No Excuses (If You’re Going Somewhere)

Snapshots from a full week at camp:
That’s me blessing Ann, one of the confirmation camp staff, with water from Ossipee Lake and reminding her that “God loves you, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it.” 

Luke 9:51-62

Excuses, excuses. 

I’ve just come from a place where people may give excuses, but for the most part, everybody works hard and works for one another. 

If I’m glowing today, it’s because I’ve just come from one of my favorite places. I was the confirmation camp chaplain and the staff chaplain this week at Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry in Freedom, New Hampshire. Over the years, we’ve sent a lot of money and a lot of people to Calumet: we’ve sent adult, teenage, and child campers, counselors, chaperones, full time staff people — you name it! Our own Tyrese Vazquez, Deb’s grandson and Wayne’s great grandson, is there now as a counselor, getting ready to welcome the first campers of the summer this afternoon. He says hello! 

We’ve contributed to Calumet’s general fund and their scholarship fund, in an attempt to keep the cost of camp as low as possible for families. Every year, I run across the state of New Hampshire with a team of eleven other people to contribute to that same scholarship fund, and you all encourage and contribute, and I am so grateful. 

You all are to blame — you got me involved in Calumet. You all are the reason I got a random call from a man named Knute over three years ago asking me to drive four hours up to New Hampshire. And it kinda changed my life. I had been trying to find my footing in this new synod where I didn’t know anyone, right after a cross country move. I knew I loved all of you from the jump — you are fun, you are practical, you are hilarious, and you are kind. I was happy whenever I left a meeting (I still am!), which I took to be a good sign. But I was having some trouble connecting to others in the synod or finding ways to feel useful outside of my “real” job with you guys. 

Then Knute called. Calling him back was one of the best decisions I made in 2016. I served as the family camp chaplain that summer, and I’ve gone back every year since. 

This year, I was called in late to be the emergency confirmation camp and staff chaplain when the previously scheduled chaplain had to cancel. Luckily, I didn’t have anything on my schedule that couldn’t be moved, and also luckily, you all are camp people who don’t mind loaning me out for a couple of weeks every summer. I’m grateful to you for that.

One of my favorite roles at Camp Calumet is to be the staff chaplain. I get to go and hang out with high school and college students, including our own Tyrese, who are giving their entire summers to live in Christian community and teach children how to do the same. I’m constantly amazed by them and by our folks who have served in such a capacity in years past. 

When we read this Gospel text where Jesus essentially says, “Excuses, excuses” to people, our first instinct is to try to explain it away. “He didn’t really mean that,” we tell ourselves, or we try to explain to ourselves how Jesus especially wasn’t talking to us. Surely Jesus wants us to be there for our families, and surely Jesus wouldn’t turn us away when we say we want to follow him.

One of the hardest tasks in reading the Gospels is to consider the terrifying possibility that maybe Jesus really did mean all that stuff: stuff about giving away our possessions, and about treating everyone — no matter who they are or where they’re from or even what they’ve done — with the same respect that we would treat Christ himself. And here, Jesus tells someone that if family excuses, including burying his father, are in the cards, he can forget about following him as a disciple. He tells someone else, more or less, that he doesn’t believe him when he says “I will follow you wherever you go.” Someone else says “Wait, first I have to tell my family goodbye,” and they get the response, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When I wrote this sermon, I was sitting on Camp Calumet’s famous lakeside dining hall porch, overlooking beautiful Ossipee Lake on a sunny day, as the camp counselors milled around me, preparing for their seven weeks with campers. These folks aren’t getting paid much. They get to eat Calumet’s amazing food all summer, sure, and they get to live in one of the most beautiful places they’ve ever been. But mostly, they get to wrangle children and put up with the same people for eight weeks, living in cabins or in tents. There’s no time for excuses — just work. Hard work. Fun, yes, but also work. Serious work, like taking care of other people’s children and making sure they boat and swim and hike and even sleep safely. 

As part of my work with them, I gave staff devotions every morning. The first morning’s theme was “generosity,” and I talked about how people who gain the kind of wealth to be able to purchase private jets undergo quite a change in socialization. Suddenly, when you no longer have to fly commercial, it changes you (or so I hear). You no longer have to run on someone else’s schedule, move out of the way of others, or wait for that one person to take way too long to get out of the aisle. It turns out that that sort of thing — in small doses and for limited times, hopefully — is good for us. It teaches us to be patient, and to give up our own space and convenience to others. Being in an airplane, as many of you know, means being crunched in with seemingly a bajillion people in a very small space. It’s roughly equivalent to living in a 600 foot apartment and packing 250 or so people in there. We’re only willing to give up space like that when we’re going somewhere.

I informed the Camp Calumet staff that they’ll be flying commercial this summer, metaphorically, at least. “So,” I said, “you might as well be generous. Give up space. Let others go first. Take care of other people. It’s good for you.” I also told them that they could’ve done any number of things with their summers; they could’ve “flown private,” so to speak. But they didn’t.

As I told the staff and so I tell you: it’s worth it to give up space for others this summer, because you’re going somewhere. Progress will be made. You will grow.

No excuses. 

They say the church is dying, but I think that people are just getting more honest. They’re becoming more aware that they can do anything with their Sunday mornings and they’re choosing not to. And that’s okay. Living in community is hard, after all. Being part of a church is hard — I don’t have to tell you that. Even in a community like this, where we generally all love the heck out of each other, things can still be difficult. You have to give up space, and I can most certainly see why not everyone wants to do that. 

But you guys have made a different decision, and I believe it’s good for you.

As a pastor, I’d rather have fifteen people who want to be here and live in Christian community than 500 people who are here because they feel obligated. I can do a lot more with those fifteen. 

This is not to say that those who make a different decision are less loved by God. That isn’t true. Earlier in the passage, before Jesus throws shade at everyone for giving him excuses, there are some Samaritans who really don’t get it. They have no interest in following after him at all. 

James and John, bless their hearts, try to please Jesus this way: “Lord Lord Lord! Can we call down fire on them? Can we can we can we? 

And Jesus turns on them and tells them off for it. He also doesn’t say that those who don’t follow are lost forever. He doesn’t condemn anyone to hell for going to bury his father or for wanting to say goodbye to his family. I believe that God is big enough, wide enough, to cover everyone in love. I believe that grace and faith show up in the strangest places, and we in the church don’t own God or dispense God’s love. That’s really important.

But you, like the Camp Calumet staff, have an opportunity here. You can “fly private,” metaphorically at least. You can do whatever you want on Sunday morning. Or you can be here. You can give up space because you believe that we’re going somewhere. I certainly do. If I didn’t believe in this place and in you and in this community, I wouldn’t be here either. 

But I do. I do. 

Maybe Jesus meant all that stuff, church. We have an opportunity. It requires giving up space. It requires listening to one another and letting one another take up space. It requires making no excuses and working hard. You are loved no matter what, but we have an opportunity here. We can create hope for others. We can find hope for ourselves.  

And today, we’re celebrating someone who has given up so much over the years to be with us — Lisa. Even in my relatively short time here, I’ve noticed how much effort Lisa puts in to all of her ministries: her art and her music. She’s given up a ton of time and made a ton of room for others to thrive. And today, we celebrate her and we’re grateful. At the end of the service, we’ll gather at the font to bless her as she goes out to continue her ministry in other places. 

The point is this: here at this table, there’s hope for all. Here in community, there’s love to share. We have each other, and we know each other, and we support each other. We are examples for each other of what love and care and dedication really look like. We could be anywhere, but we’re here together. Might as well go somewhere. Amen. 

Bad Days and Flying Pigs

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Luke 8:26-39

Many of you know by now that in a previous life, I served as a hospital chaplain at an inner city hospital in Atlanta. 

Working in a hospital, I can tell you, puts you through some crazy days. Some days, of course, nothing happens, and the chaplains in the pastoral care office of Emory Hospital Midtown would be talking idly and spinning in our chairs and making up songs about hospital work to the tune of the Banana Boat Song.

“Night shift come and me wan’ go home.” 

Then there are the days when you count the codes and you never get to sit down. Those are the days when you feel like the hospital is an organism, and it’s angry. 

Doctors and nurses have superstitions about such things: first, never, ever, ever, ever tell someone that you hope they “have a quiet shift.” They will look at you as if you just took away any opportunity they would have to use the bathroom for the next twelve hours, because in their minds, you did. I’m also still somewhat convinced that the moon had something to do with it. Those were the times when we’d have women giving birth in the doorways and we’d all be trying to manage three to four sets of patients and families each. To this day, when I notice that the moon is full, I think of people working the night shift at Emory Midtown and Baystate and hospitals everywhere. Sometimes, I even remember to pray for them.

We each had our records for number of codes in one shift. Typically, you only count a few types of codes: Code Blue, which is a life-threatening situation, or one of the codes related the maternity ward (those are the ones where a baby is being born in the doorway, or in the parking lot, or worse, something far more dire). You also count deaths, where our job was to care for the families. 

In each of these situations, save for the successful births, there’s a really good chance that you’re meeting someone for the first time on the worst day of their lives. So those metrics gave us something to measure — a reason we were so tired. 

My own record was sixteen codes in eight hours, if I remember right. It was a day shift, and our charge phone just kept ringing. This included a false alarm for a stroke (turns out that sometimes, stroke patients sound like they’re drunk, but sometimes, drunk people sound like they’re having strokes). I also ran up the stairs in the parking deck when a patient had fallen next to two hospital employees. We were all very out of breath before I noticed that they were respiratory techs. 

Those are the funnier stories. The rest weren’t funny at all. 

That evening, when it was all over, I just wanted to go home. I hopped on my bike, not looking forward to the several miles that I would have to bike home. I glided down Peachtree Street, which is Atlanta’s version of Broadway, downhill on Ponce, another main drag, and then I hopped up onto the Beltline, a multi-use trail. I found myself annoyed at how many people seemed to have decided to take walks with six of their closest friends and walk six across. Just then, something told me to stop. I stopped at a bridge over the street with a gorgeous street view. A kid kicked a soccer ball into me, and rather than getting mad, I chased it down and tossed it back to him. I felt the breeze on my face. Instead of seeing the people in my way, I saw parents and children and friends having fun. 

I saw a quote on social media this past week saying “Why do your clothes always get caught on the door handle when you’re in a bad mood? Answer: that’s the Lord grabbing you and telling you to stop being extra.”
That day, I felt like I had spent my time among the dead, but suddenly life was set free as I realized how fortunate I was to be alive. 

That day, the Lord grabbed me by the shoulder with a sunset and told me to stop being so extra. 

Have you ever had one of those days when you’ve just absolutely been though it?

So in the Gospel lesson, Jesus was having that kind of day, too. 

Here in Luke, he’s just finished preaching some of his most famous hits: stuff like the parable of the sower, and the light under a bushel. And I’m no son of God, but I can tell you that preaching takes something out of you. It doesn’t make one “I just worked out” tired, but it does have an “I’ve just given a significant amount of energy to delivering this message and connecting with these people” effect. 

When he finishes preaching, or maybe during, Jesus’ mom is on him, wanting to talk to him. Then, he gets into a boat with his disciples and finally falls asleep when they get caught in a thunderstorm. He calms the storm, and they reach the shore, and right then, right when he steps out onto the land, in Geresenes (Gentile country, of all places), there’s a loudly raving naked man in his face. I’m not kidding.

Talk about having a day. 

But then, the Son of God had been having a life. 

According to Luke, this raving naked man had been seized by a demon, and it’d gotten so bad that they chained him up in the tombs. 

Talk about living among the dead. 

There’s more that Luke’s original audience would have heard there, too. Geresenes was the site of a massive massacre in the first century. According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, the Roman legions had come in and slaughtered a thousand men, taken their families as slaves, and burned their city. Many of those buried in the tombs would have been those thousand men. (1) 

Mind you, this happened after Jesus’ time, but Luke’s original hearers would have remembered that because it was a fresh memory. To them, in the world of this text, this man is not only living among the dead; he’s living among the slaughtered, naked, chained and under guard, tormented by a demon.

This man has been through it. 

You know how the story ends. The man is healed, and the other Geresene people find him in his right mind, at Jesus’ feet, with clothes on. And the demon named Legion — the same name as the Roman legion who would slaughter a thousand Geresenes in only a few years — is cast into pigs, who throw themselves into the sea. 

This man’s wearing clothes and in his right mind. I mean. Pigs ‘r flyin’.

Now, none of us can be constantly available, constantly on. There are days when we’ve been through it and we don’t have the energy reserves to pay attention or to help everyone who needs it. That’s okay. 

But when we do have the energy to help, or to stop and take in a sunset or pay attention, we can start to see the people who once annoyed us as humans. We can start to see the life around us. Even if we feel like we’ve been living among the dead, life can be set free, if we can learn to let the Holy Spirit catch us by the sleeve and call us to pay attention.

But ultimately, it’s not about us. We are the healed who only sometimes get the chance to be healers. Primarily, we’re the ones healed by God. We are the ones who come to Jesus in need. And here, we are accepted and life is set free. Every single Sunday, though we may feel that we are coming from living among the dead, we can we meet God in one another and we meet God in bread and wine and water. We are never turned away. Here, life is set free. 

Here, no matter what else we’ve been through, we are found clothed (Ken Pueschel sometimes excepted) and in our right minds, no matter what kind of things we’ve been through the week before. Here, we find peace, and sometimes even a miracle. 

Pigs ‘r flyin’. 

There’s a lot of stuff to make us feel like we’ve been through it. From the news to the details of our own lives, there are a thousand reasons we’re tired, even if they’re not as easy to count as hospital codes. 

Regardless of what it is you went through this week, I hope you find peace at this table today. May you meet Jesus in the people here, in water, in bread, and in wine and in words of hope. If you can learn to see God here, maybe, just maybe, when you’ve been through it, you’ll learn to see God in that, too. Amen.

Woman Wisdom and the Mystery of the Trinity

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Woman Wisdom as portrayed by Barb (with Tyrese Vazquez as a Big Y employee). 

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22:31
John 16:12-15

If you attended our Easter Vigil this past year with dozens of your closest friends, then you saw our very own Barb Callan-Bogia’s brilliant portrayal of Woman Wisdom, along with her supporting cast of Tyrese and Amanda, also aided by screenwriter, Debbie.

For this reason, I always imagine Woman Wisdom as having a slight Boston accent.

If you weren’t there, the skit went like this: Amanda, a Big Y customer, comes in and expresses concern to Tyrese, a distracted employee, that there’s a strange woman wandering around the Big Y parking lot, inviting everyone to a lavish feast that satisfies and telling everyone to relish the day or something like that. A distracted Tyrese directs her to relish on aisle 4. 

Barb as Woman Wisdom called to all of us to food that satisfies and hope that doesn’t disappoint. To look for meaning beyond just making money and buying food and having things.

Today, woman wisdom appears again, just as mysterious as she was at Easter Vigil, on this, Trinity Sunday, day of mysteries. This is where I will freely confess to you that this is just one of those days when I wish I had an intern that I could force … no. Strongly encourage to preach. This Sunday has jokingly been called “associate pastor Sunday,” because no one wants to preach on Trinity Sunday.

What kind of preacherly nonsense is this? you might ask.

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because the Holy Trinity may seem simple, but quite frankly, the math doesn’t add up, and people who have had to think hard about it — which includes many of you — know that. I’m notoriously bad at math, but even I know that one and three are not the same number. 

Everyone has their own pet analogy for the Trinity, of course, and some of us think that ours explains it perfectly and simply, but you guys, they all break down. 

You might say in a proud voice that water can appear as ice, as liquid, or as vapor, but it’s all water, all the same substance. It’s close, but that doesn’t quite work to describe a mysterious being that created the world, does it? Ice cubes and water vapor? God deserves better. Also, water is water, even in its various forms. It’s not three distinct things, really, but one, acting in this case as three things. That’s a favorite heresy of western Christians called “modalism,” which breaks down quickly by limiting what God can appear and function as.

You could also say that God is like a three leafed clover. But God isn’t like a three leafed clover at all; you know, because it doesn’t work to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all incomplete parts of one whole.

Or you could say that God is like Jackie or Debbie — at once a grandmother, a wife, and a mother. We like the relational aspect of that, but BUZZ. It’s modalism again.

You don’t need a theological treatise, of course, and I can see some eyes glazing over already. This is why preachers don’t like Trinity Sunday. We quickly turn it into an exercise in avoiding heresy and trying to say something true about someone who’s entirely a mystery while devolving into a theological essay that’s actually quite boring.

Preachers’ lives are hard. 

So I saw the Proverbs reading and I thought that maybe Woman Wisdom could help. She’s helped me out before, after all. 

In a world of filter bubbles and anger and chaos on the news and in our lives, we hear this Proverbs text and we might notice that not much has changed in the last few thousand years. 

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”

There has always been conflict and violence and distraction and corruption, and there has always been Woman Wisdom beckoning to us to pay attention. 

She calls out to humanity, past, present, and future, to slow down, to really look at the world, and to consider that all of this life around us had a beginning. In a world where we can’t seem to agree on the simplest objective truths anymore, wisdom raises her voice: “When [God] established the heavens, I was there… I was [there], like a master worker; and I was daily [God’s] delight, rejoicing…” 

Wisdom, like the Holy Spirit, is as simple as she is complicated. How do you live a good life? How do you make life worthwhile? Simple. Stop. Pay attention. Love those around you. Learn to let some things go. Take care of other people. Take care of yourself. Respect that each human that you interact with is a different individual than you are, has a different set of boundaries and values and opinions than you do, and you have to respect those, even if you don’t agree. We all have a different angle on this thing called life, and we get to share it together and we get to live it separately. 

You’ve likely heard me say this before: in the Gospel of John, there’s only one moral teaching: “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

It’s been said that there’s only one such teaching because that simple command takes a lifetime and beyond to even begin to learn. How do you love others well? We all know a little about this, but none of us, no matter how experienced, can do it perfectly.

Indeed, Trinity Sunday is for complicated things that are also simple that are also complicated — not unlike Pentecost. These things: how to listen to wisdom, how to live a life that matters, how to love well, and how to understand God — they’re impossible to figure out completely, at least, at best, on this side of eternity.

Today’s Gospel is also from John. It is what scholars and other nerds know as the “farewell discourse” and what the rest of the church knows as “that part of John where Jesus rambles on for a good long while.” Talk about a theological treatise.

It’s true. John’s Jesus is the chattiest Jesus. These passages become so familiar that we can easily forget the setting, where the dialogue comes from. Jesus is at dinner with his disciples in this passage, but it isn’t just any dinner. That night, very late, he will be arrested. 24 hours from this point in the story, he will be dead, and he knows that, and we know he knows that. He’s told the disciples that. He keeps telling the disciples. He is preparing them for his death. 

If there is one thing that any person who is afraid needs to know, it is that they will not be alone. So here, Jesus promises that the disciples will never be alone. The Holy Spirit will be with them; and in that, Jesus will be with them. Elsewhere in John he’ll say “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” It probably didn’t make much more sense to them then, either, but the point was this: they would not be abandoned.

It’s entirely possible that the disciples are at the table bewildered, or weeping, or both. It’s entirely possible that Jesus is speaking through his own tears. This text is not as sterile and academic as it may seem. It is deeply personal. It is deeply human. You just have to pay attention, listening for the humanity in the story. Woman Wisdom is calling. 

Look for humanity: in this text, and in every person you meet. See them for what they are, not what you assumed they were or what you want them to be. See their joy and their pain as they share it with you. Care for them as best you can. And know that you are never, ever, ever alone. The Triune God of love is always there. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Just as we established last week, listening to the Holy Spirit is really often just about paying attention to what’s around you. Last week, we did it with the art show. This week, I bid you to do it with those around you.

God is a mystery, and people can be quite a mystery, too. We won’t every fully figure one another out, just as we won’t ever figure God out. But Woman Wisdom is calling: we can pay attention. We can try. 

And the best of all is that we are never alone: pay attention. Listen closely. The Holy Spirit and wisdom are all around us: rumor has it, maybe even in the Big Y parking lot, with a light Boston accent. Amen.

Pentecost: Art, the Holy Spirit, and “Bennie and the Jets”

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Just a little of Our Savior’s Pentecost art show.

Acts 2:1-21

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

Full disclosure: the best Pentecost sermon being preached in this space today is not here in this pulpit. Thanks to Jackie and Dave and Dan and Sue and everyone who made art for the show and everyone who helped hang it, the best Pentecost sermon is all around you. 

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability….And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in their own native language.” 

There are moments when the best preaching is done simply by calling people to look around. So look around. See how Dan’s artistic voice is different than Lisa’s, which is different from Sue’s, which is different from Jackie’s, which is different from the Terkelsen family’s, but how they all capture beauty and pain and jubilation and serenity on canvas. Notice how Dave Pueschel uses his camera differently than Dave Bogia, who uses his camera differently than Ken, but how each of them capture moments in time and in places the rest of us otherwise would never get to see. They’ve each spoken as the Spirit gave them ability, and we each hear in our soul’s own native language. 

The Holy Spirit sometimes comes in wind and flame. And sometimes, it comes in paint and photo, charcoal and pencil, and rumor has it — sometimes even Lego. The beauty around us has all been produced by the hands of people we know, inspired by a God who is always creating and loves it when we create things, too. 

I’ve always believed that artists know a little more than the rest of us simply because their work calls them to pay attention to the shape of trees and flowers and mountains and human hands and human faces — to see the world a little differently. They use color and shape and light with precision to show us something new. To artists, art can be academic and technical and painstaking. For most of us, however, it’s just about looking around and paying attention to what the artist is saying.

Artists can turn a seemingly unremarkable scene or object or animal into a gorgeous image simply because of the way they look at it. Maybe listening to the Holy Spirit is just perspective. Or maybe it’s just paying attention. 

I’ve always loved music, too — for its ability to move us, to make us dance and make us cry, to bend and suspend time, or to ingrain things in our minds. The whole idea of hymns, after all, other than the artistic aims, is to get our ideas about God and set them to music so that we always remember them. Musicians, like all other artists, use a combination of talent and tedious precision to move us and show us something new. Sometimes, they do it so well that all we need is a few notes to throw us into a whole set of memories. 

While I was down in Alabama, my cousin and I went to see the new movie Rocketman, about Elton John’s journey in recovery. And this is where I’m going to tell you about how the Holy Spirit is a lot like an Elton John song. You see, preachers and theologians tend to make this whole Holy Spirit thing into something rather complicated. I’m not saying that it isn’t — it is — this whole three in one and one in three and the Holy Spirit is a person and also sort of a thing in the scheme of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or if you will, Parent, Child, and Special Effect scheme. 

But in most of our every day lives, the Holy Spirit usually not an academic exercise. It’s more like art. Or like a piano ditty. It’s about looking around and paying attention and knowing what you see and hear. Let me demonstrate. You see, sometimes, all you need is a few notes, or maybe even one chord, and you know a whole song. 

[Play the opening chords of “Bennie and the Jets”]

Anywhere in the United States of America, the UK, heck, most of the world, people will immediately tell you based on those few notes that that’s the opening riff of “Benny and the Jets.” How do you know?

Is it an academic exercise? Do you name the chords in your head or tell me about how you knew what song it was because you heard a quarter note here and an eighth note there and a rest there with a half step up?

Do you even know the words to the song?

If you’re like most people, when it comes on the radio, you sing, “He got electric boots, a mow-how suit, you know a set a little pack a saEEEEEuuhhOOOOH…. b-b-b-Bennie an the Jetssssss” (1)

“Bennie and the Jetsssss” are literally the only words to that song that most of us know.

Our immediate recognition of the song is not academic or complicated, even if the music is. You know this song because it’s ingrained in your consciousness. Because you’ve heard it over and over on the radio and in restaurants and bars and in your friends’ houses for years and years — since 1973, to be exact. 

Elton John himself certainly wrote the song with a ton of technical knowledge. He moves us, like all artists, with that combination of know-how and practice and talent and precision. But for most of us, we enjoy the art not for its complexity, but for its simplicity. Because of the flood of memories and the desire to dance or maybe just tap your foot a little. Because of the way it suspends time and calls us to pay attention. 

So art and music are like the Holy Spirit. Or maybe, the Holy Spirit is like music and art. You don’t even have to give it your full attention for it to move you. Just being in its presence will move you, but you’ll also find that the more you pay attention, the more you’ll see and hear. Like music and art, it’s as complicated as it is simple, and it’s as simple as it is complicated. 

In the Acts reading, the Holy Spirit is wind and flame. It’s the Holy Spirit speaking the Gospel in every language — sort of like Dave Pueschel’s photos on this wall tell us very human stories in languages we’ll never speak. 

And in the John reading, the Holy Spirit is a friend, like in Dan’s painting of Jesus. This past weekend, at synod assembly, our preacher was Pastor Leila Ortiz from the Metro DC synod. She described God this way: that God looked down at the humans God had created and said “I’m gonna have to go down there. I’m gonna have to show up.” And so Jesus did — and now the Holy Spirit continues to show up — in wind and flame and music and art and the still, small voice you can hear sometimes if you just pay attention. 

The Spirit shows up, reminding us how God is, among many things, the master creator, the accomplished artist. Just as God patiently created life as brilliant as a New England summer, God’s creatures, our artists, have created the art you see around you. So take some time after the service to take it in. Talk to the artists about what inspired them — I’m sure they’d love to tell you. Thank them for helping us to see the world a little differently.

Pay attention, and you can see the Gospel in this art — not “Gospel” like “you do this and you’ll go to heaven.” It’s much bigger than that. I mean “Gospel” in its truest meaning: “good news.” It’s “Gospel” like every sermon you see on the canvases and in the photos around you, where we can each hear in our own language. It’s “good news” like the teaching and learning and piety and human beauty in Dave Pueschel’s photos. It’s “Gospel” like the playfulness in Dave Bogia’s photos. It’s capturing moments like the fleeting dragonfly (named Drogon) in Ken’s photos.

It’s “good news” like the brilliant landscapes and natural phenomena all around the room painted by Jackie and Sue and the Terkelsens, telling of God’s beauty. It’s “good news” like the beauty of the messages painted by Dan and Lisa in their own unique voices. It’s “good news” like the pure joy and loyalty and beauty and piety all around this room and in the fellowship hall. 

The Gospel isn’t a simple formula for how to go to heaven. It’s here, in this room. It’s glimpses of heaven right here, and outside in the brilliance of a landscape come back to life after a long winter. It’s life and joy and God showing up, loose in the world, everywhere, if you just pay attention. If you look for long enough, if you just pay attention, you can see the good news of God’s love on every canvas and in every photo in this building. 

So pay attention this Pentecost. Let this art move you. Listen to the opening chords of your favorite song and let it move your feet. Art is as simple as it is complicated, and so is the Holy Spirit. I believe that letting art move us is good practice for listening to where the Holy Spirit is leading us. I believe that finding the good news of the love of God in art is good practice for learning to see it in a world that’s increasingly filled with bad news. God’s love will reach you no matter what, but the more you look and listen, the more you’ll see and hear. 

So let’s listen in the coming days and months, as individuals and as a church. Let’s dare to see hope and beauty and life int his world. Let’s hear the opening chords to the song God is singing to us. And maybe, just maybe — let’s dance. Amen.

1. I owe this “‘Bennie and the Jets’ is immediately recognizable from the first chord” idea to linguist and podcaster John McWhorter, who hosts a podcast on language called Lexicon Valley. You can listen here.

Easter 6: Murph

This sermon was originally preached on Memorial Day weekend at Our Savior’s.
Pastor Anna’s just come back from vacation and is catching up! 

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John 14:23-29

The joke goes like this: how do you know if someone is a vegan or a CrossFitter?

Answer: They’ll tell you.

So yeah actually as of the last few months I do CrossFit. 

There’s a Memorial Day tradition in the CrossFit community. As with most related things, that tradition includes a really hard workout. But for Memorial Day, it’s special.

The workout is perhaps the most famous in the CrossFit community. It’s called Murph, and it includes, in order: a one mile run, 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, 300 air squats, and another mile run, all for time. Those who “really” do Murph do all of that while wearing a 20 lb vest or body armor.  

It’s called Murph, and done on Memorial Day, to honor Lieutenant Michael Murphy from Long Island, a Navy SEAL, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005. He was 29. 

Before he died, and before it bore his name, the workout was one of his favorites.

The workout is so famous that I knew about it long before I started doing CrossFit myself. But of course, being me, once I get interested in something, I research it. I wanted to know Murph’s story.

When Murph was in high school, they called him “the Protector.” The only time the school ever had to inform his parents of a disciplinary issue was in 8th grade, when a child with special needs was being shoved into a locker by a group of boys. It ended with Murph physically pulling the attackers away from the other kid. Another time, Murph came upon a man who was homeless being attacked while collecting cans. He didn’t just chase away the attackers; he also helped the man pick up his cans.

After graduating from Penn State, he could have gone to law school. There were certainly plenty of ways for Murph to continue protecting people as a lawyer. He chose instead, however, to join the Navy and become a SEAL.

While serving in Afghanistan in June 2005, his team of four came under fire from between 30 to 40 militia fighters in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Unable to make contact with coalition forces in the rugged terrain, it was Murph who fought his way into more open terrain, where he knew he would get a better signal. In doing so, he knowingly exposed himself to direct fire to complete the call for help. At the end of the call, after being shot several times, he said, “Thank you.” 

After that, he continued to fight until he was killed in action. 

There is much more to the story, but the gist of the story is this: because Michael Murphy made the call, one of his fellow SEALs, the only survivor, was eventually rescued. For his heroic actions on that day, Murph was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. By August of 2005, the CrossFit workout had been named in his honor, and it continues to be a staple workout at every CrossFit gym in America and around the world. It’s through that workout that I’m grateful to know Murph’s story, and now, you do too.

Survival is inscribed into our DNA. We all made it here because countless generations in each of our bloodlines, through the millennia, fought to survive. Dying so that someone else can live isn’t natural, but it is heroic. That is the kind of person — the kind of person like Murph — that we honor this weekend. 

I should note however that Memorial Day, while important, is a government holiday, not a religious one.

Here in the church, it is still Easter, and the Gospel lessons are starting to look towards Pentecost. We’re looking towards the coming of the Holy Spirit and we’re getting ready for an art show, as we celebrate the Spirit’s gifts of creativity.

Of all the persons of the Trinity, the language we have to describe the Holy Spirit is the most interesting and diverse. Some of that is because the Holy Spirit is the most squishy. We have pretty concrete images for Jesus: a thirty-something Middle Eastern man. We even have depictions of the Creator everywhere, usually as a man with a long, white beard. It’s the Holy Spirit that allows us to play with the image a little bit. It’s the Holy Spirit that we’re most comfortable calling “he” or “she” or “they” or “it.” The Holy Spirit is more of a force than a person: wind, flame, dove. Someone who guides, pushes, challenges, comforts, and stirs things up.

We can, in large part, thank John’s Gospel for the diversity of images. And it hinges on a single word.

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Advocate doesn’t even begin to cover it. I mean, it’s not wrong, but it isn’t all the Greek word means, either.

The word that gets translated “advocate” means a lot of things in Greek: advocate, counselor, helper, friend, comforter, protector. It comes from a word meaning “called to one’s side.”  The word itself is “paraclete.”

Fun fact: it was an alternate name for Diego before I got him, before Parker helpfully pointed out that “Paraclete” isn’t something you can casually yell across the dog park.

In John, Jesus shows us the love of God by teaching, healing, and then dying and rising. Then, Jesus passes that work on to his followers: the healing work of being the love of God made flesh. We get the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, to show us and remind us how it’s done. The paraclete is our friend, advocate, the one who is called to our side — our protector.

This is when it occurs to me that Michael Murphy was a paraclete to those he led: called to their side, a protector, an advocate, whatever the cost. That that is what we are called to be for one another. 

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

Peace the way the world gives — the most natural way of getting peace — is to survive. It’s to stay safe, whatever the cost. It entails sacrificing others for our own security and safety. Often, we sacrifice those we don’t understand to our own fear. 

Jesus offers a different kind of peace; the kind that advocates, protects, and stays by your side even when it isn’t safe. Maybe that’s why Jesus also calls us not to be afraid at the end of that. It’s because we are called to do that for one another, too. 

I won’t be able to be there tomorrow, but folks from my gym will be doing Murph’s workout tomorrow. I’m glad I know Murph’s story now, and I hope you gained a little something from hearing his story, too. It’s a good reminder, I think, not only of what courage looks like, but what it means to be a paraclete: a companion, a protector, an advocate. We have one in the Holy Spirit, and every now and then, the Holy Spirit prompts us to be that for each other, too.
Thank God. Amen.