A God Who Treasures

Matthew 7:7-11

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?

10 Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?

11 If you, then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!


When Ivy and I were talking about this Sunday a few weeks ago, she sent over this question as a potential prompt or starting point – basically,

“Why faith? Why are you so compelled by God? By Jesus? Why keep doing this?”

And that’s a good question. Some days it’s a hard question. And frankly, after a year of divinity school, it’s an even better question. Going to divinity school in some ways feels like when you look at a word so long that it doesn’t look like a real word anymore.

You look at the word theology so often that eventually you’re like “that’s not a real word.” Is that spelled right? You spend so much time thinking about and talking about it, and thinking and talking about the sometimes wonderful and often horrifying history of Christianity across time. And it’s a lot to process. So at the end of the day, you can sort of find yourself asking,

“why are we doing this?”


“what is this?”

This is my answer right now, and it’s different from my answer a year ago, and it will be different from my answer a year from now. My hope is that the process of unpacking these questions in community makes us better. Examination makes us better. We may not get any closer to The capital-t Truth, but we get closer to honesty and connection and something that feels real. And that’s why we come here on Sunday mornings – for something real. So with that, I want to kick us off with a quote.

It’s one I’ve heard a few times over the years, and it’s by a guy named Irenaeus. He was a Greek leader in the Christian church in the 2nd century, and he once said,

“the glory of God is man fully alive,”

or said a different way,

“the glory of God is humanity fully alive.”

And I love that. First, there’s something about how early this quote is that I love. This is fresh off the heels of Jesus’ life and ministry – we’re just a generation or two away, and the early Jesus movement is still trying to figure out who they are and what they care about. They’re just starting to peel off from the larger Jewish community and become sort of their own thing. This is also hundreds of years before the curation and official packaging of the New Testament as we know it today, and so the early Jesus followers at this time were processing together in community, relying on stories and letters, to understand the implications of this person called Jesus who had just walked the earth.

And so the fact that Irenaeus was onto this idea already at that time – the idea that this was his theology – is so good to me. He doesn’t say

“the glory of God is man fully happy,”

or even

“the glory of God is man fully good.”

He says something else. To give glory to God is to be fully, truly, honestly, alive.

And so much of the human experience is us flailing around figuring out how to do that. Learning rules and then un-learning rules, building lives for ourselves and then pivoting. Being alive is both inherent and it’s a practice. It’s just figuring out how to be more fully alive.

And I want that for us. I want all of us to be capital-a Alive. And to me, Jesus provides this extraordinary framework for what that can look like and I think one of the tentpoles is the act of Treasuring. I think the invitation we get from God – the invitation we see modeled in the life of Jesus, and one we’ll look at a little more closely in a moment – is an invitation to treasure the world around us.

God invites us to be a people who treasure – who purposefully seek out wisdom and goodness in all things and who delight in what we find.

With that, let’s take a look at our scripture passage for today, which comes from the book of Matthew, Chapter 7.

Matthew 7:7-11

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for bread, would give a stone?

10 Or if the child asked for a fish, would give a snake?

11 If you, then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

In the Gospel of Matthew, shortly after Jesus begins his public ministry, he delivers the Sermon on the Mount. And this sermon is a real hit parade. Here we find the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, the golden rule – all here. The Sermon on the Mount is basically the thesis statement of the entire gospel. We get lessons here on generosity, worry, non-judgment. We see God’s preference for the poor and the oppressed.

And a few verses before the passage we just read, we see Jesus talking about the importance of prioritizing love over money. Just before this passage we also get a lesson on anxiety, on abundance: Jesus says,

“consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

We hear Jesus tell his followers not to be anxious, not to worry about what they’ll eat or what they’ll wear. He tells them to trust that the world is good, that the world is for them, and that there is enough – enough for them, enough for everyone.

And then we get to this passage – ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. 

I believe the invitation here isn’t to pray for things, necessarily. To pray for specific circumstances.

  • Perhaps Jesus is inviting us into something bigger. 
  • Perhaps he’s inviting us into the reorientation of our minds towards wisdom. 
  • Perhaps he’s inviting us into the reorientation of our hearts towards the practice of treasuring.


I started rolling around this idea of treasuring recently. What it means to treasure something, or someone.

I thought about parents and their children – parents, when you treasure your kids, you’re not blind to all the ways your kids are challenging or frustrating or wild. You see their fullness and you delight in everything good within them. This treasuring is a choice – you choose to look for the goodness and the beauty in your kids.

