Golf, Prayer, and Honesty

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Jeff, Our Savior’s worship chairperson and best golfer, hands down.

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

These texts, I must confess, confound me. They give me a certain sense of shame, even, because if I may confess something to you, I don’t think of myself being very good at prayer. But there’s more to it than that. 

This sermon got personal for me very quickly, so I’m inviting you into my head for a minute — well, about ten to twelve minutes, as usual — but I hope you enjoy the journey. 

All around the preacher-sphere this week, with “preacher-sphere” being a term that I just made up, there were rumblings about these texts. And by rumblings, I mean bitter complaining. There just doesn’t seem to be much for a Lutheran pastor to go on here. 

First, you’ve got Abraham haggling over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the speed of an auction announcer: give me one righteous man, one, gimme two, there’s two, gimme three.. Because some of us  know the story, we know that after this, Sodom and Gomorrah get destroyed anyway, and the one righteous man, Lot, loses his wife as she becomes a pillar of salt. Well, that’s messed up.

Then in the Gospel lesson, you’ve got Jesus explaining prayer in terms of the Lord’s prayer. “Great,” we think. “I can get a sermon out of this.” 

Then, to sum things up as one of my pastor friends did, you’ve got Jesus saying “Bug your neighbors, because it’s kind of like bugging God. And don’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg; that’s messed up.”

The idea you’d get from our English translation is that because the friend was persistent, you’d give in, indicating that if we are persistent before God, God will give in and give us what we want. God likes to be nagged, apparently.

That’s kinda messed up too. Especially considering how we can all recount instances where we or someone we love was absolutely persistent in prayers that never got answered. We pray and pray and pray for someone who is sick or injured, and they still die. We pray and pray and pray for relationships to be healed, and they aren’t. And so it goes. I long ago finished with platitudes to explain these things away. 

I do not think that God needs our excuses. 

So what is Jesus saying about prayer? What is livable, and useful, about these texts?

Here’s where I let you into my brain. One of the things that I find almost funny about being a pastor is when people confess things to me as if I’m not just another person like them who does the exact same things. 

People guiltily confess to me that they don’t go to church that much. 

Meanwhile, I wake up many Sunday mornings just grateful that some of my favorite people go here because otherwise I’d be dragging myself out the door with the mantra “I have to go to church. I have to go to church. I can’t sleep in. I can’t go to brunch. I’m the pastor. I’m the pastor.” 

Thanks for making it easy for me to go to church, by the way.

People apologize for cursing. They use some of my favorite words.

Finally, they confess that they aren’t very good at prayer to me, someone who is decidedly not very good at prayer. 

Now, before you fire me, don’t get me wrong: I went to seminary. I can wax theological and philosophical about prayer. I can tell you why it’s good for you psychologically and why it helps you to see people differently. I believe it’s good for me and for you. I’m just not a naturally pious person. I’ve tried to be, a long time ago, but it never felt right.

I’m not a mystic. I’m not a prayer warrior. I’m just a person who tries, a person whose prayer books sometimes gather dust until Advent or Lent rolls around and I make a fresh commitment to try doing morning prayer every morning. Or maybe three mornings a week. Or maybe… and then I forget, and the books start collecting dust again. I find myself praying for people real quick right after I say that I will because at least then I did it once. Then I’ll think of them again and say another quick prayer. I become a prayer opportunist, which I am pretty sure is better than nothing. 

The point is, if you tell me shamefully that you struggle with prayer, I’m probably going to look right at you and say, “me too.” 

There’s a lot of shame around church and piety and prayer: who does it, who doesn’t, whose prayers get answered, and why. So I’m hoping I can help cut out the shame by being more honest with you myself.

This week, I went golfing with three of the best humans I know, who also happen to also be members here. We talked about prayer on the way back to the clubhouse, mostly because it was Thursday and I still needed a sermon. I heard some good answers — tales about surprising encounters with missionaries that still inform prayer for them. About how prayer is praising, asking, and confessing. I heard confessions of what often feels like a one-sided conversation, but is worthwhile nonetheless. About how it’s hard to hear the replies to our prayers, even if we believe God is a friend who walks alongside us all the time.

That’s when it started to click into place that, despite our shame around prayer, this prayer thing is just different for everyone. We think of prayer as if it only has to take one form when really, it takes many forms for all of us at different times.

