In Defense of Mary, or In Defense of Doing Nothing

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Todd Heisler, New York Times

Luke 10:38-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be more like Mary. Be more like God. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Neighbors & Giving Blood

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It’s true. Give blood if you can. 

Luke 10:25-37

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

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

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

“And who is my neighbor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And who is my neighbor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are your Samaritans. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go and do likewise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Radical Joy & Pants-Seat Aviation

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From Inherit the Mirth.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

No Excuses (If You’re Going Somewhere)

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

Luke 9:51-62

Excuses, excuses. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No excuses. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I do. I do. 

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

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

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

Bad Days and Flying Pigs

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Luke 8:26-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about having a day. 

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

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

Talk about living among the dead. 

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

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

This man has been through it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pigs ‘r flyin’. 

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

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

Woman Wisdom and the Mystery of the Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preachers’ lives are hard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acts 2:1-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you even know the words to the song?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter 6: Murph

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

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John 14:23-29

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

Answer: They’ll tell you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the simplest and the hardest to follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sits. They discuss. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter 4: Stubborn Shepherds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherds are stubborn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepherds, like I said, are stubborn.

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

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

She was 37. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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