Bringing People Together to do Good

Prophetic Prayer

After seemingly every tragedy that gets national attention, one colleague or another shows up in my social media feeds to remind us all that if we aren’t preaching about it that Sunday, we’re doing something wrong: “Preach with your Bible in one hand,” as Karl Barth didn’t quite say, “and your newspaper in the other.”

That’s always bothered me. It creates the temptation to respond to every current event before we’ve had time to reflect on it, or to twist scripture to suit our response to the news, or to preach on some narrow set of issues that we care about. And, of course, not every important event makes it to the news, and, especially these days, there can be too many things in a single week to fit into a single sermon.

As a preacher, I have a responsibility to preach the gospel to my congregation in love. Sometimes, that means preaching with my Bible in one hand and today’s news feed — who gets a newspaper anymore? — in the other. Other times, that means preaching on an event that happened weeks or months or years ago. Every Sunday is an opportunity to preach about being the church, protecting the environment, caring for the poor, forgiving often, rejecting racism, fighting for the powerless, sharing resources, embracing diversity, and loving God and our neighbors. And while that can include current events, it shouldn’t be dictated by them.

But I started thinking… what about prayers?

Prayers are well-suited to address current events responsibly, even before we’ve had the time to reflect on them and craft sermons around them. Prayers of invocation, prayers of the people, offertory prayers, and prayers of thanksgiving, give us the opportunity to bring tragedies (or blessings) to the attention of our congregations and ask our members to sit with them. We can — and should — take time each week to pray for those affected by the latest police shooting, school shooting, ICE raid, or other national atrocity. And we can — and should — take the time each week to pray for the people who cannot name, but who face similar situations every day.

Prayers are well-suited to address current events responsibly, even before we've had the time to reflect on them. We can — and should — take time each week to pray for those affected by the latest national atrocity. Click To Tweet

And then, when the time is right, we can bring what we’ve prayed about into the sermon.

I hope that my sermons are always prophetic, even if they don’t always address current events or the tragedy of the week. And I will have colleagues who will say that I’m doing it wrong and who will tell my congregation that they need to look for a church that takes these things more seriously. But I will also work to make my prayers more prophetic, and to help my congregation learn that prayers can be prophetic. And maybe that will even allow me to bring more of the world into the sanctuary and help the members of my congregation think more about how they respond to the joys and sorrows that surround us.

Again, from Above, of Water and Spirit

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when churches around the world — not just the United Church of Christ, but Catholics and Anglicans and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists — recognize and celebrate one of the great mysteries of our faith. We worship one God in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It is easily one of the hardest bits of our faith to grasp. If it sounds difficult and nonsensical, that’s because it is. It’s difficult and nonsensical and true. It’s one of those things about God that we just can’t get our heads around. It’s one of those things about God that we can’t understand. And I cannot explain it.

There’s a video that shows up on my Facebook feed almost every year around this time. I’ll post it on the website along with this sermon.

In it, two Irishmen named Donall and Conall meet St. Patrick. And they ask him to explain the Trinity. But, since they’re just simple Irishmen without fancy theological educations, they ask him to explain it in simple terms. With an analogy.

So Patrick starts this way. The Trinity is like water. Water is always water, but it can be a liquid or a solid or a gas. Water or ice or vapor. But Donall and Conall and quick to point out that he’s saying that there’s one God in three forms, not three Persons who are one God. That’s modalism. And it’s a heresy.

So Patrick switches gears. The Trinity is like the sun. There is the star and the light and the heat. But Donall and Conall correct him. He’s saying that the Father creates the Son and the Spirit and that they’re not coeternal and equal. That’s Arianism. And it’s a heresy.

So Patrick switches gears again. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. And Donall and Conall stop him before he even gets started. He was about to say that the Father and the Son and the Spirit are like leaves of a clover, different parts of one thing. But they aren’t different parts of God. They are God. Patrick was about to confess partialism. And that’s a heresy.

And they go around a bit more and Patrick finally gets fed up and says that the Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith. We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the essence, each person God and Lord, equal in glory and coeternal in majesty.

And Donall and Conall ask why he didn’t just say that to start with, with suggest celebrating their conversion by putting on big green foam hats and drinking too much.

And the Trinity really is that hard to get. I do have a fancy theological education and I spend time with this stuff. I can tell you about it. I can recite the mystery. I can say and believe that we worship one God in three divine persons. But I can tell you that I also don’t get it and I cannot explain it in any way that really satisfies me.

Which brings me to our reading from John.

In the other gospels, there’s a scene where a rich young man comes to Jesus and asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments. Keep them.”

And the rich young man says, “I have kept them since my youth.”

And Jesus says, “Then there’s just one more thing. Sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor and follow me.”
In this passage in John, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a teacher of Israel. And he doesn’t ask what he has to do to inherit eternal life, but Jesus tells him, anyway: You must be born again, from above, of water and spirit.

And where the other gospels are clear, that’s a little opaque. And Nicodemus is understandably confused. And Jesus is a little condescending about that.

“You’re a teacher of Israel,” he says, “and you don’t understand these things?”

But then he goes on, “I have been telling you what is true. I have testified to what I’ve seen. But you don’t get it. And if I’ve been telling you about earthly things and you’re not getting it, how are you going to get it if I tell you about heavenly things? Look, I know about heavenly things because I’ve been there. You’re just going to have to believe in me.”

Or something like that.

Now, I have had plenty of people ask me if I’m born again. I’ve had people encourage me to get born again. I have had people pressure me to say the sinner’s prayer and sign the back page of the pamphlet and be born of of water and spirit. And maybe you have, too.

And I gotta tell you. I’m kind of with Nicodemus here.

Now, I have had plenty of people ask me if I’m born again. And maybe you have, too. And I gotta tell you. I’m kind of with Nicodemus here. Click To Tweet

Now don’t get me wrong, I proclaim Jesus my lord and savior. I proclaim Jesus the lord and savior of the whole world. I have been changed by Christ and by the faith that I put in him. I sometimes even do my best to follow him. I repent on a regular basis. And I have confidence that he has saved me. And I kind of even know what I mean by that.

And, maybe, I’ve been born again, from above, of water and spirit. But I don’t know. Because I don’t know what that means. Should I have had a big conversion moment? Should I have passed through the dark night of the soul? Should I be able to point to the day and time and place that I was born again, from above, of water and spirit? Or can it be a gradual thing? A slow realization of what happened when I wasn’t paying attention?

And if I appear ignorant it is because I am ignorant. God is far bigger and more majestic than I can imagine. I see through a glass darkly, at best. There are a few things that I’m very confident about. But even though I am a preacher and a teacher in this congregation, I do not understand all of these things. If I appear ignorant it is because I am ignorant.

And that’s okay. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a reminder of that.

Isaiah was one of the great prophets. He was one of the big guys. And in the sixth chapter of his book, he receives a vision. He sees God, sitting on a throne, filling the temple, with angels attending him. And he says aloud, “Woe is me. I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and yet I have seen the Lord.”

Isaiah sees God and it is too much.

And an angel swoops down to him, holding a hot coal with a pair of tongs. And the angel puts the coal to Isaiah’s lips and tells him that his suit has departed and his sin has been blotted out.

And God asks, “Who shall I send? Who will deliver my message to the people?”

And Isaiah, with his coal stained lips, can say, “Here am I; send me.”

But even that doesn’t mean that Isaiah gets everything. What he gets is what God has given him. He has his message and his mission. And I bet that if you asked him to explain the trinity, he would be lost. And if you asked him if he was born again, from above, of water and spirit, he would just give you a confused look.

You see, it wasn’t given to Isaiah to understand all things. It was given to Isaiah to understand the message that he was to deliver.

And I think that the same is true of me and of you.

John Dorhauer, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, once said something like this. Denominations — you know, the United Church of Christ, the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and so on — denominations exist because people get together and say, “If not for us, this aspect of the gospel will be forgotten. This part of the gospel will be overlooked.”

And I think that something like that is true for each of us. We are not given to understand everything. We are certainly not given to understand everything about God. But we are each given to understand something. We are each carrying a little part of the Kingdom of God.

And, at the same time, we are not responsible for everything. It is not my job to create heaven on earth. It is not your job to realize the Kingdom of God. But we are each responsible for something. We are each carrying a little part of the Kingdom of God.

And when we come together — when we each bring our little piece to the table — we can join God in doing something amazing. We can see a new heaven and a new earth rise around us. We can see a new Garden of Eden blossom around us. We can see the Kingdom of God live within us.

And then, maybe, we will understand.

And when we come together we can join God in doing something amazing. We can see the Kingdom of God live within us. And then, maybe, we will understand. Click To Tweet

People Will Talk. There Will Be Stories.

Last week, I talked to you a little bit about Matthias.

After Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and crucified, after he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, the apostles were down one person. Judas, who had set the events of Holy Week into motion through his betrayal, wasn’t with them any more. And the remaining apostles decided to fill his seat with someone new.

So the community of believers nominated two people. And the apostles prayed and cast lots. And the dice landed a certain way. God said, “Matthias”. And suddenly this man was a leader of the early church. Whether he was ready or not.

And, while we don’t hear anything else about Matthias in the Bible, you may have noticed that there are stories and legends about him. Some say he went to minister in Cappadocia, some in what is now the Republic of Georgia, some in Ethiopia. Some say he died in Sebastopolis, some in Jerusalem. Some say he was stoned, some he was beheaded, some he died peacefully at home.

We don’t know the truth about Matthias. But we do know that people talked. There are stories.

And if that happened to Matthias…

Something similar is happening in today’s reading. Today is Pentecost. And every Pentecost, we hear this story.

The community of believers is all together when there is a rush of wind and tongues of fire appear. And the Holy Spirit enters the believers and they begin speaking in other languages. A crowd forms around them, and everyone in that crowd hears what the believers are saying — stories about God’s deeds of power — in their own language. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontusians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans… everyone hears the believers speak in their own tongue.

And some people in the crowd are amazed. “How is it,” they ask, “that we are hearing them speak and understanding them, each in our language? What does this mean?”

And a few of them say, “Eh, those people are drunk.”

And that’s weird. Think about that for a moment. Someone in that crowd hears the believers speaking and thinks, “Wait, those believers are Galileans, I am Phrygian, we don’t speak the same language, but I am understanding every word they say… they must be drunk.”

Someone in that crowd hears the believers speaking and thinks, “Wait, those believers are Galileans, I am Phrygian, we don’t speak the same language, but I am understanding every word they say… they must be drunk.” Click To Tweet

But I imagine that started spreading through the crowd. And while some of the people were amazed, others were saying, “Look at those people, they’re drunk. It’s nine in the morning and they’re filled with wine. What is wrong with them?” And a few of the people who heard that believed it. And they turned to others and said the same thing. And suddenly people were talking. There were stories.

And, I imagine, a few of the believers heard those stories. And they thought to themselves, “These people think we’re drunk! Maybe I should just be quiet. Maybe this strange spirit will leave me alone and I can be quiet and they won’t think I’m drunk and I don’t want them to think that.”

But then Peter stands up. Peter, who never quite got Jesus’ parables. Peter, who denied that he even knew Jesus during the crucifixion. Peter, who has sometimes been ill-prepared for his call and for life in general. That Peter. Peter stands up and says, “We are not drunk. It’s nine in the morning.”

And then he says this:

“In the last days it will be,” God declares, “that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

And suddenly we know why people were saying that the believers were drunk. Power does not like prophecy. Power does not like visions. Power does not like dreams. Because prophecy is almost never on the side of the powerful.

You can ask Dr. King, who was one of the most reviled men in America when he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. You can ask the kids from Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been called crisis actors and pawns. You can ask the folks who have protested police shootings of Black people, who are called thugs and dragged through the mud. You can ask countless, countless others.

And you can ask Jesus, who was betrayed and arrested and crucified.

Power hears prophets and says, “they must be drunk… they are naive… they don’t know how the world works… they are demanding the impossible… they are dangerous… … …crucify them.”

Power does not like prophecy; because prophecy is almost never on the side of the powerful.

And that can be scary. Because when the spirit shows up, it shows up. As a rush of wind or tongues of fire, or a tug at our hearts. Whether we’re ready or not. And it we listen to it, people will talk. There will be stories.

If we put up a rainbow flag, people will talk.

If we put out a Black Lives Matter sign, people will talk.

If we march for our lives, people will talk.

If we point out that residents in Flint, Michigan, are still being asked to drink bottled water…

If we tell people that the work requirements being added to Medicaid are set up to affect Black residents and exempt white residents…

If we wonder aloud why so many Palestinians were injured or killed while the United States opened a new embassy in Jerusalem…

If we say that it’s wrong to say, about anyone, “they’re not human; they’re animals”…

If we talk about yet another school shooting, one that brings the bodycount for students higher than the one for members of the military this year…

If we are wild and dangerous and full of grace, people will talk. There will be stories.

And, as an aside, I do know the examples I just gave. I’m sure a few of you will be talking about me later.

And that can be scary. After all, we are people. We all want other people to like us. We don’t want to hear someone say — about us — “they must be drunk… they are naive… they don’t know how the world works… they are demanding the impossible… they are dangerous… … …crucify them.”

But…

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul is writing to a church that he has never visited. He know that the church in Rome is struggling and suffering. And, oh, you should hear the things they were saying about the Christians in Rome. Oh, you should see the things they were doing to the Christians in Rome. And Paul reminds them that the suffering they are going through now is for a purpose.

You see, the whole of creation is groaning. It is in labor. And what is being made, what is being born, is amazing. It is nothing less than the kingdom of God. And while we can’t quite see it yet, all things are coming together for the good. And this suffering will be diminished to nothing by the glory of what is to come.

And if you want the challenge of being the church… if you want the challenge of following Christ… if you want the challenge of being filled with the Spirit… there it is.

If we are the church — if we are daring in our welcome; if we are wild, dangerous, and full of grace — then people will talk and there will be stories. And some people will say, “Who are these people? What does this mean?” And some people will say, “Eh, those people are drunk.”

And a few of us might say, “These people think we’re drunk! Maybe we should just be quiet. Maybe this spirit will leave us alone and we can be quiet and they won’t think we’re drunk and I don’t want them to think that.”

And maybe even I will say that. I’ll admit it. I want people to like me.

But that spirit is here whether we’re ready or not. When we don’t know how to speak, that spirit is speaking on our behalf. When we don’t know how to pray, that spirit is interceding with sighs too deep for words. When we don’t know what to say, that spirit speaks to us so that we may speak.

When we don’t know how to be, that spirit lifts us up and carries us.

That spirit — that very spirit that comes as a rush of wind and tongues of fire, that very spirit that brings prophecies and visions and dreams — stands with us.

When we don’t know how to be, that spirit lifts us up and carries us. That spirit — that very spirit that comes as a rush of wind and tongues of fire, that very spirit that brings prophecies and visions and dreams — stands with us. Click To Tweet

And, yes, being a spirit-filled people is scary. It might even be a little dangerous. People will talk. There will be stories.

But that spirit — that spirit that makes some people ask, “Who are these people? What does this mean?”; that spirit that makes some people say, “Eh, those people are drunk.” — is the Holy Spirit that is giving birth to a new world of justice and mercy and love that we can barely imagine.

And that is the spirit that will see us through to the other side. And that is good news.

Grace Sees Us Through

A week or two ago, I had a stress dream.

I was running late for Sunday worship. I couldn’t find any clean dress pants, so I threw on some jeans and a t-shirt and got in the car. And, in the dark, I started my drive to church. Now, in my dream, the road to church was long and winding and went through a cemetery and a small town.

And as I was driving through that small town, I saw a gas station. I looked at my gas gauge and — even though I was already late — I knew that I needed to stop for gas. And then, I looked at my clock… and I had forgotten about daylight savings time and it was already ten o’clock!

I was so, so late. And I was trying to think of how to walk into the end of the service in a way that wasn’t, y’know, completely embarrassing.

And then I woke up.

And I know dreams are never about what they’re about. But I think that this one was a manifestation of a really basic fear. A fear that most of us have. The fear that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m ill-prepared both for this call and for life in general, and that — at some point — I am going to mess up badly and be reliant entirely on the grace of God and this community to see me through.

Y’know… adulthood. And adolescence. And a fair amount of childhood. Being a person, really.

And, after that dream, I was happy to see this passage from Acts appear in the lectionary.

This story — this little bit of early church polity — takes place early in Acts. The background is simple: Jesus was arrested and crucified and buried. After three days, he rose. And, about forty days later, he ascended into heaven.

And this was set in motion by Judas, who betrayed Jesus. And it’s not surprising that, after that betrayal, he isn’t part of the community anymore.

But the eleven remaining apostles think that there should be twelve of them. There’s a seat empty. So they start the process of filling the position. The whole community of believers — about 120 people at that point — nominate two men: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias.

We don’t know much about either of these guys. We know that they were with the community from the time of Jesus’ baptism by John until he ascended into heaven. And that’s a weird thing to say, since none of the apostles were at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus didn’t start picking his disciples until after he had been baptized and spent forty days in the wilderness. But the point is clear, Joseph and Matthias had been with the community for a long time.

Beyond that, we know nothing. We don’t know if they were educated. We don’t know what their professions were. We don’t know what their families were like. We don’t know what their qualifications were.

But the apostles prayed. And they cast lots. And Matthias became one of the twelve. He became one of the leaders of the early church. All because the dice landed a certain away. All because God said, “Matthias.”

And nowhere in this story — nowhere in this example of how the early church chose leaders — does Matthias get a say in this. He doesn’t volunteer. He doesn’t campaign. He doesn’t give a speech to accept the nomination. No balloons come falling down. The dice land a certain way. God says, “Matthias.” And that’s it. God chooses Matthias, whether he’s ready or not.

And beyond that, we know nothing. We never hear about Matthias again. He doesn’t show up in the New Testament again. And even the legends and traditions are hard to reconcile. Sometimes, he goes to Cappadocia. Sometimes to what is now the Republic of Georgia. Sometimes to Ethiopia.

Sometimes he dies in Sebastopolis. Sometimes in Jerusalem. Sometimes he is stoned. Sometimes he’s beheaded. Sometimes he dies of old age.

We simply don’t know what he did… or where he went… or whether he was a good apostle. All we know is that the dice landed a certain way and that God said, “Matthias”. All we know is that Matthias was chosen.

And, from the rest of the Bible, we know what kinds of people God usually chooses. They’re not the most qualified. They’re not the best of the best. They’re not earth’s mightiest heroes.

What they are, often, are people who are ill-prepared both for their call and for life in general, who are entirely reliant on the grace of God and their community to see them through. They are, often, people more-or-less like us.

And while I’m not sure that casting lots is the best way to fill leadership positions, there’s something important happening here. There’s something that I think we can all understand.

Sometimes it goes like this. Something needs to be done. The community pushes a couple of people forward. Maybe they’re even people who maybe, possibly, could do the thing that needs to be done. And God says, “that one.” And, suddenly, we’re standing in front of the congregation… chosen. Whether we’re ready or not.

God says, “that one.” And, suddenly, we’re standing in front of the congregation… chosen. Whether we’re ready or not. Click To Tweet

And sometimes that thing that needs to be done is vacuuming the church, or getting communion ready, or providing special music, or leading a prayer, or reading scripture, or leading the time with young worshippers, or giving a sermon, or leading a meeting, or chairing a committee, or anything else.

And the fact is that the community doesn’t always push us towards the thing we think we’re good at. And God doesn’t always call us to the place that we’re ready to go. We just get chosen. Whether we’re ready or not.

And if that sounds scary… it is. And if it sounds amazing… it is.

And I know that because I’m standing in front of you this morning. And, if I can be a little vulnerable for a moment, sometimes I am scared. And sometimes I am amazed. And sometimes I am both of those things at once.

And while it might not sound like the greatest invitation ever, you can be, too.

This is one of the beautiful things about the church. In the church – in this community of people who strive to love each other as Jesus loved us – we don’t have to be afraid. We can rely on the grace of God and this community to see us through.

We can try new things… and grace will see us through.

We can heed God’s call… and grace will see us through.

We can be ill-prepared for for God’s call and life in general… and grace will see us through.

We can mess up badly…and grace will see us through.

We can heed God's call and grace will see us through. We can be ill-prepared for for God's call and life in general and grace will see us through. We can mess up badly and grace will see us through. Click To Tweet

And because grace will see us through, we don’t have to know exactly where we’re going. You see, just like we don’t know where Matthias went, there is no way he could have known where he was going.

He couldn’t know if he was going to Cappadocia, or what is now the Republic of Georgia, or Ethiopia. He couldn’t know if he would die in Sebastopolis or Jerusalem. He couldn’t know if he would be stoned or die peacefully at home. He couldn’t know what life would be like.

All he could know is that the dice had landed a certain way and that God had said, “Matthias.” All he could know is that he was chosen. And all he could do is rely on grace to see him through.

And we can walk forward – even when it’s scary – and know that God’s grace and the grace of this congregation will see us through. Even when we can’t find clean dress pants so we have to wear jeans and a t-shirt, and we have to stop for gas, and we missed the change to daylight savings time, and we are very late.

And we can rely on the God’s grace and the grace of the holy spirit even when it’s worse than that.

Hallelujah!

The Invisible Work of Being a Pastor

It was going to happen eventually… and it did. A member of my congregation made a small complaint, in passing, to my moderator, who passed it on to the pastoral relations committee, who passed it on to me. It wasn’t a harsh complaint. In fact, I’m not even sure I should call it a complaint. It was a question: What does he do? He’s only here a couple of half days a week.

Now, I think part of that question was a misunderstanding. It’s true that my official office hours are Tuesday and Thursday from around 9am to around 1pm. It’s also true that I am at the church on Sunday mornings (worship) and Monday evenings (meetings). And as programming picks up, I expect that I’ll add Wednesday evenings to that schedule. I also have not-exactly-office hours at a coffee shop or elsewhere on Wednesday afternoons and sometimes have random other events in the community. ‘Official office hours when I’m available for anyone to just drop in’ and ‘times I am at the church’ are not the same thing.

But I also think there’s a deeper disconnect here. The question that this parishioner asked is a common one. Every pastor has heard some variation of it. Sometimes, they’ve heard it as a genuine question. Sometimes, they’ve heard it as a complaint. But every pastor has heard it.

And the root of that question is in the fact that a lot of what pastors do is invisible to the people we serve. That’s nobody’s fault. It’s also common in a lot of professions (no one sees everything that their a lawyer, realtor, or financial advisor does). But, like other professions that have a public side and where a segment of the public has some authority over the people in it — professions like teachers, police officers, city construction workers, and others — people keep an eye on pastors. And it makes sense that they would be curious about what we (or, at least, I) do when they can’t see us.

So, what do I do? A lot.

I prepare worship services for every Sunday. That includes basic things like writing unison prayers, choosing hymns, and getting announcements together. It also includes the sermon. I estimate that between reading, researching, and writing, it takes me about one hour to write one minute of each sermon.

I attend meetings. I’m still pretty new, so right now I attend almost every committee meeting. I’m really hoping to get to a place where I have just a handful of committees that I have to meet with every month and where I can just check in on other committees from time to time. In addition to church meetings, I have various things in the community, especially meetings with organizations that would like to see my church get involved.

I visit people. Sometimes it’s in person, sometimes it’s over the phone. Sometimes it’s long conversations, sometimes it’s a quick check-in. Sometimes it’s at someone’s house, sometimes it’s at a hospital. This is one of the least predictable parts of my job, and it’s one of the most important. I am available to people.

I develop media. In my first couple of months, I’ve reclaimed the church’s social media channels, created a brand new website, and revamped our weekly e-newsletter. In addition to that, I create content. The most important pieces are writing newsletter articles and making sure that sermons get put on the website. But there are plenty of other little content projects that need attention.

I plan. Right now, I’m putting together a confirmation curriculum for our next program year. Soon, I’ll start planning a Wednesday night Advent program, followed by a Wednesday night Lenten program. I’m also planning a multi-stage visioning process (which I’ll be writing many newsletter articles and email updates about). And, of course, once things are planned, I’ll need to execute those plans. It’s a constant cycle of discover, dream, design, and deploy.

And I probably do a bunch of other things that I’m can’t even think of. And I spend time with my family, and maintain this blog, and do other non-work and work-adjacent stuff.

And the fact is that most of that is invisible. And I know it. No one is watching me write a sermon or choose hymns or create social posts or write a newsletter article or plan a curriculum or visit someone in the hospital or any of those other things. And that’s the way it has to be.

But it’s also an important reminder. Everyone is doing things that I don’t know about. Everyone has a life that is hidden from me. And some parts of that hidden life are wonderful. And some parts are miserable. And some parts are ordinary. But recognizing that other people have hidden lives and making room for them might just be the beginning of grace.

Everyone is doing things that I don't know about. Everyone has a life that is hidden from me. And recognizing that other people have hidden lives and making room for them might just be the beginning of grace. Click To Tweet

An Ever-Widening Circle

Previously, at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome, I preached on the beginning of the story of Peter and Cornelius. To recap, since it’s important:

Peter was an apostle of Jesus Christ. And he knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God.

But God had told a man — a gentile — named Cornelius to send men to Peter. And he did.

And to prepare Peter, God sent him a vision of unclean foods and told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And Peter knew that this vision and this statement wasn’t about food… it was about people.

So, when the men who Cornelius sent to Peter showed up, Peter went with them (even though they were gentiles) and went to Cornelius’ household (even though they were gentiles) and preached the good news to them (even though they were gentiles).

And now we’re here. But, like any other time when there’s a good ‘previously on…’, we’ll get to that later.

In today’s reading from John, Jesus is giving his disciples a commandment. With a catch.

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

Now, Jesus isn’t saying this as a king to his people… or as a messiah to his nation… or as a master to his servants… or as a teacher to his students… or even as a pastor to his congregation. He’s saying it as a man to his friends. He has shared everything with them. But now he’s getting ready to leave them and it’s hard and all he wants is for them to love each other as he has loved them.

Now, we are in the season of Easter. Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and we have heard the full story. We know that Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and crucified and buried. And we know that Jesus will rise. But this passage in John takes place before that. Jesus knows what is coming. And he knows that the disciples will rejoice in the resurrection. But he also knows that before they rejoice in the resurrection, they will mourn in the betrayal and arrest and crucifixion and burial. And he is preparing them.

What should they do when he’s gone?

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch.

“No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.” And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch. “No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Click To Tweet

You see, God loved the world like this. God sent his only begotten son into the world, as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

And Jesus loved us like this. He was that son. He laid down his life. He came into the world so that we might live through him.

And all he wants us to do is love one another like that. So… easy, right?

Now, I think we established early in my tenure here that I am a nerd. And we all know that my day off is Friday. Which is a perfect combination because a lot of new movies — like, for example, Avengers: Infinity War — open on Thursday nights. And so, at noon a couple of Fridays ago, I was sitting in an IMAX theater with my 3D glasses and popcorn-for-lunch. And I was watching the greatest superhero team-up of all time fight some super-villains over the fate of the universe.

And… I like to imagine myself among those heroes. It’s a bit of escapism. Maybe Chris Marlin-Warfield, mild-mannered out-of-shape pastor, could put on a silly costume and fight intergalactic evil.

I think all of use have those fantasies. At least a little bit. We imagine ourselves as heroes. We imagine that we would run into the burning building, or towards the gunfire, or right at the intergalactic evil. We imagine that we would win the day for justice and righteousness. Even if it meant sacrificing ourselves.

And that’s easy to imagine. It’s harder to do. And that’s okay. I’m not going to ask you to run into a burning building or towards the gunfire. Because I don’t think that Jesus is saying something as simple as, “be the hero who dies saving everyone else.”

But I am going to ask you to run right at the intergalactic evil. Because I think Jesus is asking us to do something much harder than being the hero who dies saving everyone else. I think he is asking us to be the the heroes who live for each other.

When we see someone who is hungry, to give them something to eat. When we see a stranger, to welcome them. When we see someone who is in prison, to sit with them. If only for a moment, to lay down our own lives, and help someone else carry the burdens of their own.

Because God loved the world like this. He came into the world as this man Jesus. He walked alongside us. He carried our burdens. He laughed with us and cried with us and healed us. He was with us. And he still is. And he always will be.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life — to lay aside one’s divinity and power and majesty — for one’s friends.

And that brings me back around to Peter and Cornelius.

You see, it is, in its own weird way, easy to lay down our lives for our friends. Our friends are exactly the kinds of people we would want to lay down our lives for. That’s why they’re our friends, right?

A long time ago, I was unemployed for a while and my friends helped me out. And when our friends have been down on their luck, Mariah and I have helped them out. It’s what friends do.

But God keeps expanding the circle of friendship.

When Peter delivers the good news to Cornelius and his household, God pours the holy spirit out on them. And the Jewish Christians who have come along with Peter were amazed. They couldn’t believe it. They knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God. And here was God pouring the holy spirit out on these gentiles.

God is widening the circle… and Peter sees it.

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,” he says, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

And they are baptized.

And… when Jesus is talking to his disciples — when he gives them that commandment — he tells them a deep truth. They didn’t choose him. He chose them.

And Cornelius did not choose God. And Peter did not choose Cornelius. God chose Cornelius and his household and poured out the holy spirit. God showed Peter that the circle of the chosen people was bigger than Peter thought. And I will insist that God has made that circle infinitely big. I will insist that God has chosen everyone. I will insist that the world is awash in the holy spirit.

And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.”

And Jesus loved us like this. God laid aside her divinity and her power and her majesty for a world that she loved and that was broken. And God came into the world as one of us and walked alongside us and carried our burdens and laughter with us and cried with us and healed us. God was with us in the person of Jesus the Christ. And God is still with us. And God always will be with us.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to let our love be an ever-widening circle. To love our friends. To welcome new people as our friends. To open ourselves up to new friendships. And to love those friends as Christ has loved us.

Or, to put that another way, Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to be the church. Hallelujah. Amen.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.” Click To Tweet

Compassionate Capitalism and the Odious Orphanage

Lately, I’ve been playing with an idea I call ‘compassionate capitalism’. This is the idea that we can use capitalism — an economic system where private parties own the means of production and operate them to make a profit for themselves — to solve big social problems like poverty. One example of this is Lumni, a for-profit business that provides money to low-income students so that they can pay for their educations. Lumni does not provide loans. Instead, it uses income sharing agreements. Lumni provides the money for an education, and the student agrees to give a certain percentage of her income to Lumni for a certain number of years. Investors make money by investing in social impact funds. Think of it as investing in a group of students. If that group, on average, gets jobs that pay well, then the fund is profitable and those profits can be paid out to investors. The students get an education that might otherwise not be available to them. The investors get to make a social impact that they believe in… and make a profit. Capitalism makes a positive social impact.

Charity skeptics really like compassionate capitalism, and both Dan Pallotta and Steve Rothschild are advocates. In fact, I first learned about Lumni from Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit.

But there’s an obvious potential problem here. In Lumni’s case, we should expect there to be a greater interest in educating people who will make large salaries (and who are, therefore, more profitable) than in people who make smaller salaries (and who are, therefore, less profitable). So if there is a student who will make a six-figure salary in supply chain logistics for an international corporation that uses Bangladeshi sweatshops, Lumni should be more likely to invest in that student than in one who will make a mid-five-figure salary rooting out corruption in local governments. To put it simply, capitalist markets only care about one value: profitability.

So, while it’s probably true that capitalism can be used to mitigate big social problems (as long as it’s reined in by other values), there no guarantee that it will be used to do that. And if you want some absurd dystopianism, here it is: a smart investor — who only wants to make as much money as possible — could invest in both sides of the equation. She could invest in the companies that cause social problems and the ones that work to solve them. In fact, a single company could work both sides, making profits on a vicious circle.

If you want some absurd dystopianism, here it is: a smart investor — who only wants to make as much money as possible — could invest in the companies that cause social problems and the ones that work to solve them. Click To Tweet

Which brings me to the odious orphanage.

Recently, I was told a story that was meant to illustrate why mission trips are… problematic. A lot of charity skeptics argue against mission trips on the basis that they feed voluntourism. Under this theory, mission trip volunteers tend to be more interested in the experience of helping than actually helping. And, of course, they’re willing to pay. So, for example, mission trip volunteers end up building a school that could have been built by local laborers (who also need the income). Another group of volunteers might paint the same wall that a group coming after them will paint, and that a group coming after them will paint. Or a group of volunteers might repair a house, but do such a poor job that the work just needs to be done again my professionals. In all of these cases and more, charity skeptics argue that it would be better to invest in local labor — often through loans or grants, not gifts — who could do this work.

The story that I was told involved an orphanage in a developing nation that had basically invested in the voluntourism model. It needed money, and it could get that money by charging wealthy westerners for the experience of coming to the orphanage and reading to the orphans. And, of course, the worse off the orphans were, the more they could charge the westerners for the experience. So the orphanage made sure that it kept the orphans living in squalor!

I have no idea if that story is true. But I do know that it’s not an indictment of mission trips. Mission trip volunteers who go to that orphanage to read to orphans aren’t doing anything wrong. At least, they’re not doing anything more wrong than buying clothes that were originally made in that Bangladeshi sweatshop I mentioned earlier, or a smart phone that relies on rare earth elements mined by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem in this story isn’t people wanting to read to orphans. It’s the mindset that makes the orphanage be willing to exploit those orphans in order to get money.

Now, that’s not exactly capitalism, but it’s capitalism adjacent. The same mindset is there. The odious orphanage is willing to abandon — or, at least, to downplay — other values in the interest of acquiring money. It’s a perfect example of why we need to make sure that capitalism is bound by higher values: even ‘compassionate capitalism’ that is trying to solve big social problems can wander into a perverted place.

We need to make sure that capitalism is bound by higher values: even 'compassionate capitalism' that is trying to solve big social problems can wander into a perverted place. Click To Tweet

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