A Conversation With Keri Ladouceur

This Sunday Steve talks with Keri Ladouceur -the executive director of a brand new church support network the Post Evangelical Collective.  The Post Evangelical Collective is a home for churches committed to the Way of Jesus, full inclusion, holistic justice, deep and wide formation, and a gracious posture.


Letting Jesus Be Our Teacher

We’re entering the second half of this season of Lent, invited to sit with some of the teachings of Jesus through this year’s theme of our connections to the rest of the Earth. 

Last week, we heard from indigenous wisdom teacher and theologian Randy Woodley. He taught about the Bible’s way of shalom – harmony, wellness, just peace – and the Way of Jesus as it is contextualized into the indigenous cultures from which we call home. 

Part of why I so love the work of my friend Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha, is that the same is true for her. She is animated by the love and wisdom of Jesus, but in Asha’s work our church supports, serving destitute Hindu and Muslim residents of urban North India, she and her team contextualize the Way of Jesus into an empowering way of life that does not require religious conversion to participate in. 

I’m also meeting people throughout the country who are doing this in the weird religious moment that our world is in. Amidst growing rigidity and fundamentalism, in response to change and fear, amidst the increasing revelations of abuse of power and harm in the American evangelical movement, a national church network I’ve been invited to participate in is getting off the ground.

The thing is called the Post Evangelical Collective. It’s a community for pastors and churches who have some roots and history in the evangelical Christian movement, but because of the way we’re following Jesus in this age, with radical commitments to justice and inclusion, we don’t fit there any more. And this post-evangelical collective is emerging to resource and connect churches like us all around the country and beyond. 

I’m really excited to be part of this movement and I hope as it gets going, for our church to be part of it too. This May, we’ll be hosting the first New England gathering of the Post Evangelical collective. You won’t see it, because it will be a small thing for pastors, but a mentor of mine and friend of this church David Gushee will be in town for the gathering and we’ll offer some kind of class or conversation in the evening you’ll all be invited to. 

I’m so excited about this venture, that I’ve already started planning for next year’s gathering, and I’ve already scheduled another great national leader to come be with us and also to preach one weekend here at Reservoir. This new friend of ours is Drew Hart. Drew’s a theology professor and a leading speaker and author on antiracism, justice, and activism in the church.

All to say, pray for our church and for this new venture, the Post Evangelical Collective, if you can. That it be healthy, that it be a way for us to better connect with, learn from, and support like minded churches, and that it be a place where the wisdom and love and power of Jesus can sit well and be fruitful in our generation and in the generations to come. 


Alright, as I said, in our theme of earth – about our connection with all of creation, encouraging humility, gratitude, and openness – we spend the third quarter of our guide, starting today, looking at the earth teaching of Jesus. We look at his quaint little stories about seeds and crops and birds and trees and see if the Spirit of Christ, who is always with us, can teach and provoke us anew.

I had planned to have us sit with three or four different teachings of Jesus in this sermon, letting them speak anew to us but I got so deep in the first one, the shortest one to which I was drawn, that that’s mostly all we’ve time for, a little one verse, one sentence teaching of Jesus. 

Here it is: 

Matthew 13:33 (Common English Bible)

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

Last week, I was at a Board meeting for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. There were some new Board members there and we were doing this team activity about the values we wanted to see represented in the work, and I just wasn’t drawn to all the words on the table like courage and equity and creativity and all that. Nothing wrong with those values, it’s just they seemed kind of bland and abstract. And I’m not believing much in bland, abstract ideas these days, if I don’t see them in action.

Jesus didn’t give people adjectives to live by or aspire to, he told stories. So I thought of values that were embedded in stories. I quoted Howard Thurman, spiritual mentor to the civil rights movement, whose work one of my community groups has been reading. 

And I was like one value I have is “contact, with fellowship.” My group had been talking about Thurman’s phrase in Jesus and the Disinherited, where he talks about the danger of the opposite, how contact without fellowship breeds contempt. This is why white people with superficial, transactional contact with people of color can actually become more racist. Or it’s why some teachers, not most teachers, but some come to hate their young students. 

It’s contact without fellowship. And I was like: I want fellowship, real, respectfully engaged relationships in everything we do.

And the other thing that came to mind with me was this story Jesus told. So I wrote on my values card: a fistful of yeast that feeds a village. 

People didn’t really know what to do with that. Like what kind of value is a fistful of yeast? 

So I told this little story – there was a woman with a fistful of yeast, who hid it in a whole bushel of flour, until it worked its way through all the dough. 

Admittedly, who knows what it means? Single, celled fungi are amazing. Science! There’s one take away.

Or little things can have a lot of power. There’s another, I guess.

But I was like:

How about this? Jesus honors the skill, the labor, the contributions of working class women. How about that for a value? 

It’s a tiny story, but I love it. Jesus picturing this woman kneading yeast into the dough, working it through, picturing all the bread it’s going to make. 

What does he mean when he says this is what the kingdom of God is like? This is the Beloved Community, this is the reign of God.

I wonder if it means the beloved community is about feeding people, about more than enough bread for everyone. 

There’s a bit we miss in translation, this bit about the bushel of flour. This woman isn’t making a loaf, she’s making dozens of loaves, maybe a hundred. A bushel of flour is like 40 pounds or more. Like five-10 of those big bags of flour you find in the supermarket.

It’s an obscene amount of bread, if you’re cooking for a family. It’s just right, though, if you’re cooking for a village. This is bread enough for a temple, a synagogue, a neighborhood. 

When you cook, set a wide table, and make enough for everyone. This is beloved community.

It’s cool that this is in reach of a working class woman. Most people who get celebrated in history are rich and powerful men. When meals get remembered, people talk about the guest of honor, or the folks who had enough resources to hire caterers. 

But most people, with skill and care, can feed a community. A pretty poor person can save up enough funds to buy 10 bags of flour and a few jars of yeast. 

And maybe that’s beloved community too – when you take what you have, and with the help of God and friends and fungal food chemistry, you work it to maximum impact. That’s a story worth telling too.

Or maybe again, it’s just recognizing the power and honoring the labor of working class women, and anyone else that gets overlooked. 

This is why I brought this up in GBIO. We have plenty of workplaces and government units and communities that honor the gifts and labor of the best educated and wealthiest and highest status people among us. 

We don’t need more of that. 

Most of these abuse of power stories I talked about in my sermon on repentance, they wouldn’t have happened, or they would have been cut off fast, if people hadn’t been so trusting and protective of the status of powerful men, if we’d been honoring the voice and power of ordinary women and children.

We need more companies and cultures that will recognize and celebrate the voice and power of ordinary people, of marginalized people.

On Thursday, some of us were part of an action for housing justice on the steps of the state house. It was awesome. More than 300 people, coming to the governor and the heads of the Mass State house and senate, having built a coalition and done our homework to insist on the kinds of funding and policies that ensure dignified, affordable housing for all people, in all our communities. 

If you want to get involved in this work, talk to Pastor Lydia. She was actually leading the action on Thursday. Oh, and friends, you should have been there. Wow, Lydia was on fire! So skilled, so articulate, incredibly moving and impassioned, with brilliant attention to detail. You should be so proud to have a pastor that can lead like that in public life. I was just beaming watching my colleague lead this work.

Really special.

You know what was just as special, though, and maybe even more a sign of the work of the Spirit of Jesus, it was when two working class women, tenant leaders who live in local public housing, advocated for the budget it would take to actually maintain the low income, public housing of our state.

Bishnu talked about what it’s like to be a South Asian, Hindu immigrant and be told you can’t take off your shoes in your own home. All the asbestos, all the cockroaches you see night and day are too big a risk for your skin, so keep your shoes on. 

And at the state house, with crowds of followers, Bishnu told the press and the government, we deserve apartments clean enough so that we can take our shoes off indoors.

And then Arleen talked about growing up as a serial victim of all manner of trauma, moving from house to house only to be abused again and again in other people’s homes. And she called out to the leaders of our state, all of us deserve our own place to call home where we can shut and lock the door and be safe. 

We were led by these working class women whose voices in the past have been disregarded, shut down, told “you can’t” again and again. Not by Jesus, though. The kingdom of God is the power of working class women to effect radical generosity, community-transforming change. 

To these women, Jesus says: I see you. I hear you. You can do it. You have the power. Spirit of God is doing this still, friends. I saw and heard it happen this Thursday. 

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.

It reminds me of another scripture, from the letter called I Corinthians, where the faith leader, apostle Paul, writes, in the first chapter:

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.

28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.

29 So no human being can brag in God’s presence. 

I’ve shared before that Reservoir is part of a faith tradition, the way of Jesus, a way that as a religion has been called Christianity, is badly in need of massive reform.

I often call that reform the decolonizing of the faith. Finding all the abuse of power, the controlling theology and ethics, the spiritual and community practices that don’t bear good fruit and replacing it all with what helps us get free. Uncovering the Way of Jesus in dialogue with the times and culture we live in for a renewed, healthy, powerful faith.

Some of that is peeling off a lot of stuff that Christianity accrued over centuries as a European, colonizing religion. It’s the humbling of the Western Christian tradition. Taking a lot of what was considered extra something and reducing it to nothing. 

But I was thinking this week: what’s some of the gold of this tradition we’re keeping. What are the babies of European or Western Christianity we’re not throwing out as we try to drain the toxic bathwater? 

And I was realizing that a lot of this is the good stuff that was born out of humble people. It’s wisdom and power drawn from the spiritual yeast of people who met God in their trauma. 

I think of Brother Lawrence. He was a 17th century monk at a time when prayer was pretty formal, the reading and chanting of words written by others. But he developed this mode of prayer which was not formal at all. In fact, it was not necessarily even saying much at all, but kind of reminding oneself throughout the day, whatever you’re doing, that you’re a child of God and all of you is loved by all of God. 

He called this practicing the presence of God. And he had such great joy and peace from this that people flocked to him to learn his secret. It was disarmingly simple. While he peeled potatoes, or mended shoes or whatever, he’d simply remember:

God is there. And I am God’s child, loved so very much.

And that gave him the freedom to think and feel and say whatever he thought and felt knowing God was attuned to him, paying loving attention to him. And so he felt at peace, and so he loved God too. That was it. 

So simple, but enduringly influential through this day. How did this spiritual breakthrough occur? How did Brother Lawrence learn to pray like this? 

Well, it was born of trauma. 

I was listening to an interview with Carmen Acevdeo Butcher, a scholar with a new translation out of the 17th work of the monk Brother Lawrence, famous for the practice of the presence of God. 

Lawrence grew up dirt poor, he was uneducated. As a teenager, with no school, no resources, he ends up being drawn into the army, as poor people often are. He served for a few years in the Thirty Years’ War, a brutal, long, violent religious war in Central Europe. He was injured in war, permanently disabled. He suffered chronic pain over the next 50 years. He ended up in the monastery because he failed at other jobs. And in the monastery, he had a low rank. He cooked soup, washed dishes, mended shoes. And he said people told him all these complicated ways to pray – that with his low education maybe, with his anxiety or PTSD just didn’t work for him. 

But out of his own need for healing, he discovered he could remember again and again that God was with him, knowing and loving him always, and then he could silently communicate whatever he felt and thought to God. And he described this as a returning again and again to love, a returning to love, and that slowly healed him. 

Breakthroughs in our faith, born out of pain, disability, living on the edges of the tradition. This has been true again and again. People seek God, or they find God seeking them, in trauma, and they become our guides. 

Julian of Norwich, Julianna of Norwich I call her, taught us the mother-love of a God who mostly by then was seen only as male, Father. She had a wildly hopeful, optimistic faith, which disarmed the angry, wrathful God she was taught and helped us see that all of God is love.

How’d she get there? A vision of Jesus while so sick with the plague she thought she was dying. Traumatized by the death that was everywhere around her – some people think she had a baby child who died of the plague – in this grief and trauma, in her weakness, God found her, and she became one of our great teachers of prayer and of the love of God.

Again and again this has been so. 

This is the way of God on earth – working class women with a fistful of yeast to feed a village, or a story to tell that gets housing for a community. A disabled veteran who can’t pray the right way until God shows him a better way. A traumatized young widow on her sickbed, who has a vision of bloody Jesus that becomes God her friend, God her love, God her mother, and she knows all will be well somehow, everything will be well. 

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.

28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. 

If you ever are accounted by yourself or by others as foolish or weak or low-class or low-life, know that you are the one God chooses. You are the means for the miracle. 

And if you are ever accounted by yourself or by others as wise or strong or high class, know that you might need to look to others to lead you in the best ways of God. 

Jesus says, that woman with nothing but yeast and flour will lead us. The scriptures say a child will lead us. 

Don’t despise weak people and small things. 

