The Fires That Shape Us

I’ve seen a house burn from top to bottom once in my life — thankfully only once.
Ten years ago in Maine, this time of year — I watched it burn from the 2nd floor of the house my Dad grew up in.  That 2nd floor was the perfect vantage point to watch birds float to the small roof below, and identify unannounced visitors  pulling in the driveway  coming to say their “last good-byes” to my Dad.   It also gave a nice view of that house directly across the road that sat at the top of a short but steep hill. .  . one that always was of interest in the winter as the owners gave test to their plowing and de-icing prowess – often skidding their vehicles to a merciful stop just before they joined the main road at the bottom.

Firefighters say that it only takes 30 seconds from the start of a fire for it to rage out of control. And only two minutes for it to overtake a structure. I think I had learned this fact in 3rd grade when Smokey The Bear visited our classroom. It scared me enough that I convinced my parents to put a metal escape chain ladder out my bedroom window for fire safety — which I happily used for many things unrelated to fires.

But on that unusually warm February night 10 years ago I bore witness – firsthand – to the uncontrolled power and speed of fire. The impact of the terror of fire – the screams and the cries …the damage, the destruction and the danger of fire.  

It is true that fire is scary as hell.

In one minute life holds shape – heartbeats, and flannels, and chimneys, and snow shovels, and dogs barking —  and in the next minute it is smoke and ash.

Today we’ll spend some time pressing into this theme of Fire as Danger – it is our 3rd week of Lent and we will wonder together:

  • 1) why has the church used the imagery and metaphor of fire to put terror into the hearts of so many who are eager to experience the love of God? 
  • 2) What do we do when we are burned? When those around us are in fires?
  • 3) And what potential does fire have to shape us?

We’ll look at the historic story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into a dangerous, fiery furnace and consider its contemporary messages for us today.

Before I pray for us, I would be remiss to not flag how intense this imagery of fire is… how it moves from the metaphorical realm to our lived reality in many ways. This week US Airman Aaron Bushnell died in the fires of self-immolation protesting the genocide of the Palestinian people. It is intense, hard, and it is real. As we move along in today’s service please take the space and care you need for yourself and the Spirit of God to be with you – with as much freedom as you need.

Let me pray for us:

My God(!) there is a lot to fear these days…so much is burning.  There is a lot to rage against and a lot to fight. And so today we ask for your warm presence as we gather together. Help us to remember that you call us by name – that we are precious in your eyes, that you honor us – that you love us unconditionally. 

And remind us that through every age of struggle, every era of hope, you are with us. And in the labors of liberation, could you sustain us with joy and courage? 

We praise you God, because your presence is a force OF, and FOR life. Your love is like oxygen to our spirits – that fans the flames of all good things.

In community, we pray – – AMEN

It isn’t that surprising to imagine why churches would gravitate to the imagery of fire — I mean it is almost a flawless means by which to control. Fire’s destructive power is an effective symbol for fearsome threats of eternal suffering and torment for particular targets of divine or human judgment.  *next week – fires of judgment.

Fire of course, leaves the symbolic realm and is a real experience of pain and suffering. We know – the minimal centimeters between the pleasure of warming your hands by a fire and the jolting pain of having them singed by fire – we know that a drop of boiling water, or a brush of skin against a hot pan — leaves its mark in blisters and searing pain for days. John O’ Donohue says

“a burn is unlike any other pain – it cuts to the soul.” 

Therefore — threatening people with a future that is an eternal burning was the ultimate threat that could be issued against them. And for followers of Jesus who had witnessed  heretics and witches and any other person deemed “deviant” burned at the stake –  this wasn’t a far off threat – it was convincing. 

FEAR – it’s how the church colonized the minds of its people with a blazing image of a controlling, angry, punishing God.  A conditional God – a conditional faith.  And even without an identifiable flame as a warning all the time,  or words like “damnation” or “eternal suffering” always spoken from leaders… the smoke of this fear is what has been absorbed into our churches, our nation, our society — and for many of us, our bodies. 

But… if we can roll back and look at scripture we can see that fire isn’t usually a weapon in God’s hands — it is violence from which God longs to rescue us. 

Isaiah 43:1-5 (Common English Bible)

1 Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name; you are mine.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched

    and flame won’t burn you.

3 I am the Lord your God,

    the holy one of Israel, your savior.

I have given Egypt as your ransom,

    Cush and Seba in  your place.

4 Because you are precious in my eyes,

    you are honored, and I love you.

    I give people in your place,

        and nations in exchange for your life.

5 Don’t fear,

    I am with you.

From the east I’ll bring your children;

    from the west I’ll gather you.

You will not drown. You will not be scorched. You will not be burned. I will be with you. 

These are the promises that Isaiah pens to those in exile who are under the empire of Babylon. A people who had journeyed and suffered, who had been enslaved — then free, and now in exile.  A letter to say “there is hope”, God has not forgotten you. 

Remember your ancestors who kept their eyes on God. God who came in the column of fire that lit the path in their nighttime travels … remember your God as fire & light. 

Remember fire that lit your ancestors’ way through the wilderness – that glowed as manna fell and warmed as the desert night temperatures cooled .. remember your God as fire & warmth & protection.

Remember that in the flame of fire — God spoke to Moses. The one who would lead your ancestors out of slavery.

God a column of fire. . . present, comforting, a spark of hope.

It’s a bold letter of promise. A promise on God’s behalf for rescue. To return home from exile. A promise that God is an unconditional God. An everlasting, proactive, persistent loving kindness – kind of God… toward all of God’s creation.

These were the promises I too believed. God will save. God will deliver those God loves from suffering. God will protect. These too were the promises my Dad believed.

They were the ones that stirred in our spirit as we watched the house burn across the street – as my brothers ran to help, as we called the volunteer fire department…

We clung to those promises because we too were watching as our father’s body was ravaged by a rare cancer that spread like wildfire through his body and engulfed his life in the blistering speed of four weeks time  – before the age of 60.

It’s why my four siblings and I were all in Maine, on that 2nd floor. It’s why we could watch visitors pull into the driveway. 

This house burning across the street at the same time – felt emblematic of our reality.

And we leaned on our faith — on these promises. We prayed the gut-wrenching prayers…

“God rescue.  God of miracles – rescue, please.”

At the heart of the promise in these Isaiah verses is the rescue from floodwaters and fire.  

But it is not literally true for everyone.  It wasn’t true in our case with our Dad.  There were Jews who died in the fires of Babylon used in their siege of Jerusalem.  I know many of you have experienced and witnessed fires – suffering, pain, oppression – that does burn, does scorch, does hurt. 

