What If We Didn’t Treat This as a Crisis?

Like a lot of progressives, I was upset to hear about Anthony Kennedy’s looming retirement. He was a conservative justice, but he was a conservative justice with principles. And, sometimes, those principles led him to rule in favor of people who were oppressed and suffering. Those principles made him a swing vote, and his vote on the Supreme Court made a difference.

Now, he has ceded his legacy to a reactionary Republican Party and the people who lead it. And I have no doubt that over the next generation the Court will chip away at reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, voting access, and dozens of other things that aren’t just items on the progressive agenda, but fundamental parts of a small-d democratic legal order. With this retirement, the Republican Party and the pseudo-conservatives who run it will have a huge influence on the direction of this country for a generation or more.

And, of course, if a question about whether a sitting president can be indicted comes before the Court, Donald Trump will have effectively chosen his own judge.

But…

A lot of my friends and colleagues are treating this as one more crisis in an increasingly long list of crises. That’s exhausting. Those of us who are progressive are running ourselves ragged trying to respond to event after event. And I think that might be the wrong response to this and, frankly, to the almost countless violations of democratic norms and subversions of democratic values that we’ve witnessed over the last year-and-a-half-ish.

Frankly, this isn’t a crisis. I’m not saying that because it’s acceptable. I’m saying it because it’s mundane.

Reproductive choice has been under assault since the day Roe v. Wade was decided. LGBTQ rights have been attacked the moment that each one was gained. People have fought to restrict voting since the first minority voter arrived at a polling place. And there are countless other examples of the attempt to deny rights to those who should have them and to roll them back once they are recognized.

The fact is that for a large number of Americans, the ‘crisis’ that I and my friends and colleagues are hyperventilating over today isn’t a crisis at all. It’s the way that the world is.

The fact is that for a large number of Americans, the 'crisis' that I and my friends and colleagues are hyperventilating over today isn't a crisis at all. It's the way that the world is. Click To Tweet

And we need to respond appropriately. We are not in a crisis that came from nowhere and can be solved over the course of a few protests or a few elections or a few court cases. We are living in the result of decades of meticulous work by the far right. And we need to respond in kind. We need to make the work of justice and mercy a part of our daily lives — yes, a part of our daily lives, not the whole thing — and recognize that this is not a sprint, but a relay. We will do some of the work. And our children and grandchildren will do some of the work. And untold generations will do some of the work.

Because the fact is that those small-d democratic norms and values are fragile things. Unless we guard them vigilantly, people who are entranced by wealth and power will break them.

Small-d democratic norms and values are fragile things. Unless we guard them vigilantly, people who are entranced by wealth and power will break them. Click To Tweet

As the saying goes, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Fear and Faith

I don’t play favorites. I don’t have favorite things.

If you ask me what my favorite food is, I will name every cuisine on the planet. If you ask what my favorite movie is, I’ll name ten or twenty, and they’ll be different movies on different days. If you ask who my favorite muppet it, it’s Animal… and Gonzo… and Rolf… and Dr. Teeth… and all of the others, too.

I don’t have favorite things.

So I don’t have a favorite scripture. When you’re a pastor, that question — what’s your favorite scripture? — comes up more than you would think. And I usually say that it’s Luke 4:18-19, the moment when Jesus is in a synagogue reading from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And that’s a good scripture, but it’s not really my favorite scripture. It’s just one of them.

And this scene in Mark is one of the others… because you can hear Jesus let out a frustrated sigh.

Let me set the scene. It’s night. Jesus and the disciples and some other people are on a few small boats crossing the sea, and a storm comes up. It’s only a windstorm, but still. The scene on every boat is the same. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and it’s being swamped. And they all know the stories. They all know the tragedies. This is how boats go down. They are perishing.

And in one of the boats, Jesus is in the back… asleep.

So the people in that boat run to the back and shake him awake, and they say, “Teacher, there’s a windstorm. The waves are beating against the hull and coming up over the side and it’s just a small boat and we’re being swamped… do you not care that we’re perishing?”

And Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to be still. Then — and this is where you can hear the frustrated sigh — he says to the people, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith? C’mon guys.”

And the people, missing the point, are awestruck, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

And I say they’re missing the point because the question they should be asking is, “Why are we afraid?”

Fear is one of the most basic emotions. We have all been afraid. We’ve all felt the flight response click on or stood frozen in terror.

And it isn’t just us. If you have a dog, you’ve probably learned to recognize the signs of fear: tail tucked and backing away; or turning to run while keeping the scary thing in view. Fear is built into us.

It is, maybe, a basic part of the world that God created. And, if it is, then — like everything else in this world — it is good… and it is broken.

