How We Got Here

How did you get here?

It’s a question we ask each other a lot… and the answers matter. Way back when I was searching for a call to a congregation, I had to fill out forms—a ministerial profile—about how I got here. 

I had to chart a journey through high school and college and seminary and a handful of jobs. I had to show you my sense of call and how that had developed. I had to find other people who would tell you about me. I had to show that I had gone through the approved process of the United Church of Christ and that I hadn’t committed any crimes along the way (or, at least, that I hadn’t been caught).

You got to know me through conversations and interviews. Those forms were about that question: how did you get here?

And when clergy get together, we often start talking about how we got here; we start talking about how we knew that we were called to be pastors.

Some people have a moment. They know exactly where they were and when it was that God said to them, “You… become a pastor.” I am not one of those people. I wandered along the path of a call, with God saying, “Come over here… and now, over here… and now, over here.” And I ended up here.

And, sometimes, when Christians get together, they talk about how they got here; they talk about how they knew that they were called to follow Christ.

Some people have a moment. They know exactly where they were and when it was that they said to Jesus, “I want to follow you.” I am not one of those people. I grew up in the church. I wandered into faith.

And the truth is that we put a lot of weight on how you got here… and that’s true wherever here is. Sometimes, what town you’re from matters. Sometimes, what school you went to matters. Sometimes, your last employer matters. And, certainly, whether you have a felony on your record usually matters.

“How did you get here?” is a question we ask a lot, and the answers matter.

Last week, we met Paul in the book of Acts. You know his story. You know how he got here.

Once, Paul zealously persecuted the people who followed Jesus. He had believers hauled before courts and thrown in prison. He stood by and nodded his head in approval as people stoned Stephen.

Then, one day while he was on traveling on the road to Damascus, he had this… experience. Christ himself appeared to Paul… and Paul changed. He became a believer. He was baptized. He became a zealous follower of the Christ who he once persecuted.

And he travelled… and he told the good news to gentiles… and he led them to Christ… and he founded churches.

And our reading today is from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.

Now, most of Paul’s letters are to churches that he started or that he has visited. Most of his letters are to people who know who he is and how he got here. But this letter is different. Paul has never been to Rome. These believers don’t know him and he doesn’t know them. But he wants to.

You see, Paul wants to travel to Spain. And he hopes to stop in Rome on the way and visit the believers there and enjoy their company for a little while. And he hopes that after he visits them, they will ‘send him on his way’ to Spain. He is writing to the believers in Rome to introduce himself… and to ask for their help so that he can get something he wants.

I know a fundraising letter when I see one, and this is a kind of fundraising letter. Your gift of just one denariuscan help bring the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the gentiles in Spain!

But before he asks for that help, he needs to tell the believers in Rome who he is. He’s going to spend a lot of this letter telling the believers in Rome what he believers, but he starts with this:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…

Now that’s an introduction! I’m tempted to start opening all of my emails like that.

But notice this: Paul does not tell the story of that day on the road to Damascus. Pauls doesn’t say, “I personally saw Christ.” He doesn’t talk about where he was and when it was that he said to Jesus, “I want to follow you.”

He doesn’t talk about how he got here.

Instead, he simply says, “I am Paul, a servant of Christ, called to and set apart for the good news that was promised to us…” and then he tells the story of Jesus, through whom we have received grace.

He doesn’t talk about how he got here. He talks about who he is.

How you got here matters. Your history is part of who you are. If you never went through the things that you went through, you would not be who you are today. That is true if your life has been relatively easy. That is true if your life has been relatively hard. That is true if you had your own moment on your own road to Damascus. That is true if you sort of meandered into faith.

Even Paul sometimes writes about how he got here.

But… but…

How you got here is just a prologue. It is just part of your story.

How you got here informs who you are. It is not the whole of who you are. Because who you are—where you are—is not defined by the path you took, it is defined by where you are standing right now. And where you are standing right now is under the gospel of God, concerning his son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom you have received grace.

