Thanksgiving Sermon”Lest You Forget” (Deuteronomy 8)

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, it’s always good to offer a little refresher about forbearance and patience.

If that does not apply to your particular situation, I am delighted to hear it.  

You can go freshen your coffee for this first part or turn the volume down on your computer and spend a moment in prayer for those who might need this kind of word this morning. 

But for those who do: let’s take a moment to review forbearance and patience. 

Forbearance is knowing what we might do and holding back in the name of mercy and compassion. 

It’s in the snappy comeback we might speak, or the little bit of justice we might serve, the put away shot we might take, but don’t.  

Patience is a kind of spiritual and emotional endurance.  It appears passive but is really a kind of deeper strength.  

If you talk about those things on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a lot of people approach you, flabbergasted, worried that maybe the preacher is not ok.

Others feel as if you’ve looked straight into their soul.     

We know what’s ahead for so many of us.  

We may be together, or we may be on Zoom, but some things probably will not have changed. 

And so for those who need it, we ask for forbearance, particularly with those relatives who push their buttons.  

We ask for patience with everything from traveling on busy roads to sharing space in a tight kitchen to sleeping on a bed with the wrong kind of pillows, and whatever else might be on someone’s particular list of crosses to bear.

I know someone who once committed the cardinal sin of bringing a pumpkin cheesecake she had made to her sister-in-law’s Thanksgiving, where New York City things like that were not allowed.  

There was the year that my cousin came from California and shared that she had become a vegetarian, and hey, instead of this percolator coffee, who else was up for grabbing a latte?  

She was breaking rules we didn’t even know were rules.  

In such cases, forbearance all around would stand us in good stead.  

But if it feels like forbearance is good, but a garlic necklace would be better…or if sometime Wednesday, you’re in the car on your way somewhere, trying to get your head into a good place, and it’s not happening… remember: you can do this. 

If you’re staying close to home, and the day seems like it will be like every other day since March, you can do this.  

You are a beloved child of God…you are fearfully and wonderfully made…we are the clay and God is the potter, and all of us are God’s handiwork.  

The sustaining, creating, unstoppable love of God for the world is what this day is supposed to be about.  

It still is, even if maybe you’re just saying it to yourself.  

It will see you through.  

Thanksgiving is a day to remember who God is.  

What faith understands is that everything else—literally everything—flows from that.  

II.

If you think about it, it’s notable that as a nation, our two great civic holidays are Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.  

The Fourth of July is a day when we celebrate the meaning of political freedom—when we lift up independence as a way of life.   

There’s a lot to independence, of course.  

The people who say “freedom isn’t free” are certainly correct.  

But for a nation that prizes independence so highly, it’s striking that, if you think about it, our other great national holiday goes in the opposite direction.  

Because Thanksgiving is a day to remember that, alongside our independence, our lives depend on so much that is outside of us – some of it perhaps even beyond us.  

Some of it is in plain view.  

Nature’s bounty and the company of other people, especially family.  

But the list is really a lot longer than that. 

This year, we might well add some who should have been on it a long time ago.  

We’ve learned to be grateful for first responders and medical personnel.  

The resilience and creativity of teachers deserves mention, too.  

But there are any number of folks we might also lift up. 

Haven’t we also come to see how dependent we are on the pizza guy, postal carriers, barbers, and the people restocking shelves at the supermarket? 

All kinds of people. 

Some of you may know the wonderful children’s books by Richard Scarry, which now that I’m fifty, I can say have been around forever. 

Many of them take place in a place called Busytown, and he tries to answer questions children puzzle over as they try to understand the world—questions like “What Do People Do All Day?”

In Scarry’s world, things turn out to be far more connected – far more interrelated – than might first appear.  

The tall and the small, the naughty and the nice, the doctor and the truckdriver and the baker all do what they do, keeping busy there in Busytown, but all the time, all over the map, they intersect.  

It might be a little bumpy when they do, but so what?  

The connection, the intersection, cannot be denied. 

Surely, we have learned how true that is, and mostly in ways for which we should be grateful.

Scarry’s books get what we seem only to learn the hard way: that independence and dependence are both part of human flourishing. 

They are different, but closely related, a tension within which we are called to live, and not some choice that we make and from which we then move on.   

The calendar knows that too.  

Between Independence Day and Thanksgiving, our national civic culture really gets that right.  

III.

In our Scripture this morning, we hear Moses’s warning about how easily we might forget it.  

It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible, which was written about seven centuries before the time of Jesus, but which imagines even further back, to the final days of Moses. 

In fact, the entire book consists of a long, three-part speech – his last words before his death.  

The gifted Bible scholar Jack Miles observes that “Nothing written after it was not deeply affected by its rich, undulating cadences and its mood of soaring national pride balanced by a religiously motivated humility.”  

The Moses who speaks in Deuteronomy, Miles says, is “one who has suffered much at the hands of the nation he has led but now sees his own sufferings as well as theirs bathed in the radiance of a high calling” (God: A Biography, 139). 

We can hear that in this morning’s Scripture, when Moses speaks to the people, now poised to enter the Promised Land. 

He talks about this “land of streams of water, springs and Ocean-flows, issuing from valleys and hills…a land in which you will never eat bread in poverty, [a land in which] you will never lack for anything.” (Everett Fox translation.)

And yet, he warns, “Take-you-care, lest you forget…your God…lest (when) you eat and are satisfied, and build goodly houses and settle (there), and your herds and your flocks become-many, and…with all that belongs to you becoming much—that your heart become haughty and you forget YHWH your God….”

It is a moment for which he has been preparing them over a generation of wandering.  

Unlearning the false lessons of life in Egypt has taken 40 years, but by God, they are ready.  

They are chomping at the bit to get across that river and get cracking. 

“Moses, thank you for everything, so sorry you can’t come. Buh-bye!”

Independence is calling.

And make no mistake – they’re going to get it. 

Here in their last few minutes together, that’s actually what worries Moses.  

Because he understands their high calling to be something other than just getting the wherewithal to do their own thing.  

What is it the singer Joe Walsh says? 

“It’s hard to handle this fortune and fame…everybody’s so different…I haven’t changed….”

