Newsletter: “The strange gift of vulnerability”

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Dear Friends of Second Church,

On Monday, I had to be in the city for a short medical procedure on my right eye. It went fine—I was in, I was out, I was on the subway and back in a comfortable chair in no time.

But after an hour or so, I started to feel some discomfort—not pain, exactly, just that “this doesn’t feel like I remember it felt the last time” sort of feeling—and I began to wonder if this was one of those things you just wait through, as we do so much of the time, or if this was something I was supposed to be tending to right away.

I thought about calling the doctor to check. Or calling Liz to see what she thought I should do. I wondered if I should call someone to drive me home rather than taking the train. And it was then that my discomfort really began, because I realized, all of a sudden, that I couldn’t call anyone at all. I had left my cell phone back in Greenwich.

I also realized that: my parents were in New York City; my in-laws were in New York City; the doctor I had seen that morning was in New York City; half of my friends from college were in New York City; many from our congregation were at work in New York City. If you ever need help in New York City, call me: I can get someone there in ten minutes. Or, actually, that’s something I can do… if I have my phone.

Well, I decided to wait the situation through for a while. But as I did, I had a new sense of my own vulnerability.

Of course, we all deal with the unexpected on a regular basis—that’s what life is. However, what makes us vulnerable is when our strategies for dealing with the unexpected break down—when the cell phone isn’t in its customary place, when the phone number you need isn’t one you remember, when the people you rely on for help cannot be contacted.

Or maybe it’s when the parents you’ve always called for advice, or a little support, are no longer available to offer it. Or when your health takes a turn, and things you once did easily and without any thought now require tremendous care and concentration. Vulnerability comes in many forms.

What do we do when we encounter it? Are the things we rely on truly seeing us through, or are they just propping us up?

My time of vulnerability did not last long—after resolutely/foolishly getting myself home on the train, I was back in the world of the familiar, and well on the mend by dinnertime. But what if that hadn’t been an option?

It’s worth thinking about this week because so much of the story leading up to Easter Sunday is about the courage and faith of Jesus, even in the face of his own vulnerability. In no small part, the story of Easter is God’s affirmation that he remains with us in our most vulnerable moments, for he knows first hand what it is to see strategies break down, and to see the way forward plunge into confusion.

But most of all, it is to affirm that confusion never has the final word.

To walk the way of Easter is to believe in the power of forces we cannot quite see, and to trust in answers we may not entirely understand, remembering that it is often when our own familiar solutions run out that God’s most miraculous and unexpected solutions emerge. Christians affirm that “new life” does not simply mean “more life” — it means a life that is transformed, led in different ways and lived on different terms than the life that was before. For us, that can only mean a life that is grounded in love of God and neighbor—which is the only truly solid ground there is.

Even so, many hear that affirmation and are essentially unmoved. But for those who believe, and for those who have found in their own vulnerability a path they might never have known otherwise, they are nothing less than words of life.

May God grant you and those you love words of life to sustain and guide you this Easter, and always.
See you in church

Newsletter: “Don’t Miss Out”

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Two Thanksgivings ago, Liz and I hosted a large group of my family, including pretty much the whole California contingent, for several days of dinners, guitar recitals, political discussions, and an outing to “Frozen” (which had just come out).

As I think I’ve mentioned before, for the occasion, we ordered a special, “artisanal” turkey…designed to taste like turkeys did way back when. I remember liking it…though what looms larger in my memory is the elaborate dry-ice packaging in which it arrived on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Taking it out of the styrofoam was like being in a Harry Potter movie—a turkey coming out of a box, like some sort of magically-conjured delicacy, complete with mysterious, wispy smoke, emerging from the cauldron. Trust me, once you’ve had that experience, the taste of the turkey itself is just sort of an additional feature.

I’m thinking of it today because, as you might imagine, the artisanal turkey people have been contacting me a lot lately. They are extremely concerned that I haven’t yet placed my order for an Easter/Passover lamb—time is running out! Orders are flying in! Even now, the dry ice is being prepared! Don’t miss out!

Sometimes, it seems as if we have a very strange notion of what’s authentic, these days. We hate the very idea that we might be missing out on something deeper, truer, or more real, somehow—and in spiritual terms, that longing is important to listen to. The church has always thought so: St. Augustine has famous prayer in which he writes, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Clearly, there is no doubt that our longings, understood at their deepest, point to many of the questions that faith hopes to answer.

But when it comes to the answer to our longing, we seem to end up focusing on the externals all too easily.

Consider: is that longing answered by what’s on the table–an artisanal lamb or a turkey–or by the act of gathering with those we love? Is it about the magic of artful presentation, or the unmatched napkin because an extra guest has been squeezed in? Is the point of preparing old recipes really about showing that we got them just right, or is it about remembering the hands that once prepared them so devotedly?

I’m not so worried over missing out on the authentic taste of artisanal lamb. By contrast, being too harried to enjoy three generations around the table together worries me exceedingly. Forgetting that Easter may be Easter, but kids are still kids, and they love us but still want to go watch t.v. before everyone has finished—I’m thinking about that. And especially: losing touch with the day as the celebration of God’s utterly selfless love for his imperfect, searching, distracted, impatient people? I need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What is the recipe for an “authentic” Easter?

While it is still a few weeks away, I think that’s something we all need to think about. Time is running out. Don’t miss it!
See you in church,

Max

Sermon: “Good Housekeeping” (John 2:18-25)

If you read all four gospels carefully, you begin to see that they tell the story of Jesus in similar, but distinct ways. 

Some stories appear in one gospel but not another.  And we’re not just talking minor things: the gospel of Mark does not even include much of a resurrection story.  In Mark, the women go to the tomb of Jesus, see it’s empty, and run away terrified. The end. 

But this morning’s story about turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple occurs in all four gospels. 

Clearly, this was an important story for the early church–a story that told them something very important about Jesus. 

Most of them connect it closely to the final week of Jesus’ life.  In fact, most suggest that his angry denunciation of the moneychangers in the Temple is the very first thing Jesus does after arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday–his first stop on his last journey. 

And that has the ring of truth, of course.  Because if it’s true, then no wonder…no wonder that the Temple authorities and the Romans would have been looking for a way to arrest and silence him.  Such public displays of defiance were not to be tolerated, particularly at Passover, when the city was full of pilgrims, and the underlying theme of the religious holiday itself was about God’s liberation from cruel, foreign oppression. 

It didn’t take a genius to see that when the Jewish people were celebrating liberation from slavery in Egypt, they were dreaming of liberation from Rome. 

So you can see why, in the eyes of the Romans, some rabble-rousing preacher from Galilee was trouble–and that if he started to win over the crowd, maybe even big trouble.  

According to the brutal hand of Roman imperial justice, no wonder that the hands that flipped over the tables in the temple were nailed to the cross just five days later.  

It makes a great deal of sense to tell the story in that way. 

So it’s interesting to note that John’s gospel, which is the one we’ve heard this morning, puts the story in a very different place. 

According to John, the scene of Jesus and the moneychangers in the Temple occurs at the very beginning–in Chapter 2 of the story, just after Jesus performs his first miracle, changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. 

To hear John tell it, it’s almost as if Jesus catches a late ride back to a friend’s house, then is up early again the next morning for a quick trip into the city, where he does this peculiar, and seemingly out-of-the-blue thing at the Temple.

As John describes it, It’s a full two years before the arrest and death of Jesus. 

And maybe part of the point was simply that the handwriting was always on the wall…that what was to come should have been obvious for anyone who was paying attention. 

But I am just struck by the idea that the first two acts of public ministry Jesus performs are a joyful miracle at a wedding and an angry demonstration at the heart of the capital.

Because I get the joy.  I suspect most of us do.  When the churches fill at Christmas and Easter, it’s because people are so hungry for it. 

They’re right to come looking for it in the churches all over the world.

The je ne sais quoi of Christian joy that people experience in our great festival services is impossible to explain, yet impossible to deny.

Those who come may not believe a word of what we say. They may not know the tunes of what may be the most familiar hymns we sing all year.  But even if it’s only for an hour twice a year, they do come, and they feel…something…even if they can’t quite say what it is. 

Maybe they believe, or maybe they don’t…but they most certainly believe that we believe, because they feel the joy of those occasions so deeply, and if you only come now and again, it must seem as if that’s what it’s like if you really believe: that for those who believe, every day is like Easter Sunday, or Christmas…except maybe there’s better parking. 

And so they come and they go, perhaps resolving that once they’ve learned to feel the way that we all so clearly do, each and every day, then they can come back on some other kind of day and apply for membership. 

A place that is clearly such a haven for saints could not possibly serve as a hospital for sinners…or guide post for seekers. 

And that’s why the mission of the Church is more than just teaching people to look upward to heaven, with folded hands and mysterious, Mona Lisa smiles on our faces.

It isn’t just about looking up.  It’s also about looking around. 

