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A wild goose.

1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

We have this way of cleaning up the stories that form us.

From stories of war to stories in our families, we have this way of ignoring the unpleasant parts of our stories and turning even the smallest details into a rose-colored, bigger, better version of the story as it happened.

But the truth is always a wild thing, messier, more complicated, more unpredictable than we like to imagine.

Today, in our Old Testament reading, we have a story that some of us might be familiar with — you’ve got King Solomon, son of King David, who has just taken the throne. He’s slumbering peacefully in the midst of a Middle Eastern night when God shows up in his dream and all Solomon hears is the voice of God: “Ask what I should give you.
Solomon replies in flowery words that include praise for God’s love of and favor towards Solomon’s father, David. Then in the dream, Solomon says to God, “And now … you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child, and I do not know how to go out or come in.” Solomon goes on to ask, famously, for wisdom, and the takeaway that we’re supposed to have is presumably that Solomon could’ve asked for anything from God, and he asked for wisdom.

Even God seems surprised by Solomon’s answer and promises to give him not only wisdom, but to make him, essentially, the person most known for wisdom in biblical literature. The GOAT of wisdom, if you will.

What we’re not told in this story is the Game-of-Thrones like narrative that precedes it in 1 Kings. You see, this “little child” of a king has already ordered the deaths of three people in order to solidify his reign. There had been a little uprising that needed quelling. He’s also entered international politics in a House-of-Cards-style way, marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and even sacrificing to her gods in the high places.

No story about humanity is entirely clean. Stuff, as they say… stuff… stuff happens. Humanity is complicated. The truth is wild.

We forget that, sometimes. History usually tells us the cleaned-up version of everything that happened before we were born. News outlets, to some varying degree, try to give us multiple perspectives on what’s happening now, but increasingly, people on the left and the right are flocking to the ones that un-complicate the story. We want things easy and digestible in a way that confirms what we already knew to be true, preferably in 140 characters or fewer. I think we want our views confirmed because we don’t like to be surprised. Being surprised is scary and difficult.

A disclaimer: just the other day I reflected that someone really should write a ballet called On Both Sides: The Dance of False Equivalence — because too often, when people use the phrase “on both sides” or “on the left and the right” in political discourse, the two things being described aren’t really the same, and few people, when pressed, would agree that they are. Saying “on both sides” and blaming everyone is just another way we try to clean up the story. So I don’t mean to do that here.

Some problems, however, really aren’t partisan — they are human problems. It’s a human problem that we all tend to want our stories cleaned up, neat, and orderly. We don’t much like to be surprised by nuance or complication when it comes to our deeply held beliefs. 

The problem is that most wise people will tell you that experience and wisdom aren’t clean and uncomplicated. Wisdom doesn’t happen when planned. Wisdom is usually the thing you get when you’re least expecting it.

I’ve learned plenty in planned visits and meetings and study sessions in the past six years of pastoral ministry.

But the truth is that I’ve probably learned a lot more through the sudden, messy stuff: the hospital pager going off at 3AM. Working at an Atlanta shelter for those without housing that has just discovered a bed bug problem, then trying to get 40 men, women, and children into clean clothes and sheets before nightfall.

Every crisis that ever turned into a conversation has taught me something.

We don’t often like to be surprised by life. We want things dependable: reliable transportation that cranks every time. A steady income. Loving and uncomplicated relationships with friends and loved ones. Predictability in the country in the world on the news.

Clean and simple. Predictable. Stable.

We tell ourselves that this is what we all really want, from work, politics, and relationships.

How’s that working out?

In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells a rapid fire series of parables today that quite frankly would have made a bizarre speech even by today’s standards.

He compares the kingdom of heaven to a shrubbery before Monty Python made it cool. Then he compares the kingdom to yeast — yeast, which ancient folks thought of as unclean. Then he compares the kingdom to treasure and pearls, which makes more sense. After that, without stopping to explain, he compares the kingdom to a net full of good and bad fish.

Then he says, “Have you understood all this?”

And the disciples lie.

They say they get it. I wonder if this is one of those times that after Jesus told a bunch of parables, the disciples sit around and poke each other and say “You ask him,” but then they realize that they’d all just nodded and said they understood and now it’d be awkward if they asked.

And the passage went on to become famous for the seemingly simple parable of the mustard seed: the little seed that grows quickly into a big tree, symbolizing the great growth in the early church.

But there’s another truth about mustard seeds.

Mustard seeds were tiny, which also means that they can hide in a bag of other seeds. Mustard bushes aren’t the kind that farmers planted in nice rows. They’re the kind of seeds that spring up in the middle of a field, tossed out by some unsuspecting sower. It’s not the nice story of a planting that we might imagine — it’s one of a sudden shrub that pops up in the middle of the field and provides shelter — and food, since nearly the entire plant is edible. It’s often an unplanned plant that gives itself for the life of the world around it.

Get it?

And yeast, thought of by the ancients as unclean, is another hidden thing that springs up — not clean or neat or predictable. Bread rises as it will rise, hopefully in an attractive way. Also springing up unpredictably is hidden treasure, and a net that gets hauled in suddenly, chock full of both good fish and bad fish.

