At My Wit’s End

Are you ready?

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

  12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

  14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

At Wit’s End

Good morning, Beloved.

My name is Pr. Tim Brown, and I’m a pastor in the North Carolina Synod, serving in Raleigh.  I was a parish pastor for ten years, but these days I work across the denominational aisle for an organization that serves children and families from foster care and adoption to alternatives to juvenile detention and family reunification.  At Methodist Home for Children I’m their Director of Special Gifts, though I continue to do pulpit supply and preach and teach in the North Carolina Synod.

Your pastor, the Right Reverend Niketh, and I have been friends for over 20 years now…which is amazing to believe.  I’m grateful he asked me to supply the homily today. If there’s one thing this pandemic has allowed us to do, even with all it’s frustrating and maddening harm, is reach across distances previously gapping differences, if just for a bit.

I’ll be quite honest with you, though. 

I’m at my wit’s end.

Fundraising virtually is not easy (it’s not easy when it’s in person), even when the cause is so good, and I have two little boys who have been doing Zoom school and, though I was a teacher in my twenties, when you are trying to teach your own young children…well…let’s just say they’ve learned some new words, but not in Phonics.

I’m at my wit’s end.

Which, is exactly where we find Jesus today, actually.

Mirroring that reluctant seafarer Noah in his ark of animals, and mimicking ancient Israel as they wandered the desert, we find Jesus today being driven out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Now, if you were all my parishioners you’d have heard a few times how I’m big on reminding folks that the number, 40, is not literal.  It’s meant to clue you in to a deep truth.  Because, see, in the Scriptures, 40 days is meant to remind you of that story of Noah, it’s been to bring you back to that story of Israel wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land, because 40 days is that numerical sign post that indicates the person wandering is at their breaking point.

40 days and 40 nights stands for that moment when you’re at your wit’s end.

And with this pandemic and, no, not just with the pandemic, with the political posturing and with these four walls and the four people in this house (c’mon, we’re talking about the Gospel here so let’s get real: we’re all tired of our families many days) and not being able to travel and, that mess in Texas?!  And all that snow piled high in your driveway which just sits there because we don’t have anywhere to go anyway, right?!

I mean, it may not be you (but I have a hunch it is), I am at my wit’s end.

11 pandemic months is 40 days and 40 nights, it feels like 40 years of wandering in our heads and hearts because we can’t wander with our feet.

And the temptation here, Beloved, is to just give in.

It’s tempting to give in to all the political posturing and paint everyone on this side or that side as bad (or good, depending on where you sit in the stands).

It’s tempting to give in to the cynicism so pervasive in all of this that says, “Why even bother wearing a mask and social distancing anymore because we’re past the point of no return.”  We’re not, Beloved…but it is tempting sometimes to behave as if we are, especially if we don’t happen to have co-morbidities or find ourselves in the third act of life.

Oh, spoiler alert: we all have co-morbidities.  It’s called being mortal. We just remembered that a few days ago on Ash Wednesday.

It’s tempting to play into power grabs in our communities that are trying to do things virtually, but it just doesn’t feel the same, you know?  So you stop connecting and stop engaging and you stop supporting and you…

It’s all so tempting.

I far prefer Mark’s telling of the temptation of Jesus to Matthew and Luke’s more elaborate and detailed version.  Matthew and Luke talk about what the Satan tempted Jesus with, but Mark just said, “In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted for 40 days,” which means that maybe Jesus had some of those same temptations that I have in these days.

Maybe he was tempted to turn his back on his calling in life?

Maybe he was tempted to be a revolutionary leader, and not the Prince of Peace?

Maybe he was tempted to deny his baptism, hike up his robe, and head back to Galilee to live out his days in quiet silence.

Maybe he was tempted to just call it quits.

When you’re in the 40 days of life, Beloved, when you’re at your breaking point, temptation is so so, well, tempting. 

The bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City, now sainted, once said that, “Evil is so enticing, and good is so demanding.”

And while I don’t think that temptation is always evil, when it’s the temptation to give up on life, to give up on the neighbor that we’re called to love, to give up seeking out the God who calls out to us in love…well, at our breaking point it’s enticing, but in our baptism we’re reminded that no matter if we’re comfortable in our life or at our breaking point, whether we’re one day old or at our 40 days of existence, we are a Beloved child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever, who is given the graceful burden of a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and love of the Lord, joy, and a call to work for justice in all the world.

It’s no wonder that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the temptation of Jesus comes directly after his baptism, because it is in the moments of our 40 days of life where we truly get to witness the truth of those baptismal waters and we’re reminded that, like Noah, they won’t overcome us.  We are reminded, like Israel, that God makes a way out of no way and the Promised Land will appear.  We’re reminded, Beloved, like Jesus, that the 40 days always come to an end in time and angels wait to take care of us.

Angels with vaccine vials.  Angels with hot dishes.  Angels with postcards of love and Zoom meeting happy hours and…it’s 40 days, but there have been angels all along the way if we’re looking, and I have a feeling that won’t stop.

Because here’s the thing about God: God would rather die than let you feel as if you’re alone forever, you hear me? 

God would rather die and be buried than let the 40 days bury you. 

And we know that because, in Jesus, that’s exactly what God did.

And in that resurrection moment the world saw that no 40 days, no flood, no desert wandering, no temptation will ever, ever separate us from the love of God…at least not for longer than three days.

I may be at my wit’s end, but hear me, First Lutheran, know this my siblings in Christ: the Kingdom of God has come near so don’t give into the temptation in these desert days, the angels are on their way and some have even arrived, Beloved.  The inbreaking of God is in process, the promise still remains, and as we’ll see in six short weeks, our God would rather die than have you trust otherwise.

Amen.

In the Divine Zoom the Demons Get Put on Mute

Man with duct tape over his mouth

<Preached for Lutheran Church of the Epiphany for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany>

Are you ready?

