Participatory Service

This past Sunday we offered a multi-sensory, participatory service called God is Here, inspired by Rabbi Toba Spitzer and Cole Arthur Riley.  We offer these services two times a year, and like most services at Reservoir, they incorporate scripture, prayer, song and communion – but often in different forms.

The main distinction is that any “teaching” is not detailed as its own element – in fact, a participatory liturgy is designed to allow any learning to emerge as we participate and respond to the stirring of our great teacher, the Spirit of God.

This is why, if you’ve experienced a participatory liturgy, you’ll have noticed the value of an economy of words and the emphasis on a multitude of inroads to encounter and experience the Spirit of God. Our recent liturgy was stations-based inside and outside the church building. An invitation as Rabbi Toba Spitzer puts it to remember that

“there isn’t just one place to encounter godliness– it can just as well happen here in this moment, right where we are – as well as in every moment , in any moment , in any place that we might find ourselves – as we open ourselves to the awareness of this potential.” (81)

A participatory liturgy relishes the unknown, the uncertainty. Hoping that in the unscripted-ness, the choreography of the Spirit will take stage and play out in real time as folks engage with a real and life-giving God. The only variables we can count on are the mystery of God, the power of vulnerability and the movement of a participatory faith that takes us all somewhere new together. 

I’m not sure how it all works, but my guess is that God loves our participation. God loves to see our faith as a participatory faith.

 These liturgies help us remember that our spiritual journeys are not static, one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all, or Sunday-morning-specific – but they incorporate all the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings of our real lives. We may not always know how the components of the liturgy of our lives will play out – how a smile, a moment of pausing and listening to the same old conversation, or how the wisdom of our ancestors will translate into actionable balm to this world, our neighbor, or ourselves…. perhaps this is why the word liturgy means, “work of the people” – because it’s not just the work within a service – but it is the work of our lives.  

May we find God saturating the world around us and within us, even in the places we dismiss. And may these liturgies continue to do the work of unfolding in and around you, as you move about your days.

We encourage you to explore the Reflections, Engagements, Mini-Practices and Installations in the attachment sections below (Place, Rock, Water, Voice and Sound) to begin your personal exploration of this unfolding work.

God Is Here Participatory Liturgy


The Scripture reading today comes from 

John 5:1-9

5 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.

2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.

3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

[4] [b] 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Let me pray for us.

A few months back my husband came to me, almost panicked, showing me his phone. It was his Health App that showed his steps. He scrolled through showing that he averaged 3,000 steps a day. He hadn’t really used the app so this was news to him. Now, my husband runs every day, in the morning, rain or shine or snow almost. But he works from home. I laughed at him going, “Yeah you need to be more active,” assuming that I’d probably be definitely over, because I often work outside of home for meetings and things. And then we checked my app and it was just sad. I averaged even worse than him, about 2000 steps. And no I do not run every day. 

It turns out, according to Washington Post’s clickbait headline: “Sitting all day can cause health problems, even if you exercise” to which I gladly clicked.

Did you work out for 30 minutes today? Did you spend the rest of the day staring at your computer screen and then settle in front of the television at night? If you answered yes to both questions, then you meet the definition of what scientists call, “an active couch potato.” 

Are you an active couch potato? Apparently it’s bad for your health. 

We’ve been doing a deep dive into Reservoir Church’s Core Values, Connection, Freedom, Everyone, Humility, and last but not least today’s is Action. Our website says:

  • Action: Love for Jesus compels us to act—to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

Right off the bat I’d like to say, it’s not

“Look busy, Jesus is coming.”

I’m not going to nag for you to do more. It’s actually, Action is first and foremost based on Love. It says that Love for Jesus compels us to act. So I’ll say a bit more about that later. But yes, it is an invitation to get up and walk and take action, because many of us can feel at times, like we’ve been paralyzed. 

So I’ll start with first, the paralyzing state that we might find ourselves in, second, the healing that it takes to compel us to get up and walk, and lastly, the love that Jesus has for us and this very world that we live in

So first the paralyzing state. 

I remember in the middle of the pandemic when we made pastoral phone calls to the members of our church, a short 20 minute check in during the height of a weird time in our world. I remember talking with Don, one of our members, about the simple desire to just go outside and get some fresh air. It was during that time when literally everything except the grocery store was shut down. When we didn’t go anywhere without a mask on. Don and I chatted encouragingly,

Let’s, even if it’s at least stepping just outside of our front doors, standing there with nowhere to go, stretch, breath, feel the sun on our face. 

And I do feel like many of us are coming out of this dormant time, of keeping safe, of taking care, saying no to many things. Some of you have been feeling the effects of being isolated more, working from home, while pretty awesome in many ways, also has proved to be tricky in “getting back out there” for some of us. 

I think the world can be a paralyzing place. The pandemic, the racial violence, political upheaval, the changing climate, the recession. It is no wonder that so many of us are struggling with anxiety and preoccupied with how we’re to do daily tasks in the face of great worries of our generation. 

Sometimes I feel this way about racism. Like it’s a thing that’s been going on for a long time, years, decades, centuries, nations, people groups have been at it a while and what am I to do about it, if anything at all? It sure does make me feel like it’s been in this condition for a long time. 

I’m intrigued by the way Jesus engages this man who’s been paralyzed for 38 years. It says,

“When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?””

Jesus’ first question isn’t, so what have you been trying to do? What have you done? The man answers as though, as if others have asked, but have you tried going to the pool that heals during the time when it’s stirring? I mean others have, and they’ve been healed. What’s wrong with you? He answers with excuses, defenses,

“no one’s helping me. And when I try, others get in front of me.”

Understandably so. 

Because of this core value of Action, Reservoir is deeply involved with an organization called the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. It’s a 60+ institution coming together to organize power to make a public change for good. It’s given me very specific ways to act even in the midst of feeling paralyzed at the face of systemic problems like the healthcare system and housing crisis. One story I want to share with you. 

One of the recent issues we were working on was housing. GBIO’s method for big change starts with what they call 1 on 1’s. Two people sharing their heart, passion, their concern, their reason for why they want to see change. And from those 1 on 1’s, we began to meet people who lived in the Mildred C Hailey, a city owned apartment complex in Jamaica Plain, who were living under horrible conditions like rats and asbestos.

Now at the time the Boston Mayoral race was going on and GBIO was ready to ask the candidates for some commitments, if they were elected. During a big action Zoom call with close to a 1,000 people from GBIO, about 60 of you Reservoir Faith Into Action folks, we shared the stories and showed videos of the conditions and got a commitment from then mayor hopeful Wu. The end result, as of now, GBIO has secured $50 million with Mayor Wu for maintenance for the Mildred C Hailey Housing. 

You see the residents city-owned spots like this are often ignored and so discouraged to speak up. No one seemed to help them and others got the money before they could get to it. They’ve spoken up before and got no answer. It seemed as though they were paralyzed. But someone turned to them and initiated a conversation, do you want these conditions to change? Do you want to be well? 

I want to quickly touch up on the fact that many Christian traditions often guilted people into taking action and doing good deeds. Scriptures like this for example were used, from James 2:14-17

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?

15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.

16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?

17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

So with that, so many of us got busy. Served. Led. Sacrificed. Which of course, this text is important, talking about the REAL needs of the people. 

I remember a youth group retreat where the theme was, “In the World, But Not of It.” It was drilled into us that the world was evil, bad, and anything of the world was no good. And you should only think of your spiritual being. Prayer, scripture reading, that was important. And everything else, especially our earthly bodies, oh that was really bad. You should fast and of course abstain from anything that gives us pleasure, at all cost. I remember we never talked about the goodness of the earth, the goodness of our bodies, the sacredness of the environment or the earth that we live in. 

Action, that we’re talking about at Reservoir isn’t “do good.” Read on, it says that LOVE compels us. So before action, we need to understand love. Before we walk, we need to be healed. Before we do good, we need to receive and be loved, and it’s that miracle and healing that will change your life and those around you. 

Let me offer you another text, not to replace some possible toxic ways of thinking about our faith and our works, but to be in conversation. That’s how we should be reading the Bible. Not letting one verse dictate how and what you do at all times, but there is a season for everything.

The Bible instructs us in accordance with the Holy Spirit and the conviction of our heart from Jesus and in conversation in community. The  Bible is meant to be a conversation partner not an instruction manual. So here’s another one, 

Titus 3:4-7

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to this mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

I shared this with my Community Group this past week and my friend Rachel said, it sounds like God’s not really worried about our performance review. Exactly. 

“Do you want to get well?” Is the question for us today. Not, “So what are you going to DO?” This is the conversation we want to be having. Are you compelled by the love of Jesus? That’s our tagline right? Reservoir Church exists to invite everyone, without exception to discover the love of Jesus, joy of living, and gift of community. It all begins and ends with the love of Jesus. 

Love compels us to ask questions and start conversations about how we can help each other live in better conditions amidst the housing crisis. Love compels us to listen to the voice of Jesus and engage in a conversation about how to be well when we’re feeling paralyzed. Love compels us to be freed from anxiety and worry to lean into shared interest of making a public change toward public good with other churches and even other faiths. Love compels us to seek justice, show compassion, work for reconciliation, and hope for transformation in joyful engagement with the world.

Because God so loved the world, yes this world. Not thoughts and prayers but this material physical world with rats, asbestos, rising oceans, guns, violence, racism, mental health crisis. I think the loudest thing God was saying through Jesus was, I care about the human body and the human condition. I care about your thirst, hunger, and your pain.

God loves and care about you, and your issues and concerns and your problems, because God cares about you, not your productivity, your effectiveness, your efficiency, your list of accomplishments, but about you at the core that  may produce productivity effective, your gifts sure may come in the form of action that help you and help others, but that was always meant to be a response, not the starting point. 

Not because of any works of righteousness that we have done, but according to this mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. You know what birth is right? You did nothing to be born. Like the waters of baptism today, you were blessed, while we knew nothing of it. 

My favorite part about this Titus text is the word heir. You know what I think about when I think of an heir. Paris Hilton. I’m dating myself to a guilty-pleasure reality tv show about her, a rich heiress of the Hilton Hotels, being tasked to do things like farming. Or another show I’m thinking of is Undercover Millionaire.

Can you tell that I am indeed a very active couch potato and the genre of choice is brainless reality shows? But think about it, how would your actions change if you found out that you were an heir to the riches you can’t even imagine? Everything you do would change. You would have nothing to lose. Well, this text is saying you are, you are an heir. You are the sons, and daughters, the children, the offspring of God. I don’t think we believe that, most of us, we sure don’t act like it. Why not? 

Have you encountered the love of Jesus? If not, don’t get into action. Find that love first. Be healed first. But if any of you have tasted or seen the goodness of God, the riches of his mercy, get up, pick up your mat, and walk proudly and boldly. Let the love of Jesus overflow out of you, like a cup that overflows. If you have, you can’t help but get into action, you’d be compelled to action that you wouldn’t need a preacher telling you to do anything. What is God compelling you to do? 

I want to end our time with some space for reflection. For you to start asking those questions, where am I with this? Am I paralyzed? Am I in need of healing? What is God compelling me to do? 

In this age of anxiety, I’m one of those who’ve been drawn to mindfulness practices, especially in the face of trauma, when I experience racism, when I see injustice, I get angry, I grieve, I get paralyzed and I can’t fix anything. Self care for those in activism is a big one. And you know it’s just another language for prayer. For a quiet time of stillness to hear the loving kind voice of God within you. Let me end with that invitation and I’ll close us in prayer. 

Feel free to close your eyes to get a little intimate with your heart, body, and mind. Take a few deep breaths to center you. Try to relax some tension that brings anxiety or worry, thoughts of things to do, try to let go of those, or like shelve them for a minute, you can always pick them back up later. Try to relax and give yourself a sacred safe space. How have you experienced the love of God? Or where do you need the healing loving presence of God now? Stay there. Is there some physical image, or a word, or a feeling? Hold that and stay there. Feel free to place a hand on your heart to kind of seal that in with the warm touch. I’ll pray for us. 

God, I pray for the healing power of Jesus right now. You know where each of us are. What each of us needs. What each of us are capable of. Heal us. Lead us. Guide us. Call us, we pray. Call our anxious, worried, often fearful generation to get up. Call us to your love. To your home. And there, in the safety of your house, may we come to see the world with your eyes, with your grace, with your mercy, just as it’s been poured upon us, we pray all these things in the precious holy name of Jesus Christ, The great Healer, Amen. 

The Power of Christ. Strength in Weakness.

Good morning. My name is Lydia Shiu, one of the pastors here at Reservoir Church and I’m going to share some words with you for the next 20 minutes or so about how God relates to us when we are feeling weak. 

