The Main Character is Fear. But You Missed It…

fearEmbarrassing story time.  Ready?

The first time I rode a roller coaster I wet my pants.  I was 8, and scared, and begged my father to have them stop the train and turn around the minute it left the loading dock.  But, of course, it was too late because the train had literally left the station…there was no turning back.

My body found a way to express the way my insides were feeling at the moment.  Terror had seized me, and if I thought I could have survived it, I would have crawled right out of that car.

That first hill…you know, that hill on the roller coaster that gives you enough momentum to complete the other hills…scared me beyond belief.  I closed my eyes tightly and held on tightly.  And they didn’t open again until I hit the station.

Until I knew I had survived.

But, of course, I had to ride it again because a) it was fun and b) in my fear I had missed the whole thing!

On my first roller coaster experience, I thought the main characters were me, my father, and the coaster.  But I was wrong.  The main character in that story was fear.

In fact, I’d say that fear is the main character in many of our stories in life, though they often aren’t named in the credits.

The same could be said in this week’s Gospel lesson.  Our November texts are tough texts that talk about beginnings and endings, apocalyptic parables that, if we’re not careful in our reading, could give us the impression that God intends doom and gloom for humanity (and many so-called Christians have said as much over the years).

But that’s not the God we see in Jesus, so that can’t be the God we see in Jesus’ stories, right?

This week’s lesson, the “Parable of the Talents,” is especially rough (click on it to read it).  Go ahead and give it a read.  I’ll wait.

Done? Onward…

It’s a tough tale, especially that last line about taking from those who have so little.  How are we to interpret this?

Well, perhaps that’s the wrong question, disciple.  Maybe we let the parable do its work on us instead of thinking we have to do all the work.

Because this is what I’ll say about the different servants: they’re each me, depending on the situation.  And probably you, too.

And the difference between them isn’t their status or education.  The difference between the slaves isn’t their trustworthiness, either…the master trusts them all (even though they are trusted with different amounts).

The difference between them all is the assumptions they bring to the task; the fear they bring along with them.

That last slave, entrusted with that single talent, assumes that the giver is wrathful, vengeful, out to take what is not theirs.  They lead not with their task, but with their fear.

They are afraid of it all.

And so they miss everything about the task because the fear overwhelms them.  The most they can do is just bury the whole thing and pray it’ll be enough to get them through it all.

But by burying it they get the same result as if they’d never been given it at all.  So why should the giver bother to give the task in the first place?

In closing my eyes through the whole roller-coaster ride, I missed it all.  My assumptions about the whole thing, my fear of the whole thing, left me incapacitated, buried too deeply in myself that I didn’t really experience it.

That’s what fear does: it makes us hole up, bury ourselves to the point that we might as well not even have the opportunity to do whatever task is at hand, whatever experience is in front of us.

We balk at the last line of this parable, about how even the little bit that is given to those with the least will be taken away from them.  But isn’t there a deep truth about fear here?

Because fear that isn’t fought will absolutely take even the last bit of yourself from you.

God has not created us to be holed up in ourselves.  We have been given gifts to use and share in this world, a peace that passes all understanding (if we’ll tap into it).

And believe me: fear is real.  I know this.  We can sometimes be so afraid that we wet ourselves, literally and figuratively.  We can sometimes be so afraid that we run to weapons or strategies or lock our doors and hide like those talents buried in the field.

But that’s not what God has called us to, Beloved.  You can’t outrun, outhide, outsmart, or outdo fear, because fear comes from the inside, not the outside.

If November in the church year says anything to us it tells us that, despite whatever we’re afraid of and the internal fear and assumptions it produces in life, we must keep our eyes open!  Because God is showing up, and opportunity is always present, and we will miss it if we let fear be the main character in our witness.

And so often it is the main character and we miss it.  Fear has a crafty way of disguising itself like other things.  We must stay awake (unlike those tired bridesmaids last week).  We must set aside our assumptions and work off of courageous faith, even in the face of fear.

The main character in this parable isn’t the angry giver or the servants, it is fear.

And what about your story?  Who is the main character?  Because here’s the secret that fear won’t tell you: you will survive.

So let go of your assumptions and invest in the life God has given you.

See you in church.

