The last time I was getting ready to go back to school was for my final year as a principal over in Watertown. One of my favorite colleagues there was my friend Mike, a social worker who offered counseling and groups to kids who were anxious, depressed, or just plain angry. Mike’s an incredibly dynamic guy – around the time I left, he retired from his work in the schools, but he still runs a small practice and he’s the founder and leader of a running club that I participate in as well. Mike’s a special guy – he’s easy to connect with, down to earth. He’s empathetic, but he’ll push you too. Now I knew Mike by reputation, as a guy who could relate to even the toughest kid. And I was grateful for what he did. But one day, he drew me into his work first hand. He was meeting with a group of boys in his basement office, and he asked me to join him.
So down I go, and I walk in and sit in the circle. I look around and I see kids I’ve suspended. I see a couple of the guys who were rumored to be among the school’s drug dealers. Many of these young men are kids that a lot of families and faculty and administrators would have loved to remove from the school if they could; problem kids, they’d be called. Mike doesn’t have illusions about these guys – he’d tell me: what everyone thinks about them is probably true, sometimes worse. But they’re not problems, they’re people. Mike was trying to help these guys find their way in life – out of generational problems, out of bad ends, into life.
One of these guys had lost a family member that week. That why they were together. Mike’s rallying this group to encourage this guy, and to name their own pain and loss. He wants them to push into and through the pain, instead of numbing out. He’s real, he’s incredibly present, he listens and he pushes. And these angry, alienated kids are crying, they’re asking for help, they’re present to each other. It was so good. And you know, there was something for me there too. Being drawn into this circle by Mike – not as the guy in charge, not as a judge or a critic, but as a participant, in a way that gave me permission for the first time to be present to these guys – not in my role as principal, but like Mike, as another man, as a human being.
That circle changed me. I hope it made me a deeper person. Mike showed me what it’s like to live each moment with presence and purpose. Indirectly, he was managing upwards, showing me how to really live.
You know, as our summer rolls into fall, as we start the new year together in Cambridge and Greater Boston, I find myself thinking about presence, and purpose, and the good life. I’ve been thinking about that for this whole church. Who are we at Reservoir? Why do we exist? What are we called to be and do in this time in our culture when churchgoing is on sharp decline? When church seems like a shrinking industry?
And I think my thoughts about church dovetail with some encouragements for all of us. Our own Be-like-Mike moment. Seeing if Jesus can’t nudge us toward more presence and purpose, toward more of the good life Jesus has for us, everywhere we go.
Jesus called people all the time. He was one present and purposeful person himself. He nudged and invited, pushed and provoked. I just spent a few months of near daily, imaginative prayer in the passages of the gospel records of the life of Jesus. It’s part of the year-long spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. For months, you read these snippets from the life of Jesus, and picture yourself in the story, and see what happens.
And this year, I’ve found, I love Jesus still. He inspires me, Jesus speaks to me. But he unnerves me too. He’s more confrontational than me. He’s braver than me. He’s always pushing.
Let’s read one of these moments.
Mark 2:13-17 (NRSV)
13 Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus is calling Levi, for sure. He sees this fellow Jew, a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman state oppressors. And what does he see? Does he see Levi’s estrangement – how he’s resented by his own people but never accepted by ruling class either? Doe she see his boredom or his fear – how he hates his life but doesn’t know how to change it? We don’t know. We just know that he calls Levi. He accepts him, and he pushes him. He invites him to go somewhere new, to do something better.
And the first place Jesus calls Levi to his his own home, to eat and drink with his colleagues, his fellow tax collectors. And to eat and drink with Jesus, and some other friends of Jesus. And of course, because they lived in a first century village where nothing was private, to eat and drink under the noses of their disapproving religious neighbors, who call them all sinners. Rejects, disapproved, like the guys in that circle I sat in down in Mike’s office – problem people.
But listen how Jesus doesn’t just call Levi and friends, he calls and pushes the self-righteous neighbors too. Jesus has no illusions. He says his new friends are sick and that he likes that because, well, he is a doctor. Need is the only prerequisite for life with Jesus.
Can you hear the push to the neighbors, though? To the ones who call themselves righteous? Jesus calls them what they call themselves. And implies, hey, if you don’t think you have need of God, move on. Have nothing to do with me or my friends. As we find our way together. But if you want in, you know how. Admit you’re sick too.
Jesus walked with people who knew they had need, and helped them find peace, rest, healing, hope, and love. And part of that journey was his acceptance and inclusion of people, his wonder-working goodness and his empowering of small faith for great things. But then part of it was doing the kind of thing that Mike did for me – enlisting his friends and followers in the work, sending them out to join Jesus in making all things new.
After Jesus calls followers like Levi – who the tradition tells us was also known as Matthew – he spends months, maybe years, pushing them toward the kinds of values and habits and lives that will bring peace, rest, healing, hope, and love to more people and places.
And several times, Jesus does this by engaging his friends in a riddle or a paradox. If you want to be first, try being last a while. If you want to be truly great, practice being a servant. If you want security, stop grasping for it. Don’t pile up possessions and wealth and acclaim – give stuff away. Pile up love. Be rich in heart and rich in connections.
Jesus again and again is calling his friends less to external achievement and shine, and more to internal wellness and depth. He’s pushing a mode of life and of leadership too – to resist the way things are and to be part of making known things as they ought to be.
We’ve printed in your programs maybe the most famous of these pushes from Jesus. It goes like this.
Mark 8:35-37 (NRSV)
35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Our days are short. We’re all going to die. So between now and then, how to we gain real life? We can be anxiously protective – focus all our time and energy on our own needs and our own little resentments, grasp for as much in the world as we can get. But Jesus says that’s how we lose. We live by joining Jesus in good news love and service.
This reminds me of an interview Bob Marley took with a news reporter back in the late 70s, just a couple of years after he became really famous. The reporter asks him: Have you made a lot of money out of your music. Marley thinks and answers: Money? I mean, how much is a lot of money to you? The reporter is surprised by this and has to think before he says: That’s a good question. Have you made, say, millions of dollars.
Marley says: no.
So the reporter asks: Are you a rich man?
Marley answers: What do you mean rich? What do you mean? The reporter, surprised to be defining wealth on television, asks: Do you have a lot of possessions? Lots of money in the bank? And then Marley ends the conversation, or maybe starts a new conversation, by saying: Possessions make you rich? I don’t have that type of richness. My richness is life, forever.
How do you get that kind of rich? Rich in life?
We’ve had one window the past couple of days, as our country has watched the funerals of two very different great Americans: John McCain and Aretha Franklin. They both were extraordinarily rich, millionaires many, many times over – Franklin through her music and McCain through his marriage. And they both famously made a number of financial missteps too. But right now, nobody cares.
We’re interested in them because of some measure of honor and decency, of love and service, that made them great. In an era of intense partisanship, and of resentment-driven politics, we’ve heard McCain’s honor and decency celebrated again and again. America has five living presidents, current and former. During the two funerals, three were out giving eulogies, one stayed home on his humble farm and prepared to teach Sunday School today, and the fifth went golfing while tweeting about his petty grievances. There you have it. Rich or poor in life.
And Aretha Franklin’s funeral – did anyone else watch parts of it? Nine hours, I think. Nine hours, wow. And there were a couple tough moments, but on the whole, it was the wealth and the depth of the Black church tradition on display. And it was call to life. To not shut it down, but to let our talents flourish for the world, to let our light shine. To use our voices for justice and liberation and renewal.
Be rich in life.
I’m wrestling with what this means for me as well. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve joked with a number of you around my age, that we’re at the statistically least happy time in life for Americans. Yeah, it’s true – on average, people’s happiness declines throughout adulthood into their mid-40s, before it slowly starts to rebound for most people. It’s not really a funny joke, because it’s too true. I mean I’m a happy guy in a number of aspects, but mid-life does pile up on you.
You face your own limitations, the loss of some dreams and illusions, the reckoning with all the inner work you’ve been putting off for decades, hints of the failing health that’ll start to accelerate down the line. You’re less successful or rich or happy than you thought you’d be, or you’re all of that, but it doesn’t mean as much as you thought it would.
Yeah, it sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Because it is. I kid… sort of.
Some of this, not all of it, but some is true for me. And one of the things I’ve done to find my way forward is the year-long spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola that I mentioned earlier. Ignatius designed this program of prayer for young men who wanted to become Jesuits, for a month long silent retreat. But he made a form of it available for any women or men to go through over a year as part of their ordinary lives. And I’m doing that this year, in search of more vision and the best pivot I can be making into my second half of life.
Because most of us don’t pivot very well. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks a lot about the addicts and fools and meanies and depressants many of us become in the second half of life when we don’t humble and limit ourselves, and deal with our pain and learn to spend ourselves on others and not on ourselves.
I want this humility. I want to be part of the healing, not the ruining of the world around me. I want to be rich in life. And I’m looking for help from Jesus.
Now I mentioned that most of these spiritual exercises are imaginative prayer in the Bible, but a few are these other situations Ignatius came up with, one of those that has struck me most this year, he calls, The Call of the King.
Now, context, Ignatius was a failed knight. He was a young man of privilege in the early 16thcentury and dreamed of gallant adventures and conquest and that kind of thing, until a cannonball smashed his leg and he was drawn to Jesus instead. But he was always something of a wannabe knight, I think, and the call of the king has some of that heroism and adventure and patriarchy all over it.
And in the call of the King exercise, you imagine yourself standing before a king who plans on bringing justice to all lands and spreading peace, rest, healing, hope, and love everywhere. And he invites you to join him, paying great costs and receiving great rewards. And you imagine yourself before this king and just notice your reaction. Don’t judge it, don’t try to control it just notice.
And when I did this exercise, I looked at that King and said, No way. I’m not going. I thought – I don’t trust this guy’s motives. I’m not sacrificing my life for his supposedly noble cause. Turns out I’m more of a good 21st century cynic than a 16th century knight.
But then Ignatius has you do the exercise a second time, but this time, the language changes a bit, and it’s not some random king, it’s Jesus.
And I printed the language, at least as my guide book has it, for this exercise in your programs. And I want to read it to you, and tell you how I responded, and what that means for me, and maybe for us, and maybe for Reservoir Church too.
I’ll mention there’s talk of Jesus’ kingdom in this, but I’ve printed it as kingdom with parentheses around the “g” to show we can read it as “kindom” as well. This is language that I think was coined by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the late Cuban-American theologian. The idea is that in English, the phrase Kingdom of God, which is central to the teaching of Jesus about God’s leadership on earth, smacks of dominion, and colonization, and patriarchy. Whereas the word kindom – an inclusive, ever-expanding family, might capture some of the feel of what Jesus was getting at better. Anyway, I appreciate that observation, so I like to use both words now.
Anyway, let me read the Call of Jesus from Ignatius. I’ll probably stick with Ignatius’ use of the word Kingdom for now, but I wanted you to know about this.
So – close your eyes if it helps – and picture Jesus saying these words to you. How do you respond?
The Call of Jesus (from the 16th century Jesuit tradition, not the Bible)
It is my will to bring all the world into the glory of my Father’s kin(g)dom, to rid all lands of injustice and bring peace, rest, healing, hope and love. I would like you to join me. If you agree to join me, and I hope you do, you will walk as I walk and live as I live, laboring with me, being alert and ready at all times to do my bidding, following me in the pain so that you may also follow me in the glory. And you shall have a place at my table, a part with me in my victory. And I will call you friend.
I can’t entirely explain why these words continue to speak to me as they do. But I’ll try a little. I hear these words and unlike the first King, I trust Jesus. I like Jesus. I feel safe with Jesus. Jesus didn’t even say these words in his life, and yet they sound like Jesus to me. The Jesus who is rich in life forever, who does justice and loves mercy, who wants his friends to join him in bringing peace, rest, healing, hope, and love to all people and all places. I can give my life to some little piece of this.
I love that I’m invited too, that we’re all invited. Those might be my favorite words here – “I would like you to join me.” Maybe next to my other favorite words that Jesus calls me friend. This is so good. The cost and the reward seem kind of irrelevant to me. I want this great a purpose for my life, and I want to do these things in the spirit of Jesus, as much like Jesus, as influenced by Jesus, as I can possibly pull off.
It’s partly that I’m just not naturally like this. I’m not going to just turn into my friend Mike on my own. We’ve all got barriers and problems. In my case, I’m too scattered – great ideas, poor follow through. And I’m too driven and stressed out. I’m not naturally present, the way real transformative love and leadership requires. I need Jesus to this for me.
So I find myself when I read and hear this call of Jesus saying yes, yes, yes, and when I do this, it seems to change my availability for this work, for this live. It seems to take my eyes off myself just long enough to let it take root more.
I want this for our church too, for what it’s worth, that we – Reservoir Chruch – could know deep in our bones that Jesus is inviting us to join him in ridding all lands of injustice and in bringing peace, rest, healing, hope, and love to all people and places.
This is actually the vision of this church – not this word for word. We put it this way, that we want to see as many people as possible in Cambridge and Greater Boston and beyond connecting deeply with Jesus and our church and thriving, and flourishing, as a result.
We want this, though, in an interesting time and place to be a church. Churchgoing is something of a dying industry, at least a shrinking industry, in our time and place. Sunday churchgoing is on the decline in all 50 states in this country, and in pretty much every kind of church as well. And so, just think about whatever neighborhood you live or work in – or think about what you know of this whole city and region, if Jesus plans on ridding this land of injustice and bringing peace, rest, healing, hope and love to all people around here by getting them into the walls of this church, or of other churches, than Jesus isn’t winning. It’s not going well.
But I don’t think Jesus is constrained by the walls of churches that bear his name. And I know that the Spirit of God doesn’t just move in and around churches or church-people. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, knew this too. Jesus may have all kinds of ways to connect people more with Jesus and to flourish their lives, and flourish our city and its institutions. And I think Jesus just might be calling us to welcome his invitation to be part of this purpose. To join him in ridding all lands of injustice and in bringing peace, rest, healing, hope, and love to all people and places.
Our church this year is going to try to learn to do this more. We’re going to try and remind each other that what we do here on Sunday isn’t the main event in our lives- we know that – and it’s also not the main event in what Jesus is doing in and through us. What we do on Sundays, and what we do in our community groups and in our other community and programming, is to help us make the kind of connections with Jesus and with friends that grow the deep work of God in us, that help us say yes to Jesus and yes to life in our spirits and our values and our living. And it’s to help equip us to find our voice and power in doing this work of Jesus we’re called to in all the places we live and work and make our way.
We’re going to try and get better and deeper and equipping one another for purpose, and presence, and the good life – to hear and respond to this sweet, liberating encouragement and push of Jesus.
I know that as I keep listening to this call of Jesus, as I make my way through mid-life trying to say yes to the inner and the outer work of Jesus in me and through me, well I hope I’m more brave and more present like my friend Mike. I hope my kids and my neighbors and my wife and my friends find me to be someone who’s bringing more peace, rest, healing, hope, and love into their lives. I hope I do my part to end some injustice. I hope all of you feel more that I help you experience a little more peace, rest, healing, hope, and love and spread those to people and places too.
This isn’t just a job, this gives life, my friends. This is the call of Jesus, not just the purpose of this church, but the purpose of our lives. And it’s a good one. Let’s say yes to Jesus.
In the spirit of this year, I’m trying to close my talks not with random invitations, but with a spiritual practice of the week to connect with Jesus and God’s work of love in us. And an invitation that might grow your voice or leadership, that might help you thrive or flourish, or be a means to someone else’s thriving or flourishing. So in that spirit, I invite you to consider.
A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing: With God’s help and the help of friends, make a new or a deeper investment in whom or in what will bring you greater riches of life.
Spiritual Practice of the Week: Each day this week, imagine standing next to Jesus, and Jesus saying the words of “The Call of Jesus” to you. Don’t force or judge any particular reaction. Just notice and articulate your response.