A couple weeks ago, a third grader in our church found me on his way outside, and stopped to show me what he had done in kids church that day. With my adult eyes, I was inclined to see a kid’s tiny cheap pot of earth, nothing more. Cute maybe, but a kids’ craft, nothing much. But this child, Junia, he helped me see what he saw. He said: look, a sunflower. I didn’t see the sunflower. I saw a tiny bit of dirt in a child’s hand. But Junia saw a new life he had co-created, a seed in the dirt that was on its way to a giant, golden sunflower that just might get taller than him. 

Is that charming and cute? 

Or is it just true? Is it the Beloved Community reign of God?

We so easily despise the people of the earth we account as weak or small, don’t we. Not Jesus. Spirit of Christ says the Beloved Community reign of God flows from their yeast and flour, their hospitality and voice, their advocacy, their truth, their trauma, their spiritual and religious innovations.

Pay attention. Learn from them. Honor them. If you’re one of them, let your light shine. It just might be the very light of God we need.

And we so easily despise new beginnings. Because new beginnings of Beloved Community, of the reign of God are small. All new beginnings are small. 

If the Way of Jesus is going to be uncovered, found winsome and empowering again in this country, it’s going to start in new beginnings – small but beautiful things like Reservoir Church and the Post Evangelical Collective and our friend Mariama’s beautiful New Roots Church in Dorchester and many other small, but powerful ventures. 

If we’re going to see our world’s massive urban slums become healthier, more just places, where – as the Bible puts it – ash heaps are resurrected to garden communities of hope – it’s going to start city by city, with new life born of seeds and flours like Asha and Cheza sports.

When we learn to pray again, when we learn that God loves us and our faith is renewed, when justice breaks forth like the sun at morning dawn, it’s going to burst forth from the wisdom of the Juliannas and Lawrences, those that met God through trauma, it’s going to burst forth from the powerful truth of working class women like Bishnu and Arleen. 

Friends, every plant, every life is born of tiny, dying seed.

The most beautiful things of God burst forth from people and places some of us considered nothing, a fistful of yeast. 

Don’t ever patronize, condescend to, or despise God’s presence and truth in the people and places that some of the world considers low class and low life. Don’t ever patronize, condescend to, or despise God’s presence and truth in the parts of your own self you consider nothing.

And friends, don’t ignore or despise small beginnings, because all beloved community, all of the reign of God, every great love story, every miracle of resurrection looks pretty dang small at first. 

When you perceive it, celebrate, give thanks, pour out all your love and hope onto small beginnings. It’s the way of Jesus, it’s the way of the God, it’s the hope of the world.

Deconstruction: Necessity, Tragedy, Opportunity

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

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

Hebrews 13:12-14 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That makes me even more angry, more heartbroken. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 107:33-36 (Common English Bible)

33 God turns rivers into desert,

watery springs into thirsty ground,

34 fruitful land into unproductive dirt,

        when its inhabitants are wicked.

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

    thirsty ground into watery springs,

36     where he settles the hungry.

They even build a city and live there!

Getting In On the Christmas Spirit

Hey Friends, so Christmas is just one week from today, but I’m feeling a little flat on Christmas spirit this year. 

Who’s really been feeling Christmas this year, like you are so into the holiday season?

And who’s like me and just hasn’t really gotten there yet?

I mean in past years, we did this by turning our living room into kind of a Christmas shrine. Our family would get a decent sized tree, and we’d pull out our big box of ornaments and decorate like crazy. My parents are really into Christmas ornaments as gifts, and I’ve known them for almost 50 years, so we have a lot of them. Decorating the tree, smelling it, sitting by it in the evening with some Christmas music on – that’s been a really nice part of this month most years for me. 

But we got a puppy this summer, and he’s still in the sticks are for chewing phase of dog life – and little shiny things like ornaments are for chewing too, so Grace and I were thinking: no way on the Christmas tree this year.

Our kids insisted we get a little one and put it in the basement, which we did, but since we don’t hang out in the basement much, that’s mostly meant a half-decorated baby Christmas tree sits there all by itself, not really stoking the Christmas spirit at all.

When I was younger, I used to sing a lot this time of year. I have all these memories of singing in Christmas concerts in schools and churches and community centers and big concert halls in Boston, and tiny little country clubs and living rooms. I’ve sung Christmas music all kinds of places, and loved doing that, but it’s been a while since I’ve done much of that, and I’m a little picky about what Christmas music I like and haven’t even listened to much of that this year either. 

Anyway, for whatever reasons, here we are, a week from Christmas, and it’s falling a little flat for me. So for me, if nothing else, but maybe for some of you too, I want to talk about how this week, and in the days and weeks after that, we can get in on the Christmas spirit action a little more. 

Today is the the fourth Sunday of Advent, the church’s four week pre-Christmas season that ends next weekend at our Christmas Eve services, in person at 4:30 p.m. and online at 7:00 p.m.

In our Advent guide we produced this year, that you’ll find at our website, we spent the first three weeks looking at the self-giving love of God with all of us. And in the final week the guide invites us to join God in a little bit of self-giving love of our own, to celebrate Christmas by participating in the love of God in our own way. 

Jesus, again and again in his teaching about the kingdom of the heavens, of the beloved community, invites us to participate together in the love of God. Here’s one time he does that, a teaching that has become known as the parable, or the story, of the sheep and the goats. It goes like this:

Matthew 25:31-46 (Common English Bible)

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.

32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began.

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

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

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink?

38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear?

39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.

42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.

43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’

45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’

46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

Kind of a surprising choice for a Christmas text, I know. No shepherds or stables or baby Jesus, and instead of peace and joy, Jesus talks about a sometimes angry king, dividing up two very surprised groups of people. And in the story, to some he says: Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. It’s like a bad Santa kind of moment – he knows if you’ve been bad or good – but the stakes here aren’t presents or a lump of coal. The stakes are inheriting the kingdom prepared for you, or unending fire and eternal punishment.

Whoo. Let’s deal with the scary part of this story first. 

Jesus is telling a story. And like every story people tell, including stories Jesus tells, the point is never whether or not it’s all literally true. When people tell stories, we pretty much always know it’s not all literally true. That’s not the point.

The point is whatever truth or truths the story is communicating. The point is how we’re invited to respond to and participate in the story – either for entertainment value, or reflection, or in this case, to shake up our sense of how the world works and how to live in it. 

Here Jesus is telling a kind of story that was popular in the religious culture of his era. These were stories about a judgment throne, where God would evaluate people’s lives and faith. And the point of these stories was more about the present than about the future. 

It’s like science fiction. Science fiction looks like it’s about the future, but usually it’s using a story about the future to say something about the present.

Same here. Jesus tells this story about a time when the Human One – a nickname he used for himself – is going to help God evaluate humanity. And the point of these stories is to tell us how to live in the present – they tell us what kind of lives, what kind of faith God wants for us. The point isn’t so much to imagine what kind of curse or reward might come our way some day – that’s more of a set up for the story. The point is to pay attention to what Jesus is saying about the good life, to pay attention to what Jesus is inviting us to. 

Beyond the rewards and punishment aspect of the story, though, the rest of what Jesus is saying about the good life is kind of surprising too.

I mean, last week I Googled how to get in on the Christmas spirit, and the stuff I found was like: listen to Christmas music, light some candles, drink eggnog, bake some more, wash your hands with holiday hand soaps. I don’t know what a holiday handsoap is, by the way. Do you? 

One website was trying to argue that you get into the Christmas spirit by doing more chores. 

Which kind of nonplussed me, by the way. 

Now Jesus does have this story he tells about baking, but his advice here for the good life – at Christmas or maybe any other time too – is nothing like this. 

Jesus is like:

Go visit the prison. Feed someone. Take care of a sick person.

And not only that, but he says do these things because when you do them, you are doing them for me. Jesus says

I’m the hungry and thirsty person. I’m the sick one. I’m the asylum seeker, the undocumented immigrant,

what in Jesus’ time, they just called the stranger. I’m the naked one. I’m the prisoner. 

Now this isn’t a classic Christmas story, but it turns out that this is actually at the heart of the Christmas story.

The Christmas story Jesus is in doesn’t really have anything to do with candles and carols and baking and holiday hand soaps, whatever those are. 

It’s about God’s radical inversion of the social pyramid. It’s a kind of flipping of the script of where God is and what is the good life. 

All societies have their social pyramids – the kind of masses of ordinary people at the bottom and in the middle and the special people we all wish we were at the top. Now, some of the details change from time to time. Some societies praise the beauty of skinny people for instance and some praise the beauty of rounder people. Standards of beauty change. 

But I don’t think any society has said, you know who’s at the top of the pyramid, the people closest to God – it’s the people without food. It’s the sick people and the imprisoned people, and the outsiders who don’t belong people. 

In Jesus’ context, in the first century Roman empire, they had a pretty clear pyramid. Rich, free, men who were Roman citizens were at the top of the pyramid. They could have whatever they wanted, they lived the good life, and at the very tip top of all those rich free Roman men was their king, their Caesar. 

And when a new king was born, there was a nativity story, a celebration of his birth. They called him the son of God. They shared the gospel of his birth, sending out messengers – in Greek angelos or angels to announce: a king is born, he will bring glory and peace on earth, good news to all peoples. 

It sounds like the Christmas story, doesn’t it?

But in Jesus’ Christmas story, we’re not in Rome but on the eastern edges of the empire in the Jewish town of Bethlehem. And there aren’t candles and holiday hand soaps – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – that’d come later, but there’s just a dirty old barn and a feeding trough, the stench of sheep piss and donkey crap in the air. As Mary nurses the baby Jesus on his first night of life, there aren’t ambassadors and servants to wait upon him, just dirty village shepherds. 

This doesn’t sound much like glory. It’s not what we expect from a king, it’s not where we’d expect to find God either. I mean who meditates on the image of a barnyard? Who lights sheep piss, animal dung scented candles for their prayer times? 

This is upside down, it subverts all our expectations.

Howard Thurman, pastor to America’s civil rights movement, one of the great Christian mystics and activists of the 20th century, wrote a landmark book called Jesus and the Disinherited. In it, he argues that the disinherited – those denied inheritance of wealth or power or honor or privilege – are God’s favored people. Jesus came first, he writes, to those with their backs against the walls. 

And so if we read the story of the sheep and the goats, the so-called greatest and least of our species, we can hear Jesus inviting us:

you want to get in on the Christmas spirit? I’ll tell you where I am. I’m with the sick and imprisoned, the hungry and the stranger, I’m with everyone whose back is up against the wall. Join me there, love me there. And you’ll have your reward. 

Years ago, Grace and I knew a couple who tried to live this way very earnestly. And every year during Advent, what they did is they gave a Christmas present, a birthday gift, to Jesus. And the way they did that was in light of this story Jesus told. They fed hungry people or visited sick people, clothed people, engaged with estranged or imprisoned people. 

Their names were Cary and Lil, and newly married, in our 20s, Grace and I were like: we want to be like that. So when we had kids, we decided we would not give our kids presents but together we would make a gift to Jesus. Some years, that meant pooling our money for a charitable donation. It’s meant serving food for a day at a local meal center for the unhoused, stuff like that. 

At first, that was awesome, but then as we had a second and a third kid, and they started getting aware of the world, we were like: you know, we like part of this tradition. But we also don’t want our kids to find us stingy and mean, which if we never give them Christmas gifts, that might be hard for them.

So we started to do the gift to Jesus thing together but also to give gifts to our kids too. 

But how do we think about what it means to give gifts to Jesus by engaging in love with the people Jesus especially identifies with: the bottom of the pyramid, so so called “least of these,” the disinherited, those with their backs against the wall.

You could view this as payback. Jesus says God loves you, so love God back, and this is how you do it. Not be getting more religious but by loving the people Jesus especially identifies with. 

And maybe there is something to that, but I guess I also prefer to think of it not just as payback but more like “paying it forward” – God has loved me, blessed me so much, and Jesus invites me to participate in the flow of that love, to continue passing it on. And he teaches how to do so, in a way that also brings him joy. 

Our friends in Asha, the slum development community in north India, are especially and beautifully committed to this “pay it forward” way of life. They teach and practice that everyone needs to be loved. We all have hurting, lonely, needy part of ourselves. And everyone, no matter how sick, no matter how poor, everyone has something to give too. We can all feed and clothe and visit and love someone else, within our own means and abilities. So they teach and practice “pay it forward” loving communities. It’s very powerful. 

Sometimes a problem come up when we try to live this way. I’ll call it the problem of charity. Where you can start to literally see other groups of people as the least of these, lower than you, and serve them in some way out of a condescending pity. Do it for the least of these. 

Grace and I are in a small group with a few others from this church where we’ve had this discussion recently. We’re studying this book I mentioned, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. And there are people in that group whose whole careers are about compassionate service and social justice, and other people in that group that don’t do that for our jobs, but care deeply.

And we were asking:

Is this what Jesus wants from us? More charity? Whether on the giving or receiving of charity, more non-relational handouts? Disconnected, but generous, condescension? 

We don’t think so.

I’ve been watching Breaking Bad the last month – maybe that’s why the Christmas spirit hasn’t really settled in. It’s like the most nihilistic, violent, negative story arc ever. Somehow gripping still.