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Leave the Balcony Open

<If you listen along you’ll hear some *interesting* singing. Click here to do so. Sermons are meant to be heard, not read>

Matthew 5:1-12

Are you ready?

open-balconyWhen Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Leave the Balcony Open

Holy One,

In our life, and in our death

We are with you.

On this day when we remember those

Who are now only with you and no longer with us,

Remind us that in you nothing is lost,

Especially those you love…those we love.

Make us who mourn today blessed.

Make us pure in heart.

Make us peacemakers.

Make us yours.

Amen.

Today is a day for singing, people of God.  And for clapping. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Oh when the saints, go marching in

Oh when the saints go marching in,

Oh Lord I want to be in that number

When the saints go marching in…

Or maybe we’ll break this one out:

Will the circle, be unbroken in?

By and by, Lord, by and by.

There’s a better, day a-comin’

In the sky, Lord, in the sky…

I once presided over a graveside burial of a dear woman who, even after she lost her leg to diabetes, was the one who got up early every Sunday morning to prepare coffee for the church.  It was a much smaller church back then, and one Sunday morning as she was fussing in the kitchen over the coffee, I stopped in to tell her thank you.

“Thanks for doing this every Sunday,” I said to her.

“It’s the least I can do for these loving people,” she said.  I knew she meant it.  Because a few years earlier when that dreaded surgery took that dead leg and she had no money for neither the surgery nor the prosthetic which would make her mobile again, the church took up a collection and paid for it.

She didn’t make the coffee to pay it back, by the way.  She made the coffee so that she could sit with the people who loved her so much and drink coffee with them at least once a week.

When her body finally gave out a few years later, and I was called to the hospital at 1am to break the news to her son and daughter that she would not see the sunrise, I immediately also called Dieter and Linda, two dear saints in the congregation, who came with me to the hospital.  Who sat with that son and daughter, both barely in their 20’s, and who joined me around the hospital bed as sang a final hymn, said a final blessing, and gave the order to let the machines keeping her lungs full and her heart beating fall quiet.

It was a holy moment.  It was, despite every single shred of evidence: the dying woman, the lack of insurance, the children who had barely inched into adulthood, the unresolved things that would never be said to one another…despite all of that, it was a moment I would call blessed, Beloved.

Remember, blessing isn’t bliss.  Blessing is that moment of grace that moves past the butterflies of bliss, past the siren song of success, and hits you square in the gut of deep meaning where the very ground feels holy and every bush burns with Divine presence.

And so there we are, standing at her graveside, and I pull one more song out of the songbook, a song she requested for every darn All Saints Sunday since I had been serving that church.  And each year I told her we couldn’t sing it, mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to work Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky into the liturgy.  But there, at her graveside, after all the tears, and after we’d thrown the first dirt on the casket, as it was being lowered we sang:

When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best

It was our final act of love, accompanying her with singing until the very end.

When I think about Rose, I think not only about her and her devotion to the people around her, and her devotion to God in Christ, but I also think about how that community displayed Christ’s devotion to her in all those days, even past those days when the machines were turned off.

We embody God in all moments, Beloved, but especially in those blessed moments when after death and tragedy make a house call, we come in as those peacemakers Jesus talks about today.  How in the time of mourning, we embody the blessing of God upon the moment.  How when pain and death has mercilessly visited a family, we come in as the blessed mercy that washes carpets of bloodstains, bakes casseroles, gives needed presence and honors needed space, and sends follow-up cards just to check in.

Blessed are the mourners…and blessed are those who mourn with them.  That’s the kingdom of God in action.

Frederico Garcia Lorca has this poem that I included in my Friday Faithprints.  You know I love me some poetry, and this one he shares has been on my heart all week as All Saints Day, All Souls Day, and now All Saints Sunday marks our calendars.  He writes:

If I die,

Leave the balcony open.

 

The little boy is eating oranges.

(From my balcony I can see him.)

 

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.

(From my balcony I can hear him.)

 

If I die,

Leave the balcony open!

What hits my heart most tenderly in this poem is not Lorca’s impending death but, as I said in my blogpost, his desire to die as he lived: with those people he shared life with.

And these saints up here, beloved, that space they took up in our lives and that space we took up in theirs, it cannot be filled, and we will always exist together, they on the other side of eternity and us here, but while we miss them they entreat us, beg us, point us to look around, here, at this side of eternity, finding the ways that we can be together as the body of Christ.

