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.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations