The Technology of Paradise

I love the way kids show up. I love that Conrad can hear about asking God for big dreams and say, “I want to be a superhero,” and then talk with his mom about just how he might do it. One of my kids, when they were about Conrad’s age, once wrote, “When I grow up, I want to be a frog”. Hey, maybe not possible, but why not want what’s impossible for a day or two if that’s what’s on your mind!

Kids, you have been leading our country lately. We’ve seen kids showing up a lot. I bought a sweatshirt online the other day from an 11-year-old people call Little Miss Flint. She’s gonna be president someday, she says, and she’s maybe the best known public water supply activist in the country. For four years, she’s kept showing up, asking why her city can’t get safe water pipes.

Kids from Florida and Chicago are teaming up to try to change old ways of violence in our country. And their speeches – speeches given by a 17-year-old girl from Parkland and an 11-year old girl from Virginia – have left me spellbound, taking notes on how be a better speaker myself. These kids aren’t stuck in the past, they certainly aren’t just waiting around for the future, they are showing up to live. Today.

I love that we can give Conrad and Rosie capes, and they just might wear them a bit. I’ve noticed that when young kids get to pick their own clothes to wear, they make some rad choices sometimes. When you run marathons, no matter what place you come in, you get a medal, and the first time I finished a marathon, I wanted to wear that thing all year, but I only kept it on a couple of hours because I felt goofy wearing it. Sometime in childhood, we start getting self-conscious. And right around the same time, a lot of us stop showing up for life in the same way.

We start living in the past or living in the future, life defined by our regrets or losses or fears. Lately, I’ve been haunted by this question posed in this Walker Percy novel Second Coming.

The narrator asks, “Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way one misses a plane?”

Later Percy describes a character like this: “Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream.”

Does that resonate with you? Do you hear Conrad’s story, or see today’s youth activists, and ever wonder when did you stop showing up for your life as much?

What would it take to show up again? To be present this day, and the next, and the next for all life has to give you, for all that you can be. To rest in the quiet center of yourself, and live with passion and courage.

Today I want to look at what Easter has to say to us in this regard. How the hope of Easter can give us power to be present today and show up boldly for our lives.

A New Heaven, a New Earth

The past few weeks, a lot of us in this community have been reading the last book of the Bible, Revelation. It’s a weird, screwy book of obscure apocalyptic symbolism, but it ends with a flourish of poetry that still speaks right to our souls. I want to read a couple sections of that today.

Here’s the first bit, from the beginning of the second to last chapter.

Revelation 21:1-5 (NRSV)

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 

A holy city, a wedding, and a whole new heaven and earth. No more death or mourning or crying or pain, and every tear wiped away from our eyes. This sounds good and beautiful and also utterly unlike the world we greet each day.

The poetry continues into the last chapter of the whole Bible, as the landscaping and architecture of this city gets fleshed out.

Revelation 22:1-5 (NRSV)

22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

I like this passage even more. God’s here, living in the city, and all kinds of good is flowing from that. There’s a tree that’s really a whole orchard of trees, and it’s nourishing and sweet and bountiful year round, and the leaves have this herbal medicine that heals all the stuff – the wounds of the nations. Poverty, war, corruption, violence. Unjust justice systems, failing infrastructure, crushing debt – all solved, all healed here.

Traditionally, these passages – with the word heaven in them – have been read as a vision of our future – some people individualize it and hope this is what they’ll wake up to after death. Other people have pictured it as a collective thing God will do someday for all the people who live with God together beyond the grave.

And maybe the image here that’s most been associated with a future heaven is the river of life. A river of Paradise.

Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have all pictured a future paradise with rivers there. You go to the gorgeous tombs in Northern India built by the Muslim Mughal empire. The Taj Mahal, the I’timad-ud-Daulah, the so called Baby Taj, and they are these extraordinary works of art – huge, perfectly symmetrical buildings built from Makrona marble that gleams in the sun, inlaid with jewels and calligraphy. And they’re surrounded by these mini-garden paradises, built along riverbanks, with pools of water to mirror the rivers of paradise they hope their beloved dead are now enjoying.

And, hey, why not? It’s a beautiful image of our destiny, that God will transform the earth to a paradise garden city, where there is no death and no harm – and only bounty and healing and peace and joy. That’s a future I hope for as well.

But in Revelation, this poetry isn’t just future-looking. It’s also about helping us show up today.

Heaven, in Revelation, isn’t only a future where all things are made new. It is that future invading the present. The most salient, central feature of this new heaven and new earth I just read about is that God lives there. This experience is one of the very titles of Jesus, Immanuel – Hebrew for God with us. And Jesus himself liked to talk about what he was up to as bringing the kingdom of Heaven to us.

This is why even the pretty conservative pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson says that heaven in the gospels and in Revelation and really throughout Scripture is the metaphor that tells us that there is far more here than meets the eye. This doesn’t mean it isn’t real, it just means that it’s a reality that’s inaccessible at this point to any of our five senses. It’s the invisible realm of God invading us. God’s land settling into our world.

This is why this beautiful teaching of Revelation didn’t just give the early followers of Jesus hope for the future, but it starting rocking their present.

One example from the text, and we’ll bring this back to us.

Right after we hear that heaven has no room for anything that is accursed, we read that God’s servants will worship him and we read what life will be like for those servants. Well, our translators have tried to lighten things up here because the actual word, which gets mentioned again later in the chapter, isn’t servants but slaves. It says God’s slaves will worship God, and will see God’s face, and have God’s name on their foreheads, and reign with God too, which is doubly weird – because when do slaves ever reign alongside their masters, and who’d want to be God’s slave anyway?

But here’s the deal. Scholars estimate that in the Roman Empire’s urban areas, large numbers of the population – maybe up to a third of the residents – were slaves. And being a slave in Rome was an accursed experience. You didn’t have your freedom, of course, you were also subject to all manner of violence and indignity, and you’d be branded on your forehead if you ever tried to escape.

The Technology of Paradise

Now when these lines from Revelation are read out loud to the house churches in urban Asia, every person hearing them is a slave or a slave owner or a person who knows a slave or a slave owner. And what they hear about God’s realm, how God is making all things new, is this: they hear that God’s slaves really aren’t slaves at all – they are God’s partners, as they reign with God. And they don’t have to cast their gaze down in deference or fear – they look at God face to face. The dignity and joy and freedom and delight of all God’s children is for slaves as well.

This is probably why the early followers of Jesus began a movement that changed the empire. Slaves were given the same burials and funerals as citizens. They took communion and worshipped side by side with their free brothers and sisters. And then followers of Jesus starting freeing their slaves entirely. They saw that God making all things new meant getting rid of this curse of slavery.

This is what I’m calling the technology of paradise. It’s heaven made operational. It’s the beautiful hope of the resurrection of Jesus from death to life, a powerful factor in our real, lived experience.

I got this idea from a philosopher who said that what churches have to offer today is this radical technology of grace. Embedded in our teaching and tradition and symbols is that God loves and accepts and delights in all people, just as we are today, without exception. We believe this isn’t hard for God, it’s not something God does begrudgingly, but it’s the nature of what it means to be God. To be love. To welcome. To embrace. And for us to practice this with one another is to apply the technology of grace – for theory to become real, as we make a community of radical hospitality, radical love and acceptance and welcome.

And so we’re invited, I believe, to similarly apply the technology of paradise. To live into the present experience of this beautiful vision of a new heaven and a new earth.

Two days ago in this space, on Good Friday, we remembered the death of Jesus. That in God’s mortal life on earth, God too experiences that death has the last word. That entropy gets everyone and everything. That betrayal and failure and suffering and death win.

And yet on Good Friday, we find that all of this death and suffering and constant missing of the mark we know doesn’t separate us from God.

And if that was the end of Jesus’ story, it would have been a stunning climax. For us to no longer be separated from God, or alone in our pain, would have been enough.

But that is not the end of Jesus’ story. On the third day of his death, women that followed him visit his tomb and he is no longer there. Men walking away from God in despair find Jesus walking along side of them. Jesus’ friends and followers huddled up in fear meet Jesus, wishing them peace, eating a meal with them, and letting them know that God’s activity among them has only just begun.

Because Jesus tells his friends and followers that his win over death changes everything. It means that God will live with us on earth. Everyone who asks can be filled with God’s spirit. The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with us, and we will be God’s people.

The technology of paradise is to welcome this today and every day as our lived experience. When we cry, to invite God to be with us and wipe away our tears. When we’re lonely, to welcome God to dwell with us. When we’re wounded, to welcome God’s healing. When we’re confronted with all that is tired and broken and accursed in our world, to believe that God is making all things new, and to show up and participate in that renewal.

I think when we see people that are showing up with power and hope and freedom in the present, we see people living this technology of paradise. Liberated from regret or anxiety, empowered by hope, they’re able to show up and make something new.

We love people that do this. Kids that I was talking about at the top, that show up with courage and conviction and passion – they’re living like justice is possible, like evil and death in their many forms don’t get the last word.

I saw this first hand this winter, when I took a trip with a few of you to the slums India, to visit the work of Asha that we support. We were in a slum called Chanderpuri. It’s a Muslim neighborhood on the Northeast outskirts of Delhi. A couple of thousand people live there in squatters apartments that have become permanent over generations, with extended families of maybe a dozen people sharing tiny apartments with no running water, no bathroom, no kitchen.

During the day, we’d often meet with groups in a community center, which was right next to a vacant lot where all day long, little trucks would dump the city’s trash on the ground and men – trash pickers – would pick through the garbage with no masks, no gloves, for scraps that could be salvaged and sold, to earn them maybe a few bucks a day.

Next door to these trash pickers, we’d meet each day with children’s groups organized by Asha. And those groups are like after-school clubs, helping slum kids end up going to university more and more, which is an awesome thing. But there’s more than just that going on. These children’s groups are also places where the new heaven and new earth is being birthed. Because they’re centers of hope and empowerment. Kids are learning a set of values to live by, values that are rooted in the teachings of Jesus, and then they are empowered to show up in their neighborhood with hope and courage.

One of their values is generosity, so even though the kids are extremely poor, they collect small amounts of funds each month and pool them so they have resources to be generous with. While we were there, the kids decided they wanted to provide food for one of their neighbors, a widow whose child had also died and was totally destitute.

So we were able to watch as they presented this widow with oil and rice and tea, what looked like food supplies for month or more. I remember saying to myself, this looks like heaven. And it was – the curse of poverty and hunger being driven away, the curse of kids thinking they don’t have enough to do something good and beautiful in the world driven away too, as these kids showed up with what they had learned from God, and in that time and place, things were made new.

Show up with Courage

We see the new heaven and the new earth in beautiful moments like this for sure, but also when we show up with courage to everything that is hard as well. I’m learning a lot about this in this season, trying to at least.

Because we live in hard times. The other week, the news was filled with protests about violence. And when it wasn’t, it was gearing us up for another scandalous reveal on prime time television. And beyond this, my pastor twitter feed was filled with hot takes on alleged unethical and illegal behavior by the one of the most prominent and respected American pastors, someone’s whose work I’d appreciated and benefited from in the past. This was all just in one week. Strange, unsettling times.

It’s personal too. Each week I talk to another person or two or three in this community about your profound challenges and pain. This is my world in some ways in this season too. I’ve been shaken in this season. Circumstances have pushed me to reevaluate old stories I’ve told about my own life. Pushed me to examine old ways of living that I’m tired of too and realize all this has some pretty deep roots in me that are going to be hard to untangle.

And in my own hard times, I’m learning that I’ll do anything but show up. I’m more like Jesus’ closest male disciples than his female ones. When I’m confused or torn up or disappointed, I don’t go looking for Jesus.

I hide.

Or I turn my back and walk out of the city, or try to find something concrete I at least know how to do. I go fishing, so to speak.

