Guest Post: “Risk It and Dive Deeply”

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Written by Debbie Brown

Sermon given at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, South Hadley, MA

Luke 12:13-21

We FINALLY are getting some rain! Thanks be to God! We needed it! Last night we had a deluge of hard and fast rain that ran down the streets and sidewalks, forming pools of water. As I drove through the storm last night, I remembered the public service announcements about the danger of driving through standing water. Gauging the depth of water can be tricky, and you can do a lot of damage to your vehicle or even be swept away when the water is running beneath the surface.

Several years ago, a friend of mine in Texas ignored that advice. She saw the standing water in the road, judged it to be quite shallow, and decided to drive through it. But she was mistaken. As she got toward the middle, her car suddenly stalled and water flooded in. Fortunately for her, the water wasn’t running heavily, so she was safe. But her car couldn’t be saved and ended up becoming scrap metal. It was a very expensive lesson for her.

In a way, standing water in the road after a hard and fast rain is like the message in a parable. On the surface it appears to be simplistic – maybe even shallow. But wading into it surprises us with its true depth. The parables Jesus tells are a vehicle to offer valuable lessons about God and the nature of God’s kingdom. If we dive in, we can find ourselves at the precipice of death and new life.

The parable of the Rich Fool that Jesus tells us today is like that. On the surface, I think we all get it. To store up our treasures is vanity. We can’t take our material possessions with us when we die. By the way, news flash to the deceased riding in the hearse with the U-Haul behind it pictured above. That person is in for a big reality check….

On the surface, it’s easy for us to think that this parable has nothing to do with us. None of us here are so rich that we need to build bigger banks to hold all of it. So it must really meant for the super-rich people, the one percent of Americans holding anywhere from one third to one half of the wealth in this country. They are the ones building bigger banks to store up their treasures. And they are very successful! The newest reports by some economists reveal that their wealth is growing yearly by about six percent, while the wealth of the rest of the ninety-nine percent of us is steadily shrinking.

I think I am safe to say that all of us have felt the strain of the cost of living; it has been increasing faster than our modest gains in earnings – if there are any increases at all. And it feels as if the average middle class American is taking the brunt of it all as we pay the lion’s share of taxes and fees to support everyone, while the rich keep getting richer.

So how in the world are we like the rich fool?

It takes some risk on our part to see it.  If we don’t explore the possibilities, we will find ourselves in danger. Even though we are not rich, our attitudes about our possessions are very much like those of the rich fool, and it IS a matter of death and new life.

Notice that when the rich fool makes a decision to store up his treasures in bigger barns he consults only with himself. He credits everything he has to his hard work and decides to hold onto his riches for his own pleasure. He has worked so hard for what he has, and he deserves to enjoy it. Besides, what if he falls on hard times? His bounty will provide him with a good cushion to absorb a few losses.

Perhaps you, like me, recognize a tiny glimmer of yourself here. We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity. We have been taught that we are the masters of our own destiny. All we have to do is work hard and get a good education in order to achieve the “American Dream” – which by the way is getting bigger and bigger and harder and harder for many of us to achieve.

We have worked hard for what we have; our possessions and accomplishments define who we are in the eyes of the world. We can’t be faulted for not working hard and doing what has to be done to succeed. Still, we often find ourselves working harder and harder to maintain our status and end up becoming slaves of the American Dream.

We don’t want to feel as if our work is in vain, so we do one of two things… we spend all we can while we are still alive because we can’t take it with us (as a bumper sticker I have seen suggests), OR we save and save because we don’t know when we might need it to get us through a tough spot.

To be clear…I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell us that spending or saving is bad. Riches and money in and of themselves are not evil. Instead, it is how we view and use our possessions that matters the most. The rich farmer in today’s story only looks inside himself to decide what to do with his wealth.

The parable says that after the farmer finished building bigger barns and storing his riches, God came to him and said, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

In the end, he loses everything.

Rich TOWARD God – it is a strange turn of words isn’t it? What might it mean to be rich toward God? The answer isn’t in our text. but immediately following this parable, Jesus gives us a glimpse, reminding us of God’s promise, and offering some words of wisdom.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!”

He goes on to say, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for God’s kingdom isn’t something we can do on our own. There are risks and fears – perhaps some that you have already thought about as hear Jesus’ words. Fear is a powerful emotion that can only be overcome when God, not self, is at the center of everything we do.

In Holy Baptism, we became inheritors of God’s kingdom and given the gift of the Holy Spirit to do God’s work. We are no longer sentenced to a life that is defined by our possessions and achievements. Instead, we are given new life defined by God’s love shown to us in Jesus’ victory over death. We have also been accepted into a community where we are given the tools to help us step out in faith.

