Profound Belonging

We’ve been in this series called We Are Reservoir for the last five weeks. Trying to share with you all, Who are we? What are we about? And especially, as every organization does, continuing to evolve and trying to figure out each season, what are we trying to be right now? Some of us have been going to this church for 10+ years and many things have changed, including the church name and even the vibe of the church. Some of us have joined in the last few years and religion, Christianity, and our world landscape has changed so much. So we thought it was a good time for us to re-share in this beginning of the new ministry year/ new school year, highlighting a few things about who we are. 

So Who Are We?

Well our Mission, we say at the top of our service every week: We invite everyone to discover the love of God, the joy of living, and the gift of community. 

As for our specific vision for this season in our church, through some visioning process we’ve taken as leaders, members, and staff and the board, in the last few years this is what we’ve come up with:

Reservoir will continue to become the Beloved Community we are called to be.

We wanted to anchor on this phrase “Beloved Community,” a phrase from the Civil Rights era rooted in biblical metaphor for a more just and equitable kin-dom. And we named five particular ways we believe our church is longing to more the Beloved Community. Like, HOW can we be a Beloved Community?

What does that mean? Here’s five ways we came up with:

  • Diverse and anti-racist.
  • Welcoming, and a place of profound belonging. 
  • Radically generous.
  • Empowering wholeness, love, and justice in people and communities, promoting whole life flourishing.
  • Innovating as a church in a post-Christian world, so that our ministry is less dependent on any one gathering but includes many life-giving new ways to experience and be church.

And so in the last five weeks, we’ve taken these five, 

  • Anti-racist.
  • Profound belonging. 
  • Radically generous.
  • Whole life flourishing.
  • Innovating

A bit out of order with week one, Steve talking about the ways in which we have stood on many of our enduring faith traditions and innovate what that looks like in this day and age. 

Week two Steve talked about what it means for us to try to be anti-racist, even as we live in systems drenched in historical racism, how it might look for us to become more and more anti-racist.

Week three Ivy told stories of some radical generosity she’s witness that gave us models and invitation to generosity, a sermon where afterwards I really wanted to print out “New Driver” Please Be Patient” stickers for us all (if you know you know).

And last week we witnessed Steve’s ordination vow renewal and with that an invitation to how our church can experience revitalization and whole life flourishing

And we’re wrapping up this week with our last intentional way we’ve named as to becoming a Beloved community: a church that is welcoming, a place of profound belonging. 

To talk about this, I’d like to read our scripture text from Matthew 12, where Jesus challenges the traditional notions of who belongs, who is important, who matters, uplifting the people out of their imagination of the way things are, into a NEW reality, a new way of being, a radically different system and methodology of belonging.

In light of Indigenous People’s Day I drew our text from the First Nations Version, an indigenous translation of the New Testament. It’s a new, 2021, translation quote,

“birthed out of a desire to provide an English Bible that connects, in a culturally relevant way.”

I share this translation as a way of honoring our topic at hand, Profound Belonging, in that centering contextualized voices in their own culture, they belong, they matter, especially in light of American Christian history. 

The Introduction to the First Nations Versions says this,

“Many of our Native tribes still resonate with the cultural and linguistic thought patterns found in their original tongues. This way of speaking, with its simple yet profound beauty and rich cultural idioms, still resonate in the hearts of Native people.” 

So let me read for us:

Matthew 12:46-50 (First Nations Version)

46 While [Jesus who is called] Creator Sets Free (Jesus) was speaking to the people, his mother and brothers were outside wanting to talk with him.

47 Someone noticed and told him, “Your relatives are here, waiting outside to see you.” 

48 “Who are my relatives?” he asked the person who told him.

49 Then he looked around the circle of people, lifted his hands toward his followers, and said, “Here they are! 

50 The ones who walk in the ways of my Father from the spirit-world above are my relatives–my mother, brothers and sisters.” 

“My mother, my brother, my sisters, my siblings. My grandma, my grandpa, my uncle, my aunt, my niece, my nephew.” 

I wonder if we believe that, about us?

What struck me as I began to tackle this topic of radical profound belonging, the first thing that came to my mind unfortunately is how much that wasn’t and hasn’t and isn’t the case in so many of our churches around the world. How faith traditions and churches have specifically excluded people, whole nations and groups of people, on the basis that they were not a certain way. And not just exclude but expel, excommunicate, exiled, eliminated, eradicated, executed in the name of faith and religion. The Christian history has quite a reputation for not implementing profound belonging, or implementing belonging but only if you do it our way, our style, our specific method. 

There are books on Mission, overseas mission, on how to spread the news of Jesus, evangelize, convert and make sure the faith sticks, by eradicating their culture, their primitive ways, their heretical practices. And the GOOD ones of these books on mission, actually tries to get at, how much more effective Christianity sticks if you actually USE their own culture to make it contextual and integrate rather than eradicate. 

In my current faith journey, one of the things that I’m unpacking is the way in which Christianity landed in South Korea and how Christian tradition has at times trumped over Korean traditions. For example, one of the traditions that Christian practices truncated is the tradition of ancestral worship. Now it was based on biblical texts like,

You shall have no other gods before me and all.

And it is a tradition that has been passed through Buddhist cultures, with like incense and all. But lately it’s made me feel disconnected to my ancestors, to my elders, to the dead, that lately, I wondered what it would look like to have a Korean Christian version of ancestral honoring, if such a thing exists. 

What does it mean to belong, to really belong, like family? Well what happens when for example two strangers decide to become family members like getting adopted or married. Well you might live together. Probably eat together a lot. You learn about each other, about each other’s upbringing, background, their worldview. And you try to merge the two different ways of doing things, and adapt to the other’s ways. 

On this Indigenous People’s Day weekend, I think about ways that I have been trying to make Christianity my own personal faith. That’s included decolonizing faith. What does that mean? It means that the Christianity that was through the white European culture lens, I have found sifting through that to find what’s helpful. From which I have very much been formed by John Calvin and Martin Luther and all and beyond that, really contextualizing and translating into and through my own culture has allows my faith to feel just a little closer to home, a little more familial, a little more my culture. 

Here’s what I mean. 

When I first saw this image of Korean Jesus, it felt silly. And then, it felt like Jesus was so close and that Jesus knew my world. I mean look at the windows around us. They are dressed and in the style of that artist’s known dear to heart culture and context. 

Here’s another one. 

Korean Nativity Scene and what I love about this one is that it’s not three wise men or shepherds, it’s her sisters, aunts, and girlfriends and mom friends showing up with food to the labor and delivery room. (Which I’d love for us to do with my pre/k pastor Aubrie going into labor probably next week. Ask me about her mealtrain). The presence of women, Korean women, showing up for Jesus just hits different. 

Last image, not my own cultural context but as an exercise-

How does it feel for you to see Jesus this way? 

Decolonizing my faith doesn’t mean getting rid of everything (which is what we’ll talk about in my Godly Play Spirituality class starting next week). Traditions, practices passed down from others, history helps but at some point you got to ask yourself-

  • Who is Jesus to you?
  • Right now?
  • In your life?
  • What would it mean for Jesus to be your family?
  • What would you share with him?
  • What would you show him from your life?
  • What’s important to you and who you are that you would incorporate Jesus into? 

Lately I’ve been trying out tapping into my own Korean indigenous roots, which just means like really really old raw ways of operating and thinking before democracy, capitalism, and cement came into picture. Not to say those things are bad, I love me a nicely paved cement sidewalk, but have you TRIED trail running?

I don’t know how it came to me, okay probably from comparative religion studies called doing yoga, a practice that’s been central to healing my body from trauma. I tap into Jesus when they say, thinking about a spiritual leader or grounding. And as I’ve been doing lots of yin yoga, which is like the you know the yin yang sign, yin is a bit more passive, feminine energy, I’ve been thinking maybe this is more of that not Jesus the victor energy but Holy Spirit presence and power that you only need to receive and lean into what God is already doing.

And then I realized, hey that yin/yang sign is literally the middle thing in the Korean flag. This way of thinking of energies working together to understand and be, it’s probably already familiar and in my blood. So I’ve started calling in yin spirituality and I’m Christian so it’s a Christian practice. And it’s been really nice to recognize and flow through life with this yin spirituality that’s made me feel both empowered and flow through life with a kind of trust, like the ground holding your up during shivasana or not pressing into your stretch but holding your pose for five minutes for your muscles to just gravity into flexibility and strength. 

For me thinking about Jesus, not as Daily Bread, but daily rice, a daily bowl of rice has been interesting. It’s warmer. It’s cozier. Because of my own affiliations to it. When I’ve practiced the Lord’s supper, communion with Soju or Makgulee (rice wine) and a little bit of rice wrapped in seaweed, I cried. It’s that feel of HOME. That feeling when you’ve been traveling for so long and eating unfamiliar foods and you finally get home and eat home food. 

Jesus was saying this is not just a religion or a system of belief, it’s about belonging. And that’s what we try to mirror in our membership, what it means to belong at our church, isn’t that you confess your faith in some particular way but you just simply say, I belong, I’ll bring some food to our membership meeting potluck. Jesus was like, don’t make this into just laws to follow, let’s be together and be with each other and here, you be my mother. You who are so different from me, let’s be family, let’s belong to one another. We don’t have to agree but let’s eat dimsum together. For me that’s what it’s meant to be family.

Even though this profound belonging is what we’re after, I realize it can be hard still. Many of us are maybe introverts, and have social anxiety. And even though a lot of us are grown ups, it can feel like a high school lunch table situation, where the cool kids hang out here and the remnants awkwardly dispersed. And I want to say to us the same thing I said at a youth group retreat once. My sermon title was, “don’t be cool, be warm.” 

Sometimes we get into analysis paralysis,

“should I do this, do they want me to do this, are they okay with me doing this,”

But I say to you, when you get a thought to text someone something thoughtful or a prayer, do it. Just say yes. When someone shares with you something hard, and you don’t know what to say, just lean into it, and say,

“do you wanna pray, like right now? Can I pray for you?”

