Advent 2: The Beginning is Near

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Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

You all know how much I like to mine commercials for funny little pieces of wisdom.

There’s a couple of DirectTV commercials that’ve been airing — a lot — recently that both go something like this:

A voiceover tells us the virtues of DirectTV over cable

and then says, “But some people still like cable.”

“Just like,” we are told, “how some people like banging their head on a low ceiling.” We’re then treated to a guy who at first accidentally bangs his head on a low beam in his attic, then repeatedly and joyfully repeats the process.

Other terrible things people enjoy include, as the voiceover lists them off:

“Drinking spoiled milk.”
A woman chugs presumably spoiled milk while saying “Mmmmm” and giving a victory fist pump.

“Camping in poison ivy.”
A camper stretches as he rises happily from his bed of botanic suffering.

“Getting a paper cut.”
A woman laughs as she cuts herself on an envelope.

And, my favorite: “having their arm trapped in a vending machine.”
A man with his arm stuck in the door lets out an enthusiastic-but-pained “Wooo!”

“… but for everyone else, there’s DirectTV.”

Of course, the idea is that everyone should give up cable and get DirectTV because it’s a horrible and painful decision not to. Some people like suffering, but the voiceover concludes: 

“For everyone else, there’s DirectTV.” (1)
As with many commercials, the thing was played so many times that it got me thinking philosophically in the middle of football games as I enjoy my beer & snacks and wait for the game to come back on.

Recently, I thought, “Well if that isn’t religion in a nutshell.”

For some reason, humans like making religion difficult.

Otherwise, what’s up with people who hit themselves with whips?

“Wooo!”

So here we are, with that in mind, in the second Sunday of Advent.

Mark begins his Gospel and today’s Gospel passage like so:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”

And the text flies immediately into John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, preaching repentance of sins, telling the folks to abandon their evil ways and get right with God or else.

Then the 2 Peter text comes at us with a call to live a holy life because God is coming to burn up everything with fire.

There isn’t currently an uncensored version of this sermon so I’ll just say this:

Advent doesn’t mess around.

It’s really no wonder that some people view Christianity, as well as a few other religions, as being all about scrubbing our lives clean — by any means necessary — of anything that would corrupt us so that God will not destroy us. God, in this version of Advent, is an angry parent who has gotten a call from the cops that you’re throwing a party while they’re away. And when Dad gets home, there’s gonna be hell to pay — this time, literally.

A common knee-jerk reaction to that, obviously, is to say that if God is love, not wrath, that God is forgiving and understanding.

Yes. And.

What about the ways that we hurt each other? If God just writes everything off, that also must include genocide, atrocities, child abuse — and is that justice? How could a good God allow all these things?

Besides that, repentance has a good and necessary place in our lives, we just usually call repentance by another name: saying sorry. The person never says sorry — who never feels remorse, or who in church language, is never repentant — is a gigantic jerk that no one wants at their Christmas party.

I read an article this week in the Washington Post that was posted by the bishop who ordained me. Bishop Gordy is himself a Southerner, and the article was called “Not My Alabama.” It was in reference to the news coming out of Alabama, not just in the past few months, but in the last century, and the ways that the rest of the nation looks down its nose at Alabama only — and this is key — because it allows the rest of the nation to use Alabama as a scapegoat.

He writes, “if Alabama makes us uncomfortable, it is perhaps because our own foibles are writ a little larger there, magnified that we may see ourselves for who we are and what we are becoming. Alabama hosts rank partisanship and evangelical fervor (both religious and political) that contravenes the Christian spirit. It has demagoguery and scapegoating, the demonizing of fellow citizens, zealotry, suspicion and tribalism — but in none of this is [Alabama] alone. In Alabama it just seems to play out on a wider screen. It is the mirror we shun — not just a state but a state of mind. We hold it at arm’s length because we cannot face the truth about ourselves.”

In other words, Alabama is host to the same issues that play out everywhere else. Alabama is also my home: a place of hospitality and welcome and sweet tea and good-natured people of every race with a wide variety of political views who have one thing in common as Alabamians: they will not let you leave their house hungry.

The article concludes thus: “In each of us, there is a bit of Alabama, the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.” (2)

Alabamians know this because history rightly will not let us forget this war for dominance within our state and within ourselves.

When my friends with rosier political views tell me that they do not believe in sin, I usually respond, confused: “The world is messed up, though.”

The world is clearly not as it should be. Things are broken. People are capable of incredible good, but we are also capable of incredible cruelty, division, oppression, abuse. Inside all of us there is “the shameful and the noble, warring for dominance.”

Given this reality, we have two choices.

One of them is fundamentalism: that we know what is sinful and what is righteous and we need to impose this harshly on ourselves and on everyone else. We often forget, because fundamentalists are so far outside the fray and because they kill people, that fundamentalism has understandable motivations. If we can be sure that we know what God wants and that God will be angry that we don’t do it, we better act fast, because God is coming and boy does he look mad. The stakes are high.

We can consider that Scripture and our tradition also speak of mercy as strongly as they speak of justice. And, as I say all the time, that God is the main character in the Gospel story, not us and our achievements.

The problem with fundamentalism is that for all its talk of salvation, it’s the people and their efforts who are actually doing the saving. It leaves no room for God to come and save. It leaves no room for grace.

The Bible, and most of Christian thought, however, do.

“Comfort, comfort, my people!” God cries out during our Isaiah passage for today. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low… the people will see it together.”

Christian theologian Fredrick Buechner describes grace this way:

“AFTER CENTURIES OF handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left. 

Grace is something you can never [acquire] but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. 

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.

Have you ever tried to love somebody? 

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.” (3)

Grace.

Grace is how we can believe that despite what we see all over the place, maybe, just maybe, the end is not near but the beginning. That the world is beyond human repair but maybe there’s a sliver of a hope that it’s not just us working on it.

Grace is Advent.

And those slivers of hope, those little glimpses of the grace of God, show up everywhere from the nightly news to your grandkids’ smiles to the kindness of a stranger. Or maybe today is your day to be the kind stranger because by doing so, you can give someone else hope that maybe kindness isn’t dead — that maybe, just maybe, despite all this mess, something is about to happen: the beginning is near.

Indeed, some people still like cable, but apparently,

“… for everyone else, there’s DirectTV.”

Just like some people like fundamentalism and find comfort in its harsh rules and harsh punishments and anxieties and violence, and some people like cheap grace and not thinking too hard about things that don’t make them feel good, and some people like throwing their hands up in exasperation because everything on the news makes them depressed.
…….Woo!

But for everyone else — for everyone — there’s Advent. Amen.

1. You can watch the commercial here.
2. You can read the whole Post article here.
3. Frederick Buechner is an 
theologian, author, and ordained Presbyterian pastor. This quote is from Wishful Thinking, published in 1973.

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Advent 1: In Defense of the (Advent) Blue Pill


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As in The Matrix, when the world is viewed through the blue lens of Advent, nothing is quite what it seems.

Welcome to a new time zone. Welcome to a brand new liturgical year.

I used to apologize for my love of the liturgical calendar by couching it in self-deprecating jokes about nerdiness. But I stopped doing that quite a few years ago when I noticed that the liturgical year is nothing more than the stories of our lives wrapped in the story of Jesus — or maybe, the story of Jesus wrapped in our own lives and experience.

That’s more like it.

Because these days, it looks more like young people — people of all ages, really — are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent.

Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or religion, even fundamentalist religion. Hate is being lived out on Internet message boards and classrooms and Hollywood and the government in the form of things like white supremacy, anti-semitism, and sexual harassment, and young men of a bunch of different stripes have gotten particularly violent lately, using guns to kill or, when necessary, weaponizing vehicles.

We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion — particularly, these days, Islam. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or, alternatively, leave their lives here to go off to Syria to fight for ISIS, or, in either case, commit violence at home?

The answer is as simple as it is complex: they need a story to tell them who they are.

Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them.

The truth is, we all need such a story, and up to this point, we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride or our families for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic. We now have unlimited stories with which to identify.

The good news is that today, Advent has gone cosmic, too.

The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s far bigger than that.

On the first Sunday of Advent, stars fall and the very universe turns. 

Today, Jesus calls us to keep awake, to keep alert, because things are about to change. The whole world is about to turn.

We all need a story to tell us where we came from and who we are. And today, Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed.

And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!

Various groups tied somehow to the extremes of the political spectrum have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If the main character takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know the truth of humanity’s enslavement.

If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.

These days, political extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or  “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the Internet and into the streets in violence. If you can’t tell, I think it’s as ridiculous as it is serious. It’s inventing a story in order to make yourself the hero.

I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically.

This is not your average Matrix blue pill, the kind that keeps you safely unaware. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story.

This Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast web of conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just like to imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control and smarter than other people.

We really, really like to be the heroes of our own stories.

The likely truth is that we’re far more deceived and enslaved by our own brokenness and rage than any outside conspiratorial web of deception.

The reality is that the world is just full of scared, angry people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. We’re swimming; we’ve forgotten who we are and what we’re for.

And so in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender of humanity.

Like in George Orwell’s 1984, nothing unifies us quite like a common enemy.
So there must, therefore, always be an enemy.

Someone to hate. Someone to blame.

The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves. While you’re more likely to drown in your bathtub than to die in a terrorist attack, but you are 100% guaranteed to contend with your own pain and rage every single day.

Waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with its delicious delusions of conflict and self-heroism.

So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill.

Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to the fact that you’re not the hero.

The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.

Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.

I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, the complex people, the complex situations.

No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.

As a classmate of mine told me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone.

And I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.

Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.

And I realized that I, too, had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved.

I could, before it was even cool, take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.

But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from coming up.

Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn.

We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued.

This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.  I took the Advent blue pill.

Don’t get me wrong. I still get frustrated at the state of things. But my life is not wrapped in an existential political struggle, but in the story of Jesus, lived each and every year through this story that we tell with our voices and our resources and our bodies.

So I invite you, therefore, to take the Blue pill.

Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.

Rather than framing the entire story around us, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world.

In our world torn by pain and division, we’re all, in some way, afraid. We look at the pain and problems all around us and we wonder “how long?” How long will people in our own country and around the world have to live in fear in their communities, in their schools, and in their own homes? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger and pain, right up to our own doorstep?

In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever. We give ourselves over to despair and anger. But as Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “a blessing will do more to improve the air quality.” (1)

This season that we begin today — Advent — has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, as winter grips the land: “Keep awake!

Because we know, deep in our bones: it is dark and cold now, but it will not be winter forever.

Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with.

Like our ancestors before us, we wait in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.
Peace on earth.

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming. 
“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37) 
Amen.

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, p. 204. 

Baptism and Autocorrect

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Matthew 25:14-30

Baptisms, like weddings, are days when we want everything to go right, but because there are babies and pastors and general chaos, nothing ever quite goes perfectly. But of course, few things in our lives ever go perfectly.

Mistakes are a part of all our lives, and I think we’d all agree that we don’t need help making them. But those of us who use smart phones have one huge helper in mistake making: autocorrect.

To those of you who don’t use smartphones and don’t deal with it: blessed are you. This is one sermon illustration that it’s okay that you don’t fully understand.

But for you unfortunate majority like me, you know the struggle of autocorrect.

You try to text your boss, “I’m about to go home” and instead, autocorrect thinks it’s helping you as a series of errant keystrokes instead makes you say “I’m about to go honey” and lands you in an awkward misunderstanding.

Or, say, you’re a new pastor at a church and you need to submit a motion to council about something or other, and your council president texts you and instead helpfully reminds you to submit your moron to council. True story.

Sometimes, autocorrect mistakes are hilarious and other times they run the full range of embarrassment from chagrin to full on humiliation.

But autocorrect is just the hip young cousin of its old friend the typo, who humiliated us way back when the thought of a telephone being a camera and a compass and a workout partner was absurd.

Typos really get to us, or at least to me. They really dig at my need to be perfect. If it tells you anything, I so obsessively fix typos in my sermon manuscripts that I even fix the parts that I know I won’t be reading. Worse than that, I fix mistakes in italics and underlining. Can you tell that I italicized that?

Typos humble us and make us face directly up to our own needs to be perfect.

English teacher and slam poet Taylor Mali has one poem singing the praises of typos. It’s called “The The Impotence of Proofreading.” And it starts like this:

“Has this ever happened to you?
You work very horde on a paper for English clash
But you end up with a a very glow raid (like a D or even a D=)
and all because you are the word-1s liverwurst spoiler.
Proofreading your peppers is a matter of the the utmost impotence.

This is a problem that affects manly, manly students all over the world.
…I myself was such a bed spiller once upon a term
in my sophomoric year, that I knew I needed to improvement
or gone would be my dream of going to Harvard or Prison
(you know, in Prison, New Jersey).” (1)

Believe me, I would love to perform the whole poem for you, but you’re just gonna have to go find the rest of it yourself.

But one of my own teachers showed it to us while I was in grad school and I realized how spectacularly funny these mistakes were. I began to look at typos — pure failures in typing, are.

And I started looking at other failures a little differently, too.

Things do not usually go as they should. Arguably, they don’t most of the time.

Today’s Gospel is a little story about a master who went away and left his servants with money. Two of them invest it, and one goes the safe way and just buries it, because his master is a scary guy. (Some of you will remember from our previous conversations that the way that parables work is that sometimes we’re told who’s who, and sometimes we’re not. We assume the master in every story is God, but usually Jesus doesn’t say that.) Jesus is trying to get at a little kernel of truth about life with God, yes. But like the book of Esther, it doesn’t mean God actually has a direct cameo in the story.

Anyhow, this guy who buries his talent — I’ve always thought that guy got a bad rap. Probably because it’s very likely that if I were him, I’d’ve done the same thing. A lot of us would. Especially if you know that the person who gave you money is a harsh guy, you’d be afraid of making a mistake.

It’s the rare person who dares to go all in, to risk everything. Because failures usually aren’t as funny as typos, especially when you’re dealing with a harsh boss.

So what’s Jesus saying to the Church today?

I think it’s pretty simple: it’s okay to fail, because failing means you’re doing something. And we need to come to peace with the fact that things don’t always go as they should.

We rage against autocorrect because it so often makes us look silly. But if autocorrect never made us look dumb, it’d mean that we weren’t typing anything — no messages of love, no “see you there,” no “I was just stinking of you.”

The price we pay for doing things — and for living and loving — is sometimes messing up and trusting others to have grace. It’s things going wrong that are beyond our control; it’s loving people and then losing them.

Where there is life, things go wrong. We make mistakes, and we see hardship.
And where there is love, there is grace.

This is true of parenting, and grandparenting, and teaching. As we baptize these two boys today, their parents will make a lot of promises. I always tell parents that these promises can seem daunting, and most people are immediately afraid that they’ll mess them up. But, just like my own mentor always does, I add that you’ll notice that the support system comes out right in the liturgy, immediately. The sponsors make promises to help. And then the congregation, that’s been surrounding the whole family the whole time, comes right alongside.

Today, we all make promises to God and to Otto and Luca.

We cannot promise to be perfect. And we cannot promise that everything will always go as it should.

Yesterday, we laid to rest our dear brother Howie. As I told the people gathered in Rhode Island yesterday, in preparation for that service and this one, I downloaded several images to my computer that could serve as header images. It wasn’t until relatively late in the week that I discovered that I’d used the same image for both.

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It’s the paschal candle. It’s the candle we light at every baptism, every funeral, and every Sunday of Easter. It’s the one we light at Easter vigil as we remember the night that Christ rose from the grave. And it’s there to remind us that though things don’t always go as they should, in funny ways and terrible ways, in ways within our control and far beyond it, the worst thing is never the last thing. That though we still deal with terrible pain and grief and sometimes mistakes and guilt, love always rises from the grave.

We lit that candle at Howie’s funeral, and we light it today to celebrate Otto and Luca’s baptism. And because of that, I can’t help feeling like today, Howie is with us.

Though we deal with mistakes, death, and pain today, we also celebrate, because Love has risen from the grave. The worst thing is never the last thing: not our mistakes, not even death itself. Love always wins.

Things will not always go as they should for Otto and Luca. They will mess up, we will mess up, and things beyond all of our control will go wrong.

But today we promise, as the whole Church, no matter what, to surround them with love. To be there to teach them about Jesus. To be there to teach Sunday school and tell them hello on Sunday mornings and ask them, what they’re learning at school. To watch them grow.

We may not all be there, but we, the church of Jesus Christ, will be there, always, in some form, and in some way, just as the memory of Howie is  with us today, we will all be there.

Today, we declare that this, the Church, is their home.

This is why we exist: to be a home to everyone. To preach hope. To love with open arms. Because, as we say at Beer & Hymns, we believe that’s how Jesus rolled, and we want to be like him.

Being Church, of course, is full of struggle and full of mistakes and full of tragedies beyond our control. We all face hardship. But we continue to dare boldly and love anyway.

Wendell Berry wrote,

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
that we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
that we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

We all make mistakes. But where there is love, there is grace.

Otto and Luca, welcome home. We’re not perfect, but we are loved. And we’re here to remind you as the years go by, that no matter what, you are loved, too.

And may at least some of your mistakes be funny.

So, as I accidentally texted a friend this week: let’s get the water and do this ballgame. Amen.

1. You can listen to Taylor Mali’s entire poem here. (Some content may be inappropriate for children.) 

Bridesmaids and Push Notifications

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Amos 5:18-24
Matthew 25:1-13

Get ready.

That’s not just the theme of the readings today. Get ready: we’ve got a lot to talk about.

We’ve always got a lot to talk about these days.

Slate Magazine posted a video recently detailing every push notification [or the ones that pop up on your phone] that the New York Times has sent out this year. The accompanying article details the ways in which the news cycle for the past year has sped up considerably, for nearly every person with even a passing interest in the news, no matter their affiliation.

This video of every push notification for the entire year comes with a prominent pause button, which viewers are explicitly invited to push. The article ends with, “We hope you’ll take a few minutes to explore …and reflect on the crazy year, [and] press the pause button when it feels overwhelming (because it will, and it was)…” (1)

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Those who are less tuned in to the news might be tempted to advise the rest of us to turn off our push notifications, and I have certainly received this advice every time I’ve mentioned it anywhere. However, as one pundit put it, Washington news in its totality these days is similar to the various individual scandals that we’ve experienced in the past years, or even better, much more like a sports event, where our existential existence hangs on who wins. “We can’t turn away,” he said, “because as terrible as it may seem, it’s the most interesting thing in the world.” To some of us, to turn those notifications off would feel like we were sitting out history, unaware of what we will tell our children and grandchildren. To many of us, he said, it’s not as simple as “turn that off and you’ll be less stressed.”

We’re constantly alert and awake and ready for the next disaster, but that has, in one sense, made the world feel hopelessly stagnant. At least it does to me. I’ve been struggling with that this week, as we experienced yet another outburst of violence: this time, at a church — a small church, an environment not unfamiliar to us.

I know that we’ve all got something to say about guns, and believe me, I do too. But I was also taught, as a writer, that a piece of writing that takes on an issue where everyone’s got an entrenched opinion is a boring piece of writing. “Whatever you have to say about abortion or gun control,” my high school English teacher said dryly, “has been said before, and someone else has almost definitely said it better.” So if you’re interested in that, no matter your position, I’ve certainly got reading suggestions that might challenge you — just ask me at coffee hour. But you don’t pay me to be a policy wonk.

Public policy is a hobby. The health of souls is my vocation. And I don’t just mean “health” as in where you go when you die. I mean how your soul is, right now, and what outbursts of violence among American citizens has to say about the health of American souls.

Because it’s pretty easy to point at every killer and talk about how bad they were. How sick they were. How mentally ill they were. How they subscribed to some horrible, violent ideology. To put the problem outside of us.

But at some point, when a pattern keeps repeating among a people, we have to admit that it’s not a “them” problem, as much as we’d love to make it one. It’s not only about various flavors of fundamentalism. It’s not about the mentally ill, either. It’s about us.

Another article came out this week about how violence is not the product of mental illness — this is evidenced by the vast majority of people in treatment for mental illnesses who have never been violent, and the majority of violent criminals with no diagnosable mental illnesses. Is there an overlap between the two? Obviously. Humans commit violence. Humans get sick, including mentally. So obviously, yes, overlap is inevitable.

But it’s pretty undeniable that it’s primarily anger that makes someone, whether mentally ill or not, violent. My friend Dana, how a United Methodist pastor in Atlanta, commented thus on the aforementioned think piece about violence and anger: “I read this, and as a former mental health professional, I agree 100%. It also makes me wonder what the church could be doing to deal with this anger. I agree that anger management teaches useful skill sets, but I’ve also seen how anger burns a hole in someone’s soul, and I thought the church should have something to say about the health of our souls (and not just the question of whether you’re going to heaven).” (2)

That is, of course, not to blame the victims or to say that if someone had just reached out to this shooter or that shooter, everything would be fine. But whether a person commits violent crimes or not, it’s pretty undeniable that we — we Americans — have a problem with anger.

We are so angry that we cannot hear each other.

We’re so angry that push notifications make people humph and sigh and tense up. (I know this happens to me.)

We’re so angry that we’re miserable.

We are so angry that our souls are unhealthy.

We are a nation of angry, frustrated people. And I don’t think we’re ready to take care of each other.

There’s a podcast out there somewhere called Sincerely, X, and it features important stories that cannot be told publicly and are thus told anonymously.

One such story features a woman who, after a series of pretty blatant indignities stacked on top of a bad day, including being utterly disrespected by a pharmacy employee, completely lost it in the middle of a pharmacy. Seeing red, the woman barely remembers her rampage, in which she pepper sprayed several people. Finally, she collapses, and she hears a man’s voice command everyone to clear the area around her. What he says stops her rampage and makes her burst into tears. 

Asked what he said, she said, “He just asked me what was bothering me.” (3)

Turns out, the man had been trained to respond to such crises. He immediately circumvented her anger by clearing everyone away and by treating her like a human. She was still charged with a crime and still paid the price and she makes no excuses for her actions, but she also acknowledges this man’s role in saving others from her rampage.

He was ready.

Our readings today look towards Advent, like they do every year in November, but this year I feel the urgency just a little bit more. The world always needs people who are ready to respond in love, but if our push notifications tell us anything, it’s that the world needs it just a little bit more these days.

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In a reading that seems a little bit out of place in church but is fun to read if you ever get frustrated with a worship team, Amos, speaking for God, spouts off — “I hate, I despise your festivals! … take away from me the noise of your songs!” (Amos 5:21a, 23a). Um… welcome to church, everybody, and I promise God is happy you’re here, despite our OT reading.

The point of the whole thing is not that God thinks we’re bad singers, but that that people were — are — making themselves fat and happy while not actually effecting any real change in the world. They weren’t taking care of each other, but man, was their worship fancy!

And God hated it, and told them that if they were looking for the Day of the Lord, it wasn’t gonna be pretty for them.

Then in the Gospel reading, we hear about the ten bridesmaids — five wise, five foolish. We’ve heard it a lot, but it’s sort of a strange story if you get stuck in the details. I mean, for one, you’ve got bridesmaids going out in the middle of the night to buy more oil, which only doesn’t seem weird to you because there’s a 24 hour CVS in Chicopee. These folks didn’t live in the era of 24 hours service, so every time I read this parable, I can’t help thinking of the foolish bridesmaids, “Man, they’re really foolish. I mean, where are you going?! You’re going to miss everything.”

The point, of course, is to be ready. To be prepared. To keep your lamps trimmed and burning, because you never know when you’ll need them. When you can use what you have — whether it’s your money, your time, your training, or just your attention — to make a real difference to someone. To see them as human. To treat them as a human person with real concerns. After all, as we said last week, people do not live in the abstract. We are real people with real lives and real hurts and yes — real anger. And we have to be ready to take care of each other and the world around us.

The care of souls isn’t just a pastoral vocation, but a Christian one. Because the person who would never talk to a pastor about their anger may just talk to you.

All of us have to be ready.

And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to tell you that if we just take better care of our neighbors it’ll be a magical way of preventing violent outbursts and getting rid of everyone’s anger. The Gospel is not a story about how we can fix everything if we just try.

The Gospel is not a story about us.

It’s a story about how the kingdom of heaven peeks through every now and then when we let ourselves be open to it, sure. But it’s also a story about our illogical, wonderful hope that someday, this, too, shall be made right. Where everyone is safe and loved and valued. Where no one is angry. Where no one mourns. Where justice really does roll down like waters in the desert.

A quote attributed to the Talmud says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

This, of course, is just an exposition on the Micah passage that hands in our entryway.
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We gather here because, at our best, together, we offer a glimpse into a future without pain, without anger, where all are cared for. And we gather here because the work will someday be completed, the bridegroom will come, and justice will roll down like waters.

I don’t know how. I lose sight of it sometimes in the midst of yet more bad news.

I get angry at the state of things. But it’s this gathered community that’s here to remind me, to remind you, to remind itself to stay ready, to keep caring — because the dawn is coming.

“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Amen.

1. You can find the Push Notifications article and video (and it’s a good one) here.
2. The Rev. Dana Ezell pastors Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta.
3. You can listen to the whole episode of Sincerely, X here.

 

All Saints: #Blessed Are You

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Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

#Blessed.

It’s been used so much now that it’s become a joke on social media. Hashtags, of course, began as a way to separate posts about different topics, but also quickly evolved into a way of making a statement. #Blessed is like that; people will often use it in posts about vacations, family, possessions, or any number of other things, and many more of us have been realizing how ridiculous it’s gotten and have started using it ironically: “Got new ramen mix from the Big Y. Hashtag blessed.”

Like most social media trends, though, it’s a window into life beyond our phones and laptops. It makes a statement about how most people — specifically, most Christians — think about what it means to be blessed. After all, long before there was social media, there were vanity license plates and bumper stickers for your car that said things like “Too blessed to be stressed.”

