Sermon: “Remember” (Matthew 25: 31-46)

homeless

I want to begin this morning with some words from the Hebrew Bible—and specifically, from the Book of Deuteronomy.

It may sound long after a moment, but stick with it.  See if it resonates with you.

“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams,with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills,a land of wheat and barley,of vines and fig trees and pomegranates,a land of olive trees and honey,a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper.

You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them,and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied,and all that you have is multiplied,then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness,an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.

He made water flow for you from flint rock,and fed you in the wildernesswith manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth,so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deuteronomy 8:7-18).

Well…allow the preacher to say there is some real preaching going on in this passage.

But what I find so powerful about it is how it speaks to a particular moment in the life of God’s people – this moment when at long last, they are about to enter the Promised Land.

It’s been a time of incredible privation, stretching over a generation.

In fact, it’s been bad enough that at more than a few moments along the way, God’s people have even found themselves thinking about turning around and going back to into bondage as, perhaps, in the end, the easier option.

But that’s all behind them now.

At last, they have come to this moment, when the goodness of the Promised Land is stretched before them, and they’re like tourists off the bus, looking up at the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the very first time.

It is the moment they have all been waiting for.

And yet Moses, their leader, who knows them so well, recognizes that it is a moment that is full of danger as well as promise.

Because Moses sees that it’s the moment when the people may start forgetting God–forgetting the hard-won lessons they have learned about what it is to be faithful—forgetting that the powers and skills they command are not simply for their own flourishing, but for service to God, and neighbor, and even all Creation.

The line between blessing and temptation is a blurry one, and as God’s people enter this new land that they have been promised, Moses sees that are stepping right into that ambiguity.

And at this moment, as they stand before the grand vista of the Promised Land, he knows that he will not be with them—that his own journey will be ending there, on the far shore of freedom.

What happens now will be between them and God.

But a little bit later, he imagines some of the challenges of their coming life together, and he warns them, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

What he means is, “remember.”

When you see the broken and the weary—remember.  When you see the hungry and the thirsty—remember. When you see the naked and the stranger—remember.

Because right up to this very moment of our standing here, looking at the Promised Land, that’s who we’ve been.

What makes us God’s people is not simply where we’ve ended up, but everything we have been through.

Whatever we are poised to become, we are only going to get there by remaining true to who it is that we have been.

That’s what Moses is saying.

We’ll come back to him in a moment.

First, let’s think about this morning’s Gospel, and how it comes at a similar moment in the life and ministry of Jesus.

With his own death not far away, and with his disciples in tow, hurrying along behind him, Jesus walks the streets of Jerusalem almost for the last time as a free man.

And so he tells them this story about the sheep and the goats, and he insists that it is how we care for the least among us that shows the true depth of our faith.

He imagines the last day, when the final trumpet sounds and the final roll is called, and he says,

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand,‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-35).

To me, it’s a moment that bears a tremendous resemblance to that moment when Moses looked out with God’s people on the Promised Land…because in both cases, God’s people are being asked to remember.

With as much as we have, with all the promise that abides within each one of us, have we found ways to help others—to reach out—to serve the greater good, as God would so clearly have us do—or have we fallen short of those enduring expectations?

Because that is what it looks like to remember.

Last winter, maybe you saw the remarkable series of short video clips put out by a group raising awareness around homelessness.

In the videos, people from typical circumstances were asked to dress more or less along the lines of someone sleeping outdoors, and to sit on the street with a sign asking for change.

The twist was, the volunteers were placed outside the office or the apartment building or the gym where someone close to them—a parent, or a sister, or a close friend—would be certain to encounter them.

What happened was, of course, that there were some people who could look in the face of their own sister, thinly disguised, and have no moment of recognition, while there were others who saw the face of their beloved half a block away and came running.

Some of us look at the face of need, and the face of loneliness, the faces of confusion and brokenness and sickness, the faces of infirmity and immaturity…some of us look at those faces, and what they see in each one is not someone whom God has left behind, unblessed and unimportant.

They see the face of their beloved.

The faces of our grandmothers and grandfathers.

The face of Jesus.

That’s what it is to remember.

It’s not so much seeing our beloved and imagining them as an outcast.

As Moses and Jesus would have it, to remember is to see the outcast, and being able to see in them someone we might love. As someone already loved by God—and always loved by God—as our foremothers and forefathers so clearly were.

As we in our own moments of brokenness and loss so clearly were and are.