But even then, I eventually feel again that I am not alone. That Jesus is looking for me, walking by my side unseen as I walk away. Showing up to serve me a meal and eat with me when I’m hiding.

I’ve hoped for and looked for the risen Jesus too much in my life for me to not sense it’s still true.

In the strangest, the most confusing, the most disconsolate moments this winter, I’ve been struck again and again by this strange and admittedly kind of mystical sensation that God is with me, arm around my shoulder, telling me everything is OK. I’m here. It’s all going to be OK, Steve.

Because Jesus is alive, the new heavens and new earth have begun, if only with God dwelling with you and wiping away your tears as they fall.

It won’t stop there. God will drive out all that is accursed within and among us. The river of love that flows from the center of the heart of God will reach us all. Slaves will be free and reign with God. God’s nourishment and healing will abound.

But sometimes, just knowing that God dwells with you still, that God’s hand is on your shoulder, telling us it’s OK, is enough resurrection for today. That lets us rest in the quiet center of ourselves, and be still, and tend to the seeds of passion and courage that we know we grow again.

Let me leave you with two small invitations for this, for welcoming the technology of paradise into your life.

“Applying the Technology of Paradise”

1) Welcome a risen God to dwell with you each day.

Take a quiet moment as you drink your coffee or as you walk to school or drive to work to not think about yesterday or the day ahead, but to say, Here I am today, not alone, because a living God, a risen Jesus, an unseen Spirit can be with me.

This God can be with me in all joys and sorrow, can wipe away my tears, can drive out all that is accursed, heal all that is broken, bear abundant fruit in any desert.

This is the day that God has made for my joy and my courage. I can show up to today.

Welcome a risen God to dwell with you each day. And secondly:

2) Go deep with a community that will foster more faith, hope, and courage.

It’s hard to stay in faith, hope, and courage by ourselves. Our broken world, and our crazy-making lives will drive it out.

We need people to travel with, to encourage us. The kids of Asha show up to their desperately impoverished lives and community because they have each other and their teachers and mentors to encourage them. When I was talking with Nate Proctor about their family’s story at the top, he said there’s nothing special about me finding passion and courage, Steve, it’s just that I have lucked out with this church and with such good friends. My own hope, that sense I can’t shake that God is with me and that makes everything OK is spurred on by good people in my life that remind me it’s true.

Friends, stick with that community, value those people wherever you find them.

But know too that this church would love to be that community for you, if you need one. If you’re new here or circling around the outsides of this faith community, we’d love to encourage you, to invite you to touch base a little more with a community that hopes Jesus is alive, and so God is with us, and that God is birthing and building that new heaven and earth around us right now. We’d love for you to be part of that story. 

Come Out: Repentance as Resistance

The Lie of an Empire

Revelation 18:4-5 (New Revised Standard Version) 

4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of the city, my people,
so that you do not take part in its sins,
and so that you do not share in its plagues;

5 for their sins are heaped high as heaven,
 and God has remembered their iniquities.

I know a little bit about the lie of an empire from being born in South Korea and hearing about North Korea, our long lost brother and neighbor that was split off after the Korean war in 1945. I grew up learning about the state of North Korea as a totalitarian regime that’s filled with propaganda about their leader and their nation. I hear that for the most part people are happy and proud of their nation there; they’ve been taught to think so in every way. There are miracle stories people who escape the country to find a better life. But for the most part, the whole nation pretty much have a specific way of thinking that keeps people insulated and that’s just the way things are there. It deeply saddens me to know that they can’t even have the choice to leave a country.

North Koreans and South Koreans are essentially the same people, same language, but the context, the culture, has drastically parted ways in their way of thinking and way of life. So, It’s easy for me to see that there is a possibility, that a nation can create a world that determines how you think and how you come to be. We Americans, I think, take this for granted and also assume that we’re of course not so ignorant, not so rudimentary in our thinking, so primitive. We’re free! And we are, compared to many other nations. But any nation, any government system, every culture in history, telling us that that is secure for us, is naive, because the human condition, the human propensity is empire thinking. This has been so, through rise and fall of many empires in history, time and time again. It’s almost too familiar of a story that resonates with every generation. That a way of being, a man made system, a way to control the masses to keep power in place, the empire mentality seeps in to operate the human society, and it numbs us, it makes us just stimulated enough to be comfortable and we buy into the status quo.

The story of the empire of an age old story, and this is what the writer of Revelation is getting to now, in our journey through the book during Lent. As we have been learning, John is pretty imaginative with metaphors. It’s a brilliant literary device that drives his purpose, straight through, with a sharp arrow. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Twilight ain’t got nothing on Revelation! My personal favorite of such dystopian genre is the TV show, Walking Dead. Ugh, I hate zombies and I loved the show. Such great storytelling! I hated all the blood, but it’s so epic and compelling. Like, what would you do, at the end of the world, if you have to go out and fight zombies and find food, or stay in one place and starve or be food. What would you do?! The fighting and the zombie scenes are ridiculous, a lot of ketchup was used. Sometimes we gotta bear through the metaphors to get to the story. And we have to do the same with our text today as well to do it honor. Male and female theologians have wrestled with this point and so it’s important to mention.

So, John is telling the story of Babylon as a representation of the empire, not only literally, but it represents of all the “babylons” of time, like Egypt, or Rome, or whatever power lure of the time. He juxtaposes this city to New Jerusalem, as the true city where God is the center of life. To get at this, he uses the derogatory term of (Trigger Warning, I’m going to say this a few times during the sermon, because it’s in the text) “whore” to describe Babylon, and “bride” for New Jerusalem. The point of this is that the seduction of Babylon is real, but New Jerusalem is the ultimate reality. That’s the message. But the method should be pointed out, that it is objectifying language of female bodies. Patriarchy runs deep, people, and we have to start with words, because they shape ideas and reinforce identities. And to not critique the metaphors we use has real consequences in how our boys view women, and our girls see themselves. So I’ve chosen to not reinforce the feminine pronouns for the cities and instead look carefully beyond the metaphors to get to the meaning of the passage.

So my talk today is going to be about: what does it mean to see “babylon”, the empire, for what it is — that it is only a twisted caricature of the New Jerusalem that represents the real world that God invites us to live in? And once we’ve seen it, how can we follow John’s calling to “come out” of the Babylon of our day? John invites us to repent and resist to the empire, that we may see the reality of the New Jerusalem at work right here right now.

So first, what is Babylon? Part of the issue with Babylon and empire thinking, is, at its core, seductive and insidious. “The fish doesn’t know that it’s in the sea.” And, “seductive”, not necessarily meaning and alluding to sexual immorality, but that much of it actually sounds pretty good. Like who wouldn’t want to build an empire that is powerful and strong, and great, who wouldn’t want to secure its walls and protect its people at all cost? Who wouldn’t want a thriving economy? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of great Babylon?  But what is so wrong with Babylon, John calls it a “whore”? This word, again, isn’t specifically pointing out sexual deviancy of the city at all, but the word in Hebrew, zana, is translated in Greek as “to be a market”. To be objectified. To be commodified. The sin less about sexual immorality, and more about the critique of the city’s socio-economical state of mind and thinking. I think sometimes we focus on sexual immorality more than greed in church, because greed kind of serves all of us. Greed gives us financial stability and growth. And sexual immorality, that’s the worst kind of sin! (btw, Jesus didn’t have measurements for which sin is greater, we do.)

Let me move us along the text. So John tells us to come out of this city. And goes on to explain what’s wrong with the city. The text continues, chapter 18, to verses 12-13. It lists off these things. Gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, scarlet, scented wood, ivory, bronze, iron, marble, cinnamon, spice, incenses, wine, oil, flour, cattle sheep, chariots, slaves, and human souls. → these are, luxury items, and staple goods that build the economy. Market. Trade. The list is about all the ways and its goods are evidence of Economic pride and Affluence. Greed. This is empire thinking.

A Bible commentator put it like this, “Babylon referred not to a city-state or a long-fallen empire, but had become a living archetype of the human propensity to organize ‘civilization’ in opposition to God.” Empire, is a way of life we’ve figured out apart from God.

We get into our little methods and attempt to orchestrate our lives according to our own wisdom without thinking once about God, or table God for this particular area of my life. Finances, well finances, God doesn’t really understand the modern market, I have to do this this way. Or I’ll do good things after I gain this status, prestige, get to a certain level. What is your Babylon? Are you aware of the ways that the world system lulls you into thinking this is how you have to do things?

Maybe some of you might be thinking, oh not me, I’m an independent thinker, I don’t let the Man tell me who I am! Good for you, but also, I’m sorry but we’re all products of our times. You may say, “I’m totally objective!” — it’s the very misconception that keeps us blind. We’re all subjective. We’re all subjects to this time in history, this period of post-enlightenment thinking, I’m sorry, but we’re all caught up in it. The fish doesn’t know that it’s in the sea! Unless you’ve been that fish that’s been dropped out of water, and you’ve had to gasp for air, and that does end up happening to most of us, if not yet, it will. Reality check sets in sometimes. Usually through a kind of suffering we get to see what really matters. But for the most of us, for the most part, we are heavily influenced by the world around us.

What sea are you in that you may not be aware of? What Babylon permeates throughout your life? What empires do you have rising and taking a hold of your life? John cried to the people, “come out of there!” Repent and resist the empire. The book that Steve lent me on reading Revelation, called Unveiling Empire, puts it this way: “This departure from Rome is not understood in the physical sense, but is to be economic, social, political, and spiritual; the idea is to resist, to refuse to participate, to create alternatives.”

This, I think, begins with seeing that we are a naturally drawn to the empire, to repent the way you’ve participated and even contributed to the building of the empire, and resist its way and come out. How do we do this? It begins with you. I want to focus on the concept of “repentance as a form of resistance”. But I want us to talk about those words a bit, because both repentance and resistance carry a lot of different meanings these days.


First resistance. The term RESIST! has gotten to be a complicated thought and have gained some bad rep. To fight and protest. We’ve seen angry or militant resistance. It’s become a overused term of, rah rah, resist, fight the power, question everything! It’s like the opposite of what Steve was talking about last week, listening with compassion and civil public engagement. But Resistance doesn’t have to look violent. It doesn’t have to not be civil. What does it look like for Christians, for Christ followers to resist in a different way than everyone else? What does holy resistance look like? To come out of our babylon, I’d like to offer us repentance as a form of resistance.


Again, words are powerful And sometimes they take on the cultural connotation more than the definition itself. Repentance can be a loaded term these days. It’s been used on picket signs and shouted at on college campuses. REPENT! Many of us have might even have PTSD with the term in the context of american religiosity. It’s had focus on feeling bad, guilt, and feeling shame for wrong things we’ve done. A lot of sin focus, in modern Christianity, is on personal sin. I think this is where the western individualism has sometimes failed us in realizing, that sin is more than just about living a morally clean life by not drinking, smoking, or whatever the modern day issue might be. The issue of sin and repentance for John in Revelation, of Isaiah in the prophets, and for Jesus as well, was covering a much higher bar of sin than our bad lifestyle or wrong decisions. It was about the whole system of empire that lives in an ethos of injustice and exploitation. Jesus talked about the kingdom of God and seeing that and being a part of that, more than himself being your personal Lord and Savior. It’s about the kin-dom, the family, the whole system that operates in harmony with God. Not just your life, the whole thing, the whole world, your family, your country, your society, your philosophy, everything will be new. Isaiah wasn’t just talking about how to live a good Christian life, it was about systemic economic justice.