In worship and the study of scripture, God’s love for us and for all people is revealed through Jesus’ death and resurrection – proof that even death cannot have victory over us.  We also receive forgiveness for the times we fall short, and the body and blood of Christ to strengthen us for the work we are called to do.

This doesn’t happen to us all at once. It is a process – baby steps along the way as we begin to engage in life-giving practices that help us to grow in faith and overcome the fear that keeps us from experiencing new life in Christ.

Worship, prayer, gratitude, service, forgiveness and generosity flow more freely with each step we take and with the realization that we are called to be stewards of all that God has given us.

Stewardship gets a really bad reputation, especially when we see it only as a once a year drive to give more money or do more things for the church. But this isn’t what stewardship is all about. Instead, it is process that allows us to acknowledge that everything we have, including our achievements and accomplishments are God’s…first and foremost. This is whole life stewardship.

When we don’t put God at the center of everything we do, we might be tempted to see stewardship as something we have to do or something God wants from us. Instead it is a way of life God wants forus. Living every aspect of our lives in ways that honor God frees us from the vain pursuit of piling on more stuff. In return, our lives are filled in ways we would never expect.

New life begins when we give up everything – every notion that what we have is ours alone and that we have the right to use it for our own benefit.

We are not self-created, but God-created. Even our good deeds are not ours, but flow from the gifts that God gives us… not just for us, but for the sake all of God’s creation.

Today, as we collect the offering, pay close attention to the words. They begin with a question and answer…

“What can I offer you O Lord, for all your blessings unto me. I will offer my heart in thanksgiving. I will lift my voice to praise your name.”

This is the heart of whole life stewardship.  What might this mean for us?

When God is at the center of our lives, it becomes harder and harder to hold grudges and judgments against one another. Forgiveness flows. Relationships with unlikely people grow, and our worldview changes to one that embraces kindness and generosity.

I am sure you have some thoughts about what God has in store for your life, but here are few ideas to start us all off on the whole life stewardship journey:

Begin each day in prayer and end it thanking God for the many blessings we have encountered along the way – nothing is too small to notice when we take time to give God thanks.

Practice and grow in faith through worship as we gather, hear the word, eat God’s meal, and are sent out to do what God has already done for us.

Volunteer in places that make a difference for others.

Seek God’s guidance in every aspect of our finances – thinking of the implication of how our spending and consumption affects the all of creation. Do this individually, as a community of faith, and as a citizen of our country and the world.

Pray for our leaders and urge them to work toward social and economic justice.

Look at our country and the world through God’s eyes rather than through our own fear-clouded vision.

Go ahead… take some baby steps, wade in slowly, or simply dive into the still waters where God is at the center. You won’t believe what you will find.

It is a matter of death and new life……

Amen.

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Vanity, Adulting, and Being “Rich Towards God”

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Lake Ossipee, Camp Calumet

Sermon given at Camp Calumet
Freedom, New Hampshire

Luke 12:13-21

People sometimes find hanging out with pastors weird.

Our fearless leader, Bishop Hazelwood, highlighted at my recent installation how pastors don’t often want to freely tell strangers what they do for a living, especially in an enclosed space like an airplane. ‘Cause if I’m sitting next to you on an airplane and I tell you I’m a pastor, depending on your history of religion, you might feel weird. Then I feel weird for making you feel weird. Then we both feel weird.

Or even better, a person might give me their whole history with the church, or confess their sin, or you’ll tell me their real feelings about organized religion.

And all I really want to do is read my book.

But people tend to feel uncomfortable with us, I assume, because no one’s ever told them the big secret: that most pastors are really, exactly, just like everybody else. (I say “most” because, like any other demographic of people, some of us are admittedly a little strange.)

I often wonder if it’s because most people, especially people who aren’t regular church people, see us in the huge moments in their lives: births and baptisms, marriages, deaths and funerals. They’re used to seeing us in big moments. They know that we’re often kind of like midwives in these big life moments, easing the processes for everyone, facilitating, helping things to happen, caring for people in the midst of what’s happening, whether it’s joyful or painful.

I love the TV show Nurse Jackie. In one episode, the main character, an ER nurse, is talking to a police officer and remarks how both of them see people through some of the worst moments of their lives. How you can be at work right next to someone whose life has just changed forever but for you, it’s Tuesday. And I think that’s part of why pastors are regarded as somehow set apart — in the same way doctors and nurses and police officers are.

But I think there’s more to it, because pastors do more than help people through big moments — we think about the spiritual side of things. The deeper meaning of life and death. The things we often hide our faces from. So I think that sometimes people regard us as weirdly set apart is because they want to keep that existential dread far from them.

One of my favorite cartoons recently was entitled “Adult Life.” It showed several different panels of a cartoon human “buying a new tie,” “working out,” “making dinner,” and then the next panel says “don’t let the existential dread set in.” In the next panel the character is breaking into a sweat: “Don’t let it set in…”
Then it abruptly goes to the next panel: “Vacuum the rug.”

One comedian I saw recently talked about how every spare moment, if we don’t have something specific to do, we tend to look at our phones. He posited that it’s to get away from our own thoughts about mortality, our own worries about what life is for. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Today, the writer of Ecclesiastes lays it right out there: “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”

Wow. Uh, I thought the Bible was supposed to be encouraging…?

Now, you have to know that I have a special relationship with the writer of Ecclesiastes. He’s the grumpy, “get off my lawn” teacher, the one that reminds you that everything is pointless. He’s the cynic, but the cynic that makes you (or at least me) laugh with all of his bitterness about the futility of life.

“Vanity, vanity,” may seem like a negative cry, but I wonder if the Teacher in Ecclesiastes isn’t trying to free us from something: from trying to earn our own worth. 

In the Gospel lesson, this guy comes up to Jesus and asks him to make his brother give him his share of the inheritance. That’s right — he didn’t just tell Mom, he told the Messiah on his brother.

And Jesus says something I think is kind of hilarious. He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Let’s recount: the Son of God, who we believe will judge all humanity, just said “Who made me judge?”

Uh… you did?

But Jesus goes on to warn him against all kinds of greed, telling him that storing up riches out of anxiety, in reality, doesn’t make us any less mortal. Nothing we can store up or save or accomplish can make our lives any longer, or make us worth any more than our birthright as children of God.

And then he goes on in the next passage to talk about how we should not worry about our lives, how life is worth more than food and clothing and stuff.

But stuff feels safe to us. Sure. Certain. If we can store up enough food, or the means to make money, then we’ll be safe, we think.

But Jesus reminds us that we are not safe from mortality, and that in the end, stuff just distracts us from what really makes life full: relationships with God and one another. The joy of providing company to one another. The beauty of loving and being loved. The beauty of this place and these people. These things, my friends, are free.

Instead of stockpiling money and stuff, Jesus calls us to be “rich towards God.” The Greek there is an actual motion towards — to put, and to find, your riches in God. In love. In relationship. To find your worth there, not in your bank account.

Your worth, my friends, is not something you earn or stockpile. Your worth is your birthright. Your worth is in being exactly as God created you, in loving other people and allowing yourself to be loved in return.

When Jesus refuses to settle this man’s dispute, he’s not saying that he’s not qualified to be the judge. He’s dismissing it out of hand because he knows that that’s not where true worth is found for humanity. We are made and meant to do more than stockpile riches and die.

Living this way requires some type of faith. Of jumping out into the unknown, letting go of having so much secure-feeling stuff. Of putting resources and energy towards others, instead of just ourselves. And we have no absolute promise of safety.

This week, we will be exploring in Bible study the value of learning to walk in the dark, to put it in author Barbara Brown Taylor’s words. To look headfirst into the darkness of human experience and find the strength of the human spirit. To look into the darkness and find God’s presence. And so you are invited to come and learn with me, starting tomorrow, as we walk through the dark together.

It’s my hope to use and continue to use my role as a pastor, as one who is there for people’s biggest moments, to continue to help them find God in those moments. To be, instead of a strange seat mate on an airplane, someone who teaches people to walk in the dark, even through their anxieties, to enjoy life as God has given it, to realize how truly beloved each of you are.

And this week, no matter what, may you find rest for your souls. May you let go of your worry, if only for this week, let go of your existential dread to put your energy towards enjoying yourself, enjoying this beautiful place, enjoying all of the people that God has brought here to be with you. That, according to both Jesus and the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, is what it means to be rich towards God — to be full of life is to be full of love.

So may you live, and love, this week – it is what you were created to do. Amen.

Bread, Not Stone (1)

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Home-baked communion bread, Holy Week 2016.

Luke 11:1-13

When I was growing up Southern Baptist in Alabama, I became acquainted with what I have come to call the “Jesus Weejus” prayer. It’s a combination of the words, “Jesus, we just…” but Southerners can blend their words in some unique ways, and in this particular case “Weejus” sounds like one word. I swear I almost thought that Weejus was Jesus’ last name for the first five years of my life.

“Jesus Weejus come to you, and Jesus Weejus want to say that we love you…”

There was a lot of repetition in prayer when I was growing up, and we said God’s name a lot. It always drove me crazy but I could never put my finger on why, until someone pointed out that if we talked to each other like that, it would be ridiculous.

For example, if I asked for things like this: “Gail I just come to you Gail and Gail I just want to thank you Gail for all the work on the service you did this week, Gail…”

Awkward, huh? But we talked – and talk – to God this way all the time.

