The Good, the Bad, and the Not-That-Simple: A Theory of Life Abundant

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

I’ve heard people in some Christian traditions say that the purpose of a sermon is to “take ‘em to the cross.” As a Lutheran, I’ve learned that we generally take ‘em to the table by going through the cross. So that’s where we’re going to end up. But first….

Okay. 

Let’s name the elephant in the room first, shall we? I do not think that getting divorced cuts you off from God or marks a person as somehow more sinful than the rest of us sinners. I know that you may have heard the opposite from pulpits before, and trust me, I know exactly what this Gospel lesson says. So if this passage affects you directly in any way, rest easy. You are safe here. I’ll explain the rest in a moment, but I had to get that out of the way first. Because trust me, I’m just fine with calling people sinners, but you better know that 1) I mean everybody and 2) I’m first in line.

I know what “the Bible says” on any number of issues. I also believe that the good Lord gave us brains and hearts for a reason, and we will be using them both today, as we always should when considering good and evil or just humanity in general. 

But if you’ll give me just a second, I want to kick off this little talk of ours by talking about one of my favorite subjects and yours: food. More specifically, how we think about food in our culture. Because believe it or not, I actually think that how we think about food has quite a lot to do with today’s scripture readings. Namely, in how we couch it in moral language and an overly simplistic, moralistic, good-vs-bad, all-or-nothing mentality that just isn’t healthy for anyone and doesn’t generally lead to good outcomes.

We’re into February, which hopefully means that we’re out of the woods when it comes to weight loss advertisements. Women in particular get inundated with things that tell us that we can get skinny. This is assuming of course that all women want to be skinny, which we do not. 

But of course, this phenomenon is not limited to women by any stretch. The men in the room here know that you all get body image messages too. Men’s magazines tell you all about how to get that six pack with supplements and diet plans. 

Typically, even the best results go like this — person of any gender goes on crash diet. Person may take supplements. Person labels pizza and chocolate and other sweets “bad.” Refuses to eat them. Gives in and eat French fries. Feel bad for being “bad.” Go back to eating “good” things. Tells everyone that the person can’t have the brownies, because the person is “being good.” Person loses a lot of weight, or not, and manages to keep it off, or not, depending on how long they can “be good.” 

Talking about our bodies and food is awkward and hard and rife with shame in large part because of the way we talk about food. We always talk about it in moral terms. Being “good.” Being “bad.” “Cheat day.” “Eating clean.” “Good foods.” “Bad foods.” 

So I’ve compiled this helpful guide: did you know you were getting nutritional advice at church today too? Just one of the many services we offer here at Our Savior’s.

Good foods are foods that contain calories. Foods that you want to eat. Foods that taste good. Foods that you are in the mood for. 

Bad foods: spoiled foods. Foods that you are allergic to. Foods that push people in front of busses or commit crimes. These are bad foods. 

In other words, if it doesn’t kill you, it’s not a “bad” food, and we need to drop the morality language and the all-or-nothing approach around food. It’s making Americans really, really sick, and it’s making us fall prey to all kinds of gimmicks that prey on our body image issues. Being healthy is about developing healthy habits, not about whether or not you have a brownie today at coffee hour. Food is not inherently “good” or “bad.” It’s about what gives you life and makes you feel and be healthy, not about what people who are trying to sell you things tell you.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

So just as food is made to nourish us and keep us alive and healthy, so is the Law. We have a lot of law in these texts today: the Old Testament lesson implores us to “choose life,” and the Gospel lesson gives us a whole list of behaviors that are off limits — right? So is God’s point in creating the law to label some behaviors “good” and some behaviors “bad”? 

We certainly think about language and behavior the way that we think about food. I know. If you actually know me, you’ll know that I’m the least offend-able person on the planet, yet the longer I’m in this role, the more I become frustrated with just how much people try to protect me, thinking I’m somehow deeply offended by “bad” things — whether bad language (which my own friends think is hilarious, by the way) or any mentions of sex or violence. It makes being in this role deeply weird sometimes, because in case you didn’t know, I’m just a person. But I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s because we think of everything the way we think of food — good and bad — and people think that God thinks that way too, and they think of me as a stand-in for God. 

So that raises the question: does God label some behaviors good and some always bad?

I would say yes, tentatively. The Law is created and formed around helping us to stay in community, have peace, and not to harm one another. Reconciliation is good. Loving partnerships are good. Community is good. Harming people is bad. 

And Jesus takes all of that a step further: don’t be proud of yourself for not killing that person who irritated you; go and make peace with them. Don’t be proud of yourself just because you didn’t cheat on your spouse; stop thinking of other human beings as sex objects. And don’t make an oath just so that people will believe you’re serious; become a trustworthy person whose “yes” means yes and whose “no” means no. And divorce? Divorce in Jesus’ day was a deathblow to women in particular. A woman who has been divorced would be cut off entirely in a society where she couldn’t work or hold property. And men could just decide to divorce his wife for no reason, issuing her a certificate of divorce on a whim and dealing her that deathblow rather easily. 

So is Jesus straight up calling divorce sinful? I don’t think so, and neither does the Lutheran tradition.

So my friend Joe says that Jesus didn’t die so that we would all behave ourselves. (1)

Jesus died and rose again because God is a God of life, against whom all the powers of oppression and sin are no match. Deuteronomy shows us rather than telling us that even the Law given in the first books of the Hebrew Bible is not a law of death but a law of life, as the people are implored to choose life by choosing the law. 

In the same way that divorce was a death blow to women in the first century, marriage can be a death blow to two people caught in a cycle of abuse, toxicity, neglect or any number of difficult factors. Many theologians throughout the centuries have interpreted the law of the God of life through this lens: “What will bring the abundant life that Jesus promises?” 

Labeling things “good” or “bad” may be simple enough for us to understand, but just like food, life is not simple. The ultimate purpose of food is to keep us alive. Foods are not “good” unless you think they are and they are not “bad” unless they make you throw up or stole your car. 

In the same way, what God wants for us in all our behaviors is abundant life. 

When we witness to a marriage, the presider says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” And in a perfect world, we would always be correct in our assessment that God has joined those two people together. In the kingdom of God, love lasts forever, and death is no more, and no one is objectified but everyone is looked at as human, and everyone’s “yes” is yes and their “no” means no, and all those who argue find peace and reconciliation quickly. This is life as it’s supposed to be. This is life as it’s intended to be: life abundant. That is what Jesus describes in this passage — the kingdom of God in all its fullness. 

Beloved, I do not need to tell you that we do not live on that side of the kingdom. We strive for it, and we look for it, and sometimes, we see flashes of it in our own lives and within these very walls. But truth be told, we fail all the time. We witness to marriages that were never meant to be, and we grieve. We hear of case after case of sexual abuse. We are surrounded day after day by death and lies. We live in a nation where reconciliation between the two sides seems far, far off. 

With my friend Joe, I do not believe that Jesus died on the cross so that we could behave. God is not as overly simplistic and petty as we are to blindly label things “good” vs. “bad. 

For goodness’ sake, we even do this with our food in the vain hope of looking good.

I believe that Christ rose again to show us that God is a God of new life and hope. And that a healthy person, rather than labeling things “good” or “bad,” looks for what most brings abundant life, whether in food or in actions. Whether in food or in life, an “all or nothing” approach only works if you’re talking about simple stuff, like whether you’re allergic to a food, or whether an action is truly harmful to yourself or someone else. 

