How Is Wisdom Calling Out to You?

In my first month as a high school principal, I inherited a master schedule that was pretty messed up. A lot of kids didn’t have the classes they would need in less than two months. The former administration that had built the schedule were either retired or laid off. And not many people work in schools in July and August. So I had just a few weeks to learn a scheduling software I’d never used before and to fix as much of it as I could. 

There was this one central office administrator who knew this computer program and was working during the summer, and it was her job to show me the ropes. 

Now I can be a difficult student. I like to learn things really quickly, and I have a million questions, and sometimes I struggle to not interrupt people when I really get focused on something. So a few days into working with Marilyn, the district administrator, and she said to me:

Steve, you’re a damn comet. 

I thought she was complimenting me. Comets sound cool. These objects flying through space, looking like they’re stars or on fire or something. And I was pretty sure Marilyn was complimenting me at how fast I was learning and getting stuff done. Comet.

But later I realized I was only like 20% right about this. Because Marilyn was like – it was helpful that you were learning quickly and trying to fix things. But mostly, this is frustrating.

She was like –

You have to slow down. Take a breath. Listen for a while. Slow down, and you’ll learn this thing, and do what you’ve got to do.

I wish I could say I listened to Marilyn’s advice, but I mostly didn’t. I think I tried to convince myself that her whole comet line, which after all she had said “damn comet” and had sounded frustrated when she said it, but still I wanted to think it was a compliment and maybe didn’t listen.

I’d sort of been like this my whole life – that old proverb “haste makes waste” was for other people. When I first got my drivers’ license, I had a number of speeding incidents. And those had cost me money, but never an accident, so maybe it was fine. When I learned to ski, I liked to fly and take jumps and all and I had some spectacular crashes, but no permanent damage, so again, maybe it was OK.

I’ve been a bike commuter most of my adult life, and at that point, my habits on the bicycle were kind of embarrassing. I rode fast, I was really hit or miss about following traffic rules, and when I couldn’t find my helmet now and then, I just rode without it. 

I thought I didn’t need this wisdom, because I was a damn comet, and it was working out OK.

Well, later in that same first year as a principal, I was biking home from work one day. And that was one of the days I was riding without a helmet, because I was rushing to get to work early and couldn’t remember where I’d left it. I was also talking on the phone while I was riding because a student at the school had been getting in trouble, and their dad was an important person on the school committee, and this was kind of an awkward situation for everyone, so I was trying to talk it through with this frustrated dad who was also more or less one of my boss’ bosses, and that made things urgent. 

I wasn’t biking all that fast, but I was on the phone and not paying attention, and I hit a patch of sand left over from the winter storms and started to lose control of my bike. I don’t remember what happened next. Except that I was on the ground, and my head hurt like hell, and I reached back and it was wet and red. I tried to get up and start walking in the direction of my house, and someone walking by yelled at me not to do that and grabbed and started directing me toward the emergency room of the hospital which I was right in front of when I crashed and split my skull open in a couple places.

A few staples and a concussion recovery later, and I thought:

Maybe haste makes waste. Maybe I have to learn to slow down.

So like 14 years later, maybe my head’s not 100% right anymore, and I still rush into action sometimes, but I’m trying. 

Because if you want to reach old age, and you want to not keep getting concussions, you eventually need to listen to wisdom.

Learning wisdom is what makes our lives work. Like however talented we are or not, however attractive, however so-called smart in different ways, our lives don’t work if we don’t grow in wisdom. 

They get stuck. Or they fly off the rails, Or we self-sabotage again and again. And the catch all word for the stuff we learn – not just here, in our head – but in our hearts, in our bodies, in our whole selves – the stuff we learn that makes our lives really work well, that’s wisdom.

And that’s what we’ll talk about in our sermons from now through when summer starts on Memorial Day – what makes life work, as we read together some of this part of the Hebrew scriptures, the Bible’s Old Testament, that is called the wisdom literature. 

The centerpiece of this wisdom literature in the Bible is a collection of all kinds of earthy advice that’s called Proverbs. We’ll read part of its first chapter today. It starts like this:

Proverbs 1:1-7 (Common English Bible)

The proverbs of Solomon, King David’s son, from Israel:
2 Their purpose is to teach wisdom and discipline,
    to help one understand wise sayings.

3 They provide insightful instruction,
    which is righteous, just, and full of integrity.

4 They make the naive mature,
    the young knowledgeable and discreet.

5 The wise hear them and grow in wisdom;
    those with understanding gain guidance.

6 They help one understand proverbs and difficult sayings,
    the words of the wise, and their puzzles.

7 Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

This here is like a title or an introduction. It says these proverbs will teach us what is righteous, just, and full of integrity. What will make us less naive, and more mature. Which sounds old-fashioned maybe or religious, or maybe condescending. But I think the wisdom literature is here to help us develop lives that work. That go about things the right way, that are fair and equitable, that help us be the same, trustworthy person no matter where we are or who we’re with.

It’s like Marilyn saying to me –

try and stop being such a damn comet.

You’ll burn up, or crash, or just be annoying to work with. That was true. And that won’t do you or anyone else any good. 

Try wisdom. 

This ancient near eastern tradition of wisdom literature is really old. The earliest Babylonian wisdom literature was mostly about magic and exorcism. It was like in a weird and scary world, how do you master the power to be less vulnerable and more in control?

But over time, wisdom literature in these ancient cultures shifted to be less superstitious and more practical. So that wisdom literature became like the self-help material of these cultures – it was about the art of being successful. About life mastery, growing a life that works.

Wisdom literature started to focus on the important, practical matters of life that our schools don’t always teach. Like how do you develop the character of a trustworthy, dependable person? How do you get some wealth but not have it ruin you? How do you not be the kind of person that doesn’t derail your own life, whether by accidents caused by your own foolishness, or by blowing up your friendships or your marriage, or by being unable to commit to things for the long haul, or just otherwise being a fool? How do we keep growing into a life that works?

Proverbs wants to help with this. 

But it’s not just self help. Because that’s not how growth works. We don’t do it alone. We need each other, and we need the wisdom that came before us. We need the wisdom of our teachers, the wisdom of our elders, the wisdom of our ancestors, and the wisdom of God, our creator. 

This is where wisdom starts, Proverbs says, by slowing down and listening. It starts with respect for what came before us. It starts with the kind of humility and awe that makes us want to listen. This is the kind of attitude Proverbs calls the fear of God. Admitting we’re small, and listening.

Where do you start, though? And what does wisdom sound like?

Let’s see where Proverbs starts as we keep reading.

Proverbs 1:8-19 (Common English Bible)

8 Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction;
    don’t neglect your mother’s teaching;

9         for they are a graceful wreath on your head,
        and beads for your neck.

10 My son, don’t let sinners entice you.
    Don’t go

11     when they say:
        “Come with us.
        Let’s set up a deadly ambush.
        Let’s secretly wait for the innocent just for fun.

12         Let’s swallow up the living like the grave —
        whole, like those who go down into the pit.

13         We’ll find all sorts of precious wealth;
        we’ll fill our houses with plunder.

14         Throw in your lot with us;
        we’ll share our money.”

15 My son, don’t go on the path with them;
    keep your feet from their way,

16     because their feet run to evil;
            they hurry to spill blood.

17 It’s useless to cast a net
    in the sight of a bird.

18 But these sinners set up a deadly ambush;
    they lie in wait for their own lives.

19 These are the ways of all who seek unjust gain;
    it costs them their lives.

So we read this in my community group the other Saturday and it seemed funny to some of us. Proverbs talks itself up as this well of wisdom, and then as it gets going, we listen in on a parent sitting down their kid for a huge life lesson, figuring we’re going to start with the most important stuff, what we all need to know.

And get this advice – don’t join in with the local street gang. Like don’t jump into the next band of armed robbers that appear. Which, fine, maybe good advice for your kid, but really, is this the thing we most need?

I mean I have made my share of mistakes, but I have never set up a deadly ambush just for fun. I promise. I mean when I’ve done it, it’s been for other reasons, I swear, not just for fun. And my three kids – they have their problems. But we never sat them down before school and were like today, please, do not rob your classmates and share your plunder with us. And please, today, do not spill blood.

On the surface, it seems basic. Is this all that Proverbs has got? 

But then as we talked, we were like, hold on, the schools we went to were full of bullying, groups of kids ganging up on someone they thought was weaker or different. And our kids’ schools are like that still, where people get bullied, just for fun.

And aren’t there other ways that when people just go with the flow around us, our schools or our workplaces remain toxic, or our communities remain unwelcoming and inequitable, like the dances some of our suburbs are playing right now to try to skirt the law and keep from building more housing. 

See this is another way that Proverbs isn’t self-help literature. Because like all the best wisdom literature, it isn’t just personal, it’s collective. We rise and fall together. If one of us is getting wiser, if God is doing something good in our lives, the sign isn’t so much that we think our life is getting better, it’s that the people around us think this. 

And the more I read this first bit of wisdom with this in mind, that it’s not just private, personal advice, the more I’m like I wish any of our societies would slow down and listen. 

  • Would the explorers that traveled from Europe to these lands I’m on today have wondered – what can I learn from who’s there already?
  • And what can I share?
  • And how can we do something together?

Instead of running their feet to evil and becoming extractors and enslavers and using my faith to justify it all.

  • Or would that when this country I’m a citizen of started emerging as the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world when my grandparents were young, what if we hadn’t decided to become the world’s biggest arms dealer, thinking might makes right, and rushing to spill blood?
  • What if we’d just focused on being a food dealer, or a love dealer, or a justice collaborator instead? 

I think this ancient wisdom still speaks. It can still still tell us the truth about ourselves. And I still think it’s urgent that we listen. 

Because our lives are at stake. I love the wisdom here that people who seek unjust gain, the ultimate harm is it costs your life – not just other people’s lives, but your own life. 

Get caught up in violence and extraction and just looking out for you and your own and not others, and you’ll lose yourself.

What will it cost us,

Jesus said,

if we gain the whole world but lose our souls?

Having pastored and counseled people reckoning with serious harm they’ve done, this is true. The harm we do comes back to eat us alive. 

And living in this country with decades of innovation and power and wealth and success behind us for some of us at least, I think man if America isn’t soul-sick and defensive these days? Something has cost us our life. 

So in walks wisdom to the room saying don’t neglect your mother and father’s teaching. Listen to your elders. Listen to your ancestors. Listen to God. 

And then we don’t get laws per se, instead we get a set of stories and a ton of earthy advice.

How do we personalize this, knowing what’s for us? And how do we really take it in? How do we not be like me, when someone tells us we’re moving too fast and mistake the warning for a compliment? 

Where do we start? 

I think the end of this passage gives us something to take away today. 

Proverbs 1:20-23 (Common English Bible)

20 Wisdom shouts in the street;
    in the public square she raises her voice.

21 Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.
    At the entrances of the city gates, she has her say:

22 “How long will you clueless people love your naïveté,
    mockers hold their mocking dear,
    and fools hate knowledge?

23 You should respond when I correct you.
    Look, I’ll pour out my spirit on you.
    I’ll reveal my words to you.

Proverbs insists that not only does wisdom speak, she is shouting in the street, calling out above the noisy crowds. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman. Later the gospel of John says that Jesus was Lady Wisdom come to life. It says that eternal Logos – the wise Word of God – became flesh and dwelt among us. And so in the Christian tradition, Wisdom is always personal. It’s never a set of facts we learn. And it’s kind of gender-bending. Wisdom is the wisest of women who beckons us to sit at her feet. And wisdom is Jesus Christ, son of the living God, who invites us to follow him. And wisdom is the androgynous, beyond gender, Holy Spirit of God who is the truth-telling voice both without and within. 

And so we may wonder: If wisdom is a woman shouting in the street, and if wisdom is the truth of Jesus the word of God, and if wisdom is the Spirit of God seeking to speak life-giving truth to us still, what is wisdom saying to us? What is wisdom saying to you? 

One way to start to answer this question is to ask –

what has life been trying to teach us recently, whether or not we’ve been listening. 

What truth is crying out to you, to make your life work better, for you and for others?

For me, it’s not so much the haste makes waste thing. I don’t derail my life this way so much anymore. Maybe sometimes, but not as much.

But last year, when I was gifted some time off by this community, in the form of a sabbatical, there was a course-correcting wisdom that came my way. The word I learned is called Enclosure.

I stayed in a monastery a couple times during my sabbatical, and there an enclosure is the place where the public can’t go. It’s the private space, sacred to the monks or nuns that live there permanently. Where they preserve the way of life to which they are called.

And for me, enclosure has become this metaphor for the sacred commitments in my life that I am called to, that make my life work. And over the past several months, I’m thinking more and more about the people and habits and commitments that form the core of my life, and that I don’t let anyone or anything interrupt. 

As a person who has tended to want to YES to everything that interests me in life, I’m learning that the small set of people and things I say yes to needs more protecting, and that has meant working on saying NO a little more often too. And that’s taking a lot of practice for me, but man if it isn’t important, and protecting me from regret down the road, I believe. 

That’s me, though. You may be in the opposite place today – the kind of person who’s been saying NO too often and needs to learn more YESes. I don’t know. So my encouragement today isn’t to do any particular thing in your life, but to ask:

What has life been trying to teach me? 

Where is Wisdom crying out to you with her fierce and gentle voice 

What’s calling to you? 

We’ll ask this repeatedly in the weeks to come, but perhaps we can close by taking a quick minute on this…

  • How is the Spirit of God trying to lead you toward a more healthy, abundant life?
  • How is Lady Wisdom crying out to you, with her voice of encouragement or correction?
  • If you could sit at a table today with your ancestors assembled, or perhaps even with the living God, what observations might they make about your life? What might they have to say?

New Life When You Are Walking Away

Hello, and happy Easter, friends!

I want to start with a bit of a good news/bad news moment, maybe depending on how old you are.

I read a while back that at least according to one large social science study, we know what on average is the least happy age in people’s lives.

Anyone have a guess when that is? Least happy age, on average.

Apparently, it’s 47.2 years old. 

Now obviously this is just an average, but for me…

I turned 47 in 2020 – great year, right? 

2020 was gonna be a big year, like the best year. 

I had done some serious inner life work in my early 40s, and I was feeling kind of happy and free those days. And our church had done some hard change work during those same years. That had been really stressful. But by early 2020, things at church here too were also kind of awesome. Probably the happiest, healthiest season I’d seen in our church as a pastor. And I had my first sabbatical ever coming up in the summer. And our family had been saving up for years for our first ever trip to China, where our Chinese-American kids had never been. 

Our oldest kid was graduating from high school that year, and that big trip together just afterwards – it all was going to be epic.

Until it wasn’t. Hello, Covid. And goodbye, everything else. Our schools shut down. Church shut down. Everything was shutting down. We all thought we’d chill out for a couple of weeks and let this weird virus blow over, but then it didn’t. 

And the season of canceling began.

We canceled the trip to China, and then we canceled the smaller trip we’d booked instead. 

School was canceled, kids’ prom, graduations, canceled. My sabbatical, canceled. Everything, canceled. And we all worried – just how bad would this get? Who would we lose? Just how much would this hurt? 

Some of you all were out there being heroic as essential workers in that season. Me, I was figuring out how to properly disinfect our groceries every couple of weeks, and how to be a professional gatherer of community when people weren’t allowed to get together. 

We were trying best we could as a church to respond to isolation and fear and grief and then to a movement for racial justice. It was an important time, and in some ways, we did well by each other and by what was happening in this world.

But it was hard and tiring, and then right after we sent our oldest kid off to college. While I was tired and drained, I ended up in a weird and stupid extended family conflict that was the last straw for me. 

I was done and I found myself dreaming of walking away from it all. 

Like, maybe I could peace out on the people that had done me wrong and just be done with them. Maybe I could walk away from the sources of conflict in my life.

