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.

Right before today’s reading from Matthew, there’s another story. In this story, some soldiers discover that the tomb where Jesus was laid is empty, and they go to the chief priests and the elders and tell them. And the chief priests and the elders give the soldiers some money and tell them, “When people ask what happened, you must say, ‘His disciples came in the night, while we were asleep, and stole the body.”

And the soldiers did that. They had a story about Jesus. It was a false story, but it gained traction. Matthew tells us that it is still told to this day.

And in today’s reading, we are in Galilee with the disciples, who have seen their friend and teacher arrested and tried and crucified and buried, and who are meeting their risen lord for the first time. And Jesus tells them something revolutionary… as usual.

Imagine for a moment that America had a god, and that all Americans worshipped that god according to the traditions of that god. And imagine that Canadians had a different god, and Germans had a different god, and Nigerians had a different god, and so on. Imagine that every nation had its own god and followed the traditions of that god. Imagine that being American or Canadian or German or Nigerian meantworshipping the god of your people according to the traditions of your people.

That is something like what the ancient world was like.

Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. They belonged to the Jewish nation. They followed the Jewish religion.

And other nations were a lot like that, too. Parthians and Medes and Elamites and Phrygians had their own gods and worshipped those gods according to their traditions. That was part of what it meant to be a Parthian or a Mede or an Elamite or a Phrygian.

And here is Jesus, saying something crazy to his disciples:

“Go to all the nations—all of those people who worship the gods of their ancestors according to the traditions of their ancestors—and tell them the good news. Tell them our story. Make disciples of them. Tell them that they can be part of this, too…”

Jesus is telling the disciples to do something that just isn’t done: to evangelize

And they did. I am sure that they were afraid. I am sure that they were nervous. I am sure that a few of them thought, “Maybe we can just keep doing our thing, and people will find us. And if they ask us about the good news, we’ll tell them. But we can just lead nice peaceful lives.”

But they overcome their fear and their nervousness and their desire for nice peaceful lives. They go out to the nations. They go to Jews and gentiles. They go to men and women. They go to the rich and the poor. They go to adults and children. They go to free people and to slaves. They go to the everybody. And they tell them the gospel; they tell them the good news.

And the people they tell, tell others. And they tell others. And they tell others. And they tell others.

And, day by day, the community of believers grows. And, eventually, the good news comes to us. We are baptized. We grow in faith. We hear the good news again and again: You are loved and worthy of love.

Because of them, we heard the story of a God who became one of us; a God who showed us a better way; a God who we crucified; a God who got up again.

And if they hadn’t told that story, we might have heard the other one: a criminal who was crucified; a body that was stolen from a tomb; a fraud and a fake.

And where would we be? Who would we be?

Today is our annual celebration of extravagant welcome.

Today is a day when we take a moment—just a moment—to remember that the people of this congregation made a covenant to be open and affirming. We made a covenant to be a congregation that embraces differences of race, ethnicity, culture, faith, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital and family status, age, and ability; and to celebrate and welcome all to share equally in the life of our church family.

And I know that it hasn’t been easy. Forging that covenant was contentious and there are people who still bear the wounds of the battles that were fought over it. We’re still figuring out what it means to be an open and affirming congregation.

But that’s how covenants work.

Twelve years ago—twelve years ago, today, in fact—Mariah and I got married. We stood in front of family and friends, and we made promises to each other: to have and hold each other, to love and cherish each other, in wealth and in poverty, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad.

And we’ve had a good marriage. I’m thankful that we haven’t had any big crises. But I also know that not every moment of every day has been easy. But that is how covenants work. There’s no guarantee that everything will be perfect forever; there’s every guarantee that, sometimes, things will fall apart. But, in covenant, we promise to celebrate the good times together… and work through the hard times together.

Every day, we promise to be in wealth or poverty together, in sickness or health together, in good times and bad times together. And thank God, because two are better than one. When we fall, we can lift each other up.

And celebrating our anniversary is a way to remember those promises. And remembering those promises is something that helps us live those promises on all the other days of the year. 

Covenants aren’t easy. They aren’t meant to be easy. They are meant to bind us together even when things aren’t easy. They are meant to keep us together through the times that are hard.

And we mark anniversaries to remember our covenants. We do it in our marriages. And we do it when we celebrate a Sunday of extravagant welcome. We remember our covenant to be open an affirming so that we can work together every day to live that covenant. And we take a Sunday to celebrate extravagant welcome so that we can work together every day to be a church of extravagant welcome.

And I want you to understand how strange that is. It can be hard for us to see.

It can be hard for us to see because we are used to First Congregational United Church of Christ.

When we look at our church, we see a church that celebrates all people. We see a church that has women in leadership and that has had women serve as pastors (and that had a woman as a pastor in 1918). We see a church that embraces the LGBTQIA+ community. We see a church that invites people to think and doubt and struggle with our faith.

And it can be easy for us to think that this is what Christianity is. It can be easy for us to think that this is what a church is. It can be easy for us to think that the cross on our steeple delivers the good news: you are loved and you are worthy of love, and this is a community that will love you.

But I can tell you that for too many people, the cross on our steeple is not a symbol of love. For too many people, it is a symbol of hypocrisy and judgmentalism and homophobia and patriarchy and abuse and tyranny.

It is a symbol of those things because too many churches have told a story about a god who is hypocritical and judgmental and homophobic and patriarchal and abusive and tyrannical. It is a symbol of those things because people have listened to those stories and believed them.

And because it has become a symbol of those things—because the church has told that story—people have walked away from the church… from every church. Because it has become a symbol of those things—because the church has told that story—a lot of people have never even darkened the door of a church… any church.

Once upon a time, there were two stories.

The Roman soldiers told this story: Jesus was a rabble-rouser who was arrested and crucified and buried, and his followers stole his body from the tomb, and it was best not to listen to a rebel’s loser followers.

That is a story of sorrow and defeat.

The disciples told another story: Jesus was God-become-one-of-us, and he was arrested and crucified and buried; and then he got back up, destroying the shroud that is cast over all peoples and swallowing up death forever; and he will come back to wipe away every tear and remove the disgrace of his people.

That is a story of good news. That is a gospel. That is our story.

And I can tell you that right now, there are two stories.

Some churches are telling this story: God could love you. You could be loved and worthy of love. And God will love you… when you beat the addiction, or get your act together, or tithe, or believe without doubt, or learn to be straight, or learn to be cis-gender, or learn to be good.

And for a whole lot of people, that isn’t a story that they can be part of. It isn’t good news.

Some churches are telling this story: You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved and worthy of love. God loves you exactly as you are, and too much to leave you in your brokenness. You are welcome here. You are celebrated here. Come be broken with us. Come be made whole with us.

That is a story of good news. That is a gospel. That is our story.

But here’s the thing…

If no one went away from that mountain of Galilee and told the story, Jesus might just be a footnote in a history textbook, a rabble-rouser whose body was stolen by his followers. No one would know the good news of the God-who-became-one-of-us. We wouldn’t be here this morning.

And if no one goes out and tells our story, no one will know that a church like this, a congregation like this, a community like this, exists; no one will know that they are welcome here; people will not hear the good news; people will not hear the gospel.

Go, therefore, and tell the story. Tell it to people of every race, ethnicity, culture, faith, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital and family status, age, and ability.

Go and tell everyone: You are loved and worthy of love. God loves you exactly as you are, and too much to leave you in your brokenness. You are welcome here. You are celebrated here. Come be broken with us. Come be made whole with us.

Because there are people who are yearning for good news. And that is good news. And people should know it.

God Loved the World This Way

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day. “For whatever you do to the least of these,” he said, “you do it to me.”

And I know it’s a little weird to start off an Easter sermon this way. But you don’t get Easter without Good Friday. And you don’t comprehend the power of Easter without understanding the condition we were in.

