Deconstruction: Necessity, Tragedy, Opportunity

I’ve got a weird scripture for us today. It’s not hard to find one. The Bible is really old. Different times, different places, different people. So weird is easy to find. But I think this weird passage might be useful to many of us in the context of our own weird moment we’re living in. 

Our big word for today is deconstruction. It’s a big buzz word in the cultural and religious experience of times. And our weird Bible passage is from the end of the letter called Hebrews. I’ll just read three verses. 

Hebrews 13:12-14 (Common English Bible)

12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy with his own blood.

13 So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame.

14 We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come.

Nineteen years ago, my dad and I were deconstructing a home we’d just bought and that I live in now.

Long story short, insane work ethic + good luck + white privilege meant my grandpa left a bunch of resources to his one daughter and his three grandsons, and so Grace and I had more money than we had any right to have in our late 20s. 

At the same time, Grace’s parents were aging and without savings and owned a two-family house that needed a lot of work. So Grace and I bought the house from them – gave them all the funds we had to live in her childhood home and raise our family there, and provide a place for her parents to age in place without financial stress as well. 

The catch was the house was old and had not been very well maintained, so we borrowed a lot of money to take care of it. We fixated at first on all the paint and all the windows. We had a baby about to turn two and were thinking we’d have more kids and we thought probably this place is bathed in lead paint. And we didn’t want our babies to be full of that lead. So we were like: we have got to get rid of it all.

Now my dad at the time was in his 50s and was unemployed, but he’d worked as a building contractor most of my childhood and still had his license, and he was like: I will give you a few months of my time to do this thing with you. And that whole winter, that’s what my dad did. He labored on that house. I’d join him when I could on the weekends or in the afternoons when I got out of my job as a teacher but he did a lot solo. So much honor to him for this. All that love and service – so much honor. I aim to be this kind of dad for my own grown kids. 

Anyway, we tore out all the window frames first. And then we were like, these windows are incredibly old – they have got to go as well. 

And then with the windows and the frames coming out, we were like why are we keeping all these walls and ceilings. They’re probably covered in lead paint too, and they’re not all that straight either. 

You can see where this is going. We rented an enormous dumpster to put in the driveway, and frame by frame, all by wall, we deconstructed a whole bunch of that house. 

A few things. Don’t. Don’t do this, please.

But seriously, first, maybe, it was necessary. Grace and I loved our kids. We loved her parents. We were trying to love this house to serve all of us. And the more we pulled apart, the more we discovered that had to go. Like that time the electrician came by and was like – woah, shut everything off. I gotta tear all this wiring out cause we’re about to have a fire. And we were like: we don’t think so, it’s been like that for twenty, thirty years. She couldn’t believe it. But she was right, the wiring had to go too. Deconstructing a ton of that house was probably necessary.

But it was also horrible. So messy, I mean, I didn’t wear a mask almost at all and the amount of plaster and all kinds of other stuff that’s been hanging out in my lungs ever since. Sheesh…. So much headache. And my poor dad, laboring away there day after day, mostly by himself, for no pay, and a not always very grateful kid. I’m sure there were times when both of us wondered why we had done this.

And lastly, we needed a better guide. I mean no offense to my dad, who again, was heroic, but I’m not so sure looking back that we really had to tear down every single wall and ceiling. It was a lot of time rebuilding all those, and there were some other things that we really could have done instead. And if we were going to tear down every wall, like why didn’t we make sure we put up proper closets? This mistake has come up just a few times over the past 19 years. We needed a guide, someone who could help us make better choices, who could help us figure out where we were trying to go, and how to get there.

Deconstruction of all kinds is like this really. It’s often necessary, it’s usually tragic, though, and full of danger. And yet it’s a work of great possibilities if we know where we’re trying to go and can get help getting there. 

The word deconstruction comes from postmodern philosophy, where it means something more technical. These days, though, deconstruction has taken on a broader meaning. It’s a word for what we do when we find that some system we’ve lived in isn’t working any more, and we’ve got to pull it apart and find our way out. A lot of the time this deconstruction is about religion. 

You realize the religious house you’ve been living in is going to poison your kids. Or there’s no room in the house for you or for someone you love. Or the house is too small or shabby or it’s got bones in the basement, and you need to figure out which parts of it you’ve got to tear down and renovate if you’re going to stay, or even if you decide to leave all together.

It’s necessary. When you realize your house is toxic, or it feels more like a prison than a home, you’ve got to do something about it.

Also, though, it’s dangerous, it’s tragic. I mean who wants to tear up their house? So much pain, so much loss. There’s nothing sexy about it. 

But if you can figure out where you want to go, it can be quite the opportunity. But you need help. You need guides.

My religious deconstruction, if that’s what I would call it, started around the same time we were tearing up our house. Our first child, as a toddler, told us: Mommy and Daddy, only men can be pastors. Our little girl, something like two years old, had figured this out. And we looked around our church and it was clear why she had come to that conclusion. 

So we were like: we’re out of here. There were other things said in our evangelical church that we couldn’t abide, so many things, but this was the tipping point. We weren’t going to raise our daughter in a church that had these rigid views of male authority and female submission. No way. 

And on it went. As I got space from some of the ideas and people that had so influenced my faith in my late teens and early to mid 20s, I started reevaluating a whole ton of things I had taken for granted.

Some of it was so great! Like realizing, I mean not just in my head but in my bones that our religion should lead to flourishing, like good faith has got to make good fruit, that was so helpful. So if I had some religious notion that made me more of a jerk, more judgy, less empathetically kind, it probably had to go. It probably was never true in the first place! So liberating. Stuff that John Calvin or some other dead Christian made up cherry picking some bit of the Bible wasn’t gospel truth after all. It could go. That felt great.

But other stuff, man, it has been hard. Like when I became convinced that gay people had the right to fall in love without being ashamed, that queer people, people represented in the LGBTQIA spectrum deserve the chance to partner and marry if they want with God’s help and blessing. True confession, it took me a while to get there, maybe longer than it should, but when I did, I was stunned by the degree of anger and resistance around that. Small potatoes compared to the suffering and rejection that queer friends and colleagues have faced, small pain compared to what some of you have endured, my friends, but the curses, the cut off relationships and connections, the implications that I didn’t know scripture or wasn’t serious about my faith – are you kidding me? 

There was a time I was supposed to share about our church at a conference – just one of many dozens of seminars, not a main talk or anything, but it was canceled. I, we, were canceled. But in an effort I kept up for years at peacemaking with people that didn’t want me in their lives, I went to this conference anyway with my wife. And in the opening worship session, people were standing up, singing about their love for Jesus and all, and I noticed Grace next to me in tears. 

And I was like: what’s going on? And later, she wondered: why do these people reject us? I mean, when I became a Christian, I thought I was getting a family, a safe and loving community. But it’s not. 

She was so right, and that made me so angry. I felt the pain too, but the pain in someone I love so much cut deeper. How dare people cut lines of judgment and exclusion like this!

Or to have the experience so many parents have had and have your own child say:

you and your church seem pretty good. But most Christians are bad news for the world. They’re bad news for me. I don’t want any part of it.

That makes me even more angry, more heartbroken. 

I could go on: the dug-in defensiveness of most White Christians around how much racism, how much white supremacy – preference for whiteness – is baked into the American Christian experience, inherited from the European colonial legacy. I mean the fact that this is a thing, and that this is a problem, is not subtle, but the defensiveness, the denial, the angry attacks from some corners when this comes up, it can be unbearable. 

I visited one of our community groups recently, one where I knew a number of people were part of Reservoir’s community as part of their own untangling of versions of Christian religion they couldn’t abide any more. I wanted to listen to their experience a little more, and I heard the same.

Moving on, moving forward, tearing down some of the bad stuff wasn’t a choice. It was a must, a necessity. Even though it was hard. Lost certainties, lost confidence, lost churches – no one wants this if they don’t have to. 

But the other thing that came up was this third part, that moving forward isn’t easy.

  • What do you do with your sadness and your anger?
  • What’s left of your faith after parts of it are gone? 
  • When you’ve had to tear down parts of what used to be your home, what do you build in its stead?
  • How do you not freeze and do nothing?
  • And how do you not just rebuild another version of what you had before? 
  • And how do you not end up like my dad, doing most of this by himself?
  • Who are our partners in this big change?
  • Who are our guides?

It’s in this context I’m drawn to this passage of Hebrews I’ve read. It affirms the difficulty of a journey outside a broken but conventional power system. And it gives us a pointer toward guides we can trust.

It’s a weird text. Like half, two thirds of it is obvious and good encouragement. Be more hospitable. Treat your marriage if you have one like it’s sacred because it is. Visit prisoners, pray for them. Be good to your pastors. Basic Jesus stuff, even if we mostly don’t do it. That’s why it’s there.

But then there’s this weird bit in the middle. Some scholars call it one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament. 

It says don’t be misled by strange teachings. But then no one really agrees on what these strange teachings are. Something to do with food and altars, but not much agreement around what this all means. 

Best as I can tell, there’s a general vibe, though, which is don’t get into weird religious stuff. Like you can take religion too seriously, too far. 

But then there’s this bit about Jesus our teacher. The writer of Hebrews points to the animal sacrifices in the temple, and quotes the temple procedure book of Leviticus to draw a comparison. It says the blood of the animals was shed in the temple, but then their bodies were dumped outside the city, beyond the gates. And then the writer is like: same with Jesus. 

Jesus suffered outside the city gate. They took his body outside the camp, so to speak, and shed his blood there. All the ways that Jesus and his shed blood helps us become holy, the ways that Jesus makes us whole – that’s a bigger conversation for another day. For today, though, let’s take Jesus’ blood as a stand in for the self-giving love of Jesus. 

Self-giving love got Jesus thrown outside the gates. The city, the camp, the establishment – both Jewish and Roman – didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t want him. Instead, they drove him out and killed him there. I’ve visited the two places archaeologists think are the most likely spots Jesus was crucified. Both beyond the city walls. And both visible, rocky areas where people traveling to Jerusalem would see what was happening and mock the crucified or be terrified themselves. That was the point. Maximum shame for the naked, humiliated victim. Maximum intimidation for the crowd. 

And the writer of Hebrews is like, let’s follow him there, pilgrims. Let’s go. 

Brad Jersak leans into this verse in this amazing book on deconstruction. It’s called Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction. 

He’s like: friends, the camp has failed us. He writes,

“American Christianity as a colonial extension of European Christendom has run its course and is no longer tenable.”

Most forms of American Christianity, it makes sense to leave behind. They’ve piled up too much crap around the treasure of Jesus. They’ve failed.

This is one gift of this passage. When human power institutions, including religious ones fail you, do not be surprised. Because human power institutions are almost never built upon self-giving love. They’re constructed around the power and interests of the people who built them. 

Take the forms of Christianity we’ve inherited in our times and place. The whole thing started as a Jesus movement. The way of Jesus, the way of trust in a beautiful unseen God, way of receiving and giving self-giving love. But centuries later, the center of the faith was systematized and standardized and rigidified by power brokers in the Roman Empire, and then parts of it passed down and down by European power brokers, people who came to hate Jews, people who got scared of Muslims and battled them, people with land interests and wealth interests to defend, people that got in mind to colonize and enslave the peoples of the earth as part of their project for global domination. 

The faith we inherited in this country, the gift of European colonizers, had gone through centuries of evolution toward patriarchy, white supremacy, and the interests of the powerful, and away from justice, humility, mercy, and self-giving love. How do we know? Theologian Tripp Fuller puts it this way. He says so much of our religion has gone from bearing crosses to building them. From bearing crosses to building them. Nails in the hand, to hammer in the hand. But you can only trust Christians who bear crosses, not build them. 

So friends, if you’ve confronted power systems you realized you could no longer be part of, do not be surprised. If you’ve confronted forms of religion, including forms of Christian religion you realized you could no longer be part of, do not be surprised. If, like my old home I live in, you’ve found that it needs partial deconstruction, I know that is a pain in the neck. It hurts. God sees and knows this too. But don’t be dismayed. With the help of God and friends, you can build back something better. 

That’s my experience in the home I live in, thanks be to my grandpa and my dad and to God. And that’s very much true in the way of Jesus I’m on. I’m still finding my way, but it’s so much better than it was 20 years ago. It’s a road I’m excited to keep traveling. It’s hard sometimes, it takes discipline. But there’s joy here. It’s a road that compels me to more and more receiving and giving of self-giving love. And it’s a way of invitation to ever increasing freedom. 

How do we get there, though? How do we find our way toward some kind of reconstruction of faith? Who will be our guides? 

Well, Brad Jersak and the author of Hebrews encourage us that it’s Jesus and it’s people of self-giving love who bear his love and bear his shame. Follow Jesus outside the camp, bearing his shame perhaps, but welcoming and becoming his self-giving love. 

I want to end by sharing three ways I’ve been trying to do this. They’re my experiences and convictions, but they overlay with what’s in Jersak’s book and I’ve seen them be helpful for others. Three quick thoughts about following Jesus outside of the worst of American Christianity. Going with Jesus outside the camp.

  1.  Refuse to participate in a whites-only club.

This by the way, is a word not just for white people but for all of us. Refuse to participate in a whites-only club. 

Years ago, I noticed that the great majority of books I’d ever read, ever been encouraged to read that had anything to do with the Bible, with theology, with religion and spirituality were written by white men. Now listen, I’ve got nothing against white men. I love myself. I really do. But one of the failings of the colonial European project is that when it has confronted difference, it has mostly tended to judge and conquer, rather than peaceably and humbly listen and exchange. 

And so there have just been a ton of blind spots at best, violent, narrow-minded rigidity at worst in the echo chamber. 

So when I look at a book on religion and faith, if it’s written by a descendant of Europeans like myself, especially by a white man, I look at the footnotes, and if the only people of color they’re engaging with Jesus and the writers of the Bible, I usually won’t read the book. When I’ve been part of cohorts or communities that study, which is a thing for a pastor, if books like these are assigned, I speak up in protest, sometimes quietly, sometimes not. 

Even here at Reservoir, we are a racially diverse church. We have racially diverse leadership. Our Board is just over half people of color. Our staff just under half. But we’re aware that for our three preaching pastors, two of us are white. So, because it’s who we are, but also in a decolonizing, outside the camp attention, we look to learn from and center voices of color in our learning and speaking around spiritual formation. It’s a way toward constructing something new in our faith with Jesus, outside the camp, something more humble, just, and liberating.

