The Idolatry of Independence: A homily on Ephesians 4

Charge of Interdependence Among the World to the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ

First Congregational Church, Chesire CT Sunday May 31, 2015

 Ephesians 4: 11-16 

My geographically separated brethren, I greet you in the name of the One who calls us to be one. If a flock of Connecticut church leaders is willing to hear a word from a Massachusetts pastor, even if only for 7-9 minutes, I think we are at least halfway to the unity that the Ephesian church longed for! I’ll take the liberty to presume I speak among friends, kindred Congressionalists- we know that New Hampshire isn’t the only place that subscribes to the mantra “live free or die.” We know that a presumed self-sufficiency, a functional congregationalism no matter the denomination is endemic in this land. The Disciples of Christ pastor Michael Kinnamon said “Denominations make powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” We know that tucked in the back of our locked cabinet, behind the good silver and the musty church records, is a porcelain idol of independence- and maybe, secretly, we like it there. Maybe, secretly, we don’t want move it out on the front lawn for the parish rummage sale to be sold for $0.50 along with some mismatched wise men and shepherds from an incomplete crèche.

Now, “maybe there are no more cowboys in this Connecticut town,” And maybe this isn’t true in your churches, but certainly in Massachusetts, our churches act as if accepting help of another is a sign of weakness. We drag our feet. We go at it alone before trying together. Collaboration is for the weak, not the strong. In a town that shall remain nameless, I visited a UCC church next door to an Episcopal parish. The UCC deacon showed me the exact spot where you can inconspicuously spy on the Episcopalians to see whose parking lot is fuller, because if someone else is winning, we must be losing… With this mythology of competition, collaboration becomes a second option, rarely the first. Yet, deep down, beneath the rock and the clay and the silt and the sand, 6 feet below where the earth is still cool from winter, we know that our splendid isolation will leave us entombed in clapboard white coffins.

Therefore, I charge you, sisters and brothers, be worthy of the holy calling to which you are called, only connect. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own parish. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own denomination. Build up the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. We in the ecumenical movement have done a lousy job of remembering the second half of John 17. We remember that our Lord and Savior, just before his death, prayed that his followers might be one. We forget that he prayed that his followers might be one, so that the world might believe in the one who sent him. Our unity is not simply for our own good, to tamp down the tempest in the teapot that is the divided Church, but for the sake of our reconciling witness to the world! Reclaim the wide, thick commitment to the oikoumene, not just the Church, but the whole inhabited world. Reclaim the oikoumene, and maybe start in your neighborhood. I wonder if the end of an official ecumenical structure in Connecticut doesn’t actually free you for more vitality and life at the local level. To butcher Tip O’Neill, maybe all ecumenism is local.

About a year ago, I developed an unexplained pain in my right hip. I had been in a cycling accident, but the injury was to my back, not my hip. The doctors tried to treat the site of my pain, but no relief. Finally, a doctor diagnosed my suffering as “referred pain.” The site of the suffering is not the same as the source. While riding my bicycle again, my legs had gotten strong, but my back and core were still weak- so my hamstrings were pulling my tendons tight across my hips without the rest of my body compensating. The Church in Ephesus was told to attend to each part, because when “each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Therefore, I charge you, the body of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, join and knit together. Bind up the broken, so that every ligament, each part is working properly together. We’ve learned to compensate for our brokenness, hobbled by our fractures yet unable to remember what it was like to be working properly. We’ve grown familiar with our “referred pain,” unaware that the site of our suffering is not the same as the source. We’ve grown so used to our divisions that they seem natural, pre-ordained even. We can barely imagine the possibility of working with the Roman Catholic parish next door. And yet, to the wider world, to that whole oikuemene, the difference between a Congregationalist and a Lutheran and an Episcopalian and an Evangelical means less and less and less. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the nation at 28%, and you, always just a bit better than us, are the eighth, with only 32% identifying as ‘very religious.’ All our denominations are religious minorities now. Our differences are small compared to an entire oikoumene that does not know, does not care about our precious denominational divisions.

A few year’s ago, a colleague from Duke Divinity School came for a few days to visit and observe the church in Massachusetts. I showed him our fine buildings, our town squares, our attempts at adaptation. At the end of the visit, he said, “You still have all of the burden of being establishment and have not yet claimed all of the creativity of being marginal.” Church, I charge you, for the sake of Gospel for the whole inhabited world, claim the creativity of being marginal.

Finally, I charge you, beloved servants of God:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,

And human love will be seen at its height.

Live in fragments no longer.

Only connect…”


You Do You: A Sermon on Christian Jealousy

Preached Sunday March 8, 2015 at the First Congregational Church of Dudley, MA on behalf of an Ecumenical Lenten Service for the Dudley, Webster & Oxford clergy association.

Mark 9: 38-41

Space Saver

Space Saver

Sometimes jealousy creeps up on you. Yesterday, I went into our local coffee shop in Boston- the kind of place full of young families and urban empty-nesters that any local church pastor would give her right arm to have in the pews on a Sunday. There, near the soy milk and the raw sugar, a post-card caught my eye. Beautifully designed with an image of the very building I was standing in, the postcard said “A New Church in the Neighborhood You Love.” And now the confession: I did not think to myself, “Oh good, a new church in the neighborhood! This is wonderful, since so many people here don’t go to church!” No, I thought, “Shoot, this postcard looks good and is well placed. My church needs to put our postcards here too.” But Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Let us pray…

Oh John. St John here says what we all sometimes think, and for this, I am deeply grateful to the Gospel writer Mark. If you want to make like Baptists and actually open your pew bibles to read along with me, look back in Mark 9 on page_____. From Mark 9:14-31, we get an complicated story about the disciples trying, and then failing to heal a child tormented by an unclean spirit. Shortly after this, we get our passage beginning at verse 38.

Somewhere in Capernaum, the disciples and Jesus sit down for a chat. And, John, dear John says to Jesus in verse 38, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s appropriate that John calls Jesus “Teacher,” because this sounds most like one student ratting out another one for doing unauthorized good!

Lent is a time to get honest about our lives. Lent is set time to examine what in our lives has become unmanageable and overgrown, and prune it back. Lent is when we take the time to examine whether our assumptions about ourselves hold up in the light of the Gospel. And so here, together in Lent, it is appropriate to talk about Christian jealousy. Here, in Lent, it is safe to name that nasty, sneaky, niggling little tendency we have to compare ourselves to one another and plaintively cry, “Jesus, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

There in verse 38, John gives voice to all our Christian anxiety and jealousy. John says what we were all thinking. John says aloud, hey! Someone else is taking all the credit! Someone unauthorized! Someone from another denomination! Someone we don’t know!

In Boston, our anxiety and jealousy has shown up in the form of old lawn chairs and garbage bins. Maybe this is not as much a problem outside the cities where you have more space, but in Boston, this winter has brought out our worst anxiety and jealousy. We simply have too few shoveled parking spaces for the number of cars. It’s an adult game of musical chairs, but nobody is having any fun, and the last driver is left trolling the block to find a spot to park their car for the night. Last week as I was walking home from the T stop through my neighborhood where the snowbanks still rise above the roofs of cars, I saw a note on a car with out-of-state places. The note read, “You didn’t shovel this.” In our very real anxiety about the lack of parking, we’ve taken to using “space-savers,” old chairs and garbage pails to mark our turf. Mine. Mine, Mine, Mine. Except it’s all a public street. And there’s plenty of space if we all shovel out not just our own spot but our neighbor’s too. Can’t you hear John saying, “Teacher, I shoveled it out, but someone else is parked in my spot!”photo-4

It’s no coincidence that shortly before St. John speaks to Jesus about who is in and who is out, the disciples are struggling. Look back to Mark 9:14- the disciples tried to heal a child with a demon and couldn’t do so. And what’s John worried about? Other people casting out demons! When we get anxious, we get small. When we feel like there isn’t enough to go around, we get concerned that someone else might have gotten more. If you grew up in a family where there wasn’t enough food, you know this anxiety. If you live with the sense that there’s not enough money, you know this anxiety. We get anxious and then we get small.

Our churches get anxious and then they get jealous. We don’t talk about it much, but I hear it. It creeps in. We get anxious because we see our numbers decline and think we are the only ones. We get anxious when another church is in the news and we aren’t. We get anxious because what used to work ten years ago doesn’t work any longer. We get anxious as the cultural privilege once afforded to the Church is crowded out in an increasingly secular world, as hockey practices competes with Confirmation Class. Upon hearing that the church next door has hired a really good preacher who might just draw new parishioners, no pastor has thought to himself “Oh that’s great news!” With a mindset of scarcity, we get anxious, and then we get jealous. We look longingly at the new furnace in someone else’s basement. We secretly count the number of cars in the parking lot at that other parish as we drive by. We see that other church’s growing youth group, and feel badly about our own. We look at the slick new postcards advertising another church in our local coffee shop and think, “Shoot. I should be putting my church’s advertisements here too.”

The strange reality of the Church in Massachusetts is this: we are all marginal now. Massachusetts is the 5th least religious state in the nation. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, only 28% of MA residents attend any religious service at least once a week. That leaves 72% of our neighbors not attending any of our churches. The competition isn’t the church down the street! It is not a zero-sum game, where if the Episcopalians increase then the Congregationalists must decrease. You can almost hear John complaining, “Someone else is liberating the people! Someone we don’t know is relieving their suffering! Someone unfamiliar is participating in the reign of God and they are not from our denomination!”

In the disciples’ quest for exclusivity, they betray their real concern: not did whether or not someone was healed, but who got credit. Notice that the disciples want to curtail someone outside their tradition doing good!

The disciples are looking to bring judgment on this outsider not for what he or she has done, but with whom they are affiliated. Jesus says, “Do not stop him,” or in a more modern interpretation, Jesus says “you do you.” Worry about your self. Focus on your own behavior & heart. Don’t worry about them, because anyone doing good in my name is with us: an alternative version of Christian unity.

John is concerned about who gets credit; Jesus is concerned about who gets healed. To John’s question about unauthorized ministry not from “our” people, Jesus responds in verse 40, “whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s wildly inclusive- as long as you’re not against us, you’re with us. Everyone on the same team! Jesus takes the maximally inclusive stance. But we are more familiar with the opposite. We think, “whoever is not for us is against us.” Just two days after 9/11, then Senator Hilary Clinton said, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us. Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.” And lest you think I’m just picking on Democrats, seven days after Senator Clinton said so, then President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Our inclination is to divide the world into us and them, black and white, those who are with us and those who are outside our tradition. But Jesus, sweet Jesus who upsets all our divisions and draws the circle even wider, proclaims, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

On the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Birmingham, President Obama said, “Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” Maybe part of our Lenten discipline is to reclaim a sense of unity, a sense that we are in this together- to resist dividing the world into those who are with us and those who are against us, Democrats and Republicans, Protestant and Catholic, male and female, gay and straight, slave and free. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much as to who gets credit but that all get made whole.

We serve a God of abundance. It can be so hard to remember this especially when the snow rises higher and the resources seem fewer, but we serve a God who is bigger and wider than anything we can imagine. We serve a God who promises not just life, but life abundant. St Paul says to the church in Rome, he says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Church, I say to you, do not be conformed to this world that would divide us into winners and losers. Take this Lent to renew your mind, to recall the promises of God. Recall again the promises of God in 1Peter “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” May we proclaim so together today. Amen.

The other Good Samaritan

The other Good Samaritan: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2015

Friday January 24, 2015 Assumption College, Worcester

Sunday January 25, 2015 Union Baptist Church, New Bedford

 John 4: 1-42

Icon of St Photini

Icon of St Photini

It happens now every time I see him. I have a wonderful, kind, and wise colleague. We don’t see one another often, but every time I see him, he seems happy to see me. He opens his arms, and says “Laur….en, how good to be with you again!” Which is lovely, and kind and welcoming. But my name is not Lauren. It’s Laura, not Lauren. Every time. Every time he sees me, he calls me “Lauren.” It’s been going on for a few years now, and I confess I haven’t had the heart to correct him. And the longer it’s gone on, the harder it is for me to say, “that’s not my name.”

Sung:  Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

(Verse 1: the Summons by John Bell)

Let us pray… Holy one who calls each of us by name, stir our hearts again this day. My Lord, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim a holy word, so send your Spirit among us to give us the Word we need for the road ahead. I claim you as my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, reverend clergy, I bring you blessings and greetings from the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of seventeen Orthodox and Protestant denominations, congregations and individual Christians from across Massachusetts convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us. I also come to you to prove that someone from Boston can find her way to Worcester/ New Bedford ! Our divisions in the church are not just denominational, but sometimes geographic! Our divisions are not just geographic or denominational, but racial too. There are whole denominations that exist because white Christians refused to worship with black Christians. In Boston, at the old African Meeting House, the freed black parishioners were only allowed to worship in the balcony. A black family tried to do what every other white parishioner had done and purchase a pew for their family. They found a pew in the balcony. Paid for their pew in the balcony. They came back the next Sunday and all the pews were gone from the balcony. For as many times as the Church has gathered as one, we have found ways to separate ourselves- separate men from women, separate white Christians from black Christians, separate Protestants from Roman Catholics, separate ourselves from God. It is good to be together in worship, a foretaste of the unity Christ promises his Church.

