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

 

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: http://www.diocesewma.org/unquietday/ Rich’s excellent sermon is here:  http://rmsimpson.blogspot.com/2014/03/meet-me-out-in-street-bruce-springsteen.html 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 http://www.springsteenlyrics.com/ 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.

 

 

Brokenness as Kindling: A Sermon on 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

South Walpole United Methodist Church

Sunday Oct 6, 2013 World Communion Sunday & Blessings of the Animals

2 Timothy 1:1-14Image

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.

6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

They sat on the cool linoleum floor together at the seaside cabin having an indoor picnic when the summer thunderstorms drove them inside. They baked Swedish pastries, dozens and dozens, every year in the days leading up to Christmas, leaving the house smelling like yeast and a faint hint of cardamom. And especially, her granddaughters and nieces and nephews remember her teaching them how to sew, first potholders and pajama bottoms, things with straight lines. One after another, I heard the grandchildren of the deceased stand up and recall the sweet times with their grandmother. And then the people from her church rose to speak about the ways she diligently taught Scripture to those new in the faith. I sat in the back of the funeral thinking of my own grandmother, who loved me from a distance, but never taught me to sew. She loved me as best as she could, I suppose, but her schizophrenia and anger at the Church and all the damage that had been done to her put distance between us. St. Paul writes to Timothy “ 5I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Will you pray with me?  … Amen.

It makes so much sense, really. They grow so fast, they get so dirty. There’s no need to create more disposable stuff in the world. Most of the time, hand me downs are a good thing. Gently worn, broken in, assured that they do what they were designed to do. A friend spoke of the strange, lovely experience of having the clothes he gave to his cousin’s for their first child gifted back to him when his son was born. Another friend told me of the pleasure in wrapping her hands around the wooden planning tool, smoothed by years of wear in her grandfather’s hands.  And another pastor, waiting to have her first child any day now, told me of receiving baby clothes from other friends, with initials of the previous children already on the tag. She took out the Sharpie marker and added the initials of her own child.  Good hand-me-downs are the ones we’ve outgrown, but not worn out.

The scripture lesson today thinks of faith as something that’s handed down. St. Paul writes a letter to Timothy. Well not actually, Paul. It seems like the letter was written around 10 years after Paul’s death. This second letter to Timothy has much at stake in preserving Paul’s reputation & Timothy’s as the Church around them is changing. In the opening of this letter, we get the great lineage of a faith passed down from “ your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” to Timothy. Given the high praise and the relatively few women actually named in scripture, you’d think we’d have more children named Lois and Eunice. The faith of the matriarchs is praised. It’s a gift from one generation to the next, a family inheritance worth preserving.

A few days ago, we marked the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  Giovanni was called Francis by his father, so everyone else did too. Francis was born into the family of successful cloth merchants in central Italy.  Fine brocade from France, thick wool from Germany, lush silk from far away lands that could barely be imagined. Like his father before him, Francis was expected to take over the family business. To his surprise and everyone else’s, Francis underwent a conversion over time, and heard the voice of Christ say “Francis, repair my church.” He came home, sold his horse and some of his father’s cloth and gave the money to a priest. His father was furious and dragged Francis before the bishop to talk some sense back into him. First his shoes, then his socks, then pants and shirt- Francis took off all his clothes, the fabric from his father, and handed them back- standing naked before his Father in heaven, for whom he would serve the rest of his days.

Sometimes the hand-me down clothes from our family don’t fit. There is no way I would ever fit into my mother’s size 2 wedding dress from 1972. Francis could not go into his father’s line of work. And sometimes the hand-me-downs from our family are so tight, so ill-fitting as to do harm.  The British poet Philip Larkin wrote “ This Be The Verse.”

They f*ck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were f*cked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

(I did not say ‘f*ck’ from the pulpit, but the English major in me can’t abide in changing a poet’s precisely chosen words)

Harsh words by one who is has been wounded by family. Our families don’t always pass down the faith. Part of the scandal and genius of Christianity is that we are part of this crazy, unwieldy, global, cross-generational community not by lineage or ethnicity or nation, but by this strange affiliation in faith.  Faith is a gift, not something to be earned. It may be a gift from your family, or from. But wherever faith comes from, it comes not from us, but from our contact with one another. We do not practice Christianity in splendid isolation away from the mess and gift of human relationships. We are bound together in faith. You are my brothers and sisters in Christ, you who I do not know and never met before, as much as the faithful at Grace Episcopal Church in Great Barrington who I was with last week or the people of First Congregational Church of West Tisbury before that, as much as every church around the world reading this same scripture lesson today because of the ecumenical innovation of the Revised Common Lectionary, and as much as St. Francis is or Eunice is. Even as St Paul is praising Timothy’s family history of faithfulness, Paul is building a new set of family relations. Paul is a sort of spiritual godparent to Timothy, bound not by blood or family lines but by faith. The childless Paul claims Timothy his “beloved child.” For those among us whose families did not or could not reflect the parental love of God, these new bonds are indeed good news.

