Finding God in Nature, and the Power that Brings

The other morning I was driving home from an errand. I had the car radio on but I wasn’t really listening until I heard someone announce that as of today, there were eight billion people on the earth. Eight billion – I thought, how do we know, like today? Who’s counting? 

We had an interesting conversation over dinner when one of my kids brought this up too – like what would it be like if you knew you were the eight billionth person born? And then what if a half second later, someone else died, and then another half second later another person was born, and then they, and not you, would be the eight billionth person born. How many eight billionth people will there be? 

Anyway, the other thought was – wow, that’s a lot of people. Eight billion people. 

The radio host had the same thought, because they asked the scientist they were interviewing,

is this a problem? Is that too many people for this earth? Should we be worried?

He sounded worried, and maybe surprised that all these people had snuck up on him. I mean, I know when I was born there were only about four billion people. Checking my math, I know that’s… a lot less. 

But the scientist was like: no, not really. The earth can handle eight, nine, even 10 billion people as long as we stay open to this dynamic, as long as we talk about and rethink some things to do with how we all consume, and what we use for energy, and what our immigration policies look like and all. 

And I felt both calmed and appreciative that this scientist has a good plan for us and at the same time, not very optimistic that our governments and institutions are listening to this plan very well. 

But I also wondered: what happens when we all confront realities like this? Rapid change, unexpected growth, strains on our person or collective resources.

Are we like the radio host, and all this change stirs anxiety or fear? If so, that usually gets us denying the news, or listening but hoarding our land, our resources, our privilege for ourselves and those like us.

Or are we like the scientist, greeting big changes with curiosity, with hope, even with joy and gratitude and letting all that give us power to get to work as a person, or get to work as a species and plan accordingly?

Today, we’ll start our Advent season looking at scripture and listening to some wisdom from Native American followers of Jesus as well. We’ll talk about big changes we face in our lives, sometimes scary changes, and a way in all that to remember God is always with us and that there is always more than enough. 

This season Advent is the season before Christmas. It’s a time to remember the unique ways God appeared to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s also a time of longing for God to appear to us still. It’s a season where we’re invited to dare to hope that the Spirit of God can again interrupt dull lives, warm our cold hearts, and draw us all toward greater faith, hope, love, joy, and justice. 

We’re actually launching a four-year Advent project, exploring four aspects of the incarnation of God in Christ, the expression of God in human embodied life. 

This year we’re inviting us all to pay attention to the self-investment of God in all of creation. It’s what theologians call kenotic christology. My mentor Tom Oord calls this the self-giving love of God. Another theologian, Tripp Fuller, captures it this way. He says,

“God didn’t want to be God without us.”

I love that. 

God has decided to not be God without us. God doesn’t want to be God without us. 

With that in mind, we’re calling this year’s Advent: with us. 

In the first week we’ll focus on God’s self-investment in creation, the ways God is known to us in nature, and the power that can bring us. You’ve got today’s sermon, but even better this beautiful guide we’ve prepared for you. It’s meant to be used for about 15 or 20 minutes a day but take a look at it today, in paper form or online, and make your own plan for how you’d like to use it.


What we hope this Advent is that our Sunday services and the use of our daily guide can encourage you to some spiritual and personal renewal in advance of Christmas. 

Alright, here’s this week’s Friday scripture from our Advent guide. It’s three verses from the beginning of the saga of one of the founding fathers of the faith of Jews, Christians, and Muslims all. 

Genesis 12:1-3 (Common English Bible)

1 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.

2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,

    those who curse you I will curse;

        all the families of the earth

            will be blessed because of you.”

We meet Abram as an adventurer, a wanderer, a person in search of a better life in a better land. Abram was born on the Eastern edge of what we call the Fertile Crescent – a crescent-shaped swath of land in the Middle East that both then and now can support an abundance of life.

Long ago, when the human population of the earth was nowhere near four or five billion, likely less than 100 million, Abram journeyed across the Fertile Crescent in the hope, the faith, that God had led him to the Western edge of that land, where there’d be a better life for him and for all his descendants. 

His father, the scriptures tell us, had started the journey when Abram was just a child. But then Abram’s brother died. And his dad is so grief-stricken and just so sad that he gives up on his dreams, settles down where his son Haran died, names that place after his lost son, and eventually dies there himself. 

Have you known anyone who’s given up on their dreams? 

I’m inferring here, but it seems that in his loss, Abram’s father’s outlook has gone from hope and abundance to fear and paralysis. Understandable, really. What failure of life, what grief, like the one he’s faced. Easy to lose one’s faith. Easy to lose one’s hope.

But Abram, who himself had lost his big brother to death, keeps moving. He senses God speaking to him, encouraging him to pick up his father’s dream, to leave the familiar and the secure for someplace, something better, something more. 

The promise he banks on is a promise of blessing. Scarcity, grief, curse, loss, failure won’t have the final word. He will still be blessed. 

There is still abundance. Blessing for him, blessing for all his descendants. 

In our faith tradition, the more ancient bit about Abram’s enemies being cursed is removed or modified over time. But the bit about him being blessed and his descendants being blessed is owned by all the spiritual descendants of Abram, all children of God, some of us feel all peoples of this earth.

Living with Abram in the care of an abundant God. Encouraged to be open to so much goodness that it overflows. 

Blessed to be a blessing.

In the story of Abram, faith that he may have in an abundant God and in a life of blessing, it’s hard for him to hold on to this hope. He wavers often, loses his way again and again. 

So three chapters later, we get this bit, a reminder Abram senses from God one night.

Genesis 15:5 (Common English Bible)

5 Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” He continued, “This is how many children you will have.”

Like all of us, it seems like Abram needs a concrete image of hope, a memorable way to remind him to keep the faith. 

So one night, while he’s outside under the dark sky, he has an impulse to look up. And in a darker sky than any of us has ever experienced in our age, Abram would see a panoply of stars, innumerable points of light. 

And the word that crystallizes in his imagination is: this is how big is your blessing. This is how big and beautiful the blessing is, as bright and as many as the stars. 

It’s an old trick, old and good magic Abram is experiencing that truth comes to us through the sacred wonder of creation. Nature speaks truth. It is the first, the oldest word of God, telling us God is with us, and there is more than enough. 

Friends, have you ever experienced truth coming to you, perhaps even God speaking to you in the natural world? 

I’d like to talk about that.

Also, have you ever experienced doubt that your life could be blessed? Ever lost your hope or become overwhelmed by fear? 

Maybe your own grief or loss has stopped you in your tracks. Maybe, as with Abram, a family legacy of pain has seemed more real than your aspirations for something better. 

Or maybe like that radio host hearing about eight billion people for the first time, the data and circumstances of life overwhelm and crowd out optimism, growth, possibility.

All this has happened to me.

When I was in my late 20s, I hit a moment where I was just gripped with fear. 

Grace and I had our first child, a baby less than one year old. 

After a rocky start in my early 20s, I’d found what I thought was not just a stable job, but a vocation – a career where I’d grow and contribute and support myself and my family while being fulfilled. 

I was a newish public school teacher, but I was growing, getting better at it and happier in it, finding my way.

And then I was laid off. The city where I taught was facing budget cuts, and last in, first out was the way of things. So I was told I’d be out of a job when the school year ended, and because my licensure was still temporary, I wasn’t so sure I’d find another teaching job again quickly.

For me, this experience of being laid off surfaced a ton of fears. 

My parents had some big disappointments and many periods of job instability when I was a kid. I have a vivid memory from when I was young of seeing one of my parents, sitting at a desk, papers before them, crying. I knew what it was like for people to feel insecure, like there was not enough, and now, with a new baby, I felt like I was recreating that pattern for my kids.

I felt like a failure, like I’d avoided it to this point, but here was the destiny for my life as a husband, as a worker, as a father – not good enough, not having enough. 

Here’s how I’ve always told the story to myself of what happened then. 

My little family of three was on vacation with some extended family. Others had paid our way because, well you know, we didn’t have enough. 

And I’d been reading the prophet Jeremiah, which is largely grim, but one morning on the vacation, I awoke before dawn with my Bible, an accompanying prayer guide on Jeremiah I was using, and a journal, and sat outside to pray in the early morning hours. 

And as I read the scriptures and sat before the sunrise, something came to mind with the clarity of the voice of God. 

I thought:

my failure, my time of not enough would not be the end of me.

Even at 29, I knew a lot about who I was and who I was meant to be in the world. My values, my hopes were pretty clear. And I thought:

God is going to make sure all these hopes and values find their meaning. Whatever job I have or don’t have, that’s not the key in life. No, the key is I know who I am and where I’m going, and God’s with me in this. 

My life was going to have meaning and purpose in the world. There was going to be more than enough for me and mine. And we were going to have a beautiful story together. 

We were going to be blessed. And we were going to be a blessing.

That’s how I tell the story to myself about what happened 20 years ago. It’s how I’ve told you this story before too, that the Spirit of God worked through prayer and the scriptures to speak the truth to me, to deliver me from a nagging, generational fear of failure, and to help me walk in hope, in promise, and blessing. 

This is how I tell myself the story. And I think it’s true.

But there’s another way to understand what happened for me in that story, what turned me from fear-gripped not enough to hope of blessing. 

To tell that other way of seeing it, I’d like to read one other scripture, Wednesday’s scripture this week in our guide, that offers another way of understanding my story that is also true.

It’s part of Psalm 65.

Psalm 65:9-13 (Common English Bible)

9 You visit the earth and make it abundant,

    enriching it greatly

        by God’s stream, full of water.

You provide people with grain

    because that is what you’ve decided.

10 Drenching the earth’s furrows,

        leveling its ridges,

    you soften it with rain showers;

        you bless its growth.

11 You crown the year with your goodness;

    your paths overflow with rich food.

12 Even the desert pastures drip with it,

    and the hills are dressed in pure joy.

13 The meadowlands are covered with flocks,

    the valleys decked out in grain—

        they shout for joy;

        they break out in song!

The psalmist is outside too, like me, like Abram. Abram saw the stars, I saw the sunrise, the psalmist looks out over fields and meadows with grain and fruit growing, sheep feeding, and thinks:

how abundant is this world. 

Now surely this isn’t the only thought he or she ever had about life. This poet lived in ancient times. She would have known times of famine, empty bellies and skipped meals. Or he would have perhaps known wars and threats of wars, conquest and subjugation, in his own life, or in his family lineage.

But this day, out in the beauty of the natural world, the truth returns, that God is with us, and that this God and this earth is abundant. There is more than enough for us all.

I think it’s no accident that my own breakthrough on this front happened because I got up in the dark to sit along the ocean at sunrise. 

 The ocean before me – so big, so alive – made it hard to think that loss and scarcity were the truest things in this life.

And the sunrise – so beautiful, so able to invoke the new hope and new mercies every day brings – made it hard to think that the best of life was behind us, and that God or goodness had abandoned me.

As much as the scriptures or the prayer brought me to God, the beauty of God’s creation did as well. It spoke the truth to me that God is here, that we are blessed, and that there is more than enough for all our blessing. 

I’ve learned this isn’t an accident. It’s a thing we can lean toward, as have the Native ancestors who first settled and lived among these lands we call home.

Mark Charles is a follower of Jesus and also the son of a Navajo father and a Native American activist. He maintains a spiritual practice of greeting the sunrise in the morning. And sometimes he shares an image or short video of the sunrise on his twitter feed with the exhortation,

“Walk in beauty, my relatives. Walk in beauty.” 

Franciscan Catholics have told us that nature is the first word of God. The Bible, even the person of Jesus come later. God spoke truth through nature first and speaks there still.

I’ve been reading the work of another Native American follower of Jesus, the theologian and activist and farmer Randy Woodley. He’s a Cherokee descendant and a wise teacher who brings Jesus-centered faith and Native American wisdom into conversation. 

One of his books is a new one, Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth. It’s a really practical invitation to honor and learn from the practices and wisdom of the Native Americans, whose ancestral lands we live upon. 

Woodley teaches the way Native Americans lived in conversation with the land, in a kind of humble, learning presence upon the land, trusting in its abundance, and listening to its stories and truths. 

Like Mark Charles, he too encourages us to be outdoors, to learn from what we perceive there, to return for instance again and again to particular places in nature we consider sacred. 

I think that happened for me 20 years ago in the sunrise along the ocean. The truth of God’s goodness and abundance came to me as a sacred word in that spot. And the hope of my own life’s blessing, overflowing enough for me and my family and for the blessing of others, became clear.

It happens for me still. It can happen to us all. It is the birthright of all eight billion living members of our human family.

Life’s hard. We lose. We grieve. We get anxious and afraid. Our problems grow and we shrink before our own eyes. And that anxiety and fear troubles us, and sometimes it doesn’t just scare us but it makes us smaller in all kinds of ways. We stop dreaming. We stop moving. We start hoarding, resenting, getting the little we can take. 

But then sometimes we lift our gaze again. We pay attention. 

We still see a few stars still in our electric light-brightened skies.

We get out early to walk our dog or go to work and catch the magnificent promise of a sunrise. 

We look out our window and see the last browned leaf floating down from a maple tree bracing for the cold of winter.

We listen to the ocean, which is always big enough, or before our evening meal, whatever we have to eat, we stop to pray and say:

thank you, God, that again, no matter what it is, I have food. Thank you God that there is more than enough. 

And maybe then we get a little calmer. We remember we are blessed and we are thankful. Maybe we dare to hope again.

And that starts to give us power to get curious, to wonder about the possibilities yet ahead with the help of God and friends. 

And knowing God is with us, knowing we are blessed, remembering there is more than enough, we can rest easy for a moment in the goodness of that blessing. We can walk in beauty for a little while. And we can get to work in faith, in hope, in love, joy, and justice again.

Get outside, my friends. Listen to how God is with us there. Pay attention to the truth of abundance, the hope of blessing, the promise of the good that is and is yet to come.

Becoming

The other week I caught a show at the planetarium at the Museum of Science. I hadn’t been there in years, maybe decades. If you’ve never been, Boston’s Museum of Science is just a wonder, famously so for kids but for grownups too. And the Planetarium is where you can see shows about astronomy and what you can see in the night sky and other stuff. It’s really one of our city’s treasures.

I was back there because I’d been invited along with some other clergy of different faiths for a pre-screening of a new Planetarium show that debuts next month, one on religion and science. It tours you about the earth’s cultures and creatures – past, present and future. And it asks many of the big questions that both religion and science pose about the origin and nature and meaning of things, why the earth and the universe are the way we are. 

If you can’t tell, I was spellbound. Highly recommend this show. Anyway, there were a couple of moments in the film that were particularly breathtaking for me.

One was when the show visually represented the changes in human culture and science over the millennia. You visually sweep through time, from the first human use of fire a couple hundred thousand years ago down to today’s lightning speed changes in culture and technology. And you feel both like: woah, what an ancient human story we’re part of but also a kind of awe and delight and fear at how fast that story is changing right now. 

And then there was this other moment, when the film is putting life on earth in the context of the vastness of the universe. And the panoramic view sweeps out from some kind of subatomic particle to a single human’s eye perspective and then on out to a view of the whole earth, and then the earth’s place in our solar system, and our orbital life that sweeps around the sun in the context of the billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and then how many billions or even trillions of galaxies there are in the whole universe.

And Friends, breathtaking doesn’t do it justice. 

How does one think about, feel about, talk about the smallness of our little blue planet in the context of our massive and ever expanding universe? 

What a time to be alive, to begin to be able to peer into the tiniest intricacies of matter and at the same time to gaze out into the inconceivably enormous universe we’re part of. And for our jaws to drop in wonder.

And what a time to be a person of faith in someone or something we call God. An everlasting spiritual being who is creative force behind all this, who is creative, loving presence amidst all this. 

In light of all we are beginning to know about this wildly complex, breathtakingly beautiful, and ever expanding universe, how do we think about and talk about God and worship and pray to God? 

The next few weeks we’re going to explore this question with the help of the work of a friend of mine named Toba Spitzer. Toba is a prominent rabbi in the Jewish religion, a practitioner and a teacher of a form of Judaism called reconstructionist that seeks to help Judaism change and evolve to meet the context and needs of a modern era.

I like Toba for a lot of reasons but one of them is the kindred religious spirit I see in her. Because my calling as a pastor, and Reservoir’s calling as a church, is also within our own tradition, a kind of reconstructionist calling. We want the Christian faith to stay rooted in its origins while also evolving, being large enough, flexible enough to meet the contexts and needs of our times. 

So, from now through Thanksgiving, our Sunday teaching will be drawn from Toba’s work in her new book, God is Here. I highly recommend the book if you want to get it, read it with a friend, with your community group. That’s up to you.

But we’ll draw from a few of Toba’s chapters the next few Sundays in some different Old Testament, non-human metaphors for God. 

This week, I speak on God who is engaged with our universe in its ongoing process of change, God as Becoming. 

Our scripture is from the book of Exodus, chapter three. Moses is called in the wilderness to lead his tribal people out of slavery in Egypt, and he has this encounter with God who names Godself to Moses in a new way, as the ever Becoming one. 

It goes like this:

Exodus 3:11-15 (Common English Bible)

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.

So at first Moses is like:

I can’t do this big thing. I’m not good enough. I stutter. Whatever.

And God says:

I’ll be with you, and I’ll show you that in various ways.

But then Moses is like:

who are you, anyway, God? What will I call you? What is it that I can say about you? 

Deep questions, questions we all ask in a journey of faith, right? What is God like? How do we talk about and talk to this god?

Well, for Moses, and for the first time in the history of the people of Israel, there is divine revelation of this holy, unique name for God. In our English translation, God says,

you all can call me: I am who I am.

And later, that’s shortened just to

“I am.” 

This one word, this one name: Yahweh, or Rabbi Toba tells us Ehyeh, it shows up all over your Bibles but you don’t see it. Every time in your English Old Testament, you see the name Lord for God, but Lord is written with all capital letters, it’s the translators’ attempt to do something with this name that they don’t really know how to translate: Yahweh or Ehyeh. It’s everywhere.

Rabbi Toba tells us you most literally translate this as:

I Will Be that I will Be. Or

“I am Becoming that I am Becoming.”

There’s a lot going on here. 

Moses is learning that this God can not be limited by its name, can’t be boxed in, or controlled. Humans have often named their gods to give them familiarity, the familiarity of a divine being you can appease, and you can hopefully get to do your bidding.

But in Exodus, this God – this God that later on Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all agree is the Most High God, the creator of the universe, the one real divine being – this God can not be named like that, does not want to or need to be appeased, certainly can not be controlled.

No, this God is Being. Or better yet, this God is Becoming. 

If God’s name is Becoming, there’s two subtly different ways we can read this. 

One is that God isn’t changing or growing, but to us, God is ever becoming. Because we are always seeing and learning new things about God. God is so large and beautiful we can never stop learning and seeing more.

The other way to see this is that God is still becoming. Like the universe itself – infinitely large, but at the same time is still expanding. 

If God is like this, then there are aspects of God’s nature or character that never change. The New Testament defines God in a word only three times.

God is Spirit.

God is Truth.

God is Love.

Those things are always true about God. God is always spirit, always true, always loving. And you could add others, like God is just. God is kind. You get the idea. 

But in addition to this constant, everlasting nature, God is also becoming. Because God is in relationship with everyone and everything, God has new experiences, and those experiences affect God and shape the ideas God offers back to us for the future.

For what it’s worth, friends, this is the stuff I study about God in my doctoral program in theology. It’s called process theology, or open and relational theology.

I think that in the 20th century there were three marvelous breakthroughs in Christian theology and experience. They are pentecostal, liberation, and process theology.

Pentecostal theology was born in urban Los Angeles in 1906. People were experiencing the presence and power of God in their emotions and in their bodies, and that seemed to open up power in people’s lives, power for healing, power in their sense of intimate connection with God in prayer, and power to overcome injustice, like to be in interracial communities amidst segregation. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements born of this are the most rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the world. There’s a lot of mess and abuse and unhealth that hangs out in these spaces, but there’s beauty too. Our church, many of us, live in the legacy of this Pentecostal theology and experience. 

Liberation theology was born in the 1950s through the 1970s as colonial global empires and racist segregationist states like the United States started to break up and change. Alongside the movements for freedom in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and within Black America, there were movements of liberation within Christianity that said God is not on the side of oppressive colonists and racists. God is not only interested in eternal life in heaven. God is interested in humane, just conditions in this life, on this earth. And so God cares about the healing and freedom of oppressed people groups. In the US, there was Black theology. In Korea, minjung theology. In Africa and Latin America, this was often called postcolonial or liberation theology. Super-important, that God is in solidarity with those who suffer, and that God cares about justice and wants us to do justice as well. Our church’s vision for Beloved Community is deeply influenced by Liberation theology.

And then lastly Process theology. This was born amongst philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead who were responding to scientific insights like Einstein’s theory of relativity and what became quantum physics, that the only constant in the universe is change and movement, that there are no unchanging substances. You and me and the air around us, and even the chairs you’re sitting on are all collections of matter in relationship. Process theology has the insight consistent with our scripture that God too is always in relationship, that God has experiences that have an affect on God. 

And so God is everlasting and aspects of God like God’s loving nature may never change. But in other ways, God is a creative partner with us all in life. God too is still becoming.

Now at the very least, our view of God keeps widening. Most Biblical authors if pressed would have told you that the earth was the center of creation, and that somewhere above Jerusalem, maybe a few miles up, just over where the birds fly, and over the moon and the stars, God has a throne in the heavens – far enough away that we can’t see it, but close enough that God and any other spiritual beings can see us.

Just about no one thinks that any more. We know that the moon itself is 239,000 miles from earth, and that in the scope of our solar system, that’s still really close. So we know now that the whole “throne of God in the heavens” thing is a metaphor. 

Our view of God has widened. Throne is a metaphor for God’s worth and power. And heavens is a metaphor for God’s omnipresence. God is spirit and God is everywhere. Heaven is just where the good life of God is manifest. 

At minimum, our view of God needs to keep expanding. In our religious traditions and beliefs, we need to be humble about what we know and open to ongoing growth and discovery. This is why religions change. And it’s true for each of us personally too. People change. In our own faith and views, we can be humble and open to discovery, to becoming.

Let me dial this down super practically into two ways of being spiritual I want to commend to you.

The first is called apophatic spirituality. I gave a couple sermons on this a few years back. But here’s the quick version. Kataphatic spirituality means with words – it’s about the things we can affirm about God and know about God with words and images, relating to God through reading holy scripture and verbal prayers and song lyrics and pictures of God in our imaginations. Awesome stuff.

But apophatic spirituality is the necessary, moody cousin to all that. Apophatic means without words. Apophatic says every word and image we use about God may be partly true, but it’s also partly not true. 

God may have a throne, but God doesn’t really have a throne.

God may be like a shepherd, but God’s not really a shepherd. God’s not a person at all, and it’s also rude to people to treat them as if we think like sheep.

God’s always bigger and better than any words or images we put around God. God will be who God will be. God is becoming. So apophatic spirituality encourages mystery and humility and silence.

In our postmodern age of deconstruction, apophatic spirituality affirms some of our impulses. It’s good to be like: I was taught or my parents were taught that God is Father. And that may be true in some ways. But dang, it can end up being limiting, even abusive to get it in our heads that God’s a man. 

So we need to both speak and unspeak that God is Father. God is more than that. God will be who God will be. We can’t contain or control God or put God in a box. God is Becoming. 

That’s apophatic.

The other practice is one Toba commends in her book. It’s a regular practice of radical humility and curiosity about the Becomingness of God and of everyone and everything in the world.

It’s called, “What is this?” The idea is that throughout your day, when you encounter things and experiences both familiar and unfamiliar, you ask with open curiosity, “What is this?”

I read a verse in the Bible about God. Maybe it’s something I think I understand, or maybe it’s something that confuses or troubles me. Either way I ask:

What is this?

And through that question be open to the new becoming of God to me.

Or like Moses before the burning bush, we look at any object in the natural world and ask with curiosity: what is this? And that question can open us up to see the possibilities of becoming in all things.

Like my dog. My family’s trying to train a puppy, and it’s a kind of puppy known for being whip-smart and wonderful but also kind of hard to train. So when my puppy is standing his ground and not wanting to go where I want him to go, I can get frustrated and impatient and yank him around because I’m stronger than him. 

But that’s mean, and it’s bad training too, won’t get us where we want to go. So I ask, “What is this?” What is this dog? And what’s happening here? And I see then: oh, this dog is super smart and has an interesting will of his own. And I’m trying to persuade this dog that I’m wise and trustworthy, that I’m a person worth following. And I’m trying to do that too across this cross-species language gap, which is both challenging and fun. But if we can do this well, if we can learn to communicate to each other, and I can be worthy of his trust and he trusts me, then we are going to have a beautiful relationship. 

Or like my procrastination. I’m working on a big writing project, or more often I’m not working on it. Because it’s long and hard, and so it draws out my insecurities and frustrations and procrastination. And my natural instinct when this happens, as it did for instance on Thursday morning, is to get frustrated with myself and then get restless and give up, which means I don’t get any more writing done and I also feel worse about myself later.

But when I can get curious instead, I can ask:

what is this? What is happening in this experience?

And even ask that question in light of faith and wonder:

God, how do you see what’s happening here? And is there a way that you can help me move forward with more freedom and joy in this? 

And when I tried that Thursday, I remembered that even though I’m 49, I’m still growing. I’m not done yet. And I remembered that God is compassionate for me and patient and not frustrated with where I am today but glad to help me grow.

And I thought:

what if I could be patient with myself too? What if I can just do these one or two parts of the project today rather than worry about the 100 parts I don’t have the energy or insight to do yet? 

And that helped me do the bit I could do on Thursday, which got me one or two steps closer to where I want to go. And maybe more importantly, it was another step in knowing God loves me and is for me, and another step toward self-compassion and owning my own growth too. 

That question of curiosity:

what is this? 

Well, friends, we open our God is Here series with the holiest, most important name of God in the Old Testament, the name that tells us God is Becoming.

God is still experiencing new things in relationship to you and me and all creation. And there is more to God than we yet know or can put to words. There’s a big-eyed, childlike wonder that this Becoming God calls for – a wonder that lets us keep learning, keep growing, keep discovering. God is here. And God will continue to be ever more big and beautiful and loving than we’ve yet seen.

Connection

Last month, we got a new puppy. There were people in my household that have been dreaming of this day for a while. Let’s just say I was the last holdout. But here we are. And it’s not clear yet how we’re all going to feel about this in the long run.

But, man, I will give Pepper this. He’s really cute. And he’s pretty fun. He gets us out of the house more. I’ve met more neighbors, more neighbor dogs the past two weeks than the previous two years. And he’s simple. This toothy little, meddlesome creature just wants to chew on things and get outside and be fed. But even more he really just wants to be liked and cuddled with and played with and then he’ll always be happy. 

Yeah, when he’s not sleeping or eating, this dog’s whole world is like: See me. Talk to me. Smile at me. Play with me. 

He’s just hungering for, always ready for connection. 

He’s not alone. 

The other big new thing in our family life this summer is that one of our parents had a major stroke. And we’ve all been waiting and praying as we see what kind of recovery is or isn’t going to be possible.

We still don’t know what the future holds here, but for over two months, my mother in law has been living in institutions, instead of at home. 

And in a lot of ways, the defining question for her, even more than her physical recovery, has also been about connection, wanting to know:

Who sees me? Who’s praying for me? Who remembers me? Who will visit me? And if I’m losing my mobility and my independence, what will ensure that I am not alone? 

As we age, whether we’re particularly introverted or extroverted, our hunger to not lose relationship and attention and touch, our needs to remain connected, become really important. 

The scriptures of our tradition affirm this fundamental need. One of the first things said about people in the whole Bible is this:

Genesis 2:18b

“It’s not good that the human is alone.”

In the creation epic of Genesis, there’s this joyful litany of celebration about the goodness of the whole created order. Again and again, God calls things good. The Hebrew word is tov. 

Sun and moon – tov

Earth and seas – tov

Plant life, animal life – tov.

Birds and fish – tov

The creation of humanity – very tov. So good. An amplification here!

But then, the idea that a human being would live in isolation, not connected to other humans at all, is not tov. 

It’s not good for people to be alone. 

Now here’s what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to get married. Because the creation epic involves Adam and Eve – the man of the ground and the mother of all life – people think about marriage here. Get married, have a family, because it’s not good for humans to be alone.

But not all of us want to get married. And some of us want to, but it doesn’t work out for us. Or we get married, and our partner leaves us or dies. Or the marriage is hard and leaves us lonely more often than not. Or our marriage is pretty great, but we realize that even the best of marriages doesn’t by itself fulfill our needs for relationship, connection, and community. 

Marriage can be wonderful, but it’s not the be all and end all for everyone. You don’t need marriage to not be alone. In fact, you don’t need a romantic partner or a sex life at all either. 

Plenty of people live well and live wonderfully fulfilled lives without sex, without a romantic partner – married or otherwise – either for seasons of life or for all of life.

But none of us live well entirely disconnected. It’s not good for humans to be alone. 

We need connection, and we need circles of different types of connection. 

We need a lot of people to whom we’re very loosely connected, people whose names we’ll mostly never learn – our whole societies, our cultures, our economies in which we find our way. 

And then we need our circles of acquaintances who create networks of belonging for us, the circles of people we work with and live around and share affinity with. These are the people that come and go over time. They’re not intimate, they are loose ties, but they are the networks of giving and receiving that help us understand ourselves and function and matter.

And then we need smaller circles of intimacy, friends and family and partners who don’t just know our names but our stories, people with whom we may have tension and conflict, but where we’ll also experience and offer affection and respect and even love. 

And we even need some sense of connection that stays with us regardless of how other people come and go. We need a fundamental sense that we matter, that we are seen and known and loved, no matter what other people do or say. 

We are profoundly social beings. We are creatures who don’t survive, and certainly don’t thrive, without a lot of connection. 

Today we explore how we can pay attention to and value and engage most wholeheartedly with the people and communities where we offer and receive the most important, richest connection. 

We do this as part of a five week series we call We Are Reservoir. Each week for the next five weeks, we’ll teach scripture and themes related to the five core values that guide our church’s pursuit of vibrant, inclusive, healthy faith. 

These values are connection, freedom, everyone, humility, and action. 

We do a version of this once a year in the fall, so that as a community, we can remember who we are and what we are becoming, and so we can welcome people into belonging and membership in this community and make sure that all of us who want to have opportunities to chip in to the life of this community as well, so we can be a healthy, sustainable church and so all of us who want to can feel connected here. 

Today, as we explore connection, beyond the verse about not being alone, I want to read one other scripture. It’s one of my favorite encounters in the life of Jesus. And it’s a lot of things. But one of the things it is is a story about God making connection and belonging and meaning possible in new ways in a community. 

Here it is.

Luke 19:1-10 (Common English Bible)

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town.

2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich.

3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.

4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.

5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

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

10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

Zaccheus lived a life of achievement, of wealth, of privilege, but also of profound alienation and unhappiness. 

Everyone in Jericho knows Zaccheus is rich, but no one likes him. They dislike, despise, resent this man so much that not only is he not welcome in their homes, they’re troubled that Jesus would enter his home. 

Zaccheus is unwelcome in their community because he’s collaborating with their oppressors. He’s the Jewish face of the Roman taxation system that strains their families to pay for the armies and the glory of Rome. 

And not only that, but they are aware that he’s gotten wealthy himself collaborating with Rome at their expense. See, the only way that the empire could maintain a force of local tax collectors would be to turn away at their overcharging to enrich themselves. Corruption and self-serving schemes are part of every violent empire, and Zaccheus is the face of that greed and selfishness to this community as well. 

So Zaccheus is wealthy, but he is not connected. Rejected by his people, and a tool but not a member of the colonizing society, he doesn’t belong. People who interact with Jesus in the gospels are often mentioned with reference to their parents, their children, their friends or spouse, but Zaccheus appears to be solo. He’s alone, which is not tov, not good. 

Whose fault is it? Well, it’s his fault to be sure. He most likely didn’t have to be a tax collector, could have found an excuse to not serve in this role even if called upon, or could have done it while not ripping off his own community so badly.

It’s the fault of a powerful, dysfunctional society as well. Rome encouraged isolation and alienation to keep its economy and power structures moving the way they did.

Maybe it’s even Jericho’s fault to some degree. Who knows? I’ve always wondered if Zaccheus experienced isolation and alienation before his life as a wealthy, corrupt chief tax collector. Maybe he’d always been teased for being so unusually short. Maybe he’d been socially isolated because of other differences or disabilities. 

 Whatever the reason, Zaccheus is hungering for connection that he’s driven out of his life, or perhaps that has been driven from him as well. 

And Jesus initiates connection and care. He sees Zaccheus, who’s simply been trying to see Jesus, and he invites himself over for lunch. 

I’m coming to your house, he says. And as surprised and angry as the rest of the community is, Zaccheus is honored and thrilled.

And it seems like something of the light of God gets in through the cracks in him. Some part of his underlying pain breaks open maybe, and he can own the harm he’s done in his community. And some part of him, in this new circle of connection and care, lights up. A yearning for connection, a yearning for justice and restoration, a sense of agency returns to him. 

And so over the meal, likely with folks eavesdropping outside the windows, he says to Jesus:

I’m going to make things right. I’m going to make things right. And he makes this extravagant beginnings of amends for the harm he’s done.

It’s justice, it’s the right thing, but it’s also a pathway to restoration of community. 

Restoration of wealth to poor, fleeced community members. 

Restoration of justice to angry, embittered neighbors.

The possibility of restoration of social connection and a place in the community for Zaccheus to. 

And so it’s no surprise that Jesus says:

Salvation has come to this house. 

Salvation came to this house. He’s not just talking about eternal membership in God’s family, even if he is talking about that as well. He’s talking about healing, wholeness, restoration for both perpetrators and victims, reintegration into community – everything we can mean when we say this word salvation. 

God has done it. Jesus has done it. Zaccheus has done it. 

Salvation has come – and while salvation comes from God, it’s always a team sport. 

Jesus is the initiator here. He establishes the community of connection and care. 

But Zaccheus was looking for it too – he was hungry, up there in that tree, looking for God.

Connection and care produce a shift in Zaccheus’ consciousness, as care and forgiveness and acceptance and connection always do. Zaccheus is more free, he longs to do right now. Which is good, because connection can be started through care, but it’s only sustained through safe and just practices in community relationships.

Communities don’t work if people don’t do right by one another. So Zaccheus does the good work to partner with God in his own salvation and restoration, which protects his community as well. 

And then at the end it’s amplified, magnified by Jesus when he says: look at this, this man is a real son of Abraham, isn’t he? He’s restoring Zaccheus to community, calling him a good Jew, one who truly belongs among his people. 

After all, Jesus is the human one who came to seek and save the lost. The human one – Son of Man – is an insider lingo kind of title for Jesus but it also means what it sounds like, like he’s the most truly human one who’s ever walked among us. And he looks for people who are disconnected, alienated, lost, and he longs to restore them, as he does here. 

Man, this is a good news story. And it resounds for me in all kinds of ways in our times too, makes me long to keep seeing more of this.

I think of the nearly one in 50 men who are currently incarcerated in this country. They’re like one in five of the world’s incarcerated men. And if you count the formerly incarcerated too, it’s far more.

And these are like the poor versions of Zaccheus. In most cases, they’ve done wrong to somebody in society, they’ve caused disconnection in communities. But more often than not, their criminality was proceeded by all kinds of alienation in their lives, all kinds of ways they’ve been done wrong and severed from healthy community.

And I think of how our society’s systems of so-called justice and punishment isolate and sever people from community, not just while incarcerated but often for many years afterwards. And I long for more cycles of salvation and restoration in this so broken area of this country.

Or in subtler ways, I think of myself.

Middle aged Americans, especially middle aged men in America, often don’t have many friends. And it’s our own fault, right? Putting career and other stuff over time with friends, awkwardness about affection and need, low emotional intelligence sometimes maybe.

But it’s also kind of not our fault too, right? This late capitalist culture has its demands and expectations and norms about work and family and long commutes and all kinds of other stuff that make it hard for middle aged men to make and sustain friendships. 

There’s a cost, though, to all this – a cost in social cohesion, a cost in risk for what we call deaths of despair – suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction that have driven down men’s life expectancy in recent years. With lack of connection being one of the risk factors in these things. 

Anyway, in a smaller way, a few years ago, I was feeling these costs.

A few years ago, I realized I could really use a couple more friends. I was also thinking I could use another spiritual friend or two, people that would understand my faith and values, and with whom I could pray. I love my spiritual relationships here at Reservoir, but I’m always a pastor here, and I wanted a couple more relationships like this outside this church.

But it’s not like you can order friends on Amazon, right? Like hey, I’ll search for local prayer partners that are available. 

So what’d I do? Well, I thought about the local pastors I knew. And I thought of this one guy, who I’d only had a couple short conversations with before, but I knew him by reputation, and we’d been around each other at a few events and meetings. And I liked him, he seemed like a good person too, someone I could connect with and trust.

So I made an appointment to see him, and I was like: hey, I need another pastor friend, and you seem like a good guy. Wanna be friends?

Don’t get me wrong, it was hella awkward at first, for me at least. But he wasn’t awkward at all. In fact, he was like: hey, thanks for thinking of me. And it turns out that another pastor we both knew had reached out to him earlier in the month about getting together a couple times a month to talk and pray together, and he was like maybe you should join us? 

And I did, and for a few years now, we’ve been friends, meeting up a couple times a month for open, candid conversation and prayer. And these friendships have been great. They’ve been useful – I’ve learned about some great resources through these guys, gotten some ideas professionally. They’ve helped me network, gave me advice on a grant I won. And I think I’ve been useful to them too. 

But more than these instrumental benefits, the connection itself in this circle has been tremendously life giving. It’s been a place to be real, to be honest, to get support and affirmation and sanity checks, and to give the same. 

This making of connection started with God growing an awareness in me that I needed it and a sense of where to turn. And then it took my risk and initiative to do something to connect and open up as well as the grace and kindness of a couple folks interested in reciprocating to make this circle of connection and care. 

And it’s gotten deeper because one of the guys wanted this to move beyond just a light social thing and make this a community of practice too – a place where we talk about what we’re doing to be more healthy, wholehearted people and pastors. And that’s given us more reasons to keep getting together and has made these friendships one of the places where for me too, the light of God can get into the cracks for me. 

In a lot of ways, friends, that’s what this church is here for. 

God values for each of us the life-giving connections that will help us pursue God’s wholeness, love, and leading in every area of our lives. And we like to try to encourage that happening. 

We affirm here that to have a good life and a good faith, we don’t need to be particularly rich or beautiful or favored or lucky in any other way. 

We just need help discovering that we are connected, that we are seen and known and loved by a living God. That the goodness and loving kindness of that God follows us wherever we go. And that these experiences of divine love and connection can be mirrored and reflected in rich human to human connections as well. 

Now this may or may not be your experience of church today, but my invitation today is to see if this can’t be true here, if you’d like it to be.

Our membership agreement at Reservoir is pretty simple. You fill it out online at our website, and you’re a member, period. And it doesn’t start with telling you what to believe or what to do, it starts with connection, with saying I believe God has good things in the life for me and others, and that this community can be one of the places in life that encourages those good things.

The membership invitation invites you to, in metaphorical terms, attend Jesus’ party. In literal terms, it says

“I will simply be there, through regular participation on Sundays and through participation in a community group as able.”

We invite you to participate in these ways because this kind of participation for most people stimulates greater connection, community, and belonging.  Church is a rare place to be a contributing, participating member of a community that doesn’t sort and define us on the terms of capitalism, but of beloved community. 

And it’s a place, particularly in our community groups, where some real depth of connection is possible over time. Many of our groups encourage a community of practice, as our pastor of community life Ivy has talked about – places where we try practices that deepen our experience of God and develop a rich spiritual life.

But all our groups start by trying to be communities of connection and care, places where we can show up authentically just as we are, and find that others are glad we’re there, and glad to be part of the connections that help us not just not be alone, but experience the goodness and encouragement and gift of community that we need. 

Our sense as a church is that after all we’ve been through the past couple of years, a lot of us are eager for a little more connection in our lives. Maybe God is stirring that hunger for you too. If so, I hope you’ll pay attention to that, lean into the opportunities around you. 

It’s not good to be alone. You’re all worth better than that, I promise you. And if this community can be part of your circles of connection and care and practice, know we’re here for that.

Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love

Well, what a gift to welcome these children into our church, but not just into our church but into the global fellowship across time we call the Body of Christ.

To me it felt like a day to talk about the love that is at the very center of our faith. God’s lavish, extravagant love. And Jesus’ vision for us to be the Beloved Community – people who learn to love God with our whole being, and people who are formed to love one another as ourselves. 

Our scripture today is from Luke 15, the famous story Jesus tells which we call the parable of the prodigal son, because there’s a kid in the story who is kind of extra, kind of extravagant and lavish in the way he spends down his inherited wealth while his parents, or at least his dad, is still alive. 

But the main character of the story isn’t either of the grown children in it but the father, who is really the most prodigal character of the story, the most lavish, the most extravagant one. 

So today I’ll read the story of the prodigal God/parent in four parts, and our message is about the lavish love of God for us all, and the extravagant love of God, of self, of friends, lovers, children, even love of causes, love of justice to which we are all called. Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love. 

Here we go:

Luke 15: 11-12 (Common English Bible)

11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons.

12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 

Love invests.

When I was a teenager, I dated this girl for a while, and one time she went somewhere with my family – the details are pretty hazy since it was over three decades ago. But here’s the one thing I remember. My girlfriend got sick and threw up on the floor, and before I even knew what was happening, my mom sent her to the bathroom to go clean up and I think I waited for her to walk her outside afterwards, but my mom stayed behind to clean it all up. 

And I remember thinking: what is going on here? Because my mom had done this kind of thing again and again for me and both my brothers. But now here she is cleaning up my girlfriend’s puke as well, looking after this girl who isn’t even hers, just because I cared about her, and my mom was there.

I think part of me took that for granted, like most kids take their moms for granted a lot of the time. But part of me registered what was going on and thought, wow, this is what love looks like. 

Love invests.

Think about all we give our kids if we have them: for 20 years, in the prime of our lives, they become a huge part of our finances, our time, our attention, our emotional lives, our labor, our contact with other people’s bodily fluids, sometimes the center of all those things. And mostly until we die, they stay right near the center of our hearts and our longings. We invest everything we can in them, or at least we try. 

God as parent is like this too. God has invested such brilliant creativity in the creation and expansion of this universe: such a wildly complex and beautiful place. And one in which the freedoms and chaos required for all that complexity and beauty mean all kinds of things go wrong in the universe all the time. It’s such a chaotic and violent place too, our universe, certainly our earth. 

And if there’s one baseline quality the scriptures attribute to God in relation to all this is that God really cares about it all, more than you’d expect really. God takes enormous pleasure – the word is usually delight – in everything that goes well in the universe. New species evolve, new life grows, new love blossoms, new relationships bond, new justices are achieved, and God beams with pride and joy. This matters to God.

Just as when species go extinct, life dies, love is shattered, relationships severed, injustices fester and God is angry and heartbroken. 

Great investment and great risks are the hallmark of love, and God is no exception. The father in this story, who certainly could be a mother too, seems to be an image of God for Jesus and certainly makes a great investment and takes great risk. 

This parent has accrued land and wealth, saving and preserving it carefully for his children. And when the younger one asks for his share, which would have been a third of his family’s wealth, the father takes an enormous risk and says: I’ll do this. What the younger child does here, to ancient near eastern ears, is a horrifying dishonor to his family. He’s more or less saying:

Dad, you’re old. Get on with it. I wish you’d just be dead and gone, and I could get what’s coming to me.

Well, the father doesn’t die, but he takes a huge risk in trusting his kid with an early inheritance, with holding back none of his investment. 

More often than not, God is just like this with God’s creation – mostly letting us have our way, however foolish our intentions. Because God created like this – making huge investments in all life in the universe, but for the sake of beauty and freedom and abundance of dignity and life for us all, taking a huge risk as well. 

And baseline, this is what love looks like for us all as well – making investments and taking risks. And for us as with God, our investments aren’t mostly about money, but about all the resources we have, money only being only one of them. Love is about the lavish investment of our attention, our time, our wisdom, our affection, our encouragement. Love is mostly about showing up again and again with all of that for the people and communities and causes we choose to love. 

Love takes the risk to again and again say and show that what’s mine is yours. Whether I love my children or my wife or my friends or this community of Reservoir Church or even when I try to love my enemy, as Jesus commands, I’m making available the resources entrusted to me – money, time, attention, care, and more – and making them available to others, in their interest, and in the interest of our shared relationship and well-being.

Love invests. 

And love lets go. We pick up the story of the now broken family. 

Luke 15: 13-20a (Common English Bible)

13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need.

15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.

16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.

17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!

18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’

20 So he got up and went to his father.

Did the father in this story know what would happen? I mean, it’s fiction, it’s a story Jesus told, so it’s not like we can answer that question. But I’m quite sure that God is like most parents. God doesn’t control the future, so God can’t predict it entirely, but good parents know their kids pretty well, so they often have a sense of what’s going to happen next. And they let go when it’s time anyway, because love lets go.

I think knowing their kid, the parent in this story probably didn’t think that the younger son was going to make a series of wise and generous choices. This kid just doesn’t seem like that kind of person. And they aren’t. Things go really badly. Until he’s working a dead end, demeaning job, living in poverty, and wondering if he can scheme his way back into the family he so flamboyantly left not long ago. 

One of you, a psychology professor, used to tell me when my kids were all just entering the teenage years, that in modern, Western culture at least, the teenage years weren’t just about growing up but the beginnings of the dissolution of the family unit. God, I hated it every time you said that, because it’s kind of true. I mean, maybe not only dissolution, maybe more like reconstitution, but things for kids and their parents and their family change as the kids grow up. And a big part of that change is on the parents’ behalf, starting to let go. 

I was talking with an older friend of mine recently, whose kids are all older than mine too. And he was telling me about one of his grown kids, whose life is at least from the parent’s perspective, of course in a number of ways. And my friend was talking about the pains that were likely ahead of their child in the years to come – divorce, heartbreak, some other struggles – and my friend was like:

I’m making my peace with this, though, because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ll keep engaging, I’ll keep showing up for this grown child of mine, but I can’t stop any of these things.

It’s so awesome to be a parent of growing teens and young adults, but it’s so heartbreaking too. Because love lets go. Parents need to let go of control over their children, more so every year. Friends let go, when friends grow distant, or when they stick around but they just move on from us. Lovers let go, when our beloved breaks up with us or divorces us or even when we stay together, or when our beloved changes and we need to let go of old expectations we had or an older form of a relationship that has changed. 

God’s like this too. In God’s uncontrolling, vulnerable love, God doesn’t always insist on God’s way. When we reject wisdom, when we reject what’s best for us, when we reject God, God keeps caring, keeps invisibly wooing us to the best, but God lets us have our way. God lets go.

Because love lets go. 

But that doesn’t mean love gives up and packs it in. Love keeps showing up in the ways that are appropriate to do so. Like my friend with the grown kid, love keeps engaging in ways that honor the beloved. Because while love lets go, love also protects.

We pick up our story. 

Luke 15: 20b-24 (Common English Bible)

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.

21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!

23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting

24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

The other month I was talking with Vernee Wilkinson, a member at Reservoir. She and Laura Everett, a pastor who’s a friend of our church, are doing some work for local churches around practices of mending and repair, and Vernee was helping me talk through the series we just concluded on healing and mending.

And Vernee told me a story about her son, and the holes and tears in the knees of his pants, and what she’d do about that. 

See, in this work of mending, Laura and Vernee will talk about throw-away fast fashion, and the harm to our environment and our economy and our souls really that comes from throwing so much away, and mending and fixing so little. 

But Vernee said, when it comes time that the knees of my boy’s pants tear, I do not patch those up. I buy him some new pants. Because Vernee’s son is Black, and as a Black woman in America, Vernee is painfully aware of the ways people and whole communities judge Black children, and her mother’s heart is fiercely and appropriately protective of her son, still young and under her care. And so like her parents did for her, she is going to make sure that her son goes out into the world with clothes that aren’t torn and that aren’t patched up in ways that judging, discriminating eyes could view as signs of poverty or neglect.

Because let’s face it, for all our talk of progress, we still live in a world that is too often fiercely anti-Black in our hearts and our judgements and our violence, and Vernee is going to do what is in her power to protect her son from the worst of that world for as long as she can. 

Much honor to Vernee and to every parent who’s protected their children as best as they could. And much honor to parents of children of color, who are doing double and triple and quadruple work on this front in a racist, dangerous world, fully knowing that their protection is limited. 

Our world is unsafe, and given our sin and injustice, it’s less safe for girls than boys, less safe for queer than straight, less safe for BIPOC than for white people, less safe in neighborhoods and countries with more poverty. And none of us can fully protect our beloved. 

But in the ways that we can and are appropriate to our beloved’s age and agency, we’re dang sure going to try. 

In this sense, we’re less different from God than we tend to think. God also can’t fully protect God’s kids from harm. Chaos and violence are part of our world of freedom, and awful things happen. God can’t micro-intervene with every danger, just like a good parent isn’t a helicopter parent, trying to shield kids from every possible harm, trying to have them avoid suffering entirely. So it is with God.

But God has limited chaos and disorder in the universe. If nothing else, no violent creature, no matter how evil or powerful, can escape their own death as well. God has also commanded and inspires the protection of the dignity of all creatures. God has in most religious traditions and abundantly so in the teaching and person of Jesus Christ, put out a teaching grace into the world too, always waiting and always welcoming our return.

Look at the father in this passage, not moving on from his wayward kid in anger or disappointment, but out on the porch night after night, scanning the horizon, checking his texts, just waiting for his son’s return, and running down the street to embrace him and welcome him home when he comes back. This kid who has squandered a third of the family’s wealth is so welcomed home, so loved upon his return, that a feast is thrown in his honor.

It’s like the wedding day his son never had, all at the father’s expense, but part of how we protect our beloveds in a vulnerable world is we never stop loving them, we provide a kind of relational, emotional, spiritual canopy of safety through this willingness to say: as long as I live, I’m still here for you and what’s mine is shared with you. 

There’s a lot of tension in this dimension of prodigal love, how love protects even when we can’t fully protect, how love protects while love also lets go. So these dimensions of letting go and protection take prayer, and growing wisdom and discernment. 

But sometimes at least, it’s not complicated. 

We protect our kids when they’re young by not neglecting them, and looking out for their wellbeing.

And we protect the kids of our communities by doing the same. Or we ought to. Our country is shamefully neglectful and wicked in this regard, in open rebellion against the ways of love. A couple years back, death by firearm passed death by traffic accident as the leading cause of death for children in America. 

We’ve worked hard on the traffic accident stuff, lots of laws, billions of dollars in safety engineering so that fewer of our kids will die on the roads. But at the same time, we’ve been loosening our gun laws more and more, guaranteeing another Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and Uvalde, Texas will happen again and again. I am so angry. 

Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr’s last sermon he was working on was titled, “Why America May Go to Hell,” and times like this, I am sure he was right then. And there are quite a few reasons that’s so but failing to protect our children and failing to do the collective work so that we don’t have to protect our children so much, so that we don’t have to worry if their school will be next, or we don’t have to worry if our beautiful Black child will be judged by the patches on his knees, is a big part of this. 

Love protects. Y’all, parents or not, please keep an eye out for the welfare of all our children. There isn’t much more sacred we can do in following Jesus than this. 

And love pursues. For the sake of time, I’ll be ever so brief on this point, just reading the end of the story mostly, but it’s the climax Jesus is driving at. 

Luke 15:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.

26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.

27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’

28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.

29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.

30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’

31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

Love pursues.

The father looks at his entitled, bitter, judgy oldest child and says:

son, I love you too. This kid is furious at this dad, and the dad says: everything I have is yours as well. Everything I have is yours.

Love might let go, and love might need to change and adapt, but love doesn’t stop loving. God hasn’t given up on our violent nation or any of God’s troubled kids, you and me included. And as people of the beloved community, that call is ours as well. 

Love keeps engaging, keeps protecting the dignity even of exes and enemies. Love dreams of reconciliation, and when that’s impossible in this life, releases the beloved with blessing. Love puts up with things, loves trusts in all things, love hopes for all things, endures all things. Which is why, the scriptures dare us to believe, love doesn’t fail. 

Love works. Love wins.

Not always how we think it will, not always today or even tomorrow, but eventually, we hope. Love has its way.

Jesus hopes that the judgy elder children of his time will lay down their judgements and join God in welcoming the love of all God’s children.

God hopes that Americans will stop letting people shoot our kids and trash our earth but find our way towards Jesus’ beloved community together. God hopes we’ll love better, love more because love heals, love doesn’t disappoint, love never fails.

Small Steps Toward Big Salvation

One of my favorite stories this month is playing out at my local CVS pharmacy. Here’s how it started.

One day, one of my kids got a new medication called in by their doctor. And it had been my job to go pick it up. Now there’s this thing with the pharmacy in a CVS that it usually closes before the actual store does. And this is always true, but I never remember it. I keep thinking-  Oh, that CVS is really close and it’s open pretty late, so I can always go get what I need there whenever. 

So I roll into the CVS at like 7:55 and go to pick up the meds. 

And an assistant tells me that they’re not ready yet. And a couple of things happen instantly in my brain. One, I think, this was called in five or six hours ago, how can it not be ready yet? And so I ask the assistant: Are you sure? This was called in much earlier today, and she looks at me kind of peeved that I said that and just answers me by saying: We’ve been busy. So I ask: Is there any way this can be filled now? And she says: No, we’re closing, and starts to turn away from me to get her things and go home. 

And I sort of sigh because the other thing that’s happening is I’m thinking: I need this medication. 

See, the past couple of years have been really hard for a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings. I don’t fully understand it, but it has to do with losses and social isolation and coming of age amidst times of enormous fear and instability, and widespread rates of anxiety, and all kinds of other stuff. It’s a lot.

I just know that as a parent of three and as a pastor, I’m seeing this in a big way. And that day I was really feeling it, feeling like life has been too hard already for my kids and I really don’t want my showing up late to the pharmacy to set back their health by even one more day because that night, that felt like a straw that would just break this camel’s back or maybe break my kid’s back.

So I just said, please: Are there any CVS’s open later? Is there any way this can be transferred to another pharmacy? And the assistant says: I don’t know, she’s going to have to help you with that. And she looks behind her at the pharmacist on duty, the one in white coat, and she leaves the register and goes to clock out.

And at this point, I notice that the pharmacist has been busy wrapping up other prescriptions but has been looking our way and listening in on our little conversation. So I quickly turn to her and say: Ma’am, I really need this medication. Is there anything you can do? 

And she pauses for a moment, and she must have seen something of the weariness or desperation in my eyes, but she took a breath and said: I can fill it for you. Just hold on a minute.

So I thank her and I sit down in the waiting chair behind me. And one, maybe two minutes later, the pharmacist comes forward with a little package in her hand, as the closing gate automatically closes, as it does every evening at 8:00. And she kind of ducks under that gate to the register and starts checking me out. And after I put my credit card into the machine, I’m welling up with relief or gratitude, I can’t tell which. But I’m feeling like maybe things are all going to be alright, so I pause and look this pharmacist in the eye and I say to her:

You’ve never met my child, but you really helped them just now, and I want you to know that means the world to me. Thank you so very much. 

And she looked back at me, I think kind of disarmed by vulnerability, and I don’t even remember what she said. Something like: No problem, or don’t worry about it. I’m not sure. But I remember we looked into one another’s eyes for a moment, and there was a kind of authentic, human connection. A needy father and a helping healer, seeing one another, appreciating one another. 

And then I went home, feeling more hopeful, feeling more connected, I guess a little more whole. And I had a sense that in her own way, after a crazy busy, thankless day, maybe the pharmacist felt some of the same. 

The next few weeks, we’ve got a few sermons on the topic of “How to Heal the World.” It’s kind of a cheeky, overstated title, but it came out of a series of conversations and reflections I had this winter about how sick and tattered our world is, how that’s impacting us, and the opportunity for something redemptive in that for followers of Jesus.

Our world has become sick with so many things – sick with violence, sick with racism, sick with sickness, and fear, and mistrust, and division and more. And all that’s not just far off, it’s not just abstraction. It touches our lives and relationships as well. And I’ve been wondering:

What does it mean to worship and follow a loving, hopeful God who is always seeking to mend, to repair, to make things whole?

And how can we find our own good, our own healing, our own salvation through participating in the healing work of God in our times? 

That’s what we think about, what we pray about, and I hope what we live into some in the weeks to come this spring.

Let me read you of the pivotal scriptures that inspires me in this.

It’s from the prophet Jeremiah, a public figure in ancient Israel in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Jeremiah is sometimes nicknamed the weeping prophet, because he lived and spoke and wrote during times of devastating pain and division in his culture. But Jeremiah was also a healer, a person who shared God’s best wisdom as he understood it for surviving and thriving through hard times. 

Here’s one little excerpt. 

Jeremiah 29:4-7 (Common English Bible)

4 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon:

5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.

6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away.

7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

So this is an excerpt from a letter Jeremiah sent to a group of exiles. Jeremiah himself was still in the ancient Hebrew capital of Jerusalem, but he was writing to a group of people who had been carted off into exile in Babylon, the colonial superpower to the East. 

This would be something like a pastor in Kiev, writing to Ukranians who had been kidnapped during war and taken north to Russia. Or a 19th century Native American writing to friends and relatives who’ve been driven West onto a reservation. 

And Jeremiah’s word in this letter is: Don’t take the suffering of your times as a sign that God has forgotten or abandoned you. God still sees, God still cares, and God still has hopes for you and your descendants. But, it’s going to be a while. Don’t pray for some big, magical miracle to happen tomorrow or the next day. You’re going to have to adjust your expectations and make life work in these new circumstances you didn’t choose. 

And here’s how to do that:

Settle down. Make a home for yourself where you are. Raise children. Plant a garden. Get to your neighbors. And love them. 

Here’s why. Your welfare is connected to their welfare. You may see them as other, as below you, as above you, as enemies, as threats, as disgusting. But you’re neighbors now. You’re in this together. This is now your land, these are your people, do some good. Make it work for you. 

I don’t know if you caught the line of Jeremiah saying:

God sent you here.

But that’s bracing. After all, they’d been resettled here against their will. God didn’t send them here, enemies did this. Bad circumstances, bad luck did this. 

But Jeremiah says:

Promote the welfare of this city where I have sent you.

I do not think he means this philosophically, like literally: God caused all this war and suffering and exile. That view is not worthy of a good and loving God.

No, I think he means it practically, as a mindset, like

How would I live if I could see God at work in these circumstances?

How would I live if I could hope that a creative, loving God can improvise a good plan with me here? 

So he says promote the welfare of this city and pray for its blessing. For your future depends on its welfare.

This passage helps me understand some of what was going on with me at the CVS pharmacy that day and also why I didn’t want to let it go.

See, our culture tells me that me and that pharmacist are anonymous commodities in a giant marketplace. I am a consumer, and she is a provider.

My kids and me and our doctors and health insurance all produce these computerized messages in CVS’s giant system about these various chemical compounds they should mix up into pills and capsules and creams and about how much my insurance company will pay and how much I will pay and when. And the provider has this endless list of these things that come her way every day, and her job is to rush and hustle through all these orders as fast as possible while making zero mistakes and get these consumers on their way and collect her paycheck.

But in this moment, we weren’t commodities to each other any more. We weren’t just categories or cogs in a system, whether those categories be ancient ones from Jeremiah, like exile and enemy, colonized or conqueror, or modern ones like customer and provider. Instead we were two humans – a distressed father and a harried healer. And we could see that our welfare is connected to one another. 

I do better in a world where instead of arguing with the pharmacist or giving up and getting pissed off and resentful, I can be my authentic, vulnerable self for a moment, and share my need and my gratitude. And that pharmacist does better in a world where customers aren’t just numbers but names and needs, people trying their best to get healthy and appreciating her part in making that happen. 

I found this experience really compelling, so much so that I told Grace and the kids whose meds I brought home all about it, and I found myself wondering how I could live in this relationally connected, healing way more and more often. 

Because in a small way, we each left that store more connected in a lonely world. In a world of commodities, we experienced being human together. And there was some repair in that. We made our lives a little more whole. And maybe, we made our anonymous, capitalist, consumer society a little more whole too. 

I like to think of this small story on these grand terms because of a Jewish concept I’ve learned about called tikkun olam (tee-KOON, o-LAM), which is Hebrew for repair of the world

This concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, dates back to really early Judaism, about the time of Christ. The idea is that our beautiful world is also broken and disordered, but that each time we follow God’s law, we say yes to God’s ways in the world, we participate in the world’s repair. 

Over the centuries, this phrase has been embraced more and more alongside scriptures like Micah 6:8 that say:

Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

The thinking being when we strive for social justice, for the creation of a more just, verdant, and peaceful world as the saying goes, that we participate with God in the repair of a broken world.

Just before this pandemic hit, back in 2019, we had our last churchwide retreat. Side note here: we’re early in conversations with our staff about what to make of that. For a few years, we had these 150-200 person day and a half retreats each fall, almost always on a seaside location. And we’re trying to figure out if this is the fall we return to that or not. So if you have hopes or passions on that, you can always let one of us pastors know what you think and if you’d be up for helping us make this happen again.

Anyway, at the last retreat, our guest speaker was Laura Everett, the head of the Mass Council of Churches. She’s like a pastor to pastors, someone that helps churches connect and support one another across the various traditions and divisions within the body of Christ. And I’m grateful to count her as a friend.

And Laura likes to knit and sew, but not just casually. She’s studied the craft and culture of people who use their hands to repair old clothing and quilts, to take things that are old and worn and instead of throwing them out, to mend them and make them new. And Laura seeings in mending the deep but neglected wisdom of working class women, often women of color. And Laura sees in their work practices and metaphors of what the Chrisitan faith calls salvation. 

Because salvation after all is not fundamentally about throwing something away and getting something new. God always works good from what is here, what God has made. God doesn’t throw away and start from scratch. And salvation is also not trying to rescue a couple of treasured possessions out of a burning building, while watching the rest go up in smoke.

Some Chrisitans have thought of salvation that way, like much of this world is on its way to hell, and what it means to be saved is to be snatched by God out of the flames and prepared for heaven.

But that’s a distortion of the Christian idea of salvation. Salvation has to do with taking something that is in disrepair and mending it. It has to do with a person who is not well healing and becoming whole and well again. 

So menders save scraps of discarded fabric by knitting them into quilts. And they save holey sweaters and pants by knitting patches for them. And menders engage institutions that are out of date or dysfunctional and help them renew and work again. 

People who mend and heal usually start small, and often end small too. When you mend a blanket, you don’t overhaul consumer capitalism’s obsession with cheap, throw away fabrics, and all the ways that are dehumanizing workers and polluting our world and harming our climate. Nope, you make a tiny difference in all that, and you get to keep your blanket.

And when you and your pharmacist change the nature of your interaction, you don’t end teenage suffering or all the dysfunction you both experience in America’s wasteful, impersonal medical system. Nope, you make that system better for you that day, and you walk away feeling more grateful and more alive. 

So it’s small. 

But what if small is mostly what we’ve got. And what if small, in the hands of an everlasting God, is the holy stuff of which big is made of. 

When I talk about my heart and my troubles and my relationships with my therapist, she likes to encourage me with how much this work matters. Like when I get more curious or compassionate, or when I show up more courageous for a hard conversation, or more loving in a strained relationship, she’ll encourage me that this is how we save the world.

This is how things are made whole.

And when she does this, whether she realized this or not, she’s referencing some ancient wisdom in this tikkun olam tradition. There’s a line in the Mishnah, this collection of ancient rabbinic teachings in the Bible, that goes something like this. It says:

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”

And this line is repeated in the Quran, as the prophet Muhammad gives credit to Jews for the wisdom of their faith and cutlure. 

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”

I love this. It goes beyond logic, to be sure, the idea that person-sized acts of gratitude and compassion and mending and repair really make a difference. Partly, I think, it’s daring to take a God-sized perspective on ourselves for a moment, a perspective of faith. 

That from God’s vantage point, we are so beautiful and beloved, but also so small, so transitory. Our lives are really little and really short on the scope of things. And on this one tiny planet, there are billions of us, sharing space with all the other plants and animals, and matter.

So who are we to save the world? We can’t.

But who are we to not heal and mend either? Who are we not to do our part to increase our welfare by improving the welfare of the people and place we call home? 

We’re fools if we don’t. Because one, it makes a difference. And two, it’s all we’ve got.

Small things matter. Jesus after all said to his students once:

Mark 9:40-41(Common English Bible)

40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us.

41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

He’s like:

Don’t think of people as your allies or enemies.

I mean maybe sometimes, for protection, for tactical reasons, sure. But in general, people are not first a label, for you or against you. People are people. And people that give you a cup of water are doing something good, something God loves and is proud of, something God rewards, something that matters.

Everytime we heal and mend and repair, every time we take a relationship with land or place or people and make it more humane, more flourishing, more good, we do something that matters, we do something that makes God proud. We do something that increases our welfare. We participate in the saving of the world.

I’m finding this so compelling now, I can’t let it go. 

With that pharmacist, for instance, I wrote her a letter, and I went back to CVS looking for her to give the letter to her, and hopefully to read it aloud to her. I learned this practice from my friends in Asha, the urban public health initiative in New Delhi, India, that our church supports.

My friend Kiran, the founder and leader, likes to promote contagious gratitude initiatives that send thanks and wellness out into communities. One of the ways she does this is by asking people to write a thank you letter to someone and then read it out loud to the recipient. 

So this is what I did for that pharmacist. I don’t have time to tell you the whole story today. But I’ll just say that it didn’t go down according to script. I wasn’t able to read the letter out loud to her, for instance. It was way too busy there the next time I saw her. But I did get her the letter, and I did learn her name.

And I did have the chance later to hear her thank me for that letter, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on the face of someone working at CVS, and we did learn each other’s names. And now, I look forward to going to CVS, because I know she’ll treat me great, and I know I’ll be happy to see her and to thank her for her part in my family’s welfare, and I’m enjoying praying for this person by name now, praying for God’s blessing in her life, and that feels good to me too.

Something is happening there that is saving us, that is making us more whole. 

Friends, we’re going to continue with this theme of How to Heal the World the next few weeks, from some different angles. 

But let me close with two quick invitations.

I encourage you to try to treat particular people and parcels of land like they are the whole world, like they matter that much, because to God, I believe they do. Whoever saves one person saves the world entirely. 

One way you can do this is through this practice of gratitude letters. Write a letter this week to someone you’re grateful for and send it to them. Or even better, if you are able, find a way to see that person and read them the letter, then give it to them. 

And secondly, take up a practice that we haven’t talked about for a while at Reservoir, but has been important to the church over the years, ever since our founding 25 years ago. It’s called praying for your 6, and it refers to have six people who are local and whose names you know but who don’t share your church or your faith in God, and praying regularly for their blessings. It’s a way of spiritual generosity, of living out this Jeremiah passage of seeking the welfare of those around us, since we’re connected. 

For now at least, this pharmacist is one of the people whose blessing I’m praying for, and I think God loves that and I think that makes a difference in making whole our broken world as well. 

But the invitation here is to make this a delight more than a duty. See what kind of adventure we can find in seeing our welfare by being people of blessing and repair and kindness in the communities where we work and live, and see just what God does in that.

The Waters of Baptism

On Wednesday, I spent a few hours dipping my thumb into a jar of oily palm ash, smearing it onto people’s foreheads in the shape of a cross, and telling them to remember they come from dust and to dust they will return. It’s a weird day, that Ash Wednesday.

A teenager I was explaining to told me: A teenager I was explaining to told me: This sounds depressing and pointless. Who needs another reminder that they’re going to die? And I thought: Those are some good points, young man. It’s a weird day, weird but sometimes moving too.

Along with the ashes and a prayer, I asked people

“What are you seeking in this season?”

And I prayed that God would meet them in that. I heard a lot of interesting answers, people seeking physical health, mental health, peace in their marriage, peace in their household. There were people seeking personal growth, rest, help in school, help in business, peace and justice in Ukraine. Lots for God to meet us in these days.

I spent some time that day asking myself that question.

What am I looking for? What am I seeking these days?

There was a lot.

I wrote them down and went back and counted. There were 14 things on my list. And I was just getting started.

There were little things, like chilling out on my sugar addiction. But there were some big things too, a few big things I’m seeking for important people in my life. And some big things for me. I’m working on a big writing project, but after these past two years, it’s gotten harder for me to focus on writing. I’m trying to find a way forward there. There’s some inner work on my list too, and I summed that stuff up this way:

I need my heart to be more open. I need to be less afraid and more alive. 

I need deeper faith, surer hope, bigger love.

When Jesus looked for words to speak about the kind of things I’m looking for – when he spoke about the hope, vitality, love, and power God can bring to people’s lives, Jesus sometimes spoke of living water. 

Maybe it’s because we’re mostly made of it. Maybe because one of the only things we need to do to stay alive for a week is drink water. But water is life. And Jesus used the image of water to talk about the ways that God can deepen and restore and reinvigorate our lives. 

After nearly two years of constant interruptions, loss, and change, many of us are weary and dry. We could use anything like living water that restores and refreshes. 

Many in our community are also searching for deeper faith or are looking for forms and lives of faith that are different from things we’ve been taught or have experienced in the past. It’s as if an old spring we used to drink from has run dry or has proven less safe and refreshing than we thought it was. We are in search of new sources of clean, running water for our souls. 

Over the next six weeks from now until Easter, I invite you into a journey together to seek Jesus’ water of life. It’s my prayer that in participating in this Lenten season, you’ll find yourself refreshed, restored, and renewed. 

You heard we have a daily guide you can use. I think it’s deep and beautiful. I highly recommend you look over it a bit today. There’s a different theme for each of the six weeks, and each week a very short daily reading and prayer, along with other poetry and artwork you can take in as you like.

Each Sunday, we’ll introduce the theme in our sermon here, and we’ll end the sermon with a very short experience of the week’s prayer. 

Our very first week’s theme is the waters of baptism.  

Let’s read today’s passage on that. 

Mark 1:4-11 (Common English Bible)

4 John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.

5 Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins.

6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.

8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9 About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River.

10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him.

11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Baptism is a very religious and maybe kind of obscure place for us to start. But it’s where the stories of Jesus mostly begin, and for some of us, it’s a moment that happens when we’re a baby or in our early years of faith that we mostly forget about. But it can be an experience and then a memory and an image that helps us receive Jesus’ water of life again and again.

So I’m going to say some words about where baptism is – where it comes from and what it represents, including a good way and a bad way to think about your own or anyone else’s baptism. And if that topic interests you for yourself, maybe for your kids, I’ll tell you what you can do about that. 

And then we’ll return to baptism as an image for things God might want to do in us during this season before we end with a little taste of this week’s prayer practice.

Alright? 

Baptism. Baptism is old. 

There’s something in us that loves to be covered in water. We spend 40 weeks in a watery womb before we are born, and then we return again and again to be covered in water. For those of us who can swim, there’s nothing like a year’s first plunge into the cool waters of a pond. 

Sometimes, I’ve not been able to resist that feeling even in the wintertime. My favorite New Year’s Days have been when I’ve run a 5k or 10k along the coast up near the New Hampshire border, and taken a plunge into the Atlantic right after finishing. It makes me feel so alive.

Even if we can’t swim, though, we crave water. We love our showers or our baths for far more than the cleansing they give us. 

Hikes to waterfalls are among the most popular hikes in New England – they’re a kind of pilgrimage to the beauty and power of water. 

When living with Uyghur Muslim friends in China, we’d wash our hands and face from a common bowl of water – not really for its sanitary value, that was questionable – but more for the symbol, I think: cleaning hands, cleaning hearts, clearing minds before table fellowship.

For millennia, Hindus have bathed in the Ganges River for its cleansing, purifying powers that tradition believes that it has. 

And Jews and Christians, in different ways, have had cleansing with water as part of practices of faith. 

The origins of Christan baptism with water are a little mysterious. Best as we can tell, though, being submerged in water was part of a ritual cleansing practice for the Hebrew ancestors of today’s Jews.

After contact with death or activities that were thought to dirty you, people would ritually, ceremonially cleanse with water. Still today, some branches of Judaism maintain versions of this practice – going to a mikvah, a special indoor bathtub, like the little baptismal pool Reservoir has on the side of our sanctuary. You go there for cleansing and renewing the mind, body, and spirit, either during conversion to Judaism or after certain life experiences.

The man in today’s passage named John, who was nicknamed John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, took this practice and popularized it as part of a first century renewal movement in Judea. For him, being submerged in the waters of the Jordan River, was an expression of openness to God changing your life, as part of God’s renewing breakthrough work in the world. 

By being baptized in the Jordan River, you were dramatizing your participation in God’s new work in your life and in the world. Going into the water was a way of saying that if there were parts of your way in the world that weren’t bringing life to you or others, you were going to walk away from those. Cleanse those off. And it was a way of saying that you were open to being submerged in God, so to speak, your whole self given kind of a new life, part of a new movement of God for peace, goodness, and justice in the world. 

Jesus took part in this. His baptism launched his public teaching and work we read about still in the gospels. For Jesus, getting baptized by John in the Jordan River was about his own openness to participating in God’s renewing work in the world. 

And for Jesus, something special happened at his baptism. As he stood up and walked out of the water, a dove landed on his shoulder – a common bird much like today’s pigeon. And as that dove sat on his shoulder for a few seconds, to Jesus and to others watching, the dove seemed to be the Spirit of God, the special presence of God with Jesus in that moment. And however they felt it, what Jesus and others felt like God was doing and saying as that bird landed was saying to Jesus: 

You’re my kid, my favorite. I love you and I’m proud of you. You make me happy just by being you.

It’s what every good parent says to their kid, or needs to say to their kid, again and again. And it happened in a very particular, powerful way for Jesus that day. An experience for Jesus, but like all of Jesus’ experiences, really, an experience he wants for us as well: to know deep in our beings that we are God’s kids, that God loves us and is proud of us, that our very existence makes God happy. 

Now followers of Jesus took up versions of this experience and have passed it on, generation after generation after generation. It’s been 2,000 years, so people do this differently. Some people and traditions baptize infants and young children, as an expression of their community’s faith and of God’s love and promise over the child’s life. Some people and traditions baptize older children, youth, and adults after they have made their own personal profession of faith, as an expression of the relationship with God in Christ that they have welcomed for themselves. Many traditions offer both of these kinds of baptism.

Reservoir in the past offered the second kind of baptism, for youth and adults who express personal faith in God, through Jesus. But going forward (as we were talking about just before the pandemic hit) we’re very much open to practicing both kinds of baptism – for youth and adults with their own belief, but also for very young kids as an expression of their community’s faith and God’s love and promise for them.

Baptism always involves water – either a little bit of water sprinkled or poured over the forehead, or someone is immersed into water out in the natural water of the world or in an indoor hottub/mikvah like thing called a baptismal. Regardless of how it’s done, the waters of baptism still represent what they did to Jesus – the presence of God by the Holy Spirit, that God is always with you and in you.

The assurance that God is with you as one that utterly loves you, that brings new life to you, and that gives you belonging in a bigger and wider community of those that love and seek God. 

But where this water imagery meets faith meets religion, things get complicated. I mean, let’s go back to the Ganges. Traditional Hindus will bathe there as a mark of cleansing and purity, but it’s also now one of the most polluted, dirtiest rivers in the world. So what’s going on there? It’s complicated.

So is water itself. When I’ve talked about this Water of Life with some of you, I’ve heard all these positive associations about refreshment and all, but also people who associate water with overwhelming terror. That time you almost drowned, that storm that wrecked your house – more on those kinds of experiences next week. 

Baptism is complicated too. 

In fact, I think there are two ways of making meaning out of baptism, one I think is pretty awful and one that is beautiful and powerful.

The awful way of thinking about baptism is like the gate to a big fence. The fence divides people in two categories. 

On the inside of the fence are the Christians, on the outside are the non-Christians. (Our ancestors had more colorful words for the people on the outside, like heathens, infidels, that kind of thing. But we’ll just go with the whole Chrisitan/non-Christian bit). And baptism is the gate you go through to be Christian.

Or maybe you worry about what will happen to you after you die, and you believe in a somewhat more angry or punitive God. Then on the inside of the fence, you have the people going to heaven. And outside the fence, you have the people going to hell. And again, baptism is the gate you go through to be on Team I’m Going to Heaven!

Now, it’s Christians’ fault that these categories exist. In the first few centuries after Jesus’ life, there was increasing standardization of the Christian faith and increasing anxiety about this fear of hell Chrisitans were getting worried about. At some point, people started anxiously baptizing babies, all the babies, not as a sign of God’s promise and love over their lives but out of fear they’d die young and go to hell. 

Later, when Christians started terrorizing Jews and Muslims and indigenous peoples, baptism was the gateway toward their conversion into the empire and their freedom from terror, while a lack of baptism could justify their subjugation and threats of hell.

Can I keep it simple today and just say all of this is really bad? It’s the most toxic way of doing religion, as if God really wants insider and outsider clubs, and gives us magic ceremonies to move people in and out of them. That is not healthy. 

But there is a healthy, beautiful way to practice baptism and think about baptism. 

The healthy way of thinking about baptism isn’t about fences and gates, it’s about wells. Baptism – a rite, a symbol of water after all – is like an old and deep well where God gives us water. Water to drink, water for washing, water to cook with. 

Baptism isn’t keeping anyone in or out of God’s love or kindness or forgiveness or anything else. And baptism isn’t a magical thing we do to access God’s presence or rewards for us. Baptism really isn’t about what we do at all. It’s about participating in what God is and does for us.

Like a well, we go there because the water is deep and clean and good. It’s about the water, not the bucket.

Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s about participating in what God is and does for us. It’s about welcoming Jesus’s water of life. 

Baptism is an opportunity to represent the Spirit of God with us. It’s an opportunity to know that God is with you as one that utterly loves you, that brings new life to you, and that gives you belonging in a bigger and wider community of those that love and seek God. 

So wrapping up the baptism bit – if you have never been baptized, but you’d like to explore that during this spring, send me a note please – steve@reservoirchurch.org – and we’ll set up space for you to ask your questions and decide if this is something you want to do or not. I’ll follow up with the details after I hear about interest.

And if you have kids – babies, tiny kids or maybe older kids like preteens and teens, and you’re interested in what’s the difference between child dedication and baptism and what’s right for your kids when, our kids and youth team will be following up with an information session and more in the weeks to come. 

But let’s close now with baptism as an image, a metaphor for starting to participate in this lent, and receive Jesus’ renewing, revitalizing, restorative waters of life. 

This week, in our guide, each day, we’ll read a short bit of the Bible and a few reflections on different aspects of Jesus’ water of life for us that are associated with baptism imagery. All while viewing watercolor and art and poetry associated with the theme of water of life. Matt’s even composing ambient music for us inspired by water. We’ll hear part of one of these pieces in the background during our closing prayer in a minute. You can use these yourself while you pray if you want – they’re showing up on our YouTube channel.

And each day, we crystallize the content down to a single word or phrase we invite you to sit with in silence for a few minutes. This practice is called centering prayer. You can read more about it in the guide, but it’s a way to center our mind, our spirit on a bit of good news truth from God.  

The words and phrases are:

-Spirit with me

-Beloved

-Born again

-Alive with Jesus

and

-I belong in the Body of Christ

I told you that I enter this year’s Lent needing a lot from God – needing some things in my life to be made new. That’s what that tired phrase “born again” means to me – another chance at new life. And I need to know I’m not alone, that God travels with me and in me in all my life. And like many of you, I want a fuller life back. I want to feel and be fully alive again. 

Iranaeus, one of the earliest Jesus-following writers, once wrote The glory of God is a human fully alive. 

God shines and lights up in the world when God makes us fully alive.

Baptism tells me God doesn’t want to just add a little bit of this good stuff onto our tired, tattered lives.

No, God wants to submerge us in waters of life. To have this revitalizing good news surround us and fill us and reanimate us. 

God wants to pour all this over us.

Jesus says to us today, come back to the well. I have living water for you here.

Love is Knowing and Being Known

For this week’s Scripture, click “Download PDF.”

Well, happy new year again, my friends. I hope you had a safe and happy and healthy first week of the new year. If so, you are doing pretty great. Give yourself a little pat on the back. And if not, we’re here for you in that too.

Somewhere around New Year’s Day, one of my kids saw me playing a word game on my phone. I’m usually not a games on the phone person. I had downloaded this one sometime around Christmas Day. And my kid was like: hey, Dad, you’ve been playing that game a lot. And I thought: maybe that’s so.

So I checked the game stats they showed, and I had played that game of scrabble like 119 times. I had mostly won it, so… but I thought that’s a lot of hours in one week. Think about all the accumulated stress that’s driving me to that much distraction, that much distraction that isn’t life-giving or restorative for me at least at all. So I deleted the app and figured I’d look for some other ways to find peace, life, and purpose in the new year. 

We’re still in a vortex of unknowns, facing many of our personal and collective limits, living with all kinds of tensions we’d rather not have. New year, old fear. So I find myself asking

How can I live? What is my way forward?

And as a pastor in this community, I find myself asking that question for us as a community.

What’s our way forward? 

In those questions and prayers, a few things keep coming back to me. They’re all versions of something I saw a fellow pastor post on Twitter the other day. They wrote: If we want a good year we probably can’t count on 2022 being good. But we can create goodness in our immediate proximity through prayer, kindness, generosity, and friendship.

If we want a good year, we probably can’t count on this year being good. That’s true every year, really. But we can welcome goodness, pay attention to goodness, create goodness. This pastor listed a lot of ways toward that goodness: prayer, kindness, generosity, friendship. All of which are great. 

I’m drawn to a slightly different list, when in the New Testament, we read that in a world where everything falls apart, faith, hope, and love remain – these three things – and the greatest of these is love. Love never fails.

We have been unabashed here at Reservoir about the centrality of love in the way of Jesus and of the power of love to uplift and transform every area of our lives and every corner of this world. Three years ago, our new year series was called Training in the Studio of Love. It was a good one, I think. 

This year, we begin the year with a series we’re simply calling “Love is…” And today, we’ll think about how love is knowing and being known. Love is about relational knowledge, the process of knowing another and of becoming known by another, to another as well. 

Let’s read the two scriptures that will anchor this teaching. First, from the gospel of John – the Bible’s fourth and latest set of stories about the life and teaching of Jesus. 

John 1:9-14 (Common English Bible)

9 The true light that shines on all people

    was coming into the world.

10 The light was in the world,

    and the world came into being through the light,

        but the world didn’t recognize the light.

11 The light came to his own people,

    and his own people didn’t welcome him.

12 But those who did welcome him,

        those who believed in his name,

    he authorized to become God’s children,

13   born not from blood

        nor from human desire or passion,

        but born from God.

14 The Word became flesh

    and made his home among us.

We have seen his glory,

    glory like that of a father’s only son,

        full of grace and truth.

This poem calls Jesus three things – Word and light and flesh. It’s a refashioning of the Bible’s very first poem, the story of God, where we hear God spoke, Let there be light, and there was light. And God speaks into being life after life. Some have read this on the surface – as an account of creation out of nothing that climaxes in this earth and our species. Others now read it as living, loving energy which encouraged that ball of dense matter some 14 billion years ago to explode into ever expanding, ever more beautiful and complex life, you and me included. Word, light, flesh – all a miracle.

John is so taken by how Jesus speaks and what Jesus reveals that he reframes the story of God to center Jesus. Jesus the word – the embodiment of God’s communicating presence – speaking love and possibility and guidance and truth to all creation. Jesus the light – a life-force, a truth teller, someone who helps us see better. 

And then this third word, not just the creator but the created, that word flesh – human, muscle, blood, brain, heart, sinew, one of us, living among us. Word and light with a heartbeat. 

The climax of this poem is that moment – the Word became flesh and made his home among us. As the late Eugene Peterson wrote – moved into the neighborhood. The story of God – word and light of God become flesh. Love of God saying to us all:

Let’s be neighbors. 

We’ll come back to this.

Our second scripture is more mundane, just a little bit at the end of the longest letter of the New Testament, the one called Romans. It goes like this:

Romans 16:21-23 (Common English Bible)

21 Timothy my coworker says hello to you, and Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my relatives.

22 I’m Tertius, and I’m writing this letter to you in the Lord—hello!

23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, says hello to you. Erastus the city treasurer says hello to you, along with our brother Quartus.

I got this from a talk on loneliness that Andy Crouch gave a few years ago. That this little list of names, what seems like a footnote, is one of the most stunning passages on love and justice and community in the whole Bible. 

Paul, the writer, sends greetings, as does his partner Timothy and then some of his relatives. And then there are two really prominent Roman citizens living abroad with Paul. There is Gaius, this Roman-named person wealthy enough to host a good sized meeting in his home. On my kids high school sports teams, back when we had parent gatherings and potlucks and all, the same wealthy parents tended to host them all – because they were the people who could fit 50 or more people in their home and hire cleaners to spiff the place up and pay for all the wine 50 parents can drink.

That’s Gaius, and Erastus is just like him – another professionally successful, prominent Roman. They send their greetings to the friends in Rome. But so do Tertius and Quartus, whose names literally mean third and fourth. Kids born to families so poor, of such low status, that their kids are merely named for their birth order. Number two, number three, number four. Kids destined to be slaves like their parents were, people of no account in the world. 

But here they are in the scriptures – brother Quartus, and writer Tertius – getting to pen for the apostle Paul some of the most famous words ever written in any language ever, the book of Romans. Where brother Tertius gets to say hello, mattering, belonging as much as Paul or the city treasurer or that family with the huge living room or anyone else. It’s beautiful. 

There are two things I want to draw out of all this for us in this new year.

I want us to notice what the love of God is like, and I want to invite us into a very particular way to express beloved community in our church over the next two winter months.

What is love?

Along with many Christians of my generation, I was taught the love of God has a word, a Greek word, agape. This comes from a long line of Christian teaching that says there are many types of love. There is stroge love, which is familial affection. There is philia love, brotherly and sisterly love between friends. There is eros, erotic love, the sensual, romantic love of lovers.

And then there is God’s love, agape love – the self-giving, self-sacrificial love that seeks the good of the beloved regardless of feeling or circumstance. That is God’s love, we were taught, and that is the model for our love as well. There were related slogans. Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a fact. Or love is a decision. 

Well, there’s some truth in this. It’s good to keep choosing love, even when we’re not feeling it. But there are a lot of problems with this way of defining love too.

This dispassionate, disinterested picture of the love of God doesn’t speak to the heart, it doesn’t heal, to think God may or may not particularly have affection for me or desire for me, but God will seek my good nevertheless. That doesn’t actually feel like the greatest of gifts.

And it doesn’t empower great love among people either. For instance, feminists note that this kind of teaching – often by men – encourages women to stay devoted to men who neglect or abuse them. Ignore your feelings, stick with your decision, stand by your man. Religion that empowers abuse is bad religion. Ideas about love that empower abuse are not love.

Scholars of love have shown that all love, including the love of God, is bigger than this. Roberto Sirvent has written about how healthy love has a wider palette. When he surveys love, he talks about four qualities of love. 

The first is “love as robust concern.” Love as robust concern is the parent’s longing to see a child have great outcomes in life, for no particularly self-interested reason, simply because. This aspect of love is the most similar to Christian teaching on agape. God becomes flesh out of God’s robust concern for you and me. 

The second quality is “love as value.” Love as value is a parent’s longing for the flourishing of a child because the parent sees and believes in the child’s worth and special qualities. God becomes flesh because God thinks we are worth it. God values us. 

Love as union,” the third quality of love, is about developing a shared identity. In love we surrender complete autonomy; ourselves and our freedom aren’t lost, but they’re constrained. A lover desires reciprocity and makes decisions not just for oneself but for the relationship. Love as union is a parent’s intimate connection with a child as members of a shared family. Love that seeks connection and even reciprocity isn’t a lower form or love but a more invested one. From birth we are looking for this kind of intimacy of union. We are looking for a face who is looking for us. God becomes flesh because God wants to be one with us, intimate with us. This too is God’s love.

And lastly, “love as emotion” speaks to how those who love are responsive to one another and changed by one another. Love as emotion shows us why happy children make happy parents and vice versa. God becomes flesh because God feels for us, because it makes God feel better when we feel we are loved. 

The God made flesh in Jesus has robust concern for all of creation, you and me included, and is interested in the greatest possible flourishing for all humans and all other life as well. The God made flesh in Jesus highly values the worth of all of creation, measuring each human life to be of inestimable worth and finding saving value in other lifeforms as well. The God made flesh in Jesus seeks intimate connection, even union, with all of creation through the ongoing participation of God in the life of the world. And the God made flesh in Jesus has profound emotional investment in the well-being of human life and the life of the universe as well. All of us matter deeply to God. When we search for God, we are looking for someone who is already looking for us. 

This is why God moved into the neighborhood. This is how God is saying to us all today:

Kids, I love you. Let’s be neighbors.

So the first thing I invite you to do in this new year is to remember every single day that you are loved by God, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are not just loved by a God that seeks your good, and who is invested in you, who knows you and wants to be known by you, and wants you to experience that you are known and deeply loved. We’ll practice this at the end of the talk.

Secondly, I want to invite you into a particular expression of love in this community, to our own expression of that Romans 16 experience that every one of us matters.

Some of us are Gaius and Erastus types – we have wealth or big houses or are professionally accomplished. And some of us are more like Tertius or Quartus. We were born to people who didn’t believe in our future, or into a county or culture that didn’t see and validate us. Some of us are poor, are disabled, are dismissed by others in any number of ways. Some of us, frankly, are both, or somewhere in between. 

None of that tells us how much we matter to God, though, and none of that tells us how much we matter to one another. 

Here’s a way to practice that. I learned it from our involvement in the interfaith social justice collaborative we’re in called GBIO. 

It’s called a relational meeting.

A relational meeting is where two people meet – in person, over zoom, over the phone, it doesn’t matter. Two people meet for between 30 minutes and an hour to simply know part of each other’s stories. That’s it. To matter to one another. 

It’s a one-time thing. There’s no obligation to have a follow-up meeting or conversation unless that happens naturally. There’s no obligation to become good friends. It’s simply a practice of knowing and being known, of forming a wide network of people in your life that you know and care about in some way, and who know and care about you in some way. 

In GBIO, we have these relational meetings a lot because they form networks of people who’ll show up for one another when we need each other. 

In a church we do this because it makes us more of a church too, a place where we know and are known, where we all matter.

You’ll be hearing throughout the month about our community groups, which are our primary way of knowing and being known at Reservoir, of having acquaintances and eventually friends here, of having people you can show up for and who will show up for you. 

But we’re also inviting you to have three 1 on 1 relational meetings this winter – between now and the end of February – with another member of the Reservoir community you don’t know well already. You’d say to someone else in this community: hey, the church is inviting us to have three relational meetings. Can we have one? Or someone will ask you that. And then here’s what you do.

  1. Anyone is free to say yes or no. Some of us are more introverted. Some of us are busier.  Some of us won’t want to participate in this for whatever reason. All that is fine. 
  2. If you ask someone and they say yes, or if someone else asks you and you say yes, set a time and how you’re going to talk – over the phone, over google meet, outdoors on a walk, whatever. Plan on 40 minutes to an hour.
  3. And then when you have the time, each of you just share a little bit of your story with the other. You can respond and ask questions and all – it’s meant to be a natural conversation. But each of you share. 
  4. If you’re not sure what to talk about, here’s the prompt I encourage you to use. Share something about where you come from, something about where you are today, and something about where you think you’re going. These could be very concrete – like talking about the town or city you lived in as a child, and where you live today and what that’s like, and where you hope you’ll be in a few years. Or it could be more abstract – like some significant event in your past, and how you’re feeling about some part of your life today, or a dream or goal you have for your future. Whatever you’d enjoy sharing. However it is you’d like to be known.
  5. And just thank each other for your time and for sharing and that’s it. Keep the conversation to yourselves. It’s not meant to be a point of gossip or anything.

If we each have three conversations like this, so together we have hundreds and hundreds of them, Reservoir will end our winter a stronger, more beloved community, and lots of us will experience a few more opportunities to know we matter and to convey that to someone else as well. 

I invite you to get started today by reaching out to one person you’ve met and talked to before here. I’ll post about this on our blog this week and we’ll announce it again next week. And if you have no idea who to ask, how to get started, we’re posting a link in the chat now where if you don’t know anyone at Reservoir, we’ll help match you with someone else who’d like to have a relational meeting.

There’s a lot that’s wrong in our world right now, friends. So much. If we want a good year, we probably can’t count on 2022 being good. 

So let’s welcome the goodness of God. Word and light and love made flesh to us. Love of God glad to know us, glad to be known, eager for us to know how known we and loved we are as well. 

And let’s extend these circles of knowing and being known in this community as well, practicing the loving connection beyond our current circles that has been some of the magic of the people of Jesus for two millennia now.

Let’s take a minute to pray together, let this soak in.

God our Holy Thief: Staying Awake, Telling the Truth, and Letting Go

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

Hello Friends. I hope you’ve been having a good weekend, maybe a long weekend with some extra time to eat and rest, or to cook, maybe to shop. I know some of you have been working this weekend – if you work in retail, it’s busy. Or if you own a small business or care for young children, sometimes the work never stops. I know a few folks in our community who’ve been working or on call to work in our local hospitals this weekend too. We are very grateful for them. 

I hope your Thanksgiving weekend has been good. Mine had a lot of good, a lot of highs. And then there were some lows too. Life just seems complicated these days, like the holiday itself. 

Thursday morning, I ran the Franklin Park 5K with one of my sons. That was awesome. I love Franklin Park. I love running. I love my son. It was pretty great to be running about as fast as this middle-aged body will go and to see my son waaay ahead of me, and then so far ahead I couldn’t see him at all. Yeah, that was a really good feeling.

And then on the way home, John turns to me and says – Happy National Day of Mourning, Dad.

And I kind of skipped a beat for a second, because I didn’t understand him at first. But he said, yeah, isn’t that what they’re calling this day now, because of genocide – national mourning day.

And then we had a conversation about what Thanksgiving represents to us all. A day of family and friends and food and gratitude? Or a day of remembering the worst of our history? A day of loss and grief? Or can it be both?

Friends, family, food, gratitude. Disappointment, loss, grief. 

Life is complicated these days. It’s hard and hopeful. And it can feel like it’s marching ahead, unstoppable, uninterruptible, just pushing forward in whatever mix of good and bad the fates have given us in these days of colder days and darkening nights. And our faith, I know, can feel much the same. Maybe our hearts are full, our prayers are rich, and we head toward Christmas full of faith, hope, and love abounding. Or maybe – and I know this is true of many of us – maybe it’s been a time of what our friend Cate calls a season of doubt and distance, of not sure where God is to be found, or if God is to be found at all. 

Into all this comes this interruption of Advent. Advent, the weeks before Christmas, is a chance to remember the surprising interruption of God moving in the world at times and in places and through ways we could never have imagined. And Advent, which means arrival, emergence, appearance, is an opportunity to long for the reappearance of God with us, maybe where we haven’t been looking. Advent, these weeks before Christmas, is an invitation to interruption, to look for the new emergence of God in our consciousness. To see if God can stir faith, hope, and love in us. 

Let me pray for us.

The scriptures that ask God to show up again, or ask for help to see God where God already is, are weird. It’s like they have a hard time making up their minds whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Because as much as anything else, Spirit of God seems to be disruptive. God’s presence always shifts and rearranges things. God provokes seeing differently, listening differently, … being differently.

Take this one for instance, from the old prophet Malachi.

Malachi 3:1-2 (Common English Bible)

1 Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;

 suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.

The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,

says the Lord of heavenly forces.

2 Who can endure the day of his coming?

Who can withstand his appearance?

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.

These lines have captured people’s imaginations over the years. Maybe it’s because Malachi three is kind of a hopeful chapter – it’s about the end of exile, a time of homecoming and return to God and return to hope. Maybe it’s because in Chrisitan Bibles, it’s the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament, and these lines point forward – the way for the next appearance of God with us. 

There are songs inspired by these verses. They can’t really make up their mind on tone, though. They can be kind of gentle and hopeful, like the Jesus movement one of this church’s past:

Purify my heart, let me be as gold and precious silver… Refiner’s fire…

Campy, but sweet…

Or they can be like the version you hear sung this time of year from Handel’s Messiah.

For he is like a refiner’s fire… and who shall stand when he appeareth…

It’s the classical music equivalent of heavy metal… fast, loud, kind of fearsome. 

Fire as metaphor for God is a good one.

We don’t live without fire, not long at least, or not around here. Fire warms and heats and cooks. Fire in industry makes things, cleans things, illuminates and purifies things. 

But fire burns too. It moves and dances. It’s good but it’s wild. 

I think what we get here is a longing for God. We don’t live without God, the source of life. And life is colder, bleaker without the goodness and possibility of God. But God, though safe, isn’t just tame or mild. God moves. God changes things. 

The scriptures sometimes have a hard time making up their mind whether or not the arrival of God, the fire of God is a good thing or not. 

It’s like this piece of artwork for our Advent art gallery this year. You submitted artwork – poetry, paintings, photos, drawings – for this year’s Advent art gallery, and we’re going to highlight one submission each week.

This week’s is by Jude Nardella, age 7. 

It’s inspired by this book, If you Want to See a Whale, and the words

“If you want to see a whale, keep both eyes on the sea, keep both eyes on the sea, and wait… and wait . . . and wait . . .”

I love it, Jude.

When something big that we don’t know or can’t expect is happening underneath or around us, is it a good thing or a bad thing? If someone texts you and says to call them because they have some big news, do you first expect it’s going to be good or bad? It could be either.

Advent is kind of like this – waiting for God, but not just waiting. It’s looking and looking, keeping both eyes open for where we can see God. 

Jesus picks up this theme, when he talks – several times in the gospel – about keeping an eye out for God and about God showing up when we least expect God and where we least expect God. 

Like here, in the good news of Luke:

Luke 12:35-40 (Common English Bible)

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.”

So Jesus moves from one ambivalent metaphor – fire – to another, the late night intruder. You hear noises at your door in the middle of the night? What do you feel? How do you react? 

Depends what you’re expecting, right? If you’re waiting for your partner or your child to come home, you run to the door. You’re excited. If not, well, you’re probably terrified. 

The details of this passage are maybe distracting to us. We don’t much like master and servant language, for good reasons, but Jesus was just using the experience of a wealthy household that his mostly working class audience would have heard about and imagined… their lifestyles of the rich and famous fantasy.

Or maybe some of them had been servants, working in the household of Herod the king in Jerusalem when they were younger, or recruited to serve in some Roman general’s household. They might have known what it was like to have to stay up late on the job, waiting for the whims of their boss, hoping the boss would come home from the banquet tired drunk or happy drunk, not angry drunk. 

Jesus, like he usually does, works with this familiar story material, but he subverts our expectations. Because that’s what Jesus does, he’s in the business of turning so much of the world upside down.

On the whole good news/bad news question, Jesus has a real side here. It’s good news. But it’s good news we can miss.

Watch out, he says, be ready for God, like you would be for the most important person you have been hired to serve.

