From the Newsletter: “The Empty Nest”

packedcar

Dear Friends of Second Church,

This week, a friend of ours is sending her youngest one off to college for the first time.

All summer long, she has been trying to prepare herself for the pride, excitement, and sadness of this moment.

The late-night wars over whose car is where in the driveway line-up are now over.

The SAT is behind them.

If our friend and her husband want to sit at the dinner table, looking at their phones and not talking, no impressionable person will be there to be ruined by their bad example.

They may even occasionally forego the dutiful trifecta of protein, starch, and vegetable that has ruled their dinners for over twenty years, or go to sleep before midnight on Friday or Saturday night.

More than that, of course, they feel they have raised a good person. A curious, kind person who looks before she leaps, but who isn’t afraid to leap. They’re excited to see where she goes—what she reads, the friends she makes, the path that opens up before her. They’re hoping she decides to study abroad somewhere they feel like visiting—Italy would be nice. But she’s ready to paddle her own canoe.

Even so, our friends says that the summer has been “one long, emotional vice-grip.”

Their older child was a bit more wash and wear.

Two days before he was due to leave for college for the first time, he asked if someone could take him to Target to pick up a few things…by which he meant toothpaste, shower slippers, a big towel, and a package of tube socks. That was the first time all summer that they talked about his leaving…and he was fine with that. For him, going to college wasn’t starting adulthood so much as it was solving a minor logistical issue.

Not so, the younger one. She’s had three solid months of leave-taking—emotional cookouts in the backyard with her oldest friends, taking out photo albums to peruse on the living room couch…at one point, even sitting with a few of her old dolls. Oh, the feelings!

It’s left our friend, her mother, a wreck.

As Ecclesiastes reminds us: “To everything there is a season, and a lifetime to every purpose under the heavens.”

It is hard for our friend to see her family traveling out of this season of childhood. But she is also grateful for the feelings, even if she has not quite mastered them just yet.

So often, people seem to be afraid of feelings—wary of feeling life in its complexity, even to the point of a faith crisis. Some seem to look to God as a way to avoid intense emotions across the seasons of our lives, as if faith should teach us to know better, somehow, or equip us to rise above all circumstances.

To me, faith should prompt us to enter into all circumstances, to feel all that life offers, quiet and loud, comic and tragic, light and dark, laughing and crying, with all the depth, sincerity and heart that is in us.

What makes us faithful is not that we rise above such moments. Faith comes from our belief that God is to be found in all of them, and from the strength we find in remembering other times—particularly those when at first, it may not have seemed that God was there to be found.

God is found in tears and grief, as well as joy and serenity—in saying goodbye to a wonderful season in the life of our family, as well as hello the beginning of a new one in the life of someone we love.

In these final weeks of summer, as you say your own goodbyes and hellos, I hope you will find a moment to be still and know that in all our joy and sadness, hope and fear, God holds all of us in the palm of his hand.
See you in church,

Sermon: “The Armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-20)

armor

Over the course of this summer, our younger daughter, Emily, has basically had two outfits.

Her long blue “Ariel” nightgown, and her shorter blue “Elsa” dress, with its diaphanous snowflake print cape.

Aside from the occasional bathing suit, for the last three and a half months, this has pretty much been Emily’s look.

Now, as any parent of a toddler can tell you, it could be worse. Because when you up their sartorial repertoire to two outfits as opposed to just one, then you are no longer hostage to the washing machine in quite the same way…and that can feel like liberation itself.

Nevertheless, it has been a summer of learning for all of us as we have found ways to accommodate the Ariel nightgown while, say, going for a ride on one’s Big Wheel. Or perhaps it’s Elsa to the beach, but only on the condition that the bathing suit gets worn under it and that the Elsa dress has to stay in the car once we get there.

The negotiating can get exhausting.

There are moments when I cannot help but reflect that I was raised in a simpler time—a time when “politics stopped at the water’s edge” and children…well, as far as our parents were concerned, we had no rights of any kind.