Because of course they will be changed.  

And so he warns them. 

“Take-you-care lest you forget,” he says.  

Live into the blessing of your life now by remembering how you got here.  

It’s not just what you’ve been through – it’s what got you through.  

Because if you think that what got you through, what got you over the river to the promised land, was only you…just you all by yourself…the corporation of me, myself, and I…that is not so.  

The intersection – the connection – between our lives and the lives of others cannot be denied.  

To our ancestors, it was unthinkable to be thankful to God without also seeing the divine fingerprints in the goodness of other people, and in the bounty of Creation.  

Moses wants us to understand that.  To hold onto it.  

And he wants us to understand that the proper response to it is gratitude.  

Thanksgiving.  

It is a delight to use the many gifts we have received.  

They were given to us for a reason, and therefore all the more important to use them to their fullest.  

But it is clear as can be that they are, indeed, gifts.  

Thanksgiving remembers the hand of a generous giver. 

It remembers the story of how those gifts came to us with the help of many other sets of hands along the way.  

We are beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made—and each of us made into who we are by life for and with one another.  

This was our maker’s vision. 

IV.

This is why we say that the sustaining, creating, unstoppable love of God for the world is what this day is supposed to be about.  

It still is. 

It’s what we’re grateful for.  

Even if maybe we’re just saying it to ourselves this year, it’s still worth saying.  

Everything else—literally everything—flows from that. 

The love of God is the gift upon which all the other gifts depend. 

So as we go into our own Thanksgiving holiday, we reaffirm these truths that have guided saints and citizens through the ages. 

Independence and freedom remind us of everything we might do. 

Forbearance and patience are ways of living into what we should

“Take-you-care lest you forget.” 

In your staying and in your going, keep that memory close. 

Go into the day with a grateful heart.  

And may you end the day even more sure of the love that binds us all. 

Amen.

Sermon: A Talent for Thanksgiving (Matthew 25:14-30)

I don’t know how it is that Thanksgiving always seems to sneak up on me, but it seems as if it always does. 

It seems as if every year, I spend eleven months imagining what are more deeply engaged and present November might look like. 

A few weeks ago, I think I talked about the LL Bean catalog. 

I’m thinking about it again this morning.  

Years of looking through the LL Bean catalog taught me to dream of a particular kind of fall—something wonderfully outdoorsy and unencumbered, with long morning walks in the woods with my dog, and coffee on the porch while I take a break from stacking firewood.

When I was younger, that was especially a vision of a world without homework. Or, for that matter, school.  

The life I dreamed of seemed so unhurried. So unworried.  

Something to strive for, surely.  

But I still haven’t made it there, yet.  

Even now, in the run up to Thanksgiving, it seems like I get disengaged from my best intentions.

In fairness, I have made progress.  

When I was still teaching, by November I was always behind in my grading, living on frozen pizza and peanut butter, too busy to do laundry, too busy to talk to anybody – I was not my best self by a long shot.  

You know those shirts in the back of your closet that maybe aren’t what you’d wear to an interview, or maybe there’s a permanent little oil spot – you know, a small one, so maybe with a sweater it’s…well, by November all those shirts were all decidedly back in my rotation, like has-been pitchers called back up from AAA ball.  

November typically found me not so much enriched by gratitude, but exhausted and just sort of needing a break. 

I saw a t-shirt once that said, “Stop the world – I want to get off,” and that pretty much sums it up. 

And you know, that was a shame.  

I have always been blessed to have people who were eager to take care of me.  

I have always had the love and support of people who have been willing to greet me and my five foot duffel bag full of laundry coming through the front door on Wednesday, who let me sleep in and miss the whole Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, and who spotted me the money to buy their own Christmas presents on Black Friday.  

The idea that, for their part, they had been hoping for a little bit more of me, that they were looking for more of my “fun side,” or my “interested side” or my “helpful side”  didn’t occur to me until I was about 35.  

Certainly, it was something they were too loving to come out and actually say.  

But on some level, I always knew. 

The problem, as I saw it, was not me, but that my life took so much out of me.  

If I blamed anything, I blamed my life…as if, you know, my life was somehow not a thing of my own making, a product of my own choices, a reflection of my own priorities.  

That never really occurred to me. 

Instead, I would simply resolve that next year would be different.  

II.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells one of his most famous parables: the parable of the talents.

As we’ve just heard, it’s the story of three servants, each entrusted with a sum of money, a measure of silver (known as a “talent”) by a landlord.  

But for reasons that go unexplained, the landlord ends up being unexpectedly delayed in coming home, and so figuring out what to do with those sums falls to each of the servants.  

In fairness to what happens next, the sums themselves are enormous and that could be scary. 

For a working person in the ancient world, even a single talent might be a year’s wages or more—maybe even well more. 

One of the servants gets pretty shaken up by that. 

Now when the landowner returns, the first two servants weren’t scared.  

They have succeeded in doubling the amount they were each given. 

Unfortunately, the third, the one who gets shaken up, has only managed to go hide that money in a hole somewhere. 

His plan is that when the time comes, he’ll be able to return it safe and sound, nickle for nickle.   

And it’s not hard to understand where he’s coming from.  

From his perspective, there could only be downside in being left in charge of that kind of money.  

Why bother pretending otherwise?  

Wouldn’t he have loved living in a world that was different? 

Sure — wouldn’t it have been great to pack up that money, go off to some soothing, peaceful place where he could clear his mind, clear his calendar and get more present – more deeply engaged – with being a good steward of what he had been given? 

Wasn’t it a shame that life, being the way that it was, just took too much out of him.

I mean, hey, don’t put anything more on him.  

Things were already so “stop the world, I want to get off” – amirite?  

And that is what the landowner calls him on when the moment of reckoning finally comes.  

It isn’t the money.   That’s fundamentally a side show here.  


It’s his excuses, as if his life was not a thing of his own making…a product of his choices…a reflection of his own priorities.  

It’s not the landowner he’s cheated.  

He’s cheated himself, and ultimately the world, of what his own life might have been…the difference he might have made. 

Because he has not been faithful to his obligation to make his life count.  

