Baptism and Autocorrect

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Matthew 25:14-30

Baptisms, like weddings, are days when we want everything to go right, but because there are babies and pastors and general chaos, nothing ever quite goes perfectly. But of course, few things in our lives ever go perfectly.

Mistakes are a part of all our lives, and I think we’d all agree that we don’t need help making them. But those of us who use smart phones have one huge helper in mistake making: autocorrect.

To those of you who don’t use smartphones and don’t deal with it: blessed are you. This is one sermon illustration that it’s okay that you don’t fully understand.

But for you unfortunate majority like me, you know the struggle of autocorrect.

You try to text your boss, “I’m about to go home” and instead, autocorrect thinks it’s helping you as a series of errant keystrokes instead makes you say “I’m about to go honey” and lands you in an awkward misunderstanding.

Or, say, you’re a new pastor at a church and you need to submit a motion to council about something or other, and your council president texts you and instead helpfully reminds you to submit your moron to council. True story.

Sometimes, autocorrect mistakes are hilarious and other times they run the full range of embarrassment from chagrin to full on humiliation.

But autocorrect is just the hip young cousin of its old friend the typo, who humiliated us way back when the thought of a telephone being a camera and a compass and a workout partner was absurd.

Typos really get to us, or at least to me. They really dig at my need to be perfect. If it tells you anything, I so obsessively fix typos in my sermon manuscripts that I even fix the parts that I know I won’t be reading. Worse than that, I fix mistakes in italics and underlining. Can you tell that I italicized that?

Typos humble us and make us face directly up to our own needs to be perfect.

English teacher and slam poet Taylor Mali has one poem singing the praises of typos. It’s called “The The Impotence of Proofreading.” And it starts like this:

“Has this ever happened to you?
You work very horde on a paper for English clash
But you end up with a a very glow raid (like a D or even a D=)
and all because you are the word-1s liverwurst spoiler.
Proofreading your peppers is a matter of the the utmost impotence.

This is a problem that affects manly, manly students all over the world.
…I myself was such a bed spiller once upon a term
in my sophomoric year, that I knew I needed to improvement
or gone would be my dream of going to Harvard or Prison
(you know, in Prison, New Jersey).” (1)

Believe me, I would love to perform the whole poem for you, but you’re just gonna have to go find the rest of it yourself.

But one of my own teachers showed it to us while I was in grad school and I realized how spectacularly funny these mistakes were. I began to look at typos — pure failures in typing, are.

And I started looking at other failures a little differently, too.

Things do not usually go as they should. Arguably, they don’t most of the time.

Today’s Gospel is a little story about a master who went away and left his servants with money. Two of them invest it, and one goes the safe way and just buries it, because his master is a scary guy. (Some of you will remember from our previous conversations that the way that parables work is that sometimes we’re told who’s who, and sometimes we’re not. We assume the master in every story is God, but usually Jesus doesn’t say that.) Jesus is trying to get at a little kernel of truth about life with God, yes. But like the book of Esther, it doesn’t mean God actually has a direct cameo in the story.

Anyhow, this guy who buries his talent — I’ve always thought that guy got a bad rap. Probably because it’s very likely that if I were him, I’d’ve done the same thing. A lot of us would. Especially if you know that the person who gave you money is a harsh guy, you’d be afraid of making a mistake.

It’s the rare person who dares to go all in, to risk everything. Because failures usually aren’t as funny as typos, especially when you’re dealing with a harsh boss.

So what’s Jesus saying to the Church today?

I think it’s pretty simple: it’s okay to fail, because failing means you’re doing something. And we need to come to peace with the fact that things don’t always go as they should.

We rage against autocorrect because it so often makes us look silly. But if autocorrect never made us look dumb, it’d mean that we weren’t typing anything — no messages of love, no “see you there,” no “I was just stinking of you.”

The price we pay for doing things — and for living and loving — is sometimes messing up and trusting others to have grace. It’s things going wrong that are beyond our control; it’s loving people and then losing them.

Where there is life, things go wrong. We make mistakes, and we see hardship.
And where there is love, there is grace.

This is true of parenting, and grandparenting, and teaching. As we baptize these two boys today, their parents will make a lot of promises. I always tell parents that these promises can seem daunting, and most people are immediately afraid that they’ll mess them up. But, just like my own mentor always does, I add that you’ll notice that the support system comes out right in the liturgy, immediately. The sponsors make promises to help. And then the congregation, that’s been surrounding the whole family the whole time, comes right alongside.

Today, we all make promises to God and to Otto and Luca.

We cannot promise to be perfect. And we cannot promise that everything will always go as it should.

Yesterday, we laid to rest our dear brother Howie. As I told the people gathered in Rhode Island yesterday, in preparation for that service and this one, I downloaded several images to my computer that could serve as header images. It wasn’t until relatively late in the week that I discovered that I’d used the same image for both.

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It’s the paschal candle. It’s the candle we light at every baptism, every funeral, and every Sunday of Easter. It’s the one we light at Easter vigil as we remember the night that Christ rose from the grave. And it’s there to remind us that though things don’t always go as they should, in funny ways and terrible ways, in ways within our control and far beyond it, the worst thing is never the last thing. That though we still deal with terrible pain and grief and sometimes mistakes and guilt, love always rises from the grave.

We lit that candle at Howie’s funeral, and we light it today to celebrate Otto and Luca’s baptism. And because of that, I can’t help feeling like today, Howie is with us.

Though we deal with mistakes, death, and pain today, we also celebrate, because Love has risen from the grave. The worst thing is never the last thing: not our mistakes, not even death itself. Love always wins.

Things will not always go as they should for Otto and Luca. They will mess up, we will mess up, and things beyond all of our control will go wrong.

But today we promise, as the whole Church, no matter what, to surround them with love. To be there to teach them about Jesus. To be there to teach Sunday school and tell them hello on Sunday mornings and ask them, what they’re learning at school. To watch them grow.

We may not all be there, but we, the church of Jesus Christ, will be there, always, in some form, and in some way, just as the memory of Howie is  with us today, we will all be there.

Today, we declare that this, the Church, is their home.

This is why we exist: to be a home to everyone. To preach hope. To love with open arms. Because, as we say at Beer & Hymns, we believe that’s how Jesus rolled, and we want to be like him.

Being Church, of course, is full of struggle and full of mistakes and full of tragedies beyond our control. We all face hardship. But we continue to dare boldly and love anyway.

Wendell Berry wrote,

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do
that we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
that we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

We all make mistakes. But where there is love, there is grace.

Otto and Luca, welcome home. We’re not perfect, but we are loved. And we’re here to remind you as the years go by, that no matter what, you are loved, too.

And may at least some of your mistakes be funny.

So, as I accidentally texted a friend this week: let’s get the water and do this ballgame. Amen.

1. You can listen to Taylor Mali’s entire poem here. (Some content may be inappropriate for children.) 

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Bridesmaids and Push Notifications

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Amos 5:18-24
Matthew 25:1-13

Get ready.

That’s not just the theme of the readings today. Get ready: we’ve got a lot to talk about.

We’ve always got a lot to talk about these days.

Slate Magazine posted a video recently detailing every push notification [or the ones that pop up on your phone] that the New York Times has sent out this year. The accompanying article details the ways in which the news cycle for the past year has sped up considerably, for nearly every person with even a passing interest in the news, no matter their affiliation.

This video of every push notification for the entire year comes with a prominent pause button, which viewers are explicitly invited to push. The article ends with, “We hope you’ll take a few minutes to explore …and reflect on the crazy year, [and] press the pause button when it feels overwhelming (because it will, and it was)…” (1)

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Those who are less tuned in to the news might be tempted to advise the rest of us to turn off our push notifications, and I have certainly received this advice every time I’ve mentioned it anywhere. However, as one pundit put it, Washington news in its totality these days is similar to the various individual scandals that we’ve experienced in the past years, or even better, much more like a sports event, where our existential existence hangs on who wins. “We can’t turn away,” he said, “because as terrible as it may seem, it’s the most interesting thing in the world.” To some of us, to turn those notifications off would feel like we were sitting out history, unaware of what we will tell our children and grandchildren. To many of us, he said, it’s not as simple as “turn that off and you’ll be less stressed.”

We’re constantly alert and awake and ready for the next disaster, but that has, in one sense, made the world feel hopelessly stagnant. At least it does to me. I’ve been struggling with that this week, as we experienced yet another outburst of violence: this time, at a church — a small church, an environment not unfamiliar to us.

I know that we’ve all got something to say about guns, and believe me, I do too. But I was also taught, as a writer, that a piece of writing that takes on an issue where everyone’s got an entrenched opinion is a boring piece of writing. “Whatever you have to say about abortion or gun control,” my high school English teacher said dryly, “has been said before, and someone else has almost definitely said it better.” So if you’re interested in that, no matter your position, I’ve certainly got reading suggestions that might challenge you — just ask me at coffee hour. But you don’t pay me to be a policy wonk.

Public policy is a hobby. The health of souls is my vocation. And I don’t just mean “health” as in where you go when you die. I mean how your soul is, right now, and what outbursts of violence among American citizens has to say about the health of American souls.

Because it’s pretty easy to point at every killer and talk about how bad they were. How sick they were. How mentally ill they were. How they subscribed to some horrible, violent ideology. To put the problem outside of us.

But at some point, when a pattern keeps repeating among a people, we have to admit that it’s not a “them” problem, as much as we’d love to make it one. It’s not only about various flavors of fundamentalism. It’s not about the mentally ill, either. It’s about us.

Another article came out this week about how violence is not the product of mental illness — this is evidenced by the vast majority of people in treatment for mental illnesses who have never been violent, and the majority of violent criminals with no diagnosable mental illnesses. Is there an overlap between the two? Obviously. Humans commit violence. Humans get sick, including mentally. So obviously, yes, overlap is inevitable.

But it’s pretty undeniable that it’s primarily anger that makes someone, whether mentally ill or not, violent. My friend Dana, how a United Methodist pastor in Atlanta, commented thus on the aforementioned think piece about violence and anger: “I read this, and as a former mental health professional, I agree 100%. It also makes me wonder what the church could be doing to deal with this anger. I agree that anger management teaches useful skill sets, but I’ve also seen how anger burns a hole in someone’s soul, and I thought the church should have something to say about the health of our souls (and not just the question of whether you’re going to heaven).” (2)

That is, of course, not to blame the victims or to say that if someone had just reached out to this shooter or that shooter, everything would be fine. But whether a person commits violent crimes or not, it’s pretty undeniable that we — we Americans — have a problem with anger.

We are so angry that we cannot hear each other.

We’re so angry that push notifications make people humph and sigh and tense up. (I know this happens to me.)

We’re so angry that we’re miserable.

We are so angry that our souls are unhealthy.

We are a nation of angry, frustrated people. And I don’t think we’re ready to take care of each other.

There’s a podcast out there somewhere called Sincerely, X, and it features important stories that cannot be told publicly and are thus told anonymously.

One such story features a woman who, after a series of pretty blatant indignities stacked on top of a bad day, including being utterly disrespected by a pharmacy employee, completely lost it in the middle of a pharmacy. Seeing red, the woman barely remembers her rampage, in which she pepper sprayed several people. Finally, she collapses, and she hears a man’s voice command everyone to clear the area around her. What he says stops her rampage and makes her burst into tears. 

Asked what he said, she said, “He just asked me what was bothering me.” (3)

Turns out, the man had been trained to respond to such crises. He immediately circumvented her anger by clearing everyone away and by treating her like a human. She was still charged with a crime and still paid the price and she makes no excuses for her actions, but she also acknowledges this man’s role in saving others from her rampage.

He was ready.

Our readings today look towards Advent, like they do every year in November, but this year I feel the urgency just a little bit more. The world always needs people who are ready to respond in love, but if our push notifications tell us anything, it’s that the world needs it just a little bit more these days.

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In a reading that seems a little bit out of place in church but is fun to read if you ever get frustrated with a worship team, Amos, speaking for God, spouts off — “I hate, I despise your festivals! … take away from me the noise of your songs!” (Amos 5:21a, 23a). Um… welcome to church, everybody, and I promise God is happy you’re here, despite our OT reading.

The point of the whole thing is not that God thinks we’re bad singers, but that that people were — are — making themselves fat and happy while not actually effecting any real change in the world. They weren’t taking care of each other, but man, was their worship fancy!

And God hated it, and told them that if they were looking for the Day of the Lord, it wasn’t gonna be pretty for them.

Then in the Gospel reading, we hear about the ten bridesmaids — five wise, five foolish. We’ve heard it a lot, but it’s sort of a strange story if you get stuck in the details. I mean, for one, you’ve got bridesmaids going out in the middle of the night to buy more oil, which only doesn’t seem weird to you because there’s a 24 hour CVS in Chicopee. These folks didn’t live in the era of 24 hours service, so every time I read this parable, I can’t help thinking of the foolish bridesmaids, “Man, they’re really foolish. I mean, where are you going?! You’re going to miss everything.”

The point, of course, is to be ready. To be prepared. To keep your lamps trimmed and burning, because you never know when you’ll need them. When you can use what you have — whether it’s your money, your time, your training, or just your attention — to make a real difference to someone. To see them as human. To treat them as a human person with real concerns. After all, as we said last week, people do not live in the abstract. We are real people with real lives and real hurts and yes — real anger. And we have to be ready to take care of each other and the world around us.

The care of souls isn’t just a pastoral vocation, but a Christian one. Because the person who would never talk to a pastor about their anger may just talk to you.

All of us have to be ready.

And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to tell you that if we just take better care of our neighbors it’ll be a magical way of preventing violent outbursts and getting rid of everyone’s anger. The Gospel is not a story about how we can fix everything if we just try.

The Gospel is not a story about us.

It’s a story about how the kingdom of heaven peeks through every now and then when we let ourselves be open to it, sure. But it’s also a story about our illogical, wonderful hope that someday, this, too, shall be made right. Where everyone is safe and loved and valued. Where no one is angry. Where no one mourns. Where justice really does roll down like waters in the desert.

A quote attributed to the Talmud says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

This, of course, is just an exposition on the Micah passage that hands in our entryway.
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We gather here because, at our best, together, we offer a glimpse into a future without pain, without anger, where all are cared for. And we gather here because the work will someday be completed, the bridegroom will come, and justice will roll down like waters.

I don’t know how. I lose sight of it sometimes in the midst of yet more bad news.

I get angry at the state of things. But it’s this gathered community that’s here to remind me, to remind you, to remind itself to stay ready, to keep caring — because the dawn is coming.

“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Amen.

1. You can find the Push Notifications article and video (and it’s a good one) here.
2. The Rev. Dana Ezell pastors Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta.
3. You can listen to the whole episode of Sincerely, X here.

 

All Saints: #Blessed Are You

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Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

#Blessed.

It’s been used so much now that it’s become a joke on social media. Hashtags, of course, began as a way to separate posts about different topics, but also quickly evolved into a way of making a statement. #Blessed is like that; people will often use it in posts about vacations, family, possessions, or any number of other things, and many more of us have been realizing how ridiculous it’s gotten and have started using it ironically: “Got new ramen mix from the Big Y. Hashtag blessed.”

Like most social media trends, though, it’s a window into life beyond our phones and laptops. It makes a statement about how most people — specifically, most Christians — think about what it means to be blessed. After all, long before there was social media, there were vanity license plates and bumper stickers for your car that said things like “Too blessed to be stressed.”

Give me a break.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve known some incredible, kind, intelligent people who use “blessed” this way. Some of them have the aforementioned license plates and use the hashtags.

It is, however, a little window into how we as a culture think of being “blessed” — it has, for a while now, become less about divine favor and more about happiness, money, possessions, family — basically, to say, “I’m blessed” has come to mean, to borrow a phrase from a certain prosperity Gospel preacher, “I’m living my best life now.”

Part of it is our history. The “Protestant ethic” is even more of a thing than Protestant-ism these days — it’s the idea that your morality and your blessings are based solely on how hard you work, and that if you’re poor, it’s because God’s cursing you for not working hard enough and being frugal enough.

Of course, we also have the Bible to blame, since those pesky Protestant work ethic folk got those ideas from their interpretation of the Bible. Often, especially in books like Genesis, we’re told that someone, usually a dude, was “blessed by God,” and then said dude’s riches and possessions and children are described. But it’s still pretty clear that those things don’t necessarily go together — nobody’s more blessed than Jesus, but he ended up being executed after living as a poor traveling rabbi in an occupied land.

Yes, he rose again, but he didn’t exactly have a boat and a lake house.

So what does it mean to be blessed? And what does that have to do with saints?

To answer the first question, I consulted the dictionary, or as Demetri Martin calls it, the Nerd Bible.

Here’s what I found out.

To be “blessed” is “to be consecrated for a religious rite; to be made holy.”
Not one mention of the Hamptons in the whole definition.

So how is something, or someone, made holy?

A professor early in my college career remarked at how churches feel holy to her because she imagines the prayers offered in them by the saints over the years. She images the people who came here just to rest. Just to pray. Just to cry.

Many of you have been in this space to do just that. And many more people have offered prayers and love and tears here who have now died. This place is holy.

Holiness in our lives, more often that not, has skin on. It’s the point where humanity meets the divine.

It’s that human holiness, those prayers offered here, that makes even my skeptical mind wonder, “Maybe there is something to all of this, after all.”

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes coming back to her congregation from vacation and remarking how difficult it was to be spiritual without them, because the gathered assembly helps her believe that there is something to all of this Jesus stuff.

I feel the same way about you. I hope that you feel the same way about this community, too — that it helps you to remember that there’s some hope out there beyond what we can see. That, despite terror attacks and shootings and death, maybe there is a glimmer of hope, somewhere, just beyond what we can see — and that whatever it is, it lives here, in this place, with these people.

As usual, God has a way of turning our expectations upside down. We think that being blessed means being rich and happy, all while Jesus says,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-5)
Which immediately reminds me of Monty Python’s depiction of the sermon on the mount in the movie Life of Brian: “Oh, the meek! I’m glad they’re getting something; they have a helluva time.”

But really.

Those who are poor in spirit, in mourning, meek, and persecuted are all mentioned by Jesus as people who are #blessed.

And we’ve all known saints like that. In our tradition, saints are all of us — we are all sinners, and we are all saints, and on all saints day, we remember all of those who have lived and died in varying circumstances, each one of them loved, each one of them blessed, each one of them real.

Thomas G. Long, storied preacher and preaching scholar, puts it this way in his book on funerals: “Christians do not live in the abstract. They are real people who live real lives, and they die real and very different deaths. They die young, and they die old and full of days. The die in the flames of martyrdom, and they die cowering in fear. They die as saintly sinners; they die as sinful saints. They die of crib death, of cancer, of old age, and by their own hand. They die full of joy, and they die despairing. They die in Hartford and Buenos Aires, Karachi and Toronto, Nairobi and rural Nebraska-in the places where they have lived and loved and in places where they are strangers and exiles. They die in hospitals and nursing homes, along highways, at sea, and at work. They die surrounded by those who love them, and they die alone….”

Dr. Long goes on to say that Christian funerals can also be radically different, but they have one unifying theme: the Gospel. He writes, “All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)

In Jesus, our stories are redeemed. In Jesus, the world is turned upside down.

And in Jesus, we look at each other and at the lives of all those who came before — from St. Augustine of Hippo to St. Howie of Our Savior’s — and we dare to believe that just maybe, there’s hope. That just maybe, the one they believed in and talked about and prayed to is the one who can redeem all of this.

Because of them, and because of each other, we can believe that someday, there really will be no more death or crying or pain. That maybe someday you won’t get those news updates on your phone about yet another bloodthirsty person who murdered innocent people.

That maybe someday all of this will be redeemed.

Until then, we lift each other and we pray together in this place and we continue to make this place feel holy. We sing things together like the hymn we’ll sing in just a few minutes: “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.” (2)

It’s a completely illogical claim. And I could not believe it without you.

Holiness often comes with skin on.

So let us give thanks for each other and for every saint who has blessed us — with love or with service or by building the church we know today — and now rests with God. Because of them, we aren’t blessed as in rich — we are blessed as in holy.

We are blessed as in saints. Amen.

1. Excerpt from Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, Westminster John Knox Publishers, 2013.

2. The hymn of the day at OSLC on All Saints 2017 was “What Wondrous Love Is This.”