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.

 

Easter Devotion: The First Song

Child-singingWhat is the first song you remember singing?

It’s hard for me to pinpoint my very first song…as I’ve said, we’re a singing people.

But the first song I fell in love with (that wasn’t sung by Billy Joel) is probably Jack Noble White’s arrangement of Isaiah 12, otherwise known as “The First Song of Isaiah.”

I’m not really sure what made me fall in love with it.  Can we really ever understand love?  But the repetition of Isaiah 12:2, “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and God will be my savior” still continues to put me at ease, even these many years after singing it as a boy in my grade school choir.

The Christian Celts, my spiritual heritage, saw music throughout all the scriptures.  In fact, they claimed that Genesis 1 and 2 were songs that God sang over the chaos of creation to bring it not only to life, but also to order.  And how many of us have known the way a lullaby will bring the chaos of a sleepless child, or a restless adult heart, into calm and order?

What are the songs that calm your heart?  What tune is spinning in your soul, perhaps even chaotic soul, in these pandemic days?

For me it is Isaiah 12.  What is it for you?

You know, the Celts had another song that they say was on God’s lips.  They called Christ God’s “love song,” and even sometimes “first song” for a restless world.  Christ, whose infant cries caused the cosmos to sing “Gloria!” that first Christmas night. Christ, who sung a lullaby to the raging sea. Christ, who sung a protest song on behalf of the wounded hearts of the outcast and the despised. Christ, whose arms were open wide on the cross to stretch to the limits of time and space and back again with self-giving love, singing a song of lament.  Christ, whose voice echoed in that empty tomb a soulful Alleluia so loud, we’re still singing it 2,000 years later.

Christ was for the Christian Celts, and perhaps still for us today, love-song embodied…a tune worth singing in a chaotic world in need of some calm and order today.

You may not remember the first song you ever sang…but this is the first song ever sung for you.

Christ, the first song sung into being, still has a tune for our souls today, Beloved.  I’m counting on it, even as I hum Isaiah’s version of that same tune…

 

The One Where Jesus Wears a Mask

Bandana13Now on that same day [when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene,] two [disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The One Where Jesus Wears a Mask

Join me in prayer

Holy One,

Appear to us today

In the breaking of bread with our families

In the water from our tap, poured over our heads

In the people, distant though they are, we know

Who call

Who pass by us in the produce section.

Appear to us today

In all the various masks you wear.

Amen.

What a weird world these days, right?

I mean, who would have thought that you could go into a grocery store looking like this…<puts on a bandana>…and no one would wonder why you were there.

If you’re like me, you actually usually go in like this <adds sunglasses>.  My sunglasses are prescription, so I don’t usually take them off inside…or I leave them on too long and by the time I leave a place it’s already dark out and I start to sing, I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can, so I can…

And if it’s chilly out, well, I look like this. <adds a stocking cap>

I mean, I look like I’m going to rob a bank, let alone a Food Lion.  But no one bats an eye anymore.

I have to imagine that part of why I can get away with looking like this has to do with the many privileges I enjoy being male and white; there’s no denying that.

But even with all that, it still surprises me that we’re all walking around like this, with masks on.

Though, if we’re honest, that’s not really that unusual, is it?

I mean, here’s the truth: we all wear masks, even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.

All those social media feeds you see right now, showing the perfect family enjoying these days in with baking and games and perfectly performed school activities?  You know that’s a mask, right?  Just moments before they were fighting, or falling asleep at night crying because they’re just. so. tired of all this.

And that’s not just true right now in these Covid days.  That’s just true.

Some people put on the mask of religion, too.  They’re holier-than-thou. They have well-pressed clothes on Sunday morning, but their insides are just as tangled as everyone else’s Monday-Saturday.  You don’t hear them swear much, but they’ve cursed people silently who don’t live up to their standards…and you know who doesn’t ultimately live up to their standards?

They, themselves, don’t.

Some people put on the mask of a happy marriage, a contented career, a full bank account.  Some people put on the mask of the curmudgeon, pushing everyone away so that they don’t have to experience the overwhelming feeling of love that friendship is.  That’s a mask, too, you know…the mask that scares everyone away. Perhaps you know someone like that. Perhaps you are them.

Maybe we all are at times in our lives.

I say all this not to put anyone down…my social media feed looks rosy a lot of the time, too, I wear masks…I just say it because, well, as a pastor you get to know this reality that I think many others don’t get to know in this life: we’re all messed up, we’re all pretending we know what we’re doing, we’re all just trying to get by, imperfectly.

A funny note about this familiar story, this walk to Emmaus, is the fact that though Jesus is in disguise in this passage, the disciples he meets on the road are wearing masks, too.

They’re obviously fleeing the scene. They were in Jerusalem, but are now trying to blend into the crowd as they’re heading for the safety of Emmaus, away from the chaos of Jerusalem.

These two disciples, I like to think of them as a married couple Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, are wearing that same mask that Peter wore that night in the courtyard where he distanced himself from Jesus.  And here they meet this stranger on the road who is oblivious to everything that had gone on, and they can in whispered words confess their confusion to this seemingly ignorant stranger.

But as they walk they find he’s not ignorant.  He not only knows the story, he knows it better than they do.

He can see through their mask, their confusion, their attempts to hide who they are.

And isn’t that the way it is with Jesus?  Jesus is the one who sees past the masks and the facades we try to wear in a world that can’t seem to bear too much reality.  The Christ is the power that not only sees past the masks, but even gives us the power to take them off…or maybe gives us the will to not want to wear them anymore, either one will due, right?

We know that Jesus does this in this story because these people fleeing the scene invite Jesus to stay with them.  He has opened their eyes to something that allows them to share a bit of their life to them, and makes them want to break bread with them.

Jesus is the one who sees past their fear and confusion, who meets them in their efforts to remain hidden, and allows them to be themselves again.  Isn’t that always the way it is with Jesus?

One of my favorite theologians, Edward Schilebeeckx says that, “Jesus gives us back to ourselves.”

Another way of saying that is that Jesus gives us the courage to take off our masks in a world that is in love with dress-up.

The masks that Jesus wears today: the bread and wine of communion, the water of baptism, the gathered people around the Word of God, and yes, even the masked people we meet at the grocery store who give us the right of way and offer their help for our health by covering their cough, these disguises that Jesus comes in reminds us that we need not wear any masks in this world, by God.

Because Christ isn’t meant for people who have it all together, but rather for people fleeing parts of their lives that they just don’t understand, just like those disciples were fleeing the chaos of a holy weekend that they couldn’t comprehend.

So if you’re fleeing an imperfect marriage, a lost career, a failed relationship, a troubled past, this story is for you.  If you’re trying to hide how hard this pandemic is, or if you’re worried about the economy as much as you’re worried about getting sick and feel like you don’t know what to do, you don’t need to pretend you’re alright; don’t wear that mask.  It’s OK, we’re all walking this road trying to make sense of it.

The Christ who didn’t cover himself in power and might, dodging the cross, invites us to be vulnerable, too, and engage the world with all of our hope and fears and insecurities and, yes, beautiful joys.

So, Beloved, in this world of masks, dare to be vulnerable, by God.  For the Christ who was vulnerable with us, who continues to show up in amazing and strange ways, doesn’t desire us to hide ourselves or our light, but invites us to break open to reveal the love of God embedded in us just as this bread was broken open for the Cleopas couple today.

Be broken open, let that mask fall, and be free to love and serve the Lord and your neighbor as your very self…even in these days of masks.  No need to cover up.

Amen.

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