Every person sleeping in a park, or under an overpass, or out in the woods, because they have no home to go to… is Christ, crucified.

Everyone who goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat… is Christ, crucified.

Every refugee who is told that our country is full, every immigrant who is told to go back where they came from, every person who is called a terrorist just because of their faith… is Christ, crucified.

Every lesbian or gay or bisexual youth who is thrown out of their house because of their sexual orientation, every transgender person who is told they’re not really who they identify as, every genderqueer person who experiences violence… is Christ, crucified.

Every sick person who cannot find care, every prisoner who walks through the prison gate, every child who is bullied… is Christ, crucified.

And, yes, there are moments when we are Christ, hanging on that cross. And there are far more times when we are Judas, selling him out. And there are far, far, far more times when we are Peter, saying, “I do not even know the man!”

And this is where we are on Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, go to the tomb that someone has laid their friend and teacher in. 

Every gospel tells this story a little differently. In Mark, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body with spices. In Luke, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and some other unnamed women going to the tomb to do the same. In John, it’s Mary Magdalene by herself, who just happens to go to the tomb.

And in Matthew, it’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, going to the tomb. Matthew doesn’t tell us why they went or what they were thinking or whether they were talking to each other along the way.

But… if you’ve ever been to the grave of a friend—especially a friend who died suddenly, especially a friend who you feel a little bit of survivor’s guilt over, especially a friend who you were cruel to just before they died—then I suspect you know why they were going. They were going to say, “I let you down… I wish things were different.”

God loved the world this way. When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb, there was an earthquake, and an angel of the Lord rolled the stone away from the tomb. And the angel said to the women,

Do not be afraid! I know that you’re here looking for Jesus, who was crucified, but he’s not here. He’s been raised. See, there’s the spot where he should be and he’s not there. Go tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead, and tell them to go to Galilee, and tell them that he’ll meet them there.

Matthew 28:5-7

And the women ran away from the tomb with great joy. Their friend and teacher was alive! And the women ran away from the tomb with great fear. Their friend and teacher—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—was alive!

And I can understand that joy. And I can understand that fear.

We are good mainline protestant Christians. We don’t talk about judgment a lot. But…

If Christ returned today—if the heavens split open right now and the Son of Man came in all his glory and all the angels with him—I wonder how he would see me. And I suspect he would see me surrounded by the bodies of the Christs I have crucified. I suspect he would see me surrounded by the disappointed faces of the Christs I have denied.

And if he followed human justice—if he demanded retribution and the satisfaction of his honor—then he would be justified in sending me into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And I wonder if Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had the same thought. We let you down… we wish things were different, but they’re not… do what you have to do.

But as they run from the tomb in joy and fear, Jesus—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—appears to them. And he says, “Greetings! Do not be afraid. Go tell the others to meet me in Galilee.”

This is the good news of the gospel: you are forgiven.

There’s nothing you did to earn that. You are not forgiven because you did enough good deeds, or because you’ve lived a good enough life, or because you repented just right, or because you said the sinner’s prayer, or because you signed the little blank in the back of some tract.

You are forgiven—I am forgiven—because God loves the world this way. In spite of all the things we’ve done and all of the things we’ve left undone, God meets us on the road and says, “Do not be afraid.”

In spite of all the things we’ve said and all of the things we’ve left unsaid, God meets us on the journey and says, “Go get your friends and meet me further up the road.”

In spite of all the things we’ve thought and all of the things we’ve left unthought, God meets us on the road and says, “I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God sees us in all our brokenness and says, “Let me heal you. Let me make you whole. And while I’m doing that, let’s go out together and find some more broken people and heal them.”

That is the gospel, in all its fullness. You are forgiven. God’s not done with you, yet. And if you weren’t afraid before… well…

We have been forgiven. Our slates have been wiped clean. Our debts have been paid. We have been created anew. Not just once, on a Sunday morning, a couple thousand years ago, but every Sunday and every day and several times every day. God keeps coming to us saying, “Do not be afraid. You are forgiven. I’m not done with you yet.”

