If By Miracle… (sermon 7/26/15)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.  – John 6:1-21

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This story of Jesus feeding the multitude is the only one of his miracle accounts that appear in all four of the gospels. Here, in John’s gospel, it’s one of the miraculous signs that John sets forth as proof of Jesus’ divine identity; that he really is the eternal God of the cosmos in the flesh. This story of Jesus apparently creating bottomless baskets of bread and fish is the same kind of out-of-nothing creation that John’s original audience knew was the kind of thing that only God could do.

But there are other meanings layered into this story, too. On one level, it’s a recasting of the Exodus story where through Moses, God provides food for the people by sending them manna that they find on the ground every morning, and all the extra was to be collected up in baskets so nothing went to waste, just like in this story, where Jesus is seen as a new, improved kind of Moses. And there’s the Passover connection that John points us toward when he comments that the Passover was near when this event happened. This meal, then, becomes seen as a kind of Passover meal. One part of the Passover observation is the meal being seen as a forerunner to the Great Feast that the Hebrew prophets said the coming of the Lord would be like; God hosting a great banquet on a hilltop that all people would flock to – and now, here’s Jesus doing exactly what those prophets had described. And of course, we can see symbolism paralleling our sacrament of the Lord’s Supper here, too.

But I think that most times when we hear this story, we don’t think about those levels of symbolism. Instead, we focus on this idea of the miracle. We ask if it could be actual fact. Could this have physically happened the way the story tells it? Some people say that this was just the code of a pre-scientific culture; stories like this were the way they ascribed divinity to someone; but now, we understand that the laws of physics govern the universe in a kind of closed loop that makes these kinds of stories impossible. Some people read this story and say that once the people were seated, after hearing Jesus’ teaching, they pulled out whatever food they’d all brought with them, and Jesus’ actions simply set off a big, first-century version of Stone Soup – everyone sharing what they had and there ultimately being more than enough for everyone.

On the other hand, other people say that God does indeed intervene in the world at times in ways like this. That the God who created laws of physics is beyond them and can break them if so inclined; or if not break them, bend them a bit, or apply them in ways that they are somewhat different from the way things usually occur. They would say that for a God who created the entire universe out of sheer will and a few words, this kind of miracle would be child’s play.

So a lot of attention gets focused on the question of whether or not a miracle actually occurred here. But to think about that question, you first have to ask just what a miracle actually is.

There’s a story about a politician in the South during the days of Prohibition, who was running for election. A large number of the voters in his district were hard-core Fundamentalists and members of the Temperance movement, and they asked him where he stood on the question of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. Of course, he knew what they wanted to hear, but he also knew that the woods all around them were full of stills cranking out moonshine for an awful lot of customers, and which was keeping food on the table for a lot of people, and they were just as big a voting block. So when they asked what he thought about whiskey, he said, “Well… if by “whiskey” you mean that wicked drink that numbs the senses and causes family strife and personal ruin; that leads men and women alike to all sorts of immorality and vice… I’m against it. However… if by “whiskey” you mean that golden elixir that brings people of good will together; that warms their hearts and lubricates their souls to instill joy and merriment and brotherhood and sisterhood; and which creates a thriving market for so many of our good, decent, hard-working, church-going farmers… I’m for it.”

When it comes to miracles, maybe we have to think about definition of terms, too. Do we say we believe in miracles, if by “miracles” we mean a big, supernatural intrusion into the laws of nature? On the other hand, do we say we believe in miracles if by “miracles” we mean something extraordinary, uncommon, and of God, occurring all the time, all around us, in the most ordinary and common of things and experiences? Or, just as with the politician’s answer, can they both be true at the same time?

Let’s look at this gospel story again. Regardless of what you might believe about the physical, literal aspect of the idea of Jesus producing food from nothing, let’s go past that for a moment and think about what else was happening. Something like 10,000 people, once you included men, women, and children, came together – all with different backgrounds, different problems, different reasons to want to see Jesus, different experiences and beliefs. And as they gathered on that hillside, they listened to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and a new commandment for them and the world – that they love one another just as he and God loved them. That this new commandment has the power to change the world, and was already changing the world, forever. They listened to him as his disciples spread out in their midst, making sure that everyone, young and old, were having their needs met. And all these very different people, with all their different prejudices and motivations, passed and shared the baskets. They set aside their differences. They enjoyed the breeze blowing in off the lake and the coolness of the grass, and they laughed at each other’s children playing together and doing all the things children do. They all sat close in to each other so they could as close to Jesus as possible, and their guards dropped, and they didn’t mind the stranger bumping up against them as they listened and laughed and ate and learned about love and lived it out; and there, in that place, on that day, in that briefest or moments, the Kingdom of God kissed the earth.

Regardless of anything else, that’s a miracle. A miracle that you, and I, and our very divided, very un-peaceful, un-reconciled world, can find hope in.

And the good news for us is that we can share in that same miracle. We can recreate and relive it, every Sunday, every day, because as much as this story symbolizes anything else, it also symbolizes the very church itself. And the same Jesus calls us together to share in the same Kingdom; to encounter one another, to set aside our differences, to receive and to give, to love and be loved. In short, to experience the miracle of the Kingdom of God; to see God in all the common things of life all around us – bread, juice, water, each other, ourselves. This is what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was talking about when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit around and pick blackberries.

Because Christ dwells within us, and because we dwell within him, we all have the ability, when we want, to see past the berries and experience the miracle of God in our midst, and in each other. And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

Crash (sermon 7/12/15)

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.

It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.  

       – 2 Samuel 6:1-23

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They made their way through the countryside, man and beast – soldiers, priests, oxen, musicians, and at the head of it all, the new King David himself; the king, the commander, the parade coordinator and promoter. It was an impressive mass of movement as they all carried out David’s command to bring the Ark of the Covenant out of the relative backwater it had been stored in and out to a new home in Jerusalem, the city that David had captured from its original owners and had decided to make the capital of his kingdom. You can imagine the heat of this particular day, the praying and chanting of the priests blending together with the blare of the musicians and David’s half-naked dancing at the head of the column. You can imagine the soldiers way at the back of it all, so far back they couldn’t even see the front, they couldn’t hear anything, all they got was the cloud of everyone else’s dust and the oxen road-apples, and they wondered why they all got called up to do this moving job when a half dozen people could have done it without breaking a sweat. Of course, it was a lot more than just a moving job. It was a classic melding together of religious and political theater, intentionally planned to send the message that the old King Saul was dead – the old order was gone, there was a new king in town, and he was ordained as leader by God and man alike.