Here’s the thing when it appears that God doesn’t rescue or save… a conditional faith – with foundations of fear – develop/construct new promises that in suffering sound like,

“God has his ways that are bigger than ours,”


“everything happens for a reason.”

I heard those words over and over throughout the wake of my Dad’s death. And as so many of you might know — that is an additional fire to endure. Like a 3rd degree burn… I mean when you need a hand – or an emergency ladder, or a lifeboat or a lamp (as Rumi says), the worst thing you can be handed is a “reason.” That is not rescue. That is not the loving care of God.

It is a burn that asphyxiates and poisons again and again. It’s not the blatant “fire and damnation pounding from a pulpit” – but it is the same smoke.

Smokey the Bear says when you are in the presence of fire you should “Stop, drop, & roll.”  Functionally, it is a life-saving technique to cease any movement that will fuel the flames — and LIMIT the harm of fire by depriving it of oxygen. 

I knew if there existed one lick of this flame – of a conditional God – even way back in the corner of my subconscious – it would show itself, it would still be live.  And I knew I had to be fully rescued from this – needed to extinguish it.  I knew that it would be critical in stoking my own fire within for the good of this world, for the work of justice, and for the godly work of liberation. 

I want to invite you to consider the story we’ll read together of Shadrach, Meshach, and  Abednego. Perhaps a familiar story – it’s one that I remember from early in my childhood. One that was relayed to me as an example of the unwavering faith we were meant to have, the miracles that would unfold as a result, and a God who would cheer us on in such tests of life and faith. 

I invite you to consider – as we read this historic one- your own story.  The fires you’ve endured…the ones that you’ve been burned by — have been rescued from? How you have perceived God in those times.. And now?

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel were taken captive during the period known as the Babylonian exile when the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar – described by some as a narcissistic maniac –  besieged Jerusalem. These men had impressed Nebuchadnezzar and so had been promoted to administrative positions despite remaining faithful to their Jewish beliefs.  Except the conditions ramped up to show allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar – and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down in worship of a nine-story tall golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had ordered built, and the king became enraged.

And here we pick up the story: 

Daniel 3:13-18 and 24-25 (Common English Bible)

13 In a violent rage Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were brought before the king.

14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up?

5 If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question.

17 If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us.

18 But if he doesn’t,….. know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”

Nebuchadnezzar has them bound up – and throws them in the furnace… and then we read this:

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in shock and said to his associates, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?”

They answered the king, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

25 He replied, “Look! I see four men, unbound, walking around inside the fire, and they aren’t hurt! And the fourth one looks like one of the gods.”

The book of Daniel, set during the Babylonian exile, has something to say about history. It explores the vulnerability of people living under oppression. These three men — who were stripped of their Hebrew names — given these Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego  have something to say about the

“choices faced by those who must either support a repressive regime or face certain death. And just how quickly the dangerous fires of empire overtake… Nebuchadnezzar wanted them to bow—forget their heritage, forget their legacy, forget their journey, forget their God, forget their rights, and bow down.”

(Rev. Barber Forget who they are — and that starts with de-naming them.

The name Nebuchadnezzar literally means “one who will do anything to protect his power.” That’s why Nebuchadnezzar built his towers. He built his tower more than nine stories tall – he put his name on his tower and everything he built, and then he put gold on his tower, and he promised that he, and only he, could make Babylon great again, as Reverend William Barber points out. (

He wanted control. He wanted power. He wanted worship. He wanted to be God.

But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to fan this fire – they would not give oxygen to the flames of the religion of the king, the religion of greed, of fear,  the religion of racism, the religion of hate.

Under oppression, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew who they were. And they knew who God was. A God that was inside the trouble with them – in the fire. God who they declared,

“even if God doesn’t rescue us — still we will not bow”

an unconditional God.

And as they come out of the fire – the attendants to the King saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.

And Nebuchadnezzar

“Praises their God! And these three men say, “they trusted in this GOD and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” (v.28)

This is  a “strong, miraculous, unwavering faith” story — AND it is a story that extinguishes the voice of the oppressor, and it is a story that shows that

“in the midst of the burning – the oppressed can again and again try to liberate (unbind) themselves to show something more deep, more honest, and more powerful than the blazing!” (Dante Stewart)

And it is a story that gives shape to an image of God as a larger, freer, and more loving God than even surfaced the imagination of Nebuchadnezzar.

And it is our story.

A story that suggests the fires of this life can shape and transform us.

Friend to Reservoir, Rabbi Spitzer — who’s book, “God is Here”, we used to form a series last year — offers an image of the Divine that I found helpful in this conversation and one that I want to share with you as we close. Because ANGER is a big part of what we feel when we scan the landscape of our lives. When we think about the people we’ve lost – when we see the fires of injustice, and oppression that are not extinguished, and the actual wildfires (Texas), and the endless, unanswered calls for ‘ceasefire’ — we are angry and sad and angry again. 

Throughout the Hebrew Bible – God’s anger does blaze as fire. Fire is unleashed at times – consuming complainers and rebels alike (188) – particularly when they refuse to accept the challenge of creating a new kind of society with God.

God as a “consuming fire” is also called “El qanna” (Kah-nah) – often translated as a jealous God. But also understood as a “heated divine emotion.”  Some scholars suggest it is an essential attribute of God. . .but more like the intense heat, fire, and lava that flows from volcanoes.

One scholar Nissim Amzallag suggests that while “jealousy” is a sufficient description in the human realm – it is not complete in the Divine realm.  When referring to God he says, it is more like the process of “Furnace remelting.”  An ancient process where a corroded copper object is completely melted down in a furnace and the molten metal is then shaped/reshaped into something new. 

In the ancient world it was not uncommon for divine beings to be associated with this concept – with the intense, transformative power of flame and heat.

Amzallag says

“this attribute of God was not viewed by Israelites simply as the destructive expression of anger by God. Precisely as in furnace remelting, it was conceived as a wonder– leading to a complete rejuvenation of creation” (189).

Completely reshaping of one thing into another. 

In prophetic texts, God’s anger and the divine qanna (kah-nah) are connected both to the condemnation of oppressors and to a vision of transformation.

Collective anger at injustice, like the flames that erupt when God is angry – CAN ROAR – and seem out of control. Yet out of those flames can also come disruptive and necessary transformation. Anger is the work of love that protests an unloving world.  And often the catalyst in the fire that opens up a new way through… a type of rescue that wasn’t given shape before. 

Smokey the Bear (this is the last time I’m going to mention him – I promise!), also says that when a fire is raging another action you can take is to shut the doors  – to limit the spread of damage. To protect & safeguard that which is susceptible to fire.  And yet – preferred above stop drop & roll and shutting doors is to just extinguish the fire as quickly as possible – to not wait to see what happens, or think it will probably amount to nothing.

