Ready or Not

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As a teenager, apocalyptic movies were my thing.

Luke 23:33-43

I don’t know about you all, but one of my most frequently uttered phrases in desperation is a very simple one: I’m not ready.

I’ve always worried about not being ready, and it gets worse this time of year.

I’m not ready for Christmas.

I’m not ready for Advent.

I’m not ready to drive to Alabama for Thanksgiving.

I am most certainly not ready for Black Friday.

Today we celebrate Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we imagine what it might be like for Christ to return and make all things right. Truth be told, we have no idea exactly what that looks like.

When I was a kid growing up Southern Baptist, we were, as you might imagine, obsessed with Christ’s return. I, for one, was particularly obsessed with it. It was like a “get out of death free card.”

The one thing that worried me about it is that I would not be ready. The signs — literal signs — and t-shirts, and bumper stickers — were everywhere: get ready, Jesus is coming back!

And I was terrified that I would miss it, and that I wouldn’t be ready.

I really should talk to my therapist about how this affects my Christmas, Advent, and vacation preparation. Anyhow.

Imagine eight year old Anna sitting on her parents’ back porch in Alabama thinking, “What if he comes back now. Or now. Or now.”

I would repent of my sin constantly, asking Jesus into my heart constantly, you know, just in case. Fire insurance, if you will. If the rapture was coming, the last thing I wanted to be was left behind. Speaking of Left Behind, I read all of those books and saw all of the movies, though I much preferred the movie Megiddo, a lesser-known Christian apocalyptic movie that I swore was better than Left Behind. I was an evangelical hipster from a very young age. By the time I was a teenager, I was a scholar of bad theologies about the end of the world, only I didn’t know they were bad yet.

I would watch the news and take notes, ready for everything to fall apart, proving that Jesus was coming back soon. I was constantly ready for disaster.

Today’s Gospel text is an interesting one when you consider that this is the day when we celebrate Christ in glory. I mean, really — the Crucifixion text? Talk about everything falling apart. The disciples were the most unready people that have ever been unready in the history of unreadiness. We look back through the Gospels and we wink at ourselves knowingly as Jesus foretells his death and resurrection over and over, but the disciples don’t get it. And really — can we blame them? It’s not like foretelling one’s death, let alone one’s resurrection, are common occurrences in the world.

Peter denied Jesus. The others ran away, frightened that they were about to get crosses and deaths of their own. They were so not ready, much like we’re never really ready for tragedy, for things to fall apart.

2016 has been a year that a lot of things have fallen apart for a lot of people. We have watched as the crisis in Syria gets worse. We have come through a horrendously divisive and painful campaign season. We have seen shootings happen all over the place, most notably in Orlando. David Bowie died. Prince died. Leonard Cohen died. So many others died. And the list goes on. Zika. Brexit. More terror attacks. Drought. Record hot temperatures.

A simple Google search of “2016” reveals that the world wasn’t ready for it: “2016: Worst year in history?” reads a Slate article. Of course, any of us who have lived longer than a few years or who have a decent grasp of history know that this year wasn’t the worst, due to its lack of world wars and bubonic plagues, among other things. But it’s safe to say that this hasn’t been a great year, and a lot of folks were not ready for that.

This week, I went to our Bishop’s Convocation on the Cape. Bishop Jim himself preached at the closing worship service and talked about the pain and strife that we face in the world and in our congregations. He talked about the way people look into the face of their pain and their fear and they look at the circumstances in the world and ask a very relevant question: “Where is God?”

And he said that because of the cross, we, as Christians, and especially as Lutherans, have the gall to look that pain full in the face and point right into the center of it and say “Right there. God is right there.” God, in this Gospel text, has stepped right down into human pain and tragedy. This God is not some far off being who stays well away from human pain. Instead, he chooses, willingly, to take it on, to come walk among us and not only see suffering, but to live it.

Where is God? Right there. Right here. Wherever there is joy, wherever there is pain, wherever there is humanity, God is there, right with those created in God’s own image.

When I was a kid I thought I had to be ready to meet God face to face. When I grew up, I came to realize that I already had: I had already met God in my pain.

