stranger things: the gate

Mark 6:1-13
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 123)
To be Sung in Order to Get Back Up
From down here, I look up to You, God above.
That’s the image, isn’t it?
As day laborers look up to the boss who hired them,

as immigrants and refugees look up to the judge,
as the young black man looks up to the policeman,
as the woman looks up to the men making more than she does,

so our eyes look to You, O God, until we know divine mercy.
Have such mercy upon us, our God, have such mercy.
For we have had more than enough of the contempt.
Our souls overflow with the scorn of the arrogant—
with the sense of being looked down upon
by those we have to look up to.

Have mercy upon us, God above,
that we would know You here below. Mercy!
That we would know
You have deemed us worthy
of Your presence with us face to face.

Pastoral Prayer
Our God,
we are among those in one of Your communities of faith
who are taught to care for each other—
to take joy with those enjoying
and to weep with those in grief.
We are those taught to care for more
than just each other though—
commanded indeed, to love our neighbors and our enemies—
to provide for the least of these—
those without food and shelter and clothes—
those imprisoned.
We are those commanded to welcome the alien—
the refugee—
the ones who are different—
the ones who are left out.

We are those taught not to scapegoat—
to blame—
to crucify someone else for that
for which we are ourselves responsible.

We are those taught to be kind—
assured of love (both your love and the love of each other)
that we don’t need to tear down others
to feel good about ourselves—
don’t need constant attention
to be reassured of the value of our being.

We are those taught to be honest—
our yeses yeses, our no’s no’s.
That’s what Jesus said he expected of us.
We are those taught respect—
those who are to model grace.

We are those to whom you entrusted your creation.
We are to be good stewards
of the mountains and seas,
the air,
the plants and animals.

We are those through whom
you seek to bless all peoples.

So guide us ever into the wisdom of your way
grant us the courage to risk your way—
to trust your way

that we might be points of light in the darkness
that the darkness cannot comprehend

This we pray in the name of your way made flesh
our light in the darkness
still alive—present among us—
even Jesus the Christ,

Jesus left that place, we read—Capernaum,
and came to his home town—Nazareth.
So begins one of my favorite Jesus stories.

On the sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue
(as was his custom),
and many who heard him were astounded
(again, not unusual).
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What is this wisdom that has been given to him?
What deeds of power are being done by his hands?”

Note the transition within their response
from “what is this wisdom?”
(that they were hearing for themselves)
to “what deeds of power are being done by his hands?”
(as the wisdom they heard firsthand
validated what they had heard
about Jesus’ deeds of power secondhand.)
So the first comment is about the wisdom they themselves heard.
The second comment is about deeds of power
they had heard about and were now prepared to accept.

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary
and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon,
and are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.

Again note,
it was not in disbelief that they turned on him—
taking offense at him.
It was rather, believing—
having heard the wisdom—
having accepted his power.

We, in our faith tradition and in our culture,
have prioritized believing over following.
But believing was never meant to be prioritized over following.
In fact, most of what we think believing connotes,
should be more associated with following.

Not only doesn’t it matter what we say we believe,
if we don’t follow,
it doesn’t matter what we actually do believe
if we don’t follow,
and if that’s true, then we have to entertain the possibility
that if you follow, it doesn’t matter what you believe.
Just think about it—
as the story asks us to.

Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor,
except in their home town, and among their own kin,
and in their own house.”

Up until now in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been identified
as the Son of God and the Holy One.
He has also acted in ways that identify him
as a proclaimer, a teacher, a healer, and a storyteller,
but here, for the first time, he self-identifies himself—
and self-identifies himself as a prophet,
which we know has nothing to do with foretelling some future,
and everything to do with speaking some truth.
And sometimes, most of us know this,
truth is hardest, maybe not to see, but to hear
from someone too close—
especially when it’s hard to hear—
(maybe when it’s been intentionally or customarily)
overlooked—even justified.

Who are you to point this out to us?
This that we don’t want to acknowledge.

We just got back from the beach,
and while out walking along the shore,
I noticed there were stretches of sand
where shells and shell shards seem to collect—
mounds of pieces of shells you wanted to walk around
if you were barefoot.
And usually, all those pieces merged into an indistinct mound,
but sometimes, amidst the indistinct, there would be a shape—
or a color, that stood out.

Two aspects of this gospel story stand out—
distinct—drawing attention.
Here’s the first:
And he could do no deed of power there.
That’s what it says.
Jesus could do no deeds of power.

Which warrants a quick refresher.
We’re five chapters into Mark’s gospel.
In those five chapters, Jesus has healed a man with an unclean spirit
in the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath (Mark 1: 21-28).
He healed many at Simon and Andrew’s house (Mark 1:29-34).
He went through Galilee proclaiming the message
and casting ut demons (Mark 1:39).
He healed a leper (Mark 1:40-42).
He healed a man paralyzed (Mark 2:3-12).
He healed the man with a withered hand
again on the sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).
He stilled a storm on the sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41).
He healed the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20).
He raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead
and healed the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:21-43).
But in Nazareth, he could do no deeds of power.

Amidst all the expectations
and the celebration of who Jesus was and what all Jesus could do,
it says—the Bible says, Jesus could not do—
was unable to do—any miracles there.
For the Bible tells us so.

The first part of the story that stands out
was that Jesus could do no deeds of power there,
and the second is this:
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people—
and cured them!

He could do no deeds of power
except for the fact that he healed some people.
And he was amazed at their unbelief.
But it wasn’t unbelief, was it?
So what was it?
It was a lack of trust.

Most of what we associate with believing,
should be associated more with following.
And they wouldn’t follow him.

So he left.
Again, they didn’t follow.
Then he went about among the villages teaching.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two,

So, in the Bible, two by two …
makes you think of what?
The animals going onto the ark. Sure.
There’s even a song about it!
The animals entered the ark, two by two,
to preserve life through the flood.
Now the disciples go out, two by two,
to preserve the possibility of abundant life—
of life lived trusting grace—trusting love.

And Jesus gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
What does that mean?
It means if you trust love and grace,
you have authority over unclean spirits!

He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff;
no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;
but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

He ordered them to rely on others, in other words—
to not be independent and self-sufficient.
In our world, to be irresponsible.

He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house,
stay there until you leave the place.”

Now that’s called being mindfully present!
Don’t leave until you leave.
Be where you are.
We regularly interrupt the girls’ screen time
to tell them something like that.
“Hey! You’re here. Be here.
Here is unique and special, and you’re missing it.”
Too much of our experience (not just our youth and children’s)
has to do with not being present—
which is the opposite of every single wisdom tradition in the world.
Let me repeat that.
Our culture promotes and encourages not being present,
which is the opposite of every single wisdom tradition
in the history of the world.

“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,
as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet
as a testimony against them.”

Don’t argue.
Don’t try and convince someone they need to listen to you.
Don’t overtalk them—
trying to exceed them in volume
as if that makes you more right
instead of more of an ignoramus.
We have so many ignorami in our culture—
and so many of them in the church.

So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.
They cast out many demons,
and anointed with oil many who were sick
and cured them.

We make of Jesus curing the sick—
healing lepers and making the blind to see—
making the one paralyzed able to walk—
casting out demons …
we make of that miracles.
And we make of miracles (of the miraculous),
the specialness of Jesus.
But the disciples did all that.
All those deeds of power
that in Nazareth,
we found out
weren’t deeds of power—
because he could do no deeds of power there,
except he did heal people.

Counter to the tradition of identifying holiness
by separating it from the ordinary,
we have been contemplating holiness as wholeness—
as not separating parts of reality from other parts—
parts of life from other parts.
Our gospel story questions separating Jesus from us
by virtue of what he did that we don’t understand and can’t do—
haven’t experienced.
Our gospel story questions making believing in miracles
the measure by which we follow Jesus
when trusting Jesus with our lives
seems a more reliable indication.
Actually living love and grace.
The ordinary choice to trust grace—
to risk love—day by day
is more the miracle —more the holy—
than any amazing thing we consider an act of power.

From considering the Netflix TV series, Stranger Things,
we know that El opened a gate between dimensions
that let the monster into our world.
And we know that once that gate was open,
the upside down (the monstrous dimension) grew or spread—
from the gate—from the basement of Hawkin’s Lab—
under the fields—through those weird tunnels.

We noted how the boys
were playing their game which was a campaign
that was part of a larger story of a quest.
We noted how that campaign—that quest
became their life—
a story that was true.
And there was the very real risk
of being consumed by the darkness—
such risk.

And what Will came to see is that everything in our reality
was also in the upside down.
There was an alternate version of everything.
That’s not to say that everything is good in our world
and only bad in the upside down,
but that in the upside down,
it was all is subject to the ravenous hunger of the monstrous.
And while everything in the right side up is not good,
it’s not subsumed into someone else’s—
something else’s—

And in that world, as in ours,
in the upside down and the rightside up,
there is the light that overcomes the darkness—
the courage that confronts what’s dangerous—
the depth that acknowledges complexity—
the relationships that prompt action.

Here’s the thing.
If the upside down spreads and grows,
why wouldn’t the rightside up too?

There is the very real risk
in the world of Stranger Things
in our world of stranger things,
of being consumed by the darkness—
that come from consuming darkness—
opening yourself up even just a little—
being mean—
Such risk.

And there is the very real possibility
in the world of Stranger Things
in our world of stranger things,
of becoming a part of the light—
that comes from living light
opening yourself up even just a little—
being kind—
Such possibility.

There is the truth we proclaim
that mercy—
beauty …
they’re what transform reality—
transform people—
transform circumstances
by having transformed the people in the circumstances.
Not money.
Not power.

One of the books I read this past week
was by Laurie Frankel, called this is how it always is,
a beautiful book about a family in which the youngest son
grows up feeling like he’s really a girl—
and how her family loves her
through all the challenges that inevitably arise.
At the end of the novel, there was an author’s note that reads:
“[T[his book is an act of imagination,
an exercise in wish fulfillment,
because that is the other thing novelists do.
We imagine the world we hope for and endeavor,
with the greatest power we have, to bring that world into being.
[That’s what we do too, right? as followers of God]
I wish for my child, for all our children,
a world where they can be who they are and become their most loved,
blessed, appreciated selves. I’ve rewritten that sentence a dozen times,
and it never gets less cheesy,
I suppose because that’s the answer to the question.
THat’s what’s true. For my child, for all our children,
I want more options, more paths through the forest,
wider ranges of normal, and unconditional love.
Who doesn’t want that?
I know this book will be controversial, but honestly?
I keep forgetting why”
(Laurie Frankel, this is how it always is
[New York: Flatiron Books, 2017] 327).

More important than what you say you believe,
is whether you make the world a better place for children—
all children—
children separated from their parents—
children put in cages—
children used as threat—as deterrent—
as means to some end—any end—
children without adequate health care or food or education.
More important than what you say you believe—
more important than what you believe
is whether you work for more options—
whether you’re not threatened by wider ranges of normal—
whether you risk unconditional love
and the controversies
that make you forget why someone might think they are.

That’s following Jesus.
That’s trusting grace and risking love—
no matter what you do or don’t believe.

stranger things: the upside down


Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 107)
Be grateful all you who are being redeemed.
And as you are being gathered,
from north and south of us, and east and west—
as you are being gathered
into the truth, presence, and grace of God and God’s people,
give thanks for the goodness of God.

Many wander various wildernesses,
longing and looking for a better life
with and for their children—
hungry and thirsty—their souls fainting within them—

crying out to God in their despair.
And it is God who answers them
when they find others who will care for them—
be an oasis for them.
Let them then thank God for steadfast love—
for wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many are prisoner
to their own responsibilities, schedules, and priorities,
who work so hard—sacrifice so much,
and are yet invested in that
the returns of which do not fulfill.

It is God who offers them alternatives
to the miseries of “just the way things are.”
Let them then thank God for steadfast love
which breaks down walls and opens doors
in wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many in our culture are addicted
to substances and fashion and image and things—
phones and devices and “likes”—
to an easy escape from the work of being true.

And there are no easy answers to addiction.
There are no quick fixes.
But God’s desire is ever for health and wholeness
and the honesty and courage it takes to claim them.

Let them then thank God for steadfast love,
naming the commitment to work for healing and freedom,
God, in songs of joy
because of wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Many work within chaos
(the chaos of business, politics, people).
Others are lost within the chaos of our systems.
But they all ride the very surface of chaos,
tossed by the winds and waves,
propelled this way and that
by the strength of the currents of the deep,

and can yet in the chaos,
turn to the one who creates within the chaos—
who brings order out of chaos.
Let them then thank God for steadfast love,
which maintains a vision of something else
through wondrous works of kindness toward others.

Remember, ours is the God of inversions—of surprise,
and much of what the world sees
as productive and profitable—desirable,
God sees as foolishness.

While in much of what the world sees as weak
and pitiful—foolish,
God sees strength and wisdom.
So those who hunger in our world for another way
gather and form community and seek to follow
ever more closely in the way of God
and grow in and through their living
the fruits of justice and grace.

To see this deep truth is to be glad,
and such gladness stops wickedness in its tracks.
For true wisdom is but the consistent consideration—
the persistent celebration—of steadfast love.

Pastoral Prayer
I don’t even know what to pray for.
So much seems to be going so wrong.
Too many people hurting.
Too many people being hurt.
And to be honest,
the implications of the affirmation
that You so love the world give me a headache.
The implications of Your working to redeem all creation
It’s such a big picture
for us who are such a small part in it.
And part of the problem, of course,
is that we can’t conceive of ourselves
as a small part of much of anything.

And to take ourselves out of the center
is utterly overwhelming.
How do we then consider
our care (or lack thereof) of the earth,
the way we walk right by our neighbors in their ditches—
often ditches we dug,
often suffering at the hands of bandits we’ve supported?
How do we consider our rejection of You
in our rejection of the least of these?
How do we consider the fact that we ignore
Your teachings on violence toward others,
Your warnings about money and riches—
pretty much Your teachings on anything
that that has to do with what we’re doing
as we focus, instead, on what they’re doing wrong?

So in Your gathering of us into Your presence—
in Your gathering of us into Your stories,
remind us to love each other.
Remind us of grace.
Remind us of the community for which we were created—
the community that transcends the limits we place on it—
the borders we draw, the walls we put up,
the so very local priorities we choose.
Teach us humility.
Leave us with a taste of more and beyond.
More possibility. More hope.
Beyond all we know and see.
In Jesus’ name.

On that day—that long day of stories by the sea—
on that day when evening had come …
which is interesting.
Because by Hebrew reckoning, a new day begins at sundown.
Y’all probably know you start Sabbath-keeping Friday at dusk
and end at sundown Saturday
So if it was evening that day,
it was the next day.
It was most specifically the transition time to the next day.

And Jesus said to the disciples,
“Let us go across to the other side.”

What does that mean?

Um, literally? They crossed the Sea of Galilee.
Presumably they were still up in the Capernaum area—
the northernmost part of the lake.
And they probably crossed not to the southern end,
but to the eastern shore,
for in fact, the gospel story goes on,
They came to the other side of the lake,
to the country of the Gerasenes.

And while we’re not absolutely sure who the Gerasenes were,
the cities of Gerasa and Gadara
(because in some of the stories it’s called the country of the Gadarenes—
compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34 and Luke 8)
the cities of Gerasa and Gadara were both to the east of the Sea of Galilee—
part of the Decapolis, a grouping of ten Greco-Roman—Gentile cities—
more heavily influenced by the hellenist culture than the semitic one.

Now does that mean there weren’t any Jews
on the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee? No.
Does that mean everything was different and foreign? No.
But it means there probably is something intended in the symbolism
of Jesus crossing from one side to the other.

And leaving the crowd behind,
they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.
What does that mean?
Well, it was an old Hebrew hymn, “Just As He Was!”
Just kidding!
It may simply mean the boat he was already on.
This day begins, you may remember,
with the narrator describing how
such a large crowd gathered around Jesus
that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there,
while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land (Mark 4:1).

And they headed out into deeper water—
headed out into the watery boundary area between
this shore and that one.
It’s another transition, isn’t it?
A spatial transition—geographic—
to go along with the temporal transition from one day to another—
the transition from light to dark.

Other boats were with him, we read.
Of course four of the disciples were fishermen,
so it’s possible they had more than one boat between them—
except when this one boat got to the other side,
nothing is said about not all the disciples being there.
Maybe there were other fishermen
who seized the opportunity to remain with Jesus.
In any case, there’s a wider community.
As you may know, the boat was widely accepted
as a symbol of the ancient church,
so what we have here is a local association.

A great gale arose,
and the waves beat into the boat,
so that the boat was already being swamped.
We’re in a symbol for the church that’s being filled with water.
Too much of a stretch to suggest baptismal imagery?!
Baptism too, of course, a passage between—a transition.
We are baptized into death to be raised to newness of life.

Now the other boats aren’t mentioned.
In fact, they’re not mentioned again at all.
Maybe the storm separated them all.
Maybe each church goes through significant transitions on its own!
And when boats are being tossed around,
it’s best not to have a bunch together in close proximity.

What’s happened in the story though,
with water representing chaos in Hebrew thought and writing,
is the chaos factor has been upped.

When you cross to the other side—
when you cross the border—
when you go from one way of doing things to another—
when you go from where they speak this language
to where they speak that one
(even if it’s the same language, you understand what I’m saying?)—
when you go from these traditions to those—
these beliefs to those—
these people in charge to those—
when you leave behind what was and embrace what’s to be,
it can get a little chaotic
as you venture out into the unknown—
out into what’s legitimately scary.

But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.
The storm didn’t bother him a bit.
He was sound asleep—reclined—
hovering, as it were, over the surface of the deep.

There are multiple levels of possible meaning here—
or of association.
He was really, really tired and there was nothing more to it.
He was completely out.
Or, he trusted his disciples who were fishermen—
who knew the water, knew its moods, knew their boat.
Or he trusted God.
And there are undeniable parallels to the story of Jonah
another prophet to the gentiles—
another Jew who crossed to the other side—
who was asleep in a boat during a storm—
a storm that ended up being miraculously calmed.
And it’s also true, that in Hebrew thought and writing,
the absence of God in the chaos of history
was often depicted as God being asleep
(Psalms 35:23; 44:23-24; Isaiah 51:9a).
Or at a completely different level—at that symbolic level,
crossing what scared so many, didn’t scare him.
He had a vision of wholeness
that undermined the fear of the other and of otherness.
I trust you know me well enough to know
I’m not suggesting there’s one answer.
These associations are all there,
and they’re all important.

The disciples woke Jesus up and said to him,
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

That’s fairly blunt phrasing—aggressive and rude—
so much so that Matthew and Luke
both make the disciples a little more respectful—
clean up the story a bit.
But as blunt as the phrasing is,
it’s not, “Wake up! It’s getting dangerous out here.
We need to figure out what we’re going to do—
how we’re going to get out of this.”
No. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
And they address him as “Teacher”—
as if this were a lesson,
not as “Master”—the one in charge.

Now, true confession, I’d’ve been scared too.
If fishermen were afraid on the Sea of Galilee, I would have been too.
They had to have known what they were dealing with.
There was obviously good reason to be afraid.
But honestly, here’s where the story gets iffy for me.
Because I’ve been around experts in a crisis.
They tend not to panic.
They tend to swing into action.
They know what to do, and they do it—
even if it ends up not being enough.

Well, as the story is told, Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind.
It’s the same word he uses to rebuke the man possessed with an unclean spirit.
And he said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
Another command paralleling the silencing of the man with the unclean spirit,
and the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

We totally miss it in our translation.
The word translated “dead” (“dead calm”) is the same word
earlier translated “heavy”—the “heavy” gale.
It’s an absolute. The best translation would be:
The great storm on the sea becomes the great calm of the sea.

It’s called that in both Old and New Testaments, by the way—the sea,
even though the Sea of Galilee is not a sea.
Technically, it’s a lake—freshwater surrounded by land.
A sea refers to a saltwater body, connected to the great oceans.
The sea can even refer to the world ocean—
the waters that covered the earth over which hovered the Spirit of God—
as if it’s such depths reached in Galilee—
that level of primordial chaos—
in which sense, Jesus and his disciples—Jesus and the church
cross all borders into all lands in the creation of a new world
and are not afraid—or aren’t supposed to be.
In that sense, it’s a re-creation story,
and there was evening and this day became the next,
and it was good.
They were crossing from one side to the other,
and order was brought out of chaos.

And Jesus said to the disciples,
“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Seriously? Jesus contributed to lousy theology?
If you have enough faith, you too,
can bring great calm to the great chaos?
Faith isn’t going to keep anyone safe in the storm.
I’ve been through too much. Seen too much.
Been with people through too much.
Life brings storms from which no faith will protect you.

And the disciples were filled with great awe.
Now see, that’s just downright misleading.
That’s just wrong!
That’s translators cleaning up the story again!
The Greek, literally, has nothing to do with awe.
The text literally reads they “feared a great fear.”
Little different from they were filled with great awe, don’t you think?

Notice as well, by the way, the verb tenses.
It’s not, notice, why were you afraid (during the storm)—
not, why didn’t you have faith (during the storm),
but have you still no faith (after the storm)—
why are you afraid (now that the winds have ceased
and the water’s still)?

And the disciples said to one another,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
As if that’s what scared them.
As if, more than the storm, which was initially frightening,
it was, in the end, Jesus calming the storm
that was most frightening.
Who is this? Who does that?

Another true confession, I’d’ve been scared too.
As many super hero movies as I’ve seen,
and as much as I like the super hero Storm,
if someone were to actually command the weather,
I would be majorly freaking out.
That’s not anything I’ve experienced—
nothing I expect to ever experience.

And I know, consistency with my experience and expectations
is not determinative of the truth of Scripture.
However, you know, I’ve said it enough,
when I affirm the presence of God with me,
it’s hard for me to say that that presence is experienced differently now
than it was by people in the past.
I look for the ways in which a story is still true,
not for justifications for why it used to be as it is no more.

So what if it was never about the storm?
For if their fear was of the storm,
when the storm ceased, what would have remained?
Awe. Gratitude.
But the story says fear.
Mistranslated into awe—right?
But not awe. Fear.
And maybe they were afraid of Jesus—
of the growing awareness that he was other—
that there was an inexplicable, incomprehensible dimension to him.
But what also remained, in the aftermath of the storm,
was still the chaos of crossing to the other side.
The chaos of not avoiding them—of possibly encountering them
of having to have a conversation with them.
And the questions “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
do still make sense.

Maybe some of you wonder with no little frustration,
“Why do you always have to explain away the miracle?”
I didn’t. I don’t think I did.
What’s the miracle?
Something none of us have ever experienced
and have no expectation we ever will? Maybe.
I don’t—can’t rule that out.
But it could also be the miracle of people overcoming fear and prejudice
and crossing the chaos of boundaries and borders and customs
to reach the other side of what’s known and familiar that feels safe.
Who is this who remains calm in face of that?
That’s actually a richer miracle to me—
one full of more meaning, more possibility, more relevance, and more hope.

Getting back to the story,
there’s actually an easy answer to the disciples’ question:
“Who is this then?”
For according to Scriptural tradition,
“the commanding of the sea is something only God can do”
(see Job 26:11-12; Psalm 104:7; Isaiah 51:9-10)
(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2001] 176).
Who can take chaos, and in an utter lack of fear,
speak words of order and creation, hope and possibility?
Only God.

Susie reminded me of a time in Waco,
we were at the home of an Old Testament professor and his wife,
and they had had a flood in their house.
Jim, as he told the story, had been of absolutely no help—
flailing around helplessly—cluelessly—
until Donna got home, figured out what was going on
and restored order, calming both the waters and Jim.
And he lauded her and named her by the name of an ancient goddess
for it is only by divine power that the waters are controlled!

But what if the chaos of fear can also be overcome by followers of God—
those who maintain faith in grace even in fear
and co-create with God in and out of the chaos hope and possibility?

We live amidst chaotic times
and lots of people are afraid these days—
of different things—
of very different things.
Some are afraid of x,
others afraid of what we’re doing because of x,
still others afraid we’re ignoring y that’s part of the equation too,
and some know we don’t even know about z!
Afraid of different things,
but the fear, seems like we all have in common.

How then to have faith amidst the chaos—
How to get to the point where you’re not afraid of people?
Where you’re not angry? Where you’re not always blaming someone else?
You decide, do you not, that in spite of your fear—
your uncertainty, you will trust God—who God is.
You decide to hope in love and grace.
Are you still afraid of them?
Have you no faith in initiatives of grace? In reconciliation?
Have you no faith in those others—so different—
who are nonetheless also created in the very image of God—
just on the other side—just across the border?

And that’s it.
The story goes on, as mentioned, on the other shore—
in the country of the Gerasenes. You see, they did cross over.
They did come into contact with them.
That’s the ever unfolding story, isn’t it?
In the chaos of our borders and our living—
in the chaos of what it means to cross to the other side,
do we calm our fears and claim our faith and say,
“We will welcome the stranger.”
“We will be responsible for the least of these.”
“We will help our neighbors.”
“We will love our enemies.”
Because we believe in God’s future of reconciliation
not anyone else’s future of domination.

In the TV show Stranger Things,
the chaos of the inter-dimensional monster
that was brought into our world
creates an alternate dimension within our own.
The upside down, it’s called.
And though it was a chaos thought to be contained,
it tunnels underneath the surface of things
and rips inter-dimensional holes through the fabric of reality.
There’s one such hole in the hollow of a tree.
And it’s gooey and squishy and you have to ooze through it.
And Nancy does. Looking for Barb.
And I’m thinking “No way!
I am not crossing through that to get to the other side.”

“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
faith not in what’s expedient, but what’s right.
not in what makes sense, but in what honors love.
not in what makes you more secure,
but in what secures hope for more than you.
not in our salvation,
but in God’s ongoing work for the redeeming of all creation.

How we live our lives, my friends,
as individuals, and as communities of faith,
and as citizens of our country,
is the best (and only) indication of our faith.
When our world sees what you support—what makes you angry—
what you deem worthy of your investment—what excites you,
do they see God’s love for all?
God’s hope for all?
God’s working for all?

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way,
“Every human interaction offers you the chance
to make things better or to make things worse.”
(Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
[New York: HarperCollins, 2009] 114).
Set before you and us, multiple times
this and every day, that choice.
Choose better.

stranger things: Jesus the Wise


Mark 4:26-34
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 92)
For Contemplation as Part of Worship
It is a good and healthy thing
to wake up to a new day with gratitude—
with thoughts and words of praise—
both about what’s been and what’s anticipated—

all within intentionally more specific gratitude
for the blessing—the gift—the wonder
of Your steadfast love, our God—
the faithfulness, in the assurance of which, we rest.

And as it is good to thus wake up,
so too, to lie down at night
listing—naming—maybe chanting—
identifying specific blessings

to the sound of imagined musical accompaniment—
the organ maybe—or not,
a full orchestra,
power chords on an electric guitar,
a jazz quartet.

It matters not.
The gift of music offered in response to the gift of grace.

For day by day and through my nights,
the signs of Your work sing to me—
signify Your presence and bring me joy.

How great the effects I know to name of faithful love.
How transformative their consequence—
how profound—pervasive—extensive.

Yet there are many who do not—
will not—cannot see—
would never dream,
amidst all the wickedness of our world—
within the reality that jerks and cheats flourish and prosper
in culturally approved and measurable ways—

there are many who do not know
the wicked, whatever appearance to the contrary,
have already been doomed in, by, and through love.

I guess some of those are blinded
by superficiality and selfishness.
Then there are those,
I’m not sure why they don’t—won’t name You.

Righteousness and justice
grow from Your heart, our God,
strong and true, green and healthy, into the light,
producing their bountiful fruit in the world—

another sign of who You are,
my solid, reliable foundation,
my rock
in whom there is but good—
in whom there is but love.
And again, I name my blessing.

So maybe you remember we mentioned,
or if you’re watching/have watched the Netflix TV series Stranger Things,
maybe you saw the episode
in which El opened that inter-dimensional door
letting in the monster?
Those in charge at Hawkins lab hoped to harness
and exploit its power.
Because that’s what they did there at Hawkins Lab.
They exploited power.
Because some ends supposedly justified whatever means.
Then when they discovered the monster could not be controlled,
they sought to contain it on the bottom floor of the lab.
But what we come to find out, along with them,
is that evil can’t be contained.

Evil finds ways to spread,
and the separation of one evil from another
does not exist.
Distinctions between evil are always illusory—
as much as the folks at Hawkins Lab try and justify what they do
as what needs to be done to keep us safe
as being strong enough to do what needs be done—
as much as we always explain away our evil
in comparison to theirs.
As if we can isolate evil always outside ourselves.

Blaming parents for risking life and limb
wanting a better future for their children is evil—
especially given how integral it is to our foundational myths
of the brave families who risked life and limb
for a better future across the ocean in a new land—
and then ever further west in that new land.
I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate concerns.
I’m not denying the complexity of the challenge of circumstances.
I am saying, blaming parents,
and separating children from their parents,
as a deterrent, as part of a zero tolerance mindset, is evil.
Justifying it in the name of God is blasphemy.
And blaming others for how you have chosen to act is loathsome.
That has to be named.
For as much as that is who we are,
it is not who I understand God calling us to be.
And that is a message coming clearly in one voice
from churches at their most conservative to the most liberal.

Evil finds ways to spread,
and the separation of one evil from another
does not exist.
Distinctions between evil are always illusory.

Of course, the same is true for good.

Both observations corollaries to my hypothesis
that the means are the ends.

Jesus also said on the shores of the sea of Galilee,
“The kingdom of God is as if someone
would scatter seed on the ground,
and would sleep and rise night and day,
and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head,
then the full grain in the head.
But when the grain is ripe,
at once he goes in with his sickle,
because the harvest has come.”

Here we have the kingdom of God compared not to something,
but to a story—an unfolding—a happening.

And right off the bat,
there are two profoundly different ways of reading this parable.
Is it God who sows the seed?
It’s pretty clear in the first parable Jesus tells the crowds by the lake
(the parable of the sower) that God is the actor,
the initiator, creator, redeemer,
and that the seed that takes root in us.

So is it God who sows in our parable too,
and having taken that initiative in creation and blessing,
waits to see what we do—
what fruit we produce before returning for the harvest?

Or, are we the sowers of seed—
taking initiative to share with others
what we have found to be most significant
most profound and most transformative in our own experience,
and then trusting the mysterious work of the divine
to effect growth and change we cannot see or control
until one day, maybe, we see the fruit.

And what if it’s my favorite answer to either/or questions?
What if it’s both?
What if we can claim the double assurance
of trusting both God’s mysterious work
and trusting God as alpha and omega—
beginning and end?
Which means we then also accept the double challenge
of being the ones who are to both initiate and share with others
and encourage and facilitate growth—
in us as in others.

However we read it,
we find the kingdom of God is a partnership
with both God and us having different responsibilities
and with both God and us waiting and trusting the other.
There’s what we initiate and what happens in consequence,
and there’s what God initiates and what happens in consequence.

And if we accept the parable at its most complex,
then there’s no way we can read it as a prescriptive
but only through a blurring of the lines and responsibilities.
We are together responsible, and we wait together,
trusting the mystery of the process—of the story still unfolding.

The Greek word translated “of itself”—the earth produces “of itself”—
is actually the one from which we get our word “automatic.”
When we’re working with God and taking responsibility and trusting the process,
there is an automatic unfolding of God’s story in growth and transformation.

Now that’s true for evil too, by the way.
There are initiatives not of God,
and by those not following God (whether they’ll admit that or not),
and what automatically keeps unfolding from such actions.

The kingdom of God unfolds from God.
The ways of the world unfold too, when they are chosen.
The means are the ends,
and what is our harvest?

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable will we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
yet when it is sown it grows up
and becomes the greatest of all shrubs,
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Traditionally, we tend to focus—
I’m fairly confident most of you will have heard a sermon or two,
on the itty-bitty seed
(and to be fair, the mustard seed is explicitly identified in the parable
as the smallest of all the seeds on earth.
It’s not that that’s wrong—that those sermons are wrong.
I think Clark has brought in mustard seeds before.
They are tiny)—
the itty-bitty seed that becomes a great, big, tall, majestic, magnificent—
Matthew and Luke change the story—
change the story … and botanical definitions.
Matthew writes when it has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs
and becomes a tree (Matthew 13:32), while Luke writes
it grew and became a tree (Luke 13:19)
which makes it a whole other story of transformation!
It is just a shrub—
achieving a maximum height of anywhere from two to ten feet!

I mean, relatively speaking, if you’re emphasizing small to big
a tiny seed (1 to 2 millimeters in diameter) that becomes a shrub—
even a big shrub as shrubs go,
is still not as impressive as a bigger seed—say an inch and a half or so,
that comes a cedar of Lebanon which can grow up to 120/130 feet—
with a spread of almost 100 feet and a trunk
that can exceed 8 feet in diameter!
There’s even a prophetic tradition identifying the great cedars
not only with Judah and Israel, but also the great kingdoms of earth:
Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria.

So the emphasis here is on small—
so small it’s almost pejorative—
(if you had faith the size of a mustard seed
[Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6]).
And so, growing in the shadow of the Roman Empire,
a delightfully subversive affirmation to encourage the church:
“the mustard bush, whether domesticated in a garden or wild in a field,
was an extremely noxious and dangerous plant,
as it threatened to take over whatever area its seed finally took root in.
Pliny the Elder says of it, ‘Mustard … with its pungent taste
and fiery effect … grows entirely wild,
though it is improved by being transplanted:
but on the other hand when it has once been sown
it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it,
as the seed when it falls germinates at once’ (Natural History, 19.170-1)”
(Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2001] 172).

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately
likens the rule of God to a weed” (quoted in Witherington, 172).

So there’s that.
More than small to big and impressive,
it’s small to hardy and resistant and pervasive—
and great is the faithfulness of God.

Or, what’s great is not the shrub,
not whatever’s impressive about it
or scrappy or hardy, pervasive—nothing about the shrub,
but about what the shrub offers.
And the whole point, do you see?—
the whole point is not that it’s itty-bitty
and then gets big or impressive or takes over,
it’s so that—the whole thing is so that
the whole process is so that the seed becomes a shrub
that becomes a home.
It meets the needs of a community—
so that the birds of the air can make nests.