There’s another sermon about when fear is healthy and when it’s not. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

For now, just remember this: there are different kinds of fear. Sometimes, fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose. A little bit of fear when you’re on the sea and a storm comes up can make you pay closer attention and move faster to protect your boat and your life. Fear can be a good thing. Fear can have a purpose.

But fear can also be a bad thing. Fear can distort love. A little bit of fear when you meet a stranger can harden your heart and make you put up walls. Fear can be a bad thing. Fear can distort love.

Remember that.

But…

Today’s Old Testament reading is from Job. According to the story, Job is a wealthy and righteous man. He has a large family, and thousands of camels and oxen and donkeys, and many servants. And he makes his sacrifices to God. He is blameless and upright. He turns away from evil.

Now, all of the beings in heaven come before God. And God brags about Job a little bit, about how he is blameless and upright and turns away from evil. And one of the beings of heaven says to God, “Well, of course he is. You protect him at every turn. Let me screw with him, and we’ll see if he remains blameless and upright.”

And God says, “Okay.”

And Job’s sons and daughters and most of his servants are killed. And his livestock is stolen. And he himself ends up with terrible sores all over his body and ends up sitting in ashes, scraping himself with a piece of broken piece of pottery. And it’s just him and his wife and his three friends.

And Job’s wife tells him to just die. And his friends tell him that he’s suffering because he sinned; even if he doesn’t know what sin he committed and even if he has always been upright and blameless. And Job… Job is fearless. Job pleads his case. Job demands an answer from God.

And today’s reading from Job is the beginning of that answer. And, if I can summarize a speech by God, it goes something like this:

I made an entire, huge, amazing cosmic order with seas and rain and snow and stars and constellations and lions and ravens and ostriches and hawks and behemoths and leviathans. And I’m not going to explain how it all works to you. I’m going to need you to trust that I know what I’m doing.

It’s easy for us to think that faith is about believing things: that God exists, that Jesus is the son of God, that something about the cross and the tomb and Easter morning saved us all. And when we think that faith is about believing things, it’s easy to think that the opposite of faith is doubt.

But the story of Job makes it clear that faith is about something else. Faith is about trusting God. And our story from Mark — our story about Jesus, on a boat, asking a question — makes it clear that the opposite of faith is fear: “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not.

And that adversarial figure from the beginning of Job has a point: it’s easy to trust God when things are going great. It’s easy to have faith when the seas are smooth. It’s harder to do when they’re not. Click To Tweet

And there are a lot of people telling us that they’re not. There are a lot of people telling us to be afraid. They are telling us to be afraid of immigrants and crime and guns and fascists and a thousand other things… and ideas… and people. And I am sure that some of us here are afraid. I’m sure that some of us here are running around our boat in a panic shouting, “we are perishing!”

A storm has come up. It can be overwhelming.

But… here’s Jesus, in the back of the boat, wondering why we’re running around, letting out a heavy sigh, and asking us, “Why are you afraid? Do you still not have any faith?”

And I want to say, “Yes. I’m afraid. There’s a storm upon us. It’s overwhelming. People are perishing. And it would be great if you would rebuke the winds and calm the sea, but that isn’t happening. And it would be great if you would answer me out of a whirlwind, but that isn’t happening. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on bailing the water out of the boat.”

You see, there’s another sermon about how Jesus will walk with us and everything will be alright by-and-by. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometime. But it’s not this sermon.

We live in a tension between fear and faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-yet-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, because it does. We act as though everything depends on us, because it does.

We live in a tension between fear & faith. We live in the world-that-is and the hope of the world-that-is-to-come. We pray as though everything depends on God, b/c it does. We act as though everything depends on us, b/c it does. Click To Tweet

But… here’s the thing. I don’t have a favorite scripture, but the one I return to again and again is that passage from Luke:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And I have faith, I really have faith, that as long as we are doing that work, we have nothing to fear. As long as we are bringing good news to the poor, as long as we are proclaiming release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, as long as we are freeing the oppressed and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor, we have nothing to fear. We might have that little tickle in the back of our minds that makes us pay closer attention and move faster. But we have nothing to truly fear. Because when we are doing that work, God is with us.

And, more importantly, we are with God, who is always right there, in the back of the boat, telling us that we have nothing to fear. But we do have work to do. Amen.

God or a King?

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no sermon today. Instead, here’s a classic from way back in 2012. I think I preached this at a Mennonite church in Ohio, but I don’t remember where.

One of the great themes of Israel’s history — one of the great themes of human history — is the choice between the the divine and the earthly. This is easily seen when it comes to idolatry in worship. Israel is constantly tempted to worship the gods of its neighbors, or worship natural creatures or worship objects made by human hands; and Israel repeatedly falls to that temptation.

It’s important to remember, though, that idolatry isn’t something that just happens in worship or on holidays or on sabbaths or on Sundays. God is not confined to the temple or the church. God is God everywhere and all the time.

And the Israelites’ first allegiance, before all other allegiances, was to be to God… every minute of every hour of every day regardless of where they were or what they were doing.

And what is happening here is not just a request for a king, but the facing of a choice: will Israel remain unique among the nations, ruled by God and God’s chosen, or will it become like other nations ruled over by a human king?

Let me back up a bit in this story, because I think most of us probably think of Israel as a nation that is sometimes a kingdom — after all, we know the names: Saul and David and Solomon and so on — and sometimes living in exile under some empire or another: Assyria, perhaps, or Babylon. We tend to think of Israel as having a king chosen by God or having some other king forced upon them by an oppressor.

But, as this story brings to light, there was Israel before there was Saul.

For generations, Israel has been ruled by people we call ‘judges’. You might recognize a few of the names – Deborah, Gideon, Samson – but others are probably, at best, forgotten: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Tola, Jair and so on. These, too, were rulers of Israel.

Israel repeatedly goes through this cycle: they would turn to other gods, they would fall under the rule of some foreign king, they would remember God and cry out and God would call forth someone to lead them to freedom. This someone was a judge. And the judge might simply liberate the Israelites and be done, or the judge might liberate the Israelites and rule over them for a time. And when the judge died, that was it: children did not take over, there were no dynasties, Israel returned to being a people with no king or chieftain but God.

And, of course, in due time, the cycle would repeat itself.

Samuel is the last judge of Israel. And he is the last judge of Israel in a time when the idea of the judge is losing credibility. Before Samuel, there was a priest named Eli who, more or less, ruled Israel. And while Eli wasn’t so bad as a priest, his sons “had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” God ends up killing Eli and his sons and installs Samuel as judge over Israel.

And when Samuel grows old – despite having known what happened with Eli and his sons – he appoints his own sons as judges over Israel. And they, like Eli’s sons, are not good leaders: they “did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.”

Eli and Samuel have themselves planted a seed of kingship.

And now we return to where we came in. The people of Israel are faced with a choice: will they continue to be set aside as a nation ruled by God and God’s chosen or will they become like other nations ruled by a human hand?

And the answer is obvious: Israel wants a king.

There are moments in scripture… where you can hear the heavy sigh of the divine:

And the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.”

The people, in short, are just committing another kind of idolatry. It’s a sin that God seems to have grown used to.

So Samuel gives a warning to the people: A king will be terrible, he will take all of the best of Israel for himself and he will fulfill his own desires and you will end up as his slaves and you will cry out to God because of this king – who you chose – and you’re going to be stuck with him.

It’s a little bit ‘throw up your hands’, isn’t it: “That’s how you want to live your life? Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you and don’t come crying to me.”

And Israel chooses a government not of God, but of human hands. Call it ‘political idolatry’.

It’s not a new thing for Israel.

And it’s not just an old thing for us.

I’m a member of the United Church of Christ. I was born and raised in that denomination and that, as it took me a long time to learn, isn’t a terribly common thing. We’re still a pretty young denomination – fity-five this year – so the older folks in our denomination came from one of our predecessor denominations. And even among the younger folks, most people come from somewhere else. They were raised as Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics or what have you.

But I was born and raised in it. So I grew up in a culture where democracy is everywhere and the wisdom of crowds in trusted and every issue was settled with prayer and study and discussion and debate and, eventually, a vote. I was taught that God works – often very slowly – through crowds.

I can tell you that I sympathize with the Israelites. Sometimes a king would be nice. Sometimes I envy those churches where the pastor is just in charge. I like the idea of someone just being able to pick a hymnal, rather than having – true story – eight years of discussion to reach a decision. I like the idea of the pastor just being able to say that there will be no American flag in the chancel rather than – again, true story – “send it out for cleaning” and have it “be lost”.

There are certain advantages to having a king… when the king is good.

I also grew up in a household where politics was important. I suspect that the political life of our church – and by that I mean the liveliness of debate, not necessarily particular positions – fed our involvement in secular politics and vice versa. And I still consider politics important. I still follow debates and conventions and commercials and polls. I still stay up on election night following the returns and reacting to the calling of states like sports fans react to the calling of fouls. I love it. And I believe that this community life – arguments and debates and votes and protests – can really make the world a better place.

But it is easy — and I think we’ve been seeing this in American politics the last few years and were probably seeing it long before I was born; horrible pamphlets against John Adams by Americans for Washington — to lose sight of God and become convinced that the most important thing ever in the history of the world is party or platform or candidate or ideology. It is easy to let ourselves put all our faith and hope in creaturely politics and forget about – or at best give lip service to – the one to whom our ultimate allegiance is supposed to belong.

And that’s not just true in national politics or state politics or local politics. It’s true in office politics and church politics and all of those creaturely, human systems that we’ve created to get through the day-to-day.

Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine.

So we, like Israel, are always faced with this question: do we chose divine leadership or human leadership? God or a king?

Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine. So we are always faced with this question: do we chose God or a king? Click To Tweet

Well, we’re in a church, so we know the answer, right? When faced with the choice between God and pretty much anything else, the correct answer is… God. That’s right.

God or ice cream? God.

God or a new car? God.

God or untold riches? God.

God or a king? God.

It’s simple.

But it isn’t easy.

When Israel chooses to have a king, they are saying that God will not be king over them and God’s chosen won’t necessarily rule over them. But God’s chosen don’t disappear. Samuel doesn’t leave. Saul can take counsel from Samuel. And David can take counsel from Nathan. And the kings who come after also have prophets, chosen by God, to counsel them… whether they want it or not. Kings may make their proclamations, and God…

Well, as the UCC is fond of saying, God is still speaking.

God speaks through prophets. God speaks through apostles. God speaks through a pastor from Atlanta and a woman who won’t sit at the back of the bus and people marching on the national mall. God speaks through protestors in front of statehouses and crowds chanting along streets and people standing in silence on college campuses. God speaks through letters to the editor and blog posts and tweets. God speaks in the strong voice of the great orator and in the small voice of the child who stands up for what is good. God speaks in the misery of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.

Where there is love, God speaks.

Where there is mercy, God speaks.

Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks.

Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks.

Where there is love, God speaks. Where there is mercy, God speaks. Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks. Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks. Click To Tweet

Kings were chosen long ago. And we keep choosing them today.

We might call them presidents or prime ministers or bosses or supervisors or what have you, but they are still there: power structures that we created with human beings — and all the difficulties that entails — sitting atop them. And some are good and some are bad. And more often some are simply better and some are worse.

But we are not without God. And we are not without God’s chosen. We still have our Samuels and our Nathans. And the beauty of how God works, is that God can choose anyone at anytime or even everyone at every time… and God can choose us to speak or to listen.

And if we listen – if we open our ears… if we ask and we seek and knock – then we can hear God’s call to peace and grace and love and life abundant. And if we wish, we can follow that call. And if we follow that call, we can speak to all those kings and call them to come with us.

And that is good news.

Blood on Our Hands, Grace in Our Veins

Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld novels. The world that they’re set in is reminiscent of fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, and Pratchett riffed on the tropes of those worlds to bring humor into a setting that is often far too dry to be believable. And while the early books rely on medieval stasis (e.g., some alchemists may invent movies and threaten to awaken an eldritch abomination, but everything goes back to ‘normal’ in the end), later books see change come to the Discworld. Personal digital assistants (powered by imps), network communications (via semaphore towers), printing presses, and other technological wonders were slowly changing the Discworld before Pratchett died in 2015.

In Going Postal, Pratchett introduced Moist von Lipwig. Moist is a conman and charlatan whose death was faked by the ruler of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork so that he could be recruited to revive its postal system. Since this is a fantasy novel, a golem parole officer has been assigned to him. They have this memorable exchange (Mr. Pump capitalizes the first letter of each word, even in speech, and pronounces Moist’s last name with a ‘v’ instead of a ‘w’):

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” shouted Moist. “You can’t just go around killing people!”

“Why Not? You Do.” The golem lowered his arm.

“What?” snapped Moist. “I do not! Who told you that?”

“I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People,” said the golem calmly.

“I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be — all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!”

“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”

And I’ve been thinking about that, lately. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

Pacheco was a high schooler in Des Moines, Iowa. He had been brought from Mexico to the United States when he was three years old. He was undocumented. He was protected by DACA. He was a DREAMer.

But last fall, he was stopped for speeding and arrested for driving under the influence, an immigration judge revoked his DACA status for misdemeanor offenses, and he was arrested as an undocumented immigrant by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was given a choice: be deported and take all of the penalties of a deportation, or ‘return’ to Mexico voluntarily. To avoid the penalties and leave the possibility of returning to country he grew up in open, he chose the ‘voluntary’ route.

