Finding God in Nature, and the Power that Brings

The other morning I was driving home from an errand. I had the car radio on but I wasn’t really listening until I heard someone announce that as of today, there were eight billion people on the earth. Eight billion – I thought, how do we know, like today? Who’s counting? 

We had an interesting conversation over dinner when one of my kids brought this up too – like what would it be like if you knew you were the eight billionth person born? And then what if a half second later, someone else died, and then another half second later another person was born, and then they, and not you, would be the eight billionth person born. How many eight billionth people will there be? 

Anyway, the other thought was – wow, that’s a lot of people. Eight billion people. 

The radio host had the same thought, because they asked the scientist they were interviewing,

is this a problem? Is that too many people for this earth? Should we be worried?

He sounded worried, and maybe surprised that all these people had snuck up on him. I mean, I know when I was born there were only about four billion people. Checking my math, I know that’s… a lot less. 

But the scientist was like: no, not really. The earth can handle eight, nine, even 10 billion people as long as we stay open to this dynamic, as long as we talk about and rethink some things to do with how we all consume, and what we use for energy, and what our immigration policies look like and all. 

And I felt both calmed and appreciative that this scientist has a good plan for us and at the same time, not very optimistic that our governments and institutions are listening to this plan very well. 

But I also wondered: what happens when we all confront realities like this? Rapid change, unexpected growth, strains on our person or collective resources.

Are we like the radio host, and all this change stirs anxiety or fear? If so, that usually gets us denying the news, or listening but hoarding our land, our resources, our privilege for ourselves and those like us.

Or are we like the scientist, greeting big changes with curiosity, with hope, even with joy and gratitude and letting all that give us power to get to work as a person, or get to work as a species and plan accordingly?

Today, we’ll start our Advent season looking at scripture and listening to some wisdom from Native American followers of Jesus as well. We’ll talk about big changes we face in our lives, sometimes scary changes, and a way in all that to remember God is always with us and that there is always more than enough. 

This season Advent is the season before Christmas. It’s a time to remember the unique ways God appeared to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it’s also a time of longing for God to appear to us still. It’s a season where we’re invited to dare to hope that the Spirit of God can again interrupt dull lives, warm our cold hearts, and draw us all toward greater faith, hope, love, joy, and justice. 

We’re actually launching a four-year Advent project, exploring four aspects of the incarnation of God in Christ, the expression of God in human embodied life. 

This year we’re inviting us all to pay attention to the self-investment of God in all of creation. It’s what theologians call kenotic christology. My mentor Tom Oord calls this the self-giving love of God. Another theologian, Tripp Fuller, captures it this way. He says,

“God didn’t want to be God without us.”

I love that. 

God has decided to not be God without us. God doesn’t want to be God without us. 

With that in mind, we’re calling this year’s Advent: with us. 

In the first week we’ll focus on God’s self-investment in creation, the ways God is known to us in nature, and the power that can bring us. You’ve got today’s sermon, but even better this beautiful guide we’ve prepared for you. It’s meant to be used for about 15 or 20 minutes a day but take a look at it today, in paper form or online, and make your own plan for how you’d like to use it.


What we hope this Advent is that our Sunday services and the use of our daily guide can encourage you to some spiritual and personal renewal in advance of Christmas. 

Alright, here’s this week’s Friday scripture from our Advent guide. It’s three verses from the beginning of the saga of one of the founding fathers of the faith of Jews, Christians, and Muslims all. 

Genesis 12:1-3 (Common English Bible)

1 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.

2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,

    those who curse you I will curse;

        all the families of the earth

            will be blessed because of you.”

We meet Abram as an adventurer, a wanderer, a person in search of a better life in a better land. Abram was born on the Eastern edge of what we call the Fertile Crescent – a crescent-shaped swath of land in the Middle East that both then and now can support an abundance of life.

Long ago, when the human population of the earth was nowhere near four or five billion, likely less than 100 million, Abram journeyed across the Fertile Crescent in the hope, the faith, that God had led him to the Western edge of that land, where there’d be a better life for him and for all his descendants. 

His father, the scriptures tell us, had started the journey when Abram was just a child. But then Abram’s brother died. And his dad is so grief-stricken and just so sad that he gives up on his dreams, settles down where his son Haran died, names that place after his lost son, and eventually dies there himself. 

Have you known anyone who’s given up on their dreams? 

I’m inferring here, but it seems that in his loss, Abram’s father’s outlook has gone from hope and abundance to fear and paralysis. Understandable, really. What failure of life, what grief, like the one he’s faced. Easy to lose one’s faith. Easy to lose one’s hope.

But Abram, who himself had lost his big brother to death, keeps moving. He senses God speaking to him, encouraging him to pick up his father’s dream, to leave the familiar and the secure for someplace, something better, something more. 

The promise he banks on is a promise of blessing. Scarcity, grief, curse, loss, failure won’t have the final word. He will still be blessed. 

There is still abundance. Blessing for him, blessing for all his descendants. 

In our faith tradition, the more ancient bit about Abram’s enemies being cursed is removed or modified over time. But the bit about him being blessed and his descendants being blessed is owned by all the spiritual descendants of Abram, all children of God, some of us feel all peoples of this earth.

Living with Abram in the care of an abundant God. Encouraged to be open to so much goodness that it overflows. 

Blessed to be a blessing.

In the story of Abram, faith that he may have in an abundant God and in a life of blessing, it’s hard for him to hold on to this hope. He wavers often, loses his way again and again. 

So three chapters later, we get this bit, a reminder Abram senses from God one night.

Genesis 15:5 (Common English Bible)

5 Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” He continued, “This is how many children you will have.”

Like all of us, it seems like Abram needs a concrete image of hope, a memorable way to remind him to keep the faith. 

So one night, while he’s outside under the dark sky, he has an impulse to look up. And in a darker sky than any of us has ever experienced in our age, Abram would see a panoply of stars, innumerable points of light. 

And the word that crystallizes in his imagination is: this is how big is your blessing. This is how big and beautiful the blessing is, as bright and as many as the stars. 

It’s an old trick, old and good magic Abram is experiencing that truth comes to us through the sacred wonder of creation. Nature speaks truth. It is the first, the oldest word of God, telling us God is with us, and there is more than enough. 

Friends, have you ever experienced truth coming to you, perhaps even God speaking to you in the natural world? 

I’d like to talk about that.

Also, have you ever experienced doubt that your life could be blessed? Ever lost your hope or become overwhelmed by fear? 

Maybe your own grief or loss has stopped you in your tracks. Maybe, as with Abram, a family legacy of pain has seemed more real than your aspirations for something better. 

Or maybe like that radio host hearing about eight billion people for the first time, the data and circumstances of life overwhelm and crowd out optimism, growth, possibility.

All this has happened to me.

When I was in my late 20s, I hit a moment where I was just gripped with fear. 

Grace and I had our first child, a baby less than one year old. 

After a rocky start in my early 20s, I’d found what I thought was not just a stable job, but a vocation – a career where I’d grow and contribute and support myself and my family while being fulfilled. 

I was a newish public school teacher, but I was growing, getting better at it and happier in it, finding my way.

And then I was laid off. The city where I taught was facing budget cuts, and last in, first out was the way of things. So I was told I’d be out of a job when the school year ended, and because my licensure was still temporary, I wasn’t so sure I’d find another teaching job again quickly.

For me, this experience of being laid off surfaced a ton of fears. 

My parents had some big disappointments and many periods of job instability when I was a kid. I have a vivid memory from when I was young of seeing one of my parents, sitting at a desk, papers before them, crying. I knew what it was like for people to feel insecure, like there was not enough, and now, with a new baby, I felt like I was recreating that pattern for my kids.

I felt like a failure, like I’d avoided it to this point, but here was the destiny for my life as a husband, as a worker, as a father – not good enough, not having enough. 

Here’s how I’ve always told the story to myself of what happened then. 

My little family of three was on vacation with some extended family. Others had paid our way because, well you know, we didn’t have enough. 

And I’d been reading the prophet Jeremiah, which is largely grim, but one morning on the vacation, I awoke before dawn with my Bible, an accompanying prayer guide on Jeremiah I was using, and a journal, and sat outside to pray in the early morning hours. 

And as I read the scriptures and sat before the sunrise, something came to mind with the clarity of the voice of God. 

I thought:

my failure, my time of not enough would not be the end of me.

Even at 29, I knew a lot about who I was and who I was meant to be in the world. My values, my hopes were pretty clear. And I thought:

God is going to make sure all these hopes and values find their meaning. Whatever job I have or don’t have, that’s not the key in life. No, the key is I know who I am and where I’m going, and God’s with me in this. 

My life was going to have meaning and purpose in the world. There was going to be more than enough for me and mine. And we were going to have a beautiful story together. 

We were going to be blessed. And we were going to be a blessing.

That’s how I tell the story to myself about what happened 20 years ago. It’s how I’ve told you this story before too, that the Spirit of God worked through prayer and the scriptures to speak the truth to me, to deliver me from a nagging, generational fear of failure, and to help me walk in hope, in promise, and blessing. 

This is how I tell myself the story. And I think it’s true.

But there’s another way to understand what happened for me in that story, what turned me from fear-gripped not enough to hope of blessing. 

To tell that other way of seeing it, I’d like to read one other scripture, Wednesday’s scripture this week in our guide, that offers another way of understanding my story that is also true.

It’s part of Psalm 65.

Psalm 65:9-13 (Common English Bible)

9 You visit the earth and make it abundant,

    enriching it greatly

        by God’s stream, full of water.

You provide people with grain

    because that is what you’ve decided.

10 Drenching the earth’s furrows,

        leveling its ridges,

    you soften it with rain showers;

        you bless its growth.

11 You crown the year with your goodness;

    your paths overflow with rich food.

12 Even the desert pastures drip with it,

    and the hills are dressed in pure joy.

13 The meadowlands are covered with flocks,

    the valleys decked out in grain—

        they shout for joy;

        they break out in song!

The psalmist is outside too, like me, like Abram. Abram saw the stars, I saw the sunrise, the psalmist looks out over fields and meadows with grain and fruit growing, sheep feeding, and thinks:

how abundant is this world. 

Now surely this isn’t the only thought he or she ever had about life. This poet lived in ancient times. She would have known times of famine, empty bellies and skipped meals. Or he would have perhaps known wars and threats of wars, conquest and subjugation, in his own life, or in his family lineage.

But this day, out in the beauty of the natural world, the truth returns, that God is with us, and that this God and this earth is abundant. There is more than enough for us all.

I think it’s no accident that my own breakthrough on this front happened because I got up in the dark to sit along the ocean at sunrise. 

 The ocean before me – so big, so alive – made it hard to think that loss and scarcity were the truest things in this life.

And the sunrise – so beautiful, so able to invoke the new hope and new mercies every day brings – made it hard to think that the best of life was behind us, and that God or goodness had abandoned me.

As much as the scriptures or the prayer brought me to God, the beauty of God’s creation did as well. It spoke the truth to me that God is here, that we are blessed, and that there is more than enough for all our blessing. 

I’ve learned this isn’t an accident. It’s a thing we can lean toward, as have the Native ancestors who first settled and lived among these lands we call home.

Mark Charles is a follower of Jesus and also the son of a Navajo father and a Native American activist. He maintains a spiritual practice of greeting the sunrise in the morning. And sometimes he shares an image or short video of the sunrise on his twitter feed with the exhortation,

“Walk in beauty, my relatives. Walk in beauty.” 

Franciscan Catholics have told us that nature is the first word of God. The Bible, even the person of Jesus come later. God spoke truth through nature first and speaks there still.

I’ve been reading the work of another Native American follower of Jesus, the theologian and activist and farmer Randy Woodley. He’s a Cherokee descendant and a wise teacher who brings Jesus-centered faith and Native American wisdom into conversation. 

One of his books is a new one, Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth. It’s a really practical invitation to honor and learn from the practices and wisdom of the Native Americans, whose ancestral lands we live upon. 

Woodley teaches the way Native Americans lived in conversation with the land, in a kind of humble, learning presence upon the land, trusting in its abundance, and listening to its stories and truths. 

Like Mark Charles, he too encourages us to be outdoors, to learn from what we perceive there, to return for instance again and again to particular places in nature we consider sacred. 

I think that happened for me 20 years ago in the sunrise along the ocean. The truth of God’s goodness and abundance came to me as a sacred word in that spot. And the hope of my own life’s blessing, overflowing enough for me and my family and for the blessing of others, became clear.

It happens for me still. It can happen to us all. It is the birthright of all eight billion living members of our human family.

Life’s hard. We lose. We grieve. We get anxious and afraid. Our problems grow and we shrink before our own eyes. And that anxiety and fear troubles us, and sometimes it doesn’t just scare us but it makes us smaller in all kinds of ways. We stop dreaming. We stop moving. We start hoarding, resenting, getting the little we can take. 

But then sometimes we lift our gaze again. We pay attention. 

We still see a few stars still in our electric light-brightened skies.

We get out early to walk our dog or go to work and catch the magnificent promise of a sunrise. 

We look out our window and see the last browned leaf floating down from a maple tree bracing for the cold of winter.

We listen to the ocean, which is always big enough, or before our evening meal, whatever we have to eat, we stop to pray and say:

thank you, God, that again, no matter what it is, I have food. Thank you God that there is more than enough. 

And maybe then we get a little calmer. We remember we are blessed and we are thankful. Maybe we dare to hope again.

And that starts to give us power to get curious, to wonder about the possibilities yet ahead with the help of God and friends. 

And knowing God is with us, knowing we are blessed, remembering there is more than enough, we can rest easy for a moment in the goodness of that blessing. We can walk in beauty for a little while. And we can get to work in faith, in hope, in love, joy, and justice again.

Get outside, my friends. Listen to how God is with us there. Pay attention to the truth of abundance, the hope of blessing, the promise of the good that is and is yet to come.

Water

Earlier this fall, someone from our community – Meredith – was baptized down the road from here in Mystic Lake. She hadn’t been baptized before and really wanted this ceremony, this blessing, before launching on a big new venture in her life that would take her away from this community and this city…at least for a while. 

For some reason, this had me thinking about another need to get baptized moment I experienced years ago. I was helping lead a weekend retreat off site by a different lake. It was winter time, or close to it, and we didn’t really go outside at all, let alone down to the waters. But someone at the retreat that I knew told me:

Steve, my friend wants to get baptized. Can we do that? 

And I said:

Sure, I love baptizing people. Let me talk to them and we’ll set something up back at the church in a few weeks.

And he was like:

No, he needs it now. And there’s a lake outside, can’t we do that?

At first I thought: It’s too cold. You know how cold it is, right?

And I asked:

What’s the rush? It’s baptism, not a trip to the hospital. 

But my friend explained a little, and later that day his friend much more why this was important. This guy’s life was a mess at the moment. There’d been some pretty big failings and he was trying to make things right with his spouse and some other people, and getting baptized was a way he felt like he could try to make things right with God and with himself first.

That made sense, so we talked and prayed, and walked over to the nearly freezing lake, took off some clothes, and in we went to those bracing, cleansing waters. It was fun. It was memorable. 

That memory has gotten me doing something quirky. Once a week, I’ve been going to one of our local lakes in my bathing suit, and throwing myself in. I don’t own a wetsuit. I don’t stay in long. But for reasons I can only partly explain, I’ve been drawn to the waters, as some kind of self-baptism if that’s a thing, a kind of bracing, cleansing, immersive experience of God. 

Today, I ask what’s behind all these experiences.

  • Why are we so drawn to water?
  • How does it speak to us and connect us with the divine?
  • What does it mean when scriptures say that God is water?
  • And are there ways we can more regularly be aware of God’s revitalizing, watery powers for us all? 

This is the 4th of 6 weeks where we’re exploring parts of my friend Rabbi Toba Spitzer’s amazing book God is Here. It’s so good. If you read books, you owe yourself a chance to read this one. 

Let’s take a tour through three of the many Biblical passages Toba highlights. 

We start at the beginning.

Genesis 1:1-2 (Everett Fox)

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and earth, when the earth was unformed and void, darkness over the face of the Deep, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.

This is a very literal translation by Everett Scott, a Hebrew scholar and poet who captures the feel of the language of the Hebrew Bible. We’re invited to imagine the primordial earth, long before humans, long before dinosaurs, long before there was any life at all. 

The earth, it says, was watery chaos – the deep waters from which we know all life emerged. And God was like a mighty spirit-wind flying over and through and out of that watery deep. It’s a reminder of the waters and the depths from which we come. And there’s this image of God hovering over the deeps, calling for life to emerge. 

Water is the source of life. And God is in the water. 

Maybe this is why I feel God with me whenever I dunk myself in each week. In that buoyancy of the water, I’m always reminded I’m not alone. Like a little kid in my mum or dad’s arms, I feel upheld, supported. God is with me. And that feels good.

We skip forward a couple of books to Leviticus, and the beginning of ancient Israel’s priesthood. 

Leviticus 8:6 (Common English Bible)

6 Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them in water. 

The priests are there to pray for the people and help them pay attention to God, stay connected to God. And part of the way the priests are set aside for what they do is that they are washed ceremonially in water. It’s not a bath so much as a spiritual cleansing. 

This ritual cleansing has morphed over the centuries and millennia in Judaism. In Christianity, it became the ceremony we call baptism. 

When I baptize adults, I always ask them privately, in sacred confidence, if there is any sin they want to confess – maybe a big shame or regret they hope they can carry lighter, knowing God’s forgiven them and can empower new life in them.

Sometimes they’re like: naw, I’m good.

Which is fine, in our tradition you this kind of confession to another human is always voluntary, never required. Usually, though, people appreciate the opportunity. They talk about mistakes or regrets, sometimes unburdening very big things, a huge moral failing as a spouse or a friend or parent or any number of other things.

Sometimes, it’s not their sin they want to confess, but wrong done to them, a huge hurt they want to know more healing from God in. Either way, it’s a rare chance to be really honest and to be assured that a God of new life and second chances is with us. Which is always good news, right, because life’s long and hard, and we need all the love, all the healing, all the chances. 

When I go into the waters each week, I try to make a confession first too, to tell God where I need cleansing. Sometimes it’s a word I wish I hadn’t said, a thing I wish I hadn’t done, but it’s broader than this too. I call to mind all the crap and muck that litters my mind and heart – a hurt here, a regret there, an anxiety or a ruminating thought I just can’t shake, and I’m like God:

Could you bathe that out of me. Wash my mind, my heart, help me walk more free?

You know how usually you take a shower just out of habit or part of your regular hygiene and all. But sometimes you take a shower to shake off a bad feeling or a bad experience or state of mind, right? And the shower helps you clear your head, you sometimes come out unburdened, more free. That’s what’s happening to me too. 

So with the priests, who needed their heads and their hearts clear to serve God and the people. Cleansing waters. 

And then the last book of the Torah, the book of speeches along the Jordan River, before entering the promised land. Moses says:

Deuteronomy 8:7 (Common English Bible)

the Lord your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills;

Water’s God’s abundance and vitality. It’s the sign of what I say almost nightly at dinner:

Thank you God that there is more than enough. 

Here the water is the source of crops to eat and wells for drinking. It’s hope for life for these tribal people as they cross the Jordan, filled with hope. 

This past summer, I went to the Jordan River too.

A mentor of mine had encouraged me to think of my trip to Israel and Palestine as a pilgrimage, to ask myself what am I bringing to this land and what am I hoping to find there?

And in asking that, what came to mind were all these sorrows in my life I was carrying. A couple of the sorrows were particular to me and to relationships in my life, different forms of grief and loss. And then many of the sorrows were those of people I love, but that I knew close and well enough that I felt the weight of them too.

And I thought, I need to bring my sorrows on pilgrimage with me, and I need God to meet me in them. Maybe I don’t need God to take them away, like trying to use God to not feel pain or grief that is right and healthy to feel. That’s called spiritual bypassing, when we try to use God or faith or religion to avoid hard things, and that doesn’t make us lighter people or bigger people, just shallower. 

What I wanted wasn’t pain relief, it was integration, it was hope. I needed help in carrying these sorrows. I wanted a deeper faith that God was in the sorrows too, that God was on the scene to help.

So I filled a prescription bottle with tiny bits of paper with a couple of words on each representing these sorrows. 

And while the other pastors I was traveling with were busy getting ready to rebaptize themselves in the Jordan River, I waded up to my knees downstream, and one by one, I held those little slips of paper underwater, kind of baptizing the sorrows, you could say. And I asked Jesus, hold this one, and hold this one, and hold this one. We all need your help. 

And you know what happened? Nothing. It was an act of faith, and sometimes with acts of faith, you feel something and sometimes not at all, and this was one of those not at all moments. But I was like:

Well, I’ve done what I wanted to do, so I said thanks, God, and went and watched my colleagues have fun dunking each other in the river.

A few days later, though, when I was praying up at the temple mount in Jerusalem, something broke open in me. And on my knees by that ancient wall, I just wept and wept, like I haven’t in years.


Like a purging of grief or something, tears pouring out as I thought of myself and all these other people in my heart, all these sorrows. I felt connected, like I stand with a large and mighty community of faith, running back through our spiritual ancestors all the way to Jesus and beyond. And I felt too:

God, you’ve got it, don’t you? You’re here with all of us, all these sorrows, and you are very much for us all. One way or another, we’re gonna be alright, aren’t we?

I feel a bit of that energy and strength each week as I get out of the waters I’ve been throwing myself into. Not pouring tears again like that, but still, feeling cleansed and connected and strengthened. Maybe it’s the presence of God, maybe it’s just the cold water submersion, but I feel more alive every time I do it. 

I’m not alone. In our last Board meeting, we talked about this God is Here series. I shared that we’d be looking at some of the Old Testament’s non-human metaphors for God. I named some of them – rock, place, voice, fire, cloud, water, and so on – and asked them which spoke to them most about God. And the most popular was water.

One person talked about going to the ocean to see just how big and beautiful it is, just like God. The ocean is always big enough, my therapist tells me. It’s true, and so it is with God. 

Another person talked about how different it feels to be under water – swimming, diving – and how those are the times he most experiences God. 

The scriptures tell us we come from water. We are cleansed by water. We owe our lives to water, and in so many ways, we are revitalized by water too. In all this and more, God is with us. God is with us in the waters. 

And maybe that’s the sermon… that all the best that water is, God is too. And the water helps us know it. 

But here’s the thing. One more bit. Some part of us knows all this already. And yet the experience can be hard to access.

I know that when I’m tired or low on energy, the best thing to do next is drink a tall glass of water. Because unless you’re one of those obsessive hydrators who carries around your own half gallon jug, who of us drinks enough water? 

I know this, but when my energy’s a little low, I’m more likely to grab one of the Halloween candy bars lying around, than I am to hydrate. 

Am I alone?

And I know that for me – may not for everyone – but for me, my days go best when they start with prayer. I have some scriptures, some written prayers I like to read slowly. I meditate on bits of the gospels and the psalms. I hold my own needs before God and the needs of a whole bunch of people in my life and people in this community. I review my day behind me and my day before me, asking God for insight, direction, vision. 

I’ve been praying for decades, and this way of connecting with God is familiar to me. It centers and grounds me, gives me more hope and purpose, in other words, I like doing it. It feels good. It helps me.

But many mornings of my life, I make my coffee, and sit down, and half an hour later, I realized I’ve checked three social media sites, and two news outlets, and my email and my online banking balance, but I haven’t prayed at all. And it’s time to get my kids to school and get on with my day. And I don’t feel energized at all. 

Do you have this version of this, I wonder. Knowing what brings you life, but not going there? Or knowing specifically what helps you connect with God, but settling for substitutes?

The scriptures name this phenomenon really well too, and they associate this too with God as water.

Jeremiah 2:10-13 (Common English Bible)

Look to the west as far as the shores of Cyprus

    and to the east as far as the land of Kedar.

Ask anyone there:

    Has anything this odd ever taken place?

11     Has a nation switched gods,

        though they aren’t really gods at all?

Yet my people have exchanged their glory

    for what has no value.

12 Be stunned at such a thing, you heavens;

    shudder and quake,

        declares the Lord.

13 My people have committed two crimes:

    They have forsaken me, the spring of living water.

    And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water.

The prophet is so confused. It’s like, well, there’s this God we call the Spring of Living Water. Yeah, fountain God, so good, that you drink from God and you are glorious – more alive, vibrant with inner beauty and joy. 

And then people are like,

Oh, yeah, but I have this plastic toy god I kind of like playing with instead.

Or like,

Oh yeah, spring of living water is over here, but I’m going to dig a ditch in this bit of sand and see what I get there instead. 

It’s odd, but it’s also just what we do. 

We’re drawn to habits of living that don’t satisfy us and make us alive. And we’re drawn to what the Bible calls idols, stuff we look to for God-sized security and help, that increasingly demands our time and devotion, while decreasingly rewarding us at all. 

Addictions are famously like this – clinical addictions of various kinds but even sort of addiction-lite, like compulsively scrolling on our phones, or distractedly numbing ourselves out with food or fantasy or whatever. Our obsessions with money, with stuff that we think will make us secure or happy are like this too. 

We’re habitually drawn away from God because idols have advertisers – like buy more, eat more, consume more, save more, worry more, whatever.

But you know what’s cool? Even in the busy, weird, distracting world of ours, and even in these times where drinking from God can seem abstract or hard, Spring of Living Waters hasn’t gone anywhere. 

The Deep still calls to us. Springs and wells still gush up in the valleys and the hills. God of the Waters is still here, eager to enliven, to cleanse, to revitalize, and help us follow God’s flow into lives of greater faith, hope, love, joy, and justice. 

Two practices I commend to you that can help, both drawn from Rabbi Toba’s wonderful chapter. 

The first is so easy, and you can do it several times a day. The second will take a little time and intention. 

The first is water blessing. Anytime you make contact with water – when you drink water, when you wash your hands, when you shower, or even when you jump into a cold lake, or walk by the ocean, or drive on a bridge over the river, you see the water and you say:

Thank you, God, for the water that gives us life. I bless you, Source of Life and Spring of Living Waters. 

That’s it – thank you, God, for the water that gives us life. I bless you, Source of Life, and spring of Living Waters. And you see what that prayer does in you, what it grows in you. 

The second is called Going with the Flow. In this practice, you recognize that life is like a flowing stream. It’s somewhere now, and it’s going somewhere too. And we can make choices about how we navigate the flow of our present, and the flow of our future too.

And God has a flow too. In one of the many water scriptures we didn’t get to today, the prophet Amos cries out:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The flow of God is toward greater love and greater justice, not just for me and mine, but for all of us. 

And so in going with the flow, we pay attention to the flow of our lives. We ask if it is aligned with our own values and hopes, and if it’s aligned with the best of what we know of God.

We take some time to ask:

Where am I? 

  • How am I spending most of my time, money, and attention?
  • What fills my schedule, fills my heart, fills my thoughts?
  • And is that aligned with who I believe myself to be or hope myself to be?

And if not, you can have a chat with God or with yourself about that and see what you want to do.

And then we ask ourselves:

Where am I going? 

  • What do I want to be true in two months, at the end of the year?
  • How about the end of this decade?
  • How about the end of my life?
  • Will my life as is get me there the way I’m going?
  • Or do I need to make some different choices?

When I did this exercise, I had two very specific things I wanted to be true by the end of this year. And they weren’t going to be in reach the way I was going. So I’m making some changes to my time to make one of them possible, and I’m stretching my deadline a bit on the other.

And that was just looking at the next two months. Looking at where I’m going further out yields even more insight, more hope, more ideas and prayers. 

Life’s too good and too short to set ourselves up to live with regret. Better to find our best flow, God’s flow sooner rather than later.

And God’s too good. The spring of living waters is too good to not turn and drink. My friends, the water is good. It’s there within reach. Take hold, drink deep, dive in.

Becoming

The other week I caught a show at the planetarium at the Museum of Science. I hadn’t been there in years, maybe decades. If you’ve never been, Boston’s Museum of Science is just a wonder, famously so for kids but for grownups too. And the Planetarium is where you can see shows about astronomy and what you can see in the night sky and other stuff. It’s really one of our city’s treasures.

I was back there because I’d been invited along with some other clergy of different faiths for a pre-screening of a new Planetarium show that debuts next month, one on religion and science. It tours you about the earth’s cultures and creatures – past, present and future. And it asks many of the big questions that both religion and science pose about the origin and nature and meaning of things, why the earth and the universe are the way we are. 

If you can’t tell, I was spellbound. Highly recommend this show. Anyway, there were a couple of moments in the film that were particularly breathtaking for me.

One was when the show visually represented the changes in human culture and science over the millennia. You visually sweep through time, from the first human use of fire a couple hundred thousand years ago down to today’s lightning speed changes in culture and technology. And you feel both like: woah, what an ancient human story we’re part of but also a kind of awe and delight and fear at how fast that story is changing right now. 

And then there was this other moment, when the film is putting life on earth in the context of the vastness of the universe. And the panoramic view sweeps out from some kind of subatomic particle to a single human’s eye perspective and then on out to a view of the whole earth, and then the earth’s place in our solar system, and our orbital life that sweeps around the sun in the context of the billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and then how many billions or even trillions of galaxies there are in the whole universe.

And Friends, breathtaking doesn’t do it justice. 

How does one think about, feel about, talk about the smallness of our little blue planet in the context of our massive and ever expanding universe? 

What a time to be alive, to begin to be able to peer into the tiniest intricacies of matter and at the same time to gaze out into the inconceivably enormous universe we’re part of. And for our jaws to drop in wonder.

And what a time to be a person of faith in someone or something we call God. An everlasting spiritual being who is creative force behind all this, who is creative, loving presence amidst all this. 

In light of all we are beginning to know about this wildly complex, breathtakingly beautiful, and ever expanding universe, how do we think about and talk about God and worship and pray to God? 

The next few weeks we’re going to explore this question with the help of the work of a friend of mine named Toba Spitzer. Toba is a prominent rabbi in the Jewish religion, a practitioner and a teacher of a form of Judaism called reconstructionist that seeks to help Judaism change and evolve to meet the context and needs of a modern era.

I like Toba for a lot of reasons but one of them is the kindred religious spirit I see in her. Because my calling as a pastor, and Reservoir’s calling as a church, is also within our own tradition, a kind of reconstructionist calling. We want the Christian faith to stay rooted in its origins while also evolving, being large enough, flexible enough to meet the contexts and needs of our times. 

So, from now through Thanksgiving, our Sunday teaching will be drawn from Toba’s work in her new book, God is Here. I highly recommend the book if you want to get it, read it with a friend, with your community group. That’s up to you.

But we’ll draw from a few of Toba’s chapters the next few Sundays in some different Old Testament, non-human metaphors for God. 

This week, I speak on God who is engaged with our universe in its ongoing process of change, God as Becoming. 

Our scripture is from the book of Exodus, chapter three. Moses is called in the wilderness to lead his tribal people out of slavery in Egypt, and he has this encounter with God who names Godself to Moses in a new way, as the ever Becoming one. 

It goes like this:

Exodus 3:11-15 (Common English Bible)

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

13 But Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. So say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

15 God continued, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever; this is how all generations will remember me.

So at first Moses is like:

I can’t do this big thing. I’m not good enough. I stutter. Whatever.

And God says:

I’ll be with you, and I’ll show you that in various ways.

But then Moses is like:

who are you, anyway, God? What will I call you? What is it that I can say about you? 

Deep questions, questions we all ask in a journey of faith, right? What is God like? How do we talk about and talk to this god?

Well, for Moses, and for the first time in the history of the people of Israel, there is divine revelation of this holy, unique name for God. In our English translation, God says,

you all can call me: I am who I am.

And later, that’s shortened just to

“I am.” 

This one word, this one name: Yahweh, or Rabbi Toba tells us Ehyeh, it shows up all over your Bibles but you don’t see it. Every time in your English Old Testament, you see the name Lord for God, but Lord is written with all capital letters, it’s the translators’ attempt to do something with this name that they don’t really know how to translate: Yahweh or Ehyeh. It’s everywhere.

Rabbi Toba tells us you most literally translate this as:

I Will Be that I will Be. Or

“I am Becoming that I am Becoming.”

There’s a lot going on here. 

Moses is learning that this God can not be limited by its name, can’t be boxed in, or controlled. Humans have often named their gods to give them familiarity, the familiarity of a divine being you can appease, and you can hopefully get to do your bidding.

But in Exodus, this God – this God that later on Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all agree is the Most High God, the creator of the universe, the one real divine being – this God can not be named like that, does not want to or need to be appeased, certainly can not be controlled.

No, this God is Being. Or better yet, this God is Becoming. 

If God’s name is Becoming, there’s two subtly different ways we can read this. 

One is that God isn’t changing or growing, but to us, God is ever becoming. Because we are always seeing and learning new things about God. God is so large and beautiful we can never stop learning and seeing more.

The other way to see this is that God is still becoming. Like the universe itself – infinitely large, but at the same time is still expanding. 

If God is like this, then there are aspects of God’s nature or character that never change. The New Testament defines God in a word only three times.

God is Spirit.

God is Truth.

God is Love.

Those things are always true about God. God is always spirit, always true, always loving. And you could add others, like God is just. God is kind. You get the idea. 

But in addition to this constant, everlasting nature, God is also becoming. Because God is in relationship with everyone and everything, God has new experiences, and those experiences affect God and shape the ideas God offers back to us for the future.

For what it’s worth, friends, this is the stuff I study about God in my doctoral program in theology. It’s called process theology, or open and relational theology.

I think that in the 20th century there were three marvelous breakthroughs in Christian theology and experience. They are pentecostal, liberation, and process theology.

Pentecostal theology was born in urban Los Angeles in 1906. People were experiencing the presence and power of God in their emotions and in their bodies, and that seemed to open up power in people’s lives, power for healing, power in their sense of intimate connection with God in prayer, and power to overcome injustice, like to be in interracial communities amidst segregation. The Pentecostal and charismatic movements born of this are the most rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the world. There’s a lot of mess and abuse and unhealth that hangs out in these spaces, but there’s beauty too. Our church, many of us, live in the legacy of this Pentecostal theology and experience. 

Liberation theology was born in the 1950s through the 1970s as colonial global empires and racist segregationist states like the United States started to break up and change. Alongside the movements for freedom in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and within Black America, there were movements of liberation within Christianity that said God is not on the side of oppressive colonists and racists. God is not only interested in eternal life in heaven. God is interested in humane, just conditions in this life, on this earth. And so God cares about the healing and freedom of oppressed people groups. In the US, there was Black theology. In Korea, minjung theology. In Africa and Latin America, this was often called postcolonial or liberation theology. Super-important, that God is in solidarity with those who suffer, and that God cares about justice and wants us to do justice as well. Our church’s vision for Beloved Community is deeply influenced by Liberation theology.

And then lastly Process theology. This was born amongst philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead who were responding to scientific insights like Einstein’s theory of relativity and what became quantum physics, that the only constant in the universe is change and movement, that there are no unchanging substances. You and me and the air around us, and even the chairs you’re sitting on are all collections of matter in relationship. Process theology has the insight consistent with our scripture that God too is always in relationship, that God has experiences that have an affect on God. 

And so God is everlasting and aspects of God like God’s loving nature may never change. But in other ways, God is a creative partner with us all in life. God too is still becoming.

Now at the very least, our view of God keeps widening. Most Biblical authors if pressed would have told you that the earth was the center of creation, and that somewhere above Jerusalem, maybe a few miles up, just over where the birds fly, and over the moon and the stars, God has a throne in the heavens – far enough away that we can’t see it, but close enough that God and any other spiritual beings can see us.

Just about no one thinks that any more. We know that the moon itself is 239,000 miles from earth, and that in the scope of our solar system, that’s still really close. So we know now that the whole “throne of God in the heavens” thing is a metaphor. 

Our view of God has widened. Throne is a metaphor for God’s worth and power. And heavens is a metaphor for God’s omnipresence. God is spirit and God is everywhere. Heaven is just where the good life of God is manifest. 

At minimum, our view of God needs to keep expanding. In our religious traditions and beliefs, we need to be humble about what we know and open to ongoing growth and discovery. This is why religions change. And it’s true for each of us personally too. People change. In our own faith and views, we can be humble and open to discovery, to becoming.

Let me dial this down super practically into two ways of being spiritual I want to commend to you.

The first is called apophatic spirituality. I gave a couple sermons on this a few years back. But here’s the quick version. Kataphatic spirituality means with words – it’s about the things we can affirm about God and know about God with words and images, relating to God through reading holy scripture and verbal prayers and song lyrics and pictures of God in our imaginations. Awesome stuff.

But apophatic spirituality is the necessary, moody cousin to all that. Apophatic means without words. Apophatic says every word and image we use about God may be partly true, but it’s also partly not true. 

God may have a throne, but God doesn’t really have a throne.

God may be like a shepherd, but God’s not really a shepherd. God’s not a person at all, and it’s also rude to people to treat them as if we think like sheep.

God’s always bigger and better than any words or images we put around God. God will be who God will be. God is becoming. So apophatic spirituality encourages mystery and humility and silence.

In our postmodern age of deconstruction, apophatic spirituality affirms some of our impulses. It’s good to be like: I was taught or my parents were taught that God is Father. And that may be true in some ways. But dang, it can end up being limiting, even abusive to get it in our heads that God’s a man. 

So we need to both speak and unspeak that God is Father. God is more than that. God will be who God will be. We can’t contain or control God or put God in a box. God is Becoming. 

That’s apophatic.

The other practice is one Toba commends in her book. It’s a regular practice of radical humility and curiosity about the Becomingness of God and of everyone and everything in the world.

It’s called, “What is this?” The idea is that throughout your day, when you encounter things and experiences both familiar and unfamiliar, you ask with open curiosity, “What is this?”

I read a verse in the Bible about God. Maybe it’s something I think I understand, or maybe it’s something that confuses or troubles me. Either way I ask:

What is this?

And through that question be open to the new becoming of God to me.

Or like Moses before the burning bush, we look at any object in the natural world and ask with curiosity: what is this? And that question can open us up to see the possibilities of becoming in all things.

Like my dog. My family’s trying to train a puppy, and it’s a kind of puppy known for being whip-smart and wonderful but also kind of hard to train. So when my puppy is standing his ground and not wanting to go where I want him to go, I can get frustrated and impatient and yank him around because I’m stronger than him. 

But that’s mean, and it’s bad training too, won’t get us where we want to go. So I ask, “What is this?” What is this dog? And what’s happening here? And I see then: oh, this dog is super smart and has an interesting will of his own. And I’m trying to persuade this dog that I’m wise and trustworthy, that I’m a person worth following. And I’m trying to do that too across this cross-species language gap, which is both challenging and fun. But if we can do this well, if we can learn to communicate to each other, and I can be worthy of his trust and he trusts me, then we are going to have a beautiful relationship. 

Or like my procrastination. I’m working on a big writing project, or more often I’m not working on it. Because it’s long and hard, and so it draws out my insecurities and frustrations and procrastination. And my natural instinct when this happens, as it did for instance on Thursday morning, is to get frustrated with myself and then get restless and give up, which means I don’t get any more writing done and I also feel worse about myself later.

But when I can get curious instead, I can ask:

what is this? What is happening in this experience?

And even ask that question in light of faith and wonder:

God, how do you see what’s happening here? And is there a way that you can help me move forward with more freedom and joy in this? 