“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Jesus’ answer to this question becomes the most famous prayer in Christianity, one that can usually be found in almost any Christian worship service of any type. One that gets repeated over and over before some sports games and often when a group of Christians wants to pray together but no one wants to lead. It’s the prayer that we’ll say right before we take the Eucharist: the one we know as simply “The Lord’s Prayer.” Luke doesn’t include the whole thing that we know today. In Luke, it’s simply: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

I think you’ll agree that Luke’s version would’ve been far easier for many of us to memorize as children, but no one asked us, so it’s Matthew’s version that gets repeated, including the part about temptation and the forever and ever bit.

Then there’s that story about the horrid, intrusive friend. And once again, our English translation might get in the way. The version we read today has Jesus telling us that because the friend was persistent, he gets what he needs. But “persistence,” you see, isn’t the right word at all. 

The right word is more like “shameless.” 

My best pastor buddy pointed this out to me, and it all started to come together. We have so much shame around prayer: who does, who doesn’t, who should. How we pray, why we pray. What we pray for, and what we don’t. Who we pray for, and who we should pray for.

Even the disciples get in on this a bit: essentially, they ask Jesus how they should pray.

Should should should.

In his answer, though Jesus says instead: when you pray, be shameless. Not persistent. Not nagging. Shameless. 

Think about the people you love most. Think about the people who love you most. Think about the purest expressions of love that you’ve ever experienced or seen. Think about any time anyone has ever said to you when you felt like you were being a bother: “Of course I will do this for you. I love you.”

Real love is shameless. 

From the first offense in the garden of Eden, shame has crept into our relationships with God and one another, as the humans hid themselves and God cried out “Who told you that you were naked?” 

I’ve seen it over and over as a chaplain and a pastor: real love is shameless. Shameless love is a parent who cares for their sick child, a spouse who tenderly changes the bedding, a friend who lets someone they love collapse in their arms in a fit of anxiety or mourning. When we love someone, we will care for them in the most intimate of ways. When we love, we feel no shame over what our bodies do or what they look like, and we feel no shame over our emotions. 

As my friend Kathleen says, real love is when you “no longer have to tuck in your crazy.” 

You may experience this with a parent, a child, a sibling, a dear friend, a spouse, a lover, or just with God, but wherever you’ve found it, you know: real love is shameless, because you know that all of you, all of you, is accepted. You know you’re not perfect, and you know that you’re loved anyway. That is shameless love. 

And that is what Jesus says that prayer is supposed to be like. 

And that’s when I started to realize that maybe I’m not all that bad at prayer after all. 

I’ll tell you shamelessly that I’m very bad at sitting at a home altar and lifting up the people I love in prayer. I want to be good at it, but I never have been, not for any long period of time. 

But what I am good at is running. The rhythm. The simplicity. 

There is only the road ahead. There is only my breath. Everything that I am is there. And in my more pious moments I’ve imagined that maybe, just maybe, God matches my stride. When I’m running, my shame is gone. There is no room, and no time. Sometimes there’s prayer, I think. Not in words, usually. There’s no room for words, which is probably why there’s no room for shame. But that’s where this sermon came from: a good hour on Friday, enduring the heat, surviving. Thinking of you, and thinking of prayer, and thinking of what to say in a sermon about prayer, step after step, breath after breath. Shamelessly.  

Then I finished my run, went to a coffee shop, and wrote you this sermon.

So I invite you to drop the shame around prayer and focus instead on where you feel most at home, most you, most human, most connected, and most shameless. Consider that maybe that is a form of prayer, too. It can be running, hiking, writing, heck, even skydiving. 

So yeah, this is a pretty messed up set of texts. But humans — all of us — are a pretty messed up set of people. 

Thank God, then for being God — for being shameless. Amen.

In Defense of Mary, or In Defense of Doing Nothing

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Todd Heisler, New York Times

Luke 10:38-42

In the midst of the heat wave we’re in, as we all try to hide anywhere that has air conditioning, it occurs to me that in this Gospel story, maybe Mary was just hot. I think the lesson she gives us still remains, and maybe this heat wave we’re in just reinforces it. Here we go. 

In this story, Mary wasn’t doing anything. And she’s told by the Savior of the world that she has chosen the right thing.

About a month ago, the New York Times ran an article that I instinctively, as an American of working age, found scandalous. 