When I was in college, I was a part of the Wesley Foundation, a United Methodist campus ministry. We were in Alabama, and we were considerably more progressive and a little less evangelical than many of the other church bodies both around campus and off campus. One night, we were all attending a Eucharist service together. It makes me chuckle to think about what we all grew up to be: there were about eight of us students, and five of us would, within ten years, become two Episcopal priests, a Methodist pastor, a Lutheran pastor, and a therapist.

We sat in the service after the elements had been blessed and listened to this local United Methodist pastor give the invitation to the table. He said, “Now I want you to sit there until you’re ready to meet God. I want you to be sure that you’re ready to come and receive his body and blood. When you are ready, we will be here.”

Sit there until you’re ready.

Now, there are moments in the life of a pastor when her people make her really, really proud, because you can tell they’ve been listening to you. This was one of those moments for my campus minister. We all heard this call to sit there and make ourselves ready, glanced at each other skeptically in the silence, and then, one by one, starting, shockingly, with one of the future Episcopal priests, got up and went forward to take the Eucharist. It wasn’t about making ourselves ready. Christ had already made us ready.

Only later, after I became a Lutheran, would words from our own tradition give me the words I needed to explain myself here: “Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given, and shed for you.” (1)

You don’t need to obsess about being ready. You don’t need to worry about being worthy. You don’t need to look at the suffering in the world and wonder how and where you could be a part of the healing. The healing has already begun. God is already there, working. We just get to join in.

During our Advent supper churches, we will be looking at suffering and tragedy and how to walk with others through it. We will discover God in the darkest times, and see how the bishop’s, and Martin Luther’s, words ring true: that when we ask where God is in tragedy, the answer is “Right there.”

So come to this table, you who have great faith, and you who would like to have more.

Come to this table, you who have tried to follow Jesus, and you who have failed.

This church, and Christianity, are filled with people who were never ready, but we serve a God who is always present. So come on in, child, and have a seat. You are welcome. Ready or not. Amen.

1. Martin Luther, Small Catechism, “Sacrament of the Altar.” 

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“What Shall We Say?”

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Luke 21:5-19

 “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”


And that is our Gospel passage after a particularly divisive, troublesome presidential election.

One where many people are protesting the President-elect, while others riot. While still others face everything from off-color comments to threats and intimidation and even physical violence because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, immigration status, and political affiliation, all in the name of the election. Some of the people who have experienced these things are my friends. Some belong to this congregation.

Graffiti in Boston lashed out at the President-elect. Hikers found swastikas, racist graffiti, and campaign references on Mount Tom this week. The world seems to have gone crazy, and it’s come right on up to our back door in western Massachusetts.

Knowing all of this, and that this is the text what we’re given, preachers around the country, including myself, are given this question: “What shall we say?” (1)

What shall we say, given that so few congregations are made up of people who all have the same or even similar reactions to the election?

What shall we say, then, given that almost all of us are pastors to both people who are happy about this election, people who are genuinely frightened, and still others who just want everybody to calm down for a second?

What shall we say, given that preachers are human and we each have our own opinions and concerns and even fears?

My seminary classmates and I graduated in 2011. For the majority of us, this not our first presidential election in the parish; we also preached after the 2012 election.

But this is not 2012.

All Presidential elections are divisive, but this one was different. Nastier, you might say. Some people always feel nervous, too, about the results of every presidential election, but this year the national panic reached a fever pitch as the two most unpopular candidates in history faced off. We lashed out at each other. We are still lashing out at each other.

It is an understatement to say the least, but America is not its best self today.

My colleagues are preaching in congregations of Black and Latinx and LGBTQ voters who are afraid: for their safety and for their rights. Their congregations are part of the body of Christ.

Other colleagues stand before congregations in the rural South who are pretty much all feeling quite proud of our President-elect. Their congregations are also part of the body of Christ.

We have both here at Our Savior’s, and we are the body of Christ.

So what now shall we say?

I can tell you what I will not say. Though I believe that God is in control, I was also a history major. God being in control has never precluded bad things happening, and God being in control is small comfort when you consider history.

God being in control has never meant a positive social climate where everyone gets along and all are safe. Those climates have never existed, at least not for every person.