And it’s not just about cultivating joy and serenity.  It’s also about living out a passionate engagement with the world, and a deep honesty about the challenges of being alive, even for we who believe.   

That can run to extremes of its own, of course. 

Imagine the person who came to church only on the Sunday after Easter, when we typically tell the story of doubting Thomas, or on the Sunday when we tell the story of the man who comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe. Forgive my unbelief.” 

Or if they came only on those days when Scripture offers marching orders to go out and fix things in the name of God. Any student of history can tell you that the line between righteousness and self-righteousness can be dangerously hard to draw.

That’s why I think John tells this story so early in his gospel, and glues it next to the story about the wedding at Cana. It’s because he wants us to understand that Jesus is about them both. 

Joy is wonderful but can be a little passive; anger can be consuming but, wow, it gets things moving. 

And so Christians are called to look upward, and we are called to look around, too, and the life we are invited to pursue as faithful people is a life in which those two things remain in tension. 

Looking around this morning, I have little doubt that, God willing and the creek don’t rise, I will see you on Easter.  And next Christmas.  

But why are you here today? 

I think you’re here because you are trying to live into the tension presented by John: as Christians, we are on the lookout for water into wine miracles, but we also know that Jesus calls us to overturn some tables. Christianity lived fully is about celebrating God’s unexpected work in our lives–and also going out and doing some of the tough work ourselves. And that in fact, in doing that work, we are doing God’s work. Even if we get into some trouble with the Roman authorities. 

It isn’t inherently noble to be forever joyful, any more than it is inherently more noble to live perpetually on the edge of righteous outrage.

We need to seek the fullness of faith–and that is a well-balanced diet.

Throughout the pulpits of America this morning, I’m absolutely sure that there are any number of preachers with sermons titled “Spring Cleaning.” 

As I think about it, I think I’ve preached that sermon before, myself. 

It’s a natural connection to make, because the story of Jesus and the moneylenders is all about that kind of starting fresh, about reestablishing the right order of things, about putting away what needs putting away and making space for what is needed now. 

But to me, John is making a deeper point about what it is to engage in “good housekeeping.” 

And he’s suggesting that it’s a lot more nuanced than some sort of “out with the old; in with the new” kind of approach.

Because Jesus is inviting us to something deeper.  

To the person who runs and runs and runs, he asks is standing still a luxury you just can’t afford, or an emptiness you just can’t acknowledge?

To the person who feels cruelly misunderstood, he asks what it might be about others in their own situations that needs understanding. 

To the person who thinks heaven is the goal of a spiritual life, he asks what it might be to work for the Kingdom of God breaking forth in our midst.

To the speechifiers, he asks what it might be to listen.

To the righteous, he asks what it might be to befriend the imperfect, and to learn to love them for who they are already, and not for who it is you hope that they will learn to become. 

To the brokenhearted, he asks if there are joys in life that might yet be found, and claimed, and a life rebuilt around them. 

To the joyful, he asks if we know and love the world around us enough to let it break our hearts from time to time.  

This morning, Jesus models a faith that turns the tables on each one of us. 

He invites us to seek out that undiscovered country in our faith, and in our lives, confident in his purposes, and knowing that it may be especially there that he waits to be found. 

Amen.

Newsletter: “The Loser Edit”

Yesterday’s Times had a thoughtful column called “The Loser Edit,” by the novelist Colson Whitehead. (You can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/magazine/the-loser-edit-that-awaits-us-all.html?_r=0)

Just briefly, a “loser edit” is a particularly merciless expression from reality television, referring to how those shows take hours and hours and hours of footage and edit and condense them into coherent story lines, fit for an hour long program, with people playing particular characters—heroes and villains, golden boys and golden girls or chumps, brains or brawn, etc.

As Whitehead puts it, “if you have ever watched a reality TV show and said, ‘He’s going home tonight,’ you know what the ‘loser edit’ is.”

It can be a rather willful process, of course—a person might just as well be presented as a kind, considerate hero, or a lovable, harmless schlub, as a dark, selfish snake. It all depends on who does the editing, and what the story seems to require.

This has me thinking about Lent.

Some people push back against the self-reflection and conscious self-denial of a penitential season. At one extreme, some grew up in religious households where “pride” was a particularly grievous label that covered a multitude of situations, some sinful and some perhaps not. They grew familiar with a God was, above all, a Righteous Judge who saw all things, for whom squirming seemed almost more important than redemption.

Sad to say, Lent can remind them of that time, and of trying to live in the light of what seemed like a grace-less God, in painful ways that are long in healing, even many years later.

But they are not the only ones who struggle with Lent.

Many are put off by it, because Lent seems like a season when the Church asks us to construct our own “loser edit” about ourselves — to retell the story of our own lives in terms of our every moment of weakness or selfishness, our every moment of hesitation before doing the right thing, our every angry and impatient word, our every extra helping of bacon or snuck cigarette.

Life is hard enough without dwelling on the negative—how can seeing our story as the saga of our unfolding flaws help anything at all?

Let’s be clear: I’m quite sure that it cannot.

And yet, how often is it that we create the time and space to think deeply about our lives? What kind of story do our lives seem to tell? How often do we step back from the living of our days, and seek to trace the coherent story lines, the slow unfolding of who it is we have become, or the likely destination toward which we’re tending?

On any given day, each one of us is, of course, any number of characters: a kind, considerate hero; a lovable, harmless schlub; and even a dark, selfish snake. But in time, the story emerges, and the plot becomes clear.

In Lent, we are reminded that God is the ultimate author of our story, and that the story of his love for all that he has made is the grand narrative within which our little stories find their place.

The disciplines of the season are not meant to punish us, or to show us the “loser edit” of our lives. They are meant to invite us into a sense of that larger story, and to live our lives more fully as a part of it.
See you in church,

Sermon: “The Faith We May Not Want At All” (Mark 8:27-38)

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This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark represents the first time, at least in Mark’s telling, that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.

It goes over like a lead balloon.

Mark doesn’t much pause to draw the scene for us – we know that Jesus is on the road with his disciples, and that just before the moment when he announces what is in store for him, he has asked the disciples a momentous question—namely, he asks them: “Who do people say that I am?”

There’s a great deal to be said about that all by itself.

But for our purposes this morning, it gives us a window into the scene right there, because it turns out that the question uncovers so many of the hopes that people have been harboring about Jesus…so many of the possibilities for what’s been happening that they have been trying to sort through.

So before we get to the lead balloon, we need to have the larger scene in mind.

Because imagine what it’s been up to now for the disciples.

Imagine what it would have been like, traveling along the way with Jesus, seeing all the healings, and hearing all the preaching, and feeling a part of a whole new way of living in the world.

The call stories of the disciples always make it seem like Jesus was just irresistible for a certain kind of person–that when he showed up out of the blue and called you, you stood up, untied your apron, tossed it on the back of a kitchen chair and left right then and there.

And they never look back.

As the journey goes along, if you think about it, there is a remarkable lack of grumbling from the disciples.

For all the disciples lack of understanding at any given moment, and all their little agendas about getting in the inner circle of the inner circle, Mark never mentions any “Are we there yet?” kind of whining.

The roads of Galilee may be dusty and the Pharisees may be unkind, but you never hear Peter turn to Andrew and say, “Wow…right now I sure wish we were back home fishing.”

Even now, so many years later, you can feel the energy and excitement of this movement still coming right off the page.

And yet they do have questions—given everything they’ve heard and witnessed, how could they not have questions?

But the way Mark tells it, that kind of questioning hasn’t been something to do out loud.

My United Church of Christ colleague, Rev. Martin Copenhaver, came out with a book last year called Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered.

It’s a good book. But I can just see the disciples rolling their eyes and saying, “Right. Tell me about it.”

It seems likely that if you travelled with Jesus, you had to get used to the fact that he was the one who was asking the questions.

And so how appropriate, really, that on the particular morning that Mark is telling us about, out there on the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus opens with one of his questions, asking: “Who do people say that I am?”

But this one opens the floodgates.

All their grand theories and their minor hunches, their sense of connecting the dots with Scripture, or just their cosmic attunement to the general vibe of this whole thing comes spilling out.

And it is Peter, for once, who comes up with the right answer, looking Jesus right in the eye and saying, “You are the Messiah.”

Unfortunately, the glow does not last long.

This is where the “lead balloon” comes in.

Because yes, the long-awaited messiah has arrived.

But whatever they’ve been taught that means, whatever they’ve been taught to expect will happen once the Messiah comes, whatever answers that arrival is supposed to yield…Jesus flat out says that it’s not going to be like that.

What lies ahead is not triumph – at least, not in the ways that they’ve been taught to imagine it, and instructed to work for it.

Whatever faith it is that has gotten them this far, Jesus makes it sound as if the faith that they’ll need for the road ahead could turn out to be an entirely different, entirely new, entirely foreign kind of faith.

And I think what’s hovering in the air out there on the road to Caesarea Philippi is that the faith they will need may not turn out to be a faith they even want.

What lies ahead is not a path leading ever-upward, with triumph after triumph to look forward to.

What lies ahead are suffering, and sacrifice, and sadness, and only then, triumph.

No wonder, then, that Peter rebukes him, and vice versa—that a shouting match ensues between the Master and the one who had just shown himself to be the star-pupil.

“After all we’ve been through together, Jesus, how could you do this to us?”

It’s telling that Mark describes this, specifically as “rebuking.”

It’s telling because, though you would not know it, that’s almost a term of art in Mark’s gospel.

“Rebuking” is commonly part of an exorcism—often the opening salvo that seems to render the spirits powerless, or alternatively, which silences them as they depart.

So in this moment when the pupil rebukes the Master, and the Master then rebukes the pupil, it isn’t just two friends fighting.

What we’re witnessing is more like a form of spiritual warfare.

It’s a battle between the faith that Peter wants — prefers — to believe in, versus the only truth that can set him free.

And that’s why it’s so important for us to hear it, too.

Because like Peter, we also contend with the temptation to serve only the gods we want, under the terms we want.

We turn away from the call of God to go into the places we do not wish to go, and to shine sunlight onto forms of brokenness within ourselves that we’d just as soon keep hidden.

But if Jesus teaches us anything, whether it’s in this morning’s gospel passage or in any other you might find, he teaches us that the way of safety – the path of least resistance – is not the way of God, or the way to God.

And if Jesus promises us anything, he promises a way to live that isn’t a strategy around suffering, but courageously through it, because some things are more important – more important than how we feel, or how we look, or even whether or not we are confident about succeeding.

What matters is being faithful to claims of God and neighbor, no matter how much those claims may scare us.

Let’s acknowledge that this is a hard word.

It’s a hard word, especially for anyone who already feels weighed down by the claims of a busy and demanding world—which is to say, it’s a hard word for all of us.

With everything life asks of us, could it really be God’s will that there should be more to do, more to offer, more plates to keep spinning?

Lent reminds us that God calls us to give up the things that do not truly matter in the name of offering greater attention and faithfulness to the things that truly do.

Lent is a chance at least to name some of our own demons, if not rebuke them.

For in our hearts, we know that life is not a journey going ever-upward, with only triumph after triumph to look forward to.

That makes it all the more important to recognize Lent’s invitation to seek a strength that is greater than our own strength, and a courage that is greater than our own courage, and to place our lives in service of a future that is greater than any that we might devise.

For Jesus, what lies ahead are suffering, and sacrifice, and sadness, and only then, triumph.

What lies ahead is life, lived faithfully, and ultimately, transformation.

In this morning’s reading, Peter does not see it, but that is what Jesus offers Peter.

And this morning, and in this season, he offers it to you and me.

The way of the cross may not be the way we want.

But for those who understand, it is the way, the truth, and the life, and the sign of the strength that moves our feet toward freedom.

Amen.

It is the way of the truth that sets us free.

Lent…that all shall be well…

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Dear Friends of Second Church,
I hope you are continuing courageously on your Lenten journey.

To be honest, my own remains challenging, a combination of giving things up and taking others on this year.

I am trying to start some new habits around diet and exercise, and, wow…it is not easy. Those of you who love the feel of a good workout—bless you. But I am not there yet.

Maybe it seems strange to see “wellness” as a spiritual challenge, appropriate for Lent, but that’s how I’m finding it. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for wellness. But it’s challenging to admit that wellness doesn’t come in the terms I prefer, that life doesn’t necessarily respond to my gestures of bargain (“Isn’t it enough just to skip sour cream on the burrito?” being one of them), that progress is so very gradual.

Really, can’t I just read a few books about healthy lifestyles and be done with it? How do you say “wellness” in Greek?

That’s why Lent is so important—it reminds us that, for all our gifts, for all the freedom we have to shape so much about our worlds, there are still terms within which we must live, and which we do not decide. Lent shows our us our bargains, and our shortcuts, and our great need to seek courage for the task of living from something greater than ourselves and our own willpower. It asks us to name not only our creature comforts and petty indulgences, but also our false gods, who let us pretend we can have life on terms that require less of us.

Lent points to God as something more than a fine idea to be mulled over — that God is a living force who loves us far too much to leave us where we are, and who will push us to move forward, even if we don’t much feel like going.

Where is it that you are having trouble going? The gym? The office? The doctor? Or to some particular emotional or spiritual place within?

This Lent, if you listen, perhaps you’ll hear God calling you to start moving in that direction. My hope is that as I do, I will find Him there….and that you will, too.

See you in church,