On Failure

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Boston Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, let, celebrates his solo home run with J.D. Martinez during the fifth inning of the team’s baseball game against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Things to consider: major league hitters are considered elite if they succeed at getting a hit only 35% of the time (.350 average). In the Gospel reading, Peter falls flat on his face, and not for the last time, yet we still consider him a giant of the faith.

It’s about time we started getting comfortable with failure, or else we’ll never be in the game long enough to succeed. Pastor Anna explains.

Matthew 16:21-28

We’ve been together for more than five years now, so stop me if you’ve heard this one. 

It was a hot day in Alabama and I was doing my best to play college softball. I was a freshman who had forgone a four year institution to go to a junior college in hopes of, like many athletes before and after me, earning a Division I scholarship in the next two years. 

I was nervous. I was terrified of messing up. 

And so naturally, I did mess up. Over and over. 

I was an infielder and I watched as one ground ball glanced off my glove. Then I managed to spear the next one only to throw it far over the first baseman’s head. This was a particular accomplishment since she was more than six feet tall. Another ground ball. Another error. 

At that point, the coach stopped everything. He was a grizzled old baseball coach; not very unlike the coach Tom Hanks plays in A League of Their Own. 

I expected to get yelled at. I did not expect a life lesson. But this is why sports and other extracurriculars are valuable; they teach us lessons that aren’t available inside of any classroom. 

And this was lesson one of college. 

The coach’s voice roared from the dugout directly in my direction. 

“If you are afraid to fail, go over there, get your [stuff], and leave right now.” 

I had not yet learned to normalize failure. This was funny, since I had played a sport for my entire life that calls people all stars if they can manage to succeed in batting 35-40% of the time. 

Years later, in my 30s, I would pick up a barbell again and learn this lesson once more. It’s common to say in the gym that the weights win most of the time. Everyone wants to be strong, but nobody wants to do the work of getting beaten by the barbell over and over. 

I would learn it over and over in my work life, too. Failure is not only temporary; it is  normal. 

No pastor, and no church, has managed to retain 100% of members all the time. Communities are messy and distinctive, and no community, church or otherwise, is for everyone.

Not even ice cream is for everyone.

If you’re a member here and we or I haven’t managed to disappoint you at least once, please, give us time. 

If you and I are in relationship with one another that is more than shallow, chances are good that we’ll manage to disappoint one another more than once. 

The key, of course, is to keep going. 

Each person here has screwed something important up — at church, in your family, in life. Probably many times. 

Yet many of us walk through life afraid to fail, and in so doing, we fail more — whether by action or inaction. We stay in jobs and relationships that make us unhappy. We stress over whether or not we’re messing up our children with our parenting, grandparenting, or other role modeling. We stress over being good partners and spouses and coworkers and Christians and citizens. We stress over everything, always fearing failure.

But nothing is about being perfect. If you’ll allow me to be frank: perfect people are two things — boring, and liars. 

Not failing is not trying. The key, of course, is to keep trying, to keep moving forward. 

Case in point: Peter in today’s Gospel reading. You may think you’ve messed up, but until Jesus himself has called you Satan, Peter takes the failure cake. 

Just last week, he gave the answer upon which we would build the whole church, the answer we talked about uniting us all as a worldwide body. He answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” With “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus literally gave him the keys to the kingdom. 

Oh how quickly we go from success to failure. Despite the best of intentions — telling the Son of God that he should stay alive so that he can help more people — Jesus smacks him down. 

“Peter” means “rock,” and in a matter of just a few verses, Peter has gone from the rock upon which Christ promised to build his church to a stumbling block for the Son of Man. 

Well if that isn’t enough to make a disciple up and quit. 

But I think we all know that that wasn’t the end of Peter’s story. And it also wasn’t the end of Peter’s failures. But here, more than 2,000 years later, we still talk about him as a giant of the faith. Not because he never failed, and not because he did fail so much. 

Because he kept moving forward. 

What’s more, Jesus then tells the disciples to take up their cross and follow. If anything was a sign of death and failure in those days, it was certainly the cross. Being nailed to a cross either meant you’d committed a crime or that you’d drawn enough negative attention to yourself that the Romans saw fit to kill you. It wasn’t the sign of faith or goodness that we see it as today. 

And yet, in Christ, everything is transformed. Failures are not final, and the cross, once a sign of failure and death by empire, is a sign of redemption. 

Friends, the message of Easter is that the worst thing is never the last thing, and we are an Easter people. 

And that goes for your life, too. You are not the worst thing you’ve ever done. You are not your failures. So stop going through life afraid to fail; we are an Easter people. 

The one who transformed the cross is transformed into a sign of life and hope, the one who turned water into wine, and the one who turns bread and wine into his very self will have no problem transforming your failures. 

Just keep moving, and know that God moves with us. Thank God. Amen.

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On Unity

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The symbols of St. Peter, by John Piper, St. Peter’s Church, Babraham, Great Britain. 

Matthew 16:13-20

Details have been obscured in the following stories to protect the guilty. 

Somewhere in America that I feel compelled to tell you wasn’t the South, in a church that is a member of a denomination, a pastor who happens to be a friend of mine decided, given the current times, to make a theological statement on the church’s sign. Given that it seemed unclear from the news, this particular pastor decided to make the statement, “God cherishes Black lives.” 

Just that. 

No hot button slogan, no political essay, nothing else. Just a signal to the Black members of that community that this particular church, predominately white itself, believes Black lives to be equally valuable to everyone else’s in God’s eyes. No one who wasn’t a member of this church was asked to sign on. 

Seemed simple enough to this pastor. No one in the congregation gave a word of objection. However, a couple of people that this pastor had never met before saw fit to send messages decrying their disagreement with this simple and profoundly true theological statement. 

In another town and another place, a different pastor posted a political article on the pastor’s personal social media page. It may or may not have conflicted with the message in the previous story. Immediately, someone who isn’t a member of their church commented, “What happened to the separation of church and state?” 

She’d forgotten, as people often do, that pastors and churches aren’t one and the same.

In fact, I couldn’t find where this pastor said anything about representing the church with this view. 

Why would someone decide to critique a sign at a church they don’t go to? 

And why would someone equate what a pastor says on their personal social media page with their church’s official statements — and in any case, if you don’t go to that church, why would it matter? 

Beats me, but it’s a tale as old as time. For some reason, many Christians feel personal ownership over the messages put out by any church (and in some cases, over pastors speaking only for themselves). I’ve been guilty if it myself.

I chalk it up to our individualized view of faith. We can’t manage to comprehend that a church community might hold a view that is outside of our view of God, or even sometimes that other individuals can hold such views. But it’s true — they can and they do.

And it’s gotten worse in our current polarized times. Because I believe in Jesus and you believe in Jesus, all Christians should agree on, well, everything!
And so we bicker and we nitpick and we call churches we don’t attend over what’s on their sign. 

This morning, as preachers everywhere tackle “Who do you say that I am?” some will take a classic individualized angle: who do you say Jesus is? 

My records do indicate that this is how I’ve preached this passage in the past. And it really is a question worth considering, individualistic or not.

I’ve found that my own answer has changed throughout my life, and you probably have found the same. It’s much like who we say our parents are changes throughout our lives. 

When you’re a baby, your parents are your protectors and providers, and the only thing standing between your vulnerable little baby body and the great beyond. When you’re a toddler, they become your teachers (though they’re also still your protectors; toddlers do, as you all know, act like tiny little drunk people and need similar types of supervision). 

When you’re a child, your parents move further into the teaching role. By the time you’re an adult, they become the people you call when you can’t figure something out, or when you need comfort. And when your parents go to be with Jesus, they become the ones who have gone before you into the great beyond, continuing to pave the way. 

I can’t imagine why Jesus would be any different for us. If Jesus asked each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” — if there are twenty of us, we’d give at least 23 different answers. For some of us, he’s a Friend. For others, a protector, for others, a comforter, for still others, all three and more. 

So, to be clear, “Who do you say that I am” is certainly a worthwhile question on an individual level. But as I’ve shown, we probably think too individualistically for our own good in these times. 

Peter’s answer isn’t individual; it’s communal. Peter’s answer so profound that it gets him dubbed “the rock on which I will build my church.” 

He says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 

Peter does a rare thing, in his time, our time, or any time: he doesn’t speak as an individual; he speaks for the whole church. He distills all of our individual answers down to the most important thing: Jesus is the Son of the living God. This was an answer that the worldwide church might someday proclaim — and would, and does.

Regardless of our individual politics, and regardless of our individual answers about who Jesus is, we can all say to Peter’s answer, with confidence: “Yes, that is who Jesus is.” 

“The Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

We’re all too quick to individualize and personalize everything, and insist that we get exactly what we want, even from church signs that we drive by or pastors who speak for themselves on the internet. 

But today, God is calling us to pull together, and Peter is calling us back to the most basic of statements, a foundation that we can actually build on together. And weirdly enough, I often find that when I can get back to the basics and connect with others, I do find myself affected individually. I find myself understanding others better when we can get back to a sound foundation.

It’s just about building that foundation with a simple statement. 

A foundation like, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Or a foundation like, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” 

At the table, all are seen and all are loved. It’s not a common thing in this world that we live in — which is why we’ve got people calling up pastors over their church signs. 

Who we each say Jesus is will vary widely, but together, we proclaim that Christ is the Son of the Living God, present at our table in bread and in wine. In an age where we agree on so little, I do believe, is a message that we can all get behind. It’s just as simple and profound as that. And it’s as easy, and as difficult, as that.

So let us meet the Christ, the Son of the living God, and be here united. Then, and only then, can we tackle the hard stuff. Amen.

Toddlers, Bananas, and God in the Storm

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Conspiratorial nana.

Matthew 14:22-33

You ever see something on the internet that was so funny that you watch it over and over?

Yeah, I did the other night. 

I was minding my own business and getting ready to go to bed wicked early, like I do, and suddenly I get this video of a toddler. 

But not just any toddler. 

It was a toddler whose mother thought it was hilarious to turn on one of those facial filters that puts your eyes and mouth on a fruit or a vegetable. This particular toddler’s nose and mouth were on a banana. 

“NANA!” the toddler exclaims. 

Then the banana-toddler looks troubled, then conspiratorial. The banana turns to something off screen and says, “Mommy?” The banana then proceeds to ask its mommy why it is a banana. 

I watched it over and over and laughed harder every single time. It’s the little things these days. 

Today in both our texts, God shows up, facial-filter style, looking like a ruckus. In one, God shows up in the sheer silence after a storm and fire; in the other, God shows up in the midst of a raging storm on the sea. In both, God gets mistaken for part of the ruckus. 

My message today is very simple: there are, needless to say, storms raging all around us and within us. There is the storm of the pandemic, the storm of racism and white supremacy, the storms of political division. Then there are the more individual storms that are always with us: storms of conflict within families. Storms of depression and anxiety and other health problems. The list of storms is seemingly endless, and they do constantly rage all around us and within our chests. 

In both of our texts today, we see storms and fire and humans who are afraid. In the Gospel text, Jesus sends the disciples ahead in a boat while he goes off by himself. The Son of God seems to do that a lot — go off by himself. Must be a Messiah thing.

They don’t ask him how he plans to join them; by then they must be used to bonkers things happening and knows that the Christ has his ways and they know even more than that not to ask questions. So they go ahead and they leave him behind. 

Nighttime rolls around and a storm brews. The wind is against the disciples, Matthew says, and the boat was battered by the waves. 

Not a terribly big deal, maybe, hopefully, since so many of the disciples were fishermen to begin with. But then they see a figure coming towards them over the waves, in the storm, in the night. 

They “cry out in fear” — the brave disciples squeal like children, thinking that they’re seeing a ghost. 

A storm they could handle, but a storm with a poltergeist is just too much. 

You know the rest of the story. It’s not a storm with a ghost. It’s Jesus, showing up in the midst of a storm, helping Peter to walk on the water, which he ultimately fails at, but hey, he tried. Then, of course, the storm gets calmed and the disciples’ minds are absolutely blown. What an emotional journey — they go from the terror of a storm at night in a boat with an attached  poltergeist to the joy and wonder of the Son of God controlling the weather. Wild. 

Then there’s Elijah in the Old Testament reading for the day: Elijah, the great prophet, who’s got a storm in his own life — namely, in a nutshell, that he’s been chased down and his life is in danger. 