All of these experiences, along with the guilt that often comes with the conservative evangelical Christian lifestyle, led me to feel a lot of anxiety about prayer. I worry that I don’t pray enough. I worry that I don’t pray correctly. I feel anxious when my prayers aren’t answered. I counsel people over and over who want to know why their prayers weren’t answered.

You don’t expect pastors to struggle with prayer, but the truth is that literally everyone struggles with prayer. And so typically, when you ask me about prayer and put me on the spot, you might get some insight or you might just get a lot of nervous laughter. But today’s Gospel passage points us right to prayer, so… [chuckles nervously]

If you read it just right, maybe cocking your head to the side a little, the last part of today’s Gospel passage is sort of hilarious and sarcastic on Jesus’ part.

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” 

“…Is there anyone among you?”

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Of course not, we think. Of course good parents, or even average parents, don’t deliberately give their children things that will harm them when they ask for things they need.

And then Jesus goes on to add that if we, who are pretty depraved and evil and honestly not always that smart, know how to give good things to our children, how much more will God give us the Holy Spirit to those who ask?

Before that, he said, in a manner of speaking, that if we are persistent, we will get what we pray for.

But we can all immediately think of times when we prayed and nothing happened. I can think of times like that myself. Even worse, there was the time that I was called to an ICU unit in the middle of the night after a patient began to code. He coded all night and eventually died in the morning. The man’s daughter, in her grief, wanted to talk to me, the chaplain. Her response wasn’t surprising: “I don’t understand why God doesn’t hear me, Pastor, I prayed all night!”

As she cried, as I sat and held her hand, she repeated the words, “I prayed all night, I prayed all night, I prayed all night…”

What we have to work with is times when we feel as if prayers have been answered miraculously and times when we pray for someone over and over for healing and they aren’t healed.

Jesus gives us a metaphor for prayer today and says that it’s like when you have a neighbor from whom you need something in the middle of the night — even, he says, if their door is locked and they tell you to go away (because, you know, it’s the middle of the night), if you’re persistent, they’ll answer, if only to make you go away.

How often have we all prayed and felt like we were banging against a locked door in the middle of the night? How often have we continued to knock, like the man’s daughter, and pray all night, only to have our prayers go unanswered?

Last week, Debbie sent me a video of a talk by Rob Bell, author and theologian, talking about prayer. He talks about these very topics — what about when God doesn’t answer prayer.

He’s remarkably honest, as I will be with you today: he doesn’t know. I don’t know.

But he points out that in three of the Gospels, Jesus asks before his crucifixion that this cup pass from him.

I had never thought of it this way before, but — that was, in a sense, an unanswered prayer. The cup did not pass from him. He still suffered. He still died.

He followed that prayer up with, “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t know why there is suffering in the world. I don’t know why, when we pray for people who are sick or injured, that some die and some make miraculous recoveries. But I do know that prayer for someone has changed me. I know that being prayed for has helped me to not feel so alone. Prayer has constantly reminded me that we are walking this road of life together. And I know that even — no, especially — when we suffer, we are closest to Christ. Martin Luther said that nowhere is God closer to us and our suffering than on the cross. God knows pain. God knows death. God knows the pain that so many around the world today know all too well — the pain of losing a child to violence.

I don’t know why we and others suffer even when we pray. But I do know that the promise of resurrection says that someday, someday, even this — even terrorist attacks, even cancer, even the deaths of children — shall be swallowed up in victory. I believe that because it’s what gets me up in the morning. I believe that because I have to. There is too much suffering in the world for me to believe otherwise.

And I do know that prayer brings us closer to one another. I know that prayer brings us closer to God.

When I was reading back over this passage this week, I got to the end and I was thinking about all of this — about how we don’t always get what we pray for. As the Rolling Stones so famously say, “You can’t always get what you want.”

My memory was that Jesus says at the very end of this passage that we’ll get whatever we pray for, because after all, what kind of bad parent would give a kid a stone when they asked for bread?

But this passage doesn’t end with the promise that we get what we pray for. It ends with the promise of the Holy Spirit, given to everyone who asks. We are accompanied by God. Even when we don’t feel like we are. No one who asks for the Holy Spirit doesn’t get it, because God is a good parent.

How many churches have doled out stones when the people asked for bread? How many have searched the Scriptures for stones to throw, at times when people are hurting the most?

God gives bread, not stone.

