Responsive Call to Worship
The unmistakable affirmation of our world is
that it’s all about what people can see—
It’s where you go—
what you eat.
It’s who you’re with
and what you look like together.
It’s what can be instagrammed
It’s what’s tangible;
it’s what’s immediate.
As opposed to the assurance of what’s hoped for
and the conviction of what’s not seen.
our faith stands witness counter to our culture.
So, again the question confronts us:
do we stand—let’s even say predominantly—
with our faith or with our world?
Do we prioritize our snapchat and instagram accounts
or the long conversation of our faith tradition with our God?
We are surrounded by what we do not see
that gives life it’s depth and richness.
May our culture never seduce us into thinking
our treasure is anything else.
To be content with little is difficult;
to be content with much, impossible.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
What we need is less.
The world says: “You have needs—satisfy them.
You have as much right as the rich and the mighty.
Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs;
indeed, expand your needs and demand more.”
This is the worldly doctrine of today.
And they believe that this is freedom.
The result for the rich is isolation and suicide,
for the poor, envy and murder.
They have succeeded in accumulating
a greater mass of objects,
but the joy in the world has grown less.
A strange species we are,
We can stand anything God and nature
can throw at us save only plenty.
If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much,
and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.
The life of my people is to remember forever;
each head granary is full.
The life of your people is to forget:
your thing granaries,
and not yourselves, are full.
Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Matthew 6:19-21, 25-34
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal;
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or what you will drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air;
they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not of more value than they?
And can any of you by worrying
add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,
even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?”
or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things;
and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
So do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Witness of the Open Canon, i.
a history lesson
The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.
The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.
In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday’s roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.
The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.
By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. (In fact, stores traditionally see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.)
The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten.
That’s the world—taking something bad and naming it good
and convincing others it is. As opposed to our faith—
naming what’s bad, bad, repenting, and living into what’s good.
Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Familiar verses those verses we heard read
from the Sermon on the Mount.
But they struck me this past week,
in their apparent straight-forwardness,
as rather complicated.
Not so much the first part.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal ….
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Makes perfect if countercultural sense to me.
The movement of significance is from the physical
to the truthfull.
Not that the physical is a lie
(there is treasure to be had on earth),
it’s just not as full of truth as that step into
what’s more meaningfull—
what’s deeper and richer.
So we’re advised to prioritize what’s not physical over what is,
as much as what is might feature in the daydreams
of those who consider these words—
even among those to whom Jesus spoke.
Sure there’s a measure of stuff we need—
food, shelter, clothing.
We’ve made of that a whole lot more—
too much more,
and we’ve invested in it
not just more than we were ever meant to,
but more than can ever come of it.
And commercials make promises
as absurd as those that presidential candidates make.
And we evaluate people on the basis of how much they have—
or say they have.
And I guess the question for each of us is:
“Do I treasure what’s of the heart,
or love the treasures the world has to offer?”
The second part of the scripture
came up at camp this past week.
“Consider the birds of the air,” we were told,
and so I did.
I considered the birds.
they seem to live very precarious lives to me.
I saw a video on YouTube a while back—
some of you may have seen it too—
of a bird at a baseball game hit by a pitch—
kind of an explosion of feathers.
On our way to the beach, a couple of weeks ago,
we drove over the bay bridge,
then over and under the bay bridge and tunnel.
Lots of dead birds on those bridges.
I’ve seen—I’m sure you have too—
those sad pictures of birds after an oil spill.
That plane that landed in the Hudson?
Both engines were taken out
because birds were sucked into them
as the plane took off into a flock of geese.
I have friends and family
who come back from hunting
holding dead birds upside down by their legs.
We were at Grandfather Mountain, NC
years ago, and there was a Bald Eagle and a golden eagle,
both of whom had been shot
and were no longer capable of surviving in the wild.
They lived sadly flightless lives in two neighboring enclosures.
Now those birds have since died of old age,
and those two enclosures, I’m told, have been combined into one,
in which two bald eagles live—
because even though it’s illegal to shoot them,
there will always be enough of them shot—
unable to live in the wild,
and so living flightless lives in captivity.
Now our scripture just talks about food, right?—
God providing food—
birds not worrying about food.
But the implication of the verses is that God’s looking out for birds,
The implication is of an actively involved God.
That’s what I’m thinking when I read these verses,
and I don’t even believe in that kind of a God!
Now, maybe you can strictly adhere to,
“It just says God will provide food,”
and go with some affirmation of the balance established in creation—
a basic sufficiency—
even a basic abundance
that we have messed up—
always more interested in profit and expedience
But to claim these verses are about
such a fundamental balance seems a stretch.
It feels like a justification for what doesn’t seem true
at a more basic level.
We all know God doesn’t take care of birds.
So how do we explain this Scripture
as anything other than foolish?
And if God doesn’t take care of birds,
why would we think God takes care of us?
And how is the admonition to not worry about basic needs
not a voice of privilege—
the voice of someone who doesn’t have to worry
about food and basic needs
because the assumption is they’ll be met—
there will be enough?—
which couldn’t have been true for Jesus.
It doesn’t say anything about it in the gospels,
but my guess is, there were nights
when Jesus and the disciples went to bed hungry.
Mornings they woke up hungry.
My guess is when those people gathered around Jesus—
whether it was on a mountain or not—
when they gathered around to hear Jesus’ words,
there were plenty among them
whose lives were precarious—
who knew their basic needs were not guaranteed.
So then what does this Scripture sound like
acknowledging that birds die—
without that filter
of assured safety—
the assurance of money in the bank
and food in the pantry?
Well, remember before we heard the bird story,
we heard the treasure story—
in which we moved the significance and priority
from the physical to to the more truthfull?
What if the bird story works the same way as the treasure story—
moving from physical imagery
to non-physical truth?
Right? Just like there is treasure on earth—
there are physical needs of food and clothing.
But there are more important things we need.
So what’s more important than survival?
And we acknowledge first off,
that’s not a conversation most of us will have.
We’re going to survive.
But that may have been a more real concern
for Jesus’ original hearers,
who lived lives more precarious than most of ours—
less assured of basic needs.
We also need to remember
that it’s Jesus saying this—
who did not starve,
but did rely on the kindness of those around him
for his basic needs,
who knew more than we do of hunger and deprivation,
and also, who in the fullness of the story,
ultimately did not survive.
What if Jesus’ claim here
is not that God provides everything we need,
but what we need most?
What if the affirmation is that God
takes delight in plumage and flight and song,
and how much more, to use the language we’ve just heard,
God treasures each of us?
So even in the most precarious of situations,
we remember God loves us.
It’s easy to say so what—
thinking of all those dead birds.
But I remember Russ Dean,
thinking about the power of God—
what God can and can’t do,
so aware of how many birds die, as it were,
saying, “If I were to be diagnosed with some deadly illness,
my parents—my family and loved ones
would be able to do nothing about that.
They would not be able to do absolutely anything about that.
But they would love me through it,
and their love would make a difference—
no matter the outcome.”
That raises another question.
Incorporated into worship at Passport
is something they call The Question of the Day.
It’s kind of like the living word, i. here—
a way to include voices from the congregation.
The question of the day this past Monday night in worship
was how do you know God loves you?
And they go around with a video camera
ask that question and film a bunch of answers
and then show the video in worship.
Some answers that I recall:
I know God loves me because my parents do—
or my friends do—my youth group—my church.
I know God loves me when I’m outside—
when I’m doing what I love to do—
when I’m helping others.
It’s a good question—
hard to answer—
harder to answer than answers would make it seem.
If God’s love is what I need most
how do I know I have it?
In our church group devotion time,
we wondered about not just accepting answers at face value
but pushing them.
Because we can all imagine scenarios—
in which parents don’t love you.
One youth at Passport went home a couple of years ago now,
and his family had moved—he didn’t know where.
They didn’t tell him.
Didn’t leave word for him.
He had to move in with some church folks
until they could figure out what to do.
What if your friends aren’t friends?
What if they’re mean?
What if you don’t have a youth group? A church?
What if you’re homeless and outside?
Would that still feel like the presence and love of God?
How do you know God loves you then?
How do we know parents and friends and church love us? Because of the evidence, right?
They take care of us.
They feed us and clothe us.
They hug and kiss us—sometimes annoyingly so.
They tell us they love us, yes,
but their words are backed up by our experience.
So what’s our experience that indicates God loves us—
that backs up the claim so easy to make?
It’s a combination of what we’ve been told and taught:
for God so loved the world—
we’ve been told the stories—
taught the truth.
It’s a combination of that with our own experience—
with what we feel deep inside.
I’m not saying any of the answers given are wrong.
I’m just wondering if they’re enough.
My friend Allyson Robinson is the trans woman baptist minister
who spent a good part of her life thinking God rejected her.
That’s what she was told.
That’s what she was taught.
Rejection was what she experienced—
rejection and condemnation.
By the grace of God, she talks about a bare bones theology
that saw her through suicidal thoughts—
that saw her through the bleakest and hardest and loneliest of times.
And it’s the basic affirmation that God did, in truth, love her.
Despite what she’d been told and taught.
Despite what she’d experienced.
And that Scripture that questioned that, was itself to be questioned.
That churches that denied that, were compromising their fundamental calling.
And that her own understanding of experience,
was not necessarily to be trusted.
I think you have to want to believe—
Some of you know how with addiction
you have to admit you have a problem.
And then you have to want to get better,
or nothing’s going to work—nothing’s going to change.
Do you want God’s love—
at the core of your being?
Is there anything you can imagine more important?
More life giving? Life sustaining?
More hope sustaining?
So know what’s important enough to worry about,
and then don’t worry about it!
God loves you.
We don’t all start with a bare bones theology like Allyson did.
Most of us don’t have to.
Many of us may never strip our theology down to the barest minimum.
But if you do—
if you ever have to—
if it’s ever more than theoretical Scripture interpretation—
Sunday School rhetoric—
if one day it comes down to it,
I want you to have in your memory banks—
this way of thinking about this text.
God will always provide what you need most—
the assurance that you are wonderfully created,
blessed by God as who you are,
and loved just as you are.
Bone comes to bone.
That’s first, and it is very good.
God loves you no matter what—no exceptions.
And then according to Ezekiel,
sinew is added to bone,
until you have life and life at its fullest—life abundant.
But full and abundant because of those bones—
because of that foundation,
never because of how much stuff you’ve accumulated.
It’s got to be more than just something you say though.
Too much we substitute
a picture implying experience
for whole-hearted, mindful presence.
I’ve told you all before
about the time we spent the better part of a day
lounging by a lake in the Austrian Alps.
The girls were playing in the lake—
in and out of the water.
The tour buses pulled up behind us and disgorged tourists,
reloaded and left.
We saw two young women—
I guess off one of those buses,
come over to the park area,
go into the bathroom,
come out in their swimsuits,
walk over to the water’s edge,
turn their backs to the lake and the mountain behind it,
pose for a selfie,
go back into the bathroom,
come back out dressed—
Did they even see what they claimed to have experienced?
That seems ridiculous to most of us—
I hope … I pray.
But our culture is full of
the assumption of substance.
And we have to be careful,
lest a moment of silence and prayer
be perceived as nothing at all.
Words not made flesh, you see.
The integrity of our faith
is not in what we say,
but in how what we say
shapes the way we live and relate to others.
And I do believe the critical question for our time
is less, “Do we experience our faith claims?”
but “Do others experience our faith claims?”—
and not just as words—
and certainly not self-righteous words,
but as lives tangibly shaped by the love of God—
lives tinged with the wonder and joy of faith—
the promise of peace.
Is that what people catch glimpses of in and through you?
Is that what people see in and through us?
How do we help each other answer “Yes” to that?
maybe that’s a more honest prayer.
We tell the stories
over and over and over and against the stories of the world.
We seek the truth—the truth that is love.
Rejecting all other claims to ultimate truth
as we love—above all as we love.
And we remind each other that’s what we want—
to be identified—
to be defined
by the love of God.
May it be so.
Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.