2 Corinthians 12:12–31
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells a story about people working in a jungle. There are some people down in the undergrowth of the jungle, and they’re just hacking away at the vegetation with machetes. They’re making clearings and they’re blazing paths. And there’s another bunch of people, just behind them, who are working to make sure those machete swingers are working as efficiently as possible—they’re creating programs to teach the cutters the best machete techniques, they’re organizing blade-sharpening schedules, and they’re making sure if anyone gets injured that they get bandaged up.
Together these two groups of people have lots to do (it’s a huge jungle) and they’re working at maximum efficiency—it’s really a marvel to behold. And then, last but not least, there’s a person who decides to climb way up in a tall tree to survey the landscape. And after looking all around, she shouts down to the groups on the ground, “HEY! WRONG JUNGLE!” And from down below comes the reply, “Shut up! We’re making great progress down here!”
Productivity and efficiency only tell us that we’re good at what we’re doing. They don’t provide any indication that we’re doing the right things. Sometimes, the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. And when that happens an individual or an organization needs to pivot away from busyness and efficiency, away from managing all the old expectations, and pivot toward leadership. True leadership, Covey tells us, requires climbing a tall tree for a big-picture vision. Leadership is that part of the individual or the organization that begins with the end in mind. Leaders are people who have a specific vision—for themselves and others—of a destination. And seeing that goal, they’re able to evaluate if we’re actually doing the right things, going in the right direction, working in the right jungle. They see where we need to go, they know how to get there, and they want to bring everyone along.
What happens when Jesus returns to Nazareth after his baptism and after his time away from home? What happens when he goes to his childhood synagogue, where he grew up, and reads from the Isaiah scroll? When he left home, he was just Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the son of Mary. But he returns home changed. He returns home a leader. And why is he a leader? Not because he’s up there reading. Not because he’s giving a sermon. Not even because he’s making bold statements. He’s a leader because he’s climbed to the top of the tall tree of the prophecies of Isaiah, and he’s beginning his ministry with the end in mind.
And what is that end? Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the oppressed set free, the arrival of the Jubilee year. He uses it—this scripture reading from Isaiah—almost like a mission and a vision statement. Jesus is saying, These are God’s core values, and this is what my ministry is going to work to achieve.
How many of us down here on the ground, working on the ministries of our church, or working out the purposes and goals of our individual lives, hear this like Jesus is yelling down to us, “HEY! WRONG JUNGLE!” And we want to yell back, “Shut up! We’re busy! We got enough to worry about! Don’t you pile on!” Why is that our response?
I mean, it’s right there on the scroll—this is good news! But we hear it as bad news, somehow, because it seems too hard, too idealistic, too impossible, too not-what-we’re-already-doing. Jesus is the head of the Church. And many of us declare in our lives, “Jesus is Lord!” But sometimes it’s really hard to really listen to real leadership—to the people (or to the parts of ourselves) with the audacity to wonder if we’re toiling away for the right reasons or for the right goals—leaders with the audacity to suggest that God’s ends should be our beginning.
And we should note that Jesus ran into some real resistance here right away. We only heard half the story of Jesus’ first sermon this morning. Of course, you all remember how it ends. The home-town crowd starts saying, “This guy isn’t a leader, he’s just Joseph’s son. Shut up!” And Jesus, pot-stirrer that he is, pushes his luck. He doubles down. He says not only is this the message of good news for us, it’s for everybody else too—the whole world. We’re not going to leave anybody out. Well, that was just too much for the good people of Nazareth. They pull Jesus down from that tall tree of his and they try to throw him off a cliff!
And that experience, I think, teaches Jesus an important lesson on leadership. When leadership is invested in just one person, it’s fragile. What if Jesus hadn’t managed to slip away from the crowd that day? What if they had pitched him off that cliff? Just imagine everything we would have lost. I think Jesus feels that too. And after escaping that crowd, the very next thing he does is he calls his disciples. This movement needs to be bigger than one leader. This mission is bigger than any one person, even if that one person is the Messiah, the Son of God. I need disciples, I need apostles, I need leaders because this vision properly belongs to the whole world.
After his Civil Rights victories, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to the Poor People’s Campaign—a diverse movement of the nation’s poor people: white, black, Latino, and Native American. When he was assassinated, the campaign limped on for a little while, but ultimately it fell apart because too much of the leadership was invested in King himself, and the leaders left behind to pick up the pieces after him couldn’t agree on a direction for the campaign.
Now, 50 years later, in popular movements for justice you don’t see individual leaders lifted up anymore in the way that King was. Instead, leadership is more likely to be distributed throughout the movement, so that the loss of any one leader will not be fatal to progress or to the mission. Leadership is fragile when it’s invested in just one person.