When I was in seminary, one of my mentors, Atlanta United Methodist pastor Beth LaRocca-Pitts, preached on this passage and invited us to look into the Bible and flip through its pages. Again and again, she said, you can hear the whisper: “God loves you. God loves you. God loves you. Those who have heard differently have heard incorrectly.” (2)

I do not know why our prayers are not always answered in the way that we would like. But I do know that “whosoever” is a real sentiment. I do know that here, at this table, Jesus gives us bread, not stone, and that bread is his very self, poured out from his own body in the midst of a suffering world.

God gives bread, not stone.

I’ve come a long way since growing up Southern Baptist in Alabama. Occasionally, you can still catch me giving a Jesus Weejus prayer. Occasionally, you can still catch me feeling guilty about how much I’m not praying. Occasionally, you can even find me chewing on stones handed to me from Scripture when I was young.

And sometimes I don’t think I know much more about prayer than I did when I was younger.

But what I have learned is that prayer is not only a solo venture. We pray here, together, and that matters. What I have learned is that I am not alone, and neither are you. And what I have learned is that Jesus gives bread, not stone — here, at this table, in the midst of the pain of this world — Jesus gives his very self to us.

I want to end with “A Prayer for Baton Rouge,” written this week by ACPE, a program which trains and equips pastors to deal with the suffering in the world and God’s place in it. It is not so much a prayer as a benediction, a statement, a promise of hope. It goes like this.

“May the peace of all that gives life and longs for joy to reign supreme throughout all of creation upend the violence of this world so radically that hope swallows us whole.”
(3)

Amen.

(1) Title respectfully borrowed from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s 1985 landmark work of feminist biblical interpretation, Bread Not Stone.
(2) the Rev. Dr. Beth LaRocca-Pitts, Sermon, St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, c. 2010.
(3) “A Prayer for Baton Rouge,” Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), 2016.

Stop. Listen.

Luke 10:38-42

Not long ago, Parker and I watched a movie (which is also a book) called The Giver. The Cliff’s notes of it is that it’s a post-apocalyptic story where all memory of human joy, suffering, and pain has been erased in favor of making everyone the same and ensuring peace. There is no memory of inequality and no memory of war, but there is also no memory of things like romance or great joy. Weather has been eliminated by climate control. Everyone has a role to play in the society — birth mothers, nurturing family units, teachers of the youth.

In the story, there is one person in the whole of society who retains the memories of the past — the painful ones and the joyful ones. The memories are kept so that this person can advise the elders of the community to make decisions. That person is chosen in each generation and is called the “receiver of memory.”

The book tells the story of Jonas, a young adult who has been chosen to be the receiver of memory. The old receiver is called the Giver, and it is his job to teach Jonas the memories of humans past. Through technology and some unexplained processes, he helps Jonas to see some of the joyful things that have been forgotten — things like sledding down a hill in the snow (since all weather has been neutralized and it’s always warm and sunny), the thrill of romance, or sailing at sunset. The Giver is careful to keep the more painful memories away from Jonas until the timing is right.

But one day Jonas is accidentally given access to the memory of war. He struggles within the memory to survive, completely unused to the amount of injury, pain, and screaming he hears. In an attempt to survive, he shoots others within the memory. When the Giver regains control and pulls Jonas out of the memory, Jonas stumbles across the room, crying viscerally in disbelief,

“How could people do that?!”

This quote struck me deeply. I have wondered the same things in recent days. Months. Years. My whole life, really. We always think things are getting worse when in reality, even the Bible tells us how people have been cruel to each other since Cain murdered his brother Abel.

And now, the latest crop of suffering sits in front of us: Nice. Baton Rouge. Dallas. Minnesota. Turkey. Other suffering around the world that we can’t even name because it happens all the time and it isn’t in Europe or America. Endless suffering in Iraq and Syria, on the continent of Africa, and in places like North Korea.

Endlessly we ask ourselves Jonas’s question, “How could people do that?!”

Last week I was representing our denomination at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive theology and music festival in North Carolina. Since we don’t really have internet at the Festival, we learned about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the murders of five police officers piecemeal – some before the festival, others during.

We asked ourselves and each other, “How could this happen?” “

“How could people do that?!”

But I had so much to do.

Like Martha in the Gospel text today, I had busied myself with my many tasks.

Make sure everything was packed. Make sure I had food for our potlucks. Make sure everything was rain-proof — rain was in the forecast for our campground in Hot Springs, NC. Get ready. Busy. Busy. 

I felt the pain of yet more shootings, yet more family who in addition to losing their loved one, also had to face the unspeakable horror of having the video of their loved one’s death available to everyone with a smart phone. The images were nearly inescapable.

I was horrified, but I was distracted by my many tasks. There were people to be fed at the Festival, work to be done. And I was already tired. I still am.

Busy. Busy.