Yes, if you always eat cake for dinner, you will harm yourself. But if you don’t eat a really tasting looking brownie that you really want during a celebration you’ve been waiting for, you may also be doing harm. 

Indeed, there’s a lot of Law in these texts today. And the law is helpful in telling us how to live in a better way, one that hopefully brings abundant life to ourselves and all we meet.

And at the end of the road, with all our failures, there is the Gospel which is for all of us: that Christ died and rose again not to correct our behaviors, but because God is a God of abundant life and desires life abundant for each one of us. 

So eat, and nourish your body. If cake at a party brings you abundant life, eat the cake. If vegetables make you feel healthy, chow down. 

And come to this table and eat, knowing that this food is good, and knowing that you are holy and whole not because you’ve acted right, but because God has declared you beloved. And that Gospel, at the end of the road, is all you need to know.

So let’s eat. Amen.

1. Many many thanks to Pastor Joseph Graumann Jr. of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Mass, for this insight and this blog post: Modern Metanoia, The Law of Life, both of which helped me write this sermon.

Called to Be Salty & Lit

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Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

Today, Jesus calls us to be salt & light. Or, as the kids say, salty & lit.

Both terms have seen a resurgence in recent years, but neither is new. “Salty,” which today means that someone is feeling sarcastic or angry, usually over something small, originally started as a term used by seafarers. Example: “The salty old sea captain.” Lit, meanwhile, began in the jazz community and was used to denote someone who was just intoxicated enough to play without inhibition, but not so drunk that they were falling over. Example: “He’s not getting tipsy; he’s just getting lit.” Today, “lit” means that something is fun, and may or may not include alcohol.

To switch gears a bit, you might’ve heard this quote before:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.” 

Well you guys, I learned something new this week. This quote is not, as it is sometimes said, Nelson Mandela, and it’s not Jesus. It’s motivational speaker and erstwhile presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. I know. I was surprised too. 

It’s been used on motivational posters and in movies for kids and self-help books for years. The crux, of course, is this: that we often feign insecurity because telling ourselves that we aren’t enough is easier than admitting that we can do great things. It’s an excellent message for kids in particular, but a good message for all of us. 

I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week as I’ve pored over what I might say about this, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that we began reading last week with the famous beatitudes.

The other quote that’s been stuck in my head this week is from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, riffing on the beatitudes that we spoke of last week. She says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.” 

Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it. 

These passages, really, are about identity. They’re about who we are, not what we do.

A city on a hill can’t be hidden. It doesn’t have to do anything but be itself and shine.  These days, a city might stop shining due to a power outage, but in Jesus’ day, cities didn’t go dark because they weren’t dependent on electricity. They always shone. If it didn’t have light at night, it wouldn’t be a populated city.

And if you light a lamp and put it under a basket, you’re dumb at best. The lamp will keep shining no matter what, and if it’s a candle, it might burn the house down.

And salt? Salt can only be salt. As has been pointed out countless times, it’s one of the most stable compounds we know. Fun fact: salt actually can’t lose its saltiness. You can do all kinds of things to it, from dissolving it in water to adding it to really bland things, but it’s going to stay salty. If you’ve got salt that appears to have lost its saltiness, chances are, it was white sand to begin with. 

What Jesus is talking about is being who we are, not about striving to be great. Of accepting that we are powerful, kind, and merciful beyond measure, because that is who God has made us to be. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

Jesus has shown us the way, and it’s clicked. We get it. 

But I know, and you know, that we don’t always get it. We screw it up all the time. I know I do. If I haven’t disappointed you yet, give me time. I know the same is true for you, too. The same is true for us, as a church. We’re pretty great, and we try very hard, but we’ll still disappoint you if you give us time.

As if to put a fine point on this, Jesus goes to talking about the law right after he finishes talking about, as the kids say, being salty and lit — being who we are as people who follow Jesus, people who “get it.”

We Christians, especially we Lutherans, have this way of talking about “the law” as if it’s all to be left in the Old Testament where it belongs. Giving in to the heresy that there’s a god for each testament, we pretend that God became entirely different when Jesus was born, and that the law passed away entirely. 

So we shift uncomfortably when Jesus says these words: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Even if we had gotten our heads around the fact that salt is always salty and that light is always lit, these words of Jesus are bound to make us feel inadequate. The scribes and the Pharisees were obsessed with the law, and is Jesus telling us that we have to follow it better? And does this mean we have to give up bacon-wrapped shrimp?! 

Apologies to Marianne Williamson, but maybe our true power lies in when we acknowledge where and when we are inadequate. In my experience, the smartest people are the ones that know they don’t know everything, and the strongest ones are the ones who know when to ask for help. And the most faithful people, the ones who truly “get it,” to borrow again from Nadia Bolz-Weber, are the ones who know they’re not perfect by a long shot.

Because the Gospel isn’t a story about our goodness; it’s a story about God’s goodness. This whole faith thing is really about God reaching into history and saying “I got you.” God did it in the Hebrew Bible plenty of times, and here in our Christian story, we believe that God did it most significantly though the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

The Law — the one that told people how to not hurt each other and how to stay healthy and how to treat other people well — is fulfilled, we Christians say, in the person of Jesus. That we can stop striving and trying to be perfect and instead lean into Jesus. And the more you let Jesus’ righteousness and God’s pure love be enough, the more you find yourself changed. The more you find that you are enough. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.” 

Being loved changes everything. It’s not about striving. It’s about accepting who you are and whose you are. You are not powerful beyond measure. Far from it. Neither am I. If our current world, or all of history, has taught us anything, it should be that we are all fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things. 

We are not powerful beyond measure. We are loved beyond measure. It is Christ who fulfills the law, not us. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that makes us righteous, not our own stumbling, imperfect goodness. 

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

It is not until later in the story, when Christ dies and rises, when he steps in and says, “Don’t worry. I got you.” 

The Gospel is a story about God, not a story about us and our righteousness.

With that burden taken from us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are free to be who we are: salty and lit. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. A city on a hill can’t be hidden. And if you put a lamp under a basket you could burn the house down.

Yesterday, we hosted over 50 people from all over the New England synod who were here to take part in the Forward Leadership campaign. You all came together to cook, clean up, and participate in the program itself, not so that God will love you, but because you know that God already does. You were kind and gracious and hospitable hosts because that is who you are. You know that you are loved beyond measure, and that changes everything.

So be who you are: God’s beloved. Be salty. Be lit. 

Not so that God will love you, but because God already does. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

Merciful is who we are. We were born to be weird, to stand out, to do the right thing when it is the hardest thing. To have mercy when we really don’t want to. To work hard and to be gracious hosts and to keep trying.

Not so that God will love us, but because God already does.

We are not powerful beyond measure; we are loved beyond measure. And that, not our good works, changes everything about us and makes us who we are: salty & lit. Amen.

Saved by the Impossible

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Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-21
Matthew 5:1-12

These texts are among the most familiar to us in all the Bible.

And so, by the authority of no one, I declare today cross-stitch Sunday. 

You’ve got a few greatest hits — Micah 6:8, which you can find conveniently on the wall of our narthex as a favorite guiding scripture of ours, and the beatitudes, all while Paul speaks eloquently about how illogically wonderful this whole death and resurrection thing is. 

It’s rare, I think, to find passages in the Bible like this — the kind that are nice without being saccharine, that make simple statements of faith without making faith too simple to be real. It’s a little like finding a family movie that’s nice without being an over the top fairy tale. In order to achieve this, you need a little bittersweetness thrown in, I think.