And when I tried that Thursday, I remembered that even though I’m 49, I’m still growing. I’m not done yet. And I remembered that God is compassionate for me and patient and not frustrated with where I am today but glad to help me grow.

And I thought:

what if I could be patient with myself too? What if I can just do these one or two parts of the project today rather than worry about the 100 parts I don’t have the energy or insight to do yet? 

And that helped me do the bit I could do on Thursday, which got me one or two steps closer to where I want to go. And maybe more importantly, it was another step in knowing God loves me and is for me, and another step toward self-compassion and owning my own growth too. 

That question of curiosity:

what is this? 

Well, friends, we open our God is Here series with the holiest, most important name of God in the Old Testament, the name that tells us God is Becoming.

God is still experiencing new things in relationship to you and me and all creation. And there is more to God than we yet know or can put to words. There’s a big-eyed, childlike wonder that this Becoming God calls for – a wonder that lets us keep learning, keep growing, keep discovering. God is here. And God will continue to be ever more big and beautiful and loving than we’ve yet seen.

Humility-The Gifts of Imperfection

So I’m walking into Boston’s Prudential mall the other day, and I see this art on the staircase beneath my feet. All the bright colors and the phrases: You are strong. You are capable. You are enough. 

You are strong. You are capable. You are enough.

How do you react to those phrases? How do you react to them as artwork at the entrance to a high-end shopping destination?

I asked about this on social media this week and got kinda the same range of reactions I had. 

On the one hand, I cringed. Honestly, I thought: this is corny. And I wondered what the intent is here for customers walking into a mall. Like it’s trying to amp us up to think, I am awesome, I am enough, and I deserve it. So we can smile while dropping eight hundred bucks for a new phone while sipping eight dollar cups of coffee. Some of my fellow cynic friends on social media felt the same way.

But on the other hand, I was like maybe this is just great. And to be honest, this was the reaction of more of my friends, to say:

Hey, don’t we all need encouragement? I mean, life can just beat us down. And if a little stairway art can lift our spirits, isn’t that a good thing?

I grew up in a family, myself included, that could tend toward critical, and so even though I was pretty strong and capable when I launched out into my adult life, it wasn’t always easy for me to own that.

And this phrase “you are enough” is one I’ve wrestled with over the years. The Christian faith I came into in my youth did so much good for me, but it also mostly encouraged me to feel the opposite of this.

I am not enough. I am unworthy, I was taught, just riddled with sin that merits my guilt and shame. But thanks be to God, I have been loved by God in Christ, so if I confess all my not enough-ness, I am accepted, forgiven, adopted as a beloved child.

And I actually believe exactly what I just said, word for word. But the way I received this faith seemed to often leave me still feeling less of the acceptance and connection and beloved-ness of adoption and more of the guilt and shame of never enough. Still not enough.

So I’ve come to appreciate this phrase: you are enough. Maybe by myself I am, maybe I’m not. Depends on the situation. But with the love of God and the help of friends, I am. Maybe not enough for some weird idea of perfection or sufficiency I got in my head. But with the love of God and the help of friends, enough to be good. Good enough. Every time. 

Today, we’re talking about Reservoir Church’s core value of humility. It’s the second to last week of a month we do each year called We Are Reservoir, inviting our community to consider who and what this church is and is still becoming, and inviting everyone who’s interested to a joyful belonging as members of the community.

I think this value of humility is one of our most important. I think it’s a critical value for the future of the Christian faith too, and as a personal way of being, it also helps us live fuller, more joyful lives.

So this matters a lot to me.

If you’ve been around for a bit, and I say a couple things that sound familiar, I’m recapping parts of one of my favorite sermons, a talk I gave in 2019 about four phrases for wholehearted living, those phrases being…

  • I don’t know but I’m learning
  • I’m sorry
  • I’m beloved
  • I am enough

We’ll get back to these phrases in a bit.

But first we’ll look at a bit of scripture together and why humility is central to following Jesus and central to the future of the Christian faith, if that future is going to get any better than it looks these days. 

Our passage is from this little letter called Philippians. We’ll read a few verses from the second chapter. 

Philippians 2:5-8  (Common English Bible)

5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,

        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

7 But he emptied himself

        by taking the form of a slave

        and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,

8         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

        even death on a cross.

So like a good Marvel superhero story, the writer of Philippians gives us a Jesus backstory, told here in a poem. 

It says that once upon a time, his spirit, his essence was God himself. But he emptied himself. He became one of us. He humbled himself. Even to the point of a brutal, undignified death.

There are different ways to read this.

One is that the whole “form of God” thing is an exaggeration, that Jesus was a pretty great person but not really divine. The early churches rejected this view as unworthy of how Jesus embodied and revealed God to us.

Two is the idea that Jesus was indeed son of God but was kind of faking it as a human, sort of like the Greek gods in their temporary earthly visitations or like Clark Kent just hiding his Superman superpowers. The early churches also rejected this view because it was clear to them that while Jesus was a special human being, he was still very much a human. 

In fact, Jesus is the kind of human we aspire to be and who with the help of God, we can indeed become.

Calm, curious, clear, compassionate, confident, courageous, creative, and connected. 

Those eight C’s are actually the image of human goodness, the fully present, fully developed self. They’re not a bad description of Jesus either. 

The good human life isn’t superhuman. It’s not a Marvel superhero-like striving after god-like powers. Unlimited wealth, power, skill, opportunity – that’s not a good human life, it’s a myth, a sham, a chasing after the wind. Jesus’ biographers tells us that at a key moment in his young adult years, someone or something called the satan, the accuser, tempted Jesus to strive for this kind of superhuman perfection. And Jesus said:

no way.

Or as Philippians puts it, Jesus didn’t try to exploit divinity. He didn’t strive to be more than he was as a human. He accepted the path of humility.

This meant serving others, not using others to suit his own needs for sure. The passage focuses on that.

But it also meant experiencing a beautiful, humble, human life. 

Growing and learning throughout his life as we do. Asking lots of questions all the time, so many questions, because asking questions, being curious, is a great way to grow and deepen relationships, but also because Jesus didn’t know everything. 

Jesus did know where he came from – he never doubted how valuable, how beloved he was. But Jesus also had limits, he suffered, he could not do and chose not to do everything he wanted and still knew that within all those human limits, he was enough.

This is what it means to be humble. It’s to not try to play the status game of curating our image to impress for sure. 

But at a more basic level, it’s also just being who we are, no less and no more. It’s growing, learning, and making joyful peace with our limits, that we are beloved and more than enough not as gods but as humans, not as cocky and certain and arrogant, but as calmly confident even with our doubts and limits.

That’s Jesus, and with the help of his Spirit, it can be us too. 

You’ve got to wonder, though, if Jesus is so humble, why can’t the church founded in his honor be as well? 

Christians, and the Christian religion, are not known – either historically or in our own times – as humble. 

Reservoir chose humility as a core value of the church because it says something important about how we do faith community, but also because it’s a little surprising for a Christian church. 

Christians have had a thing with power and control, getting aligned with empires and colonizers and political parties to advance their influence and get what they want in the world. 

And sometimes a hangup about perfection too, like we need to hide our faults and pretend we’re perfect, or like God sees how imperfect we are, then God will be angry or disappointed. 

I don’t think this is the way of Jesus, though, who let God shine in his true humanity. Jesus, the humble one. Jesus, the one who said:

Blessed are the meek, the humble, for they’re the ones who will inherit the earth.

What if Jesus’ followers didn’t strive to be perfect or in control but to, like Jesus, be of maximum service to the well-being and flourishing of others?

And what if Jesus’ followers didn’t worry about perfection of faith – being always certain, or free from doubt or error? And what if instead they, or we, accepted doubt and error as a no-big-deal part of confident faith? 

This past week, I had the chance to speak with Brian McLaren for the first time. Brian is one of the elder statespeople of a healthy, evolving Christian faith. He visited this church in our early days in the late 90s, and remembers us fondly. He’s published loads of books since then, including his latest I’m reading now: Do I Stay Christian? It’s really good.

To the students in my theology doctoral program, McLaren was talking about the difference between goodness and perfection.

He said that

perfection is sterile and stagnant, but goodness is growing and fertile. And so goodness is so much better than perfection.

This idea of perfection wasn’t part of the earliest Christian faith, born in the humble, earthy thinking and experience of Middle Eastern Jews. It came in through the Greek philosophers, who had a notion of perfection they associated with the divine – never changing, never feeling. And so the idea of a perfect human and a perfect society would be the same – unemotional, unchanging, always powerful, always in control.

McLaren was like: not only is that not achievable, it’s not desirable. It’s stagnant, static, sterile. He reminded me of Christena Cleveland’s comments years ago to another group I was in, that perfection is a figment of the colonial imagination. 

People who are so insecure they always need to be right, people who are so power-hungry they always need to be dominant, they’re into perfection, and whatever illusions, whatever control, whatever dominance of conformity it takes to get there.

People who are secure, who know they are beloved, don’t need to chase some illusory idol of perfection – we know that’s pointless, it’s vapor. We can grow into greater goodness instead, growing, humble, but fertile. 

This is at the heart of Reservoir’s experience of Christian church, or Jesus-centered faith community. One of our values is humility, defined like this:

 Humility

We are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including the Bible, reason, culture, and experience, and we take the posture of learners, recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth continues to unfold.

I promise that this church will never pretend to know everything or have all the answers. We’ll keep on our steady, humble pursuit of God and pursuit of truth, trusting it will keep unfolding for us over time. And we hope you’ll have the freedom of doing the same, not striving after status or certainty, and not worrying about your imperfection, but seeking God, seeking truth wherever you find it, and letting a good life unfold within your imperfections. 

Reservoir’s not a perfect church. But I think we’re a good church. 

And neither you nor I are ever going to have a perfect life. But we can have a good life. 

I think this humility thing isn’t just a value of our faith but a pretty big part of the good life, a joyful and fulfilled human life.

This past week or two I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with quite a number of people from this community who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. And I didn’t tell them this, but I was keeping an eye out for the ways they are aging well, continuing to live a good life as the years march on.

And I noticed that in their own way, they’d all been leaning into these four phrases the sociologist Brene Brown associates with what she calls the gifts of imperfection, these four phrases I’m connecting with Jesus’ way of true humanity through deep humility.

  • I don’t know but I’m learning
  • I’m sorry
  • I’m beloved
  • I am enough

One of them shared with me about how after the attacks at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago, he realized he had never really explored the Jewish roots of his Christian faith, or thought about how as an anti-racist person of color, he could also stand against anti-Semitism.

So he visited a synagogue that week, and he kept going back, visiting every week for a full year, eventually becoming a member of that community as both a participant and an ally, even while remaining Christian.

He did something similar after a prominent hate crime against Asian Americans, visiting a series of Buddhist temples and saying:

I’m learning regarding the cultures and experiences of East Asian Americans.

I’m learning for him led to I’m sorry too, as it often does, as he started to reckon with what he called his “ignorance, implicit bias, and complicity” regarding Asian Americans. 

What a beautiful thing, as a community leader in his own right, to now be in his 60s and to be able to say:

I’m not finished. I’ve not arrived. I’m still growing. I’m still learning. That’s humility.

And that’s part of a good life, in my book.

I met with another person in this same phase of life whose: I’m not done. I’m still learning, was taking other forms. This person was talking with me about their faith journey, which for them is a healing journey. She was sharing how at last, deep into middle age, she finally started to learn that God really loved her.

She was like:

I would have said that earlier, but mostly I was just saying that. My faith was really just skimming the surface of my life.

And she talked about the insights and help that eventually let her see she didn’t need to be anyone that she wasn’t to be enough, to be fully loved. 

Her journey had a lot of connections with mine, which I shared, and we talked some about how to help others reach a deeper, quiet confidence in their beloved-ness.

I spent time with an older couple last week too and got them talking about their history as a couple and what was bringing them joy or challenge these days as well.

Mostly, it was joy. They shared their stories of how life was going, including the things they were still learning after many decades of life on this earth. But the most striking thing to me was the ease with which they talked about some hard patches in their lives – painful memories from their working lives, regrets in parenting, rougher patches in their marriage. 

Their lives have been imperfect, and are imperfect still. But in the midst of those imperfections, they had an ease with saying I’m sorry and I’m still learning. And they had gratitude for how good their lives have been and how good they are still becoming.

One of them even used the word humility to capture this. They weren’t complimenting themselves, saying look how humble I am, that famous oxymoron of non-character development. No, they were saying:

my life is humble – it’s small in its own way, it’s imperfect. I still need God and friends. But I’m beloved, and my life is so good, and that is enough.

How beautiful. 

I’m only on the verge of 50, but I hope to move through the decades to come like my friends – not chasing certainty, control, security, the sterile figment of the colonial imagination that is perfection.

I want to be able to keep saying

I’m learning, I’m sorry, and I’m so beloved. So this good, good life of mine is enough.

Freedom

Dancing feel so good! It’s been a while…

There is a good feeling we get when we find freedom, isn’t there? 

The capacity to move as we’re meant to move, to be as we’re meant to be, to learn and grow and love as the deepest parts of us know we need to.

Yeah, a free person shines like the stardust we’re made out of, like the lights that we are. 

But woah, it’s hard to get there and stay there, isn’t it? 

Real talk – how many of you had fun a minute ago? 

OK, and how many of you were like: what is happening? 