Rather, faith seems to flourish most under duress. I think of the rich and beautiful history of the Black church, with beautiful and heartfelt spirituals that date back to the horror of slavery. Of leaders like Richard Allen who refused to let the white church treat them as less than human. Of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, male and female, who refused to let the Church or broader society do the same.

When my seminary classmates and I huddled together on Wednesday and Thursday trying to figure out what to say to you all, we all joined in on a private Facebook message. I remarked that I was struggling – how are we to be honest about our own concerns, and echo those in our congregations who are concerned and afraid, while also being the pastor to everyone? The election is over and the aftermath is ugly.

So now. What shall we say?

My friend Katie, a Methodist pastor in the state of Washington, responded: what would you need to hear?

Such a simple, profound question. Katie is good at that.

What would I need to hear?

Katie knows my convictions about preaching. She knows that I want the sermon to be for everyone. But until that moment I had seen this as an impossible task. But what went from what must have been the Holy Spirit to my brain to my fingers made me cry.

What would I want to hear? “That we will not forsake each other.”

Whether you are happy or whether you are neutral or whether you are truly dumbfounded and afraid about this election or whether you just want everybody to calm down, it’s difficult to argue that we are not now more divided than we have been in recent memory. We don’t live in the same realities anymore.

The Gospel this morning includes folks speaking to Jesus about the temple, how big and beautiful it is. And Jesus told them that soon, not one stone would be left upon another, but all will be thrown down.

We cannot trust in institutions to save us. Not the institutional church and not the government. “God is in control” does not mean that everything will always remain as it is and never get scary. We must not forsake each other.

If the church has anything useful to say today, it cannot be a cheap platitude. So this is what I’ve got: we have to learn to see each other again. We’ve got to learn to disagree and be civil again. We’ve got to learn to see each other as human again. It’s going to take some hard conversations. None of us is going to like what we hear, and we have to fight to make sure that people feel heard but are not allowed to abuse others. We must stand up for those being hurt.

No matter where you stand today, this is going to be hard. Your votes are in the past. I am not, nor will I ever be, concerned with how you voted. What matters is what we do now.

We cannot forsake each other.

Jesus today describes circumstances of duress that have existed throughout history: wars, rumors of wars. Famine and earthquakes. Betrayal by family and friends. Jesus’ promise that “by our endurance we will gain our souls” at first seems like little comfort.

Jesus invites us to not prepare any defense in advance to those who hate us. I wondered about that this week, a week with so many in-person and Facebook arguments and counterarguments. I decided on something.

Jesus isn’t talking about sending us the perfect argument so that we’ll be right and those who hate us will be wrong and we’ll feel superior.

All arguments are contradictable. That’s why we call them arguments. Jesus isn’t going to send us a magical mic-drop moment so that we would be super impressive because we didn’t even prepare.

I don’t know about you, but when I prepare for an emotional conversation, I stew. I get madder and madder. I mount my defense and I prepare my evidence. And what often happens is that all of that goes out the window when both I and the other person first acknowledge that we deeply love each other.

Any argument can be contradicted. Even your most bomb Facebook argument where you’re actually logically right but the other person lives in another reality and uses another kind of logic.

What cannot be contradicted is humanity. What cannot be withstood or contradicted is pure, overflowing grace. What cannot be withstood or contradicted is radical love of one another.

This does not mean that this will be easy. We will be uncomfortable. We will make tons of mistakes. And there are, quite frankly, conversations that cannot happen yet. Not until our emotions calm down. We are not our best selves right now. We must avoid telling each other how to feel or what to think. We have to let each other work all of this out for ourselves and we have to protect people from harm. Election results are not a license to beat up and intimidate minorities. Racism, homophobia, and intimidation are against our values as Americans and as Christians and, regardless of how we feel or how we voted, we must. Say. No.

We must not forsake each other. We must not forsake the vulnerable. We must comfort the afflicted. We have to dare to see things through the eyes of others. Some of us will have to tell each other hard truths. We have to be willing to listen to hard truths. We will have to have the courage to bear witness to each other’s pain and realize that some of us are more vulnerable than others and protect those people because that is what Jesus would do.

Lutheranism came to America in small immigrant communities. The first Lutherans to live here were Norwegian and Swedish and German, among other nationalities. They did not speak the language most people spoke. Most were not rich; they mostly settled in cold climates relied on each other. And they learned to sing beautifully, perhaps because the pressure that their circumstances put on them hammered their voices like gold into perfect harmonies.

