Tossed Into the World, Together

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The actual opening scene of The Lion King.

Mark 6:1-13

Many of you already know that, thanks both to church structures and decisions on my part, my pastor life got started two different times. The first time was my commissioning in the United Methodist Church in 2011, before I began serving my first church in Montgomery, Alabama, as a solo pastor. The United Methodist Church has pastors prove themselves in the parish for some years, calling it “commissioned ministry,” before finally ordinating them. Because of this policy, my pastor life got its second and final start with my actual ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 2016. 

Both times involved being blessed by a bishop and sent out. Both services felt exactly the same way in only one regard, though I felt this much more acutely in 2011 when I was fresh out of seminary. Like many things these days, it’s best expressed in a thing from the Internet. 

There’s this gif, this moving picture, of Rafiki, the baboon and wise man from Disney’s The Lion King. As in the opening scene of the movie, Rafiki is holding the main character, the Lion King himself, Simba, as a cub. In what is clearly a ceremony atop the highest rock, Rafiki holds up the young cub  before all the other animals. 

Except, in the hilarious internet version of the scene, Rafiki bends his elbows back and launches the young, freshly ordained cub off the rock and straight into the wild wild world. 

And that is what I felt like fresh out of seminary after a ceremony to commission me to pastor. [imitates gif by throwing stuffed penguin into congregation]
“Goodbye, kiddo! Good luck!” 

If you’re over the age of eighteen, or even if you’re not, youve probably felt that way at some point yourself: maybe after a graduation, a wedding, getting your driver’s license, having your first child, landing your first job in a new career: any time there’s a moment of celebration followed by the sinking feeling where you think “Uh oh. The training wheels are off and I have to actually do this thing.”

Image result for lion king gif
Good luck, kid!

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt in the Gospel story today: thrown into everything. The whole thing begins with Jesus getting rejected by the folks in his hometown. He’s teaching in the synagogue, and they reject him by saying, “Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s son?”

I think we forget sometimes that Jesus was only 33. An advanced adult by the standards of the day — the average life expectancy, after all, was only around 60, and most people got married and had children very young. Even so, at 33, there were still plenty of people who were old enough to think Jesus was just a local punk. There would’ve been folks around who remembered him in holy diapers.

They say, essentially, “Who does that Jesus punk think he is, lecturing us? 

Then, maybe because he’s tired, he sends the disciples out two by two, and they are catapulted Simba-style into a world unknown to do God’s work. He tells them to take nothing with them, but to depend on others for everything.

Unable to be dependent even on the people from his own hometown, Jesus sends the disciples out with just each other to depend on the people they serve. They may have felt catapulted into worlds unknown indeed, but the lesson seems pretty clear to me: if you’re going to preach love and Good News, you have to trust each other and the world around you — even with little to no evidence that doing so is a safe bet.

Over the past couple of years, thanks to you guys, I’ve learned that one of the proper ways to spend the Fourth of July in western Massachusetts is at Tanglewood with musician and songwriter and Mass native James Taylor. In an age where we all feel like we in America living in a powder keg and giving off sparks, where we can’t agree with our neighbors on basic reality, where we ourselves feel thrown into the wild wild world, James’s voice singing “America the Beautiful” is soothing, I hope, for everyone. I always leave feeling like I’ve been to church: loved, inspired, and challenged.

One such song’s lyrics, highly appropriate for the Fourth of July in any age, but perhaps especially this one, go like this:

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound…” (1) [Listen here]

In a world filled with division and anxiety, one that, thanks to the Internet, functions (as one of my favorite podcasters says) as a perpetually furious small town, we are bound. We are bound to each other and to the people we’re supposed to love and serve. 

And like it or not, that includes everybody. Including the ones you block from your Facebook feed and the ones who hate people like you. 

Some of us, due to various parts of our identities, are more acutely aware of this than others, but it’s true for all of us: no matter who you are, someone somewhere really doesn’t like people like you.

Still, we are bound and we are bound. 

This story about Jesus not being accepted in his own hometown and his advice to the disciples to “shake the dust off your feet” if a town doesn’t accept them hit me differently this year than it did three years ago. Three years ago, and three years before that, I had been quite focused on letting go, shaking that dust right off, and moving on — important skills, but not the only lesson this text has to offer. 

This year, I think we could do with a little less dust-shaking and a little more boundedness. 

Note: this is not to say that there aren’t still times to shake the dust off your feet and let go — when relationships turn abusive or are just sucking the life and the joy out of the rest of our lives, it may indeed be time to move on. I do not condone enduring abuse or yelling at someone you know right well will never listen to you. Jesus taught us how to shake that dust off, and chances are good that you’ve had to do it before already.

But for the rest of our relationships, the ones in which we still see hope: we are bound and we are bound.

This year, when I read this text about Jesus getting rejected in his own hometown, it occurred to me that (while not in actuality), but in some ways, America, and more narrowly, New England, is American Christianity’s hometown.

It would often seem that the church has lost any sense of relevance that it once had. That we’ve lost our voice. That no one really cares what the church says anymore and that we are the only chosen crazies who still care to show up on Sunday mornings. I don’t know how it seems to you, but often it feels like this is a world that the church has been launched into before we ever saw it coming. 

Yet, here we are: we are the church in a world that is quite jaded by church.

And we are bound and we are bound. 

We still have the Gospel and the world still needs Good News. 

And we still have each other.

It’s not just the church: at times we all feel like we’ve been cast into the wide wide world alone. We feel cast into a new job, cast into addiction, or cast into a difficult relationship, or cast into grief. We feel alone, so we feel like we have to explain and justify ourselves every step of the way, lest anyone think we’re not doing things correctly. 

But the truth is that Jesus already did the work of justifying us, and then Jesus gave us to each other. In a time of turmoil and division, when it seems like we’re living in the church’s hometown, where familiarity has bred contempt and then multiplied it, we are given to each other, and God is given to us as bread and water and wine and story. 

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us…
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children
Can grow free and strong
We are bound together
By the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead
We are bound and we are bound…” 

We do not know how this story ends or where the road leads. We only know that we have been cast into it — and that God is with us, and that, thank God, we are together. Amen.

1. James Taylor, “Shed a Little Light,” New Moon Shine (1991).

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Holy Interruptions: Reflections on Camp and Jesus

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 5.52.27 PMUnplanned camp conversations.

Place: Camp Calumet, Freedom, NH
Photo credit: Pastor Jeff Stalley, First Lutheran Church, Ellington, CT

Lamentations 3:22-33
Mark 5:21-43

“There may yet be hope.” 

If you pull the from Lamentations line out of context, its words rattle down loudly through the ages from an ancient Hebrew scribe. If you pull the line out of context, it just may inspire you. 

But in its place in that text in Lamentations, it’s just an aside. It’s almost an interruption. Our translators have hidden it in parentheses. At first pass, it’s almost a throwaway, a thing you say when you don’t really believe it. When you’re assuming the worst of somebody and you just throw in, “But maybe they didn’t really mean to,” and then you continue trashing them. Or when you say, “We burned the cookies. I mean, maybe they’ll taste okay, but they look really black.” Or when you think a sports team in an important game is definitely going to lose but then you throw out, “But you never know, they may have a chance,” then you continue listing the reasons the team is headed towards the sports version of a buzzsaw. Or when you feel so beaten up by life or like a relationship is dead or like you’ve had your hopes crushed but you throw out, “But I mean, it may not be that bad; who knows what else might happen,” and then you continue as before your lament about the state of things.

The writer of Lamentations, for their part, opines,

“It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has  imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust (there may yet be hope), to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults” (Lamentations 3:27-29).

That is the voice of an ancient Hebrew telling you how terrible his, or maybe her, childhood was. (1) This is the voice of a human being who lived long ago telling you that they had to get used to hardship early, because they’ve always lived in an occupied land ruled by cruel conquerors. (There may yet be hope.) They’ve seen nothing but violence since they were a child. 

“There may yet be hope,” in that context, is an interruption. 

I hate saying that about a phrase about hope, because we don’t usually see interruptions as useful. They break the flow of things and throw us off task. To be an interruption, usually, is a negative thing. We don’t want to interrupt someone when they’re working. We yell at people who interrupt us. We can even annoy ourselves with those little verbal throwaway interruptions. You can almost hear the writer of Lamentations sneer: “I mean, there may yet be hope, but…” 

But I just emerged from a place where people realize the positive value of interruptions.

I spent this past week at Camp Calumet, our synod’s camp and outdoor ministry in Freedom, New Hampshire. [Who’s been?] If you’ve never been to Calumet, you should probably find a way to go. Calumet serves campers of all ages in a variety of programs: resident camp for kids, day camp for kids, campsites and cabins for recreation, and a wide range of programs for adults and kids every season of the year. Our Savior’s has invested a lot of love in Calumet over the years. A lot of you sent your kids there, and a lot of you went there for various programs yourselves. Gail used to work there. Dan helped out this winter with their Lego Weekend. Shi was a CIT last summer, and Tyrese is a counselor this year and his brother was a counselor before him, and on and on and on.

We love Calumet in all kinds of ways: we send both our money and our people to support its programs.

You all got me involved in Calumet, and for the past three summers, you’ve graciously loaned me out to Calumet. In 2016, I was the chaplain for family camp, which serves people of all ages and engages them in various programs throughout the day and throughout the week during the summer. That year, I led Bible study for adults, preached and presided for their camp wide service with around 500 folks, and led devotions for kids. The next year, I was the chaplain for confirmation camp, leading prayer and helping teenagers learn about the sacraments as they claimed their faith for themselves. This year, I pulled double duty: I had the same responsibilities as before with the confirmands, but I also worked as chaplain for staff week, leading devotions every morning with staff, which included all staff, from teenagers just starting to work at camp to college students who work as counselors and program directors.

Working at Calumet is immersive, and it is relaxing and it is fun and it is hard work. At camp, everyone pulls their weight. At camp, everyone is respected and loved for exactly who they are, because quite frankly, you can’t spend that much time with any group of people and not respect them as a human. (Sometimes, I just want to send America to camp.)

Camp also teaches things — to both kids and adults — that can’t be learned in any classroom or at any continuing education event. This week, I got the benefit of sitting in for a lot of the staff week talks, as the counselors learned how to be good camp counselors. And boy did I learn a lot.

Things like the fact that encouraging someone and being specific about it can change a life. Dave Piper, one of the Calumet nation who spoke at staff week, called it “laser beam” encouragement: being specific and sincere. Laser beam encouragement is to say more to someone than just, “you’re awesome,” but to be specific and say instead, “I love how playful you are with your grandkids; they really hit the jackpot with you as a grandparent!” or “I can tell you really put a lot of effort into your presentation today, and it really paid off. Thank you.” It’s the kind of thing that lights up a life. And it starts with an interruption — taking a moment away from everything to stop someone and encourage them. 

I think one of the biggest lessons of camp is that the interruptions are sometimes the most important part of your day.

When I think back, in my adult life, the least helpful bosses and mentors and role models in my professional and personal life have been those who were too rigid: the ones who were unable to be flexible. Inflexibility and high standards were a hallmark of some the best disciplinarians of my childhood, and they taught me valuable lessons, but as an adult? Not so helpful. 

No, the best mentors of my adult life are the ones who taught me that, in the words of Lee Curtis, Indianapolis Episcopal priest and seminary classmate of mine: 

“The interruptions are the work.” (2)

My home pastor, Nancy, taught me this; Julian, bishop who ordained me as well as our own Bishop Jim are great at pants-seat flying. You know who else knows how to embrace an interruption? 

Jesus.

In the Gospel reading, he’s just saved the disciples’ very freaked out butts from a windstorm in a boat. Jesus was so exhausted on that voyage that the disciples had to wake him up to get him to calm the sea. Then Jesus gets to shore and he immediately has his space invaded by crowds of people including Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. This should be his archenemy. I imagine his disciples smirking imagining that Jesus was about to tell him off. Instead, Jesus listens and hears Jairus’s pain. Jairus’s daughter is sick. Mark says the girl is twelve years old, which is practically an adult in the ancient world, but by the tender way Jairus talks about her, we know she was still his little girl. 

Embracing the interruption with the utmost compassion, Jesus goes with Jairus. 

Just as he’s on his way to Jairus’s house, someone else comes crashing in — one desperate woman in need of healing. She touches his robe in hopes of being healed and he feels it. He could have been annoyed, (there may yet be hope), and he could have had his disciples drag her away. Instead he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” 

As Jesus is mid-sentence, someone else interrupts to say to Jairus: “Don’t bother. I’m sorry to tell you, Jairus, but your daughter is dead. Let the teacher get on his way.” 

There may yet be hope.

You know how the story ends: the daughter is raised, and Jesus calls them to give her some food — because nobody appreciates food like Jesus.

Jesus embraces the interruptions in this passage from Mark, and the sick are healed and the dead are raised.

The interruptions are the work. Jesus teaches this, and so does camp.

Camp, especially when you’re leading a group, is about being super prepared for anything, including flying right by the seat of your pants. It’s about having a full plan and being ready to chuck that plan out the window because it rained or because a camper got sick or because somebody forgot to do something because they are a human. Being good at camp, I think, is about embracing the interruptions. 

It’s about stopping to talk to that thirteen year old kid that nobody listens to. You might change his life, or you might just help make him happy on a Thursday afternoon. It’s about saying “yes” to an invitation to kayak when you really want to nap and having your breath taken away by the beauty of the White Mountains over Ossipee Lake and how happy your heart is to be with people who love you and accept you. It’s about being caught in a storm on the lake and making friends at the next camp over because you had to get straight to shore to avoid the lightning.

At camp, and in life, it’s the interruptions that change your life. It’s in the interruptions that the sick are healed and the dead are raised and it’s in the interruptions where there may yet be hope, even in the midst of division and lament. Even when you can’t stand to watch the news. Even if you childhood sucked. There may yet be hope, and you may find that hope in an interruption, so keep your head up.

Embrace the interruptions. Find them holy. 

Because there may yet be hope after all. Amen.

1.  Tradition ascribes Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah based on 2 Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah’s place in Hebrew history, and his general gloominess, but there’s no reference to Jeremiah in the text of Lamentations, and the author’s identity is ultimately unknown.

2. The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, “Work on the Way,” written for the Modern Metanoia blog, https://modernmetanoia.org/2018/06/18/proper-8b-work-on-the-way/

Storms, Metaphors, and Adorable Humanity

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Lake Ossipee in all her glory.

This sermon was preached at the Outdoor Chapel of Camp Calumet in Freedom, NH, on June 24, 2018.

Job 38:1-11
Mark 4:35-41

There’s this Tumblr post that’s made its way around the Internet in recent years called, “Humans are adorable,” taking the tone of a scientist talking about humans the way that humans would normally talk about the cute behaviors of animals on the nature channel.

Listed as “supporting evidence” for the claim “humans are adorable”:
1. Humans say “ow” as an expression of pain, but they sometimes say it even if they haven’t been hurt. It’s just a thing they sometimes say when they think they might have been hurt, but aren’t sure yet.

2. Humans collect shiny things and decorate their nests with them. Each individual has a unique taste for style and coloring of their nest.
3. Humans visit each other’s nests for fun! It’s not their nest; they’re just visiting each other.

4. If a human sees another creature in distress, they will often try to help, even at risk to themselves. They are very compassionate creatures.
5. If a human hears a catchy tune, they will mimic it, even to the point of annoying themselves! 

6. Humans love treats! They individually love treats some more than others, and will sometimes save their treats for a time when they need extra comfort or reassurance. 

7. Humans are not aquatic or even amphibious, but they flock to bodies of water not to drink it, but just to play in it! They can’t even hold their breath for all that long, they just love to splash! 

8. They’re learning to travel in space! They can’t get very far, but they’re trying. So far they’ve made it to the end of their yard and found rocks.

I’ve added another one: humans can think about abstract ideas as well as concrete objects, but sometimes they distract themselves by doing so, making everything into a metaphor. For example, you will tell them a story about a whale and they will have an existential crisis.

Pastors, having seen and possibly had more existential crises and metaphor-ing than most, might know this even better than most people: it’s true. Humans are adorable. And one of the adorable things we do is to turn every story in the Bible into a metaphor. 

We do that so badly with this story about Jesus calming the storm that we forget that it’s not a parable. The storm, we think, is the great storms of our lives, which Jesus calms. The boat is the church or maybe your family. I think we’ve nailed down everything from the cushion Jesus fell asleep on being the church music you like the least. 

You also run up against other questions: Mark throws in this detail “Other boats were with him.” What are they? The Presbyterians and the Catholics? A press gaggle?

Point is, it’s not a parable. It’s a story about Jesus in a literal boat with his disciples. But because your preacher is a human, we also know that it’s a story about what happens when crisis comes.

Let’s review. I wish it weren’t daytime so that I could shine a flashlight into my own face and say this: it was a dark and stormy night.

What? It was. What, did you think Jesus calming the storm happened in the daytime? Nah. Sometimes the Son of God has a flair for the dramatic.

But it’s not like they planned to get caught up in a storm. First of all, they didn’t have the Accuweather app, and second, if you’ve ever been boating out on Lake Ossipee or any other body of water, you know this to be true even if you have a weather app: sometimes storms come out of nowhere on a summer day.

So there’s a sudden storm swamping this boat full of disciples, including some experienced fishermen who presumably are very good with boats, and some very freaked out tax collectors, and meanwhile, the Messiah is knocked out drooling on a cushion in the back of the boat.

And this is when I get annoyed with how poorly passed down this story probably is. Because Mark quotes the disciples as saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 

Right. ‘Cause that’s what you say when you think you’re about to drown and the person who’s supposed to be in charge is asleep. 

I imagine the disciples who were fishermen doing everything they could to keep the boat afloat, while Matthew the tax collector, who just peed in his tunic a little, holding tight to the side of the boat screaming, “RABBI! WAKE UP WE’RE DYINGGGG!” 

The disciples aren’t mythical figures. They were humans, adorable and easily startled, just like us.

Jesus wakes up, almost annoyed. It doesn’t even say he stood up, so I imagine he just leans his hand over the back of the boat and says, “SHHHHH! PEACE! BE STILL! 

Suddenly the raging sea becomes like Lake Ossipee early on a clear morning: completely calm, like glass.

The disciples say, in today’s parlance: “Who even is this?!” He even controls the wind and sea! 

Humans are adorable indeed: everything is and has been a metaphor for us. Nothing is ever just the thing. For ancient people, control of the sea was a sign of super sovereign power. Large bodies of water were — and are — unpredictable and chaotic and scary, and those who knew how to navigate seas and oceans were among the bravest humans. There’s a reason we say that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in the beginning as God brings order to chaos, or that Revelation says that in the end, God will bring peace to everything and make the sea like glass. 

In the Job reading, part of the evidence for Job of why God is powerful is that God tells the sea: come this far, and no further. Job, mind you, has been in a metaphorical storm of his own. He’s lost his entire family, his money, his property, and even his health. He’s miserable. 

Job’s friends, in case you haven’t heard, were famously horrible friends. They come to sit with him when tragedy strikes, like friends do, but in chapter after chapter after chapter, they try to get him to admit that he must have done something wrong to deserve God’s punishment. Aside from God not working that way, Job was about as good as a good guy could be. The book of Job tells us over and over that he was righteous. He didn’t deserve all that at all, as if any tragedy comes from God’s pettiness at all. 

Here we find a thing that humans do that’s not so adorable: we tend to look at the misfortune of others and assume it’s their fault. However, God comes in at the end of Job, at a time when Job must’ve thought God was sleeping or something, because God was so silent, and stretches out God’s hand and comforts Job and restores everything to him. God finally stills the voices of Job’s friends and tells Job he’s the righteous one. 

After chapters and chapters of rain and the thunder of accusations from Job’s friends, God calms the storm. God does the same thing today when we tell those who are hurting that it’s their fault — or perhaps we’ve been told that ourselves — that you must’ve done something to anger your abuser, that you must’ve done something — maybe led that guy on? — to deserve to be sexually assaulted, that immigrants are to blame for whatever happens to them when they arrive here. That if you’d just managed your money better, you wouldn’t have fallen into crippling debt, or if you’d chosen a better job or a better college, you wouldn’t be so unhappy. (1)

To all the voices of your accusers and sometimes even to us when we play Job’s friends to the rest of the world, Jesus stretches out his hand and cries “PEACE! Be still.” 

Just like Job, God’s voice is not found in the voices of the accusers. God’s voice is found in the voice that cries out over the thunderclaps of the storm just when you thought that God was asleep to say “Peace! Be still.”  

We live in an in between time. Storms in our lives still rage. But luckily, we are given places like this and people like these. We are given the gift of staring out at Lake Ossipee in the morning when it looks like glass and dreaming of a time when all the storms are calmed forever. We are brought to the table with our entire broken selves, and Jesus meets us here, not to blame us, but to give us peace in bread and wine and his very self. We are invited to touch love and see peace and taste grace. 

Humans are adorable indeed: decorating our nests, prone to make everything into a metaphor. But take heart, church: this love, this grace, is no metaphor. Christ is here in this place. And may the God who made a place this beautiful calm the storms of your heart this week, still your accusers, and grant you peace. Reach out and take grace at this table. Find rest for your soul.

May God and those around you remind you, you human you: not only are you loved, you’re kind of adorable. Amen.

1. Interpretation of Job borrowed from Dr. Anna Carter Florence’s talk at the 2018 Festival of Homiletics.

Bots, Things That Grow, and Being Alive

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Things that grow, right here in the Pioneer Valley.
[View of the Connecticut River, Mt. Tom Range & Holyoke Range from Mt. Sugarloaf,
South Deerfield, MA]

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

I’m sometimes blown away by the amount of anxiety technology produces: whether we’re worried about kids and screen time, or other adults and screen time, we worry, we get anxious, we get angry, we feel neglected.

Places like this church, and moments like this one — religion, spirituality, and ritual — can provide a respite from technology. We read ancient texts and perform ancient rituals and put our phones away for a minute. As we talk about the kingdom of God as things that grow, we feel our anxiety ease: here, we are fully alive, without a screen in sight.

Some of us may worry about a complete technology takeover, and no wonder: artificial intelligence can do lots of things these days. “Bots” can learn, after all: they can learn our habits and speech patterns, and they can even generate speech. This has become most relevant these days in terms of political influence: bots have been trained to pose as real people on social media, and they can be trained to sound like everything from Bernie Sanders’ most far left supporter to the most conservative Republican to ever Republican and everything in between. Bots can misrepresent, intentionally, entire points of view online, making you think that your worst fears are true: there are more of those people than you think, and they’re even dumber than you imagined.

Whether your worries are primarily political or not, considering the speed at which these bots seem to be learning and posing as real people, the subject of an artificial intelligence takeover doesn’t seem quite as sci-fi-distant these days as it used to.

Well, we were put at ease about that this week when a Twitter user named @KeatonPatti posted the following.

This person writes:
“I forced a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of Olive Garden commercials then asked it to write an Olive Garden commercial of its own. Here’s the first page.”

Attached was a photo of the Olive Garden commercial script that the bot had generated, pulling together language the the bot thought humans would recognize as an Olive Garden commercial. You look like humans. See what you think.

“INT. AN OLIVE GARDEN RESTAURANT

A group of FRIENDS laughs at a dinner table. A WAITRESS comes to deliver what could be considered food.

WAITRESS: Pasta nachos for you.
We see the pasta nachos. They’re warm and defeated.
FRIEND 1: The menu is here.

WAITRESS: Lasagna wings with extra Italy.
We see the wings. There’s more Italy than necessary.
FRIEND 2: I shall eat Italian citizens.
WAITRESS: Unlimited stick!
We see the unlimited stick. It is infinite. It is all. 

FRIEND 3: Leave without me. I’m home.
WAITRESS: Gluten classico! From the kitchen.

FRIEND 4: Says nothing.

FRIEND 3: What’s wrong, Friend 4? 

FRIEND 4: Says nothing.

FRIEND 2: What is wrong, Friend 4?
Friend 4 smiles wide. Her mouth is full of secret soup.
ANNOUNCER: Olive Garden. When you’re here, you’re here.

So I think we’re safe for now.

After all, there are some things you can only know and do by being alive. Apparently writing an Olive Garden commercial is one of them.

If you hear or read the Bible for very long, you soon begin to notice that different things jump out at you at different times, depending on what’s going on in the news or what’s going on in your life at the time.

Lately, as I’ve been living in this community with abundant farmland, all the while watching people everywhere become ever-obsessed with technology, I can’t help noticing how often the Bible compares the reign of God to things that grow.

In the Ezekiel reading, God’s people are like a tender shoot that God makes into a mighty cedar. In the psalm, the righteous are like a palm tree — flexible and strong, and strong because they are flexible — and such people spread out like mighty cedars. In the Gospel reading, the reign of God is like a grain harvest: it grows, and it’s a miracle the way that it grows, and then the harvest comes, and the sickle comes out, and the grain has to die to feed the people.

In the Gospel, the reign of God is also like a mustard seed: it’s tiny, but it grows and spreads so that it offers shade and shelter to many creatures, especially those that fly.

But I always get angry at Paul for messing things up. Yes, the 2 Corinthians passage is lovely, but I wanted trees because I was getting this whole growth and life vibe. Instead, what we do get is one of the best known passages in the Bible, one I had to memorize as a teenager: [do it without notes]

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation! The old is gone, and behold, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

It sounds promising, but of course, there’s a lot of dying in the verses that precede it. Also, becoming new — that is, changing — is hard and painful.  

To be alive is to die. What’s more, to be alive is to change and adapt and learn.

There are things that technology cannot do because it is not alive, but there are also things that we have to do in order to be alive, literally and metaphorically. 