When you think of someone struggling through grief or a season of depression or just life hardship, just stop by and drop off a bag of chocolate, or flowers, or fruit. Just say yes. When we talk to each other at church, asking how are you to each other, ask a follow up question to them, “I’m good.” And respond by sharing vulnerably about yourself.

And then say, “what about you?” Be quick to connect people, “Have you met my friend Carol?” And include them into your conversation. Say yes to a thought/idea and start a ministry about something that you’re passionate about, with just one other person, whether it’s about climate change, or farming, dance, or whatever. This is how we create a culture of belonging by ourselves taking risks and vulnerability to lean in. Don’t be cool, be warm. Just say yes to the community as we have been saying.

Because you never know what one extended hand can mean to someone. And that’s what Jesus did over and over again throughout the scriptures. Reaching out to the most unlikely characters. He talked to stuck-up snobby rich folks (Nicademus, Zaaccheaus), called them in, he talked to nobodies and the lame sitting outside of the temple, too unclean to even enter the building, and brought them in. He talked with a lonely woman at the well. And touched lepers when he wasn’t supposed to. 

Like I said in the beginning, sometimes churches weren’t good at being welcoming or inclusive. And at some point because I felt judged or rejected, I had stopped going to church for years. And then one day I went back to church, just cause I was kind of depressed and I wanted something familiar. That day, I heard this story that I want to share with you today at a time when I was feeling especially lost. When I was in a dark place, isolating myself from even the few communities that I had some ties to, and really even from family, not really returning their texts or phone calls because it was too much to explain and come up with a good answer to, “how are you these days?”so I didn’t even stick around after church to do any small talk to lean into community there. And then I heard this story that really broke me open. I reached out to my old pastor for the story he used. The story is from Garrison Keillor, a singer, writer, speaker, about a girl named Lydia. 

“Lydia grew up in the staid Lutheran community of Lake Woebegone.  Lydia tired of it, tired of this narrow, conservative community, so she took off for New Orleans.  There she imbibed (uhm-BIBED) in all the revelry of that city, drinking, partying.  She longed to be precious and valuable to somebody.  She found a boyfriend.  They lived together; their own apartment.  She got a job as a bartender; he got a job laying on the couch watching TV.  She got tired of the parties eventually, and eventually she got tired of him.  All she longed for from that life of freedom didn’t really pan out.  Kind of humiliated, with her tail between her legs, she wrote a check out for a month’s rent for the apartment, slipped it under one of the beer bottles on top of the TV set, and while he was asleep on the couch she slipped out and headed back home to Lake Woebegone.  

She didn’t live with her folks; she found her own place.  She found a job in the local diner, but around town everybody regarded her as the checkered woman.  Everybody knew her story; it was a small town.  Everybody knew she was the girl who had gone off to New Orleans.  Everybody knew the way that she had lived.  She’d see them whispering about her, pointing at her as she walked by on the streets.  She went to her parents for Thanksgiving.  They ate turkey and polished off the pie, and when all the dishes were piled in the sink she made her way out to the living room away from everyone else just for a few minutes of solitude. 

There she found herself standing at the mantle in the house, just looking at the different family knick-knacks that she cherished from her childhood.  She suddenly came across a picture of her.  It was her high school graduation picture.  It was a different time in her life.  She looked so innocent, so clean, so pretty, every hair in place.  Then she noticed the strangest thing on the bottom of that picture in her parent’s house was a little label that had been glued on to the bottom of the frame.  The little label had been typed out on her father’s old Remington typewriter, and it only contained two words: “Our Lydia.”  Instantly she knew what they meant.  I mean how strange to be labeled in one’s own house, and yet Lydia knew the purpose.  Before the world and against all the whispers this was her father’s declaration to everyone who came into the house and knew everything about her.  “This is our Lydia.”  It was the “our” that meant so much.  Those three letters were as jewels to her, each a diamond to say that in this house our Lydia is treasured, she belongs to us.“

Just as this father claimed his own misfit daughter, God claims you God’s own. In God’s House, God has a label under your picture, Our Grace, Our Daniel, Our Matthew, Our Vivienne, Our Sophia, Our Micah, Our Karen … I really want to say all the names but I won’t creep you out any longer by saying your name specifically. God loves you. No matter who you are. What you’ve done. You belong. You belong to us. We love you. That’s the kind of church that I hope Reservoir will be.

Let me pray for us. 

God I’m wondering, what would it mean for each of us to really feel like we belong. Like we are your family and you God are our family. May we walk with you in our days, at our tables, in our homes, in our holiday celebrations, would you show up uniquely in our own tongue, in our own native language whatever that might mean for each of us. Thank you for showing us that you love us and know us through the person and work of Jesus. Would you give us that audacity to be your beloved child, and move through this world, reclaiming the broken, healing the sick, feeding the poor, with your power. And bind us to one another, as relatives, as a Reservoir family, show us how to be that, through your grace we pray in the precious holy name of Jesus, Amen. 

 

Our Biggest Changes the Past Ten Years

This weekend was very special for Reservoir! In addition to Steve celebrating his 50th birthday, we also celebrated Reservoir’s 25th anniversary.  Then this Sunday, Steve also renewed his ordination vows as a minister and as the Senior Pastor of Reservoir!

Read or revisit Sunday’s inspirational Renewal of Ordination vows in-person sermon from Rev. Laura Everett as well as the online sermon from Steve.

In-person sermon with Rev. Laura Everett.

Online sermon with Steve Watson (below).

Hey, folks, we did some special stuff in our live service that we aren’t able to replicate here online today. After 10 years of ministry at Reservoir, I renewed my vows as an ordained minister of the gospel.

It’s one of the great surprises and joys of my life that I’ve been asked to do this work. And, whoo, I’ve made a ton of mistakes these past 10 years, but with God’s help and the help of this community, I am still on the path, so to speak. So I’m grateful to be able to promise to God again before this community that with God’s help, I will love and worship God, love and pray for all God’s children, care for the community I serve, and live in and teach the good news of the way of Jesus. 

A few local pastors who mean a lot to me and to this church helped with this, but we couldn’t really get all of this into the studio for YouTube today, so I thought: is there anything else we could do in our online worship that would also be a part of Reservoir’s 25th anniversary and mark the 10 years of service I’d had here.

And a recent conversation came to mind. 

One of you – a longtimer in this community – was noticing something in this church that had changed. And this person realized as he was thinking about it that the change itself didn’t seem bad to him, but at first it had made him uncomfortable.  

Because – and now these are my words, not his – change is really hard. It’s unpredictable, sometimes disappointing. Some changes we really hate, and even the ones we end up liking, well the process can be really difficult. Change is hard. And yet change is constant. Everything – the cultures and politics and economies we live in, the relationships and experiences and technologies that fill our lives, even the very atoms that make up ourselves, are in constant change and motion. And if anything, we live in times where change is accelerating more than usual.

That’s a lot. 

My friend who’d noticed this change was like:

Hey, Steve, you’ve been part of this church for most of its 25 years. And for 10 years of it, you’ve been the senior pastor. Maybe sometime you can talk a little more about what’s stayed the same and what’s changed. 

That seemed interesting to me. 

So I decided I’d give that a first shot today. I’m going to share the biggest way I think our church hasn’t changed and the two biggest things that I think have changed in this church the past 10 years. 

In some ways this sermon is very inward looking. It’s a pastor thinking about what’s happened in a single church during a single pastor’s tenure. 

But I hope there’s some perspective here that might help you beyond just that topic. Maybe something about anchors we drop in the few things in life we don’t want to change. And maybe something about getting a little less white knuckled about the inevitable constancy of change in every area of our lives – our bodies, our health, our churches, our work, our everything. Change can be hard, but it’s not going anywhere, so what do we do about that?

Three weeks ago I taught this message I called Old and New, about how preservation and innovation, old and new are part of all the best things in life, faith included. 

I read these two scriptures we’ll read again, the first a line Jesus says about teaching and about professional lives of all kinds.

Matthew 13:52 (Common English Bible)

52 Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.”

And we said that in all our lives, in all of our professions, it’s like this – we’re best off when we can mine the heritage of our traditions, holding on to what is good and true and beautiful there. But then we also said that in all areas of our lives, we of course need to keep learning and trying new things too. 

We have to adapt to new rules in our professions. We have to keep up with all that our kids are experiencing that is different than when we were young. We age, and we face new choices in our health and our housing and need to be open to new treasures, not just old ones.

Jesus makes it explicit in another scripture that we read that this applies to what God is doing in the world too. His life and teaching were grounded in an old tradition but it was also a renewal movement.

Jesus taught:

Matthew 9:17 (Common English Bible)

17 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins so that both are kept safe.”

In this little bit of folk wisdom, the idea is that the new work of God requires new containers to hold it. It’s new religious systems and structures, but maybe more than that – new imagination, new habits of mind and heart. 

It’s clear from history and even from within the pages of the Bible itself that this wasn’t a one time adaptation that Jesus required during his lifetime. 

The Bible is full of moments where people come to believe not only have their lives and circumstances changed, but what God is doing has changed as well. Look, God says,

I’m doing a new thing!

The New Testament has all these little moments that hint at the tensions that were occurring even within the first century of the Jesus movement. The scope of what this movement would become kept broadening, and that required a lot of change in its communities. 

Early this week, as I was getting ready for today, I wrote like five pages of notes about the evolution of attitudes toward traditional dietary laws among the first generation of leaders in the Jesus movement. This was super interesting to me, still is. But I realized, probably not to most of you. So we’re going to skip that for today, but the upshot is that sometimes things that seem really important to us have to be reexamined in light of a better today and a more hopeful tomorrow.

Even in the parts of our lives we can sometimes think of as anchors – our faith, our religious heritage, our churches – sometimes we discover we were wrong about something or whether or not we were wrong before, new opportunities call for new ways of meeting them. 