And that’s not o.k.

From Jesus’ perspective, his life was not entirely his just to waste in this way.  

Because the man’s life belonged also God’s.  His life belonged also to his neighbor.  

And God and our neighbors deserve something more than just sitting tight. 

III.

This strikes me as very important for us to remember as we begin to think about Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks.  

Thanksgiving is a day when we are reminded to count our blessings – to be mindful of all that we have received.  

There’s no question that this is important, remembering that so many of us can be ungrateful wretches at the drop of a hat. 

But our Gospel for this morning reminds us of a further duty. 

It calls us to make a careful accounting of all the ways in which we have tried to be a blessing.

To do something for somebody. 

It tells us plainly that whatever our circumstances may be, we’ve all been given a heart to offer, and that in God’s economics, it is the investment of our heart that matters.  

The heart knows full well that there are all kinds of joy and laughter we might bring. 

That there are tremendous acts of sympathy and kindness that could ease someone else’s pain.  

That we are all able to offer companionship to break up the loneliness and monotony of someone’s days.  

That there are dishes we could do.  

Whether you have these gifts in great abundance or in somewhat shorter supply is not what matters.  

The question is whom do you bless with these things? Whom do you bless in these ways? 

Because that’s what matters.  

To share ourselves is never a waste.  It’s always a gift.  Perhaps in some small way, even an investment toward a better, more loving world. 

The story concedes that this is far from automatic for us.  

There are times when it asks a great deal—and there are times when it may seem as if it asks too much—but the point Jesus is making is that, no matter what it asks, such a life finally offers far more, because to give of ourselves in this way will be the making of us.  

It is in cultivating this kind of selflessness that we finally encounter our true selves.  

IV.

Once again this year, Thanksgiving has snuck up on me. 

I didn’t manage to zen my way through the fall, the way I’d hoped. 

Life is as hard as ever.  In some ways, maybe even a little harder.  

But that’s no excuse. 

There’s always something.  

And so with God’s help, I’m still going to take the talent I’ve got, such as it is, and try to be a blessing with it, however I can.  

I’m going to try to remember that my life doesn’t just belong to me—not only at Thanksgiving, but at any other time.   And especially now.  

And I’m going to hope that one day, when it’s time to turn in my accounts, the Lord will say “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been trustworthy in a few things…now enter into the joy of your master.”  

What a Thanksgiving that would be.  

From the Newsletter: School Clothes and the New Year

llbean2

Dear Friends of Second Church,

A few days ago, a friend posted a picture of their beloved family summer house with the caption “Goodbye, little house! See you next year!”

It’s that time.

On Monday, the girls received their class lists in the mail; their beloved friends are filtering back home; and as I’ve walked the dog in the last few mornings, I’ve found it — dare I say it? — a little cool.

When I was younger, I knew summer was pretty much over as soon as the box arrived from LL Bean: my new Blucher moccasins, my same grey sweater in the next size up, a couple of flannel shirts. I only ordered the boots once — I still have them.

Every year, I’d leaf through the catalogue with its pictures of fall in northern New England — a world of foliage, canoes, dogs, and people all drinking coffee with their friends on some dock — and it seemed so foreign and wonderful, and so very different than the hazy, hot, and humid days of early August where I was.

There’s a moment in The Great Gatsby when Daisy tells Gatsby admiringly, “You always look so cool.” By which she simply means “cool” as opposed to “hot,” as all the rest of them are in the oppressive heat of a Long Island summer. Yet not so simply, it’s also an acknowledgement of Gatsby’s particular aura, the way he seems to represent almost a different quality of being that others do not share.

Sitting at my grandmother’s dining room table, leafing through the LL Bean catalogue, the pictures of autumn at some lakeside camp up north always looked cool to me in just that way.

And so, when the box finally arrived in the waning days of August, I was more than ready for a new beginning — a new school year and all that it might hold, and most especially, the possibility of glimpsing in myself that effortlessly self-confident, unhurried adult life from the catalogue, where maturity was an invitation to a long weekend that never ended.

That’s not how adulthood has turned out for me. (For which, thank God.)

But each year at the end of summer, I still find myself eager for a new beginning, and still hoping for a glimpse into what the year might hold for me and for the people I love.

What’s ahead? What will happen next?

Increasingly, I’m aware of how God journeys with us, sometimes hiding in plain sight, and yet working powerfully in ways that often become clear only later.

Our challenge as faithful people is to learn how to see, and also to trust, so that we might be sustained through the times when seeing is impossible for us.

The new beginning we find in God’s love teaches us over and over to proclaim the promise that in Him, all things will be made new.

So may we be blessed by this moment of new beginnings and able to embrace it gladly, sustained by hope for what may come, and mindful of the One who loves us no matter what may happen. May God draw us ever closer in these days.

See you in church,

From the Newsletter: “Friends Once a Year”

friends
There was a time in my life — really, most of it — when the idea of seeing a close friend faithfully once a year would have made no sense to me.
“How close can they really be if you only see them once a year?” I can hear myself asking.  “What’s ‘faithful’ about that?”
I would answer that differently now.
Because add children, new houses, diagnoses, caring for aging parents, and a little bad weather, and the long-planned dinner or weekend in the country doesn’t happen.
Pastors work on weekends, of course.  Sadly, now we are far from alone in that — today, who doesn’t?
And so, life teaches us to write so many things on our calendar only in pencil because, yes…great…looking forward to it…unless…..
…There is always “unless”….
Maybe that’s why it feels more truly faithful to me than it once would have to make the commitment of “even if” in the face of so much “unless…”
To make sure it happens, somehow, that one time.
Because, really, how many people remember our parents back when they were young — in the days when they were ten years younger than we are now?
How many people need little to no context for our news because they immediately get what it really means?
How many people does it lift our hearts just to see? Isn’t it healing for us just to remember that, somewhere on the planet, they’re around?
It doesn’t take long to remember, provided we are committed to remembering.
And there is something deeply faithful about that, too.
So much of faith is a commitment to memory.
Remembering who we really are.
Remembering what lies below the surface of our lives — and of all Creation.
Remembering what matters in a world where most things eventually pass away, but in which the deepest and most important ones are eternal.
Remembering to stay connected to those things.
Remembering the stories and communities that have sustained us and helped us find our place.
It reminds us, too, that faith is so much more than what we “believe in” or “stand for,” important as those are.
It is how we understand ourselves as rooted in all life.
In the end, what is holier than that?
May these be days of memory and connection — or reconnection — for all of us.   May we find the power of “even if” for every “unless” that would distract us.
See you in church,

From the Newsletter: “Eighth Grade”

Eighth Grade

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Earlier this week, Liz and I went to see “Eighth Grade,” a wonderful new movie that explores the daily life of a girl in the final weeks of middle school.
It is a movie in which “nothing happens,” and yet everything happens; on one level, there is no particular drama to the main character’s life, and yet on another level, the drama is profound and intense.
“Eighth Grade” explores all the awkwardness of becoming a teenager in cringe-worthy detail, from acne to bathing suits to living on a cell phone and learning about life via YouTube clips.  (Be forewarned: that last one is not for the faint of heart.)
And of course, there is the all-too-familiar meanness of other kids and the anguish about whether you’ll ever fit in, anywhere.
It’s not easy watching — and don’t try to drag your eighth grader to go see it with you — but I highly recommend it.
It’s a reminder that the drama of becoming ourselves is filled with all kinds of peculiar milestones. From the outside, those milestones may seem utterly ordinary, scarcely even noticeable.  Yet for us, they matter in ways we can scarcely put words to.  A life in which “nothing happens” (or in which little has happened yet) still has plenty of drama. Plenty of becoming.
As a film, “Eighth Grade” may well torture you with your own memories of that drama.  Watching it, you can’t help but see scenes from your own past playing out on the split screen of your mind.
But it will also remind you of the power of kindness — the incredible gift of someone who seems poised and perfect admitting their own nervousness and vulnerability.  It acknowledges how momentous it can be when someone offers welcome for us that does not ask us to pretend we’re cool…because we’re cool enough just as we are.
In this, the movie is a powerful testament to the longing we feel when we’re searching for our tribe, and to the power of starting to find one.
And so, although it is not a “Christian” movie by any means, it might actually be the most Christian movie I have seen in a year.
It is not a film about a religious awakening.
But it names the longing of the human heart and the quest to understand the riddle of ourselves so honestly, without sentimentality or moralism.  Its truths, such as they are, emerge from the messiness of living, which is the only way in which any of us, Christian or not, learn to live.  And it affirms the power of authenticity, which is to be found only in turning away from the alluring prospect of assuming a fundamentally false self, and then in finding the strength to accept that we are accepted, even as we are.
Kierkegaard would love this movie.  Other Christians should, too.
However it is that you are making it through the heat, humidity, and the many rainy afternoons of this summer, I hope you find your mind and heart growing, a sense of connection to your tribe, and a reminder of the power of stories to guide us.
See you in church.

From the Newsletter: The red-tailed hawk and the boys in the cave

hawk

Last evening, red-tailed hawk perched for several minutes on the roof of the Parsonage’s front porch.

I was in my office when Liz called to tell me.

“Look out your window right now,” she said.  And there it was.

We were worried it was injured — it was standing on one foot while holding up the other in a way that reminded me of how, long after her cast was gone, my grandmother held her wrist close to her body, having suffered a bad fall the previous winter.

Liz reported that when she and the girls had opened an upstairs window to get a better look, the hawk didn’t budge, but just watched them for a minute.

That didn’t seem good.

But when I went home to go “be helpful” in the unfolding situation, the hawk saw me coming along the walk and sailed off over the trees beyond the statue of the Union soldier.  Maybe it was heading for the Rectory at Christ Church.

Standing below, I was the one who got the best view of its departure, as it dipped and rose, and with a few casual flicks of the wing, was out of view.

Creation never ceases to surprise me.

That’s part of what makes it so full of beauty and wonder — and why its sudden power can be so disconcerting.

Yesterday morning, we heard that the last of the twelve young Thai boys trapped in a remote cave with their soccer coach had been rescued by a team of remarkably brave frogmen from around the world.  I have been praying for them since the team was first found alive last week.

Imagining their experience, I have thought about how a trip to check out a cave with your soccer team can turn so suddenly into a life or death race for high ground.

I wonder what they’ve learned about the world, and what they may have to learn differently as time goes on.

I worry that nature’s power could terrify them forever.

But our faith teaches us that there is a profound difference between understanding the world around as “nature” and learning to see it, instead, as “Creation.”

Nature is something that operates on its own, according to animal instincts or physical laws, perhaps, but endlessly and impassively rattling along in its evolved grooves, just the same.

Creation is the idea that the world is not just physical, but spiritual, too.  It’s an affirmation that somehow, there is meaning in it, and some sort of higher purpose that is unfolding, even if sometimes it may be hard to discern.

Did God have some sort of monstrous “purpose” for the terror of those poor trapped children? Certainly not.

But the part of all of us that could not rest until they were found, and once found, that could not rest until they were rescued — whatever that required — was a reminder of how deeply precious life is, and how committed we remain to preserving it, and to being the kind of people who risk their own lives in the name of life.

Nature on its own is indifferent to that.

So I give thanks to be part of Creation, which I encounter in the beauty of the hawk here at home, and the bravery of frogmen far away.

May these summer days teach us to see the world with grateful eyes.

See you in church,

Max

Sermon: “Cutting Ties” (Mark 6:1-13)

cutco

The summer before I started Divinity School, I was spending a lot of time doing not much of anything.

On paper, I was quite busy.

I taught two sessions of Writer’s Camp.

I was serving as the summer pastor of my local church in Kent while the pastor was on sabbatical.

I was taking a stab at teaching myself Biblical Hebrew.

My t.v. was always on, too, with the sound on mute, because I was lonely and even with all that other stuff, I still had too much time on my hands, and so I was doing a lot of plain wandering around my apartment, thinking, pondering the start of divinity school, and what would turn out to be the end of a marriage, and whatever else.

It was hard to be leaving Kent, too.

That seems sort of funny now, because my plan at that particular moment was anything but leaving.