This whites-only club by the way, doesn’t only strictly apply to white voices. More complex here, but colonial Christianity has had such an influence in the world these past hundred years that even people of color can carry on its colonialism. A native American Christian I’m reading says that the Christians these days who most resist the inclusion of certain forms of indigenous spirituality in the way of Jesus aren’t white people any more, but indigenous pastors who inherited an anti-indigenous colonial faith. We just watched several Black police officers, trained in an anti-Black policing system, beat and kill an unarmed Black man. White supremacy dies hard. All of us can make our choices to walk away. 

2.  Find new pilgrimage partners, those who bear Jesus’ shame and self-giving love. 

When I look for authors, friends, mentors, colleagues I can trust in following the way of Jesus, I look not just to people’s ideas, but to people who seem marked by the blood of Jesus, people who have borne crosses, people of deep, self-giving love. 

Not coincidentally, I find that many of them have identities or are part of traditions that have been shamed or marginalized by the power systems of Christianity. They’ve been pushed outside the camp, followed Jesus, bearing his shame. Pretty much to a person, my friends and colleagues and mentors in the faith now are people of color in the way of Jesus, they are queer Christians, or they are allies to them, not just allies in mind but people who have borne some cost from their allegiance. 

It’s not about identity, really, I don’t think, it’s about people that have walked with Jesus in self-giving love, to the point that if they haven’t been forced outside the camp, they’ve walked outside the camp with others, knowing Jesus’ love and joy, but also bearing his shame. 

And lastly, friends, I invite you, I encourage and hope for you to:

3. Engage with Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus he called the Companion.

If you’ve deconstructed part of your faith and need to figure out your way forward, hey, maybe not just religion, but if you ever finding yourself in any part of your life, needing to reevaluate, to redo, to walk away, to tear down and rebuild, then Jesus knows the way.

The Jesus we meet in the Bible’s four gospels, whose life is self-giving love and whose words are life, and the Jesus who is always with us and within by faith, the Spirit of Jesus, the gift of God Jesus called the Companion. The advocate, the counselor, the person of God who comes alongside. This Jesus knows the way. 

This is why we’re still a Jesus-centered church, anchored in the way of Jesus, the decolonizing tradition of Jesus. This is why I still read bits of the gospels just about every single day. This is why when we can be still and know that God is here, we seek to remember that the Spirit of Jesus is with us, and we seek to pay attention to what the Companion has to say, has to give. 

The way of Jesus is the way of self-given love, of self-giving love. It’s the way of a just mercy, of a wide and beautiful communion, of an entirely liberating love. 

So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame.

14 We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come.

It’s coming, friends. Keep building, keep walking in the way. 

I’ll close in prayer with the words of the Psalm I meant to also include in this sermon.

Psalm 107:33-36 (Common English Bible)

33 God turns rivers into desert,

watery springs into thirsty ground,

34 fruitful land into unproductive dirt,

        when its inhabitants are wicked.

35 But God can also turn the desert into watery pools,

    thirsty ground into watery springs,

36     where he settles the hungry.

They even build a city and live there!

Puhpowee | Life Force

Today I would like to honor and acknowledge the land upon which we worship. The ancestral lands of the Massachusett people – the original inhabitants who still regard this land as sacred and shot through with the force of life. 

Good morning everyone! 

We are in a series called, SEVEN BIG WORDS.  Where Lydia, Steve and I get to talk about any word we are inclined to talk about. This series will run us right up until the season of Lent – so another month – where very broadly speaking we will be centering Lent around the theme of Earth.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research in advance of Lent for a couple of projects that I’m involved in. And so I wanted to offer a word that has surfaced for me as I’ve been reading a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s a book titled, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.”   This book  was published 10 years ago – and I’m just getting to it now – for such a time as this, I guess! 

It’s a stunning book – and it speaks to the lessons we can gather from First Nations people. Robin is a Native American, a mother, scientist, professor and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Her experience at the intersection of science and indigenous wisdom is incredibly rich and spiritual. It’s been an honor to be in the process of learning and (un)learning from her in so many ways.

Her book tells the history of her people and their forced displacement from their lands – which was originally in the southern tip of the Lake Michigan area.  In the span of a single generation her ancestors were “removed” three times, by European settlers, and US federal Indian removal policies. Removing and stealing their names, their land, their knowledge, their children, their people and their language. 

Robin has been trying to learn and revive the language of her people.  Language that holds – not just words – but language that is the heart of their culture, their thoughts, their way of seeing the world. Language that was washed out of the mouths of Indian children in government boarding schools and by missionaries.  And she’s been trying to learn from only nine (!) fluent elders left in the whole world – who speak the Potawatomi language.

As an adult she stumbled across a word as she was researching traditional uses of fungi by her people – and the Potawatomi word is, “Puhpowee.It’s a word that describes the force that causes mushrooms to push up and appear overnight. It speaks to the

“unseen energies, the unseen spirit that animates everything, all of life.”

As a biologist herself, Robin was stunned that such a word existed.

“In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term – no words to hold this mystery.  You’d think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But in scientific language terminology is used to define the boundaries of knowing. What lies beyond scientists’ grasp remains unnamed.” (49)

This morning I’d love to continue to engage and learn from this Potawatomi word, “Puhpowee,” and to honor it.  We’ll also take a look at the story of Mary Magdalene and the resurrected Jesus, as they meet in a garden.

For six years before I became a pastor here – I was a teacher in an outdoor classroom at a local elementary school.  I had started a small non-profit called the Planting More Project. Its vision was to build Outdoor Classrooms in schools, and to actively grow food that would benefit the school community and it’s families. As well as to seek partnerships with like minded entities in the town to provide fresh food to say local food pantries, and join forces with nearby farms to up the awareness of community supported agriculture.

The first year – I was so ready. I had every ounce of our class time detailed,  the perfect growing plan to maximize how many plants we could get in the ground – when we’d start seeds inside, and when we’d rotate and put new stuff in the ground – to ultimately feed the most people… 

My students were initially kindergarteners and first graders – which meant that within minutes….. 99% of my best laid plans were absolute trash.  Our classroom was situated in between two playgrounds which meant the allure of running off and seeing how many of your classmates would follow you – became the foremost activity. 

I did discover however that “watering” the gardens was a highlight for kids. And I could send a team of kids to one raised bed to water, and be teaching and planting in another simultaneously. 

EXCEPT I couldn’t.

That plan actually meant that all the garden beds became flood scenes. 

Where newly planted seedlings soon were floated on the top of water. 

Tiny radish, beet, and lettuce seeds  – no longer in their rows.  Not even in the boxes anymore.

Every.single.kid covered in soil which was super fun for a second – but quickly led to them crying and wanting to go inside.

These gardens meant to promote growth, fruit, life – went sideways in the strong stream of a hose – and appeared to be swamps of mud and tears.

The image of life as a garden is a rich one.  One that we often align with verdant flora and fauna. Working in the patterns and behaviors that promote harmony and flourishing. . .  a natural way of being… with our partnership and tending and attention and cultivation..  And how true it can be.

And we also know that our lives are often side-swept – by pandemics, violence, tragedy, where all the best of our “tending” couldn’t have changed or prevented the course.

It’s why this word ‘Puhpowee’ gives me hope. Not hope that just floats above the harsh realities of our days,  but hope that is grounded in the histories of people that have endured being in the mud and grit  – and still hold onto the mysteries of our faith, of the Divine –  of that force of life that will not give up even in our darkest, dankest, moldy places.

It points me to the life force that Scripture starts with… that life starts with… 

LIFE FORCE

In the first garden of scripture, in Genesis 2:7 it says that,

“YHWH God formed an earth creature out of the clay of the earth, and breathed into [their] nostrils the breath of life; and the earth creature became a living being.” (The First Egalitarian Translation).  

Some scholars think that this first human breath of life – was more like a “gasp” as this life force filled its lungs. A sudden appearance of the unseen – now felt and living within skin.

I can tell you that the experience of returning to that outdoor classroom the following week (after the great flood) and finding that indeed some seedlings had found their roots in the soil again and uprighted themselves – and that some seeds were already sprouting and offering their first leaves to the sun… was *gasp-like* Not only to see such life emerge – but to remember, to return to a knowing that there is a life-force that continues to work on our behalf – even when we can’t.

The Old Testament shows the Spirit—this life-giving Spirit of God—as the divine power that creates, sustains, and renews life 

(Genesis 1:2).

“This power of the Spirit is found in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel. Where God brings breath to dry bones  –  showing the power of the Spirit to give life, always. Even in situations of death, sorrow, despair, and hopelessness, the Spirit can move – and move us”

…it can come in the night and show up in the morning, it can bring back to life what was dead…Korean-American theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim 

The image of life as a garden of course holds the pattern of life and death and life and death and life and death again. But in the seasons of life that are so fallow – rife with hard, frozen ground – where there isn’t even the tiniest mushroom of hope – they are real and hard and long seasons.

It’s in part why I want to look at the story of Mary Magdalene and Jesus meeting in the garden after his death, here it is in John 20.

John 20:11 – 17

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb

12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

*And she went on to tell the disciples  – as he asked – that she had seen “the Lord!”  

Among the many striking things about this passage – is that Mary doesn’t go anywhere else to tend to her grief.

The tending she needs – somehow intuitively she knows – is going to be found in the garden – where her friend, Jesus is supposed to be. 

Grief is one of those “big words”  – that holds a world within itself. A word that none of us ever wants to encounter fully – because when it becomes part of our story – we know there’s little we can do but let the flood come, and give way to it. 

Grief can feel like a world ending without our permission.  For the disciples and Mary – the world had died in the night as they knew it… As Jesus was crucified.

For the Potawatomi people – their world as they knew it died as they marched by gunpoint along the Trail of Death – losing half of their people on that journey.

Grief doesn’t wait for us to be ready to receive its weight.  It floods our familiar paths.  It ambushes, it takes over, it bullies its way into our thoughts, our bodies, our hearts.

And grief is unwieldy, it’s not picky… It hovers over the space where we’ve lost what’s precious to us or where what is good and right in us has been trespassed…  And it attempts to take root right in that most tender spot.  It has the ability to disorient and disrupt our way of living.   

Grief is a force of its own.

An invasive one.

And Mary walks into this garden draped in strips of grief.

And yet, finds a tomb of grief draped in linens that pointed to life. 

And as she turns from the empty tomb toward the garden she sees the gardener.

*I imagine her gasping here – as the earth creature in the first garden did…*

That gasp that holds a zing of life, of hope – of deep knowing – that has been covered for a bit… but now pushes through – puhpowee.

An awareness of the unseen spirit of God that animates the world around us, our breath, the wind..  The mist in a garden at dawn.

“There’s my friend Jesus, the gardener –  the one who planted the whole garden since the beginning of time.”

Mary is often regarded as making a mistake here – mis-identifying Jesus as a gardener…

But I don’t think it was a mistake – I think in her turn and gasp – she has listened to the spirit, the breath, the wind of God. .. and knows he is indeed a gardener, as well as Jesus.

Robin Kimmerer says that in the Potawatomi language there are very few letters in their alphabet…so the clusters of consonants that come together sound like wind in the pines and water over rocks – sounds that her ears may have been more delicately attuned to in the past, but no longer.  And as she began to invest time in learning again she said,

“you really have to listen.” (53)

Our words try to name and describe what we see. It’s why science terminology polishes the way of seeing. But it falls short of fully capturing the way of listening that also allows us to detect life, to perceive the Spirit – that runs so invisibly  – yet so thunderously through all things.

I was constantly correcting kids of their perceived mistakes in the outdoor classroom.  Plant here, use this much dirt, space so many inches between plants. At one point I saw a kid ripping up all the radishes that were primed for delivery to the pantry in a couple days… and trying to plant little sunflower seedlings they had started inside … I literally picked him up under the armpits and relocated him away from that raised bed. No no no this is a mistake…

And the teacher was like, “…um… you can’t move kids.”

And the truth is, this child wasn’t making a mistake, he had actually  been listening all along – NOT TO ME – but to the source of all life –  he had noticed that the soil was most sun-soaked in that particular edge of the garden.. A place prime for sunflowers to stretch.  . . . And a not so great place for radishes that appreciated cooler temps.

It’s so natural whether in times of grief, or determined vision, or exhaustion to shrink our words down for safety… to limit – define God to a realm of knowing. 

What we lose though as we do this is space to listen –  space to gasp – the sense that the word puhpowee points us toward… to life, to movement, to growth… to dirt, to mystery, to miracles, to mess…. It’s hard for so many of us, we like to have the right name – terms for things. We don’t like to rip stuff up out of our lives even if we know it’s been waiting for a long time. 

 4-LETTER WORDS OF JESUS

I had joked with Steve & Lydia when we were considering what this series about words would look like – and I suggested,

“how about we do a series on the 4-letter words of Jesus?”

You know like – hope, love, gift, rest, LIFE.

That conversation happened over email – so I couldn’t really read the tone in the replies – but needless to say it was a no-go.

But it is these words that root our faith – hope, love, life – which are in jeopardy, if we don’t let them breathe – they are shot through with this life force – alive.… if we continue to let them be free… to let them be lived, embodied. That’s what makes them BIG, right?  It’s how we engage with all of creation – the natural world around us – without worrying that we are comprising Jesus or God in any way – but hold our hands open to the sacredness of it all.

We can know how, where, when, who to love – but we can’t always fully understand how the force of love, the spirit of love – continues to keep our hearts beating – for one another… in disagreement, hurt, distress, or grief.

We can grasp and try out practices that help ground us and offer us hope. Meditation, prayer, gratitude – but we don’t quite fully understand why an early morning bird’s song, like the Carolina wren’s – or why the burst of green from a pine tree in winter, or why the owl’s call at night makes us gasp and fill our lungs with hope.

We can know that a nap, or a refusal to hustle or a good night’s sleep is the rest we need… but not fully understand how such rest can return so many of you to your ancestors – can heal your aching bones and spirit – that have been crying out for centuries.

Love, hope, rest are not only concepts -they are of spirit.  And that spirit – as evident in nature, as evident in us – will not relent. Will keep pushing up –  as this word, puhpowee offers us –  seemingly overnight, and in the places that will demand us to perceive with greater listening the freedom and expanse – the space it requires.

Robin talks about the English language – how it is a noun-based language – somewhat appropriate to a culture that seems to be obsessed with “things”. (53)

Only 30 percent of the English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi the proportion is 70 percent – which means that 70 percent of words have to be conjugated and have different tenses and cases…making it an incredibly hard language to learn.

European languages assign gender to nouns – but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine.

As Robin was learning the Potawatomi language she was frustrated finding it so complex,  cumbersome, the distinctions between words for a beginner so subtle –  And because it is such a verb heavy language – nouns used in English become animated, often with the verb, “to be.”  So something regarded as a person, a place, a thing – suddenly takes on movement….

“To be a bay, to be a Saturday, to be a hill, to be red.” (53, 54)

“To speak is those possessed with life and spirit in Potawatomi one must say, yawe. To be. Isn’t that interesting – Yahweh the unspoken name for God of the Old Testament and yawe of the New World both fall from the mouths of the reverent.” (56)

To be.

To have breath of life within.

To be the offspring of Creation.

The use of so many verbs gives credence to a culture that believes everything is alive. 

The life that pulses through all things – that animates all things. 

That allows rocks to be animated, mountains, trees, birds, etc.. 

And it is the same life force that frees/ liberates us from the demons of being “right,” or having to dominate, of being trapped, of being dead in spirit.

It is the same force as Luke tells us that  freed Mary Magdalene when Jesus cast out seven demons from her.  Mary walks into the garden knowing what it is to be imprisoned in a tomb…and yet she also knew what it was to be called to life again.  The *hope* the *love* the *faith* that called her back to life – was not of her own doing.  The heart of this word, Puhpowee, is what called her name even before Jesus did. 

It’s what tended to her grief in a dark garden alone … the spirit … even before the gardener came into view.  

The spirit ….. maybe it’s meant to keep us connected to life – by all means possible. In surprising, undefined, “un-termed” ways..

Maybe it’s how we see angels – in a room soaked in death.

Maybe it’s how we find Jesus in the morning -after a night of insomnia.

Maybe it’s how we hear our name – in the silence we find at the end of our ropes.

Maybe it’s how we find a new idea for a project after a conversation with a neighbor.

Maybe it’s how we find peace in leaving a job that defies all logical choice.

Maybe it’s how we find the courage to say sorry.

Maybe it’s how we find the courage to not say sorry.

Maybe it’s how we find freedom from all that tries to trap us.

*Maybe it’s how we keep living when it seems like the world is full of only dank, dark, mildewy tombs at every turn… 

*Puhpowee* – the life force that is in all of creation – that frees us to encounter Jesus – by whatever name we might call him.

God breathed into Mary, God breathes into the little kid in my outdoor classroom, God’s life force is in those sunflowers that still fill the school garden bed, God is breathing in me and in you – so that we can breathe the life of God back to the world…this is the pattern of life and growth – 

“Do not hold on to me,”

Jesus says to Mary [go breathe – go gasp] 

“go tell my siblings.” 

Nobody thinks that one small kindness is going to change a life – but it might change a moment, and in that moment something small can grow – and can even grow overnight.

It could be the smallest movement, the calling someone by name across a parking lot, an extra 2 minutes after service to intentionally say “hi,” and learn someone’s name, a small text,  a “thank you”… Robin’s  language teacher – gives her small class of 10 people –

“thank you’s” to everyone for breathing LIFE into the language, even if it’s only a single word they speak.”

A single word.

This is the life we have to offer one another – by the Spirit – a single word, a single moment, a single action – it holds the life force of the Divine – it’s how we can show up, appear to one another with creation in our hands and breath.

 

 

Follow/Rise

Matthew 19:16-30

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony,

19 honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[c] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

The pastoral staff, led by our senior pastor, often decides the theme or series for preaching sermons together. For this season between post-Christmas and Lent, Steve suggested Seven Big Words, because I think he had some words in his mind that have really shaped him, like he shared last week. 

And as I tried to think of a word, it was hard to think of just one word. Because living in a binary world, and being a Libra (which I’m basically joking about because I’m not that into astrological signs, but I will scroll to Libra if I see a horoscope post on Instagram), but Libra is the one that is holding the scale.

It craves balance, and if it tips one way, my desire is often to also go, ‘well on the other hand.’ So when I think of one word, immediately, I think of the opposite, the other side of that word, that in my mind, is equally important. But the first word that kept coming to me was, not a big word, but a simple word, follow. And it comes from a place of privilege. I’ll explain. 

Lately my life has been taken over by a new and exciting campaign from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, GBIO. I mention this organization a lot, often in my sermons, because it’s honestly been one of the most impactful and interesting parts of my work, since I’ve started working at Reservoir Church as a pastor five years ago. January 2023 marks my five years here, can you believe it? 

GBIO is a community organizing institution. It’s made up of 60+ institutions and if every single of those members came together, it would probably be 3,000 people + strong. And the fact that Reservoir is involved in this work is really interesting.

Because traditionally churches have done ‘mission’ or ‘outreach’ as a means of service-providing or charity-giving. Doing things for others. To help. And so the community organizing model for doing justice is a unique one that many churches might not be used to, that might feel different from… say providing meals for the homeless, a traditional picture of “serving.” There’s a time and place, of course, for service and charity. Churches through generations have played an important role in providing for the widows and the orphans, aid. I mean many hospitals are named after those that started out as ministries. But it also is often from a place of power, and yes, wealth, to be able to give aid or help or charity or service. 

Community organizing is not new to all churches. Black churches in America were doing it during the Civil Rights Movement. And it does have roots commonly engaged with the political spaces. But the way I see it is that it’s a method of moving away from the individualized way of looking at this, but working as a community, as a unit of multiple people, working together as a system. And what’s different about community organizing from traditional charity and service from the church is that–one of the central mantras of community organizing is,

“Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.” 

“Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.” 

And so right now, GBIO is kicking off a big campaign called the Housing Justice Campaign. It’s tackling the issue of housing from many angles, from MBTA zoning, to public housing funds, to real estate tax, etc. I’m specifically involved with the public housing fund and we’re working on this tenant (tenants of public housing) and ally organizing and since I don’t live in public housing, I am an ally.

For this work to be done well, effectively and genuinely, the only way this campaign’s going to be a success, is not if a bunch of “allies” come together to rally and speak on behalf of the people that are not in the room, to say that they’re speaking on behalf, in front of the Governor or State Legislatures. That just would not work.

It HAS to come from the power and the leadership of tenants and the people that are directly impacted by this. That’s why the word FOLLOW has been coming up for me. FOLLOW. I need to follow the leadership of others in this work. Even though I’m a pastor and chair of a committee on GBIO, and I have time and energy, and honestly privilege, and that’s exactly why I need to follow. 

And then I realized, the word for many of us is follow in a lot of areas, but the word for some of us is actually the opposite. DON’T follow. Rise up. RISE is the other word that came up for me on the other side. It’s actually time for you to stop following blindly and rise up and lead, like we’ve never seen the way you lead before. 

Okay, I spent the last 10 minutes talking about GBIO, housing, politics (oh there she goes again) talking about politics and privilege and race from the pulpit instead of talking about Jesus, the cross, or grace. Let’s go to the Bible. 

Jesus says to this man,

“go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

You see, this is the thing. We are, yes, curious about spiritual things. And that’s fair. Religion, spirit, our faith. We’re thinking about prayer and Bible and theology. And what does Jesus do? The guy asks about eternal life and Jesus talks about loving your neighbor. Jesus talks about possessions. Jesus talks about the poor. The rich guy asked about eternal matters and Jesus answered him with very earthly matters. 

And really I think that’s when our faith gets hard for many of us. When our faith or theology actually starts affecting our bank accounts. Our time. Our family. Our children. Our lifestyle. Our town.

Can I be honest with you? Can we be honest together? There’s a lot of privilege in this space. I’ve never met so many people that went to Harvard until I got here. It’s like everybody and their mamas went to Harvard here! Now it’s a diverse room. And don’t judge a book by its cover, people have been through stuff you don’t know about. But on the real, in many ways, there is lots of privilege in this room. So what is the word that Jesus is saying to those of us who are privileged? Because the reality is Jesus did have different words for different people, and so context and the audience matters. 

To Zaccheus , a chief tax collector, this is the whole of their interaction:

Luke 19:5-10

“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.

10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’s commitment to give half of his possession to the poor and paying back four times back was,

“Today salvation has come to this house.”

You know, that’s really uncomfortable for me. That’s all the dialogue we have between them in Luke. That’s it, they didn’t talk about anything else. Or they did, but this was what was important and recorded and kept for thousands of years. Really? Yeah, Jesus talked about money quite a bit.

But it wasn’t about just money of course. It was about the systems of injustice. About loving and caring for the poor. About inequity. About honesty. About leveling

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

Isaiah 40:4.

About the last being first and the first being last. 

To Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, Jesus tells him

“to be born again.”

To be completely naked, stepping into a whole new world where you know nothing. 

I recently joined an online learning community called the Faith and Justice Network, you know, new year, new me, new learning platform (it’s my equivalent of signing up for a gym). Let’s see if you hear about my readings from this teaching platform a few months from now.

But in week one, I had two reading assignments, John three the story of Nicodemus, and a short nine page copied PDF excerpt (it’s so fun to read things like this, a professor’s handpicked pages of a book) titled, Philippine Woman in America by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, written around 1983. And the reading prompt question that was posed was

“How might the experiences of immigrants help us understand what it means to be “born again?”

With such prompt and lens, one could imagine Jesus inviting Nicodemus, someone who knows the land, knows the people, has the power, has influence, to be born again to someone who is new to the place, who knows not the culture, who has no influence or even knows the local language. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that, either through an immigration experience, or being an outsider, maybe in a new city, or the newbie in the workplace or a new team. But being born again is not an easy or an uncomfortable thing. 

The invitation of Jesus is for us yes, ultimately that you’d experience joy and flourishing, that you may find rest, but to get there from where we are, actually it’s not necessarily a very comfortable thing. I mean, Jesus did say,

29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30,

but you know what a yoke is right? It’s

“a frame or bar that can be placed on one or two people or animals pulling or carrying a heavy load.”

The yoke’s lighter because Jesus is carrying it with us, but the load we’re pulling is still, you know, life. Life is hard! 

And the message of Jesus is often called the Good News. But why is it that for this rich man in our text today, that when he heard it, it made him deeply sad. You know why? Because the message of Jesus is good news to the poor! At a pinnacle point in Jesus ministry quote this verse from

Isaiah 61. 

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,”

It’s good news to the brokenhearted, to the captives, to the prisoner. 

How are you hearing the message of Jesus?

Does it conflict you?

Does it challenge you, bring up stuff for you?

If it does, that’s okay. Many of us are probably not far from the demographics of Zaccheus, Nicodemus, and this rich man in our text today. And to you, Jesus says follow me. Follow a baby of a God, that came from nowhere-Nazareth, son of a carpenter, adopted child, conceived out of wedlock. A not Rabbinic school educated. Do you dare follow this Jesus? 

And also, if you at all feel uncomfortable or sad, like this rich guy, not to worry. The guy walked away sad, probably into contemplation, which is perfectly alright and good. Discern. But this is not the final word for him. For when Jesus said that,

“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

And the disciples asked

“Who then can be saved?”

Jesus said,

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

It reminds me of a beautiful picture I saw once, where there’s a fantastical almost sci-fi looking image of HUGE needle, and right at the eye of that needle is Jesus, pulling rows and rows of camels as far as you can see. Yes, with God all things are possible. 

That’s what I’m going in with, to this Housing Justice Campaign. We started with a $50 million dollar ask to the Mayor Wu’s office for Mildred C Hailey public housing in Boston for maintenance and we got it last year. A GBIO team in Brookline built relationships with tenants in their local state-funded housing and the Brookline Housing Authority, and amidst all their conflict, have found a common goal. Which is the opportunity to ask and demand at a state-wide level, funding for all the public housing who are in a state of living conditions that are sometimes truly unbelievable, based on research 8.5 billion dollars. Yes, that is GBIO’s targeted ask to the state government. 

Could a broken system, disparate people, folks with opposing political views, across socio-economical lines, across different religions and faiths, possibly come together to pull $8.5 billion dollars through an eye of needle to a place where we imagine, a heavenly place where its describe in

John 14 “In My Father’s house are many mansions” 

Or in

Revelation 7

“They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; (this makes me think of the homeless) for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters (clean water!). And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” 

Pearl Gates. Streets of Gold. (How about at least gates that are maintained and streets that you can walk on safely without falling and hurting yourself?) 

It too is a vision I have, like Apostle John who wrote the book of Revelation. On earth as it is in heaven. On earth as it is in heaven is my prayer. 

My faith is not apart from works and this is the work we have before us. 

And if you’re not rich or privileged, don’t be like Peter either. Peter answered him,

“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

I’m kidding actually. I think it’s fine to expect things from Jesus. In the theology world they call this Protest Theology. I call it Tuesday afternoon prayer. The Bible called a Psalmist’s prayer.

“God what are you doing? Are you actually even awake, listening to the cries of your people?” Psalm 44:23 says “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.”

God what you gonna do for us? When’s it gonna be our time? 

I say to you, Rise up. Lead. Lead like Peter did, and boy did he, when we read the rest of Acts and the early Christian church. To him Jesus said,

“Truly I tell you, renewal of all things”

Renewal of all things. May that be so, not just after we die in heaven, but now, in real ways, in people’s homes. Renewal of all things. 

But I gotta say, some people really do hope that the whole

“last shall be first and first shall be last”

only happens after we die. What do you think about that? Where are you right now? Does this paradigm work for you? Is it good news to you?

Maybe some of you might be saying, I don’t know how to take this “good news” because I’m not poor. Yes you are. Maybe you have lots of money, stocks, savings, properties. But you’re poor in ways that might not be apparent to others around you or even to your own convincing. Whether it’s addiction, spirit, depression, anxiety, numbness, or whatever. There is good news for you too. Don’t be sad. To you too, God says

I will pull you through the eye of the camel. Follow. Follow the humble one through it. 

And to those of us who are poor. Maybe you’ve been struggling financially. Maybe you don’t come from money and money is such a struggle. To you I say,

you are rich and you have power. You can lead. Rise up. You can be the ROCK, just like Peter, that church can be built on. You too though, follow Jesus and he will lift you from the depth, lift you up to new life. 

Last shall be first. First shall be last. Jesus turned everything upside down. What’s Jesus turning upside down in you now? 

Let me pray for us. 

Jesus, you’re always turning things around for us. Help us to know and follow you, to the depths of despair, to the heights of new life. Help us to find you no matter where we find ourselves this morning, we pray, and know that you are with us, that you love us, and that you’ll fight for us that we may find life. Help us we pray, in your name. Amen.

Proleptic: The Significance Of Our Desires

I meet with a retired priest about once a month: a confidant and guide who listens to me, asks me questions, shares perspective, and prays for me. It’s a conversation called spiritual direction. 

We open our times with silence and a time of prayer, before I begin. And one of the times we met last year, during the silence, what came to mind was that I was so unhappy with the state of two important relationships in my life. 

I hadn’t expected to talk about these folks. I hadn’t even realized they were on my mind. But when we sat in silence, this is what came, so I told my spiritual director about these people and about my disappointment with where things were in our friendships. 

And as I told him about this, I found myself tearing up. I was noticing how much this mattered to me. But I also found myself saying that I not only didn’t know what to do next, but truthfully, I didn’t want to do anything at all. I wanted better relationships, but I was tired of trying, so where did that leave me? 

And my partner in this conversation just listened, asked me a few questions, let me know that he could see how important this was to me, and reminded me of a couple other burdens I’d shared with him before, let me know that he could see I was carrying a lot and he felt with me in this. 

It’s so good when someone listens to you like this, isn’t it? What a gift to receive, what a gift to give to listen like this. It’s part of what love looks like, this careful listening.

Yeah, so then my spiritual director asked me:

Could I share a thought with you? 

And I told him:

Of course, please do. 

And he told me,

I think your desires here are proleptic. 

And I was like:

You’re going to have to remind me what that word means.

And he did, and it has made a big difference to me.

A difference I would like to share with you. 

More in a minute, but I’ll say for now that prolepsis has to do with the things we really want.

Maybe not necessarily the little wants, but definitely the big wants underneath those. 

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t necessarily taught that what I want matters very much, at least not to God.

But if that’s the case, it’s funny that Jesus asks people about what they want, even when you’d think it would be obvious.

There’s the time when Jesus is first taking on students as a rabbi, and two young people ask if they can join him. We read:

John 1:38a (Common English Bible)

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” 

Jesus doesn’t start off with a syllabus or an interview or an introduction. Actually, he doesn’t start his relationship as a rabbi by saying anything at all. He listens. And what he’s listening for is what they are looking for. He wants to know what they want.

Another time, maybe a couple years later, Jesus is leaving the town of Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem. Tensions were rising around Jesus’ work. He had more fans and followers than ever before, but also more powerful detractors. All the good, bad, and ugly around his work the past couple of years seemed to be coming to a head. This is an important time for Jesus, a stressful time, and as he’s leaving Jericho, amidst a crowd of people, a beggar who’s blind keeps calling out, trying to get Jesus’ attention.

It’s a hassle, an inconvenience, or it would be to me. But to Jesus, it’s a human being, a brother, a fellow image bearer of God. So Jesus stops and calls him over. And he says this. 

Mark 10:51 (Common English Bible)

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Maybe it seemed obvious to everyone else. This is a beggar, of course he wants alms, he wants money. And he might expect that Jesus would give some. He’s a religious leader of sorts, with a reputation to uphold. 

But Jesus doesn’t assume anything, and as usual, he doesn’t speak first, he listens. He wants to know what we want. 

And the man who was begging goes bigger than maybe anyone was expecting. He says:

Rabbi, I want to see. 

And Jesus says:

OK, go, your faith has healed you.

And the gospels tell us he regained his sight and joined Jesus’ students following him to Jerusalem.

What a story, very dramatic, but again, it starts with Jesus listening for what we want. 

Why is this? 

Why does Jesus care what we want?

I think one, he’s a good listener. And what we want is important to us, so a good listener will want to know.

I think Jesus also probably knows that we don’t always know what we want, or at least we don’t pay attention to it.

This was the case for me when I went to meet with my spiritual director. I had these griefs and these hopes regarding a couple longtime, important relationships in my life. But for a number of reasons, I’d stopped noticing how much this mattered to me, until in the silence before a very good listener, and I think likely with the prompting of God’s spirit too, the want reemerged for me to pay attention to. 

This happened to me last fall in a more public way, in my work here as a pastor. I was engaged with our church Board in some planning. We’d been aware of a few financial needs for the church, which is why going into this winter, we were praying for and asking people and households to consider or reconsider giving regularly. Thank you again so much for those of you who sustain this community with your giving. 

We were also looking at a couple of old, delayed maintenance issues on our property that if we didn’t take care of in the next couple of years, would become more of a problem, and wondering how to pay for that. 

And it seemed like maybe we should try to raise a little bit of extra money this year, our church’s 25th anniversary year. So I came to the Board with a plan for a very modest sized fundraising campaign. But later, when I talked to one of our Board members, they said to me:

Steve, you know what you’re doing is fine, but why is it so small? It’s not really inspiring to me at all. Have you forgotten about what you really want? 

And he reminded me about some bigger plans and hopes we’d talked about in our Board for the church, plans and hopes that were important to me, had become important to this Board member. 

And I realized, one, I hadn’t prayed about this area of the church recently at all. I was responding to my fear that we wouldn’t have enough money to take care of the church property, and just urgently putting a plan together. So I decided to take a few days to pray about this again.

And then two, when I prayed, I felt like the Spirit of God came to me as a kinder, gentler version of that board member. I felt invited by God to consider this question of Jesus:

  • What is it that you’re looking for?
  • What do you want me to do for you?
  • What do you want?

And as I prayed, I remembered what that Board member was reminding me of, that for years, I’d wanted the church to be freed of our debts and fully released to powerful generosity around all our mission and vision. 

See, when we first acquired this building back in 2004, it was through a powerful, two year period of immense generosity from the congregation at the time. A young congregation, several hundred people in their 20s and 30s, had raised almost four million dollars in a very short amount of time to purchase this property. There were a lot of stories of great financial provision, and enthusiastic and joyful giving. 

And so here we are, in a property that has been a huge gift to this church, to a public school we share it with, and to the community at large. 

But we also took on a fair bit of debt to make that happen, just as any of us do if we’re able to buy a home. But unlike a home mortgage, commercial debt is generally a less friendly thing to carry. So our church has had a great run these past 18 years since then, but we’ve had to divert a fair bit of funding toward debt payments as well.

And I’ve dreamed of the day when we’d be free from all that debt and be able to do some special things together with all that freedom. 

When I came back with that desire I felt encouraged to pay attention to again, our Board members agreed and it seemed like this 25th anniversary would be a great time to see this dream into being. 

See, I’ve said that our desires matter a lot to us. They are by definition important to us, so they’ll be important to any good listener too, God included. 

I’ve also pointed out that it’s easy to forget what we really want, or to stop paying attention to it, even to bury it, especially if it doesn’t come true right away.

But three, I believe that our desires always tell a story we need to pay attention to, and sometimes that story is the truth. 

The community group I lead that meets on Saturday mornings studies the Bible together every week, and we studied part of the book of Hebrew poetry called Ecclesiastes this fall. It’s mostly pretty gloomy, and it was depressing enough that we basically voted to move on after 3 or 4 weeks.

But before we did, we read the chapter with this beautiful line in it. 

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (Common English Bible)

11 God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.

God-sized eternity in our hearts, but a lack of God-sized knowledge or abilities. The glory and the humility of being a human, this gives a sense of that. 

In our center, call it heart, gut, mind, spirit, whatever, in our core desires, is a longing for what’s good, what’s true, what’s beautiful. 

Ultimately, that’s a longing for God, I think. The ancient North African theologian Augustine thought so. He famously wrote, 

You, God, have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.

But in saying we long for God, it’s not just God in a narrow sense, like longing for prayer and worship. Ecclesiastes immediately talks about the gift of great meals and enjoying the fruit of hard work. I think this verse speaks to the desire we have for things we could call lasting, eternal, maybe spiritual. 

Sometimes our desires tell the truth, not just about what we want, but about what is yet to come, about what God is longing to bring into being as well.

This is what my spiritual director meant when he told me he thought my longings were proleptic. 

Prolepsis is the representation of a thing before it’s actually so. It can be a figure of speech, like when you see a doomed person and you say: he was a dead man when he entered. People on their way to their execution can be called “dead men walking.” That’s a proleptic figure of speech. The future represented as true in the present.

But prolepsis isn’t just a figure of speech. It’s any time we treat the future as if it’s real, like it’s already on the way to happening. 

So maybe, just maybe, our desires are also important because they’re a window into future possibilities God wants us to see or hope for.

Let me give you two places where we think this way, both of which have their strengths and their problems.

One is in vision and goal setting, like in business or organizational planning. Often when organizations think about their future, they listen to the desires people have for what that future will be like. And they try to translate those desires into words and pictures people agree upon and find inspiring. And then they treat those desires as real and try to make them happen.

Another place is this idea of manifesting. Manifesting is this idea of thinking your dreams into reality. Like: I manifest this new job, or this prosperous life, or I manifest this beautiful, agreeable partner into being. It goes back to an idea in a book that got really popular right after we moved into this building, The Secret, that argues the secret to success is this positive attitude and positive visualization that attracts the good things to us that we imagine. You could trace that back to a 1952 book by the minister Norman Vincent Peale, called The Power of Positive Thinking. That book had a huge impact on Donald Trump’s daddy, and on Trump himself too – who liked the idea that you could get whatever you want if you just want it enough. 

I’m not actually pushing for either of those things at all. I mean goals and planning have important places in life, and positive, optimistic thinking and visualizing can be useful too. In some cases, it probably does make it more likely you get what you want. Optimism and confidence can help. 

Both of these things, though, can be idolatrous. They can exaggerate our abilities, as if we can control the future just by wanting it badly enough. And so they can bring shame to people who don’t get what they want. Like if I get sick or if I have financial problems, is it always or even usually because I just didn’t want to be healthy or wealthy badly enough?

No way!

Prolepsis – treating our desires as important, as worth paying attention to, even as telling us a story that is at least partly true – isn’t magic, and it doesn’t give us control of the future.

A proleptic take on our desires is simply to trust that in our wanting, or maybe sometimes in the deeper want behind the want, there is a truth about the Spirit of God’s moving. There’s truth about possibilities for what both we and God long for. 

So as I talked with my spiritual director that day, and fleshed out what I longed for in these two strained relationships, even though I wasn’t motivated to do anything, I found myself asking my pastor:

So what should I do?

And he was like:

Respectfully, I think that’s the wrong question. You’re not God after all, are you?

He affirmed for me that I’ve come honestly to my lack of motivation. I can’t control the other people. I can’t control the future. I can’t even fully control myself.

Sometimes we’ve tried and tried, and it’s time to stop trying for a little while.

He was like maybe this is an invitation to pay attention, to hold your desires before God, to be open to discernment, to let these desires sit for a while and see what I learn about them – see what’s in the end good and true and beautiful about them, and see maybe if there’s parts I want to let go of as well.

I think this is what the scripture that is most famously negative about our desires has in mind. The prophet Jeremiah says: 

Jeremiah 17:9-10 (Common English Bible)

9 The most cunning heart—

    it’s beyond help.

        Who can figure it out?

10 I, the Lord, probe the heart

    and discern hidden motives,

        to give everyone what they deserve,

        the consequences of their deeds.

Our desires are important. They deserve our attention. They tell stories that are true. But they’re complicated. Not everything we want would we do well to have. I’ve wanted to take things that aren’t mine. I’ve wanted revenge, I’ve wanted to change the past. I’ve wanted a lot of things I’ve been encouraged to let go of. 

Our hearts can be cunning, complicated, full of mixed motives and all. But God probes and sees and discerns. God has a sense of what is really good, true, and beautiful, and what’s worth letting go of for each of us. 

So sometimes not just to not try so hard, but to wait too. 

And to trust that God sees and hears our desires, to get real curious about them, to not just let them go, however likely or unlikely they may seem today, and to humbly see what God and what life can help you learn as you watch and wait.

Eventually, with this kind of humble paying attention before God, you’re likely to know when the time is right for you to do something.

I think this is what the psalms mean, or at least part of what they mean when they say:

Psalm 37:4 (Common English Bible)

Take delight in the Lord,

    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Trust the God that listens to you. Trust the God that inspires everything good and true and beautiful. Trust the God that will cooperate with you in seeing good futures into being. 

And see how your desires change, and how life around you changes over time. 

For me, with the church project, there was an immediate reaction to my re-noticing my desires and holding them before God. Almost immediately, there were opportunities to ask a few people if they share this desire, and some significant funds have already been pledged and given toward Reservoir’s debt free, generous future. We’ll share more about this exciting opportunity for our church in two or three months. For now, though, it’s been amazing for me and for our Board to be fulfilling the desires of this church as we delight and trust in God.

With those key relationships I talked with my spiritual director about, things have been moving more slowly. It’s been nothing like an instant change. Months later, things are mostly still disappointing. 

But I know what I want. And I pray about it. And I’ve had a few opportunities in past months to do something about it with these folks, which have helped a little. And just knowing that God holds my hopes and that I’m doing the little that I have it in me to do, feels good to me. 

Friends, God cares about what you want. 

The Spirit of Jesus is with you, whispering to you in this new year:

What is it that you’re looking for? What do you want me to do for you?

Neither me nor you have the power to see all that junk into being, which frankly, I’m grateful for! We are not gods, and it’s not always time for us to do something.

But over time, our loving God will help us see what’s good, what’s true, what’s beautiful, and what’s possible in our desires, and if we pay attention, we’ll find the moments when it’s our time to do something about it too. 

Pray with me:

God of Creation, God who made and loves us all,

Help us not despise or ignore our desires, but to notice and value them, 

To hold them before you with openness and curiosity, that in time, you and we can make what’s good and true and beautiful possible together. 

Amen.