We have to eat. We have to drink water. We have to sleep. We have to move from time to time, to have companionship, to learn to ask for what we need. Being alive means experiencing pain and conflict, too. Being alive means change. The old has to go, and the new has to come.

This affects everything from politics to relationships. We have to get our heads around our own complicity in children being separated from their parents seeking asylum at the border. We have to be willing to really see the ways in which we make shows of honoring our military but then do not care for adequately for them when they come home. We have to really see and weigh the importance of what happened in Singapore with North Korea, while not forgetting the importance of both human rights and peace. Rather than looking away after coming to a quick conclusion, being alive means that we have to challenge ourselves to really see the results of what is happening in the world, realizing that the things I have named go far beyond partisanship and into justice. 

After all, artificially intelligent bots are able to imitate far left and far right trolls on Twitter because we’ve become so robotic in our partisanship. We all know exactly how to make our neighbors shut down with our words and catchphrases, but this doesn’t produce solutions. It doesn’t make us alive and adaptive. It harms life.

Beyond politics, in our personal relationships, we have to be able to really see our own weaknesses and insecurities. Machines are always strong. They do not fail, they are not weak. They are also not alive. To be alive is to face your stuff and feel what you feel and to have needs and to care for the needs of others. To be alive is to “give and receive comfort,” even when it’s hardest to do the latter. 

To be alive is to see and be willing to take out the old in favor of the new. To adapt. To change. To be righteous, as the psalmist says, is to be a palm tree: flexible, but rooted.

To be alive is to feel conflict and pain. But every one of our readings this morning speaks of being alive in a unique way: that change and even death are painful parts of life, but they aren’t the end of everything the way that our brains may say that they are. That God compares God’s kingdom to things that grow not because the kingdom dies, but because God has redeemed life and death and change and pain. That being alive is a struggle, but God has made the struggle holy by promising that we will not be alone — that God tends us through the struggle, sends us nourishment along the way, and watches us grow.

While being a stoic machine might mean seeming strong, and while feelings may be inconvenient and uncomfortable for entire seasons of our lives, we were created for freedom and adaptation and love and life. We were not created for robotic answers to questions political or relational. 

Because we are so much more alive when we embrace life for all that it is, realizing that even the worst of it all is redemptive, even if clouds obscure the view.

In other words, yes, you can go through life like a robot, but you won’t really be alive and your Olive Garden commercials will be terrible and that your life’s motto will simply be “When you’re here, you’re here.” 

No. Welcome to the church, where we gather around a different kind of table with the one who showed us how to really be alive. Where we challenge each other to be free and whole and adaptive, where we support each other when it’s painful, where we struggle with things like truth and justice and basic humanity, where we give and receive comfort and nourishment an grow strong together.

Because, to borrow a phrase a real human wrote, when you’re here, you’re family. Amen.

Baptism: Tying Knots for Each Other

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original tweet after the loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

With the recent spate of celebrity suicides, we’ve all been thinking a lot about how to reach out and help each other when someone’s struggling. Actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted a characteristically positive message: 

G’night. YOU ARE SO LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.
*ties one end of this sentence to your heart, the other end to everyone who loves you in this life, even if clouds obscure your view*
*checks knots*
THERE. STAY PUT, YOU.
TUG IF YOU NEED ANYTHING.

Stay put, you. 

We worry a lot — about ourselves, our loved ones, our souls. We worry about things like blaspheming the Holy Spirit. As a kid I used to worry as many of us do — I haven’t done that, have I?

And as I was preparing for the service, I thought about changing the Gospel text, thinking, “Do we really need to talk about the devil this much?” 

Welcome to the church, Sophie! We talk about some crazy stuff here, and we still swear it’s the 21st century.

But stay put, you. We’re going somewhere. 

This past Lent, we talked about what I lovingly called the “Dark Arts” of theology: we talked about mortality, sin, and finally, Satan. We talked about how Satan, “ha-satan” in Hebrew, means “the accuser”: the voice we all hear from time to time, whether we name it Satan, one’s demons, or simply low self-esteem. It whispers things like: “You can’t do anything right. You’re a terrible parent. You’re not paying enough attention to your aging parents. You’ll always be addicted. You’re too fat. You’re too skinny. You just can’t follow through on anything, can you? Maybe you want to be depressed.” 

You get the idea. This voice is persistent, cruel, and creative. Whether or not you believe in a literal devil with a pitchfork, the voice of accusation is real, and it comes for all of us. Sometimes, it comes from a voice inside of us; other times, people speak their accusations of us out loud.

Whenever we baptize children, we do so with the knowledge that someday, they too will hear that voice: the one that tells them that they’re not good enough, not strong enough, not beautiful or talented enough. But before that ever has a chance to happen, and before the kid has ever done a thing wrong or right, we baptize those children and call them beloved of God.

We come to tie knots firmly to ourselves and to Sophie and to her family and to each other and to God. We check the knots. 

Stay put, you.

We say to Sophie and her family, as I love to quote: “God loves you, and we love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Before she ever has to deal with either difficult, accusatory people or her own self-doubt, we tell Sophie that we’re here for you, and God loves you — always. 

In today’s Gospel passage, with all of its devil talk, we hear those voices coming for Jesus. He’s been out there in Galilee doing some good. His family thinks he’s gone crazy, and you can’t really blame them — they live in a land occupied by a strong foreign empire, where they and their neighbors live in constant fear of persecution. Jesus is out there raising a ruckus, so what mother among us can’t say that she wouldn’t grab her Messianic son by the robes and say, “Boy, have you lost your mind?!” They will kill you if you keep drawing attention to yourself!

What’s more, some religious leaders have come out to the country to see what all the fuss was about, as word about Jesus was spreading. They don’t seem to spend much time getting to know Jesus or his healing before they accuse him of being Satan.

And that’s when Jesus lets loose of this line that has caused existential crises among the spiritually anxious — that is, most people, including me and maybe you — for centuries: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). 

It’s even gone the other way: a few years ago on YouTube there was the “blasphemy challenge,” where some anti-religion-types decided to record themselves “blaspheming the Holy Spirit,” but from what I could tell, they mostly only succeeded at poorly conjugating the verb “to blaspheme.” 

Here’s what I don’t think it means: I don’t think that God is as petty as we are. I don’t think it means simply uttering bad things about the Holy Spirit, causing God to have a grudge that God never lets go of. Because here’s the thing: the Bible is full of people who got mad at God, even cursed God, and were still loved and saved by God. So nice try, militant atheists on YouTube. 

Here’s what I see in the passage: the religious leaders, the ones who claim to get what this whole God thing is all about, look at the new life that Jesus is creating and they call it evil. 

I still don’t think that makes God have a giant grudge. I think that, instead, Jesus is describing a reality: if you think that new life is really death, or evil, and that you know better about whom God loves than God does, you won’t experience new life. Jesus isn’t being prescriptive, or talking about how God will punish; he’s simply being descriptive — that is, “this is what happens when you do this.”

In short, you can put your existential worries away. Stay put, you. 

You’re just fine.

God loves you, and there’s nothing you, or the people who accuse you of not being enough, the voices in your head, or anyone else can do about it. 

This is why we are here: to remind one another that Satan — that is, those accusing voices — have no power here in the presence of the love that Jesus preached, lived, died, and rose again for.

When I was interning with a church in Atlanta, we went to the pride parade. Thanks to a stall in crowd flow, a group of parishioners and I once found ourselves between the Atlanta Pride parade and a group of protestors with bullhorns holding signs, some of which had Bible verses on them. Those signs were accusatory, insulting, and disgusting, and so were the words coming from the bullhorns — for a moment it seemed like all of them had bullhorns. They saw that we were a church group in rainbows, and they turned their ire and accusations towards us. They told us all about our church, and about how our message of love was straight from Satan. 

So we yelled too. But we did not yell at the protestors. We yelled to the crowd instead. We hollered for a full minute about God’s love, and for a good forty-five seconds of it, between us and the crowd, we drowned out the voices of hate and accusation in messages of welcome and love: “There is nothing wrong with you. Who you are is not shameful. You were wonderfully made, and God adores you.” Essentially, “STAY PUT, YOU.” 

That is why we are here: to challenge those voices that come for all of us. To say to each other and to Sophie, and to her family, that no matter what voices of accusation rise in their lives as the years ago by, they can always come here to drown those voices out in messages of love.

To say, “We love you and we love having you around. Stay put, you.” 

We say it, we pray it, and we sing it: in singing “All Are Welcome” when the service started, we sang of building a house “where love can dwell and all can safely live.” After I sit down, we’ll sing about God’s love through our whole lives in a song that we usually reserve just for baptisms. 

Because the voice of the accusers are always so strong, we never stop coming here to make sure that though those accusations are loud for all of us, God’s love is louder.

