Seeing God in Ward 5B

(sermon 6/23/19)

aids quilt

View of approximately half of the National Mall in Washington DC, displaying the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, started in 1987 to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Currently weighing over 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Each panel measures 3’x6′ and is made by loved ones of the victim. It currently occupies 1.3 million square feet, and can no longer be displayed in its entirety on the entire National Mall. It consists of more than 48,000 panels honoring more than 94,000 individuals. This is 14% of the total number of people who have died from AIDS in the United States alone.

1 Kings 19:1-15

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return; and on your way, go by way of the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

 

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Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

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Maybe you could think of today’s sermon as a play in four acts, with each act dealing with finding and experiencing God in surprising and unexpected circumstances. The first act was our reading from the First Book of Kings. There, we see the prophet Elijah, who’s on the run. He’s just publicly humiliated the prophets of the god Baal – the god worshiped by the evil queen, Jezebel. As if publicly humiliating these prophets wasn’t enough, Elijah also killed them all, which would seem to be a bit excessive to anyone, and it was certainly seen as excessive to Jezebel, who swore to capture Elijah and give him a taste of his own medicine. So Elijah did what any reasonable person would do if their life was in danger in their own country – he fled across the border. Feeling that the whole world was against him, he trekked all the way to Mt. Horeb – which most of us probably know better as Mt. Sinai, where Elijah knew God had appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Elijah knows the story: God appeared to Moses in a cloud, with thunder and lightning and wind and a loud booming voice – really, you know this; I know you’ve seen the movie. And Elijah has seen the movie, too, and so in the midst of his own crisis of faith, Elijah wanted to have a meeting with the boss now, too, as it were. He wanted to offer God a list of grievances and get some advice, and he figures this is the best place to find God. Well, as we heard, Elijah definitely got the big theatrics – wind, earthquake, fire – but ultimately, Elijah encounters God in a completely unexpected way – in the quiet. In the small, still voice, asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” along with the implied “Now quit complaining and get back to work.” Elijah encountered God in the way and place he least expected.

The second act in this play is our reading from Luke. Here, Jesus had gone to Capernaum, a favorite place of his and one that he knew well. On this particular trip, he got a request for help from a centurion in the Roman army. This man is essentially part of the muscle of the Roman Empire, imposing the Roman thumb on top of the local residents, keeping them in line and quiet and, most importantly, paying their taxes. By any measure, a Roman centurion wouldn’t ordinarily be seen as a friend of the townspeople, but apparently, this one was at least a bit different, having helped the people build a synagogue. So when the centurion seeks out Jesus’ help to heal a beloved slave who was near death, the townspeople told Jesus “Well, yes, he’s a Roman, but as Romans go he’s a decent one; you really should help him.” Of course, we heard about the centurion’s faith, the trust he placed in Jesus, telling Jesus he doesn’t even need to bother himself with coming all the way to the house. He trusted in Jesus’ power and authority such that he could just will the slave’s healing from wherever he was. And just as Elijah was shocked and surprised at how he experienced God’s presence, now Jesus was similarly shocked, seeing the presence of God so powerfully, and faith exhibited so strongly, and by a Gentile, a Roman occupier of all people. Incredible!

Scene three of this play takes place in much more recent times. Since today the Presbyterian Church recognizes World AIDS Awareness Sunday, this scene takes place in the mid-1980s, in and around Ward 5B of the San Francisco General Hospital. It was the first hospital ward dedicated to treating AIDS patients, even before it was even called AIDS, at the very beginning of the epidemic when very little was understood about the disease and when people were terrified, panicked. Into this scene, enter Ronnie. Ronnie was a gay man living in the Castro District of San Francisco. He had a slight build, and he dressed flamboyantly, and talked with a lisp and he had a limp wrist and his hips swished when he walked. Ronnie was basically a walking catalogue of all of the stereotypes that the general public had negatively held, assuming all gay people were like. Add to that the fact that Ronnie could be really nasty, catty, cynical, and frankly, even bitter – which was understandable, given the physical and emotional abuse that people had heaped upon him all his life. Unlike many gay men who could blend, who could pass as straight, passing was never an option for Ronnie. He couldn’t hide who he was, and he’d paid a heavy price for it. And Ronnie’s real hot button was religion. Mention God, or Jesus, or the Church to Ronnie and he would unload a barrage of profanity and obscenity on you like you’d never heard before, and he might even physically throw something at you. That was the result of being told his entire life by people inside the church that he was a terrible person, sinful pervert who was going to hell.