I was standing with my church planter friend at the Worship Jubilee in 2015 when she was asking a rather famous Lutheran pastor about synod and churchwide support for this pastor’s early work, when her church start was new and growing. This pastor responded, “Oh, they didn’t know what to do with us — not to be flippant or disrespectful, but honestly, we were kind of like a crisis pregnancy.”

New life is happening, but it’s happening suddenly and unexpectedly, and oh my gosh what are we gonna do?!

Humanity, indeed life, is not clean and predictable. Every day we meet people and see situations that could radically change how we see things, if only we would let them. Every day God drifts into our lives, into our mess, quite suddenly, and says,

“Ask what I should give you.”

Just this week, that same friend of mine was chided that she may become a bishop someday. My friend responded, “Thank you, but no one in their right mind would make me a bishop.”

I responded, “Good thing the Holy Spirit is never, in my experience, in her right mind.”

Humanity and history aren’t clean. And in the midst of that, we serve the church, which has more than a complicated history of violence and suppression and, on our best days, feeding people and living into the kingdom.

The Church’s history is a net full of good fish and bad fish.

We, for our part, have found this particular church, all of us, in our different ways. This church is a surprise in itself, one that has been through its share of crisis, one where people don’t always agree but where they love each other nonetheless and where eventually, if we keep showing up, we find reconciliation and hope together despite our mess. Where people who believe in the same hope come together and give of everything they have and are for the life of the church and the world.

I’ve said it recently, but sometimes I don’t think we fully recognize what a miracle it is to find a loving church family where all are welcomed and loved. It is, in the words of Jesus, “like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (v. 44).

Life is messy and hard, but these days I find it easier to believe in God because of you.
Your faith, your strength, your willingness to show up and to struggle, your willingness to give life to those around you and to roll with whatever life throws you inspires me to believe that this is a church with a future that we get to step into together.

It won’t be clean or easy or predictable. The story won’t be an uncomplicated one because human stories never are. The story of the Church’s past isn’t.

But it is our story: a story of a God that keeps surprising us when we least expect it, in the things that are hidden and complicated and messy. The story of a God that just keeps giving life, whether we’re expecting it or not.

I close with a prayer written by an artist and architect from my home congregation. She makes sketches and writes prayers to accompany them. In one particular sketch prayer, she depicted wild geese. The wild goose is a Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit which stands in contrast to the quiet dove of Scripture.

I like this image: one of a diving, honking, disruptive, protective goose.

Alongside the sketch of wild geese, Ann writes this prayer with which we close.

Let us pray.

“O holiest of spirits,
As the wild goose soars,
So do you.
Twisting, turning,
With strength and power.
Beyond control,
You call our names.

We who grow anxious and fearful,
We who succumb too easily to popular norms,
We who fail to lift our heads upward.
We who fall too silent, too soon, too often.

In our midst,
You come like a raging wind,
Calling us with loud squawks and honks.
May we listen to these uncommon invitations,
And join your Spirit ways –
Boldly shouting ‘yes’ to grand, unknown adventures,
Courageously turning where your voice leads,
Transforming systems to bring healing and wholeness,
Radically welcoming all of God’s people,
Speaking truth to power, day after day,
With open hearts, generous in love.

May we be so brave as to follow your wild ways,
Knowing you will joyfully lead us,
And love us, on the journey.
For all that will be,
We lift our hands in gratitude,
O wild,
O wonderful
Spirit of God. Amen.” (1)

Solomon’s story was a complicated one, and so are all of ours. But God was with Solomon, giving wisdom, showing up in unexpected places, and God will be with us too.

So let us follow Jesus together.
It won’t be predictable, but one thing is for sure: it will be wild. Amen.

1. You can find more of Ann’s Sketch Prayers here.

“So, What Do You Do?”: On Weeds And Wheat and Giving Up Control

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What do you talk about with people you’ve just met?
Photo: (Reuters/Marko Djurica) – photo lifted from Quartz article highlighted in the sermon. Link at bottom.

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

An article came out in Quartz last week with the provocative title, “One of the most common questions in American small talk is considered rude in much of the world.”

The rude American question? “What do you do?

The question of what someone does for a living is one of the most common things we Americans ask someone we’ve just met. But to many folks in other parts of the world, it’s too intimate, reduces a person to what they do for work, is considered sort of classist, and on top of all that, it’s generally considered a boring question. And it’s true — a person’s job may tell us very little about the person and their passions, likes, and dislikes, and instead, it puts them in a box and reduces them to what they do for a living. (Pastors and doctors on airplanes know this particularly well as we tell our seat mates what we do for a living and then have to listen to a list of either their excuses for not going to church or their physical ailments for the remainder of the flight.)

Instead of “What do you do,” more common French questions include, “What are your hobbies?,” or “What part of the country are you from?” These questions, for the French, are much more interesting giving more insight into who a person is, where they come from, and what they’re passionate about (1).

But What do you do? still lingers for Americans.

Everything for us seems to hinge on that question in a broad sense — not just what we do for a living, but what we do — how we behave, how well we parent, what productive things we do with our spare time.

What do you do? Not just with your job, but with your life?

