Honor the Sacred

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

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

Exodus 3:1-7 (Common English Bible) 

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

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

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

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

Moses said, “I’m here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the very shortest verse in Bible, we read:

John 11:35 (Common English Bible) 

35 Jesus began to cry. 

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 19:13-15 (Common English Bible) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more moment with Jesus.

John 1:45-48 (Common English Bible) 

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

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

Philip said, “Come and see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you know me? 

And then Jesus says:

I saw you under that fig tree earlier. 

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

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

I saw you under that fig tree,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grieve well, and don’t rush it. 

Love and protect kids. 

And bless everyone you can. Be an encourager. 

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

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

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

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

No More BHAGs: The Glory of Being a Person

Hello, Reservoir friends of many ages, so glad to be with you. 

Last week on Juneteenth I talked about freedom as one part of the Christian story of salvation. I want to follow up this week inviting each of us to get a little more free personally, maybe to get free from some dreams that aren’t a good fit for us, to get free for the glory of just being a person, a good person. 

To help us stay alert and awake, I’m going to have a few call back lines, where I ask you to repeat after me. And kids, I’m counting on you to lead the way in this, since adults sometimes are too shy with our voices, alright?

So let’s practice with the first one. Can you say: Let’s get free

And can you say? It’s good to be a person. 

Alright, we begin with the Bible’s story of Ruth. 

Most Saturday mornings I have a group with some of you and we spend part of the time studying the Bible together, being honest with our questions and reactions and seeing how it speaks to us today. A few weeks back, we were ready for something new, and someone suggested the four chapter story we call the book of Ruth. We finished it yesterday, and mostly we loved it. So I’m going to start the sermon telling you all about it. 

In the first chapter, we meet three women having a really bad day.

Sometimes, everyone has a bad day. Can I hear you say that?

Well, Ruth and her mother in law Naomi and her sister Orpah had had a lot of bad days. Their husbands had all died – all three of them. And it hadn’t rained enough all year, and there was very little food growing, and they were very hungry. So Naomi, the mother in law, decided she would go back to her homeland called Israel. And her two daughters in law would go back to their homeland called Moab. Maybe the two of them were young enough that they could start over with their lives. And maybe Naomi was old enough that people would feel bad she was all alone and take care of her. 

And so Orpah went home, but Ruth said this:

Ruth 1:16-17 (Common English Bible)

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.

17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”

We don’t know why Ruth said all this. Did she really, really love her mother in law Naomi? Was she afraid of being alone without her? Did she not like her sister, or her hometown very much? Did she find Naomi’s faith and Naomi’s God especially inspiring? This was the God Jesus loved and talked about too. 

We don’t know. 

But we know there are times in life when we decide who we’re going to be loyal to, who are our ride or die, in it for life people. Sometimes those are spouses, parents, kids. Sometimes they are friends. But we need at least one or two of them. 

Our dreams in life can’t ever just be about us.

No one does well alone. Can you say that with me? No one does well alone. 

The story continues. Ruth and Naomi go back to Naomi’s hometown and they get by picking leftover crops at a farm owned by Naomi’s cousin Boaz. One way faith in God was present in their public life was that farmers of Israel weren’t supposed to pick all of the crops at harvest time but leave enough left so that nearby people who didn’t own land could come and pick the extras, people like Naomi and Ruth. Because every society needs to make sure that there’s enough for everybody. And that everyone has the chance to work and feel proud of themselves, and everyone has the chance to eat and be healthy.

Well, when Boaz saw Ruth picking in the fields and heard people telling stories about what she was like, he decided he liked her very much. And when you like someone very much, you’ve got three choices.

You can be too scared to make a move. Which happens, no shame in that, but you don’t usually make a new friend that way. You certainly don’t start dating or get married that way, and Boaz is looking for love, looking for a life partner.

Another choice is you connect with the person but not build a good relationship. You can think only about yourself and only about tomorrow, and just try to get what you want from the person and move on. Or you can think only about the other person and be nice and serve them but not look after yourself and your needs. This doesn’t make for good relationships.

What Boaz does, though, is the third choice. He gets to know Ruth, tries to grow a relationship that will be good for both of them. We read this.

Ruth 2:14 (Common English Bible)

14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here, eat some of the bread, and dip your piece in the vinegar.” She sat alongside the harvesters, and he served roasted grain to her. She ate, was satisfied, and had leftovers. 

They share their first meal together. They talk. They keep getting to know each other. The details of how they do that are kind of interesting. You can find them in Ruth chapters two and three if you want. But both Ruth and Boaz look after themselves and their needs, and they also really get to know and care about the other person. This is where good relationships come from. In good relationships, both people always matter.

Can we say that? Both people always matter. 

As the story continues, Ruth and Boaz decide they want to get married, and eventually they do, and they have this baby who has another baby who has another baby, who becomes the most famous king ever in the history of Israel and an ancestor of Jesus. So all along this has been the story of the great-grandparents of one of the most important people in the whole Bible. 

But the way all this happens is really old-fashioned and complicated. Too old and complicated to get into today except to say that it all revolves around this word “redeemer,” which is used seven times in the third chapter of Ruth and 13 times in the last chapter of Ruth. 

Redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem, redeem. 

There, that was me saying redeem seven times, but Ruth says it 13 more times, like here:

Ruth 4:14-15 (Common English Bible)

14 The women said to Naomi, “May the Lord be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel.

15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” 

Why is she so blessed? Why is daughter-in-law Ruth better than seven sons? Because grandma Naomi has been redeemed.

What that word redeem means is to see and honor the value in a thing or a person that other people are calling useless. It’s to treat a piece of land or a person, but especially a person, like they matter, like they’re valuable, like they are worthy of a hope and a future and a legacy.

Ruth matters. She is worthy of a future and a hope and a legacy.

Naomi matters. She is worthy of a future and a hope and a legacy.

We all matter. Everyone matters. Can you say that with me? 

And what is so beautiful to me in the story of Ruth is everyone realizes just how much they matter. Ruth and Naomi’s circumstances have told them their lives don’t matter very much, but they find out that they do – they have just as much value!

And Boaz has kind of been told by the world that his life matters more than other people’s – that he can have more wealth, more stuff, more dreams than others. He realizes that his life matters, but it doesn’t matter more. His good is bound up with other people’s good. Everyone deserves to experience the glory of being a person – no more and no less. 

And we all experience the beauty and freedom of being a person when we are all sharing that experience together. 

I want to bring this home in the second half of the talk with one no and two yeses. 

Here’s the no. 

The NO: Enough with the Bee-Hags…. (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals)

A Bee-Hag is a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. A while back, Jim Collins, a business writer, said that to be successful, companies need big, hairy, audacious goals – they inspire focus and loyalty and enthusiasm and all. And maybe this is true – our church has BHAGs, like representing Jesus’ beloved community for us all, or helping reform Chrisitan teaching and practice for our generation. And All.

But in our church, a couple decades ago, we were sometimes encouraged to come up with our own BHAGs every year and pray they’d come true. And for some of us, sometimes, that was awesome. But for others of us, not always.

A story.

Twelve and a half years ago, I’d been praying that I would become a public high school principal before I was 40. It was part of my sense of life mission around being an educator and a leader and all. And then a few years ahead of time, I applied for one of these jobs and I got it, on my first try. 

And because I had this BHAG about what this would mean for me and others, and because other people in my life and heard me talk about this and prayed for it or were at least supportive of the idea, when it happened, I was like:

Look, God has opened the door. My dream is coming true! 

And in some ways it did. I became a high school principal at age 36, I did a few good things in my stint at that school, it prepared me in some new ways for my current job and calling as well.

But the move into that job while my kids were just three, five and eight years old pulled a lot more of my energy away from my family’s life. There were ways that both they and I and my wife suffered from that. And I didn’t see that coming, at all. 

My BHAG got so large for a minute that it overshadowed the needs and priorities of the people I love most in the world, the people to whom I most owe my time and attention and integrity. And that hurt them and it hurt me too. 

So I’ve been on a journey of repentance ever since then, making sure my kid’s and my wife’s dreams matter at least as much as my own. 

Our society is full of narcissists who get rewarded for their big egos, their big, hairy, audacious goals they have for themselves. While they live with too little accountability, too little integrity, hurting the people around them. Truth is getting called on more and more of them these days.

Last month I heard for instance about another influential Christian leader I knew who was admired for his big personality and big gifts and big, hairy, audacious goals even while he was hurting people and not being held accountable. 

These days, I’m like enough with the BHAGs. We don’t need so many personal big, hairy, audacious goals that center the needs and interests and power and dreams of the one with the goal.

Life’s not all about me. Can we say that together? 

Here’s a better path toward being a person, better than more and more striving toward personal goals. Two yeses for us. 

The 1st YES:

Dedicate your life to redemption stories. Stories of your own redemption. Stories of other people’s redemption. Stories of the redemption of people and places and all of creation. 

Dedicate your life to redemption stories.

Redemption again is where value is uncovered, honored, and preserved. 

When you redeem a can for the five or 10 cents you can get back for it, you’re not rescuing the can, you’re not making it valuable. No, you’re taking the value it already has – it’s worth five or 10 cents, and it can be turned into another can at the recycling center – and you are honoring and preserving that value, rather than just throwing it out, despising its value, and hurting the earth. 

Ruth and Naomi bond together in this story in scripture because they are determined to preserve the value of their lives and legacy. They matter. They have the right to survive even after all their bad days and maybe even to flourish again. And they know they can uncover, honor, and preserve their value best if they stay in it together.

And Boaz, unlike another character in the story, realizes life is not just about the maximization of his own value. It’s not about maximizing the profits off his farm or about pursuing his needs or his goals apart from the value of the land and people and creation all around him. So Boaz focuses a lot of energy on honoring and preserving Naomi’s value and Ruth’s value, deciding that his good is going to be connected to their good. 

We all get free together. 

People who dedicate our lives to redemption stories don’t ignore our own needs, our own worth, our own rise in the world. Because we know we have value, we have stories that need telling, worth that needs uncovering and sharing.

And people who dedicate our lives to redemption stories don’t really have too much time for personal BHAGs, at least the ones that are all about ourselves. Because there’s too much beauty, too much worth, too much value in all the people and places around us – value that’s worth celebrating and protecting and honoring. 

So the first yes is redemption stories. And here’s the second yes:

God sees the depths of you.

And who you are and who you are not is more than enough. 

Can you say with me? I’m more than enough for God. 

Yeah, that’s hard for some of us today. Because we’ve been criticized again and again. Or maybe some of you are like me, and we were taught that God is always frustrated with all that we aren’t, or that God will really love us or be proud of us some day in the future, when we’re better than we are today.

But that’s not true.

This spring, I was carrying some heavy burdens, feeling a lot of stress around some things going on in my life. And I was speaking with an older, wiser friend of mine who suggested we pray. 

And he had a prayer book with him called the Book of Common Prayer, and he opened it up to where you see two Psalms from the Bible – Psalm 130 and 131. And in that book, the titles of the psalms were from their first words. 

So one psalm was called: Out of the Depths. It beings: 

“Out of the Depths….”

Psalm 130:1 (New Revised Standard Version)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

And praying just that one line kind of opened things up to me, like God sees me, God hears me right here, right now. All my depths – my deepest thoughts, my deepest yearnings and hopes, my deepest stresses, all seen and known by the living God. 

And then the next Psalm was just called “God, I am not.” It begins like this: 

“God, I am not….”

Psalm 131:1-2 (Common English Bible)

131 (God, I am not) proud;

        my eyes aren’t conceited.

    I don’t get involved with things too great or wonderful for me.

2 No. But I have calmed and quieted myself

    like a weaned child on its mother;

    I’m like the weaned child that is with me.

“God I am not….”

I am not wise enough to know all the answers.

I am not strong enough to fix everyone’s problems. 

I am not compassionate and dedicated enough to be the perfect dad or husband or pastor or friend.

God, there is so much that I am not.

But guess what, as that very person – not so many things – God welcomes me to calm and quiet myself with God, to let God be a loving, attentive mother who says,

It’s OK, Steven. You can just be with me. It’s OK. I’m here for you. I can help. 

Friends, for the parts of ourselves that are hurt or stressed or overwhelmed, this is our salvation, to know that we’re not enough to be in control and we’re not enough to be independent and we’re not enough to fix everything, and that’s the way it’s meant to be.

We are creatures, not creators. We are children of God, not God. And that’s just the way God meant it to be.

Our little old, incomplete selves are more than enough for God. 

So we can let go, and settle down, and live our little lives best we can in peace.

Say with me one more time:

I’m more than enough for God.

Life’s not all about me.

It’s good to be a person.

We all matter. 

Let’s get free.

Salvation and Liberation: A Juneteenth Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s being treated like a person. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

he will save people from their sins.

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

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

The gospel of Luke is even more specific.

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

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

Luke 4:18-21 (Common English Bible) 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me.

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

    to proclaim release to the prisoners

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to liberate the oppressed,

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

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

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

Jesus says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s Chapter 5 of Luke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James 2:14-18 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray.

Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love

Well, what a gift to welcome these children into our church, but not just into our church but into the global fellowship across time we call the Body of Christ.

To me it felt like a day to talk about the love that is at the very center of our faith. God’s lavish, extravagant love. And Jesus’ vision for us to be the Beloved Community – people who learn to love God with our whole being, and people who are formed to love one another as ourselves. 

Our scripture today is from Luke 15, the famous story Jesus tells which we call the parable of the prodigal son, because there’s a kid in the story who is kind of extra, kind of extravagant and lavish in the way he spends down his inherited wealth while his parents, or at least his dad, is still alive. 

But the main character of the story isn’t either of the grown children in it but the father, who is really the most prodigal character of the story, the most lavish, the most extravagant one. 

So today I’ll read the story of the prodigal God/parent in four parts, and our message is about the lavish love of God for us all, and the extravagant love of God, of self, of friends, lovers, children, even love of causes, love of justice to which we are all called. Four Dimensions of Prodigal Love. 

Here we go:

Luke 15: 11-12 (Common English Bible)

11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons.

12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 

Love invests.

When I was a teenager, I dated this girl for a while, and one time she went somewhere with my family – the details are pretty hazy since it was over three decades ago. But here’s the one thing I remember. My girlfriend got sick and threw up on the floor, and before I even knew what was happening, my mom sent her to the bathroom to go clean up and I think I waited for her to walk her outside afterwards, but my mom stayed behind to clean it all up. 

And I remember thinking: what is going on here? Because my mom had done this kind of thing again and again for me and both my brothers. But now here she is cleaning up my girlfriend’s puke as well, looking after this girl who isn’t even hers, just because I cared about her, and my mom was there.

I think part of me took that for granted, like most kids take their moms for granted a lot of the time. But part of me registered what was going on and thought, wow, this is what love looks like. 

Love invests.

Think about all we give our kids if we have them: for 20 years, in the prime of our lives, they become a huge part of our finances, our time, our attention, our emotional lives, our labor, our contact with other people’s bodily fluids, sometimes the center of all those things. And mostly until we die, they stay right near the center of our hearts and our longings. We invest everything we can in them, or at least we try. 

God as parent is like this too. God has invested such brilliant creativity in the creation and expansion of this universe: such a wildly complex and beautiful place. And one in which the freedoms and chaos required for all that complexity and beauty mean all kinds of things go wrong in the universe all the time. It’s such a chaotic and violent place too, our universe, certainly our earth. 

And if there’s one baseline quality the scriptures attribute to God in relation to all this is that God really cares about it all, more than you’d expect really. God takes enormous pleasure – the word is usually delight – in everything that goes well in the universe. New species evolve, new life grows, new love blossoms, new relationships bond, new justices are achieved, and God beams with pride and joy. This matters to God.

Just as when species go extinct, life dies, love is shattered, relationships severed, injustices fester and God is angry and heartbroken. 

Great investment and great risks are the hallmark of love, and God is no exception. The father in this story, who certainly could be a mother too, seems to be an image of God for Jesus and certainly makes a great investment and takes great risk. 

This parent has accrued land and wealth, saving and preserving it carefully for his children. And when the younger one asks for his share, which would have been a third of his family’s wealth, the father takes an enormous risk and says: I’ll do this. What the younger child does here, to ancient near eastern ears, is a horrifying dishonor to his family. He’s more or less saying:

Dad, you’re old. Get on with it. I wish you’d just be dead and gone, and I could get what’s coming to me.

Well, the father doesn’t die, but he takes a huge risk in trusting his kid with an early inheritance, with holding back none of his investment. 

More often than not, God is just like this with God’s creation – mostly letting us have our way, however foolish our intentions. Because God created like this – making huge investments in all life in the universe, but for the sake of beauty and freedom and abundance of dignity and life for us all, taking a huge risk as well. 

And baseline, this is what love looks like for us all as well – making investments and taking risks. And for us as with God, our investments aren’t mostly about money, but about all the resources we have, money only being only one of them. Love is about the lavish investment of our attention, our time, our wisdom, our affection, our encouragement. Love is mostly about showing up again and again with all of that for the people and communities and causes we choose to love. 

Love takes the risk to again and again say and show that what’s mine is yours. Whether I love my children or my wife or my friends or this community of Reservoir Church or even when I try to love my enemy, as Jesus commands, I’m making available the resources entrusted to me – money, time, attention, care, and more – and making them available to others, in their interest, and in the interest of our shared relationship and well-being.

Love invests. 

And love lets go. We pick up the story of the now broken family. 

Luke 15: 13-20a (Common English Bible)

13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need.

15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.

16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything.

17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!

18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’

20 So he got up and went to his father.

Did the father in this story know what would happen? I mean, it’s fiction, it’s a story Jesus told, so it’s not like we can answer that question. But I’m quite sure that God is like most parents. God doesn’t control the future, so God can’t predict it entirely, but good parents know their kids pretty well, so they often have a sense of what’s going to happen next. And they let go when it’s time anyway, because love lets go.

I think knowing their kid, the parent in this story probably didn’t think that the younger son was going to make a series of wise and generous choices. This kid just doesn’t seem like that kind of person. And they aren’t. Things go really badly. Until he’s working a dead end, demeaning job, living in poverty, and wondering if he can scheme his way back into the family he so flamboyantly left not long ago. 

One of you, a psychology professor, used to tell me when my kids were all just entering the teenage years, that in modern, Western culture at least, the teenage years weren’t just about growing up but the beginnings of the dissolution of the family unit. God, I hated it every time you said that, because it’s kind of true. I mean, maybe not only dissolution, maybe more like reconstitution, but things for kids and their parents and their family change as the kids grow up. And a big part of that change is on the parents’ behalf, starting to let go. 

I was talking with an older friend of mine recently, whose kids are all older than mine too. And he was telling me about one of his grown kids, whose life is at least from the parent’s perspective, of course in a number of ways. And my friend was talking about the pains that were likely ahead of their child in the years to come – divorce, heartbreak, some other struggles – and my friend was like:

I’m making my peace with this, though, because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ll keep engaging, I’ll keep showing up for this grown child of mine, but I can’t stop any of these things.

It’s so awesome to be a parent of growing teens and young adults, but it’s so heartbreaking too. Because love lets go. Parents need to let go of control over their children, more so every year. Friends let go, when friends grow distant, or when they stick around but they just move on from us. Lovers let go, when our beloved breaks up with us or divorces us or even when we stay together, or when our beloved changes and we need to let go of old expectations we had or an older form of a relationship that has changed. 

God’s like this too. In God’s uncontrolling, vulnerable love, God doesn’t always insist on God’s way. When we reject wisdom, when we reject what’s best for us, when we reject God, God keeps caring, keeps invisibly wooing us to the best, but God lets us have our way. God lets go.

Because love lets go. 

But that doesn’t mean love gives up and packs it in. Love keeps showing up in the ways that are appropriate to do so. Like my friend with the grown kid, love keeps engaging in ways that honor the beloved. Because while love lets go, love also protects.

We pick up our story. 

Luke 15: 20b-24 (Common English Bible)

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.

21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!

23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting

24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

The other month I was talking with Vernee Wilkinson, a member at Reservoir. She and Laura Everett, a pastor who’s a friend of our church, are doing some work for local churches around practices of mending and repair, and Vernee was helping me talk through the series we just concluded on healing and mending.

And Vernee told me a story about her son, and the holes and tears in the knees of his pants, and what she’d do about that. 

See, in this work of mending, Laura and Vernee will talk about throw-away fast fashion, and the harm to our environment and our economy and our souls really that comes from throwing so much away, and mending and fixing so little. 

But Vernee said, when it comes time that the knees of my boy’s pants tear, I do not patch those up. I buy him some new pants. Because Vernee’s son is Black, and as a Black woman in America, Vernee is painfully aware of the ways people and whole communities judge Black children, and her mother’s heart is fiercely and appropriately protective of her son, still young and under her care. And so like her parents did for her, she is going to make sure that her son goes out into the world with clothes that aren’t torn and that aren’t patched up in ways that judging, discriminating eyes could view as signs of poverty or neglect.

Because let’s face it, for all our talk of progress, we still live in a world that is too often fiercely anti-Black in our hearts and our judgements and our violence, and Vernee is going to do what is in her power to protect her son from the worst of that world for as long as she can. 

Much honor to Vernee and to every parent who’s protected their children as best as they could. And much honor to parents of children of color, who are doing double and triple and quadruple work on this front in a racist, dangerous world, fully knowing that their protection is limited. 

Our world is unsafe, and given our sin and injustice, it’s less safe for girls than boys, less safe for queer than straight, less safe for BIPOC than for white people, less safe in neighborhoods and countries with more poverty. And none of us can fully protect our beloved. 

But in the ways that we can and are appropriate to our beloved’s age and agency, we’re dang sure going to try. 

In this sense, we’re less different from God than we tend to think. God also can’t fully protect God’s kids from harm. Chaos and violence are part of our world of freedom, and awful things happen. God can’t micro-intervene with every danger, just like a good parent isn’t a helicopter parent, trying to shield kids from every possible harm, trying to have them avoid suffering entirely. So it is with God.

But God has limited chaos and disorder in the universe. If nothing else, no violent creature, no matter how evil or powerful, can escape their own death as well. God has also commanded and inspires the protection of the dignity of all creatures. God has in most religious traditions and abundantly so in the teaching and person of Jesus Christ, put out a teaching grace into the world too, always waiting and always welcoming our return.

Look at the father in this passage, not moving on from his wayward kid in anger or disappointment, but out on the porch night after night, scanning the horizon, checking his texts, just waiting for his son’s return, and running down the street to embrace him and welcome him home when he comes back. This kid who has squandered a third of the family’s wealth is so welcomed home, so loved upon his return, that a feast is thrown in his honor.

It’s like the wedding day his son never had, all at the father’s expense, but part of how we protect our beloveds in a vulnerable world is we never stop loving them, we provide a kind of relational, emotional, spiritual canopy of safety through this willingness to say: as long as I live, I’m still here for you and what’s mine is shared with you. 

There’s a lot of tension in this dimension of prodigal love, how love protects even when we can’t fully protect, how love protects while love also lets go. So these dimensions of letting go and protection take prayer, and growing wisdom and discernment. 

But sometimes at least, it’s not complicated. 

We protect our kids when they’re young by not neglecting them, and looking out for their wellbeing.

And we protect the kids of our communities by doing the same. Or we ought to. Our country is shamefully neglectful and wicked in this regard, in open rebellion against the ways of love. A couple years back, death by firearm passed death by traffic accident as the leading cause of death for children in America. 

We’ve worked hard on the traffic accident stuff, lots of laws, billions of dollars in safety engineering so that fewer of our kids will die on the roads. But at the same time, we’ve been loosening our gun laws more and more, guaranteeing another Columbine and Sandy Hook and Parkland and Uvalde, Texas will happen again and again. I am so angry. 

Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr’s last sermon he was working on was titled, “Why America May Go to Hell,” and times like this, I am sure he was right then. And there are quite a few reasons that’s so but failing to protect our children and failing to do the collective work so that we don’t have to protect our children so much, so that we don’t have to worry if their school will be next, or we don’t have to worry if our beautiful Black child will be judged by the patches on his knees, is a big part of this. 

Love protects. Y’all, parents or not, please keep an eye out for the welfare of all our children. There isn’t much more sacred we can do in following Jesus than this. 

And love pursues. For the sake of time, I’ll be ever so brief on this point, just reading the end of the story mostly, but it’s the climax Jesus is driving at. 

Luke 15:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing.

26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on.

27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’

28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him.

29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.

30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’

31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.

32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

Love pursues.

The father looks at his entitled, bitter, judgy oldest child and says:

son, I love you too. This kid is furious at this dad, and the dad says: everything I have is yours as well. Everything I have is yours.

Love might let go, and love might need to change and adapt, but love doesn’t stop loving. God hasn’t given up on our violent nation or any of God’s troubled kids, you and me included. And as people of the beloved community, that call is ours as well. 

Love keeps engaging, keeps protecting the dignity even of exes and enemies. Love dreams of reconciliation, and when that’s impossible in this life, releases the beloved with blessing. Love puts up with things, loves trusts in all things, love hopes for all things, endures all things. Which is why, the scriptures dare us to believe, love doesn’t fail. 

Love works. Love wins.

Not always how we think it will, not always today or even tomorrow, but eventually, we hope. Love has its way.

Jesus hopes that the judgy elder children of his time will lay down their judgements and join God in welcoming the love of all God’s children.

God hopes that Americans will stop letting people shoot our kids and trash our earth but find our way towards Jesus’ beloved community together. God hopes we’ll love better, love more because love heals, love doesn’t disappoint, love never fails.

The Role of Church in Healing the World

I was listening to Ken Fong’s podcast, Asian America, last week and the interview that grabbed me the most was with Scott Okamoto. He’s a writer, a fly fisher, English professor, charming, articulate guy, and an ex-Christian, a former churchgoer.

He wrote this essay once called “The Road Taken – Sex and Waffles Triumph Over Church.” Because he’d been part of a church scene that seemed kind of rigid and controlling and self-indulgent, and then another that was powerful but where he felt like he’d never belong and then another that was nice but kind of boring.

And eventually, he was like: What I am doing going to church on Sunday, when I could spend my morning eating waffles and having sex instead?

Fair question? 

He admitted later that the notion he had about his new Sunday mornings was more aspirational than reality. I mean take church out of life, and you’re still left with obligations, debts, chores, anxieties that occupy most people, most days. 

But he was like keeping church didn’t really add any value, so why bother? 

For decades, of course, more and more people have felt this way. For lots of reasons, church engagement peaked in the 1950s in this country, and it’s been on the decline ever since, more and more rapidly in recent years. And then a global pandemic comes our way and radically changes our instincts and our habits for how we gather with others, especially outside our immediate circles, which has always been at the heart of churchgoing. 

So what’s next? Why be part of church? What’s the value proposition? 

And for a church like ours, founded for people who might not otherwise choose church, called we feel to innovate in our tradition to adapt to the times we live in, how do we hold a hopeful vision of the future of our church and future of our faith when so many expressions of Christianity are driving people away from the faith, and so many forces make churchgoing less and less appealing?

OK, that’s a lot of questions. We might not get to all of them today, but I figured as part of our How to Heal the World series, we ought to talk about the role that the church still has in healing our lives and offering help and repair to our world. I think if we focus on those things, we can even help heal the institution of church a little bit too, at least in the parts of it we touch. 

Let’s listen to some words from Jesus that take us there. These are from the fourth chapter of Mark’s memoirs of Jesus’ life, when Jesus is explaining why he teaches the way he does and what he’s up to in general. It goes like this:

Mark 4:26-32 (New Revised Standard Version)

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground

27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

28 The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,

32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Jesus is talking about what he called the Kingdom of God, that place of love and equity and justice, that beloved community of right relationships with God and one another that Jesus envisions for us. 

Now Jesus’ beloved community is of course more than just the church. But if church can’t seek to embody more of Jesus’ vision of this community, we don’t have much to offer. Put another way, churches have rarely gone wrong when we’ve sought to be a beautiful expression of beloved community, of Kingdom of God. Jesus’ vision is still compelling, even if it’s couched in pretty earthy, old stories about seeds and plants.

I want to use the word remember today to talk about the healing proposition of church. I’ll use it in two senses, which I know I’ve done before here.

Remember in the usual sense of calling to mind things that we could too easily forget but need to know.

But also remember as in re-member, putting back together what is detached, disconnected, or scattered.

Because I think Jesus points us to remembering and re-membering as beautiful purposes of the beloved community. 

First, the remembering. 

Something I love about Jesus, which goes beyond today’s passage I read, is how much he really saw people. I love the times when Jesus meets a stranger and calls them son or daughter. It happens several times in the gospels. It makes me think it was kind of a habit of Jesus, to look into the face of a friend or a distant acquaintance or even a stranger, and see a relative of the human family, and not be shy to say that. 

Now and then I’ve made this habit my own. You’ve probably noticed that I call you all friends, no matter how much we know each other, because that’s how I see you. And in an aspirational way, it’s how I see the human family, like the Quakers do, as friends or at least potential friends. 

I’ve found myself doing this with strangers some over the years too, although for whatever reason only with other men. It hasn’t been a real thought out thing, but now and then and a little bit more over the years, when I’ve spoken with a man who’s a stranger to me, I’ll call him brother. 

Like: hey, brother, how’s it going? Or: take it easy, brother, that kind of thing. This has caused some heated debate with one person in my household, who’s been like Dad, knock it off, stop trying to sound like you’re Black. 

And when I first heard that, I was kind of shocked. But I guess with my slight Boston accent, sometimes the Brother comes out more like brothah, and now I have a kid who accuses me of cultural appropriation.

So maybe you can help me decide here? Steve calling stranger men “brother” – sharing friendship with all humanity, or obnoxious cultural appropriation?

Anyway, that’s been a thing that’s been going on with me. It’s felt good, or at least it used to. 

Apart from this little bit of language, though, Jesus just really saw people’s real selves. He loved kids, famously so, encouraging their ease and comfort around him, enjoying everything that is curious and energetic and heartfelt about kids. He had an eye for people who were sick and injured, and time and curiosity and gentleness about how and why that might be so.

Sometimes he saw people so well that he seemed strangely insightful about their lives, such that some in our tradition think he pulled out these cosmic god-powers now and then to know secrets that were humanly impossible to know.

But I’m not so sure. I think mostly Jesus was incredibly present and observant. He really saw people, because he believed so much in the meaning and mattering of every life. 

I’ve been getting to know a retired pastor recently who’s been a great picture of this to me. Time kind of slows down when I’m around him, because he’s just never in a hurry. It’s pretty great. He doesn’t call me “brother,” I guess that’s my schtick.

But he tells me things like: I’m so honored to see you, when I’m thinking, I don’t know, I thought the honor was mine, but he shows me that he means it too. I always leave my time talking to him feeling seen, known, connected, like a sibling, like a friend. And that feels incredibly good.

Jesus even shows a lot of insight into the ordinary drama and toils of our working lives. Most of his parables, the little stories he tells like today, take place at work, or amidst family relationships and ordinary household tasks – farming, baking, construction sites, sibling dramas, and all. 

Like today’s story about the farmer casting seeds, and about the mystery of all that we can’t control in agriculture, or in any kind of growth, and the kind of persistence and patience and care it takes to grow things.

Yesterday I preached a different version of this sermon at another church, where their senior minister was being officially installed, and I took the farmer spreading seed here to be the work of a pastor and the work of a church to share the good news word of God with others. That’s how the first half of today’s scripture is often read. 

But today I read the farmer as Jesus, as Jesus spreading seeds of good news with everyone he meets, just scattering his greetings of “son” and “daughter” with anyone that has time for him, sharing his attention and insight with whoever will listen, knowing that sometimes that will do profound good for people and sometimes they’ll blow him off and move on. 

Because I think we stay in church friends, because it’s the best place to have Jesus call us “son”, “daughter,” “sister”, “brother,” friend. It’s just about the best place to keep hearing Jesus speak to us, to have habits of worship and practice that make it more likely we’ll hear God calling our name, and showing us how much we matter to God. 

This is after all something that is a core organizing principle of Jesus’ vision of Beloved Community – the meaning and mattering of all people, that we are all image bearers of God. 

I’ve shared with you before that of all the Christian creeds out there, one of my favorites is one developed by a church that used to meet in Atlanta that would say every week when they worshiped,

“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.” 

“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.” 

You don’t have to, of course, but if you want, you can say that along with me, see what it feels like. Try if you want. 

“God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.” 

I don’t know about you, but that still surprised me a little when I say it, but it feels good. It rings true. 

When church goes right, there are so many ways it helps us remember this. We read and teach scripture that reminds us how much we matter to God. We take communion, which tells us that God has shared God’s whole life with us – we matter to God – and that we are now called the Body of Christ – we matter to God, and we matter to each other. We are connected to each other. 

We proclaim and encourage the practice of the faith built upon the two great commands – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

God, and not just any God, but a vision of a loving, beautiful, wise, and kind God, calls out for our attention and love. God matters to us.

And right along with that, love your neighbor as yourself. Without exception. Friend, neighbor, stranger, enemy, young, old, like to you, different – we matter to God, and we matter to each other. And we are worthy of one another’s love. 

In a transient, commodified world, we need more places where we’ll be called son, daughter, child, sister, brother, friend, where the sacred mattering of our lives will again and again be affirmed. 

And we need more places where we’ll be called, encouraged, invited to treat each other that way as well.

So that’s the seed that Jesus is sewing, the constant listening to invitations from Jesus, as we call it in our church membership covenant, including the invitation Jesus is always giving to remembering just how much all our lives and world matter.

But let’s go the re-membering, the connecting and putting together again for good used. And that has to do with the mustard seed. 

I used to think that these parables were about big things that start small. Big trees from little seeds, big harvests from scattered seeds. And so big churches, big works of justice, big stories of redemption are possible for us, even if today, we seem small. After all, in my memory, the parable of the mustard seed was always about the smallest of seeds becoming the largest of plants. 

But then once I tried Googling what a mustard tree actually looks like and, oh, the truth is sometimes a disappointing thing. I thought: oh, it’s not a tree at all. It’s a shrubbery, a bush. And it’s not that big either. 

In fact, these mustard plants are kind of scraggly, homely. I read too that mustard shrubs have kind of a slow or sluggish growth rate. It’s not like they’ll be enormous and beautiful if you just wait long enough. Not going to happen. How disappointing.

If Jesus wanted to talk about big and beautiful things, he had other options, like the famed cedars of Lebanon. Now those are big and beautiful trees. But he didn’t. He asked: with what can I compare the beloved community of God? I know, it’s like the mustard seed, that becomes that funky looking mustard shrubbery. That’s what it’s like.

Our church was kind of obsessed with “big” in our early days. In our early days, our church dreamed of being one of those cedars of Lebanon. We had attracted a ton of people in the late 90s, grown just really fast, doubling in size every year for a while. And our vision was that we’d have many different sites for our church across greater Boston, attracting thousands and thousands of people every week, basically being the biggest church in Greater Boston. And our dreams were to be the greatest church for this and the greatest church for that. 

Very early in my time as pastor, though, I felt like we should let that go, that maybe that was fine for a season in our giddy, early start up days, but that it was more important to be some other kind of beautiful than big and beautiful. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant back then, but maybe now I think: oh, all churches are called to a mustard shrub kind of beautiful. 

Not dominant or imposing, for sure. Churches always go down a really bad track when we try to be dominant or imposing or impressive, whether that be American Chrisitans obsessed with political control and power or whether that be churches that are always making it their business to be a kind of moral cop for their community, telling everyone exactly how to live their lives, like God has appointed the churches or maybe at least their pastors to be moral judge over one another. 

None of that has ever made the church or the good news of God more beautiful. It’s driven people out to their Sunday mornings of sex and waffles, or at least their lives without church, instead. 

I think Jesus points us toward a different relationship with our surroundings, not one of power and control, but one of blessing, help, and renewal.

Look at the mustard bush after all.

I love that in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, he doesn’t even focus on the fruit of the mustard at all. Maybe because they didn’t have hot dogs yet, I don’t know.

But the fruit of this shrubbery that Jesus prizes and encourages here isn’t the fruit at all, it’s the shade. 

Jesus says that when the mustard seed grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, then the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Grace and I, and my kids and mother-in-law, all live on this tiny urban lot across the river from here. And Grace with the micro-bit of land we’re on, Grace has shown all this care over the years as a gardener, spreading seed and growing beautiful things.

And last summer, in this tiny rectangular patch of dirt and bushes, and mulch and flowers, two birds made their home for the season. Yeah, a pair of doves made it their home base. I don’t know if they were mating or not – we never found a nest or any eggs, but morning after morning, they were sitting around that little patch of earth, waddling here and there a bit, cooing for one another and anyone else who’d listen, before they’d fly around or do whatever else it was they did during the day.

And friends, it was the most beautiful and sweet feeling to see them day after day and think, will you look at that? We’ve made – well, 98% Grace really – has made a home for them in the shade.

Jesus is like: this is what it means to be my followers, to live in this experience he calls the family, or the kingdom, or the commonwealth of God, what we’ve been calling the Beloved Community.

It’s to live and grow in ways that make home for others in your shade. To live and grow together, re-membered to one another, in ways that provide blessing and help and encouragement and renewal to the broader world. 

I’ve loved the ways I’ve been seeing you all doing this, friends. It brings me no greater joy or pride as a pastor than when I hear about the ways your church involvement is shaping you for good and blessing and renewal in the world.

Just this past week, one of you was able to share excerpts of the sermon on anger and contempt with your team at work, because the themes were so resonant with the work you are doing. Reservoir longs to empower us all toward joyful, purposeful living in our work, whatever it is, and we hope that our teaching and your life in our community encourage you in your vocation and profession.

Another one of you heard last week’s sermon on the good news of reparations and told me about the important work around race, equity, and repair and that the sermon was timely and helpful. 

Another one of you reached out to me for prayer about the racism in the division you work in, asking for help to not be dehumanized or crushed by that, for prayer that God would change these dynamics, and for strength and wisdom to be part of that change.

I hear stories about how Jesus’ vision of the beloved community is helping some of you be kinder, more engaged parents, friends, and neighbors, how for others of you, it encourages you to try to disrupt whole industries of our economy for greater justice and flourishing.

For all these stories, my heart always sings out: Yes! This is so good.

Because this is us partnering with God in growing the mustard bushes of the beloved community. Often modest, slow growing, but in their own way beautiful offerings of mercy and justice to a broken world in need of repair. 

Friends, this I believe, is the future of church in our times. It’s not about how big we are. It’s not about how many people show up on any particular Sunday in any particular sanctuary either. 

Nope, it’s about a community, a collective of people having seed scattered in our minds and hearts, about remembering again and again that we matter to God, we matter to one another, we matter to ourselves, and God matters to us.

And it’s about a collective of people living in Jesus’ vision of Beloved Community, inspired, renewed, and strengthened to offer our time and talents to the world in the service of its blessing, mending, repair, and healing.

Friends at Reservoir, this is happening already in your midst. Be encouraged. Stay on the journey together. 

Because sex and waffles and all the other glories of life are awesome, but this magic thing that Jesus is growing in church, we need this too.

The Good News Opportunity of Reparations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he stopped.

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

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

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

Is that all? 

And after a minute, Bak Fun said,

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

And he turned away. That was it. 

Don’t make a mess.

Clean up your mess.

And clean up other people’s messes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 18:18-27 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe a cult leader? 

It’s hard to hear from Jesus.

So we wiggle. 

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

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

Which is ridiculous. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

You cannot love God and money. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can love God by making things whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personally. 

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

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

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

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

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

Which effects how you do things, by the way. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, swing big with God or go home.

What is impossible for humans is possible with God.

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do? 

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

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

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

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

How do I enter the kingdom of God?

What does love look like?

What will bring about beloved community?

What will make us whole?

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

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

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

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

What to Do with People You Can’t Stand

So, I was talking with a friend of mine a while back and he said, “So, you’re a pastor, can I ask you for advice about this thing going on?” and I said: Sure. I can’t promise I’ll have any great advice, but sure.

And he says: Well, I have a brother, and we’re very different. We don’t live too far away but we don’t see each other often either. Anyway, we had this really hard conversation the other week, and I’m not sure what to do about it. So I asked: What happened?

And he told me that his brother believes in a lot of conspiracy theories, mostly about politics but lots of other things too, and one of the things was that his brother had a lot of theories about the government and the COVID vaccines and the whole pandemic too. And they had kind of mocked him the past couple of years whenever he took any COVID precautions.

But his brother had reached out because his wife and him had both gotten COVID and one of them actually got very sick. And they missed some work and had some medical bills and were in a bind, and they were asking my friend for some favors to help them out. 

And my friend told me he was really torn, because he helps his brother out all the time, but part of him felt that his brother and sister in law got what they deserved this time, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to come to their rescue. Maybe they had to learn a lesson or something.

So he told his brother: Listen, I’m sorry, I can’t help you out this time.

And his brother got really angry with him. He yelled at him, told him he was an awful person, swore at him, including one bit I’m not going to quote here but just say that it was hate speech, totally degrading. And then my friend’s brother hung up on him.

And my friend asked me: So, did I do the right thing in not helping him out? And what should I do next?

And I thought to myself as I usually do: I have no idea. I mean: who am I to know?

So I just said: Did your brother really call you those things? And he said: Yeah, it’s OK, though, I’m used to it. And I said: No, it’s not OK. I’m so sorry you heard your brother speak to you that way. I’m so sorry you had to hear that from your own family.

And my friend said thanks and then said these words that really struck me. He said,

You know, Steve, I’m just so angry with my brother, not just for how he acted in that phone call, but for the person he’s become. I’m so angry. And I feel kind of disgusted by him too, like I just have contempt for the kind of person he is. 

And so I said:

Well, I don’t know if you’re right or not to not help him out. It certainly sounds fair that you didn’t. I mean you’re not obligated to. And I don’t know what you should do next either, but is it OK if I make an observation?

And my friend said:

Yeah, of course.

So I said to him:

If I were you, I’d stick with the anger you feel. I’d be angry too. And maybe the anger will teach you something, or the anger will give you some energy for whatever you want to do next. I’d roll with that anger for now. But the part of you that feels disgust or contempt, like it’s hard to even see your brother like a person anymore, I’d be careful with that. I’d try to kind of separate that from the anger, and see if you can let that part go.

And we talked a little more about what that might look like, and as we did so, I learned, or relearned, so much from that distinction. My friend, with all his emotional intelligence, had noticed that he felt anger for his brother, but he also felt this other thing on top of the anger. He felt disgust or contempt, like he wasn’t just mad at this brother but looked down on him as worthless, as detestable, scum, trash, whatever. 

And those aren’t the same thing. One of those – angerhas the chance to be productive – to teach us about our fears or the harm we’re facing, or to help us make changes or make boundaries to protect ourselves. But the other – contempt – doesn’t add anything good to us or our relationships. Contempt is a kind of armor that doesn’t protect or heal. It just makes us proud and smug and rather than building boundaries that protect, it just estranges and eliminates, and it brings shame – none of which heal anything in us or them or really do any good at all.

Today we’re talking about people we can’t stand and about the difference between anger and contempt, and how to lean into one and not the other.

It’s part of a little spring mini-series we’ve called How to Heal the World about mending and repair, about leaning into the Christian notion of salvation for ourselves and our world in really practical ways. 

I want to go next to some really famous words from Jesus on this subject. These words are often read or quoted, but still rarely applied. They’re from this famous collection of teachings of Jesus on how to live, called the Sermon on the Mount.

They go like this.

Matthew 7:1-5 (Common English Bible)

1 “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.

2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.

3 Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?

4 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?

5 You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

Jesus says that in general,

What you put out into the world tends to be what comes back to you.

If you’re friendly, cheerful, kind in your disposition to others, you are more likely to draw that kind of attitude back toward yourself.

Treat people with judgment, criticism, and contempt, and you are likely to elicit that kind of thing in them as well. Look at my friend’s brother – in his frustration and shame, he wasn’t just angry, he yelled and swore and hurled hate speech at my friend. And the first thing my friend felt back was contempt and judgment of his own. 

We can live by grace, or we can live by judgment. 

We can cut people down, or we can be healers. But we can’t be both.

You know, I think our resistance to this teaching of Jesus, our troubles with contempt, are most obvious in our public life. 

SNL had this sketch a couple months back about three couples out for dinner trying to talk about the COVID pandemic. And even though broadly speaking they had similar views, took similar precautions, the joke of the sketch was that they just couldn’t have the conversation. It was just too tense, there were too many landmines.

Say the wrong thing, even wonder out loud with the wrong question, and you’ll be held in contempt like you’re a science-hating, pandemic causing fool. I remember feeling this contempt in myself once inside this Dunkin Donuts. There was an indoor mask mandate in my community, and I went into Dunkin, and I was paying attention to who was wearing their mask, and who wasn’t, and was wearing it kind of hanging down below the nose, or below the mouth, or you know, below the chin.

And at the time, I was feeling tense, like I don’t want to be in this store, I think I’ll wait outside while they make my coffee. But honestly, I was thinking about who was doing what with their masks and writing stories in my head about why some of them were as thoughtless or careless or ignorant as I felt they were. And I thought: these are bad people here. In just a few seconds, my fear had metastasized in me into judgment and contempt. 

Toward the end of the skit on SNL, when people are sharing their true feelings, there’s this laugh line when someone says: To be honest, when an anti-vaxxer gets Covid, I feel happy! 

And someone’s like: No you don’t. But the joke’s there because the feeling is. 

We’ve seen this kind of contempt writ large in our politics. Our last president seemed to hold everyone but himself and his fans in contempt. His words sometimes were just a stream of mocking takedowns, schoolyard bullying kinds of lies and mean, cheap insults again and again. 

He’d realized early in his campaign that fear and contempt can rally people to action. One of the most effective ways to mobilize and aggressive “us” is to find a set of enemies we can call “them” and make them out to be as scary and stupid and contemptable as possible. 

But it wasn’t just him, right? His opponent in 2016 had that fundraising speech that went viral where she said you could put Trump’s supporters in two baskets, one basket of people who are worthy of compassion or pity maybe, and another basket of people she called the “basket of deplorables.” The homophobes, the xenophobes, the misogynists, and the racists. 

And I mean, at some level, I get it. Homophobic behavior, racist action and all that are cancers. 

But how many people have been shamed into changing? Who has ever said to their judge:

Thank you for showing me how contemptible I am. Now I’ll do better. 

No one wants to be put in a basket. 

Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you.

Contempt is the curse that keeps on cursing. It only pushes more shame and more contempt into the world.

This gets us in our private lives too. 

The past couple years I’ve had a couple important relationships in my life that have really gone south, that have just gotten much, much harder. They were perfect before, but they’re damaged now. For various reasons, though, these are people I don’t want to just walk away from. I want to stay in their lives, and they in mine. 

But it’s been hard work. 

With one of these people, I endured just a string of criticisms from them, in interaction after interaction. And most of them seemed baseless to me, really unfair. But one of them struck home, spoke to a way I’d really hurt them. And I thought: it’d be fair for me to apologize for that, it’d be right to do so. 

So I wrote this apology letter, and I showed it to a person I trust for feedback before I sent it. And they were like 80% of the letter is really great.

But that bit in the beginning where you say you have a lot of reason to be angry with them, and they’ve really done you wrong, but there’s this one thing you want to apologize for, so here we go… Why do you need to keep that bit in there? What’s that doing for you?

And I was like, well, it’s the truth. I want to apologize but I want them to know they’re wrong too, that really, they’re mostly wrong. 

And my friend said maybe so, but if you leave that in, what do you think they’ll remember about this letter, what will be their takeaway. And I thought: oh, it won’t be the apology anymore, it’ll be my contempt for them. Like you’re awful, by the way, but oh, yeah, I have this one thing to apologize for. And I thought: that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

So I cut that part out. It hurt my pride a little bit to do so. But I cut it out. And I’m glad I did. 

The Bible’s got this other line that I think builds on Jesus’ teaching on judgment and contempt. It’s from this little letter to the Ephesians, where the author is talking to a community of faith about how to follow Jesus, how to be people of grace, people who can love each other and get along together, even amongst differences. And at one point it says:

Ephesians 4:26-27 (Common English Bible)

26 Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.

27 Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil.

So anger is not sin, because you can be angry without sinning. But in our anger, dangers can arise. We can make room for the devil, the satan, the accuser.  