What makes us God’s people is not where it is that we end up, it’s what we’ve learned from everything that we’ve been through. How that has shaped who it is that we’ve become.

Will we remember what it is like to be on this long, great journey.

And what is abundance? Maybe it’s actually being able to see that. To remember that.

Because if you can see Jesus in the face of human need, if you can see the star of the story in any one of his many disguises, then you see God everywhere.

It is to remember who we are, and where we have come from, and to greet all people as fellow pilgrims.

This week, as we reckon with what it is to be thankful, and what it is to remember, may we recognize that the line between blessing and temptation remains blurry for us, too.

But this morning, Jesus promises us that as we live out our gratitude, remembering that God is the source of all good things, we will find God, and enter into God’s promises, not once, but over and over again.

We will see him standing on every corner, and see his love in every face, and we enter the Kingdom with joy and thanksgiving, remembering Him who always remembers us.

Reflection: Stewardship Season and “Optimal Caution”

We’re in the thick of our annual Stewardship season at church, and so far, so good—the letters are out, the committee has worked well and diligently, the stewardship moment was rock solid…and we had the cherub choir sing (even Scrooge’s heart would have melted).   The pledge cards are arriving, and we’re getting there.

We’re feeling that combination of cautious optimism and…what?…maybe it’s “optimal caution.”

O.k., so I just made that term up.

But I think of “optimal caution” as something like “cautious optimism for the ‘glass half empty’ set.”

In that vein, maybe it’s just the sense that we’ve reduced the missteps, whether those were typos in the mailings (honestly, how many English majors can one congregation have?), forgetting to follow up personally (some people don’t know how to say that while they still love the church, their circumstances have changed), or speaking of the year ahead like a disaster to be averted rather than an unfolding promise to be claimed (never ask the Buildings and Grounds people to write the Stewardship letter. “Asbestos” actually means “no pledges” in Koine Greek. You can look it up).

Of course, pastors can make plenty of missteps at this time of year, too.

A colleague of mine once crafted a warm, newsy, personal note to go alongside the stewardship letter to a member she hadn’t seen since last December…only to find out that the woman had died in Florida that spring, and that her living daughter was not so pleased with the chipper, utterly well-intentioned “How’ve you been?!” message her mother had received from her erstwhile pastor.  Needless to say, that was the end of that, and losing the pledge was the least of it.

So…everyone on our committee is pretty sure we haven’t done any of those things. Now we just wait.

But it’s hard.

It’s hard because it does feel like a referendum on how things are going, even when you know it’s not that simple.

It’s hard because you feel like you’re not just fundraising for an organization, but actually for the Kingdom of God, and that Jesus might be kind of bummed about your numbers even if nobody else is.

It’s hard because we want the church to be an enormous come-as-you-are party, and we work hard to make it just that, only to glimpse the shame and anxiety that can surround people’s relationship with money in ways that only Stewardship season can seem to reveal, and to encounter their painful suspicion that our eleven months of extravagant welcome are really just another sales pitch.

It’s hard because the world’s needs are so great, and that we want people to be generous and responsive to whatever God places on their heart and conscience, even if that means we come later—and yet, the harder we have to make due, the less we’ll be able to do the things that only a church can.

It’s hard because, at the same time, to acknowledge all this can seem as self-serving as asking for capital improvements to the Parsonage, and so many pastors feel as if they don’t dare try.

Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that so many of us learn to come into Stewardship season, optimally cautious, rather than cautiously optimistic.

Maybe that’s the biggest misstep of all.

Sermon: Making Music With What Remains

Unknown

There was a touching story making the rounds at the beginning of last week about a woman who was injured during the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013.

Rebekah DiMartino is her name, and she was not even 10 feet from one of the two bombs that detonated at the finish line, along with her seven year old son and her boyfriend, now her husband.

All three sustained injuries, but Rebecca’s were the worst. Since that day, she has had seventeen surgeries to repair damage to her left leg, which was hit in several places.

Her life has been about so much more than those surgeries, of course, and she has been quick to say that her life has been full of much joy along with the ongoing challenges of treatments and recoveries.

Nevertheless, not long ago, with other treatments and likely surgeries looming ahead of her, Rebecca DiMartino made a courageous decision that was, in the end, only hers to make: she decided to have her left leg amputated.

She did so very much with her eyes open – she knows that learning to walk again, and to live with a prosthesis – is not anyone’s idea of taking the easy way.

But she realized that this radical act was, in the end, an important part of putting the bombing behind her. And so she resolved to do it.

