I know what you’re probably thinking. Pastor Jeff’s pulled the old bait-and-switch on us again. It’s the season of Advent and we’re supposed to be journeying toward the manger, where our hearts can be at peace, and where there’s a sweet little miracle baby waiting to cuddle and save us. “This way to Bethlehem! Follow me!” says Pastor Jeff, and then we turn a corner and BAM! There’s this hairy, scary wild man coming at us like a junkyard dog, barking about sin and repentance. You know I think he called me a snake? And to top it all off, it looks like he’s grabbing people and drowning them in Jordan! Can this really be the way “home to the manger?” Can John and all his judgment really get us to Jesus?
It is strange, but I’m not trying to trick you. In fact, all four gospel writers agree that to get Jesus you’ve got to go through John. And every year, the lectionary brings us John the Baptist on the second Sunday of Advent. Yes, I’ll admit, he is definitely intimidating and intense, but John meets us here at the beginning for a reason.
John is frightening at first blush. But look closer and you see he’s not a dog off its leash. He’s not chasing after you or trying to scare you off. In fact, he goes as far away from other people as he can get—way out in the wilderness! And the people come to him! Now, why would they do that? Why would they hear his hash words as an invitation?
I don’t think of these people, who made the long trek out to see John the Baptist, as gluttons for punishment. I think they were just the people who more than anything else wanted to live a new kind of life. We’ve all felt something like that at some time in our lives. And these people were the people who had to do something about it. They needed to respond. And they understood that progress requires risk, that a better future requires the transformation of the past, and that transformation requires repentance. These were the people who needed grace, and they knew it. And they knew that a life stuck in guilt, and shame, and all those voices in your head telling you that you’ll never be good enough is a life that has not yet met forgiveness, and true pardon can only ever be found on the other side of repentance.
Yeah, John is a bit judgy. I’ll give you that. But those who know they need grace are those who have already met the harshest judgment of all—the judgment we lay on ourselves and the judgement that we lay on others, a judgment that rarely lets go of us, a judgment so small and so mean that it doesn’t have the strength to ever achieve forgiveness. And with nowhere to go, that judgment festers in us. It metastasizes into despair and all the unhealthy behaviors that we invent to deal with despair—blaming, yelling, hitting, gambling, cutting, binging, purging, hurting, drinking, drugging, buying, bragging, using.
And so John set up shop by the Jordan not to convince us that we’re sinners or to make us feel bad, but to convince us that we can be forgiven, and to prepare the way for the one who would build a Church out of the most imperfect characters you’ve ever met. Take a look around.
Some years ago, I had a congregant—let’s call him “Will.” Will was a public-school teacher and an addict in recovery who had been working through the 12 steps for a few years. And Will came to me one day and said this: “When I was using Meth, there were some days that I went into work to teach dangerously exhausted from not sleeping, and sometimes I even went in while I was still high. I’m finally ready for the 9th step. I’m making amends to everybody I’ve harmed by using. And so at the end of the day on Friday I’ve got an appointment to meet with my boss. I’m going to tell her that I’m in recovery, that I was addicted to meth, that I came in to teach high, that I did a poor job of teaching, that I put students at risk, and that I lied to her about it.
“Some of my friends and family, and my union rep, are telling me that this will be the biggest mistake of my life. But I can’t believe that. The biggest mistake of my life was using and lying to everyone about it—even to myself, and to God. This is the only way forward for me in my recovery journey. And I don’t know if they’re going to fire me, arrest me, or what they’re going to do. But I’m going into work on Friday to finally tell the truth and to hold myself accountable. Pastor Jeff, will you please pray for me?”
Woah! Just retelling the story, gets my adrenaline going again. What a crucible! What a test to put yourself through, right? Now, this story could cause some confusion because most of us do not have a healthy relationship to the concept or to the practice of repentance. So, I need to say right from the get-go that the point of this story is not that if you’re really doing repentance right it should feel terrible and, whenever you do it, it should threaten to blow up your whole life. That’s not what Will’s story is about.
What I learned from Will about repentance, and what this story is about, is that one of the reasons that Will started using Meth and became an addict in the first place was because he felt like he was a no-good, worthless person. This was before repentance. What repentance showed him was that he was a regular person who had made some terrible mistakes. The problem wasn’t Will, it was the mistakes Will made. And so to escape despair, and to secure a future in which Will was sure of his own inherent goodness and worthiness, he had to deal with his mistakes. And for Will, complete repentance, full honesty, and making amends meant finally being able to leave those mistakes behind him. So for Will, repentance was no longer something to be feared, but something worth a tremendous risk.
Now most of us, who have not undertaken the spiritual journey of the 12 steps, we’re not interested in repentance because we think that we can escape the past by ignoring it or hiding it or burying it. But that is the path to despair, and shame, and guilt, and all kinds of unhealthy behaviors that the unforgiven engage in to dull the pain of being stuck in the past.
But Will showed me that repentance is like spiritual chemotherapy—intimidating, intense, certainly not without risks, but for those fighting for their lives against the disease of guilt, or for those looking to experience the grace of forgiveness and a future freed from the shackles of the past, repentance is powerful medicine.
So, repentance is not realizing that you’re a “bad” person in order to become a more miserable person. Forget that! And this is like the big, big, hoping-to-blow-your-mind shift in thinking here: Repentance, when you do it right, is not all about you—the totally depraved sinner, the hopeless addict, the worthless screwup. Repentance means taking a step away from the judgmental story that I’m telling about myself and taking a step towards the story that God is telling about me. The character of repentance is not shaped by how bad you are. It is shaped by how good God is!
I know you all want to know what happened to Will. He didn’t get arrested and he didn’t get fired. A happy ending. And do you want to know what happened to John the Baptist? After all those years of sacrifice and scarcity out in the wilderness, after all those years of shouting and judging, after all those years of working to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord? One day, Jesus showed up, and turned his whole life upside down—with grace. One day Jesus showed up with a grace so good, it even surprised John. May Jesus show up and surprise you too on your journey to Christmas.
When I was in my twenties, I read Moby-Dick over and over again. It’s an American classic, it’s a work of genius, it’s about high adventure on the high seas—what’s not to love? And I really identified with the narrator, Ishmael—a Biblical name, one that suggests exile and conflict. As the book opens Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
That’s what I felt like, I guess—like some of the shine had come off my life, like some of the optimism and big dreams of my college days had rubbed off. And along with it—and this is harder to detect sometimes—but my curiosity about the world, my sense of wonder and awe and adventure in everyday experiences was missing, my sense of connection to myself—my deepest self: my meaning, my calling, my purpose—had faded. Have you ever felt like that? Like Ishmael? Like me? I think most of have experienced, or will, what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.”
So, here we are, on the first day of Advent. And, in fact, the days are getting shorter, and it is a damp, drizzly November. And maybe you feel that. Maybe you feel nature being reflected within you, trying to set the mood for you to be called to begin a journey of your own. But in the world around us, in the secular world—the world of cultural and market forces which do not want you to slow down, do not want you to take account of your life or re-evaluate what truly fulfills you—in that world, no journey is necessary, don’t put yourself out, it’s already Christmas. The decorations are up, the carols are on the radio, the lights are out, the ads are playing, the gifts are in transit. Holly Jolly! The secular world is willing to give you Christmas without any effort, any discomfort, any journey of any kind.
But for us, in church, it’s not Christmas yet. Advent is the journey to Christmas. It’s meant to be a transformative journey. And so there’s this noticeable juxtaposition of tone in the world outside the church walls and the service within the church walls: We’re always a little shocked on the first Sunday of Advent, when the Gospel reading doesn’t sound the least bit Christmasy—it sounds like an apocalypse.
You heard it: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” And don’t forget to add (like Ishmael) that we’ll be grim about the mouth, depressed, loafing around funeral parlors, and brawling in the streets.
The Christian notion of the Second Coming is two-fold: It will be both cosmic in scale and personal in scale. It will happen both at the end of time and anytime you “stand and raise up your head” looking for something greater than yourself to save you from yourself. We take Jesus’ words seriously when he said that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Because he was right. It was true for Jesus’ generation. And it’s true for every generation. That day “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.” None of us escape the dark night of the soul. And none of us can escape the absolute necessity of wrestling with it and responding to it.
That’s why the first twenty or so chapters of Moby-Dick are really an Advent story. We begin in the damp, drizzly November of Ishmael’s soul and conclude with him sailing out of Nantucket on Christmas Day. But there’s also a warning built into Moby-Dick. Ishmael joins a ship with a maniacal, one-legged captain, Ahab, who’s only purpose and meaning in life are focused on killing the whale who ate his missing leg. And he’ll sacrifice anything and anyone for his revenge. Uh-oh! Wrong boat!
That’s why this apocalyptic language is so appropriate to the Advent season. It’s the same kind of warning: When you begin an Advent journey, you need to pick your target carefully. Be on your guard! Be alert at all times! Or will you just drift and allow the currents of the world or the currents of your own petty desires to carry you where they will? This is what Ishmael was referring to as “the strong moral principle” that keeps him from assaulting his neighbors in the street. Before you pick up your AR-15 and head out onto the streets to “protect your community,” before you pick up that brick and throw it through the window of that business, ask yourself: Am I doing this to choose life? Am I doing this to choose life? You better be sure you know what you’re truly choosing, you better be sure to know who’s captaining the ship. The worst thing we can do is to just not think about the choice. Because when we don’t intentionally choose life, death may make our decisions for us. When we don’t choose de-escalation, the one-legged maniac may make take over our boat. Because when we do not actively choose life, our connection to our world, to other lives, and to our own life fades. It’s no mistake that in Advent we are headed for the birth of a baby—the birth of a new life, the birth of a bodily healer and a soul Savior. Advent wants you to choose life!
