“immersed in what’s real,” august 28, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
We are all immersed
in what we take for granted
and so don’t see.
Entering the water,
following in the way of Jesus,
we are immersed
in what’s most real—
immersed in truth.
And so, we are those, dripping,
who strive to see what we take for granted—
in the greater context of grace and love
so abundant it steals our breath away,
and we die to illusions of small and separate—
the fatal misperception of a part as apart.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

1 Corinthians 12:1-31
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,
I do not want you to be uninformed.
You know that when you were pagans,
you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.
Therefore I want you to understand that no one
speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’
and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
and there are varieties of activities,
but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
to another faith by the same Spirit,
to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy,
to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues,
to another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are activated by one and the same Spirit,
who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members,
and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,
so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized
into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—
and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand,
I do not belong to the body’,
that would not make it any less a part of the body.
And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye,
I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it
any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye,
where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing,
where would the sense of smell be? But as it is,
God arranged the members in the body, each one of them,
as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?
As it is, there are many members, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’,
nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’
On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker
are indispensable, and those members of the body
that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor,
and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;
whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body,
giving the greater honor to the inferior member,
that there may be no dissension within the body,
but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
And God has appointed in the church first apostles,
second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power,
then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership,
various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets?
Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing?
Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

There are these two young fish swimming along
and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way,
who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit,
and then eventually one of them looks over at the other
and goes “What the [heck] is water?”
Of course … the really significant education in thinking
that we’re supposed to get … isn’t really about the capacity to think,
but rather about the choice of what to think about….

The point here is that I think this is one part
of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean.
To be just a little less arrogant.
To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties….
Here is just one example of the total wrongness
of something I tend to be automatically sure of:
everything in my own immediate experience
supports my deep belief
that I am the absolute center of the universe;
the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.
We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness
because it’s so socially repulsive.
But it’s pretty much the same for all of us.
It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.
Think about it: there is no experience you have had
that you are not the absolute center of….

It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work
of somehow altering or getting free of
my natural, hard-wired default setting
which is to be deeply and literally self-centered
and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
People who can adjust their natural default setting this way
are often described as being “well-adjusted”,
which I suggest to you is not an accidental term….

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Right now, many of us are immersed in school beginning?
new schools?
new grading procedures?
new weather related closing policies?
new teachers and classes and relationships?
signing up for this and that?
paying for this and that?
lesson plans?
submission deadlines?

We are immersed in newness—
even if for many of us it’s within a familiar framework.

Right now, we’re immersed in, can’t help it, politics—
the build-up to the elections—
all the implications of campaign rhetoric and tactics
and divisive partisanship
(and there is something, by the way, true and right about that.
Ours is no privatized spiritual salvation.
Ours is a being redeemed within the redemption of all creation.
It doesn’t get any more political than that).

And we’re always, doesn’t it seem?,
immersed in schedule—
in routine—
our responsibilities—
our commitments—
our pleasures—
fulfilling obligations.

And in all the details—
forms to fill out—
to get filled out—

We’re drowning in stuff—
drowning in debt—
drowning in desire for more stuff—
other stuff—better stuff—newer stuff.

Drowning in media—
in commercials and advertisements—
objectionable objectifications and justifications—
social media—
in the never-ending cycle of posting and wanting to be liked.

Immersed in negativity.

We’re immersed in what’s immediate—
the cough—
the pain in the hip—
the surgery—
the diagnosis—
the waiting—
the treatment.

Immersed in meal planning—
grocery shopping—
food preparation—
bill paying—
as David Foster Wallace called it
the day to day trenches of adult existence”.

Immersed in fears.
Immersed in hopes.
Immersed in memories—
in possibilities and in anticipation—
in what just happened—
in what’s going on right now—
in what’s next.

Immersed in stress—
that for too many turns into anxiety.

From a wider angle—
seeing more than just the self,
we’re immersed in relationships
with colleagues and peers—
working together—
with friends—
working to stay in touch—
to remain relevant.

We’re immersed in family—
trying to do it well—
to be honest—
to love well and laugh hard—
and forgive always—
to surprise—
to enjoy—
to engage—
to include—
to bless—
to love—
trying to do it right—
trying to do it better.

We have to be so intentional, don’t we?
Have to take initiative—keep taking initiative—
working to keep things real.

We are immersed in child care—elder care—
the books and toys and language of children—
the challenges of getting old
(which y’all regularly remind me isn’t for sissies!)—
the amazing gifts and the profound challenges
the elderly can represent for families.
We’re immersed in figuring out solo parenting—
solo adulting—
not having planned on that.

We’re immersed in crises—
one crisis after another.
In Louisiana they’ve been immersed in water—
in Aleppo in dust and blood—
in Italy and Myanmar, in tremors and aftershocks—
rioting in Zimbabwe—
violence in Turkey and Syria—
There are so many shootings in our own country we don’t keep track of them—
so many hungry we can’t imagine.
We’re immersed in a systemic racism that still catches us by surprise.
We’re immersed in unjust economic and legal structures.
We’re really a great country with a whole lot that’s pathetic about us,
and to ignore either part of that is to cheapen what’s most real.

We’re immersed in a numbing response to crisis—
overwhelmed by so much need
we can’t pay attention to it all.

We’re immersed, I think, in good intentions—
the best of intentions.

We are, hopefully, immersed in communities—

Depending on what you’re plugged into here,
we’re immersed in worship planning—
immersed in scheduling—
in service ministry—
building and grounds—maintenance—
heating and air—
the baptistry foundation—
the website—
conversation about the role and the future of the Church in our culture—

We’re immersed in so much,
it often feels like we’re drowning.
And immersed in what’s real—
drowning in what’s real—
honestly, right?
To be immersed in what’s real
is to not deny
any of the truths that flood our time.

And a lot of that in which we’re immersed is good, right?
But good can take up too much time and energy too!

I remember on several occasions now through the years
hearing Cheryl Duvall advocate for balance in life—
naming the different and important aspects of life
that all need to be acknowledged—
for which we need to find time.

But beyond any such balance
(which is not juggling
too many people these days mistake juggling for balance!),

one of the challenges these days—
maybe it’s always been a challenge,
is how many try and achieve balance
not by assessing where all the time goes,
“Oh, look how much time is going there into that,”
and then by dialing back there and that,
but by amping up everywhere else.

So, if I may ask
what, in your life—
in your drenched, saturated, overwhelmed life
is creative?
life giving?
people enhancing?
spirit refreshing?
joy bringing?

That’s part of the balancing, yes?
Paul wrote long ago to the faith community at Philippi,
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”
(Philippians 4:8).
Here’s my question for you this morning:
is that about balance?
Could be—think on these good things as a balance
to everything else coming your way.

But maybe Paul was about more than balance.
He goes on,
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you”
(Philippians 4:9).

What if Paul’s really saying something like
“Live into this story
to know the truth—
the truth that is not about balance,
but about foundation”?

Because foundation is not every moment.
What’s foundational is not all your moments—all your experience,
foundation is rather comprised of the moments you choose to value—
the affirmations you choose to make.
We build our lives
on the foundation to which we give our lives.

It’s not that the rest isn’t real—
not that it’s not important—
that it won’t take of your time and energy,
but it’s not as real—
not as true.

Immersed in moments,
and amidst the many moments are the transcendent moments—
that make time stop—
that make the planets stop spinning—
that take our breath away—
little things—
a smile with two teeth gone—the first two lost teeth, right Vera?
Katie Evans celebrated this week
a thank you from someone she helped at work.
It’s when you discover just how much the prayers of others mean

Jay Hogewood is the pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, LA.
They’ve been offering shelter and food to those displaced by the flooding.
Jay writes of a boy named Wendell, no more than 17 years old,
who walked miles in the Baton Rouge heat
down a street with no sidewalk from a questionable part of town
to hand off some pants and shirts,
and to respond to the how-could-it-be-anything-but-suspicious look
with a “They’re clean.”
He had a teddy bear (“I want one of the children to have this.”)
and two one dollar bills he gave to Jay
because as he said, 
“I think you’re showing the love of Jesus”.
We did, by the way, collect almost $700 last Sunday
to go to St John’s United Methodist Church to reimburse them for their expenses—
to allow them to keep showing the love of Jesus,
and you can still contribute toward that, if you wish.

It’s the dog lying down on one foot
as you lean back in your chair and put the other foot on top of her.
It’s two girls amidst the bickering and shrieking
and the difficult trying to figure out
how much too much time on the cell phone is
(we are, by the way, trying to implement a screen sabbath—
for the whole family, no screens on Sundays.
Because if you have to keep checking it,
it’s not the tool, right? You are!
Parenting from the pulpit).
but amidst the stress and frustration of parenting,
to have two girls standing in the front door
making that heart sign with their hands
as you leave for the grocery store.
It’s a baptism—
a commitment.
It is worship and story and song and prayer.
And “it is unimaginably hard to do this,
to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out”.

I usually show up here on Sunday mornings
with my computer and portfolio.
Today I walked in with my swim trunks in my gym bag.
It felt appropriate.
Going to work out.
It is unimaginably hard,
but it really is just about choosing, time and time again,
what moments are going to matter and why—
choosing amidst all that’s real, what story is true—
what truths are foundational.
As we say so often, it’s so simple.
Not easy.
But simple.

Consistency is the challenge.
We are immersed in so much that’s real,
will we consistently choose what’s true?

Hear this.
Remember it.
We are immersed in love
(remind yourselves of this often—
even if you don’t think you need to—
maybe especially if you think you don’t need to!)
We are immersed in blessing.
We are immersed in grace.
We are immersed in joy—
in gratitude—
in wonder.
We are immersed in God.

And that’s not about balance.
That’s about the truth we may take for granted—
the foundation on which we seek to create balance.

And church—faith—
is about helping us balance, yes—
modeling better balance for ourselves and our culture—
but also about affirming what’s more important than balance—
what’s foundation.

And we get to drown in that—
to be raised to newness of life—
life that is abundant—
life that is everlasting.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education,
of learning how to be well-adjusted.
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true:
in the day-to day trenches of adult life,
there is actually no such thing as atheism.
There is no such thing as not worshipping.
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….
If you worship money and things,
if they are where you tap real meaning in life,
then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure
and you will always feel ugly….
The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid,
and you will need ever more power over others
to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect,
being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud,
always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship
is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.
They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into,
day after day, getting more and more selective
about what you see and how you measure value
without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you
from operating on your default settings,
because the so-called real world of men and money and power
hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration
and craving and worship of self.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces
in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth
and comfort and personal freedom….

… You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish.
But please don’t just dismiss it ….
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education,
which has almost nothing to do with knowledge,
and everything to do with simple awareness;
awareness of what is so real and essential,
so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time,
that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.” “This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this,
to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true:
your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body
so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.


the unfolding stories of the 194th olympiad: “Jesus over the city,” august 21, 2016

christ redeemer

Responsive Call to Worship
There is something profoundly appealing
about a powerful Jesus
impressively towering over the world—
but also, of course,
utterly irrelevant.
When God came
it was as a baby
who grew up in the middle of nowhere
to tell stories and love people—
not to impress them—
not to overpower them.
One assumes that way of coming
was deliberate—
To put Jesus in control
is to do what God did not—
what God chose not to do.
We should thus beware, no?—
be aware of what it means
to raise up
the one who came down to us,
for it very well might mean
we crucify Jesus again.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
— part of St Patrick’s Breastplate

Christ over culture
is one of five perspectives
outlined by H. Richard Niebuhr
reflecting on the relationship of God and culture.
The others are: Christ against culture, Christ of culture,
Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture.

