Bringing People Together to do Good

Preaching and Listening

For my birthday this year, my wife generously bought be a new tenor saxophone. I started on clarinet in sixth grade. In college, I switched to tenor saxophone (and still doubled on clarinet), and played on school horns. A few months after college, I bought a late-60s King Cleveland off eBay. Despite hundreds of dollars of repairs and adjustments, it’s never been a high quality instrument. The octave mechanism stick, there is always at least one leaky pad, the action is slow, it feels like it’s made out of tin, and it’s always a little stuffy. Now I have a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200 that feels and plays much better. So… a huge thank you to my wife!

And that means that I’m practicing again. It’s something that I have to make time for, but I can usually get an hour or two in every day: practicing the blues in different keys, running scales and arpeggios, striving to get my tempos up, going through different tunes, and… transcribing.

Transcribing is the practice of listening to another musician’s solo and trying to replicate it. So, right now, I’m working on Miles Davis’s famous solo from Kind of Blue. I’m not writing it down — so, I suppose, I’m not technically transcribing — but I listen to a few notes or a few bars and try to play them back. And, as I get more of it under my fingers, I can play more of the solo right along with Miles. The point of this exercise is to train my ear; to get to a place where I can hear a phrase — in principle, any phrase — and repeat it.

And I do this because of something that I heard saxophonist Bob Reynolds say. To paraphrase: improvisation is the art of transcribing ourselves in real time. I want to be able to play what I’m hearing in my head at the same time that I’m hearing it.

And I started thinking about this in the context of preaching.

Specifically, I started thinking about why I don’t listen to — and imitate — other preachers? We have a handful of rockstar preachers in the United Church of Christ; and even outside of those rockstars, I know many pastors whose preaching I admire. Technology has made it easy to record and share sermons, and many churches publish recordings of sermons, so they’re easily available. And I know that listening to other preachers deliver good sermons well invigorates and inspires me when I hear them at denominational gatherings; so surely listening to them on a regular basis, for the purpose of learning from them, would make be a better preacher.

So why don’t I do it?

I think there are a few reasons.

First, I don’t think we usually think about preaching as performance or about sermons as a form of music. But it is a performance and public speaking has a lot in common with music. As preachers, we each have our signature patterns and phrases. Volume, rhythm, and phrasing all matter. Even where we look, how we gesture, and what facial expressions we wear make a difference. And while it is a lot of work to compose a new sermon every week, part of that composition should include thoughts on how I will deliver it.

Second, we tend to think that ‘borrowing’ from another preacher is bad form. The reason that I transcribe on the saxophone is to train my ear; and part of what I am training my ear to do is learn the language of jazz. I am learning new phrases that I can add to my repertoire… and that I can deploy elsewhere. I will never play Miles’s solo during a performance, but a measure that sounds like it might possibly be based on something from that solo might sneak into a solo on another piece where there’s an Em7 chord. The same principle should apply to preaching. I will never deliver the same line that some other preacher delivers, but a rhythm or inflection might slip in during a sermon on a different scripture. Of course, it will only do that if I add it to my own ‘language’. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I say them.

Third, I think many of us are scared to experiment. On Sunday morning, I have to use the time I have during the sermon to do a lot of work. Not only do I have to deliver an inspiring message; I often have to provide a basic education on the Bible, comment on current events, and do a dozen other things. Experimenting with a new style of preaching means taking a risk that my congregation might not be open to. The last think I want people remember is an awkward moment in the sermon; especially if that means they aren’t remembering something else. But that should be easy to manage: only use new things in practice until you’re comfortable with them.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. Along with practicing my saxophone and working on that Miles David solo, I’m going to take the time to listen to other preachers and — as it were — work on their solos. Hopefully, that will add some licks to my preaching vocabulary and make me a better, more interesting, and more diverse preacher.

Life, Together

As we have established in earlier sermons, I am a nerd. Almost every week, I get together with a group of friends and we play… well, not Dungeons & Dragons, but a similar game. For a few hours, we play characters who are wizards and thieves and warriors, who are elves and dwarves and halflings, who are fighting dragons and defeating evil sorcerers and saving the world.

And what it all comes down to is this: we sit around a table and work together to tell a story. And because we are working together to tell a story, one of the first things we have to do is decide what kind of story it is. Are we telling a story of epic high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or are we telling a comedy like Monty Python and the Holy Grail? After all, if some of us are telling one of those stories, and some of us are telling the other, no one will have any fun.

So we ask: for the next few hours at this table… who are we going to be? And I want to be clear: that’s a different question from ‘who am I going to be… or what are my aspirations?’ Who are we, as a group of friends telling a story together going to be?’

And that’s an important question. At some point, you’ve probably worked on it yourselves.

We ask it when we talk about workplace culture: who are we, as a business, going to be?

We ask it when we go through things in romantic relationships: who are we, as a couple or a family, going to be?

We ask it when we go through a church visioning process: who are we, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

We ask it when we go into a voting booth: who are we, as a city or a state or a nation, going to be?

Not just ‘who am I going to be?’ but ‘how are we going to live together?’

And that might be one of the most important questions we can ask. We are creatures of community. No matter how much we like alone time, we don’t do well in isolation. And in order to be happy in community, we have to ask how we want to be in community. All of us. How are we going to live together?

Today’s reading is from a book in the New Testament that we call Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. And, if I can put on a different nerd hat for a minute, that’s a terrible name for this book. For two reasons.

First, it almost certainly wasn’t written by Paul, even though it has his name right there at the beginning. It was probably written by someone who followed Paul, who admired Paul, and who wanted to add some of Paul’s credibility to his own letter. He wanted to say something like, ‘this is what Paul would tell us.’

Second, it almost certainly wasn’t written to the church in Ephesus, even though it has their name right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, meaning that it was sent from church to church to church, all around the ancient near east. And that little spot at the beginning would be filled in with different names, depending on the church that someone was sending it to.

To the saints who are in Ephesus… to the saints who are in Laodicea… to the saints who are in DeWitt.

It was personalized and it went viral. And the author was asking that question: who are we, as people who live together in this world, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

And while I don’t what to downplay the importance and authority of a book of the Bible, the fact that this was a viral letter written by an anonymous author can be helpful. Because, like a lot of people who try to say who we are called to be with certainty and clarity, the author writes out a lot of rules. And, sometimes, he is very very wrong about who we want to be and who we are called to be.

“Wives, submit to your husbands,” he says, “slaves obey your masters.” And, of centuries, we were those people: people who treated women as second class citizens, people who owned other people. We were once people who quoted this book to justify oppression. And, while we’re not out of the shadow of that history yet — while we still have a long way to go — I think that we’ve made some progress.

But, just because the author of Ephesians is wrong sometimes doesn’t mean he’s wrong all the time. And, in our passage today, I think that he has some things exactly right.