Give me a break.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve known some incredible, kind, intelligent people who use “blessed” this way. Some of them have the aforementioned license plates and use the hashtags.

It is, however, a little window into how we as a culture think of being “blessed” — it has, for a while now, become less about divine favor and more about happiness, money, possessions, family — basically, to say, “I’m blessed” has come to mean, to borrow a phrase from a certain prosperity Gospel preacher, “I’m living my best life now.”

Part of it is our history. The “Protestant ethic” is even more of a thing than Protestant-ism these days — it’s the idea that your morality and your blessings are based solely on how hard you work, and that if you’re poor, it’s because God’s cursing you for not working hard enough and being frugal enough.

Of course, we also have the Bible to blame, since those pesky Protestant work ethic folk got those ideas from their interpretation of the Bible. Often, especially in books like Genesis, we’re told that someone, usually a dude, was “blessed by God,” and then said dude’s riches and possessions and children are described. But it’s still pretty clear that those things don’t necessarily go together — nobody’s more blessed than Jesus, but he ended up being executed after living as a poor traveling rabbi in an occupied land.

Yes, he rose again, but he didn’t exactly have a boat and a lake house.

So what does it mean to be blessed? And what does that have to do with saints?

To answer the first question, I consulted the dictionary, or as Demetri Martin calls it, the Nerd Bible.

Here’s what I found out.

To be “blessed” is “to be consecrated for a religious rite; to be made holy.”
Not one mention of the Hamptons in the whole definition.

So how is something, or someone, made holy?

A professor early in my college career remarked at how churches feel holy to her because she imagines the prayers offered in them by the saints over the years. She images the people who came here just to rest. Just to pray. Just to cry.

Many of you have been in this space to do just that. And many more people have offered prayers and love and tears here who have now died. This place is holy.

Holiness in our lives, more often that not, has skin on. It’s the point where humanity meets the divine.

It’s that human holiness, those prayers offered here, that makes even my skeptical mind wonder, “Maybe there is something to all of this, after all.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes coming back to her congregation from vacation and remarking how difficult it was to be spiritual without them, because the gathered assembly helps her believe that there is something to all of this Jesus stuff.

I feel the same way about you. I hope that you feel the same way about this community, too — that it helps you to remember that there’s some hope out there beyond what we can see. That, despite terror attacks and shootings and death, maybe there is a glimmer of hope, somewhere, just beyond what we can see — and that whatever it is, it lives here, in this place, with these people.

As usual, God has a way of turning our expectations upside down. We think that being blessed means being rich and happy, all while Jesus says,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-5)
Which immediately reminds me of Monty Python’s depiction of the sermon on the mount in the movie Life of Brian: “Oh, the meek! I’m glad they’re getting something; they have a helluva time.”

But really.

Those who are poor in spirit, in mourning, meek, and persecuted are all mentioned by Jesus as people who are #blessed.

And we’ve all known saints like that. In our tradition, saints are all of us — we are all sinners, and we are all saints, and on all saints day, we remember all of those who have lived and died in varying circumstances, each one of them loved, each one of them blessed, each one of them real.

Thomas G. Long, storied preacher and preaching scholar, puts it this way in his book on funerals: “Christians do not live in the abstract. They are real people who live real lives, and they die real and very different deaths. They die young, and they die old and full of days. The die in the flames of martyrdom, and they die cowering in fear. They die as saintly sinners; they die as sinful saints. They die of crib death, of cancer, of old age, and by their own hand. They die full of joy, and they die despairing. They die in Hartford and Buenos Aires, Karachi and Toronto, Nairobi and rural Nebraska-in the places where they have lived and loved and in places where they are strangers and exiles. They die in hospitals and nursing homes, along highways, at sea, and at work. They die surrounded by those who love them, and they die alone….”

Dr. Long goes on to say that Christian funerals can also be radically different, but they have one unifying theme: the Gospel. He writes, “All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)

In Jesus, our stories are redeemed. In Jesus, the world is turned upside down.

And in Jesus, we look at each other and at the lives of all those who came before — from St. Augustine of Hippo to St. Howie of Our Savior’s — and we dare to believe that just maybe, there’s hope. That just maybe, the one they believed in and talked about and prayed to is the one who can redeem all of this.

Because of them, and because of each other, we can believe that someday, there really will be no more death or crying or pain. That maybe someday you won’t get those news updates on your phone about yet another bloodthirsty person who murdered innocent people.

That maybe someday all of this will be redeemed.

Until then, we lift each other and we pray together in this place and we continue to make this place feel holy. We sing things together like the hymn we’ll sing in just a few minutes: “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.” (2)

It’s a completely illogical claim. And I could not believe it without you.

Holiness often comes with skin on.

So let us give thanks for each other and for every saint who has blessed us — with love or with service or by building the church we know today — and now rests with God. Because of them, we aren’t blessed as in rich — we are blessed as in holy.

We are blessed as in saints. Amen.

1. Excerpt from Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, Westminster John Knox Publishers, 2013.

2. The hymn of the day at OSLC on All Saints 2017 was “What Wondrous Love Is This.” 

Reformation Sunday: On Being Reformed… Sort Of

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John 8:31-36

Demetri Martin — he’s not a Reformation hero. He’s one of my favorite stand up comedians.

I like him because his internal monologues and musings are essentially in the same vein as mine.

This is the man who said, “I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.

“Especially if your teammates are bad guessers.”

He has this monologue when he talks about the phrase, “sort of.” He says, “’Sort of’ is such a harmless thing to say. Sort of. It’s just a filler. Sort of – it doesn’t really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re going to live.’” (1)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sort of has a conversation with some people who believe in him — sort of.

He’s just given them the famous, “I am the Light of the world” speech — “I am the Light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He’s just invoked the name of God — he’s told them that after they kill him — he says, “[after that], you will know that I am” (John 8:28). (Your translations will say “I am he.” The Greek says “I am” and the translation is interpreting it in English. I could talk for a long time about that, but if you’re curious, ask me later.)

Point is, Jesus has just told them, fairly eloquently, exactly who he is. He is Love and Light. He’s the Word made flesh. And this time, lots of folks believe him — sort of.

Things start to go south during this other famous passage: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

These folks respond, “Free? We’ve never been slaves.”

Specifically, they say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone” (8:33).

Which is funny, in a sort of not-funny way, because the story of the descendants of Abraham runs right through slavery. “When we were slaves in Egypt” and phrases like it are a refrain that echoes throughout Jewish history, right up to today. This particular group of Jews, however, had forgotten where they came from.

This is a good time to pause and say that the record of Martin Luther on the Jewish people is terrible. The history of the relationship of Christians, Lutheran Christians, and Protestant Christians towards Jewish people is terrible, too. The cry of the Reformation is “semper reformanda,” or “always reforming.” One of the ways that we are reforming is in respect to our Jewish neighbors, who are our partners in faith, and God’s own people.

The Gospel of John also talks about “the Jews” in ways that need unpacking. The Christian people at the time had come under fire from the Jews in Israel, as any group that steps out from a religious pack does, and John’s Gospel reflects that. BUT, if you read closely, Jesus is incredibly Jewish in John — he attends all of the religious festivals. He makes Jewish references. And he argues with Jewish leaders and takes their arguments seriously, even as he engages with common Jewish folk. Our own faith makes little sense apart from the faith of our Jewish neighbors, and it’s about time we gave them their due respect.

End of sidebar.

So in one of these arguments, the Jewish folks Jesus is arguing with leave off the Exodus: “we’ve never been slaves to anyone.”

Jesus goes in a different direction: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” I used to think of “being a slave to sin” as Jesus looking disapprovingly over my shoulder for every wrong thing I’ve ever thought about doing, and about how I couldn’t stop saying cuss words and I couldn’t stop drinking.*

*Note: I’m not an alcoholic; there was about a day and a half period when I was three years old when I became very concerned that when people talked about “drinking” or “drinking too much” or “drinking and driving” they meant drinking anything. So I felt very guilty for drinking my juice and water until my aunt set me straight. And I’m really glad she did, because I was very thirsty.

The point is, Jesus isn’t trying to make you feel guilty about being a slave to little things you feel sorry for. But destructive behaviors — the things we do to hurt other people and ourselves — do have their way of holding us captive.

But then he makes a little switch. He’s talking about being a slave to sin, then he says, “A slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:35).
Wait, wait. Hold on. Who’s the master — sin, or God?

Try this: “Everyone who breaks the law is a slave to the law.”

Whose Law is it?

But if God sets you free from the Law, you will be free indeed.

By grace you have been saved, through faith.

You can’t be free by being perfect.

That is the heart of the Gospel that Martin Luther and the Reformers were willing to die for.

500 years ago, something started. A fire got sparked. 500 years ago, the Spirit of God signed us all up for something that we’re still working out. Some of us look around and see fewer people than we used to and we say that we must be dying. But just like those Jewish folks who were talking to Jesus, we forget where we came from. We forget that the Church has died and risen again many times. If we are to be an Easter people, we will have the same number of Good Fridays.

It seems to me that people often come to church for a sense of settled-ness or peace. And providing that is part of why we exist for the world around us. It’s why we exist for each other. So that when you’ve lost someone or when you’re sick or when you’re hurting, we will surround you with care. But when lose ourselves a little when we say, like the Jewish people in the Gospel, “We’re good church folks. We’re Americans. We’ve always been free. Our church is reformed.”

We think we’re done. We think Luther did it all.

But we still screw it up, a lot. We Lutherans have been all kinds of things in 500 years. We’ve been anti-Semitic. We’ve been racist. We’ve been complicit when Hitler took over Germany and began exterminating millions of Jews and others, including LGBTQ folk. Lutherans have committed hate crimes and sexual harassment and pushed racist ideologies.

And we still screw it up today. A lot. In small ways and big ones.

We’re reformed, but we’re still reforming.

Semper reformanda — we are always being reformed. We aren’t celebrating an event today. We’re celebrating the date that something started: when a somewhat grouchy, sometimes crude, always beer-loving, 33 year old monk put his life on the line to start something whose ripples are still being felt 500 years later. We stand in the shoes of a guy who felt strongly enough about his convictions that the Gospel is a story about God, not our own piety, that when threatened with excommunication and even death, when asked to recant, he still said, “Nah.”

500 years later, we’re still doing the same thing, preaching the same Gospel, gathering with joy around the same table, not because we must, but because we may. And regardless of what any of us do, as long as there’s a Gospel, there’ll be a people called Lutheran. Because, as the movie V for Vendetta told us, ideas can’t die. Especially ideas worth dying for.

And the idea is simple: you can’t be free by being perfect. You can’t follow enough religious rules or be pious enough to clear your conscience, and the harder you try, the more trapped you’ll be.

But God put on flesh to say that if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed. You don’t have to be perfect. You’re loved just because you breathe, and because of that, you’re free to do more than beat yourself up. God loves you deeply, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and that in this community, we fail a lot, but we’re built on the idea that maybe we should try to love each other that much, too. We’re reformed, but we’re still reforming.

Which is another way of saying, you know, sort of, to sum up, sort of — I mean to say that 500 years ago our church was reformed — sort of.

——-

1. You can watch Demetri Martin’s entire monologue, If Ihere.

Stewardship Sunday #4: Built with Love

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Matthew 22:15-22

People have always remarked that my father and I have the same eyes.

When I was little and my dad and I would play, I remember clearly that I would do that thing that kids sometimes do when they put their little faces very close to an loved one’s, close one eye, and look very closely at the other person’s eye. I would say, “What do you see?” He would respond, “I see my eye! No wait, that’s your eye!”

If you have children or other close family members, you probably have similar stories. We take joy in the “family resemblance.” Even family friends love to remark at how a kid looks just like his grandmother, or how she looks just like her mother did at her age. In the rural South, people most often describe this by using the word “favor,” as in, “he favors his mother.” It doesn’t mean, of course, that a child likes one parent better than the other, but that the child resembles that parent, grandparent, or other relative most closely.

I favor my father.

Another way of saying it is to say that I’m “the spittin’ image of her daddy,” or as my father likes to say, “You look just like me, you know, if I was a girl.”

Today’s Gospel is a tired text that we often hear around election and tax season and maybe even stewardship season. It’s often pulled out any time we have to talk about how we use our money.

The Pharisees send some of their students, along with some Herodians — interpreters don’t quite agree on whether the Herodians were simply Greek Jews or whether they were an active political party — but the point is, the Pharisees sent these guys to trap Jesus.

And a clever trap it is, sort of.

They send these folks to ask Jesus a simple question: essentially, whether it’s a sin to pay taxes. 

If Jesus says that people should pay taxes, it’s probably not going to go well with the crowds, and not just because taxes have been moaned and complained about since the dawn of taxation. They weren’t doing the equivalent, you see, of paying state or federal taxes. They were paying for their own occupation by a strong and harsh foreign power: Rome. What’s more, tax collectors were often hated for overcharging people and skimming off the top. The Pharisees also speculated that the very coins used for paying taxes are idolatrous because they have icons of the emperor on them which to them, was a kind of graven image. In other words, if Jesus said, “Yes, pay your taxes,” he was going to be in trouble with the religious leaders and the crowds.

Alternatively, if he encouraged people not to pay their taxes, the Roman authorities would be on him, as we say in the South, like white on rice. One of the constant risks of Jesus’ life and teaching was walking this line between being killed by the Romans for being subversive and being arrested by the religious authorities for being blasphemous.

Jesus sees the trap coming and calls them out for it. But unlike many public figures of our day, he doesn’t dodge the question or change the subject and he only calls them one name instead of several.

Then, like a good teacher, he brings it into concrete terms. He asks them for a coin.

Now, if you’ll remember, the Pharisees were supposed to think carrying these coins was blasphemous, but they produce a coin anyway.

I feel like Matthew left out this line: “And the Lord smirked.”

He says, rhetorically, “Whose image is this?”

Our translation says, “Whose head is this,” but the Greek word translated “head” is most often translated “image” or “likeness” in the New Testament.

“Whose image is this, and whose title?”

They respond, of course, “The emperor’s.”

Then he gives them the line we’re most used to hearing: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

And he once again wiggles out of the trap and amazes everyone.

Jesus: more verbally adept than a politician, but with a spine — a combination that we rarely get in public discourse, whether now or in the past.

Of course, most of us have heard the same tired stewardship sermons on this text about how we should give to God what is God’s with our money. Though I think that’s quite the opposite of Jesus’ point here, I do think this text has something to say about stewardship as we wrap up stewardship month.

You see, I think we can fully take Jesus’ lesson here by either looking in the mirror or taking a hard look at each other.

Whose image is this?

“So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God they were created” (Genesis 1:27).

Give to God what is God’s.

At first, it sounds to me like a hard word: of God saying “I own your butt.” (Though, admittedly, the Holy Spirit has more than once given me that message when I’ve wanted to pull a Jonah and run away and join the circus or something.)

Indeed, Christians have been known to guilt each other by continually reminding ourselves and each other that God demands our lives, and that we’d be ungrateful not to give God everything.

But God’s love, of course, isn’t dependent upon our devotion. We are no less created in God’s image whether we dedicate our whole lives to good or whether we never acknowledge God at all. Our problem, as always, is how quickly we make things about us when the Gospel, of course, is a story about God.

Whose image is this?

When we reframe things to make them about something larger than ourselves, we gain perspective. The Quakers in America were staunchly anti-slavery because they believed, and still believe, that the Divine Light lives within every human soul. Therefore, to own another human being is to own a piece of God, and that should not be done. To abuse another person is to abuse God, and that should not be done.

What if we looked at everyone, including ourselves, and reminded ourselves to ask the question: whose image is this?

The conversation about sexual harassment has picked up again with the Harvey Weinstein revelations. What if all men of faith looked at women and, instead of seeing them as objects, said, “Whose image is this?”

We are all born in the image of God.

Our worth, our autonomy, our free will, are our birthright, and none of us has any right to take that away from another person: to intimidate them, to make them feel afraid, to harass, abuse, hurt, or kill them. These things are sinful.

What’s more, when we look in the mirror, let us wonder: whose image is this? We do belong to God, regardless of our actions, but since this is true, how much more should we care for our bodies and our souls? How much more should we dedicate ourselves — personally, financially, and with our spare time — to spreading this Good News of mutual love and respect rooted in theology?

This, I believe, is a message the world needs: if all are truly sacred, this changes everything, just like it did, and does, for the Quakers.

In short, to follow our construction motif that we’ve been working with all month: we are all built with love, baptized and claimed with joy, made in God’s image. We’re all part of the same family.

Families do indeed marvel at the “family resemblance.” It bonds us to our children and siblings and other relatives by signaling to the deepest parts of our brains, “This one is to be cared for and protected. This one is one of us.”

In a world where our entire being can be consumed by the happenings in the world, let us render to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.

Every person we meet, and all of us, are the spittin’ image of our Father, our Mother, our God — the one who gave us birth and gets us up every morning.

We are all built with love. Amen.

Stewardship Sunday #3 – The Terrible Parable and the Banquet for All: Finding Joy

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Maybe it’s time to say “hasta la vista” to reading parables only one way. Read on.

Ezra 5:1-5, 11-13, 16
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Everybody has something in their lives that annoys them and just generally gets them down.

For me, it’s technology. Technology drives me insane.

I’m so glad I’m old enough that I’m no longer commonly stereotyped as some kind of technological whiz kid just because of my age. It was never true. I’ve always known enough tricks to get me by, but devices have always screwed up on me. I’ve always been the person sitting in the coffee shop who can’t get her computer to connect while everyone else works away with perfectly functioning devices. It’s me who leans over and asks if the wifi is working while you’re just enjoying your latte. I’m sorry about that. It’s just that, while everyone else’s computer soars through cyber space with the speed and ease of a Brady-to-Edelman touchdown pass (don’t forget to pray for the Patriots), my computer is looking back at me like a twenty-one year old office assistant saying in a Valley girl voice, “Your connection was interrupted.”

Humor has always been my way of fighting back against annoying circumstances. My best friend Samuel and I take turns telling of our misfortunes in the funniest ways we can muster; the object of the game is to spin your inconvenience or misfortune into the funniest story you possibly can. We’ve gotten good at it. 

Of course, there’s a difference between a misfortune and a tragedy. Some things are decidedly not funny and cannot be made funny. These are the things that call us to shout “Too soon” to someone who makes an off color joke, or, as Parker and I say of some things, it’s “always too soon.” Some things will never be funny.

A list of things like that just keeps piling up. Mass shootings. The threat of nuclear war. Division and partisanship. Racism and white supremacy.

The much-maligned news media doesn’t help. Even the most reasonable person can’t help but wonder occasionally if any news organization of any stripe is actually out for truth or ratings. And what gets ratings in this age of Twitter? Making every story short and simple. We try to domesticate any story and make it seem simple, when truth be told, it’s anything but. There are a thousand different angles on everything, a thousand new things to consider, a thousand truths buried in a billion stories.

Are you on the verge of a panic attack? I find myself there sometimes just thinking about the sheer complexity of the world’s problems and my own.

We tell stories to try to help us unravel it all. Only, telling stories doesn’t really help simplify things. If the characters in the story are human beings, there are untold levels of complexity even within a single story.

We humans are complex creatures.

Parables, also, are stories.

We typically think that Jesus tells us parables that give us a singular truth, that help us to neatly break things down.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, it begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and from there, it’s off to story time with Uncle Jesus.

But Jesus, much like any good rabbi, doesn’t particularly like to de-simplify things. He’s just telling a story here.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, first, calls this the “worst parable ever,” and I can’t help agreeing. A king, which we all easily presume to be God, throws a banquet, and throws a guy out for not being dressed right? Just this week I read an article about a prison ministry where a prisoner reacted excitedly to the part where the “good and bad” people get invited to the party, but then exploded into anger when he reached the end: “What do you expect from people like us? We don’t have all the right clothes. We never look right! You should know that! ….Why you even invite us to any of this if you’re just gonna humiliate us and throw us out anyway?” (1)

Nadia talks about how you have to turn your head a thousand different ways to make sense of a parable. Jesus doesn’t define the characters for you. You aren’t told “this person is God,” and “this person is Jesus,” and “this person is you.” Well, sometimes you are, but you aren’t here. Christian literature includes many different people throughout history taking a hack at a parable and coming up with any number of possibilities that help us reveal deeper truths, and when we always look at the characters the same way, we get stuck in a rut.

As for me, I flipped through interpretation after interpretation this week where the king is God, and none of them seemed satisfactory to me, for reasons that Nadia Bolz-Weber captures perfectly in her telling of the story.

She writes, “…our parable for today is a real doozy.  Here’s how I heard it: A king throws a wedding banquet and invites the other rich, slave-owning powerful people. Seemingly unimpressed by the promised veal cutlet at the wedding feast, the elite invitees laugh at the invitation and proceed to abuse and then kill the slaves of the king.  Well then the king kills them back.  But he doesn’t stop there, not to be outdone, he burns down the city… and it is there amidst the burning carnage of the newly destroyed city he sends more slaves to go find whoever they can to fill the seats. After all…the food is ready and he has all these fancy robes for the guests. All he cares about is having every seat filled at his big party. But who is left?  He burned the city. The rich and powerful have been murdered so it’s the regular folks wandering the streets looking for their dead, picking apart the charred debris of their burned city who are then told that they have no choice but to go to the party of the guy responsible — and it’s already been established that he doesn’t respond well if you turn him down.  So the terrified masses show up and pretend that this capricious tyrant didn’t just lay waste to their city.  Out of fear they all dutifully put on their wedding robes given them at the door and they pretend. Slipping on a gorgeous garment was what you did for a king’s wedding feast. And the guests got to keep the outfits, just a little souvenir of the king’s generosity – and a reminder to keep in line. You don’t get anything from the empire without it costing you a bit of your life. 

Well, our story ends with these well dressed survivors looking on as the King spots the one guy at the banquet who isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  And when the innocent man has nothing to say for himself the king has this scapegoat hogtied and thrown into the outer darkness. ‘Many are called but few are chosen’ he says.” (2)

Welp, that blew my mind this week. Of course, I still have questions about some details, but despite my doubt that this is how Matthew intended the story to be read, this interpretation does, in my opinion, hold water. And despite Matthews intentions, any preacher knows that the Holy Spirit often works far outside our intentions.

Remember: Jesus’ audience lived in the midst of a lot of upheaval and turmoil; they lived under the thumb of the Roman empire. They were no strangers to moody tyrants burning cities: they lived in fear of it.

Not only that, the God that we worship in Jesus Christ is not a powerful king, but a servant. Jesus doesn’t kill his enemies and burn their cities; he’s killed by his powerful enemies for refusing to go along with them.

Nadia concludes, “…the kingdom of heaven is like: a first century Jewish peasant who laughed at the powerful, kissed lepers, befriended prostitutes and ate with all the wrong people and whom the authorities and the powerful elite had to hog tie and throw into the outer darkness.  …the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus.  And what if it is from this place of outer darkness that everything is changed?  It is in the outer darkness of Calvary where death is swallowed up forever.” (2)

No matter how you interpret this particular parable, it’s a theological truth that Christ and his defiance of the usual world order sets us free.

Free from the 24 hour news cycle.

Free from having to put on the right clothes and act the “right way.”

Free from partisanship and liberal orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy.

Free to think and consider the many angles of every story rather than being tied only to the interpretation that serves our pre-conceived assumptions about God, the world, the Bible, or each other.

Free to love.

Free to be grateful, to learn and work hard and give (it is stewardship season, after all), but also free to laugh and be joyful, because if it’s really true that Love rises from the grave, that changes everything.

Free to form community and real relationships based on love rather than expectations.

On the NPR News Weekly Roundup this past week, I did not expect to laugh with everything that the crew had to cover. After all, most of it was in the category of “always too soon” — it will never be funny.

But as they reached the end, the crew entered their final segment called “Can’t Let It Go,” where each member of the crew describes one thing from the news that they just can’t let go. It’s not a humor segment by any means; often the topics they cover are gravely serious.

And yet, this week, it unleashed giggle after giggle from me.

First, there was the description from a political correspondent of Steve Scalise, congressman from Louisiana who was hit in the hip during the shooting at the Congressional baseball practice earlier this year, returning to the halls of Congress. His return to the floor has been well documented, but this correspondent saw him outside his office riding his scooter, outfitted with an LSU sticker, very quickly and gleefully down the hallway while his very serious security detail half walking, half jogging after him.

Another correspondent who had been covering the recent Supreme Court case on partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin described a bi-partisan rally that included none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger saying at the end of his speech, “It is time to say hasta la vista to gerrymandering…”

Another described a mistake made by an NPR social media staff person who accidentally posted a personal photo to the NPR social media sites. Rather than being salacious, as many such mistakes are, it was instead a parental commentary about his daughter Ramona, who’s less than a year old.

This post appeared in news feeds next to the NPR News name and logo:
“Ramona is given new toy: smiles, examines for 20 seconds, discards.
Ramona gets a hug: acquiesces momentarily, squirms to be put down.
Ramona sees three cats thirty feet away: immediately possessed by shrieking, spasmodic joy that continues after cats flee for their lives.”

Twelve minutes later, the NPR account edited the post: “This post was intended for a personal account. We apologize for the error.”

The NPR Politics correspondent added, “In a world of darkness, this was some light. We apologize for any cuteness.”

By stepping out of our pretending to be on this team or that team, and by fostering love and understanding and community, we can step out of a world of darkness and add a little light. That is what we do here.

We don’t do it perfectly. Hell, sometimes we don’t do it well at all.

We’re a work in progress.

But we keep showing up. We keep standing out. We keep trying to do the impossible: build community in a divided world. Proclaim Good News in a world of terrible news.

And every single week, we gather around this banquet, where no one is required to come, but all are invited. Where you don’t have to be wearing the right robes or even have the right attitude to attend. Where you don’t have to subscribe to the right political or theological beliefs to attend.

Where all are welcome.

Where you will find joy, community, peace, abundance, and God.

So let’s step out in faith and step into our future together, because this kind of community is worth it. Because the only thing that love can’t do is stay dead.

I close with a benediction used by a UCC church in Connecticut pastored by a friend from Emory.

It’s mostly written by William Sloane Coffin, and I leave you with it.

“May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short,
the grace to risk something big for something good,
the grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
and too small for anything but love. (4)

Amen.

1. Read the whole Christian Century article on a prisoner’s reaction to this parable here.
2. Read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s whole sermon on this text here.
3. If you like podcasts, you can find the NPR News podcast online here.
4. Many thanks to the Reverend John Chapman at Westfield UCC in Killingly, Connecticut, for sharing this benediction.

Oh, and if you want to read more about Ramona (who doesn’t?), you can do that here.

Stewardship Sunday #2: On Deciding to Do the Impossible

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A documentary that tackles the Impossible Race. The documentary is available on Netflix.

Nehemiah 2:1-8
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

A lot, obviously, has happened since last we met. That is always true, but that’s particularly been true this week. Another mass shooting. More turmoil within our government. More turmoil abroad.

I’m gonna drop the perfect pastor bit and just be a citizen and a human for a moment if that’s alright with you: I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself getting more and more cynical. It feels like nothing is changing, nothing has changed, and we as a nation are okay with that. It feels like we’ve done nothing to curb our racism, our sexism, our homophobia, or our political gridlock.

This whole thing feels increasingly impossible.

Of course, we can all only focus on all of the upsetting and impossible things on the news for so long before we reach for a distraction. This isn’t a bad thing — it helps us to stay balanced and sane.

So I turned this week to Netflix. I was feeling in the mood for a sports movie.

Often, I go in search of a movie and end up with a documentary. I don’t know exactly why, but I think it has something to do with my preference for real life over fiction.

I found a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It’s about a 100+ mile endurance race in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants will tell you that the loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. The race is 1/3 on trails and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change.

For those of you who are not runners or hikers, let me translate: as you might imagine, that is an impossible amount of elevation change.

Though it takes five loops to complete the race, three loops is considered an achievement — completing three loops is called the “fun run.” Runners run day and night, and they have only sixty hours to complete the race. If they sleep at all, it’s only for an hour or two over the course of that sixty hours.

It took ten years before anyone completed the race. After that, it took another four years before someone else did it. Since the race began in 1995, only eighteen people have ever completed the race. Many years, no one finishes.

Only about forty people are selected to run the race each year, and the selection process is rather secretive. The race is the brain child of two men, one called Lazarus and one called Raw Dog. Lazarus does most of the talking in the documentary.

Lazarus keeps the price low — it costs $1.60 to apply and if accepted, participants must bring a license plate from their home state or country as their admission to the race. This keeps the race accessible to anyone who can afford to make the trip to Tennessee, so all kinds of people show up, including backpackers and poor graduate students. And, Lazarus says, “For $1.60 and a license plate, if people have complaints, I can just laugh.”
Since so much of it is off trail and the course is not marked, the course is sometimes hard to find, and when runners quit, they often take a long time to find civilization again. One runner completed only two miles of the course, quit, and then got lost, spending some 32 hours in the woods. He is currently the holder of the record for the slowest race pace ever, at sixteen hours per mile.

Lazarus, co-creator of the race, says that he sees the participants every year and really hopes that most succeed, but he knows most won’t. He says, “there’s a dark humor in that.   And some of the failures are spectacular – and really funny.”

Because the course is not marked and people often get lost, Lazarus says with a laugh, “People like to stick with a veteran just for the confidence of knowing where they are. But if you don’t have enough veterans, you just have people wandering in the woods all day.”  

The start of the race is also variable. Runners are told to show up at a particular day and time, but the race start time varies according to the creators’ whims. A conch shell is blown sometime within a 12 hour window, signaling that the race starts in one hour. This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Some years, the race begins in the dark. Some years not.

It’s definitely a race for crazy people.

Lazarus says, “People who have trouble with [any of the last minute or informal race details] are not going to do well on the course, because [no matter what,] it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” 

He continues, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish  anything without the possibility of failure….We like to give people the opportunity to really find out that something about themselves….People who do this are better for …what they’ve asked of themselves.”  

For all of his philosophizing about how good the race is, thought here’s an acknowledgement of how hard it is and how ridiculous anyone is to try it. Runners must prove that they completed every part of the loop by collecting a particular page from books placed along the route. The books are things like Death Walks the Woods, The Road Not Taken, and The Idiot. 

When runners quit, they hit a Staples Easy Button, which says matter-of-factly, “That was easy.”

In the documentary, as the runners are getting ready to begin the race, Lazarus says, “You’ve got about a minute to go – this is usually the part of the race where they’d give you lots of good advice, but if y’all’d take good advice, you wouldn’t be here.” 

It was then that I realized that what I love about running is the same as what I love about church. It’s not gonna happen the way I plan it, ever. We have to adapt and be flexible. We have to give a lot of time and effort to it, or it will fail — and most churches will eventually fail. And finally, we’re also all a little bit crazy, because this church thing is so hard that fewer and fewer people are trying it every year.

But, because we do it, we’re better for what we’ve asked of ourselves and each other.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus lays out another story about vineyards. This time, there’s a vineyard owner who leaves his vineyard to be tended by servants. When he goes to collect his share of his own vineyard, he sends slaves and then his son, all of whom are killed. Then Jesus asks the Pharisees, to whom he’s telling the story, what the vineyard owner will do. “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death!” They respond. 

But notice that divine retribution is talked about by the Pharisees, not Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t affirm their assumption. Instead, you’d think by his response that they got it wrong. “Have you never read in the Scriptures,” he says, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”?

Guys, Jesus says, you don’t get it. God doesn’t work like people do. You’re saying, if people won’t listen, and if they reject you, kill ‘em! Ignore ‘em!

This is not going to be that easy.

Church is not easy. Church in this age is particularly not easy.

And here we are talking about stewardship and building our future.

It sounds so easy, as if we can just speak it into being. But it’s not easy. Church is much more comparable to the Barkley Marathons than it was even a decade ago.

Church in America today does not just happen like it used to. It is no longer a given that our favorite church will always be around whenever we feel like going. Many churches meeting today will not be meeting on a Sunday ten years in the future. Like the participants of the Barkley Marathons, most will fail.

Now, before you get depressed about that, consider what runners all know: that attempting a hard thing is itself a virtue. Crazy people tend to flock together while doing the impossible — that community is best forged while enduring and adapting together.

That, just as Lazarus says, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

In this age, we church folk have the opportunity to find something out about ourselves, and just like that race through Tennessee, it’s not going to happen the way we plan it. If we have trouble adapting, and if we cannot be flexible and patient, we will have trouble building our future.

Just like running a race, you have to decide to start. We have to intentionally decide to build our future. We have to each make a decision that this place is worth investing in and building a future for. We have to intentionally decide that we as a community want to stay here, at 319 Granby Road, together, for the foreseeable future.

And here’s the Good News: first, we are not alone on the course. God is here. And all these other crazy people are here, because we just keep showing up.

Second, we have a history of rising to the occasion. We have a history of putting time, energy, and resources to do whatever we need to do.

You have the willpower and the adaptability and the generosity of a church twice your size, and that is no small thing.

You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday, year by year, because you believe in this place and you believe that we have a purpose together. You don’t have to. You could sleep in on Sunday. Most people do.
“That was easy.”

But you? You keep showing up.

The future is before us: we just have to decide, again, to step into it, that we have a purpose here worth fighting for. Completing the race will be hard, but it’s possible. You’ve shown that it’s possible: God got you this far.

This is true of trying to do good in the world, too.

In the epistle lesson today, Paul talks about forgetting what’s behind and straining toward what lies ahead, like runners on a race course.

So you’ll be filling out commitment cards soon.

And so I guess that this last sermon before you fill those out should give you some type of tips, words of advice. But I guess, like Lazarus says, if “y’all’d take good advice, you wouldn’t be here.” 

So I’ll just tell you this: you are loved. You will always be loved. And you have already given the greatest gift: you’ve intentionally made yourself part of this community. You keep showing up.

We are attempting a hard thing, but we are not alone. God keeps showing up, too, among us. And because of that, we have an opportunity. Yes, this whole thing seems impossible — the state of the world and the Church.

But like Lazarus says, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish  anything without the possibility of failure.”

So let us dare greatly. Let us fail spectacularly sometimes, and God willing, may it be funny. But let us know that God is with us, that we are together, and that we are, collectively, insane, and that’s a good thing.

Let us build. Amen.

Stewardship Sunday #1: Built on a Rock

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Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona (opened in 1956). 