And I’ll admit to you all that for the first time ever in that fall of 2020, I was wondering what it would be like to walk away from being a pastor too. I found myself daydreaming about exit ramps and ways I could live a smaller, simpler life where I could nurse my disappointments in peace or carve out a little world with my family where nobody and nothing could hurt us any more.  

So yeah, 47.2 years old landed right on time for me, most definitely one of the least happy moments of my life. 

Three, four years later, though, thinking about where I find myself now in a new decade, it’s striking just how often help found me. It’s striking just how often new perspective and new growth found me. It’s striking where love would not let me go, where new life found me. 

Again and again in these years, it’s seemed like I’ve met the risen Jesus, coming my way and bringing me back to peace.

So friends, this Easter, I want to talk about the risen Jesus and new life when you’ve given up and you’re walking away. 

Each of the four gospels in the Bible tells the resurrection story differently. Here’s a story that the book of Luke tells. 

Luke 24:13-24 (Common English Bible)

13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.

14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened.

15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey.

16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.

20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him.

21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago.

22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning

23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive.

24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

We’ll pick up more of the story in a minute. 

I think Cleopas and his friend are 47.2 years old. Maybe. They are also colonized oppressed people who have lost what they thought was their way forward. 

They’re disappointed, grieving. 

We had hoped, they say.

We had hoped. 

They thought the promises of God for their liberation, their ancestors’ dreams, were coming true.

And now they are walking away.

They are walking away from Jerusalem.

They’re walking away from God, given that the truth they thought they knew about God has let them down.

And they’re walking away from the life they thought they’d have – victorious, fulfilled, redeemed, as they put it. 

Then Jesus shows up like that friend of yours who never pays attention to the news.

He’s like –

you all seem bummed out. What’s wrong?

What’s wrong?!? Who are you to ask that kind of question? “What’s not wrong?”

they say. 

Friends, what are you walking away from today? 

And where do you feel like you’re living in a time of cataclysm that if people would wake up and pay attention, they’d see it like you do?

Beyond that terrible moment at 47.2 years old, I had spent parts of my 40s walking away from a lot of things. Walking away from the easy lives or the happiness I thought my kids would have. Walking away from religious systems and communities that I’d once called home. Walking away from some bad ideas and some old stories about myself that weren’t true and didn’t set me free but were still hard to leave behind.

In my life as a pastor among you, I hear so many stories of disappointment and walking away. Stories of people walking away from a dream, disappointed with where they haven’t yet arrived at this time of life. I hear people walking away from ways of being in their marriage, or ways of being in their bodies, or ways of being in their faith that weren’t walking out? And sometimes you’re glad to be making a change, but dang, if it isn’t hard?

So much walking away.

And just about everyone I talk to feels like we are living in times of cataclysm – big and scary threats and changes that aren’t going anywhere. A lot of us name the cataclysm differently. We don’t all rank order the worst, most apocalyptic things going on in the world the same way. But most of us have got a list, don’t we?

I was spending time with some engaged and newly married couples recently talking about whether or not they’d have kids and if they did, what that would be like. And someone brought up, as someone always did these days, that maybe it’s a bad time in history to have kids. Maybe the future is too bleak. 

And not everyone was leaning this way, but no one challenged the premise. 

This is part of why I love this resurrection story, that it seems like times of cataclysm – when all is wrong with the world – and times of disappointment – when we’re walking away from our dreams, disappointed – are perfect times for the risen God to appear to us again. 

Let’s pick up the rest of the story. 

Luke 24:25-32 (Common English Bible)

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about.

26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.

29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

Let’s look at how Jesus appears, how resurrection appears to these two friends who are walking away. 

Jesus is a little spicy with them because loving as Jesus is, he doesn’t want to nourish our dysfunction or our bad ideas. Jesus is always kind, but he is not always nice. There’s a lot in the world and if we’re honest plenty in us too that needs interrupting, and nice doesn’t interrupt very well. So Jesus takes the time to interrupt their story. 

And in this case, he’s like,

well, with what you know, walking away makes sense. But there’s a lot you don’t know.

And he goes on to tell them.

You didn’t know that suffering always had to be part of the story.

You didn’t know how long good things can take, how un-straight the road to them always is.

You didn’t know that new life usually takes some death to clear the way. 

You didn’t know.

And in the coming to terms with all they didn’t know, these two friends find room for Jesus to tell them the truth.

That’s one of the benefits of walking away. Of disillusionment, disenchantment. 

Sometimes it makes room for the truth. Sometimes it lays the ground for resurrection. 

One of the weird things about Easter is that Jesus rose in secret. No one saw it. Too dang early. (Jesus!) Whatever happened physically, scientifically, whatever the mechanics were, whatever the nature of Jesus’ risen body, no one was there for it. 

Our faith just tells us: God raised Jesus from the dead. 

But then the fun starts. The resurrected Christ appears to people as they’re hiding out or walking away. Two disappointed friends are walking away in midlife, and Jesus appears as a companion who wonders what they’re thinking. Jesus’  grieving fishermen friends are out on the lake at dawn unable to catch anything, and Jesus appears frying up fish on the beach. Two people welcome a stranger to a simple, small meal in their home, and Jesus is recognized as he breaks bread, blesses it, and offers it to them. Two friends tell a story of their disappointment, how all is lost, and Jesus appears as he offers them a better perspective and they find their hearts on fire.

That last one happened to me too. 

During that awful fall and the year beyond, a few friends walked with me and listened, good help and provision and counsel came my way. And by 2022, getting toward the end of my 40s, some things were shifting in my life, but I was still kind of stuck internally. And I noticed this as I was talking with a friend of mine.

I met up with that friend around the anniversary of that last straw conflict in 2020, which was also around the anniversary of another big trauma in my life, and I asked my friend if we could talk about it that day. And as we did, I shared with him how everyone was doing, myself included. And I was like:

things are better, but there’s so far to go, and that’s so disappointing. 

And my friend listened to me, and he let me know he understood how big this is to me, how heavy the ache is. 

But he also asked me:

can I share what I hear as you tell these stories? 

And I told him:

please do.

And he said:

it’s your life, your truth. I don’t want to tell you what to think, but what I hear are stories of resurrection. 

And he told a different story of my life than what I was seeing – same facts, but different angle. How despite suffering, this person was alive and not dead, and this relationship may be cut off but wow, how this other one was better than ever, how so many things were so much better than I could have imagined not too long ago.

And he said:

I know you hope for more, I know you hope for more but remember that when Jesus rose, he rose with scars. And you have your scars too. I see them. But a scarred resurrection life is still life, isn’t it? It’s still life. It’s a miracle. You live within a miracle.

And as he shared the truth he saw, I was tearing up because my heart was on fire with the truth of all this.

So many signs of life. The buds and shoots of resurrection blossoming everywhere. 

Because Jesus rising from the dead is not only an event in history. It’s not only the foundation of a faith in which we stand here. The resurrection of Christ is also an invitation to a new way of being in the world, where we can have reasonable faith and hope that a way will be made where there is no way. That disappointments and loss are gardens where extraordinary new things can be cultivated. That crappy year after crappy year in midlife can be an invitation to the work of renaissance. That every dying seed tucked into the ground is just waiting to burst back out with life. 

Recently, I’ve found myself with a new spiritual habit. I call it looking for signs of resurrection. Where my instincts tell me there’s no way forward, I wonder what way is going to appear. When something in me or someone I love seems lost or stuck, I’m asking God –

where can I be seeding and watering the next resurrection? 

I’m looking for stories of resurrection. Because resurrection is looking for us. 

Let’s finish our story.

Luke 24:33-36 (Common English Bible)

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!”

35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

36 While they were saying these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Ha, here it is again. Tell one story of resurrection, and another may be right on its tail. Jesus keeps appearing, in weird and funny ways.

My wife Grace and I heard an interview once with a strange, old fundamentalist lady who had this funny phrase she’d say. She’d say:

Jesus is a tricksy one. 

It’s a silly, weird phrase, and I have no idea what she meant, but it’s stuck with me, and now I think it’s true. Nothing Jesus says or does in the gospel’s resurrection stories is predictable. And I think the stories of new life that the Spirit of the Risen Christ is working on today aren’t predictable either. 

We call God our creator, and if the Spirit of the Risen Christ is anything, it is endlessly creative. That Jesus is a tricksy one. 

When we hit our bad days and our bad years and our walls of awful stuckness and discouragement, we don’t usually feel like new life is on the horizon. 

So even if we’re walking away, we are given tangible symbols, sacraments by which to remember Christ, and to stir faith and hope in his risen life among us.

One of these we call communion, a tiny little meal we take in worship every week, where we remember Jesus, broken out for the life of this world that we could be renewed and that we could become the body of Christ ourselves, blessed, and given for the healing of the world. 

Another of these we call baptism. We are about to have the joy of baptizing six people with water. And so a moment on what this means. What this means for these six, what it means for you if you’ve been baptized before, or if you haven’t and you want to – just let us know! – what it would mean. 

In baptism, we are welcomed into a faith of resurrection.

In baptism, the cleansing water of forgiveness and healing tells us that we are never the sum of our worst days. 

In baptism, the water which represents the Spirit of God tells us that God will be with us always, that the faithful, loving accompaniment of our God is everlasting.

And the water we go under tells us too that if we die with Christ, we will live with him. That new life after death is the pattern of our present and the destiny of our future.

We’re not promised an easy road in this life. The faith of the risen Christ doesn’t even protect us or our world for the cataclysms that come, mostly the ones our species brings upon ourselves. 

There will keep coming times we want to walk away from.

But the faith of the risen Christ assures us these times are not the end of the story but the beginning of knowing again that we live within a miracle, that our life is again a miracle of goodness, another impossibly great story we wouldn’t have seen coming. 

Pray with me.

Spirit of the Risen and kind of tricksy Christ, fall afresh on us. 

In the taking of communion, in the bearing witness to baptism, in the kind  presence of a friend, in the sharing of a simple meal, in the generosity of every hospitality, in the truth that comes to us and sets our hearts on fire, remind us that we live within a miracle, that we are a miracle, and that with the help of God, the pattern of our present and our future can always be new life. Amen.

The So-Easy-to-Miss Fire of Our Great Love Stories

For the last week of our Lenten season, the theme is the fire of love. 

Our first scripture comes from a bit of erotic poetry, right in the middle of the Bible. It’s from a book called Song of Solomon that tells a poetic coming of age erotic love story that at the same time the tradition has read as an allegorical celebration of divine love. 

The love and fire line is in this bit from the eighth chapter.

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 (Common English Bible)

6 Set me as a seal over your heart,

        as a seal upon your arm,

for love is as strong as death,

        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.[b]

Its darts are darts of fire—

        divine flame!

7 Rushing waters can’t quench love;

        rivers can’t wash it away.

If someone gave

        all his estate in exchange for love,

        he would be laughed to utter shame.

Weird that love, this fiery force as strong, as unrelenting as death, has this fierce erotic longing in it. A kind of impulse in us that by itself may or may not be loving.

Weird that to talk about holy love, divine love, the biggest and deepest love in the universe, the Bible has steamy romantic poetry in it. Weird that these things would be connected. 

And weird that we all know that if someone had love, and someone else that this huge wealthy estate and tried to make a deal, everyone would laugh that person off. Who’d ever trade away a great love story? 

It’s priceless, the best thing in life.

And yet we give up, or skip out on, or even throw away great love stories all the time, all the time. 

Weird but true. 

Last week I met a woman who really wanted to show me pictures of her kid. 

I’ve done this before, tell people all about one of my kids, whether they cared or not. Probably not, but sometimes parents can’t help themselves.

Well, I met this woman because I was meeting with a small delegation of people whose friends or family members have been killed or taken hostage in the Hamas attacks on Israel in October.

She said to me and my friend:

would you like me to show you videos?

And my friend said:

would you like us to see them?

And she pulled out her phone, and we watched videos of her 22-year old son hiding in a shelter, images of her son being kidnapped and taken away, and an image of him as a small child, looking back charmingly at the camera. 

She turned to us emotionally and said:

I know he’s alive. We haven’t had proof of life in a little over two months. But I know he’s alive, and I know he’s coming home. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but I know he’s coming home. 

A little part of me wanted to go political with the ensuing conversation. Wanted to ask about her about the thousands of Palestinian mothers who mourn their dead children. To ask about the Palestinian families who have no home to return to. 

But I didn’t. One, she knew. Most of the members of this delegation were leftists in Israel, no friend to their own government and its actions in Gaza and the West Bank. They knew.

But also, that wasn’t what this conversation was about. I was being asked to bear witness to the fierce grief and the fierce love of a mother, whose 22-year old son was taken hostage. 

Fierce, holy love, that says:

I know he’s coming home. And you’re welcome to visit me then and meet him. I hope you will.

Love is like this.

Love bears all things, believes all things. Love hopes all things, endures all things.

This day in the church calendar, Palm Sunday, is a weird one.

We remember Jesus and his students walking into Jerusalem, Jesus riding a donkey, the crowds waving palms and laying them down like a green carpet of welcome to the city as they cheered:

Hosanna, here is the one who will save us!

Jesus smiled. He loved the shouts and the singing.

But some part of him must have known it was kind of a fake love story.

On the other side of town, after all, the Roman governor Pilate rode into down on a battle horse, surrounded by soldiers, to bear in his body the glory of Rome, which would fill Jerusalem with its armies on big festivals, to keep the peace, so to speak, which was code for crushing dissent.

Jesus is the one they would crush this week. They would arrest him, mock him, beat him, crucify him naked on a wooden cross, with a crown of thorns atop his bleeding head. 

This day, a week earlier, Jesus had just mourned over his beloved Jerusalem. Pausing on his walk in, he had seen the cityscape before him and broke down crying: saying

– if you only knew the way of peace. But you don’t. And so the day is coming when your enemies will surround you and besiege you, and attack and utterly crush you.

He saw this vision through tears, the angry, weary tears of grief.

And now, he performed this kind of street art mockery of a king’s entrance, riding into the city unarmed, with a scrappy band of rural followers for a royal delegation, atop an old donkey, not a battle horse, determined to bring a great love story to a city consumed with fantasies of fights they could not win. 

Jesus didn’t bring the fight they were looking for.

Actually, the whole final week of Jesus’ natural life, the week we call the passion of Christ, is a week in his life filled with threats. Threats of Rome, threats of religious establishment, threats of denial and betrayal. Threat behind threat. Trauma behind trauma. 

And over and over again, the sort of script Jesus is expected to follow is the scripts we all follow in the face of trauma, threat, or even tension.

He’s expected to fight or flee – the old fight or flight syndrome for our species, for all animals.

Or he’s expected to freeze or fawn – these additions to fight and flight our psychologists help us understand. Because sometimes in the face of threats, we don’t fight, we don’t run away, we just shut down and freeze – silence, no emotion, no action. Or we fawn – we try to people please our way past the threat.

But weirdly, Jesus again and again won’t do any of these things.

No fight, no fight, no freeze, no fawn.

Just passion.

He just keeps showing up, present with his whole body, his whole self. 

And this is a great love story that no one, well almost no one, is ready for.

I’m obsessed with this TV show that ended a couple years ago, This is Us. That’s where I’m pulling this phrase “great love story” from today. Because the show uses that same phrase for the marriage at the heart of it. Jack and Rebecca have this epic, great love story, and who doesn’t like a good love story? 

I met this extraordinary woman named Grace when I was 19-years old, and she and I who later realized we are so different, at that time bonded over the sames we share – some same likes, same values, same passions, same looking for someone to welcome us into their arms just as we are, same longing for authentic in a world of fake. 

I love all this so much in Grace still. She’s stuck with me, even when I’ve mostly been a pain in the ass, and I can’t imagine anything but showing up with my whole self and sticking with her too. Because love is like that. And this imperfect but still great love story is so good. I’m so grateful.

But in many other relationships among family and friends, I’ve sometimes struggled to find my love stories there. Plenty of relationships in my life have gotten stuck or failed.