I was still going to be living on campus while I was studying at divinity school. Eating all my meals in the dining hall.  Parking my car in the same spot.  Preaching in the school chapel on the same schedule, every five weeks or so.

And I was going to be back full time in two years.

None of that happened, but that was the plan.

Still, even though that was the plan, it was hard to go.

Helping the kids was more or less my everything.

I wasn’t sure who I was if I wasn’t that person, even for just a little while.

So it was weird to be knocking around my apartment for an entire summer with nobody to go save.

That’s pretty common among a certain kind of teacher at a boarding school, especially the young ones.

It’s a very strange way to live. But I loved every second of it, and who it allowed me to be, and I was already feeling lost without it, and summer vacation was only three weeks old.

Anyway, so one afternoon, just after Fourth of July, there was a knock on my apartment door.

That was already unusual enough that summer, with campus mostly empty.

But I went to the door, and there, kind of dressed in summer gear, in shorts and shades, was a former student — a student who’d just graduated a few weeks before.

She was a really nice kid that I liked a lot.  I’d even given her a nickname.

And I’d been there for her through the years.

She hadn’t had it easy at the school.  Putting together the money to be there was hard for her parents, and her dad, especially, had a lot of bad things to say about preppies, and how he felt now that his daughter was turning into one.

We’d talked a lot about that over the years, this student and I.

Anyway, there she was at the door, and I was like “Heyyyyyyy….” And she was like, “Heyyyy!”

“How’s it going?” I asked.

And she said, “Great!” very brightly.

She had a large, kind of old school hard-shell briefcase in one hand.

“You’re just passing through and you wanted to come see your old teacher!” I said.

I said it in a friendly way, but inside I was churning.

The briefcase was an odd touch, somehow. Out of place.

I was suddenly wondering how this would look.

I was suddenly wondering how it would look if right at that moment the headmaster happened to stroll down the hallway and see me speaking alone to a not-so-former student in the doorway of my apartment with my soon-to-be-former-wife not in it.

“Stopping by! That’s right!” said my not-so-former student. “Can I come in?”

Somehow I didn’t want that. But you know, you also don’t want to be rude, right?

You mean so much to these kids.  They don’t know. They don’t see the optics of something like that the way that grown-ups do, right?

“Wow!” said my student, walking through the door with her briefcase. “It’s so weird to be in here without Mrs. Grant around!”

“Have a seat,” I said, wondering if there was a way I could call my friend Jessica the dean to have her just sort of happen by at that exact moment.

My student plotzed down in a chair and put the briefcase on my coffee table.

“Are you here to give me a new briefcase?” I said, sort of hopefully.

“No,” she said, somewhat coquettishly, which I have to say, I found utterly terrifying.

“Let me show you,” she said, spinning the buckles around to face her and undoing them expertly, with a decisive, coordinated SNAP.

She opened the briefcase and smiled broadly.

Then she slowly spun it back toward me.  It was full of knives.

“Mr. Grant,” she said, “I am the newest representative of the Cutco Knife Corporation. And I’d like to show you the difference these knives can make in any kitchen.”

What do you feel in that moment?

The first thing I felt was relief…a whole lot of relief.

But I also felt like I was being played.  And I don’t like feeling played.

It makes me go really quiet, really fast, which is what happened.

I remember telling myself to nod, to show that I was listening.  They tell you that in counseling — to show that you’re listening.

So I nodded to show that.

I don’t know how long my former student had been selling Cutco knives.

But you don’t have to sell Cutco knives for all that long before you know when you haven’t closed a sale, and so for all intents and purposes, the demonstration was over about four minutes before she had actually finished.

But she gamely went on as I sat there, nodding awkwardly.

Finally, she finished.

“Well,” I said, “Good for you! You’ve learned a whole lot about those knives in just a few weeks! How’s business been?”

“Oh, up and down,” she said. “I’m still getting the hang.  But what you do think? How about a paring knife or something? Help me out, Mr. G.”

But I didn’t help her out.  The only helping out I wanted to do was to help her get the heck out of my apartment before I got in big trouble.

I felt stupid that I had risked anything for some steak knives.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We really just don’t need them.”

I stood up.  “But I’m always glad to see you.”

She shrugged and gave something between a smile and wince.

“O.k.,” she said, closing her briefcase.  “No problem.”

She got up.  “Have a great rest of your summer,” she said. “Tell everyone I say hey.”

“I will,” I said, walking her to the door.

I never heard from her again.

Yeah…that was a lonely summer.  A weird time.

It wasn’t until several weeks later that I realized how weird that must have been for her, and how much lonelier she must have felt as she carried that briefcase back to her car and left campus once and for all.

II.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4).

He says it when he preaches a sermon that goes over like a lead balloon in Nazareth, his hometown.

Because it turns out that the people who have known him longest and best are the people who know him least of all.

Many of us have had moments like that.

Maybe there really is a part of us that’s like Jesus.

But today I’m wondering about the part of us that isn’t.

I’m wondering about the part of us that is more like the people in that hometown crowd.

Because in every life there are people who show us that we aren’t the women and men we thought we were. The people we liked believing we were…or wanted to be known to be.

God relentlessly challenges us to see beyond the roles we like playing, and the plot lines we prefer, and the various characters who come in and out of our stories in precisely the ways we predict and only on cue.

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” is what they say when they hear Jesus.

In our own way, we say it, too.

But what if God created us with a very different story in mind?

What if Jesus came to liberate us from the stories that weren’t so much defining us but rather confining us?

What if the Holy Spirit was working to sustain us, not in these old shoes that we’ve long since outgrown, but in whatever it is that pulls us to walk in new paths, to seek out abundant life in new ways?

I think you can stay in Nazareth your whole life, but come to see it in new ways, and to play a different part in its unfolding story.

Because wherever we are, we’re called to be people who see what God is trying to do, and become part of that, and to let go of the other stuff, which is not the real story, after all.

It can be painful to learn that we are not who we thought we were.

But sometimes, that’s the only way to become the people that we should be.

III.

Was Jesus telling me that in the name of compassion, in the name of welcoming the prodigal home, I was supposed to buy those steak knives from my former student?