As for dinner, well, spinach was served.

And as for clothes, well, you wore what you were handed, and that was that.

If you dawdled, they’d leave without you, and you had plenty of time to think about it…all alone…in the house…with the sound of the wind, and the odd pine cone falling on the roof, the creaks of the house settling, hot water heater kicking on…[MG: sound like the water heater]…and maybe the screen door, not quite latched, tapping back and forth…probably nothing…but maybe…you know…not nothing.

It was a simpler time. After all, fear can be so very clarifying.

That’s not how Liz and I seem to be running things with our kids.

Mostly of course, I am actually glad about that. Fear can be clarifying, but it’s rarely so for long, and it’s all downhill from there.

And yet.

Sometimes we worry about the messages we’re sending.

Part of Emily’s argument about the two outfits she is willing to wear is that they are the only two things that seem to fit.

For example, she’ll put on a shirt and then squirm as if it’s actively burning her skin, wailing “too tiiight, tooo tiiiight!” and pulling it off.

Or she’ll try on a pair of shorts that used to belong to Grace and say they’re “too floppy” or that they’re “shaky on her body”…which is her way of saying that they’re too big.

It has a kind of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” quality to it: every item of clothing on her body has to be juuuuust riiiight.

And we worry about that sometimes.

We worry about it because we know that the world is not just right, and that so much of the time, nobody is feeling as if they are personally just right.

So much of life is learning to do the best you can with whatever it is you’ve got.

You may not be feeling great, but you still have to go to work.

You may be worried about something, but you still have to remember that you’re responsible for bringing snack to pre-school, even if it’s not going to be home-made.

Your socks may not match on the Sunday when you signed up to be a greeter, but you still have to smile and say hello and hope that nobody’s going to get too worked up over it.

In life, the conditions are so rarely optimal. And living well is about coming to terms with this fact, and resolving to live, anyway.

Sweaters itch. Shoes pinch. Buttons have minds of their own. Bosses demand. Spouses frustrate. Mirrors reflect back to us what we’d rather not see.

That’s life. It is so rarely juuust right.

II.

That’s why I find myself arguing back a bit at the Apostle Paul this morning.

Paul’s words come again from Ephesians this week, and they are probably familiar to many of you.

He writes: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, having done everything, to stand firm.

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.

As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-17).

It is a wonderful, and strong image of what it is to be faithful.

Last week, we mentioned how Paul was writing to faith communities that were actively struggling. Struggling against the reality of resistance from the wider world. Struggling against oppression, injustice, and internal disagreement about how to handle it.   Struggling with doubt that a God who seemed unwilling or unable to protect them could truly be the ruler of the Universe.

Armor was one of those things that they just didn’t have. And they all knew situations when, frankly, armor would have come in handy.

Paul gets that. He’s not trying to pretend otherwise.

He’s saying that the physical part of the battle, the flesh and blood part of it, is really the least of it. That the real battle is a cosmic battle, a spiritual battle, being fought on a very different kind of battlefield, and being fought with very different weapons.

Because the sword that hurts you is nothing compared to the heart and mind of the one who wields the sword.

The weapon that resists is not a bigger sword but is the power of the soul that stops the fight.

Paul is saying all this, and to all this I say, amen.

If you think about it, the church in its finest hours has lived in just this way.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus. “for they shall be called the sons of God.”

But Jesus goes on in words that the hearers of the Letter to the Ephesians would have understood all too well.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he says.

“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:9-11).

That sounds like us in our finest hours, for sure.

Amen, church?

III.

And yet.

I push back against Paul, too.

I push back because I know how easy it is for the Church to confuse peace-making with keeping the peace.

I push back because, instead of trying to build peace in the world, all too often, the Church seeks to maintain its own peace of mind, its own peaceful conscience.

We have that suit of armor, polished up and ready to go at a moment’s notice…but tell ourselves that this isn’t the moment.

We won’t go until the moment is juuuuust right.

Have you ever missed your moment?

You know…seen something, or heard something that did not seem right to you…or encountered someone unexpectedly showing great pain in a way that it seemed important to acknowledge…important to help in some way if you could…but somehow the conditions did not permit it…and before you know it, you have missed your moment.

You’ve missed your chance to bring someone in need a bit of God’s light, God’s love, God’s comfort, God’s deep commitment to justice.

My concern with Paul’s imagery of light and darkness, spiritual warfare, the armor of man and the armor of God is that it misses the grey area in which we so often live.

It misses the moral muddle of being human.

It has so much to say about the nature of the armor, and so little guidance about when it is we’re supposed to put that armor on.

If we do put on that armor, Paul doesn’t tell us nearly enough about how heavy it will feel, how scratchy…how hot.

“You know I tried the belt of truth on once, but it was way too tight for me.”

“I put on the breastplate of righteousness, and I practically fell over from the weight of it.”

Paul doesn’t warn us about that this morning.

IV.

But the armor will not be sent into battle unless we learn to put it on.

Unless you and I learn to live with the discomfort of it, the heaviness of it, the heat of it, then what Paul describes as “this present darkness” will simply sweep the field, virtually unchallenged.

And that’s not the peacemaking Jesus calls us to, or the strength in God that Paul urges us to seek. Or the Kingdom of God that we’ve been taught to seek.

This morning we remember that so much of life is learning to do the best you can with whatever it is you’ve got.

So much of life is about seizing the moment to be kind, to be fair, to be a witness, to be a friend. Even if the moment is imperfect. Even if we are imperfect.

One of the great claims of our faith is that, with God’s help, what we’ve got will make a difference.

In a world of Ariel nightgowns and Elsa dresses, the weighty, uncomfortable armor of God is waiting for us to reach for it.

It may be uncomfortable—it may even stay uncomfortable. But in time, it may prove to be the only thing we’re willing to wear.

From the Newsletter: “The Route 29 Batman and the Power of Love”

batman

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Earlier this week, I caught a story on The Newshour, remembering Lenny Robinson, a man who died in a car accident on Sunday at age 51.

I didn’t know Lenny, who lived outside Baltimore and owned a successful cleaning business.

That success had not come easily to him — or, to put it somewhat differently, Lenny had only achieved it at a high cost: the end of a marriage, distance from his children, a reputation for anger that had started in his younger years, occasionally to the point of run-ins with the law back then, but which even as an adult, was still far too often uncomfortably loud and aggressive.

Yet despite all that, success had come, and it had provided him with the time and the resources to do pretty much whatever he wanted.

And one day, what he wanted to do came to him.

It just so happens that one of his young sons was a huge fan of Batman, and one Halloween, Lenny decided to dress up in costume as a surprise.

His son liked it. More to the point, Lenny was amazed to see how many kids were delighted—thrilled—to meet Batman.

Lenny saw this, and something new was born in him: he decided that what he wanted was to give that thrill to those who needed it most. He decided to help cheer up sick kids.

Spending thousands on a costume that was “more real than real,” Lenny became known as “The Route 29 Batman,” and a fixture at children’s hospitals in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. That he drove a black Lamborghini clearly added to the verisimilitude—because a Batman who gamely hops out of a minivan is probably just someone’s dad in a costume. But a cowled figure who roars up in a black Lamborghini? That’s the real thing.

In 2012, he was pulled over in a routine traffic stop, and the police dashcam video went viral — who pulls over Batman?! — but Lenny was delighted to tell the officers all about his work, and by the end of the traffic stop, they were asking to take their picture with him and offered him a formal police escort to the hospital (he said yes to the picture but no to the escort.)

In the hospitals he visited, children would go from listless to animated as he strode onto their ward. Parents would take him aside and thank him, saying that seeing him had been the first time in months their child had smiled.