While I welcomed these thoughts into my mind: the pain of it all, the complex dynamics at play, the hatred and the fear run wild, families without their loved ones —  I was distracted by my many tasks. And deep in my soul, I knew that if I weren’t distracted, I might have been posting on social media about it, which is really just another way of making myself busy, of feeling like I’m doing something, even if it’s spreading my own personal point of view, feeling like I matter, like I should sound off. It’s still about me.

Somehow I feel like Martha could relate.

In our Gospel lesson today, Luke tells us that a woman named Martha welcomed Jesus into her home. Not only was that nice of her, it was brave.

This is especially true, considering that this Jesus figure was, by this point, very controversial. He was a controversial rabbi in an occupied land, constantly under threat from the government and the religious authorities and even the individuals he seemed to be constantly upsetting with his offensive parables and his scary healings and exorcisms. Things are bad today, but the things that people did to one another in the ancient world would appall you too. Rome was Israel’s occupier. Romans could kill Jewish troublemakers with no recourse by some of the most painful methods known to humanity — and crucifixion was only one of them.

Jesus was flirting with disaster.

Martha took a risk to herself and her family by taking him in.

And then, she goes and performs the tasks of hospitality that were expected of her, as a woman, by the culture of the day. We all know, some of us all too well, the idea that “somebody needs to do it” — someone has to clean the house, serve dinner, make everyone comfortable. Overwhelmingly throughout human history, these tasks have fallen on the women.

But when I read the text this week, I felt something else at play in Martha’s behavior. While gender roles are certainly at play here, to focus solely on gender, I think, is to somewhat miss the point of the story. Martha was more than just a woman expected to perform tasks. Judging only in terms of Martha’s words, she seems incredibly anxious to me. Often, we have put her anxiety off only on hospitality, again, reducing her to “just a woman”: she’s stressed, we think, because after all, someone has to make dinner.

But I want to offer the possibility that maybe Martha had concerns beyond dinner.

Yes, someone has to perform these tasks, and it makes her anxious that her sister isn’t helping. But Martha isn’t only a woman, you know.

How often do we all do exactly what Martha does here?

How often do our anxieties about other things manifest in busy-ness? How often do we yell at those we live with for not performing doing chores that need doing when in reality, we’re stressed about other things?

Truth be told, Martha has a lot to worry about beyond her chores. She has bravely welcomed this famous, controversial preacher named Jesus into her home: now what? What if a violent mob comes looking for him? What if the Romans do? What if the crowds longing to hear him crowd in around their home and someone panics? Jesus is a controversial figure in the midst of an already volatile life in the first century Holy Land. Martha is, no doubt, anxious about more than just supper.

And so she dives into her many tasks, I think, in an attempt to distract herself, snarking at Mary for not helping out.

Many of us do this, too, in various ways, in response to tragedy and violence. We can pretend like it isn’t happening, ignore it altogether, focus on what needs to be done in our daily lives. Or we can zoom in to the worst possibilities. We can oversimplify. We can spread rumors that we haven’t researched and post untrue things on social media, portraying the violence of the past two weeks as other than what it is: an incredibly complex culture problem where people have been murdered, over and over again, and lived in fear for a long time. Where religion is twisted into violence. Where authority is abused. Where people are constantly murdered in cycles of vengeance.

No matter our busied, harried responses, we distract ourselves from Jonas’s question in The Giver: “How could people do that?!” We are distracting ourselves from the pain of being human, of living in a world wracked with conflict and pain.

But Jesus, and Mary, offer us another alternative: we can face it — not by talking, but by listening.

Talking is easy, but listening is harder.

Consenting to spreading the worst of exceptional rhetoric is easy. You can easily find someone on the internet whom you disagree with who has said something outrageous, and you can post it all around. You can argue endlessly online. Or you can ignore everything altogether and going about your daily lives because none of this violence affects us personally — here, in small town white America. Like me and like Martha, you can acknowledge the controversy and the scariness and the pain and even invite Jesus to dinner but duck out to distract yourself, to escape your worry, griping at anyone who doesn’t help.

Listening is harder than all of these things. And yet Mary is told that she has chosen the right thing.

In our Old Testament reading today, Abraham is sitting in his tent entrance in the heat and he looks up and sees three guys standing there. At first it’s unclear if he really sees them or if he’s just feeling hazy in the heat (we can all relate these days). But turns out they’re real and he jumps up and offers them lavish hospitality from himself and Sarah without stopping to ask who they were, what neighborhood they were from, what race or religion they were, or how they voted in the last clan election. When they leave, they offer a blessing: Sarah, once barren, will have a son. The family will have a future.

Over and over, the Bible encourages us to be open in the midst of a terrifying world. It urges us to stop distracting ourselves or fighting for a moment and just listen. To stop in the midst of a hot day and show kindness to strangers. Even in the midst of violence and chaos and risk.