And there is a sense, reading this,
of the birds of the air in a cumulative sense—
as an expansive image of a multitude of birds.
Maybe the reference to birds of the air reminds you
as it did me, of the creation stories.
On the fifth day, God created the birds of the air
and on the sixth day, after creating humankind,
made them stewards of creation—including the birds of the air
(Genesis 1:20, 26, 30; 2: 19, 20).
But again, if you were going for room for more birds,
surely a cedar of Lebanon would provide more shade and shelter
instead of trying to imagine the birds of the air
nesting in a shrub that’s barely 10 feet high!

Unless of course, maybe—
even more subtly—more creatively—so wise—
unless the affirmation
is that this unimpressive shrub is bigger that it looks—
like a certain stable in Narnia.
Y’all familiar with the C.S. Lewis book The Last Battle?

Tirian had thought – or he would have thought if he had had time to think at all – that they were inside a little thatched stable, about twelve feet long and six feet wide. In reality they stood on grass, the deep blue sky was overhead, and the air which blew gently on their faces was that of a day in early summer. …
“The door?” said Tirian.
“Yes,” said Peter. “The door you came in – or came out – by. Have you forgotten?” … Tirian looked and saw the queerest and most ridiculous thing you can imagine. Only a few yards away, clear to be seen in the sunlight, there stood up a rough wooden door and, round it, the framework of the doorway: nothing else, no walls, no roof. He walked towards it, bewildered … He walked round to the other side of the door. But it looked just the same from the other side….
“Fair Sir,” said Tirian to the High King, “this is a great marvel.” … “It seems, then … that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world”
(C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle [New York: HarperCollins, 1965] 156-161).

In the less than impressive,
in what does not measure up to the kingdoms of the world
by the standards of the world,
there is nonetheless room for all.
And this kingdom does not worry about immigrants,
it welcomes them—celebrates them—
as the Bible says to do!
This kingdom does not exclude—does not turn away.
It is a kingdom invested in justice—for all—
in community.
It’s a fake kingdom, of course, by the standards of the world,
but more real than any other.
How’s that for faithful?

Notice in both our parables the shift from the individual—
from the seed and the shrub to the birds nesting in it—
from individual seeds to a crop and a harvest—
that which will provide for a community.
There’s a “so that” there too, isn’t there?
The unfolding of grace into community so that
the community can be nurtured and nourished on good fruit.
Movement from the individual to the communal,
surely there’s something of the kingdom of God to that!

I mentioned last week,
the movement in Stranger Things
from some who risk so much on behalf of others
to more and more who do so.
To the point, that it begins to feel uncomfortable
when individuals are left out—
when they’re excluded.
For those of you who watch or have watched
I’m thinking of Lucas and Mike.
I’m thinking of Max.
Barbara, early on. There’s tension—disagreement,
and they’re on the outside, and it doesn’t feel right.

Our culture is set up in so many ways
to evaluate people individually.
To assess individual success and accomplishment.
There’s a corresponding valuation of individual responsibility.
That’s not all bad.
Lot of good to that.
But it’s not all good.

If it were our culture telling these stories instead of Jesus,
the first parable would be about growing a harvest
and getting as much money for it as possible.
The goal is not the nourishment of community
but the profit of the individual or the corporation.

The second parable would be about growing a bush
and then putting a fence around it
so no one can nest in it without paying rent—their fair share.
After all, who wants to deal with all that noise and the bird poop, right?

A parable—a parable by Jesus,
invites us to consider how we would tell the parable—
in our homes, in our churches, in our country,
and to reflect on how those tellings differ
from the stories as Jesus told them—
to reflect on what that says about us—
our families, our churches, our country.

Because our stories honestly
do not consistently reflect the kingdom of God.
They tend to (with some wonderful exceptions)
reflect an us-or-them mentality
that’s part of a zero sum game
creating winners and losers.

So Mark adds a concluding word about parables.
With many such parables he spoke the word to them,
as they were able to hear it
(because they’re not the stories they would have told
anymore than they’re the stories we would tell);
he did not speak to them except in parables,
but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

This sequence of stories starts
with Jesus talking to a large crowd by the sea (Mark 4:1).
Then you have this very odd verse:
When he was alone, those who were around him—
so he wasn’t alone, right?!
those who were around him—along with the twelve
(what does alone mean to Mark?)
all those people who were alone with him
asked him about the parables (Mark 4:10).
Because arables are not crystal clear.
They’re not meant to be.
They’re not definitions or explanations.

Jesus went on to say: “To you has been given
the secret of the kingdom of God,
but for those outside, everything comes in parables” (Mark 4:11).

We like to think we’re included among the disciples—
that we’re there when Jesus is alone—
with whoever all’s there with his disciples,
but we overhear what two “explanations?”
Luke has some twenty-four parables,
Matthew twenty-three, Mark eight.
Some would say a few of John’s teachings are parables.
So we get a number of anywhere from 45 to 60 parables in the gospels.
And how many are interpreted? Explained?
And in Mark, just the one—the parable of the sower.
We are those outside more than we are those who know the secrets.
We get more stories than we do explanations.
We get more mystery than clarity.

What is it about a teacher
who wants students to wonder and ask questions
instead of have answers?
And why have we, as those students,
too much too often prioritized answers over questions?
What is it about a storyteller
who trusts the mystery
and who trusts the questions?
It’s something like someone who sows seed
and trusts the natural process of growth, isn’t it?—
who believes that something as little as a story
can shape a place, a way of being, a people—
can transform thinking and living
undermining Empire and all the narratives counter to God’s story,
and give people a home
in which to feel welcomed and beloved—
a home in which and from which
to sow and harvest and be nourished by
the good fruits of justice and kindness and and humility.
Can we expect that these days?
Justice and kindness and humility?

He does not speak to us except in parables
which take root in us … or not.
But if they do,
they grow and grow
and become magnificent … weeds
that are surprisingly … wonderfully …
big enough to welcome everyone … anyone.

Amidst all the shallow, ugly, mean stories of our days,
thanks be to God.

stranger things: the monster



Mark 3:19b-35
Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters* are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 130)
A Song of Getting Back Up
I’ve hit rock bottom,
and it’s You to whom I cry out.
Somewhat to my surprise,
I don’t know if it’s in anger
or with something like maybe … hope.

Hear me, please.

I don’t know whether You hear me—
sometimes even whether You’re here to hear me,
but I do so want You to.

As manifestation of all that’s good and just,
I know I’ve fallen far short of Your hopes and expectations of me
and have no right to have hopes and expectations of You.
And yet part of what’s good about You,
if not just,
is Your grace—
Your forgiveness,
and so there’s hope.

So I sink into the stories of grace—
of undeserved forgiveness—
of unexpected welcome.
More than those who make it through the night
desperately waiting for the dawn,
my soul waits for You.

O creation, hope in God
for in the stories of God, there is ever the refrain of steadfast love
and the power and the will to redeem
even all who fall so far short.

One of the beauties and joys of the Netflix TV series Stranger Things,
is its depiction of friendship and of family—
specifically the allegiances and commitments therein:
the allegiance and commitment a mom has to her child,
a brother has to his brother,
and friends have to a friend.

There’s such a powerful sense of interdependence
developed throughout the show—of mutual responsibility.
It’s an intimate bond that gradually extends
to a wider and wider group as the show progresses—
including—incorporating—more and more people into this
“I have your back,” “I’ll be there for you” intimacy.
Various combinations of characters
brave seriously creepy, scarily dangerous scenarios
that leave you thinking “I’m not sure I’d do that”
because someone matters to them.

And having faced the purity laws—the distinctions, divisions and judgments
of the religious establishment—having rejected the status quo
because people mattered to him more,
Jesus went home—
presumably back to Capernaum—
maybe to Simon and Andrew’s house (that’s where he’d been earlier).
And the crowd came together again (they’d been there earlier too) —
so many waiting to be healed—to be made whole,
and maybe wanting as well, to hear his good news—
stories of grace and forgiveness—of belonging and inclusion.

Why does religion so often need to be reminded
that it’s etymological root goes back to a Latin verb
meaning “to bind together”—not to divide, separate, or judge?

The crowd came together again, so that no one could even eat.
What does it mean to love others as you love yourself?
What does love mean when they’re desperate and you’re hungry?

When his family heard about this—got word of it,
they went out to restrain him.
The word means “to seize by force”—“to take control of!”

His family went out to restrain him.
It’s not that they didn’t like the crowds attracted to him.
It was more: “Get your priorities in order!
Take care of yourself. They’re not as important as you are.
How will you be able to keep helping people
if you don’t take care of yourself?
You’re going to burn out.”

They wanted to restrain him
for people (our translation reads) were saying,
“He has gone out of his mind.”
Most translations though, read that that’s what his family was saying
(“He’s off his rocker”), not people—
which makes sense.
Who else among the characters in our story would say that?
Not the crowd. They weren’t upset at what he was doing.
They wanted him to be doing more of it!
The disciples might have thought it,
but I don’t think they would have said it—yet.

No, this was his family—worried about him—
questioning his lack of boundaries.
“Come on, Jesus! Who doesn’t need time away from other people?
Who doesn’t limit their work time?
Who’s not selective in who they spend their mealtime with—
free time—leisure time? You are seriously off your gourd!”
I mean, doesn’t that sound like siblings?!

It’s the overstatement of those who care, but don’t understand.
“We’ve got your back, Jesus!
We’re here to take care of you!”

And there were scribes who came down from Jerusalem
“It is possible that they were official emissaries from the Great Sanhedrin
who came to examine Jesus’ miracles and to determine
whether Capernaum should be declared a ‘seduced city,’
the prey of an apostate preacher.
Such a declaration required a thorough investigation
made on the spot by official envoys,
in order to determine the extent of the defection
and to distinguish between the instigators, the apostates and the innocent”
(William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark
[Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974] 141).

How do you love others as yourself if you’re dividing them
into those included and those excluded?
How do you love others if you’ve taken it upon yourselves
to examine and investigate and name some innocent and some not?
And we have to be careful here,
because we all examine and investigate—and should,
but how do you love others if, in your investigating,
you’ve prioritized separation and exclusion over reconciliation?

These scribes said of Jesus,
“He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.
We’re here to take care of him.”
It’s the oldest trick in the book.
If you have a dispute with someone in the public eye,
identify them first with and then as evil—
as someone from whom others need to be protected.

And he called them to him.
Now, by the rule of antecedents,
that means Jesus summoned the scribes.
He’s the immediate antecedent tot he pronoun “he;”
they’re the immediate antecedent to the pronoun “they.”
Which is weird—that they would have obeyed Jesus—
submitted to the very authority they were actively seeking
to question and undermine!

So either he had an undeniable authority even the scribes obeyed,
or they really thought they had him.
Or both!

Then, having summoned them, Jesus spoke to them in parables,
“The Greek word for parable … means literally a ‘setting beside’ …”
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1971] 116).
“So, on the one hand, you say
I cast out demons by the power of the prince of demons,
but on the other hand, how can Satan cast out Satan?
Demons play on the same team.
Satan doesn’t strike out Satan.
If demons started striking each other out,
the demonic team wouldn’t amount to much.
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”

There are two associations here
that establish the logic of the progression in thought.
There’s the logical flow from the ruler of demons divided against himself
to the idea of the demonic kingdom as a divided kingdom.
But also within the historical context of the Jews,
Alexander’s Empire fell when it was divided between his generals.
The Jewish Hasmonean dynasty fell to Rome
leading to the loss of Jewish independence
when two brothers fought for the throne.
That particular sibling rivalry led to 12,000 Jews killed
in the final assault of Roman forces in Jerusalem
and General Pompey entering (and thus desecrating)
the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

Jesus goes on, “And if a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.”
Now what’s the logical progression here?
I mean there’s the whole divided against itself motif,
but having gone from a ruler to a kingdom,
why go back to a house?
Unless this goes back to his house—
his family divided against him?
That makes some kind of sense.

But then it’s right back to Satan, with Jesus saying,
“And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided,
he cannot stand, but his end has come.”

And it is true: evil can and does turn on itself.
But that doesn’t seem to be what our story’s about—
evil defeating itself.

So there’s consensus among scholars about this next verse:
“But no one can enter a strong man’s house
and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man;
then indeed the house can be plundered.”
Scholars agree that Satan, far from falling apart—
far from defeating himself—Satan is the strong man,
and Jesus, far from using Satan’s power.
defeats Satan’s powers and plunders his house—
hell, I guess—the demonic kingdom.

a/ that doesn’t seem to be what our story’s about either.
I mean, if you strip the story down to its basics,
it’s about Jesus’ family and the scribes working against him—
undermining him.
Also, b/, don’t you think it’s kind of weird
to think of Jesus describing himself as a strong man
who binds someone else and plunders their house?
And finally, c/, as we think about a house being plundered,
we remember we’ve already encountered the image of a house—
one that will not be able to stand because it’s divided against itself,
and we wondered if that house might be Jesus’.

So if the strength of the house is unity,
and you bind that strength, you disrupt the unity.
And if this is Jesus’ house,
divisions within his family allow the house to be plundered.
And then, if you’re thinking institutionally as well,
divisions within the institutions of faith
threaten the stability and viability of those institutions.
So what if this isn’t about Jesus defeating the enemy,
but about the risk of Jesus being defeated—
the risk of Jesus’ house—the church being defeated—
not just by those against him—
actively, intentionally working to undermine him,
but also by those who care about him, but don’t understand him—
don’t understand his commitment to the world.
such that a rejection of Jesus
is the elevation of the comfortable self
over the whole.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins
and whatever blasphemies they utter;
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit
can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
I’m not so sure what to make of the idea of an unforgivable sin.
That seems to me to be something placing limits
on God’s love and God’s grace.
It also leaves us trying to identify what this particular sin is.
Because, well, if it’s unforgivable, I sure don’t want to do that one!

It tends to be ascribed to the scribes
who attributed to Satan the power Jesus manifest
and so, actually, thus committed themselves
the blasphemy of which they accused Jesus.

But given everyone who participates in divisive behavior
in our story, should we consider the possibility
that blasphemy might have something to do with caring about Jesus
and yet still undermining him and his mission—
something to do not with rejection, not with denial,
but with distortion in the name of affirmation?
Something to do with those who say, “We’ve got your back,”
but then stab you in the back
and justify racism,
are silent in the face of injustice,
who relegate women to a second class status,
who reject those created lgbtquia in God’s image,
who are mean,
whose yes is not a yes and whose no is not a no,
who justify both obscene wealth and obscene poverty—
and all in the name of Jesus.

Jesus might well just wisely reverse what Michael Corleone said,
and say “Keep your enemies close;
keep your friends closer!”

For they had said, we read, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Now who had said that?
We’re not sure, are we? It’s not a direct quote in our story.
So does it refer back to the scribes ascribing his power to a demon,
or to his family saying he was out of his mind?
Either way, note this is not a comment
made in response to what Jesus said about an unforgivable sin,
but it’s what prompted what Jesus said about an unforgivable sin.
Important to get the order right!
And it leaves me wondering if we waste time trying to identify some sin
when maybe Jesus was talking about an attitude.

Then his mother and his brothers came;
and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.
A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him,
“Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

The image here is of a house so packed full of people
that there are people surrounding the house who can’t get in.
Jesus’ family arrives and they’re stuck outside with all the others stuck outside.
Word is passed through the crowd,
“Hey, tell Jesus his family is out here!”
until it gets to those right around Jesus—until it gets to Jesus.
“Hey Jesus! Your family is out there.”
Now think about this.
The message had to have changed.
Not in the funny, garbled, distorted telephone game kind of way,
but from “He’s out here” to “He’s out there.”
Now I think it’s always important to affirm
that place and context change the content of what’s said.
But, more importantly,
we see there was division at the house in Capernaum—
not just between Jesus and his family, not just between Jesus and the scribes,
but also between those on the inside who could see and hear Jesus,
and those outside who wanted to see and hear him.

So I’m guessing, you had those on the inside,
“Your family, who has exclusive claims on you, is here,
and we’re afraid we’re out of luck.”
And maybe those outside, “His family is here,
maybe they will get him out here where we can see!”

But Jesus rejects exclusive claims and privileges.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks.
And looking at those who sat around him, he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers!”—
which in the way we’re thinking about things,
sounds like it excludes the folks outside.
But Jesus goes on:
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

“But John,” you might say,
“you’ve been talking about holiness as wholeness—
as not separating and dividing,
and here Jesus is separating.
He’s rejecting his family.
That’s monstrous!”
Except not really, right?
Jesus is separating himself from those who separate,
and he’s widening the definition of family to include anyone!
He’s rejecting an exclusive circle for an inclusive one—
rejecting a given blood tie, for a chosen tie,
Blessed be the tie that binds.

And for times such as ours, according to Jesus,
if the house is divided, you include others.
You include them.
You make it bigger!
You create a wider, less exclusive, more diverse community.

Y’all heard of Betty Bowers?
She’s the satirical persona of a Canadian comedian
who self-identifies as America’s Best Christian:
“I’m America’s Best Christian. God created me in His image
and I have MORE than returned the favor. Glory!”

Her pithy twitter comments are often quite searingly prophetic:
“Jesus forgave me for my sins so I could concentrate on yours.”

I cannot verify that all are appropriate, but the ones I’ve seen
are wickedly apropos.
She has also defined religious freedom, for example,
as “pretending to follow a religion you ignore
so you can be a [jerk] to people you hate, and then blame Jesus.”

That’s that attitude.
That’s the we’ve got your back; we stab you in the back thing.
That’s the risk Jesus faces in the world—
the church faces in the world.

It is so tricky.
Because it is so important not to be silent in the face of injustice—
in the face of sin.
It’s not about not saying anything about reprehensible behavior
towards women—towards blacks and latinos—
towards the lgbtquia community—
and calling it being nice—polite.
It’s not about not saying anything about reprehensible politics
that hurt vulnerable people
and saying worship is not the place for politics.
And, my friends, it needs to be said these days,
when it comes to the important responsibility of naming sin,
as followers of Jesus,
we should focus on what Jesus said, not what he didn’t.
And heaven forbid we should get all bent out of shape
about what he said nothing of
as we do not do what he explicitly said to do.
Because there goes integrity and relevance and a viable future.

Our faith is about taking responsibility for sin.
The systemic sins of our culture.
Other people’s sin, yes.
But always and only in the context of our own sin.
Confession first—
identification with another as sinner.
Identification not separation.
Holiness even amidst sin.

May that comprise who we strive to be.

stranger things: the weirdo in Galilee


Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Mark 2:23-3:6
One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 139)
As if you’d thoroughly explored the geography of my being,
You know me as I am.
Not the am I am when I am with someone.
Not the am I am when I’m at work.
Certainly not the am I am on social media.
Not the scared am—the anxious to please am.
No, the am that I am.
You know me well enough to know what to expect,
and yet are with me always anyway
holding on to the highest of expectations both of and for me,
and You love me.
I cannot fathom it.

I have known exhilarating highs,
and also the depths of despair,
and You have been with me through both.
I’ve known the great loneliness—
both the profound anger
and the pervasive sadness.
I’ve known the pride of accomplishment
and the frustrations of failure.
I’ve hoped,
and I’ve given up on hope,
and in and through it all,
I always came to find You there with me.
I buried myself in work.
You resurrected spontaneity.
I gave myself to the pursuit of what I could claim.
You graced me with what I couldn’t.
I was unbelievably irresponsible.
You were unbelievably patient.
I claimed the addictions that claimed me—
that suck me into oblivion.
You re-member me.

When I was but a possibility,
You prepared the way
and have known me from and through all my beginnings.
As I learned how to frame experience in story,
You told me the best ones.
As I learned how and what to hope,
You sustained that hope even through disappointment,
and as I wove dreams through my living—
my thinking and my doing,
possibilities unfolded in Your book of abundant life.
You have known me to be wonderfully made
for more than I’ve yet risked,
but as I live and move and have my being
in the vast presence of the ever More and utterly Other,
I am not overwhelmed,
and when I come to ends too,
I am still, always, with You.

We’re in a worship series focused on the holy
and have accepted the offer of the Netflix series, Stranger Things,
to provide us some insight and structure—some direction.
We’re looking primarily, as we always do, to our Scripture
and to what’s consistent in and with our experience and our tradition.

Last week, we noted that the idea of holiness or the sacred
is traditionally fundamentally rooted in the idea of something different—
something other than—separate from the normal—
the ordinary—the mundane.
And much of such divided thinking
comes from how we think and talk about God—
as other than, but notice—
and this tells you where we’re going in the sermon today—
notice God is other than, but not separate from!

Now the most straightforward separation of holy
is from the unholy—maybe we call it evil.
In the world of Stranger Things,
Hawkins Lab operates under the auspices of the Department of Energy,
but is probably run by the CIA or the NSA—
or some other alphabetized agency.
In the early 80’s, it was the threat and the fear of the Russians
used to justify whatever “needed to be done”—
up to and including, we find out, experimenting on people—
what effect drugs have on powers of the mind,
keeping a special child imprisoned
to exploit the powers of her mind
that are evidently developed in isolation and abuse.
For in a sensory deprivation tank, this child—this girl
can extend her mind and locate people.
She can extend her mind and do things.

Now with regard to the fear of the Russians
justifying atrocities, I’ll leave it to you to decide
if it was actually fear, or fear exploited
for the sake of greed in the name of patriotism.
I’ll also just put it out there for you to consider,
how often evil is separated out into what they do.
When it was the Russians prompting lockdown drills in our schools,
that justified the defense budget.
When it’s our own culture prompting those lockdown drills,
we’re oddly paralyzed.
It’s an existential truth that becomes a spiritual truth,
it’s easier to blame them than take responsibility.

There have always been those and always will be those
(among us as among them)
who, with no thought to consequence or long-term cost,
willingly exploit others—use others
to gain privilege and power—
regardless of what it costs those others.
It’s an ends justify the means philosophy—
a philosophy of which we should know enough by now
to be deeply suspicious.

Forced into the deprivation tank to extend her mind
in order to find a Russian enemy agent,
she also encounters a fearsome creature from another dimension.
So, of course, she is sent back in to find that creature,
representing as it does to those in charge,
potential power to exploit and use.
It’s not our responsibility to take care of the children,
is nothing new for governments to say,
and when national security is at stake (or said to be at stake),
ethics are not—never have been—the highest priority.

And so, with her mind extended again,
an inter-dimensional tear in the fabric of reality
allows the creature with its ravenous hunger for blood
to enter our world,
where it takes over the bottom floor of Hawkins Lab.
There is the unholy, that reminds any with eyes that see,
in absolute contrast, what the holy is.

It is an important peculiarity of our tradition, as people of the book,
that with holiness comes responsibility—
and this as part of the Torah.
For God said, “You shall be holy
for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

Obviously, that means we are to separate ourselves from the unholy—
which means, just to be clear, not only do we not lie,
neither do we excuse a culture of lying.
Not only do we not abuse others,
we do not ignore the abuse of others.
Not only do we not speak or act in violence,
we do not justify a culture of violence.
Not only do we not judge another by the color of their skin
or the gender of those they love,
but we do not stand by silent as others do.
I’m not suggesting any of this is easy, by the way,
but I would suggest there is a certain obviousness to it.

Now we also noted the irony last week,
that it’s precisely within the mundane and the ordinary
that we set some things apart as holy or sacred.
So we talk about holy time, while time is itself, in general,
apparently common—ordinary.
We talk about sacred space, while space itself, in general,
is apparently mundane.
And when we talk about God,
we talk about transcendence, that is immanent.
We talk about the eternal in time.
So not only does the separation of the holy from the mundane
come from how we think about God,
so does the sanctification of some of the mundane.

So there’s the separation of the holy from the unholy,
then there’s the separation
of the mundane from the sacred mundane—
the ordinary from the holy ordinary—
separating some time from other time—
some space from other space—
some experience from other experience—
some people from other people.

So do we take that to mean that we have a God-given responsibility
not only to be separate as God is separate, but also to separate?

Because if holiness is separateness,
then the faithful separate,
and one of the things we get, in consequence, are the purity laws—
as reality is divided into pure and impure—
clean and unclean.
And it’s vitally important to get it right.
And it’s vitally important to be right within such divisions of reality.
You really want to be pure and clean with what’s pure and clean.
You don’t want to be sullied in any way.

And we cannot afford to make this about Judaism.
We all have our purity laws—whatever we call them.
We all separate and divide just about every aspect of creation
and this landscape (or person) is deemed more attractive—
this substance (or person) is deemed more valuable—
more functional—
more worth cultivating—
more potentially profitable.
Pure/impure, clean/unclean, useful/not.

Then along comes Jesus—and we do need some context
for our Scripture reading this morning,
along comes Jesus, wreaking havoc with the purity laws,
and so, wreaking havoc not only
with the common understanding of God’s authority—
invested as it is in such divisions—
in respect for them and in adherence to them,
but also wreaking havoc with any sense of identity
rooted in exceptionalism.
Jesus is a threat.

And while Jesus was in Capernaum a man with an unclean spirit
entered the synagogue.
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and commanded it to come out.
It did. And rumors spread of a new teaching—with authority (Mark 1:21-28).
And everyone knows to beware undermining the authority of those
who’ve grown accustomed to wielding it.

Then Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who was sick,
by touching her (Mark 1:29-31).
And then he healed a leper by touching him (Mark 1:40-42).
As if there were no such people as unclean.
He not only healed a paralytic,
but forgave him his sins, and people were left saying,
“We’ve never seen anything like this before” (Mark 2:1-12)—
which is another way of saying,
“This is not normal. This is not ordinary.
This is something other.”
Which are all our definitions of what’s sacred!
I don’t know how subtle the irony is here.

And he called a tax collector to be his disciple,
and he sat at dinner with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17).
He and his disciples did not respect the fast (Mark 2:18-22).
There is no separating here.
No one is excluded.

So of course by the time we get to our story,
the authorities are on high alert!
They’re following Jesus—
hoping to be able to expose his authority as false—
feeling the need to undermine his challenge to their authority.

And, again, we cannot afford to limit this challenge to Judaism
or to Pharisees.
Jesus clearly constitutes a challenge
to what any purity laws become.

Because there comes a time, when the intent of a law
becomes secondary, in the eyes of those tasked with enforcing it,
to obedience to that law—
which is to say there comes a time
at which those tasked with enforcing a law
cannot afford to ignore disobedience to the law,
not because of what matters most,
but because such disobedience is perceived
to undermine or threaten the authority of those enforcing the law.

An example.
The intent of a red light is to protect all those
driving through an intersection.
At 2 o’clock in the morning when you pull up to that red-light,
and you can see in the darkness the complete lack of headlights,
do you sit there for no reason until the light turns green,
or do you “break the law?”
I’m not ignoring the intent of the law.
I’m ignoring the irrelevance of the law in that circumstance.
But isn’t that a slippery slope?
Who gets to decide when laws are relevant?
What if you pull up to that red light at 4 in the afternoon,
and there’s just enough time for you to turn
into and through oncoming traffic if you don’t stop?
So am I more law abiding at 4 in the afternoon
than I am at 2 in the morning
(not that I’m out very much at 2 in the morning,
but neither is anyone else—that’s the point, right?).
Or am I legitimately more invested in the intent—
dare I say the spirit of the law
over the letter of it?
And would the police officer care?
Not a bit.
And you can argue the law has become more important
than the circumstances that created the law.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
“The ancient rabbis knew that excessive piety
may endanger the fulfillment of the essence of the law”
(Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath:
Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: The Noonday Press,1951] 17).

And that’s how I’d thought about it until this past week!
But this is not just Jesus clearly challenging the purity laws.
For as we saw last week,
there is a way of coming at this completely differently.
When the glory of God fills the whole earth,
you’re not separating!
And if holiness is wholeness,
then there ought be no separating.

And this is in no way to deny or even minimize God’s otherness,
but rather to not let God’s otherness
undermine God’s revelation and presence—
or we risk a spirituality that cares more about transcendence
than immanence,
even when God is only known to us
in and through the immanent.
You see?
We risk a spirituality that values the eternal
at the expense of time,
which is the only measure within which we know God—
within which God is present and active.

So what if we were to think of God,
not denying the utter otherness of God,
but imagining God saying,
“You know, as much as we apparently don’t belong together,
yet we do.
In truth, our stories are not complete without the other in them.”
And imagine that’s true for God as well as for each of us.
Because how else could it be that God loves us?
Isn’t that what love means?
My story is incomplete without you in it.

So consider this morning, the tremendous difference
between saying, “Some time is holy,”
and saying, “Any time can be holy”—
between saying, “Some space is sacred,”
and saying, “Any space can be sacred.”

And so when we read the law—
read Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy
for I the Lord your God am holy,”
we stop thinking in terms of separate,
and we start thinking in terms of consistency
because that command is less about separation
than it is about consistency.
We are to be consistent in our being
with who and how God is in God’s being.
So we are to be loving, for God is loving.
We are to love justice, for God loves justice.
We are to extend grace, for God extends grace.
We are to embrace the least of these among us, for God does.
And we are to celebrate creation for its own sake, not just ours.
You shall be part of the whole, for I am the whole.

So when we read our two gospel stories about keeping the sabbath,
keeping it as holy—honoring the sabbath as separate—
a day set aside from the others
(For six days you shall labour and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God),
we might do well to think of it
less as one day set apart from six,
as one on which to remember the six separate us from the whole.
We are given a day on which to remember that for six days,
we get focused on our work—
on what we have to do to survive,
and we forget
God desires more than our survival.
The sabbath is not for not doing work,
but for remembering, that more than work
God requires of us righteousness and justice and humility.

I’ve noticed something—picked up on it this past week.
I was reading Fredrik Backman—the Swedish novelist’s book,
my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry,
and found myself tearing up at some scenes—
my breath catching.
And that made me remember how I felt,
two weeks ago now, at that Reclaiming Jesus service in DC—
with Michael Curry and Sharon Watkins and Walter Brueggemann—
so proud—of what our faith can be—what it can represent—
when it’s not afraid—
when it doesn’t ignore who Jesus was
in favor of what’s been established in Jesus’ name.
It’s how I felt reading something
George Mason posted on Facebook this past Thursday.
George is the pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.
They’ve recently gone through the process of becoming welcoming and affirming,
but this post, in light of current events in Southern Baptist life,
was on the rot that festers in a theology
that excludes women from leadership in the church—
a rot in the theology that rots the way men behave—
that generates a rotten way of treating women—
behaving toward women.
And amidst our tradition so often getting it so wrong,
it felt like George got it right.
And I felt so proud of what our faith can be—
what it can represent—when it’s not afraid.

And then I realized all these moments had something in common.
The novel, the worship, the Facebook post—
each addressed someone—or someones—who had felt left out—
who had been excluded and were welcomed in.
Not just acknowledged, but appreciated—celebrated.
Because there’s holiness in wholeness.
Not because some get it right and get to tell everyone else,
but because God made it all,
and God blessed it all—
in all its hues and interests and shapes and sizes
and smells and sounds.
leanings, interests, all its different perspectives and experiences

In Backman’s novel, Elsa is a seven-year-old who’s different.
And so life is both wondrous and hard,
as she’s bullied at school—as different children often are.
But there is this one passage in the book
when she goes back to school,
all prepared to run and fight and hide,
but instead she meets another girl who’s different, Alex.
“They become best friends immediately, as you only can when you’ve just turned
eight, and they never have to run away again…. A few days go by. Maybe a few
weeks. But after that, one by one, other different children start tagging along with Alex and Elsa in the playground and the corridors. Until there are so many of them that no one dares to chase them anymore. Until they’re an army in themselves. Because if a sufficient number of people are different, no one has to be normal” (Fredrik Backman, my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry [New York: Washington Square Press, 2013] 369).

We mentioned last week, how on Stranger Things,
middle schooler Will Byers disappears in the first episode.
But as Will disappears, another child appears.
We will come to know her as Eleven—El for short.
She’s known by the number tattooed on her wrist.
Somewhat ironic that in the story, it’s our own government
tattooing numbers on peoples’ wrists.
She escaped from Hawkins Lab.
And she has powers—amazing powers.
She’s a Jesus figure, of sorts—in that sense—
a miracle worker.
But as Jesus figures tend to be,
she’s also different from Jesus.
For one thing, while she has great power,
all she’s known is isolated—torture.
It’s the reverse of Jesus, really—
suffering not willingly accepted as consequence,
but imposed by another as means to their ends.
She is thus a tragic figure,
and Jesus was never a tragic figure.
And so instead of creating community,
she is welcomed into community.
And it’s Mike who welcomes El—
into his life—into his home—even into his friend group.
It’s Mike who makes a promise to El
to protect her.

So while she has those incredible powers,
who’s the real Jesus figure?
The one who’s different from us in what she can do?
Or the one who’s the best of who any of us can be?

I wonder what it would be like
if instead of blaming others for what’s unholy
and looking to God for what’s holy,
we looked to ourselves—
if instead of thinking in terms of separating out the holy
in order to reject, we focused on what to affirm—
instead of thinking some time is holy,
we lived as if all time were—
instead of thinking some space is holy,
we acted as if all space were—
instead of thinking some people were holy,
we treated each other as if all people were.
I wonder what it would be like
if we stopped dreaming of miracles we can’t do,
and started dreaming of all the miracles we can do
when we stop separating
and start including—
start blessing—
start loving.

Don’t you want to find out?

stranger things: the vanishing of sin


Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died,
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;
and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
Seraphs were in attendance above him;
each had six wings: with two they covered their faces,
and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook
at the voices of those who called,
and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me,
holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar
with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it
and said: “Now that this has touched your lips,
your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 29)
Ascribe to God the glory and strength
of what you have experienced to be most powerful.
Ascribe to God glory worthy of God,
and worship God in holy splendor.

If you see the dark clouds gathering out over the deep,
and you hear the thunder’s roar echoing in over the rising tide—
the rising water—the flood waters washing away—everything,
say, “The voice of God is powerful;
the voice of God is full of majesty.”

If you retreat to your basement as the alarms go off,
and hear the howling winds leaving a great swath of destruction in their wake,
the tallest trees uprooted and twisted,
say, “There’s no withstanding the word of God.”
If you feel the unbearable heat of the wild fire’s rage
devouring all in its path—absolutely unapproachable and uncontainable,
say, “It’s not that such raw power is unimaginable,
it’s that it’s part of my experience—all in the last year—all in this country.”

When the earth shakes—quakes and spews forth lava,
and the greatest structures we have built crumble and melt,,
those who know to say,
say, ‘Glory!’
Oh, not because these natural devastations are manifestations of God.
Not because God’s anger—God’s fury causes any of them—
that they’re expressions of divine judgment or some such silly theology.

