Naivety (Sermon for September 23, 2018)

There are very few people in the world who will defend Pollyanna. It’s one of the things that makes my wife unique. She gets righteously angry about a few things, and one of them is the flagrant misinterpretation of this beloved children’s classic.

If you don’t know the novel, it follows an orphan named Pollyanna, who moves to Beldingsville, Vermont, to live with her Aunt Polly. Now, Aunt Polly is not a pleasant person. And neither are many of the other residents of Beldingsville. But, in good early-twentieth-century children’s novel fashion, Pollyanna is going to change that.

You see—and this is how everyone interprets the book—Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless optimism. She plays the Glad Game. Whenever she finds herself in a less-than-ideal situation, she plays the Glad Game. She finds something—one thing… anything—to be glad about.

When she looks in a charity box one Christmas and finds crutches instead of a doll, she is glad that doesn’t need the crutches.

When her aunt forces her to stay in a bare room in the attic, she is glad that it has such a wonderful view of the garden.

When she is sentenced to have a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she is glad because she likes bread and milk and Nancy the serving-girl.

And because she is so relentlessly optimistic, her name has become a by-word for naive optimism.

When someone is unrealistically optimistic—when someone maintains their gladness by ignoring the harsh reality of the world around them—we say that they are a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

And in today’s reading from James… James sounds like a little bit of a Pollyanna.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he writes, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace… Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you. Resist the devil and the devil will flee from you. Be a peacemaker and there will be peace.

It all sounds a little… unrealistic.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is teaching, and the disciples are arguing. It’s an argument that you know. It’s probably an argument that you’ve been a part of. It’s the argument about who is greater.

And I always imagine that the disciples are arguing about who is greater because we so often think that greatness is about power. Somewhere in life, we learn—and those disciples learned—that greatness and power come as a set. You get one, you get the other. If you are great, you get power; if you have power, you must be great.

We argue over this. We jockey for position. We fight wars for power and control and authority.

And cruelty is born out of those battles. The big cruelties of one nation subjugating another and driving out its people. The petty cruelties of an aunt forcing an orphan girl to stay in the bare room in the attic. Cruelty is born out of those battles.

And Jesus responds to his arguing disciples, “If you want to be first, you have to be last. You have to be the servant of everyone. Here is a child, she has no power, she has no status, she is the least among us. Welcome her. Show her a world defined by love.”

Holy power is not power over others. It’s power under others. It’s not the power to push someone down. It’s the power to lift them up.

Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ, welcomes God. And what better thing can we do than welcome God?

There are a million things in the world that I cannot control. But one of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at the world. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at other people. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how much power I give to a world that relishes power.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is not her relentless optimism. She is not a naturally optimistic person.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless discipline. She works at the Glad Game.

Pollyanna knows that the world is a dangerous place. She knows that the world is, sometimes, an evil place. he knows that the crutches aren’t a doll. She knows that being forced to stay in a bare room in the attic is a form of abuse. She knows that a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl is a punishment.

She knows that there are thorns and thistles in life. And the Glad Game is her way of refusing to accept that.

There’s an old ‘Native American’ story that floats around the internet. In it, an old man tells his grandson about a fight going on inside him. There are two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. One is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

And the same fight is going on inside is grandson. It’s going on inside you and me and everyone else.

His grandson asks him, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

And that is not a First Nations story. It was invented by Billy Graham sometimes in the late 70s. But it’s still true. What we feed, thrives. And Pollyanna is absolutely committed to feeding the goodness in the world and the brightness in herself.

And, more than that, she is going to tell the evil in the world that it does not have power over her. She is going to say that even in the face of her own suffering—even after a car hits her and she loses the use of her legs—she is going to find and celebrate the goodness in the world.

And by doing that, she will make the world slightly better. A little bit of the tarnish will come off. A little bit of the shine will come back.

And James is fully aware of the position that his Christian friends and neighbors are in. They are a persecuted religious minority surrounded by the most powerful empire in the world. Any sane person would be afraid. Any sane person would be preparing to fight. Any sane person would be grasping for power over the forces that are arrayed against him.

But the wisdom that comes from above is pure and peaceable. It is gentle and willing to yield and full of mercy and good fruits… even with its enemies. It is without a trace, even a trace, of partiality… even towards the people who are already on its own side. It is without a trace, even a trace, of hypocrisy: we don’t just talk about love, we go out and love.

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Being a Christian—following this Jesus person—is a choice. It’s a choice every day. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the temptations of power. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the struggles of this world.

And one part of that choice is welcoming the lost child, even if they aren’t our child, because there’s no such thing as other people’s children.

And one part of that choice is finding the good that God has so carefully planted in this world. Part of that choice is pushing the thorns and thistles aside to get to the flower of love that they are hiding. Part of that choice may even be finding the beauty in the thorns and thistles of life.

Now, I need to be clear here. This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Just because we see and acknowledge and nurture the goodness of the world does not mean that we are unaware of injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil.

Pollyanna can play the Glad Game. She is still staying in a bare room in the attic, she is still having a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she still has to learn to walk again. She is not ignorant of the world, and we can’t be, either.

But, when someone looks for the goodness in the world, it is easy to call them a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

When we look for and nurture the goodness in the world, it will be easy for people to call us a pack of Pollyannas, a phrase which here means, a group of naive folk who do not know how the world works.

But here’s the thing: that is how the world works. And part of the work of fighting injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil is finding the goodness in the world and making more of it.

It is sowing a garden of peace in the hope that there will one day be a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

Words (Sermon for September 16, 2018)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Now and forever.

When I was young, I learned a saying. You know it, too. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

And I can tell you something that I’m sure you already know: that saying isn’t true. It’s a lie. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves and our friends and our children when someone else is teasing them or insulting them or bullying them. It’s a comforting lie. It might even be a useful lie. But it’s a lie all the same.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

Baptism is as much about the words as it is about the water: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord’s table is as much about the words as it is about the bread and wine: “This is my body broken for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

Marriage is as much about the words as it is about the signature on a license: “I do… I now pronounce you…” Years are taken away as much by the judge’s words as they are by her signature on an order, “I sentence you to…”

Or, closer to home… remember the first time that the right person said, “I love you.” Think about the names people called you or the ways they insulted you, when you had to remind yourself that sticks and stones may break your bones, before breaking down in tears. Let your mind sidle up to the words we don’t say: the cursèd words that we call only by their first letter: the n-word, the c-word, the f-word.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And James knows this. In todays reading from his epistle—his open letter to all of the churches, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, to all y’all—James is writing about the power of words. He knows that words are small fires that can set a whole forest ablaze. We can use them to bless our God and savior. We can use them to curse people.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words can bless and curse me.

And here is Jesus, asking about words.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples reply, “Some people say that you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. Other people say that you’re Elijah, back from his sojourn in heaven. Still others say that you’re one of the prophets.”

You see, people are looking for the words to describe Jesus. They’re looking for someone to compare Jesus to. They’re looking for a category to slip Jesus into. And they know who John and Elijah and the prophets are. They know what those words mean. If Jesus is one of those, then they can make sense of him.

But Jesus pushes the question further. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks, “Not your families or friends or people who we’ve met along the way. You… you who know me the best. Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat, “You are the Messiah.”

And he thinks he know what that means. He says, “You are the Messiah.” And he means, “You are God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again.”

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

The word ‘naughty’ used to mean ‘poor’, as in a person who had nought. Now it means bad.

The word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘ignorant’. Then it wandered drunkenly around the language and meant ‘showy’ or ‘refined’ or ‘cowardly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘intricate’. It settled on ‘precise’ for a while. And now it means agreeable.

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

And Jesus is about to do something to the word ‘Messiah’.

He is about to tell his disciples that the word ‘Messiah’ means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

And that… sounds bad. That doesn’t sound like God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again. That sounds like someone who will die. And Peter doesn’t like that. But it gets worse.