Matthew 21:23-32

[Play re-gifting video over microphone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VGbY6sirHM]

The connotation, of course, is that the re-gifter is the lazy giver. The low-effort, low-enthusiasm giver. The one who doesn’t really love you or the person that gave them the gift in the first place.

Well, it’s stewardship season. We’re embarking today on a four-week journey, and I feel like I should own up to one thing:

Stewardship season, especially when I sat where you’re sitting (that is, in the pew), used to make me grumpy. Not because I resent the fact that the church needs my time or my money — that just makes practical sense. I’ve just hardly felt that people who promoted stewardship were really talking to me.

You see, in some ways, I’m a stereotype: I’m the millennial in her 30s who went and got two degrees in the liberal arts and then stubbornly chose to use my career for the public good, which usually means that you don’t get paid too much. Which means, of course, that I don’t have as much disposable income as the average American. I’ve always had everything I need, but I’ve never had a lot.

So I used to feel little grumpy, especially when I was a student sitting in a pew, during stewardship season.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a big moment for me when I realized that I could give, even a small amount, out of pure stubbornness. However, I still felt that my presence in church would be worth more if it were, well, worth more. I never felt like part of the foundation. I never felt like I was part of what kept the church going.

I’ve always felt like I was the re-gifter, the lazy giver. The one who can’t give as much as everyone else. I thought it was just me.

Then I started talking about it. First, it was just me and my pastor friends, then it expanded to other friends and church members and others. I found that lots of people felt the same way: that our struggle with money was embarrassing. We didn’t want to talk about what we could or could not give to the church or to a charitable cause, and we all thought we were alone — but we weren’t.

It took me awhile to realize how normal I was financially, which then, in turn, alarmed me about the way we often talk about stewardship.

It’s similar to the way we’re prone to talk about a lot of other things in church, really. At least when I was growing up, we were supposed to be only happy in church.

You’re supposed to be a cheerful giver because you’re supposed to have plenty. Not having plenty, after all, makes you feel bad. And talking about it definitely does.
It was as if our mood was somehow tied to whether God’s grace was working in our lives.

Cheerful giver and all that, when it came to stewardship, but it went beyond that.

If you had just lost someone, you were supposed to be cheerful because Christ had defeated death. If you were enduring financial hardship, you were supposed to be cheerful because God has saved us. If you were in a bad mood because your kid was sick and your boss was a jerk, you were supposed to be cheerful because at least God woke you up this morning.

It’s not that those things about God aren’t true. But in each of those statements, both things are true. And by not acknowledging them both and skipping straight to the good news, we lose the whole message because we render ourselves unable to actually feel the Good News because we haven’t acknowledged our own realities.

We think we have to make God’s grace evident by feeling good and really, really believing it. We forget that it’s God who starts this whole thing in the first place.

And there’s also this morning’s Gospel reading.

God’s grace is not dependent on your mood. It’s dependent on God. And that’s Good News.

So this morning’s Gospel. First, there’s this little debate between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders. They interrupt Jesus while he’s teaching in the temple. They demand that he tell them by what authority he’s doing these things.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request. When someone comes to preach here, we’re not all that different. We, too, want to know about someone’s credentials. We have standards. We want someone who knows what they’re talking about, who loves Jesus, believes the creeds, believes in our liturgy, and whose general theology is at least sort of compatible with Lutheranism. But Jesus isn’t having this little credential test from these guys, who he’s accused more than once by this point of oppressing the people. He throws them a riddle wrapped in a parable.

The parable is of a man who owned a vineyard and had two sons. He tells the first son, “Go, work in the vineyard today.”

The son is defiant. He tells his father no.

Then, later, he’s sitting around thinking about it, and you can almost hear him huff, “FINE, DAD,” as he gets up and slugs himself into the vineyard. His love for his dad, and his dad’s love for him, outweighs his mood.

You know that feeling. You’ve decided to skip something you don’t really want to do. You’ve resolved to be lazy. You’ve even said no. Then you’re sitting at home and you start thinking about it and think, “Ugh. I’ve got to go. I should go,” and then you drag yourself to whatever you’d intended to skip, and whether it’s the gym or to help out a friend, by the end you know you’ve made the right decision.

Then there’s the other son. The father comes up to him and asks him to go into the vineyard. He enthusiastically replies, “Sure, Dad!” but he doesn’t go.

And Jesus tells us that it’s the one who said no first, the grumpy one, the one who hemmed and hawed but finally went, that did right. The one who cheerfully paid lip service is useless.

From various sources, I have compiled three practical golden rules of pastoring that I believe are also golden rules for church and for life. The first and most important is to love the people you serve. The second is to do what you say you’re going to do.

(The third is “don’t take the stupid pill,” but that’s another sermon for another time.)

Do what you say you’re going to do.

Love your people, and do what you say you’ll do. That sort of thing, for me, isn’t dependent on my mood. I can be totally grumpy and follow these rules.

It is, rather, dependent on recognizing a much deeper truth: that Christ is risen.

As John Chrysostom wrote in a line that I read to you every Easter,

“Christ is risen, and life is set free!”

This is most certainly true.

And don’t get it twisted: it is not how we feel or how many people are here or anything else that this church’s future is built on. I think we get that confused often, not just here, but in the wider Church in America. We see our shrinking numbers and it sinks our mood and we say “no” to God and we don’t go to work, all because we’ve lost hope because we misunderstand something deep about where the church’s foundation actually lies.

Christ is risen, and life is set free!
“Built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.”

As a football coach once told his storied college team: “This place was great way before you got here.”

The coach wasn’t saying that the players were insignificant. He was telling them that they’ve got an opportunity. That they’re blessed to be part of this.

As are we. We get to be part of hope in a world that increasingly is losing hope. We get to remember how to love one another and be part of a community in a society that’s longing for community and torn by division.

As most of you know by now, I love podcasts. The Ezra Klein Show is one of my favorites. A few weeks ago, Angela Nagle, author and journalist, was a guest. She recently wrote a book entitled Kill All Normies, an exploration of extremist young white supremacists in the United States.

On her way to explaining the appeal of extremism of all kinds to the world’s young people, she says that in previous generations, we have had strong ties to where we came from: to a family, a nationality, an ancient story. Increasingly, those stories have begun to blend together, which has led to a lot of good: we’ve grown to understand people who are different from us and thus, we’ve at least started to become less violent and more compassionate towards them. We now have the easy ability — it’s literally in most of our pockets via our smart phones — to learn about and even communicate with different types of people.

And yet, she says, “We’re reaching the end of something” — that is, of our families and nationalities and religions defining whom we can associate with — and we can’t imagine what comes next.

Society is in the midst of a search for meaning. It turns out, having information didn’t solve all of our problems.

There’s a gap in the human experience, and if you don’t fill that gap with love, it will be filled with hate.

And here we are, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, with an ancient story to which we are deeply connected, which doesn’t call us to hate those who are different, but to embrace them. To face hate with love. To embrace science and research and practical reality because God loves people and comes not that they be slaves to religious laws, but that they may have life abundant. Who taught us that love wins, and that you can kill love, but it’ll be back. It’ll always be back.

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

That is our foundation. Numbers will rise and fall. We will take wins and losses in programming and in our finances.

And we’ll be grumpy sometimes.

Sometimes we might even look God in the face like the son of the vineyard owner and say it: “I will not.

But God still owns the vineyard, and the vineyard will continue to grow.
And because it’s our history, we’ll change our minds and go to work. Because it’s what we do here. Because there’s a world out there full of work and people who need serving and people who need loving. Because Christ is risen, and life is set free. Because we’re a work in progress.

That’s why you live generously.

That’s why we gave generously to hurricane relief. That’s why I ran with my colleagues all the way across New Hampshire to send kids to camp, and that’s why you donated to put me over my fundraising goal. That’s one way we’re making sure that our young people hear messages of love and an ancient story that they are a part of.

Built on a rock, the church shall stand.

We’re just lucky enough to be a part of it, here, together. This is the gift that God has given us.

And so when we give back, we’re all re-gifting. So whether you’re grumpy or you’re cheerful or you’re feeling the abundance or whether you’re feeling the pinch, whether you’re able to give more or whether you can’t give at all, you’re part of this.

And you’re here. And that’s the best way you can possibly re-gift.

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

So as we embark on this four-week journey as we talk about not mere survival, but about building our future together, let’s remember that the foundation for this church wasn’t laid in South Hadley, and it isn’t crumbling with numbers. It was laid 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, and it isn’t going anywhere. We’re just blessed to be part of it.

When a friend got a book signed by faith leader Shane Claiborne, Shane wrote, “May we become the church we dream of.”

Here’s our chance.

So let us build our future, together, all of us. None of us is better than another; we are all a work in progress, built on the rock of Christ.

And all God’s people said: Amen.