Tonight is a night of firsts and lasts for the followers of Jesus.
It is striking to me that the very first service of the Lord’s Supper is at the Last Supper.
They must have found so many of his words to be mysterious and odd.
Little did they know that it would all make sense soon enough.
But seeing it for the first time, with Jesus right in front of you, it must have seemed strange to hear him connecting, first, broken bread and his own broken body, then wine with his blood, and finally, to hear him raising the notion of needing to remember him.
The lastness of the supper is something only Jesus and Judas have a clue about.
We see that in the Garden of Gethsemane, too.
Way back when they had all been in Galilee, crossing the sea in a storm, the disciples had been the ones in agony, terrified of the wind and the waves and the suddenness of the storm.
Meanwhile, Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat – unworried.
Now in the Garden, the roles are reversed.
The disciples are the ones sleeping, while Jesus agonizes.
They never do quite learn.
The disciples are worried when they shouldn’t be, and unworried when they should be.
Or maybe it’s just that they have learned that, with Jesus, they are safe.
The notion that he is about to be taken — that he could ever be taken — is unthinkable.
Why would these be their last moments with him?
What would make you think that?
But if the disciples don’t get what’s happening on this night of firsts and lasts, the deeper point is that Jesus does.
Jesus inaugurates this feast of remembrance, with its particular power to connect us to his presence, because he knows that the disciples will need it, and that so will we.
After his arrest, it is as if the disciples run off into the night in eleven different directions.
Fear and self-preservation take hold – maybe even appropriately so.
They would have been no match for a detachment of Roman soldiers.
But at some point, they ventured out.
At some point, they found one another again, after skulking among the shadows, listening attentively for the sound of marching sandals on the cobblestone streets of the old city, trying to open a door just enough to slip inside and then creep up the stairs.
Somehow, they made it to that upper room we talk about on Easter – this place where they regathered.
At first, it was enough just to be together again…to sit there in silence, sharing the shock of it all.
The memory of their firsts and lasts with Jesus must have been so strong.
If you have ever suffered a great shock or a tremendous loss, you know that those memories loom so large.
But Jesus wasn’t half as interested in the past as he was about reaching for the future.
He didn’t hope to see his friends regathered.
He wanted them to get refocused – to get back to the work he’d called them to join.
And so he gave them this meal, not simply to remember him by, but so that they could find again the strength they’d found in him.
As the great UCC theologian Mary Luti has observed, a central part of the Communion liturgy is described as anamnesis – a kind of resistance to amnesia, if you like.
But by this, the Church has never meant “remembering” in a simple sense.
It’s deeper than that – more pointed than that – Communion is a refusal to forget.
He gave Communion to his disciples so that they could find again the hope they’d found in him, and the love they’d found in him.
To share the bread and share the cup was to respond to the brokenness of the world by refusing to forget the wholeness of God, and to be nourished by it.
It was to see the brokenness of God’s own Son, not as the last word, but a new beginning: a seed planted in the ground that would become a harvest.
And so the meal offers, in Christ, the strength to face another day.
As faithful people, then, tonight is a night for us to remember the reality of heartbreak even in a world so loved by God.
We remember the horror that the disciples must have felt at losing, and our own horror for the suffering, loneliness and injustice that continue even now among God’s children.
But we remember what it is to be a people Christ calls in the face of all that to become his body now: to be his hands and feet now, his eyes and ears now, even his voice now, especially as gathering around his table makes us alive to his presence and ready for what comes.
On this night of firsts and lasts, we refuse to forget.
We refuse to forget what it was to lose him.
We refuse to forget what he suffered, and what too many have suffered at the hands of injustice.
And most especially, we refuse to forget that first and last, we belong to him, and that he loves us with a love that will never let us go.
I want to begin this morning by telling you two quick stories about one of the best pastors I ever knew: my friend A.
She was the Emergency Room Chaplain at Yale New-Haven Hospital – and she was a fixture in some of the most difficult and terrifying moments that people go through in a place like that.
Working in a hospital is a standard part of training for most pastors, and as you might imagine, going to the ER is where some of the biggest lessons occur.
But truth be told, they’re very thoughtful about how much time you really spend there.
When you’re a chaplain intern and you have to go meet the Lifestar helicopter on the roof of the hospital, then go down and wait with a family member in the ER, it’s an experience that it takes a while to process.
This was what A. did all day, every day.
And it was perhaps all the more remarkable, on the face of it, because it was a ministry that she had come to later in life, well after she was not only a mother, but a grandmother.
Ordained ministry was something she came to after her retirement.
Prior to divinity school, A. had a thirty-year career as a preschool teacher, much of it not far from here, in Wilton, Connecticut.
That’s cool, right?
On the face of it, it seems like a big leap, although A. did not particularly see it that way.
She was one of those people who, if you asked her about it, would just sort of shrug, and it took me a while to understand why.
She spoke fondly – proudly – of her time as a teacher.
In fact, I’ll never forget her description of her very first teaching job.
She was hired just a couple of weeks before the start of the school year, when someone pulled out of their contract at the last minute.
She was thrilled to get the job. On cloud nine.
But then the very next day, the preschool director called her.
“I need you to come have lunch with the Smiths,” she said.
“I’m sorry?” said A.
“I need you to come have lunch with the Smiths,” her boss said again. “You will be teaching their youngest daughter, Marietta.”
She paused, and then said: “The Smiths are…very active…in the life of the school.”
A. agreed and the next day, she arrived at the Smith family home.
It was an imposing old house set well back from the road behind a significant gate – the kind of gate that was actually supposed to keep people out.
Not that it would be bad if you were in, by any means.
It was one of those homes where everything was just perfect.
Mrs. Smith greeted her at the door.
She was beyond immaculate, too.
Marietta stood behind her in a lovely little dress.
The director of the pre-school was already there, looking nervous.
“Ahh,” said Mrs. Smith, scanning A. in a heartbeat and smiling faintly. “You’re so good to come. We’ll be having lunch on the porch.”
The lunch, as you might guess, turned out to be a whole other interview.
Where she was from, where she had studied, what her husband did, how much television her own children watched, how often they had sweets.
Many years later, when she spoke about it, A. could not remember all of the questions.
However, she did remember the one about sweets, because it was during her answer to that question that Marietta, who had been sitting there quietly, reached across the table for the mustard dish, and taking out the little spoon, began absently to start scooping mustard onto her mother’s forearms and spreading it out with her pointer finger.
Have you ever been in one of those moments when you’re like, “Is this reallyhappening?”
Relatedly, of course, there is the kind of moment when you’re like, “This isn’treally happening.”
Apparently, that’s the moment that Mrs. Smith and the director of the preschool were having, because their impulse was to keep their eyes locked on A. and listen with rapt attention about her views on children and sweets.
But then the most remarkable thing happened.
A. turned to the child and said, “Marietta Smith. You will stop putting mustard on your mother’s arms this instant.”
The child dropped the mustard spoon, looked up silently for a moment, and ran.
A. looked at the preschool director, who looked as if making budget had just gotten a whole lot harder for fiscal year 1974.
Then she looked at Mrs. Smith, who was in tears.
“We just don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m her mother. I don’t know what to do.”
What followed was the first honest conversation that anyone from the preschool had ever had with Mrs. Smith.
Many years and many chapters later, when A. was offered the job of becoming the ER Chaplain at Yale-New Haven Hospital, she told them she would accept on one condition.
“What’s that?” they asked.
“I need to go down to the morgue,” she said. “I need to know that I can look at a body and see the person someone loves.”
Reluctantly, they agreed.
But it’s probably obvious enough that A. the Chaplain was doing something that A. the young teacher had done so many years before: she looked where others refused to look; she went where others refused to go; she spoke when others refused to speak; and she learned to see the person someone loved where others saw only a problem to be solved or a mess to be cleaned up.
That’s a long preamble to this morning’s Scripture, which is a famous passage from the Gospel of John.
You surely heard John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”
It is a beautiful, hopeful assertion of the power of faith and the wonder of eternity.
What is less obvious, perhaps, is that Jesus says these famous words in a passage that anticipates his own death.
At the very beginning, he remembers a strange story about healing from Moses’ ministry in the wilderness, when the great prophet puts a bronze serpent on a pole, so that those who have been bitten by snakes in the wilderness can look on that bronze serpent and live.
Jesus then explains, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (v. 14-15).