Where you are is in grace. And one of the beautiful things about grace is that it lets us look back at how we got here and say, “That’s how I got here… but it’s not who I am.”

I am not the worst thing I have ever done, or the worst thing I have ever said, or the worst thing I have ever thought. I am not my mistakes… I am not even the things I did on purpose.

And, to be fair, I am not the best I have ever done, or the best thing I have ever said, or the best thing I have ever thought. I am not the things I did on purpose… I am not even my mistakes.

And neither are you. You are not a hero. You are not a villain. You are not your most celebrated moment. You are not your most embarrassing one. You are not the highest moment of your ecstasy. You are not your rock bottom.

You are the precious child of a loving God. You are loved and worthy of love… because God loves you.

You. Are. In. Grace.

That is the gospel. That is the good news.

Near the end of today’s reading, Paul writes one of his most famous lines: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” And then he continues, “It is the power of God for salvation to everyonewho has faith.”

And, I know, sitting here, right now, in this sanctuary, it seems impossible to be ashamed of this gospel. But I also know that out there is a world that asks, “How did you get here?” And I know that out there is a world where the answer to that question matters.

In here, all that matters is that you are here, in grace, loved and worthy of love.

In here, all that matters is that you are here, in grace, loved and worthy of love.

In here, all that matters is that you are here, in grace, loved and worthy of love.

And that gives us this amazing opportunity: because we know that, we can share it; because it is true in here we can make it true out there. We can go into this world and say, “It doesn’t matter how you got here, now you are here, and you, too, are in grace, loved and worthy of love.”

And if we say that to enough people… enough times… we might just start to see that it is true… really, really true. We might just start to catch sight of the Kingdom of God. 

Recently, I was perusing the workshops that will be offered at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod this summer and I came across one with this title: “Thawing the ‘Frozen Chosen'”. I have no problem with the content of the workshop, which is about using and teaching liturgical movement. But seeing the title made me realize just how tired of the term ‘frozen chosen’ I am.

The idea behind ‘frozen chosen’ is simple enough. Different congregations and denominations have different traditions around movement and sound. Some churches are full of dancing in the pews, clapping during the hymns, and shouts from the congregation. Other churches are characterized by staid congregations, slow and deliberate hymns (accompanied by a pipe organ), and silence from everywhere except the pulpit (and the aforementioned pipe organ). I don’t know if the people who go to the former have a name, but the people who go to the latter are called the ‘frozen chosen’. ‘Cause they don’t move. Get it?

And here’s my problem with the phrase. Almost every time I see or hear ‘frozen chosen’, it’s presenting stillness and silence as problems that need to be solved. “If only we could get the frozen chosen to move,” the person seems to be saying, “then church would be fun and vibrant and alive!”

But here’s the thing. Stillness and silence aren’t bad things. In a world that demands that we always be busy and constantly accosts us with sound, stillness and silence can be valuable and they can be appreciated. In fact, being still and silent—and appreciating stillness and silence—are skills that we should probably learn to cultivate.

And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t also cultivate movement and sound. I sometimes wish that my congregation would dance to the music, and clap on two and four, and punctuate my sermons with an ‘amen’ or two. But I wish we would present that as an addition to the toolbox instead of a correction to a problem.

In fact, that might be a good practice most of the time. I know that there are problems and that we need to find solutions to those problems, but maybe we should spent more time looking at how we present our ideas and asking, “Before I present this as a solution to a problem, is there a way for me to present it as an addition to the toolbox?”

On my drives from Davenport to DeWitt, and from DeWitt to Davenport, I listen to a lot of NPR.

Last Sunday morning, as I was on my way to preach a sermon that touched upon violence at a house of worship, some people on Weekend Editionwere talking about violence at houses of worship and security at houses of worship.