We do not live waiting to die.  That’s why I reject theologies that focus too much on heaven.  If God had wanted to point us all to heaven from our first breath God would have just skipped the living part of existence all together.  But in Jesus we know that our bodies have meaning because God came embodied.  We know that our time has meaning because Jesus came into time.

We know that our life has meaning, and part of that meaning is joining together with other lives, by God, to make meaning in community.

And how often we take it for granted.

You know, sometimes our church services can get kind of noisy.  When the bluegrass plays, I know some of you love it, and some of you tolerate it, and some of you skip church those Sundays.  When babies cry in church, some of you love it, some of you think it’s a distraction, and some of you are the parents rushing to quiet it…to which I say, thank you Lord that you are here and I am so grateful that kid is here.

The noise of community, the change that happens in community, it can be aggravating sometimes, but by God, do you know what it’s like to be without it?!

I’ll tell you what it’s like.  It’s like this little church my father is now serving in his retirement years.  At his installation about 30 souls gathered for the moment, the youngest being the teenager forced to be crucifer for the service.

And then enter my two little boys.  And the preacher that day was long winded (me) and so they got antsy and spoke too loudly during the prayers and whispered questions decibels above normal adult whispers and, yes, Alistair had to be hauled out once which is par for the course.

But I was talking with my father this last Sunday and he said to me, “You know what I heard today?  We had a woman come up to me again today…and this has happened a few times…talking about how great it was to have the boys in church that Sunday.  She said it was good to see a kid run up and down the aisle again.  Because we have no kids, Tim. And everyone knows that a part of our community is missing because of it.”

Community life means everyone, together, in this life.  And on both ends of the life spectrum, from our youngest to our oldest, we have gifts to offer one another, not the least of which is that gift of presence which becomes so, so important in those times when tragedy snatches life from us.

And you know what?  We’re reeling from yet another act of terrorism in New York City this past week, you know what I’m convinced of?  I’m convinced that an intergenerational community focused on the resurrection love and grace of God is our first line of defense against such acts.  Here, we emphasize God’s death-defying love and unconditional grace.  Let it be known, let the word spread.  We have a gift for Raleigh here, people of God, which can and will be a gift for the world.

The second funeral I ever did was for a baby.  They shouldn’t make caskets so small, Beloved.

But on that day, the oldest to the youngest gathered together, and just like they did for Rose, they sang that little one into the resurrection arms of Jesus.  They were, in that moment, the resurrected Christ embodied, keeping the balcony door open for that little saint, little Daniel who I always remember on All Saints, because that’s what Christ calls us to do and be for one another: people who embody the God who, slowly but surely, turns tragedies into blessings, death into resurrection.

It is not easy, this work of community.  But I am convinced we are better together than we are when we’re apart, from oldest to the youngest.

And when that moment comes for us, I trust the people of God to leave the balcony open, because in Christ’s death and resurrection God has left the door of life open for us all.  And what a blessing that is.

So, beloved, surrounded by the saints once again, let’s sing together, let’s push the balcony open and give them a glimpse of us as we view them again, and Christ in the cosmic ways God works will unite us all together in these moments.

And we’ll be blessed.

Amen.

 

 

Deaths Big and Little

2d9c1cee68eaf7d0505121d3ffaf8027

by Jan Richardson

“If I die,

leave the balcony open.

The little boy is eating oranges.

(From my balcony I can see him.)

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.

(From my balcony I can hear him.)

If I die,

leave the balcony open!”

This little poem by Federico Garcia Lorca is one I’m going to read this Sunday for All Saints Sunday.  I’m going to read it in the community because it is about community, and ultimately the festival of All Saints is about community, too.

People think it’s about the dead, but it is actually about community.

Lorca’s dying wish is to die with others.  And not just any others, but the various others he shared life with: like the random boy at the grocery and the little farm worker down the way.

And I have to think he wants to do this because these are the people he has already shared death with, the little deaths that come with truly living.

My big death at the end of my time is not the thing I dread the most.  I dread the little deaths.

The little deaths like losing a job or having to move.  The little deaths like having the kids move out of the house.  The little deaths like changing your mind, transforming your life, and the small disappointments that come with being imperfect and living in an imperfect world.

The little deaths like your death, which I will preside over and we’ll all live through except for you…and that hurts.  Because we want you here.

The little deaths that we live through seem, to me, to be the hardest kind of deaths we experience.

We live and die in community as Christians because we feel that God has called us together to do this thing called life, and to not do it alone.  We’re in community with Christ at our center to experience life, little deaths, and big deaths together.

For the past two days I was at a training in Salisbury, and during the down-time another pastor at another church was reflecting on one of her young members who is the only person at her workplace who participates in organized religion.  This young member was talking about how, while community is difficult, she hasn’t found another way to adequately do life together with other people.

The Christian community surrounds themselves with the promises of Christ, and then becomes them for one another in this life, in the little deaths, and at the end, in that final journey we all must make.  I am astounded at our funerals here at GSLC, how willing people are to take time off of work to come and honor other community members, often ones they didn’t know personally.  But they show up and accompany them with singing, just like they did together every Sunday in life.

It’s a beautiful thing.  It’s keeping the balcony open, through the very end.

So, Beloved, for those little deaths that we face weekly, and for that last one that (statistically speaking) will one day be our road to walk, know that God, and this community, is all about keeping the balcony open.

And we’ll do it together.

See you in church…feel free to bring a picture of a loved one who has passed on!  We’ll put them up by the altar and surround ourselves in their presence as we sing, commune, and reflect this weekend.

We’ll continue to keep the balcony open.

 

Jesus, Caesar, and #metoo

1017-ctm-metoosocialmedia-duncan-1421387-640x360The #metoo movement invaded my social media news feed this last week, and I am grateful for it.

As Rhonda and I spoke about it, we literally could not think of a single female (not just woman, any female) in our lives who couldn’t have said “me too” when confronted with the reality of sexual harassment.

“Oh, you were harassed sexually?  Me too…” is the reply given by all the women in my life.

And maybe you, too.  

Guys: are we listening?

This week’s Gospel reading made me reflect a bit on how our faith plays into the way we treat things, especially other bodies.  We’re kicking off our stewardship campaign this Sunday, and so the pull of the calendar tells me to preach on the stewardship of money.

But I can’t, because the calendar of our lives compels me to preach on how the Gospel speaks to how steward our attitudes and our treatment of other people’s bodies.

The Gospel lesson for this week, by the way, is Matthew 22:15-22.  Go ahead and take a gander before moving on, or the rest of this won’t make much sense (just click here to read it).

Done?  Good; onward…

So there are a couple of odd things about this passage.

First, for all you Star Wars fans out there, is that you cannot read or hear this passage without wanting to yell Admiral Ackbar’s, “It’s a trap!” because the Pharisees “set out to trap” Jesus.Atrapitis

But even more interesting is the fact that it appears a Roman coin was not difficult for Jesus to get in hand at the moment, which probably meant that one of those gathered there was carrying one around, which for an ancient Jewish person was a big faux pas.  The coins of the Roman world were, by some strict Jewish laws, considered to be graven images, especially because the Emperor was supposed to be “divine” for the “good Roman” and Caesar’s image was on the coin.

Perhaps Jesus, in asking for a coin, was really asking for one of them to admit that they were breaking the first commandment given on Sinai.  Remember it?  That “I am the Lord your God” commandment?  For ancient Jewish persons, that meant you couldn’t carry around any other god-like graven images…including those pesky Roman coins that they had to deal with (which is why the money changers in the temple took those coins and changed them into the local currency…it all makes sense now, right?).

But, so, Jesus has this coin in his hand, with a picture of Caesar on it, and says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

There are many and various thoughts about what he meant by this, but for me, I go back to Genesis and recall that day of creation when images like Caesar were gathered up from the dust of the ground and infused with the breath of life.

Maybe Jesus is being ironic.  Because, although it was Caesar’s picture on the coin, for the faithful person it was also the “Imago Dei” there, the very image of God.  Not a god…but the God who created all people throughout all time.

Is the coin really Caesar’s?  Or is everything with a face really God’s because it bears God’s likeness?  And if everything with a face is really God’s because it bears God’s likeness, then how are we to treat everything?

When I looked through my social media feed and saw all the #metoo posts from women admitting they’ve been sexually harassed, I had to be honest that I, in my maleness, have not always treated women as if they were the image of God.  I have sometimes treated women as if they were objects to be ogled.

