Thinking about our “village”

Dear Friends of Second Church,

On NPR today, I heard a piece on a new book called The Village Effect: How Face-to Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier and Smarter, by psychologist Susan Pinker.

The idea is pretty simple: instead of trying to navigate among extensive social networks, and the constant challenge of “keeping up” with hundreds of relationships (close and dis- tant, near and far, deep and shallow), we all might be better off (healthier, happier, even smarter) if we made the choice to keep our worlds smaller — to around 150 people.

That’s about the size of the average village throughout most of human history. Not for noth- ing, it’s also about the number of people that the human brain can recognize on sight with- out needing specific contextual clues. (Do you ever see someone from Greenwich walking down the street in New York City and totally draw a blank on their name?)

I’m struck by this because, according to statistics, it’s also the size that most people want for their church. Think about it: if you see a church on t.v. (not a “t.v. church,” per se, but a scene in a regular show that happens to take place in a church….) it’s almost always a church for about 150 people. That’s just what most of us imagine.

Church growth experts also say that the hardest challenge for churches is to grow beyond 150 regular Sunday worshippers, because so much has to change when a community is trying to make that leap. So much of what people love about their church has to be done differently — they don’t feel known and included in the same way, and that can feel disori- enting, even upsetting. It’s pretty common for people to leave until…guess what? The num- ber is back at 150, with new faces replacing the ones who decide that it’s time to move on.

Does God need our church to be a particular size? I haven’t learned that, yet. But I do know that people hunger to be known and to feel connected with their neighbors, that rich relationships are the result of years spent alongside one another, and that too many people in Greenwich feel deeply alone but unsure what to do about it.

And then I visit Act II and see members of our Women’s Fellowship hard at work, or I learn that someone else has signed up to serve a meal at Pacific House, or give an older member a lift to church, or to be part of our Prayer Group’s weekly email of prayer needs for our church family and friends…and I think: well, maybe “the village” starts there.

Will it make you happier, healthier, and smarter? It might.

It might even help you find something to believe in.

See you in church,
Max

Sermon: “A Wedding Invitation” (Matthew 22:1-14)

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Now over twenty Augusts ago, I went to a wedding in Washington, DC – where both the bride and the groom were from.

Both families were DC power families, and everything about the wedding was carefully thought out and terrific, and very personal, even though there were about five hundred guests.

But the piece-de-resistance was the wedding cake.

Someone found out that a former White House pastry chef had been hired—I guess when you have that many guests, you need to bring in the big guns.

And it turned out that this chef would only work with butter from Normandy, I think because Norman butter has a higher fat content, and that was, apparently, this particular baker’s secret ingredient.

So, the butter had been flown in, and the cake had been baked, and there it was in the center of the tent on a warm August night in Washington, DC.

Maybe you know what a warm August night is like in Washington, DC.

You would think that, say, a former White House pastry chef would know what a warm August night is like in Washington, DC.

My table had a clear view of that cake.

And we began to see signs of trouble somewhere during Lamar Alexander’s kind but rather lengthy toast to the new couple.

“I think I just saw it sag,” said someone quietly.

And then the ground under the little marzipan bride began to give way, and before you knew it, there was a major cake-in – cave in – and a loud gasp, and suddenly, and army of servers appeared and the cake was whisked out of sight, to be plated inside.

I’m glad to tell you that the bride and groom and their parents were all just too happy about the day, and about the future, to be bothered by a mishap with the wedding cake, and the party went on without missing a beat.

But that doesn’t always happen at a wedding banquet does it?

Wedding banquets have become almost a subgenre within movies of all types, whether it’s “The Godfather” or “Wedding Crashers,” as moments replete with powerful dramatic undercurrents, and truths just waiting to be spoken in public.

In some sense, that’s true of this morning’s Scripture, too – this parable Jesus tells about a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son.

The last line is the one everybody knows. The king says, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

For surprisingly enough, a royal invitation did not turn out the A-list crowd that the king had been anticipating.