One movie that does this well is Finding Neverland, a movie about the life of Scottish writer J. M. Barrie, who is best known for, naturally, writing about Peter Pan. Finding Neverland, of course, tells the story of how Peter Pan came to be. 

In the movie, Barrie befriends a widow, Sylvia, and her four boys, George, Jack, Michael, and, of course, Peter, who is a particularly troubled boy. The then-failing writer becomes an excellent playmate and father figure to the boys. The movie doesn’t have a storybook ending, but is instead both incredibly sweet and incredibly real. Despite being bittersweet, the movie is also at times hilarious, giving us lines such as Michael asking “Mummy, can we have Uncle Jim for dinner?” with Sylvia responding, “Have him over for dinner, dear, we’re not cannibals.” 

At one point, Barrie is attempting to get the troubled boy Peter to act more like the child he is, and to make believe with him. He grabs a stick and declares it a royal scepter. Peter says, skeptically, “That scepter is just an old hunk of wood.” Barrie responds quickly, “Yes, well, we dream on a budget here, don’t we?” 

The whole movie, really, is about dreaming on a budget, of making the best you can out of the circumstances, about realizing the fullness of life with all its good things and all of its bad things and daring to dream anyway — and even fly. About believing in the illogical and being saved by it. 

So even though on its face it seems to be cross-stitch Sunday, these passages aren’t as simple in context, or when you really think about them, as they seem when stitched on a pillow. 

If the beginning of the Micah passage sounded sort of but not really familiar to you, it might be because you’ve attended a Good Friday service here in the past few years. We use the beginning of this passage for the traditional “solemn reproaches,” where, after we read the account of Jesus’ death, God asks, over and over, “Oh church, O my people, what have I done to you, and how have I offended you?” Then God recounts God’s good deeds towards us, always followed by, “But you…” Most notably these days, with the perennial antisemitism in our culture, “O my people, O my church, I grafted you into the tree of my chosen Israel, and you turned on them with insults, violence, and mass murder.” 

We take the form of the solemn reproaches every Good Friday from this passage, right above the passage that’s so easily cross-stitched on a pillow, the one on our wall that reminds us the simplicity and beauty of a life lived with God: “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

It’s really kind of bittersweet, really. God asks “What have I done to you?” right before reminding us, gently, all that God requires: to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly. 

Then, in the Gospel reading, we are told all about who’s blessed. That’s really nice — unless you’ve been someone who is mourning. Or poor in spirit. Or someone who’s had to be merciful when you’d really like to get revenge on someone who’s done you wrong. And in the words of Monty Python, “Oh, the meek! I’m really glad they get something; they have a heck of a time.” 

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” 

Apologies to Forrest Gump, but life isn’t really that much like a box of chocolates. It’s more like a vending machine that spits out both Snickers and live hand grenades. 

At some point we will all be poor in spirit. Or mourning. Or reviled and hated. 

At some point, we’ll all feel like life has handed us a live hand grenade, and that even God is yelling at us, like at the beginning of that Micah passage. 

But then God hands us the other part. 

“Don’t you remember that all you have to do is to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly?” 

Blessed are you. 

Blessed are you. 

Blessed are you.

I like the way Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “After all, it was Jesus who had all the powers of the universe at his disposal but who did not consider his equality with God and something to be exploited, but instead came to us in the most vulnerable of ways – as a powerless, flesh and blood newborn. As though to say, you my hate your body, but I am blessing all human flesh. You may admire strength and might, but I am blessing all human weakness. You may seek power, but I am blessing all human vulnerability. This Jesus whom we follow cried at the tomb of his friend, and turned the other cheek and forgave those who hung him on a cross. Jesus was God’s Beatitude – God’s blessing to the weak in a world that only admires the strong.”

Our lives contain multitudes: bittersweet moments, happy moments, and times when life smacks us upside the head. And Christ became flesh and walks alongside us through it all. 

And as Paul points out, this death and resurrection thing kinda makes no sense to most people, really, and that’s okay. Because when I hold up the bread and I say it’s God, the rest of the world may say “That’s not God, that’s bread.” 

But we dream on a budget here, don’t we?

We believe the impossible, ultimately find that it is realer than we imaged, and we’re ultimately saved by it. 

Because faith, really, not unlike the world of Finding Neverland, is about dreaming on a budget, of making the best you can out of the circumstances, about realizing the fullness of life with all its new life and death and resurrection and feeling fear and uncertainty and daring to dream anyway. About believing in the illogical and ultimately being saved by it.

Amen.

Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Land Beyond the Wall

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Game of Thrones: The view beyond the Wall.

Isaiah 9:1-4
Matthew 4:12-23

Game of Thrones people, this one is for you.

But don’t worry, everyone else can come along too. 

In the opening sequence to the HBO series, all of the regions of the world of Game of Thrones come to life like game pieces, each part clicking into place as focus shifts from place to place on an animated map. You see the centers of power first, usually. You see King’s Landing, where, obviously, the king of Westeros lives. You see Dragonstone, usually — the home of the deposed former king. You see Winterfell, home of the famous Stark family, the wardens of the North. Then, the camera pans to the northernmost point on the map: the Wall. 

The Wall, an impossibly huge, impenetrable wall of ice and stone, separates Westeros, the country that the series is primarily concerned with, from the wilds beyond. Throughout the series, “beyond the wall” is code for the middle of nowhere. Few people seem to know really who or what lives there; they just seem to have an idea that it’s a sparsely populated snowy wilderness. You know, much like Bostonians imagine western Mass. 

But people do live there: the people of Westeros call them the wildlings. The wildlings call themselves the “free folk.” They bow to no one and answer to no king. The series, among many other things, begins to eventually be about the alliances that must be made out of necessity between the free folk and the people of Westeros, and the deadly tensions that will ensue between those who live in Westeros and those who live “beyond the Wall.” 

In today’s Gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. They’re familiar names, Zebulun and Naphtali. Those of you who studied Genesis with me last year and/or just know your Bible pretty well probably recognize them as the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, and two of the corresponding twelve sons of Jacob. The rest of you are probably thinking “Yep, those do indeed sound like names in the Bible.” 

Zebulun is the sixth son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife. Naphtali is the second son of Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel, who bore children in Rachel’s name when she thought she was barren in true Handmaid’s Tale kind of style. 

I don’t expect you to know or remember any of this. I had to look it up myself. There’s a good reason. Neither of them was the first or most powerful son, and neither of them is the first or most powerful tribe. This is the northern edge of the kingdom.

We’re supposed to look at these place names and go “…where?”

Playing the “if Israel were Massachusetts” game again, it is as if we are told that Jesus left his home in Boston and made his home in Hinsdale, in the mountains. 

Unless you’re intimately familiar with the map, you’re unlikely to have the foggiest clue. And that’s the point. 

Jesus has moved Beyond the Wall. 

The Hebrew Bible lesson for today shines a little light on this text during this season of light: “In the former time [God] brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time [God] will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” 

Land of Westeros, light has shined even on the land beyond the wall. Bostonians, light has shined even on western Massachusetts. Light has shined on all the places you once thought of as “out there” or insignificant. God’s light shines on the border country and beyond. 

In this seafaring place, you can be sure that Jesus was preaching to and healing both Jewish people and Gentiles. And that’s around the time that Jesus goes for a stroll along the Sea of Galilee and invites four fishermen to come and follow him.

“I will make you fish for people,” or in the King James language, “I will make you fishers of men” has always seemed like such a strange image to me, mostly because fishing never really ends well for the fish. The longer I follow Jesus, though, the more I get it. I mean, who hasn’t occasionally felt gutted while serving the Lord? And who hasn’t even occasionally felt a little trapped by all the work that must be done? The line of need is endless, and discipleship is hard, yet I can’t ever manage to bring myself to leave the work, or Jesus, behind.

I mean, take a second and look at your bulletin cover. It looks like Jesus is standing behind these two disciples like “I gotcha now!” 

And yet, what we are offered is, in a sense, death. But that’s not the end. We’re constantly pulled into this cycle of death and resurrection: getting tired and feeling discouraged and finished and wanting to quit and maybe even actually quitting, and then finding new hope and new life and new purpose, over and over, in church and in life. It’s the kind of gift that doesn’t always feel like a gift, but an actual calling never really does. I’m betting you’ve felt the same way in your work, in your life as a parent or grandparent, with your spouse or a significant other, and in your significant friendships. Life always comes and goes in waves of death and resurrection, and God is constantly offering us life renewed. 

On “Two Bubbas and a Bible” this week, a favorite preaching podcast that I like to listen to, we got this story this week: Marty Saarinen, later a professor at the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina, began his career on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Saarinen, you might know, is a Finnish name, and so, as a young pastor, he went to serve the Finnish Lutherans in Michigan. Pastor Saarinen was told to go see a shut in couple out in the middle of nowhere and introduce himself. The young pastor drives through logging country, has to stop his car and walk across a log bridge in the middle of the wilderness. He finally comes to a clearing, and there’s a Finnish cabin with smoke coming from the chimney. He walks across the porch and knocks on the door and stands there in his clergy collar and horn rimmed glasses. An old man opens the door and doesn’t say a word to the young pastor. He turns around and says to his wife, sitting by the fire: “Anna! God has not forgotten us!”

So here we are again, at the beginning of a new year, getting ready to have our annual meeting after worship, elect a new council, and for you all to be formally introduced to this thing we’re doing with Forward leadership. And the text for the day is Jesus calling these ill-equipped disciples who are way out on the margins to come and follow.

Every voice will matter in 2020. Every person will matter. We will need you. God has not forgotten you, and God has not forgotten us. Even on us, light has shined. 

And though it may sometimes feel like a trap, it isn’t. It is a cycle of death and resurrection, dejection and questions and frustration and new hope that we all get to experience together. 

God has not forgotten us. We get to do this. Even on you, on me, on us, light has shined. 

If you have a lot of questions, that’s okay. If you have a lot of worries, that’s okay. If you feel like we’re beyond the wall and beyond God’s good care, that’s okay too. 

Every day, the call is there: “come, follow me.” And as the days get longer and light literally shines on us all, let us remember that even on us, light has shined. God has not forgotten us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“What Are You Looking For?”: The Christ and the Cheshire Cat

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John 1:29-42

As light returns to us here in the northern hemisphere and we celebrate the days getting longer, the church celebrates a season of light: the time after Epiphany. We remember the star that led the wise men to the Christ child at the beginning of the season, and we remember Jesus transfigured and shining on a mountaintop at the end. In between, we remember Jesus being revealed as the Light of the World as the sun outside stays with us a little longer each day. This season is an in-between season, separating Christmas from Lent.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. 

In one particular scene that has untold sermon potential, Alice wanders around the strange woods after going down the rabbit hole, finding herself in a very strange place indeed. Suddenly, she hears singing — the voice is disembodied and the words are nonsense. Finally, just a smile appears. Then, two yellow eyes. Finally, a tail, and then, a whole purple striped animal.

Thus, one of the best literary characters of all time, in my opinion, appears. 

That character is, of course, the Cheshire Cat. The trickster who’s a little off his rocker, but is also strangely full of wisdom.
“Oh!” Alice says. “You’re a cat!”

“A Cheshire cat.” 

After some small talk, Alice says, “I just wanted to ask you which way I ought to go.” 

“Well,” the Cheshire cat replies, “that depends on where you want to get to…?” 

Alice responds immediately, “It really doesn’t matter, as long as I…” she starts to explain.

The Cheshire cat interrupts, “Well,” he says, “then it really doesn’t matter which way you go!” 

I’m not saying that Jesus is the Cheshire cat, but Jesus in the Gospel text today isn’t unlike the Cheshire cat. He answers questions with questions. He says confusing things. And you get the sense that he might be messing with people just a little bit.

In this Gospel text, Jesus is baptized, which we don’t witness firsthand but only hear about from John the Baptist: “remember how I said that one who’s greater than me will come after me? This is the guy.” 

John’s Gospel has been leading up to this moment for a little while now. The beginning of the Gospel, instead of a birth story with shepherds or wise men or a manger, begins with the famous “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” all the way down to “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” 

Then we learn about John, and through John we learn about Jesus — and here we are. 

Last week, we heard the first words Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, and they’re him asking to be baptized. This week, we hear Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel. 

The Word made flesh speaks for the first time, and what does he say? Furthermore, these guys have just decided to follow him. You’d think his response would be some wise statement, but it isn’t. 

He just says, “What are you looking for?” 

As those of you who walked with me through John’s Gospel last year may remember, he asks that a lot: either “what are you looking for?” or “who are you looking for?” Most notably, he’ll ask the latter question when he’s arrested, then he’ll ask it again of Mary at the tomb when she thinks someone’s stolen his body.

What are you looking for?

It’s a question that would do us well to ask of ourselves in our lives generally. What are you looking for? 

Validation? Accomplishment? Peace? Love? 

But I won’t take you too far down an existential crisis-y rabbit hole, even if Jesus does sound a bit like the Cheshire cat in this passage. This is church, and it is Jesus we’re talking about today, so I’ll leave you to ponder what you’re looking for in life later this afternoon while we focus on church for now.

Why are you here? What are you looking for?

Pastors know just about better than anyone that people come to church for all kinds of reasons. Some come out of habit, and some out of obligation, and some as a form of fire insurance. Many others come because they find community, and meaning, and love, and/or because after all these years, there’s just still something about trying to follow Jesus that calls to them. 

One of the questions that I’ve learned to ask as a pastor is to occasionally get people to ponder this question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?” 

Why do you go to church? And if you go here regularly, why do you go to this church?

As we move through the synod’s Forward Leadership program this year, answering that question will go a long way towards helping us find our unifying “why” — why God’s placed us here, in South Hadley, now. 

Because, to paraphrase the Cheshire cat, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t much matter where you look. 

I’m telling you: endless wisdom in that cartoon cat. 

So Jesus turns around and sees these guys following and he asks them what they’re looking for. 

And they are not ready for that. You can practically hear them stammer in the text. Lutheran pastor and fellow Southernern Delmer Chilton describes it this way: “It’s like you’ve got a couple of inept detectives trying to tail somebody, and the person they’re tailing turns around and says, ‘What do you want?’ And they’re like “UHHHHH… you got a dollar? Can you tell me where the 54 bus is?”
They respond, “Ummmmm… where are you staying?” 

And Jesus responds with another key phrase in John: “Come and see.” 

He’ll say it again a little later to invite more disciples to follow him. The woman at the well will say it when she invites others to come meet Jesus. And Mary and Martha will say it when Jesus asks where they’ve buried his friend, their brother, who died. 

Come and see. 

Just show up, and expect to see something new. 

Two weeks ago, when Gail, Debbie, Paula, Barb, and I were at the Forward leadership retreat, we lamented to the leadership that we had more questions than answers. We were told that that’s right where we were supposed to be. I’ve been thinking over the past couple of weeks that, despite my love of answers, maybe having lots of questions is a good place to be overall.  

As we embark on a new year, and as we embark on the Forward leadership program together, or whatever it is that you’re embarking on in 2020 — what are we looking for? Why do you come to church? What are you looking for?

What are you looking for, overall, in 2020? 

Because you know that if it doesn’t matter where you get to, it doesn’t much matter which way you go. 

But before you allow the Cheshire cat to throw you into a crisis, remember Jesus’ invitation: come and see. 

Just keep showing up, expecting to find something. 

Come and see. 

Jump into this Forward leadership process with us. Come and see. 

Show up in your life, however you need to show up, and expect to find something new. 

Come and see. 

Show up at this table, and expect to meet Jesus in bread and wine, even though it’s illogical. 

Come and see. 

Let 2020 be the year that you show up and let yourself be surprised.

The invitation is always there: here at church, in your home, and every day when you open your eyes: come and see. Amen.

Epiphany: Never Travel Alone

Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

I make more sense, I think, when in motion. 

I make more sense to myself when I’m moving, whether it’s running, lifting, or traveling. And with a family across the country and friends flung to the four winds, I do have both the opportunity and the obligation to travel often. 

As such, I’ve developed some simple rules around traveling. I always joke that air travel lowers my already low view of humanity. Watching people not follow the rules makes my little heart break and my hair burst into flames. But I have two simple rules when I get off an airplane — if I see someone struggling to get their bag down from the overhead bin, I help them. It’s always good to help other people avoid concussions. This rule especially applies when the bag is being taken down right over my head. 

My second rule is to always look both the pilots and the flight attendants at the doors in the eyes and say thank you. It’s always good to remember, I think, that you did not reach this destination safely by yourself. 

When you think about it, we rarely travel alone, even when we travel solo. 

If you doubt this, think about your last long trip. Chances are, it took at least two pilots to get you there, and maybe also a train conductor and maybe a Lyft or taxi driver or two. If you’ve never flown or haven’t flown in awhile, you might be thinking, “Nah, I drove myself there.” 

Even then, however, we rarely travel alone. There are other people on the highway. And there are the people who work to register, insure, and maintain our vehicles. We owe our safe arrival to the people who check our tires and change our oil, and if something goes wrong, we’ll be depending on state troopers, tow truck drivers, or even passers by to help us get out of a tight spot. 

We live, increasingly, in a time of isolation, when more and more people are choosing self and family over community — that is to say, we’re choosing to stay home rather than go to town meetings, join community gyms, or, yes, even participate in organized religion. We bemoan how yoga is overtaking church, but if you ask the owners of yoga studios around here, you’ll find that they’re not collecting the people that churches are losing; they’re struggling too.

We are more connected and more isolated than ever. 

This is, in part, because of the quasi-illusion of connection that we get from social media. But I think the bigger culprit is that we’re overextended and tired from hours at work that just keep getting longer and family obligations that keep taxing us, leaving people of every age wanting to just hang out in sweatpants at the end of a long day rather than go to some town or church event. 

Regardless of the cause, increasingly, we’re alone. Or at least, we think we are.  

Today, we cap off the twelve days of Christmas with the celebration of the Epiphany, or the visit of the magi. This year, in this increasing age of isolation, I couldn’t help thinking about how perfectly plausible it might have been to only have one magi visit the child Jesus. 

Quick yearly review for those who might have forgotten or never knew it: your nativity scene is a composite sketch of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ babyhood and toddlerhood. No Gospel includes both shepherds and wise men (if you don’t believe me, please, look it up). Further, Matthew doesn’t tell us how many magi there were; he only tell us that there were three gifts. 

But what we do know is that “magi” is plural. They did not travel alone. At some point, somebody said, “Hey! I think that star means something.” And they gathered some of their friends, and they took a road trip. And the destination, unbeknownst to them at the time, was love: Jesus Christ, God made flesh. 

And when it was all over, Matthew tells us rather poetically that, in order to avoid Herod, inspired by a dream, they “went home by a different road.” Every trip changes us, especially when we meet God there. 

It’s the fifth of January, 2020. 

We’re all embarking on new journeys. Some of us have New Year’s resolutions to keep, while others are continuing on the same journeys we were on before Christmas: journeys to healing. Journeys to recovery. Journeys to getting those kids or grandkids raised and out of the house. Journeys to career goals and personal bests. Journeys to retirement and rest. Journeys of post-retirement adventure. 

We are all on journeys. And it’s important to remember that we never travel alone. 

One of the most intimidating new employment experiences I’ve ever had was learning to be an overnight chaplain in a hospital. There were so many procedures to follow, charting to do, reports to give, emergencies to respond to. I struggled to remember what to do when something happened, how to call security if I needed them, how to get in touch with the head nurse if someone who arrived after a death wanted to see a deceased loved one in the morgue.

Finally, I realized: the chaplain is never alone in the hospital. No one is ever alone in a hospital. There are always other travelers, people whose knowledge you can draw on, people you can rely on to help. 

No one travels alone. 

My friends, this is important to remember as we embark on our own journey as a congregation. This past weekend, several of us were up at Camp Calumet taking part in the opening retreat. One of my hopes and visions for this program is that we will learn to travel, together, as a congregation. We have a ton of energy and more resources than most congregations our size; the opportunity lies in learning to use them together, relying less on a few people and more on ourselves as a unit.

It will take time, and I don’t know where this journey will lead. But what I do know is that we, like the magi, are following a pattern as best we can, trusting that the destination is love, and trusting that God is with us on the journey. And maybe we, too, will leave this journey and go home by a different road, changed forever. 

Whatever journey you are on, remember that you do not travel alone, even when it seems like it. And if you have goals this year, I encourage you to find a community to help you achieve them — even psychology tells us that working as part of a group, whether on fitness, reading, learning a language or skill, or any other feat — yields much better results than working alone. [Köhler effect]

My friends, in this age of isolation, the most radical thing we can choose to do is to refuse to be isolated. If you haven’t been coming here much, join our community and let us walk with you. Whatever your journey, find a group to support you. Refuse to travel alone. 

Ask for support, or offer it. Ask for help, or offer it. Thank the people who travel with you and thank the people who take you places. Support and remember those who travel with you on whatever journey you’re on, and let’s remember to support each other as we take this journey together.

Before we leave today, we will bless chalk that we will use to bless our homes for the new year. When you bless your home, think of the journeys you’ll take this year — both the literal trips you’ll take and the figurative journeys from here to there. Pray for yourself and for your traveling companions, whoever they may be. 

And know that God goes with you, and that ultimately, our destination is always love. Amen. 

Wild and Crazy Dreams

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Matthew 1:18-25

Dreams. 

They usually mean one of three things to people. 

“Dreams” are things that we hope for, or they’re messages that we get when we sleep, maybe even sent from God, or, most commonly, they’re the strange, strange leftovers of our subconscious mind. 

You know, like when you dream about your friend saving your life from a wild puma. But right after that you notice your friend has teeth on their feet. And has to go to the dentist to get them removed. But before you get there, you’re sideswiped by Bill Gates riding a zebra and you find yourself thinking, right there in your dream, “I don’t even like Bill Gates.” 