But rather because we’ve talked big, instead of acknowledging bigger.
And not only does speaking in terms of atmospheric conditions,
and the amount of rainfall and subsequent conditions of the land,
and the movement of the tectonic plates

not include any confession of what we have done to our atmosphere—
our land and seas,
it also offers no proportionate respect
for the raw power that leaves us feeling inconsequential and powerless,
and affords us the opportunity to say:
Beyond all we know to fear—
beyond all powers that threaten our existence—our ordered existence,
there are stranger things,
and God sits enthroned,
as it were.
God sits enthroned as eternal Sovereign Power, as it were.
So may we, in our smallness, name and draw on the power of God
and, amidst it all, know the blessing of peace!

In one of the Harry Potter years, we had a Harry Potter sermon.
In one of the Percy Jackson years, we had a Percy Jackson sermon.
Through the years, Dr. Seuss has showed up.
More recently, in the years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe,
superheroes have appeared in our worship.
Because if a story has that kind of cultural appeal—
especially to our youth and children,
it warrants our wondering about that appeal—
about truth into which these stories may have tapped.
And then, how important to point out where truth in popular stories
is an expression of our truth.
That’s what we’ve been saying.
That’s what the Bible says.
And Middle Earth and Narnia and Hogwarts
all get some of their deepest truths
and most wondrous moments from the Bible.
For the stories tell us so; for the authors tell us so.

The TV show Stranger Things is a fascinating story
set in a 1980’s neighborhood.
That’s before cell phones—before,
well, not before computers,
but before personal computers in everyone’s home.
No internet. No Netflix. Hulu. AppleTV. Amazon Prime.
It was a time when TV shows came on once a week,
and if you missed one, that was that.

These were years when for children and teens,
there was more imaginative, creative play—
more time spent outside.
Susie was looking at a study recently that indicated
youth and children spend 50% less time outside
than youth and children did three years ago.
I found a UK study, suggesting children today
spent half as much time outside as their parents did.
It is, in part, I’m sure, the ubiquity of wired devices with screens.
There are good reasons—there are good reasons
that Steve Jobs of Apple Computers
and Bill Gates of Microsoft limited their kids time with tech.
When a reporter assumed that Jobs’ kids must love the iPad,
the visionary founder and head of Apple said,
“Actually we don’t allow the iPad in the home.
We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect.”
He knew just how addictive such devices were
“as a vehicle for delivering things to people—
that once you had the iPad in front of you …,
you’d always have access to these platforms
that were very addictive—that were hard to resist.”

So it’s the addictive current tech, in part,
but it was also the less fearful nature of the past—
at least when it came to some things.
It was just fine to be out on bikes all day, for example,
just dropping in somewhere when someone got hungry.

Now to be clear, we over-idealize those times at great risk.
They were not good for everyone,
and had their own problems (just not some of our problems).
And so we cling to a certain nostalgia.
Those were good days.

In the year King Uzziah died—
same thing.
He had had a long reign—52 years,
and they were years of relative peace and prosperity,
but as he died, the terrible threat of Assyria loomed in the north.
Everything was, in truth, about to fall apart.
Remember the good old days, when Israel was great?

Stranger Things conforms to the norms of stories like it
in which the heroes are hobbits and children,
the excluded, the animals and trees—
the ones overlooked or exploited—
in this case, the nerds—the Middle School Science Club geeks—
some of the unexpected heroes—
the last people you’d think would save the day:
along with the single mom, barely getting by,
the grown up nerd, the jock who was a jerk.

So interesting to me how often, in the great stories,
the heroes are precisely not the ones you might assume would be—
as if not being preoccupied with keeping up the image
opens eyes to more—to more important truth—
and truth way more complicated than anyone would suspect.

We come to find out, Stranger Things is a story of great danger—
made all the more dangerous by coverups—
by attempts to control manipulate and exploit power—
and power that could not be understood—
with an ends justify the means mentality
that should still be all too familiar—
that is still all too dangerous.

Of course there’s a lot, as we watch the first episode,
called “The Vanishing of Will Byers,”
that we don’t know yet,
but we do know, in that first episode,
that Will, one of four close friends
(Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin)
disappears on his way home one night
after a long game of Dungeons and Dragons,
and his disappearance brings to the fore
events that have been going on below the surface.

Throughout the show, eerily, lights flicker and flare.
Not just power outages, but power surges,
strange sounds—disturbing—ominous—
all underscoring the risk
of an unreliable power source.

In the year that King Uzziah died
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;
and the hem of his robe filled the temple.

Oh, the temple.
Something else a lot of polls will tell you these days,
and institutional memory as well about those days—
those good old days when there were so many more people
in church—in the 1980s (and the previous decades, for that matter).
Now that’s not a part of the Stranger Things storyline,
but it’s true. Those are the days many look back to.
Do you remember when we were full on Sunday morning?
You remember when church was a bigger priority in our society?
Don’t you wish we could make church great again?

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.
In a particular time, I saw the eternal.
And from here on out, note the juxtapositions.
To juxtapose, according to Merriam Webster,
is “to place (different things) side by side
(as to compare them or contrast them
or to create an interesting effect)”.

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.
So in the realm—in the halls of the secular—the political,
I saw the divine.
Another juxtaposition.
And the hem of God’s robe filled
what’s translated as “the temple”—
interweaving royal and religious imagery—
the King, the throne, God and the temple,
although, the Hebrew’s even more subtle!
Because the word hekal can be translated “temple”
and can also be translated “palace”—
depending on the context.

Consider the size juxtaposition offered us too.
This is a great throne room—
or the great hall outside the Holy of Holies,
and the hem of the robe of God fills it.
What does that tell us?

It tells us that a structure, be it a palace or a temple,
comprises limits within space—parameters—
that cannot contain God—
cannot contain the smallest part of God’s robe—
which is to say, right?
that neither religion or politics—
neither priests or kings can contain God—
can usurp God’s voice and God’s authority.
That’s a radical affirmation of God’s independence
that priests and politicians would still do well to remember!

God is present here, our text affirms,
but cannot be contained.
God is here always both immanent and transcendent.
Another juxtaposition.

And maybe we should imagine our lights—
eerily flickering and flaring—
power surging.
Maybe we should imagine strange sounds—
disturbing and ominous—
less because of the unreliability of the power source
as the unpredictability of that much power.
And we should imagine, always,
that there are stranger things by far
than what we think we know.

As a certified Scripture geek—
here’s my certification if anyone wants to verify it—
attested to by the good preachers’ camp folks!

The words “high and lofty,”
used here to describe God on the throne
here in the sixth chapter of Isaiah,
also appear in the second chapter of Isaiah
in explicit rejection of God—
referring to the haughtiness and pride of idolatry (Isaiah 2:12-17),
and the word “filled,” used here in chapter six
to describe how the temple was filled with the hem of God’s robe,
is used in that second chapter to describe a land “filled”
with treasure, weaponry and idols (Isaiah 2:7-8).
Sound familiar?—
as if Scripture—as if Isaiah’s words of prophecy
still hold up a mirror in judgment.
And just so we’re clear, in that second chapter,
the word “lofty” is used three times,
the word “high” is used three times,
and the word “filled” is used three times.

Pay attention, in other words
to what’s considered high and lofty—
to what fills your land and your life.
There is “high” and “lofty”
full of contradiction to God—
full of opposition to God—
full of attempts to control, manipulate, and exploit God
in the name of country and even in the name of God—
seeking to take God’s place—
supplant God.
But even within this reality of life, Isaiah affirms—
within this true mirror imagery,
in juxtaposition, God always is most truly high and lofty—
filling space and time with undeniable presence and power.
And the lights should flicker.

Seraphs were in attendance;
each had six wings: with two they covered their faces,
and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

It’s fascinating—absolutely fascinating.
Holiness and the sacred are traditionally
and fundamentally defined
by a separation—
by a separateness from the ordinary.
but are words and ideas used to designate
something amazingly special—something profoundly different
experienced within the ordinary—
rooted in the affirmation of
God as other and yet with us nonetheless.

But what’s particularly fascinating here,
is that the seraphs’ holiness chant
is followed by them naming and locating holiness in the whole earth.
Not some of it—
not the pretty parts of it—
the amazingly impressive parts—
not the parts of one country—
no, in the whole earth.

If that’s true, then it’s precisely in the mundane,
that we locate the sacred—
in the profane, that we find glory.
Not separate.
Remember juxtaposition doesn’t necessarily mean
the contrast of mutually exclusive opposites,
but simply placed side by side for effect.
Just as in time, we find the eternal.
Just as in the immanent, there is the transcendent.

Now let’s consider this image Isaiah offers us.
Seraphs were in attendance;
each had six wings: with two they covered their faces,
and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
Which is to say, 2/3 of the seraphs’ wings
weren’t doing what they were supposed to do—
doing what they were created to do.
The seraphs are making do. They’re flying with 1/3 of their wings.
2/3 of their wings are used to hide aspects of themselves—
to separate themselves from the holiness of God.
Remind anyone of Adam and Eve
hiding in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8-10)?

And maybe it occurs to us to consider
that while people—while created beings hide from God,
God does not hide from people.
God looks for people.
Maybe—maybe, it has less to do with some particular sin—
some forbidden apple,
than it does with the truth
that limits on the holy are our thing, not God’s—
that limits on the holy, maybe,
have less to do with the separateness of holy,
as with the limits we prefer to maintain
on what we have to acknowledge as holy—
and then treat as holy.

For if, in truth, the whole earth is full of God’s glory,
then surely what we’ve done (and are doing)
to our Appalachian mountains and streams—
what we’ve done (and are doing) to our oceans—
what we’ve done and what we are doing
to plant life, animal life, and human life
is a blasphemous rejection of God’s presence and glory.
For if in truth, the whole earth is full of God’s glory,
that would necessarily impact the ways
in which we would have to view and treat the whole earth—
all the plants and animals and landscapes and people—
all the people—all the people—every single last person—no matter what!

So let’s be honest.
We don’t want to have anything to do with a whole earth
that’s full of God’s glory.
That’s too much.
We want the holy restricted to just a little bit—
a fraction of the whole.
It’s so much easier—and potentially much more profitable.
And so we hide. We separate. We divide.
We blaspheme.

The pivots on the thresholds shook
at the voices of those who called.
This is the seraphs’ holiness chant, we presume!
And the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost,
for I am a man of unclean lips,
and I live among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

And yet even within the reality of the unclean—the impure—
the blasphemous—the exploitative—the inappropriate,
there’s the experience of the holy of holies.
as God refuses—rejects—the separating done in God’s name.

And again, maybe, we wonder if
what’s holy—what’s sacred—is not separate,
but rather, part and parcel of the whole.

Then one of the seraphs flew to me,
holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar
with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it
and said: “Now that this has touched your lips,
your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

And within the reality and truth of sin,
there is forgiveness.
Within separation, there is reconciliation—
something that changes—everything.

Let’s talk a little about sin!
And let me tell you! It was hard finding three hymns
that had to do with sin that weren’t just all about blood too!
What does it say about a tradition
that seems to focus more on the cost of reconciliation
than what it’s worth.

Back in those days—
back in those days when more people came to church,
well, those were also days in which sin—
the rhetoric of sin—held greater sway.
There was more talk of sin than we tend to have here.
Of course, and correct me if you think I’m wrong,
sin was the bad stuff that mainly other people did—
and might do to you—
and anything sexual!

What it never was—sin—rarely was—
was anything big—
like systemic racism
like the economic injustices of our culture
likes the injustice of our justice system—
as if sin were separation from the holy—
separation from the whole—
living as if abstracted—
as if everything and everyone else is just there
for us to do with as we please.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Within God calling,
there is the human response.
Another juxtaposition.
And again, the unexpected hero—
the last person you’d think would save the day.
In keeping with such improbability,
Susie has always imagined this last line
not as a dramatically heroic assertion,
but as a painfully singed, “Hewah ab I. Send be.”

To recap:
holiness and sacredness have traditionally been understood
in terms of separateness,
while this whole story is of the opposite—
a doing away with the separation.
We start off with juxtaposing what we think are opposites—
diametrically opposed realities—separate—mutually exclusive,
and come to find out, the effect of juxtaposing in God
is that they belong together!
Isaiah’s call to prophecy is, in truth,
an undoing of separation and separateness.

For if holiness equals separation,
then the faithful separate.
But if holiness makes all equal,
the faithful must welcome and include.

It may well be the job of the cult
to maintain justified separation—
divinely decreed separation—
and so, affirmation and condemnation.
But it is the job of followers of God
to break down the walls—
the artificial distinctions and divisions
in a ministry of reconciliation—
to see past divisions and distinctions
into something more whole and something more holy—
a whole holy/wholly reconciled—
such that to be holy is to be wholly—
to be fully—
not to be separate,
but to be part of the whole.

So take life, my friends,
and make it more complicated
less ordinary and more strangely interconnected—
less straightforward, less explicable, less controlled
and more interdependent.
Scarier? Yes.
Harder? Yes.
Less predictable—
less safe,
but far more abundant.

There are any number of risks it’s good—
it’s great to eliminate.
But there are some risks that if we eliminate,
we also eliminate wonder,
and we lose abundance.

Have I ever told you one of my worship space questions?
How many preachers high is a worship space?
I like to consider the height of a preacher up front,
and then see how many preachers high the space is.
Because buildings are limits and parameters
and preaching is about transcendence within the immanent
so there should always be enough space above a preacher
to be filled with more than she or he says.
This space is great because it goes right up the steeple
and into the sky.
And the lights should flicker.
And we should gasp—
a little afraid,
and abundantly alive.

Ah, may it be so.

plain talk about money


Luke 16:10-13
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much;
and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,
who will entrust to you the true riches?
And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is your own?
No slave can serve two masters;
for a slave will either hate the one and love the other,
or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and wealth.

2 Corinthians 9:6-7
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly
will also reap sparingly,
and the one who sows bountifully
will also reap bountifully.
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind,
not reluctantly or under compulsion,
for God loves a cheerful giver.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (loosely based on Psalm 24)
This planet is be-loved of God,
and all its riches and resources,
the earth itself and every creature on it belong with God.

God created it to be loved—
land and sea,
anchored in the deep truth and to be-long together.
Who is fit to walk the holy places,
to stand in the thin places?
Whoever has integrity:
not chasing shadows,
not living lies.
And God will bless them,
in justice they will be saved,
those longing to see God,
seeking the face of Abraham and Sarah’s—
Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Hagar and Ishmael’s God.
The God of the Christ.
Stretch toward God, all the earth,
yearn for the sacred and divine.
Let the glory of the sacred be loved.
And who is this?
It is God, bringer of light
conqueror of chaos.
Stretch toward God, all the earth,
yearn for the sacred and divine.
And who is this?
Divine might and glory
splendid and sacred power
are all contained in the truth of love—
in the presence of God in which we be long.

For the last month and a half,
as we’ve entered the last quarter of our fiscal year,
we’ve been talking about how we’re behind in our budget.
We’ve talked about how that means putting some dreaming on hold.
Some dreams about better meeting needs we have in our youth and children areas,
and some dreaming about things we’d like to do
in the way of learning and growing and doing together.
I’ve mentioned how good it would be to plan an all-church,
intentionally intergenerational retreat—away from here at a retreat center,
and have Russ and Amy come lead us.
I’ve mentioned friends at an Alliance Partner Congregation in Birmingham
who would would gladly host a group of our youth
and facilitate a three or four day civil rights retreat
visting Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma—
including the new lynching memorial.
What if we had an annual “learning our shadow history” retreat:
Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad—
that would be convenient over on the Eastern Shore.
The trail of tears.

We’ve also talked about how we’re a unique baptist congregation.
We are not—we are not your typical baptist church
in the greater scheme of baptist congregations,
and we have an important alternative voice in our culture
when it comes to reading the Bible—
expecting more truth than facts,
more wonder and mystery than explanation or understanding—
when it comes to exploring a theology of love and grace—
of welcome and inclusion—
when it comes to valuing the other and the least among us.

We are committed to exploring the story of Jesus
in ways other than just as it’s traditionally told and heard.
And I was reminded at the Alliance Convocation recently,
when we do not speak up we cede (c-e-d-e) to other voices
our sacred texts and stories of God.

We do all we do, because of your support.

In one of their last meetings, the Formations Ministry wondered
about whether there might be a time for some plain talk about money—
a Stewardship Sermon, as it were,
and well, what better day than Mother’s Day!

I trust this is not offensive.
It may not be terribly exciting to you,
but it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise either.
You hear upfront about the need for money regularly, right?
From NPR and alumni associations.
Charities, ministries, politics, police and firefighter associations.
Anyone who thinks you might think what they stand for is important.
We need your support.

The story is told of the first year college student
in some first year English literature class,
who was asked to identify the two most important books to her or him.
Came the response,
“My family’s cookbook and my family’s checkbook.”

“Show me the money!”
was the tag line to a popular movie—
now a good while back.
Show me where it is.
Show me where it’s going.
And I’ll tell you a whole lot more about you
than you might want me to!

Our checkbooks and our budgets—
personal and institutional, local and national,
are moral documents—
indicative of our priorities—
indicating what we’re just going to talk about,
and what we’re going to talk about and financially support.

Point of clarification.
Baptist churches like us receive no outside funding.
There is no denominational, larger body that offers financial support.
We both make and raise our own budget.

Now there are various ways of thinking about giving
when it comes to our kind of church.

The “what’s my fair share?” approach can be helpful—
in which you hear the total budget need
and divide that by the number of members,
or regular participants in worship, or “giving units”—
resulting in each person’s fair share.
You go out to eat with friends,
everyone orders the same,
you divide the bill by the number of people, right?
Fair’s fair.

The what’s-my-fair-share approach is actually not so different
from the biblical idea of the tithe as everyone participating
in supporting the work of God.
The main difference being
that the “my fair share” approach is a focus on how much is needed,
and the tithe on how much each of us has—
which is no insignificant difference.

Those who support the tithe, traditionally interpret scripture
as suggesting everyone should give 10% of their income.
And if you’re of the mind,
you can then discuss whether that’s 10% before or after taxes!
But it’s a voluntary tithe—(I choose to give this,
I am not forced to) based on the idea
that God has given us everything, therefore we give 10% back.
Now you might think that’s a good return on God’s investment in you!
I’d be very happy with 10% returns in so many areas,
but if God’s given you 100% of what you have,
then you honor God, may I suggest,
by using 100% of what you have in ways that honor God—
including financially supporting the institution
called to do and support those doing God’s work.

Now how relevant the typically quoted scriptural references
about tithing are is honestly up for debate.
Some biblical tithes were related specifically to produce of the land
(you tithe 10% of what your land produces).
Other biblical tithes related to plunder taken in war.
Someone could legitimately make the argument
that tithing as a means of funding church
was a particular, utilitarian, not to mention cynical,
interpretation of scripture.
Doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea!
I just find it patently unrealistic.

I found out a while ago now,
that many years ago,
four families gave 72% of our church’s budget!
Most pastors will tell you it’s safe to count on
20% of the membership providing 80% of the giving.

So the reality is
that we don’t have tithing congregations.
We may have some tithing individuals—families,
but we don’t have tithing congregations.
And everybody isn’t giving their “fair share” either.
Frankly everybody can’t.
Those approaches to giving in church
are just not reality—
never have been,
and, love to be proven wrong,
don’t think they ever will be.

In fact, to honor the diversity of community—
including economic diversity,
they can’t be.
Giving 10% assumes discretionary funds some simply don’t have.
So I’m leery of percentages and computed dollar amounts,
though they can be a helpful starting point.
Let me suggest another way of thinking about it.

Because what I’m not leery of
is the unequivocal affirmation
that you need to—each of you needs to—
be giving to the church.
And yes, there are lots of ways to give—
not all monetary
(many very important non-monetary ways),
but each one of you needs to be giving money to this church.
You need to be financially supporting your church.

How much you give
depends on your individual circumstances,
but even if it’s just a few dollars a week, for the time being,
for those with such limited, restricted discretionary funds,
you need that habit.
You need that discipline.
You need that exercise.
You need that commitment.
You need that expression of your priorities—
to maintain the integrity of those priorities.
This aspect of your finances is also soul work—s-o-u-l work.

And if the whole fair share approach is about how much is needed
and tithing is about how much I’ve got,
here’s another question appropriately raised
in thinking about church giving,
how much do I need?
And again, the answer is different for us all,
and more subtle than it sounds.

We all need shelter, but how much house do I need?
We all need food, but how much junk do I eat?
Many of us need coffee, but do we need the fancy Starbucks coffees?
Most of us need personal transport, but how much car do I need?
And how many cars?
You get the idea.

Affording our needs is the currency by which we live—
by which we survive.
Exceeding our needs is the currency by which our culture thrives.
It’s part of our shadow story,
typically disguised in free market capitalism talk.
Another interesting “learning our shadow history” retreat possibility
for our youth—a Heifer farm—with a global village
and some discernment about the difference between needs and wants.

“Currency,” by the way, is a word that springs
from the same roots as the word “currents”—
from the Latin currere—to run or move quickly.
And money is the current
in which we live and move and have our being.
Like it or not, it sweeps us along
as what we need to survive—
as what we exchange for necessities.

Giving to the church is about supporting
the good and important, counter-current,
counter-cultural work of this community of faith.
which means it’s about ministry, and fellowship
(encouragement and support in the doing of ministry).
It’s about supporting our staff justly and lovingly.
But more than just supporting what we are doing,
giving to the church is affirmation of what else we could be doing—
what more we could be doing.

And as much as it is about church—about us—
what it allows us to be and do,
it’s also about you—
and not just you as a church member,
but you as a child of God.

Remember, show me where your money is—
show me where it’s going,
and I’ll tell you a whole lot more about you
than you might want me to!

The word money comes to us, by the way, from the Latin, moneta
either the place for minting coins, or the coins themselves,
also an epithet, or a title of the goddess Juno
in whose temple the coins of ancient Rome were minted.
There is some conjecture that the word moneta
itself goes further back—possibly to the word monere
which was “to advise” or “warn.”

So I have some advice—
and a warning:
the current of our culture will sweep you away.
It will take you where it wants to go—
unless you fight it—
unless you intentionally, mindfully resist it.
And we are called to fight the currents of our world.

That’s where a tithing priority, or some sense of a fair share comes in—
to give us a tool in our resistance.
And there are families who, looking for a house,
because they have this sense,
factor their gifts to the church into their assessment
of how much house they can afford.
Someone once told me, “We could swing those payments,
but then we wouldn’t have what we want to give to the church.”
And the how much to give to the church question
isn’t just a how much is left question,
but, yes, how much do I really need?

Do you believe in this community of faith?
Do you believe in its integrity?
Do you believe in its mission?
Do you believe in the transformative possibility it represents?
Do you believe in the hope it extends?
Do you believe in the people here?
And yes, that’s the staff, but it’s not only the staff.
Do you believe in the story—
the story of God with us in love
working to redeem all creation?
Is it important to you?

If so, you need to give.
It really is that simple.
Give and give regularly.
Give and come to find you can give more.

And there are some of you here today
who give generously, regularly, sacrificially.
And we don’t want you to feel like we’re expecting you to give more.
Nor do we want you to resent the fact
that as much as you’re giving, we’re still struggling a little!
You need to hear this as affirmation—as thank you.
There are some of us here today who need to hear this challenge—
you give, but you could give more.
You have the financial means to give more.
Some of you haven’t given.
Maybe you can’t. We’re glad you’re here.
Maybe you just haven’t. Even if you start small, please start.
And I remind you, unless you have told me,
I don’t know who falls into which of these categories.

What about other charitable giving, you might ask.
Because there are so many organizations doing good and important work
that rely on the support of those who support such work.
We’re personally connected to the ICJS, Catholic Charities,
the Community Assistance Network,
cancer and leukemia research, lupus, Alzheimers, to name a few.
I know. I know.
The needs far exceed what we have to give.
And you need to be comfortable with the allocations of your resources.
And I will not begrudge you a penny you spend beyond yourself
to make this world a better place.
But if you value who we are and what we do here,
church needs to be a significant recipient of the dollars
that reflect your values.

In conclusion, another etymology,
the word “church” (do you know this?) comes through Old English—
through Old English from the Germanic, Kirche in German,
but the German comes from the Greek—
and specifically the Greek word kyrios, lord.

Who you give your money to—
how you dedicate your money
defines who or what lord is for you.
And we all need to be so much more very careful about that.

It doesn’t matter how much you give to the church
in your fantasies.
Boy, if I were making $20 million a year,
I’d give $5 million to the church.
It doesn’t matter how much you give to the church
in your fantasies.
What matters is what you do give.

It’s Mother’s Day, y’all.
And every year, we acknowledge how truly complicated a holiday it is.
Because with every proud and beautiful picture
posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
of a mother and a child (or children)
with corresponding words of appreciation and gratitude,
we know some of those posts are a lie—a stretch—
a distortion of truth.
We know people who don’t know their mother,
others who wish they didn’t know their mother,
others who so want to be a mom and haven’t been able to,
many who grieve their mother,
some who grieve a child.
Even on what maybe should seem to be
a day of celebrating something obviously good and wonderful,
life’s just too complicated to ever assume
everyone could possibly fit into any one category.

Just so, there is no universal blueprint for church giving.
Life’s too complicated, circumstances too varied.

We are making a difference here at Woodbrook.
I wish it were more quantifiable.
Transformation’s hard to measure!
A better future needs us to keep pursuing grace and wonder—
to keep asking questions about budgets and attitudes—
to keep naming sin and pride and ego—
to keep choosing hope and welcome—inclusion.
We have some of what today needs to get to that better tomorrow.
To support and encourage what you too feel is an important work,
dig deep.
Engage. Yes, write a check or use that funny thing on the bulletin.
Join one of our ministries and be part of the conversations
about identity and dreaming.

Over the past years, thinking about identity and calling,
I have regularly come back to the image of the church
as a resistance movements.
Those in Nazi Germany are easiest for me to call to mind,
though the Underground Railroad, in our country, works—
as do all those who have worked, and continue to, for civil liberties and rights.
Resistance was everything to those folks.

May we pray together,
God, may the witness of my checkbook
participate in my profession of You as God,
in Jesus’ name. Amen.

april fools: april fools the ways of the world

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 2.34.44 PM

photo credit: Don Flowers

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;
abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.
‘This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.
You did not choose me but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (Psalm 98)
Sing to the Lord a new song,
the Lord of wonderful deeds,
whose right hand and holy arm
brought victory.

God made that victory known,
revealed justice to nations,
remembered a merciful, steadfast love
to the house of Israel.

The ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
Shout to the Lord, you earth,
break into song, into praise!

Sing praise to God with a harp,
with a harp and sound of music.
With sound of trumpet and horn,
shout to the Lord, our king.

Let the sea roar with its creatures,
the world and all that live there!
Let the rivers clap their hands,
the hills ring out their joy!

The Lord, our God, comes,
comes to rule the earth,
justly to rule the world,
to govern the peoples aright.

“To God Be the Glory, revised” [TO GOD BE THE GLORY]
To God be the glory*, in love we abide,
which raises our living with each EasterTide.
To incarnate love is our calling each day,
to live and create the truth of God’s own way.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

To love as we’ve been loved is God’s great desire
that our lives the living of others inspires.
To live lives for others as God showed us how,
makes manifest Jesus in the here and now.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

The whole that is holy is God’s great design.
For sharing in caring, our God still does pine.
Creation is waiting, and God’s waiting too,
to see what our faith now will lead us to do.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

And this is redemption, communion with God—
to walk through life gently as Jesus has trod—
to open the life gate that all may come in*
as we look to love more than we do to sin.
We praise God; we praise God. Let the earth hear our voice.
We praise God; we praise God. Let creation rejoice*.
So come to the Godhead in wonder and joy,
and give God the glory, thus our lives employ.

John Ballenger/William H. Doane/*Fanny J. Crosby

Previously, Jesus offered his disciples the imagery of the vine.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower (John 15:1).
I am the vine, he said, and you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit (John 15:5).
And he clarified his explicit expectation that the plant bear fruit.
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit (John 15:8).

Typically in Scripture, the fruit of the vine refers to grapes—
or wine.
Let that image take root!

Jesus goes on:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;
It’s an as/so statement.
As one thing is true, so is another.
And, wonder of wonders, our experience of being loved by God
is no different from Jesus’ experience!
What might seem unique to Jesus, is not.
We’ve been included.
Love and grace grow into and through us,
and we are cultivated in the truth and the presence of God.

Abide in my love.
In Greek, the verb meno, translated “to abide”—
with all those lovely connotations of home—of belonging,
also means “to remain.”
There’s an assurance looking to the future.
It can mean “to remain present”—to stay real, yes?—
grounded, as it were—rooted.
It can also mean “to be kept.”
There’s an initiative toward us.
Interestingly, meno has a secondary meaning of “to await.”
So it’s all of what we so want and need,
and, also, what we await more of—
await in its greater fullness.
It is both assurance and hope—
what we know now, and what, knowing now,
we anticipate in greater fullness and truth.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.
Now that’s an if/then statement—
conditional, but also relational.
We’re given a word of clarification
about what it means to abide in the love of Jesus.
It means following in the way of Jesus.
It means bearing good fruit.

Just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of Jesus
keeping God’s commandments, it’s obedience, yes,
but it has more to do with identity and integrity,
and less to do with success at obedience
than joy of being.

And a parallel is established—an implicit as/so:
as we abide in Jesus’ love, so Jesus abides in God’s love.
By the by, to refer to God’s commandments
is to think of the tradition and heritage of Israel, isn’t it? Torah.

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you.
As/so. As my joy, so yours too.
And that your joy may be complete.
Think about that.
The completeness of joy is relationally dependent.
But it’s like meno—something we know (in which we abide),
of which we also await more.

Have you noticed that it gets a little complicated
trying to keep track of/distinguishing God and Jesus and us?
Who abides in whom? Whose love are we talking about?
Whose joy? Whose commandments?
We can identify the roots, the trunk, the branches, the leaves
the individual parts of a grape vine, but to look at it,
is to see a grape vine—a whole—
maybe even a vineyard.

Jesus goes on, “This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Elsewhere, Jesus is quoted as responding to a question
about the greatest commandment, saying:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”
(Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).
Here though, Jesus commandment doesn’t seem to be
love God and love others, but rather
as God loves you, so love others.
We are to act as God acts which is to act as Jesus acted.

So a little catch up work here.
Initially, God is the vinegrower; Jesus is the vine;
we’re the branches.
But in the reciprocity and mutuality that unfold,
we all appear to be part of this plant—producing this divine fruit.
Because God’s commandments represent who God is
made incarnate in Jesus’ living
even as love, who God is, is to be made flesh in our living.

And yes, it’s a cliché. Oh, we’re to love?
Of course we are.
But we often miss the corollary that it’s not up to us
who to love—who to include.
And yet what absolutely critical fruit to bear
in a world so lacking in it.

And the demand is explicit.
You’ve no doubt heard some expression of the chorus
that resounds in and through our culture:
do you love me?
Do I belong?
Am I included?

A new study, “published by the global health service company Cigna,
found that 46 percent of U.S. adults report sometimes or always
feeling lonely and 47 percent report feeling left out.
Cigna calls those ‘epidemic levels.’
What’s more, only around half of Americans
say they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis,
such as having an extended conversation with a friend
or spending time with family members.”

We’ve noted before, with some admiration—at least on my part,
that in January of this year, Great Britain’s prime minister Theresa May
appointed a Minister for Loneliness
after a report last year identified loneliness as a critical problem.
Former United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy,
wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review
arguing that loneliness can be associated “with a greater risk
of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety.”

I’ll give our culture a break,
I don’t expect much in the way of love
from a culture fundamentally grounded in
the cult of the individual and the priority of money.

But how is it that the church has evidently
done such a pathetic job of loving people
that they have to ask, do you love me?
Do I belong?
Am I included?
I have tattoos, you know.
I look different than you do—
dress differently.
Do you love me?
Will I know I’m loved here?
God, I hope so.

I’m so confused. I look like a boy and feel like a girl.
I’m coming to understand biology is not as binary as we once thought.
The way I feel doesn’t match up with the way anyone I know
talks about how they feel.
My parents have thrown me out. Society mocks me.
Do you love me?
God, I hope so.

I lie.
I cheat.
I steal.
I bully.
Do you love me?

But that’s abhorrent behavior,
and we want to hold people accountable.
I’m not saying this is easy!
We try to distinguish between who someone is and what they do?
Love the sinner, hate the sin?
But we have to confess, right?—what people do—the way they act—
colors our perception of them as people.
If someone lies all the time, it’s hard not to think of them as a liar.
We love who you are; we evaluate what you do,
only and even as we evaluate what we do.
Do you love me?
I don’t know.

No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Okay, and again I point out—some of you are probably expecting this!
I point out how this can be taken two ways.
We are conditioned to hear an obvious reference to Jesus’ death—
to his crucifixion, and there’s no way that’s not meant here.
But laying down your life for others
is also an apt description of the way Jesus chose to live—
the way he expects us to live—love one another.
Abide in God’s love and act out of that love.

You are my friends if you do what I command you.
Conditional friendship?
It is hard, if not impossible,
to explain away Jesus’ expectations of us
as other than conditions for Jesus’ friendship with us.
And, if we’re honest, I mean, we’re not just friends with anyone.
We have expectations—conditions.
I may theoretically accept the call to love everyone,
but I have higher expectations of who will be my friends.
Have we cheapened love by turning it into this spiritual cliché
devoid of the nitty gritty work of friendship?

Yes, we love you. Try to. Commit to. Know we’re supposed to.
But we will also hold you to the same expectations
we try and hold ourselves to.
There’s fruit we’re to bear—particular fruit.
We’re not here to be naive pushovers—to be taken advantage of.
We’re here to celebrate who you are—
who you were created to be—
not to enable all the choices you’ve made—
in truth, to confront some of those choices—in love.

I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.

Maybe the emphasis here is
less on the conditional nature of friendship
than it is on changing the nature of the relationship—
like when you graduate and teachers become friends.
Like when you grow up, and your parents become friends.
Maybe the emphasis here is
less on the conditional nature of friendship
than on an emphasis of choice:
servants have to obey, friends choose to honor.
The power dynamic is taken out of the relationship
as we choose what fruit we want to bear.

You did not choose me but I chose you.
Ah! While the power may be taken out of the equation,
there is still the priority of God’s initiative toward us.
And do notice: God chose us—Jesus chose us—love chose us
before we were even trying to live love.
I lie; I cheat; I bully. I’m so damned lonely. Do you love me?
God does.
And as those who choose God—who choose love,
we are called to—
try to—
know we’re supposed to.

And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
Okay. Okay. Okay.
With this much abused verse, we have to be so careful!
This is not about God giving us whatever we ask for.
This is about what we ask for in Jesus’ name.
And if you abide in the love of Jesus—
if you live in the way of Jesus—
if you incarnate the being of God,
there are things you would not ask for—
priorities you cannot appropriately elevate.

Our culture is one of celebrating upward mobility.
It is no mistake or coincidence
that theologians speak of God’s downward mobility.

Ours is a culture focused on the individual—the self.
We noted this before.
In contrast, the people of God’s way are focused on community.
We prize our independence in this culture,
while interdependence is more God’s truth and priority.

We speak of individual responsibility,
the Bible regularly addresses more corporate responsibility.

Our culture values getting rich—named the individual good
and success is in terms of me,
and justifies lying, stealing, cheating, and bullying
in the name of such success.
I really don’t know how else to say it.
The ends justify the means, don’t you know.
God’s way promotes the health of the whole—the common good
and success is in terms of more than me,
and suggests ends are inseparable from means.

You don’t ask in the name of Jesus for what culture values
that God does not.

Now the values of our culture can be
valuable, important, meaningful, significant, helpful,
but for those of us claiming God’s way,
only if they are subordinate to God’s vision and God’s priorities.

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I’m divorced.
I’m divorced and still feel called to minister.
I’m a woman called to preach.
I’m a man who loves men.
Do you love me
even though your Bible says what I feel is wrong—
inappropriate—unacceptable—pick your word?

You know, we’ve found a lot of what the Bible says—
and even more of what we think it says,
needs to be subordinate—
needs to be subordinated to the greatest commandment,
the one Jesus explicitly gave us, to love.

I have a different story of this culture and this country
than you do
that involves less privilege—
less freedom—
less justice—
in my experience.
Do you love me?
God, I hope so.
Can you understand why I wouldn’t trust you?
Oh, yes.

I voted for … well, I didn’t vote for who you did.
Do you love me?

I come from another culture—another country.
My religion is not understood here by most.
I’m easy to blame.
Do you love me?

I’ve had an abortion.
I’ve been abused.
Do you love me?
I was raped.
I’m addicted.
Do you love me?
I’m addicted to my phone—
to Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter—
to pornography—
to alcohol—
to stuff.
I’m addicted to my image,
I’m addicted to … no, I just can’t tell you, I’m too ashamed.
Do you love me?
Not who you would fix me to be, do you love me?

Sam Wells is the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
He reflects in the Apr 25, 2018 issue of Christian Century
about a funeral he did in which the widower told him
about his wife’s suicide—her pain and despair.
Sam spoke at the funeral about not knowing
what was going through the woman’s head,
but about how we did know that she was loved
and would be missed.
When he later visited the widower, frankly expecting to be praised,
he was confronted by the widower, you didn’t speak the truth.
and Sam learned that his role was not to make things better.
“If you have a choice between giving someone false hope
and giving them the truth,” he writes, “always give them the truth.”
And if they make it through what’s hardest, and you’re still with them,
“they’ll know a love that Song of Songs says ’is strong as death.’
This is the most important line in the whole Bible.
It’s the whole question the Bible is trying to answer:
Is love as strong as death?
People come to church to face this question
about themselves and their loved ones. Is love as strong as death?
And their continuing to show up is their answer: Yes, stronger.
But we can’t say it for people; we can only learn to say it for ourselves.
Coming to worship is a statement and prayer,
that we and those on our hearts, dead or alive,
may come to know the truth of those words.

Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer
for Behavioral Health at Cigna, notes,
you can “have a thousand or ten thousand friends on Facebook
[or hundreds of thousands of followers
on Instagram or Twitter, we might add],
but it’s the meaningful in-person relationships … with other people
that actually keep [you] from becoming lonely.”

Do you love me?

Can we be honest enough to give people the right choice to make?
It’s not up to us who to love.
Because that’s what it means to be a part of the vine—
knowing that love defines you—that love fills you—
and that you are thus expected to love—
not a cheap love,
but a love with the highest of expectations.

April fools—Easter fools the ways of the world that do not prioritize love—
that prioritize selfishness and greed
and call it freedom and capitalism or business as usual.
Easter fools the ways of the world
that undermine and devalue love—
that underestimate love.
It’s the world that fools you into thinking
the way things have been is all there is—
and all there ever will be.
Take great care not to be fooled back into that old story,
when there’s a new story to tell and live—
to be a part of the answer, oh yes,
love is stronger—
than death—than sin—than loneliness.
This I know. This we know.
Let us love each other into knowing more.
And let us love others into assurance and hope—
honest enough to admit it can be uncomfortable
manifesting who God is—incarnating love so consistently.
Let’s also be honest, that the world knows enough
to expect us to be different.
The world knows enough to expect us to love.
May we do so.

april fools: april fools taken for granted distinctions

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 2.34.44 PM
photo credit: Don Flowers

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away—
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.”

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

Responsive Call to Worship (Psalm 23)
The Lord is my shepherd,
I need nothing more.
You give me rest in green meadows,
setting me near calm waters,
where you revive my spirit.

You guide me along sure paths,
you are true to your name,
Though I should walk in death’s dark valley,
I fear no evil with you by my side,
your shepherd’s staff to comfort me.

You spread a table before me
as my foes look on.
You soothe my head with oil;
my cup is more than full.

Goodness and love will tend me
every day of my life.
I will dwell in the house of the Lord
as long as I shall live.

I am regularly grateful for my friend and colleague Amy Jacks Dean,
co-pastor with her husband Russ of Park Road Baptist
in Charlotte, NC, who joins me in the pulpit this morning.
You’ve met Russ. You’ll love Amy.

This past Monday morning I went to see my brother
who flew in from Germany for some training
down in Beltsville, Maryland.
You may remember we had a lot of rain Sunday night/Monday.
Storm clouds hung heavy across the horizon.
The beltway was a mess,
so my map app rerouted me
down the Jones Fall Expressway to Cold Spring—
down Greenspring to Liberty Heights to Monroe.
Y’all know Monroe?
Some of you know Monroe.
It’s one of those Baltimore streets
in which homes alternate with empty houses
with boarded up doors and windows
and fairly consistently, also, hollow shells of houses—
burned out—overgrown.

Some words I’ve learned in the past few years apply:
redlining, blockbusting,
predatory lending—
the tactics and policies and economics of systemic racism—
enough to call into question any innate goodness
you might ascribe to people or to our culture.

From the perspective of privilege,
one might wonder
why has this happened—been allowed to happen?
Why has no one fixed this—come up with a plan—a vision?
We need—they need a good leader
to shepherd them through this.
But the privilege that presumes something can be fixed
tends to come from those for whom it’s not a given—
a day-in-and-day-out taken-for-granted.
And, of course, we might wonder, where’s God in all this?

And I passed churches—a lot of churches:
New Shiloh Baptist Church,
Faith Empowered Ministries,
New Union Baptist Church,
Monroe Street Church of God,
Saint James United Methodist Church,
Mt Nebo Baptist Church,
New Carmel Star Baptist Church,
West Baltimore Baptist Church,
Greater Refuge Temple,
Monroe Street United Methodist Church.

And driving down Monroe, passing these churches,
as I imagined people from these neighborhoods
gathering for worship—gathering to share a meal—
to read the same stories we read—
to sing together as we do—
some of the same songs we do—
to pray together,
I wondered if they needed more than we do—
expected more—got more—
not necessarily something different—
maybe not different at all.
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus to us and to them.
“I am the good shepherd (as opposed to the bad shepherd;
there are bad shepherds!).
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Now that does sound like John’s Jesus.
That sounds like John writing about Jesus
looking back on the crucifixion
writing about the one looking ahead to it.

But this is also imagery that fits
into the story and faith tradition of Israel—
so much a part of the Davidic tradition.
David, who was shepherd of sheep
before Samuel plucked him out to be king,
and who, as a shepherd of sheep,
risked his life in confrontation
with lion and bear (1 Samuel 17:34-36)—
who as shepherd of Israel,
risked his life facing Goliath in the assurance of his faith—
David, who gave his life (the good and the bad!) to the story of Israel,
and who consistently reoriented himself,
even after the worst of sins, back to God (see Psalm 51).
The beloved twenty-third psalm we read as our call to worship
is one of the psalms attributed to David,

Shepherd imagery is also part of the prophetic tradition—
both remembering (looking back) and anticipating (looking ahead).
Not to escape the present,
but to ever orient the present to the best of what’s been
and the best of what can be—
an orientation that is always a judgment
on any other orientation.

And we’re mindful of the word of Ezekiel:
“The word of the Lord came to me:
Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:
prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds:
Thus says the Lord God:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves!
Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool,
you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.
You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick,
you have not bound up the injured,
you have not brought back the strayed,
you have not sought the lost,
but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:1-4).

There is criteria by which leaders are judged
that has nothing to do with polls or political parties
or the coffers of any lobbyists.

Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds .…
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down,
says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed,
and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak,
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.
I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:10a, 15-16).

Remember Ezekiel wrote to the community in exile
about their leaders—political and religious, kings and priests.

“I am the good shepherd.”
At its core, it’s a very physical image
dealing with the physical needs of a flock—
food, water, rest, protection from physical threats—
which is to say we have greatly spiritualized
a very physical image.

Amy Jacks Dean is keeping vigil by her mom’s bed.
Nita is dying—has been since Tuesday.
Amy’s been posting 3 a.m. updates.
Her mom’s Catholic—the only Catholic in the family,
and she and her siblings found a prayer book
dating back to 1925, that her grandmother gave her mother,
some resources on line,
so she and her brother and sister have been taking turns
reading words of ritual unfamiliar to them,
comforting to their mom—
taking turns at bedside all the hours of the days.
We, as a congregation, know this holy place and time, do we not?
We have kept vigil over bedsides.
We have been invited into liminal time and space
with John Duvall, Sonya Park, Margaret Oshida.
Do you remember how we passed out cards
and wrote down our favorite Bible verses
to share with Margaret?

“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away—
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”

To be hired to watch the sheep—
to be elected to watch the sheep
does not make you a good shepherd.
I’d say that’s an explicit warning
about those who take leadership positions or responsibility
but for their own economic benefit, right?—
with less investment in the sheep than their own gain.

It’s also a warning about how we are in our world.
Many of us have a fix-it mentality,
though I do think it’s a largely male perspective—
largely white perspective.
So a largely privileged perspective.
And it has its appeal. There’s a sense to it.
What’s wrong? Fix it.

The problem is some things don’t get fixed.
The problem is we’re not talking about one wolf.
Ours is a world of wolves,
and that requires a life—
not a one time heroic act,
but an ongoing commitment.
The shepherd expends a life taking care of sheep
who are threatened on a regular basis.

So let’s be honest,
we spiritualize a physical image,
because physically we don’t believe it.
We don’t trust it.
Monroe Street remains Monroe Street.
We live in a world of us and them,
and they are dangerous.
They pose a threat—a risk,
and where’s God when we face that?

If I do not believe I am protected—
that there is no hedge prayed around me and mine
that keeps the threats away,
then of course I spiritualize the affirmation
and when it comes right down to it
trust my bank account and the neighborhood
I can buy my way into, my gun, the police,
and whatever politicians promise what I most want—
what makes me feel most secure.

“She’s on morphine, and, for the most part, just resting.
We count the beats of her heart per minute over and over
hoping for an indicator. We watch her chest rise and fall,
counting the number of breaths per minute
as if knowing that number will solve this problem of not being able to die.
We do all of this counting because we want to know.
When? How much longer? All in her good time. Just as it should be.
And so in the peaceful quiet of this night as I take my turn keeping watch,
I’m spending some of the minutes counting the memories
of a mother’s quiet living trying to turn to a quiet dying.
She and Daddy taught us how to keep watch. So we keep watching.
And waiting. And counting the blessings of being Raised Right.”

Now some of you have told me,
“I need what I get here, to get through my week and my work—
what I get here in worship—what I get here in fellowship.”
That’s pretty significant.
But it does seem to me like there would be another level,
up and down Monroe Street,
of needing to know I’m beloved—
I’m valued—I’m important,
when the world—the culture—
undermines that affirmation so consistently.

I’m not saying life’s not hard for us—
not challenging.
I am saying the decks not stacked against us.
I am saying we are not undermined and devalued at every turn.
We can sit at a Starbucks without getting arrested.
We can be stopped and even arrested without getting shot.
It’s not that physical for us.

I remember at a gathering in Austin,
sponsored by the Texas Christian Life Commission
(Susie was on some board or committee),
an African American pastor talking about how long
African American worship services lasted—
their (what we white folk might call) disregard of time,
which I might suggest is rather a priority in time.
And y’all are actually really good about that!
We sometimes go over—11:40 sometimes
11:50 even, without a word. Maybe a few thoughts?!
But nothing like two-and-a-half hour services.
Her comment on the length of African American worship services?
She said this, “I don’t know about y’all,
but to balance what we experience all week,
we need more than an hour!”

And in their more than an hour of worship,
it’s not a new reality promised them,
but the assurance that they are worthy of a different reality—
the promise that the long arc of history
bends away from where we are into better
into more just—more righteous.

Do we underestimate and undervalue just how physical
such assurance can be?
And how necessary?

“Mama chooses to die just as she has lived: quiet and slow.
She is so peaceful and so we keep her pace.
And count her breaths within a minute and we continue our faithful watch.
It is an privilege. It is holy. We are grateful.
And tired. But mostly we are honored.”

The need to know I’m beloved—
the need to know I am part of an alternative story.
Not just a different story—
not just a contrast to our culture,
but an alternative—in opposition—
an antidote.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

And within this relational web of truth,
as Jesus knows us and we know Jesus,
God knows us, and we know God.
We are inter-connected
in reciprocity and mutuality.
We are both known and knowing.

I live on Hopkins Rd. in Rodgers Forge.
The broken homes, the hollow shells of families
aren’t as obvious to the eye,
but who would presume to think they’re not there?
Part of privilege is the ability to hide
some parts of truth better, don’t you think?

There are the privileged and the oppressed.
I do not presume to know what those who suffer the lack of privilege know.
But there is, also, the truth that we are no different—
that we have manufactured justifications for division—
to keep people in their place—to protect privilege and power,
and that April fools—Easter fools taken for granted distinctions
and divisions and justifications.
If resurrection explodes the limitation of death,
should we not question other limits we take for granted?
other divisions? and distinctions? and justifications?

“My own know me,” says Jesus.
And people everywhere—all people—
living in and through any and every imaginable circumstance
recognize love and grace—
need love and grace.

“And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
There’s something about being a good shepherd—
about Jesus being a good shepherd
that involves the laying down of his life.
There’s no way not to read this
as not referring to the crucifixion and the resurrection,
but it is also truly about Jesus giving his life
in relationship with and service to others.
There’s no way not to read that too.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

The imagery here again goes back to Ezekiel, who wrote:
“I will make them one nation in the land …;
and one king shall be king over them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms” (Ezekiel 37:22).
In John, Jesus seems to expand the conversation
beyond the reunification of the northern and southern kingdoms—
to Gentiles and Jews, maybe?
I have many sheep of different folds.

Or, more radically maybe, to whatever criteria we use
to separate each other—to reject and exclude some.
There are many sheep of different folds,
who hear my voice and recognize it—
who hear my stories and need them—
who hear of love and grace and justice
and mutual responsibility and need all of that.
There is one flock.

“For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
It’s the third time this laying down of life is referenced.
You think maybe it’s important?!

I have a lot of problems (this will come as no surprise to you)
with God loving Jesus because Jesus died.
It is a typical way of reading this—
though I’m not sure people have necessarily thought
through exactly what it means—
for this reason God loves Jesus because Jesus laid down his life—
because Jesus died.

No. God loves Jesus because Jesus was the incarnation of God’s word—
the incarnation of God’s will—God’s grace and God’s love.
God loves Jesus because of the life lived—
laid down to the priorities of God.
Yes, God loves Jesus because Jesus honored those commitments to death.
But God fundamentally loves Jesus because God doesn’t not love.
And a life given to God, we believe, is received back
as abundant gift.
I lay down my life in order to take it up again,
and I lay it down in hope of the possibility of a greater communion.

“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
That is so John.
So John’s refusal to let Jesus be the victim—
to be anything but in charge of his destiny.
It’s also very Baptist, don’t you think?
What I do with my life is not anyone else’s decision,
not even God’s.
It is my choice, my commitment.

“I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.”
It’s the word used of the Mosaic law. This commandment.
What commandment? That’s a bit odd, don’t you think?
“I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this commandment from my Father.”
I have received the commandment to have this power,
or to lay down my life?
But if it’s in obedience that Jesus does this,
that minimizes the choice this story’s been emphasizing.

I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
If Jesus is talking about laying down his life in death,
then having the power to take it up again would mean resurrection,
and while most Scripture is pretty careful to affirm
the resurrection was not anything Jesus did,
the gospel of John blurs the lines between God and Jesus.
But if we go with the choice Jesus has—we have—always,
then the life lived is the life laid down.
I can give my life to God and I can take it back.
We’re talking free will. I’m not locked into this way of being.

Can we learn from those facing the greater challenges
to take what we’ve spiritualized
and make it physical again?
Can we take words—
God’s words of justice and grace and care
and give them flesh—
give them our flesh?
Can we incarnate them amongst us
realizing how profoundly important they are?
This our choice; this our commitment.

Sometimes all you need to do to see God is look around—
at deathbeds and birthing beds and weddings and meals—
at communities gathered to weep together and to laugh—
to sing and pray—
at communities gathered to worship—
at one flock—
and at those in the flock insisting on their equality and dignity—
on justice for all.
The Lord is my shepherd, and so I will follow grace.
I will follow the examples of grace I see in my living.
I will trust love to meet my most fundamental needs.
I choose love and grace to balance what the world prioritizes.
And if I walk through the darkest valley,
it’s not the valley or the darkness that is taken from me,
but rather light I take with me—
down Hopkins Road and Monroe Street—
into the holy experiences here and there of love and death—
of families gathered to get through both—
through profound grief and deep hope
into the ever-renewed commitment
to be a part of the arc into better—
into the awareness of privilege—into the work of justice—
into more like God.

“Last night we had to call in the reinforcements.
The next generation had to spell us a bit.
The granddaughters stepped up to the plate.
Three grown granddaughters set alarms, kept the watch,
and served up the morphine every hour.
We worked like a not so well oiled machine to reposition her several times.
But we were gentle and kind and the sheer beauty
of the moment of women tending the one that gave us all life
overwhelmed me to tears. Which come easy
when you are a solid combination of sad and tired.
But the time remains holy. We’ve pulled out the old photos
and retold the old stories. And we have laughed and laughed
except when we have cried and cried.
And that is just as it should be. Now the sun is up
and it’s a Resurrection Day.
Maybe today. Maybe not. In … good time.”

May it be so.

april fools: april fools fear

Screen Shot 2018-04-02 at 2.34.44 PM
photo credit: Don Flowers

Luke 24:36b-48
While they were talking about this,
Jesus himself stood among them and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
They were startled and terrified,
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
He said to them, “Why are you frightened,
and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.
Touch me and see; for a ghost
does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
And when he had said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,
he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, “These are my words
that I spoke to you while I was still with you—
that everything written about me in the law of Moses,
the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
and he said to them, “Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed
in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

You have heard the ancient story.
Let us listen now for the word of God.

We have been consistently calling into question
some traditional expressions and assumptions of faith—
some traditional Baptist and evangelical theology.
So much so that I have thought
a good and appropriate subtitle for our worship recently
might be Baptist nightmares!
So much so that one former Baptist minister confessed to me,
he woke up in cold sweat thinking about some things we were questioning!
So much so that a mom leaned over to her son and said,
“If he had said that in the Middle Ages,
he would have been burned at the stake!”

But, given where traditional Baptist evangelical theology has gotten us,
it is in need of a few nightmares!
and, I hope and pray, you always hear my deep and profound
respect and appreciation for a tradition
that has transmitted a conversation to this point,
and a tradition that, at its best,
does not determine where that conversation will lead tomorrow.

I am actually so hopeful, most of the time,
about where a conversation set free to follow the Spirit
will take us.

And I hope and pray that in whatever no’s you hear here—
no’s to familiar Scripture interpretation—
no’s to traditional theology—
no’s to beloved hymn lyrics—
in whatever anger and frustration you hear in those no’s,
you always hear the excitement and joy and potential
of a much bigger yes!

While they were talking about this—
that’s how our text starts.
It’s another one of those stories that starts before we get started with it.
While they were talking about this—
this being what?
Well, we join our story this morning, right after the story
of the Emmaus road encounter, the dinner in Emmaus, the Bible study—
right after the two disciple’s after-dinner heartburn—
right after those two disciples hustled back to Jerusalem
to tell the disciples about their experience—
where they were told that Peter had experienced the same thing.
While they were talking about this—
and maybe not so much about what had happened,
as can you believe we’re saying this?
I can’t believe it.
It’s incredible (as in unbelievable).
And there was shock and disbelief—
and a wild fragile hope—an incredulous joy.

While all this was going on, Jesus himself stood among them.
So while they were talking about something
some of them had experienced,
they all then experienced it!
Their words, in other words, were made flesh
in God’s word made flesh!

And not unrecognized (as in the previous story)—
recognized as Jesus from the get-go,
Jesus the crucified one, the dead and buried one,
standing among them.
And standing among them,
Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.”

It was a standard thing to say upon entering a house—
still is in many Middle Eastern cultures.
But it’s also roughly equivalent to “Don’t be afraid!”
For they were startled and terrified—
which when you read in order,
makes you wonder, “How’s that for obedience?”
He said, “Peace be with you,”
and they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

They did believe “in the life of the spirit after the death of the body.
At least the Pharisees and the common people did …”
(Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke
[Waco: Word, 1972] 331),
but not as part of the material world.
So, they recognized Jesus,
but did not assume him to be as they had known him—
as they had experienced him—
did not assume him to be like the one they had seen and heard and touched—
with whom they had walked and eaten.

So the peace Jesus commands comes amidst fear,
not instead of it.
And he said to them, “Why are you frightened,
and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”
Which is to say, if you’re keeping track, the disciples are cumulatively described
as startled, terrified, frightened and doubting in their hearts!

And which is also to say, think about this,
that seeing is not believing, right?
“Here I am standing in front of you, and what I’m saying is:
Why are you frightened and why are you doubting?”
Because seeing is not believing.

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.
Literally “that I myself am myself” (Summers, 332).
Reminiscent of God’s naming of self (Exodus 3:14),
“See that I myself am myself”—
except, wait a minute, seeing isn’t believing!

“Touch me and see; for a ghost
does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
Okay. It’s an escalation. Touch and see.
Let’s address these spirit—apparition—ghost concerns.
And when he had said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet—
presumably his scars—
the marks of his suffering—
the consequences of his life.
That’s the second reference to his hands and feet, by the way.
They’re important.
You’re known by your scars—
what you’ve paid for your priorities and values.

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering …
so they saw him;
they touched him;
they recognized him,
and were still disbelieving and wondering!
I love that!
I think Scripture says here it’s okay not to believe,
as long as you keep wondering—
as long as you don’t convince yourself you absolutely know—or don’t.

He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”—
which constitutes further escalation of assurance.
Everyone in the Jewish culture knew that spirits didn’t eat.
So they gave him a piece of broiled fish,
and he took it and ate in their presence—
which suggests they were eating.
Why else would they have had broiled fish available?

Then he said to them, “These are my words
that I spoke to you while I was still with you—
that everything written about me in the law of Moses,
the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”—
all three parts of Scripture—the law, the prophets and the writings.
It’s just like he did in Emmaus,
where, beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them the things about himself
in all the scriptures (Luke 24:27).

It is obviously very important to Luke
to contextualize Jesus within Scripture,
and we have to be careful here.
You can look for the truth of God consistent before, in, and after Jesus.
And that’s great.
But you can also go looking for the details of Jesus
in the writings of long before Jesus in a way
that’s dismissive of the older texts—
as if they can only be understood in light of Jesus—
which makes what of Judaism? Jesus’ own faith tradition!
I celebrate the consistency of Scripture—
who God is and what God does are consistent.

Do I consider Jesus unique?
No. Actually not.
Because Jesus is consistent with God
who has been and is known through all history.

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
So according to this, Scripture is not obvious—self-evident.
He’s been teaching them for what? three years?
and now he showed them a different way to understand Scripture
than the way they’d been taught?
Some suggest the resurrection changes everything.
Some mean by that that everything points to
and emanates from the resurrection.
Everything points to and emanates from God,
and as Christians, the crucifixion and the resurrection
provide some of our clearest insight into who God is
and inform the way we understand God and Scripture
in the consistency of steadfast love through all time
(see this refrain in Psalms 36, 118, and, especially,136).

And he said to them, “Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day—”
which again, makes the story God’s word made flesh!
God’s word made flesh is consistent with God’s word,
not different—not unique.
“Thus it is written,
that the Messiah is to suffer
and to rise from the dead on the third day,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed
in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

Resurrection happens. More than that it happens,
it is experienced. You are witnesses of these things.
But it’s repentance and forgiveness that should be proclaimed.
To preach resurrection is to preach
what’s supposed to undergird preaching—
not what’s supposed to be the focus of preaching!
Especially when you consider that resurrection,
the way it’s too often preached (maybe especially in our tradition)
has the effect of short-circuiting
the transformed living required by repentance.
Right? We’re supposed to preach repentance (according to Luke).
Get your life back on track—back in line with God’s way.
We preach resurrection, which too often means,
don’t worry about getting your life on track. Jesus paid it all.

Along lines we’ve mentioned before,
Jesus never preached resurrection.
I’m not saying he didn’t indicate his awareness
of exactly where his living would take him,
but his teaching was about living in a different way—God’s way.

“April fools you—Easter fools you into thinking
it’s a story about what did happen
instead of about what is happening
a story you’re supposed to believe is true
instead of one you know to be—
a story about what happened to Jesus
instead of the stories that are happening to you.
April fools you—Easter fools you into thinking Jesus does it all—
into thinking that emphasizing grace takes away responsibility.
But at a deeper level, do you have yet eyes to see?
April fools—Easter fools fear. Easter fools those who promote fear—
those who live afraid that their story is not real
and true and important enough.

On rare occasions, I’ll quote a writer more extensively
than just by a sentence or a paragraph.
That’s usually because they’ve written something I wish I had—
something true and insightful and beautiful and relevant—
something I think you should hear
better than I can say it—or different than I would.
Brian Doyle was a catholic, a writer, editor of Portland Magazine.
He died last year of a brain tumor.
Susie was reading his posthumously published book
Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace
and asked me to read one chapter called “Is That Your Real Nose?”
I did. Then I ordered the book. Here’s that chapter:

Best questions I have been asked? As a writer? …
The best ever: Is that your real nose? Asked of me by a moppet in kindergarten ….
I said yes, it was my real nose, why did she ask? And she said Because it’s really big, and there’s a bend or a hump or something in it, and I explained that the Coherent Mercy had granted me many brothers in this wild and lovely life, which explained what happened to my nose.
Next best: Why in all of your work is there no mention whatsoever of the radical lesbian community in Australia? Asked of me by a woman in Australia, who was sitting in the front row and glaring at me with a ferocious and inarguable glare. For an instant I thought of making some snide comic retort, like well, there are no sunbeams or hockey players in my work either, but then I snapped awake and felt a hint of her pain, and a shred, perhaps, of the bruised life she had lived, being sneered at by society because of the gender of the people she loved. Who cares about the gender of the people you love? Isn’t loving and being loved the point? Isn’t that what we talk about when we talk about religion and community? I didn’t answer her question. I felt helpless and sad and there wasn’t anything to say so I didn’t say anything and then someone asked me about my hilarious headlong serpentine riverine sinuous sprinting prose style, and the conversation went in a different direction. I still think about that woman, though, and hope she found some sort of peace in her life. Rage burns you out.
Next best: asked of me recently by a high-school girl so far in the back of the dark auditorium that I could not see her but only heard her voice emerging from the dark like a sudden nighthawk: How do you retain your dignity when you know and we know that most of the kids in this auditorium are not paying any attention to what you are saying at all? This one I hit out of the park. This one I was ready for. This one I have been waiting to be asked for years. First of all, I said, I have three children, and they are teenagers, so I am very familiar and comfortable with not being listened to.
Second, I was a teenager once, and believe me I was more sneery and rude and dismissive and snotty than any ten of you collectively, so I know how you feel. Third, and not to be rude, but I don’t care if you have the guts to drop your masks and listen to what I have to say. You want to hide behind the wall of ostensible cool, be my guest. You want to live in the world of pretend where you perform some role all day rather than try to dig other people’s joy and pain and courage, swell. Best of luck.
Not me. It took me the longest damned time to come out from behind my masks, it took me deep into my twenties, and if you want to be as stupid as me, swell. It’s your life you are wasting. Too bad. Me, personally, I think you might find one or two tiny things to think about, listening to old bumbling shaggy me up on this stage. You might be moved a little, or at least giggle, or hear something you open up shyly later and ponder for yourself. Maybe not. I make no promises. I am just an aging idiot addicted to stories, because stories matter, my friend, and if you do not catch and share stories that matter, you will have nothing but lies and sales pitches in your life, and shame on you if that’s the case. But it’s your life. One thing I have learned as a dad and a husband is that no one listens to me, and they ought not to, either. You ought to listen to your own true self. I can maybe help you tiptoe a little closer to that self by sharing stories that matter, but if you are too cool to play today, swell. Me, personally, I can tell you that either you eventually take those masks off or they will damn well be kicked off by life, but I suspect that’s a lesson you have to learn for yourself. Me, I suggest that the sooner you wake up and get it that there actually is a wild grace and defiant courage in people, and there actually are stories that save and change lives, and that there is a lot more going on here than we can ever find words for, and that love and attentiveness and creativity are real and wild and immanent, the cooler and wilder a life you will enjoy while you have such a priceless and inexplicable thing as a life, which goes by awfully fast, my friend. Believe me, I know. Does that answer your question at all?
Yes, sir, she said. Yes, sir, it surely does.
(Brian Doyle, Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace [Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2017] 14-16).

We are so overly invested in answers—
in having answers—in being right
(almost as much as we are in them being wrong!),
that we miss out on just being.

Another favorite author of mine is the German poet and writer and thinker,
Rainer Maria Rilke, in his book Letters to a Young Poet, wrote this:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books
that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
live along some distant day into the answer.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
[New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1934] 27).

We were talking the other Wednesday night.
What’s true for me, looking back on my faith conversations—
with y’all, some colleagues, myself:
it’s not a development into answers,
but a progression of questions.

So keep wondering, my friends.
We’re not here with answers for you.
We’re here to keep asking questions with you—
through each new set of circumstances—
in the midst of all that changes—
in truth, to foster the holy uncertainties!
Because it’s not just that wondering doesn’t have answers,
it’s also that answers undermine wonder.

So amidst it all, not instead of any of it,
peace be with you in the wondering.
Peace be with you in the complications.
Peace be with you in the struggling; peace be with you in the doubts.
Peace be with you in the anger and frustration and stress.
Peace be with you in the grief; peace be with you in the fear.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
Yes, you might say, but how? That all sounds great. But how?

So I want to put this another way.
According to Scripture, in the context of a meal together—
in the context of a consideration of scripture—
in the context of remembering Jesus,
Jesus was present.
Right? They ate together in Emmaus—
in fact, Jesus was recognized in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:30-31).
They ate together in Jerusalem.
In both cases though, they were not just eating,
but also thinking through Scripture in light of Jesus.
And maybe we think back to the Passover meal—
their last supper with Jesus, at which, in this gospel,
Jesus said, “Whenever you do this, remember me” (Luke 22:19)—
not just recall me, but re-member me—put me back together.

Frankly, honestly … and now, in the moment,
I find, somewhat more timidly than I was anticipating,
I confess to you that I am an agnostic
when it comes to the physical resurrection.
That doesn’t mean I say it didn’t happen.
That means I say I don’t know what happened.
I do know, beyond any shadow of doubt, something happened—
something profound and vital and mysterious and wonderful—
something not only transformative, but transforming.

Am I contradicting traditional Scripture interpretation and theology?
But nothing I’ve said is a no.
All I’ve said is yes, and I don’t know—I wonder—
which we’ve seen is scriptural!
And I’ll gladly add that I have experienced this truth—
I know this to be true:
in our gathering, in our communion, in our Bible study, in our service,
there is the reality and the truth of the presence of Jesus amongst us,
and we are sustained in our faith, our fellowship
and our call to transform creation.

Have I experienced the truth of a physical presence?
Well, among those invited in from the margins—
in the voice of the other.
Jesus said he was present to us—physically present to us
in the least of these.
But that’s not what you meant, is it?
Doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I wonder.

I don’t think an Easter faith is supposed to be about
any willing suspension of disbelief,
nor about some propositional affirmation.
It’s rather to be about celebration and witness:
this I know to be true!

When the presence of Jesus is with you—
in your service and community and communion,
you don’t need to worry about justifying a propositional belief.
You know what you know, don’t you?
In light of what we said Easter Sunday morning,
let’s maintain this season as not about trying
to explain, defend, or justify what’s hard to believe,
but as about celebrating what we know to be true.
And my friends, I have no doubts about resurrection truth.
that the living that led to what it led to
would be made incarnate again and again—by choice
that people, having seen what happened,
would choose this life—choose this way,
that’s enough for me.
And I experience that truth and celebrate it in, with, and through you—
Jesus in, with, and through you—indubitably. It’s incredible!
Can you believe I’m saying this?
Grace and kindness and joy and service—
we are the hands and feet of Jesus,
and Jesus is made physically present to our world
in and through us—or not—
living a story that matters—
full of that wild grace and defiant courage
that saves and changes lives—
that transforms reality
with love and attentiveness and creativity—
an untamed yet fragile hope—an incredulous joy—
real and wild and immanent—
so much more going on than we can ever find words for
because we risk being real—
we risk being honest—vulnerable.
We risk living a story we have found
to be more true than any other story we know.
Thanks be to God! Jesus lives!