We use questions like this to measure each other. We want to hang out with people of a similar type to us. In some ways, this is almost primal — it’s a tribal thing. You don’t want to be someone who hangs out with lazy people, or people who drink more than you do, or people with [gasp] the opposite political affiliation. We often try to surround ourselves with the best company that we can. We like to have some measure of control of our environment — and honestly, that’s not always a bad thing.

Unfortunately, it’s not exactly how we’re told to do church. 

Yet again today, as last week, we have Jesus comparing God’s work to things that grow, calling us to have a little patience and, in this case, as farmers often have to do, to give up a little control.

What we have today is Jesus essentially admitting that sometimes, human beings can kind of be leeches — people who act as weeds, sucking up our time, our energy. People who figuratively choke the life out other people. Our immediate response, of course, is to yank up the weed-like people, to throw them out, to keep our little church field of good soil carefully tended.

We do it all the time in our regular lives: we love to curate our environments and cut out people who annoy us, or people we disagree with. This is getting ever worse with the advent of social media and “filter bubbles” — where the social media site essentially shows you things you already agree with, things it knows you want to see based on your likes and dislikes. This can lead to an existence where we forget that the people we disagree with still exist, because we never have to hear from them.

It’s not just the social media sites that are doing it — we’re willing to do it manually as well. If someone irritates us too much on social media, we unfollow or unfriend them. And of course, my favorite posts are the ones — from liberals and conservatives and moderates alike — that tell other people what to post and what not to post.

And it isn’t just on the Internet, either: if a friend irritates us too much and becomes a burden, we slowly stop returning their calls.

What do we do?

Well, for one thing, we really like to weed our little gardens.

We like to think that it’s out of the question to do church this way, but it isn’t. We’ve all found that most churches want to reach their neighbors — but by “neighbors,” most of us really mean people who look like us, think like us, and are of a similar economic status to us. I have been in churches where someone showing up looking for assistance was not seen as a chance to “welcome our neighbors,” as they often declared they wanted to do — it was seen as an issue to be dealt with, a weed to be uprooted.

What do you do?

If our vocation is to be God’s metaphorical gardeners, unfortunately, like children in the garden, God hasn’t given us an invitation to weed the garden, lest we pull up Mom’s begonias.

As a result, it’s true that — as we all know — church can be quite a mess. It’s one place people can go and expect to be heard, a place where they can’t get fired, a place where we don’t have to deal with the complex authority dynamics within our families. And so, as a result, church can bring out the worst in us at times, especially when it doesn’t live up to our expectations.

What do you do? Jesus is telling you the one thing you don’t get to do: pull weeds. Leaving a practical exception for when someone is causing harm or danger to the congregation, we don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out like we do in the rest of our lives. We just don’t get that much control.

Now, it’s tempting to romanticize this text as saying, “This means God loves everybody and allows them to grow!” and that would be true.

What do you do?

My Episcopal priest in college was a sniper in the Marines during his military career. He said the snipers had a motto: “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” When he became a priest, he said, his life and his vocation obviously changed dramatically. His motto now, he says, is “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out” (2)

What do you do? Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.

Whenever you have a hard time doing this, consider: we’ve all done our time as weeds, both in the church and in the world. We’ve all been a drain on other people’s energy and patience. We’ve all been a drain on each other’s energy and patience and emotions.

Even if you’ve behaved well, no matter who you are, someone, somewhere, thinks that people like youwhether it’s because of who you are or how you think — are weeds, worthy of being pulled out of the garden and thrown into the fire.

About that fire.

This text does have a rather harsh ending, when the wheat is gathered and the weeds are burned. We get a little fixated on this, as we often do whenever the Son of God mentions what sounds like a literal and eternal hell. We may say things like, “Alright! Our enemies are going to hell, guys!” or, “Am I a weed? I don’t think I’m a weed. Does God think I’m a weed?!

I think we’re missing what Jesus is trying to say here, which is much simpler than some heady theological eschatology or soteriology, which are fancy theological words for what happens at the end of time and where we go when we die. Jesus is not writing a theological treatise.

What do you do?

What Jesus is saying is that what we do does matter. It matters if we intentionally function in the world like weeds. It matters if we choke the life out of other people emotionally or spiritually. It matters if we treat people poorly. It matters if we kill or harass or otherwise oppress other people. And it matters if we don’t welcome all of our neighbors.

You see, what I think Jesus is getting at with this ending is that God cares — deeply — about how we treat each other.

If you find my preaching at all worth listening to, you can mostly thank the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day, a New Englander who’s advanced since my own seminary years to become the dean at Wake Forest Divinity.

When asked to give a lecture on “The New Testament and Heaven” at a local church, Dean O’Day said something to the effect of, “This is a difficult topic, because the New Testament is not primarily concerned with what happens to our eternal souls — something that is firmly in God’s hands — the New Testament is primarily concerned with how we treat one another while we’re here.” (2)

Even New Testament attempts to describe the next life are supposed to affect how you treat other people here, in these times, in this life.

So don’t choke the life out of others. It matters.

What do you do?

In that sense, what we do matters deeply.