Most Christians salute the sovereignty of God
but believe in the sovereignty of [humankind].
— R.C.Sproul

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Colossians 1:9-20
For this reason, since the day we heard it,
we have not ceased praying for you and asking
that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord,
fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work
and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
May you be made strong with all the strength
that comes from his glorious power,
and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,
while joyfully giving thanks to the Father,
who has enabled you to share
in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness
and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Witness of the Living Word, i.
Congregational Interview:
Take a moment to reflect on this question
and to offer your answer if you have one:
What has been your most impressive experience of Jesus?

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
You’ve seen it a lot—
nightly if you’ve tuned in
over the last few weeks.
Dominating the Rio de Janeiro skyline,
overlooking the city from the peak of 2300 foot Corcovado Mountain,
is the Christ the Redeemer statue,
rising 98 feet
on a 26 foot pedestal,
weighing 635 tons,
with an arm span of 92 feet.

Originally conceived in the 1850s,
but nothing came of that idea
which was then suggested again in 1920
by the so-called Catholic Circle of Rio—
motivated by what they saw as the godlessness of society.
Donations came from predominantly Brazilian Catholics.

Local engineer, Heitor da Silva Costa was commissioned
to design a statue in conjunction
with French sculptor Paul Landowski.
The face of Jesus was created
by Romanian sculptor Gheorghe Leonida,
known in France as a portraitist.
French engineer Albert Caquot was responsible
for the internal structure
of reinforced concrete.
Paul Landowski worked with soapstone on the outside layers
and the whole thing was built
in the nine years between 1922 and 1931.

It was actually still being designed
while it was being built.
Heitor da Silva Costa is supposed to have said
that the workers were headed toward “inevitable artistic failure”.
But with no way to go back,
they kept moving on,
and today we have this
famous iconic image—
rising above—
putting society and culture into perspective—
an appropriate perspective.

It’s our story—
our faith affirmation—
elevated above—
powerfully present—
impossible to miss.

And let me be clear.
I love the image of Christ the Redeemer over the city.
I love all those images we looked at—
images of Jesus rising high above the trees
and other surroundings—
rising from the depths.

I’m also deeply suspicious of the implications of such images—
of some associations with such images.
For what so many seem to want
is to make laws that raise up our faith—
or a particular understanding of our faith, right?—
make laws that protect God—whatever that means—
laws that require of others—
and then enforce—
that impose on others.

And it’s not that it’s not in Scripture, right?—
the glorification of Jesus.
Take the Philippian hymn:

though in the form of God,
Jesus did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
humbled himself
became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
(Philippians 2:6-11).

And such obviously impressive power
is shot through all our texts today.

Jesus’ is the glorious power
that rescues us from the power of darkness.
He’s the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
Before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
The one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell—
reflection of God’s glory—
the exact imprint of God’s very being,
to sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

And how do you represent that
other than big? Impressive? Overpowering?

And so yes, we have this iconic image
of a huge, impressive, overpowering Jesus
looking down on the city.

Yet is not this iconic image ironic?
Or, in truth, not ironic—
more sarcastic?

And sarcastic on several levels

First, God is not interested in statues—
or in statutes,
carved in stone,
but rather on hearts.
That’s in the Old Testament—in Jeremiah 31:33.
It’s in the New Testament—2 Corinthians 3:3.
We’re not to invest in something externally impressive,
but something internally transformative.

Second, what happens when you look up?
You don’t look down.
And that is antithetical to our God.

A little digression here—a relevant digression (I hope!).
Y’all know Paul is the earliest writer of our New Testament texts
writing just some 20-25 years after the death of Jesus.
Mark’s almost 40 years after that death.
Matthew and Luke 50.
John 60 plus.

Here’s what’s interesting.
For Paul, arguably, Jesus is named Son of God at the resurrection
when God adopts Jesus—declared to be Son of God
with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection
from the dead (Romans 1:4).

Mark, writing a little later, identifies the beginning
of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God
as those days when Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”
(Mark 1:1, 9-11).
So not the resurrection, the baptism.

Matthew and Luke, writing still later,
identify Jesus as Son of God at birth—
or, really, at conception—at the annunciation—
God with us.

Matthew’s angel tells Joseph, son of David,
“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus,
for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken
by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel”,
which means, “God is with us”
(Matthew 1:20-23).

Luke’s angel has similar words for Mary,
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” …
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you will name him Jesus. He will be great,
and will be called the Son of the Most High ….
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God”
(Luke 1:28-23).

Finally, John, writing latest,
claims Jesus is indistinguishable from God from the very beginning:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being
(John 1:1-3).

The more removed we get from the man,
the more removed we get from the man!
The more removed from Jesus in time,
the more removed from Jesus’ humanity.

Some say it’s the early Church—
needing to validate their faith claims.

And I get it.
How do you affirm God,
but by looking up?

But we tend to think of God
as top of the food chain—
you know if God were into that chain.
The alpha being,
but also, of course, the omega.
And that’s the thing:
we put God, by definition, at the top
of a scale God doesn’t value.

We evaluate;
God just relates—
and loves—
and is present to and with regardless of our evaluations.

And the theology
is that God is great
because God is not.

If God were simply God by definition—
you know, supreme being—
source of all being—all authority—
worshipped as having power over,
well, God wouldn’t be God.
Not the God we know and proclaim.

Makes my head spin a little bit,
but I like it!
You know, like some people like the rides at the fair
that you get off with your head spinning, stomach tossing;
others don’t.
All good.

God is not God by definition,
but by relation.

To be like God
the glory of God—the power and authority of God—
to sit at the right hand of God
is to be with people—to be with creation.

Part of the trick
is imagining the total inversion of reality it would take
for someone to be exalted
for being like Jesus!

But the core truth of our faith
is not I look to the hills (Psalm 121)—
to that impressive statue on the hill,
but I look to my neighbors.
Our faith is not something that makes you look up,
but precisely down and out.

Third, and cumulatively,
the statue is a kind of de-incarnation.
God became human,
and the kind of human God became
is not one that would tower over others—
look down on them.

Through all that glorious power of Jesus,
God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
yet not from above—
not imposed upon
but from being with—presence—relationship
not looking down, but getting down
(how’s that for repurposing disco lingo?!)!

There’s no way to take away
the undeniable power of the image.
But the story that goes with the image
is undermined when you look more closely at the city below:
the favelas—the slums—
the hunger—the injustice.
And I’m not picking on Rio.
Put Jesus impressively over any city—
put the ten commandments on the lawn of any city hall,
and however impressive they are,
the city will undermine the story.

Another poem by my new favorite Polish poet Anna Kamieńska
this one’s called “Small Things”

It usually starts taking shape
from one word
reveals itself in one smile
sometimes in the blue glint of eyeglasses
in a trampled daisy
in a splash of light on a path
in quivering carrot leaves
in a bunch of parsley
It comes from laundry hung on a balcony
from hands thrust into dough
It seeps through closed eyelids
as through the prison wall of things of objects
of faces of landscapes
It’s when you slice bread
when you pour out some tea
It comes from a broom from a shopping bag
from peeling new potatoes
from a drop of blood from the prick of a needle
when making panties for a child
or sewing a button on a husband’s burial shirt
It comes out of toil out of care
out of immense fatigue in the evening
out of a tear wiped away
out of a prayer broken off in mid-word by sleep

It’s not from the grand
but from every tiny thing
that it grows enormous
as is Someone was building Eternity
as a swallow its nest
out of clumps of moments
(Anna Kamienska, Astonishments
[Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011] 45)

That’s it!
Eternity is clumps of moments
woven together into a nest.

But particular kinds of moments.
Remember when I asked you to consider your most impressive
experiences of Jesus?
They were almost all service and worship oriented.
Greg reminded us all in the time with the children,
that there’s something about honest vulnerability—
about what I call failing forward.
As we draw to the end of the Olympics, I’ve enjoyed them—
enjoyed the amazing displays of athleticism.
But the stories I treasure most are not about that.

But rather about Maya DiRado, one of our swimmers
who won a gold, a silver and a bronze over these weeks
and said, “I don’t think God really cares about my swimming very much.
This is not my end purpose, to make the Olympic team.
My God is powerful and in control,
but I don’t think [God] cares whether I win.
It’s interesting theology you can get into when it’s a God of victory in your sport.”
My God, not only is she a theologian, she’s a good one!

She went on to say, “I think God cares about my soul”—

and I think it’s rather telling that that’s what Franklin Graham tweeted
“God loves you—He cares about your eternal soul.
That’s even bigger news than the Olympics.
Share it with others today.”

And too much of the church these days gets it wrong
in that emphasis on the eternal soul
while it was just the introduction to what Maya went on to say:
“God cares about my soul
and whether I’m bringing … love and mercy into the world.
Can I be a loving, supportive teammate,
and can I bless others around me
in the same way God has been so generous with me?”

In one of the heats for the women’s 5000 meter race,
New Zealander Nikki Hamblin fell
bringing down US runner Abbey D’Agostino,
who got up and instead of angrily racing on,
lifted Hamblin up, encouraged her to finish the heat.
And then, when it turned out D’agostina
had herself torn her ACL and meniscus,
Hamblin didn’t run on ahead,
but stayed with her, encouraged her in turn.
“You can make friends,” Hamblin said,
“in the moments that really should break your heart”

Any of y’all hear about the Norwegian men’s handball team?
Well, I’m not surprised.
They didn’t even qualify for the Olympics.
Why not?
Because in qualifying play against Germany,
with the game was tied, in the last moments,
Germany scored.
But wait! They had an extra person on the field.
Norway could protest and have the goal disallowed—
continue playing.
But the Norwegian conversation was rather
about how that extra person on the field had nothing to do with the goal.
They didn’t protest.
The goal counted.
Germany went on to the Olympics; Norway did not

There is a world—a creation
still being designed while being built—
followers of God moving toward
what so often seems like inevitable theological and ethical failure,

but in clusters of transcendent moments—
often ones you might think would break your heart—
usually not in victory—
y’all understand how absolutely counter-cultural this is?—
yet somehow ringing so profoundly true even amidst the Olympics!—

and if we keep moving on—
maybe what we end up with
is not some impressive statue—
not even a transformed reality,
but a being transformed reality.

We can be a part of a being transformed reality
by choosing the God story
into transcendent moments of which Eternity weaves its home.


Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Hebrews 1:1-4
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors
in many and various ways by the prophets,
but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,
whom he appointed heir of all things,
through whom he also created the worlds.
He is the reflection of God’s glory
and the exact imprint of God’s very being,
and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
When he had made purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
having become as much superior to angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

the unfolding stories of the 194th olympiad: “the losers who win,” august 14, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
It’s part of our faith heritage—
It is God’s assurance—
God’s promise.
There is some divine investment
in a cosmic balance,
and it’s predisposed towards
those who have gotten the short end of some stick.
They will receive, our faith and our God claim,
the long end of said stick—
which is not the corresponding expression,
but makes the point, right? … which is the point!—
that it’s not whatever end of the stick we have
that determines—that predetermines our life.
Life is more far mysterious than that—
far more terrible and wonderful than that,
and so much of what we take for granted
as real and fixed and absolute
is merely what appears to be.

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God …
the God whose very name is holy,
set apart from all others.
God’s mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who in awe before God.
God bared a mighty arm and showed strength,
scattering the bluffing braggarts.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet,
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
Luke 1:46-47, 49b-53

Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things
and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here.
Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented.
Luke 16:25

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.
You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning….
But it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
What you have is all you’re ever get.
And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself.
Your self will not satisfy you for long.
And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games.
There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it.
Luke 6:20-21, 24-25

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them,
‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’
So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock,
he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager,
‘Call the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and then going to the first.’
When those hired about five o’clock came,
each of them received the usual daily wage.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more;
but each of them also received the usual daily wage.
And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal
to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong;
did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what belongs to you and go;
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Derek Redmond, Barcelona, 1992

Pastoral Prayer
Another week, our God, more shootings.
More killing.
An imam and his assistant both shot in the head in Queens.
A man shot and killed in a police chase in Milwaukee.
Violence in Milwaukee in response.
A police officer shot and killed in Georgia.
Another officer stabbed in New York City.
An Ohio man arrested for killing a police officer in New Mexico.
Our own police department investigated
indicted for profiling—for excessive violence.

Yes, It’s a scary world in which we live,
but there are attitudes and choices—
ways of talking and acting—ways of being,
that make it scarier—
that amplify the fear and the hate—
amplify the anger and the violence.

May we be those who amplify
justice and peace,
grace and love,
amidst what’s scary—
creating a better world—
actively intentionally resisting what’s worst about us.

May we be sustained in this
in and through our worship and prayer and community,

always in the name of Jesus,

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
It’s one of the tenets of our faith
wouldn’t you say?
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We toss it out relatively easily—relatively often.
I do—
and usually without thinking too much about it.
Just kind of generally—abstractly
thinking of reversal—inversion—
that verse I love from Acts
about being a part of turning the world upside down.

Point being, of course, were that to all happen—
reversal—inversion—oopsy daisy,
there are few, if any of us, without a lot to lose.

There are few categories in the world
in which all of us would not now already number among the first.
We have the long end of the stick and are due,
according to some of our scriptural affirmations, the short end.

So there are, it seems to me, as usual,
different levels of understanding—
or of applying Scripture.
(And the shift from understanding to applying is important—
part of a bigger shift
from our faith as something we believe
to something we live.)

And there is one level at which
Scripture has to do with some sense
of a divine tally being kept—
some cosmic balance
that will be imposed upon reality.

I don’t understand that.
I don’t see it.
I am not comfortable assuring anyone of this.
But it’s pervasive in our sacred texts.
It’s the apparent meaning of our gospel reading—
of other parables—think Lazarus.
“Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things
and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here”
(Luke 16:25).
It’s the Magnificat.
God knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet,
the callous rich were left out in the cold
(Luke 1:53-53).
It’s the beatitudes—especially in Luke
with the blessings and the corresponding woes
(Luke 6:20-26).

All of which is hard for me to hear as anything other than
if things are hard now, wait.
There will come a great reversal.

And I always have to wonder,
how is that not pie in the sky by and by?
How is that not false hope?—
an opiate distributed by those
who benefit from the way things are now—
those who don’t want the applecart upset—
things inversed—reversed—
the world turned upside down?

That’s when it’s so very important to remember—
as usual, that most of those to whom Jesus spoke—
many of those to whom the original writers wrote,
would have been those already with the short end.

So the question remains:
how to hear this—
how to imagine people with the short end of the stick
hearing this,
and not as wait—
not as good news one day,
but as good news now?

Because we’re not talking about philosophical balance,
but about sustaining hope in people struggling to hope—
about working for justice in a world that is not just
(our world is not just)—
about maintaining some sense of worth
in people whose worth is not celebrated in and by the world.

So there’s another level
at which inversal or reversal is not a promise for the future,
but a strategy in the present.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath
names the first part of the book
“The Advantages of Disadvantages
(and the Disadvantages of Advantages)”—
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath
[New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2013] vii).
It’s a fascinating read.
Basically he suggests
there are opportunities in disadvantage—
a potentially helpful different perspective
that someone only has by virtue of the very disadvantage—
a perspective that is suddenly insightful—

It’s not an example he references,
but I invite you to imagine
how much I have lamented through the years
my nearsightedness.
Snowskiing I have one more thing than anyone else to fog up.
Waterskiing I’m always a little apprehensive—especially in back coves
that there’s something in the water I’m not going to see.
Snorkeling, the water actually increases magnification,
but there’s too much out of focus.

Then it occurred to me one day,
what if the first impressionistic painters were nearsighted?
Now I have no idea.
I googled, but sometimes that’s just more confusing!
But I do now occasionally take my glasses off and look at—
mainly trees
with the light coming through the leaves and branches
distinction dissolved into colors,
and they are beautiful.

I’m not sure that’s what we’re talking about though in our Scripture texts.
An opportunistic approach to circumstance?
And I’m even more uncomfortable to think in terms of strategy
(a we are intentionally last so as to be first kind of thing).

And we saw the footage from the 1992 Olympics
of Derek Redmond, a runner from Great Britain,
favored to medal, tearing his hamstring.
We saw him get up.
We saw his desire to just finish the race.
We saw his dad coming down out of the stands to help him.
Derek himself said, when he heard that familiar voice,
the emotions he had been holding in check, overwhelmed him.
We saw that.
His dad said, “You don’t have to do this.”
And he said, “Yes, I do.”
Said his father, “Then we’ll finish together.”
And they kept moving toward the finish line,
waving away the officials who came up to them.
What we didn’t see or hear was the crowd’s response.
It was powerful.

But did that invert/reverse what happened?
Turn it on its head?
Did it make up for not winning gold?
I saw an interview with Derek.
“To be honest, no,” he said.
And as beautiful as trees are,
I would still love not to need corrective lenses.

In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin,
four pole vaulters cleared 13 feet 11¼ inches,
but only one cleared 14 feet 3¼ inches,
and Earle Meadows took the gold.
Bill Sefton, of the US, and Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe of Japan
went to a jump-off.
The two Japanese both cleared 13 feet 7¼ inches, but Sefton did not.
Now there are a couple of different stories as to what happened next.
According to one, Nishida and Oe kept jumping until it got dark at 9 p.m.
But in the end, whether after a day of jumping or not,
the Olympic Committee told the Japanese team
to decide who would take silver and who would take bronze,
and Nishida was awarded the silver medal, Oe the bronze.
Some say it was a coin toss.
Some say it was because Nishida cleared a jump on his first attempt
that took Oe two attempts.
No one was happy. Least of all Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe.
So back in Japan, they took their medals to a jeweler—
one silver medal, one bronze—
and asked the jeweler to cut them in half
and then join bronze to silver and silver to bronze
creating new, heretofore unknown, unseen, unconceived Olympic medals.

And that was more than a different way of seeing things.
It was not opportunistic
It was not strategic
That was a rejection of the categories and labels of our world—
the assessments—
the criteria for winning and losing—
the designations of relative significance.
“The medals became known as the Medals of Eternal Friendship”

On the cover of the bulletin today,
are pictures of people who didn’t win their events.
Fencing. Gymnastics. Track and field. Tennis.
Some just lost.
Some may have been defeated by their loss.
Some transcended their circumstances.
Some may have transcended the very categories of win and loss
in the discovery—the affirmation—the celebration
of something more important.

The surface level of our scripture texts
inverts circumstance.

But for a while now, I’ve wondered how it makes sense
to simply invert circumstance
without changing their value—
the way they’re understood in the world.
Don’t you otherwise just perpetuate their failing—
their blindness or short-sightedness?

If someone is rich now and someone is poor,
to invert their circumstances
is to maintain the inappropriate significance of money, right?

So the question
the more important question, I believe, is—
is not how do I get the other end of this stick,
but how do we stop using this stick to measure our worth—
our esteem—our success?
How do we stop using this stick to beat some down
and raise others up?
The more important question, I believe, is,
what is transformative here in someone’s life?
What creates new possibilities in and for that life?
How and where is something more important named here and now?

A poem by the polish poet Anna Kamienska entitled “Transformation”:

“To be transformed
to turn yourself inside out like a glove
to spin like a planet
to thread yourself through yourself
so that each day penetrates each night
so that each word runs to the others side of truth
so that each verse comes out of itself
and gives off its own light
so that each face leaning on a hand
sweats into the skin of the palm

So that this pen
changes into pure silence
I wanted to say into love

To fall off a horse
to smear your face with dust
to be blinded
to lift yourself
and allow yourself to be led
like blind Saul
to Damascus”
(Anna Kamienska, Astonishments
[Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011] 79)

“Well, that’s lovely,” some of you may well be thinking,
“but John, we never know quite what to make of it
when you say—and let me see if we’ve got this right—
when you say, here’s what Scripture says,
but that’s not what it says—
or that’s not what it means.”

And well should you always wonder!
But here’s the thing … or part of the thing!

Because it’s not that Scripture just inverts circumstance—
takes what society deems desirable
and makes sure everyone gets their fair share at some point.
It’s that Scripture calls our criteria for evaluation into question.
In one of Isaiah’s descriptions of the suffering servant—
Isaiah takes what society values and, well—
describes the faithful follower of God
who had no form or majesty that we should admire,
nothing in appearance that we should desire.
despised and rejected by others;
an individual of suffering—acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces,
despised and held of no account
(Isaiah 53:2b-3).
And here it’s not that the short end of the stick
is inverted into the long end.
It’s that the long and short ends of the stick don’t matter.
The stick doesn’t matter
It’s just the person beloved by God—
seeking God’s will.

Time and time again through Scripture,
we have words and ideas falling over themselves
to say what can scarce be believed—
to contain truth vaster than can be worded—
not so much failing as always falling short—

falling inevitably into our categories of evaluation—
our ways of thinking,

and yet, nonetheless,
falling toward truth.
And this is for me the inspiration of our sacred texts—
always containing hints, intimations, clues, suggestions
of the more that lies behind and underneath and beyond.

Not in any absolute correctness,
but in the consistency of indicators beyond itself.

Biblical rules? Biblical precepts?
None of them—none of them are perfect absolutes—
all pointers—indicators—signs
of life lived together in healthier ways—
of creation more whole and more holy.

So, a couple of questions for us to all consider.
First, do we really want for things to be inverted
Do we really want the world turned upside down?
And I would invite an honest reflection here …
because for most of us
the lines have fallen in pleasant places
(Psalm 16:6).

And so that question, I think, has to be heard as:
do we care enough about those without our advantages—
those with that short end of the stick?
Do we care enough about them to risk
our own benefits?
Do we care enough about God’s creation
to look beyond our own measures
of success, convenience and security?

And second, if so, if that is what we want,
then how do we invert, reverse,
and turn the world’s categories upside down?
How are we undone
and remade?
How do we fall into the dust
to be lifted up blind
and led to the light—to new sight?

We are in training.
That’s what it means to follow God.
We are in training.
And the events in which we can earn medals
(although in these games to win any individual medal
is to prepare the way for more team medals)—
the events in which we can earn medals,
are love and kindness—
peace and justice—
forgiveness grace and mercy—

Some of y’all—many of y’all are gold medalists.
You know.

and so you know it’s so not about winning some gold crown,
but about realizing
that winning in a way that allows others to win too
creates not just a new way of being
but a new reality—
in which differences are celebrated—
the other is included and welcomed—
in which competition is not about winners and losers
but about ever growing into more.

So, again, I ask you,
have you had someone in your home
at your table for dinner with you
who’s different?
Someone from another country?
Someone who speaks another language?
Someone who’s gay or transgendered?
Someone from another socio-economic bracket?
Someone of a different ethnic background?
Someone of a different faith?
Someone you don’t understand?
Someone who’s been left out?—
seated at your table—with you—in your home—
someone inviting you into bigger and more?

That is God’s dream coming true,
which is our dream coming true too,
though it may be one we don’t even know we dream.

Our categories left behind
in celebration of what is more important:
all people—every single person—
beloved of God
and by the people of God.


Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
As for those who in the present age are rich,
command them not to be haughty,
or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,
but rather on God who richly provides us
with everything for our enjoyment.
They are to do good, to be rich in good works,
generous, and ready to share,
thus storing up for themselves
the treasure of a good foundation for the future,
so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Philippians 3:12-16
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;
but I press on to make it my own,
because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own;
but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind
and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on towards the goal for the prize
of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;
and if you think differently about anything,
this too God will reveal to you.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

the unfolding stories of the 194th Olympiad: “opening ceremonies: we’ve a story to tell to the nations,” august 7, 2016

opening ceremonies

Responsive Call to Worship
We have made,
even of storytelling,
a competition.
We want everyone to hear our story
instead of tell theirs.
We want to be the ones heard
instead of the ones listening.
What insecurity is this—
in which one story wins
and the other stories lose?
Storytelling at its best
models a sharing—
taking turns—
a time to speak and a time to listen.
Oh, and it’s not that stories can’t (and shouldn’t)
be evaluated
as better or worse—
more or less true,
but the point shouldn’t be
to winnow stories down
to one truest and best,
but rather to encourage the telling
of more and more stories
that are truer and better.

We tell ourselves stories
in order to live.
—Joan Didion

The purpose of a storyteller
is not to tell you how to think
[or what to think!],
but to give you questions
to think upon.
—Brandon Sanderson

After nourishment, shelter, and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world.
—Philip Pullman

I will tell you something about stories . . .
They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
—Leslie Marmon Silko

People take on the shapes of the songs and the stories
that surround them,
especially if they don’t have their own song.
—Neil Gaiman

The world is shaped by two things—
stories told and the memories they leave behind.
—Vera Nazarian

Power consists to a large extent
in deciding what stories will be told.
—Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The one who tells the best story
shapes the culture.
—David Walsh

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Hear this, O elders,
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell your children of it,
and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.
Joel 1:2-3

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
Recite them to your children and talk about them
when you are at home and when you are away,
when you lie down and when you rise.
Bind them as a sign on your hand,
fix them as an emblem on your forehead,
and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
The Olympiad has not begun;
the Olympiad is over.
The 2016 Summer Olympics, on the other hand, are upon us!
Do you know that distinction?

The word Olympiad actually represents the four years between Olympic Games.
So the first Olympiad dates back to the four years
from the summer of the first Olympics in 776 BCE
to the summer of the second Olympics in 772 BCE.

Friday, reckoning from the beginning—from 776 BCE,
we ended the 698th Olympiad,
though you probably won’t hear these Olympics identified that way—
as the 699th Olympic Games.
Because by modern reckoning, which begins its count
with the Summer Olympics of 1896 in Athens,
these are the 31st Olympic Games,
leading to the 31st Olympiad.

So the Olympiad is over.
We are in the midst of 17 days of competition
in 306 events in 28 sports.

How many of you this past Friday, tuned in
to the spectacle of the opening ceremonies?
I actually didn’t.
I’d been planning too.
For a year.
Ever since planning this worship series last preachers’ camp.
But we were on the road back from this year’s preachers’ camp,
and were in Floyd, VA.
Anybody know Floyd?
South of Christiansburg and Blacksburg.
Southwest of Roanoke.

We happened upon Floyd five or six years ago,
when, coming back from Preachers’ Camp
on the Blue Ridge Parkway,
as is our custom,
we were driven off the Parkway by road work,
and, following the detour signs, ended up in Floyd—
at the Red Rooster Coffee Roasters—
which is located right behind the bookstore.
In the Floyd Country Store, they were setting up folding chairs,
getting ready for the Friday Night Jamboree—
post-it notes on the chairs closest to the stage
marked Bud, Martha, Larry, Edna, Thaddeus, Eleanor.

This time we planned to get there for the Jamboree!
We drove into town—through the one red-light
at the intersection of Main and Locust streets,
parked and walked back to OddF3llows Cantina and Tapas.
We passed seven bands in the span of less than a block—
or seven gatherings of people playing together (who knows!).
After we ate and the rain moved in, when we walked back,
one of the bands had taken over the inside of the Floyd Barber shop!
People packed in, standing in the doorway,
peering in from the sidewalk through the front window.

At the Floyd Country Store, the music started at 6:30—
went until 10:30 (or the band stops playing).
$5 cover charge if you go to the back
where “[o]n the dance floor are homemakers and teachers,
farmers and preachers, children and grandparents,
newcomers and old-timers, all in this place
to hear the music and share in a moment”
Jason Frye, Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip
(Berkeley, CA: Avalon Travel, 2015).

That’s where we were Friday night.
So whether you did or didn’t see the opening ceremonies,
let me invite you to consider
what we might have to say to the world,
had we such world-wide attention.

What’s the story we have to tell?
If it’s not a national one—not a cultural one.
Because we do have a story to tell to the nations, do we not?
That’s what we sing anyway.
And it’s traditionally the story of Jesus we’re talking about.
That’s the story we have to tell.

Jerome dated the birth of Jesus, by the way,
to the third year of the 194th Olympiad.
Weird, a little bit, isn’t it? To combine in our minds
Olympic stories and Jesus stories?

But the overarching title of the sermon series for the next three Sundays
is the unfolding stories of the 194th Olympiad
the still unfolding stories of Jesus
amidst these days of still unfolding Olympic games.

We’ve a story to tell to the nations.
Now some correctives are significant—
worth mentioning.
Two years ago, the Alliance sponsored a convocation,
the theme of which was:
we’ve a story to hear from the nations.

And part of the fun of the opening ceremonies is, after all,
hearing the stories of another place—
of another people—
listening for what is distinctive and different
even amidst what is similar and familiar.

Listening to others—valuing their story
is a very much needed corrective to the arrogant colonial patriarchal
tone of having the story to tell that every nation needs to hear.

Within the story we have to tell to the nations,
we also have a story to tell to our nation
because we get it as wrong as any.

We also have a story to tell ourselves, right?
It’s never just or even mostly about telling others.

Nonetheless, correctives acknowledged,
we do have a story to tell.
So what’s the story we want to tell?

My story, I’ve told you before,
is one of wanting to believe before I did.
And I’d like to tell you I remember wanting to believe in a story
spun out of ideals and dreams and visions—
hopes and prayers.
But honestly, what I remember
is wanting to believe I was included,
and afraid of being excluded.
Because the story told was one in which I was not included,
or in which there were conditions to being included—
in which I had to believe—had to profess
in order to be included,
which, to me, feels more like being excluded.

The story I would want to tell today would be a little different.
It’s the story of Jesus,
but it doesn’t have to be told that way.
Not at first.

That’s not to make the story easier—
to take away the high expectations,
but to tell a story defined in and by relationships—
a story of radical grace—
of a shocking inclusivity—
of an amazing love—
of a commitment to justice and peace—
a story with unconditional acceptance from the get-go—
you are included—
no exceptions—
no conditions.
There are also high expectations of you—the highest.

It’s a story rejecting fear—
rejecting violence—
rejecting manipulation and exploitation—
because of what we say yes to.

I’ve been a part of an Alliance visioning group.
We kept coming back to this idea of a yes at the heart of who we are.
An affirmation that undergirds any rejections—any condemnations.

In our time together, we came across a quote
by one of the founders of the Alliance,
Mahan Siler, retired pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh.
Wise man. Good man. Good words:

“The Alliance of Baptists was catapulted from a resounding ‘Yes!’
On the surface it looked otherwise.
At the time, in 1987, we were Southern Baptists declaring ‘No’
to the turns toward biblical inerrancy, exclusive male clergy,
autocratic pastoral leadership, narrow denominationalism,
piety without social and economic justice,
and the violation of state/church separate freedoms.
Our covenant was a counter ‘Yes’ to each turn.
But in retrospect, there was a deeper Yes at work.
We were expressing Yes to our sense of God’s movement
through the church in our day.
This Yes of discernment has been the continuity amid the discontinuities.
Immediately this Yes took on new manifestations—
theological education, mission as partnership,
interracial and interfaith relationships,
welcoming different sexual identities, ecological justice
and Alliance structure as partnership.
The forms of Yes vary; the courage to risk our discernments of Yes
remain … and will remain.”

I wrote a piece (I think we called it a prologue)
for that Alliance visioning group earlier this year.
I think it’s relevant this morning.

This we have heard—
have seen with our own eyes—
have touched with our own hands.
This that we know,
we name and share
that joy may be complete.

In the beginning,

We first came to be
in yes—
through yes.

Without yes
there is not.

And yes
is gracefull,

Yes is always beginning.
Yes is possibility—

ongoing conversation
on the way.

Yes includes and invites—
shares and participates—

creates deeper relationship—
creates new relationship,
and it is good.

Yes blesses.

Yes does confront life
in the stark truth of its unfolding,
and so yes sometimes (often) says no,
but it’s always and only no
in the key of yes.

Oh, there can be angry no’s—
no’s of rejection and condemnation—
no’s to bitter tears of shared grief and pain,
but still,
they never overshadow the joyfull yes
of the Most High overshadowing all that is.

No without a yes context
is just a loud noise
signifying not much at all.

Yet if people only hear loud no’s—
and feel angry no’s—
not yes,
how can that possibly signify good news
for all people?
And that is a lot more than not much at all.

Still we believe
yes not only precedes no,
it subverts no—
without ever becoming no.

For even when rejected,
yes says yes.
Even when betrayed and denied,
yes turns the other alternative,
and hope and possibility remain definitive.

Yes is a way
ever onward
into more—
more righteousness—
more justice—
more humility—
into what is transformation—
what some call redemption
or salvation,
and what is,
and is obviously,
such good news.

Ours is a journey
discerning the way of yes—
in conversation—
telling the story of yes
(that has too often become the counter-story of yes)
and the stories of all who summon
the courage to risk yes—
whose hearts burn together—
light and heat,
along the way.

It’s the Jesus story.
Did you hear it?
It’s the ancient story.

Hear, O community of God:
The Lord is our God—
the God who is yes who is love who is here and there—
that God and only that God.
You shall love the Lord your God—
who loves you—
with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might—
just as you are loved—wholly, wholly, holy.
Treasure the stories of binding together—
of including—
of forgiving—
of loving—
of working for peace and justice—
the stories of wonder surprise and joy.
Recite them to your children and talk about them
when you are at home and when you are away,
when you lie down and when you get up,
in your comings and in your goings.
Tell your children and let your children tell their children,
and their children another generation.

A week ago today, at 5 a.m. we left Baltimore
headed to the North Carolina mountains and preachers’ camp.
We headed west out 70,
cut through the country on 340 and then 7 to Winchester
where we got off the road to have breakfast at a Panera at 7 a.m.
The time was important
because to our girls’ surprise,
Natalie and Lilly met us.

