No More BHAGs: The Glory of Being a Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so Orpah went home, but Ruth said this:

Ruth 1:16-17 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

We don’t know. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth 2:14 (Common English Bible)

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

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

Can we say that? Both people always matter. 

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

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

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

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

Ruth 4:14-15 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the no. 

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

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

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

A story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1st YES:

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

Dedicate your life to redemption stories.

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

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

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

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

We all get free together. 

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

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

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

God sees the depths of you.

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

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

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

But that’s not true.

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

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

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

“Out of the Depths….”

Psalm 130:1 (New Revised Standard Version)

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

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

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

“God, I am not….”

Psalm 131:1-2 (Common English Bible)

131 (God, I am not) proud;

        my eyes aren’t conceited.

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

2 No. But I have calmed and quieted myself

    like a weaned child on its mother;

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

“God I am not….”

I am not wise enough to know all the answers.

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

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

God, there is so much that I am not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say with me one more time:

I’m more than enough for God.

Life’s not all about me.

It’s good to be a person.

We all matter. 

Let’s get free.

The Role of Church in Healing the World

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

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

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

Fair question? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the remembering. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at the mustard bush after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Waters of Life

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

We ask:

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

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

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

It’s Frederick, by Leo Lionni.

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

What does it mean to survive, but also thrive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true for us, isn’t it?

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

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

We need water, and we need waters of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John is like:

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

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

How is this so? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songs. 

Have you watched the videos of singing in Ukraine? 

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

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

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

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

And we need music to keep us from despair. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church.

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

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

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

Song, church, prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The very festival in which Jesus called out:

Get your living waters. Become a reservoir.

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

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

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

-Br. Keith Nelson,  SSJE

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esther 4:12-17 (Common English Bible)

12 When they told Mordecai Esther’s words,

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

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

15 Esther sent back this word to Mordecai:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

does it have to be this way?

And there some places where I started to feel:

hell, no! it doesn’t. 

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

hell, no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no, no, I can’t, and calm down.

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

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

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

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

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

Counting Joy

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

Good morning everyone! As always it is a pleasure to be with you today.

We are in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and longing – for the coming of Jesus and all that it meant, and still means for us and the world around us today.

It’s also the season that at least here in the Northeast, signals that we are walking into the darkest part of the year. This Tuesday in fact, will mark the beginning of the Winter Solstice – and it will be the shortest day of the year – with the sun setting at 4:15pm. (uuuugh)  You better believe I’m counting the days until that sunset tips past 5:00pm again! (46!)

These dimming days are a reminder to me though that most miracles, rest, and birth happen in the long nights – the darkness of the womb.  Advent is to in tandem look for the light – as much as it is to be acquainted with the darkness.   bell hooks, this pathbreaking black feminist who died this week says along these lines –

To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.

The filters of both light and dark are part of our faith journeys…

To love,  feel joy,  wonder,  experience peace – and these fundamentals undergird our faith – and require us to embrace the vulnerability of being human – to leave ourselves and our hearts open.

So today we are going to check in with our hearts – maybe see if there are doors that are shut by choice or numbed by “too much.” And yet we are going to press into the story of Mary (and see if there is something in there that will open our hearts) prepare “our hearts room” – for Jesus and what unexpected things might be born in us. Even if joy feels like a vapor right now…even if you are done counting the days, moments, months – until something changes – feels lighter/gets lighter.

Today as we enter into the story of Jesus’ birth (primarily through the story of Mary) – we’ll find many many strands of darkness and light – and see how both are counted as joy.  How joy abides by no clean, defined or perfect parameters – but if found in the imperfect partnership of humanity and the Divine. It’s a big story – born in  “tiny” places – like fields, and a house in Nazareth, in a manger, in the hills. And it’s a messy story given shape by bodies and wombs -blood and sweat, hearts – leaping and singing. Intersecting with curious characters – like lowly shepherds, astrologers, teenagers and…women.

And…us…God comes to the edge of God’s own divinity and knocks on our human hearts and says,

“May I come in?” “May I partner with you?”

to disrupt the ordinary, and turn this world upside down… and GOD asks us this in the shadows of pandemic – as much as GOD does the longest, sunniest days of the year.

Advent allows us to revisit these questions God anew… the seriousness, the power, and the joy of them.

How does partnering with Jesus resonate with you this morning? Do you count it as joy?

As a warm-up to some of those questions – we will enter the story of Mary today, particularly through her song, called the Magnificat and perhaps you’ll find yourself pondering joy in your own heart as we do.

Prayer – Open Unto Me (Remix)
Oh God, the one who comes to open our hearts.

Open unto us this morning.

Open unto us the story of Mary, her song, her love, her power.

Open unto us our story, our song, our love and our power.

And may you unfold the gifts of your presence, your mystery and JOY to us today.

I decided that this winter is going to be the winter that I start to love the cold and the encroaching darkness (if any of you know me – actually you don’t even need to know me – to know that this is a wild statement). But to double down on this goal of mine – I’ve started taking night walks…

Sometimes I go with a neighbor, sometimes my husband – sometimes (one time) a kid (if they want to push bedtime).

And I don’t have any idea if it’s making me love the cold / darkness more –  but I do reflect on my day – the week.

And I find myself counting – strangely a lot of things – my breath as I walk.

But also things that are live in conversation, at the front of my mind – and things I notice

  • Tallying the number of Covid cases that I’ve heard about
  • How many lights automatically come on – as I walk through this one section
  • How many variants and states that have the variant there now?
  • The stars that are visible
  • Counting how many rapid tests we’ll need in the house for swim meets and urban nutcracker shows… that are required of my kids
  • The hoots of an owl on the top of a post
  • Counting the cars that drive by at excessive speed – and counting my rising pulse…

I count so many things …

It maybe not so surprising that I was drawn to a particular piece of art in the Dome Gallery. This month we’re highlighting community art that was made for Advent. This week’s art is by Vernee Wilkinson.

And this was one of the first to go up – way before Thanksgiving.  I was here late one Sunday and  stood in front of it – before Vernee had added any artist statement or title – or scripture.

I’ll give you a moment to take it in too.

Drawn to the color, and the symmetry of all of these same, cut out circles…one after one after another…

It’s funny – because this art is entitled, “And Counting…”

And it’s a tally – through these little circle cutouts – of the many things we might have felt piling up over the last 21 months – even if we have not consciously been counting them…

Vernee lists…categories for these tallies and marks:

  • Days at home
  • Hours of worry
  • Lives lost
  • Connections missed
  • Zoom clicks…

And then she leaves spaces and blanks for more categories to be filled out…as if she is inviting us the viewers to engage with that…

And so we shall…

Tally all the things, people, places, songs, etc..  you love right now.

And now, of those things, people, places that you love – tally the ones that also touch grief/fear/pain/worry.

Ok – we’ll re-engage with this in just a moment – so hold on to it…

As we enter the story of Mary – I’d love for you to hold those two prompts at the forefront of your mind as you think of Mary.

What are the things she loves…and of those things – what touches grief/fear/pain/worry…

Let’s listen to Mary – her feminine voice that begins the Jesus story…and read along the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.

The scripture is from Luke 1, on the slides:

I’ll pause a little bit as we make our way through the whole story, adding some commentary and then jumping back into scripture a little bit –  but we’ll enter here – where the angel has appeared to Mary – and we learn a bit about their conversation.

Luke 1:28, 35-38, 46-55

28 Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!”

Rejoice! I have a message of “Joy” for you…. Are you ready for it?! 

Mary: “what kind of joy is this?”

But this is the entrance the angel makes – and we have a few verses of back and forth with the Angel and Mary – where we kind of get the sense that Mary’s top emotion is not immediate joy.

The scripture says that she’s confused and TROUBLED at the greeting of this angel?
And wondering what the angel is actually saying?

And the angel of course goes on with “angel-like” things to say such as “fear not!”

you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be great  –  the Son of the Most High.  He’ll rule forever and ever, and there will be no end to his kin-dom.”

JOY!