That ought to be enough story right there.

But there is more. Because she decided to write her left leg a note of farewell, which she posted on her facebook page.

Here is some of what she wrote:

“Hey it’s me.

I’m sure it won’t come as a shock to you when I say that we’ve grown apart. The love that we once had has dwindled, and this relationship has become a real burden on my life. We have been through a lot together. We have seen a lot of places, done a lot of things, and you have helped me through some of the toughest steps thus far. I promise to always treasure that. And I’m not saying this isn’t hard for me. It is. But as tough as it may be, I feel like our time together has come to an end.”

And then a bit later, she continues, “I love you. I really do. But I think I need to start on the next leg of my journey. So with that said, I have enclosed a gift certificate that I hope you will use. Go get yourself one last pedicure on me and enjoy it because tomorrow…I will be cutting you out of my life for good.”

Last Monday, that is exactly what she did.

Now, it is not everyone’s impulse to make such a moment public – I get that.

But, you know, I find it remarkable whenever someone takes what life throws at them and finds a way to move forward with grace, and even humor, and so I am grateful to know about it.

It’s an amazing story.

It reminds me, also, that adversity doesn’t always bring that out in people.

Adversity can have a way of making our lives shrink – sometimes to the point that who we are withers into little more than symptoms, or procedures, or the pains of today.

Nobody wants it to be that way, of course. And yet, it takes a particular kind of will to make sure that it does not.

It takes the ability to remember that our story is part of something much, much larger than our pain, or our prognosis, or even ourselves.

That can be hard to remember. But it’s so important that we do.

There’s a story of the violinist Yitzhak Perlman, who once broke a string in the middle of a concert, and yet pressed on, anyway, performing his part by playing entirely on the remaining three strings—a remarkable achievement.

At the end of the concert, he was asked why he had chosen to do that, rather than just stop the concert and replace the broken string.

Perlman shrugged.

“Our job is to make music with what remains,” he said.

How remarkable it is to encounter someone like Perlman, or like Rebekah DiMartino: a person who has found a way to make music with what remains.

Adversity does not have to become the whole story.

Maybe that’s what faith is, too.

Not a set of beliefs – or anyway, not all that many – so much as a kind of deep trust in the power of a story that’s much bigger than we are at any given moment.

Faith is a story that says that what’s happening today—now—is not the final word on anything—that the only thing that’s really an unshakeable given in this world is not death, or even taxes, but the creating, liberating, and sustaining love of God.

That’s a lot to take in.

But faith says that the real story is just that: the creating, liberating, and sustaining love of God.

And the point is that if you can see that…even just a bit, or even only now and then…but if you can see that, then maybe it is not so impossible to understand that our job is to make music with what remains.

And joyful music at that.

That’s what it is to be faithful.

To me, this is some of what Jesus is driving at in this morning’s parable.

He tells his disciples this story we’ve just heard about three servants, given different amounts of silver to manage for their master, who has gone on an extended journey.

Now, understand that a “talent” was a lot of money – even one talent was much more than many people would have accrued in a lifetime of hard work.

It isn’t entirely clear just how much we are talking here: some say that one talent might have been as much as twenty years’ worth of day labor.

But even if it wasn’t that much, it was still a lot of money.

And so when the first servant is given five talents to manage, that’s a lot of trust; and when his stewardship yields five more, that’s a big accomplishment. And when the next servant is given two and manages to earn another two, that’s still very impressive.

But it comes to the third servant, and when it does, it becomes clear that the whole parable is really about him.

Given one talent to take care of, the third servant responds by going and burying it in the ground, figuring, perhaps, that the cost of losing it through bad investment is much greater than the potential benefit of adding to it.

No emerging markets for this guy. He’s a liquidity man. Prudent to a fault.

And that’s just it. Because it turns out that he is at fault.

The master returns, and instead of rewarding the third servant, he rejects him angrily for failing to do something with his talent—for failing to invest his talent in some way, even cautiously, and for neglecting its growth.

The third servant has allowed his life to remain small, and cautious, and in every sense of the word, he has decided it is o.k. if he does nothing with his talent.

And the point of the parable is that it’s not o.k.

It’s not o.k., specifically, because it’s not faithful.

He’s forgotten, or maybe he’s never known what it is to be faithful.

Faith is remembering that we are part of a larger story.

It’s about remembering that the worries and risks, and even the failures that we experience are not the final word about us.

To be faithful is to remember that, despite appearances to the contrary, and despite the expectations of the world at large, we are free to keep looking for a way forward.

To be faithful is to keep looking for a way to put our talent to good use because we understand the story we are actually in, which is God’s story.

For example, if Rebekah DiMartino had never been the same after the Boston bombing—if she had never been herself again—who would have blamed her? Who would have seen her as more than just a tragic figure, a woman whose life story was ruined by people and events that were not her fault?

But even as her life was changed forever by what happened on that day in Boston, she has found a way forward, a way to make music with what remains, a way to see that her story was much larger and much richer and much grander than the story of her challenges would ever admit.

She had to break up with her old story in order to live fully into a new and greater one.

She had to offer her talent in the service of a future that she can’t quite see.

I don’t know if she is a person of faith, but there is nothing more faithful than that.

She did what that third servant could not or would not do, which is trust in that larger story.

That’s what faith is.

It’s good to remember that.

Maybe especially so on a Sunday when we talk about stewardship, and you and I are asked to think about what this church means in our lives and about the impact it will be poised to make in the coming year.

In it’s own way, maybe that’s also putting our talent in the service of a future that we can’t quite see.

But more to the point, it’s important to remember that what happens here is that people are reminded that there is more to them and more to life than just what their challenges and heartbreaks will admit.

What happens here is that you and I work together to tell a different kind of story…a story about the creating, liberating, and sustaining love of God, and of the coming Kingdom that emerges as the story of that love unfolds throughout Creation.

What happens here is that lives are changed, and hope is made a little more real, and the future becomes a little more inviting, and our shortcomings, and the world’s injustices are a little less acceptable to us than they used to be.

This morning’s story reminds us that the way things are is no place to stand pat, and that to bury our talent is against God’s will—and not in some sort of judgmental sense, but against God’s will in the sense that to stand pat is against God’s deepest hopes for us, God’s dream for us, God’s purpose for us.

Because our talent is our way into the grand story. It’s our way of being part of the adventure God is writing in the world, and that it is all far too wonderful to miss, and we should not.

The only reason for this place to exist is that it makes a difference in people’s lives.

And it makes that difference because of the powerful story we stand for.

If you have ever needed that story, not thought it was nice, or interesting, or a great excuse for a beautiful building and some beautiful music that helps people relax—no, none of that—if you have ever needed that story, then you know how important it is that we are here to tell it.

Because people do need this story.

Our friends and neighbors need it.

The people we love the most and don’t quite know how to help need it. You and I need it.

Won’t you help us tell it? Won’t you offer some of your talent to its telling? Because that’s what stewardship is.

The violinist Yitzhak Perlman said, “Our job is to make music with what remains.”

But Jesus says that when your talents and mine are offered in the service of God’s story, we help to build a world in which, one day, all that remains will be something like music.

Landing on the Comet

images

This morning, after a ten year voyage through space, the Philae lander touched down on Comet 67P, a staggering 317 million miles away.

It’s a triumph of human ingenuity.

After all, it was just a few years ago that Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis made a movie about landing on an asteroid in a desperate attempt to save the Earth, and while many people liked the movie, nobody considered it particularly real.

Maybe today it looks a little more so.

“Space” is a relatively recent term for “interstellar depths,” and ironically, it first appeared in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a deeply religious poem about Adam and Eve, the snake, and the Garden of Eden. (Here is where I also mention that John Milton, the poet, was an English Congregationalist.)

The irony of it is that, so often, we think of science and religion as being deeply opposed to one another, somehow, rather than as distinct but compatible ways of imagining and understanding Creation.

After Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from orbiting the Earth, Nikita Kruschev crowed that “Gagarin flew into space, but he didn’t see any God there.”

But surely astronomers and astronauts can mostly share the wonder of the Psalmist, who writes, “…for as I look up to the heavens thy fingers made, the moon and the stars that thou hast shaped, I ask, ‘And what is man, that thou should’st think of him? What is a mortal man, that shoud’st heed him? Yet thou hast made him little less than divine, thou hast crowned him with majesty and honor…’.” (Psalm 8: 3-5)

To me, it is how we human beings express our capacity for wonder, and also where curiosity takes us, that honor or dishonor God, far more than whether we use an explicitly religious vocabulary.

So I thank God for the ingenuity of the women and men who put the Philae on Comet 67P, and for everything we yet stand to learn about Creation.

For all the uncertainties and worries of our times, these are still such amazing days in which to be alive.   Look up at the night sky and see if you don’t agree.

See you in church

Sermon: “The Complicated Bridesmaids” (Matthew 25:1-13)

Unknown

Not too long ago, a reporter apparently asked the 80′s pop music icon Boy George about his religious beliefs.

I don’t know anything about why this happened or why anyone would be seeking out Boy George’s perspective on faith, but I am glad that it did happen, because Boy George gave a particularly eloquent response.

He said “I am Catholic in my complications and Buddhist in my aspirations.”

And I don’t think a person needs to be a recovering Catholic or an aspiring Buddhist to recognize a fair degree of truth in what he says.

Because Catholic or Buddhist or Congregationalist with Quaker tendencies, wherever it is we get to in the life of faith, there is always some shadow of wherever it is that we have come from.

For a while I was friendly with an imam with a small mosque in Springfield, Massachusetts. We were taking a class together in my first year of seminary.

He was originally from rural North Carolina and had grown up in a one room Baptist church there, until joining the army took him away, and eventually led him to read the Qur’an and become Muslim.

He was so proud of his faith. And yet, even so, he admitted that late at night, on long car trips back and forth after yet another long day, rather than listening to tapes of the Qur’an being read in Arabic, he often found himself singing the hymns of his childhood for comfort and encouragement.

“I’ve come a long way,” he told me once, “but you just can’t shake the music.”

Whether we want to, or not, the shadow of the past is something that we can’t quite shake.

By the same token, no matter where we come from, there is always that sense that we could — and probably should — take the inspiration deeper, and let our faith evolve into something beyond a legacy to be received, however gratefully….that it should grow into something that is truly our own.

Another friend of mine went to divinity school with plans to become a pastor–and a lot of encouragement — and money — from her family and home church to do that.

And so it was a horrible shock to her, toward the end of her second year in school, to discover that she had found the deep and rich faith that was the point of all her searching and all her work…which was beautiful and moving, except that the place where she found it was in a Catholic church.

For her to become the person who God made her to be, she has had to forge a whole new path.

Boy George has it right: faith is always full of complication and aspiration.

Jesus knew that, too.

Certainly, when it came to the disciples, he seems to have known it all too well.

According to Matthew, so much of Jesus’ talk during his final weeks was stern and challenging.

All these parables about corruption in the vineyard, or the impatience of kings, or doors that close for good–they all seem to strike such a different tone from the Jesus of the Beatitudes, or the Jesus who was so kind to children, or the Jesus who was always so willing to give sinners another chance.

The Jesus who gives us something to aspire to, a little hope to hang on to, has been missing in these last few weeks.

Maybe that’s just because he sees…because he sees that once he is gone, the disciples will be pulled back toward their own complications–their old relationships, their old understandings, their old expectations.

Jesus seems to know that whatever aspirations the disciples had followed back when it all began, may prove, in the end, to be a thin reed.

Whatever it was they found in hearing him, and meeting him, and in making a sudden decision to follow him and to be part of this thing, wondrous as that all was, may prove, in the end, to be a thin reed.

And yet, as Jesus would also have known, on that thin reed hangs the future of the church, and through it, quite possibly, the future of the world.

So the way Matthew tells it, Jesus wasn’t particularly nice or particularly comforting in his final weeks.

Maybe his sense of the complications to be overcome was just too strong to leave much time for gentleness.

Life offers any number of glimpses at that truth.

So many parents undertake the responsibility of parenting, determined to do things in a particular way–and to avoid some of the unforgettable, or even unforgivable mistakes of their own parents.

And that all goes fine…until that day…that day when the toddler ambles over toward the hot stove, or the grade schooler starts barreling down the sidewalk, forgetting to stop and look in front of a driveway, or your teen does, well, the kind of things that teens do best.

And suddenly, in an instant, you are transformed from Mr. Rogers into Mr. T., or from Fraulein Maria into Leona Helmsley, and you realize that the voice your using is not your own at all, but rather the voice of your father or mother.

Maybe, in so many words, what Jesus is saying to the disciples through all of these stories is something like, “Do not make me turn this car around.”

He knew what it was to manage our complications.

With no disrespect intended, let me just say that I imagine Jesus had to manage complications of his own, if only because, as you and I know, managing complications is a lot of what human life is…and so if the idea that Jesus is the Word made flesh means anything at all, then it must mean, at least partly, that Jesus had first-hand knowledge of what that was like.

And so, in the passage we’ve heard today, which is set a day or two before the Last Supper, he tells the disciples this parable that is like so many of the others he’s been telling them lately.

He pretends he doesn’t see the women rolling their eyes, or the sons of Zebedee staring off blankly toward the horizon, or Peter closing his notebook and putting the cap back on his pen because he thinks he knows this already and it’s really just a review session.

The details don’t take long to tell. There were ten bridesmaids, waiting on the arrival of a delayed bridegroom. Some of them — half, actually — come ready for a long evening, and bring oil with them so that their lamps will burn brightly with celebration and welcome at the big moment.

But the other half come only with their lamps, which is a little bit like loading up the car and setting out for Vermont or Cape Cod, figuring that you’ve probably got enough gas to get there.

And that’s fine, of course–there can be something rigid about people who doggedly wash and gas up their car before going on vacation–except what happens when you hit traffic?

And what happens when you see the needle dropping, and the little light comes on, and the Mobil station on 95 that used to be right there turns out to be closed so they can add some sort of elaborate gym to the McDonalds, and the next station isn’t for another 14 miles?

I’ll tell you what happens then: complications.

Now, gasser-uppers, don’t get smug. If you are honest, you know that you are merely one iPad or cell phone left on the roof of your car away from having complications of your own to manage.

Maybe the reason that in this morning’s parable, half the bridesmaids are wise and the other half are foolish is to remind us that we are, each of us, split right down the middle, half wise and half foolish by nature, and always deciding which bridesmaid within us to leave in charge in any given situation.

And maybe the reason Jesus seems so intent on these kinds of stories in his final weeks is just because he knows that, soon enough, he’s leaving the bridesmaids in charge, and so it really matters which kind of bridesmaid each one of us decides to be.

But what he needs us to understand is something his own disciples find hard to get their heads around.

Because they seem to think that it’s their aspirations that are the only things that matter–that the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus talked about and brought about are simply irresistible, and that all you need to do is “get it” and the rest will just fall into place.

They seem to think that the life of faith is about waking up, once and for all–waking up to the love of God, and the teachings of Jesus, and the ministry of his healing Word–and that once you’ve awakened, then there is no such thing as falling back asleep.

Except that there is.

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, as they are literally on their final walk with Jesus, on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter says to Jesus, “Even if everyone else trips and falls, I’m never going to do that!” …and then “Even if I have to die with you, I won’t ever deny you!” (Matthew 26:33, 35, N.T. Wright translation).

But he will do just that. And not just once. That same night, he’ll do it three times.

Dutiful note-taker and model student though he is, Peter is the disciple who learns everything the hard way.

And so it will be a while before he truly learns that complication and aspiration continue to work in us and on us, even when the light of God shines brightly in our lives.

What Jesus has been trying to say through all these weeks and all these strange, unsettling parables is nothing more and nothing less than this:

That the redemption God offers us in Jesus is not only some sort of bright light in the distance that we are invited to rise and follow, putting the past behind us.

That’s part of it, but only part.

Because redemption is also a light that God shines into the very darkest corners of our lives, into all of our complexities, be they religious, or emotional, or societal, or just a quirk of our devising.

Whatever the baggage we carry, and whatever our complications may be, God’s light shines there, too.

And to give our lives to God is not pretend that we can just drop all that baggage like the disciples dropped their nets to follow Jesus. That kind of faith, all by itself, does not endure.

To give our lives to God also challenges us to find a way to offer our complications to God for healing, and for new purposes, and as part of new scripts in new stories, rather than just more of the same old, same old–those old patterns and reactions that we just can’t seem to shake.

To give our lives to God is to decide to be a wise bridesmaid, who remembers that the night is long, and the flesh is weak, and who seeks to be ready — to be awake — with all she’s got, with complications and aspirations both in plain sight.

As my friend the imam said, “I’ve come a long way, but I just can’t shake the music.”

Whatever our journeys may be, may we always listen for the music of God, and hear something new in old songs, and also something ancient and familiar, complicated and aspirational, even in the new.

Amen.

My first anonymous letter

images-1

Yesterday, I received my first anonymous letter as Senior Minister.

It was an extended complaint about one of the on-site staff, though not about me.

Here’s a taste:

“I am extremely disgusted every time I arrive to the church. It seems every week he has some new sport machine filling the church’s parking lot. I AM SICK AND TIRED OF SEEING ALL HIS PERSONAL JUNK. HE IS AN EMPLOYEE OF THE CHURCH AND NO EMPLOYEE SHOULD EVER BE ALLOWED TO SPREAD THEIR PERSONAL INTEREST AROUND HIS EMPLOYER’S PROPERTY. Let it be known I am not alone with this matter.”

Ah.  Of course not.  And let me guess–should this matter fail to be rectified forthwith, you shall be forced to withdraw your memberships in protest?  Yes, that was there too:

“We all feel the same way and are fed-up.  Collectively, several of us are beginning to look towards other churches.”

Wow–don’t throw me in that briar patch, sir.

And yet, of course, it hurts.

It’s a letter that, on so many levels, has nothing to do with me, or for that matter, with the person it’s complaining about.  Its tone of aggrieved aristocracy might be more fitting on “Downtown Abbey” than it is in the Age of Twitter, and it might be less a complaint that looks for remedy than an angry elegy for a world gone by.

But it’s also still about me.  It’s about the institution I lead, the tone I set, and the relationships I foster.  I mean, wow…anonymous letter? I would have expected a stern conversation in some other place, maybe even over lunch at the country club.  But an anonymous letter?  That’s also about me.

Most of all, though, it’s about the Gospel I proclaim.  And that’s what I feel worst about.  Because I’ve  been preaching God’s Word here as deeply and creatively as I know how, trying to be faithful and to support and nurture faith in this community with everything short of a top hat and a cane….and after over two years, here’s one–and maybe more–who remain as broken and blinkered as ever. This letter is Exhibit A.

I don’t want to suggest that grace and graciousness are always the same thing.  Paul was graceful but not particularly gracious.  Throughout Christian history, the list of others just like that we might name is, by and large, the church’s honor roll.

But if Paul challenged us to speak the truth in love, what are we to do with those who speak the small in contempt? I mean, good heavens: is this what faith is to this poor man and the others like him?

More urgently, if it is, how do we find ways to reach them, and the energy to keep trying?

And what does it mean that, instead of spending the first hour of my morning following up with people who named “concerns” during our prayer time for “Joys and Concerns,” I spent it staring at the envelope for that letter, trying to recognize the handwriting?

How was the Gospel served by that, exactly?

I can’t say that it was.

I can say that, just after lunch, with the help of the Office Manager, I figured out who had written the letter.

I am trying to think about what I’ll say.  I may just write a letter of my own.

Would Jesus want me to sign it, or not?

Sermon: “Won’t You Be….” (Matthew 22: 334-40)

A couple of weeks ago, at the kickoff for the Greenwich CROP Walk, I was on my way out of Fletcher Hall when a visitor stopped me.

“Are you the pastor?” he asked.

He introduced himself and handed me a flyer from his organization, which is in a neighboring community.

“We’re having a very hard time getting support from anyone in Greenwich,” he said.

Now he’s not the first person to tell me that. There are organizations based in Greenwich that say that, too. I’ve been told that by some of our own members.

But when someone from outside the community says it, you feel a lot of different things.

So I promised to look at his flyer, and that was that.

Let me just say that his organization seems like a worthy one. Among other things, it offers parenting classes for non-native speakers of English, especially targeting young parents.

That’s important work.

But the flyer itself did not say much about that.

And it’s the flyer, rather than the program, that I want to describe for a moment.

Because it seemed written for what someone thinks is on the minds of people here in Greenwich, or in Rye, or in other places with a reputation for people in comfortable circumstances.

And what was especially notable was that, instead of describing the benefits to the participants in the program, the flyer imagined the cost of inaction on their behalf.

It read, in part, “Studies show that people without hope are more likely to join gangs. Gang activity throughout our region is a cause for great concern, not only in our community, but in Greenwich, Rye, Stamford, and beyond.”

I will leave it to others to identify the scope of this threat. This is not a sermon about gangs.

It’s a sermon about neighbors.

Because it says something — doesn’t it? — when someone decides to appeal to our fears instead of our conscience.

It says something — doesn’t it? — when someone decides that it’s more effective, more likely to reach us, if they appeal to our perceived self-interest, rather than seeking to engage us in work that offers life and hope to vulnerable people?

It says something — doesn’t it? — when someone decides to dispense with the usual bromides about our common humanity, our desire to be generous, or about how even a small amount can help make a big difference.

It says something when someone tries to appeal directly and unapologetically to the old notion that “good fences make good neighbors,” figuring that this is probably what we think over here in the land of the immaculate landscaping.

And I found this all pretty off-putting.

Off-putting, and yet not nearly as wrong as I wanted it to be.

You know you’ve hit a nerve when you say something and someone responds by giving you some version of their resume–and so what was it about that man and that flyer that made me suddenly want to do that?

Unpacking that is a sermon for another day.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if Jesus had a similar effect on the Pharisees and the other people associated with the Temple.

The Gospels offer us so many stories about how they try to trap or expose him, get him to reveal his revolutionary agenda so they don’t have to feel quite so needled, quite so trapped or exposed themselves.

Our reading this morning is a prime example of that at work.

It’s almost like a modern media frenzy, with everyone shoving cameras in Jesus’ face, firing off questions at him in the hope he’ll say something crazy that they can run endlessly on t.v. until he’s lost all credibility.

But he doesn’t fall for it.

“What’s the essence of the law?” they ask. He doesn’t freestyle. He quotes Scripture.

That’s part of what must have been so powerful about him, if you were one of the people who saw him in the flesh.

Because always what he offered by way of teaching was not something radically new, but something that would have been so old, so familiar, so deep in your bones–and yet to hear him say it was to hear those words with a new urgency.

It’s like remembering going to church with your grandmother and singing “Amazing Grace,” and then a million years later, finding yourself back in a church in a totally different place, and because of who knows why, but there you are…and the opening hymn is “Amazing Grace.”

And you realize that the one who once was lost and now is found is you.

That’s what it was to listen to Jesus.

And so, when Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves….this isn’t breaking new ground.

And yet…there’s something about it that has a new urgency. Something about it is suddenly life-changing.

This is especially true, I think, when Jesus talks about love of neighbor.

Because as he saw it, to be a neighbor went far beyond the whole “good fences make good neighbors” school of thought.

That was too hyper-local for Jesus.

When he talked about neighbors, he meant the whole world — not only the people next door, or in the next town, but far beyond that. The people who lived over the horizon, even on the other side of the world.

When Jesus talked about neighbors, he meant everybody.

But he calls them neighbors because he’s calling us to see everybody in a particular kind of way.

He wants us to see that, in God’s eyes, all those people have claims on us…just like neighbors do.

All of them have stories worth knowing. Dreams and hurts and longings that deserve our time and attention.

All of them have a humanity that we would recognize all too well, if we made it our business to recognize it.

And that’s his point. We have to make that our business.

The idea that “good fences make good neighbors” is the exact opposite, of course.

If that’s how you and I decide to operate, it’s about business, too. You mind yours, and I’ll mind mine…and never the twain shall meet.

But Jesus wants more for us than that.

At one point last summer, there was what looked at first like a very bad accident right outside here, where Putnam and Milbank meet.

It was the kind of thing where people sort of hover uncertainly in their own doorways, watching the ambulances and the activity, not in a gawking kind of way, but more like a kind of informal vigil.

Everything turned out to be o.k., except for the cars themselves.

But what was so powerful about that hour was how people just naturally found ways to be helpful. To sit with one of the shaken up drivers. Get a cell phone so she could call her husband. Karen Izzi ran back to the kitchen and got people some water. One of the waiters at Asiana helped sweep the glass from the road.

It was a horrible, but in its own way, also a beautiful moment.

The word “community” is maybe an even richer word than “neighborhood” because it reminds us of how we created places by what we hold in common — by the work we do together to build those bonds.

And for me, that was a moment of community, when the people on this corner came together without prompting or fanfare, and held those vulnerable drivers and their passengers close until the danger had passed.

In that moment, maybe we saw ourselves in them, and imagined how it was we might hope to be cared for in some similar situation. And we acted from that vision.

Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever had that experience of community…the kind of thing that, at the end of it, everyone looks at each other and says, “You know, why did it take this situation to bring us together like this?”

Why is it that, so often, it takes something awful to remind us of this truth that we know, deep in our bones? This truth that we are called to know and to love one another, and that actually, it isn’t all that hard to get there?

That’s what Jesus is trying to say. He’s trying to say, “What would it be to try to get there?”

The answer is simple. He’s saying that it might just be the Kingdom of God.

So…I still have that flyer from the man who stopped me at the CROP Walk.

The Spirit hasn’t led me in any particular direction with that, yet.

I don’t know if we’ll end up supporting it.

But I do know that the day we do so purely out of fear and self-interest will be the day we’ve lost the Gospel.

Because the Gospel calls us to go much further.

Our life together is not a duty to be met, but an invitation to be claimed. And claimed again and again.

May we claim it always with joy and thanksgiving, and true love for our neighbors.

Amen.