But first, I want to take a moment to invite ourselves to the here and now and give you a chance to bring yourself fully to this moment. Maybe close your eyes if you’d like, take a few deep breaths.

How are you landing here today? What are you bringing in here with you to this moment? 

Now imagine walking up to a bookcase. Feel free to place some things on the shelves, maybe worries you have, to do lists, relationships or conflict to resolve, for now, whatever you can let go, place it in the empty bookshelf to give yourself the space to be present to now. 

Let me pray for us. 

Holy and Loving God, who is the source of all things, creator of all things, the beginning and the end. We have come into this space today, I think for a reason. Maybe for an encouragement. Maybe for some light to be shined on to some messy things going on in our lives. Maybe for refreshment. Or maybe we’re not sure what or how we’re doing. But however we find ourselves this morning, you know us, you know where each of us are in our hearts. I pray that you will meet us, by the power of your Holy Spirit that gently and firmly holds us exactly how we need to be held today. Would you meet us here and reveal to us the power of your love. That no matter what we may be going through, that you see us and you know us and move toward us with grace and compassion. We pray in Jesus name, Amen. 

Our Scripture reading today comes from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10. This is Paul writing about a thorn on his side, in the midst of his suffering, what Jesus said to him. 

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What do you think of when you think of power? Power to do good. Power to do bad. 

I can’t help but wonder, on this Fourth of July weekend celebrating the Independence Day of the United States of America, how much powerless America once was, as a mere  colony of the British gaining independence, and how that young and scrappy country over the centuries have come to annihilate whole people groups that were natives to the land of North America, enslaved various large people groups from Africa, and some South America, and Asia, and wielded military, political, and social power around the globe in various form to influence for both good and bad in many situations throughout the years. 

And so power can be a tricky thing to define. 

It’s like money. Another one many of us have a complicated relationships with, maybe. I’ve heard a Christian say, “You know, it’s like the Bible says, ‘money is the root of all evil’.” To which I didn’t want to come off annoying as a pastor to correct inaccurate Bible quoting and did not respond with, “Actually it says the “LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” Money and power, often so misunderstood. And so how are we to understand this text about power and weakness? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not a dichotomy, one or the other. It’s an oxymoron, seemingly contradictory but perhaps quite true. 

I love these two verses because it’s so hard to understand. It doesn’t make any sense and yet it makes all the sense. 

You see, I have this question that’s been nagging at me. It knocks and knocks as I scroll through stories of politics under the disguise of Christian values, that’s the same religion as mine, enacting laws that oppress women, known to impact more women of color and more women without financial means. It raps harder and harder as I read any history books on the Christian power that have been at the center of colonialism, erasure of indigenous people, slavery and conversion of nations, mass killings of Jews–This is what I struggle with about my own faith, a faith that has given me such hope and life at most difficult times in my life. But my religion, this question NAGS at me when I pray, when I read the Bible, when I think about God and my world. How do I reconcile with the religion that has been the center of power for oppression, violence, and abuse?

How do we reconcile with the religion that has been the center of power for oppression, violence, and abuse?

How do I make sense of this when I have seen people, powerful people, use “Christ’s Power” to further insult people, keep people weak, persecute the LGBTQIA community, lock people into poverty and the criminal injustice system, instead of liberating them and raising them up, and loving them and embracing them, including them at the table? 

It doesn’t add up to this 2nd Corinthians chapters 10 verse 9-10. 

I don’t see weakness, and gentleness, and mercy, and grace under the banner of Christianity in America today. I see gun clenched hands that insist, “don’t take away my right and my power to kill if I need to at any time.” 

And I’m sorry but it does not make me feel good to see the sweet face of Jesus, bulked up in muscles and wrapped up in guns and the American flag, because that name Jesus is so sweet and tender to me. The Jesus I know?

Jesus came for the sick

Luke 5:31

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

He said that’s why he came, for the sick. 

Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza reminds us that all the parables speak of this, in her book called, “In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.” 

She says,

“The parable of the creditor who freely remits the debts of those who cannot pay… Or the gracious goodness of God by stressing that women, even public sinners, can be admitted to the Jesus movement in the conviction that “they will love more”.”

Cause Jesus said in

Luke 7:47

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.

Jesus came for the sick. The debtor. The sinner. 

Yes, listen to the parable of the Lost Sheep.

Luke 15:3-10

3 Then Jesus told them this parable:

4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders

6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’

7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Jesus came for the 1 lost one. 

And Jesus goes on to say in The Parable of the Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?

9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’

10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Dr. Fiorenza says this,

“Jesus thus images God as a woman searching for one of her ten coins, as a woman looking for her money that is terribly important to her. In telling the parable of the woman desperately searching for her money, Jesus articulates God’s own concern, a concern that determines Jesus’ own praxis for table community with sinners and outcasts. The parable then challenges the hearer: do you agree with the attitude of God expressed in the woman’s search for her lost “capital”?”

Do you? Are we?… Concerned with power, strength, security, prosperity, of our own, or are we boasting, prioritizing, and centering the stories of those who are weak, insulted, facing hardship, persecutions, difficulties? Where do we put our attention? 

You know what’s really powerful? 

In the book Know My Name by Chanel Miller, a memoir of the Stanford rape victim that happened in 2015 talks about power and the courage of rape victims. 

I couldn’t find the quote because the book was on hold for like 25 weeks on the library app. She was the Emily Doe behind the viral Victim Impact Statement that was viewed 15 million times within five days of its publication in 2016. Years later, she wrote a memoir and in it she said that it doesn’t take anything to scoff. It doesn’t take any energy or effort to unleash mean, snarky, sarcastic comments. It’s easier to do that.  It does take so much strength and courage, lots of patience and will power to withhold one ‘s pain and anger, especially when it’s instigated or when you’re cornered.

Miller talks about the unmitigated sneer and anger of men in the courtrooms versus the withholding of emotions of women victims that’s churning a sea of distress just underneath the witness stand’s surface. And how that courage is often not credited but instead questioned as, “see it didn’t impact her at all.” or “why is she talking about this so many years later” rather than seeing the strength it takes to tell the story of her possibly worst moment at all. 

You know when you’re in an argument, not saying the most hurtful thing is the art of peace that I have not mastered. It takes every ounce of me connecting myself to my breath in and breath out to not react out of fangs of my teeth when someone really hurts me. When something really upsets me, I have to try my hardest to not take it out on the people closest to me because it’s not their fault. It’s easier to take it out on them. It’s harder to not react. 

Do you think God was weak to let Jesus die? You think Jesus let them beat him and hang him on the cross because he was a coward? No, many of us who have been won by the love of Christ know the power of the cross already. God was able to do that because of God’s power of love. I think God’s power of love led Jesus to a place of aligning himself with utter vulnerability, one who is pushed out by the people, tried as a criminal by the state, and executed publicly. 

Social researcher, Brene Brown has taught us about the power of vulnerability, she says,

“Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.”

She also said,

Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Isn’t it weird? How it works? That to experience difficulties, and to be weak, is when actually we are strong? Paradox is such a funny concept! 

It’s like when you’re white knuckling through life, you’re actually trying too hard to be in control that your body is stiff and you’re just working so hard and trying to get everything in order only to find yourself in the middle of 10,000 plates spinning, and they’re all about to fall apart. Whereas if only, you had taken the time, slowed down to take deep breaths, being mindful of what’s really important and what’s really happening, that the one plate you spin is giving you flow in ease in life that you even begin to relax and rest and smile. 

So I’m starting to get to the age where I’m reading articles in The Atlantic titled, The Two Choices That Keep a Midlife Crisis at Bay. The first choice I didn’t really get but the second, the writer Arthur C. Brooks said this:

The second decision: Choose subtraction, not addition. Early in life, success usually comes from addition: more money, more responsibility, more relationships, more possessions. Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better. This explains why studies find that the most common concerns reported by middle-aged adults involve getting everything done in their busy life, their energy level, job complications, and insufficient sleep.”

Subtraction not addition. Another way to put it, maybe more letting go. More surrendering. Not powering up but maybe taking the backseat, slowing down. And with life, sometimes it forces you to take the back seat with setbacks or hardships or health problems. 

Last week I was driving my daughter to gymnastics. Which apparently is watching Jungle Book together on a bouncy mat. Anyways. I was struggling to get out the door, wanting to feed the little brother as much milk as possible, cause he needs to grow, and wanted to do her hair so it doesn’t get in her face when she’s doing her tumble on the bar, wanting to make sure she had the right outfit so she’s not the only one in a big tshirt and pajama pants when all the other girls had rainbow color leotards. I buckled my seatbelts and pulled out of the driveway and may or may not have breathed out a quiet curse word as I saw my eta on the gps. 

I was on that one street in Belmont, you know the one right at the bridge, after all the shops, omg I hate that intersection. It has no stop signs, no lights, and people are coming from all different directions and turning into the street. 8:30am. Rush hour. We’re bumper to bumper, all inching forward, and I’m gonna turn left at the next street, and I see that that lane, it’s wide open. I’m so swift, I see it, no one else sees it, everyone else is just stuck right here in this lane, and I’m like I’m going for it. I change lanes and I’m free and BAM the car in front of me thought the same thing right after me and hit me. 

We were okay. Just a little side swipe. I ended up being 30 minutes late instead of five. Poor girl Sophia was crying going, “when are we going to gymnastics?” 

Setback. I was so humbled. I thought I was a super mom, trying to get everything and rush. Instead I was a mess. It would’ve been better if I was just a little less in a rush, going a little slower, and not white knuckling my steering wheel the whole drive. 

How can we turn this *white knuckling* into this *open hands* or this *hands on heart*. That Christ’s power may REST, it says REST, not rise up and broadcasted , but Christ’s power may rest on us. Let’s not man up. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s not be cool, let’s be warm. Let’s not be super moms but late to gymnastics mom driving slowly. Let’s let Christ’s power rest on all of our limitations, shortcomings, struggles, difficulties. Because God’s grace is sufficient for us. God’s grace is enough for you, yes, even you. Will you let God pour into your empty cup and overflow their abundant gracious merciful love? Especially when you’re weak, God will meet you there, and make you strong. For when I am weak. I am strong. For when I am weak. I am strong. May that be true for us my friends, may you be strengthened in your weakness. 

Let me pray for us. 

God, author of our lives. As we stumble through our chapters, would you remind us of the big throughline that runs through it all. Your love. Your grace. Whether in the heights of our career, place in life, love life, influence in community or whatever, or in the depths of our own addiction, struggling in depression and loneliness, battling through a difficult marriage, watching our parents or children in pain of their own lives, whatever may befall, God will you humble us and lifts us up? Will you comfort us and give us strength? We’re such beautiful messes, but through your power, make us perfect. Really? Yeah make us perfect, we ask you this in your precious and holy name, who was crucified and resurrected, Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Healing the World | Humility

About a year ago I came across a grass roots movement called “Healing Our City” – it is centered in Minneapolis, and had begun actually the summer before in May of 2020, as a response to the traumatic death and murder of George Floyd. 

In that year – this movement provided 30 Days of Silent Prayer in a physical tent in North Minneapolis. A month-long, African-American-led collaborative… conceived to add this vital spiritual element – to all the strategic thinking, policy proposals, and investments that were being considered at the time to address the multi-layers of trauma that were being experienced in this city.

It was a shared public ritual where people of all faiths and good will came together throughout the day for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silent prayer/meditation.  Over the course of 30 days, this prayer tent became a place to collectively grieve, to remain somehow – open to change, and pray for a new future.  

Last year – in 2021 (when I came across this),  this space evolved into a virtual space – where there was intentional daily prayer and meditation during the trial of Derek Chauvin. The city was humbly learning how not just to consider responding to tragedy, but how they might proactively create wholeness and live together in beloved community as people of goodwill… wherever they are and whoever they are.  They were pressing in to discover together how to heal.

The reflections and prayers were offered by leaders – mostly in the Minneapolis area – and some by folks who have given their lives to this fight of justice, like Ruby Sales and Don & Sondra Samuels, and others who are fresh, young powerful voices. Cole Arthur Riley (black liturgies), Krista Tippett – as well as Rabbis and Muslims and Buddhists, Hmong speakers, and Reverends, community organizers, teachers, writers, poets…  of all faiths, denominations, races, and orientations were part of this movement. Expansive and inclusive… and hinged on this notion of being together, not alone.

Led by the spirit to be alongside one another and “stay with it.”

There are over 90 of these daily prayers/reflections that you can view if you subscribe to their youtube channel, “Healing our city.” And what’s been most meaningful to me, as I’ve watched and rewatched so many of these only the thoughtfulness of each person’s presence and words – but it is the collective leaning to come together with humility and say, “where is God in all of this?” and “who is God to us?”. . .and “how does that help us mend our way forward?”  