We may well gloss over that in order to get to the ringing affirmation of sheer belief.
John does not want us to do that.
For John, even the worst and hardest parts of the story of Jesus are important.
They tell us about a God who loves us so much that we will not be abandoned, even if in some sense, we might even deserve to be.
“For God so loved the world…” he says.
Some people hear that and suggest that it should be easy to believe in a God who would do that – all the more so when the stipulated benefits are so worthwhile.
Along those lines, the philosopher Blaise Pascal advanced what we’ve come to refer as “Pascal’s wager,” which is that if there is a God, and believing means eternal life, then you might as well believe. Because if that turns out to be wrong, and there is no eternal life, you really haven’t lost anything by believing.
There are people who read John 3:16 very much in that spirit.
But I think something deeper is going on.
Because the spectacle, the gruesome political theater of crucifixion was designed to be hard to look at.
It was designed to horrify.
It was designed to remind those who saw it about what it meant to go up against the power of the Roman Empire.
It was supposed to teach you to look away, shut up, and do what you were told.
But not everybody did.
Somehow, despite Rome’s best efforts, there were people who looked where others refused to look; people who went where others refused to go; people who spoke when others refused to speak; people who could gaze upon the very face of death and see the person someone loved where others saw only a problem to be solved or a mess to be cleaned up.
The Empire called that sedition. Jesus called it faith.
It’s how he lived. And it’s how Jesus tells us we must live.
Somehow, in every generation, and in every place and time, there are those who look to Jesus and find the courage to live as those who see…to live as those who will name the elephant in the room…to live as those who find a way to love what the world is quick to deem unlovable.
That’s what it is to look at the one lifted on a pole and see the Son of God.
It teaches us not to look away.
It is to see the face of Christ in an angry little girl and an imperious matriarch, to see Christ in a body in a morgue and in a person coming in by Lifestar helicopter, and in any number of other faces and places.
To be a Christian is to refuse the world’s various strategies for keeping things quiet and tidy, and for pretending that things aren’t happening or don’t matter.
Because in God, we know better.
We all know that the world is messy. Life is messy. People are messy.
But many don’t know that it’s o.k.
Even fewer understand that it’s o.k. to go ahead and say so, because the world has tried to convince them that nobody could ever look with love on whatever mess they see.
To be a Christian is to know otherwise.
Because God is good and transformation is possible.
Because people try and fail and try again and fail again, and wow can they ever disappoint you…but every now and again, they stick the landing.
They climb the mountain.
They kick the habit.
They make the grade.
They drop the mic.
They find a way to leave you breathless with the courage of what they just did.
But they can’t do it alone.
They can’t do it without the ability to reject the false conspiracies of silence that tell them to keep quiet and keep things the way they are – to look away and to settle for less, if they know what’s good for them.
They can’t do it without God. Nobody can.
Jesus says that for those willing to look, willing to learn, and willing to grow, there are many chapters yet to be written, and so many truths just waiting to set us free.
That may not matter to the world. But it matters to God. It matters to Jesus. And it matters to those called to new life in him.
My friend A. is someone who stood with people in the moments when truth beckoned to them in a new way.
She wasn’t afraid to name what she saw.
I am glad to report that with her help, Marietta Smith and her mother were among those who chose to walk toward a brighter light, all the way back in 1974.
That light is beckoning to us now, too.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”
May God’s grace strengthen us to look fearlessly and live.
At some point late in my middle school career – sometime in seventh or eighth grade – I attended what folks from other places probably know as “cotillion.”
We didn’t call it that in Brooklyn Heights, but so what, that’s what it was. Cotillion. A formal dance class.
Of course, if you know cotillion, you know that it’s much more than that.
Cotillion, called as such or by any other name, is sort of the minor leagues for the debutante circuit, which is itself a form of entrée into polite society.
More immediately, cotillion also addresses a particular kind of problem about the debutante circuit.
Because if there are going to be debutantes, young ladies who debut, there need to be young gentlemen who know how to escort them properly.
And there are skills involved.
To be an escort involves knowing how to tie a tie, how to pin a corsage (flowers pointing down, stem toward the shoulder), how to offer a young lady your arm, how to check coats, how to ladle punch and bring it with a napkin across the room to a seated young lady, how to shake hands with adult hosts and hostesses (making good eye contact and warmly thanking them for a pleasant evening).
And while you’re at all that, you know, you might as well learn how to waltz, foxtrot, lindy, and hustle.
Bless them, I think they threw the hustle into the mix in a bid for “relevancy.”
I am glad they did.
Being twelve years old, we weren’t really getting to Studio 54 as often as we’d have liked, so it was good that they were making sure to keep us “current.”
It really was.
For me, personally, the highlight of the whole experience was dancing with Eve Morgenstern, who was beautiful and mysterious and taller than I was.
That aside, the whole thing wasn’t for me.
Sad to say, I blew my chances at advancing to the major leagues of Brooklyn cotillion by turning down an invitation to the Yuletide Ball somewhere or other.
To decline, it seems, was to choose permanent oblivion.
After that, you were off the list.
Well, I survived.
No disrespect to others who did cotillion and went on either to debut or to escort someone who was making their debut – I hope you remember it fondly.
Dipping my toe in those waters gave me the skills to dance the lindy with my grandmother a couple of times over the years, which was fun, and I’m glad I could.
But for me, that was really about it.
Except there was a seriousness to the whole thing that I have never forgotten.
For the adults organizing and overseeing my class, sure, it must have been cute to see seventh graders in suits and dresses, practicing “cutting in” during a foxtrot.
But there was this sense that knowing how to do that and all the other stuff really mattered.
Come to think of it, the only other thing in my childhood that was approached with the same level of seriousness was driver’s ed.
Now that seems crazy. The point is that it didn’t then. Not to those particular grown-ups, anyway.
To them, cotillion was, actually, not unlike driver’s ed: it was a patient introduction to the rules of the road, designed to keep you safe and get you where you wanted to go.
There are some things in this world that you need to do correctly if you’re going to do them at all.
I can’t imagine what would have happened back in 1982 if someone had come into cotillion…if they’d skirted past the chaperones lined up by the door…if they’d started turning over tables…if they’d lunged for the big crystal punch bowl and hurled it onto the indoor tennis court…went for the hi-fi and twisted the arm off the record player…or frisbee tossed the records out the windows onto Montague Street…
I can’t imagine having an interloper interlope like that.
I’m sure I would have been freaked out, to say the least.
And when I try to imagine this morning’s gospel story of an interloping Jesus, suddenly appearing and overturning the tables in the Temple.
Had I been there, I know I would have been freaked out then, too.
It’s important to remember a few things about it as we try to picture the scene.
The first is that, in fact, the money-changers were not doing anything wrong by being where they were, doing what they were doing.
They were not opposed to the Temple and its purposes – they were very much part of the system.
The Temple did not permit people to bring money with the image of some foreign ruler anywhere closer than the outermost gate, which was tricky if you were coming there from anywhere else, as indeed, many were.
Similarly, coming to the Temple often involved bringing animals for ritual sacrifice by the priests there.
Many, perhaps even most people did not bring these animals all the way from home – they purchased them there – and they knew to do that because people had done it for years.
The Temple was not a perfect institution by any means.
Prophetic questioning of the Temple and its righteousness was not unique to Jesus.
In fact, John’s Gospel this morning refers to several moments in the Old Testament in order to explain what Jesus is up to.
But the issue was not really its commercialism or the money.
To some extent, we Christians tend to read that in.
We need to be cautious there.
So let’s step back for a moment.
Because if the story isn’t about money, then what is it about?
Go back to cotillion with me for a moment.
What was wrong with cotillion?
From the perspective of today, there is probably plenty we could name.
Who was invited to take part at all, for one thing.
Also, there were the very carefully defined roles which those of us who were invited were then instructed in how play. How to be boys and how to be girls. Hetero boys and girls. Rich boys and girls. Connected boys and girls.
That’s it, isn’t it?
In its own way, cotillion offered a vision of the kind of future into which we were supposed to put our hope—hope we could find, as it happens, in a very particular understanding of pedigree.
Make of that what you will.
My point is not so much what was wrong with cotillion.
It’s more that it wasn’t right in the ways it thought it was.
And I think this is some of what Jesus is trying to say about the Temple.
The real problem with the Temple, as he saw it, was that it wasn’t right in many of the ways it thought it was.
It’s not that God could not be found there.