Anyway, the whole arc of that five-season show turns on a suddenly quite sick man’s lack of interest in receiving charity. He just won’t do it, can’t do it. So he becomes a meth producer instead.

I’ve been there too – not the drug dealer part, but the bad feeling one gets when you feel like you’re the subject of someone else’s charitable handout. Doesn’t feel good. 

So I’ve wondered if the point of this passage, and the invitation to the Christmas spirit too, isn’t payback, isn’t even pay it forward, but is participation.

Later, the apostle John, reflecting on this story perhaps, wrote this in a letter:

I John 4:7-8 (Common English Bible)

7 Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.

8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. 

So simple. God is love. All love somehow has its origins in God. So when we love, we are participating in the love of God. We know God when we love, whether we’re religious or spiritual or not, whether we call it God or not. But when we don’t love, when we don’t participate in the flow of God’s love for all people and all things, the reverse is true. No matter what we say about ourselves or our faith, when we don’t love, we don’t know God either. 

Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s not about charity, it’s about solidarity. When we ignore or dismiss those who are hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, immigrants and asylum seekers and all, we ignore and dismiss Jesus. Just as when we love God’s image bearers, and especially those whose dignity and needs are neglected and trashed, then we love God.

I take this super-literally for what it’s worth. I’m still trying to give Christmas presents to Jesus in this spirit, including my family when I can. As a pastor to a relatively wealthy, privileged community, I try to let myself be interrupted and inconvenienced when sick or dying or imprisoned people call. 

Our church takes this kind of literally too. We try to prioritize in our church resources a participatory flow of love to Jesus in the faces and bodies of the excluded, neglected, impoverished, and oppressed. And to do that in a dignity-honoring, participatory way, not a condescending, so called charitable way. 

I hope you can find your way into this.

But I want to end with an invitation toward the insight of our friends in India with Asha, the insight we had in my Saturday Bible study that read this passage yesterday too, that this is a call to participation. We all have something to give, something to share. And we all have parts of us that are the least of these too, that are in need. 

So to get into the Christmas spirit this week, I invite you to ask and respond to two questions.

One is, what do I need, and how do I ask for it? 

What do I need, and who can I ask for it? 

My heart was really powerfully awakened by this question last week, and I feel God spoke to me about a need I have to let go of some trauma that has passed by me, to breathe it out, and I’m looking for ways to do that this Christmas. 

How about you? What do you need? And who can you ask for it?

And secondly: what do I have to give? How can I give and love with abandon?

Or as we ask it in our guide:

How this Christmas can you participate in God’s self-giving love? Who will you see? Who will you visit? How will you see Jesus in them, and show up accordingly? 

This is the way into the Christmas spirit my friends – the candles, the songs, even the holiday hand soaps are fine if you’ve got them. But this stepping in the great and beautiful love of God – this is where the magic is at. Let’s join Jesus there. We’ll be glad you did. 


Earlier this fall, someone from our community – Meredith – was baptized down the road from here in Mystic Lake. She hadn’t been baptized before and really wanted this ceremony, this blessing, before launching on a big new venture in her life that would take her away from this community and this city…at least for a while. 

For some reason, this had me thinking about another need to get baptized moment I experienced years ago. I was helping lead a weekend retreat off site by a different lake. It was winter time, or close to it, and we didn’t really go outside at all, let alone down to the waters. But someone at the retreat that I knew told me:

Steve, my friend wants to get baptized. Can we do that? 

And I said:

Sure, I love baptizing people. Let me talk to them and we’ll set something up back at the church in a few weeks.

And he was like:

No, he needs it now. And there’s a lake outside, can’t we do that?

At first I thought: It’s too cold. You know how cold it is, right?

And I asked:

What’s the rush? It’s baptism, not a trip to the hospital. 

But my friend explained a little, and later that day his friend much more why this was important. This guy’s life was a mess at the moment. There’d been some pretty big failings and he was trying to make things right with his spouse and some other people, and getting baptized was a way he felt like he could try to make things right with God and with himself first.

That made sense, so we talked and prayed, and walked over to the nearly freezing lake, took off some clothes, and in we went to those bracing, cleansing waters. It was fun. It was memorable. 

That memory has gotten me doing something quirky. Once a week, I’ve been going to one of our local lakes in my bathing suit, and throwing myself in. I don’t own a wetsuit. I don’t stay in long. But for reasons I can only partly explain, I’ve been drawn to the waters, as some kind of self-baptism if that’s a thing, a kind of bracing, cleansing, immersive experience of God. 

Today, I ask what’s behind all these experiences.

  • Why are we so drawn to water?
  • How does it speak to us and connect us with the divine?
  • What does it mean when scriptures say that God is water?
  • And are there ways we can more regularly be aware of God’s revitalizing, watery powers for us all? 

This is the 4th of 6 weeks where we’re exploring parts of my friend Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s amazing book God is Here. It’s so good. If you read books, you owe yourself a chance to read this one. 

Let’s take a tour through three of the many Biblical passages Toba highlights. 

We start at the beginning.

Genesis 1:1-2 (Everett Fox)

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and earth, when the earth was unformed and void, darkness over the face of the Deep, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.

This is a very literal translation by Everett Scott, a Hebrew scholar and poet who captures the feel of the language of the Hebrew Bible. We’re invited to imagine the primordial earth, long before humans, long before dinosaurs, long before there was any life at all. 

The earth, it says, was watery chaos – the deep waters from which we know all life emerged. And God was like a mighty spirit-wind flying over and through and out of that watery deep. It’s a reminder of the waters and the depths from which we come. And there’s this image of God hovering over the deeps, calling for life to emerge. 

Water is the source of life. And God is in the water. 

Maybe this is why I feel God with me whenever I dunk myself in each week. In that buoyancy of the water, I’m always reminded I’m not alone. Like a little kid in my mum or dad’s arms, I feel upheld, supported. God is with me. And that feels good.

We skip forward a couple of books to Leviticus, and the beginning of ancient Israel’s priesthood. 

Leviticus 8:6 (Common English Bible)

6 Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them in water. 

The priests are there to pray for the people and help them pay attention to God, stay connected to God. And part of the way the priests are set aside for what they do is that they are washed ceremonially in water. It’s not a bath so much as a spiritual cleansing. 

This ritual cleansing has morphed over the centuries and millennia in Judaism. In Christianity, it became the ceremony we call baptism. 

When I baptize adults, I always ask them privately, in sacred confidence, if there is any sin they want to confess – maybe a big shame or regret they hope they can carry lighter, knowing God’s forgiven them and can empower new life in them.

Sometimes they’re like: naw, I’m good.

Which is fine, in our tradition you this kind of confession to another human is always voluntary, never required. Usually, though, people appreciate the opportunity. They talk about mistakes or regrets, sometimes unburdening very big things, a huge moral failing as a spouse or a friend or parent or any number of other things.

Sometimes, it’s not their sin they want to confess, but wrong done to them, a huge hurt they want to know more healing from God in. Either way, it’s a rare chance to be really honest and to be assured that a God of new life and second chances is with us. Which is always good news, right, because life’s long and hard, and we need all the love, all the healing, all the chances. 

When I go into the waters each week, I try to make a confession first too, to tell God where I need cleansing. Sometimes it’s a word I wish I hadn’t said, a thing I wish I hadn’t done, but it’s broader than this too. I call to mind all the crap and muck that litters my mind and heart – a hurt here, a regret there, an anxiety or a ruminating thought I just can’t shake, and I’m like God:

Could you bathe that out of me. Wash my mind, my heart, help me walk more free?

You know how usually you take a shower just out of habit or part of your regular hygiene and all. But sometimes you take a shower to shake off a bad feeling or a bad experience or state of mind, right? And the shower helps you clear your head, you sometimes come out unburdened, more free. That’s what’s happening to me too. 

So with the priests, who needed their heads and their hearts clear to serve God and the people. Cleansing waters. 

And then the last book of the Torah, the book of speeches along the Jordan River, before entering the promised land. Moses says:

Deuteronomy 8:7 (Common English Bible)

the Lord your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills;

Water’s God’s abundance and vitality. It’s the sign of what I say almost nightly at dinner:

Thank you God that there is more than enough. 

Here the water is the source of crops to eat and wells for drinking. It’s hope for life for these tribal people as they cross the Jordan, filled with hope. 

This past summer, I went to the Jordan River too.

A mentor of mine had encouraged me to think of my trip to Israel and Palestine as a pilgrimage, to ask myself what am I bringing to this land and what am I hoping to find there?

And in asking that, what came to mind were all these sorrows in my life I was carrying. A couple of the sorrows were particular to me and to relationships in my life, different forms of grief and loss. And then many of the sorrows were those of people I love, but that I knew close and well enough that I felt the weight of them too.

And I thought, I need to bring my sorrows on pilgrimage with me, and I need God to meet me in them. Maybe I don’t need God to take them away, like trying to use God to not feel pain or grief that is right and healthy to feel. That’s called spiritual bypassing, when we try to use God or faith or religion to avoid hard things, and that doesn’t make us lighter people or bigger people, just shallower. 

What I wanted wasn’t pain relief, it was integration, it was hope. I needed help in carrying these sorrows. I wanted a deeper faith that God was in the sorrows too, that God was on the scene to help.

So I filled a prescription bottle with tiny bits of paper with a couple of words on each representing these sorrows. 

And while the other pastors I was traveling with were busy getting ready to rebaptize themselves in the Jordan River, I waded up to my knees downstream, and one by one, I held those little slips of paper underwater, kind of baptizing the sorrows, you could say. And I asked Jesus, hold this one, and hold this one, and hold this one. We all need your help. 

And you know what happened? Nothing. It was an act of faith, and sometimes with acts of faith, you feel something and sometimes not at all, and this was one of those not at all moments. But I was like:

Well, I’ve done what I wanted to do, so I said thanks, God, and went and watched my colleagues have fun dunking each other in the river.

A few days later, though, when I was praying up at the temple mount in Jerusalem, something broke open in me. And on my knees by that ancient wall, I just wept and wept, like I haven’t in years.

Like a purging of grief or something, tears pouring out as I thought of myself and all these other people in my heart, all these sorrows. I felt connected, like I stand with a large and mighty community of faith, running back through our spiritual ancestors all the way to Jesus and beyond. And I felt too:

God, you’ve got it, don’t you? You’re here with all of us, all these sorrows, and you are very much for us all. One way or another, we’re gonna be alright, aren’t we?

I feel a bit of that energy and strength each week as I get out of the waters I’ve been throwing myself into. Not pouring tears again like that, but still, feeling cleansed and connected and strengthened. Maybe it’s the presence of God, maybe it’s just the cold water submersion, but I feel more alive every time I do it. 

I’m not alone. In our last Board meeting, we talked about this God is Here series. I shared that we’d be looking at some of the Old Testament’s non-human metaphors for God. I named some of them – rock, place, voice, fire, cloud, water, and so on – and asked them which spoke to them most about God. And the most popular was water.

One person talked about going to the ocean to see just how big and beautiful it is, just like God. The ocean is always big enough, my therapist tells me. It’s true, and so it is with God. 

Another person talked about how different it feels to be under water – swimming, diving – and how those are the times he most experiences God. 

The scriptures tell us we come from water. We are cleansed by water. We owe our lives to water, and in so many ways, we are revitalized by water too. In all this and more, God is with us. God is with us in the waters. 

And maybe that’s the sermon… that all the best that water is, God is too. And the water helps us know it. 

But here’s the thing. One more bit. Some part of us knows all this already. And yet the experience can be hard to access.

I know that when I’m tired or low on energy, the best thing to do next is drink a tall glass of water. Because unless you’re one of those obsessive hydrators who carries around your own half gallon jug, who of us drinks enough water? 

I know this, but when my energy’s a little low, I’m more likely to grab one of the Halloween candy bars lying around, than I am to hydrate. 

Am I alone?

And I know that for me – may not for everyone – but for me, my days go best when they start with prayer. I have some scriptures, some written prayers I like to read slowly. I meditate on bits of the gospels and the psalms. I hold my own needs before God and the needs of a whole bunch of people in my life and people in this community. I review my day behind me and my day before me, asking God for insight, direction, vision. 

I’ve been praying for decades, and this way of connecting with God is familiar to me. It centers and grounds me, gives me more hope and purpose, in other words, I like doing it. It feels good. It helps me.

But many mornings of my life, I make my coffee, and sit down, and half an hour later, I realized I’ve checked three social media sites, and two news outlets, and my email and my online banking balance, but I haven’t prayed at all. And it’s time to get my kids to school and get on with my day. And I don’t feel energized at all. 

Do you have this version of this, I wonder. Knowing what brings you life, but not going there? Or knowing specifically what helps you connect with God, but settling for substitutes?

The scriptures name this phenomenon really well too, and they associate this too with God as water.

Jeremiah 2:10-13 (Common English Bible)

Look to the west as far as the shores of Cyprus

    and to the east as far as the land of Kedar.

Ask anyone there:

    Has anything this odd ever taken place?

11     Has a nation switched gods,

        though they aren’t really gods at all?

Yet my people have exchanged their glory

    for what has no value.

12 Be stunned at such a thing, you heavens;

    shudder and quake,

        declares the Lord.

13 My people have committed two crimes:

    They have forsaken me, the spring of living water.

    And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water.

The prophet is so confused. It’s like, well, there’s this God we call the Spring of Living Water. Yeah, fountain God, so good, that you drink from God and you are glorious – more alive, vibrant with inner beauty and joy. 

And then people are like,

Oh, yeah, but I have this plastic toy god I kind of like playing with instead.

Or like,

Oh yeah, spring of living water is over here, but I’m going to dig a ditch in this bit of sand and see what I get there instead. 

It’s odd, but it’s also just what we do. 

We’re drawn to habits of living that don’t satisfy us and make us alive. And we’re drawn to what the Bible calls idols, stuff we look to for God-sized security and help, that increasingly demands our time and devotion, while decreasingly rewarding us at all. 

Addictions are famously like this – clinical addictions of various kinds but even sort of addiction-lite, like compulsively scrolling on our phones, or distractedly numbing ourselves out with food or fantasy or whatever. Our obsessions with money, with stuff that we think will make us secure or happy are like this too. 

We’re habitually drawn away from God because idols have advertisers – like buy more, eat more, consume more, save more, worry more, whatever.

But you know what’s cool? Even in the busy, weird, distracting world of ours, and even in these times where drinking from God can seem abstract or hard, Spring of Living Waters hasn’t gone anywhere. 

The Deep still calls to us. Springs and wells still gush up in the valleys and the hills. God of the Waters is still here, eager to enliven, to cleanse, to revitalize, and help us follow God’s flow into lives of greater faith, hope, love, joy, and justice. 

Two practices I commend to you that can help, both drawn from Rabbi Toba’s wonderful chapter. 

The first is so easy, and you can do it several times a day. The second will take a little time and intention. 

The first is water blessing. Anytime you make contact with water – when you drink water, when you wash your hands, when you shower, or even when you jump into a cold lake, or walk by the ocean, or drive on a bridge over the river, you see the water and you say:

Thank you, God, for the water that gives us life. I bless you, Source of Life and Spring of Living Waters. 

That’s it – thank you, God, for the water that gives us life. I bless you, Source of Life, and spring of Living Waters. And you see what that prayer does in you, what it grows in you. 

The second is called Going with the Flow. In this practice, you recognize that life is like a flowing stream. It’s somewhere now, and it’s going somewhere too. And we can make choices about how we navigate the flow of our present, and the flow of our future too.

And God has a flow too. In one of the many water scriptures we didn’t get to today, the prophet Amos cries out:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The flow of God is toward greater love and greater justice, not just for me and mine, but for all of us. 

And so in going with the flow, we pay attention to the flow of our lives. We ask if it is aligned with our own values and hopes, and if it’s aligned with the best of what we know of God.

We take some time to ask:

Where am I? 

  • How am I spending most of my time, money, and attention?
  • What fills my schedule, fills my heart, fills my thoughts?
  • And is that aligned with who I believe myself to be or hope myself to be?

And if not, you can have a chat with God or with yourself about that and see what you want to do.

And then we ask ourselves:

Where am I going? 

  • What do I want to be true in two months, at the end of the year?
  • How about the end of this decade?
  • How about the end of my life?
  • Will my life as is get me there the way I’m going?
  • Or do I need to make some different choices?

When I did this exercise, I had two very specific things I wanted to be true by the end of this year. And they weren’t going to be in reach the way I was going. So I’m making some changes to my time to make one of them possible, and I’m stretching my deadline a bit on the other.

And that was just looking at the next two months. Looking at where I’m going further out yields even more insight, more hope, more ideas and prayers. 

Life’s too good and too short to set ourselves up to live with regret. Better to find our best flow, God’s flow sooner rather than later.

And God’s too good. The spring of living waters is too good to not turn and drink. My friends, the water is good. It’s there within reach. Take hold, drink deep, dive in.

Humility-The Gifts of Imperfection

So I’m walking into Boston’s Prudential mall the other day, and I see this art on the staircase beneath my feet. All the bright colors and the phrases: You are strong. You are capable. You are enough. 

You are strong. You are capable. You are enough.

How do you react to those phrases? How do you react to them as artwork at the entrance to a high-end shopping destination?

I asked about this on social media this week and got kinda the same range of reactions I had. 

On the one hand, I cringed. Honestly, I thought: this is corny. And I wondered what the intent is here for customers walking into a mall. Like it’s trying to amp us up to think, I am awesome, I am enough, and I deserve it. So we can smile while dropping eight hundred bucks for a new phone while sipping eight dollar cups of coffee. Some of my fellow cynic friends on social media felt the same way.

But on the other hand, I was like maybe this is just great. And to be honest, this was the reaction of more of my friends, to say:

Hey, don’t we all need encouragement? I mean, life can just beat us down. And if a little stairway art can lift our spirits, isn’t that a good thing?

I grew up in a family, myself included, that could tend toward critical, and so even though I was pretty strong and capable when I launched out into my adult life, it wasn’t always easy for me to own that.

And this phrase “you are enough” is one I’ve wrestled with over the years. The Christian faith I came into in my youth did so much good for me, but it also mostly encouraged me to feel the opposite of this.

I am not enough. I am unworthy, I was taught, just riddled with sin that merits my guilt and shame. But thanks be to God, I have been loved by God in Christ, so if I confess all my not enough-ness, I am accepted, forgiven, adopted as a beloved child.

And I actually believe exactly what I just said, word for word. But the way I received this faith seemed to often leave me still feeling less of the acceptance and connection and beloved-ness of adoption and more of the guilt and shame of never enough. Still not enough.

So I’ve come to appreciate this phrase: you are enough. Maybe by myself I am, maybe I’m not. Depends on the situation. But with the love of God and the help of friends, I am. Maybe not enough for some weird idea of perfection or sufficiency I got in my head. But with the love of God and the help of friends, enough to be good. Good enough. Every time. 

Today, we’re talking about Reservoir Church’s core value of humility. It’s the second to last week of a month we do each year called We Are Reservoir, inviting our community to consider who and what this church is and is still becoming, and inviting everyone who’s interested to a joyful belonging as members of the community.

I think this value of humility is one of our most important. I think it’s a critical value for the future of the Christian faith too, and as a personal way of being, it also helps us live fuller, more joyful lives.

So this matters a lot to me.

If you’ve been around for a bit, and I say a couple things that sound familiar, I’m recapping parts of one of my favorite sermons, a talk I gave in 2019 about four phrases for wholehearted living, those phrases being…

  • I don’t know but I’m learning
  • I’m sorry
  • I’m beloved
  • I am enough

We’ll get back to these phrases in a bit.

But first we’ll look at a bit of scripture together and why humility is central to following Jesus and central to the future of the Christian faith, if that future is going to get any better than it looks these days. 

Our passage is from this little letter called Philippians. We’ll read a few verses from the second chapter. 

Philippians 2:5-8  (Common English Bible)

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,

        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

7 But he emptied himself

        by taking the form of a slave

        and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,

8         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

        even death on a cross.

So like a good Marvel superhero story, the writer of Philippians gives us a Jesus backstory, told here in a poem. 

It says that once upon a time, his spirit, his essence was God himself. But he emptied himself. He became one of us. He humbled himself. Even to the point of a brutal, undignified death.

There are different ways to read this.

One is that the whole “form of God” thing is an exaggeration, that Jesus was a pretty great person but not really divine. The early churches rejected this view as unworthy of how Jesus embodied and revealed God to us.

Two is the idea that Jesus was indeed son of God but was kind of faking it as a human, sort of like the Greek gods in their temporary earthly visitations or like Clark Kent just hiding his Superman superpowers. The early churches also rejected this view because it was clear to them that while Jesus was a special human being, he was still very much a human. 

In fact, Jesus is the kind of human we aspire to be and who with the help of God, we can indeed become.

Calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, courageous, creative, and connected. 

Those eight C’s are actually the image of human goodness, the fully present, fully developed self. They’re not a bad description of Jesus either. 

The good human life isn’t superhuman. It’s not a Marvel superhero-like striving after god-like powers. Unlimited wealth, power, skill, opportunity – that’s not a good human life, it’s a myth, a sham, a chasing after the wind. Jesus’ biographers tells us that at a key moment in his young adult years, someone or something called the satan, the accuser, tempted Jesus to strive for this kind of superhuman perfection. And Jesus said:

no way.

Or as Philippians puts it, Jesus didn’t try to exploit divinity. He didn’t strive to be more than he was as a human. He accepted the path of humility.

This meant serving others, not using others to suit his own needs for sure. The passage focuses on that.

But it also meant experiencing a beautiful, humble, human life. 

Growing and learning throughout his life as we do. Asking lots of questions all the time, so many questions, because asking questions, being curious, is a great way to grow and deepen relationships, but also because Jesus didn’t know everything. 

Jesus did know where he came from – he never doubted how valuable, how beloved he was. But Jesus also had limits, he suffered, he could not do and chose not to do everything he wanted and still knew that within all those human limits, he was enough.

This is what it means to be humble. It’s to not try to play the status game of curating our image to impress for sure. 

But at a more basic level, it’s also just being who we are, no less and no more. It’s growing, learning, and making joyful peace with our limits, that we are beloved and more than enough not as gods but as humans, not as cocky and certain and arrogant, but as calmly confident even with our doubts and limits.

That’s Jesus, and with the help of his Spirit, it can be us too. 

You’ve got to wonder, though, if Jesus is so humble, why can’t the church founded in his honor be as well? 

Christians, and the Christian religion, are not known – either historically or in our own times – as humble. 

Reservoir chose humility as a core value of the church because it says something important about how we do faith community, but also because it’s a little surprising for a Christian church. 

Christians have had a thing with power and control, getting aligned with empires and colonizers and political parties to advance their influence and get what they want in the world. 

And sometimes a hangup about perfection too, like we need to hide our faults and pretend we’re perfect, or like God sees how imperfect we are, then God will be angry or disappointed. 

I don’t think this is the way of Jesus, though, who let God shine in his true humanity. Jesus, the humble one. Jesus, the one who said:

Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they’re the ones who will inherit the earth.

What if Jesus’ followers didn’t strive to be perfect or in control but to, like Jesus, be of maximum service to the well-being and flourishing of others?

And what if Jesus’ followers didn’t worry about perfection of faith – being always certain, or free from doubt or error? And what if instead they, or we, accepted doubt and error as a no-big-deal part of confident faith? 

This past week, I had the chance to speak with Brian McLaren for the first time. Brian is one of the elder statespeople of a healthy, evolving Christian faith. He visited this church in our early days in the late 90s, and remembers us fondly. He’s published loads of books since then, including his latest I’m reading now: Do I Stay Christian? It’s really good.

To the students in my theology doctoral program, McLaren was talking about the difference between goodness and perfection.

He said that

perfection is sterile and stagnant, but goodness is growing and fertile. And so goodness is so much better than perfection.

This idea of perfection wasn’t part of the earliest Christian faith, born in the humble, earthy thinking and experience of Middle Eastern Jews. It came in through the Greek philosophers, who had a notion of perfection they associated with the divine – never changing, never feeling. And so the idea of a perfect human and a perfect society would be the same – unemotional, unchanging, always powerful, always in control.

McLaren was like: not only is that not achievable, it’s not desirable. It’s stagnant, static, sterile. He reminded me of Christena Cleveland’s comments years ago to another group I was in, that perfection is a figment of the colonial imagination. 

People who are so insecure they always need to be right, people who are so power-hungry they always need to be dominant, they’re into perfection, and whatever illusions, whatever control, whatever dominance of conformity it takes to get there.

People who are secure, who know they are beloved, don’t need to chase some illusory idol of perfection – we know that’s pointless, it’s vapor. We can grow into greater goodness instead, growing, humble, but fertile. 

This is at the heart of Reservoir’s experience of Christian church, or Jesus-centered faith community. One of our values is humility, defined like this:


We are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including the Bible, reason, culture, and experience, and we take the posture of learners, recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth continues to unfold.

I promise that this church will never pretend to know everything or have all the answers. We’ll keep on our steady, humble pursuit of God and pursuit of truth, trusting it will keep unfolding for us over time. And we hope you’ll have the freedom of doing the same, not striving after status or certainty, and not worrying about your imperfection, but seeking God, seeking truth wherever you find it, and letting a good life unfold within your imperfections. 

Reservoir’s not a perfect church. But I think we’re a good church. 

And neither you nor I are ever going to have a perfect life. But we can have a good life. 

I think this humility thing isn’t just a value of our faith but a pretty big part of the good life, a joyful and fulfilled human life.

This past week or two I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with quite a number of people from this community who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. And I didn’t tell them this, but I was keeping an eye out for the ways they are aging well, continuing to live a good life as the years march on.

And I noticed that in their own way, they’d all been leaning into these four phrases the sociologist Brene Brown associates with what she calls the gifts of imperfection, these four phrases I’m connecting with Jesus’ way of true humanity through deep humility.

  • I don’t know but I’m learning
  • I’m sorry
  • I’m beloved
  • I am enough

One of them shared with me about how after the attacks at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago, he realized he had never really explored the Jewish roots of his Christian faith, or thought about how as an anti-racist person of color, he could also stand against anti-Semitism.

So he visited a synagogue that week, and he kept going back, visiting every week for a full year, eventually becoming a member of that community as both a participant and an ally, even while remaining Christian.

He did something similar after a prominent hate crime against Asian Americans, visiting a series of Buddhist temples and saying:

I’m learning regarding the cultures and experiences of East Asian Americans.

I’m learning for him led to I’m sorry too, as it often does, as he started to reckon with what he called his “ignorance, implicit bias, and complicity” regarding Asian Americans. 

What a beautiful thing, as a community leader in his own right, to now be in his 60s and to be able to say:

I’m not finished. I’ve not arrived. I’m still growing. I’m still learning. That’s humility.

And that’s part of a good life, in my book.

I met with another person in this same phase of life whose: I’m not done. I’m still learning, was taking other forms. This person was talking with me about their faith journey, which for them is a healing journey. She was sharing how at last, deep into middle age, she finally started to learn that God really loved her.

She was like:

I would have said that earlier, but mostly I was just saying that. My faith was really just skimming the surface of my life.

And she talked about the insights and help that eventually let her see she didn’t need to be anyone that she wasn’t to be enough, to be fully loved. 

Her journey had a lot of connections with mine, which I shared, and we talked some about how to help others reach a deeper, quiet confidence in their beloved-ness.

I spent time with an older couple last week too and got them talking about their history as a couple and what was bringing them joy or challenge these days as well.

Mostly, it was joy. They shared their stories of how life was going, including the things they were still learning after many decades of life on this earth. But the most striking thing to me was the ease with which they talked about some hard patches in their lives – painful memories from their working lives, regrets in parenting, rougher patches in their marriage. 

Their lives have been imperfect, and are imperfect still. But in the midst of those imperfections, they had an ease with saying I’m sorry and I’m still learning. And they had gratitude for how good their lives have been and how good they are still becoming.

One of them even used the word humility to capture this. They weren’t complimenting themselves, saying look how humble I am, that famous oxymoron of non-character development. No, they were saying:

my life is humble – it’s small in its own way, it’s imperfect. I still need God and friends. But I’m beloved, and my life is so good, and that is enough.

How beautiful. 

I’m only on the verge of 50, but I hope to move through the decades to come like my friends – not chasing certainty, control, security, the sterile figment of the colonial imagination that is perfection.

I want to be able to keep saying

I’m learning, I’m sorry, and I’m so beloved. So this good, good life of mine is enough.

No More BHAGs: The Glory of Being a Person

Hello, Reservoir friends of many ages, so glad to be with you. 

Last week on Juneteenth I talked about freedom as one part of the Christian story of salvation. I want to follow up this week inviting each of us to get a little more free personally, maybe to get free from some dreams that aren’t a good fit for us, to get free for the glory of just being a person, a good person. 

To help us stay alert and awake, I’m going to have a few call back lines, where I ask you to repeat after me. And kids, I’m counting on you to lead the way in this, since adults sometimes are too shy with our voices, alright?

So let’s practice with the first one. Can you say: Let’s get free

And can you say? It’s good to be a person. 

Alright, we begin with the Bible’s story of Ruth. 

Most Saturday mornings I have a group with some of you and we spend part of the time studying the Bible together, being honest with our questions and reactions and seeing how it speaks to us today. A few weeks back, we were ready for something new, and someone suggested the four chapter story we call the book of Ruth. We finished it yesterday, and mostly we loved it. So I’m going to start the sermon telling you all about it. 

In the first chapter, we meet three women having a really bad day.

Sometimes, everyone has a bad day. Can I hear you say that?

Well, Ruth and her mother in law Naomi and her sister Orpah had had a lot of bad days. Their husbands had all died – all three of them. And it hadn’t rained enough all year, and there was very little food growing, and they were very hungry. So Naomi, the mother in law, decided she would go back to her homeland called Israel. And her two daughters in law would go back to their homeland called Moab. Maybe the two of them were young enough that they could start over with their lives. And maybe Naomi was old enough that people would feel bad she was all alone and take care of her. 

And so Orpah went home, but Ruth said this:

Ruth 1:16-17 (Common English Bible)

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.

17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”

We don’t know why Ruth said all this. Did she really, really love her mother in law Naomi? Was she afraid of being alone without her? Did she not like her sister, or her hometown very much? Did she find Naomi’s faith and Naomi’s God especially inspiring? This was the God Jesus loved and talked about too. 

We don’t know. 

But we know there are times in life when we decide who we’re going to be loyal to, who are our ride or die, in it for life people. Sometimes those are spouses, parents, kids. Sometimes they are friends. But we need at least one or two of them. 

Our dreams in life can’t ever just be about us.

No one does well alone. Can you say that with me? No one does well alone. 

The story continues. Ruth and Naomi go back to Naomi’s hometown and they get by picking leftover crops at a farm owned by Naomi’s cousin Boaz. One way faith in God was present in their public life was that farmers of Israel weren’t supposed to pick all of the crops at harvest time but leave enough left so that nearby people who didn’t own land could come and pick the extras, people like Naomi and Ruth. Because every society needs to make sure that there’s enough for everybody. And that everyone has the chance to work and feel proud of themselves, and everyone has the chance to eat and be healthy.

Well, when Boaz saw Ruth picking in the fields and heard people telling stories about what she was like, he decided he liked her very much. And when you like someone very much, you’ve got three choices.

You can be too scared to make a move. Which happens, no shame in that, but you don’t usually make a new friend that way. You certainly don’t start dating or get married that way, and Boaz is looking for love, looking for a life partner.

Another choice is you connect with the person but not build a good relationship. You can think only about yourself and only about tomorrow, and just try to get what you want from the person and move on. Or you can think only about the other person and be nice and serve them but not look after yourself and your needs. This doesn’t make for good relationships.

What Boaz does, though, is the third choice. He gets to know Ruth, tries to grow a relationship that will be good for both of them. We read this.

Ruth 2:14 (Common English Bible)

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here, eat some of the bread, and dip your piece in the vinegar.” She sat alongside the harvesters, and he served roasted grain to her. She ate, was satisfied, and had leftovers. 

They share their first meal together. They talk. They keep getting to know each other. The details of how they do that are kind of interesting. You can find them in Ruth chapters two and three if you want. But both Ruth and Boaz look after themselves and their needs, and they also really get to know and care about the other person. This is where good relationships come from. In good relationships, both people always matter.

Can we say that? Both people always matter. 

As the story continues, Ruth and Boaz decide they want to get married, and eventually they do, and they have this baby who has another baby who has another baby, who becomes the most famous king ever in the history of Israel and an ancestor of Jesus. So all along this has been the story of the great-grandparents of one of the most important people in the whole Bible. 

But the way all this happens is really old-fashioned and complicated. Too old and complicated to get into today except to say that it all revolves around this word “redeemer,” which is used seven times in the third chapter of Ruth and 13 times in the last chapter of Ruth. 

Redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem. 

There, that was me saying redeem seven times, but Ruth says it 13 more times, like here:

Ruth 4:14-15 (Common English Bible)

14 The women said to Naomi, “May the Lord be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel.

15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” 

Why is she so blessed? Why is daughter-in-law Ruth better than seven sons? Because grandma Naomi has been redeemed.

What that word redeem means is to see and honor the value in a thing or a person that other people are calling useless. It’s to treat a piece of land or a person, but especially a person, like they matter, like they’re valuable, like they are worthy of a hope and a future and a legacy.

Ruth matters. She is worthy of a future and a hope and a legacy.

Naomi matters. She is worthy of a future and a hope and a legacy.

We all matter. Everyone matters. Can you say that with me? 

And what is so beautiful to me in the story of Ruth is everyone realizes just how much they matter. Ruth and Naomi’s circumstances have told them their lives don’t matter very much, but they find out that they do – they have just as much value!

And Boaz has kind of been told by the world that his life matters more than other people’s – that he can have more wealth, more stuff, more dreams than others. He realizes that his life matters, but it doesn’t matter more. His good is bound up with other people’s good. Everyone deserves to experience the glory of being a person – no more and no less. 

And we all experience the beauty and freedom of being a person when we are all sharing that experience together. 

I want to bring this home in the second half of the talk with one no and two yeses. 

Here’s the no. 

The NO: Enough with the Bee-Hags…. (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals)

A Bee-Hag is a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. A while back, Jim Collins, a business writer, said that to be successful, companies need big, hairy, audacious goals – they inspire focus and loyalty and enthusiasm and all. And maybe this is true – our church has BHAGs, like representing Jesus’ beloved community for us all, or helping reform Chrisitan teaching and practice for our generation. And All.

But in our church, a couple decades ago, we were sometimes encouraged to come up with our own BHAGs every year and pray they’d come true. And for some of us, sometimes, that was awesome. But for others of us, not always.

A story.

Twelve and a half years ago, I’d been praying that I would become a public high school principal before I was 40. It was part of my sense of life mission around being an educator and a leader and all. And then a few years ahead of time, I applied for one of these jobs and I got it, on my first try. 

And because I had this BHAG about what this would mean for me and others, and because other people in my life and heard me talk about this and prayed for it or were at least supportive of the idea, when it happened, I was like:

Look, God has opened the door. My dream is coming true! 

And in some ways it did. I became a high school principal at age 36, I did a few good things in my stint at that school, it prepared me in some new ways for my current job and calling as well.

But the move into that job while my kids were just three, five and eight years old pulled a lot more of my energy away from my family’s life. There were ways that both they and I and my wife suffered from that. And I didn’t see that coming, at all. 

My BHAG got so large for a minute that it overshadowed the needs and priorities of the people I love most in the world, the people to whom I most owe my time and attention and integrity. And that hurt them and it hurt me too. 

So I’ve been on a journey of repentance ever since then, making sure my kid’s and my wife’s dreams matter at least as much as my own. 

Our society is full of narcissists who get rewarded for their big egos, their big, hairy, audacious goals they have for themselves. While they live with too little accountability, too little integrity, hurting the people around them. Truth is getting called on more and more of them these days.

Last month I heard for instance about another influential Christian leader I knew who was admired for his big personality and big gifts and big, hairy, audacious goals even while he was hurting people and not being held accountable. 

These days, I’m like enough with the BHAGs. We don’t need so many personal big, hairy, audacious goals that center the needs and interests and power and dreams of the one with the goal.

Life’s not all about me. Can we say that together? 

Here’s a better path toward being a person, better than more and more striving toward personal goals. Two yeses for us. 

The 1st YES:

Dedicate your life to redemption stories. Stories of your own redemption. Stories of other people’s redemption. Stories of the redemption of people and places and all of creation. 

Dedicate your life to redemption stories.

Redemption again is where value is uncovered, honored, and preserved. 

When you redeem a can for the five or 10 cents you can get back for it, you’re not rescuing the can, you’re not making it valuable. No, you’re taking the value it already has – it’s worth five or 10 cents, and it can be turned into another can at the recycling center – and you are honoring and preserving that value, rather than just throwing it out, despising its value, and hurting the earth. 

Ruth and Naomi bond together in this story in scripture because they are determined to preserve the value of their lives and legacy. They matter. They have the right to survive even after all their bad days and maybe even to flourish again. And they know they can uncover, honor, and preserve their value best if they stay in it together.

And Boaz, unlike another character in the story, realizes life is not just about the maximization of his own value. It’s not about maximizing the profits off his farm or about pursuing his needs or his goals apart from the value of the land and people and creation all around him. So Boaz focuses a lot of energy on honoring and preserving Naomi’s value and Ruth’s value, deciding that his good is going to be connected to their good. 

We all get free together. 

People who dedicate our lives to redemption stories don’t ignore our own needs, our own worth, our own rise in the world. Because we know we have value, we have stories that need telling, worth that needs uncovering and sharing.

And people who dedicate our lives to redemption stories don’t really have too much time for personal BHAGs, at least the ones that are all about ourselves. Because there’s too much beauty, too much worth, too much value in all the people and places around us – value that’s worth celebrating and protecting and honoring. 

So the first yes is redemption stories. And here’s the second yes:

God sees the depths of you.

And who you are and who you are not is more than enough. 

Can you say with me? I’m more than enough for God. 

Yeah, that’s hard for some of us today. Because we’ve been criticized again and again. Or maybe some of you are like me, and we were taught that God is always frustrated with all that we aren’t, or that God will really love us or be proud of us some day in the future, when we’re better than we are today.

But that’s not true.

This spring, I was carrying some heavy burdens, feeling a lot of stress around some things going on in my life. And I was speaking with an older, wiser friend of mine who suggested we pray. 

And he had a prayer book with him called the Book of Common Prayer, and he opened it up to where you see two Psalms from the Bible – Psalm 130 and 131. And in that book, the titles of the psalms were from their first words. 

So one psalm was called: Out of the Depths. It beings: 

“Out of the Depths….”

Psalm 130:1 (New Revised Standard Version)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

And praying just that one line kind of opened things up to me, like God sees me, God hears me right here, right now. All my depths – my deepest thoughts, my deepest yearnings and hopes, my deepest stresses, all seen and known by the living God. 

And then the next Psalm was just called “God, I am not.” It begins like this: 

“God, I am not….”

Psalm 131:1-2 (Common English Bible)

131 (God, I am not) proud;

        my eyes aren’t conceited.

    I don’t get involved with things too great or wonderful for me.

2 No. But I have calmed and quieted myself

    like a weaned child on its mother;

    I’m like the weaned child that is with me.

“God I am not….”

I am not wise enough to know all the answers.

I am not strong enough to fix everyone’s problems. 

I am not compassionate and dedicated enough to be the perfect dad or husband or pastor or friend.

God, there is so much that I am not.

But guess what, as that very person – not so many things – God welcomes me to calm and quiet myself with God, to let God be a loving, attentive mother who says,

It’s OK, Steven. You can just be with me. It’s OK. I’m here for you. I can help. 

Friends, for the parts of ourselves that are hurt or stressed or overwhelmed, this is our salvation, to know that we’re not enough to be in control and we’re not enough to be independent and we’re not enough to fix everything, and that’s the way it’s meant to be.

We are creatures, not creators. We are children of God, not God. And that’s just the way God meant it to be.

Our little old, incomplete selves are more than enough for God. 

So we can let go, and settle down, and live our little lives best we can in peace.

Say with me one more time:

I’m more than enough for God.

Life’s not all about me.

It’s good to be a person.

We all matter. 

Let’s get free.

The Role of Church in Healing the World

I was listening to Ken Fong’s podcast, Asian America, last week and the interview that grabbed me the most was with Scott Okamoto. He’s a writer, a fly fisher, English professor, charming, articulate guy, and an ex-Christian, a former churchgoer.

He wrote this essay once called “The Road Taken – Sex and Waffles Triumph Over Church.” Because he’d been part of a church scene that seemed kind of rigid and controlling and self-indulgent, and then another that was powerful but where he felt like he’d never belong and then another that was nice but kind of boring.

And eventually, he was like: What I am doing going to church on Sunday, when I could spend my morning eating waffles and having sex instead?

Fair question? 

He admitted later that the notion he had about his new Sunday mornings was more aspirational than reality. I mean take church out of life, and you’re still left with obligations, debts, chores, anxieties that occupy most people, most days. 

But he was like keeping church didn’t really add any value, so why bother? 

For decades, of course, more and more people have felt this way. For lots of reasons, church engagement peaked in the 1950s in this country, and it’s been on the decline ever since, more and more rapidly in recent years. And then a global pandemic comes our way and radically changes our instincts and our habits for how we gather with others, especially outside our immediate circles, which has always been at the heart of churchgoing. 

So what’s next? Why be part of church? What’s the value proposition? 

And for a church like ours, founded for people who might not otherwise choose church, called we feel to innovate in our tradition to adapt to the times we live in, how do we hold a hopeful vision of the future of our church and future of our faith when so many expressions of Christianity are driving people away from the faith, and so many forces make churchgoing less and less appealing?

OK, that’s a lot of questions. We might not get to all of them today, but I figured as part of our How to Heal the World series, we ought to talk about the role that the church still has in healing our lives and offering help and repair to our world. I think if we focus on those things, we can even help heal the institution of church a little bit too, at least in the parts of it we touch. 

Let’s listen to some words from Jesus that take us there. These are from the fourth chapter of Mark’s memoirs of Jesus’ life, when Jesus is explaining why he teaches the way he does and what he’s up to in general. It goes like this:

Mark 4:26-32 (New Revised Standard Version)

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground

27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

28 The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,

32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Jesus is talking about what he called the Kingdom of God, that place of love and equity and justice, that beloved community of right relationships with God and one another that Jesus envisions for us. 

Now Jesus’ beloved community is of course more than just the church. But if church can’t seek to embody more of Jesus’ vision of this community, we don’t have much to offer. Put another way, churches have rarely gone wrong when we’ve sought to be a beautiful expression of beloved community, of Kingdom of God. Jesus’ vision is still compelling, even if it’s couched in pretty earthy, old stories about seeds and plants.

I want to use the word remember today to talk about the healing proposition of church. I’ll use it in two senses, which I know I’ve done before here.

Remember in the usual sense of calling to mind things that we could too easily forget but need to know.

But also remember as in re-member, putting back together what is detached, disconnected, or scattered.

Because I think Jesus points us to remembering and re-membering as beautiful purposes of the beloved community. 

First, the remembering. 

Something I love about Jesus, which goes beyond today’s passage I read, is how much he really saw people. I love the times when Jesus meets a stranger and calls them son or daughter. It happens several times in the gospels. It makes me think it was kind of a habit of Jesus, to look into the face of a friend or a distant acquaintance or even a stranger, and see a relative of the human family, and not be shy to say that. 

Now and then I’ve made this habit my own. You’ve probably noticed that I call you all friends, no matter how much we know each other, because that’s how I see you. And in an aspirational way, it’s how I see the human family, like the Quakers do, as friends or at least potential friends. 

I’ve found myself doing this with strangers some over the years too, although for whatever reason only with other men. It hasn’t been a real thought out thing, but now and then and a little bit more over the years, when I’ve spoken with a man who’s a stranger to me, I’ll call him brother. 

Like: hey, brother, how’s it going? Or: take it easy, brother, that kind of thing. This has caused some heated debate with one person in my household, who’s been like Dad, knock it off, stop trying to sound like you’re Black. 

And when I first heard that, I was kind of shocked. But I guess with my slight Boston accent, sometimes the Brother comes out more like brothah, and now I have a kid who accuses me of cultural appropriation.

So maybe you can help me decide here? Steve calling stranger men “brother” – sharing friendship with all humanity, or obnoxious cultural appropriation?

Anyway, that’s been a thing that’s been going on with me. It’s felt good, or at least it used to. 

Apart from this little bit of language, though, Jesus just really saw people’s real selves. He loved kids, famously so, encouraging their ease and comfort around him, enjoying everything that is curious and energetic and heartfelt about kids. He had an eye for people who were sick and injured, and time and curiosity and gentleness about how and why that might be so.

Sometimes he saw people so well that he seemed strangely insightful about their lives, such that some in our tradition think he pulled out these cosmic god-powers now and then to know secrets that were humanly impossible to know.

But I’m not so sure. I think mostly Jesus was incredibly present and observant. He really saw people, because he believed so much in the meaning and mattering of every life. 

I’ve been getting to know a retired pastor recently who’s been a great picture of this to me. Time kind of slows down when I’m around him, because he’s just never in a hurry. It’s pretty great. He doesn’t call me “brother,” I guess that’s my schtick.

But he tells me things like: I’m so honored to see you, when I’m thinking, I don’t know, I thought the honor was mine, but he shows me that he means it too. I always leave my time talking to him feeling seen, known, connected, like a sibling, like a friend. And that feels incredibly good.

Jesus even shows a lot of insight into the ordinary drama and toils of our working lives. Most of his parables, the little stories he tells like today, take place at work, or amidst family relationships and ordinary household tasks – farming, baking, construction sites, sibling dramas, and all. 

Like today’s story about the farmer casting seeds, and about the mystery of all that we can’t control in agriculture, or in any kind of growth, and the kind of persistence and patience and care it takes to grow things.

Yesterday I preached a different version of this sermon at another church, where their senior minister was being officially installed, and I took the farmer spreading seed here to be the work of a pastor and the work of a church to share the good news word of God with others. That’s how the first half of today’s scripture is often read. 

But today I read the farmer as Jesus, as Jesus spreading seeds of good news with everyone he meets, just scattering his greetings of “son” and “daughter” with anyone that has time for him, sharing his attention and insight with whoever will listen, knowing that sometimes that will do profound good for people and sometimes they’ll blow him off and move on. 

Because I think we stay in church friends, because it’s the best place to have Jesus call us “son”, “daughter,” “sister”, “brother,” friend. It’s just about the best place to keep hearing Jesus speak to us, to have habits of worship and practice that make it more likely we’ll hear God calling our name, and showing us how much we matter to God. 

This is after all something that is a core organizing principle of Jesus’ vision of Beloved Community – the meaning and mattering of all people, that we are all image bearers of God. 

I’ve shared with you before that of all the Christian creeds out there, one of my favorites is one developed by a church that used to meet in Atlanta that would say every week when they worshiped,

“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.” 

“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.” 

You don’t have to, of course, but if you want, you can say that along with me, see what it feels like. Try if you want. 

“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.” 

I don’t know about you, but that still surprised me a little when I say it, but it feels good. It rings true. 

When church goes right, there are so many ways it helps us remember this. We read and teach scripture that reminds us how much we matter to God. We take communion, which tells us that God has shared God’s whole life with us – we matter to God – and that we are now called the Body of Christ – we matter to God, and we matter to each other. We are connected to each other. 

We proclaim and encourage the practice of the faith built upon the two great commands – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

God, and not just any God, but a vision of a loving, beautiful, wise, and kind God, calls out for our attention and love. God matters to us.

And right along with that, love your neighbor as yourself. Without exception. Friend, neighbor, stranger, enemy, young, old, like to you, different – we matter to God, and we matter to each other. And we are worthy of one another’s love. 

In a transient, commodified world, we need more places where we’ll be called son, daughter, child, sister, brother, friend, where the sacred mattering of our lives will again and again be affirmed. 

And we need more places where we’ll be called, encouraged, invited to treat each other that way as well.

So that’s the seed that Jesus is sewing, the constant listening to invitations from Jesus, as we call it in our church membership covenant, including the invitation Jesus is always giving to remembering just how much all our lives and world matter.

But let’s go the re-membering, the connecting and putting together again for good used. And that has to do with the mustard seed. 

I used to think that these parables were about big things that start small. Big trees from little seeds, big harvests from scattered seeds. And so big churches, big works of justice, big stories of redemption are possible for us, even if today, we seem small. After all, in my memory, the parable of the mustard seed was always about the smallest of seeds becoming the largest of plants. 

But then once I tried Googling what a mustard tree actually looks like and, oh, the truth is sometimes a disappointing thing. I thought: oh, it’s not a tree at all. It’s a shrubbery, a bush. And it’s not that big either. 

In fact, these mustard plants are kind of scraggly, homely. I read too that mustard shrubs have kind of a slow or sluggish growth rate. It’s not like they’ll be enormous and beautiful if you just wait long enough. Not going to happen. How disappointing.

If Jesus wanted to talk about big and beautiful things, he had other options, like the famed cedars of Lebanon. Now those are big and beautiful trees. But he didn’t. He asked: with what can I compare the beloved community of God? I know, it’s like the mustard seed, that becomes that funky looking mustard shrubbery. That’s what it’s like.

Our church was kind of obsessed with “big” in our early days. In our early days, our church dreamed of being one of those cedars of Lebanon. We had attracted a ton of people in the late 90s, grown just really fast, doubling in size every year for a while. And our vision was that we’d have many different sites for our church across greater Boston, attracting thousands and thousands of people every week, basically being the biggest church in Greater Boston. And our dreams were to be the greatest church for this and the greatest church for that. 

Very early in my time as pastor, though, I felt like we should let that go, that maybe that was fine for a season in our giddy, early start up days, but that it was more important to be some other kind of beautiful than big and beautiful. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant back then, but maybe now I think: oh, all churches are called to a mustard shrub kind of beautiful. 

Not dominant or imposing, for sure. Churches always go down a really bad track when we try to be dominant or imposing or impressive, whether that be American Chrisitans obsessed with political control and power or whether that be churches that are always making it their business to be a kind of moral cop for their community, telling everyone exactly how to live their lives, like God has appointed the churches or maybe at least their pastors to be moral judge over one another. 

None of that has ever made the church or the good news of God more beautiful. It’s driven people out to their Sunday mornings of sex and waffles, or at least their lives without church, instead. 

I think Jesus points us toward a different relationship with our surroundings, not one of power and control, but one of blessing, help, and renewal.

Look at the mustard bush after all.

I love that in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, he doesn’t even focus on the fruit of the mustard at all. Maybe because they didn’t have hot dogs yet, I don’t know.

But the fruit of this shrubbery that Jesus prizes and encourages here isn’t the fruit at all, it’s the shade. 

