Where the Wild Things Are

<You can listen to the sermon by clicking here. Listening to a sermon, as opposed to reading it, is like getting a back rub as opposed to watching one happen.>

Matthew 3:1-12

11660917846_8437372a32_bIn those days John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all of Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he wll clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Where the Wild Things Are

Let us pray:

Stir up your power, Holy One.

You call to us from the desert of our souls

            Those arid places that need your baptismal water

                        Again and again.

But we are like snakes: without ears, and we don’t hear well

            What with all our distractions.

Send us the baptizer again.

            We’ll take John

                        But who we really need is Jesus


He’s the one we’re waiting for in these Advent days.


What’s your favorite children’s book?  Anyone?

Mine is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

I know it by heart. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind/and another. His mother called him ‘wild thing’ and said ‘I’ll eat you up!’ So he was sent to bed without eating anything at all.”

The imagine of Max in his wolf suit captivated the young me, and still today the not-so-young me. Wild things, wild beasts, wild dreams: these are the things of excitement and urgency and danger.


John the Baptizer falls into that category, the family and genus of the wild things.  His manner of dress and his diet give clues to the reader of what stock he is from.  Sure, he’s son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, but his PETA-offending clothes, his long, wild hair, and his food of bugs and honey put him in the lineage of the desert-roaming prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Amos.  He calls to people from the outskirts of the city, down by the river, reminding the nice town-folk that God cares little for their attractive floor coverings, their polite language, their proper technique when it comes to exterior illumination.  God doesn’t even care if they sing Christmas songs in Advent.

“You sneaky snakes,” John says. “You distract yourselves with your rules, in competition to get life right.  But God is more like a farmer than a judge in a competition.  In competition you get points for style and effort, but the farmer’s attention is on the heart of the fruit.”

The words of this wild John the Baptizer thing do eat us up.  And the urgency is real, not manufactured like all the fake urgency manufactured by all the fake news flying around our world today.  The urgency is real because, as John the Baptizer rightly says, the time is now.

It is always now.  So why, Beloved, are you still living in the past or anxious about the future?  The urgency doesn’t lie there; it is now.

Our ancient mothers and fathers conceived of God as being a bit wild.  Why do you think the angels always open with the words, “Fear not!”? We’ve domesticated God, equating God with Santa Clause, the giver of gifts and tally-taker of who is on the nice and naughty list.  But God’s encounter with Moses was not the red of a flannel suit and rosy cheeks, but a bush on wild-fire, defying physics and tantalizing the imagination.

We’ve domesticated Jesus, pretending he votes our values (or we vote his), putting him in stark white robes so that he looks like the pastor we’ve always dreamed of (with considerably more hair).  But perhaps Jesus is more John the Baptist than John Smith.

We’ve domesticated the Holy Spirit, relegating her to a peaceful dove who gently alights07-pentecost-764x764 upon shoulders and inspires beautiful paintings.  But maybe the Holy Spirit is more gadfly than dove, aggravating more often then alighting.  For this example I appreciate my Celtic ancestry.  They referred to the Holy Spirit as “Ah Gaedh-Glas” or “The Wild Goose,” sending the Celts on a wild goose chase, literally, as they sought out the Spirit to inform their lives.

And if God is wild, then the kingdom of God is wild.

The kingdom of God, the one John claims is near, does not look like an earthly kingdom.  It looks more like, well, a wilderness: where you can’t tell who is good and who is bad because those categories don’t exist when everyone is loved. Where you can’t tell who is servant and who is ruler because everyone is servant, and therefore, everyone is ruler, and the first is last and the last is first, and who could figure out the rules of living in such a confusing world?

It’s like a strange wilderness where all rules are broken.  It’s supposed to be what the church looks like.

Perhaps we’ve been domesticated by the world.

Because this world expects us to live for money, power, fame, and fortune.  It expects us to reinforce the idea of who is in and who is out.  Those are the rules. It expects us to love our own, take care of our own, and be with our own, and survive on our own.  Those are the rules.

But in Advent we remind ourselves of this story of a lonely couple, on their own, who are trying to follow the rules even though the rules oppress them, who in their time of need become surrounded by the strangest crew, brought from the rule-breaking wild margins of society: dirty shepherds, elusive angels, and pagan sorcerers that we’ve domesticated by calling them “magi” or “kings.”

The wild one, John the Baptizer, calls to us in Advent to remind us of just who we’re waiting for: a wild one from the margins who will minister to those on the margins and who invites the church to move from the center to the wilderness of the margins.

Into the wilderness of walking with those with mental illness.  Into the wilderness of walking with those who are oppressed because of their skin color, their ethnic heritage, their family ancestry.  “Do not think that your family is better,” John the Baptizer tells us.  “God can create families from stones to rival yours.”

Called even into the wilderness of your soul, where you will search for certainty your whole life only to have those tables overturned numerous times throughout your life.  I’ve seen it, Beloved.  At age 12.  At age 33.  At age 40 (we’ve domesticated it by calling it mid-life crisis, but it’s really a table-flipping feeling, as if everything is upended).  At the empty-nest stage.  At the death of a partner, parent, lover, child.

In these wilderness places we hear the voice of God speak, cutting through all this fake news we watch on TV and post on our social media, that fake news that creates a fake urgency.

And in the wilderness place we hear the voice of one, crying out for us saying: I love you, you are mine.  Crying out with us: my God my God, why have you forsaken me?  Crying out on behalf of us to God: Forgive them, they know not what they do.

And only a wild goose of a God who loves with such wild abandon, who is willing to break the rules to love and forgive those broken open on the so-called rules of the world, can swallow our lives, sinliness and saintliness…all of it…into the waters of baptism, into the heart of grace.

Look, I know.  I know some of you feel like you’re in a wilderness time.  The bed at night is empty.  The job is mindless, or non-existent.  The marriage is empty.  The chemo leaves you empty. The pantry is empty. For some democracy seems empty.  For others civility seems empty.  The emptiness seeks to devour us, or at least it feels that way.  I know it because I at times feel all that, too.

But, Beloved, even as we wait for Christ in the manger, perhaps the real truth is that the Wild Goose is on the loose even now, always now, chasing us down in our wilderness spaces, seeking to infuse those empty places of our lives with the wholeness that comes only from a God who is wild and more powerful than any other wild thing seeking to devour us.

At Christmas we are reminded that God always invites us to dine at this table of continual grace in the wilderness of our lives, and that God sends those other things that try to devour us to bed, to the grave.

Without eating anything at all.

Swept Away in Advent

water-flowI’m feeling swept away these days.

I hopped off a plane late last night (almost this morning) from a trip out West where I married two life-long friends.  It was a sacred time, and it was “away time.”  And away time always seems to require “catch-up time,” which is not the kind of time we ever have, right?

In the office today I met meeting upon meeting, back to back, teaching and then evaluating and then writing, listening and advising and driving children around, and then now at my desk.

Which is a mess, by the way.  My creative process requires that I surround myself with books, but this is just ridiculous: books to shelve, letters to respond to, birthday cards and open folders and gifts to unwrap.

Oh, and it’s a holiday week, too, which means my already tight work-week is abbreviated even further, and there are pies to bake still, and bags to pack, and words that need writing.

And next week?  We fall headlong into Advent where we encourage everyone to “slow down” and “wait together” knowing full-well that they’ll all be running around buying presents and baking gifts and hitting up the holiday sights/sites and attending the holy-day services (or deciding which ones to skip this year because, who has the time?!).

Exactly.  Who has the time?

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is about time.  “But about the hour and the day, no one knows…” exclaims a cryptic Christ. “Stay awake…you must be ready…” he goes on to say.  God can come at any moment.

I have the “awake” part, Jesus, but the “ready” thing is what I need help with.  Because if God can come at any moment, well, that’s another setting at the table that I have to plan for, and maybe we’ll stick God next to Aunt Elma because, Lord knows I don’t want to sit there…

I need help with the “ready” part of it, God.

Or do I?

I think these mini-apocalypse readings that dot the beginning of the Advent season are a gift to us.  They make us pause for a second in our goings-about.

Like the people in Noah’s day, leading lives of ordinariness, we too are swept up and carried away by all that must be attended to in these days.

And all of a sudden, splash, the flood comes.  For Noah’s neighbors that meant bad news.  But for those of us on the other side of the rainbow (or, better yet, God’s hunting bow hung in the sky and painted with finger paints, never to be used for killing again), the splash we get is good news.

A flood of grace, in fact.  Swept away in a flood of grace that we call baptism; that we call endless love; that we call Advent.

People read these texts and think that they’re about some sort of rapture moment when people are taken away, but actually a close reading will reveal that Jesus is encouraging the hearer to lean into time, not try to escape it.  Lean into this moment, for it could be the one, that moment of grace, that Christ moment that you need.  Don’t escape or fight it; lean into it, Beloved.

So, instead of fighting time, I’m going to encourage you to flow with it.  Be swept up in it.  Advent days are a deluge of grace moments.  Because no amount of  a preacher yelling “slow down” is going to make you do it. And you don’t know the day or the hour when you’ll need that little bit of grace that the baked cookie provides, that the sparkled light gives, that the thoughtful card will express, so by God, don’t pretend this rush of the holidays is anything but holiness.

Because it is when we see it that way.

Advent gives us the gift of time, holy time, to warm our houses, prep our hearts, buy a few presents (only a few!) with deep love, carefully wrap them, and imagine a world where trees grow inside, cookie jars refill endlessly, and relatives come invited to a meal that seems to go on and on into the night.

Because, dear one, you never know, right?  So be swept up in the grace of these days, of this holy time of the holidays.  Don’t fight the current, flow with it. Let every sentiment sparkle and every second shine like the glorious gift it is.

Notice that I said “let it,” not “make it.”

Because if there’s something I’ve learned from being swept up by grace over and over again in my life it’s that, when I try to make something happen, I’m actually just fighting the current.

Let Advent happen; no need to be ready because we’re never really ready, and only delusional if we think we are.  Instead of delusional, we need to be deluged in the grace of these days.  Just flow with it. Be swept up in it.

And just see if Christ doesn’t show up again.

Because he’s got the time.  And that’s all that really matters, right?


And So it Goes…

<Click here to listen to the sermon from this Sunday. Sermons are best heard rather than read, kind of like martinis are best shaken, not stirred…>

Luke 21:5-19

getty_rf_photo_of_man_holding_baby5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

And So It Goes…

Pastors are professional baby holders.  We just are.  It’s one of those things that, if you don’t feel comfortable doing, you better get comfortable doing before you take those ordination vows because you gotta do it.