In the Gospel text, Peter had prayed the most common prayer in all of humanity — “save me” — but I think that here in the Hebrew Bible text, God says to Elijah what God most often says to us: “What are you doing here?” 

In this and most cases, it isn’t about sin, or about being somewhere you “shouldn’t be” in a moral sense. It’s about God finding us in the midst of chaos and asking us to reflect. God’s asking Elijah to reflect on how he got to where he is. Elijah is so sure of his purpose that he repeats it twice, and he gets reassurance from God: “Go, return on your way.” 

He gets direction and a renewed purpose in the midst of his storm. But first, God showed up looking like the storm itself. Like a toddler with a facial filter, only not. 

It’s a trope in literature and movies that a main character might have a guardian angel or other type of mystical mentor — someone who shows up in the midst of chaos to advise, protect, or help. Generally, whenever this character faces a quandary or gets into trouble, they learn to ask their mystical guardian, “Where are you?” 

In the same way, God loves showing up in the midst of a raging storm. Maybe if we learned to look for grace in the midst of chaos, we might see God more clearly and more often. Just a thought. 

In the same way that God shows up in the midst of storms, God also shows up in bread and wine. So here we are, in the midst of our storms, and the first place we’ll look for God is in the bread and wine. Thanks to our current storm of covid, it won’t look like it has for us for years. It’s a little odd and a little awkward and may even produce a little anxiety. 

But God is still here, all the same, in the midst of the storms around and within us. 

So come to the table and be fed. Then go out into the storm and look for God — even if God shows up looking like the storm itself, at first — God is there. 

Oh, and when you get home, do yourself a favor and look up toddlers and facial filters, because God also shows up in laughter in hard times. You’ll be glad you did.

Amen.

“Let’s Eat”

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Photo from the Montgomery, Alabama Convention & Visitor Bureau. 

Matthew 14:13-21

My very first church was a mid-sized parish in Montgomery, Alabama. Some of them, in fact, may end up watching this here broadcast. 

I loved them for many reasons, and one of my favorite days of any month was when the Young at Heart group, a group of folks who referred to themselves as the more “chronologically gifted” members of the congregation, would go out to eat for lunch together. I would always join them, and I loved every minute of it. They tolerated me and even enjoyed my company — me in my mid-twenties, fresh out of seminary, as green as they come, and they in their seventies and eighties. 

There was a liturgy to it. I would be in my office at the church, plugging away at a sermon or getting up the courage to call someone or doing some other pastor thing when one of them would stick their heads inside the open door and say four simple words. 

“Okay, Preacher, lesseat.” 

Back in those days, I did not, I freely admit, feed myself like I should. Now an enthusiastic breakfast eater, in those days, I usually didn’t eat until lunch. Whenever I’d hear those words — lesseat — my mouth would begin to water and I’d begin to get my head around just how hungry I was. 

I would obediently get up and follow them out to their car, and we’d eat indeed — usually something delicious and Southern like fried chicken or Gulf shrimp — and Jesus was always there, I’m sure of it. God’s grace lives lots of places, and I imagine good fried chicken to be one of them.

You know I always like to say that Jesus loved meals so much he became one. 

Today’s Gospel text ends with food, but it starts on a curious note: “When Jesus had heard this.” 

Heard what, exactly? 

He’d just heard about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod and the government. John was, of course, both Jesus’ cousin and the one who baptized him. When Jesus hears about this, Matthew tells us, Jesus withdrew. 

Even the Son of God, we learn, needs to grieve. 

He gets into a boat and goes off by himself, as many of us sometimes do when we just need a moment to ourselves after a great loss. 

The crowds hear where he’s gone, and they come to the shore to see him. When he sees the crowd, he doesn’t preach a great sermon. He doesn’t tell them anything — he heals their sick. 

When evening came, the disciples were feeling practical, they instruct the Son of God to send them away so that they can get some food. 

Jesus says, in a tone I imagine as almost grumpy: “You give them something to eat.” 

To make a point, perhaps, the disciples talk about how little they have: famously five loaves, and two fish. 

You know the rest of the story. Jesus takes what little they have and turns it into a meal so big that the entire crowd of more than 5,000 people gets fed, and there are leftovers to take home. 

Where Jesus is, there is always enough. 

It’s worth noting that I didn’t choose this text for this day. Promise. 

My pastor friends are jealous. 

We’re trying out communion today, the first time we’ve taken communion since March 8. 

That means that it’s been about 146 days since many of us have taken communion, but who’s counting? 

This time without communion has taught me a lot, and I bet it’s taught you a lot too. It’s made me think of our ancestors in faith who, for various reasons, have been left without communion: either because there was no church, or because there was a church but no pastor on most Sundays, back in the days when one pastor might serve five or ten churches and rotate around them. 

We are not the first to go without, as you know well by now, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been hard. 

But we haven’t gone hungry. 

Where Jesus is, there is always enough. 

Just like Jesus was in the fried chicken during the Young at Heart lunches, Jesus has also been with us this whole time. We worship our God, not our rituals, and our God shows up in our rituals and well outside of them. We’ve met God in the woods on a hike or two, in the faces of our families even if it was over FaceTime, in the bravery of essential workers, in the courage to have a dialogue over race and policing. 

We do not bring Jesus here by having communion; Jesus has been here this whole time. Where Jesus is, there is always enough; that much is clear. In the absence of communion, God has found new and creative ways to feed us. 

And now we return to this table that before we might’ve taken for granted and we’ll meet God here, too. May we never take it for granted again, for it is our family table. It is where we meet God and it is where our ancestors in faith met God.

I did not choose this text, but God did. With Jesus, the time is always right and the amount is always enough. 

Just as Christ fed the 5,000 plus the ladies and the kids in the midst of his own grief, Christ is here to feed us in the midst of pandemic anxiety. And there will be enough. 

Whether you commune with us today or whether you don’t, whether you’re watching at home or just waiting until you feel safer, know that Christ is with you, too, and will find new and wonderful ways to keep you fed until you join us at our table. 

And with that, I don’t think there’s anything left to say, except: “Lesseat.” Amen.

The Desire of “The Hound of Heaven”

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“Parable of the Mustard Seed,” a painted window at the YMCA training center for German leadership in Kassel. Photo by tin.G.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

There’s a version of this story that’s been around for quite awhile, and you’ve probably heard some version of it somewhere. I think it started with a guru and enlightenment, but eventually, somebody Christianized it, and this is how I first heard it. 

Somewhere in rural America, an old pastor takes a younger pastor for a walk. 

“How badly do you want to know and follow Jesus?” the older pastor says. 

The younger pastor responds enthusiastically, “As badly as I want to eat my next meal!” 

They come upon a body of water, and the older pastor suddenly kicks the younger pastor’s legs out from under him. (Both of these pastors are men, otherwise it gets either weird or … just super unlikely.) 

The older pastor holds the younger pastor’s head under water RIGHT until the younger pastor is about to lose consciousness. Then he relents. 

The younger pastor comes up, sputtering and gasping for air. 

“Why on earth did you do that?!” the younger pastor demands. 

“Until you want to know and follow Jesus as badly as you wanted to breathe just now,” the old man said, “You’ll never succeed.” 

I’m sorry if you like that story, because I hate that story. 

This is mostly because I have become a mentor to younger pastors and I cannot imagine doing anything like it. I also find it fairly abhorrent for one adult to hold another one against their will for any reason not pertaining to safety. Finally, I don’t like it because I think it puts the emphasis in all the wrong places, and gives credit where it’s not due. 

Basically, I’m as Lutheran as they come, and I think the whole story essentially amounts to works righteousness. But I told you that story for a reason.

Let me explain by way of the Gospel lesson.

There’s a decent enough chance that Matthew here is recording some sayings of Jesus that the community remembered, back to back to back as one dialogue. This seems somehow more likely to some scholars than imagining that he went on and on back to back to back like that in what sort of seems like an unnatural dialogue. 

It doesn’t matter, really. 

The point is that this is the sort of thing that Jesus wanted to emphasize: that the kingdom of heaven is like — once again, it is like a thing that grows. A mustard seed. A tiny seed, and usually not one that someone would sow on purpose. But in this parable in Matthew, someone does, apparently, sow it on purpose, and it grows strong — much like we talked about last week — and becomes a home for the birds. 

Then, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman kneads into bread. Once again, a little goes a long way. The little seed became a big tree, and now, a bit of yeast levens all the bread and causes it to rise. 

Then two more parables, these about someone who gave all they had to get something they saw as valuable. 

Then another parable about fishing, where there is an abundance. 

The kingdom of heaven, apparently, is like all of these things. This is why the disciples, I think, lied to the Lord when he asked them if they understood. 

I want to go back to the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. In his version, Luke also includes a woman who turns the house upside down looking for a lost coin. 

You see, the way we normally read these passages is simple: the kingdom of heaven is worth everything, and we should give up everything to get it. We should want the kingdom of heaven as badly as that young pastor wanted to breathe. 

But you see, I think this reading has it all backwards. Because as I always say, when the Gospel becomes a story about us and our goodness and our efforts, chances are very good that we’ve gotten something backwards. 

What if. 

What if you are the treasure hidden in the field? What if you are the pearl of great price? What if you are Luke’s lost coin, and God is the woman who tears her house apart until she finds you?

If I’m off, I’m not very far off, because it’s pretty clear in the next parable that we are the fish. 

As every kid eventually learns, being the hero of every story is exhausting, so this morning, let God be the hero of your story for once. I promise you that God is better at it. Chalk it up to more experience. 

You are the treasure that someone found and hid, and God is the one who would sell all he had to buy that field. You are the pearl of great value, and God is the merchant who would sell the clothes off his back to have you. 

I know that you might not feel worthy, and that is the point. Treasure and pearls do not know their worth. They just are. 

And the urgency that we all feel in our lungs when we imagine the young preacher struggling to breathe? What if that is the urgency with which God pursues you and wants life abundant for you?

I don’t mean riches and all of the desires of your heart. Lord, I’d be a terrible prosperity Gospel preacher. 

No, I mean life abundant as in freedom. God is always in the business of freedom. In what ways is God freeing you, even as you sit there? 

I know, that’s a lot of questions, but what I’ve got to work with is a lot of parables and some lyin’ disciples. 

As with everything in life, once you see your own worth, your own value, your own belovedness, life begins to open up for you. God loves you, and there is nothing you can do about it. 

There is a poem that every seminary student and every student of religion must read. And it is with an excerpt from that poem that we end. It bears noting that the poem, written in 1909 by Francis Thompson, refers to God as “him” — lest you think I’m talking about some guy. 

“I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days; 

I fled Him, down the arches of the years; 

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways 

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears 

I hid from Him, and under running laughter. 

Up vistaed hopes I sped; 

And shot, precipitated, 

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears, 

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. 

But with unhurrying chase, 

And unperturbèd pace, 

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, 

They beat—and a Voice beat 

More instant than the Feet— 

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’ 

I pleaded, outlaw-wise, 

By many a hearted casement, curtained red, 

  Trellised with intertwining charities; 

(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,

Yet was I sore adread 

Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside). 

But, if one little casement parted wide,

The gust of His approach would clash it to. 

Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.” 

The poem, of course, is “The Hound of Heaven,” and it speaks of a God who will turn the house upside down looking for you. A God who loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A God who does not need you to be the hero of your story, because that God already is. Amen.

The Wheat, the Weeds, and the KKK

Screen Shot 2020-07-19 at 5.20.29 PMThe current cover image for Slow Burn.

When I take long runs these days, I need to be distracted. So I turn to podcasts. 

Lately, I’ve been listening to the latest season of a podcastAr called Slow Burn. The first season is about Watergate, and it’s fascinating. The most current season, the fourth season, takes a slightly different topic: David Duke. 

David Duke, if you didn’t know already, is a former grand wizard from the KKK who appears every now and again in the news. He’s run several successful and unsuccessful campaigns for office, both in his home state of Louisiana and outside of it.

If you do end up listening to the podcast, I must warn you: if you think you’re in for hearing only about Southern racism in this season, you’re in for a surprise: they also cover his raucous rallies all over the country back in the 1970s and even later, including some right here in New England.

Anyhow, episode four covers David Duke’s 1990 campaign to be the US Senator from Louisiana.

When the results came back after a fraught campaign, Duke lost that Senate race to rival Bennet Johnston 54-43.5%, in what one Johnston supporter called “the most depressing win I think I’ve ever seen.” Duke should have been resoundingly defeated, but he wasn’t.

The most depressing statistic: in that election, David Duke captured 60% of the white vote, as he railed on and on about “restoring” the rights of white people. His KKK exploits, as well as other facts — such as his celebrations of Hitler’s birthday — were all also well known to the voters by the time they cast ballots. 

A common theme of the series, as with other similar candidates, is that more people, in Louisiana and elsewhere, would vote for the neo-Nazi and former Klansman than would admit to it to pollsters or others, meaning that he consistently out-performed poll numbers. One of Duke’s fellow Klansmen referred to these as Duke’s “silent army of white believers.” Other white people were appalled that their neighbors would support someone, in 1990, who had once donned a KKK hood, and who used coded and not-so-coded language to talk about race.

Black Louisanans, naturally, were alarmed. This was personal. One such Louisianan was Michelle Belle Boisierre, who identifies as black and Louisiana creole. Her family has been in southeast Louisiana since the 1740s. In 1990, she was 25 and a biology graduate student at Tulane. 

“It felt like weights were being placed on me,” she said of those days. “It seemed like those weights were getting heavier and heavier and it was harder to function, harder to make forward progress in my own life, because of this idea that there are going to be thousands … of people who would actually vote for [Duke].” 

Boisierre sent a letter to the local paper saying “I have been haunted by the fact that sixty percent of the white people in Louisiana supported David Duke. I have spent the last few weeks in a state of paranoia unlike any I have ever experienced.” 

It bears noting that she was the only black PhD student at Tulane at the time. 

She said, “I had to wonder — of the fifty white people I’ll talk to tomorrow, which thirty of them voted for David Duke?” 

Boisierre had to wonder which members in her community supported David Duke, who openly claimed that white people were superior to all other races. Many, of course, volunteered the information to her that they did not vote for him — but others were silent, and she always had to wonder about that “silent army.” 

How do you know who is good and who is bad? How do you know who is a racist and who is not, who is homophobic and who is not, who is sexist and who is not? For some of us, these are moral judgements, “political issues.” For others, they can be life and death questions, or at least questions that affect livelihoods, mental health, and senses of wellbeing.

The question of being able to tell who is good and who is bad is not a new one, obviously. It’s a tale, as they say, as old as time. 

Jesus knew this. We find ourselves once again in the Gospels, listening to Jesus talk about spiritual things in, quite literally, earthy terms. He describes the kingdom in terms of things that grow, and passages like this one can make us all anxious. 

Delmer Chiton, a Lutheran pastor and co-host of “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” a weekly podcast about the lectionary passage for the week, posits that in every congregation, there are two types of people: there are the ones who need to be told that God loves them in spite of what they’ve done, and those who are quite sure that they’re the “good” people and need to be told to get out of their pews and help their neighbors, if not be taken down a notch. Now personally, I think there’s some of both in all of us. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian philosopher, wrote, “If only there were bad people somewhere that we could gather up and get away from us and then just destroy them and that would take care of the problem with the world. But the line of good and evil runs through the middle of the human heart.”

Indeed, the church has done a lot of harm to itself over the years by attempting to tear the weeds from among us. We have labeled all kinds of people sinners, barred all types of people from being part of our community. We always truly think that we know how to tell what’s good and what’s bad, who’s wheat and who’s a weed. 

This story is for us. 

A wise preaching professor once taught a group of self-righteous feeling seminary students one very important lesson — remember, when you’re pointing a finger at the congregation, you’d better go ahead and name that you’ve got three more fingers pointing right back at yourself. 

So what does that mean, then? 

That we ignore evil and injustice? That we refuse to call out wrong, in the church and in  the world, when we see it? That we let people do terrible things to others and say nothing? 

No. 

Elsewhere in the Bible, it’s quite clear that speaking up for the marginalized is part of the Christian’s calling, as is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving a cold cup of water to those in need. A church without boundaries is a place of abuse just as much as a church with too many. 

But we should be very careful before we condemn individuals, before we attempt to rip out the weeds. The point of this text is, of course, that ultimate judgement of individuals is entirely up to God. 

Besides, it’s a little silly to imagine the wheat attempting to rip out the weeds. 

Wheat doesn’t even have thumbs.

It bears noting here that I am not condemning David Duke voters to hell. I do not believe that anyone is beyond redemption, or that anyone is defined forever by a vote they have cast. Besides, condemning anyone would be quite against Jesus’ point in this text: that judgement is up to God. My point is only this: that we do not know what is in anyone’s heart, and that people can indeed surprise us by the beliefs they hold.

That brings us to the final question: what does the wheat do in this story? 

It grows, strong, tall, and proud. It is planted in good soil, it produces food to feed the hungry, and it is gathered into the barn in due time. 

Michelle Belle Boisierre is now, thirty years later, a professor of biology at Xavier, New Orleans’s historically black university. The experience she had as a graduate student in 1990 made her stronger in her identity and her drive to succeed. 

At the end of the episode, the podcast host asked her, “How did you continue to live in [Louisiana] and go about your business?”

Dr. Boisierre replied, “I … know that the work that I do and the way that I conduct myself is a source of pain for people like David Duke. I know that in my career, I help young people, primarily African American, complete career journeys that people like David Duke think they’re not well suited for, think they’re not capable of doing. So I know that I live my life doing things and being a person who’s disturbing to him.”

At this point, her smile can almost be heard in the audio of the interview as she finishes, “…and that’s quite comforting.” 

Friends, this side of heaven, there will always be evil. Some of it will be open, and some of it will be hidden. It is not up to us to rip the evil out of the world. We would do harm if we tried. Throughout history, the most harm that has been done has been when someone decided that they could eradicate “those bad people” from the face of the earth. 

What we can do is to continue growing strong, working for justice, being wheat, feeding the world, knowing that ultimately, the one who compares the kingdom of God to things that grow will give us all that we need, and that in due time, the harvest will come, the world will be fed, and that someday death and evil shall be no more. Someday, we will no longer have to wonder.

Until then, stay rooted, my friends. Grow strong.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Let God Sort ‘Em Out

sower-at-sunset
Van Gogh, Parable of the Sower (1888)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

My high school softball coach, when she would hear a flurry of anxieties from me and my teammates, had a thing that she would say. We would be worrying about what the weather would be, whether the infield would be too hard, whether the outfield would be uneven. We would use ALL the words, talking a mile a minute. 

And Coach would just shrug and say, “Things you can’t control.” And that would be the end of it. 

I often say that many of the greatest lessons that I learned in school were taught outside the classroom, on the field or the court. This is one of them. 

I learned that I could not control the weather, the field conditions, or even the other team. I could not control what was in the past, either, or in the future, for that matter. Worrying about those things, in fact, would take my attention away from the things I could control, and would subsequently have a negative impact on my performance.

CrossFit coach Ben Bergeron has this exercise with his athletes where they name everything that could possibly go wrong within a competition. Things within their control get a plan. Things outside of their control get let go of.

If you listened to the Gospel lesson, you may be wondering what all of this could possibly have to do with gardening. Well, maybe you are if you’re not a gardener.

Today we have the well known “parable of the sower.” 

Today’s the day when preachers everywhere demonstrate that they are not great gardeners. 

Why, you ask? 

Because they think that soil can change its own quality. 

And by “they,” I mostly mean “me” ten years ago. 

If soil could have a change of heart, I would’ve been preaching to the soil in the front garden of the parsonage this whole time, and it would’ve gone from a sandy mess to compost out of a sense of guilt. 

We often read this text and we think that we are meant to be the soil, and that our mission is to become good soil. 

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was going for at all. He’s God, after all, and he knows how gardening works. 

No, Jesus is talking to the disciples as the sowers. He’s attempting to prepare them for an inevitability: that some people will immediately and readily become lifelong disciples. Others, not so much. Some people will not get it at all. Still others will get it, but then lose interest. And finally, some will become disciples, but will find that they just have other priorities, and being a disciple will get pushed aside.

You’d think that Jesus would then direct the disciples to look for people who will be good soil — to try to find those who will most readily receive the Gospel and become lifelong, productive disciples. 

You’d think he’d tell them to be good gardeners, and careful with where they “throw seeds.” 

But Jesus doesn’t play that way. 

Instead, he calls for us to be somewhat careless sowers, preaching the Gospel everywhere and using words when necessary. And that is what we already do here. We make tasty food for people who need it. We take care of our own, and we take care of the community around us, in many different ways. In non-Covid times, we even sing hymns in bars. We serve folks on the street. And each of you spreads love in your respective jobs and families, as cool and varied as they are. 

I’m not joking when I say that this is exactly the kind of church community that I would want to be a part of if I were not a pastor. 

When I was first starting out as a pastor almost ten years ago, I would feel a rush of glee when someone would say to me, usually after meeting me, getting to know me, and then hearing what I do for a living: “Well, even I would go to church if you were the pastor!” I was sure that I was on track to become the next Nadia Bolz-Weber. 

I figured out really quick that it wasn’t about me, and that most people who said that were listening to me through beer headphones (they’re like beer goggles, but for your ears), and that the people who did and do find their way to the churches I’ve served and stay there are exactly the right ones.

In short, I learned to let go of things I can’t control and focus on what I can. 

Not everyone is into church. Even some folks who want to be church people just can’t find it in them to make it a priority right now. Even if they do, not everyone who is into church is into churches like this church.

This story that Jesus tells today is for us. Not us, the soil, but us, the sowers. 

I’ve definitely told this story before, but I’ll tell it again because it always bears repeating: the Episcopal priest in town when I was in college was my very first clergy mentor. His name was, and is, Father Jeff. Before he was Father Jeff, he was just Jeff, and he served in the Marine corps back in the mid-1980s. The snipers, he told us once in a sermon, had a saying when it came to the enemy: “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” 

When he became Father Jeff, he said that his call changed when it came to his enemies. It became, “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” 

Friends, this is true of us — and not just our enemies, but our friends and family. We do not get to control what type of soil anyone is. We are simply called to sow widely, almost irresponsibly — to spread God’s love wherever we go, not stopping to question whether or not someone is deserving or whether or not they might be inspired to come to church here. If they are, great! But that’s a thing we can’t control. 

But luckily, we can’t control the Holy Spirit, either. And I believe that God is the best gardener. He decided to create humanity out of the soil of a garden, after all. 

I believe that the people who have decided to come to church here and stay are exactly the right ones. That’s you. And the folks who will choose to come here and stay in the years to come? They’re exactly the right ones, too. 

The Isaiah passage is where the Good News is this morning: God says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty. 

Do not spend time fretting about things you can’t control. The God who promises will deliver, whether we witness the growth or not. 

Your job? Let go of what you can’t control and trust what God says.
You just love ‘em all. And let God sort ‘em out. 

“For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field — [all the new life that God has made to grow in God’s own time] — shall clap their hands.” 

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

“Can’t Take a Yoke”

This sermon was preached at Our Savior’s first outdoor service in 2020. If you are a Pioneer Valley resident, consider joining us for our outdoor services, currently being held every Sunday at 10:15am. Masks and social distancing are required. Screen Shot 2020-07-05 at 2.11.57 PM
OSLC’s generous and beautiful outdoor worship space. 

Welcome home, everyone. Whether you’re sitting here on our lawn together or whether you have to join us online for now, I’m glad you’re here. 

I’m so happy to see you. 

Now, in the interest of keeping you alive and not overheated, I’m going to get used to preaching short sermons because it may get hot this summer. So here we go. 

Disclaimer: this sermon was largely the result of a conversation that I had with my good friend and pastor, Joseph Graumann of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough. If you have any friends there, you’ll likely hear that their pastor is telling many of the same bad jokes as I am, to similar groans. We came up with them together. We are as ashamed as we are proud.

So here we go.

This Gospel text is a classic text, right out of the Greatest Hits of the Gospels, and “Sayings of Jesus Most Likely to be Embroidered on a Pillow”: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

You know, [beat] some people just can’t take a yoke. 

Yesterday was July 4, you know, and that plus coronavirus got me thinking about how our greatest accomplishments as a nation have come when Americans have worked together. And here, in the midst of this pandemic, we’re still honoring that American tradition. We’re all in masks, and distant, protecting one another from disease. It’s not a case that was very hard to make here at Our Savior’s, where your love for one another continues to amaze and inspire me. 

Did I mention I missed you?

But in other places, and in other communities, it’s not that easy. Americans also have a sense of rugged individualism which isn’t always bad, but sometimes has unintended consequences, such as the now many videos of people embarrassingly freaking out in public because they refuse to wear masks indoors in public in places where it’s required. 

And that’s what I mean when I say that some people just can’t take a yoke. Because the yoke Jesus speaks of is typically for oxen, or other livestock, usually pulling something together.

But we all fall victim to the individualist mentality sometimes. And like I said — sometimes, it can even be good. I’ve certainly had times when I’ve had to boss up and create my own lane, and get things done myself. We all have. 

But for every time I’ve had to do that, there are ten times when I’ve done it when I should’ve asked for help. 

I’m learning, though. On that note, shout out to Cathy for mowing the lawn this week, even though it was my turn. 

Jesus doesn’t promise no burden, or no yoke — the promise is that we will never bear our burdens alone.

And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A rabbi’s “yoke,” you may know already, was the rabbi’s teaching. And the image still applies to religious communities, and communities and teachers of all kinds, today. What kind of yoke do we offer? 

We humans have a tendency to give heavy burdens to one another. Namely, the cultural obligation to be seen as “good,” or worthwhile. We want to be seen as good parents, and good at our jobs, and good citizens. None of those things is bad, of course — it’s good, even, to want to be good, and for a community to encourage that — but the problem comes when we derive our worth from how close to perfect we can get. 

Because, as your blooper reminded you at the end of online worship last week, as I forgot the name of an entire book of the Bible right at the end of my first attempt at recording my sermon — mistakes are normal. 

Sports teach us this, and that’s one reason why I love athletics so much. The best hitters in baseball only succeed in getting a hit about 30% of the time. If they succeed 35% of the time, they’re all stars. To be clear, that means that they fail to get a hit 65% of the time. Sports are here to remind all of us that failure is normal, and that perfection is an illusion. The game, of course, is in the striving to get better.

Even that metaphor is imperfect: our true worth as human beings doesn’t come from anything we do.

Jesus knew that fulfilling all of the rules, all of the time, was putting a heavy burden on God’s people. And so he called them to take on his yoke and pull together. 

And that is what we do here. 

The Gospel today is the same that it was before, and during our first quarantine period: ultimately, our worth doesn’t come from anything that we do, or any great burden that we lift alone. 

Your worth is your birthright. You are beloved by God just because you breathe. And because we already know that we are beloved, and that the burdens are lifted, we are freed in Christ to do so much more, and to truly pull together in the best of ways, for the good of one another and the world.

In the end, Christ has taken our entire burden of being perfect and told us over and over again that we are beloved children of God, period, full stop, no strings attached. 

As I love to say, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

And that, my friends, is no yoke. Amen.

Palm Sunday: Holy Week in Quarantine

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 4.37.29 PM
Our Savior’s sign for a pandemic – and for Holy Week.

Matthew 21:1-11

As I told the folks gathered on Zoom this morning for our South Hadley community Holy Week service, I need to begin by saying something obvious: this Holy Week is not like other Holy Weeks. 

What we should be doing right now is gathering with our actual palm branches. But we cannot do that this year. Instead, most of us are stuck inside, maybe alone, or maybe stuck with the same people we’ve now been stuck with for weeks. 

When this all first started, we wondered if we might be overreacting. We thought it might not last more than a couple of weeks. But quickly we realized that this was not the case. Quickly, we realized that we were not going to spend Palm Sunday, Holy Week, or even the first Sunday of Easter together. Instead, we are stuck inside while the economy seems to be tanking and the only things people seem to be buying are toilet paper and liquor. 

No, this is not a normal Holy Week. 

While it may be somewhat comforting to remember that we are not the first to experience an abnormal Holy Week — wars and plagues have disrupted these holy days before — it doesn’t lessen our pain at being apart. It probably does little to lessen our anxiety, either.

So what do we do? 

I have only one answer: we live the story. We live the story together like we always do, but also not like we always do. 

We live this story every single year because it is our story. This year, more than any other in recent memory, we need to be shepherded by God from death into life. 

This story takes us to another time in history when people were anxious. Israel was occupied by the Romans, and life was uncertain. The Romans killed troublemakers. And Jesus, on this Palm Sunday, rides directly into the belly of the beast, not unlike our healthcare workers are doing every single day they go to work. 

The disciples go behind him and they watch the crowds adore him, shouting their Hosannas. 

This is a good time to remember that we are not the first to be anxious. We are not the first to not know what is going to happen next. We are not the first to fear death for ourselves or those we love. That feeling of dread that you occasionally feel in the pit of your stomach these days when you read the news? Those disciples on the road on that first Palm Sunday felt that too. 

This story is our story.

I’m not going to claim that observing this Holy Week will offer you any magical protection. Much like the disciples, we will be, and remain, as vulnerable as ever. But observing this week might just teach you something about love in the midst of chaos. It might just teach you something about death and new life. And as millions around the world still observe these holiest days of our faith, it may somehow help you to not feel so alone. 

Much like we do every year, we will go day by day. If you want daily prayer this week, the National Cathedral is a great option. I’ll post a link on our Facebook page today. Or you can just read from your Bible and pray yourself, day by day. Then we’ll go day by day together through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We will do through this pandemic what the disciples did through the very first Holy Week: despite our anxiety, we will go day by day. We will do the next right thing as best we know it. The disciples were not perfect that week, nor shall we be, but together, we will be moved by God from death into life. 

This story — the story of Holy Week — is our story. 

My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in Seattle, quoted from an article this week by Aisha S. Ahmad called “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.” She writes, “Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened.”

The disciples lived through something like that, too. They may not have realized its scale at the time, much like we didn’t realize the scale of this pandemic at first. Our lives will be different after this, but our observation of this story will stay the same, reminding us, regardless of our circumstances, every single year, that we are not alone and that new life is always on its way.

So go outside and find yourself a branch. We cannot be together this year, and the palms that we ordered will unfortunately have to go directly to being dried to be burned as next year’s Ash Wednesday ashes. But instead of staying sad about that, I’m choosing to celebrate the promise of another year and another journey from ashes to fire — one that, God willing, we can make truly together.

This week, as we experience this story that is our story, rest in knowing that you are not the first to not know the future. You are not the first to feel fear. You are not the first to feel besieged or in crisis. And you are not the first to be led by God from death into the new life of Easter and springtime. 

This Holy Week will not be like other Holy Weeks. But it will be one to remember, and it will be one where we remembered more clearly than we have in recent memory: this story is our story. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey from Death Into Life

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 10.12.13 AM
The raising of Lazarus.

John 11:1-45

God on the journey. 

We’ve been talking this Lent about the various ways that God meets us on our journeys. Today, we’ve reached the final Sunday in Lent before we get to Holy Week, and the journey of today is none other than the journey from death into life with our buddy Lazarus. 

This is important: I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks attempts to reframe this whole pandemic as good. And for sure, we’re getting new perspective all over the place. We’re realizing what’s really important and what’s really not as a bunch of us have to work from home. People who have kids and have to work from home are realizing how precious it is to spend time with their children. I’ve realized how much I value seeing you, my church folks, in person, and how wonderful it is to hear your voices over phone calls and Zoom meetings. The air is cleaner as we all stay home. The church has finally moved into the twenty first century as we’ve figured out how you can build community and “do church” online. We’re all reordering our priorities and figuring out what’s really important to us, and that’s great. 

Yes, there have been good things that have already come out of this crisis. And yet. 

We cannot frame this moment as a happy one. If we try, we are not doing right by those who, at this very moment, are sick and dying. We are not doing right by the healthcare workers who are risking their lives to take care of the sick. We are not doing right by the immunocompromised and other high risk people who cannot leave their homes right now. 

We also cannot pretend that having a “church that is open online” is in any way a satisfying alternative to what we normally do — meet in this space, in person, and share hugs and stories and the Eucharist. It’s not. What we are doing right now is the best that we can do. It’s holding our community together, and it’s valuable and wonderful for that. It may even be a lifeline to this community for you, and I am overjoyed to be able to provide that. But it’s what we have to settle for, not what we wish we had. 

The only way out is through. We have to keep our heads up, do the best we can to stay healthy, and stay home, and hopefully flatten the curve and keep as many people safe as possible.  Keeping a positive attitude is essential in this moment, but we can’t deny reality. This moment is awful. 

There was a man whose name was Lazarus. He got very sick, too. And he died. 

And no one talked about how it was ultimately a good thing, or about how it made them see their own lives in a new way. Instead, they wept. And Jesus came, and he didn’t tell them not to cry. He didn’t tell them to keep a positive attitude. No. He wept with them.

With Jesus, the worst thing is never the last thing. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. 

We humans don’t like pain and suffering. It makes sense. Pain and suffering are unpleasant, so if we can look away from them or deny them or pretend they aren’t happening, we do. But sometimes, we just can’t. Like when someone we love dies. Or when the things that we love going to and the people we love seeing aren’t available because there’s a global pandemic threatening lives all over the world. 

Like when we can’t go to church and see everyone, even though we all want to. When we stay away because we love each other, but it still hurts. 

So if you’re feeling pain and loneliness and grief in this moment, that’s more than okay. It’s to be expected. That is how we should feel. It means that you are aware of the reality of all of this, and that you’re not going to sugarcoat it for yourself. This can be true whether or not you’re determined to keep a positive attitude and get through this. 

And. 

It occurred to me this week reading the story of Lazarus that all this time, we’ve been thinking that we’ve been going to check in with God every week when we go to church. I know I have. When we all gather in this space, I feel Christ’s presence among us. Christ is present with us in the bread and wine. Christ is present with us in each other. 

But these days, we’re finding ourselves shut up in our homes like tombs, and we may feel like since we can’t go to church, we can’t go to God. 

Friends, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

No. When we’re sitting stuck in our homes that are sealed up and we’re wondering if we’ll be stuck there forever, Jesus comes knocking on the door like “You in there?” 

Friends, as Lutherans, we believe that we could never make our way to God even if we tried. Instead, it is God who always finds us. It is God who comes to the tomb and shouts for us to come out. It is God who comes to us and gives us new life as sure as the springtime. Always. 

The Gospel is not a story about us finding God. It is a story about God finding us, making us new, unbinding us from the things that hold us back. 

At the end of this Lazarus story, Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” He had come out still wearing the grave clothes wrapped around him. 

This crisis is bad. The news is bad. Seeing the numbers of the sick and dying rise is bad. We can’t deny that reality even as we try to make the best of our lives for ourselves and those we love. 

But even in death, Christ comes to us and makes us new. Even in our despair, Christ comes to us and gives us new hope. Someday this will pass. Someday we will find new life and healing. 

But for now, Christ is already at your door, ready to unbind you and let you go. This day, and every day, I pray that you are unbound from your fear: wash your hands and take care of yourself. Drink water. Exercise. Carve out a routine for yourself. Make the best of your daily life. Stay informed, but don’t watch the news all day. 

I pray that you are unbound from your loneliness. I said it last week and I will say it again: if you want to talk to someone, call them. If you want to hear from someone, reach out to them. In this age when we area all scrambling to take care of so many people, the kindest thing that we can do for one another is to give each other the gift of being direct and healthy in our relationships rather than getting mad because our un-voiced expectations aren’t being met. If you want to hear from someone, let them hear from you. 

I pray that you are unbound from whatever holds you back this day. You are no further from God because you cannot be at church, friends; God is as near as your next breath, and in God, we are all bound together. We are socially distant to keep each other safe, but the Holy Spirit is holding us closer together than ever as we stand up and support one another, reach out and call one another, text a hello to one another, offer to help one another. 

Yes, friends — this moment is bad. There is no denying or sugarcoating it. Death is very real in our lives and in our world, and Christ weeps with us. 

But even now, we are being unbound. Even now, signs of hope and new life are springing up all around us: with the arrival of springtime, with the willingness to observe social distance, with the willingness to be kind to one another and to realize that this is a difficult time for all of us.

Ultimately, new life will come. This crisis will end. And there is new life for everyone on the other side, whether through new health or through the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. 

For now, we will decide who this crisis will make us. Above all things, let it make us kinder. Let it make us more aware than ever that we don’t go to God when we go to church — but that God comes to us, stands at the door of our tomb, and calls us out of death and into new life when we need it most. Like now. 

Be unbound, friends. And when this nightmare is over, we will celebrate new life — together. Amen.