Back to School Sunday: Shining Like Stars This Year

For this week’s Reservoir events and happenings, click “Download PDF.”

To view this week’s service, click the YouTube link above.

Man, did I have a week last week. There was some weird and hard stuff that was particular to me, but also a lot of back to school stuff that I know a lot of you are experiencing.


Last week, my wife Grace and I spent a day driving to Philadelphia and back, so our 18-year old daughter could begin college there. This year, the mask-wearing, no partying, take some of your classes online version of college. Like many other families, for us it was all the things – a moment of pride and enthusiasm and joy, also of tears and fears and heartbreak. Eighteen years old is a big year. And this year, for all the 18 year olds and their parents, whether they’re finishing high school, or looking for jobs, or starting college or training programs – it’s a really weird and strange and hard experience this year. 


Also last week, I took some days off to do some stuff with my two teenage boys. I love my kids and I’m always happy to do that, but this year, we took some time off together because they were supposed to be busy starting their first and second years of high school. Instead, though, nothing’s happening yet, because public education is figuring out how in the world to be this year. And whether it be in person school, online school, some mix of those two things school, it’s mostly delayed. 


And in my house, the two teens and the two parents are getting ready for online school, part two, with a mix of sighs and dread. Last spring was not a happy, fruitful time in my household, and so this fall, we are hoping for better, but not so sure yet about those hopes.


Now I am not weighing in on the public health virtues of what school should be for kids this fall. I’m not an expert there, and I have a lot of competing thoughts on all that. I am also not weighing in on the controversy of how schools being in person or online impacts all our teachers and school staff and their families. I was a public school teacher and principal myself and I can imagine how complicated and hard this year is for everyone in our schools. The school teachers and leaders and staff I know have never worked so hard as they’re working right now, for an experience that they have no idea how good or rewarding it will be, so that’s tough. 


This year is just tough for all of us. None of us get everything we want, and most of us are taxed enormously. And for all those of us who are parents, students, teachers, school staff and administrators of all kinds, this year’s back to school time is really, really hard. 


So on this year’s back to school Sunday, I’m inviting us to be here for each other. The rest of September and all of October, our church theme will be the Beloved Community – the radical connectedness; the interdependent, joyful community; the community of justice and belonging that all of us who follow Jesus are called to participate in in our churches, in our households, even – as we are able – in our larger societies. We need each other, now more than ever. 


On this year’s back to school Sunday, I’m also going to invite us to pray for one another, and to ask for and welcome other’s prayers for us. So our spiritual exercise this week is after the sermon, as I lead us in some extended prayer for students, for parents, for teachers, and for all school staff and leaders. If you’re with us on zoom today, we’ve left the chat open for you all this Back to School Sunday. If you’re a student or parent or teacher or school staff or leader, please post in the chat, anytime from now to the end of service, your name and which of those you are and where. For those of you on zoom OR on youtube, know that we’ll have a time of prayer for all of you in about 15 minutes, as my sermon is wrapping up. 


Also, on this year’s Back to School Sunday, we’ll look to the scriptures – both the New Testament and the Old – to find wisdom and hope about how even an impossibly hard year can be a time for life and goodness and joy. Because I think all of us, whether it’s back to school for us now or not, could use pathways to life and goodness and joy right now. 


Let me read for us three excerpts from the little letter to the Philippians, written by one of the earliest and most famous followers of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus.


Philippians 1:27, 2:14-15 (NRSV)

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ

14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.


Philippians 4:12-13 (NRSV)

12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

Philippians 4:4-9 (NRSV)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

This is some serious positive psychology – contentment, strength, joy, upbeat mindset, honorable attention. And all this relentless positivity, depending on your temperament might be really inspiring or downright annoying. 

But before you write off this letter as phony or ungrounded or out of touch with troubling times like ours, it’s worth pointing out that Paul wrote it from prison. He was being held for his subversive faith, and though he would gain his freedom eventually, he would later be arrested again and executed in Rome. 

And the little house churches in the city of Philippi that Paul is writing to lived on the margins of their city – there were slaves among them, and all of them practiced a faith that was misunderstood and maligned by most people.

The author of this letter, and the people he’s writing to, know about pain and poverty and discrimination and difficulty. In fact, not to minimize our troubles in 21st century America, but I’d argue that Paul and the great majority of people in the Philippian house churches knew hardships beyond what most of us can fathom.

Life expectancy in the Roman empire was around 25 years old. 25. And even if you made it alive to adulthood, odds were still that you would die no later than your 50s. Slavery was widespread, as I’ve mentioned, cities were dirty, sanitation was horrible, taxes were brutal. 

I belabor this a little to say that everything Philippians has to say about strength, resilience, contentment, joy, and peace is said in the context of really hard times. 

Paul’s insistent, though, that for him and for all followers of Jesus, when we know that God is really with us in all things, we have reasons to rejoice. We can access joy and peace that go beyond what we or anyone else would expect. 

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there can be strength. Where the spirit of God is, there can be joy. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there can be peace. Where the Spirit of God is, there is ever-increasing freedom.

I’ve called this talk Shining Like Stars, after the passage from Philippians I read, the one that also talks about living lives “worthy of the gospel.” Here’s what that doesn’t and does mean, though. This doesn’t mean being super-good people, faking moral perfection for God and smiling at the rest of the world while we grit our teeth over all our troubles. 

God-with-us doesn’t need us to be perfect. The good news of Jesus doesn’t invite us to perform fake happiness, fake peace, or fake anything.

No, the shining like stars Paul talks about is when as our authentic selves, we are lit up, shined upon, energized by a force beyond ourselves. Shining like stars is finding a way of life that leads to joy and peace in all times. And a life worthy of the gospel isn’t earning or measuring up to God’s high standards for us, it’s a life that is touched by gospel, which means good news. It’s a life full of good news. 

So my question not just this day, but this year really, is how do we live with good news when so much bad news keeps coming our way? How do we access this peace and joy, when life isn’t how we want it to be? 

This is why I’ve been reading Philippians, to learn from God how to live a good life in bad times. 

I thought of all this when last weekend, I saw an unusual tree.

Imagine you’re a little sapling, starting to grow up into a birch tree nearby a riverbank. You might look like this. 

TREE PICTURE #1 – close up of the bottom

We saw this tree on a family hike we took in New Hampshire a little over a week ago. We were giving our daughter a goodbye hike in the White Mountains before she left home and we walked by this tree.

What stuck out were the conditions under which this tree had to live. Because that tree had the misfortune of growing right where the dirt met this enormous boulder of a rock. So that its root system ended up looking like this.

TREE PICTURE #2 – roots all over the rock

That’s not a good thing, by the way, for a tree. Those tiny patches of dirt on top of the rock where so many roots are going are not giving the tree all that much water or nutrients. That rock is like our year of coronavirus. It’s forced limitations. It’s the stress of people stuck at home together, or stuck at home alone. It’s the stress of doing public life behind masks, or going to work and not knowing if it’s safe, or wondering who will get sick, or when your kids will ever go to school again, or what all this time in front of the computer is doing to them. That rock next to the tree is the toxin of racial injustice for people of color in America – all the extra burdens of representation and stress and fear and grief. 

This year, we do not find ourselves living in ideal conditions for human flourishing – far from it. Just like a tree that’s planted in seriously rocky soil.

But I want you to see what’s become of this tree.

TREE PICTURE #3 – birch tree canopy

It’s so beautiful now. It’s a little crooked, to be sure, but it’s grown up tall and strong, and is part of a beautiful green canopy above the riverside. Because again and again, it’s drawn from those roots alongside the rock, it’s drawn not from the one side stuck over that boulder but from the dirt side of its life, right along the moist, fertile riverbed. And it’s grown well. 

The Bible invites us again and again to see our lives like trees like this. Here’s just one spot, from the prophet Jeremiah. 

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NRSV)

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

    whose trust is the Lord.

8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,

    sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

    and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,

    and it does not cease to bear fruit.


Human flourishing is to be a tree with deep roots, by healthy, flowing water. And God is meant to be to us not a set of ideas or beliefs, but a spring of life, that cool glass of water you drink after an afternoon under a hot sun. 


Human flourishing, the blessing of faith, is to not succumb to fear or anxiety in hard times, but to stay green and bear fruit, not because we are powerful or special or disciplined, but because God is with us. 


The reason that Paul says – Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – is that he’s been teaching us how to connect with the God of life, how to get all this nourishment. He’s teaching a way of life that is all about drawing water and nutrients from the soil you’ve got, even when you’re up against a rock. It’s all about trust in God that helps us flourish, about accessing contentment, joy, and peace, when life’s not seeming to give us a lot of reason to have all that. 


Paul often calls this life, this shining like stars life, life in the Spirit. And Philippians gives us really practical pictures of what this life entails. I’ll close mentioning quickly just five of these. 


