Complete Colorblindness, Flaming Trash, and the Kingdom of God

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Mark 9:38-50

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

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

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

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

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

And this is what pure friendship is.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The table is open. Dangerously open. Offensively open. 

But being open certainly has its perks. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So together, let’s see. Amen.

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Humanity from the Bike Lane

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James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Being a bike commuter taught me more about interpersonal dynamics on a macro scale  than any class I ever took. 

That is to say, cycling to and from work when I was in Atlanta taught me a lot about humanity’s tendency to mistreat, abuse, and disregard those who they perceive to be smaller and weaker, and those whom they perceive to have no power over them. It was the whole, “you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat children, the elderly, and service workers,” but on a larger and more impersonal scale.  

You see, when I am on a bike, I am much smaller and more vulnerable than the average driver. If a cyclist collides with a driver, chances are incredibly high that it is the cyclist’s body that will bear the brunt of the impact. Chances are also high that the driver will leave the encounter physically unscathed.

People say judgy things about cyclists all the time. They lament that cyclists don’t stop at red lights or stop signs and don’t always obey all the rules of the road. And in some cases, they’re 100% right. Some cyclists are jerks and outlaws, because some humans are jerks and outlaws. But if someone had a serious prejudice against all cyclists because she had encountered some who were poorly behaved, I would begin to worry about how she treated other groups whose members she had once seen behaving badly. We’re all predisposed to prejudice; the trick, like most things, is to be self-aware about it. 

I am always grateful for those who understand how difficult life is for someone else, even when they don’t have to. 

For those who are white, but take the time to see the ways that nonwhite people are pre-judged and mistreated. For those who are men, but see and understand and speak up when women are talked over or abused. For straight people who speak up for LGBTQ+ people. For young people who go out of their way to befriend the elderly, and for older people who go out of their way to mentor younger people. For people who do not struggle financially who take the time to understand the plight of those who do struggle, and who advocate for them.

For those who have no personal reason to believe or stand up for or be kind to others, but believe them and stand up for them and are kind to them anyway. For drivers who pull up next to a cyclist at a red light after the cyclist has just been dangerously and harrowingly cut off by another driver and say, “I saw that. I don’t know what’s wrong with that guy. Are you okay? 

It’s pretty easy to care about something that directly affects you or your family and friends. It’s much harder to care when it doesn’t directly affect you.

What’s more, though, caring for those we don’t technically have to care about is also where we find our fullest humanity. This is also, I think, where Jesus was ultimately pushing us with this “kingdom of God” stuff. That the kingdom of God — a better translation is the “reign” or “rule” of God — is where all are heard, believed, and cared for, and where injustice is brought out into the light and corrected. Where we really do care about things, even when we could easily go about our lives not caring.

Because you see, it’s much easier not to care. It can even feel temporarily satisfying to take out our anger on such people — those we perceive to be somehow “lower” than us. It can feel pretty good, even, to yell a cyclist to get off the road (knowing full well that they have the right to be there), or to be rude to a waiter, all because you’ve had a bad day. It may seem sort of harmless, in the grand scheme of things, until we remember that trying to feel better by keeping others down has led to a lot of evil in the world. Any good Southerner and student of history knows that it was poor whites who were the foot soldiers of the KKK; after all, if blacks were not kept down, whom would poor whites have to feel better than?

The urge to be the greatest — or at least to not be the least — is ingrained in us from childhood. Not just “us” Americans, either. Us humans. We learn from an early age that the better and greater you are, the less likely you are to be anyone’s victim. So we beat others down in order to feel better and to send the message that no one better mess with us. If we’re self-sufficient, we think, we won’t be dependent on anyone. That’s the goal. 

There’s only one catch: at some point, most of us do become the least, whether by circumstance or, if we’re lucky, by choice. At some point, we all find ourselves dependent on the kindness of others. We all find ourselves hoping that someone who doesn’t have to care will care. Whether it happens because we are part of a hated or outcast group or because we are simply lonely, we all eventually find ourselves hoping that someone who’d doesn’t have to care about our plight will care — that they will stand up for us, call us, show us kindness. We’ve all been there. If you haven’t, it’s incredibly likely that you someday will be. 

This is why we are our best selves when we show kindness that we didn’t have to show: because it seems that we’re wired towards self-importance, and kindness breaks that pattern. Kindness moves us from thinking about ourselves and worrying about having enough — enough status, enough money, enough attention — and helps us to think in terms of abundance and whether someone else has enough.

The Gospel lesson today is another relatively familiar one — Jesus predicts that someday soon he will throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, and be killed, and in three days rise again. The disciples, as you might imagine, really don’t get it, and Mark says in a moment of remarkable candor that they were too afraid to ask him. 

Then Jesus overhears the disciples getting into an argument about who’s the greatest among them. They know this Jesus character that they’ve been following is pretty important; he’s quite popular with the crowds. It becomes a natural human question, then, who among them is the handsomest, most popular, most useful, best disciple. 

Then Jesus brings a child among them to illustrate his point. Children were, in those days, of quite a low status. They weren’t very useful for working, and they were prone to dying of disease and injury. And Jesus uses the child to say, essentially, the wisdom we discussed at the beginning — “what matters is how you treat people who can’t give you anything in return. Those who have no power over you. Those you could go on about your life not caring about.” And Jesus says the famous line: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

It’s a cute image, Jesus holding a child, but this is about way more than only children. It’s about how we treat anyone who can’t give us anything in return. The Kingdom of God is shown through us when we don’t have to care, but do. When we advocate for those who are burdened by society in ways that we are not. When we show kindness to someone we didn’t have to notice in the first place. 

That’s what we try to do here. 

Look, today is commitment Sunday, the height of our stewardship season, as we try to figure out how to do God’s work in the world in the new year. You don’t have to care about church. You don’t have to give. As good Lutherans, we believe that God loves you regardless of how much you give or don’t give or how much you show up here or don’t. You are loved because you breathe. 

When I ran across New Hampshire this past weekend to raise money for kids to go to summer camp, at our dinner before the race, someone said, “When it gets hard, just remember — you get to do this.” The race could go on without any of us. We would all be loved by God and kids would go to camp regardless of whether any individual person in the room ran that race. But we were the ones who got to do it. 

The same is true here. God’s work could go on, easily, without us — without any individual person and without this congregation as a whole. But that’s not the end of the story.

We are here. We get to do this. We get to show up for people and show kindness. 

We keep showing up, doing good, and giving of all that we have not so that God will love us, but because God already does. My work here, and my offering each month, is not some sort of divine bribe to get God to love me, and neither is yours. 

We do this, not because we have to, but because we get to. And that, my beloved, changes everything. Amen.

Full Disclosure

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This sermon is, in part, a tribute to Dr. Gail R. O’Day, one of the most influential professors of my seminary career. The title is a nod towards one of her book titles, The Word Disclosed: Preaching the Gospel of John (Chalice Press, 2002)

Mark 8:27-38

The New York Times’ “Metropolitan Diary” is a human interest section that details the trials, heartbreak, and joy of life in New York City. It’s like a verbal version of the social media photo series “Humans of New York,” highlighting individual humans and the beauty and pain of their stories in New York’s constant streams of anonymous faces.

One recent rendition of Metropolitan Diary, entitled, “Parking Lesson,” went like this.

“Dear Diary:

I pulled onto West 130th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues looking for a parking spot. I noticed one between two cars. I knew there wasn’t a fire hydrant there.

Getting into the spot would have been a tight squeeze, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Luckily, though, I saw that there was a man sitting in the Jeep parked in front of the empty space. He had easily half a car’s length ahead of him that he could move up into. I figured I would ask if he would mind making my job easier.

Pulling alongside the Jeep, I saw that the man was leaning back in his seat. His window was already down. I rolled down my front passenger side window.  

‘Hi, excuse me.’ I said, ‘Would you mind pulling up a bit so I could squeeze in behind you?’  

No response.

‘Excuse me, sir?’

This time, he answered.

‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to ask if you could move up a tad, maybe three feet.’