In the course of breakfast conversation,
Natalie told us how much she liked being in Winchester,
but she then added,
“Lilly is clear that when she grows up,
she’s moving to Maryland and back to Woodbrook!”

The other day, Susie and the girls set out to find some shorts for Sydney.
I was going to go by the bank, the library, Barnes & Noble, and the gym.
they set out,
then I did.
ran some of my errands.
came out of the parking garage at the library onto East Chesapeake,
turned left onto Virginia Avenue,
went by the Cinemark on my left and was waiting to turn left onto Joppa—
to turn down into the parking for Barnes & Noble.
You picturing this?
When the girls, having come around the Towson Circle,
pulled up to the same light on Joppa,
waiting to turn left into the mall.
They never saw me.
They do not know that I saw them.
I have not told them about this until now.

What are the odds, I remember thinking?
To share in a moment like that?

Yes is a story that binds us together
even when we don’t know it—
when it’s a story we want to believe
even when we can’t—
a story so true it can wait for us to say yes to it—
discover yes in it—
a story proclaiming and celebrating
that our lives are in truth marvelously woven together
with love and grace and hope
in time and place
in family and community.
What are the odds?

It’s a Sunday Morning Jamboree!
People have gathered together here in this room
and in rooms all over the world—
homemakers and teachers,
doctors, accountants, heating and air folks,
physical therapists and preachers,
children and grandparents,
newcomers and old-timers—
all in this place,
to hear the story and share in a moment—
to share in the story and be here in a moment—
the story and the present we want to believe—
that we believe ourselves into—
that believes in us.

There’s no better way to start a week.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
seven quotes on the power of story
1. “The world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.” – Muriel Ruykeser

2. “The most important question anyone can ask is: What myth am I living?” – Carl Jung

3. “A lost coin is found by means of a candle; the deepest truth is found by means of a simple story.” – Anthony De Mello

4. “A life becomes meaningful when one sees [oneself] as an actor within the context of story.” – George Howard

5. “Every story you tell is your own story.” – Joseph Campbell

6. “Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” – Salman Rushdie

7. “The real difference between telling what happened and telling a story about what happened is that instead of being a victim of our past, we become master of it.” – Donald Davis

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Joshua 4:1-7
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan,
the Lord said to Joshua: “Select twelve men from the people,
one from each tribe, and command them,
‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan,
from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you,
and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’ ”
Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites,
whom he had appointed, one from each tribe.
Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark
of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan,
and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder,
one for each of the tribes of the Israelites,
so that this may be a sign among you.
When your children ask in time to come,
‘What do those stones mean to you?’
then you shall tell them
that the waters of the Jordan were cut off
in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord.
When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.
So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever.”

“summer blockbuster #2: salvation through, you know … sex and stuff,” july 17, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
The unmistakable affirmation of our world is
that it’s all about what people can see—
your clothes,
your car,
your house—
your stuff.
It’s where you go—
what you eat.
It’s who you’re with
and what you look like together.
It’s what can be instagrammed
and “liked.”
It’s what’s tangible;
it’s what’s immediate.
As opposed to the assurance of what’s hoped for
and the conviction of what’s not seen.
And, again,
our faith stands witness counter to our culture.
So, again the question confronts us:
do we stand—let’s even say predominantly—
with our faith or with our world?
Do we prioritize our snapchat and instagram accounts
or the long conversation of our faith tradition with our God?
We are surrounded by what we do not see
that gives life it’s depth and richness.
May our culture never seduce us into thinking
our treasure is anything else.

To be content with little is difficult;
to be content with much, impossible.
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

What we need is less.
Joseph Rain

The world says: “You have needs—satisfy them.
You have as much right as the rich and the mighty.
Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs;
indeed, expand your needs and demand more.”
This is the worldly doctrine of today.
And they believe that this is freedom.
The result for the rich is isolation and suicide,
for the poor, envy and murder.

They have succeeded in accumulating
a greater mass of objects,
but the joy in the world has grown less.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A strange species we are,
We can stand anything God and nature
can throw at us save only plenty.
If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much,
and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.
John Steinbeck

The life of my people is to remember forever;
each head granary is full.
The life of your people is to forget:
your thing granaries,
and not yourselves, are full.
Alice Walker

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
Matthew 6:19-21, 25-34
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal;
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or what you will drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds of the air;
they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,
and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not of more value than they?
And can any of you by worrying
add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you,
even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?”
or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things;
and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you as well.
So do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
a history lesson
The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.

In recent years, another myth has surfaced that gives a particularly ugly twist to the tradition, claiming that back in the 1800s Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. Though this version of Black Friday’s roots has understandably led some to call for a boycott of the retail holiday, it has no basis in fact.
The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit. (In fact, stores traditionally see bigger sales on the Saturday before Christmas.)

The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten.

That’s the world—taking something bad and naming it good
and convincing others it is. As opposed to our faith—
naming what’s bad, bad, repenting, and living into what’s good.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Familiar verses those verses we heard read
from the Sermon on the Mount.
But they struck me this past week,
in their apparent straight-forwardness,
as rather complicated.
Not so much the first part.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal ….
but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust consumes
and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Makes perfect if countercultural sense to me.

The movement of significance is from the physical
to the truthfull.
Not that the physical is a lie
(there is treasure to be had on earth),
it’s just not as full of truth as that step into
what’s more meaningfull—
what’s deeper and richer.

So we’re advised to prioritize what’s not physical over what is,
as much as what is might feature in the daydreams
of those who consider these words—
even among those to whom Jesus spoke.

Sure there’s a measure of stuff we need—
to survive:
food, shelter, clothing.
We’ve made of that a whole lot more—
too much more,
and we’ve invested in it
not just more than we were ever meant to,
but more than can ever come of it.
And commercials make promises
as absurd as those that presidential candidates make.
And we evaluate people on the basis of how much they have—
or say they have.

And I guess the question for each of us is:
“Do I treasure what’s of the heart,
or love the treasures the world has to offer?”

The second part of the scripture
came up at camp this past week.
“Consider the birds of the air,” we were told,
and so I did.
I considered the birds.
Scripture notwithstanding,
they seem to live very precarious lives to me.

I saw a video on YouTube a while back—
some of you may have seen it too—
of a bird at a baseball game hit by a pitch—
kind of an explosion of feathers.

On our way to the beach, a couple of weeks ago,
we drove over the bay bridge,
then over and under the bay bridge and tunnel.
Lots of dead birds on those bridges.

I’ve seen—I’m sure you have too—
those sad pictures of birds after an oil spill.

That plane that landed in the Hudson?
Both engines were taken out
because birds were sucked into them
as the plane took off into a flock of geese.

I have friends and family
who come back from hunting
holding dead birds upside down by their legs.

We were at Grandfather Mountain, NC
years ago, and there was a Bald Eagle and a golden eagle,
both of whom had been shot
and were no longer capable of surviving in the wild.
They lived sadly flightless lives in two neighboring enclosures.
Now those birds have since died of old age,
and those two enclosures, I’m told, have been combined into one,
in which two bald eagles live—
because even though it’s illegal to shoot them,
there will always be enough of them shot—
unable to live in the wild,
and so living flightless lives in captivity.

Now our scripture just talks about food, right?—
God providing food—
birds not worrying about food.
But the implication of the verses is that God’s looking out for birds,
The implication is of an actively involved God.
That’s what I’m thinking when I read these verses,
and I don’t even believe in that kind of a God!

Now, maybe you can strictly adhere to,
“It just says God will provide food,”
and go with some affirmation of the balance established in creation—
a basic sufficiency—
even a basic abundance
in creation,
that we have messed up—
always more interested in profit and expedience
than balance.

But to claim these verses are about
such a fundamental balance seems a stretch.
It feels like a justification for what doesn’t seem true
at a more basic level.

We all know God doesn’t take care of birds.
So how do we explain this Scripture
as anything other than foolish?

And if God doesn’t take care of birds,
why would we think God takes care of us?

And how is the admonition to not worry about basic needs
not a voice of privilege—
the voice of someone who doesn’t have to worry
about food and basic needs
because the assumption is they’ll be met—
there will be enough?—

which couldn’t have been true for Jesus.
It doesn’t say anything about it in the gospels,
but my guess is, there were nights
when Jesus and the disciples went to bed hungry.
Mornings they woke up hungry.

My guess is when those people gathered around Jesus—
whether it was on a mountain or not—
when they gathered around to hear Jesus’ words,
there were plenty among them
whose lives were precarious—
who knew their basic needs were not guaranteed.

So then what does this Scripture sound like
acknowledging that birds die—
without that filter
of assured safety—
the assurance of money in the bank
and food in the pantry?

Well, remember before we heard the bird story,
we heard the treasure story—
in which we moved the significance and priority
from the physical to to the more truthfull?
What if the bird story works the same way as the treasure story—
moving from physical imagery
to non-physical truth?

Right? Just like there is treasure on earth—
there are physical needs of food and clothing.
But there are more important things we need.

So what’s more important than survival?
And we acknowledge first off,
that’s not a conversation most of us will have.
We’re going to survive.
But that may have been a more real concern
for Jesus’ original hearers,
who lived lives more precarious than most of ours—
less assured of basic needs.

We also need to remember
that it’s Jesus saying this—
who did not starve,
but did rely on the kindness of those around him
for his basic needs,
who knew more than we do of hunger and deprivation,
and also, who in the fullness of the story,
ultimately did not survive.

What if Jesus’ claim here
is not that God provides everything we need,
but what we need most?

What if the affirmation is that God
each bird—
takes delight in plumage and flight and song,
and how much more, to use the language we’ve just heard,
God treasures each of us?

So even in the most precarious of situations,
we remember God loves us.

It’s easy to say so what—
thinking of all those dead birds.

But I remember Russ Dean,
thinking about the power of God—
what God can and can’t do,
so aware of how many birds die, as it were,
saying, “If I were to be diagnosed with some deadly illness,
my parents—my family and loved ones
would be able to do nothing about that.
They would not be able to do absolutely anything about that.
But they would love me through it,
and their love would make a difference—
no matter the outcome.”

That raises another question.

Incorporated into worship at Passport
is something they call The Question of the Day.
It’s kind of like the living word, i. here—
a way to include voices from the congregation.
The question of the day this past Monday night in worship
was how do you know God loves you?
And they go around with a video camera
ask that question and film a bunch of answers
and then show the video in worship.

Some answers that I recall:
I know God loves me because my parents do—
or my friends do—my youth group—my church.
I know God loves me when I’m outside—
when I’m doing what I love to do—
when I’m helping others.

It’s a good question—
hard to answer—
harder to answer than answers would make it seem.

If God’s love is what I need most
how do I know I have it?

In our church group devotion time,
we wondered about not just accepting answers at face value
but pushing them.
Because we can all imagine scenarios—
in which parents don’t love you.
One youth at Passport went home a couple of years ago now,
and his family had moved—he didn’t know where.
They didn’t tell him.
Didn’t leave word for him.
He had to move in with some church folks
until they could figure out what to do.
What if your friends aren’t friends?
What if they’re mean?
What if you don’t have a youth group? A church?
What if you’re homeless and outside?
Would that still feel like the presence and love of God?

How do you know God loves you then?
How do we know parents and friends and church love us?
Because of the evidence, right?
They take care of us.
They feed us and clothe us.
They hug and kiss us—sometimes annoyingly so.
They tell us they love us, yes,
but their words are backed up by our experience.
So what’s our experience that indicates God loves us—
that backs up the claim so easy to make?

