Easter 5: Loving One Another When You’re “Worlds Apart”

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A still from the Heineken campaign “Worlds Apart.” You can watch the four minute ad here.

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

The only moral commandment in the Gospel of John is this one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

It is the simplest and the hardest to follow.

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” 

This week has been a hard one in the news. You know, like every other week for the last few centuries. With every passing news cycle lately, though, it seems that we get further from being able to understand where our neighbors are coming from. You might’ve gotten into a slugfest with a friend or relative recently over the news. The possible topics — well, they’re many, and they’re important.

I am a person with strong political opinions myself. And I’m going to tell you exactly none of them in the next nine to ten minutes, because sharing an opinion is not so unlike telling a story: it’s like “reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” I can tell you what I think about just about anything in a sermon-length amount of time, but I can’t give you a full accounting of where that opinion came from. For that, you have to really know someone — their life, their story, their education, their heartbreaks, their joys. 

These days, there’s a lot of talk about civility and love and being nice. As if those are all the same thing. Anyone who has ever gotten into a sharp disagreement with someone they love knows that those are not the same things. Heck, anyone who has ever sat at a Thanksgiving table with that one uncle knows that those are not the same thing.

The Gospel reading is also set at a table, sans the turkey, and it also talks a lot about love. It begins with a hard thing that also might happen at your thanksgiving table after someone’s political tirade: someone has just stormed out of the room.

Judas, the one who had just left the table, the one who was going to betray Jesus, the one who was, presumably, evil. Judas, the one who has just gone to seal Jesus’ death. 

This could have been a time for Jesus to say “Don’t be like that guy,” or “Betrayers are the worst sinners.” Instead, he chooses this time to give them a new commandment: that they love one another.

Why? 

I think it’s because Jesus knows that love is messy and complicated and full of mistakes and pain and betrayal.

There is always more that we cannot know. Our job is to love, regardless of the label: Judas, betrayer. Trump supporter. Clinton voter. “Pro-choice.” “Anti-immigrant.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” 

Now, please don’t mishear me: this isn’t a call to be naive. I’m not saying that all opinions are the same. Because being nice and being loving aren’t always the same thing. Often they aren’t. This isn’t a call to stand aside and keep your opinions to yourself when people are being harmed. It isn’t a call for those who are oppressed to reach out and be super nice to those who don’t believe in their right to exist in the world peacefully. 

I’m calling you instead to love all people, whether you respect their opinions or not.

While it sounds nice to say that you respect all opinions, logic holds that not all opinions are created equal. Indeed, some opinions are harmful. You know that. I’m not asking you to set your opinions aside. I can’t ask you that, because I will not be setting mine aside. 

There are opinions and theologies in the world that I believe it is un-loving not to oppose. It’s my responsibility, and yours, and ours, to defend the right of every human to exist peacefully in the world.

But you know — I have yet to browbeat someone into agreeing with me. If we want to move the conversation forward, including towards a worldview that we see as right and just, we’d do a lot better to stop labeling and work harder to understand. To love. To see more of the wheat in the granary. To see more of the person behind the opinion.

Heineken tried out an experiment for a commercial series in 2017 called “Worlds Apart.” 

They assembled three pairs of people who had never met each other. Before the pairs met, they recorded videos detailing some political opinions. 

One was a woman and a staunch feminist, and her partner in the exercise was a man who believes that feminists are “man-haters.” One was a climate change denier, while his partner in the exercise believes that climate change is the greatest single threat to humanity today. Finally, one is a transgender woman and the other is a man who believes that people should live as whatever sex they were assigned at birth. 

But none of them knew those things about one another when they met. If they had, they probably would’ve never spoken at all.

Instead, they are introduced simply by their names and invited to put together an IKEA-style bar and barstools. Each pair introduced themselves and got to work on this very practical task. When they finished that, they were given an icebreaker question: “Describe what it’s like to be you in five words.” The answers were deep and intimate, as they each discussed what it’s like to be them. The answers weren’t all that different from one another: “I feel attacked. Misunderstood.” and “It’s deeply frustrating to be me.” Another person said, “I feel lucky.” Another: “Ambitious.” “Opinionated.” And another: “I am solemn.” 

The next question was “Name three things the two of you have in common.” The answers were “We’re both ambitious, positive, opinionated.” One person said, “I feel like we know one another better than people who have known each other for ten minutes should!” Another said to her partner, “You’ve got a glow!” 

The transgender woman said, “I served in the military,” and her partner said, without missing a beat, “I’m very proud of you already.” 

The man who doesn’t like feminism described a time in his life when he was homeless and had nothing, and how grateful it has made him for everything he has in his life.

I’m defining these people by their opinions and identities, but keep in mind: their partners to this point have no idea that they hold these views. They’re simply learning their stories.

Then, each pair finishes building the bar together. They crack open beers. Heinekens, of course. This is still a marketing campaign, after all.

Finally, an announcement comes over a loudspeaker: “Please stand to watch a short film.” 

Each watches as their partner appears on a screen, describing their views as they had before they met their partner:

“Feminism is just shorthand for misandry. [Man-hating.]” 

Another: “If someone said to me that climate change is destroying the world, I’d say that’s total piffle.” 

Another: “The transgender thing is very odd. We’re not designed to understand or see things like that.” 

Another: “I don’t believe the fight of feminism is ever done. I don’t think it’ll ever be done, if I’m honest with you.” 

Another: “I am a daughter. I am a wife. I am also transgender.” 

The camera pans to each face as they watch their partner on the screen. Eyes narrow. Smirks form. You can see recalculation happening in light of these new facts. At this point, I half expected this all not to go well at all. 

An announcement comes: “You now have a choice. You can go, or you can stay and discuss your differences over a beer.” 

The first two couples immediately say something to the effect of, “Well, I’m staying. We know each other now. And that seems like the productive thing to do.” 

The self-described “solemn” man who had expressed skepticism for transgender people begins to walk away quickly before he turns on his heel, walks back to the bar, and says, “I’m only joking.”

He sits. They discuss. 

He explains, “I’ve been brought up in a way to see the world as black and white. But life isn’t only black and white.” The woman, who is still as transgender as always, responds, “Yeah — I’m just me.” 

Towards the end of the conversation, the man says, “We’ll keep in touch. I’ll have to tell my girlfriend that I’ll be texting another girl, but we’ll have to get around that one.” The woman says, “I’ll have to tell my wife too,” and the man responds with a laugh, “She’ll have to lump it!” 

This commercial, my friends, is a bit contrived, but it tells us something about real love. Love costs us something. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It’s messy. We disagree and we yell and we fight but ultimately, love is really about acknowledging that we have no idea what it’s like to be someone else. 

That’s what we’re missing, and it’s the simplest and hardest thing. 

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” 

Hearing someone’s opinion on something is really just watching them reach into a granary. There is always more to tell than can be told. 

In the Acts lesson, Peter has that weird dream about how God told him to kill and eat unclean things (including lizards, I can never get over that) right after he was resisting allowing the Gentiles to join the community of Christ. Clearly, Peter thought, Jesus only came for the Jews, the ones who know God and care about God’s law. God says, “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.” 

You and me, and we are more than our opinions. More than that, though, having all of the right opinions won’t get us into heaven, either. Being correct about everything on the Internet won’t save you from yourself or the world. Being logical won’t be your salvation. 

We are all tangles of complicated stories and opinions. We are all walking contradictions. We all get it wrong all the time. One of the markers of even a passably well-adjusted adult is being willing to admit that we’re not perfect. 

If it is true, then, that we are all saved by grace, then our neighbors are too. Just as our “right” opinions won’t save us, our neighbors’ “wrong” ones don’t make them less worthwhile as human beings. “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.”

You better still hear me: cling hard to your opinions. You fought for them and you formed them out of your own experience and learning. Remember that, as John Dickerson of 60 Minutes says, opinions are like filters: they’re pretty useless unless you run things through them. So run things through them. Read everything. Work out your views and refine them. Learn more about them and learn to defend them.

Whether you and I are inclined to agree about things or not, I say these things to you. Work for justice and what is right. Defend the vulnerable. This is your baptismal call. 

It is also your baptismal call to love your neighbor. And this is the simplest and hardest thing.

So let us continue to reach into the granary and pull out more and more handfuls of grain. Though you can never fully understand my story because you have not lived my life — and I can never fully understand your story because I haven’t lived yours — we can still share. We can still love one another. We can all still discuss over drinks. I will not call unclean what God has made clean.

So let us come to the table where all of our grain is made into one loaf — the body of Christ. And may we, different as we are, remember: none of us is perfect, but Christ is with us all. Amen.

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Easter 4: Stubborn Shepherds

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Hero the Dog. You can read more about him and his story by clicking here.

Acts 9:36-43
John 10:22-30

Today’s sermon on the Good Shepherd starts with a different kind of shepherd: a German shepherd. The dog breed, I mean. 

The story begins down in south Georgia, where there’s a woman named Shannon. 

One day, Shannon got into a fight with her husband. As many of us have been known to do after an argument with someone we love, she got into her car and went for a drive to cool off.

The roads in rural areas, as you know from living here, can be curvy and dangerous. Suddenly, Shannon didn’t navigate one of those curves correctly. Her car fishtailed into the woods, and Shannon was thrown into the backseat, with her body hanging halfway in, and halfway out of the car. She and her car were entirely out of sight of the road.

This story should end tragically. But it doesn’t. Shannon passed out, and when she woke up, she knew she wasn’t alone.

She says, “I don’t know when I came to, but when I did come to, I felt his huge presence. I could feel his breath. The dog — I don’t know how he came across me, but I thank God that he did.”

The dog, whom she’d never seen before, was a shepherd mix. 

Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday.

The dog pulled her free of the car, but he didn’t stop there — he pulled her more than 100 feet to the road. He kept tugging and tugging: Shannon says, “He wouldn’t give up. He had more of a will for life than I did.” 

I should confess for those of you who don’t already know, I’m the proud owner of a sheepdog myself, and I can tell you: they’re stubborn. Once they set their minds to something, they don’t give up, whether it’s saving a human life or trying to get the tennis ball out from under the couch. 

Eventually, stubbornly, the dog dragged Shannon to the road, where passers by saw her and stopped to help. She told them what had happened and asked them to call her husband. Then, she passed out again. When she woke up, she was in the hospital. There, she learned that she had a brain bleed. If the dog had not found her, the ER doc told her, she would almost certainly have died. 

No one knew where the dog had come from or if it had had any previous training. For all anyone knew, he was a stray. 

Today, the shepherd mix works as a search and rescue dog. They named him Hero. 

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

Shepherds are stubborn.

Today’s the middle point of Easter. Three Sundays of Easter behind us with three more ahead. We call this middle Sunday “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and we always read from John 10, where Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23, where the God of Israel is a shepherd.

Here we stop and we sing songs about sheep and shepherds, and all I can ever think of is my own sheepdog and how he’s taught me to be a better pastor and taught me about the stubbornly loving presence of God.

Those of you who have or have ever known sheep dogs know: they don’t ever give up. They stay right next to you, whatever you’re going through, and they stay until you’re okay. And if there’s a task to be accomplished, they’ll focus until it’s done.

This is important to remember when thinking of God as a shepherd, because a lot of the time, we worry that God has left us. Some of us worry that God has left those we love who seem to have walked away from church. We worry that they won’t know God. Listen to Jesus today: “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

As Lutherans, we believe that Christ the Good Shepherd is not unlike Hero the dog: God does not give up, in this life or the next. God, like Hero, has more of a will for life than we do. It is God who finds us, not the other way around.

Lutheran theology holds that we can’t, won’t, won’t ever, make our way to God. It doesn’t matter how good we are or how many things we do right. If we could make our way to God, we’d spend all our time patting ourselves on the back. 

Instead, we believe that God comes to us and makes us new, and then makes us new again, over and over. Theologically speaking, we call this death and resurrection.

I get it. We expect to earn it and “do right.” We expect that others have to earn it too, and if they don’t draw near in very specific ways, we fear that they won’t know God. Friends, this sentiment comes from a loving place, but it is not Lutheran. 

Hear the Good News: like Hero the dog, God seeks us, finds us, and stubbornly does not fail us, in this life or the next. 

The Good Shepherd finds the sheep, and no one snatches them out of his hand. 

Shepherds, like I said, are stubborn.

Earlier in John 10, Jesus will say, “I have other sheep that are not of this pasture. I must bring them also” (John 10:16). We do God, ourselves, and others a disservice when we limit what God can do, whom God can reach, and when and where God can reach them. 

Last week, the world lost Rachel Held Evans, whose book Searching for Sunday our council read last year. She died of a sudden illness after being put into a medically induced coma on Good Friday. 

She was 37. 

Rachel was a voice for those of us who aren’t “normal” church people — namely, recovering evangelicals, millennials, LGBTQ+ folks, and others that don’t quite fit in with the average church crowd. When Rachel fell ill, the hashtag #PrayForRHE began trending, but when she died, that hashtag turned to a different one: #BecauseofRHE. 

A friend of mine, Lance Presley, a Methodist pastor in Mississippi, connected this to the Acts reading for today. In it, a woman named Tabitha has died. Peter visits after her death and finds the widows gathered around, showing the garments that Tabitha made for them while she was alive. 

I didn’t notice it until Lance pointed it out that this is what we who loved Rachel’s work were doing with #BecauseofRHE. We were showing what she had done for us, what she had made for us, while she was alive. 

There are people who love Rachel’s work who have never set foot in a church and never will. But through Rachel, the Shepherd came to them and found them. Shepherds are stubborn. They keep tugging and tugging — they never give up.

Rachel called the church to stop trying to “be cool” and “reach millennials” and instead to be unapologetically who it is: a place of death and resurrection, of confession and baptism, of ritual and love and welcome. A place not tailored to the young or desperately trying to be “relevant” for those who may never come, but a church made for everyone who comes in the doors. A place that has had this whole death and resurrection thing down for about 2,000 years now.

Of the church, Rachel Held Evans wrote: “Baptism reminds us that there’s no ladder of holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.” 

This is the garment that Rachel Held Evans wove for so many of us, and it is the one we wear today: this articulation of the Good News that the Gospel is a story about God finding us, not the other way around.

Beloved, do not worry about who will and won’t know God. Do not worry that God will not find you. God is like a shepherd, both a human one and a canine one: born and bred to stubbornly seek you out and find you and pull you out of whatever trouble you find yourself in. You will never be snatched out of God’s hand, and neither will those you love. 

But let us, the church, continue to do what Rachel tried her whole life to do: to tell the truth about death and resurrection, and about a stubborn God who tugs and tugs and never lets go.

Death and resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing. That there is hope. That no matter how bad things look, there is a table of plenty spread for us, and that Good Shepherd is leading us, sometimes dragging us, towards it. May we continue to stubbornly drag and be dragged towards that future, towards hope, towards help. 

And in that, may we all be, well, heroes. Amen.

Easter 3: Looking for Miracles

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The Great Catch, John August Swanson.

Acts 9:1-6
John 21:1-19

There’s an old story about a man that’s drowning who says to himself, “God will save me!” A boat comes by and attempts to rescue him. He resists. “No!” he says. “God will save me.” 

Two more boats come by. Same thing. A little later, a helicopter hovers above the water and lets down a rescue ladder. He responds the same way. “No!” he says. “God will rescue me!” 

Refusing all help, the man dies. He reaches heaven, angry that his life has been taken from him. 

“God!” he protests. I believed in you! Why didn’t you save me?!” 

God smiles and leans back in his chair and says, “My son, welcome to your eternal rest. But you should know before we go any further: I did try to save you. I sent you three boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” 

The story isn’t without its theological problems, but I find myself returning to it over and over to explain a whole wide variety of things, all of them related to what we expect God to appear to us as. 

The church of Jesus Christ has always loved the tale of Saul’s conversion — when Saul became Paul. He begins as a really mean dude. In the Bible, Luke describes him in Acts as literally “breathing threats and murder against the disciples.” That’s quite an image — that hatred of the disciples of Jesus was, to him, like breathing. He had participated in the killing of Stephen, one of the first early disciples. He was about as anti-Jesus as you could be. 

The rest of the story you know. We know it so well that we reference it in popular culture: to have a “Damascus Road Experience” is to experience a sudden conversion. You have to hand it to Paul, man. He’s got the most dramatic story of any of the disciples. We like to joke about getting knocked upside the head by Jesus, but it literally happened to Paul. God, in fact, knocked him so hard upside the head that he went blind for a minute. You’ve got everything that an Old Testament style divine encounter has: a flash of light, falling to the ground in fear, and finally: God identifying himself and giving verbal, clear direction.

I have to confess that I myself have never experienced anything like this. I’ve never been surrounded by light, or struck blind, or spoken to by an audible voice of God. But I’ve met people who have told me about such things, and while I have some questions about some of those accounts, I can’t be so naive as to think that they’re all off their rockers. I have had some slightly less dramatic experiences where it’s felt pretty clear to me that there was some sort of divine intervention. For God’s sake, literally, how else do you think I found my way from the red clay of rural Alabama to the Connecticut River valley of Massachusetts? That’s either divine intervention or the luckiest and most extended GPS malfunction I’ve ever experienced. 

Look, I’m skeptical by nature. So skeptical, in fact, that sometimes it’s hard to be a pastor because most people (present company excluded, of course) don’t really look at pastors as individuals, but as, I don’t know, McDonald’s fries: 1) pretty much the same wherever you go, and 2) just exactly what your soul needs.

So I here confess to you that I’ve never had a Damascus road experience, but I’ve heard about them on TV. And I do have a pretty expansive view of what God is capable of, so who am I to rule anything out.

I think we get into trouble when we expect every divine encounter to be movie-worthy and dramatic. When we say to every attempted messenger of God, “No! God will save me,” instead of realizing that God can show up in all kinds of ways — even the most mundane.

In the Gospel lesson, Peter has the strangest response to the events of the past week or so: his Lord and teacher had been executed by the state, and then had appeared alive first to Mary, then to the disciples two different times. And Peter’s response is to get the boys together for a little naked fishing. It’s hot in Israel, I guess. 

That’s when Jesus shows up on the beach. Not in a flash of light. No one falls to the ground. Jesus is just there. Peter swims ashore, eager to greet Jesus, and Jesus responds in the most mundane of ways: “Come have breakfast.” 

Sometimes the Lord shows up in a flash of light. Sometimes he shows up in plainclothes and offers you  breakfast. 

It’s amazing how often we try to limit God by thinking that God can only show up in the spectacular. 

It’s in this ordinary meeting that Peter gets his restoration: he had denied Jesus three times, and three times, Jesus asks: “do you love me?” From this, Peter will get his charge to help build the church we know today, in all its beautiful and broken glory. 

As we think together about our future, I want you to consider that it may be beautifully mundane. Most churches look for a return to the glory days, when people will once again flood the church and the pews will overflow. Instead, all of the churches that I know that have experienced new life have experienced it in far more ordinary ways: in things like helping their neighbors, offering space for art and AA groups and other congregations, in feeding hungry people, in singing hymns in bars. 

Consider that the same might be true for your own future. We love dreaming about our futures from the time we’re young: when you’re six, you dream of what you’ll be when you grow up. When you’re fifteen, you dream of an exciting and independent college life. When you’re 22, you dream of professional life and maybe even a family. When you’re 40, you might dream of the joys of retirement. And when you’re 60 or 70 or 80, you might dream of the next trip you’ll take or the next game you’ll go to or the beautiful places you’ve yet to go. Dreaming isn’t just for the young. Dreaming keeps us alive. It’s for all of us. But we all know that sometimes the future isn’t as spectacular as we might dream, but often, it’s the beautiful truth that we need. 

If you hear nothing else from me this morning, please here this: just because the flash of light and the audible, booming voice of God aren’t coming doesn’t mean that a miracle isn’t. 

Sometimes the miracle is breakfast. 

This place is a miracle. All of us coming together in this place at this time is a miracle. Don’t miss the little miracles waiting for the big ones. 

I imagine myself in a slightly different version of the story about the drowning man. I imagine myself getting to heaven a little miffed that God never spoke to me, you know, in an audible voice. “God!” I say. “Why didn’t you ever come to me?” 

“Oh honey,” God says. Naturally, I imagine God with an Atlanta accent. 

“Oh honey, I did speak to you. I sent you Sue, and Debbie, and Wayne, and Phyllis, and Bob. I sent you your mom and dad and brother, your seminary professors, your bishops and colleagues, your own pastor, and your dearest friends. I never stopped speaking to you, honey. Never once.” 

Just because the flash of light isn’t coming doesn’t mean the miracle isn’t. 

Because while it’s true that the miracle does sometimes come in a flash of light.

And sometimes, friends, the miracle is breakfast. Both are holy. Amen.