‘I heard what you said,’ he said. ‘I’ll move up two feet, and learn how to park.’ 

Now I was annoyed.  

He pulled the Jeep up, and I backed into the empty spot easily. Turning off the ignition, I decided to ask the man if he would evaluate my parking job. After all, he had said I needed to learn.

As I approached the Jeep, the man was reaching out the window with his hand open. Almost magnetically, my hand was drawn into his.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m on the phone with the funeral home. My father just passed. Please, go easy on me.’

It doesn’t take much to set us off when we’re surrounded by millions of people, especially in the heat. So go easy on each other.” (1)

He just laid it out there, that man in the Jeep. His bluntness about his situation saved both people from a confrontation.

I know that I’m meant to identify with the man who needed to park, and that the lesson I’m meant to take is to go easy on my fellow human because I have no idea what they’re going through. That is a good lesson indeed.

However, what’s truly remarkable to me about this story is the directness and vulnerability of the guy in the Jeep. It took courage to do what he did — to reach out, literally, and be direct about his own pain. To put himself on the line rather than hide, roll up the window, or start a fight. The writer wouldn’t have been able to go easy on the man in the Jeep had he not disclosed his pain and thrown himself at the mercy of an angry stranger: “I’m on the phone with the funeral home…. Please, go easy on me.” 

The Gospel lesson this morning is known for two things: Peter’s direct confession of Jesus as the Christ and for Peter’s royal screwup two verses later. When he goes from getting it right to getting it so wrong that the Son of God calls him “Satan.” 

Jesus does what seems like a strange thing in Mark — nearly every time he does something extraordinary, or every time someone knows who he is, he shushes them immediately. Scholars and theologians have debated why for centuries, but narratively it’s always made a lot of sense to me: Jesus knows, not because he’s omnipotent, but because he’s alive and conscious, that his miraculous actions and his believers’ claims about him are going to get him into trouble on more than one front. He will eventually throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, which is part of what Peter objects to.

We’re not there yet, though.

No, this time, it’s Peter that makes the bold disclosure. Whenever we’re trying to be direct and tell the truth about anything, especially our own convictions, saying, “This is the whole truth as best I know it” takes courage.

You see, the gathering here in Mark 8 is more intimate than the familiar setting might suggest. Jesus is walking on the road with his disciples. If you’ve done all that much Bible reading at all, at this point, your eyes might start to glaze. “Yeah, yeah — we know. He’s, like, teaching them, right? Imparting the truth on them or something. Profound, neighbor-loving stuff.” That colors how we hear the rest, if we hear it at all. 

It seems that this is a sort of impersonal exchange wherein Peter boldy and in a direct and no B.S. fashion gets Jesus’ Sunday school question right.

I suppose that’s how it is — if you forget that this is a story involving humans.

Much has been said over the years about the car as a place where it’s sometimes easier to have hard conversations. You don’t have to look directly at the person — in fact, if you or the other person is driving, it’s impossible (and unsafe) to maintain long eye contact. An early 2000s emo band was even named after the phenomenon: Dashboard Confessional.

I imagine that this phenomenon of having hard conversations while traveling didn’t start with cars. It  applies to travel more generally too — including walking. Anytime you’re moving and facing forward, you have an easy excuse to look elsewhere, easing up the emotional pressure brought on by facing someone. 

So Jesus and his disciples are walking, presumably facing forward, and he asks a rather vulnerable question: “Who do people say that I am?”

“What do people think of me, really? Who do they think I am? What do they think I’m here for?” 

So the disciples give him a laundry list of the things they’ve heard. Disciple next to Jesus kicks up a little dust with his feet and answers, “Some say John the Baptist.” Disciple in the back says, “Other people are saying you’re Elijah.” Another chimes in, “Or one of the other prophets.” 

Then Jesus drills in with an even more intimate question: “Who do you say that I am?”  

“You’ve been following me for awhile now. Why do you think you’re here? Who am I to you?”

They are about to tell Jesus how they’ve viewed all the time they’ve spent together. They’ve been following him, eating together, laughing together, seeing miracles together. And Jesus has essentially just said, with all their eyes fixed forward, “What has all that meant to you? Who do you think I am?”

What’s more, you see, no one in the group has ever said it out loud.

Peter comes right out with it: “You’re the Messiah.”

It’s not a term that encompasses everything. But it says a lot. And he just came right out with it.

I’ve always appreciated the directness of your average New Englander. I’m no regional essentialist or anything, but my experience with Southerners is that we tend to tell more stories, use more niceties, and beat around the bush a bit more. Our primary goal is often to protect the feelings of others and maintain social norms. New Englanders, I find, often give “just the facts,” preferably without sugarcoating it.

“You’re the Messiah.”

Many Southerners read this kind of demeanor as cold. Thanks to one person in particular, I read it now as more efficient — and brave — than anything.

I’m fairly sure that the Rev. Dr. Gail R. O’Day was the first person from this region that I ever interacted with on a daily basis. She was the academic dean of the Candler School of Theology at Emory in Atlanta for my first two years of seminary. I also had the pleasure of taking several of her courses on preaching and on the Gospel of John. There are, as I’ve said before, classes that make us all better at our jobs, and then there are those that make us better people. Seminary is no different, though I can also count a third category there: there were courses that made me realize that I actually believe this stuff, courses that formed my actual faith and gave me words to describe it. Gail’s courses were among those. In my own preaching voice, I hear echoes of her own, and when I hear someone from my era at Candler preach, I can often tell if they were among her students, too.

I found that she has a keen eye for finding depth and meaning and little patience for showing off in trying to convey it. Just get to the point. She also taught me to get past my assumptions in reading a Gospel story, often asking, “Yes, but what does the text say?” We were allowed to imagine and fill in the details, but we had to be faithful to the text. We had to tell the truth as best we knew it.

Once, while standing with a group of my friends as she passed by, I remarked of a paper I had just turned in to her: “I feel like it went somewhere; I’m sorry for my intro, though — it was kinda fluff.” Deadpan, her blue eyes fixed on me and she said, “I know.” My friends let out a low “oooh,” but by that point, I felt the love. I think I made a B.  

From watching her, I learned to really look at the people to whom I was preaching, even when I was nervous or afraid. From her, I learned to look at individuals in the congregation in a way that says, “This is the truth as best I know it.” 

I’ve been thinking about her, and about preaching, life, and resurrection more generally, because she’s been pretty sick lately. 

Some scholars and theologians and spiritual leaders appeal to our emotions with flowery words including lots of adjectives. With Gail, it was just the facts, and I often found myself feeling things in spite of myself. Because something else was also true: she really believes this stuff. To me, she was a scholarly giant. And if she could believe this stuff, then maybe I could, too.

Peter took a risk in proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, and I wonder if it didn’t have a profound effect on the faith of his fellow disciples. Because if Peter can believe it, well, maybe it is real after all. 

Yes, moments later Peter’s boldness will go to his head and he’ll say too much. Peter lacked New England discernment to go along with his bluntness. He underestimated the vulnerability and openness that the Messiah would have to endure — the cross. He misunderstood that it was ultimately Jesus who’d have to lay himself at the mercy of strangers, die, and rise again.

Still, Jesus calls us to open our arms, to be vulnerable, to lay it all out there: in short, to take up our cross and follow. Tell the truth as best you know it. God will be there. 

After the Orlando shooting in 2016, Gail wrote these words with which I close, which echo ever more true to me now. It was the truth as she knew it: “…the struggle between life and death, love and hate is the struggle of human existence. We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power. And we are called to be witnesses to the love of God that cannot be overcome by hatred and that will carry us all forward in hope toward a justice-filled future. We lament, we mourn, we will seek justice, and we will love. With prayers and hope for a new day, Gail R. O’Day.

It takes courage to tell the truth as you know it: about your own soul, about the state of things, about the existence of hope when nothing is hopeful. 

But you’re New Englanders. Just lay it out there, because we really believe this stuff — about life and death and resurrection.

We are called to live in hope, because to live any other way is to say that love is not real, that love has no power.” So keep laying it out there. God will be there when you do.

Because if you can believe and proclaim it, you just might give someone else the courage to believe it too. That is why we are here: full disclosure. Amen.

1. New York Times Metropolitan Diary, 3 September 2018. You can find the article here.
2. You can read Dr. O’Day’s entire statement after the 2016 Pulse massacre here.

The Insulted, Forgotten, and Healed

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The Canaanite woman asks for healing for her daughter.” Naskh is the caligraphic style for writing in the Arabic alphabet that the biblical text is written in for this manuscript. The artist, Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, was most likely a Coptic monk in the late 17th century in Egypt.
SOURCE: Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Mark 7:24-37

Whenever I am asked to do math, I simply reply that I am a liberal arts major who had to take remedial math, so I cannot be trusted with the church finances. My degree is in history; my minor and first love, however, was English.

English poet William Blake, born in 1757, died in 1827, wrote enduring works of poetry. Why a work of art lasts in our common psyche is often something of a mystery, but when Blake opened his work Songs of Innocence, he gave us a clue:

“Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!’
So I piped with merry cheer.
‘Piper, pipe that song again.’
So I piped: he wept to hear.”

Every piece of art from the beginning of human history has tried, ultimately, to do one thing: in the words of preaching scholar Anna Carter Florence, to try and “say something true” (1). When the song that the artist pipes strikes that common, human chord in us, we know that they have said something true; we weep to hear.

What truth we get out of things changes from era to era, but lasting works of art have spoken to the core of human existence so universally that we have continued to keep and preserve them. All of us has some movie, some work of art, some poem, some song, that inspires or touches us so deeply that we weep when we are reminded of it.

When we hear something true, it does not leave us unaffected. It shows us something true about ourselves, our fellow humans, and what binds us together. 

In popular culture, some programs tell us quite plainly what truths we are to gain; Criminal Minds, for example, is known for weaving thought-provoking quotes through its nerve-wracking, raw drama about the human psyche. I love the show, but admittedly, some of the quotes are a little on the nose. I prefer to be shown, not told, what true thing I am to gain. When a character intones at the end of an episode, “Nietzsche once said, ‘When you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you,’” I admit that I feel more hit over the head than haunted by nihilism.

Scripture, too, is a work of art in its own ancient way; it’s an enduring one at that. What is it that has kept people coming back to this collection of texts, century after century? No doubt a fear of hell has been compelling enough for some, and the Church for its part has too often encouraged that. As with anything, humanity is a messy lot, even and sometimes especially where God is involved. Best case scenario, though, we read the Scriptures together or separately and we hear something true. We hear something beautiful, we hear good news, and we weep to hear. Things like the Isaiah reading, where an embattled, traumatized little nation is told: “‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4). 

If you don’t like that image because it portrays a vengeful God, consider the plights of those who are consistently violated. People who have been driven out, othered and abused often look to God for justice. 

Then, sometimes, the Scriptures outright confound us. 

Like this Gospel passage where Jesus calls a woman a dog. And not just any woman: a Syrophoenician woman, a woman of another race and religion than himself, a woman despised by Jesus’ own people.

No wonder this is a common text that preaching teachers like to afflict on their students. This text is the New York City of Gospel passages; if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. 

So what are we to do with this passage where an oppressed woman with a sick daughter approaches Jesus, and he seems to dismiss her with contempt? This is distinctly not gentle Jesus, meek and mild. This Jesus is rude and dismissive and not nice at all, thank you very much. This Jesus even seems to have his own prejudices. 

God? Have prejudices?

This is where we must resist the temptation to either make excuses for Jesus or to reprimand him from our modern, woke point of view. Because quite frankly, if making excuses for Jesus and arguing that he didn’t really mean it or he had some greater purpose for insulting her is a little dumb, then reprimanding the Son of God is very dumb. 

Here’s the thing: I don’t think that’s the point of the story. I also think we sure can learn from it simply by throwing up our hands and admitting we don’t know why he was so rude to a hurting woman.

Because people ask me, and probably you too if they know you’re a church person, all the time: why does God allow suffering? Would a loving God really do that?

And which one of us hasn’t felt a little insulted by God from time to time? Who among us hasn’t felt a little forgotten or dismissed by God? I think we’ve all been going through something hard at some point and have wondered if God didn’t hate us or if God even exists or if you’ve been banging on this metaphorical door all your life when there might be nothing at all on the other side. 

Or, if you’re the Syrophoenecian woman herself, you might be wondering if this teacher you heard so much about isn’t just a rude jerk of a prejudiced Jewish man. You might worry that you’ve put your hope in him for nothing. She tries just one more time with the tolerance and love and persistence that only a mother with a sick child could have: “Sir, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” 

Look, man. Nothing personal, but my daughter is sick. If you can do anything at all, please do.

Then we get to the actual point of the story: her daughter is made well. 

The only true thing I, or you, or the Syrophoenecian woman who doesn’t even have a name in the story can say is that she came home to find that her daughter was healed.

She went to Jesus, and ultimately, though the whole experience must have been confusing, she found healing.

The only true thing that I can say is that I keep coming back here because I find healing here, and love, and grace here. Even when I might feel like God is ignoring me at best or is flat out insulting me at worst. It doesn’t matter. I keep showing up and finding grace. I hope you do too. 

Whether you continue to persist or whether you give up and God finds you years from now, the true thing is that every human life deserves hope and life and love and when we find it, we want to give it to other people, too. And we folks happen to find it here in bread and wine and water and words and little kids with backpacks. 

At the end of one episode of Criminal Minds, the character Morgan intones, “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible.” George Chakiris.

Love and hope are possible as long as the Spirit of God — of art and truth and creativity endure. So let’s continue to find something true, together, no matter how dark the moment or difficult the search. Sometimes God may seem like a jerk, but that’s not the point.

The point is that our perspective is limited, but that God? God is here. And that, my friends, is something true. Amen.

1. Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture, 2018.

The Good News for “Them”

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An illustration of filter bubbles by Ben Celsi for Medium (2017). 

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you use the Internet often, chances are that you have, at some point, gotten a message from a stranger. I admit that, due to my obsession with locking down the availability of as many accounts as possible with few exceptions, this doesn’t happen to me often. It happened this week, though.

Messages from strangers can take many different forms, of course — they can be weirdly flirty, laden with viruses, claims to be from your long-lost family, or just the mysterious universally creepy “hey.” 

But this wasn’t just any message from a stranger; it was a startlingly short and particularly insulting message. Mind you, my alarm at getting it wasn’t so much that it hurt my feelings; it didn’t. You see, I care about the opinions of many people, but people who send random insults to strangers on social media are not among them. Mostly, I was just confused. Given the public nature of my job, of course, I began to wonder if this was someone I somehow knew peripherally. The insult itself was quite generic, but an insult possibly coming from someone you’re connected to in person, of course, carries more of a sense of threat than some rando in Nebraska or Texas.

Long story short: I did some sleuthing and found, in about thirty minutes, that this man had commented on a political thread  I had long forgotten, and had said some objectively cruel and stupid things by any standard. This didn’t explain why I got insulted – I had not commented on this thread at all. 

Turns out, someone else had poked fun at him for being such a dillweed, and I was one of five people to give a digital “thumbs up” to that comment. And for that, this man had, I assume, gone to the trouble of finding each profile of not only the commenters who had made fun of him, but the people who had publicly approved of those comments, and had gone to the trouble of personally insulting each of us. He insulted us all, of course, for the offense of laughing at him for the things he chose to say publicly. By the time I discovered this, I felt a deep sense of pity for him — well, and some lingering amusement at his expense. Jesus and I had a talk about it and I’m not sure we agree, but we’re working on it. 

We said goodbye to John McCain this week, and while most of us disagreed strongly with at least some of his actions over his long and storied career, McCain also tended to hold up, at various points in his career, the banner of decency and collegiality that has long been draining out of politics at every level.

You see, increasingly, we have a harder and harder time seeing one another as human. An increasing number of people is saying that those on the “other side” of the political spectrum are a greater threat to the United States than an organization like ISIS. I don’t think it’s alarmist to say that, if this continues we will as a nation either have to figure out a painful separation or we will destroy each other one way or another.

Your social media feeds, if you have them, may and probably are tailored to your desires. Your social circles are too. Those you choose to talk politics with probably do believe similarly. I know that these things are true of me, so feel free to admit it to yourself if they are true of you too. I try, of course, to broaden what I read, but often I only have so much extra time for consuming information not directly related to my life. If you’re one of those folks who goes out of your way to engage opinions different from your own, that’s great — but you are in the minority.

Then there are our own biases. As Ben Yagoda of The Atlantic put it in a great article on political bias this month, biases are “the collection of faulty ways of thinking that is apparently hardwired into the human brain.” (1) In other words, it goes far beyond politics, but it affects politics: we are incredibly unlikely to actively engage with information that contradicts what we already believe. In short, we have so access to so much information that we can choose our own facts like choosing milk at the supermarket, with few consequences.

Before civilization, this kind of thing would get you killed by a saber tooth tiger. Now, we have the luxury of believing what we want and claiming our “right to an opinion.” 

But before we get wistful about the days when those who refused to acknowledge reality got eaten by actual tigers, maybe we should listen to Jesus and admit a few things. 

The first  and key one is that we are all, in some sense, already in realities that we have constructed. This is as simple as the theological concept that none of us knows everything; in short, sweet, orthodox Christian terms, none of us is Jesus. It’s a call to humility. 

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson thought they had a real corner on truth. They call the disciples out for breaking the law — facts, as they saw it. Jesus responds, quick like the Son of God: “It’s not what goes into a person that makes you unclean, it’s what comes out.” 

It’s important to point out that this was not a poop joke. 

He says there’s nothing that you take in that can make you unclean, but what comes out, because what comes out: things like deceit, envy, slander, theft, murder, sex abuse, and violence of all kinds. This is clearly not about food. 

I think it’s no real accident that this text usually appears around the time that everyone goes back to class to take in new ideas. To that end, I once heard a preacher say,  “So if it is not what we take in, but what we produce, that makes us unclean — I wonder if that doesn’t also apply to ideas.” Read everything. Test everything and keep what is true and reject what is false, but know — there is no need to be afraid of ideas. An idea will not defile you, and the person who brought the idea to you is still a human being created and loved by God.

That’s the second thing: we cannot treat ideas and people the same way.

I say that we all live in filter bubbles, but the honest truth is that, largely thanks to my involvement with the church, that’s only true digitally. The church has introduced me to all kinds of people, and we have all kinds of people here. As I observe the social circles of my nonreligious friends, I’ve noticed that this doesn’t appear to be as true for many of them. They may be friends with a diverse group of people racially and religiously, but their friend groups tend to be pretty static economically and politically. Over the years, the less I’ve been connected to church, the truer this has been of me, too. 

I’ve touted this about us a bunch of times because sometimes I don’t think you all fully appreciate it: this is not common, especially among churches. So rarely do Republicans and Democrats really interact, hold each other’s children, laugh and have a beer together, that we call each other a greater threat to the nation than ISIS. However, after leaving this place, I cannot in good conscience do that. I know too many names and stories. 

That’s not to say that this is easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it and go home feeling warm and fuzzy about it. It pushes against everything that we are to look someone with whom we vehemently disagree in the eyes and say, “If God loves me, God must love them too.” The end. 

If you’ve been going here for very long at all, you’ve already interacted with people with whom you probably disagree about a lot of things. You’ve seen their humanity. God has brought you to the table together.

Now, in the words of the Deuteronomy reading, “Do not forget what your eyes have seen.” Not the next time you watch the news, not the next time you get on Facebook. 

Ideas that are false and harmful must be rejected. The people who hold those ideas, however, are still God’s own children. This is the offensiveness of the Gospel: the Gospel is for you, for me, and for everyone we can’t stand.

Because either the Gospel is for everyone born, or the Gospel is just like every other offer: exclusive, temporary, and here for whoever earns it. 

Because the heart of the Gospel is that God doesn’t love us because we’re right about things. God loves us because God is love, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. We don’t earn it; we only have to figure out how to live in response to it.

In the words of James, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…” James talks about hearing the Gospel as looking in a mirror. In your fellow human, you must see yourself. Don’t walk away and forget what you look like. 

I came across a very short poem a few weeks ago that’s been attributed to St. Francis.

This is where I end.

Such love does
the sky now pour
that whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light
when I get
home.

May you see yourself reflected in every person here, and may that change how you see all those outside of this place. I pray that such love and grace we pour and receive at this table, in wine and bread and God’s own self, that you may be convinced of your own belovedness and the belovedness of everyone here. 

I hope you have to wring out the light when you get home. Amen.

1. Ben Yagoda’s whole Atlantic piece on cognitive bias is here.

Shoulder Wisdom

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Kronk’s Shoulder Angel from The Emperor’s New Groove.

Proverbs 9:1-6

Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

I wanted to talk about Aretha Franklin and her masterful voice that joined the company of the saints. 

I wanted to talk about the freedom of the press and national security and church sexual abuse, you know, something besides our own personal troubles that’s occupying more than a few of our minds. 

Or, there’s the near-scandalous talk from Jesus in the Gospel reading that’s approaching cannibalistic language that even the kids on the camping trip got stuck on — as they approached communion with their parents, more than one could be heard saying: “IS THAT BLOOD?!

Instead, I got stuck on Proverbs. I got stuck on a literary device that, it turns out, is kinda symbolic of our times.

You’ve seen the scene a lot, especially if you’ve been subjected to a lot of cartoons in your life: stories for children where we break the most human of struggles (like crises of conscience) into simple terms. 

In these scenes, there’s always a character who’s having a moral quandary. They may have just run into temptation, or they may be faced with some other moral choice. 

The same thing always seems to happen: poof! On each shoulder appears, an angel and a devil.

The shoulder-being encounters always seem to follow a common plot, with each of the shoulder-sitting characters keeping to common motifs.

Take for example, The Emperor’s New Groove. The villain’s henchman, Kronk, is given the task of getting rid of the main character, Kuzko. Kronk throws Kuzko unconscious into a stream of water that ends in a giant waterfall. After plopping him into the water, Kronk watches as the bag containing Kuzko floats towards the edge of the waterfall. A conflicted look slowly appears on Kronk’s face as he watches the other character float towards certain doom. There is a pause as Kronk has an internal struggle. 

Just then, a voice dripping with guilt-inducing righteous concern floats into Kronk’s consciousness: “You’re not gonna just let him die like that, are you?” 

Poof! An angel Kronk appears on the real Kronk’s shoulder with his hands folded. The very muscular, very dense real Kronk remarks in surprise: “My shoulder angel!” 

Just then, another voice, laden with humor and mockery: “Doooon’t listen to that guy!” Kronk’s shoulder devil appears with an easy, relaxed posture and says: “He’s tryin’ to lead you down the path of righteousness. I’m gonna lead you down the path that ROCKS.” 

A quick back and forth ensues as Kuzko continues to float towards the edge, but the scene ends with the shoulder devil’s final counterpoint: “Look what I can do.” as he performs one-armed pushups. The shoulder angel concludes solemnly: “He’s got a point. 

Even a little bit of research on shoulder angels and shoulder devil scenes will produce countless icons of pop culture, especially cartoon ones: Donald Duck. Pluto the dog. Tom and Jerry. Family Guy. 

In most of them, it’s about the same situation as Kronk’s supernatural shoulder companions: the angel is stiff and righteous, begging the main character to either do the hard thing, to not have any fun, or both. The shoulder devil, by contrast, is loose in posture and confident in demeanor, seducing the main character into doing the easy, fun thing. 

Of course, we know that in the long run, the character who chooses the shoulder devil’s way will have a much worse time, but still: the shoulder angel is way less fun at parties.

All these scenes are, of course, meant to illustrate a character’s internal struggle between right and wrong, the same one we fight every day. We, too, refer to angels and devils on our shoulders. We depict them in similar ways in our own conversations: the angel tells you not to make that evil but funny Facebook comment, or to eat the healthy thing, or to help that person even though you don’t want to.

We do the same things, in fact, with the internal conflict that the shoulder angels and devils are meant to represent: when after a bit of an internal struggle, we say, “No, no, I’m gonna be good,” we usually do not mean that we’re about to do anything fun. 

Pastors, maybe, are more acutely aware than most of this equivalence of being good with being predictable, stiff, and un-fun. We are seen as the embodiment of your shoulder angels, as evidenced by the dampening of party conversation when we walk up at any wedding. A new pastor must quickly grow accustomed to the assumption that we only want to talk about how much you’ve prayed or been to church in the past year. My friend Steve, a pastor in Alabama, once remarked at how people would respond to him in his clergy collar, utterly fascinated that he was able to operate a self-checkout rather than simply standing prayerfully with his hands folded as if life froze in the first century.

To be good, we think, is to be of the spirit rather than the flesh, to always do the hard, self-disciplined thing rather than the fun thing. Church people, and especially clergy, are expected by the wider culture to be buttoned up saints, while folks at the bar are earthy, easy sinners. Saints are spiritual and other-wordly; sinners are earthy and real. It’s no secret and no surprise that, given the honest choice, most nonreligious folks would rather hang with stereotypical “sinners” than stereotypical “saints.” 

This is a problem, and it isn’t just a PR problem for religions everywhere. It’s a problem because if we associate being good with being buttoned up and perfect, we’re going to miss the point entirely, and both we and the world will be worse off for it.

We’re conditioned to hear morality portrayed this way. Most congregations hearing the readings this morning will have more than a few people turn to look playfully meaningfully at each other when the Ephesians reading is read: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves” (Ephesians 5:18-19). 

Paul probably wasn’t the most fun at parties. “Do not drink beer; sing hymns!” Here at our Savior’s, we just split the difference and do both, just like Martin Luther would have wanted. (See you tomorrow night.)

Luckily, Paul isn’t the only reading. If Paul isn’t fun at parties, you can find Woman Wisdom from Proverbs hanging out by the bar.

You see, Woman Wisdom in this  part of Proverbs is part of a kind of shoulder angel / shoulder devil scene. Except, in Proverbs, the “angel” isn’t stiff or reserved. Woman Wisdom calls out with a familiar prostitute’s call, the same one that her adversary, Woman Folly, calls out with: “Turn in here! 

Woman Wisdom isn’t stiff and spiritual and boring. She uses the same language a prostitute would — she’s quite a scandal. Woman Wisdom, after all, is throwing a party: 

“Wisdom has built her house… she has slaughtered her animals and mixed her wine” (Proverbs 9:2-3). She invites passers by to turn in here, come in, and drink her wine and feast at her table, to lay aside their simple ways and learn about the complex ways of life. 

Sounds like a party.

Unlike Paul, you want to invite Wisdom to your cocktail party. She throws the party. She is real. She’s the kind of friend or lover who takes care of you, tells you the truth, and helps you understand life better.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus takes the whole “being good does not equal being boring and spiritual” thing and takes it about eight strides too far. He’s approaching cannibalism and you have to be sure that the people listening to him are not just confused, they’re alarmed. After all, the teacher just turned to the people with whom he was arguing — remember, the people who wanted to kidnap him and make him king so that he could feed them forever? — he turned to them and said not only “I am the living bread”; he said “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” 

The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

And this — the fact that it’s part of my job to rectify the cannibalistic language to the ritual — this is why I wonder why religion gets associated with boring things and why folks expect me to walk around with folded hands and think about spiritual (that is to say, boring) things all the time.

Because the full force of the Gospel of John is that God became flesh. As much as you might’ve heard that line every Christmas, the reality of it is not starched or buttoned up or boring. It’s so personal that it’s uncomfortable. God’s love and God’s very word became a human with a body just like yours, gave up the instinct to survive to give his body so that the world may live, then gives his body as bread to sustain us every time we gather at the table in a mystery that even the best of us struggle to understand. It’s so personal that even the most serious seminarians who get to this passage, myself included, make sacrelicious jokes to hide their discomfort.

As my own John teacher said: “Christ didn’t come to declare flesh evil; Christ came to make flesh holy.” God became flesh and lived among us and gave itself for us and rose again because the only thing love can’t do is stay dead.

Tell that to your super cool shoulder devil.

Love became flesh. Love sets the table here. Love throws the party.

We have this intensely personal encounter every single week, when God gets into us, quite literally. We talk about communion as inaccessible and holy, and often people worry about doing this thing or that thing “wrong.” They worry about messing with the holy, make jokes about getting struck by lightning. We worry about fouling up the symbolism.

When hearing this, I refer back to Flannery O’Conner, the Southern writer, who wrote of a conversation about the Eucharist with a friend: “…toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [My friend Mary McCarthy] said …she thought of it as a symbol… I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

This faith thing is more than we all bargained for. It’s not about being “good” in the starched and boring sense. It is more than un-fun shoulder angels making us do un-fun things that will ultimately benefit us in the long run. Faith is not about holding your nose and eating your vegetables; it’s about consuming God’s own self.

Love is not starch-collared or white robed and it is not particularly dignified. Love is real, and it’s earthy, and it’s sometimes so personal that it’s uncomfortable and even a little shocking. 

God is Love, and Love sets the table here.

Love does not speak with a guilt-inducing, judgmental voice. Love knows us intimately and loves us anyway. Love, like wisdom, doesn’t judge you for going to the party; love throws the party. And love gives us the courage to share ourselves with others, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

God is Love, and Love sets the table here. Love doesn’t shame you for having fun; love throws the party. 

I wanted to talk about some kinda current events, but I ended up with a literary device in the book of Proverbs that wanted to speak to current events instead. We all have crises of conscience about what to do and what to think.

Instead of imagining the usual starched shoulder angel, try imagining Woman Wisdom instead.

The right thing isn’t always the easy thing, no. But it is the most life-giving thing. It is the one that leads us into a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. It’s a scandal that nourishes us and looks past our walls and brings us back to life and love. 

And today, here, I argue: that’s anything but starched and boring — that’s a party.  Amen.

An Angel-Cooked Breakfast, or Bread for Trash

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1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35-41-51

The Old Testament lesson today was only part of an whole epic story about the prophet Elijah, but I don’t blame you if you didn’t recognize it based on the four prescribed verses for today. So let me tell it for you.

The dust swirls around the prophet’s feet and his heart bangs against his ribcage, pounding from exhaustion and from fear. 

Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, finds himself in ancient times doing what humanity had already been doing for centuries: running, looking for food, trying to survive. He was lacking in safety, in security, in food, in everything. He was just trying to live for another day.

He’s being chased by a powerful person who has a vendetta against him. Her name is Jezebel, and she existed long before her name became a popular blog title. She’s vowed to kill Elijah, but he’s not exactly a blameless victim: he’s responsible for the deaths of Jezebel’s prophets. He has killed for his faith, and now she wants to kill him as vengeance. 

Life. Death. Hunger. Revenge. Religious zeal.

A tale as old as time. 

Running for his life in the desert, Elijah slumps down beside a broom tree, known for its branches that usually stretched out enough to give you relief from the sun. Finally finding some measure of comfort from the punishing heat, feeling little other than desperation, Elijah begs to die. 

He is no longer a prophet with enough religious zeal to kill his enemies. He has a moment of existential clarity: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4 NRSV). 

Through the centuries, we humans have made advances: in science, in medicine. Diseases like the flu don’t kill us in large numbers anymore. Something we take for granted, like antibiotic ointment, saves our lives from infection so often that we barely remember that people used to die routinely when relatively minor wounds got infected. 

We as a society think we’re less superstitious than we used to be, as people in increasing numbers join the “spiritual but not religious” ranks. I often have my doubts about this, however, as the same people I see posting things about how backwards and old the Bible is also post things about Mercury being in retrograde, harkening back to ancient astrology: but that, as they say, is none of my business. 

The point is, we as a society think we’ve come so far and learned so much about our world, but even as we’ve learned to save lives from hunger and war and disease, people still die from all three, and the lives that we’ve saved have contributed to overpopulation which leads to more hunger and war and disease. The fundamental question of our time, I believe, is the same as the fundamental question has always been: how do we stay alive? How do we make sure that we have enough for ourselves and our children?

People with too many resources fear those who have too little. People who have too little, for their part, tend to resent those who have too much. And everyone all along the economic spectrum is a flawed human who just, at the core of their DNA, wants to survive. 

In this way, we, like Elijah, are no better than our ancestors.

Nearly every question and policy issue we wrestle with today pits, in some form, survival against compassion, and there are no simple answers. Compassion is something almost everyone values. Compassion is one of the things that makes us human — that we do not only operate to survive, as most creatures do. At the same time, too many of the problems we face are related to survival and cannot be solved with compassion alone.

It is notable that right when Elijah stops fighting for his own survival, he finds God’s own compassion. He falls asleep in despair and wakes up to find that an angel has cooked him breakfast. 

It might sound crazy, but I’m certain that an angel has cooked me breakfast before.

Last year with six of my new best friends from Camp Calumet, I ran a relay across New Hampshire, from the White Mountains to Hampton Beach. It’s around 200ish miles, and we did it to send kids to summer camp.

It works like this: twelve runners divide up between two vans, giving each van six runners and one driver. Each runner runs 3 legs of the race, running from 5AM on Friday morning until around 4PM on Saturday. We run through the night, guided by head lamps. We sleep when we can. Mattresses from camp are delivered to Lutheran churches in New Hampshire, giving us a place to crash for a few hours when we get a break.

And once, angels cooked us breakfast. 

There is a particular photo from last year with my pastor friend Joseph, who serves in Marlborough. Neither of us looks particularly happy. We had each run about ten miles apiece and had just woken up feeling terrible, so we found it appropriate to take a photo in front of the sign at a church that said, simply, in big letters: “TRASH.” 

But we woke up to find that Lutheran angels cooked us breakfast. I had to look back at the photo on Facebook to even remember where we were: I hadn’t known at the time. The folks at Triumphant Cross in Salem, New Hampshire, got us back on our feet with an enviable Lutheran breakfast spread. 

Given strength by those folks and their food, we finished our last legs, and, together with the other six teams from Camp Calumet, we raised over $100,000 to make sure that every kid in New England has a shot at going to summer camp. (And we’re doing it again this year!) 

We all put aside survival and the day to day and we gave something of ourselves: the runners, the people dragging mattresses around the state, the people working to make sure that the logistics were calculated correctly, and the angels who cooked us breakfast.

Are we better than our ancestors? Probably not by much. But I know that making things in the world better requires us to give a little something of ourselves. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus talks about how he gives himself for life. In an inhuman, godly move, he gives up trying to survive entirely and in the process, gives life to everything. 

Often, we in our comfort talk in sentimental terms about the Bread of Life and about Living Water. We talk about them as spiritual realities, but they don’t make much sense if you’re starving or dying of thirst. They don’t make much sense if you’ve never been served breakfast by an angel. Paradoxically enough, you understand the spiritual reality only if you’ve understood the literal reality of having your desperate hunger satisfied.

It’s a lot like it’s hard to understand the value of community if you’ve never been lonely. 

Jesus gives himself for the life of the world, and we usually come to understand that kind of grace through another person giving of themselves for us. The last time I preached this Sunday in the lectionary cycle three years ago, I was talking to my home church. 

It had been a rough year in all kinds of ways, and a rough few years, really. I was preparing soon to drive north a thousand miles to meet with the synod staff in New England. I talked about Elijah and about how the bread the angel fed him sustained him for the long journey ahead. I talked to my church about how they had been the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life, that had sustained me through their love.

If you are looking for the Bread of Life, it is not some far-away reality. It is right here. It is the loaf that we bake in house. It is also the Body of Christ, the people gathered around this table, who give of themselves for the sake of helping others.

In our world of scarcity, we are the Bread of Life for each other and for the world. Like Jesus, we are called to give of ourselves. It is not our job to save the world, but we get to be a small part in it if we can help sustain someone — physically, emotionally, spiritually — for one more day. If we can only be the angels that cook breakfast for hungry people.

In our world of survival, we in the church worry about our survival too. Churches all over New England and all over the United States are closing. We worry a lot about survival and scarcity and finances. But the Body of Christ does not begin and end with one congregation. 

The Bread of Life is Christ, and it never runs out. The Bread of Life sends angels to cook breakfast for hungry, desperate people who feel like trash — desperate because you’re a prophet on the run from a murderous queen, because of poverty, or because they ran too far to send a kid to camp. 

As we said last week, things like love and kindness do not run out. God does not run out. God’s work will get done. We can be better than our ancestors by believing that the Bread of Life is not a commodity that we produce. The Bread of Life is the Body of Christ, the Church, powered by God who never sleeps and never runs out.

My pastor friend Drew posted a quote by the late John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and preacher. He died in 2012 but was acclaimed for being able to get right to the heart of any issue. He does this with the Bread of Life text, and so I end with his thoughts: 

He writes, “Our problem is not believing that God could inhabit bread. It is believing that God could inhabit us.” 

God does inhabit us: in bread and wine and water and Spirit. You are the Bread of Life, the body of Christ, given for the life of the world. The work of God, the work of life, does not depend on you, but you are invited to participate. You are invited to give of yourself for the life of the world, as Christ gave himself for us. 

And that, in this age — this human age — this age of survival and fear and scarcity: is Good News indeed, for us and for the world. Amen.

“Real or Not Real?”: Truth, Jesus, and the Boy with the Bread

Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy meets John’s Bread of Life discourse. 

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The “boy with the bread” scene from The Hunger Games movie, 2012.
“You don’t forget the face of the person who was your last hope.”

– Katniss, The Hunger Games book

John 6:24-35

At first, she only knew him as “the boy with the bread.” 

In the fictional dystopian book and movie series The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is a teenager in Panem, an authoritarian nation far in the future which exists where the United States used to be. There was a rebellion once, years ago, and the rebelling District, District Thirteen (likely found, fans say, in the northeast), was said to have been obliterated. 

Katniss and Peeta, the boy with the bread, live in the Appalachian Mountains, in District Twelve.  District Twelve is the poorest of the Twelve Districts in Panem. There is very unequal wealth distribution in Panem, with the Capitol and its citizens holding most of the wealth and living lavishly, followed by the district which primarily produces military equipment and other tools for the Capitol, followed by other districts which have thriving industries, followed finally by those who specialize in less thriving industries. 

District Twelve, where Katniss lives, produces only coal. Its strongest residents struggle in the mines, while the others struggle for food. Katniss’s family is particularly poor after her father’s death in the mines.

One night just after her father had died, young Katniss found herself next to a pig pen as the searched frantically for food to for her mother and younger sister. Just then she hears an uproar as Peeta, another teenager, walks out of his parents’ struggling bakery. His mother is yelling at him for burning bread, which he must now throw into the pigpen just outside the bakery.
Spotting Katniss in her desperation, however, he checks to make sure his mother isn’t watching and throws the bread to her instead, allowing she, her mother, and her younger sister to eat, at least for that night.

That is how Katniss came to know Peeta as the Boy with the Bread.

Years later, the two will love one another. Years later, they will join in a second rebellion — the subject of the final two books. Also years after he became the Boy with the Bread, the oppressive regime of Panem will capture and torture Peeta physically and psychologically. Part of the psychological torture will be to get him confused about what is real. He will be brainwashed into believing that his friends are his enemies, and that Katniss, whom he once knew and loved, wants to kill him. Once Peeta is rescued, for the rest of the books and the movies, the Boy with the Bread will play a game called “real or not real” with Katniss to help him remember what his reality really is. 

He will ask her things as innocuous as “real or not real: your favorite color is green?” He will ask her things as significant as “real or not real: you love me?” 

Peeta, the Boy with the Bread, nourished Katniss with bread when she was starving, and years later, she will nourish his tortured mind with truth. 

“Real or not real?”

This week in our reality, Facebook identified an active political influence campaign that had created at least 32 pages and inauthentic accounts on Facebook and Instagram that had been created to further divisions between political factions in America. We realized once again what digital natives already knew: you can’t trust anyone on the Internet to be who they say they are. That just because something is on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true or authentic.

“Real or not real?” 

Conspiracy theories flood all of our timelines. None of us likes to think of ourselves as prone to falling for conspiracies, of course; only dumb people do that. And yet, how have we all occasionally shared, in person or online, things that rile us up that we haven’t checked out for ourselves? We keep realizing, again, what digital natives already knew: strong words paired with photos don’t make truth, like the “Abraham Lincoln” quote paired with his portrait that says, “You can’t trust everything you read on the Internet.” 

Conspiracy theories get us because, while none of us wants to be fooled, we all want to be the heroes of our story; we all want to be smart enough to find truth that no one else has figured out yet. That leads us to constantly playing the game:

“Real or not real?”

Honestly, I think we fall for conspiracy theories the same way we fall for fad diets. We’re willing to do anything to be the heroes of the story, to figure out the real truth, as long as it doesn’t involve a healthy media diet and expending actual intellectual energy. We’d prefer to take a pill and get thin, or learn the one key that’s been hidden from us to figure out everything that’s wrong with the country and the world.

“Real or not real?”

The twenty first century is one big game of “real or not real.” But you know what? This is not new. It’s just online now. Ever since humans invented language, we have been using different vocabularies for the same concepts and the same words for different concepts and then used such misunderstandings to try to manipulate one another into believing things.

Having different definitions of the same words is at the root of a lot of division and manipulation and conspiracy theories and misunderstanding. And that’s where we find Jesus and the crowds today. 

When we last left Jesus, he had just pulled off a miracle even for an experienced caterer: feeding 5,000 people at once. The ancient near east was (and is) big on hospitality and making sure your guests have enough to eat; Jesus, never one to be a bad host, provides more than enough for his guests. The crowds are so won over that they don’t just want to encourage him to be their leader; they want to force him to be king. The crowd is so won over that they essentially say, “cancel your plans for the rest of your life; you’re our king now.” 

But the ever-wily Jesus slips out of their grasp. Ever notice how Jesus always does that? He can never quite be owned by anyone, so it’s funny how often we Christians try to claim that he agrees with us on everything. 

Then, after a little classic walking on the water episode, the crowds have finally gotten wiser and located the missing Jesus. They approach him on the shore and say, literally, “How did you get here? 

Then the crowds and Jesus embark on a conversation that can be summed up thus: the bread of life — real or not real?

Are you talking literal bread, or is this some kind of metaphor?

Jesus chides the crowds almost immediately that they’ve only come looking for what they see as “real” bread, literal bread. They go back and forth for awhile, as Gail O’Day, my own John teacher, says: “using the same vocabulary but speaking in different languages…. Jesus keeps trying to speak to the crowd in the cadences of grace” — that the work of God is actually God’s work, not ours — but “the crowd … turn[s] the language of grace into the language of contingency and demand.”

Jesus promises them the bread of life, but they say in return, “wait. Real bread or not real bread? If it’s real bread, what do we have to do to earn it?” 

They keep trying to figure him out, but they’re losing the game: real or not real?

The bread they keep asking after is the bread that fills their stomachs, but they keep getting hungry again. They keep needing more, and more, and more. You can’t blame a human for getting hungry, but you get the feeling that these aren’t starving people so much as people who think they might be onto something: that they’ve discovered a guy who can feed everyone. That’s worth something, you know. Not unlike conspiracy theorists, they hope they’ve been the first to find a solution to all their country’s problems. They live in an occupied land, but people who can control the supply of food will soon be free people.

No wonder they wanted to make him king by force.

Jesus isn’t interested in being in power. Being in power is temporary. As George R.R. Martin told us of the struggle for power: “in the game of thrones, you win or you die.” And as we learned through seven seasons of Game of Thrones: everyone who plays the game dies. 

Bread is temporary. Power is temporary.

The bread Jesus is offering is himself. The bread Jesus is offering is something true. And truth never runs out.

Real or not real?

This is real: community. Love. Ancient ritual. Grace. Mercy. Seeing another person as human. Hope for the future. 

We hunger for a lot of things these days: among them, a common purpose and a common identity and a common story and a common truth, held together in an uncommon love. 

Love and truth do not run out.

Bake those things into a loaf, and you could call them the Bread of Life. Bake those things into a loaf, and you could say that God was there. Bake those things into a loaf, and the one who eats it will never be hungry for love or truth again, will never again have to ask: “Real or not real?” 

Hearing this, the crowd finally says, “Give us this bread always.” Jesus responds, “I am the bread of life.” Truth and love and community and identity cannot be bought and sold or hoarded or scarce. You cannot run out of these things.

Neither can you run out of God.

Real.

At first, Katniss only knew Peeta as “the boy with the bread.”

The bread that Peeta threw to Katniss when she was hungry was temporary, but the bond that it created between them was not. That’s how kindness works. That’s how love works. They do not run out.

The Boy with the Bread nourished Katniss with bread when she was starving, and years later, she will nourish his tortured mind with truth, answering the question that we answer for each other whenever we need it: real or not real?

Truth does not run out.
Real: you are loved. You are welcome. Wherever we gather in love, Christ gathers with us. The Bread of Life is here. The work of God is God’s work, not ours. 

God is here, and God is here with you.

Real or not real?

Now and always: real. Amen.

Miracles > Special Effects: Feeding Stories

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A volunteer serves an Elizabeth Inn resident at the Loaves and Fishes kitchen in Marietta, Georgia.

John 6:1-21

Ask any preacher, and they’ve got a back-pocket feeding of the 5,000 story.

One of my colleagues talks about sharing a pan of fudge around Calumet, and so many people content to have only a taste that over 90 people got to enjoy the same plate of fudge. 

Others tell stories of travel, of people who did not know one another coming together to produce a whole meal for all. The stories are everywhere: of sports moms and refugee moms that produce extra snacks out of nowhere, of funerals where a community comes together to feed a family for months, of that one guy who comes to James Taylor every July 4 with enough sangria for all of Tanglewood.

Turns out it’s not just preachers; we all have stories of people who pooled their resources to feed people. You likely have your own. 

This week, several of us went to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food pantry in South Hadley as part of our stewardship program, Sowing and Sharing Faith — we’re learning about all of the programs that we support. Mary Lou gave us a tour, introducing us to the procedures that govern the pantry, where the customers go when they come in, the process they have to go through to get their food, and the community that occurs while a family’s order is being prepared by the food pantry volunteers. The food pantry itself is a feeding of the 5,000 story — this miracle happens two days a week at the Methodist church in the falls, and we are only a part of the many individuals and organizations that keep it going. 

We all have a feeding of the 5,000 story — one where pooling our resources with others results in more people getting fed than we ever thought possible.

One of mine comes from my seminary days working in a shelter in suburban Atlanta for people living in homelessness. The Elizabeth Inn’s shelter program included one meal per day for the residents — dinner. We volunteers would check the residents into the shelter, then we would go and eat dinner with them. 

The aptly named Loaves and Fishes kitchen was staffed entirely by volunteers — almost always members of local churches. The environment was much less than fancy: the interior had never moved out of the 1960s and probably wasn’t terribly stylish back then. The interior was quite brown, but the atmosphere was warm. I have a lot of wonderful memories in that kitchen, hearing everything from heart wrenching stories to hilarious one-liners. I heard stories of homes lost to fire and harrowing tales of emigrating to the US. I also learned the high value of hot sauce on fried chicken.

I learned that life was difficult for everyone, but to varying degrees and often for very different and competing reasons. Food was multiplied, and so was friendship, in that kitchen that, regardless of what was being served, always smelled of mashed potatoes and fried chicken.

When we first received our tour of the place, I remember my supervisor mentioning that they serve dinner to residents 365 days per year. Typically on Christian holidays as well as at other times, the local synagogues would help out. And on the occasions when a Jewish holiday and a Christian holiday fell at the same time, one particular local mosque was known for taking over the meal.