29As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
  32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
  35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In the Divine Zoom the Demons Get Put on Mute

My name is Pr. Tim Brown.  I’m a pastor in the North Carolina Synod, and though I’ve been a parish pastor for over ten years, I more recently accepted a position as Director of Special Gifts for Methodist Home for Children.  We work with children and families, cradle to career, on everything from foster care and adoption to alternatives to juvenile detention and family reunification.

And, yes, they let me work with them even though I’m not Methodist…after all, Methodists and Lutherans are, as we say here in the South, kissing cousins.

Part of my ministry these days, too, is supply preaching here in the Synod, and I’m grateful Pr. Russell asked me to be with you all at Epiphany, even if it’s virtually.  I think we’re all finding out that virtual is a bit more real than most of us ever imagined, though I know we’re longing for the days of movies in theaters and sports in stadiums and, yes, church in a sanctuary.

But I want to point something out to you, Beloved, right here at the outset, a little note in our Gospel text today that I think is worth lifting up in our Covid days: Jesus does his work today not in the temple, but in the house.

We’re tired of our houses.  I’m tired of my four walls.  But if we thought we needed a church building to meet Jesus, this pandemic is just reinforcing what the Gospel is already showing us.  We need a community, yes, we need one another. 

But Jesus shows up in the house, too.  That’s something I think we’ve forgotten that, if anything, these days can re-teach us, by God.

One of the things I’m missing most about church, Beloved, is the singing.  Yes, we can sing at home, and we’re about to (you didn’t know I sing in sermons, did you?) but I miss the singing because this Gospel text is a perfect one for a song. 

Did you hear it?  Jesus arrives at Peter and Andrew’s home and, immediately…everything in the Gospel of Mark is immediate, by the way…Jesus reaches out and takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand.  And, all I could think of when I read that, was that old Gospel favorite, sing with me:

Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Let me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn…

We would all pray that Jesus would take our sick by the hand these days and break their fevers.

We would all do with Jesus taking our hand in these days where we’re tired of isolation, we’re weak from inactivity, we’re worn down by political vitriol…

It’s just true.

But let me point out another true moment in this passage, one that you may have glossed over, Beloved.

Did you catch the part where the Gospel writer says that Jesus “wouldn’t let the demons speak?”

Yeah, so Jesus is healing diseases and casting out demons (and notice that diseases aren’t demons) and Mark throws this lovely little aside in there: and (Jesus) “wouldn’t let the demons speak.”

In the Divine Zoom meeting, Jesus has the demons on mute.  Because Jesus knew them. He’d wrestled with them in the wilderness, you’ll hear that story in a few weeks.

I mention it because one of the things I’m continually struck by is how, whenever they come in contact with Jesus, he puts the demons on mute.

I’m struck by it because I still think it’s true today.

Because I’ve seen the demons of spousal abuse be put on mute when the partner is reminded that they are a beloved child of God and are not meant to be hit or slandered.  I’ve seen them do the brave thing, get help, and leave that relationship when they’re reminded of who God calls them and not the terrible names that sick partner calls them.

I’ve seen the demons of fear become mute and flee in the face of difficulty when a person remembers that God walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death and they make that tough decision to enter treatment, to end treatment, to make that move that they know will be life-giving but they’re stuck in their ways…

I’ve seen the demon of neglect put on mute when someone who was convince they were unlovable is embrace by a family, or by a community, spurred on by the Gospel call to bind ourselves to one another in love.

One time I heard of a pastor who got a call from a church member.  They had been letting some youth in the community use their indoor gym to play basketball on weekends because the neighborhood courts were full of gangs and dealers.  The kids, one Sunday, left some dirt on the floor because it had been raining all week.

The church member said, “Pastor, we can’t let those kids in anymore. They left a mess.”  The pastor said, “Yes, I saw.  I’ll clean it up. But we have to let them use our space. Afterall, Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me’” and the church member interrupted, saying tersely, “Don’t bring Jesus into this!”

Don’t bring Jesus into this.  Why?

Because in the presence of Jesus those frustrations motivated by convenience, not love, are put on mute.

Love. 

The bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the late pastor of Riverside Church in New York City said, “Love is visionary.”  It sees past the limited and limiting ideas that the loudest voices in our world, and in our head, offer us.

The letter of 1 John reminds us that “God is love,” God is visionary, and therefore I would call Jesus God’s love letter, God’s vision in action.  Jesus is God’s love letter who attends to us, even in our houses (after all, where else would we regularly get our mail), and silences the demons that fill our heads and our hearts.

The demons that say, “you’re worthless.”

The demons that say, “this will never end.”

The demons that say, “go ahead and hate them for their political beliefs.”

The demons that say, “go ahead and hate them because they’re queer.”

Or different.  Or from Mexico. Or undocumented.

Demons say a lot of things, Beloved, and in the face of Jesus, in the face of God’s love letter, they are put on mute.  Silent.

Because, as Jesus shows us today, God is about giving life, not taking it…and those voices take our lives.

And those voices can show up anywhere, right?  Even in our own homes. In our own heads. In our own hearts.

But, as we’ve seen today, that’s exactly where you’re likely to find Jesus, by God, just hanging out, healing, eating, praying, putting those voices on mute so that we might live, and live abundantly.  The love letter we see in Jesus is one where God will go to death and back to silence those demons who stand no chance in the light of such love.

In this world God’s love letter silences those life-taking voices, those screaming demons of abuse, neglect, of prejudice, of racism, sexism, which means we can’t be afraid to bring Jesus into the tough moments, the tough conversations, with our neighbors, and within ourselves.

Who knows?  Maybe one of those voices that has been plaguing you has now fallen silent.  And now that it’s silent, we can sing the next hymn together more clearly, right?

Thank God.

Amen.

You Can’t Explain It

Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering, 
 the sun will be darkened,
  and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
  28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
  32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

You Can’t Explain It

We approach this text with some fear and trembling, and the verbiage here seems at odds with how the world is reacting.  Because we’re all singing,

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”

And not,

It’s beginning to look a lot like the apocalypse…

But what does apocalyptic language do?  It attempts to explain something that defies explanation, that goes deeper than just the surface, that is more than what it appears.

