Everyday is Your Birthday

PRAYERS

Students, and Parents and Caregivers of Students, and Educators

May you be safe from harm this year, safe from over-worrying, safe from threats and bullies, and when you do face something hard or scary, God give you gentle strength to ask for help and make it through. 

May you stay open this year, open to learn new things, even from people you didn’t think could teach you. God help you be calm and curious and open to all the things God hopes to teach you and to every encouragement God sends you.

May you be kind to your friends and your teachers and students and parents and children, since kindness heals others and kindness even heals ourselves. And may you remember that you too are worthy of kindness, that you are God’s beloved child. 

May you be secure, quietly strong in God’s love and purpose for you. Sometimes tests and classmates and maybe even parents or principals or all kinds of other people are going to tell you are not good enough. God help you remember the world is so good but the world can also be a liar. And God help you remember the truth that you can keep learning and growing, and that you are also loved and you are enough today just as you are. 

And God gift you with wonderful friendship too. God help you make a new friend this year. God help you keep an old friend when something hard happens and one of you needs to reach out or say I’m sorry. God even help you let go of a friend if it’s not so good anymore and it’s time to move on. God give you power to be a good friend and to know that like everyone else, you deserve good friends too. And God help you remember you can always be God’s friend too, the person God loves and encourages and comforts. 

You, students and teachers, children and parents and school staff and leaders are loved. You matter to God and to us, and your school year matters to God and to us. And we say, be blessed and go back to school in hope, in joy, and in peace.

AMEN

Psalm 118:21-25 (Common English Bible)

21I thank you because you answered me,
    because you were my saving help.

22 The stone rejected by the builders
    is now the main foundation stone!

23 This has happened because of the Lord;
    it is astounding in our sight!

24 This is the day the Lord acted;
    we will rejoice and celebrate in it!

25 Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

How does this sound to you? How does it make you feel?

Do you feel happy? Are you like: present-day vibe. This is my song.

Do you feel annoyed? Like: I am not feeling joy and celebration. I have other feelings, thank you very much.

Or maybe it’s just early, and you’re like: come back to me later with all that smile.

Or maybe, maybe you feel pressure: like my goodness, here goes the Lord, or the Bible, or the church again, telling me to put a smile on it when I’m not all that happy.

Let me assure you that this sermon is not about trying to feel any one way in particular. You feel whatever you feel. You be wherever you are right now, that’s just fine with us. I think it’s just fine with God too. 

Even this happy passage makes room for all kinds of places we might be in any moment in life. There’s gratitude for the past, yeah, but there’s some urgency in the present – save us, God, and some fear for the future (could you help us with success?) that it puts out there. 

God’s good with where you are today, my friends. I hope you are too.

And this is what I want to talk about today – how to really be wherever we are, how to be here today, no matter what day it is. We’ll talk about why that’s important, how it’s part of the way of Jesus for us all, and some of how to welcome this gift of today a little more. 

Now you may have noticed I took the summer off this year. I’m so grateful for your support in that. I was actually not too far from here most of the time. My wife Grace was working, my kids had stuff to do, but it was really good just to slow down my pace and be a private person for a while. I’ve been doing this work for 10 years, 50 is right around the corner, and it was really good this summer to relax, to take some stock of my life, and think a little bit about what I want to be the same, and what I hope will be different going forward. So thanks again for your support of pastor sabbaticals. It was really good.

We won a Lily Foundation grant to support the sabbatical too, so that paid for some church things, like the slate of guest preachers you heard. But it also paid for my family to make some memories together. There were a number of small trips, but the big highlight was a long trip to Southeast Asia. We traveled through Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore – seeing the sights, eating incredibly well.

It was all wonderful really, but for all five in our family, I’d say being in Thailand was a highlight. The beaches, the monkeys in the jungle, the temples, the canalled city of Bangkok – it was all extraordinarily beautiful. The meals were delicious. And we found just dipping our toes into Thai culture enriching as well. 

Our tour guide, Nikki, was Thai, and at one point, she talked with us about her experience of what is special about Thai Buddhist culture. She described what it’s been like in the six years since her mother died, her mother being maybe the most important person in her life. 

And she said for us, the past is over here. It happened, it mattered, but we can’t go there any more. And the future is over here – we don’t know what it will be. But in between, here we are with the one time we do have, with the present. 

And she said

Even with my loss, I don’t live with sadness or regret. Because every day I had with my mother was a good day. I hugged her. I said I love you. We said and did the things we wanted each day because we’ve learned to live in the present, like there is no past and no future. Just today. So no regrets.

I could tell Nikki really meant this. Another time when she mentioned she was 39 years old, I made some comment about 40th birthdays and how hard they can be. And she sort of looked at me sideways like she didn’t understand and just said,

I don’t worry about that, every day is my birthday.

Every day is my birthday. 

I found this attitude, this way of life, really compelling.

Is it anyone’s birthday today?

How about this week?

This month?

  • What if all of us raised our hand?
  • What if every day was our birthday?
  • Or maybe not?
  • Maybe some days aren’t for celebrating?
  • And some days aren’t for reflecting on the passing of time?
  • But what if every day was like the whole world to us?
  • Like it was the only day that existed?
  • What if every day was the whole of life?
  • What would this be like?
  • Does this have anything to do with the Way of Jesus?
  • Would this spirit about the past, the future, the present help us?
  • How so?

There’s this interesting progression in the Way of Jesus about how the bit from the Psalm I read goes. It’s like a socio-theological progression. 

See, first Psalm 118 is part of the Jewish liturgy of the Egyptian Hallel.

“This is the day that the Lord has made”

has to do with the Exodus out of Egypt, the deliverance of the ancient Hebrew peoples from bondage. It’s a day of memory enshrined in the culture, in the faith. God has rescued us. So this was maybe the song that Jesus and his disciples sang after the Last Supper, when it says they went out and sang a hymn….

You have helped us God. You have done surprising things in surprising ways. This is the day. And so again, our God, help us. God help us this day.

Later in the Way of Jesus, this language is applied to the first Easter, to Resurrection day. Once again, God has done surprising things, taken the stone that was rejected – now personified as Christ crucified – and has turned it, turned him into the cornerstone of God’s work on earth. Jesus is risen. This is the day of rejoicing.

In the decades to come, the followers of Jesus would start to say and to sing these words every Sunday, celebrating the day of resurrection in weekly worship. God is alive, God is our ever present help, God is doing surprising and hopeful things not just back in the life of Jesus but in our time too. Weekly worship as a time for rejoicing in God this day.

But then of course, you take it to its conclusion, you go all the way and it’s not just the Exodus, it’s not just Easter, it’s not just Sunday, but it’s every day. This is the day – this day, whatever it is – that God has made. This is the day for life. This is the day for God’s saving help. This is the only day we’ve got. And so this is the day in which joy can be found. This day!

It reminds me of something Jesus said, something that became one of my favorite phrases of Jesus this summer. He says,

Matthew 6:34 (Common English Bible)  

Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

I think it’s the gloomier version of Psalm 118. That one says –

be present today, this day, because it’s God’s creation.

It’s God’s time of life and help and joy. This is the day.

Jesus has the same message, different mood.

Be present today, this day, because it’s the only day you have.

It’s God’s time of life and help, and after all, why think about any other day? Doesn’t today have enough challenges? Doesn’t today have enough trouble? This is the day.

Not every day is our birthday. Some days are full of hard things. Some days are sad, some days seem dull or scary. Jesus knew this. And who knows, maybe Jesus was in a mood when he said this, I don’t know. 

But this presence, the full engagement of today as the only day we’ve got, as our day we share with the living, life-giving God, I think this presence is part of what made Jesus so special, so wise, so magnetic. He saw things other people didn’t see because he was so engaged in this day. He seized opportunities others didn’t because he brought care and attention and love to this day, to the people and places and circumstances before him, again and again, every day. 

And if we see that in Jesus, and if we believe in a living God who as Jesus taught – is never far, always close, who is always good, who is always creatively able to help us in this particular day, then maybe that kind of presence is for us too. 

Friends, I could piece together an Instagram account of my sabbatical that makes every day look glorious, rich, memorable. There were all the glories of the Southeast Asia trip. There were weekends hiking in the White Mountains, swimming in Maine with my kids, lounging around the Cape with Grace. Retreat at the monastery. Some new things I tried, some big rites of passage in the life of our young adult children. Lots of big days.

But a fair bit of my sabbatical was like a fair bit of all of our lives, kind of puttering my way through ordinary life. In my case, though, it was puttering about with all my work responsibilities and schedule removed. And I thought it would be bliss. Like, I don’t know my distant memories of summers as a young kid, lying in the grass, playing around in the pool, just endless chilled-out joy.

But one, you can tell I’m turning 50, a long way from childhood now, because I know my summers as a kid weren’t like that at all. Summertime was boring a lot of the time. And even though there wasn’t school, sad and scary things could happen in the summer too!

And so with me. Even with much lower responsibility, I found on sabbatical that I could still be restless, I could still get very easily stressed out. My stress could just attach to smaller things, like a little drama with the construction company in our neighborhood, or endlessly bugging one of my family members about something I should let go of, or whether or not we were going to be able to afford to repair our fence.

When I noticed myself puttering through a day, just wasting the time, I didn’t like that. Because I thought – this is a sabbatical. I’ve never had one of these before. Most people never get them during their working years. And me, still, only once every seven to 10 years. That’s a long time. I didn’t want to fritter it away.

And when I noticed myself stressed out about something coming up ahead for me or my kids, and not being in the most present, loving posture to everyone in my family, I didn’t like that either. Because my kids are all in the process of launching. Last week, we went from three kids in our home to one kid. And even that one is planning on living away from home next year, at least some of the time. I don’t want to miss these moments with them.

This wisdom of the psalms, this wisdom of Jesus to not miss the joys, the life, even the trouble and the help of this day, seemed true. But not always easy to live. 

Just knowing something is true doesn’t mean you make it your truth, right? 

One thing that helped me, though, is a habit I picked up in yoga of all places. I’ve done a little yoga, a very little bit, in the past. But last year, after my doctor found some arthritis in my shoulder, he strongly recommended a particular form of yoga, even a particular studio, that he thought could help me.

And with all the extra time this summer, I thought: why not now? This is the day to try. So I did one of those 30-day cheap trials, where I could practice yoga at this studio as often as I want. 

And friends, I got to tell you, I got my 30 bucks worth. I kept going back there, day after day after day, no matter how inexperienced I was, and no matter how goofy I must have looked sometimes. 

And it was great. It was great in a lot of ways, but one of the ways was through this attention to what they call “drishti.” Drishti is a Sanskrit word for our view, our focus, our gaze. 

And in yoga, or at least the form I’ve learned, drishti is the visual point of focus during the practice.

I’d be closing my eyes or kind of looking around unfocused while I tried to hold my body in some muscle-achy pose, or stretch some way I hadn’t stretched before. 

And the teacher would be like: pick a point, a single point, and focus there.

And I’d keep my eyes open, relax as best I could, and just focus on a particular point. And wouldn’t you know it, my body would be able to do more. The focused gaze brought more ease of focus to what I asked my body to do.

And the teacher would say:

this is just the beginning of drishti, because if you can focus your gaze here, you start to be able to be in one place, to see one thing.

Instead of zoning out or numbing out so much, instead of thinking about the past or the future, or just checking out, hoping for what we might want to see, we can be here, now, this day, this moment. We can be present to the gift, the opportunity, the life of it. 

Jesus affirms this insight that what we look at and how we focus matters.

Jesus said:

Matthew 6:22 (Common English Bible)  

“The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.

Jesus is taking this up a level. He’s talking about what you want. If you want things that are good, if you focus on things that are good, you become more healthy, more good within. Hard to argue with that.

But at a more basic level, Jesus is affirming the value of drishti, the significance of paying attention. 

Don’t see what you want to see or what you wish you could see. Don’t spend your day distracted, don’t spend your energy on the future or ruminating about the past. See who and what is there today. See the good that’s possible. 

That healthy gaze will make the whole life healthy. 

Friends, I’ve spent way too much of my life numbing out or distracted. I’ve spent a lot of days avoiding work that’s hard for me, sometimes avoiding hard situations too. I’ve spent too much time living in the past and the future as well. I mean right now, as our kids become adults and start to leave our home, it’s easy to spend a little too much energy nostalgic about the past or regretful about the past rather than letting go.

And it’s easy to spend a little too much energy worried about their future as well. Instead of being present to this day, the joy we can have in their opportunities and the best of who they are right now, the prayers and the help we can give this particular day, even if they seem small. Even the strange gift of entrusting our kids more to God and to themselves. 

I’m not good at this drishti thing, this present focus. I’m not very good at “this day” mindset. But I know it’s a gift of God for us to receive. It’s not a burdensome command, this thing God’s upset at us if we’re not doing. It is a grace, though, part of Jesus’ way for us into more love, joy, and peace.

And in the times and ways I can receive it, it’s doing a lot of good. Just a few ways how:

Living today gives me more awe. Science tells us that awe – being surprised and amazed, having wonder over something big or beautiful or good, is one of the keys to happiness and well-being. 

This morning, I woke up earlier because I had some stuff I had to do to be ready for today. I was tired and grumpier than normal too. I walked my dog even though I didn’t want to because that’s my morning chore. Sometimes I look at my phone while I’m walking my dog, but this time I didn’t.

And I saw how beautiful the first morning light was. Even the big gray apartment building on my block looked really beautiful in the first rays of sun. And I saw a very small flock of birds fly overhead in their perfect V-formation, and for a moment, I thought:  wow, this world is so beautiful. And maybe it can all be beautiful, even me and even the stuff I stress about. This is the day.

Living today helps us stay in it when things get hard. Keeping a single focus, I can do weird stuff with my body that’s making me stronger that couldn’t do just weeks ago. That’s cool. And living today helps me not run away so fast when someone’s angry or sad. And living today helps me sit down and so some work I’ve been avoiding or procrastinating over. Because living today like it’s the only day means we can’t choose our work or our troubles this day, but we can choose how we face them. We can look for the good, the possibility, the opportunity in them. And that helps us be more courageous, more present, more productive, more peaceful.

And lastly, living today helps us love better. Because we can’t love what we don’t see. Jesus said this sometimes. Like when he was in this guy Simon’s house, and Simon was being so rude to someone Jesus loved. 

Luke 7:34 (Common English Bible)

Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair.

I live with a son who is incredibly observant. Sometimes he is just so eerily good at seeing people. There was a time this summer when he was insistent that we spend time with certain extended family. Because he was like: Dad, don’t you see, this is important. And he told me the reasons he saw it was. And of course he was right. So we did a bunch of really complicated schedule changes to make it happen, and of course, that was good. The seeing became loving, and loving – real love, generous and kind and gentle attention that comes from really seeing someone – does so much good for the person being loved and the person loving too. 

Friends, it’s a simple sermon to get me back in the swing of things with you all, but it was my sense that this was the best gift we had for this day at the start of this year. The gift of drishti. The gift of more present attention. The gift of presence. The gift of this day that God has made, this day of troubles, this day of joy, this day to ask for and find God’s help, this one and only beautiful day we have to be alive. 

This is the day.

Joy Is Our Strength

Nehemiah 8:5-12 Common English Bible

5 Standing above all of the people, Ezra the scribe opened the scroll in the sight of all of the people. And as he opened it, all of the people stood up.

6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all of the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” while raising their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah[c]—helped the people to understand the Instruction while the people remained in their places.

8 They read aloud from the scroll, the Instruction from God, explaining and interpreting it so the people could understand what they heard.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all of the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.” They said this[d] because all the people wept when they heard the words of the Instruction.

10 “Go, eat rich food, and drink something sweet,” he said to them, “and send portions of this to any who have nothing ready! This day is holy to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

11 The Levites also calmed all of the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy. Don’t be sad!”

12 Then all of the people went to eat and to drink, to send portions, and to have a great celebration, because they understood what had been said to them.

Holy and Loving God, You gave your people the laws to guide them. You gave yourself through the person of Jesus to be with them. For us to know and experience your love, your compassion. To show us a new way forward, a new life forward. God, give us the courage to see your light. God, give us the eyes to see your good news. We thank you that you reveal yourself to us. Show yourself to us now, We pray, Amen. 

I moved to Boston about five years ago from California. There are some adjustments you need to make, when you move to a new town. There were winters getting used to. And the vibe of the town. The people. And an adjustment, to how. you. drive. 

Driving around greater Boston, Lord Jesus, is quite the experience transition from driving around northern California. First of all, we’ve got these things called a Rotary. If you don’t know what it is, it’s this round thing, and there’s usually at least four intersections coming into it, and we all have to go around. We should simply call it Pure Chaos. I go. You go. Everybody yields. While we all go around and around in a circle. Try following that and Google maps and cars and pedestrians all at the same time and after a while you’re like, I know this dance! 

When you move to a new city. Into a new house. Starting a new job. Beginning a new relationship. Beginning of a new school year. New Season. These are the times when we take stock of what has served us. What changes we might make going forward. What I will keep and promise and agree with others around me to do. New land. New laws. Adjustments. And a hope for the future. What this new venture will offer to me and me to it, and how we will move forward. How I will make meaning on this new landscape.

This is actually what’s happening in today’s text. The Jewish people had been away, held captive in Babylon, and now, they were back in Jerusalem, ready to rebuild their land. They were returning from years of exile in someone else’s land, and as they were re-landing back to their own, it was time to regroup and lay down ground rules together again.

The priest and a teacher of the law, Ezra pulled together the old laws, reviewed them, made revisions, and then brought the people together, standing on a wooden platform, he read the laws out loud to everyone. He read, and they apparently interpreted for each other, maybe there were some breakout groups to discuss and process together, explaining to each other so that they’d understand the laws, they did this all morning from sunrise to noon.

As they were listening, and this is the part that’s the most intriguing to me, the people cried. They cried listening to laws. Why? Were they upset? Were they like, this is gonna be impossible to abide by? I really wonder why they cried. 

Our scripture reading today actually comes from our Kids Church “curriculum” from July. I say “curriculum” in quotes, because, for one thing, we don’t call it Sunday School, and call it Kids Church on purpose. It’s not just a place you learn. Schooling, teaching, learning is not the center of it. And so it’s less a “curriculum” but a more framework and approach that shapes what we do with kids on Sunday mornings here at Reservoir church. It’s simply a story from the Bible that we tell, as is, and then just listen, ponder, wonder, ask questions, and discuss with and around it–is the main point. 

The “curriculum” is based on one called Godly Play. It’s been one of my favorite children’s ministry curriculum in the past decade or so, one that’s a mix of spirituality, wonder and play and the Montessori approach. 

Our pre/k program actually uses the Godly Play method pretty intentionally. Our elementary program more or less does kind of Godly Play lite. 

And what they do is, they tell a story from the Bible and then afterwards, the kids cry, just kidding, afterwards they ask these things called, “wondering questions.” The questions are not a set up answers for memorization or to conclude the moral of the story. It’s to literally just get their reaction. I wonder why the story happened like this or like that. I wonder what’s your favorite part. I wonder what can be left out. 

So we’re going to actually do that now. I’m going to first give all of us a moment to think, for like a minute. Cause I’m really curious. Why do you think they cried? 

So close your eyes if you want, to really wonder and ponder on it. Maybe imagine all these people and Ezra standing on a podium reading the law, and people crying. Why do you think they cried? 

Let me gather us back together. 

So in the spirit of Godly Play, my message today is not an offering of any answers but an invitation to wonder together this story and just to make space. 

The beauty of it all is how you resonate with the story with each of your unique stories. 

It may be that there have been times when you heard some news, it made you cry and at the same time you also celebrated. Maybe you also know what it means and feels like to be both really sad and yet also joyful at the same time. When something touched you deeply and you felt it, it made you feel like you could cry and laugh.

I was just so struck by this story because I love tears. I’m a person who is very close to their tears. I see a touching commercial and I cry. I imagined that after being in exile, and coming back to their land, hearing the laws might’ve even felt unreal. Are we really here? Back? Can I dare live as if we’re not slaves? 

And I still don’t know what to make of the priest and Levites (side note: apparently Levites doesn’t just mean descendants of Levi, yes and it’s a group of people referred to that were the priest assistants). It kind of feels like they were cutting off the grief and tears and encouraging them to go eat and celebrate for this is a joyous occasion. I sense on one hand, maybe this was good leadership. “Stop crying, we’re done grieving having been exiles. We’re done now. Let’s lean in and enjoy our life now!”, helping them move on as a nation? And on the other hand, was there a real mix of responses and were the leaders trying to just shut it down and diminish it? 

A theme of the book of Nehemiah and the book right before it, Ezra, which often are found in manuscripts as just one book, and most attribute the two books to one author, is that one of the glaring issues was one of identity. Particularly since while they were in exile, there was some mixing… mixing of races and intermarriages, that at that time, under their original law, was frowned upon. There are prayers of Ezra, confessing the sins of so many intermarriages, and even a list of the names of men who did so. We don’t know for SURE what they exactly decided to do with this issue. And we don’t know exactly what laws were condensed, or rewritten, either to further reinforce the tradition of not intermarrying, or somehow made efforts to include them in some way or form. It’s unclear from the text. 

The response was real. People cried. Audibly. Visibly. I just think it’s so funny, this call to rejoice right at the heels, right in the midst of grieving, weeping, crying, but go eat rich food and drink something sweet. I mean that’s what I do when I’m sad. I eat chocolate. 

This text reminded me of a text in the New Testament. Another time when some folks heard some news and were bewildered. I don’t know why the connection came to me, but that’s what I’ve been wondering with, the connection maybe between these two texts. I’ll read for us. It comes from the end of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark 16:1-8 – Empty Tomb

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body.

2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb.

3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?”

4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!)

5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled.

6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.[a] He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him.

7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”

8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[b

Overcome with terror and dread, at the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. 

This is actually the original final ending of the book of Mark. In our Bible there’s more. Verse 9 to 20, that has a reappearing of Jesus, a kind of a few more words from Jesus that wraps up the story better. And you’ll see in your Bibles, between verse 8 and 9, a tiny footnote that says

“The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” 

The original ending of the story of Jesus that Mark wrote ended with, verse 8,

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

That’s it. 

  • How are we to respond to the Laws?
  • How do we respond to a vision of a more idealized hope of how we should live (that’s what a law is, or at least should be)?
  • How are we to respond to the fact that when all we knew was death, and here was a man named Jesus, who spoke of heavenly things, apparently raised back from the dead?
  • How are we to respond to the Good News or the Gospel?
  • How do you respond?

I think it makes sense for us to be utterly shaken. If we are not, I wonder if we really heard it at all. And I think it is natural to have a mix of emotions. One of fear, like a fear of God, and also at same time, a nervous excited joy of the unknown future. I think the story of Nehemiah and the story of Mark both show us the depth and breadth of the range of responses and the permission to have them all. There’s not just one way to respond and the response might feel very visceral or intense. It’s okay to have a mix of feelings of being sad and happy at the same time for the same reason. 

A few weeks ago I met with a fellow Asian American woman for coffee. This kind of similar socio-location is fun to do. It’s like if the intermarried women of Jewish exiles got to chat after they heard Ezra’s laws. There’s this shared experience and wisdom. We shared our location, our settlement and the timing. She was born here, in America. I moved here when I was nine. She talked about being a child of poor immigrants, seeing their parents not being able to fully be honored or accepted and seen for who they are and what their gifts were. And at the same time, I saw a woman in front of me, who was gifted in her career, successful in many ways, blessed with a good life as good as anyone next to her.

And I asked her,

“so how does that feel? Like being a child of a poor immigrant, and now living the life you have now?”

She was a little stunned by my question, like who asks questions like that haha, saying,

“oh right you’re a pastor”

and I was like,

“yes and I’m also projecting, because it’s a thing, that specific experience… I have feelings about it.”

Well I let her go first and she said this… The first few emotions that she shared with me were not like, I’m so blessed and I’m grateful I’m so lucky, but that she feels guilty. She felt guilty that she’ not maybe having more joy like she’s supposed to. She felt guilty that sometimes she felt down like she’s not allowed to do that. And she felt guilty for feeling guilty. She’s grateful of course for the life she has now, but yeah, it was a mix. And I felt the same. Like I didn’t know how to live this life. A life that has been gifted to us too abundantly, too mercifully. And the pain and the suffering of our past, of our parents, our people, that that still is with us and lingers in us and that still hurts. 

I wonder if we feel like that after God has brought us back from what might have felt like exile, or suffering, or near death. I wonder if we have a hard time coming to terms with the extravagant love of God that God has bestowed upon us. Do we even know what to do with that? You can even be bewildered and not know how to process it all in the moment and feel speechless, the women at the tomb did. And I think the Bible tells us today to go eat something sweet. I’m… kidding… kind of. 

I wonder how it’s felt for you when God’s spoken to you. Or when you first encountered the resurrected Jesus. I wonder if you cried. Or if you were a bit scared. I wonder if you were told to rejoice cause you’re supposed to but you found it all a bit confusing all at the same time. 

I do like the added ending of Mark too though, verse 9-20. Jesus appears to them and says to them,

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.”

I don’t know, I mean I have mixed feelings about it. I kind of feel like some other author added a happy ending to it and I don’t know if I agree with that. But the part I like is, “Go.” Just like Nehemiah too, “Go.” Go talk to people. Go eat with them. Go party. Go Celebrate. Go. 

And actually this brings us to the exact format of the Godly Play curriculum. In the classrooms, after the children hear the story, discuss, they respond, and then they GO to a time where they might interact with the theme but also just play games, build something, paint/draw, whatever you want to do, but the intention behind really is all about just being in community. Go and be in community with whatever you just heard, however you heard, whatever it might be bringing up for you, wonder and play and interact with it with others and see what it does. 

This was my teaser for a class I will be co-teaching with pastor Dan in October called Godly Play Spirituality for Everyone: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Faith Traditions in October. It’ll be a three part series on the Bible, Spiritual Practices, and Community. I feel like for so many of us, we’re asking the question, what does faith look like for me in my context, in my life. What do I keep from traditions of Christianity and what can I part with that no longer serves me. Again, a way forward that will begin to shape your own faith identity. We’ll do that together as a community. And yes, it’ll end with a meal.

 Hopefully with rich food and some sweet drinks. Because no matter what we go through together, even if it’s through many seasons of grief and through tears, not despite it but with it and through the crying, we are called to go and celebrate, to claim joy. The joy of living. The joy of our God who delights in us. The joy of our resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s invite one another, to be together, share dinners, tables, and meals together, even cry together, and choose joy again and again.  May joy be our strength. 

Okay, let me pray for us. 

Lord, you have our hearts. And we search for yours. Let us be your living sacrifices, a fragrant pleasing to you oh God. Let our tears fall on thee. Let our joy rise to thee. And give us one another to do so as a people, who can remind one another of the law you give us, of the life you give us, of the joy you give us again and again, in and through all that we might be facing in our own lives in work, in family, in relationships, in our nation, in our society, in our world, give us your strength. The strength of joy through it all. We pray. Amen. 

 

A God Who Treasures

Matthew 7:7-11

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?

10 Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?

11 If you, then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

INTRO: THE QUESTION

When Ivy and I were talking about this Sunday a few weeks ago, she sent over this question as a potential prompt or starting point – basically,

“Why faith? Why are you so compelled by God? By Jesus? Why keep doing this?”

And that’s a good question. Some days it’s a hard question. And frankly, after a year of divinity school, it’s an even better question. Going to divinity school in some ways feels like when you look at a word so long that it doesn’t look like a real word anymore.

You look at the word theology so often that eventually you’re like “that’s not a real word.” Is that spelled right? You spend so much time thinking about and talking about it, and thinking and talking about the sometimes wonderful and often horrifying history of Christianity across time. And it’s a lot to process. So at the end of the day, you can sort of find yourself asking,

“why are we doing this?”

or

“what is this?”

