Staying Found

This morning I want to talk about the concept of “staying found” and how it engages the theme of wisdom. 

“Staying found” is a phrase that I learned from the Appalachian Mountain Club. It’s often a concept highlighted in compass and maps classes as well as search and rescue training. Staying found  is a set of tactics and checks and balances that help keep you safe and aware for any adventure outside. Staying found acknowledges the reality that we will likely get lost at some point. That we will encounter the “unease” in our bodies when the well-trodden path no longer looks the same. When our intuition – the orientation to ourselves, to one another, to God – gets mixed up by the wilds of life.

I appreciate this lens because it makes “getting lost or being lost” feel less like an aberration or something bad — but actually a way to expand our way of doing life in a healthy and free way. Staying found suggests to me that we all have a compass available to us at all times, this being WISDOM.  And that wisdom herself is everywhere. In endless markers and landmarks along our journey –  but it takes a bit of practice – some risk, some mistakes, some joy, some delight,  some creativity – to truly engage wisdom. To become wise ourselves.   

We are new in this Wisdom series that will run until Memorial Day. We hope this series will open up the richness of wisdom found in the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament. Today we’ll look at the book of Proverbs – which is full of earthy and piercing and kind of funny lines of advice like:

  • “If you don’t have oxen, at least your barn is clean.” (14:4)

  • “Bad people trip over their own lying lips. Good people don’t have a lip problem.” (12:13)

  • “It’s better to eat veggies in a house filled with love than to eat steak served by someone who hates your guts.” (15:17)

As odd as some of the proverbs might sound they are full of specific, immediate, and practical instructions.

“Full of teaching of wisdom concerning respect for the poor, the importance of generative work, the danger of careless speech, the risk of deep debt, the hazard of having the wrong kind of friends.” (Brueggemann)

And while some of the Proverbs are conveyed through specific forms of conduct — they point us to these big questions:

  • What does it mean to be human and who are we to each other?
  • How do we want to live and who will we be to each other?
  • What makes life work? *Especially when we might feel lost.*

Prayer | Thanks for this space this morning to be together. I take it for granted sometimes. But it’s meaningful. Could you help bring that meaning to life. Could you move us — beyond words, and songs, and place — could you move us by your Spirit which is unexplainable — but oh so felt.  — Amen.


I live close to the Blue Hills Reservation — like a 3-5 minute drive depending on where you want to go. The Blue Hills is a 7,000 acre state park with trails that stretch from Milton to Quincy to Dedham to Randolph.

I have spent A LOT of time in the Blue Hills over the last 19 years. 

When my kids were little — I would drop them off at school or preschool — and then head to the Blue Hills for a quick hike. I generally would go to one specific area because there were a lot of intersecting trails — so on any given day I’d be offered some variety. 

I knew the area pretty well and had gotten confident enough to not bring a map — having memorized most of the trail #s and markers.

One day a friend joined me. She is a serious hiker, bagging all the lists of all the hikes in the northeast — winter, spring summer fall – – all of it. So I knew we could cover the area I was used to moving in.

Timing wise I knew just about when to turn around to make that preschool pickup… from most points on these trails. This particular day we were hiking at a quicker clip and had picked up a different trail as we talked and caught up on life. And I thought it would be a simple “loop back” trail — but it wasn’t , or at least it wasn’t offering us that option in the time frame I needed. 

I realized we weren’t going to make it if we didn’t find a way back — quickly. We stopped on the trail. My friend offered some WISE options like

“let’s just take a minute and consider our options”


“let’s figure out what direction we are heading in”

let’s think about what our last marker was and kind of pace that out… 

This could have been a moment for me – where “Iron sharpens Iron”....

But I wasn’t really listening. I was starting to imagine all the possible scenarios that would come from being LOST — and the embarrassment I would feel as

  • 1)the preschool flagged alarm when I didn’t show up, and as
  • 2) DCR sent out rescue crews to look for us — on this tiny little trail, and
  • 3) as the neighborhood Facebook groups blow up with chatter… 

And I was like we just need to go! We just need to go straight up! OFF trail — just to the top so we can see where we are and hook up with one of the trails and have a better perspective.  

And I just started going. Through bushes and over rocks and such.. Leaping and jumping like I was a regular mountaineer. And fairly quickly finding myself out of breath and unsure of how to continue about a ¼ of the way up. And only THEN wondering if I should have joined my friend in pausing — I also wondered if “wisdom” was a part of my actions at all? 

This is a small story that exemplifies the many ways in my life I have at times felt overwhelmed, stressed, turned around. Where I’ve second guessed everything —  in the everyday places and aspects of my life that I’m accustomed to. Where I have scrambled or sprinted out of fear or desperation or longing for some solid ground. 

I don’t know about you — but in moments like these I find myself eager to anchor to something solid that offers a sense of grounding and identifiable mooring. And yet when that isn’t quick to appear — I can berate myself and say I’ll be better “prepared” for next time… with more knowledge, more information — a map that will clearly delineate a trusted and familiar path. 

I want to be “smarter at life.”  

So I’m not so taken out by life. 

And this is a little bit of the mystery of human design – right? We have no lack of quest for information, knowledge, love. We all want to love, but as a rule we don’t know how to love well. And we all want more knowledge – but do we do so in a way that LIFE will really come from it? 

What we all need perhaps is wisdom.  

Proverbs 8 is a bit of an autobiography of wisdom – a self-announcement and speech by wisdom herself and it starts like this: 

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

1 Doesn’t Wisdom cry out
    and Understanding shout?

2 Atop the heights along the path,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand.

3 By the gate before the city,
    at the entrances she shouts:

4 “I cry out to you, people;
    my voice goes out to all of humanity.”

“Wisdom” has a voice — and it is not a shy one! Wisdom summons all of humanity.
Wisdom is a greeter — at the entrance to unknowns she is there.
Wisdom is a sign-post at crossroads — a guide .
Wisdom is echo-ing across the peaks and the valleys of all of our lives. Searching for us — making sure we are “staying found.”

As we read more of this chapter — Wisdom’s identity continues to unfold and we pick up more in verse 22 and hear more what wisdom has to say for herself: 

22 The Lord created me at the beginning of their way,

    Before their deeds long in the past.

23 I was formed in ancient times,

    at the beginning, before the earth was.

24 When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,

    when there were no springs flowing with water.

25 Before the mountains were settled,

    before the hills, I was brought forth;

26     before God  made the earth and the fields

    or the first of the dry land.

27 I was there when God established the heavens,

    when God marked out the horizon on the deep sea,

28     when God thickened the clouds above,

    when God secured the fountains of the deep,

29     when God set a limit for the sea,

        so the water couldn’t go beyond God’s command,

    when God marked out the earth’s foundations.

30 I was beside God as a master of crafts

    I was having fun, smiling before God all the time,

31  frolicking with God’s inhabited earth

    and delighting in the human race.

Wisdom was present ‘before’ everything; she is the base layer of all existence. Before earth, and land and water. Before landmarks and paths and mountains and fields.

And wisdom was present ‘when’ God creates everything. When God makes and establishes and marks and thickens and secures. When shape and form are birthed.

All the while WISDOM is joyfully dancing, smiling, frolicking – she is up close and personal with God and the works of creation.  Wisdom is the very movement involved in the process, the active energy all around. All the time.  

 It’s really a wonder that we could miss wisdom at all. That we could feel ‘lost’ or disoriented with such a consistent voice and presence in the very architecture of our world. Shouting to us, crying out to us.


I did not pause to consider wisdom — as I was lost that day in the Blue Hills. I didn’t care about “staying found.” I cared about “not being lost – not being seen as a fool.” And yet some might say my actions and decisions were fairly “foolish” — thinking “all things were possible through Ivy Anthony” —  incurring scrapes and slips and some serious scramble. I panicked and bolted. And when I got to the top I didn’t actually gain perspective that was helpful. It wasn’t any quicker to locate the trail we needed to be on.

As it turns out it’s fairly challenging to locate and garner wisdom. And I want to mention two reasons this might be so —

1) the first is because we can lose track of ourselves.

Howard Thurman

The theologian and mystic Howard Thurman in his 1980 Spelman commencement address says that we do miss wisdom.  And for valid reasons. 

He says,

“that there is so much traffic going on in our minds, so many different kinds of signals, so many vast impulses floating through our organism that go back thousands of generations, long before we were even a thought in the mind of creation, and we are buffeted by these…”

and we can get lost in these… 

So in the midst of all of this we have to turn to wisdom. And Thurman says wisdom is to

“find out what our name is. 

To ask,

“who are you?”

Thurman quickly answers,

“You — you are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom – your creative expression-  is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence. And there is something in everyone of us that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in ourselves and if we cannot hear it, we will never find whatever it is for which we are searching.” 

The sound of the genuine is this place of wisdom within ourselves — where we are our truest selves, connected– anchored —  and belonging to the love of God. That we are always found — even if we feel lost.

We live in a time when we are bombarded with words, images, and messages. We live in a time when things move quickly and we are expected to react and think quickly, too. We are rarely given the opportunity to sit and reflect, to let ourselves sink into questions and nuances that are often ignored. We are rewarded for being quick and left out if we are too slow.

“Wisdom, however, rarely sits on the surface of things.” (

This is why pursuing wisdom is a personal spiritual practice. If it didn’t require our intentional effort, wisdom would not have to “raise her voice” or come to the center of town to try to call out to us. She comes in pursuit of us, because we are often encouraged in different directions. And there is so much that makes it difficult to hear her, perceive her, to recognize her.

But Thurman says if we cannot hear the sound of the genuine in us,

“we will all of our life spend our days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls…”

Thurman says “stay found.” “Stay found” — there is a lot — a lot that competes — a lot that drowns out the sound of the genuine, the voice of wisdom.

Don’t be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions, so that you don’t hear the sound of the genuine in you, because that is the only true guide that you will ever have, and if you don’t have that you don’t have a thing.

We need to cultivate the discipline of listening to the sound of the genuine in ourselves. This is wisdom. This is to *stay found.*

  1. The second reason wisdom evades us is because we are accustomed to wisdom in a particular form.

The markers of wisdom are often defined and found in very specific expressions. Often in the well-educated, those in power, the privileged.  

But Wisdom cries out, not only to the privileged of the world but to “all that live.”

She makes herself accessible to everyone. She does not require particular training or access to institutions. She meets us in the middle of our lives, where we already are. (

Jesus did this too, right? Jesus challenged sexism, patriarchy, misogyny and discrimination in general over and over, and shows us that the margins are sources of deep, divine wisdom.

But still we struggle to value wisdom when it comes in alternative shapes. When it breaks from the same, same, same paths that for generations we have trod – we kind of are comfortable in those deep ruts. But those deep ruts block the view of those who might stand at the crossroads crying out to us with wisdom and yet are again and again ignored —  loop after loop after loop.

I read recently that Einstein began his life with a profound faith in the social good of the scientific enterprise  — but he then watched German science hand itself over to fascism. He watched chemists and physicists become creators of weapons of mass destruction. He said that science in his generation had become like a razor blade in the hands of a 3-yr old. He began to see figures like Gandhi and Moses, Jesus and Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi, as

“Geniuses in the art of living.” He proposed that their quantities of “spiritual genius” were more necessary to the future of human dignity, security, and joy than objective knowledge.” (4 Tippett) 

“Knowledge is like flour — but wisdom is bread.” — Austin O’Malley

We have knowledge but it is falling through our hands – empty of its potential – when not mixed with all the ingredients, the voices, the beauty of those around us.

It would be wise of us to continue to interrogate who gets the mic – the press – the books – the power – the attention of the world. It seems that “spiritual geniuses of the everyday are everywhere. And yet those in the margins do not have publicists. They are woefully below the radar, which is broken.” (Tippett, 4)

So if our own radar —  of knowing who we are deep within — is a little wonky and off, and the radar that puts people on the map of humanity is broken. Then we do need a recalibration.  We do need wisdom.


Matthew Fox an episcopal priest, says we need wisdom-seekers who will

“shake up all our institutions—including our religious ones—and reinvent them.”

People who will not be afraid to  Imagine. Dream. Even “play” a little. Fox says,

“change is necessary for our survival, and we often turn to the mystics at critical times like this — a mystic being someone who goes beyond intellect. Jesus was a mystic shaking up his religion and the Roman empire; Buddha was a mystic who shook up the prevailing Hinduism of his day; Gandhi was a mystic shaking up Hinduism and challenging the British Empire; and Martin Luther King, Jr. shook up his tradition and America’s racist — white supremacist–  society.”

Scholars are in significant disagreement about translations of the verses in Proverbs that we read. Wisdom says,

“I was beside God as a master of crafts”

— some scholars believe the translation of “master of crafts” could be “child” or “nursling.”

Not like the definition of “master” we are used to — where we have conquered the learning, understanding, and knowledge of an area of study.

But like a child — a toddler — skipping and delighting — and exploring — and creating — and falling down — and trying again — a master of a playful, creative boundary-bending energy at work.  

This wisdom is necessary. Americans are fleeing churches and fleeing the Christian faith, including its evangelical expressions. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) finds that around one-quarter (26%) of Americans now identify as religiously unaffiliated, a number that has risen over the last decade and is now the largest single religious group in the U.S. 

Changes and reform are urgent, and we need new relationships, new networks, and new partnerships to do this as well as we can. We need wisdom.

Father Richard Rohr commented on how disappointed he is that “we” in the Church have passed on so little wisdom. Often the only thing we’ve taught people is to think that they’re right—or that they’re wrong. We’ve either mandated things or forbidden them. And this doesn’t make room for a) creativity b) our own intuition and sound of the genuine or c) even the value of failure that can lead to wisdom…. We haven’t helped people enter wisdom’s path. 

Wisdom though — seems to believe there are still possibilities among us.
She’s still calling, shouting, whispering to us — “you aren’t lost” — (not totally lost).
Stay found. Stay found.

I want to end with a spiritual practice that might help us orient to wisdom. 

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) puts out advice* for when you find yourself off trail, or lose your bearings. And I want to share them with you because they effectively point us back to wisdom – and to the sound of the genuine within and around us.

  1. Grace.
    The first step is to extend grace to yourself, as God does.
    There’s no need to beat yourself up or inflict shame upon yourself — for the ways you feel like you’ve messed up –  or should know better or more… for the ways you are afraid or overwhelmed.
    The AMC says no matter how experienced a hiker you might consider yourself to be, no matter how many times you’ve been out on the trails, how many 4,000 footers you’ve bagged, how much expert gear you have… “You are not an experienced hiker when you are not on a familiar trail…. And even the same trails look incredibly different in different seasons — -just a little bit of leaf growth and underbrush — or snow cover —  can really change the landscape of a trail.

So start by extending grace to yourself.
Release undo responsibility and shame.  

Lord knows we all have a lot of hiking still to do in this life – and we don’t need that unnecessary weight.

  1. Stop. 

The AMC says, Moving isn’t helpful until you know which way to go, and if you’re thrashing around in the forest, you can’t follow the next three steps they recommend.”

I invite you right now to stop. To truly be still. In your body, spirit and heart….

To fully stop in this way can feel discomforting and humbling – especially when it feels like every second is precious time that should be spent figuring out how to be “found.”

But the alternative, to charge, react, thrash our way through – without at least a brief pause – has the potential to make ourselves even more lost and disoriented.

So right now to the best you can, stop.

Quiet your heart.

Quiet your mind. Stop overthinking. Over analyzing.

Stop your body from moving.. Your leg from bouncing… Your eyes from scanning.. Your finger from tapping.

Just stop, and ask God to be close. 

Stopping is the most powerful action that allows us to orient ourselves to Divine Wisdom/God.

  1. Breathe. 

Anxiety can lead to panic, but breathing can help cool your nerves. If you don’t know where you are, staying calm will help you think clearly and figure out your next move.”

Breathing helps let all the feelings tumble through us.  It lets the ones that we don’t need to hang on to, fall to the ground… and the feelings we do need to feel – to inform us – to help us clarify our next steps, stick.  These feelings are the ones that drive our next steps, because they are often the ones that show us where our deep passion lies. 

Possible next steps:

  • .. stay still or take a nap.
  • .. eat a snack. Drink some water.
  • .. look at your map again – with fresh eyes.

Take 3 deep breaths now. IN & OUT, IN & OUT, IN & OUT. 

As you do, fully stretch out your arms – so that breath reaches through all of you… 

  1. Look for landmarks.

    This might be big, like a mountain, but it could be closer and more modest, like an unusual mushroom or a hollow log. The denser the undergrowth, the more observant you need to be.”

  • What are the landmarks of Divine Wisdom in your day?
    • Maybe something big – a stress-free departure for church — wooo! 
    • Likely there are also some small, more intertwined markers of God’s presence too – in the undergrowth, the ordinary moments of your day.
  • Take a moment to consider where you have already seen the markers of God TODAY.  

The more we take note, as a practice, to recognize these markers of God in our days – the more we can identify God in the brush, on the unmarked trails…. that we will surely journey on.


  1. Listen.

    Most people who wander off-trail are within 300 yards of it—close enough to hear the voices of other hikers, which tells you which way to walk.”

So when you feel lost – listen.

Don’t just hear, but listen for God’s voice.

It’s there.   Always.
What might God be saying to you?

  • What kind of day is God inviting you into?  
  • What kind of path does God want to walk with you? Listen.

It is important when we are lost to stop & breathe, look for God’s landmarks & listen.  This work is important work –  not just for our journey – but for the next generation, and the generation after that, and the generation after that.

  • What trail markers will we leave?  
  • What new trails will we cut? 
  • What wisdom do we impart? 
  • These are the questions of today.

Prayer: “Dear Spirit of God, our TRUE NORTH – thank you for being our guide.  Help us to listen to your invitation to us now – maybe it’s that we don’t get back on the same trails we’ve been on so many times before… Maybe you want us to be bumped off trail right now..  But God could you promise to find us there…  Could you promise to guide us still – through the darkest and thickest of forest   – over mountains – and through valleys –  could you, dear God, dwell in our spirit – BE OUR COMPASS – no matter how turned around we get?”


1980 Spelman Commencement Address | Howard Thurman | 2019

God As Fire

As we get started on our Spring season of Lent, I remember in December when I was doing some preparation and prayer, trying to get my head around this theme of fire that Ivy and I were working with together. 

And there were three things that kept coming to mind.

One was the way we feel like so much of our world is on fire. The headlines of our news and sometimes the headlines of our hearts scream of toxic politics, disastrous climate change, brutal violence, crumbling religions – Christianity included, and yet a failure to imagine and organize together around a better future. 

This world is on fire, and that can be really scary. 

A second thing that kept coming to mind was this one weird and haunting line from the Bible. 

It’s in the New Testament’s letter called Hebrews. It’s a collection of reflections and encouragement for a first century Jewish community trying to follow in the way of Jesus. And near the end, without a ton of context, there’s this line, that says:

Hebrews 12:29 

“Our God is a consuming fire.”

Our God is a consuming fire.

  • What does this mean?
  • What is God like after all?
  • And how does fire as a metaphor for God speak?

I wonder if it speaks warmly to you – with the glow and wonder of candles and campfires, like the ones Ivy remembered and brought to life for us last week.

Or I wonder if it is scary as hell to you – some of us know about burns from fire, about home fires, about the threats people make using hellfire language. 

Our God is a consuming fire.

I wonder how this line speaks to you. 

Growing up, both my grandparents’ home just a few miles from me and the home I was raised in had fireplaces in the middle of them. 

The fireplace in my grandparents’ home was one of my favorite places as a kid. My brothers and I used to beg to sleep over at their house on Christmas Eve, where like many other nights of the year, we’d sit up late around the fireplace. 

It was so warm, so beautiful, and when we were little, my PopPop – that’s what we called my maternal grandfather -my Pop Pop had these salts he’d throw into the fireplace that would make the flame blaze different colors, like blue or green or deep red. 

I know now it’s chemistry, but when I was a kid, it seemed like magic, like PopPop was some kind of beloved wizard who’d make the most perfect fire more beautiful, more wonder-full. Staring into those colored flames, my little world seemed so big and beautiful and surprising. 


The fireplace in our own home was a little more complicated. 

We didn’t have any special chemicals to change the color of the flames. 

But it was also a family gathering place in our house during long New England winter times, at least back then. And all kinds of things happened there. 

One of my more complex memories of shame, and of the things my family could and couldn’t talk about, happened around that fire. 

I was in seventh grade, I think. It was not a happy time in my life.

I had some secrets I kept, one of which was that I stole things.

I had, for instance, stolen a pack of cigarettes from the store as a curiosity, to see what smoking felt like. And I had smoked a couple of them, just a tiny bit, in the woods behind our house, and then forgotten about them.

But one night around the fire, as I remember it at least, my older brother was like: hey, look what I found in Steven’s jacket. And he held up the pack of cigarettes, or at least what was left of them.

I remember my face turning bright red with embarrassment, with shame. And I lunged toward my brother, grabbed the cigarettes, and threw them in the fire.

And as I did it, I said:

I have no idea how these got in there. I didn’t do it. They’re not mine. 

And I stormed out of the room.

This is a long time ago. I don’t know if everything in my memory is 100% accurate, but what I don’t remember is any follow-up. I don’t remember anyone asking me more about what happened, or why it was so upsetting, or if I wanted to talk about any of it. 

We just moved on, silent – the drama and shame and lies and tension of that moment just lingering in the family, smoldering with its own kind of fire. 

Even with those kinds of memories, though, I kept coming back to that fireplace, with and without the rest of my family. The feelings and memories I carry from that place are more complex than my grandparents’ fireplace, but even in my own house, I kept coming back. 

And I always took one of two seats in that room – the two seats closest to the fireplace. Where I could feel the heat there and get long, unfiltered stares at those dynamic, flickering, consuming flames I couldn’t take my eyes off of. 

I wonder if that complexity of experience, but that returning again and again to wonder isn’t a little bit like the experience the ancients had of God, when they associated God with fire. 

In the old stories of Exodus, fire is again and again a metaphor for God’s presence with ancient Israel. 

The scriptures in the first week of our guide to this season are all from Exodus, including this one:

Exodus 19:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud blast of a horn. All the people in the camp shook with fear.

17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain.

18 Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had come down on it with lightning. The smoke went up like the smoke of a hot furnace, while the whole mountain shook violently.

The 12 tribes that would make up the ancient community of Israel were desert nomads at this point in their story – free from past enslavement, but not yet settled and organized as a city-state or a nation.

And here, they gather around Mount Sinai to worship and reckon with their God.

I have no idea what literally was happening, like if someone could get photographs of moments like this from 3,400 years ago, what would we see?

We can’t of course, so we get the ancient metaphor and poetry of it all, where there was a storm with thunder and lightning, and the mountain where God is appearing feels like a blazing furnace, shrouded in smoke. 

What did it mean that God with them felt like a lightning strike turned to blazing, smoky fire?

On the one hand it scared the hell out of them. 

They were like:

Moses, you talk to God. We do not want to join you there.

They viewed the power of God with wonder and awe, but also something like terror. Who can see God and live?

And yet in this moment they assemble with Moses to be with God. And in the ancient story of these people, God terrifies them and yet they can’t help coming back and longing for God to be with them, hoping that God lives among them.

Because God may be wild and powerful, but they also knew they were better off with God than without. 

Why was that?

What spoke to them about God being a force, a person, who blazes with consuming fire?

What spoke to Moses in his first encounter with God? He was a middle aged man, full of his own secrets, living in geographic exile from his home, but also living in a kind of metaphorical exile too – not at home in his own body, in his own life and story, when working as a shepherd, he saw something like a burning bush. 

  • Was it the glare of the morning sun after a long night in the desert?
  • Was it a blaze of color in spring flowers spotted far from home?
  • Or was it a literal bright, but unconsuming wildfire?

We don’t know.

But we know that when Moses first discovers God, he discovers God as an un-consuming fire – dynamic, vibrant, powerful, blazing like flames, but not burning up or harming whatever God touches. Fire that burns bright without harm. 

This is God as Moses came to understand God – fierce and powerful enough to be an everlasting creator and mighty liberator but also safe and good enough to call friend.

  • What speaks to us when we think about a living God among us?
  • What speaks to us as we imagine a God who is somehow like fire?
  • Beyond the world on fire, beyond that haunting line about our God being a consuming – or is it un-consuming – fire? 

As Ivy and I started work on this season, the third thought that came to my imagination – and one that I think Ivy shared as well – was picturing us all again and again gathering around little fires and wondering together about God. 

I picture some of us like I do, awake early by ourselves with a candle lit, looking at the flame and wondering how God is here with us .

I pictured families over a meal, lighting a candle in the center of the table, and having a moment together to wonder about what God is like and how God is part of the household, and what God might be doing there

I pictured friends meeting up for a community group or whatever else and catching some time together to silently look at a flame and wonder about God. 

In this season’s Guide, there are six weeks of material. Today starts the first week, where we wonder about God as fire. 

It’s only 10 pages, and not too many words. But don’t rush through it. Pull it out again and again, even just to read one little bit, or to gaze at an image for a while. 

And this week, as with each of the six weeks, there is an invitation to sit by a fire for a moment. The hope is you do this at least once a week, but it could be every day if you like. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, awesome!

If you want to use a candle, that’s great! That’s probably what most of us will do. 

If it feels safer or better for our climate to use electric fireplaces or candles or have that image of a glowing fireplace on your television, that’s cool too.

Or burn incense, or find yourself an active volcano, or whatever.

But the idea is to be with yourself or even better, be with someone else by something like a flame, each week, even more than once a week, and wonder about God, and wonder about God with us, and say a prayer.

There’s a different way to do just this each week. 

See what it’s like.

And as you do this, one place in particular I encourage you to notice the presence of God isn’t just in the fire, but in the people you are with, yourself included, and what the flame illuminates there. 

Because as in the days of Moses, still now we most often and sometimes most brightly feel the fire of God among us. We sense the presence of God with most glory when we are with others.

I help organize the citywide clergy group for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We are Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian clergy, sometimes Buddhist leaders too, who like to know and understand and care about one another, and to practice solidarity as we work for a more just city together. 

And one of my co-leaders is a local rabbi named Toba Spitzer. Toba is wise and brilliant and interesting. She wrote a book called God is Here that inspired a sermon series of ours a year or two ago. 

And in our latest clergy gathering, we were looking at Muslim, Christian, and Jewish sacred texts that speak to the importance of our relationality, our togetherness.

For the Jewish text, Toba brought a rabbinic commentary that says:

“if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah [God’s Presence] abides between them.”

The Shekinah is an old Hebrew word that refers to the dwelling, or kind of settling presence of God. It’s when you know that God is here. 

And you’re speechless with wonder, or it’s so good and weird and sweet and powerful that you say a word like: wow, or like: glory!

And the rabbinic tradition says that whether you realize it or not, this is always happening when people together read the sacred text.

And the way my friend Toba and others have read this is even more broadly, like anytime we communicate for the sake of deeper understanding and wisdom together, to bring some benefit to the world, than the Shekinah, the dwelling of God that makes you say: Wow! Is there. 

When we’re in real communication, going deeper, together for the good, there’s that extra something we feel – that heat, that power, that warmth, that magic – why call it God? 

Maybe because it is.

Maybe because we need God among us, to bring fire to our earthy selves. 

And maybe because we don’t ever see God directly, like you can see your hand before your face.

No one has ever taken a photograph of God. 

Our experience of God is mediated. Even at its clearest, it’s a little bit indirect. We encounter God through things that evoke wonder, like the ocean, or perfect music, or amazing food, or yes, even fire. 

We encounter God through the person and the life and words of Jesus for sure.

And also through the presence of God when two or three are gathered in God’s name. To me that does not mean when two or three get religious. We know from the Bible and from our own experience, that being religious is no promise of the felt presence of God. But when two or three gather in the spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of love, there’s something there.

My childhood memories around fire – some are of presence, like at my grandparents’ house where the warmth of the room and PopPop’s magic fire-changing power and all spoke to me of the presence of God. 

And some of my memories are of absence, like the time around the fire where I knew shame and distance and inability to really be together as we were. To me, all that spoke of a kind of absence of God.

Both can be true when we are with others. 

So I thought at the clergy gathering about recent human encounters when I could sense God’s shekinah – the dwelling, the settling of God among us that makes me say: Glory, wow. This is too good.

I thought when a goddaughter I really missed and wanted to see reached out to me to ask for prayer for something at her school. And the way she reached out and reconnected brought me so much joy.

I thought of one of you who asked me if you could share a confession in privacy and confidence. And how you bared your soul by sharing what is to you a most shameful memory, so that we could speak the truth together that even there, you are seen and loved and forgiven. So good. 

I thought of when I gather with my community group on Saturdays to read the Bible and to share of the most important things in our lives, and how it’s holy how we share the truths of our lives and seek the truth of God, in a circle of loving-kindness.

Or the couple minutes during Grace’s and my latest dance class we’re doing, where inexperienced stumblers that we are, for a few moments, something clicked, and we felt like we were gliding through the room together – two of us as one, soaring, dancing across the space. And it felt elegant and smooth and all sparky with decades of love. 

All really different kinds of moments, but all sparked by fire. All a window into the truth that God is there. 

There’s something about the openness and vulnerability that all these moments have in common. There’s something about the safety everyone has experienced, that this is a person and a place where you can be really open, where you can be true, and that will be safe. And there’s something about the tenderness and connection there, where one is saying – I see you truly, kindly. And the other is saying – I am seen truly, kindly. And in a way, everyone is saying both at once. 

It makes me feel like: wow, glory! So good. 

We begin, friends, where we will end in six weeks.

There are forms of fire that only burn… that “steal, kill, and destroy.” We’ll talk more about those. This is the kind of fire that is not God. This is Jesus’ description of every force in and among us that is an enemy of God.

But there are also forms of fire that open us up, that make us larger and freer and more loving – that set our heart on fire in the best of ways. And love seems to make space for those.

Love is the hearth where fire roars.

Love is the ground where we sense God and say glory.

Love is the wick where fire burns.

“Amen” An End & A Beginning

Today we are continuing in our new sermon series,  it’s called “How to Pray.” This series certainly offers us some mechanics of ‘how to pray’  specific prayer practices, like the Examen that Steve offered us last week, and a whole lot of “how-to’s” if you pop into one of the “prayer workshops” right after service. But today I want to ask us to consider “how to” regard prayer as a way to not give up on the kin-dom of God. 

How can prayer aid us in imagining and creating the world now, and as we dream it can be?

Prayer can help us step deeper into our lives with God. Prayer helps us intertwine the love of God – with the motion of our days, our schedules, the realness – the hardness …So that we notice it, recognize it, and we PRACTICE it wherever we go. 

Spiritual practices invite us into living our life more fully and wholly as possible.   

Spiritual practices – help us put our spirituality into practice, in the real world around us. 

A spirituality that pleads with us to not give up on the kin-dom of God.  To not give up on the deep love of Jesus that moves us and undoes us. And to see that our actions, our voices, our footsteps carry and communicate that love – that kin-dom of God here and now. 

It’s how we grow our capacity to love.

It’s how we grow stronger to love. 

It’s how we grow more tender to love. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book Strength to Love said,

“God has two outstretched arms, one is strong enough to surround us with justice and  [and move us toward justice], and one is gentle enough to embrace us with [tenderness] and grace.” (8)

This is the beauty and the expanse of prayer.  And why practice is necessary. Like life and like love it always encompasses “both/and”  never “either/or.”  

  • Prayer helps us be strong and tender.
  • Prayer is listening and being listened to.
  • Prayer is asking and prayer is sitting.
  • Prayer helps us endure and prayer is rest. 
  • Prayer is change and steadiness.
  • Prayer brings us to our knees and girds us against collapse.
  • Prayer is weeping and prayer is laughing. (Cussing & silence.)
  • Prayer is beyond us and prayer IS us.
  • Prayer flourishes with faith and with doubt. (PO’T)
  • Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposurer.

Prayer encompasses multitudes.. . . and so do we.

Prayer, whatever form, for whatever reason, in whatever circumstances – promises to rearrange us- unto love.  And in times of despair and nightmare – it promises to bring us back to the faith already inscribed in our bodies by the practices we keep.  

We practice prayer because it helps us not give up – on ourselves or each other. 

  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God.
  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God to come.
  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God here and now.

Today – I want to look at a familiar story in the gospel of Luke, the characters in the story. And wonder together in imaginative and informed ways, what we notice about prayer.

Let me pray for us.

“Oh God, Divine parent of us all – *in whom is heaven*.

Holy, Loving, Merciful one is what we call you. 

May your love be enacted in this world,
and be our guide to dream, to hope, and create the world now and as we imagine it to be.

Give us the morsels of your filling love that we need, in this wilderness.
Feed and fuel us for the work of our days. To love ourselves and neighbors well.
May we showcase your love, in mercy and kindness and humbleness, as you have shown it to us. 

And lead us into your big heart – that expands our own, for the greater good, the common good, and the stranger. 
Lead us not into self-isolation, scarcity, and new lines of division.

Lead us into your presence, apparent in every part of our days, 

where the glory of the power that is love, restores us all – now and forever.
AMEN. ( Adapted from the Lord’s Prayer)

My Prayer Life

That was a little riff on the Lord’s Prayer, if you heard some familiarity there… Ending with “amen, amen, amen.”

This word, “Amen” was the favorite part of prayer for me as a kid. Because it meant that the long, recap-style-prayer of whatever service, sermon, or meeting, or event I was at – was finally over.

These days “Amen” is often still my favorite part of prayer – because it signals the beginning of where I get to pick up the end of the spoken prayer – where I get to find my place in living prayer.  

 The trick is that sometimes the situation I’m praying for, or walking into looks bereft of ‘life’- like the story has already played out, the ending is clear.  And yet – this is precisely where the practice of prayer should show up, right? It’s not only for the ‘feel-good’ times, it’s so that the practice will keep working on us in times of despair — in bad times — when we don’t know what to do. 

 And that’s why I want to look at this scripture this morning – and see how a similar dynamic plays out at the scene after the crucifixion, how the character Joseph, the women of Galilee, and the crowds all engage in prayer.


Luke 23: 48 – 56

48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow. 

49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph. He was a member of the Jewish high council,

51 but he had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other religious leaders. He was from the town of Arimathea in Judea, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.

52 He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.

53 Then he took the body down from the cross and wrapped it in a long sheet of linen cloth and laid it in a new tomb that had been carved out of rock.

54 This was done late on Friday afternoon, the day of preparation, as the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 As his body was taken away, the women from Galilee followed and saw the tomb where his body was placed.

56 Then they went home and prepared spices and ointments to anoint his body. But by the time they were finished the Sabbath had begun, so they rested as required by the law.

**This is an intense scripture and one that is a lot to delve into a few weeks after Christmas. But even his birth was shrouded in violence and fear at the hands and killing of many innocents of King Herod. 

And here in this scene wailing, and mourning, and silence fill the landscape.  Maybe you could imagine voices echoing in disbelief asking, 

“Is Jesus really gone? Or Jesus are you here? Jesus!?” Show up! Come back – the way we once knew you. Where are you?” 

It wouldn’t be surprising, right? It is in fact Jesus’s own cry on the cross,

“God have you left me?”

Horror and violence appear to have had the last word. 



And Absence fills the space of where their friend, their hope, their Jesus just was.  

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that;

Death has won.
The empire has won.
The oppressor has won.

That this is the end. There is no new beginning.

There’s a song I’ve been listening to on repeat (much to my family’s displeasure) – and one of the lines says, “Don’t think the battle’s over just ’cause you say “amen”” 

And it is a battle.
To not give up on the kin-dom.

It is a battle to believe that Jesus is still here…. In our fragmented broken landscapes.

When so much blocks and challenges our view of Jesus.

When so much appears void of goodness & love.  

This resonates as true. In just my small sphere this week I’ve heard of a new cancer diagnosis, multiple people suffering in unbearable/untreatable physical pain, abandonment, addiction, kids in inpatient programs, legal battles, heart-breaking divorce, a sense of ‘nothing-ness’… 200 immigrants seeking at least one day a week, where they can find shelter, warmth, a meal – their human rights. 

It is hard to not give up. To not say, “the story is already written and it seems pretty depressing, pretty bleak.”

But prayer rearranges us – helps us sift the lies, sift the loud voices,  so that love reappears – surfaces in our hearts.

Joseph of Arimathea

If we look at this character Joseph of Arimathea.

I don’t know what Joseph’s prayer practice had been – if he had one even. But my guess is that it had something to do with, “disagreeing with religious leaders that sentenced Jesus to death – AND it had something to do with “waiting for the Kin-dom of God to come.” Both/And. Action and contemplation.

Maybe all along Joseph was the squeaky wheel in the room – saying,

“no that’s not true of Jesus.” No he’s not guilty. No, you can’t legally sentence him.”

Maybe all along Joseph didn’t know what to do to save Jesus. To fix the situation. Or the systems at play… But he showed up. He was present. 

Maybe his deep belief that there was a kin-dom of God to come – that there was a better way for everyone – a beloved community on the horizon — helped him not give up.

We don’t know for sure.

But we do know that he utilized his position, his wealth, his access to power in this moment to —- care, uphold the dignity of Jesus, and love Jesus —to put love on the surface. Going to Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body was a courageous move. Pilate does not like the group that Joseph belonged to… and under Roman law someone condemned to death had no right to burial. 

But Joseph is saying to Pilate,

“I would like to bury him anyway – lay him to rest.” 

And in doing so – as Joseph takes the body – he is openly identifying with Jesus – no longer a secret disciple.  

Even when it looks like there’s nothing left. Joseph is imbued with a deep love, boldness, a greater knowing of Jesus. 

Maybe prayer helps us see that justice is holding with reverence those that are cast aside.

The Women of Galilee

If we look at these women of Galilee – who we know have been alongside Jesus throughout much of his ministry – Mary his mother, the first to welcome him into the world – and the last to leave his body at death . . are all present. 

They have watched and waited, moved and acted, and watched and waited again.

This time of course their following Jesus and their waiting and watching unfolds as a nightmare against the backdrop of their dreams for this long awaited kin-dom.

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the iconic words of his “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963 will fill our feeds. But may we also remember that a few years later in a Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Church, 1967 –   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr says these words: 

“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. 

We have neither peace within nor peace without. 

Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. 

Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. 

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. 

Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had,

and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. “

—- and he goes on to detail for multiple points the ways in which his dream has turned into nightmares, and I’m not going to read them because we are living them still… but MLK goes on to say —- 

“Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”

And his life would end with his murder – just four months later. 


Sometimes we can walk around feeling like ghosts-of-ourselves. When the breath of life is swept out of our belief, our faith, our dreams. When we ask,

“God are you here?”

and don’t hear anything back. I wonder if this is how the women – the friends of Jesus felt? I wonder if this is how so so many people who believed for the dream that MLK put voice to felt when he died. 

There have been times when I’ve prayed so hard, so long, in so many ways – for something to not “overtake.” For myself, the ones I love, the world…

“Please, God just please don’t let this play out like it looks like it’s going to – please don’t let this overtake.”

  • And then the cancer does
  • The division wins
  • The unjust laws passed in Congress
  • The heartbreak continues to come one after another – in ceaseless fashion.

Despair can seep deep and quick, turning us into shells of ourselves. Oooof, it knows how to set up just in the most tender spots of our heart – parts of our heart that were so open/vulnerable – that had to be because that’s part of ‘believing.” 

But prayer in all of its numerous expressions can help.
Here we see the women pray.  What do they do?

Given the danger they faced from the Jewish authorities and/or the Romans, these women could have prepared to quickly leave town. 

Instead, they linger at the site of their pain  – they honor what their bodies are feeling (a prayer in and of itself), and they honor and prepare spices for Jesus’ body.

A seemingly inconsequential, normal act. To dignify the body, to anoint the body in death it was part of the custom. Yet if we regard this movement as prayer – we can see that

“to prepare spices is a metaphor for every small act that refuses to succumb to despair.”  (thank you Dante Stewart for this).

And most days, this is what we can do. A small every day act, and regard it as prayer. “Pack the lunch for your kids, go for the walk, call or text your friend, offer a ride, do a soup-swap, listen, light a candle, show up where you can.” The faith of these women teaches us this: offering to one another the basic stuff of human dignity is prayer. 

These women can not in the moment dismantle the unjust systems that impact their lives. But these acts, these prayers  – rearrange their hearts – and in that process dismantle the authority and the space that despair tries to take up. That is what gets dismantled. Prayer dismantles despair, shame, lies, the voice of the oppressor and puts it in a more right-sized spot.

Preacher Dante Stewart says,  

“The oppressor wants to rob our spirits of peace. The oppressor wants us to work tirelessly and be unkind to ourselves. The oppressor wants to distract us. The oppressor is a liar.” 

Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposer. 

These women want to love more than death can harm. They embalm, they anoint, and they stay close.  

Maybe prayer helps us to rub every ordinary act of our days, with the oil of holiness and dignity.


Lastly, let’s not overlook the prayer of the crowds. That first verse in this passage says,

“and the crowds, they went home in deep sorrow”

– in other translations it says they

“went home beating their breasts.”

I see myself in the crowd. The visceral physical nature of expressing such pain, and grief feels like the truest thing. And the truest thing is often prayer.
I imagine myself in the crowd, going home, saying “amen.” That’s it. And so it is. Jesus is dead. The end.

But I wonder if for some in that crowd that wasn’t the end – it was also the beginning? Perhaps they went home and talked of their grief – the reasons why they were grieved.. Perhaps they asked questions of one another, asked about

the fails of their government, the fails of their religious structures, the loss of their friend, the shattering of their hope, the uncertainty of what’s to come. 

Perhaps they show us that prayer is also to come alongside one another and to ask questions that

penetrate the times and pierce the soul, questions of social conscience and moral discernment.” (Michael Connor,

A way to sit in the terror of a world undone, and to still trust that the things the human spirit is moved to do in defiance of despair is prayer. Perhaps it too breaks open a way to imagine a different way forward – all the while engaged in prayer – honor, dignity, anointing, asking questions, weeping – creating and growing beloved community, as well as our resilience to not give up on the kin-dom of God.  

The crowds, the women of Galilee, and Joseph all play their part. They all do what is truest to them in the spheres of their life. With the love of God anchoring them – and disrupting them unto greater vision, unto a greater world they can not yet see – and they pray, they pray, they pray their way into seeing a living, real, good, and loving Jesus in their midst again and enlivening this faith. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr ends his famous Christmas sermon where he talks more about nightmares  than dreams by saying these words that I’ll close with as prayer,

“I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the children of God will shout for joy.”

Amen – may it be so. . . and a beginning.


The Voice of God In The Absence of God

Welcome again to the season of Advent, my friends. 

Advent, these four weeks before Christmas, welcomes God with us in the person of Jesus. It’s a season of presents and parties and singing and prayer and family, for some of us the most wonderful time of the year.

But for some of us, so much not that. 

Advent is colder and darker days, sunset at 4:00. It’s busyness and debt and hard family situations and reminders of losses and griefs old and new.  The most ambivalent, or even painful, time of year. Not so good for a song.

This advent, I’m spending part of the evening along with Grace in our church’s beautiful Advent devotional Bless Us. You can find that online at our website. We’re entering Week Two. Highly recommend. 

But in the mornings, on my own, I’m looking at another Advent devotional by Kathy Escobar. It’s called A Weary World. This is a guide for those of us who are less in a Merry Christmas space, and more ready for a blue Christmas. It’s a guide into Advent for those of who are anxious, sad, or lonely. 

Advent, this season of longing for God with us, does not start with where we wish we were or where we want to get. Advent, like we explored in our liturgy last Sunday, advent starts wherever we are right now. 

And so, to help us toward the presence of love, joy, and peace that we may seek in this season, it might help to start by noticing where we feel the absence of those things. 

To see and find the communicating presence of God, Advent is a good time to notice all the places we sense the absence of God.

Where God is not, best as we can tell, is a good space to start. 

Our sorrows, our losses, our pains of waiting – this is where we long for God. 

Or as Fleming Rutledge puts it: Advent begins in the dark. 

Advent begins in the dark.

Friends, I don’t know all the public griefs and anxiety and weariness of our world that is heaviest to you in this season, although I have some sense of that. And I’ll end our sermon on longing for God in public darkness, and we’ll pray and lament together, specifically around the enormous suffering and death of people, especially of children, in Palestine right now. 

This isn’t a taking sides moment. As I’ve shared, I was crushed by Hamas’ violent, brutal murders and kidnapping of Israelis in early October, and I grieve with my Jewish and Israeli neighbors. I continue to do so, in multiple ways.

But in the two months since, Israel’s war on Hamas has resulted in many thousands of deaths in Gaza, and in great suffering for Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. Jesus of course was born in Bethlehem, which is behind the Wall now in Palestine’s West Bank. And we are living through a kind of massacre of infants as collateral of war in this land. So our team felt like we couldn’t celebrate Christmas without grief and solidarity. We’ll end the sermon there.

And before then, I want to speak to whatever more private griefs or loss or anxiety or weariness you may bring into this season. I know the stories for some of you – for some of us, they are so big, so heartbreaking. 

I too know some of my own grief and anxiety in this season. So we’ll start there.

If at any point in the sermon, you become aware of your own sense of where God seems absent, I encourage you to bring that into this space of worship intentionally. We have papers and pens around the chairs for you. 

I ask you to name a private or public grief, anxiety or sadness on it. Name it as a word or phrase, or name it as a prayer – God, speak to me in XYZ. 

During communion and at the end of service, you can place those prayers, those experiences of weary world in the envelopes on the walls as a prayer for God to speak to you, right where you are. 

Let’s practice. 

Pray with me. 

God, please speak to me in my anxiety over my children. 

God, speak to our world in the deaths of children in Palestine. 

Our loving God with us, please speak to us all in our griefs, our fears, our big, wide messy, weary world. Help us begin again in the darkness.


We’ve got two scriptures for today, both from the first two weeks of our Advent devotional guide. The first is from the very beginning of the Bible, in the tragedy of Adam and Eve. 

Genesis 3:8-9 (Common English Bible)

8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 

This year’s theme for Advent is the voice of God.

And some of the times God seems to speak most clearly are when people are walking away.

Some of the best interactions with God seem to happen just while people are giving up on God.  

In the life of Jesus, two friends are walking away from Jerusalem. They’re traveling home on what was called the Emaus road. They are in despair over the absence of God. Where they wanted God most, all they sensed was the failure of God. And Jesus appears to them and speaks. 

Here, in the creation epic, Adam and Eve’s totally beautiful life is turning absolutely tragic. They have listened to the voices of scarcity and fear in their hearts, in their society, when the truth was there was plenty and nothing to worry about. Caving to that constant sense of never enough will break us all. 

And they mismanage their garden and their relationship and descend toward shame and blame and hardship. 

But on the way, God comes looking for them. The poetry of the old story is beautiful. As Adam and Eve are lost in their failure and shame, God’s out walking among the trees of the garden. And God speaks.

In both of these stories, God doesn’t start with a lecture or a statement or a lesson. No, God talks the way God loves to talk with us. 

God asks us a question. 

To the two friends walking down their lonely road, Jesus just asks,

“Hey, what are you talking about?” 

To this couple in despair, God says to them,

“Where are you?”

This is mostly how God speaks to us friends. Not looking so much to declare or teach or explain, but to engage us. To know and be known. To find out where we are, and how we are doing, so God can meet us there. Maybe to help us figure out where we are going and how we are doing so we can find God in those very places.

A psychologist whose work I follow once pointed out that religion tends to focus on the process of humans knowing God.

  • Where is God?
  • What is God like?
  • What does God do?
  • What does God command? 

And fine, this is interesting to us, sometimes helpful.

But for our well-being, our sense of belonging, our finding ourselves at home in our lives – and all the growth and health that comes from that, more important than what we think we know about God, is our faith and our experience that we are known by God.

God pays attention. 

God sees, God hears.

We are not alone. We matter to God. And everywhere, always, God is with us.  

Maybe this is why God leads with questions, because God wants to know us. God doesn’t want to talk at us but engage with us. God wants us to know that we are known. 

Friends, I teach this with you. I mostly try to live what I teach, really.

But as I said, I’ve had my own private spaces where I sense God’s absence. Some of those are old stories in me, but there have been some fresh anxieties for me in this season. Maybe two big ones in particular.

One of them has had to do with my work here at church. I’m not going to share the details, because objectively, this thing I found myself anxious about is going fine, actually going well. But I got my head in kind of an intense place about this that wasn’t helpful. My faith, my motivation, my hope all felt weak, which is some of what the absence of God looks like. 

And the other has to do with a couple of people I’m close to that I worry about. And these stories are private, they aren’t really mine to tell. But let’s just say I come honestly to the anxiety here.

And here too, I’ve felt stuck. I’ve sensed the absence of God. 

Then about a month ago, I started breaking out in hives every day – really red, itchy skin – different places every day. Total drag. 

(By the way, I share this in public at some risk. Friends, I am not looking for medical advice. I have seen a doctor – two doctors. I have a plan, it’s working.)

But before I found my plan, my wife Grace asked me:

Maybe it’s because you’re stressed, do you think?

Now this isn’t what my doctor thinks, but at the time Grace’s question was provocative for me. I didn’t feel defensive, which I can. But this time, I felt curious. I was like: I think I am stressed, why is that?

That question, which came to me through my best friend, I feel like that question came from God too. 

Where are you, Steve? Can we talk? Why are you so stressed?

Other questions emerged. I found myself emailing with two of you at church – a Board member, another trusted leader – about the church thing where I sensed God’s absence, and neither of them asked me a question, but something about opening up the topic, bringing my concerns out into the light was clarifying. 

This is the way life works, mostly. 

In secrecy, bad things grow and thrive. Whereas in honesty, in the open, the light gets in and clarifies and heals.

And so it was. As I was writing one of those emails, this wave of insight just kind of came over me. 

What are you feeling, Steve? And what is this really about?

And I thought: oh, it’s not about what’s happening at Reservoir in 2023 at all, is it? 

This is tapping old stories in my life. This is little Steve Watson, growing up in North Shore in the 70s and 80s, getting activated.

Old family stories of failed plans, and crushed dreams, and never enough money, and things falling apart – those stories were getting activated in me. 

And seeing the truth about where I was at – pretty stressed, old anxieties getting reactivated in me – that clarity about where I was helped me know what to do. 

I know what to do when I’m afraid of failure or not enough money or not enough whatever. I go to gratitude to ground me in truth that there is enough for me in God, and there can be enough for us all in this world. 