I thought about treasuring a city – I just moved to Nashville a year ago, and I love it so much. It’s so hot and there aren’t enough trees and it’s just the best. When you treasure a city, you want to explore everything, you walk the parks and the farmer’s markets and you work towards making it better. You assume there is goodness to be found and you work towards finding it.

I thought about Taylor Swift – I treasure Taylor Swift. Her most recent record was a re-release of her 2010 album Speak Now. And this re-release included six brand new tracks “from the vault” – tracks she wrote back in 2010 that never made it onto the original album. And they’re bad. They’re so bad. But I listen to them closely because I want there to be something good to be found, and I believe there is something good to be found.

And that’s the invitation I’m hearing from this passage, and that’s what I believe God is inviting us into every day. 

That is faith – that choice, that logical leap we are called to make every day. It is choosing to believe that this life and this world and everyone around us are filled with beauty and wisdom and opportunities to see God at work.

I have some friends who are counselors and in their work they call this unconditional positive regard. It’s seeing all of someone’s fullness, all of their vulnerability, all of their mistakes, all their darkness, and tilting your mind moment to moment towards love for that person. And I mean, what a heart-shaping practice. 

And imagine if we used those eyes – if we used the practice of treasuring – to see everything.

What if we spent our days trying to treasure each other?

What if we approached our community with the assumption that there is wisdom and goodness to be found in each person?

How would our relationships change?

How would our communities change? 

What if we spent our days trying to treasure the world around us? Seeking to understand it and tend to it, even when it’s inconvenient, even when it forces us to slow down and do less and resist the hurriedness of contemporary life.

How might our political priorities change if we spent more time treasuring?

What would it look like to vote in a way that reflects the boundaryless unconditional positive regard that Jesus demonstrates?

What if we seek to uphold the inherent dignity of every human being in our public policy?

Is it possible that that could make us, and the people around us, a bit more alive?


This can seem like an impossible task most days. Recoding our brains is so impossibly hard. Unconditional positive regard is hard. Seeing with the eyes of love is hard.

But what we can see Jesus saying here is that our job is just to ask. 

To be honest with the Divine, the one who invites us deeper and deeper into life.

And it doesn’t require fancy words or fancy prayers. Ann Lamott is one of my favorite writers about faith and she says her three favorite prayers are “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.” You can just bring “help” to God. You can ask a question – where am I bristling? Where can I soften? Where can I open my eyes and my heart to bear witness to more goodness and beauty in the world?

It doesn’t require anything special.

Jesus tells us that this deeper life is fully available to us in every moment, in total abundance, whenever our hearts are open to it.

Knock, Jesus says, because the Divine is never going to force itself into our hearts. The Divine never pushes or coerces. It never intimidates. 

It just waits, just on the other side of the door, to give life and life abundant as soon as we ask.

So why God? Because the glory of God is humanity fully alive. I think the world transforms around us when people become alive. In Nashville earlier this year I saw the Tennessee Three change the world when they pushed into their Alive-ness. And aliveness – all of the weeping and laughing and storytelling and speaking truth to power and mourning and dancing of it all – is available to all of us in every moment. All we have to do is knock. 


As we close, I want to share a poem by Mary Oliver that I think does a better job than any sermon I can imagine at describing this treasuring life that Jesus invites us into.

The poem is called Praying:

It doesn’t have to be

The blue iris, it could be 

Weeds in a vacant lot, or a few

Small stones; just

Pay attention, then patch


A few words together and don’t try

To make them elaborate, this isn’t

A contest but the doorway


Into thanks, and a silence in which

Another voice may speak.


Let’s pray.

To Hell and Back

When I went to Israel and Palestine last month, I knew that I’d be meeting activists and agitators as our group studied conflict and just peacemaking. I knew I’d be walking in the places where Jesus walked, seeing the Bible’s geography come to life, I knew I’d be praying in places that mean a great deal to me and to the many of the world’s great faith traditions. And all that was awesome.

But there was also this one side hope of mine. I used to be an avid runner, I still run a little bit. And I love getting outdoors and hiking. So even though I knew our trip was mostly urban and very busy, I was hoping there might be an opportunity for one little outdoorsy adventure. One of you, Eduardo, actually promised to pray for me during the trip that this would happen.  

And it actually happened twice. At the start of the trip, I had the chance to hike and run up and down the beautiful hillsides of Haifa, and see the sunrise over the Mediterranean, amidst all the little stray cats of that city. That was special.

And then later, in Jerusalem, even better, I had the chance to run to Hell and back. Yeah, literally.

Welcome, my friends, to the upper slopes of hell.

I know, confusing, right? It’s a big, lush olive tree, on a grassy slope. What kind of hell is that?

Well, friends, this is something I would like to explore today. 

I’d like to tell you about my pilgrimage in and out of the Valley of Hinnom, in Greek known as Gehenna – the word that in the New Testament of the Bible is most frequently translated as hell.

And as I share about this place, I’d like to talk a little bit about what I think hell is and isn’t. I preached about this topic like three years ago, and I heard a lot of you found it helpful, so we come back to again, from another angle. Today, I want to talk a little bit about the words in the Bible behind this concept of hell, what it is or isn’t from my perspective, and how when Jesus talks about this experience that our English Bibles often call hell, he’s not trying to make us judgmental or terrified. He’s trying to help us and liberate us.

So let’s go to Jesus, first. In the middle of Mark’s writings about this life, Jesus says:

Mark 9: 42-50 (Common English Bible)

42 “As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and to be thrown into the lake.

43 If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter into life crippled than to go away with two hands into the fire of hell, which can’t be put out.

45 If your foot causes you to fall into sin, chop it off. It’s better for you to enter life lame than to be thrown into hell with two feet.

47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.

48 That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.

49 Everyone will be salted with fire.

50 Salt is good; but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? Maintain salt among yourselves and keep peace with each other.”

Alright, Jesus is getting feisty here, isn’t he? He could have just said: Watch out! Be careful. But instead, he goes on about cutting off hands, ripping out eyes, and mentioning something our translation calls hell three times. 

I was trying to remember this week the first time I heard this word “hell” when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure at first I just knew it was a bad word and that sometimes I heard grownups using it when they were angry.

Later on, I picked up the idea that some Christians think different people go to this place called hell when they die. Growing up, I realized that some Christians had lots of ideas about hell: how bad it was, and exactly who was going to go there after they die. 

Weird thing is they didn’t agree. Even weirder thing is that I never heard anyone ever wonder if they were the ones going to hell. It was always someone else. I never trusted these judgy, doomsday certainties. But I did always wonder what Jesus meant when he talked this way.

Here Jesus is in his adopted hometown, the poor village of Capernaum, by the shore of the big lake of Galilee. Jesus didn’t grow up there, but it seems that he moved there when he began his ministry as a rabbi. It was the hometown of some of his students, Peter and Andrew, probably also James and John. 

Jesus is talking to a group of kids in the neighborhood there, hanging out, and some adults come along and interrupt them, and try to get Jesus to talk about stuff that interests them. Adults can be so rude, right? – interrupting kids left and right. Well, Jesus humors them for a minute, and then he brings the subject back to kids and grownups, and says the words of warning I read for us today.

Jesus is like,

grownups, if you hurt a kid, that’s like the worst thing you can do.

And to bring his point home, he gets vivid about just how bad this is. He’s like:

hey, if you hurt a kid, you’re better off dead, as far as I’m concerned.

He calls hurting kids a big, big sin.

And then he goes on with this interesting bit, where he’s like,

figure out what parts of you are making you sin, and deal with them, because you’re better off practicing self-control, healing, and keeping yourself from hurting people, especially hurting kids, than not dealing with your issues, causing all kinds of problems, and then suffering bigger consequences later. 

Makes sense, right? Deal with your issues. We all need to deal with the bad parts of us, because we can hurt people. The bad parts of ourselves can mess up lots of people’s lives, our own included. 

Makes sense. The intense part here, though, is the language about these consequences – Jesus talking about “hell” in English at least, and this place with fires and salt and undying worms.

Gross, I know. Sorry. But what does Jesus mean? 

Can we take a minute to swirl back around to that?

So, hell – first off, that word is not in the Bible. The Bible is written in Hebrew mostly, Aramaic (a couple itty bitty parts) and then the New Testament in Greek. And none of them have a word that really matches the English idea of hell. That kind of got filled out, even made up, later. White people making up scary stories over the ages. 

There are, though, three different words and phrases, in the Bible, that sometimes get translated or thought about as hell.

The first is Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. Two different cultures and languages, but big picture, close enough to the same thing. Both words – Sheol, Hades – are names for an ancient, pre-scientific idea about the land of the dead, like a place deep under the earth where people’s bodies or souls go. Now for much of the history of people and thinking in the Bible, that was it. People didn’t really think much about any afterlife, other than it’s a bummer to not be alive anymore.