So when we renounce the devil in the next few minutes, think about those voices in your own life, and renounce them, because God’s love is, and always will be, louder.

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

Stay put, you. Amen.

Laughing on the Sabbath (All the Way to the Altar)

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IN THE STOCKS FOR LAUGHING ON THE SABBATH, no doubt.
An old photo from a long-ago trip to Disney.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Mark 2:23-3:6

I get to talk about two of my favorite theological concepts today, so strap in:
the texts are about the Sabbath,
and we baked communion bread today for Rachel’s first communion.

First, Sabbath.
A short, simple church-type joke that’s been circulating for awhile goes something like this: “I once heard a pastor say that he doesn’t take any days off, because Satan certainly doesn’t. I gently suggested that he choose a better role model.” 

Deuteronomy and the fourth commandment are where we find our commandment to observe a Sabbath, which the Jewish people dubbed as Saturday and which most Christians moved to Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. Modern interpreters, myself included, have advocated for a moveable Sabbath; for me, it’s really about self-interest as well as practicality. It’s hard, you see, for a pastor to observe a real Sabbath on a Sunday, since Sundays are when we are running around making copies, proofing our sermons, checking in with everyone, and making sure that the servers are ready and that any unattended children aren’t cutting each other’s hair. So I observe my Sabbath on Friday.

When do you observe yours? How?

I like to take time to be quiet. I have one criteria for talking at length to me on Friday, and I got it from an older, much more experienced pastor than I. He would say to his congregation, “I don’t want to talk to you on my day off. You see, because that would mean that either you or someone you love is in mortal peril. And I don’t want that. I want us all to rest.” 

Deuteronomy five tells of the Sabbath this way, as it was written to the Hebrews long ago:

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

Six days you shall labor. But the seventh day you shall rest. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but you are not slaves anymore. Now you get a whole day of rest, and so does every member of your household, right down to the animals. The Sabbath is a commandment, but it is also a gift. Because God has freed you from slavery, Israel is told, you and everyone under your roof are given the gift of rest. 

The commandment comes from Exodus and Deuteronomy, but the concept itself comes from Genesis. As the story goes, God made the world, and then God rested.

And here’s what I think about that: God doesn’t need to rest.
So why did God take a break? 

I think it’s so that we wouldn’t associate taking a day off with weakness, but with strength. 

Sabbath rest is one political issue that I am passionately convinced belongs in the pulpit. It may not seem political — all kinds of people like rest, for sure — but trust me, it is. It rubs uncomfortably right up against our society that tells us that we are only worth what we can produce. The first question we often ask each other, after all, is “What do you do?” People, even pastors, constantly praise those who never take vacation, who respond immediately and never seem to take a day off. “She’s a great doctor,” we might say, “because all she does is work.” 

We never really stop to think that maybe she’d be a better doctor if she were better rested.

If the Exodus story tells us anything, it should be that humanity was not meant to be enslaved to anything or to anyone. We were made to work hard, to produce things, to create things — and, when the work is done, to rest. We are commanded to do so.

Christians haven’t had a great track record with Sabbath, though. In fact, this whole time you’ve probably had some bad connotations running around in your mind. Me too — one of my favorite Halloween costumes entails dressing like a Puritan in the stocks with a sign that says, “FOR LAUGHING ON THE SABBATH.” 

So, yeah. Religious people have often made the Sabbath far less like a gift and far more like a burden. First, there were our New England Puritan ancestors who forbade all kinds of fun things on the Sabbath.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann (whom my seminary friends and I lovingly called Uncle Walt) wrote about how the concept of Sabbath quickly got “enmeshed in legalism and moralism and blue laws and life-denying practices that contradict the freedom-bestowing intention of the Sabbath. (1)

In other words, we took a promise from God and made it into a law with which we could control other people. In case you haven’t noticed by now, we humans are really good at that.

Case in point: today’s Gospel story.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain. I imagine the sun shining down on them as they laugh and walk together. Jesus is only beginning to call the first disciples; he’s just picked up Levi, and he’s already taking flack from the religious leaders for hanging out with unsavory people. He’s gaining quite the reputation.

So they’re walking through a golden wheat field, and the disciples’ stomachs start to rumble until they notice, “HEY! There’s food all around us.” So they start plucking heads of grain as snacks.

This is where Mark gets a little weird, because it seems like suddenly there are Pharisees present. It’s like when you get the one “whoopwhoop” from a small town police siren for a minor infraction and you’re doubly humiliated because you know you’re not even worth a full siren.

So — in come the Sabbath police. Whoopwhoop.

They demand to know: “Why are your disciples doing what’s not lawful on the Sabbath?!” 

In response, Jesus says two things: first, he tells a story about when David and his friends, as in King David, giant of Judaism, ate bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Because Jesus is a rabbi whose arguments are always on point, he’s even able to tell them which high priest allowed it: it was Abiathar, y’all. 

Second thing he says is one of my favorite sayings of Jesus: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” 

You were not made to meet ritual and religious obligations just because. You were not created to be a slave: to this faith or to rules. This faith is yours. It is in you and for you. Religion and ritual were made to serve humankind and to help us find meaning and even God; humankind was not made to serve religion.

We live in an age where people are deeply suspicious of organized religion, and I can’t say I blame them. We have acted like people were, in fact, made to serve a set of rules. For far too long, we have used religion as a social control. We have restricted other people and scared them into thinking that they would go to hell unless they listened to us. This is the greatest sin of religion: that we have tried to make people slaves to it. That’s just us, though.

As for Jesus, he locks eyes with the Pharisees who were testing him and he heals a man who needs healing on the Sabbath.

We tie each other up in rules, but God has always been in the business of healing and freedom.

We’ve done the same thing with communion. We’ve tried to put fences and barriers around what has to be done and who can lead and who’s worthy, when all the time, God has been loose in bread and wine, inviting everyone, giving Jesus’ very body to anyone with outstretched hands. 

What a scandal of freedom Jesus is.

In my faith background and many others, there’s a practice called an altar call, when anyone who would accept Christ should come forward.

Author Matthew Paul Turner joked that as a kid he wished there were toilet-less bathroom stalls at the front of the church, because obviously meeting Jesus was a very private event, but as a five year old, he hated keeping his eyes closed like the preacher told them to. 

Some of us grew up hearing, “With every head bowed and with every eye closed…” 

While it’s very different in many ways from your typical conservative evangelical altar call, the Eucharist really is nothing short of an altar call itself. Except instead of one or two people coming forward and hearing from the pastor whisper in a low voice exactly what you have to do for God to accept you — at the altar call of the Eucharist, everyone who wants to meet Jesus comes forward with joy. And they don’t just meet the pastor: they receive Christ himself, in bread and wine, not during just one church service, but a million times. It’s not a private event for which we have to close our eyes; it’s a public event we all experience together every single Sunday.

As Paul wrote in the words that set Martin Luther on fire: “By grace you have been saved, through faith; it is not of yourselves, so that no one may boast.” 

Communion is grace. 

Sabbath is grace.

Sunshine is grace, and so is a sense of purpose, and love, and friendship, and a brand new morning.

We do not earn these things. We do not get to control them or use them to control others.

We experience and enjoy these things, not so that God will love us,
but because God already does. 

The conclusion to my sermon today is not my own words; it is the rest of the service. The service that ends with the only altar call we need: the Eucharist.

Like the Sabbath, it is a gift from God to us. It is not a burden that binds us to a bunch of rules; it is a gift that frees us. It is a gift that is God, who is always in the business of freedom.

So come, beloved people, to the altar, when it is time. This altar call will not be a private event. It is a public one, and we come not because we must, but because we may.

Let us come with joy, laughing on the Sabbath, to find the God who laughs and meets us here.

Thanks be to God for love, for the Eucharist, for Sabbath rest… and for grace. Amen.

1. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of NOW, p. 20.

Strange Fire

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Found on a walk through Austin, Texas. 

Day of Pentecost
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Acts 2:1-21

Disclaimer: I’ll say from the outset that it’s impossible to have a relevant conversation about the Holy Spirit without talking in some way about what’s going on in the world.

And with that, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, happy birthday, Church.
I got you this sermon.

One of my favorite podcasters, Jon Lovett, begins his news podcast Lovett or Leave It in an almost liturgical way — after some housekeeping matters, he says, “What a week! Let’s get into it…” and a starting bell rings.

That’s how I feel this week. 

What a week! Let’s get into it. : rings gong : 

There was a royal wedding, of course.

Then there was bad news.

Chaos at the border between Gaza and Israel. Crowds that charged the border were met with Israeli Defense Forces shooting live rounds of fire. 

A volcano is erupting in Hawaii, filling the air with ash, lava, and fire. People are canceling their business trips and vacations while Hawaiian officials try to communicate that while the situation is serious, no, the whole big island is not engulfed in flames.
Another school shooting happened as a student opened fire on his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.

More comments and revelations from more politicians and more reports about financial disclosures, interviews, scandals of various kinds, etc. result in media firestorm. 

AND FINALLY, and much less crucially,

A fiery debate ensued when a viral audio clip surfaced first on Instagram along with a poll where those listening were asked to say what word they heard: 53% heard the computer voice saying “laurel,” while 47% heard “yanny.” [Plays audio clip, takes poll]

As here, the ensuing debate was fierce. People were legitimately upset that people heard the exact same clip as them and heard a radically different word being said. Since humans thrive on connection and mutual experience, it’s disturbing almost: “HOW do you hear THAT from THAT?” 

Needless to say, it was emblematic of a time when we see the same events in the news and come to radically different conclusions than our neighbors about the exact same events. This laurel/yanny thing was the kind of silly thing that shed light on … well, just about every other event I mentioned above.

Whether the age we live in is particularly fiery, I’m not sure. But it does feel at times, as Bonnie Tyler once sang, that we’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks.

Fire, whether literal or metaphorical, can be quite destructive, in reality and as a metaphor. “Fire” is the word we use to talk about actual blazes that can destroy homes, businesses, life, and entire cities. 

“Fire” is the word we use to describe live ammunition. 

It’s the word we use to describe someone’s termination of employment. Bosses do not tell people that they are “watered.” 

Needless to say, to “hold someone’s feet to the fire” is not a friendly gesture of helping them warm their toes. 

When we talk about hell, we talk about fire. 

Finally, “fire” is a metaphor we often invoke when we discuss the great debates of our age, wherein we cannot manage to see reality — or hear reality — in the same ways as our neighbors.

The word “fire,” at least when it appears on the news, is usually a destructive word and one if, used to describe the age you live in, isn’t describing an age of peace.

So it seems almost odd to celebrate a day where the dominant image for God is fire.

We have struggled in recent years through lots of things, but it’s hard to ignore the dominant image of the day filling our ears on the news in dreary reporting: 

“… fire and fury…” “…fired on the Palestinians charging the border …” “opened fire on his classmates…”

And those images set a fire within all our chests and we get ready for a fight, because the silly “laurel/yanny” clip is not as funny when it’s real stuff we’re hearing radically differently from our neighbors: like the nightly news.

In this age of misinterpretation and fire, what are we to make of the Holy Spirit coming as wind and fire on Pentecost, and everyone hearing the Gospel in their own language? It’s the flip side of the laurel/yanny clip — everyone agrees on what is heard, but the words spoken are radically different.

This is no ordinary fire. This fire — the one that is God — is strange. 

We struggle in our age — at least most of us do — to understand how we hear such radically different messages from the news. In this age, I think we’ve all found ourselves sitting across from someone we love, flummoxed that they cannot see the injustice that we see, and confused and frustrated that someone we love so much could disagree with us so fundamentally about what is right and wrong in the world. I get that.

I don’t have any solutions. As an armchair – or really, earbud – follower of the news, I believe that there are objective truths about the world and about the dignity of humanity and common sense ways to keep people safe. As a student of history, I realize that, over time, Americans and humanity have tackled really hard questions, and though we have failed a lot, we’ve also managed to hammer out some things. These are things that we struggle to understand the difficulty of now: things like slavery being bad, and medicine being good, and that all citizens should have a vote, not just landowners and not just white people and not just men.

As a pastor, I’m also mindful that humanity cannot make such decisions without somehow leaving people behind, crushing them below the wheels of history, and we will always argue about how much they did or didn’t deserve it.

But in the midst of all of this, God comes to us as wind and fire. Humanity cannot save itself. We’re generally bad at saving ourselves. People always get hurt, and this week and this age are no different. We need a miracle. 

When I was in Austin last year, I saw a piece of art that I have held in my memory ever since. Stenciled onto a wall were the simple words: 

“THE ONLY MAGIC I STILL BELIEVE IN IS LOVE.” 

I have no quick answers for the questions that plague our time. I have a Pentecost narrative in one hand and a newspaper full of destructive fire of all kinds in the other. I have a biblical story about people hearing the same thing in different words and a reality of people hearing different things when they hear the same words. I have an account of a miracle, while I’m seeing a world that needs a miracle, and the only magic I still believe in is love. 

I got to go see the Indigo Girls last week, knowing that this would inevitably influence what I preached on Pentecost. It was just what I needed. The Indigo Girls hail from Decatur, Georgia, which also happens to be the suburb of Atlanta where I went to seminary, and each of the members of the duo had family which connected somehow to my theological formation.

The Indigo Girls and their families were as much a part of my theological education as nearly any course I took. And when my best friend from seminary got ordained, this Indigo Girls song was the offertory:

“I come to you with strange fire
I make an offering of love
The incense of my soil is burned
By the fire in my blood
I come with a softer answer
To the questions that lie in your path
I want to harbor you from the anger
Find a refuge from the wrath
This is a message
A message of love
Love that moves from the inside out
Love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire…” 

The Holy Spirit’s fire is a strange fire indeed: it is not the destructive metaphor or reality on the news. The Holy Spirit is nothing less than the only magic I can still manage to believe in: love. 

It’s the strange fire lit by the waters of baptism, the strange fire that creates rather than destroying, and the kind that causes new strong winds to refresh and stir rather than sucking all the air out of a room.

“I come to you with strange fire…”

We are used to fire that deconstructs and scatters, but on Pentecost, the Strange Fire shows up where everyone is gathered and gives them a message of love they can all understand.

This Strange Fire comes to us as God — as love that dwells within and among us. This is the unseen force that brings us together at key moments and tells us to speak up about injustice even if our voices shake. I once heard the Holy Spirit described as a beautiful, tough, solid, mothering woman who stands behind us with her purse on her hip and whispers, “Speak your truth, baby. I’m right here.” The Holy Spirit is a strange fire that causes us to run into just the person that we need at the right time. The Strange Fire of love that knits us all together with people who are totally different than us in lifestyle, culture, and even politics in 2018. This Strange Fire is all that knits the church together in an age where we agree about so little.

To all of us, God says, “Welcome home. Have a seat at the table” — and we all, somehow, actually hear the same welcome.

This doesn’t mean it’s always been easy. It’s never been easy. Unfortunately, the Church is full of humans, and messed it up so much that this sentence warrants a stronger word.

But every now and then, we manage to get it right. We pay attention the Strange Fire of the Spirit, even when it seems crazy. In those moments, we welcome those who need us and those who never knew they did. We offer resurrection to people in a way that matters. We speak out against injustice and we even manage to speak the same language and see the same realities. 

We become people who heal souls and prophets who speak truths with a Strange Fire.

There are times when I think that the church has always been and always will be violent at worst and a little irrelevant at best. But despite the skepticism that always lives with me, I keep seeing this Strange Fire burn. The Holy Spirit keeps bringing me to communion tables and bar tables where love is the miracle we need, where things can actually get done, where love and hope, not anger, burn bright.

In our age of fire, where war is ever near and we don’t see or hear reality in the same way our neighbors or even fellow churchgoers do, watch to see where this Strange Fire is burning. Gather at the table where the Spirit and God’s family are present. Where you may hear “laurel,” and you may think differently than me about everything, but we all hear Gospel.

Next Sunday the paschal candle by the font that we light for the entire Easter season will go away, but we’ll carry the fire of resurrection in our souls. The strange fire of the paschal candle – the one we light at vigil, for all of Easter, and for every baptism and every funeral and every time we remember that love is stronger than death – that strange fire of love lives in us now. 

Because in our age of fire, the world needs some magic, and the only magic I still believe in is love. Amen.

The Oddest Jesus Story, and the God Who Lingers

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Thoughts on the weirdest Jesus story.

Ascension Sunday
Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53

As anyone who has moved cross-country knows, the United States is a big country with lots of different cultures. Whether you move from the East Coast to the West Coast or the Midwest to the South or the South to the North, you find that people engage each other slightly differently wherever you go in America. 

As any of you who have traveled to or lived in the South know, folks from there are often slow to leave one another after a social gathering. New Englanders don’t do that. You finish, you exchange pleasantries, you leave. (I’ve learned to actually really appreciate this about you.) 

My friend who grew up in Connecticut says that that’s because you can’t linger here or your face would freeze during at least half the year. As she puts it, “Okay, well, I’d love to stay and talk, but my face is freezing, so do you have everything you need? Great. Later!” 

Southern goodbyes are much slower, and typically go something like this: 

Step 1: State how you do not want to say goodbye, but might have to leave now. This usually comes in the form of “Well, we hate to run,” which is often met with something like, “Y’all don’t have to leave!” 