But life isn’t always easy, is it? I’ve met a lot of parents who have confessed to me that all the busyness and traditions of the holidays—the tree, the decorations, the lights, the presents, and (of course) Santa Claus—they’re only doing it for their kids. If it wasn’t for their kids, they’d drop the whole charade. I think it’s wonderful to do things especially for the kids around the holidays. I have wonderful childhood memories of Christmastime and I want my kids to have the same experience. But, beloved, “the most wonderful time of the year” (despite all the toys, and the Santa, and Christmas cartoon specials, and all of that) is not a children’s holiday, right? It’s meant for all of us. We’re meant to choose it, to choose the best of it, for ourselves.
Children are closer to Christmas than we grownups are because children are closer to wonder than we are. It’s the same reason that Jesus says that children are closer to the Kingdom of God than grownups are and that if we want to enter the Kingdom, we have to enter it like a little child. Instead, we spend most of our time trying to get our kids to act more grown-up and, come the holidays, we burn ourselves out trying to give them an experience of wonder and joy they could mostly manage on their own without our intervention. Maybe, we’re the ones who need a little of their intervention.
A similar kind of thing happens when young parents are looking for a church. The most common answer I hear from parents of young children about why they’re looking for a church or what they’re looking for in a church (and it’s obvious, right?) it’s that they want their kids to have an experience of growing up in a church: a foundation in strong moral principles, a religious education, church friends and events. And the question I always try to get to eventually, at some point, is, “Mom, Dad, beloved child of God, what about you?” Don’t you deserve some consideration? What about your spiritual life? What about your relationship to God? What about your church friends? Church is a cradle-to-grave operation. It’s not one we’re meant to grow out of, it’s meant for all of us, at every stage of life, if only we can choose it for ourselves.
Apocalypse is this big scary word, but all that it literally means in the Greek is “an uncovering.” In every life, and in many lives maybe more often than not, the covers are pulled up over our heads. Something is blocking the view, the magic, the engagement. And wouldn’t it be nice if there were a time—a sacred season—for getting up, for raising our heads, and for making a choice; a time to reveal what is hidden below and let it run wild in the beautiful world again?
Well, beloved, that is why the very first season of every year in the Christian life brings us the Advent apocalypse. It ain’t Christmas yet! This is the time to choose the Christmas you will celebrate. Where will your ship be headed when it leaves port on Christmas day? What will your heart be filled with? What will you have uncovered? What will you have chosen for yourself?
This Advent, Beloved, is our opportunity, our choice to journey toward the manger. To put some of the shine back on our lives. To step back out the door and (safely, responsibly—choosing life!) reconnect with our community in person. It’s a season to leave the house and to come back home—home to God, home to yourself, home to the manger and the new life that is waiting there for you.
I remember the first time I was in a room with my wife, Bonnie Mohan. It was 2006. I was in seminary, and she was still in college. We were at a meeting of restaurant workers in New York City. It was years before we’d start dating, years before all the ups and downs of young love, a decade before we’d get married—but there we were, in a room together.
Bonnie was writing her thesis on the restaurant industry, and she remembers “not considering you a dating prospect at all, but being flattered that you were interested in my thesis.” What I remember best, for some reason, is her shoes. She was wearing a pair of black low-top Converse sneakers. What can I say? I’m an observant Romantic.
Isn’t that something though? There we were right in front of one another’s faces. Our whole future, our family was right there in front of us, but we couldn’t see it yet. We just had no idea what was in store for us. But how could we, right? It takes time for these kinds of things to work themselves out. It takes time to come to terms with the truth.
The post-truth era—that’s the disturbing new phrase in use at the moment. The post-truth world. And, it seems pretty accurate, right? After all, who among us has not facepalmed themselves and prayed to be teleported to another planet when they’ve heard powerful and influential people using a phrase like “alternative facts” or saying “Truth isn’t truth.” Pontius Pilate has nothing on these people. They’ve taken it to a new level.
Still, even looking good by comparison, Pilate is by no means an admirable character, right? But I do feel some sympathy for him for this reason: He had God there right in front of him. He got to speak with Jesus. He was in the room! But he wasn’t able to recognize it. He didn’t realize what was before him. He didn’t take advantage of it. It can take time for the truth of things to break through to us. But Pilate wasn’t really open to dialogue. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” then turns around and leaves. It was not an invitation to deeper conversation or relationship, it was a rhetorical question designed to underline the fact that Pilate’s interests and concerns in life aren’t organized around anything like “the truth.”
Which, we’ve observed lately, is a sad and dangerous way to live. Consider again our “post-truth” world. Is he situation that we’ve all become a bunch of enlightened postmodernists who totally agree that there is “no truth” and everything is relative and therefore we should all try to accept one another’s differences and just get along. Not even close! We’re clinging to our own tribe’s “truths” as tightly as we ever have. But the idea that the capital-t Truth is something greater than ourselves which we must discover, which we must align ourselves to in order to lead a good life is being lost.
Instead, my truth, my tribe’s agenda, my party’s line is used to close our ears to the discussion, walk out on our neighbors, close our hearts to the pull of something bigger than ourselves. The idea that there is “no truth” is just a narrative designed to stop the healthy discussion of truth and the communal striving for truth that have always been at the heart of human community.
I think it’s possible to believe in the idea of the truth, but also to live humbly enough to admit that you can’t get to the truth all by yourself. I believe in a truth that is so much bigger than me—than any of us—that none of us is ever always right about it, and we can all learn something from others. It’s possible to have a relationship with God that doesn’t preclude anyone else, that puts you in the arms of truth but not upon the judgment seat of truth. The fullness of that truth will unfold over lifetimes, over generations, as long as God is still speaking and people are still listening, the truth may yet surprise us, sneak up on us. Don’t be like Pilate. Don’t give up on the truth. Don’t believe that there’s any such thing as a post-truth era. Nonsense! There’s always truth. Sometimes it just takes a while for us to see what’s right in front of our face.
Three years ago this week, Bonnie and I were helping my mom and dad prep the turkey and stuffing the night before Thanksgiving. Dad was telling us about their church. The new pastor had just started in September and was doing a great job. Everyone was feeling hopeful and like the place had a little more life in it.
This is the church I grew up in and the church my dad’s been going to since he was five-years old, so he cares about it, and he cares for it a lot. He told us how he spent most of the summer, with some other men from church and a few buddies he recruited, getting the church ready for the new pastor—renovating the church office and all the Sunday School classrooms. There hadn’t been many kids at all using those classrooms for the last few years, but this was their way of saying to their new pastor on his very first day of work—we’re ready for you. We’re ready for everything God’s bringing to our church. We’re ready for the risk of progress.
I don’t think there’s a room in that church or anywhere on the property that Dad hasn’t had some hand in making better. And there’s not a room in that church that doesn’t hold some deep memory for my dad—memories of his mom and dad, memories of childhood, memories of his wedding day, of his children’s baptisms. Ask my dad, “Who are you?” and one answer would be a member Woodbury Union Church. Ask my dad, “What is truth?” and he’d think it over for a while—probably while mowing the lawn, or fixing the boiler, or installing new windows at the church.
The turkey was about half stuffed when my dad got a call. All of a sudden, he’s shouting into the phone: “Are you joking?” “Can I do anything?” He gets off the phone and he tells us, “The church is on fire.”
So, we drive over, of course. We could see the emergency lights flashing from way down the road. We had to park a few blocks away because traffic was blocked off. As we walked up, all of a sudden there it was right in front of our eyes—an undeniable, knock-you-down truth: Three firetrucks were raining water down on the smoking ruin of what used to be our church. The roof was gone, the steeple had collapsed, the windows were all blown out.
And then there were other people from church all around us and the neighbors were all out too, watching, and talking, and parishioners and pastors from other nearby churches came out to see what they could do. There was nothing we could do, really, except be there with one another. And so that’s what we did.
We were freezing. It was an arctic snap and people had rushed out their doors without the right gear on, so we all huddled together on the sidewalk—hugging, crying, sharing information, and theories, and handwarmers someone had stashed in their car, and photos and videos on our phones of fire filling the sky over the church as it burned.
When the flames were finally all out, we asked the firefighters about the damage inside. The fire had gutted most of the sanctuary and upstairs offices, most of the roof had collapsed, and there was now seven feet of water standing in the basement fellowship hall and meeting rooms. It was going to be a total loss. And it got awful quiet.
The local news trucks were all there. And they interviewed the new pastor, TJ. He says to the cameras, “We’re going to be fine. The church isn’t a building. It’s the people.” He was right. In one sense, the only truth we should have cared about was burning and collapsing right in front of our eyes. We were all too aware of it. We couldn’t get away from it. But Pastor TJ was reminding us that sometimes we need to remember that not all truth jumps out and bites you. We have a responsibility to God’s quieter truth—not to let it go overlooked because there’s a loudmouth taking up all the oxygen. Pastor TJ in front of the burning church reminded us that there was an equally relevant and fundamentally greater truth that was also right in front of us: that the Kingdom of God can look like a shivering crowd of friends and neighbors sharing the sidewalk and their lives together in the face of tragedy. No disembodied, intellectual idea of what is true can provide any of us any comfort when our lives are going up in smoke. But a few friends gathered together can make all the difference. And that’s what a church really is, isn’t it?
I believe in the truth. I don’t always think I know everything, but I believe in the truth because I believe that when we love and listen to one another we get closer to the truth. And I realized something when the church burned down: that the heart of community, the heart of our hopes and dreams and loves, cannot be destroyed by fire. The only thing that can destroy the heart of a community is if we were to turn our backs on one another and end the conversation. The true heart of the church, the heart of it all, is contained within us.
Beloved, it’s right here before our eyes. Can you see it? Well, maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Sometimes, it takes time to see it. Sometimes tragedy strikes and everything gets messed up and we lose sight of it for a while. But, Beloved, you’ve gotta believe it’s there—the truth, the heart, it is there. Don’t give up on it! Stay in the conversation, stay in the community, stay invested! It’s right before our eyes. It’s all
around us. It’s the heart of it all. I’m glad I’m in it. Aren’t you?
Next week is our Consecration Sunday—that’s the Sunday which ends our Stewardship Season and it’s the Sunday when we all turn in our pledge cards for 2022 so that the Finance team, ably led by Pam Figlar, can get busy putting together a budget for our ministries and programs for next year. Traditionally, that means this week you get a sermon on giving and generosity and pitching in and all that stuff. But we decided that we weren’t really going to focus on all that stuff too much this year. Our theme this Stewardship Season is “Into the Heart of It All.” And here’s the motivation for that theme: Our goal this year isn’t to bring in more of your money; our goal this year (and every year, actually) is to bring in more of you.
In the newsletter this week, I wrote to you about what it is that God wants from us. God doesn’t want your money. God doesn’t want your time. God doesn’t want your talent. Not really. Not ultimately. What God does want is you! All of you. God wants every bit of the life and the individual that is you—your heart, your joy, your love. God has everything she could ever need, except for you.
And the church doesn’t want your money, either. The church happens to need your money very much, but the church doesn’t want your money. Your church wants you. We don’t want names on some spreadsheet called pledgers.xlxs. Who cares? We want you. As the poet (James Russel Lowell) put it so well, “Not what we give, but what we share / For the gift without the giver is bare.” The church needs our gifts, our time, our talent, our treasure, but without us, the people behind the gifts, what’s the point?
You know how it feels when you’re catching a 5:30 NJTransit out of Penn Station and you’re running up at 5:28 and you run past car after car after car totally filled up with people and you feel like there’s never going to be a spot for you? That’s not the way your church should feel. However full the room is, however many members may fill the rolls, we want you to rest assured that you have a place in the heart of it all. And I hope this stewardship season may serve as an invitation to you. In a time of social disconnection, political polarization, and spiritual skepticism, and all the anxiety and worry that result from these things, God and your church are calling you into the heart of it all.
Important clarifying question: What does it mean to be in the heart of it all? On Friday we held an amazing funeral for our friend, Jim O’Brien. Jim was a wonderful person, which I’ve noticed tends to make a big difference in the quality of a funeral. But in addition to that Jim also made this church his home. The people here were his people, the work of the church was his work, the needs of the church community were his mission, his money was, in part, the church’s money. Jim positioned himself at the center of the life of his church, and he created for himself a spiritual community that was capable of giving him a amazing send off. It’s weird to call a funeral amazing, right? But it was! All of us and Jim did that together. It was so powerful that more than one person described the experience to me as “life changing.” That’s who we are as church. We’re life changers! That’s what we do for one another. That is amazing! Where else can join on to something like that? But to share with one another at such a deep level, to be able to give and receive gifts like that, requires us to step away from the walls and into the center of the dancefloor.
Now some of us like the margins. Some for a while, some forever. And that’s fine. You do you. God bless ya! But I think there are many more people who are being held back from the heart of it all by the distraction, the globalized superficiality, the disconnection and nihilism and anxiety and worry of our times. And how does Jesus respond to our worries and anxieties? He tells us to stop it. Do not be anxious. Don’t keep worrying. Don’t even worry about the most basic fundamental needs—food, clothing, shelter. Worrying about your needs distracts you from what is truly important—from giving yourself totally to God, from seeking a way into the heart of it all. End the distractions, turn off the loop of anxieties in your mind, and let God provide for you.
When we let God provide for us, a strange thing happens. I would not promise you that if there’s a famine and you let God provide for you that you’ll have a full belly every night. There’s an old Persian parable about a saint walking through the woods who comes across a fox with no legs. “How does it eat?” the saint wonders. Just then a tiger approaches the fox, drops some meat in front of it, and the fox gobbles it all up. The saint realizes that God has shown him this scene for a reason! “God provides for the fox!” says the saint. “I’ll let God do the same for me. I’ll lie down here in the woods and fully trust in God to provide for my every need.” So, the saint does this for many weeks until he’s nothing but skin and bones praying for God to provide for him. And shivering on the cold ground he finally hears a voice from heaven say, “You who are on the path of error, open your heart to the truth! Stop imitating the fox and, instead, become like the tiger!”
If you let God provide for you, I can’t guarantee you’re never going to know need, but you will become the kind of person who shares whatever she can even when times are hard. This is the kind of risky faith that Jesus is asking us to engage in. And he promises us that it will, at least, be better than worrying, which is a useless painful exercise that keeps us from the heart of it all, that keeps us stuck in anxiety and grasping.
The truth that is hidden from us in our anxiety over our security is that we need the heart of it all more than we need a lot of money. What we really need is a few good friends, a community who will rally around us when we need them most, Jesus’ teachings, the love of God, music, a space outside the home where we can be a family together, and opportunities to become generosity tigers who find God’s providence in serving others. That’s what we really need. And where we find all that is in the heart of it all.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” That’s the heart of it all. And then Jesus says this,” For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And I think that last line is like a key to the lock of understanding what Jesus is saying.
This is how we want commitment to work: We want to do nothing more than dip our toe into the water and still manage to experience the full sensation of swimming in the ocean without getting wet or getting stung by a jellyfish or being cold or eaten by shark or any of the other things we worry might happen if we actually went swimming. Then after just dipping my toe in the water, if I have a really amazing experience doing that maybe next time I’ll dip in a little more. But we all see the flaw in the logic here. There’s no comparison between ankle-deep wading and the thrill of swimming through the waves.
When it comes to the heart of it all, we make the same mistake. We think, I’ll dip my toe in and if I have a spiritual awakening, then I’ll get involved, then I’ll give. But church is being involved, church is giving. Your commitment, your treasure, your self, is the key that unlocks the door to the heart of it all.
So, this is this the invitation: At a time when we’ve been scattered and discouraged and distracted—put your treasure in, put your time in, put your talent in, most of all put yourself in—into the heart of it all. This is where you’re wanted. This is where you’re needed. I can’t promise you it will always be a smooth ride, but I can promise you that when your heart follows you your investments into this spiritual home, it will change your life for the better. And as you consider your pledge card over the next week, pledge to your church like someone who wants to be at the heart of it all.
Like all of you over the last week, I’ve been reflecting on Jim O’Brien’s life. And I think we all probably knew this already, but it’s been confirmed here today through the wonderful messages from Lizzie, from Pastor Sid, and from Sherry—Jim O’Brien lived a good life. Didn’t he?
And, you know, this was a man who faced a lot of difficulties! If you ever got an email from Jim, he would sign off with his initials. It wasn’t exactly his initials though. He’d sign off in all caps “JOB”—Jim O Brien. Now, you know there’s this man in the Bible named Job who’s famous for his great suffering, so I asked Jim one time—are you having a little fun with that name? And he smiled and laughed—he was having fun with it. Because Jim knew what it was to be Job, to suffer. And he knew how to keep it in perspective, to keep on smiling.
Sherry told me that during one of his last trips to the hospital, the nurses fought with one another to do Jim’s intake because they all knew who he was because he was there so much, and they also knew what a charming and sprightly fellow he was. I want him! No, I want him! He’d been in there so often—with heart failure and pneumonia and infections and kidney failure—that they knew him by name, and they knew that whatever he was suffering through wasn’t going to get taken out on them. Right? That’s who Jim was. He was still going to be charming, and funny, and humble, and gracious, and kind.
Jim wasn’t given a perfect life. I’m not saying that. He didn’t live a perfect life. I’m not saying that. I’m saying he lived a good life. This is what a good life looks like. If you get a perfect life, I’m not even sure you get a chance to be good—not really. But when life gives you trouble, and you give back love? When the world gives you pain, and you give back healing? When you turn your worst mistakes in life and your biggest challenges into your greatest mission in life? That’s what a true good life is! And that’s the kind of life Jim lived.
And I’ve been reflecting on his life, and I’ve been reflecting on this last message that he left for us here: This piece of scripture (Jesus walking on the water) which his son, Rory, read so well. This was Jim’s favorite piece of scripture and he picked it out for his funeral. He wanted us to hear it today. Even if you’re not Christian, you’ve probably heard of Jesus walking on the water, but that’s only half the story here, right? The other half of the story is about a man named Peter, a man who is both faithful and frightened, stepping out of the boat into that stormy sea, and nearly being swallowed up by it.
Now Jim O’Brien was one calm, level dude, wasn’t he? Was Jim ever afraid of anything? When I look back over Jim’s life, I see a lot of scary moments. Imagine Jim the Navy man submerged just off the coast of the Soviet Union at the height of Cold War in a sub called the USS Halibut—which does not sound like a very spacious boat— for weeks at a time. I’d’ve lost it down there. Imagine Jim the firefighter, running into a burning building, the ceiling comes crashing down on him, it leaves a big ol’ dent in his helmet. I’d’ve been afraid! Imagine Jim the addict, admitting that his life was out of control, deciding to get sober, looking his alcoholism right in the eye and facing up to himself. I’d’ve been terrified! Imagine Jim’s first kidney transplant. Imagine his second kidney transplant. Imagine him learning just in the last few months that he’d need dialysis for the rest of his life. I’d’ve been mortally afraid every time. Imagine Jim working as an addiction counselor in detox with clients and patients who had hit rock bottom and who didn’t see any way forward for their lives. Imagine someone landing on your doorstep and realizing that you may represent their very last best hope. And you don’t know if you’ll be enough. I’d’ve been a nervous wreck every day! How did you do it, Jim? How did you face that kind of fear? How did you stay so calm when the seas were so rough? How did someone who suffered so much and who was surrounded by so much suffering still live a good life and not end up drowning—swallowed up by all that pain?
Jim’s answer for us, the answer to the question of his life, is inside his favorite piece of scripture. He’s telling us how he did it—the lesson he learned that saved his life. Jim didn’t know how to walk on water. He may have looked like he did at times, but Jim didn’t walk on water. Jim wasn’t fearless. He may have looked at times like he was, but the fear was still there as close to him as my fear is to me and as close to him as your fear is to you. Jim didn’t walk on water, didn’t live without fear, and didn’t save himself, Jim had simply learned that when life knocks you down and the world tries to drag you under, if you reach up out that stormy sea you will always find the hand of grace!
That was the power at the heart of Jim’s life. Jim learned how to take a hold of the hand of grace. It was the hand of grace from Jim’s Higher Power! It was God, as Jim understood God, who lifted him up and dried him out, so to speak. And so Jim’s answer—the answer that changed his life, the answer that motivated his life’s work in addiction recovery, and the answer that Jim witnessed transforming countless lives—leaves us now with a question. Jim leaves us with a question: What’s your Higher Power? How do you understand God? Is it possible that Jim’s understanding could be a part of your understanding? Is it possible that the strength and faith and love and purpose that Jim found in his life could be a part of your life? Is it possible that the hand of grace that saved Jim is being held out to you too?
I’ll tell you what I’m absolutely sure of—that early last Thursday morning when Jim’s tired, beautiful heart beat its very last beat, Jim O’Brien was not swallowed up by death. Because I know that Jim had a hold of the hand of grace that held and steadied him his whole life. His whole life is a testament to that power! On Thursday morning, the storm of death may have raged all around him, but Jim didn’t go down. Because Jim’s Higher Power lifted him up out of that storm, put him back in the boat, and sailed him to the other side.
On Wednesday night the Church Council met in the Blue Room, and the church’s President and moderator, Dorothy Waldt, had a task for us. She asked us to come prepared to speak about what it is that makes us passionate about church in general and about Glen Ridge Congregational Church in particular. And I had jotted down a couple of things, but I got lucky because we were going around in a circle, and I had chosen the seat that ended up going last. And that was lucky because I got to hear 15 or so other people speak ahead of me about not just their passions but about where and how their lives passionately intersect with church and with this congregation, with all of you. And as I heard them speaking, my little notes went out the window, and I realized I had a story to tell.
In 2014, a woman named Rebecca started coming to my church in the Boston area. She was different. She hadn’t grown up going to church. She had never been a member of a church before. She didn’t know what she believed or didn’t believe. And her life was in a bit of a shambles. She was heartbroken because her girlfriend had dumped her. And she was feeling stuck in her career working as a chef at Whole Foods. She longed for something more.
Our congregation stepped up and met Rebecca where she was. She needed some folks to help pick her up off the floor. She needed some folks to talk to about God. She needed to feel like she was a part of something bigger. She would sit in sanctuary and cry the whole way through the service.
A year later in 2015 Rebecca’s perspective on life was turning around. She had received God’s extravagant welcome—a welcome of love, listening, and opportunity—and she had rebounded. She was in church every Sunday. And she was cooking for us and for people in need. And she was taking newbies under her wing and listening to them and hugging them while they wept their broken hearts out.
By 2017, Rebecca had become one of the church’s deacons—the spiritual elders and caretakers of the church. Rebecca was widely recognized by folks young and old as an old soul, someone with great wisdom beyond her years and a loving spirit. And she met someone new at work. And she fell in love with and got engaged to this wonderful woman named Alexa who also started coming to church.
And Rebecca had heard God calling her to even bigger service. When some folks got together to open a new UCC church in our area—a dinner church that would worship on Wednesday nights, Rebecca became the church’s founding Minister of Food, cooking for the worshippers who attended the meal every week. That summer Rebecca went to the UCC’s national gathering called Synod and gave a presentation on her ministry that inspired the room. I’ll never forget how her face glowed when she told me about the experience: “life-changing,” she said.
After Synod she and Alexa went with her family out to Cape Cod for a well-deserved vacation. And early one morning riding a bike along the beach with Alexa, Rebecca’s heart just stopped. And she was gone before she fell off the bike. Rebecca had been born with a congenital heart defect and she always knew that this was a possibility—that her heart might just give out, that she had a limited amount of time. And I ask myself, “What would have happened if the church had been there for Rebecca? How would the last two-and-a-half years of her life turned out if it hadn’t been for the church?”
It’s stories like Rebecca’s that make me passionate for what church can be in the world. I think that church at it’s best is a place where people who “get it” are reaching out into the world not for other people who already “get it,” but for the people who desperately need it, for the people whose very lives depend on hearing a word of the Good News that we all are so accustomed to: What is it that you would have me do for you? People whose suffering could be turned into wisdom with the right kind of care. People whose emptiness could be turned into service with the right kind of love. People whose loneliness could be turned into community with the right invitation. There’s something marvelous about opening a door into the heart of it all to someone who’s just opening their eyes to the fact that there is a heart of it all.
Traditionally, this has been known as “evangelization.” It’s a word that carries a lot of baggage, I know, but if you pay attention to the Greek, you know it literally means “Good-News-ification.” Let’s Good-News-ify our world. Not all evangelization is created equal—we all agree on that. And we don’t have space here to get into the all the bad versions of it, but one thing that Rebecca’s story shows us is that evangelization doesn’t mean twisting someone’s arm. Sometimes it just means preparing yourself to be the way by which God provides life-saving grace.
Because a story like Rebecca’s also allows us to marvel at what the human heart responding to God’s grace can accomplish. Did the church save Rebecca? No, Rebecca and God saved Rebecca, and church was the space, the community of saints and sinners, where that transformation and that deepening was able to happen. Because there’s something marvelous about being invited into the heart of it all and realizing that the margins of life will no longer define your fate. You have a greater destiny! You’re in the heart of it all now. Is that a common experience in this world? Finding a community that speaks from the heart and centers as primary the spiritual needs not of the first to arrive, but of the latest to arrive? I don’t think so! But that’s Jesus’ church. That’s Good News.
Some people roll their eyes at the idea of “church growth.” And I get it. Church growth is not always talked about in the healthiest or most noble of ways. But Rebecca was church growth. And what greater story of growth could you hope for? There’s a deep and fundamentally Christian spiritual power in being a community that welcomes people in not just by being friendly, but by being ready. When the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to find the 1 lost sheep? That’s church growth! But do you see that that’s a system? It takes effort. That’s a ministry. It’s a near-total orientation toward the lost. When the people who “get it” “get out there” for the people who “need it,” churches grow in numbers, and they deepen in spirit. It’s not two different things. And so we listen: Where is the call for mercy coming from?
Charitable giving is fundamental to Christian identity, but sending money out should never be seen as an alternative to the other fundamental—bringing people in. There are some things that money can’t fix that can only be mended by the kind of love and purpose and faith that is discovered in church—in the heart of it all. Our mission, as a church, flows in two directions: We welcome in those who need us, that process builds our reserves of treasure and our capacity for love, and then we send out what we have brought in. In, Out. What was one of the first acts of Jesus’ ministry? Calling disciples in!
But maybe it was a mistake to begin by talking about other people who aren’t here yet, because some of you may be feeling like, “Well, hey what about me? I’m here, and I don’t always feel like I’m at “the heart of it all.” Sometimes I feel lost and lonely too in my socially distanced pew over here. Sometimes I want things to be different, to look different.”
But this really is most of all about you, about all of us who are already here. You want to know what the marvelous thing about welcoming people into the heart of it all is? If you’re welcoming someone else into the heart of it all, then you can feel pretty confident that you’re also right there centered and serving in the heart of it all. And you will feel that. A good host has spiritual power. One who serves knows the greatest part of life. It’s when we close the door—physically or emotionally—that we turn the beating heart of our center into a stagnant backwater, cut off from the vital life and desperate needs of the people who are closest to us. And then we start to feel lost, aloof, dissatisfied.