But over the few centuries before Christ, what in the Bible we could call the intertestamental period, in between the empires of Babylon and Rome, more and more Jews thought, maybe death is not the end. 

Maybe there are places or experiences of rewards or punishment in the afterlife. And there are two phrases in the New Testament, each only used a very few times, that might connect with this.

There’s this one phrase Jesus uses a few times, pretty much only in the Gospel of Matthew, this phrase

“weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Matthew quotes Jesus saying this six times, Luke once, that’s it. So it’s small, but it’s memorable. Each time Jesus is saying there are ways to be included in the Kingdom of God, the reign or family of God, what we call the Beloved Community. 

But Jesus says,

there are also times when because you don’t trust or honor God, you end up outside. You don’t belong.

It’s not totally clear if Jesus is talking about exclusion in this life or the next after we die, but the idea is if you blow off God’s invitation to love and wholeness and justice, you suffer for that. 

Try something, think about people you know or have learned about that are in the second half of their lives – over 40 or 50 – and they seem to have just stubbornly resisted invitations to love, grace, mercy, and justice. Don’t say their name out loud, but think about them. Hateful, stubborn, unloving, unkind, unjust, mean people. They seem sort of like the opposite of a God-responsive person.

Maybe it feels judgy to speak this way, but if we’re honest, we can all think of people. Well, there may be parts of them we don’t see, which is why God judges, we don’t, but maybe these are people who are outside God’s Beloved Community right now. And this stubborn resistance to God, this stubborn resistance to grace and goodness and love and justice, this makes your life junk – a life of gnashing of teeth – suffering and violence. And if you’re this person and you somehow meet the righteous, loving Spirit of God after your death, maybe on that day there’s more weeping than joy, at least at first.

I don’t know if that’s hell or not, like I said it’s just a few mentions, but this is one way Jesus has of warning people. Respond to God now, don’t wait until you realize you’re outside the circle, and you’re weeping and gnashing your teeth. 

Alright, so Sheol/Hades – death or the underworld. That’s one. Weeping and gnashing of teeth – that’s the second phrase.

And here’s the third. Jesus talks about this place called Gehenna a few times. In Hebrew or Jesus’ language of Aramaic, this Greek word Gehenna is the Valley of Hinnom. And it’s where I was last month. This is the word that’s in the Mark 9 passage we read today, three times. 

If you’re sinning,

Jesus says,

and especially if you’re hurting kids, put in the work to get better. Salt yourselves, he says later. Salt is a metaphor for judgment here. Jesus says:

judge yourselves – notice the hurt and hurting, bad parts of you and ask for help and work on them, so you don’t face their worst consequences, so you don’t end up metaphorically or literally in Gehenna, this valley of Hinnom. 

What is this place? 

So Gehenna is a long valley that winds around the city of Jerusalem. It’s like a mile long, and it’s really steep. I know, I ran down it and then back up. In Greater Boston, there is no hill this long or this steep. Gehenna’s more like running up and down a small mountain. 

The first time this place shows up in history it’s just a borderland, sometimes still is. Millennia ago, it was a tribal borderland, and at some point a family named Hinnom owned a lot of it. Lucky them, it’s a great place for growing olives. As recently as the 1960s, it was a border again, then between the countries of Israel and Jordan. 

What’s underneath these olive groves is really interesting though. There’s a whole lot of history, and a whole lot of hurt under these slopes. 

This place is infamous, as it turns out, for grownups hurting kids. Centuries before Jesus, for decades, some people started sacrificing their children by fire in this valley. Yeah, child sacrifice is the ugliest element of a number of ancient world religions. And it happened in this valley, by fire. Seventh century BC. So maybe not surprising this place and the mention of fire comes up when Jesus warns people about hurting kids.

This isn’t the only connection of death with the Valley of Hinnom. Gonna get gross here for just one second, OK? Because it’s a borderland, and right outside the city, this valley was sometimes (we think) a burning trash heap, and a mass gravesite. During the Babylonian destruction of the city in the 6th century BC, during the Roman attack in the 1st century, and one other time a historian told me during a Persian attack, this may have been a mass gravesite. Running along near the bottom of the valley, I peeked behind a little stone wall at some point and saw an abandoned animal carcass – super gross – but it seems like this has always been a place to dump things and a place of death.

Midway down the valley, there’s a church and monastery too that not many tourists go to. And I asked our tour guide later, what was that church, and he’s like oh, it’s the church that marks the Field of Blood, where Judas died after betraying Jesus. 

He’s like, not many people visit there. And I thought: I can see, cheery spot for a church.  

So this Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, is a place rich in people’s imagination and experience, as a place of sin, and of sin of hurting kids, a hellish spot of decay and violence and death. 

Even today, in a way. At breakfast later, I was covered in sweat and told a local Israeli friend where I’d been running and hiking. I was like I ran to the bottom of hell and back. 

And he smiled, like wow, what a journey, and then he looked at me seriously, and said:

you shouldn’t go there. 

And I was like:

yeah, yeah, I was joking about that going to hell idea.

And he was like:

no, I’m serious, you shouldn’t run there tomorrow, it’s not safe. 

And he helped me see, this is still a borderland, marking the hells of racism, religious conflict, and violence. A place where people can get hurt.

See as you descend down the valley it changes. 

Near the top of Gehenna today, you see this Gentrified Jewish neighborhood. There’s food trucks parked there, expensive housing with great views, great location. The food trucks are right next to this really cool seasonal music fest, where local Jewish Israelis can get a drink and eat outdoors and watch live music and all that. I don’t know, it’s sort of like a mini version of Boston’s Seaport neighborhood.

Gehenna pic

But then as you go down the steep road, past the olive groves and all those graves underneath, you end up in a most poor, pretty crowded Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem, segregated. The valley at that point is more dirt than grass, lots of trash everywhere since there aren’t city services, no food trucks either. It’s a place where people feel frustration over exclusion and neglect. People don’t go up and down that valley anymore – they stay apart.

I think Jesus thought about this valley often, when he thought about how bad life can get. 

Powerful people can do horrible things and cause worlds of hurt to others, kids included. 

People and families and nations can lust after bodies and land and resources that aren’t theirs and our souls become heaping messes of trash. We war with each other and rage in violence, leaving suffering and death in the wake of our unresolved anger and conflict. 

In addition to talking about hurting kids, the two times Jesus most mentions Gehenna is when he’s warning people about the consequences of unregulated anger and lust. 

Violent anger and greedy lust – these always unleash internal hell in our souls and sometimes violent hell in our bodies and communities. 

Life can get really bad, Jesus recognizes. Let’s get help and do something about it when we get there. And should we ever find ourselves in hell in this life or the next, let’s call out to God for mercy and with the help of God and friends, let’s try to find our way out again.

Two last examples:

There’s a moment when Jesus is entering Jerusalem, and he’s high up on a hill, overlooking the whole city, Gehenna included, and he starts crying and says aloud:

O Jerusalem, if you only knew the ways that would lead to peace.

And he pictures this beautiful city’s destruction, which would happen a generation later at the hands of Roman armies. Perhaps he pictures the fires and graves of Gehenna, and he longs for people to choose peacemaking over violence. 

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot and wondering what would Jesus see, what would he cry over, what would he long for, standing on a hillside today, looking out over any of our great cities.

Say Jesus is up in Arlington Heights, looking out over Boston, what would he see? Why might he cry? How would he warn us? And what would he pray?  

Greater Boston, if you only knew the way. Maybe he’d think about our unregulated desires as a people for more energy, more wealth, the ways we’ve trashed our rivers and our air, and our slowness to embrace the ways of peace and flourishing for our species. 

After all, climate change is like warfare. It’s a place where Jesus’ triple threats of Gehenna meet – unregulated desire meets violence meets hurting kids. In this case, violence to the earth, and hurting our kids and grandkids and future generations. 

Jesus might see the Gehenna we’re making and urge us toward change. 

Gehenna, Hell, after all isn’t a curse, it’s a warning.

I’m summing up here.

Hell is not a place God sends us in anger because God needs to punish. No, hell is a place that we send ourselves and one another. It’s the bitter fruit in our souls and our communities and our earth of our collective sin. And it’s maybe even a metaphor for the distorted, violent, greedy, twisted condition our souls can end up in at the end of this life on earth. 

So hell isn’t where God sends us. It’s where we send ourselves and each other. 

And hell isn’t where God punishes, it’s where God saves us from, in this life and the next. 

When our souls, our relationships, our societies turn toward any kind of hell – toward separation and harm and death and violence, we find ourselves in a place where we need saving from a God who loves to save.  

Hell isn’t a threat, it’s a consequence. Jesus is like:

do what you’ve gotta do to not end up there. To not end up a violent, soul-scarred tragedy of a human being. Partner with God, get help to get better, get free.

We’ll talk more about that process next week. 

And if that doesn’t work, and you find yourself in hell one way or another, in this life or the next, call out for the mercy and help of God, who is kind and strong to rescue and save. 

Because there is nowhere that God is not, and there is no time that God does not love to rescue us all. 


For a journalist’s own take on a tour of Gehenna, read this article too:


Back to School Sunday: Shining Like Stars This Year

For this week’s Reservoir events and happenings, click “Download PDF.”

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

Man, did I have a week last week. There was some weird and hard stuff that was particular to me, but also a lot of back to school stuff that I know a lot of you are experiencing.


Last week, my wife Grace and I spent a day driving to Philadelphia and back, so our 18-year old daughter could begin college there. This year, the mask-wearing, no partying, take some of your classes online version of college. Like many other families, for us it was all the things – a moment of pride and enthusiasm and joy, also of tears and fears and heartbreak. Eighteen years old is a big year. And this year, for all the 18 year olds and their parents, whether they’re finishing high school, or looking for jobs, or starting college or training programs – it’s a really weird and strange and hard experience this year. 


Also last week, I took some days off to do some stuff with my two teenage boys. I love my kids and I’m always happy to do that, but this year, we took some time off together because they were supposed to be busy starting their first and second years of high school. Instead, though, nothing’s happening yet, because public education is figuring out how in the world to be this year. And whether it be in person school, online school, some mix of those two things school, it’s mostly delayed. 


And in my house, the two teens and the two parents are getting ready for online school, part two, with a mix of sighs and dread. Last spring was not a happy, fruitful time in my household, and so this fall, we are hoping for better, but not so sure yet about those hopes.


Now I am not weighing in on the public health virtues of what school should be for kids this fall. I’m not an expert there, and I have a lot of competing thoughts on all that. I am also not weighing in on the controversy of how schools being in person or online impacts all our teachers and school staff and their families. I was a public school teacher and principal myself and I can imagine how complicated and hard this year is for everyone in our schools. The school teachers and leaders and staff I know have never worked so hard as they’re working right now, for an experience that they have no idea how good or rewarding it will be, so that’s tough. 


This year is just tough for all of us. None of us get everything we want, and most of us are taxed enormously. And for all those of us who are parents, students, teachers, school staff and administrators of all kinds, this year’s back to school time is really, really hard. 


So on this year’s back to school Sunday, I’m inviting us to be here for each other. The rest of September and all of October, our church theme will be the Beloved Community – the radical connectedness; the interdependent, joyful community; the community of justice and belonging that all of us who follow Jesus are called to participate in in our churches, in our households, even – as we are able – in our larger societies. We need each other, now more than ever. 


On this year’s back to school Sunday, I’m also going to invite us to pray for one another, and to ask for and welcome other’s prayers for us. So our spiritual exercise this week is after the sermon, as I lead us in some extended prayer for students, for parents, for teachers, and for all school staff and leaders. If you’re with us on zoom today, we’ve left the chat open for you all this Back to School Sunday. If you’re a student or parent or teacher or school staff or leader, please post in the chat, anytime from now to the end of service, your name and which of those you are and where. For those of you on zoom OR on youtube, know that we’ll have a time of prayer for all of you in about 15 minutes, as my sermon is wrapping up. 


Also, on this year’s Back to School Sunday, we’ll look to the scriptures – both the New Testament and the Old – to find wisdom and hope about how even an impossibly hard year can be a time for life and goodness and joy. Because I think all of us, whether it’s back to school for us now or not, could use pathways to life and goodness and joy right now. 


Let me read for us three excerpts from the little letter to the Philippians, written by one of the earliest and most famous followers of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus.


Philippians 1:27, 2:14-15 (NRSV)

Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ

14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.


Philippians 4:12-13 (NRSV)

12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

Philippians 4:4-9 (NRSV)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

This is some serious positive psychology – contentment, strength, joy, upbeat mindset, honorable attention. And all this relentless positivity, depending on your temperament might be really inspiring or downright annoying. 

But before you write off this letter as phony or ungrounded or out of touch with troubling times like ours, it’s worth pointing out that Paul wrote it from prison. He was being held for his subversive faith, and though he would gain his freedom eventually, he would later be arrested again and executed in Rome. 

And the little house churches in the city of Philippi that Paul is writing to lived on the margins of their city – there were slaves among them, and all of them practiced a faith that was misunderstood and maligned by most people.

The author of this letter, and the people he’s writing to, know about pain and poverty and discrimination and difficulty. In fact, not to minimize our troubles in 21st century America, but I’d argue that Paul and the great majority of people in the Philippian house churches knew hardships beyond what most of us can fathom.

Life expectancy in the Roman empire was around 25 years old. 25. And even if you made it alive to adulthood, odds were still that you would die no later than your 50s. Slavery was widespread, as I’ve mentioned, cities were dirty, sanitation was horrible, taxes were brutal. 

I belabor this a little to say that everything Philippians has to say about strength, resilience, contentment, joy, and peace is said in the context of really hard times. 

Paul’s insistent, though, that for him and for all followers of Jesus, when we know that God is really with us in all things, we have reasons to rejoice. We can access joy and peace that go beyond what we or anyone else would expect. 

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there can be strength. Where the spirit of God is, there can be joy. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there can be peace. Where the Spirit of God is, there is ever-increasing freedom.

I’ve called this talk Shining Like Stars, after the passage from Philippians I read, the one that also talks about living lives “worthy of the gospel.” Here’s what that doesn’t and does mean, though. This doesn’t mean being super-good people, faking moral perfection for God and smiling at the rest of the world while we grit our teeth over all our troubles. 

God-with-us doesn’t need us to be perfect. The good news of Jesus doesn’t invite us to perform fake happiness, fake peace, or fake anything.

No, the shining like stars Paul talks about is when as our authentic selves, we are lit up, shined upon, energized by a force beyond ourselves. Shining like stars is finding a way of life that leads to joy and peace in all times. And a life worthy of the gospel isn’t earning or measuring up to God’s high standards for us, it’s a life that is touched by gospel, which means good news. It’s a life full of good news. 

So my question not just this day, but this year really, is how do we live with good news when so much bad news keeps coming our way? How do we access this peace and joy, when life isn’t how we want it to be? 

This is why I’ve been reading Philippians, to learn from God how to live a good life in bad times. 

I thought of all this when last weekend, I saw an unusual tree.

Imagine you’re a little sapling, starting to grow up into a birch tree nearby a riverbank. You might look like this. 

TREE PICTURE #1 – close up of the bottom

We saw this tree on a family hike we took in New Hampshire a little over a week ago. We were giving our daughter a goodbye hike in the White Mountains before she left home and we walked by this tree.

What stuck out were the conditions under which this tree had to live. Because that tree had the misfortune of growing right where the dirt met this enormous boulder of a rock. So that its root system ended up looking like this.

TREE PICTURE #2 – roots all over the rock

That’s not a good thing, by the way, for a tree. Those tiny patches of dirt on top of the rock where so many roots are going are not giving the tree all that much water or nutrients. That rock is like our year of coronavirus. It’s forced limitations. It’s the stress of people stuck at home together, or stuck at home alone. It’s the stress of doing public life behind masks, or going to work and not knowing if it’s safe, or wondering who will get sick, or when your kids will ever go to school again, or what all this time in front of the computer is doing to them. That rock next to the tree is the toxin of racial injustice for people of color in America – all the extra burdens of representation and stress and fear and grief. 

This year, we do not find ourselves living in ideal conditions for human flourishing – far from it. Just like a tree that’s planted in seriously rocky soil.

But I want you to see what’s become of this tree.

TREE PICTURE #3 – birch tree canopy

It’s so beautiful now. It’s a little crooked, to be sure, but it’s grown up tall and strong, and is part of a beautiful green canopy above the riverside. Because again and again, it’s drawn from those roots alongside the rock, it’s drawn not from the one side stuck over that boulder but from the dirt side of its life, right along the moist, fertile riverbed. And it’s grown well. 

The Bible invites us again and again to see our lives like trees like this. Here’s just one spot, from the prophet Jeremiah. 

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (NRSV)

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

    whose trust is the Lord.

8 They shall be like a tree planted by water,

    sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

    and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,

    and it does not cease to bear fruit.


Human flourishing is to be a tree with deep roots, by healthy, flowing water. And God is meant to be to us not a set of ideas or beliefs, but a spring of life, that cool glass of water you drink after an afternoon under a hot sun. 


Human flourishing, the blessing of faith, is to not succumb to fear or anxiety in hard times, but to stay green and bear fruit, not because we are powerful or special or disciplined, but because God is with us. 


The reason that Paul says – Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – is that he’s been teaching us how to connect with the God of life, how to get all this nourishment. He’s teaching a way of life that is all about drawing water and nutrients from the soil you’ve got, even when you’re up against a rock. It’s all about trust in God that helps us flourish, about accessing contentment, joy, and peace, when life’s not seeming to give us a lot of reason to have all that. 


Paul often calls this life, this shining like stars life, life in the Spirit. And Philippians gives us really practical pictures of what this life entails. I’ll close mentioning quickly just five of these. 


  1. We’re invited to trust the God who has suffered before and suffers all things with us still. This is at the heart of the good news, that there is no pain or challenge that can come our way that God won’t be with us in. 
  2. We’re encouraged to stay out of needless arguments. I grew up in a family with a lot of pointless arguments, and I’ve started and jumped into my share of them too in my life. And yet they give me nothing but stress and headaches. And Paul’s like – don’t! Stay out of the murmuring and arguing circuit. Don’t make a habit out of needless criticism. Now obviously we have to discern the difference between just causes worth fighting for, arguments that have a lot of point to them and need to be made, and those disputes and disagreements that will go nowhere. For instance, all the public argument over the best and safest ways to do school this year. It’s not like it doesn’t matter – the stakes are high for our kids and our teachers and our parents. We’ve got to figure this out. But the levels of blaming and criticizing and armchair experting are out of control in a lot of communities. We’re stressed out – all of us – but there are a lot better things we can do with our stress than channelling it into bitter conflicts. Here are three better options.
  3. We can take up Paul’s dare to us to rejoice because God is near. We may be up against a boulder, but there is rich soil on our other side. Life may be hard, but God is with us, and we have resources. We can look for real, authentic reasons to praise God at all times, not in denial of our circumstances, but because our circumstances don’t get to define us. We’ll practice this in a minute.
  4. We can also practice gratitude. Philippians tells us that in addition to praying about our troubles, giving thanks on the regular is part of how we access that unexpected peace. Science confirms this powerful benefit of regular mindfulness of and expression of gratitude.
  5. And lastly, we can share our anxieties with Jesus, we can express them in prayer and ask for the help we need. We see this attitude in the serenity prayer that’s so common for folks in recovery. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Because surrender and acceptance of the hard things in our life is a really powerful practice of being able to stop numbing out in addiction to try to avoid them. The original version of this prayer, from the theologian Reinhold Nieburh, Barack Obama’s favorite philosopher, for what it’s worth. Imagine having a president who had a favorite philosopher, a favorite theologian. It happened once. Anyway, the original prayer was: Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and insight to know the one from the other.


Life in hard times calls for courage. This school year, we’ve got a lot to do. If we’re teachers or otherwise support schools, we’re called to be adaptive, we’re asked to be brave, and we’re called to work our hardest to serve kids in what’s been a really bad year to be a kid around here. And if we’re parents, we’re called to the courage of faith, that this year isn’t the end for our kids, that it won’t ruin them, that good things are still possible in their lives right now. We’re called to a redemptive angle, to look for the good that is possible now, rather than just the goods we can’t have. And we’ve got lots extra to do right now as well. And if we’re students, we’ve got a lot to do to make the most out of not so great conditions for living, let alone learning. All of us have a lot to do this year.


But we also need the wisdom to see everything that we can’t do anything about, and find acceptance and peace. 


In the hardest seasons of my life – times of crisis, times of unemployment, times of conflict and relational breakdown, times of unending stresses at work, times when I felt like I carried so many burdens on my shoulders and no one understood – in these times, to say to Jesus: here are my anxieties. I’m concerned about this, and I’m burdened about this, and I don’t know what to do about this, and I need you Jesus, to help me and to hold all this stress and weight so that it doesn’t bury me.


And, I don’t know, 8 times out of 10, something happens there. I feel accompanied, carried. I remember I’m not alone. Perspective or wisdom comes. I remember who I can ask for help, and what’s not riding on my shoulders. I gain courage or hope. I can dance and sing again, not just shuffle and murmur. 


This is what it means to shine like stars, for the God who is with us to lighten us and light us up again. And this is the life worthy of the gospel – not a morally pure or perfect one, but a life suffused with good news, a life that even in hard times receives, holds, lives, carries, brings good news.


Friends, let’s look to live that life this year. 


In just a moment, we’re going to pray for everyone who’s going back to school this fall in any way. But before that, we’ll also have a chance for all of us who want to bring our whole selves to God like this for a moment.