Early in our marriage, Grace and I tried to take this teaching very rigidly. Like most of the too rigid ideas we had together, I’m pretty sure this was my fault. But we had this idea, or I had this idea I foisted on to us, that it was critical that if we had any anger toward one another, if we had any unresolved conflict, we had to make peace, we had to resolve it thoroughly before we went to bed. 

After all, the scriptures say:

Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 

I never realized, come to think of it, that the words actually talk about the sunset, not going to bed. It’s weird how even our most rigid ideas we think come from the Bible aren’t actually there. I was convinced this principle – don’t go to sleep with your spouse until you’ve resolved your conflict – came from this verse, but that’s not even what it says.

Anyway, what trying to apply this principle mainly did was create a series of late night conflicts about conflict. Like how are we going to resolve this and make peace when to be honest, we just were ready to yet. Maybe one of us just needed to be angry for a bit. Or maybe one of us needed some time to think. 

Later, it became clear to me that this scripture is more about the course your anger and criticism take, not about whether or not you can eliminate before sundown, or bedtime. 

And I think it’s helped us to chill out a bit, let go of some of my rigid, silly rules. 

You know, this insight is affirmed by some of the experts in couples work. There are these folks, the Gottmans, they’re got an institute for healthy marriages and relationships called the Gottman Institute, and they’re like the premier voice on this stuff. 

And in their research with couples, they’ve identified what they call the four horsemen of relationships, the four forces that tear down marriages. They’re criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling (which means withdrawing all the time from conflict), and contempt.

And the worst of the four horsemen, the most lethal, in their experience, is contempt. 

Because contempt attacks a person’s self, with insult or abuse. Contempt says:

You are worthless. I’d be happy if you got sick. You’re a deplorable. You’re dead to me. 

It’s contempt, not anger, that leads us into sin. Contempt truly does make room for the devil. Jesus said once:

The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but I come that you may have life, and life abundant. 

Friends, when I talk about the devil or the thief here, I’m not talking about an invisible boogeyman, or a pitchfork-wielding, angry, horned red devil. I’m talking about any forces inside of us, among us that steal, kill, and destroy, that rob us of connection and life, that tear down our lives and relationships, and society. 

And our persistent habits of judgment and contempt are high on the list of these thieving forces. 

Jesus is like

Don’t do it, there’s a better way.

We’ll come back to his words, but here’s how the Gottmans put it. Their antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation, to remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and to find and express gratitude for positive actions. More reasons to build up those gratitude habits we were talking about last week. 

Ruby Sales, who we talked about on Easter and the week before, put it this way. She said:

You know, in our world, it’s easier to think about who and what we hate, then who and what we love. It’s easier to think about who and what we hate, then who and what we love. 

My friend, my colleague Ivy, reminded me of this wisdom a few weeks ago, and it was right as I was getting ready to have another hard conversation in one of those difficult relationships in my life. 

So I took it to heart, I asked God for help in remembering what I love about this person. It was easy to think of what I was angry about, what I feel critical of, what unchecked would just again and again turn to contempt in me. But I asked God for help to remember what I love and respect about this person. And things came to mind. And I spent time thinking about these things before our next conversation. And it made a big difference. It didn’t change anything in them right away, but it changed a lot in  me. 

Christena Cleveland put it this way.

When dealing with someone that makes you angry, that you might be inclined to hold in judgment or contempt, say a little prayer: May the image of God in me greet the image of God in you. It’s kind of what the Hindi word: namaste means. And it’s very much the wisdom of Jesus as well. 

May the image of God in me greet the image of God in you. May I see in my friend, my spouse, my family, and even in my enemy not just what I hate but what I love. 

This is a big way that we do what Jesus commands, that we take the splinter out of our own eye, and then seek to heal our neighbor’s sight. There are other sins, there are plenty of other splinters we’ve got my friends, but there are few that are as sharp and lethal, and as common and deep as judgment and contempt. 

If, with the help of God and friends, we can pull that contempt out of us, if we can see and treat others with the dignity that is their birthright too as a child of God, made in God’s image, then we’ll go a long way toward healing our relationships, healing ourselves, and healing the world.

I’d like us to close today with a practice on this. We’ll call this exercise Dropping The Stone.

It’s got five parts to it. We won’t just assign this one for homework, we’ll take a minute, if you’re willing to try it together.

Here’s how it’s going to work.

We’re going to take a few moments of silence now.

I invite you to close your eyes, if you’re willing, or at least turn your gaze away from me or anyone else, and think of a person that you feel anger or contempt toward.

And with a story from the life of Jesus in mind, one where he sees people wanting to throw stones at someone else and gets them to drop their stones, imagine the person at whom you wish you could throw a stone.

To whom do you feel anger or contempt? Take a minute, let the name come to mind. See their face.

Now ask yourself:

What do I feel toward this person? Why am I angry? What is the source of the contempt?

Imagine that all that anger and contempt is inside a stone in your hand. Validate that for a minute. 

OK, try the third step now.

As you imagine this person, as you call them to mind, as you see them, ask yourself:

What do I love about them?

And focus on that quality.

And if you can’t think of anything you love about them, ask yourself,

How would it be possible to love them? What is the good in them? How do they bear the image of God? 

Now, in your mind, put your stone down.

Say to God:

God, I would like to set aside the contempt. I’d like to be free of it….       I can be angry, but I will not harm. I will not seek revenge. I will not judge. I will not seek to rob my fellow human of their dignity. 

And lastly, ask yourself, ask God,

Free of my contempt, what will I do next instead? What will I say or do with this person? 

Small Steps Toward Big Salvation

One of my favorite stories this month is playing out at my local CVS pharmacy. Here’s how it started.

One day, one of my kids got a new medication called in by their doctor. And it had been my job to go pick it up. Now there’s this thing with the pharmacy in a CVS that it usually closes before the actual store does. And this is always true, but I never remember it. I keep thinking-  Oh, that CVS is really close and it’s open pretty late, so I can always go get what I need there whenever. 

So I roll into the CVS at like 7:55 and go to pick up the meds. 

And an assistant tells me that they’re not ready yet. And a couple of things happen instantly in my brain. One, I think, this was called in five or six hours ago, how can it not be ready yet? And so I ask the assistant: Are you sure? This was called in much earlier today, and she looks at me kind of peeved that I said that and just answers me by saying: We’ve been busy. So I ask: Is there any way this can be filled now? And she says: No, we’re closing, and starts to turn away from me to get her things and go home. 

And I sort of sigh because the other thing that’s happening is I’m thinking: I need this medication. 

See, the past couple of years have been really hard for a lot of teenagers and 20-somethings. I don’t fully understand it, but it has to do with losses and social isolation and coming of age amidst times of enormous fear and instability, and widespread rates of anxiety, and all kinds of other stuff. It’s a lot.

I just know that as a parent of three and as a pastor, I’m seeing this in a big way. And that day I was really feeling it, feeling like life has been too hard already for my kids and I really don’t want my showing up late to the pharmacy to set back their health by even one more day because that night, that felt like a straw that would just break this camel’s back or maybe break my kid’s back.

So I just said, please: Are there any CVS’s open later? Is there any way this can be transferred to another pharmacy? And the assistant says: I don’t know, she’s going to have to help you with that. And she looks behind her at the pharmacist on duty, the one in white coat, and she leaves the register and goes to clock out.

And at this point, I notice that the pharmacist has been busy wrapping up other prescriptions but has been looking our way and listening in on our little conversation. So I quickly turn to her and say: Ma’am, I really need this medication. Is there anything you can do? 

And she pauses for a moment, and she must have seen something of the weariness or desperation in my eyes, but she took a breath and said: I can fill it for you. Just hold on a minute.

So I thank her and I sit down in the waiting chair behind me. And one, maybe two minutes later, the pharmacist comes forward with a little package in her hand, as the closing gate automatically closes, as it does every evening at 8:00. And she kind of ducks under that gate to the register and starts checking me out. And after I put my credit card into the machine, I’m welling up with relief or gratitude, I can’t tell which. But I’m feeling like maybe things are all going to be alright, so I pause and look this pharmacist in the eye and I say to her:

You’ve never met my child, but you really helped them just now, and I want you to know that means the world to me. Thank you so very much. 

And she looked back at me, I think kind of disarmed by vulnerability, and I don’t even remember what she said. Something like: No problem, or don’t worry about it. I’m not sure. But I remember we looked into one another’s eyes for a moment, and there was a kind of authentic, human connection. A needy father and a helping healer, seeing one another, appreciating one another. 

And then I went home, feeling more hopeful, feeling more connected, I guess a little more whole. And I had a sense that in her own way, after a crazy busy, thankless day, maybe the pharmacist felt some of the same. 

The next few weeks, we’ve got a few sermons on the topic of “How to Heal the World.” It’s kind of a cheeky, overstated title, but it came out of a series of conversations and reflections I had this winter about how sick and tattered our world is, how that’s impacting us, and the opportunity for something redemptive in that for followers of Jesus.

Our world has become sick with so many things – sick with violence, sick with racism, sick with sickness, and fear, and mistrust, and division and more. And all that’s not just far off, it’s not just abstraction. It touches our lives and relationships as well. And I’ve been wondering:

What does it mean to worship and follow a loving, hopeful God who is always seeking to mend, to repair, to make things whole?

And how can we find our own good, our own healing, our own salvation through participating in the healing work of God in our times? 

That’s what we think about, what we pray about, and I hope what we live into some in the weeks to come this spring.

Let me read you of the pivotal scriptures that inspires me in this.

It’s from the prophet Jeremiah, a public figure in ancient Israel in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Jeremiah is sometimes nicknamed the weeping prophet, because he lived and spoke and wrote during times of devastating pain and division in his culture. But Jeremiah was also a healer, a person who shared God’s best wisdom as he understood it for surviving and thriving through hard times. 

Here’s one little excerpt. 

Jeremiah 29:4-7 (Common English Bible)

4 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon:

5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.

6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away.

7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

So this is an excerpt from a letter Jeremiah sent to a group of exiles. Jeremiah himself was still in the ancient Hebrew capital of Jerusalem, but he was writing to a group of people who had been carted off into exile in Babylon, the colonial superpower to the East. 

This would be something like a pastor in Kiev, writing to Ukranians who had been kidnapped during war and taken north to Russia. Or a 19th century Native American writing to friends and relatives who’ve been driven West onto a reservation. 

And Jeremiah’s word in this letter is: Don’t take the suffering of your times as a sign that God has forgotten or abandoned you. God still sees, God still cares, and God still has hopes for you and your descendants. But, it’s going to be a while. Don’t pray for some big, magical miracle to happen tomorrow or the next day. You’re going to have to adjust your expectations and make life work in these new circumstances you didn’t choose. 

And here’s how to do that:

Settle down. Make a home for yourself where you are. Raise children. Plant a garden. Get to your neighbors. And love them. 

Here’s why. Your welfare is connected to their welfare. You may see them as other, as below you, as above you, as enemies, as threats, as disgusting. But you’re neighbors now. You’re in this together. This is now your land, these are your people, do some good. Make it work for you. 

I don’t know if you caught the line of Jeremiah saying:

God sent you here.

But that’s bracing. After all, they’d been resettled here against their will. God didn’t send them here, enemies did this. Bad circumstances, bad luck did this. 

But Jeremiah says:

Promote the welfare of this city where I have sent you.

I do not think he means this philosophically, like literally: God caused all this war and suffering and exile. That view is not worthy of a good and loving God.

No, I think he means it practically, as a mindset, like

How would I live if I could see God at work in these circumstances?

How would I live if I could hope that a creative, loving God can improvise a good plan with me here? 

So he says promote the welfare of this city and pray for its blessing. For your future depends on its welfare.

This passage helps me understand some of what was going on with me at the CVS pharmacy that day and also why I didn’t want to let it go.

See, our culture tells me that me and that pharmacist are anonymous commodities in a giant marketplace. I am a consumer, and she is a provider.

My kids and me and our doctors and health insurance all produce these computerized messages in CVS’s giant system about these various chemical compounds they should mix up into pills and capsules and creams and about how much my insurance company will pay and how much I will pay and when. And the provider has this endless list of these things that come her way every day, and her job is to rush and hustle through all these orders as fast as possible while making zero mistakes and get these consumers on their way and collect her paycheck.

But in this moment, we weren’t commodities to each other any more. We weren’t just categories or cogs in a system, whether those categories be ancient ones from Jeremiah, like exile and enemy, colonized or conqueror, or modern ones like customer and provider. Instead we were two humans – a distressed father and a harried healer. And we could see that our welfare is connected to one another. 

I do better in a world where instead of arguing with the pharmacist or giving up and getting pissed off and resentful, I can be my authentic, vulnerable self for a moment, and share my need and my gratitude. And that pharmacist does better in a world where customers aren’t just numbers but names and needs, people trying their best to get healthy and appreciating her part in making that happen. 

I found this experience really compelling, so much so that I told Grace and the kids whose meds I brought home all about it, and I found myself wondering how I could live in this relationally connected, healing way more and more often. 

Because in a small way, we each left that store more connected in a lonely world. In a world of commodities, we experienced being human together. And there was some repair in that. We made our lives a little more whole. And maybe, we made our anonymous, capitalist, consumer society a little more whole too. 

I like to think of this small story on these grand terms because of a Jewish concept I’ve learned about called tikkun olam (tee-KOON, o-LAM), which is Hebrew for repair of the world

This concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, dates back to really early Judaism, about the time of Christ. The idea is that our beautiful world is also broken and disordered, but that each time we follow God’s law, we say yes to God’s ways in the world, we participate in the world’s repair. 

Over the centuries, this phrase has been embraced more and more alongside scriptures like Micah 6:8 that say:

Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

The thinking being when we strive for social justice, for the creation of a more just, verdant, and peaceful world as the saying goes, that we participate with God in the repair of a broken world.

Just before this pandemic hit, back in 2019, we had our last churchwide retreat. Side note here: we’re early in conversations with our staff about what to make of that. For a few years, we had these 150-200 person day and a half retreats each fall, almost always on a seaside location. And we’re trying to figure out if this is the fall we return to that or not. So if you have hopes or passions on that, you can always let one of us pastors know what you think and if you’d be up for helping us make this happen again.

Anyway, at the last retreat, our guest speaker was Laura Everett, the head of the Mass Council of Churches. She’s like a pastor to pastors, someone that helps churches connect and support one another across the various traditions and divisions within the body of Christ. And I’m grateful to count her as a friend.

And Laura likes to knit and sew, but not just casually. She’s studied the craft and culture of people who use their hands to repair old clothing and quilts, to take things that are old and worn and instead of throwing them out, to mend them and make them new. And Laura seeings in mending the deep but neglected wisdom of working class women, often women of color. And Laura sees in their work practices and metaphors of what the Chrisitan faith calls salvation. 

Because salvation after all is not fundamentally about throwing something away and getting something new. God always works good from what is here, what God has made. God doesn’t throw away and start from scratch. And salvation is also not trying to rescue a couple of treasured possessions out of a burning building, while watching the rest go up in smoke.

Some Chrisitans have thought of salvation that way, like much of this world is on its way to hell, and what it means to be saved is to be snatched by God out of the flames and prepared for heaven.

But that’s a distortion of the Christian idea of salvation. Salvation has to do with taking something that is in disrepair and mending it. It has to do with a person who is not well healing and becoming whole and well again. 

So menders save scraps of discarded fabric by knitting them into quilts. And they save holey sweaters and pants by knitting patches for them. And menders engage institutions that are out of date or dysfunctional and help them renew and work again. 

People who mend and heal usually start small, and often end small too. When you mend a blanket, you don’t overhaul consumer capitalism’s obsession with cheap, throw away fabrics, and all the ways that are dehumanizing workers and polluting our world and harming our climate. Nope, you make a tiny difference in all that, and you get to keep your blanket.

And when you and your pharmacist change the nature of your interaction, you don’t end teenage suffering or all the dysfunction you both experience in America’s wasteful, impersonal medical system. Nope, you make that system better for you that day, and you walk away feeling more grateful and more alive. 

So it’s small. 

But what if small is mostly what we’ve got. And what if small, in the hands of an everlasting God, is the holy stuff of which big is made of. 

When I talk about my heart and my troubles and my relationships with my therapist, she likes to encourage me with how much this work matters. Like when I get more curious or compassionate, or when I show up more courageous for a hard conversation, or more loving in a strained relationship, she’ll encourage me that this is how we save the world.

This is how things are made whole.

And when she does this, whether she realized this or not, she’s referencing some ancient wisdom in this tikkun olam tradition. There’s a line in the Mishnah, this collection of ancient rabbinic teachings in the Bible, that goes something like this. It says:

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”

And this line is repeated in the Quran, as the prophet Muhammad gives credit to Jews for the wisdom of their faith and cutlure. 

“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”

I love this. It goes beyond logic, to be sure, the idea that person-sized acts of gratitude and compassion and mending and repair really make a difference. Partly, I think, it’s daring to take a God-sized perspective on ourselves for a moment, a perspective of faith. 

That from God’s vantage point, we are so beautiful and beloved, but also so small, so transitory. Our lives are really little and really short on the scope of things. And on this one tiny planet, there are billions of us, sharing space with all the other plants and animals, and matter.

So who are we to save the world? We can’t.

But who are we to not heal and mend either? Who are we not to do our part to increase our welfare by improving the welfare of the people and place we call home? 

We’re fools if we don’t. Because one, it makes a difference. And two, it’s all we’ve got.

Small things matter. Jesus after all said to his students once:

Mark 9:40-41(Common English Bible)

40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us.

41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

He’s like:

Don’t think of people as your allies or enemies.

I mean maybe sometimes, for protection, for tactical reasons, sure. But in general, people are not first a label, for you or against you. People are people. And people that give you a cup of water are doing something good, something God loves and is proud of, something God rewards, something that matters.

Everytime we heal and mend and repair, every time we take a relationship with land or place or people and make it more humane, more flourishing, more good, we do something that matters, we do something that makes God proud. We do something that increases our welfare. We participate in the saving of the world.

I’m finding this so compelling now, I can’t let it go. 

With that pharmacist, for instance, I wrote her a letter, and I went back to CVS looking for her to give the letter to her, and hopefully to read it aloud to her. I learned this practice from my friends in Asha, the urban public health initiative in New Delhi, India, that our church supports.

My friend Kiran, the founder and leader, likes to promote contagious gratitude initiatives that send thanks and wellness out into communities. One of the ways she does this is by asking people to write a thank you letter to someone and then read it out loud to the recipient. 

So this is what I did for that pharmacist. I don’t have time to tell you the whole story today. But I’ll just say that it didn’t go down according to script. I wasn’t able to read the letter out loud to her, for instance. It was way too busy there the next time I saw her. But I did get her the letter, and I did learn her name.

And I did have the chance later to hear her thank me for that letter, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on the face of someone working at CVS, and we did learn each other’s names. And now, I look forward to going to CVS, because I know she’ll treat me great, and I know I’ll be happy to see her and to thank her for her part in my family’s welfare, and I’m enjoying praying for this person by name now, praying for God’s blessing in her life, and that feels good to me too.

Something is happening there that is saving us, that is making us more whole. 

Friends, we’re going to continue with this theme of How to Heal the World the next few weeks, from some different angles. 

But let me close with two quick invitations.

I encourage you to try to treat particular people and parcels of land like they are the whole world, like they matter that much, because to God, I believe they do. Whoever saves one person saves the world entirely. 

One way you can do this is through this practice of gratitude letters. Write a letter this week to someone you’re grateful for and send it to them. Or even better, if you are able, find a way to see that person and read them the letter, then give it to them. 

And secondly, take up a practice that we haven’t talked about for a while at Reservoir, but has been important to the church over the years, ever since our founding 25 years ago. It’s called praying for your 6, and it refers to have six people who are local and whose names you know but who don’t share your church or your faith in God, and praying regularly for their blessings. It’s a way of spiritual generosity, of living out this Jeremiah passage of seeking the welfare of those around us, since we’re connected. 

For now at least, this pharmacist is one of the people whose blessing I’m praying for, and I think God loves that and I think that makes a difference in making whole our broken world as well. 

But the invitation here is to make this a delight more than a duty. See what kind of adventure we can find in seeing our welfare by being people of blessing and repair and kindness in the communities where we work and live, and see just what God does in that.

The Other Side of Our Closed Doors

Happy Easter, my friends! Before I speak today, I am going to invite you to pray with your ears, your hearts, your voices, your bodies. The first prayer is a prayer that our youth group wrote together and asked if me if I could lead us in- I’ll lead us in a prayer co-written by some of the teen and pre-teen members of our youth group and then with our bodies if you’re willing.

Dear GUIDE,

who is COMPASSIONATE and KIND, who LOVES US NO MATTER WHAT

God, you will BRING HOPE and JUSTICE for us.

God, you will PROVIDE JOY for our world.

Give us KINDNESS and HOPE

Grant us STRENGTH / THE EYES TO SEE THE BROKEN AND DEPRESSED

Through the power of the spirit of God, breathing and within each of us,

I pray for these things. May they be. Amen

And now let’s do one other kind of prayer, one that will use our voices and our bodies. There’s this old, old Easter tradition where the pastor, priest or worship leader says:

Christ is risen.

And the whole congregation responds with jubilation:

Christ is risen indeed.

You do it three times.

I’m going to ask you to imagine wherever you are- whether you’re with one or two other people or by yourself that you are surrounded by what the scriptures call a great cloud of witnesses – like many other people seeking to share with you the journey that you’re on. 

This takes me back a couple of years where we first trying to figure out how to do this online space and I was sitting in a corner of my bedroom with my then 17-year old daughter dressed in an Easter bunny suit and we called out these words in response and sort of throwing our hands up and standing up as we were saying them.  So, however chill you feel or wherever you’re at, if you’re able, I invite you when say

Christ is risen indeed

to throw your hands up like you’re at a Red Sox game or Patriots game or NBA playoffs – you get the idea.

Now Reservoir is a space not just for confident Christian faith, but also for doubt, for wonder, for exploration, for people of other faiths and no faith at all so no one ever has to say anything. But if you believe this, or if you don’t or aren’t sure but are just willing to play along, we’re going to do this together, and we’re going to throw our bodies into it a bit. If you stay seated or don’t say the words, that’s cool too. No judgment. But if you’re willing, here we go.

Christ is risen

Christ is risen

Christ is risen

All right, we’ve got people in the studio here shaking their hands a little.

For some people those words have been a way to connect to their roots, to a tradition from which they come.

For others, they’ve been a shout of joy, of determination. Along with God, we will not be defeated.

And for others they’ve been across centuries a whisper of hope. Like Jesus, God’s not done with me yet. There’s more life left in me still. God’s not done with us.

What we do on Easter Sunday is simple. Really we just try to find our way into these words:

Christ is risen.

What does that mean? For us today, why does that matter? 

Each of the Bible’s four memoirs of the life of Jesus, what we call the four gospels, tells the Easter story in a different way, with different themes, different directions it takes us. The one that is speaking to me this year is part of the end of the gospel of John. 

It starts with a woman named Mary grieving. This is not Jesus’ mom, but a friend of his named Mary. And then we’ll pick up the reading as it takes us into a household where a bunch of people are holed up behind closed doors in fear, and then it ends with Jesus inviting them out again beyond those closed doors, out into a life of purpose and power.

Let me read it for us. 

John 20:19-23 (Common English Bible)

19 It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.”

20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

So this whole bit has been speaking to me, maybe you can see why already.

Just before this, one of Jesus’ friends comes and visits the rest of them, and she’s like:

I’ve seen our friend, I’ve seen our teacher, Jesus, the one who was killed. But he’s alive again. He’s alive! Things are going to be OK!

And they’re like… uh… probably not. And that door they’d cracked open to see Mary, they close it again, and hole back up in fear.

We know what that’s like, don’t we? To be stuck inside, doors closed, scared of what’s happening out there, not knowing when or if it’ll get any better. 

Recently I’ve been doing a little reminiscing about 2020. It’s a year we mostly want to forget but I keep hearing it coming to mind these days. I’m remembering what it was like just to go and buy food. I’d go out to the grocery store, double masked, rubber gloves on my hands. And I would just fill the shopping cart to the brim, hundreds of dollars worth of stuff, so my family would be set for food for weeks. All of us were home, all the time, and we wanted to keep it that way.

