Love & a World on Fire

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Jeremiah 23:23-29
Luke 12:49-56

An important question for us to tackle every now and then: why are you here?

People come to church, I’ve noticed over the years, for all kinds of reasons. 

Some come to church to find meaning, some come for community, and some come for reasons they can’t put their fingers on. Speaking more of the general church population of the US than of present company, most come (I think) out of habit. One of the things that makes you special as a congregation is that I don’t get the sense that most of you come here out of obligation or habit. You like being here and you like each other. It’s weird. And awesome.

Many people come to church, too, for comfort, but if that’s you, I apologize that the first thing you saw when you looked at your bulletin this morning was the world on fire. You might think I’ve been reading the news too much, and that such an image is a little on the nose.

Though I’d tell you that if you don’t feel that way about the world these days, and maybe for all of our entire lifetimes, you don’t listen to the news enough. 

The truth is that the world has kind of been on fire since before we were all born. Yes, even you.

The world has kind of been on fire since before Jesus was born. The stakes have always been high, and talking about the state of the world has never been comfortable. Talking about Jesus has never really been comfortable either, when you get right down to it, which makes it all the more surprising that folks come to church for comfort. 

In case you haven’t thought about it today, let me remind you: God broke into human history in the form of a controversial rabbi in an occupied and historically contested and unstable land. 

C. S. Lewis turned atheist at age 15, but later, he intentionally came back to the church.

Of our faith, Lewis wrote in a very English fashion: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy, I always knew a bottle of port will do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Don’t get me wrong. My ability to hold myself together when I look at the state of the world is and always has been some at times vague belief that God’s got all of this, and that Christ holds all things together, and that someday even the worst and ugliest injustices that we’ve witnessed in all of human history shall somehow, somehow, be made right, that someday there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God’s home will be among mortals, and that every tear will be wiped away. 

If you come to church for comfort, I’m not scolding you. In fact, I have a stated policy of never scolding other adults. 

But, I mean: what thing that you love makes you happy all the time?

Football season is coming up soon. Need I say more.

Church is no different, and with quotes like this from Jesus, it’s no wonder that church isn’t more of a challenge than anything else that we love: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…” 

Challenging? Yes. Comforting? No.

One term that I’ve learned in recent years is “spiritual bypassing,” which is when someone raises a valid disagreement and we don’t deal with it, but instead talk about how Jesus was always nice and wanted us all to get along.

I guess no one ever asked the money changers or religious leaders or even Jesus’ disciples about this, and listening to him today, I wonder where we get the whole thing from. Truth be told, it’s a little dishonest. 

Further, what Jesus is saying here, quite frankly, reminds me of our national and our world today, namely: “…division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two…” 

If that sounds like Thanksgiving dinner to you, then you’re like most Americans today.

We mourn and lament our divisions, and we swear that the world is on fire because we can’t seem to have real conversations anymore. But I want to posit this morning that we were never really good at having real conversations in the first place. Our current times of division are just revealing what was already there. 

The truth is that we as a church and we as a nation have already been through division, and stress, and disagreements. We’ve all already done this before. The world has pretty much always been on fire.

One of my favorite things about you, Our Savior’s, is that you have been through conflict and decided it wasn’t the end of the world. If anything, it’s brought you closer to one another. That’s not to say that anything was easy — it has been painful as anything — but it hasn’t killed us yet. And that means something. 

What we can do is to show our community that division isn’t the end of the world. We can have hard conversations about real things. But only if those conversations are rooted in the Gospel. Let me explain. 

There’s a temptation to either bypass our sharp disagreements about real things or to drive out anyone who disagrees and then make social justice our Gospel. Neither works, church. Neither works. 

Here is what does work, I think: I’ll explain it by way of camp. 

This past week, you all lent me out for the second and last time this year to Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry. I’m always grateful to go, because personally, I believe that it’s like a continuing education event, but better, and free: I learn new things, I refresh my soul (even as my body is exhausted), and I always, always leave a better pastor than I was when I arrived. 

Here’s what happened this week at Camp Calumet that made me a better pastor for South Hadley: observing the final performance for Calumet’s music camp. Music camp happens every last week of camp, and it culminates in a concert at the end, which then leads into closing ceremonies for the summer, which of course include fire. 

When I walked into the music camp concert, I was prepared to give a super brief talk at said campfire about how they can carry the experience forward. As the music camp performance went on, my talk changed and got much, much shorter. 

Here’s what I saw: I saw little kids and college students and adults and everyone in between performing beautiful music together, which is what I expected. Here’s what I didn’t expect: otherwise shy kids stepping up to the microphone and BELTING at the top of their lungs, on key, beautifully, to raucous applause. 

Those kids were brave. They were brave because they knew that everyone in that room loved them.

Was every kid the next Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes? Goodness no, and thank goodness. We need those kids to become doctors and contractors and teachers maybe even a pastor or two. Not every performance was perfect, of course. Some of the kids had a bit of trouble staying on rhythm. The first time it happened, I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat when I heard a snapping sound rising from the next row in the audience. Then it grew louder until it filled the room. The congregation was tapping out the beat, helping get the kid back on track, in the most supportive way possible. 

Sure, they could’ve not had a music concert at all, and no kid would’ve had to risk embarrassment. But what actually happened was so much richer. 

It made me think of division and peace and spiritual bypassing. We may think we’re helping by stifling hard conversations. We may think we’re helping by hearing someone say something harmful and not saying anything back. We may think the alternative is to pretend like disagreements don’t exist and keep the peace that way. We could pretend that the rhythm of a song is a thing that can change and smile politely when someone gets it wrong. But that just makes everyone uncomfortable. 

Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

We know how to interpret the rhythms of the earth and sky and seasons. We should learn to keep the beat of truth, too. Everyone can’t be right all the time. Sometimes we have to clap together to keep each other on the beat. And sometimes that’ll be weird and hard and uncomfortable at first. No one ever said that church is always comfortable, especially when it feels like the world’s on fire. It’s not niceness or even peace that drives the church; it’s love. 

Love speaks up when something isn’t right, in our church or in our world, and sometimes that’s incredibly hard and awkward at first. 

Love keeps the beat. 

But just like the beat, love is for everyone, not a select few who manage to get it right naturally. 

So this is what I told the kids at the campfire and this is how I’ll end my time with you today: people come alive at Camp Calumet and in good churches like this one because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone in that room loves them no matter what. Everyone is embraced for who God made them to be. Whether you’ve been there for thirty years or whether you just arrived today, you will be greeted with a warm welcome as if you’ve been a regular for years. When people say they feel the Holy Spirit in that place, the prevailing feeling they’re usually describing is love: they feel loved. They can be themselves, in all of their beautiful weirdness. They can be themselves; they don’t have to be perfect or right all the time. And that kind of love is infectious. It quickly moves beyond the boundary lines of the property and out into the world. 

Because people who know they are loved are better, kinder humans. They’re themselves. They are funnier, they are happier, and they are braver. They don’t feel like they have to be perfect because they know they‘re much better off just feeling like themselves. It’s much easier to admit your flaws when you feel secure.

And this is the gist of the last thing I told them, and this is the gist of what I want you to know: you are loved, just as you are. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. We’ll help you keep the beat.

You are loved. And people who know that they are loved can do anything.

This whole church thing won’t always be easy, and it won’t always feel good. We must always be willing to say to each other “You aren’t always right, but you are always loved.” 

The world is on fire, which means we need you to be your bravest, most beloved self. 

So may we promise this one thing: the stakes are high, and the world is on fire. Given that, church can’t always make us feel comfortable, but it can always make us feel loved. So it should be. Amen.

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Fighting Fear and Finding Family

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Ladies and gentlepersons, our own Bob Stehlin: veteran, altar care extraordinaire, and all around great guy. 

Genesis 15:1-6
Luke 12:32-40

Do you remember what you did ten years ago today? How about fifty? Anniversaries remind us to be thankful, and they remind us, at times, of our own strength. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, it’s an important day for one of ours. Many of you have heard the story, and on this day, we’ll revisit it a bit for those of you who haven’t. 

Of this day, our own Bob Stehlin writes,

“[Today is the] 10th Anniversary of the hardest phone call I ever made in my entire life time.  A call I made on August 11, 2009 to my sister to ascertain whether or not with could have a brother/sister relationship.  The 10th Anniversary of my moving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not occur until April 1, 2011, two years later.

I was seventeen year old when I found that my father was alive and stationed in Germany in the United States Army.

I was nineteen years old when I knocked on his door in Germany and introduced myself as his son and the look on my step-mother’s face who was standing behind my father was absolutely priceless. During this visit I was introduced to my sister Evelyn Carol Stehlin (Belanger), who was no more than a year at the time.  That visit lasted exactly four days. I never saw or spoke to my father again.

In May 2009, I told myself that I wasn’t getting any younger and I should see if I could have a relationship with my sister.  I had strong desires for the first time in my life to have A REAL FAMILY.