I read a couple of weeks ago that Ralph Lauren was absolutely beyond furious when Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, declined an invitation to sit in the front row at a fashion show he had been planning for months, and for which he had made a generous donation to one of Prince William’s charities.

Prince William dutifully came to the show and was warm and polite…and unfortunately, entirely beside the point…because who cares about him?

Maybe it was like that for the king in Jesus’ parable.

Having the A-listers come to his son’s wedding banquet would have been fun, but having them reject it was humiliating, and he lashes out.

It’s a strange moment for us as listeners, of course, because we’re used to hearing Jesus talk about welcoming the unwelcome as an expression of kindness and compassion, as heeding a call to be part of a broader community.

This does not seem to be saying that.

And along those lines, it’s curious that after being rejected by the A-listers, the king would bother to be furious with some hapless, regular joe of a guest who isn’t dressed up for the affair.

Clearly, his heart and mind have not been somehow enlarged by this experience.

It makes you wonder: what is supposed to be spiritual here?

To me, the whole story is a strange meditation on what it is to be chosen.

I wonder if the person Jesus wants us to pay attention to is, actually, the king.

Because, it’s the king chooses one guest list, and then another.

But it’s also the king who chooses to use his power impulsively and destructively.

By anyone’s judgment, to be a king is to be one of the few who has been chosen.

What could be more blessed than having a kingdom of your own?

And yet…look at what he does with it.

The son, the court, the kingdom scarcely enter into the story—the king has become entirely wrapped up in himself.

Similarly, the danger for us isn’t found in wearing the wrong clothes to the banquet.  The danger lies in our capacity to become tyrants–people who use our power to keep control over our particular kingdom, rather than using it to reach out, and to do good. 

And so our Gospel names for me today, first, the great danger of all the ways in which we are chosen—the ways in which we are blessed.

It calls us to be honest with ourselves about the power we have to make a difference in the world, for good or for ill.

I suspect that many of us want to rewrite this parable, and to imagine the king transformed by the banquet, where he can see at close range what it is to be generous to those in need—and maybe find new purpose in that.

Isn’t that how it should be?

Because it’s so easy to say that about someone else’s story–that it needs to be rewritten, that it’s time to begin a new chapter, and all that.  It’s so easy to say that about someone else’s story, and so hard to say about our own.

And that is the second thing the Gospel names for me today.

It makes me wonder about what parts of my story, and my influence are aching to be rewritten.

I suspect each of us gets a slightly different sense of that, if we try to go there.

Is the point really our story, after all? Because I think the larger point is how our stories are folded into the larger story of everything God has done and is doing–the story of God’s endlessly creative, relentlessly adaptive, and hopelessly devoted love for all that He has made.

Bearing that in mind, how do you and I understand the parts of our lives which are not simply our own doing, but which might just be signs of our being chosen? And what do we do with the powers that we have?

Is it enough?

Or are we called to rewrite the story in some more faithful way?

I have a lot of conversations about what living in Greenwich means to people, and for some, it is a place they are eager to help if they can just find the right way; while for others, it is the place they come home to in order to get patched up before the next round, and they feel lucky if they manage to keep their lawn alive through August.

Figuring out what to do with our chosenness is challenging. But we are called to figure it out — and to figure it out soon.

Because make no mistake: your life and mine can be like that wedding cake, made of the very finest ingredients and prepared for the most elegant of occasions, only to prove far too fragile when the circumstances change.

Few are chosen to begin with. And even fewer make their chosenness into a path that honors God and neighbor, and enlarges the world’s humanity.

This morning, Jesus reminds us to be among those who do.

Because then, no matter how you slice it, our lives will be sweet, indeed.

Amen.

Sermon: “Serve it” (Matthew 21:33-46, Philippians 3:4-14)

I know someone who once attended a cooking Master Class with Jacques Pepin.

From what I gather, not everybody at a class like that is actually passionate about cooking—some people are really just there to be seen, maybe snap a picture clinking glasses with Jacques, and that’s about it.