“How could people do that?!”

They are human. We are human. And we all have a tendency to shut our ears and try to do something — something idle, something trivial, or something terrible. What we don’t do well is to sit and listen.

But the invitation is always there. Jesus begs us, in the midst of chaos, to stop what we’re doing, drop our many tasks, and sit at his feet to listen. To listen as the Holy Spirit whispers, “Do unto others as they would do unto you. What you have done to the least and most hated of my family members, you have done to me.” and ultimately, “Stop fighting, my beloved. Rest now.” 

I do not have the answers to the world’s problems. What I do know is that we all think they can be solved through doing and not through listening. And we are wrong.

So let us listen, to Jesus and to one another. Let us accept Jesus’ invitation to just be. To sit with the broken. To protect the vulnerable. To just be: to be beloved, secure, knowing that no human hatred will separate us from the love of God. And then let us be sent out, not to do, but to listen.

In The Giver, Jonas ultimately discovers that while human pain, cruelty, and suffering are part of living a full life, so is joy, so is love, so is connection with another human being. When we numb ourselves from one set of emotions, we numb all of them. But when we open ourselves to one, we open ourselves to it all.

So let us be like Mary. Let us stop, sit at the feet of the one who loves, and just be. Amen.

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(Streaming on Netflix)

The World Turned Upside Down

The 🌎  turned 🙃 : Gospel and Revolution

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Since it’s the Fourth of July weekend, and since nothing has helped me reclaim patriotic feelings quite like musical Hamilton, about the life of treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, I want to invite you to relive the Revolution through the words of Aaron Burr in the show as he introduces the Revolution:

“How does a rag-tag volunteer army in need of a shower

Somehow defeat a global superpower?

How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire,

Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’s flag higher?”

The musical goes on to detail what it calls “the world turned upside down” — when a bunch of volunteers across the sea somehow, with help from France and Marquis de Lafayette, defeated the greatest army in the world and won their independence. And it all started not too far from here: Lexington. Concord. Boston.

Philadelphia. New York.

The world turned upside down.

It’s a fitting memory for the Fourth of July.

“The world turned upside down,” is also how I prefer to describe the Gospel: when the last are first, the first are last, the mighty fall, and everything is shaken up and ordered for justice.

You see, today Jesus sends out the seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which manuscript you ask) out two by two to proclaim one thing: that the Kingdom of God has come near.

The world turned upside down.

Jesus sends the seventy into the places the he intends to go. This is pretty normal — even politicians today do the same thing: send out folks ahead of the main event to see how well they’ll be received, figuring out where the person themselves should focus their time. It actually seems pretty driven on Jesus’ part by efficiency: spread the word, get as many people on board as possible. Not unlike the Revolution, either.

Jesus tells the seventy that he’s sending them out “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” While I’m sure campaigners often feel the same way — the Democrats in my home state of Alabama being only one example — there are key differences, of course.

See, revolutionaries and politicians are out to win. Jesus — not so much. When your  mission is to ultimately die and rise again, “success” is defined differently.

What we often want is to be successful, to win, to turn the world upside down, as the revolutionaries did. Churches are no exception. After all, we live in a world dominated by the need to succeed. And when we don’t succeed the way that we think we should — namely, in numbers and money — we can get either hostile to the world around us, as many Christians have become, or we can become angry and insular, keeping to ourselves like church mouse hermits.

If we don’t get more people, how will we turn the world upside down? Isn’t that the Gospel?

This desire to increase our numbers isn’t all bad, of course. It’s incredibly practical. After all, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open it up and see the — “ Thank you.

We need people to be the church. We need people to make a difference. And who doesn’t want to be part of a booming church?

We need people to do work, feed people, serve people, give money to fund the church to keep the lights on and buy new lawnmowers and make sure the pastor can buy groceries. We need people to serve on council, to help us renovate the fellowship hall, to care for the altar and the building. The need for people is real. Without people, there is no church. And without new people, coming in to share their gifts, we can become stagnant. The desire for new people is a categorically good instinct — otherwise Jesus never would’ve sent out the seventy in the first place: they would’ve just holed themselves in the upper room until it was time for Jesus to go and die.

Instead he sends them out and tells them to proclaim one simple message: the Kingdom of God has come near. The world turned upside down.

But he doesn’t tell them how they can convince the most people — in fact, he tells them that they’re going to fail a lot, and he tells them how they should react when they aren’t adding new people, and even when the Gospel is outright rejected: keep proclaiming the message. Tell them “Know this — the Kingdom of God has come near.”

Whether you listen or not, the world is still being turned upside down.

Success wasn’t about how many people they could convince to follow Jesus. Success was about delivering the message:
The Kingdom of God has come near. The world turned upside down.

Luke mentions the kingdom over 30 times, or way more than the other three biblical Gospel accounts. The word he uses for “kingdom” comes from the Greek “basileia,” and it’s not to be confused with an actual place, as we often hear. Jesus isn’t talking about heaven — it’s not a place, it’s an active thing. A better translation, I think, is not kingdom of God but reign of God. It’s not a place, it’s the new order of things. It’s the world turned upside down.

Luke mentions the reign of God alongside healing, alongside calling the poor blessed, alongside calling the powerful poor and the poor powerful. He is referring to the world turned upside down, power structures turned upside down, success defined differently: where a crucified Messiah, perhaps also in need of a shower, can somehow subvert a global superpower — in this case, not Britain but Rome.

And so it’s not surprising that when the seventy return, the disciples are as thick-headed as ever and are still talking about winning and success as they know it: “Lord, even the demons obey us! We kicked demon butt!” Jesus sends them out telling them they’ll be like lambs among wolves, but they still have to go — that they’ll fail often, but what’s important is that they preach the world turned upside down. He even tells them not to prepare but to rely on others. He doesn’t set them up to focus on winning.

But of course, the seventy come back talking about how successful they were.

You can hear Jesus face palming through the ages.

Last week during our text conversation after church, some of you were curious about what Jesus says in response about Satan. Now this is only my interpretation, but I imagine Jesus waving his hand dismissively in reply. “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” In other words, Hipster Jesus says, “I’ve been kicking demon butt since before it was cool.”

Jesus says, don’t rejoice that you can make evil spirits submit to you. Don’t be happy that you can win over the bad guys. Rejoice that the world is turned upside down and your names are written in heaven.

Don’t rejoice at what you can do, even when you’re winning. Even when you directly defeat the bad guys. Rejoice that God has claimed you as God’s own. Ultimately, the story of our church, and of each of our lives, is not a story of booming success — it is a story about God.

All there is for us is to know and continue to live into and say this: the Kingdom of God has come near. The world is being turned upside down by the crucified and risen Messiah.

In the song “Yorktown” from Hamilton, that details the last and decisive battle of the Revolution, the American revolutionaries do win, and win big — they win their freedom, and ours, from British rule across the sea. The song remembers the great battle that ultimately won us our independence, where the British are cut off by Lafayette in Chesapeake Bay.

From there, the story is told:

“After a week of fighting, a young man in a red coat stands on a parapet

We lower our guns as he frantically waves a white handkerchief

And just like that, it’s over. We tend to our wounded, we count our dead

Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom”

And from center stage George Washington replies, meaningfully:

“Not yet.”

Even our greatest successes come up short. Though America had won its freedom, it would be nearly another century before every human was free.

And as for full freedom and justice and safety — as for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans?

Not yet.

Jesus knew that failure was part of living together as humans. He knew that not everyone would receive his message. But he taught us to proclaim it no matter what: “The kingdom of God has come near.” The kingdom, the reign of God, where all are truly equal and cherished and loved — is brought about only by God, and it cannot be achieved with numbers or spreadsheets or sermons or even political independence. But still, we say, know this: the Kingdom of God has come near.

We have glimpsed it, we are proclaiming it and working towards it as Jesus taught us, and it is coming.

Not yet. But soon. Until then, through the success and failure, keep proclaiming the Kingdom, the Reign of God, the world turned upside down.

And even when you are successful, do not rejoice in success: rejoice that God has claimed us. Because this isn’t a story about our successes, thank goodness: it is a story about God.

We are God’s beloved, called to proclaim the reign of God come near. Called to proclaim the world turned upside down.

At the end of the song “Yorktown” in Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton narrates the end of the Revolutionary War:

“We negotiate the terms of surrender

I see George Washington smile

We escort their men out of Yorktown

They stagger home single file

Tens of thousands of people flood the streets

There are screams and church bells ringing

And as our fallen foes retreat

I hear the drinking song they’re singing:

‘The world turned upside down’….”

This weekend we remember how those who came before us secured our freedom, how they turned the world upside down by defeating a global superpower, how they dared to claim their independence and humanity despite all risk. How they established a new order, a new reign, a new rule. They did not fear failure, because they knew that failure might be a part of success.

So let us also dare greatly. We may see an influx in numbers or we may not. No matter what happens know this: the reign of God has come near.

May they see in us the world turned upside down.

Author Sara Miles says that the Kingdom of God according to Jesus’ parables is finding the one thing that matters and letting everything else go.

The one thing that matters is that God has claimed humanity — you. Me. And everything else: including our fear of failure — can go.

So let us, claimed and beloved, go in the name of disciples and revolutionaries, and proclaim this: “The world turned upside down. Amen.

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