Our reading today is a list of rules, a list of ideas, a list of ‘try to be this way’ statements. And I’m only going to look at one, one ‘try to be this way’ statement that I think our anonymous author gets exactly right: “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

In general, I’m a pretty calm person. I’m pretty steady. I’m not led by my passions. But, I admit, there are things happening in the world today that make me angry.

Right now, there are children in detention centers near the border. They and their parents trekked for hundreds of miles in search of a better and safer life. They were arrested and separated. And some of those children will never see their parents again, because their parents were deported, and they don’t have a way back to their children.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people to separate children from their families and keep those kids in detention centers.

Right now, there are schools planning their active shooter drills for the coming school year. And there are people working to make things so that, if you can afford a 3-D printer and download some files from the internet, you can print an untraceable and almost undetectable gun in your own home.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people whose children have to be afraid that someone will print a gun at home and then show up at their school.

Right now, and I mean right now, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are preparing for a rally in Washington, D.C., in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, later today.

And that makes me angry… because I really don’t think we should be a people where voices of hatred and oppression are accepted and amplified.

There are things happening in the world today that make me angry. There are things happening in the world today that make you angry. And that’s okay. There is a place for anger… and there is especially a place for anger in the service of love for our neighbors.

And, sometimes, when we are talking about how we are going to live together, we are going to get angry… and, sometimes, that anger is going to be appropriate, it is going to be necessary, and it is going to be righteous. There are times for civility and there are times for incivility. Anger is not always wrong.

But…

We are angrier than we used to be. Maybe not you, and not all the time, and, hopefully, not in this sanctuary or at each other… though we are a church and a community and a family… and those are all places where anger happens. But, out there in the world, in general, we are angrier than we used to be.

And there is a difference between being a person who gets angry in the service of righteousness, and being an angry person. There is a difference between being people who sometimes get angry when we talk about how we are going to live together, and being people who live together in anger.

And I think that the author of Ephesians knew that.

“Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

When the author of Ephesians wrote a letter to the saints who were in Ephesus… and the saints who were in Laodicea… and the saints who are in DeWitt, a town he had never heard of in a land he knew nothing about… when the author of Ephesians wrote this letter, the Christian community was small and persecuted and a little bit at war with itself. This was a community of Jews and Gentiles from across the Roman Empire and there were disagreements about how they were going to live… together… as one body.

And I have no doubt there was anger. And bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice.

And they needed that reminder — and, sometimes, we need that reminder — that anger is okay, but sin is not. That after the anger there is a call to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving.

Because God was kind and tenderhearted and forgiving towards us.

As a church, we are entering a season of visioning. We are asking how we are going to live together. And while it might not seem like it, as we discover a vision together and live into that vision together, there may be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I hope that anger is in the service of righteousness.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

As a nation, we are entering a season of campaigns and elections. We are asking how we are going to live together. And I guarantee you there will be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I pray that anger is in the service of justice.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

And here is the thing: when my friends and I sit down together and enter a world of thieves and elves and dragons, we know that we are telling a story together. And that story only works if everyone at that table has a voice… and if everyone at that table is having fun.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from having fun — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can work to love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone has fun.

And when we come together as a community — as a church, as a city, as a nation — we know that we are living a life together. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone has a voice. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone is being loved.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from loving or from being loved — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone is loved.

And I believe — I really believe — that if we recognize that we are all in this together, as one body, then we can live the life that we are called to: a life rooted in the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We can be imitators of God, beloved children. By the grace of God, may that be so.

The Relationship between Hours Worked and Energy Spent (And How There Isn’t One)

As a pastor, my schedule is pretty fluid. There are some fixed points: worship is at 9:30am on Sundays, confirmation is at 6pm on Wednesdays, office hours are from 9am to 1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and so on. And there are things that need to be done, but can fit in wherever there is space. For example, I write sermons on Mondays; but if they spill over into sometime on Wednesday, that’s okay.

That leaves a lot of time that is open and unpredictable. Hospital visits happen. Funerals — though I haven’t had one yet — happen on relatively short notice. And, of course, there are endless administrative tasks that need to be dealt with and plans that need to be made. This is not a job with nice, clean, stable hours.

And one of the things that I’ve notices is that there’s no relationship between the quantity of hours I work and how much energy I use. What might look like a short day can leave be exhausted. What might look like a long day can feel like nothing at all.

Some of that is driven by my personality. On the one hand, I’m a personal introvert. I replenish my energy by being alone or hanging out with a few close personal friends. On the other hand, I’m a professional extrovert. I can go to events and work a room and hit meeting after meeting. But that comes at a cost: at a reasonably slow pace, I use up that energy that I got from my introverted activities.

But some of it is also driven by the nature of the work. It’s easy to not realize that leading worship is, in many respects, a performance… and performances are work, even if the performer loves doing it. Similarly, moving from group to group during coffee hour is work. And talking through a deep-seated personal problem with a parishioner is work. And committee meetings are work. And that’s true no matter how much I enjoy all of those things and how much I am called to all of this work.

And that leads me to two thoughts.

First, for pastors. Pastors have a habit of humble-bragging about the quantity of hours we work. And I know too many pastors who work — including their time in the wider church and wider community — every day of the week. And even those who work six days a week are often trying to cram an entire personal life into a single day. I know that there is a lot to do, but we need to give ourselves permission to rest and recharge so that we can be effective at doing all those things.

Second, for parishioners. I know that a lot of what your pastor does is invisible. And every pastor I know is working furiously for their congregation. It is important for you to remember that a few hours on Sunday morning can wipe someone out, that there was probably at least an hour of research and writing for every minute of the sermon you hear, and that your pastor is facing the same struggles that you are outside of work. So I invite you to get to know your pastor, how they replenish their energy, and what wears them out… and then make room for them.

And if we all do our part, we can have stronger and healthier pastors… and stronger and healthier congregations.

Practicing the Kingdom

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at the United Church of Christ in Medina, Ohio, sometime in 2009.

For those who don’t know me, I am a communion junkie. Communion is where it all comes together for me, where the entire phenomenon of ‘being church’ is transformed: where a group of people coming together in a brick building is changed into a community of the holy spirit. That’s not to say that the rest of it – the hymns, the sermon, the passing of the peace, and so on – isn’t meaningful. I know some people get it all in those parts of the service, and I get little glimpses there. But, for me, communion is the lynch pin that makes it all come together.

When I was young, though, I did not – and I mean emphatically did not – like communion. Like plenty of kids, I didn’t want to be in church in the first place. The hymns seemed dowdy, the prayers seemed blase, the sermons were often just long and rambling… it was a Sunday morning wasted. Communion was just another bit being tacked onto the end and costing another fifteen or twenty minutes.

