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.”

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.

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

An Ever-Widening Circle

Previously, at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome, I preached on the beginning of the story of Peter and Cornelius. To recap, since it’s important:

Peter was an apostle of Jesus Christ. And he knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God.

But God had told a man — a gentile — named Cornelius to send men to Peter. And he did.

And to prepare Peter, God sent him a vision of unclean foods and told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And Peter knew that this vision and this statement wasn’t about food… it was about people.

So, when the men who Cornelius sent to Peter showed up, Peter went with them (even though they were gentiles) and went to Cornelius’ household (even though they were gentiles) and preached the good news to them (even though they were gentiles).

And now we’re here. But, like any other time when there’s a good ‘previously on…’, we’ll get to that later.

In today’s reading from John, Jesus is giving his disciples a commandment. With a catch.

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

Now, Jesus isn’t saying this as a king to his people… or as a messiah to his nation… or as a master to his servants… or as a teacher to his students… or even as a pastor to his congregation. He’s saying it as a man to his friends. He has shared everything with them. But now he’s getting ready to leave them and it’s hard and all he wants is for them to love each other as he has loved them.

Now, we are in the season of Easter. Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and we have heard the full story. We know that Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and crucified and buried. And we know that Jesus will rise. But this passage in John takes place before that. Jesus knows what is coming. And he knows that the disciples will rejoice in the resurrection. But he also knows that before they rejoice in the resurrection, they will mourn in the betrayal and arrest and crucifixion and burial. And he is preparing them.

What should they do when he’s gone?

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch.

“No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.” And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch. “No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Click To Tweet

You see, God loved the world like this. God sent his only begotten son into the world, as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

And Jesus loved us like this. He was that son. He laid down his life. He came into the world so that we might live through him.

And all he wants us to do is love one another like that. So… easy, right?

Now, I think we established early in my tenure here that I am a nerd. And we all know that my day off is Friday. Which is a perfect combination because a lot of new movies — like, for example, Avengers: Infinity War — open on Thursday nights. And so, at noon a couple of Fridays ago, I was sitting in an IMAX theater with my 3D glasses and popcorn-for-lunch. And I was watching the greatest superhero team-up of all time fight some super-villains over the fate of the universe.

And… I like to imagine myself among those heroes. It’s a bit of escapism. Maybe Chris Marlin-Warfield, mild-mannered out-of-shape pastor, could put on a silly costume and fight intergalactic evil.

I think all of use have those fantasies. At least a little bit. We imagine ourselves as heroes. We imagine that we would run into the burning building, or towards the gunfire, or right at the intergalactic evil. We imagine that we would win the day for justice and righteousness. Even if it meant sacrificing ourselves.

And that’s easy to imagine. It’s harder to do. And that’s okay. I’m not going to ask you to run into a burning building or towards the gunfire. Because I don’t think that Jesus is saying something as simple as, “be the hero who dies saving everyone else.”

But I am going to ask you to run right at the intergalactic evil. Because I think Jesus is asking us to do something much harder than being the hero who dies saving everyone else. I think he is asking us to be the the heroes who live for each other.

When we see someone who is hungry, to give them something to eat. When we see a stranger, to welcome them. When we see someone who is in prison, to sit with them. If only for a moment, to lay down our own lives, and help someone else carry the burdens of their own.

Because God loved the world like this. He came into the world as this man Jesus. He walked alongside us. He carried our burdens. He laughed with us and cried with us and healed us. He was with us. And he still is. And he always will be.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life — to lay aside one’s divinity and power and majesty — for one’s friends.

And that brings me back around to Peter and Cornelius.

You see, it is, in its own weird way, easy to lay down our lives for our friends. Our friends are exactly the kinds of people we would want to lay down our lives for. That’s why they’re our friends, right?

A long time ago, I was unemployed for a while and my friends helped me out. And when our friends have been down on their luck, Mariah and I have helped them out. It’s what friends do.

But God keeps expanding the circle of friendship.

When Peter delivers the good news to Cornelius and his household, God pours the holy spirit out on them. And the Jewish Christians who have come along with Peter were amazed. They couldn’t believe it. They knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God. And here was God pouring the holy spirit out on these gentiles.

God is widening the circle… and Peter sees it.

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,” he says, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

And they are baptized.

And… when Jesus is talking to his disciples — when he gives them that commandment — he tells them a deep truth. They didn’t choose him. He chose them.

And Cornelius did not choose God. And Peter did not choose Cornelius. God chose Cornelius and his household and poured out the holy spirit. God showed Peter that the circle of the chosen people was bigger than Peter thought. And I will insist that God has made that circle infinitely big. I will insist that God has chosen everyone. I will insist that the world is awash in the holy spirit.

And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.”

And Jesus loved us like this. God laid aside her divinity and her power and her majesty for a world that she loved and that was broken. And God came into the world as one of us and walked alongside us and carried our burdens and laughter with us and cried with us and healed us. God was with us in the person of Jesus the Christ. And God is still with us. And God always will be with us.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to let our love be an ever-widening circle. To love our friends. To welcome new people as our friends. To open ourselves up to new friendships. And to love those friends as Christ has loved us.

Or, to put that another way, Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to be the church. Hallelujah. Amen.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.” Click To Tweet

Compassionate Capitalism and the Odious Orphanage

Lately, I’ve been playing with an idea I call ‘compassionate capitalism’. This is the idea that we can use capitalism — an economic system where private parties own the means of production and operate them to make a profit for themselves — to solve big social problems like poverty. One example of this is Lumni, a for-profit business that provides money to low-income students so that they can pay for their educations. Lumni does not provide loans. Instead, it uses income sharing agreements. Lumni provides the money for an education, and the student agrees to give a certain percentage of her income to Lumni for a certain number of years. Investors make money by investing in social impact funds. Think of it as investing in a group of students. If that group, on average, gets jobs that pay well, then the fund is profitable and those profits can be paid out to investors. The students get an education that might otherwise not be available to them. The investors get to make a social impact that they believe in… and make a profit. Capitalism makes a positive social impact.

Charity skeptics really like compassionate capitalism, and both Dan Pallotta and Steve Rothschild are advocates. In fact, I first learned about Lumni from Rothschild’s The Non Nonprofit.

But there’s an obvious potential problem here. In Lumni’s case, we should expect there to be a greater interest in educating people who will make large salaries (and who are, therefore, more profitable) than in people who make smaller salaries (and who are, therefore, less profitable). So if there is a student who will make a six-figure salary in supply chain logistics for an international corporation that uses Bangladeshi sweatshops, Lumni should be more likely to invest in that student than in one who will make a mid-five-figure salary rooting out corruption in local governments. To put it simply, capitalist markets only care about one value: profitability.

So, while it’s probably true that capitalism can be used to mitigate big social problems (as long as it’s reined in by other values), there no guarantee that it will be used to do that. And if you want some absurd dystopianism, here it is: a smart investor — who only wants to make as much money as possible — could invest in both sides of the equation. She could invest in the companies that cause social problems and the ones that work to solve them. In fact, a single company could work both sides, making profits on a vicious circle.

If you want some absurd dystopianism, here it is: a smart investor — who only wants to make as much money as possible — could invest in the companies that cause social problems and the ones that work to solve them. Click To Tweet

Which brings me to the odious orphanage.

Recently, I was told a story that was meant to illustrate why mission trips are… problematic. A lot of charity skeptics argue against mission trips on the basis that they feed voluntourism. Under this theory, mission trip volunteers tend to be more interested in the experience of helping than actually helping. And, of course, they’re willing to pay. So, for example, mission trip volunteers end up building a school that could have been built by local laborers (who also need the income). Another group of volunteers might paint the same wall that a group coming after them will paint, and that a group coming after them will paint. Or a group of volunteers might repair a house, but do such a poor job that the work just needs to be done again my professionals. In all of these cases and more, charity skeptics argue that it would be better to invest in local labor — often through loans or grants, not gifts — who could do this work.

The story that I was told involved an orphanage in a developing nation that had basically invested in the voluntourism model. It needed money, and it could get that money by charging wealthy westerners for the experience of coming to the orphanage and reading to the orphans. And, of course, the worse off the orphans were, the more they could charge the westerners for the experience. So the orphanage made sure that it kept the orphans living in squalor!

I have no idea if that story is true. But I do know that it’s not an indictment of mission trips. Mission trip volunteers who go to that orphanage to read to orphans aren’t doing anything wrong. At least, they’re not doing anything more wrong than buying clothes that were originally made in that Bangladeshi sweatshop I mentioned earlier, or a smart phone that relies on rare earth elements mined by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The problem in this story isn’t people wanting to read to orphans. It’s the mindset that makes the orphanage be willing to exploit those orphans in order to get money.

Now, that’s not exactly capitalism, but it’s capitalism adjacent. The same mindset is there. The odious orphanage is willing to abandon — or, at least, to downplay — other values in the interest of acquiring money. It’s a perfect example of why we need to make sure that capitalism is bound by higher values: even ‘compassionate capitalism’ that is trying to solve big social problems can wander into a perverted place.

We need to make sure that capitalism is bound by higher values: even 'compassionate capitalism' that is trying to solve big social problems can wander into a perverted place. Click To Tweet

Loved People Love People

After college, I spent a couple of years working as a cook in a chef owned and operated restaurant in Galesburg, Illinois. And while it wasn’t going to win any Michelin stars, it was a good restaurant and one of the more upscale ones in Galesburg.

And it was a traditional kitchen… meaning that there was a lot of yelling and swearing and name calling and threatening.
That’s part of kitchen culture. Paul Bocuse yelled. Auguste Escoffier swore. Marie-Antoine Carême probably called people names. Eugenie Brazier probably threatened people.

Chefs throughout history and throughout the world have done all of those things. My chef wasn’t nearly bad as chefs at other restaurants. But the people who taught him yelled and swore at him. And he yelled and swore at me. And, when it came time for me to oversee someone else in that kitchen… I yelled and swore at him.

Tony isn’t going to hear this or read this. But, dude… sorry. I mean, hurry up, but still… sorry.

Hurt people hurt people. It’s true in these middle-sized things like workplaces. We have entire cultures based around hurt people hurting people.

It’s true in the little things, too. I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed or started my day with a problem and I’ve taken that out on my wife or my coworkers or my dog or some random person on the road. They might have never even noticed, but it’s happened. Hurt people hurt people.

And, of course, it’s true in the big things. We all know that children who are abused are more likely to grow up to abuse others. We all know that the children of people who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to grow up to abuse those things themselves. History is not destiny; any child can grow up to be healthy and whole. But the scars of the past have effects in the present, and abuse tends to create a generational cycle. Hurt people hurt people.

And one of the ways that hurt people hurt people is by convincing people that hurting someone is the same as loving them. We get a distorted view of love. We start to think that love is the same as lust… or fame… or power. We trade love for the illusion of love.

One of the ways that hurt people hurt people is by convincing people that hurting someone is the same as loving them. We get a distorted view of love. We trade love for the illusion of love. Click To Tweet

Today’s reading is from the First Epistle of John. Now, there are a lot of Johns. There the John who wrote a gospel. There’s the John who wrote Revelation. And there’s the John who wrote these three letters that are in our Bibles. And this is one of those letters.

And this John, in this letter, is writing for a reason. You see, there was a group of people in his community who were docetists. That’s the fancy theological word for the idea that Jesus’ body was an illusion. According to the docetists, Jesus didn’t really suffer; he didn’t really die. And they believed that they were saved. And they believed that they were loved.
And John wants his readers to know that these people are wrong. That they had traded Christ for the illusion of Christ. That they had traded love for the illusion of love.

John wants his readers to know that God loved the world like this. God sent her only begotten son in the world as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

John wants us to know that this is God’s love; that God is this love. And everything depends on that. Because anything else is an illusion.

So, on the one hand, we have the love of the docetists. It looks like love. We might even be tricked into thinking that it is love. But it is an illusion. It is play-acting. It is a fantasy.

And, on the other hand, we have the love that John wants us to know: God’s eternal and extravagant love. The love that compels God to create the world. The love that compels God to redeem the world. The love that compels God to come into the world, as one of us, and preach a message of love even to the point of suffering and death.

Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes, hurt people distort our view of love. Sometimes, hurt people trade love for the illusion of love.

But… maybe…

John has this strange turn of phrase. “Since God has loved us so much,” he writes.

Since God has loved us so much…

Since God has sent her only begotten son as flesh and blood into this world that she created, and that son lived and loved and suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again…

Since God has sent his son into this world so that we might live through him…

“Since God has loved us so much,” John writes, “we also ought to love one another.”

Think about that sentence. We might believe that we should love each other because it’s the right thing to do. We might believe that we should love each other because whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them, and we all want to be closer to God. We might believe that we should love each other because of some abstract principle.

But… maybe…

Hurt people hurt people. And all of us — everyone in this sanctuary, everyone in the world — is a hurt person. Some of us are a little hurt. Some of us are a lot hurt. But every single one of us is hurt.

And all of us — everyone in this sanctuary, everyone in the world — hurts other people. Some of us hurt other people a little. Some of us hurt other people a lot. But every single one of us hurts other people.

And if we want to understand sin just a little, we can look at that cycle of hurt people hurting people. Of everyone being hurt and everyone hurting someone else.

And that’s why the good news is so important. That’s why it matters that Jesus isn’t just a story. That’s why it matters that the gospels aren’t just ancient works of fiction. That’s why it matters that Jesus’ life and suffering and death and resurrection aren’t just illusions. That’s why it matters that God’s love is real.

Hurt people hurt people. But… maybe… loved people can love people.

God loves us in this way. God creates and sustain and redeems a whole world. God comes into that world as one of us. God is born and lives and loves and suffers and dies and rises and will come again. God walks alongside us and shoulders our burdens. God laughs with us. God cries with us. God heals us. God is with us.

God loves us. God loves you. God loves me. God loves the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. God loves the tulip rising out of the flowerbed and the thistle in the field. God loves us. Really loves us. Really, really loves us.

And that opens up a world of possibility.

Hurt people hurt people. And we are hurt people. And because we are hurt people, we hurt people. But… because God loves us, we are also loved people. And because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. We can love our friends and our enemies. We can love the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. We can can love the tulip in the flower bed and the thistle in the field. We can love.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. We can love our friends and our enemies. We can love the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. We can can love the tulip in the flower bed and the thistle in the field. We can love.

Because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. Click To Tweet

And I cannot think of any news better than that.

The Christian Persecution Complex

According to legend, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. One of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food to widows in the community, he was full of grace and power, and a compelling speaker. He was arrested for blasphemy, brought before the Sanhedrin, and stoned.1Acts 6:1-7:60 And that’s an important story. The early Christians faced real persecution at the hands of the political and religious authorities of Judea and Rome. People died. More than that, people were killed by the machinery of power.

In some parts of the world, modern Christians face similar threats. According to a report from Aid to the Church in Need, Christians in China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey faced serious oppression and persecution. This ranged from church buildings being torn down and congregations being forced to disband, to Christians being targeted by extremist groups like Daesh, to government crackdowns on Christians. And, of course, as a Christian I find this persecution horrific. But — and I want to be very clear about this — I am not against this persecution because the victims are Christian. I am against it because the victims are victims. As a Christian, I am called to be against persecution and oppression no matter who the victims are and no matter who the perpetrators are.

There are a lot of countries that aren’t on the list provided by Aid the Church in Need. One of them is the United States. And that’s because Christians in the United States simply are not persecuted or oppressed. Yes, there are individual cases of people being mistreated because they are Christian. But there is simply no systematic persecution or oppression of Christians in the United States.

Which is why I find columns like this one by Douglas MacKinnon so annoying.

MacKinnon begins his column with a question: “How Long Will I Be Allowed to Remain a Christian?”

And he ends it with a series of rhetorical questions that he believes evoke Christian persecution in ancient Rome:

Will we soon have to meet with fellow Christians in secret? Will we have to whisper our beliefs from the shadows? Will those Christians with “traditional” beliefs lose their jobs and livelihoods if discovered?

As more and more of the mainstream media, entertainment, academia and the hi-tech world continue to purge or discriminate against Christians, what future job fields will be open to young Christians?

Will those Christian children eventually be forced to renounce or deny their faith in order to get a job and provide for their families?

In between, he tries to convince readers that, in the United States, Christians and Christianity are mocked, belittled, and attacked by liberals, social justice warriors, and other people who “worship at the altar of political correctness.” And he has examples that range from being brow-beaten for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ridiculed for a vision he claims to have had, to a teacher who was fired for giving a Bible to a student and a Marine who was discharged for refusing to remove a Bible verse from her work space. Of course, he fails to mention that the teacher was later rehired and that the Marine never raised the issue of religious freedom during her original court martial. More importantly, he tries to equate these inconveniences — as unjust as they may be — with the life-and-death struggles that Christians face in other parts of the world.

Quelle connerie.

It is absolutely true that it is not okay to make fun of someone, or vandalize handouts, or otherwise harm someone because of their religious beliefs. But it is also true that American Christians — and, especially, American evangelicals — have a long history of serving as examples of the adage that to someone who is privileged, equality feels like oppression. What Christians like MacKinnon do not like is that Christians are not as shielded from ridicule as we once were (though, of course, we are still shielded). 

The fact is that there is no statistically significant risk of the church I serve being shut down. Or of my livelihood being made illegal. Or of people who believe what I believe being attacked in the streets. Or of people who believe what I believe being denied entry into the United States. Or of a government agency observing the worship services I lead. But all of these are real risks faced by Christians in other parts of the world. And most of them are risks faced by members of religious minorities here in the United States.

Of course, there is a risk that someone somewhere — and maybe even someone on television or in a movie — will make fun of my religion. Or tear down a flyer that I’ve put up in a public place. Or suggest that my beliefs are wrong or misguided or irrational or dangerous. There is, in short, a risk that I will be treated slightly worse than mainline and evangelical Christians were treated in the United States a generation or two ago. And that I will still be treated significantly better than members of religious minorities in the United States have been treated for decades if not generations. In short, there is a risk that I will enjoy significant privilege without enjoying all of the privileges that Christians in the United States have grown accustomed to.

And that’s not really a problem… except insofar that, as Christians, we shouldn’t be enjoying those privileges at all. “Woe to you when all speak well of you,” writes Luke, “for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”2Luke 6:26

MacKinnon’s questions don’t point to the persecution of American Christians. They point to our weakness. MacKinnon will be allowed to remain a Christian as long as he wants to. He will continue to be able to meet with his fellow Christians in public spaces. He will continue to be able to share his beliefs through mass media. There will continue to be government sponsored chaplains and prayer breakfasts and red masses. He will continue to have political and social power, privilege, and prestige.

And here’s the thing. If the threat of the possibility of losing that power, privilege, and prestige is enough to cause him to question whether or not he will be allowed to remain a Christian, then I’m not sure whether he can share that name with people half a world away who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior even under the very real threat of death. I am certain that he has no right to invoke them in the cause of protecting his own — and my own — privilege.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Daring in Our Welcome

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 22, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 10:9-16.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

I’ve been here with you for just over two months. I’ve attended committee meetings, eaten with the Lion’s Ladies, snacked with the Crafty Stitchers, watched WOW Kids classes, sat in on Faith in Motion sessions, led worship, visited a few of you, and enjoyed some of the other privileges of being your pastor. And at every turn, I’ve been greeted by smiling faces and open arms.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

But welcoming me is easy. Like I said a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday, I am — and this is not an exhaustive list — a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I am a lot like most of you. And while we might not check all the same boxes, there’s a lot of overlap between you and me. It’s easy for us to be welcoming to each other.

Today we are having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome. We are reaffirming our covenant as an open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. We are telling our community that, while we might not always be as good at it as we want to be, we are a welcoming church.

And that’s good. That’s a good start. But while we are celebrating what we have done and what we are doing, it’s important to recognize that there is still work to do.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are a welcoming church on the easy setting.

In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is on his roof, praying. Peter is a Christian. He is a disciple and an apostle of Jesus the Christ.

He is a leader in the church. And he knows what the church is: a community of Jewish people who have found the Jewish messiah and been saved for the kingdom of the God of the Jewish people.

He knows that the church is a place for people like him. He knows that Christianity is a religion for people like him. He knows that

Christ is a savior for people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes.

What Peter does not know is that, right now, some people who are not like him are on their way. Because a man named Cornelius had a vision. An angel said to him,

Cornelius, your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Send men to Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with another man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.

So Cornelius sent the men. And Cornelius is a gentile. And Cornelius is an outsider. And, to Peter at least, Cornelius is not one of us.

And that’s when Peter has his vision. He is praying. He is hungry. He has a vision.

Heaven opens up. A sheet comes down. It is covered with beasts and reptiles and birds. And a voice says, “Peter…kill and eat.”

And that’s a problem. Because these are not Jewish foods. Peter knows that he cannot eat them. They are profane and unclean.

And I want to be clear about this. It’s easy for us to hear this story and think that the sheet is full of cheeseburgers and bacon wrapped shrimp. And c’mon Peter… eat.

But…

On Sunday nights, Mariah and I get together with some friends and watch The Amazing Race. That’s the show where pairs of people race around the world completing challenges and trying to win a million dollars. And some of the challenges involve eating weird things. They’ve had to eat frogs and crickets and scorpions and live octopus and cow’s lips.

And if anything on that list made you cringe, that’s what Peter feels when that sheet comes down. Only he can see it. And smell it.

And it’s easy for him to say, “Eww… I’m not eating that.”

And if nothing on that list made you cringe, then I look forward to rooting for you on Sunday nights when I watch The Amazing Race.

But Peter can see it and smell it. And it’s easy for him to say, “I’m not eating that.”

And there’s this voice from heaven, and it says, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” And this happens a few times. And the sheet disappears. And heaven closes. And Peter is confused.

And the men who Cornelius sent arrive.

Peter goes with them. He meets Cornelius. He delivers the good news. The Spirit falls upon these gentiles. And they are baptized into the church… this church that just a little while ago Peter knew was people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes. People who check the Jewish box.

Peter’s vision is not about food. It’s about people.

It’s not just about people. It’s about the frogs of people, the crickets of people, the scorpions of people, the live octopus of people, the cow’s lips of people. And to Peter, that’s Cornelius, and his household, and you, and me.

We are here today in this church because a voice said, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community.

We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community. Click To Tweet

And 2,000 years of history can make this hard to see, but Peter did that on the hard setting.

And we are called to do that, too.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are called to reach beyond the welcome we’ve extended so far. We are called to welcome – and be welcomed by – the people who make us the most uncomfortable. The people who make us nervous when they move into our neighborhoods. The people who we cross the street from when we see them coming. The people who make us cringe when they sit in our sanctuary.

And while that is hard to do, I am not kidding about it.

Now, I need to be clear here. I am not suggesting that anyone owes hospitality to anyone who has hurt them or abused them. There are times when we have to ignore someone, when we have to turn away from someone, when we have to walk away from someone. There are times when that is the right thing to do.

But still… we are called to be daring in our hospitality.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we need to do to enter the Kingdom of God. He tells us what it means to believe in Christ. It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger. He tells us what it means to have faith in Christ. It means clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner.

Being daring in our hospitality means doing those things when they are easy and when they are hard.

It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and clothing to the naked even when we think that they might be taking advantage of us.

It means welcoming the stranger even when they are a refugee from a dangerous country or someone who came into our nation illegally.

It means caring for the sick even when they are contagious and we are afraid.

It means visiting the prisoner even when they are in prison for a heinous crime… and letting the parolee into our fellowship even when that makes us uncomfortable.

It might even mean learning new skills, crafting new policies, creating new programs, or renovating our building. It could mean coming face-to-face with the law and the courts. It certainly taking risks. It absolutely means being open to being changed.

When Peter met Cornelius, he said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

And when Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, he said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Cornelius changed because of the work that God did in him. And Peter changed, too, because of the work that God did in him.

That is the work of welcome. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who is welcomed is changed. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who welcomes is changed.

In welcoming each other – people who are like us, people who are not like us – we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.

That is a risky thing. That is a daring thing. That is a holy thing.

May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome.

In welcoming each other we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. We do a risky, daring, holy thing. May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome. Click To Tweet

‘Baga!

Posting is lighter this week because last weekend, I went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. When I was a student there, I played in the jazz ensemble, as well as a few of the jazz combos. And while I’m not nearly as good as I used to be — because who has time to practice anymore? — I enjoy going back for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival (named for Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories… the spelling is intentional).

‘Baga is a surprisingly good festival for a small town in Illinois. This year’s featured artists were Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, Matt Ulery’s Loom, and, of course, the Knox Jazz Ensemble. Both Greg Ward’s and Matt Ulery’s ensembles take some work to listen to; they aren’t background music. But both are also well worth the effort and can easily grab your attention and make you want to listen carefully. The Knox Jazz Ensemble is easily one of the best jazz ensembles at a small liberal arts college. This year, they had the added treat of premiering a piece written by Matt Ulery especially for them, and which truly highlighted the talents of this year’s band.

The festival also had performances by the Knox Faculty & Friends Combo and the Knox Alumni Jazz Ensemble.

 

Parties and Feasts

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at Congregational United Church of Christ in Whitewater, Wisconsin, on September 15, 2013, when I was working for Back Bay Mission. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 15:1-10.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to him… and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.

I know this scene. I imagine that I’ve seen it in some painting or in the pages of an illustrated Bible.

Jesus is in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair… because Jesus is always in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair.

There are tax collectors and sinners in robes and rags, because tax collectors and sinners are always in robes and rags. They are the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised. And they sit near Jesus, listening with rapt attention as he speaks about the cost of discipleship and the saltiness of salt.

And there in the corner talking amongst themselves are the Pharisees, men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces, because the Pharisees are always men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces who stand in the corner and talk amongst themselves.

And they are grumbling, saying things like, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We know this scene. It’s a scene that’s made to seep into our bones and tell us who is good and who is bad. Here is Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Here are the Pharisees: paying their tithes on mint and dill and cumin, but neglecting justice and mercy and faith. We know whose side we are supposed to be on.

But the picture is wrong. The Pharisees aren’t bad guys.

The Pharisees are concerned with a very basic question: How can the people be Jewish – distinctly Jewish – while living under the constant threat of assimilation? How can the people be Jewish when they are ruled over by Gentiles? How can the people be Jewish when they are surrounded by Greek and Roman culture? How can the people be Jewish when it would be so much easier to abandon that identity and become just another Hellenized people in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman empire?

We know this question. Christians have been asking it for a while: How can we be Christian – distinctly Christian – while living under the constant temptation of secular Western consumer culture? How can we be Christian in a world where religion that sets you apart is a private matter and public religion has no flavor? How can we be Christian when we are surrounded by the lure of privilege and power and prosperity? How can we be Christian when it is so much easier to abandon that identity and become just like everyone else?

And, like many Christians today, the Pharisees settled upon an answer: there are the rules; here are the boundaries; if the people – not just the priests and Levites, but all of the people – keep the rules and stay inside the boundaries, then no one will risk assimilation and they will remain a people.

So, when they see this rather popular man flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries and inviting other people to do the same, they grumble. Just like a lot of Christians grumble when they see people flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

There are grumblers today, of course: modern day Pharisees. There always have been.

I don’t know how you do communion here, but in my church and in the church I grew up in we pass the bread already broken and we pass the cup in little plastic single-serving cups. A lot of churches do this and what people don’t know is that this practice of little communion cups started in the 1890’s because some people were afraid of what it would mean to drink from the same cup as, y’know, one of those people… who might have diptheria or tuberculosis. Not that those diseases had ever been passed by a common cup.

It wasn’t just the physical disease, you see, but the moral disease… the risk of associating with those people.

We see the same thing with those churches that demand the submission of women or advocate so-called reparative therapies for people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. These aren’t about what’s best for the people but about making sure that the people are kept in their places and the wrong sort of people don’t get too close and, if necessary, remaking those people into people just like us. It’s about making sure that rules aren’t broken and boundaries aren’t crossed and this group remains a distinct people.

We even see it when people say that giving money or food or housing to the poor or hungry or homeless will just make them entitled and dependent, that it will rob them of their initiative and work ethic and dignity. As though being homeless isn’t hard enough work. As though not having enough to live on doesn’t rob you of your dignity.

There are a million ways we worry about rules and borders and grumble when we see Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And Jesus replies to this grumbling with three parables.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep in the middle of the wilderness where they can all be stolen by thieves – or eaten by wolves – and go after the one sheep that you lost? And when you find that sheep, which one of you wouldn’t call all of your friends and neighbors over for a party?

Or if a woman lost a coin worth slightly less than a day’s wages. Wouldn’t she comb over every inch of the house looking for it and, when she found it, call all of her friends and neighbors over for a party that will probably cost more than the value of the coin in the first place?

Or… Let me tell you about this guy who had two sons. One of the sons went to him and said, “Dad, I’d like to pretend you’re dead and have you give me my share of the inheritance and I’ll go have the life I want to have.” And when that went horribly wrong because the son wasn’t responsible with what he had been given, and he came home begging for mercy just like his mother said he would, that father threw a huge party that, frankly, was kind of insulting to the other son who had stayed on the farm and worked hard and never once had a party thrown for him.

I mean… who among you wouldn’t do the same thing?

The answer, I imagine, is pretty close to ‘all of us’. All of use would not do the same thing.

The sheep is gone. It’s a business loss. It’s a write off. You have to be kidding if you think I’m going to leave the rest of these sheep in danger to go after one. You have to be insane to think I’m going to celebrate finding a lost sheep.

The coin is probably under the couch. I’ll find it next time I vacuum. We will not be having a big expensive party to mark the occasion. Though, in fairness, I’m probably not going to vacuum unless I’m having people over anyway.

The kid can get a job and pay rent like a normal person.

We are not, in general, us white-bread American mainline Protestants, a people of parties and feasts. Perhaps for a birth or a birthday or a marriage or an anniversary. But not for a lost sheep or a lost coin. Possibly not even for a son who tries to return home after leaving us and acting like we don’t matter.

We are not even a people of parties and feasts when it comes to being given our daily bread or forgiven our debts or not being led into temptation or being delivered from evil.

But I think what Jesus might be suggesting to the Pharisees – to the people who grumble and worry about rules and boundaries – is that maybe we could be such a people: a people of parties and feasts.

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who pay tithes on mint and dill and cumin,” but, “They are the people who celebrate every sinner who returns to the fold!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have a private table,” but, “They are the people who eat and drink with anyone!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have different people in different places and demand that we be like them,” but, “They are the people who, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, celebrate you as a beloved child of God!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who will offer you food when you’re hungry if you promise to get into a job training program and work to pay back your debt to them,” but, “They are the people of abundance who share everything they have without thought or concern; they will celebrate that you are eating a meal they gave you or moving into a home they built for you!”

Maybe when people speak of us they will say, “They are a people of great joy and abundant life! They are a people of parties and feasts!”
Last night you threw a party, a shrimp boil. And yes, that was a fundraiser for Back Bay Mission and we thank you profusely. What you did last night will house the homeless and feed the hungry and help people get back on their feet (of get on their feet for the first time). What you did last night will strengthen neighborhoods and seek justice and transform lives. And we thank you.

But I’d like to think it was also a celebration.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every house that has been built or rehabbed and, more importantly, every family who has found a home.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every bag of food that has been handed to the poor and to the homeless and, more importantly, every stomach that has been filled.

I’d like to think that celebrated every mission trip that has served in housing rehabilitation and the Micah Day Center and the food pantry and, more importantly, that we celebrated every person who discovered within themselves and their communities the power to change lives for the better.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every life that the Mission has touched and every life that Whitewater Congregational has touched and every life that the United Church of Christ has touched and every life that Christ has touched, which is every life.

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people of feasts and parties who can say to the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised, the weary, the broken, the proud, the righteous, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisees, the scribes, the people of this whole wide world: “All you have to do to be part of this people, this community, this church, this love is show up. And we will celebrate one another.”

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people about whom others will say, “They welcome sinners and eat with them.”

Because that would be good news, indeed.

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