Which takes me back to This is Us. Because over time, I realized I was drawn to this show not so much by that romance as I was by all the other great love stories in it. Stories of parents and their children, stories of sisters and brothers and strangers and friends. This is Us is really about the us-ness of all of life.

It’s not easy. Misunderstanding, rivalry, addiction, conflict, even death get in the way.

And this is why great love stories are usually a little tragic too, because they usually end, by death or by some other means. Or they never even really get going the way they should because someone or another pisses them away. 

And there’s an ache that comes with that. 

It’s an ache that God shares with us, because God who is love has a great deal of experience of people doing so many other things besides living in God’s great love story for us all. So much fighting and fleeing and freezing and fawning. So little love sometimes. 

That’s part of the tragedy of the passion week of Christ. So little room for love around Jesus. 

But that’s part of why it’s so beautiful that in the passion week, there’s this great love story tucked in there that is so sacred, Jesus says that everywhere the good news of Christ travels, this story must be told.

So before we end today, let’s tell this great love story, and see if its truth, its lessons can’t rub off on us some. It’s in three of the four gospels, here in from the gospel of Mark. 

Mark 14:3-9 (Common English Bible)

3 Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume?

5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

6 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me.

7 You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me.

8 She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial.

9 I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”

I have five things I’d love for us to notice.

One is that great love stories don’t have to be sexual or romantic. 

This story is sensual to be sure – this fancy vase and its gorgeous smelling perfume broke open over Jesus’ head. It’s sensual, and with other people at its center, it’s easy to see how it could have gone sexual. But it didn’t. 

Because the woman, whose name isn’t given here, and Jesus don’t let it. They’re not looking for that in each other, and they’re healthy enough in their bodies and their hearts and their self-control to not let a beautiful moment go sideways. 

In our guide this week, Ivy has brought in the wisdom of the poet Ada Limon, who’s got a love poem to her grandfather in there. Limon says there are too many love poems in the world for people who don’t deserve them.

“The bad partner gets a whole book, whereas the friend just gets a coffee.” 

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Limon’s dead grandfather gets this beautiful poem. Jesus gets the whole bottle of perfume. Its owner gets this story about her great love told throughout the world for all time. 

What great love stories has God given us – human, animal, or divine? The love of friends and family and pets and strangers and all of creation. We don’t get an infinite number of love stories to be part of, so they’re all sacred. Most of them aren’t romantic and sexual at all. But that doesn’t make them any less important. 

Two, great love stories usually break the rules a little

In this week’s guide, you get a story of me speeding through the middle of the night from New York to Massachusetts to get to Grace, who’d had a bad concussion, I had heard. She had gone to the hospital and apparently kept asking:  am I pregnant? When she never had been and also asking: who gave me the shrooms? When I’m pretty sure, at least according to her, that had never happened. Funny now, but it freaked me out. 

So I drove to see her at totally unsafe speeds. Speeds I will never be specific about. That I certainly won’t admit to my children. A law-breaking speed at which I would tell you all to never drive. Totally unsafe.

But love often breaks the rules a little.

Like here. Women don’t touch non-relative men like this in that culture. They don’t go into the inner circle of a rabbi with his students. And they certainly don’t pour perfume on their heads. But Jesus basically says:

this is what love looks like. 

She has done a good thing for me. 

This is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had in mind about Jesus when he wrote: Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. 

Not all the morals, right? Hurt someone and call it love, and you might be an abuser. Be unfaithful and call it love, and you’re a liar. 

But some of the so-called morals, some of the rules. Love is extra. You have to let it be. 

Related to this, the third thing:

Great love stories are extravagant. 

They’re impractical, wasteful, extravagant. The men here are arguing about this. They’re upset. What a waste. A year’s earnings wasted in this extravagant gesture. We could have done something more valuable. 

And Jesus is like:

you’re right, but you’re wrong. There’s time for value, there’s time for practical. There is. But not every time. 

Love isn’t practical. It may or may not be strategic. But we’ll die without it. 

I was at that event I mentioned this week, with the delegation of those whose family or friends had been killed or taken hostage, because a friend I love had invited me. This friend is a prominent Jewish leader, in their own way. And we show up with our friends. 

I don’t always agree with this friend, and certainly not with some of this friend’s allies and partners in public life. I think the militarism and aggression and the illusion that might ever makes right is always foolhardy. And so whether it be the military violence of Israel or of Hamas or most dominantly in the world, of my own country, I tend to mourn and protest and say with Jesus – as I personally discern the way of Jesus at least – this is not the way of peace.

My friend has told me before:

this is not practical when your enemies are trying to destroy you. What does love get you then?

And I don’t know. I’m not a politician a foreign policy expert or anything, but I dream of what a politics of extravagant love might look like. I wonder what national defense strategies and budgets of extravagant love might look like, because I believe the words of the scriptures that say that love can triumph over evil, and we are to overcome evil with good. 

Away from national defense and politics and all, if we want to be part of great love stories, we have to embrace extravagance. What it means to let someone give us more than we deserve or are comfortable receiving – more praise, more attention, more kindness, more help. And we have to get comfortable turning the dial way up on how to give those to others – bigger compliments, more wasteful presents, deeper encouragement. Longer, fuller, wholehearted presence. 

We can’t do that in every moment. We’re people, not God. But if we never do it, or if we rarely do it, we’ll be like that person that takes the estate, that takes money and time, and stuff instead of love. And how foolish would that be!

Fourthly, great love stories take whole-body, whole-hearted presence.

This big crowd of friends is getting ready for the Passover meal we’ll come to know as the Last Supper. And you know what happens with big dinners for friends and family, people are talking and arguing about all kinds of things. 

Where are they going to eat?

Who brought this or that dish or supply?

Old arguments show up, in this case about what’s worth spending money on. 

And one person, one person has the presence of heart to see the most important thing going on – that Jesus is about to die, and that this is a time to love him.

That’s how Jesus interprets this moment. That one person had the presence of heart and the courage of action to anoint him for burial, to prepare him for his death. 

When you know you are loved, like you really, really know it, you can do hard things. And so Jesus says that wherever his good news goes, what she has done will be told. In memory of her.

This is what love looks like. The courage to show up to people, to gatherings, to wherever we can with our hearts open, with our emotions accessible, with the courage to say and do what love looks like, best as we see it. 

There’s no rulebook for this. Not really.

Just keep wanting to learn what love looks like. Pay attention. And have the courage to go for it. 

Lastly, great love stories are windows into the truest truth of the universe, that God is love and that we are all the subjects of undying, extravagant longing and affection. 

This love is a last parable of the good news of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. 

It’s a thing that happened, and it’s also a story of what love looks like. See others with whole-hearts, and acting extravagantly for their wellness and the wellness of everyone involved too. Seeding another great love story. 

Some of us hear this talk with a sense of the relationships and the communities where we can live it. We know where our love stories lie, or at least we think we do, and I hope we are invited to the giving and receiving of love harder, deeper, fiercer. 

Some of us are lonely or heartbroken, though, and we’re maybe not even sure where our love stories can be playing out right now. 

Friends, I hope that you know that today you are one of the objects of God’s great love story, that the full attention of our Mother and Father of God is yours with delight and affection, hopeful that you can know just how valuable you are God, and hopeful that you can find your next great love stories as well. 

Great Fire of Love we call God, 

Everlastingly Broken, poured out, offering abundant love to all creation, 

Give us the tenderness, the zeal, the courage, the hope to love deep and full, and the courage to love again.

A Life Most Fully Alive

Alright, friends, this week we leave the fires of danger, hell, and judgment behind and return to another version of where we started in this season of Lent: God is like fire, and that is actually good news for our lives. 

If we think of a fiery person, we may think of an especially passionate person, or an angry or loving or fierce or intense person. But it is certainly not someone sleepwalking through life. 

Let’s wonder this week about what our version of a life most fully alive might look like. Perhaps a life aflame with passion or energized by beauty and goodness. The God who is like fire does not want to burn us up or make us smaller, harder, or more afraid. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, life abundantly. I wonder what a more abundant life looks like for us all, a life that is larger without ever taking space from someone else, a life that is freer while also focused, a life where our uniquely most loving selves shine bright like stars. 

Can you try something with me?

Think about someone you know about, or that you know personally, who seems fully alive. A life radiant with energy, beauty, goodness. 

  • Who comes to mind?
  • What are they like? 
  • If you know, how did they get there?

The people I think of are not heroes, they are not perfect, if there is such a thing. They are human, but they are perfectly wonderful humans. 

I think of a monk I know. He lives a life bound by many restrictions – vows of poverty and chastity. He is also radiantly present, kind, and insightful. He laughs and smiles and tears up easily. He listens well, tells the truth fiercely and graciously. He encourages people in ways that uplift and empower us. A focused life, a limited one, but also large, free, so good. 

I think of a public school teacher I know who, like most teachers, moves through her days filled with unpredictably chaotic and disordered people and situations and bureaucracy. But she’s also set two of my kids on fire with her work in their lives. She asks really deep questions. She pushes young intellects, keeps her hobby of drumming in a punk rock band going through busy seasons of teaching and parenting. And day after day, she offers passion and presence and grace to her community. Young people like my kids are learning justice and forgiveness, careful thinking and attention to detail, greater hope in themselves and their world through their relationships with her. It’s so beautiful. Her life is beautiful. 

I think of stories I’ve known of elders who visit with their spouses daily, even when their partners no longer remember their names. Their faithful presence, their perseverance in love keeps them and their spouse afloat in what could otherwise be a season of despair. The rest of us wonder at their grace as we learn more about what love looks like. 

Friends, what does your life look like when it’s aflame? Who are you, on fire? 

It has been said that many of us spend enough time thinking about ourselves as descendants but not enough time considering ourselves as ancestors. 

From dust we come and to dust we go. We are limited by our genetics, our circumstances, by all the places – good and bad – that we come from. And we’re limited by the brevity of our mortal lives. We are earth, not fire. And yet we may not wonder enough about the full possibilities of our lives when we are most inspired and set alight by the living, life-giving God. 

Maybe there are still stunning ancestor stories in the making within even us. 

What do our lives look like when they are aflame? Who are we, on fire?

Hear the words of the good news of Jesus. This is a weird and wonderful story, called the transfiguration, from the gospel of Luke.

Luke 9:28-36 (Common English Bible)

28 About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray.

29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning.

30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him.

31 They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.

32 Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.

33 As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying.

34 Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.

35 Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!”

36 Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.

I don’t know what your reaction is to hearing this, friends, or hearing it again. What a strange story. So weird and wonderful. No wonder they’re all speechless. What do you say?

I have no idea what happened up on that mountain. 

We know that it was like nothing the disciples had ever seen. Jesus looks like he’s spotlit from the heavens, just ablaze with light. And they see visions of two of the greatest fathers or mothers of their culture, their faith. The great prophets Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 

It seems like this maybe happened late at night, or maybe at sunrise after they’d been hiking through the night, I don’t know. But it feels like a religious, a mystical experience, so Peter’s like:

I think we should build a shrine, right? 

But then clouds blow through, and they hear God saying, Shutup, Peter. Just kidding, doesn’t actually say that, even if God maybe thinks it for a moment. No, the voice is like:

Jesus is my kid. The one and only. Listen to him. 

Again, no wonder they are speechless. 

The tradition around this text tends to focus on all this scene is meant to tell us about Jesus – how special and wise and important Jesus is, how he too was destined to be among the great leaders of his culture and faith, how like Moses and Elijah, his legacy would not end with his life but would resound for generations, even hinting that Jesus would rise in glory after his death, as we will celebrate in two weeks on Easter Sunday.

And clearly, this mountaintop moment was a big moment, this epic day in the life of Jesus, when his followers and we by their testimony see him most aflame, most fully alive, most revealed for all he is. 

So it’s a weird and wonderful story about Jesus.

But in the Eastern tradition of the Christian faith, the Orthodox tradition, this transfiguration of Christ, isn’t just a story about Jesus, it’s a story about all of us too. 

The Orthodox church teaches that this illumination of Jesus also gives us a glimpse of the transformed state which followers of Jesus will reach in the life to come, and sometimes in part, in this life.

The word for this is theosis, which means deification, or divinization, the process by which we mortal humans become like Christ, where we too become humans who fully embody the glory of God. 

The second century bishop Irenaeus wrote,

“The glory of God is a human fully alive.”

Some people pull this quote out of context as they think about chasing the adrenaline of adventure, like a Red Bull cliff jumping contest. That’s cool, if it’s for you. The thrill of intense experiences can certainly make us feel fully alive, and maybe there’s something of the glory of God we taste in that.

Irenaeus didn’t mean less than this but he did mean more than this. He was writing about Jesus, that in the most fully alive human of Jesus we see God’s glory. But he was doing so inviting both our worship and our participation. He was inviting us to notice how large, how free, how beautiful Jesus is, because he was so fully human and so in touch with the love and purposes of God in every moment. And he was encouraging us to imagine for ourselves and our species a pattern of imitating Christ in this, in our own ways. With the help of God, and with our faith and cooperation, we too can be transfigured. We too have the possibility of being humans most fully alive, transformed from glory to glory, as it were.

This is our best chance at becoming the ancestor people tell stories about after we are gone.

It’s our way toward being the person who comes to mind when someone else is asked:

Who do you know that is most fully alive? 

Let’s think about how this happens, 

First, we’ve got to wake up. 

I think it’s interesting that the text says Peter, James, and John almost missed this moment – we never would have heard about it either – because they just about fell asleep. 

Maybe they’d been hiking all night and just needed a nap.

But maybe it’s easy to sleep our way through some of what’s most important in life. It’s easy to sleepwalk through life in a way, isn’t it?

I was hanging out with a couple of friends this week. And one of them was talking about how he kind of lost it last week after a particularly bad day. He was a little sheepish when he talked about his reaction, like why did I shut down so much? And another one of the friends was like:

hold on, think about all you’ve been through the past few years. Think about how much we’ve all been through the past few years.

And he started naming some of the things we’ve shared about in our circle the past few years – health problems, family crises, impossibly difficult issues at work. But not just our private stuff, but some of the things we’ve all been through by just being alive the past few years – pandemic, and lock down, and bearing witness to threat after threat, violence after violence. He was like:

It’s been a lot. No wonder that you’re tired. No wonder that your tank is empty sometimes. 

Some of us are tired, aren’t we?

Maybe your tank feels empty too. And so you’re just sputtering along. Or sometimes over-reactive to a new problem or a bump in the road. 

The weight of the past is heavy. As we hold our past in our bodies, and receive it again and again in our memories, it’s really easy to assume that the past is always prelude. That the future is going to play out just the same. 

Marjorie Suchocki is a theologian and philosopher I appreciate, who I got to meet online at a conference I was presenting at last month. She talks about how the weight of our past can feel so unchangeable that it becomes demonic. She doesn’t mean that in a spooky, exorcist kind of way, but in the literal sense of that word – accusing, a weight of heavy resignation and despair that there isn’t a better way ahead, that the worst ruts we’re in are just going to stay the way they are or sink deeper.

This happens to us, it happens to me – that our most pressing discouragements and intractable difficulties – personally, collectively – we just get stuck, we feel like things can not change. And we need help to imagine another possibility. 

We need the help of God and friends to interrupt this sleepwalking, stuck in a rut, despairing way of passing our lives. 

It’s a waking up to new possibilities. 

It’s a remembering of what we know from investing, that past performance doesn’t guarantee future results. The future is unwritten.

It’s a hope that what the scriptures say is true, that the steadfast love of God is new every morning. Every morning, the steadfast love of God is coming our way anew.

One great way to wake up to love and hope and possibility is through wonder and worship. Wonder and worship.

Peter, James, and John are falling asleep when they catch Jesus out of the corner of their eyes and he’s bathed in sunlight. His clothes, his face look aflame like lightning.

I don’t think they’re sleepy anymore. 

And then even when they try to analyze or control the moment – Peter is like,

hey religious moment, let’s make a shrine,

but the voice of God is like:

actually, hold on, you’re kind of right, Peter, but there’s more. There’s more. Just listen. Keep listening. Pay attention.

These same sleepy fishermen, who have themselves been battered by life, and who in the gospels say and do the stupidest things, keep walking with Jesus. They keep listening. They stick around. And in time, with the help of God and one another, it catches. Their lives are set aflame with passion and purpose. They become the dwelling places for God Peter dreamed of building that morning. They become the leaders of the first century Jesus movement, which is to become one of the largest, most influential movements in human history. 

They are some of the spiritual ancestors that get us all in this room today. 

This is why I pray when I do, in my own personal devotional life. And it’s why I come to church too, to get help waking up as I wonder and worship, knowing this is going to make my life larger, freer, and more loving.

Sometimes it’s in the music, when I’m singing with you all and it gets into my heart that the creator God of the universe calls us friends. 

Sometimes it’s in the taking of communion, when I eat and drink and I remember that God shares everything with us all – love, forgiveness, adoption, second chances, everything. Or I look around at you all beautiful people and think I really am part of this community of love and hope that we call the body of Christ. 

Sometimes in a sermon or a moment of prayer, a word will come to me, a word that feels like truth and sounds like freedom. A week and a half ago, I was sleep walking my way through a wall of stress, just gripped more each day by worry and a sense of doom over one piece of my world I really care about. 

And it came to my mind or soul or spirit – whatever you want to call that deep center of ourselves – that God knew it all, that God was intimate with my concerns and stress, and intimately held the object of my stress too. None of us are alone, none of us cut off, we are all connected to the caring compassion of an ever present Spirit we call God. 

And that broke the stress, broke it entirely. And that’s held.

Wonder and worship open us up. They open us up to the steadfast love of God, in all of today’s new forms. They help us wake up.

Now I want to acknowledge that as much as I encourage worship of the God we meet in the face of Jesus, there are ways that wonder and worship reach people who aren’t religious, or aren’t interested in the Way of Jesus.

It can be nature, art, unexpected or profound kindness, an experience of God or of love that is mediated through any form. And it can do this too. God can come to us through many means. 

There’s science to this too, this awakening that comes through wonder and worship. Sometimes it’s called the science of awe. How apprehending vastness or beauty or kindness interrupts us, wakes us up, kind of stops us in our tracks and widens our gaze, widens our hearts. 

Awe takes us outside of ourselves for a moment. It breaks our sleepy, doomsy rhythms. And then if we can really let it in – not analyze it or control it or walk away from it – but let the awe take hold, we can come back to ourselves with more calmness and compassion. This has been measured. 

Trying new things, paying mindful attention to whatever moment we are in so we notice whatever kindness or beauty might appear, even noticing and admiring the moral beauty of others. All these things bring wonder, they produce awe – and that calms us, deepens us, extends our lives – lights us up. 

So for our lives aflame, we’ve got to wake up, to wonder and worship, and lastly, to welcome. To welcome.

To welcome the life that we are in. And to welcome a larger, freer, more loving version of that same life. 

Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountaintop. They have to. They have lives to live, people to see, work to do. We all have to come down from the mountaintop, into the mundane and sometimes disappointing realities of our lives. 

But what if we can welcome our life a little more each day, not as we want it to be but just as it is? Because our transfiguration, our joining Jesus in becoming the glory of a human being most fully alive is going to happen in our lives as they are. Not in a fantasy version of our life where everything is better, but in our life as it is today. 

So we welcome the good stuff, and we welcome the mess, and we welcome things just as they are today, in the hope that this is good enough for God, good enough for us, good enough for fire. 

And then we welcome the largest, freest, most loving version of that life we can. This is language we’ve been quoting from James Baldwin in this season, that a God worth worshiping is one that will make us larger, freer, more loving versions of ourselves. 

Some of the ways of our lives don’t do that. We play by old rules in our family systems. Or we play capitalism’s rules – thinking our funds or our success define our worth. Or just working and working and working and then when we’re not working, letting big tech corporations make money off of our data and our weary attentions. Baldwin said that when we assimilate to racist, capitalist, violent, white world that is much of mainstream society, it’s being integrated into a burning house. 

There are plenty of ways of living we can welcome that won’t make us larger, freer, and more loving. 

In the way of Jesus, we’re invited back to our own lives rejecting and resisting all this. We’re invited to the purifying power of God within us and in our communities to resist or transform everything there that is small, hard, unfree, and unloving. And instead, we’re encouraged to admire what is best and most beautiful in the world, God included. For we become what we worship. And to welcome whatever vision God gives us of a larger, freer, more loving life, that we can be filled with all the fullness of God, shining with our light and the light of God, growing into the ancestors our future world depends upon.

I want to end by a bit from Ada Limon’s poem “Dead Stars” you’ll find in this week’s guide.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
  of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising—

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
  what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
  We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
    No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
            if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds…

Let’s pray. 

Light of Christ, Fire of God, burn in me, shine through me. 

Light of Christ, Fire of God, burn in us, shine through us.

That we too could experience and manifest the glory of God in a life most alive. 

Five Thoughts About Hell

Hey, Friends,

Good to be with you all again. I was preaching last Sunday at Great Road Church in Acton. They’re friends of ours who are connecting with us through the post-evangelical collective. So greetings from out West! And I’m glad to be back with you all exploring our theme of God and us and our world on fire. 

I wonder if you’ve heard the story of Carlton Pearson. He died late last year. Before that, though, he was a fascinating Christian minister made famous by an equally fascinating Atheist storyteller. Twenty years ago, Carlton Pearson was the subject of a full-length podcast from Ira Glass on This American Life. It was so gripping it became a feature film called Come Sunday. 

And the story that the podcast and film tell is how this pastor of a 5,000 person Pentecostal megachurch lost it all – his colleagues, his career, the church he led, even his marriage. And it wasn’t because of an affair or embezzlement or anything else like that. For the people in Pearson’s circles, it was something worse. Based on his experiences of God, and based upon the words of the Bible, he stopped believing in hell. Was he a heretic? A visionary? Something else? 

We knew this Lent that when we talked about fire in church, and encouraged us to sit around fires and wonder about God and life, for some of us, the first and last thing that would come to mind is whatever we’ve been taught or wondered about hell fire. 

For others of us like me who weren’t raised on threats of hell, we may or may not think much about it. But still, hell is a huge part of the history and legacy of the Christian faith. It casts a big shadow over the reactions to this faith still, for believers and non-believers alike. And if you read the stories and teachings of Jesus, as we always invite you to do, you’ll see that now and then Jesus talks about something like hell. What is it? And why does Jesus talk about it? 

So today I’m going to give a sermon on hell. I checked – it’s my third sermon on hell in the past few years. I never thought I’d become a hellfire preacher, but here we are. I think the other two sermons are good, maybe more than enough, but third time’s a charm, so here we go.

I’m going to share five thoughts about hell. 

And we’ll start with one of the places where it seems like Jesus is talking about it, as he does a number of times.

Mark 9:45-48 (Common English Bible)

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

46, 47 If your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with two.

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

This whole cut off your foot, cut out your eye teaching shows up in different places in the gospels. Elsewhere, it’s applied to lust – how you look at and think about and touch people you’re sexually attracted to but aren’t in committed relationship with. And Jesus argues that learning self-control is pivotal to a good life and good relationships. Sex is good, but we’re not safe sexual creatures without self-control. 

Here in Mark, though, it’s not about sex, but about hurting kids, and Jesus is like:

get any help you need, any therapy, any limits so that this will not happen. 

Because the consequences are grave. He’s like:

enter God’s kingdom or get thrown into hell.

And just to shake the imagination a bit, Jesus is like

hell, you know, that place where the worms don’t die and the fire never goes out. That’s the kind of hell child abusers face. So don’t. 

  • What in the world is Jesus talking about? 
  • What did Pastor Carlton Pearson get in so much trouble for not talking about anymore? 
  • What and where in the world is hell?

You ready?


Hell is a place on earth

At first, from this teaching, you wouldn’t think it was any place at all. When Jesus talks about cutting off parts of your own body, he’s clearly using metaphor. There was an early church father who literally castrated himself to comply with this teaching of Jesus about cutting off parts of yourself, and he lived to regret it. He was like: don’t do that. It’s a metaphor. I take his word for it.

So if Jesus’ advice on self-control and getting help to be safer, healthier people, then maybe his warning for the horrible things that will happen to you if you abuse kids is a metaphor too. After all, we do know that without deep healing work, the lives of both abused children and the adults who abuse them can become living hells. 

But we know that Jesus’ metaphor for the consequences of are harm-doing aren’t totally abstract, because the word he says isn’t actually “hell,” it’s the word Gehenna, which isn’t really a word at all, it’s a place. Ge-henna, or the Valley of Hinnom, in Jerusalem. 

And that gruesome image Jesus says that this is a place where the worms never die and the fire keeps burning, he didn’t make that up either. He’s quoting the last verse of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew scriptures, where people who persist in organizing their lives against the justice and peace of God will end up mass graves in this valley, victims of their own wars and moral chaos. 

Friends, I’ve been to Gehenna. It is and always has been an awful place. 

So still now, if you can get to Jerusalem, you can go to hell. You find the top of this narrow but lush green valley of olive trees. At the top of it, there’s this space for seasonal outdoor music festivals for middle class and wealthy Jewish youth. It’s like the Israeli version of a hip hangout spot in Somerville. 

But then you descend down a steep, poorly paved road, as I did on foot when I was in Jerusalem. And conditions deteriorate. You pass an old graveyard, you pass a little monastery that marks the cite where the disciple Judas killed himself in despair after betraying Jesus. You pass the spots of ancient mass graves and spots of child sacrifice, and old dumping grounds for burning trash and corpses. Toward the bottom of the valley, you still see more trash than people. When I was there, I peeked behind a crumbling brick wall and saw a fly-covered, gutted corpse of a sheep lying on the ground. 

And then at the very bottom of the valley is a working class Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, across a no-man’s land barrier where I was rebuked for running to, where it’s apparently not safe for Jews or Muslims or outsiders like myself to go. 

Gehenna then and now is a spot of enmity, death, fear, and decay. It’s where trash and corpses and the best human dreams of progress and peace go to die. 

And Jesus, wise and teacher and healer that he was, tells the truth about it to his contemporaries in ancient Israel and Palestine. He says:

don’t get healthy, live the life of a fool, and this is where you’ll end up. But you don’t have to. Don’t let this happen.

Hell is a place on earth. Don’t go there. 

Now by the time of Jesus, after centuries of relative disinterest in the afterlife in ancient Judaism, more and more people were wondering how the mercy and justice and faithfulness of God would play out beyond the grave for us all. So sometimes in the times Jesus lived and taught, people would use Gehenna as a metaphor for consequences and suffering we might face beyond this life. And we’ll get back to that in a few minutes.

But first, most primarily, hell is a place on earth. 

But it’s not just one place. It stands for many places. Second point: 

Hell is many places on earth

Jesus warns us about the consequences of hurting kids. I’m going to keep this general, but I knew a child abuser when I was a kid. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back he was coming into adulthood as a lonely, miserable, broken young man. It took a while before it all caught up with him. He did a world of hurt in kids’ lives before he was caught, but for the past 30-35 years, he’s been in and out of prison, living a pathetic, miserable, small life. It’s tragic.

Now, when I was in hell a couple years ago, running through Gehenna on foot, I didn’t see him there. Because he was in a state prison in Massachusetts. He wasn’t magically transported to a mass grave in Gehenna, because his living hell is a state prison here, where he is confined because he’s been unable to get well. 

Hell is many places on earth. 

It’s prison. 

It’s neighborhoods in our cities and countrysides, where generations of poverty and racial oppression, and class segregation, and bad education and bad environmental stewardship have created whole ecosystems of isolation and despair and no opportunity.

Hell right now is Gaza in Palestine, which for years has been a kind of large open prison, where millions of people are penned in in isolation and poverty not for any crimes of their own, but because of generations of displacement and dispute and repeated vicious cycles of violence that in the past five months, have been playing out more brutally and with more death and suffering than we have seen in generations if ever. 

And now to live in Gaza is to live in hell, where people are sick and hungry and terrified. It’s a picture of the anti-vision of the commonwealth or beloved community of God, where plowshares are turned into swords, and where children suffer from and study and make war. 

I even write in our guide this week about unhappy households and unhappy families as their own kind of living hell. When in our supposedly safest, most intimate communities, we can not really see and hear one another, where we can’t face the truths of our own life and of one another with love and compassion, the isolation and heartache and resentment that grows there is its own kind of living hell too.

I actually agree with Carlton Pearson that there isn’t some place where God tortures people for all eternity with worms and fire. If that’s what we mean by hell, it’s not an idea worthy of God or of us, but I think Pearson and others make a mistake when they say that means there’s no such thing as hell. There is. Jesus warned us about it and wants to help rescue us from it. 

But tragically, there are many hells on earth, at least in this life, maybe in the life to come. On that note, two points about hell in the afterlife.

Hell as eternal punishment for the wicked is fear-mongering spiritual violence and abuse

Friends, I’ve been gentler about my perspective on this in the past, but more and more, I feel like some things have to be said strong and plain.

The Christian doctrine of hell as a place where God tortures God’s enemies for eternity is maybe the most harmful, dangerous, damaging doctrine in the history of the church. 

Early in the 14th century, an Italian writer published the epic poem Divine Comedy, and the first part stuck in our imaginations. Set during the season of Lent, a man who has lost his way in mid-life is guided through nine layers of hell beneath the surface of the earth. There, unrepentant sinners suffer eternally and without hope. Heretics lie in burning coffins. Murderers perpetually drown in rivers of boiling blood. This brutalish, frightening tour through the underworld is meant to shake the conscience and protect the believer from going astray. 

Dante may have had some of his geology right. The earth does get hotter as you go deeper, thousands of degrees hot at the center! But his theology missed the mark badly. By placing fear rather than love at the center of Christian religion, Dante and his many imitators have shaped God in the image of the most controlling and violent tyrants. And they have incentivized anxious, obedient compliance in the church while weaponizing judgment against Muslims, Jews, indigenous people, and all manner of people the church has labeled dangerous or deviant. 

This imaginative vision of an angry God with a violent, fiery hell seems to burn brightest in the imaginations of believers who are afraid and go to war.

Here’s a quote from friend of Reservoir Brian McLaren on this: 

“Fear is one of the earliest childhood associations with fire. We all remember warnings from parents and adults to keep away from the fire. Fire is dangerous and will burn you; play with fire and you will get burned. The church has often used this fear of fire to very destructive effect. This was done in two ways. Firstly, so-called heretics and witches were burned to death at the stake. Secondly, the church colonized the minds of its subjects with fearful visions and threats of hell and purgatory.” (Should I Stay Christian, p. 108)

And here’s one from the late pastor Carlton Pearson:

“I do believe in hell as a state of being or consciousness, and I believe that people can dwell in hell and that many do, right now, today, on this earth before rather than after death. I will argue … that hell is the most erroneous, outdated, misunderstood, and misguided dogma in all of Christianity, and the one that must be discarded if this spiritual tradition is to survive as anything more than a contemptible curiosity…. Hell was never God’s intention. It is man’s invention.”

This kind of hell is used to control and hurt people. Jesus says that it is the enemies of God who come to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus comes that we may have abundant life. This vision of hell has got to go.

But is there any kind of hell in the afterlife? 

Well, we don’t know. We actually don’t know much about the afterlife, do we, since none of us has been there. But I can say this: 

If there is a hell in the afterlife, we can hope there are ways out.

If there is any hell in the afterlife, we can hope there are ways out.

Before Dante’s Inferno, if people believed in a place of fiery punishment in the afterlife, they likely got the idea from the final book in the Bible, Revelation.