Now some of us aren’t always able to do this — but some of us have the energy, the capacity, the position, the privilege, the power – to do just that. 

I took this role to be a pastor, a couple years after my Dad died – by which I took on a personal oath to “do no harm.” To spread no versions of God that demand unquestioning obedience, performance, exclusion of other people, political alignment, or conformity of belief. To never promote falsely constructed “reasons” for atrocities in the name of God — but to open up more ways that we can authentically find God in our lives with one another –  in the fire, in the doubt, grief, in the ashes, and in the rubble. Life is precarious and often beyond our control, and this is part of what it means to know God too. 

It wasn’t the “reason” that explains why my Dad died of cancer – but it did give new shape to my way forward… to see with clarity that to be a follower of Jesus — is to vow to shut the doors on any of the acrid smoke that tries to actually make Jesus unfindable.

Perhaps we do have an opportunity to hear a divine message coming directly out of our terror, our pain, if we are able to withstand it. And in moments when we can’t.. perhaps we need to hear again and again the promises from our ancestors that God will … as the verses in Isaiah say: 

Bring us through the waters and through the rivers and through the fires… 

And that in the midst of our times that suggest our world is indeed on fire – we might be able to hear these lines not just as poetic ways of describing tough times. But to remember that these words ring true of the most significant moments of liberation in Hebrew history. That with full context we could read those lines this way:

“When you pass through the waters like you did through the Red Sea out of Egypt . . and through the dry bed of the River Jordan into the promised land… when you walk through the fire like brothers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego…”

It might help us remember this faith and these miracles are ours too. These these three boys who endured unspeakable horrors. Who underwent two fires: a physical burning in a furnace, and a prolonged burning, set ablaze by empire. And remember that they didn’t simply make it through the fires, somehow just embracing the violence of the empire politely and passively — 

the miracle was their audacity. The miracle was their courage to stare down terror. The miracle was found IN the fire –  where there WAS A GOD who says,

“the violent flames of EMPIRE will not and do not have the last say.”

Black preacher and author Dante Stewart says,

“empires may be able to enslave our people, plunder our resources; they may try to destroy both our bodies and our future. But in the midst of the burning, we somehow try to liberate ourselves, again and again —  [‘remelting’]– giving shape to the audacious belief that one’s body, one’s story, one’s future does not end in this moment

a promise of God… to ring in our ears today, as truth – and as a call to action.

Rabbi Spitzer says we don’t know if there will be a period ahead in our nation where a true “remelting” is occurring . One where the structures and the ideologies of racism will be melted down so that something new and better can emerge.  Embrace Boston released a Harm Report this week — connecting the past to the present – the history of fiery harms to their contemporary impact of Black Boston….action in this direction.

We don’t know if it will be a period — where we’ll care for and investigate our actions and their impacts on our environment and climate …

We don’t know if it will be a period where we’ll regard our nation as part of a global community. . .

But we can do our parts to shut doors, limit harm, extinguish dangerous fires — and keep holding on to a faith that promises to transform us if we can hang in – to bring power out of pain, mercy out of meanness, love out of hate, joy out of sorrow, good out of evil, hope out of despair, and life out of the fire.

May God protect you, keep you warm, comfort you, and guide you in the days ahead.

In the name of the fire, the flame, and the light – Amen.


Amzallag, Nissim.“Furnace re-melting as the expression of YHWH’s holiness: Evidence from the meaning of qanna (קנא) in divine context.” 

Stewart, Dante. “Shouting in the Fire: An American Epistle.”

Casey Overton.

Reverend William Barber. “We Will Not Bow Down”

Conspiring Prayer

A few years ago, our oldest child had become an adult and was living away from home for the first time. And I was struggling with how to not worry about her all the time. You can never fully protect another person, you can certainly never fully control another person, which is good, but the loss of control and the loss of proximity with your own kid – it’s a big change in the life of a parent. It’s been the biggest change in my life the past few years. 

So a few years ago, when this was first happening, I was wondering – when you’re far away from someone else, how do you best love them?

I was talking to one of my mentors about this when I was just getting to know him at the time, and he’s famously a very spiritually wise, insightful person, so I asked him:

Tom, do you think I love my daughter more by praying for her, or just sending her $100? 

And at first, he was like:

probably send her the $100. 

And I was surprised. I thought: this is a religious man. I look up to him spiritually. He’s supposed to pick the “pray for your daughter” option and help me better understand why, like how that was going to help her.

I asked this question, after all, because I had been shifting in some of my own experiences of prayer, and starting to wonder,

  • when you pray for someone else from afar, how can that influence them?
  • Does it do them any good?
  • Does it show them love? 

And I guess I’d hoped my mentor would have an answer for those questions while commending me to pray for her more. 

But Tom, at least at first, was like, hey, won’t sending her the $100 really show her that you love her? 

I thought: sure, it would. 

And if you pray for God to do good things in her life, will that make God love her any more? 

And I thought: I hope not. I hope God loves her entirely already, that God’s already doing everything God can for her. I certainly hope God is like that. 

I thought of my mentor’s definition of love. Tom’s a theologian. He publishes a lot. 

And he’s defined love like this. He writes, 

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic or empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being.

So my emotional attunement and care for my kiddo – sympathy, empathy – that was already there. Now how could I act intentionally to promote her overall well-being?

And at least that day, Tom lobbied for the $100. Which surprised me.

I tell you this little story because today in our winter series on prayer, I want to talk a little bit about praying for others. Not so much praying for people face to face when they’re with you, like our prayer team does every Sunday for whoever wants that. 

I want to talk about praying that God will do things for people or other creatures that aren’t there with you. 

How does praying for others work? What’s the value? 

And it’s just one sermon, it won’t be all the truth on this topic, won’t even be all my truth, all my perspective.

But I want to introduce you to a way of praying for others that might be different from what you’ve tried before and has been helpful for me. 

It’s a phrase that a therapist and theologian named Mark Karris has coined. It’s called conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer engages us as partners with God when we pray for others, or when we pray for anyone or anything in all of creation.

Let’s read a scripture to get us going on this.

It’s from a little letter in the Bible, one called James. I’ll actually read two bits from James and go from there. 

Here’s the first bit, from the fifth chapter.

James 5:13-16 (Common English Bible)

13 If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing.

14 If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 

So at first, it seems to side more on the: pray for that person you love who’s far away. There’s no mention of sending them $100. Tom.

After all, it says:

Prayer can help heal. James encourages us to pray for one another.  

 But let’s unpack a little what this seems to say and not say about prayer.

One, it’s like prayer can be good for you. If you’re suffering, try – it might help. Just like if you’re happy, sing. It’ll feel good. 

I think that’s great advice by the way, the second part. As someone that whistles, hums, sings out loud a fair bit, I’m shocked by how few people do this stuff, in public at least. Me, sometimes I sing little songs I make up while skipping down the street with my dog. Keep your eye out for it, yeah. But I guess I’m like: if you’re happy and you know it… 

Why keep it in? This city, we’re a little too cool – in the wrong way, like a little too locked inside sometimes, I think. So: if any of you are happy, they should sing. You heard it here.

But back to prayer. It can be a comfort, a solace if you know how to be close to God, to go there when you’re suffering. That’s good advice too. 

After that, there’s a lot about going to other people and asking for prayer. 

When you’re sick. Also, when you’ve sinned. You’ve shown up to some part of your life as not your best self, or not the child of God you are deep down. That can leave a mark, on others sure, but on ourselves too. So James is like, confess that, share it, and the prayer you can give one another there – God loves you, you’re forgiven, God give my friend strength to forgive themselves, to let it go, to make amends, to make things right if that’s called for or possible. That can be freeing and encouraging. 

Pray for one another. There’s healing there.

There is a caveat to that, I suppose. James talks about “elders” you look to for prayer. And talks about the prayers of righteous people.

I don’t think he means only old people can pray effectively, or only official church leaders – like pastors. I also don’t think he means that self-righteous people, super-religious people are the only ones whose prayers God hears either. (I hope not!) I just think there’s an acknowledgement that there are people we can trust with our vulnerabilities, and there are people we can’t.

Confess your sins, but not to anyone. Be discerning. Confess to someone you can trust and who won’t give you back toxic shame or anything else unhelpful. 

And people who are living with integrity, that seem to be in good relationships with others, that seem to have an authentic way of praying with God themselves, their prayers are going to be more useful to you. So ask them. People who seem at ease with faith.

You know what James doesn’t talk about though. He doesn’t say much of anything about praying for people who aren’t there with you. He has face to face prayer in mind. You can’t touch people you’re not with. You can’t anoint them with oil, touch with some oil, as a symbol of the Spirit of God, you can’t do that if you’re not there.

I’m not saying James has anything against praying for people when you’re not with them, it’s just he doesn’t really emphasize that so much. I think he’s aware that praying for someone when you’re with them seems to have more power. 

For what it’s worth, the little bit of modern research on prayer agrees. Face to face prayer, with a safe, empathetic listener who can pray for your healing, who can offer safe touch while praying – with or without oil – that has had measurable impact on people’s well being.

The few attempts, though, to measure the impact of prayer offered for someone from afar, have not been successfully measured to have had impact.

That doesn’t mean they don’t. I think it can be great to pray for who and what you care about from afar, but the impact of that we’ve not been able to measure like prayer in person. 

So maybe that’s part of what Tom had in mind when he was like, Steve, go ahead and send the cash to your kid. You know that will have an effect. Maybe.

Or maybe he had this other bit from James in mind. This is from chapter two:

James 2:14-17 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

So James here is the original BIG NO to the whole “thoughts and prayer” strategy regarding people’s suffering.

You know, what politicians say after every mass shooting. I have not intention on making these events less frequent. But: our thoughts and prayers are with them. 

James is like:

those are the kind of thoughts and prayers you can keep to yourself, thank you. They are useless. 

Faith is no good if it doesn’t result in faithful activity. 

And while James doesn’t say this explicitly, he kind of implies that saying a prayer for someone – God, can you give them some food and clothes tonight, just not from me – he kind of implies that doesn’t count as faithful activity. 

Quick prayers like that from afar are easy, for the person saying the prayer, but James at least says: this is not what faith looks like. It is certainly not what love looks like. 

How do we put this together with what James is saying?

1.Prayer is really good for us when we’re down.

2. People we can trust, and people who are in relationship with God, we should have them pray for us when our body or our inner self has lost its way. Those prayers will help. 

And also….

3. Don’t pretend a quick prayer from afar is what faith looks like, or what love looks like, if that’s all you’re willing to do.

We can’t save everyone, that’s for sure, we can’t even try to love everyone. No shame in that. But I think James is implying: faking it doesn’t do anyone any good. 

How do we put all this together when we think about prayer? 

After all, there are so many questions when it comes to praying that God will change things in the world or love or help others. 

Can I list just a bunch of the questions that I hear you have as your pastor, or that I have sometimes. 

Questions like:

-Does God need our prayers to do things? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

-Is God not already doing what God can to help people?

Questions like:

-Can we make God do more of anything?

-Is our prayer for others for our sake? For their sake? For God’s sake?

Questions like:

-Does prayer for God to do things in the world even work?

What are we doing? What is God doing in all this?

One way of praying that doesn’t answer all these questions but I think leans into them faithfully is what Mark Karris calls conspiring prayer.

Conspire means to agree together. 

These days we usually use it for conspiracies, like people agreeing together to do bad things, or bad things in our imagination that aren’t likely even true. Conspiracy theories.

But the first meaning of this word, where it comes from, is to agree together because you breathe together.

Con- meaning “with” and “spire” meaning breath. 

And so to conspire with God is to seek to breathe together with God and to agree together on something like an action plan. 

Here’s what that looks like, with the example of my kid first leaving home.

My kid’s not close by. My heart is still with them. But it’s smothering, it’s creepy to text and call my kid all the time. So I don’t.

Instead, I say to God:

My God, my heart is aching for my kid. I want so much for them. And to the degree I worry about them, it’s because I love them so much, more love that fits inside here. 

What should I do with this?

And maybe I can pause for a moment and breathe with God.

Maybe I notice that God loves my kid just like I do – so much heart, so much good intention, such big feelings.

I say I notice – how do I notice this about God? Maybe I feel it. Maybe I hope it. Maybe I believe it. Faith, hope, and love, after all – that’s the way of Christ, the Bible says. If God’s a good parent, if God is love, of course God has all this love for this one person in particular. 

And maybe just that moment of breathing with God, that God has all this love too, maybe that calms me a little. Maybe there’s some hope there.

One of our kids used to get anxious sometimes, and sometimes I’d try this thing I first saw on a TV show, where I’d hold their face in my hands – gently, with permission, or I’d offer a hug, and we’d just stay there for a moment, and breathe together, while I say:

it’s OK. It’s OK. We’re here.

And I feel like prayer is partly this. It’s faith that God is breathing with us, offering a hug, or hand on the face, or an arm around the shoulder, breathing with us, saying:

I’ve got you.

And when I remember this in prayer, I realize: God has room for all my thoughts. God has time to listen. 

So maybe I tell God all that I want for my kid, all that I wish for them.