But there’s something else: Marty read this morning from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book you may not have heard of before. It’s a book in the apocrypha, or a set of Hebrew scriptures not usually printed in the Protestant canon but which nevertheless show up as options in our lectionary.

The reading this morning said, in a saying attributed to Solomon and addressing the God of the universe: “Your strength is the source of righteousness, and your sovereignty over all causes you to spare all…. Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:16, 19 NRSV).

“The righteous must be kind.”

So what do we do?

We have patience in this world of filter bubbles. We give up control wherever we can, knowing that who’s in and who’s out is not up to us. In this world of weeds and wheat, we dare to be brought together not by what we do, but by love.

In short, we love ‘em all — and let God sort ‘em out. Amen.

1. You can read the full Quartz article here.
2. The content is based on my memory of a lecture Dean O’Day gave in Decatur, GA, c. 2010, but you can read more about her here.

On Slow-Moving Miracles

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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 shall clap their hands.”
A scene from a hike in the Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont, MA, during Our Savior’s camping trip 2017.

Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

They say that what annoys us most about other people is what we most fear within ourselves.

This is exactly what I associate with almost any sentence that starts with “Kids today.” Because usually, the problem described is a human problem, not a generational one.

For example, “Kids today are so impatient.”

Now, it’s true that teenagers today grew up in a much more automated world than people ten or twenty or more years ago did. They grew up in a world where Internet access is measured by its speed and where online shopping wasn’t new by the time they could speak and where they could look up information on the computer in their pocket. That’s all entirely true.

But for those of you who raised teenagers in generations before this one: would you ever have described them as patient? I’m fairly sure the parents of the late 1700s and early 1800s went on and on about how kids these days are just so impatient because they’d grown up in a world, unlike their parents, with steam engines and mercury thermometers and electric telegraphs. “You kids are so spoiled! In my day, we had to travel by horse!”

Tell me: in what age has humanity looked at itself and prided itself on its patience?

There’s a reason patience is considered a virtue: we have such a hard time with it.

Yes, technology has helped, but why has technology developed so fast? We’re impatient. We frequently invent things for one or two reasons: they make a task easier and/or faster.

And it is true that our idea of what it’s like to be patient evolves with our technology. And even with technology, all of us — teenagers included — easily forget how amazing technology is because we’re so impatient.

As the comic Louis CK puts it, even the most terrible, beat up cell phone is a miracle. He points out, that people “got their phone and they’re like eeaagh, it won’t, UGH! Give it a second! Give it, it’s going to space, would ya give it a second? To get back from space? Is the speed of light a little too slow for you?”

Or consider how our ideas of travel have changed: a journey home to see my parents in Alabama, which is more than a thousand miles, two, three hundred years ago, would have been something of a perilous journey that could take days, weeks, or even months, depending on the method of travel. Now? I get tacos at the airport, jump on a couple of planes, and I’m there. And still I say “Ughhhh… I have to go through the security line tomorrow. And I didn’t get a direct flight, so it’s going to take me, you know, SEVEN HOURS to get there.”

Somewhere one of my ancestors wants to slap me, but you know, it was their wondering whether they could make travel faster and more efficient — their impatience — that made our quick travel today possible. 

So it’s true that, in some ways, impatience is quite a virtue in itself: it pushes us forward in all kinds of ways. It pushes technology forward. It pushes justice forward.

But it also makes us into one impatient, nervous, stressed out species.

As one internet meme put it: “You know the human body is 60% water? So we’re basically cucumbers with anxiety.”

There’s so much to be anxious about: your health. Terrorism. Politics. Politics. Politics.

Oh, sorry, there are more, but this one in particular rings true: everybody is impatient in politics. These days, Democrats are impatient that the Russia investigation isn’t moving faster and Republicans are impatient that the President’s agenda isn’t moving forward because of that investigation and the rest of the country is impatient that even after all this time we’ve still got both scandals and gridlock.

There’s also the every day things that make us impatient: traffic. Inefficient or difficult people. Waiting through a long day for when it’s finally time to relax. Being impatient that you have no time to relax.

Sometimes we sigh and say, “We need a miracle.”

I think our impatience colors what we consider a miracle.

The story of God that we are told today tells us about both the patience and the miracles of nature in two episodes: first the Gospel reading, about the sower.

It’s a story as old as dirt, quite literally, and it’s a story that’s been interpreted ad nauseam since the Gospel writers first jotted it down as a saying of Jesus that they thought was worth remembering.

Most interpretations I’ve heard paint God as the sower, us as the soil. God plants and reaps the harvest.


But what are we to take from that? Well, a few things:

First, there’s the fact that, while you wouldn’t throw seed just anywhere, God is quite the careless sower: God scatters the Good News — Gospel — of grace and love and God’s favor everywhere. Then there’s that we should “let our hearts be good soil,” as a hymn we often sing (and will sing later) declares. We should make our hearts — and our church — a place where “love can grow and peace is understood.”

But there are some drawbacks to interpreting the lesson that way exclusively. First, what are we to make of God wasting seed by throwing it where it dies? The parable goes to great lengths to describe how the seed dies. Since soil cannot change itself, it seems cruel of God to throw the seed where a little shoot of grace and hope might spring up suddenly, only to get choked out.