I remember seeing a father hug his adult son and, to any onlooker it probably appeared as if it was just a simple hug, but I knew the story, Beloved.  I knew the story of how that father never once even told his son he was proud of him, let along showed him any physical affection.

That hug was not just a hug, you know?

Or, like, I remember waiting in the hallway and hearing that cry come out of that hospital room.  New lungs expanding for the first time, smiles and cheers all around. 

Because even though every birth is amazing, this birth…oh, this family had waited through miscarriage after miscarriage, had long had a nursery decorated that laid dormant for years, the stars on the ceiling awaiting a little face waited for so long they were falling to the floor.  That birth was not just any birth, Beloved…

Sometimes things are more than they seem and you have to look deeper to see what’s there, but hidden.  You have to pay attention.  Or, as Jesus says, you have to “keep awake!”

And Advent is this season of the church year where we practice waiting, being attentive, where we practice clinging on to bits and pieces of hope when hope is hard to find, when we practice lighting candles in the long night as a way to remind ourselves that the shadows will not win the day in this life, that things are not always how they appear.

Advent begins in the shadows with these readings because, Beloved, so much of our time, and indeed so much of this pandemic time, has felt like it’s been lost in the shadows of the four walls we’re all too acquainted with, in the fuzzy shadowed screens of zoom meetings and election-night waiting.

Advent is intended, Beloved, to be practice for those times in our lives, those night times in our lives, when we just wish we could go to sleep and may not care if we wake up, where it seems like there are only shadows and no light,

in the deep depressions of our lives,

the failed marriages,

the miscarriages,

when black and brown bodies die in our streets, gasping for breath as we gasp at the images,

the addictions that we think we can handle but secretly know we cannot,

the family strife, the lonely nights with no one to love or love us,

the troubled children, and the troubled parents,

the lost jobs

the pandemics…;

Advent reminds us that even in those night times of our lives when it feels like everything is falling apart, like the sun won’t shine, like the stars in our eyes have gone, like we’re lost in the middle of a wilderness journey with no map,

when it feels like everyone else is Christmas happy and we’re in the middle of a personal apocalypse,

that even then, and most especially then, God is present, and active, and working.  We light a candle to help brighten the room, enlighten the moment, and remind ourselves that things are more than they seem, by God.  God’s promises are more than any promises seem.

And remember that God never promises everything will “turn out Ok,” and God doesn’t promise that everything will be hunky dory or easy or any of the trite moralisms we’ve come to rely on in our social media soundbite culture.

God’s promises are so much more.

The promises of God that say, “I love you and you are mine.”  The promises of God that say, “when you pass through the waters, they will not overcome you.”  The promises of God that say, “I am with you always, even until the end of the ages.”

The promises of God that will ring truer than ever in this pandemic season when we will hear it said, “Unto all humanity a child is born, unto you all a child is given, and the government will cause him trouble, and may kneel on his neck, and may intimidate him, and may lie to him, but he will be a wonderful counselor, a mighty one, an everlasting authority, the prince of peace.”

You know, one of the cool things about this text is that Jesus hauls the cosmos into it.  The sun is darkened, the moon won’t shine, the stars fall…he’s quoting the Hebrew prophets here, but one thing we miss with our post-modern Western eyes (because we’re looking but not seeing, you know?) is that those celestial bodies in ancient days were often thought of as gods and governors themselves.

And so Jesus is saying that, when everything falls apart, even those stable and staple things that you’ve relied on just like you’ve relied on the sun, those mini-gods you think are reliable…in modern terms perhaps he’d have said, “When your job refuses to produce, when your health won’t shine, when your stocks fall, when the electoral system is called into question, when there is a global health crisis on our hands, when there is no justice and for so many it feels like it’s “just us…”

When all those things pass away, God’s word, God’s presence, will not pass away.

We need apocalyptic language to describe how powerful God’s promises are, and so we look back through scripture to find that God’s promises are best described in ways that aren’t words at all:

by Sarah’s laugh,

by the crackling of a burning bush,

by the creaking of an ark that won’t sink,

by the swishing of oil in a lamp that won’t go out,

by a baby’s cry in a stable in Bethlehem,

by the sighing of a God stretched out on an instrument of torture who loves us to death, even death on a cross, and one step beyond.


Stay awake, then. Pay attention. You’ll hear it.

Even in these shadowy pandemic days that defy explanation there are promises being kept even now, Beloved, because, as theologian and author Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “…new life starts in the dark.” Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts with the dark.

It may see hidden, it may be hard to explain…but that’s how it is, by God.

On Fire

mary_at_pentecostAnd there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them.  Acts of the Apostles, 2:3

So, I wrote yesterday a bit about how anger got the best of me recently, and I’ve decided to try not to let that happen again.

I still stand by that.  But…

But then the news about George Floyd’s death came out.  And I found myself consumed by anger, again.

So I’m going to amend my statement to say: I resolve to be appropriately angry about the right things.  And this, Beloved, is a right thing.

You know, Fr. Richard Rohr, that bald and beautiful Christian mystic, notes that we don’t understand the metaphor of hell that is used in scripture because we don’t understand the purifying work that fire is in the world.

Foresters understand it.  Welders get it.  But your average Jane and Joe?  We’d rather stick with a literal idea of hell instead of wrestle with the metaphor…it’s easier that way.

But in a world where we see people rail against a kneeling football player, but aren’t outraged by a police officer kneeling on the neck of an already handcuffed man over a supposedly forged greenback…well…we can’t take the easy way out anymore.

Because the first kneeling was because of the second kind of kneeling.

Get it?  Do you see now?  Are your eyes adjusted to the most concrete analogy there is, now?!

If we burn it down to the core value at stake here, the outrage is over just this kind of thing: it’s still not safe to be black and brown in America.

