The Church and the High Line

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The trees growing through the old train tracks on the High Line in Manhattan.

Lent 2
Mark 8:31-38

A few weeks ago, I made a weekend trip to New York City. Parker and I walked along the High Line, an elevated linear park and walking trail on the west side of Manhattan. The High Line soars over Manhattan’s streets, and along the way, passers by can gaze at and interact with art, enjoy the green space, and rest at park benches as they stare at the busy streets below.

The High Line didn’t start as a park, though. It was originally a railway, built beginning in 1847. The trains carried mainly coal, dairy products, and beef, and operated at street level. In the early days, so many accidents occurred between the trains and other vehicles that the corridor became known as “death avenue.” So in the early 1900s, public debate began about how to address the danger, and in 1934, the High Line viaduct project was begun to raise the trains over the traffic below. The new, raised trains would carry their cargo directly into New York City warehouses and businesses. Because the project was destined to go through blocks rather than along streets or avenues, 640 buildings had to be demolished in order for the railway to be built.

It turns out that the High Line project has always been about letting old things die in order to create something new.

Of course, over time, other modes of transportation for these goods took over, and the trains became outdated. The growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s precipitated the fall of rail transport nationwide, and eventually, it rendered the High Line trains useless. By the 1990s, the raised rail line was completely unused and in disrepair, slated for destruction. The steel structure of the thing, however, was sound.

Long story short, it was saved by the High Line park project. In 2005, it was removed from the national rail system so that it could be zoned as a park, and construction on the park began in 2006. By June 2009, the first section of High Line Park was opened, and the High Line was resurrected and thrives today, with new sections still being added. The old tracks are still there, overgrown by vegetation that greets thousands of passers by each day. (1)

As Parker and I walked along the High Line a few weeks ago, I looked at the abandoned railroad tracks and a tree caught my eye, growing strong right smack dab in the middle of the tracks. The trains had to die for something new to arise.

Reflecting on the state of the church in America like I do, I said to Parker, “If this was the Church, do you think we’d’ve ever stopped running the trains, or tried to find a way to have trains and a park (because the young people really like parks)?”

The reply came: “But people really love the trains, Anna. We’ve always had the trains. Some people gave a lot of money for those trains.”

Somehow, in the church (and in the rest of the world, really), a resurrection people has become afraid of death, afraid of endings, afraid of change.

Like most things, though, you can be sure that it didn’t start with any generation alive today. It’s a human thing to think that death is final and change is scary. It’s nature, after all — death is a final thing to be fought, and stability is safety. We generally have a hard time with change and transition, in the church and elsewhere.

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus pulls no punches as he describes what must happen to him. This is one of those times that we lose the full impact of Jesus’ words here because we already know the ending.

“Those silly disciples,” we think. “They don’t have any faith. They don’t believe Jesus when he says he’ll be resurrected. Poor suckers.”

What we forget is that they didn’t have the whole story available to them from birth, as many of us have. They did not grow up hunting Easter eggs or coloring empty tombs or reading the full story of Jesus.

All they really knew for sure was that they found a teacher that they loved, and that when people died, they stayed dead. So when Jesus openly said “I must be killed,” Peter said exactly what any of us would say to someone we loved who said, “I have to die” — “Shut up! You’re not dying! Why would you say that?!”

And this is what gets Peter called Satan. Satan, which in Hebrew means “the accuser” — the one who tells you that you are not what God has called you to be.

It’s similar to where the institutional church is now, really: we don’t have the end of the story in front of us. All we have is what we can see: as churches decline in numbers and all churches wonder, with varying urgency, what’s next. We don’t have a guarantee that it’s all going to be okay — in New England or elsewhere. In a hundred years, I sometimes wonder if the children of the Church in whatever form it takes next will look back on us and think, “Those poor suckers. They were so full of fear and refused to change. They just didn’t have any faith.

I’ve seen too many debates about why people don’t come to church anymore. I keep wondering why we want to go back to some heyday that existed in the 1960s or ’70s or ’80s. The booming institutional church of the twentieth century was, yes, the source of a lot of good, but it was also the source of plenty of abuse and evil.

God is a creator, not a time machine. In God’s time, there’s no going back to what was. 

There’s only ashes to ashes, then dust to life: for institutions, and for us.

One quick aside while we’re talking about this passage: let’s be clear: “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” — isn’t about us working ourselves to death. It’s not about church people and pastors denying what we need and what our families need and what our bodies need for the sake of the Gospel. It is not about self-abuse in the name of self-sacrifice.

The church for too long has glorified overwork, confusing motion with progress, trying to get back to “where we were,” and we have a lot of burned out pastors and tired laypeople to show for it. As one ELCA pastor put it to an overworked friend of mine recently, “You don’t have to die for Jesus. Jesus already died for you.

“Take up your cross” is, as my hospital chaplain friend Kathleen says, less a message of “kill yourself” and more a message of “get over yourself.” This isn’t about you or me putting in as much work as you can to keep this current model of church going. This isn’t about us at all. It’s about listening to what God is doing right now, trusting that God is not defeated by human failures or shrinking numbers or those pesky millennials who just won’t go to church — because, well, one of them is preaching to you right now.

God, Kathleen says, is always firmly on the side of life. Of being human. Of not being on the side of imperial power. Of not being a company man. Which actually means not confusing motion with progress or overworking yourself, but instead, about being more human and helping others to do so as well. Of being willing to let something die — really die — so that it can be resurrected.

Which, let’s be real, can really get you crucified by those who love only what was.

So let’s move forward, separating what is Gospel from what is simply our preference, denying ourselves, and taking up the difficult things in order to help ourselves and those around us become more human, more honest, more real, more loving — more like Jesus.

This Lent, at Wednesday night Bible study, we’re talking about the “dark side” of theology: stuff like Satan, demons, sin — stuff that modern progressive Christians have a hard time talking about. This week, we talked about being dust — ash, death, and human frailty. We used Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday, the same one that the council is reading together this year.

In her chapter “Ash,” she talks about how we are formed from the dust, made in God’s image, but the creation story tells us that we tried over and over to be like God the way that we saw God — to rule over everything, to be in charge, to conquer and dominate. And in the process, all we did was spread death everywhere.

She says, “We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave.

“And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.

Life to death, death to life — like seeds, like soil, like stars. No wonder,” Evans writes, “that Mary mistook the risen Jesus for a gardener.” (2)

The High Line as it is today is itself a kind of wild garden, with trees stretching up through the tracks of dead institutional infrastructure towards the glorious sun of the future. Children play tag around the old train tracks and interact with new art and sculptures along the way. Because the city that never sleeps finally let its outdated trains die, but realized the structure was sound, something new could arise.

Unlike Jesus’ story, we do not know how our story ends — not the universal church, not Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, not our own individual stories. Every now and then, in the wilderness, we face the ultimate temptation: hopelessness. But our structure, too is sound.

And remember: in God’s time, there’s no going back.

There’s only ashes to ashes, then dust to life: for institutions, and for us.

We cannot stop death, but we can remember that the only thing that love cannot do is stay dead.

So let us step out in faith, like Abraham and Sarah, and into the future to which God calls us, unafraid of the road ahead, with no guarantees.

Because it’s true that someday, this old train — the institutional church, this church, and all of us — will stop running.

When that happens, God will build something new: a place where everyone can stop above the din of their lives and take a moment to breathe, to love, to meet God — to be more human. And we will all stretch up through the tracks towards the glorious sun of the future. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. My High Line knowledge came primarily from Wikipedia. You can read more about the High Line, its history and its present, here.
2. You can purchase Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday here.

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Temptation, Wild Beasts, and Angels: When the Wilderness Finds You

Lent 1
Mark 1:9-15

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The summit of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, where thousands of hikers each year are rewarded with this view – and a reminder.

As a church, we find ourselves in the Lenten wilderness for another year.

I have to confess that I’ve never entirely been sure that things like Lent matter to most people, even church people. I’ve had my doubts over the years that most people have the time or the available brain power to imagine the forty day Lenten journey as anything other than something that happens at church. Naturally, for most people, missing church means missing Lent, and Lord knows that between flu season and busy lives, it’s easy to miss church these days.

It’s for all these reasons and a few of my own that I realize it’s not natural for many of us to have a lot of imagination about Lent; the only reason you might think about it outside of this space is if you’ve given up something or added something for your Lenten discipline. You might think about Lent when you reach for the chocolate or fast food during the week and remember that you can’t have it, but that’s probably about it.

But while we may struggle with Lent, we don’t need any help understanding the concept of wilderness. Literally speaking, even those of us who are non-hikers can imagine life on something like the Long Trail or the Appalachian Trail. Many of us know someone who’s done a thru hike like that, staying in the literal wilderness for days or weeks.

We understand metaphorical wilderness, too, and all of us understand it by experience. By this I mean the countless times in all our lives when we feel ourselves searching and lost. Any number of things can land you there: the illness or death of a loved one. An illness or injury of your own. A vocational crisis. A financial crisis. A broken relationship. A general sense of dread from what you see on the news. Any combination of these factors and countless more can land you in the wilderness.

You know the many feelings of the wilderness, too: sadness and depression, anger and bitterness, relief and gratitude — sometimes by themselves, and sometimes all at once.

You know what it’s like to find yourself in this kind of wilderness, even though it can happen in any number of ways, sudden or gradual. Maybe you’re plunged into the wilderness of loneliness and confusion suddenly when you hear the bad news — you know, that she’s sick or that you’re sick or that he died or that that person doesn’t want to be with you anymore.

Or maybe it happens more gradually, as you slowly find yourself sliding into a general confusion about your life and your identity and what’s happening in the world.

It doesn’t matter how you get to the wilderness, but it’s rarely by choice.

In today’s Gospel story, we get a re-run of Jesus’ baptism before we’re told that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.  Let’s be real: we mainly get that re-run of his baptism because the wilderness story is only two cryptic verses. But sometimes the most relatable stories are the ones without a ton of detail.

What we do know is that Jesus didn’t get there gently. While Matthew and Luke phrase it something like “was led” by the Spirit into the wilderness, Mark is much more forceful in his description. He says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness — using the same Greek word that Matthew, Mark, and Luke use to talk about what Jesus driving out demons, and the one that 1 John uses to talk about people wrongfully getting forced out of the church.

So Jesus, not unlike many of us, is driven into the wilderness, and there he meets the three things and entities: temptation, wild beasts, and angels. And so today, we’ll talk about the wilderness in three parts, using the experience of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to help us along.

Chapter One: Temptation

Because Mark doesn’t do details, we don’t know anything about what Jesus’ temptation was supposed to be like. As for us, though, we usually think about temptation in pretty petty terms, really: temptation to do bad things.

I don’t mean to belittle this kind of temptation; certainly we all have our vices, some more serious than others, that legitimately harm us and others. Most times, though, I think the problem is far more insidious than being about an individual behavior — the biggest temptation that grabs all of us, I think, is hopelessness. That this will never be okay, that we have failed, that we are tired and can’t go on.

Hopelessness. Thru-hikers get it in the literal wilderness, and everyone gets it in the figurative wilderness.

This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, there was another shooting. Another school shooting. For those of us who are teachers or students and for the countless more who love such people, this hit us harder than usual.

The photo that impacted a lot of us deeply was the one of a grief-stricken woman with an ash cross on her forehead. For liturgical Christians in particular, this impacted us deeply, churning up not only compassion for this woman, but reminding us that we are all a heartbeat away from utter grief and deep, dark, lasting wilderness.

Temptation for most of us these days is to give up and resign ourselves not just regarding gun violence, but public debate and our ability to solve anything in general. I feel it, that pull into my own uselessness and inability to change anything, ever. To resign myself to living in an entirely different political reality than those I love.

When you hit the temptation to hopelessness phase, you know for sure that you’ve found the wilderness.

Some days, that temptation wins, and I’m reminded that Jesus didn’t give in to temptation, but there’s only one Jesus, and I’m not him.

Chapter Two: Wild Beasts
The funny thing about the wild beasts of Mark’s story about Jesus is that we don’t know exactly what we’re supposed to make of it. Is Jesus up a tree running from coyotes, or is he taming foxes and hanging out with them so that he doesn’t get lonely in the desert? Well, personally, I can’t imagine God in flesh up a tree, and I’m a dog person, so I prefer the latter.

I know animals aren’t for everyone, but those of us who love and appreciate the presence of animals know that their noticing us can lift our day. One of my favorite cartoons is called “The Awkward Yeti” and is often a discussion between organs and other parts of the body either among each other (for example, the brain is analytical, the tongue is demanding, the gut is ornery and embarrasses everyone all the time, and the heart is whimsical and impulsive).

One particular cartoon goes like this: Panel one: the heart is walking alone and sad. Panel two: A cartoon dog walks up to the sad heart and wags its tail. Panel three: The heart walks up to the dog and pats the dog on the head. : pat, pat : Panel Four: the heart bounds away smiling. Pets, whether our own or someone else’s, have a way of lifting our hearts. Diego would like to note that he is usually available after church for doge therapy upon request. His fee can be paid in scritches behind the ear.

But the “wild beasts” can be just that — wild. They can come to you in the form of wild geese over your head or the hawks floating around the mountains or a rabbit or a deer that you see in your yard. This is the part where the real wilderness and the metaphorical wilderness are the same. People wouldn’t undertake thru hikes through ugly places, and what often keeps hikers’ feet moving is the promise of beauty — beautiful creatures and beautiful views.

In the same way, part of what can make the metaphorical wilderness okay is the chance to enjoy the real wilderness, even if it’s just the beauty of the or the snow or the sunlight or the birds outside your window.

St. John of the Cross knew wilderness of his own, and he wrote this poem:

“I was sad one day and went for a walk; I sat in a field.
A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times –
to just be close to creatures who are so full of knowing,
so full of love;  they don’t chat.
They just gaze with their marvelous understanding.”

Final Chapter: Angels
Jesus also meets some angels in the wilderness, whom we are told “attended to him.” Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t tell us that the angels show up at the end. In Mark, it looks to me like the temptation and the wild beasts and the angels are with Jesus at different points all along the journey.

On the Appalachian Trail, there’s a whole other culture with its own set of terminology. “Trail magic” is an unexpected thing that lifts a hiker’s spirits. “Trail angels” are people who make trail magic happen, whether it’s a ride into town or a hot shower or a hot meal. At its heart, a trail angel is someone who is not spending all their time in the wilderness taking a moment to help someone who is.

I don’t have to tell you that when you’re in a period of metaphorical wilderness yourself, there are plenty of trail angels along the way. They’re the ones who give you a meal or a smile or a helping hand when you need it most. They can’t take you out of the wilderness, but they can give you what you need along the way.

So the next time you find yourself in the wilderness or if you find yourself in the wilderness today, look for and give thanks for the trail angels along the way, be they family, friends, or strangers.

Learn what thru-hikers know: there is always trail magic to be found.

And while you’re at it, this Lent, consider how you can be a trail angel yourself. Consider who you know that’s in any kind of wilderness right now, and consider whether you’re in a position to help. Relationships are complicated and messy and often broken and you are not capable of helping everyone. But everyone can be a trail angel to someone.

Epilogue
The liturgical Lenten journey isn’t primarily, for most people, about a pious observance. I think Lent is most useful when it helps us understand something about our lives inside and outside of these walls. Whether you’re here for every service held in this place through Pentecost or whether this is your only time to join us, you’ll likely find yourself in some wildernesses on the journey from now to the end of spring. Most of us are settled in some sort of wilderness already.

May you find food for the journey here, because the bread we break is God, the one driven into the wilderness before us, teaching us to withstand the temptation to abandon it all, the one who was with the wild beasts and created the beauty of the wilderness we see, and the one who met and sends us angels along the way. 

We don’t usually go into the wilderness by choice, but the Good News is that we also do not go into the wilderness alone.

When hikers reach the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Mt. Katahdin, they are greeted with a plaque with these Ash Wednesday-appropriate words: “Man is born to die. His works are short lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all it’s glory shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.

Ash Wednesday reminded us that we came from dust and will return there. All of our journeys in the wilderness will not save us, but they can teach us. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we find the end and a stunning view and a glimpse of  a loving God who shall stand far longer even than Katahdin, and we will feel small, humble … and fulfilled. So let us journey this Lent — together. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Morbid, Hopeful Humor for Another Year’s Journey

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Maybe there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday is the day that the church always plays a joke on us: the Gospel is about how not to disfigure your face, then we go and put ash on ours right after that.

In addition, this year, for the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day; “be my Valentine, ya sinning mortal.” And that is where we begin today.

Just recently, I happened upon a crude and delightful Instagram account called @LordBirthday which usually includes mostly ridiculous lists.

My favorite list was “Things I worry about that are totally normal to worry about.”

Some highlights: “That I will be asked by a farmer to participate in a rice harvest.”

“That I will get too tall and become the TOWN JOKE”

“That I will get stuck in the blood pressure machine at Rite Aid and just have to become part of the store.”

“That I will lose my nose in a war”

“That I will be left for dead in a room full of ukuleles”

“That I will have a big, splashy panic attack in the YMCA pool,” and finally, we see @Lord Birthday’s penchant for ending with a veiled but serious existential crisis:

“That I will go gently into that good night.”

All of us have a mounting list of worries, some ridiculous, some legitimate. For most people, things related to death rank high on the list.

Jesus people gather on Ash Wednesday to begin Lent by talking about death. Our own mortality, to be specific. We cover other things, too, as you can tell by the readings, but the most personal part of the entire service is receiving the ashes and hearing the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” which echoes some of the last the words that will likely be spoken at our funerals: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Everyone dies, no matter what they accomplish. You cannot be good enough to dodge death. Death makes us humble, so that is why we begin Lent this way.

Seems like a bit of a joke, doesn’t it, to come to church on Valentine’s Day to be reminded of your own mortality. Weirdos.

I read in The Atlantic about an app whose sole purpose is to remind you five times a day that you’re going to die. It’s inspired, apparently, by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” asserting that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” This app pings your phone at unpredictable intervals, recalling the unpredictability and suddenness of death, with sometimes incredibly morbid quotes about death along with a terse message: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” It’s called WeCroak and it’s supposed to bring you inner peace.

I read the article. I did not download the app. (1)

Then there’s TurboTax, which has been running a new series of commercials lately. There’s one where a woman breathes hard and weeps in fear for her life behind a slatted closet door, the light in the room illuminating her tears and her terrified eyes.  Sinister music in the background plays as she tries to get a better view of what waits behind the door. We see a rocking chair. We hear squeaks. We see a shadow move in the room towards the door and the terrified woman.

The woman screams as the door is suddenly pulled open in front of her.

In the room stands a singular adorable teddy bear, which beatboxes, hums, and dances… for an uncomfortably long time.

A single line fills the screen: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” (2)

The commercial’s about our fear of taxes, but I sometimes wonder if the same is true of our fear of death. If you’re like me and most people, every now and then you have an existential crisis where you deeply fear death, for ourselves and our loved ones.

Though churches have, over the years, offered sure and certain answers, the Bible is much more concerned with how we live in this world than what happens in the next.

All we know officially is death and resurrection, but I have some hunches.

The end of the Monty Python movie Life of Brian includes a song that I’ve always wanted played at my funeral. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” includes the gem: “Life’s a laugh, and death’s a joke, it’s true.”

Don’t get me wrong: I know that death is not actually a joke. It is a scary, ugly reality that looms over all life everywhere. There is a reason we say that the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

But I’m also well aware that not only is Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day, but Easter this year, some forty-something days from now, is on April Fool’s Day. Kind of appropriate, I think, considering it’s the day we celebrate Jesus making a fool of death, pulling off the universe’s ultimate hoodwink. I imagine him winking back at the deep, dark tomb, knowing everything is different, now.

April fool. 

But today, my job is to be your version of the WeCroak app. We will all die, and so will everyone that we love. To some of us, that’s obvious, because we think about death all the time, whether we’ve witnessed death our whole lives or whether we’re coming to terms the passage of time. Others, for whatever reason, find ourselves living above the fear of death, rarely thinking about it until it crashes into our world through the death of someone else.

Either way, we will all die, so Ash Wednesday reminds us that while we’re here, for whatever time we have left, we’d better learn to live.

So live.

And here, on Valentine’s Day, love. If you don’t have a significant other, reach out to someone else to say hello. If you’re estranged from everyone, we’re glad you’re here and we’ve got love to spare and plenty of Jesus bread to go around.

Give thanks that while it is true that WeCroak, we follow the one who came that we may have life, and have it abundant, the one who offers himself to us here, and the one who played a giant joke on death.

You are dust. Technically stardust, most specifically. You were created from dust to be part of the earth, to live and love and for God’s sake, laugh, on the earth. You are dusty and holy and woefully imperfect and completely beloved.

And when the time comes that all of us, no matter how rich or smart or talented or good, meet the great enemy Death, may we wink like Jesus, realizing that Love has hoodwinked death, realizing that when the door is thrown open, there’s nothing to be afraid of. And may we “go gently into that good night,” having lived, and returned, to Love. Amen.

1. Read more about WeCroak in The Atlantic here.
2. If you want a chuckle, you can watch the whole commercial here.

Transfiguration: Christian, Breathe Now

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Selfie Kid and one of the countless memes he generated.

Mark 9:2-9

This isn’t like last year, when when a Patriots Super Bowl win produced a thousand good sports-related sermons.

Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it either.

But there was one moment in the halftime show that caught a lot of people’s attention: selfie kid. As pop star Justin Timberlake climbed up into the stands and danced along with the crowd, lots of people started noticing the one kid who looks to be about 13 or 14 who kept looking at his phone. Everyone else in the stands was dancing like a crazy person on national TV, but that kid: phone.

Finally, when Justin Timberlake got near him, we learned why he’d been messing with his phone — setting up that once in a lifetime selfie with a pop star. (I’d like to note that, for me, this still isn’t a satisfying answer, since most phones allow you to swipe to camera mode with one flick of the wrist.

: demonstrates by taking a selfie :

Anyway.)

This, of course, made Selfie Kid into an instant sensation with everyone using the still of him looking at his phone side by side with screen shot representations of what he might be looking at. My favorite: a Google page with the simple question “Who is Justin Timberlake”.

Selfie Kid captivated the nation for a minute because of the national conversation around, I think, two related things: first, people’s general distraction in looking at their phones during big moments, and second, people wanting to capture big moments rather than just enjoying them.

An episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror takes this concept, as Black Mirror often does, to an extreme in order to show us what’s up. Black Mirror is an intense, often disturbing series that details humanity’s relationship with technology by constantly looking forward to a dystopian future. It takes where technology and our relationship to it are right now and pushes it to an extreme to show us what dystopian future could be someday.

The episode “The Entire History of You” tells of a future where nearly everyone has a chip implanted into their brains that records everything that they see and hear. The chip is called a “grain,” and it can play back your memories either in front of your eyes or on a screen — they call those playbacks “redos.” You can zoom in, zoom out, re-hear what people said to you, and relive big moments in your life. You can replay a redo of an interview for a new job for your friends so that they can relive it with you, give you feedback, or laugh at how awkward you were.

Like just about everything in Black Mirror, your reaction is meant to be “this is horrible — and it came from a really amazing idea!”

What would it be like, we’re meant to wonder, to be able to go back to precious moments in our lives — moments like your first kiss, your wedding, the birth of a child — and relive them in front of our very eyes, or watch them on our computer screens like it was Netflix? Of course, it might be wonderful to relive joyful moments, but what about painful ones? Of course, characters in the show demonstrate how unhealthy such technology can be, too, as they relive, over and over, the most painful moments of their lives, or memories of a person who has died or broken up with them, rendering these characters utterly incapable of living their lives forward as they watch the past happen again and again. (1)

Obviously, the disciples lived long before cameras were a thing and before anyone could conceive of re-living moments, but of course, humans haven’t actually changed all that much in our psyches. People still wanted to capture amazing moments and make them last. And this is when I have to say that Peter was the Selfie Kid of the first century.

Jesus, Mark tells us, has gone up a high mountain with select disciples: just Peter, James, and John. I assume that they assumed that they were going up for prayer time with the mysterious new rabbi. They must have felt special, getting special prayer time with Jesus. They hike up a mountain with the Lord in their tunics — as my friend Joe said this week, “Can you imagine hiking up a mountain without pants?! — and get ready to pray.

Then things turned dramatic when they reach the top of the mountain and all of a sudden Jesus starts actually glowing. Then Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear to them too. The disciples are terrified and speechless with the wonder they see all around him.

And then Peter does the most human thing: he tries to capture the moment and make it last. He offers to build houses or shelters for the three men, to make a shrine to this. He assumes that this is it, the moment that must last forever. He’ll build shelters for them and they’ll be able to come to the top of this mountain and visit God and Moses and Elijah any time they want.

But the Revolution, then as now, will not be televised and cannot be captured.

They have to live their lives forward after this.

They can’t come revisit this moment, because moments, even amazing ones, are fleeing.

Mark tells us that Peter is so overcome with the moment that he did not know what to say, so God bails him out and shuts him up at the same time. As Peter is jabbering in stream of consciousness form his instincts about building a shrine, a cloud overshadows them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved — listen to him!”

Stop trying to capture the moment, Peter, and listen. Just listen. Take all of this in.

Put down the hammer. Put down your phone. Stop dreaming about being able to visit this scene any time you want.

Listen.

You cannot capture this.

You will not pass this way again.

And you’re about to go through times so amazing and difficult that you could not possibly imagine now. So listen! Listen to Jesus.

Of course, they won’t listen. Not really. This little episode in Mark is bookended by Jesus telling about his death and resurrection on one end, and at the end of this passage, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about this moment — that means no Facebook or Instagram, James — until Jesus is raised from the dead. In short, he told them twice that he’d be resurrected.

But when he’s captured and crucified? They flee.

It would seem that “Listen to him!” fell on pretty deaf ears as the disciples, especially Peter, were distracted by trying to capture the shiny stuff for posterity.

The Good News is that all the disciples’ inattention didn’t stop Christ’s death and resurrection. Despite all our distraction, God still accomplishes the work.

Today, despite all our distraction, despite our inability to move forward, God still gets to us. In real things that can’t be captured — bread, wine, water, words.

In real palms turning to real ashes. Events that we better enjoy, because we cannot relive them, no matter how many photos we take.

Note: this isn’t a call to stop taking photos, at church events or elsewhere. I still will — it’s a good thing, even, for a bunch of reasons, including being able to show other people what we do here.

This is a call to put down our distractions and realize when we are in the presence of God. This is a call to put down our worries and meet God in bread and wine and water and words and pre-Lenten sugary treats and burning palms and other people. It will not happen exactly this way again, and we do not know when the hardest times of our lives are coming, just like they came for the disciples.

This is where we meet Christ, the Beloved — stop for a moment and listen!

One of my favorite poems was written by a teenage slam poet from Chicago named Adam Gottlieb called “Poet, Breathe Now.”

In it, Adam talks about how he’s unable to write a poem, distracted by everything from his life to his dog until finally he hears his dog say to him, “Poet, breathe now. ‘Cause it’s the last thing you’ll ever do for yourself.” Adam’s poem calls the poet to breathe into the moment and listen, and from there, the poet may write.

Over the years I’ve returned over and over to Adam’s poem thinking, “Preacher, Breathe Now,” trying to cut through all of the distraction in my brain and the notifications on my phone to figure out what God is saying to the Church right now, and Adam’s call to breathe is nothing short of a call to stop trying to capture everything and just… listen.

Adam writes,
“[Poet, breathe now, because], when you take a breath the universe rings out like circular beats – 

landing planets are seraphim storms are spit – stars are soulcandles!

and you breathe like chest rebounds even when all hope seems lost, our sounds pound mics like hope-stars like “we’re still here!” — holla!

we make angels of our nightclubs,

bards of our bums,

outlooks of our outcasts and infinity of our sums,

we are the children of empathy, the pathos of slums,

we heal like helios, like cyclical drums

we enlist life from listless and sometimes even get things done.”

And I edited the end of Adam’s poem so that I can leave you with this: 

“Preacher, breathe now because once you start your piece

you can die behind that microphone and death may be breathless,

but the Gospel is deathless so breath, be our savior eternal.

Preachers with your lives, Gospel bearers:

breathe once with me now.

[Inhale… exhale.]

That’s one sermon we all wrote.” Amen.

1. “The Entire History of You,” Black Mirror, Series 1, Episode 3, originally aired in December 2011.
2. Watch Adam’s poem in its entirety here.

Stories of Family: “Shameless,” Simon’s Mother in Law, and a Guy Named Andrew

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Older sister Fiona (left) and Ian from Showtime’s Shameless.

Mark 1:29-39

I started watching the American television show Shameless last year. The show is kind of a re-up of a British TV show by the same name, and it details a family with six kids on the south side of Chicago who lives in poverty and has to do all kinds of things — including dealing with an alcoholic father and an absent mother — to get by.

Full disclosure: I stopped watching it when I started to find several elements of the plot line unbelievable. And now, I can’t explain why — maybe it’s just winter and I’m coming to terms with football season being really over soon — but I’ve started watching it again.

There’s a poignant moment during one particular episode that I watched recently that’s stuck with me. Ian, the bright, hot tempered red-haired brother who looks most like the family’s bipolar mother, has not come out of his boyfriend’s dark room for days. He stares at the wall. He refuses to talk to anyone. He cries a lot.

Without explanation and without warning, he won’t sit up or move.

Ian’s boyfriend, Mickey, tries to get Ian up, but he refuses. He won’t respond other than yelling at him to go away. Finally, in desperation, Mickey calls Ian’s family to help. 

Mickey, a tough guy also from the south side of Chicago, guides Ian’s siblings into his house and shows them through the door where Ian is lying. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he says. “Do you know what this is?”

Ian’s eldest sister Fiona, in her early 20s but wise well beyond her years after caring for her siblings alone for so long, looks at the others meaningfully, then she looks towards Ian, still lying motionless in a heap of blankets on the bed. 

“Yeah,” she says, “we know what this is.”

“This” is, of course, bipolar / depression, an illness that runs in their family. But the meaning in her voice conveys so much more than that: it also says “he is ours, and we understand him.” She and her siblings spend the next few days checking in on Ian, leaning over his body to hug him, trying to convince him to go for a run or go outside. Eventually, of course, he relents and manages to pull himself up again, as the family will then begin to go through what so many families have: trying to get Ian to take his illness seriously and get help so that he can be healthy and whole.

And it begins with that one line: “Yeah, we know what this is.”

He is ours, and we will help him.

The Gospel passage for today, just like last week, follows directly on the heels of the passage before it. Last week, Jesus healed a guy with a demon and we talked about how Jesus was getting more and more popular as people began to demand more and more of him.

They seek the same things from him as we often seek from our leaders even today: charisma, speaking directly to their lives, recognizing them, and helping them. In the process, most of them miss his point entirely. Today, they continue to press in around Jesus, exhausting him, going to find him even when he’s gone up to rest and pray.

But there’s one seemingly tiny part of this story besides people pressing all around the doors to Simon’s house to find Jesus.

They arrive at Simon’s house, and here’s the situation in case you forgot. Jesus has just picked these guys up along the seashore only days before. They’re still new at all of this. They’ve just been at the synagogue where Jesus drove some demons out of a guy as the demons taunted him. From there, they come to Simon and Andrew’s house.

As you might when a guest is entering your house for the first time, they went ahead and told Jesus that one of the family is sick: Simon’s mother in law. Like many women in the Bible, she doesn’t get named, and her episode is brief — but meaningful.

Jesus comes into her room and takes her by the hand. I imagine her, a little confused, thinking “doesn’t this guy know that I’m sick? Does he want to catch it?”

But my liturgy professor in seminary showed me something that was pretty cool as he was explaining how liturgy should work. He reached out his hand to me as he was explaining intuition. Without thinking, I took his hand, presumably to shake it.

We humans have a tendency to take a hand that’s reached out to us in a friendly way. Something’s hard-wired into us that way. In this gesture, Jesus seems to say, “Yeah, I know what this is.”

He reaches out his hand and touches her and lifts her up. The fever leaves. She serves.

Funny, isn’t it, how this is how God comes to us, often through other people: reaching out a hand, lifting us up, claiming us as their own.

You might roll your eyes a little when you think of the gender dynamics of the newly healed mother in law of Simon immediately serving the men upon her healing. But if you look a little more deeply, it’s much more than that, as a friend of mine pointed out in a sermon years ago.

The Greek word Mark uses to describe what Simon’s mother in law does, you see, is the same one from which we get our word for “deacon,” a position in the church. It’s the same one that Mark uses to describe the angels attending Jesus after his time in the desert. Jesus heals her, and she undertakes not woman’s work, but the work of the church, and the work of angels.

Nameless though she is, she is one of ours. She is significant. She is healed for a purpose much higher than the one we might give her on our first reading. We don’t know her name, but Jesus did. As he was forming his community around him, she became one of them.

It’s as if he said “I know what this is. I know who you are. You are one of mine.”

Your church council is currently reading a book by Rachel Held Evans called Searching for Sunday. The author, Rachel, is a little older than myself and comes from a similar background. She tells the stories that helped her rediscover the power of the Christian faith in her life through the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments of the Episcopal church: real things like the water of baptism or oil on her forehead when she’s sick or bread and wine at communion — are what made faith real to her.

In her chapter on baptism, she tells the story of Andrew, a nineteen year old who couldn’t wait to be baptized. “Just thirteen more days!” Andrew sang out as if he were counting down to his graduation or wedding day.

Andrew, whom Rachel describes as being “a dimpled, sandy-haired college student,” went on to tell Rachel, whom he knew from her blog, about how he never thought he’d been good enough to be baptized. When she asked him what sort of church he grew up in, he pulled up an editorial on his phone that described same sex relationships as “disgusting.” Next to the editorial, Rachel saw on Andrew’s cracked screen, was a photo of a man with silver hair and a suit and tie who was described as a pastor.

“That’s my dad,” Andrew said, “and he published that right after I came out.”

But even before that, he says, “I was always denied baptism and communion growing up. My dad told me I wasn’t manifesting enough fruits of the spirit in my life. He wanted me to wait until I was good enough, holy enough.”

When he went to college, Andrew did manage to find his way to a church, but this one accepted him as he was.

When he told them his story, they said the equivalent of, “Yeah, we know what this is.”

Andrew was accepted as their own. He was baptized. That church took his hand, and lifted him up so that he could serve, too, and tell every other person, rejected for whatever reason, the same Good News that he heard. Andrew learned that he didn’t have to wait until he was holy enough or good enough; as he puts it, “God’s grace is enough.” 

And that was the clearest picture of healing that I found this week outside of Shameless and the Bible.

So may we be a family that is healed to heal. May we reach out to others in understanding when they come to us in pain: yes, we know what this is. We know that you are hurting. And you are one of God’s, and one of ours. Let’s take more people by the hand and lift them up, because the church historically has, for too long, done the opposite.

Last week was Thomas Merton’s feast day. Merton was a Trappist monk born in France who would travel all over the world as a monk and a theologian. He said many amazing things, among them, “We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with [one] another.”

He also wrote about being claimed by God in this simple story with which I end today:

He says, an elder was asked by a soldier if God would forgive him, a sinner. And he said to him: “Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away?”

The soldier replied and said “Of course not — I will mend it and put it back on.”

The elder said to the soldier: “If you take good care of your cloak, and continue to use it, how will God not mend and use you, God’s own image?”

This is why we are here: to remind each other, constantly, because we need it — we are loved. We are healed. We can serve. We know what you are: you are one of ours, one of God’s own. Amen.