No, it wasn’t about politics, exactly. It wasn’t about the minimum wage or immigration. It was entitled — brace yourselves, American capitalists — it was called, “You are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything.” (1)

It detailed what the author called “fallow time,” noting that even the fields that produce our food must be left fallow in order to continue to do what they are supposed to do. In our over-value of work, we forget that we are human. We forget that sometimes, we all have to be off, resting, not doing anything. 

What’s more, though, we are also terrified of what might happen when we stop moving. What will our worth be, if we don’t have somewhere to be or to go every second of the day? More, how will we be able to stand it if we are left with our thoughts? This is why vacations or lapses in employment or even parental or other family leave can drive us crazy. We often don’t know what to do when we’re not working. 

Part of that is practical: we were created to have purpose, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting one. But I still think part of our discomfort with fallow time is also a problem.

A comedian once remarked that texting and driving may be illegal just about everywhere now, but if you look around at a stop light, most people are looking at their phones. We’re not looking at their phones because we’re that important or because we can’t stand to miss something, but often because we cannot, and will not, be alone with our thoughts. And before anyone claims superiority because you’re not that attached to your smartphone or because you don’t have a smartphone, I bet you have your own pet distractions that keep you away from your thoughts, too. We all do. We always have, long before the internet. 

The New York Times article that I mentioned gets at that, but what’s more, it notes that allowing ourselves to rest, especially in the summer time, makes us better humans. It’s almost like the ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Bible was onto something when God commanded Israel to work six days but have one day, one non-negotiable day, of rest. 

It’s like that story where a pastor says that the devil doesn’t take a day off and neither does he. Gently, a friend recommended that this pastor choose a better role model. You know, like God, who built the world in six days and took one day of rest, not because God was weak or tired, but so that God could sit back, pay attention,  and take it all in. 

Even God lies fallow. Even God rests. Even God has times of doing nothing. 

Jesus recognizes this about Mary in our Gospel story for today. A lot of the time when we hear this story preached, we hear this sermon: we need Marys and Marthas! Both are valid! 

And you know, there’s some measure of truth to that: we do need practical people who put in work. As a habitual Martha type, I would never deny that. 

But that’s the thing. Luke nor Jesus never said that Mary doesn’t put in work. The idea that Martha is the worker and Mary is the one who doesn’t work sells Mary short; no one ever said she was lazy. Quite the opposite, actually. She’s smart enough to know when to stop moving.

Mary, you see, just realizes what’s right in front of her, parks in front of Jesus, and pays attention.

Martha, for her part, is angry at her sister for a few reasons. One, she feels like the burden of hosting is all on her. You can’t blame her, really. It’s not like today when we could simply say “The Messiah is here, so let’s order a pizza instead of making someone cook.” Someone had to feed them all, we think, and Martha agrees. She’s mad that her sister isn’t helping. Her sister, in fact, is acting like a man, reclining at the feet of a rabbi talking about faith while the woman works. 

So is it true that Martha had to feed them all? 

This is where it pays to get out an actual Bible and see where this story falls in the whole narrative of Luke. It turns out that, just one chapter earlier, the crowds had come pressing in on Jesus after hearing about him, and he taught them and healed them. Then sunset had rolled around, and the disciples, like Martha, started thinking practically: “Send the crowd away,” they said, “so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and …[get something to eat]” (Luke 9:12). 

If you’ve been doing the church thing very long, you probably know how a setup like that ends with Jesus. With five loaves and two fish, he feeds five thousand men — plus the women and children who don’t get counted. Jesus feeds at least five thousand, but as many as ten thousand plus humans with practically nothing. And here’s Martha scurrying around the kitchen, fretting about feeding around fifteen people.

Now, it is fair to ask if Martha and Mary knew about this miracle. 

I think so. Luke talks over and over about how word spread to all the surrounding villages. Chances are, the disciples were still talking about it. We would be. 

I just don’t think that Martha was able to stop herself from working to provide. If she wasn’t doing anything, what would her worth to the group be? If she stopped moving, what would her purpose be?

What Mary knew is that, like the article title says, “You are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything.” 

You are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything, too. When you stop to pay attention to what’s around you. When you stop to pay attention to your life, to your emotions, to your physical wellbeing, to God. When you move more slowly or decide to put off that annoying task because it’s hot outside. 

Our society, writ large, tells us that rest is for the weak. We even tell children that idle hands are the devil’s playground, and while I don’t have children, I have been a child (and a teenager), and I know that there’s some truth to that statement. But we also shouldn’t confuse motion with progress or teach children to do the same. 

This is what I’ve learned in my years of being an athlete: worthwhile work, at the right time, means everything. It is where progress is made and gains are huge. But athletes who never take days off will suffer setbacks and injuries of all kinds, because bodies (and minds) need recovery.

Sometimes I’ve made the best progress for myself when I wasn’t in motion at all. 

So consider this your invitation this summer: stop confusing motion with progress. Work smarter, not harder. Your worth is entirely separate from your ability to produce. You are loved not because you are productive. You are loved because you breathe. You were created and called good. You were created to want purpose and work. And you were created to need rest. 

So let’s take a little lesson from Mary and stop excusing Martha. While Martha’s intentions were pure and wonderful and practical, she missed something, and Jesus called her on it: it is Jesus who feeds us. And we should stop moving and pay attention to what’s around us.

At this table, we are all fed. If you believe that the Eucharist is more than a snack, you know that it’s not me and it’s not the altar care folks or the servers doing the feeding. It’s Jesus. Here, all are welcome, and all are fed, and there’s nothing you should do, and nothing you can do, to earn it. So come and be fed. And when you leave this place, leave to pay attention and maybe even stop moving for awhile and rest. Lie on the couch and watch the daylight. Sit under some air conditioning and drink something cold. Hang around your house. Notice things you haven’t noticed before, even if you’ve lived there for years. Read a book. Binge watch something. Start a project not because it’s productive, but because it’s fun. Do things not because you must but because you may. Because your heart wants to. 

As much as your life allows, dare yourself to rest, however you can.

Be more like Mary. Be more like God. 

The New York Times article I mentioned ends like this, and I’ll end with this passage from it:

“I don’t mean for fallow time to be seen as just another life hack, the way that even meditation has been hijacked as something that will boost your productivity. The upside of this kind of downtime is more holistic than that — it’s working toward a larger ecology of workers who are recognized as human beings instead of automatons. Not everyone, of course, can leave the assembly line at will. But fallow time can take different forms for everyone, and finding a bit of [rest] is surprisingly reachable in most … lives….

A friend had excellent advice. Be open to the invitation to replenish yourself, he said. Say yes to the gift of no requirement. 

It looks like I’m doing nothing. But it’s the hidden something I’m after.” 

It’s the hidden something that Mary was after, and Jesus recognized that. 

Go and do likewise.Say yes to the gift of no requirement.” It starts here, at this table, and it ends with you, resting happily, not because you must, but because you may. Amen.

Neighbors & Giving Blood

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It’s true. Give blood if you can. 

Luke 10:25-37

[The lawyer] answered Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to [the man], “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

One of many things you all have gotten me into is giving blood. I’d never donated blood before I was called here, but in my first year I couldn’t help but notice that the RedCross BloodMobile would regularly pull up between my house and my workplace. That made it pretty hard for me to find a good excuse not to give blood. That was solidified when, a couple of weeks after my first donation, I was visiting a beloved parishioner in the hospital and noticed he was getting a blood transfusion and that he was the same blood type as me. I learned that it’s better to help when you can, because you could be helping someone you know. Or not. And it really doesn’t matter. 

“And who is my neighbor?”

There’s a poem out there that gets at that. It’s written by Carol Lynn Pearson, a poet from Idaho. She writes: 

“I love giving blood.
Sometimes I walk in
Off the Street
When no one has even asked
And roll up my sleeve

I love lying on the table
Watching my blood flow
Through the scarlet tube
To fill the little bag
That bears no Address

I love the mystery
Of its destination.
It runs as easily
To child or woman or man

Black or white
Californian or Asian [or Asian Californian]
Methodist, Mormon
Muslim or Jew.”

There is more, but I’ll get to the rest later. 

“And who is my neighbor?”

Needless to say, rolling up my sleeve on Monday with this text on my docket to wrestle with — well, the two interacted. If you’ve ever given blood, you know: you have a lot of time laying on the table to think. By the time I got to the raisins at the end, I pretty much had a sermon in mind.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I don’t always think about my sermon while I’m giving blood. I think about pretty much the same things you do: what groceries I have to get or who I’m mad at or the size of the ceiling tiles or basically anything except the needle sticking out of my arm.

But sometimes the connection to what I’m doing and what I’m preaching on is just a little too obvious.

If you want a classic, well-known short story by Jesus, the Good Samaritan is an excellent choice. Jesus tells this little story in response to a lawyer, already mentioned here, who asks Jesus how he can live forever. Jesus gives him a stock answer: follow the biggies in the law: love God and love your neighbor, he says, and you will live.

The lawyer’s response echoes in my head every time I hear church people argue about who’s worthy of love and respect: “… and who is my neighbor?” My dears, with this lawyer, we have never stopped asking Jesus this question. Luke says the lawyer was trying to justify himself, and with it, so are we. It’s basically all of us, together, whining through the ages, “I can’t love everyone as myself! That’s unrealistic! Who, specifically, are we supposed to love, Jesus? We need names. Addresses would be great, too.” 

“[The blood I give] runs as easily
To child or woman or man
Black or white
Californian or Asian
Methodist, Mormon
Muslim or Jew.”

The Good Samaritan story is designed to offend the lawyer, and it’s designed to offend us. You’re going to miss it if you settle into how familiar this story, but this is Jesus popping off. We just don’t get it anymore. You see, American Christians living in the 21st century don’t have much of an issue with Samaritans. If anything, we associate the word with the story and think of a “Good Samaritan” as someone who randomly acts with kindness or compassion. If anything, “Samaritan” means something positive to us.

That lawyer had an issue with Samaritans, though. Samaritans were the ones the people of Israel were quite convinced had it all wrong. They lived wrong, worshiped wrong, thought wrong. 

Now, I’m sure you have the imagination to hear this story the right way. 

What group of people are you convinced live wrong, worship wrong, and/or think wrong? Take a minute. I’m sure it won’t take you long: Republicans, Democrats, Trump supporters, Hillary voters, Chuck Schumer. If politics don’t work, think religion. You’re sure to find some group of people in that rolodex of your mind who, if you’re honest with yourself, totally offends you with their very existence. I know, you want to be kind and say you love everyone, but sometimes it’s better to be honest. We all have someone. Got it?

Those are your Samaritans. 

Now listen to the story again and fill in your blank.

A man whose car had broken down was walking from Granby to South Hadley when he was mugged by two guys. They beat him and took everything he had, and left him half dead by the side of the road. Now, by chance a Lutheran pastor was walking her dog by the side of the road, and when she saw him, she thought about helping, but she was in a hurry and was he really hurt or just another hitchhiker taking a rest? She crossed the street, just in case he was dangerous.

Likewise, later on, a member of Our Savior’s church council also passed by, and a similar thing happened: the man wasn’t obviously hurt, was he? And he might be dangerous. The council member passed by on the other side, too, just to be safe.

But a Samaritan [who’s your Samaritan?], saw him and came near, and his heart went out to the man. He immediately called for help, and stayed with the man until the EMTs arrived. When the man still wasn’t conscious and the EMTs couldn’t identify him, the Samaritan [who’s your Samaritan?] drove to the hospital where they were taking the man, saying “I didn’t want him to be alone.” He stayed by his bedside for hours until he regained consciousness, then he called the man’s family.

Then Jesus finishes telling us this story and turns to us, and we’re seething. Not only did the people like us act like jerks, the hero of the story was kind of a detestable person and he had acted like a hero. Jesus smiles and says, “So which one of these was a neighbor to the man?” 

We know already: the one who showed him mercy. The one we can’t stand. 

“Go and do likewise.”

In my humble opinion, if Christian faith can offer any tangible, being-a-good-human advice to the world, it is simply this: everyone is your neighbor. Even the ones you can’t stand.

If you’ve interacted with any number of different types of humans, you know this already: people will surprise you, and we need to watch how we label others and what we think that means they’re capable of. Everyone is a neighbor. You may not like all of them. Some of them may even question your very personhood. They may hate people like you. Some of them may even need to be loved from a distance. But you are not allowed to label and dismiss people as not beloved of God and incapable of good. Giving love to our neighbors must be like giving blood: we don’t know where it’s going. 

It’s really all about learning to love like Jesus, whose grace flows to us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. The Gospel is a story about God, not about us, so it’s no wonder we’re bad at loving our neighbors in this way. 