  1. We’re invited to trust the God who has suffered before and suffers all things with us still. This is at the heart of the good news, that there is no pain or challenge that can come our way that God won’t be with us in. 
  2. We’re encouraged to stay out of needless arguments. I grew up in a family with a lot of pointless arguments, and I’ve started and jumped into my share of them too in my life. And yet they give me nothing but stress and headaches. And Paul’s like – don’t! Stay out of the murmuring and arguing circuit. Don’t make a habit out of needless criticism. Now obviously we have to discern the difference between just causes worth fighting for, arguments that have a lot of point to them and need to be made, and those disputes and disagreements that will go nowhere. For instance, all the public argument over the best and safest ways to do school this year. It’s not like it doesn’t matter – the stakes are high for our kids and our teachers and our parents. We’ve got to figure this out. But the levels of blaming and criticizing and armchair experting are out of control in a lot of communities. We’re stressed out – all of us – but there are a lot better things we can do with our stress than channelling it into bitter conflicts. Here are three better options.
  3. We can take up Paul’s dare to us to rejoice because God is near. We may be up against a boulder, but there is rich soil on our other side. Life may be hard, but God is with us, and we have resources. We can look for real, authentic reasons to praise God at all times, not in denial of our circumstances, but because our circumstances don’t get to define us. We’ll practice this in a minute.
  4. We can also practice gratitude. Philippians tells us that in addition to praying about our troubles, giving thanks on the regular is part of how we access that unexpected peace. Science confirms this powerful benefit of regular mindfulness of and expression of gratitude.
  5. And lastly, we can share our anxieties with Jesus, we can express them in prayer and ask for the help we need. We see this attitude in the serenity prayer that’s so common for folks in recovery. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Because surrender and acceptance of the hard things in our life is a really powerful practice of being able to stop numbing out in addiction to try to avoid them. The original version of this prayer, from the theologian Reinhold Nieburh, Barack Obama’s favorite philosopher, for what it’s worth. Imagine having a president who had a favorite philosopher, a favorite theologian. It happened once. Anyway, the original prayer was: Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.


Life in hard times calls for courage. This school year, we’ve got a lot to do. If we’re teachers or otherwise support schools, we’re called to be adaptive, we’re asked to be brave, and we’re called to work our hardest to serve kids in what’s been a really bad year to be a kid around here. And if we’re parents, we’re called to the courage of faith, that this year isn’t the end for our kids, that it won’t ruin them, that good things are still possible in their lives right now. We’re called to a redemptive angle, to look for the good that is possible now, rather than just the goods we can’t have. And we’ve got lots extra to do right now as well. And if we’re students, we’ve got a lot to do to make the most out of not so great conditions for living, let alone learning. All of us have a lot to do this year.


But we also need the wisdom to see everything that we can’t do anything about, and find acceptance and peace. 


In the hardest seasons of my life – times of crisis, times of unemployment, times of conflict and relational breakdown, times of unending stresses at work, times when I felt like I carried so many burdens on my shoulders and no one understood – in these times, to say to Jesus: here are my anxieties. I’m concerned about this, and I’m burdened about this, and I don’t know what to do about this, and I need you Jesus, to help me and to hold all this stress and weight so that it doesn’t bury me.


And, I don’t know, 8 times out of 10, something happens there. I feel accompanied, carried. I remember I’m not alone. Perspective or wisdom comes. I remember who I can ask for help, and what’s not riding on my shoulders. I gain courage or hope. I can dance and sing again, not just shuffle and murmur. 


This is what it means to shine like stars, for the God who is with us to lighten us and light us up again. And this is the life worthy of the gospel – not a morally pure or perfect one, but a life suffused with good news, a life that even in hard times receives, holds, lives, carries, brings good news.


Friends, let’s look to live that life this year. 


In just a moment, we’re going to pray for everyone who’s going back to school this fall in any way. But before that, we’ll also have a chance for all of us who want to bring our whole selves to God like this for a moment. 


For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Church Community

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s spiritual practice on God of Community and Friendship, click HERE.

To view this week’s worship service, or “Virch,” click the YouTube link above.


You may notice that I’m in the Reservoir Church Sanctuary.  It’s a little wild to be in here – to be honest.  It reminds me a bit of this “story” I learned when I was little… “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple… open the doors “where are all people?”  A story that conveyed to me at a young age that people should show up where the building of church was – at the designated time – on a Sunday.   It took me a little longer to see that Jesus’ message to us – is actually to recognize Church as wherever people are gathered. 


Church, of course, has never been about the building.  It’s been about a way of being in the world. An invitation God hands to us – to live fully, remembering that God’s presence is everywhere,  in our world.


I’ve got to confess though what a beautiful building this is – the stained glass, the architecture… the memories of bagels  – this great sound system.. (Ha!)  It’s amazing to sit in this space in some ways… and it’s also a little weird. 


It’s so disruptive to sit here – because I can get in touch with the grief that I feel – how much I want to be able to join with all of you and listen to our voices singing together, greeting one another, taking communion – laughing, crying, praying…. and I can get mad, that we had no choice in this.  That a tiny virus has wreaked havoc on our way of connecting and being in community with one another.


And as I sit in the echo of my own voice this morning – the stillness and the Spirit gently reminds me that this is the way it is .. this is how it will be for a bit – that we won’t gather in person here….  and that I can choose disconnection, and pull away, or just sit back and enter a “holding pattern” waiting for this all to be over and return to “normal”….     OR I can re-up on Jesus’ invitation to see that we are the church, we are the temple. 

To see that we are living breathing sanctuaries… AND that when two or three of us are gathered together in God’s name (Matthew)– God’s presence is there also!  


Connection to one another, in this time IS vital, it is necessary for yes our survival – but also a means by which we can still flourish! 

God gives us a model for this, how we can flourish – live! –  Gather. Eat. Share. Remember me.  He doesn’t say “where” or how… – he just says “gather”


He gathered with people in fields, and in boats, and on shore-sides, in gardens, lounging in chairs, on hills, at tables,  and in deserts, and in the bustle of crowds, on mountaintops, and in the valleys…. early in the morning, at midnight …. Anywhere and everywhere.  Connection, community, faith, spirituality it’s all possible when we gather together. 


We are in deep time my friends… depths of grief, depths of unknowing, depths of anxiety, depths of frustration…. AND WE ARE in deep need of community.   And I could preach a pretty good sermon on community, (I think)… but much like this Sanctuary – it would feel pretty empty….. If it wasn’t given voice by so many of you – the church, the community.


So this morning I invite you to listen to a sermon, one that is preached over and over again every time we gather together.  A sermon given across towns, through masks and via virtual platforms – in our community groups… where the necessary ingredients for church it turns out – is you/us and the presence of God.  Here are some voices from the Reservoir community:  


Video: Stories from Community Groups


If these stories show us anything they show us that the heart of the church is in us.  Not WHERE we gather – but AS WE gather.  Maybe not all of us will find this in a labor and delivery room – like Rose – but the potential is there!  And it is there that we EXPERIENCE that we are not alone – that we are held by the love of the Spirit – yes, even through ZOOM  – and the love of one another. 


Jesus says, “Gather. Eat. Share. Remember me.” – this is to truly live.


I don’t know how you are feeling this morning?  But if you – for even just a second – have had a fleeting thought of, “I wonder how long I can hold on through these months to come?”… I would say….don’t hesitate!  I invite you to actively protest the tug of these days to isolate – and check out a community group! You’ll see a link to a Google form in your chat and on youtube… you can quickly fill this out to let me know some of your preferences and information.  We have 30 or so community groups that offer a variety of ages, makeup and focus, meet on a variety of days and times – and it is where you’ll find other human beings – living breathing sanctuaries – who will offer you welcome, without exception just as you are. 

Where is God When We Suffer? And Where Does that Leave Us?

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF” to view.

For this week’s Spiritual Practice on grief through Lamentations, click HERE.

To watch our worship service and hear this sermon, click the YOUTUBE link above.


Hi, Friends, let me start with two short readings from the Bible’s little letter called Philippians.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8     he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

    and gave him the name

    that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.


Philippians 4:11b-13 (NRSV)

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

One night last month, I stood outside the state house as one of the marshalls for an encampment for immigrant rights. There were maybe 30, 40 people living round the clock in tents on the steps of the state house, seeking access to drivers licenses for all Mass immigrants, documented or not. I didn’t fit in very well. The folks at the encampment were pretty much all either radical young white leftists from Western Mass. Or Brazilian members of an immigrant rights collective. And they didn’t really need me at all. There were several marshalls signed up to keep an eye on passersby and safety. I didn’t have much of anything to do, so I stood there, or sometimes sat by myself thinking, praying, spacing out as I stared at the moon rising over the Boston Common.


But for a while, an 8-year old kid pulled up a chair next to me and started talking. He said he’d been living at the encampment for a few days with his sister and his mom, who was watching us. I couldn’t understand everything he said because we were sitting a few feet apart and we were both wearing masks – well, he was mainly wearing a mask. But we talked about his 

favorite video games: Mario Cart, which I play sometimes, and Fortnight, which I’ve never played. He had a lot to say about Chuck-E-Cheese, which seemed normal for an 8-year old but then he kept telling some kind of a story about someone that got killed there at night but if you had a rifle or a pistol, you’re OK. And I didn’t know if he was talking about Chuck-E-Cheese or video games anymore, which was weird. He had a lot to say about his favorite subject, which was math, and I told him a couple tricks about times tables, which he said he was going to learn next year. He also told me about his little sister too, who I saw, and the baby brother he was going to have but who died right after he was born. And then his Mom came up to take him to bed, and between us, there was a language barrier, but I thought: what happens if we don’t get this drivers’ license bill passed? Is his mom here advocating for others, or is she undocumented herself? And what if his mom at some point ends up in detention for failing to use her signal at a traffic light or getting rear-ended by another car – stuff that pretty much every Boston driver knows well. And if not her, it’ll be another family somewhere else, with another weird and sweet and amazing 8-year old kid. And after me and the 8-year old and his family parted ways, I thought, My God, where are you?


Grace and I ask that question now and then this year. Actually, to be totally honest, it’s not just this year, but a lot of years. If you have kids or love anyone’s kids, you know that they stir love and pride and joy in you like little else can. But you also know that when you love kids, part of your heart is ripped out of your body and lives inside someone else. So that when they suffer or lose or have heartbreak, you have it too. This has been a year of loss and heartbreak all around, but certainly for kids, and whatever you think about all the debates and decisions around school/not school this year, there looks like there’s plenty more loss and heartbreak ahead, and sometimes Grace and I as parents find ourselves wondering, God, where are you? What are you doing, God? 


It gets murky to us sometimes, but the New Testament is actually super-clear on where God is and what God is doing. God is with us. God is especially with those of us who are most diminished and degraded. And God is suffering, just as God is coming alongside those who suffer. 


Jesus was not raised among the urban elite, but in a nothing of backwater small town. Jesus was born not as a self-sufficient independent grownup, but as a vulnerable infant. Jesus didn’t have access to means and privilege and networks; he was a peasant commoner. One of Jesus’ nicknames was “Man of Sorrows.” What a title to have, right? When they’re not calling me “friend of sinners,” they call me the “man of sorrows.” What kind of person would have those nicknames?


And here we read that Jesus was empty, humble, dying, not just a human, but a slave human. For a country that’s still only just coming to grips with a 250-year history of brutal, violent, racist enslaving of human beings, this is a hard, bracing word – to read that Jesus the Son of God was also a slave.


This was also not just a metaphor or turn of phrase for the first readers of this letter. Every Roman city, and every early Roman house church had actual slaves in it. And so for slaves and slave owners and all the other bystanders, to be told by Paul – this faith leader – that Jesus was a slave, and that he also was Lord, Master, this title given to the Roman emperor, well that would have busted open all of what they thought they knew about how the world worked. Jesus, the God and human, the slave and master, the nothing, the degraded one, and the everything, the exalted one. 


What did this tell them about themselves and about God? What does it tell us about ourselves and about God?


Much more than I yet understand, but three things I know.


This tells us what God is, it tells us where God is, and it tells how God is.



For millennia, in the ancient world and in more recent times, thinking and writing about God, and organizing and talking about religion, was in the hands of the global elite. The literate, the powerful, the winners whole write history. God has been used to justify the status quo. The maker made things as they are, so accept them. And God has been assumed to be all-powerful, in the ways that people understand and practice power. God can and does do everything God wants, so if someone is suffering, likely it is God’s will. If God hasn’t fixed a problem, then the people involved don’t have enough faith, or it’s a problem God doesn’t want to fix. 


But with Jesus’ followers, it was different. First, ordinary people wrestled with who Jesus was. They decided their experience of Jesus only made sense if he was both the ideal human and God in the flesh, full God, full human. And then they started wondering what this showed them about God, if Jesus was the most perfect picture of God the world has ever seen. 


And they realized God’s power is not what we thought it was. God is not just a bigger, stronger, more controlling version of the powers of this world. God’s power is fully consistent with God’s nature as love, which means God doesn’t manipulate and control. And God’s power is fully consistent with A God who could divest rights and control, a God who could empty oneself in love towards others, a God who could be a baby, a God who could be a slave.


This means God doesn’t control or choose all things. There are other forces in the universe – like you and me, and gravity, and the Jet stream, and accusing, bullying people and systems and voices, and the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. Lots of stuff happens in the world, for lots of reasons, and it is not all God’s will. 


But God is also never absent. God is always present as a powerful person and force of healing love. Even if God doesn’t always immediately get God’s way, God is always there. And God is always there as a healing, loving, liberating, strengthening presence. As a God who has died and has risen.


That is what God is. 



That’s what, now the where. 


The simple answer is that God is where people suffer most. Now, I think God is with all of us, and we’ll end today’s time with that. But I’d be unfaithful to the Bible and the best insights of modern theology if I didn’t say that God’s especially with people on the bottom of the human pyramid of privilege. God who became slave, God who was born vulnerable and poor, God who only knew life in the flesh as a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, colonized working class Jew, rejected by the elites of his people, and killed by the state. That God is especially in solidarity with people more like that. 


This is why I try to do justice work by the way. I’ve been trying as an adult to learn something about solidarity, trying to learn to be where I can most find God. So hanging out with the 8-year old kid at the encampment, as he told me about his video games and his school, and his living and dead siblings and affection for Chuck E Cheese, well, I’m not there to do anything special for him. I’m out of my league there. If we get safety and justice and security for the Massachusetts families who watch our kids and clean our buildings and pick our crops and drive our ubers, it’s poor, but passionate and well-organized immigrants like that kid’s mom who’re doing the most of the work to get it done. And there are advocates and organizers in solidarity with them who know much more than I do about making change happen.


For me, though, to feel the tiniest bit of what this kid feels, seeing the tiniest bit of what he sees, I get to reorient my life and my heart a little bit to the vulnerable, but fierce love of God who is with him and his cause. 


Solidarity with God is kind of simple – if you want to find God, go to the unjust spaces. Go to the hurting spaces. When you have opportunity to be in relationship with injustice and suffering in others, don’t try to be an expert if you’re not. Certainly don’t try to be a savior. Be present. Be a friend. See what happens in you, see what you discover of God there. 


This by the way is a call for all of us, not just for those of us who are most wealthy, or most secure, or most privileged. I’ve learned from friends and from privilege and oppression, not-suffering and suffering are all intersectional. So just as there’s no way to wall ourselves off from suffering, no matter how rich or powerful we are, there’s also no place where we can be in life where we will encounter people and situations where the hurt and disempowerment in someone else is more vulnerable than ours – and we can move away or move in. But when we move in, when we’re present with empathy, we do what God does, and we go where God goes. 


Now of course, for those of us with some privilege, this is the exact opposite of what we learned to do as kids, what we’ve been told to do our whole lives! The American way the past few generations has been to buy our way out of lack, to move ourselves away from poverty, to associate with people as secure and privileged as ourselves.


But our attempts to avoid suffering and vulnerability haven’t set us up real well for this year, have they? Life will remind us again and again that we are vulnerable, and we’ll only be resilient, we’ll only have faith and capacity for joy and hope and love if we believe God can be with us in every vulnerability, so that we don’t have to avoid hard places. 




Which is HOW God is. God is with us. God is with us as the God who knows humiliation and suffering and vulnerability. And God is with us as the God who knows resurrection power from those places as well. God who sees us, who hears us, who loves to be with us, and is strong enough to help, to liberate. 


I was talking with one of you recently about your struggle to experience God with you in your work, and I realized I was being like a spiritual doctor. I gave a prescription to pray the old prayer of Saint Patrick for 21 days in a row. And I think I was prescribing this prayer, because it was a back door into Spirit of God prescribing it for me as well. 


Pastoring is like that sometimes to be honest. We find God’s word for ourselves as we’re listening for God’s word for others. It’s true. 


This prayer is a mystical, poetic stab at the radical heart of our faith. 


I arise today, through a mighty strength, remembering the Trinity, trusting the threeness, naming the oneness of the Creator. I arise today through the strength of every part of Christ’s life, which is both for me and is the pattern of my life as well. I arise today in the strength of everything God has done in our collective past, and everything God is upholding on this beautiful earth. Because I am one with Jesus, and Jesus and one with God, we are all connected. Everything that God is and has is connected to every part of me. This is the unity with God that baptism pictures. This is the unity with God that Jesus prays for us, that all of us will be connected to all of God. That all of God will be accessible to all of us. 


And so the prayer climaxes saying Christ is everywhere. Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beside me, Christ within me… Christ in everyone…


I was drawn to Philippians this year at first, I think, because it’s so darn happy. Philippians is known as the letter of joy. It’s the most upbeat spot in the Bible, perhaps. 


But as I read Philippians again and again during the early days of a pandemic, I remembered that Paul wrote Philippians from prison. Prison is not a free and happy place. It’s the one place no one wants to go. And Paul knew that some of his first readers were slaves. Which arguably is one of only things that can happen to you in life that’s worse than prison. 


The peace and joy and freedom and strength of Philippians does not come from happy, easy, wealthy, feel-good times. It is pandemic reading. 

And yet, Paul insists that it is possible for the liberating, joyful, resurrection peace of Christ to replace anxiety at the center of our lives. And, as we read today, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This is decidedly not about weight-lifting or getting a promotion. It’s about contentment It’s about joy while you’re in prison. It’s about the power of inner freedom, maybe the strength to find outer freedom, when you’re enslaved. It’s about joy and contentment even when you can’t leave your house, and people are getting sick. It’s about the possibility of the good life during a pandemic. 


Not because this isn’t hard. Not because we’d ever wish these conditions upon anyone, ourselves included. But because God is here. Christ is behind me, Christ is before me, Christ where we are hurting, Christ where we are dying, Christ where we are living. … not just me, but the whole human family, the whole earth. 


May it be. Amen.

Don’t Settle for Dirty Water

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Jeremiah 2:4-13 (NRSV)

4 Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5 Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
6 They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

Wrestling with God Like Jacob

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Click HERE for this week’s spiritual practice “Fighting with God.”

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Genesis 32:22-31

32:22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

32:25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

32:26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

32:27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

32:28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

32:29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.

32:30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

32:31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.



God of wonder, we come wandering into this space, seeking, asking, wrestling with a desire to see and know you. Shine your face upon us and give us yourself. That we may be touched with the divine touch that will wake us up we pray. In Jesus Name Amen. 


Genesis. This is where it begins. The stories of God interacting with God’s people, starting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the foundational patriarchs of a nation that comes to be known as Israel, which this story is the origin story of that name. 


Meaning of names is usually a big deal. What does your name mean? And what does that say about you? Right now, I’m trying to think of a boy name, because we’re expecting a boy. Yes, you haven’t seen the belly growth cause online video only capture my upper half! It’s so hard thinking of a name that will determine his destiny for the rest of his life! I mean, he could change his own name and all that but still, we want to birth him into the world with a meaningful intention. 


So this name change from Jacob to Israel is a meaningful moment. So what does this name mean? 


When you are young you are taught things that are simple. Stories that usually have a more concrete moral of the story, good and bad. I heard this story growing up in ways that were generally simple and positive. Although, it’s pretty peculiar and reveals the complex nature of our relationships with God. For the most part I heard something like, hold onto God, and God will bless you. Or you grow a little older and maybe the story gets a little more complex, you can wrestle with God and if you do, in the end God will bless you. Again, still a nice conclusion wrapped in a bow. 


But this character Jacob, is one complicated guy. I mean, he’s got two wives and two maids! But hey, that’s me judging him from our cultural context. At that time I think that was normal. A great example of why we shouldn’t just take things out from the Bible and apply it to our times literally, cause this is a biblical marriage! Anyways, the back story of Jacob has some sketchy parts. 


He’s the guy that had a twin, named Esau. The story goes, Esau came out first and Jacob came out “grabbing Esau’s heel”, and that’s been the case for the rest of their lives. Jacob was a bit of a different boy. Esau was burly, loved to hunt, a man’s man you could say, and Isaac loved him. Jacob, he loved to cook and was loved by Rebekah. One day when Esau came back from hunting famished, and Jacob had a nice stew going, he wouldn’t give his brother some until Esau gave him his birthright, which is probably that as the first son Esau would get Isaac’s inheritance, which is totally unfair and I get why Jacob was eyeing it. Well Jacob gets his way. Esau gets some soup. Later when Isaac is getting older, Jacob dresses up in Esau’s clothes and tricks his dad to give him a blessing, and by blessing I think they mean money. Jacob’s smart! But also, super sneaky! And later he fights with God to get his blessing again. I mean this guy is one of the Bible’s heroes and apparently a great example of faith. You hear these stories growing up, saying, be like Abraham, be like Isaac, be like Jacob. Um, am I supposed to cheat, trick, and fight to get “blessings” like Jacob? 


And the poor guy Esau in Gen 27:36 says, “He has deceived me two times, he took my birthright and my blessings!” And asks his father Isaac, “haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”

And Isaac replies, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?” Wow. So unfair. Life man! 


So what are we to learn from this story? Be like Jacob and you’ll be blessed? I’ve been saying this thing, the last few times I’ve been preaching these days. As I reflect on the Bible stories I’ve heard again and again, in ways that are too simple to fit into the complex life experiences that I’ve seen, I’m beginning to realize again, maybe, maybe Jacob is not an ideal example of faith to aspire to but a picture of faith. A picture of someone who is the second child, the unfavored by his father child, who had to always cause a bit of trouble to get some attention, who didn’t have things come easy for him but he had to be a little sneaky at times. A boy who didn’t like to hunt but cook. I’ve heard a gay pastor preach on this text and how he related to Jacob’s situation and it was so good. Maybe Jacob is someone who struggled through, always misunderstood, the guy that cheated his brother and that guilt ate at him always. 


I grew up hearing this story with the meaning of the word Israel as, one who prevails. One who triumphs. And that meaning is in there but there’s more. And by reducing it to those words we’ve created a theological conclusion that aligns with the strong worldly perspective and value of winning. Israel, yeah so strong, one who wins, that’s what it means. Well actually it says, “for you have striven with God and with humans” and the root words in Israel are more similar to the word for “struggle”. The definition might be close to “one who struggles with God” or “one who fights with God”. 


A picture of faith then might be, not one who prevails or even is blessed, but one who wrestles with God. And isn’t that a more realistic, relatable picture that doesn’t put faith figures like Jacob on a pedestal but right here with us in the deep of it all, in the places where we have questions, places where we don’t get God, times and seasons in our lives when we’re like, “what are you doing God?” That I believe is a more sophisticated authentic, not sterile or afraid of intimacy faith. A real faith. 


And this story also shows that sometimes God can feel like an intruder at night. God is often named as a protector and a helper, a provider, but in this text we see a God who is challenging. And even leaving Jacob with a limp, and you know maybe Jacob the trickster needed that limp to be humbled, because the next day he ends up facing Esau, remember his brother he cheated? So does God sometimes make us limp? What are we to do with texts like this? 


I don’t think we should draw blanket conclusions to these stories because it’s just a story of one man, in a particular situation that was captured in some form. And the reality, it may speak to different people at different times, sometimes relatable, and sometimes not and that’s okay! We don’t all have to relate with all the characters, especially the big names of the Bible, because it might strike us at different times as we need it. I refuse to take this one story and say, see God is dangerous. Don’t mess with God. or see God strikes us to humble us. Sometimes that can be misused to people’s situations that can be really toxic or harmful. Some of that may be true for you at one time and may not be true for you another time. What is this text saying to you? You might have to meditate with it a bit more and think about your lives. I’d only like to open it up to say, look here’s one example of a complicated man attempting to do faith. 


The lesson I’m learning today from this story is, see, God is relational and an interactive being. You see, I’m not always SURE of my faith. I am constantly deconstructing church baggage, constantly grieving so much of what is not yet, too often praying to God, God I don’t understand, rather than Jesus my faith is so strong. Sometimes to be honest, I don’t relate with a lot of praise songs in worship cause they sound so sure. And I wrestle and struggle with God and my faith a lot, and it sometimes makes me feel insecure like I’m not a good Christian, or is this religion even right for me? Why am I always protesting so much? I don’t know, maybe cause I’m a protestant, that’s where the word comes from right? Asking, seeking, not being satisfied with the status quo. And you know, this story is an encouragement to me because honestly, it’s true. I don’t fight with someone I don’t really care about. It’s not worth it. If someone really hurt me, but they’re like I don’t know, someone who I’m not that close with, I wouldn’t even bring it up, cause I don’t care. But someone who matters a lot to me, it’s important they know how I feel, and how they’ve impacted me, because I want to continue that relationship. You see, God of Jacob isn’t a God who is high on a throne watching down from a distance, but a God who you can get physical with. Someone you can throw down with. Someone you can get in your face with. And if doing that with God is not being a good Christian, then I don’t want to be a good Christian. I want a real relationship with a real divine being. 


What have you been struggling with the Lord lately? Has that “shaken your faith” or made you feel uncertain about your faith? It’s okay. You’re just as complicated as Jacob I’m sure. And we’re all a mix of moral failures, sketchy decisions, questionable motives, and pure desires, aware of our guilt, and seeking reconciliation like Jacob did with Esau. In all of our limpings and in our blessings, may we continue to wrestle with God who touches us, finds us at night, and shows Godself to us face to face. May that intimate God of love be near you and with you today. Let me pray for us. 


God who wrestles with us in the night, helps us to find you in the places where we are limping, helps us to find you in the places we prevail. And through it all would you humble us that we may fight or rest in your presence we pray in Jesus Name Amen. 

The Good News Faith God is Always Rebeginning

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Hey, Friends, I don’t know about you, but one of the big novelties for me over the past month or two has been the occasional face to face conversation with someone who’s not one of my housemates. I don’t have nearly enough of these still. I’m hugely committed to this whole public love of neighbor through COVID caution, even as these days drag on far longer than we’d hoped. But, at a good distance, almost always masked, I’ve had the chance to talk face to face with a few folks, which has been great.  

One of these chats, a friend and I ended up in a more of a downer moment of conversation, though, when we wondered if these days, we’re watching the death of the American church.

Maybe you’ve heard that churches have sometimes been super-spreaders of the COVID virus. It’s true. Not believing in science, or more concerned with carrying on their religious zeal than loving their neighbor, churches have sometimes been a significant part of the problem in our health pandemic. You likely know well that in the long story of America’s pandemic of racism and racial violence, churches have been major perpetrators and if not that, then bystanders. And in the parts of the church that line up unquestioning behind every race-bating comment of our president, or every anti-Black, anti-immigrant posture and policy of his, that continues. 

My friend and I wondered, if ten years ago, the average young American thought Christians were close-minded, anti-science, anti-gay, untrustworthy, hypocritical, where are we today? Where will we be a decade from now? 

Part of me wonders why I care. There is so much in American religious life that we’d be better off without, so much in American Chrisitanity in particular that needs to die. 

But while that’s true, I’m sad too. Because the community of church has had an amazing impact in my life. I know that the God Jesus taught about loves and accepts me, partly because people who’ve loved that God have loved and accepted me so much. Most of what I’ve discovered about healing, about justice, about joy, about the good life really, I’ve discovered alongside people of faith. 

I know the same is true for the friend I was talking to in his backyard about the future of the American church. 

I know that’s true for many of you too. We gathered our new and returning Reservoir Board members for our first meeting online. And as we shared about our personal faith history and our history with this church over our time here, we heard stories about people’s profound experiences of love and acceptance and transformation in this community. 

And I want more of that for more people. So I care about the future of the church – this one, Reservoir Church – and other good ones too. And I’ve wondered if there’s cause for hope.

Which takes me to the Bible passage I’d like to read and ground us in today. This spring and this summer, when life has been hard, I’ve again and again been drawn to this little letter called Philippians. I’ve been wanting to share with you a few things I’ve seen there. I’m going to read part of the first chapter of the letter, from a contemporary translation called The Message.


Philippians 1:3-11 (The Message)

3-6 Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.

7-8 It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!

9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

Friends, for what it’s worth, this is what it’s like for me to pray for you all. I spent much of Thursday walking and praying. I was praying that our legislators do good work on police reform and immigrant rights. Praying for ou church and praying for the city of Cambridge in particular, as I walked around its perimeter. I’m going to do the same in Somerville next, then some other communities where many of you live. But last week, each time one of you came to mind, or each time I prayed for one of you who is a Cambridge resident and sent me your prayers, I felt like Paul here – so thankful for you, my sweatier and sweatier self smiling as I thought of you. (It turns out you do sweat a lot, by the way, when you walk 10 or 15 miles in Cambridge in July. When I got home, my family banned me from their presence until I showered. God protect us all in this torrid heat wave.) 

But anyway, like Paul, those smiles, that thanksgiving for you and for this community of beautiful people was a trigger to prayer. So I prayed more or less as Paul did, that your love will flourish, that you will love deeply and well. That we all will keep finding our way toward lives that Jesus will be proud of… (not because Jesus is super-hard to please, but because this is what it means to be connected with Jesus… to be increasingly aware that you are abundantly loved, and to be increasingly empowered to love with abundance… To love deeply and well, to love justly and to love with mercy, and to walk humbly – to not take yourself too seriously. All this does make Jesus proud! So I pray that for us all.)

But there’s this other line here I want to mention, just one line, that captures some of the big picture that was going on with Paul and the little Philippian house churches, a line that in this context, gives me hope as well for the future of Jesus-centered faith in our time and place. That “God who started this great work in you will keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish.” The God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. 

I first encountered this verse as a personal promise, that anything God seems to have started in my life that is good, God will finish. Which I think is true, even if what I think God is doing and what God actually is doing aren’t always the same thing. 

But, here the “you,” as it almost always is in the New Testament, is plural. It’s you all – it’s the community. Reading the Bible, or trying to relate to God, like it’s always all about me, that takes us weird places sometimes. The main thing that is being said here includes you and me, but it’s bigger than just you and me. It’s talking about what God is doing in the whole community. The good God is doing among you all won’t be stopped. God will see it through to flourishing. 

Now in Philippi, there was religious life that Paul wanted to die. In the first century, religion had a lot of ugly too, just like in our times. Roman religion was often used to justify the status quo, to maintain an unjust order. The Roman gods and temples and religion were another way of asserting the whole Roman imperial dominance throughout the empire. The Jewish faith in which Paul was raised was kind of a corrective to that, asserting a smaller group’s distinctive value and culture, against this enormous imperial threat. But in Paul’s time, he had colleagues who wanted to assert a kind of Hebrew privilege or superiority – you’re not good enough until you join God’s chosen people and assimilate to their ways. And Paul fought all this – let bad religion die, he’d say.

But Paul and his friends also saw something really different that God was doing, something that needed to grow and flourish. Read Philippians, and the other early letters of Paul, and you come to understand that:

Unlike the ways of the Roman Empire, the good news communities of Jesus weren’t going to have privileged and marginal people. God was going to grow beloved communities where all belong on equal footing, and where the unjust ways of the world weren’t defended but challenged.

The good news of Jesus wasn’t that God was powerful, aligning with the interests of the dominant among us. The good news is that in Jesus, we see God as a servant – what Philippians calls God as slave – experiencing human life from the bottom of the status pyramid. In Christ, God is an undocumented clearning woman. God is a young black man unjustly harassed by police. God is a homeless refugee on the outskirts of some war-torn community in the Middle East. God is a poor, urban slum dweller in New Delhi. In Christ, God knows suffering and shame and humiliation and lack from the inside out. 

The good news of Jesus isn’t a big cosmic fix-it, it’s not an immediate end to pain and difficulty, but an invitation to experience God’s friendship and support and kindness in the middle of every pain and difficulty.

The good news of Jesus isn’t that me and mine are justified or better or special. The good news of Jesus is the creation and sustaining of radically inclusive and equitable communities, where our human divisions are overcome, and our human privileges and status are undone in the name of love and justice. 

The good news of Jesus isn’t a defending of the state of our lives and our world as they are. But the good news of Jesus is the personal and social transformation of our lives, until they are colored by humility and love, permeated with peace and justice, through and through. 

Philippians tells us this, and this is what Paul is talking about when he says that God won’t give up on what God started, that God will see it through to flourishing. He’s saying that God’s beloved community, God’s transforming and transformative community will be made manifest among you. 

God won’t give up on making your church, and perhaps in time, your city and your world, what it was meant to be. 

Now this good news of course does not sound much like the brand of American Christianity my friend and I are watching die out. American Christianity, and by that I really mean White American Christianity, is a descendant of the Roman Imperial faith that in the fourth century co-opted the Jesus movement to justify its wars. 

And so the American church, like the colonial church, is a tool of state violence and warfare. Has been since the beginning. 

White American Christiaity is a descendant of the European colonial faith that saw difference as a threat to be tamed and a people to be converted, and so burned so-called witches and heretics, slaughtered Muslims and Jews, brought bibles and crosses on the same boats that brought genocide to the Americas. So if you’re Christian in America today, you’re more likely to fear immigrants and want them kept out than if you’re not Chrisitan. If you’re Christian in America today, you’re more likely to blame a person for their own poverty, more likely to scapegoat all kinds of vulnerable people, as if they are a threat.

And White American Chrisitanity is a descendant of the religious movement that justified slavery with White supremacy, that terrorized Black Americans once they were free, and that faught the civil rights movement tooth and nail, or sat it out on the sidelines. So if you’re Christian in America today, it’s more likely that you resisted integration in the 60s and 70s, and more likely that you’d be susceptible to a race-bating, make America so-called great again populist movement. 

This kind of faith and religion needs to die. To that extent that White Christianity’s leaders continue to be exposed as frauds, that their institutions shrink and suffer and die, I don’t shed a tear. 

But that’s not the whole Christian witness in America, and it is not what God is growing and doing. There have always been followers of Jesus in this land who practiced the beloved community, who believed in a God who is first among those who suffer, who nurture healing and justice in and through the church. Parts of the Black church in America, for instance, have always carried this good news and do still. 

And here’s my hope. That where God is doing this good news, where God is growing the Beloved community – the place of love and belonging and equity for all people. The place where God is working healing and justice, where God is humbling the exalted and exalting the humble. The work God is doing to equip people to face suffering and pain with courage, hope, and love. God will not let that work and witness end. God will bring it to a flourishing completion. 

I believe Reservoir is meant to be part of this story, to be part of the good news faith in Jesus that survives in our future. 

I love this church and like many of you, I think God is doing something special here. 15 years ago my family was looking for a church and we landed and stayed here because it was spiritually vibrant, because we could experience and grow faith that mattered, because it was easy to get to know all kinds of honest, authentic people. And it also didn’t hurt that were lots of interracial families like ours. 

Nearly eight years ago, when some of you asked me to think about being this church’s second senior pastor, that was so far outside of my plans for my life. I didn’t particularly want to be a pastor at the time, but it became clear to me that for this church, for this one church, I do. It seemed like we had a chance to keep growing a community of healthy faith that would make sense in our times, that wouldn’t exclude people, that would teach and practice a faith that wasn’t all about the tired, toxic ideas and practices that make for so much dying religious life. 

Four or five years ago, we had done a fair bit of work to become a church that was more inclusive, that was closer to the Beloved community. But as I looked around our church, which we all celebrated as a very diverse community, I noticed that our leadership was whiter than our membership as a whole. And I thought about the long track record in American Christianity of centering white people and white voices and white concerns, and wondered if we were immune to that in our beloved church. I wondered if we didn’t have some more important work to do.

So with the help of a fellow Board member with experience in this area, I led our Board through a discussion on what kind of diverse church we were. Had we yet seen all we could see in the kind of community of healing and justice we hoped to be? Had we yet become the Beloved community of Jesus, or was there more good work God had to flourish in us?

We looked at a spectrum for churches, where on one end was the White supremacist church, where White leaders may say all people are welcome but where White people and white culture run the show, in the long tradition of white Christianity. And on the other side of the spectrum was a truly anti-racist church, where all diversity in the church experienced true, equitable belonging and voice, and where the church’s community of healing and voice for justice was transformative, inside the church and outside in the broader community.

And we honestly acknowledged that we were in the middle. We were a multicultural church, to be sure, much more diverse than the average American church. And we tried to be welcoming and inclusive to all the diversity in our community – people who are valued and treasured, made in God’s image, after all. But we saw we had work to do. 

We had work to do in who was leading and in how we lead. We had work to do in how people of color experience all our worship services, and all our community groups, and all our ministries and programs. 

We named a goal of becoming a true community of healing and justice, a not just diverse but fully inclusive church, of becoming the kind of church that could be a light in our members’ lives and a light to our city in this regard. 

And you what happened…four or five years ago… not enough. Seeing God complete this good work didn’t take on enough urgency for me, I’ll admit. It’s too easy for a White person, for a White leader to settle into a slow pace of change. There were times where I heard what it was like for a Black member of our community to not have their experience or voice or culture centered in our worship services very often. Or I heard an Asian-American member of our community having an unsafe experience of being diminished in a community group. And I’d respond, of course, but not enough.

This struck me last fall, when I realized that 27 years into my own serious work to not just see the world through white eyes, I still had work to do. And that our church can’t rest until we achieve true Beloved community in our midst, for everybody. Until the 30 or 40 % of us that are people of color see and feel that every aspect of this church’s community and programs and culture and ministry is for them just as much as it is for anyone else. Until all God’s children in our community experience that everything here is for them just as much as it is for anyone else. 

It’s been humbling, sobering, to me this year to be in repentance for my too slow pace and not urgent enough attention to this flourishing. And so when I pursue, along with our whole team, specific, real progress toward this church truly becoming a community of healing and justice, a beloved, anti-racist, good news community in our city, I am not just on a post-George Floyd trend, I am aligning myself, inviting us all to align ourselves with God who insists that God will complete what God has began in this community.

That God will make this church a beacon of healing and joy and delight for people of color throughout our city and region, as much as for any white person. And that we will worship and love and follow the God who is first known on earth in the margins, not in the center of power or privilege. 

Friends, could you join me in praying for Reservoir? That the good work God began here will continue to its full flourishing. That the voice and experience and needs of people who have felt marginal at different times – working class folks, queer folks, disabled folks, to name a few – would be included at the center. And that a White-dominant, White-centered way of being church in America would die here, that our church will be a truly safe, empowering, celebrating community of every person of color in our midst – now and in the future – for the sake of all our healing, and for the sake of the gospel. 

And join me please in praying for us all – inside and outside the church – in this time, that in a time of so much change, so many threats, so much anxiety and weariness, that we’d all have the courage to stay engaged in discovering and being part of the renewing, redemptive work that God is doing in this season. 

When COVID pandemic physically separates us, we could emotionally, relationally separate too, or we could keep binding together in mutual love and support. And when cries for racial justice are loud among us, those of us who are White in particular, or who are newer to reflection on racial injustice, could close our ears or shut down in fear, or we could welcome the work of Beloved community God can do through this, and humbly, but persistently, seek to see it into being. 

Let’s pray. 

The Bread of “As If”

For this week’s Reservoir Events, click “Download PDF.”

To view the worship service, click the YouTube link.

To view Steve’s Spiritual Practice on Grief and Lament, click HERE.


We lost a legend, two days ago, Congressman, John Lewis.

I wanted to talk just a little bit this morning – about how he’ll continue to teach us to hope and change, and be in this world if we keep listening to his voice that is embedded in our society.

He was a great preacher and a teacher from birth – he said in his early years he was known to preach to his chickens!  And his voice couldn’t be tucked away – and we would continue to learn from that voice as he became a seminal figure in the civil rights movement.  He created and employed strategic plans and spiritual disciplines to bring about change in the face of brutal injustice. This is the work we know that he did “yes” in the 50’s and 60’s  – and it is also the work of civil rights that he continued to do, right up until his death. He fought the fights and he did the actions… AND he also taught us how to center love as the mode by which we STAY in the fight – how we stay engaged when the justice we seek isn’t yet realized, when the fight becomes bone-achingly tiring, and it feels like midnight at every turn.

He showed us how to keep asking, how to keep seeking, how to keep knocking. – and not give up on this beautiful and broken world. 

And he asked us to do this, by not giving up on one another.  By releasing bitterness and  believing for the beloved community. And he said, “you have to do this by seeing, by visualizing, by having this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward, what you believe for, what you imagine this world COULD BE,  is already done. Imagining that it’s already happened.

He said, you have to live “as if.” “As if” that sense of community, that sense of family, that sense of one house”, has already happened. “As if” it is real.

This is what I want to talk about today – how we keep moving, keep asking, keep seeking, keep praying for the world we want to create, even when it feels like midnight.


Some of you may know that I’ve been holding a mid-week Communion service since the onset of Covid. I looked back and the first one we held together was on March 18th!  Isn’t that wild? 4 months ago. To be honest I started this little 10 minute communion because I knew I would need a constant time in my week to pause.  To commune with God.  And I didn’t want to do it alone. I wanted to be in the company of others, to be held in connection with one another – even if it was quirky and done virtually!

And to be honest these 4 months have felt like a maze of days. I tried so many days to  find my way out, to find the right path that would lead me OUT of the global pandemic!  It’s been a time of asking all. the. questions – when will this be over? Which way do I turn now? Should I pay attention to this cough, should I get tested?  They have been long days, long weeks, long months – where I have deeply found myself seeking the direction of God. … because it has felt like midnight. Dead ends, no answers, no one opening a door that says “This …THIS… is the way through this awful time” .

I came to that communion table week after week, with all of my asking, all of my seeking, all of my knocking – with my deepest needs of the day, asking for bread from God – hoping God would answer. 

The surprising  practice of  communion  – is  that I did get to personally commune with God – but I also got to sit at an ancient table, in beloved community –  with all of you who hopped on the call – and also with all of the stalwarts of faith, the prophets, the saints,  the disciples, John Lewis – those who have sat at this table before me.  

And I got to take into my BODY – the dreams, the visions, the abundance of hope, the strength, the bewilderment, the tears that they came with  …. And I got to take in the bread, that was broken and passed around that table – and passed through centuries of Jesus followers – reminding me that I eat this same bread today… The bread of God’s love, the bread of strength, the bread of “as if”...  

Communion  has shown me that God will give me my daily  bread  – but that it has never been meant for personal/individual consumption alone –  but for the breaking, the sharing/giving and feeding of those around me. It is the fuel I receive, to be an active, attentive and aware member of society – so that I can stay connected to those whose days are shrouded in midnight.

Because this is what our journey of faith is about.. It’s what these aspects of faith –  taking communion and prayer – are about –  it is about our relationship to God – AND – it is deeply about our active and attentive, PERSISTENT relationship to one another.   Persistently engaged with one another, persistently showing compassion and working for justice -persistently honoring our shared humanity, all the while eating and partaking in the bread of God.


So before I pray could you take a moment with God to get in touch with, “what you are asking for, what you are seeking, what bread you need from Jesus, right now?”

I’ll give you a second to think about this with God.

Prayer:  “Dear God – the one who offers us your full self – the one who breaks yourself open to each and everyone of us… may you bind us to one another in your spirit right now.  Would you give us the bread we desire …. The sustenance… the resourcing we need… to keep moving, to keep acting… to keep loving.”


We are going to look at this parable today found in Luke where Jesus invites us to consider how we might respond when our days feel like midnight – when darkness covers our days. 

A Knock at Midnight: Luke 11:1-10

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Divine Parent,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come.

3 Give us each day our daily bread.

4 Forgive us our sins,

    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.’”

5Then, teaching them more about prayer, Jesus used this story: 

“Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to your neighbor, ‘Friends of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for them to eat.’ And suppose your neighbor calls out from the bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ But I tell you this—though your neighbor won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, your neighbor will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence. 

“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”


Now parables as Lydia mentioned last week, hold so much!  They are both fun and frustrating to roam around in … the characters, the ordinary elements in the parable can hopefully illuminate more of God’s nature to you… but also note that the hope of a parable is NOT that you would solve it, the hope is to see what is revealed to you in this moment in time.  A pastor friend says, “that the best way to suck the life out of a parable is by attempting to neatly allegorize it or worse try to figure out the so-called moral of the story. Parables aren’t about morals; they are about truths — hidden, unyielding, disruptive truths. The kind of truths that simply can’t be contained.” (Nadia Bolz-Weber)

Parables are these beautiful stories that talk to us today.  Parables that have so much play in the margins – beyond maybe the most known interpretation – which I think is often where the greatest truths reside.

This parable has been taught over time to me as the amazing power and value of persistent prayer.  That makes sense – the disciples had just asked, “God teach us to pray” – and then he tells this parable of a relentless knocking, a persistent neighbor who in the middle of the night will not stop ringing the doorbell of their friends house.