Because if we want to follow him, then we’re gonna have to follow him. Cross and all.

When we say, “Jesus is the Messiah.” When we say, “Jesus is the Christ.” When we call ourselves Christians, we are saying something about ourselves. We’re saying that we will pick up our crosses and follow him; that we will lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus asks us who we say that he is, and we put our lives on the line.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And it isn’t just about who we say Jesus is. It’s about who we say anyone is. It’s about who we say each other are. There is amazing power in what we call each other. There is amazing power in how we speak to each other.

Most of you know that I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission. That is something that might come up on a quiz sometime, so I’ll repeat it: I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission.

And one of the things that I learned there was the power of words. We didn’t call the people who came to spend time in our day center ‘clients’. We called then ‘guests’. There is a difference between calling someone a client and calling them a guest.

And one of the things that was drilled into me starting on my first day at the Mission was that everyone who came to us was, first and foremost, before they were anything else, was a precious child of a loving God.

In a world where people living in poverty are told that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, we started with, “You are the precious child of a loving God.”

And that meant something to the people we served. And it meant something to me.

I believe that people will tend to live up to the expectations we put on them. Not every time, but most of the time. If we tell someone that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, they will meet that expectation. If we tell someone that they are the precious child of a loving God, they will strive to meet that expectation. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

But there’s more to it than that. When I say that someone is the precious child of a loving God, I’m putting an expectation on myself: I have to act like that person is the precious child of a loving God. I cannot call someone the precious child of a loving God and then treat them as anyone less; as anyone small or worthless or really nobody at all. When I say, “You are the precious child of a loving God,” I call myself to be something greater than I was before I uttered those words. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

The words we use matter. What we call people matters. What we say to each other matters.

I’ve been preaching about love the last few weeks. Love is a good sermon topic. It’s a major Biblical theme. It’s the kind of thing that we should talk about in church.

But love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

It isn’t enough to say, “I love you.” I have to love you.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are loved and you are worthy of love.” I have to live as though you are loved and you are worthy of love.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are the precious child of a loving God.” I have to treat you as the precious child of a loving God.

Love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

But, like so many things, it starts with those words that have almost unimaginable power. So I want to try something a little bit different. I want you to turn to someone who is sitting near you… maybe not a family member, but someone who just happens to be nearby.

And I want you to say this. Just repeat after me.

You are loved and you are worthy of love. (Repeat)

You are the precious child of a loving God. (Repeat)

And I will love you, by the grace of God. (Repeat)

Amen.

Cool (Sermon for September 9, 2018)

Last weekend, there were two funerals.

I don’t know how many of you saw Aretha Franklin’s funeral. I didn’t watch it live, but I watched some of the eulogies and musical tributes on YouTube after it was over. And while there were a couple of rough spots, it was a good service. The music honored God and Aretha, and Jennifer Hudson can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about Aretha’s art and about her work for justice, and Rev. Dr. Barber can preach here any times he wants.

It honored the Queen of Soul and it called the people who watched to continue her work. It was a good service.

I don’t know how many of you saw John McCain’s funeral. I saw a little bit of it live, and I watched some of the eulogies and musical pieces on YouTube after it was over. And it was also a good service. The music honored God and John, and Renee Fleming can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about John’s service and about his legacy, and President Obama can preach here any times he wants.

(I know not all of you liked him as a president, but the man can give a speech).

It honored the maverick of the Senate and it called the people who watched to continue his work. It was a good service.
And I know that there were people watching them on television or the internet or wherever, who saw them and thought, “If only my church could be like that.”

I know that because I know that some well-meaning white pastors got on Twitter and Facebook and said so. They said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. I wish someone would shout ‘Amen’ during the sermon. I wish there was dancing in the aisles during the hymns. I wish that people would clap on two and four.”

And I’m sure that some well-meaning pastors said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Washington National Cathedral. I wish that we had flying buttresses and a mighty rose window and clever gargoyles. I wish that we had our own string quartet. I wish that we had the pomp and circumstance and weight of tradition.”

And I’ll bet a few people who attend church faithfully on Sunday mornings said the same things.

And I get it. I know where folks are coming from when we wish for those things. We are here this morning in a mainline, Protestant church. And while we generally have good attendance, there aren’t as many people here as there used to be. And while we aren’t panicking about money, the budget isn’t as big as it used to be.

And, let’s face it, it’s-not-how-it-used-to-be is a story that’s playing out in churches across the country. In mainline churches, in evangelical churches, in Catholic churches, in Orthodox churches. In white churches and Black churches and Korean churches and Latinx churches.

And we are all looking for the thing that will get folks to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. We are all looking for best projections, and the gospel choir, and the pomp and circumstance, and the dancing in the aisles, and the hip young pastor.

We all want to get some of that cool. And when the line-up has Michael Eric Dyson and Tyler Perry and Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, or a couple of former presidents and the United States Navy Brass Ensemble… well, that’s pretty cool. We all want to get some of that cool.

One of today’s readings is from the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is the ancient equivalent of an open letter. It wasn’t written to a specific church. It was written to all of the churches. To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. To all y’all.

And in this morning’s passage, James is talking about the difference between style and substance. And he’s telling us about a problem he’s seeing in too many churches: they’re trying to look cool.

When someone with gold rings and fine clothes shows up, they pull out all the stops. They usher them in and say, “Here’s the best seat, please. And be sure to fill out the little visitor card. And please join us for coffee after the service, use one of the special mugs with the black outside and the red inside and the logos on it. Oh, and let me introduce you to our pastor. It’s so nice to have you here.”

But when… other people… come in. Well, they’re not as nice. Maybe they’re even a little dismissive.

You see, they’re trying to be the church where the influencers go. They’re trying to be the church were the hip kids go. They’re trying to get people who aren’t there yet to say, “Did you hear so-and-so goes to that church? We should check that out. I heard Ariana Grande is doing the special music next week.”

They want to look cool. And I get that. I want to look cool.

But James reminds them… and us… and everyone… that looking cool isn’t the same as being cool.

And he says to them… and us… and everyone… “You say you’ve got faith, but you don’t have works. You see someone who’s naked and hungry and you say, ‘Oh, go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ but you don’t give them any clothes or any food. You’ve got the look, but not the thing; you’ve got the style, but not the substance. You think you’re cool, but I can see right through you. You are posers.”

You see, it’s not about the gold rings and fine clothes. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about something else entirely.

Way back in the third century, there was a theologian named Tertullian. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard a quote from one of his many writings.

In one of his books, he is describing the Christian community and contrasting it with the pagan world that surrounds it. He describes worship and prayer and discipline and charity. “But,” he writes, “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘see how they — see how those Christians — love one another.”

Now, Tertullian was writing when Christianity was a minority religion, surrounded by a society that did not share its beliefs or its culture, persecuted by the powers-that-were. And he imagined that non-Christians did not so much love one another. He imagined that Christian love was unique and impressive and radically counter-cultural.

And we are not in the same position. As Christians in the United States today, we are part of a majority religion; we are surrounded by a culture that we have influenced and, and times, dominated; and we are far from persecuted. Some of our Christian friends and neighbors are far more likely to be doing the persecuting, than being persecuted.

But… we live in a society where there is not enough love.

Last week, I reminded you that you are loved and that you are worthy of love. And the truth is that there are far too many people in this world who do not know that they are loved and who do not know that they are worthy of love. We are so desperate for love that we will run to anything that looks like it might be love.

And worse than that, we live in a society where people look at the church and see a community that does not love. They see a community that talks about love. They see a community that pretends to love. They see a community that has a the style… but does not have the substance. They see a community that does not love.

And far too often, far too many churches are happy to live up to the low expectations that people have of us.