It’s a combination of what we’ve been told and taught:
for God so loved the world—
we’ve been told the stories—
taught the truth.
It’s a combination of that with our own experience—
with what we feel deep inside.

I’m not saying any of the answers given are wrong.
I’m just wondering if they’re enough.

My friend Allyson Robinson is the trans woman baptist minister
who spent a good part of her life thinking God rejected her.
That’s what she was told.
That’s what she was taught.
Rejection was what she experienced—
rejection and condemnation.
By the grace of God, she talks about a bare bones theology
that saw her through suicidal thoughts—
that saw her through the bleakest and hardest and loneliest of times.

And it’s the basic affirmation that God did, in truth, love her.
Despite what she’d been told and taught.
Despite what she’d experienced.
And that Scripture that questioned that, was itself to be questioned.
That churches that denied that, were compromising their fundamental calling.
And that her own understanding of experience,
was not necessarily to be trusted.

I think you have to want to believe—
deep down.
Some of you know how with addiction
you have to admit you have a problem.
And then you have to want to get better,
or nothing’s going to work—nothing’s going to change.
Same thing.

Do you want God’s love—
at the core of your being?
Is there anything you can imagine more important?
More life giving? Life sustaining?
More hope sustaining?

So know what’s important enough to worry about,
and then don’t worry about it!
God loves you.

We don’t all start with a bare bones theology like Allyson did.
Most of us don’t have to.
Many of us may never strip our theology down to the barest minimum.
But if you do—
if you ever have to—
if it’s ever more than theoretical Scripture interpretation—
Sunday School rhetoric—
if one day it comes down to it,
I want you to have in your memory banks—
this way of thinking about this text.
God will always provide what you need most—
the assurance that you are wonderfully created,
blessed by God as who you are,
and loved just as you are.

Bone comes to bone.
That’s first, and it is very good.
That’s foundation.
God loves you no matter what—no exceptions.
And then according to Ezekiel,
sinew is added to bone,
then flesh,
then skin,
then breath
(Ezekiel 37:1-14),
until you have life and life at its fullest—life abundant.
But full and abundant because of those bones—
because of that foundation,
never because of how much stuff you’ve accumulated.

It’s got to be more than just something you say though.

Too much we substitute
a picture implying experience
for whole-hearted, mindful presence.
I’ve told you all before
about the time we spent the better part of a day
lounging by a lake in the Austrian Alps.
The girls were playing in the lake—
in and out of the water.
The tour buses pulled up behind us and disgorged tourists,
reloaded and left.
We stayed.
We saw two young women—
I guess off one of those buses,
come over to the park area,
go into the bathroom,
come out in their swimsuits,
walk over to the water’s edge,
turn their backs to the lake and the mountain behind it,
pose for a selfie,
go back into the bathroom,
come back out dressed—
and leave.

Did they even see what they claimed to have experienced?

That seems ridiculous to most of us—
I hope … I pray.

But our culture is full of
the assumption of substance.

And we have to be careful,
lest a moment of silence and prayer
be perceived as nothing at all.
Words not made flesh, you see.

The integrity of our faith
is not in what we say,
but in how what we say
shapes the way we live and relate to others.

And I do believe the critical question for our time
is less, “Do we experience our faith claims?”
but “Do others experience our faith claims?”—
and not just as words—
and certainly not self-righteous words,
but as lives tangibly shaped by the love of God—
lives tinged with the wonder and joy of faith—
the promise of peace.
Is that what people catch glimpses of in and through you?
Is that what people see in and through us?

How do we help each other answer “Yes” to that?
or “Sometimes”—
maybe that’s a more honest prayer.

We tell the stories
over and over and over and against the stories of the world.
We seek the truth—the truth that is love.
Rejecting all other claims to ultimate truth
as we love—above all as we love.
And we remind each other that’s what we want—
to be identified—
to be defined
by the love of God.

May it be so.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Hebrews 11:1
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.

“summer blockbuster #1: the myth of redemptive violence,” july 10, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
There’s a story pervasive in our culture—
so very well told in books—
so very well packaged on TV and at the movies.
It’s enjoyable—emotionally satisfying—
even cathartic at times—
and comfortable in its familiarity.
It’s the story of violence in the service of righteousness—
an attractive story
that undergirds much of our foreign and domestic policy,
characterizes entirely too much of our life together,
and permeates our daydreams as well.
Yet it insidiously subverts our soul—
our soul story—
the sole story worth our souls—
the story of Jesus—
the story of the God who abhors violence—
who, rather than inflicting it on others,
(and thereby condoning—justifying it),
absorbs it into Self—
the God who, in and through Jesus,
won’t commit violence—
the Almighty who doesn’t not believe might makes right—
committed, as God is, to an alternative story—
an alternative priority—
the priority of an absolute respect
for each individual’s freedom
to believe and act as he or she chooses—
and the commitment to suffer the consequences
in affirmation of that freedom.

The belief that violence saves is so successful
because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least.
Violence simply appears to be the nature of things.
It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last, and, often,
the first resort in conflicts.
If a god is what you turn to when all else fails,
violence certainly functions as a god.
What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence.
—Walter Wink

The psychodynamics of the TV cartoon or comic book
are marvelously simple: children identify with the good guy
so they can think of themselves as good.
This enables them to project out onto the bad guy
their own repressed anger, violence, rebelliousness, or lust,
and then vicariously to enjoy their own evil
by watching the bad guy initially prevail….
When the good guy finally wins,
viewers are then able to reassert control
over their own inner tendencies, repress them,
and re-establish a sense of goodness
without coming to any insight about their own inner evil.
The villain’s punishment provides catharsis;
one forswears the villain’s ways
and heaps condemnation on him in guilt-free orgy of aggression.
Salvation is found through identification with the hero.
—Walter Wink

The myth of redemptive violence
is the simplest, laziest, most exciting,
uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive
depiction of evil the world has ever known….
Children select this mythic structure
because they have already been led,
by culturally reinforced cues and role models,
to resonate with its simplistic view of reality….
By making violence pleasurable, fascinating, and entertaining,
the Powers are able to delude people into compliance
with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.
—Walter Wink

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

with some of that lectio divina going on
2 Kings 2:23-25
Elisha went up from Jericho to Bethel
(and as background: in the telling of the story,
Elisha had just followed his master Elijah from Bethel to Jericho.
In both places the local prophets asked him if he knew
that this day God would take his master Elijah from him.
You don’t get the idea it was out of concern—
more a doubtful, “You up for this?”
From Jericho, they went to the Jordan River
where Elijah parted the waters of the river.
They walked through,
then Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Elisha assumed Elijah’s prophetic mantle,
parted the waters of the Jordan,
walked back through—
went back to Jericho where he made bad water good.
And while he was going up on the way to Bethel
(retracing his steps on a kind of vindication tour—
an in-your-face “Yeah, you better believe I’m up for this”)—
while he was going up the way to Bethel,
some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him,
saying, ‘Go away, baldy! Go away, baldhead!’
(And no to those who suggest
the term “small boys” actually refers to adults who should know better.)
When he turned round and saw them,
he cursed them in the name of the Lord.
(Because that’s what you should do if someone calls you names,
Especially children—
especially a group of small boys!
And no to those who suggest calling someone bald
was particularly insulting in that culture at that time.
Because it couldn’t be—just couldn’t be, could it?
that Elisha was feeling the pressure of filling big shoes—
feeling a touch insecure—
in spite of what had been promised—
in spite of what he had accomplished,
because that’s the way we are—
and was so overly sensitive to signs of disrespect,
that he overreacted ….)
Then two she-bears came out of the woods
and mauled forty-two of the boys.
(And no to any who suggest this horror
might be justified
in the name of an unpredictable God
who can’t be tamed, domesticated, or controlled.
It’s rather more boys and feelings that can’t be controlled
and require the discipline of love, not the impulse of cursing!)
From there he went on to Mount Carmel,
and then returned to Samaria.
(He just kept going—
forty-two mauled children in his rear view mirror.
Maybe it’s important to remember
that even those chosen by God—
chosen by God to speak the word of God—
have horror in their rear view mirrors—
have violence and regret.
That might, in truth, be a better reminder
than any warning that God might do terrible things, so watch out!)

Within this, do you hear?
The word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
Consider now the news of the past week in a moment of silence.

Pastoral Prayer
Our God,
We remember with gratitude
that You hear what’s too deep for words—
the grief—the outrage—the fear—the hope.
We claim with awe
the reality that You honor all of what we all feel.
And then we proclaim with commitment—
in the midst of everything—
as light shining in the darkness—
as truth bigger than all religion and bigger than all fear—
as hope bigger than what seems possible—
as love beyond what we can even imagine—
as what we aspire to—
as what we’re called to—
standing against all that is not true—
not hopeful—
not graceful—
not loving.

Nurture what’s best in us.
Help us cultivate the discipline
to name what’s wrong—to name it broken.
Unapologetically—not defensively,
and to reject and exorcise what’s worst in us.
Guide us into the better story
You’ve been telling
and retelling—
the love story You tell creation—
the transformative love story that You tell us—have told us
from the beginning of time,
will tell us—
always in Jesus’ name,

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
This past week, while I walked and sat on the beach,
eating and playing and talking with family and dear friends,
Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, LA—
and then Philando Castile, outside St. Paul, MN—
the latest killed in an appallingly ever-longer growing list.
532 people killed by police so far this year
depending on your source.
Some say that number’s 488. Some say 604.
All sources agree, the number is disproportionately
black and native american.

And as much as each particular set of circumstances matter—so much,
they also don’t …
in the utter and outrageous tragedy—
that is the toxic brew of our country’s
systemic racism,
the white privilege too many don’t see and acknowledge,
and our idolatrous embrace of violence—

in which deadly embrace five police officers
were murdered in Dallas, TX this past week
in a reprehensible and cowardly attack—
Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol,
Mike Smith, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa.
And our hearts are made big enough to break for all these deaths—
and not to deny the importance of any.
Our hearts are made to break at this violence—
not justify it—none of it.
And these, we remind ourselves, are just the names we know to name—
not all who have suffered violence this past week.

So we gather in worship
as the people of God following Jesus
on a day like today—
kids going to camp—all excited—
vacations ending—beginning—anticipated—
sun out—

Maybe today’s a day to listen to other voices.
We are so quick to feel we need to speak,
and so quick to feel like others should listen to us.
I’ve noticed, maybe particularly as a minister, that social media compounds the pressure
to almost immediately
have something to say in response to what’s happened.
Something is always happening!
Maybe we just need to listen.
Maybe we need to hear what’s going on.

Alan Green is chair of deacons at Metro Baptist Church in NYC.
he posted this past week:
“I come around a street corner and almost bump into someone;
they scream.
I go into a store; I get followed by undercover security.
I walk into an elevator; a purse gets held a little tighter.
I get pulled over; the officer can’t tell me why I was stopped.
These examples may seem trivial but these types of things
happen to me almost daily. 
It’s real. It’s just a part of my life.
Everyone has false perceptions made about them
but the perception of us – black men – gets us killed.
Sadly for me, it wasn’t until I lived in another country
and that ever present fear was not there,
did I really start to understand
the profound depths of that fear in this country.
God Bless those of us who deal with this fear all the time.
God Bless those of you who will never have to deal with it.
And God Bless those of you who don’t know,
but don’t know that you don’t know.”

A UCC minister in Austin, TX, Nikki, a friend from Waco days,
shared these heartbreaking words from her beautiful black 8 year old cousin,
who told his mother, “Mom, I don’t want to get killed by cops when I grow up,
and I don’t want to be black
because that’s the color of skin that gets treated bad in our country.”
And if you can’t imagine your child telling you that—
if you can’t imagine the child of your siblings—
the child of your friends, saying that,
that’s privilege.

The 4 year old daughter of Philando’s girlfriend,
did you know? was in the car when he was shot—
trying to comfort her mother.
We as a society are not worthy of the children born to us—
born with hearts still big—
undefiled by fear and small mindedness.

New Gingrich—Newt Gingrich said,
“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me
through the years, to get a sense of this:
If you are a normal white American,
the truth is you don’t understand being black in America
and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination
and the level of additional risk.”

So it is, within our national toxic brew
of racism and privilege—of fear and of violence,
that we say here’s why Black Lives Matter still matters—
why no one, even today,
should respond to Black Lives Matter with All Lives Matter—
why no one, in response to Black Lives Matter,
should bring up statistics about white crime, black crime,
white on black, black on white, black on black crime—
and why no one, even today,
should use the terrible death of police officers to derail the conversation
about the historical, statistical, and experienced truth
that black lives in this country don’t matter—
not that they don’t matter as much as other lives,
though that’s true too—
that they don’t matter.
And Alan got it exactly right—it’s a not-mattering rooted in fear—
white fear.
A racist is a person afraid.
And an afraid person with power is terrifying.

I came across, by the way, what I thought
was a helpful comment on Facebook
with regards to Black Lives Matter:
when you go to the doctor with a broken bone,
and the doctor tells you, all bones matter—
well, … that’s true.
But not what you need to hear at the moment!

And as much as we talk about second amendment rights in this country—
most of which is fear driven (have you noticed?),
it’s a white conversation—a privileged conversation.
Because carrying a gun can represent a death sentence to black men—
because of the fear we’ve cultivated—
and the consistently violent response to fear we’ve justified.

And police are often men and women afraid.
I certainly would be.
To be a police officer in this culture of ours?

I am invested, by the way,
in promulgating the idea that violence is an expression of fear not power—
that those who exploit violence are afraid not strong—
and more alike in their fear than different from
anyone or anything they say they oppose.

Maybe we need to listen to others—especially those other from us.
Maybe we need to offer lament.
We can do that; we have a tradition of lament.
Lament each life lost—
each life lived in fear—
each child let down.
Lament a broken system
we don’t seem to have the will to address,
let alone fix.
And it won’t fix itself.

James Baldwin wrote, ”If a society permits one portion
of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, then, very soon,
no one in that society is safe.
The forces thus released in the people can never be held in check,
but run their devouring course,
destroying the very foundations which it was imagined they would save.”
That’s our trajectory, my friends.
Fear and violence—ever more fear and violence begetting more
in a horrifying sequel we can’t escape.

Maybe it’s time to be quiet enough
to listen to the voices of others.
Maybe it’s time to lament.
But the truth of the matter is we also have things to say—
to remember—to remind each other—
to remind our culture.
We know a different story—
a better story than this one we tell so well.

Traci Blackmon, the acting executive of the UCC Justice and Witness ministries,
a tall, black, beautiful woman with a wonderfully tender sense of humor,
who spoke at the convocation of the Alliance of Baptists, gets it.
Lamenting the so many killed, she wrote
that the guns used this past week
“were loaded by the common enemies of fear and hate …
no matter who pulled the trigger.
We are all connected. We must mourn it all …
and we must all Love ourselves out of this.
Murder is a by-product of people who have lost their love.
Love is our only hope.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got it.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But westerns have done more to catechize our culture
than any theologian—
than any program ever devised by any church.
John Wayne.
And why is that?
Westerns are physical at the expense of spiritual—
filling us so full of adrenaline.
They are so tangible—so attractive and immediately impressive—
so quick and easy—
full of characters you admire and despise,
not propositions to process, reject or affirm.
They’re stories, not doctrines—
scary stories in which, amidst fear,
people are saved by violence—
stories in which tragedy is averted by violence—
stories in which goals are reached by violence.
And it’s usually one good guy with a gun, right?
“Typically, an indestructible good guy
is set in opposition to an equally indestructible bad guy
who is beyond hope of reform. Nothing can kill the good guy,
although for the first three-quarters of the story he suffers grievously,
appearing hopelessly trapped. Somehow the hero breaks free,
vanquishes the villain, and restores order again….
The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail
in the conditions of near-anarchy
that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West”

William Butler Yeats, in “The Stare’s Nest By My Window” wrote
We have “fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love.”

And the stories we tell become the stories we live.
And there are disgusting stories out there—
fear-filled—violence ridden.
To our shame—yet speaking to the truth of who we are,
they’re shot through our presidential campaign rhetoric.
But if it works in the short enough term for me
if I have enough power to be the one determining the circumstances,
and if it improves my circumstances, then it’s justifiable.
Whatever it takes to win—as long as you win,
is okay.

William Moore, writing for the Baptist Peace Fellowship, notes:
“Civilian casualties in the US Civil War were 5 percent of total casualties.
In World War I they were about 30 percent of total casualties.
In World War II they rose to about 50 percent.
In the Vietnam war the people killed were about 60 percent civilians.
In recent US conflicts, they accounted for 75 to 90 percent of deaths.”
Collateral damage
doesn’t matter—doesn’t count—
if you win—
if your cause is just.
And we justify more and more and more and more.
We’re born into it.
We’re raised on it.
We die in it—and, too much, because of it.

April 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, speaking at the Cleveland City Club, said:
“Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—
whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law,
by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion,
in an attack of violence or in response to violence—
whenever we tear at the fabric of life
which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children,
the whole nation is degraded.…
Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence
that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike.
We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands.
We glorify killing on movie and television screens
and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity
to acquire weapons and ammunition they desire….
Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies,
but this much is clear; violence breeds violence,
repression brings retaliation,
and only a cleaning of our whole society
can remove this sickness from our soul.”

Walter Wink, long time professor of Biblical Interpretation
at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City,
was watching cartoons—Popeye to be specific
(could have been watching a western—a thriller),
and it occurred to him that the storyline (the always the same storyline)
struck him as familiar (and not just because it was always the same one!).
You were probably just thinking the same thing—
how so many of our cartoons—
how the popular storylines of so many of our TV shows and movies
resonate with the ancient Babylonian creation myth
(that’s what you were thinking, right?)—
in which “Apsu, the father god and Tiamat, the mother god,
give birth to the gods. But the frolicking of the younger gods
makes so much noise that the elder gods resolve to kill them
so they can sleep.
The younger gods uncover the plot
before the elder gods put it into action, and kill Apsu.
His wife Tiamat, the Dragon of Chaos, pledges revenge.”
the youngest of the gods Marduk kills Tiamat
and creates the cosmos from her body.
so “creation is an act of violence…. Evil precedes good.
The gods themselves are violent….
Violence is no problem.
It is simply a primordial fact”

Genesis, written down while in exile in Babylon,
is a story offering an explicit counter to Babylon’s myth—
presenting good that precedes evil.
And so violence becomes a problem.
Not a given—
not an answer to a problem—
a problem.

Scripture is full of violence,
but it begins in explicit juxtaposition with violence.
We’ve noted that same pattern in Exodus.
The very beginning of the story presenting
the mid-wives’ non-violent effective resistance
of the evil power of Pharaoh,
while the story then unfolds
away from that initial affirmation into violence.

And throughout the Bible, there’s a thread,
even in stories of violence,
questioning violence—rejecting violence.
Remember that’s how we read Revelation!

So what if we more bluntly—more regularly—more loudly—
questioned—rejected violence?
Acknowledged—confessed the violence in our history—
as a country
founded on stolen land and enslaved bodies,
and as a people of faith?
how we have traditionally heard our own story in its terms—
in violence’s terms—
sung hymns with violent imagery—
not questioned a bloody theology.
What if we choose the alternative thread—the other hymns—
a different theology—new images—
question martial imagery,
reject the violence of a sacrificial blood atonement theology,
told stories more explicitly juxtaposed with violence—
more persistently exposing violence as expression of fear?

I was reading Lauren Winner’s book
Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire
and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God
and one of the “overlooked ways of meeting God” to which she refers
is God as a woman in labor from Isaiah 42.
And it’s fascinating, the image is introduced
by a much more common image:
“The Lord goes forth like a soldier,
like a warrior he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.”
So masculine—so martial—so violent.
But Isaiah then transitions away—away from that into:
“For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labour,
I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:13-14).

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a Harvard history professor
of early early american history and the history of women,
author of the book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,
to which I admiringly refer, while simultaneously hoping
our girls are well-behaved at camp this week!
The title of a lecture she offered at the University of New Hampshire
is often lifted up as a tribute to her work:
“the silent work of ordinary people.”
In her acceptance speech
for the 1991 Bancroft Award at Columbia University
(this one of the most prestigious awards for a written work history),
she included the statement,
“Suppose we admitted for the sake of argument
that motherhood was powerful.”

My former professor—my friend, Bill Leonard,
in a recent Baptist News Global article, wrote,
“In ‘Words from a Witness’ (1967), [Elie Wiesel] told of a rabbi
whose conscience compelled him to declare:
“’Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves.
Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.’”
He continued preaching, but no one listened.
“Finally someone asked him, ‘Rabbi, why do you do that?
Don’t you see it is no use?’ He said, ‘I know it is of no use, but I must.
And I will tell you why: in the beginning
I thought I had to protest and to shout in order to change them.
I have given up this hope. Now I know I must picket and scream and shout
so that they should not change me.’”

Let us not be murderers. Let us not be thieves.
Let us not be silent or indifferent.
Let us not be racist.
Let us not ignore or defend our privilege.
And let us not worship violence.
Our country is dangerously on edge,
and the wrong priorities have led us to the brink.
What other story that has failed
(as completely as this one has repeatedly)
do we nonetheless defend and persist in?
If we do not want to go down
as racist, defending our privilege with violence,
we must change not who they are—
not any of them,
but us.
We must change our story,
and tell a story worthy of our children.

More people want a better story
than the story as it is.
And we need people telling that better story—
living that better story—
turning away from violence as power—
claiming the power of mothering—
laboring to birth that better story,
then nurture it
for the possibility of new life
and a better tomorrow for our children.

Sitting on the beach last week,
stunned at the news—again,
watching children play—listening to their laughter,
watching the waves roll in—hearing the sound of the surf,
thinking of God’s mothering love
inexorably crashing against the way things are—
come what may—
come this past week—
come next week,
washing our edges with everlasting love,
reshaping our landscape with grace,
the EasterTIde that, within the chaos,
never gives up
on the work
and the hope
of peace and justice and love.

What kind of story do you want our children to live?
If we leave it to our world,
it won’t be much of one.
But if we leave it to God …

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Consider now, in another moment of silence,
the news of the past week in one hand,
and the good news in the other hand,
and don’t let either go.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Isaiah 54:1-4a, 7-10
Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
Enlarge the site of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will settle the desolate towns.

Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed;
do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace ….
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.

“graduation,” june 26, 2016


Responsive Call to Worship
We gather this day,
to acknowledge a threshold moment—
a thin place
between what’s been and what’s to be—
between what’s been studied, learned, and accomplished,
and all the more there is to study and learn and do.
It is so very good to mark growth in celebration,
and then so very good as well,
to celebrate having further to grow—
to note a mile-marker on the longer way
and to take joy both in the distance traveled
and the distance yet ahead.
Bless this liminal time and space
and those who stand in thresholds
looking back and looking ahead.
May it be with a sense of both gratitude and anticipation.
May it be with an awareness
of how we grow our life long with our whole person—
our minds, bodies, spirits, and emotions.
And may it be with a profound sense
of what it means to place our way
(where we’ve been and where we’re going)
within the way of Jesus.

We are not a society that nurtures commitment-making. We live in a culture that puts a lot of emphasis on individual liberty and freedom of choice. Ivy League student culture is built around keeping your options open and fear of missing out. We live in a society filled with decommitment devices. Tinder, OkCupid, Instagram, Reddit; the entire Internet is commanding you to sample one thing after another. Our phones are always beckoning us to shift our attention span. If you can’t focus your attention for 30 seconds, how can you make a commitment for life?
But your fulfillment in life will not come from how well you explore your freedom and keep your options open. That’s the path to a frazzled, scattered life in which you try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.
Your fulfillment in life will come by how well you end your freedom. By the time you hit your 30s, you will realize that your primary mission in life is to be really good at making commitments.

You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride. Failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
David Brooks, Dartmouth, 2015

And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2012

Respect people with less power then you. I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with—agents and producers—based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.
Tim Minchin, University of Western Australia, 2013

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default…
We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need insider ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.
J.K.Rowling, Harvard, 2008

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005

What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, (and) your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania? The world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.
Bono, Penn State, 2004

If you’re a Democrat, spend some time talking to a Republican. And if you’re a Republican, have a chat with a Democrat. Maybe you’ll find some common ground, maybe you won’t. But if you honestly engage with an open mind and an open heart, I guarantee you’ll learn something. And goodness knows we need more of that, because we know what happens when we only talk to people who think like we do — we just get more stuck in our ways, more divided, and it gets harder to come together for a common purpose.
Michelle Obama, Eastern Kentucky, 2013

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Matthew 25:14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
a Litany and Prayer for our Graduates
You have grown up here on the stories of God.
We have told them to you, sung them to you, acted them out—
hoping to teach them to you,
and, in turn, with gratitude,
listened to you tell them to us, sing them, act them out—
teaching us in the process.

We have tried to live them—as best we could—
confessing our failures—
confessing too, our assurance that it is far better
to have tried to live these stories and fallen short of their fullness,
than to have given up on the possibilities within them
and never tried to live them at all.

We have prayed for you more than you know—
both in frequency and in urgency.
Amidst our prayers, we give thanks for you continually.
And today, we celebrate
your achievement with pride in what you’ve done …
and in who we see you becoming.

We will not put words in your mouths—
words of profession, words of commitment,
and we pray less that you claim any particular propositions of belief
than that you believe in the stories you’ve grown up with and on—
the possibilities of the world being turned upside down and inside out.

We pray these stories will sustain you, encourage you,
inspire you, transform you, accompany you
wherever you go, whatever you do—
because these are the stories, we believe,
so much richer than most any story of our culture—
the stories of great inversion, of tremendous surprise,
of profound wonder, of deep joy,
of God’s truth and grace, God’s love,
and the redeeming of all creation.

These are the stories we pray
you remember, reread, rethink, and choose—
choose to live toward—choose to live into.
We have no more important gift to offer you.
These are the stories we pray
you come to deem worth your own selves.
This we pray today, and through the years to come, Amen.

Witness of the Living Word, i.
I asked you at the beginning of the service,
to consider a word you would offer our graduates.
I invite you now to speak out—
to offer the word you’ve been considering—
significant to you—relevant—
the word you would offer all of us on thresholds—
in the midst of transition—
the word of affirmation, the hope, the prayer.
What word do you have to offer?

no experience is wasted except experience you choose to waste
income equality
God’s guidance
deep listening

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
As we close out the month of June,
we close the door on the past school year.
And today, we honor our graduates.
We are proud of you—
of what you have accomplished through the years—
of your hard work.

We also acknowledge today,
whose work has brought them to this day—
whose accomplishments—
whose discipline—
those who have accomplished, finished, completed,
and who also now await what lies ahead.

In the widest sense, you see, I address us all.

So acknowledging and celebrating ending
and accomplishment,
we offer congratulations.
We also acknowledge and celebrate starting anew—
beginning again—
not the same thing.
Obviously you’re not starting what you’ve just ended,
but what you have been prepared for.
This is growth.
This is progression,
and it is good.

We know everything has changed.
Everything is different.
Except, of course, for everything that’s not!
We know that you are leaving—
that who and how we are together in relationship will change.
But we also know these relationships are important.
They will last; they will go on—
changing—adjusting—adapting, but consistent.
We will be praying for you.
We will be watching—
eager to see how your story continues to unfold.

So on a day of transition—
a day of thresholds—a day of change—
a day of looking back on what’s been
and looking ahead to what’s to be,
there are things I hope you’ve heard—
been a part of
here at Woodbrook,
as a part of this faith community
through the years.

I’ve said all of this before.
I hope it sounds familiar to you.
But I get to say it again, today,
because it’s important—worth repeating.
Seven things … of course.

and the first of three observations:
to reach a certain level of expertise
is simply to be ready to enter the next phase of learning.

And it doesn’t matter how hard you had to work—
how much you had to sacrifice—
how long it took.
All that matters is that you made it,
and now there’s farther to go!
That’s certainly not to say you can’t enjoy the moment—
enjoy the summer!
But don’t get stuck in an accomplishment—
even a significant one.
You’re so much more than that.

Whether it’s school or life or video games—
for those of you who play video games—
how many of y’all play video games?
Ah, well, you make it through levels of the game
in order to get to more levels, right?—
many times building on what you’ve learned
through the levels you’ve passed through.

If you ever get to thinking you’ve arrived,
you’ve actually fallen behind.

Good endings are good beginnings.
That’s why, as we say downstairs in the WEE school,
good beginnings never end.

and the second of three observations:
I am regularly struck
at the gym
with the awareness—the affirmation
of how much work it takes to get stronger—
how much resistance I have to face and overcome
to be more healthy.
You don’t get stronger looking at weights—
playing with weights.

The times I’ve kept at it—
regularly—consistently and persistently working at it,
what was hard
got easier.
And then, you know what?
Sure you do.
You have to make it hard on yourself again,
or you stop making progress.

If you keep lifting the same weight the same number of times,
it gets to a point where it’s not doing you any good.
You need resistance to make progress.

That’s true at all levels of growth—
in all areas of growth.
As you graduate from high school—college,
you know that’s true about learning—
growing intellectually.
You have to crack the books—
and not always the same book.

It’s hard work—growing—maturing.
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing emotionally.
Why should I have to work
at what is my natural instinctive response to things?
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing as a person.
Why would I have to work at who I am?
We tend not to think is so
when it comes to growing spiritually.
Make a profession, say a prayer,
walk the aisle, be baptized, be saved. Be done.
We tend not to think it so
when it comes to growing love.
But it’s just as true as in the gym,
if not as practiced.

I remember walking to church one Sunday morning,
seeing all the people out walking, jogging, biking,
and commenting in morning worship,
would that people had more a sense of the importance
of exercising their spirit—their souls.

I’m not, by the way, claiming we know how to do this!—
that we should change our name to Soul Fitness!
I’m saying it’s what we are—
what we should be figuring out—
always stretching and strengthening
our gracing,
our serving,
our including,
our loving.

good endings are hard work—
as are good beginnings.
They don’t just happen.
And it’s more than just wanting them to be good.
You make them good.

and the last of three observations:
there is nothing more important—
nothing more important for you to do—
to work at—to grow into—
to get better at
than loving—
and loving in such ways
that people know they’re being loved.

If you go from here
with some sense of the work it takes to love,
some sense of the importance of that work,
and some commitment to that work,
I will feel so very good
about what you take from this place
and this people.

So the three observations:
first, good endings are good beginnings;
second, good endings—beginnings are hard work;
third, the best hard work is love
which is beginning and end,
amen and amen.

Okay, now three suggestions:
don’t count yourself among the first,
if you don’t include yourself among the last.

don’t trust any story that fits too smoothly
into and with the stories and ways of the world.

And third,
know that God is with you always—
loving you more than you know how to,
and, of course,
loving everyone else more than you know how to too.

All of this, as we’ve said before,
all these observations and suggestions
are very simple.
They’re not easy—
not easy to implement—not easy to do—to keep
to keep doing,
but simple to grasp—

There’s one verse, abstracted from its larger story in Matthew,
that sounds like a challenging expectation:
to whom much is given,
of them, much is expected.
And it is—
a challenging expectation.
And the context of the story makes it no less so.
In fact, the Scripture story we heard read earlier seems almost unfair.
Actually there’s no almost about it.
The story seems unfair
in its utter rejection of the servant who buried the money—
especially, as we’ve noted before,
since that was an appropriate way to keep money safe.
“[r]abbinic law says that whoever immediately buries property
entrusted to him is no longer liable
because he has taken the safest course conceivable …”
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox, 1977] 471).

It seems unfair,
but for someone wanting to grow—
improve—get stronger—get healthier,
challenging expectations are good.
We need more of them
in this world and in this culture of ours.

And we expect a lot of you—
with grace—
with love.

We don’t want to put undue, inappropriate pressure on you,
but we do want an appropriate pressure.

We have seen enough in you
to expect a lot—
to hope a lot—
to anticipate not just what’s going to unfold for you,
but how your unfolding story
will make the world a better place.
That’s what we expect of you.
That’s all!

And so it is our hope and our prayer,
when you consider your giftedness—
your passions—
your fears—
your growth areas—
your sense of God’s presence and God’s call,
we hope and pray some questions arise
out of your experience here
with us—with God—with Scripture:
what if life is not about playing it safe?
What if life is about risking it all?

So finally, above all else—
after all the observations
and all the suggestions,
one commandment
that is also assurance and reassurance.

The noun and the verb
that are creation and fulfillment—
beginning and end—
you and us—
you and tomorrow.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
George Saunders, commencement speech, Syracuse University, 2013

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
with a little of that lectio divina going on
Luke 2:52
It’s just one verse, my friends,
but oh my, what a verse!
And Jesus—even Jesus—
Jesus the Son of God—
Jesus, God incarnate—God made flesh—
even Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.

Oh, he increased in years—big deal, right?
He was born. He was a boy of about two—
of about twelve.
He began his public ministry when he was about 30—
died when he was about 33.
Of course he increased in years.
That is, after all, part of what it means to be the incarnation.

But Jesus also increased, we read, in wisdom.
That’s what Scripture says.
We read that Jesus increased in wisdom in the Bible.
Nothing to skip over too quickly.
Jesus got wiser.
Now wisdom isn’t knowledge.
We’re not talking here about Jesus learning more—
though presumably he did that too.
Wisdom though, is about seeing better how
what you know fits into a bigger picture.
It’s about recognizing that there is,
a bigger picture—
horizons far beyond what’s apparent.

Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,
and in divine and human favor.
Now God loves you.
Oh, God loves you so.
Yet you can increase in divine favor—
as did Jesus.
You can make God more proud of you.
You can make God’s heart sing.

It’s not just going to happen.
You have to work at it—
at living love—
manifesting love—
incarnating God—
to reach the horizons far beyond what’s apparent—
the bigger picture that is our calling
in Jesus’ name.