Jesus says that when the mustard seed grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, then the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Grace and I, and my kids and mother-in-law, all live on this tiny urban lot across the river from here. And Grace with the micro-bit of land we’re on, Grace has shown all this care over the years as a gardener, spreading seed and growing beautiful things.

And last summer, in this tiny rectangular patch of dirt and bushes, and mulch and flowers, two birds made their home for the season. Yeah, a pair of doves made it their home base. I don’t know if they were mating or not – we never found a nest or any eggs, but morning after morning, they were sitting around that little patch of earth, waddling here and there a bit, cooing for one another and anyone else who’d listen, before they’d fly around or do whatever else it was they did during the day.

And friends, it was the most beautiful and sweet feeling to see them day after day and think, will you look at that? We’ve made – well, 98% Grace really – has made a home for them in the shade.

Jesus is like: this is what it means to be my followers, to live in this experience he calls the family, or the kingdom, or the commonwealth of God, what we’ve been calling the Beloved Community.

It’s to live and grow in ways that make home for others in your shade. To live and grow together, re-membered to one another, in ways that provide blessing and help and encouragement and renewal to the broader world. 

I’ve loved the ways I’ve been seeing you all doing this, friends. It brings me no greater joy or pride as a pastor than when I hear about the ways your church involvement is shaping you for good and blessing and renewal in the world.

Just this past week, one of you was able to share excerpts of the sermon on anger and contempt with your team at work, because the themes were so resonant with the work you are doing. Reservoir longs to empower us all toward joyful, purposeful living in our work, whatever it is, and we hope that our teaching and your life in our community encourage you in your vocation and profession.

Another one of you heard last week’s sermon on the good news of reparations and told me about the important work around race, equity, and repair and that the sermon was timely and helpful. 

Another one of you reached out to me for prayer about the racism in the division you work in, asking for help to not be dehumanized or crushed by that, for prayer that God would change these dynamics, and for strength and wisdom to be part of that change.

I hear stories about how Jesus’ vision of the beloved community is helping some of you be kinder, more engaged parents, friends, and neighbors, how for others of you, it encourages you to try to disrupt whole industries of our economy for greater justice and flourishing.

For all these stories, my heart always sings out: Yes! This is so good.

Because this is us partnering with God in growing the mustard bushes of the beloved community. Often modest, slow growing, but in their own way beautiful offerings of mercy and justice to a broken world in need of repair. 

Friends, this I believe, is the future of church in our times. It’s not about how big we are. It’s not about how many people show up on any particular Sunday in any particular sanctuary either. 

Nope, it’s about a community, a collective of people having seed scattered in our minds and hearts, about remembering again and again that we matter to God, we matter to one another, we matter to ourselves, and God matters to us.

And it’s about a collective of people living in Jesus’ vision of Beloved Community, inspired, renewed, and strengthened to offer our time and talents to the world in the service of its blessing, mending, repair, and healing.

Friends at Reservoir, this is happening already in your midst. Be encouraged. Stay on the journey together. 

Because sex and waffles and all the other glories of life are awesome, but this magic thing that Jesus is growing in church, we need this too.

The Waters of Life

Today on our fourth Sunday of Lent, we explore Jesus’ words about water of life – the heart of this season, what the whole six weeks are named for. 

We ask:

What makes an abundant life, and who gets to have one? 

We talk about surviving and thriving – why both matter, why survival is obviously very important, but why thriving is also what we are made for. It’s our birthright, our opportunity and calling as humans, to thrive. 

Before we read the scripture for today, I want to read you another story. It’s a story Grace and I read to our kids many times, a story that was read to me as a child as well. And I’d like to read it to you.

It’s Frederick, by Leo Lionni.

What makes for an abundant life, and who gets to have one? 

What does it mean to survive, but also thrive?

This is a winter’s story, about what animals who hole up in the ground in winter time need to make it back to spring.

And it’s a pandemic story too. What have we had, or what have we not had, these past two years to help us get to today with abundance of life? 

Sometime in 2020, my family had a field mouse in the winter conversation. We got the idea online somewhere, and Grace and I told our kids:

This is a year when if we stay alive and stay healthy, that’s good enough. 

And that at the time was a good enough conversation for us to have. Two years ago, our lives were shutting down. We were scared and didn’t know how bad this pandemic would be, how many of us would get sick, how many of us would die. We had to let go of some things. We were looking out for survival, entering winter and taking care of shelter and health and food and water.

Sometimes, that’s all we have. And sometimes, for a while, that’s enough. 

The mice in Frederick need shelter for the wintertime. But eventually, they need the memory and hope of spring. They need food, but they also need poetry and song and color. 

The same is true for us, isn’t it?

We aren’t satisfied just staying alive. We need love and hope, we need songs to sing and games to play, to touch and be touched, to love and be loved.

The traditional way of saying this is that we are people with bodies, but people with souls too. 

We need water, and we need waters of life.

Let’s read a moment in the scriptures where Jesus affirms this. I think it deepens our exploration of this topic. It’s from the seventh chapter of John’s memoirs of the life of Jesus. It goes like this:

 John 7:37-39 (New Revised Standard Version)

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,

38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”

39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

This is dramatic. Jesus is at a festival, and he’s not the main act. He’s not the priest presiding over a ceremony. He’s a participant, among the crowds in Jerusalem, calling out:

Come get your living water. It’s a dramatic gesture.

Our narrator jumps in and interprets this. He’s like, ooo, this is foreshadowing. Jesus is alluding to the time after his death and rebirth, when he is not around, physically walking the paths of Judea with his disciples. Instead, a few weeks after he’s gone, at a different festival called Pentecost, people increasingly started experiencing the presence of Jesus and the God Jesus called Papa, through the Spirit of God, the unseen presence of God with us.

John is like:

This is what Jesus is talking about, the Spirit of God with you.

It’s hard to describe, but it’s like this thirst-quenching, satisfying, joy-bringing breath. It’s like a rejuvenating energy, like fuel for thriving. 

How is this so? 

I think the festival where Jesus is doing this maybe gives us a clue. 

The festival was Sukkot, the festival of tents. It’s a fall harvest festival in Jewish culture. It remembers, and kind of reenacts the time when Jews’ ancestors lived free from slavery  but not yet at home in the promised land, an in between time, a time when they lived as nomads, as pilgrims, not in houses but in tents. 

You’d think this would be a festival about survival, like thank God we made it. Our ancestors could have died wandering around in that wilderness. Thank God we’re not living in tents anymore. 

But it’s not like that at all. Sukkot is a holiday of rest, and joy, and abundance. Some Jews who celebrate today actually partially move out of their homes for a few days, into backyard tents, to remember this period. And both now and in Jesus’ time, the festival has times for rest – when you’re not allowed to work at all. And there are times for feasting, and there are times for singing and dancing, for joy. 

Because in this festival, you celebrate that God gives us more than enough, even when our circumstances are modest. That joy is possible even in hard times. That abundant life is God’s good gift to all God’s children. 

In Jesus’ era, it was a season when pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem would bring water from a local spring to the temple. And that water would get poured out on the ground in prayer, symbolizing the prayer that God would keep bringing rain, watering the fields, producing grain, filling up wells and rivers with enough water to drink and bathe in and cook with. 

I feel like when Jesus calls out, he’s like:

I know how to make this holiday all it was meant to be. I’ve got the secret to making your whole life like this festival! 

Playing off the water imagery of the holiday, Jesus is like I have water for you too, all the water – a way of filling you with such abundant life that it wells up inside and flows back out of you.

I have water of life for you. Drink from me, and you will be satisfied, so much so that you become this water for others. Drink from me, and you will become a reservoir.

That’s beautiful when Jesus says it. But what does this look like?

Let’s talk about songs and church and prayer and rest. 


Have you watched the videos of singing in Ukraine? 

There’s a frontman for this Ukranian rock band who’s traveling the country right now, singing on the streets and in subway stations to rally people’s spirits.

I’m thinking where are the American pop stars who travel the country singing to people for free just to live their spirits? It used to happen – Harry Belafonte, Pete Seeger, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and more during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Where is that today? 

When we were out on the streets of Boston last year, rallying for drivers licenses for all Massachusetts immigrants, documented or not – a bill that finally looks like it’ll pass this year, by the way – it was the band that kept us marching, kept our spirits up. 

We need music to fight to, to give us strength. 

And we need music to keep us from despair. 

There’s that video of the little girl singing the song from Frozen to all the folks she was holed up with in a shelter. A week later she’s an exile in Poland, singing the Ukranian national anthem to an audience of thousands.

The people of Ukraine are singing in their fight, and singing in their fear. Because music helps us turn from despair, because music helps us access hope and joy and courage.  

Singing isn’t a luxury. Like Frederick’s colors and poems, we need it most in hard times. 

Singing and music are one of God’s gifts of the spirit, whether we connect them with God or not. In a talk to people that had never heard of Jesus, the speaker Paul says in Acts 14,

God has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; God provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

Rain and food and everything that fills us with joy is an expression of a good God that wants us to thrive, a good God that has water of life for us all. 


In many ways, this water of life thing is the whole point of church. You know I used to be a school teacher and a principal, and then I became a pastor. And sometimes that’s been a comedown for me, like I used to have a job that actually mattered, you know that everyone believes we should pay for through our taxes because kids need schools to learn. And now, I help lead a church that you know, we could all survive without. 

I was talking this way the other week with one of our Board members, and she was like: no, no, no, Steve, we need this place. Even a year ago, when there were lots of parts of church we could only do from home, we needed this togetherness. We need this love of Jesus, this joy of living, this gift of community that church fosters. 

It’s like Frederick’s colors and poetry and memory of sunshine. Church is about living into a life that doesn’t just mutter and talk but sings. And so to be in a church and to support a church is – or it should be – to invest in lives of hope and joy and love.

Song, church, prayer.

I don’t know what your experiences of prayer are like. I know most of us pray less than we might want to or think we should as if “should” is a very helpful word. But prayer isn’t really about what we do at all. It’s not mostly about what we say or ask or feel. It’s about where God is – with us – and about seeking to know this and pay attention. 

We pray to remember that we are seen, known, and valued by a living God. We pray to affirm that we matter, and everything we experience and everyone we know matters to God. And we pray to know that we are loved.

A few years back, I tried the triathlon of prayer, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. It’s a very structured prayer experience that Jesuit priests go through over a month of silence before they can serve. And for those of us that don’t have a month to be silent full time, there’s a version of this you do over an hour a day, over nine months. 

Highly structured, lots of Bible, lots of ways to pray and lots of time to do it in. When I completed the program, you know what my big takeaway was. That God really loves me. That God really, really loves me, that I’m loveable, that I can really love myself.

And now some of how I pray is just sitting still or walking and asking God’s help to remember God is with me and I am loved. Because when I know that, I’m stiller – less anxious, less driven, less restless. I know I’m OK. And when I know I’m loved, I’m braver. I don’t avoid difficult conversations so much. I try things that are hard, that I might fail. And when I know I’m loved, I’m better. I’m kinder to others, more generous, I treat other people more like they are really loved too. 

This is why our guide for Lent features beautiful art and poetry, and short reflections on Bible passages each week, but also a direction for prayer each week, so that together we can keep learning to pray, to know that we and everyone and everything we’ll ever know are seen and known and loved by a God, to whom we all matter very much.

And here’s the way we invite you to pray in this fourth week of Lent. We’re inviting you to take a few minutes each day and enjoy listening to a bit of music. Close your eyes, hum along, move or dance if you want to – whatever, just enjoy it. And say thank you. Or swap it out for looking at a picture you like, or taking a walk along the water, or singing in the shower or hugging a tree for all we care. 

It’s about taking a moment to be Frederick, to soak in the warmth of the sun, to notice and see the colors. And to remember that life isn’t just about surviving. It’s about thriving. We’re all worthy of abundant lives.

The very festival in which Jesus called out:

Get your living waters. Become a reservoir.

Was a festival of rest and of joy, of what Jews call Sabbath. Shabbat. Breaking our ordinary rhythms of survival, and welcoming abundance, letting God help us thrive again. 

A little spiritual community I’m connected to outside this church, an Episcopal monastery along the Charles River, sent out this three sentence reflection last week:

In a culture plagued by individualism, hyperactivity, and superficiality, prayer inspires purposeful action, balanced by deep rest and play. It empowers ordinary people to do things with extraordinary depth, substance, and love. The kingdom of heaven promises nothing less.”

-Br. Keith Nelson,  SSJE

Songs, church, prayer, deep rest and play. These empower ordinary people to do things with extraordinary depth, substance, and love. God wants, God promises nothing less for us all. 

Let’s end with just a moment of this, as we listen to two minutes of music Matt has written for the season, and just enjoy the chance to be still. 


Love Is a Hell, No! And a Heaven, Yes!

Last week, I spent some time at the Mildred C. Haley Apartments in Jamaica Plain celebrating a big win for public housing residents in Boston. I showed up because my friend Beverly Williams was speaking at the event. Beverly is the co-chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, who’d helped organize this effort. 