I was talking to my friend who is a doctor the other day, and he noted that the whole Covid ward of his hospital is, right now, 25-60 year old males, “essential workers” (aka factories) who are black and brown. Proportionally, as far as race goes, this shouldn’t be the case…and yet, here we are.

And guess what?

They. Can’t. Breathe.

It’s what the pandemic does.  And if the pandemic doesn’t kill you, well…looks like the streets of America will still do the job.  Because what did Eric Garner choke out before his death?  What did George Floyd yell out before his death?

The breath of God which blew on the disciples at the Pentecost was snuffed in that moment as they all say, in a chorus that echoes across this land right now: “I CAN’T BREATHE!”

Can you hear them now?

In the Acts of the Apostles the first scene, after Jesus ascends into heaven, has the Holy Spirit alighting as tongues of fire on the brown bodies of the gathered disciples.  And in that moment they are able to speak in such a way that everyone, no matter their background, nationality, or even religion, can understand what they’re saying.

We need a Pentecost today, Beloved.  We need to listen to the distilling fire dancing on black and brown bodies that is burning away any misconception that we might have about the dangers that still face our sisters and brothers of color today.

The hell our brothers and sisters are living in is real, more real than some eternal hell, and we must listen!  We must let it burn away at our tendency to dismiss these experiences as some sort of aberration in America.  We have the pandemic of racism and unequal treatment, and it started long before this current virus, and it continues even now to take its toll.

The fire of anger is absolutely appropriate in some instances, and this is one of them.

“But,” you might contend, “they were on fire for the Gospel!”

True.  But who needs a savior if you’re not allowed to be alive in the first place?  If you’re not allowed to jog in your neighborhood?  If you’re not allowed to bird-watch?  If you’re assumed dangerous just because of the color of your skin?

Jesus, after all, was killed by assumption, Beloved.  We forget that.  And he died by crucifixion which, ultimately, meant that he. couldn’t. breathe.

We forget that.

We need a Pentecost moment where, with tongues upon their heads, we listen to the black and brown bodies of the disciples around us as they tell us the truth about their experience.  We need to listen and hear: cutting through the barriers of language, race, experience, politics, and every other obstacle we set up to insulate ourselves from having to be moved by a reality we don’t want to consider.

We can be on fire with anger, Beloved, about the right things.

This is one of them.

On the Ascension and the Buddy System

the-ascencion-of-jesus-miki-de-goodaboom
The Ascencion Of Jesus Painting by Miki De Goodaboom

“It’s not looking so good,” I said as we spied down into the pot.  Our purple basil plant, put in the soil with a lot of hope and love, was wilting up on the deck. I put the pot up on bricks to help with the drainage, but I think it needed more.

“Maybe,” Finn, my seven year old said, “it needs a buddy.”

I looked at him and smiled.  He’s a kid who makes friends easily.  “You think?” I asked.  “Well, it’s a big enough pot, we could probably plant some other herbs with it.”

“Yes,” he nodded. “We should.”

The Gospel writer Luke says, “And Jesus led the disciples out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands, he blessed them. And while Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51)

It’s the Ascension text, that festival day where Jesus exits stage left.  In former years it was a major festival of the church, where people would come out on a Thursday to hear about Jesus rising into the heavens.  Now it’s usually celebrated on the closest Sunday to it, next week, because getting people to come out on a Thursday and a Sunday is not easy in our busy lives.

But, then again, in these pandemic days…well, maybe some will show up for Ascension services this year through the magic of media.

But it’s a curious thing, the Ascension.  Mark, Matthew, and John don’t even mention it.  In those Gospels Jesus just kind of leaves final instructions and stops showing up.  And Luke loves the story so much, he tells it twice, once in his Gospel, and then in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.

The Ascension effectively solves a problem that the early church had: if Jesus is risen, why did he stop showing up?

It’s a good question.

Do I believe the Ascension account in Luke?

Well, I trust that it’s true, that Jesus stopped showing up.  But do I believe that he levitated into heaven like a David Copperfield show?  Or, if that’s too Cirque du Soleil for you, perhaps you envision it like the writers of Jesus movie scripts have, with Jesus flying into the air with a sonic boom, not unlike Superman.

Do I think that’s what happened?

No.  I don’t. I mean, I don’t know what happened, but I can’t bring myself to imagine that was it.  I don’t think Luke is a liar, I just think that he’s trying to put into prose what only poetry can describe.

So much of what has to do with God is poetry, Beloved.  We, with our so-called Enlightened minds, forget that.

I think the Ascension tells a couple of truths, though, even if Luke’s story of it isn’t fact.  Remember, not everything that is true historically happened.  More often, truths happen all the time.

One of those truths?  Jesus left the scene.  The embodied love-letter of God eventually was eventually memorized by the disciples, and Jesus, the historical figure, left.

Another one of those truths?  This had to happen.  It had to happen because ultimately the Gospel could not be centralized but needed to become decentralized.  Had Jesus stuck around, the people who followed Jesus would have as well.  They never would have left to go hither and yon to talk about the love of God in a brutal world.

A world that continues to be brutal, Beloved.

God knew something about community organizing, and knew that eventually you train up leaders who must then become trainers.  If a leader sticks around too long, the disciples just become followers, not leaders themselves.

Also, here’s the thing: God relies on the buddy system.  That is, God entrusted the disciples with the Good News of the Christ, and then encouraged them to find someone, or someone’s, to share life with.  Because we, Beloved, grow better together.  And as God’s buddy, the life of God is intended to be shared in community, not alone.

So, I went to the store and bought some cilantro.  The basil at the store didn’t look so good, but the cilantro was growing like crazy.  Plus, all the same herb in one place is boring…kind of like all the same kind of people, all the same religion, all the same ideas in one place is boring, right?

We dug into the dark earth and planted the green stalks.  They took to it well.

This morning, after two days of rain, Finn and I took a walk through our garden as the skies gently misted.  He bent down to look into the pot.

“Hey!” he said.  “The basil is doing better!”

I looked.  Sure enough, it was having more life, and a new sprout.