You may remember that two weeks ago I spoke to you about how and where we get stuck in the three acts of spiritual transformation. We spoke about the rich man who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus loved him and said, you lack one thing, go and sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, then come and follow me. And that rich man went away grieving because he had many possessions. He felt as if something was missing in his life, he came to Jesus to ask for advice, but he was unable to let go, to take the necessary action to step into the heart of everything he thought he truly desired.
Where the rich man grieves, Bartimaeus rejoices. Bartimaeus is blind, a beggar, pushed to the margins of the crowd and of the community and of society by his disability and the prejudices of those around him. Listen to them trying to shut him up as he calls for mercy! But he calls out all the louder. And when Jesus tells the crowd to bring Bartimaeus forward, what does Bartimaeus do? If you blinked, you might have missed it. It’s a small detail, but it carries all the meaning. As he jumps up, Bartimaeus, blind and poor, throws aside his cloak. He throws aside his cloak. It’s probably the most valuable thing he owns—it’s his only piece of clothing besides the shirt he wears under it. It’s his coat, it’s his blanket, it’s his house. As a blind man in a crowd, he understands that once he throws that cloak away, he may never find it again. But Bartimaeus knows that Jesus Christ is the always open door into the heart of it all. And he runs to him without holding onto anything else.
Bartimaeus, like Rebecca, realizes that he has a part to play in finding his way into the heart of it all. Yes, grace has arrived. Yes, the door is open. And still, he has to make a fuss for himself. He has to cry for mercy. He has to ignore the angry shushing of the crowd. He has to let go of the past and move forward to make the request for healing.
Many of us may feel like Bartimaeus—marginalized in some way, especially right now. Where is the center in our world right now? Everything seems to be way out on the right and way out on the left! Where’s the center? Where’s the heart in our world right now? Where’s the common ground? The shared values and identity? Everything feels so broken and angry and sad. Where’s the heart?
Well, beloved, the heart is right here. And every one of us has a responsibility to ourselves to seek our way through the brokenness in our lives and world into the heart of God’s community and love. Every one of us must decide, “Am I going to respond to the grace that it holding me up? Or am I just going to kinda hang here until my arms get tired?” And if the heart of this place truly is a heart worth having, then we’ll support it and we’ll share it. And if there was any question for us about our place in the heart of it all, this is the way to center ourselves again—not by holding on tight to what we want, but by opening up what God has given to us to the Rebeccas of the world.
Beloved, within fives miles of this church, today, there are a probably a dozen Rebeccas, heartbroken seekers searching for what they know not. Chances are good that they don’t consider themselves to be Christian and that they haven’t set foot in a church in many years, if ever. They may not even yet realize that they’re waiting for an invitation. Do we know who our Rebeccas are? How do we reach her? How do we connect? Is searching for her a part of our mission? Is finding her a part of our ministry? How do we bring her in to the heart of it all?
2,300 years ago, Aristotle said that every good story needs to have three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. As in drama, so in life. And in our scripture reading this morning there’s a whole lot about beginnings, middles, and endings. Jesus talks specifically about how and where we get stuck in (what I’m calling) the three acts of spiritual transformation.
Now, all my procrastinators—where are my procrastinators at? We all know that getting started is the hardest part, right? Especially if it’s a big project, especially if it’s going to require some sort of conflict or change or pain in my life, it’s easy to find something else to do for a little while—or maybe even for years. It’s easy to get stuck before we even really begin.
But anyone who’s ever walked out of a movie halfway through, or put down a novel 100 pages in and never picked it back up again knows that it’s the second act (in stories and in life) where things most often get bogged down—where we lose hope that the path we’re on is going to be worth whatever payoff the ending might hold for us.
And as anyone who’s ever tried to get back into shape knows—that first mile of that first jog—man!—I feel great; I’m like 20-years old out there! That second mile—my body starts flailing and shaking like a middle-aged body. And somewhere around that third mile, I get a cramp, and I just lie right down. Right? Sometimes, even with the finish line in sight, we can still fall down and give up. Sometimes, the final mile is the hardest one. So, in a spiritual journey, in our walk with God, what’s it like getting stuck at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and how do we get unstuck?
Now, I can’t imagine a better image for getting stuck at the beginning of something than trying to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle: the biggest, humpiest, stubbornest thing you can think of trying to go through the smallest opening you’ve ever seen. If I brought you a camel and a needle, and I said, “Get to work!” you’d have to be nuts to even try. And nobody’s ever going to bring you a camel halfway through the eye of a needle and say, “Well, I gave it my best shot, but I just can’t figure this thing out.” Jesus intentionally chooses an image that is impossible—that no sane person would even attempt.
Maybe you’ve had some experience in your life, some task, some project, some problem, some dream that you just couldn’t imagine ever succeeding at, so you never even tried in the first place. Back when I was a little baby minister, when it came time for me to apply to seminary, I was doing everything but applying to seminary because I was afraid. I was afraifd I wouldn’t get in, and then what would that mean for the purpose of my life and the fulfillment of my calling? That’s terrifying. What if I fail? And I let that terror dissuade me from applying for months. I had to get over it. I had to believe it was possible.
In the first act of spiritual transformation—of making positive change in your life and becoming who God is calling you to become—we get stuck because we believe in the impossible more than we believe in the possible. All our problems all look like camels and our solutions all look like needles. Every new beginning, every first step toward positive change in our lives, in a psychological sense, is breaking through this unbreakable barrier—it’s overcoming the impossible and reclaiming your faith in the idea that God has plans for you that are undeniable—you can’t get away from them, you can’t impossiblilize your way out of them.
How do we do that? When we’re stuck at the impossible beginning how do we make the impossible possible? When they hear Jesus tell them about the camel and the needle, even the disciples, who are usually numbskulls and always getting everything wrong, get their first response right: They’re shocked, and they ask, “Who then can be saved?” Can I shrink my camel? Can I make the needle bigger? Can I find a trick, a workaround? Can it be done? No, says Jesus, it is impossible. But, luckily for us, everything is possible for God.
I’ve been lucky to have a number of friends and congregants over the years who have been in recovery from addiction who went through the twelve steps. The twelve steps take this reality seriously. Just listen to the first three steps (designed to get you from an impossibly stuck to actually starting): 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.
Jesus and the twelve steps are in total agreement—if you get stuck somewhere at the beginning, admit that you’re stuck. And if you can admit you’re stuck and if you can then offer up your mortal-impossible to be touched by God’s possibility, then you will no longer be stuck. And isn’t this Jesus’ whole way of doing things? The path to true power must be routed through powerlessness. You have started down the path of spiritual transformation. You’re following God now into the second act.
You know the disciples are in the second act of their journey at this point, and what we know about them is that they’re always looking away—to the future, to the horizon. Never their minds on where they are, on what they are doing. The disciples are continually arguing about who is the greatest or asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand in the coming Kingdom. And here they go again. Peter now says, “Well, hold on. You know, the twelve of us did leave everything behind to follow you, we achieved the impossible! We want to be recognized! We want to be rewarded! We want to know that the sacrifices we made to get to this boggy middle, this swampy second act are going to pay off in the end! Otherwise, maybe we just get up and leave the theater.”
That’s what getting stuck in the second act looks like. We want to be carried along by what the poet Rilke called, “the winged energy of delight.” After all, this is a spiritual journey, and shouldn’t a spiritual journey feel as sleek and fulfilling as a wellness lifestyle Instagram account? Juice cleanses, and yoga, and #blessed? But “the winged energy of delight” must always transform. And it transforms in the second act. And it turns into work. It turns into hard work, or else you get stuck expecting someone else (human or divine) to carry you along and do your work for you. But it’s your work. Transformation cannot occur without sacrifice. And the most common sacrifice we must make for our own spiritual journey is our own hard work. As Rilke says, “Miracles become miracles in the clear achievement that is earned.”
And so Jesus decides to play a little trick. Jesus promises the disciples, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold NOW in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields…. with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
It’s a statement so baffling that the disciples don’t even respond. Maybe they realize they’re being made fun of. Jesus lays out this fairytale ending that he doesn’t really believe and then brings the roof down on the whole premise. And, certainly, the disciples never got a hundred children or a hundred fields or (ha, ha) a hundred mothers—how does that even work? But they did get that bucket of cold water in the face—a hundred persecutions. Their work got harder and harder with each passing day—not easier!
Someone I loved once did me a terrible wrong. I was heartbroken and angry and confused. That betrayal led to some of the darkest days of my life. I wanted a spiritual transformation. Act 1 was no problem. Take it away! I don’t want this pain! I don’t want to dwell on this anymore. And God said, “Let’s go. You know how to do it. You need to forgive.” Can’t you punish them, I asked? That would make me feel better! “No, this is your work. It’s not about them, it’s not about making you feel better. This is your work.” Fine, I’ll plan some revenge. But that made me feel worse. Take it away! “You have to forgive.” They haven’t even asked for forgiveness! “So what? Maybe they never will. This is your work. Only you can work this through. You’ve got to do your work.”
Which brings us to the end of things and that rich man getting tripped up at the end of the race. Jesus doesn’t say the rich man is a bad person. In fact, he’s been following the commandments his whole life. “You lack one thing.” One, final thing! Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor, then come and follow me.
