The Seeds They Planted

Today is All Souls’ Sunday. It’s a day when we remember those who have gone before us. We’ll take some time to read their names and ring a chime and light a candle for them. And, if we have a photo of them, we’ll show that, too.

And, as part of that, you’ll see a photo of my dad. You’ll see the official photo. The photo we used for his obituary. And, while that’s a good photo, I wanted you to see this one, too. Because, while the official photo is definitely a picture of my dad, this one is—somehow—more a picture of my dad.

He’s got a hat. He’s wearing shorts and a tucked in button down shirt. He’s carrying a camera and a zoom lens and a camera bag. That is my dad.

And some of that rubbed off on me. Not the shorts with a tucked in button down shirt. But the camera.

I own that camera now. It’s broken. I need to take it in and have it fixed, but I keep not doing that. And I keep not doing that because I always have a camera in my pocket. And if you follow my Instagram you know that I don’t post very often. But, when I do, it’s usually a mouse or a bunny or a spider or a bird or some other piece of nature that I thought was cool.

Doing that sort of thing is… a piece of my dad that I carry with me. Not because I remember my dad with a camera and try to honor him, but because part my dad is part of me. That part of who he was is just as much a part of who I am. It is a tether that ties us together.

And it probably ties a line of Warfields together. There was probably a prehistoric Warfield somewhere on a paleolithic plain who said, “Hey, look at that neat mammoth,” before drawing it on a cave wall.

There are people who have gone before us. I am a Christian and I believe that there is something beyond the veil of death, and that those who have gone before us have gone to glory. But I also know that we we carry pieces of them with us. Some of those pieces are memories. And some of those pieces are who we are.

And, I think, that might be what it means to love them… carrying pieces of them as part of ourselves.

In today’s reading, an expert in the law overhears Jesus arguing with a group from a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. Hearing Jesus answer the Sadducees well, he asks his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

And Jesus responds, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

And then Jesus keeps going, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

And the expert in the law says, basically, “Yes. That’s right.” And Jesus tells him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And Mark moves along with his story.

And those of us who hear the story are left to ask… what does that mean? How are we supposed to love God with all of our hearts and souls and minds and strength? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves? How do we get closer to that Kingdom of God?

And, let me tell you, I wish there was an easy answer to those questions. I know that there are people who will tell you that there is an easy answer to those questions. I know that there are people who will present you with a list of rules and who will say, “Do these things, and don’t do these things, and that’s what loving God and your neighbor is. And then you’ll be in the Kingdom of God.”

But I can tell you that I’ve tried that. I’ve tried doing these things and not doing these things. I didn’t feel any closer to God or to God’s kingdom. I felt guilty and I felt shameful because I could not satisfy the rules. I could not find room for grace in the rules.

Rules are the wrong way to think about love. Love isn’t about rules. Love is about carrying a piece of someone else as part of ourselves.

Loving God is, at least a little bit, knowing that God made us and planted a seed in us. Loving God is, at least a little bit, about nurturing what God put within us.

Loving our neighbor is, at least a little bit, knowing that God made them and that we are bound together by the seeds that God planted. Loving our neighbor is, at least a little bit, about nurturing the seeds that God planted in our neighbors and letting them help nurture ours.

And believe me, I know that doesn’t give us clear instructions on what to do and what not to do. But it might just be that faith is, at least a little bit, about trusting that God will show us what to do; that, in Christ, God has shown us how to care for the great forest that God has planted all around us.

Today is All Souls’ Sunday, when we remember those who went to glory before us. Many of the people we are remembering today were a part of this congregation when they were alive. And all of them are a part of this congregation today because we carry pieces of them with us: in stories… and mannerisms… and turns of phrase… and memories.

And while today is All Souls’ Sunday, it is also stewardship season. So there’s a question in front of us: as we remember those who came before us, how do we take the seeds that they planted and grow them?

You see, we don’t remember those who went before us just by saying their name and ringing a chime and lighting a candle. We remember those who went before us by continuing their work in this world.

And part of that work is this congregation. We don’t just give to the church because we need to pay utility bills and buy printer paper and pay our, let’s face it, really pretty incredible pastor. We give because we see the amazing ministries that others planted here, and we want to nurture them and care for them and grow them.

We want to revitalize and transform old ministries. We want to discover new ministries within us.

And part of how we do that is through our giving. So I want you to do three things with me.

First, I want you to look around and see all of the amazing things that have grown in this community. This building and all of the things that are in it, the tress and gardens outside, the ministries and traditions among us, the stories of our faith that each of us carry. Those things exist because of the people who came before us and the people who are here with us.

Second, I want you to imagine all of the ways that we can nurture and grow those things, whether that means pruning away an old ministry, revitalizing or growing an existing ministry, or planting a new ministry. And I want you to ask yourself what it would take to do those things. And I will tell you that it is almost certain that it will take more money.

Third, I want you to think, carefully, about your place in making those things happen. I want you to think about how you will give your time, your talent, and, yes, your money, to care for what has been planted here, to nurture what is growing here, and to create new things in this community.

And I want you to know that you aren’t doing this alone. We are in this together. Our friends and neighbors in this church are with us. Those people who we are remembering today are with us. And I pray that God is with us as we use the gifts that he has entrusted to our care to love him with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves.

This is a picture of my dad. He’s got a hat. He’s wearing shorts and a tucked in button down shirt. And he’s carrying a camera. And I can imagine him taking pictures of birds and flowers and everything else he can see through the viewfinder.

Somewhere along the way, he planted that seed in me. And now, part of who I am is a guy who takes pictures of the neat caterpillar that was on my back door, or the spider who built a web between my neighbor’s house and mine, or the killdeer who nested in the church parking lot.

And part of how I love him is by being that person.

There are people who came before us. And somewhere along the way, they planted their seeds in this church. And now we are people who host mental health first aid trainings, and have beef dinners, and show up for a church member who needs help staining their deck, and make shorts for kids in Jamaica.

And part of how we love them is by being that church, that community, that little consulate of the Kingdom of God.

Let us be everything that they dreamed we would be… and even more, let us be everything that God wants us to be. Amen.

The Little Things

 

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a weird little holiday in Protestant churches. There are no greeting cards or mattress sales or big family dinners. But some Lutherans make a big deal out of it. And some Reformed churches make a big deal out of it. And some Anglicans make a big deal out of it.

And some congregations of the United Church of Christ—being, as we are, heirs to many of the traditions that came out of the Reformation—dress the altar in red and take a Sunday to acknowledge that five-hundred-and-one years ago, on October 31st, a thirty-odd-year-old monk and priest named Martin Luther nailed an invitation to a discussion to a church door and started a revolution.

Sometimes, it’s the little things—an invitation posted on a door—that change the world.

Today’s reading is not a reading about reformation. The story that Mark tells us isn’t about changing the world. Except that it is, a little bit.

And the thing about this story is that it shows up again and again. Jesus sees someone who needs healing and he heals them. And he tells them, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” There are a hundred variations on that story. Jesus had a habit of doing this sort of thing.

In this variation, Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are leaving Jericho. And, as they’re leaving, the camera pans over to a man with an unusual name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Now, that’s a weird name because Bartimaeus means ‘son of Timaeus’. So, maybe Mark is telling us that this guy is named ‘Son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus,’ like Timaeus really needed to make a point. Or maybe Mark is translating for us, which he sometimes does: this guy is called Bartimaeus, which means ‘son of Timaeus.’

And that’s not important to the story, but it is why I’m going to call this guy Bart.

Now, Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… and Bart has heard of Jesus. Maybe he had heard about the time that Jesus healed the paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of a house that Jesus was preaching at in Capernaum. 

Or maybe he had heard about the time that Jesus had met a man with a withered hand and restored it. 

Or maybe he had heard about the time that a woman who had hemorrhages for twelve years, and who had spent all of her money on doctors, touched the hem of his Jesus’s cloak and been healed.

The fact is that Jesus has been healing people and exorcising demons. And his name has gotten around. And Bart has heard of him. And Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… and Bart has faith that Jesus can change all of that.

So, as Jesus and his disciples and the large crowd pass by on their way out of Jericho, he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And people turn to him… and shush him. “Be quiet,” they say, “don’t bother him. That’s Jesus.”

So Bart shouts louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And in that moment, Jesus stops, and looks over, and says to some people in the crowd, “Tell that man to come here.”

And when Bart hears this, he jumps up and runs to Jesus. And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bart answers, “I want you to let me see again.” And Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And, suddenly, Bart’s sight is restored!

Now, there are people who will tell you that faith can cure everything. If you just pray, God will cure your cold. If you just believe, God will send your cancer into remission. If you just send $29.95 to a PO Box in Delaware, someone will send you some healing oil straight from the Holy Land that has been blessed by your favorite televangelist right there on TV, and that oil will cure your depression and your anxiety. And those people are wrong.

I’m not going to say that it never happens. But I will tell you that I’ve never seen it happen. And I know that an ancient Jewish scholar named Sirach wrote that God had made physicians and pharmacists and medicines. And while his book isn’t part of the Jewish Bible or our Bible, it is part of the Catholic Bible and the Eastern Orthodox Bible and the Oriental Orthodox Bible. So, maybe we should take it seriously.

So, have faith. And pray. And listen to your healthcare professionals.

And pay attention to the story. Because Bart is a beggar… and Bart is blind… but Bart can already see something that too many people cannot. He has heard the stories, and he can see that Jesus can change his life.

And that change started with Bart shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Sometimes, it’s the little things—a shout coming out of a crowd—that change the world.

Now, I’ll be honest, it hardly seems like the world changes when Bart regains his sight. The foundations of the world don’t shift, oceans don’t rise, empires don’t fall. It seems like almost everything is exactly the same as it was a few minutes earlier.

But the fact is that Bart’s world has changed. He can see. He has added a whole sense to his life: the sun shines, a friend smiles, colors exist, in a way that none of them did before.

And, I’ll be honest, it hardly seemed like the world changed when Martin Luther nailed an invitation to a church door. The foundations of the world didn’t shift, oceans didn’t rise, empires didn’t fall. It seemed like almost everything was exactly the same as it was a few minutes earlier.

But the fact is that Martin’s world had changed. He had an argument to make. And, little by little, that argument went out into the world. One person heard it, and then another, and then another, and the whole world changed.

And it doesn’t end there.

When Bart regains his sight, he doesn’t walk away. He regains his sight and he joins the crowd that follows Jesus on the way. When Martin nails an invitation to that church door, he cannot walk away. He is now part of a debate that will see him excommunicated, that will see new churches rise up, and that will see important reforms in the Catholic church.

You see, the foundations of the world almost never shift all at once, oceans almost never rise all at once, and empires almost never fall all at once. What happens is one little thing after another. One act of hate or anger or greed making the world a little worse and rippling out into the world. One act of love or mercy or generosity making the world a little better and rippling out into the world.

It’s the little things that change the world.

Bart’s shout from the crowd–“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”–changed his world. And it changed his world so much that he could not live the way he had been living. He had to follow Jesus into a new world. And someone saw that, and someone told the story, and someone wrote it down.

And people read that story. And they saw the world in a new way. And they built a community around the Jesus who had mercy. And the world changed. One person at a time.

And when a thirty-odd-year-old monk and priest thought that community had gotten a bit off tack, he nailed an invitation to a church door. And people talked. And people argued. And the world changed. One person at a time.

It’s the little things that change the world.

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s a weird little holiday in Protestant churches. There are no greeting cards or mattress sales or big family dinners. But some congregations in the United Church of Christ dress the altar in red and take a Sunday to acknowledge that five-hundred-and-one years ago, a little thing changed the world.

And the beauty of it is that it didn’t stop there. There was not a single moment when things changed and then stopped. The world kept moving and changing. The church reformed and kept reforming. And we are part of that.

You see, we are Bart. We cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus calls us to him. And our eyes are opened. We see the world in a new way. And we follow Jesus on his way into the future.