I’ve heard people in small group settings when we pray, say: God, I wish this and I wish that. And I used to think that was a sign they hadn’t learned to pray. Like come one, you’re just making three wishes. 

But now. I feel like: that’s not a bad way to pray, honestly telling God what we wish for. We don’t know if that’s what God wants, we may not be sure that God can make it happen, at least single handedly. But we believe God’s listening, and that’s a start.

So I tell God some of what I wish for. 

So I feel like God has room to listen

And if I’m breathing with God, con-spring, maybe I get curious about what God wishes for my kid, and maybe I wonder if that’s exactly what I’m wishing for, or maybe I wonder if God has a different picture of what’s best for them.

No way of knowing for sure, but that gets me curious, and that’s good for me. We love better when we’re curious, when we don’t have a tight grip, but open hearts, open minds. 

And then conspiring prayer takes a third step – beyond breathing with God, beyond wishing together, conspiring prayer says to God: what can we do about this? 

What can we do about this?

And it’s a we? Like God and me. 

Because maybe God can do things I can’t. Like God can inspire good people to come into my kid’s life, or God can inspire my kid themselves to turn toward hope, or to try something hard that might really be good for them. Maybe God’s already doing this.

  • Or who knows?
  • Maybe my wishes even inspire God a little? 

Not because God needs us for good ideas exactly? Probably not. But God’s a really good listener and what we have to say has an effect on God. That’s the way the Bible stories go, at least. 

But maybe I can do things no one else can too. Or maybe other people can do them, but they won’t. Or maybe there are things lots and lots of people need to do, and I’m one of them.

So I pray for my kid, and I remember: they really need some encouragement. I have some unique capacity to encourage them – to remind them of their best qualities or to let them know I believe in them. So I think: ah, it is time to send a text or make a call, not to give advice or nag them, but just to tell them how much I believe in them.

Or maybe I write a letter, or put a little care package together.

Or maybe I remember my kid seemed worried about money, and I don’t think money will solve any of their problems, but I do know that if they see $100 in their Venmo from me, out of nowhere, for no reason, that’s really going to surprise them, and in really good surprise kind of way.

And they could use a good surprise today, can’t they?

Do you get the idea?

Conspiring prayer is more work than just saying: God bless so and so. Or God help so and so in this kind of way.

But that’s what faith looks like. That’s what love looks like. It takes some work.

And whether it’s praying for your oldest kid who just left home, or praying for your pastor, or heck, praying for peace in Palestine and Israel, and praying for justice for terrorized and the dispossessed, and the body and soul-sick and hungry in that land, conspiring prayer acknowledges that there is so much we can not do, but there is also always something, something we can do. And conspiring prayer is taking a quiet, reflective moment and wondering with the unseen God of the Universe what that might be today, or tomorrow, or this year.

Conspiring prayer on this front got me in a room with a few Palestinian and Muslim leaders and one of our senators this month.

And conspiring prayer has got me sending cash and letters to my kid too. 

But conspiring prayer isn’t just about action. It’s about being with God, like God really is the kind and wise and beautifully loving mother and father that faith in the way of Jesus Christ says God is.

This is a God we can be with, that we can breathe with, that we can share all our wishes with. And that out of the calm, and the love that union brings, that we can imagine together just what we both can do.

This is prayer that availeth much, my friends. A partnership with the living God born out of breathing and agreeing and acting together. 

I encourage you to give it a try, or to try again, see how it goes.

Christmas Eve Service

I’m Steve, the senior pastor of Reservoir Church. We welcome all people, without exception, to discover the love of Jesus, the joy of living, and the gift of community. We’re so glad you’re with us today. 

So good to be with you! One of my favorite places, with many of my favorite people, on one of my favorite days of the year – couldn’t be more pumped!

It’s been a very dynamic and exciting year in the life of this church, and I’m so glad to celebrate the birth of Jesus together today…

To our regular friends and members, thanks so much for sharing another Sunday together. And thank you for sustaining this community – all that we are and do – with your lives, your stories, your help, and your regular financial support. If any of you aren’t already part of the giving team that sustains the community, we don’t pass offering plates in our services but you can find out about giving at Reservoir and give online at our website –

If you’re not a regular part of the Reservoir Church community, a particular welcome to you. You can learn more about this community at our website,, or by following us on social media. 

Most Sundays we gather for worship in person at 9:30 a.m. and over YouTube at 11:00. Our kids and youth and adults are all worshiping together, as we will on next Sunday, New Year’s Eve. Our Sunday programs for babies through youth will resume during the new year. We also have over 25 groups that meet together throughout the week for connection and support and a variety of other ways to connect and serve the community.. If you’d like more information on our groups or any of our programs, or would like to sign up for our weekly newsletters and announcements, just fill out one of the connection cards I mentioned or email us at 

Alright, friends, let’s get to it. This is our Christmas Eve service of story, song, and candlelight. Today we’ll celebrate Christmas together with story and song. Along with readings of the Christmas story from the Bible, we’ll meet a few Reservoir families who’ll react to the story as well. At the end of our time, I’ll come back and share a few words of Christmas reflection and encouragement. And we’ll close with the singing together of Silent Night. 

Let’s now light the Christmas candle. As we do so, I’ll lead us in prayer with the words of Howard Thurman, pastor to America’s civil rights movement, with his poem, “I Will Light Candles this Christmas.”

I will light candles this Christmas,

Candles of joy despite all the sadness

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of courage for fears ever present.

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, 

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all year long.

Story – The Annunciation and Visitation

Luke 1:26-38 (Common English Bible) 

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee,

27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.

31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.

33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.

36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.

37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.


Luke 1:39-46 (Common English Bible)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands.

40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.

43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.

45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46 Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored

49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.

50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.

51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,

55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

While a child holds Mary and Joseph and an angel and says, “The angel told Mary and Joseph that they were going to have a baby and to name him Jesus. They were scared, but they were happy too because Jesus, God’s son, was coming to save us.” 

Story – The Nativity and Shepherds  

Luke 2:1-20 (Common English Bible)

1 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.

2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.

3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.

4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.

5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.

6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby.

7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night.

9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.

11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.

12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said,

14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.”

16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.

18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.

19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.

20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Mary and Joseph stand beside the manger. A child holds the baby Jesus and says

“Mary and Joseph had no hospital and nowhere to stay. While they were staying in a shelter, surrounded by animals, Jesus was born. Life was very hard, but God kept reminding them not to be afraid.”

Story – The Adoration of the Magi and Flight into Egypt 

Matthew 2:1-12 (Common English Bible) 

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.

2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.

4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.

5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.[a]

7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared.

8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”

9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was.

10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.

11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.


Matthew 2:13-23 (Common English Bible) 

13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.”

14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt.

15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

18 A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much grieving.
        Rachel weeping for her children,
            and she did not want to be comforted,
                because they were no more.

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.

20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee.

23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.

A child holds one of the Magi and says “Life was hard for the baby Jesus. But his mom and dad always remembered that after he was born, important people from very far away came to visit them and bring them gifts.”


I spent part of last Sunday with some of Reservoir’s youth, talking about merry Christmases and blue Christmases. 

A merry Christmas is when you celebrate the holiday with optimism, joy, and good cheer.

And a blue Christmas is the opposite – where Christmas comes, and you’re lonely or anxious, or you’re sad or angry. 

I asked the youth if they were coming into the holiday in more of a merry or a blue Christmas state of mind. And more than half of them thought they were somewhere in between. A little bit of both.

Me too.

This Christmas I have a lot to celebrate – a great year in the life of this church, and even more hope for the year to come. Friends and family I love and that love me too. A very loyal dog. Life’s pretty great.

But I’m blue as well. Worried about people I love. Heartbroken and angry over things in the world near and far. Tired out by some of this year’s stress. 

We all contain multitudes. We are people of paradox.

The Christmas story has room for it all. 

It begins with hope. 

Two women laugh together over unexpected joys. They cheer each other on as they dream about all their babies will become and all the wonders God will do in their lifetimes and beyond. 

Christmas after all invites us to dream again. If God is with us, who can be against us? What isn’t possible for God?

But the Christmas story ends in sorrow. A petty, narcissist politician hunts for the baby of Bethlehem. He can’t find Jesus. But there is collateral damage as they say. Rachel weeps for her children who are no more, as so  many mothers and fathers weep for their children today. 

Christmas is a story of immense hope, but it’s hope streaked with tragedy.

What do we do with this story of paradox?

What do we do with our merry/blue lives of paradox this Christmas?

Well, one option is that we stay where the story ends.

Our final reading ends with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph finding somewhere safe to live, escaping to the small, off the radar town of Nazareth. 

For Jesus, for a time, this is good. Nazareth is a hilly town away from trouble. 

It’s a place for Jesus to grow up and see many birthdays. To take his first steps, and wobble and fall, and get back on his feet again. 

To learn to speak Aramaic, to call his mother Ema and his father Abba.

Nazareth is where Jesus has the time to study Torah, to develop an uncanny knowledge and insight of the ancient holy texts of his people. 

It’s where he is safe to walk outside at night, look up at the stars and talk to God and wonder about his place in the world.

Nazareth is where Jesus would learn to catch and cook fish, where he’d apprentice to a builder and learn a trade. 

It’s good for Jesus to be safe, to have a place to grow and get ready for what’s to come. 

We need our Nazareths to flee to as well – the people and the places where we can go when trouble comes, when the stress and despair of life is too much. 

I have a park I walk to when I need that, where I can sit on the grass, lean back against the trunk of a tree, and be still for a bit. 

I have friends, in my case fellow pastors, who I meet with a couple times a month, where we smile and laugh and cuss a little, keeping it real about our joys and troubles. It’s good to spend an hour or two together, in privacy, in confidence, in that circle of listening and encouragement and support.  

I wonder if some of us need to find safe people, safe places for the year to come. Where can you go when you’re blue? Who can you be with when you’re stressed? What will you do to find your peace again when you’re afraid?

If we’re going to believe in peace on earth and good will to all people, we’re going to need to know how and where the peace can start with me. 

And this is good for us, for a time. To go to our parks and our prayer circles and our peace practices.

But we don’t spend our lives there. 

I get up from under the tree and walk back home.

I leave my little pastor buddy huddle and go back to work. 

Jesus grows up safe and secure in Nazareth, as every child should have the right to do in some city or town. But then he leaves. 

He heads east to the region of Galilee. Galilee was a complicated place. Multi-religious, multiethnic, it was heavily taxed, heavily oppressed, and a land of heavy anger and resistance. Of longing for a change to come. 

Jesus steps into this land, makes friends and followers among its people, as he teaches the way of a loving God with us, and as he teaches and lives a better way of being alive together, a healing path of truth and freedom and living like there’s always more than enough for us all. 

It’s the beginnings of God’s help, of the remembrance of mercy, his mother Mary dreamed of.

But it is not safe. People hate change, even the changes that set us free, and this was true even then in Galilee too. So Jesus found foes. Some people, including some very determined and very powerful people, came to hate Jesus. 

Which gives him the choice – to head back to his safe place in Nazareth if he can find it again, or to keep moving forward with his part – his very big part – in seeing God’s peace and justice get bigger in the world. 

So Jesus goes forward. He pulls back now and then. He withdraws to places and people and practices of peace. But then he keeps moving. 

What about us, my friends?

What hard work calls out to us in this year to come?

What relationships or communities of tension or despair do we live among, where we have access to bring words of blessing or peace? 

What complacent systems do we live within, where we  might be truthtellers or changemakers, sharing our story or our gifts? 

When the angels speak to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and it seems like anyone who has ears to hear, again and again what they say is: Fear not. 

Fear not. Don’t be afraid. 

I don’t think they mean: don’t you dare ever be afraid. 

Don’t get nervous. Don’t feel anxious. Don’t have stress.

Maybe for the angels, but not for us.

To be human is to feel these things.

But I do think they mean: don’t stay there.

Don’t hang out forever in your safe place. Don’t go back to Nazareth.

Go forward. Love big. Speak the truth. Live your call. Do the work. 

Remember what Christmas tells us.

That God is with us, this day, every day, in every place, forever.

And that God has the desire, and the ideas, and the strength to give us hope and to help us walk in courage in the middle of our fear, and to do the hard things that grow peace and justice in the world. We can join Jesus in this work, friends, moving from our safe places to our brave spaces where we partner with God and one another in the transformative healing of creation. 

Today it’s Christmas Eve today, tomorrow’s Christmas. It’s not a time for working. 

Take a moment of peace. Give a present, or open one, or both. Light a candle. Eat a good meal. Sleep a good sleep. 

We all deserve some peace. We all deserve secure places to rest and grow. 

Soak in the story. God is with us. Reclaiming every bit of our lives and every bit of creation as sacred ground again. If God is for us, who can stand against us? And if God is for us all, who dares stand against one another? 

But when you get up the day after Christmas, or the day after your vacation, before you go back to normal in the new year, perhaps pray the words of Thurman’s Christmas candle prayer with which we began today.

I will light candles this Christmas,

Candles of joy despite all the sadness

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of courage for fears ever present.

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, 

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all year long.

Where can you join Jesus in his campaign of peace and good will, grace, hope, love, and courage? How will you welcome the light, and how will you and I join the light, be the light? 

Friends, if there is anything in that makes you just a little bit afraid, that’s OK. Ask God for courage to keep walking, keep shining, keep going forward. 

Together, we can do it. We can do it. 

Pray with me, friends, as we close.

Light of God, light of Christ, shine among us. 

Tender mercy and help of our Ema, Abba God hold and keep you this day and all the days of your life. 

The courage of Christ hold support you in your fear, and push you forward in courage. 

And may you know the light of God, shining upon you, within you, and through you and this day and forever more.



Way of Jesus: Contemplation and Action

We’re in this series called The Way of Jesus, focusing on Jesus, his ministry, life, death, and resurrection…what does it mean to follow and adapt his way, to live in union with the Spirit wisdom of Jesus in our lives? 

Jesus showed us how to live by what He preached and how He lived, what He said and what He did. What I’d like to talk about today is how He lived a life of both connection with God AND connection to the people around him. Because He does this balance work of both doing the WORK of God AND BEING WITH God–both. Some people refer to this through a diagram of the line up and down, your relationship with God and God with you, and a horizontal line, your relationship with others, how you relate with others. It’s about Worship AND Fellowship. Prayer AND Service.

Justice AND Renewal as Christina Cleveland, a black female public theologian, named her work that is for Social Action and Spiritual vigor. And Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, calls his educational non profit that offers a contemplative Christian path of transformation, the Center for Action and Contemplation. Because their vision is

“Transformed people working together for a more just and connected world.”

So it’s BOTH, the holy transformation of self and the outward work. You Guys feel me? Spirituality and community. So what does it mean to try to live a life that follows Jesus’ way of both Contemplation and Action? 

Let’s meditate on a Scripture text from the Bible to wonder together what that might mean for us. For you, today. I’m getting this from the Gospel of Mark chapter 1. One of the first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that primarily hold the stories of Jesus. 

But first, it’s SIDE NOTE Time! 

So those, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, are the Gospels that we have now in our current form of the Bible, the current Cannon, meaning, the current collection of books councils upon councils of committees decided on which books and writing would be included in the “main” text of the Holy Bible. AAAAAAAAND there are also other writings from the time that have been found that are not included, for example The Gospel of Mary, a 5th century text, or the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James, etc.

They’re called New Testament apocrypha, “Apocrypha” meaning “hidden” or “put away”–the ones that are not included in our Bible today. I just think that’s so interesting! There are other writings from the early Christian years that many of us, most of us do not even know about. They’re like extra readings, cause let’s be honest, who actually did the extra readings from your syllabus? 

I think this makes the diversity of even among the four Gospels even more important to note and notice. 

So Mark, for example, does not have a Christmas story. Yeah. It just starts with Jesus as an adult. There’s no birth story or baby story. It begins with the baptism of Jesus. I’ll summarize the first part of Chapter 1 and then get to our text today. 

So Mark Chapter 1 opens with,

This is 

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” 

Jesus is baptized and as he came out of the water, he saw the heaven being torn open, God’s realm breaking in, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, a voice came from heaven saying, 

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

And then the Spirit sent him out into the desert for 40 days.

And then he went to Galilee, saying,

“The kingdom of God is near!”

God is no longer distant!

He meets Simon and his brother Andrew, and invites them to become fishers of men. He builds a team.

And then he goes to Capernaum, on the Sabbath he went to the synagogue and began to teach. Clears out the evil spirit, it says. 

This recap vibe is pretty similar to how Mark is actually written. And this happened, and that happened. He uses this word And, “kai” in Greek, pretty much at the beginning of every paragraph. That’s one Greek word I did learn in seminary, Kai! Because my Greek professor had a hamster named Kai. Yes I have the learning style of a preschooler. That’s right, one might call a child-like faith. 

Okay let’s get to our text for today then. 

Mark 1:29-45. Let me read for us:

29 And as soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew.

30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her.

31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.

33 The whole town gathered at the door,

34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Jesus Prays in a Solitary Place

35 And Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

36 Simon and his companions went to look for him,

37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Jesus Heals a Man With Leprosy

40 And a man with leprosy[h] came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

41 Jesus was indignant.[i] (other translations also say filled with compassion) He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”

42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning:

44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

This guy was busy! He was all over the place. But wedged in his busy schedule, essentially at the very start up of his ministry were already patterns that I’d love for us to notice. He did this thing, where he went back and forth from the community to by himself, to the community to by himself. He’d talk and teach and then he would go off and pray. From the desert, to a friend’s house, to the synagogue, to another friend’s house, and off again to some alone time and then back to the nearby villages. From the beginning it was a part of his ministry and his lifestyle to do this. It’s always couched in there, that desert time and that solitary time. 

Where in your life do you have desert time and solitary time inserted into your schedules? Have you set up any kind of rhythms of self reflection and prayer, alone time with God in your busy days?

I got an email from my friend Sara, who leads a Mindfulness Community Group, a forwarded Substack email about the “quest to find a daily contemplative rhythm that work” from a guy named Mark Longhurst, I don’t know him, but he wrote this: 

“Dear friends,

I’ve been in a busy season. Between kid sports, family commitments, work, and finishing up a writing project, my days feel compressed and fly by. Before I know it, the New England day is at its earlier close, and it’s time to sleep and do it again. Don’t get me wrong, mine is a joyful life and I wouldn’t trade its full family and community-centric flow for anything. But, as any parent knows, it’s a lot. And as someone on a contemplative path, such seasons of responsibility can sometimes feel overwhelming, as if I’m never quite able to enjoy the slower pace and extended silences that a contemplative life promises to bring.”

Now listen to this:

“For me, though, busy and contemplative are not opposites. I also don’t believe that greener contemplative pastures are up ahead, say, when the kids go to college and I’m an empty-nester. Instead, the busy and contemplative parts of myself need each other. I approach my contemplative practices in these months and years as my soul’s daily and necessary rescue mission. My morning meditation sit snatches me out of the constant effort to accomplish tasks, holds me in Divine Presence and says, “Stay here and be loved for a while!” Chanting Psalms at different hours helps me maintain a heart-centered, gentle awareness of God throughout the day. A faster shuffle from one thing to the other gradually increases my anxiety and, by extension, my irritability—but when I sit myself down for my afternoon meditation, it’s sometimes like ramming a stick into bicycle spokes. I feel myself flying over the day’s handlebars, but I land on my butt. I stay there and eventually return to myself.”

Ramming a stick into bicycle spokes. Does wedging some desert time, solitary time, prayer or meditation ever feel like ramming a stick into bicycle spokes for you? I love this invitation to land on my butt. Just humbled. And the thing is, even if you don’t choose to do that, sometimes life will just do it for you, whether you end up in a car accident that causes you to stop in the middle of the road preventing you from getting to that meeting you were rushing to totally lost or a panic attack that comes out of nowhere. 

A few weeks ago I had this happen to me, not like a full on panic attack but a breakdown. I had some really sad stuff come up for me and I was aware of it but I didn’t really sit with it. I didn’t have time. Have you seen that Instagram reel or TikTok thing where someone’s like, “this is my scatterbrain”. She needs to cook dinner, but the dishes are dirty, she starts washing but the dish washer is not unloaded. She starts unloading but the cabinets broken and so she go gets a screwdriver and as she returns with the screwdriver she sees the pile of dirty clothes, and you pick up the dirty laundry to the laundry machine and you open the washer and there’s a load in there already from GOD KNOWS WHEN!

So that’s what I was doing one morning. And I was like on my way to the bathroom with some dirty clothes to throw in the hamper, and it just hit me like a rock thrown on my head, and I just crouched down at the side wall to the entrance of the bathroom and broke down and cried. I mean it was really dramatic, I mean the place was not even a very inviting corner to cry in, like an awkward wedge of a wall. I just prowled down on the floor like a banana peel and had a straight up tantrum to God, kicking my feet and pounding the floor. That ever happen to you? No, just me? 

That was my gentle invitation from the Lord to slow down and talk to him for a minute. 

I know it’s hard. Especially for really important, efficient, effective high functioning hard working people like Jesus. When Jesus was out praying by himself, they found Him and were like, “Everyone is looking for you!” Of course they were! He’s in high demand! He’s got things to do. He’s gotta preach, teach, heal, make disciples, do miracles, save the world! He’s busy! You busier than him?

I know some of you are, like literally saving the world. Busy flying internationally to shape and transform health care systems, busy disrupting the financial industry with your software, busy being present to the underserved students that may literally have no other resource than your classroom, busy upholding your business above the water so you can provide for your family.

That’s why I love us doing this. Worshiping on a Sunday morning. We’re not very “productive.” We just sit around, and sing, and chat with people. Just sit down. And it helps that we do it together. 

Activist circles talk about this a lot. Self-care work in activism is crucial. You can’t just be out there, advocating, fighting, protesting ALL the time. You have to get back into your room, your study, and reflect. 

For example, though Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t have too much close interactions despite both of their life works, but when they did, this was one point that Thurman made to the rising leader King. 

According to Thurman’s autobiography, the only time that he and King were able to arrange a “serious talk” came in the fall of 1958, when King was recovering in New York after being stabbed by Izola Curry at a book signing (Thurman, 254). The day before their meeting, Thurman recalled having a “vibrant sensation” in which “Martin emerged in my awareness and would not leave” (Thurman, 255). When he met alone with King the following day, he asked how long King’s doctor had given him for his convalescence. (Thurman says this)

When he told me, I urged him to ask them to extend the period by an additional two weeks. This would give him time away from the immediate pressure of the movement to reassess himself in relation to the cause, to rest his body and mind with healing detachment, and to take a long look that only solitary brooding can provide. The movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own to which he must relate in fresh and extraordinary ways or be swallowed up by it (Thurman, 255).”

The reason why we need both contemplation and action is because just as Jesus as he was doing the work of healing, it can be alot to see the whole town lining up at your door for all kinds of disease and demons. I see this whole balance of contemplation and action is this. It is a balance work of grief and joy. Of taking on suffering and taking on gratitude. You need both.  One might think, what is there to be joyful and grateful for, we don’t got time for that right now, babies are dying! And yet, to do the WORK of ESTABLlSHING justice, you need AUDACIOUS Hope. You don’t got time for cynicism and getting jaded, cause you have to get back to work. You need to hone your hope. Nurturing it with small joys and audacious gratitude to fuel the work of hope and the work of justice we’re in. Just as Jesus began his ministry by being blessed with the waters of baptism, hearing a voice from heaven saying to him, in you I am well pleased. Not, the world is a mess, I need you to get to work. Our work and call to action comes from not a desperate need for us to get busy fixing stuff.

I’m really curious what Jesus was saying in his prayers on that early morning. The morning after the whole town gathered at his door to heal the sick. After he had done miracles. I wonder if he was like,

“God, I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Or if he was like,

“I did this but God there’s so many people who are sick. Too many that I can’t get to in time.”


“I’m tired from staying up and healing all these people but I need you. I need you to tell me that you’ll keep being with me as I continue to do your work.” 

I always thought those superhero movies were so interesting because you get to imagine and see the intimate vulnerable parts of those big strong heroes. Batman pulling into his little cave after a hard day’s work of fighting villains. Superman coming back to ordinary clothes after saving the earth. In those moments, they find their true power that drives the super powers they have. 

  • What is the thing that drives your superpower?
  • What’s it all for?
  • Why do you do it? 

You go out there and fight the bad guys and then you come home looking for a spark of joy or a moment of gratitude that will fuel you for the next day. 

I think that was the superpower of Jesus. Not his miracles to heal but the place in which he got his authority from. In his intimate lonely conversations with his Father, that called him in again and again, that reminded him, I am here with you. I am here with you. The kingdom of God is near, even though it doesn’t look like it, even though it looks nothing like the kingdom of God is here, even though the Roman Empire is running rampant and you have to go back out into what seems like a god-forsaken world, for now, even now, just for this moment, I want you to look here at the joy. Look here at the gratitude. I love you. You are my beloved child. In you I am pleased. That is the only way we have any chance in facing the grief and suffering that surrounds us and have the power to take action towards peace, love, and justice. 

I want to create the space to do that now, even for a moment, if you’d be so willing, together. Let me guide us through some thought prompts in prayer now. 

Close your eyes if you’re willing, maybe even kneel or huddle over yourself, like you got some magic invisible cloak that’ll take you to a solitary place. 

  • What are you grieving these days?
  • What did you see in the last 24 hours that you are grieving?
  • Where have you seen unbridled joy?
  • What made you smile or laugh yesterday? 
  • Where do you see suffering?
  • Who is suffering, friends, family, neighbors near and far?
  • What are you suffering with or through these days?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • What do you want to praise God for today? 

May God be with us, through the longing and to the tasting of God’s good gifts of peace, love, and joy, even now we pray. Amen. 


Our Biggest Changes the Past Ten Years

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

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

In-person sermon with Rev. Laura Everett.

Online sermon with Steve Watson (below).

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

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

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

And a recent conversation came to mind. 

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

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

That’s a lot. 

My friend who’d noticed this change was like:

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

That seemed interesting to me. 

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 13:52 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

Jesus taught:

Matthew 9:17 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

I’m doing a new thing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could go on, but I won’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And boy, has that been good for us. 

Just a few ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.