Like today, when we get to hold little Connor over the water that is both death and new life and speak promises to him, softly and loudly, about how God will lead him through the rivers of his life, and how he is to follow God and learn from God and work for peace and justice in this world.

And we’ll feel his little body stretch and maybe he’ll yawn which is about the cutest thing that babies can do.  Or maybe he’ll cry just a bit, which is fine too because, well, life is scary sometimes.

Every time I hold a little one, I feel that humanity continues to have a chance.  And that is a needed thing in these days when we still have people arguing and we’re looking at divided nation, so today we’re going to do something different in worship.

Ushers: let’s pass out babies. Everyone gets to hold a baby.  It will change everything.

Actually, I’m only half joking.

Because in the next few weeks that’s what we’re going to start looking toward: the season when the world will hold the Christ-child.

But until then we have these apocalyptic texts which are not meant to be taken literally, but are meant to literally describe how the world is sometimes: parents against children, brother against brother, people arrested and people in conflict.  And so it goes it seems.

Those who thought that the divisiveness would end after this election weren’t really paying attention before it.  The simmering unrest in this nation is one we cannot elect away; we have some hard work to do.

And I think the church can be a place where that hard work is lifted up as an example.  Because here, in these pews, you will share the peace with people who voted for the other guy in this election, and I hope you genuinely will wish them peace.

But genuinely wishing someone peace doesn’t mean yelling at them and asking them how they could vote for such a person.  And genuinely wishing someone peace doesn’t mean telling someone they should just get over it, especially if they’re afraid because some really bad things were said here.

Wishing someone the peace of Christ means that you wish for them a peace that passes all understanding.  Or, as the O Antiphon for today says, a wisdom from on high; not from inside, but from outside.

Because here’s the truth about God: God is a professional people-holder.  The whole of scripture is a story of God holding people together as the world tried to tear them apart.  God held them though the temple crumbled, as we hear about in today’s Gospel lesson; God held them though they were in prison. God held them though they were deported and separated; God held them though they were persecuted; God held them even when they didn’t agree with one another, as we clearly see in the book of Acts where Peter and Paul argued loudly about the church.

God is a professional people holder, Beloved. Will you let God hold us together?

And sometimes, as God holds us together, some people will cry, because fear and anger are real.  And sometimes, as God holds us together, people will yawn and stretch because it’s not that a big a deal to them.  And sometimes people will smile, and sometimes they’ll frown.  And my reaction does not have to be your reaction, but there must be space for my reaction in the hands of God, just as there is space for yours.

Will you let God hold us together?  The world is watching.  Will we bank on our own wisdom, or on God’s wisdom from on high? The wisdom we prayed for today?

You know, I was in Old Salem for the latter part of this last week, meeting there with other pastors from around the I-40 corridor.  Baptists and Presbyterians and Mennonite and Brethren, and this Lutheran.  And we prayed and discussed and we even took a tour of Old Salem while we were there, talking about how being in a particular place affects our ministry there.

And we went to the old bakery there, where we heard the guide say that, if you put a bowl with water and flour up in the rafters, in a few days it will have come together and risen, because yeast has so embedded itself into the very bones of the bakery, you can’t get away from it. Yeast is in the air, though you can’t see it.  It’s just how it goes there: if you wait around long enough with flour and water it’ll come together and rise.

I kind of like that as a metaphor for what I want to see here, Beloved.  That you and me, a mix of water and trace elements, can come into this community and just can’t help but to be lifted somehow by the Spirit of God that moves in and through and between us, uniting us; not allowing us to be divided for long, though the things that divide us are real.

And there will be pockets in that rising, space for us to disagree, to rejoice and to cry, yet still be one bread and one body just as Christ is one bread and one body.  That’s part of what it means to be broken and poured out for one another, just as Christ is for us, here.

And I want that not only for you and for me, but I want that for little Connor today, too.

Because the village of faith that surrounds him must be supportive, infused with a wisdom from on high, and not divisive, corrupted by the so-called wisdoms of this world that tell us that we can’t be together if we disagree.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree; and it doesn’t mean that we don’t allow space for disagreement, either.

It just means that, at the end of the day, what makes us rise and form together isn’t our common ideas and even to some extent our common beliefs, but rather the wisdom that comes from knowing God holds us all in common together.

It’s like, well, at the church: if you just wait around long enough with the waters of baptism in one hand and the flour used for communion in the other, and you listen to the promises embedded in the bones of our ancestors of faith and feel the Spirit that you can’t see but know is there, well, you can’t help but rise together eventually.  Because that’s how it goes, Beloved.

On Not Living by Bread Alone

Luke 20:27-38

screen-shot-2016-01-07-at-10-03-36-amSome Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.

Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?  For the seven had married her.”  Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.  Indeed they cannot die anymore.  Because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.

And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

On Not Living by Bread Alone

On this All Saints Sunday, Lord

We pray that we might lead gentle lives

Leaving more love than hurt and hate in our wake

As you have called us to be children of light.

We pray that we might not fall into the traps

Of back-biting and gossip, the traps of a love of money

The traps of the fear of others and our true selves.

We pray, instead, that the beautiful freedom you invite us to in Jesus

Be lived now, and be fully lived after that last breath.

And we pray that for our parents, partners, and children.

For all creation.

In the name of the dead and resurrected one


Turn to that hymn, 422 there in your hymnal.  Let’s sing the first verse: For all the saints who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, they name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!

I love this first verse.  It uses the much neglected second person singular past tense of was, “be” that we so lovingly pronounce “wast.” Don’t get to say that much…

On All Saints Day we certainly remember those who have gone before us, Beloved.  But let us also consider ourselves.  Let us imagine the ways that we live while living, but also the ways that we refuse to live even as we breathe.

Or, as St. Bon of the Jovi’s said in his wonderful song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” I want to live while I’m alive…a phrase he repeats in a number of his songs.

But sometimes we don’t.

Dorothee Solle is a German theologian, now sainted herself as she died in 2003, wrote this about that kind of death,

“Death is what takes place within us when we look upon others not as gift, blessing, or stimulus but as threat, danger, competition.  It is the death that comes to all who try to live by bread alone.  This is the death that the Bible fears, and gives us good reason to fear.  It is not the final departure we think of when we speak of death; it is the purposeless, empty existence devoid of genuine human relationships and filled with anxiety, silence and loneliness.”

I love that little phrase, “It is the death that comes to all who try to live by bread alone,” a nice little allusion to Jesus’ temptation in the desert by The Satan who tries to convince him to turn stones into bread because he was hungry.  Jesus reminds The Satan, a creature of words, that we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God.

And it’s a funny play on words, actually.  Because The Satan is talking to The Word of God in that moment.

So, what do you live by?

The Sadducees in this Gospel story lived on being right; having the right answers.  It was their bread.  They were a sect of Judaism who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, who didn’t believe in something called the oral tradition of the Torah.  And they were bound and determined to expose Jesus in his wrongness; to prove he is wrong.  And so they ask him this question that essentially has no answer, the question that is the ancient equivalent of that old children’s riddle, “If God can do anything, can God make a rock too big for God to lift?”

They want to live, and therefore die, on their right answers.  You didn’t want to be a Sadducee because they were just so sad-you-see…And if you think we’re past that, think about this election or the things you say about those people voting for the other person, or think about those people, whoever they are for you, who just don’t live correctly or believe the right things or… If I’m honest, it’s often my bread. And yours. We are no different.  I tire of that bread, though.  It’s stale.

And look, Jesus says that’s not what life is about…and therefore not what death is about, either.  It’s not about the questions and answers of this age which are all trick questions and trick answers and trapping people we think are wrong and, well, as Solle says it, living in the fear, the empty existence that is trying to amass the right answers in life.  The fear that we might be wrong about things so we constantly try to prove ourselves right.

It’s a version of trying to save ourselves, Beloved.

And, let me be honest here: I’ve done almost as many weddings as I’ve done funerals in this work; from infants to octogenarians. And when you’re shaking dust onto a casket, you can’t imagine anything more vacuous than any supposed right answer.  You are just totally banking on the grace of God to get you through that moment.

Much like, I’d say, the one in the grave banked on the grace of God to make that final transition, whether they knew it or not.

So, Beloved, what do you live by?

Because I’m tired of living by my work.  Slavishly serving that taskmaster, the phone is both our life-line and our undertaker, burying us in constant emails, constant calls to be somewhere other than where we are.

So what do you live by?

Because I’m tired of living by my bank account.  How much of God’s gifts do we decide to keep each year?  Some of us live by our desire to keep control of things. Some of us live by never being happy, because if we didn’t have anything to complain about, what would we do with our time?

And I’m tired of caring too much about what others think about me, I’m tired of living off of that because, well, what can you do about it, Saints?  And I’m tired of living off the next political scandal, and I’m tired of living off of the next vacation, and aren’t you tired of living off of the drama of those around you and the bread of manufactured anxiety some people just insert in your life and the gossip that is meant to tear people and communities down instead of build up?

I’m tired of living by bread alone more days than not.

So, Beloved, what do you live by?

Some, I guess, don’t.  They can’t anymore.

I think of my high school friend Dan every All Saints Day who, one night, kissed his girlfriend goodbye, went back to his room and then died to suicide.  And I just think of what a beautiful guy he was, even these fifteen years later, and I think of how he was just unable to see himself as God saw him or even the rest of us saw him.  He had given up on bread altogether.

And I’m sad and tired of that happening, too.

I mean, here’s the thing: when I look back at these pictures up here, I don’t think of the people I love who have gone to live with God through their profession, or whether or not they had right answers, or money or any of that.  I usually just think of, well, them.  Flawed and beautiful them.

And if I can think like that, I can only imagine how much more God thinks of all of us, living and departed, as not justified by our right answers, by our money, or even by our ability to be gracious with ourselves.

I think God is just crazy in love with humanity, and decided to justify that love with nothing more than a promise, a cross, and an empty tomb that drowns all those other breads we try to live by in the new wine of unearned grace; a grace that gives life now and after our last breath.

So, what do you live by?

It’s a good question to reflect on this All Saints Sunday.  Because God invites us to live on God’s grace given through the dead and resurrected one, and nothing else in this life and afterward.

I want to live off of the graceful promises of God more than anything else…

You know, at this table we’ll hear that this bread is bread…but also not bread alone.  It is bread infused with the promises of God.  And then you’ll be given it, all of you, from the oldest to the youngest, whoever wants it, and you’ll live by it, by God, for the rest of this week.  And, I dare say, for the rest of your life and beyond it.  While we may try to live by bread alone, God at this table just doesn’t seem satisfied to let that happen…

To catch another glimpse of what that looks like, let’s sing that final verse of 422: From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Alleluia! Alleluia!

Didn’t we kind of see that this morning at the font?  The saints streaming to God.  I can see it, can you?  Both in this life and the next.

Those of us who so often try to live by bread alone are continually invited to the table of grace by a God who is so crazy in love with us that he just can’t let us go.  You. Me. Dan. All of us. Amen.

Denial and Hope and the Two Halves of Our Selves

<Don’t be in denial. Listening to a sermon is way better than reading one. Click here to hear!>

Luke 18:9-14

18-icon-pharisee-taxcollectorJesus then told them this parable, those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying this way: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector here.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.” But the tax collector, standing off a ways, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Denial and Hope and the Two Halves of Our Selves

We pray today, Lord

As tax collectors and Pharisees,

And we pray that you’ll continue to be

The God we need. Not the God we want.


The last few weeks we’ve been looking at how Jesus is reforming and transforming all of these notions that we in the larger Christian context just take for granted: faith, gratitude, prayer.

I am firmly convinced that Jesus is much more subversive than many who call themselves Christian give him credit for.  Because subversiveness is something that we think is bad or wrong in this world.  We like transparency.  We like things to be out in the open.  Or so we think.

To that I say, remember your Emily Dickens, Beloved: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant. The truth in circuit lies…”  I actually think we digest slanted truth more than full-on truth, though we’re in denial about that most of the time.

But see, this is the thing about Jesus: he’s God’s made-plain word to the world. God does what we ask, becomes totally transparent in the person of Jesus, and we’re still like, “Uhm, I’m not sure that’s right…”  Humanity still doesn’t get it.  Humanity in ancient days, and humanity now.

So, Jesus had to do these little tricks to get our defenses down and get us thinking and feeling in a godly way.  Jesus had to get subversive.

That’s what parables do, right?  They don’t give me what I want to hear, they tell me what I need to hear, and I have to wrestle with it a bit.  They’re subversive.  They’re slanted truth, and not in a way that gives comfort, but in a way that gives hope, reforming and transforming our ways of seeing and knowing.

Take this little parable today.  We look at it and think that it’s a little lesson on humility, right?  We love to think Jesus is a teacher of morals, but he’s not.  He’s really just a moral teacher.

Roll that bit of subversiveness around in your brain for a bit.

But we think this is some sort of moral lesson about being humble in front of God.  Don’t be showy.  And certainly, don’t compare yourself to other people, because that turns God off.  And you’re not better than anyone else.  “This Pharisee is in denial,” we say.  “We must say the truth about ourselves!” we say.

And I’ve heard an untold number of sermons that arrive at that moralistic lesson, and it’s certainly in there in some ways, and surely it’s an interpretation.

But the problem with that interpretation is that, well, you could also learn that from an afterschool special.  I mean, it’s just about decency, right?  And I think Jesus is more than about people just being decent.

There has to be more to it.

I said a few Sundays ago that one of the ways that I feel like we can trust God is because the scriptural witness, especially of Jesus, has God choosing the exact opposite of what I’d choose most times in any given situation.

God would pick the weak and vulnerable for the kickball team at recess.  God’s financial accounting is suspect in my eyes.  A woman looks over the house for a coin and then throws a party, spending much more than the coin, to celebrate?  I say that’s irresponsible.  Jesus says that’s the kingdom of God. A man has a grain surplus and makes a bigger barn to store it in.  I say that’s responsible, and Jesus says that’s not the kingdom of God.

That’s what I mean by subversive.  Jesus is always subverting our ideas. Flipping them. I think Christians have lost sight of that.  I think we’ve turned the church into a moral enterprise, a personal-morality-incorporated machine.  You could do that with after-school specials.

But in that pursuit, I often here this text used as proof.

“Jesus says to acknowledge you’re a sinner, don’t think yourself higher than anyone else, and you will be justified,” we say.

But what if this parable isn’t about us at all?  What if it’s a parable about God?  What if it’s a parable about the ways that we see and understand and conceptualize God?

Early on in my ministry I was driving in Chicago and a car in the lane next to me veered suddenly and side-swiped my car.  We both came to a halt in the middle of the street.  The driver got out, a stocky man with a Polish-Catholic flag decal on his bumper.

And here I got out in my black suit and clerical collar and he took one look at that white stripe and said loudly, “Oh NO!  Father, father, I’m so sorry father.  Your back, how’s your back?  I pay for everything. Everything.  I can’t believe I hit a priest. God is mad.”

It was not expensive damage, and really no big deal, but he was certain, he was sure, that he had messed up royally in the Divine order of things by sideswiping an emissary of God.

I think that’s telling in some sense.  It’s telling because, well, I think most of us think of God in a similar way.  That God has favorites.  (Amazingly, God’s favorites just happen to often be my favorites!)

See, I think that the Pharisee speaks and prays like he does, not because he’s egotistical and pompous…or, at least, not only for those reasons…but because he thinks God is that way.

He thinks God makes judgments like this.  That God likes certain people and not other people.  That God blesses certain people but doesn’t bless other people, and that maybe those people who aren’t blessed, maybe they deserve it a little bit.

I wonder if this parable is about God and our conceptions of God more than about us.

Because, if we’re honest, we have within us both the Pharisee and the tax collector.  We have both natures within our nature.  On Ash Wednesday I talked a little bit about this; the Jewish idea that everyone has two pockets, the pocket of ego and the pocket of ashes.  And that, depending on the situation, we pull from one pocket or the other.

But it’s no wonder that we only think of God as ego because often we only talk about God as ego.  God as powerful.  God as holy.  God as almighty.

But we forget that God’s power is known through self-sacrifice.  That God’s holiness is best seen when Christ makes himself profane by hanging out with the wrong people in the scriptures.  That God’s almighty nature is not best understood as perfection, but as perfect love…which implies vulnerability and tenderness and mercy.

We are in denial. We think we want an ego God.  But what we get is an ashes God, Beloved.  We want a God who sends people to treatment.  But what we get is a God already sitting in the 12-step circle, that place where it is safe to be yourself.

See, we think we want an ego God who separates people into right and wrong, good and bad, and then gives us permission to do the same.

But before such a God, no one could stand…no matter how we pretend we could or how we spin our story.  And, let’s be honest, how many of us confess our sin without confessing the fact that we absolutely judge people again and again because we think they are sinful?

The God we get seen through Jesus is the God of, as Father Richard Rohr says, “downward mobility.”  The God who meets the tax collector while he is still far off because that’s the kind of God we have: one who runs to us rather than bids us to run away in fear.

And that’s how justification happens, by the way.  We aren’t made right with God because of what do or don’t do.  Even the tax collector’s admission of his sinfulness doesn’t cause God to forgive him, as if those are the magic words.  If there are magic words to prayers, I haven’t found them yet…and I pray a lot, people.

We’re made right with God because God comes to meet us while we are still far off.  And knowing that has given me so much comfort in my life.  It has opened me up to myself and to others in ways I can’t describe.

Our ego doesn’t understand that God.  It desperately wants the God of judgment because it wants to judge.  It desperately wants a God of merit because it wants to prove itself in this life.

But our ashes self…they know this God well.  Not because our ash side needs God more, but because it speaks the language of God better.

And that gives me hope.

Because ultimately I don’t need a God to tell me my sins.  I need a God to tell my sins to. And not just my sins, but everything. And only one whose been there knows what the pain is like, so I need a God who has hung out with the people I want to judge. I need a God who has hung in the cave that is depression, some call it a tomb, and heard the voices outside who say things like, “they’ll never get out of it.”  I need a God who has hung on the cross, not floated above it.

And that’s the transforming and reforming God we get in Jesus.  And I can see it when I’m honest with myself, when I’m not denial about the kind of God I need.

You know, that last bit, where the English translation says that the tax collector went down justified “rather” than the Pharisee?  In the Greek it says something a little more ambiguous.  In the Greek it can be translated, “along with” instead of rather.

And that gives me, both my ego side and my ashes side, a lot of hope.  Because that’s the kind of God we need.


Four Difficult Words

<To hear this sermon blowing in the wind, click here…>

Luke 18:1-8

b926140689605ae5f0b25c5712162e1a1Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Four Difficult Words

Grant the world justice

Gracious one.

Grant us eyes to see injustice for what it is

Grant us ears to hear the cries of those who suffer

Grant us lips eager with words of hope and not platitudes

Grant us hands and feet able to run

But most of all

Grant us hearts that have been infused with your own heart

That we all might have enough faith to follow your call



How many roads must a man walk down

Before they call him a man?

Yes and how many seas must a white dove sail

Before she can sleep in the sand?

Yes and how many times must the cannonballs fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind

The answer is blowing in the wind

That song, of course, written by St. Robert of the Dylans, is stuck in my head from working at camp those many years.

Did you all hear that Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for literature?  How many of you knew that was literature?  He earned it for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Which I buy, actually.  I love Dylan’s lyrics.  His voice sounds like it’s been run through a wood chopper, but his lyrics are golden.

Words are like that. They can be golden.  They can be tin.  Sometimes they can be both.  What are some of the most impactful words or phrases that you know?

“I love you” comes to mind.

“You’re welcome” maybe.

“You’re forgiven” is great.

“I’ve been clean and sober for three weeks” were the most powerful words someone uttered once.

“We’re back together.”

“I love you just the way you are.”

“You didn’t deserve that.”

“You’re beautiful” was spoken to a friend of mine once by his father when he was 13 and considered himself the fat kid.  His father died some 19 years ago, and that moment, those words, that time when he told his son, one of 9, that he was beautiful sticks with him as one of his best memories of his father.

What are the most difficult words or phrases that you know?

I dare not list them; we’ve heard enough difficult words in the past few months to last a thousand election cycles.

Words and phrases have power; we know this.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will cause us to obsess over what someone said or did or called us late into the night and throw us into the therapy chair and…Lord, give us the sticks and stones, at least that heals relatively quickly…

Words have power. I mean, I think that’s part of Jesus’ point here.

“And then Jesus told them a parable about praying constantly and not losing heart,” this story starts, and then we buckle up because we want to hear that we can pray about anything constantly and God will grant our prayers like Aladdin rubbing the lamp to entice the genie.

But then Jesus does this little switch on us.  The parable is not about us, at least, not about most of us.  It’s about one of the most vulnerable persons in the ancient world: the widow.  And she’s not just asking for anything, she’s asking for justice.  Probably economic justice because she, as a widow who is alone in court, obviously has no one else to advocate for her, and therefore no one else to help her make money in a world where the social safety net had gaping holes in it.

On Tuesday morning at our Bible study on Faith and Politics we were talking about what topics Jesus talks about most in the scriptures.  Economic justice, money, it wins the prize.  Jesus would win the Nobel Prize for Economic Justice Advocacy. The way that we collectively, and that we individually, use the gifts of God given to us in the form of money is a spiritual matter.

The persistent prayer is not just any prayer, it’s a prayer for justice.

And this widows praying is disruptive.  She’s not quietly praying in a corner; she’s loudly praying on the street corner.  She’s loudly protesting downtown. She’s ranting, and the respectable people would wish she would be quiet.

So much so that in the parable this unjust judge says, “she’s wearing me out”…at least that’s the English translation.  The Greek is more like, “she’s giving me a black eye!”

Her words matter.  They are not unlike a Bob Dylan song, a protest song, a song whose refrain is “Give me justice against my opponent!” put on repeat.  The judge must hear her cry for justice.  She is a preacher.

The bald and beautiful William Sloane Coffin once wrote “”The preacher’s job is to call for justice to roll down like mighty waters. The politician’s job is to work out the irrigation system.”

And, as someone rightly asked after reading that quote, “I wonder if either are doing their job these days…”

You know the words that get caught in my throat most often?  The words I have trouble with? The words of the Lord’s Prayer.  Not all of them, but most of them.  They are some of the most scandalous words out there, and I usually say them with only half a heart.

Like when we say, “Give us this day our daily bread” it gets caught in my throat because I most often want to say, “give me this day my daily bread.”  Because that’s mostly what I really want. But that’s not what Jesus teaches.  Jesus teaches us to say “our” bread.  What are we doing to ensure others have their daily bread?

When I say, “Thy will be done,” those are the four most difficult words I know.  It gets caught in my throat every time because I most often want to say “my will be done.”

Jesus reforms our prayers a bit today.  Prayers are not just about our desires, but about God’s desires for us, for our world.  As Abraham Lincoln so rightly noted, we should not be so bold as to claim that God is on our side, but pray fervently that we are on God’s side in this world. And prayer can lead us to distinguish between the two.

These days I pray for a couple of things.  I pray for justice for the vulnerable.  I pray for myself and my family, too.  For good health and love and peace, things I think everyone deserves.  I pray for a good use of my gifts and wisdom to know how to use them.  A generous heart and wallet.  And I pray for mercy in the ways that I don’t always seek after justice, but choose the easy path of status quo and quietism in the face of injustice.

I pray for these things out loud, because words have power.  Because the most unjust judge in this world is often my own ego.  And perhaps God through the scriptures, perhaps Jesus on the cross, is this widow petitioning me with words to change my heart and mind, conforming them into something else, something more…just.

Perhaps that’s the greatest bait and switch of this parable: we’re often the unjust judge who, despite our best intentions still prefer the path of least resistance, in our wonton disdain for others and disregard for the subjects God in Jesus has shown care for, distracting ourselves with political circus and convincing ourselves that the problems are always “out there,” we are encouraged to pay attention…no, not encouraged…badgered by Jesus throughout the scriptures, to watch over and act for and be with the least of these with “thy will be done” pouring from our lips instead of choking in our throats.

You know, scripture describes the Holy Spirit in many ways: wind, fire, breath.  Paul says that the Spirit exhales the breath of prayer for us when we are at a loss for words, a sigh too deep for words.

And when faced with the confusion of the world and the needs and solutions and non-solutions everywhere, we can be tempted to just say nothing and stay quiet.  But do not lose heart, Beloved.  Pray and continue praying and pay attention to the prayers of those around you for justice.  Words have power.

Because if the Holy Spirit is indeed wind, then maybe Dylan was right.  The answer to our prayers is blowing as God’s presence into those places, stirring up justice in the places of confusion and despair.  A windswept whisper of a prayer: “Thy will be done.”


The Strange Narcissism of That One Leper

<Feel free to listen along by clicking here.  Listening is better than reading when it comes to sermons…>

Luke 17:11-19

ym_desktop11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

The Strange Narcissism of that One Leper

In gratefulness we come, Lord

To your word

To your table

With the places in our being that need healing

Telling you the stories of the places in this world

That need healing.

Heal our prejudice, heal our need for revenge,

Heal our hurricane swept homes,

Heal our fear of all these things and more.


My goddaughter, Mairead, just turned 7. Last year she wanted to get onto the floor hockey club team…I know, that phrase sounds so much more adult than it is…but she wanted to get on the floor hockey club team, and so her mom and dad dutifully signed her up.

As her father, my best friend, was telling me this story he said, “And then we saw that she was the only girl who signed up to play.  And we said, ‘Mairead, you’re the only girl on the team. Is that OK?’ She just shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘That means they’ll probably just make me the captain.’”

Thatta girl!

I told her dad that she has an appropriate amount of narcissism, which will do her well in a world where women still get scrutinized and judged in ways that men do not.

I think there are certainly times when an appropriate amount of narcissism is necessary.  Martin Luther talked about the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, in ways that can be interpreted as at least partly narcissistic.  That is, if you don’t think God’s promises are for you, “pro me” or “for me” as Luther often said, then you’re missing a big part of the message.

It has to be for you if it is for anyone.  And for you to act on it, you have to trust it is for you first.

It’s good for us to remember that, for as bombastic as Martin Luther was in his writing and his convictions, the man had a fragile ego and suffered from depression and anxiety.  So for him to hear that the gospel was “pro me,” or for him…that was no small thing.

In his estimation he didn’t deserve much at all.  He didn’t matter much at all. He was a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to study law.  And then when he entered the Augustinian order, turns out he wasn’t a very good monk, either.  He wasn’t satisfied with the daily offices, he was sure that his every move was a sin, he wasn’t satisfied with the state of the church, he wasn’t satisfied that the common person couldn’t read the Bible, that most pastors were so poorly educated it was the spiritually sightless leading the spiritually gullible…

Some of that still continues today.  Shoot, sometimes that feels like me.

Luther would lay prostrate on the cold ground naked as punishment for what he thought were his failings in life.

I wonder how many of us have done the same thing in some way.  How many of us torture ourselves for what we perceive to be past sins?  How many of us can’t seem to get the notion that we’re just no good out of our head?

A friend of mine who went off of his depression medication for a period of time said that he just wanted to feel something again.  His meds made him feel nothing, he wanted to feel something.  But the something he always seemed to feel was that he was worth nothing…

Here’s the thing about the story of these lepers in today’s Gospel.  We always focus on that one who returned and we think, “Man, he knew what was going on.  He knew to follow his p’s and q’s.  He knew to say thank you.  His mama taught him right. We need to say thank you like that guy said thank you.  That’s what God wants, after all; just a little bit of gratitude.”

Maybe.  That’s certainly one way to look at it.

But, what if…

What if those lepers, even after they were healed, still thought they were nothing?  They had been shunned by society for so long, they had been told they weren’t anything for so long, they had been made to feel as less than for so long, that even being healed wouldn’t change their own mind about themselves.

I mean, imagine that healed leper who didn’t say thanks heading back to her house.  She’s showed herself to the priest, she’s clean now, but everyone she knew from way back when? They all remember.  They remember how they couldn’t touch her, couldn’t trust her.  She was a disease.  A pariah. How easy do you think it was for them to accept her back?

And notice this, the gospel writer says that the one who came back to praise God and thank Jesus was a Samaritan.  This wouldn’t be important, except that the very mention of it means that at least some of the others in the group were Jewish.  So leprosy, being an outcast, it was the defining feature for these people, even more definitive than their ethnic heritage.

How much of an outcast do you have to be to lose all of your identity except for your disease?  If you’re not sure, maybe sit with the man I sat with in the hospital a few years ago who was dying of late-stage AIDs. He’d contracted it back when it was the leprosy of the ‘80’s, and had lived that long.

But that original community of friends and family he had?  They’d disappeared.  And even when he didn’t die right away like all the doctors said he would, even as his treatment got better and his life continued, they never accepted him again.

But he was important. He was a part of this story.

See, we often read this like Jesus is making a statement about gratitude, but maybe he’s more making a statement about personhood.  “Were not 10 restored?  And only this one, this one who doesn’t even know of the God I pray to, is able to believe that it changed things enough to find that the grace was for him, and give thanks?  The rest couldn’t trust it? Couldn’t trust that in God’s grace they are different than anyone ever told them they were?  That they weren’t defined by the most difficult thing about them?  The other 9 are restored in grace, too. Why can’t they trust it and be whole?”

And you only need to know what Jesus does with lost sheep to know what he did with those other 9: he went looking for them and finally spotted them from that height of the cross that restores all things in time. Where they could trust that God’s work changes things and restores all things that the world, that sin, that life takes from us or labels us or puts upon us.

Here’s the thing about the gospel: it is for you.  But not so that you can just hold on to it, but so that you can know that it gives you the feet to run to the places where people are dying, it gives you the hands to reach out to those pushed away by people, it gives you the lips to speak grace to pain, and to give gratitude to God because you are someone important.

And so when we sit around tables at Memory Café with our loved ones who can’t remember who they are sometimes, we are saying that we are someone in God, and especially someone who can sit with someone and remind them gratefully who they are in God.

And so when we send letters to Mnene Parish, we write with hands that are not just no one, but someone’s hands, with scribbled words that remind them that they are someone worth remember and loving, and someone who can go on to change the world from Zimbabwe.

And so when you drop your offering in that plate, no matter the size, it matters because you matter and the lives that are changed by that gift matters.  And that’s important for me to tell you because we’re about to start a stewardship appeal and I know there are some of you who think that your small bit doesn’t matter.  That you’re not important.  And if you think that’s true, let me tell you some stories.  Stories like the young woman we’re going to baptize in a few weeks who has found a community that loves her just as she is and presents a Jesus.  So much so that she wants the waters of baptism for herself.  And that’s just one story. I could tell you nine more.  But that one story is something, Beloved.

Because sometimes the hardest thing in the world to make right again is this notion run rampant that humanity and personhood is reserved for only a clean few.

But when Jesus makes you clean, you are clean indeed.  Or, as Jesus says it in the Gospel of John, when God’s love sets you free, you are free indeed.

Free to be grateful for who you are because you are someone, by God.  Free to seek after those nine who can’t see that who they are matters.  Free to embrace those who have been made to feel like they can never be well.  Free to embrace those the world has says aren’t important and say to them, “you’re important” without having to qualify it.

A little strange, healthy narcissism given to us by the gospel might be exactly the prescription to make us all well, Beloved. Because, look, no matter what you’ve got going on, no matter what you’re struggling with, no matter how you’re feeling: grateful or just getting by, today Jesus re-forms our gratitude from one of just thanksgiving, to one of divine wholeness.

And, at the risk of encouraging you all to be narcissists, you need to know: you are something.  Thank God for that.