And when we get tired, when we get off track, when we grow weary, when we lose our way… we can cry out again, “Jesus, have mercy on us.” And Jesus will call us to him, and open our eyes so that we can see the world in a new way. And we will follow him further… one step at a time, one day at a time.

One kind word at a time. One act of compassion at a time. One outstretched hand at a time.

And by the grace of God, one little thing at a time, we will make the world a place of justice and mercy and abundance. Amen.

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.

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.

Cool.

Last weekend, there were two funerals.

I don’t know how many of you saw Aretha Franklin’s funeral. I didn’t watch it live, but I watched some of the eulogies and musical tributes on YouTube after it was over. And while there were a couple of rough spots, it was a good service. The music honored God and Aretha, and Jennifer Hudson can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about Aretha’s art and about her work for justice, and Rev. Dr. Barber can preach here any times he wants.

It honored the Queen of Soul and it called the people who watched to continue her work. It was a good service.

I don’t know how many of you saw John McCain’s funeral. I saw a little bit of it live, and I watched some of the eulogies and musical pieces on YouTube after it was over. And it was also a good service. The music honored God and John, and Renee Fleming can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about John’s service and about his legacy, and President Obama can preach here any times he wants.

(I know not all of you liked him as a president, but the man can give a speech).

It honored the maverick of the Senate and it called the people who watched to continue his work. It was a good service.
And I know that there were people watching them on television or the internet or wherever, who saw them and thought, “If only my church could be like that.”

I know that because I know that some well-meaning white pastors got on Twitter and Facebook and said so. They said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. I wish someone would shout ‘Amen’ during the sermon. I wish there was dancing in the aisles during the hymns. I wish that people would clap on two and four.”

And I’m sure that some well-meaning pastors said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Washington National Cathedral. I wish that we had flying buttresses and a mighty rose window and clever gargoyles. I wish that we had our own string quartet. I wish that we had the pomp and circumstance and weight of tradition.”

And I’ll bet a few people who attend church faithfully on Sunday mornings said the same things.

And I get it. I know where folks are coming from when we wish for those things. We are here this morning in a mainline, Protestant church. And while we generally have good attendance, there aren’t as many people here as there used to be. And while we aren’t panicking about money, the budget isn’t as big as it used to be.

And, let’s face it, it’s-not-how-it-used-to-be is a story that’s playing out in churches across the country. In mainline churches, in evangelical churches, in Catholic churches, in Orthodox churches. In white churches and Black churches and Korean churches and Latinx churches.

And we are all looking for the thing that will get folks to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. We are all looking for best projections, and the gospel choir, and the pomp and circumstance, and the dancing in the aisles, and the hip young pastor.

We all want to get some of that cool. And when the line-up has Michael Eric Dyson and Tyler Perry and Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, or a couple of former presidents and the United States Navy Brass Ensemble… well, that’s pretty cool. We all want to get some of that cool.

One of today’s readings is from the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is the ancient equivalent of an open letter. It wasn’t written to a specific church. It was written to all of the churches. To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. To all y’all.

And in this morning’s passage, James is talking about the difference between style and substance. And he’s telling us about a problem he’s seeing in too many churches: they’re trying to look cool.

When someone with gold rings and fine clothes shows up, they pull out all the stops. They usher them in and say, “Here’s the best seat, please. And be sure to fill out the little visitor card. And please join us for coffee after the service, use one of the special mugs with the black outside and the red inside and the logos on it. Oh, and let me introduce you to our pastor. It’s so nice to have you here.”

But when… other people… come in. Well, they’re not as nice. Maybe they’re even a little dismissive.

You see, they’re trying to be the church where the influencers go. They’re trying to be the church were the hip kids go. They’re trying to get people who aren’t there yet to say, “Did you hear so-and-so goes to that church? We should check that out. I heard Ariana Grande is doing the special music next week.”

They want to look cool. And I get that. I want to look cool.

But James reminds them… and us… and everyone… that looking cool isn’t the same as being cool.

And he says to them… and us… and everyone… “You say you’ve got faith, but you don’t have works. You see someone who’s naked and hungry and you say, ‘Oh, go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ but you don’t give them any clothes or any food. You’ve got the look, but not the thing; you’ve got the style, but not the substance. You think you’re cool, but I can see right through you. You are posers.”

You see, it’s not about the gold rings and fine clothes. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about something else entirely.

Way back in the third century, there was a theologian named Tertullian. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard a quote from one of his many writings.

In one of his books, he is describing the Christian community and contrasting it with the pagan world that surrounds it. He describes worship and prayer and discipline and charity. “But,” he writes, “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘see how they — see how those Christians — love one another.”

Now, Tertullian was writing when Christianity was a minority religion, surrounded by a society that did not share its beliefs or its culture, persecuted by the powers-that-were. And he imagined that non-Christians did not so much love one another. He imagined that Christian love was unique and impressive and radically counter-cultural.

And we are not in the same position. As Christians in the United States today, we are part of a majority religion; we are surrounded by a culture that we have influenced and, and times, dominated; and we are far from persecuted. Some of our Christian friends and neighbors are far more likely to be doing the persecuting, than being persecuted.

But… we live in a society where there is not enough love.

Last week, I reminded you that you are loved and that you are worthy of love. And the truth is that there are far too many people in this world who do not know that they are loved and who do not know that they are worthy of love. We are so desperate for love that we will run to anything that looks like it might be love.

And worse than that, we live in a society where people look at the church and see a community that does not love. They see a community that talks about love. They see a community that pretends to love. They see a community that has a the style… but does not have the substance. They see a community that does not love.

And far too often, far too many churches are happy to live up to the low expectations that people have of us.

And we can do better than that. We — we the whole big worldwide church, we the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa — can do better than that. It is not about the style. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about love. That is what people are hungry for. That is what God calls us to do. To love.

See how they love one another.

And more.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in a house in Tyre, and he’s trying to not be noticed. But this woman — this gentile woman — comes up to him and starts talking about her daughter, who has a demon.

And Jesus, who we know is loving and caring and ready to help and ready to heal… dismisses her. He isn’t for her. He is Jesus. He is Jewish. He is the deliverer of the Jewish people. He is the Messiah of Israel. And this woman is a gentile. He isn’t for her.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food… and throw it to the dogs.”

‘See how they love one another’ means ‘see how they love one another. See how they love people who are already inside.’ But there are people who aren’t inside — there are people out there who need love. They need to know they are loved. They need to know they are worthy of love.

And this woman won’t let go. This woman is going to school Jesus, who is in this house in Tyre trying to not be noticed, on love.

“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“If you want to call me a dog you can call me a dog. But you are still responsible for the dogs. You don’t get to have this gift — you don’t get to have this power — and not share it around.”

We don’t get to have this love and not share it around.

See how they love one another? No. See how they love everyone.

See, that’s the thing. That’s the substance. That’s the cool. It isn’t about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about the love. It’s about the endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love.

It is about love when we are celebratory and raucous. It is about love when we are somber and staid. It is about love in our joy. It is about love in our sorrow. It is about love for people inside. It is about love for people outside. It is about love. It is about love. It is about love.

And, yeah, I really believe that love — endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love — is the thing that will get people to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. But, just as importantly, it is what will bring us closer to God.

Cool. Cool cool cool.

Chewed Up Gum

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”

Oh… my.

I tend to be a lectionary preacher. If you haven’t heard of the lectionary before, it’s a list of scriptures for every Sunday of the year, plus holidays like Christmas and Good Friday and All Saints Day and even Thanksgiving (and Canadian Thanksgiving).
It runs over a three year cycle. So, if we followed the lectionary really closely, and read all four of the suggested scriptures in every worship service, we would get through a pretty good chunk of the Bible over the course of a few years.

I like it because it forces me to grapple with scriptures that I might not choose if I selected my own scriptures every week. I have my favorites. And there’s a risk that I’d preach on them every week. And this makes sure that I spend time with other scriptures.

But, sometimes, I get this: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice.”

This morning’s Old Testament reading is from a book that is often called the Song of Solomon. But, in Hebrew, it’s called Shir haShirim: Song of Songs. And, again in Hebrew, when someone says that something is the ‘thing of things’ that means it’s the best, the greatest, the most beautiful: Lord of Lords, Holy of Holies, Song of Songs. This is the best song.

And people have spent thousands of years trying to figure out what to do with it. Because it’s in the Bible. And it’s a love song. People have tried to make it into a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church. And maybe it is. But it is also a love song. Period. And it gets… well…

And I looked, and this might be the only time it shows up in the lectionary.

In today’s reading, the woman in the song is describing a visit from her lover. And it’s a scene we’ve seen played out in a thousand movies and television shows. And maybe some of you have seen it in real life.

A boy shows up at the house and throws pebbles against the window. And the girl opens the window. And the the boy says, “Come away with me. It’s springtime. The night is warm. The birds are singing. The flowers are blossoming. Come away with me and we’ll kiss on a mountaintop. Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you.”

(Some of that is Norah Jones, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

When I was younger — when I was involved in a more conservative church organization — I encountered purity culture. Or, at least, something that looked a lot like purity culture.

Purity culture is hard to describe, but you’ve probably run into it… at least a little. Maybe a lot. Pledges to abstain from sex until marriage; maybe even to abstain from kissing until marriage; maybe even the practice of wearing a purity ring as a reminder of that pledge. Chaperoned courtships to make sure that no one gives in to impure thoughts or impure urges. Absolutely a four-feet-on-the-floor-at-all-times rule. Absolutely heteronormative. Absolutely cis-normative.

And there’s the gum metaphor. You are like a stick of gum. And if you step outside the boundaries of your purity — if you have sex outside of marriage — then it’s like someone has chewed you up. And when you’re done, who’s going to want a chewed up piece of gum? No one. That’s who.

And I want to be clear here: while we see purity culture a lot in conservative evangelical culture, we also see it in plenty of other places.

And I want to be painfully clear here: purity culture is harmful. It hurts people who have been the victims of sexual violence. It hurts people who haven’t been victims, but who gave in to their own hormones that one time. It hurts people who haven’t given in, but who stand in a place of judgement over their friends and neighbors.

It can leave a person an empty shell of themselves, under the waves, in the blue of their oblivion.

(And that’s Fiona Apple, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are eating. And they’re eating without washing their hands.

Now, the Pharisees and the scribes had a tradition that they did not eat without washing their hands, and whatever they bought at the market, and their cups and pots and kettles.

And Mark even uses a sort of hopeful superlative: “All of the Jews,” he says, “had this tradition.” Now, ‘all of the Jews’ certainly did not. But Mark is trying to paint a picture here.

And the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples ignore the tradition of our elders? Why are they eating with unclean hands? Why don’t they keep pure?”

And here the lectionary is a little weird, because it skips some verses. And Jesus gives three answers here.

To the scribes and Pharisees he answers, “You are terrible. You are putting your human tradition over God’s commands. In fact, you avoid following God’s commands by creating a loophole through tradition.”

To the crowd he answers, “There is nothing outside a person that can defile him by going in.”

And, later, to the disciples he answers, “Food cannot defile you, only what comes out of your heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And while the gospel just kind of moves on after that, in this moment, whether they realize it or not, the disciples stand condemned. In this moment, whether we realize it or not, we stand condemned. Because we’ve all had things come out of our hearts that defile us and make us less than pure.

And, yes, some of those are sexual: fornication and adultery and licentiousness. But most of them aren’t. And while some of them might seem rare — like theft and murder, though those aren’t as rare as you might think — most of them are things that we do in our everyday lives, one way or another: avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly.

And they are not ranked. There is not one evil inclination that’s better than another. There is no grading on a curve. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and we all stand in complete equality before her, defiled and impure because of that sin.

If anyone here is a chewed up piece of gum, we all are. And who wants a chewed up piece of gum?

God does.

That is the heart of the gospel. No matter how beat down you are, no matter how heavy and dirty your soul is, no matter who you are… where you are on life’s journey… what you’ve done… what has happened to you… God still comes to your window and throws pebbles and asks you to come away with him. God still calls you his dove. God still asks to see your face and hear your voice, because your voice is sweet and your face is lovely. And God will never… ever… ever… stop loving you.

And I cannot tell you how important that message is. There are people in this world, there are people in this town, there are people in this church community, there are people in this sanctuary, who have been told that they are not loved and that they are not worthy of love.

There are people in this world who lie about love. They lie to others and they lie to themselves.

And I want this message to be resoundingly clear: you are loved and you are worthy of love.

You will lose your confidence. In times of trial, your common sense. You may lose your innocence, but you cannot lose God’s love.

(And that’s Sara Groves, but that’s okay, I think she gets it).

And it doesn’t stop there.

We are Christians. We are imitators of Christ.

We’re not always good at it. I’m not always good at it. But that’s what we are. And that means two things.

First, it means that we are called into a new life. We are called to be better than we are. We are called to shun fornication and adultery and licentiousness. And theft and murder. And avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly. And everything that is not love.

And we’re going to fail. That’s okay. We get up, we know that we are loved, and we try again.

Second, it means that we’re called to share that same indiscriminate love that God has or us with everyone in here and with everyone out there. We are called to remind each other that we are not chewed up pieces of gum, but precious children of a loving God.

Because, you see, God has a love song. It is the love song of love songs. It is the greatest of all love songs. And we can all sing along. Amen.

Different and Whole and Beautiful

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

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

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

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

We are Christians. We are a promising people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And John is still working… for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who We Will Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he calls us to the same work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hallelujah.

Other People’s Children

You all know that Mariah and I don’t have children.

Now, I’m almost 40, so this happens less often than it used to, but it still happens. Someone asks when we’re going to get around to having kids, or reminds us that there’s still time, or tells us that we’re going to regret it if we never have children. But the fact is that we thought about it, and we prayed about it, and we made a choice.

Some people are called to have children. We are not. And that’s okay.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t like kids; in fact, we love them. And while we might not have children of our own, we take the idea that it takes a village to raise a child seriously. We are there for the children in our neighborhood, and our congregations, and our communities. And we are happy to do our part.

But, because I’m not a parent, I’m going to borrow some credibility from a friend of mine who is. Like a lot of my friends who are women and who are around my age, she’s a mom with two young children. And, honestly, her husband is kind of a big kid sometimes. And, to be fair, so is she. But she is a mom. And she takes being a mom seriously.

And one of the things that she likes to say is, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.”

I’m going to say that again. It’s that important. There is no such thing as other people’s children.
And Jesus knows that.

In today’s reading from the gospel of Mark, we have two stories; one wrapped inside the other. Both of them are stories about healing. Both of them are stories about other people’s children.

Jesus has just crossed the Sea of Galilee and stepped off the boat when a man named Jairus comes up to him. Jairus is a leader in the local synagogue and his daughter — who was about twelve years old — is on the verge of death. And he begs Jesus again and again to come and help, tears in his eyes, his voice cracking, “Come, please, and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

And, because there’s a child in need, Jesus goes with Jairus.

But while they’re walking, the crowd is pressing in. Everyone wants to see Jesus.

And in that crowd is a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. As long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive. She’s spent all of her money on doctors. She has nothing left and has nothing to show for it. And just like Jairus said, “Come, lay your hands on my daughter so that she can be made well,” this woman says to herself, “If I can just lay my hands on the hem of his cloak, I can be made well.”

She gets close to him. She lays her hands on his cloak. Jesus feels the power go out of him.

He turns to the crowd and asks who touched him. And this woman steps forward and falls to her knees and tells him what she did. And Jesus says, “Daughter…” That word is important, he says, “Daughter… your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”
In that moment, she is his child. Because Jesus knows that she is someone’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

No sooner does he tell her to go in peace than some people come from Jairus’s house and say to Jairus, “Your daughter is dead. There is nothing we can do. Stop bothering Jesus.”

And Jesus says something that should sound familiar. We talked about it last week. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith. I got this.”

And they go to Jairus’s house. And Jesus revives his daughter. And he tells them to tell no one… and to get her something to eat.

Jesus knows that this is Jairus’s child. And Jesus knows that there is no such thing as other people’s children.

It would be easy for me to say that we are all Jesus’s children. And that’s true. It’s true in a broad, abstract, metaphorical sense. It’s true in the kind of way that a Hallmark card is true. But it is also true in a deep, personal, visceral sense.

It’s true in this way… I recently read a story by a woman whose husband is a pediatrician. This woman wrote that her husband understands how babies cry. He understands what those cries mean. They’ll be out at a restaurant or a store or wherever and hear a baby crying and he’ll turn to her and say, “That baby is hungry,” or “That baby is sick,” or, “That baby is mad as hell.”

But sometimes, he’ll hear a child crying and he’ll suddenly sit up straight, cock his head to the side for a second, and then stand up and start running. Because he knows that cry means that child is hurt… and needs help… now.

And we are Christ’s children — all of us, the people in this sanctuary and the people out there in the world — all of us are

Christ’s children in that deep, personal, visceral sense. He knows our cries. he knows that we’re hurt. He knows that we need help.

And he commands us to love each other and he loves us. And there is no such thing as other people’s children.


The great theologian Karl Barth didn’t quite say, “when you preach, hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

There have been a lot of children in the news lately.

On my first Sunday as your pastor, it was the children of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Earlier in June, it was a young undocumented immigrant from Des Moines who was deported and died on a street corner in Mexico.

Over the last couple of weeks, it’s been children at the border between the United States and Mexico, who have been separated from their parents and put in detention facilities.

And even when they’re not in the news, there are children in this world suffering. They are mining the rare earth elements for our computers and smart phones. They are laboring in sweatshops making sure that we have fashionable but affordable clothing. They are being abused and neglected and forgotten.

And there are hundreds… thousands… tens of thousands… millions of them.

And there are people who are telling us that it’s okay. Those kids don’t live in our neighborhoods. They don’t go to our schools. They don’t come to our church. They are other people’s children. And wouldn’t that be nice… if it were true?

But it’s not. Those kids live in our neighborhoods and go to our schools and every single one of them is welcome to sit on these steps during the time for young worshippers and join us at this holiest of tables. And there is no such thing as other

people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s children.

There’s no such thing as other people’s grandchildren.

There’s no such thing as other people’s cousins and nieces and nephews. There’s no such thing as other people’s brothers and sisters. There’s no such thing as other people’s aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents.

There’s no such thing as other people’s family. And that means that there is no excuse when we see a child in pain. Or a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years or a man with tears in his eyes, a crack in his voice, begging for help, saying, “My child is on the verge of death.”

And I know that you know this. Because next week, we’re going to send a team off to an orphanage in Jamaica. And we’re going to bless shorts that our Crafty Stitchers have made for those boys. Because those are our boys. We know that there’s no such thing as other people’s children.


When Jairus comes to Jesus and begs him to heal his daughter, Jesus cannot do anything but go with him. When a woman touches the hem of Jesus’s cloak and hopes for healing, Jesus cannot do anything but let his healing power go to her. When Jesus hears someone cry, he goes to their aid. That is what Jesus is like and it is how we know that Jesus is God… because that is what God is like.

And that is what God calls us to be like. We’re not always going to be good at it — God knows I’m not always good at it, it may even be that I’m not often good at it — but that doesn’t let us off the hook.

We will not help everyone. We will not heal every wound. We will not bring justice to fruition. We will not repair the whole entire world. But we are still responsible to do our part in the work that we will not complete. We must still care for the seeds and the saplings of trees that our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren will sit under.

That is the work we are called to. That is the work this table strengthens us for. When we see a father with tears in his eyes begging for help, to go and heal his daughter. When we see a woman who is suffering to heal her. When we hear a child crying to stand and run.

Because we are one family, made up of the children of God. That means that we can take comfort in the parent who cares for us all. Hallelujah.

But that means that there is no such thing as other people’s children. That we have work to do to care for them all. That we have the responsibility to show them that there is nothing to fear, that they can have faith, and that — by the grace of God — we got this.

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