Revelation is a weirdly told story of the great evil of human empires and great, faithful love of God. 

On the evil of human empires, you get lots of fire image, lots of stuff like this, from the 9th chapter:

Revelation 9:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 The number of cavalry troops was two hundred million. I heard their number.

17 And this is the way I saw the horses and their riders in the vision: they had breastplates that were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The horses’ heads were like lions’ heads, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke, and sulfur.

18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed: by the fire, smoke, and sulfur coming out of their mouths.

This is one of Revelation’s pictures of evil unleashing hell. God sees it, God doesn’t stop it, either because there’s some greater timing we don’t understand or because God can’t. 

But if we’ve paid any attention to this history or the current news about the war and violence and suffering that large nations unleash, we know what this looks like. John the revelator is telling the truth about the horrible evil powerful nations unleash beneath their propaganda of peace and prosperity. 

But Revelation’s vision is also anchored in the hope that a beautiful and wise Jesus, once slain on a Roman cross, still lives as the resurrected Lamb of God and Prince of Peace.

And in Revelation, there’s a hope that there is a place where all the bad things go, so they will haunt and plague us no more. Near the end of the book, in Chapter 20, this is visualized as a giant pit of fire. 

Now it does say that people who aren’t in God’s book of life go there, and that’s a hard, complex line to wrestle with. But we should read that in light of what comes before and after. Because mostly, people aren’t going there at all.

What goes into the pit are big realities and systems of evil that live beyond any one particular person. Accusation goes into the pit of fire. Lies go there. Violence goes there. Death and the grave themselves are swallowed up in a fiery defeat. It’s not a place to punish people, it’s a place to vanquish evil, it’s a place where all the bad things go. 

This is an image of the judgment of God. Some of the ancient texts make that sound like punishment of particular people, but we can be convinced that because God is love, all of God’s judgment is ultimately restorative, not punitive. The judgment of God exposes and heals. God’s judgment is truth telling about lies and harm and evil, so that all that stuff can get burned out of our human story and we can be transformed. Out of love for the harmed and the harm doer, out of love for the victim and the victimizer.

So when horrible violence or disasters happen on earth, I never speculate whether or not they are God’s judgment, and I’d ask you not to as well. But when the truth about bad things gets told, when exposure of evil and harm occurs, I do think this is in part the judgment of the living God, that healing could come.

And if that kind of judgment extends beyond this life in some way that we can not predict and understand, we can hope that it is not the end of the story. After all, in the next and final chapters of Revelation, as a new Jerusalem is described, as a symbol for a renewed heaven and earth, there are trees whose leaves are good for the healing of the nations, and there are gates which shall never be shut. 

We don’t always see it in this life, but the faith of Jesus dares us to hope that God’s mercy is wider than God’s judgment, that God’s healing is deeper than our evil, and that love is stronger than hate, that love is even stronger than death. 

This takes us right to the final point, friends, that:

God is better worshiped as a firefighter, not a fire starter.

When we think about hell, or when we think as Ivy had us do last week about all the suffering and hardship we face in this life, it doesn’t do any good to imagine that God is somehow starting all those fires. That thought’s mostly not worthy of a loving God.

Instead, friends, we can put our hope in God whose arm is strong to save, in God who isn’t the great fire-starter, but the great firefighter. 

We’ll have an opportunity to hold in worship in just a moment any ways we see or face fires of suffering in this life. We hold those to God in hope for God’s help, for God’s strength and perseverance for all facing the fire, and for God’s help in putting out those fires.

And I encourage us to wonder together, throughout this week using our Lenten guide, and now together as well:

I wonder what you see in our land that is against the loving, renewing, restorative, and just purposes of Jesus for Beloved Community? How do we spiritually and otherwise resist whatever sin and death harms us all? 

I wonder what dangers you feel you are prone to? What does resisting that look like for us? .

I wonder what dangers our cultures and countries are prone to? What does interrupting all that look like for us? 

This week: Each morning or evening, light a candle. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, you could even safely light a fire. By yourself, or with a friend or your family, take a few moments to watch the flame. Imagine the flame as representing whatever in you or around you is suffering or causing ripples of harm. 


What will put out the fire? What is your part? What help do you need? 

Refiner’s Fire

So I went out to the movie theater a couple weeks ago to see the Gloria Gaynor documentary. If you don’t know that name, you know her voice:

I will survive, I will survive!

Yeah, that anthem of resilience, empowerment, that’s Gloria Gaynor in peak form. 

Gloria Gaynor, though, also has one of the most interesting life arcs you can imagine. She was a global disco star through her 30’s into her 40’s. But by the time she hit her 60’s, she was in constant, horrible back pain. And she was full of regrets and pretty much broke. But at 65 years old, her life took a turn.

She started living the anthem of her song for the first time.

See, as a teenager, Gaynor had wanted to go to college and become a teacher, but she didn’t think her family could afford it and no one told her otherwise. But at 66 years old, she went to college.

In her mid 60’s, she also got a new manager and decided to pursue her lifelong dream of recording a gospel album. It took a long time for anyone to be willing to invest in someone they saw as an over the hill disco queen. But at 75 years old, her gospel album Testimony was released. And she won a Grammy for it, at 75.

She’s got a documentary out now, and it ends telling us she’s working on another album that will be released around her 80th birthday.

Wow. You don’t hear about enough turnaround stories that start in people’s 60’s, do you? Wow.

What happened? 

Well, at least two things. 

One is that Gloria Gaynor had a come to Jesus moment in her 40’s, a few years after her most famous song came out. She was partying one night, about to do a whole bunch of coke, when she felt like someone was grabbing her by the shirt and saying,

“No more.”

No more. Somehow she knew this to be the voice of God, calling out to her. And she came back to her childhood faith. 

Now it took a long time, but years later, her faith gave her the fire she needed to finally divorce her toxic husband.

Now I know this is a weird story for a pastor to tell. Since God is love and love is faithful, and all divorces are a tragedy. I’m not here to stump for God doing a revival in your life so you can get divorced. Not in general. But sometimes divorce is the only way out of a marriage that’s already become so tragic that there is no return. And this was the case for Gloria Gaynor with her ongoingly controlling, abusive husband. He had been taking, taking, and taking for years, and just running her into the ground. 

And there were things in Gloria Gaynor that predisposed her to accept this way of things. She says she had a deep fear of abandonment, ever since she was young. She had been abused as well and had come to assume and expect really ill treatment of her, especially by men. 

But there was something about her faith in a God that made her and loved her that slowly burned this away, until Gloria Gaynor realized that if God loved her this much, maybe she could too. 

She says of her divorce:

I never stopped loving him. But I began to love me. 

Hallelujah. Love found a way.

Gaynor sings about this in her gospel album.

She says:

Let in a little light

And it’ll help you see

Surely the truth

Gonna set you free

Or the chorus of another song, where she sings:

I’m talking about love. I’m talking about freedom. 

Talking about the one you can depend on when you need him. 

Hallelujah. I love that Gloria Gaynor found her way into singing like this in her 60’s and 70’s, when the fiery love of God had burned away her hurt and worthlessness and fear enough to finally get free. 

Because this, friends, is how the fire of God cleanses and refines – reducing us to love, purifying us so we can get larger, and freer, and more loving. 

We find this in the scriptures.

Let’s go to the final prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures, the very end of what Christians call the Old Testament. 

In the third chapter of Malachi, we read:

Malachi 3:1-3 (Common English Bible)

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;

        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.

        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,

says the Lord of heavenly forces.

2 Who can endure the day of his coming?

        Who can withstand his appearance?

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.

3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.

        He will purify the Levites

            and refine them like gold and silver.

            They will belong to the Lord,

                presenting a righteous offering.

If you grew up singing in the tradition that I did, the White, Western choral tradition, you hear music to these words too, because they are set in The Messiah, the choral anthem about the life of Jesus Christ. And they’re kind of frightening – who will be able to stand when God appears? For he’s like a refiner’s fire.

Our images of fire and religion are so fearsome that it can sound like God wants to burn us down. 

But let’s look at what this is really saying.

Malachi is a little book of arguments between people and God. It’s set in the 5th or 4th century BC, when the people of the Southern kingdom of ancient Israel had been back in Jerusalem for a while – two, three, four centuries since they’d resettled after exile. Folks had come home. The city walls were rebuilt. Temple was renovated and back up and running.

But they’re not satisfied. Their lives, their nation feels small. They’ve got disappointments and they blame this on God.

And God’s like, I don’t know that it’s me. I think it might be you.

The people are like:

God, you’ve neglected us. God, you’re not just.

And so God says: 

here tell you what, I’ll send a messenger who will get you ready for something really good. And then, even better, I’ll come visit you myself. And the effect of this messenger and my time in your house will be that the stuff in you that is messing up your life will be washed, purified, burned away. 

Then you’ll be golden again, just right. The very mode of your existence will enable you to flourish, and that will make me smile. 

Now and again, there come times in our lives where things aren’t working as they are, where things have got to change. I wonder if you can remember a time in your life like that. 

I wonder if any of us feel like we’re in a time like that right now. A little stuck, like something’s got to give. 

Gloria Gaynor spent decades like this – pushing through a life that wasn’t working. 

This happens to people. It can happen to all the parts of us, our faith included. It happens to cultures, even religions. That we need to be renewed, that some stuff that isn’t working needs to be purified out, burned off. 

I think of the great writer James Baldwin, raised in Harlem to be a preacher. But as he confronted the dominant modes of Christian faith in this country, certainly in white churches but sometimes in Black churches and other churches of people of color, he wrote: 

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being … must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church.”

(If you want to be a moral person, you’ve got to separate yourself from what passes for morality in a lot of the church.) He says:

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

Harsh statement on the surface, fire. But it’s true. Baldwin is doing something that at its prophetic best, the Black church has often done. At its prophetic best, members of the global church, the formerly colonized people and nations have done this too. They have said:

  • What has passed for Christian faith in many places is immoral. It needs to be shaken up, cleansed.
  • And what have passed for ideas about God have too often not been worthy of a loving God.
  • What have passed for our ideas about God have not been worthy of the God we meet in the face of Jesus.
  • And when that is so, those ideas have to go to the fire. It’s time we got rid of them. 

This fire language of God, our need for refining to get larger, freer, more loving, this is not just Old Testament stuff. It continues in Jesus.

In fact the New Testament argues that Jesus is the climactic figure in this line of prophets that God in Malachi calls his messengers, who will speak for God and show us the way. 

In this week’s Lenten guide, alongside Malachi, we get these words from Jesus:

Mark 9:49-50 (Common English Bible)

49 Everyone will be salted with fire.

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

Like food needs salt so it won’t spoil, we all need some fire. 

The context here is our wild ability to screw up on our own lives and to hurt each other. Specifically, Jesus is talking about people who hurt kids and how important it is that none of us become the kind of people that could hurt a kid. 

The kind of person that could abuse a kid, sure.

But maybe also the kind of person that could punish a kid too harshly, or that would ignore the kids around you and not bother to learn their names, or that wouldn’t take the time to listen to them, encourage them, or inspire them. 

I say it this way because of course, lots of us have been these people. And Jesus is like:

Let’s make a change. The past does not need to be prelude. You don’t have to keep living the way you’ve been living. It’s not too late, even if you’re 65, 75, 80, right? 

It’s never too late for renewal, for a change to come. 

Now I want to be clear that there is a difference between different types of change projects that can get promoted in the name of God. 

There are projects supposedly of purification, of sanctification, of transformation that are actually projects of control. Someone who’s afraid of change or afraid of you tries to dull your fire, doesn’t actually want a larger, freer, more loving version of you, they just want to make you into a plastic version of some performed model of a good person, in their eyes.

The so-called Christian purity culture of the 1980’s and 90’s and beyond that put no sex outside of straight marriage as like the #1 goal of Christian moral teaching did this. In trying to control people, it mostly shamed them, and especially shamed girls and women and queer folk, without helping us love God more or love ourselves more or even have better marriages. 

Colonial White Christianity was like this too – it claimed it was saving the world when really it was trying to dominate it. Baldwin’s like:

Let’s burn that version of God. It’s got to go. 

These same beautiful words, though – purification, sanctification, transformation can be descriptions of encounters with the holy and living goodness of God that set us on fire. That weed or burn out stuff that’s messing up our lives – and that make us larger, freer, more loving versions of ourselves. 

This is kind of like the difference between a ravaging wildfire and a controlled burn. The ravaging wildfires we’ve had more and more due to climate change and the loss of indigenous land management practices don’t make our land or our climate better – they just wipe out everything in our path and do life on earth a world of harm. But that same fire, used in a controlled manner as indigenous people have done for centuries, to clear out dead wood and brush, can clean a forest, make it stronger and healthier and more resilient.

These are the kinds of encounters with God we’re looking for, friends. 

Why, though, call it fire?

Friends, God’s doing some work of change and growth in me that is profound, it’s happening in core parts of my being, and when I talk to my pastor about this, I sometimes wonder what I need to be doing.

And he’s like:

I don’t think this is about what you are doing at all. It’s a thing that the Spirit of God is doing. It’s happening in you, it’s happening to you. Just pay attention and don’t back out. Just pay attention and don’t back out.

Friends, I wonder what you feel needs to be burned down in our world? Is there anyway it’s starting to happen already? Anyway the fire is burning. Maybe God is in that.

And I wonder if there are things in your life that need some fire. Are there ways of thinking and living and being in your life that are holding you back, that are shaping a way of life that you will regret in future years? What do we need cleansed, purified, burned off in us, so we won’t regret this time in our lives?

Let me give you a picture of how this works, from one of the tools God’s using in me. 

I go to a hot yoga studio once a week. Been doing that six or seven months. And I quote my teacher in the guide this week. 

Because as the heat in the room settles into us, and we move from warming up to really pushing our bodies and our minds, as the practice gets harder and harder, he’ll talk about letting the fire build, letting the fire do its work in us.

And I’ve heard him say, many times:

There’s no cleansing force like fire. There’s no cleansing force like fire.

I still don’t understand this entirely, but over time, as I persevere in the harder parts of the practice, I sense two dispositions, two attitudes slowly burning off. One is: I must be in control.

Because when I hold a pose past what I think my body is capable of, when my muscles are aching and shaking, and I’m sweating out and ready to give up, to instead breathe steady, focus my gaze, and to hold is to surrender. It’s to relinquish the control I can exercise to stop and to just let it go. That surrender seems like it’s burning off the: I must be in control in me that goes beyond that moment. 

And the other thing it’s burning off is: I can’t. Because just like you, just like all of us, with the help of God and friends, I’m capable of far more than the mediocrity I accept from myself – mediocrity of body, of moral fiber, of spiritual depth, and of love, justice, freedom, and joy. There’s so much more hiding behind the “I can’ts.” 

And a little bit of that is burning off in this practice. 

Less control, more surrender.

Less giving up, more perseverance.

It’s slow growth, but I value it. And it takes fire.

Which means I can’t make it happen. But I can give my attention to something that does it, and not back away from that. 

So it is with God. God is interested in us giving our attention to that in God which will burn off our “I must be in control” and our “I can’ts” and all the other stuff that makes us smaller, less free, less loving. 

We can’t self-improve our way into this because we’re not in charge of the world. We’re not really even in charge of our own lives, in that we can’t control them very well. 

But we can give our attention to God, to the person and words of Jesus, and to however it is that the Spirit of Christ is moving in us or around us to transform us into our fullness as children of God. 

Friends, as we close here, I ask:

If you could safely direct the flame of a fire to burn away bad things without doing any harm, what would you burn?

  • What do you wish for the fire of God to burn off in this world?
  • In your school or workplace?
  • What do you wish God would burn off and purify inside your home or inside yourself? 

Let’s name these things as a prayer. Name our desires for personal and collective purification as an offering. Trusting that God of the refiners fire hears and cares and will gently burn among us and within us.

God As Fire

As we get started on our Spring season of Lent, I remember in December when I was doing some preparation and prayer, trying to get my head around this theme of fire that Ivy and I were working with together. 

And there were three things that kept coming to mind.

One was the way we feel like so much of our world is on fire. The headlines of our news and sometimes the headlines of our hearts scream of toxic politics, disastrous climate change, brutal violence, crumbling religions – Christianity included, and yet a failure to imagine and organize together around a better future. 

This world is on fire, and that can be really scary. 

A second thing that kept coming to mind was this one weird and haunting line from the Bible. 

It’s in the New Testament’s letter called Hebrews. It’s a collection of reflections and encouragement for a first century Jewish community trying to follow in the way of Jesus. And near the end, without a ton of context, there’s this line, that says:

Hebrews 12:29 

“Our God is a consuming fire.”

Our God is a consuming fire.

  • What does this mean?
  • What is God like after all?
  • And how does fire as a metaphor for God speak?

I wonder if it speaks warmly to you – with the glow and wonder of candles and campfires, like the ones Ivy remembered and brought to life for us last week.

Or I wonder if it is scary as hell to you – some of us know about burns from fire, about home fires, about the threats people make using hellfire language. 

Our God is a consuming fire.

I wonder how this line speaks to you. 

Growing up, both my grandparents’ home just a few miles from me and the home I was raised in had fireplaces in the middle of them. 

The fireplace in my grandparents’ home was one of my favorite places as a kid. My brothers and I used to beg to sleep over at their house on Christmas Eve, where like many other nights of the year, we’d sit up late around the fireplace. 

It was so warm, so beautiful, and when we were little, my PopPop – that’s what we called my maternal grandfather -my Pop Pop had these salts he’d throw into the fireplace that would make the flame blaze different colors, like blue or green or deep red. 

I know now it’s chemistry, but when I was a kid, it seemed like magic, like PopPop was some kind of beloved wizard who’d make the most perfect fire more beautiful, more wonder-full. Staring into those colored flames, my little world seemed so big and beautiful and surprising. 


The fireplace in our own home was a little more complicated. 

We didn’t have any special chemicals to change the color of the flames. 

But it was also a family gathering place in our house during long New England winter times, at least back then. And all kinds of things happened there. 

One of my more complex memories of shame, and of the things my family could and couldn’t talk about, happened around that fire. 

I was in seventh grade, I think. It was not a happy time in my life.

I had some secrets I kept, one of which was that I stole things.

I had, for instance, stolen a pack of cigarettes from the store as a curiosity, to see what smoking felt like. And I had smoked a couple of them, just a tiny bit, in the woods behind our house, and then forgotten about them.

But one night around the fire, as I remember it at least, my older brother was like: hey, look what I found in Steven’s jacket. And he held up the pack of cigarettes, or at least what was left of them.

I remember my face turning bright red with embarrassment, with shame. And I lunged toward my brother, grabbed the cigarettes, and threw them in the fire.

And as I did it, I said:

I have no idea how these got in there. I didn’t do it. They’re not mine. 

And I stormed out of the room.

This is a long time ago. I don’t know if everything in my memory is 100% accurate, but what I don’t remember is any follow-up. I don’t remember anyone asking me more about what happened, or why it was so upsetting, or if I wanted to talk about any of it. 

We just moved on, silent – the drama and shame and lies and tension of that moment just lingering in the family, smoldering with its own kind of fire. 

Even with those kinds of memories, though, I kept coming back to that fireplace, with and without the rest of my family. The feelings and memories I carry from that place are more complex than my grandparents’ fireplace, but even in my own house, I kept coming back. 

And I always took one of two seats in that room – the two seats closest to the fireplace. Where I could feel the heat there and get long, unfiltered stares at those dynamic, flickering, consuming flames I couldn’t take my eyes off of. 

I wonder if that complexity of experience, but that returning again and again to wonder isn’t a little bit like the experience the ancients had of God, when they associated God with fire. 

In the old stories of Exodus, fire is again and again a metaphor for God’s presence with ancient Israel. 

The scriptures in the first week of our guide to this season are all from Exodus, including this one:

Exodus 19:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud blast of a horn. All the people in the camp shook with fear.

17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain.

18 Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had come down on it with lightning. The smoke went up like the smoke of a hot furnace, while the whole mountain shook violently.

The 12 tribes that would make up the ancient community of Israel were desert nomads at this point in their story – free from past enslavement, but not yet settled and organized as a city-state or a nation.

And here, they gather around Mount Sinai to worship and reckon with their God.

I have no idea what literally was happening, like if someone could get photographs of moments like this from 3,400 years ago, what would we see?

We can’t of course, so we get the ancient metaphor and poetry of it all, where there was a storm with thunder and lightning, and the mountain where God is appearing feels like a blazing furnace, shrouded in smoke. 

What did it mean that God with them felt like a lightning strike turned to blazing, smoky fire?

On the one hand it scared the hell out of them. 

They were like:

Moses, you talk to God. We do not want to join you there.

They viewed the power of God with wonder and awe, but also something like terror. Who can see God and live?

And yet in this moment they assemble with Moses to be with God. And in the ancient story of these people, God terrifies them and yet they can’t help coming back and longing for God to be with them, hoping that God lives among them.

Because God may be wild and powerful, but they also knew they were better off with God than without. 

Why was that?

What spoke to them about God being a force, a person, who blazes with consuming fire?

What spoke to Moses in his first encounter with God? He was a middle aged man, full of his own secrets, living in geographic exile from his home, but also living in a kind of metaphorical exile too – not at home in his own body, in his own life and story, when working as a shepherd, he saw something like a burning bush. 

  • Was it the glare of the morning sun after a long night in the desert?
  • Was it a blaze of color in spring flowers spotted far from home?
  • Or was it a literal bright, but unconsuming wildfire?

We don’t know.

But we know that when Moses first discovers God, he discovers God as an un-consuming fire – dynamic, vibrant, powerful, blazing like flames, but not burning up or harming whatever God touches. Fire that burns bright without harm. 

This is God as Moses came to understand God – fierce and powerful enough to be an everlasting creator and mighty liberator but also safe and good enough to call friend.

  • What speaks to us when we think about a living God among us?
  • What speaks to us as we imagine a God who is somehow like fire?
  • Beyond the world on fire, beyond that haunting line about our God being a consuming – or is it un-consuming – fire? 

As Ivy and I started work on this season, the third thought that came to my imagination – and one that I think Ivy shared as well – was picturing us all again and again gathering around little fires and wondering together about God. 

I picture some of us like I do, awake early by ourselves with a candle lit, looking at the flame and wondering how God is here with us .

I pictured families over a meal, lighting a candle in the center of the table, and having a moment together to wonder about what God is like and how God is part of the household, and what God might be doing there

I pictured friends meeting up for a community group or whatever else and catching some time together to silently look at a flame and wonder about God. 

In this season’s Guide, there are six weeks of material. Today starts the first week, where we wonder about God as fire. 

It’s only 10 pages, and not too many words. But don’t rush through it. Pull it out again and again, even just to read one little bit, or to gaze at an image for a while. 

And this week, as with each of the six weeks, there is an invitation to sit by a fire for a moment. The hope is you do this at least once a week, but it could be every day if you like. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, awesome!

If you want to use a candle, that’s great! That’s probably what most of us will do. 

If it feels safer or better for our climate to use electric fireplaces or candles or have that image of a glowing fireplace on your television, that’s cool too.

Or burn incense, or find yourself an active volcano, or whatever.

But the idea is to be with yourself or even better, be with someone else by something like a flame, each week, even more than once a week, and wonder about God, and wonder about God with us, and say a prayer.

There’s a different way to do just this each week. 

See what it’s like.

And as you do this, one place in particular I encourage you to notice the presence of God isn’t just in the fire, but in the people you are with, yourself included, and what the flame illuminates there. 

Because as in the days of Moses, still now we most often and sometimes most brightly feel the fire of God among us. We sense the presence of God with most glory when we are with others.

I help organize the citywide clergy group for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We are Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian clergy, sometimes Buddhist leaders too, who like to know and understand and care about one another, and to practice solidarity as we work for a more just city together. 

And one of my co-leaders is a local rabbi named Toba Spitzer. Toba is wise and brilliant and interesting. She wrote a book called God is Here that inspired a sermon series of ours a year or two ago. 

And in our latest clergy gathering, we were looking at Muslim, Christian, and Jewish sacred texts that speak to the importance of our relationality, our togetherness.

For the Jewish text, Toba brought a rabbinic commentary that says:

“if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah [God’s Presence] abides between them.”

The Shekinah is an old Hebrew word that refers to the dwelling, or kind of settling presence of God. It’s when you know that God is here. 

And you’re speechless with wonder, or it’s so good and weird and sweet and powerful that you say a word like: wow, or like: glory!

And the rabbinic tradition says that whether you realize it or not, this is always happening when people together read the sacred text.

And the way my friend Toba and others have read this is even more broadly, like anytime we communicate for the sake of deeper understanding and wisdom together, to bring some benefit to the world, than the Shekinah, the dwelling of God that makes you say: Wow! Is there. 

When we’re in real communication, going deeper, together for the good, there’s that extra something we feel – that heat, that power, that warmth, that magic – why call it God? 

Maybe because it is.

Maybe because we need God among us, to bring fire to our earthy selves. 

And maybe because we don’t ever see God directly, like you can see your hand before your face.

No one has ever taken a photograph of God. 

Our experience of God is mediated. Even at its clearest, it’s a little bit indirect. We encounter God through things that evoke wonder, like the ocean, or perfect music, or amazing food, or yes, even fire. 

We encounter God through the person and the life and words of Jesus for sure.

And also through the presence of God when two or three are gathered in God’s name. To me that does not mean when two or three get religious. We know from the Bible and from our own experience, that being religious is no promise of the felt presence of God. But when two or three gather in the spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of love, there’s something there.

My childhood memories around fire – some are of presence, like at my grandparents’ house where the warmth of the room and PopPop’s magic fire-changing power and all spoke to me of the presence of God. 

And some of my memories are of absence, like the time around the fire where I knew shame and distance and inability to really be together as we were. To me, all that spoke of a kind of absence of God.

Both can be true when we are with others. 

So I thought at the clergy gathering about recent human encounters when I could sense God’s shekinah – the dwelling, the settling of God among us that makes me say: Glory, wow. This is too good.

I thought when a goddaughter I really missed and wanted to see reached out to me to ask for prayer for something at her school. And the way she reached out and reconnected brought me so much joy.

I thought of one of you who asked me if you could share a confession in privacy and confidence. And how you bared your soul by sharing what is to you a most shameful memory, so that we could speak the truth together that even there, you are seen and loved and forgiven. So good. 

I thought of when I gather with my community group on Saturdays to read the Bible and to share of the most important things in our lives, and how it’s holy how we share the truths of our lives and seek the truth of God, in a circle of loving-kindness.

Or the couple minutes during Grace’s and my latest dance class we’re doing, where inexperienced stumblers that we are, for a few moments, something clicked, and we felt like we were gliding through the room together – two of us as one, soaring, dancing across the space. And it felt elegant and smooth and all sparky with decades of love. 

All really different kinds of moments, but all sparked by fire. All a window into the truth that God is there. 

There’s something about the openness and vulnerability that all these moments have in common. There’s something about the safety everyone has experienced, that this is a person and a place where you can be really open, where you can be true, and that will be safe. And there’s something about the tenderness and connection there, where one is saying – I see you truly, kindly. And the other is saying – I am seen truly, kindly. And in a way, everyone is saying both at once. 

It makes me feel like: wow, glory! So good. 

We begin, friends, where we will end in six weeks.

There are forms of fire that only burn… that “steal, kill, and destroy.” We’ll talk more about those. This is the kind of fire that is not God. This is Jesus’ description of every force in and among us that is an enemy of God.

But there are also forms of fire that open us up, that make us larger and freer and more loving – that set our heart on fire in the best of ways. And love seems to make space for those.

Love is the hearth where fire roars.

Love is the ground where we sense God and say glory.

Love is the wick where fire burns.

Conspiring Prayer

A few years ago, our oldest child had become an adult and was living away from home for the first time. And I was struggling with how to not worry about her all the time. You can never fully protect another person, you can certainly never fully control another person, which is good, but the loss of control and the loss of proximity with your own kid – it’s a big change in the life of a parent. It’s been the biggest change in my life the past few years. 

So a few years ago, when this was first happening, I was wondering – when you’re far away from someone else, how do you best love them?

I was talking to one of my mentors about this when I was just getting to know him at the time, and he’s famously a very spiritually wise, insightful person, so I asked him:

Tom, do you think I love my daughter more by praying for her, or just sending her $100? 

And at first, he was like:

probably send her the $100. 

And I was surprised. I thought: this is a religious man. I look up to him spiritually. He’s supposed to pick the “pray for your daughter” option and help me better understand why, like how that was going to help her.

I asked this question, after all, because I had been shifting in some of my own experiences of prayer, and starting to wonder,

  • when you pray for someone else from afar, how can that influence them?
  • Does it do them any good?
  • Does it show them love? 

And I guess I’d hoped my mentor would have an answer for those questions while commending me to pray for her more. 

But Tom, at least at first, was like, hey, won’t sending her the $100 really show her that you love her? 

I thought: sure, it would. 

And if you pray for God to do good things in her life, will that make God love her any more? 

And I thought: I hope not. I hope God loves her entirely already, that God’s already doing everything God can for her. I certainly hope God is like that. 

I thought of my mentor’s definition of love. Tom’s a theologian. He publishes a lot. 

And he’s defined love like this. He writes, 

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic or empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being.

So my emotional attunement and care for my kiddo – sympathy, empathy – that was already there. Now how could I act intentionally to promote her overall well-being?

And at least that day, Tom lobbied for the $100. Which surprised me.

I tell you this little story because today in our winter series on prayer, I want to talk a little bit about praying for others. Not so much praying for people face to face when they’re with you, like our prayer team does every Sunday for whoever wants that. 

I want to talk about praying that God will do things for people or other creatures that aren’t there with you. 

How does praying for others work? What’s the value? 

And it’s just one sermon, it won’t be all the truth on this topic, won’t even be all my truth, all my perspective.

But I want to introduce you to a way of praying for others that might be different from what you’ve tried before and has been helpful for me. 

It’s a phrase that a therapist and theologian named Mark Karris has coined. It’s called conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer. 

Conspiring prayer engages us as partners with God when we pray for others, or when we pray for anyone or anything in all of creation.

Let’s read a scripture to get us going on this.

It’s from a little letter in the Bible, one called James. I’ll actually read two bits from James and go from there. 

Here’s the first bit, from the fifth chapter.

James 5:13-16 (Common English Bible)

13 If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing.

14 If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

15 Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

16 For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. 

So at first, it seems to side more on the: pray for that person you love who’s far away. There’s no mention of sending them $100. Tom.

After all, it says:

Prayer can help heal. James encourages us to pray for one another.  

 But let’s unpack a little what this seems to say and not say about prayer.

One, it’s like prayer can be good for you. If you’re suffering, try – it might help. Just like if you’re happy, sing. It’ll feel good. 

I think that’s great advice by the way, the second part. As someone that whistles, hums, sings out loud a fair bit, I’m shocked by how few people do this stuff, in public at least. Me, sometimes I sing little songs I make up while skipping down the street with my dog. Keep your eye out for it, yeah. But I guess I’m like: if you’re happy and you know it… 

Why keep it in? This city, we’re a little too cool – in the wrong way, like a little too locked inside sometimes, I think. So: if any of you are happy, they should sing. You heard it here.

But back to prayer. It can be a comfort, a solace if you know how to be close to God, to go there when you’re suffering. That’s good advice too. 

After that, there’s a lot about going to other people and asking for prayer. 

When you’re sick. Also, when you’ve sinned. You’ve shown up to some part of your life as not your best self, or not the child of God you are deep down. That can leave a mark, on others sure, but on ourselves too. So James is like, confess that, share it, and the prayer you can give one another there – God loves you, you’re forgiven, God give my friend strength to forgive themselves, to let it go, to make amends, to make things right if that’s called for or possible. That can be freeing and encouraging. 

Pray for one another. There’s healing there.

There is a caveat to that, I suppose. James talks about “elders” you look to for prayer. And talks about the prayers of righteous people.

I don’t think he means only old people can pray effectively, or only official church leaders – like pastors. I also don’t think he means that self-righteous people, super-religious people are the only ones whose prayers God hears either. (I hope not!) I just think there’s an acknowledgement that there are people we can trust with our vulnerabilities, and there are people we can’t.

Confess your sins, but not to anyone. Be discerning. Confess to someone you can trust and who won’t give you back toxic shame or anything else unhelpful. 

And people who are living with integrity, that seem to be in good relationships with others, that seem to have an authentic way of praying with God themselves, their prayers are going to be more useful to you. So ask them. People who seem at ease with faith.

You know what James doesn’t talk about though. He doesn’t say much of anything about praying for people who aren’t there with you. He has face to face prayer in mind. You can’t touch people you’re not with. You can’t anoint them with oil, touch with some oil, as a symbol of the Spirit of God, you can’t do that if you’re not there.

I’m not saying James has anything against praying for people when you’re not with them, it’s just he doesn’t really emphasize that so much. I think he’s aware that praying for someone when you’re with them seems to have more power. 

For what it’s worth, the little bit of modern research on prayer agrees. Face to face prayer, with a safe, empathetic listener who can pray for your healing, who can offer safe touch while praying – with or without oil – that has had measurable impact on people’s well being.

The few attempts, though, to measure the impact of prayer offered for someone from afar, have not been successfully measured to have had impact.

That doesn’t mean they don’t. I think it can be great to pray for who and what you care about from afar, but the impact of that we’ve not been able to measure like prayer in person. 

So maybe that’s part of what Tom had in mind when he was like, Steve, go ahead and send the cash to your kid. You know that will have an effect. Maybe.

Or maybe he had this other bit from James in mind. This is from chapter two:

James 2:14-17 (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.

So James here is the original BIG NO to the whole “thoughts and prayer” strategy regarding people’s suffering.

You know, what politicians say after every mass shooting. I have not intention on making these events less frequent. But: our thoughts and prayers are with them. 

James is like:

those are the kind of thoughts and prayers you can keep to yourself, thank you. They are useless. 

Faith is no good if it doesn’t result in faithful activity. 

And while James doesn’t say this explicitly, he kind of implies that saying a prayer for someone – God, can you give them some food and clothes tonight, just not from me – he kind of implies that doesn’t count as faithful activity. 

Quick prayers like that from afar are easy, for the person saying the prayer, but James at least says: this is not what faith looks like. It is certainly not what love looks like. 

How do we put this together with what James is saying?

1.Prayer is really good for us when we’re down.

2. People we can trust, and people who are in relationship with God, we should have them pray for us when our body or our inner self has lost its way. Those prayers will help. 

And also….

3. Don’t pretend a quick prayer from afar is what faith looks like, or what love looks like, if that’s all you’re willing to do.

We can’t save everyone, that’s for sure, we can’t even try to love everyone. No shame in that. But I think James is implying: faking it doesn’t do anyone any good. 

How do we put all this together when we think about prayer? 

After all, there are so many questions when it comes to praying that God will change things in the world or love or help others. 

Can I list just a bunch of the questions that I hear you have as your pastor, or that I have sometimes. 

Questions like:

-Does God need our prayers to do things? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

-Is God not already doing what God can to help people?

Questions like:

-Can we make God do more of anything?

-Is our prayer for others for our sake? For their sake? For God’s sake?

Questions like:

-Does prayer for God to do things in the world even work?

What are we doing? What is God doing in all this?

One way of praying that doesn’t answer all these questions but I think leans into them faithfully is what Mark Karris calls conspiring prayer.

Conspire means to agree together. 

These days we usually use it for conspiracies, like people agreeing together to do bad things, or bad things in our imagination that aren’t likely even true. Conspiracy theories.

But the first meaning of this word, where it comes from, is to agree together because you breathe together.

Con- meaning “with” and “spire” meaning breath. 

And so to conspire with God is to seek to breathe together with God and to agree together on something like an action plan. 

Here’s what that looks like, with the example of my kid first leaving home.

My kid’s not close by. My heart is still with them. But it’s smothering, it’s creepy to text and call my kid all the time. So I don’t.

Instead, I say to God:

My God, my heart is aching for my kid. I want so much for them. And to the degree I worry about them, it’s because I love them so much, more love that fits inside here. 

What should I do with this?

And maybe I can pause for a moment and breathe with God.

Maybe I notice that God loves my kid just like I do – so much heart, so much good intention, such big feelings.

I say I notice – how do I notice this about God? Maybe I feel it. Maybe I hope it. Maybe I believe it. Faith, hope, and love, after all – that’s the way of Christ, the Bible says. If God’s a good parent, if God is love, of course God has all this love for this one person in particular. 

And maybe just that moment of breathing with God, that God has all this love too, maybe that calms me a little. Maybe there’s some hope there.

One of our kids used to get anxious sometimes, and sometimes I’d try this thing I first saw on a TV show, where I’d hold their face in my hands – gently, with permission, or I’d offer a hug, and we’d just stay there for a moment, and breathe together, while I say:

it’s OK. It’s OK. We’re here.

And I feel like prayer is partly this. It’s faith that God is breathing with us, offering a hug, or hand on the face, or an arm around the shoulder, breathing with us, saying:

I’ve got you.

And when I remember this in prayer, I realize: God has room for all my thoughts. God has time to listen. 

So maybe I tell God all that I want for my kid, all that I wish for them.

I’ve heard people in small group settings when we pray, say: God, I wish this and I wish that. And I used to think that was a sign they hadn’t learned to pray. Like come one, you’re just making three wishes. 

But now. I feel like: that’s not a bad way to pray, honestly telling God what we wish for. We don’t know if that’s what God wants, we may not be sure that God can make it happen, at least single handedly. But we believe God’s listening, and that’s a start.

So I tell God some of what I wish for. 

So I feel like God has room to listen

And if I’m breathing with God, con-spring, maybe I get curious about what God wishes for my kid, and maybe I wonder if that’s exactly what I’m wishing for, or maybe I wonder if God has a different picture of what’s best for them.

No way of knowing for sure, but that gets me curious, and that’s good for me. We love better when we’re curious, when we don’t have a tight grip, but open hearts, open minds. 

And then conspiring prayer takes a third step – beyond breathing with God, beyond wishing together, conspiring prayer says to God: what can we do about this? 

What can we do about this?

And it’s a we? Like God and me. 

Because maybe God can do things I can’t. Like God can inspire good people to come into my kid’s life, or God can inspire my kid themselves to turn toward hope, or to try something hard that might really be good for them. Maybe God’s already doing this.

  • Or who knows?
  • Maybe my wishes even inspire God a little? 

Not because God needs us for good ideas exactly? Probably not. But God’s a really good listener and what we have to say has an effect on God. That’s the way the Bible stories go, at least. 

But maybe I can do things no one else can too. Or maybe other people can do them, but they won’t. Or maybe there are things lots and lots of people need to do, and I’m one of them.

So I pray for my kid, and I remember: they really need some encouragement. I have some unique capacity to encourage them – to remind them of their best qualities or to let them know I believe in them. So I think: ah, it is time to send a text or make a call, not to give advice or nag them, but just to tell them how much I believe in them.

Or maybe I write a letter, or put a little care package together.

Or maybe I remember my kid seemed worried about money, and I don’t think money will solve any of their problems, but I do know that if they see $100 in their Venmo from me, out of nowhere, for no reason, that’s really going to surprise them, and in really good surprise kind of way.

And they could use a good surprise today, can’t they?

Do you get the idea?

Conspiring prayer is more work than just saying: God bless so and so. Or God help so and so in this kind of way.

But that’s what faith looks like. That’s what love looks like. It takes some work.

And whether it’s praying for your oldest kid who just left home, or praying for your pastor, or heck, praying for peace in Palestine and Israel, and praying for justice for terrorized and the dispossessed, and the body and soul-sick and hungry in that land, conspiring prayer acknowledges that there is so much we can not do, but there is also always something, something we can do. And conspiring prayer is taking a quiet, reflective moment and wondering with the unseen God of the Universe what that might be today, or tomorrow, or this year.

Conspiring prayer on this front got me in a room with a few Palestinian and Muslim leaders and one of our senators this month.

And conspiring prayer has got me sending cash and letters to my kid too. 

But conspiring prayer isn’t just about action. It’s about being with God, like God really is the kind and wise and beautifully loving mother and father that faith in the way of Jesus Christ says God is.

This is a God we can be with, that we can breathe with, that we can share all our wishes with. And that out of the calm, and the love that union brings, that we can imagine together just what we both can do.

This is prayer that availeth much, my friends. A partnership with the living God born out of breathing and agreeing and acting together. 

I encourage you to give it a try, or to try again, see how it goes.

The Value of a Daily Prayer Practice

We’re going to talk about prayer today and do some praying together for those of us who would like, but first we have some new year celebrating to do!

Last year we celebrated our church’s 25th anniversary in many ways.

Two years ago, I had my real conversation about this anniversary. It was with Ann Bakun, one of our Board members, who has a gift for celebrating people and things.

We spoke on the phone about what this anniversary year should feel like, and we both thought – let’s spend a little bit of energy celebrating where we come from and a little bit on where we are going, but a lot on who and where we are today. So many of us love and are grateful for this community – we thought how do we celebrate that?

And we thought – there should be a party and cake at some point. And one Sunday in May we had a party. We had a worship service where the mayor of Cambridge at the time, Sumbul Sidiqui, now a city councilor, spoke and thanked us on behalf of the city. Our state rep, Steve Owens, brought a proclamation from the Massachusetts State House, celebrating this community. And we had some food, I’m pretty sure a cake, afterwards. It was great. 

During that conversation with Ann, or shortly thereafter, we were thinking we should tell some stories too. So we had a 25 Stories for 25 Years Project, where 25 people or couples shared a story about good things in their lives through their time at Reservoir. Those stories are all up on our YouTube page; I think those are pretty great too!

I realized our church was turning 25, the same year I was turning 50, and celebrating 10 years with you as senior pastor, so I took a sabbatical for the summer. Going away for a little while may sound like a strange way to celebrate, but for me and my family that was great too. And then when I got back, I renewed my ordination vows last fall, which was really sacred and important to me. To commit to God to continue to serve as the pastor and person God has called me to be, and to commit to you all that I’ll keep doing that here as long as you’ll have me as well. 

One thing I remember from that first conversation with Ann, though, was that I was like: I don’t want to raise money. You know, nonprofits and churches and stuff use big anniversaries for fundraisers a lot of the time. And I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for that or didn’t see the vision or need. Or probably I just didn’t want to do the work. Whatever. But I remember saying: no fund-raiser.

Well, a few months later, our executive pastor Trecia and I were realizing – dang, a number of things are breaking around here. Like a whole bunch of pipes for instance. And we need to do something about that. And as we started pricing out some of the infrastructure work around the church and a couple of facilities projects that were just overdue for us, we brought that to our Board. And we just didn’t have enough money in reserves for it all. 

So I was like, well, I guess we’re gonna have a fundraiser after all. It was going be like $250,000, which seemed like a heck of a lot of money to me.

But then two things happened to make it much bigger. 

The second one, I’ll tell you about in a minute.

But the first was that two different Board members, each in their own way, were like – that’s too small, Steve. You’re uninspiring. Like, we can go bigger than that. One was like, hey, remember your goal of paying off all our debts and doing some new things with those funds, why aren’t we going for that?

And another one had pledged a certain amount of funds toward the whole fix up the church campaign, but when they heard we could go bigger, they were like, well, this actually inspires us. We’ll triple what we talked about giving before.

So we went in big. Just over a year ago, we launched this 25th anniversary capital campaign to raise $1.4 million dollars in giving last year and this year. And I started asking people, and then brought it to you all – let’s raise a ton of money, pay our debts, fix some stuff up, and reimagine the big things we can do together with this freed up funding.

And then, friends, all year, I went back and forth, almost every week, from like, oh my goodness, this church is so generous and committed, we’re going to do this thing. It’s going to be so great! To maybe a week later, thinking, why are we even trying to do this? It’s too much money. We’ll never make it. 

And then we got over half way there before I took the summer off, which felt great at the time, but then I got back to work at the end of the summer, and it was like, really, we have to ramp up this campaign again? What are we doing? It’s too much money. We’ll never get there.

Well, friends, I am pleased to tell you in this first week of the new year, that WE DID IT! Yeah, we did it! 

By December 31, our pledges and giving were at $1.46 million dollars. We beat our goal by more than $60,000.


Now there’s a lot more I could say about this campaign – it’s not technically over. Only about ⅔ of those funds are in the bank already. So we’re obviously hoping that all of you who made pledges for giving this year will fulfill those. And there’s tons to talk about in terms of what’s next – how we’ll be paying down our debt, what projects we’ll do, how we’ll be getting some new ministry goals off the ground. 

But all that is for another day. We’ll check in on that stuff a little at our members meeting on February 11th. And there will be quarterly updates for you all on what’s up and how to get involved. The first of those will probably be next month too. 

For today, two things. 

  1. Celebrate. You all are a generous, abundant community, and we dug deep together to really change this church’s financial future. And free us up to do some really cool things for our community. I’m so proud of us all. I hope you are too!
  2. But the other thing I want to mention today is that this campaign wouldn’t have happened without daily prayer practices.

I mean quite a number of you made choices about giving that you came to in your prayers for this church and your prayers about your own finances, and what to do with those. At our best, Reservoir, we are a praying church – people who ask God to be good to the people and causes we love, and people who ask God to lead us toward being people of love and faith and generosity and are open to God’s creative ideas for us in that.

But even for me. I mentioned that were two things that changed my mind about that campaign.

One is that challenge or dare from our Board – when they told me I was uninspiring to them, too cautious, too small.

But the other is what I did with it next. I didn’t feel great about how that landed for me, and one of the things I do with things that don’t sit well with me is I talk about them in prayer. 

And so I remember asking God,

  • am I lacking in boldness or courage around the church?
  • Am I thinking too small?

And in kind of a gentle way, the sense I had in me was: absolutely, yes, Steve. I felt called back to ask:

  • what do I really want for this church?
  • And what does this church want for ourselves? 

And in that prayer time, my hope, my faith, my vision and courage started to grow.

Friends, I don’t spend a ton of time in preaching talking about what happens when I pray because 1) it’s private. And 2) I don’t want anyone thinking that because I’m a pastor, I have a special connection with God you don’t have or that God is going to speak to you through me.

But I do know that it’s harder to have a sense that God is with us, and it’s harder to feel like God communicates with us or helps us day to day without some kind of daily prayer practice. 

So we’re going to talk a little bit about how to have a daily prayer practice if you want one. 

I’ve been reading a part of the gospel of John from the Bible this past week. Let me share just a few highlight verses with us. 

John 15:5 (Common English Bible)

5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.

John 14:26-27 (Common English Bible)

26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid. 

John 17:24 (Common English Bible)

24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.


We just finished up the Christmas season. At Christmas time, we remember Jesus as Emmanuel, a name that means God with us. That’s at the center of faith in the Way of Jesus, that the teaching and life of Jesus shows God to us 

But then the gospel of John tells us about this long, late night chat Jesus had with his disciples in a stone room in Jerusalem, the night before his death. 

It was an intense, late night conversation, as you’d expect.

These verses I read capture some of Jesus’ most radical, important hopes. Jesus says,

soon I’m not going to be around anymore. But the God-with-us experience can continue, uninterrupted, long past my years on earth. 

He says

stick with me, remain, abide, and we’re going to stay connected. Like a branch to a tree. Tight. 

He says

that in that connection, you will be a resource to bear valuable fruit. You will grow, be sweet and useful. You can participate with God in things of everlasting value.

Jesus says,

you can know God has a companion, a companion that will grow peace in you.

I used to think it was an insult if people thought Jesus was my imaginary friend. Now, I’m like, you know, yes, he is. And it’s real. It’s true. The God we can’t see is my friend, and God gives me peace. 

Jesus says

that connection, that peace can be so deep, it’s like you are with God.

We can be where Jesus is. That’s very mystical, but it speaks to a connection of depth and wonder.

And Jesus says that

God can keep teaching you the truth you need. God will speak to you, communicate with you, beyond what I’ve had time to tell you.

Obviously, nowhere here does Jesus use the word prayer, but this promise of companionship and peace and friendship, even union with God, where God speaks with us, and good things grow in our lives – it’s hard to experience anything close to this without a regular prayer practice. 

Before I say more, I’m going to be honest. 

When I began learning the Way of Jesus, decades ago, daily prayer was both over-commanded and filled with over-promises. 

I was told again and again, Jesus said we should pray. 

And I was promised that if I prayed and read my Bible every day, kind of magical things would happen in my life, and fast. 

This was motivating for me at first, so great! In my mid-teens to early twenties, I read the Bible just about every day, and I asked God for things, and shared my hopes and concerns with God, told God: you’re awesome. Really, I believe it, you’re the best. Because I thought God needed me to say that a lot. 

But over time, my interest in all this kind of came and went.

It became more and more of a “have to” and less of a “want to.”

Some of this was disappointment. My prayers didn’t always change my life as fast or as deep as I wanted them to. They certainly didn’t always seem to change the world or anyone else’s life, at least not most of the time. 

And some of this honestly was boredom. The Bible wasn’t always interesting, and neither were many of my attempts at conversation with the divine. 

And you know, you disciplined people in the world, some of you have the capacity to do things for a long time, even when they’re not always interesting to you or when you believe they’ll help you in the long run but you’re not sure if they are helping you today. 

And God bless the naturally disciplined people of the world, but I am not one of them. If things are interesting or helpful to me, they usually aren’t happening. 

And I’m not alone in having had my ups and downs with prayer. I know that.

You all may be more disciplined than me but you don’t necessarily pray more. This church is full of people I know who used to pray more in the past than you do these days. I know that because you tell me that. 

And this church is also full of people for whom prayer has never consistently connected either, so you try now and then, but not a lot. 

That’s why we’re starting the new year with this series on prayer

We are not going to command you to do anything. That’s not really our way at Reservoir. We don’t shame anyone or boss anyone around. We try to create an environment where we can all walk in the way of Jesus and flourish, but we’re not going to tell you what you have to do.

We are also not going to over-promise. Be like, if you pray, you’ll be happy, healthy, powerful, and rich. Or whatever. No blowing smoke in anyone’s ears here. 

But we will explore how to pray if it’s never clicked for you and you wish it would.

Or how to pray again if you don’t so much any more and would like to try again. 

Because prayer, and a daily prayer practice in particular, isn’t magic. And it can take some time to deliver. Sometimes you’ve got to try some different approaches too, to see what works best for you, or what works best for you in this particular moment of life. 

But over time, a daily prayer practice is one of the best ways, maybe the best way, to feel closer to God. To have faith in a loving God grows good things in your life. To have a sense that God communicates with you. And to have God grow more peace in you.

For me, over the past few years, daily prayer has become a want to and a need to – like, oh, I need this – instead of a “have to,” instead of a burden.

Daily prayer centers me in what’s most important. It anchors me in what I find to be most true and beautiful. In daily prayer, I am so often reminded of all the ways God is with me. And I very often gain tremendous direction and peace.  

And I’d love that for all of us who are interested. 

So how we’re going to finish today is we’ll try something out together. There are three ways of praying that are often part of my daily prayers – all ancient modes of Christian prayer that fit well in our contemporary world, and over time, have given me huge, huge benefits. Both interesting and helpful to me!

  1. The Examen – a prayer of self-reflection for discovering God with us and what we have to talk about with God.
  2. Silent contemplation – slowing down, getting some of the crud out of our heads, including the crud we think about God, and anchoring us in peace, in the truth. 
  3. Imaginative prayer in the gospels. Reading a story from the life of Jesus and using our imagination to see where we place ourselves in the story and how it speaks to us.



How to Pray the Examen

  1. Acknowledge presence and ask for God’s guidance.
  2. Review your day – 3-5 highs and lows
  3. Reflect on, talk to God about what you notice.  (Thank you, sorry, please)
  4. Look forward to the day to come, with hope, resolution, and prayer.

Why to Pray the Examen

  1. Over time, you’ll discover God in all things.
  2. It’s a powerful tool for personal growth.
  3. It can be endlessly adapted. 


Alright, friends, more in the weeks to come – here in the sermons, and in the workshops Ivy will lead as well. But for now, a closing prayer. 

The great vine of Heaven and Earth, source of life and abundance and good fruit, help you stay connected.

The Great Companion – Spirit of God and friend to us all, be with you and teach you everything you need to know.

May you be open to the great peace of Christ, so you can be centered and anchored, and not so troubled or afraid. 

May you be right where Jesus is, in awareness of the glory and goodness of our loving God. 


Christmas Eve Service

I’m Steve, the senior pastor of Reservoir Church. We welcome all people, without exception, to discover the love of Jesus, the joy of living, and the gift of community. We’re so glad you’re with us today. 

So good to be with you! One of my favorite places, with many of my favorite people, on one of my favorite days of the year – couldn’t be more pumped!

It’s been a very dynamic and exciting year in the life of this church, and I’m so glad to celebrate the birth of Jesus together today…

To our regular friends and members, thanks so much for sharing another Sunday together. And thank you for sustaining this community – all that we are and do – with your lives, your stories, your help, and your regular financial support. If any of you aren’t already part of the giving team that sustains the community, we don’t pass offering plates in our services but you can find out about giving at Reservoir and give online at our website –

If you’re not a regular part of the Reservoir Church community, a particular welcome to you. You can learn more about this community at our website,, or by following us on social media. 

Most Sundays we gather for worship in person at 9:30 a.m. and over YouTube at 11:00. Our kids and youth and adults are all worshiping together, as we will on next Sunday, New Year’s Eve. Our Sunday programs for babies through youth will resume during the new year. We also have over 25 groups that meet together throughout the week for connection and support and a variety of other ways to connect and serve the community.. If you’d like more information on our groups or any of our programs, or would like to sign up for our weekly newsletters and announcements, just fill out one of the connection cards I mentioned or email us at 

Alright, friends, let’s get to it. This is our Christmas Eve service of story, song, and candlelight. Today we’ll celebrate Christmas together with story and song. Along with readings of the Christmas story from the Bible, we’ll meet a few Reservoir families who’ll react to the story as well. At the end of our time, I’ll come back and share a few words of Christmas reflection and encouragement. And we’ll close with the singing together of Silent Night. 

Let’s now light the Christmas candle. As we do so, I’ll lead us in prayer with the words of Howard Thurman, pastor to America’s civil rights movement, with his poem, “I Will Light Candles this Christmas.”

I will light candles this Christmas,

Candles of joy despite all the sadness

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of courage for fears ever present.

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, 

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all year long.

Story – The Annunciation and Visitation

Luke 1:26-38 (Common English Bible) 

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee,

27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.

31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.

33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.

36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.

37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.


Luke 1:39-46 (Common English Bible)

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands.

40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry.

43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy.

45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

46 Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored

49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.

50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.

51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.

53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,

55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her home.

While a child holds Mary and Joseph and an angel and says, “The angel told Mary and Joseph that they were going to have a baby and to name him Jesus. They were scared, but they were happy too because Jesus, God’s son, was coming to save us.” 

Story – The Nativity and Shepherds  

Luke 2:1-20 (Common English Bible)

1 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.

2 This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.

3 Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.

4 Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.

5 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.

6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby.

7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night.

9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.

11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.

12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said,

14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.”

16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.

18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.

19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.

20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Mary and Joseph stand beside the manger. A child holds the baby Jesus and says

“Mary and Joseph had no hospital and nowhere to stay. While they were staying in a shelter, surrounded by animals, Jesus was born. Life was very hard, but God kept reminding them not to be afraid.”

Story – The Adoration of the Magi and Flight into Egypt 

Matthew 2:1-12 (Common English Bible) 

2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.

2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.

4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.

5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.[a]

7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared.

8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”

9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was.

10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.

11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.


Matthew 2:13-23 (Common English Bible) 

13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.”

14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt.

15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

18 A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much grieving.
        Rachel weeping for her children,
            and she did not want to be comforted,
                because they were no more.

19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.

20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee.

23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.

A child holds one of the Magi and says “Life was hard for the baby Jesus. But his mom and dad always remembered that after he was born, important people from very far away came to visit them and bring them gifts.”


I spent part of last Sunday with some of Reservoir’s youth, talking about merry Christmases and blue Christmases. 

A merry Christmas is when you celebrate the holiday with optimism, joy, and good cheer.

And a blue Christmas is the opposite – where Christmas comes, and you’re lonely or anxious, or you’re sad or angry. 

I asked the youth if they were coming into the holiday in more of a merry or a blue Christmas state of mind. And more than half of them thought they were somewhere in between. A little bit of both.

Me too.

This Christmas I have a lot to celebrate – a great year in the life of this church, and even more hope for the year to come. Friends and family I love and that love me too. A very loyal dog. Life’s pretty great.

But I’m blue as well. Worried about people I love. Heartbroken and angry over things in the world near and far. Tired out by some of this year’s stress. 

We all contain multitudes. We are people of paradox.

The Christmas story has room for it all. 

It begins with hope. 

Two women laugh together over unexpected joys. They cheer each other on as they dream about all their babies will become and all the wonders God will do in their lifetimes and beyond. 

Christmas after all invites us to dream again. If God is with us, who can be against us? What isn’t possible for God?

But the Christmas story ends in sorrow. A petty, narcissist politician hunts for the baby of Bethlehem. He can’t find Jesus. But there is collateral damage as they say. Rachel weeps for her children who are no more, as so  many mothers and fathers weep for their children today. 

Christmas is a story of immense hope, but it’s hope streaked with tragedy.

What do we do with this story of paradox?

What do we do with our merry/blue lives of paradox this Christmas?

Well, one option is that we stay where the story ends.

Our final reading ends with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph finding somewhere safe to live, escaping to the small, off the radar town of Nazareth. 

For Jesus, for a time, this is good. Nazareth is a hilly town away from trouble. 

It’s a place for Jesus to grow up and see many birthdays. To take his first steps, and wobble and fall, and get back on his feet again. 

To learn to speak Aramaic, to call his mother Ema and his father Abba.

Nazareth is where Jesus has the time to study Torah, to develop an uncanny knowledge and insight of the ancient holy texts of his people. 

It’s where he is safe to walk outside at night, look up at the stars and talk to God and wonder about his place in the world.

Nazareth is where Jesus would learn to catch and cook fish, where he’d apprentice to a builder and learn a trade. 

It’s good for Jesus to be safe, to have a place to grow and get ready for what’s to come. 

We need our Nazareths to flee to as well – the people and the places where we can go when trouble comes, when the stress and despair of life is too much. 

I have a park I walk to when I need that, where I can sit on the grass, lean back against the trunk of a tree, and be still for a bit. 

I have friends, in my case fellow pastors, who I meet with a couple times a month, where we smile and laugh and cuss a little, keeping it real about our joys and troubles. It’s good to spend an hour or two together, in privacy, in confidence, in that circle of listening and encouragement and support.  

I wonder if some of us need to find safe people, safe places for the year to come. Where can you go when you’re blue? Who can you be with when you’re stressed? What will you do to find your peace again when you’re afraid?

If we’re going to believe in peace on earth and good will to all people, we’re going to need to know how and where the peace can start with me. 

And this is good for us, for a time. To go to our parks and our prayer circles and our peace practices.

But we don’t spend our lives there. 

I get up from under the tree and walk back home.

I leave my little pastor buddy huddle and go back to work. 

Jesus grows up safe and secure in Nazareth, as every child should have the right to do in some city or town. But then he leaves. 

He heads east to the region of Galilee. Galilee was a complicated place. Multi-religious, multiethnic, it was heavily taxed, heavily oppressed, and a land of heavy anger and resistance. Of longing for a change to come. 

Jesus steps into this land, makes friends and followers among its people, as he teaches the way of a loving God with us, and as he teaches and lives a better way of being alive together, a healing path of truth and freedom and living like there’s always more than enough for us all. 

It’s the beginnings of God’s help, of the remembrance of mercy, his mother Mary dreamed of.

But it is not safe. People hate change, even the changes that set us free, and this was true even then in Galilee too. So Jesus found foes. Some people, including some very determined and very powerful people, came to hate Jesus. 

Which gives him the choice – to head back to his safe place in Nazareth if he can find it again, or to keep moving forward with his part – his very big part – in seeing God’s peace and justice get bigger in the world. 

So Jesus goes forward. He pulls back now and then. He withdraws to places and people and practices of peace. But then he keeps moving. 

What about us, my friends?

What hard work calls out to us in this year to come?

What relationships or communities of tension or despair do we live among, where we have access to bring words of blessing or peace? 

What complacent systems do we live within, where we  might be truthtellers or changemakers, sharing our story or our gifts? 

When the angels speak to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and it seems like anyone who has ears to hear, again and again what they say is: Fear not. 

Fear not. Don’t be afraid. 

I don’t think they mean: don’t you dare ever be afraid. 

Don’t get nervous. Don’t feel anxious. Don’t have stress.

Maybe for the angels, but not for us.

To be human is to feel these things.

But I do think they mean: don’t stay there.

Don’t hang out forever in your safe place. Don’t go back to Nazareth.

Go forward. Love big. Speak the truth. Live your call. Do the work. 

Remember what Christmas tells us.

That God is with us, this day, every day, in every place, forever.

And that God has the desire, and the ideas, and the strength to give us hope and to help us walk in courage in the middle of our fear, and to do the hard things that grow peace and justice in the world. We can join Jesus in this work, friends, moving from our safe places to our brave spaces where we partner with God and one another in the transformative healing of creation. 

Today it’s Christmas Eve today, tomorrow’s Christmas. It’s not a time for working. 

Take a moment of peace. Give a present, or open one, or both. Light a candle. Eat a good meal. Sleep a good sleep. 

We all deserve some peace. We all deserve secure places to rest and grow. 

Soak in the story. God is with us. Reclaiming every bit of our lives and every bit of creation as sacred ground again. If God is for us, who can stand against us? And if God is for us all, who dares stand against one another? 

But when you get up the day after Christmas, or the day after your vacation, before you go back to normal in the new year, perhaps pray the words of Thurman’s Christmas candle prayer with which we began today.

I will light candles this Christmas,

Candles of joy despite all the sadness

Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,

Candles of courage for fears ever present.

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days, 

Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,

Candles of love to inspire all my living,

Candles that will burn all year long.

Where can you join Jesus in his campaign of peace and good will, grace, hope, love, and courage? How will you welcome the light, and how will you and I join the light, be the light? 

Friends, if there is anything in that makes you just a little bit afraid, that’s OK. Ask God for courage to keep walking, keep shining, keep going forward. 

Together, we can do it. We can do it. 

Pray with me, friends, as we close.

Light of God, light of Christ, shine among us. 

Tender mercy and help of our Ema, Abba God hold and keep you this day and all the days of your life. 

The courage of Christ hold support you in your fear, and push you forward in courage. 

And may you know the light of God, shining upon you, within you, and through you and this day and forever more.