How do we grow the Beloved Community?

How do we create the kin-dom of God? 

How do we whole-heartedly proclaim “all shall be well?”   

How do these sentiments not just hang out as abstractions, but become tangible/practical ways by which we live, ways to keep healing? And how do we keep that at the forefront of our minds and in our hearts… as we move about our world, in our communities, and love Jesus? 

That’s exactly what we have been talking about in this spring mini-series, called How to Heal the World. It’s in some part a daunting title, and an inspiring title – and an all together TIMELY and timeless title. As you may have noticed… this title doesn’t have a question mark at the end. It’s not “How to Heal the World?” It’s How to Heal the World .. Period. It’s a statement – a prophetic statement perhaps – and a given at the center of our faith – at the center of our lives, as followers of Jesus.

It is the work we are called to be part of.




Therein lies a lot of questions… 

How will we create these tents of healing? Whether they are physical like Minneapolis. .. or metaphorical in some way?

How will we participate and partner with God for the healing of the world?
How will we humbly come alongside one another to learn, to unlearn, to change, to believe for that which we can not see – but only imagine? 

How will we allow our faith to do what faith is intended to do – to expand, adapt, flex and be the force that it can be … of good and repair.

The author and feminist, bell hooks said in her book All About Love – that

rarely any of us are healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” (215) 

I think these folks in Minneapolis know what they are doing.. To talk to one another , regard it as prayer. To hold the one whose voices, lives, and beings are most oppressed – in view, with love…. Because love that participates in justice is the way to wholeness and healing.

Today we are going to talk about the value of humility and the reality of  power. And these questions,

“Who is God to us? Where is God ?”

.. as we take a look at the story of Philip and the Eunuch from Acts and see how it might help expand how we find our way into the ongoing call to Heal the World. 


Thank you Jesus for this day. Let us be glad for the opportunity to be “more today ….than we were yesterday.” Thank you for the spirit of God that nudges us into greater spaces of learning – inside of ourselves and for the wellness of the world around us.  For those of us who are tired today, who are grieving today – give us rest, let our souls find comfort in your presence – that asks of us nothing, and yet provides us everything.


*Credit fnor this translation and many of the thoughts to follow to Pádraig o’Tuama. May 2, 2021, YouTube.

Oe of the reflections that was offered last year by this “Healing Our City” movement was by Padraig O’Tuama – an Irish poet-theologian, a scholar,  who has spent years working at the intersection of power, conflict and healing.

He also presents Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, which is situated in Minneapolis.  I consider Padraig a friend, we shared a bit of whisky in a pub in Ballyvaughan, Ireland (which seems as good friend-making material as any). Padraig hasn’t officially weighed in on the status of our relationship – but we talked a little bit about liturgy, story and leadership  – which I hope in his view is the stuff of friendship as well… 

Anyway – he offered some thoughts on the passage we are going to read together, some thoughts about healing particularly.  And some thoughts about the “healing” of Philip – as much as I have ascribed to the eunuch.

Let’s read together.

Acts 8:26 – 40 (Common English Bible)

26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take[a] the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.)

27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.)

28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage.

29 The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”

30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”

31 The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.

32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter

    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent

    so he didn’t open his mouth.

33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.

    Who can tell the story of his descendants

        because his life was taken from the earth?[b]

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?”

35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him.

36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.

37 The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?”[c]

38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 

Now Philip is a follower of Jesus. He, like many followers of Jesus, has left Jerusalem as the early church is taking shape in Acts.

There is much persecution that is happening in and around Jerusalem – and the “good news of Jesus” is meant to be taken beyond Jerusalem, to Judea, and to Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.

So Philip ends up traveling north  to Samaria.  Home to the Samaritans. He moves in and lives there – despite historical deep lines of division and hate between Samaritans and Jewish people. Philip shares the love and goodness of Jesus, and with the Holy Spirit the people of Samaria listen and many of them get baptized.

He loves God and loves others, even his enemies, and he brings the good news of Jesus wherever he goes.

And so most of these stories go. The spread of the “Good news,” you move into an area where no one has heard such a Jesus message.. And you spread it, you deliver this important message.

It’s how the stories went for me as a kid – a young one learning about God.  I absorbed that one of the primary duties – as a follower of Jesus –  was to bring the “message” of God to other people. We had missionaries that would come to our church and share slideshows and stories about the travels that they had taken.

Converting, saving, the wayward from a life of certain demise.  Our church’s name was Wayside Church – so we really went for the “wayward” language a lot to differentiate ourselves .. “us”, the sure/the certain/the right/ the powerful (on the inside).. From “them” –  the ones (on the outside) who were lost.

Padraig says, that’s often as far as an interpretation of a scripture like this story of the eunuch and Philip would go… Philip is out for a walk, comes alongside a carriage – hears a man reading from the scriptures.  Philip is the one with a message that can help…

“Do you know what you are reading?” “Oh you don’t – let me hop in and tell you.”

And the conversation that ensues – Padraig says – is on the grounds of a “converting conversation”.  

And it is no more original than the missionary stories I heard growing up – the ones that were heroic and doing the real work of Jesus –  saving lives, counting them – “one, two, three, ten , a whole family, a village… “  I’d pray and pray – and cry in secret, “God please don’t send me anywhere I don’t want to do this … 

Somewhere I knew that this way of “messaging” the good news – was one that offered no humility, no freedom, no choice… it was a message meant to convert (with power over – not a transformation of the heart), heavy with an agenda – it had an end goal.  And the tenor was, “You need to accept this message- by force or friendship – and this of course as Padraig says, over time has  affected “culture, language, politics, land, families, relationships, livelihoods…”

So Padraig offers that perhaps this is not what this story is about. It’s not about Philip going and saving the eunuch, this Ethiopian man… Perhaps instead, this story is about healing – he says –  a kind of healing that goes to the roots.

When Philip gets into the carriage – and as the standard story would go – the eunuch is the one that is healed. Philip is praised for his effective discipleship, his messaging of the good news. .. a good student of Jesus.

And it makes sense to think the Ethiopian man is the one that needs the saving/ the help/ the good news – he’s a,eunuch, he was likely castrated at a young age, likely against his will.. and made “other” in gender, and body and regarded as a sexual minority.

He’s also a high up official in Candace’s – the queen of Ethiopia’s court. He’s come to Jerusalem (likely a two month ordeal) to worship, and yet he arrives at the temple and is not permitted to enter. 

  • In the law of Moses – Deuteronomy 23:1 – it says
  • “no one emasculated by crushing or cutting can enter the assembly of the Lord.”

  • He’s rejected, excluded – the message that has greeted him is that
  • “he is forbidden to join the family of God.”

  • And it seems kind, and obvious – to offer a different message – one about Jesus.

And yet, the scripture that this Ethiopian man is reading is about a Lamb – who also has had a blade held to its body… 

And the Ethiopian man asks Philip,

“about whom is this text speaking?” Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?”

He asks, “Is the prophet talking about someone like me?”

Padraig says it’s

“all well and good to talk about sacrificial lambs when you are thinking abstractly.”

Here though Philip is being converted as he is brought face to face with a person – who when in their own body has been brought close to a weapon. Where a weapon has been pressed against their body.

Philip here – is being invited to rethink what he thinks he’s talking about.

When I met my *now* husband Scott – I had been away from the church of my youth for a bit.. But the way of thinking about God, and faith that my church had defined for me – was not far from me.

This would become evident in our endless conversations about faith and spirituality. Scott, an agnostic at the time, would press me on my “positions” and issues and “platforms” that I backed always by some great zinger as it related to truth. He was always bringing in a story or a name of a person and would ask,

“well how does this person’s story fit into your thinking? Or what would you say to this person if they were here?”

Bringing my beliefs from the abstract into the concrete.. human lives.  And again and again I would be invited by Scott’s inquiry to rethink what I thought I was talking about.  And he’d always say,

“and who is God to you, Ivy?”

The eunuch here is attempting to infuse faith with encounter. With a face. Asking Philip how does this scripture that you’ve read, that you know – translate as you see it in the flesh? In human form?  Here I am:

“a sheep led to slaughter” 

“A person humiliated and mocked for being different”  

 “a person with no descendants”

“Where is God?” “Who is God to you, Philip?” “What do you think about who God should be to me?”

He invites Philip to go back and look at his faith before it becomes reduced to a system of abstractions and beliefs. Maybe asking Philip, “How can you stretch your faith to be a series of stories and as a series of encounters. How can you value me, my story  – this encounter with me… as much as being “right” about what you’ve learned about God or faith or scripture.  

“This Ethiopian man is not in need of any conversion. But Philip – this early missionary, most definitely is.” (PO’T)

Padraig says,

“The Ethiopian man was not the one that was saved that day. He was fine as he was – reading, thinking, asking questions – pursuing his own curiosity and intelligence and interests..”

The person that was saved – was the person who’s imagination was in need of expansion – Philip – the follower of Jesus – perhaps the one that thought he had the message – or even more dangerously thought that he “was the message.”

Philip goes back with a message – the message wasn’t about this Ethiopian man – the message was about his understanding about what POWER was – b/c he had been converted and healed into a better understanding of power, justice, inclusion, equality , equity.” (PO’T)

So here we can witness that Philip – the person who thought that they had the message to give, was the one that most needed the message themselves.

It can seem mostly harmless to tell this story as Philip is being praised for engaging with this Ethiopian man.  But when we nestle our understanding of scripture through the lens of a colonialist mindset  – one that values power, control, domination, conversion as a sign of spiritual status, or holiness… We injure, we harm, we erase story, people. . . lives.  

Healthy faith is always humble about its own holiness and knowledge. It knows that it does not know. 

It knows that Jesus sat with people at tables, in storms, in fields, at their feet, in temples and streets, at gates and in grief, in birth and unto death..Jesus’ message is to be with, to share , to be alongside – not OVER. 

A healthy faith is what the eunuch saves Philip u/into – into a non-conquering, non-fearful faith – a humble faith.  A faith that reminds us that power is demonstrated in the capacity to learn and to adapt and to see and take in WHO is in front of you.  To enter the prayer tent, or chariot of another… (upon invitation)… especially those that we have othered.. And listen, “repent,” act differently … this is the healing here in this scripture. 

A healing of the arrogance of entitled posture – and an invitation to a posture of humility and repentance and awareness of your own limitations… of how much we have to learn (and unlearn) – and how much harm has been done in imagining and ACTING as though we are right.

How much we have to learn even when we think we’ve gotten scripture “right”

How much we have to learn, even when we think we know all there is to know about another’s story – where we think we’ve gotten individual people and groups of people “right.” Knowing what’s good for them. Defining who God is for them.

How much we have to learn when we think we’ve gotten God right. 

If we try to claim it. If we say we understand it. If we try to own it. Control it. If we declare “Power” because of it… Then IT. IS. NOT. GOD. (riff on St. Augustine of Hippo). 

And this is the importance I think of imagining that Philip is the one healed here. Because it gives all of us followers of Jesus a chance to see that humility is a way forward, humility is a way to heal the disrepair that has been rippling through Christianity, our society, our world. It is not a value by which we become doormats, or silent, or apathetic – but it is an essential component by which we keep the face of the other, and thereby the face of God in view.

We’ve got to constantly remind ourselves what we do not know. 

Instead of clinging to certitudes on every side of every question – could we enter into conversations with humbleness, curiosity, an openness to unlearn – to listen. We don’t know exactly how Philip responded to the Eunuch’s question of “who is this scripture about a lamb being slaughtered?” But we can imagine that it provoked an  internal movement for Philip from,  “oh wait -this could be you.. To this IS you.” The word became flesh indeed. 

And maybe then Philip explains some of how he’s understood scripture, of who God has been to him… speaks of his own experience of faith, of what he’s challenged by or inspired by…

We can gather that something stirred in Philip because the Ethiopian man says – here’s some water – “what’s to stop me from being baptized?”

And if Philip had stuck to the law – much like the Ethiopian man’s temple experience – there would have been a lot that would have prevented him from being baptized.   

But perhaps Philip knew then the power of being more loving than “more right.”

Perhaps the law he had also read many times, came to life in him – where it says, “to the eunuchs I will give a name that will not be cut off… a name that will last from generation to generation.” (Isaiah 56:4)  Maybe Philip wanted to be part of that healing, that mending a way forward… the naming of a nameless man… as a child of God, as he comes up from the water.

The good news of God embodied, and carried onward-  living in generations to come.

The message of the Hebrew scriptures has always been about the evolution of a more just world. The dismantling of power – where power has defined what law/order looks like – and as Padraig says, “what “right” and rights looks like.” 