“See,” he said, “sometimes all you need is a buddy.”

I can’t help but think that the Ascension is God’s way of saying to humanity, “I need a buddy…the world needs a buddy…and it’s got to be you.  Go be a buddy.”

This is the truth about the Ascension of Christ: when Jesus leaves the scene, when Jesus exits stage left, that’s your cue.  This is the blessing.

Sometimes all you need is a buddy, Beloved.

What Remains?

heart-shaped-vine-leafJohn 15:4-5

Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. 

First, a moment of pastoral privilege:

Thank you.  These weeks of being with you, even virtually, have been an honor and a joy.  Thank you for the notes and cards and messages for me and my family as my time with you winds down.  They’re sweet and heartfelt and I’m grateful for them.

And please know how hard your staff and council are working at Grace to walk with the community in this time.  They are talented and dedicated and a joy to work with.

Thank you.

Now, hi-ho hi-ho, on to the text we go…

The distillation that has happened in these last eight weeks is something that I think we will all, especially those of us with an anthropological bent, be pondering and studying and analyzing for years to come.  Prior to the pandemic the Minimalist movement had gained steam as we all emptied our junk drawers and halved our wardrobes.

Stuff was the problem, right?  We all had…have…too much stuff.

But I think we’re all seeing the truth that minimalism, especially the kind that revolves around stuff, is certainly part of the equation, but not the answer to what ails us.

We’ve all been sent to our rooms, literally and figuratively, to think about “what we’ve done, and what we’ve left undone,” as our Confessional liturgy says…and, by the way, if you haven’t noticed, repeating that little line from our liturgy is a favorite tool of mine in sermons and reflections.

I love that line. It’s so…all encompassing.

I digress…

Here’s the great distilling, Beloved, the great pondering in these times: when it’s all stripped away, what remains?

When we’ve lost our productive output. When our very simple activity like shopping, playing at a playground, sitting in a classroom, dining out, puts our health, and other’s health at risk.  When all that stuff that we thought gave us meaning and purpose is suddenly wooshed away in a global catastrophe that, literally, has left us nowhere to escape, what remains?

Saint Paul had some thoughts on this.  You’ve heard it at the majority of the weddings you’ve attended. “What remains,” he says to his letter to the Church in Corinth, “is faith, hope, and love.”

But, do they?

Faith is hard to come by in these days, sometimes.  Not faith in God necessarily, though if you’re honest with yourself I imagine you’ve felt your faith dry up like the new-fallen dew on a warm May day as the reality of everything bears down on you.

But certainly faith in our institutions, if they haven’t eroded yet, are eroding. Faith in what appeared to be a bulletproof economy.  Faith in our systems of government, justice, medicine…all of it is in question.

And along with all that flux in faith comes suspicion in our religious institutions, and their ability to weather this storm.  What is church without singing, Beloved?  I ask that in all seriousness, because it appears we’re going to have to figure that out in the short term…

Faith remains, but it fades in time…it just does.

And hope?  We’d hoped we’d be worshiping in person already.  We’d hoped these infection numbers would be going down by now. We’d hoped businesses could reopen by now.

We hope for a vaccine. We hope for more testing.  We hope schools can resume this Fall.

We hope, we hope, we hope…

Hope is hard to live off of for long, though.  It just is. It will keep us going, but its nourishment pales in comparison to hope-come-true.

But that last thing Paul notes…that last thing…love?

Now love, Be-loved, well, that’s something.

Love remains.

You want to know how I know?

Because my grandmother has been sainted now for over ten years and I still love her.  And I can re-call that love, make it real before me, through memories and momentos and small things.

Small things can trigger big love.

Which is why in this moment of fading faith and waning hope clinging to that last part, that part that Paul calls “the greatest of these” is what I think we’re called to do in these days.

When Jesus says “Remain in me, as I remain in you” in our reading from John today, that Greek there is meno, which means “abide” or “dwell.”

And for so long people have taken this passage to mean “believing in Jesus” or something like that.  But I don’t think it’s that at all.  Believing is a mental thing…and all of our brains are a bit scrambled in these days.

I don’t think this is a mental thing, I think it’s a life orientation.  A dwelling thing. A spiritual thing.

Dwell in love.  Not solely in hope, which can wane.  Not even solely in faith, which can fade.  Not even in belief, which can change with new facts and understanding.

But in love.

And not just any love, but the love of a God who can’t be kept dead, at least not for long.  The love of a God who is the source of life, not just the by-product like all that stuff we surround ourselves with.

The fruit that God expects us to bear in this world isn’t connected to our jobs, but is connected to our hearts.  Our fruit is love…and we are reminded, I think, in these days when all those things that we claim to love or that we claim allows us to love life: our jobs, our habits, our stuff, when all that is stripped away we are reminded that, at its root, love doesn’t flow from that, but rather flows through us from a God who is greater than all that.

Remaining in God in these days means dwelling in love.

Love, for yourself, and patience for all the ways we’re struggling through this.  Love for our neighbors, which looks like checking in on them and wearing a mask even if we don’t want to and patroning businesses in any safe ways we can. Love for those who you see a little too much these days, and for those who you can’t see except through a screen…and that breaks your heart, too.

What remains?  Love.

And not a cheap love that requires no sacrifice.  Not a love built on reciprocity.  Not an erotic love that pretends to satisfy an unquenchable desire.

Love with a capital L.  Well, and a capital O, V, and E for that matter.  Big love. Huge love.

The kind of love that makes worlds and calls new life into being.

This is why we don’t call God “knowledge,” because God can’t be reduced down to doctrine or facts.  “God is love,” we say.  Something intangible, yet you can feel it.  Something we all know, but can’t fully comprehend. Something we all give, but aren’t sure where it comes from.

We must remain, as best we can, in that kind of love in these days.  It is an unending well, I promise.  Tap into it, and you’ll see.

We remain in God in these pandemic days not by keeping the faith, nor by pretending to have unending hope, but by resigning ourselves to just love and be loved.

That wonderful mystic of the church, St. Catherine of Siena, put it like this, and I’ll leave you with it.

She wrote, in one of her visions,

“And you, high eternal Trinity,

acted as if you were drunk with love,

infatuated with your people.

When you saw that this tree could bear no fruit

but the fruit of death

because it was cut off from you who are life,

you came to its rescue

with the same love

with which you had created it:

you engrafted your divinity

into the dead tree of our humanity.

O sweet tender engrafting!

You, sweetness itself,

stooped to join yourself

with our bitterness.”

Remain in love, Be-loved, as I know the God of love remains, and always will abide, in you.

Indeed, it is all that remains.

My Grandmother’s Poems

il_fullxfull.1564219625_4o73I have my grandmother’s poetry books.

Lord Byron. Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The spines are basically pieces of hope strung together

Making failed attempts at keeping the volume intact.

It does not work. The covers have fallen off.

The paper is dinned from years of leafing through them,

the edges with the appearance of a well-worn formal white dress shirt

not unlike the ones my grandfather wore, brown at the cuffs and collar.

Inside are the last remnants of her handwriting. “Lanier,” she signs her

maiden last name, in loopy cursive, the L swooping like an acrobat

on the inside cover now separated from its body.

These books, ancient in the estimation of my heart

sit by my computer and scanner and all the ways I’ve used wealth

to buy my distance from cursive and loopy letters that take too long to write now.

But still I pull them out, like I did this morning, as my son crawled under

the desk to look for the cat.

And I wonder, as I read them, about what she was doing when she underlined Byron

-with a ruler, no doubt, the ink perfectly straight-

“The leaves of Love will still be green/

When Memory bids them bud again.”

Whatever it was she was doing as she pondered those lines,

I know that, this morning, the lines became true once again.

Which is why we keep such things, I think.

 

 

Truth in a Troubling World

John 14:1-14

trouble[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

On Truth in a Troubling World

Pray with me:

Trouble us today Lord

in all the right ways.

Give us your truth.

Amen.

When Jesus says “do not let your hearts be troubled” it feels a little like cold comfort in these days, because in most every conversation I have, in most every Zoom conference, in most every news story I see troubled hearts.

I mean, I have a troubled heart.

I’m worried we’re opening things up too early, forcing a coming wave of infections.

I’m also worried that the economy is tanking at a rate that can’t be recovered in adequate time to save families from ruin.

I’m worried about job prospects out there. I’m worried for my own job, if I’m honest.

My heart is troubled, wondering what the church will look like after all of this. Part of me is hopeful that this will force ingenuity in the church. Another part of me is concerned that this will force apathy in the pews over in-person community gatherings and weekly worship.

My heart is troubled over the miscarriage of justice we’re seeing at all levels these days, especially over the murder of our brother Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. When Confederate flags still show up at Reopen Michigan rallies and a man casually walks through the produce section of his grocery store wearing a KKK hood in California in compliance with the face mask ordinance, the shooting of black people on white streets should trouble us all, Beloved.

To ask us not to let our hearts be troubled in the middle of a pandemic, as our justice system continues to be unjust in so many ways, when the world that we all knew is, daily, shifting in ways that leave so much ambiguity…well, I’m not going to sit here in what may be my last sermon with you and tell you, cheery and smiling, to keep your hearts untroubled in these troubling times.

It is no word of comfort in these days to tell you not to have a troubled heart.

In fact, if your heart isn’t troubled by all of this, especially the Arbery killing, I wonder if it, like Pharaoh, has turned to stone.

Let your heart be troubled by all of that, Beloved. Let it break open to allow God’s Spirit to enter into you.

Because Jesus wasn’t saying “don’t let your heart be troubled, ever.” He wasn’t suggesting that we gloss over the terrible in this world in deference for the rosy. He was saying that, though you cannot see God, do not let that fact trouble your heart: because God does not slumber nor sleep, as the Psalmist says.

The truth is, let your heart be troubled, I say.  But let it be troubled about the right things.

What does it mean to cling to truth in a world that is full of untruths, half-truths, alternative facts, and outright lies?

In Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus the morning of his death he ominously asks, “What is truth?” and it takes Jesus to today to answer him.

Thomas says to Jesus, “We don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” to which Jesus responds, invoking God’s own words to Moses through the burning bush, “I am.”

“I am the way,” Jesus says. If you want to know how to walk in world full of tripping hazards, full of dead ends, full of fake turns, look to the way Jesus walked in this world: eyes on poor and the ones the world despised; bent over not in despair, but in service; arms outstretched in a love so self-giving that even death can’t take his life away because he’s already given his life away to others.

“I am the life,” Jesus says. And at that statement, all the other lives we might lead tremble. The lives that seek after fame and fortune at the sacrifice of others. The lives that have to “keep up with the Joneses” now ring empty as we just have to keep up with the Jesus who is constantly on the move in the Holy Spirit, ushering in newness. The lives where we hide who we are because we’re afraid other people won’t accept us. The lives that live in fear of those who don’t look like us, think like us, speak like us, worship like us…they are revealed for the death-sentences that they are as Jesus reminds us that we are to love our neighbor who looks differently, thinks differently, speaks differently, worships differently, loves differently, saying that true life is found in living that way.

“I am the truth,” Jesus says. The truth about what God thinks about us. If Jesus shows us anything it is that God loves us to death, literally. That is the truth that we cling to in a world of half-truths, alternative facts, and outright lies, because that truth will lead us to act in love. Because if God loves us, all of us, or as we say here in the South “all y’all” to death, it means no one is excluded from that love. Which compels me, Beloved, and all who follow Christ, to love the world in that way.

The truth is that we can let our hearts be troubled about the right things: world health, safety for our brothers and sisters of color, world hunger, concern for our children who have to live in the aftermath of this pandemic, concern for our elderly as this pandemic strikes them hardest, concern when we see confederate flags show up, well, anywhere. We can let our hearts be troubled about those things; those are the right things.