As good as it is to be here tonight, I confess that I wasn’t thrilled about the scripture passage this year for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (or the welcome letter from the WPCU team- written by four men). We finally get a Gospel story that focuses on the life and struggles of a woman as a follower of Christ and she goes totally unnamed, so unconcerned were our ancient forbearers in remembering her identity! The Gospel of John gives us this major, countercultural exchange that shouldn’t really happen between a Jew and a Samaritan, a man and a woman, a healing, wandering rabbi and a woman who must trudge up hill to just gather water for her home– and no one could bother to remember a sister’s name? And I confess, that this story from St John troubles me because of the way the Christian tradition has most often characterized this woman as a prostitute. If you want to be very Baptist, I’ll invite you to open up your Bibles with me for a close read of the text- so you can see that in verses 17-18 when Jesus asks her about her former husbands, we could see that there’s nothing in the text of the passage that points to her as a prostitute. We could see that Jesus does not say a word about repenting or speaking of sexual sin. As New Testament scholar and President of Lutheran Theological Seminar in Philadelphia, Rev. Dr. David Lose writes, “She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.” We know that heartbreak can be that big, that often, that heartbreakingly sad. Or she could have been in a Leverite marriage, an ancient practice where “where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir, yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife.” Dr. Lose again writes, “There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.” But for centuries the Western Church has left her unnamed and besmirched as a prostitute.

And yet, look at the end of the passage, vs 39-42. Because of this woman’s powerful testimony, many people came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. She is most like John the Baptist, pointing towards the one who would break every barrier and re-connect a splintered people back to God. And no one could remember her name? For a very long time, the Church has thought of this unnamed, widowed woman who proclaims Jesus as the Messiah as scandalous and forgettable rather than tragic, prophetic, and bold.

And yet, as a Christian from the Reformed side of the family, I carry that strong sense that even when we struggle, or perhaps especially when we struggle with Scripture, God has something new to teach us.

When we think of Samaritans, most of us think of the Good Samaritan, the story along the Jericho road in the Gospel of Luke. That Samaritan goes unnamed, but he was deemed “Good.” And even in pop culture, the Good Samaritan is a story most people know and hold up as a model for ethical relationships and the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” In Luke10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stops along a dangerous road to care for a wounded stranger. The Good Samaritan brings him to an inn and leaves some money for the innkeeper to care for him. Christian tradition often makes a helpful distinction between acts of charity and acts of justice- charity is bandaging the wounds of the stranger, justice is challenging and working to change a broken system where so many people are getting hurt on the Jericho Road. When preaching on the Good Samaritan and the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York in 1967 Martin Luther King said,

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The temptation of the Good Samaritan parable is to just give our money and let someone else do the messy work of being in relationship with the stranger, or those other people from whom we’ve been separated.

But this story, our story, in the Gospel of John today of the Samaritan woman asks more of us than just outsourcing our compassion and flinging a coin to a stranger. The scandalous, challenging good news of the Samaritan Woman at the well is this: God doesn’t just ask for our charity towards the stranger, God wants our intimacy as well. Jesus doesn’t just asked to be relieved of his thirst, but wants to know this woman’s life and struggles, to see and be seen, to know and be known. This woman at the well, this woman engaged in a back and forth with Jesus, and her preaching and witness to her village, she is our other Good Samaritan!

I take great comfort in the fact that we are already one in Christ. Despite centuries of division, denominational malaise and sometimes, active hostility towards one another, we who bear the name of Christ are all baptized into the same body. Like it or not, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. There is nothing you or I can do to change this. This is good news. The Church of Jesus Christ is one, already.

Now, we can fail to receive one another’s gifts. We can pretend like the other doesn’t exist, like the priest and the Levite who pass the wounded stranger on the Jericho road. We can treat our particularities as idols, and think our differences are more important than our commonalities. We can forget one another’s names. We can fail to live up to the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. We can refuse one another’s gifts. But for all who bear the name of Christ, we are already one. In my frustration over the western Church’s tradition of shaming and then forgetting our other Good Samaritan, I discovered a gift of our Orthodox sisters and brothers- they remembered and named our Good Samaritan woman, Photini.

The Antiochian tradition remembers St. Photini like this “She went and told her townspeople that she had met the Christ. For this, she is sometimes recognized as the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. She converted her five sisters (Sts. Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, and Kyriake) and her two sons (Victor and Joses). They all became tireless evangelists for Christ. The apostles of Christ baptized her and gave her the name of Photini which means “the enlightened one.” She is remembered by the Church as a Holy Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.”

And for our Greek Orthodox brethren on St. Photine’s feast day on February 26 & following Pascha, they sing “The Samaritan Woman, having come to the well in faith, beheld You, the Water of Wisdom from which she drank plentifully and inherited the Heavenly Kingdom as one who is blessed forever.”

Church, I am so grateful for these Christians who remember and call out the name of Photine, because, to be intimately known requires that we know one another’s names. To be known to one another as Christ knows us requires that we actually know one another, on a first-name basis.

Maybe your name has been forgotten. Maybe someone forgot your family’s name at Ellis Island. Maybe your family name slipped into the sea somewhere in the Middle Passage or your name was changed without your consent on these shores. Maybe people perceive your name as hard to pronounce, like the Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and so people give you a nickname like H-man, since while we can learn a Russian name like Tchaikovsky but not a Polynesian name like Hoomanawanui? Maybe someone forgot your name as you walked down the street, as they shouted “Girl, why don’t you bring all that over here?” Maybe someone forgot your God-given name as someone shouts “Hey, Hey, Hey you?” Maybe you’ve been called so many other things than a beloved child of God that you have forgotten your own name too?

We need one another to remind us when we have forgotten our names.

Recently, I confessed to an older pastor that I had this colleague who gets my name wrong. She suggested that the next time I see him, after he calls me “Lauren,” that I gently put a hand on his arm and say, “Tom, my closest friends call me Laura.” I promise you that the next time I see Tom, I will tell him my name, so that he can truly know me and we can truly start to repair the divisions in the body of Christ between us. And Church, when you pass the peace, consider this: Tell that other person your name. Say “My name is Laura. The peace of Christ be with you.”

Sung: Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

May you hear your name called, and follow the Messiah we call by the same name this night, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Remember & Give Thanks: A Sermon on Deut 8

Remember and Give Thanks: A Sermon on Deuteronomy 8:7-20

Second Congregational Church, Westfield MA Sunday November 23, 2014

Ecumenical Thanksgiving service with Central Baptist, First United Methodist, 2nd Congregational , Episcopal Church of the Atonement and the Ferst Interfaith Center at Westfield State University, Westfield



Decorative Gourd

“I may not here omite how, notwithstand all their great paines and industrie, and the great hops of a large cropp, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them, by a great drought which continued from the 3. weeke in May, till about the midle of July, without any raine, and with great heat (for the most parte), insomuch as the come begane to wither away, though it was set with fishe, the moysture wherof helped it much. Yet at length it begane to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were partched like withered hay, part wherof was never recovered. Upon which they sett a parte a solemne day of humilliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervente prayer, in this great distrese. And he was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to thier owne and the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them. For all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine I to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in that abundance, as that the earth was thorowly wete and soked therewith… Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed come and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull and liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing. For which mercie (in time conveniente) they also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing. ~ Governor William Bradford in History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646


Westfield Clergy

Westfield Clergy

Let us pray…

If you know this, sing along with me.

“Ooooooh, the Lord’s been good to me/ and so I thank the Lord/ for giving me, the things I need/ the sun, the rain and the apple seed/ The Lord’s been good to me.”

Or maybe you were formed by Roman Catholic tradition and are used to saying “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord.”

Or maybe you are a little more Lutheran, and grew up saying “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these thy gifts to us be blessed. ”

Maybe you are a bit more Wesleyan and your grace goes something like this “Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we, may feast in fellowship with Thee.”

Or do you do as my father learned at Boy Scout camp and shout “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat. ”

I’m not sure why we can’t seem to say grace over a meal without rhyming, but it’s here, in Deuteronomy 8, where we get the general tradition of saying a blessing over a meal. The tenth verse reads, “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”

In fact, this whole section from Deuteronomy is instruction about how to give thanks. We are deep into Moses’s farewell speech here on the edge of entering the Promised Land. 120-year-old Moses, the man has been wandering in the desert for a 1/3 of his life. It might be a bit long winded, maybe like your great uncle at the Thanksgiving table who keeps talking for a few minutes after the last person stopped paying attention, but it also seems like he’s entitled to it after 40 years in the desert.

And, oh, that land they are about to enter is glorious! Thick, lush, verdant ,with good things to eat. After all those years in the desert where the sand was constantly in your hair and between your toes, where the ground was “parched like withered hay,” and the land so dry that your skin cracked from the arid heat, the land of Canaan is “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills” (Deut 8:7). Governor Bradford, in Plymouth Massachusetts in the summer of 1621, recounted how a great drought that threatened their crops and their very survival prompted a “solemn day of humiliation” to pray to God for relief and rain. When the rain came, “with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, and blesing God” the Pilgrims and the Indians “also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing.” In Plymouth, the land was restored and fruitful, like the promised landed for the Israelites.


And, oh! The good things to eat in the land! Moses keeps going, talking about all that will grow before them- “a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” After all those years of manna, manna, manna in the wilderness, the people will have a diverse menu! Grapes and figs, and pomegranates so heavy with seeds about to burst that they bend the branches down with their weight. These first fruits will be the first fruits that the Israelites bring to God in the festival of Shavuot. A friend told me the story of the Thanksgiving when her sister tried to simplify the meal. There were 9 people coming to dinner, there would be just 9 dishes. And each person would bring the dish that was most important to them. 9 people, 9 dishes, it would be plenty! They showed up on Thanksgiving afternoon to feast only to discover 9 dishes of mashed potatoes. Manna, manna, manna, all those years of nothing but manna in the wilderness. Next year, we’re making a chart and everyone is getting assigned a dish so we don’t end up with an entire meal of potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.


There is land fertile to grow in, food varied to eat, stones with which to build, hills to mine and so you give God thanks “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deut 8:10).


But then, after verse 10, the monologue takes a turn. Moses starts warning the people. “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.” Remember, and do not forget. All that abundance and fruitfulness in the land of milk and honey gets really dangerous, really quick.


Verse 12 begins “When you have eaten your fill and have built find houses and lived in them, and when your herds and flock have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.” This is the danger.


Moses goes on in verse 17 “Do not say to yourself, ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, fir it is he who gives you the power to get wealth…” The Jewish commentator Nogah Hareuveni writes “the arduous physical labor involved in clearing the forest land …in building terraces on the mountain slopes, in clearing, plowing and planting the terraced land — all these could lead the Israelite farmer to say in his heart, “my power and the might of my hand have made me successful.”

True thanksgiving is not merely listing off what you’ve got, a laundry lists of objects, and purchases, and acquisitions. In the Biblical sense, thanksgiving has two parts, remembering and giving thanks. Remember what is was like without, and give thanks for what God has provided. Moses, from the edge of the Promised Land, has the vantage point to see the danger ahead. You might have so much, you will live so contentedly that you will forget God. You will forget where it came from. You will fool yourselves into believing that you did this.

And for those of us who are comfortable, or comfortable enough, that’s the danger isn’t it? We rush through our prayers of thanksgiving, running one word into the next (fast) “God is great, God is good. Let us thank Him for our food,” We forget where it all came from. We get confused and think we did this. We confuse God’s blessings with our sense of self-sufficiency. We forget our family history of immigration and start cursing the newer immigrants who come to this good land looking for the same opportunities our ancestors did. We get confident that we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, forgetting all those that supported us along the way. …

In his commentary on this passage, the reformer John Wesley spoke of a “common profaneness” from those of us who become inured to the blessing of having sufficient food and drink before us. We expect food in the fridge and water out of the faucet and day after day when they are there, we forget to remember and give thanks to God.

That common profaneness caught me over the last few weeks. I’m so used to having a bed of my own to sleep in, a roof over my head, that I and many others were slow to react to the closing of the Long Island shelter in Boston that displaced again 700+ people without homes and those in addiction recovery programs. We who lived in homes had “eaten our fill and build fine homes and lived in them” and maybe even gave thanks for these blessings. But we failed to remember. We failed to remember that we too could be without, we too could be hungry and cold and worn. Maybe we didn’t say it out loud, but perhaps in the dark corners of our hearts lurked the sneaking suspicion that “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth” and that those who did not have such comfort were un-deserving or un-productive. That’s how easy it is to forget, to let the common profaneness of having enough every day slip you into a state where you forget how truly extraordinary it is to have a roof over your head and a meal upon your table. Moses is pretty clear that the way to avoid taking your blessings for granted is to remember. Remember and do not forget, says our God. Here in Westfield, you have remembered how hard it is to be a teenager, and even how much harder it must be to go to school when you have no stable place to study, to sleep, to eat. You have remembered and did not forget and you are preparing apartments high school students without a stable home at Our House. Remember and do not forget, for you too were once teenagers in a strange land.

Maybe this is why we tell the same stories every year at Thanksgiving:

  • Remember and do not forget how the drought threatened to starve us that first year in Plymouth Plantation.
  • Remember and do not forget the year we had Thanksgiving on plastic plates in nursing home with food from the Boston Market in Detroit MI, as my aunt was dying
  • Remember and do not forget the year that my cousin hid under the table the entire meal because there was cranberry chutney and not cranberry jelly
  • Remember and do not forget the year that the neighbor carved not into the turkey but into his finger and spent it in the emergency room, or the year that grandma was so tragically drunk again she fell with the candied yams, or the year that you thought your uncle would make it home from Iraq but did not.
  • Remember and do not forget all the things that we’ve gone through, and give thanks to God that we are alive to breath and eat and say a word of blessing this day.

Here is the invitation this Thanksgiving. When you sit down to the table, try to remember. Maybe you go around the table and tell a story of when you didn’t have enough. Maybe you tell of times when you were strangers in a strange land. Maybe all you do is sneak a breath before you pass the mashed potatoes, but remember and do not forget, the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Remember and do not forget, the God who blessed you with good food to eat and good land to grow it. Remember and do not forget the beloved of God who will be without food, without shelter, without a sense of God’s love as the nights grow colder. For the Lord our God has brought us out of Egypt. If this Thanksgiving, you eat your fill, remember and do not forget to bless the Lord. Aen.

#WeRunTogether: A sermon for Easter

#WeRunTogether: a Sermon for Easter

Christ Church, United Methodist: Wellesley, MA

Gospel Reading from John 20: 1-18

If this is your first Sunday in this church, you are welcome here. If this is your first Sunday in any church, you are welcome here. If you got dragged here by your mom, or aunt, or grandfather or a friend, and are still a little green from last night, you are welcome here. If you have been a faithful member here for the last decade, you are welcome here. If you have sat in the 3rd pew on the left since before Jesus was born, you are welcome here. If duty or joy or grief or fear prodded you to church today, you are welcome here. If you’re running from something, running to something, you are welcome here. If you are here unsure if you should be here, you are welcome here. I’ve never been to this church either- we are strangers here together. Before the tomb, we are all strangers. But at least part of the story of Easter is a story of recognition, a story of hearing someone call out our name, a story of being known. And whether you believe a little or believe a lot, you are here. You are welcome here. It is good that you are here. We’ve got work to do together.

The Easter story in John’s gospel is a big of a theatrical mess. People are moving back and forth in ways that aren’t totally clear. The big dramatic scene has happened off stage, beyond our sight- the stone has been rolled back, the burial shroud comes off, the broken body laid to rest arises. All that happens off stage in John’s Gospel. What we do see is the running.

Unlike the other three Gospel stories of the Resurrection, John’s Gospel starts out in the dark. Not the Easter dawn with the bright morning star arising, but in that inky blue before the sun beings to rise. The moon still hovers in the sky. We are in-between. John’s Easter is for those of us who didn’t get up this morning with the hope of new life. John’s Easter is for those who fumble in the darkness. In that early morning before dawn, Mary walks to the tomb after the violent, humiliating events of Friday’s crucifixion. She walks after the worst days of her life. The very fact she gets up out of bed and steps one foot in front of the other seems to me like a miracle in and of itself. Mary Magdalene walks to the graveyard to pray at the tomb, to grieve all the hope that is lost, but the stone has been rolled away. Heart pounding, she runs from the scene of a crime, unsure of what has happened and what will happen next. She turns around and she runs.

First Mary runs from the tomb, then the Beloved Disciple and Simon Peter run there and back, and Mary runs to the tomb again. It’s a relay race of disciples. And relay races are glorious, high stakes but they are messy. But the life of faith is this, We run together.

Now almost 20 years after they ran high school track relays, a few old friends of mine can still remember the stomach-churning clang of the metal baton slipping out of their hands and dropping to the track. They still remember the horror of the entire stadium turning to the sound, every heart dropping with the brassy crash. Passing the baton is the most thrilling and horrifying part of the race.

There is some evidence that relay races began in ancient Greece, possibly as a way to pass information from one person to another, over a distance further than any one person could go on their own. That baton was either a scroll or a torch, a word or a light passed along.

One of my old high school friends now teaches youth track. When she teaches baton passes, they “talk about not running too far out away from your teammate.” You can lead them “out a tiny little bit without straining them past their ability.” But you have to remember that the incoming runner is exhausted, while the outgoing runner is just starting out with fresh legs. In a blind exchange, the outgoing runner never sees the baton. The incoming runner calls for the outgoing runners hand, and yells “Stick!” You practice that handoff a thousand times so that when the time comes, you can handoff under pressure. Relay teams grow close because they have to rely on one another. Your victory depends not just on your own skill, but on the others who run with you.

Even if you’ve never run a relay race, you know this. You know how hard it is to pass along that baton- to prepare your child to go to school on their own, to pass the car keys to your teenager, to give over your writing to an editor who will cut it apart, to hand over an organization you’ve given years of service to, to give over our medical and legal power of attorney as our health fails. Maybe you know how hard it is to pass the baton in church. Maybe you know the dread of straining at the end of your race unsure if you’ve got anyone to had off to. Maybe you know the anxiety of reaching back your hand to find nothing in it. However we pass the baton, whatever baton we pass, the reality is this: to successfully pass the baton, we have to run together. We have to match speeds, just for a moment so that each of us is going at the same pace. We are on each other’s teams. You cannot run to the tomb alone.

The Easter story in John offers a point of entry for all of us, however we come to the story today, those of us who run ahead and us who lag behind. “The Beloved Disciple sees and believes. Mary sees yet needs help believing. Peter sees, but he does not yet believe. Peter will come to faith in time.” Gospel writer doesn’t judge any one of these as superior. It’s not a contest between them. We’re on each other’s teams. This is a part of the race we run together. Twice, three times they run to the tomb to try to get their arms around what on earth is going on, because Easter isn’t always a story you hear once and believe. Sometimes you’ve got to keep going back to the tomb to make sure it’s still empty.

St Basil the Great, a 4th C Church Father said, “When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.” If you come back next week, you’ll hear the story of Doubting Thomas, because believing that death is truly, truly conquered is hard to believe. We need to hear it again and again. We work it out together.

We tend to treat Easter as the culmination, as the big Lenten finale, the time to bring out your good hat, and your big choir piece, and your best sermon. But this is not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the start gun. It’s 50 days of Eastertide, not a sprint race but a marathon, a marathon that will run right outside your door. We run this race together.

In the Orthodox Christian traditions, Easter or Pascha starts the night before, while it’s still dark- more like a Christmas Eve service. You go to church on Saturday night, before there’s any sign of the dawn. The first time I attended an Orthodox Christian Easter service I was totally lost. Completely and utterly lost. It was a sign of honor, but inconveniently, they sat me in the front row. Now the problem with the front row is you can’t sneak a peak at the others around you to see what to do. We each had a candle to wave and a song to sing, but the hymn was in Greek and I had no idea what movements I was supposed to make. We must have sung the Easter hymn 50 times during the liturgy. By the 20th time, I started to get it. “Christos Anesti…” Christ has risen, Christ has risen indeed. Christos Anesti, Allithos Anesti. Χριστός ἀνέστη!” “Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Christ has risen, we kept singing. Christ has risen. Say it again, Christ has risen, Christ has risen. Like the beat of your heart heavy in your chest, moving to the sound of your feet. Christ has risen. I have risen. You have risen. We have risen. Keep saying it, keep running, keep believing it. Christ has risen. I have risen, you have risen, we have risen. We sing together. We run together. We die together, we rise together. Say it again until it becomes true, until you are raised with Christ too, until we run together without fear. Christ has risen, Christ has risen, Christ has risen. On your mark, get set…



Bruce Springsteen as storyteller #TheologyOfBruce

photo asbury park     These are my notes from a March 8, 2014 workshop at the “UnQuiet Day” on “Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope” with Bishop Douglas Fisher, Episcopal Diocese of Western MA, and Canon Rich Simpson. More information about the UnQuiet Day is here: Rich’s excellent sermon is here: You can see some of the tweets from the day by looking at #TheologyofBruce
     I’m going to invite us to dance, because you’re killing me to play Bruce loud and not dance. Now, the invitation is to try to be embodied. If this terrifies you beyond death, go pretend to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom. But I want to offer you this, Episcopalians you are the ones who taught me to use my body in worship, to cross myself, to bow, to kneel. You are the ones who help me bring my whole body to worship. I think you can do this. You’re not Baptists. Dancing won’t lead to something else, I promise.
      Remember as Bruce says ‘It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”
Kill the lights, cue “Dancing in the Dark.”
     Remember the trick to dancing is to move as if you are not anxious about how you look. You look better dancing if you’re not paying attention to how you’re dancing. and if you Close your eyes and no one can see you. Thank you. you are very brave.
     I come to you about Bruce, authentic Jersey Girl.  I can beat any of you at Skeeball if you want to play for money.
     After my senior prom, I borrowed my Mom’s burgundy Chevy minivan and headed down the Jersey Shore. I wore a brown dress to prom because I was deep and brooding. And it was the mid-1990s. If I could have found a plaid flannel dress I would have. We stayed up all night, had breakfast at 2am at a 24 hour diner, either the Rockaway Diner or Paul’s Diner, all gleaming silver. A place where you could get a plate full of disco fries, french fries covered in cheese and gravy for 3 dollars- it could fuel hours of conversation.
     After the prom,  we drove from The Skylands to Seaside Heights. You may know Seaside Heights from the MTV show Jersey Shore. It’s just as trashy now as it was then. We called it  Sleezside. It was an entire town, a stocked pond of teenagers full of hormones and Yuengling beer.
     I pulled my mother’s minivan up to the motel, The Flamingo. The “O” had fallen off the sign, so it just read “The Flaming.”  Two stories of doors open into a courtyard, with kids hanging off the railing, peering over a slightly green swimming pool. We had each paid something like $50 dollars each for a share of a bedroom.
     You know, a couple of marriages came from that senior prom. Tim is a cop, Maria is a teacher. They’ve got a kid and a dog and a condo in Red Bank that they can’t quite afford. A couple of those guys died young, drug overdoses. A few made it back from Afghanistan, but walk around dead. Many stayed in the NJ that formed us. And some of us left.
photo laura     I learned to love Bruce in part because I know his New Jersey, because he tells a story I can relate to, even if I didn’t live it.
      “Hey little boy is your Momma home, did she go and leave you all alone, oh no. I’ve got a bad desire. Oh Oh Oh I’m on fire.”  My hope in flipping the gendered pronouns is to hear how creepy this song is more clearly. If we were doing a boundary awareness class today or Safe Church training, some of Bruce’s songs would be our example of what not to do. I want us to take his music for what it is, and let it be what it’s not. I remember in seminary watching a professor try to make the case for Clement of Alexandria as a proto-feminist. Twisting and contorting, it didn’t quite work. At the outset, I want to give this disclaimer- I don’t think Bruce is great on women. The women in his songs have underdeveloped interior lives. Full grown women are reduced to “girls in their summer clothes.” They serve as the arm-candy for the men around them, “put your make up, on do your hair up pretty” or   There’s a little bit of the Virgin Mary/ Mary Magdalene dynamic where the women are either saints in Mary’s kitchen, or Roselita or Wendy being lured outside for the night or ending up in Maria’s bed. There’s not a ton of in-between. Frankly, it’s a little like Scripture- the women are there, but just barely and not very well developed when they make it into the story. Bruce is a Dude! I don’t think we can press him to be more than he is. But there’s a larger story, a story of devils and dust, of death and resurrection, of the promised land that I still believe is worth telling.
     Bruce may not be able to help us to think clearly into the full humanity of women, but I do think he gets us a lot. Bruce is really, really good on the interior emotional life of men, especially men who are being pushed aside as the world around them changes. He’s explored racial violence, police brutality and racial profiling in 41 Shots. He’s pressed us to think about returning veterans in “We take care of our own.” He pointed an anxious america to the humanity of gay male AIDS patients in “The Streets of Philadelphia.” He helps us process our grief following 9/11 and then Hurricane Sandy in “My City of Ruin.” And so much of Bruce’s songwriting invites us to think about class differences and economic injustice in America.
     I believe Bruce has cross generational possibility- My hometown, “Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown.” When I was preparing for this event, the Massachusetts Council of Churches 25 years old intern said “Why do a day on the theology of Bruce? Why not someone more contemporary, like Mumford and Sons?” But we don’t get the alt-rock, troubadour revival of Mumford and Sons without Bruce. Show me a hipster band or singer songwriter that doesn’t cite Bruce’s “Nebraska” album as a major influence. We don’t get the Decemberists, or Bon Iver, or St. Vincent, or Beck, or the Avett Brothers, or Ockerville River, or Neko Case without Bruce. And we don’t get Bruce without Pete Seeger or Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin. We even see passing on of tradition within the E street band, as Clarence Clemmons’ solo were played on the last tour by his nephew. We are in the company of saints, an apostolic succession of rock history and Bruce is very clear of his place in the stream.
     I think Bruce has enormous cross generational possibility that could teach the Church something about collaboration across the generations. He both reaches back and looks forward in ways that ought to feel familiar to the Church. This is the same guy who records the Seeger Sessions as collaborates with the guitarist Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine. Morello is 49- Bruce is 64. Morello first subbed for Steve Van Zant in 2008. If you’ve not heard Morello and Springsteen play “The Ghost of Tom Joad” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please do so immediately. Bruce is omnivorous in his music consumption too. At a concert last week in New Zealand, Bruce covered the New Zealand singer Lorde’s song “Royals” which just won song of the year at the Grammys. Lorde is 17.
     I learned of Bruce from my parents. I’m a second generation Bruce fan. My vinyl record of “Greetings from Asbury Park” first belonged to my Dad, who was raised in NJ. Bruce is just a year older than my Dad. Rick and Mary Everett are like something out of a Springteen song. (Tell the story of their meeting)
     Bruce is a cross-over figure: as someone who works on issues of Christian unity, between divided parts of the church, I have special admiration for those who stand in-between worlds. Bruce is an affluent straight white male who can still reach a working class demographic with his music. There’s sometimes a tension between the more liberal politics of Springteen that reach out ahead of where his middle-american fan base is.
      Bruce is story teller, a patron saint for preachers and evangelist. I think he can teach us lots about what makes for a good public narrative.  Hear Bruce’s own words about storytelling “…First of all, everybody has a memory when you were eleven years old and you were walking down a particular street on a certain day, and the trees—there was a certain wind blowing through the trees and the way that the sound of your feet made on the stones as you came up the drive and the way the light hit a particular house. Everyone has memories they carry with them for no particular reason and these things live within you—you had some moment of pure experience that revealed to you what it meant to be alive, what it means to be alive, what the stakes are, the wind on a given day, how important it is, or what you can do with your life. That’s the writer’s job…to  present that experience to an audience who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their own life  and their moral life…and there’s a connection made. That’s what keeps you writing, that’s what keeps you wanting to write that next song, because you can do that, and because if I do it for you, I do it for me.” Can you hear the Gospel truth?
     For me, and maybe for others, Bruce teaches us a certain way to be adults. Messy, messed up, hopeful, human adults: In his words “Adult life is dealing with an enormous amount of questions that don’t have answers. So I let the mystery settle into my music. I don’t deny anything, I don’t advocate anything, I just live with it.”
     For Bruce, storytelling is a discipline: 2005 VHI Episode of Storytellers Bruce said “”Over 30 years, you internalize your craft, and the mechanics of storytelling becomes like a second language,” Springsteen says after singing The Rising. “You speak without thinking, like a second skin you feel with. So you pray to the gods of creativity and aliveness that you remain awake, and alert, and in command of your senses, so that when the moments arrive, you are ready.”
     There’s intention and craft to his performance: From a 2005 interview with British Novelist Nick Hornsby (High Fidelity, About a Boy): “There is a presentation and I think being aware of the fact that there’s a show going on is a good idea (laughs) (2). I think it fell into some disrepute when the idea of the show became linked to falseness in some fashion, which is a superficial way to look at it. It’s actually a bridge when used appropriately. It’s simply a bridge for your ideas to reach the audience. It assists the music in connecting and that’s what you’re out there for. I think if you do it wrong, you can diminish your work, but if you do it right you can lightly assist what you’re doing. It can be an enormous asset in reaching people with what might be otherwise difficult material.”
     What makes his story telling work? Let’s build a list:
 (the group gave ideas about what makes Bruce a good storyteller, things like authenticity, the particulars of his stories but the universality of his themes, honesty about how hard life is…)
      Let’s examine why Bruce’s storytelling works:
(at this point, we break into groups of 4-5 to closely examine Bruce’s lyrics. We had worked with the text of about 15 songs) Here’s an example:

Un-Quiet Day: Bruce Springsteen, Prophet of Hope  Saturday March 8, 2014  #TheologyOfBruce

Exegesis of Bruce

Your group’s task is a close read of Bruce Springsteen song lyrics as you might study a section of Scripture.  Imagine you are preaching or teaching with this “text” and answer the following questions:

  1. What is your thesis? What is the main message this “text” is trying to communicate?
  2. Where do you hear the “Good News” in this text?

IF I SHOULD FALL BEHIND (1992) Album’s version

  1. We said we’d walk together baby come what may
  2. That come the twilight should we lose our way
  3. If as we’re walkin a hand should slip free
  4. I’ll wait for you
  5. And should I fall behind
  6. Wait for me
  7. We swore we’d travel darlin’ side by side
  8. We’d help each other stay in stride
  9. But each lover’s steps fall so differently
  10. But I’ll wait for you
  11. And if I should fall behind
  12. Wait for me
  13. Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
  14. But you and I know what this world can do
  15. So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see
  16. And I’ll wait for you
  17. If I should fall behind
  18. Wait for me
  19. Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead
  20. There ‘neath the oak’s bough soon we will be wed
  21. Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
  22. I’ll wait for you
  23. And should I fall behind
  24. Wait for me
  25. Darlin’ I’ll wait for you
  26. Should I fall behind
  27. Wait for me

Released on Lucky Town in 1992.

The song was played frequently during The Seeger Sessions Tour. Thanks to for the lyrics. 

Unprepared: A Sermon on Luke 21: 5-19

Sunday November 17, 2013 at West Parish of Barnstable, United Church of Christ

The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)

The 1717 meeting house of West Parish in Barnstable (can you see the green tarp on the roof?)

Luke 21:5-19 // When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

We were trying to be reverential. Heads were bowed, hands were clasped in prayer. But somewhere, deep in the background you could hear the light clink of glass hitting glass and the hum of a far off a vacuum cleaner. With our eyes set on the floor below us, I could see a little bit of glitter from the night before still sticking to the shiny, waxed floor. It’s not always easy to be reverential when your trying to have a Sunday morning worship service in a banquet hall. But that’s where Grace Church of the Southern Berkshires met for worship after the wall of their church fell in. Let us pray…

It is not lost on me, and I suspect not on you either, that we’re studying a text about buildings falling down while sitting under the green tarp over your roof in the oldest congregational meeting house still in use today. For the record, I didn’t pick this text! This lesson from Luke is assigned today in the Revised Common Lectionary, the series of Scripture readings that move over a 3 year cycle. By following the Revised Common Lectionary today, we are hearing the same text that many other Christians around the world are studying as well.  We are also approaching the end of the church year, and the beginning of Advent. During this time, the Scripture readings get darker, more foreboding. They talk of the end times. They talk of the trials and tribulations to come for Jesus’ followers. As the days get shorter and the light fades for us in the Northern hemisphere, the readings also turn darker as we wait for the light of Christ to enter the world.

Luke tells of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This story is set on around maybe Tuesday of Holy Week- Jesus has already entered the city on a donkey, is still teaching and preaching while the leaders look for a way to arrest him.  The days of his trial and crucifixion are coming soon. Jesus is giving some final instruction to his followers about what the days ahead will be like.

The people around Jesus are talking about the beauty and impressiveness of the Temple- “adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.” Jesus sees a teaching opportunity. Jesus says in verse 6, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We are not just talking about a few stones tumbling too the ground, but every, single stone. When the Gospel of Mark tells this story, the disciples exclaim “What large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1) The historian Paula Fredriksen notes that the outer court of the Temple could hold 400,000 people. The Temple is massive. The Temple was impressive, grand, an evocative place to worship and remember the sovereignty of God.  Standing in that court, Jesus said “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The parishioners of Grace Church in Southern Berkshires saw the stones of their house of worship thrown down. Grace Church is actually a merger of two congregations, St. James Episcopal Church of Great Barrington and St. George Episcopal Church of Lee. They’ve had done the hard work of joining into one parish.  But before they merged, on July 31, 2008, the rear wall of St. James collapsed. The stones fell onto the priest’s car, a priest that had just arrived at the church 8 months earlier.  St. James was founded in 1762 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, back when western MA was considered a foreign land.  It was the oldest church in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and they were proud of those stones laid down in 1857. Those stones that soaked in the prayers of the faithful since before the Civil War; stones that withstood snowstorm after snowstorm; stones that stood long enough to see the same people baptized and buried and their children baptized and buried; stones that had been held together by the mortar of a faithful community- those blue lime stones came tumbling to the ground.  After the stones came down, there was a hole you could see straight through in the back of the church.

When Jesus tells the people that the stones of the Temple will come tumbling down, they get nervous. I have sympathy for these people. Jesus speaks of massive upheaval, even more massive than the falling down of a single limestone church. Jesus tells of earthquakes, famines, plagues, arrests and persecution. Jesus tells of the Temple falling, the tearing down of the thing that’s supposed to represent the most stability in their lives. The Temple was the dwelling place of God for a people who had been in exile in a foreign land.  The Temple was stable, holy, massive. And now Jesus says it’s all coming down? The people want answers. They want a timeline.  They want a meeting with the architect. And probably the buildings and grounds committee and definitely the town historic buildings commission. They want to attend to deferred maintenance. In Verse 7, they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They ask, Jesus, could you give us some advanced warning? Could we put up some scaffolding and make some repairs to hold this off a bit longer? Could we prop it up with beams until we can complete our capital campaign? Could we cover it over with a tarp?

Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall

Worship at Grace Church in the banquet hall

After the stones came down at St. James, things chaotic and utterly predictable began to happen: the town inspector declared the church uninhabitable, which made sense given that there was a giant hole in the wall. All the non-profits and twelve-step groups and community organizations that had been meeting in the church scattered. When a few parishioners finally snuck back in a month later, the brown paper bagged sandwiches were still on the parish hall tables from the community youth theatre group. In the months that followed, they worshiped in a conference room of a local hospital. They considered offers from neighboring UCC congregations to share space. They moved around, packing up the communion ware each Sunday and storing it in the trunks of parishioner’s cars. In the end, they ended up selling the building, and renting space in a banquet hall, which is where I ended up guest preaching 5 years after the wall fell in. Jesus said to those gathered with him at the Temple in Jerusalem, “this will give you an opportunity to testify.”

But we are unprepared, the disciples wail! We are so used to thinking our preparedness will save us. I am supremely guilty of this myself- that foreboding sense that if I just read more, just study more, just research more, I’ll be ready for whatever comes in our unstable world. But our devotion to preparedness is a bit of a national mania in a country that gives us such television shows like Doomsday Preppers about those stockpiling for the end of the world, and shows like Extreme Couponing about those stockpiling toilet paper ,10 for a dollar. Do you remember the push to prepare for Y2K?  As Americans, we think preparedness is an ultimate virtue. Shoot, in America, 75% of people wrongly believe the Bible says that “God helps those who help themselves.” . And no doubt, some preparation is good and life saving. You who live near the chaos of the ocean know better than any that listening to the warnings to evacuate during a storm can save lives. But I think in this, Jesus is pressing on something different, not our practical preparedness but our ultimate trust.

When I read this passage for the first time this week in our weekly small staff bible study, I honestly felt like I had never heard Luke 21:14 before in my life. Ever. I have no recollection of this line of scripture. It is so thoroughly and totally countercultural. Here is Jesus, talking about the unfathomable that the giant stones of the Temple will fall even as he points to the destruction and rejection of his own body. After talking about all the hardships that are to come for Jesus’ followers, Jesus says “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance.”  Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. And it’s even more strongly put in the original Greek.  In the Greek, the verb is an imperative: “Put it in your hearts not to prepare your defense.”  It’s a command. How can Jesus make such demands on a scared people who may just be losing everything that gave them stability and security? In verse 15 Jesus promises, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  Jesus invites those who can hear him, don’t anchor your faith in these stones, but in the one who rolls away the stone.

Three weeks ago I got to preside at communion touching the pewter that our forbearers used in 1863. To the young child and her grandmother coming forward for communion, I got to offer the very same cup of the new and everlasting life that was offered to generations before them. I love our traditions, too.

But clinging to our pewter and our roofs and our flood insurance and our 1857 Gothic stone churches as if they are God will not save us.  Yale Prof & theologian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in his 1984 book The Vindication of Tradition:  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”

This is your opportunity to testify; I’ll give you the words and wisdom. In Luke, Jesus isn’t saying, “look for the silver lining when the stones come down.” It’s not a glib faith that looks for the good when everything around you fails. Jesus isn’t that smug. But he does say: “this is your opportunity to testify.” To say and live what you really believe, deep down. To practice that our faith is not in our buildings, but in our God.

You know this. It is built into the DNA of this congregation. Your ancestors did not sit in jail in London for the freedom to build a new building. Your ancestors didn’t sit in jail, didn’t labor across the ocean, didn’t survive New England winters in order to have a pretty building. The buildings were the tool for, not the same thing as, the worship of God. Our buildings are important, sometimes even critical for ministry, but they are not the same thing as the faithfulness that Jesus invites us to.

After the stones came down at St. James, something new was unearthed outside the walls of the old gothic church. At Advent that year, some church members went down to a local organic farm to make Advent wreaths with the Sunday School kids- which they had to do at a farm since they no longer had an inhabitable church.  One of the children said, “wouldn’t it be great if we had a farm to feed hungry people?” And they started to imagine. Gideon’s Garden started out as 1/3 of an acre of donated land on that organic farm. First it was just the church children growing a little bit of food for fun. Now it’s the Sunday School kids, local kids who come afterschool, a summer program with teen mentors and now the children of the migrant farm workers.

Gideon's Farm

When I visited in September to guest preach, they had expanded the farm to 3 acres, with all of the food grown by the children going to the local WIC program and food pantries.  There are more people connecting with the church through this garden than ever came through the stone arches of the sanctuary. When the stones came down, Jesus said “Thiswill give you an opportunity to testify.”

I don’t know what’s ahead for our country, or our church, or your roof, or for any of us tomorrow. All I have is this strange promise from Jesus inviting us to relax a bit, to stop our frantic preparations, to  “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I will give you words and wisdom.” I think that is the promise that our forbearers in the faith clung to as well.  May this promise be the rock to which you cling through the storms ahead. Amen.