But the roles the Temple taught people to play, the future to which it seemed to point, even some of the ways in which it seemed to enact righteousness itself were all open to question.
Holiness asked something more personal, more searching than many people wanted to bother with – even many of the most important religious figures of the day.
Much later in the story, a Sanhedrin full of men like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea would never have put Jesus on trial, much less handed him over to the Romans.
Sadly, it would turn out that such humility and holiness were in short supply.
Events to come would prove what Jesus already saw so clearly: that some of what a holy life required needed reimagining.
God’s call to the great but always profoundly personal work of seeking God’s will needed to be heard again. By each of us and all of us.
Somehow, too many of us were learning to hope for the wrong things. Or to put our faith in the wrong ways.
As he saw it, it didn’t need to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Because the world that was to come was not some far off thing that would only arrive on some distant day.
It was already here. For us, it could be now. Even at this moment, it was within and among us.
The Temple at its best had always said so. The prophets had always said so.
But now if the Temple seemed to be saying something different, then perhaps it was time to reimagine the world, maybe even without it.
For Jesus, the urgency of finding a way to the source of all that was good, all that was true, all that was real made everything else pale by comparison.
Along those lines, I wonder what we need in order to reimagine our world.
What have we learned to hope for?
How is it that Jesus breaks into our lives?
And what is it that might be getting in our way?
When is the last time you felt like you had space to breathe, and what needs to happen for you to start breathing again?
Some people have a gift for dreaming big. Some of us don’t.
That doesn’t mean that our own corner of the world cannot be different – that Jesus is not interested in meeting us where we are, working toward the redemption of anything that’s holding us back.
There is plenty that stands in need of reimagining.
With that in mind, today’s Scripture isn’t just about the Jerusalem Temple.
It reminds us that there is no Temple to which God will not seek admission.
But there’s a hard truth that goes with that.
More soberingly, today’s Scripture reminds that if it seems like God isn’t doing any of that…
if it seems like God isn’t at work in our hearts, or turning over any of our tables…
if it seems like God isn’t interloping and smashing the occasional punch bowl, disrupting our easy assumptions…
if it seems like God isn’t right here, right now…
trying to enlist us in the work,
trying to get us to walk along the stony road toward the Kingdom
or trying to teach us the steps to a very different dance, well…
maybe it isn’t God that we’re really listening to.
Because God is at work.
God doesn’t wait to be invited to the party.
God hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things.
God sees past the illusion and confusion, the hurts and hang-ups of God’s children.
And so, invited or not, polite or not, our God shows up, wherever we are, always talking about a more excellent way – a way that smashes the idols of any other way.
That’s how this works. That’s who God is.
At every moment, God calls us onto the floor to take our place in the dance of Creation, watching for the moment when we put aside our punch glass and rise at last.
I read this week that the wonderful old Brooklyn steakhouse, Peter Luger’s, has hatched something new in order to contend with the challenge of being a restaurant during COVID.
Now, if you know Peter Luger’s, you’ll get how odd this is.
It’s one of those places where the whole point is to do everything the same way they’ve always done it.
That’s a big part of the appeal.
Well, these are odd times, as we know.
Restaurants are not permitted to operate at full capacity, and that’s not good.
But there is also the reality that a lot of people get the creeps when they eat in an empty restaurant, and apparently, COVID has not changed this, so that’s not good, either.
So this is where someone at Peter Luger’s has had an idea.
Because while you are not permitted to operate at full capacity with live people, it seems that the regulations are silent when it comes to operating with wax people.
(MG: slowly nods head…)
So someone at Peter Luger’s has said, what if we populate half of the restaurant with famous people? Famous wax people.
What if you came to Peter Luger’s and Audrey Hepburn from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was sitting at the next table?
What if you came to Peter Luger’s and Don Draper from “Mad Men” was standing at the bar?
What if being a real person eating a steak at Peter Luger’s was like taking part in the ultimate New York story?
This is what they’re going to do.
So…is that “adjusting” or isn’t it?
I can’t quite tell.
It seems clear that it is choosing to meet a new reality by cultivating a very particular kind of fantasy.
They’re banking on the hope that one way or another, the fantasy will manage to catch on.
In this morning’s Gospel, I wonder if Peter isn’t caught up in a very particular kind of fantasy, himself.
Certainly, he is hoping that the message of Jesus will catch on.
He’s not focused on just trying to survive.
From his perspective, things could not be better.
This project of preaching and healing they’ve been working on is already starting to change the world.
For those with eyes to see, the presence of God in the midst of all of it has been unmistakable.
The endless troubles of a weary world are over now, or soon will be.
He’s seen it.
Isn’t that what the voice they all heard on the top of that mountain meant?
Thanks be to God that he had been given eyes to see…that he got to be a part of it.
It’s Jesus who abruptly interjects with visions of the immediate future that are dark and seem bad for business.
It’s Jesus who is introducing fantasies about doomsday.
From Peter’s perspective, it must have made no sense, and since it didn’t, it’s out of love and loyalty that Peter tries to stop Jesus from going too far down that road.
Because he could see. He could see, even if Jesus apparently couldn’t.
He could see the people starting to look at each other nervously as they listened to Jesus talk this way.
He watched as they began to get agitated and started to disconnect.
It’s not that they were just abruptly turning and going. Any of the regulars would have noticed that.
It’s more that lately, the ones who’d been up front, hanging on Jesus’ every word, glowing after every healing they witnessed, seemed to be hanging more toward the back, with each day more of them leaving…more of them breaking camp sometime overnight and taking off without a word.
With every new gloomy tiding, the people of God were fading away.
Jesus wasn’t telling them about the God they wanted, anymore.
Peter doesn’t quite recognize that is the God he wants, too.
If there had been wax figures available to pump up the numbers, to give the illusion of the same kind of joyful crowds they were all used to, maybe he would have ordered a truck load.
Maybe he would have tried to sustain the challenge of this new reality by cultivating a very particular fantasy, banking on the hope that one way or another, it would manage to catch on.
This is what Peter still doesn’t understand after all this time.
He’s gotten very good at watching Jesus. But he still has a great deal to learn about actually seeking the presence of God.
He cannot imagine a world in which Jesus will not be there for him to watch—literally to watch.
It’s so unthinkable that even when Jesus himself speaks of it, Peter urgently seeks to hush him.
The deeper notion of the God who is present…the call to know the God who dwells with us, abides with us, who loves and cares for us even in the darkness is something he just can’t fathom yet.
What Jesus wants him to understand is that godforsakenness isn’t a thing, not because henceforth, there will not be darkness, but because no matter how dark it may become, God is always there with us.
We see God’s face in the faces of those who stand beside us.
We hold God’s hand in the hands we reach to grasp.
We know God’s healing when, in our own distress, we may not even have the strength to believe just then, but we find ourselves sustained by the faith and love of those who come alongside us, willing to sit with us patiently in the darkness.
That’s not the God that Peter thinks he wants.
That’s not the God who promises to smite our every enemy and bless our every effort.
But it’s the God we know in Jesus Christ.
That’s the God we’ve seen with particular clarity over the last 50 weeks.
Not all Christians would say so.
You may have seen Christians claiming to rebuke the virus like a demon and to banish it.
Some others have said that it represents God’s decision to withdraw Divine protection over the world because of a particular short list of sins.
The temptation to meet some new reality by cultivating a very particular kind of fantasy is never far away from any of us.
We would do well to remember that as we seek to speak of God.
For me, what has abided through this whole everything has not been some shallow version of God’s decrees and our unworthiness, or some fantasy that God, properly worshipped, will take any danger away as a reward for those with brains enough to do as we’re told.
What has abided has been a sense of the presence of God, even in our challenges.
I’ve seen it in the love of this community for one another.
I’ve seen it in the way we have found the strength and purpose to push through each day as best we can.
I’ve seen it, not because life is easy for those who believe…but because life can be so hard, and yet we get on with it.
We love children who are so angry and withdrawn.
We love spouses who are hard to live with all day, every day, which is never what we signed up for.
We love people who still say half of what they have to say while their Zoom is still on mute.
We find a way to manage boredom and solitude and the sense of being at loose ends.
We do our jobs.
We do all of it. However we can.
And God bless us for it. I’m certain God does.
I’ve seen how God has been actively at work doing new things—offering new comfort, newinsight, new and unexpected gestures that help us to heal even in the midst of our distress.