When one girl told him she was being teased at school, and that nobody would ever believe that Batman was her friend—he arranged to visit the school, and gave an all school assembly on bullying. Then he thanked his friend in public for inviting him.

According to the Washington Post, Lenny had a theory about why kids love Batman more than so many other superheroes: “Batman is the only superhero that doesn’t have superpowers,” he said. “He’s naturally a superhero. Kids can relate to me a lot better.”

Lenny Robinson’s life is a reminder that, for all our flaws and mistakes, and for all our past history, however checkered it might be, we have the capacity to live for other people in truly remarkable ways.

So often, in seeking to heal others, we find that we are also healed—that God’s mercy touches us, even as we seek to give away all the goodness that is ours to give, to pour our lives out in love and service to others.

It’s true: Lenny Robinson had no superpowers. None of us do.

But his life embodied the spirit of Paul’s famous words: “So faith, hope, and love abide: these three. But the greatest of these is love.”

Our faith reminds us that love is the greatest power of all—and that as we extend our arms to embrace the world, love embraces us.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Sermon: “Walking Wisely” (Ephesians 5:15-20)

greyhound

In my college years, I was not one of those people who went on road trips.

That was a feature of college life, I guess, but not my particular college life.

I wasn’t against them. In fact, I once considered writing a paper about road-trip movies for a film class I was taking.

(I’m not even kidding.)

But it was not easy to get me out of the library, much less on the road, and for the most part, that was just fine by me.

But I did take one road trip.

It was to go see my best friend from high school, who went to Cornell and was turning twenty.

So, to go say hi and see what Cornell was all about, one Friday afternoon in the middle of February, I set out for Ithaca, New York, via Greyhound Bus, which went there…via New York City, Newark, Scranton, and Binghamton.

Now when I say “went” I need to press pause and qualify myself.
Because it is more accurate to say, once it went, the bus to Ithaca went via New York City, Newark, Scranton, and Binghamton.

Because we are talking about a trip that began at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1990, which was the end of the bad old days in New York City, and so, when we lined up at our gate at boarding time, and nothing happened…and nothing happened…and nothing happened, and there was no announcement, and no uniformed agent, and the little flippy sign flipped to “DELAYED” and then didn’t flip again, this was not something that seemed to surprise anybody.

Apparently, that was just how it was.

This might be something we’d handle differently now.

But back then, the line just kept on keeping on, faithfully intact. And if you were new to the whole thing, as I was, well, you didn’t dare leave your spot because you just knew that somehow, if you went to go get a soda or to ask at the ticket counter for some sort of update, the bus would arrive right then, and you’d come back and the line, and the bus, and your bag would simply have vanished forever into the February night.

And so there we were, on that line, all forty or so of us.

And in retrospect, let me say how very glad I am that there were no cell phones. There was no Facebook, and no Twitter.

There were Walkmen…until the batteries wore out. In fact, we didn’t know it then, but in a few short months, Greyhound would ban smoking on interstate buses…and I would have been fine with that, myself, but I saw that there were plenty of people who didn’t even bother with a Walkman, but who passed the time on the bus, chain smoking and looking out the window.

In fact, someone murmured that this was turning into about a three-pack trip.

And that’s the reason that I’m glad there were no cell phones, because whoever murmured that had to murmur it to the rest of us, and it was when that person said that that the walls between us began to come down.

And that’s really what the point of this story is.

Because on that line and then on the bus itself, as the weather turned bad and the roads got slow, and our four hour trip became a seven hour trip, not counting our initial delay…through the crucible of all that, somehow, the walls came down, and with nothing to do but talk to strangers, we talked.

We talked and something very real, and very beautiful was quickly present.

I still remember their names. I still remember their stories. I remember Ruth’s glasses. And DeSean’s Alpha Phi Alpha jacket. The smell of Terry’s Kools. And Constantine, who was pre-med and trying to read his Physical Chemistry textbook by the pin-sized light from the overhead rack.