Out in the market we’d walk down the one aisle aisle the right way, following the big arrows on the ground. And the other shoppers and me, we’d hear the reminders over the store’s intercom to stay two shopping carts apart, but apparently all of us thought that lady in the speakers was a little reckless, because we’d see someone like five shopping carts away and sort of stare each other down, waiting to see who would move out of the way first.

There was never any flour or toilet paper. Because all of us were suddenly wanting to learn how to bake bread and at the same time worried we’d have to wipe our rears silly or something. I remember buying ridiculous quantities of ice cream, because what else are you going to do when you’re stuck at home every single night. 

And then we’d get home, and we had this system. My family and I set up a kind of assembly line, where I’d lug in bag after bag, and people would line up around the groceries with antibacterial wipes in both hands and scrub down all the packaging, trying to wipe down the surface of the bag of potato chips without breaking what was inside. 

And we’d get everything put away, and I’d sit down and take a deep breath like I had just survived another big, bold foray out into the wilderness to bring food home for my family. 

That was a scary time, when we were holed up in fear behind closed doors.

And it’s been a weird ride ever since, hasn’t it? 

In some of our workplaces, it’s been like nobody can come on site and then one day we’ll hear everybody come on back, you have to be here, and then later, people aren’t so sure again, and they’ll be like: I don’t know, you all figure it out.

And kids, kids of all ages, we are seeing what you have gone through.

Told to never leave your houses because it’s scary out there. And then being told, actually, now you have to leave your houses and go to school but stay apart from each other, don’t talk during lunch, don’t touch, and don’t you dare take that mask off. Until this winter all of a sudden, it’s like I don’t know, wear your masks if you want to, or don’t. All good, either way, whatever.

I mean, it’s great in some ways. I know there are kids who have had a crush on someone without ever seeing what their nose or mouth look like. I mean: how can you be sure? It’s like the big reveal was happening recently. But I know for some of us, we haven’t been so sure if we want to take our masks off either. Or if we should.

Most of us lost a lot these past couple of years, and we’ve been scared more often and longer than people are really meant to be scared, which is tiring. And there is an awful lot to legitimately be scared of in this world. So when that becomes a habit, just a way of being – our flight, flight, freeze systems on long-term overdrive, it is not easy finding our groove again. It has not been easy.

Look at the disciples in the resurrection story. They are holed up in fear, fear of forever grief, fear of lost dreams, fear of failed reputations, fear of state violence, fear of no future or life worth living. So much fear. 

And I love how Jesus gets what they’re going through.

He told them his death wouldn’t be the end of the story.

And Mary has seen him already and told the students that he’s alive. But they’re still holed up behind those closed doors. The fears and the what-if-it’s-not-trues they’re facing are too strong.

So Jesus doesn’t wait around for them to find their courage and come look for him. Jesus doesn’t send them a note saying: what’s wrong with you all? Why are you so afraid?

No calmly, tenderly, Jesus comes to them to give them peace, and to help them find their way out again. 

And this is the first message of resurrection. That the question is not whether God will show up, but how will God show up – the question is not,

“Will God show up?”

but

“How will God show up?”

I used to picture the scene like this, like Jesus crawls through the window, or he kind of magically ports himself through the locked door or something but all of a sudden he’s just there, and the disciples are all nervously standing around in a circle like they’re at a middle school dance, not knowing what to say or do,  because it’s hella awkward to see your friend you denied and abandoned at his worst moment just here again, saying HI!, especially after you thought he was dead. 

But Jesus, like maybe wanting to laugh, I don’t know. I think Jesus had to be laughing inside. But he holds it together and looks at them and puts his hands up to them all and says:

Peace to you. Peace to you. Spirit of God, Spirit of Peace come to you all. 

And it works, they feel the peace, they know God is with them again. And then Jesus is like alright:

I’m heading out now, but you all go get ’em, do your thing now.

And he’s gone.

But here’s what I think now. I think it’s slower than that. I think it’s more personal and more physical too.

After all, Jesus knows that when he comes upon his friends behind closed doors, he’s walking into a scene of trauma. Pain and trouble that we didn’t know what to do with and just froze us. And trauma is not just stored in our minds as a rational memory. Trauma is stored in our bodies. We learn trauma like we learn how to drive or play an instrument. It gets into our muscle memory, and it’s hard to just shake off. 

Folks, if you’ve got pains and bad memories – big ones, little ones; hard stuff from these years of pandemic and unrest or old stuff from a long time ago that you can’t just forget about, can’t just shake off and move on, you are not alone. It takes time and touch and love and the help of God and friends and it is not an instant change kind of thing.

But the God of Easter, the Christ of resurrection has the power and presence and patience to stick in there with you and see you through it, to come to you behind your closed doors and help you find your way out again. It’ll come, my friends. It’ll come.

So now here’s how I picture this scene. I think Jesus knocks on that door. I know that’s not exactly how John tells the story, but our memories aren’t perfect and I don’t think his was either. I think Jesus knocks on that door, and he waits. He’s not going anywhere. He takes his time. He knocks once or twice, and they think it’s the authorities and they won’t open it up.

And after a few minutes, he knocks again, and somebody peeks out the window and says:

Hey, weird thing, that kind of looks like Jesus, maybe we should open up.

But the rest of them say:

That’s impossible, no way, don’t open the door.

But eventually, a few minutes or a few hours or if it was me or you maybe a few years later, and Jesus keeps knocking now and then, and eventually they open the door, and one by one Jesus, knowing trauma is stored in the body, comes close. 

And he says:

Peace to you. I’m here again. Peace.

And he sees that’s not good enough. So he asks:

Can I touch you?

And when they say OK, he does this thing. When my oldest was young and got anxious sometimes, I’d do this thing I saw on a TV show once. I’d take their face in my hands, and I’d look into their eyes and just breathe with them real slow, and I’d say:

It’s OK now. We’re here together. It’s going to be OK.

And sometimes we’d even hug for a while, and I’d breathe nice and deep and slow, helping their breath slow down too. And we’d try to find our peace so we could move forward.

And I think that’s what Jesus is doing here. I think he looks his friends in the eyes, one by one, taking the time to touch them, to breathe with them, to be with them, as long as it takes, until they know they’re not dreaming, until they can slow their breath down, and cry it out a little, and shake off their stress before they move forward. 

The last six weeks, our church has been marking the pre-Easter season called Lent with the theme Waters of Life. We’ve taken Jesus’ metaphor – living waters – for the rejuvenating power of the Spirit of God and tried that on in different ways of thinking and feeling and praying, seeing if it would take hold for us.

And last Sunday, in our in-person service, we held one of our experimental participatory services where we don’t have a sermon but we get to move around and use art and symbol and music and silence to pray and see how God moves us, how God teaches us.

If you were part of that, you would have heard three voices again and again. One was Ruby Sales, child of the Civil Rights movement and now an elder pastor and theologian. Amazing human being. 

And another voice was Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. God makes me lie down in green pastures, leads me to still waters and all that.

And the third voice was the 15th century mystic we know as Julian of Norwich. I call her Julianna of Norwich to remind us that she was a woman, not a man, since too many women’s voices about God – from Mary in today’s text on throughout the centuries – have been ignored or silenced. And we are not having that any more. 

But truth is, with this mystic, we don’t even know her birth name. From around age 30 until her death, she prayed with people and taught them about God, living in a church in England called St. Julian, taking on the name of the church as her new name. 

Anyway, her words we heard again and again last week in multiple languages were:

All will be well. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

What did she mean by that? How could she think this? That in the face of life’s traumas and losses and anxieties, it’s all going to be OK? 

It wasn’t because she wasn’t in touch with pain and or just lived the easy life. After all, Julian lived through outbreaks of the plague we sometimes call the Black Death. 

Horrible as COVID has been, Black Death plague makes COVID look like a joke. I mean, there were times and places where 1 in 4, 1 in 3, 1 in 2 people died of this. And it took us like a year to figure out what COVID was, how it was spread, how to make a vaccine and all.

Back then in Europe, after a century or two of this coming and going – generations of plague, folks – people were still seeing rats running around, and eating with their hands after touching everything dirty, and pretty much never washing anything, and wondering why everybody was getting sick and dying. They didn’t know.

Different times, hard times. 

One Julian scholar believes that Julianna of Norwich entered the convent when she did around 30 because her husband and children all died of the plague. She herself almost died at one point. One of her visions of the risen Jesus, alive with us still, happened while she was sick and delirious with fever. 

So with this life, in these times, how in the world could she go around saying:

All will be well, all will be well?

Well, it’s because of three things. 

One, she knew that Jesus understood. In her visions and imagination of Jesus, he was always bleeding. She saw Jesus on the cross, and to her that meant that God suffers with us, that there is no pain God does not feel, no hurt God does bear with us, no anxiety or loss that doesn’t touch the heart of God. Julianna knew God as the fellow sufferer who understands.

And the other thing is that she believes Jesus said these words to her:

All will be well.

That Bloody Jesus, nicknamed Man of Sorrow, the most sympathetic, empathetic friend, was also the bravest and kindest human who has ever lived. That this brave, kind face of Jesus is the face of God to us. That this Jesus said to her:

No matter the pain, no matter the loss, all will be well again. All will be well.

And the third reason was that she had a message to share with her little world. She lived in a time when the church interpreted all this plague as the judgment of God and looked for scapegoats to blame. She lived in a time of enormous fear – fear of death, and fear of the wrath of God.

But Julianna was compelled to share that God is love and that God could empower people to live with less fear and more hope, more faith right in the middle of desperate times. So as she met with person after person, and as she wrote for posterity, she believed that the Spirit of Jesus whispered to us:

All will be well. All will be well.

In dark times, Julianna of Norwich became the voice of the fierce optimism of the faith of Christ.

God will always come to us. The only question is how will God come this time.

Every Easter story is a story of hope and peace. It’s a story of Jesus finding his way to us, wherever we’ve shut ourselves in or shut ourselves down this time, and taking our face in his hands and breathing peace to us. 

And every Easter story is a story of calling. It’s a story of Jesus, just like with the disciples, saying: you can come out again. Come out of the house now. Come out of your closets. Come out of your hiding places. Come out of your homes. Come out from behind the shut down, closed doors of your heart. 

Because you have gifts for the world. We’ve got some work to do. We’ve got a life to live. And we have a message of grace, of mercy, of freedom to share. The last words Jesus says are kind of confusing. Where he’s like:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; but if you don’t, they are not forgiven.

But here’s what I think this line is getting at. Jesus is telling them:

Beyond those closed doors of your fear, beyond those closed doors of your home, beyond those closed doors of your heart, is a whole creation that needs the good news of love and grace, of freedom and mercy and kindness. There’s a whole world of hurt and fear that needs some love and some second chances. So get out there and show that, do that, be that. 

And Jesus is saying:

I need you. This doesn’t happen without you. Henceforth, you are my hands and feet and body and voice.  

We’ll talk more about this over the next few weeks as we explore this topic of How to heal the world. How to get out and join Jesus is making things whole again. It’s so important, friends. So I hope you’ll be there for this, or tune in for this.

But this Easter day, this Resurrection Sunday, let’s ask:

How can we receive the body and voice of Christ who says to us: I’m here. My peace I give you. All will be well. 

And this Easter day, this Resurrection Sunday, how will we be released beyond our closed doors?

Where will we open up and get out again?

Where is Jesus welcoming us to be people of grace and mercy and love and good news to this world?

The Healing Waters

In my late 30s, I was a high school principal for a few years. And when I was interviewing for the job, it was clear that some of the faculty of the school wanted a “tough guy” kind of principal. They told me that the next year’s senior class was horrible but that even worse were the incoming ninth graders. There were a lot of kids who’d need keeping in line. 

And I remember responding like: Alright, how about we all meet these 14 year olds we’re talking about first and get to know their names and create a good community together, and then we can see what kind of problems we need to solve?

And some of them liked this answer, and some of them – maybe especially some of the veterans who were older than me – sort of eye rolled and made it clear they were thinking, you’ll see, young guy, you’ll see.

Well, fast forward a year or so, and one of those ninth graders – who had been making and getting in all kinds of trouble again and again, serious trouble, well one of his parents died. And he wasn’t in school, but I was informed about this, knowing this would have an impact on him and on his friends too.

Another person who heard this news was a school social worker named Mike I had come to admire. And what Mike did that day is he pulled together some of the boys he worked with in that grade, all friends with the kid who’s lost his parent. And Mike invited me to the group he was leading that day, to watch and to participate.

So I sat in a circle in the basement of the school that afternoon with my colleague Mike and five or 10 teenage boys, who were to a person some of the more challenging kids in the school – kids with bad grades, kids with attendance and discipline problems, kids people met about and talked about a lot. 

And I don’t remember Mike’s exact words, but he looked at the kids and said something like:

What are you feeling? Where does it hurt? 

And the kids, my God, they were like:

I can’t believe my friend is going through this. Do you know how much he’s faced in his life already? What can I do to help?

And other kids were like:

I know this about so and so, but man, this reminds me of when my parent or uncle or sibling died.

And they shared about loss and trauma they were feeling.

And Mike just kept looking every kid in the eye and saying:

It’s OK. It’s good to feel this. Life’s hard sometimes, but you’re going to be alright. It’s OK. 

And I just kept thanking them for letting me be there and letting me listen too and letting me understand them a little more.

It was one of my holiest moments in my work there, as I watched Mike making a safe community by helping it be a healing community.

We need more healing communities. That’s what we’re going to be talking about today: healing communities and the questions that make space for healing. We’ve got two more weeks until Easter. And we’re at the start of the 5th week of this spring season we’ve called Waters of Life.

And this talk on Jesus our healer, and on healing communities is I hope helpful to you in each of the communities you’re part of, this church community included. And there is more where this comes from in the daily readings and reflections that are in our guide you can access at reservoirchurch.org 

Today we meet Jesus the healer, Jesus who asked questions, questions like:

What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And do you want to be made well?

Let’s read today’s scripture, from the fifth chapter of John’s memoirs of the life of Jesus.

John 5:2-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.

3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.

5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.

6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

There’s a lot going on in this story, but let’s start by noticing Jesus’ first words.

Do you want to be made well? 

In the mouth of some people, these could maybe be pushy or judgy words. Like: hey, why are you still sitting here? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to get better?

But we’ll see with Jesus over his life, that he’s not like that at all. Rather, he asking questions because he’s really present – he notices people. And he’s compassionately curious about what they’re experiencing. And he’s interested in them finding their voice and being listened to. So he asks things, like in this case:

Do you want to be made well?

Jesus loved asking questions. My friend Carl who’s spoken at our church before says that

If you want to follow Jesus, one really practical way to do that is by asking more questions when you talk with people. 

Earlier in John, Jesus was meeting with some potential students and rather than giving them a recruiting pitch or an introduction to who he was and what he was about, he simply asked:

What are you looking for? 

I experienced someone asking me this recently. I was meeting with a new spiritual director I was going to work with. This is like a pastor to a pastor. We sat down together in a quiet, mostly empty room, and after a moment or two of silence, he took a breath, looked at me carefully and just asked,

So, what are you looking for?

And that question unlocked things I didn’t even know I needed to say. And over the course of an hour, he listened and asked another question here and there, and then listened some more. At one point, I think he said:

My job is to be the keeper of the questions. 

And in his kindness and attention and listening, I felt like I was sitting with Jesus. And the safety and trust in that brought the truth out of me. And that helped bring me peace. It was healing for me.

Now when we talk about healing, we’re really talking about a lot of things. This is true when we read and think about Jesus as a healer too. 

There are many stories of people walking away from their encounters with Jesus physically more healthy and well than before. He was known as a faith healer in his time, for sure. Skeptical as people in the developed world have been about these stories over the past two, three hundred years, accounts of faith healings – both ancient and modern – are not every day, but also not rare. We’re learning a lot now about how pain and sickness and mind and spirit interact. So just as there are lots of reasons people hurt and get sick, there are lots of ways people get well too. 

I think Jesus did cure many. Still, though, even in this scene there are many profoundly disabled people whose conditions are not changed, and each of the few times in the gospel of John a person does have greater health after their encounter with Jesus, John indicates that Jesus thinks what’s happening in their mind and relationships with God and community are at least as important as their physical cure. Jesus would often tell people too that it wasn’t him, that it was their faith that healed them.

I mean think of the power of this man’s experience. He’s been languishing for decades, for whatever reason a shell of what he was when he was young. And Jesus asks him:

Do you want to be made well?

And he can’t even answer. There’s too much hurt, too much stuck. He can only say:

I can’t, Jesus, I can’t. No one is here for me. 

To which Jesus responds:

This is your day. You can do it.

And he doesn’t just walk, he finds his power back, his agency. His I can’t becomes, with the help of God, I can. 

It might help us when we talk about stories like this to distinguish between two words – curing and healing. 

Curing is more specific. Curing is restoration of physical health or a removal of physical pain. On rare occasions in the gospels, Jesus cures someone of their physical maladies. That continues to be the case through faith healers and traditional medicines throughout the world. People are cured in ways and for reasons that modern medicine can only partly understand. Most of us, we mostly go to physicians and pharmacies for cures for our pains and diseases. Mostly, they are pretty good at what they do. Thank God for modern medicine. We live in the best time in human history for curing our diseases.

Healing, though, is a broader word. Sometimes healing is cure: the pain goes away, all is restored. And sometimes healing involves other changes of conditions or changes of resistance. Something we weren’t looking for gets better or grows. Or we find new peace with the way things fall apart. 

When I talk about Jesus’ power to heal, and our capacity with the help of God to participate in healing communities, I mean healing in this broader sense. This sense of wellness and wholeness that is deeper or wider than the kind of diagnosis or help we might get in a hospital. 

One of our modern teachers in this type of healing is the civil rights icon and the minister and the theologian, Ruby Sales. Ruby Sales was a child participant in the marches and prayer meetings of the Southern freedom movement of the 50s and the 60s. She was raised on the faith of an Almighty God whose power never fails, who makes a way where there is no way, who always comes through.

But there were times when that God as she understood God didn’t seem to come through in power, and she found herself walking away from faith for a while or at least from that kind of faith. Until she started to see the presence and the power of God differently. She was at the hairdresser’s one day, and the hairdresser’s daughter came in, looking a mess, just coming in after being out all night, high on drugs still. And Ruby Sales noticed a sore on her body too, and just found herself asking her friend’s daughter:

Where does it hurt? Where does it hurt, child? 

And a story started coming out, a story not of the night before but of the years before, a story of pain and hurt and abuse, some of which her own mother had never heard. And this opened up space to be known and to be touched and to start to heal because when the truth about you is held with care and grace and kindness, it is true that the truth will set you free. 

And Ruby Sales saw that God was with this daughter of her friend and that God had always been with her –even if the power of God and the way God moves and works and heals isn’t so controlling or always so obvious as she had once thought. And that was a part of Ruby Sales’ return to faith as well, asking:

Where does it hurt?

And seeing God there with healing in the all that pain.

We’ll meet Ruby Sales more in this weeks’ guide. There are quotes from her to accompany the scriptures this week. And Ruby Sales’ voice will show up in our service next Sunday again too. 

What are you looking for? Where does it hurt? And would you like to be made well? 

I wished I used those questions more when I was a principal. I wish I was more like Ruby Sales, more like my friend Mike, more of a healer. One of the first students I met as a principal was a young man who came to see me in my office in August, before my first school year in that city even began. He came with an older friend of his. They had both been born in another country, and they had both immigrated as children to this same city. And the young man seeing me desperately wanted to compete in athletics that fall. He was good at this sport, he said. And his friend looked at me and said:

Mr. Watson, this is really true. He isn’t just good. He’s great. He’s really special.

But the problem was this young man’s grades were bad, really bad. I pulled up his transcript and I wasn’t sure I’d seen one quite like it. Failure, after failure, after failure. Really high rates of absence. And I explained to him, with these grades, you’re not allowed to play.

And his friend said:

But Mr. Watson, it’s not his fault.

And he told me some of the tragedy of this young man’s life, the losses and traumas he’d known already, the ways he was to some degree alone in the world while still a child.

And I listened with great interest and care and compassion, but said still:

There is nothing I can do. The rules are the rules. Let’s work on your grades, and you can play next year.

And he left my office with his friend, crestfallen. It would be a while before we’d speak again. 

In what I said, I was right. I was under authorities bigger than me in this, and there was no way he could play that season. But it was in what I didn’t say that I failed him. Not just then, but again later. I remember a time when this same guy showed up high, like really really high, at a big school event, and I suspended him, again following the rules for what happened. 

I wish I knew better, I wish I had thought to look him in the eye and say:

Young man, tell me, what are you looking for? And please tell me, where does it hurt? Where does it hurt?

And asking:

Would you like to be well? 

I knew these questions, part of me did. But I was too insecure as a young principal to relate with this kind of presence and power and freedom and the time. I was too focused on the angry voices that wanted me to achieve order, too focused on fixing and curing to be the healer I was called to be. 

Mercifully, when God wants us to learn something we’re not ready to learn, it sometimes comes back around for us. Spirit of God is a patient, persistent teacher.

Years later I’d spend time with my friend Mike again outside the school, in a running club for folks in recovery. 

Most of the people I ran with were in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse and addiction. And that would come up and they’d ask me about my story sometimes, and I didn’t have a good answer at first. Because the truth was I had never been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I had my own hurts and stresses, and I was craving a healing community to run with. I was craving spaces where we could be really honest with our hurts and weaknesses and be accepted and encouraged just as we are. 

So I made a few friends in this club, and in a group I was co-leading in this church at the time too that had something of a recovery group feel to it. And this time, I knew not to try to fix or cure, but just to ask my friends:

What’s your story? Where does it hurt?

And to share some about my story too. 

These were places where we could talk about where it hurts, where it was safe to tell our stories and speak out truth, where people listened without trying to fix us, and where that kindness and connection would sometimes give someone the courage to dare to try to be well.

Don’t get me wrong, even in healing communities, not everyone gets well. Mistakes happen, sometimes pains are too great, hurts are too deep. Life can be hard. I’ve seen a few tragic outcomes, even in healing communities. But I’ve seen some pretty beautiful stories too. 

My friend Mike himself comes from a lot of pain, from a tough, hard start in life. But he’s a wounded healer, living more and more joy in every season of life, and helping other people get free.

Me too in my own way. I’ve had a lot of pain in me. But every year, I’m living more and more free. And it’s so good. It’s so good. And it’s all because of the kindness of God and the kindness of friends showing up for me, asking me:

Where does it hurt?

And giving me the courage to do the work it takes to be well. 

Friends, we need healing communities. Because there is an ocean of pain and hurt out there, there is for some of us an ocean of pain and hurt in here too. 

And these lives of ours are like a garden. So much crap grows out of unhealed hurt. Inside pretty much every bad person is a kid that’s still hurting. But these same lives, when we’re healing, so much good can grow. 

We all heard about the whole Chris Rock, Will Smith joke and slap event at the Oscars. All kinds of hot takes on that. I don’t have one. Powerful Black writers and thinkers like Roxanne Gay and Kareem Abdul Jabaar have had more and better to say than I ever will. I do know from them, from Black friends and colleagues too that there was an ocean of hurt bound up behind all that happened there and what it stood for too.

But you know what Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s partner, did this week. A single one sentence statement out on her instagram. She just wrote,

“This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.” 

What if that’s true, what if this is a season for healing, and we can be here for it. 

What if it’s time to look at our own lives and ask:

Where does it hurt? What am I looking for? Am I ready to be well?

And to hold those questions before a loving God, maybe before a loving friend or two as well, and see where they take us. 

And maybe it’s time to offer this too in our families, amongst our friends, in this community of Reservoir – to when we see someone struggling, to not avoid or ignore it, to not try to fix or criticize, but to in our own way ask:

Where does it hurt, my friend? What are you looking for?

And to pray for someone and walk with them as they ask:

Do I want to be made well?

And find their way forward. 

We’ll close right now as we’ve been doing each week in Lent, with a little foretaste of the daily prayer practice in our guide. We’ll put on a bit of the music Matt has written for us. And I’ll ask us these three questions of Jesus to let sit in our hearts as we pray. 

What are you looking for?

Where does it hurt?

And would you like to be made well?