The Fires That Shape Us

I’ve seen a house burn from top to bottom once in my life — thankfully only once.
Ten years ago in Maine, this time of year — I watched it burn from the 2nd floor of the house my Dad grew up in.  That 2nd floor was the perfect vantage point to watch birds float to the small roof below, and identify unannounced visitors  pulling in the driveway  coming to say their “last good-byes” to my Dad.   It also gave a nice view of that house directly across the road that sat at the top of a short but steep hill. .  . one that always was of interest in the winter as the owners gave test to their plowing and de-icing prowess – often skidding their vehicles to a merciful stop just before they joined the main road at the bottom.

Firefighters say that it only takes 30 seconds from the start of a fire for it to rage out of control. And only two minutes for it to overtake a structure. I think I had learned this fact in 3rd grade when Smokey The Bear visited our classroom. It scared me enough that I convinced my parents to put a metal escape chain ladder out my bedroom window for fire safety — which I happily used for many things unrelated to fires.

But on that unusually warm February night 10 years ago I bore witness – firsthand – to the uncontrolled power and speed of fire. The impact of the terror of fire – the screams and the cries …the damage, the destruction and the danger of fire.  

It is true that fire is scary as hell.

In one minute life holds shape – heartbeats, and flannels, and chimneys, and snow shovels, and dogs barking —  and in the next minute it is smoke and ash.

Today we’ll spend some time pressing into this theme of Fire as Danger – it is our 3rd week of Lent and we will wonder together:

  • 1) why has the church used the imagery and metaphor of fire to put terror into the hearts of so many who are eager to experience the love of God? 
  • 2) What do we do when we are burned? When those around us are in fires?
  • 3) And what potential does fire have to shape us?

We’ll look at the historic story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into a dangerous, fiery furnace and consider its contemporary messages for us today.

Before I pray for us, I would be remiss to not flag how intense this imagery of fire is… how it moves from the metaphorical realm to our lived reality in many ways. This week US Airman Aaron Bushnell died in the fires of self-immolation protesting the genocide of the Palestinian people. It is intense, hard, and it is real. As we move along in today’s service please take the space and care you need for yourself and the Spirit of God to be with you – with as much freedom as you need.

Let me pray for us:

My God(!) there is a lot to fear these days…so much is burning.  There is a lot to rage against and a lot to fight. And so today we ask for your warm presence as we gather together. Help us to remember that you call us by name – that we are precious in your eyes, that you honor us – that you love us unconditionally. 

And remind us that through every age of struggle, every era of hope, you are with us. And in the labors of liberation, could you sustain us with joy and courage? 

We praise you God, because your presence is a force OF, and FOR life. Your love is like oxygen to our spirits – that fans the flames of all good things.

In community, we pray – – AMEN

It isn’t that surprising to imagine why churches would gravitate to the imagery of fire — I mean it is almost a flawless means by which to control. Fire’s destructive power is an effective symbol for fearsome threats of eternal suffering and torment for particular targets of divine or human judgment.  *next week – fires of judgment.

Fire of course, leaves the symbolic realm and is a real experience of pain and suffering. We know – the minimal centimeters between the pleasure of warming your hands by a fire and the jolting pain of having them singed by fire – we know that a drop of boiling water, or a brush of skin against a hot pan — leaves its mark in blisters and searing pain for days. John O’ Donohue says

“a burn is unlike any other pain – it cuts to the soul.” 

Therefore — threatening people with a future that is an eternal burning was the ultimate threat that could be issued against them. And for followers of Jesus who had witnessed  heretics and witches and any other person deemed “deviant” burned at the stake –  this wasn’t a far off threat – it was convincing. 

FEAR – it’s how the church colonized the minds of its people with a blazing image of a controlling, angry, punishing God.  A conditional God – a conditional faith.  And even without an identifiable flame as a warning all the time,  or words like “damnation” or “eternal suffering” always spoken from leaders… the smoke of this fear is what has been absorbed into our churches, our nation, our society — and for many of us, our bodies. 

But… if we can roll back and look at scripture we can see that fire isn’t usually a weapon in God’s hands — it is violence from which God longs to rescue us. 

Isaiah 43:1-5 (Common English Bible)

1 Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name; you are mine.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched

    and flame won’t burn you.

3 I am the Lord your God,

    the holy one of Israel, your savior.

I have given Egypt as your ransom,

    Cush and Seba in  your place.

4 Because you are precious in my eyes,

    you are honored, and I love you.

    I give people in your place,

        and nations in exchange for your life.

5 Don’t fear,

    I am with you.

From the east I’ll bring your children;

    from the west I’ll gather you.

***
You will not drown. You will not be scorched. You will not be burned. I will be with you. 

These are the promises that Isaiah pens to those in exile who are under the empire of Babylon. A people who had journeyed and suffered, who had been enslaved — then free, and now in exile.  A letter to say “there is hope”, God has not forgotten you. 

Remember your ancestors who kept their eyes on God. God who came in the column of fire that lit the path in their nighttime travels … remember your God as fire & light. 

Remember fire that lit your ancestors’ way through the wilderness – that glowed as manna fell and warmed as the desert night temperatures cooled .. remember your God as fire & warmth & protection.

Remember that in the flame of fire — God spoke to Moses. The one who would lead your ancestors out of slavery.

God a column of fire. . . present, comforting, a spark of hope.

It’s a bold letter of promise. A promise on God’s behalf for rescue. To return home from exile. A promise that God is an unconditional God. An everlasting, proactive, persistent loving kindness – kind of God… toward all of God’s creation.

These were the promises I too believed. God will save. God will deliver those God loves from suffering. God will protect. These too were the promises my Dad believed.

They were the ones that stirred in our spirit as we watched the house burn across the street – as my brothers ran to help, as we called the volunteer fire department…

We clung to those promises because we too were watching as our father’s body was ravaged by a rare cancer that spread like wildfire through his body and engulfed his life in the blistering speed of four weeks time  – before the age of 60.

It’s why my four siblings and I were all in Maine, on that 2nd floor. It’s why we could watch visitors pull into the driveway. 

This house burning across the street at the same time – felt emblematic of our reality.

And we leaned on our faith — on these promises. We prayed the gut-wrenching prayers…

“God rescue.  God of miracles – rescue, please.”

At the heart of the promise in these Isaiah verses is the rescue from floodwaters and fire.  

But it is not literally true for everyone.  It wasn’t true in our case with our Dad.  There were Jews who died in the fires of Babylon used in their siege of Jerusalem.  I know many of you have experienced and witnessed fires – suffering, pain, oppression – that does burn, does scorch, does hurt. 

Here’s the thing when it appears that God doesn’t rescue or save… a conditional faith – with foundations of fear – develop/construct new promises that in suffering sound like,

“God has his ways that are bigger than ours,”

or

“everything happens for a reason.”

I heard those words over and over throughout the wake of my Dad’s death. And as so many of you might know — that is an additional fire to endure. Like a 3rd degree burn… I mean when you need a hand – or an emergency ladder, or a lifeboat or a lamp (as Rumi says), the worst thing you can be handed is a “reason.” That is not rescue. That is not the loving care of God.

It is a burn that asphyxiates and poisons again and again. It’s not the blatant “fire and damnation pounding from a pulpit” – but it is the same smoke.

Smokey the Bear says when you are in the presence of fire you should “Stop, drop, & roll.”  Functionally, it is a life-saving technique to cease any movement that will fuel the flames — and LIMIT the harm of fire by depriving it of oxygen. 

I knew if there existed one lick of this flame – of a conditional God – even way back in the corner of my subconscious – it would show itself, it would still be live.  And I knew I had to be fully rescued from this – needed to extinguish it.  I knew that it would be critical in stoking my own fire within for the good of this world, for the work of justice, and for the godly work of liberation. 

I want to invite you to consider the story we’ll read together of Shadrach, Meshach, and  Abednego. Perhaps a familiar story – it’s one that I remember from early in my childhood. One that was relayed to me as an example of the unwavering faith we were meant to have, the miracles that would unfold as a result, and a God who would cheer us on in such tests of life and faith. 

I invite you to consider – as we read this historic one- your own story.  The fires you’ve endured…the ones that you’ve been burned by — have been rescued from? How you have perceived God in those times.. And now?

Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Daniel were taken captive during the period known as the Babylonian exile when the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar – described by some as a narcissistic maniac –  besieged Jerusalem. These men had impressed Nebuchadnezzar and so had been promoted to administrative positions despite remaining faithful to their Jewish beliefs.  Except the conditions ramped up to show allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar – and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down in worship of a nine-story tall golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had ordered built, and the king became enraged.

And here we pick up the story: 

Daniel 3:13-18 and 24-25 (Common English Bible)

13 In a violent rage Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were brought before the king.

14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up?

5 If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?”

16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question.

17 If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us.

18 But if he doesn’t,….. know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.”

Nebuchadnezzar has them bound up – and throws them in the furnace… and then we read this:

24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar jumped up in shock and said to his associates, “Didn’t we throw three men, bound, into the fire?”

They answered the king, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

25 He replied, “Look! I see four men, unbound, walking around inside the fire, and they aren’t hurt! And the fourth one looks like one of the gods.”

The book of Daniel, set during the Babylonian exile, has something to say about history. It explores the vulnerability of people living under oppression. These three men — who were stripped of their Hebrew names — given these Babylonian names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego  have something to say about the

“choices faced by those who must either support a repressive regime or face certain death. And just how quickly the dangerous fires of empire overtake… Nebuchadnezzar wanted them to bow—forget their heritage, forget their legacy, forget their journey, forget their God, forget their rights, and bow down.”

(Rev. Barber sojo.net) Forget who they are — and that starts with de-naming them.

The name Nebuchadnezzar literally means “one who will do anything to protect his power.” That’s why Nebuchadnezzar built his towers. He built his tower more than nine stories tall – he put his name on his tower and everything he built, and then he put gold on his tower, and he promised that he, and only he, could make Babylon great again, as Reverend William Barber points out. (sojo.net)

He wanted control. He wanted power. He wanted worship. He wanted to be God.

But Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to fan this fire – they would not give oxygen to the flames of the religion of the king, the religion of greed, of fear,  the religion of racism, the religion of hate.

Under oppression, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew who they were. And they knew who God was. A God that was inside the trouble with them – in the fire. God who they declared,

“even if God doesn’t rescue us — still we will not bow”

an unconditional God.

And as they come out of the fire – the attendants to the King saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.

And Nebuchadnezzar

“Praises their God! And these three men say, “they trusted in this GOD and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” (v.28)

This is  a “strong, miraculous, unwavering faith” story — AND it is a story that extinguishes the voice of the oppressor, and it is a story that shows that

“in the midst of the burning – the oppressed can again and again try to liberate (unbind) themselves to show something more deep, more honest, and more powerful than the blazing!” (Dante Stewart)

And it is a story that gives shape to an image of God as a larger, freer, and more loving God than even surfaced the imagination of Nebuchadnezzar.

And it is our story.

A story that suggests the fires of this life can shape and transform us.

Friend to Reservoir, Rabbi Spitzer — who’s book, “God is Here”, we used to form a series last year — offers an image of the Divine that I found helpful in this conversation and one that I want to share with you as we close. Because ANGER is a big part of what we feel when we scan the landscape of our lives. When we think about the people we’ve lost – when we see the fires of injustice, and oppression that are not extinguished, and the actual wildfires (Texas), and the endless, unanswered calls for ‘ceasefire’ — we are angry and sad and angry again. 

Throughout the Hebrew Bible – God’s anger does blaze as fire. Fire is unleashed at times – consuming complainers and rebels alike (188) – particularly when they refuse to accept the challenge of creating a new kind of society with God.

God as a “consuming fire” is also called “El qanna” (Kah-nah) – often translated as a jealous God. But also understood as a “heated divine emotion.”  Some scholars suggest it is an essential attribute of God. . .but more like the intense heat, fire, and lava that flows from volcanoes.

One scholar Nissim Amzallag suggests that while “jealousy” is a sufficient description in the human realm – it is not complete in the Divine realm.  When referring to God he says, it is more like the process of “Furnace remelting.”  An ancient process where a corroded copper object is completely melted down in a furnace and the molten metal is then shaped/reshaped into something new. 

In the ancient world it was not uncommon for divine beings to be associated with this concept – with the intense, transformative power of flame and heat.

Amzallag says

“this attribute of God was not viewed by Israelites simply as the destructive expression of anger by God. Precisely as in furnace remelting, it was conceived as a wonder– leading to a complete rejuvenation of creation” (189).

Completely reshaping of one thing into another. 

In prophetic texts, God’s anger and the divine qanna (kah-nah) are connected both to the condemnation of oppressors and to a vision of transformation.

Collective anger at injustice, like the flames that erupt when God is angry – CAN ROAR – and seem out of control. Yet out of those flames can also come disruptive and necessary transformation. Anger is the work of love that protests an unloving world.  And often the catalyst in the fire that opens up a new way through… a type of rescue that wasn’t given shape before. 

Smokey the Bear (this is the last time I’m going to mention him – I promise!), also says that when a fire is raging another action you can take is to shut the doors  – to limit the spread of damage. To protect & safeguard that which is susceptible to fire.  And yet – preferred above stop drop & roll and shutting doors is to just extinguish the fire as quickly as possible – to not wait to see what happens, or think it will probably amount to nothing.

Now some of us aren’t always able to do this — but some of us have the energy, the capacity, the position, the privilege, the power – to do just that. 

I took this role to be a pastor, a couple years after my Dad died – by which I took on a personal oath to “do no harm.” To spread no versions of God that demand unquestioning obedience, performance, exclusion of other people, political alignment, or conformity of belief. To never promote falsely constructed “reasons” for atrocities in the name of God — but to open up more ways that we can authentically find God in our lives with one another –  in the fire, in the doubt, grief, in the ashes, and in the rubble. Life is precarious and often beyond our control, and this is part of what it means to know God too. 

It wasn’t the “reason” that explains why my Dad died of cancer – but it did give new shape to my way forward… to see with clarity that to be a follower of Jesus — is to vow to shut the doors on any of the acrid smoke that tries to actually make Jesus unfindable.

Perhaps we do have an opportunity to hear a divine message coming directly out of our terror, our pain, if we are able to withstand it. And in moments when we can’t.. perhaps we need to hear again and again the promises from our ancestors that God will … as the verses in Isaiah say: 

Bring us through the waters and through the rivers and through the fires… 

And that in the midst of our times that suggest our world is indeed on fire – we might be able to hear these lines not just as poetic ways of describing tough times. But to remember that these words ring true of the most significant moments of liberation in Hebrew history. That with full context we could read those lines this way:

“When you pass through the waters like you did through the Red Sea out of Egypt . . and through the dry bed of the River Jordan into the promised land… when you walk through the fire like brothers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego…”

It might help us remember this faith and these miracles are ours too. These these three boys who endured unspeakable horrors. Who underwent two fires: a physical burning in a furnace, and a prolonged burning, set ablaze by empire. And remember that they didn’t simply make it through the fires, somehow just embracing the violence of the empire politely and passively — 

the miracle was their audacity. The miracle was their courage to stare down terror. The miracle was found IN the fire –  where there WAS A GOD who says,

“the violent flames of EMPIRE will not and do not have the last say.”

Black preacher and author Dante Stewart says,

“empires may be able to enslave our people, plunder our resources; they may try to destroy both our bodies and our future. But in the midst of the burning, we somehow try to liberate ourselves, again and again —  [‘remelting’]– giving shape to the audacious belief that one’s body, one’s story, one’s future does not end in this moment

a promise of God… to ring in our ears today, as truth – and as a call to action.

Rabbi Spitzer says we don’t know if there will be a period ahead in our nation where a true “remelting” is occurring . One where the structures and the ideologies of racism will be melted down so that something new and better can emerge.  Embrace Boston released a Harm Report this week — connecting the past to the present – the history of fiery harms to their contemporary impact of Black Boston….action in this direction.

We don’t know if it will be a period — where we’ll care for and investigate our actions and their impacts on our environment and climate …

We don’t know if it will be a period where we’ll regard our nation as part of a global community. . .

But we can do our parts to shut doors, limit harm, extinguish dangerous fires — and keep holding on to a faith that promises to transform us if we can hang in – to bring power out of pain, mercy out of meanness, love out of hate, joy out of sorrow, good out of evil, hope out of despair, and life out of the fire.

May God protect you, keep you warm, comfort you, and guide you in the days ahead.

In the name of the fire, the flame, and the light – Amen.

Sources:

Amzallag, Nissim.“Furnace re-melting as the expression of YHWH’s holiness: Evidence from the meaning of qanna (קנא) in divine context.” 

Stewart, Dante. “Shouting in the Fire: An American Epistle.”

Casey Overton. Enfleshed.org

Reverend William Barber. Sojo.net “We Will Not Bow Down”

On Fire For God

Each year, in the weeks before Easter, our church embarks on a season of spiritual formation. We take time and attention to look reflectively at our lives, to welcome God’s guidance and presence. This season in the year where winter meets spring is called Lent. Lent comes from an Old English word meaning “spring.” It’s used to refer to the six-week period before Easter Sunday. For centuries, Jesus followers have marked this period of anticipation for Easter through prayer,  fasting and giving. 

A few years ago we decided by whim and by Spirit – I believe… that we should plan for a 4-year series of  Lenten seasons in advance. And the series should be on the elements – Water, Earth, Wind and Fire. The last two year’s Lenten themes were Water and Earth. This year’s theme is Fire. It feels right, it feels timely. 

Fire, whether regarded as a controlled source of warmth or an incinerating force, offers us intensity. And in my own spirit I’m grasping for an intensity that can meet the fervor of the world around us. Fire that’s unabashedly mesmerizing, beautiful, and powerful. A metaphor that you can really lean into that stands up —  that doesn’t look away from the realities of the world – but looks at it squarely, blazing and crackling as it does. 

This Lent we’ll turn to the spiritual significance of fire through many lenses.  Each Sunday to come we will explore a different theme of fire. We’ll talk about what to do and where to find hope when it seems the world is on fire. We’ll think about the passion and light and power of God.  We’ll talk about the cleansing and purifying fire of the Spirit, and discuss less-toxic, kinder ways to think about concepts like judgment and hell. *Not only will our Sunday services cover this — but so does our Lent Guide which covers all that good stuff and more!!*

We hope through this journey of Lent we’ll remember that on this Earth – we too are the fires that take light, that roll through our landscapes – schools, workplaces, sidewalks –  signaling  how to be in partnership and action with a God that is “larger, free-er, and more loving” than we could ever imagine (as James Baldwin emboldens us to do).

This morning, I invite you to wonder what a season like this could kindle in you? I invite you to wonder if the warming presence of God could flame and breathe new urgency into your love of life. THIS LIFE. All of this life, its beauty and its brokenness.

Prayer: 

God of fire — thank you for your presence this morning that offers us warmth, clarity, rest, and light. In ways that we need more of all those things – greet us this morning with your Spirit that never holds back – but comes full force in abundance with what our heart needs. Fold into us the embers of your light that never are extinguished —  the divine sparks that keep us going, keeps us hoping — and you, the Divine spark that keeps us. Keeps us close.

In the name of the Fire,

The Flame

And the Light,
(John O’Donohue)

Amen

Story: “On Fire for God”

Now there’s nothing I love more than being warm. . . maybe other than being ‘hot.’  I talk about the weather all the time,  the forecast, the temperature — it’s not just small talk to me, it’s part of the way I experience the world and God. I grew up in Maine, with a wood stove in our kitchen — our only source of heat and there wasn’t a day that I wasn’t as close to that stove as possible. I take scalding hot showers, do the dishes in blistering hot water, I have the seat heaters on in any car all year ‘round in the middle of summer … I love to be warm. 

So when I first heard the spiritual question,

Is your heart on fire for God?” 

when I was eight or nine years old from one of my summer camp counselors.

I was stunned. “Wait – that’s an option?”

My heart could be a source of heat and warmth?  Well I’m not sure it is — but I am game to find out!

I didn’t grow up with Lent as part of my tradition or yearly rhythm.

But I did grow up with going to an annual Christian summer camp! It was a small camp on a small lake, about 15 minutes from where I grew up in Maine. 

And this camp was a highlight of my year. I’d pack a good three weeks in advance, I truly looked forward to it. 

Each year, toward the end of the week of camp we’d build a fire, a big bonfire  – as a culmination – and there’d be some sort of spiritual talk (during which I’d usually be strategizing how much money I had left in my snack bar kitty and whether it was enough to get both Swedish fish & sweet tarts). I’d know the end of the talk was finally coming when the cadence and volume of the leader would get a bit amped.. And then the invitation would come,

“If your heart is on fire for God – come on up!”

And all of us would gather up around the bonfire.. 

Faces aglow. 

Hearts on fire – as best as we knew.

I wonder what memories or thoughts come to the surface as you hear the question, “Is your heart on fire for God?” 

Part of the beauty of the Lent Guide this year is that in addition to selections of scripture and some provoking commentary written by Steve… is that it is peppered with a bunch of ‘wondering questions.’ Taking the nod from our kids church philosophy of Godly Play that to wonder kindles curiosity, reflection, and engages the Spirit of God in ways that unveil God’s great love for us. 

And this is the richness of Lent. 

Perhaps for many of you Lent is a season of self-denial, of fasting, of giving something up. I know that these components are so meaningful to many of you. We’ll make room for that but also lean into wondering questions, reflection, prayer… to illuminate just how this season is also about God’s fiery love for us.  

But Lent doesn’t always lead with the “God’s great fiery love for you” vibe. I mean it starts with the remnants of fire… the absence of fire – ash.  Ash Wednesday – a reminder of our human limits, our mortality, that we’ll all die.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Lent is an acknowledgement that life can be gritty.  And it doesn’t try to soften that – it actually invites you into that reality — with nothing to buffer. That’s what I appreciate so much about Lent.  There is no cheery Santa, or candy canes to balance the darkness and somberness.  It’s an invitation to a landscape of ash. Of nothingness — to see what can begin again. Of wilderness and God’s voice asking,

I wonder from the ashes what we can find/create with one another? I wonder what embers I can fan for you?

I wonder how you’ll find and hold on to God’s love in your fears, trauma, doubts – when it feels like there’s nothing in your hands to grab on to – it’s all just silt.   

Lent is a deep, deep season. 

It is about God’s love for us — us that God created from dust. 

It’s about God’s love in us – – given life by breath.

It’s about God’s love moving through us —  by the fire of the Spirit of God.

Reminding us that these elements — dust, breath, fire — that seem like nothing, prove to be everything.

And Lent invites us to consider what living a life with this love at center, “with a heart on fire for God” looks like.  

I think this passage in Romans captures some of its essence: 

ROMANS 12:9-12

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 

2- Story: “On Fire for God”

When I heard the invitation. “If your heart is on fire for God, come on up!” 

I went up.

I went up  in good faith. But I think I was mostly pretending. 

I so wanted my heart to be on fire for God. 

But I didn’t know what it really meant – and I didn’t know what it really felt like.

I wanted what seemed like this unwavering blaze of faith and courage — and just steam-rolling through life with confidence. My friends at camp weren’t hesitating  – they were enthusiastic – running to that fire.

I wanted that “high” of friendship and what seemed like a fun and joyful GOD – to sustain me once I left camp… But when I got home my life felt the same as I had left it – annoying four brothers, boring, and cold. 

It felt bewildering to me – – how to fan that flame out in the wilderness of life.

Each year after camp ended, we would be invited to give our testimony at a Sunday service —  a reflection of our time and I never shared because I felt like I’d failed somehow – that I was just “smoldering” – not “on fire!”

Part of that sense of “smoldering” was:

  • My childhood imagination pretty quickly was challenged once I learned that I didn’t in fact carry around with me a personal inner furnace that kept me warm at all times
  • some of it was just naturally developmentally appropriate, and 
  • some of it was the foundational theology that underpinned my experience.  All the ways Christians have historically and still do misuse the metaphor of fire to say all kinds of wild things about the character of God, eternal judgment and hell that try to scare and control us — this was true of my upbringing and also influenced a sense of “being on fire” or “not” as a result of good or bad choices. We’ll press into this reality a bit in the middle of the Lent Guide – – it’s a good one, “The Fires of Judgement!”

Anyway – I did think that 

-“If” I was to be a heart-on-fire girl I surely would have  figured it out by now, after multiple summers.

– I did think “if” my heart was on fire for God, I certainly would be more like Peggy Jones in the couple pews over from me – – opening her Bible and taking notes.. 

– I did think that “If” my heart was on fire for God, I certainly should give up thinking about candy during a sermon.

There were definitely some conditionals that were setting up in my thinking.

And there are likely easy I can tell this story – or you can hear this story as a point in time – an adolescent summer camp story. But I think there are elements that get woven all through our not just spiritual life – but all of life… and the Lenten journey mirrors how this ‘same dynamic’ goes down with Jesus in the wilderness as well. 

LENT

Lent is commonly described as a commemoration of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, when he was tempted by evil that prowled around him. And interestingly the voices that came to tempt Jesus start with this conditional  word “if” — — – –  which is perhaps the greatest evil..

The voices challenge him: 

“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

“If you are the Son of God,  throw yourself down.”

“If you will bow down and worship me” – I will give you all this…

“If” it’s such a destabilizing word.

“If your heart is on fire for God… then….”

But Jesus rejects all of this the very premise of it — he says,

“No thanks, I live by every word that comes from the mouth of God, don’t test the Lord your God, worship the Lord your God.”

He gives IN –  He doesn’t give in to the conditions, or the temptations.

He gives in –  ALL IN – to the love of God.

This is the invitation of Lent – to give “in” – not necessarily “give up” something.

It’s not “if”  you are “doing Lent” then you are “giving up” x, y, or z.”

The irony of Lent as Richard Rohr says, is that it’s not about “trying hard” it’s not a “trying” at all – it’s a foundational “giving in.” 

Now, Lent is to in solidarity accompany the journey of Jesus in the wilderness….. and it is to reflect on our lives. And examine where our faith has picked up some grime – some sediment.. where we’ve attached to false premises … .or collected extra things on the back of our own ambitions.

And it is time to re-set, to take note, to orient again to the love of God. And our reflection is not in vain, it is to open up our stories to the stories of our spiritual ancestors… The stories where their hearts were ablaze with the goodness and trust and faith of God, even in their very own wildernesses, and where we can sit in the glow of their joy, their strength — letting it fan our own heart’s embers. 

In Psalm 126 we read these words of our ancestors:

When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better,

    it was like we had been dreaming.

 Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;

    our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.

It was even said, at that time, among the nations,

    “The Lord has done great things for them!”

Yes, the Lord has done great things for us,

    and we are overjoyed.

Lord, change our circumstances for the better,

    like dry streams in the desert waste!

Let those who plant with tears

    reap the harvest with joyful shouts.

Let those who go out,

    crying and carrying their seed,

    come home with joyful shouts,

    carrying bales of grain!

This Psalm is one in a special group of psalms, the Songs of Ascent  comprising Psalms 120—134. They are also called Pilgrim Songs.

This is a scripture where our ancestors declare,

“We have faced and we DO face exile and loss of fortune. But we live in hope – hope of the return of DREAMS”

I wonder if we could dream again? 

Hope to have our mouths filled with laughter, and hope to have the nations declaring that God is good. God has done great things for us. As our ancestors sang in memory and nostalgia, WE catch their flame and continue to pray, even as they did,

‘Restore our dreams, O God and cling to the promise that while, in fact, we do live in exile and wilderness sowing in tears and sorrow, we can move forward with our ‘hearts on fire’ in belief of a good and life-giving God — a “God that has done great things for them – and a God who does great things for us.”’

Here’s the thing — Lent has often been given a quick descriptor as a season of “giving something up.” And it’s true we might just find ourselves giving up a lot of things as we return and give in to the love of God.  

We may find where we have attached ourselves to things that have promised us relief, escape, even momentary joy — and we may find that those are tangible things in our lives that do – as we end up giving in to the love of God –  end up burning off like dross.  

Some of the ways that that feels most doable is through prayer. We are just ending a whole series on prayer.. And it’s great timing because Lent is also a season of prayer. Prayer that helps identify all of that excess stuff we might be carrying around… it helps clear the hazardous brush that’s built up around us – that is in jeopardy of engulfing us in flames of despair.

This Psalm was a prayer often sung by Jews traveling to Jerusalem for one of the three main annual Jewish festivals (to remember the wilderness and God’s provision within it,  and God’s continual promise of being with them in the future).  They would sing and pray these prayers on the “ascent” – as they traveled up the hill to the city. Recalling a history of standing their ground when they were in trouble and devoting themselves to prayer. A present day invitation to us too. 

Lent is a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage of the heart – a pilgrimage of descent and ascent. One, that if we can make the journey illuminates the world around us – in such a way that we can see the landscape riddled with fracture, and war and division — but also see in the cracks the blazing beauty of God’s love roaring through.

Geologists tell us that at the heart of the earth, there is no neutral or cold center, but rather a great heat.

Thousands of kilometers below the earth’s crust there is a heart of fire, molten magma. — John O’ Donohue

Maybe that’s what Lent helps us see – that molten magma rippling under the surface of everything. Piercing love – for us, and for the world around us. A world that is worthy and so greatly in need of such love. This is the work of Lent —  … where we pray together for strength for the dreams of this world, our households, our kids, our nation – our year ahead.  

Throughout this Lenten Guide there is a beautiful simple prayer practice that you are invited to try. You can try it alone – your household, your family – no matter the age… with a community group … The practice includes a candle — actual fire!, and integrates some wondering questions for you to form your own prayers…..whatever they might be  — Padraig O’Tuama the poet and theologian, says,

“Prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm”

and maybe you’ll find that it will keep your hearts aflame as well. 

We have lots to pray for, friends. 

Oppression will continue to course through the veins of society. Dominant and evil forces will push and pull on our collective life. But Lent gives us an intentional time to sharpen our clarity:  

To “Hate evil, and hold on to what is good.” 

“TO SHOUT – CHANGE OUR CIRCUMSTANCES GOD!  RESTORE OUR DREAMS!” I don’t want to live in this cold, junky, broken down “house.” I KNOW GOD YOU HAVE DONE GREAT THINGS! I KNOW YOU CAN DO GREAT THINGS” HELP US. RESTORE US. 

Set my heart on fire!

Help me find again that my story and the story of Jesus are bound together in hope, faith, love and community.

2024 is already on fire. It absolutely has all the components of being combustible.

  • Wars across the globe. 
  • An election that we are already feeling the heat of.
  • The actual temperature of the Earth rising. 

Richard Rohr says that

“Lent is just magnified and intensified life.”

All of it, the tears, the laughter, the forces of empire, the forces of love –  the beauty, the singing, the prayer – some of it burning off, some of it flaming the flame. And us drawing closer to God and closer to others as we sift through it all – unto to a more just, more free world for all of us.   

3 – Story: “On Fire for God”

I could imagine an alternative to the summer camp invitation, “if your heart is on fire for God – please come up..” could have been. “You all are fire!” “You all such awesome, fun, curious kids!”  Come on up here – let’s light something on fire — (like sparklers).”

I wonder if that would have registered as a little less conditional and a little more of the

“Love each other like the members of your family – be the best at showing honor to each other!”

I was at the GBH event a little over a week ago – that Steve mentioned last Sunday. And I was taken aback by the conversation between two colleagues who were introducing this new podcast called, “What is Owed?” (coming out Feb. 15th) – a podcast seeking to understand what reparations might look like in Boston. Saraya (who’s the host), and her colleague Jerome both were on the panel. And the interviewer asked Jerome,

“what did you enjoy most about producing this podcast?”

And Jerome turned to Saraya and said,

“It’s been working with you.”

And then he proceeded to go on –

“the thoughtfulness, humor, the quick-wittedness that you brought to the work made me be able to say after every interview — that was the best interview. No, that  was the best interview.. Actually this one, this last one — was the best interview…. And mean it!”

And there sat Jerome just flaming the fire of goodness in Saraya.

He flamed this inner-part of her – “You are fire!” – and what you touch – what you bring voice to, what you unveil – the work you do, is also fire. 

Maybe that’s what this Lent can feel like to you too. That God could just be fanning the indwelling of the Spirit of God that is already within you. Helping you peel back some of the layers that have crowded it – to make room for your heart to really fire… So you can hear God say day after day .. 

“wow, I love you the most today. And then the next day say, “actually today, today — I love you the most …”  

I do think we need our hearts to be made incandescent by the Spirit’s fire. 
I do think that’s what is going to help us all LOVE LIVING OUR LIFE. 

And I do think that this Lent can aid you, guide you in experiencing some of the warm love of God –  jump in a community group, do it with a friend – definitely download the Lent Guide! 

Let me pray for us,

God could you help us love this life, one another, and you – without pretending?

Could you help us to name and hate what is evil and hold on to what is good. 

Could you help us to love each other like the members of your family and show honor to each other?

Could you help us to be enthusiastic – to be ON FIRE IN THE SPIRIT with you God?

May we be happy in your hope, stand our ground when we’re in trouble and devote ourselves to prayer.  

In the name of the Fire,
The Flame,
And the Light.   
(John O’Donohue)

– Amen

“Amen” An End & A Beginning

Today we are continuing in our new sermon series,  it’s called “How to Pray.” This series certainly offers us some mechanics of ‘how to pray’  specific prayer practices, like the Examen that Steve offered us last week, and a whole lot of “how-to’s” if you pop into one of the “prayer workshops” right after service. But today I want to ask us to consider “how to” regard prayer as a way to not give up on the kin-dom of God. 

