The Revolution of the Intimate

Last Monday we hosted the Board meeting for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. And even though important things sometimes happen at Board meetings, Board meetings can be very boring events. It’s practically the same word – board and boring.

But our Monday meeting wasn’t boring at all. One of the people co-leading with me asked me the day of:

where can we buy good cake around here?

And I wondered: why do we need cake? But I suggested a place. And that night she and our third co-leader showed up with cake from a better place than I’d suggested. High quality cake. 

And it turned out the cake was for someone’s wedding anniversary, a 20th wedding anniversary. It’s fun to celebrate anniversaries. Our church had our 25th anniversary last year. This winter Grace and I are going to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary. When we had our 20th anniversary, we took a big trip together far away without our kids for the first time since we’d had them. And while we love our kids, that was fun too. 

But the 20th anniversary we were celebrating on Monday was a special one. One of our Board members, Marcia, was celebrating her 20th anniversary of marriage to her wife Susan. And this anniversary also lines up with the 20th anniversary of same sex weddings being legal in Massachusetts. 

This is not a coincidence, because Marcia and her wife were the very first couple of two men, or in their case two women, to get married that day right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right after the law was changed. So we weren’t just celebrating Marcia’s anniversary, we were celebrating history too. Which was special.

Marcia said thank you and gave a little speech before we ate cake, saying how much it meant to her that we wanted to celebrate with her. And then one of our leaders, a younger queer person who was only a kid when Marcia got married gave a speech too, and said how important what Marcia and her generation did for marriage equality, and how Marcia’s generation has paved the way for her generation to live safer, freer lives with the people they love. And she was tearing up, and Marcia was tearing up, and a lot of us were tearing up, because we were thinking of our queer kids or our queer friends or siblings, or our queer selves, and what it means to us when we can be loved just as we are and have the same rights and freedoms as anyone else.

But then there was one more speech. One of our founders spoke up and said tonight we’re also celebrating the 20th anniversary of our organization surviving. Because when this law was getting changed, there were people on our Board back then that were for this change, and that were against this change. And it was such a big argument, and such a hard argument, that we didn’t know if we’d be able to stay together as GBIO. But we did because we decided to keep loving each other, and to stay in relationship, even when we disagreed about some really important things. And those relationships kept us together, and they changed us too. Not everyone changed their minds, but many people have. And there are people who didn’t understand or agree with Marcia’s marriage before who celebrate it today. 

And there we were – about 20 people – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Black, White, Asian – as young as 23 and as old as 77. Celebrating Marcia’s anniversary, and celebrating LGBTQ rights, and celebrating our friendships and our desire to keep getting to know each other across our differences, keep learning together amidst our differences, and keep acting for a better world together, powered by all the stories and all the gifts we bring to the table with our differences.

What a gift, to learn to not only tolerate or compromise but to understand and love and live and grow together across our differences. 

This is what the theologian Willie James Jennings calls the revolution of the intimate. The revolution of the intimate is what Jennings says a Christian holiday called Pentecost is all about. And while Pentecost was on the Christian calendar last week, and our kids thought about Pentecost last week in kids’ church, we’re just getting to it today. 

I’m excited to talk about Pentecost, and how it’s the revolution of the intimate, and some of what that might mean to you and me. Let’s read the story. It’s from the book of Acts, which stands for the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of what Jesus’ friends did after Jesus died and rose again, and it’s the story of what they discovered God doing among them. This part is from near the beginning, in the second chapter.

Acts 2:1-21 (Common English Bible)

2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.

2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.

3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.

4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.

7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?

8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?

9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism),

11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?”

13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words!

15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!

16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2:28-32)

I mentioned that last week our kids talked about this story in kids’ church, so I’ve invited two of our 4th and 5th grade kids to tell us what struck them most about this story this year.

Pentecost was a holiday already before this story. Pentecost was a Greek name for the holiday. Today, Jews call this day for its Hebrew name, Shavuot. It was a spring harvest festival. And it’s also the day Jews remember the gift of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. So it’s the birthday of words, spoken words and written words of God, through the lips and pens of people. The anniversary of the beginning of the Bible.

Pentecost is another beginning. This time it’s the beginning of a more intimate experience of God. Not just words you read or hear, but a communicative presence of God with us and among us that we can feel.

It’s like wind. It’s like fire. 

A lot of the time we read the Bible from the perspective of the main characters, of the heroes. 

So we read the Pentecost story and we think of the wild experience of Jesus’ friends suddenly speaking languages they’ve never learned. We hear the image of something like wind and something like fire, and we think – these not very educated working class fishers and tax collectors from the countryside are so bold and articulate and powerful. 

And for some of us, this is very attractive. 

This story has become a big deal in the parts of Christianity that are called Pentecostal, or sometimes Charismatic. Our church has some background here too.

And in these parts of the Christian church, we like to be able to experience God super-close, super personally, super intimate. And that can be beautiful and special. This has actually been important to my faith. 

But sometimes too we can be kind of hooked on what I call the big dopamine hits of an experience of God. We don’t just want to pray, we want to pray in a language we’ve never learned before because that feels extra special. People call that speaking in tongues. It’s something the Bible only mentions a handful of times, and it doesn’t always seem to mean the same thing there, but this has become a big deal to some Christians, because it seems so powerful, so intimate. 

Same with other kinds of powerful experiences of God doing something for you, or God doing something through you. And if all this is genuine and authentic and helpful and encouraging to other people, and you can stay humble and open about it all, that’s cool. 

But I want to read this passage and this moment of Pentecost from another angle today, a different experience of what the revolution of the intimate looks like, and that’s the experience the people in this story who aren’t named have. The crowd of diaspora exiles who’d traveled back to their ancestral home of Jerusalem for the festival. See when we read the Bible, we’re not always the main characters, so it can help to read the stories from other people’s perspective.

And for these residents of Mesopotamia and Asia and Egypt and Libya and Rome, the Spirit of God is like wind. And like fire. And mostly, it’s like someone speaking to you the good news of God in your heart language, in your mother tongue. 

The crowd we’re told are people who live far away. They are bicultural people, who speak more than one language, have had to learn more than one culture and way of being in the world. 

Many of you know these experiences – of living in America and having people wonder where you are from, or being surprised that you speak English so well when you always have, or of being underestimated because your English is considered accented. But then you travel to where your ancestors are from and you’re told you don’t belong there either, that you’re a foreigner there as well. 

In my wife’s Cantonese Chinese roots, they call you jook sing – a hollow bamboo reed, like you might look Chinese on the outside but on the inside, it’s not all there anymore. You’ve lost part of your culture. Or some say it’s like you’re not connected on either end, not belonging in either culture. 

This is the pain of bicultural people, of diaspora people. The doors and hearts that are closed to the fullness of who you are.

It’s the pain of colonized people – then with Jews under the Romans and in modern history. Willie James Jennings puts it this way. I’m gonna quote him at length here. 

He says,

“Imagine people in many places, in many conquered sites, in many tongues all being told that their languages are secondary, tertiary, and inferior to the supreme languages of the enlightened peoples. Make way for Latin, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and English. These are the languages God speaks. These are the scholarly languages of the transcending intellect and the holy mind. Imagine centuries of submission and internalized hatred of mother tongues and in the quiet spaces of many villages, many homes, women, men, and children practicing these new enlightened languages not by choice but by force. Imagine peoples largely from this new Western world learning native languages not out of love, but as utility for domination. Imagine mastering native languages in order to master people, making oneself their master and making them slaves. Now Imagine Christianity deeply implicated in all this, in many cases riding high on the winds of this linguistic imperialism, a different sounding wind. Christianity was ripe for this tragic collaboration with colonialism because it had learned before the colonial moment egan to separate a language from a people. It had learned to value, cherish, and even love the language of Jewish people found in Scripture – but hate Jewish people.” 

Into this horrible habit we have of cultural and linguistic erasure sweeps Pentecost where the bicultural, diaspora, jook sing crowd hear people unlike them speak the good news of God to them in their mother tongue. 

It’s linguistic reinstatement, it’s cultural validation, it’s a decolonizing of the good news message of Jesus. It’s a revolution of the intimate.

Jennings one more time:

“God speaks people, fluently.”

Let me say that again:

“God speaks people, fluently. And God, with all the urgency that is with the Holy Spirit, wants the disciples of his only begotten Son to speak people fluently too.” 

This is the revolution of the intimate, this profound knowingness of God for all of who I am, just as I am. I’m part of the story, as my immigrant self, as by Black self, as my descendant of barely literate Scots-New Yorkers self, as my queer self, as whoever I am, just as I am. God knows and speaks to me and loves me as me.

And God calls us all to know and speak to one another in this same curious, knowing, generous, respectful, loving spirit as well. 

This is why that Board meeting of ours held power. It wasn’t just celebrating an anniversary or eating cake, it was the invitation of the Spirit to know and be known fully and deeply just as we are. We may not have heard all of the good news of Jesus or the mighty works of God in our mother tongue, but we had a revolution of the intimate nevertheless, as we were translated and known to one another. 

And that encouraged us to imagine the stories we dream that will be told some day about our justice work. 

These things are connected by the way. The revolution of the intimate – the safety and knowingness of our whole selves, and the awareness that God knows us, that God speaks us. This helps us flourish. 

As the passage says,

Your young will see visions.

    Your elders will dream dreams.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The revolution of the intimate empowers visions and dreams. And the revolution of the intimate saves us. 

We’re near the end of AAPI Awareness month right now, and this month one of the books I’ve read by Asian-American authors was the autobiography of Grace Lee Boggs. Grace Lee Boggs is someone my wife Grace has been encouraging me to learn about and talk about for years, because she’s this important Asian-American activist whose story so profoundly embodies parts of this revolution of the intimate. 

Grace Lee Boggs grew up in New York City, in the early 1900s, a child of the first waves of Chinese immigrants to American cities over 100 years ago. Her family kind of split apart over time, and she became the one intellectual. She earned a PhD in philosophy way back in 1940, and was interested in radical politics and the transformation of American life to empower the poor and working class.

But her big pivot when she learned about the March on Washington – not the famous one from the 1960s with MLK and John Lewis and all but the one before that, way back in 1941, organized by Philip Randolph, that got the American military desegregated. 

When Grace Lee Boggs learned about the success of that march, she thought: Black Americans have the culture, the religion, the institutions, and the strength to make justice possible in this country. And as an adult child of Chinese immigrants and a PhD in philosophy, she decided to embed herself in the Black freedom struggle. First, she supported and partnered with a Trinidadian radical activist named C. L. R. James. Then later, while living in Detroit, she married a Black union leader named Jimmy Boggs, and together, Grace and Jimmy were instrumental leaders in the Northern Black freedom movement and the beginnings of the Black Power movement as well. 

Grace Lee Boggs lived an incredible life, an incredible story of the revolution of the intimate – two people of two cultures – African-American and Chinese-American, both oppressed and marginalized in this land, largely living apart, amidst mutual misunderstanding and stereotype and mistrust, joined in mutual knowing, mutual respect, and mutual action for the common good. 

These kinds of revolutions of the intimate truly help save us. 

Friends, I wonder about all the ways our world is looking for the revolution of the intimate.

I think about children who are cold to their parents, or even who are estranged from their parents, who need prodigal mothers and prodigal fathers to keep seeing them, keep looking out for them, keep moving toward them, keep loving them.

I think of apologies that could be made, gifts that could be given, love and encouragement that could be articulated. 

I think of communities of great difference – our schools, our city, even our church – where humble, generous knowing and sharing of stories helps us see visions and dream dreams together. 

I think of the anxious places in our hearts that need an encouraging word from God that in the details of who and where we are, we are seen and accompanied, so that our healing, saving journey can keep moving forward.

And I yearn, let’s go. Let’s not give up on the possibility of seeing and knowing one another, and growing the revolution of the intimate among us as well. 

And in all these places, I yearn: come Holy Spirit, speak your good news and mighty works to us again.

The So-Easy-to-Miss Fire of Our Great Love Stories

For the last week of our Lenten season, the theme is the fire of love. 

Our first scripture comes from a bit of erotic poetry, right in the middle of the Bible. It’s from a book called Song of Solomon that tells a poetic coming of age erotic love story that at the same time the tradition has read as an allegorical celebration of divine love. 

The love and fire line is in this bit from the eighth chapter.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 (Common English Bible)

6 Set me as a seal over your heart,

        as a seal upon your arm,

for love is as strong as death,

        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.[b]

Its darts are darts of fire—

        divine flame!

7 Rushing waters can’t quench love;

        rivers can’t wash it away.

If someone gave

        all his estate in exchange for love,

        he would be laughed to utter shame.

Weird that love, this fiery force as strong, as unrelenting as death, has this fierce erotic longing in it. A kind of impulse in us that by itself may or may not be loving.

Weird that to talk about holy love, divine love, the biggest and deepest love in the universe, the Bible has steamy romantic poetry in it. Weird that these things would be connected. 

And weird that we all know that if someone had love, and someone else that this huge wealthy estate and tried to make a deal, everyone would laugh that person off. Who’d ever trade away a great love story? 

It’s priceless, the best thing in life.

And yet we give up, or skip out on, or even throw away great love stories all the time, all the time. 

Weird but true. 

Last week I met a woman who really wanted to show me pictures of her kid. 

I’ve done this before, tell people all about one of my kids, whether they cared or not. Probably not, but sometimes parents can’t help themselves.

Well, I met this woman because I was meeting with a small delegation of people whose friends or family members have been killed or taken hostage in the Hamas attacks on Israel in October.

She said to me and my friend:

would you like me to show you videos?

And my friend said:

would you like us to see them?

And she pulled out her phone, and we watched videos of her 22-year old son hiding in a shelter, images of her son being kidnapped and taken away, and an image of him as a small child, looking back charmingly at the camera. 

She turned to us emotionally and said:

I know he’s alive. We haven’t had proof of life in a little over two months. But I know he’s alive, and I know he’s coming home. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I know he’s coming home. 

A little part of me wanted to go political with the ensuing conversation. Wanted to ask about her about the thousands of Palestinian mothers who mourn their dead children. To ask about the Palestinian families who have no home to return to. 

But I didn’t. One, she knew. Most of the members of this delegation were leftists in Israel, no friend to their own government and its actions in Gaza and the West Bank. They knew.

But also, that wasn’t what this conversation was about. I was being asked to bear witness to the fierce grief and the fierce love of a mother, whose 22-year old son was taken hostage. 

Fierce, holy love, that says:

I know he’s coming home. And you’re welcome to visit me then and meet him. I hope you will.

Love is like this.

Love bears all things, believes all things. Love hopes all things, endures all things.

This day in the church calendar, Palm Sunday, is a weird one.

We remember Jesus and his students walking into Jerusalem, Jesus riding a donkey, the crowds waving palms and laying them down like a green carpet of welcome to the city as they cheered:

Hosanna, here is the one who will save us!

Jesus smiled. He loved the shouts and the singing.

But some part of him must have known it was kind of a fake love story.

On the other side of town, after all, the Roman governor Pilate rode into down on a battle horse, surrounded by soldiers, to bear in his body the glory of Rome, which would fill Jerusalem with its armies on big festivals, to keep the peace, so to speak, which was code for crushing dissent.

Jesus is the one they would crush this week. They would arrest him, mock him, beat him, crucify him naked on a wooden cross, with a crown of thorns atop his bleeding head. 

This day, a week earlier, Jesus had just mourned over his beloved Jerusalem. Pausing on his walk in, he had seen the cityscape before him and broke down crying: saying

– if you only knew the way of peace. But you don’t. And so the day is coming when your enemies will surround you and besiege you, and attack and utterly crush you.

He saw this vision through tears, the angry, weary tears of grief.

And now, he performed this kind of street art mockery of a king’s entrance, riding into the city unarmed, with a scrappy band of rural followers for a royal delegation, atop an old donkey, not a battle horse, determined to bring a great love story to a city consumed with fantasies of fights they could not win. 

Jesus didn’t bring the fight they were looking for.

Actually, the whole final week of Jesus’ natural life, the week we call the passion of Christ, is a week in his life filled with threats. Threats of Rome, threats of religious establishment, threats of denial and betrayal. Threat behind threat. Trauma behind trauma. 

And over and over again, the sort of script Jesus is expected to follow is the scripts we all follow in the face of trauma, threat, or even tension.

He’s expected to fight or flee – the old fight or flight syndrome for our species, for all animals.

Or he’s expected to freeze or fawn – these additions to fight and flight our psychologists help us understand. Because sometimes in the face of threats, we don’t fight, we don’t run away, we just shut down and freeze – silence, no emotion, no action. Or we fawn – we try to people please our way past the threat.

But weirdly, Jesus again and again won’t do any of these things.

No fight, no fight, no freeze, no fawn.

Just passion.

He just keeps showing up, present with his whole body, his whole self. 

And this is a great love story that no one, well almost no one, is ready for.

I’m obsessed with this TV show that ended a couple years ago, This is Us. That’s where I’m pulling this phrase “great love story” from today. Because the show uses that same phrase for the marriage at the heart of it. Jack and Rebecca have this epic, great love story, and who doesn’t like a good love story? 

I met this extraordinary woman named Grace when I was 19-years old, and she and I who later realized we are so different, at that time bonded over the sames we share – some same likes, same values, same passions, same looking for someone to welcome us into their arms just as we are, same longing for authentic in a world of fake. 

I love all this so much in Grace still. She’s stuck with me, even when I’ve mostly been a pain in the ass, and I can’t imagine anything but showing up with my whole self and sticking with her too. Because love is like that. And this imperfect but still great love story is so good. I’m so grateful.

But in many other relationships among family and friends, I’ve sometimes struggled to find my love stories there. Plenty of relationships in my life have gotten stuck or failed.

Which takes me back to This is Us. Because over time, I realized I was drawn to this show not so much by that romance as I was by all the other great love stories in it. Stories of parents and their children, stories of sisters and brothers and strangers and friends. This is Us is really about the us-ness of all of life.

It’s not easy. Misunderstanding, rivalry, addiction, conflict, even death get in the way.

And this is why great love stories are usually a little tragic too, because they usually end, by death or by some other means. Or they never even really get going the way they should because someone or another pisses them away. 

And there’s an ache that comes with that. 

It’s an ache that God shares with us, because God who is love has a great deal of experience of people doing so many other things besides living in God’s great love story for us all. So much fighting and fleeing and freezing and fawning. So little love sometimes. 

That’s part of the tragedy of the passion week of Christ. So little room for love around Jesus. 

But that’s part of why it’s so beautiful that in the passion week, there’s this great love story tucked in there that is so sacred, Jesus says that everywhere the good news of Christ travels, this story must be told.

So before we end today, let’s tell this great love story, and see if its truth, its lessons can’t rub off on us some. It’s in three of the four gospels, here in from the gospel of Mark. 

Mark 14:3-9 (Common English Bible)

3 Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume?

5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

6 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me.

7 You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me.

8 She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial.

9 I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

I have five things I’d love for us to notice.

One is that great love stories don’t have to be sexual or romantic. 

This story is sensual to be sure – this fancy vase and its gorgeous smelling perfume broke open over Jesus’ head. It’s sensual, and with other people at its center, it’s easy to see how it could have gone sexual. But it didn’t. 

Because the woman, whose name isn’t given here, and Jesus don’t let it. They’re not looking for that in each other, and they’re healthy enough in their bodies and their hearts and their self-control to not let a beautiful moment go sideways. 

In our guide this week, Ivy has brought in the wisdom of the poet Ada Limon, who’s got a love poem to her grandfather in there. Limon says there are too many love poems in the world for people who don’t deserve them.

“The bad partner gets a whole book, whereas the friend just gets a coffee.” 

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Limon’s dead grandfather gets this beautiful poem. Jesus gets the whole bottle of perfume. Its owner gets this story about her great love told throughout the world for all time. 

What great love stories has God given us – human, animal, or divine? The love of friends and family and pets and strangers and all of creation. We don’t get an infinite number of love stories to be part of, so they’re all sacred. Most of them aren’t romantic and sexual at all. But that doesn’t make them any less important. 

Two, great love stories usually break the rules a little

In this week’s guide, you get a story of me speeding through the middle of the night from New York to Massachusetts to get to Grace, who’d had a bad concussion, I had heard. She had gone to the hospital and apparently kept asking:  am I pregnant? When she never had been and also asking: who gave me the shrooms? When I’m pretty sure, at least according to her, that had never happened. Funny now, but it freaked me out. 

So I drove to see her at totally unsafe speeds. Speeds I will never be specific about. That I certainly won’t admit to my children. A law-breaking speed at which I would tell you all to never drive. Totally unsafe.

But love often breaks the rules a little.

Like here. Women don’t touch non-relative men like this in that culture. They don’t go into the inner circle of a rabbi with his students. And they certainly don’t pour perfume on their heads. But Jesus basically says:

this is what love looks like. 

She has done a good thing for me. 

This is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had in mind about Jesus when he wrote: Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. 

Not all the morals, right? Hurt someone and call it love, and you might be an abuser. Be unfaithful and call it love, and you’re a liar. 

But some of the so-called morals, some of the rules. Love is extra. You have to let it be. 

Related to this, the third thing:

Great love stories are extravagant. 

They’re impractical, wasteful, extravagant. The men here are arguing about this. They’re upset. What a waste. A year’s earnings wasted in this extravagant gesture. We could have done something more valuable. 

And Jesus is like:

you’re right, but you’re wrong. There’s time for value, there’s time for practical. There is. But not every time. 

Love isn’t practical. It may or may not be strategic. But we’ll die without it. 

I was at that event I mentioned this week, with the delegation of those whose family or friends had been killed or taken hostage, because a friend I love had invited me. This friend is a prominent Jewish leader, in their own way. And we show up with our friends. 

I don’t always agree with this friend, and certainly not with some of this friend’s allies and partners in public life. I think the militarism and aggression and the illusion that might ever makes right is always foolhardy. And so whether it be the military violence of Israel or of Hamas or most dominantly in the world, of my own country, I tend to mourn and protest and say with Jesus – as I personally discern the way of Jesus at least – this is not the way of peace.

My friend has told me before:

this is not practical when your enemies are trying to destroy you. What does love get you then?

And I don’t know. I’m not a politician a foreign policy expert or anything, but I dream of what a politics of extravagant love might look like. I wonder what national defense strategies and budgets of extravagant love might look like, because I believe the words of the scriptures that say that love can triumph over evil, and we are to overcome evil with good. 

Away from national defense and politics and all, if we want to be part of great love stories, we have to embrace extravagance. What it means to let someone give us more than we deserve or are comfortable receiving – more praise, more attention, more kindness, more help. And we have to get comfortable turning the dial way up on how to give those to others – bigger compliments, more wasteful presents, deeper encouragement. Longer, fuller, wholehearted presence. 

We can’t do that in every moment. We’re people, not God. But if we never do it, or if we rarely do it, we’ll be like that person that takes the estate, that takes money and time, and stuff instead of love. And how foolish would that be!

Fourthly, great love stories take whole-body, whole-hearted presence.

This big crowd of friends is getting ready for the Passover meal we’ll come to know as the Last Supper. And you know what happens with big dinners for friends and family, people are talking and arguing about all kinds of things. 

Where are they going to eat?

Who brought this or that dish or supply?

Old arguments show up, in this case about what’s worth spending money on. 

And one person, one person has the presence of heart to see the most important thing going on – that Jesus is about to die, and that this is a time to love him.

That’s how Jesus interprets this moment. That one person had the presence of heart and the courage of action to anoint him for burial, to prepare him for his death. 

When you know you are loved, like you really, really know it, you can do hard things. And so Jesus says that wherever his good news goes, what she has done will be told. In memory of her.

This is what love looks like. The courage to show up to people, to gatherings, to wherever we can with our hearts open, with our emotions accessible, with the courage to say and do what love looks like, best as we see it. 

There’s no rulebook for this. Not really.

Just keep wanting to learn what love looks like. Pay attention. And have the courage to go for it. 

Lastly, great love stories are windows into the truest truth of the universe, that God is love and that we are all the subjects of undying, extravagant longing and affection. 

This love is a last parable of the good news of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. 

It’s a thing that happened, and it’s also a story of what love looks like. See others with whole-hearts, and acting extravagantly for their wellness and the wellness of everyone involved too. Seeding another great love story. 

Some of us hear this talk with a sense of the relationships and the communities where we can live it. We know where our love stories lie, or at least we think we do, and I hope we are invited to the giving and receiving of love harder, deeper, fiercer. 

Some of us are lonely or heartbroken, though, and we’re maybe not even sure where our love stories can be playing out right now. 

Friends, I hope that you know that today you are one of the objects of God’s great love story, that the full attention of our Mother and Father of God is yours with delight and affection, hopeful that you can know just how valuable you are God, and hopeful that you can find your next great love stories as well. 

Great Fire of Love we call God, 

Everlastingly Broken, poured out, offering abundant love to all creation, 

Give us the tenderness, the zeal, the courage, the hope to love deep and full, and the courage to love again.

The Way of Gratitude

I hope you all had a good long weekend. A belated happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate.

It was a long, interesting weekend for my family. Kids were all home, which is a joy we don’t take for granted, as it’s not true most days anymore. There was some feasting with family in our house and in a local nursing home as well. And probably like your family gatherings, if you ever have those, there was a mix of warmth and belonging and a little bit of loss and struggle too. 

We did something new for us as a family this year on Thanksgiving Day. Beyond the turkey and the turkey trotting, we went to the annual Day of Mourning event sponsored by New England’s indigenous communities, held along the oceanside right by Plymouth Rock. That was a sad and complex event for our white and Asian-American family to attend, but it felt like a valuable way to mark the day as well.

Thank you to our friends there, the Tolles, who let us know about that. Reservoir is a special community, friends. I believe that relationships here can really enrich our lives. I appreciate you all for that. 

However you spent the holiday, friends, I hope you’re not all done with Thanksgiving. Because in keeping with the season, for our final Way of Jesus sermon this fall, we’re going to talk about The Way of Gratitude. And then I hope we’ll practice this way of gratitude – together, and throughout the days to come. 

When I lead us in prayer before communion, you’ll have the opportunity if you like to add your own “thank you” to God.

Our text for today is from the gospel of Luke. It goes like this:

Luke 17:11-17 (Common English Bible)

11 On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.

12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him,

13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”

14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice.

16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?

18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?”

19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

I used to read this passage and think Jesus sounded like a nagging parent. Like: what’s wrong with you kids who won’t write your thank you notes? This reading feels maybe justified – it is good to thank someone who has helped you. And sure, of course one should give praise to one’s creator God. But just because it was justified didn’t mean it did anything. Should’ing all over somebody rarely inspires them. At least not me. 

But I read this a little differently now. Let me share five fun facts about this passage that help me hear something different. Maybe they will for you too.

So fun fact, number one, Jerusalem.

Jesus is on a long, hard road trip with a horrible ending. The whole middle of the gospel of Luke is set during this walk Jesus takes from the region of the Sea of Galilee to the city of Jerusalem. It’s 120 miles, like walking from Boston along the Mass Pike all the way to New York. That’s a long way to walk. Jesus also faces increasing opposition to his work along the way and predicts that he’ll be killed when he arrives there.

When he first sees Jerusalem in the distance, he breaks down in tears, weeping over the city, as he imagines the Roman empire not only killing him that week, but destroying the whole place in the generation to come. So Jesus has every reason to be sad, anxious, and grumpy on this journey – and maybe he is sometimes – but we also see him like he is here, noticing people in need, looking to empower, help, and heal.

Fun fact, number two. The Samaritans.

Three times in this journey Luke brings up the Samaritans.  

The first time, Jesus and his crew walk into a Samaritan village, and not only are they not fed or housed, they are asked to leave. Then two of Jesus’ buddies ask him if they should try to pray down fire from heaven on them. Jesus of course tells them that is an awful idea, but you wonder why in the world are things so tense? 

Well, history tells us that it’s for lots of reasons. First century Jews and Samaritans are neighbors. But they live in separate villages mostly, and do everything they can to avoid each other. The beef goes back centuries. In the 9th and 8th century BC Israel had a civil war. Half of the people from that division got conquered by the Assyrian empire and some of them were assimilated into a people called  Samaritans. Two or three centuries later Jews and Samaritans had a series of conflicts over the new temple in Jerusalem and whose homeland that region was. In the second century, the Samaritans were allies with a Greek empire in a huge war against the Jews, a violent conflict that gave birth to the holiday of Hanukkah. In revenge for that, Jerusalem Jews destroyed the Samaritans’ temple and violently raided the whole area. And then a century after that, right around when Jesus was born, Samaritans – in revenge for that whole temple massacre – didn’t destroy the Jerusalem temple, but they scattered human bones all around the temple to defile it – kind of like when today you hear about a synagogue or church getting vandalized or burned. 

So this was no petty conflict. It was a centuries-old, violent cultural feud between neighboring peoples. Into this setting, when Jesus tells a story about what love looks like, he tells a story of a Samaritan, re-neighboring the land with his kindness. 

And then here, when ten people are healed with Jesus’ help, the one Jesus honors for his gratitude is also a Samaritan. Jesus is trying to heal not just bodies, but old conflicts, as he too re-neighbors the land. 

Fun fact, number three. Skin diseases.

On a number of occasions, Jesus interacts with people who have some sort of skin disease. Mostly, he heals them. Our Bibles have translated this skin disease as leprosy. So we hear that Jesus heals lepers. 

But scientists are pretty sure that there was nothing like leprosy in the first century Near East. Instead, they think this skin condition we hear about is something like severe eczema. 

As a parent of a kid who had severe eczema when he was little, this hits different for me now. I remember how much that kid would itch and itch and itch, unable to sleep at night as he scratched himself redder and redder. I remember a preteen girl I had in class years ago when I was a teacher, and how embarrassed she was by her severely dry, flaky skin. 

And it moves me that Jesus healed people with severe eczema – that he cared about that. 

For Jesus, though, and his contemporaries, this skin disease wasn’t just flaky, dry skin. That peeling skin reminded them of death, so much so that this skin condition rendered you ceremonially unclean. 

This is a complicated part of the Bible’s culture that reminds us that we live in a really different time and place. But in this religious culture, there were a bunch of things that could happen with your body that weren’t anyone’s fault, but made it so you couldn’t go to the temple. One scholar who writes about this time calls all this calls these conditions the forces of death. People had these superstitions about these conditions because they reminded people of death. 

And it turns out that these are many of the conditions Jesus healed, because he wanted people to be able to participate in the spiritual and religious life of their communities. And he just hated death. He wanted people to live and in their bodies and hearts just be full of life! I love that about Jesus.

So I wonder if here Jesus heals this skin condition, because people think it’s a force of death. And I wonder if Jesus sort of harshes on nine people’s ingratitude because not being grateful is its own kind of force of death in our life. 

Speaking of healing – Fun fact, number four. Faith.

Jesus was quite insistent that he is not responsible for people’s outcomes. They are responsible at least as much as him. That’s pretty deep when you think about it. Everything in our life – all the bad stuff – it might not be our fault at all. But in the end, everything in our life is our responsibility. We have to live with ourselves.

When Jesus says goodbye to this grateful Samaritan with the now shiny, healthy skin, he says to him: it wasn’t magic. It wasn’t mostly me. He says: your faith has healed you.

Your faith has healed you. Jesus says that a lot. And I think he really means it. 

Now this doesn’t mean the opposite is true. Life is not just an algebra equation.

Don’t ever say to someone else that they didn’t get what they wanted from God because they didn’t have faith. Please don’t ever think that about yourself either. Life is just more complicated than this. There are so many reasons things get better and things don’t get better.

But we know that mercy and kindness, including the mercy and kindness we welcome from God, matters. And we know that faith matters too. 

In this case, Jesus’ mercy, plus the Samaritan’s faith create the conditions for healing.

And now fun fact, number five. Gratitude. 

Ten people are making their way to the priest, as Jesus recommended. And they all start looking at each other – like hey, what has happened to your skin? You are looking so fine now. And they: thank you, and hey, wait, you are looking pretty smooth and shiny yourself. How about that? It must have been kind of wild. 

What happens then? I wonder how many keep going to the priest for their ceremonial reentrance to the religious community. And I wonder why the Samaritan is the only one who goes back to say thank you to Jesus. Would that Samaritan even have been welcomed by the priest anyway? I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, Jesus notices. He’s like:

this is a good thing, this gratitude, this giving praise to God.

What does Jesus mean by this?

  • Is he commanding us all to thank and praise God?
  • Is he annoyed at the ones who didn’t?
  • Is he honoring the good character of this grateful Samaritan?
  • Being honest that it feels good when someone says thank you?

I don’t know. Maybe all four.

I think it’s OK to acknowledge that our gratitude is good for God. God isn’t petty or needy, I don’t think, but God is relational. God appreciates attention and love and gratitude, like any good parent. So sure, thankful people make God happy.

But I guess in light of all these things – Jesus’ interest in healing enmity between people, Jesus’s awareness of the healing power of our outlook on God and our outlook on life, Jesus’ desire to destroy the forces of death among us – I think in light of all that, it’s fair to say that Jesus wants more gratitude in our lives because it’s good for us as well.

Gratitude helps people live longer, happier, healthier. Gratitude bonds people in relationships. It cultivates less resentful and entitled communities, and more generous and grateful ones.

Gratitude is really good for us. 

This is one of the foundational points of Diana Butler Bass’ really powerful book called Grateful. It’s about the “transformative power of giving thanks.”  

Bass starts her book with what seems like a riddle. The great majority of Americans report experiencing profound gratitude at least every week. 

And yet, as a society, we also are growing in the bitter fruits of ingratitude. We are more anxious and resentful than ever, less optimistic and less trustful, and more compulsive and addicted.

What’s going on here? And what to do about it? 

Well, it may be that our gratitude is too narrow and too personal.

We may be grateful for our good luck or our material blessings. 

But gratitude isn’t just a happy feeling when something good surprises us. It’s an ethic of humility, relationality, and wonder. Gratitude notices the many unearned goodnesses in our lives – from the very breath in our lungs on. Every good gene in our body, every person who’s ever loved us or even done us kindness, every good in the world that we enjoy or depend upon. We didn’t make that happen. It has come to us as a gift. 

To cultivate attention to these gifts and to thank our Creator and to thank our fellow creatures who have gifted us gives credit where credit is due. It’s a kind of healthy and freeing acknowledgement of how interdependent we all are. No one does life alone. 

And it better connects us, grows optimism and resilience in us, opens us up to more smiles, more joy. Protects us from our worst selves. 

Diana Butler Bass points out that gratitude also isn’t just a “me” thing, it’s a “we” thing. Gratitude in our relationships, among our family and friends and acquaintances, and in our public life heals our communities and our society. 

It’s really hard to be grateful and greedy at the same time. 

It’s hard to be grateful and critical at the same time. 

It’s really hard to be grateful and resentful at the same time.

Maybe you can do it, if you try, but it’s hard. 

It’s really hard to be grateful and violent at the same time. 

So I think the Spirit of God would long for more gratitude in our public lives. 

One place I’ve seen this is through our partners in India with the organization Asha. Asha is a public health and community development NGO in New Delhi, India. Their health care and education and empowerment programs among the urban poor are transformational. When I’ve traveled to visit them, I’ve done so with teachers and social workers and doctors from our community who have volunteered with them but also learned from their powerful, effective work.

But the thing that grips many friends of Asha the most is the way they do their work in community. Their model of community empowerment is driven by a series of spiritual, relational values, one of which is gratitude. 

Asha’s leader, and friend of Reservoir Dr. Kiran Martin puts it this way. She writes:   

Gratitude is not just a feeling of thankfulness in response to a gift or a kind gesture. Gratitude is a way of life. It is a conscious choice to focus on life’s blessings rather than on its shortcomings. It magnifies goodness and therefore blocks toxic emotions such as envy, resentment or depression that destroy one’s optimal well being.

One of the ways Asha has lived this value in their communities has been through gratitude campaigns. One form this has taken over the years has been encouragement for people to write thank you letters to another person and then instead of just mailing or delivering that letter, to read it out loud face to face to the person you are thanking. 

Have you ever done this? Written a thank you note to someone and then read it to them, face to face? Has anyone ever done this for you?

I don’t think I’d ever done this before I got to know the work of Asha. But I have since then, a number of times. And each time a few things happen. 

Sometimes the person receiving the thanks is a little awkward or shy about it. But mostly they smile, it surprises them and makes them happy. They say thank you. 