And she was giving a speech that day at the mayor’s celebration of 50 million dollars devoted to maintenance and improvement there and some much needed renovations in some other public housing. These long overdue funds are coming because people who grew up in and live in public housing organized together to get what they deserve. And as a co-leader of GBIO, Beverly Williams was one of those people.

In her speech, she talked about growing up in public housing herself and seeing all of the government programs and policies that broke up Black families and communities and blocked paths to economic prosperity for her and her neighbors and her community. 

Bev also had a career as a teacher in the Boston Public Schools. And there she saw too many of her Black student’s families and her former students needlessly brought into the criminal justice system, having their paths to flourishing blocked. And at some point, Bev said to herself:

Hell, no! I’ve got to see better. I’ve got to do more.

And so when she retired as a teacher, instead of moving to Florida or kicking back, she became an organizing force – helping lead GBIO’s criminal justice reform campaign, and later becoming our co-chair. Bev’s no to sitting back and her yes to justice for her community has helped change our city, helped change our state, and has helped change GBIO, all for the better.  

And it started with what I’m calling today a hell, no! And a heaven, yes! A frustration, a resistance, a not letting it go anymore – hell, no! And a desire, a commitment to be for something good, to stand for something right, to work for something better – a heaven, yes! 

Love is warmth and kindness and affection and friendship. Yes, absolutely. But love also is a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! Which is the topic of today’s sermon.

Today’s Hell, no! and heaven, yes! love takes us to the Bible’s book of Esther, which is a barn burner of a story. 

I’m drawn to Esther for a few reasons. It’s significant to me. Years ago, I was asked to consider applying for the position at Reservoir I have now. And what turned my initial “hell, no!” to a “heaven, yes!” was a line from the book of Esther, the words “for such a time as this” that I appropriated for that time and place. Aware that God sometimes asks people to do strange things in unique times and places, I became open to how that might be true in my own life, for such a time as this.

Esther, though, is not my story. It’s not even our story, or church’s stories at all. Esther is first the possession of the Jewish people, as it tells the story of genocide averted and of Jewish survival and resilience under the Persian empire, and of so many other empires. Jewish communities still tell this story and celebrate its victory in a holiday called Purim, which is coming up in just a few weeks. There are several synagogues near where my family lives, and we  can hear the raucous Purim celebrations from the streets. They remember and reenact a community’s hell, no! to injustice and extinction and heaven, yes! to survival and flourishing. It’s a great holiday.

I’m drawn to Esther too because of some teaching I heard from a gifted Black pastor named Dominique Gilliard on a Christian justice podcast called Inverse. I’ll put the link to that podcast  in the sermon notes we publish on our website. 

He talks about how Esther’s heroism is born out of complex, generational trauma. I promise you there will be no details in my talk, but a heads up that the story includes racial and cultural and sexual violence and trauma. Here’s the short version of the story, which will include today’s text:

In recent generations, Jews had been subject to a military campaign against them that put them into exile under the Persian empire and subject to campaigns of cultural assimilation, much like Native Americans have faced in this land, for instance.

And the book of Esther opens with the great king of Persia, Xerxes, throwing a months-long celebration of his own might and awesomeness. And at the end of all this, there was a kind of week-long afterparty for all the VIPs, so he could further impress his buddies and all the other top people in the kingdom. There was a week-long open bar, with Xerxes showing off everything he could.

Until he realized after seven days that he had just one more thing he hadn’t shown off yet, which was his trophy wife, the most ravishingly beautiful Queen Vashti, whom he ordered to appear at the party and to show off her beauty.

And that’s where we get the text’s first “hell, no!” Vashti on the one hand is a person of privilege. She’s the queen of Persia, after all. But we see again and again in Esther that privilege is intersectional and complex. The most privileged people can still sometimes be put in their place and subject to violence by someone higher up the food chain. And the seemingly least privileged people and communities can still find ways to exercise their voice and power.

Anyway, Vashti – after plenty of experiences of living under patriarchy, faces one more experience of possible sexual assualt, and this time she says, hell, no! But not wanting to see a #metoo movement of women’s voices and strength break out, the ruling men of the kingdom make sure she is put in her place. She’s basically divorced and put into exile in her own land, and the king opens up applications for a new first lady.

That’s where Esther comes onto the scene. As a teenager, she’s drafted into a nationwide beauty pageant, which really isn’t that at all. It’s a round up of young subjects for entrance into the king’s harem, with the faint possibility of becoming the replacement queen.

She’s a child of trauma – she’s been orphaned, she’s part of the Jewish exile community. And her adopted caregiver, her cousin Mordecai, tells her to hide her ethnicity and pass as a Persian, when she goes to the harem, so she won’t get into any trouble. She agrees, and in time, the king chooses her to be his replacement queen. And she takes her place in that role and in that bed, hiding her identity and living in this strange mix of fear and privilege. 

Esther and her cousin Mordecai both prove useful to the king, but for a variety of reasons the king is manipulated by his advisors into signing off on anti-Jewish, discriminatory legislation that becomes a threat to disposses and kill all the Jews in the kingdom. 

That takes us to today’s text, where Mordecai has told Esther she has to out herself as a Jew and use her position as a queen to put a stop to all this, before it’s too late. Esther at first says,

“Hell, no. I may be the queen, but if I step out of line, things will be no better for me. Even I can’t speak to the king without permission.”

But Mordecai pleas for her to change her mind. Which takes us to today’s text, in chapter four.

Esther 4:12-17 (Common English Bible)

12 When they told Mordecai Esther’s words,

13 he had them respond to Esther: “Don’t think for one minute that, unlike all the other Jews, you’ll come out of this alive simply because you are in the palace.

14 In fact, if you don’t speak up at this very important time, relief and rescue will appear for the Jews from another place, but you and your family will die. But who knows? Maybe it was for a moment like this that you came to be part of the royal family.”

15 Esther sent back this word to Mordecai:

16 “Go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa and tell them to give up eating to help me be brave. They aren’t to eat or drink anything for three whole days, and I myself will do the same, along with my female servants. Then, even though it’s against the law, I will go to the king; and if I am to die, then die I will.”

17 So Mordecai left where he was and did exactly what Esther had ordered him.

Hell, no! And heaven, yes! This language isn’t in the book of Esther of course. And in case my friend Beverly doesn’t like all this “hell” talk, let me say the hell, no! heaven, yes! language isn’t hers either. It isn’t even mine.

I got it from a psychologist named Dan Allender who uses this language to talk about “nos” and “yeses” we feel and say when we’re called to the courage to make changes in ourselves and in our world. We find the strength of a hell, no! to something that isn’t as it should be, isn’t worthy of us and of God and this good world God made. And we find the courage and love of a corresponding heaven, yes! – a commitment to beauty, and goodness, and truth that is worthy of us and of God and this good world God made.

Here we see a deeper “hell, no!” and a powerful “heaven, yes!” is born in Esther. She comes back into solidarity with her own people and realizes: I cannot stay silent. I will not stand by why my people are dispossessed and rounded up and killed. Hell, no! 

Instead, with Mordecai’s help, she catches a redemptive vision for this privilege she never asked for, probably never wanted. Maybe it was all for such a time as this. Heaven, yes! She can align her voice, her privilege, with God’s purposes. And she says yes to her role in saving her people. 

This past week included international Holocaust Remembrace Day. In the past, I’ve been part of commemoration ceremonies. The Holocaust marks a time in Jewish history, and in world history, where too few people of privilege said hell, no! to the antisemitc violence of that era, too few said heaven, yes! to the justice and love of God. And these commemorations invite us to remember, and to resolve – that in the face of injustice, in the face of things that are not as they are meant to be we will summon courage to say “no” and to align whatever privilege or power we have to a “yes” to God’s better ways, in our own times and cultures and circumstances. 

I shared a bit of my friend Bev’s story, as she faced retirement and reflected on all the youth and families whose paths hadn’t gone like hers, of her hell, no! to the ongoing systemic racism diminishing Black Bostonian lives and communities. And of the heaven, yes! she’s found in using her voice and leadership and relationships to lead in GBIO and secure more justice for Black Bostonians and for all Bostonians and residents of this state. 

I wonder how this voice speaks to us. I wonder how this form of love calls to each of us today. We each have our lives, our circumstances, our one precious, powerful voice. 

Because if God lives with us, if God lives among and within us, and if God sees this world not as it should be, not yet in tune with God’s loving justice, then God has a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! for us all to discover. God’s love includes God’s own passionate hell, no! to all that mars the beauty of what God has made.

And God’s love includes God’s own hopeful heaven, yes! to everything that restores beauty and justice and goodness and truth. And God has people and circumstances in our lives like Mordecai to help us find our hell, no! and heaven, yes! Too. For us awaken to the power of our privilege and the possibility of our voice working for loving justice in our spheres.

Where do we find this? Amidst all that is wrong in the world, and amidst all the ways God longs to make things whole, where do we partner with God? 

Three things come to mind. I think God can call us to align with the love of hell, no! and heaven, yes! In at least three places. In our heartbreak, in our anger, and in our privilege.

The heartbreak angle is where this has been speaking to me. 

Last year at some point I read about the phenomenon of COVID languishing – where you’re not quite depressed, but the losses and interruptions of this pandemic have sapped your energy and hope and left you in kind of a listless, low energy paralysis. 

And I thought: that’s me. So much, so long. And the particular ways I felt that heartbreak, I started asking:

does it have to be this way?

And there some places where I started to feel:

hell, no! it doesn’t. 

And I’m not talking about trivial things, like: I’m tired of having to wear a mask in the supermarket. No, that’s like the most minor of inconveniences. I’m talking about the losses and malaise in the lives of some teenagers in my life. And I’m talking about putting relationships on hold, or the vitality of this Reservoir community going on hold, or wondering if my life mission and life’s joy needed to be on hold. And I thought:

hell, no!

I can take care of my health, and look after my loved one’s health, and participate in responsible public health measures while also starting to interrupt some patterns of malaise in my life and still living. And for a season, I started asking, where can I show up for life today? Where can I show up for hope today, my own or someone else’s? 

For a while I was praying this written prayer each morning:

Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord.” 

For me in that prayer, the sin and adversity language was about drifting toward lethargy and despair. Which I didn’t need any more of. And I started finding that each day I could give time and energy to what this prayer calls “the fulfilling of God’s purpose,” And when I could say “heaven, yes!” to showing up for one of my kids, or one of you, or for work I was made for, or even for a few moments of wholehearted rest and delight, I had more strength and hope. I felt more alive.

It’s a weird thing that for those of us who’ve lived in the West in relative privilege and affluence, the pandemic is calling for two things – it’s calling for surrender – to let go of our illusions of control and accept whatever comes in life. And it’s calling for struggle – to not just cave to the most dire of our fears, but to choose life still and choose hope and purpose each day where we can. Surrender and struggle – an odd combination, maybe – but I think resilience is found in that combination. 

So that’s me finding a hell, no! and a heaven, yes! in heartbreak. But you can find it in anger and in privilege too. Where you’re awakening to anger – anger at what’s wrong in the world, anger at how you’ve been done wrong in your life, anger at the crap that you or others get dealt or need to put up with, that anger is an invitation to disruption. That anger is calling out for a big hell, no! to something that needs to change and a heaven, yes! to something good and redemptive and just in its place.

Anger’s a funny thing. We can feel threatened by our own anger and want to shut it down. Certainly we can feel threatened by other people’s anger. We live in times of a lot of coming into the power and expression of Black anger, Asian anger, women’s anger. And a lot of us – certainly white guys like me can be like, woah, woah, woah, why is everyone angry? Can’t we just get along?

But anger isn’t by itself a threat. Anger is so often the voice of truth and the energy of change if we’ll let it be. When Mordecai went to Esther and was like: you have got to speak up! At first she’s like:

no, no, I can’t, and calm down.

But he isn’t having that. His heartbreak and anger know better. Hell, no to the diminishment and destruction of a people. And Esther listens.

Same with privilege. When people have voice and power and opportunity, that’s not inherently bad. It’s just a problem if it’s hoarded or not used well, and it’s a problem if it’s unearned privilege that is denied to someone else or some other community. Esther has immense privilege. So do many of us. And with privilege comes opportunity, and responsibility.

I think my friend Bev’s heaven, yes! leadership for social justice in Boston has been so powerful in part because it comes out of all three of these places – heartbreak for the conditions in her community, anger at the racism and injustice that’s made that so, and the leveraging of the privilege of her education and relationships and talent.

When you find ways to say hell, no! and heaven, yes! born out of heartbreak and anger and privilege, you’re in a sweet spot there. Watch out and see what’ll happen.

But anytime, in anyway, we say “no” to the ways things are but shouldn’t be – in ourselves or around us, and right with that we say “yes” to the ways God would have it be so, we’re aligned with the purpose and power of God, because we’re practicing a very particular and potent form of love.