How can prayer aid us in imagining and creating the world now, and as we dream it can be?

Prayer can help us step deeper into our lives with God. Prayer helps us intertwine the love of God – with the motion of our days, our schedules, the realness – the hardness …So that we notice it, recognize it, and we PRACTICE it wherever we go. 

Spiritual practices invite us into living our life more fully and wholly as possible.   

Spiritual practices – help us put our spirituality into practice, in the real world around us. 

A spirituality that pleads with us to not give up on the kin-dom of God.  To not give up on the deep love of Jesus that moves us and undoes us. And to see that our actions, our voices, our footsteps carry and communicate that love – that kin-dom of God here and now. 

It’s how we grow our capacity to love.

It’s how we grow stronger to love. 

It’s how we grow more tender to love. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book Strength to Love said,

“God has two outstretched arms, one is strong enough to surround us with justice and  [and move us toward justice], and one is gentle enough to embrace us with [tenderness] and grace.” (8)

This is the beauty and the expanse of prayer.  And why practice is necessary. Like life and like love it always encompasses “both/and”  never “either/or.”  

  • Prayer helps us be strong and tender.
  • Prayer is listening and being listened to.
  • Prayer is asking and prayer is sitting.
  • Prayer helps us endure and prayer is rest. 
  • Prayer is change and steadiness.
  • Prayer brings us to our knees and girds us against collapse.
  • Prayer is weeping and prayer is laughing. (Cussing & silence.)
  • Prayer is beyond us and prayer IS us.
  • Prayer flourishes with faith and with doubt. (PO’T)
  • Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposurer.

Prayer encompasses multitudes.. . . and so do we.

Prayer, whatever form, for whatever reason, in whatever circumstances – promises to rearrange us- unto love.  And in times of despair and nightmare – it promises to bring us back to the faith already inscribed in our bodies by the practices we keep.  

We practice prayer because it helps us not give up – on ourselves or each other. 

  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God.
  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God to come.
  • Not give up on the kin-dom of God here and now.

Today – I want to look at a familiar story in the gospel of Luke, the characters in the story. And wonder together in imaginative and informed ways, what we notice about prayer.

Let me pray for us.

“Oh God, Divine parent of us all – *in whom is heaven*.

Holy, Loving, Merciful one is what we call you. 

May your love be enacted in this world,
and be our guide to dream, to hope, and create the world now and as we imagine it to be.

Give us the morsels of your filling love that we need, in this wilderness.
Feed and fuel us for the work of our days. To love ourselves and neighbors well.
May we showcase your love, in mercy and kindness and humbleness, as you have shown it to us. 

And lead us into your big heart – that expands our own, for the greater good, the common good, and the stranger. 
Lead us not into self-isolation, scarcity, and new lines of division.

Lead us into your presence, apparent in every part of our days, 

where the glory of the power that is love, restores us all – now and forever.
AMEN. ( Adapted from the Lord’s Prayer)

My Prayer Life

That was a little riff on the Lord’s Prayer, if you heard some familiarity there… Ending with “amen, amen, amen.”

This word, “Amen” was the favorite part of prayer for me as a kid. Because it meant that the long, recap-style-prayer of whatever service, sermon, or meeting, or event I was at – was finally over.

These days “Amen” is often still my favorite part of prayer – because it signals the beginning of where I get to pick up the end of the spoken prayer – where I get to find my place in living prayer.  

 The trick is that sometimes the situation I’m praying for, or walking into looks bereft of ‘life’- like the story has already played out, the ending is clear.  And yet – this is precisely where the practice of prayer should show up, right? It’s not only for the ‘feel-good’ times, it’s so that the practice will keep working on us in times of despair — in bad times — when we don’t know what to do. 

 And that’s why I want to look at this scripture this morning – and see how a similar dynamic plays out at the scene after the crucifixion, how the character Joseph, the women of Galilee, and the crowds all engage in prayer.

 Scripture

Luke 23: 48 – 56

48 And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow. 

49 But Jesus’ friends, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching.

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph. He was a member of the Jewish high council,

51 but he had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other religious leaders. He was from the town of Arimathea in Judea, and he was waiting for the Kingdom of God to come.

52 He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.

53 Then he took the body down from the cross and wrapped it in a long sheet of linen cloth and laid it in a new tomb that had been carved out of rock.

54 This was done late on Friday afternoon, the day of preparation, as the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 As his body was taken away, the women from Galilee followed and saw the tomb where his body was placed.

56 Then they went home and prepared spices and ointments to anoint his body. But by the time they were finished the Sabbath had begun, so they rested as required by the law.

**This is an intense scripture and one that is a lot to delve into a few weeks after Christmas. But even his birth was shrouded in violence and fear at the hands and killing of many innocents of King Herod. 

And here in this scene wailing, and mourning, and silence fill the landscape.  Maybe you could imagine voices echoing in disbelief asking, 

“Is Jesus really gone? Or Jesus are you here? Jesus!?” Show up! Come back – the way we once knew you. Where are you?” 

It wouldn’t be surprising, right? It is in fact Jesus’s own cry on the cross,

“God have you left me?”

Horror and violence appear to have had the last word. 

Death,

Despair, 

And Absence fills the space of where their friend, their hope, their Jesus just was.  

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that;

Death has won.
The empire has won.
The oppressor has won.

That this is the end. There is no new beginning.

There’s a song I’ve been listening to on repeat (much to my family’s displeasure) – and one of the lines says, “Don’t think the battle’s over just ’cause you say “amen”” 

And it is a battle.
To not give up on the kin-dom.

It is a battle to believe that Jesus is still here…. In our fragmented broken landscapes.

When so much blocks and challenges our view of Jesus.

When so much appears void of goodness & love.  

This resonates as true. In just my small sphere this week I’ve heard of a new cancer diagnosis, multiple people suffering in unbearable/untreatable physical pain, abandonment, addiction, kids in inpatient programs, legal battles, heart-breaking divorce, a sense of ‘nothing-ness’… 200 immigrants seeking at least one day a week, where they can find shelter, warmth, a meal – their human rights. 

It is hard to not give up. To not say, “the story is already written and it seems pretty depressing, pretty bleak.”

But prayer rearranges us – helps us sift the lies, sift the loud voices,  so that love reappears – surfaces in our hearts.

Joseph of Arimathea

If we look at this character Joseph of Arimathea.

I don’t know what Joseph’s prayer practice had been – if he had one even. But my guess is that it had something to do with, “disagreeing with religious leaders that sentenced Jesus to death – AND it had something to do with “waiting for the Kin-dom of God to come.” Both/And. Action and contemplation.

Maybe all along Joseph was the squeaky wheel in the room – saying,

“no that’s not true of Jesus.” No he’s not guilty. No, you can’t legally sentence him.”

Maybe all along Joseph didn’t know what to do to save Jesus. To fix the situation. Or the systems at play… But he showed up. He was present. 

Maybe his deep belief that there was a kin-dom of God to come – that there was a better way for everyone – a beloved community on the horizon — helped him not give up.

We don’t know for sure.

But we do know that he utilized his position, his wealth, his access to power in this moment to —- care, uphold the dignity of Jesus, and love Jesus —to put love on the surface. Going to Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body was a courageous move. Pilate does not like the group that Joseph belonged to… and under Roman law someone condemned to death had no right to burial. 

But Joseph is saying to Pilate,

“I would like to bury him anyway – lay him to rest.” 

And in doing so – as Joseph takes the body – he is openly identifying with Jesus – no longer a secret disciple.  

Even when it looks like there’s nothing left. Joseph is imbued with a deep love, boldness, a greater knowing of Jesus. 

Maybe prayer helps us see that justice is holding with reverence those that are cast aside.

The Women of Galilee

If we look at these women of Galilee – who we know have been alongside Jesus throughout much of his ministry – Mary his mother, the first to welcome him into the world – and the last to leave his body at death . . are all present. 

They have watched and waited, moved and acted, and watched and waited again.

This time of course their following Jesus and their waiting and watching unfolds as a nightmare against the backdrop of their dreams for this long awaited kin-dom.

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the iconic words of his “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963 will fill our feeds. But may we also remember that a few years later in a Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Church, 1967 –   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr says these words: 

“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. 

We have neither peace within nor peace without. 

Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. 

Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. 

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C., and talked to the nation about many things. 

Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had,

and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. “

—- and he goes on to detail for multiple points the ways in which his dream has turned into nightmares, and I’m not going to read them because we are living them still… but MLK goes on to say —- 

“Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes.”

And his life would end with his murder – just four months later. 

Ghosts

Sometimes we can walk around feeling like ghosts-of-ourselves. When the breath of life is swept out of our belief, our faith, our dreams. When we ask,

“God are you here?”

and don’t hear anything back. I wonder if this is how the women – the friends of Jesus felt? I wonder if this is how so so many people who believed for the dream that MLK put voice to felt when he died. 

There have been times when I’ve prayed so hard, so long, in so many ways – for something to not “overtake.” For myself, the ones I love, the world…

“Please, God just please don’t let this play out like it looks like it’s going to – please don’t let this overtake.”

  • And then the cancer does
  • The division wins
  • The unjust laws passed in Congress
  • The heartbreak continues to come one after another – in ceaseless fashion.

Despair can seep deep and quick, turning us into shells of ourselves. Oooof, it knows how to set up just in the most tender spots of our heart – parts of our heart that were so open/vulnerable – that had to be because that’s part of ‘believing.” 

But prayer in all of its numerous expressions can help.
Here we see the women pray.  What do they do?

Given the danger they faced from the Jewish authorities and/or the Romans, these women could have prepared to quickly leave town. 

Instead, they linger at the site of their pain  – they honor what their bodies are feeling (a prayer in and of itself), and they honor and prepare spices for Jesus’ body.

A seemingly inconsequential, normal act. To dignify the body, to anoint the body in death it was part of the custom. Yet if we regard this movement as prayer – we can see that

“to prepare spices is a metaphor for every small act that refuses to succumb to despair.”  (thank you Dante Stewart for this).

And most days, this is what we can do. A small every day act, and regard it as prayer. “Pack the lunch for your kids, go for the walk, call or text your friend, offer a ride, do a soup-swap, listen, light a candle, show up where you can.” The faith of these women teaches us this: offering to one another the basic stuff of human dignity is prayer. 

These women can not in the moment dismantle the unjust systems that impact their lives. But these acts, these prayers  – rearrange their hearts – and in that process dismantle the authority and the space that despair tries to take up. That is what gets dismantled. Prayer dismantles despair, shame, lies, the voice of the oppressor and puts it in a more right-sized spot.

Preacher Dante Stewart says,  

“The oppressor wants to rob our spirits of peace. The oppressor wants us to work tirelessly and be unkind to ourselves. The oppressor wants to distract us. The oppressor is a liar.” 

Prayer is a truth-teller and a lie-exposer. 

These women want to love more than death can harm. They embalm, they anoint, and they stay close.  

Maybe prayer helps us to rub every ordinary act of our days, with the oil of holiness and dignity.

CROWDS

Lastly, let’s not overlook the prayer of the crowds. That first verse in this passage says,

“and the crowds, they went home in deep sorrow”

– in other translations it says they

“went home beating their breasts.”

I see myself in the crowd. The visceral physical nature of expressing such pain, and grief feels like the truest thing. And the truest thing is often prayer.
I imagine myself in the crowd, going home, saying “amen.” That’s it. And so it is. Jesus is dead. The end.

But I wonder if for some in that crowd that wasn’t the end – it was also the beginning? Perhaps they went home and talked of their grief – the reasons why they were grieved.. Perhaps they asked questions of one another, asked about

the fails of their government, the fails of their religious structures, the loss of their friend, the shattering of their hope, the uncertainty of what’s to come. 

Perhaps they show us that prayer is also to come alongside one another and to ask questions that

penetrate the times and pierce the soul, questions of social conscience and moral discernment.” (Michael Connor, sojo.net)

A way to sit in the terror of a world undone, and to still trust that the things the human spirit is moved to do in defiance of despair is prayer. Perhaps it too breaks open a way to imagine a different way forward – all the while engaged in prayer – honor, dignity, anointing, asking questions, weeping – creating and growing beloved community, as well as our resilience to not give up on the kin-dom of God.  

The crowds, the women of Galilee, and Joseph all play their part. They all do what is truest to them in the spheres of their life. With the love of God anchoring them – and disrupting them unto greater vision, unto a greater world they can not yet see – and they pray, they pray, they pray their way into seeing a living, real, good, and loving Jesus in their midst again and enlivening this faith. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr ends his famous Christmas sermon where he talks more about nightmares  than dreams by saying these words that I’ll close with as prayer,

“I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the children of God will shout for joy.”

Amen – may it be so. . . and a beginning.

 

A Question That Keeps Our Heads Up, Hands Out, & Hearts Open In The New Year | “What Do You Think?”

Good morning! And Happy New Year’s Eve!  

Here we are – just hours away from 2024! A collective “Congratulations!” are in order – it’s no small feat to have made the journey of the last 364 days – and whether you arrive on the cusp of this new year feeling bedraggled or full of pep – or somewhere in between – here we are.

For me, there’s something sweet and comforting about being here on the threshold of a new year with all of you this morning.  To show up alongside one another  – with all of whatever our years have held – and still have an inclination to discover the love of God, the gift of community and the joy of living *TOGETHER.* Still trusting that somehow the Spirit of God is here too – and that somehow this matters as we teeter into a NEW YEAR.  I’m so grateful for that.

Five Sundays ago we began our Advent season with an interactive service where we populated the envelopes along the Sanctuary walls. “Cussing, Silence & Prayer” were three big categories that we invited you all to consider as you scanned the state of your hearts – and let’s just say, after spending time reading through these envelopes – “Cussing” takes a sizable lead.

My guess is that over the last five weeks this hasn’t changed much. There are things in our personal lives and in our public & global spheres that grieve us – make us angry, frustrated, and mournful… it’s why resolutions and intention setting to mark a new way forward can be so meaningful.  

I think New Year’s resolutions can be like prayers. They touch a deep longing in us – sometimes for freshness, sometimes to shake off and say “goodbye” to all that has been heartbreaking and painful  –  resolutions package our hopes into something that feels a little more do-able  – a ‘next’ good step or practice. And some of us love to set resolutions, goals, new rhythms … and some of us, as a friend reminded me, are still processing the year 2016, and 2018, and 2020, and 2021, etc.. 

I’m a mix of all of all of that…. and in the last few days as I’ve thought about this new year ahead.. I did as I often do, when things feel complex and non-linear – I turn to the poets.  I’ve been reading one of my favorite contemporary poets – Andrea Gibson. They are a Maine native – so I already have a soft spot for them, as a Mainer myself.  As a poet they spend much of their time reading. Their head down in books, essays, articles – words of literary experts & mentors of theirs – both for inspiration and creativity – but also for learning and knowledge…

Recently though they learned that their Stage IV cancer was back, and in the wake of this news – I heard them say,

“you know, I just don’t want to spend my time looking down. I just want to spend my time looking out at the world – even if it’s not guaranteed, even if I might lose it – because there’s so much to learn and love.” 

This really resonated with me – we don’t know what 2024 will bring…and the tendency to make some of it predictable whatever means that takes – often leads me to keeping my head down, and my heart busy. But this poet and the invitation of Jesus is to have more days than not where our heads are up, our hands out, and our hearts open – and to not be so afraid of getting it wrong, or fumbling, or being messy – or whatever it is – that we forget to live! 

Heads up, hands out, and hearts open – this could be a helpful posture to greet whatever 2024 might bring. And I want to offer us a question that I think will help us sustain this posture – one that Jesus asks Peter in scripture that we’ll look at today – it’s a simple one,

“What do you think?”  

I’ll share a couple of stories that get us going in that direction – and then we’ll see where scripture and this question, “What do you think?” takes us.  Let me pray for us.

Thank you Jesus that you are the one who is always here. Always with us. And here we are, God – here on the cusp of a new year – with hearts that brim  with a pleading hope – oh god – for more of you if anything in the days ahead. More of you in our silent moments, more of you in our anger, more of you in our aches, and more of you in our celebrating, in the unknown, in our awe – more of you, Oh God – in all the manner of our days… Could you make your presence known God and convincingly true? So that we can lay our heads on our pillows each night and wonder,  ‘what manner of love is this?’ “what manner of love?” And say as we do this morning…“Thank you God, Thank you.”

A few weeks ago – I came home from work on a Sunday. It had been a full and busy day and it was rainy, and cold, and yucky outside… And my whole drive home I just couldn’t wait to get into my sweats and sit on the couch. Over the years it’s been a bit of a known agreement in our house – that for at least one hour – on Sundays I come home and I do not move. I don’t drive anyone around, I don’t do errands, or get anyone anything. And the way you love me the most – is by letting that happen!

But you know – nothing’s perfect. And this particular Sunday my son had plans to do something with a friend of his, who would be driving him. I hadn’t met this friend, and I’m not super comfortable in general with “other kids driving my kid” around. And I was taking in all this information, just as I walked through the door – and was quickly realizing this would require my energy and movement. I wanted to introduce myself,  and say something like, “don’t speed” – And all of it was making me a bit grumpy. 

A few minutes later I was sliding on someone’s slippers that were near the door, and shuffling/jogging out to the rainy sidewalk to meet this friend.  Hands in my pockets. Head down.  My son leading the way to the parked car on the street. I looked up for a split second and realized there was a big puddle right in front of where the car was, and as I was trying to negotiate in the moment… “whether I should go directly to the driver’s side – or introduce myself across the big puddle?”… but it didn’t matter because I tripped!

Yep – I tripped on a lip in the sidewalk and fell alllll the way down – face down, splashed right in the edge of the puddle… soaking wet – fell out of those slippers. Totally embarrassed, I tried to ‘hop’ up as quickly as possible, look not in pain – find my slippers…  and make my way nonchalantly to the window of the car… both my son and his friend were as you might imagine in shock…  

Resolution for the New Year – don’t run with your hands in your pockets… It’s not even a resolution – it’s just a good, normal, baseline tip! 

Jesus said,

I have come for you to have (and live), life – and have it abundantly.” 

I was grumpy, I was tired, I was cold… my body posture – head down, hands in pockets -was a signal of how little I wanted to engage in this moment. What drudgery it was to pivot, and to show up anyway. . . In love.

And really what does a moment like that matter anyway? I was ok, nothing big was at stake – it was a small moment. Inconsequential. My son knows I love him  – I don’t think his friend cares if I love him or not. . . I could have shown up or not shown up.  What do you think?

Should we resolve to KEEP THINKING about WHY LOVE MATTERS – in circumstances, with people, in moments that are not mountain-top experiences? 

I think it would help us if we could.

Love can become a word that loses its depth – it can fall into disrepair in our human landscape.  We need to be deeply convinced at a feet-to-the-ground, face-to-face-neighbor level that love can be readily found in all of our spaces and somehow it does matter – puddles and all.

THE CONTENT of our lives – OUR LIVED LIVES – is how and where we learn about God.  I love reading someone’s pithy/hot-take on scripture – or a good story – or someone’s life work on theology, or an essay or a podcast of interesting, inspiring voices. They mentor me, they provoke me in good ways- but to look up and see the widest pages of life all around us, is also where it’s at.  When I’m too in the weeds with research, or doubting myself and trying to find some “expert voice” to back me.

The detriment is that I mute the convivial listening with the world and with Jesus – who I believe is always asking

“Well Ivy, what do you think about that?” “why does it matter”?  “How does it make you feel?” “Who does it affect?”

… and this is detrimental – because “What do you think?” is an intimate question of Jesus to us –  and one that is the authentic means to not only KNOWLEDGE but to LOVE. 

I was reminded of this as I was riding in a car with a long-time friend one Christmas. She was talking about her own journey in her faith community, excited about the idea of forming a “women’s ministry” – and hanging in the air around the conversation was perhaps the (unspoken), larger question of just what a woman’s role in the church should be.

Her faith community currently has no women on the Board, as deacons, or as preachers.  And it was interesting because,  our conversation bounced from what her male Pastor thought about women in leadershipto the reality that there are a lack of women mentors in the community … to the seminary books that she was harkening back to, that offered her interesting thoughts and truths to wade in and consider a woman’s rightful place.

It was clear to me that the question, “What do you think?”, was not a comfortable question – external knowledge found in books and other’s voices was more credible.

I wish in the moment I had paused to get a little more curious, and ask –

“well, what is your lived experience as a woman?” 

What do you notice about women who are not given platforms for their voices to be heard?  Why do you think there might not be women mentors in your community?  What do women around you who are pastors …ehm….. LIKE ME! In this CAR! … with you RIGHT NOW!!!!….what do they think? What have they experienced? How have they engaged with scripture?

“What do you think?” is a bold and direct question – slices right to the heart, if we let it, as much as the head.  And if we frame it as a question that helps us lift our head and look around and engage with the life around us, it becomes not a question that rests on a separate doctrine or theology (where we might think only Jesus is found),  but becomes a generative question that is born and explored from exactly where you stand  – and where lo’ and behold Jesus is too.            

Conceptual and Relational Belief
(McLaren,  Spiritual Migration

The interesting thing about what we think – is that it can quickly be tied into systems of belief. That can take on a life of their own – sometimes as an immovable creed or doctrine.

Here, I think it’s helpful to talk a little bit about conceptual and relational beliefs. 

Conceptual beliefs are beliefs that are often easily expressed as statements or propositions – and when expressed in a sentence- are often right alongside the word “that”. My long-time friend in my previous story might say,

“I believe that women can not be in church leadership.”  ‘

Or

“I believe that the headship of a church is only represented by the male gender”

…  it’s a stake, a claim that something is real, true or in existence.

In contrast, relational beliefs are often followed by the preposition in.   And they are less statements – and more birthed out of a personal authenticity, lived experience that offers a confidence and sense of loyalty which permits thoughts like, “I believe in you”, “i believe in scripture”, “I believe in peace”… 

It can get complicated pretty quickly – religion or churches for example, often demand statements of conceptual belief as proof of belonging.   And also – might offer rewards or punishments based on conceptual beliefs.

This gets us into the territory of replacing conceptual beliefs as a construct over our own thinking caps. Placing a thin, invisible barrier in our minds between the beauty and the goodness and the value of the world around us  –  and constricting our own experience of God’s love. 

But relational beliefs – allow for this question, “What do you think?” – in fact to some degree they are built on this – and therefore the freedom and the health that this affords an individual and a community- allows for a foundation of LOVE.  It allows us to stay in the car together – and see the passenger next to us, sort of speak! 

Without freedom of thought, we offer and experience only an impoverished love. 

Jesus invites us to love.

And much of his ministry is spent trying to expand the systems of his day – beyond the conceptual beliefs that so many of the religious experts of his day rest on…. At one point he says to these religious experts,

“how terrible it will be for you…. You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faith. You blind guides! You filter out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Oh, how I love it when Jesus talks about gnats and camels!

Here maybe we can see the conceptual beliefs for these religious experts is to uphold the belief that one should give away a tenth of their belongings to God… but it comes at the expense of a relational belief in people!  Where real issues of  justice, mercy, and faith play out.

You can’t have conceptual beliefs – and X -out all the relational beliefs and say you are truly “loving” God. Lest we choke on camels of pride and power.

Is love present?  Is love felt? In a system that erases the eye for our world…  What do you think?  And how do we think in this vein – if we don’t engage an active, living posture to the world around us? 

This is what Jesus keeps prompting us with – through all his provoking and quirky words, stories, and actions,

“Can we imagine a Christianity of the future that gathers around something other than a list of conceptual beliefs?” (McLaren,  Spiritual Migration

Let’s take a look at  this scripture I keep mentioning: 

Matthew 17:24 – 27 (New Living Version)

24 On their arrival in Capernaum, the tax collectors for the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”

25 “Of course he does,” Peter replied.  

Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it.

But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, 

“What do you think, Peter? 

Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

26 “They tax the foreigners,” Peter replied.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free!  However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line.  Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a coin. Take the coin and pay the tax for both of us.”

Here’s a little bit of context: 

Peter has just come down from the mountain with Jesus, where he’s witnessed the transformation of Jesus.  He watched as Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes turned white – and a voice from God, booming from the clouds said,

“This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him”

(Peter fell on his face in awe –  I imagine it was a good falling on his face, with his hands out of his pockets in praise!)

It’s a pinnacle moment – confirming his loving relationship to Jesus, the human who he’s walked alongside – and linking it to the mysterious love of God.

It’s a moment for Peter, that maybe is akin to one of your more moving spiritual moments in life – where you have felt as though you are on a mountain top – so close to God and God so close to you – that  that love and that experience feels almost unbelievable.

Only of course to be interrupted by the real facts of life. A phone call, a time constraint, someone tugging at you –  needing something from you – or as in Peter’s case a tax collector…. 

A tax collector asking for payment to the temple in Jerusalem that most Jewish men are meant to pay for its upkeep.

This moment of intimacy and love of God, felt by Peter on the mountain top, likely dissipates pretty quickly.

And we see here in these verses, I believe the dynamic again of conceptual belief and relational belief  on the table with the question at hand – should Jesus and his followers have to pay this tax?

Peter’s impulsive answer is

“Yes – of course my teacher pays the tax. I believe that all Jewish men should pay the temple tax.”

An answer that Jesus doesn’t seem to disagree with. But what follows in the text, I believe is a deeply powerful move, that demonstrates Jesus’ love and value of each of us – to keep THINKING.  To keep thinking about the conceptual beliefs that we impulsively answer to …. and to also hold, and not cut-out, the relational wonder-land of Jesus’ love in front of us…. 

He asks,

“What do you think, Peter?” 

It’s an invitation I believe that is going to help Peter see that the mountaintop experience is available in all his settings – even the most mundane and annoying.

If GOD’S LOVE, at its core is about connection of all things (neighbor, self, earth) – that this is what allows for our sense of belonging….then my hope is that the intersectionality of where I encounter God and where I encounter people is all the content and all the knowledge, that I need for an experience of God’s love.   

After I fell in the puddle, in front of two teenage boys (you know every middle-aged mom’s dream), I did go to the window – determined to introduce myself, and give the directive of “don’t’ speed!” that I wanted. But all that came out, as I made my way to the window of the car, was “OW, Ow, ow, ow, ow….”

And my son came over quickly and said “are you ok, are you ok?” And the dude in the car, was stunned and unbuckling to help me – and saying the same – “oh my gosh, are you ok?”  And after a few minutes of really figuring out that I was ok – we laughed, and laughed and laughed as we replayed the video that captured all of this  – from our video doorbell on the porch… 

We are all yearning and eager to be seen and known and included. I wanted my son to show me that love – by honoring my “hour of sitting on the couch.”  But I was shown even greater depths of love as he came to my side in the rain, and paused his plans to attend to me…  *this isn’t to suggest that we should all fall on our face, to experience the love of GOD*

I realize again and again in moments like these – on sidewalks, in the rain, in the most inconvenient moments of life – that I can find a living, breathing sanctuary in the form of another human being, in the midst of the most expansive sanctuary – our Earth. And this is where I want to keep thinking (with all of who I am) – where I go for knowledge… in these everyday, sacred spaces. It’s here that we rediscover our faith as a series of stories and as a series of encounters… as quirky and as insignificant and as messy as they might seem… but as powerful and sacred as all the prayer and scripture and spiritual practices we could muster for a new year. 

Paidrag O’ Tuama, an Irish poet says that

“belonging creates and undoes us both”

likely follows the same sentiment of love…. It creates and undoes us both.

Jesus wants Peter to be undone by his love….in all of life. 

Peter’s quick reply to the tax collector, might have signaled to Jesus that the tendency of his thinking might veer more conceptual than relational and that a mountain-top experience could be compartmentalized in Peter’s mind as a distinct experience, under special circumstances. 

It seems by Jesus’ next move, that a conceptual God is not the image that Jesus is interested in putting out in the world. 

Not only does Jesus ask Peter this most loving question,

“What do you think?”

as a way to bridge the conceptual and the relational systems.

Jesus also nudges Peter a bit.  He helps him get up off the couch and get to really thinking… he says,

“GO OUT.” “Go to the lake, go to the shore – go fishing.” 

A place Peter, as a fisherman knew incredibly well. 

And there Peter encounters a miracle – finding the exact tax needed for both him and Jesus – in the coin in the fish’s mouth.

The places we know so well where we work, live and play – it seems, are teaming with not only God’s deep love – but also miracles. 

Jesus I think says –

“Oh yeah, that’s the treasure… that’s the coin in the fish’s mouth –  discovering all of this in your EVERYDAY fishing zones.”

I wish my friend could have asked me in the car:  

“Ivy, what do you think about the role of women in the church?”

Maybe we could have discovered the treasure//the miracle in the midst of us. Sharing our stories as women, sharing our vulnerability, just how much it hurt at times – and trust that that conversation could have unearthed something we both couldn’t have known ahead of time.

As we THINK, As we become awake with our hearts, and minds and souls – with lived experience as our data and content. We start to perform the miracles of today…. By not only inhabiting  – but experiencing – each day as a sanctuary free of walls, full of God’s love.

May we resolve to fall in love with Jesus again and again in 2024. And may we receive his question,

“What do you think?”

as a way to discover our very lives with our heads up, hands out, and hearts open.

 

To Be A People of Blessing | Participatory Liturgy

Scripture: Luke 1: 26-50

Song: “Wherever Your Heart Is” by The Lone Bellow

Voice: John O’ Donohue 

WELCOME 

Good morning! I’m Ivy, a pastor here, I use she/her pronouns – it is a delight to have you all in this space together this morning, the first Sunday of Advent. 

Advent is the season before Christmas, marked by the four Sundays leading to Christmas.  It’s a season where we long and wait for the coming of Jesus – and revisit all that it meant, and consider all that it still means for us and the world today.

And today we are holding a participatory liturgy service to start this season.

I’ll explain this service, and your involvement in it, in just a moment .. …but first a couple Advent -related announcements: 

Our Advent focus this year is the God who speaks – and this guide will help walk you through scripture, reflection questions, and invitations of exploring how that might be true -through our listening, imagination, our encouragement, and blessing.  Grab one on your way out – and explore it with a community group or others if you’d like! 

  • 12/17 – Christmas Choir
  • 12/17 – And an after-service Nativity experience with our elementary school kids.
  • 12/24 – And on Christmas Eve, we will have special candlelight services in person at 10:00 a.m. and online at 7:00 p.m. (Note the different times for that holiday!)
     

TODAY

Today, you are about to engage and experience a participatory service. 

We offer these types of participatory liturgies about two times a year – and each time I’m excited to see what will unfold with the Spirit of God. So much of what is to come really is a choreography of your story and God’s story intersecting – with familiar prompts of scripture, prayer, and communion – but with a less front–of-the-stage-centered focused “teaching.”

We trust the Spirit of God to be our great teacher today, the one who guides us in communal and creative ways to deeper experiences of God’s love.

We realize that these services take a little more “work”… The word, “liturgy” in Greek roots, means work of the people. And so much of the experience, this morning –  as is often true – will rest on your willingness to lean in and engage, participate and create.  All of which we will give space for… and all with freedom.

*If you need a little space please take it, there are chairs setup around the edges of the Sanctuary – the prayer team will be available later in the service if you need it as well… but please do participate to the degree you are comfortable, as I trust you’ll find a rich return from that. As always we hope that you will experience the love of God, the gift of community and the joy of living – from exactly where you are at this morning, and know that you are welcome in this place – without exception. 

BLESSINGS
The focus of our Advent season this year is the ‘God who speaks.’  And we will get to wonder together how God is speaking still, how we discern God’s new possibilities for us, and how we join God in speaking good into being.

One way God speaks good into being is in the realm of blessings.  “The Bible is full of blessings. They are seen as a communication of life from God.” And one way we join God in speaking good into being is by blessing one another. 

In this service we are going to explore what it is to “be a people of blessing” – not in a soft/platitude – hashtag#I’m-blessed-sort of -way.  But in an empowered –  ‘standing in the darkest month of the year, standing in a (dark) world that is breaking over and over again – kind of way’… believing and embodying that there could be something so lovely about rediscovering our power to bless one another. In a way that could heal and renew one another – could rekindle a ‘little bit of fire’ in us – where we remember what and who we care for, who and what we are passionate about and love – and are called to love.

Throughout this service you’ll be invited to explore the power of blessing – through individual reflection, communal response, and movement.  I’ll guide you through what these “more communal” moments will look like and how to respond to one another in your groups.  You will be companioned by Mary’s story and song found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1 – as well as Irish poet and priest John O’Donohue.    

Let me pray for us, and then lead us into the first portion of our time.

Oh God, the one who blesses us – from the beginning until the end – help us to bless one another, to be a people of blessing.  We sit here with you now – maybe eager and maybe slightly anxious – of what this morning might bring.   And so I ask you now to remind us of your promise to us, that you are always with us –  that by and by you are by our side – that you will never leave us or forsake us.  And as we join with you today, may your deep, unending, love for us – be revealed at even greater depths.

Amen

Ivy:  Now we will move to our first Movement: Blessing Wherever Our Heart Is  – 

Let’s get started. 

1

MOVEMENT# 1 |  Bless Wherever Your Heart Is

1- Song | Band 

1st two stanzas and refrain

🎵I’m getting real good at talkin’ to strangers

Good with the silence, cussing and prayer

It’s a long way to our house, we should get started

I’ve seen the signs of tall tale dangers

Why do you say when the words are not there?

It’s a long way to nowhere, we should get started

We should get started

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

1- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1:26 -35 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

Mary said to the angel, 

“But I am a virgin – How can this be?” 

How can this be?” 

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be… 

 

Let it be…  

1- Song | Band 

🎵🎵🎵

I’m getting real good at talkin’ to strangers

Good with the silence, cussing and prayer

It’s a long way to our house, we should get started

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

 

1- Ivy | Words & Invitation to Sharing
I wonder where Mary’s heart was when the angel greeted her?

I wonder if her heart skipped a beat and she lost her breath?

I wonder if she cussed – a million holy cusses – under her breath?

I wonder how much silence she needed to gather herself?
I wonder how much silence she needed to unravel herself?

I wonder how she prayed? What she prayed? 

I wonder if she wondered why she should even pray?

I wonder if God was searching for wherever Mary’s heart was? I wonder if in that searching her heart was blessed?

“Cussing, silence & prayer.”

You’ll find three strips of paper that have these words on them in your envelope – please take them out. 

I’m going to invite you to write on these strips of paper – and also scan your own heart, as you spend a moment with each of them.

There may be things in your personal life, or in your community, or in the world that light up ONE or all THREE of these words – cussing, silence and prayer – and there may be, even more words that reflect better the state of your heart today – but we are going to take a moment with these three.

1 Let’s start with silence.

  • Silence could be holy/connective/generative  – altogether good silence.
  • Silence could also could also be loneliness – emptiness – numbness…

How does silence resonate with you? Jot some thoughts or reasons ‘why’ down as they come.

2 Next is cussing:

  • Cussing could be a reveal health – an outlet – a relief valve for deep feelings
  • It could also be a state of unwanted surprise, dead-ends, despair, anger, fear, frustration

How does cussing resonate with you? Jot some thoughts or reasons ‘why’ down as they come.

3 Next is prayer:

  • Prayer could be alive, good, it could feel like action – movement.
  • Absent, like work, rote, or a longing 

How does prayer resonate with you? Jot some thoughts or reasons ‘why’ down as they come.

SHARE & WALL

Now what I’m going to invite you to do now is to share one thing that you wrote down that you are comfortable sharing with the group about “wherever your heart is.”  (After you share your name and your pronouns if you’d like).

The group will only say one thing in response to your sharing, and that is

We bless you, wherever your heart is.” 

Take turns – and after you’re all done – you can take your three strips of paper to the wall and place them in an any-shade-of-green envelope.

2

MOVEMENT # 2 | Bless Those Throughout Your Life

2- Song | Band 

2nd stanza & refrain

🎵You always told me, go where the light is

Nobody showed you, how to get there

It’s a good time for trying to walk through the darkness 

We should get started

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

 

2- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1: 39 – 45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, her cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, 

“Blessed are you among women,

“Blessed are you among women,

and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

2- Song | Band 

2nd stanza & refrain

🎵You always told me, go where the light is

Nobody showed you, how to get there

It’s a good time for trying to walk through the darkness 

We should get started

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

2- Ivy | Words & Invitation to Reflect & WALL

I wonder if Elizabeth’s blessing changed the atmosphere in that room? In Mary’s heart?  Jumping in darkness and light, from overwhelm to movement, clenched heart  – to – open.?

I wonder if Elizabeth’s blessing despite the signs of tell-tale danger of Herod the Great, showed Mary how to walk?

I wonder if Elizabeth held some of Mary’s doubt until she could enwomb her own infinite possibilities? I wonder if it shirred up her dignity and belief in who she was meant to be.

The people throughout our lives – they have the capacity to shape, break, and save us. 

Likely this is true for you whether you are 15 or 80. 

You’ll find in your envelope three square cards.

1-One reads: “Blessed be those who have loved us, into becoming who we were meant to be.”

2-Another reads: “Blessed be those who looked for you and found you, with their kind hands. When desolation surrounded you.”

3-And the last one reads: “Blessed be those who have crossed our lives with dark gifts of hurt and loss. That have helped to school our minds in the art of disappointment.”

  • You aren’t going to share out loud in your groups this round – but take a moment to write the names of people throughout your life – who come to mind. And if you can – next to their name write how you knew or know them. 
    Example: Sally Powell, piano teacher *OR* Holly Potts, 5th grade lunch lady.
  • And when you are ready you can put these cards on the wall. You’ll find little tabs of red tape that you can stick them up with.
  • One exception is the person/people in your life that have hurt you – you can put that card in the envelope that you have, seal it, and put it on the wall if you’d like.

I’ll call us back in a couple of minutes.

As a body we’ll now communally bless all of these people who are represented on the cards and sealed envelopes. I’ll  read the blessing – and then we can all say the response that seals that blessing together (it will be on a slide). 

1- “Blessed be those who have loved us, into becoming who we were meant to be.”

RESPONSE: May those who love us be blessed. 

2-Another reads: “Blessed be those who looked for you and found you, with their kind hands. When desolation surrounded you.”

RESPONSE: May those who search for us be blessed.

3-And the last one reads: “Blessed be those who have crossed our lives with dark gifts of hurt and loss. That have helped to school our minds in the art of disappointment.”

RESPONSE: May God, Bless the space between.

3

MOVEMENT #3 | Bless the fire in you 

3- Song | Band 

2nd stanza  

🎵Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you

 

Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you🎵(repeat as many times as makes sense)

 

3- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1:51-55

And then Mary praises God, and with a little fire in her belly she sings;

He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones

    and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty.

He has come to the aid of his child Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

3- Song | Band 

3rd stanza  

🎵Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you

 

Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you🎵(repeat as many times as makes sense)

3- Ivy | Words & Invitation to Share

Elizabeth’s words flame the embers of knowing in Mary. Something Mary knew deep down, these ancient, yet prophetic words of Isaiah… and she sings them anew for herself and for the world. 

It’s the little bit of fire left in her… as she stands in the face of all that is overwhelming.

This little bit of fire – that keeps her in it – that keeps her searching to see the world as God sees it. 

And some days this is all we can do, keep trying to see the world as God sees it – even if our reality defies it at every turn. Even if the powerful are still on their thrones, and have their hands full of riches – and even as the poor and powerless are still in the trenches – hungry and suffering. Even if our embers of hope for justice and love are cold. Some days all we have is the mystery and promises of God that feel so ancient – but that reside deep within us… A found little fire left in us – – that in and of itself might be a blessing.

I wonder if Mary’s ancient song is our song too?

  • What do you think? Do you have a little fire left in you? And if so – what is it for? 

Are there things you care about and for? 

Things that keep you up at night that you are passionate about?

  •  The health of your family system
  • Local neighborhood issue
  • Hope of the world
  • Events of the world
  • Your work/vocation
  •  Share in group

 

  • Take a minute to sit with this question – you should have one last card in your hands.
    You can jot your thoughts down – and as you are ready you’ll share one thing you feel  comfortable sharing in your group.
  • The group’s response this time will be: “We bless the fire in you”

 

DON”T GO TO THE WALL  – SAVE IT FOR INTERLUDE

*Ivy words before interlude

Everytime we have said a blessing today  – we have used the word, “MAY” –  “May you be blessed”…”May those who love you be blessed.” etc. This is because the word “May” is a spring through which the Spirit of God is invoked to come forth with full presence and effect. It is not of our own power. The Spirit of God is the presence and secret energy behind every blessing here and in your days. (xvi)

To be a people of blessing is to move around our days, walk upon this earth – bumping up against people – like all these envelopes on these walls – wherever their hearts are –  in grief, in joy, in stress, in numbness – and yet as best we can we are called to notice, pay attention and care for the people around us.

But to live our lives in this manner – we need sustenance. We need to return to and draw from God, the source of all blessing. 

So during this next time – you are invited to continue to search for wherever your heart is – and the hearts of those around you. 

And here are your options:

  • Take your fire paper to the wall, stick it in a green envelope & take some time to read a few green envelopes.  
  • In the red envelopes are blessings – that you can take for yourself, or move to a green envelope that you think might need one.  
  • You can take communion – the source of all nourishment.
  • You can receive prayer from the Prayer Team. 

 May you find the sustenance you need along the way.

*INTERLUDE* | Searching

*Song | Band 

3rd stanza …….into 4th stanza

🎵Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you

 

Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you🎵

 

4

MOVEMENT #4 | The Blessing of God

4- Song | Band 

4th stanza – on repeat****

🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

 

4- Scripture | Grace

Luke 1:47-50

And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.

And she said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.

    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name;

indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him

    from generation to generation – because by and by he’s by their side…

  from generation to generation – because by and by he’s by our side.

And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 

 

4- Song | Band 

4th stanza – on repeat****

🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

4- Ivy | Words  

The span of history  – from Abraham – to the immediate descendants of Abraham – to our ancestors, to us, and to every generation in between – and to the next generation, and the generation after that – we are blessed to know that 

God looks upon us with favor,

The Might One has done great things for us

God’s mercy is for all of us… for everyone… 

By and by  God is by our side. 

  

These are the found blessings – things that are just true of God 

It feels so good to know – that By and By God’s by our side.

So we are going to invite all the generations in this room to sing this refrain together …..

 ***Song | Band  – Lead this part…

If you feel like you are in the older generation sing with us:
🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

If you feel like you are somewhere in the “middle” generation sing with us:
🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

If you feel like you are somewhere in the “young” generation sing with us:

🎵Feels so good to know that

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by I am by your side🎵

 

Then Band leads congregation the whole song from top to bottom:

🎵
I’m getting real good at talkin’ to strangers

Good with the silence, cussing and prayer

It’s a long way to our house, we should get started

I’ve seen the signs of tall tale dangers

What do you say when the words are not there?

It’s a long way to nowhere, we should get started

We should get started

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is

 

You always told me, go where the light is

Nobody showed you, how to get there

It’s a good time for trying to walk through the darkness

We should get started

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is

 

Feels so good to know

That there’s a little fire left

There’s a little fire in left in you

Feels so good to know

That by and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

By and by, I am by your side

 

I’m still searching for wherever your heart is

We should get started, wherever your heart is

I’m still searching for wherеver your heart is

We should gеt started, wherever your heart is🎵

Ivy – Prayer/Benediction
Oh God who blesses, blesses and blesses us – so that we can in turn bless bless bless one another – May we treasure all the words spoken, shared, and those tucked away here today and ponder them in our hearts. And may they shape the blessings we become as we move about our days  – searching for your heart Jesus in this world. AMEN

There is No “Away” | But There is A Way

For the next few weeks we are focusing on this phrase The Way of Jesus. It’s not a new phrase, or a new way -it’s actually an ancient -quite ancient way. A way that small communities of folks that loved Jesus lived their life by – emphasizing Jesus’ teachings, his death and resurrection as the path to transformation.  “The Way” gradually grew welcoming non-Jews as well as Jews, becoming more inclusive and grace-oriented. And as the “Early Church” period took shape (these 500 years or so after Jesus’ resurrection), it was a time full of dramatic change in culture, politics, and economy – this “Way of Jesus” helped transform the lives of people in a very chaotic world. AND it wasn’t because it was a religion full of doctrines, or eternal salvation, or  beliefs to subscribe to, or reject. But it was a way of living  – a way of being in the world – that was about how to live a better life here and now, *with joy* to encounter the truth and the life and the love of God in all places, in all times – even the chaotic, overwhelming, heart-breaking times.

This Way of Jesus is our way too, today.

Today we are going to talk about just that – The Way of Jesus. 

And we’ll look at some verses from the Gospel of John including the one where Jesus says,

“I am the way, the truth, and the life…” 

A verse that in many ways has been interpreted by contorting the Way of Jesus – into a narrow, exclusionary, harmful set of beliefs about heaven, hell, salvation, what it means to be “Christian”- in a way that truly has taken on a life of its own – but contains little life, and little truth.  So will press into that a bit – and consider what we can do when the Way of Jesus gets contorted.

PRAYER

Oh Jesus, in times of uncertainty, could you remind us that you are the way, the truth, and the life.  Remind us that your presence resides within, between, and among us – and could this knowledge be our strength and our comfort. Hear this prayer – Oh God, in your mercy, please hear this prayer. Amen.

STORY

I’ve officiated and been part of a few weddings since the end of the summer. One of which I officiated here, for a couple in this community  – just this past Monday – at 7:30 a.m.  Which you might be like, wait – 7:30…a.m.? As in – in the morning? So early.  Yes, yes, but as I told this couple – it might be my new favorite time! There’s something about the early morning light, the stillness before the movement of the day takes up – and 8:30 a.m. mimosas – before a staff meeting isn’t so bad either! 

It was a near-elopement wedding, with just the couple – and their parents. We gathered in a sweet, understated room upstairs to the right of the organ loft. 

And the day prior to their wedding, I watched the couple as they watched other people they know – friends, members of their community group add items/decorations to the space – some plants from the lobby, lights,  frames, etc.. and I heard one of the couple say,

“whew! This is a lot for a minimalist!”

And that one comment really opened up so much of what I had been learning of their relationship. How their way of being in the world wasn’t just for the value of simplicity but it was an intention and care for what minimalism could make space for what more could be. 

So much within their minimalist posture was punctuated with meaning.  And seen in this wedding ceremony – earrings worn by the bride which were worn by her mom on her wedding day, a coffee mug given to one of the Dad’s at his retirement, words shared by the couple to their parents as part of the ceremony. Not as an aside of thanks gratitude – and space for their parents to do the same. Maximizing the sacredness of story, relationships –  the love in the room to be shared as much as witnessed.  This holy matrimony coming into view – nothing wasted, items/things repurposed unto newness.

How striking it is to experience the beauty of old, shine in the light of today – to see that there’s a luster, a treasure that doesn’t go away.  It’s part of the beauty of The Way of Jesus  – right? To imagine that the earliest folks that were In the Way were also imagining a better world with prayer, hope, community, scripture, holding on to the promises we still do today.  But what about things of old, that haven’t really held up? That are bad – and harmful? What do we do with them? Do we hope they go away? Is that part of the Way of Jesus too? 

Environmental activist Annie Leonard says,

“there is no “away”  that “when you throw something away, it goes somewhere.” (McLaren 192)

And the myth in our current society one that centers domination and exploitation as a way of being, has told us

“that if we don’t like something – we can simply get rid of it – kill it, banish it, incarcerate it, incinerate it, ignore it, bury it – and that it will be gone for good.”

But as James Baldwin realized, what is true of time in space, is true of time itself:

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” (192)

RECONSECRATED

It’s easy to see the ecological effects of this in our society right? With mass production, the rise of disposable products, the invention of plastic. Our desire for more stuff and for profit make us a throw-away society. And yet the forever chemicals absorbed into our land and water sources, the trillions of micro-plastics floating in our ocean, loss of bio-diversity, and so much more – tell us in fact there is ‘no away.’

Author, teacher and speaker – Brian McLaren says that this holds true as we think about faith too. Specifically Christianity. In his recent book, “Do I Stay Christian?” he explores all the harmful, unsustainable, toxic impacts of Christianity over time. And rather than answer this question “Do I Stay Christian?” he offers insights and wisdom to help those of us who might wonder the same – to thoughtfully engage the conversation – rather, I think than offer a reactionary answer of yes or no. Because he says,

You can leave Christianity, but Christianity won’t leave you. No matter how toxic some of its elements are, they will still be there in the atmosphere/environment, living in the minds and hearts and bodies of people around us, family members, political leaders, etc. – Christianity will still influence you.” (McLaren)

Now how/what does this have to do with the Way of Jesus? The Way of Jesus holds none of those toxic things – well the way of Jesus only holds none of those things, if we address those toxic things. Otherwise The Way of Jesus (our embodied way of being in the world) that is so deep and wide and so good – unto the betterment of ourselves and the world around us – has the same potential to perpetuate the problems we may have experienced, rather than reverse them. So Brian McLaren says Christianity needs to be recycled. Another word for recycled is redeemed, built on the word deem to give value. And another word for redeemed is to re-consecrate, to make holy again what has been desecrated.  “Desecrated” meaning polluted… and “Holy” meaning not set apart but brought back into wholeness, into the fullness of life , in truth for everyone. 

So let’s take a look at perhaps the second most known verse in the gospel of John (second to John 3:16) –  and the verses that surround it  – we’ll start at the beginning of John 14:  

SCRIPTURE | JOHN 14:1- 7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God ; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know  my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

This scripture is beautiful, holy – it’s an intimate, emotions-running-high-scripture. We enter into this setting where Jesus has just told the disciples that he will be with them

“only a little longer.”

This, the night that he’ll be arrested – he’s washed the disciples’ feet, broken bread with them – he’s told them,

“Oh, my friends above all else love one another – love one another… “

It’s a bit of a swirl of everything – the outside temperature – is heightened with violence and threat. Everything is about to change.

I can imagine the disciples do wonder,

‘what is going on  I mean really Jesus – what is going on!?’ 

It makes sense to me that Jesus would start by saying,

“don’t let your hearts be troubled….because there’s going to be a lot that you don’t understand – but stay with me…Don’t worry – you know the way, friends. You know the way to the place where I am going…”

And I appreciate Thomas’ response,

“Aaah, nope.  No, We. Do. Not. We do not know where you are going. And because of that fact Jesus –  How? – How can we be expected to know the way?” 