God is doing this despite and sometimes even through all of this, not because God wishes it on us, but because God is with us, no matter what happens.
Even this long into it, we know that some days go better than others. Some of the adjustments we make are easier or more durable than others.
We have to look for God anew each day and learn to bless the partial daily victories of a God whose providence unfolds more gradually than we might be inclined to wish, but which proves to endure far longer than we could ever dream.
Peter could not recognize this God, even when this God literally stood before him and spoke about these very things.
But faith would not have us be so blinded, anymore.
God stands with and among us.
God is ready to join us in any new reality that the world might devise.
And God is urging us to see the Divine Presence now and in whatever comes next, because the world may change, but the love and presence of God simply never will.
Don’t be a wax figure, frozen in a vision of the past, Jesus says.
Be a child of God, attentive to what comes, alive to what remains, and hopeful in what will be.
Flesh and blood and Spirit – unable to be frozen, and ever alive to the God in whom we live and move, and have our Being.
There are some things we almost always say at the beginning of Lent.
For example, that Lent is a time for reflection—introspection.
That it’s a time for learning to live without things, so that we can see more clearly what it is we actually need in order to live as souls before God, our truest, deepest selves.
Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, we are especially urged to ponder the fact of our own mortality.
That’s what the ashes are about.
Of course, you’ll remember that when we receive ashes, we receive them with an admonition.
We always say: “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”
There is an urgency to that.
It reminds us that there are some things in our world and in ourselves that we need to turn around, and we don’t have forever to make progress on those things.
It’s also a way of remembering that some of what the world cares about—some of the things it teaches us to focus on, to spend our time doing, to spend our wherewithal building—some of these things don’t stand the test of eternity.
Put under that sort of intense microscope, few things actually do stand up to the test.
In that sense, I’ve always been surprised that we don’t generally read from the Book of Ecclesiastes on Ash Wednesday.
The preacher’s old familiar words that “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” seem so deeply resonant.
If we spent 40 days taking time on our knees to parse the vanities and the verities of our lives – to ponder the notions and the truths that guide us – we would be really keeping Lent…keeping Lent real…for sure.
But this is a weird year.
Given the last eleven months, how many reminders of our mortality do we need?
How much giving up of things do we still need to do?
I suppose it is a comment on the relative ease many of us have come to expect, but once you’ve had to get creative in sourcing your family’s toilet paper, how important could it possibly seem to give up chocolate for Lent?
In a world where grandparents have had to give up seeing their grandchildren, when spouses can’t even be together in the hospital during a procedure, when brides have to wear masks to walk down the aisle, and so many of the little places we love for our small comforts can scarcely stay afloat—wow—what’s Lent?
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis once described Hell, not as a place of fire and brimstone, supervised by devils with pitchforks.
For Lewis, Hell was more like a dreary English suburb with houses that looked all alike, where the time was that depressing window before sundown on a cold midwinter afternoon just after the shops have closed – except forever.
Who among us can’t picture that right now?
At this point, what could “keeping Lent” possibly add?
I think the answer is, actually, it could add a lot.
Because of the edifice of our own expectations…the structure of our assumptions has crumbled, then the question is what we will seek to rebuild – what is it that will come back differently?
If the isolation and boredom of Corona hit, and all we had to lean on was the pop of a cork at 5 o’clock, what have we learned?
If our relationships have not proven a comfort to us, or if they’ve demanded more from our emotional wells than we have to offer, with little return, what have we learned?
When the institutions we have taken for granted turn out to be far more precarious than we realized, what have we learned?
I think a whole lot of people have found that with everything they’ve been through, they miss God.
They miss a sense of connection to the guiding sense of purpose that we find in God.
They miss a sense that someone sees their struggles and their unsung goodness and still finds them loveable – that while we are sinners, we are much more than only sinners, and the center of the Universe knows it, and sees that in us.
They miss a sense that when they’re lost, someone is on their way to come find them. That there’s a Good Shepherd trying to bring them home.
They miss what it is to hope in God’s declaration of the future – a sustained and sustainable Creation, shaped by trust among peoples and firm in the way of peace, where tears and death and darkness are no more.
A whole lot of people are finding they miss God.
The great Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once observed, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
Without clubbing Sartre for his honesty, the Church teaches us to wonder if God was somewhere in that longing—that sense of missing the Divine.
And that’s why Lent is so important, even for us, even for this year.
It’s a year when we have not had to work ourselves up to 40 days of pondering our longing.
This time, a lot of us have reached Longing 2.0 – the longing that comes on the other side of months and months of seeing the shoddy crutches we lean on snap in pieces before our very eyes.
Lent asks us to ponder how we might live, now that we see so clearly how we can’t afford to keep living a moment longer.
The promise of Lent is the promise that God will teach us how to build back better from here, as God gives us the strength to take up the cross and to join the work of redemption that is already under way, as all things are enfolded under the banner of Christ.
So it is a weird year.
The particular disciplines of Lent may seem redundant in a year with so many of those same lessons already baked in.
But our longing for a new heaven and a new earth could serve us well, particularly it guides us to offer our lives in service to the One in whom all true hopes must finally dwell.
There’s a wonderful irony to putting this particular moment in Jesus’ ministry at the heart of our worship today.
On Annual Meeting Sunday, our congregation gathers in a way we rarely do, and we speak and listen according to procedures that in most years, we only impose upon ourselves for this single gathering.
There is a formality to how we do things that we tend to shy away from in most of our church life.
In a way I really love, it’s profoundly Congregationalist that here and in most churches ours, even a four year old will call the pastors “Max” and “Shawn”…but God help us if we tried to run the Annual Meeting without formally establishing a quorum or without having Brenda read the “Certification of Congregational Usage.”
If that happened, we’d have forty hands shoot up at once to put a stop to the anarchy.
In many other denominations, that’s just not how it works.
You’ve got to love that.
For a long time, well before I was ever here, I worried about it a little bit.
I worried that it meant that churches like ours were ok with being loosey-goosey when it came to talking about Jesus, but by the book when it came to talking about money.
I worried that it said what actually mattered, and that the answer was not “Jesus.”
That’s not how I experience it now.
It is of course true that, in so many ways, a church is most fundamentally a people of God, and its ongoing life is expressed in relationships with one another and with God.
Yet in other ways, a church is also an institution, with an ongoing life that is expressed in resources that can and should be measured.
With that dual identity in mind, it would be incorrect to reduce the complexity of ministry, witness, or even our understanding of stewardship to a series of entries for income and expenses on a balance sheet.
But let’s not denigrate balance sheets or hold that money and assets are somehow beneath us as Christians to talk about.
There is no question that budgets are moral documents.
Read thoughtfully, budgets point to our commitments and to our diligence in keeping the promises this people of God has made over the course of its history.
And so we come to this morning’s Scripture, in which Jesus more or less refuses to take the path of institution-building when it seems so clearly to be beckoning.
He’s seized people’s attention with his preaching and his healings.
Mark tells us that “the whole city” is gathered at the door of the house in which Jesus is staying.
When Billy Graham used to lead a crusade in a particular place, he worked out very carefully ahead of time how the momentum of his visit would then carry people into a long-term relationship not just with Jesus, but also with particular churches in that place.
Jesus could have done that, too.
Or better yet, he might have stayed right there.
For example, he could have become the Great Healer of Capernaum.
Something like that had to occur to somebody.
All throughout the Greek world, there were temples to Asclepius, the God of Medicine – these were places of healing, often with lovely groves, and placed near springs thought to have healing properties.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard about Jesus’ visit to the synagogue, and how challenging it may have been to hear his preaching for all of them, not just the man with a demon who is the one who actually cries out.
They’d all been muttering as they listened to Jesus preaching.
But later that very same day, once the healings started – once the crowds came – I wonder if the fathers in the synagogue were prepared to forgive and forget whatever it was that had raised their eyebrows that morning.
It’s hard to argue with results.
And Jesus certainly has those.
Roll the tape back for a moment.
Right after Jesus gets back from the synagogue, where it’s everybody muttering and one guy screaming, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law.
We don’t know a lot about her.
Most of us think of the disciples as all male and all single, which a closer reading of Scripture complicates.
We also don’t think of them as crashing at someone’s house, much less someone’s mother-in-law’s house, much less Peter’s…but whatever.
There she is.
As I said, we don’t know a lot about her, but she must have been one of those people who gets up from being sick and gets right on the phone because—boom!—by sundown, every sick person and every possessed person in town is outside the door.
That alone gets people’s attention.
Look what happens when Jesus heals two people in the morning.
So what’s going to happen when now all these new people and their families and their friends start posting to Facebook?
If you look on the edge of the crowd, you’ll notice plenty of folks standing there, wondering that very thing.
The disciples are. The town fathers are.
You can’t argue with results.
People have been waiting a long time for something to change.
People have been trying to hold on to hope for ages now.
People are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
But now this has happened.
Jesus has appeared.
If you’re watching it, you have to be thinking “this guy is going to put Capernaum on the map.”
And if what came out of it was a nice little grove or a colonnaded spring where people could gather, well, you know, that’s o.k., too.
Baking stuff for Coffee Hour is going to be taking everybody all week.
You know, though, I don’t blame them for dreaming.
Those moments when God touches down are like that.
Those moments when a new breeze starts to blow are like that.
The Gospels tell us about many of those.
Next week is Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus goes up a mountain and uncloaks in all his glory before three of the disciples, and Peter says, “Lord, it is good that we are here. Let us build three dwellings: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter doesn’t want to stop at building one church – all of the sudden he wants to build three.
But Jesus resists that then, just as he resists in this earlier moment at Capernaum, when he might have launched Jesus, International, LLC, and somehow refuses.
It’s not that he doesn’t love churches or see the need for institutions.
It seems as if John the Baptist had no time for those.
However, for his part, Jesus goes into synagogues all the time, and eventually he goes into the Jerusalem Temple, of course.
If he thought nothing of value was happening in such places, it’s hard to see him bothering.
Even more than John the Baptist, Jesus didn’t need institutions to do his particular thing.
To review: he could stand in the doorway of his friend’s mother-in-law’s house, and the entire city would show up.
But where else is it, exactly, that people come together to talk about the wonderful things that God has done?
Where else is it that a person can sit in a pew on the day of her granddaughter’s wedding, and remember standing where her granddaughter is now standing, while her own grandmother, now long departed, looked on with a face full of love?
Where else is it that a family brings a newborn, and a roomful of strangers makes promises to live better lives so that they might serve as a better example and a more reliable friend to that child?
Where else is it that when we find ourselves broken by life, suffering loss, feeling the weight of everything, that an old hymn can spring from the organ, and two measures into it, we remember…oh right: God isn’t finished yet?
Somehow, even though (whew)…somehow, in God, there is a way forward.
Where else is it that we learn to stand for the dignity and worth of all people, to bless the goodness of all loving, and come to live with the discomfort and sacrifice this may ask of us?
Those things don’t just happen on their own.
They happen when and where Jesus appears and tells people – reminds people – that we are God’s people, and that a new breeze is set to blow.
It’s one thing to try to hold on to God.
But there’s no such thing as holding God down.
That’s why Jesus did not tarry in Capernaum.
That’s why, even though the people there were on fire for him literally overnight, he was on his way just after dawn.
Because God will not be held down.
The life of faith demands that we seek after God with open hearts all over again each morning.
If the house of God is ever to be more than a shrine to where God appeared once, long ago, we must watch in faith for the flame to be lit anew.
And we must go where it leads.
So in a little while, we will regather this morning to discuss God’s business here at the Second Congregational Church of Greenwich.
We go about it in ways that are different than our usual ways.
We try to describe the work of our church community at some of its most granular.
Our leaders will talk about when and where they see the Spirit moving, and the charge they believe this lays upon us now.
May we always prove open in our seeking and fearless in our following where God would have us go.
I once took a group of students on a community service trip to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.
It was an amazing experience.
The school where I was working put great stock in such trips as a way of getting students to imagine a world beyond the places where one could always hail a taxi if necessary, and although my world was probably larger than that, it wasn’t perhaps as large as I considered it to be.
Being in the Dominican Republic showed me that.
Just the list of required vaccinations was eye-opening.
Another was the awkwardness of being among Christians who believed very very immediately in the constant presence – the clear and present danger – of demons.
The orphanage was a faith-based place, and many of the other volunteers were there to do mission work.
My group was a school group, and mostly understood our being there in different terms.
Mostly, that was fine.
But at one point, one of my students was trying to make conversation with the daughter of another group leader.
“How old are you?” he asked pleasantly.
“Ten years old,” she said.
“So…I’m guessing you’re really into the Harry Potter books now,” he said.
“Oh no,” she said. “We don’t read those.”
“You don’t?” said my student.
“My father says they’re not allowed,” she said. “They’re about Satan and make jokes about demons.”
My poor student.
He could skateboard without a helmet through Times Square at night and live to tell the tale, but for something like this, he had nothing.
“Hey, Revvvv…” he called over desperately, thinking he had to fix this.
But he didn’t.
The child smiled and happily wandered off to go refill her lemonade.
Speaking about Satan and demons – or with a faith-based lens upon the world – was not awkward or embarrassing for her.
That wasn’t a faux pas in her world. Only in ours.
Now let me say that it seems needlessly impoverishing of the imagination to deprive a child of Harry Potter. To me, they’re actually some of the most acutely moral books around.
But even if they weren’t, I also believe that God can handle a whole lot of things that make the culture warriors start tut-tutting.
There was plenty of tut-tutting about the things that Jesus said or did.
You’d think that would make us more self-conscious about finger wagging as Christians.
It doesn’t seem as if it has.
But more to the point, it never ceases to amaze me how eagerly we try to make certain things unspeakable among us.
If only banishing our demons were that simple.
Silence is the thing that gives them life.
This morning’s story from Mark’s Gospel is the first of four early healings that Jesus effects throughout Galilee as his movement takes shape.
They solidify his reputation – actually, in ways that he does not want at this stage.
He seems to be profoundly aware of beginning his ministry under the shadow of John the Baptist’s arrest.
This message of repentance and new life, of renewed hope in the possibility of a better world has powerful enemies at that time.
Nevertheless, the healings happen.
In this morning’s story, they begin because the demons can see what the average human eye cannot—that God is present in this man and in these words he says in the synagogue at Capernaum.
The demon is the only one who really gets it.
Capernaum was a small city as opposed to a village, like Nazareth, and the synagogue folks were probably in their way a bit like folks that we might know – fairly steady in their habits, fairly conventional in their dress, fairly aware of who the movers and shakers among them were and inclined to treat them with proper form.
Maybe when someone finally retired in Capernaum, he stopped wearing a tie when he showed up for services, but believe me, in Capernaum, after the Prelude started nobody in that room was secretly checking their phone.
That wouldn’t fly there.
So on this day when the guest lecturer comes in, and along with him a different breed of cat arrives, I’m sure they smiled and handed out nametags, even as they noticed the workboots and the heavily tanned faces and the wind-chapped lips.
Like it or not, company’s coming, so they’ve got their best smilers at the door to say good morning, and maybe at some point one of them turns to the other and said, “Well…coffee hour’s going to be…interesting.”
But apparently it gets interesting way before that.
Now, once the service starts, it’s the man with the demon who cries out, of course, but Mark is clear that he’s not the only one who’s been unsettled by what Jesus has said – and by whom it suggests Jesus is.
We don’t know how far into the service they get, but however far it is, it’s abundantly clear that in addition to what Jesus says, he just sounds different.
He carries himself differently than what they’re all used to.
There’s an authority to this man who shows up with all these odd other folks.
They knew about Nazareth, where he’d said he was from. They’d looked at it, but you know, the schools.
So when he speaks to them with authority…when he owns that pulpit like it’s his house, not theirs, they don’t really know what to make of it.
And so when the man with the demon cries out, saying “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”, I bet at first the people of Capernaum didn’t hear a demon talking.
Not at all.
I think they looked at each other horrified for a moment that somehow they were the person who’d just come and said that right out loud in front of God and everybody.
If you ask me, plenty of the people had been sitting there, asking themselves the same questions, more or less.
“What is this?”
“Where’s he going with this?”
“If I did as he says, what on earth would happen then?”
In a funny way, that demon has done them a great service.
That demon is willing to say things out loud that respectability would not dare to so much as whisper.
Because Jesus is pushing them.
Jesus does that.
He pushes them, and he pushes us to ask ourselves questions that we’d rather not ask, and he helps us see things that quite often we would rather not see.
There’s a reason that so much of his healing seems focused on blindness and unspecified disease: we are so often blind until, in him, we see; we are so often sick in our soul in ways that just show up in our lives like lumps that we’re very certain weren’t there yesterday.
Jesus knows that if we’re going to banish our demons, to be healed in the way he wants to heal us, we need to able to name them—especially to ourselves.
Along those lines, so often a demon isn’t an agent of evil so much as it’s our way of denying a truth we have not learned to live with.
Maybe it’s stifling it…hiding it…denying it…that makes its power destructive.
In that sense, a devil with horns and a pitchfork or a witch with a hat and a broom are paltry expressions of true darkness.
Whom did Harry Potter ever turn astray?
There’s a lot darker than that, out there.
But closer to home, a lot of times, we don’t really want the truth to set us free. We want it to go away…to go disrupt some other poor soul.
That’s not good for anyone.
Even in lives that are relatively blessed, indulging in things that aren’t good for us, working at things that don’t matter to us, surrounding ourselves with people who don’t care about us, chasing after dreams that cannot possibly fulfill us – these are dark paths to be led down.
People we know and love are doing these very things all the time.
We are doing them all the time.
The part of us that would rebel against all that might well be the voice of reason.
Because that’s the thing about what we might try to call a demon.
It isn’t always evil. And it isn’t always wrong. (ed–Yes, I know that’s from a Billy Joel song.)
This morning, we get the sense that Jesus was pushing the people of Capernaum.
It’s not because being pushy was his thing.
It’s because the love of God pushes out things that aren’t true, and things that aren’t good, and things that don’t stand on the side of abundant life in the Spirit to which God calls us in Jesus.
God puts up with an awful lot from us as we try to get it together.
But God knows, and Scripture affirms, that a life that is serious about God has no patience for false gods and the things that don’t matter.
And as we live into that, there are some things that start to come loose.
It’s always interesting to see what starts flying around when a new breeze begins to blow.
If we did as he says, what on earth would happen then?
I spent much of Wednesday morning watching t.v. again, as I suspect many people did.
The inauguration was very moving to me – particularly so because there were so many ways in which religious faith was part of its texture.
For me, that hit an important note.
There were other notes, too.
Amanda Gorman—the poet at the end.
Senator Roy Blount’s remarks as one of the heads of the Joint Inaugural Committee I found to be especially gracious.
But the hands down winner of the nation’s attention turned out to be Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont – a person who had no speaking role of any kind.
You may need to be active on the Internet in order to appreciate it fully, but on the offhand chance that you are not, there was a photograph of Bernie Sanders at the inauguration that has launched 100,000 memes.
On this day with so many layers and emotions and familiar faces gathered together, Bernie is sitting there, legs crossed, wearing his enormous puffy brown coat and some hand knit mittens and, of course, his mask, and yet still somehow conveying the exact look in his eyes that my Dad gets whenever my mom says she wants to duck into TJ Maxx.
It has that same “o.k., fine, let’s just get through this” sort of quality that so many unrecorded human moments do.
If you have not seen the picture, what you need to know is that over the next 72 hours, it began to appear everywhere.
Here’s Bernie at your daughter’s dance recital.
Here’s Bernie waiting for his number to be called at Zabar’s.
Here’s Bernie sitting with FDR, Churchill and Stalin at the Yalta Conference.
We even added Bernie and the mittens to a few pictures of life here at 2CC. Those are on the church Facebook page, if you’re interested.
Now, the way these things go, I’m sure the craze will not last long.
Probably in another few hours, someone will decide that the joke is over, and it will become actually uncool to be keeping it going.
But I’m interested that it took off at all.
I’m interested that this is what so many people did in response to a day with so much emotion – so much history.
I can’t help but wonder if future generations will even notice that the Internet was just awash in these photoshopped images of Bernie Sanders, his wonderful gloves, and his wonderfully grouchy eyes.
After all, at the same occasion, Lady Gaga sang the National Anthem, and when she sang the line “that our flag was still there,” she pointed to the flag flying over the Capitol itself….
The symbolism of that is hard to miss.
But I wonder if somehow, deep down, what is speaking to us now is an image of life at its most gloriously ordinary.
There’s a story about another Vermonter, Vice-President Calvin Coolidge, who was back home helping his father during hay season on their small family farm when he received word that President Harding had died.
It turns out that Coolidge’s father was also a federal judge, and the story circulated for years that Coolidge took the oath of office standing in the barn with his mucking boots on.
That isn’t actually true, and yet, again, people loved the story.
They loved how gloriously ordinary it somehow was — how “on brand” it was for the no-nonsense Coolidge, just like all these recent images of the rumpled and irascible Sanders were on brand for him.
They remind us that somehow, humanity in all its idiosyncrasy, has a way of enduring.
Those little foibles that make us who we are just seem to cut through all the other noise and static.
They interrupt the dull scriptedness of so many momentous occasions, reminding us who we are – daring us to pretend that we are otherwise – even pushing us to embrace it.
They show us that life would be better if it involved less pretending.
Certainly, Jesus seemed to think so.
When his public ministry began, and he started talking about God and what it was to find a place in God’s kingdom, things seemed to take off pretty quickly.
It wasn’t long before he began to draw listeners, even crowds.
In Mark’s Gospel, it isn’t the pyrotechnical stuff that gets things started – there are no initial healings or exorcisms that bring a little street theater into the picture.
There are just words…just this one sentence he says, in what is a four-point sermon all by itself.
He says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news” (v. 15).
It’s not unlike what John the Baptist had been saying, and there’s no question that Jesus is picking up the mantle of that proclamation in some ways.
Mark tells us that Jesus starts his career after John has been arrested.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus would have a tendency to get under a lot of people’s skin.
They both made a lot of people remarkably uncomfortable, especially people in high places.
I’ve always felt that John the Baptist seemed to enjoy that more than Jesus did.
It seems to me that John was almost daring people to come and admit that they were sinners in need of a new start.
The higher up you were, the harder that was to do, and John was not prepared to soften that for you.
Jesus seems to extend his hand a little more.
Jesus calls us out of the boat to walk with him, where John sees us by the bank and wonders if we have the guts to jump in.
But neither one of them has much time for pretense or showy expression of status.
Who we are inside is what matters to them. How we act out of our hearts is what gets their attention.
Our humanity wasn’t something they wanted less of. They wanted more of it.
They wanted a world where there was more space for everyone’s humanity to come into its own, which is what Scripture tells us God wanted for us when we were created and placed in the Garden of Eden.
Their ministries were about saying that there was still a way to build a world that worked like that.
The way to the Garden might be foreclosed, but the vision of it – all that it stood for – was not gone forever – at least, it didn’t have to be.
Our humanity was and is a glorious gift that we must not mistakenly squander.
It’s strange to put it this way, but our humanity was far too holy – far too sacred – to treat that way.
That’s what they understood.
Sometimes, the Church has seemed to suggest that being human was something from which people need to recover.
That’s not what Scripture teaches. That’s not what Jesus shows us.
They both saw something nobler in us—something nobler than we might well see in ourselves.
The work of the Church is to offer the world its own chance catch sight of some of what God sees when God looks into our hearts.
When that happens, that’s when the Kingdom of God is at hand.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see that as Jesus begins to call his disciples to join that work.
He sees something in them that nobody else seems to have seen.
He recognizes the difference they might make, and the depth of their hearts.
Heaven knows they were far from perfect.
That doesn’t bother him in the slightest.
The point is that he sees more than the world typically sees, and he invites them to do the same.
And the journey begins.
Into the dull scriptedness of a fallen world, Jesus invites them to step out of their boats and live as people who could hold their heads high.
How gloriously ordinary they all were – and how glorious the ordinary world would appear as some of their hope, their faith, and their love began to shake things up.
The world has changed a lot since then, of course.
But that part hasn’t.
Hope, faith, and love still have the power to make our lives glorious.
The Church sometimes gets in its own way—sometimes it seems to side with the Pharisees of its age—but it always comes back to these central truths about our hearts.
It always finds its way again, hearing Jesus call us to come out of our boats and follow, to lay hold of our own capacity for good as we come to see ourselves and our neighbors as God sees us.
That always makes a difference.
It’s especially important to remember that now.
But it’s also especially important to acknowledge how hard we will have to work for it.
Shutting down a Twitter account or changing administrations can’t shut down divisiveness.
They can’t repair what the oldest fears of some of us and ugliest history of all of us have seen fit to keep breaking long before now.
What got us here required the collusion of all parties and almost every institution all along the way.
That history hasn’t changed. This is all our work.
Remember: even the Devil knows how to lie low and wait for what Scripture calls “an opportune time.”
He has before. To pretend otherwise is silly.
Loving one another right now…holding one another accountable right now…finding ways to build trust with one another right now…challenging those we consider our friends to do better, as well as those we don’t…this will not be for the faint of heart.
It is an opportune time.
As the worst in us takes a moment to regroup, as it takes a breath to wait and see, it is an opportune time.
An opportune time for what’s best in us.
It’s an opportune to claim who the Gospel tells us that we are.
It’s the moment to get out there and do this work that we know needs to be done so desperately.
“The time is fulfilled,” Jesus says, “…the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news”
Anything else is just pretending…another show.
There is no script for where we’re going.
God has no use for scripts like that.
All along, God has been telling us that there is more to us than falling back on those.
We know what it is to hunger for something so much more real. Authentic. Personal.
It delights us when we see it even for a moment.
That should tell us something.
It shouldn’t matter that getting there is going to be hard.
What matters is remembering what Jesus shows us—that this is what new life is.
This is the life that God knows it is in each of us to live, in all its glorious idiosyncrasy – with room enough for all good people.
It’s a tall order, yes.
But in our willingness to be nothing less than human…in our willingness to see nothing less than the humanity in one another…in our willingness to love and learn and serve and to move forward from this place, God is at work.
Yes, God is at work…and grace is nothing less than grace, glory is nothing less than glory, and once again, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
In the summer of 1984 as I was preparing to enter 9th grade, it was an Olympic year and an election year, and I had better luck with rooting for my preferred Olympic team than I did with speaking up for my preferred presidential candidate.
Looking back on it, I don’t remember talking politics with anyone but my grandmother that summer, and we agreed, so there wasn’t that much to say.
But I must have.
And I must have done it awkwardly, because while I don’t remember saying anything, I remember very clearly some of the response I received.
I was sleeping over at a friend’s house, and when I rolled up on my ten speed just before dinner, my friend’s dad motioned me into the living room.
“I want to talk to you,” he said.
His face was concerned. Sad. Not the face of a dad when you were in trouble for something, but the face of someone sharing bad news.
“I understand you’ve been talking about the election,” he said.
“I hope you realize how important it is.”
He nodded back.
“I really think you should take the time to do a little more research,” he continued. “I thought this might help.”
And he handed me a campaign pamphlet for the other person, which I guess he’d gotten somewhere.
I could feel the hot prickle of my face getting red.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I don’t remember saying anything else political to anyone after that, but I must have.
A few days later, I went back to my bike after spending the day at the beach with my friends, and it was covered with bumper stickers for the candidate I was not supporting.
That’s not so bad, I know.
It was just a prank, and a pretty harmless one at that, done by people whose concern for me was real enough.
But it was hard not to feel that something deeper was at stake than my opinion about an election in which I was not even eligible to vote.
On some level, I felt like I was being given a very quiet kind of warning—not that anything was going to “happen” to me—but somewhere in it there was, nevertheless, a caution (however quiet) that somehow, I was beginning to suggest that I might not entirely belong.
That I might not be one of them.
And I came to see the world a little differently because of that.
I began to wonder about my place – what it meant to have one.
For that matter, I began to recognize that some places were safe ones in which to disagree, but others were not.
And I began to notice who was allowed to talk and who wasn’t, and how that worked.
I got that it was my place to receive pamphlets but not to give them.
I got that I could take the bumper stickers off my bike but not alter or deface them, not use them to mock or poke fun or signal disrespect, even though it was my bike and I was not the one who had not put those stickers there in the first place.
I suspect that if I had and something else had happened, it would have been scored as my fault for escalating the whole thing.
I am certain that if I’d complained, I would have been told that I couldn’t take a joke.
This is how bullies work. How points get made – at first.
In any case, for the rest of the summer, they won my silence.
Now I know that when it comes to disagreement and the consequences of speaking out of turn, my own experience in the summer of 1984 is the smallest of sips from a cup that many have drunk from deeply.
There are so many in our country’s past and present who have not had the luxury of choosing whether to drink from that particular cup.
All too often in our nation’s history, it has been considered somewhat of an affront for many of us simply to be in the bodies God gave us, much less to speak up about things like our rights or needs or dreams.
All too often, that’s been dangerous to do—in fact, lethal—as we remember so vividly on this weekend, when we particularly remember Martin Luther King, who did just that.
It wasn’t necessarily obvious that he would.
The weight of moral obligation that he felt might have found expression in any number of important ways.
It wasn’t obvious that Jesus would feel it, either.
These were choices. Decisions.
Actually, I’m not sure either one always felt up to what was being asked of him.
In fact, I’m quite sure that there were times when even Jesus did not.
“Lord, if it is thy will, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus says in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The sound of the marching soldiers coming to arrest him is already growing louder.
He is not up to where he knows events will take him now.
It’s a dark moment.
He had been up to the challenge of so much.
Jesus was so brave so much of the time – so able to name where he was coming from, and to name how he saw things.
He was so eager to engage in the rough and tumble disagreement of a vibrant faith and find the light on the other side.
We see him doing just that so often throughout his ministry.
He’s so brave.
Or rather, he is until he’s there in the Garden of Gethsemane, when for a moment, he isn’t.
It’s strange to wonder if maybe was harder for him, harder on him personally, than it had ever looked, than he had ever let on.
They ran him out of his own boyhood temple back home – his own neighbors nearly threw him off a cliff.
Later, he’d been preaching a powerful sermon, a scorcher, to one of his very first crowds, and his mother and brothers show up because he is embarrassing them, embarrassing himself, and they’ve come to take him home.
So maybe Jesus, for his part, knew a thing or two about a beloved elder taking you aside for a thoughtful chat, or being left beet red with embarrassment, suddenly unsure of what you were supposed to say, much less what needed to be said.
Most of the time, he plows through, anyway.
Until the Garden.
Until the moment when he wishes that the cup might pass, after all.
But here’s the thing about that cup: it doesn’t pass.
It doesn’t pass for Jesus.
It doesn’t pass for Martin Luther King.
It doesn’t pass for our beloved country.
And it doesn’t pass for us.
I do not mean the cup of death.
I mean the cup of witness to a greater truth — God’s truth – the cup for which God has trampled out the vintage, as the old hymn says.
The moral leaders of our nation and our risen Lord, himself remind us that getting there is costly.
Where it cannot find assent, it seeks to enforce silence.
Where procedure serves it, all well and good, but where not, not.
It sees violence and fear as tools for getting the job done.
It lifts up people who find a perverse joy and purpose in being its perpetrators, rewarding their commitment to its cause…for as long as that remains expedient, when even they are cast aside.
This week, I was particularly struck by a photo of a man charging the Capitol police as the crowd first stormed and overwhelmed the barricades, which he did while carrying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag.
And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a parable.”
For all its posturing, all its slogans and rallying cries, the only cause injustice has is itself.
“Don’t Tread on Me” – don’t make me laugh.
Because what is it that injustice isn’t prepared to tread on?
We’ve seen this so many times before.
But that’s not how truth works, is it?
That’s not how hope works.
That’s not what builds a future.
Time and time again, God shows us that we grow and find renewal in our capacity to listen for new voices, to make space for their needs and their dreams, to discern new claims upon us.
What lifts us is our willingness to learn from our prophets, to harness the energy of new insights – to take a fresh look.
At the heart of loving our neighbor is the recognition that we share a common destiny.
Loving our neighbor starts with recognizing that we both have a right to be here, and that we have certain claims on one another.
Because we need each other. We need each other to find our way forward — to find our way to God and to anywhere else worth going.
It is not obvious, and it is not easy.
So much of the ground seems like it’s forever shifting beneath our feet.
It asks so much of us.
No wonder we hope that the cup will pass from us, as even Jesus hoped it might.
But Lord, it is holy work.
Those moments when you feel like you have come around the corner or out of the long, dark tunnel, and what you see before you is a new, undreamed of vista, you know…you don’t even need the voice to tell you to take off your shoes…because you know that where you’ve found your footing is holy ground.
Because you’ve lived a little more fully into being God’s people.
You’ve made some of God’s goodness more visible.
The light shines that much brighter.
Sadly, this is what so many in the crowd outside the Capitol seem to have lost.
I’ve lived in the mildest version of that world.
Let’s not rewind that old movie.
Even then, it wasn’t a world entirely worth having.
It certainly isn’t now.
We’ve been called to much higher and holier work.
The work of this moment.
The work that flows from being the people we now recognize ourselves to be, thank God.
The work of faith and of democracy both get harder as we strive to make them more perfect.
This is the cup from which we must drink – not a cup of death, but a cup of witness to God’s truth.
A cup of life.
We have that choice.
Humbling as it is, we get to say what that means now.
If we don’t, our silence will say it for us.
May God grant us the strength to keep working for a better tomorrow, hand in hand. Amen.
About two weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, I was invited to Washington, DC for a working session with a mostly Evangelical Christian NGO that works, among many other things, on improving conditions in refugee camps around the world.
I had just been in Washington, actually.
Liz and I had gone down for the Women’s March on the Saturday after the Inauguration, which I remember as one of the most moving and hopeful experiences I’ve ever had.
It had been an unusually warm day, particularly so for late January.
The streets around the Capitol and the Mall had been full – so much so that it took us literally the entire day just to get to Washington Monument, which is where the March was supposed to start.
We got there and had to turn right around so we could get back to our bus.
But we didn’t feel as if we had missed anything.
We didn’t because we had come to bear witness to our values, and that is what we did.
It was a really powerful day.
As it happens, two weeks later, I was back in Washington.
And it was then that they told us that after some coaching, we would be going to Congress, and meeting with members in their offices, and trying to speak up for foreign aid in the 2017 Federal budget.
Some of you have done things like that.
I never had.
Actually, it was my first time actually going to the Capitol building, and I was going with another pastor, from a megachurch in Savannah, to call on his Senator, David Purdue.
It turns out that they knew each other—because, of course, they did.
It was not unrealistic to imagine that back in Savannah, that pastor might have had a framed picture on his office wall of him shaking hands with the Senator after a Sunday service.
But after a short time of pleasantries, Senator Purdue said, “Look, I’m going to bring in Sarah from my office on this. Fill her in on what you’ve told me, and she can take it from there.”
I thought it was a brush off.
Sarah was his Legislative Director, and it did not take long to see why the Senator, for all his genuine delight at seeing his friend the pastor, had directed us to her.
She was phenomenally knowledgeable.
In a few minutes, she asked deep and probing questions that a full day of working with experts had not entirely prepped us for.
Moreover, she wanted to hear from everyone, even the short pastor in the bowtie from Connecticut who didn’t know anyone and mostly was just happy to be there.
It was amazing. She was amazing.
For us, this was quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
For her, it was ten minutes on a Tuesday.
I suspect that if we’d spoken for any length of time, she and I would have found plenty to disagree about.
Nevertheless, I left that meeting deeply grateful to know that the work of democracy, people’s business – my business – was in such capable hands.
It was late afternoon as we headed back to our bus.
Behind us, the Capitol dome was lit, and for the second time in about as many weeks, I felt this deep sense that here in Washington, I had been a part of something—that I had made my voice heard, that I had come to bear witness to my values—and that, while it was only one voice, and only one among many, it mattered.
I also left with the sense that the people working in the building understood what it meant to stand up for something you thought was important, and to come talk to them about it.
That’s what the Capitol represents to me.
Whether you are liberal, conservative or something in-between, our Capitol is the place where, at its best, the hopes and needs of a nation come to be received. Heard. Named.
In the years since then, I’ve thought of that a lot.
I think about it whenever Kevin Longino of our church mentions he has to go down to Washington on behalf of kidney donation or funding for research into kidney disease.
I thought about it when Gordon Hartogensis of our church was being confirmed by the Senate for his role at the PGBC, which guarantees pensions, including, as it happens, the pensions of some of our church members.
It has heartened me to know that these good and dutiful people I know are being received – heard – by other good and dutiful people.
That’s how it should be.
And of course, I thought about that on Wednesday afternoon.
Watching CNN on my laptop here at the church, I was afraid of the violence and the chaotic unspooling of the crowd.
But what was more heartbreaking to me was their sheer glee, the utter delight they were taking in trashing this place that, to me, represents so much of what is best in us.
Since then, we’ve seen indications that their intent may have been even more serious.
I’m sure we will hear more about that in the coming weeks.
There are many who wonder how it could have happened—how the police could have been so woefully unprepared.
Some have wondered if those guarding the Capitol were not, in some cases, actually sympathetic to the crowd.
I’m sure we’ll hear a lot about that in the coming weeks, too.
On Wednesday night, our Congressman, Jim Himes, said that he’s been working in the building for over ten years, and he’d always assumed that, if it came down to it, there had to be some sort of button somewhere that could lock down everything in an instant.
Turns out, there isn’t.
What does it say about us that now there probably will be?
I am afraid that still more might be yet to come.
My understanding is that chatter on some platforms has called for an aggressive presence at the coming inauguration.
For myself, I am deeply grateful that what we have already seen was not far worse—that there was not some sort of colossal response that birthed a generation of home-grown self-styled martyrs.
You may also have seen the altered campaign signs in the crowd outside the Capitol building, reading “Jesus 2020.”
You could take that in any number of ways, I guess, but no matter how you slice it, they were, collectively, as clear a sign as any that there were Christians, and loud and proud ones, too, who were right there, taking it all in.
I truly don’t know what to make of that.
In any case, the point is this: the crowd outside the Capitol on Wednesday came to bear witness to their values, and that is what they did.
These are not the values that have made our nation great.
Might does not make right.
Extremism in defense of liberty breeds extremism, not liberty.
And the power of our ideals to lead not only our nation, but the world to a more excellent way is only as strong as our virtue as a people.
I don’t know where in America people were cheering as they watched.
But I bet I can name the places around the globe where they were.
And believe me, they were.
We sometimes forget that the world is watching. We must not.
It is clear that those who came before us did not.
If you go back and actually read the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous words about our nation as a “city on a hill,” which I encourage you to do, you’ll see that part is abundantly clear.
These words, some of the most famous words to come from the Congregational tradition, our church’s tradition, are especially important for us now.
Because Winthrop’s point was not only that, at our best, we would be a beacon to the world.
There was more to it than just that part.
Winthrop was also anxious to caution his community that our worst would now be in plain view, as well—that, like it or not, our sins would be a scarlet letter which we wore before the world.
The hypocrisy of our leaders, the emptiness of our promises, the wickedness of our impulses would condemn us.
It always has. Not just on Wednesday.
But that is what we take on when we choose the challenge of life in a democracy, and even more dangerously, when we take upon us the yoke of Christ.
Because the yoke of Christ is not some sort of get out of jail free card.
The yoke of Christ is not VIP access to an eternity without consequences.
If all salvation means to you is Heaven on the other side of death, and permission to walk tall now with all of God’s blessings yours to use as you see fit, well, friend, you have not truly been convicted by the fiery love of Christ.
When Christ commands us to be peacemakers and justice-seekers and healers, this is not a suggestion.
Christ is not hinting that our movement would probably benefit from having some of those.
Christ is telling us about the world he expects us to build. The direction our institutions are to go.
And each of us is a part of that work.
Each of us is called to put our shoulder to the wheel in service to the kingdom and its king.
That is what it is to be a Christian.
We have taken up residence in a city on a hill.
Not as occupiers.
Not as self-styled defenders, which is a mantle easily claimed and rarely kept.
We come as those who bear witness to a light that is greater than any of us.
It’s a light that can only humble our own plans, pretensions, and needs.
That light always calls us far beyond ourselves to new frontiers and new commitments and new voices.
To come to the Capitol to speak your mind, to bear witness to your values and to our God, is surely Christian.
But destruction, violence, fear and delight in the face of chaos are not.
Mobs are not the ones who bring freedom.
They’re the ones who work with Pilate.
They chose Barabbas.
They choose Barabbas every time.
So this morning, I am praying for justice.
I’m praying for accountability, which is the only way for genuine healing to be possible.
I am praying for peace.
I am praying that hope will flood the streets of the city on a hill once again.
I haven’t forgotten that it has so many times before, making us better than we were.
I haven’t forgotten how hope equips us to rise to the moment.
I haven’t forgotten how hope is always what finally shows us the way.
Change is gonna come.
It is the voice of sin that calls on us to try stopping the waters God is stirring.
It is the voice of the Gospel that tells us to greet them with joy.