“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

“Not One Stone Will Be Left Upon Another”

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Luke 21:5-19

As usual, it’s been a week. In the news, and in our lives. 

Whatever you’ve got going on in your own life, I just want us all to take a deep breath. [breathe]

Believe it or not, it’s been three years since the 2016 election, touted as the most divisive in modern American history. You know, except for all the others.

On that day three years ago, we all gathered in this place and read this Gospel text.
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

And I told you one very simple thing: whether you are happy about the election of this President or whether you are afraid or angry or whether you are utterly indifferent, the message of the Gospel lesson is this: no institution, and no President, will save you. 

Now, three years later, I read this text and I think not of elections and government, but of the institution of the church. 

Here in New England, there’s a lot of fretting about the future, and with good reason. Take a drive through this Valley and you’ll find plenty of church buildings that are now functioning in many ways: day care centers, gyms, libraries, and even one now-defunct barbecue joint. We, here, fear the future and what it will bring for our small and mighty congregation, even as we today continue to function at an incredibly high level. If you question this, ask me about my schedule for today. We’re doing a lot, including feeding people on the street at Cathedral in the Night and helping people here in South Hadley restructure their financial lives at Financial Peace University. And, of course, we’re still doling out the word and the sacraments. 

And that’s just today.

Later this week, though, I’m going to go to our synod’s convocation and listen once again to all of our fears about the future. I’ll hear my colleagues wonder if they deserve a living wage, since their churches can’t or won’t pay them one for fear of the future. And I’ll once again give thanks for you, even as we have our own fears about what the future holds. 

“Jesus said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” 

Anyone who says they have the silver bullet answer to how to save the church is lying. The church only has one Savior, and I am not him. If you are hoping that I will be the one to grow the church into what it used to be, I have hard news for you. I am not the savior; I am only here to lead you, together with the other leaders of the church, into whatever future our actual Savior holds. 

Not only will the institution of the wider church not save us, most days, I’m not even sure the institution itself can be saved. 

“This will give you an opportunity to testify.” 

The good news is, we worship a Savior who was raised from the dead. 

The Isaiah reading for today is full of words spoken to a people who were far more hopeless than we could ever be. They weren’t afraid of budget shortfalls and closing churches; they had already seen their place of worship desecrated and destroyed by enemies. Their religious life together was, but for the small remnant of people, over. But the Hebrew people has always been small and mighty, not unlike a group of Lutherans that I know.

And what does God say to them?
“[My people] shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” 

I am not the Savior. The Savior is my boss. 

When Christ said, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” he didn’t add, “Unless you don’t have enough people in worship and have budget shortfall; then it’s over.” These promises, my friends, are eternal. 

It has been said ad nauseam that every 500 years or so, the church undergoes a giant shift. The Protestant Reformation was our last one, and that occurred 502 years ago this year. It’s time.

The church of the future will not be like the church of the past. And no one person will build it. We will build it together. Yes, it will be hard. But this will give you an opportunity to testify. 

I say to you exactly what I said last week. Whatever you are feeling hopeless about — whether it is the state of the church or the state of the nation or the state of your own life — hope is there.

Last week it was the religious leaders and today it’s the disciples who miss the resurrection there, in their midst, in the person of Christ. The disciples are impressed by this giant building, built for God. But they miss God, who was standing there in the flesh right beside them. That impressive temple would eventually be torn down, and to this day, it has not been rebuilt. But the Jewish faith lives on, and Christ lives on, here, with us, in this place in bread and wine and in all of you, gathered here, small and mighty. 

My little flock, do not fear. Even if not one stone is left upon another of this building tomorrow, hope will survive as long as God is with us. 

So breathe. 

We are Our Savior’s people, and we will always be. So let’s look to the future with hope. Because institutions rise and fall all the time.
But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

Amen.

Veterans, Weird Questions, Finding Hope, and a Man Named John

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My friends’ and my favorite photo of John — at breakfast with us, laughing and likely saying something funny right back.

Luke 20:27-38

Whenever Veteran’s Day rolls around, I always think of my favorite veterans: there’s some of you, naturally. There’s my dad. There are several of my friends, as I was part of the generation that witnessed 9/11 as teenagers and had many sign up for the subsequent wars after. 

And then there’s my friend John. 

