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.

Advertisements

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. 

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.

What Does This Mean?

Then “there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” Other translations describe it as a mighty wind. Or that it was a gale force. Not a calm, peaceful breeze. This wind is powerful. It’s violent so that I can only imagine wanting to call for Auntie Em. Of course, it’s not a tornado but a sound … like a violent wind. When all of the disciples are gathered together, this is what announces the day of Pentecost.

A sound … like a violent wind. There is no word for weather in the Bible, but winds were familiar. A change in the winds called forth the change in seasons. They didn’t understand that change any better than most of us understand it. For most of us, wind is mysterious. Wind is impossible to tame or even predict. But, when it changes, we know that something is about to happen, but what?

We’re just as uncertain as the disciples. We’re just as fearful as they were huddled together in one place trying to figure out what to do next. And then, there’s this sound and a rush of wind that “filled the entire house where they were sitting.” It becomes a presence that fills the whole space. It’s something that everybody feels but no one knows exactly what just happened. It happened and we can see that something has changed but no one seems to know what.

This is the introduction to a sermon that I wrote back in 2009 while I was still pastoring in Maine. Oh, Maine. The next paragraph leads into talking about the stock market and the sudden downturn in the economy that hit that community and so many others hard. So that we could only wonder, Will it get better?  Will it get worse?

Sunday is Pentecost again. It is the day when we find ourselves as uncertain as the disciples again after hearing the rush of a violent wind. It still feels like we are at this moment. It still feels like we don’t know what will happen. We are still asking, Will it get better?  Will it get worse? It’s not the economy that worries us. Or at least, it doesn’t worry us as much as it did then. Things are supposedly better in the economic world. But, not in the political world. As candidates point fingers and galvanize their own support, it becomes clearer and clearer that we don’t really believe in the hope of Pentecost. We don’t believe that we can all come together. It’s not possible to hear the good news in another language. We can only hear it in our own limited view. This isn’t about political parties but “a notion that America belongs to one kind of person.” That is how it was said by Edison Davis in last week’s episode of ABC’s Scandal. Watch the clip of his rant here. That speech almost made me want to edit this sermon to highlight the divisions in our politics and in our church. But, I decided not to do so. I decided instead to center on the question that the disciples ask because it’s the question that I’m asking as the campaign trail narrows to two divisive candidates. Just as the disciples asked when the heard that rush of a violent wind and everyone started talking, I want to know: What does this mean?

What do you think? What does it all mean?

 

Running Naked

It was only a few weeks ago that I found this beautiful passage from a colleague’s sermon on her blog Spacious Faith. That little passage from her sermon archives inspired what I preached that Sunday. I tend to be in the camp that thinks I have to write something new each time I preach on a particular passage. I’m setting myself up for that challenge this week — but that didn’t stop me from rereading a sermon from my archives.

I distinctly remember reading this story in Runner’s World when a friend posted it on Facebook a few years ago which I translated directly into the story of Bartimaeus in this week’s lectionary gospel reading from Mark 10:46-52. Here is a excerpt from that sermon.

Like the blind beggar, I want to throw off my cloak and run. Naked, even. Adam Cohen was just that brave when he toed up to the starting line for the Trail of Tears 5K in Oklahoma. He was tempted to wear a long t-shirt, but decided that if he was going to truly participate in this “clothing optional” race, he better just do it. You might say that he threw off his cloak and ran, but as his wife so keenly observed before the race began, “There’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.”

That’s what strikes me about this strange little detail where a beggar throws off his cloak. It’s more than being vulnerable or exposed or even finding the right words to express exactly what you believe. That cloak is probably the only thing he owns. It’s his only possession in the whole world. He’s probably not naked underneath that cloak. It’s probably just an outer garment, something that has been keeping him warm beside of the road. But, throwing off that cloak, he exposes something private. He reveals something about himself. After all, there’s more to being naked than exposing your private parts.

It’s about admitting what you really need. It’s about that desire to see more clearly than you ever have before. It’s about throwing off that word that isn’t working for you anymore. No matter how much warmth and security it has given you in the past, it doesn’t fit who you’ve become. Maybe the word has changed. Maybe you have changed. Something has changed — so that now, you just want to run naked unadorned of the words that may have once defined you.

Hoarse with Prayer

Between spurts of writing my sermon today, I checked Facebook. It seems it is something that every preacher does. When God isn’t speaking clearly, preachers open their browsers to scan posts on Facebook. Today, I kept coming back to the same story of a little boy — just three years old — who was reported missing. I woke up to the helicopters overhead. I read the headlines all day long so that when I got home, my fiancé asked if I had been crying. I was so hoarse. I am hoarse with prayers for this little boy, for his family and for every sad face I saw today.