The truth is that the God seen in Christ is, I think, troubled by those things, Beloved!

But we need not let our hearts be troubled wondering if God cares. We need not let our hearts be troubled wondering if God is on the move, on the scene in this world, even though it may not look like it. Our God sometimes works in secret…we know this. Just as often as God worked through a burning bush, a talking donkey, or a giant fish, God worked secretly through a peasant in ancient Palestine and through the wind of the Spirit and through dancing flickers of light at Pentecost.

And all of that is what we cling to, that is the truth we cling to, in this world: the God who doesn’t go away can never abandon us. God says, “I Am” because God always is. God is the continuing essence of being itself.

Yeah, that’s deep, but its implications are even deeper.

Because it means that the God of justice, the God who is love, cannot be erased by a world who constantly tries to convince us that vengeance is god, that division is divine, that greed is good, and that it would be a sin to question authority or the world when it tells us these things.

It means that the God who keeps an eye on the sparrow cannot stop caring that our elderly are dying, that communities of color are disproportionately being ravaged by this virus, that though we’ve outlawed lynching in this world we have replaced it with shooting, that our economic interests too often outweigh our humanitarian interests.

The truth is that the enduring life of Jesus Christ is proof that God’s caring cannot be stopped. God in Christ, is, Beloved.

Is what?

Is the way to be in a world that tells you to be anything but yourself. Is Easter life in a Good Friday world.

Is the truth about what God thinks about you and all creation: thoughts of self-giving love.

And though my heart might be troubled about many things in this world…in fact, I think God calls me to be troubled by many of the things in this world…I don’t spend a minute of time being troubled by that truth about God.

God continues. God cares. God always is and will be in and working through this troubling world.

And that is a word of comfort, of Gospel, for today.

Amen.

Praise in a Pandemic?

Hear-My-Praise
“Hear My Praise” by Blumenfeldart.com

 

Psalm 148

Praise the Lord.[a]

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise God in the heights above.
Praise God, all angels;
praise God, all heavenly hosts.
Praise God, sun and moon;
praise God, all you shining stars.
Praise God, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at God’s command they were created,
and God established them for ever and ever—
the Lord issued a decree that will never pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do God’s bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
old men and children.

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for that name alone is exalted;
God’s splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And the Lord has raised up for the people a horn,[b]
the praise of all faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to God’s heart.

Praise the Lord.

Praise in a Pandemic?

One of my favorite podcasts, On Being with Krista Tippett, recently hosted the wise and wide-eyed Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast. He grew up in Austria during the second World War, and though he was a quarter Jewish, was conscripted into the German army. He never fought in a battle.

The title of the episode was so intriguing, I didn’t waste any time in pressing play: “How to be Grateful in Every Moment (but Not for Everything)”

The tension between being one quarter Jewish and living in occupied territory during the war led him to seek to learn to exist intentionally in liminal spaces, spaces that are pulled in opposite directions. He has dedicated his life as a Benedictine to interfaith dialogue and helping humanity wrestle with difficult life circumstances.  In everything we can give thanks, he believes, even though we can’t give thanks for everything.

It was a timely podcast as, even though some restrictions in our pandemic-pulled lives are being eased, there is an underlying reality that is not spoken about in common parlance: we all know the infections and mortality numbers will continue to rise in the United States.

Brother David made this wonderful observation, which I offer to you now. He said that there is a distinct difference between joy and happiness that humans need to discover and cling to in times of trial and hardship. He sagely said,

“Joy is the happiness that happens no matter what happens.”

I saw Anderson Cooper on Stephen Colbert’s currently named A Late Show reflect on how, not even a year ago he was holding his mother’s hand as she died and, just a few weeks ago he was crying at the birth of his newborn son. The sadness of death, and the beautiful cries of life, while not quite back to back, happened in fresh memory.

And in both cases there was joy and sadness. It was not either/or. And it was not “looking on the bright side of life,” as Monty Python would sing. It was holding sadness in one hand and joy in the other, squeezing both tightly, but not letting them tear you apart in either direction.

I chose Psalm 148 for this day because, like Brother David, I am convinced that joy is found even in these pandemic days. And that fact, that there is still joy: the birth of friend’s babies, new jobs being acquired even now, families experiencing some closeness they hadn’t seen in years…all of that leads me to praise. And I don’t have to ignore the bad to see the good. The one cannot, for long, overshadow the other.

The Christian mystical tradition, which I tentatively consider myself part of, speaks of Christ on the cross as embodying the tension of a humanity that wants, but can’t handle, divinity. Christ’s left arm stretches out toward the past, and his right forward toward the future, and all of it: the good, the bad, the welcome, the unwelcome, the pandemics, the peace years, the marriage, the divorce, the new love, the dying love, the health, the death…all of it is held in the arms of a God who will not let anything prevent salvation from happening in the end.

I give praise in this pandemic, but not for it. I find joy that happens here, despite all that is happening. I do so with eyes and heart wide open to the fierce courage I see, the heartbreak I see, the fear I feel, and the deep love I experience.

And in it all I still say: praise the Lord.

On Seducing Sheep

John 10:1-10

964ecf6b374809faa8fabf230c7eede0---h-dalton[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

On Seducing Sheep

Pray with me

You are the gate.

You are the good shepherd.

You are the rock, the resurrection,

The life.

You are so many things, Holy One.

But, whatever you are for us today,

We just ask that you be close at hand

And tend your sheep

and remind us we are enough.

Amen.

My niece, Faith, shows lambs.  She’s raised two, and those two have now gone on to make a few more.

Her one lamb, Dolly, just had a baby boy, which she rightfully named Kenny, after the beloved St. Kenny of the Rogers.  Dolly and Kenny will always be together, am I right?

But she shows lambs and I got to see her do it once at the Carolina State Fair, and it was really interesting.

Because the lambs?  They’re a little clueless.  I mean, you really have to lean in hard on them to get their legs straight, to hold their faces forward…and that’s just the showing part.  All the work that goes in to get them there with the raising, feeding, grooming, it’s a bit crazy.

And while it’s clear the lambs are being shown at the fair, what may not be as clear…but what became really evident to me…is that the lamb-keeper is being judged just as much, if not more so, than the lamb.

They stand there with their beast, holding it still, with their eyes focused on the judge, like some sort of statue in an action pose, muscles tense.  And they don’t take their eyes off the judge, even when the judge has her back to them.  In fact, as the judge passes, they all quickly get on the other side of their lamb, keeping the lamb as still as can be, so that they are always kept between the judge and the lamb.

I mean, I spent most of my adult life in the bustling city of Chicago, far away from lambs unless I ordered them at the little Lebanese place down the block from my house.  Dolly and Faith, by the way, don’t like it when I talk like that…

But anyway, it’s all a little shocking and strange to me.  Everything is being judged in that moment: the lamb, the shepherd, everything.

You know, I grew up thinking of God a lot like that judge.

Like God was watching, intently, on every move I made.  And I felt like what Jesus did, in my young brain, was protect me from God.

Jesus kept me on the straight and narrow, like that lamb owner does with that lamb, holding it’s head up, making sure it was standing up straight, staying between the judgment of God and my little lamby self.

I think a lot of people think of Jesus that way…and it’s no wonder, the church has certainly set up the scene to reflect that.  If Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for a God who demands payment, ransom, judgment, well…then that sort of scenario makes sense, right?

Well, except it doesn’t make sense if you listen to the stories of Jesus.

In fact, I wonder if that kind of thinking about God and Jesus is a little like the thief in today’s scripture reading, stealing God of God’s unfailing love and replacing it with unending judgment.  I wonder if that kind of thinking about Jesus is like a bandit wearing the mask of a savior, but actually not saving anyone but keeping everyone afraid.

I don’t think of Jesus, or God, like that anymore.

Jesus says he’s the gate in today’s Gospel reading.  The gate that allows the sheep to enter into the safety of the great pasture.

And Jesus says that the thieves and bandits of the world pretend to be a gate, but actually aren’t.  And I wonder if, instead of the thieves and bandits being like, other gods from other religions or something, they’re not more like, well, money.

Like, especially in these fraught financial times, how much do we rely on our bank account to get us through?  I know…it’s easy to do, especially with all this uncertainty.  But let’s be honest, even in the boon years we relied a lot on those bank accounts to lead us into the good life, right?  Monday seduces us, right?

That sounds a lot like a thief, coming to steal our contentedness and replacing it with fear and greed and all those things that keep us from sharing what we’ve been gifted with in this life.

Or maybe the bandit is our job title, our ability to climb the economic ladder, our never-ending search for the next step.  It seduces us with promises of more security, more prestige, more, more, more!  It wears the mask of success, but is just playing pretend because none of that satisfies.  If it did, the ladder would have a top…but it doesn’t, does it?

Or maybe the thief is our politics, or our right answers in a world that is changing faster than it has ever changed before.  I am amazed at the number of political, constitutional, environmental, and scientific scholars there are on social media (including the one writing this sermon)!  We’re everywhere!

Or we just like to think we are…our right opinions are thieves that sometimes rob us of relationships with people who think differently than us, right?  A good life without a variety of opinion isn’t good at all.  It’s boring.  And it’s fake.

Or maybe the bandit in this world is religions, itself, preaching a “pie in the sky” way of understanding this life, as if we’re all just meant to endure our life in order to get to some heaven lightyears away.

Except Jesus said that heaven was always close at hand, not far away.  Belinda Carlisle, that pop singer, said something similar…I have to think she learned it from him.

Religion has taught us to follow the rules and everything will be alright.  Except, that doesn’t always work, right?  There are many times where I’ve followed the rules and gotten the short end of the stick.  And, in fact, I think Jesus tells me to break the rules of the world sometimes, in order to stand with people for whom the rules don’t help!

Religion can be a bandit sometimes when it steals us of our ability to think critically, to love those who may not fit in a particular box, or gives us a black-and-white view of a world that is full, chock full, of shades of grey…

So, here’s the thing: I don’t think of God as a judge, watching the sheep, and Jesus as the shepherd keeping us on the straight and narrow.

You know what I think is the judge in this world?  Well, the world.  The world who is judging us, asking us constantly if we’re good enough, rich enough, smart enough.  The world continually asks us to climb the economic ladder, it pits us against one another through the politics of division.  The world is continually checking to make sure we’re religious enough, and faithful enough, and…

Enough.

Enough.

And the Good Shepherd, in this case, is the one who continues, like my niece, to hold our head high.  The Good Shepherd is the one who continues to remind us of how loved we are, from the moment we were born.  How carefully we’ve been kept, how keenly we’ve been raised, how tenderly we’ve been thought about even when we were off learning how to walk, bleating in the pastures of the world.

The Good Shepherd is the one who stands between us and the seduction of money, remind us that we don’t need to have all that, and can give a whole bunch of it up and still be just as great as we are now.  The Good Shepherd is the one who stands between us and fame, fortune, the ladder climb, and yes, even a holier-than-thou religion that seduces us with promises of being better than everyone else.

You don’t need to be better than anyone else, Beloved.  After all, Jesus was a homeless peasant who only had a dozen or so friends and tons of enemies.  By those standards, most of us are doing alright…

The judge in this world is not God, it’s all that other stuff we too easily make into gods.

So, you might be wondering, in your little metaphor who is God, Pastor Brown?

God, Beloved, in this little metaphor, is my sister-in-law who, when the sheep doesn’t win first prize, hugs everyone, brings them in, and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You didn’t need that ribbon, anyway.”

Because the love of a parent is like that, not like the judge.

So many gates in this world try to seduce the sheep, promising they’ll lead to the good life: money, power, prestige, right answers, right belief.

But, Beloved, they’re all thieves and bandits compared to the simple love of a God who says, “You’re enough.”

And if you can trust that loving seduction, friends, well…it’s a pretty good life.

 

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