Garrison Keillor once wrote of us singing Lutherans:

If you ask an audience in  New York City, a relatively Lutheran-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’, they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Lutherans they’ll smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment.

I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.” (2)

Because of your voices swelling with mine to promise that we will not forsake each other, I am inspired to believe, as crazy as it seems, that God will not forsake us either.

  On Tuesday night, some of us gathered to sing and offer prayers and gather around the table. We sang “they will know we are Christians by our love,” and read the Gospel text from John which has the same words, from Jesus to us. I did not intend this to be a kum-ba-yah moment, and it wasn’t. The command to love one another is the only moral commandment in the entire Gospel of John. My John professor in seminary speculated that this was because it is harder to fulfill than any other commandment. We have some hard conversations ahead of us. There are things that need to be said that will be hard to say and hard to hear. This, as Jesus says, will give us an opportunity to testify, and by our endurance we will gain our souls.

So what shall we say today?

The only thing that we can say.  The only thing that we can ever promise. That regardless of how we feel today, our singing and gathering here around this table and eating of the same loaf and drinking of the same wine – forming us together into the body of Christ – means that we will not forsake each other.

So let us, as much as it depends on us, work and love and humbly listen as if someone else’s faith and well-being depends on it, because it just might.

Let us not forsake each other so that maybe all of us, no matter how we feel about the future, will be able to believe that God will not forsake us either. Amen.


1. Title of sermon is respectfully borrowed from Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdman Publishing, 2011.
2. Garrison Keillor, Church People: The Lutherans of Lake
Woebegone. Prairie Home Companion Series. Highbridge Audio, 2009.
3. Title photo source: http://allsaintsmtka.org/sundays-2/music/hymns-of-our-faith/

Baseball Saints

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Luke 6:20-31

One thing that’s on everybody’s mind this week?

No, not the election. Baseball.

The Cubs won the World Series this week, man.

Dr. Thomas G. Long, my preaching professor, loves to describe the complexities of biblical studies and church life through baseball. He puts it something like this.

Imagine a baseball game. Bottom of the seventh inning. One out. Runner on first. Score tied. The batter steps into the right handed batter’s box, about a few inches closer than the last time so that he can better adjust to the right handed pitcher’s nasty curve ball, which struck him out the last time. The pitcher notices this and shakes off the catcher’s first suggestion of a curve ball. The catcher then calls a fast ball, inside. Glancing in to see the catcher’s sign, the shortstop moves to his right, ready to cover the hole between short and third, ready to steal a hit, but also well aware that he will have to cover second on a ground ball to the right side. As he moves, he throws up one finger, then three fingers, behind his back to the left fielder, who begins to inch towards the left field line. The catcher finishes giving the sign, puts dirt on his right hand, crouches, ready to throw out the runner if he goes. The pitcher glances at the runner over his shoulder once, again, takes his fastball grip, then fires. Outside. Ball one.

Somewhere in the stands, a friend sighs. “Nothing ever happens in baseball.” (1)

Indeed, sometimes nothing happens for 108 years. Baseball takes attention and dedication and devotion, but it reaped big rewards on Wednesday night when the Cubs won the Series. One of the most touching parts of it all, to me, was watching people write in chalk on the brick walls of Wrigley. The messages began as messages of support, and the messages grew as someone helpfully placed boxes of chalk along the walls. “Go Cubs Go,” one read. “Fly the W,” read another one. Then someone wrote, “Wish you were here, Grandpa.” And someone else wrote, “We love you, Dad! Go Cubbies!”

There, standing on the edge of what they once thought was impossible, people wanted to look back and remember the people who had so loved their Cubs, but never lived to see their glory.

And then, later in the week, the once buried, once cursed Cubs finally won a World Series.

As Red Sox fans, some of you understand: there’s a lot of heartbreak in baseball, and progress happens slowly, so slowly. “Maybe we have the guys to do it this year,” we say. But if we don’t, we say, there’s always next year. It’s the kind of thing that people who don’t like baseball just don’t understand. “Nothing ever happens in baseball.”