And we can do better than that. We — we the whole big worldwide church, we the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa — can do better than that. It is not about the style. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about love. That is what people are hungry for. That is what God calls us to do. To love.

See how they love one another.

And more.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in a house in Tyre, and he’s trying to not be noticed. But this woman — this gentile woman — comes up to him and starts talking about her daughter, who has a demon.

And Jesus, who we know is loving and caring and ready to help and ready to heal… dismisses her. He isn’t for her. He is Jesus. He is Jewish. He is the deliverer of the Jewish people. He is the Messiah of Israel. And this woman is a gentile. He isn’t for her.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food… and throw it to the dogs.”

‘See how they love one another’ means ‘see how they love one another. See how they love people who are already inside.’ But there are people who aren’t inside — there are people out there who need love. They need to know they are loved. They need to know they are worthy of love.

And this woman won’t let go. This woman is going to school Jesus, who is in this house in Tyre trying to not be noticed, on love.

“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“If you want to call me a dog you can call me a dog. But you are still responsible for the dogs. You don’t get to have this gift — you don’t get to have this power — and not share it around.”

We don’t get to have this love and not share it around.

See how they love one another? No. See how they love everyone.

See, that’s the thing. That’s the substance. That’s the cool. It isn’t about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about the love. It’s about the endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love.

It is about love when we are celebratory and raucous. It is about love when we are somber and staid. It is about love in our joy. It is about love in our sorrow. It is about love for people inside. It is about love for people outside. It is about love. It is about love. It is about love.

And, yeah, I really believe that love — endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love — is the thing that will get people to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. But, just as importantly, it is what will bring us closer to God.

Cool. Cool cool cool.

Chewed Up Gum (Sermon for September 2, 2018)

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”

Oh… my.

I tend to be a lectionary preacher. If you haven’t heard of the lectionary before, it’s a list of scriptures for every Sunday of the year, plus holidays like Christmas and Good Friday and All Saints Day and even Thanksgiving (and Canadian Thanksgiving).
It runs over a three year cycle. So, if we followed the lectionary really closely, and read all four of the suggested scriptures in every worship service, we would get through a pretty good chunk of the Bible over the course of a few years.

I like it because it forces me to grapple with scriptures that I might not choose if I selected my own scriptures every week. I have my favorites. And there’s a risk that I’d preach on them every week. And this makes sure that I spend time with other scriptures.

But, sometimes, I get this: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice.”

This morning’s Old Testament reading is from a book that is often called the Song of Solomon. But, in Hebrew, it’s called Shir haShirim: Song of Songs. And, again in Hebrew, when someone says that something is the ‘thing of things’ that means it’s the best, the greatest, the most beautiful: Lord of Lords, Holy of Holies, Song of Songs. This is the best song.

And people have spent thousands of years trying to figure out what to do with it. Because it’s in the Bible. And it’s a love song. People have tried to make it into a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church. And maybe it is. But it is also a love song. Period. And it gets… well…

And I looked, and this might be the only time it shows up in the lectionary.

In today’s reading, the woman in the song is describing a visit from her lover. And it’s a scene we’ve seen played out in a thousand movies and television shows. And maybe some of you have seen it in real life.

A boy shows up at the house and throws pebbles against the window. And the girl opens the window. And the the boy says, “Come away with me. It’s springtime. The night is warm. The birds are singing. The flowers are blossoming. Come away with me and we’ll kiss on a mountaintop. Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you.”

(Some of that is Norah Jones, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

When I was younger — when I was involved in a more conservative church organization — I encountered purity culture. Or, at least, something that looked a lot like purity culture.

Purity culture is hard to describe, but you’ve probably run into it… at least a little. Maybe a lot. Pledges to abstain from sex until marriage; maybe even to abstain from kissing until marriage; maybe even the practice of wearing a purity ring as a reminder of that pledge. Chaperoned courtships to make sure that no one gives in to impure thoughts or impure urges. Absolutely a four-feet-on-the-floor-at-all-times rule. Absolutely heteronormative. Absolutely cis-normative.

And there’s the gum metaphor. You are like a stick of gum. And if you step outside the boundaries of your purity — if you have sex outside of marriage — then it’s like someone has chewed you up. And when you’re done, who’s going to want a chewed up piece of gum? No one. That’s who.

And I want to be clear here: while we see purity culture a lot in conservative evangelical culture, we also see it in plenty of other places.

And I want to be painfully clear here: purity culture is harmful. It hurts people who have been the victims of sexual violence. It hurts people who haven’t been victims, but who gave in to their own hormones that one time. It hurts people who haven’t given in, but who stand in a place of judgement over their friends and neighbors.

It can leave a person an empty shell of themselves, under the waves, in the blue of their oblivion.

(And that’s Fiona Apple, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are eating. And they’re eating without washing their hands.

Now, the Pharisees and the scribes had a tradition that they did not eat without washing their hands, and whatever they bought at the market, and their cups and pots and kettles.

And Mark even uses a sort of hopeful superlative: “All of the Jews,” he says, “had this tradition.” Now, ‘all of the Jews’ certainly did not. But Mark is trying to paint a picture here.

And the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples ignore the tradition of our elders? Why are they eating with unclean hands? Why don’t they keep pure?”

And here the lectionary is a little weird, because it skips some verses. And Jesus gives three answers here.

To the scribes and Pharisees he answers, “You are terrible. You are putting your human tradition over God’s commands. In fact, you avoid following God’s commands by creating a loophole through tradition.”

To the crowd he answers, “There is nothing outside a person that can defile him by going in.”

And, later, to the disciples he answers, “Food cannot defile you, only what comes out of your heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And while the gospel just kind of moves on after that, in this moment, whether they realize it or not, the disciples stand condemned. In this moment, whether we realize it or not, we stand condemned. Because we’ve all had things come out of our hearts that defile us and make us less than pure.

And, yes, some of those are sexual: fornication and adultery and licentiousness. But most of them aren’t. And while some of them might seem rare — like theft and murder, though those aren’t as rare as you might think — most of them are things that we do in our everyday lives, one way or another: avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly.

And they are not ranked. There is not one evil inclination that’s better than another. There is no grading on a curve. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and we all stand in complete equality before her, defiled and impure because of that sin.

If anyone here is a chewed up piece of gum, we all are. And who wants a chewed up piece of gum?

God does.

That is the heart of the gospel. No matter how beat down you are, no matter how heavy and dirty your soul is, no matter who you are… where you are on life’s journey… what you’ve done… what has happened to you… God still comes to your window and throws pebbles and asks you to come away with him. God still calls you his dove. God still asks to see your face and hear your voice, because your voice is sweet and your face is lovely. And God will never… ever… ever… stop loving you.

And I cannot tell you how important that message is. There are people in this world, there are people in this town, there are people in this church community, there are people in this sanctuary, who have been told that they are not loved and that they are not worthy of love.

There are people in this world who lie about love. They lie to others and they lie to themselves.

And I want this message to be resoundingly clear: you are loved and you are worthy of love.

You will lose your confidence. In times of trial, your common sense. You may lose your innocence, but you cannot lose God’s love.

(And that’s Sara Groves, but that’s okay, I think she gets it).

And it doesn’t stop there.

We are Christians. We are imitators of Christ.

We’re not always good at it. I’m not always good at it. But that’s what we are. And that means two things.

First, it means that we are called into a new life. We are called to be better than we are. We are called to shun fornication and adultery and licentiousness. And theft and murder. And avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly. And everything that is not love.

And we’re going to fail. That’s okay. We get up, we know that we are loved, and we try again.

Second, it means that we’re called to share that same indiscriminate love that God has or us with everyone in here and with everyone out there. We are called to remind each other that we are not chewed up pieces of gum, but precious children of a loving God.

Because, you see, God has a love song. It is the love song of love songs. It is the greatest of all love songs. And we can all sing along. Amen.

Not Against Flesh and Blood (Sermon for August 26, 2018)

Most of you know that Mariah and I have a dachshund named Hildegard. A while ago, we started having a little problem with her: she started refusing to go for walks. She would be fine in the fenced-in yard, and she was willing to step out into the rest of the yard and maybe even walk around the house a little bit. But, once we got to the sidewalk, she would tuck her tail and shake and sit down and refuse to move.

A trip to the vet ruled out any medical problems. And we know that Hildegard has had some scary run-ins with loose dogs in the neighborhood… and fireworks over the summer… and loud noises like motorcycles and backfiring trucks.

So now we’re taking a behavioral approach. Hildegard thinks that the world outside of our fenced-in yard is scary, and we need to do the long hard work of teaching her that it is not. Or, at least, of giving her the resilience to overcome that fear and go for a walk.

Today’s reading is from the letter to the Ephesians. Our reading a couple of weeks ago was also from this book. In that the sermon I gave then, I told you a few important things about this letter… but I thought a refresher might be in order.

So, four things:

First, this letter is almost certainly not by Paul, even though his name is right there at the beginning. It’s probably by an anonymous person who followed Paul and who wanted to borrow some of Paul’s credibility for his own letter.

Second, this letter was almost certainly not written to the church in Ephesus, even though its name is right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, sent from church to church, with each sender writing the recipient’s name into the letter: to the saints who are in Ephesus, to the saints who are in Laodicea, to the saints who are in DeWitt.

Third, this letter by an anonymous author, passed from church to church, is sometimes very wrong. And fourth, it is sometimes very right.

In today’s passage, the author takes a moment to recognize the struggles that his audience faces. For the the early church, these struggles included conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and challenges in figuring out who they were and how they lived and what they believed.

For us, two thousand years later, these struggles are different. In some parts of the world, our Christian friends and neighbors are persecuted and threatened. In some parts of our nation, our friends and neighbors — Christian or not — are marginalized and oppressed. And even in this relatively privileged congregation, we face loss, illness, loneliness, and heartache.

Struggle is real… every one of us is facing our own version of a big world beyond the fenced-in yard.

When Hildegard faces her world beyond the fenced-in yard, she does it as a dog, and dogs don’t think the way that we do.

Hildegard doesn’t think in abstractions. She doesn’t think about walks-in-general, or other-dogs-in-general, or parks-in-general. She can’t have one good walk and think that’s what walks are like.

And she doesn’t quite have the same kind of episodic memory that we have. She probably can’t quite remember the time that a dog ran out from a house and started a fight with her… at least, not in the same way that I can.

She might not even know that the world outside the fenced-in yard is scary; she probably doesn’t think to herself, “I am now in the world outside the fenced-in yard and bad things have happened here and they might happen again.” Her knowledge of the world, I think, is deeper in her bones. She steps into the world beyond the fenced-in yard and she is just scared. It’s a brute fact.

We are different.

When I am afraid, I can sit down and think about why I am afraid. When I am upset, I can sit down and think about why I am upset. When I am angry, I can sit down and think about why I am angry.

And, if I think through those things and work on them — by myself or with a therapist — I might be able to overcome them. I might be able to go through my struggles and come out the other side… different, but whole and healthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes, when we sit and think about our struggles, we find someone to blame. And Lord, there are people out there who will tell us who to blame for our problems.

There are people in our families and communities and churches who will tell us who to blame for our our struggles. There are people in the paper and on the radio and on the television who will tell us who to blame for our struggles.

There are people who will tell us to blame our family members. There are people who will tell us to blame strangers. But the message is consistent: “Here is the cause of your problems… it’s their fault.”

There are people who try and push us apart from each other… who want us to believe that our struggles are against each other.

Hildegard doesn’t see the world that way. She doesn’t blame her struggles on that dog that got loose or those people who set off the fireworks. She just knows that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is a world of struggle.

And the author of Ephesians doesn’t see the world that way. He knows that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, I know, we’re good modern twenty-first century mainline protestant Christians and good sensible practical Iowas. We don’t usually talk about cosmic powers and spiritual forces. We are too level headed for that. But I think Hildegard might know something we don’t. And I think the author of Ephesians might know something we aren’t always aware of.

All of us — all of us: you and me and everyone — are subject to forces that we do not understand and that we might not even be aware of. Some of those are wonderful, like that pull to help a stranger stranded on the side of the road. Some of them are terrible, like those unconscious biases that push us to be suspicious of people who are too different from us.

We don’t always know why we do things… and, sometimes, the things that we do are the wrong things. And that’s true for all of us. And that is the key.

You see, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is not against our family or friends or neighbors or strangers. You see, all of them are caught in the same struggle that we are. All of them are having to endure the world beyond the fenced-in yard. All of them are subject to forces that they do not understand and may not even be aware of. All of them are going through what we’re going through.

And the only way to help them through that struggle — the only way to help them through that struggle; a struggle that they might not even know they’re engaged in — is to love them. The only way to get through this world of struggle is to love each other.

The author of Ephesians wants us to be safe in this struggle. He wants us to put on the armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and — the metaphor rapidly losing steam — the shoes of whatever will help you proclaim the gospel.

And he’s not wrong. The world is full of struggle. But…

The thing about a suit of armor is that only one person can fit inside. And truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit and the gospel aren’t like that. We’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Enter the house of God. Not just the house, but the mansion of God. A great mansion with hallways that stretch on forever, with room after room after room, with space for everyone. This is the beauty of that gospel that holds within it truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit: it is big enough for everyone. This is the beauty of God’s love: there is more than enough to go around.

Hildegard is scared of the world beyond the fenced-in yard. And there are reasons for her to be scared. There are forces she does not understand. Some of them will try to hurt her. Some of them won’t try, but will hurt her anyway. And the only way through that fear is for Mariah and I to show her that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is also full of treats and scritchies and love.

The world that we live in is a world of struggle. For all of us. And the only way through that struggle is for us to share the assurance that we have and to show each other that this world is also a world of love. That it is mostly a world of love. That it is intended to be entirely a world of love.

That is the call… to take up this armor and share it around until it is something more, until the world is full of the gospel; until the world overflows with the presence of the God who is love.

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom (Sermon for August 19, 2018)

We held worship in Fellowship Hall today as the work on replacing carpet in the Sanctuary continues. We hope to have recordings again next week.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

That’s not from our reading today. It’s from our call to worship. It’s from a Psalm. The psalmist sings that he will praise the Lord. He sings that the Lord’s works are great; they are full of honor and majesty; they are faithful and just. He sings that the Lord is renowned for her wonderful deeds; she has provided food to the people; she has sent redemption.

And he sings that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

And that sounds terrible. The Lord is my savior. And this makes it sound like God has plucked me out of the abyss and I am hanging from a string as thin and fragile as a spider’s thread, and that I am afraid, because if I do the wrong thing… he might just… let go.

And that would not be a healthy relationship. If you ever find yourself in that kind of relationship — a relationship where you are afraid that, if you do the wrong thing, your partner will hurt you or kill you — get out. That is abuse. That is a dangerous place to be.

That goes for religion, too. If that is the fear we’re supposed to have — if that is the beginning of wisdom — then God is a monster. And, as Christians, we do not believe that God is a monster. We know — from scripture and from experience — that God is love and that perfect love casts out all fear.

And yet, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

In today’s reading, David is dead. He has gone to sleep with his ancestors. And his son, Solomon, now sits on the throne.
Now, Solomon is a good kid. He loves God. He walks in the statutes of his father. He offers sacrifices. And in a dream one night, God appears to him and asks him, “What should I give to you?”

And Solomon shows God… his fear.

“You have made me the king of your people,” he says, “and I am young, and there are so many of them, and I have no idea what I am doing.” And you can hear it in his voice. He is afraid. He wonders how he is going to live up to this responsibility.

I am forty. I have reached a point in my life where I know two things. First, there are a couple of things that I am really good at. Second, there are a bunch of things where I’m just faking it and hoping no one notices. And I’m starting to suspect that this is just what adulthood is like. And, sometimes, that’s scary.

And a while ago, I started thinking about all of those adults and authority figures who I knew growing up.

I started thinking about those elementary school teachers who seemed so old, but who were probably, like, in their twenties. I started thinking about my parents. My parents were in their thirties when I was born. I even looked up one of my college professors who I really admire. And when he was teaching me, he was younger than I am now.

And while I believe — I really believe — that all of these people had some things that they were really good at… it seems like they might have also been faking some things and hoping no one noticed. And it seems like they might have, sometimes, been afraid.

Because that just might be how it is for everyone. We’re all a little confident, and we’re all a little afraid. We all understand how Solomon felt… at least a little bit.

But this is a different kind of fear. It isn’t the fear that someone will hurt us or punish us. It isn’t the fear that we’re dangling from a spider’s thread, and if we mess up, God might just… let go.

It is a fear that we are ill-equipped for the life that we face. It is a fear that we will hurt someone we care about. It is a fear that is, in a strange and mysterious way, born out of love.

That is the fear that Solomon has: the fear that he doesn’t have what it takes — that he doesn’t have what he needs — to be a good king.

So he asks… “Give me… an understanding mind to govern your people; make me able to discern between good and evil.”

He fears God with a fear born out of a love for God’s people. And he asks for wisdom.

I once read that persuasive writers and speakers project certainty. People who are convincing sound sure. They state opinions as though they were facts. They avoid qualifiers like “I think…” or “I suppose…” We’re all faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices. And if you really want to keep people from noticing, project certainty.

But know: there’s a price.

Solomon asked for wisdom because he feared God; because he was willing to say to God, “I don’t know if I can do this. I am only a child, I don’t know how to go out or come in.” And there is power in that admission. There is power in saying, “I am not certain. I’m faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices.”

There is power in saying, “I need help,” to God. Because when we say that, God might just help. And there is power in saying, “I need help,” to each other. Because when we say that, our friends and neighbors might just help. And we might not have to fake it, anymore.

When Solomon asks God for wisdom, God responds by giving him wisdom. And there’s something interesting happening here.

When Solomon asks for wisdom, God responds by saying, “Because you have asked for this — and not for a long life, or great riches, or for the death of your enemies — I will give it to you… and, on top of that, I will give you riches, and honor, and a long life.”

And it looks a lot like this: if Solomon had asked for those other things, God would have said, “No.” But, because Solomon asked for wisdom — because Solomon said, “I need help,” — God gave him what he asked for and more.

God is generous. When we are vulnerable before God, God gives us what we need and more.

And, I think, in general, so are we. When we are vulnerable before each other — when we say, “I am doing my best, but I’m a little scared and I don’t know exactly what to do,” — we turn to each other and offer each other those three magic words, “Let me help.”

And when we help each other, when we become the hands and feet and heart of the Lord Jesus Christ who saves us all… and when we accept that help, when we become the outstretched hand of the marginalized Christ who is the least of these… then we will have wisdom and insight and knowledge. And, even more, we will have riches and honor and abundant life.

Because, it turns out, if we give up on the idea that we have to fake it and hope that no one notices, if we give up on the necessity of foolish certainty, if we admit that we are dependent on God and on each other… then we can grow in God, and have all that we need and more.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But the fear of the Lord isn’t some fear that we’re hanging over an abyss by a spider’s thread and that if we mess up, God will just… let go. We know that God doesn’t do that. God has redeemed us and rescued us and saved us. Because God is love.

Period.

The fear of the Lord is that admission that we can’t do this by ourselves, and we don’t want to fake it, and we don’t want to hurt the people who we care about… and we know that we are called to care about everyone. And it is when we admit that, that we can turn to God in prayer and ask for what we need: minds that can discern the difference between good and evil, hearts that can choose to choose the good even when it’s hard, and spirits that can ask for help.

Because knowing that we cannot do this alone — and that we are not, in fact, alone — is the deepest wisdom.

Life, Together (Sermon for August 12, 2018)

We held worship outside this morning, so there’s no recording today.

As we have established in earlier sermons, I am a nerd. Almost every week, I get together with a group of friends and we play… well, not Dungeons & Dragons, but a similar game. For a few hours, we play characters who are wizards and thieves and warriors, who are elves and dwarves and halflings, who are fighting dragons and defeating evil sorcerers and saving the world.

And what it all comes down to is this: we sit around a table and work together to tell a story. And because we are working together to tell a story, one of the first things we have to do is decide what kind of story it is. Are we telling a story of epic high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or are we telling a comedy like Monty Python and the Holy Grail? After all, if some of us are telling one of those stories, and some of us are telling the other, no one will have any fun.

So we ask: for the next few hours at this table… who are we going to be? And I want to be clear: that’s a different question from ‘who am I going to be… or what are my aspirations?’ Who are we, as a group of friends telling a story together going to be?’

And that’s an important question. At some point, you’ve probably worked on it yourselves.

We ask it when we talk about workplace culture: who are we, as a business, going to be?

We ask it when we go through things in romantic relationships: who are we, as a couple or a family, going to be?

We ask it when we go through a church visioning process: who are we, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

We ask it when we go into a voting booth: who are we, as a city or a state or a nation, going to be?

Not just ‘who am I going to be?’ but ‘how are we going to live together?’

And that might be one of the most important questions we can ask. We are creatures of community. No matter how much we like alone time, we don’t do well in isolation. And in order to be happy in community, we have to ask how we want to be in community. All of us. How are we going to live together?

Today’s reading is from a book in the New Testament that we call Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. And, if I can put on a different nerd hat for a minute, that’s a terrible name for this book. For two reasons.

First, it almost certainly wasn’t written by Paul, even though it has his name right there at the beginning. It was probably written by someone who followed Paul, who admired Paul, and who wanted to add some of Paul’s credibility to his own letter. He wanted to say something like, ‘this is what Paul would tell us.’

Second, it almost certainly wasn’t written to the church in Ephesus, even though it has their name right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, meaning that it was sent from church to church to church, all around the ancient near east. And that little spot at the beginning would be filled in with different names, depending on the church that someone was sending it to.

To the saints who are in Ephesus… to the saints who are in Laodicea… to the saints who are in DeWitt.

It was personalized and it went viral. And the author was asking that question: who are we, as people who live together in this world, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

And while I don’t what to downplay the importance and authority of a book of the Bible, the fact that this was a viral letter written by an anonymous author can be helpful. Because, like a lot of people who try to say who we are called to be with certainty and clarity, the author writes out a lot of rules. And, sometimes, he is very very wrong about who we want to be and who we are called to be.

“Wives, submit to your husbands,” he says, “slaves obey your masters.” And, of centuries, we were those people: people who treated women as second class citizens, people who owned other people. We were once people who quoted this book to justify oppression. And, while we’re not out of the shadow of that history yet — while we still have a long way to go — I think that we’ve made some progress.

But, just because the author of Ephesians is wrong sometimes doesn’t mean he’s wrong all the time. And, in our passage today, I think that he has some things exactly right.

Our reading today is a list of rules, a list of ideas, a list of ‘try to be this way’ statements. And I’m only going to look at one, one ‘try to be this way’ statement that I think our anonymous author gets exactly right: “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

In general, I’m a pretty calm person. I’m pretty steady. I’m not led by my passions. But, I admit, there are things happening in the world today that make me angry.

Right now, there are children in detention centers near the border. They and their parents trekked for hundreds of miles in search of a better and safer life. They were arrested and separated. And some of those children will never see their parents again, because their parents were deported, and they don’t have a way back to their children.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people to separate children from their families and keep those kids in detention centers.

