Reformation Sunday: On Being Reformed… Sort Of

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John 8:31-36

Demetri Martin — he’s not a Reformation hero. He’s one of my favorite stand up comedians.

I like him because his internal monologues and musings are essentially in the same vein as mine.

This is the man who said, “I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.

“Especially if your teammates are bad guessers.”

He has this monologue when he talks about the phrase, “sort of.” He says, “’Sort of’ is such a harmless thing to say. Sort of. It’s just a filler. Sort of – it doesn’t really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re going to live.’” (1)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sort of has a conversation with some people who believe in him — sort of.

He’s just given them the famous, “I am the Light of the world” speech — “I am the Light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He’s just invoked the name of God — he’s told them that after they kill him — he says, “[after that], you will know that I am” (John 8:28). (Your translations will say “I am he.” The Greek says “I am” and the translation is interpreting it in English. I could talk for a long time about that, but if you’re curious, ask me later.)

Point is, Jesus has just told them, fairly eloquently, exactly who he is. He is Love and Light. He’s the Word made flesh. And this time, lots of folks believe him — sort of.

Things start to go south during this other famous passage: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

These folks respond, “Free? We’ve never been slaves.”

Specifically, they say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone” (8:33).

Which is funny, in a sort of not-funny way, because the story of the descendants of Abraham runs right through slavery. “When we were slaves in Egypt” and phrases like it are a refrain that echoes throughout Jewish history, right up to today. This particular group of Jews, however, had forgotten where they came from.

This is a good time to pause and say that the record of Martin Luther on the Jewish people is terrible. The history of the relationship of Christians, Lutheran Christians, and Protestant Christians towards Jewish people is terrible, too. The cry of the Reformation is “semper reformanda,” or “always reforming.” One of the ways that we are reforming is in respect to our Jewish neighbors, who are our partners in faith, and God’s own people.

The Gospel of John also talks about “the Jews” in ways that need unpacking. The Christian people at the time had come under fire from the Jews in Israel, as any group that steps out from a religious pack does, and John’s Gospel reflects that. BUT, if you read closely, Jesus is incredibly Jewish in John — he attends all of the religious festivals. He makes Jewish references. And he argues with Jewish leaders and takes their arguments seriously, even as he engages with common Jewish folk. Our own faith makes little sense apart from the faith of our Jewish neighbors, and it’s about time we gave them their due respect.

End of sidebar.

So in one of these arguments, the Jewish folks Jesus is arguing with leave off the Exodus: “we’ve never been slaves to anyone.”

Jesus goes in a different direction: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” I used to think of “being a slave to sin” as Jesus looking disapprovingly over my shoulder for every wrong thing I’ve ever thought about doing, and about how I couldn’t stop saying cuss words and I couldn’t stop drinking.*

*Note: I’m not an alcoholic; there was about a day and a half period when I was three years old when I became very concerned that when people talked about “drinking” or “drinking too much” or “drinking and driving” they meant drinking anything. So I felt very guilty for drinking my juice and water until my aunt set me straight. And I’m really glad she did, because I was very thirsty.

The point is, Jesus isn’t trying to make you feel guilty about being a slave to little things you feel sorry for. But destructive behaviors — the things we do to hurt other people and ourselves — do have their way of holding us captive.

But then he makes a little switch. He’s talking about being a slave to sin, then he says, “A slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:35).
Wait, wait. Hold on. Who’s the master — sin, or God?

Try this: “Everyone who breaks the law is a slave to the law.”

Whose Law is it?

But if God sets you free from the Law, you will be free indeed.

By grace you have been saved, through faith.

You can’t be free by being perfect.

That is the heart of the Gospel that Martin Luther and the Reformers were willing to die for.

500 years ago, something started. A fire got sparked. 500 years ago, the Spirit of God signed us all up for something that we’re still working out. Some of us look around and see fewer people than we used to and we say that we must be dying. But just like those Jewish folks who were talking to Jesus, we forget where we came from. We forget that the Church has died and risen again many times. If we are to be an Easter people, we will have the same number of Good Fridays.

It seems to me that people often come to church for a sense of settled-ness or peace. And providing that is part of why we exist for the world around us. It’s why we exist for each other. So that when you’ve lost someone or when you’re sick or when you’re hurting, we will surround you with care. But when lose ourselves a little when we say, like the Jewish people in the Gospel, “We’re good church folks. We’re Americans. We’ve always been free. Our church is reformed.”

We think we’re done. We think Luther did it all.

But we still screw it up, a lot. We Lutherans have been all kinds of things in 500 years. We’ve been anti-Semitic. We’ve been racist. We’ve been complicit when Hitler took over Germany and began exterminating millions of Jews and others, including LGBTQ folk. Lutherans have committed hate crimes and sexual harassment and pushed racist ideologies.

And we still screw it up today. A lot. In small ways and big ones.

We’re reformed, but we’re still reforming.

Semper reformanda — we are always being reformed. We aren’t celebrating an event today. We’re celebrating the date that something started: when a somewhat grouchy, sometimes crude, always beer-loving, 33 year old monk put his life on the line to start something whose ripples are still being felt 500 years later. We stand in the shoes of a guy who felt strongly enough about his convictions that the Gospel is a story about God, not our own piety, that when threatened with excommunication and even death, when asked to recant, he still said, “Nah.”

500 years later, we’re still doing the same thing, preaching the same Gospel, gathering with joy around the same table, not because we must, but because we may. And regardless of what any of us do, as long as there’s a Gospel, there’ll be a people called Lutheran. Because, as the movie V for Vendetta told us, ideas can’t die. Especially ideas worth dying for.

And the idea is simple: you can’t be free by being perfect. You can’t follow enough religious rules or be pious enough to clear your conscience, and the harder you try, the more trapped you’ll be.

But God put on flesh to say that if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed. You don’t have to be perfect. You’re loved just because you breathe, and because of that, you’re free to do more than beat yourself up. God loves you deeply, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and that in this community, we fail a lot, but we’re built on the idea that maybe we should try to love each other that much, too. We’re reformed, but we’re still reforming.

Which is another way of saying, you know, sort of, to sum up, sort of — I mean to say that 500 years ago our church was reformed — sort of.

——-

1. You can watch Demetri Martin’s entire monologue, If Ihere.

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Stewardship Sunday #4: Built with Love

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Matthew 22:15-22

People have always remarked that my father and I have the same eyes.

When I was little and my dad and I would play, I remember clearly that I would do that thing that kids sometimes do when they put their little faces very close to an loved one’s, close one eye, and look very closely at the other person’s eye. I would say, “What do you see?” He would respond, “I see my eye! No wait, that’s your eye!”

If you have children or other close family members, you probably have similar stories. We take joy in the “family resemblance.” Even family friends love to remark at how a kid looks just like his grandmother, or how she looks just like her mother did at her age. In the rural South, people most often describe this by using the word “favor,” as in, “he favors his mother.” It doesn’t mean, of course, that a child likes one parent better than the other, but that the child resembles that parent, grandparent, or other relative most closely.

I favor my father.

Another way of saying it is to say that I’m “the spittin’ image of her daddy,” or as my father likes to say, “You look just like me, you know, if I was a girl.”

Today’s Gospel is a tired text that we often hear around election and tax season and maybe even stewardship season. It’s often pulled out any time we have to talk about how we use our money.

The Pharisees send some of their students, along with some Herodians — interpreters don’t quite agree on whether the Herodians were simply Greek Jews or whether they were an active political party — but the point is, the Pharisees sent these guys to trap Jesus.

And a clever trap it is, sort of.

They send these folks to ask Jesus a simple question: essentially, whether it’s a sin to pay taxes. 

If Jesus says that people should pay taxes, it’s probably not going to go well with the crowds, and not just because taxes have been moaned and complained about since the dawn of taxation. They weren’t doing the equivalent, you see, of paying state or federal taxes. They were paying for their own occupation by a strong and harsh foreign power: Rome. What’s more, tax collectors were often hated for overcharging people and skimming off the top. The Pharisees also speculated that the very coins used for paying taxes are idolatrous because they have icons of the emperor on them which to them, was a kind of graven image. In other words, if Jesus said, “Yes, pay your taxes,” he was going to be in trouble with the religious leaders and the crowds.

Alternatively, if he encouraged people not to pay their taxes, the Roman authorities would be on him, as we say in the South, like white on rice. One of the constant risks of Jesus’ life and teaching was walking this line between being killed by the Romans for being subversive and being arrested by the religious authorities for being blasphemous.

Jesus sees the trap coming and calls them out for it. But unlike many public figures of our day, he doesn’t dodge the question or change the subject and he only calls them one name instead of several.

Then, like a good teacher, he brings it into concrete terms. He asks them for a coin.

Now, if you’ll remember, the Pharisees were supposed to think carrying these coins was blasphemous, but they produce a coin anyway.

I feel like Matthew left out this line: “And the Lord smirked.”

He says, rhetorically, “Whose image is this?”

Our translation says, “Whose head is this,” but the Greek word translated “head” is most often translated “image” or “likeness” in the New Testament.

“Whose image is this, and whose title?”

They respond, of course, “The emperor’s.”

Then he gives them the line we’re most used to hearing: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

And he once again wiggles out of the trap and amazes everyone.

Jesus: more verbally adept than a politician, but with a spine — a combination that we rarely get in public discourse, whether now or in the past.

Of course, most of us have heard the same tired stewardship sermons on this text about how we should give to God what is God’s with our money. Though I think that’s quite the opposite of Jesus’ point here, I do think this text has something to say about stewardship as we wrap up stewardship month.

You see, I think we can fully take Jesus’ lesson here by either looking in the mirror or taking a hard look at each other.

Whose image is this?

“So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God they were created” (Genesis 1:27).

Give to God what is God’s.

At first, it sounds to me like a hard word: of God saying “I own your butt.” (Though, admittedly, the Holy Spirit has more than once given me that message when I’ve wanted to pull a Jonah and run away and join the circus or something.)

Indeed, Christians have been known to guilt each other by continually reminding ourselves and each other that God demands our lives, and that we’d be ungrateful not to give God everything.

But God’s love, of course, isn’t dependent upon our devotion. We are no less created in God’s image whether we dedicate our whole lives to good or whether we never acknowledge God at all. Our problem, as always, is how quickly we make things about us when the Gospel, of course, is a story about God.

Whose image is this?

When we reframe things to make them about something larger than ourselves, we gain perspective. The Quakers in America were staunchly anti-slavery because they believed, and still believe, that the Divine Light lives within every human soul. Therefore, to own another human being is to own a piece of God, and that should not be done. To abuse another person is to abuse God, and that should not be done.

What if we looked at everyone, including ourselves, and reminded ourselves to ask the question: whose image is this?

The conversation about sexual harassment has picked up again with the Harvey Weinstein revelations. What if all men of faith looked at women and, instead of seeing them as objects, said, “Whose image is this?”

We are all born in the image of God.

Our worth, our autonomy, our free will, are our birthright, and none of us has any right to take that away from another person: to intimidate them, to make them feel afraid, to harass, abuse, hurt, or kill them. These things are sinful.

What’s more, when we look in the mirror, let us wonder: whose image is this? We do belong to God, regardless of our actions, but since this is true, how much more should we care for our bodies and our souls? How much more should we dedicate ourselves — personally, financially, and with our spare time — to spreading this Good News of mutual love and respect rooted in theology?

This, I believe, is a message the world needs: if all are truly sacred, this changes everything, just like it did, and does, for the Quakers.

In short, to follow our construction motif that we’ve been working with all month: we are all built with love, baptized and claimed with joy, made in God’s image. We’re all part of the same family.

Families do indeed marvel at the “family resemblance.” It bonds us to our children and siblings and other relatives by signaling to the deepest parts of our brains, “This one is to be cared for and protected. This one is one of us.”

In a world where our entire being can be consumed by the happenings in the world, let us render to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.

Every person we meet, and all of us, are the spittin’ image of our Father, our Mother, our God — the one who gave us birth and gets us up every morning.

We are all built with love. Amen.

Stewardship Sunday #3 – The Terrible Parable and the Banquet for All: Finding Joy

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Maybe it’s time to say “hasta la vista” to reading parables only one way. Read on.

Ezra 5:1-5, 11-13, 16
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Everybody has something in their lives that annoys them and just generally gets them down.

For me, it’s technology. Technology drives me insane.

I’m so glad I’m old enough that I’m no longer commonly stereotyped as some kind of technological whiz kid just because of my age. It was never true. I’ve always known enough tricks to get me by, but devices have always screwed up on me. I’ve always been the person sitting in the coffee shop who can’t get her computer to connect while everyone else works away with perfectly functioning devices. It’s me who leans over and asks if the wifi is working while you’re just enjoying your latte. I’m sorry about that. It’s just that, while everyone else’s computer soars through cyber space with the speed and ease of a Brady-to-Edelman touchdown pass (don’t forget to pray for the Patriots), my computer is looking back at me like a twenty-one year old office assistant saying in a Valley girl voice, “Your connection was interrupted.”

Humor has always been my way of fighting back against annoying circumstances. My best friend Samuel and I take turns telling of our misfortunes in the funniest ways we can muster; the object of the game is to spin your inconvenience or misfortune into the funniest story you possibly can. We’ve gotten good at it. 

Of course, there’s a difference between a misfortune and a tragedy. Some things are decidedly not funny and cannot be made funny. These are the things that call us to shout “Too soon” to someone who makes an off color joke, or, as Parker and I say of some things, it’s “always too soon.” Some things will never be funny.

A list of things like that just keeps piling up. Mass shootings. The threat of nuclear war. Division and partisanship. Racism and white supremacy.

The much-maligned news media doesn’t help. Even the most reasonable person can’t help but wonder occasionally if any news organization of any stripe is actually out for truth or ratings. And what gets ratings in this age of Twitter? Making every story short and simple. We try to domesticate any story and make it seem simple, when truth be told, it’s anything but. There are a thousand different angles on everything, a thousand new things to consider, a thousand truths buried in a billion stories.

Are you on the verge of a panic attack? I find myself there sometimes just thinking about the sheer complexity of the world’s problems and my own.

We tell stories to try to help us unravel it all. Only, telling stories doesn’t really help simplify things. If the characters in the story are human beings, there are untold levels of complexity even within a single story.

We humans are complex creatures.

Parables, also, are stories.

We typically think that Jesus tells us parables that give us a singular truth, that help us to neatly break things down.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, it begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and from there, it’s off to story time with Uncle Jesus.

But Jesus, much like any good rabbi, doesn’t particularly like to de-simplify things. He’s just telling a story here.

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, first, calls this the “worst parable ever,” and I can’t help agreeing. A king, which we all easily presume to be God, throws a banquet, and throws a guy out for not being dressed right? Just this week I read an article about a prison ministry where a prisoner reacted excitedly to the part where the “good and bad” people get invited to the party, but then exploded into anger when he reached the end: “What do you expect from people like us? We don’t have all the right clothes. We never look right! You should know that! ….Why you even invite us to any of this if you’re just gonna humiliate us and throw us out anyway?” (1)

Nadia talks about how you have to turn your head a thousand different ways to make sense of a parable. Jesus doesn’t define the characters for you. You aren’t told “this person is God,” and “this person is Jesus,” and “this person is you.” Well, sometimes you are, but you aren’t here. Christian literature includes many different people throughout history taking a hack at a parable and coming up with any number of possibilities that help us reveal deeper truths, and when we always look at the characters the same way, we get stuck in a rut.

As for me, I flipped through interpretation after interpretation this week where the king is God, and none of them seemed satisfactory to me, for reasons that Nadia Bolz-Weber captures perfectly in her telling of the story.

She writes, “…our parable for today is a real doozy.  Here’s how I heard it: A king throws a wedding banquet and invites the other rich, slave-owning powerful people. Seemingly unimpressed by the promised veal cutlet at the wedding feast, the elite invitees laugh at the invitation and proceed to abuse and then kill the slaves of the king.  Well then the king kills them back.  But he doesn’t stop there, not to be outdone, he burns down the city… and it is there amidst the burning carnage of the newly destroyed city he sends more slaves to go find whoever they can to fill the seats. After all…the food is ready and he has all these fancy robes for the guests. All he cares about is having every seat filled at his big party. But who is left?  He burned the city. The rich and powerful have been murdered so it’s the regular folks wandering the streets looking for their dead, picking apart the charred debris of their burned city who are then told that they have no choice but to go to the party of the guy responsible — and it’s already been established that he doesn’t respond well if you turn him down.  So the terrified masses show up and pretend that this capricious tyrant didn’t just lay waste to their city.  Out of fear they all dutifully put on their wedding robes given them at the door and they pretend. Slipping on a gorgeous garment was what you did for a king’s wedding feast. And the guests got to keep the outfits, just a little souvenir of the king’s generosity – and a reminder to keep in line. You don’t get anything from the empire without it costing you a bit of your life. 

Well, our story ends with these well dressed survivors looking on as the King spots the one guy at the banquet who isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  And when the innocent man has nothing to say for himself the king has this scapegoat hogtied and thrown into the outer darkness. ‘Many are called but few are chosen’ he says.” (2)

Welp, that blew my mind this week. Of course, I still have questions about some details, but despite my doubt that this is how Matthew intended the story to be read, this interpretation does, in my opinion, hold water. And despite Matthews intentions, any preacher knows that the Holy Spirit often works far outside our intentions.

Remember: Jesus’ audience lived in the midst of a lot of upheaval and turmoil; they lived under the thumb of the Roman empire. They were no strangers to moody tyrants burning cities: they lived in fear of it.

Not only that, the God that we worship in Jesus Christ is not a powerful king, but a servant. Jesus doesn’t kill his enemies and burn their cities; he’s killed by his powerful enemies for refusing to go along with them.

Nadia concludes, “…the kingdom of heaven is like: a first century Jewish peasant who laughed at the powerful, kissed lepers, befriended prostitutes and ate with all the wrong people and whom the authorities and the powerful elite had to hog tie and throw into the outer darkness.  …the kingdom of heaven is like Jesus.  And what if it is from this place of outer darkness that everything is changed?  It is in the outer darkness of Calvary where death is swallowed up forever.” (2)

No matter how you interpret this particular parable, it’s a theological truth that Christ and his defiance of the usual world order sets us free.

Free from the 24 hour news cycle.

Free from having to put on the right clothes and act the “right way.”

Free from partisanship and liberal orthodoxy and conservative orthodoxy.

Free to think and consider the many angles of every story rather than being tied only to the interpretation that serves our pre-conceived assumptions about God, the world, the Bible, or each other.

Free to love.

Free to be grateful, to learn and work hard and give (it is stewardship season, after all), but also free to laugh and be joyful, because if it’s really true that Love rises from the grave, that changes everything.

Free to form community and real relationships based on love rather than expectations.

On the NPR News Weekly Roundup this past week, I did not expect to laugh with everything that the crew had to cover. After all, most of it was in the category of “always too soon” — it will never be funny.

But as they reached the end, the crew entered their final segment called “Can’t Let It Go,” where each member of the crew describes one thing from the news that they just can’t let go. It’s not a humor segment by any means; often the topics they cover are gravely serious.

And yet, this week, it unleashed giggle after giggle from me.

First, there was the description from a political correspondent of Steve Scalise, congressman from Louisiana who was hit in the hip during the shooting at the Congressional baseball practice earlier this year, returning to the halls of Congress. His return to the floor has been well documented, but this correspondent saw him outside his office riding his scooter, outfitted with an LSU sticker, very quickly and gleefully down the hallway while his very serious security detail half walking, half jogging after him.

Another correspondent who had been covering the recent Supreme Court case on partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin described a bi-partisan rally that included none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger saying at the end of his speech, “It is time to say hasta la vista to gerrymandering…”

Another described a mistake made by an NPR social media staff person who accidentally posted a personal photo to the NPR social media sites. Rather than being salacious, as many such mistakes are, it was instead a parental commentary about his daughter Ramona, who’s less than a year old.

This post appeared in news feeds next to the NPR News name and logo:
“Ramona is given new toy: smiles, examines for 20 seconds, discards.
Ramona gets a hug: acquiesces momentarily, squirms to be put down.
Ramona sees three cats thirty feet away: immediately possessed by shrieking, spasmodic joy that continues after cats flee for their lives.”

Twelve minutes later, the NPR account edited the post: “This post was intended for a personal account. We apologize for the error.”

The NPR Politics correspondent added, “In a world of darkness, this was some light. We apologize for any cuteness.”

By stepping out of our pretending to be on this team or that team, and by fostering love and understanding and community, we can step out of a world of darkness and add a little light. That is what we do here.

We don’t do it perfectly. Hell, sometimes we don’t do it well at all.

We’re a work in progress.

But we keep showing up. We keep standing out. We keep trying to do the impossible: build community in a divided world. Proclaim Good News in a world of terrible news.

And every single week, we gather around this banquet, where no one is required to come, but all are invited. Where you don’t have to be wearing the right robes or even have the right attitude to attend. Where you don’t have to subscribe to the right political or theological beliefs to attend.

Where all are welcome.

Where you will find joy, community, peace, abundance, and God.

So let’s step out in faith and step into our future together, because this kind of community is worth it. Because the only thing that love can’t do is stay dead.

I close with a benediction used by a UCC church in Connecticut pastored by a friend from Emory.

It’s mostly written by William Sloane Coffin, and I leave you with it.

“May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short,
the grace to risk something big for something good,
the grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
and too small for anything but love. (4)

Amen.

1. Read the whole Christian Century article on a prisoner’s reaction to this parable here.
2. Read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s whole sermon on this text here.
3. If you like podcasts, you can find the NPR News podcast online here.
4. Many thanks to the Reverend John Chapman at Westfield UCC in Killingly, Connecticut, for sharing this benediction.

Oh, and if you want to read more about Ramona (who doesn’t?), you can do that here.

Stewardship Sunday #2: On Deciding to Do the Impossible

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A documentary that tackles the Impossible Race. The documentary is available on Netflix.

Nehemiah 2:1-8
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

A lot, obviously, has happened since last we met. That is always true, but that’s particularly been true this week. Another mass shooting. More turmoil within our government. More turmoil abroad.

I’m gonna drop the perfect pastor bit and just be a citizen and a human for a moment if that’s alright with you: I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself getting more and more cynical. It feels like nothing is changing, nothing has changed, and we as a nation are okay with that. It feels like we’ve done nothing to curb our racism, our sexism, our homophobia, or our political gridlock.

This whole thing feels increasingly impossible.

Of course, we can all only focus on all of the upsetting and impossible things on the news for so long before we reach for a distraction. This isn’t a bad thing — it helps us to stay balanced and sane.

So I turned this week to Netflix. I was feeling in the mood for a sports movie.

Often, I go in search of a movie and end up with a documentary. I don’t know exactly why, but I think it has something to do with my preference for real life over fiction.

I found a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It’s about a 100+ mile endurance race in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants will tell you that the loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. The race is 1/3 on trails and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change.

For those of you who are not runners or hikers, let me translate: as you might imagine, that is an impossible amount of elevation change.

Though it takes five loops to complete the race, three loops is considered an achievement — completing three loops is called the “fun run.” Runners run day and night, and they have only sixty hours to complete the race. If they sleep at all, it’s only for an hour or two over the course of that sixty hours.

It took ten years before anyone completed the race. After that, it took another four years before someone else did it. Since the race began in 1995, only eighteen people have ever completed the race. Many years, no one finishes.

Only about forty people are selected to run the race each year, and the selection process is rather secretive. The race is the brain child of two men, one called Lazarus and one called Raw Dog. Lazarus does most of the talking in the documentary.

Lazarus keeps the price low — it costs $1.60 to apply and if accepted, participants must bring a license plate from their home state or country as their admission to the race. This keeps the race accessible to anyone who can afford to make the trip to Tennessee, so all kinds of people show up, including backpackers and poor graduate students. And, Lazarus says, “For $1.60 and a license plate, if people have complaints, I can just laugh.”
Since so much of it is off trail and the course is not marked, the course is sometimes hard to find, and when runners quit, they often take a long time to find civilization again. One runner completed only two miles of the course, quit, and then got lost, spending some 32 hours in the woods. He is currently the holder of the record for the slowest race pace ever, at sixteen hours per mile.

Lazarus, co-creator of the race, says that he sees the participants every year and really hopes that most succeed, but he knows most won’t. He says, “there’s a dark humor in that.   And some of the failures are spectacular – and really funny.”

Because the course is not marked and people often get lost, Lazarus says with a laugh, “People like to stick with a veteran just for the confidence of knowing where they are. But if you don’t have enough veterans, you just have people wandering in the woods all day.”  

The start of the race is also variable. Runners are told to show up at a particular day and time, but the race start time varies according to the creators’ whims. A conch shell is blown sometime within a 12 hour window, signaling that the race starts in one hour. This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Some years, the race begins in the dark. Some years not.

It’s definitely a race for crazy people.

Lazarus says, “People who have trouble with [any of the last minute or informal race details] are not going to do well on the course, because [no matter what,] it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” 

He continues, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish  anything without the possibility of failure….We like to give people the opportunity to really find out that something about themselves….People who do this are better for …what they’ve asked of themselves.”  

For all of his philosophizing about how good the race is, thought here’s an acknowledgement of how hard it is and how ridiculous anyone is to try it. Runners must prove that they completed every part of the loop by collecting a particular page from books placed along the route. The books are things like Death Walks the Woods, The Road Not Taken, and The Idiot. 

When runners quit, they hit a Staples Easy Button, which says matter-of-factly, “That was easy.”

In the documentary, as the runners are getting ready to begin the race, Lazarus says, “You’ve got about a minute to go – this is usually the part of the race where they’d give you lots of good advice, but if y’all’d take good advice, you wouldn’t be here.” 

It was then that I realized that what I love about running is the same as what I love about church. It’s not gonna happen the way I plan it, ever. We have to adapt and be flexible. We have to give a lot of time and effort to it, or it will fail — and most churches will eventually fail. And finally, we’re also all a little bit crazy, because this church thing is so hard that fewer and fewer people are trying it every year.

But, because we do it, we’re better for what we’ve asked of ourselves and each other.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus lays out another story about vineyards. This time, there’s a vineyard owner who leaves his vineyard to be tended by servants. When he goes to collect his share of his own vineyard, he sends slaves and then his son, all of whom are killed. Then Jesus asks the Pharisees, to whom he’s telling the story, what the vineyard owner will do. “He’ll put those wretches to a miserable death!” They respond. 

But notice that divine retribution is talked about by the Pharisees, not Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t affirm their assumption. Instead, you’d think by his response that they got it wrong. “Have you never read in the Scriptures,” he says, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”?

Guys, Jesus says, you don’t get it. God doesn’t work like people do. You’re saying, if people won’t listen, and if they reject you, kill ‘em! Ignore ‘em!

This is not going to be that easy.

Church is not easy. Church in this age is particularly not easy.

And here we are talking about stewardship and building our future.

It sounds so easy, as if we can just speak it into being. But it’s not easy. Church is much more comparable to the Barkley Marathons than it was even a decade ago.

Church in America today does not just happen like it used to. It is no longer a given that our favorite church will always be around whenever we feel like going. Many churches meeting today will not be meeting on a Sunday ten years in the future. Like the participants of the Barkley Marathons, most will fail.

Now, before you get depressed about that, consider what runners all know: that attempting a hard thing is itself a virtue. Crazy people tend to flock together while doing the impossible — that community is best forged while enduring and adapting together.

That, just as Lazarus says, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure.”

In this age, we church folk have the opportunity to find something out about ourselves, and just like that race through Tennessee, it’s not going to happen the way we plan it. If we have trouble adapting, and if we cannot be flexible and patient, we will have trouble building our future.

Just like running a race, you have to decide to start. We have to intentionally decide to build our future. We have to each make a decision that this place is worth investing in and building a future for. We have to intentionally decide that we as a community want to stay here, at 319 Granby Road, together, for the foreseeable future.

And here’s the Good News: first, we are not alone on the course. God is here. And all these other crazy people are here, because we just keep showing up.

Second, we have a history of rising to the occasion. We have a history of putting time, energy, and resources to do whatever we need to do.

You have the willpower and the adaptability and the generosity of a church twice your size, and that is no small thing.

You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday, year by year, because you believe in this place and you believe that we have a purpose together. You don’t have to. You could sleep in on Sunday. Most people do.
“That was easy.”

But you? You keep showing up.

The future is before us: we just have to decide, again, to step into it, that we have a purpose here worth fighting for. Completing the race will be hard, but it’s possible. You’ve shown that it’s possible: God got you this far.

This is true of trying to do good in the world, too.

In the epistle lesson today, Paul talks about forgetting what’s behind and straining toward what lies ahead, like runners on a race course.

So you’ll be filling out commitment cards soon.

And so I guess that this last sermon before you fill those out should give you some type of tips, words of advice. But I guess, like Lazarus says, if “y’all’d take good advice, you wouldn’t be here.” 

So I’ll just tell you this: you are loved. You will always be loved. And you have already given the greatest gift: you’ve intentionally made yourself part of this community. You keep showing up.

We are attempting a hard thing, but we are not alone. God keeps showing up, too, among us. And because of that, we have an opportunity. Yes, this whole thing seems impossible — the state of the world and the Church.

But like Lazarus says, “If you’re going  to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge. You can’t accomplish  anything without the possibility of failure.”

So let us dare greatly. Let us fail spectacularly sometimes, and God willing, may it be funny. But let us know that God is with us, that we are together, and that we are, collectively, insane, and that’s a good thing.

Let us build. Amen.

Stewardship Sunday #1: Built on a Rock

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Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona (opened in 1956). 

Matthew 21:23-32

[Play re-gifting video over microphone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VGbY6sirHM]

The connotation, of course, is that the re-gifter is the lazy giver. The low-effort, low-enthusiasm giver. The one who doesn’t really love you or the person that gave them the gift in the first place.

Well, it’s stewardship season. We’re embarking today on a four-week journey, and I feel like I should own up to one thing:

Stewardship season, especially when I sat where you’re sitting (that is, in the pew), used to make me grumpy. Not because I resent the fact that the church needs my time or my money — that just makes practical sense. I’ve just hardly felt that people who promoted stewardship were really talking to me.

You see, in some ways, I’m a stereotype: I’m the millennial in her 30s who went and got two degrees in the liberal arts and then stubbornly chose to use my career for the public good, which usually means that you don’t get paid too much. Which means, of course, that I don’t have as much disposable income as the average American. I’ve always had everything I need, but I’ve never had a lot.

So I used to feel little grumpy, especially when I was a student sitting in a pew, during stewardship season.

Don’t get me wrong — it was a big moment for me when I realized that I could give, even a small amount, out of pure stubbornness. However, I still felt that my presence in church would be worth more if it were, well, worth more. I never felt like part of the foundation. I never felt like I was part of what kept the church going.

I’ve always felt like I was the re-gifter, the lazy giver. The one who can’t give as much as everyone else. I thought it was just me.

Then I started talking about it. First, it was just me and my pastor friends, then it expanded to other friends and church members and others. I found that lots of people felt the same way: that our struggle with money was embarrassing. We didn’t want to talk about what we could or could not give to the church or to a charitable cause, and we all thought we were alone — but we weren’t.

It took me awhile to realize how normal I was financially, which then, in turn, alarmed me about the way we often talk about stewardship.

It’s similar to the way we’re prone to talk about a lot of other things in church, really. At least when I was growing up, we were supposed to be only happy in church.

You’re supposed to be a cheerful giver because you’re supposed to have plenty. Not having plenty, after all, makes you feel bad. And talking about it definitely does.
It was as if our mood was somehow tied to whether God’s grace was working in our lives.

Cheerful giver and all that, when it came to stewardship, but it went beyond that.

If you had just lost someone, you were supposed to be cheerful because Christ had defeated death. If you were enduring financial hardship, you were supposed to be cheerful because God has saved us. If you were in a bad mood because your kid was sick and your boss was a jerk, you were supposed to be cheerful because at least God woke you up this morning.

It’s not that those things about God aren’t true. But in each of those statements, both things are true. And by not acknowledging them both and skipping straight to the good news, we lose the whole message because we render ourselves unable to actually feel the Good News because we haven’t acknowledged our own realities.

We think we have to make God’s grace evident by feeling good and really, really believing it. We forget that it’s God who starts this whole thing in the first place.

And there’s also this morning’s Gospel reading.

God’s grace is not dependent on your mood. It’s dependent on God. And that’s Good News.

So this morning’s Gospel. First, there’s this little debate between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders. They interrupt Jesus while he’s teaching in the temple. They demand that he tell them by what authority he’s doing these things.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request. When someone comes to preach here, we’re not all that different. We, too, want to know about someone’s credentials. We have standards. We want someone who knows what they’re talking about, who loves Jesus, believes the creeds, believes in our liturgy, and whose general theology is at least sort of compatible with Lutheranism. But Jesus isn’t having this little credential test from these guys, who he’s accused more than once by this point of oppressing the people. He throws them a riddle wrapped in a parable.

The parable is of a man who owned a vineyard and had two sons. He tells the first son, “Go, work in the vineyard today.”

The son is defiant. He tells his father no.

Then, later, he’s sitting around thinking about it, and you can almost hear him huff, “FINE, DAD,” as he gets up and slugs himself into the vineyard. His love for his dad, and his dad’s love for him, outweighs his mood.

You know that feeling. You’ve decided to skip something you don’t really want to do. You’ve resolved to be lazy. You’ve even said no. Then you’re sitting at home and you start thinking about it and think, “Ugh. I’ve got to go. I should go,” and then you drag yourself to whatever you’d intended to skip, and whether it’s the gym or to help out a friend, by the end you know you’ve made the right decision.

Then there’s the other son. The father comes up to him and asks him to go into the vineyard. He enthusiastically replies, “Sure, Dad!” but he doesn’t go.

And Jesus tells us that it’s the one who said no first, the grumpy one, the one who hemmed and hawed but finally went, that did right. The one who cheerfully paid lip service is useless.

From various sources, I have compiled three practical golden rules of pastoring that I believe are also golden rules for church and for life. The first and most important is to love the people you serve. The second is to do what you say you’re going to do.

(The third is “don’t take the stupid pill,” but that’s another sermon for another time.)

Do what you say you’re going to do.

Love your people, and do what you say you’ll do. That sort of thing, for me, isn’t dependent on my mood. I can be totally grumpy and follow these rules.

It is, rather, dependent on recognizing a much deeper truth: that Christ is risen.

As John Chrysostom wrote in a line that I read to you every Easter,

“Christ is risen, and life is set free!”

This is most certainly true.

And don’t get it twisted: it is not how we feel or how many people are here or anything else that this church’s future is built on. I think we get that confused often, not just here, but in the wider Church in America. We see our shrinking numbers and it sinks our mood and we say “no” to God and we don’t go to work, all because we’ve lost hope because we misunderstand something deep about where the church’s foundation actually lies.

Christ is risen, and life is set free!
“Built on a rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.”

As a football coach once told his storied college team: “This place was great way before you got here.”

The coach wasn’t saying that the players were insignificant. He was telling them that they’ve got an opportunity. That they’re blessed to be part of this.

As are we. We get to be part of hope in a world that increasingly is losing hope. We get to remember how to love one another and be part of a community in a society that’s longing for community and torn by division.

As most of you know by now, I love podcasts. The Ezra Klein Show is one of my favorites. A few weeks ago, Angela Nagle, author and journalist, was a guest. She recently wrote a book entitled Kill All Normies, an exploration of extremist young white supremacists in the United States.

On her way to explaining the appeal of extremism of all kinds to the world’s young people, she says that in previous generations, we have had strong ties to where we came from: to a family, a nationality, an ancient story. Increasingly, those stories have begun to blend together, which has led to a lot of good: we’ve grown to understand people who are different from us and thus, we’ve at least started to become less violent and more compassionate towards them. We now have the easy ability — it’s literally in most of our pockets via our smart phones — to learn about and even communicate with different types of people.

And yet, she says, “We’re reaching the end of something” — that is, of our families and nationalities and religions defining whom we can associate with — and we can’t imagine what comes next.

Society is in the midst of a search for meaning. It turns out, having information didn’t solve all of our problems.

There’s a gap in the human experience, and if you don’t fill that gap with love, it will be filled with hate.

And here we are, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, with an ancient story to which we are deeply connected, which doesn’t call us to hate those who are different, but to embrace them. To face hate with love. To embrace science and research and practical reality because God loves people and comes not that they be slaves to religious laws, but that they may have life abundant. Who taught us that love wins, and that you can kill love, but it’ll be back. It’ll always be back.

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

That is our foundation. Numbers will rise and fall. We will take wins and losses in programming and in our finances.

And we’ll be grumpy sometimes.

Sometimes we might even look God in the face like the son of the vineyard owner and say it: “I will not.

But God still owns the vineyard, and the vineyard will continue to grow.
And because it’s our history, we’ll change our minds and go to work. Because it’s what we do here. Because there’s a world out there full of work and people who need serving and people who need loving. Because Christ is risen, and life is set free. Because we’re a work in progress.

That’s why you live generously.

That’s why we gave generously to hurricane relief. That’s why I ran with my colleagues all the way across New Hampshire to send kids to camp, and that’s why you donated to put me over my fundraising goal. That’s one way we’re making sure that our young people hear messages of love and an ancient story that they are a part of.

Built on a rock, the church shall stand.

We’re just lucky enough to be a part of it, here, together. This is the gift that God has given us.

And so when we give back, we’re all re-gifting. So whether you’re grumpy or you’re cheerful or you’re feeling the abundance or whether you’re feeling the pinch, whether you’re able to give more or whether you can’t give at all, you’re part of this.

And you’re here. And that’s the best way you can possibly re-gift.

Christ is risen, and life is set free.

So as we embark on this four-week journey as we talk about not mere survival, but about building our future together, let’s remember that the foundation for this church wasn’t laid in South Hadley, and it isn’t crumbling with numbers. It was laid 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, and it isn’t going anywhere. We’re just blessed to be part of it.

When a friend got a book signed by faith leader Shane Claiborne, Shane wrote, “May we become the church we dream of.”

Here’s our chance.

So let us build our future, together, all of us. None of us is better than another; we are all a work in progress, built on the rock of Christ.

And all God’s people said: Amen.