John and I met in seminary. He always had a quick, sarcastic wit and an easy smile. He was a Marine who was severely injured in Iraq in the early 2000s. He almost died, but he didn’t. However, his injury took out most of his pancreas, leaving him diabetic. He always said he felt like he was living on borrowed time. In 2010, to our shock, that proved true. He died of complications from diabetes that year; it was our senior year of seminary.

I know: Memorial Day is really the right day to honor John now. But Veteran’s Day always brought up good conversations with him about war and peace and theology and service. Not a Veteran’s Day goes by, still, when I don’t think of him.

I don’t mean to start a sad sermon, of course. John would hate that, actually. This is a guy who named his cat Bertrand, after philosopher Bertrand Russell. 

What I want to do this morning is to tell you stories that would connect to this Gospel text.

Two stories come to mind. 

The first is this: John was boarding an airplane once, after his time in the Marines. He was a strong-looking guy, and he also often had a beard and long hair. He didn’t really “look like a Marine” in any traditional sense after he was discharged. John took his seat on the aisle of an airplane, dressed in a suit to travel, just like his mother had taught him. He said hello to the woman next to him and prepared to settle in. He leaned forward to place something underneath the seat in front of him. Just then, a high school ROTC corps came down the aisle to board, clearly on a field trip.

The woman next to him, mistakenly thinking they were active duty military and eager to show her gratitude, put her hand on John’s shoulder and pushed him back into his seat. “Excuse me,” she said pointedly. After pushing what she did not know was a Marine out of her way, she went on to thank a very confused high school ROTC unit for their service to our country.

The other story is this one: John and I were in the same group of seminary interns during our second year of seminary. As part of this group, we’d all meet monthly to do a site visit. We were at one church that had a lovely children’s area, complete with a giant mural with a beautiful nature scene. John and I were standing next to one another when John leaned over and whispered, “Yo, what’s with the creepy kid?”

I followed his gaze and indeed, there was a singular toddler in the mural, just sort of sitting in this beautiful nature scene. Thinking that this was the artist’s odd attempt to help children picture themselves in the scene, we giggled at the artist’s poor choice; the kid did look a bit out of place and creepy. 

Just then, one of our classmates raised her hand and asked, “Who’s the child here?” 

The pastor of the church who was showing us around said, “Oh, that’s Timmy. Timmy died of a rare cancer, and his parents dedicated this play area to his memory.” 

John and I could’ve melted into the wall in that moment. “We. Are. Jerks.” I whispered to him. “Yes, yes we are,” he whispered back. “Drinks after this?” 

Today in the Gospel lesson, some Saducees, or some religious folks, come to Jesus and ask him sort of a creepy, weird, off-the-wall question. The Saducees, Luke helpfully tells us, don’t believe that there’s any resurrection, yet here they are, asking about the resurrection in an attempt to show Jesus what a silly idea it is. 

Essentially, they say, “Look, if people get raised from the dead, what happens if they’re married, and then marry other people? Huh? 

It’s worth pointing out that Jesus at this point is right between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. He is mere days from his own resurrection. And according to John’s Gospel, he is the resurrection and the life, which adds even more irony to the story. 

They ask a weird, trapping question about the resurrection, only to miss the resurrection, in the flesh, in their midst. 

Can’t say I blame them. I miss the resurrection all the time. We all do. 

We look with doom and gloom at the future of the church. We look at the impending doom in our own lives. We fail to see or even look for hope, instead getting caught up in the details: but how will we pay the bills? How will we make it? And if there is a resurrection, how would it even work? 

We’re not so unlike the lady who pushed the Marine out of the way to thank the ROTC kids. And we’re not so unlike me and John, getting caught up in the details of a painting of a kid, yet missing the hope of the resurrection in this play area dedicated in his memory.

When John died, it was the first time I lost a friend to death. I’d lost loved ones, sure. I’d even had people that I went to high school with die, but I wasn’t close with them. But John was my friend. And when he died, it was easy to focus on all that we had lost.

John was a marathoner, and when I first started running over ten years ago, it was him who encouraged me. When I posted my finisher photo after my first half marathon on Facebook, he immediately popped up in a comment: “Great time!” Mind you, my time was not great. John was just kind. When he died, I couldn’t cry until one day, about a week after his funeral, when I was running, and it all hit me at once. Running helped me grieve. 

Now, every time I run a race, especially a long one, I think of John. He was on my mind a month ago when I ran the Hartford Half Marathon. When I crossed the start line, I looked up and thought of him. I pointed to the sky, took off, and ran my best race yet. It was awful to lose a friend in that way, but over time, I’ve begun to see the resurrection manifest itself. John is in my steps and my heartbeat whenever I run. 

