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.

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Recipe for the Worrying Church

Sometimes it is the Lectionary that sparks an idea or sometimes it is a story that you have held close over these many years. This recipe is a little bit of both.

On Sunday, we will hear the story of Martha who is very worried and distracted. She’s rushing about and keeping busy. She’s doing all of the things and not getting an ounce of help. Understandably, she complains. To this, Jesus chides her. Or it seems he chides her for not choosing the better part like her sister Mary.

But, telling someone not to worry is just stupid and rather pointless. They will then begin to worry about the fact that they are worrying. That is, if they are really worry warts, that is what they will do. Best not to tell them their worrying is pointless but instead redirect their worry and distraction in some other more helpful way.

This brings me to the story that will begin my sermon on Sunday. It is the story of Jerry and Brian from my days of serving in Maine. In my sermon, I tell their story like this:

Brian and Jerry are bridge partners. I knew this because Jerry, who came to Bible Study every week after his wife fell ill, talked about his bridge partner all of the time. I knew Brian, of course. He also came to worship every Sunday but Brian was far more quiet than Jerry. Jerry talked a lot.

He talked about everything loudly and enthusiastically. He spoke like a teenager that was so excited that he just couldn’t get the words out fast enough. So the words all clumped together. Sometimes I had to ask him to repeat himself. Because I didn’t want to miss out on his joy. But, Jerry was getting more and more confused. He fumbled his words and thoughts jumbled too.

And do Brian, his bridge partner, gave him a worry stone, a worry stone that Jerry carried around in his pocket all of the time. He would show it to me when he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. And then, he’s explain how Brian encourages him. Whenever Jerry starts to wander, Brian asks if he has his stone. This worked until one day when Brian asked about the stone, and Jerry said he lost it.

Jerry, like Martha, did not need a reminder that he should just stop worrying. What he needed was another worry stone. Likewise, we should not busy ourselves as leaders in the church telling those in the pews not to worry. They are already really worried. They are worried about violence and hate spurned by racism, maybe even their own racism. They are worried about the election, what that election might mean for their advocacy or even their church’s programs. Never mind the needs of their families.

I so appreciate Elisabeth Johnson’s wisdom on Working Preacher in her reminder that “we cannot seem to quell our anxious thoughts and frantic activity. It is true that much of our busyness and distraction stems from the noblest of intentions. We want to provide for our families, we want to give our children every opportunity to enrich their lives, we want to serve our neighbors, and yes, we want to serve the Lord.” There is good reason to worry about the future including the future of our churches. It comes from the noblest of intentions. We want to serve the Lord but this is so overwhelming that we can’t help but get a little lost like Jerry.

Here is the recipe.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY-2

With every good recipe, there are a few more hints. There are notes that you make as you make it your own which you’ll surely add to this card, but here are a few I’d add to my own recipe:

  • Rocks can not only be collected but also be ordered rocks like these at Oriental Trading.
  • Add a bit about worry stones to your sermon. This is optional, of course, but it may increase the connection. Be creative. Go where God invites.
  • And, as it helps, here are some words for Invitation to the Offering:

Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Jesus asks us before inviting us to consider the lilies. Like Martha, we are too worried and distracted to understand these words. Still, we give our gifts. We offer our praise even when our worries outweigh our hope. And so today, give as you receive. Take a worry stone from the plate as you give your offering. Hold onto this stone whenever you might worry and always remember to listen. 

Please share pictures of your worry stones or share with us how you are adapting this recipe for your ministry in the comments below.

Woman, Behold Thy Son

Tonight, I will share in worship with my home church at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in the remembrance of Good Friday. It is the tradition in many places to share in hearing and reflecting upon the seven last words of Christ. I have never actually been in a place that has done this so when my pastor asked for volunteers, I said: PICK ME! PICK ME!   Thus proving, yet again, I’m a big ol’ church nerd. What follows is the reflection I’ll share tonight on the third of those seven sayings. You can find the whole passage in the Gospel of John in my preferred translation because I loathe the King James Version here.

 

Woman, behold thy son. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved most standing beside her, this is what he says to his mother. Behold, this is your child.

Here is your beloved, the immigrant, the refugee, the man who happens to be homeless, the woman who depends on that welfare check to provide for her children. Here is the woman who is not paid enough for the work that she does. Here is the person you are supposed to love, your family, your very heart.

It’s something that Jesus had heard before any of this transpired. Before his ministry began, before he hung on a cross, God said these words to him. From the waters of baptism, he emerged to behold the wonder that he was God’s child.

Here am I your beloved, the woman, the broken, the hurting, the uncertain and doubting. Here is the person who just needs to pee but can’t because he’s transgender and in North Carolina. Here is the young black boy walking through your neighborhood in a hoodie eating Skittles. Behold, Christ says, this is your child.

Woman, behold thy son. You will be a new family. You will create something new. You will imagine another way and nothing, nothing — not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword, or even the fact that she is a Trump supporter — will separate you.

The world will build walls. The powers that be will erect barriers and divisions. They will tell you who to love and how to love them. They will try to tell you what love can do. But, don’t believe them.

Woman, behold thy son. Behold the glory of God for it is here in this relationship. It is here in this person. It is here in the love that we dare to find in each other. He wants her to see that. He wants her to understand what he once beheld in the waters of baptism. Behold, he says to this woman who gave birth from the waters of her womb, this is your child.

He does not only speak to his mother, but also to the disciple he loves most which interpreters have wondered if it wasn’t a placeholder. This one whom he loves most is never named. It could be John. Or Mary Magdalene or even Peter. Or it could be a placeholder for you and me. We are the beloved disciple. We are the ones whom Jesus loves most so that he turns to us from the cross, having just told his mother, Woman, behold thy son. He says to us, Here is your mother.

There is no one but you to love. There is no one better at it than you. Behold. “That you need God more than anything, you know at all times in your heart.” The wise one Martin Buber wrote that. “But don’t you know also that God needs you—in the fullness of [God’s] eternity, you? How would [we] exist if God did not need [us], and how would you exist? You need God in order to be, and God needs you—for that which is the meaning of your life.”

Woman, behold your son. 

I am your child. 

You are my child.

Behold.