Beauty in the Gaps

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The phenomenon of crown shyness. 
Plaza San Martín (Buenos Aires), Argentina

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

The first time I ever came to the Northeast in the winter was, believe it or not, only a few years ago. I believe it was the winter of 2012, and because I don’t do things halfway, I went up to Saranac Lake, NY, to the Adirondack high peaks. It was a bitterly cold January, at least to me, and as we drove through the winding mountain roads around and through the high peaks, I gazed up at the frozen waterfalls and gray / white landscape as the wind whipped the snow around the salt-covered roads.

From Lake Placid, New York, I posted on Facebook from the passenger’s seat as we drove: “I believe we have entered God’s freezer.”

Without missing a beat, a few minutes later, a Facebook friend — a Lutheran from Minnesota — replied, “I bet it’s really full. You know God never throws anything away.”

God is patient, it seems, and sometimes too patient. There are things in God’s freezer that I wish had gotten thrown away long ago because they keep resurfacing to thaw and smell: racism. Hatred. Terrorism. White supremacy. Neo-Nazism.

Some folks seem to be worried about denouncing white supremacy and Neo-Naziism in particular because they fear offending conservatives. Let me be clear: I was raised by conservatives and I think much more of mainstream American conservatives than to assume they in any way identify with white supremacy.

One such conservative who helped to raise me landed on the beaches of Normandy at D-Day fighting the Nazis. My grandfather arrived in the second wave, and of the fighting, he only said in his Southern drawl, “The first wave was a surprise. By the time we got there, they were ready for us.”

He, an Alabama conservative at heart, had no patience for Neo-Nazis or white supremacists when he was alive. I don’t believe that would change if he were still with us today.

He, like most of us both liberal and conservative, would not be able to believe that we were still rehashing that Nazis are bad.

Indeed, sometimes I wish that God would throw some things away for good.

But it’s also not surprising that we have to because it’s a tale as old as time: because of our differences, we dehumanize each other. One group finds dominance and abuses another and endless bloodshed and oppression ensues.

Everyone pays dearly, in blood or in soul.

The truth is that we humans have never learned to live together in peace for long. In the times that it feels like we have, it’s because one group is firmly in control of another one with tension and violence bubbling just beneath — or on — the surface.

In our Isaiah reading this morning, you may not notice it, but Isaiah is saying something revolutionary. Ancient Jewish faith highly valued lineage and was suspicious of foreigners. Foreigners could, realistically, be an invading or corrupting force on them. In their history, in many times, they had been. Israel was no stranger to foreign invading forces, so it makes sense that they would be suspicious of foreigners.

Like I said, we humans have never really learned to live together.

But Isaiah says that God will be a God of the foreigners as well as the Israelites, which to the Israelites — operating under the idea that they’re the only chosen folks and God don’t love nobody else — this must’ve seemed crazy.

Now, the Romans reading from today is pretty clear about God choosing Israel and never un-choosing them (God doesn’t really clean out the freezer or un-choose people), but God’s also trying to teach the Israelites something that we’ve never been able to figure out — how to live in peace with people who are different from us — because it is the only way to lasting peace.

We want to be tribal. Whether we like it or not (or whether there’s a good reason for it or not), we tend to be more comfortable around people that we read to be “our people.” People who look like us, sound like us. It still amazes me when some New Englanders visibly cringe when I intentionally slip into a deep Southern accent or how rural Southerners will accuse me of “sounding like a Yankee” if I’m not careful to code-switch into my native accent — because in both cases, the person has imagined me to be one of their tribe, but by sounding different, I jar them.

For reasons — some reasonable, some horrible — we’re comfortable around people who, based on a number of factors, we read to be “our people.” And that would be fine if it didn’t mean that some groups need to dominate everyone else. Today and in modern history in the West, this has looked like the evil of white supremacy. It has looked like many things around the world throughout history. Domination. Slavery. Conquest. Forced religious conversion. The removal of native peoples.

We humans have never learned to live together.

And we relegate the “others” — those who are not our tribe — into useless objects rather than people. When I was a 23 year old seminarian just out of college, I took two classes with Dr. Luther Smith, a wise pastor, teacher, and activist. He said something in one of my first seminary classes that I will never forget: “People think we make too much of slurs, but never underestimate the destructive power of calling someone a derogatory name. If you call someone a name, you take away their humanity and turn them into an object. And once you’ve done that, you can do whatever you want to them.”
We saw that during the Civil Rights movement.

He emphasized the civil rights tactic from the 1960s of activists looking into the eyes of those who were beating them. The idea was to make them see you as a human being, not an object.

Of course, objectifying people is more than just sinful, it is irrational. Diversity makes us stronger. Different experiences, skill sets, and ways of thinking make us stronger. And yet we act like everything foreign to us is an invading, threatening force.

We see other groups as useless odds and ends, but there is no junk drawer in God’s kingdom. (1)

We need each other.

Oppressing the other and regarding everything foreign as a threat is not only sinful, it is foolish.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus begins by saying that it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out, that corrupts us.

This also applies to ideas. (2)

You will not be corrupted by hearing something you don’t want to hear. As John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation, says, “Ideas are like filters — they are useless unless you run things through them.”

In other words, it is of no worth to have your own opinion if you do not test it frequently to maintain its factual accuracy.

We are not all the same. This is not an easy thing, but it is a good thing.

After giving this speech in the Gospel reading about what goes in not corrupting but what comes out, Jesus meets a Canaanite woman who begs for her daughter to be healed. If this passage didn’t strike you in some kinda way in light of recent events, you might not have really been listening, so go back and read the end of it again. I’ll wait.

Jesus obliquely calls this woman who is begging for healing for her child a dog.

What are we supposed to do with that?

Some say that she changes Jesus’ mind about foreigners. Others say that Jesus was testing her faith and knew all along that he was going to heal her daughter when she believed hard enough.

I think neither is correct or helpful, tbh.

Jesus has just given us a crass metaphor about how it’s not what you’re exposed to that corrupts you, but what you produce, in a system that tells people to that foreign stuff is unclean. In response Jesus says, who cares about things you literally or metaphorically take in, digest, and poop out?

If you think that’s too crass for church, take it up with my Boss.

To be clear, I mean Jesus.

Both the bishop and the council lead busy lives.

In other words, Jesus says to worry more about what you’re putting into the world than what you’re exposed to.

People often think that when they are asked to wear masks to see a patient in the hospital, that the mask is to protect them. It usually isn’t. It is usually to protect a patient with compromised immune system.

Worry more about what you’re exposing others to than what you’re exposed to.

You get the idea.

After Jesus gets this idea across, a foreigner comes up to him and asks for healing and I think he intentionally gives the answer that might be expected by his audience: “Sorry, no foreigners — I’m only here to serve the Jews.”

This particular foreigner is gentle but direct. Even in not challenging his characterization of her as a dog, she shows her humanity. She is a mother who just needs her daughter healed. And Jesus knows the disciples and others see and hear all of this. And he validates her faith and heals her daughter immediately this foreigner is not an invading force — she is human. She is faithful.

We have never really learned to live together as humans, but it is part and parcel of our ability to survive together. We — as a church, a nation, and as the human race — have got to figure this out.

God has no junk drawer. Each human being was created with love by a creative God. When we dismiss, enslave, hate, oppress, and kill others because we see their differences as an invading force, we sin. And in addition to calling out the sin of white supremacy, let us also look for the sin of hatred and prejudice within ourselves.

Lastly, we members of majority groups have a tendency to say things like “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re black,” or “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay,” or “It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

But it does matter. It matters because being black, or being gay, or being an immigrant, or being part of any other group shapes who we are. Pretending that we are all the same does not help us because we are not the same. God is a creative artist, and each of us is treated differently for a variety of identity-related reasons each and every day. Our differences matter. Our differences are gifts from which we can each learn.

This week I found myself researching a phenomenon in the trees called “crown shyness.” If you have a chance, look up images of it from your favorite search engine when you get home. The trees grow up next to one another, often with roots intertwined, but when their tops reach the canopy, they seem to give each other space. The gaps between the trees that result create a beautiful canopy.

All of humanity shares a root system. We are all intertwined with one another, and justice for one group is connected to justice for all others. But I pray that someday we, like the trees, can create beauty in the gaps, not by trying to all become the same tree, but by giving each other space to grow, even as we share common humanity.

The God who created all of us has been moving towards us since we were created, teaching us to create beauty in the gaps. This God took on brown human flesh in the middle of an occupied country to show us that God has no junk drawer. Each person is not only loved, but necessary. We all have gifts to share, a purpose to fulfill.

Jesus taught us today that ideas that go into us do not corrupt us, but those that come out of us do. Let us examine our own hearts and our minds, cleaning out of the freezer the ideas and prejudices that long ago started to stink. We all have them.

And let us give each other space to grow, knowing that God intends to create beauty in the gaps between us. Let us see differences not as invading forces but as new ideas to be wrestled with. The God who created us different also created us beloved and calls us into a future with hope that someday, someday, we might finally learn to live together. And just maybe we can learn something fro the trees. Amen.

 

  1. This idea appeared in Sundays & Seasons’ “Ideas for the Day” in the Planning Guide, p. 241. Kudos to Lisa, our music director, for calling my attention to it.
  2. Dr. Brooks Holifield first articulated this idea in my hearing with regard to this text in a sermon at the Candler School of Theology c. 2010. 

The Tempest is Raging

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CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES/NEW YORK TIMES
A glimpse of the fighting at a gathering of white supremacists, counter-protestors, and others in Charlottesville, VA, on Saturday. 

Matthew 14:22-33

I’ve always wanted to start a sermon like this: It was a dark and stormy night.

No seriously, it was.

Some of you might have experienced a few storms last night. 

They are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and the darkness makes them scarier.

The disciples find themselves out on the water alone at night, stuck, perhaps, in a summer thunderstorm not unlike the ones that moved through the Northeast last night. Jesus, who’s been trying to get some peace and quiet for a few chapters now, has sent the disciples ahead of him while he goes up alone to pray. We don’t know how much praying he got done before the storm began, but what results is one of the most famous stories about Jesus. The story of Jesus walking on water is included in three of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. And here’s the thing. It isn’t a serene scene in any of these accounts. Every Gospel writer is quite clear about the setting for this story, and it isn’t calm.

It was a dark and stormy night.

The tempest is raging. And, unlike most of us when we experience a summer thunderstorm, the disciples are not safe in their living rooms or in their beds. They’re out in a boat on the raging sea. Very few of us, besides those who have been on ships in the military, know exactly what it’s like to weather a storm at sea.

The disciples are in a boat, away from shore, and Matthew tells us that the wind is against them, and that a storm has started. They are far from the land, and the waves are beating against the boat. Jesus has sent them on ahead of him, and so they are alone. The last time they were caught in the waves like this, Jesus calmed the storm. But he’s not here now. No doubt, they must be afraid, wishing he was there to calm the storm like last time.

But there’s more to the disciples’ storm than the literal waves that were beating against the feeble boat. John the Baptist was killed by Herod mere days before this. Israel is occupied by Rome. Their very lives are in danger, from Rome or from Herod himself, if they make too much of a fuss. And Jesus, never one to make a fuss, has just fed about 5,000 people, as we heard about last week, from basically nothing. Huge crowds are following him everywhere. The religious authorities are getting nervous that he is disturbing their fragile peace with Rome.

So much for not making a fuss.

And now, teetering on the edge of disaster in an occupied land, the disciples are alone, away from shore, and caught in a thunderstorm.

We know that this story ends well, but the disciples don’t know that. For all they know, they’re about to drown here in the dark or, if they do make it to the other side, they may face arrest and persecution on the other shore. To call them frazzled would likely be an understatement.

The tempest is raging.

And then they see Jesus walking towards them on the water.

God has shown up right when they needed him most: they’re in a high stress situation in more ways than one. The bad news for the disciples is that God has shown up, but they don’t recognize him.

Jesus, helpfully, calls out to them: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would still have some more questions for Jesus at this point. I would have a lot more questions. And Peter did, too – except he didn’t want questions, he wanted proof. “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come out to you on the water.”

Oh, Peter. Always eager. Always wanting to put himself out there. Usually failing, but failing spectacularly.

It looks like a leap of faith, daring to walk out on the water, and I’ve often heard it preached that way — that Peter’s only flaw was taking his eyes off of Jesus.

I want to offer a different perspective. Because really, Peter, now is not the time to see the Son of God doing something and yell “Hey, I bet I can do that!

And Jesus’ response, I imagine, is less a “Come to me, my child,” and more of an, “Um, okay.”

I think that all the disciples, including Peter, failed to see their rescue coming and simply wait for it. Peter is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a bit of a showboat.

The tempest is raging, but the One who calms storms is here. They’ve seen him in action. Jesus shows up in the middle of the storm – he wasn’t with them when the storm started, but he shows up here, and in the most unexpected of ways – defying the very laws of physics to get to them. But the disciples — God bless the disciples — they don’t even recognize him. Even after he identifies himself, Peter gives him a qualifier: “Lord, if it’s you…” And of course, as expected, Peter walks out on the water but Jesus ends up having to pull him out. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus caught him “immediately.” He saved him — immediately.

Peter didn’t even get water up his nose.

Then he responds in the most Jesus of ways: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I don’t think that Jesus is only referring to Peter’s doubts about Jesus’ ability and the laws of physics. I think Jesus is referring to the whole scene, and talking about the disciples as a whole.
Why did you doubt in the first place? Didn’t you know I would come to you?

Can you imagine a scenario in which Jesus lets the disciples drown?

Then, predictably, he gets into the boat and the wind ceases. Jesus calms the storm. Again.

Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?

It is Jesus that calms the storm. Though Peter wanted a role in it, wanted to be proactive, wanted to go out and get it, it’s Jesus that catches Peter, in all his doubts, and pulls him back up. A couple of chapters later, Jesus will call Peter the rock on which he’ll build his church. Here, he’s the rock that almost sank because he couldn’t just stay in the boat.

Then Jesus calms the storm. It’s Jesus’ presence which makes all the difference. God showed up in the most unexpected and slightly startling way possible and saved the day. He startled the wits out of everyone, but he showed up. He showed up because that is who he is.

I think about us today. You may have heard of the deadly incident in Virginia yesterday where white supremacists and others from the alt-right violently clashed with counter-protestors, resulting in the death of at least one person.

The tempest is raging harder than a summer thunderstorm.

Make no mistake: white supremacy is out there — not just in the South but in our own backyard. Ideology that proclaims the superiority of whites over other groups is contrary to the Gospel, and plowing down your fellow citizens for ideological reasons is nothing short of domestic terrorism.

But before we on the left feel too self-righteous or victimized, don’t forget the man who opened fire on a congressional baseball practice after asking the fateful question: “Are those Democrats or Republicans?”

“Republicans” was the answer, and the man opened fire.
Again, domestic terror.*

In order to avoid hard conversations, people often say the Gospel isn’t political.
Yes it is.

What we call “politics” is nothing more than how we relate to one another and organize and run our society. That may make some conversations hard, but if the Gospel doesn’t inform how we live, see the world, and organize our society, then we’re simply using it as a security blanket for our own personal comfort.

The Gospel is indeed political, but it is not partisan.

All are welcome here: Democrat and Republican, Trump supporter and Bernie Bro, independent and immigrant.

And that can create quite a storm.

But the tempest is already raging.

In the midst of all of an increasingly violent political world in addition to our own personal storms, we have so many questions, ranging from “Why is this happening?” to “How did we get here?” to my favorite question, “Now what?”

Sometimes, like Peter, we go stumbling out of the boat before we’ve even fully assessed the situation, begging God to prove that God is indeed present and with us and that we are God’s favorite and that we are the most powerful, most skilled, best disciples.

And, quite frankly, we sometimes think that God needs standing up for.

We try to prove ourselves to the world and to God, and we sink every time. Sometimes, unlike Peter, we drag others down with us.

“Oh you of little faith.”
Why do we doubt?

The Gospel is not a story about us. The Gospel is a story about God.

God is with us in the chaos. God will defy the very laws of physics to get to us because neither life nor death nor anything will separate us from the love of God. God will and can move heaven and earth to get to you. You don’t have to go splashing out of the storm-battered boat.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to stay in the boat and let God run the show. To let God get to us. To let God’s grace work in us and through us. And to dare to trust that yes, God really will reach us.

And what’s more, we are not alone.

The disciples were not in individual canoes.

We’re in this battered little boat together.

“The best of all is that God is with us.”(1) And God often shows up in startling and unexpected ways, walking towards us on the water, performing a miracle while also scaring the bejeezus out of us in ways that only Jesus can. And so, as we look to the future in our changing nation and community and wonder how we might be of service in the midst of the raging storms of chaos and change, I want to challenge us — not to quickly figure out how to walk on water ourselves, but to instead look for the ways in which God will show up and witness to that.

Witness to how all are loved, all are welcome, and no one should have to suffer violence. Witness to what God has already done.

Sometimes, God shows up walking on the water, and the rumbling waves in the middle of a storm, doing the impossible. Other times, God appears in the most mundane and unremarkable things, such as bread and wine, and still performs a miracle. But God always shows up.

How will God show up at Our Savior’s as the summer starts to end?

And how will we respond? How will we witness to God’s presence in this politically diverse community in the midst of the storms of violence raging outside?

How will God show up in the midst of the tempest of your own life?

How will you respond?

Three things are for sure.

One: we’re in a battered little boat in the middle of a storm.

Two: that boat is God’s boat, and we are Jesus’s imperfect and almost comically bumbling disciples.

Three: Jesus will not let us drown. God will show up.

Our job is to wait, to be patient, to stay in the boat, and to believe that help is on the way. We don’t need to go crashing and tripping across the waves to get to God. Nothing will stop God from getting to us, even if the laws of physics need a little bending. God will get to us this morning, in bread and wine and in each other.

God will get to us. God will get to you. Heaven and earth won’t keep God’s love from you. So stay in the boat: stay in this boat with all of us. Rest in the love that will defy the laws of physics to get to you. Jesus is on his way. Amen.

* In light of the events in Charlottesville, I rewrote this sermon quickly after my vacation, and in the preaching of it, failed to use the word “terrorism.” Too often, we use this word to describe only acts committed by those who claim to be Muslim when the word actually means “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” The acts here described certainly qualify.
This was pointed out to me by a parishioner after the service and has thus been corrected. Thanks be to God for church folks.

A note on the sermon: A version of this sermon was first given at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Atlanta, the last time this text appeared in the lectionary. The “stay in the boat” idea was first articulated to me by my friend and mentor, the Rev. Nancy Christensen, senior pastor at my home congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta.

1. These are remembered as the dying words of Methodist founder John Wesley.

Guest Post: Of Crowds, Compassion, and Miracles

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Written by Debbie Brown, Council President, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Sermon given at Our Savior’s on August 6, 2017.

This week, I was reading about a man named Stan Brock. Some of you may know him from the TV show The Wild Kingdom. Before he became famous, Stan had a life changing experience while working in Guyana South America. This experience moved him to establish a non-profit organization for healthcare access called Remote Area Medical®. 

He describes his experience like this:

“My vision for Remote Area Medical® developed when I suffered a personal injury while living among the Wapishana Indians in Guyana, South America. I was isolated from medical care, which was about a 26-day journey away. I witnessed the near devastation of whole tribes by what would have been simple or minor illnesses to more advanced cultures. When I left Guyana, I vowed to find a way to deliver basic medical aid to people in the world’s inaccessible regions. So, in 1985 I established the non-profit, Remote Area Medical® or as most people know us – RAM®. RAM® is the way I have kept that promise, not only to the Wapishana Indians, but to thousands around the world in similar conditions. In other words, there are Wapishanas everywhere.”

Today, RAM holds more than 700 clinics in convention centers and football stadiums across the United States. More than 80,000 volunteers bring dental and vision care to nearly 1.5 million people who do not have these benefits through insurance or cannot afford to pay for them.

This summer, people gathered in Wise, Virginia. Some of them arrived two days before the clinic opened – many slept in their cars, in tents or on blankets spread beneath the open sky. Each family was given a piece of paper with a number on it. They could only hope that their number was low enough to get them in for treatment.

As I looked at the pictures of the people gathered there, I couldn’t help thinking about the crowd in our Gospel reading today who gathered at the lakeside waiting for Jesus.  They could only hope for an encounter with this miraculous man of God with the ability to heal.

It was in this setting where we see the miracle of feeding a ridiculously crazy number of people with a ridiculously small amount of food. But this isn’t the only place in scripture where this story is recounted. Including today’s reading, feeding miracles are seen six times in the New Testament. It is the only miracle told in all four Gospels. 

There is a theory that if you want someone to hear a message, it has to be repeated three times. Since this story is included twice that many times in the Gospels, the writers must have really wanted to be sure we get the message.

But what is it about the re-telling of this story that is so important? What does it say about God and Jesus’ mission? What does it say about us?

I think we can all relate to the people gathered at the lakeshore that day. We know what it is like to need healing, and we all experience hunger – both physical and spiritual. We hunger for food, attention, companionship, good health, success, peace, love, and wholeness. This is where God enters into our lives through Jesus and offers us hope.

This morning’s first lesson invites us into a relationship with God. The reading comes from Isaiah. It was written for the people of Israel who were living in exile and describes the life that God promises them. It is a beautiful passage that reminds us of God’s abundance given to all people at no cost.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

Perhaps you, like me, are drawn to this vision. We yearn for our world to be like this, but we live in the reality of a hungry world where our hunger never seems to be satisfied. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus had been healing and teaching people about God’s kingdom when he heard the news that Herod thought he was John the Baptist’s ghost, out for revenge. The crowds that followed Jesus were proof to high people in high places that he was a threat to their status quo.

Jesus knew he was in danger, but his work isn’t finished yet. So, he withdraws from the region until it is the right time for him to return. He and the disciples get into their boat and head to the other side of the lake.

Somehow, the word about his destination got out. The people discovered where his boat was headed, and when he came ashore, a crowd was waiting for him. We are told the crowd is around 5,000, or more like 10,000 people including the women and children who gathered to see him.

We couldn’t blame Jesus if he needed more time to recharge after the distressing news he heard. But Jesus didn’t yield to the temptation to shield himself from his grief and pain and the suffering mass standing in front of him. Instead, something pushed him to go on. As soon as he got off the boat, he began to cure all who came to him.

We are told that he was driven by compassion.    

Thomas Merton, a catholic monk and mystic, said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone; it brings us to the recognition that all of us are in this together and we need to support one another through life.

We would say that compassion comes from the heart, but in Hebrew, the word “compassion” connotes a feeling that comes from the bowels… deep down in the center of the gut. Compassion is the ability to understand another’s pain. It involves walking with people in their suffering and results in a deep desire to somehow mitigate that pain. 

Too often, we find ourselves identifying with another’s pain so much that we do one of two things. We experience the pain so deeply that we fall into a state of hopelessness. OR, we do everything we can to protect ourselves from it. We ignore the pain we see around us by putting up walls to keep it out. We turn a blind eye to people in pain, all the while convincing ourselves that their pain is the natural consequence of their behavior. We give up trying to alleviate the pain, and we forget that God has always had other plans for all of creation. 

I think the disciples are at this point. I am guessing that after a long day, they are beginning to get hungry too. They are not insensitive to the people’s needs, so they come up with a solution. Jesus should send the crowd away to the nearby villages where they can get some food.

But Jesus doesn’t heed their advice. Instead, he gives the task of feeding the people back to the disciples. 

I can hear them now… are you kidding me Jesus? We can’t do this. We have five loaves of bread and two fish – barely enough to feed us…. and you want us to feed all these people? We will all die of starvation here!  Jesus tells them to bring what they have to him. He lifts the bread to heaven, offers it to the Father, breaks it, divides it and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Everyone there is filled and there are twelve baskets leftover – one for each of the disciples.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Too often we, like the disciple don’t believe that God has provided us with enough resources to carry out God’s work in the world. We live with an attitude of scarcity and forget that our God is a God of miracles. The feeding stories remind us that the only way we can break out of this state of mind is to place all that we have back in God’s hands. No gift is insignificant for God to make a miracle.

Today in worship, we will present our financial gifts during the offering. On our behalf, the acolyte will receive our gifts and lift them to God, dedicating them to God’s work. We can expect to see miracles…miracles made possible with the gifts we have placed in God’s hands. We are not a huge church with a huge budget, but we make a difference for others.

As a member of the council, I have witnessed many miracles made possible because of your gifts.

We provide food for more than 100 people each month through the Food for Friends program. We help to stock the Food Pantry in South Hadley by bringing needed items every month. We support a student in Haiti, providing him with an education and basic medical care. We have stepped out in new ways to share the Good News with our Hymns and Beer evenings.

Even seemingly insignificant things like the tabs from soda and vegetable cans are gathered to support the Shriner’s hospital. This one small gift has brought miracles to many children who need medical care.

Last Saturday, Our Savior’s had a booth at the Fall’s Fest. I hope you had a chance to stop by to see what we were doing. Amanda and I shared the job of running the booth in the early afternoon. She has the gift of gab and was great at attracting people to our table by inviting them to receive a ticket for a free drink just for spinning our wheel.

The wheel was like a small Wheel of Fortune, except that there were 12 numbers on it and several other slots that would provide a free ticket and even a water splash. This of course was a favorite for the kids. Even Pastor Anna and I got in on the fun…and yeah – I got her wet.

It was up to me to handle the educational piece. If the wheel landed on a number, I would ask the winner a question about water. If they didn’t know the answer, we talked a bit about it. The best part was when the kids realized we were playing this game with clean water while others didn’t even have proper sanitation or clean water for drinking and cooking. 

Not only did we bring attention to the need, we also shared concrete ways to preserve water and to support initiatives that bring clean water to those who have none. To top it all off, the tickets we gave out were purchased from the Falls Fest organizers who donated all of the money back to the South Hadley Food Pantry.

Your gifts of financial offerings, time, talents, and passions placed in God’s hands helped to support all of these activities.

But there’s more…Each week, as we present our financial gifts, we also bring the elements of Holy Communion to the altar.

In the last few months, Pastor Anna has been including an explanation in the bulletin for each part of our service. Just above the heading for the offering, you will find the following description:

“We begin the Table rite by offering our gifts to God: our selves and our talents and resources, while the community offers Bread and Wine to be the Eucharistic feast.” 

Bread and wine – simple ordinary gifts that we offer to God. They become Jesus’ body and blood for us. In this celebration, the divine and the human are joined together – interconnected. In this meal, we receive the gifts of forgiveness, community with all the saints, and the promise of life.   

Nothing we bring to the table is insignificant.

Today and every week, God gathers us at the table and creates a miracle. God offers the gift of grace and mercy and invites us into a holy story, a place where our meager offerings are multiplied into greater blessings.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Amen.

For more information on Stan Brock and RAM®: https://ramusa.org/about/

For more Thomas Merton quotes: http://www.azquotes.com/author/10004-Thomas_Merton/tag/compassion

Wild

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A wild goose.

1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

We have this way of cleaning up the stories that form us.

From stories of war to stories in our families, we have this way of ignoring the unpleasant parts of our stories and turning even the smallest details into a rose-colored, bigger, better version of the story as it happened.

But the truth is always a wild thing, messier, more complicated, more unpredictable than we like to imagine.

Today, in our Old Testament reading, we have a story that some of us might be familiar with — you’ve got King Solomon, son of King David, who has just taken the throne. He’s slumbering peacefully in the midst of a Middle Eastern night when God shows up in his dream and all Solomon hears is the voice of God: “Ask what I should give you.
Solomon replies in flowery words that include praise for God’s love of and favor towards Solomon’s father, David. Then in the dream, Solomon says to God, “And now … you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child, and I do not know how to go out or come in.” Solomon goes on to ask, famously, for wisdom, and the takeaway that we’re supposed to have is presumably that Solomon could’ve asked for anything from God, and he asked for wisdom.

Even God seems surprised by Solomon’s answer and promises to give him not only wisdom, but to make him, essentially, the person most known for wisdom in biblical literature. The GOAT of wisdom, if you will.

What we’re not told in this story is the Game-of-Thrones like narrative that precedes it in 1 Kings. You see, this “little child” of a king has already ordered the deaths of three people in order to solidify his reign. There had been a little uprising that needed quelling. He’s also entered international politics in a House-of-Cards-style way, marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and even sacrificing to her gods in the high places.

No story about humanity is entirely clean. Stuff, as they say… stuff… stuff happens. Humanity is complicated. The truth is wild.

We forget that, sometimes. History usually tells us the cleaned-up version of everything that happened before we were born. News outlets, to some varying degree, try to give us multiple perspectives on what’s happening now, but increasingly, people on the left and the right are flocking to the ones that un-complicate the story. We want things easy and digestible in a way that confirms what we already knew to be true, preferably in 140 characters or fewer. I think we want our views confirmed because we don’t like to be surprised. Being surprised is scary and difficult.

A disclaimer: just the other day I reflected that someone really should write a ballet called On Both Sides: The Dance of False Equivalence — because too often, when people use the phrase “on both sides” or “on the left and the right” in political discourse, the two things being described aren’t really the same, and few people, when pressed, would agree that they are. Saying “on both sides” and blaming everyone is just another way we try to clean up the story. So I don’t mean to do that here.

Some problems, however, really aren’t partisan — they are human problems. It’s a human problem that we all tend to want our stories cleaned up, neat, and orderly. We don’t much like to be surprised by nuance or complication when it comes to our deeply held beliefs. 

The problem is that most wise people will tell you that experience and wisdom aren’t clean and uncomplicated. Wisdom doesn’t happen when planned. Wisdom is usually the thing you get when you’re least expecting it.

I’ve learned plenty in planned visits and meetings and study sessions in the past six years of pastoral ministry.

But the truth is that I’ve probably learned a lot more through the sudden, messy stuff: the hospital pager going off at 3AM. Working at an Atlanta shelter for those without housing that has just discovered a bed bug problem, then trying to get 40 men, women, and children into clean clothes and sheets before nightfall.

Every crisis that ever turned into a conversation has taught me something.

We don’t often like to be surprised by life. We want things dependable: reliable transportation that cranks every time. A steady income. Loving and uncomplicated relationships with friends and loved ones. Predictability in the country in the world on the news.

Clean and simple. Predictable. Stable.

We tell ourselves that this is what we all really want, from work, politics, and relationships.

How’s that working out?

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells a rapid fire series of parables today that quite frankly would have made a bizarre speech even by today’s standards.

He compares the kingdom of heaven to a shrubbery before Monty Python made it cool. Then he compares the kingdom to yeast — yeast, which ancient folks thought of as unclean. Then he compares the kingdom to treasure and pearls, which makes more sense. After that, without stopping to explain, he compares the kingdom to a net full of good and bad fish.

Then he says, “Have you understood all this?”

And the disciples lie.

They say they get it. I wonder if this is one of those times that after Jesus told a bunch of parables, the disciples sit around and poke each other and say “You ask him,” but then they realize that they’d all just nodded and said they understood and now it’d be awkward if they asked.

And the passage went on to become famous for the seemingly simple parable of the mustard seed: the little seed that grows quickly into a big tree, symbolizing the great growth in the early church.

But there’s another truth about mustard seeds.

Mustard seeds were tiny, which also means that they can hide in a bag of other seeds. Mustard bushes aren’t the kind that farmers planted in nice rows. They’re the kind of seeds that spring up in the middle of a field, tossed out by some unsuspecting sower. It’s not the nice story of a planting that we might imagine — it’s one of a sudden shrub that pops up in the middle of the field and provides shelter — and food, since nearly the entire plant is edible. It’s often an unplanned plant that gives itself for the life of the world around it.

Get it?

And yeast, thought of by the ancients as unclean, is another hidden thing that springs up — not clean or neat or predictable. Bread rises as it will rise, hopefully in an attractive way. Also springing up unpredictably is hidden treasure, and a net that gets hauled in suddenly, chock full of both good fish and bad fish.

I was standing with my church planter friend at the Worship Jubilee in 2015 when she was asking a rather famous Lutheran pastor about synod and churchwide support for this pastor’s early work, when her church start was new and growing. This pastor responded, “Oh, they didn’t know what to do with us — not to be flippant or disrespectful, but honestly, we were kind of like a crisis pregnancy.”

New life is happening, but it’s happening suddenly and unexpectedly, and oh my gosh what are we gonna do?!

Humanity, indeed life, is not clean and predictable. Every day we meet people and see situations that could radically change how we see things, if only we would let them. Every day God drifts into our lives, into our mess, quite suddenly, and says,

“Ask what I should give you.”

Just this week, that same friend of mine was chided that she may become a bishop someday. My friend responded, “Thank you, but no one in their right mind would make me a bishop.”

I responded, “Good thing the Holy Spirit is never, in my experience, in her right mind.”

Humanity and history aren’t clean. And in the midst of that, we serve the church, which has more than a complicated history of violence and suppression and, on our best days, feeding people and living into the kingdom.

The Church’s history is a net full of good fish and bad fish.

We, for our part, have found this particular church, all of us, in our different ways. This church is a surprise in itself, one that has been through its share of crisis, one where people don’t always agree but where they love each other nonetheless and where eventually, if we keep showing up, we find reconciliation and hope together despite our mess. Where people who believe in the same hope come together and give of everything they have and are for the life of the church and the world.

I’ve said it recently, but sometimes I don’t think we fully recognize what a miracle it is to find a loving church family where all are welcomed and loved. It is, in the words of Jesus, “like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (v. 44).

Life is messy and hard, but these days I find it easier to believe in God because of you.
Your faith, your strength, your willingness to show up and to struggle, your willingness to give life to those around you and to roll with whatever life throws you inspires me to believe that this is a church with a future that we get to step into together.

It won’t be clean or easy or predictable. The story won’t be an uncomplicated one because human stories never are. The story of the Church’s past isn’t.

But it is our story: a story of a God that keeps surprising us when we least expect it, in the things that are hidden and complicated and messy. The story of a God that just keeps giving life, whether we’re expecting it or not.

I close with a prayer written by an artist and architect from my home congregation. She makes sketches and writes prayers to accompany them. In one particular sketch prayer, she depicted wild geese. The wild goose is a Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit which stands in contrast to the quiet dove of Scripture.

I like this image: one of a diving, honking, disruptive, protective goose.

Alongside the sketch of wild geese, Ann writes this prayer with which we close.

Let us pray.

“O holiest of spirits,
As the wild goose soars,
So do you.
Twisting, turning,
With strength and power.
Untamed,
Beyond control,
You call our names.

We who grow anxious and fearful,
We who succumb too easily to popular norms,
We who fail to lift our heads upward.
We who fall too silent, too soon, too often.

In our midst,
You come like a raging wind,
Calling us with loud squawks and honks.
May we listen to these uncommon invitations,
And join your Spirit ways –
Boldly shouting ‘yes’ to grand, unknown adventures,
Courageously turning where your voice leads,
Transforming systems to bring healing and wholeness,
Radically welcoming all of God’s people,
Speaking truth to power, day after day,
With open hearts, generous in love.

May we be so brave as to follow your wild ways,
Knowing you will joyfully lead us,
And love us, on the journey.
For all that will be,
We lift our hands in gratitude,
O wild,
O wonderful
Spirit of God. Amen.” (1)

Solomon’s story was a complicated one, and so are all of ours. But God was with Solomon, giving wisdom, showing up in unexpected places, and God will be with us too.

So let us follow Jesus together.
It won’t be predictable, but one thing is for sure: it will be wild. Amen.

1. You can find more of Ann’s Sketch Prayers here.

“So, What Do You Do?”: On Weeds And Wheat and Giving Up Control

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What do you talk about with people you’ve just met?
Photo: (Reuters/Marko Djurica) – photo lifted from Quartz article highlighted in the sermon. Link at bottom.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

An article came out in Quartz last week with the provocative title, “One of the most common questions in American small talk is considered rude in much of the world.”

The rude American question? “What do you do?

The question of what someone does for a living is one of the most common things we Americans ask someone we’ve just met. But to many folks in other parts of the world, it’s too intimate, reduces a person to what they do for work, is considered sort of classist, and on top of all that, it’s generally considered a boring question. And it’s true — a person’s job may tell us very little about the person and their passions, likes, and dislikes, and instead, it puts them in a box and reduces them to what they do for a living. (Pastors and doctors on airplanes know this particularly well as we tell our seat mates what we do for a living and then have to listen to a list of either their excuses for not going to church or their physical ailments for the remainder of the flight.)

Instead of “What do you do,” more common French questions include, “What are your hobbies?,” or “What part of the country are you from?” These questions, for the French, are much more interesting giving more insight into who a person is, where they come from, and what they’re passionate about (1).

But What do you do? still lingers for Americans.

Everything for us seems to hinge on that question in a broad sense — not just what we do for a living, but what we do — how we behave, how well we parent, what productive things we do with our spare time.

What do you do? Not just with your job, but with your life?

We use questions like this to measure each other. We want to hang out with people of a similar type to us. In some ways, this is almost primal — it’s a tribal thing. You don’t want to be someone who hangs out with lazy people, or people who drink more than you do, or people with [gasp] the opposite political affiliation. We often try to surround ourselves with the best company that we can. We like to have some measure of control of our environment — and honestly, that’s not always a bad thing.

Unfortunately, it’s not exactly how we’re told to do church. 

Yet again today, as last week, we have Jesus comparing God’s work to things that grow, calling us to have a little patience and, in this case, as farmers often have to do, to give up a little control.

What we have today is Jesus essentially admitting that sometimes, human beings can kind of be leeches — people who act as weeds, sucking up our time, our energy. People who figuratively choke the life out other people. Our immediate response, of course, is to yank up the weed-like people, to throw them out, to keep our little church field of good soil carefully tended.

We do it all the time in our regular lives: we love to curate our environments and cut out people who annoy us, or people we disagree with. This is getting ever worse with the advent of social media and “filter bubbles” — where the social media site essentially shows you things you already agree with, things it knows you want to see based on your likes and dislikes. This can lead to an existence where we forget that the people we disagree with still exist, because we never have to hear from them.

It’s not just the social media sites that are doing it — we’re willing to do it manually as well. If someone irritates us too much on social media, we unfollow or unfriend them. And of course, my favorite posts are the ones — from liberals and conservatives and moderates alike — that tell other people what to post and what not to post.

And it isn’t just on the Internet, either: if a friend irritates us too much and becomes a burden, we slowly stop returning their calls.

What do we do?

Well, for one thing, we really like to weed our little gardens.

We like to think that it’s out of the question to do church this way, but it isn’t. We’ve all found that most churches want to reach their neighbors — but by “neighbors,” most of us really mean people who look like us, think like us, and are of a similar economic status to us. I have been in churches where someone showing up looking for assistance was not seen as a chance to “welcome our neighbors,” as they often declared they wanted to do — it was seen as an issue to be dealt with, a weed to be uprooted.

What do you do?

If our vocation is to be God’s metaphorical gardeners, unfortunately, like children in the garden, God hasn’t given us an invitation to weed the garden, lest we pull up Mom’s begonias.

As a result, it’s true that — as we all know — church can be quite a mess. It’s one place people can go and expect to be heard, a place where they can’t get fired, a place where we don’t have to deal with the complex authority dynamics within our families. And so, as a result, church can bring out the worst in us at times, especially when it doesn’t live up to our expectations.

What do you do? Jesus is telling you the one thing you don’t get to do: pull weeds. Leaving a practical exception for when someone is causing harm or danger to the congregation, we don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out like we do in the rest of our lives. We just don’t get that much control.

Now, it’s tempting to romanticize this text as saying, “This means God loves everybody and allows them to grow!” and that would be true.

What do you do?

My Episcopal priest in college was a sniper in the Marines during his military career. He said the snipers had a motto: “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” When he became a priest, he said, his life and his vocation obviously changed dramatically. His motto now, he says, is “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out” (2)

What do you do? Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.

Whenever you have a hard time doing this, consider: we’ve all done our time as weeds, both in the church and in the world. We’ve all been a drain on other people’s energy and patience. We’ve all been a drain on each other’s energy and patience and emotions.

Even if you’ve behaved well, no matter who you are, someone, somewhere, thinks that people like youwhether it’s because of who you are or how you think — are weeds, worthy of being pulled out of the garden and thrown into the fire.

About that fire.

This text does have a rather harsh ending, when the wheat is gathered and the weeds are burned. We get a little fixated on this, as we often do whenever the Son of God mentions what sounds like a literal and eternal hell. We may say things like, “Alright! Our enemies are going to hell, guys!” or, “Am I a weed? I don’t think I’m a weed. Does God think I’m a weed?!

I think we’re missing what Jesus is trying to say here, which is much simpler than some heady theological eschatology or soteriology, which are fancy theological words for what happens at the end of time and where we go when we die. Jesus is not writing a theological treatise.

What do you do?

What Jesus is saying is that what we do does matter. It matters if we intentionally function in the world like weeds. It matters if we choke the life out of other people emotionally or spiritually. It matters if we treat people poorly. It matters if we kill or harass or otherwise oppress other people. And it matters if we don’t welcome all of our neighbors.

You see, what I think Jesus is getting at with this ending is that God cares — deeply — about how we treat each other.

If you find my preaching at all worth listening to, you can mostly thank the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day, a New Englander who’s advanced since my own seminary years to become the dean at Wake Forest Divinity.

When asked to give a lecture on “The New Testament and Heaven” at a local church, Dean O’Day said something to the effect of, “This is a difficult topic, because the New Testament is not primarily concerned with what happens to our eternal souls — something that is firmly in God’s hands — the New Testament is primarily concerned with how we treat one another while we’re here.” (2)

Even New Testament attempts to describe the next life are supposed to affect how you treat other people here, in these times, in this life.

So don’t choke the life out of others. It matters.

What do you do?

In that sense, what we do matters deeply.

But there’s something else: Marty read this morning from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book you may not have heard of before. It’s a book in the apocrypha, or a set of Hebrew scriptures not usually printed in the Protestant canon but which nevertheless show up as options in our lectionary.

The reading this morning said, in a saying attributed to Solomon and addressing the God of the universe: “Your strength is the source of righteousness, and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all…. Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:16, 19 NRSV).

“The righteous must be kind.”

So what do we do?

We have patience in this world of filter bubbles. We give up control wherever we can, knowing that who’s in and who’s out is not up to us. In this world of weeds and wheat, we dare to be brought together not by what we do, but by love.

In short, we love ‘em all — and let God sort ‘em out. Amen.

1. You can read the full Quartz article here.
2. The content is based on my memory of a lecture Dean O’Day gave in Decatur, GA, c. 2010, but you can read more about her here.

On Slow-Moving Miracles

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For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
A scene from a hike in the Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont, MA, during Our Savior’s camping trip 2017.

Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

They say that what annoys us most about other people is what we most fear within ourselves.

This is exactly what I associate with almost any sentence that starts with “Kids today.” Because usually, the problem described is a human problem, not a generational one.

For example, “Kids today are so impatient.”

Now, it’s true that teenagers today grew up in a much more automated world than people ten or twenty or more years ago did. They grew up in a world where Internet access is measured by its speed and where online shopping wasn’t new by the time they could speak and where they could look up information on the computer in their pocket. That’s all entirely true.

But for those of you who raised teenagers in generations before this one: would you ever have described them as patient? I’m fairly sure the parents of the late 1700s and early 1800s went on and on about how kids these days are just so impatient because they’d grown up in a world, unlike their parents, with steam engines and mercury thermometers and electric telegraphs. “You kids are so spoiled! In my day, we had to travel by horse!”

Tell me: in what age has humanity looked at itself and prided itself on its patience?

There’s a reason patience is considered a virtue: we have such a hard time with it.

Yes, technology has helped, but why has technology developed so fast? We’re impatient. We frequently invent things for one or two reasons: they make a task easier and/or faster.

And it is true that our idea of what it’s like to be patient evolves with our technology. And even with technology, all of us — teenagers included — easily forget how amazing technology is because we’re so impatient.

As the comic Louis CK puts it, even the most terrible, beat up cell phone is a miracle. He points out, that people “got their phone and they’re like eeaagh, it won’t, UGH! Give it a second! Give it, it’s going to space, would ya give it a second? To get back from space? Is the speed of light a little too slow for you?”

Or consider how our ideas of travel have changed: a journey home to see my parents in Alabama, which is more than a thousand miles, two, three hundred years ago, would have been something of a perilous journey that could take days, weeks, or even months, depending on the method of travel. Now? I get tacos at the airport, jump on a couple of planes, and I’m there. And still I say “Ughhhh… I have to go through the security line tomorrow. And I didn’t get a direct flight, so it’s going to take me, you know, SEVEN HOURS to get there.”

Somewhere one of my ancestors wants to slap me, but you know, it was their wondering whether they could make travel faster and more efficient — their impatience — that made our quick travel today possible. 

So it’s true that, in some ways, impatience is quite a virtue in itself: it pushes us forward in all kinds of ways. It pushes technology forward. It pushes justice forward.

But it also makes us into one impatient, nervous, stressed out species.

As one internet meme put it: “You know the human body is 60% water? So we’re basically cucumbers with anxiety.”

There’s so much to be anxious about: your health. Terrorism. Politics. Politics. Politics.

Oh, sorry, there are more, but this one in particular rings true: everybody is impatient in politics. These days, Democrats are impatient that the Russia investigation isn’t moving faster and Republicans are impatient that the President’s agenda isn’t moving forward because of that investigation and the rest of the country is impatient that even after all this time we’ve still got both scandals and gridlock.

There’s also the every day things that make us impatient: traffic. Inefficient or difficult people. Waiting through a long day for when it’s finally time to relax. Being impatient that you have no time to relax.

Sometimes we sigh and say, “We need a miracle.”

I think our impatience colors what we consider a miracle.

The story of God that we are told today tells us about both the patience and the miracles of nature in two episodes: first the Gospel reading, about the sower.

It’s a story as old as dirt, quite literally, and it’s a story that’s been interpreted ad nauseam since the Gospel writers first jotted it down as a saying of Jesus that they thought was worth remembering.

Most interpretations I’ve heard paint God as the sower, us as the soil. God plants and reaps the harvest.

Okay.

But what are we to take from that? Well, a few things:

First, there’s the fact that, while you wouldn’t throw seed just anywhere, God is quite the careless sower: God scatters the Good News — Gospel — of grace and love and God’s favor everywhere. Then there’s that we should “let our hearts be good soil,” as a hymn we often sing (and will sing later) declares. We should make our hearts — and our church — a place where “love can grow and peace is understood.”

But there are some drawbacks to interpreting the lesson that way exclusively. First, what are we to make of God wasting seed by throwing it where it dies? The parable goes to great lengths to describe how the seed dies. Since soil cannot change itself, it seems cruel of God to throw the seed where a little shoot of grace and hope might spring up suddenly, only to get choked out.

If it’s cruel when this happens in our gardens, how much more painful is it in our hearts?

So others offer different interpretations: what if Jesus is making us out to be the sowers?

When we think of how we reach new people, of how we might offer help and peace to our neighbors, how often do we write people off, thinking they won’t answer, or they won’t care, or they’re just “not church people”? What good is it to invite someone again, if they always say no?

Jesus is calling us to have the patience of a farmer.

Every growing seed is a miracle. Miracles aren’t required to take place instantaneously. 

(Instantaneous miracles are usually called “magic.”)

Jesus is also calling us to be a little careless: scatter the Good News everywhere. Lord knows the world needs a little Good News.

As we said a few weeks ago: tell them something good. Good news is its own miracle.

Tell them about another little miracle: a church where people love each other imperfectly, but genuinely. Where people show up, despite the other stuff they have going on, to do heavy yard work, to pressure wash, fix the ailing air conditioning unit, cut the grass, or fix the communion table.

Where people show up in the sanctuary sometimes in the evenings for the sole purpose of praying for you.

Where people are both really Christian and really okay with loving everybody — and everybody really means everybody. Where we don’t compromise our faith just to accept people, but instead believe that loving and accepting people exactly the way God made ‘em is one way that the Gospel gets lived out in the world.

Sometimes I don’t think any of us realize how special what we have really is.

We get tired. We get impatient. We’ve been doing the same things for years and sometimes we feel a little out of breath or stagnant. We’ve scattered seed on the same community for years and seen only modest growth.

But considering both the history and the present state of the Christian church, your very existence is a miracle.

The book of Isaiah tells us about another slow-moving miracle.

Ancient history tells us of the state of the world — and of Israel — when the last part of the second third of the book of Isaiah was written: in other words, Isaiah 55, the first passage we read this morning. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been in Babylonian captivity for likely over 50 years. For perspective, consider that if we were them we’d’ve been living in exile and captivity since 1965.

It’s just long enough for a flicker of hope to remain, just long enough for most people to remember or have parents alive to tell you about how life was “before.” Before we were taken captive and brought to a strange land. Before the temple was destroyed.

The book of Isaiah is really more like three books. It’s in the second, the one we read from today, that God begins to whisper after years of captivity:

“Psssst. Something big is about to happen.”

That something would be the return of the exiles, thanks to a kind-hearted Persian king. The rebuilding of the temple. The dawn of hope.
And it’s in that context that we read the words:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
(Isaiah 55:10-13 NRSV)

God is saying, “Patience, my people. The trees take a long time to grow, but they’re going to grow. The word of God doesn’t return empty.”

As a person living in a place with four distinct seasons for the first time, I cannot get over what a miracle some things are. I watch the irises and the daylilies all around here get killed by frost, covered with snow. But just as I’m getting impatient after the melting of April and May, BAM! They arrive. And the message they bring is oh so clear that you have to respond: “Oh, hello, hope. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Nature is full of miracles — most of them just take a little time.

We are impatient people indeed, but some things cannot be rushed: the end of winter and the return of spring. The growth of a tree. Even climbing a mountain for the view takes some patience.

So let us continue to sow grace and love and acceptance everywhere, believing that God’s good love never returns empty. Let’s go to the FallsFest and to Sok’s for Beer & Hymns in August and out into our lives every day bearing the Good News that there is hope — this crazy hope that there is a slow-moving miracle taking place in the world and that what we see now may be fall or it may be winter, but spring is coming and it’s going to be glorious. That what we see now may be buried seed, buried seed can grow into a strong tree — it just takes awhile.

And may the Holy Spirit rescue all of us — this church, western Massachusetts, the United States, the world, and each person in this assembly — from our own impatience.

Because ask our ancestors and they’d tell you: gosh, adults are so impatient these days. Amen.

On “What People Want Out of Church”


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Anatomy of a hipster pastor (give or take the beard based on gender). (1)

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

Ask most congregations who are welcoming a new pastor what their hope is, and many people will likely say the same thing: “We hope the new pastor will bring in young families!”

We just have to figure out what they want — what do young families want?

Now, putting aside for a moment the people that leaves out, namely older people, childless couples, and single people of all ages and the fact that God calls all those people too, new pastors in any congregation of any size are faced with an immense amount of pressure: get people to come to church and have to figure out: What do people want?

How quickly we forget that church is a team sport. Studies show that the pastor casts the vision, but the biggest draw to any church isn’t the pastor — it’s you. Most new church people come not because they’re attracted by a cool pastor or attractive programming. It’s much simpler: most people come because a friend — you — asked them.

And how often do we think of that as the rest of the world does with its products: as some sort of corporate marketing scheme.

We think we, pastor and people, have to figure it out: What do people want?

Megachurches are even doing this with some success. They have bumper stickers and coffee mugs and laser light shows. They have slick church logos and slogans and male pastors with spiked hair and leather bracelets, reaching out with great success, as my friends and I like to say, to the young adults — of 1993.

Okay, maybe people don’t want that. What do people want?

On the flip side, other congregations draw people in by taking quite a different tactic: strict social rules and controls. They preach a life of being set apart from the world, of singing only traditional hymns and interpreting the Bible as literally as possible and basically being no fun.

They’re generally not the kind of people you want to invite to your cocktail parties, but theirs is a compelling vision nonetheless, one based on the idea that people want structure and rules.

Most mainline and Lutheran churches are caught somewhere in the middle: with some ideas on how to life a clean life that doesn’t harm other people or creation, while also taking the time to laugh, celebrate, and be an active part of our communities.

You’ll find pastors in these three categories, too. The fun ones, the really not fun ones, and the ones that struggle to find a place somewhere in the middle.

I’m one of the fun ones, I guess, just less famous than the most famous ones like Nadia Bolz-Weber. All I can really be is myself, just like you, and like Nadia, I like to be a pastor to “my people” — the namely, my friends, the riffraff. “Not church people” people. 

My home pastor once joked while I was in Lutheran candidacy after two years of pastoring that we really need to get me more tattoos. People like tattoos.

A common phenomenon in my life is to be sitting among new friends around my age, hanging out, having fun, with me in what my San Francisco priest friend likes to call pastoral incognito mode, the kind of getup you all rarely see me in because you usually see me professionally — backwards hat, sneakers, jeans. Everything will be going fine until someone turns to me and says, “Oh, so Anna, what do you do for a living?”

Then I tell them that I’m a Lutheran pastor and I can see the numbers swirl in front of their faces as they try to do the advanced calculus of how many anti-religion comments they’ve made and how many cuss words they’ve said but wait, did the pastor cuss? Is it cool to cuss in front of pastors now? And finally, after a beat, they usually say out loud, “Wait. You’re a pastor?!”

To which someone like my friend Braxton will come to the rescue by saying “She’s the best pastor, because she’s like, not a pastor.”

No one knows what it means, but we’ve all decided it’s a compliment.

Then we usually start talking about Nadia Bolz-Weber or something and if I’m lucky, it’ll end with someone saying, “Okay, you know — I’d go to your church if your church was around here.”

Is that really true? 

I used to think it was, when I was just starting out, fresh out of seminary, hopeful and a little cocky. I believed that I, one person, could “bring in the young people” with my non-traditional pastor-like, liturgical hipster-y way of being in the world, liturgically-colored Chuck Taylors and all. 

But now I know that, even for the folks who do live around here or the ones who wish they did, they probably wouldn’t, or won’t, actually come to “my” church when they say they would.

And you know, that’s really okay with me.

Because you see, church isn’t just here to give. Church is community. Any functional community asks something of us. On a very basic level, it asks that we show up pretty consistently (New Englanders in the summertime notwithstanding). And for a wide variety of reasons these days, that can be hard for people and it’s easy to say what you would do, but hard to actually do it.

You know, like that workout plan or that diet we all would start if.

Then there’s the very basic principle that humans are — arguably increasingly, in our world of fake news and false information — skeptical, cynical creatures. We can usually find things we don’t like about anything.

So what do people want?

Honestly, I don’t think they know.

Jesus seems to be rattling on about the exact same problem in our Gospel reading:

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

What do you people want?!

They write off John for being no fun. They write off Jesus for being too much fun.

This is an old, common problem with humanity that began with the Church’s very foundations. We in the church just happened to have some time in the middle when people went to church not because it cast a compelling vision, but because that’s what people did. Or, for a good chunk of time, they came because they were afraid of going to hell.

That time is over. And to be honest, despite all the struggles that come with being a pastor today, I’m glad.

I’m glad that you’re most likely here because you want to be here, not because you think that the church is your get out of hell free card, and not because you feel obligated to be here because everyone else in South Hadley is here. 

At Camp Calumet a couple of weeks ago, while someone was going on about the dismal state of the church these days as compared to the 80s, a pastor said, “Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be a pastor in any time other than this one.”

I quickly chimed in, “Me, too. For more than just the obvious difficulties that would’ve made it hard for me to be a pastor before now.”

For a beat, everyone just sat their in silence. Finally, the person who had been reminiscing said, “Really?

“Yes!” my brother pastor said emphatically.

We went on to explain, together, that it’s much easier to pastor people who want to be there, and that we have a greater opportunity to effect real change in the world than we ever have, to cast a vision of unity in a divided world, to actually build bridges to peace rather than entrenching ourselves as puppet-like extensions of one political party or another.

We have a chance to help human beings, of their own free will, build peace in their lives and in their hearts when peace is in such short supply.

So maybe instead of wandering around lamenting the numbers we don’t have anymore, we can cast a vision and go forward, and the vision is the one Jesus gives us today: “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV).

In this busy, violent, divided world, what more can we offer than rest and peace in a diverse community?

So wait. Welcome people? That’s it, pastor? What’d you get that from a seminar?

I can hear the John the Baptist-type preachers now — but God expects something from us!

Jesus answers through the ages, “‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” (Matthew 11:29-30).

In ancient times, a rabbi’s yoke, like the kind you put around an ox to help it pull something, was the rabbi’s teaching. Jesus is telling the crowd that his teaching isn’t burdensome or difficult. His purpose is to give peace and rest, not burdens and religious obligations.

So the time of people coming to church out of obligation is over. Good!

Now we can follow Jesus. Now we can give rest. Now we can build community and make peace. We can repeat Jesus’ tender invitation: “Come to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. We will give you a place to rest.”

This weekend I was in Saratoga Springs, New York, with Parker, and as usual, we walked by the springs that gave Saratoga its name and made Saratoga Springs a famous place of healing for years.

Those waters no longer considered miracle cures for every ill, yet they still spring up and offer beauty and peace to those who stop. They don’t stop producing water just because people don’t come and drink all the time. They doesn’t produce less water because not as many people came as last year. They don’t harken back to the days when people held their healing properties in high regard with pseudoscience. They don’t wonder what people want or demand anything of those who visit them or change themselves to “fit the times.”

But they are no less beautiful.

Saratoga’s freshwater springs just do what they’ve always done, and what they were created to do: they produce fresh, naturally carbonated mineral water and natural beauty. They continue to be exactly what they were created to be: a beautiful place to rest, take a drink, plant your feet where you are, let your burdens go, and even smile and laugh and splash your friends. So it should be with Church.

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Two of many mineral springs in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can read more about Saratoga’s naturally carbonated springs here.

Because church shouldn’t be about what people want or about what they feel they have to do, or else, we’ll always be frustrated, saying “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance!”

Church should be about what people need, and what they need is what humans have always needed. Peace. Rest. No obligations: just love, and dare we say it, a little hope for the future. May we continue to be a spring of new life, giving people not what they want, but what they need. Amen.

1. Graphic from random (male pastor-centric) article I found here.

Prophets, Cups of Cool Water, and Hope from the Rubble

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Muslims in Douma, Syria, wait for Iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast, amid the rubble of a bombed mosque.

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Matthew 10:40-42

I love wrong answers that are really right answers. You teachers probably know what I mean. When a student technically gets a question wrong, but their wrong answer is pretty right on a deep philosophical level. Here’s what I mean.

I had a confirmation student in my first parish about five years ago who gave the most perfect wrong answer I’ve ever heard. I asked, “The Bible was written by people who were what by God?”

I got a blank stare.

Finally, my one student piped up, “People who were in….. convenienced by God?”

No! But oh my gosh, yes!

The next session I brought a Scripture from Jeremiah to show her just how right her wrong answer was: Jeremiah 38:6 – “So they took Jeremiah and threw him into a cistern…letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.”

I think it’s safe to call being lowered into a giant muddy cistern for being a prophet being “inconvenienced by God.”

That raises the question: what’s a prophet?

I’ll tell you what I thought a prophet was when I was younger: it was a person who told the future.

Turns out I was wrong. That’s a fortuneteller.

What I would learn later is that a prophet is a person who speaks — or in some cases, tries to speak — for God, who tells the truth as best they know it and faces the consequences. Because it turns out that sometimes when you speak for God, people don’t like you. It upsets the people in power, or sometimes, it upsets the majority. When you tell people that they’re overfed while other people are starving, they won’t like you. Ask Amos.

When God says, “These people are welcome,” and most people do not want to welcome those people, they will hate you. Ask the people of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

When I was a seminary intern back around 2009, I served at a church that is about 80% LGBTQ, and of those, most are gay men. It stands in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. Back in the 90s, Midtown Atlanta began to undergo a change as older white people moved out and a diverse community of gay men found refuge there. The Pride parade marched through every year and the pastor stood on the front lawn, staring at the Baptist church across the street who hired armed guards to protect themselves from… oh, I don’t know from what.

The Methodist pastor looked at the people in the parade and the witness of closed doors across the street and he thought to himself, “These people need a pastor too.” And so the next year, drawing on the Scripture that was our Gospel reading, the little old ladies of St. Mark United Methodist Church offered cups of cool water to the marchers in the parade, giving them rest from the Atlanta summer heat. They held signs that said, simply, “You are welcome here.”

Then the visitors started to come: three, four, ten, then as many as fifty on a single Sunday. Young gay men found faith again. And things came full circle as those same little old ladies lost the ability to drive, so the younger gay men took the church van to go and pick them up.

They called it “The Miracle on Peachtree.” 

Years later, St. Mark is thriving, and the Baptist church across the street is now a park.

It wasn’t without controversy, of course. One lady declared in her Sunday school class: “I’m just uncomfortable with so many of those people here.”

Another lady clapped back, “Beatrice, ya said the same thing about the black folk thirty years ago.”

People don’t always like it when you speak for justice and welcome, and sometimes the consequences are more dire than the ire of Ms. Beatrice. Speaking out for justice is a good thing — we get to work for justice and do God’s work in the world. It’s less appealing, though, when you run into conflict, or think about getting thrown into cisterns, or worse.

If you’ve read very much of the Bible, you know what they do to prophets. If you’ve watched the news in the last fifty years, you know what they do to prophets. Tell me, what happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? More recently, what happened to Malala Yousafzai, who even after being shot by radicals of her own faith and almost dying, still speaks out against radicalism and for the education of women in the Middle East? What happened to countless others targeted because other people didn’t like their message of justice or peace?

Jesus once said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it!”

But it ain’t just Jerusalem that kills prophets. It’s Memphis. It’s Atlanta. It’s Boston. It’s DC. Here on this Fourth of July weekend, we light sparklers and watch firework displays and celebrate while sometimes easily forgetting the high risk that our Founding Fathers took by signing the Declaration of Independence. If the Revolution had gone the other way, they would have been systematically hunted down and executed. They knew that. And they signed the thing anyway. And that is why you can enjoy BBQ and fireworks on Tuesday.

Every preacher wants to be prophetic, but few feel the full burden of it. As a wise man once told a class full of eager preachers — if you’re not willing to bear the cost, you ain’t no prophet.

I’m not sure I want to bear it myself. That cost is high. I know what happens to prophets. It’s easier to just be nice and safe.

But the truth is that we need prophets these days. And the truth is that we Lutherans, and we Americans, and we humans, come from courageous stock.

In an age when our discourse gets nastier and nastier, when Congresspeople get shot at rallies or playing baseball, God can still be heard echoing through the ages: who will I send? Who will go for us? Who will offer a cup of cold water in my name?

Being a prophet can be dangerous, but the good news is that we come from courageous stock.

This very land vibrates of the souls of brave patriots who once walked the same ground that you do. These church walls vibrate with the Lutherans who dared speak out and risked execution for their faith because as the Reformation caught fire, so did the martyrs burned at the stake. As American Lutherans, we are heirs of both.

If you can’t find your own courage, take your courage from these.

God is speaking. People are hurting. People need welcoming with a cup of cold water and some love. Whom will God send?

What’s more, the church often feels rendered impotent because we’re not the thriving, full congregations we once were back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They say people my age don’t come to church all the while looking past those of us that are here, or worse, patting us on the head.

I suppose we could all just go home and give up. But if we give up when our ancestors in faith and across the world have been through so much, what does that say about us?

Consider your ancestors. And consider the residents of Douma, Syria. Last week, after another day of Ramadan fasting, Muslim residents of Douma ate their Iftar meal in the blasted out shell of a mosque, amid rubble. They brought in tables and draped them in white cloth and passed around the food, daring to gather and experience joy. For the rest of Ramadan, they had broken their daily fasts in the safety of basements. But on that holy day, they took the risk of coming above ground and into the evening light, knowing full well that bombs could fall, to enjoy a meal together and practice their faith. (1)

So what were we western Christians feeling all hopeless about? Low attendance?

Aren’t we supposed to be the faith that believes in resurrection? That even when things lie in rubble, dead, that there’s still hope? Aren’t we an Easter people?

The cost of being a prophet is high. But if we are a people of resurrection, we dare to believe that truly, no price is too high. There is hope, and even when we can’t muster any hope ourselves, our own faith tells us that Good Friday always leads to Easter. And we are here, together, amid metaphorical rubble in the modern church, to remind each other of that.

I have just returned from spending ten days with confirmation kids, working my tail off as their chaplain in our synod’s camp, Camp Calumet. Calumet is a holy place where the good vibes flow, where every person is free to be themselves and speak their truth and laugh and play and feel God’s presence. Though Calumet can feel far away from the pain of the world, my mind hardly ever is. I still struggle with the state of the church in the United States while I was there, wondering where this whole road leads and what we’re supposed to do and how we could possibly be prophets when we’ve got folks who just can’t get out of the way and let the leaders lead and the prophets speak.

With that on my mind, I wrote a sermon for church last Sunday called “No John Trumbull,” named after a track on the Hamilton Mixtape, a song which describes John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration of Independence — that scene looks so clean and romantic, but the truth is that it was anything but. Those Founding Fathers were not only risking their lives, but they didn’t agree on everything. Some of them didn’t agree on much.

And you know, neither do we. We will argue about what to speak out about and how and when. If all are truly welcome, things are gonna get uncomfortable sometimes as we struggle to find what it is we will take a stand for. And struggling with faith and human issues is hard.

But we all, like them, come from brave stock. Members of this congregation hail from far away lands and from just down the road. And we all come from brave stock. 

Thank God we are an Easter people. I believe that even if every door of every church in the New England Synod closed tomorrow, the church of Jesus Christ would live on, and we would each find our place in it. Because if the people of Douma can faithfully celebrate their feast amid the rubble, we can celebrate ours in this place.

Listen — It will not be perfect and it may well not be comfortable. Mishaps will happen. Things will go wrong. When we meet and discuss just how to speak for God in the world, we will disagree on how that should happen because we are strong-willed people who come from brave stock. But let me tell you what I saw this week: the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than us. It’s more resilient than us.

Those confirmation kids may even be wiser than us, and someday soon they will take over the church and they will amaze those of us blessed enough to see it.

And the church of Jesus Christ will stand forever, because thank God: we are an Easter people.

Nayyirah Waheed, African American writer and poet, once shared with the world this wisdom: “I don’t pay attention to the world ending. It has ended for me many times and began again in the morning.”

And so let us pray, let us sing, and let us feast in hope. Amen.

1. Read more about the Iftar meal in Douma here.

Guest Sermon: Be a Bother!

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Written by the Reverend Dr. Jill Rierdan
Guest Preaching at Our Savior’s
June 25, 2017

Matthew 10:24-39 (Proper 7)

Some years ago, an Episcopal priest, and friend of mine, was asked to give the benediction at a local public meeting. At the end of his prayer, someone called out, and pray for the Red Sox to win the pennant! To which my priest friend said, God doesn’t care about sports. Well! That comment was controversial enough to get reported in a newspaper article in the Springfield Republican.

And whether you or I agree, my priest friend’s comment raises a wonderful question: What does God care about? Are some of our personal concerns too trivial or too simply personal to bring to God?

The Gospel this morning helps answer this question when Jesus says, 

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?

Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

God loves us, down to the hair on our heads. And if God cares about the hair that grows on, or falls out from, our heads, so much more would God care about what grows and takes root in our hearts. And so we may ask God to bless our gardens and our pets and our stuffed animals and our sports teams and we may pray for health and forgiveness and rain or no rain and even parking spaces, and we may bring to God’s attention the healing of sick friends and the repose of souls, without having to be concerned with bothering God.

In England, some people are called God Botherers. This is a slang term for people who talk about God when people don’t want to listen. Jeremiah might be called a God Botherer as he cries out the word of the Lord that the people don’t want to hear. Now, Lutherans and Episcopalians are NOT known for being God Botherers in this sense—we don’t usually go around from door to door or stand in the market place talking about God. Our issue is not that we bother other people with our talk of God but that we worry about our bothering God with our prayers and concerns.

There is no prayer request too small or too large. At the Easter Vigil service this year, during the Prayers of the People, I found myself asking for prayers for Vladimir Putin! Is this because I love and approve of Mr. Putin or his politics? Not at all. It is because I wish for his sake and that of the world that he be brought into the orbit of God. And I knew God would not be bothered by my prayer request, by the immensity of a request for world peace. Quite the contrary. 

God invites us to bring our loves and fears and hopes and concerns to God in prayer, no matter how small or how large.

At this time, when many of us are afraid about the state of our nation and the world—we need to know that God wants to hear our fears so the we might hear again God’s message of love.  Jesus kept saying Be Not Afraid because he knew how afraid the disciples were; we still need to hear that Gospel message—Be Not Afraid—because we still fear in the midst of our faith. 

God even invites us to bring our hates to God. Even our wish for someone else’s failure or loss or suffering or death or destruction can be brought to God in prayer. If you don’t believe me, think of some of the psalms that we used to read before the lectionary was revised. Texts of terror is what one theologian called them.

God invites us to bring our anger and rage and hate to God. NOT because God will gratify these prayers of hate, not because God would ever become a force of hate as we humans sometimes are, but because through bringing our deepest desires to God in prayer—even our anger and hatred—we open ourselves to God, invite God to affect us, to shape us, to provide an experience of love and light which can transform our hate and hard-heartedness as God counts the hairs on our heads.

We cannot change God (Thank God!) but God can change us if we bring all our concerns, without censoring, without judging and declaring some too selfish or trivial or terrible for the heart of God to hear and hold and transform.

All of us are created in the image of God and through approaching God we will more and more conform to God’s image, becoming people of love, not hate; mercy, not revenge; one human family of cherished diversity united in prayer. 

This is what God cares about.

Camp Calumet Sermon: “No John Trumbull”

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Matthew 10:24-39

And that’s your Gospel reading. When I’m all ready to preach some peace and love for staff week and confirmation camp at Calumet, Jesus goes all “not peace but a sword” on me. Whoa Jesus.

’Til I moved to New England, I lived most of my adult life in Atlanta, the capital of hip hop. So naturally, when I need a little help, I turn there.

So – some of you may be familiar with a little musical called Hamilton. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a hip hop musical based on exactly what you’d expect a hip hop musical to be about: the life of a real OG, our nation’s first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Written by American actor, rapper, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s all at once dream-like and a painfully realistic, clear-eyed journey through the Revolution and our nation’s founding.

Now, those of you who are Hamilton superfans will know of another release called the Hamilton Mixtape, in which legendary hip hop and R&B artists had all kinds of fun performing the numbers, adding lyrics, adding their own spin. And the Mixtape also included some deleted numbers from the show.

The first track on the album is one such number. Called “No John Trumbull,” the number was supposed to open the second act, after the Revolution has been won, and after the audience has been left with American pride running through their veins, thinking of how nice and romantic that whole Revolution thing was, similar to a painting by John Trumbull, the artist who captured the famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

After the Revolution, the real work of governing begins for Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers. In what was originally meant to open that second act, legendary artists the Roots give us this short number:

You ever seen a painting by John Trumbull?

Founding fathers in a line, looking all humble

Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a nation,

no sign of disagreement,

Not one grumble?

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

Every cabinet meeting’s like a full on rumble.

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull.” (1)

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John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

We romanticize history, but history is messy. It’s no romantic painting, No John Trumbull. Living together is hard. Governing and leading is hard. Messy. I’m from Alabama. I’m not sure, but there’s a decent chance that my ancestors may have owned and abused other humans in the horror of American slavery. Then there was segregation and the KKK. American history, as any Alabama student who’s paying attention knows, is not pretty. It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s real.

Good thing we have the church, right?

[Cough]

We spend a lot of time talking about peace and love in the church, and so we should. But we get to feeling too good about ourselves and we often confuse love with being nice. We paint ourselves a John Trumbull — clean lines, nice. Always getting along.

No sign of disagreement, not one grumble.

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

We try so hard to make out like the church is nice. We like being nice. We’re in New England, for God’s sake, the most polite place since… well, the first England, where the Founding Fathers came from. Being nice seems uncomplicated. Everyone likes you, and people don’t get mad at you too often. And we imagine the early church as this nice place where people shared everything and people loved each other and there was no conflict, no sign of disagreement, not one grumble.
The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.
Then there’s the stereotypes about Jesus: meek and mild, nice guy, carries sheep, stares peacefully into distance. We see it in paintings a lot.

But this Gospel reading is no John Trumbull.

Jesus, meek & mild, and talking about how he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.

And try as we might, the modern church isn’t always nice either. Some of you, unfortunately, know this first hand. If you don’t, ask your pastor their craziest “person who wasn’t nice in their last call” story. Or don’t. Because it’s similar to opening Google and typing “my dog swallowed ….” and waiting for Google to fill in the predictive search. The possibilities are endless and pretty gross.

Some folks think we’ve fallen from grace since those first days of the early church as described in Acts. As nice as that is to think, you’d be wrong there too. Paul is all over the Corinthians for being first century jerks, where everybody had their favorite teacher and they wouldn’t listen to anyone else. “I follow Paul! I follow Apollos!”

If you read those epistles closely, you’ll see that, long before Ms. Beatrice came for the property committee over the color of the carpet, Theomestros came for Agatha over eating meat dedicated to idols.

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

‘Kay. I get it. No more Reverend Nice Church. So if we’re not a nice church, what kind of church are we?

Assuming Jesus really meant all of this stuff, which I feel like is generally a good idea, it would seem that being nice isn’t an option, but we know that Jesus has also called us to love one another.

And real love is no John Trumbull. It’s messier and richer, kids.

Love often isn’t nice. Love is hard.

Sometimes you have to deal with difficult people or tell people what they don’t want to hear or speak your truth and trust the other person to still love you anyway. Love can get messy, but it’s also real — more beautiful than any painting.

In the church, you will find bickering and anger, but you will also find people who are trying their hardest to follow Jesus and to welcome everyone in and to seek justice and really love one another. And that’s hard stuff.

The truth is that real love, real justice, takes work. Too often when we’re nice, we don’t want to rock the boat. But the truth is that sometimes that boat needs rocking. The world is imperfect, and people are getting hurt every day, and we’re called to stand up and do something about that, because defending vulnerable people is what love looks like — and that can be hard. We’ll disagree on who and what and how to rock what boat and when.

Every council meeting’s like a full on rumble

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull.

The difference between niceness and love is the difference between a painting of a nature scene and the beauty you see around you in this place. One is beautiful, with no bugs or humidity, but it’s also only a shadow of the real thing. The other one is actual wilderness, where the weather isn’t always nice and where you can be uncomfortable and sometimes even get hurt — but it’s deep, and real, and beautiful, with real water and real trees and real fresh air. You can touch the trees and feel the breeze. It’s difficult for me to stand on the shores of Lake Ossipee and not feel something, even if it’s hot, or there are bugs. It’s real.

This week in confirmation camp we’re talking about the ways that God shows up here at camp and back home in your church — we call it Holy Things, things like water and fire and and table —  the ways that God shows up in the midst of our mess and still calls us beloved, makes us new, makes us whole.

Paraphrasing Martha Whitmore Hickman, we are not perfect. [We’re not even always nice.] Instead, we are loved. And that’s real.

If you want, I can talk to you about the mess and the pain that I’ve seen in church and the ways I’ve gotten hurt. I’ve had my heart broken by church people a few times. But I can’t talk about that without talking about the love I’ve found in the Church, and not just in some far away spiritual sense, but in a real sense, the kind I can see and hear and touch and taste: in Bread, Wine, Water, and Words, and in these messy people we call the Church. In real people who wrapped their arms around me and told me that I was loved and good enough when the world had told me otherwise. Those who made my baptismal promises real, more than just words on a page. I am loved. So are you.

We’re not perfect, but God keeps showing up among us.

The reality is messier and richer, kids. And it’s more beautiful than any John Trumbull.

It’s messier because we’re sinners. It’s richer because God has made us saints.

And so let us, beloved, gather around this table where God shows up and makes all things new. It’s no picture perfect painting. It’s much messier, and richer, than that.

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull. It’s better. It’s love. Amen.

1. “No John Trumbull,” Hamilton Mixtape, 2016. If you’re a Spotify user, you can listen here. [Caution: some songs may not be appropriate for small children.]