What does it all mean??? 

Honestly, probably nothing. Or maybe that you like Bill Gates more than you thought you did. Or maybe you just saw him on TV last night. Either way, most dreams are pretty inconsequential. 

Luckily, or maybe unluckily, for us, those inconsequential dreams don’t get recorded in the Bible. Because you know Joseph probably had some weird dreams before this, about Mary turning into a talking camel or something, but this dream in the Gospel reading? It was perhaps less bizarre, but more unexpected, than your average dream. I mean, it’s not every night that the Creator of the universe decides to speak to you about your fiancé being pregnant with, well, the creator of the universe. 

But Joseph’s dream is not where it starts. So let’s go back to the beginning. 

Mary’s pregnant.

Joseph is, to say the least, surprised. 

He could’ve publicly shamed her; it was his right under the rules of the day. He was likely hurt, as any of us would be. Instead of enacting any sort of vicious revenge for her perceived infidelity, though, Matthew tells us that he just decided to “dismiss her quietly.” 

This likely still would’ve been very bad for Mary; single moms have always had a hard time, but it was even worse back then. Women couldn’t really go get a job, exactly, and caring for a newborn, as many of you know is a full time job in itself. Add on top of that the shame and stigma of being dismissed by your fiancé out of perceived infidelity, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. 

We don’t know what Joseph planned to do, but what we do know is that it very likely would’ve been pretty bad for Mary and for the child she was carrying. 

Joseph has decided to do this, however — to dismiss her. And that is where we pick up the story. 

I imagine Joseph, sleepless, wondering what he’s going to do. He’s going to look foolish. His fiancé has cheated on him and now she’s pregnant. This isn’t a problem we’d wish on anyone. What does he do? 

Finally, he decides to send her away, quietly, and not make a thing of it. Maybe he plans to give her a little money, because he still cares for her. Maybe he rehearses what he’s going to tell his mother and his neighbors about where Mary went. Once he thinks it all through, still stressed but somewhat relieved to have come to a decision, he falls into a restless sleep. And that’s when it happens. 

In a dream, before his cloudy eyes, appears “an angel of the Lord.” We know nothing about Joseph’s dream other than what the angel says to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

We’ve all heard this passage a bunch of times before, so let’s be clear about one thing: the name that the angel gives Joseph for what he’ll name the child is a really common name. It’s as if one of us is given the name for a child by an angel in a dream and the angel says, in an angelic voice, “And you shall name him Josh. 

Joshua? 

Jesus? 

Yes, Jesus. Because Jesus, and Joshua, actually, mean, essentially, “God saves.” 

Let me tell you something: we sell ourselves far short when we just accept these stories as holy and “how it happened” and “those stories we had to memorize in Sunday school as kids” without stopping to think about how crazy all of this is. It’s not our fault for not noticing, really: it was presented to most of us that way. The adults who taught us these stories as kids had probably never stopped to think about how crazy it all was either, but really —

“You mean God chose to be born to an unwed, poor mother who belonged to a religious minority in a disputed land occupied by the most powerful empire on earth at the time, and just, as the weird cherry on top of this bizarre ice cream sundae of a story, God also happened to choose a really common name?” Wild. 

Because let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that you realize how crazy this whole story is just for crazy’s sake. It’s because when you realize that, your whole faith life changes. You realize some things about God and about your own life, namely, that God might be a little crazy, and that is the best news imaginable.

Because — what a year we’ve had this. week. The news has us all spinning backwards six ways to Sunday, with uncertainty and fear and division just about everywhere you look. It’s three days before Christmas and you’re probably not ready and even if you are, chances are you’re not looking forward to all of the family dynamics you might have to navigate, whether those dynamics are small potatoes, like whether Uncle Jim will say something horrible, or very very large potatoes, like whether you’ll even be able to gather everyone for another year, or navigating an illness or an injury or an arrest record. And then there’s church and our life together: we’re a tiny congregation in a culture that increasingly quite frankly isn’t all that interested in church, and we’re about to continue a journey in a little over a week to figure out what the heck God is trying to do with us, here, together. 

Given all of that, I for one am quite glad that we worship the kind of God who takes the long way home, who appears in strange dreams, and who chooses to be born into a terrible situation with a very common name. Because you see, it seems to me that God usually appears when things are getting crazy. 

Joseph falls asleep planning to dismiss his fiancé because she’s pregnant, he thinks, with another man’s baby. 

He wakes up believing that the impossible is real: that God is coming, in the midst of all of this mess, and all he needs to do is to get out of the way. Oh yeah, and maybe rock the baby and change a few diapers. 

“Stay in this,” God says, and history is about to change beyond your wildest dreams. 

The world is about to turn. 

The closing hymn for the day is “The Canticle of the Turning,” which is really just Mary’s magnificat — the song she sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus — rewritten in modern language. Over and over when we sing it, we sing, “the world is about to turn.” That is the message of Advent 4: everything stinks right now, but also, everything is about to change, and it’s gonna be wild. 

So good luck on your last minute Christmas preparations — both the physical ones and the emotional and spiritual ones. If you’re about to go into something hard, know that you do not go alone. And whatever you’re going through, believe this: God is a little bizarre, kind beyond your wildest dreams, actually. 

It’s Advent Four. The world is about to turn, in all kinds of ways. And it’s gonna be wild. Amen.

On Doubt

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Saint John, the forerunner, doubter, and prophet. 

Matthew 11:2-11

You’ve probably heard it before, whether in your upbringing or on TV or somewhere else: doubting is a sin. 

If you hear me say only one thing today, let it be this: doubting is not a sin. Doubting is biblical.

Jewish people have always known this far better than Christians. Their faith, more so than ours, is built on a long, long relationship between God and the Hebrew people, rather than the God-and-me relationship that Christians usually think about when we think about faith. 

Christians, quite frankly, have a lot to learn about faith from Jewish people, especially when it comes to the struggle that is a life of faith. 

As an example, a tweet from this past week on Jewish Twitter: “Atheists raised Christian [often claim]: ‘All religion is based on obedience and fear.’ Meanwhile Jews are like “last Tuesday I had a fistfight with [God] at 3am behind an abandoned Arby’s.” This person continued, “I pray because I believe. I pray for myself, for the present, not because some punishment is waiting in the next life. One of the reasons Judaism has survived as a religion for so long is because of the Jewish sense of community. Do we understand God? Absolutely not…. God left us on ‘read’ from 1939-1945. But we’re in this mess together. 

For those of you who don’t know, to leave someone on “read” is to read, yet not respond to, their text message. And it’s true: the Jewish people have been through it, throughout history and still today. Just this week in Jersey City, a Jewish grocery store was attacked. Violence against Jewish people is alive and well. They have had to ask as a people, more than most of us, “Where is God? Why did God allow this to happen?” 

Doubt is a necessary part of their existence. It is part of any healthy faith. If you don’t doubt, you’ve either had a long long journey with God and come to peace, or, alternatively and most likely, you’re not thinking hard enough. 

Another case in point: John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel reading, sends word from prison to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

It’s pretty easy to gloss right over that, but back up. 

John is in prison for ticking off the wrong people while he preached about Jesus. And he, John the Baptist, sends word just to make sure that Jesus is really the Messiah. 

You can’t blame him, really. I mean, if I were in prison because I thought someone was sent by God, and then I was still stuck in prison after that, I’d probably have my doubts too. And John did. 