If it’s cruel when this happens in our gardens, how much more painful is it in our hearts?

So others offer different interpretations: what if Jesus is making us out to be the sowers?

When we think of how we reach new people, of how we might offer help and peace to our neighbors, how often do we write people off, thinking they won’t answer, or they won’t care, or they’re just “not church people”? What good is it to invite someone again, if they always say no?

Jesus is calling us to have the patience of a farmer.

Every growing seed is a miracle. Miracles aren’t required to take place instantaneously. 

(Instantaneous miracles are usually called “magic.”)

Jesus is also calling us to be a little careless: scatter the Good News everywhere. Lord knows the world needs a little Good News.

As we said a few weeks ago: tell them something good. Good news is its own miracle.

Tell them about another little miracle: a church where people love each other imperfectly, but genuinely. Where people show up, despite the other stuff they have going on, to do heavy yard work, to pressure wash, fix the ailing air conditioning unit, cut the grass, or fix the communion table.

Where people show up in the sanctuary sometimes in the evenings for the sole purpose of praying for you.

Where people are both really Christian and really okay with loving everybody — and everybody really means everybody. Where we don’t compromise our faith just to accept people, but instead believe that loving and accepting people exactly the way God made ‘em is one way that the Gospel gets lived out in the world.

Sometimes I don’t think any of us realize how special what we have really is.

We get tired. We get impatient. We’ve been doing the same things for years and sometimes we feel a little out of breath or stagnant. We’ve scattered seed on the same community for years and seen only modest growth.

But considering both the history and the present state of the Christian church, your very existence is a miracle.

The book of Isaiah tells us about another slow-moving miracle.

Ancient history tells us of the state of the world — and of Israel — when the last part of the second third of the book of Isaiah was written: in other words, Isaiah 55, the first passage we read this morning. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been in Babylonian captivity for likely over 50 years. For perspective, consider that if we were them we’d’ve been living in exile and captivity since 1965.

It’s just long enough for a flicker of hope to remain, just long enough for most people to remember or have parents alive to tell you about how life was “before.” Before we were taken captive and brought to a strange land. Before the temple was destroyed.

The book of Isaiah is really more like three books. It’s in the second, the one we read from today, that God begins to whisper after years of captivity:

“Psssst. Something big is about to happen.”

That something would be the return of the exiles, thanks to a kind-hearted Persian king. The rebuilding of the temple. The dawn of hope.
And it’s in that context that we read the words:

“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, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
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 shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
(Isaiah 55:10-13 NRSV)

God is saying, “Patience, my people. The trees take a long time to grow, but they’re going to grow. The word of God doesn’t return empty.”

As a person living in a place with four distinct seasons for the first time, I cannot get over what a miracle some things are. I watch the irises and the daylilies all around here get killed by frost, covered with snow. But just as I’m getting impatient after the melting of April and May, BAM! They arrive. And the message they bring is oh so clear that you have to respond: “Oh, hello, hope. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Nature is full of miracles — most of them just take a little time.

We are impatient people indeed, but some things cannot be rushed: the end of winter and the return of spring. The growth of a tree. Even climbing a mountain for the view takes some patience.

So let us continue to sow grace and love and acceptance everywhere, believing that God’s good love never returns empty. Let’s go to the FallsFest and to Sok’s for Beer & Hymns in August and out into our lives every day bearing the Good News that there is hope — this crazy hope that there is a slow-moving miracle taking place in the world and that what we see now may be fall or it may be winter, but spring is coming and it’s going to be glorious. That what we see now may be buried seed, buried seed can grow into a strong tree — it just takes awhile.

And may the Holy Spirit rescue all of us — this church, western Massachusetts, the United States, the world, and each person in this assembly — from our own impatience.

Because ask our ancestors and they’d tell you: gosh, adults are so impatient these days. Amen.

On “What People Want Out of Church”

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Anatomy of a hipster pastor (give or take the beard based on gender). (1)

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

Ask most congregations who are welcoming a new pastor what their hope is, and many people will likely say the same thing: “We hope the new pastor will bring in young families!”

We just have to figure out what they want — what do young families want?

Now, putting aside for a moment the people that leaves out, namely older people, childless couples, and single people of all ages and the fact that God calls all those people too, new pastors in any congregation of any size are faced with an immense amount of pressure: get people to come to church and have to figure out: What do people want?

How quickly we forget that church is a team sport. Studies show that the pastor casts the vision, but the biggest draw to any church isn’t the pastor — it’s you. Most new church people come not because they’re attracted by a cool pastor or attractive programming. It’s much simpler: most people come because a friend — you — asked them.

And how often do we think of that as the rest of the world does with its products: as some sort of corporate marketing scheme.

We think we, pastor and people, have to figure it out: What do people want?

Megachurches are even doing this with some success. They have bumper stickers and coffee mugs and laser light shows. They have slick church logos and slogans and male pastors with spiked hair and leather bracelets, reaching out with great success, as my friends and I like to say, to the young adults — of 1993.

Okay, maybe people don’t want that. What do people want?

On the flip side, other congregations draw people in by taking quite a different tactic: strict social rules and controls. They preach a life of being set apart from the world, of singing only traditional hymns and interpreting the Bible as literally as possible and basically being no fun.

They’re generally not the kind of people you want to invite to your cocktail parties, but theirs is a compelling vision nonetheless, one based on the idea that people want structure and rules.

Most mainline and Lutheran churches are caught somewhere in the middle: with some ideas on how to life a clean life that doesn’t harm other people or creation, while also taking the time to laugh, celebrate, and be an active part of our communities.

You’ll find pastors in these three categories, too. The fun ones, the really not fun ones, and the ones that struggle to find a place somewhere in the middle.

I’m one of the fun ones, I guess, just less famous than the most famous ones like Nadia Bolz-Weber. All I can really be is myself, just like you, and like Nadia, I like to be a pastor to “my people” — the namely, my friends, the riffraff. “Not church people” people. 

My home pastor once joked while I was in Lutheran candidacy after two years of pastoring that we really need to get me more tattoos. People like tattoos.

A common phenomenon in my life is to be sitting among new friends around my age, hanging out, having fun, with me in what my San Francisco priest friend likes to call pastoral incognito mode, the kind of getup you all rarely see me in because you usually see me professionally — backwards hat, sneakers, jeans. Everything will be going fine until someone turns to me and says, “Oh, so Anna, what do you do for a living?”

Then I tell them that I’m a Lutheran pastor and I can see the numbers swirl in front of their faces as they try to do the advanced calculus of how many anti-religion comments they’ve made and how many cuss words they’ve said but wait, did the pastor cuss? Is it cool to cuss in front of pastors now? And finally, after a beat, they usually say out loud, “Wait. You’re a pastor?!”

To which someone like my friend Braxton will come to the rescue by saying “She’s the best pastor, because she’s like, not a pastor.”

No one knows what it means, but we’ve all decided it’s a compliment.

Then we usually start talking about Nadia Bolz-Weber or something and if I’m lucky, it’ll end with someone saying, “Okay, you know — I’d go to your church if your church was around here.”

Is that really true? 

I used to think it was, when I was just starting out, fresh out of seminary, hopeful and a little cocky. I believed that I, one person, could “bring in the young people” with my non-traditional pastor-like, liturgical hipster-y way of being in the world, liturgically-colored Chuck Taylors and all. 

But now I know that, even for the folks who do live around here or the ones who wish they did, they probably wouldn’t, or won’t, actually come to “my” church when they say they would.

And you know, that’s really okay with me.

Because you see, church isn’t just here to give. Church is community. Any functional community asks something of us. On a very basic level, it asks that we show up pretty consistently (New Englanders in the summertime notwithstanding). And for a wide variety of reasons these days, that can be hard for people and it’s easy to say what you would do, but hard to actually do it.

You know, like that workout plan or that diet we all would start if.

Then there’s the very basic principle that humans are — arguably increasingly, in our world of fake news and false information — skeptical, cynical creatures. We can usually find things we don’t like about anything.

So what do people want?

Honestly, I don’t think they know.

Jesus seems to be rattling on about the exact same problem in our Gospel reading:

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

What do you people want?!

They write off John for being no fun. They write off Jesus for being too much fun.

This is an old, common problem with humanity that began with the Church’s very foundations. We in the church just happened to have some time in the middle when people went to church not because it cast a compelling vision, but because that’s what people did. Or, for a good chunk of time, they came because they were afraid of going to hell.

That time is over. And to be honest, despite all the struggles that come with being a pastor today, I’m glad.

I’m glad that you’re most likely here because you want to be here, not because you think that the church is your get out of hell free card, and not because you feel obligated to be here because everyone else in South Hadley is here. 

At Camp Calumet a couple of weeks ago, while someone was going on about the dismal state of the church these days as compared to the 80s, a pastor said, “Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be a pastor in any time other than this one.”

I quickly chimed in, “Me, too. For more than just the obvious difficulties that would’ve made it hard for me to be a pastor before now.”

For a beat, everyone just sat their in silence. Finally, the person who had been reminiscing said, “Really?

“Yes!” my brother pastor said emphatically.

We went on to explain, together, that it’s much easier to pastor people who want to be there, and that we have a greater opportunity to effect real change in the world than we ever have, to cast a vision of unity in a divided world, to actually build bridges to peace rather than entrenching ourselves as puppet-like extensions of one political party or another.

We have a chance to help human beings, of their own free will, build peace in their lives and in their hearts when peace is in such short supply.

So maybe instead of wandering around lamenting the numbers we don’t have anymore, we can cast a vision and go forward, and the vision is the one Jesus gives us today: “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV).

In this busy, violent, divided world, what more can we offer than rest and peace in a diverse community?

So wait. Welcome people? That’s it, pastor? What’d you get that from a seminar?

I can hear the John the Baptist-type preachers now — but God expects something from us!

Jesus answers through the ages, “‘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.’” (Matthew 11:29-30).

In ancient times, a rabbi’s yoke, like the kind you put around an ox to help it pull something, was the rabbi’s teaching. Jesus is telling the crowd that his teaching isn’t burdensome or difficult. His purpose is to give peace and rest, not burdens and religious obligations.

So the time of people coming to church out of obligation is over. Good!

Now we can follow Jesus. Now we can give rest. Now we can build community and make peace. We can repeat Jesus’ tender invitation: “Come to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. We will give you a place to rest.”

This weekend I was in Saratoga Springs, New York, with Parker, and as usual, we walked by the springs that gave Saratoga its name and made Saratoga Springs a famous place of healing for years.

Those waters no longer considered miracle cures for every ill, yet they still spring up and offer beauty and peace to those who stop. They don’t stop producing water just because people don’t come and drink all the time. They doesn’t produce less water because not as many people came as last year. They don’t harken back to the days when people held their healing properties in high regard with pseudoscience. They don’t wonder what people want or demand anything of those who visit them or change themselves to “fit the times.”

But they are no less beautiful.

Saratoga’s freshwater springs just do what they’ve always done, and what they were created to do: they produce fresh, naturally carbonated mineral water and natural beauty. They continue to be exactly what they were created to be: a beautiful place to rest, take a drink, plant your feet where you are, let your burdens go, and even smile and laugh and splash your friends. So it should be with Church.

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Two of many mineral springs in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can read more about Saratoga’s naturally carbonated springs here.

Because church shouldn’t be about what people want or about what they feel they have to do, or else, we’ll always be frustrated, saying “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance!”

Church should be about what people need, and what they need is what humans have always needed. Peace. Rest. No obligations: just love, and dare we say it, a little hope for the future. May we continue to be a spring of new life, giving people not what they want, but what they need. Amen.

1. Graphic from random (male pastor-centric) article I found here.

Prophets, Cups of Cool Water, and Hope from the Rubble

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Muslims in Douma, Syria, wait for Iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast, amid the rubble of a bombed mosque.

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Matthew 10:40-42

I love wrong answers that are really right answers. You teachers probably know what I mean. When a student technically gets a question wrong, but their wrong answer is pretty right on a deep philosophical level. Here’s what I mean.

I had a confirmation student in my first parish about five years ago who gave the most perfect wrong answer I’ve ever heard. I asked, “The Bible was written by people who were what by God?”

I got a blank stare.

Finally, my one student piped up, “People who were in….. convenienced by God?”

No! But oh my gosh, yes!

The next session I brought a Scripture from Jeremiah to show her just how right her wrong answer was: Jeremiah 38:6 – “So they took Jeremiah and threw him into a cistern…letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.”

I think it’s safe to call being lowered into a giant muddy cistern for being a prophet being “inconvenienced by God.”

That raises the question: what’s a prophet?

I’ll tell you what I thought a prophet was when I was younger: it was a person who told the future.

Turns out I was wrong. That’s a fortuneteller.

What I would learn later is that a prophet is a person who speaks — or in some cases, tries to speak — for God, who tells the truth as best they know it and faces the consequences. Because it turns out that sometimes when you speak for God, people don’t like you. It upsets the people in power, or sometimes, it upsets the majority. When you tell people that they’re overfed while other people are starving, they won’t like you. Ask Amos.

When God says, “These people are welcome,” and most people do not want to welcome those people, they will hate you. Ask the people of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

When I was a seminary intern back around 2009, I served at a church that is about 80% LGBTQ, and of those, most are gay men. It stands in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. Back in the 90s, Midtown Atlanta began to undergo a change as older white people moved out and a diverse community of gay men found refuge there. The Pride parade marched through every year and the pastor stood on the front lawn, staring at the Baptist church across the street who hired armed guards to protect themselves from… oh, I don’t know from what.

The Methodist pastor looked at the people in the parade and the witness of closed doors across the street and he thought to himself, “These people need a pastor too.” And so the next year, drawing on the Scripture that was our Gospel reading, the little old ladies of St. Mark United Methodist Church offered cups of cool water to the marchers in the parade, giving them rest from the Atlanta summer heat. They held signs that said, simply, “You are welcome here.”

Then the visitors started to come: three, four, ten, then as many as fifty on a single Sunday. Young gay men found faith again. And things came full circle as those same little old ladies lost the ability to drive, so the younger gay men took the church van to go and pick them up.

They called it “The Miracle on Peachtree.” 

Years later, St. Mark is thriving, and the Baptist church across the street is now a park.

It wasn’t without controversy, of course. One lady declared in her Sunday school class: “I’m just uncomfortable with so many of those people here.”

Another lady clapped back, “Beatrice, ya said the same thing about the black folk thirty years ago.”

People don’t always like it when you speak for justice and welcome, and sometimes the consequences are more dire than the ire of Ms. Beatrice. Speaking out for justice is a good thing — we get to work for justice and do God’s work in the world. It’s less appealing, though, when you run into conflict, or think about getting thrown into cisterns, or worse.

If you’ve read very much of the Bible, you know what they do to prophets. If you’ve watched the news in the last fifty years, you know what they do to prophets. Tell me, what happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? More recently, what happened to Malala Yousafzai, who even after being shot by radicals of her own faith and almost dying, still speaks out against radicalism and for the education of women in the Middle East? What happened to countless others targeted because other people didn’t like their message of justice or peace?