And that’s not OK.

In believing that I can just treat them any way that I want, I am denying them not only their humanity, but also the imprint of divinity that God has placed upon them.

Women are not here for men; they are not Caesar’s or any of the would-be Caesars of this world who think they control everyone, including other people.

When we treat others in a way that turns them into object and not subject, treating them like a mere image and not the Imago Dei, we are, like those Pharisees, falling into the trap of idolatry…except it’s the trap where we believe that we are gods and we can treat others however we want to.

boyswillbe-ss-black_1024x1024One of my favorite shirts, and one which is on order for my sons, is one that says “Boys will be…” and it crosses out the word “boys” and replaces it with “good humans.”

Jesus was scandalous in that he allowed women into his inner circle.  They were the first persons entrusted with the good news of Jesus resurrection.  They carry the Imago Dei in their very being, and they are God’s.

Give to God what is God’s, and treat those things that way…and give to Caesar what is Caeser’s…

(And here’s the secret in plain sight for those with eyes to see and ears to hear: nothing is Caesar’s)

See you in church, you and all your bright, shining, Imago Dei bearing faces…

 

Learnin’ to Fly, but I Ain’t Got Wings

<Listen along by clicking here.  Petty song included.>

Matthew 21:33-46

Are you ready?

ce1b6dc828391b8d43c44553e1ad8315[Jesus said to the people:] 33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
  42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: 
 ‘The stone that the builders rejected
  has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing,
  and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
  45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Learnin’ to Fly, But I Ain’t Got Wings

It feels sometimes as if our vineyard is failing, Lord

Or at least flailing.

Give us strength and courage

But also give us vulnerability

Because it is only when we are vulnerable

That we seek you…

Or else we rely too much on ourselves.

Make us strong and courageous and vulnerable.

Amen.

I don’t want you to think I’ve got a schtick or something, because I quoted popular music last week…and this week, again, it invades the sermon like some rocker army taking over the words.  I promise you, I don’t always want to quote songs in my sermons.

But sometimes songs are what you have, Beloved, when words fail.  Poetry usually gets me through tough times, and sometimes you put background noise to poetry, and then you have a song.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like the news has been beating us all up the past few months.  Charlottesville, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and now another killer name to add to the list, with 59 dead in Las Vegas, including the shooter, and over 400 wounded.

It remains true that people are still the most dangerous of all the naturally made organisms in the world…

What do you do when things just seem to go from bad to worse to unthinkable?

Jesus’ parable for today is on that very subject, Beloved.  The tale of the wicked tenants hits home because, well, if the world is God’s vineyard, how are we doing with our care?  Let’s be honest with ourselves for just a minute, because we, humans, have a history of killing or trying to kill prophets who try to show us a better way to live…but usually better means “different,” and humans are not, as a rule, great with change…

The death of rocker and poet Tom Petty also took those of us with a finger on the pulse of music by surprise.  Petty’s album Wildflowers was one of my first purchases as a teen music consumer, but lately I’ve been listening to one of his earlier offerings, “Learnin’ to Fly.”  The second verse of that album is really speaking to me in these days:

Well some say life, will beat you down,

Break your heart, steal your crown

So I’ve started out for God knows where,

I guess I’ll know, when I get there.

And, of course, the principle chorus has me singing

I’m learnin’ to fly, but I ain’t got wings

Coming down is the hardest thing

It got me to thinking about what I consider to be wings in my life, the things I rely on to see me through the flitting and the flying that we all do every day.

I think some people think guns are their wings, safety and sport and power.  I think some people think money is their wings, a nest egg and financial freedom.  I think some people rely on their right answers and their philosophy and, yes, even their religion as their wings, keeping them soaring above others in this world.  This was the Pharisees problem…it’s certainly not our problem, right?

I think some feel politics and the political process are the wings of the world, that if only we can get that right we’ll be in good shape.  That thought brings to mind two of my favorite quotes from two people who couldn’t be more different: Churchill and Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.  Churchill once said that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”

Wellstone said, “”Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.”

To which I say, quick: somebody tell the politicians! They’re laboring under a different definition…

No, no, I have not given up on politics, but I refuse to give into politics…that cannot be our wings in this life…

In fact, I wonder if Petty’s chorus isn’t just blatantly honest: in this life we’re learnin’ to fly without wings.  God has not set us up to be above the fray, but rather we find ourselves in the fray.

Because if we think we’re above everything happening in this world, well, then why should we listen to one another?  We’re above all that.  In fact, if we sit above it all for too long, we may begin to think that we can control it all, like these vineyard workers.  They begin to think that the vineyard is theirs, that they have no need to rely on the one who gave them the vineyard, they have their own wings now, their own security, their own ability.

In fact, I bet that they can come up with about a million reasons why the vineyard owner is not actually in charge of the vineyard anymore, and a million reasons for why the way they, as tenants, have ordered their lives and their rights is the best and freest way to live.

They have their wings…

It’s interesting to think about the fact that, the only time Jesus was above the people was when he was hanging on the cross.  And even in that moment he wasn’t alone, but was with others, two common criminals, probably the people who needed him most at that moment.  And as he hung there some people scoffed at the whole scene and said, “If he’s the son of God, he should command to be saved…”  In other words, “Where are his wings?”

Beloved, when tragedy strikes, when you think that the story can’t get any worse, when it feels like life is beating you up and stealing your crown, remember that the God we see in Jesus is not the God that flies above the fray, but the God in the fray.  In Las Vegas that night, the only person above the fray was the shooter, who thought that he had the power, because of his position, to decide who lives and who dies in this world.

And that’s what happens when we rely on our supposed wings in this world, our powerful weapons, our security blankets, our right answers, and yes, even sometimes our right religious answers: we think we’re above it and have lots of power.

But we worship a God seen in Jesus who is in it, beloved.  Who goes with the servants to demand the tenants learn a better way to be and live in this world.  Who learns to fly, to soar, to move through life, not on artificial wings, but on the grace of God, on a promise of forgiveness, on the love of a God who cares enough to become one of us wingless ones to show us the way.

You know, little Sunny and little Logan, you’ll learn to fly in this world, but it won’t be with any of those wings I just talked about.  You’ll learn to fly on the promises of your baptism, promises you’ll make and promises God makes to you, promises that remind you that you don’t need wings to soar and live, you don’t need to be above it all, but you’re actually called to be down in it all: helping those who are hurting, loving the loveless, refusing to pass judgment and choosing to pass the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

Don’t you see, little one?  You don’t need wings to fly, and while life may beat you up and steal your crown, the crown was never yours anyways, it was always God’s, and crowns are no good anyway in an economy of love and grace, which is what God is calling you toward.

Don’t you see, Beloved?

We can learn to fly, we don’t need wings.  Because whether we live or whether we die, no matter how we are troubled or beaten down by life, we follow a God who walks the road with us.  Not above us, not even ahead of us, but with us, alongside us.

And with God alongside us, all sorts of things are possible.  When Jesus walked alongside the disciples, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, the sinful were forgiven, and the hungry were fed.

The story of Jesus is the one where God is on the ground alongside the people.  Not in some watchtower looking over the vineyard, but on the ground, in the vineyard.  So why would we want wings anyway, when God is right here?

Beloved, let us stay on the ground, and continue walking, surrounded by the songs of the saints.  We shall overcome, we shall not be moved, we are not afraid.  White supremacists march in Charlottesville?  We shall overcome.  Hurricanes bear down upon us?  We shall not be moved.  Domestic terrorists plot our demise?  We are not afraid.

This does not mean that we can’t do something…there are certainly things we can and should do to prevent these tragedies.  But let us not rely on any supposed wings in this world to give us a false sense of security or illusory hope.

We are not afraid not because of our powerful weapons, but because of our powerful peace.  We are not afraid not because of our right answers, but because we follow a God who in righteousness gives us the grace not to have to have all the answers.  We are not afraid not because of our rights or laws, but because God’s ultimate law is love, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing by God, more powerful than love.

And we’re learning to fly in this life, soaring on the very breath of God’s grace.  We ain’t got wings, and we don’t need them.

Drag Hope Around Like a Ragdoll That You Can’t Live Without…Because You Can’t

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I received a text from a colleague this week that read, “How are you preaching this week?!”

He meant it in terms of mechanics.  Like, literally how, after this week, after these last few months, are we going to preach a good word?  The good word?

Jesus’ parable assigned for Sunday is disturbing.  He tells a story that goes from bad, to worse, to unthinkable.  It instantly reminded me of the last few months.

Things were very bad in Charlottesville, and the fall out was terrible.

Things got worse with Harvey and Irma, and then Maria and the devastation in Puerto Rico has been astoundingly horrific.

And then the unthinkable happened: shots in a crowd in Las Vegas. 59 dead, over 400 wounded.

In Jesus’ story, the vineyard owner rents out the land to tenants…who then feel like they have power over the land, and the owner.  So when the vineyard owner sends servants to get the harvest, they’re beaten, stoned, and killed.  And even when he sends his own flesh and blood at the very end, thinking that surely they’d respect an emissary that looks just like the owner…

They kill him.

“And,” Jesus says, “It’s kind of like this world, where the people who are supposed to be taking care of everything are just thinking they own everything, and they’re letting it all go to pot.”

Ok…he doesn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s his gist.

And the Pharisees get upset because they realize that he’s talking about him.  And so they want to get rid of him, arrest him, do away with him.  But they decide to wait on that, because they were scared of the crowd.

Notice that little tidbit: Jesus tells this story about these tenants that beat and kill the very people who are entitled to life, and they get mad at him because they think he’s talking bad about them, and so they want to beat and kill him.

It’s like they were living into the story at that very moment.

In some ways I feel like we’re living into this story at this very moment.  Things have gone from bad to worse to unthinkable.

White supremacists are unafraid to assemble in strikingly large numbers, showing their faces because they don’t fear being known.  They own their hate proudly.

Hurricanes are, by all non-partisan measures, getting stronger because we have overused our vineyard, and Harvey, Irma, and Maria’s havoc continues to be felt because of it.

And then we have the unthinkable: a man takes an automatic war machine and mows down hundreds of humans, who according to Genesis bear the image of our vineyard owner, killing dozens and injuring over 400.

And this perspective is only through the North American lens.  Shall we even talk about North Korea, Venezuela, Russia and the Ukraine, the flooding in Bangladesh, volcanic eruptions in Bali, the ongoing civil wars in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Syria…?

The list could go on.

What, in all honesty, do we do when it feels like the story continues to go from bad to worse to unthinkable?

I have used this phrase before in my life, and will continue to until the day I die because it is so descriptive, but a Christian is often called to do the thing that most humans hate doing: we walk with hope in one hand and tragedy in the other.

And we hold the tension between the two, never letting the tragedy overcome the hope.

Hope is not starry-eyed optimism, and it’s not the practice of pontificating trite moralisms.  Hope is living in the unwavering conviction that, as Paul says, whether we live or whether we die, we are with God. (Romans 14:8)

And so while we may be frightened sometimes, we don’t live out of our fear and run toward weapons of power or acts of violence.

And so while we are heartbroken sometimes, we do not, as hurt people, intend to hurt people.  Though, we are honest with our pain and about our pain.

And we try, as best we find we are able, to reorient ourselves toward the life-giving love that Jesus calls all humanity to live in.  We try, as best we find we are able, to live in ways and act in ways that gives honor to the fact that this is not our vineyard, we only tend it.

And we tend it by running toward the hurting, the lost, the hopeless.  We tend it by being hands of healing and calling out wrong when we see it so that we don’t add to the tragedy by ignoring ignorance.  We act in ways that we can, pray powerful prayers that move people to action, listen carefully for God’s still small voice, and drag hope along with us like that ragdoll that you can’t live without.

Because you can’t.

We only tend this vineyard, friends, and we do so holding hope in one hand and tragedy in the other, holding that tension, so that tragedy cannot win the day.

Willful or Willing?

<If you want to hear me sing Alanis, click here to listen to the sermon.  Dare you.>

Matthew 21:23-32

Are you ready?

images (1)23When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
  28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Willfulness or Willingness?

God, overmatch our resistant ears this morning

With your transforming speech.

Penetrate our Pharisaic jadedness and fatigue.

Touch our yearnings by your words.

Through your out-loudness, draw us closer to you.

We are ready to listen.

Amen.*

I was 13 when Alanis Morissette’s seminal album Jagged Little Pill came out.  The most popular track on that album, which is…anyone remember?  Right, “Ironic” was memorable, singable, and poorly named.

Remember the first chorus?

It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice, that you just didn’t take

And who would have thought, it figures…

It’s poorly named because all of these examples, things that she calls “ironic” (don’t ya think?) are actually not ironic in the literal sense, but rather just unfortunate.

The true irony is that the album as named “Jagged Little Pill,” a nod to the idea of life being a tough pill to swallow, but we all sure did.  It sold 33 million units world-wide, and is one of the top selling albums of all time, believe it or not.

“Jagged little pill” is a phrase used to talk about some truth that’s hard to swallow, and in an alternative version of the Bible it might be the title of this section of Matthew.  Jesus offers the Pharisees, and us, a jagged little truth today…

Here’s a question to ponder: is faith a fly in the ointment of doubt, or is doubt a fly in the ointment of faith?

Or are either flies at all, but rather just sides of the same coin?

These Pharisees want proof today.  In the section directly before this Jesus does the familiar thing: he goes into the temple and he drives out the money changers and those profiting off of temple sacrifices, and the Pharisees want to know who gives him the right.

And it’s a trap, of course.  Because if he says “God,” then they’ve caught him in a heresy, and surely then they can bring him up on charges.

They know their laws, they know their temple sacrifices, they know the rules…and Jesus isn’t following them.

And so Jesus gives them a hard pill to swallow, a hard truth: their rules are preventing them from actually following God.

Which makes me wonder, Beloved, what rules of the Christian world actually prevent us from following God?

I just wonder…

Religions, churches, are full of rules.  I was in another church recently that had a sign on about every door delineating who could or could not put things in that specific room, about the most unwelcoming signs I’ve ever seen.  I was in a church once where there was a sign on the nursery that said, “Please, no messes.”  Think about that for a second.

I entered the bathroom next to the nursery and there was a sign in there that said, “Please don’t leave smelly diapers in the trashcan.”

I asked the pastor, “About how many children does the parish have?”  She answered, “Not many, unfortunately…”  To which I said, “I think I can tell you why…”

The rules of cultural Christianity were part of the reason I left the faith for a while.  I got the impression that gay people were not allowed in the church, but somehow judgmental people were.  I got the impression that Gandhi was a godless pagan, but somehow, my friend’s bigoted father who never had a good thing to say about a person of color but went to his local Lutheran parish every Sunday was one of the saved…

Christian Wiman, a wonder of a poet and whose book some of us are reading together here at the church, wrote this lovely poem that I think is a jagged little pill, too:

Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul

Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,

Even in the eons Christ was not.

And still: some who cry the name of Christ

Live more remote from love

Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.

“Some who cry the name of Christ/live more remote from love/than some who cry to a void they cannot name…”

Or, to say it another way, prolific and powerful French philosopher Simone Weil once said, “It is easier to make non-Christians into Christians than it is to make Christians into Christians.”

The Pharisees thought their belief and the way they followed the rules gave them spiritual insurance.  Jesus challenged that with his little parable, claiming that those people totally outside the rules, prostitutes and tax collectors, lived more in God’s love than they do.

He lifted up the notion that that bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic Father Richard Rohr calls “Willfulness instead of willingness.”

Good religion should make us willing to seek and find God, expecting God to show up in new and different and, yes, unconventional ways.  Instead, he says, religion often just makes people willful, certain of their rightness in the face of other people’s supposed wrongness.

This is the trap the Pharisees fell in, after all.  And perhaps us, too?  Perhaps Christian culture, too?

They were willful in their belief that they were right and he was wrong.  They were willful in their belief that the rules provided the structure of religion, instead of the reality that Jesus was ushering in: love provides the structure of religion…the rule of love.

Jesus called the disciples, and even called the Pharisees, to be willing, in the name of God’s love, to bend and in some cases break the rules of a religion they were certain was instituted by God.  He called them to love people to death…killing the rules for the sake of the people.

Instead, what they’ll do is put him to death for that kind of love, killing him for the sake of the rules.

And instead of getting willful, Jesus will go willingly, showing that, when it’s all said and done, God’s willing to break the rules, even God’s own rules, to love us to death.  Which is kind of ironic…

So, Beloved, are you willful or willing?

It’s the question I’m asking myself today, the jagged little pill of truth I’m trying to swallow in light of God’s amazing grace.

Am I willing to be that graceful?  Or am I willful, believing it can’t be true?

*This prayer is from Walter Brueggemann’s book, “Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth”