When Temples Fall, or “I Heard That!”

Image result for I heard that
Comedian Keegan-Michael Key at the Fox Teen Choice awards delivers the affirmation I remember so well from my childhood.

Mark 13:1-8

Whenever I am listening to someone’s troubles, I often come back to the same statement. I use this statement when I don’t know what to say or when I think my input is unnecessary or would be intrusive. Whenever this happens, I just say, “I hear that” or “I hear you.” 

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that my use of this phrase comes from a much less serious place in my life. It’s a line that I heard growing up in Alabama, often said by boisterous, fun relatives whenever someone said something they agreed with — “I heard that!” In this case, “heard” really means “agree with,” but the effect is the same.

Either way, I think it’s a perfect affirmation because that’s all it is — an affirmation. It doesn’t cause the speaker to intrude with their own input. It affirms and lets go. I think of it as a verbal hug. 

In today’s Gospel text, the disciples go on and on about how impressive the temple and the city of Jerusalem are. Jesus, in response, says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2 NRSV). 

This, obviously, would be terrifying to the disciples. Imagine this: you’re hanging out with the Son of God in Washington DC. You’re sitting on the National Mall in Washington DC, say, just next to the Washington Monument, and looking out at the Capitol Building. Naturally, you might bring up how beautiful and impressive the city is, with so many buildings modeled after ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Jesus hears you and responds, pointing to the Capitol: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

Needless to say, you’d be alarmed. 

And the disciples were. 

These weren’t just buildings; they were representative of the institutions that they built their lives on. These institutions formed the very bedrock of their society.

Then they retreat a little ways to the Mount of Olives, and they’re still thinking about this incredible and terrifying prediction that Jesus made while sitting next to the temple. They ask him, quite naturally, when they could expect such a thing to happen and what the warning signs might be. 

As we’ve already seen, he doesn’t tell them when. 

Instead, he gives them a long answer telling them not to follow anyone that comes along claiming to be Jesus — or maybe just claiming to be saviors, since people who gather a radical following claiming to be able to solve all the world’s problems have caused far more anguish in the world than a disheveled stranger who says he’s Jesus Christ right before he tells you that he was born in space. 

Today’s Gospel reading is really a continuations of last week’s. Last week, we saw a poor widow put her whole life, everything she had to live on, into the treasury of the temple. Jesus had just been railing about how the religious institution was devouring the houses and money of the most vulnerable among them, those who had the least. 

And here, governments rise up against governments. Temples fall. And person after person comes along, taking control of governments and other institutions claiming that he can solve all our problems and save us from despair.

Hmm… I heard that.

Given how much harm our institutions can do — from church sex abuse to governments having people assassinated — Jesus’ warning sounds as hopeful as it does terrifying. 

A friend of mine used to quote Tony Benn all the time saying, “My mother taught me to believe the prophets and not the kings.” 

In Benn’s eyes, it was the kings who had power, and the prophets who preach justice. When temples fall, kings fall. But prophets don’t depend on any human institution, but instead depend on people hearing them and hearing God’s words: “I heard that!” 

This past week, I had the privilege and the pleasure of making my way to the Cape for Bishop’s Convocation, a yearly gathering of our synod’s pastors and deacons and other leaders. As many of you already know personally, our synod (which is our regional gathering of churches) has some pretty amazing humans leading it. 

One such human is Pastor Sara Anderson, associate to the bishop and previous pastor of the Lutheran church over in Wilbraham. She preached the final service of Bishop’s Convocation on Wednesday. In her sermon, Sara talked about her call to ministry, which began at Calumet, our synod’s camp. 

She talked about sitting in the outdoor chapel as a teenager who was raised Catholic and listening to her very first woman preacher, Pastor Linda Forsberg (amazing human #2 in this story) talk about the Spirit moving. 

And for my part on Wednesday, I couldn’t help thinking, “If that isn’t inspiration enough to keep pushing, what is?” And it’s not about preaching to me — it’s about encouragement. We never know how deeply our words will impact people, or what they’ll be inspired to do and be.

Something as small as smiling at someone in the grocery store can have a huge impact; people have told stories for years about deciding to commit suicide only to change their mind because a stranger did something nice for them. If such small interactions with strangers can have such an impact, what more can we do for the people we see every day?

This, to me, is how to be a prophet: to keep doing the best you can, spreading love in the best of ways, doing all the good we can.

Institutions are all temporary. No government has lasted forever, nor has any religious institution. Traditions last, philosophies last, religions last; institutions really don’t. Sooner or later, not one stone will be left upon another, but all will be thrown down, and the war-makers and fake saviors with them.

What does last is Good News. What does last is kindness. What does last is believing in something bigger than yourself and investing in other people because of it. 

This Gospel text, you probably don’t remember, was also the pre-assigned Gospel text after the 2016 election. The message I got in our divided nation and world at that moment: institutions cannot, and will not, save us.

But Love will. When everything crumbles, God is there. 

As we’ll sing in a minute: my hope is built on nothing less. Nothing less than Jesus. No temple, no church,  no building. Just a guy who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago who they say rose from the dead. Who preached love of neighbor and welcome of the stranger. Who they say, as broken as it is, saved the world, so that no one else needs to save it again. 

Man, as discouraged as I may be sometimes these days, that’s enough to keep me pushing. Because you never know whom it might affect or what they might do. Because “my mother taught me to believe the prophets and not the kings.” Because you never know who’s listening.

Because love wins.

Because it’s worth it. 

I heard that. Amen.

Advertisements

Poor Widows and Election Returns

Screen Shot 2018-11-18 at 12.26.17 PM.png
Voters in Georgia cast their ballots. (Source: John Spink, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Preached on November 11, 2018, at Our Savior’s

Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

What Gospel text, what a week. Let’s get into it. 

For the first time in recent memory, I’m saying this sentence and expecting you all to know it already: the midterm election happened this past Tuesday night. 

If you’re new here, don’t worry. I think that it’s pastoral malpractice to be partisan from the pulpit. I also think it’s kinda silly at this point to go on and on about “both sides” in a sermon that pretends to be edgy but is secretly trying to keep everybody happy.

Just as the midterms had most of us claiming victory over something, there was another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, leaving twelve people dead. 

At this point after an exhausting and heartbreaking and exciting week of news, most of us are some combination of sad, angry, tired, and maybe hopeful? Maybe.

Our political world is vitally important. Now, if for whatever reason you don’t buy that politics is important and that it affects our lives, or if you’re seriously just too busy trying to keep yourself afloat to pay attention, I hear you. To me, American politics and world politics are not only something that I’m aware affects my life and those of my neighbors and friends and family and all of you and the very world we live in. You see, besides those things being true, I find politics and history poetically interesting. Politics and history from around the world tell us some things about what it means to be human. Some of those things are uplifting and hopeful; some are very uncomfortable.

Watching election returns is one of our few remaining common experiences, and it’s growing to be one that we share more than ever. Once, we had to wait until the next day to find out who won an election. Before that it was days, and before that, weeks or months. What’s more, back in the day, people would get the news at different times; there was a good while when most people in Boston would find out who won national or state elections before most people in Granby or South Hadley found out. These days, we turn on the television and social media and we usually find out the results — all together — within hours. You don’t even have to be at the television or by your computer; you can follow it all from that little glowing rectangle in your pocket.

On election night, the resources are available for everyone who wants it to plug in and connect and tune in and watch and feel the current consciousness of the country be revealed — in parts and as a whole — precinct by precinct, county by count, district by district, state by state, moment by moment. Moment by moment, we learn where we are as a country, and what our fellow citizens are saying and thinking. 

It’s a uniquely modern experience that’s a mix of pure poetry and gastric disease.

The acid reflux that we feel on election night isn’t the same as the kind we get during sports games we care about, either. Politics is real life. Political policies lift real people up or hurt them, ‘cause or allow real people’s deaths or give real people more freedom or less. 

Too often, human institutions have hurt the people they were supposed to protect and serve. This has always been true as long as humans started banding together. Our own country originated from a rebellion against a government that didn’t have citizens’ best interests at heart. 

In today’s Gospel text, there’s a widow who puts everything into the treasury of an institution — a religious one, the temple. The temptation that I see for us as interpreters is to romanticize the widow. How amazing is she, we think — she who has so little, but who gives it all away?

But in the shadow of an election, I’m thinking a little more about institutions than I normally do, and I caught something in the text this cycle that I can’t believe I’ve never caught before.

You see, Jesus spends the entire paragraph that we read before that coming straight for the religious institution and the people who run it. I think we miss this because the term “scribes” doesn’t have much meaning for us. It’s not a term that most everyday folks are familiar with. 

So instead, try this adaptation on, and you’ll get closer to how Jesus’ original hearers would’ve heard it: “Beware of the pastors, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect at the farmer’s market, and to have the best seat in church and places of honor at community events! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And then, imagine that he tells a story about a poor woman who gave the tiny amount of money she had for food to the church with the pastor who devours widows’ houses. “Widows,” in that time, of course, was a stand-in for the vulnerable. The widows the the orphans — women and children without a grown man to protect and provide for them, which was absolutely necessary back in those days. The point is that institutions can easily exploit financially vulnerable people.

What’s more, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus will tell his disciples that “not one stone [of the temple] will be left upon another, but all will be torn down” (Mark 13:2). This widow is giving everything she has to an institution that not only keeps her down, but one whose days are numbered. Given that, I began to see her less as a paradigm for giving and more as a bit of a tragedy. I felt a little sorry for her.

And when I start to feel sorry for her, I start feeling sorry for myself, too. I think about all the ways that I pour myself into institutions: into my work in the church and into my citizenship. Then, in an act of self-awareness, I think about people who give much more than I do and I start feeling sorry for them. In Greek, Jesus says of the widow that she put “the whole of her life” into the treasury that day. Her whole life — and for what?

Is any of this redeemable? Where is the Good News?

Is the church in America dying? Is our divided and furious political democracy dying? And if they’re not dying, is either really worth it, or do institutions just always do more harm than good? 

Is it worth it to take the time to vote? To knock on doors? To talk to our neighbors who believe so diffeently?

Is it worth it to come to church, to give to the church? Or are we, and the generous widow in Mark’s story, just characters worthy of pity, pouring everything into a doomed institutions?

Is any of this redeemable?

Well, as much as I’d like to say that institutions are all garbage, truth is, we’re created to work together, and we always have. And I don’t think Jesus points out this woman just to pity her; I think he points her out because otherwise, we wouldn’t see her. The one who’s not just contributing out of an abundance, but putting her life and soul into what she believes. I think that Jesus is saying that that kind of dedication is the kind that most reflects the face of God.

Because ultimately, you know, it’s Jesus, not us, whom the widow most clearly reflects. It’s Jesus who gives his whole life. Jesus sees her, I think, because he identifies with her. And that’s why it’s here that I offer a note of caution: a Lutheran pastor that I known often cautions against overwork by saying, “You don’t have to die for Jesus; he already died for you.” We are not called to sacrifice our health and well-being for the sake of institutions. We are not Jesus. We cannot save and redeem everything. Jesus already did that.

But we are called to invest ourselves into something bigger than ourselves, to pull together, to work together, to try our hardest to make things just a little bit better in the church and in the world, for those who will follow us. We are called to see this widow and make sure that the money she put into the treasury won’t mean she doesn’t go without food. We are called to protect the most vulnerable among us. We are called to put our whole lives into good work and hope for the best, knowing that in the end, it’s all redeemed, somehow, anyway.

Yes, our institutions are broken. No election will solve everything that’s wrong with our nation. No election is guaranteed to stop all violence or truly guarantee freedom and justice for all. No church program will fix everything that’s wrong with the church. We’re not Jesus, and we’re really bad at saving ourselves. 

But the good news is that we get to contribute. We get to pour ourselves into something. We get to try greatly, even if we fail. 

And the best news of all is that Jesus sees us. And the best news of all is that Jesus redeems all of it — our efforts, our institutions, our lives. 

So keep putting your whole life into your work. God sees you. God redeems it. God loves you. 

Thank God. Amen.

Unbound

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 9.54.13 AM.png

Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

“And he will swallow up death forever.”

That sounds nice, but I don’t know about you, but I am tired. 

I am tired of saying goodbye to people that I love who have died. We’ve said goodbye this year to a lot of people, too. Most recently, we said goodbye to Beverly. Before that, we said goodbye to Bruce. Lee Debiew and Jeff’s mother Lois left us this year, too. We could fill so much time recounting the people we’ve all lost, people whose faces and voices we cherished who are no longer with us.

That alone is enough to cause us to sink into despair. But then we turn on the news, and we get more tired, really, regardless of the specifics our political views. It seems we’re all tired of hearing about the violence and the death and the hatred and the pain, so much that we lash out at everyone we see as being to blame for it all.

Preaching professor Dr. Thomas Long, a tall Presbyterian pastor with a deep voice who was my own preaching professor, opened his lecture on preaching funerals with one sentence that I will never forget: 

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death with a capital D.” 

Death says that this person is gone too soon, never to be heard from again. Death preaches despair. Death preaches loss. And Death will be heard at every funeral. The Gospel needs to be heard, too.

Sometimes, though, even to preachers, it just doesn’t seem like enough. Funerals are so real. Death is so real. We feel the loss so acutely, but even the best-preached Gospel can seem like just abstract words. Death, we can see. The Gospel? The words of Revelation about no more death and crying and pain? That just seems like an abstraction, something that’s at best too far off to see.

Even reading the story of the raising of Lazarus on All Saints’ Day seems almost cruel. On a day when we remember those who have died and remember being at their gravesides, we hear this story about someone who miraculously comes out of a tomb after four days of death. 

We in the church have made the mistake of making the Gospel an abstraction, a heady idea that we’re supposed to just believe. We’ve failed to unpack the earthiness, the pain, the visceral realness of this Gospel of death and resurrection.

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

“All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)

Just like our lives and our deaths and the deaths of all the saints, the Gospel is more than an abstraction. It is death and resurrection. And resurrection is more than just the “undo” button on death.

In this Gospel story about Lazarus, we find ourselves in familiar place — particularly familiar to this community this year. 

Someone has died, and people gather in support around the family. Surely someone brought a casserole. 

A man named Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus and his band of followers, has died. We don’t know how they knew one another, but we get the sense in this scene that they’ve definitely hung out together, eaten together, laughed together, bonded. When Jesus is told about Lazarus being sick, he hears, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3).

And now the one that they have all loved has died, and so they gather. Jesus meets Martha, Lazarus’s sister, outside of town, and she sends her sister Mary out to meet him, too, in the centuries-old tradition of the family greeting the mourners.

Mary says to Jesus the same thing her sister Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Is that faith we hear? Is it protest? Accusation? They had invited him before Lazarus died, but Jesus didn’t leave immediately. The point is, Mary has lost her brother. She is grieving, and grieving people are allowed to just say things, even to the Son of God.

Then the story goes: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” 

That gives you the sense that Jesus wiped a tear, maybe sniffled a little. No. 

For quite awhile now, translators have softened these emotions of Jesus. The Greek makes him sound much less sad, and much more angry. The words used mean both to snort in anger and to be troubled, anxious, distressed, restless. 

None of them means that he was just sad. He’s disturbed. Angry. Agitated. 

Jesus, God-made-flesh, knows that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t how love is supposed to be. Families are supposed to stay together, friends are supposed to be together, love is supposed to last, and yet the powers of disease and violence and death rip us away. And God is angry.

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death.”

Everyone here has heard Death’s sermon. Jesus hears it here, and he’s angry.

He wants to act. “Where have you laid him?” he asks Mary.

What Mary says to him is the primary invitation in the Gospel of John: “come and see.” Except that nearly every other time, it’s Jesus issuing the invitation. It’s what he says in John rather than “Come, follow me.”

Here, Mary, stricken with grief over her brother’s loss, looks into the eyes of God and offers the invitation back: “Lord, come and see.” 

Come and see what Death has done. 

These days more than most, we feel the gut-wrenching pain of Mary’s words: 

Lord, come and see. Come and see what Death has done.

Come and see what has happened in Pittsburgh.

Come and see what is happening in Syria. 

Come and see what has happened in Puerto Rico.

Come and see the devastation on the Gulf Coast.

Come and see the chairs that used to be filled every Sunday by Beverly and Bruce. Come and see the chairs all over the sanctuary that used to be occupied by people we loved who aren’t here anymore.

Come and see what Death has done.

Lord, come and see. 

This. This is when Jesus weeps.

We already read how the story ends. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus is so moved and disturbed by Death, so sick of Death’s preaching, that he brings Lazarus back after four days gone. Lazarus is one of two people brought back from the death in John’s Gospel, you may remember — Jesus being the other one.

But here, with Lazarus, when he comes out of the tomb, he’s still wrapped in the linen grave clothes — with his face and hands and feet bound. If you want an image, think about that: his feet are bound, but he comes out of the tomb on his own. Did he levitate? Hop? Shuffle? 

Lazarus can’t even see. His face is covered and he stumbles forward, bewildered, still wrapped in the linen clothes of death. What you’re meant to know is this: this is a miracle indeed — Lazarus is alive again! But he is still bound by death. He will someday die again. 

That’s sort of how I feel sometimes, and I’m betting you do too. We’ve got hope, but we’re also still bound by despair, the weight of grief, and the blinding wrappings of Death. 

But it won’t be long in John’s Gospel before we meet Jesus at another tomb: his own. When Jesus is raised from the dead, the disciples will find the linen grave clothes lying in the tomb (John 20:5). Jesus won’t need to shuffle out blindly. He will be free of death entirely. (2)

Where once he called Lazarus by name out of the tomb; on that day at his own tomb he will call Mary by name, no longer bound by death, having put Death under his feet. 

Death still preaches loud, and still, we call to Jesus: come and see. And Christ grieves with us. 

But with all the saints who came before us, we hold on to this crazy hope that maybe it will not always be this way. That maybe, despite everything, new life is coming into the world. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, that hold onto hope, that died in hope, who were buried in hope that maybe, just maybe, after death comes resurrection.

We often try to make the Gospel an abstraction. It isn’t. It is death and resurrection. When we say that someone who has been in physical or mental or emotional pain or who has been lost to dementia is free now, we mean it.  

The people whose names we will call today will be among those who have gone before us, lived before us, grieved before us, died before us. We are who we are because of them. Our faith and our outlook on life is because of them. They weren’t perfect. Many did great harm, and many did great good, and most of them are a messy combination of the two. But they shaped the world and the church that we live in today, and so we continue to proclaim this crazy hope that someday, we will all be free, and as the Revelation reading for today promises, that there is a place where there is no more death or crying or pain, because if John’s Gospel is to be believed, Death makes God angry, too.

I close with words from my dear friend Dana, a Methodist pastor in Atlanta: 

“It seems like death is everywhere in our personal lives and in our collective consciousness.  But know today that death will not have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word.
Terror doesn’t have the last word.
Racism doesn’t have the last word.
Anti-semitism doesn’t have the last word.
Islamaphobia and homophobia don’t have the last word.
Fear doesn’t have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word. Why?
Because God is the last Word, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Life is the last word. Love is the last word.” (3)

I know. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. But Christ is angry at death because he knows that love is the last word. And so he shut death up for good.

In a moment, we will sing the words, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.” Rejoice and be glad: we are who we are because of these saints that we will name today, and someday, no matter how tired we are, we will be free, unbound, and Death will finally be swallowed up forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing, 2009.
2. Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 2002.
3. Pastor Dana Ezell, Trinity UMC, Atlanta, GA, 2018.

Guest Post: When Disciples Become Toddlers, or No, You Can’t Do It Yourself

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.49.21 AM
Source: parents.com, Sarah Noda/shutterstock.com

Written and preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran, South Hadley, Mass, on October 21, 2018, by the Rev. Karen Stephenson of Atlanta Bar Church, Atlanta, GA.

Mark 10:35-45

When I meet new people, I usually introduce myself by letting them know that I am a momma.  I have two children, and the oldest turned 23 this week. I confess that recently I did that whole mom thing and took a trip down memory lane. While I was looking at her pictures from when she was a a small child, I came across this one picture that made me recall that my Jordan, my 23 year old, had her own “catch phrase”…her own motto, which was always said through gritted teeth was this:

“I can do it myself!”

She said it all the time. It didn’t matter if she was trying to reach something on a shelf that was too high, or tie her shoes or cross the street — she could do it herself.  She was born with a fierce independent streak. So, now, this independence has made her an amazing adult, but it proved to quite a challenge as her parent.

In this week’s Gospel text we we encounter two disciples who are pretty sure that can too “do it themselves.” James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who as an aside here, are embracing their own motto, which is “There is no such thing as a stupid question.

They have asked Jesus to do whatever they ask of him and for the honor of being seated right next to him at the cool kids table in heaven, one on his right and the other on the left.

To which Jesus graciously responds: “Um, guys, are you sure you’re ready?”

“Can you drink from the same cup and partake of  the same baptism that I will?”

Their response: “Oh, yes, Jesus. We are ready.”

And this — this is where I am sure that Jesus responded with the quintessential theological response: “Bless your hearts.”

Which, according to Ludlow Porch, a Georgia humorist who was podcasting before it was cool, is often Southern for “…you stupid fools.”

Mark’s Gospel gives us multiple examples of how the disciples just don’t get it.

Here they are, believing that they have the ability to sit in the same seats as Jesus, God incarnate, and that they can do it themselves.

Like I said, bless their hearts.

You know, I have to wonder, how many of us are like Jordan.  How often do we encounter a new challenge or adventure even and through gritted teeth say the words, “I can do it myself”?

Or how many of us are like James and John, and  think that we can sit in the seats next to Jesus and handle all of the authority and obligation that such a position would require. 

How many of us say, “Hey Jesus.. I got this”?

Friends, hear me when I say these words: we cannot do it by ourselves. We are not enough. But before we fall into feeling inadequate, or limited by our beautiful humanity, consider this: God, our heavenly parent, knows that we are not enough. 

And what if I told you that this is the way that you, me, we are designed?  That it’s not a flaw in our makeup, but rather a beautiful aspect inherent in our design:  as humans, we are not made to go it alone.

This is humbling, right? It is for me. We live in the United States of America, a land of rugged individualism.  A place where we celebrate people who are able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Stories of individual success are lauded.  Self-made people are idolized.

But America isn’t the kingdom of God, is it?

Maybe we’ve lifted up the wrong thing.  Maybe in our desire to ‘do it ourselves’ we have forgotten that God created us to live in community and to rely on others just as they rely on us.

We are accustomed to a culture where we think we don’t need each other, and maybe just maybe there are times when we think we don’t need God.

So, if we aren’t meant to do this life thing, this life as disciples, by ourselves, what reminders do we have to help us embrace our neediness, our humanity?

Take a minute. Take a look at the people sitting around you.  I know that yesterday you all celebrated the life of one of your own. According to your pastor, this congregation gathered together to honor a woman who understood that to be human was to be in community and to make room for more people at the table.

A  woman who knew that we cannot do it ourselves,
and — this is the good news — that we don’t have to. 

And not only that, but that we can’t do good on our own, we are unable.

Martin Luther reminded us that only through the power of the Holy Spirit working within us are we able to be enough.  So Recognizing our inability to drink the cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Jesus is the first step in recognizing our dependence on God.  We are called to serve, yes, but we don’t have to do it alone.  

We have each other and we have a God to see us through. 

When we can’t muster the strength to act, we rely on others to help and when others lack the strength, we can step in.  But in all of it, God is guiding us and strengthening us. And it is through God’s power and presence in our lives that we can be enough, 

That we ARE enough.

Amen.

Ghosts of the Reformation

Screen Shot 2018-10-29 at 9.40.47 AM.png
Grand Central Terminal in New York City; home to more than a few ghost stories. 
Photo cred: Wikimedia, user @Sracer357.

John 8:31-36

Welcome to Reformation Sunday. Or, as most people, even most Protestants call it: the Sunday before Halloween. Thus, I find it appropriate to begin with a little minimally scary ghost story. 

A few months ago, due to construction, I found myself arriving via Amtrak into New York’s Grand Central station. Grand Central, the iconic building — with the huge golden clock in the center of its large, open atrium, with painted celestial constellations on the ceiling looking down on you from above. I found out later that, as with anything that has a long history, Grand Central has its share of ghost stories.
One such story takes place in the early 1900s. It includes a frightened, gray-haired main in a black bowler hat approaching the main counter under the big clock at Grand Central’s center. He says, breathing quickly, “The midnight train to hell is coming for me. I have committed too many crimes against man and sins against heaven.”

As the story goes, the station agent reached out to grasp the man’s hand and reassure him.  “Sir, we have no midnight train to hell. We have the 11:58 PM from Croton-on-the Hudson and the 12:02 AM from New Haven arriving, but no trains to hell.  Furthermore, we have no connection with any infernal agents or a railroad stops [pointing] down below.”

But suddenly, a steam whistle echoed off the walls of the terminal.

A locomotive appeared, steaming, even though by that point in history, the tracks were electrified. It is said that the attendant could feel the rush of hot air propelled forward by the steam locomotive. 

A second later, the old grey-haired man disappeared.  Just the black bowler hat remained on the floor of Grand Central Terminal. The attendant says that the train continued south — though there are no tracks south of Grand Central.

The story scratches a lot of our ghost story itches: namely, the mystery surrounding historic places like Grand Central Station that have seen so much humanity over the years, as well as the ghosts that lurk around, stirring our imaginations and also disturbing us. It also reinforces our learned fears of God’s wrath, which brings us back to Reformation Sunday.

We Lutherans can get a little irritated that other Protestants aren’t as hyper-aware as we are of the history of Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses and the profound effect that they had on the modern church. If you didn’t grow up Lutheran, you may not even feel all that connected to this history. If you grew up Catholic, you may feel hyper-connected to Luther — after all, I imagine that you left the Roman Catholic Church for a reason. Alternatively, though, if you still feel connected to the Catholic Church and/or have close family members and friends who still are Catholic, you may see Reformation Day as a painful reminder of our ecclesial separation from them.

Like Grand Central Station, you see, the Reformation has its ghosts. These are ghosts, like any, haunt and terrorize us, wedging themselves into our psyches. They also haunt our relationships with our neighbors. It is about time, I believe, that we shook free of these ghosts. The legend goes that at times, you can free yourself of a ghost by learning its name. It’s time to name the ghosts of the Reformation, then. So that we, like the Gospel texts, may be set free by truth and to set others free, too.

What’s more: our nation has its own ghosts. Violence and threats of violence against political leaders, as well as an antisemitic attack that has left eleven people dead in Pittsburgh have their own origins in prejudices as old as time.

So I give you today: the ghosts of the Reformation, or discomforts and untruths that lurk around Reformation Day — and the Western world — like ghosts. 

First, there’s the specter of schism. Schism — as in our separation from our siblings in the Roman Catholic Church. There is the fact that violence erupted between us and them not so long ago, and the fact that we manage to live in peace with them today, right here in South Hadley. There are the lies we tell about each other. For example, we might easily tell ourselves that the story of the man in Grand Central is more Catholic than Protestant, you know, since one of the lies that we tell is that Protestants alone believe in grace and that Catholics are all about God’s wrath. This, my friends, is a lie: both Catholics and Protestants, have, over the years, both preached grace and preached salvation by works. No Christian denomination owns grace; God alone does. Grace is poured out on everybody, and that’s the point. We must also accept, in the spirit of the Reformation, that no one church 100% gets any of this right and that we all mess it up royally on the regular.

Second, there’s the specter of self-reliance. When we hear that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” a lot of us feel a tightness in our chest. Are we, too, waiting for the “midnight train to hell”? Because we are aware that we all have royally messed up, we fear God’s imagined wrath, and it follows us around like a ghost. The more I talk to people about faith, the more I realize that a lot of people have this image of God where God is sitting in heaven with a clipboard, doing advanced calculus wherein God writes down each of our sins and marks them out when we confess, and if we die without confessing, we’re on the next train to hell. Sure, we may say that we believe in grace, but we fail to extend it to others, or to ourselves, believing deep inside that this “free grace” thing couldn’t possibly really be true.

This leads to the final ghost/lie, which is related to the others: that we are special and Jesus loves us best. When the folks in the Gospel reading say to Jesus “We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone,” you’re not supposed to feel superior to Jewish people because you, unlike them, understand that Christ is greater than Moses. That’s not the point. The point, rather, is kind of the opposite: that you do not become part of God’s family by being born into the right faith or tradition. You don’t become part of God’s family by doing or saying the right things, either. Rather, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” — no questions asked. Freedom is an act of God, offered to all people; it is not something that is earned. 

There are a lot of other “ghosts” related to the Reformation, too: Martin Luther wrote some stuff that is bluntly anti-Semitic. These writings are easily findable online. Especially in light of the continued violence against our Jewish neighbors, most recently in Pittsburgh, we can’t overlook this or fail to acknowledge our role here. Look, Luther was far from perfect, often lashing out at his enemies and perceived enemies. We make a mistake, and we hurt our neighbors, when we uncritically lift up Luther as a perfect example. He wasn’t, and he would be the first to say so.

It is time we set these ghosts free so that we can be free, too. 

501 years ago, something happened that changed the shape of Christianity and saved the world. Luther didn’t hope to cause a schism at first, but a schism happened. We should not be proud of this. We should take it as a sign of our brokenness as humans — that we can’t ever manage to get God, or grace, right — for ourselves or for others.

But in a way, the Reformation is also a blessing that gives us freedom: free to worship as we wish, free to follow the Spirit’s leading without fear of repercussions, free to welcome through our doors whomever we wish, as we think Jesus would want us to do. 

There are thousands of Christian denominations as a result of the Reformation. This is the reality that we must live with until all things are made right, until God finally makes the church one. How that will happen, I cannot tell you, because cannot fathom how the church today could possibly be one. We are so different, and we value such different things. There are Christians who believe that other Christians, including us, are demon-possessed, those who believe that LGBTQ people are demon-possessed, and I’m not sure how we could possibly be “one.” Being together, to me, sounds like a bad cocktail party and an even worse image of the end times. But then again, I am very much not God. My imagination is very limited.

But until Jesus comes back, let’s finally be free of the ghosts of the Reformation. Let’s embrace our neighbors, even if we can’t worship with them on the regular. I think that’s what Jesus would have us do: be free of the ghosts. There is no midnight train to hell, no bowler hat, no ghosts, only grace. So be free indeed. Amen.

Open Hands

6RWG
A scene from the 2004 movie Saved!

Mark 10:17-31

First Jesus starts talking about divorce, then, as a break, he goes after rich people. 

Last week, because it was a children’s Sunday school Sunday, I did a sort of switcharoo on you all, snipping away the passage about divorce and leaving only the cute part about the children coming to Jesus. But for every preacher who wasn’t creating a worship service for children, it was a Sunday to talk about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. It’s a painful text for many, especially those who have personally experienced or been near to divorce themselves. The church has, for years, exiled divorced people from the communion table and told them all sorts of harmful things, wielding Mark 10 as a weapon and ignoring the wide variety of incredibly painful reasons that two people might get divorced. It turns out that life is messy, and rigid rules hurt people when they are wielded as weapons. 

One of my favorite God-related scenes from any movie is from the 2004 movie Saved! One of the characters, Hilary Faye, is very Christian and very pious and very self-righteous and played by Mandy Moore. In the scene in question, Hilary Faye is attempting to stage an intervention with the main character, Mary, whom Hilary Faye believes is walking away from Jesus because Mary is no longer doing exactly what Hilary Faye herself wants. During the would-be intervention, Mary tries to literally walk away, but Hilary Faye won’t have it — she hurls her Bible at Mary, completely un-ironically screaming “I AM FILLED WITH CHRIST’S LOVE!” The Bible hits Mary in the back. Mary picks it up, turns around, and says one of the most theologically rich things I know of in any movie, complete with perfect pauses for emphasis.  

This is not a weapon — you idiot.” 

Another phrase was often bandied about when I was in seminary: “Be a fool for Christ, not an idiot for Jesus.” 

Stringent rules do tend to simplify our lives, but because life is not simple, wielding these rules as weapons quickly turns us into idiots for Jesus. 

Strangely, though, we rarely use it as a weapon against rich people, presumably because the church has always wanted their money. You know, it’s been a bit of a rough week, I ran a half marathon yesterday, and I’m feeling a little blunt this morning.

Don’t worry: I don’t intend to be an idiot for Jesus and use the Bible as a weapon. However, not using the Bible as a weapon does require that we think about it, because well, the Bible does say what it says. 

So what of it, then? Is it true that rich people can’t enter the kingdom of God? Is it true that divorced people commit adultery? And the most important question: is any of that even remotely the point Jesus is trying to make?

After his famous teaching on divorce, just as he’s getting started on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus just as he’s setting out. Ditching any preliminaries, the man hollers, “GOOD TEACHER! What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Can you imagine starting a conversation like that? Try it when you’re in the checkout line at the Big Y sometime. “How are you today?” “WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?!” 

Then you’d know something about what it’s like to be a pastor on an airplane, I guess. 

Anyway, Jesus gives this man some beef about calling him “good,” then he basically says, “You know the law.” And Jesus rattles off a few commandments. The man replies, “Yeah yeah yeah — I’ve kept all these since my youth.” We presumably have an observant man of faith on our hands.

Then Mark says that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Then Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 

Weird, isn’t it, how people who take the Bible literally seem to take everything literally except this part (and maybe some stuff about mixed fabrics and cheeseburgers)?

I’ve heard a thousand explanations about how Jesus “didn’t really mean” that we should sell all our stuff. But I’m here to consider one distinct possibility: maybe he did.

He said what he said, after all, and if he’s Jesus, isn’t his word law for Christians? Even those of us who aren’t rich have private property. I certainly haven’t sold everything I own, and I’m not planning on having a blowout tag sale for the poor at the parsonage any time soon.

But people are hungry not too far from here. The more global you get, the worse it gets: the person in this room with the least in capital still qualifies as fairly rich on a global scale. Unless somebody won the Powerball and didn’t tell me (I can’t blame you; I would’ve sent you two stewardship cards) none of us is crazy rich by American standards. Compare us to the world’s poorest, though, and we come out looking loaded.

As we say in the South whenever the pastor talks about money, the preacher has “stopped preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.” 

The bare facts, though, are that Jesus said what he said: “sell all your possessions and give them to the poor.” Peter says a few verses later that the disciples gave up everything. In the early church, Acts tells us that the earliest Christians also took Jesus’ words more literally: Acts 2 and Acts 4 paint a picture of the Christian community that held all things in common, and gave to anyone who had need. 

That’s what all takes to follow the law to the letter: sell all your possessions and feed some people. If everybody did that, we would have a more just world with a lot fewer hungry people. Just like the ideal for marriage is that it’s a covenant that lasts forever.

But then life happens, and life is messy a lot of it is out of our control. We humans, for reasons within and outside of our control, can’t ever quite seem to fully get it together in a way that works for everyone. 

Nobody here is worthy. And that’s exactly Jesus’ point.

The whole thing, and the rich man’s piousness and vulnerability and sadness in walking away, and the image of the camel and the needle’s eye astounds the disciples so much that they ask him, exasperated: “Then who can be saved?!” They’re not even sure that they’re good in this scenario, and they have given up everything.

Jesus just replies, “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.”

The whole thing is about the crushing nature of the law. About how the point of having stringent rules is so that we can ourselves worthy. It gives us standards by which to measure ourselves in every way — sounds awesome, until we realize that life is messy, stuff happens that’s outside of our control, and strict standards are impossible for everyone to keep.

But for God, Jesus says, all things are possible.

Enter grace. 

Here’s a thing I say all the time: The Gospel isn’t a story about how we prove ourselves worthy. The Gospel is a story about God.

Peter’s exasperated, though, and still doesn’t get it: “We’ve left everything to follow you!” 

It’s not about you, Peter. It’s about turning the world upside down. 

Many who are last shall be first, and a lot of folks who are used to being first shall be last, and they’ll probably be pretty mad about it.  

But either way, there’s plenty good room at the table.

Long ago, I heard someone say, “The Eucharist is the only altar call we need.” 

This isn’t a story about us or our willingness to give up everything or how long our marriages last or anything we do. Because the law crushes everybody — rich, poor, married, divorced. If idealistic rules don’t get you on one thing, they get you on another. Possessions, money, marriage, divorce — it’s all complicated and messy. There is no reliable standard by which to measure humanity because one person’s frivolous, terrible decision is another person’s survival tactic. So it is with divorce. Abuse is real, and toxic relationships are real, and some people divorce so that they can survive and thrive. The real sin is pretending like we can be gatekeepers for God.

Life is messy. Thank God we don’t have to keep score, because we couldn’t if we tried.

Enter grace. 

Grace, that we meet at the altar in bread and wine. I once heard someone say that the Eucharist is the only altar call we need. I believe that. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans quotes Robert Fararr Capon, who writes, “Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” 

Evans continues, “This is why I need the Eucharist. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to begin each week with open hands. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to practice letting go and letting in. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to quit keeping score. 

‘No one has been worthy to receive communion,’ writes Alexander Schemamann, ‘no one has been prepared for it. … Life comes again to us as a gift, a free and divine gift… everything is free, nothing is due and yet all is given.’”

She continues, “It’s a scary thing to open your hands. It’s a scary thing to receive, to say yes. I resist it every time. But somehow, whether it sneaks in through a piece of bread, a sip of wine, or a hatching bud, grace always, eventually gets through. And finally, at long last, I exhale my thanksgiving.” (1)

The Bible is not a weapon. It is also not simple; it can be confusing and burdensome. 

But in the end, it is a story about God, not a book of stringent rules. We have enough rulebooks. The Bible holds an ancient story that tells us how easily we humans turn destructive and how messy life is, and proclaims something else: that grace always breaks in, somehow, right about the moment that we stop keeping score. It is not a weapon, and we need not be idiots for Jesus in trying to keep all its rules. The Bible comes to life at the table in bread and wine and words and grace, offered freely, thank God.

So let us begin our week, beloved, with open hands. Amen.

1. Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (2015), 144-145. 

Church, Together

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.40.47 PM.png
As the Church, we walk together: and not just on Palm Sunday.

Genesis 2:18-22

It’s a fairly common experience, I think, to meet the parent or sibling of a friend or significant other and think, “Wow — my friend makes more sense now.” 

Knowing where someone came from, and knowing their relatives, helps them make more sense.

Which is why I feel like meeting Jesus would make humanity as a whole make more sense, and that someday when we all meet God — if God is the kind of being that can be met, per se — that humanity, or at least, the goodness of humanity, will make more sense to us. 

The Genesis reading has been used for centuries against LGBTQ people and women, so let’s get a few things clear: first, a woman created to be the “helper” for the man doesn’t mean that she’s less than he is. Don’t believe me? The Hebrew word for “helper” used here in Genesis is the same Hebrew word used for God in the psalms when a psalmist says,  “O God, you are my help.” So yeah. I wouldn’t go too far with that argument, dudes.

Second, the point of the passage is not really gender at all. Sure, it helps explain to ancient people why male and female humans exist, but that doesn’t seem to quite be the theological point being made here. Last week, we talked about how often we get distracted when reading the Bible by talk of heaven and the afterlife — sometimes we get so distracted that we miss what the writer of the passage is actually trying to say. The same is true of gender; we get distracted by it and don’t notice much else about a passage. If we were dogs, gender would be a squirrel: a distraction, something we run off after, leaving everything else behind. 

And here is what we miss by running off after gender: “it is not good for a person to be alone.” And God creates all the creatures of the earth — presumably even dogs — and none is found to be a suitable companion. 

The only thing that works is when God creates another human. It’s not just Eve; we are all created for each other, to walk with each other, to keep each other company. We are created for relationship by a God whose very self is relationship: one in three, three in one, God is love. It is not good for us to be alone — so we have each other. 

Mindful that we have children and a few low-attention adults with us, myself included, today’s sermon is participatory. You just have to listen for your cue. 

I’ve been among you for almost three years now, and I’ve walked with you through a lot. So I’m going to describe some things I’ve seen (don’t worry — there are no names, and the things I’m describing are general), and then I’m going to say, borrowing from Elizabeth Eaton, our Lutheran presiding bishop: “We are church” and you will respond, “together.” Feel free to add a clap, just for emphasis. Let’s try it. 

We are church: together.

They say that no man is an island, and the same is true of church. No person is an island. No person is a church. We can only do church with others. And here, for this season of each of our lives,

We are church: together.

We gather around a campfire, and we all, young and old, clamor to hear the stories of one member in particular. He tells us stories of the Dick’s Sporting Goods website in the late 1990s, of getting his computer problems solved, and of finding the perfect melon at the grocery store, and a few other stories that we’ve all heard before but long to hear again. If we’re lucky, we might even hear a few new stories. We gather, we toast, we laugh, we roast marshmallows. We are church: together. 

We gather around a wheelbarrow, and we receive instructions from our fearless leader — the property chairperson, or the outreach chairperson, or maybe someone else — on a chilly weekend day. We each grab a rake, or a shovel, or a pair of gloves. We clean up: our own church yard, or maybe the yard of a neighbor in need. We laugh and share stories over the mulch that we spread and the hedges that we trim. We are church: together.

We gather around the narthex and say hello to people we haven’t seen in ages. We meet one another’s family that’s flown in from far away. The lights are low and the air is chilly, because it’s Christmas Eve. The ushers wear funny Santa hats because they are hilarious. We sing carols. We light candles. Everyone is welcome. We are church: together.