At some point, in the middle of all the flailing fury, the ox cart holding the Ark hits a rock, or a rut, and despite David’s political and military genius, he’d apparently forgotten to bring along any tie-downs or bungee cords, and now the Ark – this great symbol of God’s power and might, with the winged cherubim on top whose wings gracefully stretched inward, wingtip-to-wingtip, cradle-like, to form a seat, the very earthly throne of YHWH, God Almighty – was about to bounce off the cart and crash to the ground, becoming the ancient equivalent of that mangled, forlorn-looking pile of what used to be a wing chair sitting along the edge of the highway median after it had fallen out of the pickup truck.

But there, walking right alongside of the Ark, was Uzzah – one of the family of priests who had been taking care of the Ark. When he saw what was about to happen, he acted instinctively, reaching out to steady the Ark. And in return for his efforts, in an early scriptural illustration that no good deed goes unpunished, the storyteller tells us that God immediately struck Uzzah dead for having touched the Ark – to which David, along with all the rest of us, wonder what God was thinking. David gets angry at God for bringing down the whole mood of the parade, and he immediately names the place “Perez-uzzah.” In Hebrew, Perez means bursting forth or breaching; so David names the place either in recognition of God’s anger bursting forth at this place; or in recognition of Uzzah’s own bursting forth all over the place when God smote him, in which case, well, ick.

But anyway, after David’s anger subsides, he becomes afraid of the immense power of God that the Ark apparently brings with it, so he changes plans and leaves it with the first poor dirt farmer they can find right there along the road, a guy named Obed-Edom, and then he sends everyone home in the wake of God’s big Uzzkill to all of the partying. David figures that if God’s going to keep behaving badly, it’s going to hurt the little people and not him. For his part, Obed-Edom must have known the circumstances of why the King was foisting this apparently lethal white elephant onto him but he didn’t really have any say in the matter, since David was a king and he wasn’t.

But of course, as we heard God doesn’t behave badly. Because of the presence of the Ark, Obed-Edom’s fortunes reverse. His family grows, his fields overflow, his livestock flourish. He becomes very prosperous. And in an early scriptural illustration that the government giveth and the government taketh away, when David sees how the Ark has basically become the goose that laid the golden egg, he decides that maybe it really does belong with him in Jerusalem, after all. So before Obed-Edom can even say what the heck, David had called the parade back together again and had the Ark carted away, leaving us to only hope that Obed-Edom had been socking something away into his 401k.

Finally, after all that delay, David and the throng enter Jerusalem with all the pomp and circumstance intended to begin with, the soldiers still marching and the priests still praying and the musicians still playing and David still dancing, apparently flashing half of Jerusalem in the process – all to the disgust of David’s wife, Michal, who’s watching this whole thing from her window. She’s the daughter of the recently killed King Saul, who grew up with all the privilege of royalty and who’s now disgusted by what she sees as her husband’s lack of decorum and dignity, cheapening the throne by mixing it up out in the street in his underwear with the commoners.

I guess we can look at this whole story as maybe interesting, or scary, or humorous, but in the end, say “So what? Is there anything here that speaks to me, where I am in my life?”

Well, maybe on one level you can see something of yourself in Uzzah, who’d just tried to do the right thing but everything still went horribly wrong. Or maybe you can see something of yourself in Obed-Edom, who was continually victimized by the institutional power structures of his day in both bad times and good. Or maybe you can see something of yourself in Michal, who was filled with anxiety over the loss she was experiencing, not just her father but also all the social order and givens she’d grown up with that all seemed to be challenged by the challenging landscape she found herself in.

If you can identify with any of them, it may be helpful to realize that you aren’t alone, that others have faced what you’re going through, but this story doesn’t have any good word, any good news, just by way of that commonality. So where might we find something, anything, that’s some grace – some gospel – for us?

I think there is some good news, and it’s in the story of David himself, but you have to look at the arc of his whole life and not just this one chapter to find it. Looking at his whole story, we know that David was sincerely committed to serving God. His dedication was real, without question; that shows up time and again. Even here, in this story, his exuberance in bringing the Ark out of obscurity and restoring it to a place of honor, was real. He was doing it for God.

But he was also doing it for himself. As devoted as he was to God, throughout his life David showed that he had great skill in choreographing events to serve his own self-interest. This story was no exception – even in the midst of his religious fervor, he staged the procession in a way that bolstered his own claim to the throne. He was as adept as any modern-day politician at exploiting and manipulating religion for his own political gain.

Just in this story, we see David angry at God, afraid of God, willing to victimize others by putting them at risk to protect his own skin, and speaking rudely and thoughtlessly to his wife, not recognizing the real grief and anxiety she was obviously going through in this stressful time for her.

Through all of this, we can see that David is a very mixed bag – a person with the noblest of ideals and the most common of flaws; someone who simultaneously has the potential to be devout or despicable, obedient or oblivious. In other words, pretty much just like us. I suspect that all of us can identify with being that kind of person. So maybe the good news in this story for us is that God never gave up on David, this most human hero of all – and make no mistake, David’s missteps were far worse than most of our own. Yes, David paid consequences when he messed things up, but through it all, God continued to care for him, and bless him, and pull his ashes out of the fire time and again. The story of David is the story of God’s grace – that love and mercy that God pours over us out of love for us. The good news for us is that whoever we might identify with of all of the characters in this story, all of these people whose lives have intersected and bumped into one another all because of the near-crash of that ox cart, whatever our own situation, there’s no depth we can find ourselves in that God won’t still reach down and pull us out of. I admit, you have to dig pretty deep to find good news in this particular story. But there it is, and it is very good news, so I’ll take it.

Thanks be to God.