And so I pray:

O Eternal One, who searches us and knows us,
who knows when we lie down and when we rise up,
You are acquainted with all of our ways
but we cannot and do not understand your way.
Helicopters whirled through my neighborhood this morning
looking for one of your children.
Your searchlights overlooked him.
Your watchdogs couldn’t find him.
The helicopters and the news crews have left and there is nothing left but our sadness. There is nothing but our grief for one of your children has died. We don’t know why or how and we struggle not to fill in the blanks with our worst fears. O God, help us.
Help us not to eye every stranger as perpetrator. Don’t let us get away with such nonsense that refuses to admit that terrible things could happen in our community because you know better. Terrible things happen every day. Your children are abused, berated, starved, shot, raped and killed every single day. O God, help us to see every hurting child in this world.
Make us your watchdogs.
Open our eyes wide enough to be your searchlights.
Remind us again — no matter how little we understand your way — that it takes a village. It always takes a village. It takes pastors and teachers and police officers and counselors and next-door neighbors that are more like grandparents and people who just give a damn. It takes every last one of us to protect your children.
There is work to do. There is enough work for tomorrow.
But tonight, O Eternal One, let there be no doubt of our love for your children. Let our hope not waver as we squeeze the littlest lights in our lives. May our arms not tire from holding your precious children tight so that we might have enough heart and enough strength to reach our arms out even wider to embrace your children with wrinkles and wounds.
Know what is on our hearts, O God. Know what is on my heart so that you can wake me up tomorrow and remind me that there are so many children that need your protection — and it’s work that I must do. It’s work that I can’t help but do. Amen.

The Time Has Come

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I have been filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 17:1-24. You can find the audio — and even a video to watch — of the sermon I preached entitled The Time Has Come on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Accompanied

This was my very last time in this beautiful worship space but be sure to check out upcoming opportunities for worship and service on the church website.

Remain in Love

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 15:1-8. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled Remain in Love on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Secured

If you happen to be in Short Hills, or even nearby, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am.  Here are some directions to find the church. Tomorrow is my last time in this beautiful worship space and I’d love to see you there.

Thank God for Ritual

This prayer arrived too late. I saw it in my email when I pulled into the church parking lot. I smirked at the title of the post. Oh, Martha, I thought. (She penned that prayer and happens to be an old friend from Maine so that I can say things like “Oh Martha” when looking at the email on my phone.) But, I didn’t read it. I didn’t allow myself to indulge in all of those paralyzing thoughts that agonize a preacher on Sunday morning.

I had read through my sermon that morning. I had edited it some. It wasn’t great. I knew it wasn’t great but it was better than I remembered. It was better than I thought it was when I first allowed it to rest. And then, I got up to preach that sermon.

roll-725577_1280The words caught in the back of my throat. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t smooth. It felt as though I was arguing with myself — and maybe I really was. Maybe that’s the sermon that I needed to hear. Maybe what I really needed was to hear myself not make sense so that I could hear a good word from God. But, then, I felt badly for these people. That’s what I was thinking about as the words stuck like cotton in my mouth. with this terrible drivel from the preacher that morning. These poor, poor people, I thought when I saw the table set before us. At the center of this worship space — in the middle of the circle in which we sat — was a table set with bread and juice. Set with the gifts of God for the people of God.

So that when I got up to offer the invitation to the table, these words are something like them stumbled off my tongue:

Ours is a tradition that most values the proclamation of the Word — the reading and preaching of scripture — above all else. It is the central point of our worship. It is what we wait for. It’s what we come to hear. This is bad news for the preacher on the day when God doesn’t quite give her a sermon of such caliber. When the words don’t come together in the preaching, when the words are so garbled that we can not taste and see the good news revealed in the words of Scripture, it is hard to uplift that value of the  proclamation of the Word. On those days, it might be best to embrace the other side of our tradition that doesn’t focus as much on proclamation as on ritual. For here we are to share in this ritual of the table. All that we have heard in Scripture today is revealed in this feast. This is the bread of life. It is the food that endures that is before us at this table. It is all that we need and all that we want.

Somehow these words led into the Words of Institution which was again not as I had planned. In my last church, when I had found myself tongue-tied or sometimes just because I wanted to know that I wasn’t the only one at that table, I called upon a moment of profound meaning for me in seminary when my preaching professor invited the whole congregation to share in repeating the Words of Institution. Not by rote. Not as preachers might do it. But, to tell it slowly with small prompts that coach the congregation along so that they might tell the whole story.

In this church, where I find myself as Guest Minister, they are not used to talking in church. They will greet each other at the appropriate time but when I invited them to speak these words, they were so quiet. I could barely hear them. They whispered the words as if they were unsure that they could dare to tell this story themselves. But, these are the gifts for the people of God: this bread, this cup, this table, this food that endures for eternal life. There was a quiet holiness that day. It was the kind of holiness for which I can only be thankful for ritual.

Thank God for ritual.

No Spoiler Alerts

201412547f33f67b137As you may already know, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 6:24-35. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled No Spoiler Alerts on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… BlessedThis is perhaps the truest thing that I know to be true about the gospel. We are not alone but ever interdependent. I can only hope my words preached this truth.

If you happen to be in Short Hills, or even nearby, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am. I’ll be there for the next three Sundays and hope you’ll join us. Here are some directions to find the church.