The Apostle Paul gets this, I think. He gives us another metaphor—not a jungle metaphor, but the metaphor of Jesus’ body. We are the Body of Christ, he says. And like any body, the Body of Christ is made up of many diverse parts all working together. Some people are hands, some are feet, some are eyes, some are spleens, but whatever part we are, whatever skills we possess, whatever functions we perform, the vision of Jesus’ good news and God’s Kingdom belongs to us all, united in the one Body of Christ. We’re not three kinds of people in a jungle. We’re many different parts in one united body.
Christ’s continuing mission does not belong to any one dictator, any one leader, any one minister. It belongs to all of us in the Body. Now, sure, there’s gonna be some people who will be lifted up for specific functions in leadership—like me, like Tom Mustachio, like Dorothy Waldt, our council president, like our other staff and officers and ministry chairs, but the mission has to belong to us all. The passion has to belong to us all. The vision has to be shared and curated by the whole community, by the whole Body. And that is because vision and mission and leadership, without love, is empty. A vision in one person is just an act of will. A shared vision, held collectively by all of us, is an act of love.
At the end of our reading this morning, Paul says, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” That “still more excellent way” is the beginning of Paul’s famous chapter on love which you all know and you’ve all heard many times at many weddings, and which we’ll get to next week. But just as a preview, when I say that everybody needs to hold the vision together because vision and mission and leadership without love are empty, I don’t just mean that everybody has to love the vision like Jesus loved the vision.
I also mean—and this is the more important part—that just like Jesus loved us we have to love ourselves for who we are and where we are right now. Jesus didn’t love the hope or the dream or the mission or the future more than he loved the actual imperfect world that he came for just as it was. And we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t love some goal or some vision, no matter how noble or right, more than we love who we are right now. I love each of you for who you are right now. And I hope you love each other the same way. I love Glen Ridge Congregational Church exactly as it is today—knowing that there things we could be doing better. I love the world, in all of its brokenness and trouble, exactly for what it is.
It’s like being a parent. We love our kids for who they are right now, even when their behavior and decisions are less than impressive. And by loving our kids for who they are now, we empower them to grow, to take risks, and to a live a more selfless life of good news for other people. When we love ourselves and one another for who we are—right here, right now—we begin to discover in that love, the strength and creativity and commitment to climb a tall tree and look around.
So, let me recap what I hear our scripture readings saying to us this morning:
Step 1. Love one another.
Step 2. Listen to what Jesus says about the vision for our lives, our ministry, and our church.
Step 3. love one another.
Step 4. Send some part of the Body up a tree to take a look around to make sure that we’re in the right jungle and that we’re working with the right end in mind.
Step 5. Love one another.
Step 6. While loving on one another, listen to the report from the treetop.
Step 7. Love one another.
Step 8. Using love, Jesus’ teachings, and the treetop report, work together as a whole Body to discover a mission and a vision big enough, bold enough, and bright enough for the church and the savior that we love so much.
Step 9. Love one another.
Step 10. And love the whole rest of the world too.
1 Corinthians 12:1–11
My topic this morning, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, is unity and diversity. Martin Luther King was one of our greatest Christian leaders and he was one of our greatest national leaders, and I’m trying to think about unity and diversity from his perspective, as if he were living through the events of these last few years with us. And as I begin this morning I find my mind drifting back to those words I learned as a schoolboy, the words I had to stand up and address to the flag with my hand on my heart every day at the start of class: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
And right there, in that single sentence, is an illustration of the problem we face today and have always faced as a nation. As a nation, we uplift unity. We are after all, the United States of America, one nation, under one God, indivisible. And yet, when have we ever truly been unified? There have always been differences of opinion. There have always been political battles. There have always been class, and economic, and racial, and gendered divisions and inequalities in our national life. And when has there ever been liberty and justice for all?
As the prophet Isaiah said: after God had blessed the house of Israel with every blessing, God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” And there has always been violence in America. We’ve spilled blood over and over again—Native Americans, Black Americans, immigrants, women, organized labor, children, LGBTQ people. We spill blood out of greed, out of fear, out of hate, exploiting, subjugating, terrorizing. We spill blood trying to get rid of the people who we don’t think belong inside our unity, we spill blood trying to maintain control over people we don’t want to let out of our unity. There’s something about the United States that needs unity, but when have we ever been truly unified? Liberty and justice have always been valued in America, diversity has always been a part of America, but when has there ever been liberty and justice for all?