Language Dance

Maybe I’m just getting cranky because of an upcoming birthday, but you know, something’s been bugging me for quite some time – and from conversations with others I know it’s bugged them, too. For years, we’ve seen many in the church, and subsequently in media, make a distinction between self-professed “evangelicals” and “mainliners.” This has always rankled me because its a false distinction that also carries a great and harmful lie embedded within it. The term “evangelical” simply means “one who professes the gospel of Christ;” it refers to those who base their faith and life on this gospel – or, in the Greek of the original New Testament writings, the “euangelion,” which is the basis of the Anglicized “evangelical.” When the term was first used, it was simply intended to be a distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant. In fact, that’s still the way the term is used in many parts of the world. In short, if you are a Protestant, you are an evangelical (I’d argue that it’s also true of Roman Catholics and Orthodox and any other Christian, but that’s another day’s rant). Squirming in the discomfort of one particular group of Christians to unilaterally claim the term for itself, I’d offer the foregoing explanation and try to make a distinction between lower-case, short-e “evangelicals” (all Protestants) and upper-case, long-E “Evangelicals” (those who described themselves under that term in a way to make a distinction between their beliefs and those of other Christians).

I was never completely happy with my distinction via capitalization. Now, I’m completely fed up with it. Those in the so-called “Evangelical” camp have no right whatsoever to unilaterally own and redefine the term. They certainly have no right to use it to imply by its use (and often enough, flatly claim) that they are the only true proclaimers of that euangelion of Christ, and that those who understand that euangelion, and therefore, the faith, in any different way are in some way misguided, heretical, and wink wink, nudge nudge, let’s go ahead and say it, not even “true” Christians like they are themselves.

All that those in the currently self-defined “Evangelical” camp mean by the term is “conservative Christian.” And they should simply use that term, instead of appropriating the term and setting themselves up as the arbiter of the true faith. If a person is a conservative Christian, fine. Simply say so, and let’s have a great theological dialogue within our common faith. But stop trying to make “conservative” synonymous with “evangelical,” to the detriment of all involved. If a conservative Christian disagrees with, or is upset about, some turn of events, stop saying that it’s contrary to the faith of evangelicals – or, to be honest, the way it’s almost always stated, that it’s contrary to the Christian faith. That’s the usurpation point I was making earlier. Conservative brothers and sisters, I love you – I used to be one of your number – but you simply do not have the authority to speak definitively or categorically what is, or is not, Christian, and what is or is not “evangelical.”

So from this point forward, I refuse to play the game. I won’t try to make my too-academic-by-half distinction between evangelical and Evangelical, in order to facilitate the continuation of the unacceptable kidnapping of the term. In conversations, I won’t concede the term to simply mean something it doesn’t. My stubbornness on this point may annoy some people. Too bad. From this point on, I’ll use the term “conservative Christian” when that’s what’s actually meant, and I invite others to do the same. I won’t concede via language that so-called “mainliners” are in any way less truly “evangelical,” less guided by the gospel of Christ, than those who aren’t mainliners. In short, I won’t concede any more that my understanding of the faith is in any way less authentic than someone else’s, simply because it isn’t conservative.

I know I’m just me – an army of one. I know that the self-professed “Evangelicals” will continue to try to own the term. I know that the media will continue to inadvertantly assist the conservatives in their attempt to claim moral superiority over other Christians. But as for me, I’m done abetting this historical linguistic anomaly that’s been playing out over the last century. I’m done voluntarily doing a dance designed to demean me, to a tune being played by those who intend to do the demeaning.Starting now, I’m sitting this one out, thanks.

Ich bin Oberliner

I just returned from a week-long vacation, much of which was spent in Oberlin, Ohio of all places.

Oberlin is a small town in northern Ohio a bit southwest of Cleveland, that would appear to be a perfect example of typical, picturesque All-American small town. The reality, however, is that there’s very little that’s typical about it. It was founded in the 1830s at the same time as Oberlin College, which was founded by two Presbyterian ministers who were strongly committed to a progressive understanding of the Christian faith. Women and blacks were admitted as students at Oberlin from the get-go, which would make the place atypical enough, but the town carried that understanding of the faith further, making it a hotbed of abolitionism and an important node on the Underground Railroad. Commitment to issues of social justice is just in the DNA of Oberlin.

Despite its very small size, the college is a very highly regarded school and a world-class conservatory of music. The campus is a veritable walking museum of architecture, with many examples of works by some of America’s most noteworthy architects. The town also boasts its own Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house, which is now owned by the college and is open to the public.

Another atypical aspect of the place is that in June of every year, some of the finest violin makers from around the world converge on Oberlin for a gathering sponsored by the Violin Society of America. This event is an intensive two-weeks of hands-on time in the workshop, attending seminars, learning new techniques, and sharing of ideas among some the uppermost tier of the art and craft. This year, the 60 attendees came from 14 different countries, coming as far away as Australia – which is not quite, but almost as far away as a person can possibly be from Oberlin, Ohio. Of course, the gathering isn’t all work and no play – it’s also a time of friendship, camaraderie, and with just the right amount of silliness thrown in, too.

Because George is one of those attendees, I’ve been to Oberlin for at least a part of the last two gatherings. But more about that in a bit, since my vacation actually started in Columbus.

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I drove to Columbus on Monday afternoon and evening, arriving there around 9:30 or so. I had discussed spending most of Tuesday with my older daughter, and I really wanted to spend time with my younger daughter, too. She’s a full-time student at the Franklin University in Switzerland, but she’d been home for several weeks of summer break. Our relationship at the moment has been strained at best, and until this time I’d been told that she didn’t want to see me. Still, via text messages, I’d told her that if she changed her mind, I’d be there in town and would like to spend some time with her. As of Monday night, I still didn’t know if I’d be spending time with one or both of them.

I was supposed to meet elder daughter around noon, so in the morning I popped my head in at the Worthington Presbyterian Church just down the road from the hotel, where I’d previously served as a pastor and where I’d been a member for more than 25 years. It was good to see some of the old gang and hear about what was happening there. After a short, but nice, visit, I headed out to meet up with Erica.

I picked her up, and we ended up at Stauf’s Coffee Roasters in Grandview. Stauf’s was one of my favorite hangouts back in the day, so it made me happy to know that now, she’d discovered it and enjoyed it, too.

We sat and talked about life in general, and politics in particular. She was shocked but very pleased to learn that we both wished the same person could become the next President – something that would never have happened before my politics slid from one side of the spectrum to the other.It was so nice to just have a nice, enjoyable conversation with her after some of the tensions of the past year.

staufs-grandview

Stauf’s – many a business lead, and many a sermon, developed here

 dirty franks

 After Stauf’s, we trekked downtown to have lunch at Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace on South Fourth Street. Dirty Frank’s has just about every variation on a hot dog that you could imagine, as well as brats and other things, too. The most hilarious thing I saw on the menu was The Glenn Beck – “Just a plain old weiner.” In the end, I decided to get a West Virginia Slaw Dog, something I hadn’t had since I was a teenager slipping down across the border into Morgantown for high school-era shenanigans.

 Here again, it was just nice to be able to spend time with Erica. But now, it was time to find out whether Andrea was willing to spend some time together.

erica at dirty franks

Daughter #1 at Dirty Frank’s

After finally reaching her, she decided that yes, she’d spend some time with me. She’d just gotten home from work, and said she’d need an hour and a half or so to relax and clean up. In the meantime, though, she didn’t want me at the apartment. So Erica and I decided to go to a nearby park and let Lexi the Wonder Dog stretch her legs a bit.

erica and lexi-1

erica and lexi-2

After about an hour in the park, we picked Andrea up and went out to eat – again – this time at the Cheesecake Factory, since Andrea was starved. Erica cringed at the idea of turning around and going to another restaurant, but I explained that if I had to stuff more food down my throat just to be able to spend some time together with her sister, then that’s exactly what I’d do.

The meal was uneventful. Conversation started out strained but polite, and since there was no screaming or throwing of cutlery, I put this meeting in the Win column. I actually got a smile or two out of her when she momentarily forgot that she was still upset with me. A little bit of progress. I’ll take it. Of course, as I type this a week later, I just got a hostile response to a text message I sent her, so what are you going to do?

After eating, Erica needed to get some new shoes, so the three of us went to a nearby shoe store. For some reason, I decided to buy a new pair of casual summer shoes, too, thinking that it’s been years since I bought a pair of shoes anywhere other than a thrift shop, and I thought it would be a nice time to treat myself. Andrea helped me pick out which of three different pairs I’d honed in on. We were having a nice moment.

As I was trying them on, Andrea said, “Why are you wearing a ring? Are you married?”  Oh boy, here we go. At this point, I figured any good vibes were going to disappear. Recently, George and I have started wearing matching rings – maybe a kind of pre-engagement commitment ring of sorts; nothing fancy, just an inexpensive stainless steel band that we wear on our right ring fingers.

“No, I’m not married.”

“Well, that’s an interesting choice of fingers you’re wearing it on. Are you engaged?”

“No, I’m not engaged, Andrea. It just means I have a boyfriend; nothing more, nothing less.”

She walked away. I braced myself for the shitstorm that I assumed was imminent, but to my surprise, it never came, and the mood remained moderately pleasant in the car.

All too soon, I had to go, moving on from Columbus to Oberlin. During my time in Columbus, I learned that Andrea was flying back to Europe on that Friday. It was bad enough that I was barely able to see her at all during her stay, I wanted to at least be able to see her off at the airport. But I knew that even asking that on this day would be pushing it, so I decided to wait and follow up with her later. I’d just have to keep my fingers crossed for now. On to the next stop.

***

Oberlin has accidentally become an important place for me in the unfolding story of LGBTQ issues over the past year and a half. I was out here, among the violin makers, before I was completely, officially out everywhere. It was while I was at Oberlin last year that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow ministers to officiate same-sex marriages if it were legal in their state and if their conscience directed them to do so. They also passed an amendment to their constitution to change the definition of marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” I was sitting in the dormitory room in Asia House on campus, watching live streaming of the floor debate and vote when those measures passed. And this year, I would be here awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, potentially bringing marriage equality to all states. So even beyond the company I keep while I’m there, Oberlin is a special place to me.

I got there just after 9:00. Just outside of town, I discovered that the charger for my phone had failed somewhere along the line, and it had gone completely dead, leaving me unable to call George to let him know when I’d be getting there, or to find out where on campus he was, or to get him to let me into the locked dormitory. I stopped and bought a new charger, but the phone was so dead it wouldn’t even let me turn it back on, let alone make a quick call. I guess I lucked out a bit; when I pulled into the parking lot I could access the WiFi with my laptop and I emailed him to let him know I’d gotten there and my phone situation. We finally got together, and with just enough time to run over to the Cowhaus, an excellent ice cream shop in town, which just happened to be featuring Two Scoop Tuesday, a great two-for-one deal.

Wednesday morning, George and I stopped in at the Slow Train Cafe for a danish and coffee breakfast, before he had to get to his morning workshop. Besides continuing work on a violin he has in progress, George’s big thing this year is to learn a new antiquing method for his instruments. He currently uses a method that had been taught over the past few years at Oberlin by Antoine Nedelec and Jeff Phillips, violin makers from Dallas and Salt Lake City, respectively. This year, the workshop is featuring a different technique, being taught by Stephan von Baehr, who operates a shop in Paris. Nedelec has given von Baehr the nickname “The Animal” based on the relatively intense methods he uses in his antiquing process.

Stephan von Baehr leading a workshop on his method of antiquing an instrument

Stephan von Baehr leading a workshop on his method of antiquing an instrument

While we were in the Slow Train, Emilio, one of von Baehr’s assistants, also stopped in. He had forgotten his wallet and didn’t have any cash, so I gave him a few dollars so he could get a coffee and a muffin. Afterward, I briefly stopped into the workshop with George to reacquaint myself with some of the people I remembered from last year, and to meet some new people as well. Before heading to Oberlin, George had been in contact with Bill Sloan, one of the other attendees – of whom I’ll say more later. George would be arriving before Bill, so Bill asked George to save him a workbench near the presentation space in the workshop, so he could get a good view of the antiquing sessions.

After the brief socializing, I said goodbye to George and decided to go sightseeing. As I mentioned before, Oberlin has a number of works by noted architects – many by Cass Gilbert, a theater by Wallace Harrison, two buildings by Minoru Yamasaki, a museum addition by Postmodernist guru Robert Venturi, and a number of lesser-known but still very accomplished architects. I’m not sure where the Frank Lloyd Wright house is – no doubt out in the countryside outside of town – but I’ll have to hunt it down the next time I’m there. So, George fiddled – or at least, made a fiddle – while I got to know the town a little better.

Someon bearing an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland peering down from a column capital in the colonade of Asia House

Someone bearing an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland peering down from a column capital in the colonnade of Asia House

One of the neat things about the workshop is that the group works in teams to prepare their own dinners each day. Some of the teams can get really into their menus, and there’s special recognition for the best culinary effort of the gathering.

Kitchen duty. George's team provided dinner during the first week, before I arrived in town

Kitchen duty. George’s team provided dinner during the first week, before I arrived in town

The violin makers cook and eat at Baldwin Cottage, and on Wednesday, they had invited the bow makers – a separate group who were meeting at Oberlin during the same period – to share dinner with them.

Baldwin Cottage on Wednesday afternoon. Only the cooler on the front steps gives a clue to the good times about to play out on the lawn in a little while.

The weather was sunny and dry, and they had decided to set up tables on the front lawn.  Pete Goodfellow, one of the attendees from Australia, had prepared several water-cooler jugs’ worth of Mojitos to get things started, accompanied by some delicious appetizers of small servings of gazpacho and some kind of baked potato thing that was very good. Before dinner, the group got into some fun and games, trying to see who could cut through a log with a two-person saw the fastest and thinnest; who could carry the log around a predetermined course the quickest,  and a kind of tug-of-war while perched atop some precarious little stools:

vsa tug of war

Stepstool Tug-of-War. I did mention Mojitos were involved, didn’t I?

Dinner this evening was, as usual, incredible – a Thai curry dish, beet salad, orange and pomegranate salad, couscous with lamb, and panna cotta with blueberry sauce for dessert.

Wednesday's dinner - thanks to Chris Ulbricht for the picture

Wednesday’s dinner – thanks to Chris Ulbricht for the picture

It was a great end to a great day. After dinner, I think George and I went to a shop downtown and I bought an Oberlin T shirt. We also stopped back at Cowhaus, wondering if, since they had a Two-Scoop Tuesday, they also had Wonderful Wednesday or something like that. Unfortunately, it was just Regular Old Wednesday, but we still got some ice cream, and then George got back to the workshop while I just hung out a bit.

George in the midst of some antiquing on his instrument, in the

George in the midst of some antiquing on his instrument, in the “Scratchatorium” – the workshop where the makers distressed the finishes on their instruments to artificially age them, using an assortment of wire brushes, stones, and even a meat cleaver, to achieve a realistic appearance of a hundred years or more of age on the instrument

On Thursday, while George continued his activities, I checked out the Allen Memorial Art Museum, which had a relatively small but extremely impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, and other works from many different ancient cultures through modern and postmodern works.

alan art museum oberlin

The Allen Memorial Art Museum – the Cass Gilbert original building to the left, the Robert Venturi addition to the right

The violin makers’ workshops were actually in the lower level of the Venturi addition to the Allen, in what’s usually the sculpture studio, a woodworking shop, and other ancillary spaces.

I also tried to get through to Andrea via text, to ask her if I could be at the airport to see her off the next morning. I was shocked that she not only agreed, but she also invited me to go to breakfast with her and Erica before she had to check in at Port Columbus at 10:00. This was a very good thing.

At some point during the day, we also went back to  the shop where I’d bought the T shirt. I had inadvertently picked up the wrong size and needed to replace it. They were out of my size in the style I’d bought, but they had a similar design in the right size and we got the exchange taken care of.

I don’t actually see much of George during the days at Oberlin. That isn’t a complaint; it’s just an observation. The violin makers often work until late at night, and even sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, just enjoying the unique example of collaboration and collegiality that the event is. George kept trying to explain what the schedule was like, almost apologetically, and I had to keep reminding him that I completely understood the nature of the gathering – in fact, it reminded me very much of the magic, the energy, and the creativity of my experiences in my architecture design studios back in my days at Penn State. I love checking in on what George and the others are doing in the workshop periodically, but I’m very much aware that I’m an outsider – a welcomed outsider, as far as I’ve ever experienced, but an outsider nonetheless – so when I stop in for a visit, I try hard to stay out of people’s way, to largely be a fly on the wall and to be as relatively invisible as possible. I remember how nice it was to have someone stop by to visit in the architecture studios and to see what you were up to, but there was always more work to do, and the next deadline always looming, so after a visitor had been there for a while, they brought as much pleasure in their departure as they had in their arrival. Despite my interest in what they’re doing, and my fascination with their talent and the beauty of their craft, I try really hard to not be “that guy” when I’m there.

Thursday’s dinner was just as delicious as Wednesday’s. But while some of the makers also have great culinary skills – at least one of them was a former chef – not all of them shine in the kitchen, so on this day dinner came from a restaurant in town – an excellent little Korean restaurant that George and I had actually had lunch at the day before. At this point, I can’t even remember everything on the menu, but suffice it to say it was all fantastic, and there was more than we could possibly eat. On Thursday of the second week, the group also typically gives out various awards – the best meal, the winners in some of the fun activities, etc. George was tapped to make the presentation to Chris Germain, the head of the VSA, for having organized the event once again. A good time was had by all.

I think it was about this time that George and I had to make a run into Amherst, the next town to the north of Oberlin, to a hardware store for something he needed. In the process, we also found a Giant Eagle grocery store. I took the opportunity to stop in and buy another gallon of Lemon Blennd concentrate. Lemon Blennd is a Pittsburgh-area tradition, at least for people of my age. It’s a sweet, lemon-orange-flavored concoction that is absolutely, incredibly thirst-quenching over ice in the summer. I learned in adulthood that it’s also a pretty good mixer with whiskey or bourbon. In any case, I’d just finished my last gallon of concentrate, and I knew that Giant Eagle, being a Pittsburgh-based operation, sold it, so I took the opportunity to pick some up since it isn’t available anywhere in Auburn.

Nectar of yunz gods

Nectar of yunz gods

Later, George went back to the workshop. I knew he was going to be there late; in fact, he hadn’t gotten back in by the time I had to leave the next morning for Columbus.

***

I got into town just a little after 8:00. As things developed, the breakfast got nixed because Andrea had gotten very little sleep the night before, and she still hadn’t quite finished packing. It also ended up being helpful if I drove her to the airport, which I was more than happy to do. I helped her finish packing, and weighing her bag to make sure it would be under the airline maximum. During all this, she actually seemed very much at ease and pleasant.  Just before leaving, she remembered she was supposed to bring some basic gardening gloves with her to the archaeological dig she was headed for, so we stopped at a convenience store along the way and picked some up for her. She also thought it would be helpful to have a pair of sunglasses, and all of a sudden the inexpensive pair I had in the car – which she’d teased me about the other day – seemed to be pretty nice, and she asked if she could take them along with her. I told her of course she could. “Thanks, Pops.” That was the first time I’d gotten called that in a long time. It was nice.