Mary though still is not effervescent with joy – and moves to practical questions like how

HOW will this happen? – “I haven’t had any sexual relations.” (and then we pick up the scripture on the slides again):

35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.

38 Mary said, “I am the servant of God. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

Then the angel left her.

So let’s stop here for a minute:

After all of this back and forth between the angel and Mary – Mary trying to take in all of this wild, and absurd message that’s coming to her, we hear her say this pivotal thing – I think – in this last verse,

“Let it be.”  “Let it be with me just as you have said.”

“Ok – yes.”

“Yes, God.”

“I’m not bubbling with ‘JOY’ right now – but I will “OPEN” unto you nevertheless.”

You see, Mary’s “let it be”, is the move that opens the door to change everything.- This opening – is the crack where God implants God’s self .  God’s divinity and LOVE takes up residence in our human hearts (mysteriously, unexplainably) and gives us the seeds to birth something impossible…love in the midst of suffering. Hope in the face of horror… Joy when there is no obvious reason to laugh…

Mary’s reality is somewhat akin to our reality too, – hers is not a blissful, copacetic existence. She is disadvantaged in a world that would neither notice nor protect her.  Women and babies – were definitely not at the top of the societal power structure.

She lived in  the time of Herod the Great – full of terror

“innocents were being killed”.

A census was devised to document the undocumented for governmental control. And there were burdensome taxes that cost the poor their land – and left the masses impoverished. People were hungry, shelter was scarce and people lived in fear for their lives and their children’s lives.

Mary could count endlessly the things that were against her, a threat to her and just hard.

This does not seem the basis or groundwork of “joy.”

Howard Thurman the late theologian, civil rights leader, mystic – says that

“Joy is of many kinds. Sometimes joy comes silently, opening all the closed doors and making itself at home in our desolate hearts. Joy (he says), has no forerunner, save itself. It brings its own welcome and its own salutation. Sometimes, joy is compounded of many elements– a touch of sadness, a whimper of pain, a harsh word tenderly held until all its arrogance dies.”

And this is the interesting thing about joy. It does not mean that a person hasn’t had a broken heart.  It does not mean that a person has not suffered – but, it does mean that one has been able to discover that joy and sorrow or joy and pain are two sides of a single coin.

This is Mary’s joy – a joy of many kinds.  The kind that counts horror, pain and injustice. The kind that is birthed within her, intrinsic to her being. The kind that becomes not only a source of strength and the fuel for resilience and change – but a political act in and of itself.  The CHANGE that she inspires – and spearheads…The kind of joy that she delivers to the world around her…is done not by violence or by weapon – but by song.

Mary (after receiving the message of the angel) goes and visits her older cousin, Elizabeth who is also miraculously expecting a child, after decades of barrenness.  And Mary starts to sing, as she and Elizabeth connect… and here’s her song:

46 Mary said, “my soul proclaims your greatness, O God,

47 and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.

48 For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.

49 For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.

50 Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.

So let me pause here for a second.

The beginning of this song –  is a song for all of us… and especially for those who like Mary – are discounted by society, pushed to the edges, INVISIBLE. It’s a song for when we think God has forgotten just how long we’ve been waiting and longing! It’s a song that invites us to join in the ancient chorus – that God’s promise is to be with us forever, that God loves us forever, that God will never leave, or forsake us. That we will not be alone.

And maybe Mary knows this truth because she too counted… counted and collected gratitude love along the way. Love for her kinswoman Elizabeth.. someone she could count tears with? Deep sighs with…count the days, the months of impossible pregnancy.

And count the footsteps of Herod’s men as they came to each door – or the counting of coins she didn’t have enough of for taxes or bread. Maybe she counted the stars and the generations of women who sung before her –  Deborah, Miriam, Hannah who sang of their own struggles and God’s love – a song –  breathed into Mary’s DNA…. lining the depths of who Mary was….

Maybe this is how she could say,

and in those depths – ‘the depths of who I am…that’s where the joy is…. I rejoice in God my savior.”

JOY is the gift of knowing God’s deep LOVE and presence.

Vernee’s artwork commands this same truth, it says on her artist statement,

“and still they remain”

– “they” referring to God,

“and still they remain”

in all the tallies in all the hash marks – STILL GOD REMAINS.

And from here … Mary’s “power and willingness to disrupt, intervene and invert the world” takes off…and we hear this as her song continues:

51 You have shown strength with your arm;

you have scattered the proud in their conceit;

52 You have deposed the mighty from their thrones

and raised the lowly to high places.

53 You have filled the hungry with good things,

while you have sent the rich away empty.

54 You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,

mindful of your mercy –

55 the promise you made to our ancestors –

to Sarah and Abraham

and their descendants forever.”

This is not a soft, dreamy, sentimental- Mary song.  This is a revolutionary, a wild, vehement protest song! IT is in direct contrast to the Empire and powers of the day.. And it is laying out Jesus’ kin-dom and ministry to come.

 Priest Barbara Brown Taylor says, this

was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time—not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. She says, prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it.”

Mary is a prophet.

And some days this is all we can do, to keep trying to see the world as God sees it – even if our reality defies it at every turn. Even if the powerful are still on their thrones, and have their hands full of riches – and even as the poor and powerless are still in the trenches – hungry and suffering. And the ones we love most are still suffering. Some days all we have is the mystery and promises of God’s love and presence – that reside deep within us to count as joy.

We might not have the overall vaccine percentages that allow us to move around as we once did – yet, or the return to bagels & coffee in our Sunday services, or the justice we want to see rise up in our structures and institutions…

Mary too, doesn’t have the things that would make this an easier go of it for her…Barbara Taylor says,

“she doesn’t have a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, “The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.” All she has is her willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next, that God will remain —and this apparently, is enough to birth joy and to make her burst into song.”

and to give her wisdom and focus on where it is her work will be to come.

She does not wait to see how things will turn out first, she prepares her heart room for God no matter what the outcome.. She counts it all as joy. Thousands of hundreds of little unknown pieces of life – still to float into her purview – pain and sorrow – laughter and love – but alll joy.

Mary’s song – has been controversial throughout time. It has enlivened prophetic imaginations…beyond the walls of the church, into the real lives of people…..and it also has threatened and enraged the powerful elite.

During British colonial rule of India, Mary’s song was banned.  The British East India company prohibited this song as part of any church liturgy.  Finally, when British rule was over, Gandhi asked that the Magnificat be recited at each site where English flags came down.

In Argentina, in the 1970’s the mothers of people who disappeared organized protests at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with the Magnificat written on their protest signs.

The military (hoo)-nta (Junta)  in response…banned the Magnificat.

In the 1980’s when hundreds of thousands of citizens were disappearing in Guatemala, the government banned Mary’s song –  nine verses from the Bible –  because it was considered politically dangerous, subversive, revolutionary.

Oscar Romero, a martyr, priest and saint –  whose ministry was distinguished by his particular attention to the most poor and marginalized – prayed Mary’s song every day of his priestly life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and one who fought against and yet was executed by the Nazi’s – called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

And white evangelicals have devalued the role of Mary, her song, her voice, her message (her gender) – to the point that she’s nearly been erased.

You see – those who impale others as a way of shirring up their authority and power – are threatened by those,  (like Mary), who enwomb the treasures of faith – of JOY. Because they can not be conquered, claimed or secured by might…but if given room, in a heart that has been prepared and opened, by voices and song, and history and the promises of God, our hearts will prove to make way for the story of a tiny baby to rule and overturn the world by love.

AND JOY COUNTS in this world…Mary teaches this tiny baby Jesus – about God – through joy, through her song. Jesus first heard this song in the womb, his ear already tuning to this melody. And maybe it was the song sung throughout their home while Jesus, as a toddler, scurried under Mary’s foot …perhaps it was the lullaby she sang to him each night. And maybe this song, was the clarion call that Mary sang through the streets when Jesus went missing for three days in the temple.

Maybe it was the song that inspired his first words of his public ministry to be,

Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord  has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed.”

