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?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations