Politics Is Not about Campaigning. It Is about Governing.

Excuse me for a minute while I get pedantic… and a little ranty.

Not too long ago, I was listening to a political podcast, and they starting talking about the difference between policy and politics. And they talked about it this way: they said that representatives needed to do the right thing—choose the right policy—regardless of how the politics would play out. They made it sound like governing was one thing and politics was another. They made it sound like the politics of a moment was about how things would play out in the media, on the campaign trail, and in the voting booth.

And that’s wrong.

It’s become a truism that the media cover politics like it’s a horserace. They act as though the biggest question around any policy work—from a speech to a vote—is how it will affect the next election. And our current political moment is one result of that. We have a president and a political party who seem wholly unconcerned with how their actions will affect people, and almost entirely concerned with whether those actions make them look like their winning. But government isn’t about winning… it’s about helping people.

Or, at least, it should be.

Politics is the work of figuring out how we will live together. That work—and the policies that it produces—should be the focus of political coverage. The horserace is fun. But our country will be better if people know how policies are enacted and how they affect real people, not just whether one candidate or another moved ahead in the polls.

Love and Judgement

It is election season. I know this because I haven’t seen a commercial for a product in weeks. Instead, I’ve seen commercials for people: Fred Hubbell and Kim Reynolds and Dave Loebsack. And, because I live on the Iowa-Illinois border, J.B. Pritzker and Bruce Rauner. And I’m ready for it to be over. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the used car dealers.

Now, we are a church and I am your pastor. So let me assure you that I’m not about to get partisan. I’m not about to tell you who I support or who to vote for. But I am going to get political, because it is election season and our reading today is about power. And politics is, at least a little bit, a big conversation about how we distribute and use power.

We’ve heard this story before. In today’s reading, two of the disciples—James and John—approach Jesus with a simple request. Remember that they know that Jesus is the messiah, and they are expecting him to be a certain kind of messiah. They are expecting him to chase the Romans out of Israel, to restore the throne of David, and to rule in glory.

So they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

They ask, “Make us your second and third in command. Give us power.”

And the other disciples hear the conversation, and they get angry with James and John. Who are these two to be asking about sitting and Jesus’s right and left hand? And I suspect that some of them hear Jesus tell James and John that those seats are reserved, and they think, “One of those seats is reserved for me.”

So Jesus gives them a lesson on power. Jesus teaches them about those seats.

“There are people,” he says, “where he rulers lord it over the people. Their great ones are tyrants.”

And he’s right. We know those people. We know about people—we’ve met people—who abuse the power they have. Sometimes, we are those people.

Kim Jong Un has a lot of power. He abuses it. He starves his people. He is a dictator and a tyrant. The Saudi royal family has a lot of power. They abuse it. They kill journalists who are critical of the regime. They are dictators and tyrants. Vladimir Putin has a lot of power. He abuses it. He murders his enemies, imprisons dissidents, and invades foreign countries. He is a dictator and a tyrant.

But those are big, easy examples. We can think of dozens of others and hundreds that are more petty. Maybe you remember a boss who ruled your office or your workshop or your retail floor with an iron fist. Maybe you remember an office manager who controlled the key to the supply closed like it had nuclear launch codes engraved on it.

There are a few people who have a lot of power. There are many more who have a little power. But there are people at every rung of power who are good at abusing it. We all know those people. Sometimes we are those people.

Earlier this week, when I was struggling a bit with a sermon, I read a different take on the story of the fall of humanity.

You know the story. The first man and the first woman are in the Garden of Eden. They are surrounded by every kind of tree that is pleasing to the eye and good to eat. But there is one tree in the garden that they cannot eat from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But there’s this talking snake. And the snake says to them, “If you eat from this tree, you will be like God. Your eyes will be open, you will be wise, and you will know good and evil.”

So they eat. And God knows this. And God sends them away from the garden—with only the clothes on their backs and the promise that God still loves them—into a world that is cursed by their sin.

And it’s hard to understand why God doesn’t want people to have the knowledge of good and evil. And Addie Zierman turned me on to a quote by theologian and pastor Greg Boyd:

“We are not satisfied,” he writes,”being God-like in our capacity to love; we also want to become God-like in our capacity to judge, which is how the serpent tempts us. But in aspiring to the latter, we lose our capacity for the former, for unlike God, we cannot judge and love at the same time. The essence of sin is that we play God. We critically assess and evaluate everything and everyone from our limited, finite, biased perspective.” (end of quote)

We ate from that tree because we wanted to know good and evil. We wanted to be able to look at something or someone and say, “They are good,” or, “they are evil.” We wanted to judge.

And there’s this difference between God and us. God can judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect mercy. We can’t.

So there’s a problem when two disciples turn to Jesus and ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

There’s a problem because there are people whose rulers lord it over them. There are people whose great ones are tyrants. And we are not supposed to be those people.

So Jesus tells them, “Whoever among us wants to be great, must be a servant. Whosever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all.”

And I need to be careful here. There’s a tension. And it’s a tension that I struggle with. On the one hand, Jesus calls us to be servants to each other. We are called to give away what we have and be slaves to all. And we are called to do this because the one who we follow did not come to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as ransom for many.

On the other hand… I know what happens when someone serves others without any concern for themselves; or gives away too much to care for themselves; or walks right into abuse. Giving ourselves up for the sake of others can be an invitation for others to misuse their power. It can diminish us and make us victims. And I’m sure that Jesus wouldn’t ask us to be victims.

Jesus knows who we are. He knows that we see that judgement seat and that we want to sit there. He knows how much we long to look at something or someone and say, “This is good,” or “this is evil.” And he knows that we cannot do that with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge.

So he tells us, “There are people whose rulers lord it over them, whose great ones are tyrants, whose leaders are bad judges. That isn’t how we do things, because we do not prioritize judgement. We prioritize love. And we prioritize love by serving each other.”

And here’s the amazing thing: that works.

When we prioritize love and service, we can trust each other with power. Because we know that we will not lord our power over each other. We know that we will not rule over offices or workshops or retail floors—or churches—with iron fists. We know that we will not treat the key to the supply closet like it has nuclear launch codes engraved on it.

We know that we will use the power that we have—or, at least, as imperfect as we are, we will try to use the power that we have—to love one another and to serve one another. And we know that the people who we are serving will do the same for us.

Our power does not lie in looking at something or someone and saying, “This is good,” or “this is evil.” It lies in looking at something or someone and asking, “How can I help?”

And I don’t mean that in a foolish way. I don’t mean that we look at tyrants and dictators and ask, “How can I help this person in their tyranny?” I mean that we look at the people who are being hurt or oppressed and ask, “How do I help?”

We look at the person who is being silenced and ask, “How do I help amplify their voice?”

We look at the person who is being beat down and ask, “How do I help them stand up?”

We look at the person who is being pushed out and ask, “How do I help them get in?”

And, yes, we look at tyrants and dictators and ask, “How do I help them grow into the loving people who they were meant to be?”

We look at the brokenness of this world—and it is broken, we are broken, in so many ways—and ask how we can put it back together again.

We do that in this church, and in our homes, and in our workplaces, and, yes, in the voting booth.

It is election season. We are a church and I am your pastor. And I’m not about to get partisan. I’m not going to tell you who I support or who to vote for.

But I will ask you to do this. When you are thinking about your vote, knowing that we are all imperfect, ask this question: who is going to love, who is going to serve, who is going to prioritize love over judgement?

Who is going to bring good news to the poor? Who is going to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind? Who is going to let the oppressed go free and declare a time of the Lord’s favor?

Who is going to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty? Who will welcome the stranger and clothe the naked? Who will care for the sick and visit the prisoner?

Because I will tell you, we do not need more judges in power. We do not need more people who will look at this world and say, “This is good and this is evil.”

We need more people who will look at this world and ask, in humility, how we can love it better.

That is the work of leadership. And it begins with us.

Rewriting Sermons

A while ago, I was having trouble with a sermon that I was working on. I had read the scripture carefully and I had a message that I wanted to deliver, but the words just weren’t coming. Every story I tried to tell felt wrong. Every sentence’s feel was just a little off. And, weirdly, it all seemed very familiar. I kept feeling like I had delivered this sermon before… so why wasn’t it working now?

So I went back and checked the sermons I had given in the past. And it turned out that I had given this sermon before. Or, at least, I had given a sermon that used the same scriptures and had the same basic theme that I was trying for in the one that I was working on. And I was faced with an unpleasant choice: should I scrap the one I was struggling with and look for a different angle on these scriptures… or should I scrap the one I was struggling with and just use the old one?

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A little background might be useful here. Before I was a pastor, there were usually two reasons I would preach. One was plain old pulpit supply. When a local pastor had an emergency or was just on vacation, they would call me in to lead worship. The other was for my job with Back Bay Mission. I would book preaching gigs where I could use the sermon to preach the gospel and tell people about the Mission’s work. Either way, I almost always used the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for whatever Sunday I was preaching.

The RCL provides several texts for every Sunday and rotates through a three-year cycle. So the RCL readings in 2015 and the RCL readings in 2018 are identical. But I don’t always use all of the readings for any given Sunday. In fact, I almost never use all of the readings; I use one or two for the sermon, and maybe base the call to worship off of the psalm of the day. So there’s a bit of a coincidence here: not only did I happen to preach on the same Sunday in 2015, but I choose the same scriptures from the RCL suggested readings!

Now, I pride myself in never delivering the same sermon twice. That’s part of why I use the RCL. It would have been easy enough to have one or two Back Bay Mission sermons and one or two other sermons and just recycled them again and again. But I wasn’t preaching that often (eight sermons in 2015), and writing a sermon usually isn’t a big challenge for me. Moreover, the sermon that I gave in 2015 was a Mission sermon. And while I sometimes mention the Mission in a sermon in my current position, a lot of it wouldn’t have made sense if I just grabbed this sermon and delivered it again. Giving the same sermon wasn’t an option.

But then I thought a little bit about how music works.

I’m not a professional musician, but I do play the saxophone. And I practice several times a week (and even every day when that works for my schedule). And the fact is that it would never occur to me to play a tune once—either in the practice room or for a performance—and then put it away and never play it again. Instead, I work on a single tune for ages. I learn the melody, I learn to hear the chord changes so that I can solo over them, I listen to recordings of other people playing the same tune, I analyze the harmonies. My goal isn’t to get through the tune, it’s to really learn it, deep down.

I play the same tune over and over again. I never play it the same way twice, but I keep what works and get rid of what doesn’t. A certain phrase might show up in many solos, while another phrase only shows up once. I revise and refresh. Constantly. Every time I play the tune.

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And realizing that made me wonder: why don’t I do that with sermons? In fact, why am I so resistant to the idea of taking an old sermon that’s been lying around—maybe even for three years or so—and reworking it, keeping what works and getting rid of what doesn’t, revising and refreshing? Note that I am not suggesting simply reusing the same sermon. But why not take something that worked once and see if I can make it work better?

Of course, there are challenges to doing that. As I wrote above, I’ve been using the Revised Common Lectionary, which means that I only get the same texts once every three years. And this spring, I’m planning on switching to the Narrative Lectionary, which runs on a four year cycle! But… the Narrative Cycle doesn’t have any prescribed readings during the summer, which opens up some options. Maybe I could take a Sunday or two during the summer to rework an old sermon.

Or maybe not. Preaching isn’t the practice room or a gig. But surely we shouldn’t just let old sermons lie around collecting dust. There must be some way to reconsider, rework, and revive the work we’ve put into them.

Shouts of Joy. Cries of Mourning.

Mariah and I had a pulpit exchange this week, with her preaching at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, and me preaching at Church of Peace United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois. That means that I don’t have a recording this week. And that the sermon is a little more directly about Church of Peace.

There used to be a building over on 9th street. It had a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to its doors. And on top of the building was a… I don’t know the right term… a cupola, maybe?

It wasn’t a big building. It wasn’t an impressive building. But people made memories there. There were births and deaths, baptisms and confirmations, weddings and meetings. There were good mornings over handshakes, and conversations over coffee, and community dinners and casseroles.

And on Sunday mornings, some folks from an immigrant community gathered together. And they worshipped in their native language. And they called themselves the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde.

There’s this song where a man walks around his neighborhood and remembers how things used to be. He remembers an ex-lover, and he sees the ways that the buildings have changed, and he thinks: I’ve ascribed these monuments / A false sense of permanence / I’ve placed faith in geography / To hold you in my memory.

Buildings aren’t just places where we meet; they aren’t just places where we keep our stuff. They’re places where we store our memories.

And our reading from Ezra, in its full context, really should begin with these words: once upon a time.

Once upon a time, God travelled with the Israelites, alongside the Ark of the Covenant. And then the Israelites settled down. And they conquered a city called Jerusalem. And Solomon built a temple. And it was an amazing temple.

There were great outer courts, with an altar for burnt offerings and baths where the priests could be purified.

There was a Holy Place: a long room with cedar walls and fir-wood floors and olive wood doors. And all around that room were carvings of cherubim and palm trees and flowers. And they were overlaid with gold.

And beyond the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies. It was a cubic room, about 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet, with cedar floors and wainscoting, overlaid with gold. And there were two huge cherubim stretching across the room. And in the middle was the Ark of the Covenant.

And people made memories there. There were dedications and sacrifices and festivals. Surely God lived in this temple!

And then the Babylonians came. There were arrows and swords and slings. There was fire and blood. They razed Jerusalem to the ground. They destroyed a temple that had stood for centuries. They carted the people off into exile.

In today’s reading, we are 70 years after Solomon’s temple was destroyed. Persia has defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their homes, and to Jerusalem, and to rebuild. And a couple of years later, they laid the foundation for a new temple.

And when they laid the foundation, the priests blew their trumpets and the Levites clanged their cymbals, and there was a great cry. Many people shouted with joy. But there were others. There were people who had seen the old temple in all its glory, and some of them wept with a loud voice. And no one could tell the cries of joy from the cries of sorrow.

Yeah… I know that feeling.

Most of you know that Mariah and I went to seminary together. We met in the courtyard. We lived in the same apartment building. We had classes in the same rooms. Our first jobs after seminary were in the development office and the admissions office. We were married in the chapel.

And today… today the seminary building where Mariah and I made our memories is the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. The chapel where we said our vows is a lounge.

That seminary is in a new building. I’ve been there. It’s cool. It’s LEED certified. It’s fully accessible. It has a beautiful chapel with lots of natural light. It has smart classrooms. And I am happy for the students who get to learn there.

But it’s not where I was married. It isn’t where I took classes. The steps don’t have the little worn out bits where students climbed them before me. It isn’t a home. At least, it isn’t a home for me. Buildings are where we store our memories, and mine are carefully packed away in the Gary Becker-Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics.

I know what it is for the shouts of joy and cries of mourning to rise up inside me. I know how it feels when they get so intermingled that you can’t tell the difference.

There used to be a building over on 9th street. It was a small building. The kitchen was in the coal room. And it was too small for the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde to grow. So they sold it to the B’nai B’rith and they built a building here at the corner of 12th and 12th. The architect chose a Byzantine revival style, with rounded arches and a dome. And, over the years, the church grew: a parsonage, an education wing, a little chapel off the sanctuary, new organs.

And I know that there were should of joy when the new buildings went up. But I can’t help but wonder if there weren’t some people in the crowd thinking, “This isn’t where we celebrated my wedding,” or, “This isn’t where my son was baptized,” or, “This isn’t where we held my mother’s funeral.”

Buildings are where we store our memories, and there must have been people whose memories were carefully packed up in a little building over on 9th street. There must have been people who cried… just a little.

Buildings are where we store our memories… and losing a building is hard, even when it’s replaced by something new and shiny and amazing. And we don’t even have to lose a building all at once. I don’t think that any of you are old enough to remember when this building was new, but some of you might remember the educational wing. Or you might remember when something was a little newer than it was now.

And that has its own kind of sadness. The carpet gets worn down. The wood of the pews changes character. The cushions get torn and stained. You open a hymnal to find a doodle on the same page as “Joy to the World.”

It’s easy to wish for the day when the old was new, and for all of our memories to be neatly packed away in a nice shiny place.

But here’s the thing. Our memories aren’t packed in boxes. They are encoded in the marks that we leave on a place.

The carpet is worn down because we walked on it… whether we were processing in for a wedding, or an ordination, or a funeral, or with the choir, or even if we were just walking on it on the day-to-day.

The wood of the pews changes its character because we touched it and the oils from our hands got rubbed in.

The cushions are torn and stained by moving bodies, and wax from Christmas Eve candles, and a thousand other things.

The doodles are on hymnal pages because… there are children.

Each of us leaves our mark—usually in ways that we can’t even see—and the community of the faithful keeps changing.

Sometimes, we change because we have to leave a building behind. The ancient Israelites were forced from their home; and when they came back, they had to build again.

Sometimes, we change because we choose to leave a building behind. We were once the faithful who met over on 9th street, in a building with a stone foundation and a wooden exterior and stone stairs leading up to the doors and a cupola maybe. And our ancestors in the faith moved here so that there would be space for new memories.

And now we are the faithful who meet on the corner of 12th and 12th, in a building where we have made memories; in a building where we have left our marks alongside the marks of people who have left us.

And who knows? Maybe we will stay here and those who come after us will leave their marks alongside ours. Or maybe we will go somewhere else and make room for new memories. Or maybe someone will come along after us and clean some of our marks away only to add new ones.

But no matter what, I know this. Change—maybe not all change, but a lot of change—brings shouts of joy and cries of sorrow. Among all of us and in each of us. As we mourn who we were and wait for who we will be.

And I also know this. In all that joy and all that mourning—in all that bravery and all that fear—God is leading us into new worlds that we could not imagine. The people who saw Solomon’s temple fall didn’t know what exile would bring. And the people who returned home with Ezra didn’t know what that would mean. The people who travelled across an ocean to what was then the middle-of-nowhere-Illinois didn’t know what that would mean. The people who left a little building over on 9th street didn’t know what that would mean.

And we do not know what is to come. But we can have the same faith as those people who saw the foundation for the second temple be laid: God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Hallelujah. Amen.

A Blind Workforce and Problem Solving

A while ago, my local NBC affiliate ran a news story about the Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (NABA). The story focused on NABA’s manufacturing program, which employees blind people, other visually impaired people, and sighted people. More specifically, the story focused on that program’s work making safety vests and neck tabs for women’s military uniforms; work that involves both sewing and ironing. The story makes it clear that there are challenges to this—the sewing machines need minor accommodations, and at least one of the employees was a little worried about using the iron when she started—but that it is also an important program in a population with a 70% unemployment rate.

And I like a few things about this program:

First, it’s just awesome to provide blind and other visually impaired people with meaningful work.

Second, the jobs that it provides don’t seem like stereotypical jobs for blind and visually impaired people, though on reflection I have no idea what the stereotypical jobs would be. Giving people jobs that don’t fit into a stereotypical mold helps show that those people can do more than sighted people often think that they can.

Third, NABA makes sure that blind, visually impaired, and sighted people work together, and that kind of integration is important.

But the fourth is the most important: NABA actually solved the problem that they set out to solve. That’s not exactly right: the blind and visually impaired community still has a very high unemployment rate and NABA hasn’t solved that problem. But what I mean is that NABA decided to approach unemployment in the community in a straightforward way: by hiring people.

Too often, when we try to solve big social problems—especially when they’re related to things like employment and poverty—we try to solve them from the edges. We create classes that teach people ‘soft skills’ or budgeting or how to manage a checking account. NABA also offers programs like that, but when they saw that blind and visually-impaired people needed jobs, they started providing jobs.

And that’s important. As I’ve written elsewhere, organizations that work with people living in poverty often get the direction of causation wrong. They think that some maladaptive behaviors cause poverty. And while they’re not wrong in every case, it’s also true that poverty causes maladaptive behaviors. In fact, it’s more likely that poverty will cause maladaptive behaviors than vice versa. And that means that trying to fix the behavior without directly addressing the poverty is a lot harder; and that addressing the poverty will probably also fix the behavior.

In other words, if the problem is that someone is unemployed, it is probably more helpful to just give them a job—even if that requires some accommodation—than to focus on soft skills or budgeting or whatever.

NABA’s approach is the right one: if blind and visually impaired people need jobs, the best approach is to give them jobs.

Now we just need to approach the broader unemployment and underemployment problems the same way: create employment opportunities, give people jobs.

The Big Table

 

I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of NPR. They’re nice things to have on when I’m driving, or in the background when I’m writing, or to pay attention to when I’m doing yard work.

And I listen to the news sometimes. Other times, it’s stuff that’s funny and relaxing: Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or Ask Me Another or The History of Fun.

But, the last couple of weeks, everything has been less funny and less relaxing. The podcasts and NPR, the evening news, the conversations, the social media feeds… everything has been about a Supreme Court nominee and a woman—multiple women, really—who have accused him of sexual misbehavior and sexual assault.

And it isn’t the beginning of that conversation. The story of this nomination is part of a bigger story that’s been ebbing and flowing through our national discourse. The stories of #metoo are stories that we’ve needed to tell and that we’ve needed to hear. And we’ve been hearing them a lot over the last couple of weeks.

And, I’ll tell you, I don’t want to start a sermon with a Supreme Court nomination. I’d much rather start with a story about Hildegard. But when you have the bible open in your web browser and Pod Save America playing in iTunes… well, sometimes you hear God calling you.

And I know that it’s on the minds of people sitting in this sanctuary. You have talked about it in the prayers of the people. We have prayed for Judge Kavanaugh and we have prayed for Dr. Ford. And we have prayed for the people who have listened to their testimony, or who have listened to the news, and who have heard the echoes of their own stories.

So we start here, with these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: you are crowned with glory and honor. And that’s another way of saying, at least a little bit, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in the United States, one in three women, and one in six men, will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime. It is worse for people who are transgender, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming. Look at the people around you. Do the math.

Over the last couple of weeks, countless men and women—and more women than men—have heard their own stories echoed in the news. Some have had to relive those stories. Some have been called to tell their stories. Some have longed to hear the words of the church: you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love.

And, as the church, we have a responsibility to show those survivors of sexual violence that they—that you—are crowed with glory and honor; that they—that you—are loved and worthy of love.

But it doesn’t end there.

Statistics on perpetrators are hard to find. But I know that there are some men—and some women—who have heard the stories in the news or read the stories on their social media, and who have started reviewing their own lives. Some people are obvious perpetrators. More people are asking if they crossed a line, if a moment was really consensual, if they hurt people they cared about, if they failed to care when they should have.

Some of us have had things happen to us that have broken our hearts. Some of us have done things that have broken our souls.

And here we are, on World Communion Sunday.

Today, churches around the world are celebrating communion together: churches who celebrate communion once a day, or once a week, or once a month, or once a quarter, or every-so-often.

And I know that I like to say that this is the biggest table. And what I mean is that this table in this sanctuary is one corner of a great table that stretches through time and space, a great table that we share with Christians around the world and through the ages.

We come to this table and join the earliest Christians in the upper room. We come to this table and join people who will be baptized generations from now.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together.
And that is terrifying.

We come to this table and eat the feast that Christ prepares for us again and again. And we do that together. And that is terrifying. Click To Tweet

We come to this table to eat with psychopaths and thieves and murderers. I am eating at this table with the kids who made fun of me in school, and the boss who made me cry at work, and the teacher who punished me for something I did not do…

…and people who hurt me in ways that are so much worse. People who have hurt me in ways that have broken my heart. And if they are not at the table themselves, then someone like them is.

And we come to this table to eat with the victims of our sins. I am eating at this table with the panhandler who I told I didn’t have any change, and the underpaid textile worker who made my shirt, and the child who mined the cobalt for the battery in my phone…

…and people who I have hurt in ways that are so much worse. People who I have hurt in ways that have broken my soul. And if they are not at the table themselves, then they are present in Christ.

This is a hard table. I am here with my friends… and my enemies… and my victims.

And I will tell you: there are times when my broken heart makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who hurt me and who I cannot forgive.

And there are times when my broken soul makes me wonder if I am worthy of eating at this table, let alone serving at it. Because I know that when I look across this table—this table that stretches through time and space—I see the faces of people who I have hurt and who I do not believe can or should forgive me.

And yet…

In our reading from Hebrews today, the author of that epistle tells us the story of our faith. God used to speak to us through prophets. And now God has spoken to us through a Son, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Who became like us. Who gave up his privilege to be one of us. Who suffered and died like us.

And who was raised. Who is crowned with glory and honor. Who is the pioneer of our salvation. Who calls us brother and sister and friend and neighbor. Who invites us into the Kingdom of God.

And when I say us… I mean all of us. Even you. Even me.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith begun in the crisis of suffering and death. It is a faith brought to life with the resurrection of our Lord. It is a faith forged in the crucible of persecution.

It is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that we are both slaves to sin and redeemed by Christ. And it is a faith where we see, with terrible clarity, that the same is true of our friends… and our enemies… and our victims.

It is a faith where we have to look Christine Blasey Ford in her eyes, and remind her that she is crowned with glory and honor, that she is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to her, this is the body of Christ, broken for you.

It is a faith where we have to look Brett Kavanaugh in his eyes, and remind him that he is crowned with glory and honor, that he is loved and worthy of love. And where we say to him, this is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, poured out for you.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done.

Our faith is not an easy faith. It is a faith where we know that our hearts have been broken by the things that have happened to us, and where we know that our souls have been broken by the things that we have done. Click To Tweet

And once a month, we do something that is so hard: we come together at a table with the people who have hurt us (even if they aren’t in this time and this place) and the people who we have hurt (even if they aren’t in this time and this place). And we see each other. And we know that all of us rely on the same God, the same Christ, the same Spirit.

There is a rule that I follow in preaching: I will preach from my scars, not my wounds. And that means that when I preach from the places where I am hurt, I preach about the hurt that I have processed, and dealt with, and healed from. I preach from my hurt after it has healed, not while it is still red and raw.

And I can tell you honestly, in these last couple of weeks, some of the scars have been torn off and some of my wounds have been reopened. I have been looking through my life. I have been reviewing my story.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Dr. Ford. And I have felt my heart break.

I have heard echoes of my story in the words of Judge Kavanaugh. And I have felt my soul break.

And for you who are in this sanctuary, or who are reading a manuscript of this sermon, or who are listening to the recording: that is where I am leaving it.

I will not put my wounds on display. But rest assured that things that have happened to me that cause me pain. And there are things I have done that I am ashamed of.

And I know that some of you—maybe even a lot of you; maybe even most of you; maybe even all of you—are in the same position. We are broken in so many ways. We bear our wounds in so many ways.

But the reason I am telling you that, is that sometimes, those of us who preach, preach the sermon that we need to hear. And I know what I have needed to hear for the last week or two, and I know that there are other people who need to hear the same thing:

No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, no matter what has been done to you, and no matter what you have done… you are welcome here. You are welcome in this church. You are welcome at this table

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. And because of that, you can live a life that is not defined by what has happened to you or what you have done to others. Because of that, you and I and all of us can live lives that are defined by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the love of God, and by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Whether you are a victim, or a perpetrator, or both, or neither, or somewhere in-between, you are crowned with glory and honor, you are loved and you are worthy of love. Click To Tweet

And that begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with people who we cannot yet forgive and with people who cannot yet forgive us.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table and eating together in our mutual brokenness.

It begins, in some small way, with coming together at this little corner of a big table, with all of the other people who depend, in faith, on the promise and hope of Jesus Christ. Which is to say, everyone.

And it begins with the knowledge—even when we can’t quite believe it—that we are welcome at this table and we are worthy of this table.

Hallelujah. Amen.

Church Stewardship is Weird

Not too long ago, I finished writing my first book. Since that manuscript is now in the editing process, some thoughts that I already had about a second book are coming back to the front of my mind. The idea that I’m toying with for that book stems from this idea: church stewardship is weird.

I’ve sat through a lot of church stewardship campaigns. I’ve helped run some of them. And, in general, they have a pretty simple argument. First, they point out that God has entrusted wealth to (some) members of the church. Second, they tell those people that they should be responsible with the wealth that God has given to them. Within the church, and within Christian theology, neither of these points are controversial. These ideas have a long history and a strong position in Christian thought.

Church stewardship campaigns add another step to this argument: they argue that one important way that church members can be responsible with the gifts that God has given to them is to give a portion of those gifts to the church. 

Now, that’s not a bad point to add. And I know that there are churches who do a good job. But, in my experience, where a lot of churches fail is that they don’t make a case for why giving to the church—and, really, to a specific congregation—is a responsible use of the wealth that God has entrusted to the care of church members. Church stewardship campaigns are too often nothing more than statements that good Christians give to their churches.

These churches are teaching a very simple principle: churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members.

And every year, churches across the United States see fewer pledge cards turned in, less money pledged, and tighter budgets.

Here’s what’s weird about church stewardship. In the church, ‘stewardship’ is really just another word for fundraising. And it’s usually a word for fundraising-that’s-not-very-effective. In the rest of the nonprofit sector, stewardship is part of a larger fundraising process. It’s the part of that process where the organization proves itself to a donor. It tells the donor that the gift was received, that the organization was glad to receive it, that it’s being put to work as the donor intended, and that it’s having the effect that the donor wanted it to. Thank you notes, annual reports, photos and videos of the people who the organization helps, statistical reports, and all of those things that say, “Hey, thank you for giving to us, here’s how we’re going the things you wanted us to do,” are examples of good stewardship.

And here’s why that matters. The most basic principle of fundraising is that people give because someone who they trust asks them to. A donor might make that first gift because a friend asks them to. For example, someone might say, “For my birthday, I’d like you to give to this thing.” But now the ball is in the organization’s court. The second gift will only come if the organization can show the donor that their first gift—no matter the reason that they gave it—was a good investment; it did the thing that the donor wanted it to do.

And the way that we show the donor that their gift did the thing that they wanted it to do is stewardship. An organization might just show you how happy a donor made their friend, or tell them about the puppies they saved, or show them the person who moved from the street into an apartment. The organization looks at what the donor wanted to accomplish and demonstrates that their gift accomplished that thing. And when that organization does a good job of that, it gets more gifts and bigger gifts.

Stewardship in the wider world is more-or-less the opposite of stewardship in a lot of churches. As I wrote above, in churches, stewardship campaigns teach the principles that churches are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of their members. In other organizations—and especially in organizations that are successful fundraisers—stewardship is based on the principle that donors are entitled to benefit from the good stewardship of the organizations. Even if that benefit is just the warm fuzzies.

Church stewardship is weird because it’s backwards. And turning it around can make all the difference for a church that’s struggling to raise money. Instead of asking members to show the church that they are good stewards, we need to show members that we are good stewards. And once people know that we’re a good place to put their money, they’ll be happy to give.

Privilege

 

There are people in the world who believe that the Bible is boring. Some of them are taking a confirmation class right now; not at this church, of course, but somewhere. And to those people, I offer a counterpoint: the Book of Esther.

For those of you who don’t remember this story, a summary:

The Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and exiled from their homeland. Then the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians and, as we open our story, the Jews are living in exile in Persia.

Due to some palace intrigue, the King of Persia does not have a queen. He has beautiful women brought to him from all over his empire. And he chooses Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her uncle Mordecai. Esther keeps her Jewishness hidden.

And Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the King. Mordecai stops the plot, and his service is noted.

The king appoints a man named Haman as his viceroy. Now, Haman hates Mordecai, because Mordecai would not bow down to Haman, because Mordecai is Jewish, and he will not bow down to anyone but God. And Haman doesn’t just hate Mordecai, he hates all the Jews. He wants to kill all of the Jews in the Empire. And pays the king for permission to do this. And the king agrees.

So Haman casts lots to determine the date. On the 13th of Adar—so, sort of March-ish—the Jews will die.

Mordecai, of course, discovers the plot and goes to Esther—who, remember, has hidden her Jewishness—and implores her to help her people. But she is afraid. Still, she holds some feasts for the king.

Meanwhile, Haman decides to hang Mordecai and wants to go to the king for permission to do that. He even builds a gallows outside his house. But just before he shows up, the king is reminded that Mordecai uncovered the plot against the king, but never had a public ceremony to honor him.

So, when Haman shows up to ask about hanging Mordecai, the king absentmindedly asks him how he should honor his servant.

And Haman, thinking, “Oh, the king is going to honor me because I’m awesome,” suggests a bunch of crazy stuff. And then the king orders Haman to give Mordecai that honor!

The king and Haman go to one of the feasts that Esther is holding. Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman plans on killing all of her people, including her. The king is furious and leaves the room. While he’s gone, Haman begs Esther for his life and falls on her in desperation. At that moment, the king enters the room, sees this, and thinks that Haman is assaulting his queen.

He orders Haman hanged on the same gallows he built for Mordecai.

Now, for some reason, the king cannot revoke a royal edict. The Jews are still in trouble. So he lets Esther and Mordecai write a new edict that allows the Jews to defend themselves. And they do. Tens of thousands of people attack the Jews… and the Jews kill them.

The Jews are saved, Esther continues as queen, and Mordecai becomes the king’s right hand man. And to this day, Jewish people mark this event with the festival of Purim.

How is this not a movie? And I don’t mean one of those bad Christian movies. You know the ones I’m talking about. I mean a good movie, maybe a sci-fi setting, Natalie Portman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Kingsley. We could have a blockbuster on our hands.

But I’m not a producer. I’m a pastor. And this is not just a political thriller story. It is a story about privilege and what we can do with it.

Esther did not choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it.

And I did not choose to be 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 was born. There was history and genetics and a whole lot of chance. And that was it.

And I really believe that most of us are in that same boat. Most of us sitting in this sanctuary today have some privilege. We didn’t choose it, but we have it.

When I’m driving down the highway and police lights come on behind me—not that that’s ever happened—I don’t fear for my life.

I have never imagined that I might have to pick up what I can carry and travel hundreds of miles to a new country where I might not be welcome… just to get away from the violence in my own neighborhood.

I have never been told to go back where I come from, or insulted for speaking the language that I speak, or mocked because of the way I dress.

In fact, because of who I am and the position I occupy in our society, I can be pretty confident that authorities will respect me, that power will work for me, and that—even if things go wrong for a while—there are whole social systems that are designed to make sure that things work out for me and people like me… alright enough… in the end.

And that doesn’t mean that I never have trouble, or that I never suffer, or that I didn’t work hard for what I have. It just means that I have advantages that not everyone gets. And that’s it.

I didn’t choose it. And whichever boxes of privilege that you tick, you didn’t choose it. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t make us any less privileged.

Esther didn’t choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it. But that doesn’t make her any less the queen.

And the question for you and for me is, “What are we going to do with that?”

This is the choice that Esther faces. She can keep her secret. No one knows that she’s Jewish. Maybe she’ll survive and be okay.

But Mordecai doesn’t think so. He’s confident that help will come from somewhere, but, “Esther,” he says, “maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

Maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this. Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time—choices that you made and choices that were made for you, things you controlled and things that you didn’t—put you here and now for a reason: to save us all.

In today’s reading—in the little snippet of this story that we heard—we get to see this choice. At one of Esther’s feasts, the king turns to her and asks, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

That is the question of privilege. And I’m confident that none of us here have been offered half a kingdom, but the world asks us a question a lot like that one. Do we have a petition? Odds are we can get it granted. Do we have a request? Odds are we can have it.

At the very least, it will be easier for us than it would be for a lot of people.

And Esther answers, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.”

And there’s a risk here. It’s true. If the king says no, she will perish with her people. But she knows that her privilege is her responsibility: “If it pleases you, give me my life and the lives of my people.”

And that’s good for Esther. She saves her people. To this day, Jewish people mark this event with a feast.

But it is not enough for us.

I am, if anything, more privileged than Esther. I don’t fear for my life. I don’t fear for the lives of my people, whatever that could mean. I cannot use my privilege for myself.

But…

There’s this theologian, Basil. He is, hands down, one of my favorites. In one of his sermons, he asks his congregation why there are rich people and poor people, why there are haves and have-nots. why God has seen fit to distribute things unevenly.

His answer for why there are have-nots isn’t very satisfying. But his answer for why there are haves is beautiful: it’s so we can share.

I have power and privilege because there is injustice in this world. But God has arranged things so that I can share what I have. I can put my power and privilege to work for others. I can give to people in need. I can stand up for people in trouble. I can amplify the voices of those who go unheard. And that is a gift.

I don’t have to use what I have for myself. I don’t have to use it for my people, whatever that could mean. I get the honor of using what I have for this whole wide world.

Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put me in this place at this time—choices that I made and choices that were made for me, things I controlled and things that I didn’t—put me here and now for a reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time, put you here and now for the same reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe—just maybe—all of the things that had to happen to put us in this place and this time, put us here for an even bigger reason: to save someone… anyone… everyone.

And, yeah, that can carry some risk. But how much really?

Because the reward is so much greater: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to do justice and to love kindness; to walk with our Lord and our God.

Amen.

Naivety

 

There are very few people in the world who will defend Pollyanna. It’s one of the things that makes my wife unique. She gets righteously angry about a few things, and one of them is the flagrant misinterpretation of this beloved children’s classic.

If you don’t know the novel, it follows an orphan named Pollyanna, who moves to Beldingsville, Vermont, to live with her Aunt Polly. Now, Aunt Polly is not a pleasant person. And neither are many of the other residents of Beldingsville. But, in good early-twentieth-century children’s novel fashion, Pollyanna is going to change that.

You see—and this is how everyone interprets the book—Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless optimism. She plays the Glad Game. Whenever she finds herself in a less-than-ideal situation, she plays the Glad Game. She finds something—one thing… anything—to be glad about.

When she looks in a charity box one Christmas and finds crutches instead of a doll, she is glad that doesn’t need the crutches.

When her aunt forces her to stay in a bare room in the attic, she is glad that it has such a wonderful view of the garden.

When she is sentenced to have a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she is glad because she likes bread and milk and Nancy the serving-girl.

And because she is so relentlessly optimistic, her name has become a by-word for naive optimism.

When someone is unrealistically optimistic—when someone maintains their gladness by ignoring the harsh reality of the world around them—we say that they are a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

And in today’s reading from James… James sounds like a little bit of a Pollyanna.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he writes, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace… Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you. Resist the devil and the devil will flee from you. Be a peacemaker and there will be peace.

It all sounds a little… unrealistic.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is teaching, and the disciples are arguing. It’s an argument that you know. It’s probably an argument that you’ve been a part of. It’s the argument about who is greater.

And I always imagine that the disciples are arguing about who is greater because we so often think that greatness is about power. Somewhere in life, we learn—and those disciples learned—that greatness and power come as a set. You get one, you get the other. If you are great, you get power; if you have power, you must be great.

We argue over this. We jockey for position. We fight wars for power and control and authority.

And cruelty is born out of those battles. The big cruelties of one nation subjugating another and driving out its people. The petty cruelties of an aunt forcing an orphan girl to stay in the bare room in the attic. Cruelty is born out of those battles.

And Jesus responds to his arguing disciples, “If you want to be first, you have to be last. You have to be the servant of everyone. Here is a child, she has no power, she has no status, she is the least among us. Welcome her. Show her a world defined by love.”

Holy power is not power over others. It’s power under others. It’s not the power to push someone down. It’s the power to lift them up.

Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ, welcomes God. And what better thing can we do than welcome God?

There are a million things in the world that I cannot control. But one of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at the world. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at other people. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how much power I give to a world that relishes power.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is not her relentless optimism. She is not a naturally optimistic person.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless discipline. She works at the Glad Game.

Pollyanna knows that the world is a dangerous place. She knows that the world is, sometimes, an evil place. he knows that the crutches aren’t a doll. She knows that being forced to stay in a bare room in the attic is a form of abuse. She knows that a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl is a punishment.

She knows that there are thorns and thistles in life. And the Glad Game is her way of refusing to accept that.

There’s an old ‘Native American’ story that floats around the internet. In it, an old man tells his grandson about a fight going on inside him. There are two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. One is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

And the same fight is going on inside is grandson. It’s going on inside you and me and everyone else.

His grandson asks him, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

And that is not a First Nations story. It was invented by Billy Graham sometimes in the late 70s. But it’s still true. What we feed, thrives. And Pollyanna is absolutely committed to feeding the goodness in the world and the brightness in herself.

And, more than that, she is going to tell the evil in the world that it does not have power over her. She is going to say that even in the face of her own suffering—even after a car hits her and she loses the use of her legs—she is going to find and celebrate the goodness in the world.

And by doing that, she will make the world slightly better. A little bit of the tarnish will come off. A little bit of the shine will come back.

And James is fully aware of the position that his Christian friends and neighbors are in. They are a persecuted religious minority surrounded by the most powerful empire in the world. Any sane person would be afraid. Any sane person would be preparing to fight. Any sane person would be grasping for power over the forces that are arrayed against him.

But the wisdom that comes from above is pure and peaceable. It is gentle and willing to yield and full of mercy and good fruits… even with its enemies. It is without a trace, even a trace, of partiality… even towards the people who are already on its own side. It is without a trace, even a trace, of hypocrisy: we don’t just talk about love, we go out and love.

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Being a Christian—following this Jesus person—is a choice. It’s a choice every day. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the temptations of power. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the struggles of this world.

And one part of that choice is welcoming the lost child, even if they aren’t our child, because there’s no such thing as other people’s children.

And one part of that choice is finding the good that God has so carefully planted in this world. Part of that choice is pushing the thorns and thistles aside to get to the flower of love that they are hiding. Part of that choice may even be finding the beauty in the thorns and thistles of life.

Now, I need to be clear here. This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Just because we see and acknowledge and nurture the goodness of the world does not mean that we are unaware of injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil.

Pollyanna can play the Glad Game. She is still staying in a bare room in the attic, she is still having a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she still has to learn to walk again. She is not ignorant of the world, and we can’t be, either.

But, when someone looks for the goodness in the world, it is easy to call them a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

When we look for and nurture the goodness in the world, it will be easy for people to call us a pack of Pollyannas, a phrase which here means, a group of naive folk who do not know how the world works.

But here’s the thing: that is how the world works. And part of the work of fighting injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil is finding the goodness in the world and making more of it.

It is sowing a garden of peace in the hope that there will one day be a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

Words

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Now and forever.

When I was young, I learned a saying. You know it, too. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

And I can tell you something that I’m sure you already know: that saying isn’t true. It’s a lie. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves and our friends and our children when someone else is teasing them or insulting them or bullying them. It’s a comforting lie. It might even be a useful lie. But it’s a lie all the same.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

Baptism is as much about the words as it is about the water: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord’s table is as much about the words as it is about the bread and wine: “This is my body broken for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

Marriage is as much about the words as it is about the signature on a license: “I do… I now pronounce you…” Years are taken away as much by the judge’s words as they are by her signature on an order, “I sentence you to…”

Or, closer to home… remember the first time that the right person said, “I love you.” Think about the names people called you or the ways they insulted you, when you had to remind yourself that sticks and stones may break your bones, before breaking down in tears. Let your mind sidle up to the words we don’t say: the cursèd words that we call only by their first letter: the n-word, the c-word, the f-word.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And James knows this. In todays reading from his epistle—his open letter to all of the churches, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, to all y’all—James is writing about the power of words. He knows that words are small fires that can set a whole forest ablaze. We can use them to bless our God and savior. We can use them to curse people.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words can bless and curse me.

And here is Jesus, asking about words.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples reply, “Some people say that you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. Other people say that you’re Elijah, back from his sojourn in heaven. Still others say that you’re one of the prophets.”

You see, people are looking for the words to describe Jesus. They’re looking for someone to compare Jesus to. They’re looking for a category to slip Jesus into. And they know who John and Elijah and the prophets are. They know what those words mean. If Jesus is one of those, then they can make sense of him.

But Jesus pushes the question further. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks, “Not your families or friends or people who we’ve met along the way. You… you who know me the best. Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat, “You are the Messiah.”

And he thinks he know what that means. He says, “You are the Messiah.” And he means, “You are God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again.”

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

The word ‘naughty’ used to mean ‘poor’, as in a person who had nought. Now it means bad.

The word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘ignorant’. Then it wandered drunkenly around the language and meant ‘showy’ or ‘refined’ or ‘cowardly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘intricate’. It settled on ‘precise’ for a while. And now it means agreeable.

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

And Jesus is about to do something to the word ‘Messiah’.

He is about to tell his disciples that the word ‘Messiah’ means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

And that… sounds bad. That doesn’t sound like God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again. That sounds like someone who will die. And Peter doesn’t like that. But it gets worse.

Because if we want to follow him, then we’re gonna have to follow him. Cross and all.

When we say, “Jesus is the Messiah.” When we say, “Jesus is the Christ.” When we call ourselves Christians, we are saying something about ourselves. We’re saying that we will pick up our crosses and follow him; that we will lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus asks us who we say that he is, and we put our lives on the line.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And it isn’t just about who we say Jesus is. It’s about who we say anyone is. It’s about who we say each other are. There is amazing power in what we call each other. There is amazing power in how we speak to each other.

Most of you know that I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission. That is something that might come up on a quiz sometime, so I’ll repeat it: I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission.

And one of the things that I learned there was the power of words. We didn’t call the people who came to spend time in our day center ‘clients’. We called then ‘guests’. There is a difference between calling someone a client and calling them a guest.

And one of the things that was drilled into me starting on my first day at the Mission was that everyone who came to us was, first and foremost, before they were anything else, was a precious child of a loving God.

In a world where people living in poverty are told that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, we started with, “You are the precious child of a loving God.”

And that meant something to the people we served. And it meant something to me.

I believe that people will tend to live up to the expectations we put on them. Not every time, but most of the time. If we tell someone that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, they will meet that expectation. If we tell someone that they are the precious child of a loving God, they will strive to meet that expectation. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

But there’s more to it than that. When I say that someone is the precious child of a loving God, I’m putting an expectation on myself: I have to act like that person is the precious child of a loving God. I cannot call someone the precious child of a loving God and then treat them as anyone less; as anyone small or worthless or really nobody at all. When I say, “You are the precious child of a loving God,” I call myself to be something greater than I was before I uttered those words. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

The words we use matter. What we call people matters. What we say to each other matters.

I’ve been preaching about love the last few weeks. Love is a good sermon topic. It’s a major Biblical theme. It’s the kind of thing that we should talk about in church.

But love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

It isn’t enough to say, “I love you.” I have to love you.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are loved and you are worthy of love.” I have to live as though you are loved and you are worthy of love.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are the precious child of a loving God.” I have to treat you as the precious child of a loving God.

Love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

But, like so many things, it starts with those words that have almost unimaginable power. So I want to try something a little bit different. I want you to turn to someone who is sitting near you… maybe not a family member, but someone who just happens to be nearby.

And I want you to say this. Just repeat after me.

You are loved and you are worthy of love. (Repeat)

You are the precious child of a loving God. (Repeat)

And I will love you, by the grace of God. (Repeat)

Amen.

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