An Attempt at a Sex Positive Sermon

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

For this week’s spiritual practice “Centering Prayer” led by Ivy Anthony, CLICK HERE.

Hey, friends, as we get ready for Christmas season, I am so excited for next Sunday, as we start our celebration of Advent, the pre-Christmas season, together. TODAY I also want to acknowledge, real quickly, that at end, a lot of people think about charitable giving this time of year. Reservoir, you probably know, is different than most non-profits in that we don’t fundraise, we don’t talk about money much at all. But to be as vibrant of a church as we are, touching the lives of hundreds, and to be as generous of a church as we are, impacting thousands in our community and beyond, take the time and energy of our paid staff as well as the other costs of this ministry. An enormous appreciation to all of you who together give about $90,000 a month to support this ministry. If you’re not a giver at Reservoir yet, we strongly encourage you to consider beginning, or rebeginning that. I’m dropping two links in the chat – one that talks more about giving at Reservoir and the other a direct link to set up a recurring gift to the ministry. You can do so through our website or the link in the chat. In a church located around transient communities like Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, we really depend on new members and new givers to sustain us and help us grow. We find that giving is a powerful way to invest in the vitality of our church and even our own faith, so whether it be $100 a month, a $100 a week, or whatever amount to which you’re led, consider joining this church’s team of givers today. 

So today we finish our Salt of the Earth series, about Reservoir’s place in what we hope will be a healthy and useful future for our faith. We’ll end talking a bit about sex and sexual ethics because churches have had lots to say about this topic, but have said a lot of wrong things in wrong ways and have often done more harm that goo as a result. And yet, as we get more and more post-Christian as a society, it’s not like we’re suddenly finding our own way into life, health, joy, and intimacy around sex either. And I’ve heard some interest in circling back to this topic.


So, I’m aware that this is one short sermon, and I’m just one person, with one set of perspectives. But I’d like to at least try to say something healthy and useful about sex and continue to give permission to have healthy and useful conversations about sex in our community. 


I’ll start us off with a scripture reading. I intentionally did not choose one that tries to make an ethical statement about sex. There are some of those in the Bible, but I think they’re mainly yanked out of context. Depending on where and when they were written, they say different things. And these few scriptures are made to do more work than they were meant to, So instead, I give you a story from the life of Jesus where Jesus was confronted with some “no’s” around sex, and may just start to point us toward some “yes’es” instead.


John 8:2-11 (NRSV)

2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”


When it comes to sex, it seems we often lead with what we think are other people’s problems. 


Throughout the many centuries of church history, when men have talked about sex, and it’s mainly men who have had the power to do so in public, they’ve done so while pointing blaming fingers at women and queer people. There’s been a giant NO said to the sexuality of women, whether it be women who seduce, women who aren’t virgins when they should be, women who want sex too much, women who want sex too little. As in this passage, it’s women who have been the focus of sexual problems and taboos, even though men have had far more agency and power around sexality. 


And when women haven’t been shamed or scapegoated, queer people have instead. People whose sexual identities or desires don’t fit the heteronormative grid have served as a convenient scapegoat in many times and places, resulting in the stigmatization of queer people and gay sex, even though this is the experience of relatively smaller number of people. 


Women who have been shamed around your sexuality or sexual history, I am so sorry. Women who have been shamed by merely being in the body of a woman, I am so sorry. You deserve so much more honor, love, and respect than this. 


And LGBTQ friends, I know you are attuned to the long and deep history of shame and exclusion from the Christian church, which continues in so many places to this day. For this too, I am so sorry. You deserve so much more honor, love, and respect than this. 


All of us: our bodies, our sexuality, our sexual history or lack thereof, this is sensitive, tender territory that deserves care, honor, and respect. 


We see the utter lack of all this in our story, as a community rallies around somebody else’s sexual problems and engages religion as a weapon against someone else’s sexuality. 


Imagine the experience of this woman, dragged out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, after a neighbor had reported the affair she’d been having, or perhaps not even that, perhaps dragged out after being sexually manipulated or even sexually assaulted the night before. 


This unnamed woman did not have sex by herself. You cannot commit adultery alone. And yet it’s just her that is dragged into the temple to face shame and await punishment. Again, as if the transgressions or troubles of one woman is that community’s biggest sexual problem. 


Now the irony is that the biggest sexual problems in that community were likely the same ones we see today. 


They, like us, would have had problems with the interplay of sex and violence. How many millions of people have been raped, sexually abused, sexually assaulted? Sexual violence is at the top of humanity’s sexual problems, and in every community, you’ll find those that have been victims and perpetrators. Part of and adjacent to sexual violence, you have sex that is tied to the abuse of power, inside and outside of religion: sexual harrassment, sexual coercion, and the coverups of those things. 


And then on a more mundane level, we’ve had both then and now so much sex that has made us less integrated and whole, not more; less intimately connected, not more. Untender sex, anonymous sex, sex used to satisfy just one of the partners, sexuality that does not bring us into closer, more joyful, more intimate relaitonships. 


Communities very much need to have conversations about these problems, and yet these are not the conversation most faith communities are having about sex, now and then. 


It’s interesting to me that in this moment with Jesus, and the woman caught in adultery, and the judging crowd, some traditions have it that when Jesus bent down to write on the ground, he started writing down the sins of the judging crowd. Marking their own sins, sexual and otherwise, in the dirt, while daring them to continue in their judgement of others. Now for various reasons, I don’t think that’s what happened, but can you imagine? 


If Jesus has said: you, who rush through sex with your wife without giving her pleasure, you cast the first stone. You, who glare at your employee’s bodies and make unwelcome sexual advances, do you have a right to condemn another? 


There’s a lot more to talk about than a single woman’s sexual choices she bitterly regrets. Sexual violence, sex without consent, untender and unintimate sex that doesn’t foster love, these and other things very much call for our attention. That’s why the other year, we had our Speak Out Sunday, for instance, focused on sexual violence. We want to give our community permission to focus on the real NOs we need to talk about when it comes to sexuality. 


But again, it’s interesting to me, that Jesus didn’t just move his community from one “no” to another. I think Jesus took the “no” of this moment – that neither this woman nor anyone else should commit adultery, and Jesus affirmed that tacitly, but he also pivoted to “yeses” that needed to be affirmed.  


Jesus says no to this woman’s adultery. He tells her privately, gently: Go and sin no more. 


But there were other “no’s” being said here that Jesus will not affirm. The community said “no” to men’s accountability. They drag one woman forward in judgement, practicing their own version of the awful practice that we’ve called “slut shaming” in our times. Jesus won’t have it. This community also said “no” to this woman’s life and freedom and hopeful future. They judge her, they condemn her, they would stone her if they could. But Jesus, now and then, is convinced that none of us should be defined by our worst act. That we all deserve grace and the chance to find a better way forward toward life and health and freedom. 


So for Jesus, there are “yeses” in this scene that apply to our sexualty still, I believe. 


For Jesus , there is a yes to universal accountability. We all could use greater health and wholeness in our sexuality. Jesus invites the whole community of John 8 and by extension all of us as well not to focus our attention on judging others but doing our work for our sexuality – along with the rest of our lives – to be as healthy and constructive as possible.   


Jesus also says yes to radical grace – neither do I condemn you. You, regardless of your sexual history; you, regardless of the condemnation you have faced in your own eyes or in anyone else’s – you are not condemned. 


And I think Jesus says yes here as well to freedom. Go your own way, and from now on don’t sin. Don’t do harm. Don’t give up your dignity. Don’t tether your sexuality to people you’ll regret. We could fill in more don’ts here, but to me the most powerful words are again not the “no” but the “yes.” Yes to freedom, yes to the possibility of healing, yes to joy, yes to love. 