And the central question of Christian ethics—the central question of Christian life—is, “What are you going to do with that?”

Because there are people sleeping in parks, and under overpasses, and out in the woods, because they have no home to go to…

And there are people who go to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat…

And there are refugees being told that our country is full, and immigrants being told to go back where they came from, and people being called terrorists just because of their faith…

And there are lesbian and gay and bisexual youth who are being thrown out of their houses because of their sexual orientations, and transgender people being told that they’re not really who they identify as, and genderqueer people facing unimaginable violence…

And there are people who are sick and cannot find care, and prisoners walking through the prison gates, and children being bullied…

And so many others. So, so, so many others. All of us, in fact. Every last one of us.

We all need good news; we all need Christ. We all need you to be good news. We all need you to be Christ. We need you to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to help in any way that we need and in any way that you can. We need you to be the feet of Christ, walking alongside us on our journeys through this world. We need you to the mouth of Christ, reminding us again and again that we are the precious children of the God who is love; reminding us that we are loved and worthy of love.

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day.

And, every time—Every. Single. Time.—God gets up. God looks at us in our brokenness and our guilt and says, “Do not be afraid. Go get your friends and meet me further up the road. I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God loves the world this way: she creates you. She makes you anew… again and again… an instrument of her peace and love and pardon, of her union and truth and faith, of her hope and light and joy.

So do not be afraid. Go and tell the world that Christ is risen; he is risen indeed! And carry him into the world, being the love of Christ for each other and for everyone you meet.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia! Amen.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

When I was in middle school, I competed in the Optimist Club Oratorical Contest. I don’t remember what any of the official topics were, but I remember that my very first speech for that contest was about how people don’t listen to kids or respect the rights of kids… and about how people really should listen to kids and really should respect the rights of kids.

And, of course, when I gave the speech at some ungodly morning hour—because Optimists meet for breakfast—the adults who were listening and judging… laughed. Because the idea of listening to kids and respecting the rights of kids is funny.

Now, I’m forty. I know, to some of you, that means I’m still a kid. And, to some of you, that means I’m positively ancient. But the truth is that I’m neither of those things. Statistically, I’m just a little more than halfway on my journey through this world.

And I get it. I really do. I get how easy it is to hear young people crying out for stronger gun control laws, or universal healthcare, or student debt forgiveness, or radical action against climate change, or a thousand other things… I get how easy it is to hear young people crying out for revolution, and laugh, and say, “They just don’t know how the world works.”

And I know how easy it is to look at the world, and how it is, and how it works, and say, “This is the world, and this is how it is, and this is how it works, and the best I can do is find a comfortable place for me and mine in this imperfect world… because we’re never going to make it perfect.”

I get it.

But I also remember. I remember what it was like to listen to someone who looked a lot like I look now, and hear them say, “You just don’t know how the world works.” And I remember what it was like to think, “You just don’t see how broken the world is; you just don’t see how the world could be.”

And I think there’s a little bit of that in our reading today. You see…

After Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… 

After the crowds spread palm branches and cloaks on the road…

After they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven…”

After all of the pomp and circumstance of the triumphal entry…

Jesus goes to the temple, the house of God, the center of everything.

And he destroys it.

This is a weird moment. Jesus enters the outer courts of the temple and sees the people buying and selling, and the people changing money from the coins of one land to the currency of another… and he wigs out. 

He chases out the people who are buying and selling. He flips the tables of the money-changers. He hurls the seats of the people selling sacrificial doves. He throws a tantrum.

And it’s disturbing, because those people aren’t breaking the rules.

It is the week before Passover. You know the story. Once upon a time, the people of Israel lived in slavery in Egypt. God saw their suffering and sent a prophet to free them, and to lead them out of Egypt and into the land that was promised to their ancestor Abraham.

And every year since, the people of Israel gathered to remember the story and make a sacrifice. Every year since, the people of Israel gathered to say, “You are our God, who led us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; and we shall have no other gods before you.”

And, while they were together at the temple, they paid the temple tax.

It can be hard for us to understand, but Passover at the temple was a logistical nightmare. People flooded into Jerusalem from all over. And it was hard to travel with an animal that was going to be sacrificed—a lamb or a goat, one year old, without blemish—so there were people there to sell sacrificial animals.

And not everyone had local currency that they could use to pay the temple tax. So there were people there who could exchange it.

Now, of course, there were people who were taking advantage of the situation. There were merchants who preyed on their customers. There were money-changers who charged exorbitant rates. There were problems, sure. But, probably, most of the people in the outer court of the temple were trying to make a living by providing a necessary service.

And here comes this guy… who had just ridden into town on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… to chase them out and flip their tables and hurl their seats and throw a tantrum.

And I need to be clear about this. Jesus walks into the outer court of the temple and, basically, throws out the offering plates and tears up the direct debit forms and destroys the economic engine of the temple, the house of God, the center of everything. The temple isn’t a business, but it is a business… and Jesus is tearing it down.

And in this moment, he breaks the economic status quo, and the political normal, and the religious status quo. Maybe only for a little bit… maybe only for a few hours or a few days… but still.

Hosanna?

After Jesus destroys the temple…

After Jesus chases out the people who are buying and selling…

After he flips the tables and hurls the seats…

After the din and chaos of a holy tantrum…

The blind and the lame come to the temple, and to Jesus… and he heals them.

The chief priests and the scribes see what is happening… and they hear the children—the children—cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And they—the chief priests and the scribes—get angry.

“Do you hear what those kids are saying? Do you, Jesus, mister rides in on a donkey and overthrows the temple, hear those kids praising you?”

“Yeah. You didn’t see that coming?”

You see, Jesus keeps committing these prophetic acts. 

Zechariah once said, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So Jesus did. He said to the people of Jerusalem, “Here is your king.”

And Isaiah once said, “Thus says the LORD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, and I shall gather more to them, besides.’” So Jesus enforces the rule. He says to the people of Jerusalem, “This temple will be a house of prayer for everyone, or it will be nothing.”

And the people in power—the chief priests and the scribes—find that threatening enough. And I get that. He is disrupting the nice comfortable way things are. But what really gets them—what really makes them mad—is that the kids saw him and that they liked it. 

He is corrupting the youth. He is showing them that the way the world is isn’t the way that the world has to be. He is demonstrating that the way the world works isn’t set in stone. He is teaching them that things could be different than the way they are now.

He is dangerous.

After Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… 

After Jesus destroys the temple…

After he performs signs and wonders…

After he preaches and tells parables…

After he shares dinner with his friends and says prayers in a garden…

After a friend kisses him; after a traitor kisses him…

He will be hung on a cross and laid in a tomb.

Because that’s the way the world works. Because that’s the way the chief priests and the scribes and the Roman authorities make it work.

But now, those children know better. They know that the world doesn’t have to work this way. They know that things could be different. And they know when to cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And that matters. It mattered then. It matters today.

It matters because those kids who are crying out for stronger gun control laws are the ones who are living with gun violence in their schools.

It matters because the young people who are crying out for universal healthcare are the ones who wonder whether they will ever be able to afford even the most basic medical care.

It matters because the people my age who are crying out for student debt forgiveness are the ones who expect to be paying off student loans until we retire or beyond.

It matters because the teenagers crying out for radical action against climate change are the one who will have to figure out how to live with higher sea levels and less predictable weather and worse snowfalls and more dangerous hurricanes, and more consistent droughts, and more polluted air and water.

It matters because the kids who are crying out for revolution are the ones who have to live with the results of not having a revolution.

And I’m forty. I’m just a little more than halfway on my journey through this world.

And I get it. I understand how easy it is to hear young people crying out for revolution, and to laugh, and to say, “They just don’t know how the world works.”

But is possible that those young people—and all of the oppressed and marginalized people who get told, again and again, that they don’t know how the world works—know the secret that we should all know: the world doesn’t have to work that way.

We are Christians.

We are a people who wait breathlessly for Palm Sunday, when a new king will ride into the world on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

We are a people who wait anxiously for Palm Sunday, when a new high priest will destroy the dirty and dangerous engine of this world.

We are a people who wait hopefully for a cosmic Palm Sunday, when Christ himself will make a new heaven and a new earth, free from the sins that plague this one.

We are a people who offer ourselves lovingly to Christ, so that he might use us to start building that new world.

And part of that work it listening to those who call for the world to work differently, who call for more love and more generosity and more grace. 

Part of that work is catching ourselves when we think, “But the world doesn’t work that way,” and asking, “How could the world work differently?” 

Part of that work is standing shoulder to shoulder with the revolutionaries, looking at the one who is riding in on a donkey and overturning tables in the temple, and shouting, “Hosanna!”

You see, we are Christians. We are not about what the world is. We are about what God calls the world to be. We are about the Kingdom of Heaven.

Amen.

‘Baga! (2019)

Every year for the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of trekking back to my alma mater for the annual Knox Rootabaga Jazz Festival. I go partly for the fun of seeing old friends and making some noise in the Alumni Big Band. But I also go because this jazz festival at a small liberal arts college in Illinois is a place to hear truly innovative jazz. This year featured Xavier Breaker Coalition and Mark Guiliana Space Heroes, two groups doing amazing things and that you should definitely check out.

Of course, the festival also featured the Knox Jazz Ensemble, including a performance of a piece written by a member of the Cherry Street Combo (Knox’s premiere jazz combo). One of the amazing things about Knox is that it has a jazz program that punches well above its weight. This year’s ensemble is no exception. And, even better, it’s has a lot of freshmen in it. They are going to be a powerhouse in the coming years.

The All Night Oil Shop

Once upon a time, when I was young, I was a terrible Boy Scout.

I had been a Cub Scout. I had worked my way through the ranks. I was a bobcat, and a tiger, and a wolf, and a bear, and a webelos. It wasn’t too difficult. The Cub Scout motto is, “Do Your Best.” And if there’s one thing I can do, it’s my best… even when my best isn’t that good.

But then I became a Boy Scout.

Now, the way I remember is that when I became a Boy Scout, I got the first rank for just showing up. After that, I was supposed to earn merit badges. My friends and peers earned merit badges. They became Tenderfoots and First Class Scouts and whatever. Some of them even became Eagle Scouts. And that’s pretty impressive.

I don’t think I earned a single merit badge. It turns out that merit badges aren’t a big motivator for me. And, anyway, the only one I really wanted was the archery one. So, after I fell further and further behind my peers, I stopped being a Boy Scout.

The Boy Scout motto is, “Be Prepared.” And I was not. I rarely am.

Today’s reading is another parable. And if you listen to preachers and read commentaries, it’s about being prepared.

You see, the kingdom of heaven will be like this.

There will be a wedding, and there will be bridesmaids. Some of them will have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and some extra oil. They will be prepared. And some of them will not have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and nothing else. They will not be prepared.

Well, the groom will be late. All of the bridesmaids will fall asleep. But, around midnight, the groom will finally show up. And someone will see him in the distance and shout for the bridesmaids to come and meet him.

The bridesmaids who have their stuff together will trim their lamps. They will be ready to go to the wedding banquet.

And the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will trim their lamps and realize that they don’t have enough oil. They will turn to their neighbors who have oil and say, “Hey, we don’t have enough oil and our lamps are going out. Can you give us some of yours?”

And the bridesmaids who have their stuff together will reply, “No. If we give you some of our oil, there won’t be enough for us. Go to the all night oil shopand buy some.”

So the bridesmaids who don’t have their stuff together will do just that. And while they’re gone, the groom will arrive, and gather the people who are ready, and go to the wedding banquet, and close the door.

Later, the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will return from the all night oil shop. They’ll knock of the door and shout, “We’re here. Open up!” And the groom will reply, “I don’t know you.”

Yeah. The kingdom of heaven will be like that. The people who have more than enough will not share. The groom will not let people who are late enter. There will be no grace.

So, have your stuff together. Grab some extra oil on your way out and keep awake. You don’t know when that groom is going to show up and take you to the wedding banquet. And you don’t want to be standing in front of a closed door in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So be prepared!

The problem is that I’m not prepared. I don’t have my stuff together. I don’t know how much oil I have. I’m just trying my best. And I’ll bet that a lot of us are in that same situation… and least some of the time… even the Eagle Scouts.

And on top of it, no one knows when Jesus will show up. No one knows the day or the hour. And I’m not sure that an extra flask of oil is going to be enough.

What’s someone who’s just trying his best to do?

God loved the world this way. God looked at the world and saw suffering and sin. God put glory aside and became one of us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up. And we have faith that God will return and finish the work that God started.1Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Kindle ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. p. 46.

Sometimes, in some churches, we say it this way: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

But Christ has been going-to-come-again for a long time. The groom is very late. And here we are with our little lamps, trying our best to be the light of the world and doing our best to keep those lamps trimmed and burning. But, sometimes, the oil runs out.

And it is easy, in the midst of trouble, to get distracted. It is easy, in the middle of the Lenten wilderness, to focus on the wrong thing.

It is easy, when we think that we have just enough oil in our lamp, to look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough, and say, “I can’t share. I won’t have enough.”

It is easy, when we think that we don’t have enough oil in our lamp, and no one will share with us, to say, “Christ is late. I have time and more than enough time. I can leave, and go to the all night oil shop, and get some more. I’ll be back before Christ returns.”

It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to do this on my own.” It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to get preparedfor Christ to come back.”

But here’s the thing: there is not one of us—there is not one of us—who can guarantee that we have enough oil to make it through the long dark night until Christ returns. We all see our lamps run dry from time to time. It happens to the people in the pews. It happens to pastors. It may have happened to you now and again. I know it has happened to me now and again.

There are times when our faith runs low. It happens.

And if we have our stuff together, we can fool ourselves into thinking that if we just hold onto the little bit that we have left, we’ll be okay. And if we have our stuff together, we can even look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough and think, “Thank God I’m not like them. Thank God I’m prepared. Thank God I can do this on my own.”

And if we don’t have our stuff together… well… we can think that we just need to walk away. Maybe we can find an all night oil shop.

Now, I need to be careful here.

Sometimes, we need to walk away from our congregation or from the church. It is true. I have been there, and I will not criticize anyone for saying, “I need a little time away.” And I will not stop praying that anyone who walks away for a season will come back… or find another faith community that meets their needs.

But I also believe that when our faith is low, we can find support in this church, in this congregation, in this community.

There will be times when you cannot sing the hymns. There will be times when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow. And in those times, you can rely on the melodies of your neighbors. We can sing the hymns for you.

There will be times when you cannot pray the prayers. There will be times when the words are buried too deep in your soul and it feels like no one is listening. And in those times, you can rely on the words of your neighbors. We can pray for you.

Literally. We can sing in your stead. We can pray on your behalf. We can add oil to your lamp until the flame burns bright again.

And then, when your neighbor cannot sing—when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow—you can sing for them

And when your neighbor cannot pray—when the words are buried too deep in their soul and it feels like no one is listening—you can pray for them.

Literally… in their stead… on their behalf. You can add oil to their lamp until the flame burns bright again.

In your long dark night of the soul, we can gather around you with our little lamps and cast a little light. And, as the seasons pass, we will all have the chance to do that for each other. That is the joy of a community of faith… that we—not each of us on our own, but all of us together—can keep our lamps trimmed and burning.

Because, it turns out, we are the all night oil shop. And that means that none of us have to wander off. We can all be present when the groom comes: when Christ returns, and fills our lamps with oil, and lights the whole world.

Thanks be to God.

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