In other words: I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t see how radical it was: how it demanded a fundamental change in the way I lived – in the way we live.

I’m not surprised now that I didn’t get it then. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get it now. Communion, in a way, is hidden by its difference. It doesn’t fit into the way we usually do things. It’s the weird kid who always eats alone: different, and therefore invisible.

The way we normally do things is the way that makes the weird kid always eat alone. Imagine the cafeteria of your high school: which table were you at? I sat with the band geeks, and I remember that there were tables for the jocks from the first tier sports and their associates, and tables for the jocks from the other tiers, and tables for the theater people, and tables for the gangstas, and for the goths, and for the computer geeks, and so on. We all, I’m sure, know the routine: everyone has their clique and, while there might be some crossing of borders, for the most part those cliques stay separate.

That didn’t end after high school, either. When I was in college, one of the art classes was assigned the project of doing an installation piece: a site specific, three dimensional piece that changes the perception of a space. One of the students went into the cafeteria with a few rolls of masking tape and a marker and installed the cafeteria borders: here was the jazz table, here were the tekes, here were the international students, here was the lacrosse team, and so on. The artist had simply made physical all of the boundaries that were already there. While we might have all been more comfortable in our cliques – and while our cliques might have been a little more open – than in high school, the basic set up remained the same.

After college, I had a few jobs. One of these was in a warehouse. When I first took the job, I was told that it was one big happy family, everyone was treated like equals, and so on. They even, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, had holiday meals in the cafeteria, where everyone ate together. Of course, this wasn’t a nice cafeteria: all plastic benches attached to plastic tables. The executive staff didn’t normally eat in there – only the warehouse workers and lower level office workers. Imagine my surprise when, near Thanksgiving, I walked into the cafeteria to discover that one new banquet table had been set up and executive chairs arranged around it. All of those people who didn’t normally eat in the cafeteria would be joining the rest of us in the cafeteria, with their own private table and comfortable chairs. It was still high school: just the cliques didn’t normally see each other. When we all did, though, the lines were very clear.

Even when I was in a position not to have to eat any meals in cafeterias, normal was still there. In Chicago, there were borders around neighborhoods, around apartment buildings, around grocery stores, and around restaurants. There was a huge difference between shopping at Whole Foods (posh) and shopping at the Save-a-lot (not so posh). There were even areas where there were no groceries, and where fast food was the only option. There was a real difference between eating at Frontera Grille or Topolobampo (remarkably posh, genuine Mexican cuisine) and eating at any given taqueria in Humboldt Park (genuine, incredibly cheap, and the opposite of posh). Neighborhoods were sometimes separated by physical borders: there were parks and highways that had been built to make sure neighborhoods stayed separate.

Even here in Medina, borders separate us, just like everywhere else. There’s a real difference between living in an apartment at Forest Meadows or Mallard’s Crossing and living in one at Autumn Run. There’s a difference between those of us who can do at least some of our grocery shopping at Buehler’s and those of us who have to do all of our grocery shopping at Marc’s or one of the big box stores. There’s a difference between those of us who can eat out at Longhorn some of the time and those of us for whom McDonald’s is a special occasion. And, of course, there are those who don’t have kitchens, for whom fast food is the only real option. It’s the same everywhere: there are real borders between communities, real differences that affect where and how we live, what we eat, what kind of medical care we get, what educations are available, and on, and on, and on. In a lot of ways, the world is the high school cafeteria on a much larger scale and with much bigger, life or death, stakes.

The ancient world was no different. At various times and in various places spanned by the Bible, people were divided by gender, income, caste, profession, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and a thousand other things. The world of the Bible, like our own, is a world full of divisions and borders. The Bible itself reminds us of these borders: as when Joseph tells his brothers that shepherds are detested by the Egyptians (Gen. 46:34), or when John is accused of being possessed by demons or Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton for associating with the wrong people (Matthew 11:18-19), or even in Leviticus, where the Israelites are repeatedly admonished to be set apart from other nations. Separation and division are part of the reality of the Bible.

And yet there’s another strand that runs through the Bible, captured in the two passages from today; a strand that rejects the separation that is so normal and, importantly, rejects it through food. Where God is, there is abundant food: God rains down bread from heaven (Exodus 16:4) on the Israelites in the wilderness while they are on their way to a land of milk and honey; during the sabbath year, we are told that there will be enough food for people to eat off the land without sowing or reaping (Lev. 25:1-7); Elijah has food brought to him by ravens, and performs a miracle where a jug of flour and a jug of water – for making cakes – last for years during a famine; Isaiah promises us that in the future there will be “a feast of rich food for all peoples” (Isaiah 25:6). God provides food to all people: “defending the cause of the fatherless and the widow, loving the alien, giving them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).

Moreover, we are commanded to do the same: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8) Or the more memorable “I was hungry and you fed me” (Matthew 25:35).

Neither Isaiah’s vision of the holy feast nor the commands given to us are about separation. Neither the feeding performed by Elisha nor the one performed by Jesus are about separation. Neither checks to make sure that only the right people are present or that people are sitting in the right groups. They have the food and it is distributed and there is enough for everyone and there is some left over. If the stories seem awfully similar, I think it is because the point of the stories is that this is what God does and this is what the kingdom of God looks like. This eating with abundance and without division is what is supposed to be normal – and thus we see the story again and again, whenever God shows up, as though it is normal.

And so we have the two ways of eating: the high school cafeteria and the feeding of the five thousand. One of these is normal, and one of these is supposed to be normal. One of these is the way of the world, and one of these is the way of God. This is what makes communion so important to me: communion is not its own thing sitting off in the corner, by itself, something encountered only on a special occasion – whether that occasion is once a quarter or once a month or once a week or once a day. Communion sits in relation to the way Jesus eats. Communion sits in a tradition of God’s feast. Communion is how we’re supposed to eat not just on Sunday morning, but all the time.

Think about what a radical demand that is. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, there was enough food for everybody. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, there was more than enough food for everybody. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, no one was turned away from the table. Think about the what the world would be like if, every day, regardless of your race or color or creed, regardless of your religion or nationality or ideology, regardless of your age or gender or sexuality, regardless of your popularity or abilities or education, regardless of your profession or class or appearance, regardless of anything… there was food and drink and company and celebration. Imagine that world. That is what the kingdom of God looks like.

Of course, we’re not always good at living in that world. God knows I’m hardly ever good at living in that world. I get ground down and cynical and selfish just like everyone else. I don’t always look toward God. I don’t always have the eschatological hope of the messianic feast in my mind or in my heart. But I do this: I come here. I practice.

I show up and eat at this table as a reminder of how I should eat and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and eat the same way.

I show up and drink from this cup as a reminder of how I should drink and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and drink the same way.

