Voice

Genesis 3:8-9 (Common English Bible)

8 During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees.

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

Holy and Loving God, you first called to them in the garden,

“where are you?”

And maybe you’re calling out to each of us now,

“where are you?”

Well we’re here at Reservoir Church this morning, but where’s our heart? Where’s our mind at? Maybe some of us are asking, Where are you God? Are you here? I pray that you would bring all of us, to right here to this moment. To find ourselves here, to find you here, to find one another in the presence of the other. Would you help us to hear the voice of God. Right here within us. That it may strike a chord within us, and transform us, through the power of your unconditional abundant love we pray, Amen. 

A few months ago I took a solo flight to California. No kids, no husband. By myself, on a six hour flight, Thank you Friend Jesus. I was really looking forward to this quiet, uninterrupted, alone six hour flight. For the flight, I packed a book and earphones. I sat down and plugged it into the seat and started scrolling through the movies. I found one, a new release, one I’ve been wanting to see, “everything everywhere all at once.” Oh I was excited. I pushed play and the screen started to move, but I heard nothing. I turned the sound up. I unplugged and plugged back in the earphones. I go back to the menu and play something else, anything, and still there is no sound. At this point I’m starting to panic a little. I look around for the flight attendant, ah they look busy, I don’t want to be that guy, but I really want to be that guy, I pressed the button with the courage to speak up for my own needs. “The sound is not working?” I said, and they said, “okay, we’ll look into it.” I turned on the caption and watched the whole movie silently, with the earphone in my ear with no sound.

Today we’re looking at God as Voice. Not the voice of God, as an attribute of a God that is personified, but trying to see and understand God through the metaphor of Voice. What is Voice?

It can be someone’s words. It can be sound. But it can also be someone’s meaning/communication that is passed to another, like “you can really see the artist’s voice coming through” a painting. What would it look and feel like to imagine, that the experience of perceiving voice, is to experience God? 

Rabbi Spitzer’s book, God is Here, has been informing these non-human metaphors for God we’ve been engaging with for the last few weeks. In this series, we’re less trying to see God as a person, but experiencing God as we might experience anything else in the world, which is not just with humans but with elements, things seen and unseen, through places, cloud, water and so forth. I want to help us distinguish the metaphor of The Voice from the attribute of the voice of God.

So whenever I say voice today, think, Capital V, Voice, not the voice of God. It feels a little weird, cause we’re trying to shift our familiar old pathways of thinking about God as a person, to God as an experience, bodily, visceral experience. It’s shifting us from thinking in our mind to understand, to feeling and experiencing and just receiving and noticing our bodies. Just as we’ve been learning more from science about just how smart the body is – how trauma lives in the body, how it’s not just the brain that carries all information of our experience, but each cell in the DNA holds the data – experiencing God, knowing the divine is not just a knowledge endeavor but a bodily experience. I’ll share with you today how Rabbi Spitzer invites us to see the experience of Voice, capital V, reveals the experience of God. 

Think of a time when you’ve been to a music concert. A rock concert, a symphony, the club. Think about how your body felt, hearing the music. How certain sounds would make you feel things, get emotional, how a sound tingled your body or gave you goosebumps. To experience music or sound means that something is changing your body. It runs through you, cuts through your heart, changes the mood, affects your emotions, and afterwards, you’re a different person. 

To showcase the Sound of God, Rabbi Spitzer highlights this text we read today. She starts with how in the beginning, it was “merely” a voice that spoke the world into existence, “Let there be light.” And in this story, where Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, we’re introduced to the word kol, the sound. Spitzer points out that it actually says,

“They heard the kol of YHVH God walking around in the Garden, at the breezy time of day.” 

Now when we’re translating, and reading, it’s hard to tell what verb goes with what noun. And Spitzer is proposing that it actually says more like

“the ‘Voice of God’ was walking around”

rather than

“hearing the sound of God walking around.”

There are no commas in the Hebrew Bible (actually there’s not even vowels actually in the original Torah!). That’s why Steve’s been telling us lately, we don’t know how to say YHWH, it might be Yehweh. Or it might be Yihwih, Yoohwooh. Sorry, was that irreverent? I like to say sometimes that I’m a very irreverent Reverend. 

While I’m on a detour, let me just take a full turn off the exit for a minute because the view is so good here. The text keeps saying, the Man and his wife. As opposed to the man and the woman,  or just them. And Lord God specifically asks

“where are you?”

to the man. Was God not looking for the woman? Or not talk to the woman directly, see here it says in the Bible, as some men have concluded in the access of the divine for women. Here’s a thing I like to point out as we read a text out of Genesis. You see, the Bible is a collection of stories. It’s not one cohesive well thought out story, as many preachers like to say and point out. Sure, there’s a full story of God we’re trying to get at, but the reality is, there’s a lot of opposing stories, and repeats of stories, and same stories with different motifs and agendas. The Jewish tradition was okay with lying differing texts right next to each other, some in not-so-chronological order, some in opposing theological views that debated with one another. 

Genesis Chapter 3, this excerpt we read, is a part of a specific source. No, the first five books of the Bible weren’t all written by one guy Moses, but actually it’s a COLLECTION of many works and authors and sources, and traditions and times! that have been compiled together. And when we look at the first few chapters of Genesis, this is clear. That there are different sources. 

There are two creation accounts. And we kept them both, right next to one another. It’s a little disorienting to read, if you read chronologically. In Genesis 1, you read the creation story, Day one, Day two, and so forth. And it was very good. God rests on the seventh day.

And then you get to Genesis 2 and we have what they call the Second Narrative, and you hear the creation story kind of all over again but different. The first narrative creates humans like this, Genesis 1:26

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us (plural)….

So God created human beings in “his” own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Now the pronouns are all mixed up here, because God refers to Godself as Godselves, a plural us, and then, it says his image, but It created them, male and female. Again, it’s impossible to have direct translation and the gender or gender neutrality of the pronouns do not come through.

In the Second Narrative, humans are created by that story you might’ve heard, which is what Genesis 2 account is, Adam takes a nap, a rib is taken out,

“It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.”

In which the word used here, Helper is the same word used in other texts to describe God as the Helper with capital H, a point that is not considered when placing women as merely an assistive role in some Christian circles, based on this text, saying that man was created first and then woman. Yes, in one creative narrative. 

You might be able to guess which narrative I like more out of the two creation stories. I didn’t even know that there were two creation stories until I went to seminary. No one told me that there are two accounts and each comes from a specific tradition. Two traditions that talk about God and our origins in two different ways.

Why is that a threat to our understanding of God? Because, of course, some folks somewhere along the way, tried to drown out a voice, by saying this one voice is the true and only source of truth, when all along, there were multiple voices and that it was okay to listen to both! 

So that is my feminist exegesis (fancy word of drawing meaning out of the Bible) of Genesis 1-3. Okay. Back to our regular programming. 

When we look at and notice the Voice, Kol, of God, we actually discover that it’s not even about the words. What God said. Or even about the sound. What it sounds like. The voice of God is not what you expect. God is actually the opposite of what we expect. Rabbi Spitzer mentions a friend of hers, Rabbi Darby Leigh, who is deaf, talking about the voice of God as not sound but vibration. Vibration as God. Which runs through everything. Which different vibrations running through us in various forms changes us, has an impact on us.

  • Does God change you?
  • Does it impact you?
  • Does God run through your body? 

Spitzer also points to another story. When the Voice at Sinai has a game-changing impact on the Israelites, when they received what’s traditionally known as the 10 commandments. It did something to them. And people were afraid, saying to Moses,

“You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!”

You know why I think they said that? Cause when we really hear what God has to say, it makes us uncomfortable. It changes everything. I don’t want everything to change. I wanna gain tips here and there, and receive a nice word. I don’t want to hear something and be completely changed, that is if I am comfortable. OR, if you are someone who is in desperate need of something to finally change, then yeah it’s a welcomed change. When you look out into the world and everything you see is centered around you and works for you, you don’t want it to change. But when everything you see, for some reason, it just does not make sense and you don’t know why but it feels like there’s gotta be something else going on. Which one are you? 

Last text I’ll share with you from Rabbi Spitzer about voice of God is from Elijah in 1st Kings. 

1 Kings 19:11-13 (New International Version)

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.

12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1

3 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I love how Rabbi Spitzer offers us a whole new light to texts I’ve heard all my life. She says, “And finally, after the fire, a kol d’mama daka–which can be translated as “a thin, silent voice” or perhaps “a sound of soft silence.” 

I’ve heard it translated as a “small still voice.” And I looked at each of the words in the Hebrew dictionary, and my translation variations are, “sound of the quiet,” “call of the still and small” “a call of the quiet.”

God is the call of the quiet. God is in the sound of the small. God is in the stillness. One of the translations of the word “still” is “crushed.” God is the sound of the crushed. 

And why does this translation make me emotional? 

Because I know what it’s like to feel crushed. To be silenced. To have to be still and quiet. To be needed to be tamed and told to be demure. Oh and yes, I will point out that I learned the word D’mamah is a feminine word. 

Where is God? This whole series is called God is here. Well according to this scripture revelation, God is not here with the preacher with the mic. Who is silent right now? Who’s heart is vibrating in the stillness? What is God saying to you? 

I remember one time I was preaching and I lost my place in my notes and I was just like frozen looking for my place on the page a good 15 seconds I think. And after the sermon, someone was like, omg that sermon, ugh, and that moment actually when you lost your place in your notes, was so rich! I was like, “yeah~”. When I said nothing at all, it was so powerful. 

Rabbi Spitzer suggested going on a week-long silent retreat. Ha! I would hate that. I’ve been on a day silent retreat before and the whole time I was anxious. It’s like busy moms talk about, after the kids have gone off to school and you finally get time to yourself, it’s like I don’t know, I’m out of practice, what do I even do with myself and all this silence? 

I think being silent is scary. I think being alone with the clearest reflection of yourself is scary. It’s like the car mirror. The lighting is too good compared to your bathroom. There’s six windows of natural light in that thing, too much clarity is not good for your confidence. 

I do notice, even though I’ve been saying it’s not the words or even the sound that matters, I do notice the two texts of the Voice saying,

“Where are you?”

and

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Where are you? What are you doing here? I think that’s the invitation of the Voice. That’s the invitation of God, asking, inquiring of you. Making the space for you, for your voice. 

Well so let me end with that, those questions and some silence. I’ll give us some space and ask the two questions three times. And I’ll end in a prayer for us. 

Feel free to close your eyes. Even put a cloak over your face if you want. 

Where are you? What are you doing here?

……….

Where are you? What are you doing here?

………..

Where are you? What are you doing here?

………..

In the stillness, you are there God. We want to notice you. We want to feel your presence. We need you… to pull us from the cacophony of this busy world, ground us from the restless grasping of our minds, for our souls are indeed restless until we find our rest in you. Give us peace. Help us to bring ourselves to find you in the silence, we pray. For us to make the time, carve out the space, to just be with you, to just listen. Voice, speak to us. We pray, Amen. 

 

Honor the Sacred

The most important story in the whole Hebrew Bible begins with a sacred moment that could easily have been missed. It’s the beginning of the story of the Exodus – God’s rescue of the ancestors of Israel from slavery, into freedom in the promised land. It’s not really the beginning of the story, I guess, but it’s the beginning of the story for the person who becomes its hero, Moses. 

Moses is a middle-aged refugee living in the countryside with his wife and son, working in his father in law’s business, when God gets his attention. It happens like this:

Exodus 3:1-7 (Common English Bible) 

1 Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb.

2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up.

3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.

4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

Moses said, “I’m here.”

5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.”

6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

I don’t know how you imagine this story. Some people imagine it big and dramatic, like that bush is just full of fire and heat, unmistakable in the early morning dawn. And then they imagine God’s conversation with Moses happening out loud, with God’s big booming voice coming out of the flames or down from the sky. 

Moses, Moses…. Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground. 

But I picture this scene smaller, more subtle than that. I imagine that when Moses first sees that bush out of the corner of his eye, he wonders if the first light of sunrise is playing tricks on him, as the bush starts to gleam. He starts to keep walking, but something makes him look back again. Is that bush just reflecting the light especially brightly, or is it actually on fire?

And then as Moses walks closer, he doesn’t hear a booming voice in the sky, but he hears God the way almost everyone who has ever heard God does – it’s a voice in his head, like he’s talking to himself or thinking his own thoughts, but it feels more like the wisdom of a loving God than his own daydreams. There’s a gut sense he feels that something or someone good and powerful and beautiful is with him, and he needs to pay attention.

However you imagine this story, though, Moses’ meandering life of despair is interrupted when he notices and pays attention to the sacred. His rise as a leader, and the rescue of his people move forward when Moses sees that God is with him and has purpose for his life. Maybe God’s always been with him, but just now Moses sees it. So he takes off his shoes and honors this sacred moment, this sacred ground, and his life, and the life of the people of Israel, and in some ways the life of the whole world is never the same. 

In my faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, I think God is always with us, everywhere we go, that there’s a sense in which everything and everyone is sacred, that there are nearly constant opportunities to notice the beauty and kindness and purpose and hope of God around us, if we can train our eyes and hearts to pay attention. 

So today I share this sermon on noticing and honoring the sacred, to help us experience God in all things and to help us know the goodness and purpose of partnering with God in everyday life.

Let me take you back for a minute to a sad day in my life over two years ago.

In spring of 2020, it didn’t feel like much good was happening. COVID had arrived in a big way in our city, and our whole country was shut down, wondering how many people would get sick, and how many people would die. 

I was home all the time with my wife, and my three teenage kids, and everything was canceled. My kids were trying to do a fake, boring version of school online, and none of us ever went anywhere. Except we were all taking a lot of walks and bike rides to get out of the house and stay active.

On one of those days, we got a call from one of our kids that he had had a big crash while out on his bike ride and needed help. So I rushed out the door, got in the car, and drove to pick him up and bring him and his busted bike home. And while we were coming back into the house, and trying to patch up our son and figure out if we needed to go to the hospital, I left the door open. And our old cat who’d lived with us for more than 10 years ran out. 

I hardly noticed at first because there was so much going on, and our cat running outside just didn’t seem very important. He’d run out a lot before too and usually came back to the door within an hour, meowing to be let back in. But this time he didn’t come back – not that day, not the next. We put up some signs around the neighborhood with his picture. I walked around the block calling his name. But nothing. 

Until a few days later a neighbor called and found a cat that looked like ours, except he warned me over the phone, this cat wasn’t alive anymore. Well, I went out to check and sure enough, it was our cat Azuma and he had died. 

Now at this point, I had no idea what to do. Part of me just wanted to move on as soon as possible. So many sad things were happening in the world, that I was just tired and maybe a little numb, and I wasn’t ready to feel anything or do anything about one more sadness.

But when I told the rest of our family that Azuma had died, one of the very first things one of our kids asked was where we were going to bury his body and how we were going to have a funeral for him.

And part of me thought: really? We live on this tiny plot of rocky land, with very little space to grow or do anything, especially a burial. And I know a thing or two about funerals, but I just hadn’t planned on leading one for our cat Azuma. 

But the other part of me knew that my kid was right and that it was a good and beautiful and necessary thing he was suggesting. So I found a little patch of mostly bare earth a few feet outside our door, got a shovel, and dug a hole. And then we placed our cat’s body inside an old pillow case and laid him in there, and had our family funeral. We all said a few words about what Azuma meant to us and how we’d miss him, and I said a short prayer, and then we filled in the hole.

And then later Grace planted a very small tree on that spot, more like a bush really. And a little over two years later, it’s a small and flimsy, but beautiful tiny little two or three foot tall tree, whose leaves when they first come out in May look like little origami, green and yellow birds. It’s beautiful really. 

I look at that tiny little tree a lot. Sometimes I sit by it for a little bit and remember our cat and look at the way that his body is literally nourishing a beautiful new life in our garden. Not so much any more, but in that first year after Azuma died, I’d sometimes look at that tiny little tree, with the ring of rocks around it, and I’d tear up for a minute, thinking about the good parts of our cat’s life, and the pleasure and companionship he gave us, and the times we tried our best to make him happy and feel at home too. And that helped me say goodbye, and helped me appreciate his life, and helped me feel better about moving on without him too.

You see, grief is sacred. All grief. Because life is sacred and we are sacred. So to stop and feel bad and say goodbye when someone you care about dies, or when you lose something you care about, or you lose a pet or a dream or a friendship or anything that matters to you. To grieve that loss is sacred. It honors the importance of what you’ve lost, it honors the importance of your love and attachment, and it helps you let go and move forward. 

Grief is about feeling sad feelings, because if you don’t do that, it’s harder to feel any big feelings, even good ones.

And it’s about honoring the memory of the people and things we’ve lost by thinking about them and talking about them, because if we don’t honor the memory, we lose out on all the goodness there. My Jewish friends, when someone they love dies, they don’t say “Rest in Peace,” so much as they say, “May their memory be a blessing.” It’s an encouragement to remember and talk about the people we’ve lost, so that their memory can live on and keep encouraging us. 

In our culture and times, we don’t really know how to talk about and deal with death very well – death of people, death of animals, death of most anything. So we mostly avoid it when we can. But not dealing with death well makes it hard to live well, so the first example I wanted to give of honoring the sacred is to pay attention when someone or something you know is dying or has died. Don’t avoid your feelings. Certainly don’t stop talking about it with your friends and family. 

Because life is sacred, and so death is sacred, and grief is sacred too. 

Look at Jesus. There was a time when one of his friends named Lazurus was sick and about to die, and at first Jesus didn’t act like it was a very big deal. Everything was in God’s hands and everything was going to be fine. But when Lazurus did die and when Jesus went to his house and saw his good friend, Lazurus’ sister Mary sad and crying and angry with God really, Jesus felt all the big feelings too.

In the very shortest verse in Bible, we read:

John 11:35 (Common English Bible) 

35 Jesus began to cry. 

A lot of the time, this verse is just two words – Jesus wept. But I like this translation, Jesus began to cry. Because it shows us that Jesus might have kept crying still. We don’t know how long that moment lasted, before Jesus was ready to do the next big thing he was going to do to help Lazurus’ family – story for another day. And maybe it can remind us that every time all of Jesus’ friends, including you and me, are sad and have reason to grieve, Jesus is ready to cry with us still. 

Because all of life is sacred, and so all of death is sacred and all our loss is sacred, and it’s OK, it’s good to feel a lot of things with every loss, and good to talk about our sadness and our gratitude and our memories – all the things we call grief. Because that’s sacred. Grieving well is part of how we love well and part of how we move forward in life most freely too. Don’t rush past your own grief. And don’t ever rush anyone else’s. 

Jesus, though, wasn’t sad most of the time. He was sad and angry with big feelings when he needed to be, but he also noticed all the amazing sacred people and things going on around him that made him feel alive and joyful. 

Because our world is so full of people and places and things that really matter, noticing them and treating them like they are really important is sacred too. 

One way Jesus did this that a lot of adults don’t is that he always noticed all the children around him. He was sure that children are sacred and that they deserved his time and attention, his love and affection. Take this moment: 

Matthew 19:13-15 (Common English Bible) 

13 Some people brought children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded them.

14 “Allow the children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.”

15 Then he blessed the children and went away from there.

Jesus always had time for children. He liked them. They like him. They found him safe, interesting, kind – kids were drawn to Jesus, it seemed. And he felt the same way. Here it says he would place his hands on them and pray.

I’ve known too few adults I’m not related to who were really interested in my kids. But the ones who have been, and whose interest was healthy and positive, have had this kind of impact, what’s called blessing them. They’ve asked my kids questions about their life. They’ve talked with them over food. They’ve applauded them for the good they see in them. In more than one case, they’ve literally – like Jesus – blessed them.

North Cambridge used to be home to a larger than life community leader named Justice Ismail Laher. He was born in colonial India, lived several places internationally, settled here in the 1970s and spent the last four decades of his life as a community leader here. With our church’s and many others’ support, the city of Cambirdge named a square on Mass Ave. after him. He was a devout Muslim, a friend to this church, and in his last years, a friend to me and my family as well.

We visited with each other occasionally, always praying for each other. And when he met my children, he placed his hands on each of their foreheads and blessed them – telling them the good lives they would live and whether they would become a doctor or a lawyer. 

Maybe the details said more about him than them, but the gesture was clear to all of us. He was telling them and telling us, their parents, that our children have a hope and a future, that they matter to him, they matter to this world, and they matter to God. And we loved him for this, I think my kids did too. 

Jesus always recognized that kids are sacred, worth blessing and care and attention, deserving of safety and protection too. Once he said out loud to all his students, and it’s preserved in our Bibles still, that as far as he’s concerned people who do harm to kids would be better off if they’d never been born. People who do harm to kids, he said, would be better off if they’d had a big stone tied around them and thrown into the sea. 

Because God knows kids are sacred, and people who hurt kids dishonor kids and they dishonor God. Jesus is not subtle on this point. 

Kids, you are sacred. Your voices deserve listening to. Your safety deserves protecting. Your bodies, your dreams, your time matter to God, and they ought to matter to everyone else too. God knows this, even if other people don’t. I know this too. I hope you know how much you matter. 

And grownups, your kids if you have them, but not just them all kids are sacred. Their voices deserve listening to. Their safety deserves our protection. Their bodies, their dreams, their time matters to God, and they ought to matter to us too. 

One more example before we close, as we tour our way through honoring the sacred.

We can honor the sacred not just in kids but in every human we ever encounter.

We honor the sacred by doing what Justice did with my kids, by blessing them. 

One more moment with Jesus.

John 1:45-48 (Common English Bible) 

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”

46 Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”

Philip said, “Come and see.”

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Here is a genuine Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?”

Jesus answered, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”

A friend of mine who’s a friend of this church, but not part of it, once said to me that your church’s Bible character is Philip. And I was like what do you mean? And she said, well, Reservoir is a place that invites people to see for themselves what is compelling about Jesus. You’re not pushy or dogmatic, but you’re winsome. You’re like: come and see.

I liked this. I hope we’re like that, friends. 

And here, Philip does that with his friend Nathaniel, who’s basically a hater. He hates on this little backwater town called Nazareth, and he hates on Jesus because Jesus is from that place he doesn’t like.

But Jesus, when he meets him, isn’t guarded or cynical or critical at all. He’s like: hey, Nathaniel, you seem like a good man. A straight shooter, a true Israelite, like calling him a good American or something, if he’d been here.

And even though this seems kind of general, Nathaniel resonates with this and he’s like:

How do you know me? 

And then Jesus says:

I saw you under that fig tree earlier. 

Which seems random, but there’s a film version of this moment I like. And the way it interprets the moment is that not only was Nathaniel seemingly all alone under that fig tree, but while he was resting, he had his own kind of Moses and the burning bush moment.

The way that the sunlight was playing in the leaves of the tree, he felt like God was with him, and life was good, and the whole world was kind of shot through with love and meaning. And so when Jesus is like:

I saw you under that fig tree,

he hears Jesus saying that he was part of that moment with God, and that blows him away. 

Jesus was just like this with people – unusually attentive, totally present, and as a result, weirdly insightful. And what he liked to do with that insight was ask people great questions, and be really helpful, in this case really encouraging, to speak what we call a blessing – to say true and encouraging words to someone. 

Friends, it’s a sacred thing to notice one another and it’s a sacred thing to bless one another, to say:

I see this good quality in you. I see this awesome gift in you. I admire your resilience.

Even stuff on the surface: my wife, who’s really introverted, still likes to approach women she’s never met in public and tell them what she likes about their hair or their clothes or their shoes. Everyone always loves it, because she’s blessing them. She’s saying:

I see you, stranger, and I appreciate you. And we all need more of that in our lives, don’t we? 

So I don’t know, that’s not it, but it’s a start.

Grieve well, and don’t rush it. 

Love and protect kids. 

And bless everyone you can. Be an encourager. 

That’s hardly all the ways to honor the sacred. There are ways we can relate to the land we live on and the air we breathe, and honor the gift of this earth God has created. There are ways we can honor the sacred in our work and in our art, by doing and making beauty. There is honoring our sacred need to not be so dang distracted and busy, and doing what the scriptures call sabbath, honoring our sacred need for collective rest and restoration.

So many ways to honor the sacred. But this is a start.

When we can be more present, when we can be more safe, when we can pay attention, when we can speak some true and encouraging words to the people we know and encounter, we are sharing and embodying the good news that we all matter, that God is profoundly invested in us all. We are all worthy of honor, attention, and care, just as we all can be God’s vessel for showing that honor, attention, and care to someone else. 

When we honor the sacred, we start to notice just how sacred everyone and everything is. And life gets better and bigger and more beautiful all at once.

Breathe Life | Coda to How to Heal the World

Last Sunday, we opened our pool.

Now make no mistake this is not a fancy in-ground pool.

This is a 4ft deep, above ground blow-up pool that I bought at Big Lots two summers ago for $150 –  so that my daughter who is a swimmer could stay sane and still swim (with a tether tied around her waist and anchored to a tree… I think she did that twice).

Anyway – it’s become over the past two summers a spot for my teenage son –  and his many, many teenage boy friends to congregate, to cool off.  Which mostly looks like them trying to drown each other, and do dangerous running flips into the pool. 

But there’s this one kid in the bunch, Sadon – who, when given the chance, will just float, quietly in the pool…for long, long periods of time!  This week my son Reed, was out of school with a high fever (for four of the five days) – but at some point in one of those afternoons I looked out the window and there was Sadon – alone in the pool, quiet, floating on his back, eyes closed. “JEEZ, Sadon!!”

And I went to run out back and say, “how long have you been here, child?!” “Do you want to say hi to Reed?”

But the Spirit of God nudged me to take a minute. And I watched him – wondering if he was breathing – because he was so still. But I watched his chest rise and fall – long steady, deep breaths, so at peace… his face still so animated, so full of life, so child-like, so alive.  Tears filled my eyes.

Realizing how much I had been holding my breath, how shallow my breath had been since the news of Uvalde, TX  … how much I had been holding my breath since the weekend before with Buffalo, California, and Dallas’ shootings…realizing how much I’ve been holding my breath over the past two years.  And just how long it’s been since I felt simultaneously that alive-full of breath, and that at peace – like Sadon.

So today – I’m going to invite us to wonder together,

“What would it be like to have Jesus breathe life into us?”

Into the spots of us that are so heartbroken,  fractured, splintered – weary.  And to press in with the Spirit of God to ask how this breath of God – could not only be a balm to the aching – but be the stirring of a resurrection of sorts. Where “new” life could be made. Where we could be animated enough to participate in the new creation, imagining new dreams, new ways of healing this world – when often it feels like this world relentlessly threatens to kick the wind out of us at every turn.

We technically ended our spring series of “Healing the World” last week – but I wanted to add some additional thoughts this week, a little Coda.. a little p.s. to that series. In a way that I hope can be some oxygen to our souls.

I want to talk about how God inspires all of us to be makers of this new creation, this beloved community. How we’ve been given by our great Maker – artistic and creative ways to heal this world – that are central, necessary and essential.  I’m going to highlight two artists to minister and inspire us –  a local artist by the name of Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs and also an international Japanese artist, Makoto Fujimara. Along with accompanying scripture – one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. 

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the assurance of what we don’t see.  And our vision is to continue to create the kin-dom of God, which is not yet in full view. It will take all of us as makers to grasp that imagination and creativity is essential, central and necessary in this journey of faith… and essential to return to the breath of God so that we in turn can breathe this life and healing, into the world around us. 

Prayer: Spirit of God, could you breathe new life into us? Please, God – breathe new life into us. 

I’d love to start with Scripture, because the Bible itself is really a work of art.  

“The Bible is a collection of texts, not one text, written over fifteen hundred years, in three languages, and from very different political and cultural contexts and it records the dialogue between God and God’s people. It also records the dialogues among

God’s people. It is not meant to be a source by which people arrive at one right answer – for all people across all time.”  (Thanks, Steve Watson and David Gushee)

The Bible invites us to enter into the art of our faith – of story, and expression,  story-telling and the creative – breath-filled-Spirit-filled application to our present day lives, with poetry and song, and imagination!

All throughout scripture we are offered story after story of the makers and ancestors of our faith. 

  • Bezalel and Oholiab were two men who constructed the Ark of the Covenant-  tabernacle, the dwelling place of God. 
  • Miriam, who helped rescue Moses at the Nile River,  led the Hebrew women in singing, dancing, and playing drums after crossing the Red Sea.
  • Shiphrah and Puah were two Nubian midwives who creatively and subversively disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill the Israelite male newborns.
  • The eunuch as I mentioned last week, is one who makes a way for the follower of Jesus to be enlivened and stretched by the very message he himself hopes to give.
  • The fishermen, the textile workers, the ones who make salves for lepers sores. 

And on and on I could go – right? This is just a meager sampling of the abundance of makers that Scripture beholds. And all of them: 

  • Make way for more of God’s spirit to be encountered.
  • Make way for breathing more life into people, neighborhoods and beyond.

And you might think – well I can’t build a Tabernacle, or an ark – or sing or dance – or really have the energy for much of anything creative these days. Do you see these days? It’s chaos. Void of anything that looks like it could be shaped into something helpfully new. 

And I hear that – and I think we might be helped by starting at the beginning in Genesis:

1When God began to create the heavens and the earth—

2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—

3 God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.

4 God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness.

5 God named the light Day and the darkness Night. (Genesis 1: 1-5)

 The Scriptures open with a depiction of God breathing over cosmic chaos. We read it was formless, barren, and darkness was over the surface of the deep (noting that darkness isn’t a description of something evil, but rather of something absent), and yet God’s wind/ in other translations…

God’s “Spirit” sweeps and blankets the sea. The Hebrew word for Spirit is Ruach, which can also mean “Breath.”  So God’s breath, even before words are uttered, is the substance by which creation is brought into existence. 

It primes the canvas of our own lives.

And by faith the universe was created – by God so that the visible came into existence from the invisible. (Hebrews 11: 3)

And as we continue in Genesis: 

the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.  (Genesis 2:7 )

God places God’s breath within us.

God’s breath is the source and the sustenance of human life.

And here we have the unassuming template of how to create, of how to embrace our “maker-hood.”

  • A backdrop of chaos.
  • A lot of unworkable components.
  • And the breath of God.

((Deep breath))

This is big.. God is saying

“anything and everything around you”

is possible for this New creation as you and the breath of the God move together.

Well, I’d love to introduce you to a favorite local artist of mine, Rob Gibbs – his artist name is ProBlak – who inspires and ministers to me, and who has worked this template of creation to the T.

If you’ve been around for a little bit you know that historically we have annually taken a church-wide retreat – often to a seaside location that allows you to immediately sink into beauty and retreat.

Because of the pandemic we obviously couldn’t do that. So we created a “Retreat Into Your City” in 2020- an invitation to explore the beloved community that we inhabit.  And so we created an 80-page booklet of street art/public free accessible murals that are all over greater Boston/Cambridge/Somerville, complete with Visio Divina like spiritual practices that invited you to engage the Spirit of God, the breath of God as you toured the history, the stories, the life that is in the bones of our cities and neighborhoods – and also the legacy and vision that many of these artists have brought to life and have been doing so for a very very long time. 

“ProBlak” is featured in this booklet – he’s a Roxbury native and lives in Dorchester – he’s a street artist, walls are his canvas  – as much as the communities and the people that make them up. He’s been making, creating for the past 30 years. 

The thing about public street art is that it was always meant to be transgressive, healing and accessible for all. The canvas of our day-to-day dwelling places becomes the stage by which artists speak against injustices; gentrification, poverty, racism, and failures of the modern world structure.

It reminds me of the verse in Acts that says,

“God who made the world and everything in it  – doesn’t live in temples…” 

With the spirit of God, our streets, our buildings, our landscapes – speak to us.  And street art is a vessel by which many have found their voice, in a society that silences theirs. ProBlak says,

“we were empowered as street artists to make a mark on a world that was determined to forget us. We didn’t see ourselves in museums or galleries. But we saw ourselves represented on the walls of our city.”

ProBlak’s work is a part of restoration and mending and healing – but it also is creating something new as we engage with it.

ProBlak was commissioned about five years ago to create three works of art throughout Boston that became a series called, “Breathe Life”… 

I want to share all three of these pieces of work, and tell you a little bit about them. As well as a new one that is a work in progress (that you should go see!). 

The first one, “Breathe Life, 1” (2017) is located in Dorchester

More than just a title, Breathe Life is a philosophy, meant to share energy, and positivity, and lift-up images that reflect the community back to itself. ProBlak paints little Black boys and girls larger than life with love and power. In a world where Black children are brutalized by authorities in school, overly punished, and adultified, it’s important they see themselves cherished by their communities. (www.nowandthere.org/breathelife)

It’s important they be heard.

And so this is the backdrop of this mural. 

Breathe Life, 1

ProBlak said that, “The need to place positive messaging in the community is just more than standing on a soapbox...when I did “Breathe Life”, it was a calling. It came from me wanting to talk to people and suggesting, instead of downplaying something (an idea, a change in the community, a dream), suggesting

“how about you breathe life into it?”

So here’s a young boy breathing into a tiny house… Maybe it’s a picture of what if his dreams, wild ideas, his talents, what he touches could breathe life into his home… into his community – what kind of fantastical world could it create? And the conversation this produces with us, the viewers, is not a passive one. It’s asking us how we can empower, make space, and lift up ideas – this boy – his creativity.

Breathe Life, 2
Madison Park Technical Vocational School  – ProBlak’s alma mater… (2020) – Roxbury
The subject of the mural, a little Black girl with sneakers blowing bubbles.  

This mural holistically became a backdrop for the May protests in 2020, in Roxbury that erupted in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“It wasn’t what I did,”

Gibbs says,

“but it’s what [the Spirit of God breathed life into],  it represented how everybody felt connected to it in those moments.”

This mural is visible for miles, most notably the nearby police headquarters station.

“At a time when my people cannot breathe, I’m asking us to always ‘Breathe Life.’ Writers and artists [and makers] – are more necessary than ever because we are able to get the message of anger, pain, and healing out with art,”

Gibbs said. (https://gregcookland.com/wonderland/2020/07/05/rob-gibbs-problak/)

Breathe Life, 3 – Roxbury 2019
To Gibbs, graffiti is a contemporary form of hieroglyphics, a timeless way to connect to the world, a way in which knowledge is shared, by telling – the art of –  communal stories.
(www.nowandthere.org/blog/2019/4/26/more-art-for-roxbury-with-problak)

Breathe Life 3” highlights a girl, sporting two cosmic Afro puffs, sitting jubilantly on the shoulders of an older boy. Both have wide and infectious smiles. Together, their hands read “Breathe Life” in American Sign Language. The children don’t represent any particular children – but they represent the vast possibilities of youth and innocence.

In street art,

“you’re told that black is a color you should stay away from,”

Gibbs said.

“I’m using it in a different context. It’s not the absence of space. It’s to open up into a different universe.” (www.wbur.org/news/2019/06/05/rob-problak-gibbs-boston-now-and-there)

And we return full circle to the beginning where God utilized darkness to create. As Lisa Sharon Harper says it’s important to note that God does not obliterate the darkness; rather, God names it”- and creates light, light that gives it shape. This allows a whole universe to open up – and be filled.

All throughout the Old Testament we see the breath/the spirit of God be regarded as life – particularly in Job and the Psalms – but I want to mention the story in Ezekiel that I think is relevant to Rob Gibb’s work. 

In the story of Ezekiel we see how the breath of God calls to life, enlivens and animates where only death looks certain.  Ezekiel is brought to a valley of dry bones… and it says he

“looked and tendons and flesh appeared on them, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (37:8).

The full animation of the lifeless bones occurs only when the breath of God flows within.

“So, he prophesied as God commanded, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet, in extraordinarily large company.”

The Spirit of God animates and enlivens us. 

Rob ProBlak Gibbs  has been prophesying for 30 years. I refer to him as a spiritual art-ivist. He’s been calling to life neighborhoods that have been regarded as destitute – and forgotten, people that have been unseen, unheard. He’s been trying to gather bones of communities and people – putting them back together .. mural by mural . . . encouragement by encouragement. 

His work is always for the greater call. The flourishing of a people and community.  He says that

“if you define community as the thing that you have in your heart, the thing that walks around with you, then the idea – the dreams you have expand and become more real.”

This seems apparent in his most recent work called “Breathe Life Together” – it’s a prophetic title. One not realized, yet. 

Breathe Life Together | Rose Kennedy Greenway

In the center of Boston – just outside of South Station, in the center of the financial district, the seaport, chinatown and Ink Block there is a square, called Dewey Square – it’s part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway…and there’s this large 76-foot tall Department of Transportation building right in the middle, that has over the last many years had a rotation, every 18 months of a new mural.
All of them have been international based artists. World-renowned, big artists.

Rob Gibbs is the first Black Boston-native artist to be commissioned and his new work is presently being made. 

I went down to the Greenway this past week for lunch, with a friend and neighbor. Hoping to catch him in the midst of painting – watching people create is so spiritual! Luckily ProBlak also wanted to break for lunch and he came down off the crane/bucket and we ended up talking for 30 minutes or so – about this work, his vision for Boston and his dreams for his daughter (of whom this mural is a rendering of). 

The mural centers a girl rising out of the grass, naturally and with true belonging. She faces the neighborhoods which root her community, surrounded by the inspiration and culture of generations that came before her.. This girl asks us to join the conversation about the past, present and future of our communities in Boston – reminding us what we can do together. (rosekennedygreenway.org)

As I was talking to ProBlak he said, you know if you break open the word, “Together” – by  syllable – you’ll notice it’s a calling…. “to-get-her”…. He said, Boston needs to-get-her, needs to know her, value her, uplift her …. To be able to breathe life together,

“As you can see she’s crouching in this mural… Can you imagine if she were to stand up? How extraordinarily large she would be? As tall as these skyscrapers.”

“So, he prophesied as God commanded, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet, in extraordinarily large company.” (Ezekiel 37:10)

How can we breathe life? How can we breathe life to empower our communities, enliven ourselves, this girl? Unto her full standing stature?

ProBlak makes murals for sure… but he also makes conversations on a deep and on a wide scale.  He makes the unseen, seen…  he makes an invisible force – like breath become visible.   Powerful. Animating. And healing. 

KINTSUGI ART’

Ok – let’s go back to my friend, Sadon in our pool.

When I finally went out to see Sadon the other day at the pool, I said “hey there – whatcha doing, how’s the water?” And he slowly opened his eyes – not startled at all – and he took a deep breath and said, “I’m making peace with my day.”

He wasn’t just floating – he was making.


Making peace with all that had occurred, acknowledging the parts that weren’t amazing. His overall disdain for school, his own sense of being unseen… the yucky school lunch…. And he just needed a moment to attend to the parts of him that were cracked, before he moved on with whatever was ahead.

How wise!  I mean really – think of all the things that are leaving you with cracks these days…

You know about six Sundays ago – we started off this series – with a participatory liturgy that bridged our Lenten season with this new one. 

And we offer these multi-sensory, participatory services twice a year to allow the artistry of who we are as makers to be the mode by which we experience any learning or  healing .

In these services there is a noticeable value on the economy of words and an emphasis on a multitude of inroads to encounter and experience the Spirit of God. We had gutters, loads of water, hundreds of pieces of tissue paper, gold strips, and Ruby Sales’ voice asking us “where does it hurt?” and “what is the balm you need and can offer?”  And we put out these components to see what could be created. So much of a participatory liturgy is ART –  is a risk, a guess, an experiment.  

 What we created were these six canvases on the walls of our Sanctuary. 

The blue shades of tissue paper named our cracks/ our pain/ our hurts… 

And the gold strips were inscribed with “words of balm”, that we had intuited by the Spirit of God. 

It hadn’t been in the intentional design of the framework of the liturgy but it was clear that these canvases represented the art tradition of Kintsugi.   

I want to end by talking about the artist Makoto Fujimura and this Japanese Kintsugi method. (author of Theology of Making, Art & Faith).

“In Japan one of the many honored cultural traditions is the tea ceremony. For centuries, there have been tea masters who perform them to visualize the invisible, as a spiritual and artistic practice. When precious tea bowls break, the families of tea masters will often keep the broken bowls for generations and later have them mended by artisans who use this lavish technique known as Kintsugi. Kintsugi masters mend tea bowls with Japanese lacquer and gold. A bowl mended with gold is more valuable than the original tea bowl was before it broke. The Kintsugi tradition ancient it goes back to the 16th-century — but Kintsugi also offers us a vision for our times in America.

By asking – what does it look like in a culture that’s actually just really broken?

The Japanese word Kin means “gold,” and Tsugi means “mend,” but Tsugi also means “to link the generations together.” (So much of ProBlak’s work does this as well.)

 I watched at the participatory liturgy as people scooped piles of wet tissue paper from the streams of water in the center of the room… Tissue paper that named all of the hurt, the broken pieces in us  – and carried them to these canvases… and tenderly placed the gold strips directly over the hurts.   I hadn’t imagined it – enacted like that – I thought people would lay the gold stripes side by side or a little haphazard – but it was as if “you,” as makers –  knew that attention to these sufferings, might somehow create something new – that was more tender, and more healing by going right to those hurts… 

Following his resurrection, Jesus came and stood among the fearful disciples. He said,

“Peace be with you.”

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side -And Jesus said to them again,

“Peace be with you.”

And then he breathed on them and said,

“Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The Spirit of God breathes and creates new life. 

This feels unimaginable (in times of where we are so wounded)… the disciples earnest thoughts at that time could have been…

“BUT OUR GOD IS DEAD.” 

And today, we look around and see so much fracturing – division, threat, death… 

As makers we know that there will also be many who tell us that something is impossible, or something is impractical, or that we ought to do something pragmatic. But Makoto says,

“artists are border-stalkers — they imagine the world beyond, and invoke abundance in their midst, even when their resources look barren,”

even when our greatest resource – God – feels far, far away. (www.makotofujimura.com/writings/kintsugi-generation)

Makoto offered a 17th-century Kintsugi bowl to the students of Columbine — at the 20th anniversary of the tragedy… remembering also Nickel Mines, Virginia Tech and Newtown, and now I would imagine the 27 school shootings of this year, including Uvalde, TX.

He calls this generation at Columbine – a Kintsugi generation that had come together in their trauma and pain…where a new era formed –  a river of gold flowing out of the fissures. (www.abc.net.au/religion/kintsugi-and-columbines-makoto-fujimura/13286394)

Where these young survivors became leading voices of love and action and voice. Not “fixed”, not removed of grief  – but the wounds being a part of the new creation… 

 Jesus’s post-resurrection body has the nail marks which means that the fractures and and the trauma is carried into the new creation, where we are offered breath and light – and a way forward for healing.

Let us not forget that we are pinched of clay, that God’s breath enlivens us, animates us, and shines like gold through us to create new. So as we go about our days, may we remember that our lives are a work of art – a work in progress – but oh so powerful.

May you greet those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who are poor in spirit  – and let the light shine through your cracks unto something new. Let your lives, your making – say,

“let there be….something more than what is seen,”

“let there be light…”

“let there be peace…”

An offering of something new in a divided time — a gesture of hope for those in despair.

God does not hold God’s breath.

God constantly breathes, constantly moves… guiding the spray can up the wall, your voice in conversation, the slight wiggle of the fingers just enough to stay afloat and find peace in a pool. 

Scripture begins with Creation and ends with a New Creation. Everywhere in between God has given us – the ones who have broken hearts, fissures of grief and fractures – our broken vessels – God’s given us the breath to create and make. May we do the Kintsugi work,  the art of resurrection each and every day. .. as we move about the walls and streets of our neighborhoods. 

A Share With Me

Greetings everyone, such a blessing to be with you today. If you don’t know me, my name’s Abel and I’m a pastoral intern here at Reservoir.

Today, I want to talk about a passage that we’re going to be reflecting on this week with the Lent guide- from the

Gospel of John, Chapter 13:

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

A question that comes to me when I read this passage is, why is Peter uncomfortable with Jesus washing his feet? What is it about Jesus, about Peter, about the situation that makes Peter think it would be wrong for Jesus to wash his feet?

I mean, the answer to that question is obvious – Peter thinks it’s demeaning. Jesus is his Lord, deserving of the highest honor imaginable, even of honors he can’t imagine. And washing someone’s feet, serving them like that, is the opposite of honor, to be brought low.

It’s so obvious that it remains unstated subtext in the sermon most commonly – at least in my experience – given on this subject…Jesus chooses to demean himself to serve, so we should choose to serve as well. We should humble ourselves as Jesus humbled himself, even to death on a cross.

That’s not a bad sermon. I agree with it. We should serve, we should empty ourselves for the sake of others.

Yes – and if you’ll notice – that isn’t the answer Jesus gives Peter to his question. He doesn’t say,

‘I wash your feet to set the example for service in the Kingdom of God’

or

‘this act is a microcosm of my work on earth.’

Jesus says,

“Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”

Certainly, this ‘share’ can mean ‘unless you allow me to serve, we cannot all be servants together.’

But sharing goes both ways. If Peter and Jesus share in the serving – then they also share in the being served.

Let me ask you a question: When you think about service as a good act in which you take part – where are you? Are the one serving or are you being served?

If you’re anything like me, you’re serving.

Why is that?

Well, one answer we could give is that being served is something that is reserved for people who are in positions of honor – or who demand honor, whether they deserve it or not. Following Jesus, whether we deserve honor or not, we should divest ourselves of the benefits of such a position and never seek it out for ourselves.

But the truth is, those aren’t the only people who receive service – and, far more often, when we’re talking about charity, we aren’t talking about those kinds of people. We’re talking about people who need the service, who can’t fill a need by themselves.

Why don’t we imagine ourselves in their shoes?

Stanley Hauerwas, a favorite theologian of mine, gave a talk in the 80’s about suffering and lessons from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These lessons that he talks about have to do with the way we think about suffering, particularly the suffering of others.

With how we consider living with some types of suffering so unthinkable, so dehumanizing, that a life worth living is impossible to imagine alongside it.

Here’s a question: Why do we suffer? I don’t mean ultimately, like what’s the purpose. I mean causally – why do we suffer?

Hauerwas’ answer is that we suffer when our needs aren’t met. Whether that’s needs for food or emotional care, whether our needs aren’t met because of natural disasters or cruelty, structures or individuals, it’s the lack of something we need that causes suffering.

He says,

“We suffer because we are incomplete beings who depend on one another for our existence.”

And that’s the heart of it – we need each other. We can’t meet all our needs alone.

But we sure as hell want to.

Hauerwas talks about how this is so tied up in our self-image. That if I can draw a line around what I do alone, what I have, what I achieve – then I can establish who I am. Self-sufficiency is about identity – it’s what teenagers push for as they establish themselves, it’s how we know that we’re our own selves and not copies of others, it’s what lets us feel like the masters of our own destinies.

It’s also a lie. That’s a lesson that disability can teach us – or, at least, the one it taught me. It’s easy to pretend that you are self-sufficient when you are able to meet most of your own needs, when you can push the others down or deal with them on your terms. It’s when you can’t help but need, need openly and all the time, that you realize how much it’s all a charade.

There are days I struggle to even choose to eat, and probably just wouldn’t if there wasn’t someone to help me, either by making me food or simply helping me choose food to eat and making sure I actually eat it.

There are times when I desperately need someone to talk me out of my own head and talk me down from intense panic and self-hatred and self-destructive patterns of thinking – oftentimes over issues I’ve wrestled with, with the same people, before, time and again. I am good at many things, extend help to other people in many ways, but my mind keeps coming in and forcing me to reckon with the fact that I am not truly self-sufficient.

Breaking down that lie, it’s painful. The truth isn’t something we like to be reminded of.

We don’t want to lose our sense of self, so we don’t admit to our need. We let our neediness isolate us in our fear.

When, then, we are confronted with the neediness of others – well, it’s uncomfortable, to say the least. Particularly when their needs are so obvious, so pervasive. 

But at least we’re not like them, right? At least we’re the ones who meet needs – not the ones who need. We can be secure in our identity if we’re not the needy – if we’re the servers, not the served.

Except that’s not service, is it? It’s certainly not “having a share with” others – it’s not existing on equal terms, it’s not entering into relationship. It’s hierarchy. As much as we may like to think we are divesting ourselves, if we are doing it to shore up our own identities by assuring ourselves that we are not like the persons we’re serving – well, that’s just power over.

So, what does service look like? What is Jesus offering to Peter when he refers to a “share of me?”

Maybe a better question is, does our neediness have to make us lonely?

Because, we all need, don’t we? What would the world look like if, instead of judging people based on how close they were to a self-sufficient ‘normal,’ we got rid of that whole notion all together? What if ‘normal’ were needing, in all the myriad different ways it’s possible to need?

Deborah Creamer, a disability theologian, calls this a ‘limits model’ of disability. A model that says limitation is a universal experience. Which is certainly not to say that everyone is disabled. No two limitations are the same, between two disabilities or even within one person’s experience of the same disabilities on different days – but that people with disabilities are unique in the way all of us are, because we all share the state of being uniquely limited.

And if we all share the state of being limited, but if all of our limitations are different – then we’re each allowed to have our own relationships to our limitations. To suffering.

You see, just because we’re all limited doesn’t mean all limitations are good. Just because we all suffer, because suffering is the inevitable result of neediness, doesn’t mean we should just accept suffering.

Hauerwas says,

“Our refusal [both] to accept certain kinds of suffering, or to try to interpret them as serving some human purpose, is essential for our moral health.”

Living the life that you have while being upset about what you don’t have, accepting and not accepting, struggling sometimes in anger and sometimes as inspiration – that is just real life for people with disabilities (it is for everyone, but it’s too easy to deny it if you’re not forced into it).

This is why people push back against the term ‘differently-abled’ – while, yes, we are all limited and our limitations don’t make us less valuable as people, we don’t have to love all our limitations – we don’t have to think of them as just neutral differences. We can recognize that there are infinite, equally valid forms of embodiment and that there are unique difficulties that come from certain forms of embodiment.

We should fight against suffering that is a result of injustice and we should also strive as much as we can towards more and more flourishing, whatever that looks like for us in whatever body we have, even while that body hurts. There’s a tension here, a both-and: we accept that suffering is a part of life and we still work against it.

The point in recognizing that we all have limits isn’t to affirm that all limits are good, that we must be happy about every part of our embodied realities. Rather, it’s about embracing the fact that the things we aren’t happy about are a part of our lives – embracing, not loving, but running away either.

There’s a quote from The Disabled God that I really love:

“Her difficult life need not be denied or described. It need only be lived.”

So, how do we live it?

By having a share with each other.

What does this look like? I’m not sure – because every need is different. While I might not have an answer, I also think that’s kind of the point.

Trying to be better, do better, isn’t about getting to a place of perfection where there’s no more suffering. I think that the very idea that we could get to a place where we didn’t have to deal with the messy negotiations of living with other people is just an attempt to escape our limitations, to escape our own need for correction and improvement.

One of my favorite quotes on this topic is by Leo Tolstoy:

“The good is only in the motion toward perfection; but the stopping at any stage whatsoever is only a cessation of the good.”

Having a share with others isn’t about being perfect but about continually being better. In light of that, all we can do when faced with the great plurality of needs of our fellow humans is our best, and then our better after that.

We don’t owe others help because they need it. People always need things, and it is physically impossible for anyone to meet every need of every person they come across. We owe aid because we share the state of needing it. Not that we might, someday need help; no, it’s the fact that needing is constitutive of the human condition.

Just like we can’t meet everyone else’s needs, so we can’t meet all our own needs. We can only survive if we strive together – if we have a share with each other. We help, not because other people’s weakness compels us; we help because our weakness unites us to everyone else on the basis of shared need, and that unity compels us. We help because we’re human. And insofar as we have strength, we accept it as just as temporary as our weakness, and use it to do what we always already owed everyone else.

Love Is a Semicolon

I’d like to read our scripture first today. It’s a very short excerpt from Isaiah 43 that will launch us into today’s teaching, which focuses on the themes of this whole larger section of Isaiah.

Isaiah 43:18-19 (New Revised Standard Version)

18 Do not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.

Today’s talk is called “Love is a semicolon.” I love semicolons so much I recently got one tattooed on my wrist. It’s right here. Today’s my shot to tell you why I did that, for me but for maybe for all of us too. 

I love semicolons for nerdy, English teacher reasons. The semicolon is one of the less common punctuation marks – looks like a period above a comma. For different reasons, they’re fun and useful to teach about. You can teach a lot of grammar and usage in the English language by talking about semicolons. 

They’re interesting to use too. The most common use of a semicolon is when you’ve got a sentence and you want to slap another sentence onto it without separating them and without adding any of those little connecting words like “and”, “so,” or “but.” And when you do that, the second part of the sentence, that part after the semicolon, really matters.

A semicolon indicates there is more to say. The thought isn’t over.

This is why the semicolon has become significant as a symbol amongst those who have faced or care about depression, suicide, addiction, or self-harm. The semicolon says that the past doesn’t tell our whole story. There’s always a future story yet to be told. 

The semicolon dares to hope about this future that the best is always yet to come.

I believe this is true, always, which is why love is a semicolon. 

The scripture I read to you is from the portion of Isaiah – chapters 40-55 – written to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. They were among the many ancient peoples who had seemed to face their end. I remember many years ago when Grace and I were in Xinjiang, far Northwest China, a Uyghur friend discreetly said to me, Look around. They are destroying our culture. In the future, will we even exist?

This was the fear of the Judean exiles. Like so many refugees today, they would have faced deaths in their families, other wartime traumas. They lived in a land where they mostly couldn’t speak the language, where they faced insults and discrimination on the regular, and where there was no route back to the better days of their past. 

This Babylonian exile looked like an end to these Judeans.

I haven’t faced war or exile in my life, but I’ve had times where I faced sad endings, smaller ones, but ones that mattered to me. One of those was about 19 years ago this month. I had a newborn child, and I had hit another professional dead end, and I was really scared.

See, when I was younger, I’d been in the classical music scene, and it’s a pretty niche field, but I had a lot of success early. Then, being young and naive and impressionable, I dumped all that to be a young college campus minister. I was underqualified, I was underpaid, and frankly, I kind of underperformed too. I had tried doing Christian ministry to college students because at the time it seemed like something that would make God proud of me or happy about my life or something.

But like I said, I wasn’t great at the work, and it was having a negative effect on my happiness, on my finances and my future, even on my marriage. So I quit, and after a long and awkward bit of spinning my wheels, working odd jobs, dropping out of a graduate school program, I eventually found a job as a public school teacher. And almost two years into that, I thought I had found not just a job, but a career, something I was good at, something I enjoyed, something that really helped other people, and something that over time would help support the family we were having, with this first baby child of ours. 

And then I was laid off. 

I wondered if I’d get my job back, or if this was yet another dead end.

I wondered if I’d be able to support my baby daughter and my wife who was trying to finish her graduate degree as a new mom.

And I was haunted by a fear that had deep roots in me, going back to childhood, that my life – as much potential as it once seemed to have – would end up being a failure. 

A lot of us have been facing what look like dead ends. In my circles, I know people who have faced the death of a loved one and can’t get through the grief. I know kids and their parents whose anxieties and depression and struggles are just relentless and not getting better. I know families that are torn apart over politics, over unhealed conflicts, over unaccountable, bad behavior. I know people whose marriages seem to have entirely run out of joy and intimacy. 

And I know people whose faith in God is hanging by a thread, mostly gone. 

I know you know these stories too. I know that some of you are living these stories. To all of us at what looks like the end of a sad story, what does God have to say to us? 

I look to this section of Isaiah not just because of the story of the exiles it addresses, but because for Chrisitans, Isaiah has been so important that it has sometimes been called the great prophet, or the fifth gospel. Another source of good news. Its poetry about God’s heart for Judeans in the ancient Near East seems to echo down through history with truth about God’s ways in all times and places.

So what does God have to say to us in our dead ends?

Well, Isaiah tells us:

Thus says the Lord,

    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:

 I am the Lord, your Holy One,

    the Creator of Israel, your King.

 Thus says the Lord,

    who makes a way in the sea,

a path in the mighty waters,

And then the bit we read at the start:

Do not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

 

Two things here.

God tells us that we can not go back to the past. The good and the bad – all of it – it’s gone, over. We can’t go back.

For me in my crisis 19 years ago, that meant I couldn’t remake the choices of my early and mid-20s. I couldn’t reach back and grab opportunities I’d passed on. They were gone. I couldn’t rewind my life to a time without financial responsibilities. I certainly couldn’t rewire my family’s story or the story of what was off base in my early years of faith in Jesus, and some of the other things that had set me up for this failure or fear of failure. I carried that with me.

The same with all our dead ends and blocks – we can’t go backwards. 

We can’t go just “back to normal” after two years of pandemic fear and caution. We’re different now.

We can’t go back to the naive faith of our childhood if we’ve lost that. That particular form of faith we lost for a reason.

We can’t go backwards on anything. 

So whether it’s a warm nostalgia for the past, like we see in the whole Make America Great Again movement, or whether it’s a painful fixation on the past, like those of us who live with ruminating regret, trying to recover or fix or return to the past is never going to work. It’s not going to have power to help us move forward. 

What God does tell us, though, is that there is always a hopeful future.

God says,

“I am about to do a new thing… a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” 

Everytime we start to write that period, that ending into our story, God invites us to try a semicolon instead. There’s always a next chapter.

A new thing. 

For me, this meant a new way of thinking about work and failure and my life mission. In my fears that I had somehow reached the end of my vocational and financial future at age 29, I was praying that spring and reading the prophets of exile as inspiration for prayer, and I felt like God was inviting me to think less about my job prospects and more about my identity, values, and aspirations in life. 

As I called to mind who I was and what I cared about most deeply, I remember a particular morning when I went out very early to pray. I awoke in the dark and rode to the ocean to pray at sunrise because I needed hope and vision and had a sense that God would find me with it there. And that sunrise along the ocean, it came to mind with great clarity, like a promise from God:

Steve, you know who you are. Your values, your best desires are clear, and your calling is just to pursue these things no matter what job you’re in. The job doesn’t matter. You are who you are, not what you do. And no matter what happens, no matter what you gain or lose, you will never be a failure. You are not a failure to me, and you never will be.

Friends, I can’t tell you how freeing that vision of my future was. That I am who I am, not what I do. It was time to let go of worrying so much about what job I had and how secure it was. It was time to fully be who God made me to be within any job I had or could find, and beyond jobs entirely too, and the rest would take care of itself. 

This was so freeing and empowering for me, a different way of embracing a very hopeful future.

For Israel too, their return from exile would be different. They weren’t getting their same temple back, their same set of lands, their same way of being in the world. History had moved on from all that. 

But they were getting a hopeful future. Their return from exile under Persian rule allowed them to resettle in and around the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, even while others lived in a diaspora that would continue spreading in the centuries to come. In this new future, things like the written word – what became the Jewish Bible, what Chrisitans call the Old Testament – would take on greater meaning.

Charismatic prophets would slowly take on a less central role in speaking for God, and people’s own lives of prayer would become more important. Israel’s faith that God always does good to the faithful and always does bad to the unfaithful would change and grow – take on more realism, more nuance – less about God’s punishment and rewards, more about God’s presence in all things. Their lives and faith would be less about their own tribe and people and more about their life among the nations, and their call to be blessed to be a blessing to the whole world.

This section of Isaiah and what comes beyond is gorgeous poetry because it is so full of vision and hope for what people who are loved by God and know God can be. And it starts with faith that God is always about to do a new thing, that just now, it is springing forth. Look for it. Perceive it.

I don’t know what it is, but I am confident that in whatever stalled places and dead end places you find in your lives, there too God is doing new things. There is invitation to make some peace with the unchangeable past, perhaps even to grieve and let go and move on. And there is invitation to pay attention to the new possibilities that are available.

Ask God. Search your hearts. Literally or metaphorically, pray by the ocean at sunrise, asking God to discern the hopeful future before us all. 

It is there for you, and for the people you love. I promise you.

The follower of Jesus has the audacity to believe this even in the face of death, that with a God who knows and loves us, and with a God of creative redemption, the best is always yet to come. 

Let’s close with just a couple more words about the pivot God makes with us, the shift God encourages us to make when we turn from the irretrievable past to God’s hopeful future. When we erase that period of finality and doom we feel and embrace how love is a semicolon. 

There are two things here – one maybe surprising and one review. 

The surprising one is this.

To embrace God’s new and beautiful thing, the word of God in Isaiah commands us to renounce idols

That took a strangely ancient, religious turn, didn’t it?

Renounce idols. What does that even mean?

Idols are anything other than the living God that we cling to in our insecurity to tell us who we are or make us feel 100% safe and secure. They can be secular or religious, ancient or modern. But we’re asking them to do things they can not do for us.

So to renounce idols is just to do what Isaiah does again and again. It’s to tell the truth about them. That we can’t trust them to take care of us, and we can’t trust them to love us and make meaning of our lives like God can. 

A couple examples:

Where God met me in my despair over my future 19 years ago, renouncing idols was saying that I am no longer what I do. I am who I am. My job title, pay, security, or success is not the measure of my meaning and worth. It’s not how I measure whether I’m a failure or not. And it’s not what ensures a good future for me. I am who I am – beloved child of God, made for love and purpose that goes beyond the particulars of any job. 

That’s the renunciation of an idol and an embrace of God.

When people say: you’re work won’t love you back, this is what they’re saying. Not that you can’t love your job or work hard, but that your job can’t define you or tell you your meaning or worth. That’s idolatry. 

When it comes to my despair over my children’s struggles, I’ve sometimes been confronted by God to let go of the idolatry of the so-called perfect child. Whatever my dream or vision is of a “perfect child” or whatever lies my culture or community have told me about all a kid needs to be to be happy and successful, I need to let that go in my heart and trust that God loves my kids.

God loves all kids, and God can give them a safe and happy future the same way God does with me – not by everything being successful and easy, but by always doing a new thing, and by charting paths or beauty and redemption even after and through every weakness and struggle.

This is true of faith deconstruction too. If your faith has changed, even if it has seemingly weakened, sometimes we’re called to renounce idols associated with our earlier, more certain faith. Maybe we need to let go of always thinking we’re right. Maybe we need to let go of thinking we can know all the answers. Maybe we need to let go of thinking we’re better than our friends or neighbors or enemies that do not follow Jesus. Sometimes letting go of things that aren’t ours to have helps open up what God can give us. 

What dream, what fantasy I might say, do you embrace of what will make you secure, what will tell you that you are safe and loved, that isn’t real, and that isn’t God? It might be time to let that go. To say to yourself:

I know this isn’t true. I want God to tell me I’m loved and safe. I want to build my future on what’s true. 

And then secondly, the review. To see and say yes to the new thing God is doing, we are called to embrace a novel future, to look for and wholeheartedly go after the best creative possibility that is available to us today, given where we’ve been, who we are, and what our circumstances are. 

God is always speaking hope to us, not vague sentiments of hope, but concrete, hopeful possibilities. Some might argue that this is the primary way God speaks – always luring us, always inviting us to the next best possibilities for ourselves, for our communities, for this earth, even for God. 

Embracing curiosity and attention for what those are, year by year, day by day, moment by moment is the life of hope and faith God has for us.

Friends, as we wrap up and pray, let me say that I am really excited for the spring season of Lent we have before us this year. This year’s Lent, the six weeks before Easter, is called Water of Life. It’ll be all about the vitality, the refreshment and rejuvenation, the healing and abundance, the life that God has for us all.

It begins in three weeks. Guide for personal and community group use will be available in about two weeks. It’s an invitation to vitality, to faith, to hope, to the water of life God has for it all. Pray for what God has for us in that season, and please plan on participating. More on that in the weeks to come. 

Friends, God’s best is yet to come. 

God says to us to today:

Do not remember the former things,

    or consider the things of old.

19 I am about to do a new thing;

    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

    and rivers in the desert.

Let’s pray. 

Bringing What We Need to the Table

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

Luke 10:38-42

New Revised Standard Version 

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.

39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he was saying.

40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;

42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

Interpretations

The Christian churches, camps, and conferences that I grew up attending loved this story. If intimacy with God was our highest aspiration, which in these communities was often the case, this story confirmed our call: to sit at Jesus’ feet. To listen closely and to gaze adoringly. To be like Mary. As close as we could be to Jesus.

Here is Martha, busy and distracted, wanting Mary to come help her with the hosting tasks, and she pulls Jesus in to get him on her side. But Jesus admonishes Martha:

let your sister be. She’s sitting at my feet. She cares less about serving, more about connection . . . love, nearness, attention: she has chosen the better part.

Songs about Mary filled our gatherings. Even if I don’t read the story in the same way anymore, to this day, at least once a month, this song from my teenage years will pop into my head:

Let it be said of me, she chose the better part / let it be said of me she loved with all her heart.

I was asked recently to think about what I would want on my gravestone and immediately – she loved with all her heart – popped into my head. My quick second thought was that wouldn’t actually be what I want, but dang, that refrain “let it be said of me….” is a really sticky one for me!

For much of western, Eurocentric Christian history, this has been a common interpretation. My communities were revamping interpretations as old as those of Church leaders like Origen, an early theologian who wrote in the second century that this story represented two ways to approach a life of faith: the life of action, like Martha, or the life contemplation, like Mary.

Service or love. That which is temporary or that which is eternal. I have come to see some not great consequences of reading the story this way. For one, it reduces the two women in these stories to spiritual tropes about how to live in the world. Or, even when we see the sisters as full people, it pits them against each other to make a good woman/bad woman to teach people a lesson on right living—one who makes a good decision with her life and one who makes a bad one. And then there is this whole triangulation that happens . . . a reporting structure that draws in Jesus, which seems a bit weird and diminishing of the sisters’ relationship, too. Is there a more liberative story we can find in the words and actions of Mary, Martha, and Jesus?

Today, I wonder if we can reimagine some of the dynamics of the story, to understand a different way of coming around the table.

Choice & Need

A couple of years ago here at Reservoir, at the end of a service when folks were hanging out and talking, someone offered me an interpretation of this story that has been in my imagination since. This is among my favorite interactions in this church because it came out of nowhere –  we hadn’t been talking about the passage during the service or anything like that. After service, as I was walking back behind the sound desk, I bumped into a wonderful friend I look up to, who always has a good word. With no context and no greeting, she looked at me, eyes big and bright:

“Katie, about Mary and Martha. When Jesus says Mary has chosen the better part, it’s not about the better part, it’s not about what she was doing. It’s that she CHOSE! She made a choice!”

I was so caught by this. I was in a season of understanding what it meant to come into deeper choice. To exercise my agency, my authority…. and in the span of 20 seconds, this friend took a familiar story and gave me a whole new way to see it. It’s not that the better part was Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s that she chose what she needed.

This brings us into the heart of what we are talking about today. That the story of Mary, Martha, and Jesus is an invitation to consider what we need.

“You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing,”

Jesus says. Few things are needed, and really only one. There is need of only one thing. Only one thing is needed.

And this is where I sense choice and need meeting each other. We get to choose to pay attention to what we most need. In these lives we live where so many of us are overextended and frayed and stressed beyond our means, where we are worried and distressed and distracted by so many things that it may feel like we need a million things. Could it be that what we need is as simple as one thing? Is it possible to choose what we need?

There is a powerful and simple question I have discovered to help in this process:

“What do you need today?”

It’s a question that invites us to quiet ourselves enough to ask the question of our self and another, to listen to another’s response, to respond our self.

I know two folks who are colleagues who ask this question of each other every day. Before they get to work, they look at each other and take a turn asking:

“What do you need today?”

They come into voice. They listen to their own self, what is arising within or around them, that they need for the day. They listen to each other. They listen to what the other needs. It is not so they can supply or provide what the other person needs, but to have a place to practice asking and naming what they need.

One of my loved ones and I ask each other this question a couple times a month. It takes a couple beats to quiet down, to sense what we may need. When the question first hits the air, I usually first think through my to do list for the day: I need to call this person, prep for this meeting, read this article, write this paper, check in with my parents, pack food before I go. But the question isn’t ‘What do I need to do today?’ It’s ‘What do I need today?’

I need focus for the work at hand, grace for the thing that I am nervous about. Sometimes when things are feeling really crammed and piled on, I sense I need spaciousness. Three really good meals and some snacks in between. Part of the quieting is that our needs are often felt in our body, in our spirit. In the midst of the chaos of our days, it’s so easy to live out of touch with our needs—but our bodies and spirits have a lot to say when we can pause to listen.

It’s meaningful to articulate what we need. Tapping into what we need may come naturally for some, but for others it is a challenging task. Perhaps, for reasons of race, gender, age, birth order, our family system of origin, or personality, we have been socialized to spend our days responding to the needs of others. Some have developed a hypersensitivity to other’s needs and are admired for having a gift of anticipating what others need. For folks who have a tendency to take care of the needs of others—coming into our own sense of what we need might be a challenging task. Others may be so focused on something external, that coming to the internal place of sensing your own need be unfamiliar.

What if Mary and Martha were able to sit at the table together and ask each other:

What do you need today?

What if they invited Jesus to join them at this table, and anyone else who was in the house that day.

What do you need today?

I like imagining that together, there at the table, they could trust an Abundance that could provide for each one’s needs. That they could bear witness to what the other was holding—needing—in love and care, without having to become the means to have that need met. What if they could creatively speak into each other’s lives, to imagine together how they could take care of what was needed to do, so everyone could have what they need? What if they encouraged each other to choose the thing they most needed? Because the demands of the world will always push up against what we need. Can we help each other choose what we need? How can we invite Jesus and each other to join us at this table?

Connections

I think of a friend who has made a decision to operate in new ways, sensing need for new directions. I think of the Beloved Community Fund here at Reservoir, where, for the last year, people have taken a moment of quiet and pause to sense their practical needs – for shelter, for therapy or spiritual direction – and shared what they need with the fund, which has been able to witness and offer connection and support. In these places, people are sensing the thing they need, bringing it to the table, and naming it to the ones they trust.

Needs are not distinct to individuals alone, but also for units of people, to communities. While we are asking the question “What do you need today?” can we get in the habit of also asking together:

What does our family need today? What does our household need in this season? What does our community group need? What does our work team need? What does our church need?

Systems have needs too, and if we can start listening to what our group body needs, what we need collectively, if we can discern this together, we might be able to come into more life-giving ways of being with each other, of choosing our movements forward and also our rest.

My hope for us is that our tables can be a place where we ask each other:

What do you need today? What does our table need today?

Where we can encourage each other to choose what we need. That we can sense the companionship of Mary, Martha, Jesus bearing their needs before each other. Priest and writer Henri Nouwen reflects that the table is a place of profound intimacy— it is a place we bring and bear ourselves, and naming our needs can be deeply intimate. And because of this very intimacy, the table can also can be a place of experience a profound absence of intimacy, when tension, disconnection, or loss is present.

So, for any whose tables feel like they don’t hold enough trust or enough connection or enough presence to ask and be asked “What do you need today?” I pray that Jesus would meet you at your table. I pray that Jesus would be preparing you a table in the presence of all that is painful, in the valley of the shadow of death, in the presence of your enemies, and that in time you would find a table – maybe at a community group, or among neighbors – where you can be present to each other’s needs.

I pray this for all of us. That we all find this place to share with others our needs. Not to fix them, or to solve them, but to participate in the human, divine act of naming what we need, and to practice and encourage each other to choose – to choose what we need. To sense Jesus near us, coming close to us in our need, perhaps even just the one or few things we need today.

Jesus, would you be with us today in what we need. May your spirit help us sense and tend to what we need. May we lovingly listen to one another’s needs – and may we trust the Abundance of your love to supply what we need.

 

“…Ascended into Heaven…”

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

1980 years ago or so, a homeless son of a carpenter, an itinerant Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as an enemy of the Roman state. And ever since the world hasn’t stopped talking about him. 

Here we are today, one of millions of churches in the world, doing the same.

This is strange, isn’t it? 

Why are we doing this, so many centuries later? Where has Jesus been all this time, and what has he been doing? Inside and outside of the Christan faith, this question of where Jesus went, what he’s been up to, and why it matters has been confusing.

So it’s the one we’re going to talk about today.

We’re six weeks deep today into this little nine-week summer preaching project of mine, to preach through the Apostles Creed, a 4th century, short summary of the Christian faith. I wrote about this on our blog last week.

But my goal has been to teach some of the central beliefs of faith in the God known to us through Jesus Christ, so that this faith can continue to ground and inspire us and promote wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. Along the way, I’m also acknowledging many ways that the version of historic Christianity we’ve inherited hasn’t always served the purposes of a liberating, life-giving God, so here and there I’m suggesting ways to engage with this faith that help it align with good things the Spirit of God can be doing among us today. 

This week, we take a big chunk of the creed that talks about what happened to Jesus after he died and what he’s been up to since then. Let’s read, first the lines from the past five weeks and then this week’s. 

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.

The creed says Jesus lives again and remains alive. It says not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but he went to be where God lives, which we sometimes call heaven. And what is Jesus doing there? Well, at least in part, Jesus is sitting next to God’s throne, maybe with a big boy chair of his own, and that’s the spot where he’s judging us all – the dead and the living, or maybe he’s getting ready to come to judge us all, making plans, as it were. 

What might all this mean? How does it square with science and with our experience? And how can this idea inspire liberating, life-giving faith?

Let me tell you where I’m going with this, and then we’ll go there together. 

We’re going to take the resurrection part of this – how did Jesus come back to life – later. The final line of the creed, resurrection of the body, will also be my final sermon this summer, in a month or so. So we’ll talk then about what the gospels have to say about Jesus’ return to life, some ways we can think about that, and how that can inspire hope both in our current lives and beyond our death as well. 

For today, I’m just going to say I believe, along with almost all followers of Jesus these past couple thousand years, that death wasn’t the end of Jesus, and that he is still alive.

What we’ll focus on today is the “what has he been up to” side of things. Where is Jesus, what is he doing, and what does it mean that he is a judge? 

I think it means that Jesus is inviting all creation (you and me included) to participate as fully as possible in the Beloved Community, what he calls the kingdom, or the kindom, of God. Jesus is receiving, experiencing, all that happens in creation. He is assessing it, evaluating it, and then luring everyone who will collaborate to see ourselves, one another, and all creation as God sees it and embrace the next best possibility for wholeness, love, beauty, and justice. 

Let’s ask how Chrisitans historically thought Jesus was doing this.

And then talk about a way we can embrace this that squares a little better with our modern world.

So historically, Christians and a lot of other ancient people believed in a 3-tiered universe. That we and plants and animals and all that live on earth, that there’s a realm of the dead beneath the earth, and that way up high, above where the birds fly, is the heavens, where God and other spiritual beings live. 

Now telescopes, and satellites, and the ability to drill deep holes in the earth and all that – science – has changed the way we see the universe.

But the early followers of Jesus, when they believed Jesus ascended into heaven, what they thought was that literally. After Jesus rose, at some point, he floated up into the sky back to God’s throne, maybe a few miles up or so. Probably this throne was somewhere above Jerusalem, because God had always been really active in that part of the earth. And eventually, likely soon, Jesus would hop off the throne and come back to finish setting things right on earth.

The details of this obviously don’t sit too well with science any more. We’re also not sure what it means that Jesus would be judging the living and the dead from a heavenly throne, or coming back to earth to do that judgement. Centuries of bad theology and bad poetry and bad movies has given us the idea that some day, when we least expect it, God is going to swoop back onto earth in human form for some serious butt-kicking of all the evil people, living and dead. 

Which has always been exciting for the non-evil people and kind of scary for everyone who wonders which side of things they’re on. 

So there are ways of imagining Jesus living and reigning with God that don’t make a lot of sense to us. And there are ways of conceiving of Jesus as a judge that don’t seem to bear good fruit either. But what if this language in the creed was a pre-scientific way to conceptualize what is still true – that there is an ongoing life of Christ, who is engaged redemptively with you and me and the rest of this world, living and dead? I think this is the case. 

Let’s listen to something Jesus said that Jesus would be up to after the end of his time on earth.

John 16:12-13, 7-8 (Common English Bible)

12 “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.

13 However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come.

So Jesus says, I will still be with you, but in a different way, through a spirit of truth, who will guide you. Just earlier, Jesus said this about the same spirit and guidance. 

7 I assure you that it is better for you that I go away. If I don’t go away, the Companion won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

8 When he comes, he will show the world it was wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment.

Here Jesus gives the Spirit of Truth a name, the Companion. The Companion is one of many translations of this Greek word Paraclete – the one who comes alongside, the one Christians have normally called the Holy Spirit. Paraclete is a companion, an accompanier, a helper. Paraclete is able to speak for God. And Paraclete assesses us and highlights where we’ve been wrong, so we can know the truth and find our way. 

There are types of judgement Jesus resists: casting someone aside, viewing any person or group of people as beyond God’s loving care or worthy of our approach.

But here he says, when I go, the Spirit God sends to speak for me, the Companion will assess you and will guide you into truth.

This is a picture of judgement. 

Not long ago one of my kids was acting weird, avoiding something they had to do, being pretty irresponsible about it, complaining and creating distractions, probably lying too, best as I could tell. 

So what did I do? 

I brought down the hammer, right? 

No, of course not. 

If you love your kids, you don’t go around thinking of new ways to punish them. No, depending on their age, their habits, their past behavior, your relationship, the situation, and a million other things, you try to intervene in ways that will help them see the truth about themselves and their world, and move toward wholeness, love, goodness, and flourishing.

In this case, we realized my kid was avoiding something they were really scared of, and we could figure out how to address that and to encourage courage, not avoidance.

Jesus says God’s at least as good a parent as any of us are, so why would we think that God’s judgments would be more arbitrary and violent than ours. 

When you look at someone and say: This is my child, the one that I love, a lot of things come off the table. 

I got this line from a theologian named Tripp Fuller, who’s one of the people who influenced this series. It’s true.

God’s judgment isn’t about punishment and rewards. It’s about maintaining a communicative relationship in which God is always inviting us to see the truth and to move toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. 

We need this kind of judgement. We need the Spirit of Truth, the Companion, to encourage us and also to show us when we’re wrong. 

Parents, educators, athletes, all of us really, know that growth only comes with honest assessment. 

We don’t know where Jesus is right now, like physically. It’s probably the wrong question to ask. Jesus remembers his only embodied experience as the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, but past his time on earth a couple of thousand years ago, he is surely now Spirit, as God has always been. 

But as Spirit, I think this is what Jesus is doing – receiving the experience of all creation, paying attention to it all, taking it in, feeling, reacting, assessing its value, and then through the Spirit of Truth, the Companion who comes alongside, communicating to all creation God’s next invitation toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing. 

Let me share two examples in my life of how this has been happening, how I’ve experienced Jesus’ assessing judgment and guidance, for the living and the dead.

The first is me in relationship with my long dead Aunt Ethel. My great Aunt Ethel lived a small, sad life. There are a lot of holes in what I know, but she was born in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, grew up, fell in love, had that love spurned. At some point, she developed severe mental illness, or at least was perceived to have.

Things got worse and worse, until she was institutionalized for quite some time. Residential mental health care in the mid-1900s was ran the whole gamut from humane people doing their best to pretty awful. I’m not sure of all of what happened, but I know my grandfather kept visiting, kept supporting her best he could, and eventually helped get her out into transition housing and work. And in my childhood, during that era, I would see her on holidays. She was the one visibly cognitively and mentally impaired person in my early childhood, and I mostly remember how often she would say: this is beautiful. So beautiful. You’re beautiful.

I don’t think anyone in my family would report that I was close to her or that she meant a lot to me. When she died when I was a teenager, neither me nor most others in my family traveled to her funeral, and we didn’t talk about her often after that either. 

But in the past decade, I’ve thought about her a lot more. Wondered about her back story, treasured her freedom and her sense of beauty in her later years. Appreciated her positive, loving vibe. Wished I had been closer. 

Thinking about her makes me more sensitive, more loving, more compassionate. Toward mental illness, toward cognitive limitations, toward rough lives. My memories of Aunt Ethel today shape me into a more curious and compassionate person toward myself and many others. I feel like she’s a part of me now, in a way that she never was when I was younger and she was still alive.

What’s going on here?

Well, my Aunt Ethel is dead. And childhood me is in a sense dead as well. Both my past and Aunt Ethel’s whole time on earth are part of the dead. We’re both gone, can’t be re-experienced or changed. But we – my Aunt and my past self – are both valued and assessed by God. We are both remembered, we both matter. We both still influence God. When I remember my younger self (less curious, less compassionate) and when I remember my Aunt Ethel, and all she saw as beautiful – I am shaped by the past, shaped by what’s dead. And I think this is happening because Jesus, through the Companion Spirit of Truth, keeps bringing this to my consciousness, keeps shaping the present and future me through Jesus’ value and memory and assessment of the dead. 

Everything and everyone that has ever been matters to God. No one and nothing is unseen, unloved, and unimportant. We all influence God. We all are part of what God assesses and part of the future possibilities that God shapes for us all. 

Here’s another story, among the living this time.

Last week, at the start of the week, I was stressed out and unfocused. I had way too many things and way too many problems on my mind. I had also had a couple of conflicts that didn’t resolve very well. In one of them, someone I respect had told me I had acted poorly and this was part of a pattern that hurt them. 

Two things happened. I had a call scheduled Monday with a person I’m honest with and is good at listening, and sometimes telling me the truth. Before that call, I had an instinct to sit alone in a quiet room for 15 minutes. While I did that, the Bible verse

Be still and know that I am God

came to mind, and I tried to sit there and meditate on that verse, just be still and know that God is God. Then I had my call, and shared how I was doing, and at one point, my friend wondered – hey, with all that’s going on, have you considered just sitting quietly and remembering the verse,

Be still and know that I am God. 

I laughed, told my friend what had happened right before the call, and then we sat together on the phone for a few minutes, silently, remembering that verse.

The next day, I was going about my business and the thought came to me, in that conflict the person was right. I was hurt. And what came to mind were a couple of things I could do next to not just say I was sorry, but to show I was sorry, and to begin to shift and make amends. I told God I would do this and asked for help, and so far it’s gone pretty well.

What was happening there? 

I think God was present in the Spirit of Truth, the Companion, to help me see the truth about myself and my world. And to guide me toward wholeness, love, justice, and flourishing.

The Christian words for what happened were judgement, confession, repentance, and restoration.

Not punishment/judgment, but judgement as assessment – Spirit of God nudging me to see the truth.

No priest was involved, but I told God and a friend and myself and a person I’d hurt the truth.

And then, with the help of God and friends, a path toward something better emerged, and in this case, I tried to take it, and that made all the difference. 

Friends, in little ways like this and in much bigger ways too, this is what I think Jesus is doing. 

Receiving all the world’s experiences, big and small, living and dead, feeling them, assessing their value, and then nudging us to know the truth, and offering to us ideas and pathways and options for the most loving, just, whole path forward for us all.

99% of this happens beneath our consciousness, but faith in a living, life-giving communicative God tells us it’s happening all the time still.

What we can do by faith is cooperate: we can trust God is still with us, and values and assesses all people and things, living and dead. We can trust that God is even more loving and wise than the most loving and wise parent in how God does that. 

And we can seek to know the truth about ourselves and the world, welcoming what seems most true from wherever it comes. And then with the help of God and friends, we can confess – we can tell the truth – and we can say yes with courage and grace to the most loving, just, whole, and flourishing paths forward in all things. This is God’s good will for us, and a path toward our joy and life. 

May it be. 

3 O’ Clock Prayer with the Spirit of God

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

Good morning everyone! I am Ivy. It’s a gorgeous day here in Milton, MA – I hope it is also wherever you are calling in from.  For those of you who enjoy celebrating Mother’s Day – and honoring the “motherly” influences in your life and within you, I hope today holds lots of opportunities for you to do that.  My sermon will not be a “mother’s day specific sermon”  – but we will explore the Spirit of God –  who I find to be quite motherly.

We are in a Sermon Series called, Listening to the Spirit of God with Freedom and Power.  This series was inspired by a conversation we had as a staff (I believe in February) wondering what this Spring would look like,  and what we might all need at this point?  

We hoped,  as it is, that this Spring would be a season of “promise.  O vaccines, reuniting with people, of travel, society re-opening. And we also thought we might not be out of the woods yet… We also learned, thanks to the wisdom of many health professionals and trauma specialists, that these “cusp” seasons where “promise” comes into real view, are also the times where the tiredness, the grief, anxiety – the trauma of all this last year- also come into view. It’s often when we start to process, and feel the impact of all of what we’ve endured.

And so we realize that this spring, while “yes” a hopeful season, is also an intense season.

And we wondered, what did the first followers of Jesus need in seasons like this – after Jesus’ death and resurrection? When everything was different and threats were still real and it was hard to imagine a way forward?  We found that what they needed was implanted – poured INTO THEM – the SPIRIT OF GOD – this accessible resource that grounded them and became the core of their faith and their beings.

This morning, I invite you to come face to face with the ground and core of your faith…

I invite you into a space of deep wisdom, and great knowing that goes beyond even the best things you’ve been taught about God – beyond the well crafted Bible Studies, prayer practices, and sermon “tips”(all amazing in their own right).

I invite you into the internal landscape of your soul, your heart, your mind, your body. Here it is, that we can access a wealth of “education”, knowing, and expertise – that goes beyond convention.

Where the raw materials of the spirit – the signs, and wonders, and miracles lay in waiting – wrapped in the DNA of God – and found in our own intuition and in our gut.

We’ll take a look at a couple of Jesus’s closest friends, Peter and John and see how the Spirit of God trains them for such love, in the midst of the complexities and realities of the world around them. 

Let me pray for us first!

Oh Spirit of God – this morning could you be our great teacher?  Could we listen to you as you draw us into deep love! A deep love of ourselves, each other, and GOD!  Enliven us – remind us that your love that you have poured into us is a resource that steadies us with courage and strength for the days ahead.

MY STORY:
As we enter the story in Acts, that we will read together in just a few minutes,   Jesus has left John and Peter, and all of us, his Spirit. Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr says that as a result we have an

indwelling Spirit as a permanent, strengthening gift.

God has implanted in us a true “homing device” that we can depend upon (in any season). We have been given a source for a true inner knowledge, which becomes a calm inner authority by which we know spiritual things for ourselves.” AND we have that resource – accessible – within us, always. 

And yet we have been, Rohr says,

“so afraid of this in most churches; most religious people have been told to look outside for such knowledge, instead of inside.”

Coupled with our society that is infused with a focus of accumulating knowledge, being “smart,” “articulate,” and “educated” as a way to gain status, maintain control, and establish hierarchy, this culture then permeates our spiritual contexts, our understanding of God (even though we regard love as boundless and God as mystical) and we still veer toward needing to be “experts of the subject of God.” 

The Spirit of God – mercifully and gently reminds us that we are not subjects to be studied or mastered, and neither is she.  

Last week I had an interview with Oprah Daily – this new offering that Oprah is putting out in digital and print editions.  One of the writers was trying to connect with Steve, (our Senior Pastor), around a sermon he preached last fall, “An Attempt at a Sex Positive Sermon.” They found he was on sabbatical – and so ended up with me. 

We had a good chat about Christianity and Sex – and inparticular how church leaders have gone about this topic.

So much of this conversation centered the attempts of church leaders to convey their knowledge – and their “training/educating/teaching” on the ways of a good and holy sex ethic for followers of Jesus. And how most of these patriarchal voices rely on an external structure of testable – behavioral rules that will prove one’s holiness/purity. Versus surrendering their moral high ground and surrendering trust to the Spirit of God. 

This allows them to be experts on the matter, and speak from the vantage point of God – often offering statements that start with, “this is from God. ” What follows this statement is often not of love, but a set of behavioral rules to follow:

This is from God” – you should not have sex before marriage.
This is from God” – don’t look at yourself in the mirror too long, don’t masturbate, don’t trust your body, don’t be weak, don’t desire, don’t long for…

This knowledge then takes the form of doctrine.  As we’ve talked about many times before at Reservoir, this approach is not an educational program that leads folks into wholeness/integration of their full selves… but is one that is controllable, through separation.

It sets up hierarchies of holiness. “Insiders and outsiders” producing either arrogance (inside) or despair (outside). 

AND 

It separates us from ourselves. 

It separates us from our bodies.

It separates us from feeling.

It separates us from our own HUMANITY, which in turn separates us from the DIVINE within us – and then we lose our grounding with the spirit of God – our access to all training and education. 

The book of Acts, written by Luke, begins with the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We then see Jesus’ closest friends and followers make their way without their Rabbi, teacher present – but with such a knowledge of the Indwelling Spirit that it creates the foundation of the “church” that will spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. And this “church” doesn’t depend upon an educated patriarchy and hierarchy to generate itself, (or measure itself), but depends on the Spirit of God which guides with freedom and power. 

Let’s read this story in Acts together:

Acts 3: 1-6

1Peter and John were going up to the temple at three o’clock in the afternoon, the established prayer time.

2 Meanwhile, a man who couldn’t walk  since birth was being carried in. Every day, people would place him at the temple gate known as the Beautiful Gate so he could ask for money from those entering the temple.

3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he began to ask them for a gift.

4 Peter and John stared at him. Peter said, “Look at us!”

5 So the man gazed at them, expecting to receive something from them.

6 Peter said, “I don’t have any money, but I will give you what I do have.”

So we’ll pause on the slides there – but the story goes on…

Peter then said,

“IN the name of Jesus get up and walk”

and the man does! He leaps, he jumps and praises God and then goes into the temple with them

And Peter starts to preach to the people in the temple about Jesus.

The priests, the chief of the Temple police, and some Sadducees are not happy about this. They arrested them and put them in jail for the night.

The next day there’s a meeting with the rulers, religious leaders, religious scholars, the Chief Priest, and they ask Peter and John

“Who put you in charge here? You are not qualified!  What power – authorized you to do this?”

And then we see this response  -again picking up on slides:

Acts 3 8- 13

8 Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, “Leaders of the people and elders,

9 are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him?

10 If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.

11 This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone!

12 Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”

13 The council was caught by surprise by the confidence with which Peter and John spoke.

After all, they understood that these apostles were uneducated and inexperienced. They also recognized that they had been followers of Jesus. 

The longing of John and Peter, as they’ve understood Jesus’ teaching – is for connection and integration, as a way of continued learning. 

They didn’t reject the Jewish religion.

They didn’t try to separate themselves from the Jewish community.

They still went to Temple and synagogues for worship and prayer. 

They saw Jesus’ message and resurrection as the fulfillment of everything they knew and believed of the Old Testament.  

And as they walk into the temple for  3 o’clock prayer they notice this man outside who can’t walk. And in that brief moment they listen to the Spirit of God, they listen to this man and they listen to their inner authority and trust that they know spiritual things for themselves – AND THEY THEN embody the very lessons – they hope to learn within the temple.

And here, the New Testament begins to be written. And what’s written, is that the law isn’t upheld by us…neglecting/separating, silencing and ignoring anyone who sits outside of the “formal temple.”

What’s written, is that we can fulfill and expand the law by, listening to, loving and healing anyone who sits anywhere, 

Peter and John have accumulated this deep knowing  by being with Jesus – walking with him, listening to him, watching him, questioning him, laughing with him, crying with him –  and this has been written as “LOVE” in John and Peter.  And the spirit of God in this passage is TEACHING them to harness that knowledge, that LIVED learning, and to not hesitate putting it into action.

As John, Peter, the spirit of God and this otherwise marginalized, silenced, neglected man interact we see the kindom of God come into being. Jumping out of the sacred texts that the religious elite have been studying and we see the kindom become real – in and through them.

Peter & John came to experience God in the Temple  – and yet they experience God in the temple of a human being who can’t walk.

They came to meet God at 3’oclock prayer – and yet they find the timelessness of prayer in the touch of a beggar’s right hand.

They came to study scripture – and they find themselves learning the scriptures by “loving their neighbor.”

They came to the temple to draw the attention of God and improve their “goodness”  – and yet they find the “goodness” of the Spirit of God already attending to them. 

They came to strengthen their spirit for the unknown days ahead  – and they find the same spirit strengthening weak ankle bones and feet.

They came to be TAUGHT, to be educated about God – and they find the endless lessons of God in the gaze of a man who longed to be seen.

To see, to be aware, to love – and to move with so much knowledge and confidence is what I hope the Scriptures, the verses that we continue writing in our day, are FULL of.

Because what John and Peter add to the scripture that we read – is that there is no “outside of the temple.” There is no “qualified” or “unqualified” or “expert trainer.” In fact these are all arbitrary labels that are assigned by patriarchy and hierarchy that is afraid of losing it’s footing inside the temple.

Yet with the spirit of God, everyone should be able to move in and out of the temple – sure-footed- just as this scripture shows us. 

However, as we see in this scripture, those in power, that hold the reigns, the credentials, those that love to say, “THIS IS FROM GOD,” to exert control don’t love to embrace the vibe of the spirit of God.   In fact these religious elite will silence John & Peter try to remove the name of God , the name of love from their tongues. But they can’t remove it from the core of their faith/their beings.

The spirit doesn’t operate in a linear way, she creates, empowers, flares, has no three part vision plan with pretty “slide decks” to sell us on her power.  The spirit doesn’t care about proving herself to some outside “system.”


And she doesn’t care about making you prove yourself, either.

This man that couldn’t walk – didn’t have to show John and Peter what he had tried and failed at, OR his three step self-improvement plan.  He just “looked up.” And as he did Peter and John came face to face with the ground and core of their faith – which is to say, “You are loved.” “You are loved.”

And it’s in this space of love – where we are and can be “saved.”  Saved not “from” the world but saved INTO the world of God’s abundance, INTO the spirit of love, and INTO ever-evolving knowing of such love within ourselves.

MY STORY PART 2

As I was finishing up my time with the journalist last week, she asked me, 

“So what’s your experience as a woman in your role right now?”

And I genuinely responded that it’s been pretty amazing!  And that it’s also not lost on me that it’s not the majority experience as we look at Christianity as a whole to have non-white-male voices fully incorporated.

The way in for my voice here at Reservoir, was very natural.  I walked into my first service many years ago and heard Val Snekvik preach (our guest preacher last week). And her voice was what brought me back for a second visit – and obviously many, many, more visits these 19 years later.  Her presence and other women who have been pastors here – paved the way for me.

AND I also know that just having “representation” of a woman’s voice, or a Person Of Color’s voice, or a transgender voice – doesn’t mean we all immediately UNLEARN the toxic ways of white supremacy and patriarchy that we’ve been steeped/schooled in. 

I have had folks come up to me after a service, within the last few years who have said:

“I have no idea what you just said, but I like your boots.” (eruption into great laughter.)

“Glad to have your voice, Ivy – but I sure hope we hire someone who actually has a degree in this stuff.”

I come to those comments with such mercy now.

Because I know they are not intentional, these folks were not consciously trying to tell me how unqualified they thought I was/am.

And I am working on not taking any heretical message of internalized misogyny as personal.

But it points to how much we have been inoculated by the system that values hierarchy, “formal” training, masculine dominated “teaching,” patriarchy, and whiteness as the gold standard of “knowing.”

It’s why it’s so compelling to see Peter and John naturally greet this man who can’t walk moving with the spirit of God that is now WITHIN them. Woven as part of their INTUITION, part of their DNA.  Inviting us all to see that we can access the ABUNDANCE of LOVE that the Spirit has poured out on us all. So that at any point when society/systems/structures tell us we are unqualified, try to strip us of our worth and dignity, we can face the core of our faith inside ourselves, and be reminded that the only three words that can follow, a statement like, “This is from God,” are… 

“YOU ARE LOVED,” “YOU ARE LOVED.”   

May this be our 3’oclock prayer with God as we enter the temple – and our “any o’clock” prayer with the spirit of God everywhere. 

I just finished spending the last couple of months with activist and public theologian Dr. Christena Cleveland, who offered an experience for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and White folks called, “Liberating your mind, body and spirit from White Supremacy.”  And she says, that

“Whiteness is always doing push-ups in the basement of our hearts.

Whiteness is always in training – trying to discredit us, hold us to external standards of perfection (which isn’t a real standard because perfection is a figment of the colonial imagination) and yet it strives to separate us from our true source of knowing. 

We need to continue the powerful training of surrendering to the spirit of God.

Peter & John were “uneducated,” “common”  they had no “formal training” in rhetoric or Jewish theology. They weren’t members of a privileged class that could afford higher education, or a religious class that would sit under a scholar. They were fishermen.

And Jesus, their Rabbi, didn’t have formal education either

Acts 2:22

“his credentials were/are through miracles, wonders, and signs.”

And yet they – along with this man who couldn’t walk outside of the temple  – school us in theology.  They teach us to revisit the ground and core of our faith, and not as a test, but as a great returning to ourselves  – where we find strength – and great courage to answer these questions by a lived way of being:

What is the nature of God? Love

What is the core of your faith? Love

What is the foundation of 3 o’clock prayer? Love

What binds you to your neighbor? Love

What can disrupt and then rebuild? Love

What connects and heals? Love

What does the spirit deposit in you? Love

What force can right injustices and free the oppressed? Love

What are the miracles, signs and wonders of our day? Love 

What does the Spirit of God say, “is from God’? Love

We would do well to revere, and honor this education implanted in us – lest we be left crippled by the weight of white supremacy and patriarchy.  

Spirit of God, we honor you.

Let me pray for us.

Wrestling to See

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

For this week’s spiritual practice led by Lydia Shiu, How is Your Heart, click HERE


To those of you here this morning, that identify as Asian, Asian American, Pacific Islander – SE Asian, please know that I grieve with you, we grieve with you. Know that our God, our helper is one who grieves with you too.   Is with you. Sees you. You are not alone.  If your grief is laced with rage – that is exactly as it should be.. .and if you are tired and afraid – take rest. And this morning, may the words of the prophet Habakkuk wash over you – in ways that resonate, affirm where you are at today – and may you be loved and held by God.

Today we’ll hear from the prophet Habakkuk. 

Habakkuk is a prophet that raises timeless questions –  about humanity and God –  in a very timely way. He is one who translates the chaos, the violence and un-ending suffering of his ancient time  – to ours – today.  And does so from a platform of faith that is real, fierce and disruptive to the status quo, the dominant culture. This is why Habakkuk and the other prophet’s voices that we’ve listened to this Lent have been so powerful to me – because they do not just offer us ways to treat the symptoms of injustice in our days, but they show us how to wrestle and uproot the foundation of them.  The prophets dismantle – and in doing so – they keep us grounded to the vision that God has for this world – and its people,  which is US. 

The whole book of Habakkuk is 3 chapters.

And it’s a dialogue between him and God.

An honest, emotion-filled, back-and-forth conversation that starts with Habakkuk’s cry and maybe universal question:
“HOW LONG GOD?” HOW LONG?  Will I ask for help – and you will not listen?

Today I invite you to consider what it is you have been crying out to God for.. Keep this at the forefront of your heart – a heart that maybe is broken – weary from the years you’ve been crying out to God – with no God in sight.

And I invite you to re-up with God – as you listen to Habakkuk’s words.  To consider what is most important for you?   What it is you need to inspire, sustain, enliven faith?

These days – like Habakkuk’s – can feel bereft of a living, loving God – a God who is A REAL agent, who acts in this world for good? WHO addresses injustice and suffering – who does SOMETHING about evil and power and oppressors.

Habakkuk’s words are raw, charged, uncovered and red hot. Birthed from a heart situated in reality – and yet longing for the Divine One to show up – Habakkuk  as we’ll see, confronts God, and argues with God – and gets in God’s face and demands that God turn God’s  attention and eyes to him.  

“Let me see you, GOD! Show me that you are listening to me.
Show me that your eyes are open, that you see what’s going on here – and that you see me too!”

Habakkuk shows us how faith hinges on this necessary dynamic.  

Us and God seeing (and listening) to one another.   

And just how hard it is when so much of what we see –  resonates as evil.

Habakkuk like no other prophet – invites us to strip down any notions we have of God – and be energized with new vision for what we find there… and not be afraid of the wrestling it might take to get there. Let’s follow along as Habakkuk “wrestles to see” God. 

Through song, and scripture and the heart of our own stories – we are eager to be with you God, this morning. TO be refreshed in our spirits – that you are a God who speaks to us, cares for us and sees us. .. in all things, in all places. May it be so. Amen.

My Story

From the early days of Scott (my now husband) and I knowing one another – I always bugged him about making eye contact with me – when we were in conversation .. I come from a bustling, large family – and I often found the pace of conversation to be one that was a blur – happening often as we were in movement.  Moving from the table to the stack of books to study, or the coveted spot in front of the wood-burning stove  – or back to the car – one sibling leaving for practice, another returning. I think somewhere inside, I longed for steady connection (really)   – where we could have conversation, looking one another in the eye, and linger there a bit – SEE how that practice went, SEE how it felt to be dumped by that boyfriend (me!) – to listen to one another  – in whatever space we might be in…

You can ask Scott – when you see him again – how often I still do this to this day, ask him to repeat something he’s just said, (even if I’ve heard it just fine) and this time share it with me, while looking at me.  It’s sometimes annoying – or even unrealistic in the movement of life – but when it can happen, it’s connecting, it’s steadying, and there’s a deepening of listening.   It’s through the eye, that I often feel like I’m listened to, and where I can listen to another’s heart that’s speaking.

Scripture, is written from the point of view of those on the margins.  And unlike most prophets Habakkuk is speaking to God on the people’s behalf (in most cases prophets are speaking to the people on God’s behalf).   And he’s speaking to God of all this violence, all this injustice he sees around him -he’s speaking from the point of view, of those in society who were never looked in the eye. never listened to. Who’s lives have been trampled upon. Essentially erased. Invisible. 

So Habakkuk – at the front of scripture here (as you’ll see on a slide) is asking GOD TO SEE THEM!

Habakkuk 1:2 -4

  1:2 Lord, how long will I call for your help and you not listen? 

I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us.

3 Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish

        so that devastation and violence are before me?

(look at all of this!) There is strife, and conflict abounds.

4         The Instruction (the law, the Torah), is ineffective….

            Justice does not endure

            because the wicked surround the righteous.

        Justice becomes warped.


Justice becomes warped.  Habakkuk stands in Jerusalem and looks at the unrecognizable state of his nation Judah. Everything that should undergird faith, society, humanity – is ravaged. Everything that one’s eyes and heart should be set on – justice, mercy, compassion is nowhere to be seen.

And so Habakkuk protests!  He goes directly to God.  Not to the King of the day – but God.

And he wrestles… which is appropriate – since at least some scholars believe his name means “wrestler.” The name of the river that Jacob crossed before wrestling with God: Jabbok, means “wrestling.” Habakkuk is another form of that Hebrew word. 

Habakkuk wrestles…

To see if and what God’s response will be to him….AND to figure out what he can see of God’s character – the God who he thinks cares about the fact that all of the “righteous are being swallowed by the wicked.” 

So he stands before God and He asks, this question that  Howard Thurman poses in his own commentary of Habakkuk,

Why does the ‘evilness’ of evil seem to be more dynamic and ENERGIZING than the ‘goodness’ of good?”

This is a question within a question, a question to God, about God: Who are you God if  you don’t intervene here – or at least say something!

Because right now it appears that you are the  “God who sanctions or at least tolerates all of this injustice/violence.” 

 Is that who you are God?

In Habakkuk’s dissent, doubt, his crying out, his anger, he is expressing PAIN.

Are you a God who can handle pain?

To “know God “ at this time – was very contractual… IF you obeyed God – then you got God’s blessing.   And if you disobeyed God – then you suffered God’s wrath. 

In expressing his pain (and the pain of the people around him)- AND in his demands to be heard with this pain – Habakkuk is shifting the paradigm of how to see/know God. . He is cracking open something new in this compacted faith… and expanding more of God’s character, That God is not just someone you extend “faith to” , but someone you engage “Faith with,” THIS crack – formed by his own pain –  allows his faith to breathe, allows faith to be a live, living faith… one that responds to present day reality, and all that comes with it. 

Habakkuk – is wrestling and dismantling – this idea that destruction is all there is for society – for the earth – that this misery and injustice will win out. He is challenging that picture – and saying that HE CAN be an effective force in challenging it.

And he’s also dismantling the idea that this is all there is to see and know of God – a distant, removed, transactional God. 

And he shows us that all of this dismantling – starts with the groans and complaints and the crying out of his heart.

The question that still stands for him though – is God listening?

And soon enough we see God’s response to Habakkuk… that God has listened, and God says:

“Oh yes – I hear your complaint – and here’s my plan:” 

I am going to raise up the Babylonians, these cruel and violent people.

They will march across the world and conquer other lands.

And then he goes into detail, with a bunch of images like cheetahs, and eagles, and desert winds, and a bunch of devouring/conquering pictures, to really allow the visual of utter destruction to set up in Habakkuk’s mind. 

So God’s answer to Habakkuk is to deal with the injustice of his people – by an oncoming assault of the Babylonians – an immoral and pagan empire – who are more corrupt and more violent than what is already happening – this will be the instrument of God’s great plan.

Now, A prophet is someone who sees as God sees.

And Habakkuk is struggling to make sense of, to see the vision that God is detailing here.  He’s perplexed and so he goes back to God a second time and says, “Ummm, this is a bad plan.  A very, very bad plan.  It can’t be that you just want to wipe us out, right?”

… God?

And so to try to get a better view – to be as intent as possible in not misunderstanding what God might say in response, Habakkuk does this. 

Habakkuk 2:1

2:1 I will take my post;/ I’ll climb up this watchtower

        I will position myself on the fortress.

        I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me

        and how God will respond to my complaint.

Habakkuk says, “oh I’m waiting  GOD – I am waiting for what your next big, fantastic plan is!”  I’m staying close to you.  I’m watching you.”

And this is an interesting posture.  Habakkuk’s intention was to be with God, as he waited for God’s reply. A good posture – because the vista he’d gain of the land around him, as he climbed into a physical watchtower, increases his sense of desolation – later in scripture it says that the

       fig tree doesn’t bloom,

            and there’s no produce on the vine;

        the olive crop withers,

            and the fields don’t provide food;

        the sheep are cut off from the pen,

            and there are no cattle in the stalls…

For as far as the eye can see…there is no evidence of truth, beauty or goodness – sprouting up on the horizon.  The earth itself appears absent of God – this great nothingness- barrenness.

And yet – being in the watchtower close to God, with God – in the vastness of all of this nothingness, Habakkuk discovers that there is something with God.

Let me circle back to this in a moment.

Going back to my great value and joy of being able to see Scott’s eyes (and/or any of your eyes really) when you are sharing something,  I’ve realized that in this pandemic, we’ve all had our hand forced a little to look into one another’s eyes a lot more.  Right?  We are wearing masks – and if we are really trying to listen to one another, really trying to understand and connect to one another, we are watching each other’s eyes in a more intense manner. To listen to what our hearts are saying, when our facial expressions can no longer convey it fully.

I went to visiting hours of someone who passed away this week.  I didn’t know the person who passed, but I know her son.  I had prayed with and listened to the son, on the phone in the weeks leading up to the death and I knew it was so hard- painful, and sad. Death is always a rupture – a violation.  And it was even harder to walk into a funeral home.  With masks on, and protocols, and lines – and there felt like a vastness/vista of sorrow – to traverse, and I was having a hard time trying to see/locate God.

Until I finally got to the son – behind this big rope and above his mask line, I found his eyes – saw his grieving heart – and I found God. 

So whether it’s being on a physical watchtower or in an intentional watchtower posture w/ God, in what is real – hard – pain and encompassing nothingness – you might discover a sacred nothingness. 

For Habakkuk there was nothing good left of humanity, nothing fruitful of the earth, and in the watchtower he found that there was nothing between him and God’s eyes. 

Everything is stripped away.  It’s just him and God.

Just you and God. In the watchtower. And it’s where you find what is most important again – a God who is with you.

When God looks into your spirit  (in that sacred nothingness) what God do you see?

At those visiting hours – I saw a God who grieved with this son who had just lost his mom.  I saw a God who was angry at death, I saw a God who was tender and got it – all the swirl of emotions, who was far from judging any of them and close to pain. 

Wrestling with God, perhaps allows us this perspective as if from a watchtower.  Somehow seeing the heart of God anew – and taking on the eyes of God.   It’s how we anchor ourselves from letting the “evilness of evil” to seep in and take over the  “goodness of good” within us.

We still doubt (humanity and God), we still wrestle – we still long and are passionate about all that we want to see better. We stay in our real lives – and by that we activate faith – we give it just enough oxygen to ignite.

Faith is a storehouse of reality.   It is the nexus by which we dream, doubt, rage, shout, wrestle and live with God on this earth – here and now – with everything this earth gives us.  Habakkuk shows us that faith is the co-partnering of us and God. Something that we can not craft on our own – and something that God cannot move within us – without our willingness and welcome.

Faith is born from where we are stripped down to eye-level with the ones around us and God – where we are asked not to deny what we see (not be separate or turn a blind-eye – even from the horrors, what most disturbs us ) – but to respond to what we see, to act on what we see – and to also believe – hope even, that all of what we see – is not the totality of the kin’dom of God here on earth… that it is not the end, the final word. 

Ida B. Wells an early leader in the civil rights movement – who battled sexism, racism, and violence her whole life says that

Faith and doubt were bound together, with each a check against the other – doubt preventing faith from being too sure of itself and faith keeping doubt from going down into the pit of despair. With faith in one hand and doubt in the other – we can contend against the evil in our day.”

THIS IS HOW WE CONTINUE TO SEE and dream and vision as GOD does for the future of our lives – our world (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone, 131).

A prophet is one who sees as God sees. One who can articulate God’s vision for a world still to come, a world as it should be – Habakkuk’s prophetic ministry is to nourish, nurture and evoke a consciousness – that is counter to the dominant culture of the day…  so that such a vision can be carried forth. 

And this is exactly how God responds to Habakkuk from his watchtower posture….God says

Habakkuk Scripture 2: 2-3

2:2 Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet

    so that a runner can read it.

3 There is still a vision for the appointed time;

            it testifies to the end;

                it does not deceive.

    If it delays, wait for it;

        for it is surely coming; it will not be late.

And then in a bunch of verses to follow – God goes on to just make sure it’s clear that plundering, murdering, the violence – the hoarding of wealth and corruption, and cutting down of forests.  The efforts for self stability and the idols that are formed and shaped, carved – are not where we find the vision of God. 

And then he ends it all by saying, 

20 the Lord is in God’s holy temple.

Let all the earth be silent before God.

So what’s the vision?  What does Habakkuk write down?  What do we write down and where? Where’s the holy temple?!

My guess is that the answer to those questions was different for Habakkuk than it is for us today.

But the beauty of prophets — IS that they speak to us today.. That they translate and reframe these same questions for us in our context now.

And my guess is that Habakkuk says….

“Your hearts are where you write this vision down”

“And the temple is the Spirit of God within you.”

THE VISION  – is for you to fill out – actively write – as you live.  As you call out injustice, as you see and listen and love your neighbor.    As you engage both the Spirit and your heart – then the imprint, the inscription of God’s vision will always be seen, visible to anyone passing by.

Can we embody this vision?

Ocean Vuong (vong)- this Vietnamese poet and professor at Umass Amherst – is one who has asked this question of me as well… I read his book this summer – the only book I read cover to cover in one sitting, it’s entitled “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous”.. And in it there’s this line that keeps coming back to me, it says,

the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. So much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing.”

This is the challenging and jolting reality.  How much of the world – the people that inhabit it – pass by our gaze – without recognition.  

Habakkuk says, “We are in a time in history where we need to listen to the prophetic hearts all around us – the marginalized, oppressed and one’s who have been kept silent.  They are speaking, continuing to cry out and asking to be seen.

As is our earth, our natural resource – it is groaning from our mistreatment;   

We are in a time in history – evident this week – where the LGBTQ community once once again is messaged that their lives are invalid.  

It is a time where black and brown people are continuing to die – pinned under the knee of white supremacy.

It’s a time where Asian siblings – like those named by Lydia at the top of this service – suffer and die from erasure, imperialism and immigration laws.

it is a time in history where the deadly impact of white supremacy overflows- and can no longer be unseen.

Unless this is the vista we want to see – barren of God’s image.

AND THIS  – this to Ocean Vuong’s point is where we must acknowledge that we HAVE seen. That we have seen, and seen, and seen, and seen  – the markers of racism, capitalism, and misogyny for so long –  and let it pass through our field of vision- without a blink of an eye.

Write this on your hearts – let this be a vision to you – that these people who die violently – those who suffer, who have been left unprotected by society.  They bear the burden of all the world’s actions (and inactions). They are prophets,  – in their crying out –  they seek to break the hold of injustice and open our eyes to see God in them.

We would do well to see and listen to what these prophets among us – speak to us today – even beyond the grave. 

It’s a lot. It’s too much sometimes. But as Habakkuk teaches –  don’t give up, hang in… continue to wrestle God into view.  Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly – with your heads up and eyes open. And may we be stripped down in our watchtowers with God, to what is most important – and what  Ocean Vuong reminds me, that

“I want to love more than death can harm.”

I want to love more than death can harm.

Prayer: God this morning, as we pause to listen and be with you – cast your loving gaze upon us – may it energize us for the stretch of days ahead. And may we feel it as known as the radiance of sunlight, as sweet as the birds calling outside right now – and hear it as clear as our neighbors, “hello.” – Amen

 

Inspiration & Resources

Walter Bruegemann, “The Prophetic Imagination”

Howard Thurmann – always

Megan McKenna, “Send My Roots Rain”

Ocean Vuong, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and “The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation.”

Dealing with Privilege in the Beloved Community

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

For this week’s spiritual practice led by Vernee Wilkerson, called “Shelter,” click HERE.

To view this week’s online worship service, click the YouTube link above.

 

The other week I got to talk with a man who knew my maternal grandfather. I called him Pop Pop, and he died in 1997, just a few months after dancing at my wedding. I knew he loved me and was proud of me, and I miss him still. And other than family, I hadn’t talked to anyone that knew him in a long time. It surprised me how much that meant to me. 

 

The story my family tells of Pop Pop is that he grew up poor in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression. He served his country in the navy, worked with his brother in construction, and then set out on his own as a home builder. He worked long and hard with his hands, building house after house, creating homes for others and a good living for himself. He spent little, saved and later invested wisely. Until by the time he died, he was one of those millionaires next store you never would have guessed. And he left not just a legacy of decency and sound advice and love to his daughter and three grandsons, but he left us each enough funds to buy a house and get a debt-free, home owning start in life.

 

That’s one story, one I was told, again and again, and it’s all true. But it’s not the whole story. 

 

Pop Pop may have been poor, but he had a brother who worked as a civil engineer on public works projects, a profession that was barred to people of color and even to many recent European immigrants. So in the navy, Pop Pop worked in construction and was shielded from the danger of the front lines. After the war, he bought his first home with a basically no-interest loan from the GI bill, which gave all kinds of government handouts to white veterans. He then built houses for white families in the suburbs of New York City, at the same time white families weren’t just having babies but were fleeing from cities in fear of their new neighbors of color. Pop Pop worked for himself, but he built houses quicker because he hired working class day laborers from the city next door to the suburb he had settled in, paying them a fair day’s wage, but never keeping them long enough to pay them more or give them benefits. And on it goes. 

 

This story’s true too. It doesn’t make my Pop Pop an evil man, but it does reveal his privilege, that he benefitted again and again from special opportunities, often barred from or afforded at the expense of Black Americans, as well as other people of color. This is some of the systemic racism in my family line, part of why my mother, my brothers, and I got the help we did in life. 

 

Today, I want to explore how the gospel, the good news of Jesus, speaks to all our stories of privilege, advantages we have through no merit of ours, as well as advantages that have been taken from us, through no failing of ours. It’s one sermon, so there will always be more to say, but I want to suggest at least one way we can respond to these stories in light of the good news of Jesus. 

 

Let me read an excerpt from the Bible’s little letter called Philippians, written by Paul of Tarsus to the house churches of the seaside port of Philippi in the mid-first century. I’ll read a bit from the third chapter.

 

Philippians 3:4b-9 (NRSV)

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

 

Now this is interesting because Paul is a Jew living under the colonial Roman Empire. And he’s writing to a mixed Jewish-non Jewish audience. They all would have known that Jews like Paul were mocked constantly by Romans. Their religion, their culture, their customs were the butt of many jokes. They were scapegoated sometimes when problems occurred. Jews were expelled from Rome by one emperor around this time. So Paul could have written to Philippi and discussed his real grievances as a Jew, or as a Christian, under the empire. Paul was both of those things and at the time, being either Jewish or Christian in the Roman Empire gave you less privilege. And later in Philippians, Paul does speak to the spiritual power and perspective that help him navigate suffering. 

 

But privilege is intersectional. You can have more in some areas and less in others. And Paul’s aware that within his own community, his lineage, his family, his childhood, his training, and his way of life gave him access to all kinds of benefits others didn’t have. 

 

But now as a follower of Jesus, he questions those gains. In fact, not only does he question them, he sees them as losses. 

 

Paul’s accumulated privilege – whatever unearned benefits he had in life – he calls it all a pile of crap. Our Bibles usually translate this “rubbish”, sometimes politely “dung,” which is a word almost no one ever uses unless they’re at a cow farm. A “heap of crap” would catch the mood better.

 

Why is this? What difference has Jesus made in the way Paul sees his social location?

 

Well, he sees that the truly good life comes from a relationship with God in Christ. Having higher status than other people, having extra privilege others don’t can make you feel good about yourself, it can make you feel special in a way. But it can’t make you know that you are loved, that you have transcendent meaning and worth, that no matter what happens in life, you belong on this earth God made. Knowing Christ does all of that, though. It tells you that you are loved, you are worthy, you matter, your life has infinite dignity and meaning. 

 

And socially, we see throughout Paul’s letters, this is supposed to translate not just to belonging to God, but belonging to a community of radical equality before God. Where people who have all the privilege in the world belong, but no more than anyone else. And where people who are despised and rejected in the world’s hierarchies of privilege belong no less than anyone else. 

 

This is easy to talk about. It sounds beautiful to say radical equality, or beloved community, or everyone belongs, but it is way harder to do. 

 

Because the truth is, if you have relative privilege, you always feel you belong. And if you have a relative lack of privilege, you can see in a second all the places that are not making a home for you. 

 

If you have housing and a shower and clean clothes, talk to someone who doesn’t have those things. They know in a second when they enter a public place if they’re welcome or not. Almost always, not.

 

If you’re white, and you listen to the experience of a person of color about the neighborhoods and vacation spots where they feel safe or don’t, that highways they feel safe travelling on, well, it might be eye opening. It was for me, when after my marriage to Grace, who’s Chinese-American, we took our first trip to an all white, more homogenous pocket America and then realized based on our experiences as an interracial couple there, that most of this country’s geography wasn’t open to us, not on terms we’d want. This topic of where people of color can safely travel in America came up in our community group again this week. 

 

The flip side of this is true as well, for those of us with relative privilege. I learned this concept of white sprawl from the social psychologist Christena Cleveland, that white people – being taught we belong everywhere in this country – can have a tendency to go anywhere we want and not consider the well-being of other people who were there already. A few years back, I realized that was still true of me, when I showed up on a facebook page for thousands of Asian American Christians with a want ad for a position at Reservoir Church.

 

On the one hand, it worked out well. That’s where I met Lydia after all. On the other hand, though, people were like: yo, get out of this space. You (meaning me) rolled into someone else’s living room with a want ad, without asking if that was OK for you to do that here. 

 

Truthfully, I hadn’t thought to ask for permission. Obvious in retrospect. I felt bad about that and had to try to make amends. But I did it because my life in America hasn’t taught me I need permission. It’s like the modern, personalized version of Manifest Destiny. “This land is my land.”

 

Now what does all this have to with Paul, and the rubbish of his ethnic and religious privilege, and the importance of knowing Christ? Everything. Here’s why.

 

On religious terms, people of privilege are prone to pride – seeing ourselves or being seen by others as better or more important or more deserving than we really are. This is the pride of a mountain. I’m invulnerable. I’m worthy. I deserve my spot. Look how big I am.

 

And on religious terms, people without privilege are prone to abnegation – being negated – seeing ourselves or being seen by others as less important or less deserving than we really are. This is the negation of a valley. It is done to us by others. “Look how vulnerable you are. You’re unworthy.” Or those messages can become internalized and said to ourselves: “I deserve my lack of place. See how small I am.”

 

Pride and abnegation. The puffing up of a false mountain self, or the tearing down of a false valley self. 

 

Some theologians have called pride and abnegation the original sins. They both lie, they both keep us from God and our true selves, and they keep us from one another as well.

 

Pride tells us we’re less vulnerable than we are, abnegation – whether in our own eyes or others – tells us we’re more. Pride tells us we don’t need God, abnegation that we are defined by our neediness. Pride tells people they deserve it all, abnegation that they are undeserving. It’s all a lie, it’s all sin. Jesus wants to level it all.

 

Every valley lifted up, every mountain be made low. That the way of the Lord will be clear for us all. 

 

Paul saw this first hand. 

 

In Acts 16, when Paul travels to Philippi, the first woman he meets is named Lydia. She is a surprise.

 

See, Paul only went Northwest up to Philippi because he had a vision. He was having some struggles in Western Asia and had a vision of a Greek man, a Macdeonian man saying, Come and help us. So Paul did. But when he arrived in Philippi, in the heart of Macedonia, he looked for a Friday evening prayer meeting.   And in Paul’s faith and culture, you didn’t have a valid Friday evening prayer meeting without a certain number of men being present. But the book of Acts tells us that Paul found just women instead.

 

So Paul had to adapt his vision – it wasn’t a Macdeonian man at all with whom he’s going to start this church, it was a Macedonian woman who would be that faith community’s first leader. 

 

This was Lydia, likely like my grandfather, both a hard-working go getter, maybe in part a rags to riches story. But also a daughter of privilege. One who had advantages in that she was freeborn, she had access to some capital to start her business, she likely had networks among people of wealth, which helped her in her trading. 

 

The second woman Paul meets in Philippi isn’t really a woman at all, but a girl still, a girl who was a slave. The Roman empire had millions of slaves at the bottom of its pyramid of privilege. There were public slaves, like those that built public works or in the case of Philippi, worked the mines in the hills around the city. And there were private slaves, like this girl, who were used to support the whims and the economies of their owners.

 

Paul does the work of an abolitionist, helps free her, which gets him beaten and arrested and eventually driven out of the city.

 

All to say, though, Paul knew first hand what children of privilege looked like. In some ways, he was one himself. He saw how people of privilege could use their power for good and for justice in the world. He too did that. But he saw the spiritual danger of privilege as well – how it could give us an illusion of independence, of invulnerability, of not needing God and neighbor, how it can make us untender, ungenerous, and so not resilient when hard times come. 

 

And Paul knew first hand what children of suffering looked like. How they or their ancestors were robbed, used, their bodies or dignity or possessions stolen again and again. He saw the ways that can tear people down in other’s eyes, and sometimes be so internalized that we are self-abnegated, torn down, unworthy in our own eyes. 

 

And for all of us, Paul’s gospel invitation, his good news in Jesus was toward freedom. 

 

What does it mean to not be defined by the ways that this life and our history have laid us low, called us lesser or unworthy? And what does it mean where we have privilege, to treat it like the heap of crap, like the rubbish that it is? To shed ourselves of the accumulated toxins in our place in the world, to let go of that which be-fowls us, which weighs down and needs expelling? 

 

There’s a lot we can do, but it starts by telling the truth about ourselves and one another. 

 

If we lie about ourselves, or believe unexamined the lies that have been told about us, we don’t make room for an honest relationship with God and we cut ourselves off from honest connections with others too.

 

If I see myself as a child of merit alone, then I’ll look down on the people who haven’t got what I got. 

 

Truthful stories about ourselves and others, stories that admit that none of us succeeds or fails alone, that we are all tied up in generational and societal fabrics of blessing and curse, of unmerited privilege and undeserved suffering – truthful eyes that see all this let us all be people of grace. This lets us all be people who see that none of us are above needing God and one another, just as none of us are less loved or blessed by God either. 

 

The good news says God loves you in Christ. None of you higher or lower than the other. And with his own example, Paul tells the children of privilege that their gains are rubbish. They ought to humble themselves, tell the truth, be content with less, and use what they have to empower and liberate others. And he tells the children of suffering: God loves you in Christ as well. Rise, shine, for your light has come. Let’s tell the truth about your dignity together as well. Be free.

 

This fall, our community groups have been sharing a lot of stories about where we come from in an effort to tell honest stories about ourselves and to hear honest stories about one another. I hope we keep doing this as we make our way toward beloved community. 

 

I’m going to encourage us to pray honest prayers we well, and we’ll end with one that appeared at the end of a recent letter from Pope Francis. 

Join me in praying if you’re willing.

 

O God, Trinity of love,

from the profound communion of your divine life,

pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love.

Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus,

in his family of Nazareth, 

and in the early Christian community.

Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel,

discovering Christ in each human being,

recognizing him crucified

in the sufferings of the abandoned

and forgotten of our world,

and risen in each sibling, each human,

who makes a new start.

Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,

reflected in all the peoples of the earth,

so that we may discover anew 

that all are important and all are necessary,

different faces of the one humanity 

that God so loves. Amen.