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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We humans are complex creatures.

Parables, also, are stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free from the 24 hour news cycle.

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

Free from partisanship and liberal orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy.

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

Free to love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re a work in progress.

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

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

Where all are welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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Stewardship Sunday #2: On Deciding to Do the Impossible

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

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

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

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

This whole thing feels increasingly impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s definitely a race for crazy people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not going to be that easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you? You keep showing up.

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

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

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

So you’ll be filling out commitment cards soon.

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

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

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

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

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

Let us build. Amen.

Stewardship Sunday #1: Built on a Rock

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

Matthew 21:23-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The son is defiant. He tells his father no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do what you say you’re going to do.

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

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

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

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

This is most certainly true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

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

And we’ll be grumpy sometimes.

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

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

That’s why you live generously.

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

Built on a rock, the church shall stand.

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

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

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

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

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

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

Here’s our chance.

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

And all God’s people said: Amen.

Refugee Sunday: This is Us

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Omran Daqneesh, seen bloodied and shellshocked in this still from a video taken by the Aleppo Media Center, quickly gave a human face to the humanitarian conflict in Syria. 

Micah 4:1-5
Matthew 13:1-16

It seems that there is more suffering and crisis in the world every time we gather here. Puerto Rico, Mexico, Myanmar, London, Texas, Florida, Oregon, Syria, and countless other places are in crisis or have experienced crisis recently. And on a day like Refugee Sunday, those of us who are practically-minded tend to think, well, practically: what is our role in all of this suffering? What, if anything, have we done to contribute? Now that suffering is happening, what can we do to alleviate it?

I heard about a book this past week whose title made me laugh as much as it made me want to buy the book. It’s called, How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. It’s written by psychologist Randy J. Patterson. (1)

There are several negative books and articles like this coming out now, giving us things not to do if we want to be happy or fulfilled. There are many from a few different sources: if you want to be miserable, they say, do things like maximize your screen time, pursue happiness directly, work too much, and don’t get enough sleep. 

Another strategy for unhappiness: direct all blame either inward (to yourself) or outward (to something else, completely absolving yourself). A fulfilled and healthy person, naturally, realizes that we all have a starring role in our own failures, but that we are also usually not solely responsible for any failure. Other people, situations, and environmental factors can and do all contribute to our success or failure at anything we do, as do we ourselves.

When we broaden the scale to look at the humanitarian failures around the world, the same is true. Some institutions and churches put it all on us — we can solve this problem, they say, we’re just not. “Look at these poor people,” they say. “They’re suffering because we’ve failed.”

This, of course, makes it all about us, ignoring the strength and resourcefulness of refugees around the world as well as making the plight of someone else about our own navel-gazing.

Other religious institutions put it all on God to fix it, theologizing away the problem. “Everything will be fine in the end,” they tend to say. “There’s no need to get political. God will take care of those people. We just have to pray for them. #ThoughtsAndPrayers”

Of course, we never consider when we say this that maybe we can be an answer to prayer. As Luther wrote, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

And like the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, we’re always trying to justify ourselves in reply: “And who is my neighbor?”

My answer is that our neighbor is anyone we consider an “us” and not a “them.” That was definitely Jesus’ idea when he told that parable about the Good Samaritan, who to the Jews at the time was the ultimate “them.” Jesus always seems to be trying to broaden our idea of who our neighbor is, and whom we consider part of “us.” 

Refugee Sunday is about gathering around the table to remember the us all around the world that are driven from their homes by violence, economic hardship, and disaster. Refugees around the world are part of Christ’s body and all refugees of any faith were created by God. You all know that better than most congregations — this congregation and many of you as individuals have long been part of refugee resettlement, advocacy, and aid. You understand that refugees aren’t an issue — they’re people.

Refugees are part of us.

One such person was a little boy who made the world weep for Syria a year ago as he sat, shell-shocked, bloodied, and dusty, in an ambulance after an airstrike. His name is Omran, and in the photo, he was five years old. I haven’t been able to quite find out where he is today.

Only a few days after this photo of Omran hit the news, a little American boy named Alex recorded a video of himself asking President Obama if Omran could come and live with him and his family.

“We will give him a family and he will be our brother,” Alex wrote. “Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together.” (2)

“He will be our brother.”

Sometimes I think that having “faith like a child” also means seeing others the way that children tend to.

Each of us is us. Which is just another way of saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And like the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, we’re always trying to justify ourselves in reply: “And who is my neighbor?”

I think by this point, we have our answer.

To be partisan from the pulpit is an abuse of power. To speak out for those who are in need or abused is historically one of the most traditional forms of Christian discourse. You can check the record on that, and I can recommend some socially active early church saints for those who are curious.

And of course, nothing is simple. I spend hours each week with earbuds in, listening to geopolitics streaming through podcasts of multiple political stripes as I do just about any household chore. I read a lot. I know that refugee resettlement, resource management, national security and geopolitics as a whole are complicated. That’s obvious.

What I’m asking for is a small, but also seismic, shift in how we frame the conversation. Let’s acknowledge what we already know, and what you’ve heard today: refugees aren’t a them. They’re an us.

Most of us will never understand the horror or the hardship that refugees around the world have faced or are facing, but how differently might we approach these conversations if we simply framed the conversation differently? They are us. Literally. Members of our own congregation are former refugees and their children.

And yes, it’s complicated, and yes, in any such conversation we’re all bound to get offended. But that’s just the thing: grace is offensive. Go back and read that Gospel reading again. Grace isn’t easy. Sometimes grace even seems unjust, or makes us mad.

The workers who show up last in the parable get the same wage as the ones who worked all day. The landowner, meant to represent God, just scoff back, “What? Are you envious because I am generous?”

We don’t get extra points for good behavior, and we don’t get to demand good behavior from others as a prerequisite to loving and serving them.

We don’t get to choose anyone’s worth based on our judgement of their status or behavior. It also means that no one gets to choose ours. Our worth belongs to God, the landowner, who is always coming to get all of us.

Our worth is not our immigration status, nor is it our stellar record on social justice. And I hope you know that it means that whether you and I ever agree on anything related to politics, you are still us to me. Your worth depends on God, no whether your opinions are correct.

About this Gospel text, ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “Our gospel text for today is not the parable of the workers. It’s the parable of the landowner. Because what makes it the kingdom of God is not the worthiness or piety or social justice-yness or hard work of the laborers…it’s the fact that the trampy landowner couldn’t manage to keep out of the market place. He goes back and back and back interrupting lives…coming to get his people.” (3) 

The truth, beloved, is that God is always coming to get God’s people, in many ways, places, and times. God’s coming to get some of us to drag us to work, helping vulnerable people around the world. God’s coming to get refugees around the world through the hands of workers and the hands of angels. And finally, God’s coming to get — to rescue — the whole world.

Because we can’t.

No matter how good we are, no matter how much we do, this whole thing is bigger, more complicated, than us. Because we are the Church, we will strive and we will act and we will help, but ultimately we will fail, because it’s bigger than us. We’re finite. We can’t even see the end.

But I need to believe that God can.

I know that it seems crazy to my counterparts who aren’t religious, but this is the truest confession of faith that I can make: the world is so messed up that I need to believe that somehow it will all someday be made right.

Our Old Testament reading is from Micah. George Washington quoted it more than fifty times in his writing about his vision for America. His dream was that in America, everyone could sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

We’re not there yet. We may not ever get there: achieving true peace for every person is something that no nation has never achieved. We keep messing it up, for others and for ourselves. And things keep happening — just this week, more earthquakes and more hurricanes.

Humanitarian crises keep being bigger than any of us.

But before being able to live without fear was America’s promise, it was God’s.

I am a person of faith because I have to hope that someday, Micah’s vision will be real, that someday,

“…they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees,
    and no one shall make them afraid.” Micah 4:3b-4

My friend Joe describes grace sort of like this — if you knew that a problem wasn’t yours to solve, that the burden wasn’t on you anymore, if the pressure was off — how much good could you do?

Oscar Romero was a Catholic archbishop who was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out and advocating for the poor and vulnerable in El Salvador.

In one of my favorite writings of any saint, one that I need to revisit often these days, he writes,

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

“This is what we are about: we plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

“We are prophets of a future not our own.”

The crises we see on the news are neither all our fault, nor are they ours to abandon. Either way of thinking of it will make us miserable.

The future is God’s, that someday all of this will be redeemed. The present is ours to work. God is coming to get us in the marketplace, so let’s go to work.

It’s not for a them — it’s for us. Amen.

1. I heard about this book thanks to Atlas Obscura’s David Plotz on the Slate Political Gabfest.
2. You can read more about Alex and his letter here.
3. You can read Pastor Nadia’s whole sermon here.

Telling Time

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Learn to face things — “tell time” — better than the moose.

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

I’m not a big consumer of much of anything and I don’t have too much brand loyalty, but

I love funny commercials. I hold onto them and quote them for years.

I think I like them because they follow a lot of the same rules as other art forms like film and literature: if it speaks to something timeless about being human, something everybody can relate to, we remember it. Or at least I do.

I had two new ones to add to my list during the Pats game this week.

The first one featured a blue-toned screen focused on a white man in his mid-forties. He appears to be in a support group of some kind as he leans forward with a sincere, emotional, and somewhat distracted look on his face. He finally says, “You know, no job, no responsibilities — just leave it all behind.

The scene zooms out to reveal one guy standing in front of a white board with Fantasy Football picks listed on it. He and several other people in the room stare at the first guy uncomfortably. Finally, the guy at the board says, “…. Your fantasy pick, John.” while the others chime in, “Pick, yeah, pick!” 

The other one appeals slightly less to the darker side of my sense of humor:

It features three people sitting around a campfire talking about car insurance. Quickly, the camera zooms to the stickers on the RV behind them. One of them, a cutout of a buffalo, also brings up car insurance conversationally with the other stickers. The buffalo ends with, “They even insure RVs.”

A sticker that’s a silhouette of a moose says, “What’s an RV?”

A drawing of a howling wolf says, “Uh, the thing we’ve been stuck on for five years?”

The moose replies, “Wait. I’m not a real moose?”

The buffalo says, exasperated, “We’ve been over this, Jeff,” while the wolf chimes in, “We’re stickers!

“I’m not a real moose,” says the moose silhouette as he hangs his head.

The buffalo and the wolf say, “Give him some space,” and “Deep breaths, Jeff,” as the moose’s little silhouetted eye widens and he says, “What’s a sticker!?” (1)

Humor is always up for interpretation, but I think this sort of thing is funny to people because there is so much that we don’t openly acknowledge because we don’t know how to deal with it. Denial really isn’t just a river in Egypt — it’s a state of mind that most of us go swimming in about something every day: our health. Our job. Our family or other relationships. The state of our finances.

We resist hard things. It’s just human nature. It’s easier to deal with the day to day than to do a lot of deep work on ourselves or our relationships: to really think and talk about and deal with the thing you try to put out of your mind, or to have those hard conversations with people you love — it really is much easier to just carry on as if everything is fine.

This is what makes crises such a jolt to our consciousness. Crises are times when the deep issues we avoid become immediate — when there is no denying the unpleasant thing anymore, and all that’s left to do is act. Often, we treat crises like moral pop quizzes, because you never know how you’ll react until the time comes: what do you do when the unthinkable happens? How do you react when lives are on the line? Crises are when we see humanity at its most raw, and we see the most compassion, bravery, and self-sacrifice — as well as, in other cases, the most selfish, the most cowardly, the most evil. What we do when we are afraid reveals something about our character, and we know that.

And these days, especially, we understand crisis. There are storms everywhere, literally and metaphorically. Studies show that the earth’s crust in Houston flexed under all of the water that was dumped on it by Hurricane Harvey. The ground is literally shifting under our feet.

The prophet Ezekiel, featured during our Old Testament reading today, was alive and writing during a crisis in Israel’s history — when Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE. An invading force had taken over Ezekiel’s country, and he calls for the people to wake up. In exasperation, he writes: “Why will you die, O house of Israel?!”

Ezekiel calls for dealing with the unpleasant because it can’t be avoided anymore. The crisis is here, and it’s time to see what Israel is made of.

Paul’s words in the epistle could also have been Ezekiel’s: “You know what time it is.”
The crisis is here. The ground is shifting. No more pretending. No more carrying on as usual.

Paul calls the early church in Rome to wake up and get kicking. They’re suffering from persecution. Christians are dying. But Paul urges them into action: You know what time it is. Salvation is near. Crisis is an opportunity: you just have to be able to tell time.

This weekend, I went to see the movie Dunkirk, about the famous battle to get French and British troops, driven to the sea by the Nazis, out of France to fight another day. It was the very definition of a national crisis of the worst degree: an invading army is winning. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but at times the movie seemed (to me at least) to be an illustration of a sinner/saint theology, as the crisis pushed the troops and the officers and ordinary civilians to display the best and the worst of humanity.

Crisis is an opportunity to show what you’re made of: you just have to be able to tell time.

Then there’s the Gospel lesson, which is one of those passages that one of my colleagues refers to as “Practical life advice from Uncle Jesus.” And it is. Jesus gives a practical guide to dealing with crises and not putting it off — in other words, to telling time. He’s talking about the kind of crisis when we in the church hurt one another, which happens all the time. We’re human: sinners and saints, all of us. We have an enormous capacity to love each other and lift each other up, and an enormous capacity to hurt one another. And here, Jesus tries to guide us through the latter: we deal with these things in community. We don’t put them off.

We don’t pretend like everything’s okay until it’s not, and then disengage entirely.

Except that sometimes we do. Because we’re human.

We can work crises in relationships out, too: we just have to be able to tell time. We have to know when it’s time to love by giving space and when it’s time to love by confronting. This congregation’s had a lot of experience with that over the years, and so have I — and we’ve all bungled it up royally and we’ve all occasionally gotten it really right. But we keep trying.

And you know, sometimes, I think that’s one of the best gifts a church can give: teaching one another, gently, how to be kind and patient and loving and part of a community. To teach each other, gently, how to confront the unpleasant things head on. To teach each other, gently, how to tell time.

In my initial notes this week about the Gospel text, I quoted the verse where Jesus says, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20).

Beside it, I wrote, “Given the current state of things, you’d think he’s being sarcastic.”

“I mean, seriously guys, agree on anything and I’ll do it. Like even two or three of you.”

Seems like what’s true of rabbis has become true of American Christians: where you’ve got four of us, your’e got five opinions.

If I’m one of those Christians, three of those opinions are usually mine.

But “You know what time it is.”

There’s storms raging and more storms brewing, both in the Atlantic and in our souls, and whether we like it or not, it’s time to deal with some difficult stuff. The ground is shifting.

You know what time it is.

For our part, we are not a church in crisis. We are a church with a strong foundation of kindness and generosity and action. We are a church that’s already given $500 to Hurricane Harvey relief, who sponsored a child in Haiti long before Irma came along. We’re a church that looks after each other, too, and does what it can in the community. Today, we’ll gather and go help a neighbor with house and yard work just because she needs it and has become unable to do it herself.

This “small and mighty” congregation feeds people, fixes homes, and gives funds to send kids to camp. You are the kind of congregation St. Paul describes as he doles out the advice: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Uncle Luther gives some similar advice when he says, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” You know that.

And you know what time it is.

So as the storms rage literally and metaphorically in our world and in our lives, let’s remember what time it is. It’s time to help. It’s time to reach out. It’s time to be an anchor for the community around us. It’s time to deal with what we’ve been putting off, to take better care of our neighbors and ourselves — I am by far not the first to point out that “Love your neighbor as yourself” requires that you love yourself.

Let’s continue to root ourselves in the sacraments and in God’s deep grace as we go forward. In a few weeks as we enter stewardship season, you’re going to hear a lot about building our future together. This is where it begins: rooted in the foundation of generosity and kindness that you have, and we have, over decades, laid in our lives and in this assembly. As Paul told the Romans, salvation, and God, are nearer to us now than when we started this whole thing together, not because we’ve moved closer, but because God keeps showing up here among us. God keeps moving towards us. This is our foundation.

And now, let’s move forward to be an anchor for each other and for this community as we build our future together. Let’s go — it’s time. Amen.

1. Full commercial can be viewed here.

“Rock Bottom”

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A news report on the vandalism at Masjid Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith, AK, from KNWA, a local news station out of Fayetteville.

Matthew 16:21-28

There’s a current Gatorade commercial that’s stuck with me lately.

It begins with a shot of a high school gymnasium, then pans to none other than Michael Jordan, basketball legend, sitting in the bleachers. Michael looks at the camera and says, “What is the secret to victory? Fail to make your high school basketball team.”

It then goes through a series of other athletes all giving their secret to victory:

J. J. Watt, Houston Texans defensive end says, “Start your career as a walk on.”

Peyton Manning, who holds NFL quarterback records in passing yards, touchdown passes, AP MVP awards, and Pro Bowl appearances offers his secret to victory: “Go 3-13 your rookie season.” His brother Eli, also among the NFL’s best QBs, adds, “Lead the league in interceptions.”

Other athletes chime in, including tennis legend Serena Williams saying, “Be on the wrong side of the biggest upset in your sport,” and Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs, who says, “Spend 108 years as a lovable loser.”

Finally, the scene pans to the inside of NRG Stadium in Houston, as the ticker tape falls at the end of last year’s Super Bowl. A dejected Matt Ryan, quarterback for the Falcons team that blew a huge lead, looks directly into the camera and says, “You really want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.” And then he walks off the field, head down, and the commercial ends (1). 

Clearly Tom Brady wasn’t available for this one, because we all know that the GOAT started his NFL career as Pick #199, in the sixth round. Nobody expects too much of sixth round picks, and while we all know how his story led him to five rings (and counting), it’s important to remember where it started.

Though these defeat-to-victory stories are common, this commercial about defeat is quite a turn on the usual positive thinking that sports usually promotes. When I was an athlete, I would often get tired of the relentlessly chipper, positive thinking that kept telling me to focus on victory and ignore and shake off the negative.

I’ve most often subscribed to the sentiment described by rapper Drake: “Working with the negatives can make for better pictures.” (2)

If you haven’t failed, you’re not trying hard enough, and the number of times you fall doesn’t matter as long as the number of times you get up is one greater than the number of times you fell. All of that.

It’s easy to think about and gain motivation from it when it’s sports, when it doesn’t entail any kind of moral failure. But what about when we’re not talking about making the team or making errors or throwing interceptions during the big game? What about when we’re talking about addiction? Infidelity? Abusing someone else? Telling a big lie? Stealing from a loved one? What about when we’re talking about the worst thing you’ve ever done?

What happens when we move this motivating conversation from sports to life off the field?

Talking about failure gets a lot harder then.

We like to think of ourselves, after all, as good people. And as I often say, thinking of ourselves as “good” people keeps us from becoming better people. It excuses our faults and keeps us from improving on them. We are all saints, and we are all sinners. Thanks to Jesus, we are all good people — and thanks to our nature, we’re all terrible people. We all have an enormous capacity for good and an enormous capacity to be destructive to ourselves and others.  We all have the ability to be deeply selfish, prejudiced, and hurtful.

If we can get honest about that, then we can have a real conversation about failure and defeat. Only then can have a real conversation about sexism, racism, and homophobia, because when we do, these things become less about what “those bad people” do and more about overcoming our own subconscious prejudices and our own failures to be inclusive. We can’t control “those people,” after all, but we can control ourselves.

Like I said, thinking of ourselves as “good” people keeps us from being better people, and it keeps our world from becoming a better place.

What makes a good person, after all, is realizing that we aren’t perfect, but are loved in spite of our failures, and because of that, none of our failures is final. God is always redeeming us, breaking down our prejudices, showering us with grace, and making us better.

Last week, Simon Peter found himself in a kind of path of totality where he seemed to understand everything. He finally said out loud, the first among the disciples to do so, that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. It was a high point where he got his new name — Peter, which means Rock, and Jesus declared that he would build his church on this Rock, this belief, this sureness.

Then right after that, Peter sinks like the stone he is.

Now that they know and have talked about who Jesus is — that he is, as Peter said, the Son of the Living God — Jesus starts to prepare them for what’s to come. We, of course, have the benefit of knowing the end of the story: that he’s crucified and raised again, as we say every Sunday.

Peter does not have the luxury of recounting that every single Sunday. He does not know the ending of the story he’s living any more than you know how your life will be in the future. Peter only knows that he loves his teacher and that he will not see him die like a criminal. So he lashes out: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

Heckuva thing to say to someone you know is the Son of God. In response, Jesus jumps all over him and verbally mauls the guy. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”

Jesus’ Rock has become a stumbling block. We don’t say “stumbling block” anymore, but we do say, “You’re getting in my way.”

If I was Peter, I would forever remember this as the day that the Son of God called me Satan and told me I was in his way.

Peter was trying to protect him, but Jesus understood immediately that Peter was just trying to control him. It was, obviously, a big mistake. And Peter would go on to screw it up more later. While Jesus sat in Roman custody with his life on the line, Peter would deny three times that he even knew him because Peter was afraid.

Peter up until the resurrection is afraid: he wants to control things to make them less scary. He doesn’t want Jesus to die, and ultimately, even if Jesus dies, he doesn’t want to die himself. In today’s episode, Peter the Rock hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but he’s headed there, and when he does, that will be the beginning of redemption.

It’ll be Peter that Jesus forgives welcomes back into the fold after his resurrection, giving him the charge as they walk along the beach: “feed my sheep” (cf. John 21). This is the beginning of ministry, the beginning of Church as we know it today. As Christina Williams, a pastor in Hadley, so succinctly put it: “Peter hits rock bottom, and from there, Christ builds the church.” (3)

Christ builds the Church on hope and redemption and second and third and fifth chances.

Christ builds the Church on grace.

Every morning, I listen to two podcasts while I eat breakfast and get dressed: NPR’s UpFirst, with the day’s headlines, and the New York Times’ The Daily, a deep dive on a story relevant to the day’s news. There was a story this week about Abraham, a young white man from Forth Smith, Arkansas. Abraham grew up in poverty, and he never felt like he’d amount to much. He always imagined that he’d end up in prison, like many before him. One night, he got drunk on cheap whiskey with his friends. Abraham drove, on the suggestion of his friend, to go vandalize a mosque. Abraham barely remembers the night that would change his life and terrorize a community.

While Abraham stood watch, his friend spray painted swastikas on the side of the building. He also wrote “Go Home” on the wooden front door, just above a babysitter-wanted sign. On another part of the facility was scrawled,  “We Don’t Want You Here U.S.A.” And on one of the front windows, among profanities about Islam and Allah, a phrase from the crusades: “Deus Vult,” Latin for “God wills it.”

In the weeks to come, Abraham was identified via security cameras. When he discovered that he’d been found out, he went first to explain what happened to his crying mother, then went to the police station and turned himself in. Not long after that, while Abraham sat in jail, the members of the mosque were gathered for Friday prayer when another young white man came in, took his shoes off – a sign of respect not often known to non-Muslims, which impressed them – and approached them. This was Noah, Abraham’s younger brother, and he was there to deliver a letter from Abraham.

“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” Abraham wrote. “I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all, but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalising your mosque. It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it….You are much better people than I.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot [before I was arrested] and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.
“All in all,”
he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

This impacted the members greatly. As Dr. Louay Nassri, a member of the mosque, said, “We did not want to destroy his life.” From that point on, the members of the mosque pleaded for leniency on Abraham’s behalf. Despite their pleading for mercy, Abraham was still charged with a felony and, much to the mosque and Abraham’s dismay, he was slapped with a restraining order keeping them from contacting one another.

After he got out of jail, Abraham wrote on Facebook, “Well, I’m home now. I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, the son of one of the mosque’s leaders.

“Brother…we forgave you from the first time you apologized. Don’t let that mistake bring you down… I speak for the whole Muslim community of Fort Smith — we love you and want you to be the best example in life. We don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

God extends grace in many ways and through many people. What the members of the mosque knew is Gospel truth: none of us deserves to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done.

In addition to the redemption of Abraham, one of the anecdotes from the story that most stuck with me was this: there was an outpouring of support for the mosque from the town and around the nation after the vandalism hit the news. One man called the mosque crying. “I’m so sorry this happened,” he said. Through tears, he sobbed, “And Christians! I can’t believe Christians would do this.”

The person answering the phone at the mosque responded, “I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same way every time ISIS carries out an attack.” (4)

None of us deserves to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done. No faith deserves to be defined by the worst acts committed in its name, either. The same goes for cities: Fort Smith, Arkansas deserves to be remembered for its response, not the vandalism.

In the same way, Houston should not be remembered as the most flooded city built in a precarious place, but for the outpouring of love and help that its citizens have extended to one another over the past week, even as they have faced unimaginable pain. Though their city is underwater, still they rise. They will not be defined by the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, either.

None of us deserves to be defined by our own versions of Rock Bottom, whether they were caused by us, by nature, or by other people, and by the grace of God, none of us will be.

Even if you do mess up bigtime.

Even if you mess up so bad that Jesus calls you Satan. Even if you deny that you even know the Son of God while his life hangs in the balance. There is grace. There is always grace, breaking through in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

Just ask Peter. Or Abraham from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Redemption and resurrection are always a surprise: where what you thought was lost is somehow redeemed.

Neither death, nor failure, nor disaster, is the end. There is grace. There is redemption. There is hope.

Peter is not remembered today as a controlling or selfish figure who was afraid of dying. Peter’s Rock Bottom is the very foundation of the church’s legacy of grace.
And that legacy is ours.

So let us gather at the table of grace, where all are welcome, and all are fed. We bring our regrets, our sin, our defeat, our own versions of Rock Bottom, and in exchange, we receive the bread of life and the wine of grace.

Every. Single. Time.

In the words of Joseph R. Cooke, “Grace is the face that love wears when it meets our imperfection.” (5)

So you really want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.

It’s screwing up, over and over. It’s the Rock hitting rock bottom and having Christ build the Church on top of his failure.

The secret to victory is defeat. 

And it’s finding grace, one way or another, every single time we fall. Amen.

1. You can watch the whole commercial here.
2. That’s a line from “HYFR,” from the album Take Care (2011, Young Money Entertainment, Cash Money Records, Republic Records). (Lyrics besides the one quoted may not be suitable for all listeners.)
3. This quote comes from a sermon quoted by a colleague. The Rev. Christina Williams is the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hadley.
4. You can read the full story in much more detail here.
5. Joseph R. Cooke, Celebration of Grace: Living in Freedom, 1991. 

Simon Peter and the Path of Totality

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Photo Source: LA Times

Isaiah 51:1-6
Matthew 16:13-20

My day on Monday started like just about any other: get up, breakfast, meeting, phone call with our music director to plan some hymns, then getting the worship info out to our admin for the bulletin, and finally tying up a few other logistical odds and ends. Then, at about 2PM, I looked at the clock with a start — it was time to go.

Monday, as you might recall, was eclipse day, and I had plans: watch from a mountain.

I made it to the trailhead up Mt. Holyoke and peered through the trees at the sun through my super cool eclipse glasses. The sun was already starting to disappear.
I made the short, steep hike up to the top of the mountain and caught my breath while I looked at the representation of the Pioneer Valley who had come out to watch the solar eclipse with me on top of the mountain: along with the usual outdoorsy-looking hikers and the summer-loving barbecuers, there was a ridiculously wholesome, diverse group of schoolchildren and their cheerful, chaco-wearing, snack-wielding chaperones; a lady with a flowy skirt and a straw hat who definitely lives in Northampton who had hiked the mountain in flip-flops; two college guys debating politics, and finally, a grumpy farmer who had been dragged there by his family.

From now on, if I ever need to explain where I live to out-of-towners, I’ll just explain that scene. As the sun became 65% hidden, casting a shadow over the river and farmland below, this place that I’ve found myself was revealing itself just a little more, too.

These days, we plan for months to observe solar eclipses, but obviously, the first recorded solar eclipses were quite a shock to humanity. As with other phenomena in the stars, humans had no way of completely observing or explaining what was happening in the sky, so they came up with their own theories: one was that a dragon was eating the sun. So the people would sacrifice animals, sometimes even humans, to try to get the dragon to leave them.

And as one of the documentaries that I watched this week said, it worked every time.

The sun always returned.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells us about when the path of totality crossed a battlefield as the Medes and the Lydians fought a long-standing war. When the sky became dark, the soldiers immediately stopped fighting, and their leaders took the eclipse as a sign that they should agree to a truce. It’s called the Eclipse of Thales, named after the philosopher who is said to have predicted it ahead of time, which is only sad for the guys who died in the battle before the eclipse. That battle, eclipse, and truce occurred on May 28, 585 BCE, and we know the exact date because science.

Eclipses are much less of a mystery to us now. We now know that there is no dragon in the sky, and though we may have toyed with the idea of human sacrifice when certain people annoy us, we don’t go through with it anymore. We can predict the exact dates and times of every eclipse, so it’s much less of a shock to us than it used to me. In fact, I chuckled a bit to myself when I realized how excited I was getting about something as simple as the moon getting in the way of the sun for a few minutes.

But a total solar eclipse is still a big deal, and science has made it more possible for more people to witness one. In fact, April 2024 is set to be a great time for us to head over to Maine, Vermont, or northern New York to see totality ourselves. This time, people streamed from all over the country to get into the “path of totality,” where the moon completely obscures the sun, the birds stop chirping, the land goes dark, and all you can see of the sun is the corona, the dazzling light of the sun’s plasma or “atmosphere” that is usually invisible to us.

People of all faiths and none describe it as a deep spiritual experience, and on Monday, the whole country stopped bickering about everything for just a few minutes to witness the cosmos putting on a show.

And then, just like that, life restarted again, or as a boy on Mt. Holyoke near me said, “So now it just goes back to being the sun again, right?”

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has come a little ways since having healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter last week. In between that passage and this one, he’s fed four thousand men plus women and children and had plenty of leftovers, and right after that, he’s bickered with the Pharisees and other religious authorities about showing them a sign that he’s really sent from God. Of course, he had just given them a sign — he’d just fed a huge crowd of people out of nothing. No sense of irony, those Pharisees.

Then, after that, even his disciples are being slow with him. It’s one of those times when Jesus must’ve felt like nobody got it, nobody understood, or as my biblical scholar friends described Jesus in Matthew and Mark — “dejected teenage Jesus: no one understands him.”

Finally, he up and asks his disciples, “Hey, who do people out there say that I am?” I think he starts with the crowds rather than the disciples because he knows it’ll be easier for them to talk about other people’s feelings and assumptions rather than their own.

The reply comes, “Well, some say John the Baptist” — which could be a case of mistaken identity or it could be a case of “he’s back from the dead,” depending on whether they’d heard the new that John had been killed. These were the days before we could just google “prophet/messiah figures near me.” But then there are also other, definitely “they think you’re back from the dead cases: “some say Elijah, others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (v. 14).

Then he asks them: “Who do you say that I am?”

A man who up to that point has been called Simon steps up and delivers: “You’re the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

And just like that, something extraordinary has happened and something hidden has been revealed. They finally said it. You know those moments when you know something is true, but then when you hear yourself say it, it becomes real for you? I imagine this is what that was like for Peter. All of a sudden, things shift dramatically and you can see things in a way you never have before. Peter finds himself in a kind of path of totality, where everything has shifted. In a few minutes, everything will be back to normal and Jesus will quickly tell them not to tell anyone that he’s the messiah.

But for a few shining moments, everything shifts and Simon even gets a new name: “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah! …I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and all of hell won’t be able to touch it.”

“Peter,” you might know, means “rock.”

Our Old Testament reading is from Isaiah, and it also references both rocks and acknowledging the obvious: God calls Israel to remember the rock from which they had been hewn.

Remember what you’re made of. Remember who you are. Remember that God has brought you this far.

I think that’s something we could all do a little more of these days as we press towards busy times and ever trying times. We are the heirs of Peter, and all those who built the church. The church’s history is not a clean one — the church has done plenty of evil in Christ’s name to all kinds of people. But every now and then, we find ourselves in a kind of path of totality. Every now and then, we see clearly not only who God is — a self-giving God of love, patience, and welcome — but who we are and who we are meant to be: self-giving people of love, patience, and welcome.

“Remember the rock out of which you have been hewn.”

Remember where you came from; remember who you are and whose you are.

We have from God and we are going to God, and this morning, God says:

“Who do you say that I am?”
Consider that question for yourself, because it will shape who you will be, and who we will be together.

Who does this church say that Jesus is? I’ll tell you what I’ve observed in the year and nearly nine months I’ve been with you.

According to what I’ve seen, to you, Jesus is someone who shows up. Jesus is someone who shows love to everyone, even when it’s not convenient. Jesus is someone who cooks a great meal and throws a good party and who always comes to the tale with joy. And Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Sometimes Jesus feels like the only thing we have in common, but you also know that when you get right down to it, that’s the only thing that really matters.

This is how Jesus shines through you. This is how you show that the rock from which you’ve been hewn is the rock of Jesus Christ: God of the universe, lover of humanity, and presence at our table every week. And when we can see that, we can see ourselves more clearly, too.

Solar eclipses shake up a lot within us: they make us see how very tiny we are, in the midst of it all. They help us to understand something about ourselves. They provide those rare moments of clarity when we can see things that we usually can’t — both literally and metaphorically. They stop everything — all the bickering, even all the suffering, just for a few moments.

They help us, for once, to look up and see the same thing.

This morning, when we come to the table, we are in a kind of path of totality. All the bickering and the suffering can stop for just a few minutes as we all gather around Christ, who may be the only one we have in common but really, that’s the only thing that matters. We can build from that.

So let’s go to the table, and no matter what you see every day, whether in your life circumstances or on the news, let us come with joy and finally, in this moment, look up and see the same thing: peace, grace, and the path of totality — total, complete, and all-encompassing love. Amen.

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