We talked about it all. What we were doing on the bus. Where we were from and what it was like there. Where we hoped we were going in life.

It was as close as I’ve ever come to being a character in the Canterbury Tales, and it had that sense of pilgrimage about it somehow, and in some strange way, redemption, too.

We were all in search of something. A few of us were on that bus because we were trying to set something right.

By the time we got to Scranton, which after three hours on I-80 looked like Paris, I knew those people as well as I had ever known anyone.

Pulling out of Binghamton, Ruth told us a story about her own time in college, and telling it actually made her cry. And then she said, “I don’t think I’ve told anyone that story in ten years.”

But it was a time of lost threads and temporary connections.

We finally made it to Ithaca at about two in the morning, in the middle of a snowstorm…and that was it. We smiled goodbye, or nodded and said “Hey, take care…” and meant it not formulaically but deeply.

Our paths never crossed again.

Even so, sometimes, I still think of them. Over the years, I’ve wondered if they ever went back to Ithaca, or if I’ve ever been sitting next to them on the subway without realizing it, or if Constantine the pre-med ended up becoming a doctor, after all.

I wonder if they sometimes think about that trip, too.

Have you ever had that kind of experience?

Anthropologists talk about the experience of communitas, that raw sense of bondedness we feel when we’re in one of those strange, unstructured groups that comes together, however it comes together….maybe on a February bus or bunkhouse at summer camp, the waiting room of a doctor’s office, or on the line to pick up your student i.d. at a new school.

Unlike most the formal roles and the unspoken rules are suspended for a time, and the group shares a kind of deep equality, and a profound and sacred sense of connection and honesty begins to form that seems to exist almost nowhere else.

Anthropologists would be quick to say that it’s these brief moments when the masks come off that we prepare to take on new masks—new identities, new responsibilities, new roles, because even if it’s only for a short time, we’ve found a way to let go of our familiar identity, our customary masks, and to imagine ourselves in new ways.

And I’m telling you about this at such length because I think it helps us get a handle on the Apostle Paul’s message in Ephesians this morning.

The verses we heard this morning are just a small part of a larger whole, which is marked by stern warnings and hopeful recommendations for the Christian community—addressed to one or more of the small churches he had planted along what is now the western coast of Turkey.

“Be careful then how you live,” he says, “not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (15-16).

The King James Version puts this even more pointedly. It says, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

It would be easy to hear that little bit and conclude, as indeed some Christians over the years have done, that Paul thinks the world is simply an evil place—a place to be shunned, a place too corrupt for good people to risk getting caught up in, and that anyone who isn’t a Christian is simply a fool, and a danger-prone fool, at that, and that what Christians needed to do was hole up and hide until Jesus returned.

Paul names a lot of sinful behavior to stay away from in Ephesians.

But if we read him simply to be saying some sort of list of “don’t do this and don’t do that,” we miss his larger point.

And if we think it’s not doing this or not doing that that defines what it is to be Christian, then we’re not doing justice to Paul or justice to our faith.

Because I think what he’s saying is that, when we truly encounter the love of God—when we’ve had the experience of standing on holy ground—then the old life we once knew, the old masks we once wore, the old roles we once played begin to fall away, and we begin to imagine ourselves and our world in new ways.

Paul is not telling us to leave the world—not at all. He’s challenging to live differently in the world, as people shaped by knowing that the masks we wear can fall away, and that when they do, something wonderful—something sacred—is starting to happen. And our call is to live as people unafraid to live just as we are. Without one plea.

That’s what church is for Paul. That’s what happens when we are claimed by God, and when we come to see ourselves in the light of Jesus. Our masks fall away, and we are free to know one another and to be known in a way that nothing else can ever offer.

And when life gets hard for us, as indeed it must for everyone, Christian or not, we have something precious to hold onto, something precious to remember and find hope in: that strange equality and honesty and love for one another that we encounter, maybe only rarely, but decisively…and transformationally.