He was escorted to Mexico by ICE. Then he was murdered.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame for his murder on the people who slit his throat, whoever they may be.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame on ICE and the administration that empowers it. They may not have known that Pacheco would be killed, but they knew that they were deporting him to a country with a murder rate nearly four times that of the United States (thought Des Moines has a surprising amount of crime). Even if he hadn’t been killed, ICE knew that they were sending him to a place where life would have been harder, and in a myriad small ways they were hastening his death.

And it’s harder — but no less right — to put the blame on everyone who participated in the process, and on everyone who failed to stop it. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people have a share in the death of Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

And before we get complacent and say that at least we have nothing to do with it, all of us have hastened a few deaths and hardened a few lives in a myriad small ways over the years. All of us have a share in some slaves, all of us have a share in some murders, all of us have blood on our hands.

Moist von Lipwig killed 2.338 people. I don’t know how many I’ve killed. But the fact is that I have some repenting to do. So do you. So do all of us. Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not.

Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not. Click To Tweet

But maybe the opposite is true, too. Maybe we’re also caught in webs of grace, whether we know it or not.

Last year, I quoted a post by Addie Zierman, where she wrote this about giving what seem like small gifts:

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

The fact is that most of us are not murderers or robbers or human rights violators, even if we have a share in murders and robberies and human rights violations. And the fact is that most of us aren’t heroes or great philanthropists or life-savers… but we also have a share in heroism and philanthropy and saving lives. Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn’t get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters.

Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world.

Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn't get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters. Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world. Click To Tweet

But I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t think these balance out. I don’t think that every share in kindness counts against a share in death so that doing one cancels the other. Morality isn’t a balance scale, and it’s not so nice and mechanical. Doing something nice doesn’t get us off the hook. Plus, that’s the kind of thinking that can lead to scrupulosity, and that would be a bad thing.

Second, we need some bigger kindnesses. I’ll admit that I haven’t done my part. But we need more people to stand up for immigrants like Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco. We need more people to stand against gun violence, sexual harassment and assault, mass incarceration, and the myriad other ways we hasten the death of others.

The fact is that we have a lot of work to do to get the blood off our hands and share the grace in our veins. Let’s get to it.

Blasphemy!

The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. They know that he’s a threat to the social order. They want him gone. They want him discredited. And they have a plan.

You see, Jesus has been going around healing people and casting out demons. Last week, we heard a story about Jesus restoring a man’s withered hand. And since then, he has been curing diseases and exorcising demons. And he has gathered disciples and given them the authority to cast out demons. And it all looks a little strange.

And now he’s at home. And the scribes from Jerusalem are spreading rumors. “He’s gone out of his mind,” they’re saying, “he is casting out demons using authority given to him by the king of demons.”

Even his family wants to hold him back. These rumors are bad for their reputation.

And Jesus responds with this: A house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan isn’t going to go around casting out his own demons. If he does that, he’s just fighting against himself and his days are numbered. No, this is not the work of the devil. And I’ll tell you what. All of your sins and blasphemies can be forgiven, except… blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin. There are no backsies.

Now, we’re good mainline Protestants. We don’t talk about sin very much. But we just had a baptism, an outward and visible sign of the grace of God, a outward and visible sign of the forgiveness of sins. So let’s walk out of our comfort zone a little bit. Let’s talk about sin.

In today’s reading from Genesis, the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden have just eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A talking snake offered it to the woman, who took it and ate it. And she offered it to the man, who took it and ate it. And now they know things they didn’t know before.

And they know that they are naked. And they are afraid. And when they hear God walking through the Garden, they hide. And that tips God off. “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree?”

The man confesses his crime and blames the woman. The woman confesses her crime and blames the snake. And the snake — who earlier was pretty chatty — says nothing.

So God curses the snake. And God curses the woman. And God curses the man. And God curses the earth. The whole world breaks. That’s part of sin. My sin isn’t just between me and God. It makes the entire world a little bit worse. It takes the entire world a little bit farther away from the world that God created.

Sin is personal: I sin. But sin is also systemic: it hurts everyone. And that matters.

Sin is personal: I sin. But sin is also systemic: it hurts everyone. And that matters. Click To Tweet

When I was in college, I hung out for a while with a group that was not-so-affectionately known as the ‘turbo Christians’. They were deeply conservative evangelicals, but they were the only Christian group on campus and there was this girl and you know how things are when you’re eighteen.

The turbo Christians knew about sin. There were lists of sins. There were books about sin. I remember reading something about Christian dating and the deep importance of keeping four feet on the floor at all times; because while not doing that might not be a sin in and of itself, it was a temptation to sin. Sin loomed large in the turbo Christian imagination.

We’re good mainline Protestants. We don’t talk about sin very much. Turbo Christians talked about sin a lot. And they talked about the personal side of sin a lot. They told me that my sin was between me and God. And God was very angry with me about it.

And I had to repent.

And I got worried. Really worried. I was repenting constantly. Because, let’s face it, I sinned.

But… the turbo Christians seemed so unconcerned with the systemic side of sin. If they saw starving people in Africa, they would tell them to repent and be saved. But no one would preach about the sins that kept food from them.

Now, I’m not saying this to cast blame or say someone is wrong. I probably focus on systemic sins at the expense of personal ones. I probably need to spend more time confessing my own sins. And others focus on personal sins at the expense of systemic ones, and probably need to spend more time confessing that they hold up an unjust order. We all have things we’re not repenting of.

We are all sinners, every one of us, including me. We are all hurting God though our sins, every one of us, including me. We are all hurting our friends and neighbors through our sins, every one of us, including me. We are all hurt by the sins of our friends and neighbors, every one of us, including you.

We are all hurt by our own sins, left naked and afraid, trying to hide, knowing that we will be found out.

But… there’s good news. There’s always good news.

After God tells the man and the woman about how their sin has cursed the world, God sends them out into that world. But before God does that, God makes clothes for them. They might be afraid, but they are no longer naked. And throughout the Bible God will keep showing up and saying, “Don’t be afraid.” God will keep comforting and forgiving and saving. Again and again.

And that brings me back to this story from the gospel. This story where the Pharisees and scribes are plotting against Jesus. This story where rumors are going around.

“Truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.”

There is always forgiveness. There is always healing.

But Jesus goes on, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

That doesn’t sound good. In fact, several years ago, some atheists on the internet — you know, the opposite of turbo Christians — decided to show how serious they were by recording themselves ‘committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ and posting it to YouTube. They got on camera and said things like, “I don’t believe the Holy Spirit exists” and “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit”.

Fortunately for them, that’s not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Saying “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit” is like saying “I want to say thank you” instead of “thank you”. It’s like saying “I apologize” instead of “I’m sorry”. It’s talking about the thing instead of doing the thing.

Where the scribes in this story messed up is that they saw Jesus healing people and attributed his power to the devil. They saw Jesus doing good and called it evil. And I want to be clear, I still don’t think they committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

But, maybe, they got a little closer.

You see, we commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit when we knowingly and with malice see the work that the Spirit is doing in the world and call it evil. When we become so depraved and so lost that we truly and deeply believe that comforting and forgiving and saving, that healing and caring and loving, are evil. It’s a pit so deep that we cannot see the light at the top.

And I don’t think for a moment that it’s even possible for us to get that far away from God.

I believe that even the most hardened among us, even the most villainous people in history, even the most depraved humans in the world, still have a conscience that pulls them towards God. I believe that even when we are in the deepest pits of despair about our own self-worth, we can still see the light of Christ. I believe that even when we are naked and afraid, hiding and worried about being found out, God is waiting with a needle and thread to clothe us and comfort us.

Even when we are naked and afraid, hiding and worried about being found out, God is waiting with a needle and thread to clothe us and comfort us. Click To Tweet

That is the good news that we preach, and the good news that we live out, that as long as even the smallest part of you longs to be made whole, God is there for you.

Today, we welcomed Kaelyn into our church family through the sacrament of Christian baptism.

Now, baptism has many promises. We baptize as an outward sign that God has promised to forgive sins, and that God will keep that promise. We baptize as a way of promising that we will always be here for her, even if she wanders off to find where demons dwell. We baptize as a reminder of our baptisms, and the fact that we always stand in need of forgiveness.

And we baptize as a reminder that we have a superpower. We can forgive each other. We can make clothes for someone who is naked and afraid, we can sit with someone in the pit of despair, we can point people towards a God and a community that stands ready to accept them. We can tell the world (and each other) that no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or where you are on life’s journey, you are so welcome here, as a friend and neighbor of Jesus Christ.

We can tell the world (and each other) that no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or where you are on life’s journey, you are so welcome here, as a friend and neighbor of Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet

And that is good news. Amen.

On the Death of Anthony Bourdain

I woke up this morning to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths. Robin Williams’ hit me, and I always feel a moment of sadness for the friends and families of those who have passed, but celebrities are — almost by definition — people I do not know. I know of them. I know about them. But I do not know them.

But…

A lifetime ago, I was a cook in a good restaurant in a sleepy college town. My chef recommended Kitchen Confidential to me. And I devoured it. I wasn’t planning on cooking as a profession. Like many people in restaurant kitchens, it was something I was doing to bide the time while I waited for the next thing to come along. Cooking for other people was what made things like eating, drinking, and living indoors possible for me. Reading Bourdain’s book didn’t change that.

But was there any young cook — professional or not — who didn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain? A rising star sure, but also a well-loved scoundrel and a damn fine cook? Even if we didn’t live that life, we knew it… at least a little bit. I never did cocaine off a cutting board, but I was part of the kitchen culture of yelling and teasing and swearing and drinking too much. And I know that there were other people in that restaurant who were doing far worse things. We were all embroiled in the simple self-destructive behaviors of a kitchen. And those behaviors were, in a strange way, done in the service of making something beautiful. That steak tip pasta has just a few ingredients, but one of them is a little bit of zest from the soul of the person who cooked it.

And here was Bourdain, putting that life — and so much more — into words. He wrote with the same visceral intensity that he cooked with. He made it look like he must have picked over each word with great care, like a tv chef at a farmers market carefully inspecting every apple and asparagus before putting it in the basket. But I suspect that it was a little more like the kitchen life he wrote about: careful and hurried all at once, an ounce of linguistic sauce covering a multitude a sins.

I didn’t follow him much after I left the restaurant. I caught occasional interviews and episodes of A Cook’s TourNo Reservations, and Parts Unknown (did anyone watch The Layover?). I saw the other side of the cook. The gastronome, yes, but also someone who just loved food. It didn’t have to be fancy. It just had to be good. And ‘good’ was a big category, ranging from mom’s homemade meatloaf to weird stinky cheeses to cobra heart. His work was a reminder that we are all united by food — by that need to consume something else — even if some of us wouldn’t even entertain the idea that what some of the rest of us eat qualifies as food.

As I said at the beginning, I was a restaurant cook a lifetime ago. Since then, I’ve worked plenty of odd jobs. But, mostly, I’ve been a student, a fundraiser, and a pastor. Some of my favorite images from the Bible are of food. The feast of rich foods and well-aged wines at the end of days, the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, the fish that he shared with a few of them after his resurrection, the fruit of the tree of life in the book of Revelation. The Bible is full of reminders that God feeds us, and that we imitate God when we feed each other… especially when we feed those who do not have enough to eat.

Tony — if I can call him Tony — Tony’s life and death is a reminder of things that unite us all. He completed suicide at the age of 61, a sad reminder of the fragility of human life. Even a successful celebrity chef who gets to travel the world and eat great, and occasionally disgusting, food can be broken broken enough to end his life. And if that’s true for him, then it is also a reminder that everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about.

Everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please 1-800-273-8255. Click To Tweet

But those 61 years are a reminder of something else, as well: food can bring us together. Our way out of that brokenness can include the small kindness of sharing a meal, of being at a table together with friends and family and strangers, of breaking bread or weird stinky cheese or cobra heart together. In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company.

In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company. Click To Tweet

As a Christian, I have faith that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I don’t know what is next for Tony, but I entrust his soul to God. And I will choose to believe that he has pulled a chair up to a great table and is enjoying a feast of rich foods and well-aged wine, of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.

Go in peace, chef.

Rest is a Right

Rest is a right. I want you to remember that. And, more than that, if we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, rest is one of them. Rest is a right.

It’s right there in the Bible: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy. Set it apart. Six days you can do all of your work, but the seventh day belongs to God. And you shall not do any work on that day. And not just you. Your children, your servants, your livestock shall not do any work. The foreigner who lives among you shall not do any work.

And do you know why? Because you were slaves… and God saved you.

And let’s be clear. The author of Deuteronomy does not mean that you have six days to work at your job and one day off to do all of the other things you need to do. Six days healing or teaching or farming, and one day to clean the house and shop for groceries and take the car into the shop and mow the lawn and all of the other things that have to happen.

No. Six days to labor and do all of your work. One day that is holy and set apart.

Rest is a right. I want you to remember that. Rest is a right.

We live in a society that celebrates busy-ness and productivity and hustle. We come in early and skip lunch and stay late. And when we’re not at our job, we’re at our side job. And if we don’t have a job that pays the bills, we have two jobs or three jobs. And if we’re parents, we have a host of activities to help our kids get ahead. And it we’re kids, we have an endless parade of homework and test prep and extracurricular activities.

And, too often, we forget about that sabbath. We get up early, we go to bed late, we live in a fog of stress.

We forget that rest is a right. Rest is holy. Rest is sacred.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the grain fields. The disciples are hungry, so they start plucking heads of grain from the stalk and suddenly they’re doing work: they’re making a path through the grain, they’re harvesting a little of it. And the Pharisees see this. And they ask Jesus why his disciples are breaking the sabbath.

And we might think that’s a bit much. But I respect the Pharisees for that. They took the sabbath seriously. For six days you can do all of your work, but the seventh day belongs to God. And that matters. Everyone had a day off. Everyone had a day to rest. Everyone had a day that was holy and sacred. Everyone had a sabbath.

It was enforced. There was a law.

But Jesus does that thing that Jesus does. He one-ups them. He reminds them of this story about David.

In this story, David wasn’t the king of Israel yet. Saul was. And Saul knew that David was a threat to his rule. So David was on the run.

On the sabbath, David went to the priest and… lied to him. He said that he was on a mission from Saul and he had an appointment with some men, but… well, do you have any bread?

Now, the priest only had the bread of the presence. These were special loaves that were made and placed on a special table in the sanctuary of the temple. There always had to be twelve loaves on the table and the loaves stayed there for a week. On the sabbath, the priests would make new loaves for the table, and take the old loaves for themselves. And the priests — and only the priests — could take those loaves and eat them in a holy place. There was a law.

But the priest didn’t skip a beat. He made sure that David and his friends were ritually pure — this was holy bread — and then he gave it to David.

And Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You see, the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. The son of man is lord even over the sabbath.”

And the Pharisees aren’t quite convinced. They keep an eye on this Jesus fellow.

So Jesus goes to the synagogue. When he gets there, he meets a man with a withered hand. And the Pharisees are watching to see if he will heal that man. They know he can do it; there is no question about his power. But it’s the sabbath. There is a law.

And Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath? To heal? Is it lawful to do harm on the sabbath? To kill?” And then he answers his own question by healing the man.

You see, God created the world out of love. God set apart the sabbath to give us rest. And rest — true, deep, honest, joyful rest — is found in communion with God. In a world that is broken, a world of work, a world of drudgery, a world where we eat our bread by the sweat of our brow, a world of things that just need to get done, the sabbath sets apart that time to… just be.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred.

But… two things.

First, like all things that are holy and sacred, sabbath is best when it is shared. The sabbath is most the sabbath when everyone can enjoy it. And that means that it is always lawful to do good on the sabbath or any other day. It is always lawful to give someone else the chance to enjoy that holy and sacred time a little more. By giving them the bread of the presence or by healing a withered hand.

Or by fighting to make sure that no one has to work every day of the week, and that families have affordable child care, and that our young people have the free time to be young people.

Second, like all things that are holy and sacred, we can make the sabbath into work. We can make it into a list of things that we should do and things that shouldn’t do. But the sabbath doesn’t work like that. It is a time for that communion with God, a time to just be. And if God calls you through a field, make a path. If God calls you to eat, pluck the grain from the head. If God calls you to give, give. If God calls you to heal, heal.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. So be holy. Be sacred.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. So be holy. Be sacred. Click To Tweet

Now… I know I’m supposed to say something about how the best way to honor the sabbath and keep it holy is to come to worship. And I do hope that worship is part of your sabbath. I hope that you find true, deep, honest, joyful rest in worship, or at crafty stitchers, or with the Lions Ladies, or with a youth group, or in a committee meeting, or in fellowship, or somewhere else in this church.

But I also think that worship is how we prepare for sabbath.

Soon, we will pray. And we pray here in part so that we can practice praying. So that we can pray everywhere. With care and compassion and laughter and love.

Soon, we will eat at the Lord’s table. And we eat here so that we can practice eating. So that we can eat everywhere. At a table that is open, where there is always room for one more, where no one has to worry about going hungry.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And in one story about that creation, God works for six days to make the entire universe. And on the seventh day, God rests. God takes God’s sabbath. But there’s something else that is so important happening there. You see, gods rest in temples. And when God rests on that seventh day, God is declaring the entire world a holy and sacred place where we can be at rest and at peace. Where we can find true, deep, honest, joyful rest in communion with God.

And this time together on Sunday morning is, in part, a little bit of time to practice. It is a little bit of time to practice being in communion with God so that we can go into this great big holy and sacred world that God creates and sustains and be in communion with God.

It is a little bit of practice giving bread to the hungry. It is a little bit of practice making a path through the world. It is a little bit of practice plucking grain from the head. It is a little bit of practice healing this creation.

Rest is a right. I want you to remember that. Rest is a right. It is holy. It is sacred. And everyone should have the chance to rest; to rest from work; to rest in God. And we can make that a reality by carrying the holiness and sacrality that we find here out into the world, little by little, until the whole thing is a sabbath space and a sabbath time. Thanks be to God!

Carry the holiness and sacrality that we find here out into the world, little by little, until the whole thing is a sabbath space and a sabbath time. Click To Tweet
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