Like the 5,000, all of those faith groups gathered at one place for one reason: they had heard about a force for good in the world and they wanted to be part of it, and often they found themselves fed as well. 

Loaves and Fishes Kitchen, indeed. 

One of my favorite frustrations with the average modern church person is still getting hung up, even after so long, on literal interpretations vs. metaphorical ones. As if you can only choose one; as if scientific truth and the truth of ancient wisdom were always diametrically opposed. They are sometimes, sure. We no longer just sacrifice goats to cure diseases; now we know better.

But it’s in the stories in the Bible where this either/or dichotomy breaks down. We get so hung up on whether things literally happened: whether Jonah got swallowed by an actual fish or whether Jesus actually used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 5,000 people or whether they simply pooled their resources and shared and there was enough for everyone. As if we could prove anything either way.

It doesn’t actually matter, you know.

Because it’s a miracle whenever people — whether one boy or many people in a crowd — share their resources and Jesus’ presence makes it more than enough. I think we miss that sometimes. We miss the miracles right in front of us because we’re banking on magic tricks.

The folks in John do a lot of that. They follow Jesus around, hoping that he’ll do more “signs.” The author of John isn’t impressed with those folks, and neither is Jesus. Focusing on the signs, which to them are some kind of impressive sorcery, they miss the real honest-to-God miracle: they got to meet almighty God in the flesh.

We do that all the time in church and in the Bible.

We look for special effects and we miss the miracles. 

We look for a ton of people breaking down our doors one Sunday (when they finally understand that Lutheran theology and liturgy are good for the soul) and we miss the love that already lives right here. Love that spans generations. You have loved one another so long, all the while continuing to accept new members of the family who happen upon our community one Sunday and decide to stay. That’s a miracle. 

We look for a giant surplus in our finances so that we won’t have to worry anymore, and we miss the incredible generosity of our congregation. If you haven’t really looked hard at church finances, you might miss it on our budget sheets: you, and we, give at the rate of a church at least three times our size. That’s a miracle.

We look for special effects and we miss miracles. We look for what’s not there and we miss what is there. We miss the realities that point towards hope. Realities that give us everything we need with more left over. And our reality is incredible love and incredible generosity. This is the kind of church that, while it may have an unclear future, has a future.

This is the kind of church that every pastor wants. This is the kind of congregation that those searching for Christianity that does good in the world want to find: somewhere they can find inclusive community and ancient tradition and new life and ways to spread love and people who encourage them to be better humans. 

Ask any preacher and they have a pocket feeding of the 5,000 story.

If I’m honest, I’ll have to say that I have a few. The Loaves and Fishes kitchen is one of my favorites, where people come together from all kinds of backgrounds to find nourishment and companionship. 

My latest loaves and fishes story, however, is an ongoing one. It’s us. It’s the story of a church where we don’t miss miracles looking for special effects. It’s one where we cherish each other and we cherish God’s presence among us. 

In the next five weeks, we’re going to be talking a lot about bread, staple carb in the ancient world as now. Get ready to talk about nourishment and God’s presence among us and getting more than we need. Get ready to talk about miracles. Get ready to cherish each other and God’s presence among us. Get ready to be another feeding of the 5,000 story. Amen.

“Oh Honey, You’re Not Jesus.”

Thoughts from vacation.

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Me and my buddy Kathleen on the Beltline in Atlanta last week.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Since you came to church, I’ll assume you’re okay with Bible-ing with me a little harder than usual for a second.
Before the Gospel lesson: If you were to have to preach about this, what would you preach about?

“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

Sometimes, we preachers find that our first instinct in reading a story or other text sets us on the road to the best sermon we could preach on it. It happens more the more you try preaching, but I think that most of us learn to question our first reactions. 

There are times, you see, when our modern American reading of the Bible can obscure the words themselves, even when those words contain pure Gospel. Case in point: I missed this on the first three readings:

“Come away… and rest awhile.” (v. 31) 

You know, the only thing Jesus actually told anyone to do in the whole thing.

If I have a glow about me today, it’s because I’ve just returned from vacation. 

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not great at taking “real” vacations. I often use my days off to go help out friends or family, and I’m incredibly thankful that my job is one that’s flexible so that I can do those things. On my usual days off here in South Hadley, I usually can’t find cause to stop moving. I plug my ears with podcasts and do housework or mow the lawn or go running. One of my favorite feelings is the internal hum of productivity. That’s why it takes a lot for me to tell you that this sermon is shorter than usual because I was quite serious about it this time.

Of course, constant productivity is not sustainable, because no human is infinite. It also doesn’t really help those around us. I often say that the true measure of leadership is how well your role gets performed when you’re not there. 

(This is only one reason why I will never be elected President.

This is also why I believe the presidency itself is broken — because no matter how we feel about any of the flawed people who’ve ever filled the role, none of them has ever been infinite.) 

Ancient and modern wisdom agree on a few things, and one of them is the need for rest. Our own stream of faith traditions calls it Sabbath, or something similar. 

Modern wisdom calls it something like self-care. 

Of course, we’re all capable of only varying amounts and degrees of rest. 

Kids and aging parents and other family or work responsibilities can whittle away at our time to rest. No matter how brief, however, rest is still a human need; it’s one that helps us be more whole, more human. So if you have no other time to rest other than while you’re here, take a moment to breathe with me. 

Come away and rest awhile. 

One of my favorite things about getting rest, no matter how short or long, is that you have time to actually think: to think about what you’re grateful for, about what you value, and other existential questions. Or, if you’re me, you spend a little of that time thinking about modern pop theology. 

Most of you know by now that I’ve had a sort of meandering faith journey. I was raised Southern Baptist, then I became a Methodist, then I finally found my place among the Lutherans. And while there are many reasons that the ELCA is home, you taught me one key thing should’ve been obvious, but when I heard Lutherans really make a thing of it, it changed everything: that there’s only one Savior and I’m not him. That the Gospel is a story about God; we’re just lucky enough to get to be part of it. 

In other words, what should be obvious, but isn’t: we are not Jesus Christ.

Tendency to make ourselves into Jesus, exhibit A: the Gospel today.

I don’t know what you thought about when you first heard it, but I read that Jesus suggests resting, and then the crowds crash in, and rest is put aside. 

Message we get: in times like this, with people in need, we don’t have time to rest. 

The world is crazy and chaotic and people are hurting. There are always more crowds. Maybe, we think, resting is irresponsible. 

This is when I feel like the Holy Spirit pats me on the head with, “Oh honey. (It’s God’s very favorite thing to call me.) You’re not Jesus.” 

Whenever we read a story, we identify with characters in the story. Today, we may say we are the disciples in this story, trying our best to follow Jesus. Jesus commands us to rest when we must and to try hard when we can. We get to be part of God’s work.

Or we may say today that we feel more like the crowds in this story, pressing in with our aching souls and aching bellies. For us, Jesus comes into our midst to heal us and feed us. The feeding of the 5,000 is in the verses we skipped out of the middle of this passage, you know.

Either way, we are not Jesus.

A wise Lutheran pastor I know, when speaking of overwork, said, “Honey, you don’t have to run yourself dead for Jesus. He already died for you.” 

We are not Jesus. Thank God.

This gives you permission to listen to the one commandment Jesus gave in this whole story: “Come away and rest awhile.” You do not have to heal the world, but you get to be part of its healing. And that healing includes your own soul as well as your neighbor’s, and it doesn’t quite work to be part of healing your neighbor’s soul while paying no attention to your own. 

So come away and rest awhile. Lean into the prayers and the singing and the bread and the wine and the grace and the people here who love you, whether you’re brand new, come occasionally, or show up all the time.Whether you feel yourself part of the crowds or one of the disciples, none of us is Jesus. Jesus is here for us.

We are saved by grace alone. There is nothing to earn here. You are loved just because you breathe.

Come away and rest awhile.

It’s my job here to preach the Gospel, and that seems like Good News to me. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go over here, so we can sing and pray and eat and rest awhile. Amen.