That’s what Paul wants for the Ephesians, and that’s what Paul wants for you and me.

I only took that one road trip in college. But the community that formed on that bus for a few short hours taught me a great deal about what it is to be on this journey, and what it is to have companions on the way.

“Be careful then how you live,” cautions Paul. “Not as unwise people but as wise.”

No matter what the weather, and no matter how meandering the path may be, with God’s grace we learn what is to take care, and to offer it, and to find not only wisdom, but the peace that passes all understanding.

In a world of lost threads and temporary connections, God finds us and offers us a way to walk wisely, and to live in a way that endures.

Amen.

From the Newsletter: “Buried Treasure?”

nefertiti

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Maybe you have read about the possible discovery of the Tomb of the Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, which was announced recently by an archaeologist based at the University of Arizona.

If the discovery turns out to be true, it will be the most significant archaeological find since King Tut’s tomb in 1922.

And it’s important to mention King Tut (really, the Pharaoh Tutankhamen) right here for two reasons: first, Queen Nefertiti was his mother. Second, guess where (they believe) they found her tomb?

That’s right: using new scanning technology, archaeologists have identified a hitherto undiscovered, sealed doorway…in King Tut’s tomb.

Apparently, Egyptologists have always found it strange how small the tomb is…more like an antechamber than a full tomb. And Nefertiti’s final resting place was always a mystery, lost somewhere in the Valley of the Kings.

Now, for all the splendors of King Tut’s tomb, it may, indeed, turn out to have been just an antechamber all along, with even greater splendors hidden on the other side of that sealed door.

It reminds me of archaeologist Howard Carter’s first discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922. It is said that after the very first swing of the pickaxe to open the tomb, Carter jumped to the hole with a lamp, eager to be the first to peer into the darkness with a lamp.

“What do you see?” asked one of the other explorers as a hush fell over the team.

“Marvels…” said Carter, his voice trailing off. “I see marvels.”

Perhaps those marvels are just the beginning—we will see.

It should remind us, also, that just when we might think that the people and places we know so well have no surprises left to spring, no mysteries remaining to uncover, no further treasures buried to unearth, well…guess what? They just might.

In fact, the same is true for you and me. Just when we think there is nothing that could possibly surprise us about ourselves—when it feels as if we must be beyond astonishment at the plusses and minuses that make up who we are—it turns out that there are undiscovered chambers that have yet to be opened. If only all of them held beautiful things!

And yet, wisdom comes in learning to see and know things as they are, not merely as we might wish they were. That’s especially true of our hearts, and of our messy, messy lives.

Maybe faith comes as we learn to offer them to God—to let God show us how even the seemingly unbeautiful, long-hidden things within us might be healed, or even prove useful in healing someone else, and therefore a strange but vital gift bequeathed to us, or a way that God works through us.

As summer trundles on, and the office is half-empty, and the neighbors are off to the Cape, and the nights offer their gentle, quiet moments for reflection, may we seek to open the sealed doors within ourselves and find a way to offer what is in them to God and to each other.

That would be marvelous, indeed.

See you in church

Sermon: “Drawn By God” (John 6:41-51)

This morning’s reading from the Gospel of John follows directly from last week’s section. It’s an extended teaching section by Jesus that is centered around the image of Jesus as the bread of life.  

“Whoever eats this bread will live forever,” Jesus says. “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” 

There is a powerful combination of ideas here. He is evoking at once images of sustenance and salvation, and also of incarnation and sacrifice. 

Last week, I know Liz reflected on how Jesus seems to be asking us what we’re truly hungry for, and his thinking seems to be that the deepest hunger is, in the end, more spiritual than physical. 

That was an especially powerful statement among people who would have known physical hunger, even starvation, all too well.  

But this is what he does.  

This week we have the further layer of this argument with some of his hearers that he seems to be having. “Stop your grumbling,” he says, when he sees them murmuring. They bristle at this audacious claim that not only is there bread of life, to begin with, but that he is that very bread.

They’ve known him way too long to go for that. They’ve known him from way back. They know his father, his mother, his family. If you need a new ladder or a plow or maybe even a loom, sure, talk to Jesus. But this? 

Come on, man. 

It’s elsewhere in Scripture that Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country,” but nevertheless, the same idea seems to float over this particular moment in John’s Gospel.   

That’s part of the thing about prophets, isn’t it? 

Because it isn’t only the messages they bring us that are so strange, so challenging, so hard to swallow. 

It’s the messengers themselves who can be so strange, so challenging.

When God’s Word touches down…when Word becomes flesh…it is so rarely through the proper channels, or from among the usual suspects.

Maybe that’s because it actually takes more faith to believe that way. It pushes us commit on a whole new level. Sometimes it seems like that’s how God works. Always looking for that leap we’ll have to make…that horizon over which we’ll have to travel in order to get wherever it is we’re supposed to go. 

Sometimes, I think that if someone ever approached me and said that they were a prophet, sent by God with an important message, I could look them up and down and call it right there. That I’d say “Speak for your servant is listening,” or “You know what? I’m sorry but you can’t be a prophet: you’re just not weird enough.” 

Prophets are often a little bit weird.

Last week, Liz and I saw a terrific one-man play in the city called “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” and I suppose I’m thinking about it because, while we never meet Leonard, the one thing everyone seems to agree on about him is that he was weird. 

The play opens with a detective receiving a missing persons report for a boy in his early teens. Leonard. Who was sent to live with his aunt and cousin in a small town on the Jersey shore, where he stood out like a sore thumb–flamboyant, theatrical, seemingly close to nobody, insistent on wearing fairy wings in a local play and rainbow platform sneakers that he made himself out of a pair of high-tops and a pile of flip-flops and a massive amount of glue.

He is so different from the world around him that the atmosphere quickly grows ominous. 

And yet, as the play goes on, and the search for Leonard deepens, it becomes clear that, surprisingly enough, he has touched many lives. Because there is something about his absolute brightness, his improbable spirit, that inspires all kinds of people.  

Young as he is, isolated as he is, Leonard is alive. He’s alive in ways that a Jersey shore town in the winter, full of people whose best days seem to be behind them, just can’t help but find hope and comfort in. 

That proves to be his legacy, and mostly, it’s a good one. 

I recommend the play. 

But more to the point, I think it says something about prophets and about incarnation.  

Because there are people like that, right? 

There are people who seem almost sent to teach us that something in our lives or in our world is being called to change. To respond to some new vision. To be ourselves bravely in some new and deeper way.  

Some of the great figures in history were clearly like that.

But I don’t think we’re only talking about setting the bar that high.

More to point, the kind of person we’re talking about might be someone like Leonard, a random kid in a Jersey shore town. Or a headhunter who calls out of the blue, right at the moment when you’re open to a change–I know a little about that one, because a call like that brought me here. Or maybe it’s a neighbor who hears about your recent diagnosis and says, “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a survivor, too….” 

Prophets come in all shapes and sizes.  

Let’s say also that the message they bring isn’t always religious.  

Many years ago, an Anglican bishop caused quite a stir when he suggested that, perhaps, God might not be particularly interested in religion, among everything else that seemed to be going on.  

He meant that maybe it’s the human, in general, the Creation, in general, wherever life is to be found, and not just the practice of piety in one or two particular communities that was most interesting to God. 

Well, this was big news for a Bishop to say. But it shouldn’t be.  

Prophets come in all shapes and sizes, and the message they bring isn’t always religious. 

But it is holy — it is, somehow, a message from beyond us. A message that calls us even beyond the very selves we know. 

Indeed, in our becoming, sometimes it turns out that we’re just about the last person to know. The last to see. The last to hear God’s deep truth for us.

For any number of reasons, we cannot hear the call until the prophet appears.

In our Gospel passage, Jesus tells the doubters in the crowd that it’s God who draws us when a message is received.  

They are hung up in what is, for them, the sheer temerity of Jesus calling himself the bread of heaven. I’m not aware of that as an old image at the time of Jesus–it’s more like, bread or no bread, if he’s saying that he came down from Heaven, then they’re against it.

They can’t help but hear the message in the terms they know, when the point of a message like that is that it speaks something new, quite possibly in terms we don’t quite know.       

And Jesus responds by talking about the God who draws us, who says things that seem improbable via people that seem improbable, and yet, whose call to us is undeniable.  

To be religious, he suggests, to be conventionally observant, is far less important than our faithfulness in following God’s call whenever and however it might come.  

Our Gospel this morning is not simply about the calling of Jesus. It’s about the ways in which God calls and touches each one of us.  

May we see with God’s help to hear that call, however it may come, and find the courage to follow wherever it may lead. 

From the Newsletter: “Diving In”

diving

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Back when I was in high school, the school’s “Religion requirement” (two semesters at any point during your four years) was broadly considered a throwback to a different era—say, the Early Federal era, when the school’s mission had been the training of pastors for tiny northern New England churches, the curriculum required years of Greek and Hebrew, and the only tuition was a “candle tax” to defray the cost of so much homework after dark.

Two centuries later, “Religion” was still a small part of our education, but even so, the courses were of a different cast: the course on Buddhism was always hard to get into, and you could always spot a “deep” kid because he or she would sign up for Existentialism as a senior during spring semester—willingly reading Camus when all the other seniors were out playing frisbee on the library lawn. (Ahem…I should also add that it one of the best courses I’ve ever taken.)

But the hottest ticket of all was Religion 425, “The Religious Journey,” which was a course in comparative religion. It was the course that the upperclassmen told you about in your first year—full of personal writing, reading by Hermann Hesse and Jack Kerouac.

Not to knock comparative religion, but Religion 425 was also considered the easiest ‘A’ in the school. After all, God was hard to pin down, and religious journeys involved so much self-discovery.

In practical terms, that meant you could “discover” some things about yourself and talk a bit about “The Mystery,” and the Rev would pretty much let the rest slide.

When I got in, as a first semester Sophomore, I was considered one of the lucky few.

But things have a way of happening, and on the night before first day of class, at the dining hall salad bar, I overheard the school’s Assistant Chaplain talking with someone about the course she would be teaching: Introduction to the New Testament.

From the sound of it, New Testament was clearly not going to be a walk in the park. The first month sounded like they would be reading the Gospel of Mark with a microscope—the assignments were going to be things like “read six verses…write a two page reflection for class.”

Yikes.

The student she was talking to wasn’t convinced this was really for her. Wouldn’t you know it, she was taking Chemistry this year.

“We’ll get into the Greek roots for words like ‘salvation’ and ‘the end times’” said the chaplain. “It’s great stuff.”

Well, the budding chemist didn’t appear for class the next morning during C block. Which I happen to know because I did. I let my precious spot in Religion 425 go to someone else, like a seat in the lifeboat off this strange old curricular requirement, and I dove directly into the water.

For the life of me, I can’t say why. 

Maybe it was the slightly forlorn hope in the chaplain’s voice? The seriousness of the study? Because I’d already read Kerouac? Or because sometimes, you just know. Sometimes it’s the water that you want, and somehow you know that you’ll be able to float once you get in it. 

I just knew. And thank God I did. 
As Vacation Bible School starts on our campus next week, I suppose we can’t promise that each and every student will experience what it is to dive into the water for the first time, much less float.

But if we can teach our campers to dream of swimming, and trust to God’s sense of timing, we won’t just be telling them what others have said about religious journeys—we’ll be inviting them to see their own. One tentative splash at a time.

See you in church,