Not What We Expected

 

First Presbyterian Church

December 30, 2018

1 Samuel 2:18-20.26

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:41-52

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Sometime in the late 1730s, a father was striving to raise his son to be a godly man. He taught him to be generous and kind, to share what he had with his playmates. He even constructed elaborate devices to teach him about the mysteries of God.

One time, he took a bunch of cabbage seeds and secretly planted them in a garden bed near his son’s window so that the cabbages would grow in the pattern of his son’s name. He waited, for weeks he waited, until his son noticed his name writ large in cruciferous vegetation. When the amazed young boy showed it to his Father, they were later able to talk about how, much like his father ordered the cabbage, God in heaven orders the earth.

There were moments, however, when his fatherly teachings were put to the test. One morning the father was strolling in his garden when he realized, to his horror that a beloved fruit tree had been viciously barked, and would likely die. Suspecting what had happened, the father warmly returned to his home and declared that he did not care a bit about the tree, but simply was curious what had happened.

Not long after, his son, who had recently been given the gift of a new hatchet, looked at his father, and, “with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all- triumphant truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I cannot tell a like Pa, you know I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.’”1 To which young George Washington’s father cried out in joy with the confirmation of his son’s good character and embraced him with gladness, for the heroism of honesty was worth far more to him than “a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold.”2

I suspect that I am in good company when I assume that many of you may have heard this powerful legend of our first president before. In fact, for much of our country’s history, this very myth was enshrined in the education of every little girl and boy who set foot in a primary school. It is part of the canon of the American story, a story that reveals who we are and what we stand for by teaching us something about the person who led our country to independence.

It is a powerful story.

If only it were true.

In the aftermath of Washington’s death, our brand new republic hungered for accounts of Washington’s life, anything that might help them better understand this man whom they so revered. Many biographies were commissioned, but none were as far reaching or as indelible in their impact on the American people as the bestselling “The Life of George Washington,” written by Parson Weems and first published in 1800, a year after the great president’s death.

Weems was a master storyteller, and he understood his audience. He also had a goal—to reveal the “true” Washington to a hungry public, one whose entire life was marked by virtue and character. One that provided a model for the youth of a young nation that was still uncovering who it was and what it stood for.

 

And so perhaps it was inevitable that he would focus on Washington’s childhood, on how pure and virtuous the young George Washington was! Nothing like other great men, whose lives were publicly virtuous but often privately rather disappointing. According to Weems, Washington was set apart for greatness from the very beginning, marked by a virtue so strong and indelible that it carried forward into the larger than life man that he became. A virtue that revealed itself not just publicly, but privately, when nobody was paying attention.

It didn’t matter to Weems whether these myths had actually transpired as related—what mattered was the truth that he believed that they revealed. That the man about whom they were told was a different breed, the sort of man who was born for such a time as this, a moment of transition in the life of our country.

Of course, Weems stands in a long tradition of biographers and storytellers who have sought to reveal the truth of important men and women long after they are available to fill in the blanks. World literature is brimming with stories of great men whose childhood marked them as set apart—the Buddha in India, Osiris in Egypt, Alexander the Great in Rome, Joan of Arc in France. So it should not be surprising to us that, in the aftermath of Christ’s death and resurrection, the people who had risked life and limb to follow him and spread the good news were eager for more—who was this man that they knew as Jesus? What was he really like?

Early on, stories began to circulate about Jesus’ birth and early childhood, stories patterned on the lives of other Biblical greats—Moses and Elijah, and in this case, upon Samuel, the boy judge who ushered in the golden age of the Kingdom of Israel. Many of theses stories we hear on Christmas Eve—stories of a miraculous birth, of a star in the east, of shepherds and magi and angry kings.

But there are others. Stories that would sound strange to our modern ears. A good deal of them are collected and immortalized in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. They reveal a young boy prone to miracle working on the Sabbath from a young age, with the power to raise from the dead, punish the wicked, and outsmart the local teachers. Only one of these stories lives on in our canonical Gospels, and that is our lesson for today.

And I don’t know about you, but that leads me inevitably to the question: why did Luke choose to include this story? There have been many theories over the years, some more informed than others. Over the past century, however, many pastors have told this tale of the young Jesus with an eye towards humanizing the messiah. In this interpretation, Luke 2 reveals that, once upon a time, Jesus was a child, just like us—something along the theme of “kids grow up so fast these days, don’t they? You blink and suddenly they are twelve!” or “He’s just like us! He got distracted and scared the pants off his parents! He surely was FULLY HUMAN!”

But if I am honest, this sort of reading is more likely to bring to my mind the tawdry tabloid sections of US Weekly and People, weeklies that are often filled with unflattering and therefore “humanized” photographs of major celebrities. Sermons in this category often succumb to at least one example in which one was either lost by her own parents, or absent-minded left his own child at the gas station. You know the story.

The problem with these readings is that often these stories are told as though Jesus is the equivalent of a toddler with little or no agency. They risk reducing Jesus to a bundle of stereotypes, neutralizing his difference in favor of building connections to the foibles of our own journeys of parenting and being parented ourselves. With the unfortunate consequence that we lose sight of the purpose of telling this story in the first place.

So what is the purpose, then? First of all, the text is clear that Jesus is twelve years old. In ancient Israel, a twelve-year-old boy stood at the threshold of adulthood. A twelve-year-old boy was not yet a man, but not really a child either, and the truth is that he had far more in common with young adults nearing their 20s these days. He was likely preparing to be bar-mitzvah’d, which in his day meant that he would, at thirteen, be considered both responsible enough to perform the tasks of any adult, as well as accountable for his failures.

We also know from this story that Jesus comes from a faithful family. Not everyone made the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem—it was taken less as a requirement than a strong recommendation—and even then, the law required only that the men be present. And yet Luke tells us that Jesus’ whole family routinely made the trip together. Not just Joseph, but Mary and Jesus put down their livelihoods for a journey of many days to celebrate the festival as commanded in the Torah. Which is another way of telling us that Joseph and Mary were good parents. They were raising a son who was connected to the faith of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Like Samuel in our Hebrew Scripture lesson today, like Weems’ George Washington, Jesus came from good, pious people.

And it is here that we get to the real point of this episode in young Jesus’ life. Jesus comes from a faithful, God-fearing family, and yet, when confronted with the majesty of the Temple, the very threshold of God’s dwelling, Jesus decides that his “first” home is with God. And so he stays there. Against his parents’ wishes, he remains in the temple to learn, to listen, to ask questions. The prominent feminist theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza observes that in this moment, Jesus challenges the status quo as he asserts that biological family will always be of secondary importance in relation to the call of God and the spiritual family that God calls into existence, a theme that he will continue to explore in his adult ministry.

This is why Luke includes this story: he wants us to “see” the man who is emerging in Christ. To reveal what was always there, even in the beginning, even before Mary and Joseph could understand what his words might mean.

Truly, we are invited to sympathetic identification with Mary and Joseph and with their deep anxiety at the prospect of losing their child. But we are also invited, alongside Mary, to treasure these words and what they reveal about the Messiah in our hearts. To wonder with the crowds that throng at how much Christ knew and the answers he gave. To look back on these early days with recognition as Jesus comes into fuller focus through his teaching, and later in his betrayal, death, and resurrection.

Much later, perhaps these stories will help us to make sense of a teacher who says that his mother and father are those who do the will of God. Who identifies as family not just his immediate relations, but those beyond the borderlines of blood and religion, extending his own sense of family to include outsiders, sinners, tax collectors and unclean women at the margins. Perhaps we will find the courage to begin considering for ourselves: who might God be challenging us to invite into our family? Who is missing from our Father’s House that Jesus would bid come?

I don’t have all the answers, but stories like this one can’t help but bring to mind connections to our current moment: I cannot help but consider the plight of those whose children are currently lost to them at our southern border, and who despair of ever finding them. It brings to mind many vulnerable teenagers who have left their families to brave dangerous migrant journeys across the forbidding landscapes of Sub Saharan Africa and the choppy waters of the Mediterranean in search of a better life. I cannot put from my mind the images of Syrian and

Yemeni children who cry out to God, asking: are we welcome in the Father’s house? Is there room for us, too?

Because that’s the thing about stories that are True. They help move us from wondering to relationship, to knowing Christ more fully so that we may begin the lifelong work of, in the words of the letter to the Colossians, “clothing yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” the very values that Scripture tells us Christ embodied from his early childhood. These values set him apart as extraordinary. They also are likely the very things that made him a threat to the status quo. May they dwell in you richly, so that whatever you do, in word and deed, you do it in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good to Great

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Acts 2:1-21 (NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I have been sooooo busy lately! So busy! There’s just been so much work to do, so many things to get done—I have literally been running from thing to thing!

Church has been busy.

School is almost out and there are parties and field days and open houses.

And don’t get me started on my kids—ha. They have been asking if they can do karate, and swimming, and maybe can we go to the beach soon? Oh, and let’s make time for the zoo next Saturday.

And then there’s our Garden and our yard—we can’t possibly let it start looking ragged. What would the neighbors think? So we are out there at 8pm mowing the law in the dusk, or weeding the flower beds. Inside, we are cleaning bathrooms and mopping floors because grown up people have clean homes, right?

I have barely had time to stop and take a breath. Forget doing something I actually enjoy–running, or sewing, even reading a good book—I simply have been too busy. No time for those things.

Maybe next year.


Have you ever found yourself in one of these conversations with a friend, a neighbor, a loved one? Ever noticed how, even as they are piling things up, making a mountain of suffering right before your eyes, that they seem to be enjoying telling you about it? Like it’s a badge of honor to be that busy? Its almost as if the more unhappy you are, the more stressed out, the more about to fall apart, the better?

And then, of course, you know the rules: when one person starts in on their list, everyone else feels compelled to chime in with their own stuff, as though this were a competition to see who was more miserable, more sleep deprived, more stressed out this week? Because it’s a competition, right?  Who is the most miserable this week?

What is it about our culture that so many of us (particularly women) feel compelled to make our lives unbearable with an unceasing pile of expectations? What is it about our society that the only way to look like you have it all together is to run yourself ragged until you are nearly falling apart?

Maybe it’s our Puritan history. (When in doubt, blame the puritans, I always say.) This country was of course founded by people whose historical theological perspective told them that good people do good things. And not just some good things. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots…you get the picture. When Jesus said “Therefore be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” our puritan ancestors seem to have taken that to mean that we should literally strive to be perfect.

But here’s the thing.

Here’s the surprise of the Pentecost story today:

when the Spirit shows up in the room with the disciples, they are all together, and they are doing……….nothing.

On purpose.

Remember last week? As Jesus is ascending into heaven, he looks at his disciples and tells them:

Go to Jerusalem and wait. Wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. Wait for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

They don’t have any idea what Jesus is talking about. They are literally clueless. But there is one thing that they have going for them, and that is this: they know how to listen. And when Jesus is gone, instead of

immediately rushing to fill the void

instead of

running around looking for something to do that will show the world that they are successful and contributing adults,

they listen.

They put down the nets and they wait. For something to happen that they do not know.

And when they are willing to do that, when they are willing to stop, to pause, to gather together in a posture of open-ness to what God might be doing and saying—the Spirit shows up.

Like the waters of creation, the Spirit

moves upon the disciples,

fills them up,

gives them words they didn’t know that they had,

until they cannot be silent any longer,

but are compelled to go out into the community and share what God has done and speak a word of life to those who are gathered there.

I wonder sometimes whether we have, in our rush to do good, to be good, to make a difference, I wonder if we have forgotten that sometimes the most important thing we can do is not more, but rather to simply be open. Perhaps we have forgotten that when we fill ourselves to overflowing, there is no room for the Spirit to maneuver within us in that place where Frederick Buechner says our heart’s deep gladness and the World’s deep hunger meet.

Because we are a busy people. We are so busy, our calendars need calendars.  Google cannot contain our schedules. Our children are so busy that they have to schedule the sorts of things that should be happening naturally—playdates, or soccer games on the borough field, or pickup games of basketball. We have so over-scheduled our lives—and the church is at fault for this too—that we have neglected to make space to wait for the promise of the Father.

And that is a real travesty. Because the real tragedy of all this is that we can do a lot of good on our own. I’m guessing that you are the kind of person who is really darn awesome.  You are probably a really wonderful, competent person that has the ability to do a whole lot of good. But we can do GREAT things through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can be more than ourselves in the power of the Spirit. That, I think is the miracle of Pentecost—that eleven good men became great when they were willing to make space for God to work within them.

The great runner, Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four minute mile, was once quoted as saying “before the race we store up spirit.” Friends, we who call ourselves disciples of Christ are running this race of life and faith. And it is hard. And we all will struggle. Sometimes we may want to quit. Sometimes we may be tempted to depend only on ourselves. And those are precisely the times when we need to set things down and make space for God’s Spirit to move within us. Because what we need is the strength that comes both from within and without us. The spirit that will carry us when we fall, will encourage us when we struggle, will rejoice with us when we triumph.

And what do we need to do to store up spirit? It’s simple, and yet possibly one of the hardest, most counter cultural things that we could possibly do in this world. We must be willing to say no, to put some things down, so that we can make space to rest, and listen, and wait for the promise of the Father, which is as alive today as it was back then.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

Holy Spirit Advocacy

This sermon is deeply indebted to the reflection of Dr. David Lose, whose writing on his blog inspired my direction as I prepared to preach on the 6th Sunday of Easter.


 

 1 Peter 3:13-22

13Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

John 14:15-21

15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

 

You have an Advocate!

Did you hear that?

YOU HAVE AN ADVOCATE!!!!

How does it feel to know that you have someone who is on your side? Someone who is, who has been, and who always WILL be FOR YOU?

This world is facing an epidemic of loneliness—that creeping suspicion that nobody is with me. That nobody understands ME. That nobody is for ME. It can make you feel more than a little paranoid—this idea that the world might be against you. Or worse, depressed, that maybe you don’t matter all that much. Or even angry—enough to hurt other people the way you have been hurt yourself. We see this. We see this.

And then into the picture comes Jesus Christ himself. And he tells us:

You have an Advocate. And not just any Advocate, THE ADVOCATE.

The Holy Spirit, God herself.

Who, like Clint Eastwood, will be there in the Good, and the Bad, and the Ugly.

Or, if you prefer a scriptural metaphor, will, in the words of the 23rd Psalm, be there by green pastures, and in the valley of th shadow of death.

She’s there. Through it all.

When you need encouragement—you’ll get it.

When you need to be reminded that someone is rooting for you—She will raise her voice and cry out your name.

……but how?

The Holy Spirit is one of the most confusing parts of God’s presence amongst us. It’s the point in confirmation class where I get a lot of blank stares. Because she’s hard to understand.

Jesus is easy—he was a literal man, who walked the earth we live on, who had a mother and siblings and friends and enemies just like we do, and who said a bunch of stuff that people thought was interesting enough to write down. We can understand him.

And that Holy Roller, the Father himself—who hasn’t imagined a voice within the thunder? Who hasn’t wondered whether there was something bigger out there, who made the earth and everything in it? What is man that you are mindful of him?

But the Holy Spirit?

All we have are metaphors.

She’s like the wind. Or was it a dove? A breath, even? Maybe she’s more like a Ghost? No, that can’t be it….oh yes, a still, small voice!  Or wait–is she your conscience?

Maybe.

The problem with the Holy Spirit is that none of us have ever met her in person.

Except.

Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit shows up when we are together. That somehow she is amongst us, and through us.

In other words—the Advocate makes her appearance whenever we are church to each other.

Whenever you support a brother or a sister in Christ

Whenever you encourage the fainthearted

Whenever you support the weak and the afflicted—

THAT IS HOLY SPIRIT ADVOCACY.

Whenever you love someone else’s baby like he is your own;

Or take the time to get to know that quiet teenager in church;

Or visit the elderly member because you know she might be lonely—

YOU ARE THE ADVOCATE.

You are testifying to God’s power moving through Y-O-U.

Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it.

top.jpgIt is utterly amazing to think that you could be the conduit through which God’s power might be felt in the world. It’s as though you were the electrical in a house that God has been building, and it wasn’t until you were Grounded in the Word that Jesus showed up and threw the circuit breakers on, and the Spirit coursed through your body as it flooded that house with light. To illuminate the world we live in.

See, Jesus isn’t content to just have us look back to the story of God’s presence amongst us. He wasn’t interested in a backward-looking faith. He knew that we needed to feel God’s presence, alive and active, amongst us now.

He knew that if those words he spoke were going to matter, we needed someone who would love us as much as he did.

He knew that we needed an ADVOCATE to show us how to be an Advocate for one another.

So how does it feel, knowing this? That you have someone?

Because remember what we said in the beginning—the world is a dark and lonesome place. Perhaps it gives you the strength, in the words of Peter, to endure, to suffer for what is right, to resist fear, to defend your difference in Christ with gentleness and reverence. Perhaps it helps you to put your hope where it belongs—in Christ, the defender and author, pioneer and perfector of our faith.

And perhaps it gives you the courage to share what you know—that we are not alone. To embrace one another, to baptize babies in defiance of the darkness because you know the power of the light that courses within you. To be with and for one another because we are better together than we are apart. Because THAT is our Testimony. That is HOLY SPIRIT WORK.

Just be warned—the Holy Spirit cannot be contained. Once she is in you, she may take you somewhere you did not expect. She may ask you to open your heart wider than you anticipated. She may change you, or challenge you, or bid you follow her into unknown territory. But she’s worth it. She’s worth it, friends. Because in her, we are alive. And God is with us. Amen? Amen.4ba29a44f27cce7fb545c9654ff5dcf8.jpg

 

 

 

Dinosaur Bones

 

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You gotta love a good metaphor.

The other day, I was sitting with some clergy colleagues and we were talking about the role of the pastor.  What, we wondered, is the pastor’s real job?  Sure, they are supposed to preach, to teach, to visit the sick, to shepherd the flock, to die on the cross demonstrate self-sacrifice, and to model discipleship.  But how?

For some of us, the answer was simple–you do all of that by casting a vision.  One colleague offered that when he serves a church, he sees his role as providing the church with a vision that is God-centered and faithful to the gospel.  A faithful ministry, he said, is one where you have succeeded in convincing your church to follow you where you believe God would have the congregation go.

But not all of us agreed.  As we sat in the room debating, I found myself thinking about dinosaur bones.  Specifically, about the process by which archeologists carefully and meticulously unearth these ancient treasures from below the ground, and then painstakingly assemble them together to show us something of what dinosaurs (or ancient pottery, homes, synagogues, you name it) may have looked like.

In that moment, I was compelled by the notion that successful pastors don’t cast a vision–they unearth the vision that was there all along.  They tend to the soil of their congregation, listening for clues that might help them discover what is lying below the surface, waiting to be revealed.  Good pastoral ministry knows that the congregation has a vision, they just may have forgotten it, or buried it beneath anxiety about change or finances or anything else that has a tendency to get in the way of the gospel.

Of course, I was feeling pretty profound when I finally had the courage to share my metaphor with the group, but it turns out I had still more to learn, because no sooner were the words out of my mouth than a colleague blurted out:

“Of Course!  It’s like the Hadrosaurus!”

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this can’t possibly be right….

If you are like me, then you were probably utterly confused, so I will explain what my colleague was so excited about.  Apparently, we have been finding dinosaur bones for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we always knew what to do with them.  In fact, , scientists were often baffled by the bones, and sometimeswould put them together in all kinds of shapes using what seemed to be educated guesses.

Until they found the Hadrosaurus. In 1858, scientists in Haddonfield New Jersey uncovered the first largely intact dinosaur skeleton.  It was the first time they had enough pieces to know what a dinosaur actually looked like, and what it revealed is that, up until that moment, we had it all wrong.

 

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Ahh, that’s better…

Before the Hadrosaurus, paleontologists had assumed that most dinosaurs were
quadrupedal; Hadrosaurus revealed that they were not.  It turned out that dinosaurs like the Brontosaurus were completely fictional–they never existed, we just imagined them because we didn’t know what we were looking at. It took seeing a complete, intact dinosaur to realize that we had it all wrong.

In our group, we found ourselves on the precipice of something important.  We were realizing that the role of the pastor may have more to do with paleontology than we realized.  Yes, a good pastoral leader pays attention to her congregation and helps uncover what is already there. But they also need to know how to faithfully fit it all together. In order to help the church be faithful, they must endeavor to fit those pieces together so that they make something that is real and honest and true.

There are plenty of instances where we uncover a bunch of different passions and visions, but if we don’t have a blueprint, we cannot fit them together in a faithful way. And that is what Scripture is for.  It is our Hadrosaurus, our guide to what the church should look like.  And thanks be to God that, like the dinosaurs, there are countless models of faithful churches to look at. But they all follow certain rules.  They are faithful to the message of Christ, devoted to works of mercy and compassion, to worship and prayer, hospitality and healing, justice and reconciliation, generosity of spirit and with resources.

These building blocks make us who we are. And when we are attentive to them, when we put them together correctly, they reveal something about who God is.  More than that, they leave something for future generations, a blueprint for those who come after to follow as they, too, learn what it means to worship the one we know as God.

 

 

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What if my bones were in a museum,
Where aliens paid good money to see ’em?
And suppose that they’d put me together all wrong,
Sticking bones on to bones where they didn’t belong!
Imagine phalanges, pelvis, and spine
Welded to mandibles that once had been mine!
With each misassemblage, the error compounded,
The aliens would draw back in terror, astounded!
Their textbooks would show me in grim illustration,
The most hideous thing ever seen in creation!
The museum would commission a model in plaster
Of ME, to be called, “Evolution’s Disaster”!
And paleontologists there would debate
Dozens of theories to help postulate
How man survived for those thousands of years
With teeth-covered arms growing out of his ears!
Oh, I hope that I’m never in such manner displayed,
No matter HOW much to see me the aliens paid. -Bill Watterson

 

I just Kant help Myself

1 Peter 2:19-25

19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22   “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10

1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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This guy’s out of Kant-rol……

Recently my husband and were driving in the car and we had the rare chance to enjoy one of those adult conversations that have become so rare for us lately.  We didn’t talk about our kids, or our schedules, or who is making what for dinner, or who needs to clean what when.

So you may be wondering–What did we talk about?

We spent an hour talking about Kant’s categorical imperative.

Of course, you are saying to yourself! The Categorical Imperative! I’m sure you and your partner discussed the Categorical Imperative at length last summer over mimosas in the garden! Your toddler reminds you of the Kant’s analytical thought all.the.time.  Right?

Of course, there may be a few of you who haven’t found yourself wading into German Philosophical Waters recently, so let me explain.  First of all, who the heck is Kant?  Well, Kant was an 18th Century philosopher.  As a young man, he wasn’t all that remarkable.  In fact, he was darn ordinary.

Until the Categorical Imperative.

His thinking on this subject launched him from relative obscurity to mega-star status–he was the Bruce Springsteen (for all you PA-NJ types), the Michael Jackson (for the rest of us) of his time. And he had a heck of a lot to say about moral action, where it comes from, and how we know what it is.

His Categorical Imperative can be summarized as the following:

The idea that things that are right are right in themselves, what is wrong is wrong. That these are things that are able to be discovered through reason alone.

But how do you know if something is “right in itself?” Kant proposes three conditions, all of which must be satisfied in order for a decision to satisfy his categorical imperative:

1) all actions must be universal. You should only act if it makes sense for you to will everyone to act in the same way. Your will must be consistent. (thy will shalt make sense)

2) every human must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end. In other words, manipulation is always wrong.

3) We have a responsibility to be a moral agent: We are ALWAYS setting an example for other people. Always behave as though you are the moral authority of the universe.

 

Wait a second.

This sounds an awful lot like something we heard in our scriptures earlier this morning.  What was it that Peter said?

But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

In other words, doing what is right is more important than being comfortable. It is, pardon the pun, categorically imperative.

Which is why it MUST, according to Kant (and Jesus), come from within.
Remember that first condition of Kant? That our actions must be universal? That means that our actions should be consistent with the kind of world where you think everyone should act the way you are choosing to act in that moment. Whenever you have a choice before you, ask yourself : what would the world be like if everyone were to act this way? And then do what seems best for the world. That is an act of good will.

For Peter, an act of good will is to follow Jesus, to do what Jesus did, even if it threatens your own safety and well-being. Because it is right. And that, to Peter, makes sense.

Consider the following example: I have always felt personally uncomfortable in the presence of the suffering of another person. When my son got stitches on his lip after falling off a chair, my stomach was in knots at the Emergency Room. Whenever I encounter someone begging on the side of the road, or struggling with a particularly heavy burden, I am tempted to look away.

So I ask myself: would the world be a better place if it were morally acceptable to avoid the suffering of other people?  If we were not morally obligated to bear witness, would the world be a better place?

I wonder.

Which is precisely where our second condition from Kant. Because it isn’t enough just to be consistent. Our choices also must respect the dignity of other people. Kant’s second maxim for discerning what is right is that you may not manipulate another person or treat them as a means to an end. Which is another way of saying that your choices, your decisions, your moral code must not take advantage of another person, or forget their inherent worthiness.

That means we can’t go around ignoring inconvenient people, and we also cannot go around imposing our will on others just because we think it is good for them (or for us). Which, incidentally, we do all the time at church.

If this isn’t sounding utterly insane to you, let me put it another way: if we are to take Jesus and Kant at their word, then logically it follows that we need to stop teaching people “because I said so” kind of rules, and instead create the kinds of opportunities that lead people to impose these rules, our moral framework, upon themselves. Under this framework, the good will of the Christian Community should be to create opportunities for individuals to take Christ’s yoke upon them. The last thing we should be doing is throwing up barricades and boundaries on the behalf of others. Once we do that, we have ceased to do God.

To be a little more Gospel, you cannot put down the nets and follow Jesus for anyone else. You can only do it for yourself. You cannot choose to suffer for anyone else; only they can make that choice.

Kant’s second maxim: you can’t manipulate someone—everyone deserves to be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.

Or, in the words of our Gospel today: you cannot make someone be a sheep. A sheep chooses to obey the master. Trust me, as someone who raised sheep herself—you can’t make a sheep do something she doesn’t wanna do. You will NEVER gain the trust of that sheep through force, threats of violence, or coercion. The sheep must choose for itself. When the sheep has the freedom to choose, only then is it capable of good will.

If we want more sheep in the pasture—well, then, we need to act like that pasture is worth living in. Finally, we find ourselves at Kant’s final condition: there is a responsibility to being a moral actor. We must remember we are always setting an example. So we have to act like it. At all times. Even when nobody is looking. Because it doesn’t matter what happens. What matters is our intent. Remember, it was Jesus who said that sin is a matter of the heart as much as a matter of our actions. Because it doesn’t matter how kind you act, what matters is what you think.

We who have chosen, we who believe these words of Christ to be true and timeless, not because someone told us to long ago but because we have experienced it, we must take care to honor our neighbor, and to be a good example. We are all potentially somebody’s big sister or brother in this faith, and our actions will determine whether this family, this flock, continues to grow and bear fruit, or withers on the vine.

We must be constantly open to improvement, to the opportunity to do the right thing, whatever it is, because we will it. Because it is good and right.

Jesus believes it ISN”T enough to just do what you are told. You have to believe in it for yourself. In Kant’s words, it needs to originate within you. What is good and doing good only count if they originate out of the system of rules that you place upon YOURSELF. That means you have to have decided to adopt them. They must be freely chosen—no one can impose them upon you.

This is I think what made the early church so special. They shared out of their abundance, they gave to one another as anyone had need, they worshipped because they BELIEVED IN IT. And the response was overwhelming: daily they added to their number.

At this point one of a couple things have happened to you:
1) you tuned out somewhere along the way—in which case, my apologies for losing you!  Watch this awesome youtube video for a more interesting overview of Kant.

OR…..

2) perhaps you have found yourself thinking a little differently. Perhaps you have found yourself asking: what is MY categorical imperative? How have I made a commitment, or how CAN I commit to “will the good” in the world? Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that Philosophy is not actually the worst choice of major that your grandkid/child/best friend could have chosen after all. Perhaps it actually may have something important to say.

So what is OUR Categorical Imperative? What can we not live without? What kind of world do we imagine? If we are Christian, our Categorical Imperative is contained within the vision of the Kingdom of God—the blueprint is laid when Jesus directs us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned. Not because he told us to. But because we believe it is the right thing to do. Until we are whole. Until, alleluia, we are one. Amen, and may it be so.

Cross Post: Young Clergy Women

I had the honor of interviewing some of my female colleagues in ministry recently for a reporting piece that was published with the Young Clergy Women Project Magazine, Fidelia.  The piece is about how our bodies inform our ministry, and how ministry informs the way we think about our bodies, especially as it relates to assumptions around child-bearing and caring.  There are some great reflections from young clergy women of various backgrounds, speaking about the experience of adoption, of pregnancy and childbirth, and more.  It was an honor to share these stories, and I hope you will find it useful, either as a fellow clergy woman, or as someone who might benefit from hearing some of the real experiences that “women who work” endure in order to provide for their families and answer their callings.

Pub Theology: MLK Edition

This week our Pub Theology Group met and discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Jan Pub Theology.jpg

It was an absolutely wonderful gathering filled with great insights and engaging conversation.  We started our gathering by reading some quotes from MLK’s speeches, sermons, and letters later in his career, wondering together–how are MLK’s words still relevant, challenging, difficult, and inspiring?  What do we most need to hear?  I am thankful to this group who gathered and dared to name the difficult realities of our past and present, who sat with one another as we wondered about connections between MLK’s legacy and Black Lives Matter, racism and sexism, economic inequality and the call for the church to be a place where difficult and honest conversation is not only safe but encouraged, because we cannot be transformed by one another if we cannot speak our truth.

If you are interested in the discussion prompts, there are listed here (the images of MLK’s quotes were created by artist Daniel Rarela)

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“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows… How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, 1965.

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“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” –Martin Luther King Jr, 1967.

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“Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968.

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”