Right now, there are schools planning their active shooter drills for the coming school year. And there are people working to make things so that, if you can afford a 3-D printer and download some files from the internet, you can print an untraceable and almost undetectable gun in your own home.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people whose children have to be afraid that someone will print a gun at home and then show up at their school.

Right now, and I mean right now, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are preparing for a rally in Washington, D.C., in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, later today.

And that makes me angry… because I really don’t think we should be a people where voices of hatred and oppression are accepted and amplified.

There are things happening in the world today that make me angry. There are things happening in the world today that make you angry. And that’s okay. There is a place for anger… and there is especially a place for anger in the service of love for our neighbors.

And, sometimes, when we are talking about how we are going to live together, we are going to get angry… and, sometimes, that anger is going to be appropriate, it is going to be necessary, and it is going to be righteous. There are times for civility and there are times for incivility. Anger is not always wrong.

But…

We are angrier than we used to be. Maybe not you, and not all the time, and, hopefully, not in this sanctuary or at each other… though we are a church and a community and a family… and those are all places where anger happens. But, out there in the world, in general, we are angrier than we used to be.

And there is a difference between being a person who gets angry in the service of righteousness, and being an angry person. There is a difference between being people who sometimes get angry when we talk about how we are going to live together, and being people who live together in anger.

And I think that the author of Ephesians knew that.

“Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

When the author of Ephesians wrote a letter to the saints who were in Ephesus… and the saints who were in Laodicea… and the saints who are in DeWitt, a town he had never heard of in a land he knew nothing about… when the author of Ephesians wrote this letter, the Christian community was small and persecuted and a little bit at war with itself. This was a community of Jews and Gentiles from across the Roman Empire and there were disagreements about how they were going to live… together… as one body.

And I have no doubt there was anger. And bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice.

And they needed that reminder — and, sometimes, we need that reminder — that anger is okay, but sin is not. That after the anger there is a call to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving.

Because God was kind and tenderhearted and forgiving towards us.

As a church, we are entering a season of visioning. We are asking how we are going to live together. And while it might not seem like it, as we discover a vision together and live into that vision together, there may be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I hope that anger is in the service of righteousness.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

As a nation, we are entering a season of campaigns and elections. We are asking how we are going to live together. And I guarantee you there will be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I pray that anger is in the service of justice.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

And here is the thing: when my friends and I sit down together and enter a world of thieves and elves and dragons, we know that we are telling a story together. And that story only works if everyone at that table has a voice… and if everyone at that table is having fun.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from having fun — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can work to love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone has fun.

And when we come together as a community — as a church, as a city, as a nation — we know that we are living a life together. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone has a voice. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone is being loved.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from loving or from being loved — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone is loved.

And I believe — I really believe — that if we recognize that we are all in this together, as one body, then we can live the life that we are called to: a life rooted in the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We can be imitators of God, beloved children. By the grace of God, may that be so.

Hallelujah (Sermon for July 29, 2018)

Oh… David.

Our reading from 2 Samuel this morning is one of the most famous stories from the Bible. It’s famous enough to make it into a Leonard Cohen song that’s been covered time and time again. I won’t ruin your morning by singing it, but you know it. You’ve heard it. “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof; you saw her bathing on the roof; her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya.”

And because it’s so well-known, a lot of us only know a little bit of it; mostly from the Leonard Cohen song. David and Bathsheba and an affair. Something goes wrong.”She tied you to the kitchen chair; and she broke your throne and cut your hair; and from your lips she drew…”

Ain’t love grand?

But that’s not the story. This isn’t a story about a love affair. This is a story about David screwing up… and covering up the fact that he screwed up. And because it’s one of those stories that’s different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible, we’re going to spend some time with it. We’re going to dig in.

It’s springtime. It’s the time when kings ride out to war and David has a war planned. His army is going out to fight against the Ammonites and siege the city of Rabbah.

But David stays home. He’s walking around on his roof when he looks over and sees into the courtyard of another house, not too far away. And he sees a beautiful woman bathing; purifying herself. He asks around, “Who is this beautiful woman?”

“Her name is Bathsheba,” they tell him, “she is the daughter of Eliam, she it the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who fights in your army.”

So David… has her sent to him. And they sleep together. And she goes home.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant. So David sends for Uriah the Hittite, her husband. He asks some questions about how the war is going. You know, the war that David isn’t at. And then he says, “Hey, Uriah, while you’re here, why don’t you go home and, um, ‘wash your feet’… if you know what I’m sayin’?”

And Uriah… doesn’t. He stays in a camp with the other soldiers and servants who are at the king’s house. Because if his brothers in arms are out in the field killing and dying, and if the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent on the battlefield, he is not going to stay in comfort at his own house.

So David keeps urging him. Day after day, he says to Uriah, “Uriah, go home, wash your feet.” And Uriah keeps not going home. And David knows that he’s never going to go home. He’s never going to wash his feet. And he’s going to find out what David did.

So he changes his strategy. He sends Uriah back to the war. Y’know, the war that David is not at. He has his general send Uriah to the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then pull back the other soldiers, and let Uriah die on the battlefield. So that David can cover up his crime.

And it isn’t in our reading this morning, but it works. Uriah is sent to the worst of the fighting. And he sees his comrades fall back. And he dies in the way. The general sends word to David. And David shrugs his shoulders, “The sword devours now one,” he says, “and now another.”

And when Bathsheba hears about it, she laments. And when her mourning is over, David sends for her again, and marries her, and she bears a son.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

You see, David isn’t just some guy — some shepherd soldier — who happed to be king of Israel. He is the bold letters in all caps and a deep voice KING OF ISRAEL. According to legend, he was a fierce warrior and a wise ruler. He was so pious that his prayers could bring things from heaven down to earth. His thoughts were so entirely directed towards God and goodness that the evil inclinations that the rest of us struggle with had no power over him.

And there are centuries of spin, defending King David. There are stories.

They say: In the springtime, when the kings rode out to war, women got letters of divorce from their husbands in case they died in battle. So it’s not like David really committed adultery. Bathsheba wasn’t really married.

They say: Uriah the Hittite disobeyed a direct order from his king, and that was a capital crime. So it’s not like David schemed to have him killed. It was a perfectly legal execution.

They say: David was so righteous that he asked God for a trial — his faith was strong, but he needed proof — and this was a growing experience for him. So it’s not like David fell to sin. It was a lesson.

They say David did nothing wrong.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

Because there’s a voice we do not hear. Bathsheba is all but silent. The king sends for her, and sleeps with her, and sends her away. We don’t know how she acted. We don’t know how David acted. But we understand power dynamics. The king sent for her, and he had expectations, and he had all the power.

And, after her husband died in battle, the king sent for her again, and married her. We don’t know how she acted. We don’t know how David acted. We don’t know if she knew what he had done. But we understand power dynamics. The king sent for her, and he had expectations, and he had all the power.

She didn’t tie him to the kitchen chair, or break his throne or cut his hair. And if she drew anything from his lips, it was coerced. At least a little.

And that’s bad enough. But this isn’t just a story about David and Bathsheba.

We know this story. This story has been on the news. We know the names: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Al Franken, Roy Moore, and so many others. Some of us have lived this story. Some of us have been David. Some of us have been Bathsheba. Some of us have been both. We know that this story plays out in hotels and restaurants and office suites and, yes, even churches across this country.

Misogyny is embedded deeply in our culture. It’s embedded so deeply that someone could hear this story and think that it was about love. It’s not. It’s about lust. It’s about sin.

After all these things happen, God sends the prophet Nathan to David. And Nathan confronts David, and Nathan forces David to confront himself. And David, finally, says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Honesty is the beginning of repentance… and David has a lot to be honest about. He has sinned against God. And even though he cannot see it yet, he has sinned against Bathsheba and against Uriah. And it is only once he has been honest… about that… with himself… that he can begin to do better.