Here at Reservoir humility is one of our core values. .. . we not only acknowledge but we are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including scripture, reason, culture, and experience, and we take the posture of learners, recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth continues to unfold. .. as we evolve, change and grow.

Recognizing that our “knowing” of God is only that we can not fully “know” God. 

And our best shot at knowing anything of God is by staying in connection with one another. It is by running alongside the chariot, the honored space of another’s story… and as the Holy Spirit says to Philip in this text, “STAYING WITH IT”….running for as long as we have to… listening as best we can – and maybe somewhere along that journey being invited in… 

A world without humility is rife with arrogance, inflated pride, ego, unchecked power, uninspected motives, hearts that harden… law that becomes stone. 

Scripture that becomes weapons… 

Scripture that is held against people’s bodies, cutting off their rights to be fully human.

This is the history of whiteness – in our country.

Twisted and wrapped around faith.. 

Obsessed with “rightness” – over right relationships with one another & God.

Obsessed with domination over humanity.

It doesn’t just wound.

It harms.

It destroys.

It erases all that makes us human – our stories, our voice, our hearts, our face – 

Without humility – we continue to live in a world of abstraction.

Without humility –  our world does not heal.

And this is frustrating and dangerous. 

Just in the last couple of weeks I have heard two stories of people being excommunicated from their communities of faith… over gender equality and LGBTQIA inclusion … here and now. 

In greater Boston.

Their rejection. 

Their grief.

Their disorientations are not abstractions.

It is here  – in the absence of humility – where the breeding ground of violence really takes off, if power is threatened. And maybe that’s why Padraig’s take on this scripture and Philip being the one that is healed is so moving to me – because it calls into view the work so many of us as white Christians, still have to do – and continues to showcase how violence can overtake and become extreme when the roots of our faith, our country, ourselves are not uprooted and examined – and untwisted from the legacy of white supremacy.

On Friday of last week, in Dallas – three Korean women were shot in a hate-motivated gun shooting.

Those three human beings are not abstractions.

On Sunday last week one person was shot and killed, and five were injured – at a Presbyterian Church in Orange County.

Those six people are not abstractions.

On Saturday of last week, in Buffalo – 10 Black people were shot and killed in a racist hate-motivated gun shooting.

Aaron Salter

Katherine Massey

Celestine Chaney

Roberta Drury

Pearly Young

Ruth Whitfield

Heyward Patterson

Margus D. Morrison

Andrew Mackneil

Geraldine Talley

Were not abstractions.

Humility is a way to digest the message of God – it is a way to embody God, it will take our constant conversion (moment by moment heart transformation), but may be a potent way forward in healing our world.  These folks in Minneapolis, “Healing Our City”, inspire me to keep the faces of those in our midst in view – the ones who have weapons drawn against their bodies, the ones who have for centuries been led like sheep to the slaughter –  and erect wherever we can tents for grief, change and action. 

And may our faith be this tent too – held up by humility, and an unwavering commitment to collective healing.

In Proverbs 22:4 it says,

‘The reward for humility and loving God, is riches and honor and LIFE’ 

may it be so. 

An effort to mend and heal:

In what areas of either learning/or unlearning do you feel like the spirit is calling you to “stay with it?”  What does this look like on a practical level for you? Whose companionship might you need? What resources could you use?


The Healing Waters

In my late 30s, I was a high school principal for a few years. And when I was interviewing for the job, it was clear that some of the faculty of the school wanted a “tough guy” kind of principal. They told me that the next year’s senior class was horrible but that even worse were the incoming ninth graders. There were a lot of kids who’d need keeping in line. 

And I remember responding like: Alright, how about we all meet these 14 year olds we’re talking about first and get to know their names and create a good community together, and then we can see what kind of problems we need to solve?

And some of them liked this answer, and some of them – maybe especially some of the veterans who were older than me – sort of eye rolled and made it clear they were thinking, you’ll see, young guy, you’ll see.

Well, fast forward a year or so, and one of those ninth graders – who had been making and getting in all kinds of trouble again and again, serious trouble, well one of his parents died. And he wasn’t in school, but I was informed about this, knowing this would have an impact on him and on his friends too.

Another person who heard this news was a school social worker named Mike I had come to admire. And what Mike did that day is he pulled together some of the boys he worked with in that grade, all friends with the kid who’s lost his parent. And Mike invited me to the group he was leading that day, to watch and to participate.

So I sat in a circle in the basement of the school that afternoon with my colleague Mike and five or 10 teenage boys, who were to a person some of the more challenging kids in the school – kids with bad grades, kids with attendance and discipline problems, kids people met about and talked about a lot. 

And I don’t remember Mike’s exact words, but he looked at the kids and said something like:

What are you feeling? Where does it hurt? 

And the kids, my God, they were like:

I can’t believe my friend is going through this. Do you know how much he’s faced in his life already? What can I do to help?

And other kids were like:

I know this about so and so, but man, this reminds me of when my parent or uncle or sibling died.

And they shared about loss and trauma they were feeling.

And Mike just kept looking every kid in the eye and saying:

It’s OK. It’s good to feel this. Life’s hard sometimes, but you’re going to be alright. It’s OK. 

And I just kept thanking them for letting me be there and letting me listen too and letting me understand them a little more.

It was one of my holiest moments in my work there, as I watched Mike making a safe community by helping it be a healing community.

We need more healing communities. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today: healing communities and the questions that make space for healing. We’ve got two more weeks until Easter. And we’re at the start of the 5th week of this spring season we’ve called Waters of Life.

And this talk on Jesus our healer, and on healing communities is I hope helpful to you in each of the communities you’re part of, this church community included. And there is more where this comes from in the daily readings and reflections that are in our guide you can access at 

Today we meet Jesus the healer, Jesus who asked questions, questions like:

What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And do you want to be made well?

Let’s read today’s scripture, from the fifth chapter of John’s memoirs of the life of Jesus.

John 5:2-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.

3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.

5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

There’s a lot going on in this story, but let’s start by noticing Jesus’ first words.

Do you want to be made well? 

In the mouth of some people, these could maybe be pushy or judgy words. Like: hey, why are you still sitting here? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to get better?

But we’ll see with Jesus over his life, that he’s not like that at all. Rather, he asking questions because he’s really present – he notices people. And he’s compassionately curious about what they’re experiencing. And he’s interested in them finding their voice and being listened to. So he asks things, like in this case:

Do you want to be made well?

Jesus loved asking questions. My friend Carl who’s spoken at our church before says that

If you want to follow Jesus, one really practical way to do that is by asking more questions when you talk with people. 

Earlier in John, Jesus was meeting with some potential students and rather than giving them a recruiting pitch or an introduction to who he was and what he was about, he simply asked:

What are you looking for? 

I experienced someone asking me this recently. I was meeting with a new spiritual director I was going to work with. This is like a pastor to a pastor. We sat down together in a quiet, mostly empty room, and after a moment or two of silence, he took a breath, looked at me carefully and just asked,

So, what are you looking for?

And that question unlocked things I didn’t even know I needed to say. And over the course of an hour, he listened and asked another question here and there, and then listened some more. At one point, I think he said:

My job is to be the keeper of the questions. 

And in his kindness and attention and listening, I felt like I was sitting with Jesus. And the safety and trust in that brought the truth out of me. And that helped bring me peace. It was healing for me.

Now when we talk about healing, we’re really talking about a lot of things. This is true when we read and think about Jesus as a healer too. 

There are many stories of people walking away from their encounters with Jesus physically more healthy and well than before. He was known as a faith healer in his time, for sure. Skeptical as people in the developed world have been about these stories over the past two, three hundred years, accounts of faith healings – both ancient and modern – are not every day, but also not rare. We’re learning a lot now about how pain and sickness and mind and spirit interact. So just as there are lots of reasons people hurt and get sick, there are lots of ways people get well too. 

I think Jesus did cure many. Still, though, even in this scene there are many profoundly disabled people whose conditions are not changed, and each of the few times in the gospel of John a person does have greater health after their encounter with Jesus, John indicates that Jesus thinks what’s happening in their mind and relationships with God and community are at least as important as their physical cure. Jesus would often tell people too that it wasn’t him, that it was their faith that healed them.

I mean think of the power of this man’s experience. He’s been languishing for decades, for whatever reason a shell of what he was when he was young. And Jesus asks him:

Do you want to be made well?

And he can’t even answer. There’s too much hurt, too much stuck. He can only say:

I can’t, Jesus, I can’t. No one is here for me. 

To which Jesus responds:

This is your day. You can do it.

And he doesn’t just walk, he finds his power back, his agency. His I can’t becomes, with the help of God, I can. 

It might help us when we talk about stories like this to distinguish between two words – curing and healing. 

Curing is more specific. Curing is restoration of physical health or a removal of physical pain. On rare occasions in the gospels, Jesus cures someone of their physical maladies. That continues to be the case through faith healers and traditional medicines throughout the world. People are cured in ways and for reasons that modern medicine can only partly understand. Most of us, we mostly go to physicians and pharmacies for cures for our pains and diseases. Mostly, they are pretty good at what they do. Thank God for modern medicine. We live in the best time in human history for curing our diseases.

Healing, though, is a broader word. Sometimes healing is cure: the pain goes away, all is restored. And sometimes healing involves other changes of conditions or changes of resistance. Something we weren’t looking for gets better or grows. Or we find new peace with the way things fall apart. 

When I talk about Jesus’ power to heal, and our capacity with the help of God to participate in healing communities, I mean healing in this broader sense. This sense of wellness and wholeness that is deeper or wider than the kind of diagnosis or help we might get in a hospital. 

One of our modern teachers in this type of healing is the civil rights icon and the minister and the theologian, Ruby Sales. Ruby Sales was a child participant in the marches and prayer meetings of the Southern freedom movement of the 50s and the 60s. She was raised on the faith of an Almighty God whose power never fails, who makes a way where there is no way, who always comes through.

But there were times when that God as she understood God didn’t seem to come through in power, and she found herself walking away from faith for a while or at least from that kind of faith. Until she started to see the presence and the power of God differently. She was at the hairdresser’s one day, and the hairdresser’s daughter came in, looking a mess, just coming in after being out all night, high on drugs still. And Ruby Sales noticed a sore on her body too, and just found herself asking her friend’s daughter:

Where does it hurt? Where does it hurt, child? 

And a story started coming out, a story not of the night before but of the years before, a story of pain and hurt and abuse, some of which her own mother had never heard. And this opened up space to be known and to be touched and to start to heal because when the truth about you is held with care and grace and kindness, it is true that the truth will set you free. 

And Ruby Sales saw that God was with this daughter of her friend and that God had always been with her –even if the power of God and the way God moves and works and heals isn’t so controlling or always so obvious as she had once thought. And that was a part of Ruby Sales’ return to faith as well, asking:

Where does it hurt?

And seeing God there with healing in the all that pain.

We’ll meet Ruby Sales more in this weeks’ guide. There are quotes from her to accompany the scriptures this week. And Ruby Sales’ voice will show up in our service next Sunday again too. 

What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And would you like to be made well? 

I wished I used those questions more when I was a principal. I wish I was more like Ruby Sales, more like my friend Mike, more of a healer. One of the first students I met as a principal was a young man who came to see me in my office in August, before my first school year in that city even began. He came with an older friend of his. They had both been born in another country, and they had both immigrated as children to this same city. And the young man seeing me desperately wanted to compete in athletics that fall. He was good at this sport, he said. And his friend looked at me and said:

Mr. Watson, this is really true. He isn’t just good. He’s great. He’s really special.

But the problem was this young man’s grades were bad, really bad. I pulled up his transcript and I wasn’t sure I’d seen one quite like it. Failure, after failure, after failure. Really high rates of absence. And I explained to him, with these grades, you’re not allowed to play.

And his friend said:

But Mr. Watson, it’s not his fault.

And he told me some of the tragedy of this young man’s life, the losses and traumas he’d known already, the ways he was to some degree alone in the world while still a child.

And I listened with great interest and care and compassion, but said still:

There is nothing I can do. The rules are the rules. Let’s work on your grades, and you can play next year.

And he left my office with his friend, crestfallen. It would be a while before we’d speak again. 

In what I said, I was right. I was under authorities bigger than me in this, and there was no way he could play that season. But it was in what I didn’t say that I failed him. Not just then, but again later. I remember a time when this same guy showed up high, like really really high, at a big school event, and I suspended him, again following the rules for what happened. 

I wish I knew better, I wish I had thought to look him in the eye and say:

Young man, tell me, what are you looking for? And please tell me, where does it hurt? Where does it hurt?

And asking:

Would you like to be well? 

I knew these questions, part of me did. But I was too insecure as a young principal to relate with this kind of presence and power and freedom and the time. I was too focused on the angry voices that wanted me to achieve order, too focused on fixing and curing to be the healer I was called to be. 

Mercifully, when God wants us to learn something we’re not ready to learn, it sometimes comes back around for us. Spirit of God is a patient, persistent teacher.

Years later I’d spend time with my friend Mike again outside the school, in a running club for folks in recovery. 

Most of the people I ran with were in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse and addiction. And that would come up and they’d ask me about my story sometimes, and I didn’t have a good answer at first. Because the truth was I had never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I had my own hurts and stresses, and I was craving a healing community to run with. I was craving spaces where we could be really honest with our hurts and weaknesses and be accepted and encouraged just as we are. 

So I made a few friends in this club, and in a group I was co-leading in this church at the time too that had something of a recovery group feel to it. And this time, I knew not to try to fix or cure, but just to ask my friends:

What’s your story? Where does it hurt?

And to share some about my story too. 

These were places where we could talk about where it hurts, where it was safe to tell our stories and speak out truth, where people listened without trying to fix us, and where that kindness and connection would sometimes give someone the courage to dare to try to be well.

Don’t get me wrong, even in healing communities, not everyone gets well. Mistakes happen, sometimes pains are too great, hurts are too deep. Life can be hard. I’ve seen a few tragic outcomes, even in healing communities. But I’ve seen some pretty beautiful stories too. 

My friend Mike himself comes from a lot of pain, from a tough, hard start in life. But he’s a wounded healer, living more and more joy in every season of life, and helping other people get free.

Me too in my own way. I’ve had a lot of pain in me. But every year, I’m living more and more free. And it’s so good. It’s so good. And it’s all because of the kindness of God and the kindness of friends showing up for me, asking me:

Where does it hurt?

And giving me the courage to do the work it takes to be well. 

Friends, we need healing communities. Because there is an ocean of pain and hurt out there, there is for some of us an ocean of pain and hurt in here too. 

And these lives of ours are like a garden. So much crap grows out of unhealed hurt. Inside pretty much every bad person is a kid that’s still hurting. But these same lives, when we’re healing, so much good can grow. 

We all heard about the whole Chris Rock, Will Smith joke and slap event at the Oscars. All kinds of hot takes on that. I don’t have one. Powerful Black writers and thinkers like Roxanne Gay and Kareem Abdul Jabaar have had more and better to say than I ever will. I do know from them, from Black friends and colleagues too that there was an ocean of hurt bound up behind all that happened there and what it stood for too.

But you know what Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s partner, did this week. A single one sentence statement out on her instagram. She just wrote,

“This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.” 

What if that’s true, what if this is a season for healing, and we can be here for it. 

What if it’s time to look at our own lives and ask:

Where does it hurt? What am I looking for? Am I ready to be well?

And to hold those questions before a loving God, maybe before a loving friend or two as well, and see where they take us. 

And maybe it’s time to offer this too in our families, amongst our friends, in this community of Reservoir – to when we see someone struggling, to not avoid or ignore it, to not try to fix or criticize, but to in our own way ask:

Where does it hurt, my friend? What are you looking for?

And to pray for someone and walk with them as they ask:

Do I want to be made well?

And find their way forward. 

We’ll close right now as we’ve been doing each week in Lent, with a little foretaste of the daily prayer practice in our guide. We’ll put on a bit of the music Matt has written for us. And I’ll ask us these three questions of Jesus to let sit in our hearts as we pray. 

What are you looking for?

Where does it hurt?

And would you like to be made well?

Love Is a Sunflower

Hi everyone, I’m so glad that I get to be with you today.

The text I want to spend some time with today is from Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10:

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

So, before I dive into that text, I want to set the stage with a story from my own life. Back when I first from graduated college, I worked as a high school debate coach for a couple of years. I worked mostly with 8th and 9th graders – my job was to coach people through their novice season and give them a foundation of skills to build on later.

Now, I’ve always been a really effusive person, and I love using endearments and terms of affection for people that I care about. But I didn’t want to be too familiar with my students or make anybody uncomfortable, so I decided to pick a nickname all my own to use. I’m not really sure why I landed on this nickname in particular – but I wound up calling them sunflowers.

They’d come back and tell me they’d won a round and I’d say,

“I knew you could do that, sunflower.”

Or I’d start of practice, getting their attention with the name. When I gave them all little awards for the year, I put a sunflower on their certificates.

Because it was so prevalent, the image has very much stuck with me in the years since, whenever I think of that time, but now the more I think about it, the more I think it was unexpectedly applicable. Today, I want to share why, why when I think of love, I think of a sunflower.

So, to explain, let me share the first thing I always tell a new group of students when I start coaching them. I sit them down, usually at the end of the first practice, after we’ve played some games and I’ve started to get to the know them. I tell them,

if you’re in this activity because you want to win, find something different to do.

Because, no matter how good you are, there will always be someone out there who’s better. That’s not to say you’ll never win or that you shouldn’t try to or that you shouldn’t enjoy winning. But, if you think the only point to doing this is winning, if you measure your identity as a debater, as a student, as a person, by the number of wins you have – it really doesn’t matter how much you win, because there will always be a point at which you lose. It doesn’t matter how smart or skilled you are, somebody, someday will be able to beat you.

Instead, I tell them,

find something about this activity that you love – research, public speaking, whatever – and focus your energy on pursuing that. Wins will likely follow – but, in any case, you’ll be much happier and get a lot more out of it.

I’m pretty proud of that advice.

And I’m pretty terrible at following it. At least in my life outside of debate.

Our text today is often referred to as the story of the rich young ruler and I think I’m a lot like that young man. Well, I’m not rich or a ruler. But, if I imagine someone introducing me like the writer introduces the rich young ruler, I assume they’d say something like: the grad student, the intern, the person with these degrees or who holds that job. Maybe I’d be a bit more expansive: perhaps I’m the wife or the sister or the daughter, but, nevertheless, it’s likely to be something that’s immediately obvious from my Facebook page. I would have a title, a role, a descriptor.

And that’s not really a problem. I am all of those things and most, if not all of them, are good. But there’s a difference between recognizing that I am those things and thinking that they are all that I am.

I did debate for many years and I was good at it. I was a winning debater. But, like I tell my students, if that’s all I am, what happens when I lose?

What happens when I’m a student but don’t make the grade, what happens when I’m an employee but don’t perform and what happens when I’m a sister who fails in my obligations?

I think the rich young ruler sensed some of this tension. I imagine him as someone who was doing just a great job at being a rich young ruler. I mean, he had to be, right, to come out and say, publicly and point blank, that he had kept the entire law since his childhood. Wish I had that confidence.

Except he didn’t, really, did he? If he was so confident in his keeping the law, if he really believed that it was enough, if he thought that he actually was such a perfect rich young ruler – then why is he here, asking Jesus what else he can do? I think he’s here in this story because, despite all his bravado, he doesn’t feel like he’s enough.

He feels like something’s wrong. And whether that’s because he’s failed in some way he’s hiding from Jesus or himself or just because he’s scared he will fail someday, I don’t know. But I feel that way too.

I can keep winning debates as much as I want, but if that’s the most important thing, I will always be scared of the day that I lose.

Let me take this out of the hypothetical. I said that I coached debate after I finished college, but the real story is how I got there in the first place.

I’d been a debater for many years, yes, but that had never been the career plan. In college, I studied math and my plan was to get a career in that field, hopefully in academia. I spent years building my skills and my experiences to that end before it all came crashing down.

The summer before my senior year I was at school, doing math research. During that same summer, like happens to so many young 20-somethings before me, my mental health took a turn for the worse. I suddenly found myself unable to do things that had been, if not easy, then very much within my reach before. I found myself overwhelmed by even the most mundane tasks, barely able to turn in a journal entry or keep up with my emails. I was managing new levels of anxiety on a daily basis.

By the fall, due to side-effects of ineffective medication, I was having at least one panic attack every day. By the time I got that particular chemical imbalance sorted out, I’d missed deadlines for grad school applications and had to pull out of a class I would have needed to be competitive for grad school. While I was lucky – incredibly lucky – to still be able to graduate given the circumstances of the year, I did so without any idea what to do with myself and a resume that no longer fit any realistic career path, at least an immediate one.

I am at a bit of a loss to describe how that all felt. I had defined myself as a successful academic for so long that when I lost the ability to perform to my and other people’s standards, it felt like I was losing myself entirely. My perceived intelligence and standard of academic output was so completely wrapped up in my identity that my brain’s malfunction felt like a betrayal of my being.

I never knew what I’d be capable of on any given day, I didn’t know who I was without those capabilities. I had been a smart student for most of my life and I suddenly found myself a student no longer and without any guarantee that I could even use my smarts, such as they were, any more.

It was this version of myself that found me coaching debate at a high school. A version of myself that was haggard, intellectually and emotionally, unsure of who I wanted to become and even less sure how to get there.

Much like the rich young ruler, I thought I knew what it meant to be me. I had a vision of how to enter the kingdom of heaven. And, quite suddenly, I found that vision wanting.

You know the cool thing about sunflowers? They follow the sun. Like, they move. Over the course of day, they track the sun’s movement in the sky. They don’t just face one way, all certain-sure of themselves; they keep turning, every day, towards the thing that gives them life.

I think there’s a sense in which that’s Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler says,

‘I’ve achieved everything I think I should be. I am the best me that I can be, I’ve picked the best direction to face. How can I make that better?’

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said,

‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’”

The rich young ruler comes to Jesus asking what else he can do, since he’s already good. And Jesus makes him question what goodness is in the first place. The rich young ruler says,

‘what can I add to myself now that I am such a wonderful rich young ruler?’

And Jesus says,

‘you’re asking that question because you think that the ‘rich young ruler’ is all you are. Can I invite you to a better way of being?’

I want to be clear; I think Jesus is definitely actually telling this man to divest himself of privilege and give his money to the poor in the most literal sense. I just also think he’s asking for more than a one-time thing. I don’t think that this command would be fulfilled with one day of generous, even extremely generous, giving. It’s not like he could sell everything, then hoard wealth for the rest of his life and Jesus would be like ‘cool.’

No, the point is that Jesus invites the rich young ruler into a new kind of relationship with others, a new way of understanding goodness and what it means to be good. He opens up the possibility of a version of identity that’s not based on how many good actions he’d done in the past, instead based on right relationship with others, as messy and changeable as that is.

That’s what I mean by the sun.

The rich young ruler walked away from this exchange shocked and sad – and why shouldn’t he? I’ve had my identity uprooted the way that Jesus was asking this man to uproot his – and it hurts. But it did give me the chance for something better.

See, when I was coaching debate, something occurred to me. I’d spent so much of my life thinking I was going to do something ‘big and important.’ I thought I was all those big and important things I was going to do. And I realized, one day, that I had had a measurable, tangible, meaningful effect on my students’ lives. Not a huge one, mind you. But not nothing either. I had made others’ lives better in some capacity.

And I realized that that was enough. That if that were the sum total of what my life ‘accomplished,’ that would be ok. That maybe, instead of winning, I could focus my passion for life on that.

Meaningful relationships give me life. They are where my faith manifests. I see God in the faces of the people that I love and I feel in touch with the Divine when I try to make others’ lives better.

Jesus asked the rich young ruler to stop being rich, yes – but he also offered him something in its place. A being based in his relationship to others rather than what he held over and above them. A being based around things that give life rather than everything this young man thought made his life.

And Jesus asks me to do that every day, to keep turning away from all my self-serving, grandiose ideas of myself, from the idea that I need to be successful enough, smart enough, good enough – and towards being in right relationship today.

This turn gives me hope. Like the sunflowers that inspired me, I keep turning towards the sun.

Friend, Move Up Higher – God’s Hospitality and Ours

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

When I was 14, I was lonely, pretty sad, full of shame, and – when it came to the big things in life, really didn’t believe in myself.

Double those years, and by the time I was 28, I had love and purpose and confidence. I mostly felt good inside, and I was ready to greet my first child as a man I couldn’t have imagined becoming with a life I hadn’t dreamed of having.

What happened?

Well, there was Sonny Pryor, my high school chorus teacher who told me in front of others, Hey, this guy can sing.

There was Pastor Harold Bussell, who baptized me and after communion would remind me that before a holy and just God, I am totally free and in the clear.

There was my PopPop, Bill Elliott, who when I was a singer told me I’d be the next Luciano Pavarotti. And then when I was thinking about being a pastor some day instead, told me I’d be the next Billy Graham.

There were Ken and Jean Jones, my high school English teacher and class advisor. One I’d seen get slammed by life’s greatest sufferings and held on to hope. The other was one of the kindest people I knew. Together they were on their second marriage, rebuilding a life together.

They invited me – a high school senior and my girlfriend, over their house for dinner. And when for a moment, Mr. Jones and I were alone in the living room, I had the temerity to ask him what it had been like joining someone else’s household, moving into her house with her kids. He didn’t take offense, but looked around and then looked into my eyes and said: Sometimes I can’t believe this life I’m in. All this, it’s so good. It’s so good.

I could go on. The college professor who offered to pay for my voice lessons when I was going to quit because I didn’t have the funds. That voice teacher who invested her time and talents in me, even when I didn’t appreciate her. My greatest ever boss, Bak Fun, who took a chance on me.

In my late teens through my late 20’s, I had this crazy-abundant string of people in my life who made room for me in their lives, who maybe saw some of the ways I was lost and hurt, and definitely saw hope and promise in me I could not see in myself.

They were the hands and feet of the hospitality of God, saying to me:

Friend, move up higher. Friend, move up higher.

Helping me embrace the love and hope of God and grow into a life where I could look around and say: this is so good.

You could say this is a story of privilege. A young, white, straight man – pretty working class but living in high resource communities – has person after person give him time and attention and opportunity, pushing him toward success. A story of privilege.

And you could say this is a story of grace. An outwardly fine but inwardly troubled kid finds grown-up after grown-up giving him time and attention and encouragement, with a couple of them helping connect the dots so he could see that these are the hands and feet of God. This is what a good and loving God is like. Until he’s gripped by the kindness and possibility of that God knowing his name and having room for him.

A story of privilege and a story of grace. Both are true.

Because this is a story about hospitality, where privilege and grace and status and shame and food and freedom and love and cost are all part of the conversation.

A conversation I hope to provoke with today’s sermon.

When we think of the qualities of God, stuff like love and power and mercy and justice all come to mind. But I’d say that one of the top 10, maybe top 5, qualities of the God Jesus worshipped is hospitality. 

And when we think of the qualities of a faithful follower of God, maybe we think of other things too, but I think hospitality ought to make the top 10, or top 5 list there as well. 

So as we spend this fall reading and talking about Jesus at the table and how Jesus gathers people, let’s read and talk about a little story Jesus tells about hospitality.

It’s from Luke’s 14th chapter, and it goes like this:

Luke 14:7-11

Common English Bible

7 When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable.

8 “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host.

9 The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place.

10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.

11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Friend, move down lower for a time.

Friend, move up higher for a change.

This is one of the great social themes of the Bible – to exalt the humble and humble the proud. It’s one of the most frequent statements about what God is seeking to do in the world.

To exalt the humble, and humble the exalted.

God has an interest in freeing God’s children of the oppressive sin of pride – of the kind of too large vision of ourselves and our kind that leads to arrogance, to the hoarding of wealth and resources, to underpaying workers and overpaying ourselves, and to colonizing people and endlessly extracting from the earth. That the proud could be humbled.

And God has an interest in freeing God’s children from the burden of abnegation. Being reduced by ourselves or by others into a too small vision of ourselves and our kind that leads to humiliation and poverty and self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-harm. That the humbled could be exalted.

Jesus tells a little story, a parable. It’s a folksier, earthier way of getting at these grand, just intentions of God. This is Jesus’ way of telling stories that opens up conversation about what’s most important rather than closing it.

And here it’s a conversation about the just and kind hospitality of God Jesus urges us to welcome and imitate.

You friend, take a lower seat for a change. You, friend, come up higher.

My friend Dan likes to tell a story about the late Peter Gomes, who was for decades the in-house preacher and pastor of Harvard University’s Memorial Chapel. Dan says Rev. Gomes was the greatest of hosts. He’d throw these lavish gatherings of diverse guests, with carefully designed seating charts. And as people sat down, he’d remind them:

Don’t forget, the person sitting next to you is the most interesting person in the room.

In just a word, reminding the exalted to look and see who else was there, while reminding the humbled of all they brought to the table as well.

Sitting next to you is the most interesting person in the room.

Friend, come up higher.

I think the first word here is deeply personal. No matter who you are and no matter how high or low you are in your own eyes or anyone else’s, the first word over your life from God is:

I am here. I see you. I love you. You matter to me, child. Friend, come up higher.

In the scriptures, gatherings of food and wine and people are over and over again metaphors, images of the Beloved Community of God. And at the center of this community is God our host encouraging us:

“the person you’re sitting next to is the most interesting person in the room, to be sure. But also, to me, you are also the most interesting person in the room. I see you and I love you. I am here.”

The story I told you of how I was saved coming out of my teenage years is a story of people representing to me God’s loving interest in me and encouragement that my life matters. It matters to this world, and it matters to God.

Sometimes in the Christian faith, the heartbeat of it all – love of God with our whole being, and love of neighbor as ourself – has been twisted to imply the utter erasure of ourselves. As if faith in God leaves us empty or invisible. In Christian teaching on Jesus’ love ethic, and frankly especially in male Christian teaching to girls and women, the meaning and worth and dignity of our own selves has sometimes gotten lost. But self-love, welcoming God’s love for us, is part of this faith too. To believe that God is saying to each of us:

Friend, come up higher. Friend, sit closer to me. Friend, notice your worth. Friend, own your strengths. Friend, see your beauty. Friend, come up higher.

Welcoming this message is central to living as a child of God.

And alongside that, when life seems to give you a back seat, maybe even a seat outside the room entirely, where you can’t eat the food and can’t hear the laughter, I think this teaching gives us a way to make meaning of those personal experiences too.

I’m not saying God necessarily causes these experiences. I think mostly, God doesn’t. But when we hit a hard patch in any area of our life, it helps if we can say to ourselves:

this is a moment of suffering. It’s not my whole life, it’s a moment. It will pass.

And it’s maybe a chance to know a little fellowship with people whose whole lives are full of suffering. It’s a reminder that the meaning of life doesn’t come from endless success and non-stop victory.

Maybe someone else is up higher right now and I’m in a lower seat, and there are times for that too. I’ll be OK.

I was saved mostly through the ways God and friends and mentors saw me and loved me and helped me start to build a life for myself. But I landed where I did also because of things God helped shape in me through suffering too. Years of work dealing with some childhood hurt, an early career failure, a scary patch of unemployment, a need to rework some over-rigid aspects of my faith. All this helped humble me, keep me from becoming a too-big-in-my-own-eyes force for harm in the world.

The “friend take a lower seat for a while” message can come from a lot of places. Sometimes it’s a posture we have to choose for ourselves. But this too is part of God’s hospitality – God’s making room for us all.

So the first word in this teaching on God’s hospitality is personal. We each matter to God and this world as much as anyone else does. But we also don’t matter more than anyone else does either. There’s room for all God’s children.

I think the next word in this teaching is social. In fact, it’s the most obvious, literal meaning of Jesus’ parable. After all, he told this story after watching some obnoxious jockeying for the best spots at the table.

He might have been in the Senate. Maybe the Board room. Or maybe any ordinary workplace or social scene.

Back in the 90’s, when Grace and I were working for the same organization, our team read this great article on workplace communication and what the authors called one-up and one-down communication. The piece was from the 80’s, and I couldn’t track it down last week.

Anyway, the article – or at least what I remember of it – stirred a lot of thinking in me, in Grace’s and my relationships, and in the team that we were on.

The authors discussed two different types of communication people use in the workplace. One down communication, favored more often by women, seeks to build consensus, to share credit, and yield authority to someone else while talking or making a decision. Statements like, “I really like Mark’s idea.” Or “I don’t know. What does the rest of the team think is a good idea,” would be examples of one-down communication? It’s taking the lower seat, so to speak.

One up communication, favored more often by men, seeks to establish expertise or authority, and get a decision made and maybe to get credit for oneself. So maybe Mark says, “Based on all my time and experience, I think we should do so and so,” even if Mark is partly repeating the ideas that Mary first had.

The authors thought that both one-up and one-down communication sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but our team’s take away was to notice how much more often the men used one-up and the women used one-down communication, with the invitation to do something about this.

To, as a man, take a humbler, more gracious communication posture and seek to credit and involve others. And as a woman, to be free to assert one’s own experience and views, and have an eye out for a man not grabbing credit for those.

It was a really helpful insight. But not just about gender dynamics. Because my wife and others on our team pointed out that this isn’t just a gendered dynamic, it can be a racialized one too. They noticed that Asian-American members of our team tended toward more one-down communication styles, and White members of our team toward more one-up ways of talking. And this is just one of a hundred or more ways that sex and gender and race dynamics in American workplaces end of leaving white people and men with more credit, more power, and more pay.

Side note by the way: being married to a person who has the kind of insights and passions on feminist and racial justice that my wife does has been a transformative, critical influence in my life. Grace, you’re the best. I’m not who I am without you. And the rest of y’all, if you partner, partner well. Partner with people you’re glad to have influence you, because they will.

Speaking of Grace, though, and this whole social hospitality element of today’s passage, it’s not just communication where you can see these dynamics at play. It happens around literal meal tables too.

Where I grew up, if you went out to eat, everyone ordered their own dish, and you only shared with someone else if you personally agreed to that, or you know, if it was your kids and you had the right, or you were cleaning up what they couldn’t finish. I mean, stealing like a single french fry from your brother’s plate was a major crime.

But during college, after I started hanging out with Grace and then going to church with her, we went to a Chinese church right in Boston’s Chinatown, and we’d go out to eat after events in these big groups – 8, 10, 12 people crowded around a single table.

And every single time, we ordered family style. Everyone shares everything. And I figured out fast stuff like: don’t hog all the best pieces from a dish. And don’t take the last thing off a plate unless you’ve offered it to everyone first.

And even social things like: ask other people questions more than you talk about yourself. And slowly, these practices of hospitality became mine too, because they seemed like more generous, socially connected ways to live.

If Jesus is the best human revelation of the nature of God that we’re ever going to get, and I think he is, look what we learn about God from him. Jesus didn’t dominate groups and make everything about himself. He took a genuine, curious interest in everyone he met, and how he could know them just as they could know him. Jesus asked more questions than he gave advice. He didn’t insist upon the best seat at the table wherever he went. This is someone who was born in a feeding trough in a barn after all, because his hometown didn’t have room for his folks anywhere else.

God’s hospitable with us all. God doesn’t need to take the best of everything. God doesn’t dominate or use us. God takes interest in everyone and everything outside Godself and integrates that into God’s being and intentions. And Jesus is like:

try it out. Life’s going to go better for you if you share credit and build consensus, if you take a humbler spot if you’re the kind of person used to being first. And if you’re the kind of person who’s been at the back of the line, you know, go ahead and take your spot at the front when you can. That’s good too. Friend, come up higher.

I think the last word on this is global, but I don’t really have time for that.

So I’ll just ask:

what does it mean for our consumption and our economies, if we were to practice global hospitality?

If we were to take Jesus seriously and think, the proud need to be humbled. And the same people shouldn’t always have the most wealth, the highest consumption, the most cheap consumer goods, the highest carbon footprint, and all that. Those people – which would be a lot of in this room today – ought take a lower seat so we don’t get embarrassed when our grandkids’ oceans flood the coastline and when this world runs out of clean oceans or clean water or habitable climate.

I could name other examples, but you get the idea. Personal, social, and global hospitality isn’t just a nice idea. It’s not just a way to have more friends or be more connected to each other. At stake in these questions and practices of hospitality are the biggest questions of relationship with God, justice and equity, global flourishing, and the future of our species.

So friends, let’s live in this story some more.

Where can we be saying:

Friend, come up higher to other people in our lives?

Where do some of us need to take a lower seat for a time? Where do some of us need to take that higher seat for a change?

Where is God saying to us,

Friend, come up higher? Seeing, encouraging, and saving us into lives of meaning, confidence, and purpose?

Or saying friend,

I see you, kid that I love, but you can chill out on your elevation for a while. Let it be. Let it go.

“…Suffered under Pontius Pilate…”

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

A week and a half ago, a troubled man stabbed a local rabbi named Schlomo Noginski eight times. This occurred in front of a Jewish synagogue in Brighton, where a day camp with dozens of children was underway. But for the quick evasive actions of this rabbi, and a fast response from others, many more could have been hurt, and Rabbi Schlomo could have been killed. The prosecution is just beginning, but early signs are that this was a hate crime, targeted against a Jewish clergy member and his community. 

Last Friday, I stood on the lawn in Brighton Center in gentle rain with a few hundred others at a rally held the day after the stabbing. I try to show up to my friends in Boston’s interfaith community in these moments. Any attack on humanity is an affront to God. And an attack based on race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation – is an attack on love, and an attack on the dignity of humanity and the joy of human diversity, all of us made in God’s image. So often too people with my identities – white, male, Christian, minister, have been the perpetrators of violent hate crimes or have supported ideologies that fueled them or overlooked them. So I get a reverend collar out to show up in grief and prayer and solidarity when I can.

The vigil went kind of how I expected, in that I heard respected Jewish leaders call for justice and respect, I saw Boston’s political and law enforcement leaders show up in support, and said hi to friends and acquaintances of various walks of life who were there as well. But what I didn’t expect was how much love and light I’d encounter, and how much the words and actions of local Jewish leaders would encourage my life and faith, and specifically how much these events would illuminate and magnify my understanding of some of what God’s presence in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ means to me. 

And that’s what I’d like to share today.

This summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a short, 4th century statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today. Because this is how religion in general, and faith in Jesus, in particular works. It remains rooted in its original historical events and sources, while it also evolves as people and culture do, with the Spirit of God accompanying us in an ever-changing world. 

Let me review the lines of the creed we’ve looked at the past four weeks, and read this weeks’ line as well. 

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

This week we examine these words about Jesus: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

There are a lot of directions to go in with this line. We could talk about some of the big theological, spiritual meanings of what happened in the death of Christ on the cross. But we’ll get another chance to do that in August, when I preach on the line “forgiveness of sins” and talk about the cross and our needs for forgiveness and forgiving-ness – the various ways Jesus’ death empowers liberation, healing, justice, and wholeness. 

We could also talk about questions of the afterlife, what some think it means that Jesus descended into hell upon his death, like reaching out to dead people, as a fellow dead person, offering the love and grace of God, even beyond the grave. Along with many other Christians, I think God still does this in Christ – that God keeps loving and luring people’s minds or consciousness, even after we die, because I hope our consciousness continues past death, and I hope to be in relationship with a loving and beautiful God for eternity, and I hope that for everyone too, as I believe God does.

But, I feel led to go in a different direction today. To ask how as people who fear, as people who get sick, as people who live in communities in violence, as people who face loss and death and grief, how Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into hell speaks to us. 

I have four powerful, practical benefits I would like to share with you. Here they are:

Practical Benefit #1

Jesus embraced shame and losing, so we’d change how we see and experience shame or losing.

I live in part of Greater Boston where Rabbi Schlomo and many other very Orthodox Jews live. They stand out still in their dress, their customs. They uphold centuries of tradition that have included misunderstanding and persecution, and sometimes violence. But not only do they scorn they shame they face but they defy it, and joyfully so. Joyful defiance seems to characterize Rabbi Schlomo and what I saw of his community last week – a refusal to back down, an insistence on the safety and respect they deserve, and a refusal to be less visibly and devotedly Jewish, no matter what happens. They are willing to ignore the shame heaped upon them by some, for the sake of the joy of their faith and tradition. 

Dynamics of honor and shame dominated most ancient cultures, as they dominate many cultures still. Historians and Bible scholars such as our own Dr. James Jumper have written extensively about this. Were someone to be seen naked publicly for instance, it would be the shame of that that would sting more than the loss of privacy. The same with loss, punishment, condemnation – whatever harm these might do on their own, the shame accrued to a person and a community who suffered these was the worst. 

Roman rulers really got, which is why they adopted crucifixions to punish enemies of the state – the victims were stripped naked, tortured, hung up publicly to die not only to make them suffer, but to shame them publicly – to mark them as outcasts – as humiliated, losing, victims. 

When we look for this in the New Testament, we see this as part of Jesus’ experience of crucifixion and death. For instance, in the letter to the Hebrews, where it says:

Hebrews 12:1-2 (Common English Bible)

1 So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up,

2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

Jesus – in being stripped, mocked, beaten, tortured, and killed before his mother, his friends, his students, the public – didn’t just suffer and die, he was shamed, he was branded a criminal and a loser. Jesus endured this willingly, for the sake of the joy of what he was showing us of God, how he was loving us, and what he hoped would come. 

Bible scholar Pete Enns says that of everything that the New Testament has to say, of every thing in the record of the life of Jesus, this is far and away the most unique – that Jesus and his followers don’t in any way try to reduce or hide the enormity of Jesus’ shame and loss. They center the whole story on this. They take a kind of pride in just how much Jesus was shamed and suffered. The creed centers this line. 

There are only three names in the creed – Jesus, his mother Mary, and the Roman governor Pilate who executed Jesus. It tells us that in Jesus, God suffered in history. A corrupt, colonizing politician takes pride is sticking it to a shamed, losing victim, whose name is Jesus. 

What’s happening here is that Jesus and his followers and the faith we inherit today is upending honor/shame dynamics. It’s reversing what we have always been taught about winners and losers. 

This matters historically. We’ve always heard that history is written by the winners, and so it is. But in Jesus we see a God who loses, and ever since, we’ve begun to see a change in historical attitude toward the scapegoated, the attacked, the shamed, and those who lose.

When we side with victims, we do so because of Christ. When we root for underdogs, we’re shaped by the legacy of Jesus in history. And when we follow the great Black theologian James Cone in seeing that Black Christianity has been the most faithful Christian expression in this country’s history, we side with Jesus, who hung – as Cone says – on a Roman lynching tree.

This matters morally and in terms of dignity and human rights. Jurgen Moltmann, author of the powerful book The Crucified God, wrote

“There is no ‘outside the gate’ with God, if God himself is the one who died outside the gate on Golgatha for those who are outside.”

When we or people like us have been scapegoated, shamed and shunned, we can know Jesus sides with us. There is no outside the gate with God. And when we or people like us have been the scapegoaters, the shamers, and the shunners, Jesus calls us to shame in our supposed honor, and calls us to repent for our offense to God. 

And this reversal of honor and shame dynamics matters relationally, in our own hearts and esteems and lives. Perhaps like me you are raising teenagers or preteens, or perhaps you are a teen or preteen or remember those years, and how defined they can be by shame and losing, or honor and winning. Which dates you did or didn’t get, how liked you are on instagram or in person, whether you’re the teaser or the teased, where you stand in the so-very-visible pecking order of life.

Perhaps you’re a grown up, where these things are a little more subtle, but still – our weight, our height, our appearance, our education, our income, our abilities or disabilities… there is still so much winning and losing in so many ways. Jesus’ shame tells those of us who face shame and who lose that God is not judgeting us alongside the shamers or the winners. God is with us, enduring this shame and loss, telling us that God sees differently. 

Practical Benefit #2

God invites us to join Jesus in embracing – not denying – our feelings.

My Jewish therapist and I quote Jesus a lot. We’re always talking about how the truth will set you free. And usually, we’re not talking about the truth of facts, but the truth of our experience, the courage to notice and feel and name our emotions, whatever they are. And by our emotions, I mean my emotions, which I grew up to not notice or feel, but to avoid and judge.

It’s so powerful to stop doing this. Liberating things happen when I notice my feelings – when I admit that I’m sad or angry or afraid or resentful, even when I wish I wasn’t. This isn’t surprising, or it shouldn’t be. Psychologist Carl Rogers famously said

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.” 

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change. 

It’s true. 

Jesus was always emotionally available, to others and to himself. The shortest verse in the Bible:

John 11:35 (New Revised Standard Version)

35 Jesus began to weep.

A lot of translations give it two words: Jesus wept. I like this newer translation that nuances the verb tense – began to wept. Because it makes it seem like Jesus still weeps, at least some times. It mirrors God’s ongoing emotional life, God

“the great companion, the co-sufferer, the one who understands.” 

God feels what God feels, freely.

God feels what you and I feel too, gladly.

And God wants us to feel our own feelings too. When I say: the truth will set you free, my therapist is fond of quoting Gloria Steinem’s addendum to that, saying:

yeah, but first it will piss you off! 

That’s true too. It’s hard to be present to our feelings, but God wants to help us with that, because God accepts us as we are, and God knows that we accept how we are too, we’re more free, and where we need it, we’re more likely to have power to change as well. 

Practical Benefit #3

Jesus dares us to act, and to act in love when we’re most afraid.

Have you been afraid this year? Who hasn’t been? Some of us have suffered personally during pandemic. All of us have had body counts in the backdrop of our lives, as sickness numbers and death counts have filled the news. It’s not the first time that’s happened. Me, I was born in 1973, when they were just wrapping up doing that around American deaths in Vietnam. 

We all know that whether it’s from COVID-22 or -23 or the next pandemic or war, we’ll face this again at some point. 

But we’re not made for habitual, long-term fear. Fear’s a great alert, an activator for our caution and preparedness, but over time, our fight or flight or freeze instincts become habit.

And fear starts to become demonic. It lies to us. It exaggerates. It numbs us. It gets us stuck in reactive paralysis or cycles of panic and anger we just can’t sustain and that eat away from our lives – figuratively and literally. 

At the vigil last week, one of Rabbi Schlomo’s colleagues spoke. He reported on Rabbi Schlomo’s wellness and recovery, how despite eight stab wounds, his life was spared and his health prognosis was great. 

And then he reminded us all what the scriptures teach, Christian to be sure, but also Jewish – that love overcomes evil, that light drives out darkness. And he exhorted us all that for each of the rabbi’s eight wounds, we should all endeavor to do eight deeds of great kindness. His community has also determined this year to welcome eight students into the rabbinate as well, one new rabbi for each wound.

It’s beautiful. I was moved. To call for justice, strength, and love in the wake of tragedy. It’s what our country should have done 20 years ago in the wake of 9/11. We were hell bent on vengeance instead, and 20 years later, many thousands of lost lives and billions of lost dollars later, we’re finally leaving Afghanistan, having got some vengeance, but no real justice, strength, or healing. 

This is path Jesus has for people and communities of all sizes as much as nations, though – to act, and to act in love when we’re most afraid. It’s what Jesus did – pressing forward toward a loving mission in the face of fear and shame. And it’s how the letter to the Hebrews calls us to imitate Jesus as well. 

Moltmann in The Crucified God wrote way back in 1973 that at its worst, Christian religion has an identity that is anxious, inward-looking, and has fearful rigidity. It’s gotten so much worse since then. 

But at its best, when we identify with suffering Jesus of the cross, God can spur

“creative love for (even) what is considered different, alien, and ugly.”

In this the world finds its healing, and in this we find our personal and collective liberation. 

Friends, what does your pandemic liberation look like? How will your life no longer be dominated by fear, but by action, and specifically, by creating action in love, no matter what the future holds? 

Whatever answer we have to this question, it will lead us toward redemption and freedom, my friends. 

Lastly, the fourth point I have no time for today:

Practical Benefit #4

Jesus dares us to look for God where we think God is not.

Faith the God revealed in Christ is faith in a God who has known forsakenness, who has in that sense descended into the hell of lonely, abandoned suffering and death. That means that in every hell on earth, God is no longer absent, but Jesus is there, inside the hell, with the forsaken. 

There is no hell, no abyss, no rock bottom beyond God’s power to accompany and save. Our rock bottom is actually a really great place to find God and our path toward healing. 

Jesus said once:

Matthew 25:35-36 (Common English Bible)

35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

It’s not just a metaphor. Jesus dares us to look for God where we think God is not. Because that’s actually where God is most likely to be. 

In every forsaken place – yours and others – look for the helpers, as Mr. Rogers told us. God is there. Look for the possibility of change and redemption. God is shaping that space. Look for the love and presence and possibility of God. God is most assuredly there.


Stop Lying – You’re Free!

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


Act 4:32-37

32 The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.

33 The apostles continued to bear powerful witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and an abundance of grace was at work among them all.

34 There were no needy persons among them. Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales,

35 and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.

36 Joseph, whom the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (that is, “one who encourages”), was a Levite from Cyprus.

37 He owned a field, sold it, brought the money, and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

Acts 5:2-11

However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property.

2 With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles.

3 Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land?

4 Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!”

5 When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified.

6 Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him.

7 About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband.

8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?”

She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.”

9 He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.”

10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband.

11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened.



Looking for God at Night

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

For this week’s spiritual practice “Darkness and Looking Up” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.



This past year, I’ve been having more memorable, vivid dreams. I’m not the only one in my household who has reported this. And it turns out that this has been a widespread phenomenon this past year. Scientific American reports, there has been “a global increase in the reporting of vivid, bizarre dreams.” 


All kinds of stuff is coming to us in the night.


There have been a lot of articles about this. My favorite title I came across was “Sweet Dreams Aren’t Made of This.” I only like that because it’s playing off the most awesome brainworm of a melody from the pop music of my childhood.


Sweet dream are made of this

Who am I to disagree?


Oh, I love that song. I hope someone’s dream is set to the Eurythmics tonight.