So I read and thought about gratitude. I preached on it here two weeks ago. I wrote some thank you cards, did one of those Asha thank yous I told you about where you write a thank you note to someone and read it out loud to them. 

This gratitude made my heart very full. Very full.

Because like I’ve said, it’s hard to be grateful and anxious at the same time. The gratitude shifts things. 

And I started paying attention to the voices of encouragement in my life. Encouraging emails from a couple of you. Encouraging words in my daily Bible reading. Encouraging words I sensed for me from God as I prayed. 

Encouragement strengthens you. It strengthens me. 

It’s not what we call spiritual bypassing. That’s using God, or prayer, or church or religion to avoid bad feelings. It’s encouraged sometimes in the church.

Avoid experiences, realities, truths that are sad or hard. Just look on the bright side. 

That doesn’t help or heal. It only pushes our problems underground for a while, until they show up again bigger and more unruly.

This is different. Telling the truth about where we are, but hoping even a little bit that God is still there, that God has something to say – or at least something to ask – and then waiting and responding to what comes.

That’s faith. That’s Advent, that’s Jesus, that’s the Spirit of God doing its thing in the dark. 

Friends, if you sense God’s absence somewhere, don’t avoid that. Face it. Tell the truth. And hold it before God, and before friends if you can too, in the light, and see what happens.

The whole write it on the paper and put it on the wall today in church – that exercise is a way to start.

Friends, I mentioned that our sense of God’s absence, and God finding us there, isn’t just private, it’s connected to the big public world we experience together.

And I want to read one more scripture to take us there. It’s from the second week of our guide, also from the big, beautiful 8th chapter of the letter to the Romans. Our bit goes like this:

Romans 8:22-26 (Common English Bible)

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor,

23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what one already sees?

25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words. 

This is to me one of the truest and most beautiful bits in the Bible.

What is all of creation doing but suffering?

We see this in Israel, generations of trauma re-evoked by the most violent attack in its history this October.

We see this in Palestine, whose occupation and lack of freedom are often forgotten and neglected by much of the world, but before us now again as thousands of civilians, including thousands of innocent children are killed in Israel’s war on Hamas.

This is big and important. It is the land of the birth of most of the world’s faith. The land of the birth of Jesus. It matters greatly. 

But truthfully, it is also one great suffering that has our attention now, amidst so many sufferings in creation. Deaths of children, degradation of the environment, the suffering of so many people and animals and other creatures. 

It feels so much like the absence of God.  

We’re told here, though, to listen for the groans that come out of suffering. 

For me, in Palestine and Israel, I’ve tried for two months to listen to the grief. And for me, voices of grief I particularly trust are those of The Parents’ Circle – Palestinian and Israel parents who have had children killed in the conflict, and who now work toward just peace by grieving together. 

Two men from this circle who I have met and embraced are a Palestinian Muslim named Basim Aramin and an Israeli Jew named Rami Elhanan. Basim grew up in the West Bank and as a teenager, the only Israeli Jews he ever saw were occupying soldiers. He had seen a solider shoot a child, watched that child die. He understandably hated them. As a teenager, he’d throw things at Israeli soldiers – sticks, rocks, bottles, once at 17, an old hand grenade he and friends found in a cave. It didn’t explode. No one was hurt. But he was arrested, he did seven years in an Israeli prison. Prison mostly radicalized him toward greater resentment and hate, as prison is good at doing, actually. 

But a set of interactions with a single guard began to change this. This one guard treated him with respect and dignity, like a human. This guard acknowledged he was not a settler, but had rights to land and freedom. Basam’s journey toward the humanization of the enemy continued more and more over time. He eventually earned a university degree in history, with a specialization in Holocaust studies, as he sought to advocate for his people, while having empathy for his enemies. 

All this was sorely tested when Basam’s daughter was killed by a rubber bullet, fired by an Israeli soldier into a crowd. 

The same was true for Rami Elhanan. When he was a young man, he served in the military, as all young adults in Israel do. He served in the early 70s, during war time, and most of his friends were killed in that war. He had a great deal of anger and hatred within as a result. 

Years later, his daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. His anger, his hatred inflamed so  much more. And he stayed in this place for a couple of years, until he began to meet a few Israeli Jews older than him who also had lost children in the conflict, but who had decided this created an urgent need to struggle for peace. Through them, he met dozens of Palestinian Arabs who had lost children as well, and grieved with their Israeli Jewish counterparts. This so surprised and shook him, that he was drawn to join this movement of grieving parents who seek just peace together. 

I listened to them both in an online seminar last week, as Basam continues to insist on the need for freedom and safety for Palestinians, just as he insists upon the same for Israeli Jews. He says – one state, two states, five states, I don’t care, but none of us are going anywhere. We need to see the humanity of one another, and insist upon human rights and dignity for us all.

And even as Rami continues to grieve Israeli losses from October, and the grief of hostages taken, he says – hard as it is now, we need to step back and look at the causes of all this. Hamas is awful, he says, but Hamas did not create the conflict or the occupation. The occupation and the conflict created Hamas. We need to end the occupation, and we need to make peace for us all. 

Hope is hard to find around this conflict right now, because justice and peace can not be seen. Not even hints of it maybe. But in these men, in many others, I hear at least the foundation of some hope. 

Could their groans also be labor pains? This longing, this groaning for better – could there be a birth of more justice, more peace, more shared human recognition of dignity that creates the conditions for peace. Maybe, all we have is a maybe, but sometimes that’s all we get to struggle for what’s good. 

And with the Spirit’s help, perhaps we can hope with them, with groans too deep for words. 

After all, all of creation, the scripture tells us, is hoping for two things – for adoption, for us all to know and be afforded and live within the full dignity of children of God, who are treasure, who belong. And redemption, that good can always grow out of evil, that even the hardest ground can birth something good again.

Friends, I want to lean into these groans, these groans that hope for adoption and redemption to be manifest. 

We’ll do so with this lament over the suffering of Palestine, in hopes that it will be what it is, and that it will perhaps keep teaching us to groan in hope amidst suffering, to yearn for the light to shine amidst the greatest darkness, and to look for the communicative, loving presence of God where God seems most absent.

You can listen if you like. Or pray these words aloud with me. 


There is No “Away” | But There is A Way

For the next few weeks we are focusing on this phrase The Way of Jesus. It’s not a new phrase, or a new way -it’s actually an ancient -quite ancient way. A way that small communities of folks that loved Jesus lived their life by – emphasizing Jesus’ teachings, his death and resurrection as the path to transformation.  “The Way” gradually grew welcoming non-Jews as well as Jews, becoming more inclusive and grace-oriented. And as the “Early Church” period took shape (these 500 years or so after Jesus’ resurrection), it was a time full of dramatic change in culture, politics, and economy – this “Way of Jesus” helped transform the lives of people in a very chaotic world. AND it wasn’t because it was a religion full of doctrines, or eternal salvation, or  beliefs to subscribe to, or reject. But it was a way of living  – a way of being in the world – that was about how to live a better life here and now, *with joy* to encounter the truth and the life and the love of God in all places, in all times – even the chaotic, overwhelming, heart-breaking times.

This Way of Jesus is our way too, today.

Today we are going to talk about just that – The Way of Jesus. 

And we’ll look at some verses from the Gospel of John including the one where Jesus says,

“I am the way, the truth, and the life…” 

A verse that in many ways has been interpreted by contorting the Way of Jesus – into a narrow, exclusionary, harmful set of beliefs about heaven, hell, salvation, what it means to be “Christian”- in a way that truly has taken on a life of its own – but contains little life, and little truth.  So will press into that a bit – and consider what we can do when the Way of Jesus gets contorted.


Oh Jesus, in times of uncertainty, could you remind us that you are the way, the truth, and the life.  Remind us that your presence resides within, between, and among us – and could this knowledge be our strength and our comfort. Hear this prayer – Oh God, in your mercy, please hear this prayer. Amen.


I’ve officiated and been part of a few weddings since the end of the summer. One of which I officiated here, for a couple in this community  – just this past Monday – at 7:30 a.m.  Which you might be like, wait – 7:30…a.m.? As in – in the morning? So early.  Yes, yes, but as I told this couple – it might be my new favorite time! There’s something about the early morning light, the stillness before the movement of the day takes up – and 8:30 a.m. mimosas – before a staff meeting isn’t so bad either! 

It was a near-elopement wedding, with just the couple – and their parents. We gathered in a sweet, understated room upstairs to the right of the organ loft. 

And the day prior to their wedding, I watched the couple as they watched other people they know – friends, members of their community group add items/decorations to the space – some plants from the lobby, lights,  frames, etc.. and I heard one of the couple say,

“whew! This is a lot for a minimalist!”

And that one comment really opened up so much of what I had been learning of their relationship. How their way of being in the world wasn’t just for the value of simplicity but it was an intention and care for what minimalism could make space for what more could be. 

So much within their minimalist posture was punctuated with meaning.  And seen in this wedding ceremony – earrings worn by the bride which were worn by her mom on her wedding day, a coffee mug given to one of the Dad’s at his retirement, words shared by the couple to their parents as part of the ceremony. Not as an aside of thanks gratitude – and space for their parents to do the same. Maximizing the sacredness of story, relationships –  the love in the room to be shared as much as witnessed.  This holy matrimony coming into view – nothing wasted, items/things repurposed unto newness.

How striking it is to experience the beauty of old, shine in the light of today – to see that there’s a luster, a treasure that doesn’t go away.  It’s part of the beauty of The Way of Jesus  – right? To imagine that the earliest folks that were In the Way were also imagining a better world with prayer, hope, community, scripture, holding on to the promises we still do today.  But what about things of old, that haven’t really held up? That are bad – and harmful? What do we do with them? Do we hope they go away? Is that part of the Way of Jesus too? 

Environmental activist Annie Leonard says,

“there is no “away”  that “when you throw something away, it goes somewhere.” (McLaren 192)

And the myth in our current society one that centers domination and exploitation as a way of being, has told us

“that if we don’t like something – we can simply get rid of it – kill it, banish it, incarcerate it, incinerate it, ignore it, bury it – and that it will be gone for good.”

But as James Baldwin realized, what is true of time in space, is true of time itself:

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” (192)


It’s easy to see the ecological effects of this in our society right? With mass production, the rise of disposable products, the invention of plastic. Our desire for more stuff and for profit make us a throw-away society. And yet the forever chemicals absorbed into our land and water sources, the trillions of micro-plastics floating in our ocean, loss of bio-diversity, and so much more – tell us in fact there is ‘no away.’

Author, teacher and speaker – Brian McLaren says that this holds true as we think about faith too. Specifically Christianity. In his recent book, “Do I Stay Christian?” he explores all the harmful, unsustainable, toxic impacts of Christianity over time. And rather than answer this question “Do I Stay Christian?” he offers insights and wisdom to help those of us who might wonder the same – to thoughtfully engage the conversation – rather, I think than offer a reactionary answer of yes or no. Because he says,

You can leave Christianity, but Christianity won’t leave you. No matter how toxic some of its elements are, they will still be there in the atmosphere/environment, living in the minds and hearts and bodies of people around us, family members, political leaders, etc. – Christianity will still influence you.” (McLaren)

Now how/what does this have to do with the Way of Jesus? The Way of Jesus holds none of those toxic things – well the way of Jesus only holds none of those things, if we address those toxic things. Otherwise The Way of Jesus (our embodied way of being in the world) that is so deep and wide and so good – unto the betterment of ourselves and the world around us – has the same potential to perpetuate the problems we may have experienced, rather than reverse them. So Brian McLaren says Christianity needs to be recycled. Another word for recycled is redeemed, built on the word deem to give value. And another word for redeemed is to re-consecrate, to make holy again what has been desecrated.  “Desecrated” meaning polluted… and “Holy” meaning not set apart but brought back into wholeness, into the fullness of life , in truth for everyone. 

So let’s take a look at perhaps the second most known verse in the gospel of John (second to John 3:16) –  and the verses that surround it  – we’ll start at the beginning of John 14:  


“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know  my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

This scripture is beautiful, holy – it’s an intimate, emotions-running-high-scripture. We enter into this setting where Jesus has just told the disciples that he will be with them

“only a little longer.”

This, the night that he’ll be arrested – he’s washed the disciples’ feet, broken bread with them – he’s told them,

“Oh, my friends above all else love one another – love one another… “

It’s a bit of a swirl of everything – the outside temperature – is heightened with violence and threat. Everything is about to change.

I can imagine the disciples do wonder,

‘what is going on  I mean really Jesus – what is going on!?’ 

It makes sense to me that Jesus would start by saying,

“don’t let your hearts be troubled….because there’s going to be a lot that you don’t understand – but stay with me…Don’t worry – you know the way, friends. You know the way to the place where I am going…”

And I appreciate Thomas’ response,

“Aaah, nope.  No, We. Do. Not. We do not know where you are going. And because of that fact Jesus –  How? – How can we be expected to know the way?” 

This truthful response keeps us grounded in the life, the context, and the setting of this time…Thomas is like,

“could you give us a map – maybe? Simple directions?”

Jesus answers directly to Thomas,

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”

Now there’s a simplicity to this verse – some might even say a minimalism – that maximizes makes room for an expansive Way of Jesus that we all get to embody.  Maximizes The Way of living here on earth that makes room for wondering, pain, curiosity, doubt, confusion – and still yet can blaze a path of truth and fullness of life. 

But for many there’s a discomfort with minimalism – simplicity – when we talk about God – and really “knowing” God. It’s like somehow to be too simple or too free – means there’s less value.  

And so people need to complicate it a bit. The rest of the verse provides some perceived exclusionary language that much of Christianity has jumped on –

No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

Instead of regarding this as an

embodied way of being in this world [that is] so close to the heart of God/as Jesus says – “the Father” –  that God can be known in and through Jesus.”(Diana Butler Bass) 

Christians have drawn up a bunch of systems – to make sure they know what “knowing God” really looks like – and so rules to abide by, doctrines to enact, ways to prove that you really are a Jesus follower rise up… Here’s a little check point, here’s a little boundary, here’s a hurdle, here’s a x, y, z – which many times turns into a gigantic pile of trash. 

These incredibly expansive, inclusive, grace-oriented words of Jesus,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life”

have been wielded in Christianity as some of the most exclusionary words –  desecrated words.

I wonder if sometimes Jesus knew that his words would be weaponized? I wonder if that’s why he starts with

“don’t let your hearts be troubled”

because it’s words that we still need to hear today when we are not only in moments where we wonder where God might be, but also in moments where we wonder if our deep, good knowing of God can ever be re-consecrated – in a way of lived life that actually matters.

I know that what troubles my heart most often is when I hear people say,

“Oh I know the way, I know the way…  I know the way to God – here it is!”

And then what is outlined is a prescription or a formula that – is impossible to swallow in good conscience — or impossible to calculate in real life… because it at a baseline excludes many people and at a baseline tries to set us v. them religion. “us” apart and above other people – the ones who get it “right” – and so we are beginning with something that is already unholy – polluted.

Thomas says,

“We don’t know the way!”

And I say,

“Amen – Thomas”

perhaps you have said the truest thing. 

Because don’t we sometimes worry that God is too far? That God has gone away? 

And maybe isn’t that why – some of the harmful things of Christianity get set up? It would be nice to at least have our version of God close, and so many people construct what that looks like.

But this statement “we don’t know the way”, it’s the same one Peter asks in the chapter prior – and one that Philip will ask in the verses to follow…

“How? Where? God?”

That’s healthy. Helpful. generative.

HOLY. CONSECRATED. Something that we can continue to work with – because false answers – erode a good God. 

How humbling it is to come across people, scholars , theologians, who say

“I don’t fully understand this…”

I met yesterday with an old friend – we are/were both pastors. We’ve been with one another through some serious SHHHHTUUUUFFFF. And we sat there acknowledging we have the same questions about God – our younger selves maybe couldn’t let us ask out loud. And now, we are letting those questions hit the air – and we are letting our lives – as we live them –  fill out the answers. This somehow allows God to feel close – and as hard and as messy as it is sometimes is – it still feels like life and truth.

When we don’t have an answer to something about God  – We would be well served to just say,

“I don’t know”

rather than provide answers that desecrate the holiness of mystery.

And in part I think Jesus is saying –

“you might not think you know the way”

right now – but with me there is no “away”. With me – there is always a way of truth & life.

People have framed this passage to be about who goes to heaven – who doesn’t – what about other religions… and maybe it is indeed about heaven. It just needs some repurposing on our behalf. Maybe these verses speak of heaven that is also not “away” in an afterlife – but here – on earth – the kin-dom of God in this right-now-life. *And I’ll circle back to this in a second…. 

As much as this fall season has entailed time spent officiating weddings I’ve also been hiking with a group of ladies – who range in age from 65 – 80 yrs. *this group also hiked Mt. Washington – which I did not do with them!* And I’ve gotten a chance to hear about two of the couple’s weddings. For these two couples their trajectory to marriage –  a recognized, legal marriage was long-awaited and hard fought. 

Both couples are same-sex couples. 

And they talked about the reality of how not having the covenant of marriage recognized by the state or the church as legal  was a source of real frustration and pain. But perhaps what was most unholy was that they for a moment thought – well, we’ll just wait until the time comes. We’ll just stay kind of quiet, or hidden until we can really live our love out in the “approved” way.  And then they were like,  “Heck no!” we aren’t doing that – our love can’t be just tossed to the side of society – as “bad” … or “wrong” or “unholy”. And to GIVE WAY to that – is NOT THE WAY… 

And so they celebrated one another publicly – they had commitment ceremonies. They joined communities and communities of faith that would treasure their love for one another – they lived this life, with their truth and found only goodness within. And yes, they also were happy when in 2003 it became legal in MA to marry – but they had already claimed heaven here on earth. They had also re-consecrated what had been desecrated by saying – you know what? The sacredness of love – can not be poisoned,  because love also can not go “away.”

Something in the naming of what is unholy – diligently and publicly –  you put the toxic thing, the harmful thing in its rightful place (where it doesn’t wield excessive power over your life anymore) and in that a re-consecration occurs that paves a way – lit by love, and compassion, and joy – for others to come. These ladies, living in the Way of Jesus – staying steadfast to one another, staying tender to those around them (suspending condemnation – even as their own humanity was condemned), and refusing to be part of a story that limits the sacredness of all life.


These women remind me of how Brian McLaren talks about re-consecrating – one of the ways aside from recycling or repurposing is to bury. 

And not bury in the sense of secretly – to hide something – but publicly and carefully as we do with radioactive materials or toxic chemicals.” (194)

You know signs you see that say, “hazardous here” – “don’t dig here!” – the message is – “Here’s the harmful thing – and we aren’t going to give it the light of day anymore.” 

We do this often at Reservoir when we acknowledge how the

“Bible has been used to justify slavery, the stigmatization of LGBTQ people, and the inequality of women – we publicly bury those interpretations. We don’t forget them – but rather retell them as cautionary tales to guide us going forward. And then we model a better way of engaging, healthily with Scripture unto a good, life-giving, liberating God for and with everyone.” (194) 

And the work that gets us to that place – to the recycling or repurposing or burying – is often called deconstruction.  

And I want to take a minute on deconstruction – just so we all don’t think that to deconstruct is to begin a slippery slope to nowhere.. 

Deconstruction is not a criticism-lined path to nihilism – or a way to turn our faith into despair, (it might feel like that at times).

And deconstruction isn’t a way of undoing the truth – it is a way of doing it… 

Deconstruction isn’t a way of shedding all the bags of trash about bad faith that you’ve accumulated over your life and just throwing it all away .. RIGHT? Because there is no away.  It’s about releasing and opening up  – opening up God’s presence in free, untarnished ways.

Re-consecrating what has been desecrated.

And it’s hard – because sometimes when you pull at one string – you realize the whole fabric of what you’ve been taught to know of God is quickly unraveled.
But that’s ok – “because we know the way” – it’s just been covered up for a while. We’ve still got the yarn in our hands to repurpose.

Because what is uncovered in deconstruction is the good stuff –  that still resides within – the knowing  – the truth, the life, the love, the compassion, the potential for healing, that is never separate from God. Those things that led you to faith in the first place -our deepest longing and desires – and we get to discover that all of that is undeconstructible.

It never went  – and can’t go away.

Jack Caputo the Catholic philosopher says,

“Deconstruction is not destruction – Deconstruction is love.”

Because you are loving something enough to tell the story behind it.

We have a class here, called Unpack that quickly gets described as a deconstructing class. And I think if it’s in this vein of Jack Caputo – then yes, because Unpack is about love. Exploring how the aspects that you once loved of God,  faith and Christianity – became so polluted? And to tell the story of impact in your life – and to inspect the story under the story of how such harm came to be. 

Those stories that are wrapped up in doctrines like original sin – heaven and hell – atonement theory – the theory of an all controlling, male-gendered God. How does the story of patriarchy – of whiteness, of  power, of wealth – play into how we engage with Scripture, with prayer, how we think about belonging, our relationships to ourselves, one another, the earth.  

There’s a whole arsenal in there – that we have to figure out – how to recycle – redeem. And all of us need to do the work of deconstruction – because we are all influenced by harmful Christianity – and it is our work to turn these swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks, we all need to re-consecrate.


“Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. My Father’s house has many rooms.. I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

Not a statement about going to heaven or not….

Previously in scripture, ‘Father’s house’ was used to describe the temple. But not the physical temple – but Jesus’ body. And Paul offers a possible explanation in his letters, where to be “in the body of Christ” is to be “in Christ,” which means to be incorporated into the new experiential reality Jesus taught and embodied. The Way of Jesus.

And Jesus’ favorite metaphor for that way of life was “Kin-dom of God.” The kin-dom of God means a way of life lived in harmony with God, others, self, and all creation – here and now – not in the afterlife.

We repurpose the doctrine that suggests that heaven is an escape route from a doomed and unsalvageable earth and yet we can suggest that to live the life we have now – is to do the work of seeking justice, of reconsecrating ALL OF LIFE that which has been injured – even if we

“suffer for justice in this life and don’t see the full results of our labors, our labor will not be in vain”, it will live on in a forever, eternal – good way. (adapted McLaren).

And in that same breath we repurpose that hell is not a threat of divine retribution in the afterlife – but a divine warning about the inevitable negative consequences of harmful behaviors in this life – the hells of racism, of conflict, of violence. 

And then maybe we could imagine that salvation is about liberation – for all people.

And God is the relational, loving, life-giving heart of the universe – enlivening it from within – not controlling it from above.  

The Way of Jesus is multi-dimensional, liberative – not constricting, or bound – but soooo very full of life.

The Way of Jesus is timeless, ever-evolving  – not reduced to formulas that can be applied equally across time and identity. It is alive.

The Way of Jesus is altogether holy, consecrated, sacred – but not labeled as such by a separate, outside authority – but given such reverence by what lives within us already – truth. 

The Way of Jesus binds the religious and secular into one thing: life.

Wendell Berry says, 

“There are no unsacred places;  

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.”

And so our work is to re-consecrate all of life. It’s a little daunting – 

But Jesus says,

“do not let your hearts be troubled – you know the way” 

so may we lean on one another, learn from one another as we do this work – work that is hard – but opens the way … the way of love, the way of truth, the way of life.


For Love of the Things Themselves: Derrida’s Hyper-Realism | John Caputo 2001

Do I Stay Christian? Brian McLaren 2/23/23 – Diana Butler Bass

I Am, You Are, They Are, We Are the Image of God

I’d love to tell you a couple things about where I come from. 

I grew up in the outer suburbs of Boston in the 70s and 80s. My little town of 4,000 people had no stoplights; it was still pretty rural. It was also almost 100% white. 

Greater Boston’s culture and its media were still pretty overtly racist my whole childhood. Boston’s bussing crisis around school desegregation happened not long after I was born. And the sordid Charles Stuart affair occurred right near the end of my childhood. If you’re not from around here, you can look that stuff up if you’re interested. Super-racist, though. 

Like most all-white places in America, my town wasn’t so white by accident. We lived on indigenous land that was taken by white colonists in the 1600s. Fun fact – my house as a kid was less than three miles from where most of the executions took place after the Salem witch trials. The area of Boston’s north shore I lived in had been developed by Boston’s wealthy white elite in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The most famous of them might have been Henry Cabot Lodge, a longtime US senator a hundred years ago. Some of his ancestors had gained their generational wealth like a number of New England white families – through the shipping industry, transporting opium, rum, and enslaved persons. Parts of those businesses were eventually made illegal, but no penalties, no reparations were ever paid. Lodge himself, like many early 20th century politicians, was a xenophobe who disparaged Catholics and immigrants and tried to keep America as white and Anglo as possible.

My town wasn’t white by accident. There was the cultural heritage I mention. Also, like a lot of Boston suburbs, loans and sales weren’t made to people of color there for a long time. And then zoning laws were changed to require you to own more and more land to be able to build a house, keeping people with less income out.

My own family and ancestors weren’t flaming racists. They were nice, white folks who were only casual, mostly unconscious racists. No racial slurs or anything like that, but all my family could remember vividly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated. None of that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Just not informed or curious about the flourishing of non-white peoples in their country, so not especially committed to them or their concerns either. 

I dated a biracial person for many months when I was a teen, but despite evidence to the contrary, I didn’t fully process that she wasn’t just white. I just didn’t have much category for culture and race beyond whiteness. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I really understood being white in America didn’t just mean you were normal, the norm, the standard, and that it wasn’t just other people that had culture. I had a lot of catching up to do to be a healthy member of society. Let alone to be able to be a safe friend and partner and colleague and family member in interracial and cross-cultural relationships. A lot of work to do. 

Just a couple more things about me that may not seem related at first, but are. My family was churchgoing almost all of my childhood. I didn’t perceive that as important or valuable to my life until I was a teenager, but even then, not a single person ever pointed out that the forms of Christian faith I inherited were exclusively shaped by the culture and writing and practice of white people. People could mention things like the Black church, but no one ever noticed that we were part of the white church, who sang white songs, were shaped by white colonizer European Christianity, and had pictures of white Jesus and white Bible characters in our Sunday School rooms. Totally white-washed Christian faith. No one talked about that.

Also, the religious heritage of my youth – in addition to being super-white – was also kind of shame based. Some of that started at home, but then in the church, I also learned that without Jesus, my existence was a moral offense to God. That God loved me, but God could only be in relationship with me, because Jesus was better than me, and Jesus died for me, so when God looked at me, we were all good, because God didn’t really see me anymore, he saw Jesus instead. 

When you’re basically ashamed of yourself, as I was as a teenager, that sounds like good news at first. But in the end, that’s messed up. We want to be loved because someone – God included – sees and loves us – not because someone pretends we’re as good as somebody else. 

I share all this about my background because it helps you understand how I came into two different questions that I think are still critical to ask about any church or place of worship, any faith tradition and any part of the Christian tradition.

We should ask:

is this church, is this faith, going to make people and communities more or less racist?

In our case, we can ask:

is Christianity a racist or an antiracist tradition, and what’s this church doing about that?

And two, another question that sounds different but is actually related.

Does this church, does this faith teach us that it’s good or it’s bad to be a human? Do we mostly need to be punished or do we mostly need to be healed and set free? Is our humanity the problem or the answer?

First the first question, then the second. Let’s read a very short excerpt from the New Testament letter called Colossians. It’s from the third chapter.

Colossians 3:9b-11 (Common English Bible)

Take off the old human nature with its practices 10 and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.

11 In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.

So is Christianity a racist or anti-racist religion?

Well, the truth would be: both.

Later in this same chapter, there are instructions to Roman households, including instructions to slaves in those households. The heads of those households are given instructions too, but no one tells them to repent of their ownership of human beings and to set them free. 

This is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in the New Testament. And it’s not just here but one other place, in the letter called Ephesians as well. There may have been reasons, there may have been change getting promoted more slowly, but still it’s horrible.

Later the Christian story gets worse. As Islamic empires rise and take land and influence people in majority Christian countries, Christianity starts to organize itself against Muslims, demonizing them as the enemy and weaponizing their faith and scriptures against them. In the European colonial era, all that demonizing and weaponizing language gets turned on indigenous people and enslaved African peoples, sometimes immigrant peoples too, as most of the Christian world sanctifies and justifies racism and race-based violence. It’s just a horrible, horrible turn for the Christian faith and an evil betrayal of its best origins. 

So yes, a lot of the Christian religion has been and still is racist.

On the other hand, not entirely so, at all. 

The most vibrant expressions of Christian faith in the United States flourish in communities of color, and the global Church is largest and most vital in South America, Africa, and East Asia – not in the old seats of Christian empires in Europe or North America.

I think this can happen because at its core, the Way of Jesus isn’t racist or oppressive at all. It’s liberative, it is anti-racist.

This excerpt I read is one of just many examples. 

This bit of Colossians echoes a baptismal formula that you also get in the third chapter of an earlier letter in the Bible, Galatians. A baptismal formula is something pastors would say to people, that people would repeat themselves, as they were participating in a ritual that marks them as a participant in this faith community. 

And here it’s a kind of creed about the universal dignity, worth, and mattering of all members of the human family, created in the image of God.

Greeks, Jews, men, women, slave, free, people of hybridity who don’t fit those categories – biracial, non-binary, dual citizens – all the human family gets to proclaim: I am the image of God. It’s me! And also, everybody, if they want to be in the way of Jesus, has to say of their brothers, sisters, siblings in the human family: You too are the image of God. It’s you. They are the image of God. 

We all reflect God. We all, no matter what we think of ourselves, no matter what we think about one another, we all look a little bit like God. We’ve all got that family resemblance to our Creator. And we’re even better together. We best reflect God together, in diverse community.

I am the image of God, you are the image of God, they are the image of God.

But most fundamentally, we are the image of God. 

At the beginning, in telling my story, I brought up this question of human worth and human shame in the context of racism and anti-racism. Here’s why. They’re connected.

In the Western Christian tradition – that’s Protestant Christianity, that’s Catholic Christianity too – in the Western tradition, it’s our humanity that is the problem that we need saving from. Our humanity is messed up at its very heart, it requires transcending for us to be saved. 

So Western Christians have assumed that people without saving faith in Jesus are an offense to God, worthy of punishment. The problem is that if you really believe that, it’s easy to hate yourself. Unless you count yourself as one of the lucky, or blessed saved ones; then it’s really easy to hate all the people who aren’t saved. 

This is one reason that Western Christianity, with this doctrine of universal human depravity, fits so well with colonial oppression and racism. It’s easy to punish, subjugate, and dehumanize people if you think that people’s humanity is a bad thing at heart. It’s easy to damn people to a living hell if you think they’re already damned to an eternal one.

On the other hand, there are Christian traditions more to the East that don’t teach this. These include the Orthodox churches. Now the Eastern Christian tradition can also be crappy. The leaders of the Russian Orthodox church have been spewing violence and all kinds of toxic stuff lately. 

But in the Eastern Christian tradition at least, humanity isn’t the problem. Humans are after all created in the image of God. We are good. I am good. You are good. We’re all good. Being human isn’t the problem. 

The problem is the accumulated stains of sin, harm, and hurt laid upon the human condition. We don’t do right by ourselves, and we don’t do right by one another. And into this mess of hurt, Jesus comes as the true human to restore the glory, dignity, and the beauty of our humanity. 

Christianity has been dehumanizing for sure. But at its best, the Way of Jesus is profoundly humanizing. We are good. We are beautiful. We are loved. 

In this early baptismal creed, new followers of Jesus would be invited to remember we are all in the image of God. And as they named these categories – Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female, the significance of these categories isn’t eliminated. But the idea that any of them could make us higher or lower is eliminated. All of us are worthy of survival, of celebration, of love, of access to everything that helps us flourish. 

There’s even a shot against the idea that there could be better or worse cultures in this list. Greek and Jew refers to the two dominant cultures within the first century house churches, as these people of different cultural and religious heritage are invited to figure out how to be in community together, and how to look at one another and say – there I behold the image of God.

But there’s this more obscure pairing too – barbarian and Scythian. Barbarians are what Romans called outsiders to their Empire that they feared or resented or looked down upon. But Scythians were also a people outside the empire, slavic and Persian folks with roots in modern day Iran. A good chunk of Scythians, however, were assimilated into the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire, and became prosperous within it. They were kind of like some first century version of a model minority – people the empire considered other, different for their cultural heritage, but whose assimilation and participation in the Empire, the dominant culture praised. 

And the early faith says: knock it off with this rank-ordering of cultures, with trying to stereotype and pit people against each other. 

Who we are matters. 

But none of us get to claim status, privilege, inheritance higher or lower than any others. And none of us get to degrade or demean the status, privilege, or inheritance of people we don’t naturally belong to or like or understand. 

This is what it means that the Way of Jesus is anti-racist. It says a loud, interruptive NO to anything that would rank order humanity as more or less worthy. It calls us to operationalize this truth in our lives and in our societies. 

Let me share a word on that for this church and the other communities we’re part of. And then a word on this for our personal faith and living.

For our communities. 

We all remember that in 2020, more of America was finally starting to come around to the Black Lives Matter movement. Covid shutdowns had slowed us all down, and more white Americans started paying attention for a minute to violence against Black people and other people of color in America. 

A ton of companies and communities started creating divisions of equity, diversity, and inclusion and making all kinds of pledges to fund racial justice, or to change hiring patterns in their company, or to better attend to the rights and safety and cultures and flourishing of people and communities of color. 

A lot of promises. Three years later, we’re learning, a lot of those pledges and promises have disappeared. Funding’s been cut, positions have gone unfilled or people of color asked to make these changes happen have had to walk away because their work was so unsupported or resisted. This has happened to people in this church in their professional lives. Yeah. Parts of our country have said that telling the truth about racism in America is a shame or a crime. And parts of our country have just lost interest. Yeah, it’s messed up. 

Into this climate, the Way of Jesus, the faith of the universal human bearing of the image of God says our universal mattering, our universal access to the conditions of flourishing, our universal equality at God’s table and at every table is sacred. 

Interrupting the racist heritage of Christian religion and interrupting the racist habits of American life remains central to Reservoir’s vision for Beloved Community. Our staff still commit to measurable goals for this in our ministry responsibilities. Our teaching and spiritual formation continues to draw upon the theological and spiritual resources of communities of color. Our attention to representation throughout this community in our leadership continues. We’re committed to an experience of beloved community that really feels like that to everyone in our church. I hope that if this is your church or if you’d like it to be, you’ll help to make this so. 

Friends, I also encourage you to stop and ask how honoring the image of God in you and honoring the image of God in others can be a more central part of your spiritual and relational and professional journey. 

White friends, for some of us, continuing to just admit that we may not have been raised to do this well is a start. Everytime America has any kind of hope or progress on becoming more of a Beloved Community, white people seem to interrupt it with waves of denial and defensiveness, over and over again. 

And if we’re honest, there’s a little bit of that inside a lot of us. For me to become a better friend and neighbor to the people of color in my life in my 20s, I had to interrupt the habits of thinking my culture was normal or that people of my race deserved everything we had. It took finding the places in my life where I could learn, where I could be under the leadership of people of color. And this continues.

It wasn’t until my early 40s that I noticed that 90% of the books I’d ever read, and 90% of the theology and Christian thinking I’d ever confronted came from white people and that had shaped my imagination and thinking and faith in ways that needed correcting. The temptation when you realize stuff like this is to deny it – this can’t be so. Or to be defensive – it’s not my fault. But we all know that denial and defensiveness have never been paths to human growth or a better world. And let’s be real, shame isn’t either. Fellow white friends, no one needs more white shame or white guilt. That’s not a path to anybody growing or getting better either.

What we need, what the world needs, is truth-telling about ourselves. Being humble enough to notice where we need to grow. Listening to the truths of the people of color you know and trust. Or if you don’t have those people in your life, listening to the people you can meet on the internet and in books and who speak up at your church. Getting curious, and then showing up. Image of God-honoring antiracism isn’t about having some right set of progressive ideas in your head, it’s about not doing harm. And it’s about showing up for the rights, dignity, and welfare of people and communities of color. Telling the truth, staying humble, listening, showing up – good stuff comes from this. 

I want to say too, for many of the people of color in our community, many of us have accumulated all these layers of hurt and anger over the course of a lifetime in white-centered spaces in a white-centered country and culture. 

Some of us find that for a season, we just need to be around less whiteness. We need media and food and circles of friendship and community that center and affirm our bearing of the image of God. We talk about this in my marriage for instance. A few years ago Grace started getting into Asian drama shows more. After decades of watching people of her race and culture assigned bit parts, being made to live out stupid stereotypes and white fantasies in Western media, she found this so refreshing.

To the extent that she decided that at least for a while, maybe for good, she was mostly done with white entertainment. It took me a while to get this, let alone respect it. Because as much as I love her, I don’t have her life experience. I appreciate it now. If you’re a person of color and you want a little or a lot less whiteness in your life, that’s normal. No one should be offended by that. Do what you’ve got to do. 

Sad for me to say as a pastor, I’ve known people of color who have needed to spend less time around Reservoir for a season because it’s been better for them to be part of a church community – or simply social communities – that centers their race and culture more prominently. Sad for me, because you hate to see anyone go, but if anyone here needs that, you can do this with God’s blessing and for whatever it’s worth, with my respect and blessing too.

One way we try to make space at Reservoir for this need while people stay here, though, is by valuing and respecting the need for people who aren’t centered in the life of society to have affinity spaces where we are. This is why we have some spaces in the church, for instance, for men or women of color or for LGBTQ affinity. We all need spaces in our lives where our bearing of the image of God is honored and celebrated. This is part of anti-racist work in the way of Jesus too.

There are so many anti-racist, affirming the image of God, stories to celebrate in this community.

  • I celebrate the town meeting members in the suburbs, using your voice for more affordable housing and more hospitable experience for people who have been marginalized in your communities.
  • I celebrate our Somerville residents who are working to have elected bodies and public spaces better reflect Somerville’s multiracial and immigrant past, present, and future.
  • I celebrate those of you who are volunteering in relationship with incarcerated individuals, getting proximate to the crazy racial injustice of our prisons.
  • I celebrate those of you who in your professional lives are changing news coverage, or changing hiring patterns, or changing leadership cultures so that our companies and our region works better for communities of color, not just white people.

Some of you all are reckoning with your industry’s favoring and preference of the culture and flourishing of white people. You’re helping make Greater Boston’s present and future less racist. Way to get it! So many ways to live out the anti-racist, image of God affirming Way of Jesus. 

If you’re looking for your way, start asking. You’re in a good place for that. The answers will find you. 

Where do you need to better know that you are the image of God?

Where do you need to better know this for someone else?

I am the image of God. You are the image of God. They are the image of God. We are the image of God. Different shades and colors, different ways and styles, but no more, no less, no exceptions.

Pride Service 2023

Reservoir’s 2023 PRIDE Service

Emmett Jorgenson, Reservoir’s LGBTQIA+ community & Taj Smith 

Communion Script and Prayer by Reverend Megan Roher and read by Emmett Jorgenson.



We will now move to a time of communion. 

Where we give thanks for the presence and love of God  – God’s presence that is not at a distance –  but intimately in our lives – as intimately as our own flesh/skin.

God gifted us with bodies and through them we come to know God:

Through touch.

Through taste.

Through struggle.

Through rest.

In God’s love for us and for all creatures and creations, God took on skin like ours – entangling, forever –  the (H)oly with our flesh. God showed us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we love through our bodies, we seek justice for bodies, we live out our faith in these bodies – not despite them.

Jesus took care and rest of his own body –  fed people, healed people, ate with people. 

He met the physical and spiritual needs of bodies.

And when his own body was threatened by political and religious execution, he turned to the Table. He sought, first, in his hour of need, to share a meal with his friends.

On the night of his arrest, he gathered around a table with his companions.

He took bread, blessed it, broke it (as his own body would break), gave it to his disciples and said,

“This is my body which is given for you.

Do this in remembrance of me.”

He did the same with the cup after the supper, saying,

“This cup that is poured out as a sign of the new covenant.”

A new way forward with love and infinite possibilities.

The body of God was crucified.

And the body of God was resurrected.

Not only in spirit, but in flesh.

God has shown us that our bodies are good, holy, precious, and full of possibility.

Prayer: Spirit of God, Come, bless this bread and this cup, that we might encounter your presence as we touch, and we taste, and we feel. As we come to the table, may we become one body. And may we be relentless pursuers of your Kin-dom, until every body has its needs met, every body is recognized as beloved, and every body is treated with dignity and care. Amen.

PRAYER | by Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer. Megan is the bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Bishop Megan is the first transgender bishop in a mainline Christian denomination, a crip theologian, and writer who was featured on Netflix’s Queer Eye.


Shepherding God,

Be palpably present with us when we dance,
                                                                        and enjoy the sensations
                                                                            of the creation you declare good.

Help us to name, define, redefine, deconstruct, claim, and properly pronoun our fabulousness. We commit to properly naming and pronouning the fabulousness of others.

Dwell with us,
    both when we are able to articulate our pride for ourselves and others
    and when we get stuck in a cacophony of negativity, bodily shame, or unjust laws.

When we are tired, weary, and exhausted,
    grant us the rest and renewal we need to keep on marching, advocating, and living openly.

When we have all that we need to live fully,
    help us to share with others who lack.

And when it feels like time is moving too slow,
    or change is not possible,
    take the lead
    block the wind
    refresh our hearts
    distract us with passionate love
    give us purposeful work
    anything that helps those on the edge to choose life
          to get through the month, the week, or the hour
          to move time a bit closer
              to the safety, acceptance, and love we all need and deserve.

When we cannot hear you,
    scream louder,
    love more tangibly
    silence violent voices of opposition
    whip advocates into a frenzy
    fill us with memories of times when we felt closer to you
    and love us anyway
          as we were
          as we are
          as we are becoming
          as we wish we could be in a safer time and place
          as you know us
          as we seek to know ourselves.

Remind us of the victories our ancestors won,
    with their storytelling and coming out,
    with their lobbying and work from the inside,
    with bricks and sugar shakers thrown through windows of oppression

Help us to live and act with bravery,
    working within and without,
    educating ourselves and those around us,
    so that we can do the work generations to come need us to do.

Stir up our hearts,
    so that we always remain on our tiptoes
    looking for additional ways
    we can remove the barriers unjustly placed in front of our LGBTQ kin,
    especially those embodying multiple intersectional identities.

Make us plumbers,
    capable of unclogging all the places
    where the ever-flowing stream of justice has been dammed up or clogged.

Shepherding God,

Be palpably present with us when we dance,
                                                                      and enjoy the sensations
                                                                            of the creation you declare good.


Call Out Cancel Culture

*Thanks to conversation partners Howard Kim & Trecia Reavis and scholarship by Cate Anthony,, Reverend Laura Everett,, and

I was at a local spot this week writing/rewriting/sitting with this topic of “Loving Our Enemies,” the current sermon series we are in. And I was trying to call forth some wisdom, “good news” that might offer us all some hope in territory that feels hard and often times absolutely impossible. 

And as I was sitting there this young waiter came over, maybe 20 years old, and he asked me, “oh, are you just here working?” I mean maybe he was questioning what I was actually doing (because I had been there for five hours at that point) and I said

oh yeah, I’m trying to write something about ‘loving your enemies

And immediately he said,

oh I have an enemy

and he pointed at this person across the room.

And I was like,

“oh wow – look at that!?”

And he jumped in,

“yah, you know I dated the head barista here for a while…”

And I thought – do I put on my pastoral hat here  – or just stay in customer mode…?

Turns out they are the same thing… because I said…

“Ooooh, tell me more…..”

He said,

“you know – I don’t know – I don’t know I dated this girl – she left for London over a year ago – and we kind of ended things… and I don’t know if this girl got jealous about our relationship? But it’s been a long time  – and she is still making me an enemy –  she’s just really mean, says harmful things about me… but I’ve got to make money to go back to college….. So I just give her space..”


“Space, huh?” 

So I’m going to talk about the importance of space today in “loving our enemies.”  

The necessity of space –  for us to feel, for God to move, the potential in space – for our enemies to change/grow/repent – space for love to be possible.

We have so much capacity as humans. This wild, wild capacity to love so fiercely and so deeply and also this wild, wild capacity to so fiercely hate and destroy.  

We love, we hate. God calls us to love our enemies, and we love to hate our enemies.  And yet there is a lot of space between those two ends of the spectrum – where a lot of complexity resides, complexity that we often snuff and cancel out.

And I went back to my past self at that cafe, I re-read past sermons I’ve written on this topic of “loving our enemies.” And I was like *dang* those were good sermons… and the stories, the wisdom, the practical invitations still are true….  

Part of me was hoping those past sermons would hit just the same today.  – that I could reprise one for today. But the tenor feels different than even a few years ago – the tenor and state of our nation, the tenor and state of my heart.  The impatience, the eagerness, the rage, the waning energy to keep calling out the evils/the enemies in our day to change our world, to make it better…. All the fundamental components seem to be the same… but it feels different, *amped.*

That was part of the not-so-great feeling of reading my past sermons.  I shared stories that were from years before…

  • 1) where we had major friction with our neighbors – and realizing today it’s the same if not worse.  
  • 2) I shared a story about my brother refusing to marry Scott and I saying “God wouldn’t bless our marriage.” The sting is still there… and the impulse to throw it in his face and say, “Hey! Look at us now – 22 years!! I guess somebody BLESSED us!” that impulse is soooo strong and live it makes my heart pound even now.

And all those old sermons started with the intro,  “and today we are more fractured than ever…  more divided than ever…more polarized…”

And I wonder, “are we getting better?”  Maybe – I should say, “am I getting any better at loving my enemies?”


Well you are in for a meandering sermon my friends, because I’m still actively living my way into those questions!  But today we’ll take a stab at how to love our enemies…with the help of the prophet Jonah, some consideration of this term “cancel culture,” and the space we all need for, and to love.


Jesus thank you that you are unhinged, reckless, risky in showering us in your love – in finding the soft spot of our hearts… and flooding it with grace and mercy and beauty… when we don’t want to find it… when we can’t feel it. .. .

Cancel Culture/Call Out Culture

Part of the beauty of these days is that we can call out our enemies – their destructive behaviors and words all at our fingertips… from our couch, our cars, our desk – wherever we access social media. 

*and I’m not about to go on a diatribe about how bad social media is – there are pros and cons – both of which I participate in. 

And really we’ve been able to publicly “call out” injustices forever but today the ease by which we can practice this is more accessible, more immediate, and potentially more permanent…. and destructive.

In favorable ways the platforms of social media have allowed more marginalized members of society the ability to ‘call out’ – to seek accountability and change – particularly from people who hold a disproportionate amount of power, wealth, and privilege.  Celebrities, politicians, public figures, etc..

I’ve been helped so much by my wise niece, Cate who is an Episcopal priest and has written publishable thoughts on calling out & cancel culture. She says,

“calling out” has the potential to reclaim and redistribute power in systems previously unbalanced.

In this way, call-out culture is a kind of “cultural boycott” which refuses to amplify enemy-voices of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism and more. This practice is central to the growth/creation of a more just, safe, equitable world – and it hangs on the belief, the hope, the prayer (perhaps) of the redeemability of what was previously not o.k.

And yet, in all of its potential – we find that social media also risks a kind of dehumanization of those with whom we interact on such platforms. Rather than calling out in order to improve relationships and society, call-out culture transforms into cancel culture. Intention transforms, too: rather than boycott voices of oppression, cancel culture seeks to cut out real people whose opinions, ideologies or identities are not in line with our own. We turn in some ways – in the opposite direction of the thing we really want – and cancel human beings. Cast them out – as irredeemable. Unchangeable. 

This has a kind of allure and in many cases has become an acceptable/default way that we regard and relate to one another in our actual lives.  And this is where I want to really focus today. “Our initial desire to redeem what is broken –  twists into excising what we deem as broken (flawed, different, wrong, bad) – from relationship and community.” –

Cate Anthony Out of sight, out of my mind, out of my heart.

The functionality of cancel culture uses shame, isolation, zero space as tools. And they are pretty effective punishments. But I’m not sure they bring about the accountability, change, repentance, the redemption we really are seeking.

 I want to invite us to look at the story of Jonah – I hope  a) it can help us feel ok about being human and b) it can help us feel thankful that God is God. And maybe help us navigate where we are at with our own enemies…and how to value space to run, or to sit –  physically, emotionally, spiritually  – might be more effective than canceling our enemies. 


We are going to pick up the story here where Jonah is finally going to Nineveh as God had told him to do but it comes after this wild little journey Jonah takes. Where he is pretty clear from the get-go – that he does. Not. want. To. go.  and God is pretty clear about well

‘you do have to go’

and there’s tossing of the seas, and a few nights in the belly of a fish – and then finally Jonah walking about this big city of Nineveh to call them out for their wickedness and deliver a message of God’s impending judgment.  

And wicked the Ninevites were!  Now Jonah and his people were part of ancient Israel and the city of Nineveh was known at the time as the “bloody city,” the capital of Israel’s greatest enemy, Assyria. Assyria was the imperial force of the day, and the Assyrians were horrible, brutal, and they kept their empire together by way of extreme terror, barbaric cruelty.

You would think that maybe Jonah would be up for delivering this message of God’s – declaring judgment and destruction –  to his enemies… but Jonah is like, 

“no – nope, there’s no way I’m doing that!”

I don’t know about you – but if I was directed by God, with God’s backing to go to my enemies and say, “Guess what? The time has come you wicked, bad, horrible people you are all going to pay!”  I don’t know – I would be ALL OVER THAT! It’s kind of what my day-dreams are made of!

But Jonah initially runs in exactly the opposite direction away from Nineveh.

And only semi-reluctantly finally delivers this rousing eight-word message to Nineveh,

“forty days from now Nineveh you’ll be destroyed!”  

And here’s how the rest unfolds:


Jonah 3:10 – 4:11

When God saw that they, (the people of Nineveh) had put a stop to their evil ways, God had mercy on them and didn’t carry out the destruction he had threatened.

This change of plans upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. I knew how easily you could cancel your plans for destroying these people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive because nothing I predicted is going to happen.”

The Lord replied, “is it right for you to be angry about this?

Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see if anything would happen to the city. And the Lord God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased some of his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

But God also prepared a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant, so that it soon died and withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God sent a scorching east wind  to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than this!” he exclaimed.

Then God said to Jonah, “is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”
“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”

  • And that is the end of the book of Jonah!

And we see here Jonah run and Jonah sit and I want to talk about those two things – because Jonah is angry.

OOOoooo Jonah is angry! Angry! Angry!

His primary anger is not at the actions of the Assyrians or Ninevites – his enemies – but it is at God.  

And his primary reason for running  – is not to avoid God – but try to make sense of a God who is merciful, gracious and loving to his enemies.

He says,

“I knew it! I knew you would be kind.” AAAAGGGHhh!  I knew that you were a compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.  But why, why, why show that to my enemies?

“GOD – we want “our” people to live – to be safe. NOT THESE PEOPLE –  who have done so much harm, destruction. Come on DESTROY, PUNISH, CANCEL them – before they destroy anything else!”

I mean – “right on, Jonah!” He is in full on anger mode-

“I hate this. I hate you, God. I hate these people.  You should have mercy on me – by killing them. All of them. And everything… except this plant. I like this plant.”

And God leans in, and is like,

“Cool. Cool. Cool, Jonah.  You want to tell me more?…. Do you think it’s right that you’re angry about this?”

It’s an interesting question – kind of an infuriating question to me… 

I remember when I was telling my therapist about “the absolute rage I had about this really hard season with my neighbors… and she said,

“you know Ivy, anger is a secondary emotion..”

And I replied with such shocking maturity,

you know Ivy.. me ehe ah eheh. You know what’s under this anger – more anger, another layer of anger, and anger and anger… I would run to the opposite end of the earth to convince you of how much anger I have….”

– and of course she was lovely and let me run all over the place and all over myself… and the space to do that opened up all these questions I had

  • “What does this mean about me – can I love?”
  • “Did I listen?
  • Should I try again?
  • Should I apologize?
  • And if so, for what?
  • Will they apologize?
  • Will they mean it if they do – will it change anything? 

I think Jonah allows us to see that “running” might just be the way to make some space to sift through yes – emotions – but also the spiritual, ethical and human questions loving our enemies likely brings up for us.  And to see that jumping to quick destruction – or even to jump to quick ‘forgiveness/love/mercy” – might cancel the space we need.. And what we most need to hear within ourselves. 

Jonah needs the space to think about all this a kind God, people who destroy… He has to work through what that means. And when we do that it is like walking into a storm – and it is likely we will  be tossed around by the reckless waves of God’s love. Because Jonah’s realizing the complexity of what it is for God’s love to truly be for everyone – enemies and all.  And that reality – if we are honest – is enough to make us sick to our stomach sometimes. 

Sometimes it’s ok to run.

Sometimes it’s ok to not rush towards forgiveness.

Sometimes it’s ok to make space. 

Sometimes we need the space of the belly of the whale – as sticky and messy and dark as it can be – to find out that it’s normal to have no empathy for those who destroy our communities, our people, our safety… To even wish them harm. And to wrestle with that reality in ourselves. 

To realize that doesn’t mean we are hate-filled people – but we are heart-ful people. 

This heart-space is not to be condemned but should be listened to.  

It’s not to be covered up – it’s to be exposed.

It’s why I love God asking not once but twice – this very therapy question,

“tell me about your anger…” 

Anger and pain need space,  an ear, and a “route to re-connecting with  life in the midst.” (

It’s where we can wrestle with all that it means about God and us and our enemies – if we love them. God destroying or loving Nineveh raises a lot of questions for Jonah…

“If God destroys Nineveh – then would it mean Israel would be safe forever more?

If the repentance of Nineveh is real – is it enough to turn the whole of Assyria around?

Are the lives of those repenting in Nineveh worth more to God than those who would suffer and be killed under the Assyrian empire?

Is their repentance real – will it last? Will change stick?”  (

These are the questions that can surface – and it’s important that we try to wrestle with them.

Here’s the thing about cancel culture… it allows zero space.   There’s no room to run in opposite directions, there’s no shade, no shelter, no grace = there’s no checkpoint of someone asking, “Hmmm .. I wonder why you are angry about that?”  No space for you to wrestle and question  – and no space for the offending person  to figure out if they are capable of more than the sum of their offense…. No room for growth/change, mercy, or forgiveness.

*Now for some of you – it’s not healthy or safe to make that space … and boundaries are essential… or if you are a marginalized person it likely is not your responsibility to make that space…*

.. but somehow, someone has to make that space… 

In part social media removes space because it is an effective vessel for instantaneous – reactionary – the-stakes-are- all-or-nothing-scenarios. And very large, complicated social issues get condensed into truncated sentences, short TikTok videos or a photo  – and reduces the complexity of human nature into quick categories – ones that fall as swiftly as the punishment – ‘you are all good’ – or ‘you are all bad.’  You are to be praised, you are canceled. You are on my team. You are my enemy. The stakes are high – and the space is minimal.

The waiter I had at the cafe the other day – said

“I make space for her.”

And what he meant was physical space –  they actually have different routes that they follow in the restaurant – enough space to – acknowledge that each other has real fundamental needs to work and that to blow up the restaurant might not work in their favor –  a subtle recognition that somehow they are connected – that their life is tied to one another and they both need the space.

Jonah wanted his enemies to stay his enemies. 

I think I deeply believe that it is important to love your enemies. I think I deeply believe that it matters to live and work in such a way that humility and graciousness allow us to see the image of God in the other person. I think I believe that it matters to have face-to-face conversations even if they are hard.. I think I believe that “listening” to one another can transform.. I think I believe that to love your neighbor – even if they are your enemy should matter.

  • But after living next to our neighbors for 17 years now. I’ve come into a season where all indicators point to,

“Nope. nope. That doesn’t seem to be how it’s playing out here.” 

And let me tell you – this sounds dramatic – (maybe like Jonah) – but it feels like part of me is dying as I wrestle with what it is to no longer want to engage, and feel like it’s impossible to love my neighbor.

I just want to keep them my enemies. 

I just want to cancel them.

And so I have done my share of running and sitting – what does this mean? That this core belief – of my faith – but also just as a human being does not seem to work? 

Where since October I’m literally going in the opposite direction coming and going through my side door because to risk facing people that I feel have been mean to  me and my family over a long stretch of time – makes me feel sick. 

And to face the fact that I know God loves them   – and their kids, and their grandchildren, and their pets – which of course objectively is good – but lived out, sucks the actual life right out of me. 

Jonah goes to the east side of the city and sits. In part I think he waits to see if God would just send a sideways lightning bolt to the city just for him….come on, God!

And we see him sit with the reality that God is gracious. 

We see him sit with the reality that Nineveh is a brutal enemy.

We see him sit because he’s tired…life drained right out of him.

It is so risky and so tiring to extend possibility, nurture, care, to our enemies. Ones that have inflicted harm and oppression and suffering  for a moment , for years, decades, all of history.  What, if anything, is left of our beating hearts is meant to keep us alive – and honestly canceling other things that come against that precious heart-space is very compelling.

Jonah is tired. So weary of violence coming at him and his people every day.
We are tired of  the evil that prowls – tired of the fear of it – the fear of ringing the wrong doorbell – or pulling into the wrong driveway and getting shot.

Tired of hearing as my friend Reverend Laura Everett said,

that we’ve gone through a “racial reckoning” and a “Me Too” movement – when there’s still so much to be resolved.. Tired of being through COVID, nationwide protests over systemic police brutality, collective psychosocial trauma of thousands dead, and an armed assault to overthrow our democracy.”

Our empathy can feel worn out.

Tzvi Abusch (Brandeis professor and scholar of ancient Near Eastern texts) says that,

“Jonah is just no longer in a state where he can empathize with humanity.”

And I think God knows this and embraces his time of sitting. Sends him a plant. A plant that is then killed by a worm. Life and destruction.  And somehow Jonah can see it, and feel it through this plant – more than he can for the people of Nineveh.

Which allows God to teach this object lesson – that

“destruction can not be the only tool for change – because it will  affect us all.” 

This plant is destroyed – and you are so angry about it you want to die – it affects you – there is interconnection everywhere.

God says,

see – Jonah –  “yes” there are 120,000 people that are in spiritual darkness – but there are living animals in this city, there are babies and toddlers walking the streets, there are people who disagree with the oppressive powers, there are people who are resisting building the empire… there are trails of connection everywhere.

We can’t just broad strokes wipe out and give up on humanity  – –cancel culture shames the person into realizing their individual beliefs aren’t always acceptable, but it fails to make the space where the person can learn (if they choose), why those beliefs are problematic and hurtful. Which ultimately allows the hateful ideology behind cancellable offenses to exist unchecked -and amplifies an environment where contempt, disgust and the very ‘wickedness’ we are trying to call out – instead grows wickedly out -of-control. And maybe that affects all of us.

It’s why I think God withholds judgment at the slightest sign of repentance – God creates space.
*God’s call to Jonah and to us is to not destroy too quickly.  

It’s why the only thing that God cancels … is God’s own plans to destroy. 

God cancels plans for destruction. God doesn’t make a habit of canceling people.  It’s a risky, risky move of God’s to give Nineveh this space because the story of Israel and Nineveh is not happily -ever-after. Their repentance was temporary – their wickedness grew. Israel would be destroyed.   

If we step in to do the judging/canceling  what we risk is succeeding at canceling the presence of not only “our enemy” but we cancel the presence of the divine the one that we too, very much rely on to survive.    

God is interested in helping Jonah’s heart remain supple – one that doesn’t abandon the living God.  God is as interested in that as he is interested in offering life to a whole city. God knows that ensuring that Jonah finds his own way back to a life worth living …

is inevitably a life that values other life.” ( 

So God runs with Jonah, and offers grace in a whale –  and God sits with Jonah, and offers grace in a plant.  And the grace of God meets Jonah in those spaces…. So that we can extend space with grace to our enemies too. 

The book of Jonah ends with God’s mercy. And Jonah’s silence. 

Jonah’s silence to me isn’t a sign of defeat or frustration – or a hardened heart…. it is just more space.

  • And it’s God’s invitation to us today –  what space do you need – to love your enemies?
    Do you need to run? Do you need to sit? Do you need to jump on a plane for a hot second?
    It’s not an unproductive space – it’s where God greets us with grace and love, revives where we are weary – and asks us, “Tell me about your anger?” 
  • It’s where God  asks us, “What will we do?”
  • “How do we aid in preventing empires from unchecked destruction?”
  • “How will we love our enemies?”
  • “How do we keep making space to be nimble in heart – to continue to be bold and free – in a culture that keeps suggesting that our enemies should stay our enemies?” 

 If I could give each of you a plant today, I would my friends.  (one without a worm). 

Instead I’ll say,

“grace to you,” my friends… “grace to you..”


I Am Because You Are

The other week during the school vacation, I got to take a road trip with my 16 year old John. 

If you ever get to take a road trip with a teenager, do that. Because the world is a beautiful place, and it’s so fun to travel around with someone who hasn’t seen as much of it yet. And teenagers are often learning to drive, and if teaching a teenager to drive is five parts terrifying, then it’s also like 10 parts great because you’re watching them do it, and they’re actually listening to you. Like really listening, hanging on every word you say listening, and you talk but you also just sit there, and this person is actually driving you around for a change. And then there’s something about all the conversation you have when for hours, there are no distractions and there’s nowhere else to go. 

Anyway, it was a great time.

But as I said, John is 16, and he is our youngest. Grace and I had three kids kind of fast, and even though that seems like yesterday, now they are 16, 18, and 20, and they are all starting to find their way in the world.

In the case of John, we were road tripping because we were looking at a few colleges that he might consider applying to. 

Now when you are sending your kid out into the world, a lot of weird things happen to you. I mean, part of me is pumped, like: get going, kids. Leave home. I believe in them. I’m excited to see what choices they make and all the ways they’ll make us proud and make themselves proud. And now and then, I have thought, hey, we’re going to have more space soon where we live, and more time, and more freedom. And sometimes that seems pretty great. Get going, kids. You can do it. But then of course, sometimes that letting go is terrifying. And I felt a little bit of all of that on this trip. Get going, John. But also, stay here, don’t go!

This time isn’t just a weird time for a parent, though. It’s a weird time to be a teenager too, isn’t it? 

I mean, the world has always been telling our teens: go out into the world, it’s time for you to grow up, while also telling them: it’s scary out there, watch out, be careful! And man, have we said that to our teens a lot in recent years, telling them: you can’t go to school, it’s shut down. Actually, you can’t go anywhere. And we wonder that they seem stressed out these days. 

And then for our kids that go on to higher education, the messages the colleges give them are a little weird too. We got this college brochure and in big letters on the front, it just said:

It’s all about you.

It’s all about you.

I think this was supposed to be encouraging, exciting. Like it’s your time to make choices. It’s your time to live how you want, study what you want, pursue your dreams.

“It’s all about you.”

It’s supposed to sound liberating, I guess, but I think it’s not.

“It’s all about you” sounds an awful lot like you’re on your own – no path to follow, no principles to guide you, no one walking alongside, no one having your back. 

“It’s all about you” sounds like a lot of pressure. It’s your time to accomplish, your time to earn, your time to figure out how to stand on your own. 

Be independent. Be successful. Be happy. It’s a lot. I think there’s another way.

This past week, we began our six week season of Lent remembering we are earth. We are mortal, flawed, vulnerable. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

But in the middle of that, we were invited to read a bit of Isaiah 52 as well, where we are told:

Awake, awake, shake the dust off yourself and rise up.

And I asked:

Is there a word of liberation that you need to hear from God today?

As we move into our second week of Lent, continuing to explore how we are earth, members of the fabric of this beautiful creation, I think I have a word of liberation from us.

It comes from a passage in the second week of our guide, day nine. It’s a Hebrew word: hineni, and the message I have for us is:

I am because you are. I am not alone. I am not all about me. I have roots and source. I am connected. 

I am because you are.

Let’s read the passage from Day nine, it’s the beginning of the 6th chapter of the prophet Isaiah. 

Isaiah 6:1-8 (Common English Bible)

6 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple.

2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about.

3 They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!

All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”

6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs.

7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “I’m here; send me.”

When I first learned this passage, I didn’t think about Isaiah or anything to do with the ancient Near East. I thought about myself. It’s all about me. 

Here am I, Lord. 

Am I the one?

  • How are you calling me?
  • How will I be sent?
  • What job will I have?
  • Where should I live?
  • Who should I live with?
  • What role will I play in the world? 

Fair questions, maybe, but it felt like a lot of pressure.

Now in Isaiah, this passage is about the calling of this prophet to really just do one thing with his life: to tell the truth. Before that, though, he has a vision of God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple. This beautiful presence of God is made visible to Isaiah’s imagination for a moment, and then he realizes it’s not just the temple, but the whole earth is God’s temple. 

God is everywhere, and God is so good, so beautiful, so holy. All the earth is filled with God’s glory. 

And once God helps Isaiah move past his fear, his response to God is a single Hebrew word: hineni. Which means Here I am. I’m available. What would you like, God? 

It’s a passage of calling for Isaiah, of the launching of his life work for his community.

But I heard this passage as a young adult the way I heard everything, filtered through our society’s assumptions about individualism.

After all, our society is a product of the modern age where we were told that what it means to be a person is to be an individual. 

You stand on your own or you fall.

What does it mean to be a person? It means to be a thinker, to use your own brain. “I think, therefore I am” is the slogan of modernity. 

And so for me, to find my way in the world was to be independent, a solitary doer and thinker, and my religious sense reinforced this. I stand alone before God, who has a call on my life I need to figure out, so I can get it done. 

When I thought I had it right, it took me to a prideful place, a too big place. One time, when I was in my early 20s, one of my brothers told me:

You know, getting more religious has seemed like it’s made you more full of yourself, like you have the answer to everything.

Mostly, I was defensive when I heard that. No way, that can’t be true. (It was, though, and some part of me winced because I knew that). 

Honestly, though, the bigger thing I felt in my spiritualized “it’s all about me” was isolation and pressure. It took me to a too small place. It’s all on me to be a competent, capable adult. And it’s all on me to figure out God’s will for my life and do it, and do it well. 

That was a dead end, lonely, pressurized place to be. 

One of my mentors from a far, Randy Woodley, names this as a disease of the modern Western world. Randy is an indigenous elder and wisdom teacher, a scholar and theologian, and a follower of Jesus too. He’ll preach to us via video next week, and his voice is part of our Lenten guide Ivy and I put together as well. 

Randy says:

individualism as a way of life, as a worldview, is dead. It hasn’t worked for us. Thinking we’re on our own in the world, and being out for me and mine has brought so much harm to the earth. And even if we spiritualize that into doing what we personally think is God’s world without really humbly learning what will serve the flourishing of the greater whole, well that’s got to go too. It’s a diseased way of being.

Instead, Randy says he and his wife Edith, they are seeking to decolonize and indigenize the Western world. 

Decolonize the Western world – help us let go of our highly individualistic economic and religious ways of being? And indigenize the Western world – learn from the wisdom of the first peoples of the lands where we dwell. And learn from our own, more humble, more earth-connected, more communal indigenous roots, wherever we each come from.

With Randy, and with the scriptures, and with the wisdom of our indigenous ancestors in mind, I ask:

Is there another way to grow up? Besides

“It’s all about you.”

Is there another way to understand who we are in the world? Besides

“I think therefore I am.”

Is there another way to live our faith? Besides

“My call, my pressure, my way.”

Well, there is. And part of that way, I believe, is Isaiah’s response to the glory of God’s presence, filling the temple of creation.

It’s “hineni

Hineni” is Isaiah’s response to God. It means

“Here I am.”

I’m with you, I’m available. “Hineni” is said by other people in the scriptures too. In fact, in the Jewish tradition, it’s what you say to God.

Liturgically, at the most important holidays, it’s the start of a prayer: where one says to God.

Here I am – a vulnerable, flawed person – but here I am before you God, praying for this earth – not alone, but with creation – and praying for your help – not alone, but with you God as well. 

Here I am, part of the whole. 

Or as I’ve heard it put it by the philosopher Aaron Simmons:

I am because you are. 

I don’t exist because of myself. It’s not all about me. 

I am because my parents gave me birth and life. Mom and Dad, I am because you are. 

I am because my ancestors stayed alive and passed on that gift to me. The Elliott peoples of Scotland and Nova Scotia, the Bellottes of France and Germany and South Carolina, the Johnsons of Sweden, I am because you are.

I speak today not because I somehow figured out language but because of everyone I heard speak, who talked to me and in front of me, who read me books and sang me songs. My relatives and babysitters, and Sesame Street and the whole world of PBS Kids, I am because you are.

This is true for all of us, and it is the wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the earth. The South African Zulu word related to this is: ubuntu. I am because I’m part of a whole. I am because we are. I am because you are.

The First peoples of this land were right clear on this too. I am not over the earth, above the earth, I am part of the earth, a member of the human and non-human community of nature, gifted with life because of our Creator.

Divine mother and father, and all of this glorious creation, I am because you are. 

Friends, this ubuntu, hineni connected way of being is what our teenage selves, and our teenage children and friends and fellow citizens need more of right now. 

That road trip with my son, the best part of it was not showing him the colleges where he can enroll as a student and develop his mind, his skills, his vocational and financial path in life.

No, the best part of the trip was opening up space to think about the future in a connected, relational way of being.

We spent hours driving and walking and talking together, by each other’s side like 10, 15, 20 hours a day. Life when my kid was a newborn baby, rarely alone, always accompanied. We can’t physically keep living this way all the time as we grow up, but in an experience like this, we taste it again for a minute and that grounds us. 

And in this trip our best times, the highest impact items were with other people. Our favorite school: the one where the tour guide made a connection with us, spoke a word of promise and hope over my kid’s life. Some of the most meaningful moments: meeting up with family friends and with old friends from my kids’ school, where we talked together about their lives and ours, and how none of us finds our way forward by ourselves.

I am because we are.

I am because you are.

Think about it with me. 

I am because you are. 

Who gave you life? Who brought you into this world? Who taught you or encouraged you or took care of you when you were a kid? What ancestors kept the spark of your DNA alive? 

We are because they are.

This is what the humility that people of this earth are called to is all about, not self-debasement, but belonging, owning our small but important part in the broader whole.

In our daily lives, the homes we live in, the infrastructure we use, the earth that grows the food we eat, the wells and the reservoirs that supply our water, as Barack Obama and our Cambridge neighbor Elizabeth Warren have reminded us:

We didn’t build this. 

This church building that we worship in and those of us online get our broadcast from: we didn’t build this. One of our members, Mark DeJon, who lives in the neighborhood, his wife’s great-grandfather was one of the immigrant brick laborers who built this place a hundred years ago. He built this, not us.

We inherit our gifts, we steward them, we co-create new things in our lives. But we don’t start any of it. We are because they were. I am because you are. 

Humility and gratitude, the humility and gratitude to which God’s people are called, in all things. 

When we remember we are not alone in this world, and the pressure is not all on us, we can look around and say: thank you.

I can eat my dinner and say thank you, God, for the land from which this food came, thank you for animals and vegetables that gave their life for me, thank you for the hundreds in the long chain of people that got this food to my plate, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I can walk in Hudson River valley as I did last week, walk the Catskills where my parents honeymooned fifty-five years ago, walk along the cliffs of the Palisades where my grandfather hiked as a young man 95 years ago, walk the little patch of woods I take my dog to in Boston that were stewarded by this land’s first peoples five hundred, one thousand years ago, and say thank you. 

Ancestors of my life, ancestors of this land, I am because you are.

And creator God, from which all life and all gifts flow, I am because you are.

And even in our life missions, in the places to which we are sent, in the work we come to do, hineni changes the vibe for us. It’s not all about me. It’s not about my success or failure. It’s not about pressure.

All of you all, and our teens and young adults in particular, the living God does not care whether you succeed or fail at what you’re doing. 

Don’t get me wrong, God cares about your feelings. God wants you to not feel like a failure. But God’s not worried about your success or your failure.

Whether you’re a middle or high school or college or graduate student, whether you’re in a new job, or you’re a new parent, or in a new marriage, or learning a new skill, God is not worried about how well you do.

Isaiah perceives the glory of God all around him, filling this earth like a temple, and he’s like:

oh, no I’m not good enough.

Me, my whole people, we are a disgrace. And God’s like, let me change that. That whole hot, glowing coal to the mouth moment of purification – God didn’t need that, Isaiah did. 

So it is with the sacrifice of the cross, and the wine of communion that speaks of the blood of Christ, shed for us. 

God didn’t need that. We did. We need to taste and see that God gives all of Godself to us all, and that we are accepted, forgiven, loved as God’s children. 

God’s not worried about our success or failure. God wants us to show up humble, grateful, open, curious to our lives. To not be gripped anymore in fear, but to be able to stand up and say “Here I am” and to show up with our whole messy selves, saying I’m here. I am because you are. And I’m ready. 

We are not alone.

It is not all about us. 

We didn’t make this. We didn’t build this. And it does not all ride on us. 

We are, our God, because you are. 

Our very existence is a response to a higher call. 

We will show up to our lives, to this earth, to your call, with all we are – and succeed, fail, win, lose, it doesn’t matter. 

We are because you are. 




Matthew 19:16-30

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony,

19 honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[c] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

The pastoral staff, led by our senior pastor, often decides the theme or series for preaching sermons together. For this season between post-Christmas and Lent, Steve suggested Seven Big Words, because I think he had some words in his mind that have really shaped him, like he shared last week. 

And as I tried to think of a word, it was hard to think of just one word. Because living in a binary world, and being a Libra (which I’m basically joking about because I’m not that into astrological signs, but I will scroll to Libra if I see a horoscope post on Instagram), but Libra is the one that is holding the scale.

It craves balance, and if it tips one way, my desire is often to also go, ‘well on the other hand.’ So when I think of one word, immediately, I think of the opposite, the other side of that word, that in my mind, is equally important. But the first word that kept coming to me was, not a big word, but a simple word, follow. And it comes from a place of privilege. I’ll explain. 

Lately my life has been taken over by a new and exciting campaign from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, GBIO. I mention this organization a lot, often in my sermons, because it’s honestly been one of the most impactful and interesting parts of my work, since I’ve started working at Reservoir Church as a pastor five years ago. January 2023 marks my five years here, can you believe it? 

GBIO is a community organizing institution. It’s made up of 60+ institutions and if every single of those members came together, it would probably be 3,000 people + strong. And the fact that Reservoir is involved in this work is really interesting.

Because traditionally churches have done ‘mission’ or ‘outreach’ as a means of service-providing or charity-giving. Doing things for others. To help. And so the community organizing model for doing justice is a unique one that many churches might not be used to, that might feel different from… say providing meals for the homeless, a traditional picture of “serving.” There’s a time and place, of course, for service and charity. Churches through generations have played an important role in providing for the widows and the orphans, aid. I mean many hospitals are named after those that started out as ministries. But it also is often from a place of power, and yes, wealth, to be able to give aid or help or charity or service. 

Community organizing is not new to all churches. Black churches in America were doing it during the Civil Rights Movement. And it does have roots commonly engaged with the political spaces. But the way I see it is that it’s a method of moving away from the individualized way of looking at this, but working as a community, as a unit of multiple people, working together as a system. And what’s different about community organizing from traditional charity and service from the church is that–one of the central mantras of community organizing is,

“Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.” 

“Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.” 

And so right now, GBIO is kicking off a big campaign called the Housing Justice Campaign. It’s tackling the issue of housing from many angles, from MBTA zoning, to public housing funds, to real estate tax, etc. I’m specifically involved with the public housing fund and we’re working on this tenant (tenants of public housing) and ally organizing and since I don’t live in public housing, I am an ally.

For this work to be done well, effectively and genuinely, the only way this campaign’s going to be a success, is not if a bunch of “allies” come together to rally and speak on behalf of the people that are not in the room, to say that they’re speaking on behalf, in front of the Governor or State Legislatures. That just would not work.

It HAS to come from the power and the leadership of tenants and the people that are directly impacted by this. That’s why the word FOLLOW has been coming up for me. FOLLOW. I need to follow the leadership of others in this work. Even though I’m a pastor and chair of a committee on GBIO, and I have time and energy, and honestly privilege, and that’s exactly why I need to follow. 

And then I realized, the word for many of us is follow in a lot of areas, but the word for some of us is actually the opposite. DON’T follow. Rise up. RISE is the other word that came up for me on the other side. It’s actually time for you to stop following blindly and rise up and lead, like we’ve never seen the way you lead before. 

Okay, I spent the last 10 minutes talking about GBIO, housing, politics (oh there she goes again) talking about politics and privilege and race from the pulpit instead of talking about Jesus, the cross, or grace. Let’s go to the Bible. 

Jesus says to this man,

“go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

You see, this is the thing. We are, yes, curious about spiritual things. And that’s fair. Religion, spirit, our faith. We’re thinking about prayer and Bible and theology. And what does Jesus do? The guy asks about eternal life and Jesus talks about loving your neighbor. Jesus talks about possessions. Jesus talks about the poor. The rich guy asked about eternal matters and Jesus answered him with very earthly matters. 

And really I think that’s when our faith gets hard for many of us. When our faith or theology actually starts affecting our bank accounts. Our time. Our family. Our children. Our lifestyle. Our town.

Can I be honest with you? Can we be honest together? There’s a lot of privilege in this space. I’ve never met so many people that went to Harvard until I got here. It’s like everybody and their mamas went to Harvard here! Now it’s a diverse room. And don’t judge a book by its cover, people have been through stuff you don’t know about. But on the real, in many ways, there is lots of privilege in this room. So what is the word that Jesus is saying to those of us who are privileged? Because the reality is Jesus did have different words for different people, and so context and the audience matters. 

To Zaccheus , a chief tax collector, this is the whole of their interaction:

Luke 19:5-10

“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

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

10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’s commitment to give half of his possession to the poor and paying back four times back was,

“Today salvation has come to this house.”

You know, that’s really uncomfortable for me. That’s all the dialogue we have between them in Luke. That’s it, they didn’t talk about anything else. Or they did, but this was what was important and recorded and kept for thousands of years. Really? Yeah, Jesus talked about money quite a bit.

But it wasn’t about just money of course. It was about the systems of injustice. About loving and caring for the poor. About inequity. About honesty. About leveling

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

Isaiah 40:4.

About the last being first and the first being last. 

To Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, Jesus tells him

“to be born again.”

To be completely naked, stepping into a whole new world where you know nothing. 

I recently joined an online learning community called the Faith and Justice Network, you know, new year, new me, new learning platform (it’s my equivalent of signing up for a gym). Let’s see if you hear about my readings from this teaching platform a few months from now.

But in week one, I had two reading assignments, John three the story of Nicodemus, and a short nine page copied PDF excerpt (it’s so fun to read things like this, a professor’s handpicked pages of a book) titled, Philippine Woman in America by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, written around 1983. And the reading prompt question that was posed was

“How might the experiences of immigrants help us understand what it means to be “born again?”

With such prompt and lens, one could imagine Jesus inviting Nicodemus, someone who knows the land, knows the people, has the power, has influence, to be born again to someone who is new to the place, who knows not the culture, who has no influence or even knows the local language. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that, either through an immigration experience, or being an outsider, maybe in a new city, or the newbie in the workplace or a new team. But being born again is not an easy or an uncomfortable thing. 

The invitation of Jesus is for us yes, ultimately that you’d experience joy and flourishing, that you may find rest, but to get there from where we are, actually it’s not necessarily a very comfortable thing. I mean, Jesus did say,

29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30,

but you know what a yoke is right? It’s

“a frame or bar that can be placed on one or two people or animals pulling or carrying a heavy load.”

The yoke’s lighter because Jesus is carrying it with us, but the load we’re pulling is still, you know, life. Life is hard! 

And the message of Jesus is often called the Good News. But why is it that for this rich man in our text today, that when he heard it, it made him deeply sad. You know why? Because the message of Jesus is good news to the poor! At a pinnacle point in Jesus ministry quote this verse from

Isaiah 61. 

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,”

It’s good news to the brokenhearted, to the captives, to the prisoner. 

How are you hearing the message of Jesus?

Does it conflict you?

Does it challenge you, bring up stuff for you?

If it does, that’s okay. Many of us are probably not far from the demographics of Zaccheus, Nicodemus, and this rich man in our text today. And to you, Jesus says follow me. Follow a baby of a God, that came from nowhere-Nazareth, son of a carpenter, adopted child, conceived out of wedlock. A not Rabbinic school educated. Do you dare follow this Jesus? 

And also, if you at all feel uncomfortable or sad, like this rich guy, not to worry. The guy walked away sad, probably into contemplation, which is perfectly alright and good. Discern. But this is not the final word for him. For when Jesus said that,

“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

And the disciples asked

“Who then can be saved?”

Jesus said,

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

It reminds me of a beautiful picture I saw once, where there’s a fantastical almost sci-fi looking image of HUGE needle, and right at the eye of that needle is Jesus, pulling rows and rows of camels as far as you can see. Yes, with God all things are possible. 

That’s what I’m going in with, to this Housing Justice Campaign. We started with a $50 million dollar ask to the Mayor Wu’s office for Mildred C Hailey public housing in Boston for maintenance and we got it last year. A GBIO team in Brookline built relationships with tenants in their local state-funded housing and the Brookline Housing Authority, and amidst all their conflict, have found a common goal. Which is the opportunity to ask and demand at a state-wide level, funding for all the public housing who are in a state of living conditions that are sometimes truly unbelievable, based on research 8.5 billion dollars. Yes, that is GBIO’s targeted ask to the state government. 

Could a broken system, disparate people, folks with opposing political views, across socio-economical lines, across different religions and faiths, possibly come together to pull $8.5 billion dollars through an eye of needle to a place where we imagine, a heavenly place where its describe in

John 14 “In My Father’s house are many mansions” 

Or in

Revelation 7

“They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; (this makes me think of the homeless) for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters (clean water!). And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” 

Pearl Gates. Streets of Gold. (How about at least gates that are maintained and streets that you can walk on safely without falling and hurting yourself?) 

It too is a vision I have, like Apostle John who wrote the book of Revelation. On earth as it is in heaven. On earth as it is in heaven is my prayer. 

My faith is not apart from works and this is the work we have before us. 

And if you’re not rich or privileged, don’t be like Peter either. Peter answered him,

“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

I’m kidding actually. I think it’s fine to expect things from Jesus. In the theology world they call this Protest Theology. I call it Tuesday afternoon prayer. The Bible called a Psalmist’s prayer.

“God what are you doing? Are you actually even awake, listening to the cries of your people?” Psalm 44:23 says “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.”

God what you gonna do for us? When’s it gonna be our time? 

I say to you, Rise up. Lead. Lead like Peter did, and boy did he, when we read the rest of Acts and the early Christian church. To him Jesus said,

“Truly I tell you, renewal of all things”

Renewal of all things. May that be so, not just after we die in heaven, but now, in real ways, in people’s homes. Renewal of all things. 

But I gotta say, some people really do hope that the whole

“last shall be first and first shall be last”

only happens after we die. What do you think about that? Where are you right now? Does this paradigm work for you? Is it good news to you?

Maybe some of you might be saying, I don’t know how to take this “good news” because I’m not poor. Yes you are. Maybe you have lots of money, stocks, savings, properties. But you’re poor in ways that might not be apparent to others around you or even to your own convincing. Whether it’s addiction, spirit, depression, anxiety, numbness, or whatever. There is good news for you too. Don’t be sad. To you too, God says

I will pull you through the eye of the camel. Follow. Follow the humble one through it. 

And to those of us who are poor. Maybe you’ve been struggling financially. Maybe you don’t come from money and money is such a struggle. To you I say,

you are rich and you have power. You can lead. Rise up. You can be the ROCK, just like Peter, that church can be built on. You too though, follow Jesus and he will lift you from the depth, lift you up to new life. 

Last shall be first. First shall be last. Jesus turned everything upside down. What’s Jesus turning upside down in you now? 

Let me pray for us. 

Jesus, you’re always turning things around for us. Help us to know and follow you, to the depths of despair, to the heights of new life. Help us to find you no matter where we find ourselves this morning, we pray, and know that you are with us, that you love us, and that you’ll fight for us that we may find life. Help us we pray, in your name. Amen.