It’s God’s grace that flows to us every time we approach the table together, not anything that any of us has produced or mustered. It doesn’t matter if you’ve failed a thousand ways a thousand times to Sunday. The bread and wine and the Good News of grace flow to you just the same. Then, we’re sent out to go and do likewise. We’re sent out to love, so that we can live.

God’s love, unlike ours, flows just as easily to the well-behaved and the terrible. So whichever one you feel like today, or if you’re where most of us live, in between the two, between saint and sinner — love flows to you, too. That’s the point of the Good Samaritan story, I think. If a Samaritan can show love, and if a Samaritan can be the beloved hero in Jesus’ story, so can you, my friend.

So give blood, if you can. If you can’t, let love flow out of you some other way. Most of all, let love flow to you today — from family and friends and loved ones and God. We’re all neighbors here. 

The end of Carol Lynn Pearson’s poem is this, after she talks about how blood runs just as easily to anyone: 

“Rain does too.
Rivers do.
I think God does.
We Do Not.
Our suspicious egos clot
On the journey from ‘Us’ to ‘Them’
So I give blood
To practice Flowing
Never knowing
where it’s Going
And Glad.”

Jesus asked the lawyer what’s in the law, and the lawyer answered Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to the man, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Life, real life, is in loving your neighbors, whoever they are, not because you are perfect or good or worthy, and not because they are perfect or good or worthy, but because you know that you’re both already loved. God’s love flows freely, always.

Beloved to whom God’s love always flows: Word of God, word of life. [Thanks be to God.]


Radical Joy & Pants-Seat Aviation

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From Inherit the Mirth.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

One of my favorite churchy cartoon strips is called “Inherit the Mirth.” Of those, one of my favorite iterations is one where a group of angels is gathered in heaven, and one, the lead angel, presumably, is giving instructions. The lead angel says, “For this mission, we’ll need someone who’s good at flying by the seat of their pants.” For a moment, your eyes wander around the cartoon, trying to find the joke. Then, you see it: there’s one little angel in the corner with wings on their butt. It’s glorious. And you all know I love a slow burning joke. 

I hung it in the pastoral care office when I worked as a chaplain at a hospital in Atlanta, because if there’s one thing chaplains have to do a lot, it’s improvise.

Today, in the Gospel text, Jesus essentially commands the disciples to fly by the seats of their pants… or their tunics, I guess. He commands them to go out ahead of him in pairs, carrying no bag, no sandals, no food, no purse. 

Let me tell you: as a control freak who loves planning, this text gives me anxiety. I need lead time for just about anything. With enough lead time, I can conquer the world for you. At the last minute, I’m not even very good at tying my own shoes.

This love of planning has often given me anxiety in churches — and not just this one — because seemingly no one (save for a few of you) loves planning and preparation as much a I do. This isn’t a dig — it’s because few of you are as insane as me. 

But also, I know, and you know, that you can’t always plan ahead. Life has a way of surprising all of us. This is why the aforementioned cartoon worked so well in a medical pastoral care office: medicine has a way, as a profession, of throwing things at you that you can’t plan for. This is also true of teaching and a bunch of other professions, including probably yours. See also: life itself.

Life has a way of making us all fly by the seats of our pants sometimes, even those of us who love preparing. 

In this Gospel text, it’s Jesus who tells them to go sailing off into the sunset with wings on their butts. Don’t prepare, just go, he says. Find people who will listen and form relationships with them. If they don’t listen, move on. Don’t stand there and argue; just go.

A side note here to note that, often, this “shake the dust off your feet” text has been used as an excuse to abandon arguments in churches. To take our toys and go home. You’ll note that Jesus, here, is talking about interactions with strangers, not those we’re in relationships with. There are often good excuses to walk away from an argument with someone we love, but this text isn’t one of them.

With that out of the way: back to pants-seat-aviation. 

Jesus tells them to strike off ahead of him, meet people, form relationships with them, and depend on them. He also tells them to tend to the sick. Our English translations often say “heal,” but that’s not a great translation. The Greek word is “thera-pyoo-o,” the root of our modern word “therapy.” Turns out, it means a lot of things: heal, care for, restore, tend, or just to serve. 

Essentially, Jesus is saying, “Go out, unprepared, and pay attention especially to those who are sick or otherwise vulnerable.” First, he says, whenever you enter a house, bless it with peace. 

If there’s anyone there who shares your peace, he says, they’ll be heartened; if not, “your peace will return to you.” 

This is all quite antithetical, I must say, to the way I operate. I love preparing, first, and second, I love being right. I’m in the back of this whole scene trying to justify arguing with the person about why I’m right and why they’re cranky for not accepting my peace. 

But what I really think is happening is that Jesus is sending them out, two by two, and telling them to pay attention to what’s actually important. Don’t worry about your packing list. Don’t worry about arguing with people. That’s what flying by the seat of your pants can do for you: realize what’s actually important.

In this case, Jesus says, be most concerned with a singular message: “The kingdom of God has come near.” 

Another Greek lesson you’ve probably heard from me before: “kingdom” also isn’t a great translation, because a “kingdom” is a place, but the Greek word, “basilea,” is an active noun. A better way of saying it is, “The reign of God has come near.” 

We might be able to think of the “kingdom of God” as a place, maybe up there, somewhere. But the “reign of God” is how things are supposed to be. And that can be right here, as near as our next breath, if we only pay attention to what’s actually important.

A place where there is actually liberty and justice for all on this Fourth of July weekend. Where the huddled masses can actually breathe free. Where those who are sick or vulnerable are tended to and not ignored or cast aside. Where those that we look down upon are lifted up. Where we realize that our enemies, regardless of who they are or what they have done, are still made in God’s image, just like us. 

I know, it probably sounds unrealistic. It is. If you want a God who is realistic, I certainly don’t recommend Jesus. Dude drives me crazy with his lack of logic sometimes. He tells all these crazy stories and he sticks up for all the people I’d rather avoid. But here we all are, proof that faith is a gift, even to the cranky.

Maybe, in telling the disciples not to prepare, he calls their attention to what matters most: the humans around them. He calls them to go out two by two, probably for safety, but also for relationship. This faith thing has always been social; it’s never been our own personal solo venture. The disciples’ only two assignments are this: travel light, and spread peace and healing. Wherever there is peace and healing, the reign of God has come near.

Maybe, especially when the future is unclear in our own lives and in our church’s life, that’s still the assignment: travel light, and spread peace and healing wherever you go, so that folks will know one thing — the reign of God has come near. Because wherever there is peace and healing, the reign of God has come near.

Don’t get caught up in stuff that doesn’t matter. Don’t carry around extra baggage (literal or emotional). Pack light and focus on what matters: the humans right in front of you, and the reign of God come near.

If you’ve checked your email or our Facebook page or website recently, you know that we have a new mission statement: “Radical joy in action: responding to Christ’s love with abundant joy and overflowing generosity.” 

In other words, as one of my gym’s coaches put it recently: get out there and jazz someone up. Jazz up your friends. Jazz up strangers. Make a random stranger smile. 

Spread peace and healing and joy wherever you can. Don’t worry about the stuff that doesn’t matter. Get out there and be radical joy in action. Spread peace and healing wherever you go. It’s what we’re good at, as a congregation: being generous and spreading joy. We’re good at making people smile. For goodness’ sake, every couple of months, we convince actual strangers to come to a bar and sing hymns with us. 

Then they will know this: the reign of God has come near.

Often, we get stuck in what our bishop calls “a paralysis of consensus.” We worry about everyone agreeing. Everyone wants to add their own thing, including me, and we can get a little stuck. This is as true here at church as it is in our own families and friend groups. We can pretty easily get stuck in the details and lose sight of what’s really important: actual relationships with actual people. Spreading peace. Spreading joy.

Yes, I still need lead time. I still need preparation. This text will always give me anxiety. There’s a lot here, and it’s all a lot to live up to. But here’s what I find livable about this text, and here’s what gives me joy: we can spread peace and healing in spite of ourselves sometimes. Even when we aren’t well-prepared for the future.

So do me a favor and attach a pair of (metaphorical) wings to your rear end. Stop worrying about stuff that won’t matter in a year. Get out there and spread some joy. Be that little angel at the corner of the cartoon and get a little better at pants-seat aviation. 

Folks may think we’re ridiculous, but they will  know this: the reign of God has come near. Radical joy in action lives at 319 Granby Road and isn’t afraid to be a little ridiculous, even if it means flying by the seats of our pants.

Thanks be to God. Amen.