Or was Jesus counting on me to show her that true friendship wasn’t something to buy and sell — that there was more to her, something she needed to seek until she found it?

I can’t say.

At the time, I didn’t ask either Jesus or myself the question.

Sometimes we never know. Sometimes, the answers never become entirely clear.

But what did I bring to that encounter?  And having had it, what did I learn from it that I brought into other encounters?  And how much of either had anything whatsoever to do with Jesus, and how he tells me how to live?

Because the Christ who comes to liberate us and the Spirit who sustains us are knocking on our door constantly, with a thousand different faces, inviting us to grow in a thousand different ways.

That much I do know.

And that means, in part, that the good we might do, and the difference we might make are right on our doorstep.  Ringing the doorbell at any moment.

In Nazareth, they didn’t want to hear that.  Couldn’t hear that.  Rejected the proof right before their very eyes of that.

The question is: will we?

Because the hope of the world is that we will hear, and that we will see, and that we will respond with faith and love, wherever they may lead.

May we find the power to make that choice, whenever and however it may come.

 

Amen.

Sermon: “Annapolis, Independence Day, and the Stories that Give Us Life” (Mark 5:21-43)

Cloak

The Sunday closest to the Fourth of July always gets your attention if you’re an American preacher.

It feels like it ought to be a big Sunday — a moment to reflect on God and country — a moment to preach a big sermon.  To offer a grand reflection.

If you’d rather talk about something lighter, you know, the merits of ketchup versus mustard on a hot dog, or the ethics of the designated hitter in baseball, we can understand that.

You must forgive us.

The Fourth is a time when, as a people, we re-tell some of our most important stories to ourselves.

Stories remind us who we are.  Where we’ve been.  What it took to get through it.

They also point us — or reorient us — toward whom we should be.  Toward whom we might be.  Where we go from here.

You don’t even have to look that far or dig that deeply for them.

There was a story like that in the news just the other day.

I’m sure you heard about the loss of life at the Annapolis Capital Gazette, that local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, where five staff members were shot and killed by a local man who seems to have had an ongoing feud with the paper stretching back several years.

The story, as such, is only just emerging, and I’m sure there is a great deal more that we will learn.

But in the hours after the tragedy, something amazing happened, and I don’t know if you heard about that part.

Because in the hours after the tragedy, there were, of course, those who had been in the newsroom, as usual, and were either victims or witnesses to a crime being interviewed by the police.

Yet there were also a handful of people who, for one reason or another, had not been there at the time of the incident.

And in the hours after it occurred, the reporters and photographers and the lone editor who had not been in the newsroom that morning did something incredible…something that I found to be a tremendous act of grace.

Working out of someone’s pickup truck, they made the decision to report the story of what had happened in their own newsroom.

They made the decision to put out the next day’s paper.

In the face of their personal bewilderment and grief, they decided that there was really only one thing they could do: which was to do their jobs.

And so, at the official police briefing later that afternoon, you could see reporters from all the usual places: AP, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, several t.v. news outlets…all the people we’d expect.

But there, too, standing to one side, was someone that we might not have expected at all: and that was Pat Furgurson, reporting for the Annapolis Capital Gazette.

Because it mattered to tell this story.

It mattered to be counted among those who were charged with its telling.

And on a day when a group of lucky survivors gathered in a parking lot outside a tragedy, they decided that whatever else they were…whoever else they were…what they were, above all, was a group of reporters responsible for telling a painful story to the shaken people of their community…including themselves.

Is that somehow uniquely American?

Perhaps not.

But I think it points to the best in us.

Imagine the moral capacity of a nation made up of such commitment and courage.

So on the Fourth of July, in particular, we are reminded that our stories matter, and that it matters to be counted among those who are charged with their telling.

This is how we engage with who we are.

II.

Of course, for the unnamed woman in this morning’s Gospel story, this woman who has suffered bleeding for twelve years, it’s hard to imagine how such noble sentiments would have come across.

While we don’t know exactly what her medical condition is supposed to be, clearly it isn’t just tennis elbow.

It also seems significant that when the story opens she’s presented to us as just another face in the crowd, part of this formless peloton of woe that has started to follow Jesus wherever he goes — but it stretches even beyond that, because even there, she’s on the edge of that crowd.

She’s one of the ones who gets pushed to the back.

It seems hard to believe that you’d find yourself in that kind of place if you had options.  Any options.

If you’ve ever been to the Emergency Room on a Saturday night and get handed a number and pointed to a bolted down plastic chair to wait, you can get a window into the chaos of other peoples’ lives.

It becomes so very clear that nobody would be there if they had any choice.

The crowd that surrounds Jesus in this instance isn’t any different.  These are not the eager pilgrims or a few neurotic Pharisees. These are the miserable.  The desperate.

These are the people who have been written off…written out of the stories that would have anchored them.

The ancients believed physical health was a window into someone’s moral purity — so…so much for that.

They believed that women were a diminished and derivative form of human being.

There were even daily prayers of thanksgiving in the synagogue that gave gratitude God that one had not been born a woman, and for that matter, women were not permitted to speak there in the first place.

Public faith was a man’s job.  Period.

So…so much for that.

Even more than today, money bought care and comfort and attention.

It bought visibility and had the capacity to bend some of the rules.

So…so much for that.

It isn’t simply that this woman has been suffering for ages, although that is, of course, true.

It’s that in the eyes of her own people, whatever this woman had been before, now she is a non-person.

What becomes of “non-people”? People for whom there is no place in our story?

I’m not sure we can even know.

They can become invisible…that much more unknowable.

And that’s what this Gospel story is all about.

Because somehow, this woman decides she has had it with that old story…that old story that has no place for her.

She sees in Jesus the possibility of closing that out.

By the grace of God, she decides that it’s not even about getting Jesus’ attention–his touch, his look, his blessing–all that public recognition.

She decides all she has to do is touch the fringe of his cloak: all she has to do is touch the littlest, dangliest, floating in the breeze by his ankles part of him, and something new was bound to happen.

And it works.  Something does happen. She knows instantly that she is better.

Her nightmare is finally over.

But it’s then that the real miracle occurs.

Because it turns out that Jesus is attuned to what’s happening even in the littlest, dangliest, floating in the breeze by his ankles parts of him.

He feels the power within him shift somehow.

And yes, something has shifted, all right. It sure has.

He says, “Who touched me?”

Because the whole point of this is that it’s actually the beginning of a newstory.

With God’s help, she is starting to write it, right then and there.

She’s no longer invisible. Because she’s known.  She’s seen.

The world may not see. God sees.

And so, when Jesus calls out to the crowd, Mark says, she steps out.

It is still “with fear and trembling” that she does it, but she does it.  She steps forward.

This wasn’t easy to do. Old narratives are hard to let go of.

But of course, the point is that she’d already taken the first step just by reaching out for him in the first place.

In Jesus, she is already learning to be a different person.

In Jesus, she trades invisibility for personhood, misery for hope, and death for life.

III.

 Sisters and brothers, our stories matter.

It matters to be counted among those who are charged with their telling.

This is how the world learns to see anew.

At its best, the American story is that kind of story, and it teaches us to rise to the moment to be a courageous, generous, clear-eyed, fair-minded people, like those journalists in Annapolis.

At its best, America has taught the world to see anew.

The story of Jesus tells us that in all times and places, seeing and serving, healing and helping is God’s story, and God’s clear directive for our lives.

It reminds us that nobody is invisible to God, nobody is unwanted by God, and nobody is hopeless to God.

God is on the side of new stories, and with our God all things are possible.

God issues a challenge to all the nations to go beyond counting our blessings and to ask ourselves whom it might be that those very blessings might be keeping us from seeing.

That’s the kind of righteousness that God requires.

May we seek it in ourselves.

May we write it on our hearts.

May we learn to proclaim it from sea to shining sea.

 

Amen.

 

From the Newsletter: 440 Air Conditioning and the Mission Trip

stationwagon

Dear Friends of Second Church,

The air-conditioning is on the fritz in the church van.

The Pacific House monthly meal team reported it yesterday, and Shawn, who is preparing to take a group of our young people on a mission trip to Washington, D.C. this coming Sunday, rightly sounded the alarm.

“We will definitely need this for D.C. in July,” he wrote in an email.

I wasn’t so sure.

I come from the days of “440 air-conditioning” — four windows down, 40 miles an hour.

When my friends began getting their licenses, and began inheriting a fleet of decrepit Oldsmobiles, Mercury Cougars, and paneled station wagons from their grandparents, we were more focused on the sweetness of our freedom, pure and simple.

The fact that the plastic seats gave us all second-degree burns…or that you had to bring a Coke with you on any long trip because, you know…no air conditioning…or that the radio had no knobs and was only AM to begin with…well, that hardly mattered.

We were free.  Masters of our fate. Kings of the road.

“Kids today,” I groused.  “We were tougher back in the 80s.”

Yet actually, I am fairly confident that we were not.

Yes, our cars were crummier.  But then I think about where we were going in those cars.  Driving the mean streets of Madison, Connecticut to go see “Ghostbusters” or to score free food from our friends who were working at McDonald’s wasn’t exactly bearing the cross, even if it was in somebody’s grandmother’s old station wagon.

The fact is, we were remarkably blessed, and utterly sheltered, and we lived out our summers happily, with little expectation that we’d have a view larger than Labor Day.

Our parents weren’t worried about our values, and they knew that life would end up teaching us plenty, and soon enough.

That some of us already had lives far harder, and in some cases, more desperate than they appeared did not occur to anyone.

That our values were more precarious than our parents’ great love for and faith in us allowed for did not occur to anyone, either.

That’s why I feel so strongly about Shawn’s summer mission trips to DC, and all the ways in which we are inviting our young people to develop that larger view now, rather than vaguely waiting for “life to teach them” how complicated and heartbreaking the world can be.

I find that they have a much clearer sense of vulnerability than most of us ever did, both in the worlds they know and the ones they don’t.

I love how many of them are inclined to push back against the kind of easy world that I, for one, was all too happy to dwell in when I was their age.

They seek out complexity and honesty about the world’s challenges, and want to see and know for themselves, and I find great hope in that.

It reminds me of the disciples, who had far from easy lives, to be sure, but who also had every incentive to stay put—to keep their worlds small and familiar and predictable—but who encountered Jesus, and found their perspective stretched, and their hearts yearning to see and know for themselves what God was doing in the world, and so set out to follow him.

I don’t know that our kids will find Jesus in Washington, DC next week. But I believe he will be shaping much of what they do find. His goodness will shape their goodness, and his wisdom, their wisdom.

That promise is what church is all about.

So I decided to spring for some new freon.  Told the guy to check the oil while he was at it.

If these kids are softer than I was, God bless them.   They’re soft in all the ways that matter.  That’s a blessing for us all.

See you in church,

Sermon: “The Sleep of the Just or Asleep at the Wheel: What it is to be a Christian Today” (Mark 4: 35-41)

jesus in the storm

I want to begin this morning by talking about sleep.

I don’t know about your family, but in mine, we are divided more or less evenly between the night owls and the early birds.

My mother tells me that as a baby I was an early bird, but for most of my life, I have been a night owl.

The night is when the magic happens.  It was the same way for my grandmother.

Starting around 8 o’clock, I usually get my second wind, and that wind seems to blow full on until at least eleven, often twelve, and sometimes even later.

The house quiets down, and I’m sitting in my chair with my lamp and my glass of water, reading about something totally different.

That’s when I have my epiphanies, and also when I do my laundry.

Liz is not that way. Neither are my parents.

There are times when we visit them that the four of us are sitting there, talking pleasantly and the clock strikes nine, and I’m in the middle of a story…just getting warmed up — and I look around, and their eyes are like those signs you used to see in stores: “Thank You — Please Come Again.”

They’re done.

On the other hand, the next morning, when I get up and go downstairs–not late, mind you–7:30, 8:00am at the latest–they’re all down there, chattering away, and they’ve also gone out to the bakery, and read most of the newspaper, Liz has been grading, the girls are finishing a movie, my mom has done the whole garden thing, and everyone has already gone for a swim and showered and dressed and played with the dogs.

It’s like they’ve had a whole day already, and Kathie Lee and Hoda haven’t even come on yet.

That’s how it is if you’re an early bird.

You get up after that good night’s sleep and you’re ready to hit the ground running.

II.

Well, the Gospel doesn’t have much to say about night owls versus early birds, exactly.

If you think about it, most people in Biblical times would have been early birds, anyway–needing the light, but also the relative cool of the morning.

Staying up and then sleeping in would have been something that was only possible for people who had people, and there were not many who lived like that.

But the Gospels do talk about sleep.  And when they do, it is important to understand that they’re speaking, not just symbolically.

Actually, they’re speaking morally.

If you think about it, this morning’s reading is probably only the second most famous story about sleep in the Gospels.

The number one story about sleep is the one just before Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Knowing what is about to drop, Jesus goes to the garden to pray, and asks his disciples to come with him.

He tells them that he’s going to be alone for a bit, but asks them to watch and wait in another part of the garden.

But when he comes back, they have fallen asleep.

And the point, of course, is that the disciples are just early birds…people who just didn’t have it in them to rally for poor Jesus when the moment came.

Or maybe a better way to put it is that they were people who didn’t have it in them…but when we say that, it’s not sleep patterns that we’re really talking about.

We’re speaking morally.  What we’re really talking about is character.

In our day, when we say that someone is “asleep at the wheel,” we’re not talking about their actual driving.

We’re saying that they’re not engaged; they’re not paying attention; they’re not doing the driving the rest of us are counting on them to do.

When the disciples fall asleep in the garden and Jesus says, “Could you not stay awake one hour?” that’s what he’s talking about, too.

“Stay awake, all of you,” he says, “and pray that you may be spared the test” (Mark 14: 37-38).

It isn’t that they’ve hurt his feelings…that they haven’t been “there for him.”  It’s that they’re not engaged.

They’re not doing the kind of driving that Jesus was counting on them to do.

III.

Our Gospel reading this morning presents a very different kind of sleep.

It’s interesting: you could almost misread it, and say that it’s another story about someone not “being there” for someone else…in this case, it’s actually Jesus who is not there for the disciples…he’s literally asleep at the tiller…the story even says that he’s sort of called dibs on the captain’s cushion and is laid out there, snoozing.

And when the storm comes up, he goes right on sleeping, which we can probably all agree would have been hard to handle.

Imagine if you were a disciple sitting there, with the storm getting worse, with the waves getting higher, and the boat heeling over, and the wind whipping through the rigging and making it sing.

A lot of these guys were fishermen.   They knew these waters.

And yet, to Mark tell it, there they all are, glumly thinking about the last time they’d seen “The Poseidon Adventure” …waiting for the big one.

Think about that.

You can understand how it would have hit a point where somebody finally said, “Oh for God’s sake, wake him up.”

They need him to be engaged.  To be paying attention.  To be doing the leading that everyone was counting on him to do.

But then he gets up.

Mark tells us that Jesus rebukes the wind, and a dead calm comes over everything.

Then Jesus turns around and the rebuking continues, because since he’s up now, he goes ahead and rebukes them, too.

“Why are you afraid?” he asks.  “Have you still no faith?”

And again, the point here is a moral one.

Because it turns out that Jesus’ sleep has not been the sleep of inattention or dereliction of duty — like that sleeping in the Garden we talked about that would become so infamous later on.

Jesus’ sleep is about what it looks like when we come at last to rest in God.

Jesus’ sleep is showing us not what it is to be immobilized, but to be so deeply at peace…so deeply relaxed…so deeply confident in the presence of God, and the power of God, and the truth of God that even in a hurricane, you’re o.k.

Jesus is asleep in that boat because he knows that storms are real, and storms are hard, but that God is good.

He knows that in life and in death, God will see us through.

He knows that there’s more to living than just physical life or chasing comfort or safety for safety’s sake.

For Jesus, if that’s all you’re doing, you’re halfway drowned already.

And so he’s not afraid, and he sleeps in that boat because he has no fear.

IV.

I try to remember that when I get afraid…when I am sailing along in my little boat and the storms seem to come up out of nowhere.

I’ve been trying to remember it especially this week, when the news has been so full of images I have found it so hard to see, and hard realities I would prefer not having to know.

It’s hard to know what to think when the truth itself is so contested, and when good people find it almost impossible to talk outside their safest and most familiar circles.

Those are walls we’ve built already– walls that have cost us nothing and which, at the same time, have cost us everything.

There are some divides that it will be harder to cross now on any terms.

Sometimes it can even get to that point where I’m asking: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

“Do you not care that this is how it’s become?”

“Do you not care that your children are so divided, and so far apart that they root for each other’s downfall?”

Each time, I say that, though, Jesus has been right there with me, right before me, asking: “Could you not stay awake one hour?”

“Max, where have you been?”

“What have you done?”

“How much of this work of loving and reconciling, listening and leading have you taken on?”

Where have we been, we Christians?

The promise is that, in God…in the promise of God, and the power of God, and the truth of God, we will be formed into people who can rise to this moment.

God promises that in following Jesus, we can rise to this and to any other moment — as indeed, Christians have risen to every moment for so very long now.

That makes me convinced that God got it right when he divided the world up between early birds and night owls.

It’s not about division.  It’s not about our differences.

It’s about the idea is that somewhere out there, somebody is always supposed to be up.  Somebody is always supposed to be awake.  Somebody is always supposed to be at the tiller, making sure that we all get there safely.

As Christians, we are called to be those people: people who are up and doing the hard work of watching and learning, forgiving and healing, testifying and witnessing, which is how Christ teaches us to keep the boat on course.  No matter what the time.  No matter what the weather.

It may be awhile before we’re strong enough, and grounded enough, and truly hopeful enough to be fast asleep the way that Jesus was, while the winds rage around us.

Building and maintaining community have never been harder than they are now, or more important than they are now.

It’s a challenge for all of us.

But today we remember what the disciples saw with wonder: that even the wind and sea obey him.

Whether or not we will obey him remains to be seen.

Amen.