Isaiah 1:16-17 says:

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong. (what is the wrong doing? What is the right thing?)
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

Think about the word, righteousness. It’s used in the Bible alot. And to us, when we think about the word righteousness, we think of a good person, a righteous person. It’s commonly used and understood as someone who is religious pious. Both the hebrew (tsaddiq) and the greek (dikaiosuné) definition of the word, it’s usually translated as righteousness, but their definition also means “justice”. And to us, they seem more nuanced and different, righteousness and justice, but they are actually more synonymous! The ancient near east context is also much more wholistic and communal than our American individualistic mentality. Righteousness isn’t only about you being a better person, personal salvation, but being a part of a more just world and participating in the justice of God: that’s justice. It’s not about personal correctness, but justice in the sight of the Lord in all manners of life, in every aspect of life.

Maybe you’ve been told to repent for things in your life before from church that weren’t really about the justice of God, but more about getting in line and following the rules, like throwing away rock music, or kissing dating goodbye. I can see how “repentance” could conjure up a visceral reaction for you. But it simply means, “to turn”. To turn from where our eyes are set, from the seduction of the riches, or security, of comfort, of safety. We trick ourselves into thinking that we can achieve the success the world has promised us so much. Work hard, save up, get what’s yours, work the system to get as much as you need and you can, cause everyone’s doing it. It’s turning our eyes, from what captivates us: like your phone, instagram has so many pretty pictures, and facebook girl jump-roping with her dog is so fascinating, but turn your heard and face the reality, the real world, turn to Jesus who is the ultimate reality.

I think Michael Jackson had it right:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change, nana nanana.

Sorry I subjected you to that. But I practiced – I had to do it. Look at yourself in the mirror.

This past week’s Bible Guide Monday ended with the reflection, “Today, ask God to reveal some aspect of violence or injustice in your nation, your city, or your ethnicity that you participate in through your actions or thinking. Ask God for ideas on how to turn away from that and for the courage to do so.”

What injustice do you see?

What do you think is wrong with the world? What injustice do you see? Racism? In what ways have you contributed to racism? Or turned a blind eye to it or stayed quiet in the face of it? Or maybe it’s the disparity between the rich and the poor? How have you participated in economic injustice? Blame the big banks and excuse yourself as, I’m just trying to get what’s mine. Or degradation of our environment and endangered species? Recycling or using less energy only when it’s convenient for us. Or exploitation of human bodies through porn, “harmlessly” participating in an industry of billions of dollars that perpetuate dehumanization of human sexuality.

I’ve been so sad and angry at the violence of the world, especially guns. And I hope that we can make changes systematically to make our world a safer place. But also, I think we need to look into ourselves and ask, how have I harbored violence in my life, in my own heart? How do I perpetuate violence from one place to the next person? I’ve had to search myself and realize, that I’ve used violent words or attitudes. I get into fights with Eugene, metaphorically but with very much guns blazing. And even, I’ve talked to myself with anger and violence against myself!

The New Reality

Let us repent. If we’re resisting the empire, then what are we leaning into? We are leaning into the New Jerusalem. Turn to the New Jerusalem. And what is the New Jerusalem? It is the place that is the reign of God, the way of Jesus: The place where God and People Live Together.

Revelation 21:3 describes it like this:

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with people, God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s people, and God’s self will be with them”

A little more difficult to explain. Because you can’t always see it. The empire is easier to point out. It’s like, remember the movie the Matrix. They were living in this world that wasn’t real, only a figment of their imagination that they were programmed to live and see. But then, Neo, finds the real world. And couldn’t live out his real potential in the fake world. The New Jerusalem is the real world. Babylon is only a gross counterfeit of that reality.

We’ve been learning that Revelation uses a lot of the Old Testament symbolism and metaphors. John’s description of New Jerusalem is again, Similar to Ezekiel’s vision, of restored Jerusalem, reconstructed temple, where ritual purity welcomes people into the temple: everyone’s welcome.

But the difference is, for John, there is no temple, and everyone’s a priest. He says, “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb is its temple” Temple language has been central to Old Testament imagination of the divine. But rather, John sees, “the entire people who resist empire as a nation of priests”

New Jerusalem is a place where we reign with God as heirs. Like The Chronicles of Narnia! Little children becoming kings and queens of the nation. Unveiling Empire described it like this:

“Empire’s economic exploitation is reversed in New Jerusalem. Rather than stealing wealth and resources from the world, people and nations will freely bring their glory to the Holy City. The traditional image of nations bringing tribute to Zion is democratized to express people’s universal sharing of God’s gifts with one another. The residents of New Jerusalem live in an economy of gift, not of wage slavery or measured rewards. Abundance provided by God overflows on all without hoarding or greed.”

That is the New Jerusalem. And the big news is, the New Jerusalem has already begun. Jesus has already begun doing this. John wouldn’t be inviting us if that were not the case: it’s already happening, we just need to catch up. It is easier to stay in the Empire. But he proclaims, he announces, you must see this new kingdom coming! See it and join it. It’s happening all around us and Jesus Christ has begun it! Like in the Matrix, Neo couldn’t have figured everything out if he didn’t have Trinity and Morpheus helping! We can’t do it by ourselves. We know that God has already begun it. It’s not on you. The New Jerusalem is here. The kingdom of God is near. The kingdom of God is among you. The kingdom of God is within you! John’s big statement is that the New Jerusalem is the new real reality, that Jesus has already unveiled this reality, we only need to open our eyes to it.

So what are we to do? Go resist, repent and come out. That’s a lot of things, and I know John in Revelation and I both invited you to do this. But the main new is, the good news isn’t, that you have so many things you need to do. The Good News isn’t: get busy, Jesus is coming. If I just gave you more things to do this week, well that wouldn’t be the gospel. Because grace. Whatever you do, go with grace. And don’t do it alone.

This is what I want to leave you with today:

  • The New Jerusalem is already here. Do you believe that? Can you see flag of the God’s reign planted here and there? Do you see it?
  • And our job is that, We only need to welcome and usher in this reality. Buy into it. Join in. Welcome to New Jerusalem.
  • And who rules the New Jerusalem? Jesus leads us in ruling this new reality. But, Jesus is a King unlike any other king, who lives with us and among us. That’s the kind of king we have.

Will you welcome this king? Will you welcome Jesus? On this Palm Sunday, we celebrate the welcoming of this king on a donkey by the same way the people did back then for Jesus, with palms. In the Roman culture, palms represented victory. They would wave palms around after war victory when welcoming the king and the soldiers back. It’s like the way we lay out red carpet for our highest honor nowadays, which I guess are mostly movie stars?

Will you pull out the Red carpet for one who does not adorn oneself in red carpet attire with gold and jewels, not in a limousine, but maybe in a tuk tuk, not on a war horse, but a donkey, not with fame and power, but with humility and sacrifice. Will you lay out your great welcome to Jesus in your life? Will you welcome Jesus?

An Invitation to Civility and a Different Way of Public Engagement

Have you felt some anger out in public recently? Maybe even some over-the-top, crazy, mind-boggling anger?

My wife Grace was driving the other week and she passed this car on the side of the road. It was pulled over – all the way to the curb – and she passed slowly, legally, all that. A few minutes later, she sees a car racing up behind her in her rear-view mirror and thinks: That looks like the stopped car I passed back there. And she was right. Because when she pulled up to the next stop sign, the other car, pulled up to her left, in the middle of the road, rolled down its window and stared screaming at her: blaming her for passing her, even yelling that she could have killed someone’s child. Grace was speechless at first, but then she was like: you were pulled over on the side of the road, and I slowed down and then… just kept on driving. I really have no idea what you’re talking about. And the other driver – stopped right in the middle of the road now – just kept on yelling. She pulled out her cell phone, told Grace she was taking pictures of her license plate, and that she was going to report her. For what, Grace had no idea, so Grace left her with her phone out, and calmly pulled away. A little shaken, though.

Has that kind of thing happened to you this year? Have you maybe done that kind of thing? I asked over Facebook, and my friends said yes.

A lot of us are angry these days.

Ann Bauer wrote a column in the Washington Post last week about this. She titled it: “Our Anger is Poisoning Us.” It took her a while to notice, because just a few days before the presidential election, her 28-year old son died, quite suddenly and mysteriously. And for about six months, she withdrew from a number of parts of her day to day life, and the people she interacted with largely knew about her tragedy, and these folks – of a range of political persuasions and demographics and situations in life – they were uniformly kind and decent and downright sacrificially loving to her.

But as soon as she started to re-engage with day to day working and commuting and social media use and all the rest, she thought, My God, everybody is absolutely enraged. And it’s killing us. She recounts a number of stories like Grace’s and worse, and notes that while there are some things for sure that are worth being downright, livid angry about, anger alone doesn’t save anyone or anything. It rips up the angry one inside, and tears our civic life apart, without replacing it with anything better.

What do you think about that? How do you feel, I wonder, about the levels of rage in our public discourse, and maybe even in your extended family or social circles or workplace or day to day public life?


We, of course, are not the first people to be dissatisfied with the state of our world and the state of our public life.

Much of the New Testament is made up of the stories and letters to little house churches – little communities of Jesus-centered faith much smaller than Reservoir. And in the mid to late first century, the Kingdom of Rome had gotten bigger and stronger. Rome claimed to be an empire of peace and prosperity and victory that would last forever. But on closer look, this wasn’t at all the case. Colonies were held and exploited with high taxes, public executions, and other state-sanctioned violence. Money flowed toward the wealthy in the empire’s big cities and away from everybody else. Slaves and children were subject to rape and beatings, and women were second class citizens at best. This was a Kingdom of violence. And as the first century moved on, it was increasingly hostile to followers of Jesus.

What were they to do? Get angry and fight? Give up? Assimilate?

At their best, they made a different set of choices, which I want to explore today. I want to talk about the choice to take the person and teaching of Jesus seriously in our public engagement and to consider the civility we’ll practice as well as the power that we’ll find if we do that.

Many of us have been reading the last book of the Bible, Revelation, this past month, as part of our practice of Lent we call 40 Days of Faith. And in Revelation, we encounter some strong language about the times those faith communities are living in.

The author, named John, looks at the Roman Empire they’re living under and names it Babylon, the Jewish symbol for a city of violence and evil. He calls out greedy merchants, slave traders, business associations that push their members to moral compromise, civic celebrations that encourage spiritual selling-out. And he says the Roman government and the local collaborating kiss-ups are like ugly and aggressive beasts and dragons. Revelation speaks truth to corrupt power, it unveils the lies and manipulation of commercial and religious and civic propaganda. It does not mince words in naming what’s wrong in its times.

And yet, Revelation’s call to faith centers on a God who doesn’t play by the same rules. Specifically, it centers on a God who looks like Jesus – a Lamb, that even after resurrection, is still stained with its own blood. Jesus wields power, John says, symbolized by a sword and a rod of iron. But the sword is always coming out of his mouth, not in his hands. Jesus’ power is his words, not in violence. And the rod of iron is an old Bible quote that is transformed as the Lamb becomes a shepherd. Jesus isn’t a charismatic, narcissistic leader but a shepherd who takes care of his followers, and wipes their tears away while he leads them somewhere better.

Revelation writes a story about God and about power and leadership that is better than the civic and religious life its age had ever known.

And so the call to action for these communities is not angry venting and violence, but instead a call to come out of all that, and to be like Jesus. John’s call to action is to witness, for the faith communities to use their words and especially their actions to live like Jesus did, to engage in public life as Jesus would, even suffering and dying if necessary, because even if that happened, they like Jesus would rise again.

Revelation doesn’t get into the details of what this might look like. It’s imaginative poetry, not linear teaching. But we get some sense of what its vision for a life of public engagement might look like a generation earlier in another first century document, a letter called I Peter.

Let me read you an excerpt from the middle of the letter. It goes like this:

I Peter 3:8-17 (NRSV)

8Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10For

“Those who desire life
    and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
    and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
    let them seek peace and pursue it.
12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.

