“Let’s Eat”

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Photo from the Montgomery, Alabama Convention & Visitor Bureau. 

Matthew 14:13-21

My very first church was a mid-sized parish in Montgomery, Alabama. Some of them, in fact, may end up watching this here broadcast. 

I loved them for many reasons, and one of my favorite days of any month was when the Young at Heart group, a group of folks who referred to themselves as the more “chronologically gifted” members of the congregation, would go out to eat for lunch together. I would always join them, and I loved every minute of it. They tolerated me and even enjoyed my company — me in my mid-twenties, fresh out of seminary, as green as they come, and they in their seventies and eighties. 

There was a liturgy to it. I would be in my office at the church, plugging away at a sermon or getting up the courage to call someone or doing some other pastor thing when one of them would stick their heads inside the open door and say four simple words. 

“Okay, Preacher, lesseat.” 

Back in those days, I did not, I freely admit, feed myself like I should. Now an enthusiastic breakfast eater, in those days, I usually didn’t eat until lunch. Whenever I’d hear those words — lesseat — my mouth would begin to water and I’d begin to get my head around just how hungry I was. 

I would obediently get up and follow them out to their car, and we’d eat indeed — usually something delicious and Southern like fried chicken or Gulf shrimp — and Jesus was always there, I’m sure of it. God’s grace lives lots of places, and I imagine good fried chicken to be one of them.

You know I always like to say that Jesus loved meals so much he became one. 

Today’s Gospel text ends with food, but it starts on a curious note: “When Jesus had heard this.” 

Heard what, exactly? 

He’d just heard about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod and the government. John was, of course, both Jesus’ cousin and the one who baptized him. When Jesus hears about this, Matthew tells us, Jesus withdrew. 

Even the Son of God, we learn, needs to grieve. 

He gets into a boat and goes off by himself, as many of us sometimes do when we just need a moment to ourselves after a great loss. 

The crowds hear where he’s gone, and they come to the shore to see him. When he sees the crowd, he doesn’t preach a great sermon. He doesn’t tell them anything — he heals their sick. 

When evening came, the disciples were feeling practical, they instruct the Son of God to send them away so that they can get some food. 

Jesus says, in a tone I imagine as almost grumpy: “You give them something to eat.” 

To make a point, perhaps, the disciples talk about how little they have: famously five loaves, and two fish. 

You know the rest of the story. Jesus takes what little they have and turns it into a meal so big that the entire crowd of more than 5,000 people gets fed, and there are leftovers to take home. 

Where Jesus is, there is always enough. 

It’s worth noting that I didn’t choose this text for this day. Promise. 

My pastor friends are jealous. 

We’re trying out communion today, the first time we’ve taken communion since March 8. 

That means that it’s been about 146 days since many of us have taken communion, but who’s counting? 

This time without communion has taught me a lot, and I bet it’s taught you a lot too. It’s made me think of our ancestors in faith who, for various reasons, have been left without communion: either because there was no church, or because there was a church but no pastor on most Sundays, back in the days when one pastor might serve five or ten churches and rotate around them. 

We are not the first to go without, as you know well by now, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been hard. 

But we haven’t gone hungry. 

Where Jesus is, there is always enough. 

Just like Jesus was in the fried chicken during the Young at Heart lunches, Jesus has also been with us this whole time. We worship our God, not our rituals, and our God shows up in our rituals and well outside of them. We’ve met God in the woods on a hike or two, in the faces of our families even if it was over FaceTime, in the bravery of essential workers, in the courage to have a dialogue over race and policing. 

We do not bring Jesus here by having communion; Jesus has been here this whole time. Where Jesus is, there is always enough; that much is clear. In the absence of communion, God has found new and creative ways to feed us. 

And now we return to this table that before we might’ve taken for granted and we’ll meet God here, too. May we never take it for granted again, for it is our family table. It is where we meet God and it is where our ancestors in faith met God.

I did not choose this text, but God did. With Jesus, the time is always right and the amount is always enough. 

Just as Christ fed the 5,000 plus the ladies and the kids in the midst of his own grief, Christ is here to feed us in the midst of pandemic anxiety. And there will be enough. 

Whether you commune with us today or whether you don’t, whether you’re watching at home or just waiting until you feel safer, know that Christ is with you, too, and will find new and wonderful ways to keep you fed until you join us at our table. 

And with that, I don’t think there’s anything left to say, except: “Lesseat.” Amen.

The Desire of “The Hound of Heaven”

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“Parable of the Mustard Seed,” a painted window at the YMCA training center for German leadership in Kassel. Photo by tin.G.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

There’s a version of this story that’s been around for quite awhile, and you’ve probably heard some version of it somewhere. I think it started with a guru and enlightenment, but eventually, somebody Christianized it, and this is how I first heard it. 

Somewhere in rural America, an old pastor takes a younger pastor for a walk. 

“How badly do you want to know and follow Jesus?” the older pastor says. 

The younger pastor responds enthusiastically, “As badly as I want to eat my next meal!” 

They come upon a body of water, and the older pastor suddenly kicks the younger pastor’s legs out from under him. (Both of these pastors are men, otherwise it gets either weird or … just super unlikely.) 

The older pastor holds the younger pastor’s head under water RIGHT until the younger pastor is about to lose consciousness. Then he relents. 

The younger pastor comes up, sputtering and gasping for air. 

“Why on earth did you do that?!” the younger pastor demands. 

“Until you want to know and follow Jesus as badly as you wanted to breathe just now,” the old man said, “You’ll never succeed.” 

I’m sorry if you like that story, because I hate that story. 

This is mostly because I have become a mentor to younger pastors and I cannot imagine doing anything like it. I also find it fairly abhorrent for one adult to hold another one against their will for any reason not pertaining to safety. Finally, I don’t like it because I think it puts the emphasis in all the wrong places, and gives credit where it’s not due. 

Basically, I’m as Lutheran as they come, and I think the whole story essentially amounts to works righteousness. But I told you that story for a reason.

Let me explain by way of the Gospel lesson.

There’s a decent enough chance that Matthew here is recording some sayings of Jesus that the community remembered, back to back to back as one dialogue. This seems somehow more likely to some scholars than imagining that he went on and on back to back to back like that in what sort of seems like an unnatural dialogue. 

It doesn’t matter, really. 

The point is that this is the sort of thing that Jesus wanted to emphasize: that the kingdom of heaven is like — once again, it is like a thing that grows. A mustard seed. A tiny seed, and usually not one that someone would sow on purpose. But in this parable in Matthew, someone does, apparently, sow it on purpose, and it grows strong — much like we talked about last week — and becomes a home for the birds. 

Then, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman kneads into bread. Once again, a little goes a long way. The little seed became a big tree, and now, a bit of yeast levens all the bread and causes it to rise. 

Then two more parables, these about someone who gave all they had to get something they saw as valuable. 

Then another parable about fishing, where there is an abundance. 

The kingdom of heaven, apparently, is like all of these things. This is why the disciples, I think, lied to the Lord when he asked them if they understood. 

I want to go back to the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. In his version, Luke also includes a woman who turns the house upside down looking for a lost coin. 

You see, the way we normally read these passages is simple: the kingdom of heaven is worth everything, and we should give up everything to get it. We should want the kingdom of heaven as badly as that young pastor wanted to breathe. 

But you see, I think this reading has it all backwards. Because as I always say, when the Gospel becomes a story about us and our goodness and our efforts, chances are very good that we’ve gotten something backwards. 

What if. 

What if you are the treasure hidden in the field? What if you are the pearl of great price? What if you are Luke’s lost coin, and God is the woman who tears her house apart until she finds you?

If I’m off, I’m not very far off, because it’s pretty clear in the next parable that we are the fish. 

As every kid eventually learns, being the hero of every story is exhausting, so this morning, let God be the hero of your story for once. I promise you that God is better at it. Chalk it up to more experience. 

You are the treasure that someone found and hid, and God is the one who would sell all he had to buy that field. You are the pearl of great value, and God is the merchant who would sell the clothes off his back to have you. 

I know that you might not feel worthy, and that is the point. Treasure and pearls do not know their worth. They just are. 

And the urgency that we all feel in our lungs when we imagine the young preacher struggling to breathe? What if that is the urgency with which God pursues you and wants life abundant for you?

I don’t mean riches and all of the desires of your heart. Lord, I’d be a terrible prosperity Gospel preacher. 

No, I mean life abundant as in freedom. God is always in the business of freedom. In what ways is God freeing you, even as you sit there? 

I know, that’s a lot of questions, but what I’ve got to work with is a lot of parables and some lyin’ disciples. 

As with everything in life, once you see your own worth, your own value, your own belovedness, life begins to open up for you. God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it. 

There is a poem that every seminary student and every student of religion must read. And it is with an excerpt from that poem that we end. It bears noting that the poem, written in 1909 by Francis Thompson, refers to God as “him” — lest you think I’m talking about some guy. 

“I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days; 

I fled Him, down the arches of the years; 

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways 

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears 

I hid from Him, and under running laughter. 

Up vistaed hopes I sped; 

And shot, precipitated, 

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears, 

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. 

But with unhurrying chase, 

And unperturbèd pace, 

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, 

They beat—and a Voice beat 

More instant than the Feet— 

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’ 

I pleaded, outlaw-wise, 

By many a hearted casement, curtained red, 

  Trellised with intertwining charities; 

(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,

Yet was I sore adread 

Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside). 

But, if one little casement parted wide,

The gust of His approach would clash it to. 

Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.” 

The poem, of course, is “The Hound of Heaven,” and it speaks of a God who will turn the house upside down looking for you. A God who loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A God who does not need you to be the hero of your story, because that God already is. Amen.

The Wheat, the Weeds, and the KKK

Screen Shot 2020-07-19 at 5.20.29 PMThe current cover image for Slow Burn.

When I take long runs these days, I need to be distracted. So I turn to podcasts. 

Lately, I’ve been listening to the latest season of a podcastAr called Slow Burn. The first season is about Watergate, and it’s fascinating. The most current season, the fourth season, takes a slightly different topic: David Duke. 

David Duke, if you didn’t know already, is a former grand wizard from the KKK who appears every now and again in the news. He’s run several successful and unsuccessful campaigns for office, both in his home state of Louisiana and outside of it.

If you do end up listening to the podcast, I must warn you: if you think you’re in for hearing only about Southern racism in this season, you’re in for a surprise: they also cover his raucous rallies all over the country back in the 1970s and even later, including some right here in New England.

Anyhow, episode four covers David Duke’s 1990 campaign to be the US Senator from Louisiana.

When the results came back after a fraught campaign, Duke lost that Senate race to rival Bennet Johnston 54-43.5%, in what one Johnston supporter called “the most depressing win I think I’ve ever seen.” Duke should have been resoundingly defeated, but he wasn’t.

The most depressing statistic: in that election, David Duke captured 60% of the white vote, as he railed on and on about “restoring” the rights of white people. His KKK exploits, as well as other facts — such as his celebrations of Hitler’s birthday — were all also well known to the voters by the time they cast ballots. 

A common theme of the series, as with other similar candidates, is that more people, in Louisiana and elsewhere, would vote for the neo-Nazi and former Klansman than would admit to it to pollsters or others, meaning that he consistently out-performed poll numbers. One of Duke’s fellow Klansmen referred to these as Duke’s “silent army of white believers.” Other white people were appalled that their neighbors would support someone, in 1990, who had once donned a KKK hood, and who used coded and not-so-coded language to talk about race.

Black Louisanans, naturally, were alarmed. This was personal. One such Louisianan was Michelle Belle Boisierre, who identifies as black and Louisiana creole. Her family has been in southeast Louisiana since the 1740s. In 1990, she was 25 and a biology graduate student at Tulane. 

“It felt like weights were being placed on me,” she said of those days. “It seemed like those weights were getting heavier and heavier and it was harder to function, harder to make forward progress in my own life, because of this idea that there are going to be thousands … of people who would actually vote for [Duke].” 

Boisierre sent a letter to the local paper saying “I have been haunted by the fact that sixty percent of the white people in Louisiana supported David Duke. I have spent the last few weeks in a state of paranoia unlike any I have ever experienced.” 

It bears noting that she was the only black PhD student at Tulane at the time. 

She said, “I had to wonder — of the fifty white people I’ll talk to tomorrow, which thirty of them voted for David Duke?” 

Boisierre had to wonder which members in her community supported David Duke, who openly claimed that white people were superior to all other races. Many, of course, volunteered the information to her that they did not vote for him — but others were silent, and she always had to wonder about that “silent army.” 

How do you know who is good and who is bad? How do you know who is a racist and who is not, who is homophobic and who is not, who is sexist and who is not? For some of us, these are moral judgements, “political issues.” For others, they can be life and death questions, or at least questions that affect livelihoods, mental health, and senses of wellbeing.

The question of being able to tell who is good and who is bad is not a new one, obviously. It’s a tale, as they say, as old as time. 

Jesus knew this. We find ourselves once again in the Gospels, listening to Jesus talk about spiritual things in, quite literally, earthy terms. He describes the kingdom in terms of things that grow, and passages like this one can make us all anxious. 

Delmer Chiton, a Lutheran pastor and co-host of “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” a weekly podcast about the lectionary passage for the week, posits that in every congregation, there are two types of people: there are the ones who need to be told that God loves them in spite of what they’ve done, and those who are quite sure that they’re the “good” people and need to be told to get out of their pews and help their neighbors, if not be taken down a notch. Now personally, I think there’s some of both in all of us. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian philosopher, wrote, “If only there were bad people somewhere that we could gather up and get away from us and then just destroy them and that would take care of the problem with the world. But the line of good and evil runs through the middle of the human heart.”

Indeed, the church has done a lot of harm to itself over the years by attempting to tear the weeds from among us. We have labeled all kinds of people sinners, barred all types of people from being part of our community. We always truly think that we know how to tell what’s good and what’s bad, who’s wheat and who’s a weed. 

This story is for us. 

A wise preaching professor once taught a group of self-righteous feeling seminary students one very important lesson — remember, when you’re pointing a finger at the congregation, you’d better go ahead and name that you’ve got three more fingers pointing right back at yourself. 

So what does that mean, then? 

That we ignore evil and injustice? That we refuse to call out wrong, in the church and in  the world, when we see it? That we let people do terrible things to others and say nothing? 

No. 

Elsewhere in the Bible, it’s quite clear that speaking up for the marginalized is part of the Christian’s calling, as is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving a cold cup of water to those in need. A church without boundaries is a place of abuse just as much as a church with too many. 

But we should be very careful before we condemn individuals, before we attempt to rip out the weeds. The point of this text is, of course, that ultimate judgement of individuals is entirely up to God. 

Besides, it’s a little silly to imagine the wheat attempting to rip out the weeds. 

Wheat doesn’t even have thumbs.

It bears noting here that I am not condemning David Duke voters to hell. I do not believe that anyone is beyond redemption, or that anyone is defined forever by a vote they have cast. Besides, condemning anyone would be quite against Jesus’ point in this text: that judgement is up to God. My point is only this: that we do not know what is in anyone’s heart, and that people can indeed surprise us by the beliefs they hold.

That brings us to the final question: what does the wheat do in this story? 

It grows, strong, tall, and proud. It is planted in good soil, it produces food to feed the hungry, and it is gathered into the barn in due time. 

Michelle Belle Boisierre is now, thirty years later, a professor of biology at Xavier, New Orleans’s historically black university. The experience she had as a graduate student in 1990 made her stronger in her identity and her drive to succeed. 

At the end of the episode, the podcast host asked her, “How did you continue to live in [Louisiana] and go about your business?”

Dr. Boisierre replied, “I … know that the work that I do and the way that I conduct myself is a source of pain for people like David Duke. I know that in my career, I help young people, primarily African American, complete career journeys that people like David Duke think they’re not well suited for, think they’re not capable of doing. So I know that I live my life doing things and being a person who’s disturbing to him.”

At this point, her smile can almost be heard in the audio of the interview as she finishes, “…and that’s quite comforting.” 

Friends, this side of heaven, there will always be evil. Some of it will be open, and some of it will be hidden. It is not up to us to rip the evil out of the world. We would do harm if we tried. Throughout history, the most harm that has been done has been when someone decided that they could eradicate “those bad people” from the face of the earth. 

What we can do is to continue growing strong, working for justice, being wheat, feeding the world, knowing that ultimately, the one who compares the kingdom of God to things that grow will give us all that we need, and that in due time, the harvest will come, the world will be fed, and that someday death and evil shall be no more. Someday, we will no longer have to wonder.

Until then, stay rooted, my friends. Grow strong.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Let God Sort ‘Em Out

sower-at-sunset
Van Gogh, Parable of the Sower (1888)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

My high school softball coach, when she would hear a flurry of anxieties from me and my teammates, had a thing that she would say. We would be worrying about what the weather would be, whether the infield would be too hard, whether the outfield would be uneven. We would use ALL the words, talking a mile a minute. 

And Coach would just shrug and say, “Things you can’t control.” And that would be the end of it. 

I often say that many of the greatest lessons that I learned in school were taught outside the classroom, on the field or the court. This is one of them. 

I learned that I could not control the weather, the field conditions, or even the other team. I could not control what was in the past, either, or in the future, for that matter. Worrying about those things, in fact, would take my attention away from the things I could control, and would subsequently have a negative impact on my performance.

CrossFit coach Ben Bergeron has this exercise with his athletes where they name everything that could possibly go wrong within a competition. Things within their control get a plan. Things outside of their control get let go of.

If you listened to the Gospel lesson, you may be wondering what all of this could possibly have to do with gardening. Well, maybe you are if you’re not a gardener.

Today we have the well known “parable of the sower.” 

Today’s the day when preachers everywhere demonstrate that they are not great gardeners. 

Why, you ask? 

Because they think that soil can change its own quality. 

And by “they,” I mostly mean “me” ten years ago. 

If soil could have a change of heart, I would’ve been preaching to the soil in the front garden of the parsonage this whole time, and it would’ve gone from a sandy mess to compost out of a sense of guilt. 

We often read this text and we think that we are meant to be the soil, and that our mission is to become good soil. 

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was going for at all. He’s God, after all, and he knows how gardening works. 

No, Jesus is talking to the disciples as the sowers. He’s attempting to prepare them for an inevitability: that some people will immediately and readily become lifelong disciples. Others, not so much. Some people will not get it at all. Still others will get it, but then lose interest. And finally, some will become disciples, but will find that they just have other priorities, and being a disciple will get pushed aside.

You’d think that Jesus would then direct the disciples to look for people who will be good soil — to try to find those who will most readily receive the Gospel and become lifelong, productive disciples. 

You’d think he’d tell them to be good gardeners, and careful with where they “throw seeds.” 

But Jesus doesn’t play that way. 

Instead, he calls for us to be somewhat careless sowers, preaching the Gospel everywhere and using words when necessary. And that is what we already do here. We make tasty food for people who need it. We take care of our own, and we take care of the community around us, in many different ways. In non-Covid times, we even sing hymns in bars. We serve folks on the street. And each of you spreads love in your respective jobs and families, as cool and varied as they are. 

I’m not joking when I say that this is exactly the kind of church community that I would want to be a part of if I were not a pastor. 

When I was first starting out as a pastor almost ten years ago, I would feel a rush of glee when someone would say to me, usually after meeting me, getting to know me, and then hearing what I do for a living: “Well, even I would go to church if you were the pastor!” I was sure that I was on track to become the next Nadia Bolz-Weber. 

I figured out really quick that it wasn’t about me, and that most people who said that were listening to me through beer headphones (they’re like beer goggles, but for your ears), and that the people who did and do find their way to the churches I’ve served and stay there are exactly the right ones.

In short, I learned to let go of things I can’t control and focus on what I can. 

Not everyone is into church. Even some folks who want to be church people just can’t find it in them to make it a priority right now. Even if they do, not everyone who is into church is into churches like this church.

This story that Jesus tells today is for us. Not us, the soil, but us, the sowers. 

I’ve definitely told this story before, but I’ll tell it again because it always bears repeating: the Episcopal priest in town when I was in college was my very first clergy mentor. His name was, and is, Father Jeff. Before he was Father Jeff, he was just Jeff, and he served in the Marine corps back in the mid-1980s. The snipers, he told us once in a sermon, had a saying when it came to the enemy: “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” 

When he became Father Jeff, he said that his call changed when it came to his enemies. It became, “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” 

Friends, this is true of us — and not just our enemies, but our friends and family. We do not get to control what type of soil anyone is. We are simply called to sow widely, almost irresponsibly — to spread God’s love wherever we go, not stopping to question whether or not someone is deserving or whether or not they might be inspired to come to church here. If they are, great! But that’s a thing we can’t control. 

But luckily, we can’t control the Holy Spirit, either. And I believe that God is the best gardener. He decided to create humanity out of the soil of a garden, after all. 

I believe that the people who have decided to come to church here and stay are exactly the right ones. That’s you. And the folks who will choose to come here and stay in the years to come? They’re exactly the right ones, too. 

The Isaiah passage is where the Good News is this morning: God says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty. 

Do not spend time fretting about things you can’t control. The God who promises will deliver, whether we witness the growth or not. 

Your job? Let go of what you can’t control and trust what God says.
You just love ‘em all. And let God sort ‘em out. 

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field — [all the new life that God has made to grow in God’s own time] — shall clap their hands.” 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

“Can’t Take a Yoke”

This sermon was preached at Our Savior’s first outdoor service in 2020. If you are a Pioneer Valley resident, consider joining us for our outdoor services, currently being held every Sunday at 10:15am. Masks and social distancing are required. Screen Shot 2020-07-05 at 2.11.57 PM
OSLC’s generous and beautiful outdoor worship space. 

Welcome home, everyone. Whether you’re sitting here on our lawn together or whether you have to join us online for now, I’m glad you’re here. 

I’m so happy to see you. 

Now, in the interest of keeping you alive and not overheated, I’m going to get used to preaching short sermons because it may get hot this summer. So here we go. 

Disclaimer: this sermon was largely the result of a conversation that I had with my good friend and pastor, Joseph Graumann of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough. If you have any friends there, you’ll likely hear that their pastor is telling many of the same bad jokes as I am, to similar groans. We came up with them together. We are as ashamed as we are proud.

So here we go.

This Gospel text is a classic text, right out of the Greatest Hits of the Gospels, and “Sayings of Jesus Most Likely to be Embroidered on a Pillow”: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

You know, [beat] some people just can’t take a yoke. 

Yesterday was July 4, you know, and that plus coronavirus got me thinking about how our greatest accomplishments as a nation have come when Americans have worked together. And here, in the midst of this pandemic, we’re still honoring that American tradition. We’re all in masks, and distant, protecting one another from disease. It’s not a case that was very hard to make here at Our Savior’s, where your love for one another continues to amaze and inspire me. 

Did I mention I missed you?

But in other places, and in other communities, it’s not that easy. Americans also have a sense of rugged individualism which isn’t always bad, but sometimes has unintended consequences, such as the now many videos of people embarrassingly freaking out in public because they refuse to wear masks indoors in public in places where it’s required. 

And that’s what I mean when I say that some people just can’t take a yoke. Because the yoke Jesus speaks of is typically for oxen, or other livestock, usually pulling something together.

But we all fall victim to the individualist mentality sometimes. And like I said — sometimes, it can even be good. I’ve certainly had times when I’ve had to boss up and create my own lane, and get things done myself. We all have. 

But for every time I’ve had to do that, there are ten times when I’ve done it when I should’ve asked for help. 

I’m learning, though. On that note, shout out to Cathy for mowing the lawn this week, even though it was my turn. 

Jesus doesn’t promise no burden, or no yoke — the promise is that we will never bear our burdens alone.

And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A rabbi’s “yoke,” you may know already, was the rabbi’s teaching. And the image still applies to religious communities, and communities and teachers of all kinds, today. What kind of yoke do we offer? 

We humans have a tendency to give heavy burdens to one another. Namely, the cultural obligation to be seen as “good,” or worthwhile. We want to be seen as good parents, and good at our jobs, and good citizens. None of those things is bad, of course — it’s good, even, to want to be good, and for a community to encourage that — but the problem comes when we derive our worth from how close to perfect we can get. 

Because, as your blooper reminded you at the end of online worship last week, as I forgot the name of an entire book of the Bible right at the end of my first attempt at recording my sermon — mistakes are normal. 

Sports teach us this, and that’s one reason why I love athletics so much. The best hitters in baseball only succeed in getting a hit about 30% of the time. If they succeed 35% of the time, they’re all stars. To be clear, that means that they fail to get a hit 65% of the time. Sports are here to remind all of us that failure is normal, and that perfection is an illusion. The game, of course, is in the striving to get better.

Even that metaphor is imperfect: our true worth as human beings doesn’t come from anything we do.

Jesus knew that fulfilling all of the rules, all of the time, was putting a heavy burden on God’s people. And so he called them to take on his yoke and pull together. 

And that is what we do here. 

The Gospel today is the same that it was before, and during our first quarantine period: ultimately, our worth doesn’t come from anything that we do, or any great burden that we lift alone. 

Your worth is your birthright. You are beloved by God just because you breathe. And because we already know that we are beloved, and that the burdens are lifted, we are freed in Christ to do so much more, and to truly pull together in the best of ways, for the good of one another and the world.

In the end, Christ has taken our entire burden of being perfect and told us over and over again that we are beloved children of God, period, full stop, no strings attached. 

As I love to say, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

And that, my friends, is no yoke. Amen.

Palm Sunday: Holy Week in Quarantine

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Our Savior’s sign for a pandemic – and for Holy Week.

Matthew 21:1-11

As I told the folks gathered on Zoom this morning for our South Hadley community Holy Week service, I need to begin by saying something obvious: this Holy Week is not like other Holy Weeks. 

What we should be doing right now is gathering with our actual palm branches. But we cannot do that this year. Instead, most of us are stuck inside, maybe alone, or maybe stuck with the same people we’ve now been stuck with for weeks. 

When this all first started, we wondered if we might be overreacting. We thought it might not last more than a couple of weeks. But quickly we realized that this was not the case. Quickly, we realized that we were not going to spend Palm Sunday, Holy Week, or even the first Sunday of Easter together. Instead, we are stuck inside while the economy seems to be tanking and the only things people seem to be buying are toilet paper and liquor. 

No, this is not a normal Holy Week. 

While it may be somewhat comforting to remember that we are not the first to experience an abnormal Holy Week — wars and plagues have disrupted these holy days before — it doesn’t lessen our pain at being apart. It probably does little to lessen our anxiety, either.

So what do we do? 

I have only one answer: we live the story. We live the story together like we always do, but also not like we always do. 

We live this story every single year because it is our story. This year, more than any other in recent memory, we need to be shepherded by God from death into life. 

This story takes us to another time in history when people were anxious. Israel was occupied by the Romans, and life was uncertain. The Romans killed troublemakers. And Jesus, on this Palm Sunday, rides directly into the belly of the beast, not unlike our healthcare workers are doing every single day they go to work. 

The disciples go behind him and they watch the crowds adore him, shouting their Hosannas. 

This is a good time to remember that we are not the first to be anxious. We are not the first to not know what is going to happen next. We are not the first to fear death for ourselves or those we love. That feeling of dread that you occasionally feel in the pit of your stomach these days when you read the news? Those disciples on the road on that first Palm Sunday felt that too. 

This story is our story.

I’m not going to claim that observing this Holy Week will offer you any magical protection. Much like the disciples, we will be, and remain, as vulnerable as ever. But observing this week might just teach you something about love in the midst of chaos. It might just teach you something about death and new life. And as millions around the world still observe these holiest days of our faith, it may somehow help you to not feel so alone. 

Much like we do every year, we will go day by day. If you want daily prayer this week, the National Cathedral is a great option. I’ll post a link on our Facebook page today. Or you can just read from your Bible and pray yourself, day by day. Then we’ll go day by day together through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We will do through this pandemic what the disciples did through the very first Holy Week: despite our anxiety, we will go day by day. We will do the next right thing as best we know it. The disciples were not perfect that week, nor shall we be, but together, we will be moved by God from death into life. 

This story — the story of Holy Week — is our story. 

My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in Seattle, quoted from an article this week by Aisha S. Ahmad called “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.” She writes, “Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened.”

The disciples lived through something like that, too. They may not have realized its scale at the time, much like we didn’t realize the scale of this pandemic at first. Our lives will be different after this, but our observation of this story will stay the same, reminding us, regardless of our circumstances, every single year, that we are not alone and that new life is always on its way.

So go outside and find yourself a branch. We cannot be together this year, and the palms that we ordered will unfortunately have to go directly to being dried to be burned as next year’s Ash Wednesday ashes. But instead of staying sad about that, I’m choosing to celebrate the promise of another year and another journey from ashes to fire — one that, God willing, we can make truly together.

This week, as we experience this story that is our story, rest in knowing that you are not the first to not know the future. You are not the first to feel fear. You are not the first to feel besieged or in crisis. And you are not the first to be led by God from death into the new life of Easter and springtime. 

This Holy Week will not be like other Holy Weeks. But it will be one to remember, and it will be one where we remembered more clearly than we have in recent memory: this story is our story. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey from Death Into Life

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The raising of Lazarus.

John 11:1-45

God on the journey. 

We’ve been talking this Lent about the various ways that God meets us on our journeys. Today, we’ve reached the final Sunday in Lent before we get to Holy Week, and the journey of today is none other than the journey from death into life with our buddy Lazarus. 

This is important: I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks attempts to reframe this whole pandemic as good. And for sure, we’re getting new perspective all over the place. We’re realizing what’s really important and what’s really not as a bunch of us have to work from home. People who have kids and have to work from home are realizing how precious it is to spend time with their children. I’ve realized how much I value seeing you, my church folks, in person, and how wonderful it is to hear your voices over phone calls and Zoom meetings. The air is cleaner as we all stay home. The church has finally moved into the twenty first century as we’ve figured out how you can build community and “do church” online. We’re all reordering our priorities and figuring out what’s really important to us, and that’s great. 

Yes, there have been good things that have already come out of this crisis. And yet. 

We cannot frame this moment as a happy one. If we try, we are not doing right by those who, at this very moment, are sick and dying. We are not doing right by the healthcare workers who are risking their lives to take care of the sick. We are not doing right by the immunocompromised and other high risk people who cannot leave their homes right now. 

We also cannot pretend that having a “church that is open online” is in any way a satisfying alternative to what we normally do — meet in this space, in person, and share hugs and stories and the Eucharist. It’s not. What we are doing right now is the best that we can do. It’s holding our community together, and it’s valuable and wonderful for that. It may even be a lifeline to this community for you, and I am overjoyed to be able to provide that. But it’s what we have to settle for, not what we wish we had. 

The only way out is through. We have to keep our heads up, do the best we can to stay healthy, and stay home, and hopefully flatten the curve and keep as many people safe as possible.  Keeping a positive attitude is essential in this moment, but we can’t deny reality. This moment is awful. 

There was a man whose name was Lazarus. He got very sick, too. And he died. 

And no one talked about how it was ultimately a good thing, or about how it made them see their own lives in a new way. Instead, they wept. And Jesus came, and he didn’t tell them not to cry. He didn’t tell them to keep a positive attitude. No. He wept with them.

With Jesus, the worst thing is never the last thing. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. 

We humans don’t like pain and suffering. It makes sense. Pain and suffering are unpleasant, so if we can look away from them or deny them or pretend they aren’t happening, we do. But sometimes, we just can’t. Like when someone we love dies. Or when the things that we love going to and the people we love seeing aren’t available because there’s a global pandemic threatening lives all over the world. 

Like when we can’t go to church and see everyone, even though we all want to. When we stay away because we love each other, but it still hurts. 

So if you’re feeling pain and loneliness and grief in this moment, that’s more than okay. It’s to be expected. That is how we should feel. It means that you are aware of the reality of all of this, and that you’re not going to sugarcoat it for yourself. This can be true whether or not you’re determined to keep a positive attitude and get through this. 

And. 

It occurred to me this week reading the story of Lazarus that all this time, we’ve been thinking that we’ve been going to check in with God every week when we go to church. I know I have. When we all gather in this space, I feel Christ’s presence among us. Christ is present with us in the bread and wine. Christ is present with us in each other. 

But these days, we’re finding ourselves shut up in our homes like tombs, and we may feel like since we can’t go to church, we can’t go to God. 

Friends, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

No. When we’re sitting stuck in our homes that are sealed up and we’re wondering if we’ll be stuck there forever, Jesus comes knocking on the door like “You in there?” 

Friends, as Lutherans, we believe that we could never make our way to God even if we tried. Instead, it is God who always finds us. It is God who comes to the tomb and shouts for us to come out. It is God who comes to us and gives us new life as sure as the springtime. Always. 

The Gospel is not a story about us finding God. It is a story about God finding us, making us new, unbinding us from the things that hold us back. 

At the end of this Lazarus story, Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” He had come out still wearing the grave clothes wrapped around him. 

This crisis is bad. The news is bad. Seeing the numbers of the sick and dying rise is bad. We can’t deny that reality even as we try to make the best of our lives for ourselves and those we love. 

But even in death, Christ comes to us and makes us new. Even in our despair, Christ comes to us and gives us new hope. Someday this will pass. Someday we will find new life and healing. 

But for now, Christ is already at your door, ready to unbind you and let you go. This day, and every day, I pray that you are unbound from your fear: wash your hands and take care of yourself. Drink water. Exercise. Carve out a routine for yourself. Make the best of your daily life. Stay informed, but don’t watch the news all day. 

I pray that you are unbound from your loneliness. I said it last week and I will say it again: if you want to talk to someone, call them. If you want to hear from someone, reach out to them. In this age when we area all scrambling to take care of so many people, the kindest thing that we can do for one another is to give each other the gift of being direct and healthy in our relationships rather than getting mad because our un-voiced expectations aren’t being met. If you want to hear from someone, let them hear from you. 

I pray that you are unbound from whatever holds you back this day. You are no further from God because you cannot be at church, friends; God is as near as your next breath, and in God, we are all bound together. We are socially distant to keep each other safe, but the Holy Spirit is holding us closer together than ever as we stand up and support one another, reach out and call one another, text a hello to one another, offer to help one another. 

Yes, friends — this moment is bad. There is no denying or sugarcoating it. Death is very real in our lives and in our world, and Christ weeps with us. 

But even now, we are being unbound. Even now, signs of hope and new life are springing up all around us: with the arrival of springtime, with the willingness to observe social distance, with the willingness to be kind to one another and to realize that this is a difficult time for all of us.

Ultimately, new life will come. This crisis will end. And there is new life for everyone on the other side, whether through new health or through the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. 

For now, we will decide who this crisis will make us. Above all things, let it make us kinder. Let it make us more aware than ever that we don’t go to God when we go to church — but that God comes to us, stands at the door of our tomb, and calls us out of death and into new life when we need it most. Like now. 

Be unbound, friends. And when this nightmare is over, we will celebrate new life — together. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey for Healing

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Our Savior’s sign currently.

John 9:1-41

I’ll cut to the chase. This morning’s Gospel lesson is, needless to say, relevant. From the very beginning: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

“Who sinned, that we are now in a pandemic?” 

It’s a question as old as time. Who is to BLAME?
The answer is the same in both cases: no one. Don’t waste your time on blame in a crisis or in the face of pain. The ailments are, instead, an opportunity.

In John 5, there’s a similar healing to the one I just read. In that passage and in this one, Jesus approaches the person in need of healing without the person looking for him. In John 5, Jesus asks a question of the man in need of healing that has been rattling around my brain this week. 

“Do you want to be made well?” 

In this passage, Jesus says to the man, “Go and wash.” 

(Jesus told you to; go and wash your hands. Unless you’re watching this live, you can pause me. I’ll wait.) 

We’ve all been readjusting to what has become our new normal. When we canceled worship last week, I was happy to take precautions but also didn’t think it would last more than a week or two. Now, in only a week, we are coming to realize that this will last longer than any of us want it to. 

Settle in. This is going to last longer than any of us want it to. 

We are being asked to practice social distancing: “Like a good neighbor, stay over there!” Places of worship have canceled services, including us, to protect our people. The state has mandated that we not gather in groups of over 25, and the CDC knocked that down to 10. 

We’re being told to go and wash — in this case, our hands. We’re being told to get exercise and to stay away from other people. I get the sense that most people are taking it seriously, but some aren’t.

America — “Do you want to be made well?” 

“Go and wash.” 

If we didn’t know this before, we are all interconnected. My carelessness in going out may not make me sick, but it could contribute to someone else getting sick. We must care for each other. We must ensure that everyone is made well as quickly as possible. 

We are all lonely. And hurting. And grieving things that have been canceled. And maybe even a little angry or at least annoyed with those we may be sharing a house with. We are bored. One of the cruelties of this international crisis is that we have too much time to think, to be anxious, to worry — about our loved ones, about ourselves, about our livelihoods. I share all of those worries with you. We are all in this together, and we must stay the course to flatten the curve of this thing and to ensure that it’s over with as quickly as possible. I am a marathoner, so let me tell you something about marathons: they last longer than you want them to, and they are painful, but once you start, you have no choice but to stay the course until the finish line. 

The same holds true here. 

“Do you want to be made well?” 

In this passage, Jesus does the healing and then there’s a whole line of conversation and controversy about how the guy got healed. In the same way, there’s a whole line of conversation and controversy about this virus. We’re yelling at each other, calling in witnesses, trying to figure out how it happened, trying to pass blame. We’re trying to find out how to stop it and get back to our lives. 

But the point of the story is in the blind man’s words: “I was blind, and now I see.” Now, more than ever, we need to realize that the Gospel is a story about God, not a story about us. Now more than ever, we need to do our part and handle what we can control — we need to want to be made well — and we need to realize right now how very much is out of our control. 

Beloved, one of the things that I always say, especially on Christmas and Easter, is that we always gather to celebrate. I always say that never do we get to the end of Lent and then shrug and say “Well, I guess we won’t get together this year.” We always do. We always, always do. 

This year is probably going to be different. And I realized something this week that I had not realized before, at least not like this: we do not make Easter happen. Easter will happen regardless of what we do, or do not do, which skits we perform, which music we sing. New life is going to burst forth out of the frozen ground, and it already is here in Massachusetts. The trees are sprouting. The shoots are coming up. New life is coming, and we did nothing to earn it or bring it in. Because we can’t make spring come. 

When we have gathered together in previous years for the first Sunday of Easter or Easter Vigil, I don’t think I fully appreciated that we were only acknowledging a reality, not making it happen. 

Beloved, new life will come. This will end. And Jesus Christ is as risen today as yesterday, and tomorrow, and forever. Doctors and nurses and infectious disease specialists are already working around the clock to get this under control. We owe them our gratitude, our love, our very lives. Help is on the way, and in the meantime, we need to stay home.

Focus on what you can control: yourself. You can call the people you want to talk to. You can wash your hands. You can get exercise and you can stay home. 

Let go of what you cannot control and rest only knowing that we are not alone. 

If any good comes from this, let it be that we no longer take for granted a hug from a friend, a beer at a bar, or the ability to gather together in safety to acknowledge and proclaim what God has already done. 

But that even now, in the middle of Lent, Christ is still risen. Even now, it is spring. Even now, there is hope. 

Our sign outside currently reads, “Hope is not canceled.” That is true. Easter is not canceled either. We may have to celebrate it in a different way this year, but Easter will still come. 

And after this year, we will never again take for granted the sound of children stomping out death at Easter Vigil. We will never again take for granted the smell of the lilies and the smiles on the faces of all of our people in their Sunday best. We will never again take each other for granted. 

So connect, however you can. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Let’s flatten this curve so that we can get back to loving one another in person. 

Until then, control what you can, and give up thinking that you can control everything. Let yourself rest and be still. We are not alone. You are not alone. 

Until we are all set free from this, we will love one another however we can, including like this. We will reach out and call one another when we need to. We will send loving texts and Facebook messages and laugh until we cry over video calls. We will make the best of this. 

And the best news of all is that Christ will bring us healing, and new life, and resurrection, whether we ask for it or not. When this is over, we will see everything, including each other, with new and grateful eyes.

We are not alone. Hope is not canceled. And help is already on the way. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey to Find What We Need

This is part of a backlog of sermons that I have written since our collective social distancing and self-quarantine due to COVID-19 began in earnest on Sunday, March 15. This sermon and each one that follows are also recorded on Facebook live @Our Savior’s South Hadley MA.

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Artist: Jorge Cocco Santangelo

John 4:5-42

I thought I would be giving this sermon to you in person, but here we are. This sermon is one of many things I’ve had to re-write this week. 

This Lent is going to be an unprecedented journey, and all I ask is that you be patient and gracious with us. We are all human, and none of us has lived through something like this before. While you may find our actions extreme, trust that we are acting on the latest information and doing the best we can. Also understand that we are human. None of these decisions was easy. We are all tired, all stressed, all hurting. There is currently no guidance for what church leaders should do; we simply did what the majority of churches our size are doing today. Those who are not closed this week will very likely be closed next week. 

And now the good news. That’s what Lutherans might call a sermon.

“God on the Way.” 

Today, we continue with our Lenten theme of journeying with the woman at the well. The story is meant to be in contrast with Nicodemus. He met Jesus by night; she meets him by day. He gets a name; she doesn’t. He is an important religious leader; she is a Samaritan, one of “those” people. He’s confused by Jesus’ riddles; she comes to believe and tell others. By the end of the story, Nicodemus will be a believer himself, because, like we discussed last week, “The Son did not come into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17, the best verse in the Bible, in my estimation, which is naturally just after the most quoted one. 

The first week of Lent, we talked about the journey to find our identities — who we are, and who we will be in these times. Last week, we talked about Nicodemus and the journey for knowledge. 

The woman at the well isn’t trying to figure out who she is. She’s not looking for knowledge. She’s not even looking for Jesus. 

She comes looking for water. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of us are doing that these days. We’re looking for water so that we can wash our hands. We’re also, incidentally, looking for hand sanitizer and toilet paper and groceries. 

If you’ve started panic buying anything, stop. Notice the woman at the well didn’t drain it. We’re all in this together. 

Like the woman at the well, when we venture out these days, we’re on a journey for what we need. On that journey to find what she needs — water — she finds what she didn’t know she needed, Jesus. God, as always, was on the way.

Like many people, I’ve been venturing out much less in recent days. When I do go out, it’s on that journey to find what I need, like food, or exercise, or community, or work. 

In thinking about the woman at the well, I’ve noticed something: that if I know how to look, I rarely come back with only the thing that I needed in the first place. I go out to exercise nearly every day. Rarely to I come back with only a workout. At the gym, there’s much needed community and advice. On the running trails, there has been beautiful weather, and this beautiful Valley we live in always greets me kindly and rewards me with her beauty for coming out of the house to see her. A trip to the Big Y for food will often yield the kindness of strangers, or a much needed smile.

And then there’s you. A pastor’s life is a funny one, because our church community is also our workplace. You make things less confusing by your sheer kindness, your humor, and your sense of fun. I come here seeking what I need — work, and a purpose — and I leave with new memories of how funny, how smart, and how wonderfully logical and practical and kind you are. I leave with a renewed hope in humanity after spending far too long with my face in social media feeds where people seem only concerned about their own health and safety. 

You’ve restored my faith in humanity and in the church more times than I can count, and we will be back together soon enough, healthy and whole. 

“So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”

She was just coming to get some water from the well. There was a man there, but she didn’t pay much attention to him. She could tell that he was a Jew, and she knew all too well what Jewish people thought of Samaritan people, and vice versa. So she did what we all do when we see someone who’s one of “them” — we stick to our business. She dips her bucket in the well. 

Then he speaks. 

“Give me a drink.” 

I wonder what she thought in that moment. “Get it yourself?,” maybe? Or maybe she’s just flummoxed. That’s what her response indicates. Because she knows that no good Jewish boy is gonna go drinking from a Samaritan woman’s bucket. 

She points this out to him.
He responds, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 

She looks him up and down. “You ain’t got no bucket. Where you getting water from?” 

He keeps talking about living water. She’s convinced. Without any sign, without any miracle, she believes. She asks for the living water. 

Then they have a brief exchange about her male companion. Long story short, he shows her that he sees her — really sees her. He doesn’t mention sin, because unlike people in our own time, she almost definitely didn’t choose to have five husbands, but was most likely the victim of divorce or, more likely, being passed from brother to brother as each subsequently died. Now she’s found a man to take care of her, but he isn’t her husband. Who knows why. That’s not the point. The point is that he sees her. Jesus does that a lot in John — tell people all about their lives before they tell him anything. It’s one of his coolest tricks. 

“Okay,” she says, “I see you’re a prophet.” She points out the religious differences between her people and his, which are mostly geographical. She wants to talk theology. This wasn’t terribly common for a lady. 

One day, he assures her, worship won’t be about geography. She says she knows the Messiah is coming. “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Then Jesus does the thing he does that English translators always seem to miss. He doesn’t say “I am he.” The real words are so much better. 

He says, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.” 

I AM. In Hebrew, Yahweh. I am, as in “the great I am.” 

“I AM is speaking to you.” 

She comes to find what she needs — water — and she finds God on the way. Or I guess, more accurately, God finds her. She went to find water and met her maker instead, but in a good way.

Then she goes and tells her whole town, and they come to find him, and they believe. She, this nameless woman who just needed water, becomes the first preacher of the Gospel. 

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

In John, the disciples are many more than just the Twelve. The disciples are the ones who believe. The disciples are the new kind of family that we talked about last week. And it’s this disciple, the woman at the well, who is the first disciple to utter Jesus’ key invitation: “Come and see.” 

Her name is lost to history, but she is a saint in Christ’s church forever. 

All because she went to find water. 

Beloved, these days, we’re all keenly aware of what our bodies need. We need to wash our hands. We need to stay out of crowds. We need to not touch our faces. We need good food and water and exercise to boost our immune systems. 

In Italy, where the outbreak is far ahead of our own, people are mostly only allowed to leave the house for essentials, like water or food. But one thing has happened. Italians have started singing out their windows.
They harmonize with their neighbors. They entertain passersby with national songs of pride and opera and songs about how they’re going to beat this virus together. And people who are on the way to get what they need experience this holiness in harmony. 

May we do the same, providing kindness and beauty to one another along the way. 

Let the woman at the well be your guide. Go and find what you need. Go about your business and take care of your errands. Go find what you and your family need, in the most mundane of ways. Take care of yourselves and watch over your health. 

But don’t forget to look up, in the midst of all of this, and look for what is beautiful and holy. Look strangers in the eye. Take care of others. You never know who might be speaking to you, and you never really know where God might find you. Maybe in song, maybe in sunshine, maybe in the kindness of someone you know or the grace of someone you don’t.

On the journey to find what you need, be well aware that God might find you. 

Make sure, like the woman at the well, that you’re ready, that you ask questions — that you talk back. 

And, as we all go looking for water, often, to wash our hands, remember, as my colleague reminded me this week: Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” 

We are apart now so that we can be together later, and God is with us, on the journey, now and always.

Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey for Knowledge

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The knights of Monty Python and the Holy Grail face the bridge keeper and the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

John 3:1-17

“God on the Way.” 

Today, we continue with our Lenten theme of journeying with Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night, and also Abraham and Sarah, who must leave their homeland to find a new one. All of them begin a journey without knowing the end. All of them will step out in faith, while also seeking to know. 

Today’s journey, it would seem, is a journey for knowledge, and as with all our journeys, God meets some people on their way. 

In 1975, the greatest, most ridiculous movie in the history of the Western world was released: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

In the movie, naturally, the nights of Camelot go on a comedic quest to find the Holy Grail. They have many adventures on their quest, of course. During one scene, the knights, including King Arthur, come upon the “Bridge of Death.” The keeper of the bridge, or as one the knights puts it, “the old man from scene 24,” asks each traveler three questions — or is it five? — no, three. If the traveler gives the correct answer, the traveler is granted safe passage. If the traveler gives the wrong answer, they are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. First, Arthur asks Brave Sir Robin to go, and Sir Robin immediately throws Lancelot under the bus. Lancelot, who in the movie is hilariously bold and overly aggressive, begins by illustrating his planned attack on the bridge keeper. King Arthur responds by saying, “No, no, just answer the five questions.” 

“Three?” 

“Yes, three questions.” 

Arthur sends Lancelot towards the bridge with the words, “Just answer the questions as best you can. And we will watch. And pray.” 

Lancelot approaches the bridge and is told to HALT by the old bridge keeper.

“STOP! He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” 

Lancelot stands tall and responds, “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I’m not afraid.” 

The bridge keeper begins.

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is your favorite color?” 

“Um, blue.” 

“Off you go then.” 

Lancelot responds, “Oh, very well, thank you.” 

Then he crosses. Sir Robin, hiding bravely as Sir Robin often does in the movie (he is the cowardly foil to Lancelot’s overly aggressive character) — Sir Robin exclaims “That’s easy!” and he ambles bravely towards the Bridge of Death. He hears the same spiel: “STOP! He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” 

The usually cowardly Robin also now stands tall and responds as Lancelot did: “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I’m not afraid.” 

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

Robin responds, sounding bored, “To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is the capital of Assyria?” 

Robin looks shocked. He stammers, “I don’t know that!” Just before he is cast into, presumably, the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

Sir Galahad steps forward. 

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Galahad.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is your favorite color?” 

“Um, blue. No…!” 

He, too, flies up into the air and is presumably cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

Finally, none are left except Sir Bedevere and King Arthur himself. Arthur steps forward. 

WHAT is your name?” 

“It is Arthur, king of the Britons!”  

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“I seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” 

“What do you mean? An African or a European swallow?” 

The bridge keeper looks confused. He stammers. “I… I don’t know that!” Immediately, he flies off his feet and into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, leaving the knights to cross on their own. 

It’s a funny scene, but it’s all a barrage of information and questions, riddles and answers, simple questions and less than simple ones. 

There are riddles, of course, throughout literature and pop culture. Some of them are even in the Bible, but it’s pretty easy to miss them or even fall prey to riddles when they’re translated from another language — or even when they aren’t.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night. 

In John’s Gospel, light and darkness matter. Nicodemus is coming from the darkness of not understanding to meet the Light of the World by night. He’s also coming in secret. You see a depiction of his face on the front of your bulletin. 

He begins by saying something a little unheard of for a Pharisee: “We know that you are teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

As usual, Jesus in John’s Gospel is notably not-impressed by those who are impressed by the miracles. In response, Jesus hands Nicodemus a riddle: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

You might be wondering why you learned a different version, and why a different set of words often gets quoted: “You must be born again. 

It’s a riddle, you guys. 

You see, the Greek word means both “from above” and “again,” and like many words, you figure out what the speaker means based on context. Unless the speaker is giving you a riddle based on the word’s double meaning. Then you’re just confused, like Nicodemus. 

I’ll give it to you straight: the word Jesus uses here is most often in the New Testament used to mean “from above,” but Nicodemus doesn’t understand how someone might be born “from above,” so he assumes the other meaning and asks a very pointed question back to Jesus about how someone might possibly re-enter their mother’s womb to be born a second time.

What follows is a barrage of questions, answers, and information. It can seem a little confusing. Jesus goes on about how one could possibly be born from above, and how what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit. It all sounds very mysterious and chaotic and maybe even a bit scary. 

So let me take you for a moment back to Christmas. 

This is the third chapter of John. Let me take you back for a second to the first chapter. 

The Word became flesh and lived among us. 

While we might be tempted to read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus as a condemnation of flesh, that’s not what’s happening. He’s just drawing a distinction between blood family and another kind of family. John 1 continues, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.” 

Nicodemus comes looking for knowledge, and instead, what he finds is love, and a different kind of family. 

Abraham and Sarah are told to leave their homeland and find a new one. God sends them out to be a great nation, and a blessing. What begins as a mystery — something of a riddle — becomes a quest to find the promised land, and to be a blessing to all nations. 

Often, we find faith to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma. We set out to find answers, thinking that if we get the questions wrong or if we don’t know what’s correct, we’ll be cast, with Sir Robin, into the proverbial Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

We think that it is about right knowledge, right belief, and we set off on our quest to find the right answers. I guess you could say that I did that a decade ago when I enrolled in Gail R. O’Day’s John course. 

Dr. O’Day had written the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on John. She was, as you might say, big in the business. She knew a lot. She was a trusted scholar. What I found instead is exactly what is found in this sermon. Over and over, the Gospel of John eschews knowledge in favor of love, and a new kind of family — the kind that is not born of blood, but of the Holy Spirit. This kind of family. 

The passage today ends with perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” 

This verse gets plastered on placards and signs everywhere. Dr. O’Day would often say that she wants to come in with a sharpie and add “dash seventeen” to every John 3:16 sign she sees. 

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

Jesus is not the bridge keeper waiting to cast us into the Gorge of Eternal Peril for not believing the right things. Jesus is here to form us into a community of love, and a new kind of family. And like any family, we gather at the table together whenever we can. We journey for knowledge and wisdom together, knowing that it’s not about having the correct answers, but about meeting God on our way.

So as we continue to journey together this Lent, I invite you to gather at this table with us, your new kind of family, whenever you can. We’re currently here, on Sundays and Wednesdays, gathering at the table, sharing love because Christ first loved us. Because God did not send the Son into the world to throw us into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, but that we all might be saved through him.

And on our collective quest for knowledge, that is all, as they say, you need to know. Amen.