And then came AIDS. Ronnie started to see his friends and acquaintances getting sick – first just a couple, and then more, and then even more. It was maybe just a few dark blotches on their skin at first, but then they’d start losing weight, and a lot of weight, fast. They’d become gaunt, and weak, and over time blotches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma would cover their bodies, and still, no one really understood what was happening. At first, “gt was just called the “gay plague,” since it was predominantly, not exclusively but predominantly, appearing in the gay community. No one really knew what to do for them. A lot of people didn’t want to do anything for them, out of fear it was contagious and they’d get “it.” And frankly, a lot of other people didn’t want to help them simply because they were supposedly just a bunch of perverts who deserved to die anyway. It was God’s punishment and condemnation, according to Jerry Falwell and others.

Ronnie started to visit his sick friends and acquaintances in their homes – especially those whose families had long ago disowned them and even whose friends had now abandoned them; the ones who had no one else. Ronnie knew what it was like to be friendless and abandoned. Some of them he didn’t know well, if at all. Still, he helped them take their medications. He helped them eat, and get dressed, and get to the doctor’s. He bathed them, and he cleaned up after them after they’d lost control of their bodily functions. And when things got worse, and they always got worse, and they were admitted to Ward 5B, Ronnie spent hours visiting them there, too. He would bring them their trays when hospital orderlies refused to deliver food into the rooms, and he’d feed them when their skeletal arms were too weak to allow them to feed themselves. He listened to them when they could talk, even when their dementia caused them to speak nonsense, and he talked to them when he wasn’t even sure they could hear him. Ronnie actually had a remarkable singing voice, and sometimes he sang to them – maybe a Top 40 hit, or a disco favorite, or maybe a showtune. On a few occasions, when they’d asked him to, Ronnie even momentarily put aside his own hostility and sang some comforting old religious hymn that they’d both remembered from being in church as kids. Just as importantly as all that, Ronnie gave them the incredible gift of simple human touch. When others wouldn’t even come in the room, he held their hands, and stroked their cheeks, and brushed their hair, and in general let them know that someone cared. That they mattered. That even if everyone else in the world had abandoned them, there was still someone who loved them.

And when they died, and they always died – they always died, thirty or forty of his friends every single year – it was Ronnie who came up with the extra money the orderlies demanded just to their bodies; and it was him who fought and argued with funeral directors who refused to take the bodies, or who wanted to charge three or four or five times their normal fee to do so. And it was often Ronnie who ultimately got their box of ashes, too, because no one else would come to claim them. And it was him who spread their ashes out over someplace that had been special in their memories: out over a mountaintop, or into the sea, deep in a lush forest, and even a few times into the parking lot of their favorite dance club. And then, after that, he went back to Ward 5B and did it all over again.

Sometimes, you see the existence and the power and the holiness of God in the most surprising of people and situations. Even though he would have sworn at you if he’d heard you say it at the time, Ronnie was the very presence of God on Ward 5B.

Both of our Lectionary texts are reminders to us to always try to see the presence of God in the world. To be prepared to see the face of God in others, sometimes even in the people you might least expect it. In the Roman centurions of the world. In the Ronnies of the world

And that brings us to the fourth act. What is the fourth act of this play? Honestly, I don’t know yet. It’s up to you and me to write it, by way of our words and actionsover the course of this coming week, and all the weeks to follow – because you see, God doesn’t want us to just see God in unexpected places; we’re called to *be* God in unexpected places. Out of gratitude for the love that God has surrounded us with, to be the face of God, the face of Christ, to someone you encounter this week. Maybe someone completely different than you are, maybe someone you don’t even know well, or maybe someone you do know and frankly, you don’t even like, and you might think wouldn’t even appreciate the gesture. We live in very trying times, as you know, and we all need to see God’s presence in more of it. So this week, find some way to be the surprising encounter with God that *they* have this week. Elijah, and Jesus, and now even Ronnie, who is now enjoying the eternal reward that God had prepared for him before he was even born, would agree.

Thanks be to God.

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Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

Being There

(sermon 4/14/19 – Palm Sunday)

palm-sunday

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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So today is the day that Christians around the world remember the amazing event of Jesus’ ride out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, surrounded by throngs of supporters shouting and singing and dancing, and laying cloaks and branches in the roadway like a red carpet for Jesus, and he and the mass of people entering in through the fortified walls of Jerusalem and into the very heart of the city, into the courts of the Temple in the days before the Passover. This march on Jerusalem is often called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry,” and most of us have heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that there was definitely an aspect of joy and triumph to it. But most of us have also heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that this event was also very thoughtfully planned to mock and oppose the local powers of the Roman Empire. That every year during the days leading up to the Passover when the city ballooned to over a million people, the Roman governor and the army would stage a big ceremonial procession through the streets of the city, with fully armored war horses, and carriages, and masses of troops, and music and banners and carriages, all designed as a show of overwhelming power, and a reminder of who was in charge – and that it was OK for all of the little people to observe their quaint, backward religious observance, but if any of them got out of line they were going to get squashed by the superpower who was governing over them. And Jesus’ procession into the city was meant to be the counterimage of all that; Jesus proclaiming the coming of the reign of God; and God’s love and care for the people in the throng over the one on the throne; and that there’s really only one true superpower and it isn’t Caesar.

Given that, while there was real jubilation in this crowd marching in from Bethany, there was also no small amount of trepidation. Worry. Fear. Would they be arrested, mobbed, beaten, killed, for standing up and speaking truth to power? It was the same mixture of emotions felt by the Freedom Riders stepping off the bus to face Bull Connor in Birmingham. Or the mass of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of armed police, teargas, and attack dogs in Selma. Or the people who had the guts to come out of the closet and go out into the middle of Christopher Street in New York, risking police beatings and arrest to kick off the first Pride parade in 1970.  Or marching to protest the illegal and immoral treatment of refugees and immigrants, and being met by a mass of armed white nationalist radicals. The people in each of those examples, even if some of them wouldn’t have put it in these words, were putting themselves on the line to bring a bit more of God’s justice and peace and equity into our world.

Every year on this Sunday, we need to be reminded of just exactly what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was all about; and that when we all boldly process into the sanctuary singing and waving our palms, we’re recognizing that the very beginnings of our faith are rooted in God’s calling us, and empowering us, to speak truth to power. An essential part of the faith that we proclaim is showing up. Standing up. Being there, in the name of Christ.

“Being there” can manifest itself in a number of ways, all of them just as important, and God might call us to one or more of them. Certainly, the most direct parallel to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is, as in the examples I offered, when some Christians feel called, as a matter of faith, to stand up for God’s justice “on earth as it is in heaven,” by literally marching, rallying, protesting, praying. But that certainly isn’t the only way of “being there.” Maybe your legs, your body, your schedule, won’t allow for “being there” for the reign of God in that way. That’s OK. Maybe your call to being there  is more like that of the people who volunteer with the group Grannies Respond here in Louisville. When immigration officials at the southern border allow refugees into the country, they just drop them off at the nearest bus station. A national network of groups, including Grannies Respond, will meet these refugees at the bus terminals and help them get the ticket they need, give them advice and directions, provide them with some food and drink and personal care items, maybe a blanket; but just as importantly, to offer them a smile, a warm welcome, and assurance that there are people who care about them. You’ve heard of the Underground Railroad; this network has become known as the Overground Railroad. It’s simple. It’s easy. Anyone *could* do it, but they *are* doing it. And it means everything to the people being helped. It’s taking a stand for God’s justice, and speaking truth to power. It’s showing up. It’s being there.

It’s also being there to be part of our fledgling ride share ministry – getting members to church for worship and other events, or to an appointment, or even to vote. It isn’t complicated or strenuous. All you need is a car, a driver’s license, and a little bit of free time. But it’s so important, and so appreciated.

Being there can be taking a meal to someone who’s mourning a loss, or who’s going through some other stressful time. And it’s being there to tutor or read to a child, or to manage a Little Free Library, or to write a greeting card to a shut-in, or to teach a class or mentor a Confirmand. In these ways and so many others, we’re called by God to be the People of Being There. Being there to proclaim and promote God’s love, and peace, and justice, and equity in this world, and doing it out of gratitude to God, who, through Christ – his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection – was being there, and continues to be there, for us.

The amazing thing about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that even though it was meant to put the powers that be on notice that something bold and new was breaking into the world, compared to the massive show of force put on by the Romans that same week, they must have looked like a joke. It couldn’t compare. It couldn’t possibly send the message they wanted to. And yet, somehow, by God’s grace it did. It struck fear and worry into the hearts of the civil and religious leadership to see such a bold, in-your-face display of opposition to them – and they knew that for every person in that ragtag march, there were dozens who weren’t there but who felt the same way. In taking to the streets, and boldly proclaiming the reign of God, Jesus and his followers accomplished exactly what he’d set out to.

On that ride out from Bethany and toward Jerusalem as Jesus sat on that donkey, I wonder what he was thinking. Was he caught up in the joy of the moment? Was he feeling resignation and fear over what he knew was going to unfold that week? Could he see beyond that? Could he see all the divisions, the hostility, the hatred and meanness and violence that would be perpetrated in his name across the ages? If he could, I hope that he could also see all the times his followers would stand up, would be there, would speak truth to power, and love to hate. And if he could see that, I hope that he could also see each of us, in our own way, being a part of that.

Thanks be to God.

Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

two brothers

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

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It almost never seems to fail that if there are two children in a family, they’ll end up being polar opposites. One will be outgoing, the life of the party, while the other one will be shy and introverted. One will be the athlete, and the other will be the academic. One will be technically oriented, while the other will be the artist. One will follow all the rules to a T, and the other will constantly be coming home late after curfew with their underwear in their back pocket. Some of that is probably innate, but I think a lot of it arises out of every child’s need to stake out their own territory as they develop their own sense of self, independent of the people around them. This is true now, and it was just as true in Jesus’ time, and you can see it in play in this parable.

The younger son can’t wait to get away from home – from the family, the farm, the boring town he grew up in. He wants the city, the excitement, the culture, the restaurants. He wants to live the fast life. Meanwhile, his brother was the one who always knew he wanted to stay right where he’d grown up, where he had roots. He was the straight arrow, the quiet, dependable one who never gave his parents any problems and who probably opened a good universal life insurance policy and a 401k on his eighteenth birthday.

Of course, we know what happens. The younger son realizes that living in that faraway place wasn’t quite as glamorous as he’d pictured. It was a tougher, harder place that could chew up and spit out even a more disciplined and cautious person, let alone someone like him, who spent money like it was going out of style. And when he’s at rock bottom, he decides to go home to the judgment and ridicule that undoubtedly faced him there, but it would still be better than his current situation.

But instead of judgment, he discovers the fact that to most parents, a child can’t do anything so bad that the parent could ever reject them or stop loving them. This is something that seems to be so inherent to us as a species. I know that it happens in some instances, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how. Apparently, that’s what the father in this parable thought, too.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is being criticized by religious leaders for keeping the wrong kind of company. For hanging out with the wrong crowd. For associating with the kinds of people who their religious rules condemned. People who were supposed to be shunned, not loved and accepted. According to these religious leaders, it was important to take a moral stand against those kinds of people, and here was Jesus doing just the opposite. Jesus’ answer to that criticism was to tell them a couple of parables, this being one of them, in which he teaches them that God doesn’t really give two flips about their rules that would set up people to be rejected. So first he tells a parable about leaving 99 sheep to go find the one lost one. Interestingly, the way he tells that story, Jesus essentially says to them, “Surely, you’d risk leaving the 99 sheep alone, by themselves, to go find the one lost one, wouldn’t you?” while, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that many of his listeners were probably thinking “Actually, no, I wouldn’t risk the 99 to go look for the lost one that doesn’t exactly fit my risk management plan; I’d just write off the lost one as the cost of doing business.”

And then he tells this parable, showing how the father in the story shows love and acceptance for even this son, who by their rules and standards should have been rejected when he returned. That was what the kingdom of God was like, Jesus was telling them. Your legalistic rules designed to create outcasts simply didn’t hold water in God’s eyes.

While there are other ways to understand the parable, the most common way of relating to it is that the father represents God. Through the father’s unconditional love and acceptance of the younger son, we’re told about the gracious way that God loves us – not according to any human rules, even human rules that might seem logical to us, but according to God’s rules. That no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, or what society’s rules have to say about us, God is working based on a different set of rules – and the most important of those rules is that there is nothing – nothing – that can separate us from God’s love and acceptance.

But if that was all Jesus wanted to teach the Pharisees, he could have told this parable with just the father and the younger son; he wouldn’t have needed an older son at all. So why is he in this story? Honestly, I think he’s every bit as important as the younger son in the story. Through him, we see Jesus’ words of assurance, and warning, to the Pharisees. First, the assurance: Don’t fall into this false sense of threat. Just because God loves these other people that you want to reject, God doesn’t love you any less. Love is not a zero-sum game. It’s the message that every parent has to tell their firstborn child when their baby sibling comes along – don’t worry, you don’t have to resent it when I show love to them; there’s enough love for everyone. That, as the father in the parable tells the older son, he was always with him.

But then comes the warning: Be careful when in your self-righteousness, you set up other people to be unworthy of associating with, or loving, or accepting. This is absolutely not God’s way. When you do that, you become the object of God’s disappointment, not them. Don’t allow your understanding of God, and of what you think God would consider right and wrong, to be guided by narrow-minded legalism, but rather, let it always be guided by the rule of love.

That was the lesson that Jesus taught to the Pharisees through the character of the older brother. And it’s the same lesson that some modern-day Pharisees need to hear, too – Modern-day Pharisees who would:

Use their narrow religious beliefs to justify throwing their LGBTQ child out of the house, and into the streets.

Or who, using the same excuse, would fire a beloved, long-term high school guidance counselor because she fell in love and married another woman.

Or who would refuse to help desperate migrants fleeing for their lives just because they crossed our border illegally.

Or anyone, for that matter, who would support any immoral or unjust situation simply on the grounds that it was legal.

That, to me is why Jesus includes both the younger and older brother are in this parable. Through them, they give us glimpses of eternal truth – glimpses of grace, of assurance, and of warning.

At the end of this parable, the father tells the older son not to remain in his state of judgmentalism and anger, but rather, to let go of it, and to come in and join the grand party. But we aren’t ever told if he did or not. It’s the great unanswered question of the parable, and we get to write our own ending to it. So did the older son take the father’s assurance and warning to heart?

And when we find ourselves in the older son’s shoes, will we? We get to write our own ending to our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

*Terms and Conditions (Do Not) Apply

(sermon 3/17/19)

christchurch mosque

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

Payback Playback

(sermon 2/24/19)

payback

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

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So tonight is Oscars night, and many of us are probably thinking about thinking about movies – which ones are up for the major awards; which ones we’ve seen and which ones we haven’t. When I read this week’s gospel text, I thought of a movie too, but not any movie up for an award this year by a long shot. I thought of the classic film, “A Christmas Story” – you know, the one about Ralphie and his family and the Leg Lamp and the Red Ryder BB gun. I thought about the scene in that movie were Ralphie had blurted out a profanity, and as punishment, Ralphie’s mother cleaned his mouth out with a bar of soap.

ralphie soap

While Ralphie sat there with the soap in his mouth, he took comfort in the whole humiliating experience by plotting the revenge he’d get on his parents. After leaving home, he’d come back to visit, and they’d find out he’d gone blind – and he’d revel in the grief it would cause them when he let them know that he’d gone blind as a result of…. soap poisoning. Yeah, they’d be really sorry then…

ralphie soap poisoning

We can’t deny that we seem to be internally wired to retaliate, to seek revenge, when we’ve been wronged, and to get it in a decisive way. Maybe when we think about getting our revenge, we imagine it along the lines of something we’ve seen in a movie. Maybe something dramatic, like Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride”: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

BKE1YY THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) MANDY PATINKIN PRB 050

Or maybe something even more hardcore, like Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

The-Untouchables

Or maybe you picture it being less intense, but with far more finesse and style, more poetic justice, like in the movie “The Help,” when Minnie baked her pie.

minnie-pie

In our heads, we know that not forgiving, getting revenge, getting even, is supposed to be wrong. In our heads, we know that it’s really self-destructive. Most of us are familiar with that famous Anne LaMott quote that not forgiving is like swallowing rat poison and then expecting the rat to die – but we know that even if it’s poison, at least in its one brief moment, it can taste sweeter than honey.

But we also know these words from Jesus. Don’t get revenge – love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t condemn. We know this is what he’s taught us. But… but… does Jesus mean that we’re all supposed to just be a bunch of pathetic doormats, letting people dump all over us, and we’re supposed to just let them?

Well, Christian thinkers far more intelligent than I am have considered that question, and they’ve come up with a split decision. The history of our faith is full of entire traditions, and many individuals in other traditions, who have come to believe that the only faithful understanding of being a follower of Jesus is to be a pacifist. And you’ve got others who come down on the other side, who believe in one form or another of the theory of “just war” – whether we’re talking about actual war, or just more personal, individual injustices like having a bar of Lifebuoy stuck in our mouths. Over the course of the past several months, we’ve gotten a taste of some of these people and their different takes on this question – from Dorothy Day to Tom Dooley to Reinhold Niebuhr to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I have to admit that I’ve never personally come up with a perfectly consistent, acceptable way to answer this question for myself, again, whether we’re considering it on a personal or geopolitical level. Some days, I think I hold to some version of “just war” theory; that there is a place in some circumstances for forceful, sometimes even violent, retribution. But there are other days that I think that I’m just rationalizing the question, and that whether I like the answer or not, the pacifists are right. I think about the Civil Rights movement – realizing, as you could see in some scenes in the movie “Selma,” that the civil rights protestors were taught, trained, coached, drilled, to not give in to their natural instincts and fight back, retaliate, when they were attacked with dogs and clubs, and beaten, and sometimes even killed.

selma movie scene

I realize that it was because of their non-violent response, when millions of people saw them on television, absorbing merciless beatings, that hearts changed, minds changed, far more quickly and effectively than if the protestors had actually fought back.

So how does this all pull back together for us? What might we take away from all of this to help us when we’ve been wronged and hurt by someone?

In today’s gospel text, Jesus was teaching the same message expressed by those non-violent civil rights protestors: that more good is accomplished, for them and for ourselves, by always extending love and forgiveness to others – and this is even more true when we extend that love and forgiveness to our enemies. As hard, as impossible as it is to accomplish without God’s help, more good is accomplished when we stop cycles of hurt or violence by refusing to reflect it back outward after it’s hit us. Jesus isn’t trying to burden us with a task that we can’t pull off; he’s trying to keep us from imprisoning ourselves, harming ourselves, which is what always happens when we refuse to forgive and when we retaliate when we’ve been wronged. Jesus is telling us that it’s in forgiveness, and not returning evil for evil, that we not only see a glimpse of the forgiveness that God has extended to us, but we also find real strength. We aren’t being doormats; we’re feeling the power and strength of God working through us, healing us, and healing others as well. Nelson Mandela was a man who knew a lot about forgiveness, and not retaliating. He’s quoted in one scene in the move “Invictus” as saying, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”

invictus

That’s precisely what Jesus is trying to get us to understand in this passage, too. With God’s help, we can not only find forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong, but we can also find the strength to forgive others, which will free and liberate us as well.

We all have to wrestle with the question of pacifism versus some kind of concrete response within our own lives, within our own interactions with other people. When we do, we have to be honest and admit that Jesus comes down very strongly – more strongly than we’d often like to admit – in favor of pacifism – in favor of turning a second cheek over taking a tooth for a tooth. On the other hand, I guess we also recognize that Jesus talked about when being forced to walk a mile, to walk a second mile, but he didn’t say anything about a third. So maybe there are limits.

Wherever you might come down on this question as you try to faithfully follow Jesus’ teaching, at very least I think this much is without question: even if we feel that some kind of physical response is called for, it would always have to be in order to stop further harm, and with the intent of correcting the problem. But it can’t – it *can’t* – come from a spirit of seeking revenge. It can’t come out of a desire to feel good watching another person suffer or squirm. We might differ on some points, but on this point, Jesus gives us no wiggle room whatsoever. If we do something out of a spirit of revenge, we are completely off the ranch as far as Jesus is concerned. Seeking revenge is a guaranteed losing proposition, one that God tells us will always backfire in our own faces. When we want to play that dangerous game, we can almost hear Jesus saying “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”

ralphie glasses

Thanks be to God.

The Tiny Dog Now…

(sermon 7/22/18)

doug the pug
Just for the record, this sermon actually has nothing to do with dogs.

Mark 6:30-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

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“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” If you grew up primarily speaking and writing English, and you’re older than, say, 25 or so, you probably know that sentence. You know it because when you were learning to write cursive, you likely had to write that sentence over and over again, because it contains every letter in the English alphabet. It’s a silly, maybe even absurd statement, but it’s a useful device that helps us to understand or remember something; it’s a means to an end. We use those kinds of devices in a number of aspects of our lives. We remember the names of the Great Lakes by remembering the word HOMES – for Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. In music, we remember the lines of the Treble staff by remembering Every Good Boy Does Fine; or the Bass staff lines, Good Boys Do Fine Always.

Today, I’m going to very briefly introduce you to another one of those devices, one that many preachers have been taught as a tool to help them organize and structure and stay on point as they develop a sermon. There are all sorts of ways to prepare a sermon, but this is one common tool. It’s the sentence “The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine.” TTDNIM. Here’s what those initials represent:

The Tiny Dog Now Is Mine

Today, I want to focus on the “N” in that list – what existential human need does the text speak to, both within the story itself, and by extension, in our own lives?

We heard in this gospel story that Jesus and the disciples had been working hard, and they were being besieged by people coming to hear Jesus, and to be healed by him. As the story begins, Jesus tells his disciples that they all needed to get away for a bit to enjoy a little bit of downtime – similar to a text we looked at a few weeks ago. But the people still followed them, and we end up with this story of Jesus feeding the multitude with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A lot of people get caught up in the miraculous aspect of the story, and in all honesty, it is a curiosity to wonder about, how it all happened. I suppose if it had happened here, around this time of year, it might have been a lot more believable if instead of fish, they’d started out with a few zucchini, since those seem to just multiply beyond all human comprehension this time of year.

Putting the miraculous aspect aside though, at least for today, can we focus on Jesus, and the disciples and all those who had gathered to be there with Jesus, and see what’s going on here as a model for the church, in this sense: Like us, they all had gathered in that place, coming with different backgrounds, different motivations, different thoughts, different energy levels; bringing all of their own particular problems and stresses and needs. And there’s the key word – they’d all arrived with their own particular needs. And together, in that time, in that place, their particular needs were being addressed, being spoken to. They were being taught. They were hearing God’s good news that they were loved. They were being healed. They were being fed. They were being reassured that they mattered to God, in a world that often told them they didn’t.

And ironically, considering that Jesus and the disciples had originally intended to escape from the crowds, maybe their existential needs were being addressed, too. Maybe in that moment, when they were feeling exhausted, and worn down, they had begun to wonder if they were really making a difference in anyone’s life at all. If they were making a dent. If it was all worth it. Now, in this moment, this existential need of their own, to know that they really were making a difference in people’s lives, was being addressed, too, when they saw how these people’s lives were being affected in this dramatic, truly miraculous way. Maybe their existential need at the moment was validation, and they definitely got that in a big way.

So does this idea that this story can be seen in at least one way as an illustration of what the church is like hold water? Personally, I think it does. We all come here with our own stuff and stresses. We all come here with our own needs, not wants, and for the most part, not material needs, but rather, emotional and spiritual needs. Maybe we have concerns about our health – a troubling diagnosis, or a long recovery. Or maybe we have concerns at work – maybe the boss is a jerk, or maybe they can’t keep their foot out of their own mouth, and that’s going to create instability and stress. Or maybe we’re dealing with a strained family relationship. Or we’re battling loneliness, or we’re feeling like we’re insignificant, that the world has passed us by. Or we’re just burned out and exhausted by the chaotic, divisive nature of our public discourse these days, and you just want to get away from it all.

All these things, and so many other examples we could come up with, create deep, existential need within us. And in most of the examples I could think of, they all seem to boil down to the need to know these core, essential Christian truths:  a.) That the God who created all this, and us, too, is really present and caring for us, even when it’s hard to see or feel that presence; b.) That we’re loved by that God and by others around us; and c.) That our lives matter to that God, and others around us. 

A part of our Presbyterian Constitution, part of our Book of Order, is a list of the six “Great Ends of the Church” – what the Church is supposed to be all about. One of those “Great Ends” is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” We the Church, were established to be the original “safe space” for people. We haven’t always lived up to that, but we can, and sometimes do. We were established to be a literal “sanctuary” where we can sometimes get away from all the craziness and negativity and hopelessness and uncertainty outside our walls, and where this existential need of ours is answered by proclaiming, and reminding, and reinforcing those three truths: God is present and caring for us even when it doesn’t feel like it. We are loved. We matter.

And like the gospel story we heard this morning, together, we help to meet that existential need for one another – bringing all of our own stuff and stress and baggage, along with our goodness, along for the journey, and somehow, with God’s help, melding ourselves into a community who has committed to love and accept and support one another through it all, and to let one another know just how loved and important they are. We make this happen, together, when we truly are a “safe space” for one another. While we can’t, and we aren’t supposed to, just ignore what’s going on in the world outside of these walls – some of those other “Great Ends of the Church” make that clear – we need to be able, sometimes, to set all that outside stuff, and craziness, aside and simply enjoy the fellowship that we have here, among ourselves. To provide one another with the kind of love, and acceptance, that maybe isn’t possible anywhere else throughout our week. We need to be what the Church always is when it’s at its best – a real, genuine, intentional, mostly non-biological family.

We love one another not in spite of, but because of, our differences and diversity, instead of hating and mistrusting one another because of them, the way so much of the world seems to be geared right now. Here, inside these walls, we recognize one another as God’s people – all different, all flawed, all in our own way a little weird and funky and half-baked – and if you think you aren’t, you’re mistaken – your friends are just keeping a secret from you; trust me, we all fit the pattern. But that’s OK, because we’ve all committed to loving one another, with God’s help, just as we are; and because God already loves us, just as we are.

That’s a different way to live than the world says is normal. It’s a strange way. Some would say it’s an absurd way. And maybe it is absurd – maybe it’s as absurd as a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog. But by living that way, absurd though it may be, we end up seeing the face of God in everyone around us – and maybe, if we’re lucky, in ourselves, too.

Thanks be to God.