So, Peter is riffing on this Hebrew spiritual poem, this song, called Psalm 34: I Will Bless the Lord at all Times. It’s a beautiful poem that says that God meets with people who cry out to God. That people who look to God in our need will be able to not just believe God is good, not just hope God is good, but taste and see that God is good.

But, typical for earlier forms of Jesus’ religious tradition, it also says that one way people can taste and see that God is good is when he takes out your enemies.

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their cry.
16The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
    to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
    and rescues them from all their troubles.
18The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,
    and saves the crushed in spirit.

19Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
    but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20He keeps all their bones;
    not one of them will be broken.
21Evil brings death to the wicked,
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

You all – people that have reason to be hurt and angry – God’s close to you, the text says. God’s good to you. But those evil folks that could rile you up – relax, don’t worry. God’s gonna get em!

Now, don’t get me wrong. Unpopular as it is in the 21st century, and unsophisticated as it sounds, I still believe in God’s judgment. I don’t think God is angry or arbitrary or violent about it – I think the language like that in the Bible is metaphor. But I do think that people and churches and companies and cultures and countries that do evil and do not repent are going to suffer for it – often in this life, always in the next. I don’t know what that’s going to look like exactly. I don’t think it necessarily means fiery hell forever or anything like that. But I believe in judgment. I think it’s good news that powerful evil that refuses to change is going to have to change and face the pain its made or face consequence.

Now Peter in this letter quotes the Psalm, but do you notice that when he’s looking through the lens of Jesus, he subverts this end-part of its message?

Evil, Peter says, is out to harm. It wants to get what it wants, no matter what abuse or suffering it causes. That driver Grace encountered wanted to not be embarrassed by its own bad driving, or wanted payback for an imagined slight. Other angry people we encounter in our lives want attention or want power or want revenge for the wrong they perceive was done to them, real or imagined. Companies and politicians often want profit or votes, with no concern for the public good of their communities or the flourishing of their employees or customers or their constituents.

And Peter calls that out. He names and validates the pain and anger of the community he’s writing to. But then he says, don’t play their game. Play Jesus’ game by seeking blessing – by being people that don’t try to take back for yourselves but seek everybody’s highest good, your enemies included!

He says when you do this, you’re going to get blessing. You’re going to feel joy, because this is a powerful way to live. You’re going to feel God – tasting and seeing that God is good – because God lives where people live this way. And you’re going to win sometimes, because your enemies will be shamed by how well you treat them. This was famously at the heart of the civil disobedience of Ghandi in India and of the Black Christian leaders of the civil rights movement here in this country.

And Peter says, you’re going to feel Jesus, because this is how he lived. In fact, in addition to riffing on Psalm 34, Peter is riffing on one of Jesus’ most important teachings, called the Beatitudes, which is a fancy word for blessings, because Jesus is telling his students how to find blessing in life. Where to get happiness and well-being.

He says Take joy when people go after you for doing the right thing, because you’ll know you’re in God’s land then. You’ve got the whole Kingdom of God. And – as we printed on your programs:

Matthew 5:9 (NRSV)

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Want to experience being God’s kid? Want to be a child of God in a fractured world? Get out there in your family, in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your politics, and be Jesus. Seek blessing, but do it Jesus’ way. Be a peace-maker, which doesn’t mean avoid conflict. Peace in ancient Jewish culture, in languages like Hebrew, and Aramaic, even in Arabic, is some version of shalom, or salaam. It means well-being, wholeness, it means peace with justice. Go after this, by engaging in your pain, but engaging with love and kindness for your enemies, and you’ll get blessing. Go after your own good but the good of your enemy too, and you’ll shine. It’ll go well for you.

This is our calling.

Could you imagine engaging in public life in a way that’s different from the resentment-driven selfish anger of our moment?

Engaging in public life with civility, with radical love that seeks your own deepest blessing, by seeking others’ blessing as well?

What might this look like?

I’d like to tell you some stories.


The first is about the founder of a mosque, who showed a nominally Christian community what the way of Jesus looks like.

Hisham Yasin was born a Palestinian refugee in Syria, and came to America to join family here in 1996, with nothing. He lived in a rundown house alongside rats and roaches, while he washed dishes in a restaurant and his dad collected cans. Eventually, Hisham and his brother started a used car dealership that did well. And in this historically White and Black town, they lived with more and more Muslim immigrants like themselves who had settled in the area, some of whom founded a mosque together. They named it Al Salaam – place of peace. It was a gathering space for Hisham’s community, a place of worship and home, a blessing.

But for a 20-year old white man named Abraham Davis and his friends, it represented something else. To them it was a symbol of the growing Muslim community they resented because they were new to Arkansas and new to America but they were wealthier and more successful.

Abraham grew up dirt poor, the oldest son in a family where his dad regularly beat his mom. Abraham prayed as a kid that God would do something to protect his mom and him and his brother, and months later, his dad got sick and died. Abraham thought it was his fault. He got in a lot of trouble in school, didn’t do well, was a social outsider too, and dropped out at 18 before he could graduate.

In the days leading up to the last presidential election, he had been hanging out more and more with these two friends. All of them resented the changes in their community, all of them were white supremacists, but the most virulent of the three talked Abraham and the other guy into going out one night that October and vandalizing the local mosque.

Hisham was the first leader to arrive the next day. Someone had called him to report what had happened, and he rushed over to the mosque to see swastikas spray-painted onto the bricks, along with slogans like “Go Home” and even a Latin phrase that means “God wills it” that was a rallying cry centuries ago in the crusades.

It was devastating for them. What had they done to deserve this resentment? This damage to their mosque? This hostility?

Thing is, the community rallied to their support. Letters, flowers, phone calls flowed in, day after day.

And then four months later, Abraham Davis was picked up by the police. His family didn’t have the $1500 for bail, so he went to prison while he awaited trial. The DA said they were going to make an example of him and his friends, charge them not just with vandalism, but with a felony charge that would keep them in jail for years.

But then some unexpected things happened. Abraham wrote a letter from jail, to the leaders of the mosque. He wrote: What I did was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it. And even after all this you still forgave me. You are much better people than I.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.

“All in all,” he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

And then leaders of the mosque went to bat for him. They pleaded for mercy. They showed up at court dates, bargained with the DA, and told him to drop the charges entirely, just let Abraham pay them his part in the cost of the damages.

The DA, though, didn’t want him to get off too easily, and so he comprised. In exchange for a guilty plea to the felony charges, he let Abraham Davis avoid jail time and enter probation, with a series of fines and fees attached to it. And that’s what happened – except Hisham Yasim through a wrench into that punishment as well when he took a donation that had been made to the mosque and used it to pay off all of Abraham’s court and probation fees.

He did it because he felt bad for Abraham Davis, despite the awful thing he had done. He also did it because it was right, because it’s what his faith directed him to do.

Yasim says the whole experience has been great for them. Through people’s sympathy, and through the press coverage of their mercy, people in Arkansas better understand and value and respect their Muslim neighbors. Yasim sees it all as a blessing in disguise.

So does Abraham Davis, whose life has been turned around.

Abraham wanted to visit the mosque and say his thanks in person, but the terms of his probation don’t allow it. So he posted a note on facebook instead. He wrote:

“Well, I’m home now. I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, Hisham’s son.

“Bro move on with life we forgave you from the first time you apologized don’t let that mistake bring you down,” he had written. And then, Abraham’s favorite line: “I speak for the whole Muslim community of fort smith we love you and want you to be the best example in life we don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

Abraham said it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.

Dang. This is not what I want when someone does me wrong, to engage their wrong with as much love and blessing and forgiveness as it takes to change their life for the better and to uplift my cause as well.

I just want to vent my anger, or forget about it and move on.

This has also not been my sense of how to change the world. Which makes me normal, right, because most people don’t think this is how you bless the world.

Our lobbyists twist truth to manipulate and get their causes favorable legislation or funding. Our politicians and nations freely use coercion as part of a so-called greater good, the ends justifying the means. We all shout each other down on social media, to humiliate our foes or at least to gather our friends so they can tell us how right we are. Our leaders, leaders in the church too, have usually played these kinds of games.

The witnesses to Jesus call for a different kind of engagement, though, to look evil in the eye and to give it back blessing, to love the people we can’t stand with a tender heart, with a humble mind.

Again, this is not withdrawing from society when it gets ugly. And it’s certainly not avoiding conflict and just rolling over and sucking up ill treatment of ourselves or the people we care about. It’s just choosing a different way of engaging, one that looks like Jesus, one that disarms an evildoer and promotes peace and blessing.

We celebrate this kind of life when see it, even if it’s hard to live ourselves.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and somewhere in the middle of today’s parade in Southie and Irish pride, green McShamrock Shakes and endlessly flowing beer, there’s Saint Patrick himself, who as a British teenager, was taken as a slave by Irish raiders. When he returned home, God gave him a vision to return to Ireland and share with them, at risk to himself, that God loved them so much, he gave his life for them, even when they were God’s enemy.

Can you imagine anything more beautiful? This risky, loving, absurd move that transformed the history of an island.

It’s the way of Jesus that we catch in surprising places.


Just after Christmas last year, the actor and comedian Sarah Silverman was doing her daily, snarky thing on twitter. When a young man dropped a one word comment on her. I can’t say it here – it’s an expletive, and a nasty, misogynist one at that. But while her followers were coming to her defense, Silverman took a few minutes to read his feed and learn about him – his chronic back pain, his bitter attitude toward everyone and everything. Then she wrote back:

I believe in you. I read your timeline & I see what your doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But you know that. I know this feeling. P.S. My back sucks too. See what happens when you choose love. I see it in you.

She then kept up a conversation, gave him some advice, and later made sure his medical bills were paid for. All this because he swore at her.

Later, the guy was interviewed about all that happened. Here’s what he had to say: “I was once a giving and nice person, but too many things destroyed that and I became bitter and hateful,” he said. “Then Sarah showed me the way. Don’t get me wrong, I still got a long way to go, but it’s a start.”

So it is.

Friends, this stuff works. When we engage in life with peacemaking love, we’re more likely to change a bitter heart. We’re more likely to secure justice for ourselves or someone else. And we’re guaranteed to show a violent, bitter world what Jesus looks like.

Wanna try? Let’s talk about it.

How to Engage in Public Life with Power and Civility:


  • Embody humility and love and kindness in your pursuit of truth or justice.

Don’t be an arrogant know it all, even if you’re right. Don’t mansplain or preach back at the world. Speak your truth – be ready to speak, Peter says, but with gentleness and an open mind.

  • Display Jesus to the world – when necessary, use words.

This is an old quotation from St. Francis of Assisi – preach the gospel, tell the good news, and only when necessary, use words. Because the most powerful way to speak Jesus is to embody him. The most powerful good news is seen more than heard.

Be like Sarah Silverman when you’re taunted or slandered. Be like St. Patrick when you face hardship or adversity. Be like Hisham Yasin when your community is under threat, or you want to advocate or come alongside someone else’s community under threat. Be justice cloaked in love. Be the blessed peacemaker.

And – since this takes strength and security, good news power – if you’re not ready yet, just be silent for a bit. Sit with Jesus, who has good news for you in your pain. Meditate each day on Psalm 34, that shares the good news that God is with you, that God sees in justice and will act.

But remember that God’s most decisive action was Jesus, and shaping a community of Jesus followers on earth – who by the power of the Spirit of God will know the love of Jesus and will go out and be Jesus too.

  • Listen to – don’t judge – personal stories attached to public pain.

This is what I’m asking you of your own stories, if you’ve got them. Listen to yourself. Pay attention to your own pain and rage – ask where it comes from and engage the people and forces that have caused it when you can.

And when you encounter other people’s pain and rage – even if they’re behaving badly out of it – try and hear the stories behind them without judgment. See if you can love the person who has that story.

  • Consider participating in our house meeting campaign this year.

We have an opportunity this year to do this work together.

Reservoir is a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization that helps congregations in our city engage well in public life together. And this year, our biggest action will be a series of house meetings, where we get to tell and listen to the stories behind why we care about what we do in public life.

These aren’t debates or arguments and if you’re thinking about national political battles, they’re not about that either.

They’re an opportunity to share our personal story of why we’re troubled by how unaffordable housing is, or what’s not working for our kids and or what didn’t work for us in our public schools, or the story you have behind any public concern that troubles you.

And these are gatherings to listen to one another and for our church to discover how we can equip one another to take action, and for the congregations in our city to discover together the stories we most want to tell people in power.

If you’re a community group leader, you’ll have the opportunity in April or May to host one of these gatherings with one of us who’s a trained facilitator joining you. In the next few weeks, you’ll start to see announcements in our Events and Happenings about these gatherings as well. I hope many of you will be able to participate.

God With Us: Expectation Vs. Reality

Good morning, I’m Lydia, the new pastor here at Reservoir. I moved from San Francisco a month ago and I expected some things about Boston. I expected it to be very cold. I brought out all my skiing gear, wool layers, heat tech tights. I was getting ready for a battle. Honestly, I was scared that the cold would make me depressed or cranky. I imagined scraping ice off of my car in a winter storm and, defeated by the snowy wind, just breaking down and crying as I shuddered in the freezing car, alone and cold in this new land.

I actually don’t even have a scraper for a car yet, cause I’m staying at a temporary place that has a garage. Turns out, every place has the heat on. As soon as I get inside, my wool socks are sweating, I’m taking off my 3 layers of jacket and sweaters immediately. A few weeks ago it was 78 degrees outside. And the people have been warm and loving. I haven’t experienced a bad storm. I know I know, still be prepared things could hit in April you all keep saying. But for the most part, God has been so gracious and gentle to us, more than we expected. God met us with far more mercy and grace.

This is what I want to share with you today. What God has in store for us can far exceed our expectations of God, beyond our imagination. Maybe even the opposite of what we expect. So what do we expect of God? How do we expect God to respond to us? And then, how does God answer our expectations?

So, Imagine God. What does God look like to you? Do you imagine an old white man with a beard sitting on the throne in the clouds?bearded God with laptopThat’s how the New Yorker illustrates God sometimes. The general society and our world has imagined God in a certain way. Or maybe you’ve been around the church a bit and you know that God is the Creator. Our Lord. Our King. Omnipotent all knowing God. Strong. Powerful.

The Old Testament describes God in various ways, and much of it was largely shaped by who the writers were and what they were experiencing. Whenever we read the Bible we have to recognize the time, context, the history, the culture. Because the Bible is a series of stories of a particular nation and a people, specifically the Israelites, and so they’re stories that are set in their specific experiences with the world and it shaped their relationship with God. Israel was, for most of Old Testament history, a small group of people wedged between many great nations, with their stories set in slavery in Egypt, and later taken over by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Their theology was one that was set in their immediate needs, one of military threat and survival. This was the case for most of the books of the Prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel — with the word “prophecy” not only being a word that means foretelling what would happen in the future, but keenly seeing with a critical eye what is going on in the present and casting a new vision for the future of their nation and their people.

Here’s an example: Isaiah 9:6 became a popular Christmas song.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders and he will be called… wonderful counselor, Mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.”

And while these words have been attributed to Jesus Christ, the words actually arose out of deep wounds of national and systemic oppression, in which they sought a future one who would save them from their surrounding nations. The translations of these words are slightly softer and even somewhat more beautiful in English, but the original words conjured up more militaristic names, like wise counsel, brave chief, limitless captain.

Prince of peace, sounds lovely in Handel’s Messiah, but the original language would have been more like principal, the highest rank of rule, one who would establish something more like Pax Romana — the peace of Rome — which wasn’t a campaign really about peace, but military occupation in surrounding nations that maintained the “prosperity” and stronghold of Rome. So the Israelites longed for and expected, not a baby in a manger — which is what we think of when we hear, “wonderful counselor, prince of peace” — but a mighty warrior that would conquer the  surrounding bigger stronger nations, smiting their enemies and finally bringing justice to the nation.

So, we’ve been reading through Revelation in this season of Lent our church calls 40 days of Faith. And Revelation uses many Old Testament symbols to tell a story about Jesus, and it conjures up this Old Testament language:

 Revelation 5:5-6a
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…

I won’t get into the scrolls, seals, and the four creatures. These are all rich in symbolism we don’t have time to get into. So we’ll just focus on the Lion and the Lamb. “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah”. Lineage was important to them because for a King — for a national leader, the highest government official — lineage was the way you achieved this, to David’s throne, has won the victory (and they do mean military victory). But then this expectation of a Conquering Lion, is met, with, none other than… a Lamb. Not just any lamb but a slaughtered lamb, with cuts and blood.

Here’s why this matters. This is what we expect too — not just Israelites. The Bible is often a mirror to human natural tendencies. The reason why the omnipotent all knowing God is such a widely sought image of what kind of God we have is because that is what we think many of us want, what we think we need, what feels like is going to really fix things. We expect that of successful leaders. Our society values this. They’ve gotta be confident. Strong, and impressive, prestigious! And preferably tall, and male! The world wants someone with charisma oozing, who comes in with a decisive vision and takes charge. People are less impressed with someone who offers their defeated scars from their life history.

People do this on dates, right? Showing their best selves on first dates, mentioning the great achievement, school, job, cool hobbies, working out. I remember telling Eugene that I love cooking Korean food, and he was like what kind of Korean food, and I told him that I like to make Japchae. And I don’t know why I told him that cause Japchae is so much work, you have to cook and season each vegetable separately before you put it together with the noodle –it’s so much work! I think I’ve made that once, maybe twice for him. I don’t know maybe I wanted to share with him about my culture because he’s Chinese, but I should’ve picked something that I actually cook more often! No one brings up their broken dreams and slaughtered selves. That is not sexy. But then, isn’t it the moments when someone, not on the first date maybe, but in a safe, self-aware way disclose a hard time in their lives. Or when you feel connected enough to that person that you can share your darkest times to another person. And moments of vulnerable leaders, showing humility, kindness, are so rare that they go viral.

Interviews are like this too. Credentials. Experience. My interview process to Reservoir, I presented my years of experience in ministry as a youth pastor for 3 years, and 7 years as a pastor in San Francisco, Master’s in Divinity, my extravertedness, my charisma, I pulled out all the stops to show my best self ,of course. I don’t even wear make up usually, but I was wearing makeup in September when I came for the interview. Although, Steve and some of leadership were keen to press on my vulnerable Jesus moment experiences, and I did share times in my life where I was lost and dark that allowed me to turn to Jesus.

But anyway, I wanted to bring leadership and vision. And now I’m here. And you know what is actually one of the biggest needs of Reservoir that I’m filling? Sunday Morning Operations, the Welcome Team, the volunteers that welcome you and set up everything Sunday mornings. And you know what that entails? Pouring coffee. Setting up bagels. Washing the dishes. Picking up trash, taking out the trash, ordering the right size trash bags so that it doesn’t fall in when it gets filled up and drop in and the drinks and everything inside get on the trash bin, and you have to wash the bins. You know what I’m talking about. That’s ministry right there. And the things is, I think that’s like most things in life. You don’t need a hero, you need a servant. I know we as a church have great dreams of extending into the Cambridge neighborhood, to make an impact, and we need good teaching and training, and strategic planning, I know. But you know, weekly Sunday runs on John turning on the heat, Grant unlocking the door, Katherine tying up trash bags. Michelle covered in sweat and water from washing huge bins in a kitchenette.

What kind of perfect leader have you expected for our church, to take us to the next level? Or what kind of a leader do you think we need for our country? What kind of perfect partner have you wished and hoped for? What kind of God do you expect to show up in your life?

I’ll be honest. For me, I wanted, sometimes I still desire and long for a God who will just fix things. Sometimes I pray to God in a kind of angry protest — God, if you are so powerful, and strong, why can’t you fix this? Why do you let young black and brown bodies die so easily? Why is there child sex trafficking? Why do you allow the rich to flourish and the poor to be forgotten? What kind of a king sits there and does not bring down some good law of the land and make everything better? I want a Lion to swoop in, take charge and roar, take all the bad people out and protect the good ones. Instead, Jesus came and let evil kill him, didn’t fight back and forgave them. Was gentle and meak. Why?! Do you not see this fractured world Lord? Are we not your children that you would protect at any cost?

Upon seeing this fractured world, seeing God’s creation, God’s children suffering, God’s response was…. Jesus.

The Christian faith believes in a crucified God. A slaughtered lamb. It represents Jesus Christ, who was born as an illegitimate son. I mean we call it virgin birth with reverence now but that might not have been clear to Mary’s fiancé Joseph at the time. Technically, Jesus is not David’s heir, but only through the adoption of his step father, Joseph, did the lineage hold true. Jesus first days on this earth — they were homeless. Joseph was a carpenter, not a professor. They came from Nazareth, which apparently wasn’t exactly the Boston of their times. God decided to show up to reveal Godself to humankind as an ordinary, marginalized, illegitimate, homeless, bottom of the social ladder, as a helpless baby, to a not so impressive or prestigious family.

It’s a picture of God who didn’t swoop in as a knight in shining armor, but as a friend, as a teacher, as a healer, as one of us. Hebrew 4:15 says:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”

This is how God wanted to show up, saying —  this is who I am. The Bible had been expecting a God who would save them, and God’s final greatest revelation of who God is, was through Jesus.

We are not met with the Mighty God who conquers all, but Jesus. A person. A fully human (fully divine yes) son of man, a human being that could bleed. We cried and cried, the Israelites longed and hoped for a savior, and God said, here I am. Jesus showed up. Philippians 2:6 says, that Jesus came,

“who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking form of a slave (and NOT A king! Like we expected! Like we needed!), being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”

Ain’t that interesting, that God didn’t arrive from the heavens in glory, but was born through a woman as a human being? Facing everything we faced, feeling, experiencing rejection, failure, injustice, death.

You see what Jesus did on the cross is a mystery. He died and 3 days later he did resurrect in glory and defeat human’s greatest enemy, death. But why this way? Why did God have to go through such lengths instead of waving around the banner of God’s great power and reign? Because God is not only power, but love, which is more powerful than military or coercion. God decided to use the power, not of control, but of love. Because God’s plan this whole time wasn’t let me fix you. I know Christians use such language — God saves — but what does the word mean? It doesn’t mean let me save you from all the sins you’ve committed cause you’re bad. It means let me save you from the lie that you are bad, because I created you in our image, and you were good from the beginning. It means, I love you, and I’m with you. No matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you, I love you and I’m with you.

My need for a fixer God — is a only a shadow of who God really is. My expectation of a God who rights all wrongs isn’t big enough to see that God is doing something much more greater than righting wrongs. God doesn’t wanna fix me, God grieves with me, is angry on my behalf, is lamenting the evil done to me, and sits next to me and says, that shouldn’t have been so. God loves me.

We know this by relationships we’ve been in, that when someone is really going through suffering, they don’t need your answer to it or reasoning. You know when you’re trying to tell a story and they interrupt saying what you should’ve done, what you could’ve done, what you should do next time. Most of the times it’s not really that helpful. Especially with the really hard stuff –you just need someone to cry with. Someone to say, I feel your pain, man. I hear your struggles. In fact the Bible doesn’t even give a reason for why there was a snake in the garden. Why evil exists. At the end of all trials and suffering in the book of Job, God never gives him an answer for why he had to endure it all, but only lets him know that God created him and knows him. God doesn’t explain the evil, but says, I know you and I am your God.

You know, I don’t know why hard things happen in life. I wish I knew the answer why. But I don’t. Sometimes life seems so unfair and filled with questions of why Lord, how long oh Lord. And in those dark places, Jesus says, I’m here, I’m with you.

Where are you in your life right now? Have you been rejected? From your colleagues or once a loved one? Have you felt emptied out? Exhausted, like you’ve given everything you got, and nothing’s left? Have you experienced an unjust world that leaves you hanging high and dry? Have you been misunderstood, ignored, discredited or invisible?

Do you know that God is not disappointed in you? God’s not mad at you! God’s not sitting there wondering, oh when is he going to get his act together? When is she going to stop asking me for things? In all of life experiences. God see you, God knows you, and your suffering, and sometimes your wrongdoings, and moves towards you with, compassion, self-giving, self-empyting love? We do not have a high priest who sits on a throne, but comes down to the tear soaked pillows of our dark nights and says, I see you. I see you and I love you. I’m with you.

Program Notes

  1. Don’t make assumptions about who God is, but be curious, inquire, and get to know Jesus. What’s God like?God is like Jesus.

    That’s the loudest thing God has to say to us. So, get to know who Jesus was. What he did, said, what he was like. That’s who God is.

  2. Secondly, fixing is not God’s primary goal.God says: I don’t need to fix you, I love you.

    And this is the same for the people around us.

    At the church I used to work at, we had a County Jail ministry where we would go to the Jail weekly and hold worship services. We’d share a word with them, sing with them, pray for them. And all of them, there’s not a thing we could do to change their situation, or help their lawyers, or change their sentencing. If we did anything, it was because we were with them, and knew them, heard their stories and love them, that we would have any impact on criminal justice reform in a more systematic way. But foremost was to know their struggles and be with them. And sometimes I would feel bad for not being able to do more. But to just be a friend, be a community, and sharing prayer and laughing together was what they enjoyed with us. I think sometimes it’s hard for us to serve others because it’s easier to want to solve a problem rather than journey through their struggles. But that’s usually what’s more effective at the end of the day, move into their lives and resonate with the other. Anything else than that is just colonization or co-opting the situation. There’s a book called Toxic Charity and it talks about the wayschurches sometimes provide charity that is unhelpful. It actually talks about how charity giveaways often are wasteful or ineffective, and rather empowering local workers and not creating outside dependency has more impact. Top down or outside giveaways never understand the complexity of the local context of its culture and the people. We know this to be true now in non-profit work and missions, and it absolutely makes sense that instead of stepping into another person’s situation with an agenda, moving into their lives and being with them through their struggles has more lasting and transformative impact.

  3. God’s like a wise and savvy non-profit organization, that came to us, to be one of us, as human, to be among us, Immanuel is what that means:God is with us. So our calling is to be just that: be with people.

    Do you believe that God is with you? Who can you be with this week? Without your own agenda or even ideas on how you could better them. But with simple love and care?

May the slaughtered lamb open up our hearts, unleashing the prophetic vision and voice to be a people that sits with the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, clothes the poor, that is with the people in need and with one another. May God be with us as we do so.

An Invitation to Pay Attention

Introduction: Reservoir Visits Asha

Hello, I’m Steve, one of our pastors here at Reservoir. I was away last week because I was in India for a week with a few friends from Reservoir. We were visiting a partner organization called Asha that does sustainable community development work in the slums of Delhi, transforming people’s lives and encouraging people to live by what they call the Asha values: empowerment, non-violence, compassion, joy, simplicity, justice, dignity, gratitude, generosity, optimism, and the power of touch. It was awesome. I’m sure any of the seven of us who went would love to tell you stories that inspired us. Let me tell you one.

We spent most of the week in a slum community playing with kids and talking with students and women’s groups, but one day we went to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, as tourists. And two graduates of Asha’s youth programs came with us. One was my friend Shiv, who is one of the very few kids from his slum community to not only go to college but to go on to earn a Master’s degree.

Shiv is an upbeat, bright, funny young man. He lives and breathes the Asha values, totally embodies them. In fact, his main hope for a spouse is that his wife live these values as well. Shiv grew up in a slum called Seelampur colony where tens of thousands of people live in small concrete one-room apartments, with no running water and low public sanitation. It’s loud, it’s crowded, there’s trash everywhere. Shiv has a professional job now, but he still lives in Seelampur with his family still, because he’s waiting to move out until his sisters get married and he can take his parents with him.

At one point in our trip, we were driving by a row of middle class apartment buildings and Shiv said, I am so lucky that I grew up in a slum community and not in one of these apartments. Because if I hadn’t grown up in a slum, I would have never met Asha, and my life would be so much worse. Shiv’s life is so full of joy and power that he is grateful he was raised in a community most residents of Delhi won’t let their children even walk through. Because that’s the community where his life started to become spiritually rich. And that’s been the foundation everything else in his life is built upon.

I. It’s Hard to Pay Attention

We’ll come back to Shiv in a moment, but today I want to talk about paying attention. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s famously been getting harder in the time and place we live in. I was talking about this with one of the teachers I supervised when I was a headmaster at Watertown High School, and he said to me: to be honest, Steve, I can’t read a book anymore. I used to love to read, but the Internet has changed my attention span. I can’t focus on just one thing anymore, one thing that goes for hundreds of pages. And I can’t click on the words and have them take me other places. So I look at stuff on my phone, I don’t read books anymore.

This was a high school teacher. But he’s not unusual. Most of us are tethered to our phones. We look at them dozens, maybe hundreds of times a day. They are our companions in our waking and sleeping hours. We are so distracted that a few years ago, a study reported that many people would prefer to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than sit alone with their thoughts. Seriously, folks in this study were given time in a room alone. Previously every single one of them said they would pay money to avoid an electric shock. And yet, with nothing but this electric shocker they were hooked up to, when given 15 minutes to sit there with their thoughts, many of the women and most of the men were so restless and distracted, that they shocked themselves, just to avoid the quiet and the thoughts in their own heads.

It’s pretty funny and kind of disturbing, isn’t it? But what if our distractibility and restlessness aren’t just quirky things about the times we live in but symptoms of a much larger and more serious problem of dis-ease with our lives. When I’m around a person who is as focused and joyful as my friend Shiv, I feel this. Because I wonder what I’m missing out on in my inattention. In my scattered attention to my newsfeed and my entertainment and all things urgent in my life, what currents underneath am I missing?

Today, near the start of our 40 Days of Faith, I’m giving you an invitation to a habit that will undergird anything else good that you access in this season. I’m giving you an invitation to pay attention. To break the regular distracted rhythms of your life to look for the deeper and more important things that are calling out to you.

40 Days of Faith is our version of the six weeks before Easter called Lent, which in churches has historically been a time for just this sort of thing: to make some shifts in our ordinary life to be formed into more mindful people, more spiritual people, who notice and attend to what God is doing.

Last week Ivy kicked off this season so well. I haven’t even listened to her talk yet, but just reading the notes on our website, really just skimming them, I was tearing up, it’s so good. As Ivy was inviting us to name our fears in this crazy-making world of ours, and to embrace some spiritual practices to press into joy in the midst of those fears.

We’ve called this year’s season Children of God in a Fractured World, because we want us all to find this way of life, to be shaped into people who know that a good God is with us in hard times. And who are people who experience ourselves and call others to better ways of being in a fractured world.

So Ivy invited us to the stuff that makes up this season – considering fasting; reading and praying in the daily guide we produce for the season, this year reflections on the Bible’s final book of Revelation; asking God each day for things you and your non-churchgoing friends need; and doing that along with others.

If you missed last week, or haven’t started yet, please do consider joining us from this day forward for these 40 – at this point more like 35 days – of this season. I promise you’ll find it rewarding. It’s not at all too late to start.

Revelation begins with a vision of Jesus. The author named John imagines Jesus as this stunningly powerful and beautiful person – face like the sun with eyes of fire, strong and steady on legs and feet of bronze, wise and ancient with a voice with the power of sword and the sound of many waters.

And then John says this same Jesus is with the churches that gather in Jesus’ name. In fact, Jesus is also a pen pal. He’s writing letters to seven churches in John’s region – this number seven representing completion or perfection for John means this probably represents all the churches in the world then and now. Jesus has things to say to us.

These letter in Revelation have a common format – after reminding that Jesus is speaking, they have an affirmation, then a correction, then a promise, followed at the end by an urge to pay attention.

Let’s read the last of these seven letters. It’ll be the focus of tomorrow’s entry in our Bible guide, so you’ll get a head start here. It goes like this:

Revelation 3 – Laodicea
14“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
15“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

So maybe the word that sticks out most here is “lukewarm.” We here that word and think indifferent – not for or against, just meh –impassionate. But in John’s first century Greek, lukewarm wasn’t an idiom for indifferent. More likely, it meant unhealthy.

Laodicea was about six miles away from some hot springs, whose water trickled down to the city. Those springs were great for drin king or bathing or cooking water, but if you had a hard time getting there, and drank the lukewarm water that showed up outside of Laodicea, you’d get sick. It would be lukewarm, and bacteria-ridden and foul tasting. So you’d want to spit it out of your mouth.

John’s letter to Laodicea, which is the only one that is all correction and no affirmation, tells the Laodicean church community, you are like this. You are unhealthy and sickly. Which would have been weird for them to hear. Because they were not in their minds the church in bad conditions. Their city was not like those slum communities in Delhi I told you about, they were more like us in Eastern Massachusetts. They were one of the wealthier cities of their empire – famous for their banking and clothing and ophthalmology industries. They thought they were rich. But John says you are not – you are poor.

This is a big theme in John. There are five books in Bible’s New Testament that are attached to this name. There’s the memoirs of Jesus called the Good News of John. There are 3 short letters – 1, 2, and 3 John. And there’s this book of Revelation. They were probably not all written by the same author. But they do share common themes and come out of the same tradition or community of authors. And for these authors, that we’ll just call John, this inside-out paradox of what’s on the surface vs. what’s true inside is kind of a big deal. That people who are rich may turn out to be internally poor, and people that think they see so well may often be psychologically or spiritually blind, and people that seem healthy can be very sick deep inside.

And to Laodicea, John is like, Wake up, pay attention.

Now, there are seven letters that capture the range of the audience of this book of Revelation. But many scholars say that churches in the 21st century developed world don’t really get to choose how we read the book. Because by far, we have most in common with church of Laodicea. We too are on the whole materially wealthy. But we are on the whole inattentive, unreflective, and spiritually poor.

II. The Examen – Seeing God-with-us

I’ve been thinking about this recently in my mid-40s. Because I’m not at the top of the chart in pretty much anything in life. Wealth, success, looks, friends, fame – you name it – there are plenty of people ahead of me in everything. Some of you are those people. You are special, people of Reservoir.

But on the whole, I’m rich. I have more clothes in my closet than I can wear. I have a warm, dry, secure place to live with plenty of space for everyone. I’ve got enough food in the kitchen that some of it will go bad before we even get to it. I’ve got an education. I’ve got some money in the bank, friends to talk with, and three children and a spouse who love me. Even if I had half of these things, I’d be rich.

But last year, again and again, I thought of how I wished my interior life was fuller than it is. A friend of mine a few years back talked about all the important things going on with his kids and his career, and said this is a time of life when I can’t afford to drop the ball on anything. It all really matters.

And my life’s like that too – in my work and in my relationships and in the management of my life, there’s so much that’s important that’s going on this season. And yet I’ve been noticing how distracted I am, how cluttered my mind and time can be. How I’m not as present to my life as I wish I was.

So this year, I’m doing something that comes out of the Jesuit Catholic tradition that’s like a 9-month long 40 days of faith. A program of paying attention to what matters and of spiritual transformation for a healthier, richer life.

And at the heart of this program is a twice a day practice called the Examen. It’s a self-examination where you look back on the past day or half day and notice the highs and the lows of life: what in your life right now stirs gratitude and joy, or regret and sorrow. Our daily Bible guide in Revelation each day ends with a short spiritual practice to try, and last week’s entries each day ended with a version of this practice.

And what I’ve noticed practicing the examen more often is that my day is more God-soaked than I ever would have imagined. It is just chock full of joy and expressions of God’s love to me. In my twice a day examen, I think of good food I’ve eaten, kind things people have done, work and play and rest I was grateful for. But I’ve also noticed that life is also more full of lost opportunities than I would have thought. I often remember moments where I was too distracted and lost time or opportunity for something important. I notice moments where I was in a jam and wished I had asked for help, or when I lost my cool or my temper. Or where I had this quick idea to do something great that would have taken courage, and I opted out, didn’t bother because I was too self-conscious or worried about how things would turn out.

The thing about the examen, though, is it’s a constant opportunity to not just pay attention, but to recalibrate for what’s next. Because the examen invites us to say thank you to God for all the good and to say sorry for all the lost opportunity or things done poorly, and then to pray for help and strength for the next day or half day.

And I was doing this once, and this idea came to me. That this couple I was going to run into the next day, who kind of go to this church, but more on the outskirts than integrally involved. I had this idea that when I see them, I should ask them if they would be willing to take off their shoes and let me wash their feet. And to tell them this represented that God and this church and me personally as a pastor were all in their lives to serve and love them. And to pray for them.

Now this wasn’t an entirely random idea. In John’s memoirs, he says that Jesus did this for his students and told them they should all do this for one another, be people who love and serve and empower people to go pay it forward – to love and serve others. But no one I know, like literally does this on a regular basis. Which is probably as it should be. It’s not a normal thing in our culture.

But in this case, in my moment of praying for the next half day, I had this strong sense this was what I was supposed to. So I was like alright. And the next day I saw this couple, and it was kind of a group atmosphere, so I said: do you mind if we have a moment in private. And we went somewhere, and I said, OK, this is a little odd, but would you mind taking off your shoes. And the weirder thing was, they just did it. They didn’t even ask me why. And I then I got down on my knee, and took a cup of water and a napkin I had brought with me, and said, I would like to wash your feet.

It was so weird, I didn’t dare look up and actually look them in the eye. But they didn’t move their feet anyway or say anything, so I poured a little water on each foot then dried them off and then I said my thing. I said I thought God wanted me to do this today to show them that I as a pastor, and this church, and even Jesus was in their lives to love and serve them, and we’ll be here for that. And I asked them if I could pray for them, and I did.

And you know what, weird as this was, nervous as I was when the idea first came to me, I was entirely at peace by now. I felt so connected to this couple, so close. I mean, unless you do pedicures for work, how often do you touch people’s toenails. I don’t wanna know. But I just had the joy of purpose, of doing the exact thing I knew I was meant to do in that moment of my life.

And turns out this was kind of a big deal to them as well. They were more delighted than creeped out by it all, and one of the two opened up to me about something really important they had to say. A way they are alone in life and need more companionship and prayer.

This is what happens in the examen – not necessarily the washing the feet part, that was quirky to me on that day. But the getting of our attention and guiding us to a spiritually rich life – to living in the moment, each moment, with joy and peace, and purpose.

That’s the point of these letters in Revelation. John saying that Jesus – the one who knows all truth, who knows all there is to know about everything, God included, the one that’s been at the heart of the universe since the beginning of time says to us, I am here. I am wanting to get your attention. I’m knocking.

While we are so numb most of the time, so distracted, trying so hard to avoid our lives, Jesus is knocking, inviting us to communion and connection.

That’s what’s going on with the imagery in this letter too. Laodicea again was famous for its gold, for its trade in wool, and for its eye salves – first century banking, clothing industry, and ophthalmology. And Jesus is like, you have all those things, but internally you are poor, naked, and blind. You lack inner wealth.

I think it’s so cool that Jesus knows us so well. Jesus knows our region of Greater Boston, how we are so famous for our universities and hospitals and technology. And yet Jesus gets the places where we lack wisdom and health and knowhow. Jesus sees where we’re distracted and afraid and calls us to a life worth living – a creative, calm, courageous, compassionate life.

III. Breaking the Rhythm

For most of us, to get there, needs correction, reproof, a breaking of rhthym.

Grace, when she’s seen me text or go on the internet on my phone while driving with kids in back, gives me strong words, reproof, correction. This is her wanting to get my attention for my good and the good of the whole project.

This is Jesus for us this season: knocking, urging us – can you break rhythm for a while and pay attention?

Jesus sees our technology driven, hyper-distracted, media-and-marketing-saturated age with more food and clothes and stuff than we can ever use and still more worry than we know what to do with. And Jesus says: stop for a moment, let me guide you to that life you want, that life that comes out of inner spiritual wealth, that leads to purpose, that leads to joy, that leads to a life and a community that can reshape and heal a fractured world.

Some invitations to pay attention

Can I give you just a few specific invitations in this regard? First, begin with 40 Days: take a look at the user’s manua and daily Bible guide. You can also visit a group this week as well.

  • If you haven’t chosen a way to fast yet, break rhythm from one of your distractions.
  • Pay attention when something lights up your mind or heart. Be curious about it.
    • Can be unexpected joy or sadness, an idea that comes to you, even a frustration you can’t shake.
    • The stuff that’s on our mind, and the desires of our heart are often how God is speaking to us, part of how Jesus is knocking. So instead of trying to avoid something that lights up our minds or hearts, or instead of just compulsively acting on it, we can be curious about it.
    • Not judge or evaluate, but just ask, huh… what is that that is speaking to me? What’s it saying? Might something be calling for my attention?
  • And finally: learn to pray the examen one to two times a day.
    • Welcome stillness, welcome God.
    • Review your day – pay attention.
    • Respond with gratitude and confession.
    • Pray for your tomorrow.

(The above is not an exact transcript of the accompanying audio, but the prepared text upon which the talk is based)

Bravely Eat These 40 Days

Today, we enter into one of my most favorite seasons of the year: this Lenten season – the 6 weeks leading into Easter – that we at Reservoir have taken to calling the 40 Days of Faith. It’s a season that calls us into an intentional personal and communal faith experiment (as we are all invited to engage with these 40 Days together). It’s an opportunity to scrub the windows of our hearts – where the dust and smudge of life have added it’s shadowy filter… it’s where we break pattern in our busy lives to get to know and see Jesus afresh – and alive in our own beings and in the world around us.

The 40 Days of Faith is a really powerful season where some pretty amazing steps of faith are taken and answers to daring prayers are realized and where we take this powerful journey together as a community.

We have a 40 days of Faith guide here in your programs that outlines the history of this season in our church — I believe this is our 16th year! And the fun story of how this building and campus came to be our home — as a result of the 1st 40 days of faith. And it also outlines what the invitation is in this year’s season.

This year we are calling this Lenten season, “Children of God in Fractured Times”. We’ll feature a Daily Bible guide we’ll read together in this mighty fun book of Revelation and outline some spiritual invitations, (ways to pray, different spiritual practices to try, fasting) — as a way to experience Jesus in ways that strengthen our courage, hope, and resistance as children of God and followers of Jesus in challenging times.

To be honest, I’ve been wrestling a bit with this phrase “child of God”. I’ve heard it most of my life, and so there’s a part that sounds too much like just a Christian-y phrase. It didn’t hold much authentic weight for me in my own experience of God. I wasn’t offended by the phrase, but it didn’t churn anything in me — it wasn’t a way I would frame my connection to God. And I had planned in this talk, to mostly touch the edges of the phrase without a lot of attention to it, because I didn’t want to speak out of something that wasn’t genuine for me. This plan, I realize, would have been a great loss for myself and all of you.

This past Thursday night however, “child of God” became live for me, and I wanted to share this small moment with you to frame how I see “child of God” now, and why I think this is super helpful as we kick off this 40 Days Season.

Thursday night my husband picked up my youngest from his after-school program and it was clear that he and his peers had talked about some of the events in Parkland, FL. Scott and him talked more about this on the short drive home. I was upstairs when they got home – and my son came running up the stairs to me and said, “mom I don’t want to go to school tomorrow”. I turned to face him and he smashed into my body full speed, threw his arms around my waist and exploded into tears… And he asked, “Mom – why can’t there be one place on earth where nothing bad happens?”

My only response was to hug him tighter, let my tears fall on the top of his beautiful head… and say, “oh sweet boy. I hear you. I hear you and I don’t know… I don’t know”.

This was a picture of being a child of God for me. And we are all children of God: a raw, vulnerable and brave posture — running full throttle into God with no filter. We are invited these 40 Days to throw everything we have and feel and can name at God — and find in return not a list of explanations, or rationalizations for pain, or check-boxes to tick off to return to sanity, but instead a warm, lavish love that embraces and shares in our madness, our pain, and outrage.

This phrase, “children of God”, is not just an over-used description; it’s the invitation of these 40 Days — an invitation that is a way forward in our fractured times and an invitation that is counter-cultural and straight up brave.

And so, if you are up for it these 40 Days are an invitation — yes — to carry on a tradition that for centuries followers of Jesus have engaged with to enliven their spiritual focus (and get to experience God more deeply). But these 40 Days are also an invitation to be courageous, to name your fears, right alongside your deepest longings and move through and out of this Lenten season with “child of god” stamped squarely on your warrior’s heart that’s also cloaked in the softness of God’s lavish love for you.

Back in September my husband, Scott and I started praying together in the morning. This had never happened before in our 16 years of marriage. We might pray for each other, (in separate spaces) — but not with each other and for each other , as an intentional part of our marriage.

We both are night owls — but tip that often to the point of exhaustion and crash pretty hard when we actually get to bed — so nighttime never felt like an opportune time to pray together. And Scott gets up and out of the house by 6am which just felt – absolutely unfathomable to me.

This year in particular, busyness seems as though it has ticked up a bit — just in family life — you know — kid activities and time commitments to those. So for me, it felt like our moments of connection were less than I would prefer… and I also noticed my own tendency to become a little more — let’s just say — “bristly” with Scott when we weren’t connecting. And by “bristly” I mean, pretty shut down to any kind words or extensions of kindness that he might offer me. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of them, but I just didn’t fully receive them or take them in.

It wasn’t necessarily a big warning flare going up — but it was a subtle and potent undercurrent of our interactions: a little more transactional in vibe than ‘loving’. A little more hardened than soft. And even more subtly — under my skin — a little more fracturing than I think I was aware of.

We have to acknowledge that being in a fractured world affects us as well — and not only in the areas that we are comfortable naming, but in systemic ways that spread throughout our whole being. Because it really is unrelenting.

Sure, as in Scott and my case, “busyness” is one identifiable piece of this fracturing. It makes us feel fractured in our brains, we have a word for it – “scatter brained” — brain-shattered.

But our fracturing is way more systematic than just one area. Every day we hear and read painful news headlines which don’t resonate in our beings as something a gentle heart could hold — and we become heart-shattered.  We see people we love suffer, endure and even die at the hands of violence, and we become soul-shattered.

Not to mention when our fractured world lunges directly at our bodies, with it’s sharp edges and weapons and causes pain and hurt — and we become physically-shattered.

Our minds, our bodies, our souls and our spirit are fractured too.

The spiritual growth we might hope for walking into the 40 Days of Faith together is not just a time to sit in our pain, or tick “spiritual” checkboxes, but it’s an opportunity to heal ourselves — and heal our fractured and broken world. This is one spiritual practice. And I think we are hungry for this. But we often displace our deep hunger and flail about our days in a state of starvation which yields more fracturing.