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The Jewish people were still oppressed under Roman rule. And John himself was still sitting in prison. It’s a reasonable question. If Jesus is indeed the one who is to come, why hasn’t anything changed?
That’s not unlike the questions we may ask ourselves, if we dare, two thousand years later. 

Has Jesus really made any difference in the world? The church has certainly made some negative differences, but has the Jesus message really made a difference in history?

We can’t be blamed for doubting. Many of us grew up in Christian traditions that made us feel bad for having any questions or doubts. Christian traditions around the world today are caught up in campaigns of hatred today, looking to be in competition with other faiths, to have LGBTQ+ people imprisoned or worse, and many other atrocities. It’s enough to make some of us occasionally want to abandon the label “Christian” — there’s just too much bad PR. 

Even when I tell people I’m a pastor, I feel immediately obligated to tell them that I’m not one of those pastors, as if they don’t already know by looking at me. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, late author Rachel Held Evans decries the abuses of the church, each with the liturgical refrain, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.” 

But then. 

She begins a list of thanksgivings for the times that we, as a people, have gotten it right. 

“For Ambrose, who defied the Roman Empire by blocking the door of the church until Emperor Theodosius had repented of his violence, we give thanks. 

For the desert fathers and mothers who fled the violence and excess of the empire to inspire generations after them to live more simply and deliberately, we give thanks.

For John Huss, who spoke out against the church’s sale of indulgences, protested the Crusades, and was burned at the stake for obeying his conscience, we give thanks.

For Pedro Claver, the Jesuit priest who devoted his life to serving the black slaves of Colombia, especially those suffering from the leprosy and smallpox brought by their conquerors, we give thanks. 

For Anne Hutchinson, who knew that it was illegal for women to teach from the Bible in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but did it anyway, we give thanks. 

For William Wilberforce, who channeled his evangelical fervor into abolishing slavery in the British Empire, vowing, ‘never, never will we desist until we have taped away this scandal from the Christian name,’ we give thanks. 

For Sojourner Truth, who proclaimed her own humanity in a culture that did not recognize it, we give thanks. 

For Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in the place of a Jewish stranger at Auschwitz, we give thanks. 

For all the pastors, black and white, who linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr. and marched on Washington, we give thanks. 

For Rosa Parks, who kept her seat, we give thanks.” 

For all who did the right thing in Jesus’ name, even when it was hard, we give thanks. 

In response to John the Baptist’s doubts, Jesus responds not with a rebuke, but with this: 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

Right after that, Jesus goes on to defend John, the same one who had just sent word asking him if he was for real, as his messenger. 

If doubts disqualified you from service, the church would be empty. 

Go and tell people what you hear and see: love is here. Community is here. We are not perfect. We screw it up all the time. 

And though we do not understand God, not even a little bit in most cases, we are in this mess together, and we believe, even though we might fight with God, that God is here with us, too. 

Faith is not individual, and it’s not about never doubting. Far from it, in both cases. No, faith is about us being here, together. Struggling together, doubting together, and occasionally, every now and then, stepping up and doing the right thing together. 

And ultimately, it’s about us meeting God, every week at this table, together. And it’s about God, not about us and our shaky faith, bringing in the ultimate victory when all is said and done.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Advent 2: “Because *You’re* Here.”

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Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

In the trailer for the upcoming movie The Last Full Measure, a Vietnam War movie, one solider goes back, under enemy fire, to rescue another solider who had been left for dead. The wounded soldier looks up at his rescuer. 

The wounded soldier, left for dead in a faraway jungle in a war he did not start but had to fight, whispers to his rescuer and brother in arms: “Why are you here, man?”

The rescuing soldier looks back at the wounded one. He smiles for a brief moment in the midst of battle and says, “Because you’re here.”

It happens every year, but it never ceases to surprise us: in the midst of this season of joy and preparation, when everything around us is all “Joy to the World” and shiny and red and green, when we’re happily decorating our houses and buying gifts, John the Baptist strides in with his wild eyes and clothing of camel’s hair and declares the apocalypse: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

For the casual churchgoer or anyone who doesn’t have a familiarity with the season of Advent, it really makes no sense. What’s with all the fire and war and end of days stuff? Isn’t it Christmastime?

No. It’s Advent. 

Advent teaches us to prepare to welcome Christ at Christmas. And Advent teaches us to welcome Christ in our lives. But Advent is also about apocalypse preparation — that’s why you got Jesus declaring the apocalypse last week, and that’s why you get old John the Baptist this week. 

There are times in history when the apocalypse seems far away from us, then there are times when it seems just around the corner. Regardless of which situation you think we find ourselves in today, it’s Advent, and we need to talk about apocalypses again.

You might have heard it before: “apocalypse” just means “to uncover.” If you see it like that, quite frankly, the apocalypse happens all the time. 

Apocalypses happen to us collectively: it was an apocalypse when we as a society realized the horror of slavery and decided to end it. The “me too” movement was an apocalypse in its own way: when we realized all of these things that had been happening to women for centuries. Any time we come to our senses as a society, it’s an uncovering. It’s an apocalypse. And it’s terrible and wonderful and scary and justified. And it’s painful and it spells the end of pain that’s happened for a long time. 

Apocalypses also happen to us as individuals. Eventually, the sky will fall for each of us individually. Someone we love will die. Someone we love will be arrested. Someone we love will overdose. Or maybe that “someone” will be us. We’ll finally decide to get our lives together once we hit rock bottom. 

In a personal apocalypse, usually what’s “uncovered” is ourselves. You know this: when things get truly hard, or when we finally find resolve and decide to do the hard thing, we “meet ourselves.” Those terrible personal setbacks and tragedies: they may be painful physically or emotionally or spiritually or all of the above, but we uncover something about ourselves. We uncover who we are after the death, after the tragedy, after the personal apocalypse. And if we learn to look for God, we uncover God, suffering with us, always with us. 

As a congregation, my dear ones, we run in a lot of different directions and we do a lot of different things. We teach kiddos. We teach adults how to get their financial lives together. We feed people. Over the years we’ve resettled immigrants and fixed decks and pulled weeds for our neighbors. We’ve delivered smoke detector batteries and we’ve sung hymns in bars. Many of you have joked with me that pastoring you all is like herding cats, and you are not wrong. I been herdin’ cats for four years, and thankfully I come from a long line of cat herders. 

But we do have a common passion, you know. 

We show up for each other.

And we show up in the midst of someone else’s apocalypse and they say to us, “Why are you here?” 

Why have you entered into this pain that isn’t yours, come back for someone who is hurting in this battle that you didn’t start?

This congregation responds, every time, without hesitation: “Because you’re here.”

We cannot control the apocalypses that will come our way, or each other’s way, or the country’s way. We can’t fight anyone’s personal battles for them, and we can’t control any outcomes. 

But we can keep showing up. 

We can keep showing up in the midst of apocalypses of all kinds. That starts with us showing up for each other, then branching out to people we know, then meeting new people along the way. We do not do this because God needs us – God has plenty of means for saving all kinds of people – but because God invites us to show up in the midst of someone else’s pain. 

This church thing? This caring for other people thing? WE GET TO DO THIS. We get to show up for people broken by life, people for whom the sky has fallen, people experiencing an apocalypse. I would say that that starts with me if it hadn’t already started with you.

Do you have any idea how much you’ve inspired me? You’ve shown me who you are by showing up, and you’ve inspired me to be better. Every tragedy, every death, every injury or diagnosis, every apocalypse, you show up. 

Now I want to hold up a mirror to you: you, Our Savior’s people, are generous, and kind, and are the kinds of healers the world needs. When people need you, and when you need each other, you show up.

As we enter our Forward year, keep that in mind. We are radical joy in action, and that means showing up for each other and for people we have the ability and resources to help. 

The results are not up to us, and the saving is up to God. The poet t.s. eliot once wrote the words I try to live by: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” For us, there’s only the showing up. 

The apocalypse happens every day for someone. Advent just reminds us to keep the apocalypse in mind, and to remember what our role is and what God’s very separate role is. 

And for us, there’s only the trying. For me, if you were to ask me why I’m here, I would simply say to you: “Because you’re here.” So let’s keep being who we are, and showing up — together. Amen.

Reign of Christ Sunday: “A Comeback for the Ages”

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Super Bowl 51: the second-greatest comeback of all time. This Sunday, we talked about it alongside the greatest: the resurrection of Jesus.

Luke 23:33-43

On a day when we celebrate Christ’s comeback victory over death and evil and pain, it seems natural to talk about Super Bowl 51. 

28-3. 

One writer described it as, “In a comeback for the ages, Patriots beat Falcons in heart-pounding Super Bowl.” 

We all know the story that the writers sent to the presses after the game. But what you may not have thought about is the stories they didn’t write.

In a world with the Internet, gone are the days when sportswriters sent in their stories to be ready only for the morning papers. Sports writers today write their stories while the game is taking place, anticipating the final outcome the entire time. 

I found a video on this recently that reshaped how I saw Super Bowl 51, as I looked at it through the eyes of journalists who were preparing their stories as the game unfolded in real time (1).

The headlines that were published, we all know. “Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, and Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach of all time.” “Patriots were well-prepared for this stunning comeback victory.” 

But what about the ones that weren’t published?

In the video, writers describe the stories they had mid-third quarter. “The Patriots were outclassed, and couldn’t handle the [Falcons’] speed on either side of the ball.” “Three Big Reasons Why the Patriots Lost.” One described his article as “An obituary to a dream season.” 

Then the Patriots started to put points on the board, and they had to begin changing their stories about the blowout. Suddenly, it was tied 28-28, and writers everywhere pushed everything to the bottom of the page or just hit “select all-delete.” But a few just opened entirely new documents, thinking it’d be fun to go back and read the first stories later. 

They wrote: “The Falcons pounded the Patriots, abused them, and outsmarted them. They absolutely clowned them.” “The Falcons gave a preview of things to come on their first play from scrimmage, when Devont-a Freeman gashed the Patriots defense for 37 yards.” “The Patriots had been good at limiting that type of play this season, but they hadn’t played a high-powered offense like the Falcons’. It turned out the Patriots defense just wasn’t good enough to win a Super Bowl.” “After methodically marching down the field from their own 25 to the Atlanta 23, it appeared New England could still make a game of this. That’s when Robert Alford stepped in — literally. [He made an interception and ran for the end zone.] Tom Brady reached out in desperation, but came up short. Ultimately, so did the Patriots.” “Brady, despite his status as perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, proved he isn’t a miracle worker.” “When James White and Danny Amendola are your best offensive weapons, you’re in trouble.” 

Just as this line is read, the video shows Amendola fighting his way across the goal line for the tying score.

Do you remember the first half of Super Bowl 51?

Any New England fan watching the game that night was writing their own story in their head. We were all thinking about what we’d say to our Patriots-hating friends and family. We were perhaps thinking about what we’d post on the Internet after the blowout. We were sad. We’d had a great season, and we were watching it go down the tubes in a spectacular fashion. 

But those stories were never published. Because it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And sometimes,   even when it’s just over, something else steps in and re-writes our stories of gloom into a tale for the ages. 

Today’s Reign of Christ Sunday, and the Gospel text is the crucifixion. 

The headline that never got published: “God Comes to Earth, Preaches Love; Death Defeats God in a Blowout.” 

But I’m guessing that you know that that’s not the story that went to the presses, and that’s why we’re here. 

Though the Internet is what’s caused sportswriters to write their stories in real time, humans have always looked at circumstances and written our narratives ahead of time. It helps us survive. We anticipate what will happen based on the information that we have right now. And truth be told, in reality, miracle comebacks are the exception, not the rule. Down 28-3 in the third quarter, the Patriots had an 8.4% chance of winning the Super Bowl. 

We’re always tempted to say, “Oh, the math nerds were wrong again,” but the reality is that they weren’t at all. The Patriots had an 8.4% chance, which meant that it was still theoretically possible, just unlikely. But sometimes the unlikely thing happens. 

Like a 25 point comeback. Like resurrection. Like hope and new life. The only way the chance of victory drops to 0% is if you stop playing. 

In the third quarter, down by 25, Julian Edelman looked up at the scoreboard and said, “This is going to be a hell of a story.” 

The truth was that a comeback was really unlikely to happen. 

But it did. It did because the Patriots believed it could, because some times the football bounced the right way, and because the Patriots weren’t so consumed with the crushing blows and slip-ups of first half that they forgot to play in the second half. 

While driving to convocation, I read a sign that said, “Don’t trip over something that’s behind you.” 

There’s a lot of stuff going on in all our lives. Most of us have at least one 28-3 scenario in our minds. And if you don’t have one and you need one, let me offer you the state of the church in New England in 2019, when I get told over and over that no one goes to church anymore. 

This is true of the church and it’s true of America: we’re not getting the first half back. The points that have been put up on us are not going to be subtracted. There will not come a day when suddenly young families everywhere begin to see church as a staple, the way they saw it in the 1980s. Some will, yes. But not the way they did back then. 

America is not going back to the way it was before we all lived in alternate realities with our neighbors, either. We’re not going to get less angry. We’re not going to suddenly get more bipartisan. 

But don’t trip over something that’s behind you. We’ve got the whole second half to go. 

The thing that I will say and must say every single Sunday I occupy this pulpit is in the front and center today: that the God who came to earth died. Dead-died. He was literally dead and buried. That game was actually over. And yet, here we are, and Christ is among us. 

So what are we afraid of? Death? Endings? 

Please.

Whatever story you’ve already written, whether about your own life, the life of a loved one, the church, the United States of America, or the world, remember the story of Super Bowl 51: “unlikely” doesn’t mean impossible. That an 8% chance of winning still means that if you game out that scenario a hundred times, the Patriots will still win eight of those times. And a 91% chance of victory still leaves the door open for defeat. Just ask the Falcons. 

Don’t trip over something that’s behind you. Because today, we celebrate the fact that when Christ was dead and buried, with a 0% chance of victory, God broke into human history and snatched life back from death. The crucifixion doesn’t look like a victory, but it is. It was a victory then, it will be a victory in the ever-after, and, despite what the scoreboard or the news or our lives say about the very real pain we see every day, it is a victory today.

The Patriots were down 28-3, but won Super Bowl 51, and those stories never got published. 

Christ’s heart stopped on the cross, but he rose again, and that is why we are here.
“Then the thief on the cross said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

Why, oh why, would we ever look behind us? Do not be afraid. Look to the future, and look to the cross and remember how that story ended, and gather just enough hope to keep playing.

To quote Mr. Edelman himself, your story, and the story of our church, is gonna be one heck of a story. Amen.

1. You can watch that video yourself here