Do I have to get up? Do I have to move? Who’s looking at me? What in the world is Steve doing?

Don’t worry, it was my idea and I was thinking every one of those things. Everyone, don’t worry.

Yeah, we have a lot of resistance to freedom. We want to not be constrained by conventions that don’t suit us. But man, we also don’t want to be that weird person who’s unconventional. 

We want to dare to live by our deepest convictions, to flow in the world in consonance with our deepest truths and hopes, but can we? Is it safe? Is it normal? Will it work?

Freedom and resistance – resistance to our own freedom, sometimes resistance to others’ freedom – tend to show up together. 

Freedom also isn’t just following every one of our instincts without impediment. Freedom is nuanced. Freedom lives within constraint. With great freedom comes great responsibility, they say. It’s true. 

But freedom is really important to us and our flourishing. It’s important to God too. And it’s important to this community you’re in right now. 

This month, in our We Are Reservoir series, we’re preaching through our five core values – Connection last week, Everyone, Humility, and Action yet to come. And freedom is up this week.

Here’s how we defined this years ago when we changed our name to Reservoir Church. 

Freedom 

We encourage honest exploration of faith over conformity of belief or behavior, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.

This is a really important value of this community. I think it’s a really important value of Jesus’ whole Beloved Community, what Jesus, in his teaching, called the

kingdom

or

the family or the commonwealth of God. 

And I think all of us don’t just prize whatever freedom we have, we’re kind of longing for more liberation, yearning to be more free. 

So today, we take a glance, from a Jesus-centered perspective, about what freedom is or isn’t and how we get there. 

Here’s our text, from one of the earlier letters in the New Testament, written by Paul of Tarsus to the little house churches in Galatia, a region of the Roman Empire that’s now part of Turkey.

It’s kind of the climax of the whole letter. Here we go.

Galatians 5:1-14  (Common English Bible)

5 1 Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.

2 Look, I, Paul, am telling you that if you have yourselves circumcised, having Christ won’t help you.

3 Again I swear to every man who has himself circumcised that he is required to do the whole Law.

4 You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace!

5 We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith.

6 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.

7 You were running well—who stopped you from obeying the truth?

8 This line of reasoning doesn’t come from the one who calls you.

9 A little yeast works through the whole lump of dough.

10 I’m convinced about you in the Lord that you won’t think any other way. But the one who is confusing you will pay the penalty, whoever that may be.

11 Brothers and sisters, if I’m still preaching circumcision, why am I still being harassed? In that case, the offense of the cross would be canceled.

12 I wish that the ones who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!

13 You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love.

14 All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

You don’t have to, but I want us to remember this line I’m about to say, so if you’re willing can you say this line with me, say it after me:

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Here’s what’s going on. 

A number of people in this region have heard about the way of Jesus, and they are in. Listening to the words and stories of Jesus before they were even written down. They were learning to worship and trust the God Jesus loved, pray as Jesus taught us to pray, live in love and live by faith the way Jesus taught us and showed us. 

And then some people told them:

there’s more.

They were like:

there are customs. There are rules. There’s a whole tradition you need to uphold, to fall in line with to be Christian.

Maybe these were visiting teachers from another church, maybe members of their community that had picked up these ideas, maybe their own local pastor, we don’t know. 

But we know that one of the customs, one of the rules, he/they were insisting upon was male circumcision. Male Jews had their foreskins of their penis removed at birth or conversion – it had been so for centuries. It was so for Jesus. It was so for Paul. 

And these teachers were like:

you need to do this too. It’s part of the system. You want to be Christian, you want to follow the way of Jesus, getting circumcised, or getting your son or husband or boyfriend or whoever to get circumcised, is one of the things you have to do.

Now I mean, I hate, I hate the way some Christians talk about this text. They call these teachers the Judaizers and act like having Gentiles pick up a few Jewish customs would be this awful thing. It sounds totally anti-semitic to me, and I’m not having that. 

And on the surface, it’s no big deal, I would think. I mean what’s wrong with a few rules? Nothing. What’s wrong with giving respect to the ancient faith tradition from which Jesus himself came? That seems beautiful to me, even if it were to involve a painful medical procedure for the men. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Who cares?

Well, Paul, one of the people who ended up writing bits of our Bible cared, and he cared a lot! He himself is Jewish. He loves his culture, his ancestry, the faith from which he came – he’s proud of it. But these teachers of the rules and customs required for belonging, they anger him. He’s like:

brothers, if you want to circumcise these folks, you ought to go ahead and castrate yourselves instead.

Not polite words. 

Here’s my take on this. 

I think what’s at stake is not at all about Jewish or not Jewish, not at all about rules or no rules. We all need some rules to live by, after all. No, here what’s at stake is at the heart of what God wants for us in Jesus. What’s at stake is freedom.

Jesus set you free so you can keep getting more free. For freedom Christ has set you free.

But we keep putting yourselves in prison, and that is a tragedy.

I want to talk about two sets of ways we tend to imprison ourselves, that Paul uses as sort of the opposites of the freedom for which Christ set us free, OK?

They’re the imprisonment of tower, and the imprisonment of field

Now this whole prison/slavery language… it’s hard, it’s loaded. 

We’re in a country whose real practices of slavery and imprisonment have been brutal and violent and racist, physical horrors we need deliverance from. So we can’t use language like this casually. 

On the slavery front, the same was true in Paul’s Roman empire, for what it’s worth – common and brutal and violent then. Some of the members of the Galatian house churches were slaves, and it was awful. 

So I don’t think Paul used slavery as a metaphor casually. He was trying to convey the desperate violence and entrapment of all the ways we fail to walk in freedom, saying we need deliverance from the literal imprisonment and enslavement of humans by humans, and we also need deliverance from the metaphorical, internal imprisonment and enslavement of persons by the systems we swim in and by ourselves as well. 

So there’s the metaphor. Let’s talk about our two big opposites of the freedom for which Jesus has set us free.

So the first I’m calling the Prison of Tower

The prison of tower is the need to be correct, stable, and secure. It’s the belief that you’ve got to always be right and better than. 

It’s often, the prison of tower, born out of insecurity or pride or both. The idea is: mark out your territory, your safe zone, build your tower, your fortress of superiority and protection, and the resist and judge everyone outside. 

For Paul’s opponents, they were like: morally, religiously, spiritually, this is a dangerous world. There are the Romans and the Pagans and the Persians and all kinds of people and beliefs and cultures and customs in the world, and they’re not good. They’re not true. 

Uphold the customs, follow the rules – circumcision included – that set you apart, that make you right and pure and pleasing to God. This will protect you, protect you from assimilation, protect you from the displeasure of God and the judgment of your community. 

But Paul’s like,

this is not the point of the way of Jesus. Faith in Jesus is not a better moral system to set you apart from the world or make you better than anyone else.  

Faith in Jesus is walking with Jesus in a relationship of trust, not a code of certainties. 

Faith in Jesus is a living, breathing relationship with the Spirit of God that leads you into right ways in all circumstances. 

Faith in Jesus is grace, the gift of knowing you’re loved by God, you’re a child of God, that God is always with you, never giving up on you, and can always guide you into greater goodness, greater joy, greater truth, greater freedom. 

Prison of tower still shows up in religious rigidity and superiority. When people say believe the codes we’ve taught you, obey the Bible the way we read it, follow the rules the way we teach them, and you will please God, you will be well, that’s an insecure prison tower. It claims righteousness and honor and safety and superiority, but it’s just smug superiority. 

Nationalism is the same. Loving your culture or your country because it’s home and it’s meaningful to you, that kind of pride is cool if you’ve got it. But confidence that your country or your culture are the best, the chosen, the ones deserving the most power or wealth, that’s prison of tower again – pride that builds walls and props up our little egos, but doesn’t bring us or our communities freedom. 

Put these two together with religious nationalism, in this country, Christian nationalism, and you’ve got a doubly toxic idolatry, claiming God’s backing and favor for our own petty, selfish, violent project. Paul’s like:

curse that kind of attitude. It will estrange you from Christ, lead you away from God It’s no good.

Now friends here at Reservoir, some of us have left prisons of tower. We were once part of Christian cultures, churches, ways of doing faith that we now see as fence-building, wall-building, narrow, rigid, smug, or judgmental. In our honest exploration of faith, we’ve walked away from conformity of belief or behavior. Maybe we believe the Holy Spirit is revealing some truth to us as we seek God. 

I believe that the Spirit of God has been revealing truth to this church, for instance, about inclusion, about good fruit in our lived experience as an important litmus test for healthy, liberating faith. I celebrate the paths of change and renewal going on here and in other places in the Body of Christ. 

But if we’ve left behind prisons of tower. Or if we’re offended, scandalized, angry about other systems of tower we maybe were never part of, I think we’re encouraged to two things, though.

One, spend our energy on our own journey of love, faithfulness, and freedom. Don’t get caught up judging the places we come from, or the tower-making, fear driven projects we were never part of.

Once on Twitter, I made a comment about the really bad behavior and imprisoning tower thinking of some American Christians. And the phrase I used was “so-called Christians.” And one of you messaged me, and you were like:

Steve, that so-called Christians language is smug and judgy, and you’re better than that, and our church is better than that too.

And I was like:

thank you. You are right. And I try not to do that. Judge not, lest you be judged.

And then two, don’t trade one tower for another. Don’t trade white supremacist Christian nationalism for rigidity or fundamentalism in more liberal convictions, for instance. Speak your truth, live by your convictions, follow the way you believe God is leading, but stay generous, stay loving. Be curious, not judgmental, you know. 

And don’t trade religious rigidity for rigidity about your diet or exercise or politics or whatever. It’s good to have convictions, it can be great to have rules to live by – I have mine. But don’t make the rules with the truth, your way in this moment with the way. None of us ever sees all truth. None of us has a God’s eye, complete perspective. We all see in part. We all live by grace. We all find our freedom best when we stay humble too, when we seek to live in love.

Alright, so that’s the prison of tower. I’ll be briefer here, so I can wrap up, but Paul also contrasts the freedom for which we’ve been set free with another prison, what I’ll call Prison of Field

 I made up this phrase, prison of field, but here’s what I mean by it. Unlike the tower – this fortress of rules and custom and superiority and pride that hides our insecurities, prison of field is like you see the whole field, you see everything you don’t have, and you need it all.

Prison of field is the need to have new and more and better people, experiences, and wealth. It’s like being a good American consumer – I want that, so I’m gonna get it. 

It can be born of lack. Like I’ve had so little, so now I’m going to get what’s mine. Or it can be born of entitlement, like I deserve all that. 

Prison of field is thinking: I’ll be happy when….

I’ll be happy when I have more money or better stuff.

I’ll be happy when I have a new or better job or lover or house.

I’ll be happy when I’m not sick anymore. 

Or even I’ll be happy when my kids are happy, or when my kids have no problems, or when they achieve this or that. I call that notion in myself the idolatry of the perfect child. 

It’s not fair to you or your kids and doesn’t bring us freedom.

Paul says don’t let your freedom in Christ

– your I’m beloved, God is with me no matter what –

don’t let that be an opportunity to be all about your own selfish impulses. 

Instead, serve one another in love. Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Pursue the well being of friend and stranger and enemy as you pursue your own and then you’ll stay free.

Because we’re not free when we’re living by compulsion, when we’re imprisoned by the endless discontentment and hunger for more that all the marketers want us to have. 

And we’re not free when we all can’t get free together.

When my consumption hurts your land, when my need for a new and better phone every two years piles up toxic trash in your backyard, we’re not free. When my ungoverned appetites for food or sex or whatever subject other creatures to my violence or my lustful gaze, then we’re not free. When my never quite enough feeling means I can’t ever commit to a person or a place or a calling, then I’m not free, right? 

For freedom Christ has set us free.

Wherever the Spirit of God is, there is ever-increasing freedom.

Friends, with all its flaws, best as we’re able, we’ve grown this church to be a place where conformity of behavior or belief is not expected. We’ve grown this church to be a community that encourages us all to honestly explore God and goodness and faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit reveals truth to all who seek God.

And Jesus has lived and died and lived again to set you free. To call you a child of God. And to inspire and guide you toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these things there is no law. 

Don’t settle for prison of tower or prison of field. 

Walk with God, listen to the Spirit, live by faith, and love, joy, and peace will be yours.

For freedom, Christ has set us free. 

For freedom, Christ has set us free.

Connection

Last month, we got a new puppy. There were people in my household that have been dreaming of this day for a while. Let’s just say I was the last holdout. But here we are. And it’s not clear yet how we’re all going to feel about this in the long run.

But, man, I will give Pepper this. He’s really cute. And he’s pretty fun. He gets us out of the house more. I’ve met more neighbors, more neighbor dogs the past two weeks than the previous two years. And he’s simple. This toothy little, meddlesome creature just wants to chew on things and get outside and be fed. But even more he really just wants to be liked and cuddled with and played with and then he’ll always be happy. 

Yeah, when he’s not sleeping or eating, this dog’s whole world is like: See me. Talk to me. Smile at me. Play with me. 

He’s just hungering for, always ready for connection. 

He’s not alone. 

The other big new thing in our family life this summer is that one of our parents had a major stroke. And we’ve all been waiting and praying as we see what kind of recovery is or isn’t going to be possible.

We still don’t know what the future holds here, but for over two months, my mother in law has been living in institutions, instead of at home. 

And in a lot of ways, the defining question for her, even more than her physical recovery, has also been about connection, wanting to know:

Who sees me? Who’s praying for me? Who remembers me? Who will visit me? And if I’m losing my mobility and my independence, what will ensure that I am not alone? 

As we age, whether we’re particularly introverted or extroverted, our hunger to not lose relationship and attention and touch, our needs to remain connected, become really important. 

The scriptures of our tradition affirm this fundamental need. One of the first things said about people in the whole Bible is this:

Genesis 2:18b

“It’s not good that the human is alone.”

In the creation epic of Genesis, there’s this joyful litany of celebration about the goodness of the whole created order. Again and again, God calls things good. The Hebrew word is tov. 

Sun and moon – tov

Earth and seas – tov

Plant life, animal life – tov.

Birds and fish – tov

The creation of humanity – very tov. So good. An amplification here!

But then, the idea that a human being would live in isolation, not connected to other humans at all, is not tov. 

It’s not good for people to be alone. 

Now here’s what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you have to get married. Because the creation epic involves Adam and Eve – the man of the ground and the mother of all life – people think about marriage here. Get married, have a family, because it’s not good for humans to be alone.

But not all of us want to get married. And some of us want to, but it doesn’t work out for us. Or we get married, and our partner leaves us or dies. Or the marriage is hard and leaves us lonely more often than not. Or our marriage is pretty great, but we realize that even the best of marriages doesn’t by itself fulfill our needs for relationship, connection, and community. 

Marriage can be wonderful, but it’s not the be all and end all for everyone. You don’t need marriage to not be alone. In fact, you don’t need a romantic partner or a sex life at all either. 

Plenty of people live well and live wonderfully fulfilled lives without sex, without a romantic partner – married or otherwise – either for seasons of life or for all of life.

But none of us live well entirely disconnected. It’s not good for humans to be alone. 

We need connection, and we need circles of different types of connection. 

We need a lot of people to whom we’re very loosely connected, people whose names we’ll mostly never learn – our whole societies, our cultures, our economies in which we find our way. 

And then we need our circles of acquaintances who create networks of belonging for us, the circles of people we work with and live around and share affinity with. These are the people that come and go over time. They’re not intimate, they are loose ties, but they are the networks of giving and receiving that help us understand ourselves and function and matter.

And then we need smaller circles of intimacy, friends and family and partners who don’t just know our names but our stories, people with whom we may have tension and conflict, but where we’ll also experience and offer affection and respect and even love. 

And we even need some sense of connection that stays with us regardless of how other people come and go. We need a fundamental sense that we matter, that we are seen and known and loved, no matter what other people do or say. 

We are profoundly social beings. We are creatures who don’t survive, and certainly don’t thrive, without a lot of connection. 

Today we explore how we can pay attention to and value and engage most wholeheartedly with the people and communities where we offer and receive the most important, richest connection. 

We do this as part of a five week series we call We Are Reservoir. Each week for the next five weeks, we’ll teach scripture and themes related to the five core values that guide our church’s pursuit of vibrant, inclusive, healthy faith. 

These values are connection, freedom, everyone, humility, and action. 

We do a version of this once a year in the fall, so that as a community, we can remember who we are and what we are becoming, and so we can welcome people into belonging and membership in this community and make sure that all of us who want to have opportunities to chip in to the life of this community as well, so we can be a healthy, sustainable church and so all of us who want to can feel connected here. 

Today, as we explore connection, beyond the verse about not being alone, I want to read one other scripture. It’s one of my favorite encounters in the life of Jesus. And it’s a lot of things. But one of the things it is is a story about God making connection and belonging and meaning possible in new ways in a community. 

Here it is.

Luke 19:1-10 (Common English Bible)

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town.

2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich.

3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.

4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.

5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.”

6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.

10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

Zaccheus lived a life of achievement, of wealth, of privilege, but also of profound alienation and unhappiness. 

Everyone in Jericho knows Zaccheus is rich, but no one likes him. They dislike, despise, resent this man so much that not only is he not welcome in their homes, they’re troubled that Jesus would enter his home. 

Zaccheus is unwelcome in their community because he’s collaborating with their oppressors. He’s the Jewish face of the Roman taxation system that strains their families to pay for the armies and the glory of Rome. 

And not only that, but they are aware that he’s gotten wealthy himself collaborating with Rome at their expense. See, the only way that the empire could maintain a force of local tax collectors would be to turn away at their overcharging to enrich themselves. Corruption and self-serving schemes are part of every violent empire, and Zaccheus is the face of that greed and selfishness to this community as well. 

So Zaccheus is wealthy, but he is not connected. Rejected by his people, and a tool but not a member of the colonizing society, he doesn’t belong. People who interact with Jesus in the gospels are often mentioned with reference to their parents, their children, their friends or spouse, but Zaccheus appears to be solo. He’s alone, which is not tov, not good. 

Whose fault is it? Well, it’s his fault to be sure. He most likely didn’t have to be a tax collector, could have found an excuse to not serve in this role even if called upon, or could have done it while not ripping off his own community so badly.

It’s the fault of a powerful, dysfunctional society as well. Rome encouraged isolation and alienation to keep its economy and power structures moving the way they did.

Maybe it’s even Jericho’s fault to some degree. Who knows? I’ve always wondered if Zaccheus experienced isolation and alienation before his life as a wealthy, corrupt chief tax collector. Maybe he’d always been teased for being so unusually short. Maybe he’d been socially isolated because of other differences or disabilities. 

 Whatever the reason, Zaccheus is hungering for connection that he’s driven out of his life, or perhaps that has been driven from him as well. 

And Jesus initiates connection and care. He sees Zaccheus, who’s simply been trying to see Jesus, and he invites himself over for lunch. 

I’m coming to your house, he says. And as surprised and angry as the rest of the community is, Zaccheus is honored and thrilled.

And it seems like something of the light of God gets in through the cracks in him. Some part of his underlying pain breaks open maybe, and he can own the harm he’s done in his community. And some part of him, in this new circle of connection and care, lights up. A yearning for connection, a yearning for justice and restoration, a sense of agency returns to him. 

And so over the meal, likely with folks eavesdropping outside the windows, he says to Jesus:

I’m going to make things right. I’m going to make things right. And he makes this extravagant beginnings of amends for the harm he’s done.

It’s justice, it’s the right thing, but it’s also a pathway to restoration of community. 

Restoration of wealth to poor, fleeced community members. 

Restoration of justice to angry, embittered neighbors.

The possibility of restoration of social connection and a place in the community for Zaccheus to. 

And so it’s no surprise that Jesus says:

Salvation has come to this house. 

Salvation came to this house. He’s not just talking about eternal membership in God’s family, even if he is talking about that as well. He’s talking about healing, wholeness, restoration for both perpetrators and victims, reintegration into community – everything we can mean when we say this word salvation. 

God has done it. Jesus has done it. Zaccheus has done it. 

Salvation has come – and while salvation comes from God, it’s always a team sport. 

Jesus is the initiator here. He establishes the community of connection and care. 

But Zaccheus was looking for it too – he was hungry, up there in that tree, looking for God.

Connection and care produce a shift in Zaccheus’ consciousness, as care and forgiveness and acceptance and connection always do. Zaccheus is more free, he longs to do right now. Which is good, because connection can be started through care, but it’s only sustained through safe and just practices in community relationships.

Communities don’t work if people don’t do right by one another. So Zaccheus does the good work to partner with God in his own salvation and restoration, which protects his community as well. 

And then at the end it’s amplified, magnified by Jesus when he says: look at this, this man is a real son of Abraham, isn’t he? He’s restoring Zaccheus to community, calling him a good Jew, one who truly belongs among his people. 

After all, Jesus is the human one who came to seek and save the lost. The human one – Son of Man – is an insider lingo kind of title for Jesus but it also means what it sounds like, like he’s the most truly human one who’s ever walked among us. And he looks for people who are disconnected, alienated, lost, and he longs to restore them, as he does here. 

Man, this is a good news story. And it resounds for me in all kinds of ways in our times too, makes me long to keep seeing more of this.

I think of the nearly one in 50 men who are currently incarcerated in this country. They’re like one in five of the world’s incarcerated men. And if you count the formerly incarcerated too, it’s far more.

And these are like the poor versions of Zaccheus. In most cases, they’ve done wrong to somebody in society, they’ve caused disconnection in communities. But more often than not, their criminality was proceeded by all kinds of alienation in their lives, all kinds of ways they’ve been done wrong and severed from healthy community.

And I think of how our society’s systems of so-called justice and punishment isolate and sever people from community, not just while incarcerated but often for many years afterwards. And I long for more cycles of salvation and restoration in this so broken area of this country.

Or in subtler ways, I think of myself.

Middle aged Americans, especially middle aged men in America, often don’t have many friends. And it’s our own fault, right? Putting career and other stuff over time with friends, awkwardness about affection and need, low emotional intelligence sometimes maybe.

But it’s also kind of not our fault too, right? This late capitalist culture has its demands and expectations and norms about work and family and long commutes and all kinds of other stuff that make it hard for middle aged men to make and sustain friendships. 

There’s a cost, though, to all this – a cost in social cohesion, a cost in risk for what we call deaths of despair – suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug addiction that have driven down men’s life expectancy in recent years. With lack of connection being one of the risk factors in these things. 

Anyway, in a smaller way, a few years ago, I was feeling these costs.

A few years ago, I realized I could really use a couple more friends. I was also thinking I could use another spiritual friend or two, people that would understand my faith and values, and with whom I could pray. I love my spiritual relationships here at Reservoir, but I’m always a pastor here, and I wanted a couple more relationships like this outside this church.

But it’s not like you can order friends on Amazon, right? Like hey, I’ll search for local prayer partners that are available. 

So what’d I do? Well, I thought about the local pastors I knew. And I thought of this one guy, who I’d only had a couple short conversations with before, but I knew him by reputation, and we’d been around each other at a few events and meetings. And I liked him, he seemed like a good person too, someone I could connect with and trust.

So I made an appointment to see him, and I was like: hey, I need another pastor friend, and you seem like a good guy. Wanna be friends?

Don’t get me wrong, it was hella awkward at first, for me at least. But he wasn’t awkward at all. In fact, he was like: hey, thanks for thinking of me. And it turns out that another pastor we both knew had reached out to him earlier in the month about getting together a couple times a month to talk and pray together, and he was like maybe you should join us? 

And I did, and for a few years now, we’ve been friends, meeting up a couple times a month for open, candid conversation and prayer. And these friendships have been great. They’ve been useful – I’ve learned about some great resources through these guys, gotten some ideas professionally. They’ve helped me network, gave me advice on a grant I won. And I think I’ve been useful to them too. 

But more than these instrumental benefits, the connection itself in this circle has been tremendously life giving. It’s been a place to be real, to be honest, to get support and affirmation and sanity checks, and to give the same. 

This making of connection started with God growing an awareness in me that I needed it and a sense of where to turn. And then it took my risk and initiative to do something to connect and open up as well as the grace and kindness of a couple folks interested in reciprocating to make this circle of connection and care. 

And it’s gotten deeper because one of the guys wanted this to move beyond just a light social thing and make this a community of practice too – a place where we talk about what we’re doing to be more healthy, wholehearted people and pastors. And that’s given us more reasons to keep getting together and has made these friendships one of the places where for me too, the light of God can get into the cracks for me. 

In a lot of ways, friends, that’s what this church is here for. 

God values for each of us the life-giving connections that will help us pursue God’s wholeness, love, and leading in every area of our lives. And we like to try to encourage that happening. 

We affirm here that to have a good life and a good faith, we don’t need to be particularly rich or beautiful or favored or lucky in any other way. 

We just need help discovering that we are connected, that we are seen and known and loved by a living God. That the goodness and loving kindness of that God follows us wherever we go. And that these experiences of divine love and connection can be mirrored and reflected in rich human to human connections as well. 

Now this may or may not be your experience of church today, but my invitation today is to see if this can’t be true here, if you’d like it to be.

Our membership agreement at Reservoir is pretty simple. You fill it out online at our website, and you’re a member, period. And it doesn’t start with telling you what to believe or what to do, it starts with connection, with saying I believe God has good things in the life for me and others, and that this community can be one of the places in life that encourages those good things.

The membership invitation invites you to, in metaphorical terms, attend Jesus’ party. In literal terms, it says

“I will simply be there, through regular participation on Sundays and through participation in a community group as able.”

We invite you to participate in these ways because this kind of participation for most people stimulates greater connection, community, and belonging.  Church is a rare place to be a contributing, participating member of a community that doesn’t sort and define us on the terms of capitalism, but of beloved community. 

And it’s a place, particularly in our community groups, where some real depth of connection is possible over time. Many of our groups encourage a community of practice, as our pastor of community life Ivy has talked about – places where we try practices that deepen our experience of God and develop a rich spiritual life.

But all our groups start by trying to be communities of connection and care, places where we can show up authentically just as we are, and find that others are glad we’re there, and glad to be part of the connections that help us not just not be alone, but experience the goodness and encouragement and gift of community that we need. 

Our sense as a church is that after all we’ve been through the past couple of years, a lot of us are eager for a little more connection in our lives. Maybe God is stirring that hunger for you too. If so, I hope you’ll pay attention to that, lean into the opportunities around you. 

It’s not good to be alone. You’re all worth better than that, I promise you. And if this community can be part of your circles of connection and care and practice, know we’re here for that.

Walking with Jesus

Around this time of year, every year, we start getting that question,

“So, how was your summer?” 

How was your summer?

I’m not that good at questions like that. I can say basically nothing, like: pretty good. Or I say like everything and start telling people way more detail than they really wanted to hear. I’m still trying to figure out that small talk sweet spot in the middle – authentic, interesting, but brief. 

So here’s my stab at this year’s answer.

How was your summer, Steve?

Yeah, it was hard but also kind of easy. 

The hard part: At the start of the summer, Grace and I sat down two of our three children – who are all now either adults or right on the cusp of that – and we had this little conversation about what we’re doing this summer and what we want out of it. And let’s just say that our kids’ visions for our family summer were not very well aligned with one another, and they certainly didn’t line up well with what I was hoping for. And, you know, we never really worked that out. Kids grow up, and families grow up too.

Also, my mother in law had a stroke, which has led to suffering for her – a lot, and also a ton of complications for the extended family – also a lot. That has been mostly sad and stressful.

And then I had this big trip to Israel and Palestine planned, but given what was going on, it ended up being a bad time to be away from my family, my poor wife carried too much, and then since I got COVID while I was there, I had to be away from them even longer. 

So, there’s more, but summer was hard.  

I know I’m not alone. A lot of folks have been excited about more travel, more concerts, more freedom, more a lot of things, but life’s still hard for a lot of people.

I was listening to a podcast with this psychologist I like to learn from, and his guest was like:

you know, humanity’s not doing well. It’s a hard time to be a human. 

Does that resonate with you?

It’s a hard time to be a human.

Yeah. But I said hard and easy, didn’t I?

The easy part is what I want to talk about today, because I entered my summer having a harder time praying and a harder time making sense and making meaning about everything I’m experiencing, but I’ve been walking with God, walking with the Spirit of Jesus, in some ways that I feel like are simplifying my life, making things at the same time also feel easier. 

That’s what I want to talk about today, about a metaphor for a life of faith that simplifies and clarifies, about some ways of walking with Jesus that make life better.

Last week, I talked about what hell is or isn’t. That talk was related to the part of the faith experience we call salvation – what the worst is in life, and how God partners with us to rescue us. The best lived lives aren’t mostly hero or our victim stories – how we’re the best or the worst off. The best lives are full of rescue stories – how we need help, but how with the help of God and friends, we find our way. 

Now this week I talk about the side of faith that we can call sanctification – how we can grow into more of the wholehearted, beautiful life God wants to help us find, how we can find more of the good life for each of us. 

Here’s our text today. Just a few words from Jesus:

Matthew 11: 28-30 (Common English Bible)

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.

29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.

30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Life is hard,

Jesus says. I get that. 

Jesus spoke these words nearly 2,000 years ago. It’s hard to get our heads around just how long 2,000 years is. If you were to line up on a timeline your grandma, and then one of her grandma’s, and then one of her grandma’s, and then one of her grandma’s and on and on and on, you’d have to do that like 20 times before you got to the grandma that alive when Jesus spoke these words, nearly 2,000 years ago. 

It’s a long time ago. Times have changed. 

But at the deepest level, the stuff that’s hardest for us hasn’t. 

Sickness – I mean we’ve faced a global pandemic, but that’s nothing compared to the kinds of health problems and sickness and disease that Jesus knew. Life expectancy was less than half for them than it is for us. Sickness and death were everywhere.

And political problems, economic struggles, trauma, anxieties, all that – most of Jesus’ associates were grindingly poor, faced huge tax burdens, and lived under a corrupt and violent colonial government. 

Jesus gets it: life is hard.

But he says,

I’ve got a way to make it easier, simpler, more peaceful. 

And the way he says is:

Put on my yoke.

Put on my yoke.

What in the world is he talking about?

A yoke is a kind of wooden tool or frame that connects two animals so they can walk together and work together, plowing the field side by side.

Jesus knew about yokes because a lot of people in his time and place were farmers. Walk around the fields surrounding Galilee, and you’d see pairs of oxen, maybe donkeys two, yoked together, plowing the fields side by side. 

But Jesus also knew about yokes because he made them. Jesus served his community as a rabbi, teaching about the Beloved Community of God and healing and training students for only two or three years before he was crucified and rose again. For maybe 10-15 years before that, he was a carpenter, a woodworker, a builder. 

And one of the many things Jesus’ father would have taught him to make out of wood were yokes that would sit across the shoulders of two animals so they could walk together and work together.

Jesus would have worked hard to make strong yokes, that would help animals stay together and last for many years. And he would have learned to make gentle yokes, that sit well on animals’ backs, that don’t cause them pain or hardship, but that they bear smoothly and easily.

Here Jesus uses the yoke as an image for how we’re connected to Jesus.

Put on my yoke,

he says.

Walk with me, side by side. Stay connected.

I’m a good traveling companion,

Jesus says.

I’m gentle and humble.

In Jesus’ society, a yoke had also become an image of leadership – emphasizing not just the side by side walking of the two animals, but the farmer’s role in leading the yoked pair.

A yoke was sometimes an image for a leader, like the service required to a king. To follow the laws of the land was to take that leader’s yoke upon you.

And it was sometimes in Jesus’ culture an image for Torah, for living in the community guided by God’s word in the scriptures. To respond to God’s laws and invitations, to let your story be shaped by God’s story, was to take the yoke of God or the yoke of the Torah upon you. 

So Jesus is saying,

Walk with me. But also be led by me. My yoke is easy to bear. My burden is light. 

I’m not a hard leader, I’m a good leader. I’m a good fit, an easy fit. And when you’re led by me, you’ll find rest.

It’s an interesting promise, because a yoke is a tool of labor. You put on a yoke to work. But Jesus is like:

Walk with me, work with me, and you’ll not just work, you’ll rest. Life will go well for you.

And that fits the context of the passage too. Because right after this, there are a few stories about Jesus, and how he spends his time on the sabbath day, his day of rest.

Sabbath is a promise of liberation, it’s time out from work every week to remember that we are not slaves but free people. Life is more than our work and our obligations.

And sabbath is about restoring the original order of creation, about keeping the balance of the good life. The creation epic of the Bible says God ended six days of creative work with the sabbath rest – a time for celebration and joy, a time to experience that life isn’t just what we produce. It’s how we worship and celebrate and find joy, living in this great created universe, all of which is meant to be a kind of temple for the experience and worship of God. 

Friends, in my hard summer, the way it’s been easy has been how I’ve been giving renewed attention to putting on Jesus’ easy yoke each day. I’ve been relearning the best ways for me to walk with Jesus, and let Jesus be my leader. And I’ve been finding that everything Jesus says is true. 

He’s a great fit. He’s gentle and humble. And walking with Jesus, following Jesus makes my whole life easier to bear – clearer, simpler, calmer, better. 

Let me take a couple minutes each on three ways this is true, OK? 

Imagination, mercy, and words.

Just a minute or two on each of those: Imagination, mercy, and words.

Jesus says,

“Come to me.”

And his yoke imagery implies walking with him, following him, maybe even working with him. 

What does this mean for us, who weren’t with him in Galilee 2,000 years ago? What does this mean for us, who can’t touch and see him? 

It means faith, trust that the Spirit of Jesus is with us as Jesus promised Spirit would be, trust that the Spirit of God represents and brings to us a God that is like Jesus, everywhere, always. 

The New Testament says that

this is the good life, to walk by faith, not by sight it puts it, to trust God is with us more deeply than we can at first naturally perceive. 

The words about the yoke and about rest remind me of the famous poem in the middle of the Bible, Psalm 23, the one that starts saying,

“The Lord is my shepherd, so I lack nothing. He leads me to green pastures and still waters. He saves my life.”

Or,

“he restores my soul.” 

I pray this psalm almost every day, and I read it or pray it for others really often when I’m at the hospital or in the nursing home, as I’ve been this summer many times, both as a pastor and as a relative. 

I’m praying for myself, and often holding someone else’s hand and praying for them that we’ll know God leading us tenderly, guiding us toward refreshment, restoration, and rest. But also that when we’re in the valley of the shadow of death, we’ll know there too that God is with us, leading us through that place too. 

The Valley of the Shadow of Death is a real place in Palestine, the place now known as the West Bank. It’s a deep, long rift in a hot, forbidding desert. Jesus had walked there before, knew it was one of the scariest, most deserted, hardest places to need to walk through. 

Kind of like when you’re vulnerable in the hospital or the nursing home, or when you know your health is failing, or even that you are dying. 

When we’re vulnerable, suffering, fighting for survival, we need to know that there too God is with us. 

Jesus is saying:

Life is hard. I want you to know, though, that I’m in it with you, that you are not alone.

And that can help us carry the load. 

Jesus’ contemporaries practiced faith in how God was with them in Jesus by literally walking with him.

We practice that same faith, and receive the comfort and strength of God’s presence by believing God is with us, by imagining that this accompaniment we can not see is real. 

We do that when we gather for worship together, like we do on Sundays. And we can do that daily as we pray as well. 

What is God like when God is with us? How does God share the burden?

My word for that today is mercy

Jesus says he is

gentle and humble. 

Psalm 23 says

God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life. 

There’s an old and very short Eastern Orthodox prayer that I’ve been praying a lot this summer too. It just goes:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Or sometimes have mercy on me, a sinner. You can include the sinner part or not. But that’s not the key word. The key word is mercy.

Jesus, have mercy.

When I first learned about this prayer, more than 20 years ago, I didn’t like it much. It seemed kind of grovely, thinking I’m this despicable sinner who needs Jesus to be nice and not zap me or something.

I’ve come around to this prayer, though. 

After all, mercy means more than I used to think. I was taught that grace is giving good things that aren’t deserved and that mercy is not giving the bad things that you do deserve. 

But mercy is wider and deeper than that. The word translated “mercy” in the last verse of Psalm 23 is hesed. It means lovingkindness, and it’s the core quality of God, the scriptures teach.

So I think about the chaotic, violent, messed up state of so much in this world, and I hope God will be kind and helpful to us beyond what we deserve. I pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

And I think about the hard parts of my summer, which feel like more than I can handle, and I ask for God’s help and for God’s lovingkindness to grow in me and all the other people as I pray: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy.

And sometimes I catch myself stuck thinking on an anxiety I have about the future or a regret I have about the past, and I remember that the Spirit of Jesus is with me, wooing me away from fear or regret and toward faith, hope, and love, and I look for more of that as I pray: Spirit of Jesus, have mercy on me. 

Praying for mercy, believing in mercy, welcoming mercy doesn’t make life not hard. But it’s easier when I know I’m not expected to have the answers. It’s easier when I know I’m not supposed to be strong enough. And it’s easier to know God never wanted me to be able to just handle it all. It’s an easy, unburdening feeling to know God isn’t showing up to criticize me but to bring lovingkindness, to be merciful, to be in my corner as a help and support. 

Lastly, the words of Jesus. Jesus says,

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”

Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher, and through the gospels and through the Spirit of God, Jesus can be our teacher too. 

I read a little section of the gospels just about every day. That way I’m reading through all four several times per year. It doesn’t take long, but it’s one of the ways I stay yoked to Jesus, or at least try to. 

And Jesus has never stopped being provocative and helpful to me. 

Like last week, I read Mark’s version of Jesus feeding the crowds and how pretty much the next day, the disciples were traveling with students and got worried about running out of bread. 

And calmly, Jesus is like:

What happened yesterday? And how much food was left over? Don’t you understand?

And I smiled a little but the truth was I felt just like the disciples. What came to mind in that moment was that I’d been anxious about a few things in my life – big things like how we’re ever going to pay for our three kids’ educations, and little things like an email I was waiting for with some news. 

And I felt an invitation from the Spirit of Jesus to lean into these words. 

Don’t you understand, Steve?

Don’t you remember?

When have I not been enough? 

And I thought about lots of answered prayers and times it seems like life worked out better than I could have hoped. And I thought about hard times too, when circumstances didn’t go my way, but how even then, the help of God and friends was enough, and the love and goodness in my life was more than enough. 

And that kind of made a break in me, helped me start to let go of my anxious energy and open me up to an unburdened, easy spirit. 

Friends, your summer may have been a lot of things – awful, great, or anywhere in between. But anywhere that life is hard these days, let me assure you that God knows and understands. And let me encourage you that the Spirit of Jesus is still saying to us:

I get it. If life’s hard, could you come to me, so I can give you rest. 

Put my yoke on you. Let’s walk together and work together. Learn from me. Follow my lead. I’m gentle, I’m humble. My burden is light. I’d love to help share the load.

To Hell and Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 9: 42-50 (Common English Bible)

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

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

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

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

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

49 Everyone will be salted with fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is like,

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

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

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

He calls hurting kids a big, big sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

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

But Jesus says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you’re sinning,

Jesus says,

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

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

What is this place? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you shouldn’t go there. 

And I was like:

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

And he was like:

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

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

See as you descend down the valley it changes. 

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

Gehenna pic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two last examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m summing up here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll talk more about that process next week. 

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

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

——————————–

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

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1999/08/29/hell-on-earth/a2777d75-cfa6-4325-814a-0a26c83086c5/

Next Level Happiness

Hey, my friends, I have missed you all. I had what felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to join a study tour in Israel and Palestine. And it turned out to be both an amazing and an awful experience. 

The awful mostly had to do with getting COVID and feeling miserable and missing my family and some other very important things happening here. But there was plenty of amazing as well, some of which I hope to share in the weeks to come.

One part of the amazing was seeing the names and places of the Bible come alive. I’ve been reading the Bible close to daily for over 30 years, and so to travel amid its cities and valleys and seas and all that was pretty cool. 

And to walk where Jesus walked – swimming in the Sea of Galilee, dipping our feet in the Jordan River, praying in places Jesus prayed, standing next to the Temple Mount and looking at the exact spot where Jesus showed up in Court of the Gentiles there and started flipping tables – you just imagine all the stories more clearly.

Even more than the actions of Jesus, though, on this trip to the places Jesus lived and taught, I found the words of Jesus resonating anew… and none more than these words, which I’ve been reading and praying through every day. They’re the start of Jesus’ long discourse on what it means to follow him as a disciple, the teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s memoirs of the life of Jesus. 

Matthew 5:1b-12 (Common English Bible)

Jesus sat down and his disciples came to him. 2 He taught them, saying:

3 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

If you know this passage well, maybe you find this translation jarring. We’re used to hearing the words: Blessed are the poor in spirit… but these translators go with


“Happy are people who are hopeless….”

We’ll talk more about it, but notice your reaction…

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

5 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

They will inherit the land….

6 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

A quick note here on one other word… pretty much anytime you read the word “righteousness” in the New Testament, you can also substitute the word “justice.” This was eye opening for me, when I learned about this…. “Righteous” in English implies personal, private morality and piety, like you’re righteous if you never lie, or you’re righteous if you pray enough. And sometimes that word evokes “self-righteousness” to us, like you’re a better person than others if you live this way. 

But this word Jesus and the New Testament writers use is much bigger. It has to do with things being rightly ordered in the world, more along the lines of “right relationships.” So that can include being in right relationship with the divine or your neighbor in how you pray and tell the truth, but it also includes everything we call “justice” as well – things being fair and right in the world. So here we could better say – Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for justice, because they will get what they’re longing for, they will be fed until they are full. Let’s finish…

7 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

8 “Happy are people who have pure hearts (clean hearts), because they will see God.

9 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.

12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.

Alright, this word “happy” or “blessed”makarios. 

I was taught in my early days of Bible reading to scorn this word “happy.” The idea is, Jesus doesn’t care if you’re happy or not. Feelings come and go, you can’t trust them, or as we said in the 80s and 90s, feelings aren’t facts. 

Blessed must mean something deeper, something more lasting, more heavenly than just our emotions. 

But the word “makarios” doesn’t carry these super-religious, anti-happiness, scorning of our emotions connotations at all. 

Sure, emotions can come and go, and they can be more or less grounded in reality and helpful and all, but isn’t that true of everything? 

“Makarios,” this standing that Jesus proclaims for the hopeless, the grieving, and the humble, for the peacemakers and the pure hearted and the persecuted, for the merciful and the justice hungry, this means favored. It means you’re on the winning team now. Things will be well for you.

It’s maybe deeper and less fleeting than some kinds of happiness, but it’s not not happiness, if you know what I mean. It’s something like “next level happiness,” like a sense of well being and joy that settles in and won’t let go. Like you know that God’s in your corner and you’ve got God’s favor and smile. It’s good. You’re blessed. You’re well. You’re happy, like next level happiness. 

Who’s this for, according to Jesus? Who’s got this next level happiness? 

What do these hopeless, grieving, and humble, these peacemakers and pure-hearted and persecuted, these merciful and justice hungry have in common? 

Well, let’s start with a quick word on who first heard these words from Jesus.

I spent a few days the other week around the Sea of Galilee. It’s beautiful – in this very dry, brown, hilly region, you have in this deep valley surrounded by hills an enormous, turquoise-hued freshwater lake. People have fished and swam there for millenia – it’s beautiful. 

But it’s also remote. It’s far from the big city of Jerusalem, and far from the coastal cities along the Mediterranean as well. And in Jesus’ time, that meant that it was mostly kind of backwater, rural, not a center of culture or learning or pretty much anything else. 

It was also mostly really, really poor. One of the seaside villages in Jesus’ life was his adopted hometown of Capernaum. Jesus we’re told had been born in his parents’ ancestral village of Bethlehem, a ways south. And then he was raised in the town of Nazareth, then a tiny village, now a large Arab city, half way between Galilee and the ocean. But as he began his rabbinic ministry, he moved to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee.

And when you visit there today, you can see the ruins of the first century village of Capernaum, the ruins of the synagogue of the small town, the restored ruins of a first century fishing boat like one that Jesus and his disciples would have used, and the ruins of the village people like Jesus and his fishermen disciples lived in.

The village is a series of one room hovels with shared stone walls, each room the place where a family of five or six or seven or eight ate, slept, spoke, and did everything else that happens in the life of a household. 

The only villages I’ve ever seen that look anything like this are the urban slums of New Delhi, India, where our partners do their community development work. Tiny, crowded, not very sanitary and desperately poor living conditions. 

This was the environment where most of Jesus’ first followers lived, where most of those who heard his teachings in and around Galilee lived. These were Jesus’ people, people who in the small nation of Israel and in the enormous empire of Rome would have been made to think that they are on the losing end of life.

The poor, the marginalized, the overtaxed, the underemployed, the underfed, the unseen and devalued and unrecognized, Jesus is saying you are blessed, you are the happy ones. 

When Jesus talked about the poor in Spirit (Matthew) or the poor (Luke), saying happy are the hopeless, it wouldn’t have been abstract for Jesus’ audience. They’d think, holy moly, he’s talking about us. We’re favored.

And why, according to Jesus? 

Because theirs is the basileia tou theou. 

Usually this is translated the “kingdom of God,” or as Matthew says “the kingdom of heaven.” 

But the word kingdom doesn’t really get it right. It’s more like a commonwealth, where people or any other parts of creation organize under the reign or rule of God revealed in Christ, the God Jesus called Abba.

Many people in recent years have been using the phrase kindom instead of kingdom, to evoke the family feel of this community Jesus talks about. 

Theologian Tripp Fuller says

when you say kindom instead of kingdom, you drop the “g” and you get rid of the cock and the crown.

You lose the associations with patriarchy and dominant, oppressive power. Because God’s family, Jesus’ kindom or commonwealth isn’t a place where just men are in charge and it isn’t a place where powerful people or a powerful God rule over and extract things from everyone else.

At Reservoir, we’ve been following the great US civil rights leaders in calling this place, this righteous, just community Jesus spoke of the Beloved Community. 

Happy are the hopeless, Jesus says, because yours is the Beloved Community – that place of justice and inclusion, that community of peace and goodness under God. 

Who gets it? Who’s first into the doors of the Beloved Community?

People who aren’t full already get it. People who are incomplete. People who are willing to listen to, learn from, be guided by God. 

Jesus said:

I haven’t come for the righteous, for the well. I’m here for the sick.

People who are willing to be dependent, who are in touch with their ache for something different, something more. The hopeless, the humble, the hungry and the grieving. These are the citizens of the Beloved Community.

What’s this mean? 

Well, one it means that if you find yourself at the end of your rope, back up against the wall, you’re in a great place for God’s next level happiness. 

Loss, need, problems, poverty are not an indictment on your worth. They can be a pathway into a deeper experience of Beloved Community. More on this in a second.

One the other hand, if we find ourselves already blessed on the usual terms of the world, if basically we’re like: I’m good, I’m all set. Nothing wrong with that, but it means we’re not in Jesus’ front row. To be close with God, we’ll likely need more work to get in touch with our hunger and need. 

You see, the good news of Jesus is good news not just of radical inclusion but of radical inversion. It’s a turning of the tables on the usual status game of the world. The first will be last, and the last will be first. That’s just the way it is. 

Let’s talk about these beatitudes as a path, though, how our hunger and thirst and hopelessness – whether it comes naturally or whether we’ve got to dig a little to find it – how that can be a path forward to our experience of the next level happiness of Beloved Community. 

Mark Scandrette, Danielle Welch and others have done great work on embracing the Beatitudes as a way of being in Beloved Community, as a way of Christ we can follow in the world. They call it the Ninefold path… trust, lament, humility, justice, compassion, right motive, peacemaking, surrender, and radical love as ways into a deeper walk with Jesus. I highly recommend their work. 

Let’s explore just one of these that was on my mind throughout my tour, which is the peacemakers. 

Our hosts for our tour, Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, maintain relationships with a number of people and organizations they call Partners for Peace – folks who are doing innovative work to foster dignified, humane relationships between Palestianians and Israelis in the service of a lasting and just peace in their shared land. 

We met a number of these partners for peace on our tour, none more moving to me than the members of The Parents’ Circle . These are Palestinian and Israeli parents who have had children killed as a result of the conflict. 

One afternoon we sat in a circle with __ and ___. They each told us the story of the murder of their daughter, one by a Palestianian suicide bomber, the other by rubber bullets fired by an Israeli soldier. 

They also told us of their choice to participate in relationship with members of the ethnic group of their daughter’s killers. It started in conversation circles with fellow parents whose children had been killed, to grieve together their shared losses. From there it expanded to include more of their families, like the summer camps where Palestianian and Israeli children whose siblings have been killed play together and learn together. 

In time, these men have become dear friends to one another, and they speak to whoever will listen about the paths toward peace in their land.  They’ve come to believe that any just peace between Israelis and Palestianians is going to have political solutions, to be sure, but those are going to require that these enemies learn to see the humanity and dignity of the other, such that they can find ways to share power and share space, or at least to validate the other’s existence and stop trying to kill each other. 

Of all the holy moments in this holy land, meeting with __ and __ was among the holiest moments of the trip for me. When I tried to ask them a question, I began by introducing myself, and I said before anything else,

I too am a father, a father of three children, and I’m so sorry for your loss,

and I couldn’t help but speak through tears. 

But as we asked them more about what they did and why they did it, they said that one,

they want to work for a world where no more parents have their children killed from this conflict.

They like to say

they are the only organization in their society that does not want to add any members. 

But beyond this core purpose, they and their families have also had the joy of friendship and community where they would have least expected it. It’s one thing to make a friend amongst your own affinity group, where you share most things in common. It’s quite another experience to make friends with your enemy, to experience safety and trust and belonging where you once experienced only hostility and danger. 

Both men made it clear that they would give up all this work to have their daughter back again. That would be their first choice of course. But since they can’t change the past, like none can, it’s its own blessing now to be in this parent’s circle of beloved community and to encounter their enemies as fellow children of God.

At the end of our time, I thanked them again and said to __ and ___ that my teacher, Jesus, says

happy are those who grieve, for they will be comforted. And happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God.

I said

I pray you know that comfort and I pray you know just how much you are God’s children. 

And they said thank you, and __, the Palestinian father added:

he also said, didn’t he, “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.” 

And I was speechless as I smiled at my Muslim brother and silently thanked him for showing me the way of Jesus. 

Happy are those who grieve because they will be comforted. And happy are those who make peace, because they will be called children of God. So it is. I heard it with my own two ears, saw it with my own two eyes. 

Now of course the work of the Parents’ Circle is critical for the places the world knows as Israel and Palestine. It’s an existential need for the people of that land, that they discover one another’s shared humanity and find peace together. I’ll be praying for them. I invite you to as well.

Is this relevant for us, though, in the US? 

I sure think so. How many of us have friendships or families or workplaces torn apart by conflict, gossip, and unresolved wounds? Most of us, I expect. 

And are we not in our own way in the US now a nation that is at war with itself? I think we are. 

Who will be the peacemakers among us, not the people who smooth over or minimize conflict or injustice? That’s not peacemaking. But the people who see the humanity of their enemy and ask:

how is it that we can start to share space again, how is it that we can not destroy one another, and maybe eventually learn to love one another?

Jesus’ beatitudes aren’t just a pathway to next level happiness, they’re a pathway toward the survival and flourishing of the human race. 

I encourage you to pray these beatitudes daily for a while if you will and pay attention,

where am I included in the blessing?

Where does Jesus see my hunger, loss, and hopelessness,

and

where is Jesus meeting me with next level happiness? 

And

where is Jesus calling me on a path to follow him into the blessing of Beloved Community? 

Let me close by reading Jesus’ words one more time.

Matthew 5:1b-12 (Common English Bible)

Jesus sat down and his disciples came to him. 2 He taught them, saying:

3 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

4 “Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

5 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

6 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for (justice), because they will be fed until they are full.

7 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

8 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

9 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.

12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.

Honor the Sacred

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

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

Exodus 3:1-7 (Common English Bible) 

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

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

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

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

Moses said, “I’m here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the very shortest verse in Bible, we read:

John 11:35 (Common English Bible) 

35 Jesus began to cry. 

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 19:13-15 (Common English Bible) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more moment with Jesus.

John 1:45-48 (Common English Bible) 

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

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

Philip said, “Come and see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you know me? 

And then Jesus says:

I saw you under that fig tree earlier. 

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

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

I saw you under that fig tree,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grieve well, and don’t rush it. 

Love and protect kids. 

And bless everyone you can. Be an encourager. 

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

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

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

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