For the person who wrote and read the letter, the effect is at least as powerful. The gratitude releases joy. There’s almost always a hug or at least a handshake. Gratitude sparks love and connection. It’s so good. Highly recommend this, my friends. 

Another place we can see gratitude happen together is civic gratitude. Our own Ed Gaskin is behind a project in Boston that honors the contributions of Black women to life in our region. There are 212 banners along Blue Hill Avenue in Roxbury in Dorchester, each of whom names and shows the picture of a Black woman who made contributions to a better community or a better city. 

There are authors and activists, seamstresses and politicians, bishops and educators and grandmothers to families of foster children. So that as you walk or drive up and down Blue Hill Avenue, you’re encouraged to give thanks for the contribution of mostly unsung leaders of our past, and wonder who are the unsung leaders among us now, who is the unsung leader within us even. 

This isn’t just a long overdue act of recognition and respect in Boston. It’s also a profound gift to our community. Ed, we appreciate you for spearheading this incredible initiative. It’s an example to us all. Thank you, Ed. 

You know, we have leaders in public life – lots of them – who lead by making us more fearful, more entitled, and less grateful. Once you start looking for this, it’s easy to spot. Because fear, entitlement, and resentment stir their own kind of loyalty, their own kind of action. But it’s just terribly toxic for everyone involved, and it brings out all the ugly among us. Don’t follow leaders like this. Don’t be one.

Instead, we can respond to leaders, we can be leaders who lead by cultivating hope, gratitude, and love. One simple way Diana Butler Bass encourages this is that in any public sphere where we have leadership whatsoever, create space for gratitude. This can be in a family, a household, or a friend group, encouraging little daily or weekly rituals of gratitude. If we ever lead meetings – even small ones – we can open or close the meetings with invitations to thank someone for their help at work or to connect around our gratitude. 

I’m going to wrap up here, with an invitation to two ways we can practice public, community-based gratitude together right now.  

There’s more to our lives than goodness and blessing. Some of us are fresh off of complicated family gatherings. Some of us enter these holiday seasons, and these dark, early days of winter are sad, lonely, or scared. I mentioned being at a Day of Mourning event on Thursday. There’s lots to grieve in our lives and in this world. We’re not thankful for everything. We can’t be.

But we can have more joy, more connection, more health and goodness in us and around us, when we can be thankful in everything.

So in just a moment, I’ll lead us in prayer before communion. And I’ll leave space where as many of you as want to can call out loud something you are thankful for. Be as loud as you’re able, so it’s easier for us to share in your thanks. Keep it short, just say: Thank you God for…. (whatever you like). And don’t worry if more than one person goes at once. Let’s have a kind of festival of thanksgiving moment together.

And then communion itself. When we eat these bits of cracker, drink this bit of juice together in memory of Jesus, we are practicing communion – connection, fellowship together with God. And we are also practicing what Catholic Christians call “the Eucharist” which means giving thanks. We’re thanking God for feeding us, and thanking God for sharing God’s forgiveness and love and life with us, in the person of Jesus who walked among us, lived, died, and rose again, and who is with us still by the Spirit of Jesus. 

So friends, let’s give thanks together.

A Living God

Good morning everyone! It’s a joy to be with all of you – to be together, to devote our time to be in this particular building in North Cambridge and with you online, at this particular time, with all these amazing and likely, particular people!

Isn’t wild to look around right now. To look around at people maybe you’ve known for a really long time – or people you are looking at for the first time! To think about your own week –  all the stuff it held. The tasks, the people, the projects, the boring, the unexpected, the eating, the sleeping, the activities, the things you feel good about – the things you are wrestling with… the small things… the big, giant things. And to think that ALLLL these people in this place also had a week that had probably some of those same elements. Think about what kind of amazing humans we are – that we can navigate all of what our days hold.

I wanted to start today by inviting you to pause right now – to close your eyes and think about your week, (or your last couple of days – if you are like whoa there’s no way I can remember Monday!). And let all that you saw, all that you did, all the people you talked to, come into view… As you think about the scope of your week – what are some of the attributes about yourself that come to mind?  If you were invited to tell someone, “I am __________,” what are some descriptors you would use?

Turn to one another and share a few ways you would describe yourself – starting with this prompt, “I am _____________.”  You could take it right on the nose and say, “I am a human being, I am a daughter, I am a pastor….”  Or “I am someone who loves cats, I am strong, I am someone who loves fruity desserts…”  Take it anyway you want – at your comfort level … 

The rules of engagement are to introduce yourself – name and pronouns – and take turns sharing… if you are the listener your job is to just listen…

Thanks for being willing to engage that prompt – it might feel like a small thing to share a little bit of who you are. But I think it’s the foundation of all the big stuff ‘faith’ is made of… it’s what scripture, and prayer and community, and anything that refers to itself as “teaching,” hang on  – real life – our real lives – who we are,  and likewise a real and living God that cares about who we are – our particularness and all.  

So today we will keep mining this prompt in some fashion, I’ll also talk about hummingbirds, and David & Goliath. And you and me and the giants of our day – and I hope God talks with you too – about all of it from exactly where you are at. 

Here we go!
Let me pray for us.

God, I thank you that you are a God of uncontrolling love – a love that does loops and loops and loops around us to convince of just how much you love us – in all of our days…days that hold the big and the small moments of frustration and the big and small moments of joy – ones where we face giants that feel insurmountable and somehow God, could you help us to find ourselves not only capable of receiving of your love – but worthy of it, and empowered by it! Thank you God for such love, thank you for loving us right now.

STORY

This summer my husband Scott and I have gotten into a little bit of a rhythm of going for a walk after work. We have a loop we do that takes us down a wooded path, over a little bridge and along the edge of a pond.

And while we walk – I guess because we are getting older – we also pull out our bird apps and see what birds it identifies as we go. Our conversations kind of dart all over the place in a figure-eight pattern – from birds, to debriefing our day, to the world’s woes – to the seemingly insignificant – like grocery lists:

“Oh Scott, I forgot to tell you all the eggs are gone.”  

Really all the eggs are gone? 

Yah, we need to get more. . . 

But we had like 16 eggs left?  

Yah, I know –  they are gone. 

All of them – even the three I boiled? 

Ehm.. yah, Scott all of them.

 

To….. “Oh listen – there’s a yellow warbler!”

To….., the crushing weight of powerful giants in our day:

“How are we going to tackle the mental health crises of our children – their friends, of their generation?”

“What about climate change?”

“Can you believe the Supreme Court decision?”

“Vermont’s flooding?”


And our walk takes us to a clearing at the end of the edge of the pond – where it opens up onto this green field and in the middle of it is this big beech tree. 

The funny thing about bird apps – is that you are often looking at your phone in hopes of identifying a bird – rather than looking around in your environment – the canopy of trees above to see them. But for some reason a couple of weeks ago as we entered into the clearing I was just looking at this tree – and at the very, very top of this big tree is a barren branch that goes vertical .. .and at the tippy top of that branch was a hummingbird. I mean – almost invisible except for the fact that the barren branch really revealed its outline clearly. 

And it was just sitting there.  Not humming – or flying – just perched.

And for the next several walks – the hummingbird was there, every time – so exposed and so still.

Now, a creature so small (weighing less than a marshmallow), doesn’t seem like it would be served by leaving itself out visible to all predators and enemies. Surely the evolutionary traits for survival would suggest that this hummingbird should hide, protect itself in the more foliage-rich branches, and employ some sort of good armor.

There was a way that this curious posture just didn’t seem to “fit” with what I thought I knew of hummingbirds.  

In the story of David & Goliath we come across this theme of “not fitting” – not quite making sense – as we revisit this familiar story. It’s such a familiar story that I invite you to  – as best you can – enter with a fresh lens – listen with an open heart and let the story stir you as it will today.

We enter this story as David is going to King Saul to throw his name in the ring as a contender to fight Goliath. The Israelites and the Philistines had been camped on either side of the Elah Valley for 40 days  – with no movement to engage in battle – except for the unrelenting taunting and intimidation tactics of Goliath. 

So where we pick up the story today we find  David and Saul in conversation about this, and David leads with…

SCRIPTURE:  I Samuel 17:32-40 New Living Translation Study Application Bible

“Don’t worry about a thing” David told Saul. “I’ll go fight this Philistine.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There is no way you can go against this Philistine. You are only a boy, and he has been in the army since he was a boy!”

But David persisted. “I have been taking care of my father’s sheep,” he said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, I go after it with a club and take the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death. I have done this to both lions and bears, and I’ll do it to this pagan Philistine, too, for he has defied the armies of the living God! The Lord who saved me from the claws of the lion and the bear will save me from this Philistine!”

Saul finally consented. “All right, go ahead,” he said. “And may the Lord be with you!”

Then Saul gave David his own armor – a bronze helmet and a coat of mail. David put it on, strapped the sword over it, and took a step or two to see what it was like, for he had never worn such things before. “I can’t go in these,” he protested. “I’m not used to them.” So he took them off again. He picked up five smooth stones from a stream and put them in his shepherd’s bag. Then, armed only with his shepherd’s staff and sling, he started across to fight Goliath.

This story has become widely known as an example of how the underdog can triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds through skill, courage, and faith/God.  And indeed this is one of the great lessons of the story – but I also think it is important to pay attention to how David invites us to consider what might not “fit” anymore, both on the personal level and in the world around us.  And how it is we can anchor to who we know God to be, and who we know ourselves to be – especially when the giant of FEAR runs rampant.  

“Goliath is the Philistine champion, representing a society of warriors who wreaked havoc, violence, oppression and death from Syria to Egypt. David steps forward as Israel’s champion. He is a shepherd like his ancestors were before they were enslaved in Egypt. David represents former slaves, struggling to establish themselves in a new land.” (Pastor Ritva H Williams)

And he is the youngest of his father Jesse’s sons – with some of his brothers already in Saul’s army.  Jesse tells him to go bring provisions to his brothers and that is when he hears the threats of Goliath and Goliath’s call for one Israelite representative to come forward to fight him. 

Now Goliath is a symbol of so-called advanced culture – he has got it right – he has traditional war weapons, he has armor, he is powerful. He is big. He is strong, he’s intimidating –  and this is a pretty good strategy as he goes into battle. King Saul of course recognizes all these traditional ways of battle and says,

‘hey the only way to go about this is to take this ‘gear’

and so he offers David all of his war armor.  It makes sense, it follows the rules of battle  – you put on all the armor you can.

And David does – he tries on Saul’s armor right? But he says,

I can’t go in these.” 

In scripture it says he protests!

“I’m not used to them.”

So he took them off again.

“I can’t go in these. It’s not going to work.”

And there’s a way we can read this and say –

“way to go David! Yah, you are a shepherd boy of course this heavy, too-big armor doesn’t work for you.” 

But I think David is inviting us to consider his move to be more than just a personal choice for preference and comfort. 

I don’t know about you – but it seems like we live in a land and time of giants. Where Goliaths roam and have wreaked havoc for a long time and have set up camp to stay.  Division and hate and violence seem to be the regular tools of human engagement and the insidious weapons of white supremacy, patriarchy, misogyny, power in the mouths of a few, anti-LGBTQIA laws, coercion (and so on), seem to be the armies we battle day in and day out. 

It’s so exhausting, so disheartening, so comprehensive that most days I find myself resorting to the rules of engagement set for centuries. Fighting in the same pattern except trying to yell louder, point fingers stronger. Or I can disengage…. camp out on the other side of the valley and remain distant – convincing myself that any effort I put out is too small to matter.  I mean this is the pattern of our nation since its inception – and I can see that the tactics, the armor doesn’t seem to be working… Doesn’t lead us all out of the valley unto greater freedom.  

We can beat ourselves up about this – and feel trapped – and that’s also by design. Because the central mechanism in all of these oppressive and unhealthy systems – is an insidious giant itself –  FEAR.

Fear as a tool to keep everyone in their places, to break your spirit. To doubt your thoughts – disregard your impact, and fear is a battle strategy that maps out just how many institutions it can cull into its bunkers. From state houses, to supreme courts, to prisons, to churches… And it targets the most marginalized and minority populations.

And so it is not surprising that sometimes it’s easier to fight fear with things that don’t fit us. As I’ve listened to the 25 stories that have been rolling out to commemorate Reservoir’s 25 years of existence – it is clear that some of you have had experiences with this in faith settings.  Where churches fight fear with things that don’t fit –

“like choosing harmful theologies, clinging to tradition, taking on the cultural values that will appease” (enfleshed.com)

– offering up interpretations of scripture through a narrow lens that doesn’t work at including all people – and never worked – but nevertheless offering it as the one and only truth.

But David shows us here that we can transform our fear in constructive ways. And how necessary it is  – because the alternative is actually the scariest thing… The alternative is to continue in something – whether that’s a relationship or job or community of faith- when you know that it fundamentally does not fit.

Doesn’t work. Does harm. That’s what’s really scary.

David offers us a glimpse of what it looks like to stop and question a solution to a problem that models the source of the problem in the first place. He suggests in his refusal to put on this armor, that there is more than one way to go to battle.

That there can be creative and faithful responses to oppressive forces, systems of evil, or harmful values without simply returning them in-kind (enfleshed.com), or fumbling around in armor that no longer fits… David breaks from the traditional approach of self-defense.

David’s seemingly small move here – to say

“no, I’m not going to wear this armor”

– breaks convention. Which is actually colossal. And he shifts the rules of engagement from power and fear – to vulnerability and the unexpected. A 10-year old shepherd boy and a slingshot. Bearing no markers of patriarchal strength. Who says, “no.” 

David’s “no” – can seem insignificant – but it is what disrupts everything.

His “no”, is a distinct refusal to be like Saul, to be like the nation, to be like this Philistine.  It isn’t just a refusal of armor – it is a refusal to be party to an oppressive system itself.

It is an invitation for us to see that we have a fighting chance against oppressive forces.

How?

Who is he? 

What does he draw on? 

He draws on the strength and courage of a LIVING GOD. And he knows he is a “child of this LIVING God.” A LIVING GOD that he has encountered not in “it is well with my soul” moments of peace, free of challenge… but in a lifetime of facing fear. Let’s not forget that David comes from a long ancestral line of shepherds.

David lets Saul know that he is a shepherd, no stranger to fear – the lions, and the bears – fear has been present, and David has allowed FEAR to be his teacher. Shepherds’ lives were not idyllic. They were out in the fields in all conditions, they were under constant  pressure to be attentive to threats – to keep themselves alive and their livelihood, these sheep – alive…. It was dirty, it was uncomfortable – it was hard.  

 And as a shepherd his role was not to just watch the sheep – but to watch the perimeter of their lives, where these sheep graze. Shepherds watch it and stand guard at this line –  for incoming trouble. They train themselves to identify potential and real harm. That’s where their focus is – their sights are on this line where danger, fear, threats and anxiety come to penetrate the pasture and the flock. Their hearts and their bodies stay awake to the danger constantly.

Their job is to be professional – fear- gazers. 

And additionally many shepherds were by society, regarded as “sinners” – a technical term used to describe a class of despised people.

Howard Thurman – talks about this reality in his book Jesus and the Disinherited – he says that

“the underprivileged in any society are victims [of fear] – of a perpetual war of nerves.” 

And oppressive systems depend and survive on crushing the worth and the dignity of people – he says,

“the socially disadvantaged are constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: “Who am I? What am I?”

So the battle at hand is not only circumstantial – not only unjust laws  – it is a battle to protect the truth of who God regards them to be.

David knows he is a shepherd – regarded as lowly – at the periphery. And yet he also knows God is with him, that God is living.  As David details to Saul his battles with a lion or a bear – “yes,” he mentions his own abilities – in partnership – with the living God. BUT he clearly credits God as the one who saves him from the claws and the mouths of these animals. 

And it is from that foundation that God affirms who David is –

“yes you are shepherd, yes you are a son, and you are a “king.” And you are a “force” and you are “worthy” and you have insurmountable “dignity,” and you are a “child of God.” And I am always with you.

Fear as a tool of the oppressor to limit, trap and control. Now transforms into fear of God. A good fear. A fear meaning “awe” – fear meaning an experience of the mighty, uncontrolling love of God. A God that is always fighting for us to discover our intrinsic power, gifts, talents and abilities.

God is with me – God sees me – I matter. I am not forgotten. I am not trapped.  This calls to life a profound sense of personal worth – that can absorb the fear reaction” (Thurman 40).

These are the smooth stones – we run through our fingers in our pocket reminding us that these truths are in fact our weapons.

As I visited that tree – and that hummingbird was there –  always on that same perch – I really marveled at it – it had this supernatural quality to it. This David-like spirit.  It’s little beak slightly lifted in the air – confident, daring.   But I watched for so long each time – because I was also so scared for her. It couldn’t be that such a tiny tiny little being could defy the massive giants that threaten her at all sides. 

But this hummingbird seemed to be comfortable in its innate capabilities – more known to her, than to me! Hummingbird characteristics don’t “fit” into regular avian species traits. They defy all ordinary limits of what biology and physics conspire to render possible.

“Like no other bird among the thousands of known avian species, they can fly backward and upside-down, and can hover. And their wings do not flap up and down, as wings do in ordinary bird flight, but they swivel rapidly along this invisible curvature of an infinity symbol.” (Marginlinian, Maria Popova)

I was convinced that the reason she returned to this spot – and picked this vulnerable, high perch – was because she had a nest in the tree – protecting that which she loves. Her babies. And oh, how I would get that  – Scott and my conversation about solving the world’s woes – is in part because we want to set our own babies up for a world in which they can flourish. And it may be true -maybe there was a nest –  but I also think she just knew herself well. This primal trust in her design, the power and strength to be free  – to fly figure-eights around any incoming threat or enemy.  

We can get swept into the battle of preserving and defending ideas and traditions – unto death. All the while losing sight of the people in our midst who need the protection of community and belonging. David knew he didn’t want to usher in another king to reign with terror and might – he wanted the people of Israel to discover their strength and courage as children of a living God. This truth, the one that’s embedded in our design, our DNA when uncovered – 

“results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power.” (Thurman 39)

These are truths of who we are in God – they are simple – they can seem so small but are so full of power.  They are also so countercultural that we need to be told them over and over and over again – in a figure-eight pattern, an infinity pattern – in order to withstand the giants of our days.  This is the armor we need. 