There’s something about nearing the finish line—what’s good for you and what most challenges you get closer and closer and closer until there’s no difference between them. In act three we need to make the biggest changes, to take the greatest risks, to open ourselves up to our highest possibilities. And, again, that’s not always going to feel nice. Sometimes it’s gonna burn.
The realization that we need to cultivate here in the second act that will get us over that finish line of transformation is the realization that sometimes it’s more painful (not less painful, more painful) to finally resolve a conflict than to simply endure it. Spiritual transformation is not about escaping our pain, it’s about no longer avoiding our pain, so that the situation that could be uncomfortably endured forever is transformed through sacrifice, hard work, and acknowledging your pain, freeing you to become more fully who God is calling you to become. To get through the third act we must understand that bearing your cross is not an affront to your dignity, it’s the transformation of sacrifice, labor, and pain into faith, hope, and love.
So, in the beginning, when we get stuck on the impossible, we turn to God who makes all things possible. In the middle, when we get stuck, it’s usually time to get over ourselves, to stop fantasizing, to stop thinking God is going to do it all for us as a reward for simply wanting to change, and to get back to work. And when we’re nearing the end, and we get stuck, we can get unstuck by accepting that there is no path to a bigger and better life, to a more just and peaceful world, that doesn’t require us to sacrifice what we were for who we’re hoping to become. At the end, if you’re still holding on to what you were, you’re still stuck at the very beginning.
Beloved, the good news is that wherever you are on life’s journey, whatever you’re struggling with, and wherever you’re stuck, God is with you—squeezing that camel through the eye of the needle, calling you to labor as profoundly as you are loved, making every sacrifice a holy sacrifice. Because with God all things are possible.
I have a true story that I want all the children to hear. There was once an ordinary 3-year-old boy sitting in his mother’s lap. They were sitting in an ordinary Catholic Church on an ordinary Sunday. In a Catholic Church there’s a little bell like this [RING] that gets rung when the priest is preparing the holy communion. The bell is rung as a symbol of Jesus showing up and becoming real in the bread and in the wine. And when it was time for the bell to ring, the bell rang as it always rings [RING]. Everything was just as it should be. And in the reverent silence that followed the music of the bell, something happened that no one was expecting:
The little boy sitting in his mother’s lap hollered out, “Helloooooooooooo Jesus!” The whole church turned around to look at him, and realizing he had an audience, he gave them an encore performance, “Helloooooooooooo Jesus!” just in case they had missed it the first time.
The little boy understood something that a lot of us grownups know, but that we don’t really all-the-time believe—that when we participate in the sacrament of communion, God always, always shows up. Us grownups know what we’re supposed to believe, but do we believe like that child believes? Do we believe with that kind of spontaneous, uncontainable, unequivocal joy? I wonder.
So, let’s give it a try, shall we? Kids, when I ring this bell, I have an important job for you. Can you say, “Helloooooo Jesus!”? Let’s try after I ring the bell [RING]. Should we let the grownups in on this? Everybody this time [RING]! All right. Now, kids, every time I ring this bell, I need you all to say, “Hello Jesus!” The grownups will do it too, but they need your help. They need to hear you start it off with faith and joy to give them encouragement. Can you do that? So, whenever I ring this bell, you’re gonna be ready, right [RING]? WOW. Great work.
I received this true story from Pádraig Ó Tuama*, one of our great Christian poets. Oh, of course. Of course, he’s a poet. Only a poet could love a church story like that—bunch of bohemians and troublemakers! Sure, we take pleasure in the story too but mostly because it happened to somebody else at some other church We’re a little bit poet, but we’re also a little bit like the priest in the story, who Ó Tuama said looked shocked. “Shut the child up, you could hear in [his] fear.” That’s us, too, sometimes. Why so serious? Why does mixing children and communion make us feel so nervous?
We probably have Paul to thank. You heard what he said to the Corinthian church this morning:
“Whoever, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
Whew! Those are some harsh words! And we’re right to wonder if children attending the Lord’s Supper are capable of such sober self-reflection. Certainly, if someone had written to Paul asking him, “Hey, some people are bringing their kids to communion. Should we let them eat or not?” and he responded with these words, we’d want to be very careful about when we introduced our children to a table that could land them in spiritual judgment and physical illness. Fortunately, we know for sure that Paul was not answering that particular question.
The situation Paul was responding to was a young church in crisis. There were deep divisions among the Corinthians. They weren’t getting along. There was infighting, and there were factions. In the face of this conflict the practice of the Lord’s Supper had taken a bad turn. Instead of everybody eating the common meal together, as they used to do, some people are arriving earlier and eating before the others arrive. They’re eating so much that by the time the latecomers get there, the early birds are drunk and there’s no food left for anyone else. This is the situation Paul is responding to, and his harsh words sound totally appropriate now. Selfishness, partisanship, and drunkenness were the causes of the spiritual and physical distress in the community, and they had to be corrected.
But this is a problem only grownups could cause, so is it appropriate to prescribe their extraordinaery medicine to the ordinary spiritual lives of our children? There’s no reason to think that, if Paul had been asked, he couldn’t have said in the next sentence, “Children should approach the table with age-appropriate reverence and self-reflection, which will develop naturally through the years as long as you grownups are setting a good example!”
Setting a good example means behaving ourselves and taking communion seriously. But setting a good example also means requiring our children to observe us taking communion seriously. In fact, what does Paul say just a few lines later? He says: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Wait for one another. It’s not the Lord’s table until everyone has arrived to the table.
Which seems to me to say that whether they’re eating and drinking or not, our children should be “at the table.” We shouldn’t be having communion without them ever being here.
I’ve always found the idea of a “World” Communion Sunday to be redundant. It’s redundant theologically to say “World” Communion Sunday. Of course, it’s the whole world! Maybe it’s redundant, but it’s still a good reminder for our practice of communion. This is not my table, not your table, not the United Church of Christ’s table, or Glen Ridge Church’s table. This is God’s Table. And the whole world (young and old,
gay and straight and everyone anywhere on the rainbow spectrum, every gender, every race, every nationality) is welcome here. When we step up to this table, we acknowledge that we need God’s love and care. And we must acknowledge that we share this table with the whole human race. ALL ARE WELCOME.
Still, we feel a little nervous. We worry. What if they think it’s just a snack? What if they’re disruptive or disrespectful? What if they put their grimy little paws all over the bread just before I get to it? There are good theological and practical responses to all these worries. But let’s face it: all of us, at least some of the time, are going to feel a little nervous about what totally age-appropriate but oh-so-naughty thing our kid or someone else’s kid is about to do in the middle of holy, sacred, serious church. What do we do?
We can’t all become like the mad poets—delighted every time God shocks us with something unexpected
from the mouths of babes. We can’t totally get rid of the priest within us who just wants everything to go smoothly and orderly in the house of God. But maybe we could be more like the little boy’s mother.
The poet was delighted. The priest was terrified. The mother, Ó Tuama said, looked a little embarrassed and a little thrilled. A little of both. As a parent I totally get that. Can we let the joy of our children being in worship with us soothe the shock of what it looks and sounds like when they too begin take Jesus seriously? Can we try to become more like Jesus who said, Let the children come to me, just as they are. I don’t want them to be more like grownups. I want the grownups to be a little more like them.
Remember, even though that little boy was only three, and even though he wouldn’t be able to take communion in his church for four to six more years, he knew, perhaps more than anyone else in the church,
what it meant when that bell rang [RING]. He learned it simply by sitting in his mother’s lap and by absorbing the ritual happening all around him. Isn't there room in our church for taking Jesus that seriously?
I want to say to our confirmands, from Glen Ridge Congregational and Union Congregational, I want you to know, on the cusp between childhood and young adulthood, that all these grownups are right to take this table so seriously. And I want you to know that I take it seriously, and I want you to know why.
When I was in college, I was the director of a Christian summer camp in North Carolina. I was too young for the job, but the old director had to step down suddenly, and he believed in me and tapped me to cover the summer program for him. It was a great experience overall, but one week early in the summer, it was a real disaster.
It rained all week, which is always a sign things are going to go real bad at summer camp. We were at capacity, and we had a tough bunch of energetic campers bouncing off the walls. During a thunderstorm one night, lightning struck a cabin of little kids and scared those campers half to death. I was backing a 15-passenger van up in the parking lot in foul weather,and I backed into a BMW-Z3. It belonged to the chair of the camp ministry committee. Her husband had just given it to her to celebrate her retirement a few weeks earlier. It was towed away, along with my dignity. My girlfriend of a few years was at camp with me, and she was about to dump me, and I knew it was coming, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it. Everybody was looking to me for leadership in the hardest week of camp, but I was green, I was stressed out, I didn't always know what to do, I lost my temper a few times, and I really let my staff down.
But on the closing night of camp, we celebrated like we always celebrated—with communion. We didn’t want to celebrate anything. We were tired, wet, cold, muddy, and mad. We wanted to quit. But out of habit,
a bunch of 17-to-21-year-olds sat down at God’s table with our heads hung low. And out of habit we said the words. Out of habit we passed the bread, and we shared the cup.
And a miracle happened out in those woods—God showed up. When we ate and drank, we began to lift our heads, we started looking one another in the eyes, tears started streaming down faces, apologies were whispered silently across the room, we were hugging campers and meaning it when we told them we loved every minute we had spent with them that week.
We were nobodies! Just a bunch of kids running a summer camp in the woods. I was a nobody. I still am. I’m not special. I’m not famous. I’m not particularly important. I’m just Pastor Jeff. But when we sat at this table, when we broke the bread, and passed the cup to one another, God showed up for us. God showed up for me! So that I could forgive myself, and grow, and keep going because there was a lot of camp left to run.
That’s the promise: That when you make this table a part of your spiritual life, when you decide to take it seriously and to honor it and to kneel before it with your heavy heart, asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, looking for the path to love, God will show up for all of you too.
Isn’t that a table you want to take seriously? Isn’t that a God you’d like to get to know better? Isn’t that the God we all want our children to meet?
Well, Beloved, I promise you, you will always find God at this table.
*The story comes from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community by Pádraig Ó Tuama.
Does Jesus ever confuse you? I’m not alone in this, am I? Sometimes Jesus seems like the perfect hippie flowerchild—so relaxed, so enlightened, so loving and forgiving. This Jesus is best summed up by a bumper sticker I saw once: “No, Obama is not a foreign-born, brown-skinned, anti-war socialist
who gives away free healthcare: You're thinking of Jesus.”
But that’s only half the story, right? There’s this other Jesus who comes with fire and a sword. He shouts out, “Repent! The time is near!” He battles with demons and evil spirits! This Jesus is maybe best summed up by a sandwich-board sign I saw a guy wearing once in Times Square Station. It said, “Turn to Jesus or Burn in Hell!”
So, what gives? Which one is it? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Let’s take this morning’s scripture reading as another example:
I can’t imagine a more openminded, non-defensive, and (in the broadest possible sense) liberal approach to life than the saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Can you imagine how the world might be different if everyone believed this? I mean, how many of the world’s conflicts are really about hopelessly irreconcilable differences, and how many are simply about a psychological desire for power—for me to be in control, for our side to win? What wars could we have prevented? What political dead-ends could we have turned into compromise and cooperation?
If they’re not against us, then they’re our allies and colleagues. If they’re not against us, then we count them as our friends. And we count their victories as our victories. And we mourn their losses as if they were our own. And we will trust that the path they’re taking up this mountain of life, although it’s not the same path that we’re taking, will inevitably lead them up to the same peak.
At the same time, I can’t imagine a more harsh, exacting, damning approach to life than the words, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it’s better to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Can you imagine what the world might look like if everyone behaved like this? It’d look like the Taliban justice system out there. It’d look like a Civil War field hospital. Everywhere you looked, people would be cut to ribbons. There’d be little bits of us littered all over the place. You’d’ve been stepping over hands, and eyeballs, and tongues, and hearts, and God knows what else just to get to church this morning. It’s a scene from a horror movie.
Beloved, how is it possible that the same person said both of these things—practically within the same breath? And what can we learn from it, about who Jesus is and what he expects from us?
Let’s begin where Jesus concluded—with salt. Jesus said, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Obviously, Jesus isn’t really talking about salt. This is your bible, not a cookbook. That means Jesus is speaking metaphorically. But what does he mean by it?
Well, first it helps to know that back in ancient times salt actually could lose its flavor, it’s saltiness. Back in the day sometimes salt was harvested with other crystals that weren’t salt. They’d all go in the same bag. And maybe the bag, in storage, would get wet, and the true salt crystals would dissolve away leaving behind a bunch of stuff that looked like—but didn’t taste like—salt.
Remember when Jesus said, don’t store your treasures on earth where moths and rust and thieves get at them, store them in heaven instead. Well, this is similar. Jesus is saying don’t store your salt in the kitchen cabinet where it might lose its flavor, store it inside of yourself, and you be the flavor of salt. Salt is a metaphor for faith—faith loses something when you identify it with the external world, keep your faith within you.
Many of us learned this lesson from the Disney movie Dumbo. Dumbo is this little baby elephant with big ears. His ears are so big that he can fly! But he only flies when he’s blackout drunk, and in the morning he can’t remember, and he doesn’t believe it. You know—a children’s story. Anyway, his friend, a mouse named Timothy, gives him a “magic” feather and tells him that anyone who holds that feather can fly. So, whenever Dumbo holds the feather in his trunk, he flies, and he becomes the star of the circus. But one night during the high dive, Dumbo drops his feather and goes plummeting towards the ground. Timothy yells in his ear, the feather is just a fake! Just a regular ol’ crow’s feather to make you believe in yourself. The power was within you all along! And at the last possible moment Dumbo pulls out of the dive and flies without the feather. The feather is on the inside now where it can never be dropped. So, Jesus says, put your faith on the inside where it can’t lose its flavor. Put it on the inside where it belongs, and be at peace with one another.
Be at peace with one another, that’s an important part of this. When you put your faith in its proper place (on the inside, not the outside), then you’ve got the right perspective for being at peace with other people. Your faith, your essence, is safe and secure on the inside, and what other people may or may not be doing on the outside of you doesn’t have to be so threatening to who you are and to what you believe.
Now, Jesus cares a lot about the circumstances of our lives. He cares about how much money we do or don’t have. He cares about what we do with that money. He cares if you’re sick and suffering. He cares if you’re hungry or in prison. He cares if you’re marginalized and lonely. He cares about justice and kindness and love. He drinks at weddings. He cries at funerals. He cares about the external stuff. But for Jesus, it’s the inner journey we ignore that matters the most.
We tend to externalize the meaning of our lives. We look for meaning in success on the job, or in education and learning, or out playing on the football field, or in a beautiful home, an expensive car, nice stuff, maybe we look for meaning be standing in a pulpit, or through having a loving family, close friends, meaningful relationships. Now, some of these are worthier than others. Some lead you in the right direction, some in the wrong direction. But Jesus reminds us that true purpose, true love, true faith cannot ultimately be found outside of yourself. Your most genuine voice, your most fulfilling destiny, your deepest capacity to love, and your biggest life must eventually be found within yourself. That’s what Jesus means by salt.
Moving backwards now, we’re in a better position to understand all this hand chopping, foot sawing, and eye plucking. First, Jesus is being symbolic. Salt was not really salt. Amputation is not really amputation. No, Jesus does not want you to cut your hand off. We know this because there’s no story in the Bible of Jesus hacking somebody’s leg off to save their soul. That’s not how it works. There’s no story where someone runs up to the disciples all happy because they just poked their eye out for Jesus. It’s the opposite. Jesus is the one who heals bodies and restores sight, not the one who breaks bodies or causes blindness. And I would push it even further than that and remind you that Jesus is also the one who saves and not the one who damns.
But that doesn’t get us off the hook here. Jesus gives us this disturbing, gripping metaphor because he wants us to pay attention to something. And what are we supposed to be paying attention to? “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” We’re supposed to be paying attention to the inner journey,
and we’re supposed to be paying attention to our peaceful relationship to the world.
Once some Pharisees criticized Jesus for not following their custom of washing his hands before he ate. Maybe they had a point. But Jesus is emphatic about it. He says, It’s not what goes into your body from the outside that defiles you, it’s what’s on the inside that comes out of you that defiles you. The greatest meaning of your life is not outside of you, and neither are your biggest sins. Chopping off bits and pieces on the outside won’t solve your inner problem, will it? It doesn’t get to the root—to the spiritual problem. And so Jesus pleads with us to cut out and cast away the resistance within us to God’s love and salvation, the resistance within us to loving our neighbors, the resistance within to loving ourselves and to fulfilling our destiny as children of God. Pay attention to the inner journey.
And “Be at peace with one another.” One of the heart-rending stories that has gripped many of us over the last week or so was the US military admitting that a drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 family members, including seven children, was a “tragic mistake.” It was the wrong person, he was not in any way a terrorist, it was the wrong car, there were no explosives, there was no threat. This admission almost certainly never would have happened had it not been for the large number of journalists in Kabul covering the US withdrawal who were able to investigate. And so one has to wonder: How infrequent are these deadly mistakes? And one has to wonder if it was truly necessary to add such a tragic exclamation point to the end of our nation’s beleaguered legacy in Afghanistan.
Gen. McKenzie, after offering condolences to the devastated family, assured us Americans that, although ultimately mistaken, the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that the target posed a grave threat to US security. It’s not easy being great. It’s not easy being Christian. We must ask ourselves, “Is our safety and security worth a drone strike that incinerates an innocent man along with his children?” If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it’s better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell, where the fire is never quenched. Christians must wrestle with the question: Is it better to risk the bodies of my neighbors, or is it better to risk my own body? Our “profound belief” in the righteousness of our strike must be mirrored by an equally profound skepticism in all of the choices that led us to the murder of someone else’s children. We must ask ourselves, where does our true security lie? Does it lie outside of us in drone strikes and missiles? Or does it come from God?
And so part of the inner transformation Jesus calls us to is to reevaluate our actions and relationships in the world. Be merciless with the blockages of sin and you might save the troubled heart. Even if it feels like you’re cutting off your right foot, do it, because once that old habit—that old crutch—dies, we’re on the path to freedom.
Now, I hope that you heard that right. I didn’t say be ruthless, or cruel, or unforgiving to yourself. I didn’t say beat yourself up, make yourself miserable, mire yourself in guilt. Jesus never called anyone into self-hate. Jesus simply calls us to be vigilant in the practice of love and virtue, and vigilant in our opposition to our vices and our personal and collective smallness. That is not an invitation to self-flagellation, it’s the beginning of a fulfillment in God that goes way beyond self-anything—it’s bigger than you!
And so now we arrive back at the beginning, and we’re ready to answer our original question—Which is it?Sweet, forgiving, doe-eyed Jesus or judgey, strict, fire-breathing Jesus? Will the real Jesus please stand up?
Well, we’ve seen it for ourselves: Jesus is a little bit of both, right? The key is to apply the right attitude to the right situation. When it comes to other people, Jesus says, be as tolerant, as kind, and as forgiving as possible. “If they’re not against you, then they’re for you.” Live and let live. Be gentle with the world. The place for hand-chopping and hellfire is not when you’re interacting with the world around you, it’s for when you look within yourself. When it comes to yourself be as vigilant as you can. Don’t beat yourself up, but be ready to fight for yourself—for your soul, your goodness, your joy.
For others—tolerance, forgiveness, and, of course, love. For ourselves—vigilance, repentance, and, of course, love. May Jesus’ way of love (a love which is both gentle and challenging, and always good) lead us all within and without to be closer to God and to all God’s children.
I wouldn’t mind being great. I think it might be nice. And I don’t mean, I wanna be really good at one particular thing. I don’t want to be great at something. I mean, that’s fine too, but I’m really talking about general greatness. I’d just like to be great. It seems like a classical and nobly virtuous thing to work towards, doesn’t it?
Nothing too crazy. I don’t need you to call me “Jeff the Great” or anything like that–not if you don’t want to. But you know that fantasy about the end life, about how you’ll be remembered: I hope there’s a long obituary with a flattering picture from my youth, a wonderful funeral, lots of people crying, some funny stories, a couple really amazing eulogies. “He was a great man,” someone will hopefully say, and the room will hum with agreement, “Amen, yes he was, a great man.” I mean, really, that would be something to work towards, wouldn’t it? That’d be good. That’d be an honorable life well lived. But the problem is that it seems sometimes like Jesus doesn’t like greatness very much.
I mean Jesus is always smacking down the great ones, isn’t he? He’s always arguing with them, challenging them, telling them to give all their money away. Jesus prefers the widow’s two cents to all the riches of the wealthy. He prefers the sinner’s table to the tables of the righteous and the well-heeled. He prefers Samaritans to priests, prefers tax collectors to Pharisees, and prefers children to the learned and the wise. What’s going on? Jesus, why? What’s the problem with greatness?
And then I hear it. Then I hear it, all right. I hear the bickering little whispers of Jesus’ disciples on the road. We’re arguing. We’re novices who Jesus pulled from fishing boats, and from loafing on street corners, and from collaborating with the enemy, but now we’re arguing about which of us is the greatest. We’re arguing about who will collect the honors, which of us will lead the victorious charge in the battle to come, which of us will sit at the right hand of the Messiah at the end of history. And, yes, I say “us” because as I’m hearing those disciples quarreling, I distinctly hear my own voice in that squabble—wrangling for position, for recognition, for exceptionalism and power—fighting for the place I believe I have earned in the favored vanguard of holiness and righteousness.
And so when we reach the house, and Jesus is sitting there with a child in his lap, he looks at us, and he says, “I do want you to strive for greatness! Of course, I do. But first, you dummies have got to see that you don’t know what greatness is yet. You’re all mixed-up about greatness. People who argue and bicker about who’s greater than who don’t have any idea what greatness really is. People who confuse power and prestige for greatness do not yet know what greatness is. There’s more greatness sitting on the floor with a child in my lap than there is in all your feverish dreams of glory. Don’t seek the greatness that singles you out; seek the greatness that brings you closer to me. Don’t seek the greatness that puts you on top; seek the greatness that welcomes God into your life. Greatness is never apart from God! Seek that greatness that mixes you up with God.”
There are a few special moments in life when we feel our greatness and God’s greatness getting all mixed up. The mountaintop moments of life when the clouds part and the sun comes streaming down on you in a shaft of light—those experiences that fill you with memories and emotions to last a lifetime. These transcendent encounters where we feel great in the great presence of God are relatively rare.
But Jesus commends to us another way, a simpler way, a more down-to-earth, practical way, something you can do every day—become a servant to the world. Become a servant and your greatness and God’s greatness will get all mixed up.
I’ll tell you when I’m not a servant. When I’m fighting for control of the TV remote with my wife, Bonnie. It’s like I’m fighting for my life—but the shows she watches. I’m telling you: Not a zombie in sight! It’s sad.
A few years ago, she was binging through Downton Abbey in our little one-room Brooklyn shoebox apartment, so I couldn’t escape it. Some of you have watched this show, right? I’m sure you’ve all at least heard of it. It was this wildly popular historical drama taking place in the early 20th century on a beautiful old British estate. Aside from the aforementioned disturbing lack of zombies in this program, I also didn’t like the social divide in the show: The Aristocrats live and play upstairs in their sprawling mansion home, the servants live and work downstairs taking care of the people who live upstairs. I don’t find that social arrangement particularly romantic. Doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t like seeing the world divided into the lower class of servants and the upper class of those-who-must-be-served.
And, so, when Jesus tells me that I must be a servant—the servant of all—I don’t like it. You want me to move downstairs? You want me to line up outside as the master motors up in his new auto or whatever? You want me to stand at attention? To be seen and not heard? To fade into the background when I’m not needed? Really, Jesus?
And the difficulties of being a servant go far beyond Downton Abbey, right? I mean, just think of who is expected to be a servant here in the 21st century. Aren’t women still expected to serve men more than men are expected to serve women? And don’t race and immigration status play a big role in who is waiting upon whom? And aren’t people in the service industry so frequently exploited and disrespected that millions of them are using the pandemic as an opportunity to escape the industry? And aren’t domestic workers facing a plague of sexual harassment and assault in an industry that has very few protections? And aren’t the tips that waitstaff depend upon for their living a direct cultural descendent of slavery? Isn’t there a dangerous power imbalance baked right into this system? And, Jesus, are you sure it’s really great to be a servant?
But sitting there with a child in his lap, Jesus, as he so often does, flips the script. Jesus’ servanthood isn’t about making the weak serve the powerful. It isn’t about making the meek serve the great. It isn’t about making the last serve the first. Sitting there with a child in his lap, Jesus tells us that being the servant of all is something like a roomful of grownups welcoming a child. Who has the power? The roomful of grownups do, of course—grownups so powerful they were just recently arguing about who’s the greatest. And who are the most vulnerable among us—in Jesus’ day and in ours? It’s the children, right? It’s not the child who serves the parent. It’s the parent who serves the child.
The word Jesus uses when he talks about welcoming a child and welcoming God is the Greek word dechomai. Dechomai can also more archaically, more accurately be translated into English as “to receive,” or even “to pick up.” So, when you’re a servant to someone, according to Jesus, you’re receiving them into your power. Jesus’ servanthood isn’t like being a butler. It’s like being a host welcoming a guest. Or it’s like picking up and holding a child. Jesus’ version of servanthood is not about serving others to your detriment. It’s about serving God’s children from your power. Those who use their power to clamber their way to the top of some majestic heap do not know what greatness is. Those who become true servants, who serve from the power that they have been given, are walking Jesus’ way to true greatness.
So, Beloved, let’s not be afraid to be great. God wants us to be great! And maybe we don’t need to worry so much about it all going to our heads. You know, it’s not always arrogance that gets in the way of servanthood. It’s not even most often, I don’t think, egotism or narcissism or megalomania that stops us from being servants.
No, for most of us it’s far softer sins: bitterness or hopelessness, lack of imagination or an inability to let go of old habits, pettiness or a little too much comfort. It might not even be your sin. Maybe it’s someone else’s sin against you: some wound you were given, and the cautiousness, the mistrust, the reluctance and doubt that scarred it over. Maybe this is why Jesus recommends a child to us as a spiritual icon—for their trust, their eagerness, their fresh-faced optimism.
My son, Romey, turned two yesterday, and let me tell you I would not describe this child as humble or as particularly helpful, nor do I think that he spends much time at all considering the feelings of others or the consequences of his actions. On the spectrum of greatness he is, for the time being, a bit of a tyrant. But, when we’re at the playground, I have to stick to him like glue, because if I’m standing anywhere within ten feet of him, he’ll jump off the top of anything, because he believes so fully that his Dada will catch him no matter what.
But us grownups, we’ve fallen face-first in the woodchips too many times, we don’t have enough trust, enough faith, enough hope to invest ourselves in serving the wellbeing of people we don’t much believe in. So, our greatness dies in our low opinion of our neighbors. It’s becoming a national affliction.
But Jesus tells us—you, me, everyone of us—that we have the power to serve! And when we serve, Jesus is there with us. And where Jesus is, there is God also. Just take a moment to look around this sanctuary at your church—at the people who make up your church. This is where our greatness begins. It begins right here in service to one another. And as we serve one another we’ll get better at it. One day we’ll find we have a whole extra helping of service to spare. And so we will learn, relationship by relationship, risk by risk, to serve more and more of our neighbors.
And won’t that be a beautiful thing to see, Beloved? Our greatness, and our neighbors’ greatness, and God’s greatness all mixed up together in this place? Isn’t that what you’re here for? Isn’t that the greatness that you came here hoping to find?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations