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“Wars and Insurrections”: A Sermon for November 13, 2016

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Many of you asked for a copy of the sermon I preached for the Lutherans. I was filling in for a friend of mine who’s on maternity leave. Here is an approximation of it.

May my words be faithful or may the slip harmlessly away.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Peace Lutheran Church
November 13, 2016
Luke 21:5-19 

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

~

One of my Sunday morning rituals for many years was to drive to church with the radio tuned to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. And while I like Rachel Martin, the current host, just fine, for me Liane Hansen will always be the voice of Weekend Edition Sunday. (Yes, even folks in their 40s can get set in their ways.)

One of the things I miss on that program is the Voices in the News, a feature that was sadly discontinued 8 years ago. During this segment they would play short quotes from various world leaders or celebrities, in their own voices. It was sort of an audio collage of the events of the previous week.

This morning I want to keep that spirit alive, so, “Here were some of the voices in the news this past week.”

“For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”

“I feel pride and gratitude for this wonderful campaign that we built together. This vast, diverse, creative, unruly, energized campaign. You represent the best of America, and being your candidate has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”

“Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country.”

Part of the fun of Voices in the News on NPR was trying to figure out who was speaking and what they were talking about. I will save you that mystery and say we heard words from the Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In the midst of that, here’s another voice, not from the news this week, but echoing down through the generations:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

I imagine some of you are thinking, “Yeah, tell me about it.” For the second time in less than two decades, we have a president who was elected without winning the popular vote, let alone half of the population that didn’t vote for anyone at all. That’s not to say that the election was illegitimate—it wasn’t—it’s to say that we’re very divided. And to some of us, it does feel like two nations rising up against one another. You can draw the lines of how people voted in a number of different ways, if you’re so inclined to draw lines: Democrat and Republican, of course, but there’s white and people of color, red state and blue state, or perhaps what’s interesting me the most, the incredible divide between urban city centers, highly populated and diverse, and exurban, townships and rural populations, less densely populated and more white, but who have felt forgotten and discounted by a global economy and who rose up to make their voices heard on Tuesday.

To say nothing of the divide between those who are saying “it’s time to come together and unite behind the president” while others are still howling with grief, and in some cases expressing outright resistance to the vision offered by the president-elect.

I don’t know if Pastor Sarah ever admits this to you but there are times when we preachers look at the lectionary texts for a specific Sunday and feel like the Holy Spirit is punking us. How about a little “nothing can separate us from the love of God,” huh? Or a nice juicy “God is making all things new!”?

But instead we get this horror show of violence and pestilence. “Betrayed by relatives and friends?” Yes, many of us feel exactly that way, as we can’t for the life of us understand how loved ones could have voted for the other guy, or gal. The dread over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is building even now.

As Christians, who follow a God who is reconciling the world to Godself, these divisions are painful. They’re obviously painful when our “side” does not prevail and they can be painful even when it does.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), in which I am ordained, we’ve been having a decades-long fight over sexual orientation as it relates to ordination of ministers, and also same-sex marriage. We’ve settled those matters for the most part, taking a stand for inclusion and affirming the gifts and ministries of all whom God may call to serve, or to marry. But with this decision has come a number of congregations voting to leave our denomination. I’m thinking about one particular congregation that went through a months-long discernment that came to a vote. Because separating from the denomination is such a grave matter, the vote had to reach a 2/3 majority, a supermajority, 67%.

When the votes were counted, the congregational vote was 64%.

And my heart broke. As much as I support same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons, and as much as I didn’t want that church to leave our fellowship, to have a healthy majority vote to go, but not be able to go, felt like the worst case scenario.

And I have a similar feeling of dis-ease now.

We are divided. And the gospel doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that division will happen. It’s been said that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated phrases in all of scripture. For good reason—fear paralyzes us, turns neighbor against neighbor. Fear suppresses our creativity and our empathy. But even Jesus seems to sense that the picture he paints here are even more intense than usual, because instead of saying “do not be afraid,” he says, “do not be terrified.”

It’s as if Jesus knows that living in tumultuous times doesn’t just make us uneasy, doesn’t just make us jumpy, doesn’t just make us afraid. We’re talking about a bone-chilling terror. And Jesus says, Don’t. Don’t be terrified. And not because I’m going to calm the waters, or make wars cease, or deliver you from the shadow of death. I’m not. Not here, not right now.

Jesus says don’t be terrified—because sometimes turmoil is the thing God works through. Don’t be terrified, because turmoil turns out to be one of God’s specialties. Turmoil is the raw material God used at the foundation of the world, the chaos that God scooped up and fashioned into order and goodness and light. And God can do it again.

Don’t be terrified—because God’s determined to use us in that vital, creative, gospel work. God needs us all to be ready and willing to step into places of pain and loss and vulnerability, and testify with the words that God will give us.

We’re hearing reports this week of harassment, and unrest, and in some cases outright violence, in the wake of the election. Some of it has been directed toward people who supported Donald Trump. But much of it has been directed at immigrants. At gay people—a friend shared a letter that was placed on a car windshield filled with slurs and hate. At Muslim women, having their hijabs ripped off. At women, who are harassed on the street. An elementary and a middle school near where I live in Fairfax County were vandalized this week, with the words “Illegals Go Home” spray-painted on the side—and windows broken out. That’s in Northern Virginia. These are our neighbors.

It is not partisan to call those incidents appalling and contrary to the gospel.

So what is our call as a church in this time and place?

Some of you have probably heard about the safety pin campaign. It began after Brexit, when anti-immigrant sentiment started bubbling. People started wearing safety pins on their clothing as a message to immigrants, Muslims and other vulnerable populations: You are safe with me. I will stand with you.

Now the ugliness has flared up on our shores, and with it the safety pin campaign. And there’s some conversation about whether the safety pins are helpful, or helpful but not enough, and so on.

But what’s concerning me right now isn’t the safety pins. What’s concerning me is that vulnerable people look at the cross around our neck, or the bumper sticker on our car, and don’t see that as a sign of solidarity. Do people see us as safe people, not because of a pin, but because we are followers of Jesus Christ? If they don’t, then we have lost our way, and that is our most urgent issue to address.

These are tough times for many people. And sometimes I just want to hide. I want a different set of challenges. I want a different text. I don’t like this image of the world in the balance. When I think about our warring and warming world, I feel so often like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, this little hobbit who’s given this incredible task of destroying the ring and its destructive power:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.

I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” We are called to endure. We are called to do the hard work and let God guide the outcome. We are called, not to be successful. Not to prevail. Not to win. But to endure. And to trust that God will give us the words and the actions. As has been quoted in the Talmud, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I’m going to take a guess about something. I’m guessing that as thrilled as you are that Pastor Sarah had a healthy baby, that you wish she were here today. It feels uncomfortable to have someone you don’t know in front of you, especially those of you who are feeling lost and adrift. Well, she’ll be back soon enough, but I’m sorry to say that now is not the time for comfort. We do need to be sanctuary for people who are afraid and vulnerable. But I think one of the problems we face as a Christian church is that our comfort has led to complacency, not competence. I return again and again to the book Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deveare Smith. She talks about writing workshops, where people who are studying writing share their work and receive critiques from their professors and fellow students. Deveare Smith warns against writing workshops that are too cozy and comfortable: “I don’t believe in promising students safety. The world is just too rough for that at the moment. I think we should teach resilience.”

And so we shall.

It feels sometimes like the world is coming unspooled. But as singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer said in an interview recently, “The good news is that the things that have always saved us are still here to save us. Generosity, compassion, hospitality, a good sense of humor, good parenting… these things did not go away because of a rancorous election. They’re still here and completely accessible to us.”

A friend of mine is pastor of a church that’s across the street from the elementary school that was vandalized. She tells me that the church is creating a banner, a statement of support from the church to the school. They are community partners, and I have no doubt they will find tangible ways to stand with the terrified in the face of hate. Because what’s always saved us is still here to save us. Neighborliness, grace, courage… and the spirit of Christ, who was hated and reviled, and put to death, and who rose again, and is with us in the struggle.

Thanks be to God.

~

Image: “You are a cherished part of our community,” a chalk message outside a mosque in Springfield, Illinois.

Find One Another: A Sermon on the Feeding of the 5,000+

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This past weekend I had the joy of preaching for two friends who are on sabbatical/away for the weekend. Here’s the sermon:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
July 19, 2015
Trinity Presbyterian Church – Herndon
Matthew 14:13-21

“Moral Bucket List”: Feeding the 5,000

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

~

It is wonderful to be here as a guest preacher for Becca and Stephen, two of my most treasured colleagues.

One of the things that the churches I used to serve know about me is that I often get hung up on very small things in the scripture. So when I was talking to Becca this week, she said, “What will you be preaching about?” There are so many possibilities in this text—Jesus’ healing, the miracle of more than 5,000 people being fed—but I told her I would be be preaching on the words “this” and “it.”

When Jesus heard “this,” he went away to a deserted place.
Then it says the crowds heard “it” and followed him.
What did they hear? What are the “this” and the “it”?

Well if you skip back a few verses, you know it’s terrible news.

It’s the death of John the Baptist. He’d been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and according to Mark, his wife asked for his head on a platter… and she got it.

Why? Because that’s what unchecked power does.
That’s how power proves its own dominance and might.
They did it for entertainment.
They did it because they could.

That’s the “this” and the “it” that got Jesus and the crowds to their feet and on the move: the death of a prophet at the hands of the state.
It’s the kind of news that would get its own graphic on CNN.
It’s the kind of news that starts trending on Twitter: Hashtag Hebrew Lives Matter.

When Jesus heard this—when Jesus received the news about the death of his cousin—he went away to a deserted place. And when the people heard “it,” they went after him. Jesus’ flight into the wilderness is understandable—he probably needed some time and space to grieve and collect himself. But we don’t know why the crowds went. Maybe they’re feeling scared for Jesus—maybe they worry he’ll be next and they want to protect him. Maybe they’re curious to see what he’ll do. Maybe they’re frightened for themselves. All kinds of possibilities there.

I was drawn to “this” and “it” this week, because of all the “thises” and the “its” that we’ve been confronted with lately, that we’ve been hearing. For us this summer, IT is Charleston. IT is the confederate flag. IT is Baltimore on fire. Just this week, IT is six deaths in Chattanooga in an act of horrific violence. IT is a black woman in Texas who died in jail under suspicious circumstances after being arrested after not using her turn signal. IT, by the way, is also the realization that Atticus Finch may not have always been the shining paragon of virtue we thought he was or wanted him to be.

And in the midst of the thises and the its—here we are, like that crowd, come from our homes and towns, for our own various reasons, but maybe because we really need to be close to Jesus. With so much horror in the world at the moment, I’m calmed and oddly cheered by this image of people flocking to one another in the wake of John’s dastardly execution by Herod. Coming together, clinging to one another, receiving Jesus’ healing and the bread from heaven. What else can we do in these dark days?

Since I’m not your regular preacher, I can tell you that we pastors have our version of gallows humor. When terrible things happen in our world—things that demand a comment and a gospel response from pulpits like this one—one of the things we grouse to one another about is why they so often seem to happen on Friday and Saturday?! …usually when the sermon has been written and finished. Or even if it isn’t, you’ve been working with a gospel text that seems to have nothing to do with the tragedy that has just happened. It leads to a lot of late Saturday nights and a lot of laments: Why couldn’t it have happened on Tuesday? Tuesday’s good.

I know it’s silly and sad. When bad things happen, the least important part of it is whether it inconveniences the clergy. But make no mistake—over email, and in private Facebook spaces, the pastors like to feel a bit sorry for themselves.

And yet, if terrible things are going to happen, maybe Friday/Saturday is the right timing, so people of faith can come to their churches and synagagues and mosques, can draw together and pray to God, and receive comfort and strength for the living of dark days.

Back in the late 1950s, a researcher named Stanley Schachter conducted an unusual experiment. Schachter convinced college-aged women that they would receive a series of electric shocks about 15 minutes later. Some were told that these shocks would barely tickle, and others were told they would be very painful. Participants were then asked whether they wanted to wait for their shocks in a room alone, or with other people. Those who believed the shocks would be mild generally did not care whether or not they had neighbors in their waiting room. But people who believed that shocks would be painful strongly preferred being near others, On Schachter’s logic, this exposed a powerful rule about social behavior: in times of anxiety, people seek each other out. Like penguins in February, we tend to face adversity by gathering up.[1]

This summer, you all are in a sermon series of sorts, consider elements of the “moral bucket list.” Today I want to suggest another one:

Find one another.

But not just any kind of gathering will do.

When the people flocked to Jesus, they came on foot. They didn’t bring their donkeys and camels, assuming they even had those things. They came only with what they could carry, which probably wasn’t very much. As we’ll find out later in the story, the didn’t even bring that much food with them.

When the people came, they just brought themselves. They went to a deserted place, in search of compassion and healing. They came in their weakness.

And then after Jesus is finished with them—dispensing a little teaching, offering a little healing, notice what the disciples say. Ok, it’s over now. They’re hungry now Jesus, so send them out to buy food. To buy food. Send them back into the marketplace; throw them back into the machinery of commerce. We don’t have anything for them here, but that’s OK, they can buy a little food, a little sustenance, buy a little comfort.

Becca mentioned to me that some of you attended the Taylor Swift concert earlier this week. Anyone? Guess what, I was there too with my two daughters. One of the things I love about concerts is this feeling of community. And she talked about that on stage. She said, “I need you all to know, that when I have tough days, I will remember this time we spent together.”

I believe that’s true… and at the same time, let’s be honest that this is a community that was created because we all bought very expensive tickets, and came together for the purpose of being entertained by a 26 year old pop star. And entertained we were. But that’s not the kind of community I’m talking about.

One of the seductive challenges of our culture is how many opportunities to have that Taylor Swift kind of experience. It feels like community, and on some level it is—but it’s not long-standing, and it’s not on the deep level that we need to confront the “thises” and the “its.” The disciples’ quick fix solution—send them out to go shopping—reveals how conditioned we are to transact our way into a sense of security… whether it’s a gated community, or a concealed weapon, or just surrounding ourselves with people who look like we do, think like we do, earn what we do, come from where we come from, shop at Trader Joe’s and listen to NPR.

And Jesus will have none of that. He rejects the disciples’ suggestion that the people engage in a little retail therapy. He sees that solution for the failure of imagination that it is. He says, Don’t go out and buy something. Everything we need is right here. Have you even taken stock of what we have? Can you trust that God can work with what’s already here?

And when he takes those gifts and cradles them in his hands, he looks to heaven and he gives thanks. Not a magic trick. What Jesus is doing is putting the focus on God, where it’s supposed to be. He’s modeling what we are called to do when we find one nother, when we come together. It’s not about saying, OK, we’re going to be all right because there are a lot of us. If we just huddle up, we’ll make it through. It’s not about strength in numbers. It’s about weakness in numbers. It’s about God doing something amazing in that weakness.

We must find one another—not in our strength, but in our vulnerability, trusting God, not our own abilities, to bring us through every this and it life may throw at us.

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in her book about the worst Rally Day EVER. She had worked her fingers to the bone, rented a cotton candy machine, helped pull together all the needed stuff for a burger cookout in front of the church…all to attract new folks to join the journey of House of All Saints and Sinners. And 26 people showed up. And nobody put one red cent in the donations basket. So no new people came, and those that did were cheap.

It was a whole lot of nothing.

Until she remembered the joy of the people who came, because they started serving food to folks on the street. And the prayers she had received for her aching back. And she remembered that nothing is God’s favorite building material. When she shared the story at a Lutheran conference that same week, community was built over lunch on shared stories of failure, failure that God somehow transformed into a feast for thousands. And that was enough. That was five paltry loaves and two measly fish feeding 5,000 grieving and shell-shocked people.[2]

Joy Harjo writes in one of her poems about the power of people coming together around the simple human vulnerable act of eating. She says, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

“The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”

But then she makes a shift away from joy:

“At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

“Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”[3]

Sometimes it feels like the world’s coming to an end. Or maybe just the world as we know it, though that can feel just as cataclysmic. How vital, then, that we find one another.

John Lewis was about four years old, growing up among the pine forests and cotton fields of Pike County, Alabama, all the neighbors of his family were sharecroppers, and most of them were relatives. Every adult he knew was an aunt or an uncle, and every child a first or second cousin. One Saturday afternoon about fifteen of those children were outside playing in his Aunt Seneva’s dirt yard. Lewis remembers:

The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.

Lightening terrified me, and so did thunder. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around that day, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside.

The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake.

We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And the corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.[4]

It feels like a fragile house we’re living in, folks. But we live in it together. It’s the only way.

[1] http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/11/29/what-draws-people-together/

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Jericho Books/Hachette Book Group (New York, 2013), p. 105. Quoted by Michael Kirby in a paper for The Well preaching group.

[3] Joy Harjo, “Perhaps the World Ends Here”

[4] John Lewis, Walking with the Wind.

 

Jesus the Snarky?

jesus_laughing21I’m preaching for a bunch of preachers in two weeks, at an event called the Festival of Homiletics, or as many of us affectionately call  it: Homies.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the text below from Matthew. I’d love to know what you hear in it, especially as it speaks to our current context. Jesus’ words about “what comes out of the mouth” speak to me about cheap talk, the proliferation of words in a world of cable news and Twitter, and yes, the rise of snarkiness.

And then what’s going on with Jesus’ reaction to the Canaanite woman in the second section? It’s not every day you hear a word from the Lord that makes you want to say “Ooh, burn!” (Yes I’m a child of the 80s.)

What is up with Jesus’ reaction? How do you hear this story?

I’m especially interested in thoughts from you non-churchy types.

Matthew 15

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.* And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Breaking the Pattern: A Sermon for Easter Sunday

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MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday
Matthew 28:1-10 

28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.
28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Sermon audio is here (for a few months anyway–our free account only keeps the most recent 10 sermons)

~

I have a quiz for you… let’s see whether your brains are sluggish from too much Easter candy. What is distinctive about these phrases?

Do, O God, no evil deed! Live on! Do good!

Ma is as selfless as I am.

Was it a car or a cat I saw?

Lonely Tylenol.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.

Yes, these are all palindromes. Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same forwards or backwards. So if you read any of these phrases from right to left (and disregarding the spaces) you’ll see the same phrase.

What you may not know is that this is palindrome week. All week long the dates have been the same backwards and forwards. Read them left to right or right to left, the numbers are the same:

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 4.33.06 PM

Each of these dates reads the same frontwards or backwards. 4-1-2-1-4. And the same would be true the next day. And the next and the next, all week long, April 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. (Yes, it takes a special kind of nerd to figure this out. I’m just the kind of nerd who enjoys it.)

There’s something very satisfying about a palindrome. It’s very clever when you spot it. There’s an internal pattern to it. Whichever direction you start reading, you’ll end up with the same message. It’s like a seesaw that’s perfectly balanced. There’s this sense of perfection—a statement that’s the same no matter how you look at it.

But you will notice that palindrome week ended today, April 20. 4-20-14 is no longer a palindrome. That pattern has been broken.

And that’s not just a numerical statement. That is a theological statement.

Because today isn’t just April 20, it’s Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, the day that breaks the old pattern. All of the days leading up to this one had their own logic and coherence. The world worked a certain way, backwards, forwards, however you looked at it… but on Resurrection Sunday, everything is turned upside down.

*          *          *

It is daybreak in Jerusalem. The sun is almost ready to spill its gold on the horizon. Maybe there is a mist on the ground, but it is not yet light enough for that mist to bathe the world in a holy glow. Instead that mist hangs over the city and countryside like a shroud.

It is daybreak, after the longest and saddest sabbath Mary and her friends had ever had.

Their friend and teacher had been arrested, beaten, humiliated and executed. His body had been anointed for burial and placed in a cave. The women make their way there, knowing what they will find: a stone rolled in front of the mouth of that cave with all the finality and silence of the whole world.

And as if the stone were not enough, there are guards. The poor women can’t even grieve in privacy, they have to deal with these agents of Rome, these smirking guards, who may have been the same ones who shoved a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, the ones who divvied up his clothes two days before.

And yet the women come. In Matthew’s telling, they don’t come to anoint the body—that’s already been done. They don’t come with any purpose whatsoever.

They just come to Jesus’ grave,
for the same reason that we visit cemeteries clutching tulips and hyacinths,
or listen to the song that we danced to at the wedding,
or make the Coca-Cola ham just like mother used to.

Because that’s what love and grief require of us.

But the women don’t have any expectation that something unexpected will happen. They know what they’ll find there. Grief, it seems, is its own sad palindrome—look at it frontwards, or backwards, it’s still the same message:

Dead is dead.
The lost ones stay lost.
There is no second chance.
The person is gone and there’s no bringing them back.

Except.
Except.
Except the pattern gets broken this one time.
This one time, two thousand years ago, a messenger comes and rolls up his dazzling white sleeves.
This one time this ambassador from the heavens puts his shoulder against that rock and strains and grunts to move it… or maybe he just flicks it with the power of his angelic fingers. This one time he climbs atop the rock, straddles it like a child and says,
“Look, Mary. Look.
He’s. Not. Here.”

This one time, life stares death in the face and said, “Not today you don’t.”

I don’t know how it happened. I don’t even know what happened. But it has to be more than just the miracle of spring. It has to be more than daffodils stretching their green stalks into the air, and baby birds in nests, and caterpillars turning into butterflies.

It has to be more than that. Otherwise there’s no reason for us to be here. We’ve got better things to do with a beautiful Sunday morning. There are lawns to be mowed; there are bags of mulch stacked along the driveway, waiting to be raked over the hard soil of winter. There’s that email that’s been sitting in your inbox for far too long; you really should answer it. And hey, those checkbooks aren’t going to balance themselves.

And yet here we are. And we’re here because we don’t know how it happened, but we believe—we hope—we know (we hope)… that it’s more than just a metaphor.

Something happened that one time—resurrection happened that one time—and because it did, we look at every other death and grief and dead end and heartache and illness and loss and struggle and say, This is not the end. This is not over, not near over.

*          *          *

Several years ago I was at a church conference. It was the year after my father died and that anniversary was weighing heavily on me. One of the speakers was praying a prayer before communion, and it was going on in the way that those prayers sometimes do, until she got to this line.

Now I know, I know that what was written in her script was “Love is stronger than death.”
And it is. And that’s what today is about.

But what she mistakenly said was, “Love is stranger than death.”
And it is. And that’s what today is really about.

Death is death, it follows the rules. People live, then they die. Beginning and ending, it’s the logic of the world. But love, especially Easter love, is strange. It is unpredictable. Love can bring life out of death; love can move a stone away from a tomb and empty it of its contents; love can inspire a band of women to feel joy and fear. Fear and joy.

They don’t get it; they’re a little freaked out by it… but they like it, and they can’t wait to tell the others. The pattern has been broken.

*          *          *

It’s been twenty years since Hutus took up hate and weapons against their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, leading to a genocide that claimed some one million victims. In the two decades since those terrible events, the heartache has continued and in some cases intensified.

You can see the heartache on their faces. Pieter Hugo took these photos twenty years after the genocide.

What you see here are perpetrators standing with their victims. [Click here to view]

Yes, reconciliation has also occurred. An organization called AMI has brought together Hutus and Tutsis for counseling and training, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.

Here are some of their voices.

“Mother Mukabutera Caesarea could not have known I was involved in the crimes against her, but I told her what happened. When she granted me pardon, all the things in my heart that had made her look at me like a wicked man faded away.”

“The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

“I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.”

“After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.” [source]

This is not what we expect. Hutus hated Tutsis and viciously attacked them. So of course Tutsis should hate them right back for what they did. It’s a palindrome—backwards, forwards, however you read it: hate begets hate. That’s what we expect to happen. That’s the way the world works. What goes around comes around. Someone hurts you, you hurt them right back. If your enemy has a weapon, you build a bigger one.

But love is stranger than death.

And this one time, a long time ago, the pattern got broken.

And because it happened that one time, it can happen all the time, again and again and again.

~

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

Out of the Shards: A Sermon for the NEXT Church National Gathering

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It has been an incredible week at NEXT Church. I’ve had very little to do with the inner workings of the conference, but I did have the opportunity to preach at the closing worship service. Here it is. (You can see some “summing up” statements and a few inside references.)

 32:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 32:2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 32:3a where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 32:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 32:8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. 32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 32:10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.

32:11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 32:12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.

32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 32:14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 32:15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Well, NEXT… here we are.

This week we’ve explored the deviance of Mr. Rogers.

We’ve strewn the chancel with sawdust and hand tools, and because it was a NEXT conference, there were Sharpies.

We’ve been ignited; we’ve been sorted into regions; we’ve been sent off to dinner with our prayers echoing in our ears; we’ve been folded and spindled.

We’ve disembarked from the ocean liner, safely in port, and instead joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

I stand here on this day, like Alika Galloway said on Monday, with equal parts hope and realism. And I find that an incredibly energizing place to be. And I can’t wait to talk to the congregation I serve about what has happened here… but I’m also at a loss for words to describe the experience.

We’re going back into our contested spaces. And we have to find a way to embody what’s happened here, but we’re also aware of how hard that is. Meanwhile, Sunday’s coming. Holy Week. Budgets to be balanced. Deferred maintenance to fret over. And neighbors in need. So, so much need.

If you’re like me, you’re going to want to schedule a few hours to sift through the notes you’ve taken here. You’re going to want to meet with a colleague who was here so you can debrief, or send an email to start planning that regional gathering, or pore over the liturgy so your congregation can break into pairs and do the confession and assurance in little groups of grace… You will certainly be talking to your finance committees to see how you might support the mission of NEXT.

And the day to day grind of ministry is going to make it very hard to stay NEXTy; and for some of us the pull back into ordinary time is too great; and sadly, a few of us are going to go home and run right smack into a funeral, so you know what… the picture of the waterfall on the screen on baptism Sunday is just fine.

What do we do with what has happened here? Where do we even start?

*          *          *

One of the benefits of experiencing a conference through Twitter is seeing instant feedback. Some of you are feeling the tension in the language of exile. I hear ya. Jeremiah’s call to build and plant and seek welfare is strong and clear, but in the Bible, that call comes amid exile, which is a complicated metaphor for us. We are not in exile. Declining membership is not exile. Losing our clergy parking space at the hospital is not exile.

But where we do feel a kinship with Jeremiah is that he, too, is living in a contested space. Jeremiah insists that God is at work through Babylon’s seige on Judah. The people’s displacement is a sign that God is up to something terrible and painful and important, and they put Jeremiah in jail for that message.
…Even while Jerusalem is getting crushed, apparently they’re not too busy to turn on one of their own.
…They’re not so defeated that they can’t throw Jeremiah in prison for sedition for daring to see God’s fingerprints on what is happening.

Now. None of us is likely to get thrown in the pokey for talking about NEXT—
…though the “deviant” thing will need a bit of unpacking.

But we have to take what we’ve experienced here and do something with it. And after hearing Jeremiah 29 for the past three days, here in chapter 32 he shows us a bit of how it’s done, when he buys a field in a land that’s in the process of being conquered, when he puts money down on a contested space and says “I claim this field for the saving work of God.”

Jeremiah is enacting what we’ve been hearing all week. He doesn’t try to break out of jail; he doesn’t mount a defense so he can be released. He does what he’s capable of doing. Does the next right thing as God has seen fit to show it to him. And he does it right where he is.

He’s improvising. That’s a word we heard a lot last year in Charlotte and not as much this year, but improv has been lurking around quietly here in Minneapolis. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and. When something is offered to you, you receive it and you build on it.

And Jeremiah nails it. What he’s offered is pretty straightforward. Buy the field. Buy it for yourself. And he does. This is the yes.

But then comes the ‘and.’ Jeremiah knows that the field is not just for himself. He is a prophet and this is for everyone. So he builds on the situation. He yes-ands it. He takes this mundane real-estate transaction between family members and makes a big show of it. He weighs out the money. Twice. He signs the deed—and I am picturing a big ol’ John Hancock with swoops and flourishes. He seals it. He makes two copies. And he brings in witnesses—witnesses to sign the deed and witnesses to watch what he’s doing, “all the Judeans in the court of the guard.” And I have to wonder exactly how many people there really are milling around the palace jail, but Jeremiah makes it sound like a cast of thousands.

I mean, he doesn’t just buy that field. He buys the hell out of that field.

(Hey, sometimes the Texan’s gotta come out.)

This is not just private property, this is public prophetic action, and he pulls out all the stops! And then when he presents the paperwork to his secretary Baruch, in front of Hanamel and everybody, his instructions are clear: take good care of these documents. They need to last a long time, so put them in an—ahem—an earthenware jar.

Now this was standard procedure of the time, but I wonder if any of those people milling around the jail have been paying attention to Jeremiah, because if they had, they would have heard some words about pottery. Remember Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house recorded in chapter 18, when he says that God is like the potter, who takes a vessel that’s misshapen and defective and smashes it in her hands and starts over.

And just so the point is abundantly clear, the next chapter has Jeremiah, clutching a clay jug in a field littered with shards of broken pottery and smashing it to the ground and saying “That is the kind of destruction our God is capable of.”

So I don’t know if Jeremiah gives these instructions with a wink and a nod, or if he just lets the irony hang there. But if you’ve been listening to Jeremiah at all, you know that earthenware is the last thing you use if you want it to last.

Because pottery doesn’t last a second longer than the potter intends it to.

*          *          *

It’s encouraging to me that 5 of the 6 moderator and vice moderator candidates are here at NEXT, in this place of hope and creativity and renewal. And the theme for this year’s General Assembly is “abound in hope.” And I do. And I try to surround myself with people who are similarly hopeful.

And over the last couple of weeks, I have had more than one person ask me some version of this question:

Why would you volunteer to be on the bridge of the Titanic?

And here is what I say to that. The structural “thing” that is the PCUSA is changing, and maybe even ending as we currently recognize it. Churches will close. Maybe a lot of them will.

But when I look around, I don’t see the Titanic. I see Lord of the Rings.

There’s a scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan are beseiged, they’re outnumbered and outmatched, and they’ve retreated to the fortress of Helm’s Deep and they think they’re safe there but they’re not, the enemy has found them and is ready to bury them. And their king Theoden looks around and sees this ragtag group of people who are scared and ill-equipped for this battle and he urges them to be courageous and to fight with everything they have, and he says,

“If this is to be our end, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”

That’s what Jeremiah is doing. Jeremiah buys a field that he believes, and hopes, will be bursting with life and fruit someday. But his deed of purchase is in a piece of pottery, and that is a precarious container.

But even if he never makes it back to Anathoth, those documents are a witness to an eternal God who works through earthenware jars.

If there is to be an end to the PCUSA as we know it, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.

I serve a small congregation, full of good folks who are deeply committed to one another and the church. But we realized that over the years we had gotten complacent and insulated. We didn’t know our community. So for a year we launched an initiative called “Who is our neighbor?”, that great question from the Good Samaritan story. Each quarter we had a different emphasis: one quarter it was hunger and homelessness, another quarter was at-risk youth, another quarter was issues facing the elderly. And in each of those chunks of time we brought people in to talk to us, so we could learn, and we planned some kind of mission event, so we could serve.

And my thought was that over the course of the year we’d find that one thing that really animates us, that one issue to rally around that would energize the congregation and focus our mission, so we could be known as the church that does… [blank]. I expected us to figure out what our niche is.

And guess what? We didn’t. We came to the end of the year with no more focus than when we started.

But we did some things we never thought we’d do. And more important, we committed ourselves to responding to the opportunities that come to us, whether they fit some narrow vision statement or not. We don’t know what the future holds for us. We just know that we’re gonna love our neighbors indiscriminately for as long as we can.

We’re going to seek the welfare of the city.
And we’re not just going to serve the world, we’re gonna serve the hell out of it.
And I mean that in the Texan sense and in the literal sense.

Jim Kitchens said on Monday that some of us are standing in the rubble of what used to be. I submit that it’s not just rubble that’s around us, but shards of discarded pottery.

And Jeremiah is calling us, begging us, to pick up those shards and fashion something useful and hopeful out of them.

Pick up that bowl-shaped piece and pour living water into parched throats.

Glue those pieces together, even if they were never meant to fit that way, and fill them with the bread of life.

Take those sharp edges and cut the bonds of oppression,
grind that hard clay into powder and paint a love letter to this world God adores,

String those pieces onto ribbons and make windchimes, so that the whole world may hear a joyful noise to the God of our salvation.

Do it all.
Do it now.
Do it without a five year plan for it.
Do it badly if you have to.
Do it… for as long as you have life and breath and shards to spare.

Thanks be to God.

~

photo credit: Walwyn via photopin cc