“I am a child of God. I am loved. I am enough. I am empowered.”

This is the power that systems,, and organizations, and communities should be concerned about… especially churches – HOW do we set-up EVERYONE to belong – in a more just, more free – more healthy society?

How do we create enough space for that to be so – and not be AFRAID of that space, or try to control that space with rules and regulations – to allow people to discover their whole selves in the company of the living God.

A God that loves to watch us fly – to take risks – to upend the norm.  Not control us.   Because the profound sense of belonging – of counting – of mattering … in this vast, GIANT, overwhelming world is vital.

Let us not forget what is ours to do in the moment – even if it feels inconsequential.  Maybe it’s a simple “no” – where you would have usually said ‘yes’. 

Maybe it’s pausing to sit – when you otherwise would be busy.

Maybe it’s buying more eggs – so you can have neighbors over for breakfast…

Whatever it is – know that you do not necessarily have to bridge all divides across the country – fight all the battles of the day. What is yours to do could just be right in front of you, with what you have, and who you know yourself to be, with a LIVING GOD. 

 “Faith and awareness of the presence of the living God with you – this is what overcomes fear and transforms it into power – to thrive – to flourish – and TO not YIELD to the Goliath’s that roam about.” (paraphrased Thurman 47)

To end,  why don’t you close your eyes and think about that question we started with, “Who am I?” Maybe there’s more that comes to mind, maybe it’s the same – but I want to add one more smooth stone to your bag and that is, 

“I am a child of God.”

I am a child of the living God.”  

And unto this, my friends… there is no weapon that threatens.

Amen

 

Gardner Jesus and the Renewal of Creation

So, this winter, I’ve watched a couple of dystopian TV shows. They’ve felt a little like documentaries to me, just more interesting. Like, here’s one crazy, but not entirely unbelievable, version of our future. 

One of them is called The Last of Us. It imagines a world that’s been destabilized by pandemic – it’s fungal, not viral, and it’s far more devastating than covid. It doesn’t just make you sick when you get it, it turns you into a zombie. And in The Last of Us, the small bands of remaining uninfected humans are with their fear and grit, trying to find ways to survive. 

I’m not necessarily recommending the show – it’s really scary and grim. But what I find compelling is that despite all that, life keeps finding a way. The Last of Us universe is a greener world than we know, as grasses, moss, and trees reclaim our urban ruins. And unlikely friendships are forged. Old griefs try to slowly heal. People fall in love when they didn’t think that was possible anymore. New creation keeps growing up out of the dirt. 

At the heart of the whole show is this human vessel of new creation, a teenage girl that just might hold the hope of human healing and new life. She too has been infected by this zombie-making fungus, but unlike any other known human, she has survived. And people hope that her body might hold the key to humanity’s salvation. 

There’s this one episode where Ellie – that’s her name – has made a sweet friendship with a kind of surrogate little brother she’s met. Only, he gets infected too. He knows, we know, this is the end. But not Ellie. She’s like: hold on, I can save you.

She thinks just a little bit of her blood, entering her friend’s body, can infuse him with her immunity, make him whole. And I’m on the edge of my chair, like: come on, Ellie, and your blood of salvation. Let it work. 

But of course it doesn’t, and I’m about as devastated as I can get from a TV show. Why do I care so much? 

I care because in a world where things fall apart, in lives that have had many reasons to shed tears, there are so many places where I long for things to be made new. 

And I care so much because Ellie reminds me of Jesus, and I hope that there’s still something in the story and spirit of Jesus that can help save us all.

Friends, Easter has room for us however we got here today. Easter has room for all our fear and grief and grit. On Easter, we remember a day that began with tears and terror, with hopes unfulfilled and dreams dashed. Today’s Bible text we’ll read takes place by a tomb, where the human some thought make all things new was buried. 

And yet Easter insists upon resurrection, that where death has increased, life can abound yet more and more. Easter says that the risen Jesus is among us still as a gardener, tending to the seeds and shoots of new life among us, daring us to cultivate them in hope.

On Easter, amidst all the grief and wounds and scars and fear, the Spirit of Jesus comes to us still, asking us:

Why are you crying? What are you looking for?

And calling us by name, saying friend, all can be made new. Drawing us toward the peace of hoping, believing that it’s true. 

Let’s read this Easter text from the gospel of John, and let’s talk about its new creation theology of resurrection, and how we can lean into it in our times.

John 20:11-21 (Common English Bible)

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb.

12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot.

13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”

20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 

So there is a lot here. We could talk about anti-semitism. This line that gets repeated in John, “the Jewish authorities” has for centuries fed violent Christian anti-semitism.

But Jesus and the great majority of other people in the gospels are all Jews. There are rivalries and conflicts among the people, they get worse and worse over the years. But anyone who calls themselves a Christian owes their faith, their Bible, their Jesus to the Jewish people. So Christian anti-semitism is an affront to one’s past and an offense to God. And beyond that, hating on other faiths out of insecure anxiety about the truth or supremacy of our own is something we’ve all got to grow out of as a people, isn’t it? 

We could talk about hopelessness. Jesus’ disciples are in hiding. One of their friends has ended his life in despair. The rest have watched the Roman state execute their teacher, their friend. Now they think that leaders among their own people are coming for them. And Mary, another friend of Jesus, out here, working through her own grief, just looking for a grave to tend. It’s beautiful in its own way, but it’s heart-breaking too.

We could talk about the tenderness. Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. Post-resurrection, no one does. But Jesus doesn’t give her a hard time. In fact, Isn’t it like Jesus to ask her questions, to be curious and draw her out? The tears of grief, the stunned confusion, the cry of relief – my teacher – and then when she recognizes her friend, the embrace. It’s all so tender.

We could talk about the slow spread of hope. If I was crucified by my powerful enemies and then if I came back to life and got another chance, I’d want a big and bold vindication. I’d want to come after somebody. But Jesus seems delighted for vindication to happen differently – person to person encounters where faith births hope out of the ashes of despair. It’s more humane, it’s what love looks like. 

So we could talk about a lot. But I want to focus on what seems like a little thing, the little mistaken identity moment when Mary thinks Jesus is the tomb’s gardener. 

“Thinking he was the gardener….” It’s a funny little moment, but I think it’s not so much a mistake as a clue. It’s a clue to the story John wants to tell about Jesus and new creation.

From the beginning of the gospel of John, he’s been telling us that Jesus is here for just this, to renew all creation. 

The first chapter of John is a remix of the Bible’s creation story. It starts with the same words,

“In the beginning…”

In the creation story, we read that amidst a watery chaos, God spoke order and beauty and life into being. John tells us that in Jesus, this Word of God has become flesh. The invisible God materializes as a human being, the poor son of a carpenter on the Eastern edge of a mighty empire. 

And John says this same person is light and truth and grace. Jesus is a human life giving expression to all the creative goodness of God. 

And then throughout John, we see Jesus doing these oddly provocative and beautiful things John calls signs. They’re rooted in Jesus’ Jewish tradition – stuff about wine and shepherds and bread from heaven and new life made out of the muddy dirt. But in each sign what’s happening is that God is empowering Jesus to make new creation possible. To say and do things that transform our ordinary, earthy experience for the good. 

And it all comes to a climax in these final two chapters of resurrection. Jesus appears as a gardener, tending to the birth and growth of peace and joy and possibility in his friends, encouraging them to do the same throughout creation. To make the whole earth green with hope and love and life. 

Pastor Ivy gave this great sermon earlier this year on this same text. She taught us a word drawn from the First Nations Potawatomi people, the word puhpowee. It’s a word for the power that makes mushrooms burst forth from the ground. It’s a word for “the unseen energies that animate everything.” It’s qi. It’s spirit. Life force.

Mary discovers, as Ivy taught us, that God’s puhpowee is at work in Jesus now, who has sprung to life from his tomb. And as Jesus commissions his friends to peace amidst distress, and to love and feed others on his behalf, Jesus says

this force can be in you as well.

He breathes his Spirit onto his people, shares his puhpowee force with us all so that we too can live resurrection life. 

Friends, we are alive in a moment when we could use the vitality and peace of God in us, aren’t we? Where would we love to see this greening, this renewal, of creation? 

The Boston Globe published a piece a couple weeks back around the biggest fears of students on area college campuses. And they are serious, serious stuff our young adults are wondering about. 

Stuff like:

  • Can we afford to live?
  • Is racism getting worse?
  • Will A.I. make us irrelevant? 
  • Can I find work that has real purpose? 
  • Is there enough help for all our anxiety and depression?
  • Sex and dating is a hot mess right now, isn’t it?
  • And will climate change ruin everything, for all of us?

Heavy questions, aren’t they? I expect you could add more of your own. 

  • Is a hopeful disposition about life reasonable? 
  • Is God still making creation new or not?
  • What can grow from all the ashes of our age? 

Everything, Jesus says. Everything.

On the way into Jerusalem, just a few days before his death, Jesus tells his own little puhpowee eco-story. He says:

I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.

This is the way of wheat. Seeds don’t bear fruit unless they are buried in the ground, shed their coat, and then in a miracle of biochemistry… puhpowee, burst forth as something new. 

It’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection life. Betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated, terrorized, crucified, yet he is risen – scarred but very much alive, and bringing delight and peace, restoration and purpose in every one of his encounters. 

It has also been our experience and certainly the experience of our ancestors – those in our own lineage and our ancestors in the Way of Jesus as well. We have hit the end of our rope, absolutely run out of resources or next steps, rock bottom all around, and life has found us. 

Maybe it hasn’t happened to you recently. But you’re here and alive because it happened for your ancestors, and the Way of Jesus persists 2,000 years later because again and again, those that came before us in the faith have found the dying but risen Jesus come through for them. 

I’ve been thinking lately about one of the times this happened for me. It was one of the saddest and loneliest times of my life. I was 14 years old. I had very few friends. I was sitting with some significant trauma that had come my way but that I hadn’t managed to tell a single soul. 

I was kind of brilliant but I was bombing my high school classes, not doing any of the work. I was sad and scared and no one knew it. 

But one day, in this high school chorus I was in, with like a hundred other kids in my school, the choir director called on me to lead the little solo that was part of our warm ups. How did she do this? Get high school kids to sing on the spot solos in front of nearly a hundred of their peers?

I have no idea, but you didn’t say no to Ms. Sunny Prior, you just did it. So I sang. 

Alleluia.

I was so nervous, and I know a lot of people speed things up when they’re nervous, but I slowed way down. 

Alleluia. 

I was almost done. People were repeating after me. One more.

Alleluia.

And then silence. Ms. Prior started getting this energy in her face, everyone was looking at her now, and she burst out –

that Steven Watson, listen to that boy sing! 

I am sure my face lit up red in embarrassment. But it meant the world to me. 

She saw me and called out what I didn’t know was there in me. I auditioned for a second choir with her the next year. And then I joined a third and fourth choir, higher and higher levels, and tried out and got the lead in the school musical.

On the one hand, extracurricular activity – who cares? But it was much more than that. I was getting attention for this thing I enjoyed and was good at, and making friends and feeling more confident and connected. And these then ended up being the same years that I started to find a more personally meaningful faith in God.

In ways I can’t explain, that was connected to the singing too. I wouldn’t have had any of these high-faluting words for it at the time, but it was like I was finding hope, faith that there was beauty, that there was goodness, that Creator God and loving Jesus hadn’t passed me by.

Sunny Prior was part of saving me. 

It was a puhpowee, resurrection moment in my story – life bursting forth out of death. It saved me.

In John, the resurrection means that the new creation work of Jesus continues. It means that the Spirit of God we come to know through Jesus can breathe resurrection power into our lives and times still. It means that the Spirit of Jesus is still gardening among us, inviting us to welcome new life and partner with God in making it so. 

That’s my story. That’s the story of our resurrection faith. And that’s what I’m counting on still. 

Friends, this Easter season, I want to encourage you to look out for signs of resurrection, and I want to encourage you to get out a hoe and start gardening.

Here’s what I mean. 

Look for signs of resurrection.

The other week, I was telling my pastor about what most discourages me. And I talked, my grief and anger was coming through. Like Mary:

they have taken my Lord – where is he?

I was going over my disappointments, asking:

what is happening here? Why isn’t God coming through? 

And my pastor listened and talked with me, but eventually he said:

can I share a perspective?

And I said,

of course.

And he said:

actually, I think what you’re seeing is resurrection.

And he pointed out that in these people and areas where I felt God’s absence, I was actually seeing more signs of life than were true a year ago, significantly more. I just was frustrated by how much more I wanted. I was frustrated by the slow spread of hope.

And he reminded me: what’s one thing we know about the risen Jesus? It’s that he rose with scars. He shows his friends his wounded, healing, still scarred hands and side. 

And isn’t all resurrection like that, he suggested. New life bursts forth – a gift from God – but the scars of our wounds remain. 

And that has changed me. It’s given me a new set of lenses I can put on when I look at the death-scarred discouragements of my own life or our larger world.

  • With these lenses of resurrection faith, I can ask, where is God making new life possible?
  • Where are the beginnings of resurrection, even if it’s marked by scars? 

 It’s encouraged me to look for signs of resurrection, look for possibilities of new creation life everywhere, even in the bleakest places. 

Because as Ilio Delio says, resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future,but it is the power of the new being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow.

Friends, in your greatest discouragements and disappointments, don’t try to put a happy face on things. Be real with yourself and be real with God. But do ask… are there seeds or even first shoots of resurrection here. Where are the signs of new life?

You’ll usually be able to see them. If you can’t, friends can help you. But it will make faith real to you – to hope and believe and bear witness to new life in all the ashiest places of death. 

So join Mary in looking for signs of resurrection. And then also, join the risen Christ, and get out a hoe and start tending to the renewal of creation yourself.

This is where our guest speaker Randy Woodley left us a few weeks back. He’s like, you want to learn from indigenous wisdom, you want a more holistic faith, you should garden. 

So maybe that’s it. Plan a tree. Grow some tomatoes. Or maybe it’s more too.

You’ll notice Mary gave Jesus a big embrace, and then Jesus was like:

don’t cling to me, go tell the rest of the friends too. Be a recipient, but also be an agent of new life. 

Bear witness to the resurrection you’ve experienced. Go tell the story. 

Ilio Delio again:

We who say “yes” to the dying and rising of Jesus Christ say “yes” to our earth, our lives as the stuff out of which the New Creation can emerge.

You go be the gardener too. There’s a cynical, pessimistic world that needs some unguarded, unmeasured, uncynical love, hope, and encouragement. Each of you is unique as a child of God – unique gifts, unique opportunities, unique calls. But each of you needs to let your light shine. Love deep, sew wide, encourage big!

And just you wait and see what God grows through that. 

Now is the moment of resurrection. Now is the beginning of a new earth. Live by the power of love alone. Act as if you were now free. Begin to trust in this freedom to do new things. Because Christ is risen, and God is making all things new.

Repentance

So I used to be obsessed with the right way to apologize. This created a lot of issues in my life, mainly bad ones, and especially in my marriage.

Grace and I met when we were young – I was 19, she was 20 – we got married about four years later. But in our dating years and then again and again in our early years of marriage, we had a fair bit of conflict. And a lot of that was conflict about conflict. 

Like how should we argue and how should we apologize.

Now in my defense, in our defense, we didn’t make it all up. A mentor in our faith community at the time taught a lot about apologies and forgiveness. And he was really specific about what he thought people should do. He basically said, like, he knew what Jesus wanted for our conflicts.

Basically the advice was this: There are bad ways to apologize.

  • Like the one word, vague and flippant: Sorry!
  • Or the version of an apology where you’re actually blaming the other person for being so sensitive. Like: sorry that hurt you.
  • Or: I’m sorry for everyone that was offended. 

Apologies should say what you actually did wrong and regret.

So far, so good. We all could use better apologies.

But then he’d teach that the person who receives an apology should quickly say out loud: I forgive you. 

Which sounds holy. Jesus talked a lot about God’s forgiveness of us and God’s call to us to forgive one another as well. 

And Grace and I – but especially me – took this to heart. But what it meant was that I wanted our communication – about really emotional and complicated things – that’s kind of the nature of conflict – I wanted that communication to follow rigid patterns. And if I said sorry for something, I wanted Grace to very quickly say to me: I forgive you, or I’d feel hurt. 

After years of this off and on, I finally started to get what’s messed up about this. Forgiveness is a gift one gives. And you give it when you’re ready. It’s not a right to insist upon when you’re apologizing. Sometimes a lot more is needed before a person will forgive you. Like actually starting to change.

There are also ways of saying “I forgive you” that are not helpful, like offering forgiveness when you’re not ready yet or when the person is going to use your trust to harm you again. And then there are ways of offering forgiveness that aren’t about saying the words too. 

Surprise, surprise, my marriage got better when I stopped being rigid about what I expected with apologies and the specific words I wanted Grace to say, and started paying more attention to what I have more control over. Which is the way I interact with my spouse – whether or not I cause harm in the first place and what I do if and when any harm occurs. 

For the last sermon in our big words series, I want to talk about a word that includes apology but is much bigger than just that. The word is repentance.

I saved this for last because this is also the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, a Christian holiday of repentance. And because it’s also the Sunday before we start celebrating Lent as a church. Lent is the six weeks before Easter that for followers of Jesus has traditionally been a whole season of repentance. 

What does this word mean: repent? 

It’s one of the very first words Jesus says in the earliest biography of him, the Bible’s gospel of Mark. 

Mark 1:13-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God

15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus apparently said some version of these words again and again. Now’s the time. The kingdom of God is close. The beloved community, we call it, is beginning – it’s in reach. So, repent.

Repentance in the Greek text here is the word: metanoia. It means changing your mind, seems to imply the kind of changing your mind that reflects some kind of inner change too. The path to believing the good news of Jesus is a change of heart, a change of mind. We need that change, that repentance, to get to the good news, or maybe for the good news to get in to us. 

Later Jesus takes this into relationships between people too. He says this:

Luke 17:3-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

3 Be on your guard! If a brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.

4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Jesus says:

speak up when harm is being done. Don’t be a bystander.

But he doesn’t say to forgive them when they say sorry. He says:

forgive them when they make a change. Forgive them in response to their repentance. 