But for this author writing in Paul’s name, being a part of the family of faith isn’t enough. Timothy doesn’t get faith from his mother and grandmother like a set of silverware passed down. Timothy has his own relationship to this gift of faith, and his own obligation to tend this fire. In verse 6, Paul says “6For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands.” Rekindle the gift of God that is within you. It is not enough to have the faith passed on from our ancestors, blood relatives or not. Faith has to be rekindled anew in each generation and for each person.

In the first US edition Scouting for Girls: Official Handbook of the Girl Scouts, published in 1920, the guide to camping says this:

The forest floor is always littered with old leaves, dead sticks and fallen trees. During a drought this rubbish is so tinder-dry that a spark falling in it may start a conflagration; but through a great part of the leaves and sticks that lie flat on the ground are too moist at least on their under side, to ignite readily. If we rake together a pile of leaves, cover it higgledy-piggledy with dead twigs and branches picked up at random, and set a match to it, the odds are that it will result in nothing but a quick blaze that soon dies down to a smudge. Yet that is the way most of us tried to make our first outdoor fires.

The Girl Scout Guide goes on to direct the novice camper on how to make the proper fire for the proper activity, naming three main types of fires: “1. quick hot little fire that will boil water in a jiffy and will soon burn down to embers that are not too ardent for frying; or a 2. A solid bed of long-lived coals that will keep up a steady, glowing, smokeless heat for baking, roasting or slow boiling; or 3 a big log fire that will throw its heat forward on the ground and into a tent or a lean-to and will last several hours without replenishing.” With all these fires, the initial task is the same. The Girl Scout guidebook is clear. You need kindling to start a fire. You cannot simply strike a match to a log. You cannot start with the biggest logs, but instead begin with tinder. To kindle a fire, we gather up broken things. Dead things. Charred things. To rekindle our relationship with God, we have to bring forward the kindling of our lives.

Ever time we approach the table where bread will be broken, we confess our own brokenness and our participation in broken systems. We confess that we are as spiteful and partisan as Congress,  that our divisive words embolden theirs. We confess our broken relationships with one another and the toxic bile of our resentment. We confess the ways we have been given this gift of faith in Christ Jesus but fail to take the time to tend the fire. We confess our brokenness and come to be made whole by broken bread. God doesn’t want to work with our big logs burning brightly that we’ve so proudly placed upon the fire, but with our tinder, our kindling, our brokenness. Throughout Scripture, God’s not working with the polished and complete, but broken people again and again.  Here, in our brokenness, in our tinder and lint and twigs of our life, all the things left for dead and cast aside, here is what God wants to use to fuel the fire of faith.

In her 1995 book “The Fire in these Ashes”, the Benedictine Roman Catholic nun Joan Chittester tells the story of the Irish custom of starting the first fire in a new home from the already heated coals of fires from other homes of family or community members. The fire must come from somewhere, but in each new home, it blazes anew. Speaking of our religious practices, Chittester writes, “’We are not the first generation for whom this is the content of our lives, but unless we do it with all our hearts, another generation may not get the opportunity to do the same, to warm themselves at the same fire, to heat the world with the coals of their lives.”

The life of faith is a constant process of kindly and rekindling the fire. The life of faith is not a Duraflame all prepackaged and contained. The life of faith is not a 12 hour video loop of the Yule Log. The life of faith blazes and dies back to embers, leaving ashes that can still give off enough heat to light the kindling anew. It’s a constant process of rekindling, of gathering up the brokenness of our lives and asking the Holy Spirit to ignite us again. There is still heat in these embers, Church. A rekindled fire is possible, if we bring the tinder of our lives before God. May it be so. Amen.

What the Living Do: A Sermon after Watertown

As seen on Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown, where just 48 hrs before police with machine guns patrolled.

As seen on Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown, where just 48 hrs before police with machine guns patrolled.

“What the Living Do: A Sermon after Watertown”

St. James Armenian Orthodox Church, Mt Auburn St. Watertown MA

Sunday April 21, 2013 Memorial of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs

”Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” ~John 5:28-29

It was years after his body was in the grave before she wrote the words down. Marie Howe’s brother died in 1989, but it took years to write the words. It wasn’t far from here, just over the town line into Cambridge that Marie Howe had to wake up, brush her hair, and walk out the door of the apartment into that bright, clear New England sun after her brother died of AIDS. When she finally wrote down her experience, she wrote a poem in the form of a letter to her brother:

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

Her poem goes on…this is what the living do.

Many among us have been entombed this week: shut in our houses in Watertown and beyond, encased in grief and fear. Many are bound in their sleeplessness. Many were held fast by their work at a critical time- those who patrolled our streets, tended the wounded, guarded our safety, cared for our children, stayed up for 26 hours straight to report the news. We have been bound up, locked down, sheltered-in-place, held by this strange, harrowing series of events. We have been wrapped tight in our burial shrouds.

In the days after the Easter Resurrection of Christ, the disciples finally left that stuffy apartment in Jerusalem where they’ve been bound by fear and dread, where they had run out of milk and toilet paper. They venture outside, into a world utterly changed. The sun seems brighter, but harsher. The roads seem busier, but scarier. And they did what the living do. They walk along the road to Emmaus. They go fishing. They sit down for breakfast and try to comprehend their new reality.

This is what we Christians do. We are a people of the Resurrection. We are a people of Christ’s resurrection, and we cling to the promise that we will be resurrected too. We know that no grave can hold our bodies down. We’ve been here before. We know that story of a week that begins with a parade and ends with death. We know that buried Hallelujahs will eventually rise. We know that the curtain will open again to reveal to us the altar and the bread of heaven. We are the people who say death does not have the final say. You heard it in the gospel lesson this morning from St. John. Jesus says to them, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” We, who have been waiting in our houses watching the clocks tick away, are waiting to hear His voice. We are straining our ears that are burned with the sounds of sirens to hear the voice of God declare for us release.

We are the disciples who leave our apartments in Jerusalem after the shelter-in-place order is lifted. This is the practice of our resurrection. And even if you don’t feel it now, even if you don’t believe it now, this is what the living do. In the hours we were bound to stay inside, huddled around the television or the computer screen, strict New England gave way to early spring. While we were in doors, the early leaves came out on the trees. We step outside with the sky “a deep, headstrong blue,” to go to church, to drive to the grocery store, to go to school or work. This is what the living do.

And this is what your church did. In the midst of chaos of Friday, Fr. Arakel came to the church. He unlocked the thick wooden doors. He escorted the police in to inspect the church, to ensure that this sanctuary was still a place of peace. Your church. Your strong Armenian coffee powered the police who rested in your parish hall chairs. Your electrical outlets powered the phones of the first responders who texted back home to worried families. This place was a sanctuary not just to you who worship here today but to those who patrolled our streets just 48 hours ago. This is the practice of resurrection.

This is what the living do- the mundane, the ordinary acts of living that defy that which would entomb us. This is what the Armenian Genocide survivors did. They crawled from their tombs and rebuilt lives, alive but utterly changed. Their faith was an act of defiance. The raising of children, the singing of the liturgy, the baking of choreg, this is what the living do. This is what the living do to stay living after facing so much death. This is why we remember their names and their faith so that we might be alive too.

So this is what we do. We come to church. We walk outside. We practice normalcy knowing that it is not. You may not feel ready to venture far from home. Everything is not as it was. This week has utterly changed us. We are not going back to lives that are the same. Or normalcy has been interrupted. On Friday, synagogues stayed closed despite Shabbat prayers. On Friday, mosques stayed closed despite Friday prayers. Local Muslims here in Massachusetts have already been harassed, threatened and even beaten. Everything is not as it should be. Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Plaza is still part of the crime scene. They will worship at Temple Israel this morning, a Jewish synagogue that graciously opened their doors to a displaced people. Old South Church, United Church of Christ is still part of the crime scene. They will worship this morning at Church of the Covenant. The pastor, Rev. Nancy Taylor told the Boston Globe, “The last time Old South Church in Boston was closed for this long was in 1775, during the British siege of Boston.” This is not our life as usual. Our colleagues from the American Red Cross of Massachusetts gave me cards to share with you, with suggestions for how to cope after a time of disaster. They are in the back of the church. Take one as you leave. We have all experienced trauma this week. To be “Watertown Strong” or “Boston Strong” is to recognize when you need someone else to walk with you. To be among the living is to know that we need help to stay alive. Recognize that we do not run this race alone.

This week all began at the marathon, which now seems so long ago. This week, one of the hymns from the African American tradition has been playing in my mind. The songs of our faith has a way of tracing pathways in our minds, to follow well worn paths in times of uncertainty. For the enslaved, spirituals were a way to pass on the faith and defy the death around them.  And so you sang, even as you were running from those who would hold you captive.

I’m not the strongest singer in the world, that’s not why we sing. If you know it, join me. If you don’t know it, you are welcome to join me too. I’ll sing it twice. I know singing and clapping are not standard in an Armenian Orthodox Church, but consider it a gift from the wider body of Christ.

“Guide my feet, while I run this race. Guide my feet, Lord, while I run this race. Guide my feet, while I run this race, for I don’t to run this race in vain.”

In this time of uncertainty and fear, we cling to the sure promises of our God that we do not go on in vain. We tune our ear” for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out.” Even as we grieve, we will remain steadfast in charity, defiant in hope, practiced in forgiveness, and constant in prayer. This is what the living do. May it be so for you in the days ahead. Amen.

What if God is a sucker?

St. Jonh’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms

Lent 4, Sunday March 10, 2013

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable

11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

It was a war waged by Post-it notes. Three inch squares of pastel paper, with names scratched by blue ball point pens, each script a slight variation on Mrs. Hoffman’s third grade penmanship class. The pink Post-its were from Liz, the Yellow from James, the Green from Robert. There were Post-it notes on the backs of dining room chairs, on the box of silverware and the good china, on a painting of horses that no one much liked anyway. A house covered in grief and Post-it notes. Equally divided. But the problem with the cheap Post-its is that they don’t stick very well after that ½ inch of adhesive dries up. After a while, as the air grew stale and the casseroles stopped arriving, the names began to drop off and flutter to the ground. It’s nothing really, but when the pain is thick and tension high it’s much easier to accuse your sister of removing your name from the chandelier. A war of inheritance waged by Post-It Notes. “Give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” Let us pray…

 

This story is so familiar that it risks losing meaning, like a dish sponge wrung too many times; the grit to effect any change in us is almost gone. We know this text from Luke as “the Prodigal Son.” By naming the story that way, we make the younger son the central character. When this scripture lesson comes up for the Eastern Orthodox Church, people sign this hymn:

I have recklessly forgotten Your glory, O Father;
 And among sinners I have scattered the riches which You gave to me.
 And now I cry to You as the Prodigal: 
I have sinned before You, O merciful Father;
 Receive me as a penitent and make me as one of Your hired servants.

When the Orthodox Church hears this story, the people sing in the voice of the Prodigal. We are the ones that squander the treasure. We are the Prodigal Sons and Daughters. When Rembrandt paints “The Prodigal Son in the Tavern/Brothel” in 1637, it’s Rembrandt himself as the wayward son and his wife Saskia as the mistress. It’s an audacious claim that we are the prodigals.  Do we really sin that boldly? Prone to wander, yes, but to travel all the way to that distant country? And are we good people ever that tactless? The young son is so bold as to go to his father to ask for his inheritance, before the father has died. Not just a post-it note on an armchair, but a for-sale sign on the front lawn. It’s public. As a parcel of land is sold off, the whole town can see. And what of the mother? In this patriarchal society, this unseen mother would depend on her sons to care for her after her husband dies. The young son is embarrassing his father, making vulnerable his mother, and sticking his older brother with all the responsibility.

It’s March in Massachusetts, so I’m contractually obliged to make some reference to the Irish. Even the Irish folk song, “The Wild Rover” picks up this story with lyrics in the voice of the younger son:

I’ll have none of your whiskeys nor fine Spanish wines,
For your words show you clearly as no friend of mine.
 There’s others most willing to open a door,
To a man coming home from a far distant shore.

I’ll go home to me parents, confess what I’ve done,
 and I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son.
 And if they forgive me as oft times before,
 I never will play the wild rover no more.

In Luke, verse 17 begins “ But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father. “ We don’t know why he turns and heads home. Does he realize that he is wrong? Is he remorseful? Or there in the slop among the pigs and the corn cobs and the whiskeys and fine Spanish wines, has he hit his bottom. Is it utter desperation? Or does he realize he’d be better off at home. Is he scheming or has he hit bottom? In the end it doesn’t matter why he goes, which utterly violates the sense of order of those of us responsible ones.

It used to be that this story of the Prodigal Son came up in Ordinary Time.  But in 1992, the Revised Common Lectionary, which serves as a collaboration among divided Christian denominations to read the same Scripture texts together, placed this lesson in Lent. Our Sundays in Lent are little rests from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Placing the story here in Lent 4, shift the focus away from the penance of the younger son and towards the joyous celebration of the Father.

I don’t know about you good people, but I more often feel like the older brother. I stand with my arms crossed, brown furrowed as the older son, constantly silently judging and increasingly judging out loud. I believe in duty and responsibility as point of personal pride to be worn like Girl Scout merit badges.  I understand the older brother’s distress, the way this younger child violates my sense of order. I know of a young woman who sat with her arms crossed in a tiny kitchen. Every time, every time her heroin-addicted brother would return home, her mother would make him macaroni and cheese from a box. He would have stolen from the mother’s purse that very day, already pawned their dead father’s watch, and still: macaroni and cheese.  The cheese would barely be dried on the edge of pot before he would leave again. And still, she kept making it, perhaps with the vain hope that he would stay long enough for breakfast, stay safe and secure long enough to avoid the dread and dark of the night. Stay long enough to see the dawn. I know that cross-armed glare of a weary sister who wouldn’t mind someone cooking macaroni and cheese for her one of these days.

The older brother is right. He’s right! This extravagant feast for the wayward son messes with our sense of how we think justice works in the world. We believe that if you work faithfully and diligently, you get rewarded. You should get rewarded in proportion to your good works. You serve on the various committees, you garner praise.  Attend town meeting, get lauded as a model citizen. Recycle. Shoot, you even separate out your recycling! Donate every week and even something extra to the capitol campaign.  Shovel your sidewalk. Do what you are supposed to do. There is a simple formula. Work hard and responsibly, get what you deserve. We want someone to notice! That older brother is tired of being obedient; weary of being dutiful. Perhaps we are the dutiful ones.  Yet, the Prodigal Son and the extravagant father up-end our smug math.

This story fails our sense of order.  We expect acts of repentances first and then forgiveness.  The younger brother does none of that. We don’t even know if he’s sorry or just choosing the last road back from a desperate situation. The reformer Martin Luther believed that forgiveness comes before repentance, not after it. Luther insisted that pastors are required to give absolution without requiring acts of penance. We want the equation to work left to right, and it works right to left. We want an order for our operations. But in the economy of God’s grace, we dutiful humans cannot proscribe how and to whom God offers forgiveness. Underneath it all, we want to be rewarded for our good behavior and we want others to repent for their sins before they get to come to the party.

This whole family is a mess. One commentator renamed this “The parable of the dysfunctional family.” This father is a mess. To the younger son’s offensive request, he says “sure.” I once sat on an airplane with a mother and a young son. The young boy asked to have his kazoo back, the mother said sure.  The prodigal father hardly seems like a healthy model for parenting. If we said yes to every one of our children’s wishes, we’d be having cupcakes for breakfast everyday. The Prodigal Father lets is foolish kid run roughshod all over him, treat him like he was dead. He then rewards bad behavior with a party. He runs through the fields (not something a dignified landowning man would do at that time) to greet his son who may or may not be remorseful, but certainly is hungry. Undignified. At best this father is gracious, at worst, he’s a sucker.

If Jesus is telling this parable to show us something of the love of God, even for the least worthy, then the logical conclusion is this: What if God is a sucker? There is no good reason for the father to do what he does. He reward bad behavior. God so foolishly in love with us, so excited to welcome us home that God would do illogical things to welcome us to the feast.

This father invested in a son who put Post-It notes on his inheritance before his father had even died. This kid’s a bad bet. Either God is the world’s worst investor, or it’s an entirely different calculus. Not about winners and losers. Not about making a good bet. What was spent is utterly unimportant. Our sense of scarcity and duty reigns supreme. But God’s math is different. The audience for the parable are the religious skeptics anxious about the economy of grace: if grace abounds for sinners, then why would people behave well? Jesus isn’t interested in this, he’s telling the story of God’s crazy, stupid love.

That’s the invitation. We can walk through the door and join the feast. A ridiculous, illogical feast of fatted calf and macaroni & cheese, of cupcakes for breakfast. Maybe even the bread of heaven. The father said “All that I have is yours.” We can stand outside the party with our arms crossed, or we can walk in. That’s the invitation. May it be so for you this day. Amen.