Oh, but sometimes things do happen. And when they happen the way that they did on Wednesday night, it is an emotional experience that brings the whole country to happy tears in a year when we’ve had so little good news.

And we remember those who came before, those who loved their team and kept hope alive for so long. The Cubs nation owed them — for teaching them to love their Cubbies, for teaching them the traditions, for helping the fans have hope every single spring that the cursed Chicago Cubs may finally do it this year. Without those who came before and experienced all those heartbreaks but kept believing, Wednesday night would have been impossible.
As I read the story of the Wrigley Field walls this week, of all the names written there, I sniffled, sending it to another pastor friend with two comments: the first was “I’m not crying, you’re crying.” The second one was “This is All Saints’.”

All Saints’ is more than just remembering those that have passed on. It is remembering them lovingly as the people who made all of this possible. Who kept believing in this crazy thing called Jesus and kept hope alive for one more cycle that real peace is possible. And the church, which is always standing on the edge of this impossible dream of peace and reconciliation that only God can bring about, gives thanks for them every single year. The Roman Catholics have their own way of categorizing saints, but as for us, we recognize everyone, as we see everyone as saint and sinner, redeemed and loved by God.

Some of the saints have names to us — mothers, grandfathers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, siblings, partners, friends. They weren’t perfect, in fact, some of them may have done tremendous good or tremendous harm, and for most of them, the record was mixed, because we are all saint and sinner. But they all shaped us into who and what we are today. Their smiles, their eyes, their voices, stay with us because they shaped us. Even long after they die, the saints stay with us.

Other saints, we never had a chance to know. They are our ancestors — both our literal ones and our ancestors in faith. Some of them made it into the Bible, and some lived long after it was written. They are St. Peter and St. Anne, St. Lydia and St. Paul.

And today is the day that we remember and give thanks for them. We speak and write their names and we look at photographs as we remember their faces. We light candles around our table today as we think of our loved ones as part of the heavenly throng, gathered around Christ’s table. For just a moment, today in the assembly, we imagine heaven and earth are joined.

No, they weren’t perfect, but without them, none of this would be possible. They brought a faith into being and changed the world, but it took a long, long time, and it’s still going. And we, like the fans at Wrigley, remember the saints that made where we are possible as we stand on the edge of the impossible, the edge of anxiety, the edge of hope.

The edge of anxiety right before an election. The edge of the impossible as we try to love our enemies in a world where our enemies, personal, foreign, and domestic, hate us with what seems like newfound passion.

And we remember our ancestors who have also lived through turmoil and lived through war and lived through division. And we remember that just as they did not solve all of humanity’s problems, neither must we. We must simply, as the Cubs fans did all of those years, keep hope alive, faithfully, loyally, year after year.

At Wrigley Field this week, Danny Camacho balanced on the gates as his uncle, Maurice Vazquez, held him up as he tried to find a good place to write in chalk on the brick wall. Maurice explained what the pair were doing there.

“We’re here for my father, my nephew Danny’s grandfather, an awesome Cubs fan. He’s not with us any more, he’s with the Good Lord, and he’s why we’re down here. To give [the Cubs] strength so they can win the World Series.” Vazquez said. “I think this is a great thing for them so they can see the loyalty of the fans. And believe me, we’re loyal!”

We are here for our fathers, our grandfathers, our grandmothers and our mothers and our siblings and our friends. We’re here for spouses and children. We stand on the edge of the impossible, the edge of anxiety, remembering our loved ones in our past and hoping for the best in our futures, knowing that our loved ones are a part of that future, too, because they helped to build it, brick by brick, pitch by pitch, slowly. We’re here to figure out what we can do and be together, as this assembly, and what God will do among us. And if anyone knows how to root for a team that’ll break your heart, it’s God. And believe me, God is loyal. Amen.

Sources:
Title Photo: http://www.thepostgame.com/cubs-fans-turn-wrigley-field-walls-memorial
(1) Thomas G. Long, lecture, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, 2009.
(2) Maggie Hendricks, “My journey to Wrigley Field, where fans are chalking the names of their loved ones on the walls,” USA Today, 2 November 2016, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/11/my-journey-to-wrigley-field-where-fans-are-chalking-the-names-of-their-loved-ones-on-the-walls