Anyway, at the end of the class, my friend went over to Jacques Pepin with a very splattered cookbook for him to sign, which delighted him completely…he was thrilled to thumb through it and see what she had attempted and what she hadn’t, and he especially liked the page stained by the very prominent wineglass ring, which he said was what he thought a cookbook should look like.

But as my friend was standing there, another woman, one of the people who was not really there for the cooking, grew impatient.

She came over, and she broke in to say, “Jacques, I just got some really wonderful foie. What should I do with it?”

Now she didn’t say, “Jacques, dahhhhling,” but she might as well have.

“Sorry?” said Jacques.

“I just brought back some really good foie. From France. What should I do with it?” she said expectantly.

Jacques smiled, then shrugged.

“Eat it,” he said.

Ouch. (Do you ever wonder how Jacques tells a story like this?)

And yet, it’s an important lesson in so many different parts of our lives, I think.

It’s not just what you have, it’s what you do with it.

It may seem strange to say it, at first, but this morning’s parable about the wicked tenants in the vineyard seems to point toward the same conclusion.

It’s an unsettling story—though really, aren’t they all?—about a landowner and a vineyard and a harvest and wicked tenants, who decide they want to keep their crops, and who, decide to shoot the messengers sent to collect.

The landowner sends a second wave, and the same thing happens.

Many of us would be looking to send in the goon squad at this point, but that’s not what the landowner does.

He sends his own son, figuring that surely he will have the tenants’ respect and will finally bring them in line. But not so.

If anything, he is a particularly enticing target, and he is killed.

And it’s at this point that Jesus suspends the story and asks his audience, “So what do you think happens now?”

And his listeners say, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time,” (v. 41).

Jesus agrees, saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” (v. 43).

It’s clear that he’s talking about God’s kingdom, and his own sense of being sent as God’s son, but what gets him is not so much that he will be killed, but rather that the fruits of the kingdom will not be cultivated and harvested properly.

Even more than the price he will personally have to pay quite soon after he tells this particular parable, what matters to Jesus is what the tenants do with the harvest that comes under their stewardship.

Now, if I had to guess, I would suspect that most people listening would say that this all makes sense…that we’re used to Jesus talking in just this way, and that what you and I do with what we have is spiritually significant.

Even so, I’m not sure that many of us look at the tenants in the parable and see ourselves.

Matthew reports that the Pharisees in Jesus’ original audience knew that they were being called out, but I don’t think we do.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine preached on a parable with vineyards and stewards in it, and a member of his congregation stopped on the way out to shake his hand, and said, “Isn’t it a little early for the annual stewardship guilt trip sermon?”

So let’s get it right out there that when Jesus is talking about the fruits of the kingdom, he’s talking about much, much more than money and how we spend it.

He’s also talking about time and how we spend it.

He’s talking about energy and focus and attention, and how we spend them.

He’s talking about the emotional bank account in our marriages and our friendships and our relationships with our children, and how we make withdrawals from those accounts and how it is that we add to them.

Actually, Paul’s letter to the Philippians uses financial language to get at much the same point.

Did you catch it?

Paul writes, “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” (Phil. 3:7-8).

Whatever he was before, whatever status he had achieved, Paul writes it off, because he has realized that his faith has completely changed his sense of what’s important—what really matters.

And as we all know, what really matters isn’t something you measure in only one kind of currency…Our deepest contributions, the harvest of our best selves, might come in any number of ways.

It’s not just what you and I have. It’s what we do with it that matters.

That says more about who we really are than any biography or any resume.

When you put it that way, maybe we can begin to see ourselves on the receiving end of this troubling warning.

Because who doesn’t feel as if we can all too easily get caught up in things that, finally, don’t matter?

Who doesn’t feel as if the hours of our days can get spent on causes and tasks that are all too far from what’s truly on our hearts?

Or to go in the opposite direction, who hasn’t felt the incredible lift that comes from being part of something that actually matters to you? Doesn’t that put so many things in perspective?

Just because we wouldn’t kill our landlord doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t talking about us—and about the subtle ways we try to avoid giving our lives away.

When it comes right down to it, there are a lot of times when we don’t want to give away the harvest any more than those tenants did – and it doesn’t matter who’s asking.

Because Jesus doesn’t come and ask for our harvest in his dazzling white robe with his piercing blue eyes aglow with love.

If that were how it was, we would know what to do…just as surely as the tenants would have given over the harvest if the landowner had come and asked for it himself from the get-go.

But Jesus comes in the form of an angry, withdrawn teenager. And a needy old woman in the post office. A single dad who can’t get out from under. The neighbor who is still out of work and is just too embarrassed to seek out community.

When the Lord comes to claim the harvest—the harvest of our time, our attention, our compassion, and our hopes—he won’t be interested in what it is we’ve managed to hold onto.

He will want to know what we’ve done with all that we’ve been given.

“Jesus, I’ve been blessed with this wonderful life, what should I do with it?”

And he’ll say, “serve it.”

Sermon: “Who’s Carrying You?” (Matthew 20: 1-16)

Our Scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and it may be helpful to know that it’s part of a longer section in Matthew of the things Jesus taught his disciples as they are traveling toward Jerusalem for what will be Jesus’ final, culminating ministry there.

The cross is not all that far away.

Now, of course, the disciples don’t know that. But Jesus must, at least on some level.

A few verses beyond our reading for today, he will ask the sons of Zebedee, who are two of his most loyal disciples, if they can drink the cup that he is to drink…and then he will instruct all of them that whosoever would be great among them will be a servant.

And so there is a quality of final instructions to the teaching he is offering. There is a lot more teaching to come, of course, but this seems more designed for the men and women who have followed him most closely—it is, to some degree, the advanced training…the train-the-trainers kind of teaching that will equip them to carry on the work of spreading the Gospel even after Jesus is gone.

Whether the disciples see that coming or whether they do not, Jesus wants to make sure that they are as ready as he can get them.

And so he tells this strange story of a householder with a vineyard, who keeps hiring more and more day laborers, beginning before dawn but continuing right through happy hour.

It’s almost like the householder keeps driving through the center of town in his pickup truck, and whenever he sees more guys standing around on the same corner, he tells them to hop in the back and that he’ll zip them out to his vineyard to help for the day.

The interesting part comes when it’s finally quitting time, and the whole crew lines up to be paid.

What emerges is that the dawn crew, which has been hard at it for a full day, somehow decides that, if the last to arrive are going to get a full day’s wage…well, that must mean that everyone’s getting a raise.

Have you ever opened a pay envelope and seen a number there that was lower than the one you were hoping for?

Because that’s what happens—not that the first crew had had its hopes up for very long.

But it doesn’t take long, does it?

It doesn’t take long for that hope and delight to surge within us, and once it does, even if it’s only for a second, then coming back down to earth can be a real crash.

One of the most cruel things I ever experienced was listening on my car radio to an afternoon DJ hold a call-in contest for a “100 Grand.”

And when the winning caller was put on the line, they told him congratulations, that he’d won “A 100 Grand” and asked him what he was going to do with it.

He was in tears, overwhelmed and thrilled in the moment. “Oh man,” he said, “you don’t understand….I have this crummy old truck and all this back rent….”

And I’ll spare you the details, but just tell you that the joke was, of course, on him.

The “100 Grand” they were giving away was a “100 Grand” candy bar. So much for that new truck…..

And I can’t tell you what the man said, but I will tell you that it wasn’t “Ha ha ha, I guess you got me. Good one.”

Like most of us, it didn’t take him long to go from delight and gratitude for a wonderful gift and into feeling resentful and angry at being cheated.

If you think about it, that’s what Jesus is getting at in this morning’s parable.

Because nobody is being cheated. Everyone is receiving a fair day’s wage, and they’re all willing to work it, and they get paid the agreed amount at the agreed time.

It’s just that….those guys? They’re making out like bandits here, and I was schlepping around in the noonday sun….and…hey….

I think it’s that “hey” that Jesus is most interested in.

It’s that “hey” that makes this a parable about our spiritual lives.