And God calls us to the same work.

Believe me when I tell you that I know how much more comfortable it can be to retell and reframe our stories.

It is so much more comfortable to say that in the springtime, when kings rode out to war, women got letters of divorce from their husbands. It is so much more comfortable to say that disobeying the king’s order is a capital offense. It is so much more comfortable to say that it was a test meant to throw us off.

It is so much more comfortable to say that she tied him to the kitchen chair, broke his throne and cut his hair, and from his lips she drew…

It is so much more comfortable to make our sins someone else’s fault. But that means lying to ourselves, to our friends and neighbors, and to God.

To the men in the congregation this morning: misogyny is our sin. To the white people in the congregation: racism and white supremacy are our sins. To the straight people: homophobia is our sin. To the cisgendered people: transphobia is our sin. And I could go on. And we are not solely responsible. But we are responsible.

And if that’s uncomfortable to hear, then know that it is uncomfortable to say and it was uncomfortable to write. Because when I look in the mirror in the morning I, too, am faced with the reality of my position and my power and my privilege. And I know that I have not used those things as I should.

It is my brother and my sister, and my friend and my neighbor, and it is me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

But there is good news: there is grace in that discomfort. Because we are responsible — because we have that position and that power and that privilege — we can do better. We can repent. We can turn to God, and she will make in each of us a clean heart. We can become instruments of love. And there is nothing that can stop us.

And when we do that — when we are honest with ourselves and with God, when we see our failings and turn to Christ, when we accept that God has freed us from the chains of our sins — then we will no longer be cold and broken. And we will be free to erupt in hallelujahs.

If You Help People, People Who Need Help Show Up (Sermon for July 22, 2018)

Every few years, Mariah and I used to rewatch The West Wing. I haven’t watched it in a while. I’m not sure it holds up well anymore. After all, the pilot episode was almost twenty years ago. And the finale was in 2006. Given today’s political environment, the problems that the people in the fictional Bartlett administration face seem almost quaint.

But there’s this episode I think about every so often. It opens with Toby — the gruff and melancholy White House communications director — getting a call from the DC police, and they ask him to come to the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall. You see, it’s winter and the police have found a homeless man dead on a bench. And Toby’s business card is in the man’s coat pocket.

It’s a coincidence. Toby donated his coat to a thrift store. He forgot a business card in the pocket. The man got the coat. The police discovered the card. Toby could just walk away.

But… Toby sees a tattoo on the man’s arm, and he knows that the man is a veteran, and he is moved. And over the course of the episode, Toby will meet the homeless man’s homeless brother and arrange for a full military funeral at Arlington Cemetery.

Near the end fo the episode. the President finds out what Toby has done and confronts him. The President isn’t really that mad, but he asks, “If we start pulling strings like this don’t you think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?”
And he’s not wrong. It turns out that, if you help people, people who need help show up.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. He gave them power over unclean spirits. He told them to go without a staff or bread or a bag or money or extra clothes. And they went. They proclaimed that everyone should repent. They cast out demons. They healed the sick.

And in today’s reading, they’ve come back to Jesus. And they’re tired. And they’re hungry. And they’re in desperate need of a break. And they are learning that simple truth: if you help people, people who need help show up.

There were so many people coming and going, Mark tells us, that the disciples didn’t even have the leisure to eat.

So Jesus does what Jesus does. He has compassion. He invites his disciples to come away to a deserted place and get some rest. But as they’re leaving, the people see them and rush on foot to the place where they’re going. So when Jesus and his disciples arrive at the no-longer-deserted place… it’s not deserted anymore. It’s full of people.

So Jesus does what Jesus does. He has compassion. Our reading this morning skips over this part, but Jesus teaches them many things. And when it starts to get late, he feeds them all with five loaves and two fish.

And after that, Jesus and his disciples leave the no-longer-deserted place. They go to Gennesaret. And when they get there, the people swarm them. Wherever they go, people who need help crowd them like paparazzi crowd a celebrity. They bring out their sick and beg for help. “Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ; won’t you touch, won’t you heal me, Christ?”

Because, it turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up.

And, Lord, don’t we worry when they do?

Most of you know that before I came to First Congregational, I worked for a nonprofit organization in Biloxi, Mississippi, called Back Bay Mission. Back Bay Mission helps people. And, because the Mission helps people, people who need help show up. And that can make things difficult.

The Micah Day Center can be full. The waiting area for the food pantry can be crowded. The waiting list for housing rehab can be years long. And no matter how many people the Mission helps, there is always someone else.

And that’s hard. The Mission doesn’t have the resources to help everyone who comes through its doors. So, sometimes, it finds ways to say, “no”. There are forms to fill out and rules to follow and waiting lists and all that stuff. And while the Mission is generous, and the people who work there strive to help as many people as possible, sometimes they just can’t help.

And the fact is that a lot of our systems for helping people — public or private — are set up with the idea of saying, “no”, embedded in them.

Are you a refugee trying to seek asylum in the United States? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.

Are you homeless and cold and hungry, and looking for a warm place to stay and some hot food to eat? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.

Are you hurt or sick, and looking for medical care? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.

And there are even people who will tell you that saying, “no”, is the right thing to do; the moral thing to do; the Christian thing to do. Because if we don’t say, “no”, then those people will become dependent or get a sense of entitlement or refuse to work. It’s when we say, “no”, that people learn to be self sufficient.

After all, it turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up. And if we start pulling strings, all of the hungry people and thirsty people and strangers and sick people and naked people and prisoners will come out of the woodwork.

And, Lord, won’t we worry when they do? We don’t have enough for everyone. We can’t have enough for everyone. And if everyone does show up, what will happen then? What will we lose?

It’s tempting to imagine ourselves as Jesus and the disciples. It’s tempting to imagine that we are the ones who have what everyone wants and that there just isn’t enough to go around. It’s tempting to imagine that we are the ones with the power to save and feed and heal.

But our reading from Ephesians this morning tells us something else.

You see, we were not born into this. We were at one time without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth, strangers to the covenants, without hope and without God. We are not Jesus and his disciples. We are the crowds who are following Jesus around, crowding him like paparazzi, begging him for help. “Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ; won’t you touch, won’t you heal me, Christ?”

And when we cried out, God did that thing God does. She had compassion. She brought us in and offered us peace. And we are no longer strangers and aliens. We are now citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

Now, there’s something else going on in this passage, and it is important. The story of our inclusion starts with us on the outside and other people on the inside. The Jewish people were chosen from early on, from the day when God appeared to Abram and told him to go to a new land and become the father of a great nation.

Jewish people were on the inside. Gentiles like us were on the outside.

And here’s the important part: and the law, the rules, the commandments and ordinances, said that the only way for us to get on the inside was to stop being Gentiles, to be circumcised (if you were a guy), to be purified, and become Jewish.

But, through Christ, God broke that barrier down. He abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.

Because, it turns out, God always has enough for everyone. If you help people, people who need help show up. And God wants to help people — Christ wants to help people — so God threw the doors wide open and said to the whole entire world, “Come in.”

When Jesus comes to the no-longer-deserted place and sees the people who have gathered there, he has compassion for them, and he teaches them many things.

When it gets late and they get hungry, he has compassion on them, and he feeds them with five loaves and a few fish.

When he arrives in Gennesaret and the people bring the sick to him, he has compassion on them, and he heals them.

When he sees us, begging for help, he has compassion. And that leads me to two important conclusions.

First, the responsibility. We have a responsibility to remember that no matter who we see on the outside — whether they are on the outside of the church or our community or our country or our culture or our class or whatever — we were once in their position. We were once aliens and strangers without hope. And we have a responsibility to remember that Christ had mercy on us.

Second, God always has enough for everyone. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of unimaginable abundance. The community of Christ is a community of extravagant hospitality. And because we are on the inside, we can be as Christ — we can imitate the one who had compassion on us — without worry and without fear.

In that scene from The West Wing, after Toby has arranged for military honors for a homeless veteran, when he is being dressed-down by President Bartlett, the President asks him, “If we start pulling strings like this, don’t you think that everyone who needs help will come out of the woodwork?”

And Toby responds with the words I hope that we would respond with, “We can only hope so.”

You see, in turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up… and it turns out that we can help them. All of them. All of us. Hallelujah. Amen.

Different and Whole and Beautiful (Sermon for July 15, 2018)

On one of my first days here at First Congregational, I spent some time wandering around the building. This isn’t an old building, and you all have been very tidy, but one thing all churches have is a collection of… stuff. If you’re remembering back to last week, I’ve never been to a church that’s as bad as the House on the Rock. But still. There’s stuff. And I kind of wanted to see what stuff we had.

We have occasional pieces of old furniture. We have books and games and toys. We have combination tape and cd players in almost every room. It’s not much, but there’s stuff.

If we had an older building — one where I could walk through attics and basements and poke my head into closets and nooks — then I’m sure I would find old computers and reel-to-reel tape recorders and slides and Christmas pageant costumes and banners and tons of other stuff.

But if I could walk through this church — or any church — in a different, more spiritual way, I would find something other than stuff. I would find piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises.

We are Christians. We are a promising people.

A lot of you have, at some point, stood in front of friends and families and promised someone that you would love and cherish them from that day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death parted you.

And a few weeks ago, the Magill’s stood up here. They promised, by the grace of God to follow Jesus Christ and resist evil and show love, and to teach Kaelyn so that she might profess Christ as her Lord and savior. And we promised to support and love and care for Kaelyn.

Last week, we made promises to the Jamaica mission trip team. Next week you will make promises with and to me. Next year, we will make promises with and to our confirmands. We have piles of promises. We are Christians. We are a promising people.

And, because we have so many promises, they can feel light. But if you’ve ever had to break a promise — not just forget that you made it, but break it — you know that they’re not. Promises are heavy things. They can weigh us down. They are important. They are dangerous.

Today’s reading from Mark is about a promise. And it’s a bit of a flashback, and it will help if we have a little more context… if we turn that flashback into a montage of flashbacks.

Herod the Great was the king of Judea around the time that Jesus was born. Now, he wasn’t an independent king. Judea wasn’t an independent kingdom. He was the king of Judea with the permission of the Roman Empire. And, at Christmastime, we tell the story of wise men visiting Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and Joseph having a dream where an angel warns him that Herod is planning to kill Jesus, and the holy family should run away to Egypt. Herod the Great kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and younger.

And the holy family doesn’t come back home until the Herod the Great dies.

Now, when Herod the Great dies, the Romans divide his kingdom among several of his children, three sons and a daughter: Herod, the other Herod, the other other Herod, and Salome.

Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. He meets John the Baptist. He’s baptized. He goes into the wilderness. He returns to civilization. He begins his ministry. His name starts to get around.

And John is still working… for a while.

One of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas, had fallen in love with his brother, Herod Phillips’s, wife, Herodias. And Herodias falls for him. And Herod Antipas divorces his wife and marries Herodias. And not only is Herodias Herod Antipas’s brother’s wife, she’s Herod Antipas’s niece. And John is against that sort of thing. And he says so.
Herod Antipas has John thrown in prison. And Herodias wants John killed. But Herod is afraid to kill John, because he knows that John is a holy man.

Now, it’s Herod’s birthday. And his daughter comes in and dances and everyone is impressed. So Herod says, “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you. Even half my kingdom.” And his daughter, coached by her mother, asks for John’s head. And Herod, knowing that he made a promise in front of his guests, gives it to her.

Time passes. Jesus is getting famous. His name reaches Herod Antipas. And people around him are asking, “Who is this man?”

Some are saying he’s the prophet Elijah, who never died, but was taken into heaven while he was still alive. And some are saying he’s another prophet like the prophets of old. And Herod Antipas is saying that it’s John the Baptist, back from the dead.

And it’s hard to tell if Herod is wistful or afraid. But I suspect he knows that something is coming. Something is happening. The world that he thought he knew is changing. And it’s all because he kept a promise he should never have made. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

There is a disorder called ‘scrupulosity’. It’s characterized by a pathological worry that we’re not living up to our religious duties. If you watch The Simpsons, scrupulosity is Ned Flanders calling Rev. Lovejoy, worried that he’s coveting his own wife; or that he’s meek, but could probably stand to be meeker.

And I think Herod is experiencing his own bout of scrupulosity here. He made a promise. And because people saw him make that promise, he felt like he had to keep it; even though he knew that it would be terrible if he did. And now, hearing about Jesus, he is afraid that his promise has come back to haunt him.

We are Christians. We are a promising people. And we can find ourselves in a situation like the one Herod Antipas is in. Not the same situation, I hope; but a similar one. In a world where we never forget that we made a promise — or in a world where we feel like we can never break a promise or let go of one — well… we wouldn’t just keep our promises, our promises would keep us, too.

But we aren’t just a promising people. We are a covenanted people. We remember that when we come together at this table; this table hosts a feats that is both simple and luxurious.

On those days we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate together with this disciples. We remember that he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” We remember that after dinner, he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

We remember that we are a covenanted people: that God has made a promise to us, and that we have made promises to God. But covenants aren’t just promises. They are promises with room for grace. They are a promises that can be broken… and that can be put back together again.

There is a Japanese practice — an art, really — called kintsugi. It’s a method of fixing broken ceramics with a special lacquer that’s mixed with gold or silver or platinum. It makes the repair very visible. As soon as you see the piece, you know that it has been broken and that it has been repaired. It is not what it was before. It is different… and it is whole… and it is beautiful.

Any given mug or vase or plate will, eventually, break. And, it we really care about it, we can put it back together again. Different and whole and beautiful. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been broken. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been put back together again.

Covenants are the same way. Eventually, we break them. Sometimes, we put little chips in them, or hairline cracks. Sometimes, we knock big chunks out of them, or split them right in half.

We fail to love and cherish as we should. Especially when things are for worse.

We fail to resist evil. We wander off to find where demons dwell. And we leave others to do the same.

We fail to trust those who have left on a mission and come back to return to us as leaders who can show us new ways to make the world a more merciful place.

And Herod failed because he kept his promise. He didn’t make room for the grace to save a life, to say to his daughter, “I know I said ‘anything’, but I didn’t mean that I would do something evil.”

There’s another sermon about when we need to break promises. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometimes. But it’s not this sermon.

We fail to keep those piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises that we’ve made. But… we can repent. We can return to those promises with grace, and put them back together again. God can come to them with a grace that is brighter than gold or silver or platinum, and put them back together again. And, by the grace of God, they can be different and whole and beautiful.

That is the beauty of the Christian covenant. We can always return to it.

And when we return to it, God does more than repair the covenant. God repairs us. With gold and silver and platinum… and love and hope and grace. God makes us different… and whole… and beautiful. Not because we have never been broken, but because we have.

There are going to be times when we cannot keep the promises we’ve made. There are going to be times when we need to hold our promises lightly. And I’m not saying that’s okay; I’m saying that’s life. That among the piles and piles of promises we have in this church and in our homes and in our lives, there will be some that are broken. And we will be broken with them… at least a little bit.

But there is joy. Because we can bring our broken promises — and we can bring our broken selves — to this place. And God will bring a sacred lacquer and a healing balm, and painstakingly repair us, making us different and whole and beautiful. Thanks be to God!

By Juan de Flandes - http://www.wga.hu/index1.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4817612 Categories SermonsLeave a comment Mark 6:14-29

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