeping the faith, being open, forgiving one another, and standing up for what is important. Isaiah says we’ve got to stand up together. And when we do that, when we take care of one another, God’s going to take care of us. But we can’t give up when we feel like nobody’s listening to us. Sometimes we’re going to wonder ‘is it all worth it?’ You’re going to feel like that sometimes, but you’ve got to stand strong and keep praying and be persistent. Keep sticking to these ‘tools,’ and ultimately, stay open. It’s a struggle and a battle out here everyday. But God is never going to be like, ‘Okay, it’s over with.’ No, it’s not! But it’s important that we remember God is with us, and to help others remember it as well. You have to know yourself and love yourself for the beloved child of God that you are. There’s a phrase that I like: ‘when I leave this earth, I know where I’m going.’ This helps me not to be worried about what this or that person has said or the ways that they’ve done harm to me. I’m not worried about that. As a beloved child of God, I can still choose to be kind and patient. You might not always think people are listening to you, but maybe they are, and it’s sinking in. Maybe when they go to themselves and meditate, they might think about it.
Prayer: God of abundant grace, give us the tools we need to do your work in the world and stand up together.
By: Freddie Heath
Psalm 31: 9-16
Reflection—v. 15 ‘deliver me’
I am drawn to the psalms in particular, because they are like prayers and meditations to God. Some of the psalms, like this one, are about getting through a depression or misfortune, maybe even sickness or darkness. However, usually by the end of the psalm, there is the hope that the God of Israel will lift us up out of whatever makes us feel weak. So even when we’re at our worst, the hope is that God is still present in all those different emotions. The words of this psalm remind me of when we’ve talked about stories in scripture that mention people who have leprosy. In these stories, often nobody wants to be around them. They are quarantined, isolated. To me, that is what the author of this psalm sounds like they are experiencing. But though the writer of this psalm is experiencing something difficult, they have also been saved by the God of Israel. God has delivered them in their darkest moment. I have felt like that before. I have a condition that can be disorienting. It’s not a bad thing, because it is part of what makes me who I am, but I don’t always understand it. Sometimes I read the psalms, because I can relate to the feelings expressed by their writers. The psalms were given to me as a sort of protection, like a shield of protection from the God of Israel. I feel protected when I read them.
Prayer: God of great love, protect us. Include us. Remind us that we belong and that you care for us.
By: Ivan Cooley
Psalm 31: 9-16
Reflection—v. 9 ‘Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress’
This psalm sounds like a lament, and the way it flows, it sounds to me like a description of what it is like to be a person with no home. When I think about a person with no home, I’m thinking about some other works about a man without—A Man with No Country, A Man with No Face. This is what it’s like to be homeless—a person with no home, no country, no face. On the margins of society you’re basically not accepted. So everyday I was in the state of mind where I was asking the Lord to be gracious to me, because I was in distress—and I felt like there were so many things wrong with me that I didn’t even know where to begin. When you are a person without a home, the authorities become your adversaries. It’s nothing personal—it’s just a job. But they will tell you, ‘You can’t stand here’. Sometimes I would ask, ‘Why not?’ And I’ve been told, ‘Well, it doesn’t look right.’ Are you telling me that as a human being, just like you, that you look right standing here—somebody else might look right standing here—but I don’t look right? Since when was it against the law not to look ‘right’? Sometimes they would escalate things and threaten to lock me up. But you know, they quit being my enemies a long time ago. All that is because of God’s steadfast love. It’s a circle—lets go right back to the beginning where we started. It says, ‘Be gracious to me.’ God’s grace and God’s mercy are the only reasons I’m still here.
Prayer: Be gracious to us, O Lord, who have no home, no country, no face.
By: Ivan Cooley
Psalm 31: 9-16
Reflection—v. 9 ‘my eye wastes away with grief, my soul and body also’
They say, ‘You’re not going to starve in Atlanta.’ Now, that’s true. But the key to that is you have to be at a certain place at a certain time in order to eat. If you’re not there, you’ve missed out. Sometimes these places are scattered out. And a person may be so tired that they may not even feel like walking just to get something to eat. People end up just laying around in the park trying to get rest. But there’s this element of death—of absolute poverty—that is really depressing. It’s depressing when you have to see people in a line with a hundred other folks just to get a sandwich and a bag of chips. It’s depressing when you see grown folks in a country this rich actually running in order to line up for a little food. Where’s the dignity in that? But people feel like they have to do that—because the meek, the poor, have been ignored so long that a lot of us feel like if we don’t move fast, then once again we’ll be left out. For me, I figure I’m going to feel pain either way—physical pain because I’m hungry or mental anguish because I’m having to go through that and having to see everybody else go through that. Most of the time I chose the physical pain, because I’d tell myself, ‘Well, I’m not going to starve to death; I’ll eat tomorrow.’ I said that so many times that I really wasn’t even eating. I was wasting away physically. Everyday I would walk these streets and actually grieve for people who were still living, because I’m seeing people who are sleeping right on the sidewalk in the cold. I would see people in the rain—sleeping under wet blankets. I saw people walking with clothes that they’ve had on so long that the clothes are actually rotting on their body. This is 2019–and I’m looking at some of my brothers and sisters and saying to myself, ‘He looks like a runaway slave.’ I think we’re actually grieving. You can feel like a part of yourself is lost because there’s nowhere you fit in. We grieve for the person that could have been—that should be but that we just can’t get to.