This truthful response keeps us grounded in the life, the context, and the setting of this time…Thomas is like,

“could you give us a map – maybe? Simple directions?”

Jesus answers directly to Thomas,

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”

Now there’s a simplicity to this verse – some might even say a minimalism – that maximizes makes room for an expansive Way of Jesus that we all get to embody.  Maximizes The Way of living here on earth that makes room for wondering, pain, curiosity, doubt, confusion – and still yet can blaze a path of truth and fullness of life. 

But for many there’s a discomfort with minimalism – simplicity – when we talk about God – and really “knowing” God. It’s like somehow to be too simple or too free – means there’s less value.  

And so people need to complicate it a bit. The rest of the verse provides some perceived exclusionary language that much of Christianity has jumped on –

No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

Instead of regarding this as an

embodied way of being in this world [that is] so close to the heart of God/as Jesus says – “the Father” –  that God can be known in and through Jesus.”(Diana Butler Bass) 

Christians have drawn up a bunch of systems – to make sure they know what “knowing God” really looks like – and so rules to abide by, doctrines to enact, ways to prove that you really are a Jesus follower rise up… Here’s a little check point, here’s a little boundary, here’s a hurdle, here’s a x, y, z – which many times turns into a gigantic pile of trash. 

These incredibly expansive, inclusive, grace-oriented words of Jesus,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life”

have been wielded in Christianity as some of the most exclusionary words –  desecrated words.

I wonder if sometimes Jesus knew that his words would be weaponized? I wonder if that’s why he starts with

“don’t let your hearts be troubled”

because it’s words that we still need to hear today when we are not only in moments where we wonder where God might be, but also in moments where we wonder if our deep, good knowing of God can ever be re-consecrated – in a way of lived life that actually matters.

I know that what troubles my heart most often is when I hear people say,

“Oh I know the way, I know the way…  I know the way to God – here it is!”

And then what is outlined is a prescription or a formula that – is impossible to swallow in good conscience — or impossible to calculate in real life… because it at a baseline excludes many people and at a baseline tries to set us v. them religion. “us” apart and above other people – the ones who get it “right” – and so we are beginning with something that is already unholy – polluted.

Thomas says,

“We don’t know the way!”

And I say,

“Amen – Thomas”

perhaps you have said the truest thing. 

Because don’t we sometimes worry that God is too far? That God has gone away? 

And maybe isn’t that why – some of the harmful things of Christianity get set up? It would be nice to at least have our version of God close, and so many people construct what that looks like.

But this statement “we don’t know the way”, it’s the same one Peter asks in the chapter prior – and one that Philip will ask in the verses to follow…

“How? Where? God?”

That’s healthy. Helpful. generative.

HOLY. CONSECRATED. Something that we can continue to work with – because false answers – erode a good God. 

How humbling it is to come across people, scholars , theologians, who say

“I don’t fully understand this…”

I met yesterday with an old friend – we are/were both pastors. We’ve been with one another through some serious SHHHHTUUUUFFFF. And we sat there acknowledging we have the same questions about God – our younger selves maybe couldn’t let us ask out loud. And now, we are letting those questions hit the air – and we are letting our lives – as we live them –  fill out the answers. This somehow allows God to feel close – and as hard and as messy as it is sometimes is – it still feels like life and truth.

When we don’t have an answer to something about God  – We would be well served to just say,

“I don’t know”

rather than provide answers that desecrate the holiness of mystery.

And in part I think Jesus is saying –

“you might not think you know the way”

right now – but with me there is no “away”. With me – there is always a way of truth & life.

People have framed this passage to be about who goes to heaven – who doesn’t – what about other religions… and maybe it is indeed about heaven. It just needs some repurposing on our behalf. Maybe these verses speak of heaven that is also not “away” in an afterlife – but here – on earth – the kin-dom of God in this right-now-life. *And I’ll circle back to this in a second…. 

As much as this fall season has entailed time spent officiating weddings I’ve also been hiking with a group of ladies – who range in age from 65 – 80 yrs. *this group also hiked Mt. Washington – which I did not do with them!* And I’ve gotten a chance to hear about two of the couple’s weddings. For these two couples their trajectory to marriage –  a recognized, legal marriage was long-awaited and hard fought. 

Both couples are same-sex couples. 

And they talked about the reality of how not having the covenant of marriage recognized by the state or the church as legal  was a source of real frustration and pain. But perhaps what was most unholy was that they for a moment thought – well, we’ll just wait until the time comes. We’ll just stay kind of quiet, or hidden until we can really live our love out in the “approved” way.  And then they were like,  “Heck no!” we aren’t doing that – our love can’t be just tossed to the side of society – as “bad” … or “wrong” or “unholy”. And to GIVE WAY to that – is NOT THE WAY… 

And so they celebrated one another publicly – they had commitment ceremonies. They joined communities and communities of faith that would treasure their love for one another – they lived this life, with their truth and found only goodness within. And yes, they also were happy when in 2003 it became legal in MA to marry – but they had already claimed heaven here on earth. They had also re-consecrated what had been desecrated by saying – you know what? The sacredness of love – can not be poisoned,  because love also can not go “away.”

Something in the naming of what is unholy – diligently and publicly –  you put the toxic thing, the harmful thing in its rightful place (where it doesn’t wield excessive power over your life anymore) and in that a re-consecration occurs that paves a way – lit by love, and compassion, and joy – for others to come. These ladies, living in the Way of Jesus – staying steadfast to one another, staying tender to those around them (suspending condemnation – even as their own humanity was condemned), and refusing to be part of a story that limits the sacredness of all life.

Deconstruction

These women remind me of how Brian McLaren talks about re-consecrating – one of the ways aside from recycling or repurposing is to bury. 

And not bury in the sense of secretly – to hide something – but publicly and carefully as we do with radioactive materials or toxic chemicals.” (194)

You know signs you see that say, “hazardous here” – “don’t dig here!” – the message is – “Here’s the harmful thing – and we aren’t going to give it the light of day anymore.” 

We do this often at Reservoir when we acknowledge how the

“Bible has been used to justify slavery, the stigmatization of LGBTQ people, and the inequality of women – we publicly bury those interpretations. We don’t forget them – but rather retell them as cautionary tales to guide us going forward. And then we model a better way of engaging, healthily with Scripture unto a good, life-giving, liberating God for and with everyone.” (194) 

And the work that gets us to that place – to the recycling or repurposing or burying – is often called deconstruction.  

And I want to take a minute on deconstruction – just so we all don’t think that to deconstruct is to begin a slippery slope to nowhere.. 

Deconstruction is not a criticism-lined path to nihilism – or a way to turn our faith into despair, (it might feel like that at times).

And deconstruction isn’t a way of undoing the truth – it is a way of doing it… 

Deconstruction isn’t a way of shedding all the bags of trash about bad faith that you’ve accumulated over your life and just throwing it all away .. RIGHT? Because there is no away.  It’s about releasing and opening up  – opening up God’s presence in free, untarnished ways.

Re-consecrating what has been desecrated.

And it’s hard – because sometimes when you pull at one string – you realize the whole fabric of what you’ve been taught to know of God is quickly unraveled.
But that’s ok – “because we know the way” – it’s just been covered up for a while. We’ve still got the yarn in our hands to repurpose.

Because what is uncovered in deconstruction is the good stuff –  that still resides within – the knowing  – the truth, the life, the love, the compassion, the potential for healing, that is never separate from God. Those things that led you to faith in the first place -our deepest longing and desires – and we get to discover that all of that is undeconstructible.

It never went  – and can’t go away.

Jack Caputo the Catholic philosopher says,

“Deconstruction is not destruction – Deconstruction is love.”

Because you are loving something enough to tell the story behind it.

We have a class here, called Unpack that quickly gets described as a deconstructing class. And I think if it’s in this vein of Jack Caputo – then yes, because Unpack is about love. Exploring how the aspects that you once loved of God,  faith and Christianity – became so polluted? And to tell the story of impact in your life – and to inspect the story under the story of how such harm came to be. 

Those stories that are wrapped up in doctrines like original sin – heaven and hell – atonement theory – the theory of an all controlling, male-gendered God. How does the story of patriarchy – of whiteness, of  power, of wealth – play into how we engage with Scripture, with prayer, how we think about belonging, our relationships to ourselves, one another, the earth.  

There’s a whole arsenal in there – that we have to figure out – how to recycle – redeem. And all of us need to do the work of deconstruction – because we are all influenced by harmful Christianity – and it is our work to turn these swords into plowshares and the spears into pruning hooks, we all need to re-consecrate.

SCRIPTURE PART II

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. My Father’s house has many rooms.. I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

Not a statement about going to heaven or not….

Previously in scripture, ‘Father’s house’ was used to describe the temple. But not the physical temple – but Jesus’ body. And Paul offers a possible explanation in his letters, where to be “in the body of Christ” is to be “in Christ,” which means to be incorporated into the new experiential reality Jesus taught and embodied. The Way of Jesus.

And Jesus’ favorite metaphor for that way of life was “Kin-dom of God.” The kin-dom of God means a way of life lived in harmony with God, others, self, and all creation – here and now – not in the afterlife.

We repurpose the doctrine that suggests that heaven is an escape route from a doomed and unsalvageable earth and yet we can suggest that to live the life we have now – is to do the work of seeking justice, of reconsecrating ALL OF LIFE that which has been injured – even if we

“suffer for justice in this life and don’t see the full results of our labors, our labor will not be in vain”, it will live on in a forever, eternal – good way. (adapted McLaren).

And in that same breath we repurpose that hell is not a threat of divine retribution in the afterlife – but a divine warning about the inevitable negative consequences of harmful behaviors in this life – the hells of racism, of conflict, of violence. 

And then maybe we could imagine that salvation is about liberation – for all people.

And God is the relational, loving, life-giving heart of the universe – enlivening it from within – not controlling it from above.  

The Way of Jesus is multi-dimensional, liberative – not constricting, or bound – but soooo very full of life.

The Way of Jesus is timeless, ever-evolving  – not reduced to formulas that can be applied equally across time and identity. It is alive.

The Way of Jesus is altogether holy, consecrated, sacred – but not labeled as such by a separate, outside authority – but given such reverence by what lives within us already – truth. 

The Way of Jesus binds the religious and secular into one thing: life.

Wendell Berry says, 

“There are no unsacred places;  

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.”

And so our work is to re-consecrate all of life. It’s a little daunting – 

But Jesus says,

“do not let your hearts be troubled – you know the way” 

so may we lean on one another, learn from one another as we do this work – work that is hard – but opens the way … the way of love, the way of truth, the way of life.

Amen.

Resources:
For Love of the Things Themselves: Derrida’s Hyper-Realism | John Caputo 2001

Do I Stay Christian? Brian McLaren

www.cac.org 2/23/23 – Diana Butler Bass

RADICAL GENEROSITY | The Spirit of God is Upon Us

Today we are in the third week of this Fall series called, “We Are Reservoir” – and I love a good unabashedly proud sermon series – where I get to say, “Yahhhhh that’s right – this IS Reservoir!!” And my goodness it is really good and I’m so thankful for it.

I’ve been here at Reservoir for 22 years. And I know this because just two days ago my husband, Scott and I celebrated our 22nd wedding anniversary – wooo! And am I proud of us too! (wow, this sermon is just going to be full of humility). We landed in this community that first year we were married, and we didn’t really have a crystal clear form of what it was we were looking for, but we knew what we were not looking for.

Our relationship up to that point had held a lot of conversations where we attempted to wring from our faith and church experiences the excess of ‘not so great elements’ we had absorbed. Our hope was that it would uncover the values and principles that undergirded our love for God in the first place, and that we would find them to still hold true – and could be helpful guides on our church journey.

We landed in a musty elementary school gym where we had to set-up 300 chairs, and the stage, and the signs, and the food, and the coffee, and the. everything. And then break it all down 120 minutes later – and stow it away just so  – so we could keep in the good graces of the school we were renting from. 

And a large majority of the congregation made that church physically happen each week.

Which meant there was this tangible generosity that coursed through the community. People giving of their time – getting up so early, giving of their gifts, their money – expecting nothing in return. Offering. Serving. 

But there was something more than just those actions that we were captivated by. There was this convivial spirit of generosity that we experienced each Sunday – that we found ourselves referencing at points in our week.

Something alive – that was bigger than us, that we got to tap into – that was really good – and that worked in us and through us. What I would name not only a generous vibe – but call a spirit of radical generosity. 

This spirit of radical generosity, quite honestly – even more than the set of beliefs, or the theology, teaching, worship music was what captured our attention.

And that’s what I’ll talk about today… this spirit of radical generosity that can be cultivated in community. And one that, here at Reservoir, we really believe is essential in creating the Beloved Community we are all called to be.

***Now many a “generosity” sermon becomes a sermon about financially giving. Today I’m not going to preach that sermon. Although without a doubt the unbelievable financial generosity of so many of you is what allows Reservoir to do so much of what Reservoir does! So thank you, thank you!***

But this morning I want to talk more about this spirit that clung to the sweaty, moist gym pads on the walls – that kept us coming back each week. Because it is THE SAME SPIRIT that’s present here this morning. One that centers a generous God – who has been building since the beginning – a lineage of love and liberation for all people.  And one that WE, Reservoir gets to partner in …. And one that Scott and I knew that we wanted to be part of too.

This series, “We Are Reservoir” attempts to unveil to you some of the spirit that undergirds our vision. Some of which can be communicated so clearly with bullet points, and found on our website – but much of it can only be experienced, sensed, lived. I invite you into that generous posture this morning.

Prayer: Our generous, loving God. The one who promises to greet us at every turn – yes, in the celebratory moments – but also in the turns of life – that never feel like they stop turning…. Where our sense of grounding, and steadiness is rocked. Would you greet us this morning, in these chairs that have been soaked in the tears and sweaty palms of those of us who don’t know what we believe – how to believe – what belief even means – where to begin…. But also remind us that you have soaked these chairs in your presence – the Spirit of God – as well. May the Spirit of God be upon us this morning. Amen.

STORY: NEW DRIVER

The funny thing about generosity – is that I am keenly attuned to the interactions in my day that seem to suggest the opposite. The  not-nice – not-friendly – not aware – not encouraging – not warm – not gracious – not merciful …. let’s just say ‘not generous’ interactions.  

I’ve lived in the Boston area for nearly 30 years. And I can tell you there is nothing that could convince you more of an anti-generous spirit than driving in this region. It’s like somehow people get into this little vehicle – and it becomes the vessel to test out – you know for kicks(!)- how it would be, how it could feel, to be the. most. horrible.human.being.possible. 

Our second child just started driving this summer. And our neighbor (mercifully) gave us this magnetic bumper sticker that says: “New Driver, Please Be Patient.” I chose the bright neon yellow one. We never used such a thing with our first child – we were still naive. We’ve since learned a thing or two. 

Now, as the new school year starts around the Greater Boston Area – I feel like there’s an uptick in crazy driving. Maybe because there’s school buses, drop off lines, late-to-work parents & caregivers and otherwise frustrated drivers out in full force! And so my drive to work here in Cambridge from the south shore – becomes at a baseline, much more “exciting. I make my way most days through a few boroughs of Boston –  Mattapan, Roxbury, Northeastern/MFA area, over to Storrow Drive, Cambridge and then here. And most days I feel you know, like I’ve accomplished something – by 9 a.m. – like SURVIVING.

This Fall though I wasn’t interested in feeling accomplished, I was more interested in feeling sane – by the time I landed in this parking lot. And I was like, “wait a minute! Maybe I could put that “New Driver, Please Be Patient” magnet on my bumper. And I did – and wouldn’t you know – my drives hold a little more ease, and a lot less beeping.

And I think, “Oh!” If only we could walk around with signs that say 

“PLEASE BE GENEROUS TO ME – please! I’m a new driver. I’m navigating A LOT.

I’m feeling new in this place. In this health crisis. In this conversation. At this intersection of life.”

I say some version of this to my son all the time

“Listen, I have never parented a 15 year old boy before …one specifically like… you…. You know, in all your… “You-ness…” 

I’m new to this!

Isn’t this how it really is to live our lives with God at the center too?

So much still feels new – still feels unchartered with God. Each day.

And as I look at Jesus’ ministry –  I’m curious to see how he made his way through days that were altogether unchartered!

There’s a swath of scripture in the gospel of Luke that I was drawn to where the theme of “generosity” might not be the most obvious theme, but I want to spend a few minutes with you, teasing it out, because at the heart of it all  – generosity might just be the center of Jesus’ whole ministry.

We are going to look at the gospel of Luke, Chapter 4. .. now up to this point Jesus has experienced a lot – he’s returned from the Jordan River – having been baptized by John the Baptist, where he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and a voice from heaven says,

You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And then he’s in the wilderness – where he eats nothing for 40 days, and is tempted by the devil. And then he comes out of the wilderness and we pick up the scripture here in verse 14: 

LUKE 4: 14-22

14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside.

15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 

16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read.

17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 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.

*THIS IS KIND OF LIKE A MIC DROP MOMENT HERE*

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.” 

22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”

As I said, this was kind of a mic drop moment. Not only in content which we’ll get to – but also because Jesus reading this small section of scripture from Isaiah would have been noticeably short for a synagogue service. And the selection he reads while not new to those who heard it – does indeed hold a NEW sheen as Jesus shapes it for the mission statement of his ministry to come. 

And there’s a small, but fairly pointed omission that Jesus makes…

You see he ends by reading the words of prophet Isaiah,

“God has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”

– but that actually isn’t the ending of the verse in Isaiah. In Isaiah- which is chapter 61 if you want it for reference  – the full verse reads,

“God has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, AND the day of vengeance of our God.”

JESUS does not read this last line –

“And the day of vengeance..”

And it’s here that he starts something new – where he begins to lay the building blocks of what it is to be a generous beloved community. Because in that omission he is explicitly refuting the central organizing principle of justice up to that point,

‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 

But what does he offer instead? I think it’s helpful to layer in what Jesus encountered in the wilderness – these three temptations…

You see in the wilderness Jesus is tempted by the devil whom I think personifies the world’s systems of evil. Devils that prowl and speak their gospel of scarcity and authoritative power, and say,

“Look at the world – there’s nothing here, there isn’t enough. There’s nothing in abundance…only deficits  –  you won’t encounter generosity. Unless you possess it – conquer it, construct it for your gain.”  

The first temptation. 

The devil says,

“Since you are God’s son, command this stone to become bread.”

It doesn’t really seem like such a big deal. What harm is there in that? Jesus is hungry! But the invitation is really to misuse power. Even if that power causes a change that points to God. But Jesus cares about invoking change – with community. 

“Jesus could fulfill his needs, but he chooses to live in relationship with others, in shared life with others, in shared humanness with others. He doesn’t opt-out of humanity, even in the hunger pains. He finds his nourishment in the same places and same ways everyone else does. There’s no magic.”

(Enfleshed.com)

Jesus replies:

“It’s written: People won’t live by bread alone.” 

There’s a more generous way.

The second temptation.

Is where the devil takes Jesus to a high place and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil says,

“I will give you this whole domain if you will worship me.”

This is the temptation to political power. It’s not inherently wrong. Here at Reservoir we have FIA and partner with GBIO to influence change by power.

“There have to be ways we use power for good. But often, very often we end up worshiping power to have power.”

Jesus is not interested in trading his place in the kin-dom for a throne in the destructive empire -not as the ultimate means of liberation. 

Jesus answered,

“It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only God.” 

A generous God.

Then a third temptation: 

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to Jesus,

“Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; God will command the angels to protect you.” 

Prove that you are God – by doing “this” –  x, y, z.  It’s a transactional way of regarding God. Still based on an authoritative, hierarchical power.  But what religion is about is real transformation. Changing our mind toward generous love, changing our heart toward a generous posture in community, changing our body toward living in the present moment. (being generous to ourselves) (Richard Rohr 3.3.23) The whole point of Jesus gets lost when our arguments are about proving something about God – Jesus isn’t interested in proving himself.

Jesus answered,

“It’s been written: Don’t test the Lord your God.”  

God is more generous than this.

Jesus rejects all of these temptations of power and individualism. And realizes that the way of vengeance will not fit.

And chooses a more generous, albeit messy, and hard way forward.

He says I’d rather be a new driver – journeying along this free-way of life with everyone.

“Otherwise I’m held prisoner and captive to, oppressed by, my senses chained to the power of evil. I PREFER THE SPIRIT OF GOD TO BE UPON ME…”

I don’t know, on the one hand this feels pretty obvious. Well yes, of course Jesus would want to organize the kin-dom of God on principles of love, generosity, freedom –  values that can hold and still flex – and stand the test of time – and still be ALIVE!  Our values here at Reservoir are like these – connection, humility, action, freedom and everyone .. 

I think these values are pretty radical.

Radical in Jesus’ day – and still radical today.

Now let me take a beat on this word, “radical.”  

 RADICAL means in Latin to go to the roots.

In plant biology – “the radicle” is the primary embryonic root, emerging from the seed first to enhance water uptake. The new driver – that funnels in the health and vitality of the plant – filtering what nourishment will go to the whole plant system

Jesus as he makes his way through the temptations – returns to the roots and the histories and the legacies and the lineage of his faith. To set-up the new way forward in this kind-dom.

At each temptation he says,

“It is written…it is written…it is written… in scripture it says…my roots offer me this….”

He plants himself in the wisdom of the scripture.

And he takes the heart of them – and he calls them to life – to the generous expanse they apply to.

And it’s then that he’s able to state with clarity the mission for the community going forward. 

Jesus subscribes to a different social understanding. It’s why after he handed the scroll back to the synagogue attendant – everyone stared, stopped,

What does this exactly mean a kin-dom where:

  • The last, shall be first
  • The sick, healed
  • The oppressed, liberated
  • The prisoners, free
  • The outcast, returned to community
  • The unhoused, sheltered
  • The widowed, embraced
  • The downcast, uplifted
  • The grieving, comforted
  • The despairing, surrounded in praise
  • The ashamed, blessed with grace

What does it look like to RENEW? RESTORE? REBUILD THE KIN-DOM? This BELOVED MESSY COMMUNITY with love and GENEROSITY as the organizing principle?

AT RESERVOIR

When we say at Reservoir we are a community that embodies ‘radical generosity’ – it isn’t because we each individually try to be the best follower of Jesus, or serve above and beyond (although we do need volunteers!). It’s because we hold tight to our roots. The Jesus who stood in the midst of a synagogue and said,

“The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!”

is not a Jesus of the past – but the same Jesus – that sits right with us this morning – and says the same thing,

“this scripture you’ve heard today – is too being fulfilled – with your partnership…” 

Because if the scripture of the gospel is to live this life as a generous people – 

preaching good news to the poor,
    Proclaiming release to the prisoners
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,

Then boy oh boy – are we going to need some roots – some deeeeep roots! God says we will be called priests of the Lord, that we will be named ministers of God as we use them as anchors and as the way forward.

Now Jesus doesn’t give us a social program, with a clear strategic plan to do this work – but he does offer us two things that I think are critical for a radical generosity to be the potent, change-making spirit it can be:

  1. Call out Evil
  2. Heal

If we had time to read the rest of Luke 4 today – we would see that as Jesus leaves the synagogue he starts calling out evil. He calls out a demon taking up residence in a man  – he says, “SILENCE” to the evil.

He goes to Simon’s home and cares for his mother-in-law who has a high fever – scripture says he bends over her, and “speaks harshly” to the fever  – and as the sun sets on the day – he deflects every evil that challenges or tempts to compete with a spirit of generosity. And he speaks harshly each time to it. He says vengeance, violence, conquering  – will have no room here – but generosity will be as powerful.

To call out evil – is radical generosity. 

Without Jesus and this radical generosity we will be convinced that we are running short on everything, that life is full of scarcity, void of kindness, we’ll believe that we are running short on love/ On years – on time – on moments of happiness – of money – – Scarcity. Scarcity. Deficit.   

BUT we can’t be held captive by that narrative.. if we have captives to free…and new drivers to greet.

“When Jesus talks about setting the captives free, he knows the captives. When he talks about justice for the oppressed, they are the ones he eats with and drinks with. When he talks about healing the wounded, they are his friends, his family, his community.  His spirit of generosity is one that weeps with those who weep – and rejoices with those who rejoice.”

(enfleshed.com) 

And I think he invites us to do the same.

This relational spirit of generosity that guides our living – can also heal us.  

The demons fled.

The fever left.

The trappings of evil hold no power.

And what is left is the clarity of the Spirit of God upon us – all of us – radical generosity then can be experienced in abundance…at every turn in our lives.

  • This year I was greeted by radical generosity when I was leaving a swim meet and an older gentleman I had just met – and as I went to put on my coat – he held up my sleeve to help me never skipping a beat in conversation. And yet I stood there with the beats of my heart side-swept by such a spirit.
  • I watched as one of you during clean-up at this summer’s church picnic, greeted a neighbor who was walking by, one you hadn’t seen in awhile, a man who had lost his wife of 40 years during Covid. And you went up and you greeted him, and you laid your head on his chest, and said
    • “Oh, how I’ve missed you.”
    • And this man exhaled
    • “this is exactly what I needed today.”
  • In June my husband’s father died – and he was staying with his mom in NH for a few days. I was responsible for all things on the homefront, and meals–not my forte! And I placed plates in front of my kids – bracing for negative feedback. And my eldest turned & looked at me and said, “It’s hard, huh mom? It’s hard. … yah?”
  • I cried and cried.. And she cried!  Nothing about the food – and everything about my heart.
  • We have a 10-year old on the Reservoir Cafe team who a couple of weeks ago – just took to it – setting it all up with gusto – getting plates and baskets and freely displaying the cafe in all its beauty. Never looking for approval or disapproval – just freedom and ease.

And these are four among hundreds of examples of radical generosity that I have encountered over the last few months. And each time it heals me a little bit from the road rage of life. It really does. And it is more than just the word, or the action – and more about the Spirit of God being so present and generous and with all of us. 

And I also heed the words of Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez who says this ‘radical generosity’ is

“not only a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.”

Jesus was flipping the social order – and is still calling us to this work. AND radical generosity starts with our everyday, ordinary engagement with others – family, friends, strangers – your actual neighbors.

And so we come together this rainy morning. As many lovers of Jesus have done before us – in musty gyms, in fields, in hush harbors, in deserts, and in fancy buildings.

We come together and join with the spirit of God, that is still in the making, still on the move.

And we acknowledge our partnership, our roles that WE THE PEOPLE are needed to help create a beloved community – to form a more perfect and generous union.

And we acknowledge that WE THE PEOPLE are needed to promote the general welfare and cultivate a culture of radical generosity. 

And we acknowledge that WE THE PEOPLE  must establish justice as we do the ongoing work of fulfilling the saints and the prophets legacy of love and liberation.

So maybe today to close, we can say,

“It is written …. It is written….that God so loved the world that God gave their one and only son … One that was sent not to condemn the world, but to save us.” 

Lord save us – because we are all new drivers here on this earth… Save us unto radical generosity again and again. 

AMEN

Resources: 

www.enfleshed.com

Richard Rohr, CAC 3/3/23

An Evolving Faith | Longing for More

Take a moment to review your week, or the last couple of days – and reflect on where you experienced and/or witnessed the love of God?

Today, we’ll talk about just why sharing our stories and experiences of God’s love isn’t just a “nice church” exercise, but a powerful and necessary way of living. One that leads to our spiritual growth and evolution of our faith.

Piano Story

In my early years of life I would fall asleep to the music that my Mom and Dad were listening to in the kitchen – an array of Pink Floyd, James Taylor, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. And I, like most of us, fell in love with music before I even had my own language.

So much so, that as I grew a little bit older I became relentless about getting a piano. We had no money for a piano – but my mom being resourceful somehow got us one. It was massively out of tune, and many of the keys didn’t work – but I sat at that piano teaching myself notes and how to play basic melodies for hours.

Eventually my mom and the church pianist struck a deal and I started piano lessons. We’d drive the 40 minutes to the teacher’s house – where I’d sit at a much more in tune piano, surrounded by boxes of cereal, and stacks of papers, and craft supplies, and any number of her children clinging & tugging at her – and I learned chords, and how to move chords up and down the piano to church hymns, and only church hymns.

And I remember leaving most lessons (slightly disappointed)…. longing well, for music.

It was a longing that stayed with me throughout most of my years of piano lessons. But also a longing that kept me engaged with music – in a variety of expressions – and has been critical in my own evolution.

I think this can feel true for us at times with faith, and with God. We have such a deep longing for the love of God and yet – at times – the longing and the actual experience of that longing fulfilled might have some dissonance along the way…. 

As we grow and change as people – so too does our relationship with God. Our awareness of how big God is also expands and sometimes the foundational practices of our faith – spiritual practices, prayer, our engagement with the Bible, the “teaching” we like to listen to – can feel unfulfilling and a little stilted.

And we can feel disappointment, frustration, grief . And so, I want to revisit a passage in scripture today where Jesus gives us some words that might help us not lose heart, and some words that offer us very practical ways to live our daily lives with the love of God right at the center.

Prayer: God of love and God of movement. I give thanks to you this morning that your love exists in multi-dimensions… in people, and in nature – in the expanse of the sky, and in the cracks of our pain – God help us this morning to have the power to understand, just how wide, how long, how high, and how deep your love really is. 

Scripture | Matthew 5:13-20 

Let’s read together this scripture where Jesus is talking to his disciples on a mountain side, in the gospel of Matthew.

13 – 16 “You are the salt of the earth.  But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it useful again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world – like a city on a mountain, glowing in the night for all to see. Don’t hide your light under a basket! Instead, put it on a stand and let it shine for all. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
…..and…..

17 – 20 Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them. I assure you, until heaven and earth disappear, even the smallest detail of God’s law will remain until its purpose is achieved. So if you break the smallest commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But I warn you – unless you obey God better than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees do, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven at all.”

Salt

I love these verses about being the salt and the light of the earth.

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” 

For one – you could preach a whole series on the expanse of these metaphors – they are rich, they are relevant, and they are accessible – right – we’ve all likely encountered salt and light somewhere in our lives.  And I’ll talk a little bit about the significance of salt in a moment.

But what I also love about these four ‘salt & light’ verses in particular, is where they are situated. They are sandwiched in between the Sermon on the Mount, you know where Jesus says these fresh and different words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – the merciful, the pure in heart, – for they will inherit the kingdom of heaven…”  

sandwiched in between that, AND this whole discussion about The Law – these long-standing, familiar words that really never had been touch and passed down for generations. Jesus and his disciples are very familiar with them- and the teachers/the experts of religious law and the Pharisees… have practiced them with strict obedience. 

So we have new things Jesus is saying – salt & light in the middle – and then the well known tradition of the Law – and it’s a “love of God sandwich” really. Because what holds all these verses together is that everyone mentioned ‘loves God.’ Jesus loves God. The disciples love God. The religious elite love God. The Pharisees llloooooove God. And they care about other people loving God too. 

Jesus says,

“but what makes this sandwich tasty is alllll these people (around and down the mountainside) – who also might have a longing for the love of God too.” 

Now Jesus has made his way to this point, traveling through Galilee – where he’s taught in synagogues (places where there’s familiarity with “religious-y” type messages). He also has been engaging with ordinary folks. Folks who have illnesses, and grief – folks who were demon-possessed, and have leprosy and seizures. People who aren’t allowed to step in a synagogue and/or people who don’t have the resources to study and learn from a religious scholar the “premiere” way of religious law. People who were poor in spirit, who were oppressed by the empire… People who were unimportant to people in power.

And so by the time we get to this scripture – there are very large crowds following and listening to the story of Jesus. Yes, from Galilee, a very Jewish area, and also the Decapolis, (these 10 towns – a very Greek area which is not Jewish, not religious, not pure, not clean, not holy), Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan.”

  • All sorts of different people, from many backgrounds – races, ethnicities, non-Christian, Christian,  and non-religious.. .are gathering… 
  • People who were curious.
  • People who were suspect.
  • People who yearned and longed – to know more about this Jesus fellow.

And we have the religious experts also watching from the periphery.

  • These people who thought they knew all there was to know of this Jesus fellow. 

 So Jesus takes a moment and gathers  with the disciples on the mountain side and says,

“listen – it’s time – the tradition is expanding.   – I’m here to fulfill the law… to stretch what has been .. to open it unto more…  it’s going to look a little different…. A little messy…  but this “Sermon on the Mount” I just gave – that’s what it will look like.  The merciful, the mourning, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the ones seeking justice, the ones persecuted… all of it – everyone together, okay? The only way to get it – is to live it.” 

It’s why I love that the Salt & Light verses are sandwiched right in the middle – because Jesus couldn’t come and say

“guess what? All of this Law is no longer relevant… and replace it with a new set of rules to obey, a new set of steps to follow to get it right. Because the heart of the Law was to live a life that “Loves God, loves our neighbor as we do ourself,”

and Jesus is seeking to fill out the heart of the law – to infuse it with a LIVING God – that invites us to enhance our engagement with the world around us – as we live.

I think Jesus knew that our human tendency is to mix up our longing for the love of God – with the love of rules and “getting it right.” We are inclined to say,

“give me the formula of how to move these chords up and down the piano – define what prayer is for me, the right way to follow scripture, rituals, the rules that help me get God “right” ….. and then I can grow!”

..meanwhile Jesus is like,

“did you see that zig-zagg-y route I just took through Galilee to the shore to talk with some fisherman, to the dusty road where I talked with the person who is unhoused, to the one fighting a chronic illness, to the one who’s trying to get an appointment with the court for justice – there’s your roadmap!”  

That’s why the sermon on the mount is so provocative because it isn’t a prescription of the steps of how.to.get.to.heaven. Of how to be holy. Of how to get God better. But it is about how we can be a gift to one another, be in relationship with one another – unto a life that is free – that is liberated.  … here and now..  

Jesus says to the disciples,

“this is your call – you are the salt of the earth.”

To “be the salt of the earth” isn’t a command – it is an invitation to a way of being in the world.

The disciples know that salt is valuable.

Salt had been a part of the religious customs of nearly every religion known to the world. It was an acceptable offering for the Greek gods. It was part of the ancient Egyptian burial rites (mummies). To the Hebrew people salt is the symbol of the covenant with God – a covenant that will never spoil. Newborn Hebrew babies were rubbed in salt as a sign of covenant. In Islam, salt seals a bargain. It is associated with wisdom and truth and witness.

And it is even more valuable because it doesn’t just enrich your life – it enriches the whole. 

Salt is essential. It forms bonds and impacts whatever it connects with.

For salt to be salt and for salt to do what salt naturally does – it has to be interspersed with other ingredients. Jesus says

“GO LIVE, be interacting, learning from, and engaging with people. All people.”

And this is how we are all blessed.

Because when a blessing is invoked – it changes the atmosphere… A blessing is a direct address given with immediacy and care. It brings us into the awareness of ourselves, the awareness of God and the awareness of other people.  It calls us to notice, to pay attention and to care for those around us. 

And so when Jesus asks,

“What good is salt if it has lost its flavor? How can we salt the world with it?”

It’s a bit of a warning to the disciples, and it’s a bit of a revealing of the posture of the religious elite and Pharisees.

Because the only way salt becomes tasteless is if you keep it in a jar on a shelf – separate.  

The religious elite and the Pharisees were veering in this direction – setting themselves apart… Engaging with the Law in a way that their longing for the love of God turned to possession, protection, and preservation.

With this posture – no one is blessed – there is no flow of blessing… only a stage for division. 

PIANO

As I progressed in my piano playing – I caught on to the pattern that my teacher was arranging these hymns by. How the chord progressions would go and I even became pretty literate in marking up my own hymnal pages –  in her coded “chord language” which was a bunch of symbols of arrows and dashes. 

And so to continue to grow to some degree – I would play around with the arrangements – I would add extra measures – I would play with the timing – I would change the key.. 

And I would come to my teacher – proud of the new expression  – and she did NOT appreciate that.
I sat through a lesson once – where a friend of mine was waiting for his lesson within earshot of me.. Where she just berated me – she had me count out loud, had me stop and repeat and do it over in the appropriate time measure…and I was in tears when I left.  I was in my later teen years at that point. It was humiliating.  It was clear to me that this style of hymn playing had one true expression in my teacher’s eyes – and I was not fulfilling it. 

And so we’d leave those lessons divided –  her: frustrated and mad – and me: crest-fallen and longing for something more.  

Early Jesus Movement – “The Way”

Throughout the history of the early church – to today – we see this dynamic at play. The love and longing for God at the center of communities – expressed in a multitude of different ways. People that are excited to be gathering and sharing with one another their experiences of the love of God.  But inevitably met with rules/systems/structures –  to keep that goodness, to bottle up that goodness.  Such rules/structures are constructed with the intent of “protecting or preserving” God.  And oftentimes they are constructed by just an elite few.

For the most part what Jesus taught seems to have been followed closely during the first several hundred years after his death and resurrection.  Even while Christians were persecuted violently by the state. Values like nonparticipation in war, simple living, inclusivity, and love of enemies seemed to be embraced and lived out. Many followers of Jesus’ teachings or “The Way” as the movement is now referred to  – lived together with people of different ethnicities and social classes rather than following classist and cultural norms.  And historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”  A world that was dramatically changing in culture, politics, and economy. During this time, Christianity was not so much about doctrines or eternal salvation –  but more about how to live a better life here and now. (Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Desert Christianity and the Eastern Fathers of the Church,” The Mendicant, vol. 5, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: April 2015), 1.

This led to transformation and growth as people shared their lives and their stories of how the love of God impacted them. As the sprinkle of salt fell over everyone.

But even in apostle Paul’s early writing to the church of Corinth – we see him addressing quarrels and disagreements that were rising. .. Some over communion, some over what resurrection really meant for them, some over general misconduct  – and we see in

I Corinthians Paul say,

“what’s going on here?” “One of you says, “I follow Paul”;

another,

“I follow Apollos”;

another,

“I follow Cephas”;

still another,

“I follow Christ.” 

Is Christ divided?

In a different translation it asks more pointedly,

has the Messiah been chopped up into little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?”

As the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it became harder and harder to regard the Gospel from the vantage point of those who were living and breathing a life in the margins – and easier to read the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order. Formal doctrine took the place of stories that told of essential issues of love, virtues, peace and freedom,  and prayer found in the voices of the oppressed became replaced with systematic theology  (Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 48-51; and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 100.)

Jesus’ invitation to the disciples for faith to first be a lifestyle before it becomes a belief system – became harder to touch.  Divisions within churches and communities of faith continue to exist – and every time that happens it also divides up God – and both sides of “the divide are weaker as a result.”

If we are honest, it is scary to

“seek a way to God that is mostly unchartered and freely chosen, not inherited or dependent from others who have mapped it out beforehand.’ (Rohr)

And it can feel like that is what Jesus was asking the disciples to do in the Sermon on the Mount –  but what he said was,

“I didn’t come to abolish the law of Moses or the writing of the prophets. No, I came to fulfill them.” 

We’ve hear this message in our faith before – remember the prophet Isaiah who said

the Lord’s spirit has sent me,

to bring good news to the poor,

    to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim release for captives,

        and liberation for prisoners,

    to comfort all who mourn,

    to give them a crown in place of ashes,

    oil of joy in place of mourning,

    a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.”

Not a new message – but a new expression through me, Jesus – and through you. You, the salt. You, the light.”

Here is how we continue to change and grow – and how our religions continue to change – “transcending and including,” as Ken Wilber says, learning from old ways and opening to new.  We have the tradition and the Law – and we seek renewed expressions of Christian community and church that bear good fruit in our generation and the generations to come. And so we lean in to one another – we listen – we tell stories – and we open unto God. And we embrace freedom.

I eventually chose freedom – from my piano teacher! And as time went on, I found that I was really helped by the fundamentals of what she taught me. The familiarity of augmenting chords, and filling out simple melodies helped me accompany choirs, and follow with flexibility and awareness  – the lead of soloists. And my growth beyond her initial framework also helped me not discount other people’s musical expressions or abilities.

My husband Scott plays by ear, which to someone like me, who can only play with sheet music, can be entirely frustrating. Here, I can veer toward the judgy commentary of “well, you aren’t really trained.” However, I can suspend that – and celebrate his giftedness. And I could be really excited when my own kids started to play and their teacher chose an entirely different approach – where their homework each week was to make up their own songs and come back and play it for him!

Freedom was a little too threatening for the Pharisees – it made them worry that God was being compromised by these dirty, still-in-process, imperfect people. I mean, that’s not a very tight system – and I think the Pharisees preferred a tight system. And so different expressions of teaching, or prayer, or music that didn’t have precedent with the law – made them feel like this isn’t real – this isn’t true.. This isn’t God.

Meanwhile God is here saying –

“I don’t care if you play the same chord over and over in this hymn – or get the timing all wrong – or if you sing, “Let It Be” by the Beatles –  as long as you are talking, and sharing, and learning from one another – telling stories that illuminate and season how the love of God is encountered in your real lives, on a daily basis – unto a greater blessed whole….if that happens, we are all good. I am not compromised in the least.”

The Pharisees in response to their own fear – drew lines around what worship was, what behaviors and rituals had to be done to obey God, lines that defined what prayer was – who God was – and they clung to a structure that couldn’t give way to a living God and snuffed out any light, any longing in people seeking transformation and healing. 

The Pharisees end up losing sight of God in the maze of lines that they’d drawn to protect God.

It was too hard for the Pharisees to return to the most core intention of the Law they knew so well – to practice God’s justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another  – because it required the one thing they neglected to attend to… their hearts.  And so the Sermon on the Mount is a threat, a mess – and the Law becomes something to defend – rather than something to live out.  

You see, Jesus comes to fill out the law – to make the law relational.

“The Law is meant to refer to the ways that everything is created to be in right relationship with everything else. It reflects how we are always impacting and being impacted by everything else. Salt is valuable for the way it flavors everything around it. Light is changed by the shadow of everything that passes near it.. To say that we are salt and light is to say that we impact and are impacted by everything around us. We are exquisitely relational. And Jesus comes not to change that—not to make us inflexible and morally superior—but to show us how to live into that even more – how to open unto mutual loving relationships even more. And how this fulfills the longing we have for God (because it’s never ending and ever-changing!) (enfleshed.com)

RESERVOIR | This Summer | Speakers

At Reservoir this summer, we’ve had more guest preachers in one defined amount of time than we ever have. And for the very reasons I’ve talked about today, I have loved these Sundays so much. 

In our guest preacher guidelines we say that we 

“practice what we call centered-set culture. We say that we are Jesus-centered and fiercely dedicated to no one experiencing boundaries or barriers to moving toward Jesus. We emphasize the common humanity of all people, rather than dividing us into “Christians” and “non-Christians.” We always assume a mixed audience of longtime churchgoers and longtime not-churchgoers, so we use ordinary rather than churchy vocabulary and means of communication. We honor people’s agencies in whatever faith journey they do or don’t take – so we tell stories, we commend, and we invite, rather than relying upon commands or shame or guilt to motivate people. We also give people freedom to respond as much or as little as they like…”

We have had six guest preachers so far – and we have listened to the stories of:

Taj Smith – a Black, trans man who invited us to consider the sacredness of queer and trans folks, and to allow the words of Olivia Butler to stir us,

The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

We listened to the stories of Reverend Carrington Moore  – A Black pastor for Bethel AME  – who led people around this physical space, asking us

“what it is to be a follower of Jesus.”

We listened to the stories of Howard Kim – our social justice intern – a child of Korean immigrants who invited us to consider the transfigured life of Jesus – free of binaries – trans Jesus.

We listened to the story of Pastor Willie Barnett – a white cis-het pastor who spoke from personal experience of the freedom to leave faith communities when they are harming.

We listened to the story of Rose Percy – a Black Haitian graduate student, who spoke of Audre Lorde and the beautiful challenge of re-learning how to pray.

We heard Pastor Lydia speak of the valley of dry bones that housing justice work is.

And I spoke on the significance of knowing we are children of God as we fight the Goliath’s of our day.

We all spoke from our personal vantage points – different styles, different identities, different races, different social locations, queer theology, departure theology, theopoetics. And yet the common link – the common theme – among all of us – is that we all shared our experiences of the love of God. And extended the invitation to all of us to consider how the love of God can help our lives be better. 

And my, what an expansive image we gain of God, what mystifying growth and shape are given to our hearts as we hold such wisdom, truth, and witness.

As you might imagine, my story of how I experience the love of God in a hummingbird these days, is very different from how Taj Smith, as a Black trans man is experiencing God in the face of legislation that is trying to challenge his existence… but to consider both of these to be true – is the current day stretching of our faith – this is how we continue to let the ‘good news’ of Jesus enliven all of our senses, and keep longing for more of God at every turn.

It enriches our prayers, it adds new lenses to scripture. The good news, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t call us to just observe one another’s life from the periphery – we are called to engage and LIVE OUT,  a vibrant, ever-evolving faith  – by listening to, and learning from someone’s life that is not our own. This is how we EXPAND and stretch our own relationship with God. Because it will stretch us and it will disrupt us too. And this is how we embrace the greatest commandment of the law to,

‘Love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.’

And this is good news – very, very good news my friends.

Prayer – God thank you for all the ways you are real to us. Help us to live out our real lives – with compassion, mercy, humility, and an unquenchable eagerness to love you  – knowing that you first loved us.  

 

A Living God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go!
Let me pray for us.

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

STORY

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

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

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

Really all the eggs are gone? 

Yah, we need to get more. . . 

But we had like 16 eggs left?  

Yah, I know –  they are gone. 

All of them – even the three I boiled? 

Ehm.. yah, Scott all of them.

 

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

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

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

“What about climate change?”

“Can you believe the Supreme Court decision?”

“Vermont’s flooding?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t go in these.” 

In scripture it says he protests!

“I’m not used to them.”

So he took them off again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David’s seemingly small move here – to say

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

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

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

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

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

How?

Who is he? 

What does he draw on? 

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

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

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

Their job is to be professional – fear- gazers. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a child of God.”

I am a child of the living God.”  

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

Amen

 

Pride Service 2023

Reservoir’s 2023 PRIDE Service

Emmett Jorgenson, Reservoir’s LGBTQIA+ community & Taj Smith 

Communion Script and Prayer by Reverend Megan Roher and read by Emmett Jorgenson.

 

COMMUNION | by enfleshed.com/liturgy/lgbtq-related/

We will now move to a time of communion. 

Where we give thanks for the presence and love of God  – God’s presence that is not at a distance –  but intimately in our lives – as intimately as our own flesh/skin.

God gifted us with bodies and through them we come to know God:

Through touch.

Through taste.

Through struggle.

Through rest.

In God’s love for us and for all creatures and creations, God took on skin like ours – entangling, forever –  the (H)oly with our flesh. God showed us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we love through our bodies, we seek justice for bodies, we live out our faith in these bodies – not despite them.

Jesus took care and rest of his own body –  fed people, healed people, ate with people. 

He met the physical and spiritual needs of bodies.

And when his own body was threatened by political and religious execution, he turned to the Table. He sought, first, in his hour of need, to share a meal with his friends.

On the night of his arrest, he gathered around a table with his companions.

He took bread, blessed it, broke it (as his own body would break), gave it to his disciples and said,

“This is my body which is given for you.

Do this in remembrance of me.”

He did the same with the cup after the supper, saying,

“This cup that is poured out as a sign of the new covenant.”

A new way forward with love and infinite possibilities.

The body of God was crucified.

And the body of God was resurrected.

Not only in spirit, but in flesh.

God has shown us that our bodies are good, holy, precious, and full of possibility.

Prayer: Spirit of God, Come, bless this bread and this cup, that we might encounter your presence as we touch, and we taste, and we feel. As we come to the table, may we become one body. And may we be relentless pursuers of your Kin-dom, until every body has its needs met, every body is recognized as beloved, and every body is treated with dignity and care. Amen.

PRAYER | by Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer. Megan is the bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Bishop Megan is the first transgender bishop in a mainline Christian denomination, a crip theologian, and writer who was featured on Netflix’s Queer Eye.

A PRAYER FOR MY LGBTQ KIN

Shepherding God,

Be palpably present with us when we dance,
                                                                snuggle,
                                                                        and enjoy the sensations
                                                                            of the creation you declare good.

Help us to name, define, redefine, deconstruct, claim, and properly pronoun our fabulousness. We commit to properly naming and pronouning the fabulousness of others.

Dwell with us,
    both when we are able to articulate our pride for ourselves and others
    and when we get stuck in a cacophony of negativity, bodily shame, or unjust laws.

When we are tired, weary, and exhausted,
    grant us the rest and renewal we need to keep on marching, advocating, and living openly.

When we have all that we need to live fully,
    help us to share with others who lack.

And when it feels like time is moving too slow,
    or change is not possible,
    take the lead
    block the wind
    refresh our hearts
    distract us with passionate love
    give us purposeful work
    anything that helps those on the edge to choose life
          to get through the month, the week, or the hour
          to move time a bit closer
              to the safety, acceptance, and love we all need and deserve.

When we cannot hear you,
    scream louder,
    love more tangibly
    silence violent voices of opposition
    whip advocates into a frenzy
    fill us with memories of times when we felt closer to you
    and love us anyway
          as we were
          as we are
          as we are becoming
          as we wish we could be in a safer time and place
          as you know us
          as we seek to know ourselves.

Remind us of the victories our ancestors won,
    with their storytelling and coming out,
    with their lobbying and work from the inside,
    with bricks and sugar shakers thrown through windows of oppression

Help us to live and act with bravery,
    working within and without,
    educating ourselves and those around us,
    so that we can do the work generations to come need us to do.

Stir up our hearts,
    so that we always remain on our tiptoes
    looking for additional ways
    we can remove the barriers unjustly placed in front of our LGBTQ kin,
    especially those embodying multiple intersectional identities.

Make us plumbers,
    capable of unclogging all the places
    where the ever-flowing stream of justice has been dammed up or clogged.

Shepherding God,

Be palpably present with us when we dance,
                                                                snuggle,
                                                                      and enjoy the sensations
                                                                            of the creation you declare good.

Amen.