Bit By Bit

It is the First Sunday of Lent and I’m missing church.

I miss good preaching. Today I could not push myself out the door to find some place to relish in the mystery of these holy forty days because I didn’t want to hear another bad sermon. I don’t believe that my colleagues are bad preachers. I don’t even believe that the preachers in the town I reside are all that bad but they’re preaching to a community that doesn’t include me. I’m not part of their flock. I don’t have the same wants and needs so that I can’t sit through a sermon without feeling more removed from myself and my God than when I first sat in the pew. So, I didn’t go to church this morning. I just couldn’t do it.

Instead, I texted my friend Teri to ask for her sermon. I knew she’d be preaching and I know she’s a damn good preacher even if I’ve only read her manuscripts. She is one of those organized types that puts them all up on her blog. I wanted to go to church. I wanted to start Lent but I did it alone on my couch with a candle lit and Teri’s manuscript loaded on my phone.

I had forgotten, however, that Teri preaches from the Narrative Lectionary. I’ve never really had much experience with this arch of storytelling. I always opted for the Revised Common Lectionary in my own preaching. I’ve preferred the chopped up bits of scripture that appear every year in exactly the same place. And so, of course, I was ready to hear about the wilderness. I was ready to question my own temptations only to discover that Teri was preaching on something else. Instead of that forty days in the  wilderness that I expected to hear, I got two sections that I’ve never heard together: the Good Samaritan and the whiny bit where Mary does nothing to help her poor sister Martha. Of course, they follow each other in Luke’s Gospel so it’s possible that I could have read them together before, but it all seemed new to hear them as one.

Rather than breaking them up, bit by bit, I was struck how “who is my neighbor?” seems to get answered in Jesus’ reminder that “there is need of only one thing.” Teri told me in her text message — while the choir was singing — that she was just about to scrap her manuscript and preach something different but I was glad to have her words. I was glad to have these words to chew on:

The lawyer wants Jesus to justify the limits of neighborliness, to define the limits of love. What’s reasonable and unreasonable? What is enough love, and what is beyond the requirement? Who exactly counts as someone I have to love, and who can be left out because they are beyond the scope of my influence, or my responsibility? Because surely, there must be limits.

I especially love that last sentence because I can hear Teri say it. It reminded me in those six words that there’s an intimacy to preaching. There’s a trust inherent in it. It’s one that I’ve felt in the pulpit and one that has made me feel incredibly vulnerable as people in the pews have made all kinds of declarations about me. And it’s something I’ve missed as I’ve moved from place to place in the last two years.

I needed to hear every bit of Teri’s sermon. It may not have been the one that she preached to her congregation today (and it wasn’t). But, it was the sermon that I needed to hear.

I told my spiritual director last week that I’m inclined to take on the challenge of being a comforter. I’d read this article and found it compelling. It fit with my desire for justice and my hope to be a voice of compassion even if I haven’t a clue how to live any of that out right now. It’s work that I’m trying to do in the projects I’m taking on from consulting to spiritual direction, but it’s not something I know how to practice in the every day. For one, I don’t see many people on a given day. I don’t have all that many interactions. The season in which I find myself is more isolated so that I have to wonder if I’ve created so many boundaries and limits that I’m not allowing myself to challenge what is reasonable or unreasonable. I’m not putting myself out there perhaps because everything and everyone feels beyond the scope of my influence.

That’s not totally true though. I do believe that I have something to offer. There is some comfort than I can offer but Jesus’ question is the right one for this season: who is my neighbor? Is it the people I serve? Or is it the people that challenge me beyond my limits and boundaries?

When I told my spiritual director about this chosen practice, I told her that I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t sure how to do it. I wanted to know how to do this thing. I didn’t want to just have the intent. I wanted some form of practice, a ritual even. I wanted to know how to do the thing and I didn’t have a clue. I still don’t know how to be a comforter. I’m not even sure how to comfort myself which brings me right into the concluding words of Teri’s sermon.

Perhaps it means to really look, and listen — to see and hear and know people beyond our own mental image or stereotype. To allow ourselves to be moved with compassion… To lay aside our excuses and expectation and limits and distractions. All these reasons we have… (seriously, it’s like she’s speaking right to me) … all of those are distractions that, and they leave us in the same place they left Martha: missing the point that God is in our midst.

I tend to analyze all of the bits. I’d prefer chunks of scripture where I can examine every detail than to try to step into a whole narrative where multiple things are happening, but that is how it is with life. There is always more than one story being told. There are always different ideas about what might be happening, but even if you or I miss it completely that doesn’t change the fact that God is in our midst. God is showing us how to comfort and be comforted. God is mixing up our stories so that our neighbor is just one person or one kind of person. There are no limits to God’s compassion and bit by bit we are invited to practice that God’s compassion as our own.

I can’t thank my dear friend Teri enough for this reminder.

Who Is My Neighbor?

With my coffee in hand, I spent this morning flipping through the pages of my Feasting on the Word commentary to study the Gospel Lesson for this Sunday only to discover that I’ve preached this one before. Of course I had. I couldn’t quite escape that feeling as I had started writing earlier this week but there wasn’t anything in my files. There was no manuscript to be found.

I finally did the math and realized that it was the summer of 2013 that this lection last appeared. This should have been obvious, but I was clearly under-caffeinated. Three years ago, I was pastoring the United Churches of Olympia. It was my first summer there, actually. And it was the summer that I had decided to preach without notes! A ha! I am, however, no good at getting up and speaking spontaneously. So there was definitely something written so I searched the archives of my blog and discovered this post.

I remember this vividly. I remember waking up that morning and reading the news. I remember the horror I felt so that I felt I had to scrap what I’d written earlier that week. I remember that I began that sermon from the aisle of the Sanctuary with a question. Or perhaps it was a statement. I inferred that every one gathered for worship that day knew what I knew. They had read the horror. They had seen the headlines and their outrage matched mine. But, they hadn’t yet seen it. They didn’t know that the verdict had been made the night before so that it took some time to get to the same place.

It’s something I often feel as a preacher. I feel the discord. I feel the tension as my heart and soul marches for justice through the words I proclaim. It’s not what they want to hear, those people in the pews. They want to hear good news. They want to be told it will all work out in the end. I want that too but it chills me to the bone to read these words again when in the last 24 hours the horror has hit again.

There are new names: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. There are new names of beautiful hearts and souls that have been stripped and beaten and left for dead and it feels like words do not matter. But, they do. Words like these matter and if we can actually hear these words within the context of the Gospel then perhaps this parable matters too.

It matters to me.

It is not my words or even my interpretation of these words that matters but how we dare to answer the lawyer’s question. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. There has never been a more important question. It is the question we must ask when we continue to label differences between us rather than insisting upon the humanity we share. We must ask this question again. We must continue to ask it until we — good white Christians — stop turning our backs on our black sisters and brothers.

Who is my neighbor? Three years ago, I concluded this:

The message is pretty simple (impossibly hard to do, but simple): if you want to feel God’s presence, if you really want to feel that kindness, you need to allow yourself to get uncomfortable. In the way this story goes, this sounds passive. You just wait for help to come along — and then when it finally comes from the last person on Earth you ever would have wanted, you receive it. I don’t want to sound too jaded, but you could be waiting a long time. What’s more: you’re not alone. There is someone else that is asking those exact same questions. There is someone else that feels as stripped and beaten as you do. Why are you waiting in a ditch by yourself? If you believe that change is possible, that we could live in a world where every neighbor might feel safe and protected, it seems to me that you can’t just wait around for someone else to inspire you. You gotta seek that out yourself. You gotta ask the questions that everyone is afraid to ask. That is how we will go and do likewise.

But, we haven’t. We haven’t gone and done likewise and so there has been a slow and steady loss of humanity because we haven’t made ourselves even a little bit uncomfortable. Now is the time. Get uncomfortable. Challenge your own arrogance and I’ll challenge mine.