All to say, for all of history, people have had to make choices about roots and branches, about where we stay tied to unchanging convictions and practice and the ways we adapt and branch out and grow in new ways. 

Faith communities are no exception to this. In our faith, we figure out over time where we are going to lay anchors, where we stay moored to beliefs and traditions that serve us well, that connect us to God or what’s best in life. And where we’re going to set sail, to integrate new ideas and experiences and change. 

So all this true of our church of course. We have roots and branches, anchors and sails, old and new. We have ways that we’ve been in the same church for the past 25 years and hope to be for the 25 years to come. And we have ways we’ve changed a lot over the past 25 years, even over the past 10 years. 

Whenever I think about where Reservoir has come from and where we are going, my first thought is over how much we are still the same. Over 25 years ago, some young adults with big dreams wanted to start a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that would be a fresh expression of Christian community for this city. Cambridge was way ahead of the curve on the story of what got called the “rise of the nones.” This is the huge increase in people who don’t affiliate with any particular religion at all, let alone belong to a faith community.

Our founders imagined a church that could be helpful in a time and place like this – that would be anchored in the deepest, most beautiful parts of the Way of Jesus, but that would use fresh language, that would engage creatively and non-defensively with the science and ideas and experience of contemporary culture. A church that would practice a form of Christian faith that would genuinely feel like good news to many people. The church was a hit at first. It grew really fast in its early years. Charles Park tells some of this story in one of our 25 stories for 25 years videos. You can check that out right here on our YouTube site

What’s fun to me is that we’re still very much that church. We’re still committed to plumbing the deepest, most powerful parts of the ancient Way of Jesus – the stuff in this faith tradition that empowers love, peace, justice, healing, and joy. And we’re also as committed as ever to an expression of that faith that is good news to everyone all the time. Right here and now, in this particular beautiful and broken and just plain weird time to be alive. 

That’s still in our DNA as a church, the dream of our founding mothers and fathers, so to speak.

So in some ways this church hasn’t changed all that much. But in other ways, we’ve changed a lot. I started listing the ways. There are a lot of things. But for me at least, most of them fall into two categories. 

Here are the two biggest ways our church has changed over the past twenty-five years, or especially I’ll say over the past 10+ years I’ve been with us as a pastor. 

The first is that we’ve prioritized health more than growth

I’ll say that again. We’ve come to care more about health than growth.

Now let me clear that when I talk about the change in our church, I am casting no shade on our church’s early years or any of our founders. This church was a dynamic, amazing community in its early years. And our founders and early leaders were genius in many ways. We owe this church’s very existence to them.

I’ll name some of them. People like Dave and Grace Schmelzer, my predecessors in this role of senior pastor. And other founders and early leaders, like Christopher Greco, Val and Andrew Snekvik, Charles Park, Rich and Lisa Lamb, and many more. One member of that high octane founding team, who moved from the West Coast just to be part of starting this community, is still with us. Cheers for Titi Alailima, who plays bass sometimes on our worship team. Reservoir OG. 

These folks were all part of a crazy success story in our early years. A church in Cambridge, MA that in 10 years from its founding had grown from 30 people to a thousand, had touched the lives of many hundreds more, had gone from a little church plant meeting up in a high school cafeteria to owning this big and beautiful campus. 

The story of those early years was one of explosive growth!

And that was really important to the church. We were part of a network of churches that had been really influenced by a whole series of strategies for growing churches in America and it had worked here. 

My family first showed up here in 2005, right near the end of that early period of super-fast growth. I remember in one of the first Sunday sermons we heard, the pastor talked about the story of this church’s growth, and how it was a troubling thing that the church had leveled off. And it was true – the peak size of this church in terms of both attendance and budget – was in 2007 to 2008. And it really bothered the church that the church wasn’t growing anymore. I remember wondering, is it us? Like things slowed down when my family showed up. What did we do?

Even in my early days as a pastor, I remember saying in a sermon, healthy things grow. I had picked that phrase up from the American church growth movement myself, or maybe from American entrepreneurial culture. Which – they’re the same thing anyway. But the line, Healthy things grow.

And one of you came up to me afterwards and politely said:

Steve, maybe don’t say that anymore. It’s not true. Healthy things don’t always grow. 

And I thought, oh that’s true, if my middle aged body is growing, it’s probably one of two things. It’s probably a bunch more weight I’m picking up on my dad bod, or much worse, it’s something like cancer. 

Because some healthy things grow. But there are also really unhealthy things that grow too. And there are also healthy things that are beautiful more than big, and that aren’t growing. 

These days, very few churches are growing. The numbers vary, but something like 40 million people in America have left churchgoing in the past 25 years. Around here, churches are a dying industry. Most churches are shrinking. 

That Reservoir as a church is holding steady in terms of budget and membership and involvement is unusual around here. 

It’s not like we don’t care about growth at all as a church. We hope to make it easy for people to find us, if they’re looking for what our community has to offer. We hope that all of us will share the best parts of our experience here with others. 

But over the past 10 years, we’ve paid more attention to being the healthiest church possible than to be the biggest church possible. 

Personally, I want to practice a form of faith that people don’t have to leave, that people don’t have to abandon or detox from years down the road.

We have always had a passion for a community that invites people on a spiritual journey without trying to control exactly how it goes. When I joined the church 18 years ago, I was told the church values openness, not conformity. 

But turns out back then, we still had some blind spots on this front. We had some unwritten rules that could get you kicked out of leadership for instance. A lot of communities do this – they say they welcome everyone but it turns out that if you cross this or that line, you’re not welcome anymore. So we’ve tried hard to make sure that we have no unwritten rules here, because that’s what’s safe and healthy for a community. 

Some of the journey to healthy church shows up in boring ways. When I was hired, we’d had a senior pastor with a lot of integrity, thank God. But we were set up for abuse of power to occur. No one evaluated our senior pastor. Our bylaws gave way too much power to one person. We had a culture of a single leader having kind of a dominant, outsized voice we all trusted. 

Again, this mostly worked out okay for us in our early years, but it’s because we were lucky. It’s not healthy to have too much power in the hands or the heart of a single leader. That goes bad for organizations of all kinds, certainly for churches, in lots of ways. So we’ve changed how our Board operates, edited bylaws, practiced new habits of leadership. Stuff that on the surface looks sounds kind of boring, but the stuff that makes us healthy. 

One of the parables of Jesus I love is the parable of the mustard seed, where Jesus compares the ways of God on earth to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great big plant that does wonders for its ecosystem.

Many people’s take away from this story Jesus tells is that with God’s help, little beginnings can grow into big successes for the world. And maybe that’s true sometimes. We should never despise small beginnings.

But in teaching this passage in more recent years, it’s been important for me to notice that Jesus chose the mustard tree for his story. Had he wanted to talk about the biggest growth story in the plant kingdom of his region, he would have chosen the mighty cedars of Lebanon. They too started small and were real wonders of impressive growth. Mustard trees are biggest for a bush, but they’re still just that – shrubbery – valuable and significant but no great wonder of the world. 

So it is with most things we are and do, even with the help of God. We should care most not that they’re impressive or ever-growing, but that they are healthy. Healthy things do no harm. Healthy things serve their purpose well. So we’re much more focused on being a healthy church.

The second big change I’ve noticed over the past 10 years is that we are no longer an evangelical church. 

We were never the most typical evangelical church, I suppose, but we sure were one when we got started. Evangelical Christians in America were a mid 20th century rebrand of the conservative, more fundamentalist side of Protestant Christianity. Those that rebranded as evangelicals wanted to keep their conservative theology and Bible reading but engage more constructively, more intellectually with the rest of society. 

On the plus side, evangelicals in the 20th century tended to be very passionate about the unique value and significance of Jesus. They were very motivated to help people learn to read their Bibles and to pray and to gain value from these practices. They were also serious about the power of religious and spiritual experience to change one’s life for the better and to motivate people and communities to change the world for the better too.

And we benefited from having roots in all that. We too have been and are still passionate about the value of the Bible and prayer. We too have always called ourselves a Jesus-centered church. Our spiritual roots are in the life and teaching of Jesus, and we try to draw upon the best and deepest wells in the Christian tradition. Many of us have seen the love of God and the power of God’s spirit transform our lives in some way and give us power and motivation to do good in the world as well.

So I’m grateful for these roots I have and that this church has in evangelical Christianity. 

That said, the down sides of this movement have gotten more pronounced over the years. They’re sort of screaming out louder, it seems. 

There’s the patriarchy, the homophobia. There’s the Trumpism, the anti-science and anti-intellectual strands. There’s the way that a hope in God’s saving power becomes triumphalism – thinking that God’s going to make sure every story in our lives is going to have a happy ending. 

I could go on, but I won’t. 

We were never the most typical evangelical church, but our roots were there. And after a years-long drift away from those roots, and a big provocative push from the association of churches we used to be part of, we left.

We used to be called the Cambridge Vineyard, and then as we grew, the Greater Boston Vineyard, because we were part of a group of evangelical churches in America called the Vineyard churches. 

Ten years ago, we were already leaning toward leaving that behind. And then, when I was called as senior pastor, my job was to help us decide for sure, and then to leave and do all the stuff associated with that big change. It was really hard for this community. We lost a bunch of people who left because they didn’t like the decision or who left because the process was so painful. It was terrifying and heart-breaking in different ways for me personally. And I’m not alone in that.

But you know what it hasn’t been, ever. It’s never been a regret. It’s been so good. 

We left the Vineyard because we wouldn’t toe the line with their anti-LGBTQ policy they had just developed. And that matters. Our queer selves and friends and family deserve a safe place to call their church home with the same full seat at the table as anybody else.

But it was more than this too. It was a chance to really get off the bus of American evangelicalism. 

And boy, has that been good for us. 

Just a few ways:

  1. One, we’ve been breaking the habit of over-promising. That triumphalism I talked about with the happy ending to everything if you have enough faith. It also gets labeled the prosperity gospel. That was never our Vineyard main thing, but we were sick with it still. We had annual campaigns where we encouraged our members to name the one thing we most want God to do for us, and to fast and pray, and to trust that in faith, it would be so. There were some beautiful stories, some miraculous stories, that came about in this. But some crushing heartbreaks and some self-blaming and some loss of faith too. We tried to avoid that. We said many of the right things as we did this. But we over-promised. One of our taglines for a while was that we were empowering impossibly great lives. But a lot of times, even with the help of God, our lives are never impossibly great. Maybe they’re 10% better, maybe we still fail but we do so with dignity and grace. Maybe in our mixed bag of suffering and victory, of delight and disappointment, we find more joy, we love better, we live in more peace. If that can happen, that’s pretty good news. That’s worth celebrating. 
  2. Two, we’re as serious as ever about the Way of Jesus. That’s the theme for our mid and late fall preaching – the Way of Jesus. But we’re also more serious than ever about no one-size-fits-all way that the Way of Jesus looks. Reservoir isn’t here to tell you exactly how to live your life. We’re here to create conditions for a life connected to a loving God and a rich community, in which you can sort that out for yourself. 
  3. We’ve come into a richer vision of the work of Jesus on earth. Our more evangelical vision of the Kingdom of God really majored on a few things – on people becoming personal disciples of Jesus, on good churches growing and thriving, on more prayer and personal goodness growing in people’s lives. And all that can still be great. But our vision is deeper and wider and richer than that. I listen to a sermon like the banger of a message that Ivy gave last week, with its call to generous personal kindness and its call to the healing of everything – from broken hearts, to broken and evil systems that do harm. And I think, oh a vision that big didn’t used to be possible for us. 

As we work on this 25th anniversary campaign we’ve had this year and will come back to later this fall, we’ve been asking you to name some aspect of Beloved Community vision you’d like to see our church do more with. Because we’re trying to imagine what we’ll invest in more as a community when we pay off our debts and don’t have to keep writing monthly checks to our bank.

And it’s been so good to listen to the vision of what the people of Reservoir care about and think is possible. No one is saying that this church needs to be at the center of our hopes. We’re not imagining as we used to in our evangelical days that we are always God’s best hope for our city, that we the church of Reservoir have to be God’s big cedars of Lebanon. And that’s healthy.

But we are believing that the seeds we have here can grow to something good. Or to use a different metaphor of Jesus’, we think our life together has given us some yeast to mix into the dough of the life of our region. And it’s not just the explicitly spiritual things we’ve always cared about – things like eternal salvation, and more worship, and more prayer and all. Those are great. But more and more, it’s recognizing that everything is spiritual. So we’re asking how we can participate in more flourishing of the arts, and in better community mental health resourcing, and environmental impact, and in resourcing the dreams and vocations of people in under-resourced communities. 

Leaving evangelicalism has helped us get more holistic, to have a humble but wide ambition to better enrich the whole of life in our communities. And that’s good news for all of us.

So in some ways, we’re the same church we’ve always been. And in other ways, we’ve changed a lot. No longer an evangelical church, but up to something we like better. Less about growth, more about health.

Roots and branches. Anchors and sails. That mix of old and new is what we need for all the changes of our lives and our communities. 

Friends, if you call this church your home, know that we’re so grateful to be on this ride together through both constancy and change. 

And if you’re tuning here online but don’t have a church you call home, I’d love to talk to you sometime about how Reservoir could be that home for you or how you could find another church to call home if you like. Just send me a note. We’ll talk.

That’s it for me today. Peace to you all, friends.

RADICAL GENEROSITY | The Spirit of God is Upon Us

Today we are in the third week of this Fall series called, “We Are Reservoir” – and I love a good unabashedly proud sermon series – where I get to say, “Yahhhhh that’s right – this IS Reservoir!!” And my goodness it is really good and I’m so thankful for it.

I’ve been here at Reservoir for 22 years. And I know this because just two days ago my husband, Scott and I celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary – wooo! And am I proud of us too! (wow, this sermon is just going to be full of humility). We landed in this community that first year we were married, and we didn’t really have a crystal clear form of what it was we were looking for, but we knew what we were not looking for.

Our relationship up to that point had held a lot of conversations where we attempted to wring from our faith and church experiences the excess of ‘not so great elements’ we had absorbed. Our hope was that it would uncover the values and principles that undergirded our love for God in the first place, and that we would find them to still hold true – and could be helpful guides on our church journey.

We landed in a musty elementary school gym where we had to set-up 300 chairs, and the stage, and the signs, and the food, and the coffee, and the. everything. And then break it all down 120 minutes later – and stow it away just so  – so we could keep in the good graces of the school we were renting from. 

And a large majority of the congregation made that church physically happen each week.

Which meant there was this tangible generosity that coursed through the community. People giving of their time – getting up so early, giving of their gifts, their money – expecting nothing in return. Offering. Serving. 

But there was something more than just those actions that we were captivated by. There was this convivial spirit of generosity that we experienced each Sunday – that we found ourselves referencing at points in our week.

Something alive – that was bigger than us, that we got to tap into – that was really good – and that worked in us and through us. What I would name not only a generous vibe – but call a spirit of radical generosity. 

This spirit of radical generosity, quite honestly – even more than the set of beliefs, or the theology, teaching, worship music was what captured our attention.

And that’s what I’ll talk about today… this spirit of radical generosity that can be cultivated in community. And one that, here at Reservoir, we really believe is essential in creating the Beloved Community we are all called to be.

***Now many a “generosity” sermon becomes a sermon about financially giving. Today I’m not going to preach that sermon. Although without a doubt the unbelievable financial generosity of so many of you is what allows Reservoir to do so much of what Reservoir does! So thank you, thank you!***

But this morning I want to talk more about this spirit that clung to the sweaty, moist gym pads on the walls – that kept us coming back each week. Because it is THE SAME SPIRIT that’s present here this morning. One that centers a generous God – who has been building since the beginning – a lineage of love and liberation for all people.  And one that WE, Reservoir gets to partner in …. And one that Scott and I knew that we wanted to be part of too.

This series, “We Are Reservoir” attempts to unveil to you some of the spirit that undergirds our vision. Some of which can be communicated so clearly with bullet points, and found on our website – but much of it can only be experienced, sensed, lived. I invite you into that generous posture this morning.

Prayer: Our generous, loving God. The one who promises to greet us at every turn – yes, in the celebratory moments – but also in the turns of life – that never feel like they stop turning…. Where our sense of grounding, and steadiness is rocked. Would you greet us this morning, in these chairs that have been soaked in the tears and sweaty palms of those of us who don’t know what we believe – how to believe – what belief even means – where to begin…. But also remind us that you have soaked these chairs in your presence – the Spirit of God – as well. May the Spirit of God be upon us this morning. Amen.

STORY: NEW DRIVER

The funny thing about generosity – is that I am keenly attuned to the interactions in my day that seem to suggest the opposite. The  not-nice – not-friendly – not aware – not encouraging – not warm – not gracious – not merciful …. let’s just say ‘not generous’ interactions.  

I’ve lived in the Boston area for nearly 30 years. And I can tell you there is nothing that could convince you more of an anti-generous spirit than driving in this region. It’s like somehow people get into this little vehicle – and it becomes the vessel to test out – you know for kicks(!)- how it would be, how it could feel, to be the. most. horrible.human.being.possible. 

Our second child just started driving this summer. And our neighbor (mercifully) gave us this magnetic bumper sticker that says: “New Driver, Please Be Patient.” I chose the bright neon yellow one. We never used such a thing with our first child – we were still naive. We’ve since learned a thing or two. 

Now, as the new school year starts around the Greater Boston Area – I feel like there’s an uptick in crazy driving. Maybe because there’s school buses, drop off lines, late-to-work parents & caregivers and otherwise frustrated drivers out in full force! And so my drive to work here in Cambridge from the south shore – becomes at a baseline, much more “exciting. I make my way most days through a few boroughs of Boston –  Mattapan, Roxbury, Northeastern/MFA area, over to Storrow Drive, Cambridge and then here. And most days I feel you know, like I’ve accomplished something – by 9 a.m. – like SURVIVING.

This Fall though I wasn’t interested in feeling accomplished, I was more interested in feeling sane – by the time I landed in this parking lot. And I was like, “wait a minute! Maybe I could put that “New Driver, Please Be Patient” magnet on my bumper. And I did – and wouldn’t you know – my drives hold a little more ease, and a lot less beeping.

And I think, “Oh!” If only we could walk around with signs that say 

“PLEASE BE GENEROUS TO ME – please! I’m a new driver. I’m navigating A LOT.

I’m feeling new in this place. In this health crisis. In this conversation. At this intersection of life.”

I say some version of this to my son all the time

“Listen, I have never parented a 15 year old boy before …one specifically like… you…. You know, in all your… “You-ness…” 

I’m new to this!

Isn’t this how it really is to live our lives with God at the center too?

So much still feels new – still feels unchartered with God. Each day.

And as I look at Jesus’ ministry –  I’m curious to see how he made his way through days that were altogether unchartered!

There’s a swath of scripture in the gospel of Luke that I was drawn to where the theme of “generosity” might not be the most obvious theme, but I want to spend a few minutes with you, teasing it out, because at the heart of it all  – generosity might just be the center of Jesus’ whole ministry.

We are going to look at the gospel of Luke, Chapter 4. .. now up to this point Jesus has experienced a lot – he’s returned from the Jordan River – having been baptized by John the Baptist, where he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and a voice from heaven says,

You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And then he’s in the wilderness – where he eats nothing for 40 days, and is tempted by the devil. And then he comes out of the wilderness and we pick up the scripture here in verse 14: 

LUKE 4: 14-22

14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside.

15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 

16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read.

17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
19  and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down.

*THIS IS KIND OF LIKE A MIC DROP MOMENT HERE*

Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.

21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” 

22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”

As I said, this was kind of a mic drop moment. Not only in content which we’ll get to – but also because Jesus reading this small section of scripture from Isaiah would have been noticeably short for a synagogue service. And the selection he reads while not new to those who heard it – does indeed hold a NEW sheen as Jesus shapes it for the mission statement of his ministry to come. 

And there’s a small, but fairly pointed omission that Jesus makes…

You see he ends by reading the words of prophet Isaiah,

“God has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”

– but that actually isn’t the ending of the verse in Isaiah. In Isaiah- which is chapter 61 if you want it for reference  – the full verse reads,

“God has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, AND the day of vengeance of our God.”

JESUS does not read this last line –

“And the day of vengeance..”

And it’s here that he starts something new – where he begins to lay the building blocks of what it is to be a generous beloved community. Because in that omission he is explicitly refuting the central organizing principle of justice up to that point,

‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 

But what does he offer instead? I think it’s helpful to layer in what Jesus encountered in the wilderness – these three temptations…

You see in the wilderness Jesus is tempted by the devil whom I think personifies the world’s systems of evil. Devils that prowl and speak their gospel of scarcity and authoritative power, and say,

“Look at the world – there’s nothing here, there isn’t enough. There’s nothing in abundance…only deficits  –  you won’t encounter generosity. Unless you possess it – conquer it, construct it for your gain.”  

The first temptation. 

The devil says,

“Since you are God’s son, command this stone to become bread.”

It doesn’t really seem like such a big deal. What harm is there in that? Jesus is hungry! But the invitation is really to misuse power. Even if that power causes a change that points to God. But Jesus cares about invoking change – with community. 

“Jesus could fulfill his needs, but he chooses to live in relationship with others, in shared life with others, in shared humanness with others. He doesn’t opt-out of humanity, even in the hunger pains. He finds his nourishment in the same places and same ways everyone else does. There’s no magic.”

(Enfleshed.com)

Jesus replies:

“It’s written: People won’t live by bread alone.” 

There’s a more generous way.

The second temptation.

Is where the devil takes Jesus to a high place and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil says,

“I will give you this whole domain if you will worship me.”

This is the temptation to political power. It’s not inherently wrong. Here at Reservoir we have FIA and partner with GBIO to influence change by power.

“There have to be ways we use power for good. But often, very often we end up worshiping power to have power.”

Jesus is not interested in trading his place in the kin-dom for a throne in the destructive empire -not as the ultimate means of liberation. 

Jesus answered,

“It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” 

A generous God.

Then a third temptation: 

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to Jesus,

“Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; God will command the angels to protect you.” 

Prove that you are God – by doing “this” –  x, y, z.  It’s a transactional way of regarding God. Still based on an authoritative, hierarchical power.  But what religion is about is real transformation. Changing our mind toward generous love, changing our heart toward a generous posture in community, changing our body toward living in the present moment. (being generous to ourselves) (Richard Rohr 3.3.23) The whole point of Jesus gets lost when our arguments are about proving something about God – Jesus isn’t interested in proving himself.

Jesus answered,

“It’s been written: Don’t test the Lord your God.”  

God is more generous than this.

Jesus rejects all of these temptations of power and individualism. And realizes that the way of vengeance will not fit.

And chooses a more generous, albeit messy, and hard way forward.

He says I’d rather be a new driver – journeying along this free-way of life with everyone.

“Otherwise I’m held prisoner and captive to, oppressed by, my senses chained to the power of evil. I PREFER THE SPIRIT OF GOD TO BE UPON ME…”

I don’t know, on the one hand this feels pretty obvious. Well yes, of course Jesus would want to organize the kin-dom of God on principles of love, generosity, freedom –  values that can hold and still flex – and stand the test of time – and still be ALIVE!  Our values here at Reservoir are like these – connection, humility, action, freedom and everyone .. 

I think these values are pretty radical.

Radical in Jesus’ day – and still radical today.

Now let me take a beat on this word, “radical.”  

 RADICAL means in Latin to go to the roots.

In plant biology – “the radicle” is the primary embryonic root, emerging from the seed first to enhance water uptake. The new driver – that funnels in the health and vitality of the plant – filtering what nourishment will go to the whole plant system

Jesus as he makes his way through the temptations – returns to the roots and the histories and the legacies and the lineage of his faith. To set-up the new way forward in this kind-dom.

At each temptation he says,

“It is written…it is written…it is written… in scripture it says…my roots offer me this….”

He plants himself in the wisdom of the scripture.

And he takes the heart of them – and he calls them to life – to the generous expanse they apply to.

And it’s then that he’s able to state with clarity the mission for the community going forward. 

Jesus subscribes to a different social understanding. It’s why after he handed the scroll back to the synagogue attendant – everyone stared, stopped,

What does this exactly mean a kin-dom where:

  • The last, shall be first
  • The sick, healed
  • The oppressed, liberated
  • The prisoners, free
  • The outcast, returned to community
  • The unhoused, sheltered
  • The widowed, embraced
  • The downcast, uplifted
  • The grieving, comforted
  • The despairing, surrounded in praise
  • The ashamed, blessed with grace

What does it look like to RENEW? RESTORE? REBUILD THE KIN-DOM? This BELOVED MESSY COMMUNITY with love and GENEROSITY as the organizing principle?

AT RESERVOIR

When we say at Reservoir we are a community that embodies ‘radical generosity’ – it isn’t because we each individually try to be the best follower of Jesus, or serve above and beyond (although we do need volunteers!). It’s because we hold tight to our roots. The Jesus who stood in the midst of a synagogue and said,

“The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

is not a Jesus of the past – but the same Jesus – that sits right with us this morning – and says the same thing,

“this scripture you’ve heard today – is too being fulfilled – with your partnership…” 

Because if the scripture of the gospel is to live this life as a generous people – 

preaching good news to the poor,
    Proclaiming release to the prisoners
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,

Then boy oh boy – are we going to need some roots – some deeeeep roots! God says we will be called priests of the Lord, that we will be named ministers of God as we use them as anchors and as the way forward.

Now Jesus doesn’t give us a social program, with a clear strategic plan to do this work – but he does offer us two things that I think are critical for a radical generosity to be the potent, change-making spirit it can be:

  1. Call out Evil
  2. Heal

If we had time to read the rest of Luke 4 today – we would see that as Jesus leaves the synagogue he starts calling out evil. He calls out a demon taking up residence in a man  – he says, “SILENCE” to the evil.

He goes to Simon’s home and cares for his mother-in-law who has a high fever – scripture says he bends over her, and “speaks harshly” to the fever  – and as the sun sets on the day – he deflects every evil that challenges or tempts to compete with a spirit of generosity. And he speaks harshly each time to it. He says vengeance, violence, conquering  – will have no room here – but generosity will be as powerful.

To call out evil – is radical generosity. 

Without Jesus and this radical generosity we will be convinced that we are running short on everything, that life is full of scarcity, void of kindness, we’ll believe that we are running short on love/ On years – on time – on moments of happiness – of money – – Scarcity. Scarcity. Deficit.   

BUT we can’t be held captive by that narrative.. if we have captives to free…and new drivers to greet.

“When Jesus talks about setting the captives free, he knows the captives. When he talks about justice for the oppressed, they are the ones he eats with and drinks with. When he talks about healing the wounded, they are his friends, his family, his community.  His spirit of generosity is one that weeps with those who weep – and rejoices with those who rejoice.”

(enfleshed.com) 

And I think he invites us to do the same.

This relational spirit of generosity that guides our living – can also heal us.  

The demons fled.

The fever left.

The trappings of evil hold no power.

And what is left is the clarity of the Spirit of God upon us – all of us – radical generosity then can be experienced in abundance…at every turn in our lives.

  • This year I was greeted by radical generosity when I was leaving a swim meet and an older gentleman I had just met – and as I went to put on my coat – he held up my sleeve to help me never skipping a beat in conversation. And yet I stood there with the beats of my heart side-swept by such a spirit.
  • I watched as one of you during clean-up at this summer’s church picnic, greeted a neighbor who was walking by, one you hadn’t seen in awhile, a man who had lost his wife of 40 years during Covid. And you went up and you greeted him, and you laid your head on his chest, and said
    • “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”
    • And this man exhaled
    • “this is exactly what I needed today.”
  • In June my husband’s father died – and he was staying with his mom in NH for a few days. I was responsible for all things on the homefront, and meals–not my forte! And I placed plates in front of my kids – bracing for negative feedback. And my eldest turned & looked at me and said, “It’s hard, huh mom? It’s hard. … yah?”
  • I cried and cried.. And she cried!  Nothing about the food – and everything about my heart.
  • We have a 10-year old on the Reservoir Cafe team who a couple of weeks ago – just took to it – setting it all up with gusto – getting plates and baskets and freely displaying the cafe in all its beauty. Never looking for approval or disapproval – just freedom and ease.

And these are four among hundreds of examples of radical generosity that I have encountered over the last few months. And each time it heals me a little bit from the road rage of life. It really does. And it is more than just the word, or the action – and more about the Spirit of God being so present and generous and with all of us. 

And I also heed the words of Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez who says this ‘radical generosity’ is

“not only a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

Jesus was flipping the social order – and is still calling us to this work. AND radical generosity starts with our everyday, ordinary engagement with others – family, friends, strangers – your actual neighbors.

And so we come together this rainy morning. As many lovers of Jesus have done before us – in musty gyms, in fields, in hush harbors, in deserts, and in fancy buildings.

We come together and join with the spirit of God, that is still in the making, still on the move.

And we acknowledge our partnership, our roles that WE THE PEOPLE are needed to help create a beloved community – to form a more perfect and generous union.

And we acknowledge that WE THE PEOPLE are needed to promote the general welfare and cultivate a culture of radical generosity. 

And we acknowledge that WE THE PEOPLE  must establish justice as we do the ongoing work of fulfilling the saints and the prophets legacy of love and liberation.

So maybe today to close, we can say,

“It is written …. It is written….that God so loved the world that God gave their one and only son … One that was sent not to condemn the world, but to save us.” 

Lord save us – because we are all new drivers here on this earth… Save us unto radical generosity again and again. 

AMEN

Resources: 

www.enfleshed.com

Richard Rohr, CAC 3/3/23

I Am, You Are, They Are, We Are the Image of God

I’d love to tell you a couple things about where I come from. 

I grew up in the outer suburbs of Boston in the 70s and 80s. My little town of 4,000 people had no stoplights; it was still pretty rural. It was also almost 100% white. 

Greater Boston’s culture and its media were still pretty overtly racist my whole childhood. Boston’s bussing crisis around school desegregation happened not long after I was born. And the sordid Charles Stuart affair occurred right near the end of my childhood. If you’re not from around here, you can look that stuff up if you’re interested. Super-racist, though. 

Like most all-white places in America, my town wasn’t so white by accident. We lived on indigenous land that was taken by white colonists in the 1600s. Fun fact – my house as a kid was less than three miles from where most of the executions took place after the Salem witch trials. The area of Boston’s north shore I lived in had been developed by Boston’s wealthy white elite in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The most famous of them might have been Henry Cabot Lodge, a longtime US senator a hundred years ago. Some of his ancestors had gained their generational wealth like a number of New England white families – through the shipping industry, transporting opium, rum, and enslaved persons. Parts of those businesses were eventually made illegal, but no penalties, no reparations were ever paid. Lodge himself, like many early 20th century politicians, was a xenophobe who disparaged Catholics and immigrants and tried to keep America as white and Anglo as possible.

My town wasn’t white by accident. There was the cultural heritage I mention. Also, like a lot of Boston suburbs, loans and sales weren’t made to people of color there for a long time. And then zoning laws were changed to require you to own more and more land to be able to build a house, keeping people with less income out.

My own family and ancestors weren’t flaming racists. They were nice, white folks who were only casual, mostly unconscious racists. No racial slurs or anything like that, but all my family could remember vividly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated. None of that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Just not informed or curious about the flourishing of non-white peoples in their country, so not especially committed to them or their concerns either. 

I dated a biracial person for many months when I was a teen, but despite evidence to the contrary, I didn’t fully process that she wasn’t just white. I just didn’t have much category for culture and race beyond whiteness. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I really understood being white in America didn’t just mean you were normal, the norm, the standard, and that it wasn’t just other people that had culture. I had a lot of catching up to do to be a healthy member of society. Let alone to be able to be a safe friend and partner and colleague and family member in interracial and cross-cultural relationships. A lot of work to do. 

Just a couple more things about me that may not seem related at first, but are. My family was churchgoing almost all of my childhood. I didn’t perceive that as important or valuable to my life until I was a teenager, but even then, not a single person ever pointed out that the forms of Christian faith I inherited were exclusively shaped by the culture and writing and practice of white people. People could mention things like the Black church, but no one ever noticed that we were part of the white church, who sang white songs, were shaped by white colonizer European Christianity, and had pictures of white Jesus and white Bible characters in our Sunday School rooms. Totally white-washed Christian faith. No one talked about that.

Also, the religious heritage of my youth – in addition to being super-white – was also kind of shame based. Some of that started at home, but then in the church, I also learned that without Jesus, my existence was a moral offense to God. That God loved me, but God could only be in relationship with me, because Jesus was better than me, and Jesus died for me, so when God looked at me, we were all good, because God didn’t really see me anymore, he saw Jesus instead. 

When you’re basically ashamed of yourself, as I was as a teenager, that sounds like good news at first. But in the end, that’s messed up. We want to be loved because someone – God included – sees and loves us – not because someone pretends we’re as good as somebody else. 

I share all this about my background because it helps you understand how I came into two different questions that I think are still critical to ask about any church or place of worship, any faith tradition and any part of the Christian tradition.

We should ask:

is this church, is this faith, going to make people and communities more or less racist?

In our case, we can ask:

is Christianity a racist or an antiracist tradition, and what’s this church doing about that?

And two, another question that sounds different but is actually related.

Does this church, does this faith teach us that it’s good or it’s bad to be a human? Do we mostly need to be punished or do we mostly need to be healed and set free? Is our humanity the problem or the answer?

First the first question, then the second. Let’s read a very short excerpt from the New Testament letter called Colossians. It’s from the third chapter.

Colossians 3:9b-11 (Common English Bible)

Take off the old human nature with its practices 10 and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.

11 In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.

So is Christianity a racist or anti-racist religion?

Well, the truth would be: both.

Later in this same chapter, there are instructions to Roman households, including instructions to slaves in those households. The heads of those households are given instructions too, but no one tells them to repent of their ownership of human beings and to set them free. 

This is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in the New Testament. And it’s not just here but one other place, in the letter called Ephesians as well. There may have been reasons, there may have been change getting promoted more slowly, but still it’s horrible.

Later the Christian story gets worse. As Islamic empires rise and take land and influence people in majority Christian countries, Christianity starts to organize itself against Muslims, demonizing them as the enemy and weaponizing their faith and scriptures against them. In the European colonial era, all that demonizing and weaponizing language gets turned on indigenous people and enslaved African peoples, sometimes immigrant peoples too, as most of the Christian world sanctifies and justifies racism and race-based violence. It’s just a horrible, horrible turn for the Christian faith and an evil betrayal of its best origins. 

So yes, a lot of the Christian religion has been and still is racist.

On the other hand, not entirely so, at all. 

The most vibrant expressions of Christian faith in the United States flourish in communities of color, and the global Church is largest and most vital in South America, Africa, and East Asia – not in the old seats of Christian empires in Europe or North America.

I think this can happen because at its core, the Way of Jesus isn’t racist or oppressive at all. It’s liberative, it is anti-racist.

This excerpt I read is one of just many examples. 

This bit of Colossians echoes a baptismal formula that you also get in the third chapter of an earlier letter in the Bible, Galatians. A baptismal formula is something pastors would say to people, that people would repeat themselves, as they were participating in a ritual that marks them as a participant in this faith community. 

And here it’s a kind of creed about the universal dignity, worth, and mattering of all members of the human family, created in the image of God.

Greeks, Jews, men, women, slave, free, people of hybridity who don’t fit those categories – biracial, non-binary, dual citizens – all the human family gets to proclaim: I am the image of God. It’s me! And also, everybody, if they want to be in the way of Jesus, has to say of their brothers, sisters, siblings in the human family: You too are the image of God. It’s you. They are the image of God. 

We all reflect God. We all, no matter what we think of ourselves, no matter what we think about one another, we all look a little bit like God. We’ve all got that family resemblance to our Creator. And we’re even better together. We best reflect God together, in diverse community.

I am the image of God, you are the image of God, they are the image of God.

But most fundamentally, we are the image of God. 

At the beginning, in telling my story, I brought up this question of human worth and human shame in the context of racism and anti-racism. Here’s why. They’re connected.

In the Western Christian tradition – that’s Protestant Christianity, that’s Catholic Christianity too – in the Western tradition, it’s our humanity that is the problem that we need saving from. Our humanity is messed up at its very heart, it requires transcending for us to be saved. 

So Western Christians have assumed that people without saving faith in Jesus are an offense to God, worthy of punishment. The problem is that if you really believe that, it’s easy to hate yourself. Unless you count yourself as one of the lucky, or blessed saved ones; then it’s really easy to hate all the people who aren’t saved. 

This is one reason that Western Christianity, with this doctrine of universal human depravity, fits so well with colonial oppression and racism. It’s easy to punish, subjugate, and dehumanize people if you think that people’s humanity is a bad thing at heart. It’s easy to damn people to a living hell if you think they’re already damned to an eternal one.

On the other hand, there are Christian traditions more to the East that don’t teach this. These include the Orthodox churches. Now the Eastern Christian tradition can also be crappy. The leaders of the Russian Orthodox church have been spewing violence and all kinds of toxic stuff lately. 

But in the Eastern Christian tradition at least, humanity isn’t the problem. Humans are after all created in the image of God. We are good. I am good. You are good. We’re all good. Being human isn’t the problem. 

The problem is the accumulated stains of sin, harm, and hurt laid upon the human condition. We don’t do right by ourselves, and we don’t do right by one another. And into this mess of hurt, Jesus comes as the true human to restore the glory, dignity, and the beauty of our humanity. 

Christianity has been dehumanizing for sure. But at its best, the Way of Jesus is profoundly humanizing. We are good. We are beautiful. We are loved. 

In this early baptismal creed, new followers of Jesus would be invited to remember we are all in the image of God. And as they named these categories – Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female, the significance of these categories isn’t eliminated. But the idea that any of them could make us higher or lower is eliminated. All of us are worthy of survival, of celebration, of love, of access to everything that helps us flourish. 

There’s even a shot against the idea that there could be better or worse cultures in this list. Greek and Jew refers to the two dominant cultures within the first century house churches, as these people of different cultural and religious heritage are invited to figure out how to be in community together, and how to look at one another and say – there I behold the image of God.

But there’s this more obscure pairing too – barbarian and Scythian. Barbarians are what Romans called outsiders to their Empire that they feared or resented or looked down upon. But Scythians were also a people outside the empire, slavic and Persian folks with roots in modern day Iran. A good chunk of Scythians, however, were assimilated into the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire, and became prosperous within it. They were kind of like some first century version of a model minority – people the empire considered other, different for their cultural heritage, but whose assimilation and participation in the Empire, the dominant culture praised. 

And the early faith says: knock it off with this rank-ordering of cultures, with trying to stereotype and pit people against each other. 

Who we are matters. 

But none of us get to claim status, privilege, inheritance higher or lower than any others. And none of us get to degrade or demean the status, privilege, or inheritance of people we don’t naturally belong to or like or understand. 

This is what it means that the Way of Jesus is anti-racist. It says a loud, interruptive NO to anything that would rank order humanity as more or less worthy. It calls us to operationalize this truth in our lives and in our societies. 

Let me share a word on that for this church and the other communities we’re part of. And then a word on this for our personal faith and living.

For our communities. 

We all remember that in 2020, more of America was finally starting to come around to the Black Lives Matter movement. Covid shutdowns had slowed us all down, and more white Americans started paying attention for a minute to violence against Black people and other people of color in America. 

A ton of companies and communities started creating divisions of equity, diversity, and inclusion and making all kinds of pledges to fund racial justice, or to change hiring patterns in their company, or to better attend to the rights and safety and cultures and flourishing of people and communities of color. 

A lot of promises. Three years later, we’re learning, a lot of those pledges and promises have disappeared. Funding’s been cut, positions have gone unfilled or people of color asked to make these changes happen have had to walk away because their work was so unsupported or resisted. This has happened to people in this church in their professional lives. Yeah. Parts of our country have said that telling the truth about racism in America is a shame or a crime. And parts of our country have just lost interest. Yeah, it’s messed up. 

Into this climate, the Way of Jesus, the faith of the universal human bearing of the image of God says our universal mattering, our universal access to the conditions of flourishing, our universal equality at God’s table and at every table is sacred. 

Interrupting the racist heritage of Christian religion and interrupting the racist habits of American life remains central to Reservoir’s vision for Beloved Community. Our staff still commit to measurable goals for this in our ministry responsibilities. Our teaching and spiritual formation continues to draw upon the theological and spiritual resources of communities of color. Our attention to representation throughout this community in our leadership continues. We’re committed to an experience of beloved community that really feels like that to everyone in our church. I hope that if this is your church or if you’d like it to be, you’ll help to make this so. 

Friends, I also encourage you to stop and ask how honoring the image of God in you and honoring the image of God in others can be a more central part of your spiritual and relational and professional journey. 

White friends, for some of us, continuing to just admit that we may not have been raised to do this well is a start. Everytime America has any kind of hope or progress on becoming more of a Beloved Community, white people seem to interrupt it with waves of denial and defensiveness, over and over again. 

And if we’re honest, there’s a little bit of that inside a lot of us. For me to become a better friend and neighbor to the people of color in my life in my 20s, I had to interrupt the habits of thinking my culture was normal or that people of my race deserved everything we had. It took finding the places in my life where I could learn, where I could be under the leadership of people of color. And this continues.

It wasn’t until my early 40s that I noticed that 90% of the books I’d ever read, and 90% of the theology and Christian thinking I’d ever confronted came from white people and that had shaped my imagination and thinking and faith in ways that needed correcting. The temptation when you realize stuff like this is to deny it – this can’t be so. Or to be defensive – it’s not my fault. But we all know that denial and defensiveness have never been paths to human growth or a better world. And let’s be real, shame isn’t either. Fellow white friends, no one needs more white shame or white guilt. That’s not a path to anybody growing or getting better either.

What we need, what the world needs, is truth-telling about ourselves. Being humble enough to notice where we need to grow. Listening to the truths of the people of color you know and trust. Or if you don’t have those people in your life, listening to the people you can meet on the internet and in books and who speak up at your church. Getting curious, and then showing up. Image of God-honoring antiracism isn’t about having some right set of progressive ideas in your head, it’s about not doing harm. And it’s about showing up for the rights, dignity, and welfare of people and communities of color. Telling the truth, staying humble, listening, showing up – good stuff comes from this. 

I want to say too, for many of the people of color in our community, many of us have accumulated all these layers of hurt and anger over the course of a lifetime in white-centered spaces in a white-centered country and culture. 

Some of us find that for a season, we just need to be around less whiteness. We need media and food and circles of friendship and community that center and affirm our bearing of the image of God. We talk about this in my marriage for instance. A few years ago Grace started getting into Asian drama shows more. After decades of watching people of her race and culture assigned bit parts, being made to live out stupid stereotypes and white fantasies in Western media, she found this so refreshing.

To the extent that she decided that at least for a while, maybe for good, she was mostly done with white entertainment. It took me a while to get this, let alone respect it. Because as much as I love her, I don’t have her life experience. I appreciate it now. If you’re a person of color and you want a little or a lot less whiteness in your life, that’s normal. No one should be offended by that. Do what you’ve got to do. 

Sad for me to say as a pastor, I’ve known people of color who have needed to spend less time around Reservoir for a season because it’s been better for them to be part of a church community – or simply social communities – that centers their race and culture more prominently. Sad for me, because you hate to see anyone go, but if anyone here needs that, you can do this with God’s blessing and for whatever it’s worth, with my respect and blessing too.

One way we try to make space at Reservoir for this need while people stay here, though, is by valuing and respecting the need for people who aren’t centered in the life of society to have affinity spaces where we are. This is why we have some spaces in the church, for instance, for men or women of color or for LGBTQ affinity. We all need spaces in our lives where our bearing of the image of God is honored and celebrated. This is part of anti-racist work in the way of Jesus too.

There are so many anti-racist, affirming the image of God, stories to celebrate in this community.

  • I celebrate the town meeting members in the suburbs, using your voice for more affordable housing and more hospitable experience for people who have been marginalized in your communities.
  • I celebrate our Somerville residents who are working to have elected bodies and public spaces better reflect Somerville’s multiracial and immigrant past, present, and future.
  • I celebrate those of you who are volunteering in relationship with incarcerated individuals, getting proximate to the crazy racial injustice of our prisons.
  • I celebrate those of you who in your professional lives are changing news coverage, or changing hiring patterns, or changing leadership cultures so that our companies and our region works better for communities of color, not just white people.

Some of you all are reckoning with your industry’s favoring and preference of the culture and flourishing of white people. You’re helping make Greater Boston’s present and future less racist. Way to get it! So many ways to live out the anti-racist, image of God affirming Way of Jesus. 

If you’re looking for your way, start asking. You’re in a good place for that. The answers will find you. 

Where do you need to better know that you are the image of God?

Where do you need to better know this for someone else?

I am the image of God. You are the image of God. They are the image of God. We are the image of God. Different shades and colors, different ways and styles, but no more, no less, no exceptions.

Old and New

A few years ago, it seemed like an old friend and I were drifting apart. At least one of the reasons was that we’d both changed over the years – changed some in our faith, our religious practice, some of our values and lifestyle. It was bothering me, because I knew other people who had lost old friends, who had even best friends cut them off when they went through these kinds of changes, like friends can’t worship differently, or live differently, or believe differently. I didn’t understand this, but I also didn’t want to lose an old friend, so I flew out to visit him and asked if we could talk about this. 

Long story short, we haven’t lost our friendship. We’ve stuck in it across our differences. But part of how this made sense to him was interesting to me. He was like: Steve, some of us are really focused on innovation – looking for new and better ways to do things, to live, to believe. And that’s good. He used the spiritual language of calling, like maybe for some of us, our purpose, our destiny, our way of living in God’s call for our lives, is to focus on innovation

But for some of us, my friend said, we’re more interested in preservation how to hold on to old things and transmit them to future generations, how to not lose ways of doing things, ways of living, ways of believing that we’ve inherited from the past. He said:

This is good too. Some of us are called to preservation, especially when everything is changing so fast. 

He said it seemed like he was more about preservation – in his religious life, in some of his beliefs, and that maybe I’m called more to innovation. Different interests, different calls maybe, but why couldn’t we respect and appreciate each other? Of course we could still be friends. And we are.  

I’ve kept thinking over the years about my friends’ categories, his values for both preservation and innovation. He had churches in mind, for instance. 

He thinks of us here at Reservoir as innovators. This church started in the 1990s to explore the life and teaching and ways of Jesus for a very secular, not very churchgoing culture. And that’s given us a commitment to some things which haven’t always been traditional our faith –

  • to use ordinary language for religious ideas,
  • to chip away at the patriarchy and racism in our tradition,
  • to value the love and the relationships of queer people,
  • to integrate faith with science and day to day working lives and other parts of so-called secular culture.

We’re not the only ones doing these things, but they’re really important to us. I guess that makes us innovators. 

This summer, though, while I was on a sabbatical, I took a couple of retreats and worshiped with a very different Christian community nearby. More than they read the Bible in worship, they chant it, kind of like you would have heard in a church seven, eight hundred years ago. They remember and celebrate the faith and example of other believers that have been dead for hundreds of years. They’re preserving an old tradition, so their worship is very unfamiliar to me but also beautiful and rich. 

This goes way beyond church and religion of course. There’s a business in my neighborhood that does all kinds of delicious things with the flavors they add to the croissant. Innovators. And there’s another business that likes to say they serve the best Middle Eastern falafel in Greater Boston. Friends who are from that region are like – meh, it’s nice that they try. But still, A for effort. They are preservationists.

I taught middle and high schoolers for years in a small, start-up public school in Boston. We were trying to do something really special for the kids in our community. And so we merged some best practices we could find for small school innovation in public schools, with a holistic approach we borrowed from a Christian ministry in Hong Kong, and a kind of elite private school college prep curriculum. I know we were the only school in the world playing with the combination of sources we were using. Innovators.

But then I went to be the principal of a comprehensive public high school in a nearby city. It was the only high school in town, it was something like 150 years old, and for a lot of the community, what they most wanted to see was that their kids’ high school experience would be just like theirs. Change sometimes came hard and slow. There were a lot of preservationists around.

Old and new. Some of us focus on preserving the old, some of innovating the new.

The more I’ve sat with this, though, this doesn’t seem quite right. I feel like at least the best things in life value the old and the new. The best things are preservationists and innovators. 

That old-school falafel joint – they’ve gotten into online ordering.

That trendy croissant store – they’re working with a miracle of butter and flour developed in the 13th century.

The monastery I like to visit. They may chant 12th century hymns, but one of the monks texts me the security code to get around the building when it’s time for one of my retreats.