Maybe it was the ravaged, sobbing song he heard his mom sing – or the one he hummed himself – as he died on the cross… It is a song he heard again and again throughout his life.

Mother Mary’s song continues to be sung to us this Advent, and beyond. It is a daily song that we get to make our own. With old lyrics and with new lyrics ….of our longings, our protests, and our bodies.  Advent prepares our heart room for a revolutionary Christmas Story that is to be delivered to the world, by us – one that is meant to shake this world free of violence and injustice – and to also shake our faith down to the central, ancient promise of God’s love…

I stand in solidarity with Mary today – with her longing for a new and just re-ordering of society – and I pray with her

“let it be, God” – “COME, open unto me”.  

For to follow in Mary’s footsteps is to be a mother of God ourselves. 

Today we will count joy. Maybe you don’t feel it yet…but in solidarity with joy being a force…an act of rebellion… a way forward. Let’s do it together in community.  Let’s count joy.

So right next to all those hash marks you made. All that represents love – and all that touches grief/pain and fear – I  want you to make a hash mark for the promise God makes to you, “that God is with you.”  And may those new hash marks be counted too.

Today in our time and in our culture, we get to sprinkle the disrupting, upending, reckless love of God into this world…and this is deep, deep joy.  JOY of many kinds… and….JOY TO THE WHOLE WORLD!

So may we repeat,

And repeat, and repeat, (and count and count and count)…

This sounding joy.

Let me pray for us:

“God, come close to us now. Keep singing to us. Show us how to love. Show us how to wait, to long, to push, to deliver you into this world, AND KEEP COUNTING JOY.”

Amen.

My friends – as you greet the day ahead of you …

May you discover the newness of Jesus.

In the form of joy…

…grilled sweet potatoes

…little humans telling the story of Jesus’ birth,

…hot cocoa

…confetti

…and the company of this community…

All held by the tender and bold presence of Jesus!

Bless you.

Being a Safe Person, With a Safe God

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

When I was a teenager, one of the quotes I heard most about God wasn’t from the Bible but from a fictional woodland creature. The line was:

“Course he isn’t’ safe, but he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.” 

Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.

These words were from the story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They’re spoken by a talking beaver to a preteen girl named Susan who has wandered into a magical land called Narnia and is first hearing about the rightful king of that land, a lion named Aslan. She wonders:

Oh, I’d thought this king was a person. But he’s a lion – is he safe? 

And that’s when the beaver says:

Course he isn’t safe, but he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you. 

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is an allegory for Jesus. And it’s no wonder I thought about this line a lot. I’d read this story as a child, and when I was coming into my own faith in God in the very late 80s, C.S. Lewis was really popular. You could do worse. Lewis had many interesting and helpful things to say about God.

But this line – that God is not safe, but good, I no longer endorse. 

I get the idea. Jesus, and the God he reveals, is unpredictable, uncontrollable, unconventional. Yes to all that. But unsafe. I don’t accept that anymore. 

I’ve spent my whole adult life working on being a safe person. I can’t say I’ve succeeded in every circumstance, but it’s really important to me. 

Because I think that goodness starts with safety – the goodness of God, and any goodness we have to offer or find in others too. Too many of us have had our experiences of God clouded by unsafety. Threats of hell, toxic shame, feeling like a burden or disappointment to God. Or simply the terribly unethical, dangerous behavior of church leaders who in some sense represent God to others. 

Safety doesn’t by itself get you to goodness. You need more than that. But it starts here. 

So today, we explore how Jesus is safe. At Jesus’ table, people are safe. Jesus shows us how God is both safe and good. And I think Jesus can also teach us about spotting safe and unsafe people and about becoming a safe person ourselves.

Let’s read today’s passage from the good news of Luke. 

Luke 7:36-50

Common English Bible

36 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table.

37 Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster.

38 Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them.

39 When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.

40 Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher, speak,” he said.

41 “A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty.

42 When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

44 Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair.

45 You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in.

46 You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet.

47 This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

So, as always with Jesus, there is a lot here. This is a story about forgiveness. It’s a story about acceptance. It’s also a story about shame and judgment. It’s a story about a lot of things. But, as I said, it’s also a story about being safe and unsafe, and whether or not God is a safe God, which is where we’ll focus today.

Usually, our curiosity is drawn to this unnamed woman. And for good reason. She is passionate and provocative. We wonder: where did she get her wealth? And also: where did she get her reputation? Male readers over the years have put these two things together and imagined this woman had been a prostitute. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but I know this passage doesn’t say that about her, so I won’t either. 

Jesus says she’s been forgiven much and that she loves much and that (unlike Simon, the man that invited Jesus over for dinner), she is the ideal host. We could say a lot about this extraordinary woman.

But first I want us to notice the difference between the two men in the story. 

Simon, the owner of this house, is not safe. He doesn’t see this woman, he stares at her. He calls to mind the worst of her reputation – true or untrue – and looks down on her. Perhaps some part of him is jealous. Perhaps a part of him wants this woman to be so close to him, kissing his feet, and not having this, he’s even angrier with her and with Jesus. I’m imagining that part, but it rings true to me. 

For the woman and even for Jesus too, he is not safe. It must have been a big risk for the woman to even enter his house, knowing how she’d be seen and treated. 

Jesus’ presence changes the atmosphere of the table. The Ancient Near East was a dirty and smelly place like all ancient places, and it was a dry one too. It was a gesture of kindness and honor to wash someone’s feet and to put a bit of sweet smelling oil on the head. This woman aims to do this for Jesus and finds herself losing control of her tears as she does so. 

Being really seen, being really loved sometimes does this. So do relief and acceptance and deep connection. They can release deep feeling. Deep feeling is being released from this woman, and she’s safe enough to release that in ways that have a kind of erotic intimacy. The kissing of the feet, the touching of the hair.

Notice how safe Jesus is. This woman can be this intimate with Jesus without fear. She doesn’t need to fear that he will be checking her out, evaluating her body with her gaze. She doesn’t fear that Jesus will judge her, reduce her in his eyes to her worst act or biggest regret. She doesn’t fear that Jesus will take anything from her, take anything of her. 

The closest situation I can relate to being in is when I’m with someone in a hospital room or at their sick bed. When people are sick or dying, they are sometimes very vulnerable – lying in bed, dressed in hospital clothes, not always fully aware and alert. And sometimes I’m invited into the intimacy of being by someone’s side in this place, holding their hand while praying, touching their head with oil, reading or even singing to them. I know that I’m safe in those circumstances because I’ve tried to follow Jesus’ example in showing up for people to see and love them as they are. I really admire Jesus’ example here. 

They say that if you want to know which men are safe, ask the women in their life. Especially before the #Metoo movement, but still now I think, women in workplaces know which men are safe and which are not. It’s no secret.

Same with adults and kids. You want to know which adults are safe with kids. Ask the kids in their lives. When I was a high school principal, it struck me that the students always knew which adults in the building were safe. They knew who showed up late, who yelled, who was kind of creepy, who said things to kids adults should never say but would say anyway when other adults weren’t listening. 

It’s true with white people too. You want to know which of us are safe with people of color, who’s done the anti-racism work to be trustworthy. Don’t listen to our words, don’t watch what we post on social media, but notice what people of color want to work with us, or be with us, or trust us – or not. 

The proof is in the pudding. And in Jesus’ case, I love that women and children and Gentiles were all drawn to him – to associate with him, to want to be with him, to learn from him. It shows us that he knew how to see and love people, to show up for them without trying to take anything from them. To be a person you can trust enough to not hurt or diminish you. 

Let’s explore a little more how Jesus was safe because I think this shows us how God is safe, and also how to spot unsafe people, and also to become safe people.

Jesus is safe – and the God he reveals to us is safe – because Jesus sees people well. Just as God sees us all, and just as we’re invited to see people well. 

Jesus’ interaction with Simon hinges on this question: Do you see this woman? Do you see her? 

There are at least five ways that Jesus sees that Simon doesn’t.

  • Jesus sees non-defensively. 
  • Jesus sees rather than staring.
  • Jesus sees the image of God in the other.
  • Jesus sees to give and forgive, not to take.
  • And Jesus sees future possibility, not just past inheritance.

First the non-defensive part. 

Did you notice how Jesus reacts to Simon’s judgment and critique – not just of the woman but of him? He doesn’t run from it – he tells Simon the truth. But he does it calmly, non-reactively, and gently. He tells Simon a story. He asks Simon a question. He receives the criticism without being super-reactive, and he engages, powerfully but calmly.

Years ago, I was considering working with someone more professionally. And one of their colleagues told me – he’s great, but he’s just bad at criticism. Just so you know. As if this was a small thing. I heard it but worked with this person anyway. And in some ways, I wish I hadn’t. The relationship gave me a lot of grief. 

An inability to take criticism isn’t a small thing; it’s a window into a bunch of things. And it makes someone unsafe, because you can’t be honest with them, and there are limits to their growth too. If you want to be a safe person, you have to choose to hear critique non-defensively, like Jesus idd, whether you think it’s valid or not. You can sift through what you think is true and helpful and what isn’t, but you have to be able to hear it without reacting.

Just as Jesus did. Just as God does. God doesn’t lose his cookies or shut down when we blame God or yell at God or swear at God. The prayer book of the Bible is full of little moments where people are doing that. God can handle our anger and critique, whether it’s true or not. God’s safe like that.

Secondly, Jesus sees, not stares.

I got this difference from the amazing Korean American theologian, Andrew Sung Park. Seeing and staring are really different. Simon’s eyes are on this woman from the moment she walks into his house, through her sitting at Jesus’ feet and anointing them and kissing them and wiping them with her hair. He never takes his eyes off her. Again, my own instinct in reading this passage is that he finds her arousing too but is ashamed of that, which magnifies his resentment. 

But he’s not seeing her – he’s staring at her. She’s an object, filtered through his own needs and worries and grievances.

We stare at so many people. We stare at the people who frighten us. We stare at the people who shock us. We stare at the people who stir our anger or lust. But when we’re staring at people, we don’t see them. 

This is why if you’re travelling amidst global poverty, as some of us do with our partners called Asha in New Delhi, you should put your camera away – to help you see, not stare. 

This is why Jesus asks Simon:

Do you see her?

Because in his staring, he’s missed all the important things – her love, her freedom, her generosity, her modeling to Simon how to be a good host, even though they are in Simon’s house. 

Objectifying, othering, staring means you can’t see. Jesus asks us all: do you see? And invites us to see one another as God does – seeing, not starting.

How does God see us? Like Jesus sees this woman: seeing the image of God in the other? Seeing the good. Seeing whatever way the divine is shining in us. 

That’s the third way Jesus sees and invites us to see: seeing the image of God in the other. 

Mother Theresa famously said that she sees Jesus in the face of other people and responds accordingly. 

She said this is what it means to be contemplative in the heart of the world. It’s to seek the face of God in everything and everyone, all the time, no matter what else we see.

A fictional version of this that’s been popular these days is the TV football coach Ted Lasso. He sees and calls out the good in everyone he interacts with. At one honest, vulnerable moment he admits why he does this. He knows life is desperately hard. It’ll drive most of us to see the worst in ourselves and one another. So he tries to see the best in everyone. Jesus does this too. It’s how he sees people, seeing the face and image of God in us all. 

That God does this with us makes God safe. We’re never a burden to God. We’re never an inconvenience, a disappointment. We can let God down and mess up in so many ways, but God’s going to keep seeing God’s face in us, going to keep seeing the family resemblance – like parent, like child. 

And we’ll not just be safe, but we’ll be really safe and good everytime we can do the same.  

The fourth way Jesus sees here is with attention. Jesus sees to give and forgive, not to take.

I’ve already talked about the lack of safety that comes with people that are trying to take. Jesus makes it clear that he’s come into freedom and self-control in his life. He’s not governed by reactive anger that diminishes people or by lust that seeks to take things from people – sexual or otherwise – that they are not freely giving to us or that aren’t ours to have. 

There’s a reason that in Jesus’ great moral teaching on the Sermon the Mount, he begins by telling us all that good lives include learning to manage our anger and lust, changing from the inside out where those come from, so we can life freely and not spend our lives reducing people or trying to take from them. If we want to be safe people, we have to be brutally honest about our own proclivities toward unhealthy, reactive anger or to lust – unhealthy desire to take – sexually or otherwise – what isn’t ours. And we have to get on a path toward more health, wellness, and self-control in these areas. It’s a lot of work, but the safety and health that grows in us is worth it. 

Jesus is safe because he sees someone in distress and he doesn’t see a cause for his anger or a mark for his lust. He sees someone who needs and deserves love and forgiveness, and he sees someone he would like to be in relationship with, where affection is freely and safely given and received. 

These qualities of giving and forgiving make Jesus and make God safe, and they make people safe as well. 

Lastly, the kind of seeing that makes Jesus safe is that he sees people’s future possibilities, not just their past inheritance.

Simon looks at the most loving, hospitable person in the room and calls her a sinner. He sees something in her past – or her past reputation – that evokes his judgment and resentment. Jesus sees her future. He sees the gratitude, freedom, and power she is experiencing and will keep on living once she knows again that she’s God’s beloved child. And he loves and celebrates what he sees. 

God sees you and me this way – not merely as a sum of all our past inheritance – the mix of all our accumulated genetics and experiences, bad or good. God sees what’s possible next, with grace and help and freedom, and God longs to touch us with that grace and help, so we can embrace our future with freedom and hope. 

As I close for today, I invite you, friends, to two things. 

Lean into your spot at Jesus’ table, where God is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unconventional. But where God is also safe and good. God accepts and loves you as you are. There’s no shadow or anything to fear in God. God sees you non-defensively. God sees you lovingly and affirmatively, seeing God’s family resemblance in you. God looks at you not to take, but only to forgive and give, aiming to build you up toward greater freedom and hope. 

And aim to become the very safest person you can be:

  • One who handles criticism without reactive defensiveness
  • One who doesn’t stare but sees
  • One who sees God’s face in all your fellow humans
  • One who seeks to give and forgive and receive and but never to take what isn’t yours
  • And, one who believes in others future possibilities

Be careful with people that aren’t on a journey toward these things, and let’s aim to be on that journey ourselves.

“…Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit…”

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

This summer, I’m preaching my way through the Apostles Creed, a really, really old, short statement of the Christian faith. Line by line, we’re appreciating the ways this creed helps anchor faith, hope, and love for today’s follower of Jesus. But we’re also noticing ways the language has not entirely been serving the liberating, life-giving purposes of God. And we’re talking about how people have reinterpreted these words in light of what God is doing among us today.

And today, in our fourth week in this series, we get to early Christians’ origin story about Jesus – where did he come from? What made him special? And what does this mean for us?

We love origin stories, don’t we? 

All the superhero movies have back stories, because we wonder, how did these weird and strange and marvelous people become who they are? For instance, the movie Black Widow opens this week, and Black Widow has a backstory. Like a lot of Marvel heroes, a Cold War-era back story. She’s Natasha Romanoff, a Soviet-era Russian orphan, trained by her adoptive father and the KGB to be a master assassin for the Soviets, until she meets a friend of Captain America, defects to the U.S., and joins SHIELD, to use her powers for good. Rah, rah America – happy 4th of July, by the way. 

We like origin stories, even for regular people. My family tells origins stories about me that try to explain how I became the weird and strange and marvelous person that I am. Stories about how much of a rush I was in to be born, almost being born in car on the way to the hospital on a Sunday morning like this, stories about me being hyper all the time, stories about me being accident prone, stories about me persuading a fellow preschooler about the wrong names for animals. Like all origin stories, I have some doubts that the ones my family tells are 100% factual. They’ve been embellished over time – details added, subtracted here and there. But these stories have stayed around because they’re good stories and they say something about me my family wants to say.

I wonder what childhood origin stories you’ve been told. I wonder what they say about you and whether or not you think that’s true. 

Well, today we look at the origin story that the early Christian creed gives for Jesus. This is it:

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

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

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

Conceived by the Holy Spirit – that could mean a lot of things. That the Spirit of God was involved in Jesus’ conception. That the beginning of his life was a kind of miracle that God longed to see into being. On these terms, I think all of us were conceived by the Holy Spirit. Moms and Dads, or even two moms and a donor dad, may or may not have dreamed us into being, we may or may not have been planned by the people involved. But God delights in the process of becoming for every human, and so I think it’s fair to say the Holy Spirit is delightfully engaged in all conception. 

But the creed continues to put a finer point on Jesus’ Holy Spirit conception to say he was born of the Virgin Mary. The virgin Mary. Woah, that’s different! 

You don’t hear a lot about virgin conceptions. My daughter loved the show Jane the Virgin, which was about just this kind of thing. Jane becomes a mother, even though she’s a virgin, because of an accidental insemination at her gynecologist’s office. And that’s a shocker, as you may imagine. 

But with Mary, mother of Jesus, the claim is even wilder. That Mary got pregnant without any kind of male DNA. Just the Holy Spirit. Now, even the mention of DNA is anachronistic, as the Biblical writers and the fathers and mothers of the faith knew nothing about DNA or sperm and eggs or any real science, but they did observe how children were conventionally produced, and they were like: Jesus was special, because his origin story was different. 

It’s hard for a modern person to believe. We may wonder why this is in the creed, how it got there, what it means, and how important it is. Well, the writers of the creed got the idea from two of the four gospels. Here’s one of them.

Luke 1:26-38 (Common English Bible) 

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary herself, an engaged but apparently still virgin teenager, is very confused by this plan of God that comes to her in a dream or vision. This pregnancy seems impossible to her, but she believes that like her cousin’s unlikely pregnancy, hers will happen too. And we end the story with Mary’s consent, because God – like all good people – doesn’t do anything with us, sexually or otherwise, without willing, enthusiastic consent. 

There’s some complexity in Jesus’ origin, lineage, and back story, even in Luke, because while Luke says this is a virgin conception involving just Mary and the Holy Spirit within, he also makes a great deal of the patriarchal lineage of Jesus from his father Joseph, a descendant of the great king of Israel, David, himself a descendant of the first great humans on earth. 

The gospel of Matthew tells a similar backstory for Jesus, a surprised virgin Mary, a miraculous conception of Jesus, and a lineage back to David through his father. 

Now today, I want to talk about whether it makes sense to read this version of Jesus’ back-story literally or not, and I want to talk about how it matters a lot in some ways what we do with this back story, and how in other ways, how it doesn’t really matter at all. 

First, let me start with the four best arguments for taking the virgin birth backstory of Jesus literally. I’ll be quick on these, because I think this side of the sermon is better known

  1. Matthew and Luke tell the story this way. They both say Mary was a virgin, that both Mary and Joseph are shocked by her pregnancy, as if it couldn’t be possible. So reason 1 for literal virgin conception – the Bible tells me so, at least it seems to.
  2. This world is a weird place. Science has documented all kinds of very strange and unexpected things, and many people of faith in God have testimonies to very unusual and surprising things, seemingly impossible things, we think God has done. By this account, a young woman’s pregnancy with no man and no donor is perhaps a marvelous, miraculous possibility. Weird things happen.
  3. Jesus is really special. Jesus’ followers became convinced that he was a human like no other human, that he uniquely revealed and represented God to us. Followers of Jesus’ experience of just how special he was launched what became the largest, most powerful, most enduring, highest impact faith movement in human history. With all that being true about Jesus, who’s to say his origins weren’t miraculously different or special? 
  4. And my fourth and last reason, for taking Jesus’ mom’s virgin conception story literally is that if you do, well, most of the world is with you, or claims to be. Most Chrisitans and most Muslims, who together represent a little more than half the world’s population, take this part of Jesus’ origin story literally – that part of what makes Jesus special is that his conception occured like no other humans has, ever. 

I was quick on these reasons for taking Jesus’ miraculous conception story literally because they’re well known and they boil down to two things: a couple parts of the Bible say it, and God and Jesus are so special, that why can’t God’s involvement in the origin of the life of Jesus be different and special too.

Now, I’d like to share three arguments for why one would not take this part of Jesus’ origin story literally. I’m trying to persuade you of either side here, but my guess is these arguments are a little less familiar to many of us, and they open up some interesting and helpful things. So here they are, arguments for a metaphorical, non-literal, more poetic reading of this part of Jesus’ back story. 

One is that most of the Bible knows nothing about this. The other two gospels, Mark and John, have different back stories about Jesus – no mention of a virgin conception at all. The writers of all the letters of the New Testament also have a lot to say about Jesus but absolutely nothing to say about special circumstances around his conception, and nothing to say about his childhood at all, in fact. Even Mattew and Luke, the two gospel writers that mention this virgin conception, never bring it up again when Jesus grows up. Which is kind of weird. You’d think that would be a really big deal, like something you’d put in your social media profiles, like the one person who didn’t half way start out as sperm. That would be special, a thing worth mentioning. 

Here’s why I think this is worth noticing. If you have a hard time believing in a virgin conception of Jesus, that’s fine. Most of the New Testament doesn’t believe in it or if it does, it doesn’t care. If the Bible has different things to say on something, that sometimes helps us know it’s not central, or it’s OK to disagree on it, as Christians do. You can keep growing and evolving in your faith, keep becoming a Christian, as I’m saying in this series, regardless of what you think about this line in the creed and these two stories in Matthew and Luke. 

Lots of people read this creed and wonder at a literal miracle they see in these words, but lots also read this creed and think the whole “virgin Mary” line is saying something different… which we’ll get to in a second. But the point is that there is room for difference of opinion in this faith. It’s an old and deep and wide faith. Just as there is room for difference of opinion in this church.

I get it, but still I hate it, when people leave the faith, or even when they leave their church, because they’re like well, there’s this thing the Bible says, or there’s this thing my pastor said, that I don’t agree with. I mean, I’m the pastor of my own church, and I’ve said things before that I don’t agree with anymore. That’s OK. 

Now I’m not talking about when a community persistently says or does things that make you unsafe or unwelcome; that’s different, and sometimes there are reasons to leave communities where you can not flourish. By all means. But this faith, it’s old and big and wide, and whatever reservations or questions or beliefs you hold today, there is likely room for you.

Second, the literal reading of this part of Jesus’ back story just might miss the most important thing the gospel writers are saying. Sometimes the writers of the Bible write historical facts, best as they know them. But sometimes they’re doing something we might call theopoetics – God-poetry, saying things in poetry and symbol and metaphor that are too rich and deep to capture literally. 

In this case, Matthew and Luke are both telling infant back stories about Jesus to try to establish from the start just how important and special he is. Matthew – to a Jewish audience – is saying Jesus is like the Great King David, Part II, but even better. He gets there by quoting a line from the Old Testament’s chronicles of kings about a great leader born to a young woman, but by the writing of the gospels, that word young woman had been translated – mis-translated really – as virgin. And Luke – to a Gentile or non-Jewish audience – is saying Jesus is the real version of what Rome claims Caesar, the Emperor is – our hope for peace, the savior of the world, our good and trustworthy leader given by God.

Turns out that virgin conception stories were part of how ancient writers told stories about people they wanted to say were really important. When Romans talked about the founders of their civilizations or their great emperors, they called them children of the gods; sometimes there were stories of miraculous conceptions to virgins. It was a common ancient way of telling the origin story of a larger than life, really important person.

Literal or not, Matthew and Luke were both saying – in the language of their times and culture – that Jesus was this kind of person and more: heroic, important, significant, world-shaping, someone worth listening to, emulating, and following. Whether or not you believe in a literal virgin conception, that’s the real point of these stories. 

And three, my final argument for not taking this part of Jesus’ origin story literally is that having a faith that jives with science doesn’t make for a less powerful, but a more powerful, faith!

