Guest Post: When Disciples Become Toddlers, or No, You Can’t Do It Yourself

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Source: parents.com, Sarah Noda/shutterstock.com

Written and preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran, South Hadley, Mass, on October 21, 2018, by the Rev. Karen Stephenson of Atlanta Bar Church, Atlanta, GA.

Mark 10:35-45

When I meet new people, I usually introduce myself by letting them know that I am a momma.  I have two children, and the oldest turned 23 this week. I confess that recently I did that whole mom thing and took a trip down memory lane. While I was looking at her pictures from when she was a a small child, I came across this one picture that made me recall that my Jordan, my 23 year old, had her own “catch phrase”…her own motto, which was always said through gritted teeth was this:

“I can do it myself!”

She said it all the time. It didn’t matter if she was trying to reach something on a shelf that was too high, or tie her shoes or cross the street — she could do it herself.  She was born with a fierce independent streak. So, now, this independence has made her an amazing adult, but it proved to quite a challenge as her parent.

In this week’s Gospel text we we encounter two disciples who are pretty sure that can too “do it themselves.” James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who as an aside here, are embracing their own motto, which is “There is no such thing as a stupid question.

They have asked Jesus to do whatever they ask of him and for the honor of being seated right next to him at the cool kids table in heaven, one on his right and the other on the left.

To which Jesus graciously responds: “Um, guys, are you sure you’re ready?”

“Can you drink from the same cup and partake of  the same baptism that I will?”

Their response: “Oh, yes, Jesus. We are ready.”

And this — this is where I am sure that Jesus responded with the quintessential theological response: “Bless your hearts.”

Which, according to Ludlow Porch, a Georgia humorist who was podcasting before it was cool, is often Southern for “…you stupid fools.”

Mark’s Gospel gives us multiple examples of how the disciples just don’t get it.

Here they are, believing that they have the ability to sit in the same seats as Jesus, God incarnate, and that they can do it themselves.

Like I said, bless their hearts.

You know, I have to wonder, how many of us are like Jordan.  How often do we encounter a new challenge or adventure even and through gritted teeth say the words, “I can do it myself”?

Or how many of us are like James and John, and  think that we can sit in the seats next to Jesus and handle all of the authority and obligation that such a position would require. 

How many of us say, “Hey Jesus.. I got this”?

Friends, hear me when I say these words: we cannot do it by ourselves. We are not enough. But before we fall into feeling inadequate, or limited by our beautiful humanity, consider this: God, our heavenly parent, knows that we are not enough. 

And what if I told you that this is the way that you, me, we are designed?  That it’s not a flaw in our makeup, but rather a beautiful aspect inherent in our design:  as humans, we are not made to go it alone.

This is humbling, right? It is for me. We live in the United States of America, a land of rugged individualism.  A place where we celebrate people who are able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Stories of individual success are lauded.  Self-made people are idolized.

But America isn’t the kingdom of God, is it?

Maybe we’ve lifted up the wrong thing.  Maybe in our desire to ‘do it ourselves’ we have forgotten that God created us to live in community and to rely on others just as they rely on us.

We are accustomed to a culture where we think we don’t need each other, and maybe just maybe there are times when we think we don’t need God.

So, if we aren’t meant to do this life thing, this life as disciples, by ourselves, what reminders do we have to help us embrace our neediness, our humanity?

Take a minute. Take a look at the people sitting around you.  I know that yesterday you all celebrated the life of one of your own. According to your pastor, this congregation gathered together to honor a woman who understood that to be human was to be in community and to make room for more people at the table.

A  woman who knew that we cannot do it ourselves,
and — this is the good news — that we don’t have to. 

And not only that, but that we can’t do good on our own, we are unable.

Martin Luther reminded us that only through the power of the Holy Spirit working within us are we able to be enough.  So Recognizing our inability to drink the cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Jesus is the first step in recognizing our dependence on God.  We are called to serve, yes, but we don’t have to do it alone.  

We have each other and we have a God to see us through. 

When we can’t muster the strength to act, we rely on others to help and when others lack the strength, we can step in.  But in all of it, God is guiding us and strengthening us. And it is through God’s power and presence in our lives that we can be enough, 

That we ARE enough.

Amen.

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Ghosts of the Reformation

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Grand Central Terminal in New York City; home to more than a few ghost stories. 
Photo cred: Wikimedia, user @Sracer357.

John 8:31-36

Welcome to Reformation Sunday. Or, as most people, even most Protestants call it: the Sunday before Halloween. Thus, I find it appropriate to begin with a little minimally scary ghost story. 

A few months ago, due to construction, I found myself arriving via Amtrak into New York’s Grand Central station. Grand Central, the iconic building — with the huge golden clock in the center of its large, open atrium, with painted celestial constellations on the ceiling looking down on you from above. I found out later that, as with anything that has a long history, Grand Central has its share of ghost stories.
One such story takes place in the early 1900s. It includes a frightened, gray-haired main in a black bowler hat approaching the main counter under the big clock at Grand Central’s center. He says, breathing quickly, “The midnight train to hell is coming for me. I have committed too many crimes against man and sins against heaven.”

As the story goes, the station agent reached out to grasp the man’s hand and reassure him.  “Sir, we have no midnight train to hell. We have the 11:58 PM from Croton-on-the Hudson and the 12:02 AM from New Haven arriving, but no trains to hell.  Furthermore, we have no connection with any infernal agents or a railroad stops [pointing] down below.”

But suddenly, a steam whistle echoed off the walls of the terminal.

A locomotive appeared, steaming, even though by that point in history, the tracks were electrified. It is said that the attendant could feel the rush of hot air propelled forward by the steam locomotive. 

A second later, the old grey-haired man disappeared.  Just the black bowler hat remained on the floor of Grand Central Terminal. The attendant says that the train continued south — though there are no tracks south of Grand Central.

The story scratches a lot of our ghost story itches: namely, the mystery surrounding historic places like Grand Central Station that have seen so much humanity over the years, as well as the ghosts that lurk around, stirring our imaginations and also disturbing us. It also reinforces our learned fears of God’s wrath, which brings us back to Reformation Sunday.

We Lutherans can get a little irritated that other Protestants aren’t as hyper-aware as we are of the history of Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses and the profound effect that they had on the modern church. If you didn’t grow up Lutheran, you may not even feel all that connected to this history. If you grew up Catholic, you may feel hyper-connected to Luther — after all, I imagine that you left the Roman Catholic Church for a reason. Alternatively, though, if you still feel connected to the Catholic Church and/or have close family members and friends who still are Catholic, you may see Reformation Day as a painful reminder of our ecclesial separation from them.

Like Grand Central Station, you see, the Reformation has its ghosts. These are ghosts, like any, haunt and terrorize us, wedging themselves into our psyches. They also haunt our relationships with our neighbors. It is about time, I believe, that we shook free of these ghosts. The legend goes that at times, you can free yourself of a ghost by learning its name. It’s time to name the ghosts of the Reformation, then. So that we, like the Gospel texts, may be set free by truth and to set others free, too.

What’s more: our nation has its own ghosts. Violence and threats of violence against political leaders, as well as an antisemitic attack that has left eleven people dead in Pittsburgh have their own origins in prejudices as old as time.

So I give you today: the ghosts of the Reformation, or discomforts and untruths that lurk around Reformation Day — and the Western world — like ghosts. 

First, there’s the specter of schism. Schism — as in our separation from our siblings in the Roman Catholic Church. There is the fact that violence erupted between us and them not so long ago, and the fact that we manage to live in peace with them today, right here in South Hadley. There are the lies we tell about each other. For example, we might easily tell ourselves that the story of the man in Grand Central is more Catholic than Protestant, you know, since one of the lies that we tell is that Protestants alone believe in grace and that Catholics are all about God’s wrath. This, my friends, is a lie: both Catholics and Protestants, have, over the years, both preached grace and preached salvation by works. No Christian denomination owns grace; God alone does. Grace is poured out on everybody, and that’s the point. We must also accept, in the spirit of the Reformation, that no one church 100% gets any of this right and that we all mess it up royally on the regular.

Second, there’s the specter of self-reliance. When we hear that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” a lot of us feel a tightness in our chest. Are we, too, waiting for the “midnight train to hell”? Because we are aware that we all have royally messed up, we fear God’s imagined wrath, and it follows us around like a ghost. The more I talk to people about faith, the more I realize that a lot of people have this image of God where God is sitting in heaven with a clipboard, doing advanced calculus wherein God writes down each of our sins and marks them out when we confess, and if we die without confessing, we’re on the next train to hell. Sure, we may say that we believe in grace, but we fail to extend it to others, or to ourselves, believing deep inside that this “free grace” thing couldn’t possibly really be true.

This leads to the final ghost/lie, which is related to the others: that we are special and Jesus loves us best. When the folks in the Gospel reading say to Jesus “We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone,” you’re not supposed to feel superior to Jewish people because you, unlike them, understand that Christ is greater than Moses. That’s not the point. The point, rather, is kind of the opposite: that you do not become part of God’s family by being born into the right faith or tradition. You don’t become part of God’s family by doing or saying the right things, either. Rather, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” — no questions asked. Freedom is an act of God, offered to all people; it is not something that is earned. 

There are a lot of other “ghosts” related to the Reformation, too: Martin Luther wrote some stuff that is bluntly anti-Semitic. These writings are easily findable online. Especially in light of the continued violence against our Jewish neighbors, most recently in Pittsburgh, we can’t overlook this or fail to acknowledge our role here. Look, Luther was far from perfect, often lashing out at his enemies and perceived enemies. We make a mistake, and we hurt our neighbors, when we uncritically lift up Luther as a perfect example. He wasn’t, and he would be the first to say so.

It is time we set these ghosts free so that we can be free, too. 

501 years ago, something happened that changed the shape of Christianity and saved the world. Luther didn’t hope to cause a schism at first, but a schism happened. We should not be proud of this. We should take it as a sign of our brokenness as humans — that we can’t ever manage to get God, or grace, right — for ourselves or for others.

But in a way, the Reformation is also a blessing that gives us freedom: free to worship as we wish, free to follow the Spirit’s leading without fear of repercussions, free to welcome through our doors whomever we wish, as we think Jesus would want us to do. 

There are thousands of Christian denominations as a result of the Reformation. This is the reality that we must live with until all things are made right, until God finally makes the church one. How that will happen, I cannot tell you, because cannot fathom how the church today could possibly be one. We are so different, and we value such different things. There are Christians who believe that other Christians, including us, are demon-possessed, those who believe that LGBTQ people are demon-possessed, and I’m not sure how we could possibly be “one.” Being together, to me, sounds like a bad cocktail party and an even worse image of the end times. But then again, I am very much not God. My imagination is very limited.

But until Jesus comes back, let’s finally be free of the ghosts of the Reformation. Let’s embrace our neighbors, even if we can’t worship with them on the regular. I think that’s what Jesus would have us do: be free of the ghosts. There is no midnight train to hell, no bowler hat, no ghosts, only grace. So be free indeed. Amen.

Open Hands

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A scene from the 2004 movie Saved!

Mark 10:17-31

First Jesus starts talking about divorce, then, as a break, he goes after rich people. 

Last week, because it was a children’s Sunday school Sunday, I did a sort of switcharoo on you all, snipping away the passage about divorce and leaving only the cute part about the children coming to Jesus. But for every preacher who wasn’t creating a worship service for children, it was a Sunday to talk about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. It’s a painful text for many, especially those who have personally experienced or been near to divorce themselves. The church has, for years, exiled divorced people from the communion table and told them all sorts of harmful things, wielding Mark 10 as a weapon and ignoring the wide variety of incredibly painful reasons that two people might get divorced. It turns out that life is messy, and rigid rules hurt people when they are wielded as weapons. 

One of my favorite God-related scenes from any movie is from the 2004 movie Saved! One of the characters, Hilary Faye, is very Christian and very pious and very self-righteous and played by Mandy Moore. In the scene in question, Hilary Faye is attempting to stage an intervention with the main character, Mary, whom Hilary Faye believes is walking away from Jesus because Mary is no longer doing exactly what Hilary Faye herself wants. During the would-be intervention, Mary tries to literally walk away, but Hilary Faye won’t have it — she hurls her Bible at Mary, completely un-ironically screaming “I AM FILLED WITH CHRIST’S LOVE!” The Bible hits Mary in the back. Mary picks it up, turns around, and says one of the most theologically rich things I know of in any movie, complete with perfect pauses for emphasis.  

This is not a weapon — you idiot.” 

Another phrase was often bandied about when I was in seminary: “Be a fool for Christ, not an idiot for Jesus.” 

Stringent rules do tend to simplify our lives, but because life is not simple, wielding these rules as weapons quickly turns us into idiots for Jesus. 

Strangely, though, we rarely use it as a weapon against rich people, presumably because the church has always wanted their money. You know, it’s been a bit of a rough week, I ran a half marathon yesterday, and I’m feeling a little blunt this morning.

Don’t worry: I don’t intend to be an idiot for Jesus and use the Bible as a weapon. However, not using the Bible as a weapon does require that we think about it, because well, the Bible does say what it says. 

So what of it, then? Is it true that rich people can’t enter the kingdom of God? Is it true that divorced people commit adultery? And the most important question: is any of that even remotely the point Jesus is trying to make?

After his famous teaching on divorce, just as he’s getting started on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus just as he’s setting out. Ditching any preliminaries, the man hollers, “GOOD TEACHER! What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Can you imagine starting a conversation like that? Try it when you’re in the checkout line at the Big Y sometime. “How are you today?” “WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?!” 

Then you’d know something about what it’s like to be a pastor on an airplane, I guess. 

Anyway, Jesus gives this man some beef about calling him “good,” then he basically says, “You know the law.” And Jesus rattles off a few commandments. The man replies, “Yeah yeah yeah — I’ve kept all these since my youth.” We presumably have an observant man of faith on our hands.

Then Mark says that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Then Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 

Weird, isn’t it, how people who take the Bible literally seem to take everything literally except this part (and maybe some stuff about mixed fabrics and cheeseburgers)?

I’ve heard a thousand explanations about how Jesus “didn’t really mean” that we should sell all our stuff. But I’m here to consider one distinct possibility: maybe he did.

He said what he said, after all, and if he’s Jesus, isn’t his word law for Christians? Even those of us who aren’t rich have private property. I certainly haven’t sold everything I own, and I’m not planning on having a blowout tag sale for the poor at the parsonage any time soon.

But people are hungry not too far from here. The more global you get, the worse it gets: the person in this room with the least in capital still qualifies as fairly rich on a global scale. Unless somebody won the Powerball and didn’t tell me (I can’t blame you; I would’ve sent you two stewardship cards) none of us is crazy rich by American standards. Compare us to the world’s poorest, though, and we come out looking loaded.

As we say in the South whenever the pastor talks about money, the preacher has “stopped preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.” 

The bare facts, though, are that Jesus said what he said: “sell all your possessions and give them to the poor.” Peter says a few verses later that the disciples gave up everything. In the early church, Acts tells us that the earliest Christians also took Jesus’ words more literally: Acts 2 and Acts 4 paint a picture of the Christian community that held all things in common, and gave to anyone who had need. 

That’s what all takes to follow the law to the letter: sell all your possessions and feed some people. If everybody did that, we would have a more just world with a lot fewer hungry people. Just like the ideal for marriage is that it’s a covenant that lasts forever.

But then life happens, and life is messy a lot of it is out of our control. We humans, for reasons within and outside of our control, can’t ever quite seem to fully get it together in a way that works for everyone. 

Nobody here is worthy. And that’s exactly Jesus’ point.

The whole thing, and the rich man’s piousness and vulnerability and sadness in walking away, and the image of the camel and the needle’s eye astounds the disciples so much that they ask him, exasperated: “Then who can be saved?!” They’re not even sure that they’re good in this scenario, and they have given up everything.

Jesus just replies, “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.”

The whole thing is about the crushing nature of the law. About how the point of having stringent rules is so that we can ourselves worthy. It gives us standards by which to measure ourselves in every way — sounds awesome, until we realize that life is messy, stuff happens that’s outside of our control, and strict standards are impossible for everyone to keep.

But for God, Jesus says, all things are possible.

Enter grace. 

Here’s a thing I say all the time: The Gospel isn’t a story about how we prove ourselves worthy. The Gospel is a story about God.

Peter’s exasperated, though, and still doesn’t get it: “We’ve left everything to follow you!” 

It’s not about you, Peter. It’s about turning the world upside down. 

Many who are last shall be first, and a lot of folks who are used to being first shall be last, and they’ll probably be pretty mad about it.  

But either way, there’s plenty good room at the table.

Long ago, I heard someone say, “The Eucharist is the only altar call we need.” 

This isn’t a story about us or our willingness to give up everything or how long our marriages last or anything we do. Because the law crushes everybody — rich, poor, married, divorced. If idealistic rules don’t get you on one thing, they get you on another. Possessions, money, marriage, divorce — it’s all complicated and messy. There is no reliable standard by which to measure humanity because one person’s frivolous, terrible decision is another person’s survival tactic. So it is with divorce. Abuse is real, and toxic relationships are real, and some people divorce so that they can survive and thrive. The real sin is pretending like we can be gatekeepers for God.

Life is messy. Thank God we don’t have to keep score, because we couldn’t if we tried.

Enter grace. 

Grace, that we meet at the altar in bread and wine. I once heard someone say that the Eucharist is the only altar call we need. I believe that. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans quotes Robert Fararr Capon, who writes, “Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” 

Evans continues, “This is why I need the Eucharist. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to begin each week with open hands. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to practice letting go and letting in. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to quit keeping score. 

‘No one has been worthy to receive communion,’ writes Alexander Schemamann, ‘no one has been prepared for it. … Life comes again to us as a gift, a free and divine gift… everything is free, nothing is due and yet all is given.’”

She continues, “It’s a scary thing to open your hands. It’s a scary thing to receive, to say yes. I resist it every time. But somehow, whether it sneaks in through a piece of bread, a sip of wine, or a hatching bud, grace always, eventually gets through. And finally, at long last, I exhale my thanksgiving.” (1)

The Bible is not a weapon. It is also not simple; it can be confusing and burdensome. 

But in the end, it is a story about God, not a book of stringent rules. We have enough rulebooks. The Bible holds an ancient story that tells us how easily we humans turn destructive and how messy life is, and proclaims something else: that grace always breaks in, somehow, right about the moment that we stop keeping score. It is not a weapon, and we need not be idiots for Jesus in trying to keep all its rules. The Bible comes to life at the table in bread and wine and words and grace, offered freely, thank God.

So let us begin our week, beloved, with open hands. Amen.

1. Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (2015), 144-145. 

Church, Together

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As the Church, we walk together: and not just on Palm Sunday.

Genesis 2:18-22

It’s a fairly common experience, I think, to meet the parent or sibling of a friend or significant other and think, “Wow — my friend makes more sense now.” 

Knowing where someone came from, and knowing their relatives, helps them make more sense.

Which is why I feel like meeting Jesus would make humanity as a whole make more sense, and that someday when we all meet God — if God is the kind of being that can be met, per se — that humanity, or at least, the goodness of humanity, will make more sense to us. 

The Genesis reading has been used for centuries against LGBTQ people and women, so let’s get a few things clear: first, a woman created to be the “helper” for the man doesn’t mean that she’s less than he is. Don’t believe me? The Hebrew word for “helper” used here in Genesis is the same Hebrew word used for God in the psalms when a psalmist says,  “O God, you are my help.” So yeah. I wouldn’t go too far with that argument, dudes.

Second, the point of the passage is not really gender at all. Sure, it helps explain to ancient people why male and female humans exist, but that doesn’t seem to quite be the theological point being made here. Last week, we talked about how often we get distracted when reading the Bible by talk of heaven and the afterlife — sometimes we get so distracted that we miss what the writer of the passage is actually trying to say. The same is true of gender; we get distracted by it and don’t notice much else about a passage. If we were dogs, gender would be a squirrel: a distraction, something we run off after, leaving everything else behind. 

And here is what we miss by running off after gender: “it is not good for a person to be alone.” And God creates all the creatures of the earth — presumably even dogs — and none is found to be a suitable companion. 

The only thing that works is when God creates another human. It’s not just Eve; we are all created for each other, to walk with each other, to keep each other company. We are created for relationship by a God whose very self is relationship: one in three, three in one, God is love. It is not good for us to be alone — so we have each other. 

Mindful that we have children and a few low-attention adults with us, myself included, today’s sermon is participatory. You just have to listen for your cue. 

I’ve been among you for almost three years now, and I’ve walked with you through a lot. So I’m going to describe some things I’ve seen (don’t worry — there are no names, and the things I’m describing are general), and then I’m going to say, borrowing from Elizabeth Eaton, our Lutheran presiding bishop: “We are church” and you will respond, “together.” Feel free to add a clap, just for emphasis. Let’s try it. 

We are church: together.

They say that no man is an island, and the same is true of church. No person is an island. No person is a church. We can only do church with others. And here, for this season of each of our lives,

We are church: together.

We gather around a campfire, and we all, young and old, clamor to hear the stories of one member in particular. He tells us stories of the Dick’s Sporting Goods website in the late 1990s, of getting his computer problems solved, and of finding the perfect melon at the grocery store, and a few other stories that we’ve all heard before but long to hear again. If we’re lucky, we might even hear a few new stories. We gather, we toast, we laugh, we roast marshmallows. We are church: together. 

We gather around a wheelbarrow, and we receive instructions from our fearless leader — the property chairperson, or the outreach chairperson, or maybe someone else — on a chilly weekend day. We each grab a rake, or a shovel, or a pair of gloves. We clean up: our own church yard, or maybe the yard of a neighbor in need. We laugh and share stories over the mulch that we spread and the hedges that we trim. We are church: together.

We gather around the narthex and say hello to people we haven’t seen in ages. We meet one another’s family that’s flown in from far away. The lights are low and the air is chilly, because it’s Christmas Eve. The ushers wear funny Santa hats because they are hilarious. We sing carols. We light candles. Everyone is welcome. We are church: together.

We gather out by the church sign, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna,” a word no one uses anymore, making our neighbors passing by say, “look at those crazy Lutherans.” It’s early spring and the wind is cold and  the day is cloudy, but the sanctuary is warm. We lay our palms and our coats at the altar and we enter into the holy story of Holy Week. We are church: together. 

We gather around plastic tables in the fellowship hall and we crunch the numbers and we set a budget for another year. If we’re lucky, someone brings cookies. We are church: together. 

We gather around a bed where one of our own lies, sick. We pray. We sing. We make sure, in whispered, non-intrusive tones, that the family has enough food. We ask if there’s anything else we can do for them. We love and we bless and we hug and we cry and we care for our own. We are church: together.

We gather on someone’s porch in summer. We share stories and the awesome cheese dip that somebody made. We make plans for the future and we take shots with corn cobs at the compost bin. We enjoy the warm air of summer and the warm glow of each other’s company. We are church: together.

We gather at a bar owned by one of our own. We sing hymns, we drink beer, we confuse and delight the usual patrons of the bar. We talk about the Red Sox and the Patriots and high school lacrosse. We are church: together.

We gather around a grave, and we say goodbye for now. We make more meals for the family. We meet the whole extended family, who has flown in for the funeral. We awe at how much our beloved church member looks like their sibling, or their children, whom most of us have never met before now. We recall with laughter and tears the memories. We hug one another, and we send each other home. We keep checking in with the person’s loved ones during the weeks and months and years to come. We keep sharing memories. We light candles on All Saints’. We give thanks for that person, always. We are church: together. 

We gather in the parking lot for Easter Vigil, all of us, even the pastor, wondering what in the heck we are doing at church on a Saturday night. The sun sinks below the horizon, and we light a fire, the first fire of the warm days, even though it usually isn’t even warm yet. We go inside to the fellowship hall and we tell stories as old as time: stories of God creating humanity, of the children of Israel, of the dry bones of Ezekiel. We go into the sanctuary and taste bread and wine — like always, but not like always. We pop champagne at the end. We celebrate together: Christ is risen indeed. We are church: together.

We gather around the table every Sunday, knowing that even when any one of us is absent, we are here. We God’s people, will always be here, in some form. We gather on the first day of the week, as Christians have for centuries, and sing songs of redemption and read stories that inspire us, stories that confuse us, stories that capture our imaginations or bore us to tears. Every Sunday, we step into this river of faith that’s been going on for centuries and will go on long after we are gone. We, we humans, were created to be together, in relationship with other people. And in this moment in history, this is our faith community, where we come and hear the shouts of kids and clap our hands and share our joy and share our pain and share our lives. We are church: together.

I am proud of you. I am proud of all that you do for one another and the tender ways that you care for one another. I am glad that we are here together for this season of our lives. We humans were created for relationship with one another, and I am glad to share life with you. 

Thank you. Thank you for everything that you do here and the ways you contribute: whether by cleaning up the church yard or contributing your gifts or money or talents or by keeping our finances in line or just by getting yourself and your tiny humans here. Thank you. We are blessed and changed by your presence among us. You are the reason — one of many — that we are church: together.

Knowing where someone came from does sometimes make them make more sense. The God from which we all came and to whom we shall all return is relationship, is three in one, and one in three, is love. And we are reflections of that love, because we were created for one another. 

And here, in this place: we are church: together. Amen.

Complete Colorblindness, Flaming Trash, and the Kingdom of God

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Mark 9:38-50

Fun facts: according to the Internet around 4.25% of the population is colorblind. For almost all of those people, that means having trouble distinguishing between reds and greens and the like, and while it causes difficulty with lots of things, most people can adapt. A tiny sliver of this population, though, cannot see color at all through a variety of conditions in the eye. Now.

With that in mind, I give you this vignette published by Tumblr user @ed-nygma-variations: 

“I have a friend who is [completely] colorblind.
I have another friend with synesthesia where she sees colors when she listens to music. 

My colorblind friend always wanted to see color and because my friend with synesthesia and my colorblind friend have the same taste in music, she describes color to my colorblind friend by relating it back to music. 

Like, ‘The sky is Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”’

And this is what pure friendship is.” 

Today’s Gospel reading is full of judgement that might immediately set of some existential dread in you. 

“It would be better for you if a giant millstone was hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42). 

And the whole thing about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes is reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale where a fundamentalist Christian government actually takes these words literally and does regularly amputate body parts as punishment for sin. 

There are many ways of looking at this. Given the allegations of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church recently, and given that Protestants are not blameless in the area of protecting children from abuse either, we might even be tempted to give this text an imprecatory reading, telling ourselves that we’re reading all about the harsh judgements awaiting those who abuse children in any way. 

However tempting that might be, I want to turn us instead to reading this text not for our own enjoyment of imagining the torture of others, but instead, imagining how it might be helpful to us. 

Here’s the thing: we get really hung up on hell when we talk about the New Testament. I got so hung up on it in college that I wrote my entire college thesis about hell, and not just so that I could tell all my classmates and professors that I was writing “one hell of a paper” or that “writing was hell these days.” 

Here’s what I learned: hell didn’t immediately appear in anyone’s religious literature, but was a concept that developed over time, usually in communities that were being abused by a more powerful group. It’s been a thing for us for a long time to imagine our abusive enemies being tortured for eternity. It makes us feel better to know that justice is coming. 

When Jesus talks about hell, it takes on a different character. The word he uses isn’t Hell, or Hades, or anything of the like. The word he uses is Gehenna, which is an actual place just outside Jerusalem where it is said that some kings used to sacrifice their children — and which is said to be cursed, so Jerusalem started using it as a place to burn its trash. 

“Kingdom of God” is also a weird term: it doesn’t exactly mean “heaven.” “Kingdom” is a deceptive translation, because the Greek word is active. A better translation is “reign of God,” an order of things where God’s way goes, where everyone loves their neighbor as themselves and where peace reigns. 

So in short, we’re talking less here about “heaven” and “hell” and more about loving your neighbor vs. living a flaming trash life — mostly in this life.

One of the best things I ever heard Gail R. O’Day, my beloved professor who just passed last week, say was that, while everyone is obsessed with final destinations, “The New Testament is far more concerned with how we treat one another here than where we ‘end up.’” What’s more, a lot of what we see as descriptive of “where we end up” is actually describing what happens here on earth. Because let’s face it: there’s plenty of heaven and hell here on earth to occupy us for the time being, and final destinations have for far too long been simply a technique that religious authorities use for control and eternal bribery. 

So what does all of that have to do with colorblindness? I’m getting there. 

We’re easily distracted by the afterlife talk, and the hyperbole. No, Jesus does not actually want you to cut off your hand. Please don’t cut off a limb. Instead, try growing a sense of metaphor.

But once you get past the distractions and the imagery, Jesus is describing causing others to “stumble.” For most of my life, I believed that this was about causing other people to sin: you know, encouraging them to engage in poor behavior of all interesting types. The problem with that interpretation is that it limits God. Sin doesn’t get between someone and God — God reaches out to sinful people all the time. That’s what this whole Jesus thing is about, after all. 

No, to cause someone to stumble, like a stray lego in a dark room, is to get in their way. To block their path. To try to keep them out, to keep them from getting to God. To close the doors of the church in their faces. To attempt to get a person to believe that God doesn’t really love or accept them. It is the worst thing that you can do to your very self to make someone else believe that they cannot get to God.

Don’t even let your own hand or your own two feet or your own eyes get in your way, and don’t you dare get in anyone else’s, for we are Christians, and whoever is not against us is for us. And for those who are against us? “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

The table is open. Dangerously open. Offensively open. 

But being open certainly has its perks. 

When describing the church she founded, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said that when you walk inside, you might see all types of people: gay, straight, and in between, tattooed folks in tank tops, folks in pleated khakis and polo shirts, black, brown, white, retired grandparents and working professionals and teenagers and children, poor, middle class, rich. She says that you’re likely to walk in and go, “I am unclear what all these people have in common.” 

The thing is, we lose something when we’re all the same. One of the reasons we are deeply divided politically is that we stopped talking to our neighbors and stopped engaging in institutions where we hopefully meet people who aren’t like us at all.

And that is what all this has to do with colorblindness. 

Because there are colors that I can’t see that you can. I can only see things as myself, with all of my limitations, and you can only see things as you. Having limited vision for a long time can lead to some pretty hellish results — for all of us. 

Jesus is pretty clear, after all: keeping someone else, or ourselves, from God’s love is the worst thing we can do to ourselves. That’s what he’s trying to say. We just get distracted with our hellish obsessions.

But I can describe what life is like through my eyes, and you can tell me what it’s like through yours. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be able to see more clearly: “The sky is Duke Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll.’” 

That is what pure friendship and discipleship is: rather than blocking the door and getting in the way, to welcome someone else to the table, valuing that their presence among us will change us profoundly, and that through each other, we’ll all become a little more able to see the world as it really is. 

Because not only does the world need a little more love these days, it needs a lot more vision.

We keep asking ourselves: can American democracy survive its current division? I don’t know. But can we improve our little corner of the world? Can we live together despite our differences? I think so. 

So together, let’s see. Amen.