My friends, the resurrection is here, in our midst. Don’t miss it. 

Those that we have lost are still with us. Christ is still with us. 

My favorite thing to say to people when they tell me that the church is dying is, “Oh, yes. And I can see why Christians would be worried about death. Our faith is all about how death is the very end of things, right?” And I wait for their reaction. To date, I’ve yet to have someone not understand what I mean.

No, we’re not unlike the Saducees, asking all the questions about the details, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not. We’re not unlike the lady who pushed John the Marine out of the way to thank the group of high schoolers wandering by in training uniforms. And we’re definitely not unlike John and I, giggling quietly in our jerkdom and missing a very sweet gesture by grieving parents. 

We have this tendency to get caught up in what’s wrong or what we think we “should” do and very much miss God’s hope and presence in our lives. So don’t do that. 

God is here: in wine, in bread, in water, and in the people sitting around you. God is here, in your breath and in your heartbeat. God is here, offering life, offering hope, and always, always, offering another chance to recognize what’s right in front of you. 

Thank God. Amen.

All Saints Sunday: Bless Your Heart

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Myth: “Bless your heart” is an insult. 
Truth: It can be, but the truth is more complicated. It’s often used affectionately, especially among Southerners. 

Luke 6:20-31

People accuse Southerners of being passive-aggressive compared to people from other places, and I can’t say that that’s exactly wrong. As an example, I’ve had many an argument with those from the North and Midwest about the phrase “bless your heart.” 

“It’s just another way to tell someone to…” … hmmm, there are children present. To tell someone to go… away. People think it’s an insult.

In fact, when I googled a more polite way to express the sentiment “go away,” “bless your heart” even came up in my google search. That translation was posted by a Northerner, of course. I can’t blame them, though. That’s probably the only way a Northerner who thinks they know it all probably ever hears the phrase.

For you Northerners who are humble enough to learn, however, I can tell you that the truth is that “bless your heart” can mean many things, and only one of the options is an insult.*

*I usually explain it this way: it’s not unlike saying “you poor thing.” You can say it sincerely or sarcastically, and the meaning is all in the tone.

Growing up in the South, I think, makes it clearer that the phrase can be used in absolutely genuine love and concern. When you’re a child, after all, and you come to your grandmother with a skinned knee and she says “Bless your heart,” you can safely assume she’s not insulting you.

Another option for “bless your heart” is that you’re being lovingly patted on the head — for many varying reasons. Which, even at its harshest, is still very different than being told to [blank] off.

Today, Jesus moves through a lot of “blessed”s in the Gospel passage, and it’s kinda hard to figure out what he means by “bless your heart,” what his point is, and why we would want to read this passage today, as we remember the saints who have gone before us. 

Bless our hearts. Saints & blesseds, what does it all mean?

People, especially here in Catholic country, often have a bit of a complex when it comes to calling their loved ones “saints.” It’s one of the biggest differences in language that we have as a result of the Reformation; for Roman Catholics, the emphasis is often placed on famous saints who have been canonized by the church. As good Lutherans, however, we emphasize the we are all both saints and sinners.

Still, because of the visibility of icons and our own weird and selective sense of humility, we hesitate to call ourselves or our loved ones saints. What does it even mean to be a saint?

There’s a Reader’s Digest story that Delmer Chilton of Two Bubba’s and a Bible told this week on the podcast that goes like this. 

A little boy was out trick-or-treating in a Superman costume. He came to the door of one of his neighbors with his mother, who was holding his pumpkin for him. The neighbor asked why his mother was holding the boy’s candy. The boy didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because it’s heavy!” 

“Heavy?” the neighbor said. “But you’re Superman!” 

The boy leans in somewhat conspiratorially and whispers to the neighbor: “It’s just pajamas.” (1)

Bless his heart. 

We’re just like him when it comes to calling ourselves or our more imperfect loved ones “saints.” Told of God’s grace, we at best think of ourselves as forgiven sinners, but not saints. Not worthy of recognition as models of faith. Like “bless your heart,” we struggle to define what a saint is, other than that we aren’t saints ourselves.

But it seems to me that if there’s one message in the Gospel passage that’s especially relevant for All Saints’, it’s that Jesus is saying loud and clear that saints aren’t going to look like you’d expect them to (2). We think of passages like this as being about who’s getting in to heaven, but given that Jesus doesn’t make any such claim in the text, we’re free to think of it in bigger terms than who’s going to heaven.

It’s about what God’s reign on earth looks like, and what it looks like to live as if God’s love has made a difference. It’s not just pajamas. 

This whole day is about how we are stepping into this tradition, this stream of faith, that has been flowing for thousands of years before us and will keep flowing when it is our names that will be spoken in November every year (3).

Before an Auburn football game one year, then-head coach Gene Chizik addressed his team in the locker room of Jordan-Hare Stadium. He talked about tradition. 

Coach Chizik’s words were simple: “This place was great way before you got here.” 

He said this not to make the players feel unworthy, but to wake them up to the opportunity they had to carry on a tradition that was far bigger than they were: that they  can be an example of what it means to carry this great tradition forward. They get to wear the uniform no matter what; now it’s their chance to set an example of what makes this tradition great.

This is true of us, too. The church was great way before we got here. 

It’s not just pajamas.

An alb is what we all wear whenever we serve in worship; it’s the garment of all the baptized. When we bury our dead, we put a white pall over the casket, also symbolizing baptism. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, with everyone who has gone before us and with everyone who will follow us.

That uniform is real, and we get to wear it no matter what. It was great way before we got here. We are saints. And now we carry this tradition forward: to do crazy things like loving our enemies. Being generous. Being joyful. The church’s legacy throughout the centuries isn’t untarnished, but it is ours. No human has been perfect, but we have all been loved. 

Bless our hearts.

It’s a lot to take in, and we probably feel unworthy and will always wonder what, exactly, it means. But I think Luther said it best when he wrote, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”

So that’s it.

Let’s speak the names of those who went through the waters of baptism before us and who now rest with God. We’ll light candles to remember them, then, surrounded by those candles that remind us of the great cloud of witnesses, we will gather around the table again, just like Christians have for well over 2,000 years now. Then we will leave to continue the legacy of Christ’s church for another day. 

Bless our hearts. Amen. 

1. I listen to “Two Bubbas and a Bible” just about every week. You can find it here.
2. This snippet also comes from Delmer Chilton of “Two Bubbas and a Bible.”
3. The “stream of faith” metaphor is from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who used it at her ELCA Youth Gathering talk in 2012.

Prince, Michael Jackson, and Martin Luther: Reformation Sunday 2019

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John 8:31-36

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray. 

But when I woke up this morning, could’ve sworn it was Reformation Day.

Well, my friends, here we are for another year — celebrating the five hundred second anniversary, as it were, of the Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther, whose name we bear whenever we refer to ourselves as Lutherans. Luther: the monk, scholar, and pioneer who utilized the technology of his day (namely, the printing press) in order to get his ideas out there and to change the course of history as we know it. 

Today, I also want to talk about faith and technology and pioneering and reformation via another pioneer who used the technology of his day: the artist, as it were, formerly known as Prince. 

Whether or not you were alive and aware of pop music in 1982 doesn’t matter, because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty years, you know this little clip of music. [Click here to listen.]

That drum machine. That blast of sound. It’s iconic. And it’s also musically groundbreaking in ways that I didn’t quite realize until this week. 

No, this isn’t a setup to a joke about partying like it’s 1517. 

All of this information comes from a little podcast called Switched on Pop, which I highly recommend. This week’s guest was Anil Dash, who usually appears on a tech podcast called Function. This week, however, he joined Switched on Pop to talk about his Prince fandom.

You see, that blast of sound and those drums didn’t just come out of nowhere. Prince was fond of using drum machines, at least in part because he didn’t have to worry about contacting actual drummers while he was working in the studio at 3AM. In 1982, before the release of “1999,” he had one called the Linn Machine 1, or LM1. It was created by Roger Linn in the 1970s in order to produce “the most faithful sound” — in other words, it was supposed to mimic actual drums. 

It’s what Prince did with it, however, that made both it and the song groundbreaking. He turned the knobs of the LM1 too far intentionally — much further than the inventor, Linn, intended. The result, as you can hear on the track “1999,” wasn’t the sound of real drums — it was the sound of otherworldly drums. You might even call them futuristic.

From there, Prince added an Oberheim synthesizer and also cranked it up further than anyone else was doing at the time. His goal: to stretch his audience. To be innovative. To figure out what was possible. The result, you’ve already heard: the song “1999.” It was his breakout, iconic single, and one that expanded his audience and launched him to the iconic status that he has today. The song even had a revival naturally, as the new millennium approached almost twenty years ago.