A couple of guests—a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor—said that they had armed security at their mosque and at their church. They needed to have armed security in order to keep their congregations safe. And I’m not about to tell them something different. They know their experiences. They know their congregations. They have to make their decisions.

But a Jewish rabbi gave the answer that I hope we would give. Every act of evil that we commit, perpetuates evil. Every act of fear that we commit, perpetuates fear. And every act of love that we commit, perpetuates love. So she chooses to act out of love.

And I think that’s good advice. Act out of love. All the time. Even when you’re afraid. Especially when you’re afraid.

In today’s reading from the book of Acts, we meet Paul. You know Paul’s story.

Early on, all of the people who put their faith in Jesus were Jewish. They were a little revolutionary group within the Judaism of the late second-temple era. They talked about things like a messiah who had been crucified by the Roman government and who had risen on the third day. They talked about a kingdom that was not of this world, but that was in it and growing. They talked about how everything was going to change.

These Jesus-people were challenging the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities… and that’s a problem. So some of the Jewish authorities came down on them hard. They persecuted the early believers. And Paul was the most passionate of them all: he ravaged the church, he sent believers to prison, he persecuted the church.

And then, one day, he was on his way to Damascus, when a flash of light knocked him to the ground and he heard a voice saying, “Why are you persecuting me? Go into the city. I’ll send someone to tell you what you need to know.” And, suddenly, Paul was blind.

The people who were with him took him into the city of Damascus, and he met a believer named Ananias. And Ananias restored his sight and told him what he needed to know. And Paul was changed. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was baptized.

He went from persecuting the church with great zeal, to spreading the gospel with great zeal.

And he went out, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

In today’s reading from the book of Acts, we meet Paul in Lystra—a city in modern-day Turkey—along with the apostle Barnabas. There’s this man who has spent his whole life unable to use his feet… a man who has never walked. And he is listening intently to Paul as he preaches. 

Paul sees him and sees that he has the faith to be healed. So, Paul commands him to stand and walk. And he does.

And the crowd goes wild.

Now, the crowd is made up of people who worship the Greek gods and who follow the traditions of those gods. You might remember some of the names: Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite and Ares and Hephaestus, the muses and the fates, the nymphs who watched over trees and streams. The world teemed with gods and spirits. They were everywhere.

And these people see what is happening and they cry out, “The gods have come to us in human form!” They think that Barnabas is Zeus (the king of the gods) and that Paul is Hermes (the messenger of the gods).

Now, I need a bit of an aside here. The people in the crowd do not think that Barnabas is Zeus-become-one-of-us or that Paul is Hermes-become-one-of-us. They believed that their gods sometimes came down from Mount Olympus disguised as humans… or eagles… or satyrs… or ants… or swans… or whatever. They believe that these two men are gods wearing human suits. That is a far cry from Jesus, who we believe is God-become-one-of-us.

But they see Barnabas and Paul and they say, “The gods have come down to us!” And the local priest of Zeus brings out oxen and garlands. The people want to worship and offer sacrifices. And Paul shouts.

No! Why are you doing this? We’re not gods, we’re mortals. We’re like you. But we have good news. You can put away these worthless things; you can put away these idols of wood and stone. You can turn to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the seas and all that is in them. You can turn to the living God, who fills your bellies with food and your hearts with joy.

All you need to do is turn away from the gods you have known.

We live in a world teeming with gods. They are everywhere.

God gave us a whole world to enjoy, and it’s good to take some time to enjoy the things that are in it. But we are good at turning to those things and worshipping them.

There are people in this world—there are probably even people in this sanctuary—who worship money, or work, or their nation, or their flag, or entertainment, or sports, or health, or civility, or any of the other gods who wander through this world… the gods that we have made for ourselves out of wood and stone and cloth and ideas.

And believe me. I get it. The gods that we have made are enticing; they are seductive.

I am a Christian pastor. Don’t think for a moment that I am not tempted by the siren songs power or privilege or prestige. Don’t think for a moment that I am not tempted by promises of wealth or fame or reputation. I get it.

We live in a world that asks us to worship other gods. We live in a world that rewardsus for worshipping other gods. And we live in a world where those other gods can take over.

And the big thing that those gods offer… is safety and security.

Why do we worship wealth? So we will never have to worry about not having enough.

Why do we worship strength? So we will never have to worry about getting hurt.

Why do we worship popularity? So we will never have to worry about being alone.

And we have made gods for each of these things and for so many more. So that when we’re afraid, we have something we can turn to. So that when we’re afraid, we have something that will protect us.

And when we are afraid, we will do terrible things. We will make terrible sacrifices at the altars of the gods who we have made. We will sacrifice our family and friends. We will sacrifice our time and integrity. We will sacrifice our very lives and we will certainly sacrifice the lives of others in the temples of those gods. Sometimes in little ways. Sometimes in big ways.

When the Jewish authorities were afraid of what these followers of Jesus would bring down on them, they made terrible sacrifices. When Paul was persecuting the church, he stood by and nodded in approval when people stoned Stephen. And in the verses after the story we read today, some people show up to stone Paul.

And when Christians gained power, and when we were afraid, we made terrible sacrifices. We built whole machineries of death to use against our Jewish friends and neighbors.

When we have been afraid, we have sought refuge in the gods we have made, and we have found ways to be terrible to each other. With every act of fear, we have perpetuated fear. With every act of evil, we have perpetuated evil.

And it hasn’t worked. We still don’t feel safe. We still don’t feel secure.

So what if we tried something else?

What if, when we are afraid, we don’t turn to the gods that we have made? What if we don’t put our faith in wealth, or strength, or popularity? What if we don’t put our faith in money, or weapons, or reputation?

What if we put our faith in the living God, who creates and sustains the heavens and the earth and the seas and everything that is in them? What if we put our faith in the living God who fills our bellies with food and our hearts with joy? What if we put our faith in the LORD who is our shepherd?

What if we put our faith in the God who is love? What if, when we were afraid, we responded with love?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what that would look like; I don’t know exactly how to do it. I would need someone to help me imagine; I would need someone to help me train. Maybe a rabbi like the one who I heard on NPR.

And I know that even if I can’t see that world yet, I get little glimpses of it in every act of love, and every act of charity, and every act of kindness. And I know that every time I think that I don’t know if I can love—every time I feel like I am too afraid to love—and I love anyway, I get a little closer to that world. I get a little closer to that kingdom of God. 

And I get a little closer to a God who loved the world this way: he created a world and gave it as a gift to itself; and when he saw that we had broken it, he became one of us and showed us a better way; and when we hung him on a cross and buried him in a tomb, he got up and said, “I’m not done with you yet. Keep following me. You can love better.”

Hallelujah. Amen. 

Searching for Sunday

For Lent this year, I led a book study of Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday at my church. I picked the book for a couple of reasons.

First, Held Evans can write. As a memoirist, she invites her readers into her life in a way that is both informative an intimate. As a storyteller, she brings her readers into her experiences. So, for example, when she writes about serving communion at a Methodist youth event, you can see the faces in front of her in all their variety and strength and weakness. Reading her work is like reading a letter from a friend. That is a gift that is too rare, and I wanted to share that with my parishioners.

Second, Searching for Sunday is about struggle. As one Baptist preacher says to her in the book, evangelicalism is like an old boyfriend who Held Evans broke up with years ago, but whose Facebook page she still checks compulsively. She is someone who struggles with her faith, with letting go of the parts that she can no longer honor, and with keeping a hold of the parts that continue to bring her life. And, using the traditional seven sacraments of the Christian church, Searching for Sunday tells the story of that struggle… of leaving the church she knew and of finding it in unexpected places.

That is a struggle that a lot of people know, and it’s a struggle that Held Evans spent a career giving voice to. I can’t even imagine the number of people who heard echoes of their stories in hers, and who were able to find their own voices because of her. And it was a struggle that I wanted my congregants to see… because it is a struggle that comes from taking faith seriously, from having to say, “This is a part of me whether I like it or not; what am I going to do with that?”

I was going to write this post when Lent ended. And then I put it on hold, because Rachel Held Evans went into the hospital and into medically induced coma. My Twitter timeline was full of prayers for her, and the most I could do was say a silent amen. I thought I would pick this post up once she was better.

Then, on Saturday, she passed away. Two weeks after Holy Saturday.

There are a lot of people feeling Saturday right now. Some of them are Held Evans’ family and friends who are going through the kind of pain that we like to call ‘unimaginable’ but that too many of us can imagine. More of them are her fans, facing a Saturday that is softer but still painful. It is a matter of faith that her race is run and she is resting now. It is a matter of faith that Sunday will come, for her and for everyone.

It isn’t an easy faith. It isn’t a faith that we can always hold onto. It isn’t a faith that is free from struggle. But it is, I think, the kind of faith that Held Evans championed. It is, I think, the kind of faith that is worth having.

Before We Are Anything Else

We have spent the last twenty weeks—every week since Epiphany, way back in January—reading the gospel according to Matthew. That’s a long time to spend in one gospel.

Over the last four months, we’ve heard Matthew’s version of the life of Jesus. The call of John the Baptizer, the temptation in the wilderness, the beatitudes and parables and sayings, the miracles, the triumphal entry, the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the short time that Jesus had with his disciples after the resurrection.

Today, we’re leaving the gospel according to Matthew and entering the time after Jesus left the community of believers that he had created. Over the next month-and-a-half or so, we’ll spend some time in the book of Acts and some time in Paul’s epistle to the Romans. We’ll spend some time getting a picture of the early church.

And in today’s reading, we see a moment in the life of that little community that was trying to make its way in the world being faithful to a lord and savior who wasn’t hanging out with them every day. This is an important moment. This is a beautiful moment. This is a moment that changes the church forever.

Peter is Jewish. And it’s important to know that, at this point, following Jesus is a Jewish thing. Peter worships the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Peter follows the laws and traditions of the God of Israel. Peter is a disciple of Jesus, a Jewish teacher and a Jewish prophet and the Jewish messiah, who was sent to Israel to save the Jewish people.

And Peter has found himself in front of a man and his household who are… gentiles. Cornelius is not Jewish. He is not a follower of Jesus. Sure, he is a man who worships the God of Israel… kind of. He fears God and gives alms and prays constantly. But he is a gentile. He is a soldier of the Roman Empire. He is stationed in the capital of the Roman province of Judea, which is not Jerusalem. He enforces Roman rule. He is a foreigner and an occupier.

They are face to face with each other. And they have both had visions.

Cornelius’s vision was simple. An angel of God appeared to him and said, “Send men to Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter. He’s staying in the house of another man named Simon, who is a tanner, by the seaside. Have your men bring Simon—the one called Peter, not the tanner—to you. He’ll tell you what you need to know.”

Peter’s vision was mysterious. He saw all of the foods that the God of Israel—the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—commanded the Jewish people not to eat. And a voice said, “Peter, eat!” And Peter said, “No. I have never eaten anything that is unclean and I’m not going to eat anything that is unclean now.” And the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And this happened three times. And then the food disappeared.

And now Peter is standing in front of these people—these gentiles—who fear God… who give alms generously… who pray constantly… to whom God had sent an angel. And it clicks. Peter gets it. God had made these people—these gentiles—clean. Peter could not call them profane. Before they were anything else, they were… loved by God.

There’s a rule in preaching that you’re not supposed to show your work; you’re not supposed to preach about the sermon.

But I’m going to be honest with you: I struggled with this sermon; I’m still struggling with it.

I’m struggling with it for two reasons.

The first reason is this: a little over a week ago, a man walked into a synagogue in Poway, California, and shot people. He killed one person and injured three others. And if his gun hadn’t jammed, he would have killed and injured more. And he wasn’t the first person to do this—he did it six months after a similar, but more deadly, incident at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—and he won’t be the last.

He is part of a growing American white nationalist movement. A movement that is recruiting on college campuses. A movement that interrupted an anti-racist book event last week. A movement that marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, a couple of years ago. A movement that has armed civilian militias patrolling our southern border. A movement that has a voice in our government.

A movement that is willing—maybe even eager—to draw the lines between who is inside and who is outside in blood.

Those lines are almost always drawn in blood. The blood shed by the Trail of Tears and the slave master’s whip and the lynching tree. The blood shed by inquisitions and pogroms and concentration camps. The blood shed by men who walk into houses of worship—in Charleston, South Carolina; in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; in Poway, California—and open fire.

The second reason is this: I would like to believe that this congregation does not need this sermon.

I have been your pastor for more than a year. I know you. I don’t know you as well as I will, but I know you. We are an open and affirming congregation. We have a plaque on our hallway wall and a statement on our website that says that we celebrate all people. I cannot imagine a member of this community using a racial slur… or posting on a white nationalist message board… or picking up a gun and walking into a house of worship.

But I also know that white nationalism is just the most visible form of white supremacism. And I know that white supremacism flows in the undercurrents of American society. We are so wrapped up in it—I am so wrapped up in it—that we don’t even notice.

And I know that before and after the lines between who is inside and who is outside are drawn in blood, they are drawn in words:

“We can’t let everyone in.” “Why can’t they pull their pants up.” “He should have shown more respect.”

We need this reminder. I need this reminder. Before anyone is anything else, they are loved by God.

I want to be clear here: that doesn’t erase our differences. We are still a beautiful tapestry of different races, ethnicities, cultures, socio-economic statuses, sexual orientations, gender identities, marital and family statuses, ages, and abilities, among other things. And those differences matter.

But before we are anything else, we are loved by God.

I know, “before we are anything else, we are loved by God” is a nice sentiment. It would look good on a greeting card or a throw pillow.

But, when Peter has his epiphany, he does what he does: he starts preaching the gospel. He tells Cornelius and his household the story: that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, that he went around doing good and healing people, that he was crucified, that he rose, that he ate and drank with his disciples, that he commanded the witnesses to his resurrection to preach and testify.

And while he is still speaking—While. Peter. Is. Still. Speaking.—God pours the Holy Spirit out on Cornelius and his household.

As a preacher, I would like to believe that Peter’s words are so powerful that they cause God to pour out the Holy Spirit. But I kind of think that God interrupts Peter. I kind of think that God sees Peter trying to draw a line between who is inside and who is outside—i kind of think that God sees Peter waiting to see if Cornelius and his household will accept the gospel—and that God says, “No. I got this. There is no line.”

And so Peter does the only thing that Peter can do: he baptized them. You see, baptism isn’t something that we do to bring people over the line and into our community. It is something we do to acknowledge a basic truth: that God has erased the line and brought everyone into his kingdom.

And here’s the truth: “Before we are anything else, we are loved by God” is a nice sentiment. It is also a revolutionary one. It would look good on a greeting card, or a throw pillow, or emblazoned on a banner at the front of a grand parade of love.

“Before we are anything else, we are loved by God,” is a call to greater love.

It is a call to speak up when we see lines being drawn between who is inside and who is outside.

It is a call to speak up, and say, “God loves you too much—and I love you too much—to leave you in your oppression.”

It is a call to speak up, and say, “God loves you too much—and I love you too much—to leave you in your hatred.”

It is a call to revolutionary love and wild grace that will make the whole world clean and holy and good. And no one will be able to call it profane.

Because before this world is anything else, it is loved by God. And that is good news.

Pin It on Pinterest