Having a brother/sister relationship with my sister would provide me with [that].”
Long story short, Bob has friends who are good at finding out things, and soon, he found his sister living in Belchertown, just down the road from here. Of this day, ten years ago, he writes,

“On Sunday, August 11, 2009 at approximately 4:00PM I picked up my phone and called my sister… This was two days after my 66th birthday and 11 days before my sister’s…wedding. I was extremely scared and apprehensive before I picked up the phone which made it extremely hard for me to even dial the number.

4 and a half hours later, I was no longer scared or apprehensive, and I knew I had made correct call in calling my sister and knew that yes I was going to have A REAL FAMILY.  I was extremely excited that in 20 days I would meet not only my sister, but my nephew, niece and brother-in-law. I meet my sister, brother-in-law and nephew at Bradley International Airport on August 31, 2009 and the rest is history.
I have never once since I moved to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regret that I moved here.”

Bob, we love you, and we celebrate with you, and thank you for sharing your story with us. We’re glad you made that call, too. 

Acceptance makes fear melt away. 

Another anniversary happened this week too, and it was recognized at our denomination’s triennial assembly: the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran tradition. You might’ve seen it on social media this week: when women clergy of all ages came streaming into the assembly in procession – many of them long ago had looked fear in the face and decided here they stand, in true Lutheran fashion. I stand on many of their shoulders. Because of their courage, the church’s acceptance has, in many ways, made women’s fear melt away. Today, women pastors, deacons, and laypeople are part of the fabric of our church, seen as equal and strong, with plenty of gifts to share. 

We Lutherans, of all genders, are family. 

In the Old Testament reading, Abraham is afraid of rejection, and of not having a family, too, and God drags him outside and shows him the stars. 

God is in the business of quelling our fears and giving us a family. A real family. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s just spent the several verses before that telling them to not be afraid. He knows. 

He knows they live in an occupied land. He knows they’re afraid of the possibility of getting kicked out of their religious communities for following Jesus. He knows they’re afraid. 

We, too, know what it means to be afraid. Despite having faced our fears in years past, fear always comes again. 

Shootings in Dayton and El Paso, which are only the latest mass shootings of the over 200 that we’ve endured this year. Fear over white supremacist terrorism and political turmoil. Fear over talking to our relatives and neighbors about politics. And when we fear our neighbors, we start to hate them.

In the words of Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

To add to that, we’ve got our own more personal fears, too. Fear that we’re not good enough. Fear over jobs and money and relationships. Fear that we will somehow be left all alone. Depending on your religious upbringing, you might have even felt some fear over this Gospel reading: will you be ready when the bridegroom comes?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

Not because you’re good enough or tried hard enough, but just because you are. I know. In this era, in every era, that’s hard to believe. Grace is hard like that. But in those times when we allow ourselves to believe it — that we are loved, that we can have a real family, that we can love our neighbors as ourselves, or simply that we’re not getting any younger and we might as well just go for it — we get glimpses that it really is true. We find family. We find ourselves. We find acceptance and love. And no matter what, always, God finds us. 

Often despite myself, I still believe that there’s value in searching ancient texts for clues to help us deal with fear in our own time. That maybe our ancestors knew something about how to deal with uncertainty. Maybe they knew something about fear and pain and joy and heartbreak and hope. Maybe they knew something deep and true about how to be human. From Abraham to the disciples, they knew. And Jesus knew, too. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Because the truth is that none of us is getting younger, and none of this — whether it’s the news or our own lives — none of this is getting any less scary. So as far as I’m concerned, we might as well take Jesus at his word. We might as well look back to our ancestors and think about what they have come through and on whose shoulders we stand. We might as well take courage, and acceptance, and family, where we can find it. 

Yes, we are all afraid and nervous about the future. But here, we find family. At its best, the church gives us the courage to show up and Jesus gives us the nourishment at the table to keep moving, despite our fear. At its best, the church is a family, too, full of love and full of acceptance. 

Do not be afraid, little flock. 

Do not be afraid of shrinking numbers or white supremacists or the future. Do not be afraid to talk to your neighbors or call your family. And do not be afraid to walk into the future that is yours. Do not be afraid to pick up the phone and make that call, to say I love you to that person who needs to hear it, or to finally look in the mirror and love yourself. And when it gets really hard, let God drag you outside like Abraham and show you the stars — and may you see that you are a small but beloved part of this world, and that the world is not ending just yet. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

This, my dear, sweet Lutheran family, this is most certainly true. Amen.

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.]

Amen.

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.

No Excuses (If You’re Going Somewhere)

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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.