Here’s what I mean:

If God breaks the universe’s laws of science now and then to get God’s will done, that sounds really encouraging, doesn’t it? God can do anything – suspend gravity, stop the earth from rotating, prolong life way beyond the normal limits of cellular biology, make a human from only one set of chromosomes. That sounds really exciting, like it opens up a world of miraculous possibilities for God, and maybe for us too.

Here’s the thing, though. If God can and does break the universe’s metaphysical principles now and then to get stuff done, it raises a lot of thorny questions, like: why doesn’t God do this more often? You know, halt earthquakes and tidal waves mid-disaster, break into human psyches and get them to stop doing whatever evil thing they were about to do, spontaneously grow food in famished nations? A God who unilaterally can break the laws of nature whenever God wants could be a lot more useful to us than God is.

Also, if Jesus was conceived unlike every other human who ever lived, then it puts a bit of a strain on the notion that he was a human like us, in every way, except without sinning. Some of the early church fathers kind of liked the idea of the virgin conception because they thought pretty much all sex was inherently shameful and sinful. So a Jesus conceived without any sex involved was another mark in his favor, another sign that he was not just human, but a sinless incarnation of God in the flesh.

But there are ways of believing Jesus fully incarnates God, that Jesus fully represents God to creation, without hating on human sexuality and without tossing science aside. 

In a way, a God who is all-present and always working by the Spirit, and who moves forward God’s purposes without randomly intervening against what we know of science is a more powerful, not a less powerful, God, and one that’s easier for us to believe in as well. A faith that jives with science is more often than not a better thing for us all, not a worse thing.

Alright, I expect I’ve opened up as many questions as I’ve answered today. As you may have guessed, I’m kind of inclined toward the non-literal reading of this part of the creed and the two short passages from Matthew and Luke. It helps me make more sense of the rest of the New Testament. It helps me focus in on the important part of Jesus’ back story, not an anti-sex or freak of nature narrative, but one of a human and a leader and a savior unlike any other pretenders. And it helps me love and trust the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a human like us, but one who helps us see and know a beautiful, living, life-giving God who works within and through the laws of God’s universe, not through very occasionally breaking those laws. 

Regardless, though, I hold my inclinations humbly, like a good Reservoir member, with humility being one of our core values. And whatever your convictions or doubts are about the origin story of Jesus or anything else, I encourage you to hold that humbly as well.

Either way, though, this line in the creed, and the stories from which it comes invite us to take Jesus seriously, as a unique and important human leader who in powerful, unique ways lived in perfect partnership with God. And it invites us to pay attention to Jesus’ human mother Mary, who herself willingly co-created Jesus, and who lives by and invests herself in the hope that God is with us, that her baby Jesus is great, Son of the Most High, full of the Holy Spirit. We’re invited to pay attention to the what Jesus and Jesus’ mother Mary live by and invest themselves in, that there is a growing rule of God, a growing kin-dom, a growing beloved community of Jesus, in which we’ll all find our justice, our healing, our belovedness, and our peace, of which there will be no end. 

That’s where Jesus’ back story leads us to, not mainly to focus on the spectacle of how Jesus is different from us, but to invite us into hope and faith that God is with us, and that Jesus’ story of God’s beloved community can and will become our story too.

How to Live By The Spirit?

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

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.

Good Morning 

Galatians 5:16-26

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions

21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

 

Holy and Loving God, we praise and worship you, for you are a good God. A God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love. We thank you that you have poured your spirit upon us. Help us be aware and present to what you are doing in and through us in this moment now and today we pray, in Jesus name Amen. 


We’re in a sermon series called Listening to the Spirit. It’s so elusive. The Spirit. Such a mystery. It’s difficult to know exactly how to listen to the spirit. And what does it mean to live by the Spirit? 

I get this question often. How do you know when something is from God? Whether it’s a student facing graduation trying to figure out what to do with their lives, or someone trying to discern whether or not they should switch careers. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. 

In today’s text, Paul is trying to give advice to the churches in Galatia about how they were to live by the Spirit. He gives pretty clear answers to what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. So it seems like a good text for us to look into, as we ask how we can listen to the Spirit. But I have to warn you, the process of application should not be direct. 

You see, the text, it wasn’t written for you. It was written under great pressure in Paul’s personal and ministerial life, as his churches that he planted were being influenced by other teachings, and at the brink of all just blowing up. It was written in the face of a great controversy. Meaning? It was drama for your mama. 

I mean even writing a text message in the midst of a minor fallout is so hard for me. When you are emotionally entangled, every word means a great deal. Some of you know that I have been going through some drama with my mama for the past few years. It’s been a strained relationship and we don’t talk often. A thorn on my side. I miss her dearly. When she does text me, I take apart every word and comma, and reply with careful word choices that try to convey and include all that I want to mean. And I don’t know if you guys know this but that feature on text messages that tell you when someone’s looked at your text, oh God, I hate it. It’s like, it says, “READ”, and you hold your breath, they read it! And then the three little dots, letting you know that the other person is typing, displays and you just watch the three dots blink waiting. You know? No, just me? Cool. 

Well, Paul was very invested in this controversy about circumcision and who can eat with who. And very passionate. I mean his intro to the Galatians letter is,

“Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.”

I mean I know he was a man of deep faith, but who writes like that?! And that was his gift too. He was audacious with his words. A gifted writer that compels rather than just tells, with each sentence. And he meant the things he wrote. He’s blunt and often very direct. Like,

“The acts of flesh are obvious!”

“Obvious”, those are fighting words. Never use the word “obvious” in a fight.  And he is a bit verbose. He likes to list and include a lot of things, with lots of commas. 

I’m saying these things, bringing context to Paul’s situation and maybe even to his temperament and style because that is absolutely relevant. Because when we don’t, we misunderstand the text and I have seen Bible used literally without taking context into account that can really be harmful. And this text particularly has been sometime misinterpreted to be a comprehensive list of do’s and don’t, a litmus test of who’s in the spirit or not. 

So let’s break it down a bit more to see if there’s more this text can offer about living in the spirit rather than just a list of things we need to check our lives by. 

First of all, this concept of Spirit versus the flesh that Paul is using to convey his point, it’s a framework. A metaphor, try to get at describing something but isn’t meant to define. In fact, through historical critical methods we know that this is a  common notion that was used in that day, which was a direct influence of a widely accepted thinking from ancient Greek philosophy. Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, ancient philosophers, had some really powerful thoughts, like the concept of how they understood the spirit versus the body. And it influenced ways we talk about religion and culture. And Paul, because he, as pioneering of faith as he was, was too a product of his time and culture, immersed in his days’ ways of thinking.

The concept of the either or thinking, the binary thinking of spirit versus body, is in one sense interesting, but we also know now that the two are more connected and integrated than the ancient Greek philosophers might have thought. The body keeps score. The body is intelligent, like a computer of its own, holding literally codes of information through DNA, we realize through science. So it’s not simply that the spirit is good and the body is bad.

So what I’m saying is that you can’t just apply his concepts to us directly and blindly. Whatever your flesh wants is not always evil. If your body’s hungry. If your body needs to shake in grief. If your body needs to stretch out and hug a tree. If your body wants to move around its legs because you’re restless. If your body is tired- you don’t have to say, “the spirit is willing but the body is weak.” and quote bible verses out of context. Maybe you need rest. Maybe you need a nap. Living by the spirit doesn’t mean ignoring your body or that your body betrays you. 

One way I could offer that sort of reshapes the metaphor is, instead of saying the spirit versus the body, it’s been helpful for me to think about it as the True Self versus the Ego or the False Self. Again, this is just another framework. The True Self is that most authentic voice within, that is connected and curious and content. True self operates out of the gifts of human tendencies such as generosity, compassion, and love and acceptance. Whereas Ego, Ego is the exterior layer that came up to protect us against the dangerous world. It operates out of defensiveness and out of lack. Like, I’ll get them before they get me! 

A helpful way to look at what I mean by True Self and the Ego is the Enneagram. I’ve talked about Enneagram before, but it’s an interesting tool to name how all of us have a tendency of the Ego that we end up defaulting to, that often isn’t helpful and even harmful. It’s categorized into nine different types and each type has a kind of its own preoccupation that ends up upholding and maintaining the Ego. For example, Type One called the Perfectionist thinks, Because the world is imperfect, I must do all that I can to make it right to fix it. Hence their tendency toward perfectionism rather than grace and understanding.

Or Type Two, called the Giver or the Helper thinks that because the world is in high demand of things that we need to do, to be recognized, one must help or give something. Hence their tendency toward always busily helping rather than resting and simply being loved fully. 

I won’t go through all the numbers but every number, something, usually as a child, shifted in the world- the world demanded too much, the world was painful, the world was chaotic, and so all of us found ways to cope and work with that world, sometimes by overcompensating that fault. 

For me, a Type Seven, my ego says, no matter what, let’s just be positive! So I often try to make things better by doing something fun to help forget the hurt, because otherwise it just hurts too much. But my true self is able to engage grief or sadness without being afraid. And my True Self leads me and guides me in truth instead of ignoring the problem. 

I offer these words, True Self in place of the Spirit, and Ego in place of the flesh, because the war between the Spirit and Flesh has had a way of splitting a person’s wholeness, fighting within themselves, at odds with themselves. And that kind of teaching has resulted in sometimes even a betrayal of oneself that caused confusion about their identity.

I’ve gotten the question from a teen when I was a youth pastor, “why is everything God says is right but everything I do is wrong.” You’re not wrong. You’re not evil. Your body does not betray you. In fact, the spirit of God lives in you and works with you, the true you, who is connected, grounded, compassionate, and enough. There IS a false self at play, and we must know how to discern between the two. But at your core, your body, is not bad. To listen to the spirit does not mean you have to betray your body. 

“So I say, walk by the Spirit of True Self, and you will not gratify the desires of the Ego. For the Ego desires what is contrary to the True Self, and the Spirit of True Self what is contrary to the Ego.”

Now that we’ve got a handle on the framework, let’s tackle the content deeper.  

“ sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;

20 idolatry and witchcraft…

and so on

Okay, so the list Paul gives.  it’s not meant to be an exhaustive or a comprehensive list. I mean they all sound pretty bad but I’m just saying, he was writing his own list for the church of Galatia, not for you and your situation. This was simply Paul’s confession, his take of a life lived by the spirit. I’m sharing this text today, not to give you a list of things on what not to do and to do. There are some words of Paul’s that are helpful, but I’m sharing this text as an example of a man who really engaged himself to the situation, gave himself to the cause and named and called out things as he saw them. It’s an example, not a prescription.

In fact, Paul never meant for you to follow his lists either. The whole reason why he was writing all this was because he was trying to convey that you shouldn’t just follow things just because it’s the law.

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

The law, he means the old testament. That was their big controversy, as some were saying you must do things this way or that because of the law, the old testament said so. Paul was saying, no, we live by the spirit. We aren’t supposed to follow lists from the Bible but listen to the spirit that is alive right now. And he goes on to list some he sees, things that they were particularly facing that were particularly in Paul’s hearts at the moment. He was showcasing how one does that. 

So what’s your list ? What would you name as “The acts of the flesh” or maybe another way to think of it for us, “acts of ego” that we do? What are some ego tendencies that you’ve done or seen that are harmful and contrary to the spirit of one’s True Self? 

Let’s practice this together now, as a community, as Paul meant for us to do. 

Write some of your ideas in the chat. What are some words that you would say are not living in the spirit? Way of the Ego? 

The acts of the False self/ego are maybe not obvious to some but here’s some according to our community: power hungry, addiction, busyness and productivity, perfectionism, assuming the worst about a person…

…I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

And so, for the fruits of the Spirit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great list. But again it’s Paul’s. What’s yours?

The Bible and Paul’s words are not the final word. It is a living word, and our lived experiences that also confess to the truth faith. The Bible, in the Jewish tradition, they are meant to be in conversation with one another. There are texts that even contradict one another, like Deuteronomy laying out all the ways you stay pure and clean. And then in the book of Galatians like where our text comes from today, says you don’t have to be circumcised and you can eat with Gentiles. And so our faith, our community is also supposed to maybe not all agree on what we think is the right way or the wrong way. Maybe this is how we listen to the spirit. We disagree and listen to opposing ideas. Maybe we take into consideration Moses’ list, Paul’s list, Mikayla’s list, Jin’s list…

We get to proclaim our story and we are witnesses to life in the spirit. 

So what is your picture of life in the spirit? What are your fruits of the spirit that you enjoyed? What is your understanding of what life in the spirit is, or life lived out of True Self is? 

love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

23 gentleness and self-control

are pretty good but give me some of yours in the chat. What is your fruit of the spirit that you’ve tasted and seen? What, in your opinion, is the fruit of the spirit of our times? 

The Fruit of the Spirit is freedom, collaboration, humility, rest, gratitude, resilience, boldness, vulnerability…

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”

This was the provocative message of Paul. That we are all connected to the Spirit. And the Spirit speaks through us all, even in the face of old traditions and texts and prescriptions. Even through Zoom chat. Spirit makes things new, through you. Do you know that? Do you believe that? 

How do you listen to the Spirit? How do you live by the Spirit? Not by checking through Paul’s list. Maybe by coming up with your own list and sharing them with others. As you listen to your own list, may you be as audacious as Paul, passionate and bold. For the Spirit of God is upon you. Amen. 

Spiritual Practice 4_25

There Are So Many Ways to Love God

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

For this week’s spiritual practice, called “Love of God. Love of Neighbor” click HERE.


 

There’s a college professor named David Dark. I follow him on Twitter, and one of the things there is post stories of people doing horrible things to other people and to this earth, just adding the words: There are so many ways to hate God.

News this week. You can be so rich and famous and white that you find it appropriate to question the skin color of your in-law’s child in her womb. Or you can be so rich and famous and privileged that when you’re pulled over by the police for driving while four times past the legal blood alcohol limit, you do all the things you shouldn’t do when pulled over by police and then complain while you’re being arrested that you’re being persecuted for your politics. 

There are so many ways to hate God. 

Whole countries. You can so loves liberty and so hates science that you let over 500,000 people die and you let millions of kids lose their education and their friends so people can keep bars open and not have to wear masks. 

There are so many ways to hate God.

Or me. You can be so caught up in your own wheel of stress that you say something horrible you can’t unsay to someone you love. Or be so paralyzed by fear of a conflict that you let a friendship go rather than do the hard work to mend it. Or so confused about the just right way to do something that again and again, you just don’t do the things at all that other people really need you to do. 

There are so many ways to hate God. 

The basic logic of this is simple. People, all people, are made in the image of God, so whenever we disparage or hurt or degrade another human, or even fail to give them the kindness and respect that is ours to give, we hate them, and we hate God. 

Jesus, and the long line of prophets that came before Jesus, all taught that our love of self and love of God and love of neighbor – friend or foe – are all bound together. Love grows love grows love in all these relationships, just as hate grows hate grows hate in them all too. 

This is one of the messages of our fourth prophet in this year’s tour through the Bible’s shortest books of prophecy. This week, we’ll read the little fable of Jonah. There are five days of text and reactions and prayers in your guide to Lent, which you can find at reservoirchurch.org/lent if you don’t have a paper copy. The theme this year is What is Most Important. 

And one thing Jonah has to say to us is that there are so many ways to hate God. And there are so many ways to love God too.

Jonah begins with God’s call to a prophet of ancient Israel to love the residents of the Babylonian city of Nineveh. Nineveh was a more powerful city than Jerusalem, a richer city too, and a city known to Jonah and his people as an enemy city.

Jonah believes God is calling him to go to Nineveh with a warning, but a warning that if they listen to will – for them – become a blessing. But he is not having that. Instead of travelling northeast across land to Nineveh, he goes the opposite direction to catch a ride on a boat to the other side of the world. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to preach from Jonah, and when he did, he’d say that we love to hide from God, don’t we? Any psychologist could tell us that there are parts of us that don’t want to be known, that are afraid to be known, that hide even from ourselves. And so we – meaning each of us, and we – meaning our whole species, have so many ways of using denial and defensiveness and technology and architecture and everything to keep ourselves from ourselves, and to keep ourselves from one another. 

We hide from ourselves. We hide from our friends. We hide from seeing the image of God in one another. 

There are so many ways to hate God.

One of the fun things about Jonah is that at least in this little story, every other character – all the supposedly pagan outsiders that populate the story – every one of them is a better person of Jonah. Being a religious person does not make you a better person than anyone else. One of the many times Jonah shows this is when he’s got this long, long prayer in chapter two that is a mashup of phrases from the psalms, all these things a person is supposed to pray to God. But it’s clear that Jonah’ still doesn’t understand God at all. Everything Jonah’s got is all about him. And he’s not yet talking to God about what’s really on his mind. So it’s a not very great prayer. 

But then when Jonah prays in the final chapter, he’s being a real jerk with God, but at least he’s being honest, which is a start. And it takes his relationship with God somewhere productive. 

Jonah 4:2-3 (CEB)

2 [Jonah] prayed to the Lord, “Come on, Lord! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. 3 At this point, Lord, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live.”

See what had happened was Jonah finally went to Nineveh. And he walked around with that warning from God, and people listened. One sign Jonah’s a fable and not literal history is Jonah tells these people: you are bad, bad people. And they’re like: shoot, you’re right. Let’s turn to the living God and confess the error of our ways. Which would’ve been the rare time in history people when shaming and criticizing people opens them up to change. 

Regardless, in the story, the whole city of Nineveh turns to the mercy of God. And God’s affection is stirred toward them as well. 

Which Jonah can not stand. 

The Spirit of God has been working very hard to reach the people of Nineveh. Spirit gives Jonah a dream, or a set of ideas, or an intuition while praying – however it was this thought that Jonah thinks is from God comes to mind. Jonah feels that he is invited to be an agent of God’s change and possibility. Jonah can participate in God’s love, help co-create a new movement of the love of God in a city that has scared him until now. 

And yet Jonah would rather sit alone under his withering little tree that doesn’t even provide any shade than to share the love he’s been given with others. 

There are so many ways to hate God.

Of course, the real message of Jonah isn’t just this. It’s the corollary. It’s to see the fearful, hard-hearted, stressed out, all about me Jonah in each of us. And to know that God will keep inviting us to participate in God’s love story. 

There are so many ways to love God.

Jonah 4:4, 10-11 (CEB)

4 The Lord responded, “Is your anger a good thing?” 

I love that God asks questions. In the very beginning stories of the Bible: Adam, where are you? Jesus, again and again answering questions with questions, inviting us to wonder, to reconsider, to find wisdom, to stop hiding from ourselves or hiding from the truth or even hiding from God. God asks Jonah to consider: your anger with me for loving too many, for loving too much, for being too kind, is that a good thing? 

Jonah doesn’t answer, for what it’s worth. He finds a little place outside the city limits to sit alone, where presumably no one, maybe not even God, will bother him. Comically, the text says God grew a shrub up over Jonah’s head to give him shade, and Jonah was happy about the shrub. And then God sends a worm to eat that shrub, and Jonah loses his shade and overheats in the midday sun, and gets angry again. Here’s God at work in God’s creation to punk Jonah into open-heartedness again. 

And the book of Jonah then ends like this.

10 But the Lord said, “You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Did you ever wonder what it’s like for God to consider the state of things on planet earth? 

There’s a window here. God’s up at night, seeing all the things. And all the beautiful things God wants for God’s creation. God sees all a little seedling of a plant and thinks: oh, it’d be so great for that plant to keep growing and serve a great purpose for a plant. I know it is possible to look at plants like this because sometimes my wife Grace walks around and looks at her plants and cheers on the new buds and leaves she sees growing. I think God looks at plants like this too.

God sees all the animals of Nineveh – the roaming free ones, and the caged ones, and the animals on farms and in houses and in holes in the ground and thinks: I so love all these animals. 

And God looks at the 120,000 people of Nineveh, just like the 117,000 people of Cambridge, and the 81,000 people of Somerville, and the 43,000 people of Arlington and so and so on, and God sees them sleeping and waking, feels our breath and our heartbeats and thinks, oh my goodness, these people I love, and how they can’t tell their right from their left sometimes. I love these people still. 

And I want their lives to not be at all wasted, but to be beautiful. 

Everything we’ve read in the prophets, like in Micah last week:

  • that all our habits of aggression and defensiveness would be replaced by peacemaking, 
  • that all people experience safety and security in their homes, in their cars, on their streets, in their schools
  • that all people would have zeal to pursue our own faith while practicing tolerance and curiosity toward the faith of others who walk in the name of their own God,
  • that we would all gather in joyful, inclusive communities of profound belonging,
  • that those formerly marginalized and othered and excluded would be centered and healed,
  • that redemption comes for the wounded, that victims become survivors, that the chronically weak grow in strength…

God wants all this for us and for our friends and even for our enemies. 

And the story of Jonah is that we have the opportunity to participate in this love story. To receive it and to give it. To be a part of it. 

To be the hands and feet of Christ. 

To participate in God’s immense love for all people and all things. 

Each time we love the earth. Each time we honor and respect and love any creature of the earth, we participate in God’s love. It flows through us and it flows into us as well.

There are so many ways to love God.

My child last year, who when we found our dead cat outside, insisted: we need to bury our cat and hold a funeral. 

My friend who heard I’d had a spot of depression and told me for the first time: I’ve been depressed before too. Can we talk?

I’m going to keep sharing a few examples from my life, but could you put something you’ve seen in that chat as well if you’re on zoom? I’d like to read some of those too. How have you seen someone love God, by loving something or someone God loves?

The leader of a seminar I attended who hand wrote me a blessing that affirms and challenges me all at once and that I keep in my journal to call me to my best self.

The many ones of you in this congregation who have sent me a word of gratitude or encouragement when you’ve found truth or help or something good through my work.

The family who took a stranger to live in their home for a month during a pandemic and then had that stranger stay for three months.

The educator who fought for access for children of color and children with disciplinary records and children with low test scores to get into coveted public schools. 

The social worker who kept sitting on the streets with Boston’s homeless, treating them like friends and family, even when she had no idea who had COVID.

The doctors and nurses and drivers and cooks and cashiers and firefighters and everyone who kept going out to work and taking care of us when they didn’t feel safe doing that. 

You’ll notice none of these are about a feeling, a sentiment of love. All of these are words and actions that someone said or did. Love gets outside of our hesitancy and lethargy and self-consciousness and love speaks. Love does. Sometimes love does small things at first. Sometimes love has the courage to be extravagant. It’s all good.

The Spirit of God is speaking God’s love for all the universe through fish and vines and worms and prophets. Art and science and music and trees and the wisdom of the elders and the wonder of the children all contain some parts of God’s love for everyone and everything. 

The book of Jonah ends with a question that the Spirit of God has for us. God asks: Can I not love all I have made? Can I not love it all? And will you not love with me?

Love of self, and love of neighbor – friend and enemy alike, and love of God – they are all intertwined. Love’s one of the only things that when we share or give or make it, we have more. We can start with a little more love of self, or love of earth, or love of friend, or love of foe, or love of God. No matter how, we have more of all of them, reinforcing one another, helping us participate in God’s great, adventurous, creative love story. 

Or we can have less of all of them, and shrink and wither under our little tree. 

Jonah tells us the story. Jonah says that today, we know God will be loving everyone and everything that crosses our mind or our gaze, ourselves included. How would we like to be part of that?

Exile and Return – Youth and Kids Lead Reservoir’s Service

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

A special service led by our youth and kids.

This week’s spritual practice is the Prayers of the People.

Families Pastor Kim Messenger tells the story of the people of God in “Exile and Return.”

With thanks to many of the Reservoir community who contributed to this service.