The freedom Prince had with music was based on his knowledge of music and his willingness to take what he was given and innovate. He pushed and expanded and changed the face of music.

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

Someone else heard the song “1999” when it was first released in September 1982. That person, naturally, was Michael Jackson. At the time, he was working on a track called “Starlight,” which was a synthy, soft rock song. Now, you’ve probably never heard a Michael Jackson song called “Starlight,” unless you’re as big a pop music nerd as me. Well, there’s a reason you’ve never heard it. 

You see, when Jackson heard the wall of sound in Prince’s new song, his competitive edge hit him. He also wanted something that sounded like a wall of sound, something iconic, that would make history and help change music forever. The result of this musing, you also know — you may have even heard it recently, as it’s a Halloween mainstay.

[Click here to listen.]

And all of this came from pushing boundaries far past what was originally intended, to include more sounds, louder sounds, bigger sounds. It was, in its own right, a kind of musical reformation that would shape pop music for the rest of the 1980s and beyond. 

My friend Kimble, a UCC pastor, describes theology in different traditions like a stereo. The Presbyterians turn up the knob on God’s sovereignty, while the Episcopalians might turn that one down a bit and turn up sacramental theology. Well, my friends, Martin Luther takes the “grace” knob and turns it way further than anyone had before 1517, and he changed the course of history. He rejected the idea that the clergy nor the institution of the church was the sole arbiter of grace, and he really rejected the idea of the church selling indulgences, or the forgiveness of sin for a price. And so, that fed up monk wrote a little document called the Ninety Five Theses, and depending on whom you ask, he either nailed it to the door of a church or mailed it to the church authorities, but either way, the rest is history. 

Now, this is not to denigrate our Catholic neighbors, of whom we have many. It’s not to denigrate the members of your families who may be Catholic. Christians of all types have tended to take that “truth shall make you free” passage and use it to feel smug, but that’s not the intention. Luther, before all hell broke loose, didn’t intend to create a new church with his 95 Theses, and everything he was saying was originally in an attempt to reform the church he loved so much. Nothing he said was actually all that contrary to Catholic theology; in his view, he was simply calling them back to what he understood the Catholic faith to be. 

Or, as I like to put it when someone tells me they’re Catholic after finding out I’m a Lutheran: “Ah, well, what’s a little damage to a door five hundred years ago between friends?” 

The gist of what Luther wanted to get across wasn’t so much Lutheran as it was just Christian, even if he did crank grace knob all the way up to eleven: the Gospel is a story about God, and salvation is an act of God. By grace we are saved, through faith. 

If Prince produced a wall of sound that hits your ears, Martin Luther produced a wall of grace that hits your heart. He cranked that knob up further than anyone intended, except for Christ himself. 

There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Just before that line, when Jesus says “If you continue in my word,” it’s important to note two things: first, that the word translated “continue” is really “abide,” and that when Jesus refers to the “word,” he’s not talking about the Bible since, you know, the New Testament didn’t exist just yet. When the writer of John pens this line in the eighth chapter of the Gospel, he’s calling back to the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What Jesus is saying is “abide in me,” live in me, and I will make you free indeed.

My friends, on this five hundred second anniversary of the Reformation, I want to posit this: that, just like art, and music, and science, and our own lives, faith and theology are dynamic, not static. A healthy faith is always growing, changing, re-forming, discovering new things, all while holding to the core truths that set us free. After all, in music, basic music theory isn’t going anywhere, but in the right hands, some amazing things can happen that would blow the socks off Mozart himself. 

The color for Reformation Sunday is red with the Holy Spirit’s dove logo for a reason, you know: that the Holy Spirit, wild, untamed, creative, is always doing a new thing. The same Holy Spirit that first whispered in Luther’s ear to turn that grace knob all the way up is here today, whispering in our ears, too, if we know how to listen. And while we may have changed some things since 1517 that Luther did not intend and would not recognize, the creator of both faith and music, wild and untamed, is unsurprised. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth is that we are saved by grace, by God. Set free from having to earn God’s love, we are free to play, to create, to fail, to learn, to experiment, to grow. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the next year as we undertake the synod’s Forward program and look not with fear, but with, creativity at our future. And the Holy Spirit will be there, too.

It’s Reformation Sunday, folks. So turn it up. Amen.