I show up and sing these songs as a reminder of how I should sing and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and sing the same way.

I show up and pass the peace as a reminder of how I should pass peace and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and pass that peace to others in the same way.

I show up and pray as a reminder of how I should pray and converse with God and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and pray and converse in the same way.

I show up here and live as a reminder of how I should live and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and live the same way.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13:33) I come here to, as it were, get my yeast up. I come here to, as it were, get yeasty. I come here not to be separate, not to be set apart. I come here to by holy as God is holy: the God who is willing to empty himself into a human vessel and spread a kingdom not through conquest and human glory, but through eating and drinking with Pharisees and tax collectors alike, through healing and serving all who came near, through washing the feet of his disciples, through being led off to the cross and hung upon it, and through rising again.

And so, today, I want to try something. We’ve switched things around a little today and put the message a little earlier in the service than usual. I want us to be mindful today that this is not a time set apart to be different from other times, but to treat it as a rehearsal for the rest of the time. And, perhaps even more important, I want us to be mindful for the rest of this week of those things that get in the way of our living this way: both our own personal obstacles and the institutional and systemic obstacles that get in the way of living in the kingdom of God.

As a start, let us rise and greet one another with the peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Hallelujah

Oh… David.

Our reading from 2 Samuel this morning is one of the most famous stories from the Bible. It’s famous enough to make it into a Leonard Cohen song that’s been covered time and time again. I won’t ruin your morning by singing it, but you know it. You’ve heard it. “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof; you saw her bathing on the roof; her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya.”

And because it’s so well-known, a lot of us only know a little bit of it; mostly from the Leonard Cohen song. David and Bathsheba and an affair. Something goes wrong.”She tied you to the kitchen chair; and she broke your throne and cut your hair; and from your lips she drew…”

Ain’t love grand?

But that’s not the story. This isn’t a story about a love affair. This is a story about David screwing up… and covering up the fact that he screwed up. And because it’s one of those stories that’s different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible, we’re going to spend some time with it. We’re going to dig in.

It’s springtime. It’s the time when kings ride out to war and David has a war planned. His army is going out to fight against the Ammonites and siege the city of Rabbah.

But David stays home. He’s walking around on his roof when he looks over and sees into the courtyard of another house, not too far away. And he sees a beautiful woman bathing; purifying herself. He asks around, “Who is this beautiful woman?”

“Her name is Bathsheba,” they tell him, “she is the daughter of Eliam, she it the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who fights in your army.”

So David… has her sent to him. And they sleep together. And she goes home.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant. So David sends for Uriah the Hittite, her husband. He asks some questions about how the war is going. You know, the war that David isn’t at. And then he says, “Hey, Uriah, while you’re here, why don’t you go home and, um, ‘wash your feet’… if you know what I’m sayin’?”

And Uriah… doesn’t. He stays in a camp with the other soldiers and servants who are at the king’s house. Because if his brothers in arms are out in the field killing and dying, and if the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent on the battlefield, he is not going to stay in comfort at his own house.

So David keeps urging him. Day after day, he says to Uriah, “Uriah, go home, wash your feet.” And Uriah keeps not going home. And David knows that he’s never going to go home. He’s never going to wash his feet. And he’s going to find out what David did.

So he changes his strategy. He sends Uriah back to the war. Y’know, the war that David is not at. He has his general send Uriah to the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then pull back the other soldiers, and let Uriah die on the battlefield. So that David can cover up his crime.

And it isn’t in our reading this morning, but it works. Uriah is sent to the worst of the fighting. And he sees his comrades fall back. And he dies in the way. The general sends word to David. And David shrugs his shoulders, “The sword devours now one,” he says, “and now another.”

And when Bathsheba hears about it, she laments. And when her mourning is over, David sends for her again, and marries her, and she bears a son.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

You see, David isn’t just some guy — some shepherd soldier — who happed to be king of Israel. He is the bold letters in all caps and a deep voice KING OF ISRAEL. According to legend, he was a fierce warrior and a wise ruler. He was so pious that his prayers could bring things from heaven down to earth. His thoughts were so entirely directed towards God and goodness that the evil inclinations that the rest of us struggle with had no power over him.

And there are centuries of spin, defending King David. There are stories.

They say: In the springtime, when the kings rode out to war, women got letters of divorce from their husbands in case they died in battle. So it’s not like David really committed adultery. Bathsheba wasn’t really married.

They say: Uriah the Hittite disobeyed a direct order from his king, and that was a capital crime. So it’s not like David schemed to have him killed. It was a perfectly legal execution.

They say: David was so righteous that he asked God for a trial — his faith was strong, but he needed proof — and this was a growing experience for him. So it’s not like David fell to sin. It was a lesson.

They say David did nothing wrong.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

Because there’s a voice we do not hear. Bathsheba is all but silent. The king sends for her, and sleeps with her, and sends her away. We don’t know how she acted. We don’t know how David acted. But we understand power dynamics. The king sent for her, and he had expectations, and he had all the power.

And, after her husband died in battle, the king sent for her again, and married her. We don’t know how she acted. We don’t know how David acted. We don’t know if she knew what he had done. But we understand power dynamics. The king sent for her, and he had expectations, and he had all the power.

She didn’t tie him to the kitchen chair, or break his throne or cut his hair. And if she drew anything from his lips, it was coerced. At least a little.

And that’s bad enough. But this isn’t just a story about David and Bathsheba.

We know this story. This story has been on the news. We know the names: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Al Franken, Roy Moore, and so many others. Some of us have lived this story. Some of us have been David. Some of us have been Bathsheba. Some of us have been both. We know that this story plays out in hotels and restaurants and office suites and, yes, even churches across this country.

Misogyny is embedded deeply in our culture. It’s embedded so deeply that someone could hear this story and think that it was about love. It’s not. It’s about lust. It’s about sin.

After all these things happen, God sends the prophet Nathan to David. And Nathan confronts David, and Nathan forces David to confront himself. And David, finally, says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Honesty is the beginning of repentance… and David has a lot to be honest about. He has sinned against God. And even though he cannot see it yet, he has sinned against Bathsheba and against Uriah. And it is only once he has been honest… about that… with himself… that he can begin to do better.

And God calls us to the same work.

Believe me when I tell you that I know how much more comfortable it can be to retell and reframe our stories.

It is so much more comfortable to say that in the springtime, when kings rode out to war, women got letters of divorce from their husbands. It is so much more comfortable to say that disobeying the king’s order is a capital offense. It is so much more comfortable to say that it was a test meant to throw us off.

It is so much more comfortable to say that she tied him to the kitchen chair, broke his throne and cut his hair, and from his lips she drew…

It is so much more comfortable to make our sins someone else’s fault. But that means lying to ourselves, to our friends and neighbors, and to God.

To the men in the congregation this morning: misogyny is our sin. To the white people in the congregation: racism and white supremacy are our sins. To the straight people: homophobia is our sin. To the cisgendered people: transphobia is our sin. And I could go on. And we are not solely responsible. But we are responsible.

And if that’s uncomfortable to hear, then know that it is uncomfortable to say and it was uncomfortable to write. Because when I look in the mirror in the morning I, too, am faced with the reality of my position and my power and my privilege. And I know that I have not used those things as I should.

It is my brother and my sister, and my friend and my neighbor, and it is me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

But there is good news: there is grace in that discomfort. Because we are responsible — because we have that position and that power and that privilege — we can do better. We can repent. We can turn to God, and she will make in each of us a clean heart. We can become instruments of love. And there is nothing that can stop us.

And when we do that — when we are honest with ourselves and with God, when we see our failings and turn to Christ, when we accept that God has freed us from the chains of our sins — then we will no longer be cold and broken. And we will be free to erupt in hallelujahs.

Events are a Mind-Killer

When organizations need money — whether they are small congregations or large universities — a lot of the people who serve those organizations start thinking about events. I’ve worked with organizations that host golf outings, put together trivia nights, host parties and galas, and do dozens of other things. And I’ve worked with organizations that have suggested other ideas, ranging from putting on a play to hosting a euchre tournament to letting people pay to destroy office equipment. And I understand why that is: we intuitively understand fundraising events and we see other organizations hosting them.

But here’s the thing: events are mind-killers. More often than not, they waste time and energy and money. And that waste means that they keep us from focusing on the day-to-day work of relationship building that reliably generates revenue.

So here are some basic truths about fundraising events:

Events are the least efficient way to raise money. It is a truth universally acknowledged by fundraisers that it costs about $0.50 to raise $1 from an event. Compare that to the cost to raise a dollar from renewing a direct mail donor ($0.20) or from closing on a major gift ($0.10). There’s no competition! If you’re planning an event as a fundraiser, there is almost certainly a better way you could be spending your time.

New events tend to lose money. It can take years for a fundraising event to become revenue-positive. Many new events cost more than they raise. If you’re lucky, an established event will eventually break even and then start to raise small amounts of money. That means that any event is an investment, and that you need to stick with it for years to start raising money from it. And given that it may never become revenue-positive, that’s a pretty risky proposition.

Even if an event makes money, there is probably a more efficient way to do it. Most of the people who attend an organization’s fundraising event are… people who already support the organization. Seriously. I’ve been to events where the only attendees are staff, board members, and closely-related donors. And that means that the organization could have saved on the cost of food, staff time, and so on by simply asking those people for money.

None of that means that events are completely useless. Well done events can be good ways to attract media attention, introduce new people to an organization, kick-off matching gift campaigns, and so on. The key phrase being ‘well done’. Effective events are an investment, very few organizations are really prepared to put on a good one, and even effective ones are almost never particularly good as fundraisers.

But here’s the most important thing. The idea of the amazing fundraising event that raises all — or most, or a significant amount — of the money that an organization needs captures the imagination of too many organizations. And by capturing that attention, it leads those organizations to focus on finding the right magical event… and it distracts them from doing the real work of fundraising.

Events are a mind-killer. The idea of events — the hope that organizations place in events — is a mind-killer.

So here’s a rule for organizations: you get one event. That’s your signature event. Any time someone comes along and suggests a marathon or golf outing or basketball tournament or gala, you get to say, “Sorry, we already have our signature event, and it’s the only event we’re doing this year.”

You get to spend some time every week working on that event. You get to spend some time helping it raise money and awareness. You get to spend some time figuring out how to get potential new donors to come and learn about the amazing things you do. You get to spend some time thinking about how you’ll follow up with all of those attendees and turn as many of them as you can into regular donors.

Yyou get to spend the rest of your time — all of that wonderful time that you’re not using to come up with yet another event idea — on the real work of fundraising. You get to spend it developing a direct mail program and an online program, visiting with potential major and planned giving donors, and reporting back to all of your donors on the work their gifts are doing in the world.

Then, you get to raise the money that you need in order to change the world.

If You Help People, People Who Need Help Show Up

Every few years, Mariah and I used to rewatch The West Wing. I haven’t watched it in a while. I’m not sure it holds up well anymore. After all, the pilot episode was almost twenty years ago. And the finale was in 2006. Given today’s political environment, the problems that the people in the fictional Bartlett administration face seem almost quaint.

But there’s this episode I think about every so often. It opens with Toby — the gruff and melancholy White House communications director — getting a call from the DC police, and they ask him to come to the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall. You see, it’s winter and the police have found a homeless man dead on a bench. And Toby’s business card is in the man’s coat pocket.

It’s a coincidence. Toby donated his coat to a thrift store. He forgot a business card in the pocket. The man got the coat. The police discovered the card. Toby could just walk away.

But… Toby sees a tattoo on the man’s arm, and he knows that the man is a veteran, and he is moved. And over the course of the episode, Toby will meet the homeless man’s homeless brother and arrange for a full military funeral at Arlington Cemetery.

Near the end fo the episode. the President finds out what Toby has done and confronts him. The President isn’t really that mad, but he asks, “If we start pulling strings like this don’t you think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?”
And he’s not wrong. It turns out that, if you help people, people who need help show up.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. He gave them power over unclean spirits. He told them to go without a staff or bread or a bag or money or extra clothes. And they went. They proclaimed that everyone should repent. They cast out demons. They healed the sick.

And in today’s reading, they’ve come back to Jesus. And they’re tired. And they’re hungry. And they’re in desperate need of a break. And they are learning that simple truth: if you help people, people who need help show up.

There were so many people coming and going, Mark tells us, that the disciples didn’t even have the leisure to eat.

So Jesus does what Jesus does. He has compassion. He invites his disciples to come away to a deserted place and get some rest. But as they’re leaving, the people see them and rush on foot to the place where they’re going. So when Jesus and his disciples arrive at the no-longer-deserted place… it’s not deserted anymore. It’s full of people.

So Jesus does what Jesus does. He has compassion. Our reading this morning skips over this part, but Jesus teaches them many things. And when it starts to get late, he feeds them all with five loaves and two fish.

And after that, Jesus and his disciples leave the no-longer-deserted place. They go to Gennesaret. And when they get there, the people swarm them. Wherever they go, people who need help crowd them like paparazzi crowd a celebrity. They bring out their sick and beg for help. “Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ; won’t you touch, won’t you heal me, Christ?”

Because, it turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up.

And, Lord, don’t we worry when they do?

Most of you know that before I came to First Congregational, I worked for a nonprofit organization in Biloxi, Mississippi, called Back Bay Mission. Back Bay Mission helps people. And, because the Mission helps people, people who need help show up. And that can make things difficult.

The Micah Day Center can be full. The waiting area for the food pantry can be crowded. The waiting list for housing rehab can be years long. And no matter how many people the Mission helps, there is always someone else.

And that’s hard. The Mission doesn’t have the resources to help everyone who comes through its doors. So, sometimes, it finds ways to say, “no”. There are forms to fill out and rules to follow and waiting lists and all that stuff. And while the Mission is generous, and the people who work there strive to help as many people as possible, sometimes they just can’t help.

And the fact is that a lot of our systems for helping people — public or private — are set up with the idea of saying, “no”, embedded in them.

Are you a refugee trying to seek asylum in the United States? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.

Are you homeless and cold and hungry, and looking for a warm place to stay and some hot food to eat? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.

Are you hurt or sick, and looking for medical care? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.

And there are even people who will tell you that saying, “no”, is the right thing to do; the moral thing to do; the Christian thing to do. Because if we don’t say, “no”, then those people will become dependent or get a sense of entitlement or refuse to work. It’s when we say, “no”, that people learn to be self sufficient.

After all, it turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up. And if we start pulling strings, all of the hungry people and thirsty people and strangers and sick people and naked people and prisoners will come out of the woodwork.

And, Lord, won’t we worry when they do? We don’t have enough for everyone. We can’t have enough for everyone. And if everyone does show up, what will happen then? What will we lose?

It’s tempting to imagine ourselves as Jesus and the disciples. It’s tempting to imagine that we are the ones who have what everyone wants and that there just isn’t enough to go around. It’s tempting to imagine that we are the ones with the power to save and feed and heal.

But our reading from Ephesians this morning tells us something else.

You see, we were not born into this. We were at one time without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth, strangers to the covenants, without hope and without God. We are not Jesus and his disciples. We are the crowds who are following Jesus around, crowding him like paparazzi, begging him for help. “Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ; won’t you touch, won’t you heal me, Christ?”

And when we cried out, God did that thing God does. She had compassion. She brought us in and offered us peace. And we are no longer strangers and aliens. We are now citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

Now, there’s something else going on in this passage, and it is important. The story of our inclusion starts with us on the outside and other people on the inside. The Jewish people were chosen from early on, from the day when God appeared to Abram and told him to go to a new land and become the father of a great nation.

Jewish people were on the inside. Gentiles like us were on the outside.

And here’s the important part: and the law, the rules, the commandments and ordinances, said that the only way for us to get on the inside was to stop being Gentiles, to be circumcised (if you were a guy), to be purified, and become Jewish.

But, through Christ, God broke that barrier down. He abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.

Because, it turns out, God always has enough for everyone. If you help people, people who need help show up. And God wants to help people — Christ wants to help people — so God threw the doors wide open and said to the whole entire world, “Come in.”

When Jesus comes to the no-longer-deserted place and sees the people who have gathered there, he has compassion for them, and he teaches them many things.

When it gets late and they get hungry, he has compassion on them, and he feeds them with five loaves and a few fish.

When he arrives in Gennesaret and the people bring the sick to him, he has compassion on them, and he heals them.

When he sees us, begging for help, he has compassion. And that leads me to two important conclusions.

First, the responsibility. We have a responsibility to remember that no matter who we see on the outside — whether they are on the outside of the church or our community or our country or our culture or our class or whatever — we were once in their position. We were once aliens and strangers without hope. And we have a responsibility to remember that Christ had mercy on us.

Second, God always has enough for everyone. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of unimaginable abundance. The community of Christ is a community of extravagant hospitality. And because we are on the inside, we can be as Christ — we can imitate the one who had compassion on us — without worry and without fear.

In that scene from The West Wing, after Toby has arranged for military honors for a homeless veteran, when he is being dressed-down by President Bartlett, the President asks him, “If we start pulling strings like this, don’t you think that everyone who needs help will come out of the woodwork?”

And Toby responds with the words I hope that we would respond with, “We can only hope so.”

You see, in turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up… and it turns out that we can help them. All of them. All of us. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Church Is Not a Business

I attend a lot of church meetings. And I’ve been attending these meetings for years. This includes the meetings where we have conversations — sometimes they’re very difficult conversations — about money. We talk about how we’re going to raise the money we need in order to do the things we do, from supporting a local program that provides lunch food for youth while school is on summer break, to sending our adults on mission trips, to paying our musicians, to telling people in our community that we exist. We talk about how we’re going to spend the money we have. And, sometimes, we talk about how we’re going to have to make some hard choices about how we’re going to spend the money we have if we don’t do a better job of raising the money we need.

And, every so often, someone will say something like this: “We have to make these choices. Whether we like it or not, the church is a business.”

And those kinds of statements always bother me.

It’s true that the church is a business in a trivial sense. Churches do some of the things that businesses do and they have some of the concerns that businesses have. Churches raise money and spend money. Churches buy things and sell things. Churches need to deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses also have to deal with. But that’s true of other things, too. If that’s what we mean when we say that something is a business, then libraries are businesses, and cities are businesses, and families are businesses.

If that’s what we mean when we say something is a business, then maybe even individuals are businesses. People like you and me. Little businesses.

But that isn’t what we usually mean by the word ‘business’. What we usually mean when we use that word is an organization whose primary purpose is buying and selling and making money. It might do that in a noble way: many news organizations are interested in making money by getting important information into the hands of as many people as possible. It might do that in a terrible way: weapons manufacturers are interested in making money by making and selling the weapons of war. Most businesses do that in a pretty neutral way. They sell books or bread or bicycles. But regardless of what they do, their primary purpose is to buy and sell and make money. 

And that’s not true of individuals or families. Or churches.

There are plenty of voices that tell us to believe that everything — including individuals and families and churches — are businesses. For example, there’s an entire branch of charity skepticism that tells nonprofit organizations that they need to think and behave more like businesses. And there are many ways that we buy into that idea. We elect business people to public office because they tell us that the government should be run more like a business. We trust business people to propose public policies because they tell us that wealthy people are more innovative. We do things like — and I’m obviously guilty of this — have personal brands and think of ourselves as something like a business. At least, some of the time.

And those voices are the voice of mammon. At least, a little bit.

The biggest struggle in the story of Christianity is the struggle between mammon and the Kingdom of God. Jesus makes the choice clear: “No one can serve two masters,” he says, “for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”1Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13 Or, maybe even more starkly,

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

[…]

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”2Luke 12:16-21, 32-34

The church isn’t just not a business. It is a not-a-business. It is the opposite of a business. 

And, yes, churches raise and spend money. They buy and sell things. They deal with balance sheets and income statements and a lot of other things that businesses — and nonprofit organizations and families and individuals — also have to deal with. But those are things that churches happen to deal with, because we live in a time when business practices are part of the zeitgeist. They are not what the church is about. The church is about something else.

If I can bold, the church is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor.3Luke 4:18-19 Everything else — including the buying, the selling, the balance sheets, and the income statements, and everything else — serves that purpose.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Different and Whole and Beautiful

On one of my first days here at First Congregational, I spent some time wandering around the building. This isn’t an old building, and you all have been very tidy, but one thing all churches have is a collection of… stuff. If you’re remembering back to last week, I’ve never been to a church that’s as bad as the House on the Rock. But still. There’s stuff. And I kind of wanted to see what stuff we had.

We have occasional pieces of old furniture. We have books and games and toys. We have combination tape and cd players in almost every room. It’s not much, but there’s stuff.

If we had an older building — one where I could walk through attics and basements and poke my head into closets and nooks — then I’m sure I would find old computers and reel-to-reel tape recorders and slides and Christmas pageant costumes and banners and tons of other stuff.

But if I could walk through this church — or any church — in a different, more spiritual way, I would find something other than stuff. I would find piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises.

We are Christians. We are a promising people.

A lot of you have, at some point, stood in front of friends and families and promised someone that you would love and cherish them from that day forward, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, until death parted you.

And a few weeks ago, the Magill’s stood up here. They promised, by the grace of God to follow Jesus Christ and resist evil and show love, and to teach Kaelyn so that she might profess Christ as her Lord and savior. And we promised to support and love and care for Kaelyn.

Last week, we made promises to the Jamaica mission trip team. Next week you will make promises with and to me. Next year, we will make promises with and to our confirmands. We have piles of promises. We are Christians. We are a promising people.

And, because we have so many promises, they can feel light. But if you’ve ever had to break a promise — not just forget that you made it, but break it — you know that they’re not. Promises are heavy things. They can weigh us down. They are important. They are dangerous.

Today’s reading from Mark is about a promise. And it’s a bit of a flashback, and it will help if we have a little more context… if we turn that flashback into a montage of flashbacks.

Herod the Great was the king of Judea around the time that Jesus was born. Now, he wasn’t an independent king. Judea wasn’t an independent kingdom. He was the king of Judea with the permission of the Roman Empire. And, at Christmastime, we tell the story of wise men visiting Mary and Joseph and Jesus, and Joseph having a dream where an angel warns him that Herod is planning to kill Jesus, and the holy family should run away to Egypt. Herod the Great kills all the children in and around Bethlehem who are two years old and younger.

And the holy family doesn’t come back home until the Herod the Great dies.

Now, when Herod the Great dies, the Romans divide his kingdom among several of his children, three sons and a daughter: Herod, the other Herod, the other other Herod, and Salome.

Meanwhile, Jesus grows up. He meets John the Baptist. He’s baptized. He goes into the wilderness. He returns to civilization. He begins his ministry. His name starts to get around.

And John is still working… for a while.

One of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas, had fallen in love with his brother, Herod Phillips’s, wife, Herodias. And Herodias falls for him. And Herod Antipas divorces his wife and marries Herodias. And not only is Herodias Herod Antipas’s brother’s wife, she’s Herod Antipas’s niece. And John is against that sort of thing. And he says so.
Herod Antipas has John thrown in prison. And Herodias wants John killed. But Herod is afraid to kill John, because he knows that John is a holy man.

Now, it’s Herod’s birthday. And his daughter comes in and dances and everyone is impressed. So Herod says, “Whatever you want, I’ll give it to you. Even half my kingdom.” And his daughter, coached by her mother, asks for John’s head. And Herod, knowing that he made a promise in front of his guests, gives it to her.

Time passes. Jesus is getting famous. His name reaches Herod Antipas. And people around him are asking, “Who is this man?”

Some are saying he’s the prophet Elijah, who never died, but was taken into heaven while he was still alive. And some are saying he’s another prophet like the prophets of old. And Herod Antipas is saying that it’s John the Baptist, back from the dead.

And it’s hard to tell if Herod is wistful or afraid. But I suspect he knows that something is coming. Something is happening. The world that he thought he knew is changing. And it’s all because he kept a promise he should never have made. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

There is a disorder called ‘scrupulosity’. It’s characterized by a pathological worry that we’re not living up to our religious duties. If you watch The Simpsons, scrupulosity is Ned Flanders calling Rev. Lovejoy, worried that he’s coveting his own wife; or that he’s meek, but could probably stand to be meeker.

And I think Herod is experiencing his own bout of scrupulosity here. He made a promise. And because people saw him make that promise, he felt like he had to keep it; even though he knew that it would be terrible if he did. And now, hearing about Jesus, he is afraid that his promise has come back to haunt him.

We are Christians. We are a promising people. And we can find ourselves in a situation like the one Herod Antipas is in. Not the same situation, I hope; but a similar one. In a world where we never forget that we made a promise — or in a world where we feel like we can never break a promise or let go of one — well… we wouldn’t just keep our promises, our promises would keep us, too.

But we aren’t just a promising people. We are a covenanted people. We remember that when we come together at this table; this table hosts a feats that is both simple and luxurious.

On those days we remember that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus ate together with this disciples. We remember that he took the bread and blessed it and broke it and shared it, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.” We remember that after dinner, he took the cup and blessed it and shared it, saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

We remember that we are a covenanted people: that God has made a promise to us, and that we have made promises to God. But covenants aren’t just promises. They are promises with room for grace. They are a promises that can be broken… and that can be put back together again.

There is a Japanese practice — an art, really — called kintsugi. It’s a method of fixing broken ceramics with a special lacquer that’s mixed with gold or silver or platinum. It makes the repair very visible. As soon as you see the piece, you know that it has been broken and that it has been repaired. It is not what it was before. It is different… and it is whole… and it is beautiful.

Any given mug or vase or plate will, eventually, break. And, it we really care about it, we can put it back together again. Different and whole and beautiful. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been broken. Different and whole and beautiful because it has been put back together again.

Covenants are the same way. Eventually, we break them. Sometimes, we put little chips in them, or hairline cracks. Sometimes, we knock big chunks out of them, or split them right in half.

We fail to love and cherish as we should. Especially when things are for worse.

We fail to resist evil. We wander off to find where demons dwell. And we leave others to do the same.

We fail to trust those who have left on a mission and come back to return to us as leaders who can show us new ways to make the world a more merciful place.

And Herod failed because he kept his promise. He didn’t make room for the grace to save a life, to say to his daughter, “I know I said ‘anything’, but I didn’t mean that I would do something evil.”

There’s another sermon about when we need to break promises. It’s a brilliant sermon. It’s a classic of homiletics. Maybe I’ll preach it sometimes. But it’s not this sermon.

We fail to keep those piles and piles — roomfuls — of promises that we’ve made. But… we can repent. We can return to those promises with grace, and put them back together again. God can come to them with a grace that is brighter than gold or silver or platinum, and put them back together again. And, by the grace of God, they can be different and whole and beautiful.

That is the beauty of the Christian covenant. We can always return to it.

And when we return to it, God does more than repair the covenant. God repairs us. With gold and silver and platinum… and love and hope and grace. God makes us different… and whole… and beautiful. Not because we have never been broken, but because we have.

There are going to be times when we cannot keep the promises we’ve made. There are going to be times when we need to hold our promises lightly. And I’m not saying that’s okay; I’m saying that’s life. That among the piles and piles of promises we have in this church and in our homes and in our lives, there will be some that are broken. And we will be broken with them… at least a little bit.

But there is joy. Because we can bring our broken promises — and we can bring our broken selves — to this place. And God will bring a sacred lacquer and a healing balm, and painstakingly repair us, making us different and whole and beautiful. Thanks be to God!

Who We Will Be

A couple of years ago, Mariah and I went on vacation to the House on the Rock. If you’ve never been there, I really can’t do it justice. In the 1950s, this guy named Alex Jordan Jr built this crazy museum on Deer Shelter Rock in Wisconsin. There are rooms and gardens and displays, and they’re all incredibly weird.

There’s the Streets of Yesterday, a recreation of an early twentieth century town; the Heritage of the Sea, with a 200 foot model of a sea monster and a bunch of nautical exhibits; a collection of pneumatic orchestras where air hoses make violins and trumpets and drums play themselves; the world’s largest indoor carousel; and room after room of just… stuff.

And I vaguely remembered it from childhood. And it showed up in a novel I read. And so Mariah and I went there. On the last day of the season. And we walked through it… by ourselves.

And here’s the thing. When I was a kid, it was probably an enchanting place. I mean, the world’s largest indoor carousel! But now, well. It’s dusty, and everything’s broken, and there’s carpet on the walls, and almost everything is a model or a replica or something that you could pick up a bunch of at a roadside stand in the 50s. It’s creepy.

And I don’t think that it’s changed that much in the twenty or thirty odd years since I went there as a kid. I suspect that it was always this way. It was always dusty and rundown and, dear God, there has always been carpet on the walls.

But I’ve changed. Some of the magic and easy wonder of childhood has worn away. I see the world through different eyes.
Time changes us. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And that can be hard to remember. And it can be hard to remember that this is true for everybody.

In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we see David, in triumphant glory, sitting on the throne of Israel. All of the tribes of Israel — and the elders of the tribes of Israel — are with him. They are making a covenant, and they anoint David to be the king of all Israel. He is thirty years old and he will rule for forty years. And he will become a symbol of Israel. His name will be synonymous with a golden age. Centuries and millennia later, people will long for that kingdom to be restored.

And it’s worth remembering the story. Because David has not always been the king of Israel. He was not born into the royal family; he was not raised to sit on the throne.

David is the youngest son of a shepherd. He was a shepherd and a musician. He became a warrior and a trusted member of King Saul’s court. And when God chose David over Saul, he became a fugitive and a rebel. When he and Saul reconciled, he became the heir to the throne. And now he is here; the king of Israel, becoming greater and greater, because God is with him.

And it’s worth remembering the rest of the story. Because this is not who David will always be. He will sin against God and his neighbor. His favorite son will rebel against him and die. He and his kingdom will pass away.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David… even Jesus.
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus has come home. He has been out in the world preaching and teaching and healing. He has gathered disciples and crowds come to see him. And now he is doing the hardest thing that a preacher can do: he is preaching in the worshipping community that he grew up in.

There are people there who have known him since he was a child. And they’re saying, “This is Jesus, right? Mary’s kid? Remember when he was little? Remember that time he…? Or that time he…? Ha! Who is he to tell us anything?”

But Jesus isn’t who he was, once upon a time. He isn’t a little baby, meek and mild. He isn’t a kid doing all the things that kids do. He is a hidden king, with a throne in heaven, ruling over the whole earth, rebuking the wind and calming the waves, raising people from the dead, bringing the kingdom of God into the world.

So he leaves. He moves on. He gets back to work where his work will be appreciated.

He has gone out. He has come home. He goes out again.

And he calls us to the same work.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. I spoke to one of the members of this team the other day and they told me about their first trip to work with the boys at Sunbeam Children’s Home. They told me how it pulled them out of their comfort zone, how they saw the faith of those boys, and how the trip had rejuvenated their faith.

And I know that person is not alone. I know from experience — I know from watching hundreds of volunteers go through Back Bay Mission, I know from watching friends who have gone on mission trips, I know from my own mission work — that going out to serve changes us. Sometimes those are big changes. Sometimes those are little changes.

Going to serve — whether it’s a flight away or a drive away or a walk away; whether it’s halfway around the world or across the country or down the street — plants a seed in us. And we care for that seed by loving our neighbor. And it grows.

When Jesus leaves his hometown again, he gathers his disciples. He gives them the authority to cast our demons, and heal the sick, and call people to repentance, and deliver the good news. And he sends them out into the world in pairs. And he tells them not to take anything: no staff, no bread, no bag, no money, no extra clothes (but to wear sandals, because protecting your feet is just good advice). They are going to be dependent entirely on the hospitality of the people they meet.

They will go out. They will come back. And, even though the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, they will be changed. They will meet new people. They will experience new things. They will do things that they have never done before.

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. Time changes everyone. Even David, even Jesus, 

Time changes everyone. None of us are who we were, once upon a time. And, by the grace of God, we have a choice about how we will spend that time. By the grace of God, we have a choice about who we will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, when today is once upon a time. By the grace of God, we have the choice to grow closer to God through service to our neighbor.

Last week, I used a saying that a friend of mine uses all the time: There is no such thing as other people’s children. This morning, I’m going to use a saying that I got from Connie Schultz. Connie is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who used to write for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She’s also the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. A few years ago, she spoke at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, and I heard her say this: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

Let me say that again: Christianity is about serving others and fixing ourselves, not the other way around.

And that’s not quite right. We don’t quite fix ourselves. But when we serve others, we open ourselves up and invite God to fix us. Christianity is about being open to God’s healing love… through our service to others… whether those others are the boys at Sunbeam, or kids at the border, or families in DeWitt. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Today, we are blessing and commissioning our Jamaica mission trip team. We are doing that so that we can send them out in love. We are doing that so that they can be changed. We are doing that so that next week they will not be who they are today. And we do that so that we can welcome them home again… so that next week we will not be who we are today.

Time will change us. Service will change us. The Holy Spirit will change us into people who are a little bit closer to the people who God calls us to be.

Hallelujah.

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