Bringing People Together to do Good

God or a King?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eli and Samuel have themselves planted a seed of kingship.

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

And the answer is obvious: Israel wants a king.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a new thing for Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God or ice cream? God.

God or a new car? God.

God or untold riches? God.

God or a king? God.

It’s simple.

But it isn’t easy.

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

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

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

Where there is love, God speaks.

Where there is mercy, God speaks.

Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is good news.

Blood on Our Hands, Grace in Our Veins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world.

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

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

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

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

Blasphemy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I had to repent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is always forgiveness. There is always healing.

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

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

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

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

But, maybe, they got a little closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is good news. Amen.

On the Death of Anthony Bourdain

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

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go in peace, chef.

Rest is a Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was enforced. There was a law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred.

But… two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophetic Prayer

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

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

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

But I started thinking… what about prayers?

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

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

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

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

Again, from Above, of Water and Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to our reading from John.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or something like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah sees God and it is too much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, maybe, we will understand.

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

People Will Talk. There Will Be Stories.

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

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

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

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

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

And if that happened to Matthias…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If we march for our lives, people will talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Sees Us Through

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

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

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

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

And then I woke up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallelujah!

The Invisible Work of Being a Pastor

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

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

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

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

So, what do I do? A lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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