And the message I’ve absorbed is to be bold. Be brazen. Be shamelessly persistent.  Because it will pay off, with God  – if you knock, pray, plead and shout long enough.  You see here – it’s obvious that of course God will be so much kinder and more good to you than this friend in the house – who won’t even rise and get out of bed to open the door?

Ask, ask, ask, seek, seek, seek, knock, knock, knock.  In Luke and all throughout scripture we are told to pray constantly, without ceasing.  And we read that God will give you what you want if you ask, directly and incessantly, and long enough?


It so fits our American, individualistic tendency right?  WORK hard enough, long enough, knock until your knuckles are bloody – and you’ll get what you’ve strived for…and it maps so nicely onto an American brand of Christianity that when you pray hard enough –  you’ll be given, you will find, you will receive – the door will be opened unto you.

Except when it’s not. No matter how hard you’ve tried. 


My guess is that many of you:

  • Have found yourself outside of a firmly closed door. 

A door that has never been opened to you, no matter how hard you knocked.


  • Have asked again and again – and nothing has been given…

and your voice is sore, hoarse from shouting.


  • Have sought and sought and sought – and nothing has been found.

Many of you perhaps, have only found midnight.  Darkness.  Maybe some of you have found “darkness so deep that it’s hard to know which way to turn”, (MLK Jr, 53), how to make sense of your faith – how to pray.

IF parables really can reveal truths that cannot be contained, I wonder instead of approaching this parable – with the lens of individualism – trying to find ourselves in a particular character;  the weary traveler, the friend with no bread or the friend with bread.  We could instead  look at this story as a picture, a flow of community, of neighborhoods – of society.  Of the interconnectedness of a beloved community – as John Lewis’ (and Jesus’) try to remind us.  Because this parable IS indeed about persistent prayer – but it is about the kind of prayer that can not be uttered or heard, without connection to one another – and it is the persistent kind of prayer that requires an unreliquishing leaning IN, an awareness, an attentiveness to the collective shared humanity and needs around us.  The truth is that prayer is seen and spoken when we embody Jesus, when we take on his way of persistently BEING in the world, take on his heart that seeks and longs for compassion, beauty and justice relentlessly.

Just prior to this passage in Luke 10 – we see the parable of the Good Samaritan… Which is Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question, “How do I inherit eternal life?”  Jesus directly answers: “Love me – and love your neighbor as yourself”… and then tells the parable – to give a container of how to imagine, to stretch that answer into full, real life, living it out, embodying it.  He says, “ Go and love – go and show mercy.”

He’s doing a similar thing here with the disciples when they ask about how to pray.. Jesus answers: “This is how you should pray – say:

“Our Divine Parent in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

3 Give us today our daily bread.”


And then he stretches it – he says – oh that’s not the full answer!  You have to live this prayer out – you have to engage with the people around you, the complexities, the structures, the resources, the lack of resources, the inequities… “To love your neighbor… to pray persistently”… is to live IN – to be a part of,  this messy world.  AND to be fully AWAKE to it. 

I do think this parable is about how asking, seeking and knocking – can be the key to a  prayerful, abundant life that leads us into greater connection with one another and God. 

I just think that God could be giving us this parable to reveal truths about our current day society  – where being awake or not awake in love and prayer,  to the present needs – is consequential to the health of our whole society. 

I’m going to invite us to consider that the friend inside of the house with the sleeping family – and behind the locked door, with the bread…  is one who is not fully awake to the needs and desires of the community.

We don’t know how long the friend on the outside of the door, has been knocking.  We just know that for at least some amount of time the friend inside the house, was not conscious of this knock.  

He didn’t hear the knock, he didn’t see the person knocking because he was asleep, and his response is delayed and reluctant.

And even when he becomes aware of the knock, it’s not regarded as an invitation to answer, to give, or to open the door.  It’s regarded as an unwelcomed disruption, it causes him discomfort and annoyance.

There’s no movement. No getting up. No running to the entrance. No seeking.

Just yelling from the inside, “stop bothering me.” Your neediness is bothering me. 

The bread on his counter – represents the bread of comfort, the bread of status quo (the doors locked, that’s the way it is), the bread of “see you in the morning. At dawn, when it’s light out.”

What is consequential here, is that the dawn can not be found when there is no one to crack the door of light.  The dawn can not be found even when in the morning, the bread is stale and tastes of injustice. The continued sleepy state of the friend inside the house, who holds the resources in society, is an active perpetuation of the long midnight of the weary traveler’s existence.

Embodied love. Embodied prayer  will always demand us to be conscious to the knocks of our day.

The Friend with no bread

BUT we also have this other picture – the friend on the outside of the  door… who seems to have nothing – his hands empty. But his heart is full – of a belief of  – maybe as John Lewis would have said, of living “as if”.  As if the world he lives in – is the world he imagines it can be –  and he locates himself as a part of that. .. .

  • He shows us that to love your neighbor – whoever that might be –  a stranger, a weary traveler – is to be disrupted.   
  • He shows us that to pray – is to extend energy – physical, soul energy.
  • AND he shows us that to TRULY be awake to the needs around us we need to:

…ask, seek and knock…

  • He ASKS this weary traveler what he needs…
    • ANd he finds that this traveler needs rest and food. 
    • And he’s not deterred that he himself can’t provide it – he goes and seeks for it. 
  • He SEEKS – he gets up, goes out, he MOVES. He believes that there is a way forward when all it looks like is dead ends – when all there is is darkness.
  • And then he KNOCKS – he knocks – that knock of justice at the site where resources are known.  And he commands the attention of these needs, PERSISTENTLY – he knocks and knocks.. calling attention to the greater community. 
  • Waking up others to the needs evident in the community.
  • He INVITES others to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God.. he refuses to give up on one another.

The friend who loves and prays – despite having nothing at midnight – does so by Asking, Seeking and Knocking with and behalf of his fellow neighbor. And he shows me that it is both important to do our part in finding and fighting for the bread of justice – these fundamental resources that the weary travelers in our society needs… AND he also shows me that I have rich resources within me – even when I feel like I have nothing to give…. He shows me that these resources: faith, hope, love, compassion, strength – are the daily bread of “as if”, that I get to receive and be given by Jesus. 

This friend shows the weary traveler and all of us – that DAWN can crack through the eternal midnight.  

Martin Luther King Jr. has an amazing sermon on this parable.  (Please check it out if you have a chance)… and he says, “The most inspiring word that we can speak, as the church, as followers of Jesus, is that no midnight long remains. Because the weary traveler by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the dawn. Faith in the dawn arises out of the belief that God is good and just.  AND it is on US to show that God is good and just by our actions and movement in the world. 

So we need to not just talk about how “ good and just God is” from behind our comfortable, safe, locked doors… we need to act as if we believe that truth and live it out. We need to open the door.

Because so many in our nation have been locked out, for too long. 

So many are asking for bread. The bread that might be sitting on my counter – or your counter right now.

And the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples and us – is to create a world we could imagine for… God’s Kin-dom here on earth, now.   To “work with what is”, “what the current state of the world is”  – and build it together, as we imagine it to be.

To again and again ASK for our daily bread from Jesus.

To unlock the doors of our threatened hearts, our resources, our positions in society and SHARE THEM. 

To SEEK justice and re-equitize the stockpiles that reside behind certain locked doors.

To re-distribute, to SEE and LOVE our neighbors.

To take part in repairing – to take part in KNOCKING on the doors where the bread of justice, the bread of faith, the bread of compassion, the bread of freedom lies – before it goes stale again in our hearts.

John Lewis, lived by an African Proverb, “when you pray – move your feet.” And I feel like this parable encourages this…. Pray persistently – yes – and move your feet. 

When you pray – be in connection with one another. PRAY deeply with your whole being.  Be, as communion is teaching me – the eyes, the ears, the mouth –  the body of Jesus wherever we are. 

Get uncomfortable.
Persistently ask how your placement in this shared tapestry of life, is consequential to others.

Seek the guidance from our good, justice-loving, God – and learn from those that have come before us.  To attune our ears to the  ask of us, in our time. 

Because if we listen – I think we’ll hear that the ask is akin to the work of John Lewis’ life and his legacy that we get to carry out – “to do the work of creating good and necessary trouble”… to willingly confront injustices… to aid in removing the persistent midnight.  

And to ask ourselves, and collectively ask – “how do we remove the midnight – rather than perpetuate it?”

As we rest our heads to our pillows tonight  – do we  pray for our fellow siblings and neighbors and their perceived needs?  Asking God to help us in that – “YES . we. do!” 

AND we also wake up – get up  – and move – pray with our feet, with our arms linked to one another…. 

And we go out into our neighborhoods, our communities and we ASK what the needs are…..and we listen.

And we SEEK  – we search to help FIND what is needed. And we commit to going out even if it’s midnight. 

And we join in the knocking, the knocking of centuries… we join in the persistent knocking that JESUS has been banging on our doors with – for justice to roll down into our neighborhoods like a mighty river… 

Prayer is being connected to one another and to God.  To know that we are not alone at midnight – and to do our best each day, in making sure the dawn comes for those who can only see darkness right now.   This is how we see, visualize the beloved community – this is how we stay hungry for the bread of connection – the bread of “as if” – connected to that sense of family, that sense of one house here and now.”

As we close this morning,  I ask you again to take a moment with Jesus… “What is the bread that you are hungry for, in need of?  And what is the bread you have to give?”

And as we often did in mid-week communion – I invite you to offer now a “One Voice Prayer”.  Whatever bread you need – or whatever bread you have to give…say it outloud. On the count of 3… 1-2-3…, “The bread of ______________________________”.


Parable of the Sower

Click “Download PDF” for this week’s events.

Click YouTube link above to watch service.

Spiritual practice: “Anti-Racist examen” written collaboratively by Vernée Wilkinson and Ted Wueste


Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

Matthew 13:18 “Hear then the parable of the sower.

13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

About a month ago, my family took a walk into the Beaver Brook Reservation in Belmont. We’re still discovering the areas around us so I was quite happy to find a little stream, a waterfall, a short hiking trail next to water. We stopped on a bridge, with the water rushing underneath us, looking down with awe at the flow. It was mesmerizing. We got quiet, staring down. I looked around and picked a leaf and threw it down from the bridge. My husband was looking down from the other side of the bridge and saw my leaf come out the other way. “I see your leaf!” he claimed with excitement. “Oh yeah?” I answered looking around for another leaf to throw. There was a bush protruding out from the side onto the bridge cement. Big leaves that would float down real good. I grabbed a few more, handed one to my girl Sophia, “throw it, baby!” “Watch for it honey!” I yelled to my husband. “Oh I see it! I see it!” We did this for a while back and forth on the bridge, grabbing leaves, throwing, and looking down the stream on the other side. 

A week later I started realizing that I’ve gotten an awful lot of bug bites and I’m itching in like 5-6 different places. I sprayed myself with bug spray, checked for bed bugs, even had the pest control come out and spray our house. But as the days went on the “bug bites” spread, and now they’ve developed into a rash. I made an appointment with my doctor a few days later. She refers me to a dermatologist and they see me a week later. During that week my whole body spread with rashes, some so bad that they are now open wounds, and even to my face. I suffered for over 2 weeks and finally when I saw the dermatologist, she said she thinks it’s poison ivy and prescribed me something that will make me feel better in 24-48 hours. Then I realized, Beaver Brook Reservation! Eugene was like, “yeah I was thinking, yeah I’m not touching that.” 

Oh the paths we walk. What we might find and stumble onto. How it might affect us. I never knew the agony of poison ivy. Let this story be a lesson to you. Please be careful! 

I think today’s story is a bit of a warning about the paths we might take, and what happens on those paths. It’s one of many parables that Jesus used to teach. It’s often taught in a pretty straightforward manner. There’s 4 kinds of soil that seed is sown on: the path, the rocky ground, among the thorns, and lastly the good soil. And it usually goes like this, the moral of the story. Don’t be like the seeds on the path where the birds can come eat it up. Don’t be like the rocky soil, make sure you get rid of your rocks. Don’t be like the thorny area, get rid of your thorns so it doesn’t choke the plant. Be the good soil. Be the good soil that simply receives it, produces crop and multiplies it a hundred fold, sixty, thirty. Be the right kind of soil. 

That’s one way to look at it, which has been a pretty popular exegesis of the text. But that’s the thing, this story, it’s a parable. It’s not all too clear and it’s not meant to be actually. What are parables? They are symbols and metaphors and reveal and conceal. They open up and illustrate but also are a mode of discovery and even some confusion on purpose. In fact, our text today skips from verse 9-18, which is a whole section about the disciples asking Jesus, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” And Jesus goes on for the next 9 verses being extremely cryptic about his message. He says, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not them….” Jesus is trying to keep things from some? “Though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not hear.” “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” What? Yes. I don’t know. Cryptic. But that is the nature of parables and that’s what we have to work with here. So it makes me ponder, is there something else going on?

Because to be honest, I grew up in the church hearing this message. Don’t be like the path. Don’t be the rocky soil. Make sure you’re not choking God’s word with thorns. When I did have worries of the world, or faced trouble, and my faith did shake or wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, the only advice I heard was, don’t be shaken. Don’t lose faith. Don’t worry. And yes, we do need sometimes life’s simple mantras, but sometimes it didn’t work. Sometimes the things I faced were more complicated. And the message I heard through this text was, that something was wrong with me. I wasn’t a good soil. So I prayed for heavy rocks to be lifted. I tried to clear my soil as much as I could. But it never felt good enough, I didn’t know why I wasn’t thriving and struggling, and it only made me blame myself and feel shame for not being good enough of soil. 

Thinking back, when I would hear a message like this, needing to apply to my life but facing the world with rocks and thorns, I wasn’t sure how to engage the world or my faith. And a message like this didn’t give me the tools I needed. I faced rocks, troubles and persecution beyond my powers. 

My family wasn’t well off. We had this one car that was so old and junky, that when it got cold in the winter time, it could only go about 35 miles per hour, even on the freeway. We’d have to leave the house earlier, making sure to warm up the car, hoping wishing that it wouldn’t break down on the way to school. When it broke down, it was devastation. My mom always freaked out and she’d go into panic mode. I didn’t know why then and always hated the way my mom turned from a lighthearted person to a person met with catastrophe when our car broke down, probably because we didn’t have savings to get the car fixed. She’d argue with the auto repair guy in her broken English, the guy getting frustrated but my mom practically begging him and insisting that he help us out by cutting us a deal. I hated watching it. It was embarrassing and I wish that we had enough money to just pay and get out of there. So did the worries of life, the deceitfulness of wealth get in the way of me being a good kid sometimes? Yeah, it did. 

Economic hardship, family trauma, racism, sexism, my list of rocks and thorns go on and on that I had no power over and yet was told to fix and somehow produce good crop and bear fruit. 

Have you experienced rocks and thorns in your life that’s beyond your control? So heavy that it could not be lifted by pure will power of faith. Or thorns too complex and entangled you weren’t sure how you would lift yourself out of it? Have there been patches of overgrown areas or seasons in your life that felt as if the evil one was snatching away your livelihood, your joy, your faith? What worries of life are choking your hope these days? 

Maybe the joy of God’s providence comes only for a short while through someone’s goodness, but short lived because the money runs out. Maybe your career or stability feels unstable because you didn’t have a safety net keeping you grounded, bills piling up like rocks with no root system to support you. Or maybe you feel like you’re standing on a busy path, maybe even a highway, where others are going 80 miles an hour, and you’re alone just spinning, in loneliness, feeling left behind. How do you sow seeds in these seasons of life? 

And with the complex world and issues we face today, is this the message God has for us? That if we’re not good soils, we will never bear good fruit? 

What if, what if the 4 soils are not a moral comparison, but pictures of the seasons of life, journeys and paths that we may stumble on on our faith walk? What if, these are various pictures of what you might face, what you’re likely to face? 

In fact the biblical commentators are not even sure exactly which is which. Let me explain. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, the wording on each is slightly different and confusing which is the seed, the message, and the seed sown, the one who hears the message. There is confusion, which is why the reading is unclear with phrasing like, “he that was sown”, (is it the message that’s sown or the person?) or “this is he who hears the word that which was sown.” Maybe we’re not supposed to identify with one of the 4 soils, but various seeds sown in different environments. Because the gospel was never about what WE do, our merits, our efforts. So why would this story’s moral be, be better soil? No. 

And my last question is, this is the parable of the Sower. So, who is Sowing? Is it God? If so, why does this farmer not really know how to farm by scattering seeds on paths, rocky soil, or among thorns. Is this God, a really bad farmer? Here’s what I think. God is not the most efficient farmer, no, but a generous, loving, hopeful farmer, a hopelessly romantic famer, who will scatter the seeds whatever God likes, which is, everywhere. Even on the path, even to the dangerous places, even the most unlikely bad soil places. If the seed is the good news, then no matter where you are, what you are facing in life, what kind of soil you are or what rocks or thorns you may bear, God sows. And maybe part of the faith journey has seasons where things don’t always take root and grow. Maybe it’s an encouragement to us all who are not always bearing awesome fruit, showing us, that in life, there may be times we find ourselves in the busy path caught up, under a rock enduring heavy burden, among thorns bearing scars, and the parable of the sower says, even there I will sow. Sure, good soil is nice, but it might not always be the case. And Jesus gives us this parable to journey through our complicated lives with to say, I will sow in you again and again, relentlessly, foolishly, and you will bear fruit one day. Because the message of the good news is always, not what we do, but what God does, not our merits of how well we garden, but the good news is, God is the great Gardner. That is the seed I pray will be sown to you today, no matter what kind of week you’ve had or you will have, for it is God who sows, nurtures, grows, and gathers with God’s abundant grace pouring into us. May it be so. Let me pray for us. 

Generous Loving Farmer, we thank you that you are a constant source of lights, pouring upon us living water, helping us grow. Would you grow us up with resilience, even in the face of adversity in this world, that you know so well. Would you walk with us even through valley of death, parched, no bearing fruit, and reminds us that there, you don’t condemn us saying why haven’t you got fruit. Instead you love us, forgive us, have compassion toward us and move with us through the next season and the next. May we know the ever present power of your love, and walk in that love, no matter what paths we may face today and this week. Pray in Jesus Name. Amen.