Prayer: Keep us, O Lord, so that you people don’t just waste away.
By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Reflection—v.19 ‘I will make a way in the wilderness’
Some days as we trundle our little carts filled with sandwiches, warm soup, and cold water down the broken and jagged sidewalks of Ponce de Leon Avenue a sense of hopelessness looms over me like a slow-approaching cloud promising unwanted rain. You see, it’s a nice thing to do, this daily protest march through the food-desert of gentrification, but it isn’t enough, and I carry the dead weight of that truth, heavier than five gallons of soup. It isn’t enough what we do each day, though it feels like more than I can carry. This year our shelter opened at higher temperatures than ever before, and yet, there were still nights our community was left sleeping outside in weather too cold for human bodies. There are weeks when our church has been open and our days have been full ‘round the clock,’ and I hear all my clergy friends preaching ‘self-care,’ but I know that when our doors are closed there aren’t many opening to replace them. And so I wage a losing battle within myself of self-righteous zeal and despair. Why can we not do enough for God’s beloved, exiled in our own neighborhoods? Why can others not do more? But God’s promise to God’s people in exile is that God will make a way, even in the wilderness. God will provide water in the wilderness, because God cares about God’s people. What I do, even what Mercy Church does, is not enough, but thanks be to God, we do not do it alone. We do it with the help and support of a community (both on the streets and across the globe), pulling little carts through the wilderness where God has made a way. We do what we do even as rain clouds loom overhead, because we believe that God is present on these streets doing something new. Do you not perceive it? Will you join it?
Prayer: Give us courage, O Lord, to go to those wilderness places where you are doing a new thing.
By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Reflection—v. 7 ‘loss because of Christ’
‘If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more,’ Paul says before he begins his litany of resume-worthy identifiers that could too easily constitute Paul’s sense of self. He’s a part of an upstanding religious group. He’s hard-working. He has no felonies. He’s got good family and the right credentials. He’s all set up for success, and yet, because of Christ, he has come to regard such identifiers, the things in life that should put him ahead, as loss. Lately at Mercy, we have been talking a lot about identity and how we try to ‘prop up’ or even hide who we truly are by looking for our sense of self-value in the wrong places. We find our ‘confidence in the flesh’ because we have a fancy education, or housing, more expensive clothes than our neighbor, or a nicer car. We can even fortify our sense of worth with objectively good qualities like the fact that we are kind or that we attend a social justice-oriented church. While such virtues or passions are not a bad thing, they do not make us who we are. We are at our very core beloved children of God, created in God’s image with inherent dignity regardless of all other accidents or attributes. If you find your sense of worth in what you have obtained or accomplished, instead, I implore you to regard such distracting idols as a loss—for they are not what makes you who you are. When you look in the mirror or gaze upon any other beloved child of God, see yourself—see them—for who we truly are: beloved, created, chosen, and valuable.
Prayer: God who loves us, help us to know ourselves and know one another for who we truly are: beloved.
By: Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum
Reflection—v. 6 ‘not because he cared about the poor’
When Judas makes his compelling point about the wastefulness of Mary’s gift to anoint Jesus’ feet, it is as if the author feels the need to justify Jesus’ response by giving us insight into Judas’ motives. The author wants to affirm that, ‘just to be clear, Judas does not actually care about the poor,’ lest we be won over by his seemingly valid suggestion. Because it’s true, I think any one of us can acknowledge that Judas makes a fair point: wouldn’t that money be better spent if given to the poor? In fact, isn’t that what Jesus’ ministry is all about—good news for the poor, and all that? But if our author is right and Judas really doesn’t care about the poor, then Judas’ point is moot. He is merely trying to say the right thing, while caring about nothing. Mary, on the other hand, cares about Jesus with her whole heart, so much so that this love compels her to give humbly and freely. Oh, Judas, how we love that Jesus outsmarted you and honored Mary’s selfless gift of love—you had all the right arguments, and none of the heart. But before we move directly to joining Team Jesus, I invite us, in this season of penitence, to pause and reflect on when we care more about saying the right things than caring for humans. If we do not actually care about the poor—the human beings in our midst experiencing poverty—all the right words from the academy or the pulpit or seminary or your Facebook post are moot.
Prayer: God of the poor, give us caring hearts to do the messy work of justice that cares for your beloved children with abundant outpourings of love.