Because God too is a most important person, who shows up unexpectedly. But this is what God’s like – God is going to show up unexpectedly and people who thought they’d get a raw deal, or people who thought they’d just have to serve are going to sit you down at the table while God cooks them dinner and serves their every need. You are not going to want to miss that. That is what God is like. 

Like out at sea, watching, watching for a big whale, and you see it moving upward, right beneath you, bigger and bigger and bigger, only to have it surface, roll over on its back, and wait for you to rub its belly.

I think even the language of the thief is subversive here.

Jesus is saying that important things happen when you least expect them, so be ready.

It’s true of God. The Human One, which is Jesus’ nickname for himself, often translated “Son of Man” shows up when you least expect him. God, in all the forms and ways God comes to us, can be missed. 

I’ve been thinking, though, about this image of the thief, weirdly resonating with it. Because who wants to be robbed, right? Nobody.

Nobody waits up at night, hoping a thief will show up at their door.

Except in the ways we kind of are.

I was talking with friends this week who spent part of their holiday week sorting through all their stuff, and finding things to give away and throw away. They’re older, and when their parents passed, it was a terrible burden to sort through all their parents’ things, a burden they don’t want their children to have. 

My mom was talking this way on Thanksgiving, like why does she have the stuff she has… the stuff she has collected, the stuff her parents collected. She was sort of wishing someone would come and unburden her of these things.

I had another good friend who, when his mother passed, had to go through all her possessions, and realized some really sad and heavy things about his mother as he did this. This all became so heavy for him that at one point, he took this ring that had been his mother’s and ceremonially threw it into a deep river. And as he threw that ring, he was letting go. It was a way of unburdening himself of parts of his mother’s legacy that he didn’t want to carry any more.

Having that be taken from him. 

Which gives me a weird question for us all as we begin the Advent season. As we’re looking for God, waiting for God to deepen our faith, hope, and love, in what ways do we need God to be our holy thief?

What burdens are we carrying around that we would love for Jesus to take from us? 

What blocks in our life could we use God’s help unblocking, removing? 

What habits, what mindsets could we use Spirit of God’s help in cleansing of us, burning away? 

How could we use the presence and power of God to rob us of the fears and burdens and head trash we’re carrying?

What patterns in the world do we long to see God help disrupt?

One more story before we end with these questions again.

Last Sunday, in our worship services, Ivy and Cate and Matt led us through what felt to me like a beautiful kind of funeral. How many of you were there?

For a while now, starting in Advent several years ago, we’ve had these occasional participatory liturgies, where we drop the sermon, and change the way we use time and space in our worship service to invite us all to participate in new and deeper ways. Ivy has usually played the lead role in creating these, and they’ve been great.

Last week’s service was a kind of funeral. With bells and silence and more, we were invited to name our losses and griefs and have those shape the table over which Jesus meets with us. 

And let me tell you what happened for me.

I was sitting by myself in the back of the room, wondering what loss I would name. And while my eyes were closed, I pictured a giant stone, one of those immovable boulders you might see while hiking. And I felt like I was behind that stone somehow and couldn’t get through it. 

In that moment, the stone represented to me a couple of places where my hopes are very low, where my outlook in life is pretty dim. And I sat there, sensing Jesus with me, and asking God if God could help move that stone. 

Interestingly, nothing much happened. I didn’t see the stone move, but it felt good to know that God knew about it and that God was with me.

But then, while I stuck with that image of the stone, I knew in my instincts that it stood for something else too.

Prayer is weird like this, by the way. If we can practice sitting still, closing our eyes if it helps, believing God is with us, and just seeing where that goes, we sometimes find our imagination going interesting places, and sometimes it seems like God is with us in that, communicating with us. This was one of those times.

I’m sitting in our sanctuary in the in-person service, in our funeral, and I’m aware that stone’s blocking the path of a friend of mine. I have a friend, a person very important to me, whose anxiety and depression have been getting worse this year. And they’re doing the things they should do in terms of getting professional help and all, but it’s just not changing yet. This is something that I talk with my friend about and that I pray about a lot – it’s the deep sadness of their life, and it’s become one of my sadnesses too.

So I’m sitting there, and the stone is my friend’s immovable depression and anxiety, the way it’s crushing them, choking out freedom and life for them these days. And in my prayer, the stone starts to move. And it’s like that huge stone that was said to be in front of the tomb where Jesus was buried, the stone that Spirit of God worked to move aside.

And I’m cheering God on in my prayer now, like you can do it, God, and I feel like Spirit of God and my friend are together moving that big, big stone. And I know this is just happening in my prayerful imagination, but it feels so good and hopeful that I’m tearing it up, and rooting for others to push on that rock, wanting to reach out and push the stone some more myself, so my friend can see the light and be moving forward again in life, toward the next possibilities for their awesome self. 

And that was it. The service moved on to the next moment, or maybe I opened my eyes and wanted to ring one of the bells, or help a latecomer find their seat or something. I don’t remember. 

But that moment has stayed with me because it felt so real and it felt like hope, for Jesus to be unburdening my friend in the middle of the night. I’ve been in touch with my friend this week, it’s not clear that a miracle is moving yet, but I’m hopeful. I hope my prayers and this image I saw is hopeful to them too. 

Friends, what burdens do you need God’s help unburdening? What stones do you need Spirit of God to help you roll away? 

The Pendant family lit our first Advent candles this week, reading and praying the words of the liturgy that Pastor Lydia has adapted for us this year, from the resource Black Liturgies, a great resource of African-American culture and spirituality infused into words and prayers for Christian worship.

This week’s words remind us that dark spaces, night spaces, can be generative. They can be where the work of God with us is born.

Jesus tells us today that when we don’t see God, keep a watch. Stay awake, because God is coming.

Jude’s art about the whale reminds us to keep both eyes on the sea and wait for it, wait for it, wait to see what lies beneath. 

Advent is an invitation to tell the truth about our lives and world – to tell the truth to ourselves about where we need God – to tell the truth about our unfinished stories and our pains and needs and burdens – and to ask God to help us see God in them and cooperate in the liberative work of God with us. 

Advent is an invitation to look at our clenched fists and see what stones we’re holding and to start to let go. Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus, our holy thief doesn’t take anything from us that we don’t want to give. There is no violence in God. God only takes what we freely yield. 

So friends, as we begin the season of Advent this week, with the image of God as a refiner’s fire, and a holy thief, present where we’ve given up on God to unburden us, to free us from what we don’t want or need in our lives, let me ask you again:

What would you like Jesus to take from you?

What burden, what bitterness, what block, would you like God’s help in burning away? 

Consider writing it on a piece of paper and burning it later. (If you’re with us in person, you’ll have the opportunity to do that at the end of the service as you go outside.)

What do we willingly, gladly, wish Spirit of God’s help in burning away? What stones are keeping us from Gods’ life moving forward in us? 

God’s eager to be with us in this, assuring us God is with us, partnering with us in our personal and collective moves toward liberation.

Let’s pray.

God Loves Sinners

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

In the 1970’s and 80’s, right where I lived, there were these enormous religious controversies playing out around me. I ran track with kids of the professors of a local divinity school, and these teammate’s dads were shaping the direction of conservative Christianity in this country. And my mom taught in the preschool that I went to as a kid where a major debate about church life in this area was going on. I had no idea these things were happening at the time, but I think about them a lot these days. 

A prominent author named Diana Butler Bass recently wrote about what happened in the 80’s in the church that housed my preschool. The church’s denomination was arguing about whether or not women could be pastors or priests. And they were arguing about language in their worship and their prayers that had to do with this issue of women’s leadership too. This was part of a whole series of church controversies in the 70’s and 80’s that gave birth to what some of us least like about churches in America today.

And there was this heated meeting in a church up in Hamilton, Massachusetts about this where the bishop – the person in charge of all the local churches of that denomination – met with a group of loud and angry men who were questioning the changes that were happening.

One of the men, a particularly loud and rigid guy, stood up and challenged the bishop. He raised his voice and said- “You sir, are a bishop, and it’s your job to guard the gospel. What do you think the gospel is?” This man, it turns out, was Diana Butler Bass’ first husband, and she was shaken and humiliated by this moment. Later, they’d divorce.

But the bishop took it in stride. To his challenge about the gospel, he simply answered- “God is love.” 

To this, his challenger said – “Yea, sure, but what is the gospel?”

And again the bishop said – “God is love. God loves everybody.”

God loves everybody. This is the good news of God, given to us in Jesus Christ, or at least the start of it.

God loves everybody.

This week, we get going on our fall series, The Table: How Jesus Gathers. And today I begin by asking who gets to be at Jesus’s table and what happens when we’re there.

It’s another way of asking- What is the gospel? What is God’s good news spoken to us and lived out for us too by Jesus Christ? And how does that come alive to us still? 

Let me read today’s passage about Jesus. From the fifth chapter of Luke’s stories of his life. 

Luke 5:27-32 (Common English Bible)

27 Afterward, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”

28 Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him.

29 Then Levi threw a great banquet for Jesus in his home. A large number of tax collectors and others sat down to eat with them.

30 The Pharisees and their legal experts grumbled against his disciples. They said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

31 Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.

32 I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to change their hearts and lives.”

So I want to start with a little who’s who in this passage. And then after the who’s who, we’ll ask-  what’s sin, who’s a sinner, and why is that who Jesus loves?

Then lastly, who gets to be at the table with Jesus? And how can that experience affect us? 

The who’s who. We’ve got Levi, who’s a tax collector. We’ve got Pharisees, who don’t like Levi very much. And then we’ve got Jesus.

Tax collectors were considered sell-outs. They were collaborators with the Roman empire’s colonization of Judea and they made their living by overcharging and extortion. So hardly fan favorites amongst their fellow Jews, for a bunch of very good reasons. If Levi saw a young upstart rabbi coming over to visit his tax collection storefront, he might have expected he was going to get a lecture – young Levi, what are you doing with your life? He certainly wouldn’t have expected a recruiting visit.

But that’s what happens. Jesus says-

follow me.

Which was like saying-

be my student.

Join this movement. It’s a little like a church membership pitch. And this means Jesus is also following him. For whatever reason, Jesus takes an interest in Levi – he knows his name, his family, his circumstances, his potential. And then Levi takes an interest in following Jesus – being his student, sitting at his table. 

The first table they sit at together isn’t Jesus’s, though, it’s Levi’s tax collection table and then it’s the big table in Levi’s home. Again, when you follow Jesus, you find that Jesus is really following you – wanting to be where you work, where you live. Levi throws a party in Jesus’s honor to celebrate their new connection. 

Outside the party, pissed off and grumbling about what’s happening there, are a group Luke calls the Pharisees and their legal experts. The Pharisees come up as a group now and then and they usually seem like Jesus’s enemies. At least, that’s how Christians have usually talked about them.

There are two problems with this, though.

  1. It’s anti-semitic.
  2. And, Jesus just might have been one of them.

OK, the less surprising part first. Anti-semitism. The Pharisee’s reforms and writings during this time became the basis of what eventually became modern-day Judaism. I’m over-simplifying a little, but it’s basically true. And for most of Chrisitanity’s nearly 2,000 year history, Chrisitan people and institutions have been brutally and violently anti-Jewish. Even though Jesus and almost all of his first followers and almost all the writers of the Christian Bible were Jews. 

So to always cast these Pharisees who shaped what Judaism became as the villians of the Christian story is to risk sliding right into this old, hateful pattern. The Pharisees are not the enemy. They’re more than that.

There’s also a really good chance that at one point in his life, Jesus was a Pharisee. Or at least shared lots in common with them.

The Pharisees were a reform movement in the culture and religion of Jesus’s time. They believed God was a loving father, and that God loved humanity so much that God gave humanity the law, the scriptures –so that everyone who followed them would have connection with God and all God’s benefits in this life and in the life to come (what some people called eternal life).

Jesus shared the Pharisee’s devotion to scripture. He shared their love of worship and the gift of rest they called sabbath. He too loved the gifts God was giving the world through the Jewish people. And like them, he believed God is a loving parent and emphasized a life of prayer and devotion to God. In many ways, the Pharisees were Jesus’s people.

Jesus got into arguments with them all the time. Not because they were his opposite, but because he was a more radical version of one of them. 

They knew each other. They shared common foundations. Jesus just wanted way, way more from their movement. 

Where Jesus and his contemporary Pharisees parted ways was that they had a really different sense of who belongs at God’s table and of how you get there. Who belongs at God’s table and how you get there – this was really important to Jesus. It got him angry like not much else did. And we see it playing out here at the table too. 

How you get to God’s table. 

For Jesus, you don’t earn your spot. That’s impossible. Who really earns anything that matters most in life? Who could earn love and affection from a parent? It’s there or it’s not, freely given, as it should be, or not. And who could earn a spot at God’s table? Who could earn a “follow” from God? 

I say follow because there’s something interesting going on with this word here. Jesus invites Levi to follow him – to be his student, to join the circle of people he’s teaching, to pay attention to him. But what that means is that Jesus was also first following Levi. Jesus paid attention to Levi. Jesus was interested in his life and reputation. Jesus took the initiative.

Years ago, when Grace and I and our kids started getting on Instagram, the feature we hated most was how the follows work there. You can follow someone and they can never follow you back. Kids all the time will follow someone on Instagram, wait for the other person to follow them back, and then unfollow them right away. It’s part of the hustle to look cool by having more followers than the amount of people you follow. 

And it’s gross. It’s a way of using each other to build up our status. 

God’s not like this at all.

God would rather follow more people than God has followers.

In fact, God follows everyone. God takes an intimate interest in all of creation. Like God clicking around- I want to see that. I want to know that. I follow you. I follow you. I follow you.

God loves everyone and everything God made. And God pays attention to everything and everyone. God follows us all universally, whether or not we follow God back. 

This is how we get to God’s table – through God’s loving, attentive knowledge of us. And through God’s invitation to us to pay attention in return, to follow God back. 

Who belongs at God’s table? As far as God’s concerned, everyone. God loves everyone.

But Jesus puts a little twist on that everyone here. He says there’s one group of people he may follow, but he’s not really expecting to follow him back. He’s not calling on them, knocking on their door, or anything. 

He says:

I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners.

He says:

I’m like a doctor. Healthy people don’t reach out very much. But sick people – they are always welcome. I’m here for them.

What’s a sinner? For most of us, sin is what we judge other people for.

I know this because people show me this all the time. Sometimes someone who’s frustrated with our church, maybe realizing it’s not for them or thinking about leaving, will ask to meet with me and ask why I don’t talk more about sin. I’m confused when this happens, since I think I talk about sin a lot. So I’ll ask them:

What’s wrong in your life that you wish your church would talk about more? 

And sometimes they’re confused by the question. So I’ll keep going. I’ll ask:

Where have you lost your way, what unhealthy patterns in you would you like to confess to me? What are you doing to hurt yourself, hurt others, maybe even hurt God, that you need us to speak about more often?

And then they’ll be like:

Oh, no, I didn’t mean me. It’s (these people).

And they’ll talk about something other people do that they wish their church would take a stand on, and would criticize with more clarity.

This is sin as a category for stuff we judge other people for. Whether we’re conservative or liberal, religious or not, we are prone to this. Maybe it’s the human condition, to want to justify ourselves by looking down on others. Certainly it’s sort of become the American way – to locate the bad in the world in people not like us. 

This is not at all what Jesus is talking about. Part of Jesus’s radicality (where he parted ways with his fellow Pharisees too) is in his call to humility and introspection. He had this profoundly non-judgmental, humble way of thinking about sin. 

Sin is where we’ve lost our way, any and all of us. Sin isn’t about a pointed finger, it’s about the three fingers that are pointing back at us. Sin isn’t a pair of poop-stained, critical glasses through which we see the world, sin is for our time in the mirror, to see ourselves more truthfully.

Sin is what’s in us that isn’t healthy, that needs healing and repair. Sin is how we hurt others and hurt ourselves. Sin is how we puff ourselves up too big or even how we knock ourselves down to make ourselves too small. Sin isn’t just personal like this. Sin is also collective and structural too – we’ll talk about that later. But all of this sin – all the parts that are wrong with us – make God love us even more. 

What’s wrong with us doesn’t in any way reduce God’s love for us. God loves everyone, and God especially loves self-aware sinners.

It’s not just sin, though, that evokes God’s affection and attention.

Sin is only half of this doctor metaphor Jesus uses.

We need healing for how we’ve lost our way, but also for how our path has been derailed by others. We need healing not just for how we’ve screwed up, but for how others or for how life has screwed us over. We have hurt others and ourselves, but we have been profoundly hurt as well. 

And this too, God sees with loving affection. 

Jesus’s invitation to Levi, and to all of us, to follow him, is so different from our usual ways we think about self-improvement. 

We’re always trying to justify ourselves, to make ourselves look or feel better than we are. Or when that fails, and we confront our mistakes and our wounds, our failings and our hurts, we may not have much hope for any of that to be accepted or to change. So we try to cover up and hide our crap – all the parts of us we don’t like or aren’t proud of.

But Jesus comes alongside us and is like:

I follow you. I know you. I see you. I see how you’ve lost your way and I see how you’ve been hurt.

We’re all sinners, just as we’ve all been sinned against. 

And that need, that lack, that ache makes us eligible to sit at God’s table. To be in relationship with a God who loves us. 

This past week, I finally starting watching Ted Lasso. Friends have been going on and on about it. A gem of a human in my community group baked and boxed Ted Lasso-style biscuits for us all, which was the most thoughtful, delicious thing to do for your friends, and maybe the most effective TV-show promotion I’ve ever experienced too. Ann Bakun, don’t be surprised when Apple TV calls…

So I binged a bunch of Ted Lasso last week, and man is it a delightful show. It’s a show about a lot of things, but in many ways it’s a show about this God loves everybody thing I’m talking about today. About how the kindness, grace, and acceptance of God starts to propel healing in us, whether we’ve hurt or been hurt, whether the thing we see in us is our sin or how we’ve been sinned against.

You get the relentlessly optimistic Coach Lasso, who eventually with the help of God and friends, can confront some of the pain in his life. And you get a variety of other characters, who through love and acceptance, start to find freedom to confront how they’ve lost their way, and made a mess of themselves and others. 

I watched this show sometimes through tears, as I thought about how both sides of this coin are me, and pretty much everyone I know and care about too.

We all have our ways we’ve been broken and hurt. And we all have our ways we’ve lost our way, let the worst parts of ourselves be in charge. But all of us, when we’re seen with kindness, acceptance, and truth, find there are healing paths forward. We don’t have to be stuck. We can get better. 

This is Jesus’s way with us. He’s not walking around following people, stopping by their workplaces to get to know them, sitting at the tables in our home. The world had Jesus of Nazareth walking around doing these things for one short lifetime, many years ago.

But now, Jesus is available and present just how God is, through the Spirit of God, the same Spirit Jesus called his Spirit, the one who comes alongside us so that we’ll know God is with us, and know God’s acceptance, and know God’s power to change and to heal. 

Sometimes this Spirit of God comes to us felt, but unseen. Sometimes Spirit comes to us through other people and events and through the creation around us. 

Wherever kindness speaks to us, though, wherever a voice is saying to us:

I see you, I know you, I want to follow you,

that’s in part Spirit of God. Wherever we’re told,

let’s be friends, let’s be at the table together,

that’s in part Spirit of God. 

God is love. God loves everybody. 

God has space and attention for you and me. And when God sees what’s wrong with us, the hurts and the hurting, the sin and the sinned against, the losing our way for whatever reason, when God sees all that, God loves us even more. And in that loving acceptance, God has ideas for how we find our way forward again.

If you’re willing, can you try something this week? I’m going close with a little experiment.

Find a quiet moment today or tomorrow when you can sit somewhere by yourself. If it helps, sit at a table with another empty chair, so you can imagine what’s true – that God is with you there. Tell God anywhere in your life that you’ve lost your way – what’s breaking or broken in you, where you’ve hurt or been hurt, your sin or your pain, whatever seems most important. 

And then two things:

  • Imagine God looking at you with loving acceptance, maybe putting a hand on your shoulder and saying:

I hear you, I see you, it’s OK. I’m here.

Sit there and lean into the loving acceptance of God.

  • And then when you’re ready, ask God, ask the Spirit of Jesus,

is there anything I can do to help find my way again with you? Any next step toward my healing?

See what comes to mind, and if it seems truthful and helpful, give it a try. 

Friends, God loves us just as we are. And with God’s loving acceptance, God wants to keep helping us find our way forward.  

I Believe

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

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Trecia Reavis, click HERE.

During the past fourteen months, most of us worried more than normal. Many of us stayed home longer than we’d ever done, skipped showers for impressive runs, wore the same outfits days on end, gained a little weight and all kinds of other pandemic accomplishments. I did all that too – high five! Some of us also found a hobby or went back to one. I know people who baked a lot of bread. My wife gave herself over to indoor plant growing at a whole new level. Me, I did something less practical than this – I started an online doctoral program in theology and ministry. 

And my advisor was part of this project that intrigued me, where they went through one of the oldest Christian creeds line by line, talking about how it is they still engage the faith of these nearly two millennia old words in ways that make sense to them and are empowering and life-giving in the age we live in today. They did this with one of the shortest and most famous creeds called The Apostles’ Creed. And they called the series Becoming Christian. 

Now if you’re thinking: who would want to become a Christian these days? Well, you’re not alone. The reputation of Christians (at least in this country) is at a well-deserved low point. So if you identify as a Christian, great. If you don’t, that’s great too. I identify as a Christian because I think there’s a ton of good in this faith and in this tradition that’s worth making the most of, despite all the bad stuff that’s gotten mixed in there. But I can understand why others wouldn’t want to. You do you, really.

But they didn’t call the series Becoming Christian to get anyone to convert, but to highlight the process of becoming. Like anything in life that matters, a Christian isn’t something that you are, like it’s a certificate you put on your wall for this thing you did once or a stage you’ve reached. Life and relationships and beliefs and experiences are dynamic, right? We’re always in motion, we’re always changing, still becoming. The Christian faith is dynamic, something that has been changing and evolving for 2,000 years, and so a person being a Christian is also something we can be becoming, or not, and they explored how they connected to this process now.

Well, as soon as I heard this, I thought: I want to do something like this at Reservoir. We’ve always wanted to live a Christian faith that would be viable and interesting and helpful for people who believe what science has to say, who aren’t going to subscribe to ideas and beliefs that seem out of touch with the modern world. But given how many of us have changed our minds about things we believe or aren’t sure of what we believe about God, it seemed like it could be helpful to talk through this old Christian creed ourselves, and see how we can relate to historic Christian faith in ways that inspire and liberate us. 

So this summer, when Lydia or Ivy or anyone else speaks, they’ll speak however they are led to, but when I preach throughout the summer, I’m going to talk us through the Apostles’ Creed, referencing texts from the Bible as well as the contemporary dynamics and questions and tensions with our faith. I’ll share what some different people think here and there as well as how I make sense of and live into this creed.

I’ve called the series “Becoming Christian: (Re)Interpreting the Apostles Creed and the Christian Faith for Our Times.”

And we’re going to start today with the first phrase of the creed – just two words – “I believe”. And we’ll do that through four lines about belief and faith from the gospel of Mark . 

Here’s the first:

Mark 1:15

“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

In Mark, Jesus’ first public words, or the words that Mark thinks best capture what Jesus had to say a lot were these: Change your hearts and lives, and trust the good news. That’s a modern translation. A little more literally the words were: repent and believe.

At the heart of what Jesus had to say to people was: be open to change, and believe. But when he said that he wasn’t talking about particular information they should believe. Like sign this document. Agree with these facts. No, when he said believe, he meant Belief is trust.

Like trust that Jesus can help you know God. Trust that Jesus can show us what God is like and what God is doing. Trust that Jesus and Jesus’ God have good news worth engaging with. Belief as trust. 

Think about some of the things you used to believe were true.

I used to think that elephants were called “odies” – I insisted upon that fact. I have a child who once said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a frog.” When I taught high schoolers, I remember this very skinny 15-year old kid who’d never played organized sports told me with a straight face, “I’m going to play football in the NFL.” And what do you say? I thought: good luck with that. 

We change our minds about what we believe all the time. That’s normal. We grow up. And even as adults, we keep growing up. We have new experiences. We learn new things. 

And when it comes to what we think about God or the big questions about what matters most in life, the same thing is true. 

There’s not much that I think about God that I haven’t changed my mind about twice. And even now as a doctoral student in theology, there’s so much about faith that my most honest answer would be: Who am I to say? I don’t know. 

It’s alright to hold lightly the facts and opinions and information which we believe. 

Over the past several years, though, I’ve learned that this can be really hard within the domain of religion. A few years ago, Grace and I went to a conference with a couple of friends. It was a place for people who were aware they were deconstructing their Christian faith – questioning what they’d been taught, changing their beliefs. And I thought: hey, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things I was taught. And I’m a pastor of a church where a lot of people are doing that too. I’ll go to this thing and find my people.

But what struck me was not how much I related to what was happening there, but how much anxiety people had about the whole experience. And I don’t mean that critically – like it was their fault for being tense. A lot of folks had been given these really intense and even threatening messages about what information and opinions they had better believe. 

I met this one person in her 20s, who when I asked her how she ended up at this conference, she told me that didn’t believe in hell anymore. And by hell, she meant an awful place God would send people to suffer forever if they didn’t believe the right things about God or live it out in the right way. And her grandma had told her something like: if you don’t believe in hell, then that’s where God’s sending you. 

Which is maybe this awful thing to say to your grandchild, but kind of ironic too. Like God’s going to send to this place that you do not believe exists. Like, what do you do with that? 

And as I met people not just at this conference but amongst my friends, here in this church, with experiences like this, with just enormous tension if they question their beliefs, I feel really sad for one. 

And I think this isn’t what Jesus called people to at all either. In fact, the core of his message was to change your mind and believe. And not just as a one time thing, but as a way of moving forward with God. Be open and try to trust me. Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news.

So maybe the first thing we can say when we say “I believe” is not at all about an anxious relationship to facts, opinions, and theories. No, belief is about trust. It’s about who you listen to, and where you go for good news. Jesus says:

belief is trust. It’s trusting that I can show you what God is like, and I can show you good news. 

For me, this is how I can be a pastor even while my faith continues to evolve and grow. Because saying “I believe” isn’t saying “I know I’m right” or “I’m never allowed to change my mind.” It’s saying I’m continuing to trust Jesus and I’m more likely to trust people and ideas that sound like and look like Jesus. 

Belief is trust.

Secondly, belief is shared.

One of the early stories in Mark is about four people who take their friend who can not walk to Jesus for help, and Jesus speaks to their friend’s physical condition but also to the state of his soul. And in that story, we get this:

Mark 2:5 

5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”

I love how Jesus is moved by their faith, by the hope and love of their friends. Faith isn’t a solo experience, it’s a team sport. Which is why sometimes the creed begins “I believe” but just as often, it is read, “We believe.”

Belief is shared. It’s not just about what I think or who I trust. It’s to whom and to what I am connected. It’s about the community and the tradition to  whom I am aligned. 

Early in my experience of following Jesus, I would have told you my belief was a personal decision I’d made about God. I read the Bible and prayed on my own regularly before I had any rich experience of faith community. 

But even then, I look back and see that I thought God loved me and was worth my attention because people I had loved and trusted had told me so or had shown me that was so. It was people who loved Jesus who taught me what forgiveness looks like, what accepting myself looks like, and who keep drawing me back to my best self and my boldest hopes. 

In saying we believe in the God revealed in Christ, we’re not saying we’re proud of everything in the Christian tradition, a lot of which – past and present – is absolute trash. We’re not even saying we believe in everything we hear at our own local church.

But we are saying that the Jesus tradition is one we want to be connected to, and that the teaching of Jesus is one to which we want to be aligned. 

We’re saying we want to be aligned with the good news that we matter to God – that God has decided to never be God without us. We’re saying we want to be connected to a faith that says all people are God’s children, and that God’s children are beautiful, inherently dignified, and loved no matter what we do or who we are. We’re saying that to want to be accountable to a faith that teaches that judgement and pride are toxic and that loving our neighbor and loving our enemy is the height of holiness and the path to joy for us all. 

Participation in a Christian community and tradition and set of commitments shouldn’t mean we need to sign off a bunch of content we say we believe – this church doesn’t require that and I don’t think God does either. But it does say we’d like to share in a community that’s welcoming and learning and practicing the good news of Jesus. 

So belief is trust. And belief is shared. You ready for two more? (Ha, I’m going to assume yes, since I can’t hear you.) Belief is also openness. 

One time while Jesus was out in a fishing boat, crossing a lake with his students, Jesus slept while a storm got worse and worse. After they woke him up, he stood up in the boat, spoke some words, and the water calmed. No matter how many times they told the story, no matter how weird it seemed, they all remembered it exactly like this.

And they remembered too that Jesus turned to them and asked:

Mark 4:40 

Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

I don’t think Jesus is yelling. He calmed a storm, he doesn’t want to start another one. I think he’s really wondering:

what is there to fear? Can’t you remember that there is more in this world than you see or understand? Haven’t you learned that with the help of God and friends, you will have enough? You’ll be alright.

Philosophers and theologians talk a lot about the disenchanted world we live in, how before modernity – the age of reason, all our scientific discoveries which continue to teach us about the size of the universe and how to invent these vaccines that make us so very happy right now – before all that, the whole universe seemed enchanted, magical. God and angels and demons and spirits were responsible for everything we didn’t understand. 

Now that we can explain so much more, some of us have reduced the universe, reduced the world to only that which we can measure and apprehend with our senses. A disenchanted world seems to squeeze out God and to render faith useless or quaint. 

But there are more and more scientists and philosophers and theologians who are like: wait, this doesn’t entirely make sense either. Because there are a lot of things that we can’t measure and apprehend with our senses that are really important to us – things like cause and effect, and the mathematical precision by which so much in the universe operates, and the nature of our consciousness, and the behavior of subatomic particles, and the beautiful and remarkable directions evolution has taken. There’s a whole talk here for another day, but there is still so much more than we can seek or understand. 

There are a lot of bad arguments for the existence of God but a pretty good one is the nearly universal human experience of what we might call the holy – something or someone outside of ourselves that is beautiful or powerful or loving or true beyond our explanation.

Belief is an open mind to who and what is behind this. And belief in the God revealed in Christ is the openness that this God isn’t just a far-off force but is with us all and the rest of creation, intimately and near. Belief is an openness that this same God loves us and is wooing us toward all the very best possibilities. Belief tells us that even with this God, our plans may fail, life will disappoint us in some ways, and we may suffer horribly, but we’ll never be alone and never be outside God’s loving attention and care. 

A number of you have asked me what I did during my month off. And I’ve mostly given boring answers. Like I took walks, and hung out with my family, and read some books, and mostly didn’t do all that much at all. And this is all true. But another answer is that I talked with God about not being in control of my life, and accepting the freedom of that’s just the way it is. 

Like most people in middle age, I’ve come into awareness of what I love and am proud of in my life, but also into awareness of some of my own limitations and sorrows – many of which I tell you about, a few of which I hold more privately. I’ve found that what God is doing in all this awareness and acceptance is inviting me to make peace with not being in control and asking me: Steve, why are you afraid? 

I heard an interview recently with Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman. He was talking about what he calls System 1 thinking – which is fast, intuitive, and unreflective. It’s shaped by our character and genetics and experience and the stories we believe and all that. And then there is System 2 thinking, which is slow and deliberate, shaped by active use of logic and choice at all. And Kahneman makes the point that we exaggerate the importance of our System 2 thinking, when a lot of this thinking we do is really just justification and defense of where our emotions and instinct and intuition take us. 

That seems true to me, and so I’ve wondered if part of faith is taking these beliefs that we hold in our Stage 2 thinking – like we believe that God is with us, and we believe that God is good, and we believe that with the help of God and friends, there will be enough and we’ll be OK, even when we’re not in control, and we believe that more love is the answer and all that. And faith is welcoming habits and prayer and hope that all this will become System 1 for us, that it’ll become more and more our habit and intuition in the world – to be people of faith, hope, and love.

Belief is this kind of openness to God, and a lot of what I did the other month was hope and pray and tell myself and God that I want more of that. Perhaps you do too. 

And lastly, and briefly, belief changes. 

One of the most moving stories in Mark is this time a parent was desperate for Jesus’ help with his kid. Jesus asked about the man’s faith and the this:

Mark 9:24 

24 At that the boy’s father cried out, “I have faith; help my lack of faith!”

I have a little faith, but not a lot. Can you help?

That was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for God and it can be good enough for us. 

There’s no set amount of faith you need to have to believe in God with a community. Belief is trust. It’s shared. It’s openness. And it changes. Belief can lessen and deepen, shrink and grow. Belief isn’t about arriving at a particular level or knowledge base or degree of certainty. It’s about engagement and staying engaged. It’s dynamic, not static. It’s not about a thing you have, but a relationship you’re in.

My invitation for you this summer friends, as you navigate this stage of pandemic or post-pandemic life, is to let your faith be open, let it deepen, grow and find its roots and expression in your life. We’ll be here to find the way together. 

Next week, we’ll talk about the first thing the creed says about God – the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth – and how that’s the best and worst stuff we can say about God, depending on what we mean.

Let’s pray.