If you’ve been in the vicinity of a hungry child – you’ve probably recognized how quickly their demeanor can go from “sweet child” to “less than sweet child”. A missed snack/meal could result in crying, flailing on the ground, throwing things, or my favorite — chilling obstinate stillness. But likely you’ll miss the beat about it being about hunger, b/c likely the child is crying about his sock feeling funny, or the wrong colored cup, or the fact that it’s too sunny out. And so you go racing around, distracted looking for the gray lego piece that’s being demanded — with 6 connection points, shaped in the form of the letter “L”, but a flat “L’, not a thick “L” — and really the kid just wants a sandwich.

And we adults are no different. We, too, might just need a sandwich. I mean, really — maybe that’s what our fractured selves and by extension our world around us could use: something that we can take into our bodies, into our muscles and tissues and marrow of our bones – that would assimilate fully into our beings in a way that allows us to move and live out of this sustenance, where our internal systems are working together in a sense of wholeness and unity.

As I mentioned, we’ll be spending time over the next 6 weeks in the fascinating book of Revelation – Steve has written a daily Bible Guide for this that we’ll make our way through together – and he and Lydia, our newest pastor, will hit on Revelation a little more directly in the upcoming weeks. But I wanted to give us a taste of this wild book this morning, because I think it hits so nicely with how we can think about engaging in these 40 Days:

The author of this book, St. John, is a commanding figure. He was pastor of marginal, politically and economically powerless Christians, in a society in which their commitment to following Jesus branded them as criminals of the state. He was moving to keep their hope fresh against formidable odds, and to keep the living, speaking, acting Jesus at the center of their lives.

He had these wild visions that came to him one morning as he was worshiping on the prison island of Patmos, in which he saw this gigantic angel who had one foot planted in the ocean and the other on the continent with a book in hand. The angel was preaching from this book a sermon like nothing John had ever heard, and he started to write down what he was hearing. But a voice told John to stop taking notes and to do the following instead:

Revelation 10:9-10 (NIV)

9So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’” 10I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.

What a picture: eating this scroll! The angel doesn’t instruct St. John to pass on information about God — he commands him to assimilate the words of God into his being. To eat and ingest is so broad, so comprehensive, and yet so personal – especially as we are talking about taking in the words of God.

Our invitations are often to interact with the words of God, to read the Scriptures, to pray, to try spiritual practices in a particular manner. Rarely is it to take it all in and let the nutrients fall where they are needed most. The beauty of eating the scroll is that God does a fine job inside of us at directing these pieces to exactly the parts in us that are the most hungry and craving, and God starts a lot of times with attention to words.

And this is so personal. It’s why — if we had time to sit with even these two verses — there would be a myriad of responses if I were to say, “Close your eyes and invite God to highlight a word or phrase for you”. Some of you might say “Sweet” , some of you might say “sour”, or “I took”, or “angel”. We all are likely craving something specific, and these words start to orient us to the root of that hunger.

Eating the words of God, as John — and other biblical players, like the prophet Ezekiel — show us, allow them to have a breadth, not a narrow/prescribed way of living these words out. This approach to eat the words — to Eat these 40 Days — is huge for us because it releases the need to get the words of God — or God Himself — “right” in our HEADS, and instead absorb Him into our full bodies and let the nutrients fall where they are needed most.

Words spoken or listened to, written or read – are intended to do something in us: give health and wholeness, vitality and hope. And it effects all of our systems, right? When we take in food, it doesn’t just satisfy our digestive system – it enhances our endocrine system, our nervous system our immune system, our circulatory system. The words of God, whether we read them, hear them, or sense them — if we eat them, digest them– start to form new wholeness in our fractured, innermost beings — in our minds, hearts, bodies and spirits.

And that is not just good news for us; it’s good news for the world around us. Because just as when we take in the food we eat — when we are healthy, it is unconsciously assimilated into our nerves and muscles — it’s put to work in our speech and in our action: an unconscious outpouring of that intake.

Scott and my morning efforts of prayer together hovered around just about 47 seconds each morning: me, stumbling down the stairs at just the point Scott would be leaving the house, and mumbling, “Dear God – be with Scott today, love him and give him energy and a safe drive”.

But we went for it. Whatever our prayers looked like or sounded like, we ate it up. And what we ended up eating — was not just the words of our sleepy-formed prayers, but the words of God for us, individually and together. Turns out we were hungrier than we thought. We had become distracted looking for the obscure lego piece and had missed the sandwich on the table in the hustle of life.

But Jesus took our words and converted them into deep, rich words within us — words that said “you are ok, you aren’t failing”, “Yes this is hard”, and “i love you”. God is continually forming and shaping all things new within us, but it took our intention to tap the well of the love of God within us.

These 40 Days remind us of the offer on the table to take inroads back to our deep hunger — that our pain in this fractured world, is absolutely felt in real, visceral, concrete ways, and it is layered with hunger pains for the love of God, the words of God.

Scott and my experience of praying together — as it says in these Revelation verses — tasted “as sweet as honey”. I started to see new things about Scott that I had missed. I started to have a more generous heart toward him. I started to offer kindness (rather than bristly interactions), and lead with this posture of love (far beyond my human capacity). A wholeness was forming in me, God directing nutrients where they needed to go . That allowed me to have a broader view of Scott, instead of only seeing slices/fragmented parts of him. And that lasted for just about 18 days (that’s as long as we sustained it, as good as it was!).

And maybe this is a bit of the “sourness/bitterness” that John talks about as he digested the scroll. This new, upright posture that we might discover in ourselves as we sit in the love of God is actually hard to fully digest and take in, and live out in our real world. Because we get tired, people are mean, etc.

Sure, my story of Scott is a fairly straightforward one. We have relationship, history, trust, a motivating reason to continue to act out of love toward each other, and yet even within that framework it’s hard to sustain. And so the harder it becomes in the fuller stretch of our lives with our unpredictable, fractured relationships. Or the words that infiltrate our beings from our fractured social media feeds, newsfeeds, where we take in splintered jabs at our personhood? Or words that are just thrown at us as weapons? How do we continue an appetite for “Love” when so much churns our stomach and is unsettling?

“How do we live, fully live on every word that comes from the mouth of God?’” (Matthew 4:4)

The sweetness it seems is being a child of God and sitting in God’s lavish love. The bitterness that unsettles our bellies is realizing that this lavish love — this lavish love of the DIVINE — knows no bounds, evades no one, and is so compelling it demands we do the same. It challenges us! It doesn’t make space for stopping our “leading of love” when Scott does something that infuriates me. It challenges us to keep loving inspite of the pain.

Divine love does not come in digestible bites. God’s love douses us full force. As we encounter God’s love these 40 days, it will scrub our insides — the film and shadowy filter of our hearts — and it will give us a system reset, and that is hard to handle. It’s a lot to digest.

This is why, my friends, I say that if you are up for eating these 40 Days, if you are up for really digesting them, they will be brave, brave days ahead of you!

These days will invite us to not deny our pain, but to take it in and convert it to more. These days will invite us to not deny our fears, but to look at them squarely and name them.

These days will invite you to not just learn more of the words of God – but these days will invite you to integrate these words into your being and allow yourself to become more.

These days will invite us to peer into the dark tombs at our feet — where dead, unanswered prayers or unrealized hopes lay — and be open to the full force of the lavish love of God, that just might call them back to life.

So much of our 40 Days is this great exploratory journey of our inner self with Jesus. You’ll get a chance to put to words something you might be hoping God will be with you in or do on your behalf. You’ll have a chance to pray, fast, and try spiritual practices. But these 40 days are also a shared spiritual experience where we collectively are expecting God to catch our attention, to be alive to us, to help us breathe with belief for a new collective energy beyond 6 weeks — into our work spaces, where we play and live — not just for ourselves and our own health, but for this picture of a world that could be revolutionized by love.

I’ve been listening recently to the story of Valarie Kaur. In just a few minutes you’ll hear a piece of her story yourself. She’s been the direct target of a fractured world. She’s a Sikh American who grew up in the Sikh faith; she was bullied for having brown skin, for her family wearing turbans, and her experiences of discrimination turned to violence when her uncle was murdered in one of the first hate crimes post 9/11. And this propelled her into exploring and devoting her work to see just how love could be reclaimed as a public ethic. She’s a film-maker, a faith leader, and a lawyer.

She is currently the founder and director of the Revolutionary Love Project, where she encourages us to bravery, to love, and to birthing new ways forward in our world. Here’s a clip of her Ted Talk last November:

[Video: 3:30 minute excerpt of this video]

This picture of God as a midwife is compelling to me and feels so resonant in this season of Lent: a God who welcomes new life in even the most excruciating circumstances, and the one who calls us to look into the darkness and see with fresh eyes.

This is Lent – walking us right into the tomb. Staring in — do we see death? Or do we imagine and believe for life which is about to be birthed? The followers of Jesus breathed and pushed together, and kept going (even in the pain and the joy).

These are the components of the spiritual sandwich – that we are hungry for:
Joy. Love. Pain. Breath and Bravery. This is what we are invited to eat these 40 Days.

The hot winds don’t promise to cease, the waves dont’ promise to calm, but as the prophet Jeremiah found: “ eating the words of God – become the joy and the delight of our hearts”

Joy can be birthed. As we run to God as Children of God — with all our pain and our panic — and sit in His sweet love, here is where he converts all of our intake into love and joy that helps reframe our darkest times.

This allows me to hold my sweet boy a few seconds longer, to entertain the thought of getting up before the sun rises to drool prayers with my husband; because the love of God is so divine and compelling that I too, want to birth and create things new.

These 40 Days, let Jesus see you and sit with you. Let him tend to you. Let him love you. And let him whisper to you, again and again: “you are brave”.

And may this be the compelling Spirit to start our breathing and pushing together — as children of God in this world — through the power and the love of the Holy Spirit.

How Exactly Do I Eat These 40 Days?

1. Bravely embrace these 40 Days from exactly where you are at. Start by naming your fears (let these fears that you name – be their own prayers):

“Courage is fear that has said it’s prayers” – Gene Robinson, Bishop
Courage breaks forth from acknowledged fears – and these fears themselves allow us an opening to a deeper spot in ourselves, where our hopes and desires reside….
**take a few minutes to jot down any fears you might have***

2. Consider how you can find and savor your joy each day.

Valarie Kaur – says that “joy” is a move to not give into the darkness — to the fractured-ness around us. This is a form of resistance. Ask God what that might be for you

  • Try: a spiritual practice (where you might encounter unexpected “joy”)
    We’ll have suggestions of a spiritual practice to try in the daily bible guide. But maybe you have your own thoughts.
    “I’ll sit in my favorite chair, with coffee in the morning for 5 minutes and ask God to be with me”.
  • Try: fasting (Allows us to see the props that we’ve been resting on to satiate us – to bring us perhaps fleeting “joy” – and to kick those props out from under us – and make more space for God). Spirit of fasting – is to fast for what we want or hope to encounter with Jesus. And we direct our hunger toward God – and make space for that encounter to be noticed.

3. Ingest God’s words

  • Try: Participating in the Daily Bible Guide. It’s great – it promises to turn on circuits in our brains that we don’t normally touch!
  • Try: Eating a sandwich
    Give yourself freedom – to just practically take in what you need for sustenance, like literally a sandwich!

4. Breathe and push alongside others

  • Try: Joining a community group for these 40 Days
    I’ve heard these referred to as “moveable sanctuaries”: a place of respite, to be youreself, of safety, where anyone is welcomed. Where you can encourage one another to breathe deeply, and move and push with love at your core.

5. Invite the Holy Spirit to fan the flames of lavish love and protect you from the hot winds.

  • Try: Praying for yourself, your six and your church/community.