We gather out by the church sign, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna,” a word no one uses anymore, making our neighbors passing by say, “look at those crazy Lutherans.” It’s early spring and the wind is cold and  the day is cloudy, but the sanctuary is warm. We lay our palms and our coats at the altar and we enter into the holy story of Holy Week. We are church: together. 

We gather around plastic tables in the fellowship hall and we crunch the numbers and we set a budget for another year. If we’re lucky, someone brings cookies. We are church: together. 

We gather around a bed where one of our own lies, sick. We pray. We sing. We make sure, in whispered, non-intrusive tones, that the family has enough food. We ask if there’s anything else we can do for them. We love and we bless and we hug and we cry and we care for our own. We are church: together.

We gather on someone’s porch in summer. We share stories and the awesome cheese dip that somebody made. We make plans for the future and we take shots with corn cobs at the compost bin. We enjoy the warm air of summer and the warm glow of each other’s company. We are church: together.

We gather at a bar owned by one of our own. We sing hymns, we drink beer, we confuse and delight the usual patrons of the bar. We talk about the Red Sox and the Patriots and high school lacrosse. We are church: together.

We gather around a grave, and we say goodbye for now. We make more meals for the family. We meet the whole extended family, who has flown in for the funeral. We awe at how much our beloved church member looks like their sibling, or their children, whom most of us have never met before now. We recall with laughter and tears the memories. We hug one another, and we send each other home. We keep checking in with the person’s loved ones during the weeks and months and years to come. We keep sharing memories. We light candles on All Saints’. We give thanks for that person, always. We are church: together. 

We gather in the parking lot for Easter Vigil, all of us, even the pastor, wondering what in the heck we are doing at church on a Saturday night. The sun sinks below the horizon, and we light a fire, the first fire of the warm days, even though it usually isn’t even warm yet. We go inside to the fellowship hall and we tell stories as old as time: stories of God creating humanity, of the children of Israel, of the dry bones of Ezekiel. We go into the sanctuary and taste bread and wine — like always, but not like always. We pop champagne at the end. We celebrate together: Christ is risen indeed. We are church: together.

We gather around the table every Sunday, knowing that even when any one of us is absent, we are here. We God’s people, will always be here, in some form. We gather on the first day of the week, as Christians have for centuries, and sing songs of redemption and read stories that inspire us, stories that confuse us, stories that capture our imaginations or bore us to tears. Every Sunday, we step into this river of faith that’s been going on for centuries and will go on long after we are gone. We, we humans, were created to be together, in relationship with other people. And in this moment in history, this is our faith community, where we come and hear the shouts of kids and clap our hands and share our joy and share our pain and share our lives. We are church: together.

I am proud of you. I am proud of all that you do for one another and the tender ways that you care for one another. I am glad that we are here together for this season of our lives. We humans were created for relationship with one another, and I am glad to share life with you. 

Thank you. Thank you for everything that you do here and the ways you contribute: whether by cleaning up the church yard or contributing your gifts or money or talents or by keeping our finances in line or just by getting yourself and your tiny humans here. Thank you. We are blessed and changed by your presence among us. You are the reason — one of many — that we are church: together.

Knowing where someone came from does sometimes make them make more sense. The God from which we all came and to whom we shall all return is relationship, is three in one, and one in three, is love. And we are reflections of that love, because we were created for one another. 

And here, in this place: we are church: together. Amen.

Complete Colorblindness, Flaming Trash, and the Kingdom of God

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 12.10.35 PM.png

Mark 9:38-50

Fun facts: according to the Internet around 4.25% of the population is colorblind. For almost all of those people, that means having trouble distinguishing between reds and greens and the like, and while it causes difficulty with lots of things, most people can adapt. A tiny sliver of this population, though, cannot see color at all through a variety of conditions in the eye. Now.

With that in mind, I give you this vignette published by Tumblr user @ed-nygma-variations: 

“I have a friend who is [completely] colorblind.
I have another friend with synesthesia where she sees colors when she listens to music. 

My colorblind friend always wanted to see color and because my friend with synesthesia and my colorblind friend have the same taste in music, she describes color to my colorblind friend by relating it back to music. 

Like, ‘The sky is Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”’

And this is what pure friendship is.” 

Today’s Gospel reading is full of judgement that might immediately set of some existential dread in you. 

“It would be better for you if a giant millstone was hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). 

And the whole thing about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes is reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale where a fundamentalist Christian government actually takes these words literally and does regularly amputate body parts as punishment for sin. 

There are many ways of looking at this. Given the allegations of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church recently, and given that Protestants are not blameless in the area of protecting children from abuse either, we might even be tempted to give this text an imprecatory reading, telling ourselves that we’re reading all about the harsh judgements awaiting those who abuse children in any way. 

However tempting that might be, I want to turn us instead to reading this text not for our own enjoyment of imagining the torture of others, but instead, imagining how it might be helpful to us. 

Here’s the thing: we get really hung up on hell when we talk about the New Testament. I got so hung up on it in college that I wrote my entire college thesis about hell, and not just so that I could tell all my classmates and professors that I was writing “one hell of a paper” or that “writing was hell these days.” 

Here’s what I learned: hell didn’t immediately appear in anyone’s religious literature, but was a concept that developed over time, usually in communities that were being abused by a more powerful group. It’s been a thing for us for a long time to imagine our abusive enemies being tortured for eternity. It makes us feel better to know that justice is coming. 

When Jesus talks about hell, it takes on a different character. The word he uses isn’t Hell, or Hades, or anything of the like. The word he uses is Gehenna, which is an actual place just outside Jerusalem where it is said that some kings used to sacrifice their children — and which is said to be cursed, so Jerusalem started using it as a place to burn its trash. 

“Kingdom of God” is also a weird term: it doesn’t exactly mean “heaven.” “Kingdom” is a deceptive translation, because the Greek word is active. A better translation is “reign of God,” an order of things where God’s way goes, where everyone loves their neighbor as themselves and where peace reigns. 

So in short, we’re talking less here about “heaven” and “hell” and more about loving your neighbor vs. living a flaming trash life — mostly in this life.

One of the best things I ever heard Gail R. O’Day, my beloved professor who just passed last week, say was that, while everyone is obsessed with final destinations, “The New Testament is far more concerned with how we treat one another here than where we ‘end up.’” What’s more, a lot of what we see as descriptive of “where we end up” is actually describing what happens here on earth. Because let’s face it: there’s plenty of heaven and hell here on earth to occupy us for the time being, and final destinations have for far too long been simply a technique that religious authorities use for control and eternal bribery. 

So what does all of that have to do with colorblindness? I’m getting there. 

We’re easily distracted by the afterlife talk, and the hyperbole. No, Jesus does not actually want you to cut off your hand. Please don’t cut off a limb. Instead, try growing a sense of metaphor.

But once you get past the distractions and the imagery, Jesus is describing causing others to “stumble.” For most of my life, I believed that this was about causing other people to sin: you know, encouraging them to engage in poor behavior of all interesting types. The problem with that interpretation is that it limits God. Sin doesn’t get between someone and God — God reaches out to sinful people all the time. That’s what this whole Jesus thing is about, after all. 

No, to cause someone to stumble, like a stray lego in a dark room, is to get in their way. To block their path. To try to keep them out, to keep them from getting to God. To close the doors of the church in their faces. To attempt to get a person to believe that God doesn’t really love or accept them. It is the worst thing that you can do to your very self to make someone else believe that they cannot get to God.

Don’t even let your own hand or your own two feet or your own eyes get in your way, and don’t you dare get in anyone else’s, for we are Christians, and whoever is not against us is for us. And for those who are against us? “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

The table is open. Dangerously open. Offensively open. 

But being open certainly has its perks. 

When describing the church she founded, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said that when you walk inside, you might see all types of people: gay, straight, and in between, tattooed folks in tank tops, folks in pleated khakis and polo shirts, black, brown, white, retired grandparents and working professionals and teenagers and children, poor, middle class, rich. She says that you’re likely to walk in and go, “I am unclear what all these people have in common.” 

The thing is, we lose something when we’re all the same. One of the reasons we are deeply divided politically is that we stopped talking to our neighbors and stopped engaging in institutions where we hopefully meet people who aren’t like us at all.

And that is what all this has to do with colorblindness. 

Because there are colors that I can’t see that you can. I can only see things as myself, with all of my limitations, and you can only see things as you. Having limited vision for a long time can lead to some pretty hellish results — for all of us. 

Jesus is pretty clear, after all: keeping someone else, or ourselves, from God’s love is the worst thing we can do to ourselves. That’s what he’s trying to say. We just get distracted with our hellish obsessions.

But I can describe what life is like through my eyes, and you can tell me what it’s like through yours. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be able to see more clearly: “The sky is Duke Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll.’” 

That is what pure friendship and discipleship is: rather than blocking the door and getting in the way, to welcome someone else to the table, valuing that their presence among us will change us profoundly, and that through each other, we’ll all become a little more able to see the world as it really is. 

Because not only does the world need a little more love these days, it needs a lot more vision.

We keep asking ourselves: can American democracy survive its current division? I don’t know. But can we improve our little corner of the world? Can we live together despite our differences? I think so. 

So together, let’s see. Amen.

Humanity from the Bike Lane

Screen Shot 2018-09-24 at 12.01.36 PM.png

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Being a bike commuter taught me more about interpersonal dynamics on a macro scale  than any class I ever took. 

That is to say, cycling to and from work when I was in Atlanta taught me a lot about humanity’s tendency to mistreat, abuse, and disregard those who they perceive to be smaller and weaker, and those whom they perceive to have no power over them. It was the whole, “you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat children, the elderly, and service workers,” but on a larger and more impersonal scale.  

You see, when I am on a bike, I am much smaller and more vulnerable than the average driver. If a cyclist collides with a driver, chances are incredibly high that it is the cyclist’s body that will bear the brunt of the impact. Chances are also high that the driver will leave the encounter physically unscathed.

People say judgy things about cyclists all the time. They lament that cyclists don’t stop at red lights or stop signs and don’t always obey all the rules of the road. And in some cases, they’re 100% right. Some cyclists are jerks and outlaws, because some humans are jerks and outlaws. But if someone had a serious prejudice against all cyclists because she had encountered some who were poorly behaved, I would begin to worry about how she treated other groups whose members she had once seen behaving badly. We’re all predisposed to prejudice; the trick, like most things, is to be self-aware about it. 

I am always grateful for those who understand how difficult life is for someone else, even when they don’t have to. 

For those who are white, but take the time to see the ways that nonwhite people are pre-judged and mistreated. For those who are men, but see and understand and speak up when women are talked over or abused. For straight people who speak up for LGBTQ+ people. For young people who go out of their way to befriend the elderly, and for older people who go out of their way to mentor younger people. For people who do not struggle financially who take the time to understand the plight of those who do struggle, and who advocate for them.

For those who have no personal reason to believe or stand up for or be kind to others, but believe them and stand up for them and are kind to them anyway. For drivers who pull up next to a cyclist at a red light after the cyclist has just been dangerously and harrowingly cut off by another driver and say, “I saw that. I don’t know what’s wrong with that guy. Are you okay? 

It’s pretty easy to care about something that directly affects you or your family and friends. It’s much harder to care when it doesn’t directly affect you.

What’s more, though, caring for those we don’t technically have to care about is also where we find our fullest humanity. This is also, I think, where Jesus was ultimately pushing us with this “kingdom of God” stuff. That the kingdom of God — a better translation is the “reign” or “rule” of God — is where all are heard, believed, and cared for, and where injustice is brought out into the light and corrected. Where we really do care about things, even when we could easily go about our lives not caring.

Because you see, it’s much easier not to care. It can even feel temporarily satisfying to take out our anger on such people — those we perceive to be somehow “lower” than us. It can feel pretty good, even, to yell a cyclist to get off the road (knowing full well that they have the right to be there), or to be rude to a waiter, all because you’ve had a bad day. It may seem sort of harmless, in the grand scheme of things, until we remember that trying to feel better by keeping others down has led to a lot of evil in the world. Any good Southerner and student of history knows that it was poor whites who were the foot soldiers of the KKK; after all, if blacks were not kept down, whom would poor whites have to feel better than?

The urge to be the greatest — or at least to not be the least — is ingrained in us from childhood. Not just “us” Americans, either. Us humans. We learn from an early age that the better and greater you are, the less likely you are to be anyone’s victim. So we beat others down in order to feel better and to send the message that no one better mess with us. If we’re self-sufficient, we think, we won’t be dependent on anyone. That’s the goal. 

There’s only one catch: at some point, most of us do become the least, whether by circumstance or, if we’re lucky, by choice. At some point, we all find ourselves dependent on the kindness of others. We all find ourselves hoping that someone who doesn’t have to care will care. Whether it happens because we are part of a hated or outcast group or because we are simply lonely, we all eventually find ourselves hoping that someone who’d doesn’t have to care about our plight will care — that they will stand up for us, call us, show us kindness. We’ve all been there. If you haven’t, it’s incredibly likely that you someday will be. 

This is why we are our best selves when we show kindness that we didn’t have to show: because it seems that we’re wired towards self-importance, and kindness breaks that pattern. Kindness moves us from thinking about ourselves and worrying about having enough — enough status, enough money, enough attention — and helps us to think in terms of abundance and whether someone else has enough.

The Gospel lesson today is another relatively familiar one — Jesus predicts that someday soon he will throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, and be killed, and in three days rise again. The disciples, as you might imagine, really don’t get it, and Mark says in a moment of remarkable candor that they were too afraid to ask him. 

Then Jesus overhears the disciples getting into an argument about who’s the greatest among them. They know this Jesus character that they’ve been following is pretty important; he’s quite popular with the crowds. It becomes a natural human question, then, who among them is the handsomest, most popular, most useful, best disciple. 

Then Jesus brings a child among them to illustrate his point. Children were, in those days, of quite a low status. They weren’t very useful for working, and they were prone to dying of disease and injury. And Jesus uses the child to say, essentially, the wisdom we discussed at the beginning — “what matters is how you treat people who can’t give you anything in return. Those who have no power over you. Those you could go on about your life not caring about.” And Jesus says the famous line: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

It’s a cute image, Jesus holding a child, but this is about way more than only children. It’s about how we treat anyone who can’t give us anything in return. The Kingdom of God is shown through us when we don’t have to care, but do. When we advocate for those who are burdened by society in ways that we are not. When we show kindness to someone we didn’t have to notice in the first place. 

That’s what we try to do here. 

Look, today is commitment Sunday, the height of our stewardship season, as we try to figure out how to do God’s work in the world in the new year. You don’t have to care about church. You don’t have to give. As good Lutherans, we believe that God loves you regardless of how much you give or don’t give or how much you show up here or don’t. You are loved because you breathe. 

When I ran across New Hampshire this past weekend to raise money for kids to go to summer camp, at our dinner before the race, someone said, “When it gets hard, just remember — you get to do this.” The race could go on without any of us. We would all be loved by God and kids would go to camp regardless of whether any individual person in the room ran that race. But we were the ones who got to do it. 

The same is true here. God’s work could go on, easily, without us — without any individual person and without this congregation as a whole. But that’s not the end of the story.

We are here. We get to do this. We get to show up for people and show kindness. 

We keep showing up, doing good, and giving of all that we have not so that God will love us, but because God already does. My work here, and my offering each month, is not some sort of divine bribe to get God to love me, and neither is yours. 

We do this, not because we have to, but because we get to. And that, my beloved, changes everything. Amen.

Full Disclosure

Screen Shot 2018-09-18 at 1.11.41 PM.png
This sermon is, in part, a tribute to Dr. Gail R. O’Day, one of the most influential professors of my seminary career. The title is a nod towards one of her book titles, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (Chalice Press, 2002)

Mark 8:27-38

The New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” is a human interest section that details the trials, heartbreak, and joy of life in New York City. It’s like a verbal version of the social media photo series “Humans of New York,” highlighting individual humans and the beauty and pain of their stories in New York’s constant streams of anonymous faces.

One recent rendition of Metropolitan Diary, entitled, “Parking Lesson,” went like this.

“Dear Diary:

I pulled onto West 130th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues looking for a parking spot. I noticed one between two cars. I knew there wasn’t a fire hydrant there.

Getting into the spot would have been a tight squeeze, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Luckily, though, I saw that there was a man sitting in the Jeep parked in front of the empty space. He had easily half a car’s length ahead of him that he could move up into. I figured I would ask if he would mind making my job easier.

Pulling alongside the Jeep, I saw that the man was leaning back in his seat. His window was already down. I rolled down my front passenger side window.  

‘Hi, excuse me.’ I said, ‘Would you mind pulling up a bit so I could squeeze in behind you?’  

No response.

‘Excuse me, sir?’

This time, he answered.

‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to ask if you could move up a tad, maybe three feet.’

‘I heard what you said,’ he said. ‘I’ll move up two feet, and learn how to park.’ 

Now I was annoyed.  

He pulled the Jeep up, and I backed into the empty spot easily. Turning off the ignition, I decided to ask the man if he would evaluate my parking job. After all, he had said I needed to learn.

As I approached the Jeep, the man was reaching out the window with his hand open. Almost magnetically, my hand was drawn into his.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m on the phone with the funeral home. My father just passed. Please, go easy on me.’

It doesn’t take much to set us off when we’re surrounded by millions of people, especially in the heat. So go easy on each other.” (1)

He just laid it out there, that man in the Jeep. His bluntness about his situation saved both people from a confrontation.

I know that I’m meant to identify with the man who needed to park, and that the lesson I’m meant to take is to go easy on my fellow human because I have no idea what they’re going through. That is a good lesson indeed.

However, what’s truly remarkable to me about this story is the directness and vulnerability of the guy in the Jeep. It took courage to do what he did — to reach out, literally, and be direct about his own pain. To put himself on the line rather than hide, roll up the window, or start a fight. The writer wouldn’t have been able to go easy on the man in the Jeep had he not disclosed his pain and thrown himself at the mercy of an angry stranger: “I’m on the phone with the funeral home…. Please, go easy on me.” 

The Gospel lesson this morning is known for two things: Peter’s direct confession of Jesus as the Christ and for Peter’s royal screwup two verses later. When he goes from getting it right to getting it so wrong that the Son of God calls him “Satan.” 

Jesus does what seems like a strange thing in Mark — nearly every time he does something extraordinary, or every time someone knows who he is, he shushes them immediately. Scholars and theologians have debated why for centuries, but narratively it’s always made a lot of sense to me: Jesus knows, not because he’s omnipotent, but because he’s alive and conscious, that his miraculous actions and his believers’ claims about him are going to get him into trouble on more than one front. He will eventually throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, which is part of what Peter objects to.

We’re not there yet, though.

No, this time, it’s Peter that makes the bold disclosure. Whenever we’re trying to be direct and tell the truth about anything, especially our own convictions, saying, “This is the whole truth as best I know it” takes courage.

You see, the gathering here in Mark 8 is more intimate than the familiar setting might suggest. Jesus is walking on the road with his disciples. If you’ve done all that much Bible reading at all, at this point, your eyes might start to glaze. “Yeah, yeah — we know. He’s, like, teaching them, right? Imparting the truth on them or something. Profound, neighbor-loving stuff.” That colors how we hear the rest, if we hear it at all. 

It seems that this is a sort of impersonal exchange wherein Peter boldy and in a direct and no B.S. fashion gets Jesus’ Sunday school question right.

I suppose that’s how it is — if you forget that this is a story involving humans.

Much has been said over the years about the car as a place where it’s sometimes easier to have hard conversations. You don’t have to look directly at the person — in fact, if you or the other person is driving, it’s impossible (and unsafe) to maintain long eye contact. An early 2000s emo band was even named after the phenomenon: Dashboard Confessional.

I imagine that this phenomenon of having hard conversations while traveling didn’t start with cars. It  applies to travel more generally too — including walking. Anytime you’re moving and facing forward, you have an easy excuse to look elsewhere, easing up the emotional pressure brought on by facing someone. 

So Jesus and his disciples are walking, presumably facing forward, and he asks a rather vulnerable question: “Who do people say that I am?”

“What do people think of me, really? Who do they think I am? What do they think I’m here for?” 

So the disciples give him a laundry list of the things they’ve heard. Disciple next to Jesus kicks up a little dust with his feet and answers, “Some say John the Baptist.” Disciple in the back says, “Other people are saying you’re Elijah.” Another chimes in, “Or one of the other prophets.” 

Then Jesus drills in with an even more intimate question: “Who do you say that I am?”  

“You’ve been following me for awhile now. Why do you think you’re here? Who am I to you?”

They are about to tell Jesus how they’ve viewed all the time they’ve spent together. They’ve been following him, eating together, laughing together, seeing miracles together. And Jesus has essentially just said, with all their eyes fixed forward, “What has all that meant to you? Who do you think I am?”

What’s more, you see, no one in the group has ever said it out loud.

Peter comes right out with it: “You’re the Messiah.”

It’s not a term that encompasses everything. But it says a lot. And he just came right out with it.

I’ve always appreciated the directness of your average New Englander. I’m no regional essentialist or anything, but my experience with Southerners is that we tend to tell more stories, use more niceties, and beat around the bush a bit more. Our primary goal is often to protect the feelings of others and maintain social norms. New Englanders, I find, often give “just the facts,” preferably without sugarcoating it.

“You’re the Messiah.”

Many Southerners read this kind of demeanor as cold. Thanks to one person in particular, I read it now as more efficient — and brave — than anything.

I’m fairly sure that the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day was the first person from this region that I ever interacted with on a daily basis. She was the academic dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory in Atlanta for my first two years of seminary. I also had the pleasure of taking several of her courses on preaching and on the Gospel of John. There are, as I’ve said before, classes that make us all better at our jobs, and then there are those that make us better people. Seminary is no different, though I can also count a third category there: there were courses that made me realize that I actually believe this stuff, courses that formed my actual faith and gave me words to describe it. Gail’s courses were among those. In my own preaching voice, I hear echoes of her own, and when I hear someone from my era at Candler preach, I can often tell if they were among her students, too.

I found that she has a keen eye for finding depth and meaning and little patience for showing off in trying to convey it. Just get to the point. She also taught me to get past my assumptions in reading a Gospel story, often asking, “Yes, but what does the text say?” We were allowed to imagine and fill in the details, but we had to be faithful to the text. We had to tell the truth as best we knew it.

Once, while standing with a group of my friends as she passed by, I remarked of a paper I had just turned in to her: “I feel like it went somewhere; I’m sorry for my intro, though — it was kinda fluff.” Deadpan, her blue eyes fixed on me and she said, “I know.” My friends let out a low “oooh,” but by that point, I felt the love. I think I made a B.  

From watching her, I learned to really look at the people to whom I was preaching, even when I was nervous or afraid. From her, I learned to look at individuals in the congregation in a way that says, “This is the truth as best I know it.” 

I’ve been thinking about her, and about preaching, life, and resurrection more generally, because she’s been pretty sick lately. 

Some scholars and theologians and spiritual leaders appeal to our emotions with flowery words including lots of adjectives. With Gail, it was just the facts, and I often found myself feeling things in spite of myself. Because something else was also true: she really believes this stuff. To me, she was a scholarly giant. And if she could believe this stuff, then maybe I could, too.

Peter took a risk in proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, and I wonder if it didn’t have a profound effect on the faith of his fellow disciples. Because if Peter can believe it, well, maybe it is real after all. 

Yes, moments later Peter’s boldness will go to his head and he’ll say too much. Peter lacked New England discernment to go along with his bluntness. He underestimated the vulnerability and openness that the Messiah would have to endure — the cross. He misunderstood that it was ultimately Jesus who’d have to lay himself at the mercy of strangers, die, and rise again.

Still, Jesus calls us to open our arms, to be vulnerable, to lay it all out there: in short, to take up our cross and follow. Tell the truth as best you know it. God will be there. 

After the Orlando shooting in 2016, Gail wrote these words with which I close, which echo ever more true to me now. It was the truth as she knew it: “…the struggle between life and death, love and hate is the struggle of human existence. We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power. And we are called to be witnesses to the love of God that cannot be overcome by hatred and that will carry us all forward in hope toward a justice-filled future. We lament, we mourn, we will seek justice, and we will love. With prayers and hope for a new day, Gail R. O’Day.

It takes courage to tell the truth as you know it: about your own soul, about the state of things, about the existence of hope when nothing is hopeful. 

But you’re New Englanders. Just lay it out there, because we really believe this stuff — about life and death and resurrection.

We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power.” So keep laying it out there. God will be there when you do.

Because if you can believe and proclaim it, you just might give someone else the courage to believe it too. That is why we are here: full disclosure. Amen.

1. New York Times Metropolitan Diary, 3 September 2018. You can find the article here.
2. You can read Dr. O’Day’s entire statement after the 2016 Pulse massacre here.