This is my answer right now, and it’s different from my answer a year ago, and it will be different from my answer a year from now. My hope is that the process of unpacking these questions in community makes us better. Examination makes us better. We may not get any closer to The capital-t Truth, but we get closer to honesty and connection and something that feels real. And that’s why we come here on Sunday mornings – for something real. So with that, I want to kick us off with a quote.

It’s one I’ve heard a few times over the years, and it’s by a guy named Irenaeus. He was a Greek leader in the Christian church in the 2nd century, and he once said,

“the glory of God is man fully alive,”

or said a different way,

“the glory of God is humanity fully alive.”

And I love that. First, there’s something about how early this quote is that I love. This is fresh off the heels of Jesus’ life and ministry – we’re just a generation or two away, and the early Jesus movement is still trying to figure out who they are and what they care about. They’re just starting to peel off from the larger Jewish community and become sort of their own thing. This is also hundreds of years before the curation and official packaging of the New Testament as we know it today, and so the early Jesus followers at this time were processing together in community, relying on stories and letters, to understand the implications of this person called Jesus who had just walked the earth.

And so the fact that Irenaeus was onto this idea already at that time – the idea that this was his theology – is so good to me. He doesn’t say

“the glory of God is man fully happy,”

or even

“the glory of God is man fully good.”

He says something else. To give glory to God is to be fully, truly, honestly, alive.

And so much of the human experience is us flailing around figuring out how to do that. Learning rules and then un-learning rules, building lives for ourselves and then pivoting. Being alive is both inherent and it’s a practice. It’s just figuring out how to be more fully alive.

And I want that for us. I want all of us to be capital-a Alive. And to me, Jesus provides this extraordinary framework for what that can look like and I think one of the tentpoles is the act of Treasuring. I think the invitation we get from God – the invitation we see modeled in the life of Jesus, and one we’ll look at a little more closely in a moment – is an invitation to treasure the world around us.

God invites us to be a people who treasure – who purposefully seek out wisdom and goodness in all things and who delight in what we find.

With that, let’s take a look at our scripture passage for today, which comes from the book of Matthew, Chapter 7.

Matthew 7:7-11

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?

10 Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?

11 If you, then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

In the Gospel of Matthew, shortly after Jesus begins his public ministry, he delivers the Sermon on the Mount. And this sermon is a real hit parade. Here we find the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, the golden rule – all here. The Sermon on the Mount is basically the thesis statement of the entire gospel. We get lessons here on generosity, worry, non-judgment. We see God’s preference for the poor and the oppressed.

And a few verses before the passage we just read, we see Jesus talking about the importance of prioritizing love over money. Just before this passage we also get a lesson on anxiety, on abundance: Jesus says,

“consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

We hear Jesus tell his followers not to be anxious, not to worry about what they’ll eat or what they’ll wear. He tells them to trust that the world is good, that the world is for them, and that there is enough – enough for them, enough for everyone.

And then we get to this passage – ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. 

I believe the invitation here isn’t to pray for things, necessarily. To pray for specific circumstances.

  • Perhaps Jesus is inviting us into something bigger. 
  • Perhaps he’s inviting us into the reorientation of our minds towards wisdom. 
  • Perhaps he’s inviting us into the reorientation of our hearts towards the practice of treasuring.

HOW DO WE TREASURE?

I started rolling around this idea of treasuring recently. What it means to treasure something, or someone.

I thought about parents and their children – parents, when you treasure your kids, you’re not blind to all the ways your kids are challenging or frustrating or wild. You see their fullness and you delight in everything good within them. This treasuring is a choice – you choose to look for the goodness and the beauty in your kids.

I thought about treasuring a city – I just moved to Nashville a year ago, and I love it so much. It’s so hot and there aren’t enough trees and it’s just the best. When you treasure a city, you want to explore everything, you walk the parks and the farmer’s markets and you work towards making it better. You assume there is goodness to be found and you work towards finding it.

I thought about Taylor Swift – I treasure Taylor Swift. Her most recent record was a re-release of her 2010 album Speak Now. And this re-release included six brand new tracks “from the vault” – tracks she wrote back in 2010 that never made it onto the original album. And they’re bad. They’re so bad. But I listen to them closely because I want there to be something good to be found, and I believe there is something good to be found.

And that’s the invitation I’m hearing from this passage, and that’s what I believe God is inviting us into every day. 

That is faith – that choice, that logical leap we are called to make every day. It is choosing to believe that this life and this world and everyone around us are filled with beauty and wisdom and opportunities to see God at work.

I have some friends who are counselors and in their work they call this unconditional positive regard. It’s seeing all of someone’s fullness, all of their vulnerability, all of their mistakes, all their darkness, and tilting your mind moment to moment towards love for that person. And I mean, what a heart-shaping practice. 

And imagine if we used those eyes – if we used the practice of treasuring – to see everything.

What if we spent our days trying to treasure each other?

What if we approached our community with the assumption that there is wisdom and goodness to be found in each person?

How would our relationships change?

How would our communities change? 

What if we spent our days trying to treasure the world around us? Seeking to understand it and tend to it, even when it’s inconvenient, even when it forces us to slow down and do less and resist the hurriedness of contemporary life.

How might our political priorities change if we spent more time treasuring?

What would it look like to vote in a way that reflects the boundaryless unconditional positive regard that Jesus demonstrates?

What if we seek to uphold the inherent dignity of every human being in our public policy?

Is it possible that that could make us, and the people around us, a bit more alive?

HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?

This can seem like an impossible task most days. Recoding our brains is so impossibly hard. Unconditional positive regard is hard. Seeing with the eyes of love is hard.

But what we can see Jesus saying here is that our job is just to ask. 

To be honest with the Divine, the one who invites us deeper and deeper into life.

And it doesn’t require fancy words or fancy prayers. Ann Lamott is one of my favorite writers about faith and she says her three favorite prayers are “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.” You can just bring “help” to God. You can ask a question – where am I bristling? Where can I soften? Where can I open my eyes and my heart to bear witness to more goodness and beauty in the world?

It doesn’t require anything special.

Jesus tells us that this deeper life is fully available to us in every moment, in total abundance, whenever our hearts are open to it.

Knock, Jesus says, because the Divine is never going to force itself into our hearts. The Divine never pushes or coerces. It never intimidates. 

It just waits, just on the other side of the door, to give life and life abundant as soon as we ask.

So why God? Because the glory of God is humanity fully alive. I think the world transforms around us when people become alive. In Nashville earlier this year I saw the Tennessee Three change the world when they pushed into their Alive-ness. And aliveness – all of the weeping and laughing and storytelling and speaking truth to power and mourning and dancing of it all – is available to all of us in every moment. All we have to do is knock. 

CLOSING: MARY OLIVER POEM

As we close, I want to share a poem by Mary Oliver that I think does a better job than any sermon I can imagine at describing this treasuring life that Jesus invites us into.

The poem is called Praying:

It doesn’t have to be

The blue iris, it could be 

Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

Small stones; just

Pay attention, then patch

 

A few words together and don’t try

To make them elaborate, this isn’t

A contest but the doorway

 

Into thanks, and a silence in which

Another voice may speak.

 

Let’s pray.

An Evolving Faith | Longing for More

Take a moment to review your week, or the last couple of days – and reflect on where you experienced and/or witnessed the love of God?

Today, we’ll talk about just why sharing our stories and experiences of God’s love isn’t just a “nice church” exercise, but a powerful and necessary way of living. One that leads to our spiritual growth and evolution of our faith.

Piano Story

In my early years of life I would fall asleep to the music that my Mom and Dad were listening to in the kitchen – an array of Pink Floyd, James Taylor, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. And I, like most of us, fell in love with music before I even had my own language.

So much so, that as I grew a little bit older I became relentless about getting a piano. We had no money for a piano – but my mom being resourceful somehow got us one. It was massively out of tune, and many of the keys didn’t work – but I sat at that piano teaching myself notes and how to play basic melodies for hours.

Eventually my mom and the church pianist struck a deal and I started piano lessons. We’d drive the 40 minutes to the teacher’s house – where I’d sit at a much more in tune piano, surrounded by boxes of cereal, and stacks of papers, and craft supplies, and any number of her children clinging & tugging at her – and I learned chords, and how to move chords up and down the piano to church hymns, and only church hymns.

And I remember leaving most lessons (slightly disappointed)…. longing well, for music.

It was a longing that stayed with me throughout most of my years of piano lessons. But also a longing that kept me engaged with music – in a variety of expressions – and has been critical in my own evolution.

I think this can feel true for us at times with faith, and with God. We have such a deep longing for the love of God and yet – at times – the longing and the actual experience of that longing fulfilled might have some dissonance along the way…. 

As we grow and change as people – so too does our relationship with God. Our awareness of how big God is also expands and sometimes the foundational practices of our faith – spiritual practices, prayer, our engagement with the Bible, the “teaching” we like to listen to – can feel unfulfilling and a little stilted.

And we can feel disappointment, frustration, grief . And so, I want to revisit a passage in scripture today where Jesus gives us some words that might help us not lose heart, and some words that offer us very practical ways to live our daily lives with the love of God right at the center.

Prayer: God of love and God of movement. I give thanks to you this morning that your love exists in multi-dimensions… in people, and in nature – in the expanse of the sky, and in the cracks of our pain – God help us this morning to have the power to understand, just how wide, how long, how high, and how deep your love really is. 

Scripture | Matthew 5:13-20 

Let’s read together this scripture where Jesus is talking to his disciples on a mountain side, in the gospel of Matthew.

13 – 16 “You are the salt of the earth.  But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world – like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
…..and…..

17 – 20 Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them. I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God’s law will remain until its purpose is achieved. So if you break the smallest commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But I warn you – unless you obey God better than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees do, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven at all.”

Salt

I love these verses about being the salt and the light of the earth.

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” 

For one – you could preach a whole series on the expanse of these metaphors – they are rich, they are relevant, and they are accessible – right – we’ve all likely encountered salt and light somewhere in our lives.  And I’ll talk a little bit about the significance of salt in a moment.

But what I also love about these four ‘salt & light’ verses in particular, is where they are situated. They are sandwiched in between the Sermon on the Mount, you know where Jesus says these fresh and different words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – the merciful, the pure in heart, – for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven…”  

sandwiched in between that, AND this whole discussion about The Law – these long-standing, familiar words that really never had been touch and passed down for generations. Jesus and his disciples are very familiar with them- and the teachers/the experts of religious law and the Pharisees… have practiced them with strict obedience. 

So we have new things Jesus is saying – salt & light in the middle – and then the well known tradition of the Law – and it’s a “love of God sandwich” really. Because what holds all these verses together is that everyone mentioned ‘loves God.’ Jesus loves God. The disciples love God. The religious elite love God. The Pharisees llloooooove God. And they care about other people loving God too. 

Jesus says,

“but what makes this sandwich tasty is alllll these people (around and down the mountainside) – who also might have a longing for the love of God too.” 

Now Jesus has made his way to this point, traveling through Galilee – where he’s taught in synagogues (places where there’s familiarity with “religious-y” type messages). He also has been engaging with ordinary folks. Folks who have illnesses, and grief – folks who were demon-possessed, and have leprosy and seizures. People who aren’t allowed to step in a synagogue and/or people who don’t have the resources to study and learn from a religious scholar the “premiere” way of religious law. People who were poor in spirit, who were oppressed by the empire… People who were unimportant to people in power.

And so by the time we get to this scripture – there are very large crowds following and listening to the story of Jesus. Yes, from Galilee, a very Jewish area, and also the Decapolis, (these 10 towns – a very Greek area which is not Jewish, not religious, not pure, not clean, not holy), Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan.”

  • All sorts of different people, from many backgrounds – races, ethnicities, non-Christian, Christian,  and non-religious.. .are gathering… 
  • People who were curious.
  • People who were suspect.
  • People who yearned and longed – to know more about this Jesus fellow.

And we have the religious experts also watching from the periphery.

  • These people who thought they knew all there was to know of this Jesus fellow. 

 So Jesus takes a moment and gathers  with the disciples on the mountain side and says,

“listen – it’s time – the tradition is expanding.   – I’m here to fulfill the law… to stretch what has been .. to open it unto more…  it’s going to look a little different…. A little messy…  but this “Sermon on the Mount” I just gave – that’s what it will look like.  The merciful, the mourning, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the ones seeking justice, the ones persecuted… all of it – everyone together, okay? The only way to get it – is to live it.” 

It’s why I love that the Salt & Light verses are sandwiched right in the middle – because Jesus couldn’t come and say

“guess what? All of this Law is no longer relevant… and replace it with a new set of rules to obey, a new set of steps to follow to get it right. Because the heart of the Law was to live a life that “Loves God, loves our neighbor as we do ourself,”

and Jesus is seeking to fill out the heart of the law – to infuse it with a LIVING God – that invites us to enhance our engagement with the world around us – as we live.

I think Jesus knew that our human tendency is to mix up our longing for the love of God – with the love of rules and “getting it right.” We are inclined to say,

“give me the formula of how to move these chords up and down the piano – define what prayer is for me, the right way to follow scripture, rituals, the rules that help me get God “right” ….. and then I can grow!”

..meanwhile Jesus is like,

“did you see that zig-zagg-y route I just took through Galilee to the shore to talk with some fisherman, to the dusty road where I talked with the person who is unhoused, to the one fighting a chronic illness, to the one who’s trying to get an appointment with the court for justice – there’s your roadmap!”  

That’s why the sermon on the mount is so provocative because it isn’t a prescription of the steps of how.to.get.to.heaven. Of how to be holy. Of how to get God better. But it is about how we can be a gift to one another, be in relationship with one another – unto a life that is free – that is liberated.  … here and now..  

Jesus says to the disciples,

“this is your call – you are the salt of the earth.”

To “be the salt of the earth” isn’t a command – it is an invitation to a way of being in the world.

The disciples know that salt is valuable.

Salt had been a part of the religious customs of nearly every religion known to the world. It was an acceptable offering for the Greek gods. It was part of the ancient Egyptian burial rites (mummies). To the Hebrew people salt is the symbol of the covenant with God – a covenant that will never spoil. Newborn Hebrew babies were rubbed in salt as a sign of covenant. In Islam, salt seals a bargain. It is associated with wisdom and truth and witness.

And it is even more valuable because it doesn’t just enrich your life – it enriches the whole. 

Salt is essential. It forms bonds and impacts whatever it connects with.

For salt to be salt and for salt to do what salt naturally does – it has to be interspersed with other ingredients. Jesus says

“GO LIVE, be interacting, learning from, and engaging with people. All people.”

And this is how we are all blessed.

Because when a blessing is invoked – it changes the atmosphere… A blessing is a direct address given with immediacy and care. It brings us into the awareness of ourselves, the awareness of God and the awareness of other people.  It calls us to notice, to pay attention and to care for those around us. 

And so when Jesus asks,

“What good is salt if it has lost its flavor? How can we salt the world with it?”

It’s a bit of a warning to the disciples, and it’s a bit of a revealing of the posture of the religious elite and Pharisees.

Because the only way salt becomes tasteless is if you keep it in a jar on a shelf – separate.  

The religious elite and the Pharisees were veering in this direction – setting themselves apart… Engaging with the Law in a way that their longing for the love of God turned to possession, protection, and preservation.

With this posture – no one is blessed – there is no flow of blessing… only a stage for division. 

PIANO

As I progressed in my piano playing – I caught on to the pattern that my teacher was arranging these hymns by. How the chord progressions would go and I even became pretty literate in marking up my own hymnal pages –  in her coded “chord language” which was a bunch of symbols of arrows and dashes. 

And so to continue to grow to some degree – I would play around with the arrangements – I would add extra measures – I would play with the timing – I would change the key.. 

And I would come to my teacher – proud of the new expression  – and she did NOT appreciate that.
I sat through a lesson once – where a friend of mine was waiting for his lesson within earshot of me.. Where she just berated me – she had me count out loud, had me stop and repeat and do it over in the appropriate time measure…and I was in tears when I left.  I was in my later teen years at that point. It was humiliating.  It was clear to me that this style of hymn playing had one true expression in my teacher’s eyes – and I was not fulfilling it. 

And so we’d leave those lessons divided –  her: frustrated and mad – and me: crest-fallen and longing for something more.  

Early Jesus Movement – “The Way”

Throughout the history of the early church – to today – we see this dynamic at play. The love and longing for God at the center of communities – expressed in a multitude of different ways. People that are excited to be gathering and sharing with one another their experiences of the love of God.  But inevitably met with rules/systems/structures –  to keep that goodness, to bottle up that goodness.  Such rules/structures are constructed with the intent of “protecting or preserving” God.  And oftentimes they are constructed by just an elite few.

For the most part what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection.  Even while Christians were persecuted violently by the state. Values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies seemed to be embraced and lived out. Many followers of Jesus’ teachings or “The Way” as the movement is now referred to  – lived together with people of different ethnicities and social classes rather than following classist and cultural norms.  And historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”  A world that was dramatically changing in culture, politics, and economy. During this time, Christianity was not so much about doctrines or eternal salvation –  but more about how to live a better life here and now. (Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church,” The Mendicant, vol. 5, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: April 2015), 1.

This led to transformation and growth as people shared their lives and their stories of how the love of God impacted them. As the sprinkle of salt fell over everyone.

But even in apostle Paul’s early writing to the church of Corinth – we see him addressing quarrels and disagreements that were rising. .. Some over communion, some over what resurrection really meant for them, some over general misconduct  – and we see in

I Corinthians Paul say,

“what’s going on here?” “One of you says, “I follow Paul”;

another,

“I follow Apollos”;

another,

“I follow Cephas”;

still another,

“I follow Christ.” 

Is Christ divided?

In a different translation it asks more pointedly,

has the Messiah been chopped up into little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?”

As the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it became harder and harder to regard the Gospel from the vantage point of those who were living and breathing a life in the margins – and easier to read the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order. Formal doctrine took the place of stories that told of essential issues of love, virtues, peace and freedom,  and prayer found in the voices of the oppressed became replaced with systematic theology  (Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.)

Jesus’ invitation to the disciples for faith to first be a lifestyle before it becomes a belief system – became harder to touch.  Divisions within churches and communities of faith continue to exist – and every time that happens it also divides up God – and both sides of “the divide are weaker as a result.”

If we are honest, it is scary to

“seek a way to God that is mostly unchartered and freely chosen, not inherited or dependent from others who have mapped it out beforehand.’ (Rohr)

And it can feel like that is what Jesus was asking the disciples to do in the Sermon on the Mount –  but what he said was,

“I didn’t come to abolish the law of Moses or the writing of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them.” 

We’ve hear this message in our faith before – remember the prophet Isaiah who said

the Lord’s spirit has sent me,

to bring good news to the poor,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim release for captives,

        and liberation for prisoners,

    to comfort all who mourn,

    to give them a crown in place of ashes,

    oil of joy in place of mourning,

    a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”

Not a new message – but a new expression through me, Jesus – and through you. You, the salt. You, the light.”

Here is how we continue to change and grow – and how our religions continue to change – “transcending and including,” as Ken Wilber says, learning from old ways and opening to new.  We have the tradition and the Law – and we seek renewed expressions of Christian community and church that bear good fruit in our generation and the generations to come. And so we lean in to one another – we listen – we tell stories – and we open unto God. And we embrace freedom.

I eventually chose freedom – from my piano teacher! And as time went on, I found that I was really helped by the fundamentals of what she taught me. The familiarity of augmenting chords, and filling out simple melodies helped me accompany choirs, and follow with flexibility and awareness  – the lead of soloists. And my growth beyond her initial framework also helped me not discount other people’s musical expressions or abilities.

My husband Scott plays by ear, which to someone like me, who can only play with sheet music, can be entirely frustrating. Here, I can veer toward the judgy commentary of “well, you aren’t really trained.” However, I can suspend that – and celebrate his giftedness. And I could be really excited when my own kids started to play and their teacher chose an entirely different approach – where their homework each week was to make up their own songs and come back and play it for him!

Freedom was a little too threatening for the Pharisees – it made them worry that God was being compromised by these dirty, still-in-process, imperfect people. I mean, that’s not a very tight system – and I think the Pharisees preferred a tight system. And so different expressions of teaching, or prayer, or music that didn’t have precedent with the law – made them feel like this isn’t real – this isn’t true.. This isn’t God.

Meanwhile God is here saying –

“I don’t care if you play the same chord over and over in this hymn – or get the timing all wrong – or if you sing, “Let It Be” by the Beatles –  as long as you are talking, and sharing, and learning from one another – telling stories that illuminate and season how the love of God is encountered in your real lives, on a daily basis – unto a greater blessed whole….if that happens, we are all good. I am not compromised in the least.”

The Pharisees in response to their own fear – drew lines around what worship was, what behaviors and rituals had to be done to obey God, lines that defined what prayer was – who God was – and they clung to a structure that couldn’t give way to a living God and snuffed out any light, any longing in people seeking transformation and healing. 

The Pharisees end up losing sight of God in the maze of lines that they’d drawn to protect God.

It was too hard for the Pharisees to return to the most core intention of the Law they knew so well – to practice God’s justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another  – because it required the one thing they neglected to attend to… their hearts.  And so the Sermon on the Mount is a threat, a mess – and the Law becomes something to defend – rather than something to live out.  

You see, Jesus comes to fill out the law – to make the law relational.

“The Law is meant to refer to the ways that everything is created to be in right relationship with everything else. It reflects how we are always impacting and being impacted by everything else. Salt is valuable for the way it flavors everything around it. Light is changed by the shadow of everything that passes near it.. To say that we are salt and light is to say that we impact and are impacted by everything around us. We are exquisitely relational. And Jesus comes not to change that—not to make us inflexible and morally superior—but to show us how to live into that even more – how to open unto mutual loving relationships even more. And how this fulfills the longing we have for God (because it’s never ending and ever-changing!) (enfleshed.com)

RESERVOIR | This Summer | Speakers

At Reservoir this summer, we’ve had more guest preachers in one defined amount of time than we ever have. And for the very reasons I’ve talked about today, I have loved these Sundays so much. 

In our guest preacher guidelines we say that we 

“practice what we call centered-set culture. We say that we are Jesus-centered and fiercely dedicated to no one experiencing boundaries or barriers to moving toward Jesus. We emphasize the common humanity of all people, rather than dividing us into “Christians” and “non-Christians.” We always assume a mixed audience of longtime churchgoers and longtime not-churchgoers, so we use ordinary rather than churchy vocabulary and means of communication. We honor people’s agencies in whatever faith journey they do or don’t take – so we tell stories, we commend, and we invite, rather than relying upon commands or shame or guilt to motivate people. We also give people freedom to respond as much or as little as they like…”

We have had six guest preachers so far – and we have listened to the stories of:

Taj Smith – a Black, trans man who invited us to consider the sacredness of queer and trans folks, and to allow the words of Olivia Butler to stir us,

The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

We listened to the stories of Reverend Carrington Moore  – A Black pastor for Bethel AME  – who led people around this physical space, asking us

“what it is to be a follower of Jesus.”

We listened to the stories of Howard Kim – our social justice intern – a child of Korean immigrants who invited us to consider the transfigured life of Jesus – free of binaries – trans Jesus.

We listened to the story of Pastor Willie Barnett – a white cis-het pastor who spoke from personal experience of the freedom to leave faith communities when they are harming.

We listened to the story of Rose Percy – a Black Haitian graduate student, who spoke of Audre Lorde and the beautiful challenge of re-learning how to pray.

We heard Pastor Lydia speak of the valley of dry bones that housing justice work is.

And I spoke on the significance of knowing we are children of God as we fight the Goliath’s of our day.

We all spoke from our personal vantage points – different styles, different identities, different races, different social locations, queer theology, departure theology, theopoetics. And yet the common link – the common theme – among all of us – is that we all shared our experiences of the love of God. And extended the invitation to all of us to consider how the love of God can help our lives be better. 

And my, what an expansive image we gain of God, what mystifying growth and shape are given to our hearts as we hold such wisdom, truth, and witness.

As you might imagine, my story of how I experience the love of God in a hummingbird these days, is very different from how Taj Smith, as a Black trans man is experiencing God in the face of legislation that is trying to challenge his existence… but to consider both of these to be true – is the current day stretching of our faith – this is how we continue to let the ‘good news’ of Jesus enliven all of our senses, and keep longing for more of God at every turn.

It enriches our prayers, it adds new lenses to scripture. The good news, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t call us to just observe one another’s life from the periphery – we are called to engage and LIVE OUT,  a vibrant, ever-evolving faith  – by listening to, and learning from someone’s life that is not our own. This is how we EXPAND and stretch our own relationship with God. Because it will stretch us and it will disrupt us too. And this is how we embrace the greatest commandment of the law to,

‘Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.’

And this is good news – very, very good news my friends.

Prayer – God thank you for all the ways you are real to us. Help us to live out our real lives – with compassion, mercy, humility, and an unquenchable eagerness to love you  – knowing that you first loved us.  

 

Learning to Pray Again

 Luke 11: 1-12 New Revised Standard Version

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father,[a] hallowed be your name.

    Your kingdom come.[b]

Give us each day our daily bread.[c]

 And forgive us our sins,

        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

    And do not bring us to the time of trial.’[d]

Perseverance in Prayer

 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;  for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 

And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for[e] a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit[f] to those who ask him!’

I am learning how to pray again.

I am learning how to pray again, in the same way that I am learning how to play the guitar again, an instrument I have been playing for about 15 years.

It is easy to feel like I am okay when I stick to the neighborhood of notes and chords I am most familiar with. But when it comes to a song I have never played, filled with chords I rarely use or have never come across, the instrument feels foreign to me.

I am learning how to pray again, and it feels like learning how to play a new instrument because, in this season of life, I am praying in ways I’ve never prayed before. 

Which makes me wonder what it was like for the disciples to turn to Jesus and say

“Teach us how to pray,”

then to hear the Lord’s Prayer offered for the first time. I wonder what words stood out to them. Have you ever heard someone pray and wonder to yourself,

“Wait…I can say that to God? I can pray about that?” 

Many believers know The Lord’s Prayer “by heart,” and I think about what that phrase means when recitation can feel easy as breathing. Isn’t it a wonder how often something we once strained to learn moves through us with a fluency that makes it easy to take for granted? It makes me wonder…what is the point? Of remembering these words, but feeling and doing nothing to respond to them? What does it really mean to know something by heart?

As a young believer, I had a stack of index cards with scriptures on them. Soon I developed the ability to remember and recite these scriptures, a skill that helped as I began to write poems and memorize them. I performed these spoken word poems in churches. I remember performing a piece for a church event that was basically a 20 minute sermon that rhymed. After performing it, people came up to share their responses to it. Sadly, the memorization piece ended up being the most discussed part.

Wow, that was long. How did you memorize all that?”

I remember being upset by this question and sad as I thought the message was missed. 

I wondered if there was something wrong with me as a communicator. I looked at my Bible and said, “the words are right there…why isn’t it clicking?” I was also beginning to see this desperate call from scripture for justice and action. When I could relay its immediacy, I thought I had failed. In many ways, the convictions that led me to write that poem and offer it up in a performance through my body, led me to seminary. I wanted to do what I felt called to do better: relay God’s message to God’s people with whatever tools I had. 

I don’t remember that 20 minute poem anymore. Most of the poems I memorized during that season of life no longer resonate with the way my faith has changed in this season. They have since slipped away…I can no longer recall the words I once knew by heart. All I have left is their impressions, and the confused feelings of that last poem that still lingers with me and the theme of the event that inspired it: Kingdom Come.

I wrote that poem before I became a student of theology, where the Bible I felt I knew a little bit about became unfamiliar as I was learning how to read it differently. Words I thought I knew by heart were reintroduced to my mind clothed in layers of meaning and questioning. In the face of confronting more unknowns, I could no longer put my convictions into poetry, the language I used to speak most confidently to the world. 

It was not just that the Bible was unlocked in new ways, but the new tools of interpretation unlocked my self understanding in new ways. I became unfamiliar to myself, so did God…so did poetry. I became someone who was afraid to say anything with certainty and authority. What if I learned something new that would prove me wrong…again? 

In the years since, I’ve resolved to affirm that I am a communicator. Because I know how it feels to be distraught when I am misunderstood. Because I know how to find a story I think is worth sharing. Because I know this because I crave the answers and when I find them, I cannot wait for the opportunity to save someone else a trip — if I have already been there…I hope to save your breath. 

I truly believe some prayers are written to help us save our breath as much as they are reminders that we need to take one.

I am a communicator because I have worked for years to be able to speak some kind of truth today. So what I tell you, this is how I know a truth by heart—in the fight not to be disheartened. 

The work of recollection looks a lot different these days. There are prayers I pray, poems I read as prayers, and prose I return to time to time to recall the truth of light and abundance over darkness and scarcity.

In this way, every prayer I embrace as my own, whether I said/wrote it or not—is answered, with the sweet clarification that I am beloved. I am understanding now..it was never about the words I said, but in the impressions they left behind. 

To pray is to impress what can often be suppressed–the truth of who and whose we are…and what we are worthy of. 

As a spoken word poet, I stood in front of crowds and recited words that I had mastered–in memory and in a body I performed and played the meaning of the words that came out of my mouth. But I am learning how to remember again. 

Letting myself be guided by tenderness over tenacity with memorization as the goal. I am learning how to pray again, remembering the God who approaches me tenderly. 

When I remember I am beloved, God does not respond to my prayers with rejection…And in prayer I train my ability to sense, however subtle, light and the divinity it reflects my belovedness. 

Now I want to share with you a poem I have been using in my prayer time. But I ask that you focus on this moment and the impressions that linger for you. They will be the ones that matter when you recall this moment. Think of your impression as work of art on the wall in your mind. You choose the medium and design it as you’d like–it’s your imagination and this is not being graded: make whatever you want. 

I will give you a minute to capture your impressions and save a copy of it to review later, and I will end with some of mine.

If you want to follow along, the link is in the description

A Litany for Survival BY AUDRE LORDE

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge

the passing dreams of choice

who love in doorways coming and going

in the hours between dawns

looking inward and outward

at once before and after

seeking a now that can breed

futures

like bread in our children’s mouths

so their dreams will not reflect

the death of ours;

 

For those of us

who were imprinted with fear

like a faint line in the center of our foreheads

learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk

for by this weapon

this illusion of some safety to be found

the heavy-footed hoped to silence us

For all of us

this instant and this triumph

We were never meant to survive.

 

And when the sun rises we are afraid

it might not remain

when the sun sets we are afraid

it might not rise in the morning

when our stomachs are full we are afraid

of indigestion

when our stomachs are empty we are afraid

we may never eat again

when we are loved we are afraid

love will vanish

when we are alone we are afraid

love will never return

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

 

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive.

 

I am left with the impression that as I live, I will be learning how to pray, in the same breath that I am learning to

“speak, remembering I was never meant to survive.”

I am learning how to navigate a world built on inequities. But this is not the only way—it doesn’t have to be. Our imaginations tell us there are alternative ways to live….

Despite systems of inequality, and death-dealing narratives scarcity and hopelessness…I am left with a truth that lingers when this heart sways—in God there is enough. And something in me knows it by heart, and when I need help to recall … .I am surrounded by community that reflects the truth of my belovedness because God has made sure I’m not the only one who knows it.

…..in the work of re-assembling or retelling the stories that shape core beliefs about who I am…My body remembers the sweet feeling of satisfaction and refuses to accept the conditions that robs us of our futures and leave us hungry. 

I am left with the impression that freedom…and the advocacy for that freedom go naturally together…from the mouth of the one who “speak(s), remembering (they) was never meant to survive.” 

I am learning how to pray again, holding the hope that God’s daily bread can satiate the hunger for the reminder that I am beloved. 

 

Benediction:

Henri Nouwen 

Let nothing disturb you

Let nothing frighten you. 

Those who cling to God 

will lack nothing

Let nothing disturb you 

Let nothing frighten you

God is enough

 

Jesus is Calling; The Spirit Answers

Roman 8:15-17

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.

And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

There’s a scene in the hit series on Netflix called Beef, where the main character, Danny Cho, played by Steven Yeun (that one Asian guy on Walking Dead – another great show) finds himself at a church. Now it’s the 3rd episode, after (I don’t think I’m spoiling it if you haven’t seen it) the 1st episode where we see him buying these hibachi grills at a hardware store to attempt suicide. 

Danny walks in the lobby as the worship leader is saying,

“God, we thank you for this Sunday. We thank you for inviting us here today to gather in your presence. We thank you for who you are and what you’ve done.”

As he clicks open the door into the chapel as the voice gets louder,

“Thank you for the cross. We thank you for Jesus.”

He walks in as he continues,

“Lord Father God we come to you.”

A pastor welcomes him, ushers him to a seat and he takes a seat as he notices others standing, some raising their hands, he decides to stand too. They begin singing softly,

“Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling.”

And then the drums kick in

“Have you come to the end of yourself. Do you thirst for a drink from the well? Jesus is calling.”

And you can see Danny starting to feel stuff, his eyes watering. And it pours out, all that Danny has been holding, all that he’s struggling through, he lets it go as he stands there at a church during a praise song in a worship service. 

Has that ever happened to you? All that you’re holding in, released in the presence of others who are also there to feel God? When the lyrics of a praise song seem to hit you when you weren’t expecting at all. 

Praise songs are a weird powerful experience. They are prayers, often intimate, vulnerable. Mix that in with some beautiful vocals and drums man. That beat drops and I’m like oh crap, it’s about to get real. Jesus is knocking. And I’m not gonna be able to hold it together looking all cool at church. At some point last week, I was watching Bel play the drums. She was hovered over, hitting the beat with her whole body, consistent, dedicated, almost invitational. Like a friend who comes up to you at the dance floor with, “bring it in bring it in” energy and you have to step in. 

I love that about praise music and worship. What audacity it has to all of sudden ask me in a melodic trance,

“Are you hurting and broke within?”

“Have you come to the end of yourself?”

Who wrote this song and have you been following me around this week? How you gonna ask me that right here right now, in front of all these people? And just like Danny, you look around, we’re all standing there asking ourselves, asking God, asking together, asking one another, our hurts, our needs, our longing, our hearts for healing, love, and acceptance. And the song is telling you, Jesus is calling you into that. And you’re just like, “really? Jesus, are you for real?” What a sweet invitation, through music, to know that someone, Jesus is there calling you with father’s arms wide open, with forgiveness. 

This scene stood out to me because it was a familiar one. I had been there. After college, I was in San Francisco, working 80-90 hours a week, feeling burnt out and a bit lost too. Wondering what am I doing, who am I, and (after not having gone to church for a few years) I took myself to church one day. I can’t remember the songs from the day, it was actually the sermon that shifted me back to Jesus. So much so that I ended up here becoming a pastor, preaching to folks – but like the song in Beef, and like a song we sang last week or few weeks ago, words spoken at church seem to pierce me to the core of questions I had for myself. 

Like the song we sometimes sing here, it says

When I’m feeling low, and my heart is weak, I know you have the strength to carry me. When I’m broken down and I’m filled with grief. I know you’re far beyond what my mind conceives.”

And I remember when I would sing these songs, sometimes one line would so clearly speak to what I’m going through,

“feeling low and weak, broken down.”

but then sometimes I wasn’t sure,

“if you have the strength to carry me, and who is you, and are you even carrying me at all because I don’t feel carried at all to be honest.”

I remember I’d sing some lines and then have to pray during other lines of the song when they are all confident in their faith, assurance of God’s promises, I’d be muttering under my breath, prayers of questions,

“really Jesus? Are you there? Show yourself?”

I don’t know why we don’t have more praise songs like that. Questions rather than basking in the assurance like, “isn’t He wonderful?” And I’m standing there like “is He though?” But I guess that’s sometimes been the invitation for me. Someone else’s faith of assurance. Their confidence. Their witness and confession of what God has done for them and I wonder, could that be for me? 

Danny’s song would’ve done it for me too. Cause I was looking. I was looking for somebody to call me. 

There was a time when I really struggled with my identity. It was a combination of, not having the right job, so vocationally I felt lost, I had left church communities so I didn’t really have a “people.” I was in a new city with no family around, so lonely.

And as an Asian American immigrant, you kind of feel like, well you’re not Korean anymore, but also you’re not really accepted as an American. This feeling of estrangement and lack of belonging no matter where you go will mess with your head. I remember learning the word ladle in my 20s. My mom never called it that, obviously, growing up, she called it joo-guk. A simple small word that has such connection to a sense of home and comfort. But I didn’t really have any Korean friends, so I’d never say the word joo-guk. I learned it when I threw a MySpace Karaoke party for my birthday at the seminary and we were using upside down ladles as mics.  

As an immigrant, sometimes you really do feel like a motherless child. A stranger here. A stranger there. Never feeling like you’re home. 

Our scripture text today says that we are God’s children. That we have received the Spirit of sonship. Another manuscript says, the Spirit of adoption. Adoption. 

And if we have received the spirit of adoption, then, that means we are heirs. 

You see this is the crux of the gospel, the good news. That you are claimed as God’s own children. That you are loved and you belong. The gospel of adoption. No matter where you come from, what you’ve done, what you’ve left undone, what you’ve accomplished or haven’t accomplished. No matter where you were born, your nationality, your citizenship, or your race, you have been adopted into this family and you are God’s own beloved child. 

For me when I couldn’t figure out my job, when I was single feeling sorry for myself cause I didn’t have a boyfriend, when I didn’t feel Korean enough or American enough, it gave me ground to fall on to to know that God was my Abba Father. When I felt like I was flailing and I wasn’t sure of myself, I heard the gospel, the good news of Jesus saying to me, you’re mine. That’s what grounded me from falling away further into my own depth of despair and cynicism. And to hear this gospel, that when no one’s calling, Jesus is calling, I ate it up. I was falling and I needed it, so I fell into the hands of God. 

Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor put it in her book, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (p.218)

 “If I had to name my disability, I would call it an unwillingness to fall. On the one hand, this is perfectly normal. I do not know anyone who likes to fall. But, on the other hand, this reluctance signals mistrust of the central truth of the Christian gospel: life springs from death, not only at the last but also in the many little deaths along the way. When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there–not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene–promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall. Ironically, those who try hardest not to fall learn this later than those who topple more easily. The ones who find their lives are the losers, while the winners come in last.”  

Maybe your disability is like hers, “an unwillingness to fall.” Maybe you have already figured out all the ways you will never fall and you’re so busy doing it that it’s keeping you utterly tired at the balance work of handling it all. Like Luisa from Encanto. Everyone depends on her. She’s the strong one in the family who has to carry the weight of it all. But she says,

Under the surface

I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus

Under the surface

Was Hercules ever like, “Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus?”

Under the surface

I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service

I wonder for some of you, if under the surface, you feel like a tightrope walker in a stressful working environment. Under the surface, if you’re ever like,

Yo I don’t wanna go to work today.”

Under the surface, you wonder if you’re worthless if you don’t make this big sale or promotion or can’t save the entire school system. 

Jesus is calling. The miracle is you, not what gift you have, what you can achieve. Not how hard you work to provide for your family. You’re not just a useful mule. You are God’s child. Christ’s co-heir. 

Or maybe you have no problem falling, like me. Finding yourself falling, tripping over things, dropping things, forgetting things, burning things all the time. No, just me? Well, if that’s you, Jesus is calling. As you cry out, “Abba, Father,” remember so did Jesus on the cross in his suffering. 

Whether you are falling or climbing like your life depended on it, the crux of the problem is that we forget who we are. Who we truly are. 

I saw someone’s email signature that said, One who does not look back where they are from, will not arrive at their destination.” 

  • Who  are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • But even further, who created you and sustains you?

Don’t just look forward to what you need to do, want to do, but look back to what has already been done for you before you even knew anything at all. Which are the words to infant baptism liturgy,

“All this Jesus did for you, though you do not know it yet.”

As 1 John 4:19 says,

“We love because God first loved us.”

Do you know who you are? When Moana didn’t know who she was, you can see what pop culture I’m taking in these days with my four year old, yes it’s Moana and Encanto.

When she was hearing this inner calling from the sea, and with the encouragement from her crazy grandma, while her father was being protective and responsible even to not venture out, to do her duty to stay. She sought out for something deeper, something beyond.

She found a cave filled with old boats and sails and realized that her people were actually “voyagers!” And that sparked her and set her on a course to, I believe, to have faith in something beyond what she saw on her own island, and there she finds herself and sings, “I am Moana!”

People often try to find themselves in many things like, taking a pilgrimage to their homeland, or talking through their family systems and history in therapy, or taking a 23andMe DNA test. All of which I approve, maybe even recommend and probably will help a lot. It’ll give you extra pieces in putting yourself together. I’m not discounting those. I think history, science, and psychology are extremely important and helpful. 

But we are more than humans on this earth. We are spirits. We are souls. We are bodies on this earth and we are a spark of life in this universe.

  • What is that?
  • Who is that spark?
  • Who are you? 

In my own journey, one of my sparks in my own identity journey was, while I was in seminary, as I was looking back to through my own family through therapy, and through the societal landscape that I grew up in, and through Christian history that shaped my faith, I found something that deeply shifted the way that I saw myself in relation to God and Godself.

You see in my old testament class, as we were learning Hebrew, we excavated the roots of the Spirit through the scriptures. One of the gems, my Moana finding the boats in the cave moment, were learning about the Divine Wisdom in Proverbs and the word in Greek is Hagia Sophia and it was often referred to as “she”. As we looked deeper into this often personified Sophia, it was described as a “female expression of God.”

A female expression of God! Amidst all that I was unpacking about the world I lived in as a woman, how the society has treated me based on how I look or my sexuality rather than my thoughts or my words, as I was trying to reckon what it meant for me to be a daughter of God when everything I read only talked about sons, I went out of the doors of the seminary and yelled on top of that one balcony with the labyrinth

“There were feminine expressions of God! I am Lydia!” 

It felt like an answer to the calling. A calling from Jesus that sometimes I didn’t know how to relate to or answer based on all the readings, the theologies, the complicated church history. I mean the Nazi’s thought they were being Christian? Just to name one of tainted church histories. How do you reckon with that? The engagement with the Divine Wisdom, Sophia, a more personified feminine expression of God that felt at home. It resonated with me. It just hit different that’s all.  

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption. And by her we cry, “Mama, Mother.” The Spirit herself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

Okay these days, my kids are seriously so stuck on me, Umma! Umma! Umma! Constantly! I’m sorry I’m not discounting dads, but come on, the babies literally lived in my belly for nine months, inside me and I nursed them and fed them with my body. That’s some serious connection and bonding. 

That kind of bonding with God? Again, Abba Father is cool, I love my Dad. Jesus, super cool, a personified visible revelation of God in real life history that walked this earth. Jesus absolutely had an impact on me, as I heard the Bible story of Jesus calling the woman with the alabaster jar, defending her before Pharisees, saying,

“Don’t you see how much she loves me!”

Jesus claimed me as his own through that story. That’s a fact. And the presence of the Holy Spirit, that the Bible describes this Sophia as a shelter, a healer, a comforter, like the comfort of my umma, who rocked me when I cried, who fed me seaweed wrapped rice from hand into my mouth when I was hungry, A God who feeds me.

I felt held, known. Yes, I am her child, I could say, I know her embrace, I know her. And surely she knows me in all my femininity, girliness, and womanhood that had come to dictate my identity. And all that estrangement of myself, finding myself as the Other in this world, I found myself at the presence of God calling, God, Umma! Umma! Umma! 

Finding yourself. Finding God. And then finding yourself in God, in relation to God, finding yourself in the beholding of the greatest all encompassing unconditional love of God, is like the most precious and beautiful and most worthwhile thing ever. Once you do that, you can do anything. 

Richard Rohr in his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer says this:

“Our first job is to see correctly who we are, and then to do it. That will probably take more courage than to be Mother Teresa. To be really faithful to that truth is utterly difficult and takes immense courage and humility. We have neglected the more basic and universal biblical theme of “personal calling” in favor of priestly and religious vocations. The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality. That is everybody’s greatest cross.” 

(p.84)

God’s calling is not just a calling to priestly and religious vocation as Rohr says. And it’s not even a vocation. It’s a calling to love. It’s not come here and be this or do that. It’s come here, let me hold you, I love you. Friends, May you experience and know that kind of love from Creator Father Mother God, Savior and Friend, Brother/Co-heir Jesus, and Comforter Healer Holy Spirit Sophia. 

Coming and Going

Good morning, my name is Willie Barnett and I’m a pastor at Great Road Church out in Acton, MA. Pastor Steve has become a dear friend over the past two years. And you may not know this, but this church, Reservoir, has been an inspiration and guide for us as our own community has been on a journey to becoming a more inclusive and welcoming community. So I’m really honored to be with you all this morning. Thank you for being YOU!

Today I’d like to read a snippet of scripture – a somewhat troubling text – from

Genesis chapter 16, starting with verse 6 (New International Version):

6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.

8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Now skipping down to verse 13:

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 

I just returned from a two-week trip to Kenya, which was really special because my Dad has served with the same missionary agency in East Africa almost my entire life, which is the same agency my grandparents served for their entire lives, and the same one my great-grandparents served for their entire lives. There’s been Barnetts serving with this one group in East Africa since 1907.

Which means LOYALTY is in my DNA. Commitment. Faithfulness. You stick to things.

And that’s not just a Barnett thing. It’s a Christian thing, right?

God’s love is a COVENANT love. Even when we’re unfaithful and disloyal, God sticks with us. God promises to never leave us nor forsake us. That’s what Jesus embodies.

So as followers of Jesus, we should love like Jesus – with a LOYAL love, KEEPING promises, STICKING TO our commitments. 

Churches love to celebrate LOYALTY and COMMITMENTS. I was recently at a wedding where two friends made promises to love one another, stick to one another – and everyone applauded, tears were streaming down our faces.

But do you know what churches rarely celebrate, or even talk about? LEAVING. Or, in Hagar’s words, “running away.” 

Leaving has always been hard for me to acknowledge or talk about. 

Yes, when we hit adulthood, we often leave home. Or sometimes God calls missionaries to leave the comforts of home. But for me, more often than not, leaving doesn’t feel loyal. 

Many years ago, my wife Becky and I co-pastored a church fresh out of seminary. And the mountain of relational, cultural, financial, and emotional problems we faced there was enormous and overwhelming! I’ll never forget the day a pastor-mentor friend of ours paid us a visit. For over an hour, he listened to us vent about all the insurmountable challenges. After all our venting, he paused and said,

“Why don’t you just leave?”

I was shocked by the suggestion. In the two intense years we had spent in the trenches working so hard to be faithful, I hadn’t once thought leaving was an option. I’m a Barnett – we need to stick with something for at least 100 years before we can consider leaving!

Because like Jesus, I’m loyal. And loyal people don’t leave. They stick with it.

Leaving is failure. Leaving is giving up. And faithful people don’t give up. 

Especially when it comes to churches and relationships. When it involves God-appointed places and God-blessed people. 

Anyone feel what I’m talking about?

Anyone know that voice in your heart and head?

‘Loyal people don’t leave. Leaving doesn’t honor a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. Leaving is failure.’ 

Some of you have been left. You know how painful it is when someone stops showing up, when someone gives up on you, when someone stops keeping their promise. You know that pain and you never want to inflict that pain on someone else. 

I know this is a sensitive subject but today I want to talk about and challenge the notion that just because you arrived somewhere – maybe a church, a relationship, a ministry, a vocation, a job – that feels like it has God’s stamp of approval on it does NOT mean you’re never allowed to leave that place, that relationship. 

Loyalty to God does NOT mean leaving is never an option.  

Now I can hear the voice of my parents saying,

‘Willie, we live in a rootless generation that’s cynical about promises, and you want to talk about leaving?

Well, here’s my reasoning: because the church for so long has never talked about WHEN to leave, HOW to leave, IF God allows leaving – because we’ve lacked a theology of departure – so many people have stayed and suffered in harmful places to the point where they feel like the only choice left is to LEAVE God behind. 

It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve come to believe that sometimes God calls us to leave. Sometimes leaving is what loyalty to God looks like. 

People leave relationships, friendships, marriages, churches, jobs, schools, and commitments all the time for not-so-great reasons. I’m not trying to baptize or endorse every choice to leave by any means. I’m simply saying that SOMETIMES God calls us to leave. 

I’ve always loved the 23rd Psalm. It says the Lord

“guides me along right paths for his name’s sake.”

I noticed recently that it simply says “right paths” – not a single path, or the same path we’ve always been on. 

If you read the whole Psalm, you know those paths may lead THROUGH some dark valleys but, it’s clear they’re meant to lead us TO restoration, renewal, goodness and love.

So maybe God doesn’t always keep us in the same place, the same pasture, on the same path. God doesn’t always keep us in the same church, same relationships, same town, same job, same friendships, same vocation. Rather Jesus guides both our coming AND GOING, both our arriving and OUR LEAVING, all part of a journey to lead us deeper into an experience of the fullness of his life and love. 

But WHY and WHEN would God ever want us to leave a place, a relationship, a community, especially one God that has brought us to? 

That’s a BIG question, and there’s just one approach to that question I want to focus on today. 

Another one of my favorite Psalms is

Psalm 121. Verse 7 and 8

7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    [the Lord] will watch over your life;

8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

This affirmation – that the Lord “watches over” and guides BOTH your coming AND GOING – comes in the context of God’s promise to “keep you from ALL HARM.”

You see, God may bring us to an appointed place, time, or relationship. God’s blessing might be on that. BUT sometimes that place, that relationship, can transform into a place of HARM. And then we need to go.

We see this in the scripture I read earlier. We already know that Abraham and Sarah are God’s chosen people. This is a family, a couple, that God has chosen, blessed, and called to be a blessing to others. 

And this isn’t just about Abraham and Sarah – they bring their entire extended household, their relatives and servants all travel with them on this journey of faith. 

But sometimes God’s people who are blessed to be a blessing become the opposite. 

Worried that God’s blessing won’t work out, Abraham and Sarah let fear control their actions. Instead of trusting that God would provide a child, they try to control things and take matters into their own hands. Sarah forces Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian, to become another wife to Abraham and to sleep with him. There’s no mention of consent or choice. When Hagar gets pregnant and realizes Sarah is just using her, she naturally starts to grow resentment towards Sarah. 

Rather than care for Hagar by protecting her and blessing her and her future child as a member of his household, as one he is obligated to care for, Abraham views Hagar as a disposable nuisance making his first wife unhappy. 

He absolves himself of responsibility for Hagar. And so Sarah begins to mistreat her. Another word for this is abuse.

Do you see what’s happened?

The family whom God blessed to be a blessing to all nations is abusing, mistreating, harming a member of their own household.

It’s maybe the first, but is certainly not the last time that pattern happens among God’s people. 

Perhaps some of you know what that feels like. People you trusted to bless you and protect you harmed and hurt you instead. If that’s you, maybe just take a moment to breathe. 

And so what does Hagar do?

Even though as an enslaved person and a woman she has no viable way to live on her own in that culture, no other household to flee to, nowhere else to go, she LEAVES.

She goes. She flees. She runs in the opposite direction.  

She chooses her INTEGRITY as a person over her IDENTITY as a “loyal” servant. She runs in the direction of DIGNITY.

Imagine for a moment what a difficult decision that was to make. Leaving her employer and provider. Leaving the people she depends on. Leaving the people whom God had chosen. The only people in the story so far that God has shown up for IS Abraham and Sarah – and Hagar is leaving them. It probably felt like she was leaving God.  

YET she hits the road. She flees TO the desert, the wilderness where she has nothing and no one but at least she is free FROM harm. 

And what happens?

“The angel of the Lord FOUND Hagar near a spring in the desert.”

God asks,

“Hagar… where have you come from, and where are you going?”

The God who promises to keep us from all harm, who watches over your life, watches over your coming and going SEES HER, FINDS HER, and MEETS HER in the wilderness!

If and when YOU flee harm being done by God’s people, if and when YOU choose integrity over a specific identity and role, you are not leaving God behind, because GOD goes with you. 

God watches over YOUR life, over both your coming AND GOING. 

And God meets us in the wilderness. 

There’s a member of our church community in Acton named Joyce. Many years ago she found herself in a similar situation. She’s given me permission to share this part of her story. Her Christian husband – who had promised love to her and she had promised to love faithfully – was mistreating her.

But it wasn’t something her church back then knew how to talk about. They knew how to call you to loyalty, but the idea of leaving was shrouded in shame. But her integrity and safety as a person was more important than her identity as a ‘good Christian wife’, a ‘good church member.’ Joyce had to flee from harm – which first meant getting a restraining order from her husband. And then separating from him, which all felt like running into a wilderness.

God’s people didn’t “see” her, didn’t know how to support her. Her husband wasn’t providing for her or caring for her. She was on her own spiritually, emotionally, financially – needing to find a way to provide for herself and her two young girls. She was in the wilderness.

And there, in that place, without looking for it, her path crossed with another woman from the same church community who also had a restraining order from her husband. And then she met another woman in those circumstances. And another. And another!

Five women, all from the same church, all fleeing into this wilderness space, through God’s divine appointment miraculously found one another. And they each realized,

‘I’m not alone. I don’t need to travel this journey alone.’

And they committed to walking their journey together. To becoming a safe space where they could each be heard, respected, protected, cared for, encouraged, and empowered to make loving and good life-choices. 

They called themselves HAGAR’S SISTERS because, like Hagar, when they fled from harm into the wilderness, God saw them, God found them, and God provided a community that gave them hope and healing.

And those relationships birthed a ministry. And for more than 15 years, the ministry of Hagar’s Sisters has been meeting woman after woman, hundreds upon hundreds of people, in the wilderness as they flee from harm, embodying the message that

‘there’s a God who sees you. You’re not alone. There’s a path to hope and healing.’  

God meets us in the wilderness.

But Hagar’s story can also be difficult to understand. God meets her, but then – in her situation – God tells her to go back to Sarah. Part of the reason for that is because, in that world, there were no shelters. There weren’t any other economic options for a woman. Hagar couldn’t get a job and become a woman of independent means. In that ancient world, women were completely dependent upon the provision of male head of household. 

And that’s where we need to notice that God doesn’t send her back to the SAME situation. Instead, God says, ‘you will give birth to a son. And that son will have descendants too numerous to count!’ In other words, just like Abraham and Sarah will be blessed with a great household, YOU TOO – Hagar – will be blessed with your OWN household! Imagine that? An enslaved woman living in a foreign nation will become the MOTHER of her OWN great household!

In THAT context, that would be amazingly good news. 

It also means that Hagar would not have to live dependent upon Abraham forever, but could eventually live freely as a part of her son Ishmael’s household. 

But a few chapters later, before that reality can mature, Abraham and Sarah now send Hagar and her young son away out in the wilderness, on their own. Ishmael is still in diapers.

The text literally says she wanders in the desert. Baby Ishmael is sobbing, Hagar is sobbing… but AGAIN God meets them there. We read this in

Genesis 21:

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 

18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.

21 While he was living in the Desert…, his mother (found) a wife for him from Egypt.

When we flee from harm into the wilderness, OR when we’re exiled and sent into deserted places against our will, God not only sees us there, God can provide refreshment and a future! 

When we’re in a harmful place, it can feel so scary to leave… because we can feel like we’re leaving God, or feel like we’re failing, or we can be told we’re irrational and ungrateful. Or some of you have been left, it wasn’t your choice… and here you are in the wilderness, a place you didn’t want to be. It can feel scary because we might not know what comes next. But the story of Hagar is that God meets us there and can give us a new pasture to thrive, new relationships, a future that might be fuller and more life-giving than anything we had experienced before! 

Did you know the first person in all of Scripture to name God is Hagar?

A young woman LEAVING God’s chosen people because she’s experiencing abuse IS the first person to give the almighty God a name! 

What should that tell us about how we do theology?

Genesis 16:13

“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’”

And you know, she SAW God in the wilderness… precisely when she had the COURAGE to leave, to flee from harm. 

I was surprised when our friend Peter first suggested we could choose to leave our church. And we weren’t being mistreated or abused in that context. But what Peter was helping us see is that you and I always have CHOICES. We have agency. So with him and the encouragement of others, we did set boundaries. We said,

‘if the church chooses path A or path B, we can stay in this relationship. We can continue to be here. But if you choose path C, well, that’s opposite to why we came here to serve, to what we originally agreed to, and that violates our sense of integrity. And so we will choose integrity and leave if that happens.’ 

And that’s what happened. They chose path C, and we left. 

And I was angry. I was disappointed. I was hurt. I felt like I had failed. I felt like I let God down. I felt like maybe something was wrong with me. I was in the spiritual wilderness. I had lost my identity as ‘pastor.’ I had trust issues. I didn’t know if I could serve in a church again, because I might get hurt and let down again. 

But God saw me there… and provided.

Unexpectedly, the opportunity opened for me to serve at a Taiwanese-American church, something I never imagined for my life. 

And there I experienced more life and joy in ministry than I had before… and I eventually left that place because there was a new opportunity with a different kind of joy and life for me.

The slow lesson I’m learning is that loyalty to God sometimes means leaving one place – maybe because that place has become harmful, or maybe because integrity demands it, or maybe because God has a surprise for you – leaving one place so God can take you to a new place where there’s even GREATER joy and life. 

Or in the words of Taylor Swift, from her song ‘it’s time to go’ –

Sometimes giving up is the strong thing

Sometimes to run is the brave thing

Sometimes walking out is the one thing

That will find you the right thing

Now, the point of this message is not that if you’re BORED in your marriage, or FRUSTRATED in a friendship, or ANNOYED by long sermons at your church, you should just PEACE OUT. ALL relationships have challenges; ALL communities have certain tensions to bear and work through with love, patience, kindness, and forgiveness!

When a woman is experiencing intimate partner abuse and comes to Hagar’s Sisters, they actually don’t tell you whether to seek a divorce or not. 

They communicate that God’s desire is to keep you from harm. That God wants you to be in safe, loving relationships. That’s the space God is calling you to! And they invite women to choose integrity. And that might mean leaving. Sometimes, if the spouse catches the vision, that means seeking transformation within a relationship. Going to a NEW WAY of relating WITHIN an EXISTING relationship. 

The well-known marriage counselor Esther Perel once said,

Most people are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in their adult life. Some of us will have them with the same person.

What she’s getting at is that in ALL relationships, we need to keep GROWING. The invitation to LEAVE ONE kind of relationship and MOVE to a more life-giving kind of relationship isn’t just a question for those facing abuse – it’s a question for ALL healthy relationships. 

Becky and I have had several versions of our “marriage” within our 22-year-old marriage as we’ve LEFT certain patterns of relating, and gone at times into wilderness places, difficult places, tensive places, where we had to depend more on God and discover NEW patterns of relating. 

A healthy marriage, a healthy family system, a healthy church community, a healthy workplace isn’t static. It leaves old and hurtful patterns and looks for God to teach and provide new ways of being and relating. 

So my invitation for you today, for this summer, is to ask,

Is there something in your life that God is inviting you to leave? 

Maybe you’re experiencing abuse, or high levels of power and control in a relationship. If that’s the case, please reach out to Hagar’s Sisters or one of your pastors. God desires to keep you from harm, for you to be whole. Maybe you do need to leave a place of harm and seek a place of safety.

Or maybe you’re simply in a static place, or you feel tension in a certain situation, community, or relationship and you’re just stuck there. Instead of life to the full, it’s life-draining. What pattern or way of relating might you need to leave behind and what new pattern might you need to embrace?

Or maybe some new opportunities are arising in your life that God is inviting you to say ‘yes’ to. What might you need to first let go of, say ‘no’ to and lay down, in order to say ‘yes’ to this new thing?

Or maybe you’re in the wilderness today. And you feel alone. No one seems to get it. I just want you to know: God sees you and God can provide for you.

Let us pray.

A Living God

Good morning everyone! It’s a joy to be with all of you – to be together, to devote our time to be in this particular building in North Cambridge and with you online, at this particular time, with all these amazing and likely, particular people!

Isn’t wild to look around right now. To look around at people maybe you’ve known for a really long time – or people you are looking at for the first time! To think about your own week –  all the stuff it held. The tasks, the people, the projects, the boring, the unexpected, the eating, the sleeping, the activities, the things you feel good about – the things you are wrestling with… the small things… the big, giant things. And to think that ALLLL these people in this place also had a week that had probably some of those same elements. Think about what kind of amazing humans we are – that we can navigate all of what our days hold.

I wanted to start today by inviting you to pause right now – to close your eyes and think about your week, (or your last couple of days – if you are like whoa there’s no way I can remember Monday!). And let all that you saw, all that you did, all the people you talked to, come into view… As you think about the scope of your week – what are some of the attributes about yourself that come to mind?  If you were invited to tell someone, “I am __________,” what are some descriptors you would use?

Turn to one another and share a few ways you would describe yourself – starting with this prompt, “I am _____________.”  You could take it right on the nose and say, “I am a human being, I am a daughter, I am a pastor….”  Or “I am someone who loves cats, I am strong, I am someone who loves fruity desserts…”  Take it anyway you want – at your comfort level … 

The rules of engagement are to introduce yourself – name and pronouns – and take turns sharing… if you are the listener your job is to just listen…

Thanks for being willing to engage that prompt – it might feel like a small thing to share a little bit of who you are. But I think it’s the foundation of all the big stuff ‘faith’ is made of… it’s what scripture, and prayer and community, and anything that refers to itself as “teaching,” hang on  – real life – our real lives – who we are,  and likewise a real and living God that cares about who we are – our particularness and all.  

So today we will keep mining this prompt in some fashion, I’ll also talk about hummingbirds, and David & Goliath. And you and me and the giants of our day – and I hope God talks with you too – about all of it from exactly where you are at. 

Here we go!
Let me pray for us.

God, I thank you that you are a God of uncontrolling love – a love that does loops and loops and loops around us to convince of just how much you love us – in all of our days…days that hold the big and the small moments of frustration and the big and small moments of joy – ones where we face giants that feel insurmountable and somehow God, could you help us to find ourselves not only capable of receiving of your love – but worthy of it, and empowered by it! Thank you God for such love, thank you for loving us right now.

STORY

This summer my husband Scott and I have gotten into a little bit of a rhythm of going for a walk after work. We have a loop we do that takes us down a wooded path, over a little bridge and along the edge of a pond.

And while we walk – I guess because we are getting older – we also pull out our bird apps and see what birds it identifies as we go. Our conversations kind of dart all over the place in a figure-eight pattern – from birds, to debriefing our day, to the world’s woes – to the seemingly insignificant – like grocery lists:

“Oh Scott, I forgot to tell you all the eggs are gone.”  

Really all the eggs are gone? 

Yah, we need to get more. . . 

But we had like 16 eggs left?  

Yah, I know –  they are gone. 

All of them – even the three I boiled? 

Ehm.. yah, Scott all of them.

 

To….. “Oh listen – there’s a yellow warbler!”

To….., the crushing weight of powerful giants in our day:

“How are we going to tackle the mental health crises of our children – their friends, of their generation?”

“What about climate change?”

“Can you believe the Supreme Court decision?”

“Vermont’s flooding?”


And our walk takes us to a clearing at the end of the edge of the pond – where it opens up onto this green field and in the middle of it is this big beech tree. 

The funny thing about bird apps – is that you are often looking at your phone in hopes of identifying a bird – rather than looking around in your environment – the canopy of trees above to see them. But for some reason a couple of weeks ago as we entered into the clearing I was just looking at this tree – and at the very, very top of this big tree is a barren branch that goes vertical .. .and at the tippy top of that branch was a hummingbird. I mean – almost invisible except for the fact that the barren branch really revealed its outline clearly. 

And it was just sitting there.  Not humming – or flying – just perched.

And for the next several walks – the hummingbird was there, every time – so exposed and so still.

Now, a creature so small (weighing less than a marshmallow), doesn’t seem like it would be served by leaving itself out visible to all predators and enemies. Surely the evolutionary traits for survival would suggest that this hummingbird should hide, protect itself in the more foliage-rich branches, and employ some sort of good armor.

There was a way that this curious posture just didn’t seem to “fit” with what I thought I knew of hummingbirds.  

In the story of David & Goliath we come across this theme of “not fitting” – not quite making sense – as we revisit this familiar story. It’s such a familiar story that I invite you to  – as best you can – enter with a fresh lens – listen with an open heart and let the story stir you as it will today.

We enter this story as David is going to King Saul to throw his name in the ring as a contender to fight Goliath. The Israelites and the Philistines had been camped on either side of the Elah Valley for 40 days  – with no movement to engage in battle – except for the unrelenting taunting and intimidation tactics of Goliath. 

So where we pick up the story today we find  David and Saul in conversation about this, and David leads with…

SCRIPTURE:  I Samuel 17:32-40 New Living Translation Study Application Bible

“Don’t worry about a thing” David told Saul. “I’ll go fight this Philistine.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There is no way you can go against this Philistine. You are only a boy, and he has been in the army since he was a boy!”

But David persisted. “I have been taking care of my father’s sheep,” he said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, I go after it with a club and take the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death. I have done this to both lions and bears, and I’ll do it to this pagan Philistine, too, for he has defied the armies of the living God! The Lord who saved me from the claws of the lion and the bear will save me from this Philistine!”

Saul finally consented. “All right, go ahead,” he said. “And may the Lord be with you!”

Then Saul gave David his own armor – a bronze helmet and a coat of mail. David put it on, strapped the sword over it, and took a step or two to see what it was like, for he had never worn such things before. “I can’t go in these,” he protested. “I’m not used to them.” So he took them off again. He picked up five smooth stones from a stream and put them in his shepherd’s bag. Then, armed only with his shepherd’s staff and sling, he started across to fight Goliath.

This story has become widely known as an example of how the underdog can triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds through skill, courage, and faith/God.  And indeed this is one of the great lessons of the story – but I also think it is important to pay attention to how David invites us to consider what might not “fit” anymore, both on the personal level and in the world around us.  And how it is we can anchor to who we know God to be, and who we know ourselves to be – especially when the giant of FEAR runs rampant.  

“Goliath is the Philistine champion, representing a society of warriors who wreaked havoc, violence, oppression and death from Syria to Egypt. David steps forward as Israel’s champion. He is a shepherd like his ancestors were before they were enslaved in Egypt. David represents former slaves, struggling to establish themselves in a new land.” (Pastor Ritva H Williams)

And he is the youngest of his father Jesse’s sons – with some of his brothers already in Saul’s army.  Jesse tells him to go bring provisions to his brothers and that is when he hears the threats of Goliath and Goliath’s call for one Israelite representative to come forward to fight him. 

Now Goliath is a symbol of so-called advanced culture – he has got it right – he has traditional war weapons, he has armor, he is powerful. He is big. He is strong, he’s intimidating –  and this is a pretty good strategy as he goes into battle. King Saul of course recognizes all these traditional ways of battle and says,

‘hey the only way to go about this is to take this ‘gear’

and so he offers David all of his war armor.  It makes sense, it follows the rules of battle  – you put on all the armor you can.

And David does – he tries on Saul’s armor right? But he says,

I can’t go in these.” 

In scripture it says he protests!

“I’m not used to them.”

So he took them off again.

“I can’t go in these. It’s not going to work.”

And there’s a way we can read this and say –

“way to go David! Yah, you are a shepherd boy of course this heavy, too-big armor doesn’t work for you.” 

But I think David is inviting us to consider his move to be more than just a personal choice for preference and comfort. 

I don’t know about you – but it seems like we live in a land and time of giants. Where Goliaths roam and have wreaked havoc for a long time and have set up camp to stay.  Division and hate and violence seem to be the regular tools of human engagement and the insidious weapons of white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, power in the mouths of a few, anti-LGBTQIA laws, coercion (and so on), seem to be the armies we battle day in and day out. 

It’s so exhausting, so disheartening, so comprehensive that most days I find myself resorting to the rules of engagement set for centuries. Fighting in the same pattern except trying to yell louder, point fingers stronger. Or I can disengage…. camp out on the other side of the valley and remain distant – convincing myself that any effort I put out is too small to matter.  I mean this is the pattern of our nation since its inception – and I can see that the tactics, the armor doesn’t seem to be working… Doesn’t lead us all out of the valley unto greater freedom.  

We can beat ourselves up about this – and feel trapped – and that’s also by design. Because the central mechanism in all of these oppressive and unhealthy systems – is an insidious giant itself –  FEAR.

Fear as a tool to keep everyone in their places, to break your spirit. To doubt your thoughts – disregard your impact, and fear is a battle strategy that maps out just how many institutions it can cull into its bunkers. From state houses, to supreme courts, to prisons, to churches… And it targets the most marginalized and minority populations.

And so it is not surprising that sometimes it’s easier to fight fear with things that don’t fit us. As I’ve listened to the 25 stories that have been rolling out to commemorate Reservoir’s 25 years of existence – it is clear that some of you have had experiences with this in faith settings.  Where churches fight fear with things that don’t fit –

“like choosing harmful theologies, clinging to tradition, taking on the cultural values that will appease” (enfleshed.com)

– offering up interpretations of scripture through a narrow lens that doesn’t work at including all people – and never worked – but nevertheless offering it as the one and only truth.

But David shows us here that we can transform our fear in constructive ways. And how necessary it is  – because the alternative is actually the scariest thing… The alternative is to continue in something – whether that’s a relationship or job or community of faith- when you know that it fundamentally does not fit.

Doesn’t work. Does harm. That’s what’s really scary.

David offers us a glimpse of what it looks like to stop and question a solution to a problem that models the source of the problem in the first place. He suggests in his refusal to put on this armor, that there is more than one way to go to battle.

That there can be creative and faithful responses to oppressive forces, systems of evil, or harmful values without simply returning them in-kind (enfleshed.com), or fumbling around in armor that no longer fits… David breaks from the traditional approach of self-defense.

David’s seemingly small move here – to say

“no, I’m not going to wear this armor”

– breaks convention. Which is actually colossal. And he shifts the rules of engagement from power and fear – to vulnerability and the unexpected. A 10-year old shepherd boy and a slingshot. Bearing no markers of patriarchal strength. Who says, “no.” 

David’s “no” – can seem insignificant – but it is what disrupts everything.

His “no”, is a distinct refusal to be like Saul, to be like the nation, to be like this Philistine.  It isn’t just a refusal of armor – it is a refusal to be party to an oppressive system itself.

It is an invitation for us to see that we have a fighting chance against oppressive forces.

How?

Who is he? 

What does he draw on? 

He draws on the strength and courage of a LIVING GOD. And he knows he is a “child of this LIVING God.” A LIVING GOD that he has encountered not in “it is well with my soul” moments of peace, free of challenge… but in a lifetime of facing fear. Let’s not forget that David comes from a long ancestral line of shepherds.

David lets Saul know that he is a shepherd, no stranger to fear – the lions, and the bears – fear has been present, and David has allowed FEAR to be his teacher. Shepherds’ lives were not idyllic. They were out in the fields in all conditions, they were under constant  pressure to be attentive to threats – to keep themselves alive and their livelihood, these sheep – alive…. It was dirty, it was uncomfortable – it was hard.  

 And as a shepherd his role was not to just watch the sheep – but to watch the perimeter of their lives, where these sheep graze. Shepherds watch it and stand guard at this line –  for incoming trouble. They train themselves to identify potential and real harm. That’s where their focus is – their sights are on this line where danger, fear, threats and anxiety come to penetrate the pasture and the flock. Their hearts and their bodies stay awake to the danger constantly.

Their job is to be professional – fear- gazers. 

And additionally many shepherds were by society, regarded as “sinners” – a technical term used to describe a class of despised people.

Howard Thurman – talks about this reality in his book Jesus and the Disinherited – he says that

“the underprivileged in any society are victims [of fear] – of a perpetual war of nerves.” 

And oppressive systems depend and survive on crushing the worth and the dignity of people – he says,

“the socially disadvantaged are constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: “Who am I? What am I?”

So the battle at hand is not only circumstantial – not only unjust laws  – it is a battle to protect the truth of who God regards them to be.

David knows he is a shepherd – regarded as lowly – at the periphery. And yet he also knows God is with him, that God is living.  As David details to Saul his battles with a lion or a bear – “yes,” he mentions his own abilities – in partnership – with the living God. BUT he clearly credits God as the one who saves him from the claws and the mouths of these animals. 

And it is from that foundation that God affirms who David is –

“yes you are shepherd, yes you are a son, and you are a “king.” And you are a “force” and you are “worthy” and you have insurmountable “dignity,” and you are a “child of God.” And I am always with you.

Fear as a tool of the oppressor to limit, trap and control. Now transforms into fear of God. A good fear. A fear meaning “awe” – fear meaning an experience of the mighty, uncontrolling love of God. A God that is always fighting for us to discover our intrinsic power, gifts, talents and abilities.

God is with me – God sees me – I matter. I am not forgotten. I am not trapped.  This calls to life a profound sense of personal worth – that can absorb the fear reaction” (Thurman 40).

These are the smooth stones – we run through our fingers in our pocket reminding us that these truths are in fact our weapons.

As I visited that tree – and that hummingbird was there –  always on that same perch – I really marveled at it – it had this supernatural quality to it. This David-like spirit.  It’s little beak slightly lifted in the air – confident, daring.   But I watched for so long each time – because I was also so scared for her. It couldn’t be that such a tiny tiny little being could defy the massive giants that threaten her at all sides. 

But this hummingbird seemed to be comfortable in its innate capabilities – more known to her, than to me! Hummingbird characteristics don’t “fit” into regular avian species traits. They defy all ordinary limits of what biology and physics conspire to render possible.

“Like no other bird among the thousands of known avian species, they can fly backward and upside-down, and can hover. And their wings do not flap up and down, as wings do in ordinary bird flight, but they swivel rapidly along this invisible curvature of an infinity symbol.” (Marginlinian, Maria Popova)

I was convinced that the reason she returned to this spot – and picked this vulnerable, high perch – was because she had a nest in the tree – protecting that which she loves. Her babies. And oh, how I would get that  – Scott and my conversation about solving the world’s woes – is in part because we want to set our own babies up for a world in which they can flourish. And it may be true -maybe there was a nest –  but I also think she just knew herself well. This primal trust in her design, the power and strength to be free  – to fly figure-eights around any incoming threat or enemy.  

We can get swept into the battle of preserving and defending ideas and traditions – unto death. All the while losing sight of the people in our midst who need the protection of community and belonging. David knew he didn’t want to usher in another king to reign with terror and might – he wanted the people of Israel to discover their strength and courage as children of a living God. This truth, the one that’s embedded in our design, our DNA when uncovered – 

“results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power.” (Thurman 39)

These are truths of who we are in God – they are simple – they can seem so small but are so full of power.  They are also so countercultural that we need to be told them over and over and over again – in a figure-eight pattern, an infinity pattern – in order to withstand the giants of our days.  This is the armor we need. 

“I am a child of God. I am loved. I am enough. I am empowered.”

This is the power that systems,, and organizations, and communities should be concerned about… especially churches – HOW do we set-up EVERYONE to belong – in a more just, more free – more healthy society?

How do we create enough space for that to be so – and not be AFRAID of that space, or try to control that space with rules and regulations – to allow people to discover their whole selves in the company of the living God.

A God that loves to watch us fly – to take risks – to upend the norm.  Not control us.   Because the profound sense of belonging – of counting – of mattering … in this vast, GIANT, overwhelming world is vital.

Let us not forget what is ours to do in the moment – even if it feels inconsequential.  Maybe it’s a simple “no” – where you would have usually said ‘yes’. 

Maybe it’s pausing to sit – when you otherwise would be busy.

Maybe it’s buying more eggs – so you can have neighbors over for breakfast…

Whatever it is – know that you do not necessarily have to bridge all divides across the country – fight all the battles of the day. What is yours to do could just be right in front of you, with what you have, and who you know yourself to be, with a LIVING GOD. 

 “Faith and awareness of the presence of the living God with you – this is what overcomes fear and transforms it into power – to thrive – to flourish – and TO not YIELD to the Goliath’s that roam about.” (paraphrased Thurman 47)

To end,  why don’t you close your eyes and think about that question we started with, “Who am I?” Maybe there’s more that comes to mind, maybe it’s the same – but I want to add one more smooth stone to your bag and that is, 

“I am a child of God.”

I am a child of the living God.”  

And unto this, my friends… there is no weapon that threatens.

Amen

 

Transfigured Life: A Different Way Is Here

Good morning Reservoir friends! 

To those of you that I haven’t had the honor and privilege of meeting yet, my name is Howard Kim. I have been working with Reservoir since March as the Social Justice Intern. Shoutout to the Rev. Lydia Shiu for making a place for me here, thank you so much for everything. 

Because I haven’t had a chance to meet with all of you, I figured I would break the ice a little by introducing myself! I’m from the Greater Los Angeles Area, the ancestral land of the Tongva: born in Anaheim, raised in Claremont, found myself in Los Angeles, and now I reside in Providence, RI, the ancestral land of the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) & the Nahaganset. But home will always be Koreatown Los Angeles. I am a proud child of Korean immigrant parents & a community college enthusiast. I’m married to the love of my life. I deeply love food, Korean ballads, and seeing the look on people’s faces when they discover the holiness of Korean Fried Chicken for the first time! 

Thank you again for having me. Let’s jump into the passage. 

Today, we’ll be sitting with the words from-

Luke 9:28-36: 

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, [Jesus] took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray.

29 As [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed and [Jesus] clothes flashed white like lightning.

30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with [Jesus].

31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which [Jesus] would achieve in Jerusalem.

32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw [Jesus’] glory as well as the two men with [Jesus]. 

33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to [Jesus], “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying.

34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.

35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!”

36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen. 

This is the word of God, for us, the people of God. Thanks be to God. 

Can I pray for us? 

I know that you are here with us God. May your presence fill this place, fill our hearts, minds, souls, and flesh to receive what you have for us today. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts, be like a fragrant offering that brings a smile upon your face. Amen. 

Some Context 

This passage is often referred to as the “Transfiguration of Jesus.” Transfiguration, at its core, is just a fancy word that means ‘transformation.’ Throughout Christian history, people (and by people, I mean cis-het White men) have been debating about the significance of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Questions like:

“What does the transfiguration reveal about Jesus’ nature?”

or

“Is Jesus just a human, just God, half & half, fully both?”

Church leaders of the ancient era literally held council after council, continuously arguing over these questions, and there still isn’t a real consensus around those questions. But can I just be honest for a second and say that…I’m not really interested in that conversation. To be frank, I don’t really care because I’m not really invested in the conversation. Now, I’m not saying that that conversation isn’t important, because the result of those conversations ultimately set the theological foundation of Christianity as we know it…but…as I was meditating on this passage, I found myself fixated on something else:

What were Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus’ people experiencing during that time that would warrant Jesus’ transformation? 

During the time of the passage, roughly late 20 CE, Jesus and Jesus’ people were deeply oppressed. They were colonized by the Roman Empire…paying heavy taxes to Rome and dealing with inflation…deep military presence in the streets…rights were being taken from them…maybe this sounds or feels familiar to us today, maybe even too familiar.

I imagine that the air was constantly thick. Thick with tension, thick with uncertainty, thick with fear…it makes so much sense to me now why Jesus’ disciples would leave their families and professions to follow Jesus because they were longing for something different. And this Rabbi from the sticks had something different, was someone different, and it felt like if anyone could cut the tension and bring about something new, it was Jesus. And so Peter, James, John, and us in this room find ourselves up in the mountains, trying to stay awake, and we find Jesus transfigured. 

The Lesson 

I used to find it profoundly annoying that in the midst of great political turmoil, of deep poverty, of uncertainty, of fear and tension, that Jesus would get a holy makeover and a brand new fit! I mean,

“Jesus?! You know what’s going on in the world right? Why aren’t you doing something about all this? Why aren’t you swooping in and saving the day?!”

Now, let me be clear, I’m not saying that I’m against rest or treating yourself, I’m all about that! I’m just trying to be honest and admit that I still fall victim to this capitalistic way of thinking. What I’m also feeling at the same time is that I’m finding myself in deep, deep awe of Jesus. 

Jesus could have sent legions of angels and/or amassed an army of freedom fighters to take out the Roman Empire, restore the Davidic monarchy, and bring peace to Middle Earth, but instead…Jesus transfigures, transforming into Jesus’ full self, in full splendor, in full glory, to the point that his closest friends and chosen family couldn’t recognize Jesus, at least initially. I wonder why Jesus did this, during that time & in that context, choosing to be their full self versus a warrior king… 

I believe that Jesus did this, this holy drag show, this transformational coming out, this unapologetic refusal of binaries and incarcerative adjectives because there’s something beautiful and holy when someone comes into their full self, shedding away closets and breathing the air of freedom. And what’s beautiful about all this is that when this transfigured, transformed, trans Jesus showed up as their full self…God in heaven not only fully affirms this Jesus, but also celebrates this Jesus, and invites us all to follow this transfigured, this transformed, this trans Jesus. 

About nine years ago, I was a student leader for a major evangelical campus ministry. At the time, I was on my journey of challenging the conservative and fundamentalist theology I grew up with and was receiving from the ministry. I was really trying to find the theological language to justify why I was breaking away from all that I knew, from all that formed me. So during the end of the year conference, at an island off the coast of Southern California, a dear friend of mine, who was leading an LGBTQIA+ affirming ministry within the campus ministry, asked me to pray for a student of hers that was considering undergoing gender-affirming procedures.

When I was praying for them, I got this image of a sword in a stone, kind of like King Arthur’s Excalibur, but instead of a stone, the sword was lodged into a neo-gothic spire. I then saw the phrases, “You are my son” & “You are my daughter” falling from the sky into the sword.

And then, the words stopped falling, and when the last phrase went into the sword, the sword transformed into pure light and the neo-gothic spire crumbled away, leaving the sword in its true form. At the time, I didn’t really know what it meant. It wasn’t until a year later during some private prayer time, that sword of light image returned to me and I heard a voice say to me:

“I am doing something new. Are you in or are you out?” 

Return to Home Base 

We live in a world where we’re constantly being told to not be who we are, and those in power literally strip away rights and access to resources and care to make sure that the lie of the gender-binary, the lie of racial supremacy, the lie of capitalism and wealth, the lie of the powers and principalities are upheld. And y’all, I know I’m preaching to the choir at this point but the forcing of the incarcerative boxes is killing us! 

Jesus transfigured because the world needed to know that a different way is not only possible, but it’s on its way! 

Jesus transformed because showing up as your full self shakes the foundations of those in power and breathes new possibilities into the world! God affirmed our trans Jesus and invites us to follow them because God is doing a new thing, and we are being invited to bear witness to the new work that God is doing in the universe. 

My friends, the time for us to not only be our full selves, but to bear witness to the full selves of those around is here. There are a lot of ways to bear witness and a lot of ways to show up, but the one I invite you into is the one that God models for us in this passage:

Let us fully affirm and fully celebrate the beauty of the transfigured Jesus’ around you, and bear witness to the beautiful work they bring into this broken world. 

Let the people of God say, Amen.