Step 2: Move towards door. Slowly.

Step 3: Bring up an entirely new topic. Examples include: “Now when is your sister havin’ surgery again? …Well, tell her we’re prayin’ for her.”

Step 4: Numbers can vary, but Step 4 usually involves food. “Take some of that casserole with ya!” Commence dealing with the food and continue to walk towards the door. (1)

I won’t bore you with the rest, since the steps, at least as far as I can tell, can easily go through 25, possibly more if there are children involved, but inevitably the last step is instructing someone to be careful traveling home. It’s usually stated something like, “Well, y’all be careful,” along with a warning about some hazard that they may encounter along the way, such as wet roads, fog, deer, or overturned peanut trailers. 

It’s not that Southerners can’t say quick goodbyes; it’s that we reserve those for people we don’t like very much. This is why Northerners and Southerners can get our wires crossed. This happens in Southern families when somebody marries a Northerner: “Oh no, Aunt Bea, Uncle Jim loves you very much. He’s just from New York.” 

Here in South Hadley, I’ve learned to see people’s eyes get a little shifty as I’m on to Step 6 of a Southern goodbye, and I’ll say, “Oh, am I being Southern again? Sorry. See you later!” 

Part of Southern culture is to linger. Even if it can be irritating to people from other places, Southern lingering is a way of showing love. It’s a way of saying, “I enjoy your company so much that it’s hard to say goodbye.” It is a way of showing affection.

Ever wonder why Jesus didn’t just ascend into heaven right after the Resurrection?

I dare say he was being a little Southern. He lingers.

He rises from the dead, and appears to Mary. Then he appears to his disciples, twice in the same room. He has breakfast on the beach with them. He has dinner with them. He appears to them several times, in locked rooms and on roads. He tells them everything they need to know, at times more than once. God became one of us, died like one of us, and was raised again because even death couldn’t take God from us. And here at the end of the story, God loves the people so much that just doesn’t seem to want to leave. 

The Easter season puts forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. During that time in the church year, we live with the resurrected Christ, we listen to him, we hear stories about him. Besides the long season after Pentecost, the Easter season where we live with the resurrected Christ is the longest season we have in the whole church year.

And then he ascends — he gets taken up into heaven. 

When my best friend Samuel and I visited Amsterdam one spring, we needed to mail a package back home. We asked the attendant at the front desk of our hotel where the nearest post office was and she told us where it was but said, “It’s closed today.” 

“On a Thursday?” Samuel replied. 

“Yes,” she said. “It’s a church holiday. The one where Jesus…. dahtahtah [makes upward floating motion with hand].” 

She was looking for the English word for a fittingly ridiculous word for “ascension” in Dutch: “hemelvaart.” It’s even funnier in German: “himmelfahrt.”

I mean, really. 

The story has always been a little funny to me, in part because I imagine the disciples trying to explain “Where’s Jesus” to their friends who weren’t there. If everyone didn’t already think the disciples were loony after the whole “rose from the dead after a public execution” thing, they certainly would after this. 

“Where’s Jesus?” 

“He, um, floated away.” 

What?”

“Well, we climbed a hill with him and he just sorta rose up and went into the clouds. He floated away.” 

We’ve heard this story so much that it loses its character, but really. It’s gotta be hard to explain how your Lord and Teacher rose from the dead, stuck around awhile, and then just drifted off into the sky like an escaped birthday balloon. 

It’s even hard to depict without looking a little silly: check out the cover of the bulletin. Jesus is cloud surfing while the disciples cheer him on. Among the rejects was another one where we only saw Jesus from the waist down as he was set in perspective back from the disciples. He looked like he was being prepped for surgery. 

Then there’s one church named the “church of the ascension” in Europe that has nail-scarred feet dangling from the ceiling as if Jesus got stuck and is thinking, “Note to self: next time ascend outside.” 

Then there’s the ending of the story: the disciples stand gaping at the sky in Acts, wondering what in the all-get-out had just happened, and they don’t notice that two angels have stood next to them. 

I think God was just messing with them at this point.

They’re staring at the sky and then they jump three feet clean into the air because they hadn’t noticed that now there are TWO ANGELS standing next to them who suddenly say, essentially, “Whatcha lookin’ at? 

“He’ll come back in the same way you saw him leave,” they say. 

And so they go back down the Mount of Olives.

The last things Luke recorded him saying before he ascended was this: “Stay here [in Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high…. [then] you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8b). 

Jesus had lingered with them, and now they were to linger together with one another. 

So they do. 

In the next verses of Acts, they’ll gather the whole community: all of Jesus’ disciples, male and female, linger together and eat and pray and wait to see what God will do. 

There is a message in this for us. 

On this day, we don’t have Jesus in the flesh to tell us exactly what to do. But he still lingers out of love, like a good Southerner. Most of you know by now that one of my favorite quotes about Christian worship is that “Jesus loved meals so much he became one.” (2) So in that way, Jesus continues to linger here, among his people, unwilling to leave because he loves being among us.

Together we linger with one another, we eat and pray, and we wait to see what God will do among us. Yes, it’s true: we’re a little crazy. We believe some crazy stuff, like subscribing to this story where God became a human, was born, died, and rose from the dead and essentially cloud surfed back to heaven. We believe other impossible things, too, like that it’s possible to love people who are nothing like us and that we can make a positive impact on the world if we just stick together.

So let’s stop staring up at the sky; Jesus is everywhere now. Let’s linger here together, eat and pray, and wait to see what God will do among us. If the ascension tells you anything, it should be this: God is a little ridiculous, is full of surprises, loves us fiercely, and lingers with us here. Amen.

1. I was assisted in numbering off the steps by comedian Darren Knight, seen here portraying a Southern Mama’s goodbye. Non-Southerners needing translation help with the video should consult their nearest Southerner.

2. Original quote: Dr. Don Saliers, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

Easter Seasons of Love

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Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 15:9-17
Acts 10:44-48

I’ve always loved musicals, but I reached peak Musical Loving in college, surrounded by theater friends.

In the case of the musical Rent, which came out as a movie in 2005, I already knew every word of the original cast recording when I excitedly entered the movie theatre. I and my other theatre loving friends had been banned by our more sensible and normal companions from singing along or yelling out or otherwise making fools of ourselves. They reminded us in so many words of what Stephen Colbert shared with the world last week: that the policy “If you see something, say something” does not apply to movie theaters. 

The opening number, however, is iconic and it’s hard to keep from singing along not only because its simple harmonies are fantastic, but because it touches on a very deep truth of being human. 

When the show begins, each of the main characters, a diverse group of artist-types who live together in New York City in the 1990s,  is onstage. These are the people we will journey with over the next two hours through a year in their lives of joy and pain and elation and death and enlightenment. This is their story. 

The first words we hear them say together are: 

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights?
In sunsets?
In midnights?
In cups of coffee?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year in a life?
How about love?…
Measure in love — seasons of love.” 

Some thirteen years after I first walked into the movie theater to watch Rent, I’ve become obsessed with another, less musical pop culture phenomenon: the TV comedy series The Good Place. In it, a young woman named Eleanor Shellstrop dies and finds herself in the afterlife, in a waiting room with words on the wall in front of her: EVERYTHING IS FINE.

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She smiles contentedly and waits for whatever comes next.
Eleanor is then called into an office and meets Michael, director of her afterlife. In what is clearly a satirical portrayal of the way that most people see life after death, she finds out that she’s died in a bizarre accident involving shopping carts.

“So which religion is right?” Eleanor asks. 

Michael tells her that every religion got about 5% correct about the afterlife, except for one guy in the 70s who, with chemical help, somehow scored 95% correct. His photo hangs in Michael’s office.

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Eleanor finds out that there’s a “good place” and a “bad place,” and that where a person goes depends entirely on a perfect and flawless formula that weighed each person’s deeds throughout their life. They come up with a number, and bam! The cream of the crop — the very best people — get to go to the Good Place, where they get to live in their own personal perfect house with their soulmate in a world full of opportunities to fly and frozen yogurt shops.

I highly recommend The Good Place. It’s not a primer on theology — it’s a primer on humanity and how we see ourselves.

You see, I talked last week about how we like to earn things, how we like for other people to earn things, and how my one mission as a clergy person is to help people see that God is not as petty as we are. From my perspective, The Good Place exposes the ridiculousness of the way we often think of good deeds and the afterlife, and does so pretty creatively and hilariously. 

This week’s Gospel reading is the continuation of last week’s — the one where Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Last week, we talked about how it’s absurd to think that branches earned their way onto the vine — they just grow there. 

Today he says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” 

I know that’s right.