By the way, I’m going to talk way less about forgiveness today – I think we’ll have chances to talk more about that later this spring, but for today I want to focus on repentance.

Repentance is our way into Jesus’ good news for us, and repentance is part of the path to healed relationships. It can even be a prerequisite for forgiveness. Repentance is important, so why is this word uncomfortable or unfamiliar? 

Well, one, we are obsessed with apologies. 

I mentioned my issue with apologies in our early marriage. 

I think about how we raised our kids too. What did we do every time one kid hurt another? We’d get them to apologize, teaching them what we’d been taught, not to just say the word “sorry” but to say what you’re actually sorry for. 

I’m not saying it’s bad to teach your kids to apologize, it’s a good life skill, it’s just not enough. Apologies by themselves are paths to shallow and sometimes fake peace making. Which, let’s be real, sometimes shallow peacemaking is all we’re looking for, but eventually it’s not enough. 

We also don’t get repentance because it wasn’t much part of our inherited faith. The history of Western Christianity centers perpetrators, not victims. Western Christianity was developed with harm doers in mind, not the people who’ve been done harm.

This is not Jesus’ story. It’s not the writers of the Bible or the first fathers and mothers of the faith. But from the 4th century on, the most influential theologians of Christianity have been aligned with the power brokers of their societies, focused on helping harm-doers not feel guilty, more than in actually stopping harm or helping harmed communities and harm-doers heal. 

Thirdly, those of us who are in exile or in recovery from the too rigid, too closed minded religious systems of our youth have sometimes lost our  vocabulary for sin, repentance, and forgiveness because we connect those words with too rigid moral codes or with shame. 

But repentance is not about feeling shame for our bodies or our sexuality. It’s not about narrow or rigid morals. It’s about healing. It’s about getting well. It’s about learning not to be a harm doer. 

I mentioned that the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, speaks to a change of mind or a change of heart. But the Hebrew word for repentance, tshuvah, means returning. The Bible’s first word for repentance means coming back to where you’re supposed to be. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says repentance means,

“coming home, in humility and with intentionality, to behave as the person we’d like to believe we are.” 

Repentance is our way into the good news of Jesus. It’s our way into mended relationships. It’s part of the healing path for all the ways we aren’t yet fully human, the ways we aren’t yet the person we hope to be, or even the person we’d like to believe we are.

So what is repentance? 

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has this amazing book out called On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. It is really good. 

Ruttenberg writes about the influential Jewish medieval scholar Moses Maimonides and how he developed a five step system of repentance that can be extremely useful in how we think of all kinds of harm and repair.

Let me tell you Maimonides’ steps of repentance according to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Again, there are five.

They are:

  1. Naming and owning harm
  2. Starting to change
  3. Restitution and accepting consequences
  4. Apology
  5. Making different choices

You’ll notice that Maimonides says not to make an apology to the person you’ve harmed until you’ve already named and owned the harm, you’ve started to change, and you’ve attempted in some way to make things right. 

Because the purpose of the apology is not to get someone to say “I forgive you” (speaking to my younger self here). And the purpose of an apology is not to make a shallow, fake peace, where the harm doer gets to feel better and move on. No, the purpose of an apology is to help the person harmed to heal and to help the person who did the harm get humble and deepen their humanity again. 

Sometimes we move through the steps quickly, seamlessly, almost intuitively. And sometimes it can be long and hard work. 

Let me give you an example of each, and then invite you to consider what role repentance might play in your life in the weeks to come.

Here’s an easy and quick picture, where repentance looks like what I talked about last week, laying down our burdens. 

It’s from the poem “I worried” by Mary Oliver. It goes like this:

“I worried”, by Mary Oliver

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers

flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it 

was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,

can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows

can do it and I am, well,

Hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,

am I going to get rheumatism,

lockjaw, dementia?

Finally, I saw that worrying had come to nothing.

And gave it up. And took my old body

and went out into the morning,

and sang.

Who’s being harmed here? No one else. The over-worrying is a victimless sin. The only one being harmed is the poet, and maybe God. We do well to be free and joyful people, and God loves when God’s children are free too. 

So we have a picture of quickly, seamlessly moving through repentance. The poet names and owns the harm. I’m staying inside, perseverating on my worries. That’s hurting me. She says:

it had come to nothing.

Then she starts to change – she says

“she gave it up.”

There’s no restitution, no victim to make this right with, but there’s an accepting of consequence – this is not doing me good. That’s its own kind of apology to oneself, to one’s creator, and then a different choice is made. I went out into the morning and sang.

Perhaps over time, the poet might move through these steps more slowly, reckon with the consequences of this habit, seek to get outside and sing more readily. Who knows? 

But like a lot of our moves toward freedom, it’s a kind of seamless repentance. It’s not really about apology at all, but awakening to an awareness of harm, and then steps with God’s help toward a better way.

When we turn toward the good news of Jesus, here it would be the good news of Jesus’ teaching on God and birds and worry and the freedom of laying burdens down, we are coming to that good news through repentance. 

One more story of repentance, a messier one. This is a church story. A collective story of repentance. Because we repent as individuals, but as groups too.

Christians and churches have a serious issue with abuse of power. So many of us have celebrated, followed, looked up to leaders who play out some kind of hero narrative for us. And so many of them, usually men, usually in our context white men, are caught up in their own ego and have abused that power and tried to cover it up.

There’s a podcast by Brad Onishi called Straight White American Jesus. It’s an expose of evangelicalism and Christian nationalism. And they had this whole thing a while back about something called the new apostolic revival, and its connections to Trumpism and the January 6th attacks. Scary and gripping stuff. 

Now, let me clear that our church was never a promoter of any of this kind of violence or a vision of Christianity that would dominate public life and government and all that. But we were just a couple of steps removed from some of the people involved and I think our church in its early days had its own blind spots on looking up to talented, charismatic men and giving them too much power. 

In our early days, many people here were enamored with the ministry of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church. There were people who traveled to California just to pray and worship there. That’s a church that has produced a lot of emotional worship music, they’ve purported to be the site of many miracles. They also celebrate charismatic leadership of people who supposedly have a more direct line to the voice of God. 

When I was hired as our second senior pastor, 10 years ago, I was asking around about what I should be reading to understand our church and the values it was formed upon. And one of the people who was recommended was a friend of Bethel, a man named Peter Wagner, who’d been a mentor to the Vineyard group of churches we used to be part of. Wagner promoted a model of pastoring where the senior pastor of a church would have as much power and as little constraint, as little accountability as possible so that pastor could listen to God and lead the people wherever they felt God wanted – quickly, forcefully, without restraint. 

Maybe you know where this is going. These white men who supposedly have a direct line to God often seem to get very odd things in their mind that they think God wants, things that elevate their own power or other authoritarian men like themselves.  Bill Johnson and his team promoted Trump as God’s man of the hour. Peter Wagner spent his dying days doing the same. And there are deeper, more troubling connections between these men, their colleagues, and the support of violent white Christian nationalism. 

Again, we didn’t promote that stuff, but we had our own tendency to put charismatic white male leaders on pedestals, especially those who claimed a really direct connection to God. We kind of hungered for that connection and trusted their voices.  

Some of those people meant well and were helpful. Others didn’t. A few had their sin and abuse of power exposed. Just this past week I realized we still had a sermon deep in our archives from someone who preached here before but has been credibly accused of abuse of power in his relationships with women. We pulled it down. 

I’m really proud of this church and our history. We’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. So many of our roots and our early mission still carry us! But this blind spot on power, and the manipulative and sometimes dangerous things that happen when we put people on pedestals was a problem. And so men holding power without accountability has been an area of repentance for our church under my time of stewarding this role of senior pastor. 

So, the steps: naming and owning harm.

We had conversations on the Board early in my tenure about what goes wrong when men promote their own special connection to God and lead out of that.

Starting to change

The first thing our church did when I was hired was we gave the Board of this church more power. I insisted that they evaluate me, in writing, each year and that they make more important choices for the church. I’m a leader in this community. I have some authority. But none of us want me to have any more than I earn, and we want me, I want me too! – to lead in partnership with others and to be accountable. 

Restitution and accepting consequences/apology – This has been messier. It hasn’t always been clear how to go back to our church’s early years and figure out who was or who wasn’t hurt by our church’s connections to abuse of power, but I do believe that we faced consequences for this as a community, and when I become aware of a situation in which I feel able to apologize on behalf of the church, I feel able to do so now. 

I’m certainly sorry to this community for two people I allowed to visit and speak here in my early years as a pastor, one in 2013 and one in 2016. Both seemed very talented but they were also unaccountable free agent types who later have said or done things I view as harmful. We’re done with unaccountable men being connected to this ministry. I’m sorry that in our early, fast growing years as a church when so many wonderful things were happening that we also weren’t learning how to watch for and prevent manipulative power and abuse of power. 

And then making different choices – continuing to do the work.

We are making a lot of choices now to be healthy and humble about power. We won’t invite traveling preachers who aren’t accountable to real Boards and communities. Our Board has done reading together about how to prevent abuse of power in our church. I like preaching. I think I’m good at it. But I preach less than most senior pastors, both because our associates, Pastor Ivy and Lydia are awesome at this and we want their wisdom and because it’s a way of not overcentering any one person’s voice. We promoted Trecia Reavis a couple years ago from director of operations to executive pastor because she is an excellent leader and we wanted the church to have a real partnership between me and her on the institutional leadership of this community.

It turns out that not following the voice of one man isn’t a loss at all. It opens up more community to more people’s gifts, and to a more beloved community way of being in the world. Like most processes of repentance, you gain so much more than you lose. You get to leave behind an inferior way of being and walk into the good news of something better. 

Repentance – changes of mind, changes of heart, coming home to our best selves – is serious and holy work. Repentance opens us up to good and healthy relationships. And repentance opens us up to the good news of Jesus. 

We start Lent this Wednesday with our Ash Wednesday service, and next Sunday, when our preaching and guide on this year’s theme of Earth begins. 

The first quarter of Lent – a week and a half in the guide, focus on humility. We’re invited to think about our own earthly mortality and our needs for change and repentance. 

Here’s my question, friends.

Where is your life falling short of the person you consider yourself to be? Where is your life out of alignment with the person you believe you are meant to be, who God calls you to be?

I’m not asking you to feel lousy about that. I’m also not asking you to apologize to anyone. We’d do better if we learned to be quicker to humility, quicker to soul-searching and attempting to change and make things right, and slower to apologize.

What I am asking you is to be curious about yourself.

Where do you want to turn? Where do you want to heal?

Let’s bring those questions with us to the communion table. 

In communion we remember Jesus’ final meal before his death, when he took the cup and said: This bread is my body, which is given for you. This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you. And now we eat and drink in memory of me.

We eat and drink as a kind of repentance as well, that Hebrew word tshuvah, or returning. We return to God. We come home to God and come home to ourselves, to the person we believe we are meant to be. 

If there’s a particular way in which you seek repentance in this season, in which you seek healing or turning or change, I invite you to name that to God as a prayer, saying to God that you offer your desire for change, your desire for healing, your desire for return, and welcome God’s presence and power.

What We Need Is A Miracle & Breakdown Lanes

Last Sunday evening I was out to dinner with a group of folks after the Lindsey Sampson concert (which was amazing by the way), and someone asked, what are you talking about next Sunday? And hadn’t thought of what I’d talk about – but off the cuff I said,

“I’m going to talk about ‘miracles and revival’.”

And I surprised myself and laughed – and then many people also laughed….likely at me… but I thought, actually that’s exactly what I want to talk about this morning – miracles. 

So often I hear, and maybe you do too,

“you know what we need in this day and age – we need a miracle,” 

which in part I hear as a dismissive comment – to say things are so bad, too divisive, beyond repair…that all that could possibly work is a miracle. And it rings true. We’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years – and we can feel totally encased by a sense of hopelessness and despair – by the bombardment of all things inconceivable.

And we can wonder in that space,

“Can we really change for the better?”

“Can we grow? Can we keep becoming? Is there any fruit ahead?”

“What will it take to detach from some of the ways we’ve done things, thought of people,  built systems – for years,  decades,  centuries  – and see that they don’t work anymore, that the season is over.” 

AND STILL ENCOUNTER JESUS whatever the season is.

But that comment “we need a miracle” As much as it can sound dismissive – also points to a longing that we have too – for something different – a change – something transformational – new. 

We long for our hearts to be revived, to say unabashedly “YES!” I believe that this world can be reshaped, reguided, created anew…in partnership with Jesus.  I think we long to say,

“ I really do believe in miracles.”

And so today as I talk about miracles – it will be less centered on the miracles of instantaneous change or immediate healing…but the type of miracle it takes to step back at points. And pay attention to the questions that might be stirring in you and gauge whether or not the method, the plan, the spiritual practice, the whatever it is –  is working.  And asking how you can partner with God (not just be a spectator) – but how we can be agents of miracles – of such change, goodness, and life in this world.

So today I’ll get to two ways this summer you can be attentive to your own miracle -making. . . . through a

1) standard of faithfulness – and a

2) community of practice. 

Prayer

God of miracles – the one who loves us just as we are.  The one who tenderly wakes us up each day to the potential and the realness of what might lay ahead. And the one who gently nudges us to to believe for “More” …more of you, more of us, more miracles in our day. Thank you for your presence with us, within us, between us – today. 

STORY

One Mother’s Day before Covid times I organized a special day with my mom. We had agreed to meet half-way and meet each other in Portland, ME.  I’d go up after church services and meet her for an afternoon where she’d get a pedicure (like a once every 10 year event for her) and a nice early evening dinner together.

I was really looking forward to it – mostly because it had been a really long time since I had honored her in any significant way. And we had arranged that Scott would take our kids to see his mom in NH. So I really had this abundance of time, and the potential for all of my attention to devote to my mom.

I left right after church and got about 40 minutes outside of Boston when Scott called and told me that his car had broken down and I’d need to come help.

And I was crushed. But also thought – I can totally still do this. I can still make it to Maine, even if I’m a little late – we can still have a great time together. 

And I plugged into my navigation the address to where Scott was – and started on my way. The navigation pretty quickly led me off the route I was on at the upcoming exit… and had me travel a couple miles of back road, and then get back on the highway.

Initially I was minimally paying attention.

But after a few minutes I had this sensation that I was kind of going in circles.

And as I decided to ACTUALLY pay attention – I realized INDEED I was. Just getting off the highway and then back on .. in the same direction…over and over. 

My GPS was glitching.

AND yet I KEPT “FOLLOWING IT!” for the next few loops – even though I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.  I kept thinking, well maybe this GPS will kick into gear – and direct me the right way. (I mean historically it had been pretty good at this!)  It’s what it’s supposed to do – it’s supposed to be effective at getting me to where I need to go. 

And I thought I didn’t know how to go where I needed to go.

 So I literally stayed with the thing that wasn’t working.  

MIRACLE

Now I’m sure we all have our different thoughts, experiences and associations with miracles. Scripture is a beautiful tapestry of miracles – ranging from parting the Red Sea, to the walls of Jericho falling down, to changing water into wine,  to feeding the 5000, Jesus walking on water, healing the blind man and so many more.

  • Beautiful , inspiring, acts that are not only intended to be instantaneous external displays that change circumstances or physical ailments.
  • But ones that convey a message of greater freedom and connection to JESUS. And disrupt patterns that hinder this… And they show us what to do and how to hope, in the midst of times where our worlds seem to be falling apart.  

So let’s read one of the stories in the gospel of Mark together that I think showcases a miracle – and see what we can glean:

Mark 11:12-22 Common English Bible 

12 The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.

13 From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs.

14 So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this.

15 They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves.

16 He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

17 He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”

18 The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching.

19 When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city.

 20 Early in the morning, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up.

21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look how the fig tree you cursed has dried up.”

22 Jesus responded to them, “Have faith in God!

Now you are probably thinking… “Hmmm… I don’t really remember that as one of the top “miracle” stories in scripture…” 

And I would say (as my teenagers do), “facts.”


In fact, this scripture is often regarded as a symbol of judgment.

  1. Many scholars would concur that Jesus is teaching and warning the disciples that God will judge those who give an outer appearance of fruitfulness but in fact are not fruitful at all. The only thing they are ripe for, is judgment.

  2. Still other scholars take the fig tree to a larger scale and suggest the fig tree is representative of a faithless Israel. Israel professed to be faithful to God and fruitful as a nation, but in fact it was faithless and fruitless. And  Israel was thus ripe for judgment.

  3. And still other scholars see significance in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple …again highlighting that at a distance the Jewish temple and its sacrificial activities looked fine. But on closer inspection it was found to be mere religion without substance, full of hypocrisy, bearing no spiritual fruit, ripe for judgment.

And yet as all scripture can – it holds many layers, and we can have a variety of  interpretations that do not cancel each other out – and certainly don’t compromise Jesus – but perhaps ignite our curiosity and enliven our connection to Jesus as we consider other interpretations.

So I  see this story as a miraculous one – and one that I think offers us a way forward in our current contexts today….  And perhaps is a little less the “judgment vein.” 

 As we read through this scripture Jesus LEADS by example.

He’s teaching the disciples something about themselves…. and all of us – perhaps!

The story starts by saying

“Jesus was hungry.”

We all are hungry at some point, for something. 

Hungry for what?  It seems like Jesus is saying to the disciples –

“Well, of course figs!” 

It makes sense – figs abound in this region – the disciples would know it as a delicious source of nourishment.

So Jesus does the obvious thing – He GOES to the fig tree and checks it for figs. 
But this move is curious- because of the info that follows,  “But he didn’t find any fruit – because it wasn’t the season for figs”. 


??
? Why then would he go at all toward the tree? If he knew there would be nothing found to satiate his hunger?

I think he does this to say,

“I get it – this is your own natural tendency too – and it’s a strong tug – when looking for nourishment/what you need  – you will be inclined to go toward something that you know – that has given you nourishment and worked in the past.”  

EVEN if it’s OUT OF SEASON.   Even if it’s as obvious as staring at a barren fig tree.

We like patterns, predictability,  even if we end up only going in circles 95 north…. To nowhere.

I think this is why Jesus says to the tree,

“May NO ONE ever eat fruit from you again”

…..and why we see the important piece that

“The DISCIPLES hear him say it”. 

It seems like Jesus is serious about our freedom, freedom from things that no longer bring fruit to our lives – and freedom unto abundant life with him.

STORY

I finally pulled over – that Mother’s day. And sat in the breakdown lane. Wondering what the heck had just happened!  And rather than questioning the functionality of the GPS – or looking at a map, and estimating time I went back to the source and reason for this trip in the first place – which for me was the love of my mom.

The question that grew in me on the side of the road was,

“What does it look like to honor your mother every day? To have a “practice of loving her”

Just where she’s at .. just where you are at… what will bring freedom to both of you? Vitality to your relationship – that can grow and evolve… ?

*Because the thing is .. .life, Jesus, us – we are a medley of stories that are always unfolding, becoming and evolving. 

And our tendency when things don’t work – is to  OVER -ENGAGE or DIS-ENGAGE. (neither of which have the makings of anything miraculous.)

I think Jesus knows we may try to overcompensate for the lack or even disappointment we feel when our methods run dry – and out of season. Maybe we think it’s our failure or responsibility – we lean into those more “judgment” translations of this scripture.  

And we are inclined to stay – to be loyal to the method…  maybe we’ll try to make more figs, re-create what we once knew. Maybe we’ll go get jugs of  H2O and force that SEASON back to life. 

Or we’ll say – it just doesn’t work, I’m done.

And yet – in either of those scenarios the potential loss is that we LOSE sight of what our original hunger was for – which was really connection/ a growing relationship with JESUS.

And maybe the miraculous move of Jesus here is to say …

“hold up, the healthiest thing is to see that this tree has no fruit. It can’t give you what it once did.”

Sometimes you just have to disrupt the pattern.. To find Jesus again. 

Standing right next to you – whole, not worried, open armed…  And that is what opens up all things new. 

STORY

I was so sad that I couldn’t go love my mom in the way that I had planned, that I couldn’t lavish her with some long-overdue attention.  

But sometimes the miracle is simply pulling over and saying this isn’t working.   There’s no movement, no progress. I don’t know what the answer is – but I’m going to exit this pattern.

Because the truth is – it wasn’t about the GPS not working. It was about the pattern of how I expressed love to my mom to some degree – over a long season of time.  Yes a lavish day is amazing but an every- few-year-lavish- day does not make a relationship. 

And this was why I didn’t want to exit

I didn’t want to sit in the break-down lane and regroup, look at the loops I had been in – and realize that’s not how you love my mom. 

We’ve been through what? 2.5 years of pandemic – enough time to see the patterns, the systems, the approaches, the “solutions” that are not working! In our personal lives – in our public lives… all . around. us. .. affecting all of us.

And we stand here – as we did last week, and as we will next week -on the brink of miracles. Not only witnessing them…. but being transformed by them… and being agents of them.

And some of us might think, …

“that’s nice .. I don’t really want to be a miracle agent…sounds like a lot of energy…I’m not really up for that today…”

Jesus says in this scripture and to us today,

“you know what – let’s go for a walk together.. Let’s see what we discover together.”

In the scripture here, they walk – they head to Jerusalem, and Jesus’ object lesson of the fig tree – is now taking a shift – to a more experiential  – practical  lesson.

They arrive at the temple – the place that came to be as an answer to so many people’s hunger – for union and connection with GOD.

“A house of prayer for all nations”

was what it should have been revered as.

But it seems people’s methods to tap into that connection with God seemed to take over. Rituals and  practices became the methods to “connect with God” – which are not bad in and of themselves.

BUT when the method becomes the center from which we expect life and fuel, versus holding GOD at the center. We make a shift to a more “seasonal” approach to love. (which of course, love has no season).

Perhaps this is what occurred in the temple – it seems like people kept mining those methods – long after the nutrients had been depleted.  And when that happens, it becomes toxic – it becomes self-seeking – corrupt and proud, power hungry, ingrown, constricting. 


Right? Then we have money-lenders and dove sellers setting up within a “House of Prayer.”

This is where I think sometimes our tendency is to try to be more LOYAL (which is somehow over-engaging and disengaging at the same time) to the methods – than FAITHFUL to the source (Jesus) and that can lead us  – or the relationship – to being more withered than alive.  

And this slight distinction between loyalty and faithfulness is important I believe… 

Writer KJ Ramsey has noted,  

“loyalty does not produce fruit – it is not a fruit of the spirit. 

Faithfulness is. 

Loyalty as we know it today has its roots in the medieval feudal system. 

Loyalty is an oath or pledge of allegiance sworn by someone with less power – to someone with more power. 

Loyalty is about maintenance of power/dominance/and hierarchy.”

It dries up real relationships, and leaves hearts of stone – creating temples for man’s own gain.

But faithfulness is about love – love with Jesus  first and foremost –  that pursues the good of others. …pursues creating beloved community. (adapted KJ Ramsey, “The Lord is My Courage”). Pursues an ever-becoming faith that never withers not even in the breakdown lanes, but miraculously comes to “real” life. 

Jesus seems to nail this same point home with his disciples. The next morning Jesus and the disciples walk by that “fig tree” –  a completion of his lesson. And Peter pointed out –

“hey that’s the fig tree you cursed – it’s withered from the roots”

aaah, yes – it’s truly out of season.

STORY

I called my mom from the side of the road – the break-down lane. And I said,

“I can’t get to you. I’m so sorry.”  

My mom laughed. The absurd reality of cars breaking down in our family history and messing up plans – is so prevalent…and kind of hilarious.. And then she said, 

“It’s ok, Ivy – just call me tomorrow.”

And I realized for us – to love one another – is to be consistently in connection. And I had been punting that down the road for a long time – and we needed to grow from the roots together again.

I heard in her reply, her longing… and God’s direction, “call me tomorrow.”

And I said, “I’ll call you tomorrow” And the day after that – and the next day after that – and that will be the practice and miracle in action… 

Maybe there are things that aren’t working for you right now.

Maybe it’s something like Scripture – that historically has been central to your grounding and knowing of God.

Or maybe it’s worship music  – the one place you got in touch with your deep emotions.

Or maybe prayer in the ways you’ve always known it – feels foreign or inadequate… or a relationship, a job, a course of study – or a church community…

What does it look like or feel like to you to pull over for a second? To shut off that automatic navigation and see who God says God is to you? (not what a method says God is to you – or a person says God should be to you… but who is God to you?).


VERY quickly I want to jump back to the Old Testament – to the story if you remember it where Moses encounters God in the burning bush… where a conversation ensues about God’s name.

Moses says,

“who should I tell them I saw?”

And God answers, 

“I am who I am”

– or in Hebrew translation,

“I will be who I will be”

It’s as if God is saying,

“I am not giving you a “handle”,

as Avivah Zornberg a Torah and midrash scholar says,

“I’m not giving you a handle to hold on to – to say ‘now I’ve got God’ ,

now I know how to get to God – – because God is always becoming.” God is always becoming …

 And here’s the sheer beauty and wisdom of such a response…. 

God’s answer points to the very nature of how we can know and connect to God – *in all seasons* – that often it entails stepping out of the known and into the unknown – but that which is always allowing the possible and the impossible to happen…the miraculous.  God is saying, “I am who I am”… to you…. 

I am the nexus of wonder….

I am art.

I am scripture.

I am your favorite worship song.

I am a bird’s song.

I am in your drive to see someone in the hospital dying

I am in the hospital corridor filled with your new baby’s cry .

I am in your questions.

I am on the side of the road.. in the breakdown lane…with you.

Where nothing might work like it used to.

I am in the spaces where it seems like there is nothing.

But know that “nothing” is the only essential ingredient of a miracle. 

I learned recently from Rabbi Ariel Burger, that old Hebrew bibles – are organized in such a way that they have the central text in the middle of the page, and then there are commentaries around the sides, and then there’s space around the edges.

This blank space that frames all the words.. .and it’s these edges, these biblical break-down lanes that ultimately are the most important, because that’s where one gets to write their questions, and where one gets to expand and grow and evolve a tradition (and a knowing of God) that, without such participation, would have long since become dormant, rigid, or withered entirely.

I think Jesus in this passage in Mark is saying to us,

“keep having a dialogue with the old ideas and the old wisdoms  – the way things have always been done –  and bringing them forward with our your own voice and your own questions because it’s not only how we survive” 

(Rabbi Ariel Burger)  – but how God survives and is real to us – and this is the miracle we need in our day. God being real to us – reviving us. 

It’s a miraculous way to be really – to not settle into complacency.  And when we are rattled, and despondent and when we endure unimaginable pain – it can feel risky – and like too much energy… but often all that can be found in a walk with Jesus.   

Jesus starts his lesson – by walking and talking about hunger – and ends his lesson by walking and identifying what the real hunger is for….. Not this dry, withered fig tree ..  BUT HUNGRY FOR GOD.    Jesus replies to his disciples –

“Have faith in God”

trust me, turn to me, hunger for me – have faith in me.

The miracles that we get to participate in are recognizing what isn’t working for us – and still being faithful to something bigger than ourselves. This is what calls us into greater community and dedication to repairing and improving  …… even what we know can’t be repaired and improved in our lifetimes.

And this is the standard of faithfulness that I mentioned at the beginning – that Quaker Parker Palmer has taught me over time.

And all the standard of faithfulness entails is to wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other – and have faithfulness to our gifts, (to the things we know & learn about ourselves that impact others in helpful ways)… faithfulness to our perception of the needs of the world, and faithfulness to offering our gifts to whatever needs are within our reach.  This is the standard of faithfulness.

“When faithfulness is our standard, we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being.”

(Parker Palmer)

And the beauty is – that it is not a standard for our indiviudalselves – it is a standard by which we are held in community.  This is my second point to take away today – this idea of a community of practice.

Which is a group of people who “share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”  Like us!  It’s how the followers of Jesus supported each other in their own break-down lanes, in grief, and in celebration – it’s how we here at Reservoir learn to love God and be loved by God as a way by which we flourish and value the presence of one another, care for one another, unto liberation and freedom.  

The practices can be very varied – but it’s that we are holding that central vision – Jesus – at the forefront of our community.

Adrienne Maree Brown says pay attention to what you are practicing day to day. Because we are always practicing things. Are you practicing things you would want to practice (that feel helpful and real to you) – or are you practicing what someone else has told you is the right way to do stuff?

“Because,”

Adrienne Brown says, 

“once you start practicing on purpose, then you can actually practice liberation and justice and freedom and — then I think you begin to experience the fruit of the practice – peace, awareness, courage, action.  You might not see the miracles you hope to see in your day – total liberation for all people, but you can feel good knowing that you are practicing liberation every single day and in every relationship.” (onbeing.org)  

How do you personally begin to practice whatever’s in alignment with your largest vision or longing?

For my mom and I, I had to realize that the simple act of calling her often – was the practice I needed to engage. To unfold the relationship full of love that I wanted to see fruit…. That I always want to be in season.

Here at Reservoir our five year vision is to create and grow the Beloved Community we are called to be – it’s a big vision. But the practices of being …

  1. Diverse and anti-racist in our every day lives….
  2. Creating welcome and places of profound belonging. .
  3. The ways by which we consider being radically generous.
  4. How we can empower wholeness, love, and justice for those around us – 

All of these are ours to participate in – in our individual lives and here, as a community of practice.

The miracles we need here and now – are not tied to an outcome – of whether we see these visions fruit in our day or not – they are tied to a good, living, life-giving Jesus – and  the miracle is to keep seeking Jesus and believing that our “becoming lives” with Jesus unfold the possible and the impossible, Even us …as agents and practitioners of such miracles.  

Let me pray for us.

Thank you God for the wonder and beauty that you plant inside of us – for the capacity to create and dream for things different and new. Help us God to hunger for you as we vision for a more just world, as we stand on the brink of possibility… near…. And far… and everywhere in between. 

 

Love Is… What Will Save Us

Hey all, I’m Ivy, a pastor here, it is so awesome to be here with you today. 

Today we are still in our “Love Is….” series with next week as our last week – where Pastor Lydia will share some of her thoughts on what love is. For me, this series has been an opportunity to double down on every sermon we’ve ever given.  I mean the heart of our faith, and the hope of any message is really to communicate and invite you into the truth of God’s love.

However, I’ve found it refreshing to shape sermons that start with this truth unabashedly. And I’ve found that it exposes just how hard it is for us to really digest God’s love for us – without exception. It’s hard for us to believe, to remember and to live this out (especially with our “enemies” or those we are in conflict with). 

So this morning I want to talk about how “Love Is… What Will Save Us.” And I will unpack that word “love” a little more, and unpack that word “save” a little more (depending on your faith background, I know the word “save” can be trigger-y…it has been for me). I’ll start with the foundation of God’s nature as love – what that means about us and our essence – and how that unfolds into the world around us.

Along with the qualifier that “love” – as well as “God” – are notoriously difficult to define, (and maybe that’s not really the point anyway), but both are hard to explain, and articulate—and perhaps even harder to embody. And maybe that’s why it’s worth talking about in sermon after sermon after sermon.

Prayer

Well God, we are here for it this morning. We are here for your love. In whatever way you would like to communicate and revive that in us.  For those of us who forget, remind us that all you are is love…and remind us that in your likeness all you can see when you look upon us, when you shine your face upon us – is love. And may that be enough this morning to save us from all the voices that say otherwise. Especially our own. Amen.

At the beginning of this new year, 2022 – along with the Omicron surge, like many of you perhaps, I was just about ready to “give up!” I realized that I had reached a concerning point when I witnessed positive cases rising, hospitalizations off the charts and the decision to close our in-person services once again. And all I felt was numbness.  I couldn’t access all the emotions that I knew were just under the surface – anger, frustration, sadness – I was just numb. I felt defeated. As if the energy, innovation, work, time, thought, care, energy (x2), that I had given out over the last two years (and I know so many of you have too) – to just keep going, with a little hope in my pocket – just didn’t matter.

But somehow, I turned to God in that moment instinctively – maybe as Abel’s sermon suggested a couple weeks ago – like a sunflower turning naturally toward the sun. And I knew to keep going in this New Year that I was going to have to keep God’s face in view – to let God’s face shine upon me if I was going to keep going with any real engagement. And this long-standing practice of “praying the Psalms” came to mind – specifically praying the psalms that focus around God’s face or God’s smile shining upon us. And there are quite a few Psalms that mention this – as a way to “save us.”

I think God knew I needed the Psalms. Because the Psalms are vibrant, and a roller-coaster ride of voices of God’s people, throughout time, who are expressing their rage, joy, confusion, praise, and bewilderment of God’s presence or perceived lack thereof.  Walter Brueggemann, this Old Testament scholar who’s written a lot about the Psalms, says that the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed

by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts….that are at the bottom of our life. And the work of prayer is to bring the boldness of the Psalms and the edge of our experience together… to let them interact, play with each other, tease each other, and illuminate each other.”

And what I’ve found in nearly all 150 Psalms is that at the intersection of the edge of our real lives – and century-old voices, is God. And not just God – but God’s

“steadfast love that endures forever”

as Psalm 136 says. As I pray through the Psalms, I can see people, communities, societies, nations – screaming out at the night sky, asking “where is God?”, saying “I can’t do this anymore,” crying out to be saved. I see the thru-line of hardship, suffering, grief. And I also see the thru-line of God seeking to empower, to inspire and to persuade us in every moment with love… Saving us into love – not saving us from our lives. 

God is actually inviting us to partner with God in the continued creation of our lives. To care about this world to co-create, co-operate, co-labor with God…so that the

“world through us, and God might be saved.”  (John 3:17)

So I want to invite us into a Psalm this morning and see what we experience and discover. But first I want to start with a foundational scripture from Genesis 1:26, that might set us up well for how we can understand our relationship with God and why/how God wants to work with us in this world –versus say powering over us and what that actually means about “the force of love.” It says, 

Genesis 1: 26 (The First Egalitarian Translation)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.” 

*There are a few things packed into this one verse that I want to draw your attention to….

  • We see here that God’s selves are already in relation to one another – the use of the plural pronoun “us” gives a nod in that direction.
  • The foundation of God’s self is already in relationship… and that seems important.
  • And so in God’s likeness, in God’s image – ‘we’ – our existence is marked by relationships. 
  • Our very constitution, the way by which we can be the fullest expression of God, is found when we are in relationship to God, the natural world around us, and with one another.
    This is when the fullness of God’s likeness comes into view through us.

And we also see here that our relationship to God – is not just carrying around the image of God within us but it is also responsibility … we are to be stewards of the earth and all that is in it.

Stewardship (meaning not just “to rule and to use”) but to regard our earth and all that is in it with this same relational posture…and to figure out  – how do we give to our earth? Not only consume? 

And in all this what is the nexus of this relationship? Where giving and receiving can be engaged at full force – but will not harm either the giver or the receiver?  Turns out I think it must be LOVE.

Let’s look at Psalm 8 – to flesh it out a bit more. 

Psalm 8

1 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory

    in the heavens.

2 Through the praise of children and infants

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger.

3 When I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

4 what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?

    who are we that you should care for us?

5 You have made us barely less than God,

    and crowned us with glory and honor.

6 You made us responsible for the works of your hands,

    putting all things at our feet – 

7 all flocks and herds,

    and the animals of the wild,

8 the birds in the sky,

    and the fish in the sea,

    all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Now there’s some natural flow (and overlap) in this Psalm to the verse we just read from Genesis. And there’s some depth in there that we can explore in just a second.. But I want to press into this verse 2, that perhaps is one that we might be inclined to skip… 

Through the praise of children and infants

    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

    to silence the foe and the avenger.

It just doesn’t make sense – at first blush – how does it fit … Babies? And enemies? And Strongholds? 

It’s worth inspecting because sometimes these verses are the ticket to opening up more – not just about this Psalm per se – but the whole message of God and us.

To me, this verse really establishes God as the mother of all love.  

Infants have a trust, a knowing, a confidence that is birthed with them as they enter the world. A confidence in love, that helps them survive the rupture of delivery.  Their first instinct is to search for and be connected to a source that is good – that is nourishing, and sustaining. It is as if they know they are from this infinite God-source-of-love.

*we know that birth stories are all different and the immediate connection can be thwarted or interrupted*

But that force of love within is what guides their first movement and is perhaps in part what their first cry declares – to be returned to that source of LOVE. 

And the thing is there is nothing that is required. All babies have to do is engage in drinking in that goodness… receiving that flow.  There is nothing of their own will power, or effort that is essential for the establishment of this love to exist – it is already given. 

This verse reminds us that this is true for us too, that 

Romans 5:5the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit of God that has been given to us”.

And we are free to engage, to respond to that force within…ignore it, reject it –  as we see fit.

It seems though, as we do engage… that we access this truest source of love within us and know it as God  even before a set of spiritual beliefs might come into play.  This verse invites us to remember that our relationship of love with God is in our very DNA  – powerful and free, requiring nothing of us.

When we can anchor to that – everything we touch, all of our speech will be birthed with praise, “GOD IS LOVE!”  And that praise, that force of love is powerful enough to dissipate and silence any threat – any enemy, avenger that tries to disrupt that fundamental knowing of love.

This is how the moon and the stars were set in the sky… with this love of God.  This is how we are empowered to steward our relationships and this earth… with this love of God.  This is how incredible WE ARE – that we were formed to hold the force of galaxies, goodness  – LOVE within us as well.  

If I had heard this verse in the context of my faith tradition growing up – it would have been translated for me that we are utterly dependent like babies, that we have no power, we are weak – and we need to be obedient to God because God is an all powerful, all-controlling God. The message would be clear that I’m not born with inherent goodness, and that I would need to grow into the knowledge of God’s love, because I don’t have that internal compass.  

So in my experience, I heard that “God was love,” it was just that God’s love had a ladder – with different rungs. And I needed to work pretty hard to get up those rungs because otherwise I would be floundering in my insufficiency needing saving. 

So love in my context of faith – quickly became something that was definable. Traceable around groups of people, where their expression of love was to be legislated against.  Love was something to be controlled and legitimized … “what and where and with whom” love could exist was a constant conversation.  But love within – love as our essence  – wasn’t.

God’s love was something you strove for – for salvation – because humanity was not made in God’s image. Humanity was a train wreck that needed to be whipped back into shape, into order.  With obedience, discipline and an underlying pervasive fear and belief that you weren’t ever going to be good enough for God. 

I learned that love was unpredictable, risky and indeed powerful… toooo powerful in fact – that it needed to be controlled. I started to wonder though, if what we were losing through that lens wasn’t just our souls – but the transforming, redeeming, powerful force of love that God might suggest would be the very thing that could save us. 

This is why bad theology matters. Because if we read scripture, relate to God, live our lives out of the fundamental belief that we are not good… we will constantly be thrown into the deep waters of shame, guilt, worthlessness, the pursuit of perfection – where we will be gasping to be saved.

Bad theology anchors to a God who is all-controlling. It’s easier to coerce, bully someone into a set of spiritual beliefs to play by… than it is to deposit love into the universe as its primary organizing principle and connect it to a bunch of humans. Releasing the form by which that love will take shape – to the work of our hands…(that’s too risky for many, too uncertain). 

But this is what the good news is.. An uncontrolling love in our hands…at our fingertips.

If we can see that the essence of us is love – that God’s nature is love – that God cannot not love.. Then from this foundation we can read the rest of Psalm 8 with eagerness, with empowerment – with inspiration!  We can start to imagine that we …we could create new things in partnership with God that might help us showcase this love in powerful ways.

Psalm verse 3 says,

3  I consider your heavens,

    the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

    which you have set in place,

 If we work with that foundation of everything is love, because

“God is love” (I John 4:8). 

“God’s love in us is seeking to love and be loved and to bring healing and wholeness to our world.” (Rohr)

That feels galaxies big, doesn’t it? HUGE! TOO enormous to fathom.

But in these verses we see the infinite stretch of God’s love – in ways that make the stars and moons feel so untouchable to us. So grand, BILLIONS of stars, not one could be “ours” – we understand the sky to be the canopy that envelops all of us – humanity. AND we situate ourselves sometimes in the insignificance, the smallness of being one among billions of peoples.. And we wonder how could GOD love us  – just so?  In a way that greets us personally?

It seems this has been a central question of humanity:

4 what is humanity that you should be mindful of us?

    who are we that you should care for us?

The theology of my youth – would say that is exactly right.  We aren’t really that much.

God is so powerful, so beyond reach – God is a God out there…  

I remember that not feeling very compelling to me – a God that was really really far away from me. .. how was love then, supposed to feel close?

But when we start with the primary nature of God as all controlling  –  we can’t fully incorporate a loving God.

‘Because love is uncontrolling’. (Oord).

And so we enter into a very separated experience of God, ourselves, and others.  And separation is not powerful at all –  separation in fact, weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression. A separate God is one who does not seek to relate to you, it is a God who is over you seeking for you to change, to prove your “goodness,” your “discipline,” your “perfection” (which is a figment of the colonial imagination), all in efforts to then be saved. Saved unto what? A grid of rules? Doctrines that are hollow – formed by fear? 

No wonder that the writer of John wrote

“in perfect love there is no fear”.

The opposite of fear is not fearlessness, it is love. In love you can be afraid, but there is something deeper in love than there is in the hollowness of fear. – Padraig O’Tuama

But here in this Psalm we find the depth of love…and the width and the height of God’s love. God established the placement of each moon and each star with care, with love.  It wasn’t just (all) random…not a scatter shot. God embedded in the very design of the universe the energy of love and relationship. Many scientists have pointed this out, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who also was a  Jesuit priest  – that love is

“the very physical structure of the Universe.” That, gravity, atomic bonding, planets, orbits, cycles, photosynthesis, ecosystems, force fields, electromagnetic fields,

and evolution all reveal an energy that is attracting all things and beings to one another, in

a movement toward ever greater complexity and diversity—and yet ironically also toward unification at ever deeper levels. This energy is quite simply love under many different forms.” (Rohr)

And the energy is not IN the planets, or IN the atomic particles – the energy is found in the relationship between them. 

It is from this truth that we can shout (as the children and babies did), “HOW MAJESTIC is your name God!”  Not only because God is so powerful   – but because we get it – we get the closeness of this design in everything to be relational… and with Love as the powerful force, it doesn’t seem so far out of reach actually.  In fact, we feel resourced to act and move in our lives with the same far out, creative energy that hangs over our head in the skies  – because then it feels as present as relating to, and loving our neighbor. 

It’s then not too much of a stretch to imagine that “with care, with favor, with delight…. God shines God’s face upon us.”

5 You have made us barely less than God,

    and crowned us with glory and honor.

6 You made us responsible for the works of your hands,

    putting all things at our feet   

God adores us so much that God invites us to partner in caring for, loving and creating this world.  We have much to do. But it is helpful to remember that

Love is not really an action that you do. Love is what and who you are.” (Rohr)

“And time and time again we will forget that this is true – and we will lean into the desperation that accompanies believing otherwise.” (20) – Candice Marie Benbow.

AND this is what we need saving from –  voices that come against this truth – our own internal voices, our history, trauma, experiences – story, society, structures, systems – all these foes and avengers ….but God has called us  – humanity – to be its highest self via this flow of love, and to shake free these voices that demand us to be more

perfect to receive God’s love, because God already loves Godself in us and therefore we are perfectly lovable.” (Rohr)

“A hope, a purpose of theology is to clarify the central, foundational, nature of God, at the center of everything – is LOVE. God has done only one constant thing since the beginning of time: God has always forever, without hesitation, loved “God’s child” (Rohr),

US!,  creation, the moon and the stars … the herds, the flocks, the birds, the fish

 AND! God wants us to be a part of  all of it – not just a separate “part” – but a conjoined partner  …. This is how we create – grow Beloved Community. 

As I sat with this psalm with my spiritual director this week – the first thought to hit me was

“oh no – so much responsibility – so much work..to do on this earth.”

But then I remembered that last Sunday morning on my way into the building, I tried to practice “keeping God’s face in view,” as I had declared at the start of the new year. And I paused outside, it was snowing like crazy, and I heard a bird nearby… singing a song so loud, it was kind of out of place, it was a spring song by a male cardinal.

I stopped and looked for it, and it was in the tree just outside, so gorgeously red – so big and fluffy and full –  in a bare tree with snow falling all around. It was stunning… it hit me squarely in the heart and I smiled – and just stood there for a few minutes . . knowing that that was God and God’s love to me. 

I felt the saving grace of it. I wasn’t in turmoil. But it steadied me for the hours to come where 200 donuts intended for our service were lost and delivered not on this campus, and it saved me from feeling like I was a mess up when I couldn’t get home in time to be part of something on the homefront… and that’s the tiniest and biggest truths about God’s love – so personal and so mysterious.

This is the demanding, powerful force of love that can overcome us – can transform us and everything we touch. And it will be the force that saves us from falling into the characteristics of work here on earth that can become more striving than fulfilling, more of a grind than a passion expressed, more of a meter of our worth than an extension of who we already are.

There are thousands of moments throughout our days that will try to avenge us – tear us down – separate us from God’s love within. But there are also billions and billions of droplets of God’s love that are placed with care (as God does the stars in the sky), with attention, with personal whim… just for you to encounter. So much so that if you could turn around and look at your life you would see a trail of stardust formed in the most beautiful constellation of you and God. We cannot find salvation outside of the powerful force of God’s love.  

Prayer

Save us, O God.

Help us to remember that your name indeed is majestic in all the earth.

Help us to remember that we were created as love.

Help us to establish the work of our hands.

Drench them in your love, reminding us that we hold in our hands the power/the energy/and force to place a star in the sky – and love in the heart of another.

Amen.

The Good Life | Full of Wonder

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

One of the (many) things about young kids that I find so breathtaking, is that they really know how to love, and they really know how to be fully alive, present to what is in front of them.  AND if you’ve been around little kids – you know they make this known, by embodying this way of living and loving.  Where none of that looks like perfection and none of it is secured by them – by way of taught knowledge, or by way of being bought or built,  and none of it is rigid, or defined. The way that many kids love and live, is messy, vulnerable, unruly – and yet alltogether compelling…

And also, if we are honest –  totally unnerving … because it means you never really know what you are going to get! But you do know that whatever it is, you’ll likely get it at 100%!

What’s going to come out of their mouths, how close they’ll get to you – what questions they’ll ask – is often unpredictable.
I felt that this last Sunday on Halloween… as a couple hundred kids made their way up our front steps… And, as part of the trick or treat exchange, I tried to ask each kid, “How’s your night going?”

And at varying degrees of social distance violations, I got a myriad of answers:

  • The first with one kid, pulling their lollipop out of their mouth, and pointing it at my mouth – answered by saying: “Why is your tooth so yellow?”
  • Another answering by saying, “Uuuugh, can I sit here – my feet are killing me!?”
  • “Ahhh, my night is mostly really bad, but some good.”
  • “I don’t like Almond Joys – can I have a Twix?”

And there it is – this childlike-ness – this in your face, unfiltered, seemingly off-point, utterly vulnerable, and honest spirit.  A spirit that I find myself longing for these days – because it seems like this way of being – opens our view of  the world, of God – each other – that can hold a lot of mystery and complexity – something that I feel lacking in.

Kids show us that to love, unabashedly. And to live fully (with all the layers of life in view) is actually the “good life” we have all already inherited by God. And yet one that we often strive to still obtain.

So this morning I’m going to talk about childlike faith – and how this instrument of wonder opens our faith, grows our faith, and keeps our faith healthy.  OPENING us into more joy, more laughter, more hope – all while taking in the messiness of this life – that isn’t all sweet.

This is the only way I could imagine honoring Kim Messenger today – to invite us all to reflect & revisit what a childlike faith can offer us – not just the children among us. And so invite you to reclaim wonder – if you feel like you are lacking in it or have lost it as the yeast of your faith.

God – help us this morning, to take in all of life.  Help us to get in touch with where we are at right now, in this present moment – are we feeling open? Shut down? Numb? Disinterested? Full of faith, low on faith?…  Help us to move into this conversation with you this morning…   Thank you, Jesus.

Over the past year and half, I’ve returned to this notion of “child-like” faith again and again. I’ve  looked at it, entertained it, recognizing at arm’s length that it is exactly the invitation of Jesus’ that would be helpful to return to.

But I just couldn’t get there – somewhere in the pandemic, my capacity to hold all the hard – and squint for a luster of wonder, felt like too much.

And that is a little disorienting for me. Because the lenses of wonder and beauty are often more my inclination – but they’ve felt in many ways irresponsible, maybe even harmful – given the scope of chaos, violence, racism, and death in our landscape. Wide-eyed wonder, childlike faith – what place could it take in the midst of overwhelming catastrophe? The answer wasn’t clear to me, and the stakes too high. So I think I’ve just suspended it.  Because I could fall back on the elements of my faith that I KNOW – scripture and prayer –  with some regularity.

Childlike faith, however, seems to be a lot less about answers – and actually all about the “stakes” of life.

A lot about courage – because it asks us to go beyond our set of known “beliefs” about God (who God is), and summons our will to wonder and create with God (as a way of knowing God).

Rabbi Abraham Heschel says it’s

“not that we lack a will to believe – it’s that we lack a will to wonder.”

To be alive in the story of God means daring to wonder as much as we say we “believe.” 

And that’s scary. Because to wonder means we are entering into something that can shake everything up – AND it doesn’t ask permission to grow inside of you. It just goes – and it takes everything in its path with it. Everything we’ve understood, everything we think we know, everything we’ve stored in our hearts, everything we’ve felt in our bodies, everything we’ve once dreamt about.  It’s called into question by WONDER. But it’s also called back to life. And this holds the potential to resurrect us (in ways we’ve shut down and maybe prefer) and break us open into new fields and realms ensuring nothing except the goodness and love of God at our every turn.

Jesus has something to say about childlike faith – here in the scripture of Luke – read along with me as it comes up on slides:

Luke 18: 15 – 23 (Common English Bible)

15 People were bringing babies to Jesus so that he would bless them. When the disciples saw this, they scolded them.

16 Then Jesus called them to him and said, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kin-dom belongs to people like these children.

17 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kin-dom like a child will never enter it.”

18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain/inherit eternal life?”

19 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 20 You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.”

21 Then the ruler said, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

22 When Jesus heard this, he said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”

23 When he heard these words, the man became sad because he was extremely rich.

Now, I wonder, as you hear this story, what part of this story is the most important to you? 

The most important part to me (today) is this question that the ruler asks Jesus,

“How can I inherit the “good life/eternal life”?”

It’s an honest question perhaps.

.And an interesting question – because it seems like the young ruler might have missed the answer that Jesus already offered….He says,

“Let the children come to me.”

This answer though of Jesus’ to the young ruler is probably similar to my Halloween experience  “wait, what?” Did you even answer that question?

“Little children – eternal life?” WHAT?

What “good thing(s)” do I need to do? To SECURE & obtain my spot in the kin-dom of heaven?

Jesus is generous here and calls out what the young ruler does know these  commandments that encapsulate loving your neighbor:

Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.”

The young ruler, is like

“yes – yes – I’ve known these commandments, I’ve kept them since I was a child. Since I was these kid’s age. I have scrupulously observed these duties.”

“Then what do I lack?” (in Matthew’s version)

Jesus answers by showing – calling his attention to what is in front of his face… these children…

“Watch them,” “See how they approach me,”. .. “Come directly to me”

  • With their messy, sticky selves
  • Their toddling steps…
  • With their curiosities and excitement about the dog they met on the way..
  • The pain in their stubbed toe

They come to me with all of it..

“They know love when they see it. They know they belong to me. 

They have already inherited the kin-dom.

They embody the commandments. The ones you have known since you were a boy – and they embody the ones you have yet to “wonder” your way into – “That’s loving me – loving your God with all of your heart, mind and soul…”

“You don’t lack the will to believe – you lack the will to let go, (yes – of your possessions , your privilege, your training, your disciplines)  AND You lack the will to let go unto wonder.

Wonder – the instrument that brings these commandments, these lessons – into your real life. With real people.

Two weeks ago as part of our staff meeting, Kim invited us to sit in tiny kid chairs and on the floor, of the 2nd floor MC. To hear her tell a Godly Play story – the story of “The Great Family”: of Abraham and Sarah and God, And all of us – the lineage & the beginnings of our faith….which actually are about childlike faith…

These Godly Play story’s hang on the platform of “wonder” as the means by which spiritual formation takes seed.  However, this wondering doesn’t sugarcoat or skip any of the reality of life. In fact, it dives right into it all – trusting the power of childlike faith can hold. A faith that can stand in this gritty life, and look up at the sky – and still feel

“God come so close to us, and us so close to God – that we know God is with us, (blessing us) in this place,”

wherever and whatever we are standing in. 

The story Kim told of this Great Family’s journey – and of them getting to know God – is QUITE A STORY.  It embraces humility, uncertainty, suffering, scary stuff.

In fact, the starting point of this story, as she told it, is in the setting of a desert. And the words to follow are not a light rendering-

“The desert is a dangerous place, there is no water in the desert, and people cannot live without water or food for very long.. .no one goes into the desert unless they have to…”

This is the landscape of faith that kids get to wonder about.. (It’s not a cozy cabin with Jesus in front of the fire). 

And kids are like,

“ ooo yes – I get that. Sounds a lot like life.” 

And then as Kim continued she outlines that Abraham & Sarah were “this one family that believed that there was

“one God, and that all of God was in everything”

– and she goes on to say,

“they didn’t know if this was true” – but that is what they believed.”

“And soon the time came for Abraham and Sarah to move from a KNOWN land to an UNKNOWN land, and “they didn’t know if God would be with them in this new place or not.”   

The stage of faith – as kids will hear it – encompasses messy unknowing – not “absolutes.”

And kids are like,

“Yes – I get that. A lot of what I’ve had to do in this life is new, and unknown to me.”

And then as Kim continues and we follow Abraham and Sarah on their journey with God – from Or to Hebron.. We journey along too – into unexpected friendships, to promise, to loneliness, to laughter, to death, to burial in caves. To GROWTH , to NEW LIFE  – and as the story goes – WE SEE generations and generations of faith TAKE SHAPE AS many “as there are stars in this sky, and as many as there are grains of sand in the desert.”

This is the inheritance of our faith.  IT’s BIG.

And kids are like – oh, yah I get all of that…I’m sad sometimes, people die, things are funny, *and I especially like caves!*

Childlike faith can hold the paradoxes that come along our journey with God. It may be WONDROUS. It WILL BE MESSY. It is MEANT TO leave us humbled saying “I DON”T KNOW!”

Full of questions – about everything –  God,  ourselves, and our world. We are meant to ask like kids do-

“Why?” “But why?” “How come?”

Because this world is a wild, and dangerous place – just like the desert – and there’s a lot to wonder about.

God seems to say,

“come to me.”

Climb up into my lap, whenever you want – and I will kiss your head and bless you. And we can find each other anew – again and again and again..

This story reminded me that Abraham and Sarah’s faith – the Great Family’s faith – our faith

“has nothing to do with believing the right stuff or continuing to learn new, esoteric things about theology until we die.” (Dave Schmelzer) 

It all boils down to

being open to wonder –  to hold the mystery that God isn’t just in this place, or that place, or in this set of rules, or these particular commandments, or for just these “mature” Christians –  but ALL of God IS everywhere.

Abraham never did become a wealthy landowner in the new land, right – his journey with God wasn’t about OBTAINING the good life? It was about embracing his inheritance as one blessed by the presence and goodness of God at every turn along the journey.

Each Godly Play session ends with wondering questions… like,

I wonder where you are in this story?

I think Jesus is posing this same question to the young ruler,

“I wonder where are you in this story? This story of faith, and love and of God? And of growing the kin-dom?”

Are you dipping your toe in? Are you drooling and sticky with vulnerability and wonder on your face – fully immersed?   – or are you hidden behind your racks of money, and trophies of righteousness and power?

From a very young age, this young ruler had stayed the course. He had read the directions, followed them to a T – he had built his faith.  He was so “good.”  But he had never moved. He hadn’t started the journey,  moved into the wilds of life – where faith comes fully alive – nor had he moved closer to God.

Our spiritual growth depends, paradoxically, on regaining a child’s perspective. We have to regularly start anew with wonder  –  we have to return to God, again and again – and say, “can you bless me?”   I just need that touchpoint – can you bless me?

Growth in faith – isn’t about obtaining more  or certain knowledge that ensures the good life – it’s about imagining that God loves you so much that the inheritance of the good life is available here and now.

Growth in faith – isn’t only to do the things you think God wants you to do – it’s about wondering if there are things that you and God might like to do, create, be, unfold, question, upturn – together. 

The barometer of our faith is not our MORAL UPRIGHTNESS – it seems like that as a focus separates us from the real life – and from a real God.

The barometer of our faith is our willingness to ask whether the messiness of our faith and the messiness of our life can really be the good life – and whether or not we can cling tightly to God as we let go of the need for a direct answer – and instead live out the answers as we grow & open ourselves to wonder.

Childlike faith allows us to see everything that is in front of our faces and draw close to God in the midst of it all.

STORY OF REED

Last weekend, I went to my 13 year-old’s soccer game.  At this age the team & coaches are on one side of the field – and parents are on the opposite side.  At halftime my son started jogging to the parent side of the field- and I was curious.  And as he got close to the sideline, he said “hey mom come here.” So I just took a couple of casual steps in his direction.

Which wasn’t enough for him, and he waved me closer,

“saying come here – come here…”

So I got really close to him – and he said,

“Can you pray for my hamstring?”

*Reed knows what to do if he has a tight hamstring – it’s not new territory – stretch, drink water, keep your muscles warm.

So I knew right away that the request for prayer was less about the expectation for a loosened hamstring as an answer  – and was more about being close to love. Following the draw of love for just a touchpoint, going to the love that is in front of his face.. And seeing that in and of itself is the answer to prayer. *the wonder of love and the wonder of God everywhere.

I heard his request as,

“Can you just bless me at this moment?  Can you just love me?”

*And this moment was less about Reed – and more about me & God. And returning to God anew with childlike-ness.

“Come follow me”

Jesus says to the rich ruler. Come follow me into love and wonder.

This is the sheer wisdom of what Kim has implanted in the youngest of kids here at Reservoir. She has offered not just a program of Godly Play, but she’s offered to these kids an inheritance, a sense of profound belonging as a child of God. And she has placed in the laps of every child their birth rights – of wonder & of love – which seems to be all of our greatest ways forward in this beautiful and messy life.

When Kim finished sharing the story of the “Great Family” she ended by blessing each of us by name – One by one, by one, returning us to childlike faith

So I’d love for us to end by blessing Kim Messenger  – raise your hands toward her if you’d like …

“Jesus in your goodness and wonder.  would you bless Kim Messenger. The life that she has led and the life and journey that is still ahead, the known & the unknown and foster the deep childlike wonder within her. 

We bless you – Kim Messenger.

I can’t bless you all by name right now.

But I invite you to put your hand on your heart, as a way to close in prayer.
With all the wonder in your heart, imagine Jesus near you – calling you by name,  blessing you, loving you…

Amen.

 

“…The Holy Spirit…The Communion of Saints…”

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

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

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

That’s the creed a church in Atlanta used to say weekly. Let’s get there, and if you like, you can say it with me at the end of this time. 

Grace and I sent our daughter off to college last year, several states away. What a weird year to send your kid out into the world, right? 

I mean, we’re really proud of her. She finished her year, got good grades, made friends, learned things about herself and her interests, on and on. We’re really proud of her. But what a weird year to be sent out into the world on your own for the first time. You’re told make new friends, have adventures, you’re in the prime of your life, but also, don’t hang out indoors, don’t leave campus, don’t touch anyone, wear a mask or two.

You’re told you’re here for the most powerful learning experiences you can imagine, to find your passions, find a career, learn to make a difference in the world. And that’ll happen somehow by taking classes online from your closet-sized room where you sit with your computer and your thoughts, all by yourself

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a brand new young adult.

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a lot of us. I spent a lot of time on the phone this past year, more time on the phone than ever in my life, or at least ever since I was a teenager. And I heard a lot of stories about fear and loneliness. 

Even with the governor. A few of us from GBIO, our interfaith justice organizing group, had a call with the governor to advocate for some justice and mercy measures during the pandemic. But as people of faith, we started out by asking him how he was doing and how we could pray for him. He was clearly under a lot of stress and pressure at the time, and it struck us how lonely his work had become, how he missed the handshakes and hugs and human contact that are big parts of his life in regular times. Even one of the richest, most powerful people in our state gets lonely and scared during a pandemic. 

Some of us discovered during the pandemic that with the help of God and friends, we can face hard times and do well. We found we had each other and we were not alone. 

But some of us found that we were a lot more alone than we wanted to be. And maybe we wonder what to do about that. 

And some of us are realizing that it’s not easy to shake off our fears. There’s plenty of scary news, COVID and otherwise, that’s still part of our lives – private and public – and we wonder how we can be less afraid. If we can be less afraid.

Today I want to explore a little how a person of faith can be connected and feel less alone and maybe even a little less afraid. 

I’ve been teaching through the Apostles’ Creed this summer, one of the shortest and oldest summaries of the Christian faith. And I’ve had my reasons for doing this, as I’ve talked about – as I’ve both affirmed and quibbled with the language of this creed, trying to suggest ways to bring it up to date with our science and experiences and faith and doubt we have in our era.

But with today’s section, I want to just enjoy the holy resources it points us to to be less afraid and less alone in the world. 

So I’ll read the parts of the creed I’ve taught the past six weeks I’ve preached and then today’s section as well.

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

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

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

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…

So this part of the creed has this holy, holy, holy trifecta. Holy Spirit, holy church, communion of saints, which literally just means holy people. Same root. I believe in holy spirit, holy church, holy people. What does that sound like to you? 

Holy means beautiful and different and awesome all bound together. It’s what we sense or experience that evokes wonder – like the power of the waves at the seashore, or the intimacy of sex with a beloved partner, or the sense you have if you believe in God that there is a spirit of perfect love and wisdom that knows our name and smiles at the thought of us. 

Wholly holy…

My daughter and I have been watching the new Aretha Franklin series from National Geographic and listening to a voice like hers, or hearing Cynthia Erivo, the actress cover her songs, I mean the unworldly power and soul of a voice like that doing its thing, that’s holy.

The creed invites us to believe that God’s presence with us, God’s spirit, is holy. And that the ways God is with us, the means of God’s presence are holy too. In particular, the ways we are here for each other, the universal church that gathers in the name of Jesus, the communion of people who love Jesus, scattered across place and time, that’s holy too. 

There’s an irony for some of us in that many of us have seen versions of the Christian church or experienced versions of Christian community that have been anything but holy – that have been hollow or empty or shaming or dysfunctional or abusive – not the kind of stuff that fills us with beauty and wonder and awe and love at all. 

I think of Aretha Franklin’s life herself – a woman born into a family and a faith full of love and liberation and beauty and strength. But also a family and a faith that was scrapping for survival and that was abusive and hypocritical too.

Not wholly holy. 

So perhaps the creed isn’t telling us the whole story of how it always is but calling us to possibility –to the way things can be or should be. Maybe it’s inviting us to look for the ways God can be with us through God’s church and God’s people, to believe in and lean into the ways we can be less scared and less alone, and more whole, in this community and in this faith. 

This week, this hope reminded me of a little beginning in one of the New Testament’s little letters. Most of the letters in the New Testament are written to communities of faith, but this one called II Timothy is written to a person of faith, to a very young pastor of a community. And the beginning has these words. 

II Timothy 1:3-7 (Common English Bible)

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night.

4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness.

5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.

6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands.

7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

The writer is telling Timothy to remember God is with you, through many means. Timothy’s been sad, and like most leaders, he’s probably been lonely sometimes. There is mention of tears. Like most young leaders, most leaders period to be real, he’s been scared sometimes. There’s mention of this “spirit that is timid or afraid” that Timothy wants to find his way past. 

But the writer – we’ll go with the tradition for a moment, and call him Paul – Paul tells Timothy God is within you. God is in you. And God’s gift to you isn’t money or status or any other kind of stuff, it’s just all that is holy God. It’s the internal love and dynamism of God within you, and it’s the self-control, the self-leadership that can empower. 

Paul doesn’t just tell Timothy to stop crying and stop being timid and buck up and be strong. And he doesn’t tell his mentee to just have more faith in this God who is with him by God’s Holy Spirit. 

What he does do is remind a young leader that God’s presence is there through many means and that God’s presence invites noticing. Faith in God doesn’t just occur, it needs some paying attention and tending and reviving; it needs leaning into. 

Thankfully, there are many means by which this faith in God with us can be stirred. 

Here are just a few of the means Paul mentions for knowing God’s loving, empowering presence. 

There are the holy ancestors. Paul writes this letter of encouragement not just by himself but in the faith and the strength of ancestors who preceded him. And he encourages Timothy not just as a solitary person alone in the world, but as a young person whose mother and grandmother were people of love and faith.

Timothy’s line probably wasn’t all goodness and light to him, just like our families and ancestors aren’t either. Maybe Timothy’s dad was absent, physically or emotionally. Maybe his brother was mean, maybe his sister did him wrong, maybe his other grandmother was cruel. But he has ancestors, as do Paul, maybe biological, maybe unrelated by people of his faith or his culture or his community who preceded them and whose strength and love and faith is gifted to them across generations. Holy ancestors are means of God’s loving, empowering presence to us all.

There are the holy prayers. Paul prays for Timothy, his mentee, whenever he thinks of him. And that’s a means of loving encouragement. None of us know precisely how prayer works, but when we become part of a church, people start praying for us. I know this because I pray for you all when I think of you. Often very short prayers, but pastors do this, pray for people whose names and lives greet us in memories and meetings and emails and texts. And I co-lead two community groups in this church and just about every week we meet, just about each person is prayed for by name. And God’s listening, and we’re listening, and this is another way we know God’s loving, empowering presence to us all. 

There are holy, vulnerable and authentic relationships. Paul and Timothy know each other well enough, they’ve been real enough, trustworthy and safe enough with each other that tears have been shed in one another’s presence, and they know the names of each other’s family. In our emotionally distant, shut down culture, how many men are open enough, close enough that they’ve cried in each other’s presence. In our transitory world, who knows the names of our family? Whose family names do we know? Holy friendship, that just offers non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, openness, this is a big way we get less alone in the world. 

There is the holy spirit of God within us Paul says Timothy, don’t forget. It’s there. And there are holy memories. The memory of people who you love and who love you. The memories of key moments where God seemed real and good, like for Timothy, that time Paul put his hands on his shoulders in front of the little church and commissioned him to lead with love and humility and wisdom and faithfulness. 

Our lives are full of troubles and fears and lonely corners of the life that aren’t quite the ones we want. All that’s real. But we have memories too, memories of experiences that told us we’d be OK, and we are seen and loved and we are not alone. And these holy memories are means of knowing how holy God sees and loves us. 

And there is lastly the holiness of reunion. Paul says

I long to see you. I long to see you.

The longing to see the one we cannot see was real to us all this past year and a half. And sometimes the longing is all we’ve got, and longing can be holy too, even the wanting of togetherness can make us feel a little less alone and a little more alive.

But then there’s the leaning in when it’s possible too, the leaning into togetherness. The premade decision to keep showing up for your neighbors or your friends or your church community group, because in the keep showing up, you know you’ll be a holy encouragement to someone else, and in the keeping showing up, you’ll put in the time that lets others start to be holy encouragement to you too. 

Now let me say again, in all these things I’m talking about – in ancestors, in families, in faith traditions, in churches and memories and prayers and togetherness, there can be so much that is not holy. That keeps distance, that judges, that shames, that uses, that leaves one another empty and emptied and cold and sometimes even more scared and more alone than we were in the first place.

Most of the best things in life, when they lack love and kindness and safety, can be some of the worst things too. That’s real. The means by which we can know God is with us, and be left feeling more love and power internally, only work when we’re safe and kind and lean into non judgemental, loving presence. That’s just a truth of life. 

But with these things, church can be holy, and knowing we are part of a communion of holy people – imperfect, messy, authentic, beautiful, loving, wise, encouraging people, both living and dead, can make us feel God is with us, and help us feel less scared and less alone. 

As people of faith, that have some kind of connection to this church – whether it’s your community, or you’re passing through, or you’re checking it out and figuring out how involved or uninvolved or involved you want to be –  this is the best possibility of this place, or some other place like it. 

The holy church, and holy communion of people helping make present and real an experience of the holy, loving God. 

How do we lean in? How do we give and receive this experience? How do we practice the RADICAL RELATIONALITY of this faith in Jesus? 

How can we experience belonging and mattering? Community, shared purpose, accountability and transformation – personally and socially? 

How can we be a communion of saints to one another?

Let me highlight, underscore again, three of the ways.

One is through our own memory and attention. Many of the things we’ve talked about today are things we can remember and pay attention to or that we can forget, ignore, take for granted, or miss. Last week, in the spiritual practice I led in our in-person service, we practiced the examen prayer, the first half of which is to notice where we’ve found life in the past day and to express gratitude. I’ve been doing this more or less daily, or at least intending to, for 3 or 4 years. It’s changed me.

For the second time in my life, I’m doing this #100daysofgratitude thing on my Instagram and Facebook. Noticing each day and sharing it publicly a person or memory or experience I’m grateful for, remembering and paying attention to ancestors and people who love me and I love, and delights and learning experiences and everything that is holy, holy, holy and reminds me I’m not alone and God is good. 

I don’t do this because I’m a naturally grateful person. Kind of the opposite. I’m not a naturally grateful and attentive person. I have to lean into this intentionally. 

But doing so gets me in touch with the truth that I’m loved by God and that through the communion of saints and the holy church, Holy Spirit is with me, inviting me to hope and joy and greater life. This makes me a less resentful person, a less anxious person, a more content person. And that feels good to me. 

That’s personal. You can do that first one by yourself. The next two need other people. They need the whole communion of saints. 

We practice the radical relationality of this faith through authentic togetherness. There’s no other way. Faith in a loving God, experience of a Spirit who is with you is not a solo sport but a team sport. That’s the cheesiest line ever, but it’s also true. 

To be less alone and less scared and to have the goodness of all the holy, holy, holy, we need each other. Saturday mornings, I gather with 5, 10, 15 or you just about every week. We study the Bible, and have a really interesting time of that, but beforehand, we hear how we’re finding life or how our lives could be better and we offer listening ears and supportive prayers. People keep it pretty real, and I always end feeling more connected and less alone.

I do this other places too – in a Thursday night group, with a couple pastor buddies I meet up with every 2 weeks, and a couple Grace and I talk to on the phone a lot. And then I live with 4 other people too, at least parts of the year now.

But as we found during pandemic, living with other people is no guarantee that those relationships will be means to be less scared and alone and get the beauty and power and strength of love in your life. It all depends, doesn’t it? It depends on whether we can show up for one another with that non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, and openness. In my household, we’re all still a mixed bag on this front. 

So we each try our best. I try to be a more curious, attentive, nonjudgemental person. The kind of person it would be safer to cry around, the kind of person someone would long to be with when we’re apart. I pray for help from God in this. My housemates, in my case family, have their own stories in this too, which are up to them, and I think we all mostly try our best. But me, I only control me, right, just like all of us? And that helps this thing along too.

Lastly, I believe that to get the holy, holy, holy community that helps us know the power and fellowship of a holy God, we need to hang in with a tradition. 

We need living people we aren’t related to or wouldn’t naturally just meet as friends. 

We need people much older than us and much younger than us, which faith communities are unusually good at helping us connect with, if we’re willing.

We need dead people – memories of our own ancestors, sure, but also the best wisdom of traditions that span back centuries and more. 

We need rituals and worship and songs and prayers and scriptures that help us think about and experience the transcendent source of life, truth, beauty, and love.

In my case, I firmly believe that I need the teaching and practice and life and ongoing living presence of Jesus Christ, who shows us what God looks like and offers us guidance toward abundant life. 

It’s hard to invent a whole religion. It’s hard to get all these things without hanging in with a tradition and a faith and a faith community – even if it’s got sore spots that need healing and broken spots that need mending and wrong things and outdated things that need updating and righting. 

This is obviously very much the mission of Reservoir Church –  to walk faithfully in the ancient faith tradition of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and to keep innovating and involving and growing so that faith can guide and serve 21st century people who believe in making a more just and loving world. 

Our tradition keeps doing simple and beautiful things, like this old creed we’re exploring this summer that invites us to lean in toward holy God through holy church and holy people. And like this new creed we started with, penned by Dr. Kathi Martin, a queer, Black, disabled minister who founded the God, Self, Neighbor community in Atlanta. 

It goes like this again:

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

Say it with me if you like.

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.