And I think Jesus is interested in that “hey” because he knows that soon enough, he will be gone. (At least in human form, anyway….)

And he because of that, he’s taking a look at these people around him, these regular human people whom he loves and knows so well.

He knows that very soon, they will be the ones to carry the work forward.

And what’s going to happen then?

Are they really ready to be the church? Ready to carry the Gospel….ready to carry the cross?

Or have they gotten so used to being carried by Jesus that they’ve forgotten the part about carrying others until they, too, can stand for themselves?

Those are big questions.

But in a funny way, so often, acting on our faith…being God’s people out in the world…comes down to tiny moments—things that happen in a flash.

Little moments when the big questions and our grand intentions touch down, and the wheels either get some traction and move forward, or they just keep spinning.

And that’s what it means to say that it’s that moment when we say “hey” that Jesus is most interested in.

Because it’s a moment like that, when we were suddenly hoping for a little extra and don’t get it that fairness becomes personal for us.

I don’t know about you, but there are times for me in this phase of my life when Liz will come home, and I’ve had a long day that I want to talk about, and you know, she walks in the door and puts her bag down, and takes off her Principal shoes with the heels, and she smiles, and I’m like (MG: big breath in)….and right at that moment, the girls tear into the room, shouting and grabbing at her and wanting her to come look at something or go draw with chalk in the driveway even though it’s raining…and I’m like “O.k., well sweetie, I guess I’ll see you….”

And it’s a moment like that when love and marriage and family become personal for me in a whole new way.

Because it’s in moments like those that I have the choice, right? The choice about how I will respond.

And so much of the challenge of discipleship is in how we decide to respond, and about the work we do on ourselves to respond in the moment in one of the ways Jesus would have us do.

When the grand aspirations of our faith become personal—those are the hardest times. And maybe also the holiest ones.

When it’s not really about loving our neighbors, but more about loving the guy who trims the tree on your side of the property line without asking.

Or when it’s about walking the second mile with someone who is still too caught up in his or her own situation to notice just how far you’ve gone above and beyond, much less to thank you for it.

When fairness means that maybe someone else got a little better than they deserved, while you received no more than you deserved.

Moments like these show what it really is for us to be followers of Jesus.

And these are the moments when our lives speak – preach – to all who will listen.

It’s true, of course, that so often, we cannot help how we feel.

But with God’s help, and in God’s time, we can come to feel differently, and to see our lives in connection with the lives of so many others.

The world can, in the best sense, become something we take personally.

And with God’s help, we can learn to see life in terms of the generosity of the giver who gives all things, and to rejoice that in God’s vineyard all are invited to toil and to receive.

Amen.

Sermon: “Abraham’s Call…and Ours” (Genesis 12:1-9)

Hear these words from our reading this morning:

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your own country, your kin, and your father’s house, and go to a country that I will show you. I shall make you into a great nation: I shall bless you and make your name so great that it will be used in blessings.’…Abram, who was seventy-five years old when he left Harran, set out as the Lord had bidden him….” (Genesis 12:1-2, 4)

What’s so remarkable to me about Abraham is the depth of his faith.

I mean yes, of course, it’s the voice of God he hears telling him what to do, and so, as the story tells it, there is no hemming and hawing with Abraham about what he just heard and how he is called to respond, or when.

You and I are used to living in a world where we often aren’t so sure that a voice that leads us can be counted on to be a voice from God.

But in the Bible, at least this morning, that’s not up for discussion.

God calls Abraham to go to a land he will be shown in due course, and he does, and from what we can tell, he does it pretty much right away, packing up his family and heading due south, out into the wilderness.

If the story is new to you, then it might be helpful to know that when you put it in context, Abraham hears God’s voice, and the sense of his breaking with everything he had known or understood before is actually even bigger.

A few weeks ago, we considered the story of Ruth in some detail. And while Ruth’s faith was remarkable, part of the point, surely, was that she was looking to find her place in a community that was not hers by blood.

And the abiding challenge of her story is a challenge to communities of faith—a challenge about whether we are prepared to welcome the stranger any better than the people of Bethlehem initially welcomed Ruth and Naomi.

By constrast, this morning, Abraham, who comes perhaps 1000 years before Ruth, has no community to join.

If you want to get technical about it, Abraham lived actually before Judaism. Hebrew religion, even in its earliest form, did not exist.  There is no chosen people yet. That story comes later.

What’s more, as far as we know, Abraham wasn’t directly related to Adam or Noah or anybody else who might have told him about God.

Abraham was born in what is now Iraq….and he’s being sent out into a literal and figurative place of Only God Knows Where.

So his trust in this…voice…is truly remarkable.

This week, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review about how companies define their core values.

And I learned that one of the really provocative questions that you can ask of an institution is this:

“If circumstances changed and actively penalized us for holding [a particular] core value, would we still keep it?”

The article goes on to say that “A company should not change its core values in response to market changes; rather, it should change markets, if necessary, to remain true to its core values.”

In the end, our values are who we are.

Now it’s entirely too slick to say that what Abraham does in this morning’s Scripture is simply to change markets in order to stay true to his core values.

But the deeper point is that Abraham hears God’s voice and he is transformed, even fearless in his willingness to shed every security in order to stay true to that voice.

He finds a deeper vision for his own life, and for the good of all people, and that vision makes him ready to face anything and to risk everything.

And if you look at Scripture as a whole, he’s not alone…even if he was alone in his generation.

John the Baptist was someone like that. So was Jesus. And so was Paul.

And there are so many who have come since then, people of all faiths, and truly in all walks of life.

And so, I think the point for us is that, while the work of finding a deeper vision for our lives is challenging work, it can be done.

We can do it.

We can learn to see our lives in terms of their deeper contributions and their moral insights…and the things we do to live up to those insights, however small or large those things may be.

About fifteen years ago, there was a brief boom among many different faith traditions about hosting programs on writing what was called a “moral will.”

It was about writing down for posterity what were the ideas and the responsibilities you considered most important in your life, and why you thought they mattered, not just for you, but for people in general.

I was never part of an actual group that developed their moral wills, although I hope I will be sometime, and if you’d ever like to find out more about it, please let me know.

But in learning about it, what was interesting to me was how hard it was for a lot of people to think that way, at least at first.

Maybe unless you hear that booming voice from the heavens, like Abraham did, it is harder to recognize when you’re acting out of your own core values…your own deepest principles.

Maybe the call to drop everything and head to the land that God will show us doesn’t unfold quite in the way the story says, at least for most people, most of the time.

How many times does life actually challenge us to cross some sort of line in the sand?

And yet, isn’t it common to look up suddenly one day and find ourselves somehow situated in a world we never fully realized we were traveling to?

Friends, there is good news.

Abraham was seventy five years old, and already a transplant to a new community far from the city of his birth when, one day, he heard the voice of God.

With every reason to stand pat and stay planted, he moved forward into the great unknown, and he did not hesitate.

And the point is, with God’s help, and the love of Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can let go of whatever insecurity, whatever worry, whatever reluctance might prevent us, and learn to go without hesitation out into the land that God will show us.

And a great nation may spring forth from our courage.   Amen.

Sermon: “The Fallout Shelter” (Genesis 6:9-22, 8:6-13)

The first year I was in divinity school, I lived by myself in a remote, rambling old house at the end of long dirt road.

There’s a lot of backstory to my being in that place.

But what I’ll say today is that I was very glad to be there, and my being there came at one of those times in life when I felt like the quiet would do me good.

And in many ways, over time, it did.

But not at first.

The house was full of furniture under slipcovers that had been there since the previous owner had closed it up for the winter in 1982 and not come back, and so it was hard to stay there and not feel like someone would see eventually the kitchen light on and call the state police.

Worst of all, that dirt road was long enough, and remote enough, and the house was big enough and creaky enough, and I didn’t have a television, so that at night, when there was a breeze coming over the mountain, it could get just a little spooky.

And it was on a night just like that when I discovered that the house had an abandoned fallout shelter.

Did anybody here have a fallout shelter at some point?

I only knew about them from those black and yellow signs that you used to see on buildings in Manhattan.

My dad grew up with someone whose family built one during the “Duck and Cover” era, and he remembered going down there to play and seeing shelves floor to ceiling with Chicken of the Sea and Spam and Army surplus MREs.

I’d heard about that. But that was all I knew.

And then one night in February, I realized that I was feeling unusually cold in the house. I went over to the thermostat and turned it up…the furnace didn’t kick on…so I went into the basement.

And it was there with my flashlight that next to the furnace that I noticed a door I hadn’t noticed before.

It opened into a cinderblock passage, just wide enough for one person, leading away from the house.  

About twenty feet later, it opened into a room that was maybe just a little bigger than the Church Parlor. Along every wall were shelves, or the metal brackets that had once supported shelves. In the middle of the floor was an old chair.

And I realized that I was standing under the hill beside my house.

Well, I was not standing there long…I can tell you that.

But in a place that was so remote to begin with, so set up for solitude, there was something about that room itself that was just so afraid. 

I was spooked. But the room itself was fearful in a way that I have never been.

And the more I thought about it, the sadder it seemed.

It meant that this rambling old colonial farmhouse that had started as a pleasant weekend getaway had been reimagined as someone’s final retreat at the end of the world.  It was hard to know what to make of that.

Now typically, when we talk about the story of Noah and the ark, we tell it as a story of God’s judgment upon the wickedness of humanity, but also of God’s tender care for the one righteous man who is left on earth.

And with all those animals, gathered two by two and stacked inside the ark, there is possibility that God is anticipating a re-launch of Creation—but if you read the story closely, you will notice that God never exactly promises that.

God promises that Noah and his family – and the animals – will all escape the flood.

Noah builds the ark, and God personally shuts the hatch as the rains begin.

But if you were Noah, you would have heard that final click with no guarantees about the future.

Maybe God’s plan was that going forward, Creation itself was going to be a smaller proposition—that from now on, Creation was to be limited to this ark, all alone, riding the billows of a formless void.

This floating fallout shelter was all that would be left. And actually, it seems as if, somehow, Noah is o.k. with that.

I say that because while it’s important to speak of Noah’s great faith, it’s important to name at least the possibility of his fear. It’s important to name the possibility that his dream is simply that he will escape the world as it falls apart, taking only his family with him, with an all you can eat animal buffet lining the shelves along every wall. The ultimate man-cave.

And aren’t there times when we want to do that too?

It’s a good weekend to ask that question.

This is a weekend when so many people in our community are just returning from special places—from refuges and retreats of all descriptions, places where “I’m soooo sorry, but there isn’t any cell reception, places where life in all its complexity can’t get to us for awhile.

Thank God we have those places. That’s what Sabbath is all about, and we live in a world where Sabbath is harder and harder to claim.

But there’s a big difference between going somewhere to disconnect and going somewhere to reconnect, and in our haste to get away, I’m not sure we always see that distinction correctly.

Along those lines, sometimes as I drive by those beautiful houses in the Greenwich backcountry, I wonder what it’s like for the families that live there.

Are those houses full of life and laughter, places to unwind and to reconnect with those we love at the end of a long day? Are they places where people gather, or where something creative has the space it needs to happen?

Or are they more like Noah’s ark, each one a place where someone has retreated to for safety from the world…a place to live cut off but secure, a table for one at the world’s most opulent fallout shelter?

I know someone who lived with his mother in a big old house in Hyde Park, Chicago. And things had gotten so bad between them at one point that for several months they communicated only by email, even when they were both at home.

They lived under the same roof, but each was riding the billows of the storm in an ark built only for one.

I don’t know what you call that. But you don’t call it being saved–salvation. You don’t call it election. You don’t call it being chosen.

The Bible’s vision of the world – God’s vision of the world – is always about not just us but others, too. Our faith is an extended argument that human flourishing is only possible in community. And so community making, and community keeping are the work of faithful people.

Maybe you can say that by loading his family into the ark, Noah is taking a stab at community keeping. Keeping his family afloat and all that.

To me, that’s not the important moment. To me, the important moment comes later.

Because at a certain point, the waters receded.

At a certain point, the ark came to rest.

The sound of the waves became the sound of the wind, and the movement of the hull grew gentle and then stopped.

But the ark, we’re told, had no windows. There was only the hatch that God had closed.

And so at some point, Noah has to decide if he’s willing to open the hatch and see what’s what. He has to decide if he’s going to stand pat or go all in.

For me, this is when Noah shows the greatest and most important kind of faith.

Faith is not when he goes in the ark. It’s when he steps out of it. It’s when he steps out into an empty, soggy world and begins to remake human society as best he can with the people he’s got and whatever tools are at his disposal.

That’s when his faith triumphs. That’s when our faith triumphs, too.

It’s not about being righteous enough that we get priority boarding on the ark; it’s about being faithful to great work of community making and community keeping, using whatever tools are at our disposal.

As another school year, and a program year begin, it’s a good time to ask ourselves if we’re going to stand pat or go all in.

This church could be an ark, or a fallout shelter—a place to retreat from our fears. Or maybe, like that old farmhouse where I used to live, it will be a pleasant weekend getaway.

But it could be much more.  And faith tells us that it should be. 

It could be the place where, with the help of God, we decide to get down to business.

A place where we learn how to change the world, one family at a time, one Bible study at a time, one office at a time, one mission trip at a time, one credit card statement at a time, one Youth Group meeting at a time, one phone call at a time, or one prayer at a time.

Is now the time?

Open the hatch, there, Noah, and see for yourself.

Welcome home, church.

They’re Diverting This Plane Because…WHAT?!

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Are you following the sudden rash of airplanes being grounded because travelers are fighting over the right to lean back their seats?

That’s right. Not only are people fighting over the right to lean back their seats to the point that flight attendants are getting involved–they’re fighting over this to the point that pilots have started diverting entire planes.

Apparently, there is now a device you can purchase to prevent — physically prevent — the passenger in front of you from being able to lean back his or her chair. But this has caused only one of the recent groundings. The others are from plain, old fashioned disagreements.

Is it just me, or do you read stories like this and wonder how, on earth, it could possibly have come to this?

Compared to many in our congregation, I travel rarely. Maybe some of you saw that special gizmo in “The Sharper Image” catalogue or some other place and thought, “A-ha, my traveling problems are solved at last!”

But speaking for myself: I cannot imagine how I would respond to the news from the cockpit that our flight was being landed in some in between place because two grown adults could not handle a disagreement about their chairs. And I cannot imagine how much worse I would feel had I been responsible for such an event.

Call me an optimist, but I like to imagine that the shouting stopped and the loud, profuse apologizing began.  

One of the great challenges of our times, I think, is not only discerning right from wrong; it’s also discerning what matters from what does not. I cannot say why this seems to have gotten harder than it used to be. Life’s little aggravations aren’t supposed to undo us in this way.  It’s sad to see how easily we give in to impulses that seem beneath us.

Worse yet, events like these suggest that maybe we don’t see others, literally and figuratively, as fellow travelers in the way we once did.

That’s why community, in all its complexity, is so important for us. It reminds us that the world is something that we share, that few of our claims on it are absolute, and that most of the time, if we work together, we can get all get where we’re trying to go.

Whether it’s the community of an airplane cabin, a neighborhood, a book group, an office, or a home, our life together that reminds us, simultaneously, that who we are as individuals is supremely important, and also that each of us is only a small part of something far larger.

I hope that as our church begins a new program year, you will find ways to explore how God is calling you, specifically, to invest your time and energy. And I hope you’ll have moments when you feel the beating heart of something greater than you, or any one of us.  I hope that I do, too. 

When that happens, then, sort of like they say on the airlines, “wherever it is your travels may lead you,” you might just find the peace that passes all understanding.

 

See you in church,