I sometimes worry about how much people in the church seem proud that they chose Jesus. Are you kidding me? This stuff is hard. 

We don’t earn our places here, but now that we’re here, we’re called to do some stuff that I don’t like to do and am not naturally good at. We’re called to do annoying things like loving people who drive us up the wall and worse, people we think have got it all wrong.

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?” 

In debates won? In points scored?

In fact checks, in virtues modeled?

In postures, in lies, in truths, or in kind? 

How about love?” 

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” 

Measure in love — seasons of love.

This morning’s Acts reading contains quite the scene: Peter is speaking to a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles after Jesus had been resurrected and had drifted on up to heaven. Peter himself was Jewish, and the people he’d brought with him were, too, but that detail is less important than this one: that means that they all shared the same system, the same worldview, the same ways of thinking about God and the Holy Scriptures.

As Peter is speaking, some commotion breaks out as people are getting excited about what Peter is saying to them. And the story goes, “The circumcised believers [that is, those who observed Jewish law about all things, and I do mean all things] were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). 

All this time they’d been thinking they were the ones who got it, then they finally figured it out: God was bigger than any of the boxes into which they wanted to put God. That God isn’t as petty as we are. That we don’t get to control whom God loves or speaks to That there is no flawless formula a la The Good Place wherein it is determined who’s good enough to be loved by God. 

What’s more, they figured out that God has welcomed us, warts and all — so how can we not welcome others?

“Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” (10:47)

Of course, any of them might’ve wanted to. Some of them probably did. Just like with the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts reading last week, he asked the disciple with him, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Of course, the answer was: everything and nothing. Everything about the church, and nothing about God.

And in this episode of Acts, when Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water?” the ever-present religious cries of “But the Scripture says” fall away. They are baptized. 

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”

In offerings? In attendance? 

Beer & Hymns or cups of coffee?

Confirmations? Baptisms? In funerals, in births?

How do you measure the worth of a church?

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” 

Measure in love — seasons of love.

This whole thing Jesus is talking about is about giving love to people and a world that seem unloveable because we know what it’s like to be unlovable — but still loved. 

In the Lutheran church, we talk a lot about Law and Gospel. In a nutshell, it’s this: law tells us how to love, while Gospel tells us that we are loved. And it’s a cycle that feeds itself over and over, like in the children’s sermon: because we are loved by God, we keep loving. It’s simple human brainworks: those who feel safe and loved are set free to love others and almost can’t help doing so. It’s a circle. 

The Law of what Jesus says is “Love one another.” The Gospel is “as I have loved you.” 

It’s a circle. 

To close, I want to lead you in a song — Our Savior’s: The Musical, if you will. The song itself is a circle, to remind us of how this all works. 

It goes like this: 

“All who are thirsty, come to the waters,
All who are hungry, come and be fed
All who are thirsty, come to the waters,
There’s enough for all….[repeat]” 

:: congregation learns song and nails it! ::

Come here, sing and pray here, and be fed here. 

There’s enough for all, in the spirit of Jesus, measured in love. Amen.

The Botanical Garden and the True Vine

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The Atlanta Botanical Garden is full of life, wonder, and insight.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 15:1-11

As creation slowly comes back to life for spring, and as often happens with Jesus, we are back to talking about things that grow, namely: “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is one of my favorite features of my favorite city. The Garden is located in Midtown, next to Piedmont Park, the so-called “Central Park of the South.”  With the midtown Atlanta skyline close in your frame of vision, you can walk along the treetops on a high boardwalk, in an enclosed conservatory garden with several climates from around the world, or among various themed gardens.

One of my favorite such gardens is found in a relatively small corner: the “edible garden.” It isn’t because it’s a particularly tasty experience; the signs in this garden ask you to please not touch the foods, because everything that is harvested goes to the Atlanta food bank. But as you walk among the plants, you’ll see several different kinds of seasonal produce. Finally, towards the end of the walk, there is a wall dedicated to herbs. The herbs are planted directly into holes in the wall. They are watered by a system wherein recycled rainwater is sent down rivets and into the roots of the plants. In a little splash of decoration, water is also sent through rivets on the side that faces visitors, creating a beautiful piece of art that’s accompanied by the gentle sound of falling water.

Just past the wall, the archway that leads you out of the garden is this Henry Ward Beecher quote very appropriate for early spring in New England, especially this day: “Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”

The truth, as they say, will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.
There is one truth that I’m intent on living and sharing: despite what we think, God is not as petty as we are. There’s that saying, “You know that you have created God in your own image when that God hates all the same people you do.” Still true. See also: when that God is as petty as you are. When God expects something in return for everything given.

But this truth is first clouds, then rain. It’s not easy to believe.

This is because we live in a quid pro quo world. You must earn what you make. You must pay for what you consume. Even among friends, the quid pro quo system remains vaguely in place. Even when there is no expectation of repayment for a favor, we feel a tug to find something to say thank you, even if it’s just a card or a treat of some kind.

I think we assume at the core of our being that God is the same way. Oh sure, we all pay lip service to grace and salvation by faith alone. But press most Christians, even most Lutherans, and they’ll eventually start telling you what you have to do to really be part of God’s family.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this system exactly: it makes good citizens out of all of us. If we feel like God is watching our every move and expecting good behavior, we behave better.

The problem, of course, is that we never behave perfectly, and that we can’t even all decide on exactly what good behavior even looks like. And this is how just about everyone who’s gotten hurt by the church gets hurt by the church.

Besides that obvious problem, focusing on how well we behave makes us not just into the proverbial Pharisees, but also into the prototype of the dumb disciple: we miss big things in Jesus’ teachings. This is how focused we are on earning things: Jesus is talking about all of us being part of a vine, and yet we often focus on how we can “abide” — as if any branch or bud growing outside chose its own plant or earned its right to grow there.

What if we were to read this the way I think it was intended: Jesus isn’t giving moral instruction, as he often isn’t in John. Jesus is describing the way things are when he says.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

You trying to earn your way into God’s favor is like the branches trying to earn their way onto the vine. They never could have and they don’t need to — the very notion is silly. They just grew there, and there they are.

Yes, Jesus says abide in me, and that is what we are called to do: stay. Abide. Be content. Branches still don’t earn their places.

Yes, Jesus talks about a cleansing. Then he says “you’ve already been cleansed,” as the disciples were by their ordeal, and as we all are by life and circumstances. 

“Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.”

I do think there is instruction to be found here. “Abide in me” is clearly a directive. I think he’s calling us to stick together.

You see, the last time I preached on this text was two cycles ago, in 2012, as a pastor in her first full year of ministry in my little United Methodist church in Alabama. Then as now, it was an election year: then the presidential, this year the midterms.

What I said then, in a politically different congregation in a different place, still seems relevant here, today:

“Living together is what we are called to do as the church. And that can be unfortunate at times, because sometimes our vast differences — in personality or nationality or opinion — tear us apart, and make us hurt one another.

“Jesus is calling us to stick together when he says ‘abide in me.’ And you see, you can’t abide in the vine without sometimes getting tangled in the other branches.

Sometimes we hurt each other. Sometimes we can’t get anything done. Sometimes we cause pain to others, whether we mean to or not. But every now and then, every now and then, we manage to get things done. Every now and then, we can work together to do more than we could ever have done alone. By sticking together, we accomplish — and are — much more. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Yes. Still relevant.

That’s the price we pay for being in relationship with other humans: humans, no matter the time or place or politics, are imperfect, messy, sometimes selfish, sometimes petty. When we are in relationship with one another, even in the unlikely event that we treat each other flawlessly with mutual respect, at the end, we all die.

There is no relationship without pain.

Still, of course, we pursue love of all kinds, knowing that it will eventually hurt us. Because relationships with other people are where we learn, where we become our best selves, live our best lives, and bear the most fruit.

“Truths are first clouds, then rain, then harvest and food.” 

This is true in life as in, more specifically, church. We do not choose to be a part of the vine. We don’t earn our place here. Jesus isn’t describing how you should be, but how you are: you are part of the vine. Because you feel and keep feeling compelled to show up at church and not somewhere else — you do not have to worry about being worthy to be part of the vine. You already are a part of us, growing alongside all of us. You are part of this community, whether you come only occasionally or all the time, you are part of us, and we are blessed and changed by your presence among us.

We would not be the same vine, growing here in South Hadley, without you.

No, God is not as petty as we are. We really don’t have to prove anything or earn anything. We just are: part of the vine, loved, part of a worldwide family. That’s the kind of truth that we build community around: being fed, bearing fruit.

Every time we gather, we gather at the table, sharing love, sharing harvest, sharing food, sharing words of hope. That’s the kind of truth that gives us hope: that no matter how dark the clouds or how heavy the rain, in here, there is always, always, harvest and food. Amen.