But I digress, don’t I?


What’s going on in the night?


One scientist says many of us are more anxious, and that plus sleep disturbance is leading to weirder dream lives. Another thinks that many of us are sleeping a little more than normal – more REM sleep, more memorable dreams. And another notes that we’re facing these massive, unfamiliar levels of disruption. We feel we’ve been thrown into an alternate reality, where our waking lives can feel like living in a dream. 


So there’s lots of disjointed, distrubed, disruptive thoughts we’re taking to bed with us for our brains to process while we’re at rest. 


This last theory really resonates with me. For nearly a year, we’ve been living through a kind of collective dark night. 


I’ll pause to note that comments on night and day, dark and light that fill our language, our culture, our religion, even parts of the Bible like the gospel of John, can be problematic. 


It’s been pointed out that in the English language and in the Western tradition as a whole, language around darkness and blackness tends toward negative connotations. Whereas language around lightness and whiteness tends toward positive connotations. I’m not a linguist or anything, but I totally buy the arguments that part of this is racialized; it’s connected to the white supremacy that lurks inside the history of our language.


So we’re going to try to correct this pattern a little. I’m going to use nighttime, darkness language and metaphor in this sermon, because it’s important to the Bible text we’ll look at. But we’ll try to avoid this straight up good/bad dichotomy.


Night – for us now – and especially for the ancients is a scarier time. Night, darkness, is a time of less visibility and clarity, of threats real and imagined. 


But night is also a creative time. Darkness can be a generative time. Nighttime is an intimate time as well. It’s a time for dreams, for art, for lovers. 


I think all this applies to our moment of time. We’ve been living through a dark time of disruptions, anxiety, and unpredictability, for sure. But it’s also a time not just of anxiety but of creativity. It’s a time of great distance in some places, and yet intimacy in others. 


In these dark, disruptive times, how do we look for what God might be doing and what God might be saying that is full of possibility?


What comes to us at night? What parts of that sap life from us, distract us, or grip us with fear? And what parts of what come to us at night focus us, ground us, give us life?


To talk about these themes I want to turn to one more parable in our little winter series “Stories Jesus Tells Us.”


Jesus tells us a parable of night-shift workers. Convenience store cashiers, late shift nurses and cops, night security – here he calls them servants and uses an image of domestic servants working for a master or head of house. Jesus says:


Luke 12:35-40 (CEB)

35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit. 36 Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door. 37 Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them. 38 Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn. 39 But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.”


Alright, this story is weird. And we’ll look at it from a couple of different angles.


One of the things I love about this translation is what it does with Jesus’ favorite title for himself, “Son of Man.” This version translates that as the Human One to remind us that Jesus isn’t just sort of a person. He’s the real deal. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He shows us what God looks like. But Jesus is also the one that through his life and teaching shows us how to be a real human being, our truest self, just as he was an authentic, beautiful human being as well.


What does Jesus, the Human One, have to say about our collective darkness and the great disruption we’re living through?


Well, this story is part of a series of stories of warnings. The headings my Bible’s editors place in the different sections of Luke chapter 12 four times talk about warnings.


And this story is also a sub-genre of stories Jesus tells about readiness, about being ready for someone who arrives when you least expect them, being attentive and alert when something big happens. 


One thing all these stories have in common is they imply God’s arrival in big disruptions on the earth. Jesus seems to sit in this long prophetic tradition of seeing God’s involvement in major historical events, especially in major disruptions. Jesus, for instance, anticipates the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem in the generation following his life. And he says you’ll see God doing all kinds of things in that. He uses this old prophetic line “the son of man” or “the human one” “coming on the clouds.” 


Even in an event as horrible as the destruction of a beloved city and center of worship, Jesus says God will be found.  


Jesus encourages us to pay attention to what God might be doing during big times of disruption. This is a two point sermon really, so that’s the first:


  • Pay wondering attention to what God might be doing in all big disruptions.


Have you wondered what God might be doing this year? I’m sure some of us think God is, I don’t know, asleep or something. Or busy elsewhere in the universe. Writers of the Bible felt those things sometimes too. 


But if you think God is always with us, as I do; and if you think God is not micromanaging the world, not controlling everything, but always engaging as a loving, healing, persuasive presence, then what might God be encouraging right now? What might God be inviting us toward amidst all this disruption?


We think this way as wonderers, of course, not as confident proclaimers, as if we have unique access to the mind and intentions of God. Too many self-proclaimed prophets have lied to people about what God is doing at a particular moment in time. I think of the pastors who have proclaimed during various tragedies that it is the fault of some group they scapegoat as sinners. Or I think of the lying self-proclaimed prophets who a couple months back announced God has revealed Trump would win reelection. This kind of pompous proclamation isn’t prophecy, it’s self-serving manipulation. Prophets invite us not to confidently prognosticate the future or proclaim God is on our side, but to listen and discern, to humbly watch and wonder and deepen our wisdom and love and justice as a result. 


My favorite prophetic voice into these questions of what God is doing in the disruption was the Indian writer Arundathi Roy. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, in early April last year, she published this amazing essay, “The Pandemic is a Portal.” She believed the pandemic is showing us a great deal that is true, which we might not otherwise want to see. This past year has been full of revelation, hasn’t it? In the Christian tradition, this is one of the ways we interpret the phrase “God’s judgement,” not necessarily God punishing us, but God helping us see the truths about ourselves that we would otherwise rather not look at.


This past year, we’ve seen how fragile life is, how fragile are our public health systems, our schools, our democracy, our lives. We’ve seen how deep white supremacy runs in our country, how large the gaps of resources our economies have shaped, how sick the church is in America. It’s been a time of judgement, in this sense of revelation. 


Revelation always invites us to not turn away, to not turn away but to see the truth and ask: how together will we respond? 


What have you seen about the world this past year? What truth about the way things are has been made more visible to you? 


Arundathi Roy hopes with us that with this new sight, with this new knowledge that has come to us in the night, we will reconsider how we live together. She ends her essay writing:


“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”


We’re all longing for back to normal living – to worship in person together, to travel without restriction, to send our kids to school, to touch and be touched more. Thank God for our scientists and physicians and leaders who are earnestly giving their time and talents toward this end.


I brought my elderly mother in law yesterday morning for her first COVID vaccine. And because it was at a clinic where my mom works, they vaccinated me as well. And while my arm’s a little sore, I’m so excited. It’s this symbol of hope in my life, in my body, that slowly we are emerging from this year of distance and darkness. We will emerge.


But we believe, right, that back to normal needs to be a “new normal” in many ways. So many of us are hoping to return to healthier ways of living. Maybe less days commuting. Maybe less frenzied. Maybe more connected and grateful. 


And so many of us are finding God showing us we need more just ways of living. That we need to give ourselves together to reducing the gaps that are exposed among us around resources and races, gaps in health, gaps in safety and security, gaps in all kinds of access to the goods of life.


I shudder to think what the future holds if we do not live differently, if we do not run with what this year’s disruptions have been teaching us. 


This wondering what God is doing is part of the invitation I’ll extend next Sunday to the upcoming season of Lent that starts next week. We’ll be listening in Lent this year to prophetic voices, people that know what’s most important, as we seek to learn together, to rediscover what is most important to God and to us, to re-ground ourselves in the ways we want to live, even if we’ve lost our way. 


So please join us next Sunday, get your Lent in a bag next weekend as well, as we do these things physically distant but spiritually together. 


I want to return to Jesus’ particular story, though, about the nighttime visitor and talk about it more personally before we close. 


And here’s what I’ll focus on.


  • There are many nighttime thieves. Jesus might be the only one who shows up to serve you.


These stories are weird. Jesus talks about thieves that show up in the middle of the night. And in his stories, sometimes these intruders sound like God, sometimes not. Sometimes they unexpectedly turn out to be welcome, sometimes not. 


We know, though, that a lot of intrusions come to us in the night. A lot can visit us, sometimes haunt us, at night when we’re alone.


I want you to hear just the beginning of this gorgeous song by Joy Oladokun. I met this song, of course, on the most recent episode of This is Us, which is… stunning.


Here it is: (listen to the first 28 seconds!)


“The Devil’s in the basement in my home

A Flight of stairs is way too close

He comes for me when I’m alone

Collecting debts that I don’t owe


What comes to you in the night? When you’re up too late, and your thoughts are running, what fears settle in? What regrets come back to you?  What accusations return? 


Jesus, like this song, calls the voice of these nighttime thoughts the devil. A character emerges here and there in the scriptures that is called “the satan” which means in Hebrew, the adversary or the accuser. 


This is not the fiery horned menace who opposes God and rules over Hell. Centuries later Christians invented that character. The satan in the Bible, and in Jesus’ teaching is more subtle than that. 


Some people think it’s a hostile angelic being, who tricks and lies and seeks to encourage evil upon the earth.


Some people think “the satan” is a personification of the most deceptive, accusatory, violent tendencies within the human mind and the collective human experience. 


It doesn’t really matter for today – that’s a topic for another time. But the fears, regrets, and other negative thoughts that can come to us in the night – the literal night when we can’t sleep and the metaphorical night of tough times in life – these thoughts don’t give us life or help us. They aren’t from God. They make us sadder, more afraid, more despairing than we have reason to be. 


That’s why these visitors at night, the song says, try to collect debt that we don’t owe. 


Jesus, though, in his story, says that he’s a nighttime visitor too. The thief in Jesus’ story we heard today, the one from Luke 12 seems like the Spirit of God, which Jesus says comes alongside us and tells us everything he wants to say to us. 


Jesus messes with the usual thief imagery by saying that when he comes to us at night, it’s because he wants to get all dressed up and serve us. Nighttime Jesus isn’t like: take off my shoes and get me a beer. Nighttime Jesus wonders what we need most and wants to bring it to us. Nighttime Jesus isn’t there to collect debts or stoke our fears. Jesus wants to break through our haunting thoughts and tell us the truth. 


Jesus always shows up to serve.


What voices, what thoughts come to you in the unguarded night? And how do you tell which come to accuse, to steal, to drag you down? And which from from God, which come from Jesus, here to serve you? Which come Jesus, who wants for us all more abundant life? 


A couple nights ago, I woke up at 4 in the morning. My thoughts were racing a little, I was dehydrated, I didn’t feel so great. I knew was awake because I eaten really poorly the night before, I had been on illuminated screens a lot the night before too and several nights before that. And my mind was troubled by a couple things as well.


And there was a voice with me that was like, what’s wrong with you, Steve? Look at the way you’re treating yourself. Look at the state of your pathetic life. Negative, accusing, despairing thoughts.


But then a different thought came to mind, a different voice in my head, you can call it.


It just said: Steve, you don’t need to live this way. You don’t need to live this way.


And I instantly knew all that meant. It spoke to food and drink and how I care for my body. It spoke to my screen use at night and sleep hygiene. It spoke to other stuff in my that has been stuck and hurting. It was a voice of freedom. There’s more. There’s better. There’s another way to be. I know the way. I can go there.


I knew this voice was Jesus coming to me in the night, telling me the truth about myself, dressed up and ready to serve me, so I could have more life and freedom. 


I see this all the time as a pastor. We harbor so many self-accusing, despairing, stuck, tired, bitter voices and patterns in us. But now and then, a different thought, a different voice, a different perspective cuts through. We stumble across our own belovedness. We realize we are less alone. We realize we have more freedom, more choice than we realized. We see a different way forward – a more whole, more integrated path, a more just and peaceful future we can bring into being.


This is the voice of God, coming to us in the night. 


How might Jesus be speaking to you these days? How might Jesus want to come to you in the night, dressed up to serve you? 


My belief, based on my reading of the gospels, my witness to Jesus speaking in your lives and throughout history, and my own experience of Jesus these past 30+ years of my life, is that Jesus regularly has three types of things to say to us in the night, three ways he comes to serve. 


Jesus wants to accompany you, to assure you that you are not alone, that you are seen, heard, treasured, loved. Jesus says: I am with you.


Jesus wants to encourage you. Not necessarily just cheer you up, but literally encourage you – fill you with courage, help you be whole-hearted, fully alive. Sufficiently energetic and vital to greet your own life and this world with hope. Jesus says: Take heart, be encouraged.


And Jesus wants to direct and guide you into ever-increasing freedom. 


Jesus comes in the night not to discourage, accuse you, or collect debts you don’t owe. Plenty of others will do that. Jesus comes to accompany, to encourage, and to guide you into ever increasing life and freedom. 


I encourage you this week, each night before you to go bed, take just a moment, and say, Jesus: I want to hear your voice in the night. Jesus, I want to pay attention to what you have to say. Jesus, I welcome your accompaniment, your encouragement, and your guidance. I trust you are with me. Amen.