Jesus once said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it!”

But it ain’t just Jerusalem that kills prophets. It’s Memphis. It’s Atlanta. It’s Boston. It’s DC. Here on this Fourth of July weekend, we light sparklers and watch firework displays and celebrate while sometimes easily forgetting the high risk that our Founding Fathers took by signing the Declaration of Independence. If the Revolution had gone the other way, they would have been systematically hunted down and executed. They knew that. And they signed the thing anyway. And that is why you can enjoy BBQ and fireworks on Tuesday.

Every preacher wants to be prophetic, but few feel the full burden of it. As a wise man once told a class full of eager preachers — if you’re not willing to bear the cost, you ain’t no prophet.

I’m not sure I want to bear it myself. That cost is high. I know what happens to prophets. It’s easier to just be nice and safe.

But the truth is that we need prophets these days. And the truth is that we Lutherans, and we Americans, and we humans, come from courageous stock.

In an age when our discourse gets nastier and nastier, when Congresspeople get shot at rallies or playing baseball, God can still be heard echoing through the ages: who will I send? Who will go for us? Who will offer a cup of cold water in my name?

Being a prophet can be dangerous, but the good news is that we come from courageous stock.

This very land vibrates of the souls of brave patriots who once walked the same ground that you do. These church walls vibrate with the Lutherans who dared speak out and risked execution for their faith because as the Reformation caught fire, so did the martyrs burned at the stake. As American Lutherans, we are heirs of both.

If you can’t find your own courage, take your courage from these.

God is speaking. People are hurting. People need welcoming with a cup of cold water and some love. Whom will God send?

What’s more, the church often feels rendered impotent because we’re not the thriving, full congregations we once were back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They say people my age don’t come to church all the while looking past those of us that are here, or worse, patting us on the head.

I suppose we could all just go home and give up. But if we give up when our ancestors in faith and across the world have been through so much, what does that say about us?

Consider your ancestors. And consider the residents of Douma, Syria. Last week, after another day of Ramadan fasting, Muslim residents of Douma ate their Iftar meal in the blasted out shell of a mosque, amid rubble. They brought in tables and draped them in white cloth and passed around the food, daring to gather and experience joy. For the rest of Ramadan, they had broken their daily fasts in the safety of basements. But on that holy day, they took the risk of coming above ground and into the evening light, knowing full well that bombs could fall, to enjoy a meal together and practice their faith. (1)

So what were we western Christians feeling all hopeless about? Low attendance?

Aren’t we supposed to be the faith that believes in resurrection? That even when things lie in rubble, dead, that there’s still hope? Aren’t we an Easter people?

The cost of being a prophet is high. But if we are a people of resurrection, we dare to believe that truly, no price is too high. There is hope, and even when we can’t muster any hope ourselves, our own faith tells us that Good Friday always leads to Easter. And we are here, together, amid metaphorical rubble in the modern church, to remind each other of that.

I have just returned from spending ten days with confirmation kids, working my tail off as their chaplain in our synod’s camp, Camp Calumet. Calumet is a holy place where the good vibes flow, where every person is free to be themselves and speak their truth and laugh and play and feel God’s presence. Though Calumet can feel far away from the pain of the world, my mind hardly ever is. I still struggle with the state of the church in the United States while I was there, wondering where this whole road leads and what we’re supposed to do and how we could possibly be prophets when we’ve got folks who just can’t get out of the way and let the leaders lead and the prophets speak.

With that on my mind, I wrote a sermon for church last Sunday called “No John Trumbull,” named after a track on the Hamilton Mixtape, a song which describes John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration of Independence — that scene looks so clean and romantic, but the truth is that it was anything but. Those Founding Fathers were not only risking their lives, but they didn’t agree on everything. Some of them didn’t agree on much.

And you know, neither do we. We will argue about what to speak out about and how and when. If all are truly welcome, things are gonna get uncomfortable sometimes as we struggle to find what it is we will take a stand for. And struggling with faith and human issues is hard.

But we all, like them, come from brave stock. Members of this congregation hail from far away lands and from just down the road. And we all come from brave stock. 

Thank God we are an Easter people. I believe that even if every door of every church in the New England Synod closed tomorrow, the church of Jesus Christ would live on, and we would each find our place in it. Because if the people of Douma can faithfully celebrate their feast amid the rubble, we can celebrate ours in this place.

Listen — It will not be perfect and it may well not be comfortable. Mishaps will happen. Things will go wrong. When we meet and discuss just how to speak for God in the world, we will disagree on how that should happen because we are strong-willed people who come from brave stock. But let me tell you what I saw this week: the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than us. It’s more resilient than us.

Those confirmation kids may even be wiser than us, and someday soon they will take over the church and they will amaze those of us blessed enough to see it.

And the church of Jesus Christ will stand forever, because thank God: we are an Easter people.

Nayyirah Waheed, African American writer and poet, once shared with the world this wisdom: “I don’t pay attention to the world ending. It has ended for me many times and began again in the morning.”

And so let us pray, let us sing, and let us feast in hope. Amen.

1. Read more about the Iftar meal in Douma here.