Thinking about what God’s yes to our sexuality might be makes me ask, when it comes to church, the good news faith of Jesus, and our sexuality, how do we “sex positive” our message and experience? How do we move from secrecy, shame, and judgement, toward honesty, freedom, and health?


I know it might sound funny for some of us to hear the phrase “sex positive” at church, let alone in a sermon, the Bible does contain a whole book of erotic poetry. Right at the end of the Bible’s ancient wisdom literature, just before the prophets begin, is the Song of Songs.


It’s very old Hebrew poetry, so the imagery is kind of weird to most of us, more tactile and abstract than visual, but once you get into it, it’s racy. And I don’t say this to shock or titillate, just as the editors who pulled the Bible together in the first place didn’t include it for those reasons.


I think it’s there to affirm that sex and sexuality are powerful and beautiful. 


Our sexuality is not a problem to be overcome, but a gift to receive in gratitude. Song of Songs affirms the utter delight sex can be. The swooning over another’s beauty, inside and out. The ecstasy in our own minds and bodies as fall in love and as live in loving relationships.


Song of Songs affirms the power of sex, that it is among the strongest forces we ever experience. Sex can be a powerful motivator, a powerful bonding agent between two people, and – between the wrong people or practiced in the wrong ways – a powerful harm as well. Song of Songs compares sex to all the beauty of nature in its delight, to fire in its intensity, and to death in its strength.


And Song of Songs in its Jewish and Christian interpretive tradition over the centuries has linked our sexuality with our spirituality. Because the longing, the ecstasy, the delight we experience are adjacent to the longings, the ecstasy, the delights that call to us to long for God. 


Friends, we could do well to ask ourselves today: how have I believed my sexuality to be a problem to overcome, and how can I welcome it as a gift instead? 


We could do well if we are partnered to ask: how can I experience more delight, play, intimacy, and fire in my sexual relationship? This is not a how-to sermon, so I’ll leave it brief here, but for some of us this means practicing more emotional intimacy with our spouse, since vulnerable hearts make vulnerable bodies easier. For some of us, this means becoming open again to our own pleasure and delight, if we were never encouraged to value that. And for some of us, this means putting energy and thought and care into our partner’s safety and joy and delight, if we’ve not been particularly creative or thoughtful about seeking the pleasure and joy of our partner. 


You’ll notice, though, that I haven’t talked about marriage at all yet, even though Chrisitan teaching about sex has often boiled down to: don’t have sex if you’re not married. And if you are married, don’t have sex to anyone else, and within your marriage – do what you want, or sometimes, do what you must. Churches have had a pretty limited conversation on these matters. 


And when I was a kid and a young adult, this conversation got especially intense for a while. If you’re in your 20s-40s, and you grew up in a Christian environment, there’s a decent chance you were exposed to what was called the purity movement. 


In response to the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, and along with the rise of the religious right, sex education around churches and – in some places – in the public as well – became super-focused on abstinence education. True love waits. Put a ring on it. Save it to marriage. 


Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of marriage and of marital sex. Along with Pastors Lydia and Ivy, I officiate weddings. I help couples with premarital coaching. I offer short-term pastoral counseling to couples in our church here and there. In a week, I’ll be celebrating with my wife Grace our 24th anniversary. And as with many other people, my own marriage has been the greatest of gifts, in so many ways, including sexually. 


But this purity movement that had only two things to say about sex – if you’re not married, don’t; and if you’re married, do – it’s pretty clear it did more harm than good. On average, abstinence only education managed to get people to delay sexual activity by a couple years, not usually to marriage, by the way. But abstinence only education also made it  more likely that young people’s early sexual experiences would be less safe – leading to more unwanted pregnancies and abortions. And, as with most Christian teaching on sex in the past, its obsession with virginity and its shaming of people to try to get them to be so-called “sexually pure” was talked about with both genders, but the fixation was really on girls and women. This cult of female virginity and this fear and shaming of girls and women did a lot of damage to the faith and sexuality and souls of those girls and women. Again, if that was your experience, I’m so sorry for that. 


I wonder if instead of the giant NOs of the purity movement, we could tenderly hold four YESes instead. I’ll be brief, as I’ve got to wrap soon, but four things.


  1. Yes to covenant and commitment. Good sex is a powerful bonding agent between two people. And the safest, most delightful sex occurs between people who are emotionally and relationally intimate and who have made commitments to one another. Marriage is a great way to do this, but unlike biblical cultures, we live in a time when over half of adults – at least around here – are not married. And when people’s marriages often take place 20 years or more after puberty. That’s a long time. Somewhat unprecedented compared to most cultures. So truth is, most unmarried people are having sex at some point. Honoring that more commitment, more emotional intimacy is better, and keeping conversations about marriage on the table still makes sense to me, though.
  2. Yes to discernment – which means figuring things out in a complicated world, rather than just pointing to a black and white rule. Christiaity, compared to most religions, and frankly compared to most secular ways of life, is not very rule-based. Jesus, and his most significant early followers and interpreters, encouraged a law of love – to love God, neighbor, and self profoundly – and within that law, a fair bit of freedom. So when it comes to our sexual ethics and relationships, we need to encourage all of us to firstly ask: how do I love God with my body and sexuality? And how do I love my neighbor – including any current or future sexual partners, friends, children – how do I love my neighbor? And lastly, how do I love and honor myself? If we’re carefully, seriously asking these questions, we’ll take care of all the baselines when it comes to sexuality – consent, safety, kindness, love, tenderness, and beyond that, we’ll likely do alright. 
  3. Yes to singleness and for some of us – old school word here – chastity. Jesus, the New Testament, and the early church all honored singleness and its potential for freedom and devotion to God – above marriage. And they all honored and respected people who while single, embraced chastity – abstaining from sex during that season and devoting one’s love, energy and body to love of God and nieghbor. This isn’t for everyone, but listen, in our society – church included – you get more scrutiny and exclusion, not honor, for being single. And if you’re abstinent, either for life or for a season, you get talked about like you’re immature or there’s something wrong with you. I say shame on that. I’m not telling anyone you need to be single or abstinent, but if you are, good for you. I hope you can receive and find the honor and the gift in that. 
  4. And lastly, for all of us, but especially for those of us who are single, and especially for those of us who are single during this pandemic, Yes to sensuality. I already talked about sex and spirituality – about longing, delight, pleasure – how central these are in life. But we could broaden this to talk about sensuality. Many of life’s deepest, most transcendent experiences are really bodily. The pleasures not just of sex, but the delicous taste of food. The bracing feel of cold air and water, and the comfort of those same things warm. The delight of singing and dancing for some of us, of exercise for others, of making things with our hands. We were made for all of this. So if you’re not even hugging or touching anyone these days, let alone sexually active, you likely need more, not less sensuality in your life. 


Friends, I’m ending here, but my prayer and longing for us all is for responsibility, kindness, love, grace, and freedom in our sexuality. May you be blessed to know that no one condemns you. And may you be blessed in freedom to go your way, free from sin, in love, delight, and joy. 

A Better Way with Race and Politics

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

For this week’s spiritual practice “Love Thyself” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE. Link included for mural image “Love Thyself” by artist Artist Victor “Marka27” Quinonez.


Hi, Friends, it’s so good to be with you through your screens today. As always, I’m wishing I could look you in the eye or shake your hand or give you a hug today. Soon, soon, we hope. 

It’s Thanksgiving this week. I’m not giving a Thanksgiving sermon. I’m talking about some of the ways our faith has failed in public life and how we can find a more healthy and useful faith together for the future there. There will be a little talk about race, there will be more talk about politics. I really don’t like politics very much, I shared a couple weeks back that I think we’re a little too attached to its significance, and I look forward to a time when socially, we’re not talking about politics so much. But we still are, and it’s been an important area where our faith has gotten off course, so there’ll be a little of that today. 

But as we get started, real quickly, as Thanksgiving is upon us, please celebrate in a way that doesn’t get you or anyone else sick. And please – if that’s hard or lonely – please set an intention to love this week. Ask yourself, how – on Thanksgiving – can I love God, can I love myself, or can I love my neighbor? Vernee set us up with one way to think about loving God and our neighbor on Thanksgiving, as we metaphorically set places for memory, for justice, and for healing. 

But open question for you in the chat as we get started, how can you love God, or love yourself, or love your neighbor this Thanksgiving? If you’ve got an idea, put it in the chat on zoom. 

I’ll start. I’m taking an extra day off this week to walk and rest and play with myself and my kids, and I’m going to call 5-10 people I don’t normally call, and send them some love and encouragement. How about you?

 This pain doesn’t last forever. We are resilient people. We’re gonna get through this, beloved. Alright? 


Now, last Sunday, at the newcomers’ gathering we hosted after service, a person who knows a fair bit about the church scene said: Reservoir has roots in the American evangelical church, right? This place used to be Greater Boston Vineyard. And he asked: do you mind saying a few words about where the church comes from and what good things have we kept from those roots? 

It was a great question. Reservoir was founded to be a church that took all the best we could from the Christian tradition and made it accessible in a not-very-churchgoing, post-Christian culture. This is why we exist. But the people who started this church had roots in really particular forms of Christianity, in American evangelical culture – and in two places in particular. A national college ministry called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that tries to help Christian college students become devoted followers of Jesus for their whole lives. And a group of churches called Vineyard Churches, that grew out of the Jesus Movement, a 1970s Chrisitan version of hippie counterculture.  

Now we aren’t affiliated with either of those groups anymore, but it was easy to answer what good we’ve held onto. Those of us that had roots in the InterVarsity group like me learned to love reading the Bible there. We took away a sense that the Bible, as the primary source document of the life of Jesus and the life of faith before and after him for centuries, grounds us in the history of our faith and is one important way God speaks to us still. And from the Vineyard churches, we took away a belief that it is more valuable to experience God than to have particular thoughts about God. And we came away knowing and still practicing that an experience of God can be fun, wild, mysterious, unpredictable, but always healing, and good, and powerful.  

Not all of our roots have been as positive or helpful to us, though. Our church left the Vineyard denomination five years ago primarily because they were going to kick us out if we grew as a healthy, fully inclusive church home for LGBTQ people. So we left. I’ve been disinvited from seminars and talks I was scheduled to lead, I’ve been cursed at, been told I’m not a real Christian, all because I lead a fully inclusive church, or because while I love and teach the Bible, I don’t read it all rigidly or literally. I’ve spoken with many people who were disowned by family, kicked out of churches, even threatened with eternal damnation because they no longer shared one of the beliefs of their Christian family or community. Sorry, but that is messed. up.

White evangelical Chrisitans are also outliers in American public life on a lot of things, and not all in what seem like good ways. I’m not going to name them all, as the media covers this pretty well these days. 

Probably about half this church, maybe a little more, has some roots or personal experience with white evangelical Christianity in our faith history. But there have been a lot of reasons that some of us, and millions of people nationally, have looked for ways to practice our faith outside of this particular Christian tradition. There are enough of us, in fact, that a prominent Christian academic named David Gushee wrote a book about this, called After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. And it has been influencing my preaching in this Salt of the Earth series. 

The book has 9 chapters, and the last two are on politics and race, because these are two areas where evangelical Christians have stumbled most badly, and have most harmed the witness to the good news of Jesus. 

So, today, in our 4th of 5 weeks on looking for a better future for our faith, one that is healthier and more useful in the world, that lives up to Jesus’ call for his followers to salt the earth, we ask how does our faith find its way out of its troubled history on both race and politics? And again, I’m aware that today, I’m addressing politics more than race.

Rather than a deep dive with a single scripture, we’ll take the briefest of looks at four different verses, each of which illustrates a statement I will make. 

Here’s the first. 


  1. Most of the modern American Christian church has White supremacist, colonial roots we need to disentangle.

Mark 2:22 (NRSV)

22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”


Jesus says that new work of God requires new containers. Renewing work of the Spirit of God requires change in our mindset, our assumptions, and even in our institutions. 

I taught a mini church history class this fall – looking at some of the best and worst of our faith’s past as well as some productive ways forward. And the four sessions were built around four famous, hugely influential figures in church story. And someone noticed: they’re all white men. And indeed they were. And not just that, but one was a violent colonial emperor. One presided over executions of his theological enemies. One was a slaveholder who advocated for the expansion of slavery in American’s Southern colonies. And the last refused to fully support the American civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, as most white Christians did not at the time. It’s too long a history to tell here, but suffice it to say, a faith that began in the Middle East, a faith who early roots were North African, West Asian, and Mediterranean olive skinned and brown skinned mothers and fathers – that faith was in time centered, developed, transformed into the faith of white colonial Europe and then America. Most of Christianity became in time a colonial religion, and slaveholding religion, and a religion that centered the art and thinking and music and culture of the people who became known as White. 

This has done harm both to the faith and to the world. And over the past century, the Spirit of God has through many means, in many times and places, through many contemporary people I would call prophets been showing us this needs to change. The Spirit of God wants us to pour out onto the ground the old, poisonous vinegar of White Supremacist Christianity and drink the new, healthy wine of the true faith of the God who made and loves all peoples and cultures of the earth. Will we collaborate?


Here’s the second.

2. God cares about the physical condition of the earth and its inhabitants, especially people.

And the scripture is the final verse of Jonah.

Jonah 4:11 (NRSV)

11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”


We’re thinking about spending Lent, 2021, the season before Easter, with the prophets of the Old Testament, rediscovering what is most important to God. And one of those little books of prophecy, Jonah, is just charming in how it communicates God’s love of the earth, even when we hate parts of it. This is very much true of people we hate – this is the center message of Jonah. But it is even true of animals. Twice in Jonah, animals are appointed by God for specific tasks, and animals are also part of what God loves, and wants to protect and save. I bring this up in contrast to how Christianity has developed over the years, in that it became a religion that was primarily taught as a path to the afterlife, an escape from an earth that God may not fully love. The result of this heresy really has been a faith that has often demeaned and desecrated the earth and its inhabitants, especially its supposed non-Christian inhabitants. 

God, though, so loves the world. God so loves the kosmos – the whole created order. God so loved entering into relationship with creatures of the earth, that he gave his one and only son that we could have eternal kind of life, both in the future and now as well. God cares about how we’re doing today, not just tomorrow. 


3. God takes sides.

Deuteronomy 10:17 (NRSV)

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 


I love this. What it means for God to be impartial isn’t to treat everybody exactly the same. What it means that God is really just is that God looks to do right by people who have been done wrong. God has unique compassion and interest in people who are suffering. The theology shared by most people of color of the earth, by most of the poor of the earth, has learned to put it this way, that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” God takes sides. 

When God acts and moves on this playground of the earth, and sees bullies and the bullied, God doesn’t give them all a high five. God wants to lift up the bullied and get the bullies to stop. When God sees takers and those taken from, God isn’t interested in giving them both a wave and a smile. God wants to make that injustice right and stop it from happening again. This is what the scriptures teach about God. 


And last of my four big points I’m setting up today, 

4. The Bible is political, and so is the gospel.

The Bible’s whole message, and the good news of Jesus in particular are political. Now by political, I don’t mean partisan. You’ll hear, I don’t think God is a republican or democratic. I don’t think God is a capitalist or socialist or communist. I just mean that the Bible and the gospel are not merely private or personal – though they are both of those things. But they are also public, and publicly disruptive. 

Jesus said there are two great commandments of God, which are really one. The first he quoted from here.

Deuteronomy 6:5 (NRSV)

5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 


Love the Lord your God was literally love the God of Israel. Love this particular god, the good one, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God who is speaking to you, walking with you. The Israelite faith was not at first monotheistic; it was monolatrous, which means people were told to love and worship and follow a particular god, and not other ones. It was a call not just to faith, but to allegiance. 

And the second great command: love your neighbor as yourself, was most often expressed as Love the stranger among you, for you too once were a stranger. The law of Israel, as much as it called for love of God, called for hospitality and dignity for foreigners, for refugees, for migrants, because all of us were once these things. 

This was political – commands for how to be in public life. And the New Testament faith of Jesus picks it up without a beat. The most common formula of faith in the New Testament was to say, “Jesus is Lord.” In Greek, which the New Testament was written in, this was a direct assault on the Roman formula: Caesar is Lord. Love of Jesus was to say: no human ruler has my devotion or allegiance. It goes to Jesus instead. Again, political.

And all of this, almost all the Bible really was written by and to colonized and oppressed people groups seeking freedom in many forms. Political.

To be apolitical – to say faith has nothing to do with public life, to say churches should stay out of the big things that impact us all away in the world, to say things to do with labor and business and money and politics and land and laws, to say that’s all too controversial so we should just not talk about it, this is a luxury of the privileged. If the way the world is ordered is working really well for you, maybe you feel like you can be apolitical, not talk about public life. But most people need to, and our faith does too. 

Now there are bad and good ways to engage with faith and public life, so let me mention just two ways I think we’re called to live this out. 

One is by decolonizing our faith. The other is by practicing a healthier integration of faith and politics. Here’s what I mean.

  • Decolonize our faith. This means we recover its sources amidst multiethnic, oppressed people groups. We practice again our faith’s radical commitment to the dignity and empowerment of all people. This means we root out habits and practices leftover from a white supremacist, colonial, patriarchal past. (Trusting, paying men more than women. Sidelining and neglecting children. Preferring the intellect and art and history and leadership of white people. Lots to root out.) And we pay particular attention to the voice and work of God among people historically marginalized. To be followers of Jesus, the brown-skinned Middle Eastern Savior of the world, we’ve got to chart an anti-racist future together.


Now this is not aligned with any particular political or ideological strategy for doing these things. We’re going to disagree on methods sometimes. And this isn’t us hopping on to a trend outside of our faith, this is us seeking to recover the healthiest, most useful faith possible. We’ve actually been addressing this a fair bit the past couple of years and will continue to do so. 


  • Develop a new way forward for faith and politics. I’m no political scientist or expert here, but the path David Gushee lays out in his book is one I endorse. In the era of Trump, parts of this stand in obvious contrast to the so-called Christian right, but parts are pretty different from tendencies in what might be called the Christian left as well.

I’ve given us a lot today, but I’ll close with Gushee’s 7 criteria for healthy, faith based engagement in politics. 


  1. Foster a Jesus-Centered Identity, not a Civil Religion

If you follow Jesus, you are God’s child first, and American or Democrat or anything else second. And same is true for everyone you will ever meet.)

2. Practice Politics of Hope, not Fear

(Riling up people’s worst fears, or letting some politician or news outlet or corporation do that to you makes you a sucker and a fool, and a meaner, harder person. It is not the way of Jesus, who is always calling us to hope, renewal, and possibility. Sorry to say this so strongly, but there it is.)

3. Keep Critical Distance from All Earthly Powers (vs. Partisanship, Partnership, or Surrender)

(Don’t over-love your political party, or any brand or company or whatever. They’re not all equal, but they are all flawed.)

4. Learn from Christian Social Teaching Tradition (vs. hard ideologies or improv)

5. Develop a Global Perspective (vs. Parochial or Nationalist)

America first, or Blue States first, or whatever isn’t God’s way in the world. 

6. See with Vision for the Common Good (vs. Self-Interest)

Protecting my dollars from taxes, protecting my religion from governmental intrusion, protecting my kids’ needs above others, protecting my preferences – this is human and may have its place, but Jesus will always stretch us to consider the common good in public life and to live and love and give and work and vote accordingly. And lastly:

7. Practice What We Preach 

Anything you expect someone else to do for the world, ask if you are willing to do your one-person sized bit of that yourself, And say yes to that. 

What Makes Church Great (or Not)

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


November is the month of the year when we remind ourselves of what this church is about and what it means to belong here, and if you’ve never joined as a member, to consider doing so. If you’re newer here or have been around a while but haven’t become a member, you can join Ivy and me and a couple of our leaders right at 11:00 today, right when the live service ends, to hear a bit more about the church, including what membership means. We’d love to have you.


And today, as part of our November Salt of the Earth series, I’m going to talk about church in particular. What makes church healthy and useful in the times and place where we live? 


Because, let’s be real, I’m very much aware that church has often not felt healthy and useful for many reasons.


As a pastor, sometimes I meet with people who are taking a chance on church. One time I met up for coffee with someone who was considering visiting Reservoir. Based on this person’s profession and some other things they told me over email, I was expecting to meet a pretty confident, charismatic individual. But that day, in the coffee shop, they were kind of skittish. They were so nervous they had brought notes to remember what they wanted to talk about it. 


Because of their sexual identity, they had experienced exclusion from churches in the past and wanted to make sure our church would be fully accepting, which we were and are, but that wasn’t even top of the list, to be honest. 


It was really important to them that they went to a church that was really engaged in their community, because they’re like I really believe in contributing to a better world, and I can’t go to a church that has its head in the sand. So we talked about how we try. 


And then they got to their big one. They asked me: has this church had any scandals? And I was like, uh, depends what you mean, I guess. I mean we’ve had arguments happen here, and people that didn’t like the church, stuff like that. And they were like no: big scandals. And they told be about their reaction to the clergy sex abuse scandals in the history of the church in Boston, and some of what that meant to them and their partner, and why they needed a church that did better. So we talked about our church’s good history on that front, thank God, and also the many things we put in place to commit to being a safe church as well. 


I’ve had many conversations where this kind of stuff comes up, and it’s sobering every time because it reminds me that church – the space that is supposed to be home base, a community of acceptance and belonging and inspiration and empowerment for the follower of Jesus; the institution that is supposed to engage in the world as salt and light, that which is healthy and useful – that church has very often not been any of these things.


In fact, bad church experiences, where churches are places of conformity, where there’s a right way to believe and act on just about everything and you better toe the line, this has been a major factor in driving people away from church. Churches’ judgmentalism, their being dogmatic and inflexible about all kinds of things, even hypocritical and downright abusive in managing the authority of a church in people’s lives – these have driven people away from the faith, or at least from church, as well. All this has accelerated our journey toward being a post-Christian society, a time and place where more people are leaving churches than coming, more people have moved on from faith in Jesus, rather than moving in. 


So it’s an important part of my life calling, and an important part of Resevoir’s identity as a church, to offer a healthy and useful experience of church, that helps make Jesus-centered faith viable and exciting in the time and place where we live. 


Let me read you a little section of the New Testament, from a letter called Hebrews, that is one of the places in the Bible that most directly encourages churchgoing. It goes like this:


Hebrews 10:19-25 (NRSV)

19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


Hebrews was written to first century followers of Jesus who were struggling in life. Being a Jew in the Roman Empire had its challenges, and at this time being both a Jew and a follower of Jesus made your challenges larger. You faced misunderstanding and all kinds of trouble – from what we’d call microaggressions all the way up to violence. And Hebrews is telling these folks, God is with you. It uses the ancient temple imagery to say this, how there was a time that behind a large curtain, a priest would connect with God on your behalf. But now Jesus is that priest, and Jesus is also the curtain that has been opened up for you to know God without fear, and to be forgiven any faults so that before God you are free and clean and accepted. 


And Hebrews says in general, in this hard life, given God is with you, don’t give up. It’s worth staying engaged. And it’s worth staying engaged in faith in Jesus in particular. But, the writer says, you’re all going to need help. So don’t give up meeting with each other and don’t give up encouraging each other to show up as your best, most loving self in the world. And remind each other of the help and promise of Jesus in all that. Be there for each other.

And as Hebrews goes on, it’s clear that the writer is hoping this meeting together, this staying grounded in this faith that centers the love of God in Christ, and this inspiring one another to love and good deeds, it’s clear that Hebrews hopes this will accomplish beautiful things in the world. Hebrews ends in chapter 13 encouraging radical hospitality, encouraging these folks to show up on behalf of prisoners and those who are tortured, encouraging them to not just hang out inside the church but to go outside the camp, as the writer puts it, and be salt of the earth people in the world, people of powerhouse love and encouragement. And the writer seems to think these Jesus followers can be this way not because they’re any better than anyone else, but because they know that God, who looks like Jesus, is always with them, and is always their help, and because they keep encouraging one another to know that love and to show up with that love. 


Alright, this is just one little picture of what church is supposed to be, but it’s not a bad one. And my question as I encourage you to help make Reservoir this kind of church through your active presence in this community, my question is why aren’t all churches like this? What goes wrong?


We used to teach a members class here a few times a year. These days we’re doing this month of November for the whole church instead, although we do have the welcome conversation just after our live service today. You obviously don’t have to join the church as you come, but it’ll help inform you some more. 


Anyway, I taught these members’ classes for our church many times, and they were fun. We always had free food, and I’d tell stories about the church and what we’re about, as we’ll do in the welcome gathering after service today, and people would ask all kinds of interesting questions.


One question that would come up a lot, though, is that people – particularly if they had churchgoing experiences other places – would ask us about our church position on this or that behavior. Do we approve of this? Do we have a stance on that? And I’d almost always say: no. We aren’t a church with a whole lot of positions at all. And sometimes they’d persevere in this line of questioning and say, well what I mean, is when do you tell people about their sin? And I’d ask them, would you like to talk about your sins, because I’m always happy to do that. In fact, as we teach scripture and follow Jesus together, I hope we’ll all discover ways our lives are short of what we and God want them to be and we’ll confess our sins to God in assurance of God’s great love and mercy for us all, and we’ll move forward as free as we can be. So sure, if I can help, which of your sins would you like to talk about? 


And they’d kind of awkwardly be like, no, no, no, I don’t mean my sins. I mean… and fill in the blank, they’d name something they thought was other people’s sin. Something other people do they consider to be wrong, and they’re wondering if the church will agree with them in their position. 


And I’d think, oh, you might be at the wrong church for you. Because we don’t try to use church to feel better than anyone else. We don’t use church to develop a really tight, look alike us that we can belong to so we won’t be like the them we judge or fear or look down upon. 


And sometimes at this point, I’d draw a circle and a dot on the wall. And say some churches are like a circle, a bounded set. They tell you really clearly what it means to be in the good favor of the church and what it means to not be. And that often is synonymous with what it means to be in good favor with God, or not, what it means to be a good Christian or a good person, or not. And the job of that kind of church is to tell you to get inside the circle and stay there. 


And I’d say other communities are more like people clustered around this dot. They have a center of their interest, which in our case is the God who looks like Jesus, the God Jesus taught about and embodied and revealed. And to be in that community is simply to share an interest in that God. There isn’t so much of an in or an out. I mean you be a member or not, but that’s not about having approved beliefs and lifestyle, it’s just saying I belong here and I’m going to contribute to this place being the best place it can be. 


And I tell them we’re trying to be that kind of church. Which means you’re going to meet people here who read the Bible differently than you, or who don’t read it at all. And you’re going to meet people here who believe differently than you do, and live differently than you do in many ways. And we’re going to teach people here, and we’re going to encourage each other to love and good deeds, but we are not going to police people or judge people over our differences. 


A little side note here, but I’ve heard stories in old churches where a longtime member of a church hears their pastor teach something they don’t believe, and they tell their pastor: I think you’re wrong, but don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be here longer than you will. 


I kind of wish people said that to me more often, not the old, crotchety attitude in that, but the ease of recognizing that a church where everyone believed all the same things would be a failure, not a success. It would mean difference had been eliminated, total conformity accomplished. I wouldn’t trust a church where everyone believed all the same things I do, because I’m sure I’m wrong about plenty of things, I just don’t always know which ones. It’s OK to disagree with your pastor. It’s OK to not believe the exact same way other people in your church believe. That is not grounds for crisis, or leaving or anything. 


Anyway, I want to give you one other way of thinking about these two different ways of being church that I find really helpful.


Just over a week ago, we lost a great light in thinking about faith and religion in public life. One of the most prominent rabbis of our lifetime, Jonathan Sacks, passed away eight days ago. Jonathan Sacks being Jewish did not write about churches per se at all, but he did advocate for a way of practicing faith together in a pluralistic society that I find really helpful along the lines we’re talking about today. And others called it the Jermiah option. It was in contrast to some popular Christian talk in America about a Benedict option. 


Hang with me for a second while I tell you what each of these are. 


Benedict was a sixth century monk who founded a dozen monasteries, where holy people could live separate from a less holy world. And these monasteries developed rules of life that they lived by, in retreat from an impure surrounding society. Some Christians have suggested in recent years that as America becomes more and secular and pluralistic, diverse in faith or lack thereof, and in all kinds of ways of thinking and being, that the best thing for Christians to do is to withdraw from the world in decline, and to live holy and separate lives in community with one another. Live by your faith as separately as possible, so that you can save yourselves and your faith and stay pure from the corrupting influence of the times we live in.


The Benedict option.


Now Rabbi Sacks heard about this kind of approach, and he’d argue, oh, this is one of three ways that religious people have lived that haven’t worked so well. Religious people often assimilate entirely to their surroundings and so lose their faith, or they fight their neighbors and try to make them just like them and so lose their battles or lose their souls if they win them. Or religious people retreat away from a dangerous world. This is the Benedict option. But in that retreat, you lose any influence on the world around you and you also become insular, and so sometimes pretty unhealthy without outside influences upon you. 


Sacks said there’s a fourth option, to embrace being a creative minority in the wider world. Others labelled this the Jeremiah option because Sacks based it upon the ministry of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who called people to maintain their faith, even while in exile, but also to engage in the broader world where they found themselves, and to seek the common good of the city at large too.

If he were a Christian, he might have used the language of Hebrews. Don’t give up meeting with one another. Listen to invitations from Jesus, follow Jesus, encourage one another to love and good deeds and to know God is with you. Sing your songs. Take communion. Listen to teaching. Pray for one another. Be church. But be church for the common good as well. Live lives of love that salt the earth, that are healthy and useful for us all. 


Don’t hide out together. Don’t try to be exactly like one another. Get out in this big, beautiful, hard world of ours and be love there. And on the way, encourage each other. Encourage each other.


One last thing from the Hebrews text that I skipped over until now. The text says: don’t neglect to meet together, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 


What is this big Day that is approaching, and why do we need to encourage each other now?


Well, there’s some evidence that in the first century context, a lot of the believers thought a big day in history was just around the corner, a day of the Lord, they called it sometimes, a Day of judgement other times, sometimes just the Day. A day when Jesus would return, and complete God’s work of making all things new. Parts of the New Testament think God’s big culminating day in history was right around the corner.


And it seems they were wrong on that. We’re still waiting. But I want to take this in another direction, because big Days come in our lives and in our world all the time. And we need each other, and we need encouragement to greet those days as best as we can. 


I look around the people of this community that I know and I love and I know some of you have big days coming of your first children being born. Others have the big day of your graduation coming, the big day of your marriage, the big day when your visa expires, the big day when your savings run out. 


A friend reached out for prayer the other day with a big day of their child’s surgery. Others face the big day of a divorce or a crisis of faith. We have big days we share, like election days and holidays, and the long, long days of this public health crisis. We have the day when we come out of the closet or our child does. Or the day when racial violence hits too close to home. We all face the big day of our own mortality, whether it be bad news from a doctor or the day of our deaths that will someday come for us all. 


Big days of one kind or another are always approaching. Sometimes we see them coming, sometimes not. A boring, head in the sand, fearful church will never prepare us to face all our big days in the world. But no church, or a church where we stay around the edges and don’t really know others and aren’t really known, that won’t prepare us for our big days either. 


We need a community that helps us know in our bones God is with us. And we need one another’s encouragement to face our big days together. 


I of course don’t know what big days are ahead in each of your lives, but I want this community to be there for them. And I want you to be there for someone else’s big day too. This whole being church without seeing each other very much face to face – this isn’t going to last forever. It’s just for a time. So hang on, friends. Hang in there. Let’s keep showing up for each other. We need our God who is with us. And we need each other’s support and encouragement. 

In Times of Turmoil

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

To watch this week’s online worship service, click the YouTube link above.

For this weeks’ spiritual practice Ivy Anthony led called “Child of Light,” click HERE.


Last week, I finally brought my car to a mechanic to address a slowly but constantly leaking tire. We found the bit of a nail that had made its way into the side of the tire and caused the problem, so I was going to need two new tires. OK. But when they get the car elevated and remove the tires, lo and behold, they discover that my rear brakes are just about shot. So they check the front brakes too, which turn out to be just as bad. What started as a one tire, small dollar car repair, once they got under it and really started looking around, became a 2-tire, all the brakes, rather large bill for car repair. Bummer. We’re gonna be alright, but bummer.

As that happened, I thought: you know, this is a pretty good metaphor for life in America these days. We see a problem, and then we open it up and look around a little, and we’re like: gah, it’s worse than I thought. 

We get a super-virus come our way, the pandemic we were all fearing would come one day, and not only are we not ready for it, but the longer it goes on, the more we see how poorly our country can respond to a health crisis, and it’s like: oo, we have a lot of problems here. This is not going away quickly. 

And then there’s the state of our democracy, or what’s going on in our local schools and how resilient we are in how we raise and educate kids. There’s the state of racial justice and equity in America. The health of the Christian faith and witness in this country, and hey, throughout the world. 

Yesterday a good bit of greater Boston was cheering, and I wondered if the vibe of this sermon I had been getting ready to give was all off now, but I still feel like not. We’ve had a lot of sighing to do this past week, this past year really. There’s been a lot to be disheartened about, still a lot of things to worry about, a lot that fills us with anger or despair. 

So in these times of turmoil, how do we be? How do we be with ourselves? How do we be with each other? How do we be with God? 

Two psalms have been speaking to me, and I want to share them and share a few words with you. They’re easy to remember if you want to keep going back and reading them yourself, because they’re the number 100 apart. Psalm 146 and Psalm 46. Psalm 146 first.


Psalm 146 (NRSV)

1 Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3 Do not put your trust in princes,

    in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

    on that very day their plans perish.

5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

    whose hope is in the Lord their God,

6 who made heaven and earth,

    the sea, and all that is in them;

who keeps faith forever;

7     who executes justice for the oppressed;

    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8     the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

    the Lord loves the righteous.

9 The Lord watches over the strangers;

    he upholds the orphan and the widow,

    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,

    your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord!


This psalm has been helping me manage my expectations for our leaders and our elections. 

Our leaders of course matter. Our leaders can participate in what God is doing on earth or not. They can cooperate in the work of God in this world or not, and that has real consequence. 

The scriptures give us lots of ways to understand what God is doing on earth, and here’s one of them. The psalmist sings that God made all people and all things and God wants to help us all, and especially those of us who could use a little more help right now through no fault of our own, especially those of us who have been set back or disempowered. 

God gives the oppressed justice. God feeds those who are hungry. God sets prisoners free. God helps the blind see. God restores dignity and strength to those who have been discouraged and disheartened. God has a special place in God’s heart for refugees, immigrants, outsiders, and those whose lives have left them vulnerable to economic or social harm. 

And when people really dig in against what is good and decent, when people hard-core resist the ways of God in the world – that’s what “the wicked” means in the Psalms, God stands against them out of love, to urge them to repent, and to call for protection for all that they harm. This is what God is doing. 

So when our leaders prioritize these kinds of things, when they are these kinds of people, they help advance the work of God in the world. And when they neglect these things or do the opposite, then they impede the work of God in the world.

Our leaders matter. We are right to care. 

But we can also seriously overestimate the power of our leaders, and we can seriously underestimate what God can do without them.

The psalm tells us not to put our trust in princes, or we might say, in presidents. Why? They are mortals. They’re going to quit or be voted out or they’re going to die having not fulfilled most of their promises. That’s just the truth. And not only are they mortals but for the most part, the psalm says, “in them there is no help.” Most or our leaders, most of the time, are out for their own interests. They don’t care that much about us, and even when they do, they’re not all that good at making things better.

Part of our stress is because we think that our leaders are coming to save us, when they are not. And maybe part of it is a uniquely American thing. Our country is a child of the optimism of the Enlightenment, and we tend to expect a lot of our country. We tend to naively expect a lot of us as a people and tend to expect a lot of our government. But a lot of those expectations go unfulfilled. 

I heard some people looking at the division reflected in this election and wondering how will this nation find some kind of unity or common ground? Frankly, I have no idea. I heard others looking at the legacy of our outgoing president, wondering what we do with his legacy of serial lying, of white supermacist race-baiting, and all the other bad behavior he’s brought back to the center of American life. And the fact that he’s got a lot of fans still. What do we do with that? Again, I have no idea. 

This week, though, I heard my Muslim colleague Shaykh Yasir Fahmy asking a different question, asking us to consider how we might disentangle ourselves from how tied up we are in presidential politics. How can we release some of what we can’t control, and free our consciousness, free our energy to participate in the work of God in and around us? 

The psalmist tells us what God is doing. What does it feel to be part of it? 

I’d be curious if you want to put ideas right now in the chat on Zoom. It’s open so everyone can see, so keep it clean and keep it constructive. But how, this week, can you participate in the work of God? How can you become love? How can you participate in God’s work of kindness, justice, mercy, and liberation? Opening eyes, feeding hungry, encouraging the discouraged? 

Here’s what I experienced this past week.

I got a message out of the blue from a student intern at an immigration law clinic. He reached out because he knew a little bit about Reservoir, had visited before and had a sense of this church as a kind and compassionate church that cared about justice, which was really nice to hear.

And he was like: listen, there’s this person in ICE detention that we can free. There’s a good legal case. But we have to guarantee safe, quarantined housing for two weeks and then some longer term temporary housing after that. Can you all help with that? 

And I was like: thank you so much for thinking of us, and I will try, but um, probably not. 

Have you tried to find someone free housing in the Boston area before? I have, and frankly, you all in this congregation have stepped up before. You are amazingly generous people. But during a COVID pandemic? That’s a whole nother challenge.

So I put a kind of Hail Mary out by just posting something on my facebook page, and an old colleague of mine I hadn’t talked to in years reaches out and it like yeah, I moved but I still have my place in the area that’s free for a couple of months. All yours. And then I reach out to some contacts in an interfaith immigration justice network I’m a part of about the two week quarantine, and they say they’d raised money already for this very purpose and can get a hotel room for two weeks. 

So with all this housing in place, I let the law clinic know and suddenly we hear, this person is being set free. Amazing. The generosity of good people teams up to participate in the work of God, setting a prisoner free. 

And then I reach out to one of my community groups, and I reach out to our church Faith into Action group, and people donate short term cash assistance, we get food deliveries set up. Person after person participating in the work of God. 

I’ve been speechless with joy as I’ve seen the love pour out. So has the person on the receiving end of it. It feels so good. 

Let’s read some of what’s coming in in the chat….

How do we save America? Again, I have no idea. But Psalm 146 tells me maybe that’s God’s job, not mine. My job, and each of yours, is to put our hope in the goodness of God, and to save ourselves and one another by participating in that goodness of God. 

So in times of turmoil, first, do the work of God. And secondly, find the river, and drink deep. I give you Psalm 46. 


Psalm 46 (NRSV)

1 God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

3 though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

    the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.

6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;

    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

10 “Be still, and know that I am God!

    I am exalted among the nations,

    I am exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.


This psalm also affirms what God is up to, over and against our nations and our leaders. God’s desolation is to end war, to break bows, to shatter spears and burn shields, the power of God is for peace. America has never had a president like this, friends. I don’t know that we ever will.

But this is the will of God, that people of power stop putting us all into turmoil. 

Meanwhile, though, there’s a promise for all of us in times of turmoil, that God is our refuge when the world is shaking. That God is an ever present help, when trouble is at our doors. 

If we can only be still, and drink from the river. Beautiful idea, but what does it feel like when it happens? 

How can a God that looks like Jesus renew us and give us energy? How can a good God interrupt our doomscrolling to help us be still and to give us life and hope?

It helps if we can find the river. I want to talk about the river before we close but let’s get each other going. While I talk, if you have a river whose stream makes you glad, if there’s something in your life that God uses to bring you stillness or joy even in trouble, write what that is in the chat.

We need to find God’s river for us. 

See, the river in this psalm is a bit of a mystery. Because the city of God here is Jerusalem. And unlike most ancient cities, there is no river there. This is a city that has had problems with fresh water for thousands of years now. There’s some irony that everyone has been fighting over Jerusalem all these years, as it is a city that geographically has no river to make it glad, just an underground spring.

But for the psalmist, what they found to be the particular presence of God in that city was the river. The river that made them glad was how God showed up there, again and again.

If you believe, as I do, as a follower of Jesus, that God lives with you, that God is always with us, then you are part of God’s heaven. You are a person God loves, and you are a place God is glad to be.

What helps you remember that? What helps you drink from that love?

Let’s read what’s showing up in the chat.

For me, it’s a spiritual practice in the morning. On my good days, I sit quietly for a few minutes with my cup of coffee, undistracted by screens, and remember God loves me and I have good work ahead of me today. Lately, I’ve been reading a meditating on a different scripture about God’s love each morning. Some days, not so much happens. Other days, it’s a river.

God works through other means too, though. Yesterday, the bagel sandwiches a member of our Saturday morning community group bought for us all were part of the river. Listening to the love between a young couple that asked me to officiate their wedding this week, that was part of the river. Hugs from my family, good books, food and exercise I love, walks outdoors an balmy fall days, all part of how the river of Godo makes me glad.

Friends, wherever and however God helps you be still again and know that God is God, wherever and whenever God loves you and makes you glad, that is part of God’s river for you. Wherever and whenever God brings us collective relief and joy and hope in public life, that too is the river. 

Friends, the river of God is always here for us. It is up to us to find the river and to keep drinking from it.

That’s what I’ve got today. Times of turmoil are no fun. They shake us to our knees. That’s real. But even there, even here, we can find the river and drink deep. We can be still and know God is with us. And we can join God in the loving, liberating work of God in the world. 

Be part of the work, drink from the river.

Friends, hear the word of the Lord as we close:


Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still. 



Drink deep from the river of life, and find the joy of the Lord in the loving, liberating work of God. 


A God We Can Love and Believe In

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

To watch or rejoin our online worship service, click the YouTube link above.

To access our spiritual practice led by Ivy Anthony on Scarcity and Abundance, click HERE.


Hi, there, friends. Happy November. It’s two days before election day. I decided not to preach about anything related to the election. But if you can vote and haven’t yet, I trust you will. And you heard during the announcements that there are ways to be together with others this week if you’d appreciate that. I’ll pray for mercy for us all in a moment.


Today is also All Saints’ Day, a day churches have traditionally remembered those that have gone before us and have passed away. That will find its way into my sermon, so I’ll pray for God’s blessing on all those we love who have passed, and God’s continued blessing to us through their memory as well. Let’s pray.


The last two months, in our community groups, in our services, in our Sunday retreat on the streets of our city, we have explored Beloved Community. This phrase popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one way to talk about Jesus’ vision for the whole human family, that all of us will be part of communities of love and belonging, and that together we will affirm all human dignity and ensure all people access a hopeful and just present and future on this earth. 


We believe beloved community is what church is meant to be as well, a place to safely know and be known, to care and be cared for, to learn to love and grow and flourish and do good for one another and for our neighbor and for this world. Reservoir Church believes we are called to be the beloved community, and we ask everyone to aspire and work toward this together. 


We grounded the past two months in the little bit of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 known as The Beatitudes, or The Blessings, where Jesus widens the circle of who can be called happy and blessed. Where Jesus gives texture to the costs and rewards of making beloved community and living in beloved community. 


This month of November, we’ll stew in a phrase Jesus uses just after these blessings, when he tells his community what they are to do in the world. Jesus tells his followers: You are the salt of the earth. Make this earth healthy and useful. Preserve things we value and need. Draw out flavor. Not just through what you do, but who you are. 


In English, that phrase “salt of the earth” has this other meaning of being earthy, grounded – not too fancy, keeping it real. In Watertown, where I was a high school principal, this was a compliment. We wanted teachers and leaders who were real, who could relate to people. And we wanted good people, decent people, people who’d be healthy and useful, who’d help draw out the best in others. Salt of the earth.


Followers of Jesus have often not been salt of the earth, often not been good and decent people, often not healthy and useful. But we want to be. We want to be salt of the earth people, a salt of the earth church. We want our faith to be healthy and useful for us and for others. 


So this month, we’ll get into that. Every November, we spend 4 or 5 weeks talking about what this church believes, who we are. We invite our long-time members to remember what this church is supposed to be and to do your part in making it so. And we invite people who are newer in the past year or two to consider saying: this is my church. I belong here. And we tell you how to do that. 


Today, for all of us, we’re going to start big and talk about the God we believe in, a little bit about who that God is and isn’t, what that God is and isn’t like. 


I’m going to read a passage from the final book of the Bible, called Revelation. It’s often read on this All Saints’ Day. I heard it read early this week at an online gathering for leaders in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We were remembering a long-time volunteer organizer,  a backbone of our work, named Fran Early, who died suddenly last week. And as we did, a pastor friend of mine read this passage from Revelation 7 that I’ll read to you now. 


Revelation 7:9-17 (NRSV)

9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,

    and worship him day and night within his temple,

    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

    the sun will not strike them,

    nor any scorching heat;

17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,

    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


This, friends, is poetry from our future in the life to come. Hunger and thirst, gone from our memories, the loving, gentle presence of God as near as a friend. Tears wiped away; bodies, minds, hearts refreshed.


This pain is not forever. All the many pains of this long, hard year are not forever. The pains of injustice, the pain of heartache, the pain of death is not forever. God will make all things new. 


The poetry of Revelation dares us to believe in a better future, in this life and in the life to come. 


But it doesn’t just tell us things about us, it gives us visions into the nature of God as well. 


There’s a bit of fuzzy counting going on here, as there often is when Christians talk about God. Is God one being, or two, or three? Is God present as one person, two, or three? This mystery of the unity and the trinity of God, one God – known to us as Father, Son, Spirit; God, Jesus, Presence; Creator, Savior, Sanctifier. 


Here we have that. God is seated on the throne, and the Lamb. In this vision, there is what is called a throne of God, but at the center of the throne is the one called the Lamb. It’s intentionally not clear if there is one or if there are two. But what is clear is that the Lamb is God. The Lamb is praised and honored. Everyone loves the Lamb. In this joyful irony, the Lamb is also the Shepherd, guiding all people to springs of water, water of life, and the Shepherd-Lamb is also wiping away our tears. 


The Lamb is poetic language for Jesus, who though innocent, was killed, whose death was part of God’s healing of humanity, and who – though very powerful, was like us, very vulnerable. 


What I want us to notice in all this today is that God still looks like Jesus. The Almighty God is still a Lamb. Whatever God’s power is or isn’t, God is still gentle. God is still vulnerable. 


Revelation insists that this is part of what we will always love about God. Whatever else God in all God’s power is, God is still a lamb. 


Tonight I’m finishing a four-week class I’ve been teaching on church history. As we’ve unpacked some of the worst Christianity has become, we’ve looked at ways that Christians have had problematic or downright abusive views of God’s power.


We looked at when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, the very empire that Revelation denounces again and again in coded language. When this happened, the church got a sword, which it used repeatedly – against people that believed differently, people they called heretics, against Jews, against Muslims, and in the second millenium, against colonized and enslaved peoples of the earth. The church with a sword thought God was a powerful conqueror, and that they were on God’s side, helping to get that conquering done. But no matter how many times Christians thought or did this, this is not what God is like.


In our class, we’ve looked at other views of God’s power that haven’t been so out and out violent, but still were not were not healthy, true, or useful. We looked at how some Christians came to teach that God controls all things that are on earth, that God chooses and wills all things. God who chooses to permit all things, even the really awful things, for some greater, mysterious purpose we can’t understand. 


This idea of an all powerful, controlling God, that God that predestines all that is, that lets us say “Everything happens for a reason,” this is a familiar view of God. But it is also a God that lots of us have stopped believing in. Because when our prayers aren’t answered – not the little prayers like for parking spaces or good days, but the big ones, the prayers our lives and our loved ones depend on – when those prayers aren’t answered, we wonder why it is God is allowing such bad things to happen. When we – or others we care about – are neglected, abused, overlooked, mistreated, we wonder: did God choose that? When diseases spread, when injustice runs rampant, when leaders fail us, we wonder what it means that God is allowing all this. And we find that a belief in a God that is controlling history is not a belief in God that salts the earth. This vision of God’s power isn’t healthy or useful to us. 


One of the best books I’ve read this year is a new one, by a professor I know named David Gushee. He was going to speak with us this spring, back when people got on planes and spoke places. His book is called After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. 


I’ll say a bit more about it next week, but for today, I’ll just say that Gushee is admitting that a lot of Christian faith in America has gotten worse and worse over the years, and shown itself to be, well, not healthy and useful to anybody. And he’s looking for a path forward as the title says. He’s looking with us for salt of the earth, healthy and useful faith.


And in his chapter about God, he shares about his work with Holocuast theology. Holocaust theology is where Jews ask what it is they can believe and say about God after the attempted elimination of their people. After baptized Christians killed six million Jews in the late 30s and early 40s. After children were sometimes thrown into fires to be burned alive.


What is left to say about God in the wake of such suffering? 


Rabbi Irving Greenberg offered a working principle. No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children. 


Don’t say things about God you couldn’t say in front of the burning children. It needn’t just be burning children in the Holocaust, of course. 

We could talk of the Middle Passage, of other genocides, and war brutalities, and acts of violence and abuse. 


But in this case, Rabbi Greenberg offers the burning children test for our views of God. 


There are things you cannot say about God in the presence of burning children. 


You can not say: God is in control. You can not say: This is part of God’s plan. You can not say: God cares about prayer and private morality, but stay out of politics. What does God care about public justice? You can not say: God would have done this, or changed this, or healed this, if we had just prayed more. 


It is an offense to God and to the people who have suffered to say or believe any of these things. 


So what can you say about God in the presence of burning children? In the face of all the suffering we learn about in our history books and we see protested on the streets and we know in our own experience, what can we say and believe about God?


Well, we have to say something. 


Burning children tell us not to believe violent or controlling things about God. Bad religion kills. But burning children also demand that we not be silent. Because silent complicity kills too. The presence of evil in the world calls out to us to speak and to respond.


In the case of faith, and what we believe and say and practice when it comes to God, the problem of evil calls for salt of the earth faith, it calls for a faith that is determined to be healthy and useful in whatever we believe or say about God.


This is why salt of the earth faith starts by saying: God is love.


God is patient. God is kind. God does not insist on God’s own way. God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, God believes all things, God hopes all things, God endures all things. 


There is nothing in God that isn’t absolutely dedicated to the well-being and flourishing of all God has made, and of all human life, all God’s special children, in particular. 


The very reason that God is not controlling us all right now is because God is love. And love doesn’t control. Love celebrates the agency of the other. Love waits to be welcomed. 


And our God who is love looks like Jesus. God is a Lamb. 


God suffers with those who suffer. God is always with us, wiping tears from our eyes. God is always present in healing power, always present for the good and the true and beautiful. 


This God is with us in all things, and this God gently nudges us to do as God does, encouraging us to also become love and to grow, to nurture, to heal, to act for the common good, working together with our God who wills this. 


Friends, it’s been a hard year. I’m sure your heart aches sometimes, like mine so often does. We’ve learned and seen horrible things. 


What we don’t need is to compound that hardness by wondering why God has done it or why God allowed it to happen, for this is not what God is like. And if we have nothing other than that in our faith, we’ll have to close our eyes and play pretend to protect our faith, or our faith will soon die on us. 


Let me encourage you today by saying God has not done or willed this pain. God is still the love God has always been. God is still the healing presence God has always been. God is still on the throne, so to speak, but not with a scepter to rule or a sword to harm. God is on the throne as a Shepherd-Lamb, with a staff to point the way, with a voice to call our names and sing over us, and with steady arms to hold us all.