Now, as Christians and Americans, I think many of you who are listening to me right now, sense that we have some responsibility for unity, and some responsibility to diversity, and to liberty and justice for all. But, if you’re anything like me, a lot of the time you probably don’t know what to do about it. Can there be unity at a time like this? Is it even advisable? There are a lot of toxic and dangerous people out there! How can we allow ourselves to get on the same page with people who seem to have devoted themselves to disinformation, hatred, and anger? How do you work with that, while staying true to your ideals? How can you be unified with people who are working to undermine the very democracy that we’re supposed to be unified in?
And yet in a previous decade, a decade that resembled ours in many ways with its polarization, hatred, violence, and systemic disenfranchisement, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose a message of unity. He chose a message of unity to build a diverse movement to drive Jim Crow out of the South, to gain the right to vote for Black Americans, and to end the dehumanizing, violent lie of separate but equal. King never preached a message of us versus them. Instead, he preached the American dream: He preached the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and liberty and justice for all. He almost never backed down from a fight but engaged his detractors and his enemies with love, with compassion, and with an unfailing belief that a nation that had never been just or free for his people could come together and do better.
Where did that unfailing belief come from? Where did that hope come from? Well, if we go back even further in history, we come to our scripture reading for this morning, somewhere around the year 50. Paul is writing to the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts. And the second half of the reading more or less makes sense to us, but the opening here is a little confusing. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”
It's a little hard to parse. But I think it would help to give a little context. Apparently, most of the Corinthian church was composed of folks who had converted from the Greek, Roman, or Egyptian religions (aka pagans). They had been worshipers of Jupiter, Aphrodite, Athena, Isis, Osiris, Bacchus. A little of this, a little of that, probably. And, of course, they all would have recognized that the Roman emperor was divine, and they probably would have worshiped him too here and there. The Roman Empire was barreling rapidly toward the jumping-the-shark phase of its decadent downfall, and in an attempt to unify its citizenry, the emperor was declared a god about a century before Paul was writing, and temples and images were erected to him throughout the empire.
Worshiping the emperor would eventually become a sort of loyalty test to the state—one which, of course, no Christian could ever pass. Because when Caesar became a god, the empire declared of him, “Caesar kurios,” Caesar is Lord. And not only could Christians not say that, they chose to differentiate themselves from the spiritual and political values of the Roman Empire by declaring, in a statement of faith equal parts spiritual and political, as Paul does in our reading, “Jesus kurios,” Jesus is Lord. And in time, Christians would be persecuted by the empire for that defiance and that declaration.
And 1,900 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. also put his faith in and dedicated his life to not the power and the goodness of the empire, but to the power and goodness of God—God who, by creating all human beings in the image of God, made them all to be free and equal. King’s unfailing faith that a nation could come together in defiance of its true history to better live out its ideals was essentially a faith handed down to him from the earliest Christians who eked out a spiritual existence of hope and truth at the margins of an oppressive empire that was devouring the world and had declared itself God. The Civil Rights movement unified us not in a deified, idealized vision of US history, but in the promised vision of God’s future that will one day redeem all of history.
I’m thinking there’s a lesson here for us today. We don’t want to add to the polarization and hatred of our times. And we cannot compromise with conspiracy. We can’t give white nationalism a free pass. We can’t ignore the active and concentrated attack on the integrity of our election system, which is itself an attack on the very best of what America represents—an attack on truth, fairness, and unity. So, what can we do? Well, we’ve got to be clear about who we are. We can’t be so namby-pamby in the middle trying so hard to never offend anyone that we never say out loud what we actually believe and what we fundamentally refuse to believe. And standing on the rock of our faith, we’ve got to work with God and our neighbors for a better future. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Now, unity feels impossible. And it is. Perfect unity, as we’ve discussed, has never been a part of our history. But we’ve got to be clear about what’s fueling the disunity. The disunity that we’re disintegrating into is being fueled by chaos, conspiracy theories, lies, political extremism, selfish opportunism, pessimism, and despair. Facing all that, we may feel like unity is impossible. But what we have to see is that the drain of disunity that we’re circling is actively destructive. And so we have a choice: the sure path to destruction or the hard path to a better unity.
And what does a better unity look like? Is it a compromise with evil like we fear it might be? Or is it a unity, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, that clings to the very best of our traditions, that not only upholds our greatest achievements but makes them available to more people more reliably, and that moves closer and closer to liberty and justice for all. It’s a unity that is inclusive, not exclusive. It’s a unity that is selfless not selfish. It’s a unity that is fueled by love and not by hate. And that is the only future that is worthy of a people who are all siblings by virtue of being created in all their diversity in the Image of the Most High God.
And this is where our spiritual gifts have got to come in. And it’s so beautiful because Paul starts talking about these spiritual gifts, and what is he talking about? Well, he’s talking about diversity. There are a variety of gifts! There are a variety of services! There are a variety of activities! Diversity! Strength! Beauty! And there is One Spirit behind them all, bringing them together, activating them all in the body of Christ for the common good of all. Diversity and Unity!
The diversity of humanity and the unity of humanity come from the same source. They come from God. And it is well and good to look back to that source, to seek it out, to feel God’s love. And the spiritual maturity that will begin in such reflection, the manifestation of the spiritual gifts that come from God demand at some point that the questions change from “Why am I here?” and “Where did I come from?” to “Where are we going? And what shall we do?”
With that in mind, I’m going to be working with our ministries to put together a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. The Spiritual Gifts Inventory will be a fun, relatively short form that you can fill out that will tell your church a little bit more about your gifts, your skills, your traits, your passions. And we will be using those inventories to figure out a way to get you involved in furthering the mission of our church, in ways that are fulfilling to you as an individual and that will draw you into the unity of our diverse community. I predict it’s going to come out in February sometime. I hope when it does that you’ll fill it out as a way of connecting your diversity to God’s unity and raising your hand as someone who is interested in working with God for a better unity and a brighter future.
If we value both unity and diversity, we can’t—we won’t—give our allegiance to anything less the Whole. Don't give your allegiance to anything less than God. Don't let your future be determined by anything less than the Spirit of God activating your unique gifts. Don't let your future be determined by fear, by hate, by selfishness or despair. Give yourself to God, not in showy piety, not in private spirituality, not by lashing out at the world, give yourself to God by manifesting the gifts of the Spirit, and using them to further God’s Kingdom. Don’t you want to be a part of that sacred diversity? Don’t you want to be a part of that holy unity?
Overwhelmed with joy! Will you say that with me? Overwhelmed with joy! Our reading this morning says that the Magi were what? They were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw that the star had finally brought them to the end. I love that turn of phrase, “overwhelmed with joy.”
I love maybe even more the more literal translation of the King James Bible. It says, “They rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Say that with me: they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. It feels good just to say it, right? Joy in the mouth.
Slightly different emphases in those two translations. “Overwhelmed with joy” sounds like a flood of joy has risen up around you and swept you away. You were taken captive. You lost control. Joy is active, we are rushing down its river. “Rejoiced with exceeding great joy” puts us back in control. We decide that we’re going to glow in the dark, and our light will be joy. We sing, we shout, we high five, we unlock the bands around our hearts and let them free, let then run around in the yard and jump up on the company. It’s a party and we’re letting joy hang loose.
So, that’s an interesting question right there that God offers us just by reading two different translations: What is the nature of joy? Is joy a choice we make, an action of our hearts? Or is joy way bigger than our will—an ocean we’re floating on that can lie flat and still or that can toss us about ecstatically, depending on the weather? Or is it a little of both?
When was the last time you were overwhelmed by joy? When was the last time you rejoiced with exceeding great joy? When have you felt that in your life?
I remember being three-years old and walking with my aunt and cousins down the street. I’d been staying with them a few days, and it had been kinda stressful, and I asked, “Where are we going?” You know how when you’re three, you never really have any idea of what’s going on. And my aunt said to me, “We’re going to your house. Your baby sister is here!” The next thing I remember, my aunt was hollering my name from way behind me, “JEFFREY MANSFIELD come back here this instant and hold my hand, don’t you run in the street!” “But I’m excited to see the baby!” I said. Obviously! You know how when you’re three-years old and grownups don’t ever seem to really understand anything. I was so overwhelmed with joy, I just started running for home, to see the baby I’d been hearing about since I was two and a half. And there was nothing inside of me that could understand why such a joy should walk calmly down the street holding auntie’s hand.
Twenty-three years later, I was hiking up Mt Katahdin in Maine. It was the end of my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I had dreamed about hiking the trail since college, I began planning in earnest more than a year before, and I started hiking five months earlier on Springer Mountain in Georgia. After hiking 2,200 miles up and down every hill and mountain along the way, I was climbing the final peak—Katahdin in Maine.
And this hadn’t just been a physical journey for me, it had been something like a Magi journey, a spiritual journey. I had planned the trip as a way to prepare myself for going to seminary which was starting the following month. In a way, my arrival at Katahdin marked the arrival into my whole future and my calling. I was stepping from one world into another—and that’s a very holy thing. So, as I was racing up this incredibly steep and high mountain, I was already beginning to anticipate what it would feel like to stand on the marker at the top.
And when I got there—after hiking more than 2,000 miles through the woods by myself—there was a line. A bunch of day hikers who had woken up at 6 a.m. had gotten there ahead of me. And they were lined up, waiting for a turn to get their picture taken at the sign at the top of the mountain. So, I had to wait. It was a group with a lot of middle school kids in it, so they took their sweet time. This was not the way I had pictured it climbing up the mountain! But when my turn finally came, my aggravation blew away in a big gust of mountain wind, and the joy showed up. It was worth waiting in line for.
My guess is that’s there’s more joy in the world than we let ourselves feel. My guess is that there’s more joy in the world than we really have the time or the attention for. My guess is that we could make more room for joy. Joy ain’t easy. It’s easy to feel annoyed. It’s easy to feel frustrated. It’s easy to feel outraged. For me anyway. Maybe for you too? But joy? That’s a harder emotion to come by. But once it gets going, it floods the whole house—from cellar to rafters! But sometimes you turn the tap, and the pipes just bang and grunt, and nothing comes out.
Maybe the Magi’s story is a pathway for finding the source of our great joy, for opening the right door. First, these wise ones were astronomers and astrologers. They look up into the sky—they look up into heaven—with a mix of the left brain and the right brain, a mix of conscious rationality and unconscious mystery, a mix of science and magic. They aren’t only one kind of thing. They aren’t extremists. They’re balanced. They’re wise. I think this is about a way of seeing the world—not all good or all bad, not all material or all spiritual. They are faithful, and that means they’ve got their heads up. And they’re looking for anything that moves or blinks or shines up there.
They have open minds about the heavens. Maybe you could say they have an open mind about God. And that allows them to see something that nobody else saw. It allows them to see a star rising, and it allows them to understand that it’s a star about a baby, and a people, and a religion hundreds or thousands of miles away. It wasn’t their baby, it wasn’t their people, it wasn’t their country, it wasn’t their religion. It was different than they were, but they allowed it to come through the door anyway. They let it into the house, even though it was a stranger. They said to it, “Make yourself at home,” and they must have meant it.
Now there are times in life when joy can seem really far away. Tragedy strikes, the floodwaters rise, and they don’t stop at the sandbags. They come right into house. The wind blows the grassland fire into your town, and when you finally come back to what was your home, there’s nothing left but smoke and rubble. The tornado touches down, the earthquake shatters, the volcano melts, the tumor spreads, the freezing refugee is turned away, the bruised child is ignored, the poor are forgotten, neighbor rises against neighbor, truth is silenced by the noise of lies, and the great powers gather and instead of finding solutions, they declare war. There are times when joy seems really far away.
But let’s not confuse happiness and joy. Happiness is a feeling—a very good feeling! But in no life is happiness always on top. In every life there comes sadness and mourning and tragedy and injustice. But joy is different. Joy is a perspective on life that when practiced faithfully can endure that greatest of tragedies. Joy does not need to faint in the face of terrible sadness. In fact, joy knows that the purpose for its existence is to sustain us in the hardest of times. Joy is the choice we make to endure. It’s the choice we make keep going. It’s the choice we make not to give up the journey.
Journeys aren’t always happy. You don’t always want to go, but you realize, at some point, that you’ve got to go. Or that you want to go. Or that you don’t want to go, but something’s got to change, and it won’t change unless you risk the travel yourself. That’s what the Magi did. They said, “Well, this changes everything. It’s far away and risky. But we’re going.” Why’d they do it? I think it’s because before they ever started, they knew what joy was. It doesn’t always make sense why we decide to finally move. Joy is a power greater than reason. And joy, when we live it, keeps us moving. Aggravation and depression and fear and worry will come get you, and tell you, come hide with me under the bed. But joy’s up on the roof of the house somewhere. It’s down the road a ways, calling uis. It’s a tiger in the grass at the edge of the forest outside town—its stalking you, but it’s not going to pounce, until you get real close. So you gotta keep going.
Maybe most importantly of all, toward the end of their journey, these three Magi, these learnéd ones, allowed everything they had ever known about stars up until that point to be thrown out the window. I mean tell me, really, how do you follow a star? How does a star stop over one specific house? That’s not how stars work! It doesn’t make any sense. And who better to know it than three astronomers? It was impossible. It shouldn’t have worked. They had certainly never seen anything like it before. It didn’t make any sense. They let it lead them anyway.
Does joy always make sense? Do you want it to? Or do you want to feel joy even when the world is too ordinary for it to be expected? Do you want to feel joy when you win the lottery? Only when you win the lottery? Or do you want to feel joy when you win the lottery of waking up? Of eating breakfast? Of washing your dishes? Why should joy make sense? Joy is bigger than reason and sense.
And, so, the Magi were overwhelmed with joy. They rejoiced with exceeding great joy. They had earned it, sure. They earned it by paying attention, by opening the door, by accepting the quest. But when joy fell down on them like a star that makes no sense, like a poem leaping with images, like a three-year-old running down the middle of the street, like a baby born in a barn, I think that joy must have felt bigger than anything they could have planned, bigger than any choice they had ever made. It must have felt like grace. It must have felt like all at once coming alive and then disappearing into joy.
When I was about twelve years old, my family took a vacation to Canada. We were going to Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia or somewhere and the way we got there was by taking a long ferry ride on a BIG boat that we drove onto. It was a stormy day, and the seas were rough and everyone on this boat was feeling a little grey and lackluster.
I don’t really understand how this worked, but somehow once this ferry was far enough out in the water, it also transformed into a casino. So, let’s recap: long trip, big boat, adults distracted by seasickness, 12-year-old boy, casino.
Now, despite being in international waters or wherever we were, there was still some draconian measure in place that prevented 12-year-olds from gambling with the adults. So, a staff member directed me to the children’s gambling section filled with a bunch of no-guts, no-glory slot machines deemed harmless enough for the grammar-school crowd. No thanks. As of that moment, the only gamble that interested me was the one where I snuck into the real casino and pulled the arm of a real slot machine. In a crowded commotion of queasy adults, I snuck past the defenses and into a dark, smoky corner of slot-machine heaven--where no one would ever find me.
If you’ve ever become separated from your child or from a child you were close to, I’m sure you can sympathize with how my poor mother and father were feeling at that particular moment, in high seas, with their child nowhere to be found. It must have been something like what Mary and Joseph were feeling when their slightly more wholesome 12-year-old snuck off to the Temple rather than the casino. The only difference was that I ran out of money long before Jesus ran out of questions.
And when I saw my mother’s tears and my father’s scowl, I decided strategically that this was not the right moment to ask for more quarters, as I had planned to do. My dad went off to let the captain know that I had not, in fact, fallen overboard. And my mom just held onto me and cried. Moms, right? She told me that she was afraid that a gust of wind might have blown me into the ocean, and I rolled my eyes, and I still do, but I also felt for the first time that this whole growing up thing was really taking a toll on my poor mom. So, when she made me promise that I would never do anything like that again, I said OK, even though I felt myself starting to be called out from the security of my little family into that bright, neon, flashy, risky gamble called the World.
And these parental instincts never disappear. In my early thirties, my mom and dad came to visit me in the city where I was well established. And after I dropped my parents off at their hotel in Midtown, Mom suggested that she and my dad should walk me the three blocks back to the subway to make sure I got on OK. These instincts, this tension will always be with us.
And as Christians, cherishing the baby Jesus who has just been born to us again, we can have similar instincts and reactions. Being among the first shepherds to kneel down at the manger, or wandering with the Wise Ones following a star and a hope, or feeling Jesus conceived and born within us anew is a profoundly powerful, emotional, and intimate experience—one which our instincts and our faith seem to say we should hold onto, guard, protect—don’t let him out of your sight! So, sometimes, Jesus, the Light of the World feels like MY light—and it’s just a little infant light, so precious and so precarious in the darkness which threatens to overcome it that I must protect it from the world. And after all, if Jesus is my personal savior, shouldn’t he be sticking close by me? When I was saved, wasn’t there a non-compete clause of some kind in there? Isn’t Jesus mine, all mine?
Sometimes we start telling ourselves this story. Jesus is pure and simple. The world is fallen and complicated. And so there are places that our pure and simple boy ought not to go. We’re in control, you see? If not us, then who? And if we’re God’s parents (and not the other way around), we’re going to need to pin God down. We want to be able to say with objective accuracy about Jesus or our own spiritual journey: here, but not there; this, but not that. Jesus is the Emmanuel, which means God with us. But sometimes we want to read that as Emmanuel, God with us, but not with them.
When take Jesus the Salvator Mundi, the Savior of the World, who is joined with us in the project of preparing this world for the coming Kingdom of God, and shrink him into just a personal totem who reflects me more than he redeems me, I’m going to need to post a guard around that small and vulnerable vision of God. So, we surround Jesus with Christian soldiers ready to do battle to defend him where he is and conquer the places where we have determined that he is not. But the baby Jesus wasn’t born in a fortress surrounded by legions of soldiers. He was born in a barn, laid down in a feeding trough, into a perilous world, surrounded by shepherds.
When I was a kid, I learned to draw by reading comic books. So, whenever I drew people, they were covered with these big, bulging muscles and they were shooting death rays out of their eyes and things like that. This style even made its way into my religious art. My boyhood Jesus was just this ripped and powerful superhero. It’s comforting to think of Jesus like Superman or Hercules—the kind of guy sent into the world to “clean house.” Wouldn’t it be nice if that’s what Jesus had been doing when his parents found him in the temple—kicking butt and taking names? But instead of displays of power and feats of strength, Luke says Jesus was just sitting there, hanging out. Instead of stealing the show, it says that Jesus was just listening—listening and asking questions. And Fear rises up in us and says to us, “This poor sucker doesn’t stand a chance out there.”
Jesus, Mary and Joseph have just learned, has come not to be born only into their hearts, into their family, but to be born into the whole world and to everybody. Let’s face it–it’s risky and it might be heartbreaking to be a part of a family like that. Let’s face it–we don’t like everybody! But in the Temple Jesus identifies his true parentage. He’s not God’s parent. God is his parent. And he steps beyond the traditional boundaries of family into the big, messy family of all of us–a whole world that Jesus has come not to conquer, but to make himself available to, to sit with, to listen to, to ask questions of, and to serve.
One of the most beautiful things about the Temple where Jesus snuck off to was that there was a room right in the heart of it called the Holy of Holies. The room was behind a beautiful curtain, and no one was allowed to go in there except the high priest once a year because the Holy of Holies was the room where God was. I think that’s so audacious that it’s just stunningly beautiful. This is the room where God lives. Where’s God, you ask. Right over here, behind the curtain, is the presence of the God of the universe. Wow.
Incredible. Still, our spiritual sensibilities have changed a lot in the intervening thousands of years. Imagine if we invited people into church and showed them a room or an altar or a box—anything, and told them this is where God is, God’s right here. Look no further. What would people think of us?
Don’t believe the big culture lie. The big culture lie is that we’re all becoming more secular, and people are less interested in God than ever before. That’s just not true. People nowadays just have different expectations, different language, different experiences, different opportunities, different theologies. They drive past our church and everything about the church says, “God is in here.” That was once the most audacious and attractive thing any church or temple could have ever claimed. People heard that message. It resonated. But nowadays a lot of people have stopped believing you can stick God in a box, or behind a curtain, or inside the walls of any one church.
Part of the postmodern condition is believing that God is so lost that anyone who says, “I know just where God is, I’ve got God right over here,” must be nuts, or running a scam. And so in order for people to experience the very same God that I experience, I have let that God out of my box. And what’s wrong with that? Did Jesus just sit around in one place? Did he only hang around with respectable religious sorts? Wasn’t he always moving? So, what would it look like if we believed that Jesus was more present outside these walls than inside them? How would that change the way we think about ministry? How might that change the message?
And when the hungry world shows up at our door and says, “Where’s God in all this mess? Tell me, is Jesus real? What’s the point of all your prayers? Where’s the meaning in all your beliefs? Show me the beauty, the truth, and the goodness that I’m longing for but can’t find,” we could say to them, “Follow us out the door, and down the street a little. We’ll show you where to find Jesus. He’s not lost. He’s just over here.”
I didn’t grow up regularly saying grace before meals. We were a Christmas-dinner and Easter-dinner grace kind of family. So even today I don’t usually say grace before meals. But then Romey, my 2-year-old son, about six months ago or so, invented his own version of grace. At some point, usually at the beginning of the meal, he holds out his hands, which is the signal that we should all hold hands around the table. And then Romey, who is usually is making a lot of noise while he’s eating, just silently looks around the table and gives everyone their own very intentional, meaningful look. He just looks you right in the eye and holds it. And then looks at the next person and holds it. Isn’t that a wonderful way to do grace?
This grace that Romey invented reminds me of this spiritual support group I joined about ten years ago. Every week we opened our session with a ritual which we called the “Left-Eye Gaze.” We’d all be sitting in a circle, and each person would look into the left eye of every other person and hold their gaze for about three breaths before moving on to another person. The reason you gaze into the left eye is so that you don’t shift your attention back and forth from eye to eye—you just stare, unblinking and undistracted, directly into another person’s eyes, and breathe.
It was an intense experience. It feels like you’re totally exposed, and it feels like you’re looking into a sacred, almost forbidden place. It’s a soul gaze. It felt explosive, like anything could happen. And with practice, the armor starts to fall off. And that ritual of meeting one another with that look was the basis of this deep and intimate connection we were building in this group.
Now, when I imagine what motivated Mary to leave home and to go visit Elizabeth at this point in her life, I imagine that she was looking for something like this kind of intimacy and connection. To everyone else, Mary’s assertions that there was an angel and a conception by, let’s call it, an interaction with the Holy Spirit was probably a little bit too much—more than they could believe. But Mary might have thought that Elizabeth could handle her story.
Because Elizabeth had never had children and she was too old to get pregnant, but the Angel Gabriel had showed up to her family six months before arriving to Mary. And when the angel showed up, Elizabeth conceived a baby. Now, no one knew about the angel, but because of her Elizabeth’s age, Mary (who was related to Elizabeth somehow) must have known that something special had happened to her. And maybe Mary thought about going to visit her, to find out what happened, but Elizabeth was in seclusion while she was pregnant. She put herself in lockdown.
And then six months later the angel shows up to Mary, and she conceives too. Now that inkling in Mary’s heart that something special must have happened to Elizabeth becomes this deep need to seek out her cousin, and to be with her, to have the chance to tell her story to someone who will be able to hear and believe it. Isolation be darned, Mary rushes off into the hill country to Elizabeth’s house, throws open the door, and calls Elizabeth’s name.
And, in my imagination, the baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, she turns around and sees Mary, their eyes meet—one long intimate gaze in which everything is revealed. And with her child kicking in her belly, Elizabeth opens her mouth with a joyful shout and gives Mary the gift she needed most—affirmation; Yes, child, I know it’s all true, I saw it as soon as I saw you, without you even having to tell me, I know it’s true and I’m right here with you.
Now, there are lots of ways to be together and to communicate with one another. Mary could have written her cousin a letter. She could have sent a messenger. Nowadays, she could have called her up, or more likely just texted her—a bunch of baby and angel emojis. Yes, we’re blessed now with technology that helps us to remain closer even when we are isolated, but I think we all know that this moment, this visitation, what happened between these two women, could only have occurred through an in-person meeting. They needed to be that close.
Mary and Elizabeth experienced what I think most of us know deep down—that we encounter the intimacy of God more fully (at least some of the time) when we’re within the intimacy of community. When we can’t show up in person, we have options to maintain and even to start new relationships—and that’s wonderful! We have members, who we love and are praying for right now, watching in California! But at some point, most of us do desire to get as close to our community as Mary and Elizabeth got to each other.
Nobody needs me to discuss how complicated being together in person has gotten! Nobody needs me to remind them of how hard it is for everybody, or that for some of us it’s even harder still. But I do think we need to hear this reminder: Showing up in person is a Christian value. Showing up in the flesh is uniquely, intimately Christian. It’s what Christ did for us on the first Christmas! And when we do it for one another, it is a form of grace—a grace we can share with one another, an intimacy that heals the broken and wounded places in our bodies and spirits.
We’ve gotten used to the safety of isolation. We’ve adjusted to low expectations for turnout. We’ve all felt the convenience of a virtual life. But if we lose sight of the undeniable truth that meeting in person is holy, we’ll lose an essential element from the character of our faith.
Remember that the little manger where Christ was born was not an isolated cave in the wilderness somewhere. It was inside a small city, right behind an inn overflowing with travelers, and it was soon filled up with a bunch of strangers and their sheep! The desire for Christmas is not just a desire to meet God in the flesh, it’s a desire to meet our own deep humanity and to meaningfully connect to the humanity of others. The call home to the manger is a call out into our world, a call to re-connect, and then like Mary does, to sing. And she sings, “My soul will magnify the Lord!”
Because all Christians are called to be magnifiers. In the struggle between the world’s darkness and God’s light, people of faith need to have the sense to find even the tiniest grains of joy, the weakest gleams of hope, the faintest tinglings of love. And which is the greatest of our senses? Is it sight? Is it Touch? Hearing? Smell? Taste? No, the greatest human sense organ is the vast and sensitive network that is our human community. One person alone doesn’t know much, can’t accomplish much. But when we come together for the good, we’re unstoppable. We can magnify a tiny look across the table into something called grace. We can magnify a short visit into something called affirmation. We can magnify a shoestring budget and a few volunteers into a declaration of love to our community called The Advent Experience. People who just live near each other, we magnify those relationships until we feel like we’re all neighbors. We magnify two or three people gathered together into a communion filled with the presence of God, the love of Christ, the power of the holy Spirit.
Yes, beloved, our souls magnify the Lord!
And they do it together!
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.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations