Salvation and Liberation: A Juneteenth Sermon

The other day, I was meeting with some rising leaders from throughout the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Reservoir’s one of dozens of communities that work together in GBIO to promote healthy interfaith relationships and secure social justice together. GBIO is also one of the organizations our church funds through our shared financial giving as a community. Every $10 you give to Reservoir, a dollar goes straight back into the community through GBIO and other means. Anyway, right now one of the things we’re working on in GBIO is better treatment and services for returning citizens, residents of Massachusetts who have done jail time and are returning to civilian life. 

I had a chance to speak with one of these returning citizens last week and there were two things going on in his life that he was excited about. 

One was that he was moving. Which, I don’t know, when I talk with folks moving into a new rental around here, they’re not always thrilled. Because, one moving is a pain, and two, these days when we move, our rent is often more than we can afford. But he was happy because he had found a landlord willing to let him sign a lease on an apartment. Landlords, you may or may not know, can run criminal background checks on potential tenants. Private landlords, government housing, apartment complexes, they can all legally deny rentals to someone with a criminal history, regardless of the nature of the crime or the punishment. So my new acquaintance was happy he had found a place to live, any place.

The second thing he was telling me about was the committee he was co-leading at his church. It was an important planning committee, it involved a ton of volunteer time and responsibility, and he was just thrilled to be doing this work for his church. 

And I’m thinking to myself: who’s thrilled about spending more time in a church committee meeting. One of you has literally told me: Steve, I’ll do anything for the church as long as it doesn’t involve going to any meetings. But then it struck me, oh, what these two stories have in common is that in both situations, the lease and the church committee, what’s going on is this man is being treated like a person.

He’s not the sum of his worst mistakes anymore. He’s not a failed CORI check. He’s able to move freely and choose where he wants to live, to whom he wants to pay rent. He’s able to lend his voice and talents and body to his church community and have that be valued and respected. 

He’s being treated like a person. 

This is what he hoped getting free again would be like for him, even if it’s not the case in many areas of his life. 

Let me put this in Christian theological terms for just a second. What is salvation for fellow GBIO leaders? Is it being forgiven for his past sins? Well, yes, sometimes, in part. But he’s paid dearly for his past already. At this point, a lot of salvation for him isn’t just about forgiveness, it’s about healing and it’s about liberation.

It’s after being diminished and dehumanized again and again, finding the treasure of being recognized as a person.

This week and next, partly inspired by Juneteenth, I’m going to speak about the struggle to become persons, the struggle to treat others as persons, and the important struggle to just be a person ourselves. Today, we look at how this word that is so important in the Christian story, salvation, has taken on too narrow of a meaning. Salvation is not merely the forgiveness of sins. Salvation is also liberation and healing. It’s getting free and getting well. And salvation is God’s work, and our work in partnership with God, of treating one another as free persons who deserve the chance to be well. 

We see this range of salvation in the framing of the four gospels.

Take Matthew, for instance. In the first chapter, Mother Mary has the dream about Jesus, who is to be a savior, and it says

he will save people from their sins.

But then in Matthew 2, Baby Jesus is cast as the new Moses, Moses being the great leader of the past who led people out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land.

And the gospel of Matthew sticks with this theme of Jesus as the new Moses persistently, for many chapters. So we see that the salvation God is working through Jesus, the being saved from sins is more than just forgiveness, it’s a work of freedom and a work of healing, both personally and for a community or a collective as well.

The gospel of Luke is even more specific.

Luke doesn’t frame Jesus as a new Moses, if anything he paints him as a kind of new Caesar, a better, more just leader than the head of the Roman empire. 

And in Luke, when Jesus announces his mission to his hometown, he quotes – and edits as he does so – lines from the prophet Isaiah about freedom, healing, and justice. From the fourth chapter, Jesus says:

Luke 4:18-21 (Common English Bible) 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

    to proclaim release to the prisoners

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to liberate the oppressed,

19     and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.

21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Jesus says:

This freedom and healing, this experiencing of God’s favor, is what I’m here for, what God has given me power to do.

And for a hot second, the hometown crowd is kind of pleased – healing, freedom, this year of liberation, sounds good, bring it on. Until Jesus says he’s going to start with their enemies, until he tells them it’s not just for them, but for the whole Roman Empire, their enemies and oppressors included, and then they drive him out of town, because they don’t like that so much.

That’s alright with Jesus, though, as in the next several chapters of Luke, we see him steadily going about this work, first to his fellow Jews, and then to the Gentile outsiders, Romans included. 

He starts the work of freeing, healing, liberating those the world has diminished and held captive.

He offers working class folks struggling with their jobs, laboring under immense tax burdens a more fulfilling vocation.

He meets with someone who is estranged from community because of a disease that carries stigma, and he heals the disease and restores him back to community as well.

Jesus meets a person whose disability isn’t accomodated in his time and place and treats the person not just as disabled but as a whole person, with a complex set of spiritual and emotional and physical needs, and he tends to them all, empowering a fuller life in community for this person.

And then he attends a dinner party of social and spiritual outcasts, helping reshape their lives, showing them they matter to him and they matter to God. 

That’s Chapter 5 of Luke.

In Chapter 6, Jesus reteaches the customs and law of his culture so they’ll be transformative for freedom, life, and justice, rather than a burden to bear or tools for self-righteousness.

And then in Chapter 7, he meets with the messengers of his enemy, a Roman military leader – the kind of person who had the power to harm and harass Jesus, the kind of person who would eventually arrest and execute Jesus, and he too Jesus treats like a person in need of freedom and healing. He sees him not only as an enemy but as a helpless, grieving father, and he restores hope and life to this man’s family. 

And on it goes, for several chapters, Jesus working a mission of healing and freedom throughout his hometown region, until in Chapter 9, he decides to travel to the big city of Jerusalem, to do this work on a larger scale. 

Let me some up what I’m saying theologically and then close with a few implications.

What I’m saying about God is that God loves to forgive sins, and God also loves to set people and communities free. God loves to help people and communities heal and become well.

Here’s how a theologian whose work I study, Andrew Sung Park, puts it. The gospel of Jesus, the good news of Jesus is repentance and forgiveness for the sinner. People and communities that harm, hurt, and oppress are told by God they can be forgiven. And free from the burden of guilt, with the help of God and friends, they can choose better, more righteous and just ways forward for their lives, their communities, their culture, their country. 

So the message of Jesus for a tax collector who is ripping off his own people is to tell him,

You too are a child of God. You are seen and valued.

And that tax collector rejoices in his forgiveness and acceptance and also makes amends – he either quits his job or learns to do it more justly and he restores the wealth that has been taken, not just by him but by others too. He does reparations. I preached on this earlier this spring. Forgiveness and amends is part of the gospel for people and communities.

But then Andrew Sung Park says, the gospel of Jesus, the good news of Jesus, is not just repentance and forgiveness for the sinner. It is also healing and freedom for the sinned against. People and communities that have been harmed, hurt, and oppressed are told by God that they deserve better. They are empowered with the help of God and friends to seek healing and freedom. 

Let’s play this out for the returning citizen I told you about at the top.

The gospel of Jesus is for him forgiveness of sins. I’m not getting into the details today, but he did something wrong, like most of us, he probably has done a lot of wrong in life, a lot of harm. But for one set of these wrongs, he also broke the law. He was caught, arrested, tried, and convicted and did jail time. Some attempts at amends and restoration were made as well by the system.

He also is forgiven by God in Christ. God doesn’t hold his sins against him anymore, he is released from his guilt and encouraged to do right in the world in the ways he did wrong before.

But as a person who was diminished and demeaned by the criminal justice system, and who again and again as a returning citizen, is treated like a blemish on society, not a person, he is also invited with the help of God and friends to seeking healing and wellness, belonging and meaning, to have a good and whole life restored to him, and to have the cooperation of his community in doing so. 

Forgiveness and repentance for sinners and oppressors, healing and freedom foro the sinned against and oppressed, all part of the good news of Jesus.

Let me dial into three implications of this holistic gospel for a moment, how this teaches us how to read, how it gives us a compass, and how it answers our prayers.

One, this holistic gospel teaches us how to read history.  

This gospel tells us that the least Christian parts of history have nothing to do with the rise and fall of the church. They have to do with where people and communities don’t cooperate with, but actively resist, God’s longing for people’s healing and freedom.

This seriously reframes the founding of the United States, for instance. Many of its Chrisitan founders told the story of America as pilgrims of God seeking prosperity and freedom in the promised land that God had destined for them to control.

But when we know that they went about settling here and achieving that prosperity by spreading disease and death to the first peoples of the land, through trading and enslaving descendants of Africa and working them to the death without pay or rights, and through trying to block non-Christians (Asians in particular) from living in this land, the story starts to sound more anti-Christ than Christian. 

So the gospel tells us that the most Christian parts of history also don’t necessarily have to do with the rise and fall of the church. They have to do with where people and communities cooperate with God’s longing for healing and freedom, enacting God’s vision for liberation into the Beloved Community of God.

On these terms, the most Christian holiday in our calendar certainly isn’t Independence Day, the 4th of July. It just might be Juneteenth! Celebrating the beginning of freedom in this country for the descendants of Africa becomes a holy thing.

It’s the stuff of Jesus in Luke 4 – proclaiming release to the prisoners, setting captives free, and proclaiming the year of God’s favor for those who only knew heartbreak, injustice, and suffering. It’s celebrating, and moving forward,. God’s favor to again honor the personhood of people – the personhood that was always there but that others failed to recognize.

So celebrate Juneteenth, my friends, today or tomorrow on the actual day. And celebrate remembering that the good will of God is more Juneteenth in our country. It’s restoring personhood and justice, healing and freedom, to those who have it honored least. 

Two, reading history, but also a compass for the work of God.

God’s work God wants to be doing in the world is forgiveness and repentance and freedom and healing, making people and communities well.  

I think this inites us on Juneteenth to a quick inventory of the journey of healing and freedom in our lives. 

Is there anywhere that you are complicit in others’ lack of flourishing? Any ways that as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a manager, a citizen that your actions lead to less healing, less wellness, and less freedom for others? If so, God longs to lead you into change for the healing and freedom of the people and communities in your life. 

This kind of reflection for me, for instance, means that when I recognize that as a dad, my words or actions mean less wellness for one of my kids, I’ve got to apologize and try to change my ways as quickly as possible. 

It means for me as a pastor and resident of Greater Boston too that it’s critical for me to engage parts of my time in speaking and action for a healthier, more just Chrisitian faith in this country, and for healthier and more just communities. 

And the flip side of this is our compass for the work of God in our lives too. Is there anywhere that others are complicit in your lack of flourishing? Any ways that as a child, a spouse, a friend, an employee, a resident of this country that other people’s actions lead to less healing, less wellness, and less freedom for you? If so, God longs to empower you, with the help of God and friends, to find more healing and freedom in your life. 

That stubborn work of therapy to get free from childhood wounds – that is the holy work of God.

That setting up clarity and protection for yourself when you work under an abusive manager, as some of my friends do, and that time you spend looking for another job – that is the holy work of God. 

I talked about Jesus in Matthew as a new Moses, inaugurating a new journey of healing and freedom. Well, it’s said about the Exodus, Moses’ deliverance of Israel, that it took 40 days to lead the people out of slavery, but 40 years to get the slavery out of the people. Think about our country, a war of four years to free African Americans from slavery, but 157 years ago, and we’re still trying to get the oppressive ways of American toward the descendants of Africa out of the this country.

40 days to secure the birth of healing and freedom, but 40 years to have that healing and freedom really become a way of being in the world. 

That’s true for every good work of God for healing and freedom. It takes time and process, but it’s worth it. Because the promised land is on the other side!

Lastly, this gospel of healing and freedom is an answer to our prayers regarding the will of God. 

God’s will for our lives is forgiveness and repentance toward goodness and life, and it is freedom and wellness for us and our communities. It’s the work of justice, the honoring of personhood. 

Let me close reading how the letter of James puts this.

James 2:14-18 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

18 Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action.

Faith means justice. Faith means action. Good news faith means joining God in seeing all God’s children as bearing the image of God. Doing this, day after day, year after year, getting more whole and more free together, is always the will of God for each of us and all our communities, every day.

We’ll pick this up next week, as we talk about this on a more personal level, getting free, getting just, living into our humble, beautiful lives in the struggle to live like persons.

Let’s pray.

The Good News Opportunity of Reparations

The other day I was at my kids’ high school and I went into the office of a program director where I saw some calligraphy on the wall that was made by my old mentor, Bak Fun Wong. It was a reminder of what an influential educator he was locally, certainly very influential to me. I see signs of him everywhere.

Bak Fun was my boss for nine years. He gave me the opportunity to teach and helped shape a really unique, beautiful school in which to learn that craft and to learn about leadership too. 

A few years into my work with Bak Fun, when I was taking on some new responsibilities in the school and starting my path toward becoming a principal, I took a road trip with him and a couple other members of our team to a school in New York City we were observing and learning from.

And on the ride home, as we cruised along the highway, I asked Bak Fun:

You’ve had a profound influence on so many people. What is your leadership secret?

Bak Fun thought for a moment, and then he said-

Sure. I can tell you. Leaders don’t make a mess. That’s level one leadership. And level two is that leaders clean up the mess they make.

And then he stopped.

And I thought: That’s it? Don’t make a mess. Clean up your mess. There’s some tension there. And it sounds like etiquette in the lunchroom, not leadership wisdom. When it comes to talking, I’m kind of a maximalist. I’m trying to learn how to preach like 20 minute sermons rather than half hour ones or more, for instance, and it’s not easy for me.

Bak Fun, though, was more of a minimalist. He’d choose his words carefully, but say things you’d keep thinking and wondering about later, not unlike Jesus actually. 

So I was used to these moments like this, but still, I asked:

Is that all? 

And after a minute, Bak Fun said,

No, there’s a level three leadership too, which is that leaders clean up other people’s messes.

And he turned away. That was it. 

Don’t make a mess.

Clean up your mess.

And clean up other people’s messes.

That’s leadership. Or maybe that’s responsible moral living in the world. Or maybe that’s part of the point of being a spiritual or religious person in the world.

The faith tradition that Reservoir is part of, the Christian tradition, is known for a lot of other things. When people have been polled in recent years about what comes to mind when they think of Christians, they often answer: judgemental, and hypocritical. 

And I get it. A lot of Christians have tried to take what they see as the moral high ground on a few issues, without any curiosity about how other people, even other Christians, might have good reason to see things differently. And this happens without backing up that  aggressive moralism with loving, kind action that makes communities better, that cleans up messes rather than making them. 

Well, we at Reservoir and others are trying to center the very opposite approach. To grow lives of faith in inclusive, diverse communities where we are humble and open about our dogma, but where we are deeply committed to healing and repair in the world. 

Part of Reservoir’s beloved community vision is to empower wholeness, love, and justice in our lives and in the communities where we live and work, so that our expression of the Christian faith will be beautiful, and so that it will promote genuine flourishing.

We want to be people that try not to make messes, and that clean up our own mess when we make them. And maybe we can even go level three and try to clean up other people’s messes a little too.

One of the words in our cultural and political discourse for this cleaning up of messes is the word reparations.

And that’s the topic of today’s sermon: the good news opportunity of reparations.

We’re going to read a gospel text from the life of Jesus through the lens of reparations. 

And then we’re going to try to paint a picture of reparations on a personal, an institutional, and a national level. Then we’ll close with a couple really practical ways we can live the teaching, if we’re so compelled.

Here’s the text. It’s called the story of the rich young ruler, from the gospel of Luke. It goes like this:

Luke 18:18-27 (Common English Bible)

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

19 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God.

20 You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.”

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

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

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

24 When Jesus saw this, he said, “It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!

25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”

I’ve struggled with this passage over the years. One person I used to study the Bible with in my 20s talked about the wiggle room we all try to create with Jesus. Because Jesus says and does so many provocative things, and it’s easy to try to wiggle out of our discomfort with him. 

Like here. Jesus asks this potential student if he’s been living God’s commands because to do what God says is to have life. It’s good to say yes to God. And this young adult is like, yes, since I was a kid, I have been doing all these things. And Jesus doesn’t dispute that. That’s interesting. 

But Jesus had been very specific with his words. He quoted the second half of the 10 commandments, the ones that in other places he summed up by saying:

God’s command is to love your neighbor as yourself.

And he left out the first half entirely, the first half which he summarized:

Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

So, if you’re following me here, when Jesus is like, you still lack one thing, he’s saying:

You may love your neighbor, but your path to loving God is to sell all your stuff and give it to those who are poor. 

And you can see what the guy is like: Seriously? What kind of rabbi, pastor, imam whatever is like: I’ll know you really love God when you sell all your stuff.

Maybe a cult leader? 

It’s hard to hear from Jesus.

So we wiggle. 

The most common interpretation of this passage I’ve heard is that:

Oh, well, if you love your money, if you put too much trust in your own wealth and resources so that you can’t trust God, then God’s going to want you to let go of your stuff so you can love God. And Jesus must have known that this young executive, or bureaucrat, or whoever he was, was one of these people. 

Which is ridiculous. 

Because one, what wealthy person – and by wealthy I mean me and most of us in this room who live in America at nowhere near the poverty line – how many of us hear this story and are like:

Fine, Jesus, you’ve got me, I’m the greedy, money-loving, too-attached-to-my-possessions person you’re speaking to. I’ll sell it all. You’ve got me. 

With some beautiful exceptions, people don’t do that. We wiggle. We’re like, whoever Jesus is talking to, it’s not me. He’s talking about the millionaires, or if you’re a millionaire, which many people are these days, you think, oh, he’s talking about the billionaires, or if you’re a billionaire, you think Jesus is just talking to the greedy, obnoxious, godless ones who are out trying to be Twitter.

Also, Jesus generalizes with his disciples right after the guy walks away. Jesus looks at his students and he’s like:

I get it, it’s next to impossible for the wealthy to follow me. Wealthy people have a hard time living in the beloved community, like as hard as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

I’ve heard some weirdo wiggle room theories about Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant what he said here too. But he said it. Elsewhere he said

You cannot love God and money. 

Spoiler alert. I can’t tell you exactly what Jesus meant, either here or anywhere else. Not my place. After all, Jesus said he wasn’t trying to be understood so much as followed. Jesus wasn’t looking for anyone to fully get him, he wants to get under our skin, to delight and intrigue and to spook and to woo and to compel us out of our slumber into connection with a living God and out of our death into abundant life! 

So when Jesus seems hard to you, don’t make up some easy way to close the book. Sit with the discomfort, trust that a loving God has life for you in Jesus’ words, hang in and don’t just walk away.

Alright back to this teaching. This winter, I heard the best teaching I ever heard on this passage, so simple and obvious and true to my mind that I can’t believe I’d never heard it before. 

It was a reflection by Chris Hoklotubbe, who’s a professor of religion and who is also a Chocktaw. And Hoklotubbe, reading this passage through Native American eyes, is like: Oh, this is a passage about land and about reparations. He points out that all wealth comes from land, but that this was especially direct in the ancient world.

In Jesus’ culture, if you were rich – especially if you were young and rich like this person – then you were either an emperor or something, or you’d inherited a bunch of land. And with that land, you could collect rents, and trade olive oil, and stuff like that. And the way people collected a bunch of land was usually that people with capital would make high interest loans to poor farmers, and when they couldn’t pay back their loans, you’d take their land. 

So Jesus, and everyone around him, would look at this young guy, rich in land, and know that he’d inherited land that was gotten at other’s expense. 

It’s not his fault, he’s young, he didn’t do it, his daddy did, or his grandparents, or the generation before them, but Jesus looks at him and says:

You can love God by making things whole.

It’s not just about this one person’s heart, it’s about a whole community in disrepair, a community where most people don’t own land and resources, and this one owns a lot, and the injustice of previous generations made that possible. 

And Jesus doesn’t blame him, but he invites him into love. Jesus doesn’t say it’s his fault, but he does invite him to consider his responsibility to do justice. Jesus says: love God, by making things whole. 

And on that day, it’s too much for him. He walks away. 

How do we not walk away, friends, when Jesus comes calling for us to walk in the ways of love and justice? How do we be people who know that it’s right to clean up the messes we’ve made, and it’s loving and just and right to clean up other people’s messes, especially when we’ve inherited them?

Or hey, let’s say the mess has been made on us and our ancestors. How do we be people who know that we deserve repair, that we are worthy of being made whole? 

How can we all embrace reparations as part of the good news of Jesus? 

I’ve read experts on this, I’ve talked to experts on this. But I am not an expert.We also don’t have a lot of time, so I can’t answer the question entirely, but let me share a couple bits of what I’m learning.

Personally. 

Years ago, when I was a principal, I started looking at the data at the time on the risks and hardships some LGBTQ youth were experiencing – rates of depression and bullying and other harm. And I was sobered and sad, but not shocked because I remembered my own youth and how brutal we all were about sometimes about difference, and how unsafe it was to be different in your sexual identity or orientation. And I thought, along with members of our faculty and student leaders and other administrators, we have got to make our school safer, less homophobic, a better place for the flourishing of our LGBTQ youth. 

And it was clear to me that this was a must and that if anyone objected, we were just going to say your personal viewpoints are not what is at stake here, but the health and welfare of our youth. 

And this was probably especially important to me because of the time and place I grew up in, where we called all kinds of people and things gay, and we were all utterly homophobic. The only childhood friends I knew who came out did so after they had grown up and moved on, because there was no way that environment, the one I was part of, was safe for that.

And in my early years as a Christian following Jesus, in my teens through my 20s, the form of the faith I knew taught that you could love LGBTQ folks like anyone else, but the expectation was they would keep that locked up inside, because the expression of their love and sexuality was disordered, not God’s best, all that. Now I’ve moved beyond those ways of thinking, those ways of reading the scriptures. But I was once part of them, and they’ve been dominant in the past, and in many places still in the present. So it may not be my fault, but I have a responsibility. 

So for me, being part of work to make a school safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ people, or being part of work to make the church safer and more affirming for the experiences of LGBTQ people isn’t some special kindness, it’s a form of reparations, of cleaning up of messes made. 

Which effects how you do things, by the way. 

At my school, for instance, it was suggested that a particular organization, led by LGBTQ people, conduct training for our faculty and workshops for our students. And to be honest, I didn’t agree with all of the views or tactics of this organization, but I’ve been taught that when you’re making reparations, part of what is required is giving up control. You don’t get to call the shots anymore for the person or group that has been harmed and deserving of repair. It’s their hour of agency.

This has continued in my life in this area, in looking at where our family giving goes, at how we make our church a better place, and in other areas, and for me, healing and repair in my relationships and the church’s relationship to LGBTQ people has consistently meant listening to and learning from the voices of LGBTQ people and seeking to make a holy yes to using my life to try to do make repair, to love God by making things a little more whole. 

OK, that’s very personal. And I focused on this for a reason, because most of the repair we do is personal. It’s about making amends and repairing when we’ve hurt someone, and about doing things in our finances and jobs and communities to see legacies and dynamics that are broken, and to act to make things whole. 

But when it comes to reparations, this isn’t mostly what we talk about. Reparations mostly comes up because of growing movements in our times to ask how it is our country can repair the damage done by centuries of race-based discrimination and violence, particularly toward Black Americans. 

And to be honest, I used to think – like most Americans – this was impossible. I’m a citizen of a nation built on injustice, built with the hands and bodies of unpaid Black Americans, built literally on top of the blood of Native Americans.

How could any of this ever be made whole? How can there ever be repair? Maybe it’s best to forget and move on.

But one, that’s a super-white thing to say and two, didn’t Jesus say what is impossible for humans is possible for God.

Why bother worshiping God, why bother following Jesus if we’re not going to invest our time and hope and love in impossible things.

You know, swing big with God or go home.

What is impossible for humans is possible with God.

And there are some exciting things going on in the arena or reparations and repair.

There was just the release of the big Harvard report, about their wealth and their ties to slavery and to centuries of discrimination, and about what they’re going to do about it. And sure, the $100 million involved might not be nearly enough, but it’s a $100 million dollars more than yesterday, right? It’s a move forward.  

And there are some exciting national conversations going on about what reparations can look like for the centuries of violence and inequities toward Black Americans in our country. Inch by inch, we’re getting closer to serious proposals being considered. And those conversations are happening locally too. Looking at Boston’s present day segregation and wealth inequities, and how we got here, and what we’re going to do about it. 

A good friend of mine has been working for King Boston, who’s been taking the lead on local conversations about reparations and becoming a more racially just and inclusive, and equitable city. There’s a great series of conversations and events happening next month on this front called Embrace Ideas Festival.

I don’t know how we’ll be made whole in this country, friends. The violence and the wrong are all so old and deep and persistent. But what’s impossible with humans is possible with God. We live in hope. So it’s worth our time to invest in hope too. 

So what do we do? 

Well, first the institutional. Leaders don’t walk away from messes. They clean them up, whether they personally made them or not. And followers of Jesus, when we here talk about reparations, ought to lead with love and curiosity, not defensiveness or dismissiveness. 

So whether it be in national politics or with a company or institution you’re part of, when reparations come up, or questions about discrimination or inequity, past or presnet, and how to make things right, I strongly encourage you to not start with questions like “who deserves what?” and “what will it cost?” Those are common questions people start with, and common ways of zero sum thinking where we assume that if one person wins, someone else has got to lose, and why should I lose if it’s not my fault?

And maybe that’s where the rich young ruler started too – like why should I have to give up my wealth based off something my ancestors did? Doesn’t Jesus know how hard I’ve worked in my life to treat people right? 

But when it comes to communities that are in disrepair, who deserves what? And what will it cost? Are bad starting questions. Better starting questions would be:

How do I enter the kingdom of God?

What does love look like?

What will bring about beloved community?

What will make us whole?

We may or may not be at fault for the inequities – many of the race-based – in our country, but we all bear a responsibility, and if we’re part of historically privileged, and historically oppressing communities, we bear extra responsibility, just as if we’re part of historically underprivileged and historically oppressed communities, we deserve repair. We deserve amends. 

And personally, when we realize we’ve done wrong, whenever we have occasion to say sorry, let’s do two other things, every time. 

  1. Let’s tell the truth about what happened. Because without the truth, it’s hard for us to be set free – either the person who hurt or the person who was hurt. So tell the truth. 
  2. And two, when you say sorry, offer a way to make things right, to make amends. Or if you really can’t think of any way at all, ask the other person if there is anything you can do to make things better because they deserve that and that is the least you can do. 

When we do that, we don’t need to hang our heads and go away sad anymore. We can be made whole with our neighbors, and we can know that Jesus is proud of the love he sees in our hearts as well.

The Ordinary Waters

Hi everyone – so good to be with you all! I’m Ivy, a Pastor here.

I’m really enjoying this time of Lent that we are in, there’s something about the water imagery, Water of Life, that is centering our season – and the combination of our lengthening days of light, and warmer temps that are making me feel a little more alive in the day-to-day, this ordinary life. Which, I can’t say has been  holistically true over the stretch of the last two years.  I hope in part – some of that could feel true to you too. 

Each week of Lent we are focusing on a particular theme related to water. The first week were waters of baptism, last week Steve talked about the waters of overwhelm. And today – as we enter our third week of Lent – we’ll talk about ordinary waters.  What about the ordinary? The day in and day out aspects of life?  How do we find ourselves nourished, ALIVE – rejuvenated and renewed by God? How do we find the sacred in the ordinary?

Over the last two years perhaps our version of “the ordinary” has taken on a new sheen.  So often we loop the “ordinary” into our regular routines, patterns – often mundane ones that don’t stand out as particularly special moments. The walk to the bus stop, the laundromat, the dishes, the finding the other sock, the washing the hands, the doing the things that have always been done the way things have been done.

And so much of this was disrupted during the pandemic (and still).  Our “normal” ways of doing things were disrupted.

But I want to make a subtle distinction and say that actually our “ordinary” wasn’t disrupted.

You see the ordinary has always held all the components of life – the “normal” ways of routines, the “overwhelming” stress and threats that Steve talked about last week, the joy and the tears, and the smiles and the grief and the fear and the “meh.” All of it. 

But the pandemics have revealed that our “ordinary”  lives weren’t really “normal” all along.

The “ordinary” is not only rich, and layered and vital to our spiritual life…it is where our spiritual life takes place.  And it’s helpful to see and embrace all of it.  Because it’s where all new possibility exists – at our fingertips, under our feet – in the very air we breathe. The potential for something new, different, transformational.

And yet when we equate ordinary with normal and keep seeking for the normal to return, to be re-established – the way things were… we often find ourselves coming up empty. Dry. And we become thirsty for something extraordinary… something separate from what our ordinary lives seemingly don’t offer us.  

It’s like me searching for a new yoga class that will give me that full stretch that it once did – when I was 10 years younger.

Or a new friendship that can fulfill you the way that old friend did. 

Or a new spiritual practice that gives me that full sensory experience of God  – that immediate connection to God – as it used to.

This is what we will press into a bit today – through our sermon – but also throughout the week in the Lenten guide.  

We’ll consider how it is that God invites us into the ordinariness of our lives to reveal the extraordinary? Inviting us to imbibe, drink in a living source. A God that hopes we fall in love with our ordinary lives and find that the ordinary is sacred.

And that the sacred is indeed in the ordinary.

And most often – all of it – is not normal.  

Prayer 

Thank you God for waking us up today.
Thank you for this space that offers us respite and comfort right now.

Thank you for the folks online in this space who we love and know – and thanks for the folks in this room who we have yet to meet.

Thank you God that you are with us, in us, between us and for us – each and every moment – the ordinary ones and the extraordinary ones. Refresh us this morning – hydrate our souls with your presence and love… amen.

Many, many, many years ago I was at a Christian conference of sorts that had a variety of speakers – but of course the main attraction was the keynote speaker. And it was clear that people were there for this one personality, this sort of charismatic man who’s preaching many, many people followed, were enraptured by and helped by.

I was in an interesting space with God and my faith journey. I was starting to explore some of the “teachings” of my upbringing that weren’t bringing me a lot of life in those days. And yet still really hanging on to some of the more ingrained ways of “staying in the faith” hoping that that would really reveal to me the values of why I  really fell in love with God.  Which evidently meant I traveled to conferences…. mainly to study, be taught by particular (more scholarly, more expert) voices (not all that bad of a plan, actually).

After this guy got done preaching. There was sort of a bottle neck of people flocking around him, and I was trying to figure out how to get to the refreshment table – which was on the side of this guy.   

As I tried to skirt around the masses I ran right into this guy. And I remember looking up at him, and knew that I had to say something about his talk. So I said, “thank you for your sermon.”  And he replied, “Oh, tell me what you are taking away from it.”  

And all I could think was, “I really want that cupcake,” and “I have no idea what you said.” BUT of course instead I offered, “you know…I’m just really taken aback – it was spectacular … really extraordinary.”

And the truth is – it was extraordinary. It was exactly extra – ordinary… because the amount of hours and study and history and the sitting with scripture and referencing commentary and placing words just “so” by this speaker was phenomenal. . . it was really interesting.  But I couldn’t translate it into my life. I couldn’t map over the practical elements that would open my everyday life a little more. 

And I remember being mortified by that moment – because I couldn’t say to this man – or more importantly to myself – that it didn’t land for me. It didn’t work for me.  Not just the sermon, but this way of faith that never touched my lived experience, my ordinary life. 

Now Jesus’ first miracle or sign has to do with ordinary water. It’s interestingly only mentioned in the Gospel of John that we’ll read from together this morning

John 2:1-9
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and  Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration.  When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.”

 Jesus replied, “Woman,(Mother) what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.”

His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons.

 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim.  Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did. The headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine. He didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.

 

Now there are a lot of points of interest that can be drawn out from these few verses. Here, in the account of John is Jesus’ first act of public ministry  – turning water into wine.

And some of this story as it unfolds reveals essential characteristics of Jesus and lays out elements that are important for his ministry to come, as well as ways that are different from the way things have always been done in the religious structure  … and some of this story reveals how our participation with Jesus –  in our ordinary life is essential, sacred, and inseparable.

Weddings in Jesus’ day usually lasted for a week with people coming and going.  Eating, drinking, singing, laughing. Families would have started saving for this event when their child was born…often the whole village would partake in the celebration.

Jesus, his mother,  and the disciples were invited to this wedding and it takes place in a little nondescript town called Cana.  This town is only mentioned one another time in the New Testament- it’s just an ordinary town that has this recorded moment and then fades again into anonymity.

Now families would have spent years making enough wine for this occasion – and running out of wine would be a source of humiliation/shame for the couple.

So as this very thing happens – we see Jesus take ordinary water and turn it into wine. A LOT of Wine (some sources say equivalent to 1,000 bottles) and as the verses detail if we had kept reading – really, really good wine.

And we see that God through Jesus is a God who wants to continue to shower people with lavishness and abundance. God has been a God throughout time that has been generous with provision –  in the fruitfulness of creation, in manna in the wilderness, a land of milk and honey, and a return from exile.

God is one who has provided in the ordinary realm of life.  

JESUS, doubles down on that generosity of provision in the ordinary – abundantly. AND YET ALSO communicates that his very PRESENCE will also be available to anyone in the ordinary – ABUNDANTLY. 

Not just in this instance  – but throughout scripture we see that Jesus is often found in the most ordinary of places (at a table, in fields, pastures, markets, fishing, walking in neighborhoods) talking to people in his ordinary life (tax collectors, siblings, children, servants, lepers) all the while communicating – I’m here, and I’m here… And I’m here…   

And we see this stage set for him in the previous chapter of John – as John the Baptist is baptized in the wilderness. He has been known as the forerunner of Jesus- 

“the voice crying out in the wilderness, making pathways to the Lord clear…”

All the while shifting the mindset and expectation that you could only encounter God in a sacred temple – to expanding that reality – and to imagine that people could meet God in the ordinary as well.

What’s tricky though about a system of religion is that as it becomes more reliant on rules and rituals to uphold it (rather than a living source) the source actually becomes petrified and frozen – stagnant.  And rules start to infiltrate and impinge on our ordinary life, but never account for our ordinary life.  And we can start to feel like we are slowly dehydrating because we are trying and striving to “do” faith “right” – rather than coming to a well of abundant love – being replenished by a living God. 

Jesus, as he meets with people in the ordinary, always seems to not follow the “normal” way … he doesn’t seem to do it right either. He often says the wrong things, eats the wrong food, doesn’t practice the right rituals, invites the wrong people.  Messaging in his actions – as he does in this instance at the wedding – that when you pay attention and embrace the moment you stand in as sacred and the people in front of you as holy – there is no “right” or “normal” way to pour out the love of God.


**You just might have to be ok with breaking open systems that try to measure your faith by merit, cleanliness, worthiness or require your oppression to exist.

Ritual cleanliness and purification requirements were not limited to the bounds of the Temple but spread through the Jewish community, in Jesus’ day. These jars that are mentioned in this scripture were required for the purification before a meal  – to cleanse hands, feet, cups and more. And they had to be stone – they couldn’t be ceramic or glass vessels which were subject to impurity. And so these laws affected ordinary people, in their ordinary lives. 

And the water held in these stone jars was not regarded as ordinary water. It was holy, reserved specifically for these purification rituals. 

And likewise God, was a God within the temple-  who wasn’t regarded as ordinary – but separate, extraordinary, holy, and reserved for those who could prove themselves worthy of such holiness.

At this wedding, Mary is actually the one who says,

“it’s time.”

It’s time for you to break in here,  Jesus.

Everything is empty .

The stone jars are empty of water.

The cups are empty of wine.

And the people are thirsty.

It’s not working.

Mary says,

“This is not working anymore.”

And this is exactly what I couldn’t say to the sermon -guy at the conference. 

“Hey if being part of this faith, of loving Jesus – is in some way supposed to be like a party – where I encounter the depth of love that’s present at a wedding. Where there’s an overflow of that love that saturates everything in my everyday life and that is supposed to MEAN something in my life…THEN it’s not working.” 

That would have been my most truthful response if I could have imagined running straight for Jesus like Mary did. But I had for so long stayed in the grooves – the separate grooves of learning and studying God stuff over here – in this container. And engaging with the ordinary stuff of life over here….hoping that neither would run out of its meaning. But the work of keeping the holy and the ordinary separate is what will run us dry. It’s too much work, and it’s not normal.  

But it’s easy to love the extraordinary. It is easy to pursue a spiritual path that is about the intense, immediate encounter of the extraordinary. It is easy to fall in love with spiritual practices that lead us to a “high”, a transcendent experience of God’s love, But maybe Mary is nudging us all here – that only this way of encountering Jesus will soon run its course.  

I mean Jesus is amazing, beyond our realm in so many ways – but Jesus likes being where we are. Jesus likes our passenger seats, our walks to the T, our tables, what we wrestle with….

Jesus might have decided to listen to Mary and do something about the lack of wine at this wedding – because he wanted to keep being at a party. He wanted to be among people, and communicate that when you are aware and attuned to a real Jesus in your real life – it’s as good as the finest wine. 

I realized at this conference that I had become really good at forgery. I had been signing off on things as if they were…

“Extraordinary… when they weren’t.” 

Swallowing wine that tasted like vinegar – because if God wasn’t in the ordinary – where was God?

POISON
Water courses through each and every one of us, water sustains the world around us-and life itself.  And yet we often don’t consider our relationship to water – until we are dehydrated, or find the water to be contaminated. 

Much of our available fresh water supply in the United States is in jeopardy and/or contaminated. I went with my dad to a natural spring for many years of my youth, to fill milk jugs with water because our water source in Maine wasn’t safe.

Flint, Michigan is another known example – that made headlines in 2015 when a change in its water supply exposed thousands of children to high levels of lead…And we are realizing how historic agricultural and manufacturing practices – are leaving a present day toxic legacy across the nation – with “ forever chemicals” in soil and water that won’t breakdown. Droughts in California are predicted to triple by 2050 – and in much of the developing world, clean water is either hard to come by or a commodity that requires laborious work or significant currency to obtain.  

Free, safe, accessible water is not to be taken for granted. 

Likewise, it takes active attention and action to make sure the components of our faith (love and goodness and a living, flowing source of that) doesn’t sit stagnant in a container… whether that’s a book, or a sermon, or a podcast, or someone else’s expectations or translation.

Because it will become bad water. Harmful to those who drink of it.

The religious system in Jesus’ day had become all about ritual, and had become a way to separate people into the clean and the unclean – and furthermore establishing rigid tiers of hierarchy, patriarchy and oligarchy.

Available only to a few, safe for no one.

The flow that keeps the love of God pure, and good  – a source of all life… has to be for everyone.

Jesus turns the water into wine – and it is soooo much wine! Far more than just the guests who would attend this wedding.  The bounty signals that the overflow of this love, this abundance is for everyone… a legacy of love (for generation after generation) that will saturate the soil, the air, the water – everything that makes up the ordinary world around us.

JESUS

Jesus comes to fulfill the law, fulfill the promises of God by establishing a way of relating to God and others so we never have to forge anything. We don’t have to fake our way into “holiness” or scrub ourselves clean  – because that’s actually what contaminates and dries up the well.

Jesus situates himself immediately in the ordinary – to remind us that the ordinary holds the potential of all things – including keeping us humble, real and refreshed – which is altogether a miracle and holy. 

Mary invites us to consider that faith without Jesus’ abundant love at the center of our ordinary lives doesn’t work – it is akin to:

A world without water,

Or a wedding without wine…

It’s unimaginable.

And this is the beauty of what Mary breaks open – the elemental and fundamental nature of GOD… and water… 

I love the words of Japanese poet Hiroshi Osada who says in his book about water, 

“It has no color, but can be any color.

It has no shape but can take any shape.

You can touch it, but you cannot hold it.

Even if you slice into it, it won’t be cut.

It can slip through your fingers,

Like it’s nothing at all.

But life would be unthinkable without it.” 
Almost Nothing, Yet Everything: A Book About Water.

Faith, Jesus, love, water are not meant to be contained… 

Jesus took these jars that were now empty of their purification water – and filled them with ordinary water. Ordinary water that in its purest state actually is free, shapeless, uncontained  – flowing its way into the thirstiest depths of our bodies. 

Just as God took a system of religion that had been full – but now had only empty stone jar vessels, and filled them with the purist vessel of all – Jesus. Who in his most natural form, pours all of who he is into us – and our thirsty souls. 

This is when we get the good stuff of faith and the ordinary together – when we can embody it. It seems that we can’t get the good stuff – the abundance of God – we can’t taste the best wine – if we prevent the natural flow of the ordinary and the sacred.  

The faith Jesus wants us to embody and make accessible for so many others – isn’t one that asks,

“what bullet point from my sermon were you convicted by?” 

It’s not that a sermon is bad or a cleansing ritual is wrong – it’s not that at all so long as that sermon, that ritual activates something more – mobilizes your heart, body and soul.  So long as it takes into account who you are (a human) walking this earth. Having hard days, and good days, and the same ole, same ole, same days. 

Faith is to be lived, embodied, an experiential faith… A faith that is multiplied, takes on new forms- as it is poured out like water and one that says,

“look at your week –  what you encountered – look at the riveting and sacred sermon of your life.”

Our ordinary life is so miraculous, so sacred… and it is also so hard.  

This past week I had a hard morning with someone. The kind of hard that breaks your heart into a lot of different pieces and you feel the flow of all hope and life – leave you. 

After it was clear that I would need to shift meetings and reschedule some appointments, I sat on the couch to give myself and the pieces of my heart a moment to re-collect.  Wondering what I could do – nothing seemed to be really touching this situation in a helpful way, not a lot was working.

And my phone dinged and I got a text from someone who – we maybe text once every two months or so.

And she was saying “thanks” for something – and then at the end she said oh, and p.s. Here are the first spring flowers I have seen in our neighborhood…

And she sent a picture of these little ordinary snowdrops – these flowers that of their own accord push their way up through the debris of ordinary seasons – dead leaves and sticks, often snow – and just multiply and get more dense with each passing year. 

And I saw that picture – and thought

“Jesus, you are here.”

And I wrote back,

“oh thank you for this picture – it’s been a rough morning.”

And she said,

“I feel my eyes welling up as I think of your rough morning, may you know you are loved.”

An ordinary morning, an ordinary text, an ordinary plant.

And an extraordinary, life-giving, sense of Jesus’ presence and love. 

Let us love the ordinary. Let us cherish the everyday, the every breath, every celebration, every tear. Let us love the closeness of God and the sacred, here and now.  ((Omid Safi))

Let us not poison the water, let us keep feasting on our very life…and once and awhile ask,

“is this working?” 

This keeps the waters of life fresh.

What makes anything sacred, it seems is not its separateness, or its pure holiness.  It’s as Steve mentioned last week in this trifecta of things to know in moments of overwhelm. That God is a God that is with you… in the ordinary, in the leaves of life, in the middle of the brightest moments like a wedding – there’s no splicing and dicing of where God is or isn’t. The nature of God’s love is to flow, to saturate everything and for us to drink of it, to be nourished by this water of life wherever we are at.  Steve said what we can know are these three things:

  1. God is here.
  2. You matter to God.
  3. There is always a way forward. 

And I want to add my own trio of things that helps us remember the sacredness of this life – I learned it from Rabbi Abraham Heschel who says that all we need to know that a moment is sacred are these three things:

“1)God

2) A Soul.

3) And A moment.

And these three are always here”.

Ordinary moment…after ordinary moment…after ordinary moment…

May this be so. As we walk our days here on this  Earth.

End

As we close, I want to invite you into a spiritual practice that you are invited to try, daily this week through the Lenten Guide, called the Examen.
It’s a way to review your day – and nurture the spirituality of the ordinary – and attune yourselves to the everyday movement of God in your life. 

It’s a way to name what’s working for you and not working for you.

Let’s try that now for a moment.

We’ll hear a bit of the music Matt has written for the season, and I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath: 

THE EXAMEN:  

Where are you dry these days? Where are you replenished?
And what do you have to say to God about that?

Amen, thanks be to God. 

Love Is Listening

Good morning everyone! 

I’m Ivy, a Pastor here and we are in a winter sermon series called, “Love is…”
And I want to talk this morning about how “Love is… listening.”  

And maybe some of you are thinking,

“Oh, great! Another anemic word, ‘listening’.” 

And I get it, “love” and “listening” are words that in many cases have been emptied of their meaning – whether it’s because of overuse or abuse.   

However, I want to talk this morning about how we can revive a way of “deep listening” – regard it as one of our oldest, known technologies (technology if we think of it as a way to connect with one another) and one that is still relevant  and holds the potential to not only connect us (to ourselves, God and others) but that can heal us, and the world around us.  

If we are hopeful to live more full, free and loving lives with Jesus – we will need to not only aspire, but to actively cultivate this deep way of listening. Listening is the first step in communication – the very bones of how we relate to one another/community/society/our world. And if we give up on deep listening, if we think,

“aah, what does it matter anyway? It doesn’t change anything…” 

Then how we communicate and the language we use to do so – will be stunted, defensive and anemic as well. 

But, if we can take our lead from Jesus and see how “love is .. listening.”  That listening is indistinguishable from love – and if love is knowing and being known (as Steve shared two weeks ago) and if love can help us all be some parts humble, gentle, patient (as Lydia invited us last week) … then seeking to listen, with and to, the Spirit of God – as we engage with one another, can prove to be an impactful, provocative, and subversive way of being in the world – whoever we are with, and wherever we are.

And may this way of listening be helpful for our own personal flourishing – as well as  helpful for the common good.

So join me this morning in listening – not just to my words – but to the Spirit of God, the voice within you, and to scripture.  I’m hopeful that we can see that listening can be a great expression of loving one another, of clarifying what we are “for” (not just against), and how listening is really the nexus for action & transformation that creates new ways forward in our public life – and Beloved Community. 

Let’s take a  moment now of quiet – in prayer –  to “listen.” Listen to what might be stirring in you – to what you need most right now – listen for what God would love for you to know… just take a moment to prayerfully listen. Amen. 

I’ve talked with so many of you over the last 20 months who are health professionals. Who have donned your stethoscopes and put them close to patient’s chests and backs in hopes of amplifying the internal movement and sounds of organs.

You’ve listened through the sounds of coughing babies and adults  – you’ve listened through shallow breath, crackles and wheezes – in hopes of finding the sounds that can’t be detected from the outside of the body. The internal sound of a steady heartbeat, the small sound of a breezy breath moving through a clear lung – you’ve listened for the sound of life. 

The thing about this way of  ‘listening’ that I’m talking about this morning is that it helps us detect the love and presence of God – when it isn’t always apparent, isn’t always right there – on the surface of our everyday lives. It helps us press through all of the external “noise,” and find that the source of all life, all goodness, all joy (all possibility) – is still beating within us and around us.   

I find that ‘listening’ is sort of God’s stethoscope. An instrument that God drapes around us,  that allows us to orient to the internal sounds and movement  –  of God, the sound of the genuine within us – even as we are tugged and pulled by the commotion of the news, family, work you name it.

In the scripture, Mark 5  –  we encounter the story of a bleeding woman and Jesus. And we witness what listening looks like in practice… And I want to invite you to notice what sounds and movement you detect as we make our way through… 

Mark 5:25-34 (Common English Bible)

25 A woman was there who had been bleeding for twelve years.

26 She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better. In fact, she had gotten worse.

27 Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes.

28 She was thinking, If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.

29 Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

30 At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

31 His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you? Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’”

32 But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

33 The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth.

34 He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.”

Now, we can piece together a little bit about this woman’s reality, given the context of time and history. As a woman, with a physical, chronic affliction – she would have been pretty diminished in this society.  

If not completely invisible. 

There are a multitude of barriers that come against her full existence.

  • Her identity as a woman.With no connection to a man… no husband/brothers/father to give her some inroad/access to resources is a barrier.
  • The purity standards that were dictated under the religious system – would have deemed her impure because of her bleeding. 
  • The cultural norms would have seen her unfit to live within city limits.
  • Her intense pain means her mental/physical/emotional state is likely depleted.

She’s nameless and voiceless.

She had never really been listened to.

The cacophony of external voices that say she doesn’t belong, she’s to be excluded, she is unworthy – are all consuming.  

And as you can imagine the sound of these voices sink beneath the surface of her skin and reverberate inside of her – shaking her own sense of worth, her dignity, her value. 

So she is left without a gridwork for belonging.  To what? Where? To whom does she belong?  

And at the heart of those questions – is a pretty universal/human one – that we might ask ourselves at any given point: 

“WHO AM I?” 

For this woman IT IS REALLY HARD to listen to the sound of God, the sound of love within when the  context of a world around her is constantly shouting

“you don’t matter, you are not loved.” 

A mentoring voice to me, the late theologian Howard Thurman says

“there is but one step from being despised to despising oneself.” (33).

Like this woman, for those who are oppressed and marginalized…it is hard to not become deaf to the true voice that calls out who you really are.  He says, THIS is why it is critical to listen and to cultivate this deep interior space – to anchor to the “sound of the genuine within.”

Now the sound of the genuine is our truest selves in connection and belonging to the love of God.  Thurman says there is so much traffic going on in our minds, so many different kinds of sounds and signals that  float through our bodies – that in the midst of all of this – he says,

“you have got to find out what your name is. Who are you? How does the sound of the genuine come through to you… because that is the only true guide that you will ever have, and if you don’t have that –  all of your life you will spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

But it’s so hard for this woman to detect the sound of the genuine.  And maybe you have felt this in your own life too?  Moments where you’ve wondered if you are just being pulled around by someone else’s expectations – or someone’s loud, authoritative voice? Maybe your voice has been interrupted endlessly – not listened to – to the point where you wonder

“WHO AM I?”

If your thoughts, dreams, way of seeing the world even matter.  

I think this is why it takes intentionality to cultivate ‘listening’ as a way of being in the world.  And what’s at stake if we don’t  – is that we not only lose this grounding, within ourselves. But with that, we lose any possibility of listening to the sound of the genuine in another.…and this is the loss of connection to the source of all love and life.

*I’ve been in a three-year long “conversation.”  And this conversation came to be after a moment of disruption in our relationship, where we deeply disagreed on something that had occurred. 

*Part of what I’ve realized after coming back to this conversation again and again is that I for a long time, *(and maybe this is obvious)*

  • a) I wasn’t really deeply listening to the other person and
  • b) I wasn’t listening to this person, because I was not listening to the ‘sound of the genuine’ within me. 

*I could feel that love had gotten broken in this deep part of me, I was hurt.. But I didn’t really know how to pick up that stethoscope and listen to my own heart – and listen to God say,

“I am here. Love is here, all of what you feel matters.”

And it left me feeling really unmoored.

Part of the work of picking up that stethoscope and placing it right square on your heart is that it requires “quiet.”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve “shushed” my kids  – who were always the loudest right when the nurse or doctor put that stethoscope up to their body…

But to really listen, is to invite quiet.  

I tend to not want to embrace too much quiet.  In this 3-year long conversation I did not want to embrace internal or external quiet – I was mad and angry.  And to be “quiet” in either space felt like inaction to me. .. navel-gazing – a waste of time. (There’s too much at stake – too much to solve, fix).

But I’ve been reading this book called, “The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture,” by Kevin Quashie that suggests how vital “quiet” is for listening to the sound of the genuine and also for moving out in our public life. He points to how FULL of movement “quiet” is – he says,

“quiet is often interchanged with the words silence or stillness – but the notion of quiet is neither motionless nor without sound. Quiet, instead, is a metaphor for the full range of one’s inner life – one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities and fears.” (6)  

Quiet, some might say in our inner life, is the busiest intersection- where we get to encounter the love of God, recognize the movement of the Spirit, our own voice and others.

So much of what we do, how we interact, and how we act is shaped by this interior space.

We see Jesus with this bleeding woman  move and act from this “quiet” space. It says in the scripture we just read that he

“continues to look carefully”

in the bustle and noise of the crowd, (and that’s after he’s already turned to the crowd and said, “who touched me?”). He continues to “look carefully” and “listen”. And it’s this internal hush – where Jesus detects that God was present and recognizes that someone who was longing for God’s presence – had touched his clothes.  He listens to this internal space of quiet within to guide him to this woman…which ultimately guides this woman to healing. But there’s a bit of a journey in there…

We can’t too quickly link that the “quiet within” can fix all the unjust systems that this woman represents. If we do, we miss the very components that make any potential for public change possible. . . which is relationship, presence, connection. 

It’s why these 1:1 Relational meetings we are encouraging are so powerful and why our community groups are so valued. Because we know, we feel, something moves within us –  when we can just be listened to, not approached as a subject or a project – just as a human being, (with the divine inside).

Jesus walks across the social, cultural, and religious boundaries here. And it is a notable public expression of pushing against the dominant culture – but Jesus crosses those lines to connect with this woman, to be present to this woman and to listen not to address her as if she is a problem to be solved, or fixed.

Part of the reason – I think – that my three- year long conversation has lasted so long, is that neither of us would settle for “quick fixes,” because we realized that it didn’t heal in the long run. There’s a way that a too quick, “I’m sorry” or a “pat logical explanation” to a hurt reaches and communicates more a goal of equilibrium, to resolve and smooth a way forward … rather than listen, and to see what is opened up in that.  And that’s not really “listening” – it doesn’t change, heal. It doesn’t allow my humanity – feelings, concerns, emotions to be in full view.  And here there is no movement, except more distance and disconnection. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say this is akin to listening with half an ear – listening that presumes you already know what the other person has to say, you already know their position, and you already know the solution.

But this, he says,

“is an impatient, inattentive listening, that . . . is only waiting for a chance to speak, or to put your agenda forward.” AND here is where we forget that the  person in front of us is always a mystery, holds the image of the Divine within them, and that that’s always worth listening to…when we don’t we start to label (the process or the person), and in that labeling … we limit.” 

“Poor listening diminishes another person, but deep listening invites them to exist and matter.”

The society around this bleeding woman labeled her ‘unclean’, ‘disabled’, ‘poor,’ etc…diminished her to the brink of invisibility.

But Jesus brings this woman back into her full existence. He didn’t lecture her, try to fix her, but instead he listened. He made space for her to tell her “whole truth,” Her STORY! From her own lens, not society’s, or some external authority – but her own thoughts, her own desires and longings…unfiltered/vulnerable without a threat of  judgment or a rush to “fix”.  And this invited her back to herself  – to detect the sound of the genuine within her.

Thurman would say that at some fundamental human level – this is what we all desire – that we could

“feel that we are so thoroughly and completely understood – listened to, that we could take our guard down and look around us, and not feel that we would be destroyed. To be able to feel completely vulnerable, completely exposed and absolutely secure – to run the risk of radical exposure and know that the (person listening), the eye that beholds our vulnerability would not step on us.” (Spellman address).

A doctor I listened to, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, backs this. She says that to be in pain is so vulnerable, and over and over again as she trains medical students she helps them understand what it is to “TREAT” those who are suffering and  scared.

She says to her students

“Fixing is too small a strategy to deal with pain and suffering”

but “THE POWER of your PRESENCE” of simply being present and listening – of letting that pain/suffering/wrestling matter  … time and time again is the wisdom that is needed to help heal.

It’s why in studies I’ve been reading about stethoscopes – that they are argued to still be so vital in exams. Even while we have ultrasounds and echocardiograms – because it allows the presence of the patient doctor relationship to exist… and it is to value the medicine of connection.

CONNECTION HEALS

Jesus turned to this woman and said,

“Daughter….”

Her identity, dignity, sense of worth – that sound of the genuine is revived, as Jesus calls her by name. He’s saying,

“THIS IS WHO YOU ARE, a child of God,”

and this gives her a pulse again. 

Now the society around her is still fractured and stacked against her. Injustices are everywhere. But to be listened to – is to be loved. 

And the internal movement that occurs for her holds the potential to disrupt and shake unjust systems. She moves from the absolute fringes of society to the very fringe of Jesus’ cloak. To the source of life and love. 

What’s cultivated here is a sense of belonging. That God is with her in all of life.

This heals where love has been broken…and as Thurman says,

“this restoration – stabilizes our sense of self – with new courage, fearlessness, and power.”   

This woman is seen, known and loved. This is the sound of the genuine.
This is the sound of healing.

I stayed in this three-year conversation in part because  I needed to learn what listening really was – IF IT MATTERED –  for myself, as well as with the other person.  

I realize many of you might not have 3 years to hang with a conversation and/ – for many of you the listening you’ve done has suggested that boundaries are the best way to heal – given the dominant culture dynamics you’ve endured. I want to honor that, but maybe you find yourself in the same “types” of conversations that always feel the same and never really seem to go anywhere.. 

This is  tiring – and it’s tiring  to care and to listen when there’s no identifiable change. In a moment of overwhelm I said to this person,

“tell me the whole story again. Can you start from the beginning?”

(and this was 2.5 years in) It was a weird thing to say, I was there at the beginning of this story – I knew how it went.

But as I listened and heard the familiar recounting, I also heard something new.  I heard what and why I was LISTENING. Unattached to the other person, or to the outcome. I heard the sound of my own belief in myself. In love, in the power of connection, of goodness, of humility, of patience…the belief in “possibility” …

I heard what I was “for” – not just what I was against. And that didn’t change much instantaneously – but it did fuel me to stay in it. To keep moving toward healing… and to listen for the sound of the genuine in this other person. 

As this woman who Jesus calls “daughter” knew – and we know too – there is a lot to oppose in our days. So much that grieves us, harms us, so much we want to act to change,  so much injustice to right.  So much so, that our way of being can become primarily against, or  “anti-” something. *for good reason* 

But listening, cultivating this sound of the genuine – allows us to also keep ‘love’ at the forefront – to remember what we are “FOR” as well.  To remember that love endures in us, and with God.  And to balance our protests in the public sphere – with our inner, vulnerable life as well. 

To remember as Kevin Quashie says, that

“the inner life is not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness.” (Quashie, 6)

There is a richness to our life, that holds beauty and rest – and resistance and protest  – and they are born from the same spot. Where the love of God, and our true selves connect – the foundation of listening and love –  it’s how we impact all the places where we work, live and play.

As Jesus says to this woman,

”go in peace”

Go! Go change the world. Go act. go love – and may you listen to the sound of the genuine as you do – keeping your own humanity and the humanity of another on full display.   May it be so -for us as well. 

And still, you may have questions of – how do I actually cultivate this way of listening? We’ve been offering these Listening workshops first Sunday of every month. Next up –  Feb. 6, 1 pm – 2:30 pm on Zoom. 

Link to RSVP is above so check it out if you’d like.  

The God Who Walks With Us

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

Nine years ago, two big things were happening in my life. I was sorting out how I felt about a request to consider being this church’s second ever senior pastor. That had been a surprise. And I was training to run my second ever marathon. I had run one in Hartford a few years earlier, and even though I was nursing an injury and had lost a fair bit of speed, I was really excited for marathon number two, because this was going to be the Boston Marathon. An amazing race in my hometown. My daughter Julianna was just 10 years old, but she liked to run a little, and we thought it would just be the best if she hopped in with me near our house, about three miles from the end, and we crossed the finish line together.

The day came, and right around mile 23, I saw my family cheering me on. I stopped, got some high fives and hugs, and Julianna joined me, falling into my pace. I was pretty worn out at that point, so I had to ask her to go slow and stay with me, to take a walking break with me now and then too. And my 10 year-old daughter did just that. She enjoyed the roar of the crowds and she set herself at my pace and cheered me on.

Things took a turn, though. About half a mile from the finish line, the runners ahead of us were stalled. Lots were just milling about, looking confused. There were some sirens too. It felt chaotic. Rumors were circulating – that a bomb, or maybe multiple bombs had exploded. Could that be true?

I tried to call my wife. My phone didn’t work. Another runner thought they had a signal, let me use their phone. But it couldn’t call through to anyone either. My memory’s not too crip as this point, so I don’t know if it was a race official or a police officer, but someone was calling out:

“The race is over. Course is closed. Walk away. Go home.”

Later, we’d learn of the two brothers, the two bombs, the three deaths, the hundreds of injuries. But we didn’t know all that yet. We just knew we were three miles from home and had to walk there. 

Easier said than done. When you’re not an elite athlete or anything, and you’ve just run 25 1/2 miles and then stopped for a while, a lot of things are going wrong in your body. 

I was getting cold. I really wanted one of those flimsy but strangely effective runners blankets we’ll talk more about soon. But there were none around.

And I really needed something to drink and some food. And the joints and the muscles in my legs were so, so sore. So you know what I did? I turned to my 10 year-old daughter, so much smaller, seemingly weaker than me. And I said

Can I lean on you?

And I put my arm around her little frame and leaned on her just a little bit and started walking. 

And with her help, and some more help along the way to come, we made it home. We made it home. 

This week, the third week of Advent, we’ll talk about the God who walks with us, about how our hope and our strength can be renewed, so we can find our way home.

Our scripture today is from the prophet Isaiah, in the 40th chapter, other parts of which get quoted around Christmastime. Here’s the bit we’ll read today. 

Isaiah 40:27-31 (Common English Bible)

27 Why do you say, Jacob,

    and declare, Israel,

    “My way is hidden from the Lord,

    my God ignores my predicament”?

28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?

    The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the creator of the ends of the earth.

    He doesn’t grow tired or weary.

    His understanding is beyond human reach,

29 giving power to the tired

    and reviving the exhausted.

30 Youths will become tired and weary,

     young men will certainly stumble;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength;

    they will fly up on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not be tired;

    they will walk and not be weary.

Jacob is the name of one of the founding fathers and mothers of the people of Israel, which was first a name for a person. It was Jacob’s new name, and it meant the one who wrestles with, who struggles with God. And it became, in time, a name for a whole people. And the context here is the suffering of those people in exile. Far from home, hopes dashed, living in a time and place and in ways that they never wanted to live. 

This scripture is spoken into existential threats and traumas like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and far worse. 

We’re talking about threats like those small Caribbean and Pacific islands whose very existence is threatened by climate change. 

We’re talking about the lived experience of the Afghan refugees settling around us this fall and winter, some of whom some Reservoir friends were feeding just yesterday.

We’re talking about the unhoused opioid addict a few miles down Mass Ave from here, over whom everyone is arguing about what *can’t* be done

This poetry about the strength and presence of God that can renew your hope is addressed to people who have good reason to say to themselves: My way is hidden from God. God seems to have ignored my predicament.

I wonder if you have felt or said words like that this year. I wonder how many of us have wondered if our way is hidden or if God has forgotten us. 

Have those thoughts crossed your mind this year? Show up in your prayers?

I was talking with a friend who has felt this way, who has been facing discouragement after discouragement. And I texted these words of Isaiah. I’ve actually texted versions of these to a handful of people recently. 

Even young people become tired and weary,

        People in the prime of their lives stumble sometimes.

But those who hope in God

       Will renew their strength;

They’ll fly on eagles’ wings

They’ll run and not be tired;

They’ll walk and not be weary.

This is a profoundly beautiful promise, isn’t it? The words remind me a little bit of that walk home from my nearly finished marathon… stumbling, tired, weary. But in my daughter I had to lean on, in the store we walked into that gave me free food and drink, I could walk and not be weary. 

This hope for stamina, for energy, for resilience and strength in hard times is why I’ve been sharing these lines with a few people. And as I’ve been doing that, I’ve been struck by what God does here and by what people do. 

It’s a partnership, did you notice? Like everything with God, it’s a partnership.

We hope in God. That’s our first part.

And then God renews our strength. That’s God’s part – to do something within our minds, spirits, and bodies when we hope in God.

And then we run, we walk – metaphorically, I’m pretty sure – we fly.

This is less like those scenes with the eagles in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, the ones where just when everything is going bad and there’s no hope of escape, and eagles come swooping in to rescue you. I’d like a bird like that to appear sometime. Singlehanded, miraculous rescue from the sky – that is not what this passage promises to the people in exile or to you and me.

It’s more like the runners blankets we’re passing out today. Take a look if you want – open yours up if you feel like it. They’re pretty flimsy looking, right? Like what good are these stretchy piece of aluminum foil?

Thing is, though, when you’ve been running a few miles (or like 26 miles) and sweating, you wrap one of these things around you and it works. You don’t get the chills. It radiates back to you your own heat, which keeps you warm in a way that couldn’t happen without it. 

Those who hope in God will renew their strength… and then just watch what they can do. 

In Advent, we remember the arrival, the emergence, the appearance of God with us in the person of Jesus. But in the life of Jesus, wonderful as he was, we see that primarily what this meant was not a release of unbridled power. People wanted that from Jesus, but he wouldn’t, sometimes couldn’t.

What Jesus was, was he was the wisest, kindest, boldest, most loving, most totally in sync with God person we could conceive of. A new kind of human, and an accompaniment for others, one to lean on and hope in. God with us. 

Kosuke Koyama calls this nature of God revealed in Christ the three mile per hour God, the God who moves at our speed, who loves us by walking with us – God with us, not God over us. 

Jesus confirms this when he says

the way we’ll know him with us after his death and resurrection, so long ago, is through the Spirit of God that Jesus names not the Power, but the Paraclete – the one who comes alongside.

The Spirit of Jesus by which God is with us today is not the Force, but the accompanier. The one who walks with us, all the time, everywhere. 

When I had to walk my way back home after the Marathon blew up years ago, I didn’t know if I could make it. But then I remembered, and my daughter reminded me, I had someone to walk with, someone to lean on. I was not alone. I put my hope in that fact, and that gave me strength. 

Walking with others, metaphorically – being in friendship, being in well-connected and interdependent relationship is like this. It reminds us we aren’t alone. It gives us hope, which gives us strength. Walking with others literally, like taking walks with someone else, side by side, at one to three miles per hour, does this too.

It mirrors, it images God with us in tangible, embodied form. I encourage you, walk more with others this winter if you can. It can remind you of the God who walks with you, that there is nowhere you will ever go, no place you will ever be where God is not accompanying you, waiting to appear or emerge again to your consciousness. To help you hope in God and renew your strength.

What does it mean to put your hope in God like this? And how does that strengthen you, so that you can run and keep walking, and sometimes even fly? 

Three final images I’ll share. I hope that one of these will help. Looking at God. Yearning for God. Sitting with God.

Looking at God, yearning for God, and sitting with God. 

Looking with God. 

This month we’re spotlighting art our community made for our Advent art exhibit hanging in our sanctuary dome. This week’s art work is a drawing by Jenny Pan. It’s her reproduction, with a few changes, of Sister Grace Remington’s painting called “Mary Comforts Eve.” 

You have a very pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus. This is a woman whose yes to partnership with God, whose love and faithfulness, has for many been a picture of the ideal human, or even qualities of God with us. 

And with her you have, across time, Eve, one of the first humans from the first chapters of the Bible’s primordial legend, the mother of us all. Eve is looking ragged, unkempt, long hair flying everywhere. She’s troubled by shame and regret too – holding that twice bitten apple that reminds her of how she lost her way and said no to God. And she’s hounded – the serpent clings to her ankle, winds up her leg, to sting her again, to choke out life. 

But she comes to Mary and looks at her. Looking for redemption. Looking for accompaniment. Looking for help or hope or understanding. And Mary sees her, she sees all of her – which is what I read from Mary looking at the apple, not that she only sees Eve’s sin and shame and regret, but that she sees that too. And neither turns away, they choose to be in fellowship, in connection, and to see what comes of that. 

And quietly, subtly, Mary had her foot upon the snake. Mary isn’t going anywhere, she’s there to help.

The psychiatrist Curt Thompson says that

To be human is to be looking for a face that is looking for us.

As an infant, that’s what we first know to do, it’s our first yearning. We’re looking for a face that is looking for us. And it’s what we keep doing our whole lives. We yearn to be known, to be seen, to be searched for and called by name. 

And when we find that the one we’re looking for is also looking for us, that gives us hope and gives us strength.

I like to read at night. I often read a bit to help myself fall asleep. But last night, instead of that, I lay down by myself and quietly said to God:

I’m here. I’m looking for you.

And I lay there in silence for a while. And I felt led to call to mind how I am while looking for God. I didn’t have a snake and a serpent with me. I had two other things. I had an image of a place in my life where I’ve been quietly trying with all my strength to help somebody I care about. And there was love but also fear and fatigue in that. And I had an image of a way that in some of my stress this past month, that stress has overtaken me, sapped my strength, and not always left me at my best – and there was some fatigue and regret in that. 

And as I called that to mind, looking for God, I felt something open up in my mind, felt an emergence in me of awareness that God was with me, and I felt two things in God’s gaze.

For the stress and the not at my best stuff, I felt like God had a hand out, like I see you, it’s OK, I understand, I can help you move forward to a better place. 

And for my love and service, I felt like God was proud of me, that God liked and loved who I was in this, and that God was showing me this made a difference, this has mattered, and I felt the smile of God. 

And the peace and love that strengthens me to carry on with lightness, with new resolve, like I cannot say. 

Look for God, my friends, look at God. Be still, call what you know of God to mind, and sit in silence. See how God emerges for you, how you can hope in God and be strengthened. The God we are looking for is always looking for us, eager to call us by name, and to renew our hope.

More briefly, yearning with God. 

My friend, one of many mentors in my life, David Gushee wrote recently:

If Christmas is about everyone being happy and jolly and all’s well with the world, only a fortunate few can really participate.

But Advent is about broken people in a broken world, yearning for a promised redemption.”

Perhaps as you look for God, perhaps as you seek to pray, to talk with God in these last two weeks before Christmas, you don’t find yourself mainly talking about yourself and how you need God with you. 

Perhaps you are mostly yearning, yearning for change, yearning for breakthrough in your life, and breakthrough in any number of the many things wrong with our world. There’s a lot, right? 

Advent is for this as well. It’s for bringing to God the very things we wonder if God has disregarded, and saying with simple clarity: This is what I yearn for, God. 

This yearning, this taking the time to express this to God, is a way of hoping in God too. It’s a way of believing that this world matters to God and that the love and goodness of God, as it’s welcomed and expressed by more and more people, changes things. Directing that yearning to God, rather than bottling it up, strengthens us too.

And lastly, just sitting with God. 

That’s what these blankets are for….

Sometimes our hoping in God to renew our strength can be entirely wordless. We just need a gesture, a sign, a symbol that God is with us to renew our hope and strengthen us and grow our resilience. 

We’re going to need resilience this winter, friends. We’re all going to have our disappointments and our struggles. One way to do this that we are going to take some time to try right now is to sit still, and put a blanket around us. Go ahead….

And with that blanket around us, we imagine by faith that this blanket represents the loving presence of God with us – the Spirit of Jesus, the accompanier, the one who comes alongside. And we simply sit, silently, attentive to this sign of God with us, and see what comes to our heart and mind. How our body feels, how our mindset shifts, what emerges for us. 

Let’s end trying this. Take a moment with the blanket…

The Practice of Love

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

Good morning everyone! I’m Ivy – part of the staff team here, and it’s a joy to talk to you this morning – as we carry on in this fall series we’ve started called “The Table: How Jesus Gathers.”

And you’ll notice that we are utilizing a present tense verb – ‘gathers.’ We aren’t only drawing from historical context to see what wisdom we can ascribe to our present day, we are extending an invitation for us all to notice what the living Jesus is doing and communicating to us now – as we gather. 

This series is also an invitation to reboot. It’s been a while for some of us since we’ve gathered or been around each other’s tables with any consistency. And for the greater part of these last 18 months where “gathering” has really looked different – and suspended – many of us have felt a sense of disconnection – with ourselves/one another and Jesus.  A friend of mine relayed this sensation to be like peering in on a great big, familiar table where we used to sit – where we used to be part of creating and growing the Kin-dom of God-  and now it feels hard to find the door again.

This makes sense to me, because one of the greatest “plans” God gives to us to help build the Kin-dom of God is to “love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” 

And this plan in its fullest version is not meant to be divided into 3 separate check boxes. 

Love God. “Check.” 

Love your neighbor.  “Check.” 

Love yourself.  “Check.”

It’s really meant to be a  flow, a continuum – a way of being and living –  where each hangs on the other and informs the other.  This flow is a generative circuit – fueled by the force and of love. So it makes sense that when any one piece is changed, the whole flow is really altered. And this can leave us feeling unmoored/misaligned with ourselves, each other and God – as we try to find a way forward, (or back into that circuit/flow of love.)

And this is also why some of us might feel tired. Because we also feel the longing to move and act and love where there is obvious “lovelessness” in the world around us.  We want to put our faith into action. We want to make our beds, we want to be patient with those closest to us – we want to have the energy to call our friend who’s in pain – we want  TO BE ENGAGED IN THIS LIFE, fully present to the WHOLE of life. The wonder, the struggle…and it’s really hard when we have been taken out at our knees and are ourselves drifting and trying to stay afloat. 

So much of living a life of faith is to both embrace the “mystery” of God and enact “practice” that helps us feel connected to God. And it’s this posture of “practice” that I want to press into this morning. This practice of digging back down to the foundation of God’s love  – the practice of returning to love that is implanted in US, and grounds us.  

So if this rings true for you this morning – a sense of misalignment /disconnection/ or tiredness in your spirit and body, let’s explore what Jesus offers us at this table he sets for us of  Practiced Love and see if it helps us in any way.

And I’ll offer this question for all of us – as a way into prayer:

How are you experiencing the love of God?

Prayer

Jesus help us live into this question, rather than strive for an answer…this morning, come close to us – to our deepest longings, our fear, our grief, our dreams. And be with us. Let your presence be known to us.  Let your love move and ground us both. 

Story

When I was little one of my favorite activities to pass the time in the summer was to hold little “road-side” sales with my 4 younger brothers.  

My brothers would excavate this spot behind our house, which was the woods of Maine, where they discovered if they dug down deep enough they would unearth these “treasures” of all kinds. Namely old apothecary bottles. Some with residual liquid in them, some rusted, some in beautiful blue glass colors, mostly all broken and dirty.  Made-up stories accompanied these vials – medicine needed for a tragic horse accident, or pills for somebody’s leg that was amputated when a tractor ran them over, and another held poison for the mean school bus driver.

I didn’t participate in the dumpster dive of our backyard excavation, but I hunted for chunks of mica which surrounded our house foundation – and I added my shiny/glittering/layered rocks to the display of “treasures” that we wanted to sell. 

Of course no one ever came, so we’d end up trading with one another. Sitting on the edge of our dirt driveway. And processing some of the bewilderment of humanity and community. The “make believe” stories that we shared were, of course, shaped by our real lived childhood experiences. The stories we had actually heard of tragic deaths in our town – and how we would deal with the people who were mean to us on the bus, etc. 

There’s something to me in this memory – that speaks of the innocence – but also the depth –  and embodied experience of God’s love (and also of the reality that we probably all needed tetanus shots long before we actually got them).  We felt seen and known, and empowered, creative and connected – regardless of anyone acknowledging our “treasures.”  AND it was also this place where we were trying to figure out HOW to practice love. How to love our neighbor.

Maybe you have some early memories too – of where you felt most free/connected to others, the earth, and yourself? Maybe they (like mine) are pretty quirky – but somehow give you glimpses of the foundation of GOD’s love for you. I think these memories are really important, and perhaps our firmest foundation.

Let’s read the scripture together from Luke – and see how these words can help us along this conversation of the importance of experiencing God’s love.

Luke 6:45-49

New International Version

45 A good person brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?

47 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.

48 They are like a person building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.

49 But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

Now let me tell you –  I’ve been shook this year…disjointed.

There has been so much grief, suffering, shock, hurt, upheaval. We may not have consciously chosen to “store” these things/feelings/events in our hearts, but the “storing” just happened because it’s been so intense, so non-stop –just torrent after torrent. 

“That is exactly correct!”

I think Jesus would say. 

This is the experience of being human. Sometimes life comes at us so fast, and so hard – we cannot possibly stay afloat if we attempt to process everything immediately and so we do end up putting it in the stock room of our hearts.

And so when I feel as though, ‘I’m just doing my best – I’m waking up in the morning and trying to put one foot in front of the other’ these verses can feel damning. 

There’s a way that I can read this scripture and think – am I not well built? Should I be concerned about my “foundation?” Have I not listened well? Should I practice more? Practice harder? Practice differently?   

The practice of our faith tradition does rest on the fulcrum of love. Again to love one another, God and ourselves.  And that way of loving has taken shape through various tools that help us practice that love. The fundamentals of our faith tradition give us “scripture and scripture study”, “singing and worship,” prayers and rituals. And I’m so thankful for the centuries of these traditions  – they are often grounding for me. And even with these valid and meaningful tracks I found it really hard to do anything (like put real pants on), nevermind meditate on scripture in a way that helped me feel connected to people I couldn’t be with – and that was really unmooring for me.

And might I suggest that as I’ve wrestled with this, I uncovered that while our faith traditions are meaningful, helpful and necessary  – they are also, INCOMPLETE.  And that they can’t in and of themselves entirely “house what it is that is needed to hold us together” in times of upheaval. 

We need something bigger than that…that we might need to practice unearthing, digging down deep for…

LOVE

The practice Jesus could be talking about in these verses, is the practice of returning to God’s love, AND the practice of the experience of God’s love for you as a foundation.  This is very much not about an idea or a theory or study of God’s love – it is about the experience of God’s love. 

And the practice it requires is to return, to uncover, to dig down to the core of ourselves and believe that we are loveable. 

Knowing that we are loveable as our full/fallible/messy selves, is where the uniqueness of your story and God’s story intersect. And there really is no foolproof method to discovery. It takes your reflection and excavation to figure out the components of what helps aid you in the experience of being loved by God unconditionally. 

This is not navel-gazing. But it does sharpen our clear-sightedness of who we are in God- before we worry about someone else’s behavior or actions. It’s about seeing ourselves clearly as loved, this is uncovering our foundation, peeling back those layers to remember that the image of God – the fullness of God resides in our cells – and that we are the tables set w/ God’s love. 

This grounding practice of returning to the experience of God’s love – enriches our awareness of this force, in all of our spaces.  Love, as the first filter we move through each day, is essential because so much of what comes at us is lovelessness.  And this is why it takes practice. Practice. Practice, to return again and again – throughout the day to the love of God. To rest, to regroup, to scream,

“GOD?! WHAT IS HAPPENING!?”

To express our full selves and find our footing once again – so that we can go out into our field of practice –  the world around us.

If we cling only to the theoretical methods of LOVE , if we rush to help  – to be a neighbor, to grow beloved community – without first experiencing the love of God, these methods may prove to shift us away from the treasure of love inside of us and make us strive to reach God rather than be loved by God.

We don’t always know who or what we can love on a given day.  The most we can know is where or what we are loving from, and the best we can do is to love from a true place in ourselves. This makes our potential to love one that is bendable, flexible, transformative – even as we face those we regard as enemies or strangers.

Here’s the thing – we need to continually practice situating ourselves in that flow of the greatest commandment. Our experience of God’s love is not only for our self satisfaction but is also for communion/interconnectedness with others. 

God’s propulsive love for us – roots in us a propulsive love for humanity, and as Thomas Merton says,

“we do not become fully human until we give ourselves to one another in love.”

 STORY PART #2:

Part of the practice of returning to GOD’s love and deeply knowing that we are loved – is that it informs the stories we tell ourselves and others, of God. 

That little memory of digging for old bottles and collecting mica (in what I now know was an old town dump) in our backyard is that it formed in me the earliest, most fundamental story of God – even before I had language for God. The story that GOD was big enough to hold the broken/jagged edges of life – and also the beauty. BOTH in one place.  AND GOD’s love is stretchy and expansive enough to hold it all, and the stories that attach to that. 

Last year Scott’s brother died suddenly, and his widow was visiting and at our table last Friday evening.  I listened to the stories stored up in her heart – the story of grief  – it’s piercing freshness, and the tears and the pain of a lot of unresolved layers that are part of that grief.

And I knew that night that I had listened to the words of God – listened to the story of  practiced, experiential love expressed through our sister-in-law. Her mouth spoke of the absurd reality of a husband gone too soon –

“I don’t know – I just don’t really know why all this happened the way it did.” 

And her heart spoke of her knowing of God,

“but I know I’m not alone in this. I have no answers. I’m not fixed.  But I’m not alone.”

To open our hearts more fully to the table of  love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we have control or understanding of love in both theory and practice, and yet it is so compelling that we must STILL dare to believe that it means everything.  

The next day we had 15 or so folks around our backyard table. And I listened to the stories of new engagements, and the start of grad school and stories that traced the last 18 months. Of being homeless and living in a shelter, and I watched videos of cats and ate pumpkin bread and I listened to the story of a lifetime of hustling to have a seat at any table – be seen and heard, and stories of longing. And more hope and more quirkiness and a dizzying array of the love of God. 

And I knew that that night too that I had listened to God. I had listened to the story of practiced love expressed through everyone who gathered. 

Because just below the surface of pumpkin bread and (wine), and a warm fall night – are the treasures that we unearth as we sit in the company of one another. Those around the table that we know we love, those that we wonder if we will love, those that we struggle to love and those that we wish believed our love -and somehow we see the fullness of jagged edges and THE LOVE OF GOD that has helped us both hold the poison of this world and the elixir for this world in one vessel/one view/one aperture.

Navigating these tables is where we find the blueprint – the components of creating and building the kin-dom of God, the Beloved Community. 

BELOVED COMMUNITY

As you might know, Reservoir has over the past couple of years – formed a 5-year vision which is to continue to become the Beloved Community we are called to be.  And we have 5 bullet points that frame that vision out – we aim to become: 

  1. Diverse and anti-racist.
  2. Welcoming, and a place of profound belonging. 
  3. Radically generous.
  4. Empowering wholeness, love, and justice in people and communities, promoting whole life flourishing.
  5. Innovating as a church  – so that our ministry is less dependent on any one gathering but includes many life-giving new ways to experience and be church.

Maybe not so surprisingly, this vision rests on Jesus’ ethic of love. And a love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well.  And yet to love in this way – to grow and create Beloved Community (and why it’s still in process) – is because it requires a fundamental shift in our social fabric. It requires us to embrace a global vision that recognizes how our lives are intimately intertwined and impactful to the other.
SPOILER ALERT: *We aren’t there yet*.

However, as we engage with this need for change, we would do well to embrace the entry point that isn’t written on our website – that isn’t indicated in our 5 bulleted points. This is the invitation of God as outlined in the verses we read today  – to hear God’s words

“you are loved, you are loveable, “beloved”, “I LOVE YOU”

and put them into practice.  To practice as a starting point, our experience of the love of God – because that is the most compelling, most inspiring, most rock-steady foundation we can build from.

It’s also the least well-defined. 

If you revisit a lot of Dr. King’s speeches and civil rights history – you might notice that there isn’t a single speech where he completely unpacked what the Beloved Community means. Perhaps it’s because it was intentionally left incomplete.  

That the gaps are left for us – we, the people – to fill in. 

That our lived expression of the experience of God’s love – would be the mortar that gives shape and sirs up the vision, filling it in with our uniqueness, our priorities, our skills, our passions, our social locations and vantage points. 

Now, there are values that undergird Dr. King’s Beloved Community vision for sure, and if you read the full chapter of Luke 6 – you’ll see that Jesus also offers guardrails for a “way” forward. A way of grace, nonviolence, peace-making, loving enemies, forgiveness, restorative justice, transformative justice, social and economic justice.  Making seats at the table – for those who are oppressed, marginalized, disinherited – and embodying a generous inclusivity, a radical sharing.

And the first brick of all of that – is a community built on the experiential love of God.

God gave us the bones of the vision.

And we are the marrow.

WE ARE THE TABLES

As Dr. King, Jesus, Merton, bell hooks,  and all the voices I draw from show us – that love is not a weak, easy, utopian idea. Love is an active force that can lead us into greater communion with the world. In fact, it is extolled as the primary way we (LOVE our neighbor), it’s how we end domination and oppression.

bell hooks, -In this vein then our  “action”  is like a sacrament, a visible form of an invisible spirit – an outward manifestation of an inward [force – of love] a disruptive picture of power to those that hold it. 

As we lean into God’s love, dig deep and unearth that steady foundation of love – our way of being in the world will  become more intrinsically healing and liberating to those who are not privileged by the current systems and status quo.

To be human is a chronic condition. The torrents of life will. Keep. coming. 

We can’t fix or solve it.  We can’t practice our way out of reality.
But we can withstand. We can lift our heads above the waves and find oxygen.
As we practice opening our hearts more fully to Love’s power and God’s grace. It’s what keeps our hearts longing for more – for liberation – for a better way forward  – for a vision of beloved community that isn’t quite in full view yet – but is still very much alive.

 As bell hooks says,

“we learn that love is important everywhere, and yet we are bombarded by its failure…yet don’t let this bleak picture alter the nature of your longing. Still hope that love will prevail. Still believe in love’s promise.”

Jesus loves you. Really really loves you –  and he wants us to fully  live this life, with this “way” of love as your founding and organizing principle.

Let me pray us out – utilizing the image from our spiritual practice.

Take a moment to situate yourself in this image… where are you?
How close are you to the spray? The waves?

Take a moment to locate Jesus… where is Jesus? How close is Jesus’s love to you?


 Resource: bell hooks, “All About Love: New Visions” 

“…and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

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

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

Now much of the Apostles Creed, like all Christian creeds, tries to answer the question: Who is Jesus? Why does he matter? And what does he do, for God and for us? This week, the creed’s first phrase about Jesus.

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

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.

What’s this line trying to say? What’s it searching for?

It says Jesus is the Christ, Greek for the Hebrew title the Messiah, the one anointed with oil, God’s king, God’s messenger, God’s leader, God’s human ambassador. And then, “only Son our Lord.” The creed is saying Jesus has a special relationship to God, that Jesus uniquely represents God, that Jesus tells us the truth about God – not just with words but with Jesus’ whole life. And it says Jesus is our leader too.

Jesus as unique, Jesus representing God to us, Jesus our leader. This is all very important and helpful.

But these words say more than this. And they’ve been problematic in how they’ve been amplified.

When the creed says Jesus is God’s only son, it focuses not on how Jesus is like us, but on how Jesus is different from us. Like if you’re Jesus, you’re really tight with God, God really loves you, and all the rest of us, we’re kind of second tier, second rate children. I don’t think that’s helpful or true.

And the Lord part has gone worse. The early Christian creeds outside the Bible were either written or finalized in the fourth century, just when the Roman Empire was establishing Christianity as its official religion. And suddenly, a faith centered on a Jewish man who’s been executed by the Empire was now the religion of the Empire. And Jesus was remade in the image of this empire’s rulers. Jesus, who was a humble Galilean man, who taught love of neighbors and children and enemy becomes a mighty King who rules by the sword, a Lord who demands worship and obedience, or else.

It’s like Jesus went from this:

This is a statue of Jesus that adorns a tomb right down the street in the Catholic cemetery of North Cambridge. It’s small. It’s human, even weak – fingers crumbling, a leg lost to vandalism.

This Jesus is very human – about our size, dying as we will, suffering as we suffer. I’m not sure who the two people are here with Jesus, but this Jesus is not above us, alone; he’s with us, among us. He can be hurt and harmed, but he still commands our attention.

But in his transformation to exalted Lord, he becomes this:

This is a statue of Jesus on a mountaintop in Brazil, just aside Rio de Janeiro. I think it’s the most famous statue of Jesus in the whole world. It’s on a mountaintop near the sea, it’s beautiful. One of the wonders of the world. And I think Jesus’ open arms are meant to communicate welcome and peace. Still, though, this Jesus, so big, so powerful, looking down over the city with his unblinking eyes, reminds me of the Christ the Lord of the Western project, where Brazil and the land I’m sitting on, and really most of the land and peoples of the world were colonized by supposedly Christian nations.

This Christ, mighty, powerful, demanded worship, demanded submission, demanded conversion. Which Christ looks more like Jesus?

There’s a great line from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

‘When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers…The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion, it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.’

Fashioning God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers. The Galilean Jesus transformed to a conquering Lord by Cesar’s lawyers.

When we’re baptized into a faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, which faith are we baptized into?

To worship a Master Lord Jesus, with dominant power over the world, a power that compels our worship and obedience?

Or to follow a Brother Friend Jesus, in relationship with the world, with a presence and wisdom that compels our loving response?

Let’s listen something Jesus had to say on this:

John 15:12-15 

12 This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.

13 No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.

14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

15 I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.

I don’t call you servants. I don’t call you servants. I call you friends.

What kind of leader was Jesus? What kind of leader is Jesus to us still?

Last week I wasn’t with you all because I was finishing up a few days in the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School. I was with some other hikers learning how to safely lead people on multi-day backpacking trips in the wilderness.

And the way they do this is send you out backpacking with a group of strangers, while your leader constantly and elaborately pranks you all. Except the pranks are so good, you have no idea.

One morning we came across a big guy we’d never seen before sitting off to the side of the trail. He looked dazed and hurt, and we were miles from a road or cell phone signal. And we spent about half an hour trying to figure out what was wrong with him and what we were going to do about it before we finally realized that he was acting and that actually he was going to be our co-leader for the rest of the trip.

Yeah, we faced fake injuries, fake lost hikers, fake lost medicines, along with some actual injuries and actual problems as well. And in every crisis during the trip, the leader of the day had to figure out how to help our team rally toward a solution.

It was pretty stressful but pretty fun too.

And not surprisingly, we learned that leaders who try to dominate and direct – who remain distant, aloof, but tell people what to do are not very effective. People don’t like them, don’t trust them, don’t respond to them.

Effective leaders were able to share what they knew but also draw upon the mind of the whole group. Effective leaders helped the person in crisis, sometimes sacrificially. We carried other people’s packs, tended to injuries real and made up. But the effective leaders also mobilized the whole group’s love and service, which is always greater than any one persons.

Jesus, in his last days with his closest students, tells them that he’s always been like this too.

He points to his own model, laying down his life for his friends. And he not only commands, but inspires them to do the same. Love one another as I have loved you. He’s clear about their relationship too. They may call him “Lord” sometimes because he is their leader. But they are not his servants. They are friends, because they share everything. He’s not aloof, he hasn’t held anything back.

Jesus was trying then to mobilize his followers to live like he did: attentive to God, whole-hearted in love, and generously present to the people around you. I think God is still trying to mobilize followers of Jesus to live like this.

Jesus shows us the way to God and the way to life well. Jesus is our leader. But he’s not the kind of leader that kings and emperors and bosses and tyrants have tried to be.

I wonder what history would have been like, what Christianity in the modern world would have become if instead of saying “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,” the creed had been written to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ God’s firstborn son, our brother, our leader, our friend.”

I think it would have made a world of difference. I think it could make a world of difference still.

Let me mention quickly three consequences we’ve born from a faith that says Jesus is “Jesus Christ our only Son our Lord”? And then three reversals we could make by believing in Jesus Christ God’s firstborn Son our leader, brother, and friend.

The three problems. Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord gave us the doctrine of Discovery. This was the 15th century culmination of a series of Papal decrees that said Christians could seize land and enslave peoples wherever that weren’t Christians. It gave Christian cover, in the name of Jesus, to every European land grab from non-Christian peoples throughout the earth. And it gave Christian justification, in the name of Lord Jesus, to wars against Muslims, to genocide of native peoples, to enslavement of African peoples, because the Lord reigned over the earth through his Christian subjects.

Damn, if this isn’t the most tragic, wicked thing. Saying God has given Christian kings sway to rule over the whole earth in God’s name, saying – as this doctrine did, that “the name of our Savior be carried into these regions”, by any means necessary.

How did we get from

Love one another as I have loved you… no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others, to set aside one’s own interests for the other’s welfare

to this colonial doctrine of discovery?

This weekend on Juneteenth, we celebrate every step in the undoing of this evil, anti-Christ distortion of the gospel. We celebrate the news of emancipation of African descendants in the South in 1866, and we celebrate every effort toward good news liberation of Black Americans and of all peoples. May it be.

More briefly, two more problems we’ve inherited through a distant, domineering image of Lord Jesus.

One is the prosperity gospel, and the other is the inaccessibility of God, the turning of Jesus into a moral stranger.

The prosperity gospel is the belief that God intends health and wealth for all faithful followers of Jesus, and that with enough faith, a constant stream of health and wealth are ours to claim and enjoy.

I was helping prepare a couple for marriage a number of years ago, and we were discussing their vows, including the traditional phrase many of them have, saying to your partner that you will love them faithfully, “for richer or poorer.” And one of them was like, I’m not sure we can use that phrase.

And I asked: why not? And he said, well, in the churches my family is accustomed to, they wouldn’t say “for richer or poorer.” They’d say “for richer or richer.”

And I was like really, why? And he explained that on your wedding day, you’d want to exercise faith that God would only lead you into greater and greater wealth together, never economic hardships.

I thought wow, how lovely if that works out for you, but that is not how faith works. Faithful people get poor. Faithful people lose sometimes. Faithful people get sick, and one day or another every faithful person dies. These are just facts.

But the superstitious faith of a dominant Jesus has tried to tell people otherwise. A really common form of Christianity throughout this country and throughout the whole world tells people that when they are baptized into faith in Christ, they are baptized onto the winning team, if they will only agree and believe. In our own church’s past, people used to sometimes imply that if you were sick and just had enough faith, just had enough people praying for you, God would make you well.

And that’s just not true. This faith in a powerful, mighty Jesus our Lord who doesn’t sound much like Jesus of Nazareth, though, has birthed the doctrine of discovery. It’s brought us the prosperity gospel. And it’s given us Christians who – as a friend of our church used to say – worship Jesus but do not follow him.

Jesus couldn’t stand this kind of thing, even in his lifetime. There was a time people tried to make him king by force, the Gospel said, and he got out of there as quickly as he could. We can worship Jesus, see in Jesus the light and wisdom and love of God. But if Jesus had a choice, he’d rather be followed than worshipped.

What does it look like to do this? What does it look like to be baptized into the kindom of God, into God’s beloved community?

What would happen instead if our faith said Jesus is “Jesus Christ God’s firstborn Son, our Friend, Brother, and Leader?” 

We never would have had a doctrine of discovery, but a doctrine of liberation, committed to loving mutuality and kinship with all people.

We would never had a prosperity gospel, manipulating people with promises of health and wealth. We’d have a good news in all things gospel, promising us God’s love and power and presence in all things.

And we wouldn’t know Jesus of the gospels as a moral stranger, as someone whose teachings we neither recognize nor live. Instead, we’d see Jesus pointing the way to God for us, the God who is our great companion, the God who is our friend who understands.

Friends, just last week, I cried it out with God again, not the first time this past year either. I was meditating on a picture of Jesus on the cross, which was just so sad, and I was thinking of what it means to celebrate a holiday like Juneteenth in a country that still has not reckoned with our history, and thinking of a broken relationship in my life that I’m longing to make whole, and I thought, dang, this year has seen so much sadness for us all.

And I was grateful that in Jesus, I have a brother, a leader, who calls me friend because he’s told me all he knows, given me everything he has. I felt God with me, a companion in all things, reminding me that I’m loved and understood, and reminding me of the creative, hopeful possibilities God has in front of me. And that’s taking me into today a happy, hopeful man.

Friends, Jesus is not a Lord that bosses us around, tempting us to remake ourselves in this image, people who use our power to enrich ourselves at others’ expense. This is a lie of our Christian past.

Jesus is a loving leader – whose life and teachings show us what God is like and liberate us into a more loving, vibrant life. And Jesus shows us that God is near and close to us, a loving, hopeful, and creative presence who never gives up on us and always understands.

 

The Spirit of God Who Calls Us Out

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

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Trecia Reavis, click HERE. The images to accompany the Spiritual Practice are located in the PDF. .

Thank you Trecia. Namaste, namaste, namaste, may it be our guiding prayer as we walk, and breathe and have our being on this Earth.

If you missed the beginning of announcements – I just want to reiterate the Prayer Vigil for Hope and Healing coming up in 2 Sundays, on May 2nd.
Come with your prayer, come with your song.  It will be a time to give space for the voices of  Black, Indigenous, Asian American, and People of Color. All are welcome to attend and listen and stand in solidarity.  Sign up if you’d like to register.  Link in the chat – After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

It is good to be with you today my friends. I’m Ivy – a Pastor here on staff. And I’m going to share some words around this new series we are in called, Listening to the Spirit of God, with Freedom and Power.”  It is an invitation to both chronologically follow the events of early followers of Jesus and how they found their way with the Spirit of God, in post-resurrection days –  that were bewildering and confusing and laced with fear!  And it’s also an invitation for us to consider what we think of the Spirit of God IN these days. As Trecia led us through those images – maybe you felt those questions rise in you – where is the Spirit of God, where do I recognize it? What does it mean to listen to the Spirit? And what does that listening call us unto?

Our Lenten season centered the voices of the minor prophets and concluded with the promise of God, that we hear in the minor prophet of Joel –

I will pour out my spirit on all people

…not just kings, prophets and judges (people that had status and power and “religious” value), but poured out on all people. 

Today, this is the phrase I want to invite us to deeply mine, to revisit with fresh awareness.


I will pour out my spirit on all people

Because not only is this vital to our own experience of flourishing and wellness – especially in days of chaos and hurt (when only dead-ends appear on our horizon), and not only is it essential in piercing through our boundaries and limits of what and who God is, BUT it is also vital for our conceptions of what the “gospel” is, and who/what “church” is, as we revisit this promise.  

Today we’ll look at words shared to us in the book of Acts, particularly those of Stephen.  A voice that echoes around us, with the Spirit of God – just as strong today.  A voice that if we still/quiet ourselves long enough to listen, may just help us believe the RESURRECTION STORY is an everyday possibility – not just an Easter story. That death and violence and hatred will not be the message that wins out , the one that soaks into our veins and into our  next generations, but it will be a message of LIFE and Love that we create with the Spirit of God that wins out. Where the “gospel” and “church” represent the Spirit of God. Because the spirit of God, CALLS US OUT into liberation and new ways of living alongside one another – calling us into Beloved Community – which will take more than our human imaginations, it will take the power, inspiration and courage of the spirit of God. 

PRAYER

Oh Holy, tender one.
In faith, this morning we ask for your presence.
Aliven us, freshen us, tune us to your movement.

Within us… in the midst of us.. and beyond us.

Amen

MY STORY

Three years ago at this time of year – I took a trip to Duke University for a several day conference. The conference itself took place in Duke’s Chapel, this outstandingly gorgeous building, right in the center of campus. Actually it’s the tallest, most prominent university chapel in the world.   The first session of the first day – started with a woman leading us in song. I don’t even remember the song or the words, I just remember her singular voice starting us off. No instruments – just her voice echoing off these ancient stone walls,  and traveling up to the cavernous ceiling and reverberating back down – it was stunning.  And in a room of 1,000 or so strangers, it was uniting and the holiness. The Spirit of God. I felt it –  reverberated through all of us. 

Over the course of the next few days all of our sessions were centered in this sanctuary.  All the big speakers and all the great worship happened in this gorgeous building.  Except for this one opportunity where you could choose from a myriad of different breakout options. One of them was off-campus, which required taking a bus a few miles away in Durham, and visiting this property that was 1) a school – called the “School for Conversion, ” 2) a church, St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, and also 3) a declared “Sanctuary” for a member of the neighborhood – Jose Chicas who was being faced with the risk of deportation – due to increased ICE raids in the area. He had been living there for a year at that point.. 

We would be able to meet one of the representatives of all of this – a guy by the name of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

A LOT going on there – and I wanted to hear & see more about what all of this was. 

A church, a school, a neighborhood, “Sanctuary”, community?  What was the vision in all of this? The plan? The thru-line? The Program?

And also as you might guess, I was a little suspect of this word “conversion.”

“Conversion” has been a word that was often synonymous with the word “gospel” in my faith background. I held the “gospel”/the power – to “convert” others – which then gave them this separate/”holier” status. 

“Conversion” though, in its truest form, is a new way of being. And actually an on-going, ever-evolving way of being as we think of it situated in a faith context, with a living, resurrected God. IN YOUR FULL LIFE.  “Conversion” is a transformation of heart – and it is an active process that follows the movement of the SPIRIT OF GOD – that is not always visible or defined (as in a prominent tall building), but one that unmistakably introduces us into new patterns, spheres, people. And as Stephen shows us in the book of Acts – this newness and expanse –  is not always embraced or accepted by those in power. 

So let’s press into Stephen’s story a little bit here – we meet Stephen in chapter 6 of Acts where he is chosen to help with the daily distribution of food to widows who were being discriminated against – and we see here, that he is described as one who is

full of faith and the Holy Spirit 

and is one who performs many amazing signs and miracles.  This gains the attention of the religious elite – and they behold Stephen as a threat to their position and way of understanding God.

So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen saying,

“This man is always speaking against the Temple and against the law of Moses.  We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.

And so they arrested him and brought him before the RELIGIOUS COUNCIL. 

These accusations are a big deal.  Stephen knows that to continue to live in the Spirit – presses against the honoring of hierarchies of religious authorities. HE is transgressing the borders – closing the distance between insider and outsider.. Neighbor and foreigner… friend and stranger.   Suggesting that the Spirit of God sees no boundaries. 

So Stephen responds to the council – and it’s about 50 verses in Chapter 7 of Acts – I won’t read them all – but it is very powerful, so I’ll summarize a bit,

The interesting thing about his response to the council – is that he doesn’t start with a list of retorts for each point he’s been accused of .

Instead he decides to remind this religious council of the movement of the Spirit of God – to all of God’s people over the history of time.  

He starts way back with Abraham.

He details the movement of God throughout lands – out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and back and forth through the wilderness. The widening circles and borders and cultures that God embraces.

He reminds the council of God’s promises that have occurred throughout history – and how God came through on those promises.

He reminds the council of the Spirit of God’s bewildering ways – of how God created a whole nation from Abraham and his descendants even though there were no children yet.

He reminds the council of Jacob and Isaac and Joseph, and Moses  – who are pivotal characters in the religious elite’s present day understanding of God.

He reminds them of the spirit of God speaking through people, and bushes, and angels and fire –  occurring in curious ways  – but ALWAYS present.

The Spirit of God always present  – he also reminds the council (in this historical recollection), that at EVERY turn the Spirit of God has been rejected, forgotten, and disbelieved by the ‘people of God’ –  again and again – throughout history.  

 Stephen’s address ends with these powerful words (picking up at the end of Acts 7):

Acts 7: 45-51

45 Years later, when Joshua led our ancestors in battle against the nations that God drove out of this land, the Tabernacle was taken with them into their new territory. And it stayed there until the time of King David.

46 “David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob.

47 But it was Solomon who actually built it.

48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands.

As the prophet Isaiah says,

49 ‘Heaven is my throne,

    and the earth is my footstool.

Could you build me a temple as good as that?’

    asks the Lord.

‘Could you build me such a resting place?

50  Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’

51 “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? 

Stephen ends here with the words of the prophet Isaiah.  Challenging them to consider these words of God,

“Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?”  “Oh religious council – can you understand that God’s presence has been and will always be present everywhere? Covering heaven and earth?”  “Do you see that *your God* is the same God of Abraham? 

And like Joel’s words,

“I pour out my spirit on all people.”

Can you see that

“I, Stephen have the same spirit of God in me – that is present in you?”

Stephen shows and calls out, in the same way that  prophets do, big patterns. They are seers of big patterns. They see what has always been true – and will forever be true of God.  Recognizing that one of the big patterns of God – as Stephen recollects through history –  is that God’s message of love and spirit – always gets wider and more universal, that God is IN all things.

It’s profound, because Stephen is showing here (to the council that is accusing him and will shortly murder him through stoning) that the very truths they speak of – and are so vehemently protecting and guarding – the “good news”, that speaks of the incredible power and goodness of God for ALL PEOPLE – is being warped and turned into “bad news” as they use it against the people in their midst. 

And herein Stephen not only reveals a big pattern of God – but he also reveals one of the biggest patterns of humanity -our continued effort to limit the Spirit of God.  Discredit the Spirit of God.  Cover our ears and not listen to the Spirit of  God.  Especially as we seek to retain comfort, power, and status. 

The pattern over history is that we (the bearers of God’s image and Spirit – are the destructive forces that hijack the gospel) resisting it

by believing that faith is our business to manage, our tool to use on other people or society.” 

This is why it is so important to figure out where you are, where we are, I am with the Spirit of God today. Because the Spirit of God calls us out – to continue the good work of reconstructing the gospel – to keep “converting”/transforming to new ways of being in beloved community with one another. 

The council before Stephen couldn’t listen to the truth that Stephen – by way of the Spirit of God revealed in his speech … so much so that it says in verse 57, that they

Acts 7:57

“put their hands over their ears, and drowning out his voice with their own shouts they rushed him, dragged him out of the city and stoned him.” 

HANDFULS of STONE and HANDFULS of CERTAINTY.

As suspect as I was getting off the bus and walking a few blocks over to this “School for Conversion” – I warmed to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove as I listened to him speak of “church” as in the Greek of the New Testament, “ekklesia – translated as “the called-out ones.”   Which he said is to be called out of the patterns and practices of this world’s sinful and broken systems into the economy of God’s abundance and  grace which is enough for everyone – this he said, is to be church. 

To participate in an institution called church that reinforces this world’s broken systems is easy. But to live by the spirit, is messier – because it requires that which we can not fully know – the person in front of us – and the only bridge to knowing is “love.”

As Jesus says in his first sermon,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the Spirit has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor”

This is the gospel. To challenge the injustice of poverty – those who have been made poor, kept poor, by unjust systems.

And what if this first sermon was an invitation – not to create or imagine a bunch of auxiliary ministries, dependent on the central mission of “church building/entity” – but what if it was a “calling out” of the Spirit of God? As a way of living with love, in this world, and fighting everything that comes against that love, by the power of the Spirit?

To walk by the power of the Spirit in an unpredictable world, is one that liberates us from the most powerful authoritative/hierarchical institutions and systems that lay in our land.

This freedom is what the COUNCIL didn’t like. Stephen was living alongside people. MORE THAN HE WAS IN THE TEMPLE, he was being the gospel, more than he was studying the mosaic laws, he was walking alongside, sharing his food with those who had been abandoned and cast aside – widows.  Yet what was the shape of this? What was the plan? The spelled out vision? The structure? How could they know if it was really of God or not? 

They couldn’t.  

It was too unpredictable. Too mysterious, one might say, even miraculous. 

And herein lies the miracles we get to encounter with the Spirit of God.  The miracle is that the Spirit of God can be found, in backyards and at playgrounds, and in neighborhoods and in offices. In you, and in me, and in all of us.  IF, as Trecia invited us to consider, “we choose to recognize it.” God is IN ALL THINGS.  God is in all things.

Our days are over-flowing with miracles.

What I discovered as I learned more about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s work (which by the way was by standing in the parking lot of this property because it really wasn’t as much about the building or what goes on inside the building as a school/ or as a church/ or as “sanctuary”) it was more about the way of life that was found as he engaged with his community, neighborhood – as he was part of the area that surrounds him.  This has led to meaningful partnerships with so  many folks in his area – including Reverend William J. Barber (who created the Poor People’s Campaign of Moral revival – which takes up the unfinished work of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-1968 by Martin Luther King Jr.).   

It’s led to Jose Chicas being free to reunite with his family – after 1300 days in sanctuary.

It’s led to this “School for Conversion” being shaped by God’s vision of a Beloved Community. 

It’s led to the embodiment of “conversion” not being a separate set of doctrines that people have to subscribe to – but a WAY OF LIFE – that leads us ALL toward beloved community  –  a new way of living together and being in the world.

And it’s led the church to be not primarily about how many people show up for services, but rather about how many who are oppressed will encounter liberation. It’s about how many neighborhoods and families and individuals can be freed by the oppressive structures that continually try to limit life. And limit the Spirit of God.

And here we are today. The church, in this post, resurrection reality, just 2 weeks out from celebrating Easter, declaring that CHRIST is RISEN, CHRIST is HERE, CHRIST IS ALIVE. And our hearts are burning within us, with this awareness and hope. And yet we start this week, again, with death.  Another murder of a black man at the hands of police.  Daunte Wright, a 20 year old, a bearer of the image of God. Full of joy, given to laughter, a doting father, full of life, full of the Spirit of God.  We would do well, to listen to the Spirit of God.   We would do well to listen to the question that Daunte asks of us in his death, “Do you recognize the Spirit of God in me?”

Stephen says,

the most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands”

It’s us. 

We are the temples. We are the living-breathing sanctuaries – filled with the Spirit of God. Capable of miracles, capable of loving those around us – yet Stephen poses piercing questions – will we listen to the Spirit?  Or will we be a stubborn people? Heathen at heart and deaf to the truth?  Or will we be able in faith, to trust  like Moses did? And in faith, suffer like Joseph did? And in faith, persevere like Abraham? Will we be able to push against the spirit of our times – power, violence –  like Stephen did?

Howard Thurman says to,

listen to the Spirit of God in our hearts – often CALLS US OUT to act AGAINST the spirit of our times – and often causes us to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making…”

Stephen listened to the Spirit – that was “yet in the making.” And he invited this council of religious elite – to listen to the Spirit that was “yet in the making.” The free, powerful, unboundaried Spirit of God. 

And in that he invited them to answer the same question Daunte Wright does of us today, one they couldn’t face and embody, one they covered their ears to, “Do you recognize the Spirit of God in me?”

God says in

Joel 2:12-13

  12  “Turn to me now, while there is time.

Give me your hearts.

    Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.

13 Don’t tear your clothing in your grief,

    but tear your hearts instead.”

Return to the Lord your God,

    for God  is merciful and compassionate.

May we return. Return to the good, loving, powerful story of God in our lives – that has been written over the arch of history – so that we can write it into the future.  And so that our efforts to rid this world’s systems of racism and every other sickening toxin are freed from white supremacy – addressing our hearts, our souls in the light of God’s mercy and compassion.

So that we can greet one another with Namaste. With reverence, with honor.

May the spirit of God in me – greet the spirit of God in you.

May we see and behold one another  – as holy sanctuaries.

May we continue to become the church – embody the Spirit of God – that “calls us out.”

Amen – 

 

 

Love Mercy

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

For this week’s spiritual practice led by Ivy Anthony called “Micah & Rocks,” click HERE.


Micah 6:6-8 6

With what should I approach the Lord and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? 8 He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. 

 

Let me pray for us… We walk humbly into this space of worship this morning. Longing to hear you, see you, to feel you. Give us your grace we pray.in Jesus name. Amen

 

It was a hard decision to become a pastor. I loved Jesus so much. He had changed my heart. But when I began to feel the call and eventually got to seminary, the rest of the 4 years of seminary was about becoming. A process. And a lot of unbecoming, what I used to be. Shedding and changing. My heart was changed but changing my life, took a bit more time. For one,I had a pottymouth. And I struggled with addiction. And though I had stopped as I entered seminary, the temptations were still there. I was still a work in progress. 

 

And the fact that I was work in progress gave me a lot of doubt. Here I am, sitting in a seminary dorm. Ha! Who do you think you are? You’re not holy. You’re sinful! I said to myself. And the flashbacks would flood in. See? Remember what you’ve done? You? You want to become a pastor? When those voices would rise up, I’d kneel. I’d pray to that tender voice. I asked God, like the old Jennifer Knapp’s Christian pop song I grew up with, called Refine Me. 

 

Lord, come with Your fire

Burn my desires, refine me

Lord, my will has deceived me

Please come free me, come rescue this child

For I long to be reconciled to You

Refine me, refine me

 

I prayed and prayed. There were so many things that I needed to give up. But the funny thing about doubt and the imposter syndrome is that it turns the idea that “there are mistakes I’ve made” to “I am a mistake”, or “I’ve done wrong” to “I am wrong”. 

 

On one of those many nights where I battled with my own shaming voices, in prayer to God, a verse came to me. I have a vivid memory of this experience that I had forgotten about but recently came back to me with details. 

 

And when I say a verse came to me, I just mean, I thought of it. When things like this happen, I think it’s God speaking to us, because it feels like a gift, that it just comes into my mind. I don’t know, maybe I read it somewhere earlier that week. Maybe I heard it somewhere. So it’s hard to say, exactly how God speaks to us, but nevertheless, it felt as though God gave me this verse. Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It came to me as a mystery because I did not understand it. I googled it. Jesus said it in Matthews chapter 9,  “But go and learn what this means:  quoting Hosea, prophet we read last week, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

 

I desire mercy not sacrifice. I desire mercy not sacrifice..

The statement confused me. Sacrifice was such a positive thing in my mind. Selfless. Pure. 

It also happens to be high value in Korean culture. To sacrifice. How much our parents sacrificed themselves for the next generation. In fact, it’s a complement. 

 

I remember growing up in church, and on Sundays, everyone served. Ladies cooked all morning to provide beef seaweed soup and rice with kimchi to the entire congregation. Men moved chairs, tables to set things up. Deacons cleaned. Elders arranged the flowers. People had meetings, babysat, sang in choirs, made booklets. Sunday went on from early morning set up to late afternoon filled with band practices and prayer meetings. At the end of the day we would part ways saying to each other, ‘soogo hetsuhyo!’ which means ‘you worked hard!” or ‘goseng hetsuhyo” which means “you struggled!” or “you endured!” And everyone responded the same, saying “oh no no no” denying their work. It’s like a competition to see who took on the most burden, which is another complement. Sacrifice is next to godliness. And I’ve been taught all my life to sacrifice, to thank those who sacrificed, how much others have sacrificed for me. 

 

So when Jesus said, Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice? I didn’t get it. 

 

I marinated on it for a while. I journaled in my notebook. God, refine me. God, make me better. God, change me. 

I wrote, God use me. And I started to play with these words, as I often do when I journal, where my thoughts become play, and I riff and roll around the words with ittierations, rhymes, and rhythms. Yes, I get a little poetic prose-like in my journaling sometimes. I wrote…

Use me. Useful. US…FULL.  And then I wrote in capital letters, URS. Yours. And it hit me. 

That I’m not supposed to be “useful” but “urs.” Your beloved. 

It wasn’t about what I needed to do, 

But who I saw myself to be

I don’t need to make sacrifices for God or to God

But simply, see the way God see me, 

Which is full of mercy

I needed to have mercy on myself. 

And it brought me to tears. I think I felt mercy. I felt the love enveloping me. 

 

But still and again, I wrote in my journal. I asked God, what do you require of me? And I heard God respond to me with the same question, “What do you require of me?” God asked me. And I thought about that…. And I wrote “acceptance.” I asked God, “Am I good enough?” Do you accept me? 

How could it be? That I legitimately questioned whether I was good enough to be loved by God. That’s why I was sitting there asking God to change me, so that I could be pleasing and acceptable to the Lord. 

The questions of Am I good enough, came with a pang, like a sadness, to see my desperate insecure self in need of just love. I felt mercy toward her. Poor girl, of course, of course you’re good enough, Lydia! God loves you no matter what!

Jesus doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices. Jesus has mercy on us. Jesus loves us no matter what. Let me say that again. God doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices. Are you thinking in your head, well yes but there’s still some things I need to work on or things I need to clean up. Or Are you thinking about others, that one person, sure Jesus loves them but they’ve got some work to do. Sure the theological term sanctification has had much to expound on over centuries. But moral achievements are only meant to be the natural outpouring of the spirit through mercy and grace. Not by merit, through grace, GRACE, alone. 

 

In 2010 Jennifer Knapp the Christian musician came out publicly sharing that she’s been in a loving relationship with a woman for 8 years. I can see why she might’ve been asking God to burn her desires and the song, not being about how God sees her but maybe more about how others saw her or how she saw herself and felt the need to be seen and accepted a certain way. She longed to be accepted and loved. And sadly, when she came out, many were shocked, even angry. This is not God’s way. It’s what we do to each other. We demand sacrifices from each other. 

 

We don’t need to tell each other what to do, what to give, what to give up, and how to live. Like the question we’ve been asking this Lent “what’s the most important?” It says in our Lent Bible Guide, “Our church doesn’t try to define what should be most important for all of us; we don’t tell you  exactly which way to go. But we believe that as we lean toward God in prayer and listen to the prophets,  the Spirit of God will be our teacher and guide and show us each some of what is most important as well  as show us the way forward.” 

 We only need to show one another, God’s love and how we walk in God’s love, and walk humbly together. Any sacrifice that may come, is not up to you or me, but it’ll come naturally flowing out of the life of love. That’s between them and God. And for everyone who struggles with something, we only need to show mercy. 

 

So much guilt driven theology I swallowed growing up, that I needed to be cleansed, that I needed to be better. Sometimes “worldly” views come through the lens of “Christian values”. But at the core, there is only one message, God loves you. And not you should but you can have a loving reciprocal relationship with God. And love is not gained through a series of actions or sacrifices. You do not inspire God to love you by being good. What it means to love God isn’t to do things for God that is pretty or satisfactory to God. To love God is to receive and return love, delight and enjoy God. To know God’s heart and share your heart with God. To walk with God. 

 

So this is my humble walk. It’s not perfect. I’m not that holy. But I need to walk really closely with others to remind me what this walk is like. That sometimes this walk can feel like a show. Sometimes I feel like I need my faith to be a certain way. Ya’ll, I have major baggage with this being a Pastor’s Kid. We publicly sacrificed everything for the show. Don’t. Don’t sacrifice your first born, or the last born. 

 

With what shall I come before the Lord

    and bow down before the exalted God?

Shall I come before them with burnt offerings,

    with calves a year old? Shall we come to church to log in hours of prayer, with bank checks with a year of interest? 

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Will the Lord be pleased with a thousand committees working on stuff in our organization, with ten thousand staff members? 

 

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,

    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Shall I give up things that are most precious to me, even the good and beautiful things most near to my heart? 

No, God does not require these things of you. Maybe church does. Maybe people do. But not God. 

 

The only thing that we’re told to DO in this text is, actually, justice. While I was on maternity leave I discovered that I enjoy listening to audiobooks while I’m feeding and holding the baby. I got a chance to hear “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and the main message of the book really took the whole book to drill into my head. He posed that being racist isn’t mainly about moral fallacy. In fact, when we dwindle down a thing like racism to moral or ethical failure, it fails to tackle the real root of the problem or more important the scope and power of the problem, which is how insidious and prevalent racism is, by chalking it up to almost excusing it as, oh that person is racist who is a bad person. When the reality is, racism is beyond personal individual moral failure, and plays out more powerfully as public policy. He says that it’s not ignorance or hate that fuels racism. It’s power. Power that’s carried out and implemented through racist policies. He says that ““Institutional racism” and “structural racism” and “systemic racism” are redundant. Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.” He presents that it’s not moral failings of racists that we need to be working on but racist policies. 

 

Stop focusing on moral failings. It’s not enough. It may be a part of it, sin, sacrifice, sanctification. But what’s more at stake is bigger than your moral failings. 

Here’s what I read. Don’t worry about purifying your moral ethical failures through sacrifices. DO justice. Change racist policies. Even in the realm of race, as Ibram Kendi would point out, it’s less about individual righteousness but about implementation of justice. DO Justice. We don’t need to change the hearts of men, but change the policies that perpetuates and reinforces more racism at a systemic mass sophisticated scale, well beyond a hurtful racist remark. It’s less about personal holiness and piety, it’s more about doing public love and mercy, which is justice. It’s much more relational and community oriented, a thing like mercy, rather than transactional, like nullifying one’s sin through sacrifice. 

Again from the prophet Micah,

 

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To do justice and to love mercy

    and to walk humbly with your God.

 

Be fair. LOVE MERCY. And just walk. That’s it. Step by step. 

 

Let us walk together, doing justice, loving mercy. Can we? 

 

Let me pray for us. 

 

God of Justice, God of Love, God of mercy. Show us. Show us the way to not only fix ourselves, but love ourselves, and love our neighbors like we would love ourselves. Teach us we pray, lamp our feet, that we may walk, in justice, in mercy, in humility, with you. Help us. Have mercy on us Lord Jesus, Amen. 

What We Mean When We Say “God Is Love”

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

This week’s spiritual practice which opens our recording of the service, was led by Vernee Wilkerson.


Along with my friend Ivy, I’m part of a class this year that certifies us in a spiritual direction: listening well and paying attention to how God is with us. Last weekend we had a longer session than normal that included a several hours long silent retreat. This being the year it is, we didn’t go anywhere, but I shut myself in a room for a few hours to be alone with my thoughts about my life.

 

And I found myself drawing a little box on a page in my journal. And that box was me, so I put my name in it. And I thought about the forces I’ve been feeling inside me and around me all year. And there were four forces that came to mine that push on my mind and my heart and make this year heavy. And I wrote words for those four forces. And those words were sadness, anger, fear, and pressure. 

 

Sadness, anger, fear, and pressure – I’ve felt a lot of all of those this year. Have you felt any or all of those? I wonder what else have you been feeling.

 

As I looked at this picture and prayed, I asked God where God fit into the picture. Because I believe God is always with us, that God accompanies us in all things, I asked God: how are you with me? 

 

And because I follow Jesus, I believe that what is most true of God is that God is love. And so I asked God: if this is my life today, what does it mean that you love me? Where is your love? What does love feel like?  

 

One of the only times in the Bible where someone tries to describe God in a word is when the author of a little letter called I John writes: God is love. God is love. Full stop. That’s where we start, and that’s where we end, when we talk about God.  

 

This is that writer reflecting on the life and teaching of Jesus, that so centered love in his life and teaching. And this is that writer taking a daring stab at summing up the whole of the Bible’s teaching on God as well, which so often talks about God’s love.

 

But when we dig into the details of our own experience, asking what does it mean when we say God is love, we aren’t always sure. And when we dig into the details of the Bible’s teaching and stories about love, it can also get complicated, since the Bible is a big collection of writings, by many people, all from very different times and places than we are from.

 

So what do we mean when we say God is love? 

 

I want to talk about that today from one of the beautiful and troubling and messy and passionate biblical writers about God’s love, the prophet Hosea, who is the second prophet in our series this Lent: What is Most Important.

 

Hosea was a favorite of Jesus. Jesus liked to quote an important line from Hosea that we’ll come back to when I preach next in two weeks. That line Jesus liked to quote is: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. Or I desire faithful love and not sacrifice. Jesus had a lot to say about this line and we will too.

 

But today, I want to talk about the basic set-up for the book of Hosea and what it is saying about God’s love – because depending on how you read it, it’s either beautiful and stirring, or creepy and misogynist, or a little bit of both at once.

 

The book of Hosea begins with a brief little story about Hosea’s life and his unusual marriage. It goes like this:

 

Hosea 1:2-11 (CEB)

2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to him,“Go, marry a prostitute and have children of prostitution, for the people of the land commit great prostitution by deserting the Lord.” 3 So Hosea went and took Gomer, Diblaim’s daughter, and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 4 The Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will destroy the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5 On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Jezreel Valley.” 6 Gomer became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, “Name her No Compassion, because I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel or forgive them. 7 But I will have compassion on the house of Judah. I, the Lord their God, will save them; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.” 8 When Gomer finished nursing No Compassion, she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. 9 Then the Lord said, “Name him Not My People because you are not my people, and I am not your God.”

10 Yet the number of the people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them, “Children of the living God.” 11 The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be gathered together, and they will choose one head. They will become fruitful in the land. The day will be a wonderful one for Jezreel.

Where does one start? 

 

There’s a lot here to unpack, isn’t there? 

 

This chapter is trying to convey this beautiful message of God’s love. That no matter what God’s children do with our lives, God will continue to delight in us. God will always seek relationship with us, will always offer us God’s presence and God’s best possibilities for our next steps. God will never stop loving us, whether or not we reciprocate that love.

 

That is good news.

 

And yet, the story of God’s love as told through Hosea is complicated. 

 

Imagine being Hosea. You’re a young adult living your life best as you can, praying as you do, since you love God, and you become convinced God wants your love life to mirror God’s, by loving someone who doesn’t know how to love you faithfully, or doesn’t want to love you faithfully. I would not advise this. 

 

Or imagine being Gomer, with problems of your own, but your life as a sex worker is used as a symbol for a whole culture’s failings. And the poor kids, with these awful names – No Compassion, and Not my People. Even Jezreel – that’s the site of a shameful episode in Israel’s mythic early history, like naming your kid Benedict Arnold, or naming your child after some infamous mass gravesite of old. 

 

These poor people. Now it’s easy enough to resolve this discomfort. Because after all, we don’t know if this story is historical. For the sake of everyone involved, I hope not. It may well be a parable, a fictional story with a message. 

 

But even the message.

 

Hosea thinks God is cursing people, punishing them for a lack of devotion. And somehow the restoration of future generations is supposed to make up for this generation’s pain. For the ancients, to believe God was punishing you but that things would eventually go well for your descendants may have been comforting, but it’s hard to see any of us finding peace in this. 

 

The beginning of Hosea also uses female prostitution or sexual unfaithfulness as a metaphor for human waywardness, for our tendency to stop listening to the wisdom of God and instead mess up our lives, harm our neighbor, and hurt the earth. Many of us, myself included, find the misogyny in this really problematic, like why pick on the woman? We find this to be a cultural relic we’re more than ready to set aside, not the part of the Bible that speaks to us of God.

 

So with all this mess in the story of Hosea, is it even possible to still hear this as a love story? 

 

One set of artists in our time thought: yes. We need to repackage and repurpose this story a bit to place it in our times, but we think we can. And they were the team who made the contemporary film, also called Hosea. Which you can rent and watch on youtube and amazon prime, maybe other places. 

 

The film Hosea imagines a woman’s path into sexual trafficking, where through neglect and abuse, poor luck and poor choices, and a fair bit of exploitation by bad men, a woman’s life could end up in a terribly difficult mess. The film doesn’t belittle the character that is our version of Gomer, but simply invites us to imagine her tragic story. And then it imagines what love might look like for her, and what love might look like for the one who’s loved her since childhood and loves her still, even when it hurts.

 

The film is full of adult content, as you can imagine, but I’ve got a 2-minute preview which I think is appropriate for church. I’d like you to see it. Here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YnAwCr24yE

 

What do you think love feels like? 

 

On the negative side, Hosea tells us that love is pain.

 

I was praying with a friend of mine about our kids and about the pain we feel at any loss one of our kids has. And my friend prayed that we’d know something of the life and love of God through this. And that just broke me open. Loving parents give up a piece of our hearts that forever lives inside our kids. Their joys, triumphs, and satisfaction are our delight. And their losses, heartbreaks, and trials are in some part, ours to hold and feel as well. 

 

This is what it means for God to be invested in God’s creation. God’s decided God isn’t going to be God without us. And God’s a good parent too. The delights and joys and discoveries and loves of humanity enrich the life of God. And the losses, pains, and disappointments of humanity hurt the heart of God. This is uniquely true when we participate in our own hurt or when we turn our powers against one another and participate in the unravelling of God’s good creation. God feels all of this in God as well. 

 

Love is pain.

 

Positively, though, love is relentless. And love isn’t higher or lower. Love seeks real relationship with the beloved.

 

The prophets try to give us a window into the emotional life of God. Which is a new thing for some of us, to imagine that God would have all these emotions. 

 

Given the prophets’ views of God, in their time, when God is angry over the mess we make of our lives and one another and this good world, they communicate God’s anger through threats of punishment. Some of you all know parents like that, threatening to do this or that to their kids, if they don’t stop whatever-ing. Real talk, here, some of you all are parents like that. 

 

But we shouldn’t take all this talk of punishment too literally. Because after all, Hosea shows the tradition wrestling with itself. Again and again, you’ll read this week in the Lenten guide, Hosea says God can’t help Godself from compassion. When God is fed up with the violence and injustice and fickle faithlessness of us and God feels the very understandable sadness and anger of all that, God still can’t help but love us. 

 

And when love doesn’t work, when we don’t turn to God and turn to the good in response to God’s love, God keeps trying.

 

Hosea begins to hint at a radical posture of God that is intensified in the story and witness of Jesus, that if it is hard for us to listen to and love an unseen God, God will take responsibility for that gap. And God will do everything possible to close it.

 

In the film Hosea, the character of Gomer says if this is going to work between us, I can’t always come up to your standards, beloved. I can’t always fear your judgement. I need you to come down to me. And that’s just what the character of Hosea does. 

 

When we don’t know how to love God, the God of Hosea, and especially the God known to us through the teaching and life of Jesus Christ isn’t one who waits for us at a distance. Isn’t one who gives up on us. Isn’t one who sees our pains and problems with sympathy – like, aw, I’m so sorry for what you all are going through. God takes our pains and hurts into God’s own experience. 

 

It reminds me of the difference Brene Brown talks about between sympathy and empathy. Say you fall into a dark hole. Sympathy looks down and says – wow, sorry you’re stuck in that whole. Want a sandwich? It’s well meant, maybe, but it doesn’t connect us. 

 

Empathy, though, remembers one’s own experience of pain and so climbs into the hole with us, says, “I know what it’s like down here. You’re not alone.” 

 

I’ll post a great little animated video in the chat about this after the sermon.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZBTYViDPlQ]

 

Love is empathy. Love will be with the beloved, no matter what they’re going through. I want to be with you in that. This is what love feels like. Someone who wants to be with you in all you are and everything you going through.

 

And this is the love of God for us all. Not sympathy, not even just empathy, but union. Every part of our experience is part of the life of God – isn’t just seen by God, but known and felt by God. 

 

Here’s one way that’s speaking to me right now. When I look at my life, and it feels like I’m in this box, with sadness, anger, fear, and pressure pushing in. One, I know God knows the way through this. I’ve been talking to God about my way out of this moment, what I’m going to do, what help I’m longing for to see me through what’s been a long year. 

 

More importantly to me, though, God’s love means I’m not in that box alone. God sees what I see. God knows what I know. God feels what I feel. 

God is glad to be with me in this, and God is strong enough to help. And that’s speaking to me and meaning the world to me right now. 

 

Friends, no matter what you are experiencing today, whatever mix of good and bad, joy and pain this year has brought you, you are not in it alone. A loving God feels with you all you feel. And a living, life-giving God walks with you offering the next creative possibility for you to respond to as well.

 

Pray with me for a moment please.