Good News for Today

It has been a long time since I was in the pulpit. 

My friend Elizabeth Hagan reminded me of this fact in her recent inquiry into why preachers should be political. It’s something I’ve wondered often. If I were to preach right now, what would I say? 

What would I want to say? What needs to be said? I’ve scrapped several thousand drafts in an essay format, but it feels different to type out the words and never preach them. My style might not be all that different. It might look the same but it’s different to proclaim the words. There is something that happens between the preacher and the congregation when those words are voiced.

Still, I’m not sure what I would say. It’s been months since I stepped into a pulpit, any pulpit. The last time I did, it was a place to which I’d never been and it’s far away that I’m unlikely to return. The next time I preach is likely to be rather similar. I don’t get to preach every Sunday. I’m not serving a church and so I don’t get to build that trust between Sundays that allows me to speak prophetically in the light of God’s love. 

And yet, as Elizabeth wisely says, “One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context.” This got me thinking about whether or not the good news changes. The context has changed. It has changed drastically but is the good news any different than it was three years ago?

This is what brought me to delve into my files to find my sermon on the very text that preachers will attempt to glean some good news from on Sunday. Three years ago, preaching on Matthew 5:21-37, I proclaimed:

Jesus wants us to be “people of integrity” so much so that when we say yes we really mean yes, and when we say no we really mean no. There’s a lot of hurt and pain. And it can cause a whole lot of anger — but we can try our very best to say what we mean and mean what we say. 

This is no easy task when you live in a world like we do — in a world of “seemingly unlimited choice” so that we crave “novelty, variety and multiplicity.” We think that this is the way that it should be – and so we are always looking for more. We think that by obtaining more, by doing more, by working harder, we will be able to prove our worth even though we have just heard Jesus’ assurance that we are the salt of the earth. That we are the light of the world. So, why is it so hard to say yes to this promise? 

It should be easy. It should be so simple. And, then, we could just pick up and go on with our lives. But, there are so many choices available to us that we hesitate because we really want to be sure. We want to make sure there isn’t a better deal. So that when we say yes we really mean yes. But, there’s a give and take here too, isn’t there? 
You have to give a little before we can take. You have to make the promise. You have to choose the relationship before you get to feel its blessings, but making that promise won’t change how God sees you. You may put yourself through fiery hell trying to get our yes to mean yes, but Jesus has already told you: you are the light of the world. That won’t change. No matter how many times you test it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this:

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce – that even if you spent the whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight …. Your worth has already been established, even when you’re are not working.”

Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Maybe that still means that you’ll need to count to 10 or take a little break or scream into a pillow. Maybe the hurt and pain will still be there. Maybe it will never go away. There is great injustice in the world and there is so much that needs to change. It can make us so very angry that terrible things happen. But, all of that anger and frustration does not change the fact that God has promised to love you. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how many times you break your promises, God is going to love you. 

Believe it. Say yes to that love. Count to 10 first, if you need to. Listen to a favorite piece of music if you want. Take all the time you need. But, let your yes to God’s love mean yes. Give into it. Take it. Because this love – God’s love – is so very good. 

It still feels relevant. 

6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.