One Way or Another
Happy Homecoming, Riverside Church! It’s such a pleasure to watch the parade of banners and your beautiful faces filling the pews this morning, to hear the voices of our choir back in worship and to see the faces of our little ones, back in Sunday School today. I mentioned a few weeks ago that fall is the start of a new year at church, just like at school, and that newness fills the air and our spirits with optimism and hope.
I recall when my kids were little, getting that list of school supplies, hunting for them at the store, making critical decisions about the color of binders for the year, sharpening pencils to uniform points, and finally lining everything up on the floor to take inventory before loading a brand new backpack.
A new start is always time to take stock, to think about where we’re headed, to set a tone for the year ahead.
I’m frankly having a hard time believing that it has been a whole year since my first Homecoming. This past year has felt to me like a whirlwind, full of shifting around here, some welcomed, some painful, along with the general dis-ease that always comes with change. It occurs to me that as we start out on another year together, some of us may be feeling some fear about what’s ahead, about the future of our church. What’s going to happen next? Will we be ready? How will we make it through whatever comes?
Well, here’s the good news this morning.
We don’t have to worry about the state of our community moving forward, because the Psalmist tells us in today’s Psalm that we can decide how we’ll proceed as we face the future. It’s not what happens to us that determines whether we thrive; whether we thrive is a decision we make. Will we choose health and wholeness, the way of the righteous? Or will we choose death and destruction, the way of the wicked? The Psalmist says: it’s one way, or another.
In the process of making the award winning 2012 film Happy, filmmakers stopped hundreds of people on the street and asked them what they wanted out of life. Almost all of them said some version of: “I want to be happy.” The idea of the film project was to explore that fundamental question of human life: how can I be happy? How do we build good lives and good communities that reflect the fullest expression of who we are created to be?
Happy opens with the shot of the inside of a shanty in Kolkata Slum, India. The one room hut where a whole family lives is made out of bamboo sticks and plastic tarps, with raw sewage trickling past out front. Manoj Singh, who lives there with his family, grins as he talks about how he really likes his house; during monsoon season, sometimes rain gets in, he explains. But, he says, “Except for that, we live well.” Singh is a rickshaw driver who scrapes together his meager living by running in the hot sun and the monsoon rain, carting people around town, but researchers found that he reported a level of happiness that equaled and often exceeded the happiness of many middle class Americans.
People in the academy are studying this question, too, with new academic fields like Positive Psychology and universities like Harvard and Yale offering classes on happiness or life worth living. In fact, scientists have made surprising determinations about what makes us happy. It turns out that about 50% of what makes us happy is genetically predetermined, and only 10% of what makes us happy is circumstantial: our jobs, our relationships, our financial status. 40% of what makes us happy is our intentional behavior—those practices that we adopt and make regular parts of our lives. 40%!
Turns out that, while the film is excellent and definitely worth seeing, they didn’t really need to make a film trying to discover the answer to the question of how to thrive, because the Psalmist already knew what researchers and moviemakers have found about being happy.
Psalm 1 is the very beginning of a book of biblical poetry that addresses every high and low of human living. Like the thesis statement your high school English teacher kept saying was a must in the first paragraph of an essay, Psalm 1 is the thesis statement of the book of Psalms, addressing that essential question we all ask: how will we live into the fullness of who we are created to be?, by laying out a clear choice for the reader. Which way will you choose? It’s the way that leads to life or the way that leads to death, no in-between.
It’s one way, or another.
Listen one more time to the Psalm:
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
As you just heard, Psalm 1 is a Psalm with three distinct parts. The first part describes what a happy life looks like; the second part describes what a wasted life looks like; and finally, the Psalm sums everything up: the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. The Psalmist is laying it out in front of us—it’s clear, and we all have a choice: one way, or another.
You’ll often hear this Psalm’s beginning translated “Blessed are those…,” but a more appropriate translation of the Hebrew here is “Happy are those…”. And this is important to note, because this Psalm is not setting up a conditional, transactional kind of faith—the idea that God will bless you if you do certain things. No, the Psalmist here is just bluntly describing the kind of practice that it takes to be happy. To live a life of abundance. To grasp the gift of being human and live into the fullness of what God imagines for our lives.
And you’ll notice that the writer of the Psalms uses a metaphor for the kind of human living he describes—he says it’s like a tree planted by streams of water, lush, verdant, flourishing. I learned recently that New York City began a campaign in 2007 to plant one million trees in the city. In this concrete jungle, the shade of a tree is welcome relief. But in the world of the Psalmist, in the desert, the image of a tree takes on whole new and deeper meaning. Trees were even more rare there than in New York City, and to describe a tree with roots reaching down to life giving water, leaves luxuriant and green, fruit in abundance—well that’s a metaphor for the best kind of life one might imagine.
It’s a choice, and you’ll notice most especially that the Psalmist uses the word “planted.” There’s an intentionality about living this kind of life, about the task of being fully human. This kind of health and flourishing doesn’t just happen accidentally; it’s carefully cultivated, a choice—not once, but over and over again: it becomes a way of life. Like modern researchers have re-discovered: happiness takes practice, and intention. Will we choose the way of the righteous, or the way of the wicked? Healthy and whole or limping and broken? Happy or miserable?
It’s one way, or another.
A few weeks ago I read an article in The Guardian about New York City public school teacher Stephen Ritz. Mr. Ritz is a teacher at a high school in the South Bronx he describes as “very troubled.” Most of his students have special education needs, do not speak English, live in foster care situations or are homeless.
He said one day a friend sent him a box of daffodil bulbs, but he didn’t know what they were and thought they might cause problems in class, so he stashed them behind a radiator in his classroom. One day the class noticed something going on behind the radiator and when they looked, they discovered an explosion of flowers. The steam from the radiator made the blubs bloom.
This incident gave Mr. Ritz an idea. What would happen, he wondered, if he and his students worked together to grow something? They began by taking abandoned plots of land in the neighborhood and doing some landscape gardening—just to beautify their surroundings. The kids embraced the projects with enthusiasm, but Mr. Ritz realized he needed more than kids showing up outside of school to participate; he needed them IN school. So he came up with the idea of planting vertical, edible gardens all over the school, and he put the kids in charge.
“Remarkably, the plants grew,” he reports. The kids felt a sense of ownership and investment in the project, and all of the sudden attendance at school increased from 43% to 93%. “Students come to school to take care of their plants—they want to see them succeed,” he said. “Along the way, the kids succeed, too.”
Ritz says this project has changed fundamental things about the kids who attend his school. They learn patience and fortitude; they learn to invest their efforts and watch the results; and they learn all sorts of academic subjects from their cultivation efforts. “A crop well tended will yield a good harvest,” Ritz says.
In the desert, wherever you find water and trees, with fruit…you will find people. We are drawn to this kind of flourishing; we want this kind of health and wholeness and happiness in our lives.
But hear the words of the Psalmist and take heed: this way of being is not something that happens by chance.
No, this way of being comes from avoiding the advice of the wicked; from staying away from people who choose to destroy rather than build up; from keeping yourself out of the way of those who speak evil; from building and nurturing healthy community. And this way of being comes from delighting in the way of God, the way that seeks always love, reconciliation, unity, justice, and peace. That kind of intentionality produces health, wholeness, happiness, even, in our individual lives.
And the same is true for our life together.
As it’s Homecoming Sunday, it seems like today is a good day to talk plainly, then, about the community that we are building together right here. This has been a year of welcoming new faces, thinking hard about who we are, and working together to bring increasing health and wholeness to the communion of saints at The Riverside Church in the city of New York. It’s predictable that there would be some anxiety about what’s ahead. But, as it turns out, we don’t need to be afraid, because we can choose the way we will go.
So today as we hear the words of the Psalmist let’s ask ourselves some hard questions: will we follow the advice of the wicked, take the path that sinners tread, sit in the seat of scoffers? Or will we delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on it day and night? Only one of those will lead us, individually and collectively, to wholeness, health, happiness, righteousness, life.
It’s one way or another. The health and flourishing of our community doesn’t just happen. The Psalmist described it as a tree planted. Mr. Ritz, in the South Bronx said, “A crop well tended will yield a good harvest.” They were both saying the same thing: health and wholeness, flourishing, happiness…is intentionally cultivated. We have to make a choice.
Today as we think about all we have been together and dream about how God will work in this place in the year ahead, the Psalmist is laying it out right in front of us, this choice we have to make. Will we be like dry chaff, garbage, that blows away in the wind? Or will we be like a tiny sapling, carefully planted next to a flowing stream, our roots sinking deep into the rich soil, nutrients helping us grow tall and strong, with thick green leaves and enough fruit to share with the whole world?
Which will you choose? Which will I choose? Which will we choose?
It’s one way, or another.
Wake Up Call for the World
I never can read today’s passage from Mark’s gospel without memories of childhood road trips instantly springing to mind.
I can still see my parents up in front, my dad at the wheel, my Mom on the passenger side of the car with her left arm slung over the back of the front bench seat passing out snacks, or cleaning up spills, or trying to keep us in line. And the five of us kids crammed into the back of our early 1970s Plymouth Station wagon, spending some of our time playing cards…or coloring or something constructive like that, but most of our time arguing over who was taking whose space and why that was unfair.
Occasionally, things in the back of the car would get out of control—there may have been (from my recollection) occasional hair-pulling or leg pinching incidents. And when that happened, Dad would finally have to get involved. He’d keep his left hand on the steering wheel but turn his whole body toward us and yell over the front seat, “Kids, if you don’t stop that behavior right now, so help me I am going to pull this car over to the side of the road and give you a piece of my mind you won’t forget! We do not behave this way in our family!”
And then we’d all be appropriately chastised, so we’d quiet down. For about a minute. Two, if my parents were lucky.
The passage we heard today from Mark’s gospel, chapter 8, is almost like peering into a private family feud not unlike the exchanges on my family’s road trips. If you’d like, please feel free to look at the text along with me in your pew Bibles or on your smart phones. We’re in Mark, chapter 8 verses 27-38, in a little pericope of scripture that is filled with…rebuking. Correction.
Take a look: Jesus is talking with his disciples about their shared story—his identity and message to the world—and he sternly orders them to keep it quiet. Then he starts teaching them a little more about what following him really means: he begins talking about suffering and dying and a whole bunch of things that sound a little crazy. So Peter, one of his disciples, pulls Jesus aside and begins rebuking HIM. But Jesus, about as annoyed as my father on a road trip, responds to Peter by telling him to stop. Then Jesus turns to the whole crowd and summarizes his message: that following him means giving up everything; that it’s not a walk in the park; that this is going to be hard. He rebukes the crowd, in other words—for any thought otherwise.
And in all of this conversation you can see Jesus further clarifying the message he came to teach his disciples.
Personally, I don’t blame the disciples for their confusion. This little passage in Mark’s gospel comes right at the very mid-point of the story, and it’s kind of like a hinge: there were 8 chapters of build-up to this passage, after which the story heads toward Jerusalem. Toward conflict and suffering, and a cross.
Up until this point, Jesus’ closest disciples and, increasingly, the crowds surrounding him, had experienced Jesus as a fiery, compelling preacher; as a miracle worker who regularly healed people in public; as someone who gave a community starved for food, bread; and starved for a future, hope. In fact, his disciples had left their very lives to follow him.
And, until now, from all accounts, that decision seemed to have been a good one. Jesus had all the makings of a great politician, someone who would deliver them once and for all from Roman domination; from the pain of their poverty; from their eternal quest to make their lives mean something. They followed him in hopes that he would and could be their escape, that he was there to turn a new page, that he would indeed usher in a new “kingdom” in which their lives would be easy.
But this story, this point in the gospel, is right where things start to change, where the disciples begin to understand their shared story as followers of Jesus a little differently than they had before.
We see this tension most clearly in Jesus’ interaction with Peter, his infamous deeply ardent and often misguided disciple. Remember, Peter took Jesus aside and asked him to stop saying such upsetting things. But Jesus came back with words that still sting over 2000 years later: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!”
One scholar says that Jesus is saying: “Get back in line, Peter. You seem to have momentarily forgotten what you know about what it means to follow me.” In other words, “You’re out of line; it’s time to shape up—we don’t behave that way in our family!”
Peter was the one who raised the questions out loud, but I’ll bet all the disciples were thinking the same thing. They had no interest in talking about pain, suffering death. And they certainly had no interest in hearing about something as horrifying as a cross.
But this is important, what’s happening here: Jesus is further refining the disciples’ understanding of what it really means to be his followers, to live the gospel.
This idea of identity, of who we’re trying to be together, was important for the disciples to think about, and it’s important both for who we are as the family of faith at The Riverside Church and who we as Christians and all people of faith and good conscience hope to be in this world full of pain and brokenness.
We saw it just this week, again, when our news outlets were filled with the story of another family, a family we came to know when we first set our eyes on the heartbreaking image of a toddler, dressed in a red T-shirt, blue shorts, and little black shoes, his lifeless body washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach.
He came from a small family—a family of four. Father’s name: Abdullah Kurdi. Abdullah and his wife Rehan, together with their two boys, 5-year-old Galip and three-year-old Aylan spent the last several years running, fleeing from three different villages in Syria, one after another, finally arriving in Turkey three years ago, where Abdullah worked on a construction site for about $17/day. The family couldn’t survive on that, so as the violence got close again, they decided to flee one more time, into Western Europe.
The narrative of this family had been one of trying, over and over again, to leave violence for safety, to make their way together in a community where they could build lives of dignity, and to raise their children in peace.
And so, scraping together 4000 Euros with the help of family overseas, Abdullah and Rehan, who was terrified at the thought of leaving because she couldn’t swim, along with their two little ones, paid smugglers, boarded a 15-foot boat under the cover of darkness, headed from a deserted beach in Turkey to a nearby Greek island.
Mr. Kurdi described what happened that night: “We went into the sea for four minutes and then the captain saw that the waves are so high, so he steered the boat and we were hit immediately. He panicked and dived into the sea and fled. I took over and started steering; the waves were so high; the boat flipped.”
Speaking from a morgue after his rescue, Abdullah described fighting to keep his wife’s and his boys’ heads above water, hanging on to both boys, one under each of his arms, while they screamed, “Daddy, please don’t die.” He could see his wife struggling, too. Then, one by one he realized they’d died; so he closed his eyes and he opened his arms and he let them go.
Abdullah said, “I did everything in my power to save them, but I couldn’t. My kids have to be the wake-up call for the whole world.”
When Jesus rebukes his disciples and speaks plainly to the crowd here in Mark, chapter 8, he’s encapsulating the essence of what it means to be part of his family—the very core of what he came to teach us.
The disciples were living with a narrative of separation, of individual success, a sort of “I’m in and you’re out, how lucky am I?” narrative of life together. But Jesus had a completely different view of family—both the small family of disciples he was building, and the larger family of hurting humanity.
And Jesus’ view of family was not centered, as his disciples thought, on self-promotion, or even preservation. Instead, it had more to do with giving ourselves away; risking love; opening our hearts and our hands to live generously, full of welcome and connection, in this world.
Peter, the disciples in Jesus’ close group, the crowds surrounding him, and even all of us, over 2000 years later, often seem to think that following Jesus falls right in line with the narrative of strength and power and wealth, instead of the risky way of vulnerability and love. Peter was under the impression, as often are we, that the way of Jesus is safe and easy.
But if we have the courage to listen carefully, we’ll hear that Jesus says: a life of power and ease, alienation and self-promotion, is not how we behave in this family.
The truth is that following Jesus will hurt.
In my view, then, Peter was right to pull Jesus aside for a few words of correction. “Jesus,” you can imagine Peter saying, “you might want to rethink how you’re messaging this. Spin it a little! What you’re saying is offensive. It will turn people away. It will make people mad!”
And Peter was right.
But Jesus persisted in correcting the narrative of his family. And this little exchange should give us pause, should make us wonder why. Why did the disciples stay? Why would we love our neighbors when the likely result is push back from the powers of the world? Why would we ever risk a cross, as Jesus predicts?
Well, we would do that…we would adopt this radical way of living…because we know that it is the way to life.
Because we know that the other way…the way of exclusion and greed and power…the end result of that way, is a toddler wearing a red t-shirt and blue shorts, and little black shoes, lifeless, and washed up on the shore of a beach because his family could not make a life.
In the face of a world that values the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, a false façade over a vulnerable reality, Jesus is calling us to take a different way. And this invitation doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface, but neither does the God we serve, who feeds the hungry and raises the dead, who brings wholeness out of the most broken pieces of our lives.
Let’s listen again to these hard, hard words of Jesus and hear his rebuke to all of us who choose the world’s story of wealth and power and independence over the way of love. That’s not the way we do it in our family. Instead, we’re invited to gather our courage and to live boldly into the compassionate, justice-filled way of Jesus.
If we had the courage to live out such a story, if Jesus’ way of radical love could be seen in our lives and the life of The Riverside Church, I think even we could be the change we long to see.
Together, we might even be a wake up call to the world.
 “Rebuke or Recall? Rethinking the Role of Peter in Mark’s Gospel,” by Robyn Whitaker, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 75 no 4 Oct 2013, p 666-682.
 “Image of Drowned Syrian Boy Echoes Around World,” by Joe Parkinson and David George-Cosh, The Wall Street Journal, September 3, 2015.
This week has been another week of heart-wrenching news headlines, enough to make any thinking person despair for the state of the world. While Americans are preoccupied with misguided public servants tenaciously distorting the average American’s understanding of freedom of religion, refugees are desperately fleeing homes and even dying just for an opportunity to find lives of dignity. (If you haven’t read this poem, by the way, you must.)
Is the state of the world suddenly more dire than usual? Or am I just realizing how bad things are? It’s sobering. With these considerations on the forefront of the minds of many of us, you’d think I would here write a column of deep theological profundity, words that would address poverty and injustice and this distorted brand of American “Christianity” fouling our airwaves.
You would think that, but this week my deepest theological realization came when I saw the movie Trainwreck.
Do not judge me.
I think it’s fair to say this genre of film is not my go-to kind of entertainment, but in my defense I had three good reasons for going to see Trainwreck. The first is that it had been a long week, and I was seeking mindless distraction to unwind. The second: I am of late spending quite a bit of time with my newly minted Manhattan college freshman, so I’m trying to be at least relevant, if not occasionally cool. And, third, Amy Schumer lives in my city; how embarrassing would it be to run into her on the subway and not be able to speak intelligently about her first feature film?
For all of these reasons I set out to the theater last Thursday and prepared for what I expected would be a highly inappropriate and shallow but maybe occasionally funny evening of entertainment. To my utter surprise, I found the film multi-faceted, layered with an almost wistful truth-telling rarely seen in our modern relational cadence of posturing, covering up our humanity, and generally being deeply fake in most social and interpersonal interactions.
The film is about a young woman in Manhattan struggling to shed the baggage of her parents’ broken marriage, her own misguided and ongoing quests for affirmation from men, and what feels like success, but isn’t really, in her impressive but soul-sucking professional life. In the way that many overachieving folks do, she navigates all of these determined to be happy, only to find they leave her empty and sad and searching for anything that feels real, authentic, life-giving.
Upon leaving the theater, I had a sudden moment of clarity. I began thinking again about the ways in which we all, no matter how shiny the public identities we create, long to find places we can be every inch as real as we know how to be — and be welcomed and loved and even celebrated in all of that messy reality.
You can’t read the headlines this week and ignore the fact that the work of the church in the world is urgent, that speaking on behalf of those without a voice, rejecting hypocrisy in the name of Christ, and standing with the least of these are tasks that call us all to the best expression of who we can be as a community. But it occurs to me that we can’t really be the church — that messy, beloved, powerful community of Christ — until we have the courage to be authentic and to celebrate relationships that are real, relationships in which we bring to each other the best and the worst of who we are, to begin to model a radical and real love for each other that this world does not know but so desperately needs.
That’s what I was thinking as I left the theater. Let me be clear, I still wouldn’t advise piling the youngsters in the car to go see this movie. My Little House on the Prairie childhood just won’t let me put that recommendation in print so, adults only, please.
But there are lessons about life and faith everywhere we turn, if we could only see them, and Trainwreck reminded me again this week why we do the difficult work of faith community. We need each other to show us the all-encompassing, come-as-you-are love of God that perpetually invites us into better and more beautiful expressions of our created humanity.
If we could possibly manage that kind of authenticity with each other, I’m thinking: we could right wrongs and heal rifts and create a world in which everyone lives in peace and with dignity.
If we could possibly manage that, we could change the world.
This column appeared first over at Baptist News Global.
After taking one look at my face last week, a friend patted me on the arm and said comfortingly: “You know what they say. Getting back to work after vacation is like sitting on the couch for months and getting up one day to run a marathon.”
While I can guarantee you that I will never run a marathon—ever, I have been in the process of getting back to work after a desperately needed vacation this summer.
I spent most of the first week back getting caught up with latest developments, reconnecting with staff, and sorting through paperwork. While these tasks took a decided toll on my post-vacation zen, I noticed that my energy reserves significantly started flagging as (it seemed to me) folks emailed or lined up in person to tell me about various problems that had popped up in my absence.
You know, normal church, just in concentrated form.
I had just spent my weeks of vacation softening the sharp edges of some of my first-year-of-work memories, missing people I’ve already come to love, and remembering the hope and optimism and possibility swirling all around and throughout this amazing church. But it felt to me like I’d walked straight into a constant barrage of negative reports and bad behavior, and, as a matter of fact, I did begin to feel a bit like a couch potato marathoner by the end of that first week back.
So on week two I started out for work, steeling myself for more problems to solve, more crises to navigate, more stores of optimism dipping to alarming lows. Into my office came my first congregational appointment of the day, an octogenarian member I knew but with whom I had never had the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time in conversation.
She bustled into my office, settled herself on my couch, and pulled out a collection of papers, including a coversheet with a list of scribbled conversation points.
She started, “You know, there is a group of us who get together by conference call every Tuesday morning at 6:30 to pray. We started this little group last year when you came to be our pastor, because we wanted to pray for you. As you start your second year here, we all know it’s going to be tough. There’s a lot of change, and it’s so exciting, but some people are unhappy. So before you get overwhelmed by all the grumbling, I wanted to tell you that we are praying for you.”
I didn’t know.
Then she shuffled her pile of papers and handed me a creased paper with a numbered list. “Here’s our list of things we pray about,” she said. “You can see you’re there, on the list. We’re serious about praying for you.”
I’m not sure if she noticed, but tears started to well up in my eyes. I’d been expecting more problems to solve, yet another assault on the positive progress all over the church that I was beginning to think only I could see.
As she got ready to leave, this congregant said, “We know there is dissention, and some people are grumbling about change. But we are praying. And we are taking our job seriously. We feel that we are like midwives—we’re midwifing the future of this church we love.”
And it was here, in a moment of grace like this one, that I began to remember what I should have known all along: none of us ever does the work of gospel community alone.
We are, together, midwifing the future.
I recently returned from a week at Preacher Camp. There are many things to recommend about the experience of retreating with excellent colleagues to plan preaching, and I’ve often written about the gift of this kind of collaboration and support. But the growing interest and questions related to Preacher Camp have invited me to revisit another part of my preaching practice: preaching from the lectionary.
Why do you preach from the lectionary? Have you always preached from the lectionary? What is the lectionary? Isn’t that practice tedious/constricting/lame? As the questions kept coming into my inbox, I stopped to think again why preaching the lectionary has been a powerful tool in my own professional life and personal spiritual practice.
We Baptists may be less familiar with the lectionary, taken as we are with our bent toward nonconformity. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of recommended texts for use in worship or study on a particular day of the year. The texts lead the reader through much of the Bible, streamlining themes and emphases as they relate to the different seasons of the church year.
While preaching the lectionary might not be the best practice for every preacher, here are some reasons I think it’s worth a try.
One lesson a good preacher must learn early and regularly is the lesson that preaching is not about me. I’ve found that, when Sunday’s pulpit is looming and I have no idea what to say, the assigned lectionary texts help me remember that those 20 or so minutes in the pulpit every week are not either an opportunity to showcase every single thing I learned in seminary, nor an occasion to hog the microphone for the purpose of pontificating on whatever happened to be on my mind when I woke up that morning. Instead, good preaching is one of the most effective leadership tools a pastor has at her disposal, a perpetual opportunity to open the text and invite the people of God into regular conversation about eternal truths that speak to immediate concerns.
And since the texts cycle in a three-year pattern, any preacher who preaches the lectionary for any length of time will circle back to the same texts. While some may find this practice tedious, for me it has been enlightening and even expansive. I’m on my fourth time preaching the lectionary cycle, and the rhythm of the cycle has become an excellent discipline for my own spiritual practice. When I am invited to return to a familiar text and place it within a lived reality that has shifted since the last time I read it, I inevitably discover again the layers of meaning and depth in the sacred text. Who knew the same Psalm or parable could offer an entirely different perspective on a situation?
Providing this kind of structure can also be a benefit for congregations in their regular practice of corporate worship. I’ve found the lectionary builds a sense of comfort within the congregations I’ve served, a shared touch point that communicates stability. That is, in the middle of inevitable challenges that emerge whenever a group of people gets together, we share a known framework of texts that call us together for ongoing reflection about our own lives, and our shared expression of the gospel message. In short, everybody knows what’s coming. Predictability in congregational life? Who wouldn’t want it?
Finally, it must be a universal truth that local congregations constantly face the challenge of moving beyond immediate conflict, concern and maintenance to think about the work of the Church in the world. The rhythm of the lectionary cycle broadens our understanding of ourselves to include the Church Universal, congregations of Christians all over the world who gather the same exact Sunday to read the same texts and to explore their relevance for the context in which they live. The lectionary has the potential to be a force for unity amidst diversity, because when we share experiences, even if those experiences are reading the same text thousands of miles apart, we break down barriers that would not be broken down otherwise.
You may have noticed that I’m a fan of lectionary preaching. For all of these reasons and more, the lectionary has been a gift to me, both personally and professionally. But what about when the lectionary doesn’t work? What happens when Nepal is buried under a devastating earthquake or a gunman enters a church and commits racially motivated mass murder? Don’t you find the assigned texts constraining?
Maybe. Sometimes. But often, not. Eternal themes of scripture, the ongoing call to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God, the universal pain of human living — all of these are addressed throughout scripture, and a good preacher can find these themes and weave them together.
At the end of the day, God is always speaking. It’s up to us to listen. And since some of us need a little more guidance than others, the lectionary can help. Try it, and let me know what you think!
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of House: Love Poems to God
Turns out it’s not all umbrella drinks and movie-worthy sunsets in paradise.
For the last few weeks I’ve been visiting my home state of Hawaii, where there is an increasingly critical issue of affordable housing and more people than ever living on the streets and the beaches, homeless. And while there are large homeless populations in the more rural parts of the island, now even areas frequented by tourists are filled with makeshift homeless villages.
With scenes like these as backdrop, a story has been unfolding on the front page of the local Honolulu newspaper these past weeks. State representative Tom Brower (D) was allegedly attacked by a group of homeless teens a few weeks ago, when he was visiting an area of the city he represents. Stories are mixed about what exactly happened and why, but it’s clear there was an altercation that left Rep. Brower with “a laceration near his right eye, facial swelling, bruised ribs and scrapes on his leg and left hand.”
The story making the headlines now is Rep. Brower’s decision to press charges against the youth implicated, one of whom is 14 years old, despite the young man’s mother’s plea for another solution.
Recently, the mother of one of the young men involved begged Rep. Brower to speak with her, during which she apologized repeatedly, broke down in tears, took responsibility for her own mistakes that had left the family homeless, and described the desperate situation from which they could see no way out. She said, “[I have] no education, no nothing … I cannot get off the street if I have to go through all this.”
Despite her pleas, Brower intends to press charges, claiming he has no choice.
Watching these events unfold in the news these past weeks, I can’t help but think of another recent news story that broke in South Carolina recently. It happened on July 19 at a Ku Klux Klan rally at the state capitol, where more than 2,000 people showed up in sweltering heat to profess white supremacy and wave Confederate flags.
In a picture that appeared in several news outlets, Leroy Smith, a black man and South Carolina’s Director of Public Safety, noticed an older white man struggling with heat exhaustion and stepped up to help the man to a shady spot, water, and first aid. Though the man was there at a rally wearing a shirt with a swastika on it and chanting racist slogans, Smith helped him anyway.
It occurs to me that each of us has an opportunity, at every moment and in every interaction with another, to choose behavior that reflects grace and selfless love, to live out the undeniable truth that we belong to each other.
Further, those who hold power and public positions that land them on the front page of the newspaper have a unique opportunity and even responsibility to demonstrate grace, to live out reconciliation, to refuse to use their power to dominate and subjugate those who are vulnerable, even though they can … even if they have every right to say, walk past a hate-filled protestor suffering from heat stroke.
Rep. Brower has a unique opportunity to model reconciliation, to lead the way in showing how we can relate to each other in community, but he’s choosing another way. He’s in his rights to press charges, of course. I suspect, however, that wielding the heavy hand of the criminal justice system will effect long term change about as effectively as one of his previous attempts to address the homeless situation in his district – the time he decided to personally patrol the streets with a sledgehammer, destroying homeless shopping carts.
What might happen if Brower chose a grace-filled forgiveness instead? What kind of message would he send if he worked toward reconciliation and empowerment instead of punishment and further alienation?
We would be inspired to do the same, that’s what would happen.
We can’t make our communities safer, or more just, by taking Brower’s approach to legally or physically sledgehammering the most vulnerable among us, even if they make poor choices. Instead, it’s Leroy Smith who speaks volumes and offers hope for our broken systems: grace and love, forgiveness and kindness, acting as if we belong to each other … because we do. All of us.
Published first at Baptist News Global!
Yesterday my phone rang and my brother’s name showed up on the screen.
In that very instant, the strange collection of feelings that is grief tumbled over each other all over again, flashing in front of my eyes like the pages in one of those animated story books you flip through with your thumb: longing, fear, anger, disbelief, whatever you call the feeling that makes you want to wail out loud.
I’ve spent the last few weeks in Hawaii, visiting family and friends in this beautiful place where I grew up. In my visit here this year, however, I have not yet returned to the Big Island, where my brother lived, and where I spent considerable time last spring when John died suddenly.
But even my time on the island where we grew up has been filled with moments of sadness and grief, regret, longing, sharp pain: returning to my parents’ house, John’s picture prominently displayed in every room; walking down the beach at Waimea Bay, remembering the last time I did that I was with him; hearing his friend sing a song we played at his hospital bed as he died; seeing so many friends and family who loved him too, in their presence for the first time since John’s funeral.
So tomorrow I’ll head back to the place we said our final goodbye. And while the feelings of loss are not so shocking or raw as they were last year, the deep pain of missing him: his hugs, his exuberant “Hey, sis!,” even the vague yet perpetual feelings of worry for him while he went out of his way to make the world believe he was doing just fine—all of the things that made up my brother—will be missing.
To find words that encapsulate grief must be near impossible, at least this has been my experience, because the feelings of living without someone you love change almost constantly. Sometimes they rush over me like a pounding ocean wave; sometimes they lurk in the corners, brushing by like a shadow. I feel in one instant so deeply grateful to have known a gentle giant who always looked up to me somehow…and so viscerally angry at his own—even at my own—inability to fix his pain.
I often think, if I could only see him one more time, I would either shake him with fury or put my arms around him, hang on as tight as I possibly could, and never, ever let go.
But I know when I walk off the plane tomorrow he won’t be there. It may be another occasion of doing the next thing you have to do, until the sorrow recedes enough so that you can breathe again. Or it may be a sweet rush of memories that make my heart glad.
I don’t know.
However the grief decides to show up this time, I guess I want to say that this year of wandering through it has made me want to do two things most urgently of all.
Because life is a gift, and this year has taught me they were so very precious.
And second, I want to gather in close everybody I love, those whose presence in my life I have not paused to cherish enough.
Because life is a gift, and this year has taught me they are so very precious.
You Can’t Be Serious
Disciples of Christ National Convention
July 20, 2015
Good evening, Disciples!
It’s wonderful to be here with you all, to catch up with so many dear friends, and to feel the movement of God’s Spirit in this place, among all of us, God’s people. I feel like it must be among the principle obligations of the church to remember that we need each other, and I can feel the strength of that truth here in this room tonight.
That said, I do have to marvel at the courage it takes to give a Baptist a podium and a live microphone…! So, thanks for that. And, it’s with deep gratitude that I join you here tonight, ready to do some thinking about how it is God is calling us to life, calling us to turn our eyes from the rubble of this world that threatens to break our spirits and deflate our hope, to gather ourselves together to face a future we cannot see, and to soar into the transformational work of the gospel in this world.
Friends, the time is now; the pain of our world is desperate; and the call of God is clear. It’s that serious.
As some of you may know, I’ve recently moved to the big city. What a year it has been at The Riverside Church in the city of New York! An amazing congregation with an incredible history, becoming it’s pastor is a job that has taken a little bit of adjustment this year. Frankly, it’s been a wild ride, learning the intricacies of such a large church system, gaining intimate familiarity with the prophetic tradition and voice of this congregation, getting to know so many wonderful church members. I’m learning as fast as I can, but just a few weeks ago I was walking through the narthex and a visitor said: “Excuse me, do you know where the restroom is?”
So, apparently I have a few more things to learn.
In my free time…, I’m trying to experience everything I can in the amazing place that is New York City. I’ve done a lot of the touristy things, like Broadway plays and cupcakes at Magnolia bakery. But I’ve also tried to get around to some of the things you do if you’re a native New Yorker, like watching the sun set over the skyline of the city while sitting on a picnic blanket in Central Park, or wandering around looking at amazing pieces of art at the Met, or visiting the 9th Avenue Food Festival in Hell’s Kitchen.
I would say I’ve tackled getting to know the city with a fair amount of enthusiasm. And I’m pretty game to try just about anything, but I draw the line at an activity I saw advertised on Groupon a few months ago. Apparently, in my new city of residence, you can sign up to take flying trapeze classes.
As you can probably guess, this particular activity involves swinging, suspended in the air, from a couple of ropes and a bar. But that’s not the worst part. After you have mastered your first lesson, jumping off a high platform and hanging on to the swing very tightly, the instructors promise to push you to excel.
The Trapeze School of New York’s website describes the second lesson like this: “You’ll be instructed to swing out, put your knees through your hands and wrap them around the bar just like you did when you were a kid on the playground. Then you will be asked to let go with your hands and swing upside down. This puts you into the best position for your first catch.”
By “catch,” of course, they mean letting go completely of the swing (the ONLY thing keeping you from crashing to the ground) and grabbing on to another swing. Don’t worry, though, the site offers helpful tips for managing anxiety: “If you can breathe and relax you will progress and enjoy [the experience] more!”
I don’t know what kind of playground you played on when you were a kid, but I can tell you I was not hanging upside down during recess. And, frankly, I have no desire to do that now. In fact, I don’t really much want to let go of anything that I think is keeping me from crashing to the ground. So, when friends suggested we try out this Groupon, you know what I said: “You can’t be serious!”
(Probably, knowing me, in a slightly more colorful way than that.)
It was my fear speaking right then, I confess.
I know this about myself—when it comes to roller coasters or flying trapeze, or…life: when the fear gets too intense, then we stand in one place, paralyzed, limited, mesmerized when it nags at our hearts and whispers in our ears things like: this will feel unfamiliar; I’ll be scared; I’ve never done anything like this before; I can’t do it; I might fall…you can’t be serious…
It’s the fear of falling that keeps me from jumping off, keeps me from embracing a future I don’t know with abandon…because most times all I can see are visions of what it would feel like to land hard on the unyielding ground.
Sound familiar? I know it does, because in addition to whispering constantly in my own life and yours, it has been my observation that fear speaks awfully loudly… in the church. You don’t even have to listen very hard to hear it: constant messages flying at us, people of faith in an institution that is changing rapidly, in a world that is breaking to pieces around us. What does the church have to offer the desperation we see?; we can’t take the risk of engaging our culture—too dangerous; changing things will feel unfamiliar; we’ve never done anything like this before; we can’t do it; we might fall…you can’t be serious….
It’s fear, at every turn, at the prospect of this overwhelming call to be the church, and heal the world, and live into God’s hopes for my life, for all our human lives…it’s the fear of falling that keeps us from letting go, from jumping off, from embracing a future we don’t know with abandon…because most times all we can see are visions of what it would feel like to land hard on the unyielding ground.
And more often than not, when invited to soar like that, we respond with an incredulous: you can’t be serious.
Looking at our text for tonight, though, I got to thinking: what if you’ve already fallen? What do you have to lose?
Tonight we run into the prophet Isaiah in chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah at a “flat on the ground, battered by the fall” kind of moment. For the people of Israel and for Isaiah their prophet, the leader who had been working as hard as he could to keep them from falling, the worst had happened. The Babylonians had invaded; the holy city of Jerusalem was reduced to rubble, the people had been torn from their homes and carted off to exile.
This turn of events cut to the very heart of who the Israelite people understood themselves to be. They were God’s chosen people. The land had been given to them in fulfillment of a covenant between God and Abraham. And the Temple had been built to house the very presence of the divine.
They were asking: if Israel could fall, if the Temple could be destroyed, then what is the point of being God’s people at all?
We can hear the people’s desperation clearly in the Psalmist’s cry:
“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps…
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?”
In fairness to God, Israel had been warned. For 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah, the prophet had been pleading with the people: stop the way you’re living; turn around and mend your ways; live like you love God and love your neighbor, or else.
While Israel may have felt that God had forgotten the covenant by allowing them to be sent into exile, the people had forgotten their part in the relationship long before the Babylonian army showed up. They had taken their chosen status for granted. They assumed that their position of prominence was permanently assured. And they forgot to live in all those ways that made them stand out from the cultures around them: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.
But now, now the worst had happened and the people did not know what to do. If the Israelites had forgotten how to sing the Lord’s song while they were still in Zion, now they were at an utter loss. And, after all his warnings and pleadings, Isaiah too was left without words. Years of working desperately to maintain the status quo were now over. The worst had happened; Isaiah and the people of Israel were lying on the ground, flat on their backs.
I haven’t had much time to investigate this deeply, but I suspect that I may not be qualified to be clergy in the Disciples of Christ
After gladly accepting the invitation to be with you all here this week, I was asked to submit the text of my sermon for tonight two months in advance of this week’s meeting – that is, a full month and 29 days earlier than I would normally have a sermon finished.
That request led me to assume that it must be a strict requirement that all Disciples pastors have their sermons finished well in advance of Sunday morning. And as anyone familiar with my late Saturday night writing sessions in tandem with my Facebook group, the Saturday Night Sermon Writing Club, can attest, I think I would never make it as a Disciple.
I’ll confess that I was late. But I did get it done, and then sat back to revel in what it is like to have over a month of breathing room between finishing a sermon and preaching it.
So THIS is what it’s like to be a Disciples pastor. Huh.
Yes, I was all set to talk to you tonight about the “flat on the ground, battered by the fall” moment of crisis those of us who love the church are now facing. Like Isaiah, we in the institutional church are standing in the rubble of what once was. The evidence is in and the facts are clear. People are ditching institutional religion in droves. Witness:
- A Gallup survey from 2012 indicates that while in 1973, 68% of Americans said they had confidence in organized religion, in 2012 that number dipped to 44%.
- And the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life reported a study indicating that in 2007, 15% of Americans described themselves as religiously unaffiliated; in 2012 that percentage had jumped to 19%…four points in five years!
- And, in a survey of those who reported having left the church, 71% said it was because they’d drifted away: organized religion just wasn’t compelling or important to them anymore.
I know that so many of us care deeply about the future of the church and in the sermon text I sent in over a month ago, I wanted to call us all to face a future full of fear, with courage and conviction.
But then late one Wednesday night just a few weeks ago, everything changed. Breaking news flashed across my phone: nine black people shot, murdered in a Charleston church at the hands of a white supremacist.
All of a sudden, those hard, hard questions about the relevance of the church stood in stark relief against the raw reality of life our country these days.
Almost exactly a month ago the big fear was the dying church. Then we saw nine people die in church.
And now the question is, perhaps as it should have been all along, no longer whether the church can survive, but more: “What is our call and responsibility as God’s people, in this culture of structural racism, injustice, and death?”
If churches cannot provide sanctuary and white supremacy can not only survive, but grow and thrive, what’s the point? If people no longer believe the church has any relevance for their lives or can address the crises we face, what are we doing here?
But now, perhaps more than ever, like Isaiah did, we are hearing God’s urgent call to “Cry out!”
But what can we possibly say?
Here we are, flat on our backs lying in the middle of this rubble and ruin. In many ways, the worst has happened. We have been issued an unmistakable wake up call.
But, how can we sing the Lord’s song in this land?
Maybe Isaiah knew just a little of what we, God’s people, are feeling now. Because it’s was there, in the hopelessness and destruction all around him, that the prophet heard God’s voice again: “It’s time to get up, Isaiah. It’s time to speak out again. The people need you to remind them who they are…and who I am.”
God told Isaiah to step out with courage, to speak hope into the despair, to cast a new vision, to remind the people that though the worst has happened, God imagines a hopeful future for them.
But Isaiah wasn’t sure. Year after year of warning, of begging the people to make things right, the hopelessness and desperation they were feeling settled over the prophet like a wet woolen blanket. “How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How can I speak words of life into a culture of death?”
You can see Isaiah’s dubious response. Here’s my paraphrase: “God…you can’t be serious.”
Well, God was not about to let Isaiah off the hook, and I suspect God will not let us stay crippled by the fear that surrounds us. The future may look different from what we know, but the message we have to share is one the world still desperately needs to hear.
You see God’s answer to Isaiah’s protests in verse 8: “You’re right. Human life is fleeting; humans are fragile and flawed; they wreak destruction and cultivate hopelessness. But.
But, the word of God will stand forever.”
So, you doubting prophet, you, people of God, all of you who look around at the devastation you’ve tried so hard but failed to prevent, you who feel tempted to give in to the hopelessness around you: the Lord God says, “No!”
“No! You will speak! You will speak into the hopelessness. You will speak into the despair. You will speak into the destruction. You will speak into the death.”
“You will get yourself up to a high mountain. You will lift your voice with strength. You will not fear! You will say to the devastated city: HERE IS YOUR GOD.”
Here is your God!
The word of God will not fall to the Babylonian sword, or crumble under changes to the institutional church.
The word of God will not be extinguished by the evils of racism and white supremacy.
The word of God will not bow to broken systems that exploit the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
The word of God will not stay silent in a society with inadequate gun laws and a culture of violence.
The word of God will not fall victim to hatred, or exclusivity, or injustice, or even death.
Make no mistake about it, friends, this vocation to which we are called, the mandate to be God’s people in this world, is not for the faint of heart. But speaking a word of life in to a culture of death is the very essence of our faith.
It is stepping in to the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.
It is trusting that while the grass withers and the flower fades, while kingdoms fall and institutions change, the word of God will stand forever.
These past few days you have heard the call of God to a world in desperate need: be my people, adopt a different measure of success, live in relationships and cultivate communities that reflect the transforming power of God’s love.
And you have before you a challenge requiring courage perhaps like you’ve never summoned before: speak a word of hope for the future, insist that systems and laws must change, embrace abundance when this world prefers a grasping scarcity.
Now it’s time to soar. And, friends, we don’t have anything to lose. It’s time to just jump right off with courage and prophetic fire, to embrace the future that we cannot see but God certainly can, because the time is now, and perhaps this moment of being God’s people in this world is the highest calling of our lives. We must speak.
What? You can’t be serious!
God would say to Isaiah and God certainly says to us: I’m more serious than you could even imagine. So…jump.