Even us at Reservoir, we may be doing new things to be an accessible and winsome community for the times and place we live in. But we’re still committed to the Way of Jesus, an itinerant 1st century rabbi, himself an innovator in an ancient wisdom tradition. 

The best of just about everything is old and new. It’s preserving and innovating. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it’s something Jesus felt the need to affirm and say some stuff about. 

Here’s one place, in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 13:52 (Common English Bible) 

52 Then Jesus said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.”

Treasures old and new. 

Jesus is most specifically talking about a group called scribes. They were religious experts in his culture, but also legal experts. So these were the people who drew up contracts like marriages, land sales, mortgages. 

Jesus has a word for teachers, for pastors, lawyers, real estate agents who want to do their work God’s way. 

He says it’s like a person who has an old family heirloom, passed down for generations. And they also have the newest gadget they picked up this year. And they love and use them both.

Old and new, preservation and innovation. 

This is good life advice. In any profession, we should draw upon the established norms, the best practices, the accumulated knowledge passed down over time. Preserve it, use it, learn and be wise. 

And we shouldn’t only be stuck in the past. Teachers can adapt new technologies when they make classroom learning more efficient or more engaging. Pastors, lawyers, property managers, you name it, we can do things differently when we find a better way.

Old and new, preservation and innovation. 

It’s part of the Way of Jesus as well. 

There is wisdom in the roots and heritage of the faith – in the ancient sacred texts, in the tradition – that is worth learning and using. And yet the Way of Jesus is also ever-evolving. Nothing stands still, everything is changing, religions, faiths, spiritual quests as well. 

This wisdom of old and new reminds me of something else Jesus said, something a little more specific, this one from the 9th chapter of Matthew. 

Matthew 9:14-17 (Common English Bible) 

14 At that time John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees frequently fast, but your disciples never fast?”

15 Jesus responded, “The wedding guests can’t mourn while the groom is still with them, can they? But the days will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they’ll fast.

16 “No one sews a piece of new, unshrunk cloth on old clothes because the patch tears away the cloth and makes a worse tear.

17 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins so that both are kept safe.”

This is a friendly conversation between old and new. A few folks are like – we fast. This religious practice is really important to us. Part of our heritage, our faith. And notice, Jesus isn’t like – that’s stupid. You don’t need to do that. 

He respects their practice. He says his own disciples will return to it at some point. But something else is going for them now, so they’re doing things differently. 

And then he tells this little anecdote from the worlds of clothes-mending and wine-making. Everyday life. He’s like: if you want something new, you can’t only use the old to get it. Old wineskins are great for holding old wine – which can be a treasure. The container and the wine have aged and stretched together. But to get something new – to make new wine – you need a new container as well. 

Jesus is not saying the old is bad. 

He was what we’d call poor. Everyone in his circles kept wearing and passing along old clothes. And Jesus has a word about how to best preserve them. 

Jesus lived in the patterns of an old faith tradition. He didn’t start anything from scratch. He learned how to pray from the psalm book in his Bible. He learned about rest and joy and justice and the goodness of God from the best ancient wisdom and practice of his tradition. 

Respect and preserve what’s worth keeping. 

But he also said:

there are some things I’m doing differently for a reason.

New wine in his culture can be a metaphor for the new activity of the Spirit of God. The hope, the redemption, the new possibilities God is making available at this time in history. And Jesus says:

to keep up with what God is making possible, you have to innovate. You have to try new things, to not be afraid to adapt and change. 

This is the nature of life, the nature of God, and the nature of this church community too. 

When I worked in schools, there were always debates going on between old and new ways of doing things. What books kids would read, what assignments they would do and how those would or wouldn’t be graded, how teachers would impart material to their students and lead discussions, just about everything in the profession had these old vs. new debates around them. 

And a lot of those debates went nowhere because they got stuck in old vs. new, right vs. wrong, when the truth is that there are things about education and learning that have been practiced over decades or centuries that are worth preserving and there are also new things we’re trying to accomplish that require new tools. 

  • What’s worth keeping?
  • And what new things do we need to try to accomplish new goals?
  • Were much more interesting questions than is the old or the new better?

Same with almost any area of life. When our kids were little, we picked up on so many debates on the best way to parent young children.

  • How do you help them sleep better?
  • Teach them right from wrong?
  • Help them learn how to read?
  • Do you want them to depend on you more or less, and in what ways? 

And again, it felt like everyone in the conversation was like: the old way is good. It worked when I was a kid. Or the opposite – the old way sucks, it’s gonna ruin your kids. Now we know this way is better. Old or new, right or wrong. I wish it could have all been a little less judgy, a little humbler, and we could have asked more: what’s worth keeping? What do we appreciate about the old ways? And what new things are we trying for, that might take some new tools? 

Friends, I believe that life isn’t just like this. God is like this as well. In our faith traditions, we like to emphasize the unchanging nature of God. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. 

And to a degree, this is right. God’s nature is unchanging. Three times the Bible says God is something…. That God is Spirit. That God is Truth. That God is Love. I don’t think that ever changes. God is always omnipresent spirit, never sometimes all contained in the body of one cricket or something. God is always true. God is always love. And you could add things… God is always just, kind, creative, and so on. 

But the Bible at least teaches that God tries new things. God does new things. God doesn’t just set a plan for the universe in motion and lets it go. No, God adapts. God responds. God improvises. 

For instance, let’s say God hopes one good thing for our lives. Maybe God hoped that last year we’d break some toxic pattern in our lives, some addiction we use to numb out, some habit of criticism or meanness or self-sabotage. And God was helping people and resources show up to help us. But we missed it. We weren’t paying attention. We resisted the growth. We just didn’t have it in us. 

God’s not going to just hit replay on last year’s experiences and hope it goes differently. God notices the same fail and might try something different and hope we have it in us to respond this time. 

That’s what Jesus was saying in his generation. He was embodying a tradition of spiritual teaching and of prophetic witness. He was revealing ways to be in relationship with God, to be in loving connection with self, neighbor, enemy, and creator, and to live more fruitfully and justly as well. All of this was shaped by the best of an old tradition, but the ways Jesus was doing that were new. New wine. New divine activity. New possibility. 

So Jesus says to these curious seekers, don’t be distracted by the tradition you don’t see. Notice the new thing God is doing. It’s here for you. Receive it, adapt and change. It’s worth it. 

This by the way is what Reservoir is up to. 

This week and the next four weeks, we’re in our annual We Are Reservoir series. It’s a time when we remember some of our shared values and purpose. We try to make it easy to connect or reconnect with others. And we invite everyone to find ways to belong and to contribute to a community that we hope nourishes each of us while also connecting us to something bigger than ourselves.

So you’ll hear a lot of invitations… invitations to belong, to connect with community, to eat together. Invitations to become a member or to remember why you’re still a member. Invitations to give and volunteer – to contribute to the good our community is shaping together. We hope you’ll say YES to the invitations that seem right for you, and know that for anything you don’t say YES to, that’s OK as well. You’re in charge of your own life, and we all can trust one another to find our ways. 

This month, our sermons will in part explore part of the vision of Reservoir, the way we do things, the life together we’re promoting, that we think has value of the church, but also has value for our lives beyond the church too.

And part of that vision is our spirit of innovation, our willingness to stay rooted while adapting, not being afraid of change. It’s our way of old and new. 

So, on the most basic level, Reservoir is a Christian church. It’s a community that is promoting a way of being human that is rooted in a deep and ancient tradition. 

We read and study and teach sacred texts that are millennia old. They teach us about God and humans and justice and the good life, and how to be in community, and how to live in our bodies, and find more love, joy, and peace in a troubled world or in a restless self. 

Some of our technologies of worship and prayer and ethics and learning and being in healthy relationships are super old too. Because we think the Way of Jesus has life and wisdom to it. It’s worth learning, preserving, and transmitting. 

But Reservoir is also trying to be a new wineskin in which God can do new things for us, our neighbors, and our broader communities. 

When we were getting started, people were realizing that the age of churches as the moral cops of their communities had passed. More and more in this region of the Northeast United States, and really much of the country and the world, people just aren’t looking to churches to tell the whole world what’s right and wrong anymore. That age has passed. To be honest, churches blew it. That’s part of why that age has passed. 

So Reservoir doesn’t do that, even when some people want us to. We don’t lay down the law for all our members, let alone for the community at large, saying if you want to be part of this church, or you want God to approve of your life, you’re going to live exactly this way. 

We don’t do that. We try to create a community where people can be in meaningful relationship with an ancient and wise spiritual and moral tradition, where people can be in a safe and kind community that values personal growth and goodness and justice, where people can even learn relate to an all-wise, all-loving unseen spirit we call God. And we trust that to work. We trust that to help us move in greater love, purpose, health, and goodness.

A generation ago, more followers of Jesus started to realize that people of different sexual identity or orientation shouldn’t be stigmatized anymore, that there are healthier and more helpful ways of re-reading a few ancient texts in our Bible that had been condemning of our queer siblings.

We were like, we want in on that. We can learn how to practice some of our old values while also respecting the love and dignity of our queer siblings and queer selves, and celebrating some different expressions of holy and good gender expression and faithful loving relationship.

Same with a lot of things. Reservoir is at its best when we set our anchor in the deep well of an old faith while at the same time setting our sails to catch the new winds of the Spirit of God. 

I know that metaphor breaks down as all metaphors do, but I hope you get the picture. This is a community of old and new, of preservation and innovation, of profound respect for the ancient faith tradition we keep returning to and of bold and hopeful embrace of new ways of living that faith, when those better match the new wine, the new possibilities that God is presenting in our times. 

I hope you find this community a beautiful and helpful place to support your own best life and faith. I also hope for your lives as a whole, you can enjoy asking those questions in all the arenas. What is worth keeping? What is worth preserving? Since the old is sometimes good and helpful and true. While also not being afraid when lives change, when times change, when needs in your life change, and asking: what new things are worth trying this day, this season, so I don’t miss the new things God is doing around me too.