It was just about ten when she was checking in, and that was also the time the Supreme Court was supposed to release its ruling in Obergefell, the same-sex marriage case. As we stood in line, I quickly checked my phone and saw that the ruling had just been released, and in favor of marriage equality. I quickly flashed the phone to Erica, but didn’t say anything to Andrea about what would be a touchy topic for her. So technically, I wasn’t in Oberlin when I got word about the decision, but this was all part of the same trip.

After that, things went smoothly. I at least got a hug before Andrea disappeared through the TSA security. I dropped Erica back off, we said our goodbyes, and I was northbound again.

When I got back to Oberlin, the violin makers were in the midst of their end-of-the-event discussion of what went well, what didn’t, how things might improve for next year, etc. After that, George and I did one last special Oberlin thing. I’d mentioned an attendee named Bill Sloan earlier. Bill is a doctor from Los Angeles, who just happens to own two wonderful violins – the 1714 “Jackson” Stradivarius, and a Guarneri del Gesu dating from 1742, if I recall correctly. You can catch a short video of these two beautiful instruments being played together here. Bill had brought both of the instruments with him to Oberlin, and he and George had made arrangements to play the Bach Double Concerto for Violin on the two violins. So Friday evening, the two of them sat down in the front parlor of Baldwin Cottage and played – a little tenuously at first, since they hadn’t practiced at all together, but by the second movement, they’d found their groove. It was really a magical experience – George on the Strad and Bill on the del Gesu. Sitting there, listening to them playing on two of the finest violins in the world, I was grateful for just how lucky and blessed I was to be there.

George and Bill Bach Double

I got a chance to examine the instruments up close, to compare them and ask questions about some of the details of each of them. Of course, I was very nervous just holding these instruments. In getting a picture of me with the Strad, I was holding it out away from me, almost as if it were radioactive. Bill laughed and stepped in, saying “Oh come on, hold it up close to you like it’s yours and you love it!” I still felt a little nervous, but the second picture was much better:

me and jackson strad

The Jackson Strad

When they finished, Bill took off for Cleveland to attend a concert. George and I went down to The Feve, a nice restaurant/bar in town, to get a bit to eat and hang out with some of the crew on the last night there. After dinner, we headed upstairs where a large group of the makers were gathered around two long tabletops enjoying several pitchers of beer. When we walked in, someone called for a toast for George and me. That was heartwarming, but I don’t want to get a swelled head – by that point of the evening and with the beer flowing, I suspect they’d have drunk a toast to the paint on the wall. Still, it felt good, and almost before we could sit down, there were glasses of beer sitting in front of us, which was nice. It was a great way to celebrate both the end of another two-week VSA workshop, as well as the terrific news coming out of the Supreme Court earlier that same day.

***

Saturday morning, it was time to leave Oberlin and head to Toronto, to wrap up the week at George’s and to also celebrate the end of Pride Week, and to catch the Pride Parade while in town. This would actually be the first Pride parade I’d gone to, and since it was still part of my Big Gay Year, I figured I’d do it large in Toronto, versus a smaller local one. George was insistent that he get on the road first, so he could get to the condo first and clean up a bit. Apparently, things had gotten out of hand as he rushed to get things ready to leave, so he wanted a bit of time to make the place presentable. It was pouring rain when we left – as it had been several times while we were there. We’d both gotten on the road relatively early in the morning, and the drive up was just nasty, with hard, driving rain, and very high winds while crossing the Peace Bridge, really pushing the car around as I was making the crossing.  Also, just as I hit the Buffalo area, I discovered that the phone charger I’d just bought a few days earlier had crapped out on me, and my phone was almost about to completely die again. Of course, as I’m battling the wind, the rain, and a phone just about ready to become a paperweight, I get a call from Erica. I quickly ascertained that she wasn’t calling for any emergency, and I told her my predicament and that I’d call her back as soon as I could.

Once across the border, the rain let up a slight bit, and I pulled into the first place I could to get yet another charger. Then, while sitting in the parking lot, I called Erica back.

“Hey, I just wanted to say that it didn’t really sink in what you were showing me on your phone when we were at the airport yesterday. I didn’t see anything about the SCOTUS decision until today. I just wanted to say congratulations.”

After making some joke about it really not being anything I had a hand in, I agreed that yes, it was a pretty big deal, and that while there’s still a long way to go for full equality, I was really happy about it.

“So, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re wearing a ring. Are you engaged?” Here we go again.

“No, we’re not engaged.”

To be honest, I was trying to avoid getting into the subject. But she kept discussing it, and I finally blurted out what I was originally trying not to.

“Well honey, the truth is that George and I have discussed what the future may hold for us. We are moving in that direction, but we both have some things to take care of before we take that step. George would have some business-related things to take care of, and of course, there would be legal implications about being citizens of two different countries that we’d have to research. For my part, I have to find a permanent, installed call; an interim pastor’s position is unstable enough for one person; it isn’t anything to invite a second person to pull up stakes and join into the insanity. Most importantly though, I need to try to work on my relationship with you and your sister, to try to strengthen those first.”

“Well you don’t have to worry about me; I’m OK with it. As far as Andrea, she’ll eventually come around, but honestly, you shouldn’t tie your happiness and getting on with your life to whether or not she approves.”

Hm. I wish it really were that simple.

The truth is, as I finally admitted to her, I’d almost actually proposed to George at Oberlin the day before. Yes, we know we have these issues to work out first, and we know that because of it an engagement might be a little longer than most. But with the great news of the day, and with all of George’s international friends there in town to be able to be a part of it, I came within a hair’s breadth of officially proposing to him at Oberlin. Looking down the road, I even considered a potential wedding date just the day after some future workshop ended, so his international associates could just tack an extra day onto their trip and be part of the wedding, too.

“Oh no, you don’t want to propose like that! That’s lame; you can come up with a better way to do it than that!”

“Um, OK, so by this, I’m assuming that you’re OK being around George now?”

“Yeah, I’m OK with it; just for a while make sure there’s someone else around, too, because it’s still just a little awkward since I don’t know him well enough yet, but over time that will work out.”

I really don’t have words to convey how good this conversation made me feel. We talked a bit more, but I really did have to get back on the road, so I finally had to say goodbye.

“OK, I’ll talk to you later, I love you to death, and when the time’s right to propose, you talk to me and I’ll give you some ideas for how to do it right!”

I really, really love this young woman.

But now, on to Toronto.

***

It had been snowing in Santa Barbara since the top of the page (extra points, not to mention birthday candles, to you if you understand that reference) – well actually, it had been raining in Toronto since I got into town. Of course, my new phone was somehow not configured to work across the border, so I couldn’t call George and let him know I was downstairs, outside his extremely security-conscious building. I did finally get into the lobby, where someone called up to let him know I’d arrived. After I got my car parked in guest parking and my stuff upstairs, we called Customer Support and got the phone to work.

Toronto had been celebrating Gay Pride all the past week with a number of events, all culminating with the parade scheduled for Sunday. Saturday evening, George and I went to a little Izakaya-style Japanese restaurant just behind his building. It was excellent food, but we were still hungry afterward, so we walked a block over into the Church & Wellesley  Village and loaded up on some onion rings from a Hero Burger. Also, in my rush when packing, I’d forgotten a jacket, so we looked around for a place where I could pick up just a basic, inexpensive one, but we never found one.

An even more significant disappointment was that as we were walking down Church Street, we discovered that the Timothy’s Coffee shop had closed. I’m no coffee snob, but I really do like Timothy’s coffee, and I try to keep a bag of it at home pretty much at all times. It’s very good coffee, but what was always more important to me was what it represented. Timothy’s – and this particular store – was a favorite hangout. Any time I’d get into Toronto, you could be sure that George and I would end up there before the night was out. Oberlin has some significance to me in my gay journey, and this coffee shop in the heart of the Gay Village did, too. This was the very first place that I felt completely comfortable holding George’s hand in public, or giving him a kiss, without having to scan my surroundings for fear of becoming the next gay-bashing statistic. Timothy’s was our first “safe place,” where I could feel like part of a perfectly normal couple just like anyone else. And while there are other places where I feel that same level of comfort now, this was the first place. And now it’s gone. Crap.

At the same time, I learned via Facebook that a somewhat distant cousin, whom I’d never actually met in person, was also in Toronto for Pride, so we tried to make arrangements to meet for lunch or something while we were both in town. Meanwhile, George and I went back to his place and watched a movie or two and just stayed inside, out of the wind and near-horizontal rain, hoping the weather would improve the next day.

Sunday wasn’t nearly as bad as Saturday. The wind had calmed to almost nothing, and the rain wasn’t heavy, but most of the day came with a near-constant misty rain – never really enough to make you think you’re getting very wet, until you realize after a couple hours you’re soaked completely through, and it really isn’t as warm as you thought earlier on. At least that was my experience throughout the day.

We did manage to meet up with my cousin and his partner for lunch, to talk a bit and watch some of the parade together. The actual relationship between us is that his father and mine are cousins, making the two of us second cousins once removed, or in more common terminology, total strangers. He’s part of my paternal grandmother’s family. She died shortly before I was even born, and because so many in that family had spread pretty wide geographically, I never got to know many of them, which I wish wasn’t the case. So it was nice to meet him and his partner – who, coincidentally, are both named Matt, which I imagine must get confusing at times.

After watching a bit of the parade together, the Matts went their own way and we went ours. They had other friends in town that they were trying to meet up with, and frankly, I couldn’t imagine a couple of male-modelish twenty- and thirty-something guys having a worse time at Pride than spending it talking with two fifty-somethings they didn’t even know. They seemed to be having trouble contacting their friends; I hope they eventually found one another.

George and I were able to work our way right up to the guard railing and actually had a pretty good place to watch the rest of the parade. It was fun. There were lots of floats and marchers, including different student groups, unions, churches; there were representatives from just about any group you could imagine.

One of the things that’s changed with Pride parades over time, as public acceptance of the LGBTQ community has increased, is that they’ve gotten a lot more “family-friendly” and less, well, in-your-face. This is both good and bad: good due to where the change is coming from, and that it can be a much more welcoming event to include more of the family in; but also bad, because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done – more here in the U.S. than in Toronto, unfortunately – with regard to full equality, and whether one likes it or not, ultimately the in-your-face efforts are sometimes necessary to jolt people into awareness and action. As Joan Baez said, “It isn’t nice to stand in the door/ It isn’t nice to go to jail/ There are nicer ways to do things/ But the nice ways always fail.” I don’t know about “always,” but she had a valid point. So, given the amount of work yet to be done, I make at least a case for what I’d call “purposeful” in-your-facedness – but despite that, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous shock that doesn’t make an ideological or political point any deeper than “because I can;” in my opinion, those kinds of things only serve to hurt greater LGBTQ acceptance. We didn’t see the entire parade, but we did catch most of it, and in all that we saw, most of the participants were completely PG rated, not even PG-13. I think there were only two groups that would have risen to R-level. One was a pickup truck filled with foam and a bunch of nearly naked but apparently very clean people; and the other was a local group of naturists insanely marching together through the cold and rain in their official non-uniform. If you remember the TV show “Friends,” they occasionally made reference to Ugly Naked Guy, who lived in an apartment across the street from them. Apparently, UNG retired and moved to Toronto, where this day he was pushing himself around on a razor scooter through the entire parade. No pictures of this. You’re welcome.

But there are a few other pictures:

Proud farmers

Proud farmers

Foam rubber hair

Foam rubber hair

Asphalt-shaking bass. Thump, thump, thump, thump...

Asphalt-shaking bass. Thump, thump, thump, thump…

Proud librarians, carrying signs with literary themes

Proud librarians, carrying signs with literary themes

Not really accurate, but he couldn't help himself

Not really accurate, but he couldn’t help himself

Beads, beads, beads for everybody!

Beads, beads, beads for everybody!

Proud drummers of some kind or another

Proud drummers of some kind or another

Proud engineers. This was actually George's old student engineering association from the University of Waterloo.

Proud engineers. This was actually George’s old student engineering association from the University of Waterloo.

And more engineers.

And more engineers.

Proud Anglicans. Blimy!

Proud Anglicans. Blimey!

And finally, a truckload of proud attorneys, as it turns out.

And finally, a truckload of proud attorneys, as it turns out.

Finally, the parade wrapped up. It was a great time, but by this point I was completely waterlogged, and we tried – unsuccessfully – to find a jacket again. Ah, well, time to just go home and dry off.

After all of this, it was time to turn south and get back to Auburn. I came back into the States via – appropriately enough – the Rainbow Bridge. After declaring that I had nothing to declare to the Customs agent, she was apparently skeptical and had me pop the trunk. The shoes that I’d bought in Columbus, and the jug of Lemon Blennd were in the trunk. Coming back around to the kiosk, the raised her eyebrows and asked, “Are you sure you didn’t buy anything in Canada?” “No, not on this trip.” Momentary pause… “OK, go on through.” Passing through Niagara Falls, the falls themselves and a number of other things in town were lit with rainbow colors, maybe in honor of the SCOTUS decision, maybe just because they thought it was pretty. Either way, it was nice. But now it was time to get home.

And more bonus points for you if you got this reference.

And more bonus points for you if you got this reference.

I didn’t roll into Auburn until about 1:00am, and I needed to be at work by noon, so I immediately crawled into bed. End of the vacation.

So now I’m sitting here, more than a week later writing this recap of the vacation. My suitcase is still sitting on the bedroom floor, not quite fully unloaded. Other than that, I’m back into the normal routine of things. There had been enough going on during the week that when I did get back into the office, I actually had to think for a split second what my office email password was. That’s probably a sign that the vacation was just the right length of time. It was a really eventful week, one that I won’t soon forget. But now, it’s time to get back to what one person dubbed “the relentless return of Sunday.” Goodbye, Columbus. Goodbye, Oberlin. Goodbye, Toronto. Hello, Auburn.

Weak Strength (sermon7/5/2015)

Rembrants-Paul

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

===

He was bald, bow-legged, with a strong upper body but short even by the standards of his own time, with one big, bushy, caterpillar “unibrow” over his eyes, and he had a particularly large nose. That’s how a writer described the apostle Paul not long after he’d died. Over the course of his life, he’d been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, snake-bitten, and even though you could say public speaking was his job, people commented on how he didn’t have a voice particularly well-suited for the task. Beyond all that, Paul talks in the passage we heard today from Second Corinthians about some unspecified “thorn in the flesh” that had dogged him throughout his days. Clearly, Paul wasn’t going to influence people based on his own personal appeal.

And yet, in ways large and small, often for the better and sometimes less so, this one individual who had so few of the tools of charisma and leadership in his tool belt shaped the Christian faith more than anyone other than Jesus himself.

It seems to be a pattern that God uses a lot – calling people to do something beyond their own strength. Calling them from a place of weakness to accomplish something they seem on paper ill-equipped to pull off. You see it time and again throughout the scriptures and the history of the church. The greatest things in the Kingdom of God have been achieved by people in positions of weakness, who had to rely solely on their faith and trust in God, and not in their own security or strength.

We’re worshiping outdoors today for a few reasons. The first is just to enjoy God’s creation this holiday weekend, to enjoy its beauty and the special feeling of fellowship and connectedness that we have with one another and with all of creation. Another reason we’re outside is to make an easy transition between the service and our picnic today. But another reason we’re out here is to serve as a reminder that the church isn’t the four walls that we usually gather in, insulated from the world outside, but instead, the church is constantly called by God to be out in the midst of things in the world – always moving outward to be the agent of God’s love to all the world. That’s the whole purpose, the whole reason for the existence of the church. These four walls are meant to be a base of operations, a place of spiritual nurture and development, renewal and encouragement, in order for us to get right back our here. This is where the church is called to be.

That can be an unsettling thing. We understand the rules, the traditions, the way things work inside the walls. We have a sense of strength and security in there. Even if we tweak the Order of Worship once in a while, for example, or we move a hymn here or there, we can still be pretty confident of what’s going to happen, and when, and how. We can build up a perception of our own strength and security in the comfort of our walls. But as unsettling as it might be, as weak or uncertain as it might make us feel, God keeps leading us out here, where, as someone once said, where anything can happen and usually does. God keeps calling us into those places where we have to rely on God and not on our own supposed strength and security, our own planning, or our wits, or our traditions, or our finances. God keeps calling us into this weakness. It’s an inseparable part of our faith. It’s in that place where our faith deepens and grows. It’s in that place where God empowers us, through our faith, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, the care for the lonely, to work for justice – for freedom and liberation for all of God’s people.

We’re actually very lucky this morning. We’re outside our walls, enjoying the breeze, and the birds, and the shade of the trees, by our choice. But this morning, there are at least eight predominantly black churches in this country who don’t have the option of being inside their walls this morning. Churches whose buildings have been destroyed by fire over the last two weeks since the tragic killings in Charleston. Some of these fires may have been accidental, but at least several of them have been ruled arson. Whatever the cause, these congregations, our brothers and sisters in Christ, are worshiping somewhere this morning outside of their walls, too. They’re experiencing a moment of real weakness. And in this moment, they’re having to draw from their own faith and trust in God’s words to Paul, that as bad as things may seem, God’s grace is sufficient for them – and for us – and it’s when we feel the most weak, the most vulnerable and insecure, that we’ll end up seeing and feeling God’s love and work within us.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we lost our building, like those churches did? What would we do? Would we rebuild? If so, what would we build? How would it be different? How would it meet the needs of the mission we see for our church? Would the new building, whatever it was, enable us to see other aspects of our mission that we hadn’t seen before? And that leads to the next question: If thinking about how that hypothetical new building led us to see some new or different aspect of the church’s mission, how do we know we shouldn’t be finding some way to accomplish that same thing now, without any fire, without any new building?

The truly good news that Paul discovered in the midst of his own weakness about God’s love and provision is truth for us, too, when we might feel weak and not in control of things in our own lives. Regardless of whatever you or I may be feeling helpless about, God has promised to provide grace sufficient for us to get through it – without us having to put too much emphasis on creating our own supposed strength, or security, or having to impose our own control over things. Jesus himself told us not to over-stress about those kinds of things; that to do so is itself something sinful and indicative of a lack of faith and trust in God. In the counterintuitive way of the Kingdom of God, worrying too much about our strength ends up making us weak, while accepting our weakness and trusting in God ends up making us strong.

Whoever we are, and in whatever circumstances we’re in, God loves us, and will provide for us, and will give us the guidance and strength that we need to do what God has called us to do. That was good news for Paul. And it’s good news for the members of the Mount Zion Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, as they meet somewhere this morning while the smell of charred wood is still thick in the air. And it’s good news for us this morning, too, as we sit here in the breeze, with the birds, in the shade of the trees and the shadow of our walls.

Thanks be to God.